The Horde, Part Eleven
Part Eleven: Ad Portas
by Thomas K. Martin
Prince Murphy could not sleep. It wasn’t that the straw mat in his iron cage was uncomfortable, even though it was. No, it was the fact that he was alone in the prison yurt. Of the half dozen cages in this enclosure, only his was occupied. And yet he knew that the Mangolians had taken many captives from his army.
“Where are my men?” Murphy demanded of Minghis when the warlord came to gloat over his prize.
“All of your forces are croaked,” Minghis replied, “save for those my warlords have claimed as spoils.”
Murphy Dixon felt his blood chill at those words. He looked up at the barbarian warlord as he stood over the cage and, for the first time in his short life, felt hatred for another.
“You are not just a barbarian,” he said in quiet anger. “You are an animal – a savage. Worse even than the twolls you command. I will rejoice on the turn you are wiped from the Erf.”
“I doubt you will live to see it,” Minghis told him.
“Even if I am not, I will watch as the Titans hurl your worthless carcass into Hellabad,” Murphy said. “But I vow that I will live to see you croaked and that I will be part of the force that accomplishes that task.”
The warlord laughed – a sound of bitter contempt.
“And I thought Gordon was brash,” Minghis said. “Are all the men of Dixieland nothing but loud mouthed braggarts?”
“The men of Dixieland are noble and strong!” Murphy shouted back at the warlord. “My father is descended from the first kings the Titans…”
“I spit on the Titans!” Minghis shouted back at him, shocking Murphy with his blasphemy.
“The Titans popped me and my tribe to croak!” Minghis said. The bitterness – no, the hatred in his voice was palpable. Murphy listened as the warlord continued to rave.
“Your precious Titans sentenced us to death ere we were even popped,” Minghis continued. “Popped in a ruin with no hope of survival. Yet, we did survive. We thrive and we will lay waste to all that they place in our path! And on the day when I do stand before them, I will turn my blade on them!”
“You are mad,” Murphy said softly.
“And you are a sheep,” Minghis said. “Once I have taken all of your cities and rebuilt my army I will move on. But I will leave you here on the ruins of your capital and, once you have finally rebuilt, I will be back to take it from you again.”
The barbarian warlord turned and left the yurt leaving Prince Murphy to lie awake with only the fire of his own hatred for warmth.
* * *
“Break our alliance with the Woodsy Elves?” King Condon asked. Gordon could hear the disbelief in his king’s voice.
“We have gathered all of them here,” Gordon explained, pointing to a hex on the map one hex north and two hexes northwest of River City. “If we give them money to breed now, the new elves would not pop until after the barbarian’s turn. If we give them the shmuckers and then break our alliance, they will also be barbarians. Their new units will pop at dawn and they can move to attack as Minghis’ forces move south.”
“What is to keep them from simply marching off with the shmuckers?” Condon asked.
“Chief Beechnut wants revenge against these barbarians for the elves they have croaked,” Gordon assured him. “He will remain in this hex with two stacks of guards and send the rest in to flank Minghis’ army. Breeding them will give us three hundred elves for the attack instead of two hundred. He has also agreed to sign a contract to attack Minghis with that number of elves – and to enter into alliance with us after the battle.”
Gordon did not mention that the chief had also told him that if they did not agree to this plan he would break his alliance and desert the battle.
“That’s ten thousand shmuckers!” Condon objected.
“Actually, Beechnut wants another two thousand shmuckers to pop provisions,” Gordon said. “In case the capital falls and his surviving elves are forced to fend for themselves.”
“Majesty, I would rather give these funds to our allies than risk allowing the barbarian claim them from the treasury,” Gordon pointed out.
“Very well, draw up the contract.”
“Yes, your majesty.”
* * *
The jostling gait of the oxcart threatened to pitch Prince Murphy against the iron bars of the cage. At dawn, now the only prisoner of the barbarians, Murphy’s cage had been placed inside an empty oxcart. It was a perfect fit which was obviously no accident. He held tightly onto the bars as the beast lumbered down the road toward River City. The fact that the sunlight illuminated only the right wall of his enclosure told him they were headed south.
Prince Murphy’s force had camped less than half a turn’s march away from River City before being attacked. That would leave only a few hours for Minghis to capture the city before the barbarian’s turn was forcibly ended at noon. He was not certain Gordon could hold out for even that short a time, however.
By now, River City should be defended by at least twenty stacks of archers and ten each of pikers and stabbers. Unfortunately, there were only four stacks of knights in the capital. The capital had never before held a force that large, and yet Minghis still outnumbered that by almost two to one.
The greatest disparity would be by air. Two full stacks of dwagons defended the capital, but Minghis had roughly seventy five mounted warhawks.
However, River City had the tower – and a predictamancer to man it. No, Murphy realized, River City would not fall this turn. And every turn it withstood the assault, River City would pop another five stacks of defenders.
A sudden lurch by the oxcart in which he was imprisoned was accompanied by a great commotion outside. He could hear warlords shouting orders and the cries of warhawks. Something was happening – but what?
* * *
“The enemy has entered our hex!” Lady Kala shouted. “Sire, thirty-four stacks of Woodsy Elves have just entered the hex from the southwest and southeast and are closing on us through the woods!”
“Impossible!” Minghis exclaimed. “It is our turn!”
“It is the barbarian turn,” Kala said. “They must be barbarians as well.”
Minghis’ mind spun, feverishly thinking of a response to this unexpected threat. Dixieland must have dissolved their alliance with the elves, leaving them free to attack before Minghis could reach the capital.
How it had happened was of no importance – all that mattered was how to respond to the almost three hundred forest-capable archers who were closing on them.
“Split the stabbers between our east and west flanks,” Minghis ordered. “Split the archers behind them. Knights to the fore, mounted archers to the rear! Make haste, the enemy is upon us! Twolls, guard the treasury and the leadership! Hawkmen, take all targets of opportunity!”
Klytus relayed his orders and the tribe hastened to comply. It was as if someone had kicked a hill of ants, but the new formation was achieved in mere minutes.
“Where are they?” Minghis demanded of Kala.
“A hundred yards southeast and southwest,” Kala replied.
“Stabbers and archers, intercept!” Minghis ordered. “Klytus, can you link with Kala and guide our troops?”
“Yes, Sire,” Klytus assured him. “A wise move.”
“Just do it!”
Mounted on his quarter horse, Minghis was just able to see over the ring of twolls that had encircled him and the rest of the leadership stack. Nothing enabled him to see through the dense forest on either side of the road, however. Within moments, the muffled sounds of battle reached his ears. His stabbers and archers had engaged the enemy.
* * *
Nara Shan led her forces through the forest toward the enemy. The sounds of commotion from that direction told her the enemy must be aware of them – the fault of the lookamancer, no doubt. This time it would do them little good – the tribe was not attacking by stealth but by force. Unless the lookamancer was standing with the enemy soldiers pointing out each elf, she would be useless.
Her orders were to engage the enemy until she lost half of her force and then withdraw. On the western side of the road, Moonbow had the same orders. By the time that happened, they would have cost the enemy at least double their number.
Just then a volley of arrows ripped through the forest canopy above them. Ten of Nara Shan’s tribemates fell to the volley. Disband that lookamancer! Ahead she could hear the sound of Men clumsily forcing their way through the trees.
“The enemy has found us!” Nara Shan shouted. “Close and volley!”
* * *
“We have broken the attack,” Klytus and Kala said in unison. Cashcarry still found it unnerving when they spoke from a link. He was glad that his discipline had little to gain from linking with Klytus. Father was even less willing to risk him in a link than the other two casters. Kala, on the other hand, seemed to enjoy linking with Klytus.
“We have driven the elves into retreat northward,” the joined casters continued. “We have lost ninety-eight stabbers and seventeen archers. Recommend we pull them back and use the hawkmen to drive the elves from the hex.”
“Agreed,” Minghis ordered. “Recall the rest of the troops and prepare to resume our march to River City.”
“Any wounded?” Cashcarry asked.
“One hundred and twenty-three stabbers, forty-two archers,” the link replied.
“More than you can heal,” his father noted. “Tend only to the worst. Do not concern yourself with saving your juice.”
“Yes father,” Cashcarry agreed. “Does that mean you believe we cannot take the capital this turn?”
“It is doubtful,” Minghis told him. “Even if we do, we can wait a turn to raze the city. Tend to my people.”
* * *
The battle had not gone anywhere near as well as Nara Shan had thought it would – as Chief Beechnut had assured her it would. The same turned out to be true for Moonbow’s force as well. If anything, his force had suffered much worse than hers. Moonbow had not had the benefit of her foolamancy to protect his force from the lookamancer.
“If we move one hex northwest, then one hex southwest, we will have just enough move to travel due south and rejoin Chief Beechnut,” Moonbow said.
Nara Shan looked around at her tribe mates. Of the almost three hundred elves who had attacked the Mangolians, only sixty-three had escaped.
“I agree,” she said. “I have questions for the chieftain.”
* * *
The army resumed its march southward after only an hour. Prince Murphy was not entirely certain what had happened, but this delay made it even less likely that the Mangolians could take the capital this turn.
There had been a battle of some type, that much was certain. But, from his extremely poor vantage point in the belly of this oxcart, he couldn’t tell much more than that. The hawks overhead did not seem to have lessened in number and the sound of the march was much the same as before. How Gordon had managed to attack the barbarian off turn was another mystery.
However he had done it, it may have just saved them all – for this turn.
* * *
“The enemy has arrived,” Master Dey announced to the makeshift war room.
“On table,” Gordon ordered. The bird’s eye image of the city and its surrounding hexes appeared on the map table. Gordon had stationed half of their archers at the northern gate and split the remaining archers between the tower and the southeast and southwest gates. The pikers, stabbers and knights had all been pulled back to the courtyard. Should the enemy breach the gates, they would never gain the tower – not this turn.
Gordon watched as Minghis’ hawkmen and archers engaged the archers at the northern gate. Just the hawkmen outnumbered his archers by two to one. It wasn’t long before the northern gate was undefended and Minghis brought up his rams. If River City survived this turn, Gordon would waste no more men at the gates.
“Your majesty, order the archers at the southern gates to fall back to the tower,” Gordon ordered.
“Done,” King Condon replied.
“Master Dey, how long until noon?”
“Just a few minutes,” the caster replied. Gordon watched the battle play out on the table before him, scarcely breathing as the rams battered at the gate with their horns. Master Dey’s illusions were silent, but Gordon could almost swear that he could hear the impact each time they struck.
Then their turn began. The northern gate was badly damaged, but it had held.
“Your majesty, repair the gate,” Gordon ordered.
“King Condon,” Gordon began, “at this point, I must once again insist that you flee the city by dwagon. Two dwagons will make little difference to the defense of the capital but, if this city falls, evacuating you will save the side. Sir Barringer and two knights could see you safely to Azalea in three turns. If we hold out that long, you can move the capital and deny them the treasury.”
“What is happening at the northern gate?” King Condon asked. Gordon returned his attention to the map table.
“Master Dey?” Gordon asked.
The image shifted zooming in on the hex north of the city. Minghis’ troops had fallen back out of archer range, but now a prisoner was being led forward, his hands and feet shackled and a rope tied around his neck ending in the hands of an armored great twoll. It was Prince Murphy.
Minghis and four knights rode behind them. As Gordon watched, Minghis began to signal for parley. Then, with horror, Gordon watched as the great twoll lifted the noose and pulled the prince from his feet.
“By the Titans!” Condon exclaimed. The twoll set the prince back on his feet once Minghis had finished signaling for parley.
“Have a stack of knights ready to escort me to the north gate!” Gordon ordered. “Sir Barringer, escort the king to Azalea as I have already laid out. Your majesty, I hereby order you to evacuate the city.”
“Y-yes,” King Condon agreed. “But not until you return from parley with that…that animal.”
“Agreed. Sir Barringer, prepare two reds for you and the king to take to Azalea.”
“Yes, my lord,” Barringer replied. Gordon barely heard him as he ran from the portal chamber.
* * *
Minghis smiled when the freshly repaired gates of the city swung open to reveal Chief Warlord Gordon and a stack of mounted knights. Once Gordon had signaled his intent to parley, Minghis rode forward toward the gate, stopping short of the hex boundary, just as Gordon had done.
“Ah, Brash Gordon,” Minghis said, “it is good to see you again. My daughter sends her…affection.”
“I have no desire to trade what passes for pleasantries with you, barbarian,” Gordon snapped. “What do you want?”
“Many things,” Minghis replied. “But only a few from you. My demands are simple. Cede me your treasury, disband all of the troops outside of the capital and all of the dwagons on your side and I will leave the capital and return your prince.”
For a moment Gordon simply stared at him. He began to speak, closed his mouth and then began again.
“Are you completely insane?” Gordon said. “That is outrageous! Why would we ever agree to terms such as those?”
“To save your side,” Minghis replied coldly. “Otherwise, I will breach your gates next turn, take this city and burn old Dixie down.”
Gordon stared at him for a moment. Then his gaze broke from Minghis’ and wandered behind the knights to where Gomar still held the end of the noose around the Prince’s neck. He returned his gaze to meet Minghis’.
“In the event that the Titans have struck the king mad during my absence and he agrees to this…farce,” Gordon said, “would you sign a binding contract to these terms?”
Minghis smiled. The mere fact that Gordon had asked that question told him everything he had hoped to learn. Gordon knew, as well as he, that this city could not stand before him.
“I would,” Minghis lied.
“Very well,” Gordon said. “I will take your…offer before the king. Do not expect to hear back from us.”
* * *
“He is a madman,” King Condon said quietly. Gordon had heard that tone before, from men who knew they were mortally incapacitated and would croak with the dawn.
“He is,” Gordon agreed. “Majesty, I hope you are not considering…”
“Of course not!” Condon replied, indignantly. “I will withdraw to Azalea with Sir Barringer, as you have ordered. Hold out against this…savage as long as you can.”
“I will, your majesty,” Gordon said. “However, I have changed my plan.”
“I want you to take all of the dwagons,” Gordon explained. “Last turn I ordered the entire complements of Gump and Gate City to march to Azalea. Viscount Burr will make a fine Chief Warlord, if I may be so bold. With those forces at your disposal, and with the losses I intend to inflict on this scourge, your majesty should be able to finally vanquish this evil from our lands.”
“Gordon, this is suicide,” Condon said.
“I live and croak for Dixie, your majesty,” Gordon replied. “With fortune, perhaps I will take this madman’s head for you before that. I will endeavor to send Dale and Barkoff into the Magic Kingdom before River City falls. Once the capital has been moved, they can join you and begin spelling up the tower. Master Dey, would you be willing to travel to the new capital and continue your contract there?”
“I would,” Fahred Dey agreed.
“You must depart now, your majesty,” Gordon said. “I will send you regular updates by hat. May the Titans ride with you.”
“And may they watch over you,” King Condon replied.
Gordon turned his attention back to the map table. With the departure of the king and dwagons there was very little else for him to do this turn. He had moved all of his forces back to the courtyard, abandoning the outer city. To get to him, Minghis would first have to face Barkoff on the tower. The predictamancer had not been much help with their overall strategy, but he was the incarnation of doom in command of that tower. If they could strip the warhawks from Minghis’ army, the barbarian would have no hope of taking Azalea.
Gordon’s hat rumbled on the map table. He picked up the wand and tapped the brim of the hat.
“Shackleton,” he intoned. A neatly folded missive appeared in the hat. It was stamped with the seal of Chief Beechnut. Now that he thought about it, the alliance with the Woodsy Elves had not yet occurred. What was going on? He took a sheet of blank parchment and began to decode the missive.
Once he had decoded and read the message, Gordon crumpled it up and consigned it to the small brazier they were using to dispose of unencoded papers. He turned his attention to the map table and counted out the route to the Woodsy Elf camp. On quarterback would have just enough move to travel there and back before the turn ended.
* * *
“All of the dwagons are leaving the city over the southeast gate,” Lady Kala reported.
“All of them?” Minghis asked in surprise. Was Gordon planning to attack? If so, that was a foolish move. His hawks would rip the dwagons apart without the protection of the tower or the city’s bonus.
“Yes,” she assured him. “My lord, the king rides with them.”
“Curse them!” Minghis shouted. From the materials they had captured during their campaign, Minghis knew that Dixieland had one other capital site – Azalea. No doubt the king was headed there in a desperate move to preserve the side.
“What is wrong, father?” Khan asked. “This will make the city much easier to take.”
“And will make taking it nearly useless!” Minghis shouted. “Klytus, can the hawks catch him next turn?”
“Dwagons have much greater move, Sire,” Klytus said, apologetically. “I fear King Condon has slipped our grasp.”
Minghis stared at the map table. He should have split the hawks around the city, but even if he had, there would have only been roughly twelve hawks per hex. Nowhere near enough to keep two full stacks of dwagons from breaking through. At least he would have had a chance of croaking the king, however.
“There is nothing to be done for it now,” Minghis said. “Next turn the hawks will circle the city and clear any resistance from the walls. Then we shall breach the gate and take River City.”
“Sire!” Lady Kala interjected. “Chief Warlord Gordon has just left the city with a stack of mounted knights by the southwest gate.”
“Surely that is good news,” Khan offered. “Without their chief warlord, the city will fall with hardly any losses.”
“Unless he returns,” Minghis noted. “Kala, watch him. See where he goes.”
“Yes, my Lord.”
* * *
Nara Shan awaited the arrival of Dixieland’s chief warlord. Chief Beechnut had not been happy with her questions when they had returned this turn. So unhappy that when she had accused him of selling the lives of her tribemates far too cheaply he had exiled her from the tribe.
So, she had formed her own tribe and offered to accept any of her former tribemates that wished to server a kinder chieftain. Chief Beechnut had been so unhappy with her then that he had ordered his guards to kill her. Fortunately for Nara Shan, everyone who had gone on the attack against the barbarians had immediately joined her new tribe and defended their new chieftain. Sixty-three against eight had not been much of a battle.
As a new tribe, her people were not bound by the agreements of the former tribe. Now it was time to negotiate a new agreement. One which did not spend the lives of the Woodsy Elves more freely than shmuckers.
The sound of horses crashing through the underbrush announced the arrival of the chief warlord. Of course, Nara Shan had been advised of their arrival and their numbers as soon as they had crossed the hex boundary. Her tribe mates stood ready to cut these Men down at the slightest sign of treachery.
Men were so clumsy – and arrogant. Why the Titan’s had seen fit to give them dominion over the Erf, Nara Shan would never understand. But, no elf could claim a city or found a side, so they were ever to be subservient to these creatures. But that did not mean they would be slaves.
The eight men rode into the clearing. Their leader, Benjamin Gordon, dismounted from his quarter horse and approached her on foot after removing his swordbelt. Good – he intended to show respect.
“You are the new chieftain, Nara Shan?” he asked.
“I am,” she said rising from her seat to look down at him. Men were also short. “Our previous chieftain, our previous tribe, sold our lives far too cheaply. If we are to continue to serve with Dixie, that must change.”
“Dixieland has always been a friend of the elves,” Gordon began.
“That friendship has been costly of late,” Nara Shan interrupted. “You will no longer chew us up as you did with Beechnut.”
“The cost has been great for all of us,” Gordon objected. “Our king’s son is captive, over a thousand Dixieland men and women have given their lives to defend all of us, Man and elf alike.”
“I do not dispute that this enemy is vile,” Nara Shan agreed. “But the Woodsy Elves are not prepared to sacrifice their existence for Dixie.”
“What are your terms?”
“We need three thousand shmuckers to breed this night,” Nara Shan said. “And five thousand tomorrow night. Dixieland will agree to keep our number at no less than three hundred and no more than half our number are to be sent into battle at any given time.”
“Nara Shan, no side would agree to those terms,” Gordon objected. “No side would agree to keep half of your tribe out of a battle. It is unrealistic.”
“Then we shall leave your lands,” Nara Shan told him. “I hope that your war goes well for you. I truly do.”
“Wait!” Gordon said, holding up his hands. “Just a moment. I…understand that you feel you have been ill treated, but perhaps we could agree to keep…ten stacks out of battle. And to keep your numbers at two hundred, to be bred up prior to any battle.”
Nara Shan turned to Moonbow. Although she was chieftain, the elven warlord was her elder by almost a hundred turns. He nodded in agreement.
“That is acceptable,” she agreed. “And I will be personally kept informed of all strategic decisions made by Dixieland and all intelligence regarding its enemies. Also, we are too few to be able to help you in your battle at River City. We shall not be called upon to engage the enemy until our numbers are greater.”
“Terms as agreed,” Gordon said, extending his hand. Nara Shan took his hand in her own.
“Terms as agreed,” she confirmed.
* * *
“Chief Gordon has returned to the city,” Lady Kala informed him. “He is heading down to the portal room – and I have lost him.”
“So, he has renewed his alliance with the Woodsy Elves,” Minghis said. “That is how they were able to attack us this turn.”
“It would seem so, Sire,” Klytus agreed.
“But now they are once again bound to Dixieland’s turn,” he said. “On the morrow I want a single cast of hawks sent to their hex. Set it ablaze.”