Unjust Deserts, part 5
Part 5, The cherry on top
There is something to be said for the sheer, unadulterated outrage a man is capable of only when he has been interrupted in the process of taking a good crap.
The door to the outhouse slammed open as Lex Pode yelled across the camp “Consarn it! Can’t a man go about his business in peace!?” He’d trundled over to the assembled Barbarians with a slipper in his hand and a snarl on his face.
“Landed Lord Tyr, this is simply unacceptable! Why, I have half a mind to start a Claim of contract violations for this ruckus!”
Not losing any steam, he rounded on the crouched Tiramisurus “And given the size of your craps, I would have expected you, of all units, to understand it is everyone’s Titan’s given right to go about their ablutions as they see fit!”
And amazingly, Theo the Tiramisurus seemed abashed. Though that was probably less to do with Lex’s high falutin’ tirade, and more to do with his applying some Shockamancy to boom out his grievances and create little bursts of lightning to punctuate his sentences.
Tyr stepped between Lex and Theo and nodded politely. “Apologies, Lex. It seems our pets didn’t get along. But if you don’t mind, disciplining Theo is my business.”
Lex looked the scene over and harrumphed, turning off the verbal and magical fireworks. “Yes, and my business with you is for safe and peaceful lodging. I say, I was right in the middle of regaling the tale of taming my Shockalots to this nice young fellow when we were so rudely interrupted!”
A bolt of surprise crossed his face and he turned to Beck with a look of sincere contrition “Oh! I simply must apologize, you were listening so intently to my tale that you lost track of your pet! I should have expected that and warned you my storytelling can be as entrancing as a Mewmaid’s song! Though speaking of ‘expecting things’...”
Paula held Lex’s glare neutrally for a long moment, before finally answering the unspoken accusation “My agreement with Tyr is a Prediction a day for lodging. I had already predicted Beck’s arrival, so my quota was met.”
Despite being the topic of conversation, Beck was content to stay out of it and watch, thinking ‘Interesting, they must all be paying Tyr to use this camp, even though they’re friends. They really do charge each other for everything.’
Lex seemed offended at Paula’s comment. “Where is your professional ethic, woman?! You don’t leave a job half done just because you follow the letter of the agreement!”
Though Paula’s cool blue eyes hid her emotions, she didn’t bother hiding a sardonic note to her reply. “Everything came out alright, didn’t it? Faster than normal on your end, even.”
Lex’s face went beet red, and Beck felt a tug at his elbow. Turning, he saw Kala urging him to disengage with a knowing look.
She, Tyr and Beck actually managed to walk away from the conversation without either seeming to notice (or care, in Paula’s case).
Kala touched his elbow and led him over to the wagon area. “Don’t mind Lex, he and Paula love doing some verbal sparring early in the morning. Well, Lex does. Paula doesn’t seem to care for it much either way, she probably knows how the arguments will end most of the time.”
Beck looked over his shoulder at the arguing, and asked “Why do they...?
Tyr walked to the other side of Kala, and dismissed Theo with an order to wake his brothers. “Casters are a funny lot, but you should never underestimate them. We can turn the tables in a fight, but they’ll flip the table on you if you're not careful. Sometimes, even if you are.”
Before Beck could ask what, exactly, both casters were capable of they were all mobbed by the courtiers near the wagons. Or more specifically, Kala was.
“Lady Kala, I finished the adjustments to your raiment! But will you want the band’s outfits adjusted to match?”
“My Lady, are you ready for the war paint?”
“Lady Kala, which tune shall the band prepare? Something for a city defense or mass melee?”
Kala smiled from behind her red veil and turned to them each in turn. “No, matching scarves will do. In a minute, prepare the pumpkin orange highlights. And mass melee, it’s going to be a long day.”
With the courtiers on their way, Kala turned to Beck. “Come back in a few minutes, and I’ll show you a bit of my act before we head out.”
Kala walked into the swarm of activity by her caravan, fading in among the colorful courtiers. Still, Beck was curious, so he asked Tyr. “She’s heading out on a contract?”
“We all are. She just has more of a baggage train to get ready before heading out.”
Beck raised his eyebrows. “All of you? So are you some kind of… mini-Side or something?”
“Not quite. We do individual work, but we also offer collective services as a Barbarian Band, ‘the Rock Band’, after this big ol’ rock I’ve claimed.” Tyr pointed to the banner fluting atop the central tent, with the proud rocky mesa at the center. “Rich or desperate sides in the Capital Wasteland will hire the Rock Band to defend or take entire cities.”
Mind circling back to what Tyr said earlier, Beck asked “But why is she taking courtiers to battle?”
Tyr nodded for Beck to follow, and explained as they went towards one of the outer tents.
“Kala’s a Dance Fighter. And I know what you’re thinking, yes, the music comes automagically, but with live musicians she can give the forces stacked with and around her an extra +2 bonus.”
“But how’d she get the courtiers, then? You can’t exactly find them in the wild to tame.”
Tyr grinned. “Oh, I could sing you a few bawdy songs that say otherwise. But nah, the way she tells it, she’s rescued some from side’s she helped destroy, or took them as payment. It’s an interesting strategy, their upkeep is dirt cheap and the extra Bonus means she’s like a second Chief Warlord for whatever side hires her.”
A thought dawned on Beck. “And I guess you offer heavies and siege with your three T-Wexes? And of course field work.”
Tyr stopped partway to going in the new tent, a look of surprise on his face. “Yes, actually. Very perceptive. Come in, I want to show you something.”
Inside this new tent, it looked like a war room… not that Beck had ever seen one, but the map table, miniatures, weapons racks, and armor stands marshaled up the concept in his mind.
Tyr picked up a few blue pieces from a box, and started laying them down on the east side of the map. “When you told us your story, you actually shared a few interesting events that could make us a little money. For example, the first battle between Berliner and Parisserie was likely here.” Tyr tapped a spot on the river. “And the second one was likely here.”
With a quick move of his hand, Tyr scooped up more than half of the yellow units on the map, probably the Berlinners, and scooted them about a few hexes, and tapped a slightly larger yellow piece. “Your ‘friend’ Chief Del is probably running back to Berlinner with his tail between his legs. We can’t tell if Parisserie took enough losses to decide to turn back and defend their capital, but they’re both probably going to be sweet for a while with more cash from less upkeep and more demand for hired help.”
Beck frowned. “Not from me. I’m done with Berliner, and Parisserie will probably send their Rocky Rodents to eat me if I show my face.”
Tyr patted Beck’s back, and he felt surprised to find he liked the gesture.
“Don’t sweat it Beck, sides here have awful short memories. Give it a few hundred turns and everyone else at that battle will’ve croaked. They’ll forget you even existed, then hire you like you’re a gift from the Titans.”
Beck smiled at the encouragement, only for Tyr’s unintended implication to sink in and dry up his smile like a puddle in the noonday sun. ‘Hundreds of turns.’ ‘Forget you ever existed.’ Titans, Beck was only four turns old, that may well be him if he wasn’t careful.
Either Beck needed to hide his emotions better, or Tyr was better at reading them than his casual, careless demeanor let on, because there was a bit of sympathy when he spoke. “No, really. Look over here.”
Lex made his way over to the far side of the map table, and stood in front of a lovely, slightly worn tapestry. Beck had been incredibly curious of the map on the table, but followed Tyr’s gaze to the tapestry; it depicted what looked like short, fat nobles wearing fruit shaped hats like strawberries, blueberries, lemons, oranges and more… and frilly fru fru clothes with colors to match. Eugh.
The Signamancy would have been disgustingly saccharine if they hadn’t all been fighting tooth and nail by cleaving claymores and machetes into each other.
Tyr grabbed the edge of the tapestry, and gently pulled it aside to reveal a second map behind it.
The second map looked much the same as the one on the table in terms of terrain features, but instead of parchment it was painted over a large wooden table. Another difference: instead of unit positions and terrain features, it had odd annotations on strips of paper stuck to thin metal pins jutting out from the cities.
Interestingly, about three fourths of the hexes had a ‘DF’ scribbled on them. The whole right margin was a mishmash of tacked on pieces of paper with side names and strike marks, some with scribbled notes, others completely X’ed out.
“What… what is it?”
“This, as far as anyone is able of keeping track, is the history and current disposition of the Capital Wasteland. Look.” Tyr tapped a city on the other side of the river, the label on it read Berliner. And behind that label, there were perhaps a dozen or so other labels beneath and behind it. “Since I’ve popped, the city site for Berlinner has been captured and lost about…” he rifled the labels casually “eleven times.”
Beck was about to blurt out a loud ‘What?’, when he remembered rule four. He needed to roll with this weirdness. He looked at the other cities on the map, and most had as many or more side changes as Berliner. Incredible. Depressing, but incredible. Looking at the hexes with DF on them, he realized it was probably short for ‘Destructive Foraging’.
Awed and depressed, Beck finally said “This... is not the most stable of places.”
Tyr chuckled merrily. “No, no it is not. But, it can work to your advantage if you’re smart about it, and don’t just dive in blindly.”
As Tyr started updating some of the notes in the margins, Beck remembered the reason he came. The mystery unit who had saved him at the oasis. “Earlier, you avoided answering when I asked if you knew why I came here. Do you?”
Tyr put down the coal stencil, and looked Beck evenly. “It’s an uncommon thing to find that kind of mercy in the desert, getting saved from drowning. But I can’t take the credit for that. We learned that from a detail in Paula’s vision.”
Beck looked down for a moment. He had hoped… but no. Still, he saw the bright side. Tyr hadn’t lied.
And that meant a lot. It helped settle something else in the back of his mind, a question he’d been mulling over. And he felt… yes. Rule three. He could risk trusting them.
“Tyr, listen… I wanted to ask. It looks like you’ve all really got your act together. You’re all even going on a contract this Turn. Meeting like this, here, now. It feels like Fate. I want to ask… can I join the Rock Band?”
If words were weapons and expressions were units, Becks question had just Crit and croaked Tyr’s easy smile, which melted off of his face.
“Look, Beck. You’re a good unit. Tenacious, resourceful. But the Rock Band is a four unit group. We do solo projects for the turn to turn expenses, but for big gigs? We’ve done the Mathamancy and Moneymancy, found out the hard way that more than four Commanders plus our entourage will make us unaffordable to most sides, and if we go cheaper we won’t make enough for upkeep.”
Beck kept his hands to his sides and his palms open. The… the disappointment and rejection he was feeling made him want to ball them into angry fists, but with this newest of dreams shattered, he resolved not to let it show.
Whether Tyr was reading those emotions, he didn’t change his expression or take back what he said. “You can come by later or stay here if you want; I don’t charge too much rent for the tents. But…”
“Nothing is free.” Beck hadn’t meant to load his answer with so much snide bitterness, but looking over at Tyr he started to worry.
Tyr’s face had gone stony, looking briefly annoyed like he had when Theo sassed him. “Titan’s tears Beck, you better cut that out if you want to survive. There’s no room for entitlement in the desert, much less the Capital cracking Wasteland. Life out here is not fair! You don’t deserve anything, and you aren’t owed anything. Not by me, not by sides. Everything you’ll get is because you earn it, fight for it or pay for it.”
Beck winced, but nodded. It was odd to think in those terms, but Tyr was right. Maybe the civility of everyone at camp and the possibility of moving above the desperate grind of desert living was spoiling him to that hard truth? “I’m sorry, you’re right. You’ve all been nicer to me than you had to, I guess I’m just not used to that. I’ll head out then, might come back when I have something to trade.”
Tyr’s expression got a touch sympathetic, only to get a faraway look in his eyes. He turned back to the spot on the map with the city of Berliner. “Yeah, nothing is free. You did give us a lot of good intel though… so, look here, these are Berliner farms. You said you’d negotiated five turns worth of truce with them?”
Tyr’s grin was sneaking back onto his face, and as Beck followed his train of thought, a smile started to play at the edges of his lips as Tyr went on.
“You should still have four left, and a pretty speedy mount. How do you feel about taking food ‘to go’?”
“And a one, and a two, and a one-two-three four!”
Beck watched Kala count down as she stood on top of one of her wagons. As promised, Kala was singing up her Dance Fighting beat, with her face covered in a skeletal war paint embellished with dozens of tiny orange flowers and curlicues.
The band swelled with a brassy tune, and even started half-dancing in place, leaning out of the windows of the wagons and beside Kala on the roof.
Lex, beside Kala, was wearing a spiffy black suit with long coat tails and similar warpaint. He danced along with her, and punctuated her song with fireworks and a basso profundo singing voice.
With a twirl and a point, Kala gestured to Paula, who rose in the air as the ground beneath her erupted! Beneath her, a giant Cinnawoll worm lifted her into the air. The giant gelatinous Heavy made its way to the ramp out of the mesa, and flowed down like it were water.
Tyr went next, riding Theo and leading another T-Wex; Bro. Finally, Kala and her group took up the rear, leaving the Mesa with a festival flair.
Behind Beck, the third T-Wex, Mine, snuffled.
Tyr had been nice enough, but had explained that his ’guard Wex’ couldn’t handle complicated orders, so he’d have to leave as soon as they did.
He spurred Kevin onwards, and followed the croak-day carnival down the Mesa.
He took a swig from his new waterskin. He’d traded one of the smoked Yew-Log portions for it. That left him two portions for him and Kevin. One whole turn worth of Upkeep. Not a lot, but with four turns of Truce with Berliner, they should have plenty of time to get a fair compensation.
Guy Mudd leaned his chair back against the watchtower’s central pillar, and half closed his eyes as he looked out at the sun-blasted dirt, dunes and shrubs.
It was still early in the turn, but he was already falling asleep in the blistering heat and blinding light. Guarding a Berliner Dirt Farm was a special kind of Hellabad. Long, endless stretches of nothing. No Ferals, Barbarians, enemy encounters or even friendly patrols. But at any time, ‘Wham!’ they could fall on you like a ton of bricks.
It lent itself to a strange combination of boredom and jittery paranoia.
The twelve of them were unled, they were all the units Berliner could spare. Enough to make Ferals and Barbarians think twice about attacking, but nowhere near enough to fend off an actual attack. It was a dirty job, posting, and Luckamancy; so they’d taken to calling themselves the Dirty Dozen.
At least he wasn’t out patrolling the farm’s outer edge, shoveling spades of dirt and watering the molds for Mud Pies, or everyone's favorite, keeping the Flipthees from eating (or crapping) on the the Dirty Hairy fruits growing from the Dirty Hairy trees.
Guy knew they were technically called Rambutan fruits growing on Rambutan trees, but the fruits really were hairy, and he didn’t really take things so seriously.
But that was about all he had to be thankful for. It’s not like they could eat the farm’s produce. All of them had been ordered by Overlord Kaz Blintz not to eat any of the food that grew there. He’d even threatened that he’d left standing orders for them to Disband if less than full rations from the farm popped in the capital.
Guy yawned and kicked up his legs onto the railing of the two story lookout. He was about to close his eyes, when a speck on the horizon caught his eye. A rapidly growing speck on the horizon.
He sat up so fast he knocked the chair down and almost stumbled. He grabbed the railing and covered his eyes to try and make out who-- or what was coming, but all he could see was a growing dust cloud.
It was still early, when Barbarians took turn, so he followed his Orders and put his hands to his mouth, shouting “Alarum! Alarum! Enemy approaching!”
Below, he saw his fellow Berliners stop their activities and marshall together into two stacks of six and five, rushing towards the farm’s outer edge. Guy climbed down as well and ran to Stack with them.
He stacked next to his brother Slip Mudd and ahead of Falin Mudd and readied his sword. Everyone was tense, watching the growing dust cloud. He felt for the Stack connection, not so much for the +6 bonus, but for the implicit camaraderie that lay within it.
The dust cloud suddenly loomed, grew and slammed into the hex wall like murky water splashing against a glass window. Guy caught a glimpse of a Warlord on a blue mount, but they screeched to a halt by grinding against the loose ground, throwing up a cloud of shady dirt over them.
Amid fits of coughing and clumsily wiping their eyes, they blindly tried to move forward and engage as a stack, but the enemy had picked up speed again and ran around and past them all around the Farm’s perimeter, creating a steadily growing cloud.
Guy and his stack ran as best they could after the enemies, but they couldn’t see a doggone thing! He could sometimes see and hear the enemy warlord and mount whiz past them, just out of weapon’s (and reflex’s) reach. He’d swung blindly a couple of times and hit nothing but air.
The dust, coughing, and confusion grew so thick they even bumped into, and almost engaged their fellow stack!
Guy and his stack were about to do their fourth lap (or fifth? Disband the dust!) around the hex, when he saw the dust start clearing out, and more importantly, the constant whistle of the enemies running. And he realized what was going on, so he yelled “Everyone, turn around, head back in! He’s pillaging the farm!”
The six of them ran in; Guy felt his heart pumping fiercely in his chest and tears streaking his face. They found the enemy warlord had dismounted and was filling a water skin from the barrel they used for the Mud Pies, stuffing it into his rucksack. Meanwhile the mount, a Baudseed, pecked the Dirty Hairies straight off of the tree!
The stack charged and Guy roared a warcry. The warlord swung his rucksack onto his back and mounted the Baudseed in one fluid motion, but instead of charging or fleeing… he started helping the Baudseed scrummage for Dirty Hairies, putting them into his rucksack!
His mistake! Finally in combat range, Guy thrust his sword straight into the Baudseed’s flank along with his stack. But instead of a satisfying squelch, his sword slowed to a gentle crawl before harmlessly bouncing off her seedy hide.
They kept trying, with the same results, eventually the enemy units did start moving, but only to avoid getting surrounded as they kept stealing!
Guy finally yelled in frustration “Why can’t we hit you, you disbanded Barbarian!? Fight fair!”
The barbarian looked down at Guy, a sneer on his face and having none of it. “Fair? In the desert? That’s a laugh. Your side tried to croak me with a tricky deal. Well, turnabout’s fair play.”
He didn’t know what this guy’s deal was, but he knew what this Guy’s deal was, and decided to plead. “Please, just stop! If you take the farm’s production harvest we’ll depop, or our ruler will disband us for failing our duty!”
A twinge of hesitation crossed the Barbarian’s face, but was wiped away like a dusty footprint in the wind, leaving only a blank expression. “I can’t help you there. That sounds like something between you and your ruler.”
Unable to stop attacking despite how pointless it was, Guy yelled in frustration and desperation. “Listen, please!”
The Baudseed tweeted out a rapid “Beep Beep”, evidently having eaten her fill and picked clean most of the trees. The Barbarian pointedly ignored Guy and spurred her on, and they sprinted out of the hex, leaving them eating dust.
They gave chase, but in another ten heartbeats the Barbarian had left the Hex, and their standing Order to attack intruders stopped compelling them to chase and attack. Guy looked around to his brothers and sisters. Slip was running after the escaping Barbarian with about half of the stack, probably hoping he came back. But Falin had collapsed on his knees over a fresh Mud Pie.
Just then the other stack caught up, but could only stand around uselessly under the barren trees after missing all the action. No one was talking, but he thought he heard a couple of sobs, and maybe someone cry.
Numb, dusty, dirty and tired, Guy decided to lay down under one of the Rambutan trees. It… it seemed like a good time to take a dirt nap.
I dunno, the Muds seem pretty resourceful. I expect next update they'll end up buying the farm.
Consarn it! How do you guys come up with these puns after I publish?!
If it's all right with you Heffenfeffer I'll include it in the final editing once the story wraps up.More seriously, this installment of "learning how to make your protagonist do horrible boop" was tough to write. Hopefully I'm getting the mood right.
@Falcore51: Thanks, and same! Spring break woooo!
@Knavigator: Good catch, but it's really not so empty a threat. I imagine most farms are within 6 to 8 hexes of their city, like in Civilization games. So the disbanded defenders can be replaced in 1 turn, 2 tops if terrain is harsh or your units are slow. Given depoping happens at the start of a side's turn, the only way a barbarian or enemy side could abuse this is if they were already in the hex.
Then there's also other possibilities, like their Overlord lied to scare them, or he really is that stupid.