The Horde, Part Ten
Part Ten: Fathers and Sons
by Thomas K. Martin
Gordon looked at the markers that indicated the position of the barbarian horde on the map table. After Dixieland’s two consecutive turns, Mangolia also received two consecutive turns. Minghis was heading straight for the capital, as Gordon had expected. Prince Murphy and the column would arrive two turns after the barbarians.
First, however, Gordon was going to arrange a little surprise for the savage. Minghis had marched his full move along the road each of his two turns. Gordon had no doubt he was going to do so again with the dawn, which meant Gordon knew exactly in which hex the horde would be making camp.
He placed a prepared, coded message into his hat and tapped it with the wand.
“Worsely,” he intoned.
* * *
“The hex is clear, Sire,” the Lady Kala assured him.
“Are you certain?” Minghis asked. “What about that one special elf?”
“Where foolamancy is involved, I…cannot be certain,” she replied exactly as she had last turn.
“Perhaps a link, Sire?” Klytus suggested. “Together, the Lady Kala and I could be far more certain.”
“No, it is too great a risk,” Minghis said. “Both of you are vital to the survival of the tribe.”
“As you command, Sire.”
“Khan, I want mounted patrols within sight of the hex boundary tonight,” Minghis ordered. “We are deep within enemy territory – only two turns from their capital.”
“Of course, father,” Khan replied.
“For now, we will remain in combat formation until the end of Dixieland’s turn,” Minghis added. “Have the hawkmen ready to engage Dixieland’s dwagons if they try to strike us. Relay my orders.”
* * *
Nara Shan peered out through the brush that covered the entrance to the little dirt cave they had hollowed out in the creek bank. As well hidden as they were, it was only her foolamancy that had protected them from the lookamancer thus far.
The last sliver of the sun’s fiery orb disappeared behind the creek bank. Once the darkness of night had fully settled in, she and her seven scouts would leave this shelter and make their way into the enemy camp.
Hiding in the enemy’s hex off-turn was a dangerous gambit. The odds were very good that none of them were going to survive this night. Had Dixieland’s orders not been reinforced by those of her tribe’s chieftain, Nara might have been tempted to question them. Whoever this target was, both Dixieland and her chieftain had decided that his death was worth all of their lives.
Nara waited for at least an hour after the sun had set before leading her stack out of their scouting blind. She veiled them all as a pack of timber wolves before the eight of them began to crawl through the brush toward the enemy camp.
The camp was easy to find. The glow of hundreds of powerballs marked its location like a beacon in the night. For a moment Nara Shan considered the possibility of simply setting fire to the forest and letting the inferno take them all. After all, if one target was worth the lives of her and her seven scouts, what of the entire army?
However, that plan had its flaws. Even if all eight of them started a fire at different points around the hex, the flames would be visible from the camp long before the hex became an inferno. There were enough men here to put out those flames and the only thing they would accomplish would be to warn the enemy of their presence here.
She led her pack to the cover of a thicket of brush and watched as a warlord and a stack of knights rode past on hobby horses. The barbarians were keeping a tight watch on the hex even after the end of all the day’s turns. Once the riders had passed them, Nara Shan led her wolves toward the camp.
This veil would not serve them once they entered the camp. Wolves in the camp would draw almost as vicious a response as enemies. Invisibility could work, unless some guard stumbled right into them. Better to find a more convincing disguise.
The answer presented itself at the edge of the camp. Deep snores sounded from several darkened yurts at the edge of the camp. Nara led her scouts to the back of one yurt, hidden from the camp in its dark shadow. If this were a tent, she would simply cut her way through the fabric, but the wooden framework under the felt cover would foil that attempt.
Instead she crept around the side, watching for signs of activity from further in the camp itself. Once she was certain they would not be seen, she signaled for her stack mates to follow and slipped through the entrance to the yurt, slicing through the laces holding the flap closed. In just a few minutes they had killed the stack of enemy stabbers in their sleep. Nara summoned just enough light to examine the bodies.
A moment later a Mangolian warlord and his stack of stabbers left the yurt and proceeded toward the center of the camp.
“Try to avoid being seen,” she whispered to her stack mates. “There are enough warlords in this hex to pierce our veil if we are not careful. Not to mention the lookamancer.”
* * *
Khan walked wearily toward his yurt in the command center, having just finished the first round of patrols. If father wanted mounted patrols of the hex after dark, Khan was not going to exclude himself from that duty.
The night had finally begun to chill. Khan pulled his cloak tighter around his shoulders. Fortunately, Mila had kept his bed warm for him. Khan smiled at the thought. Even after the battles he had faced in this campaign, the archer warlady was his favorite conquest – long black hair and chocolate almond-shaped eyes.
I wonder if she’ll be angry with me for waking her? he wondered. Then again, she might be more angry if he didn’t.
Khan stopped. Had he just seen something between Cashcarry’s yurt and his own? He turned back to look and saw a stack of stabbers standing watch. That was what he had seen. As he turned away, however, he again saw something strange from the corner of his eye. The stabbers had not been that tall…
He turned back just in time to dodge an enemy arrow. Now he could see them clearly – Woodsy Elves! And one of them had several strange blue stones around her neck! The foolamancer!
“Assassins!” Khan shouted as loudly as he could, drawing his sword from its scabbard. “Guards, to me! Elf assassins in the camp!”
The elves charged him even as the knights guarding father’s yurt rushed to join him. Khan barely got his shield from his back in time to stop another arrow and block the knife of the elf that had just reached him. A quick thrust of his blade gutted the would-be assassin. These elves had almost made it to his father! If Khan had not arrived when he had…
Two elves, including the warlady, broke from the battle and cut their way into Cashcarry’s yurt. Khan dispatched another of the elves just as Minghis’ guards reached him to engage the rest with him. Khan forced his way past the elves and ran into the yurt.
Cashcarry was doing his best to defend himself, but his brother was no warrior and had already sustained a deep wound from one of the elven blades. To his credit, the moneymancer was using the blankets from his cot as an improvised shield. As Khan entered the yurt one of the elves turned to engage him. The warlady smashed through the wooden latticing of the back of the yurt and cut her way out through the cloth.
Khan’s battle with the remaining elf was over in less than three attacks. He ran out the back of the yurt and looked to see which way the elfin warlady had fled. There was no sign of her.
“Cursed witch!” he shouted. He looked around once more before going back into the yurt. Cashcarry was still cowering behind his blankets.
“Brother, are you well?” Khan asked. “Can you heal yourself?”
“I-I think so,” Cashcarry replied. Just then Minghis and two knights burst into the yurt. Khan could hear from outside that the entire camp was rousing from its slumber. How had these disbanded elves gotten into the hex after dark?
There was only one possible answer – they had not. They must have been hiding in the hex for the entire day, perhaps even the turn before.
“The enemy knew we would camp here!” Khan announced. “They must have been hiding in this hex the entire time.”
“That would make sense,” Minghis agreed. “Sheathe your weapon.”
Khan began to comply with his father’s order, and then stopped.
“How do I know it’s you?” he asked, taking a defensive stance. “How can you know it’s me?”
“My helmet pierces foolamancy,” Minghis reminded him. Only his father and a few other members of the tribe knew that. Khan sheathed his sword.
“The witch escaped!” Khan said. “If I hadn’t just happened to see them, they would have reached your yurt.”
“It wasn’t my yurt they were coming to,” Minghis replied. He stepped over to where Cashcarry had finished healing his own injury.
“Me?” Cashcarry said. “They were after me? Why?”
“The enemy has figured out who you are,” Minghis explained. “Without you, the tribe dies. From now on, I want a led stack of stabbers guarding the yurt of each caster at all times.”
“Cashcarry will sleep in my yurt tonight,” Khan said. “Until his can be repaired.”
“I want a meeting of the top leadership now,” Minghis ordered as he left Cashcarry’s yurt. “Klytus, I want everyone else searching for that witch of an elf who tried to assassinate my son!”
* * *
Nara Shan climbed into the hollow she had left only a few hours before. If she was going to evade detection, this was the only place where she had the slimmest chance. She had spent two entire turns building up the foolamancy on this blind and its enchantments would last until the start of Dixieland’s next turn.
She touched the stone in the center of her throat and used the last of her juice to reinforce the veil that protected the blind. It was all in the hands of the Titans now.
She had failed – again. Each time before she had managed to rescue a few of her tribemates and gather valuable intelligence for the side. This time, however, she had failed completely. She almost wished they would find her so she would not have to face her tribe with this failure. She curled herself into a ball, around her grief and shame.
I am a stone, she thought. A stone buried in the dirt – nothing more.
* * *
“The enemy knew where we were going to camp,” Khan repeated. “That’s how they knew to lay this trap for my brother.”
“Khan is right,” Minghis agreed. “And if we continue to march our full move along this road every day, they will always know.”
“We can march to either of these three hexes and still have enough move to attack the capital,” Khan said, tapping his finger on three hexes along the route to River City.
“And the enemy knows that as well as we do,” Minghis said. “Which is why we will camp here.”
He indicated the hex just prior to the first hex Khan had pointed out.
“That will delay us by a full turn,” Ornella objected, “and allow the prince’s column to reach the capital just one turn after we do. If we have not managed to take the city before that…”
“I am aware of that,” Minghis interrupted. “Nevertheless, those are my orders. Take down the map table.”
Once the map table had been cleared, Minghis turned to the casters.
“Klytus, I want you to link with Kala,” Minghis ordered. “Find this elf witch! She is not able to leave the hex. I want her croaked!”
“Yes, sire,” Klytus replied. He took Kala’s hands and the two of them slipped into a trance. Minghis, his offspring and the four surviving members of his original stack watched on as the two stared into nothing with their glowing eyes. Time seemed to crawl as the two casters scoured the hex with their magic. Eventually, they seemed to wake from their trance.
“Well?” Minghis demanded.
“Sire,” Kala began and Minghis already knew what she was going to say from her subdued tone.
“How can you not find her!” he demanded. “We know she is still in the hex! Keep searching!”
“Sire, the Lady Kala has used all of her juice,” Klytus replied. “I am as much to blame for this failure as the Lady Kala. The elf has hidden herself too well. We can try again when our turn begins at dawn…”
“No”, Minghis said. “We march at dawn. But before we leave, we will set this hex ablaze. Let her die in the inferno, caught in her own trap.”
For the barest moment no one spoke. Minghis looked around at his top commanders and, eventually, each of them nodded to him in acknowledgement.
“As you command,” they said.
* * *
“The enemy is preparing to march,” Master Dey informed those gathered in the repurposed portal chamber. “They…”
“What is it?” Gordon asked him.
“They are…setting fire to the hex.”
Gordon looked down at the map table as he heard Dale gasp in horror – no doubt in memory of the inferno he himself had set outside Azalea. They had lost all of the Woodsy Elves in the assassination attempt save for their commander. Apparently Minghis wanted to make certain she did not make it out alive, either.
“And the moneymancer?” Gordon asked.
“He yet lives,” Dey replied.
Gordon slammed his hand onto the table in frustration. Their best chance to end all of this, wasted!
“It is as if the Titans themselves watch over him!” he shouted.
“Can we try again tonight?” King Condon asked.
“Without foolamancy?” Gordon asked. “It would be pointless. Besides, this barbarian learns quickly. I doubt he will march his full move this turn. He could stop in any of these three hexes and still reach us next turn. Are we still popping archers, your majesty?”
“Change it to stabbers,” Gordon ordered. “We may need to hold the garrison for two turns until Prince Murphy can reach us.”
“Done,” the King said after a moment’s pause. “Can we? Hold the garrison that long?”
“I will keep the enemy out of this tower if it is the last thing I do on Erf,” Gordon assured him.
* * *
Nara Shan coughed as smoke filled the tiny dugout in the creek bank. The brush covering the entrance had burned away and now only the cloak wrapped around her face kept the worst of the smoke from her lungs.
Even beneath the ground, the heat was slowly cooking her. In her delirium, it occurred to her that this must be how a rootcake felt in the oven. She would miss rootcake – oh and root beer! Oh, the deliciously strong and tingly root beer her tribe made. She had only tasted it the one night, the night they had bred up their forces.
She gasped for breath in the heat of her oven. This was the punishment for her failures – the Titans were punishing her before they brought her before them for judgement. Her vision began to go dark. Soon, soon this torment would be over and a fresh, unknown torment would begin. Would she be made to relive her failures over and over again? Or would she roast in this clay pit for eternity?
And then she felt her turn begin. All of the damage she had taken from the smoke and the heat was wiped away in a searing ecstasy of agony as both her vision and her mind cleared. She pushed herself out into the searing air outside the scouting blind and down the bank to the dirty, sooty water of the creek. Even the water was warm from the inferno surrounding her, but it felt ice cold after the heat of her prison. She began to crawl along the creek toward the hex boundary. If she could only get across, she could yet survive.
At least, down in the creek bed, the air was still breathable. She pulled the cloak away from her face and gasped in the oven-hot air. She soaked the cloak in the dirty water and wrapped it back around her face, constantly crawling toward the hex boundary.
She almost did not notice when she crossed the boundary. A cool wind blew from her hex into the inferno as it sucked in all of the air it could. Nara Shan collapsed onto the cool leaves of the forest floor and gasped out her thanks to the Titans.
* * *
“They stopped their march here?” Gordon asked, pointing to a hex on the map table. That was one hex earlier than the hexes he had pointed out earlier. For the first time, Gordon felt a rush of hope.
“Yes,” Master Dey assured him.
“They won’t be able to reach us next turn!” King Condon laughed.
“Prince Murphy will arrive only one turn after the barbarians!” Gordon agreed. “The same day, in fact! That is the best news I’ve had since we left Earl Light!”
“You really spooked him with that assassination attempt!” King Condon laughed, clapping Gordon on the back.
“At least it accomplished that much,” Gordon sighed. “What of the inferno? Has it spread?”
“No, Viscount, it has not crossed any hex boundaries,” Dey replied. Then he smiled and laughed.
“What is it?”
“That elf you were worried about?” he said. “The one with a little foolamancy? She just escaped the hex.”
Master Dey illuminated one of the tiles on the map table. It was a forest hex southeast of the road.
“Can she reach their camp this turn?” Condon asked.
“She would be alone,” Gordon said. “No other elves could join her. Better to bring her around and use her leadership bonus with the other elves. A lone elf would have almost no chance of croaking that moneymancer.”
“Then we are done for the turn,” Condon said. Gordon’s hat rumbled with the first of the incoming reports.
“You are, at least,” Gordon agreed. “I will send word when we can end the turn, your majesty.”
“Carry on, Viscount,” King Condon replied with a smile.
* * *
His gathered warlords watched patiently as Minghis counted the hexes between their current position and River City. He also counted the distance from River City to the army Dixieland’s prince was bringing to their rescue. Minghis had again waited until the end of Dixieland’s turn before making camp. Tonight, however, he had allowed Klytus and Kala to link when Kala checked the hex for enemies.
“Next turn we will march to…here,” he announced, indicating a position only seven hexes southwest from the capital.
“We can stop much further from the capital than that, father,” Khan said. “That places us close enough for them to attack from the city.”
“I hope they are that stupid,” Minghis said. “I would much rather face them out here without the defensive bonus of that level five city.”
“That’s true,” Khan agreed.
“The dwagons are still at River City?” Minghis asked.
“Yes, Sire,” Kala assured him. “I checked again while I was linked with Lord Klytus.”
* * *
As predicted, Minghis had not been able to reach the city this turn. In fact, he had only moved twelve of the sixteen road hexes he would have been able to travel, leaving him only seven hexes from the capital. Ironically, that was the same distance away as Prince Murphy’s column. If only Dixieland could somehow take their turn first, River City would be impregnable.
Unfortunately, there was no way to make that happen. However, River City, and the rest of Dixieland’s cities, were nearing their normal defensive complements. Gordon had fourteen stacks of archers and ten stacks of both pikers and stabbers inside the city. Add four stacks of knights and two full stacks of led dwagons, and River City would not fall to the barbarians next turn.
Then, Prince Murphy’s column would slam into the invading army after the barbarians had weakened themselves against the capital’s defenses. Gordon was no mathamancer, but the numbers were looking very good. If Minghis remained within the capital, which seemed likely, and Murphy entered the city to fight him, then their bonuses would far outweigh those enjoyed by the Mangolians. The column would gain Gordon’s full bonus inside the capital along with a city bonus of at least four. That would give every unit under Prince Murphy’s command a minimum bonus of twelve.
With very little luck, the next turn would see the end of the Mangolian horde.
* * *
Minghis had not bothered to have the map table set up this morning. Instead, he had simply rolled out one of the parchment maps they had captured from their first engagement with the Woodsy Elves on the dining table in his yurt. Only the top leadership had been gathered for this meeting.
“This is our route,” Minghis said indicating the turn’s march on the map. “Mounted archers will split here and here while the main force attacks here. Ornella, your hawks will lead the assault.”
“With pleasure, father,” Ornella replied with a smile.
“This turn wins the war.”
* * *
The city’s command staff filled the portal room. Master Dey stood on the side of the map table nearest the portal. As soon as the barbarians breached the outer walls, he would flee to the Magic Kingdom. Gordon wished he could order Dale to do the same, but she was needed here to help defend the city. However, if the enemy breached the courtyard, Gordon had every intention of ordering both her and Predictamancer Barkoff into the portal.
“Can you tell me anything?” Gordon asked the predictamancer.
“The city will stand this turn,” Barkoff assured him. “There will be heavy losses, but the enemy will not breach the walls. Prince Murphy is our only hope.”
That did not make sense to Gordon. With the forces at his disposal, Minghis should easily be able to breach the southwestern gate and enter the city.
“The enemy approaches the city,” Master Dey informed him.
“Barkoff, Dale, get to the roof,” Gordon ordered. “Barkoff is in command of the tower defenses.”
“They will not be needed,” Barkoff assured him.
“Go anyway!” Gordon ordered. “Master Dey, can you show me the city and the surrounding hexes?”
“Of course,” the foolamancer replied. An image of the city appeared over the map table. Gordon could easily see the massive Mangolian force marching into the hex southwest of the city. Then they turned north and began to move into the hex northwest of the city.
“What are they doing?" King Condon asked.
“Oh, that’s clever,” Gordon said. “They’re moving to the hex north of the city. If they do fail to breach the walls, Prince Murphy will not be able to enter the city. He will have to engage them on the road. Barkoff may be right, after all.”
“How bad is that?” Condon asked.
“Fairly bad,” Gordon said. “I can sortie out through the gate once he arrives to give half my bonus to the battle in the hex. I’ll take the knights and charge into his rear. Still, we would probably lose most of the column. It all depends on how much damage we do to him during the siege.”
The Mangolians had reached the northwest hex and had turned northeast to march into the north hex just as Gordon had said they would. He watched as the Mangolians filed into the hex. If they followed the tactics they had used at Summer Fort, Minghis would bring up the twolls and the rams to breach the gate while he used the hawks to probe the tower.
That would not work here. Barkoff had been given orders not to fire the tower spells unless a substantial target presented itself. He and, to a lesser extent, Dale had been spelling up the tower for the last six turns. Minghis’ hawkmen would find River City a much tougher nut to crack.
But the Mangolians did not seem to be forming up as Gordon expected. In fact, they were not breaking their marching formation at all…
He felt his stomach knot up when the barbarian horde turned to the north…
“They’re marching right past us!” King Condon exclaimed. Just then Dale and Baron Barkoff ran into the portal room in contravention of his orders.
“Doomed!” he shouted. “The Prince’s army is doomed!”
“A bit late for that!” Gordon snapped. “Clear the image – I need the map table!”
“What is happening?” King Condon asked as Gordon began counting hexes.
“Minghis is going for the column!” Gordon replied. “Please, give me a moment.”
“My son…” Condon muttered softly. Gordon was only vaguely aware of Dale comforting the king.
“Parchment!” Gordon ordered. Sir Barringer handed him a piece of parchment and a charcoal stick. Gordon began writing hastily.
“Benjamin, your code book!” Dale prompted.
“It doesn’t matter!” Gordon snapped. “I’m not telling him anything the enemy doesn’t already know!”
“What are their chances?” King Condon asked once Gordon had put the warning in his hat and dispatched it.
“They are outnumbered by two to one,” Gordon answered. “Minghis has a warlord for every stack in his army and has a leadership artifact that gives at least some of his bonus to every unit in his hex and Prince Murphy has no air units. It’s going to be a slaughter.”
* * *
Prince Murphy heard his helmet rumble on the table next to his bed. With a groan, he fumbled for the helmet and the wand, much to the consternation of his charming companion.
“Hayabbot!” Murphy commanded. A note appeared in the hat. There was no seal. Murphy unfolded the unevenly folded message.
The enemy has marched past the city heading north, he read. Will reach you this turn. Prepare for battle. Expect flanking by enemy knights and mounted archers. Watch for hawks. Gordon.
Prince Murphy leaped from the bed and walked out of the tent with no concern for his current state of dress.
“Guards!” he shouted. His guards snapped to attention, ignoring his nudity.
“Give the order to strike the camp,” he said. “No, forget that. Forget the disbanded camp! The enemy is marching on us now. Order all units to prepare for battle at once!”
* * *
Prince Murphy was proud of how quickly his men had complied with his orders. In less than an hour, his entire force was assembled and ready for his commands.
“Split the pikers to the north and the south!” Murphy shouted. “Stabbers, the same! Archers in the center, knights to the south with me! Let’s show these filthy curs the cost of trifling with the men of Dixieland! For Dixie!”
“For Dixie!” his troops shouted back to him with a massive voice.
Murphy rode with his knights to face the enemy. He was no fool, he knew the numbers. But, at times, there were tales of forces outnumbered and outmatched as badly as his that yet prevailed with the blessing of the Titans.
The hawks of the enemy appeared on the horizon and Prince Murphy felt his breath catch in his throat. He hoped this was one of those times.
* * *
The battle was not a complete rout. It was with a mix of horror and pride that Gordon watched the carnage displayed on the table before him. Even sorely outnumbered, the men of Prince Murphy’s column stood their ground against the enemy. As he had feared, Minghis had flanked the prince’s forces with his mounted archers, but Murphy had placed his pikers both north and south of his battle formation.
Minghis’ knights had met Murphy’s knights head on. That engagement had gone better than Dixieland had any right to hope for, and yet, in the end, it had proven futile. Prince Murphy had escaped behind the line of pikers before the enemy could capture him.
Twolls, stabbers, archers and even the giant rams, had quickly crushed that defensive line. And, in the rear, wave after wave of galloping attacks by the mounted archers eroded that defensive position. Above all of them soared the hawks, raining death down from above on Murphy’s own archers. Five hawks had fallen – only five, so far.
“Your majesty,” Gordon asked quietly, “how fares…”
“The prince yet lives,” King Condon replied, just as quietly. The king could not tear his eyes from the scene on the table before him. It occurred to Gordon that this might be the first time the king had ever witnessed a battle personally. And for it to be the defeat of his son…
“That is enough for now, Master Dey,” Gordon said. King Condon looked up sharply from the table, but then nodded his assent to the foolamancer. The image on the table vanished to be replaced by the sanitary wooden pieces that had represented the beginning of this battle.
“I…believe I shall…retire to my quarters until…our turn begins,” the king said. Dale reached out toward the back of the departing monarch, but stayed her hand just short of contact.
“What are we going to do?” Dale asked once the king had left the room.
“I…don’t know,” Gordon told her. “I just don’t know.”
* * *
“Stand down!” Minghis ordered once the sun kissed the horizon. The day was over – Dixieland’s turn had ended with no counterattack. This had been a costly battle – the most expensive yet. Fully half of his knights, lost – seven hawks, and fully a third of his remaining forces. But this battle had broken the enemy.
“Plunder the enemy camp!” he ordered. “Strip the bodies and let the warlords claim their spoils from among the captives. Pay no upkeep for them – except the prince.”
“Yes, Sire,” Klytus replied, broadcasting Minghis’ orders to the tribe.
“Have the twolls set up the command center,” Minghis ordered. The command center consisted of his personal yurt, the yurts of his casters and top leaders and, of course, the prison yurt.
“Tonight we feast on the enemy’s provisions!” The tribe cheered.