The Horde, Part Twelve
The Horde, Part Twelve
by Thomas K. Martin
It was an hour before dawn and the great city had already been busy for hours. Truth be told, it had not slept since last turn. Last turn and all through the night, Gordon’s troops had been working, moving the ballistae from the outer walls to the courtyard. The two stacks of mobile ballistae left in the capital he had positioned just outside the courtyard gates. No matter what else happened this turn, Minghis was going to lose a lot of his air forces.
The city was laid out before him courtesy of Master Dey’s foolamancy. River City was beautiful. Unlike most capital sites located on rivers, the river itself actually flowed through the city. It entered via the great, barred iron gates on the northwest wall where it was fed into a narrow channel, if you could call a hundred yards narrow. The Must Hurry River then flowed just east of the city center where it turned south and exited through another massive gate. The courtyard and the tower sat in the crook of that curve slightly off center toward the southwest of the city.
Two bridges spanned the Must Hurry, connecting the two halves of the city. It was there that Gordon focused his attention. A single stack of sappers, popped just last turn, had been at work on both bridges all through the night. They had not begun work until well after sunset and had orders to finish their work at least an hour before dawn. Hopefully, Minghis’ lookamancer had been asleep during that time – hopefully.
“Have they finished yet?” Gordon asked.
“Just now, Chief Gordon,” Master Dey replied.
“Once they have entered the courtyard you may remove the veil.”
* * *
“They have moved all of their siege to the courtyard walls,” Kala told them. “Twelve stacks of archers on the walls, another five on the tower. Both casters are atop the tower. There are twenty-five stacks of stabbers inside the courtyard, nine stacks of pikers just inside the courtyard gate and only four stacks of knights outside the gate.”
Minghis nodded. Gordon was abandoning the outer city in order to draw Minghis inside the walls. Those ballistae could fire on ground targets as easily as airborne forces. There would be heavy losses today.
I taught you this tactic, old friend, he thought, but it will not save you today.
“Ornella, have you selected a cast of hawks to attack the elves?” he asked.
“Good, dispatch them. I want you to divide the remaining hawks in the six hexes surrounding the city. When the attack begins, they will all enter and converge on the tower.”
“Are we not probing their defenses?” Ornella asked.
“No. We know they have two casters on the tower. They will wait to fire until we commit to the attack. Spread your hawkmen out. You will be taking heavy fire from the tower and from the siege.”
“Khan, you will send the mounted archers across the northern bridge while your knights cross the southern. The archers and stabbers will follow the mounted archers. The twolls and rams will cross behind your knights.”
“This is going to be a difficult battle,” Minghis told his commanders. “The enemy will not show mercy – will not surrender. Today will require everything of us.”
* * *
Nara Shan waited in her camp for Dixieland’s turn to begin. The battle at River City would have begun by now, but that was eight hexes away. Only the enemy’s hawks could reach them here and Nara Shan had placed lookouts in the trees and the rest of her tribe was hidden in the forest. If the enemy was foolish enough to attack them with nothing but hawks, her tribe would make a good accounting for itself.
No, the enemy’s attention would be focused on their prize. It would take every Man the barbarian had to defeat Gordon at River City.
The tribe now numbered ninety-four. Once Dixieland’s turn began, their new brothers and sisters would pop and the elves would march toward Azalea as Gordon had ordered. There they would join forces with King Condon and march to retake River City. They would finally drive this scourge from their lands.
Just then a scout ran up to her from the forest.
“Chieftain!” he shouted. “Hawks approach from the southeast!”
“How many?” Nara Shan asked.
“We count four.”
Only four? Was the enemy scouting them? Perhaps they intended to attack the tribe after they took River City.
“Shoot them out of the sky as soon as they cross into the hex,” Nara Shan ordered.
* * *
Without defenders to slow them, the rams had demolished the gates in under an hour. This was the easy part of the battle.
“Send in the stabbers!” Minghis ordered. “Secure the area around the gate. All other forces hold back.”
Minghis watched as the troops marched in to secure the entrance to the city. No traps went off, no hidden enemies attacked them.
“All units attack!” Minghis ordered.
* * *
Loewanharde sat just outside the hex boundary. This was no honorable battle, but he faced no honorable foe. These elves knew nothing but treachery and deceit, attacking from the cover of the forest, or using foolamancy to sneak into their camp at night and slaughter men sleeping in their beds.
He smiled. Now it was time for them to die when they felt safe. This was no city – once he fired across the hex boundary the enemy would not be able to fire back. He pulled an arrow wrapped in cloth and soaked in pitch from the special quiver on his saddle. It burst into flame from the spark of his fire starter and he drew back and fired. Six other arrows followed his into the forest.
He silently ordered his stack to follow him north into the next hex to set the next side of the hex ablaze. The last thing these treacherous elves ever saw would be the flames that consumed them.
* * *
Ornella crossed over the walls of the city and braced herself for the blast from the tower. There was no way of knowing which of her people it would target but this location, above her father’s forces, seemed the most likely.
She was not wrong. They had barely crossed a hundred yards when the tower fired. The bolt snaked out among the scattered hawkmen and struck warlord Ilmari’s hawk roughly a hundred yards to her right. Ornella watched in horror as three other hawks and all of their riders simply vanished from the sky. Ilmari’s charred corpse fell alone to the ground below.
“Titans!” Ornella cried out in dismay. That had been an unfortunate strike. The enemy had been very lucky to crit a warlord with their first strike. That left her with just a single stack besides her own. She glanced over toward Francesca. The other warlord was looking in her direction. It was too far for Ornella to see her face, but it was likely that she was just as horrified as Ornella.
They had closed half the distance to the tower when it fired again. This time the bolt was aimed at the stacks coming in from the northeast, off to her left. Once again, four hawks simply vanished from the sky as a single body fell toward the ground.
“Oh, disband this,” Ornella said. Two warlord’s critted in a row? No one was that lucky…except. Disband it, there had to be a luckamancer on that tower!
“Klytus!” Ornella shouted, hoping the thinkamancer could hear her. “Order all hawkmen to take evasive action as they approach the tower!”
The thinkamancer must have picked up on her thoughts because all of the hawkmen began to dive, bank and soar as they continued on. This would slow their approach, but they couldn’t count on numbers alone to protect them.
* * *
Nara Shan had ordered her scouts back from the hex boundaries. To the northeast and southeast the flames were already devouring entire trees and the enemy had just set fire to the northern hex boundary.
Silently she cursed these barbarians who had no respect for the entire hex of life they were about to destroy. Her people were trapped in this hex off turn and would be consumed by fire. For a moment she was paralyzed with fear. She could almost see the walls of the little dirt cave where she had almost cooked to death.
“I hereby break alliance with Dixieland!” she shouted. Immediately new elves popped into existence as her tribe’s turn began. This was no way to begin one’s life.
“Flee to the southwest!” she ordered her tribe. “Flee for your lives!”
* * *
Francesca was taken by the tower’s third blast as the hawkmen finally closed on the tower. Now only Ornella’s stack remained of the three stacks which had flown in over the north wall. They had also come under fire from the city’s siege, but the aim of the engines did not have the un-Erfly accuracy of the tower’s attacks, thank the Titans.
“Klytus!” Ornella shouted. “Order the hawkmen to ignore the archers! Target the casters on top of the tower first! Wipe that tower clean!”
* * *
Minghis watched as the mounted archers began to cross over the northern bridge to the other side of the city. He, too, had noticed the unnatural accuracy of the tower’s strikes. Klytus had informed him that Ornella believed the enemy had a luckamancer atop the tower. It seemed likely.
Even so, five strikes from the tower would destroy only twenty hawks. That would leave them over fifty, minus whatever the enemy archers and siege engines were able to claim. It would be enough. If he didn’t hold the Titans in such contempt, he might have asked them to watch over his daughter, but the Titans cared nothing for Mangolians.
A sudden cracking sound from the direction of the bridge drew Minghis’ attention from the skies. As he watched, the stonework of the bridge fell out from beneath the hooves of the archers’ mounts. Roughly sixty men and horses fell into the river below.
“Halt the advance!” Minghis ordered. “Do not cross the southern bridge! All units withdraw via the northern gate! Hawkmen, continue to assault the tower!”
* * *
Ornella could not believe her eyes when she saw the army marching for the gate. Then she saw the broken bridge. Downstream from the bridge, panicked horses swam for the walls of the channel but, of course, could not climb it. Of the men who had ridden them, there was no sign. Their armor would have drug them to the bottom.
Another blast had fired from the tower, and yet another warlord had been croaked, leaving his stack to depop. How could the enemy target their warlords so accurately? She was beginning to believe her father – the Titan’s cared nothing for the Mango tribe. They had all been popped to croak.
Just then she caught sight of a woman on the tower below her. She wore a blue gown and had long hair as black as pitch. A caster. Ornella raised her bow and sighted carefully along the shaft. She had to make this shot count – it was their only chance. There! She released the arrow and let fly.
Before her arrow could leave the bow, however, an impact jarred Warcry. She did not even see where her arrow went. She was too busy looking at the steel head of the ballista bolt sticking up next to Warcry’s right wing. The hawk cried in pain as its right wing flapped uselessly in the wind.
The bird, trying to fly with only one wing, turned to the left and began to plummet toward the roof of the tower. Below her she could see the raven haired caster, still alive.
“Up!” she ordered aloud. “Glide, disband you! Warcry, capture!”
The great bird did its best to comply and began to turn toward the caster. Time seemed to slow as she fell toward her prey. Shouts arose from the tower and the woman lifted her gaze to the hawk plummeting toward her. She turned to flee, but it was too late.
The hawk did not actually capture the caster so much as land on her. The straps held Ornella in the saddle and the body of the hawk absorbed most of the impact. No sooner had they crashed into the rooftop than an arrow whizzed past her, nicking her right cheek. Ornella pulled her short sword and sliced through the straps of the saddle. She dropped behind the hawk for cover and sheathed her sword in order to nock an arrow to her bow.
The hawk’s head was twisted around and Warcry’s golden eye sought her out. He was still alive!
“Warcry,” she said softly, putting her free hand on the bird’s brow. He let out a pitiful sound, too soft to call a cry. Then she heard the sound of arrows striking leather and the great hawk’s eyes closed into exes.
“No!” she screamed, drawing an arrow from her quiver and nocking it in single motion. She raised up over the hawk’s back and sought a target.
There, another caster. This one was a man with wild hair and a beard wearing a hip length beige coat and matching trousers. As Ornella took aim, he turned and looked directly at her before running for the tower stairs.
A fifth blast chose that moment to fire from the tower, but this one was wild and unaimed. He was the luckamancer! Ornella fired but an enemy archer chose that instant to step from cover to fire at her. Her arrow dropped him like a stone. Her last glimpse of the caster before she dropped behind cover was as he headed down the stairs.
“Disband it!” she cursed, nocking another arrow. There were still almost two stacks of enemy archers on this rooftop with her. Soon she would be flying Warcry over the City of Heroes.
“Who wants to live forever, anyway?” she cried as she rose up from behind Warcry for another shot.
* * *
“Bring it down, disband it!” Minghis shouted. “Our hawkmen are in there alone!”
“Your daughter still lives, my lord,” Klytus assured him. “And she is relatively unharmed as yet.”
Minghis had led the army out the northern gate and around to the southwest gate. He should have taken this gate in the first place, curse him for a fool! From here there would be no bridges to cross to reach the courtyard and the tower.
Four more rams crashed into the gate, yet it still held.
* * *
Gordon looked up as Barkoff ran into the portal chamber.
“The tower is spent!” Barkoff told him. So was the predictamancer, apparently. He was winded and panting from his trip down the tower stairs.
“Where is Dale?” Gordon demanded.
“Captured,” Barkoff told him.
“Captured!” Gordon couldn’t believe it. Had the enemy archers landed on the tower?
“Master Dey, show me the roof of the tower!”
The roof of the tower came into view and Gordon saw a single warhawk, croaked on the roof of the tower. Dale’s body was pinned beneath the hawk. Only her head and shoulders were visible. Gordon felt his stomach twist – he couldn’t tell whether she was incapacitated or croaked. That wasn’t the only reason, however.
An enemy archer crouched behind the body of the hawk using it for cover. From this angle Gordon could not see the archer’s face, but he didn’t have to. Ornella – curse that bitch! Only six archers were left defending the tower roof.
Gordon stood from looking over the table and headed for the door of the portal chamber.
“Chief Gordon!” Master Dey interrupted, halting him. “Shall I depart now?”
“What?” Gordon asked. “No!”
“If you leave the war room, I shall return to the Magic Kingdom.”
Rage welled up in Gordon – faithless barbarians! He fought it back down – the caster was right, disband him! Gordon’s place was here. Gordon closed his eyes and silently sent an order to Warlord Burke.
Take two, no – three, three stacks of stabbers to the tower roof. Rescue or recover Baroness Dale Ardent and return.
“Show me the city,” Gordon ordered, returning to the map table.
* * *
When the gate came down, the surviving mounted archers charged through, followed by the knights. Behind them charged the twolls, the stabbers and the archers. The time for finesse was past – this was just a bold charge for the courtyard gates.
Be strong, my daughter, Minghis thought. We are coming.
* * *
The hawkmen had finally scoured the top of the tower clear. Ornella reached down and gently stroked the neck of the croaked hawk.
“We’ll have to take that flight over the City of Heroes later, my beautiful warrior,” she said. “Just wait a little while longer.”
She walked around to the other side of the hawk where the enemy caster was pinned. Ornella cringed at the sight of dozens of arrows stuck into Warcry.
A groan brought her attention back to the caster. The woman was regaining consciousness. Ornella quickly knelt down took the woman by the throat.
“You are my prisoner,” she said aloud. Ornella did not need to see the woman’s hands and feet to know they had been shackled.
She looked up to where two casts of hawks still circled the tower, including her own. The rest were off fighting the archers and siege operators on the courtyard walls. She waved to them in gratitude and smiled when she saw Willa wave back to her.
Ornella walked over to where the enemy archers had fallen and quickly scavenged what few arrows they had left. The enemy still controlled the tower and they would be sending someone to try and take her valuable prize from her. She even took what usable arrows she could find in their bodies. She carried two full quivers in addition to her own back to Warcry.
“What is happening?” the caster asked as Ornella walked past her. “Who are you?”
“I am Ornella, daughter of Minghis Mango, Light of the Dawn, Master of Horses and Lord of the Skies,” Ornella said. “And you are my prisoner.”
“Oh, Titans,” the woman moaned.
* * *
Loewanharde’s first sight upon returning to the city was the hawks. There were a lot fewer of them then there should have been. The battle was not going well. His single cast wasn’t much in the way of reinforcements, but it would have to do.
They would need an advantage of some sort in order to have any impact on the battle.
“Form up behind me, single file,” he ordered out loud. “Once we cross the wall, drop down to street level. We’re going to hit them low…and…hard.”
* * *
Minghis looked up involuntarily as the line of hawks soared past overhead. The great birds were below the tops of the buildings on the street. Minghis felt he could have reached up and touched their bellies as they flew overhead. This must have been the cast sent to fire the Woodsy Elves.
As Minghis watched, the cast of hawks burst upon the siege crews flanking the tower gate by surprise. The hawks literally snatched the engine crews up in their claws as the archers on their backs fired at the men left behind. Minghis laughed as the hawks soared upward before dropping their captives into the courtyard below.
He was going to have to thank that warlord personally for silencing those two ballistae.
* * *
Ornella crouched behind Warcry waiting for the attack she knew was coming. She couldn’t spare any attention from covering the stairs, but the sounds of the battle still reached her. From what she could hear, they still had a decent number of hawks. And the sound of ballistae firing seemed to be slowing. Maybe they were winning.
She knelt, with an arrow nocked, ready to draw. Any…moment…now…
There – two helmets began to rise from the stairwell. Ornella took a deep breath, drawing back on the bow. She let out half of it and released. Her arrow found the eye of one of the two lead stabbers and he fell back into his fellows. She smiled at the sound of crashing armor and the sight of the other stabber ducking back down the stairs.
Her respite was not long, however. This time, instead of two helmets, she saw the tops of two shields rise above the stairs. She dropped her aim to near the top of the stairs. The instant she could see legs below the shields she fired. Her arrow pierced the heavy leather of the stabbers leggings and he fell – forward unfortunately.
The hawkmen circling the tower also began to fire on the enemy. Enemy stabbers began to fall.
“Soon now, Warcry,” Ornella said to the lifeless body of the hawk, “soon.”
* * *
No sooner had his hawk dropped its two captives than Loewanharde received new orders. Fly up to the top of the tower and defend Ornella. Ornella? What was she doing on the tower?
“Climb, you miserable dogs,” he ordered his men. “Our commander needs us!”
* * *
They had sent three stacks of stabbers up to the roof. Whoever this caster was, Gordon wanted her back. All of the stabbers were screening for the warlord at their center. Shielded as they were, Ornella could not get a good shot. There was simply too much wood and steel in the way. Even the airborne archers were having trouble. So far they hadn’t taken out even a full stack.
They were almost to her position. Soon they would repatriate the caster and Ornella would be croaked. But she would have a story to tell when she arrived at the City of Heroes. This was a good day to croak.
Without warning, four hawks soared over the top of the tower, their wingtips almost touching the roof, their claws extended. They knocked the stacks of enemy stabbers over like tenpins, scooping up one in each extended claw.
Without the benefit of their shield wall, the remaining stabbers fell quickly to the fire of her hawkmen. Ornella rose from behind Warcry, searching for a target. Her gaze met the eyes of the warlord, lying on his back. Fear was plain on his face.
“Hi there,” she said before putting an arrow through his throat. She felt herself level – five. She let out a whoop of victory and shouted after the departing hawks.
“Loewanharde, you magnificent stallion!” she shouted. “You better survive, because you are getting lucky tonight!”
But, of course, he was already out of earshot.
* * *
Gordon watched from the map table as the enemy breached the gates of the courtyard. The hawkmen and the enemy archers had cleared his archers from the wall. The mobile ballistae crews had retreated into the courtyard and the knights had been ordered to join him in the great hall. He was going to lead one last attempt to rescue Dale and get her to the portal.
“How long until noon?” he asked.
“Well over an hour, yet,” Master Dey told him.
“Viscount Barkoff, Master Dey, it is time for you to leave,” he told them. “Thank you for all you have done.”
“Yes, Count Gordon,” Barkoff replied. He stepped through the portal and vanished.
“Stay with Han,” Gordon told Master Dey. “He will guide you to our new portal once it opens.”
“Thank you Chief Gordon,” Dey replied, extending his hand. “It has been a pleasure working with you. I only wish…”
“As do I,” Gordon agreed, taking his hand. “Dixieland will always be a friend to you.”
Master Dey left the room through the portal and Gordon took his hat from the map table before climbing the stairs to join the battle.
* * *
Gordon never made it to the roof of the tower. By the time he had stacked with the knights, Minghis’ rams were beating down the door to the tower. He and the knights had held the barbarians at bay for a time in the doorway, until Ornella had led two full stacks of archers and archery knights down from the roof to attack his rear. Curse that woman!
Now, he sat in a cage, in a yurt, next to Prince Murphy who occupied another cage. They were guarded by a stack of spear-yielding stabbers. He had listened while Minghis had razed what had once been the shining jewel of Dixieland to the ground. That had surprised him – he had expected the barbarian to wait until tomorrow. That was what he had done up until now. Instead, Minghis had seemed to be in a hurry to get the city razed before his turn ended at noon.
“How badly did you hurt them?” Prince Murphy had asked.
“I wiped out most of his hawks,” Gordon replied, “and took about half of his mounted archers. I think we got almost half of his stabbers as well. The barbarian does not have enough men left to take any of our remaining cities, I don’t think. But he has proven me wrong before.”
The warlord leading the stabbers had chosen that moment to rap on the bars of Gordon’s cage with the butt of his spear.
“No talking,” he ordered. However, the order carried no actual force behind it, since both Gordon and Murphy were prisoners of Minghis. Each stack of barbarians was its own separate side. Gordon had Barkoff use that fact to his advantage when attacking the hawks with the tower.
Still, Gordon decided to obey. He had already received the butt of that spear in his ribs once. With no conversation to distract him, Gordon’s thoughts returned to Dale. She was not here in the prisoner tent. Had she been croaked?
Gordon looked up when the flap to the yurt opened. Minghis walked into the yurt flanked by a caster in a black robe and wearing a golden mask and one of his knights.
“Ah, Brash Gordon,” Minghis said. “So sorry to keep you waiting. How is the arm?”
“Better,” Gordon replied tersely. Apparently Minghis’ moneymancer also served as the horde’s healomancer. He hadn’t healed Gordon’s arm completely, just enough so that he could use it.
“So, how much should I ask for ransom for you, do you think?” Minghis asked. “I figure you should be worth at least double what you paid for that lout Barringer.”
“Sounds about right,” Gordon replied. Actually, King Condon would probably pay more than that for his Chief Warlord.
“Hm, triple it is, then.”
Gordon closed his eyes and gritted his teeth. If he didn’t know better, he would swear this barbarian enjoyed nothing more than baiting him. Then again…
“I know someone he would pay more than that for,” Gordon said.
“I’m afraid I have no intention of ransoming the prince,” Minghis told him. “He is important to my plans.”
“That wasn’t who I meant,” Gordon said. “You captured a caster on the roof of the tower – a woman. King Condon would pay a great deal for her.”
“Oh, is she his woman?” Minghis asked.
“What? No!” Gordon replied. “She is more like a daughter to him.”
“She is with our turnamancer,” Minghis said. “I have claimed her for my own.”
“Your own? Why, you stinking savage!” Gordon shouted, pulling himself up by the bars as far as the short cage would let him.
“Oh-ho!” Minghis laughed. “So, she was your woman!”
“The Baroness belongs to no-one but herself!” Gordon shouted. “She is a caster – a noblewoman of Dixieland! Not some…some courtesan for your amusement!”
Minghis bent over Gordon’s cage and smiled – an expression of pure malice.
“I will tell you the same thing I once told a feral stallion after I had captured his favorite mare,” Minghis said. “She belongs to me now.”