The Horde, Part Fourteen

Part 14 of 16 in The Horde

Part Fourteen: Rebound

by Thomas K. Martin

 

Ornella examined the available hawks.  Only three hawks had lost their knights without croaking themselves – two males and a female.  Of the three, the female had the best stats.  Her move was only one less than Warcry’s had been.

 

That wasn’t why Ornella chose her, however.  Climbing into the skies on the back of another golden hawk would have broken her heart.  No, better this female whose brown plumage would remind her nothing of her previous mount.  Ornella stepped up to the hawk and gently took it by the bit.  The hawk looked at her and let out a soft cry.

 

“Yes, we’ve both lost someone, haven’t we?” Ornella said to the great bird.  She looked over to the hawkmen who awaited her.  The hawk nuzzled her side with its great beak as Ornella stroked her neck.

 

“What was her name?” Ornella asked.

 

“She didn’t have one, I don’t think,” Loewanharde replied.  “Mermoz wasn’t exactly the sentimental type.”

 

“Well, that won’t do,” Ornella muttered to herself.  “What shall I call you?  Fierce Lady?  No.  Warlady?  How about…Ladyhawk?”

 

The bird cried out and fluffed its wings.

 

“Oh, you like that, do you?” Ornella laughed.  “Very well then.  Ladyhawk it is.”

 

Ornella put her foot into the stirrup and levered herself up and into the saddle.

 

“Mount up, hawkmen!” she ordered.  “We have a prisoner to recapture and an enemy to educate!”

 

With a cry of defiance her new mount spread its wings and launched itself from the top of the tower.  Thirty other hawks followed behind her.

 

* * *

 

Mahk Twin’s sitting room was currently unoccupied except for him and Count Gordon.  The two men sat in comfortable chairs, enjoying a glass of sherry together.  Twin watched his captive guest closely, but casually.

 

“We now have thuhty hexes between us and River City,” Twin said.  “Do you think we ah safe from attack?”

 

“Probably,” Gordon replied.  “Only the hawks could reach this far and I don’t believe Minghis would risk them just to retrieve a prisoner.  Of course, I can’t be certain.”

 

“No, theah ah no guarantees in this life,” Twin agreed.  “If all goes well, we should arrive at Nawlins eahly next turn.”

 

“Have you sent word to King Condon?” Gordon asked.  Twin paused before answering.  This would be delicate.

 

“Not yet,” he said.  “I had a matter I wished to discuss with you beforehand.  A…proposition I would like to make.”

 

“What would that be?”

 

“Count Gordon, have you considered not returning to Dixieland?” Twin asked.  “I could use a man of your calibuh aboahd the Queen.  Our life is very comfortable and there are great advantages to being a free man.”

 

“I don’t think…” Gordon began, but Twin interrupted him.

 

“Please, heah me out, suh,” Twin said.  “Just imagine if you would, a life on the rivuh.  Free to travel the world and see the mahvels it has to offer.  Why, we travel to moah sides than I reckon you have evah seen.”

 

“What need do you have for a leader of ground troops?” Gordon asked.

 

“Oh you would be surprised,” Twin assured him.  “We had such a man once.  Oh, he was a giant of a man – taller than a twoll or a Woodsy Elf.  He commanded a stack of knights for me.  We used to stop at ruins we encountered and he would take his men and explore them for treasures.  And, of course, he served as a guard force when were at dock in foreign sides.”

 

“What happened to him?”

 

“There was a particulahly nasty incident one turn,” Twin explained.  “Davy held the attackers off long enough for us to get back to the ship and escape.  All of his men weah croaked, unfortunately, as was his ditto.”

 

“His ditto?”

 

“Yes, none of our commanders or casters evah actually leave the vessel,” Twin explained.  “I ditto anyone who goes ashore.  Did you know that you will remember what your ditto does if it is of a high enough orduh?”

 

“No, I…did not know that.”

 

“As I was saying, aftuh that…unfortunate incident, Davy decided to go his own way,” Twin said.  “He left with a full purse and a sack of gems.  That was the last I evah saw of him.”

 

“I see.”

 

“Now please, just think about my offuh foah a moment, befoah you answuh,” Twin implored.  “I am offerin’ you a chance to see the world as few men evah do.”

 

To his own surprise, Gordon did find Twin’s offer appealing.  A chance to travel the rivers and coastlines of the world with no true enemies.  It wasn’t that he had never thought such a life would appeal to him – he had never thought about such a life ever.  He hadn’t even realized such a thing was possible.

 

Now that he knew it was, however, he could almost imagine it.  Travelling and doing business with strange sides all over the world – Dale would love it.

 

Dale.  No, he could not even consider Twin’s offer.  Not only was Dale in danger, but Prince Murphy and King Condon were all counting on him.

 

“I’m sorry, Master Twin,” Gordon finally said.  “I’m afraid I can’t accept your offer.  My Duty is clear at this point in time and it lies with Dixieland.”

 

“Of course, of course,” Twin replied, nodding.  “I can’t say that I am surprised by your response, but I had hoped I might be able to persuade you.  In that case, I should begin drafting the terms of your ransom for your king.  If you would be so kind as to excuse me.”

 

Twin picked up a little bell and rang it.  Immediately one the crewmen stepped into the sitting room.

 

“Escort Count Gordon to his room, please, Ferdinand,” he said as he took a sheet of parchment and a quill from his desk.

 

“Yes, Master Twin,” the crewman replied.

 

Twin watched as the crewman escorted Count Gordon from the room.  No sooner had that door closed than the door to his bedchamber opened.  Sawyer White walked up behind him.

 

“What happened?” Twin asked.

 

“I don’t know, Mahk,” Sawyer replied.  “I had him.  The spell was taking hold and he was about to turn, but then something yanked him right out of it.”

 

“A pity, a pity,” Twin replied.  “Still, theah is no use weeping ovah spilled milk.  Thank you, Sawyuh.”

 

Sawyer was on his way to the door when the alarm bell sounded.

 

* * *

 

The ship was on the river below them, right where Lady Kala had told her it would be.  Below them the ship had raised anchor and was turning downriver.  Ornella watched the two empty masts.  Those would fire shockmancy, although she was not certain how she knew that.  Still the ship did not seem to have a large complement.  This battle should go quickly.

 

As the stern of the ship came into view, she saw the ballistae.  There were four mounted on the stern of the vessel.  That was not good, but four ballistae were not going to stop them.

 

“Evasive action!” Ornella shouted.  Now that they were a side again, her orders would carry to all the hawkmen in her hex.  “Swarm them! Fire at will!”

 

Then the ballistae fired and, as Ornella watched, the four bolts flying at them became eight – and then sixteen.

 

“By the Titans!” she exclaimed as she veered to the left, narrowly dodging one of the bolts.  She heard what sounded like two hawks cry out in pain.

 

“Avoid the stern!” she ordered.

 

Then the masts fired.  Two crackling bolts of shockmancy fired into the mass of hawks on either side of the ship.  Hawks and men cried out in fear and pain, but Ornella did not see anyone fall from the sky.

 

“Fire on the ballistae crews!” Ornella ordered as she flew past the stern, already following her own order.  A hail of arrows followed her order, but the crew had the benefit of some cover.  Ornella did not see any bodies on the deck when she looked back.  Still, there seemed to be fewer men manning the siege engines.

 

“Come back around, avoid the stern!”  On the river below the lifeless body of a golden hawk drifted past the ship on the current.

 

Avoiding the stern was not going to be easy.  The ship was using its paddle wheel and rudder to come about, bringing the stern ballistae into play against the hawks on the other side of the ship from Ornella.  Again Ornella watched four bolts become sixteen before they reached the hawks.

 

This time, two hawks fell from the sky.  Ornella drew back her bow and fired just as the twin masts fired again, one into each group of hawks.  The bolts were not as powerful as those from a city tower, but the fact that the ship could fire two at once was making up for that fact.

 

Ladyhawk cried out in pain as one of the bolts grazed her wing.  Ornella drew back and fired again.  Attacking from the air was not going to work.  They needed to close with the ship and use the hawks against the crew.

 

Withdraw! came the silent order into her mind.  The Overlord was ordering them to break off and return.

 

“Break off and evade!” Ornella shouted.  “Scatter!  Regroup in the northwest hex!”

 

Ornella fired one last shot as the ship fell away behind her.  This had not been the easy victory she had expected.  Still, she could tell there were a lot fewer men on the deck, but she still did not see any bodies.

 

She regrouped with her hawkmen out of range of the ship’s weapons and retreated to the northwest.  She was not looking forward to explaining this to father…

 

* * *

 

“Thank the Titan’s they ran,” Mahk Twin sighed.  “I only had enough juice left to simply double one moah volley.  Captain Morgan?”

 

“Only dittoed casualties, Master Twin,” Hank replied.  “Neither Lieutenant Mulberry nor myself were injured.”

 

“Good, good,” Twin replied.  Of the fourteen crew doubles, only six remained on deck.

 

“Bring enough men up from below decks to defend the ship if they retuhn,” Twin ordered.  “But I don’t believe they shall.”

 

“I told you we should have thrown him back in the river,” Finn said as he and Sawyer joined Twin on deck.

 

“Now, now, Finn,” Twin said.  “We haven’t lost anything in this engagement.  Howevuh, I am going to double ouh ransom request foah Count Gordon after this.  Or ah you saying we should pass on the seven thousand shmuckers Dixieland is going to pay us foah the Count and his new hat?”

 

“Well…”

 

“I thought not.”

 

* * *

 

With no one in their battlespace, the turn had begun at dawn.  Minghis watched as the hawkmen, freshly healed, returned to River City.  As always, Ornella was the first to land atop the aerie.  As Minghis walked up to her, she dropped to one knee and bowed her head.

 

“Forgive me for my failure, Lord of the Skies,” she said.

 

“There is no need for that, daughter,” Minghis assured her, reaching down to help her to her feet.  “We did not know they had a dittomancer on board.”

 

“A dittomancer!” Ornella said.  “Of course!  That’s why there were no bodies!”

 

“Now, you must depart to join Khan for his attack on Summer Fort,” Minghis said.  “The enemy has retaken it, but it is still only level one.”

 

“Yes, father.”

 

* * *

 

Nawlins was a sprawling level three, and one of Dixieland’s only two port cities.  Gordon had never been as happy to see the swampy port city in his life.  Over thirty-five hundred turns ago this had been the first city which Strongarm Louis had conquered.  From there he had sailed his fleet up the Must Hurry and taken River City to found the kingdom of Dixieland.

 

Louis had lost most of his original fleet to the dangers of the river and the battle against King Alejandro.  The sacking of the capital and the croaking of King Alejandro sent the remainder of the kingdom into neutrality.  Most of what remained of King Louis’ fleet was lost taking the now neutral city of Emerald Coast.

 

Louis decided not to rebuild his fleet, opting instead for a kingdom on the mainland.  It was then when he broke ties with his original side and completed the conquest of Dixieland’s original seven cities.  He sent what few ships that remained of his original fleet back with their crews and the message that Dixieland would remain independent kingdom.

 

It was only fitting then that it would be from this city that Gordon sent his cry for help to the very side that Louis had abandoned when he founded this kingdom.  It was now obvious that the Mangolians were an enemy which Dixieland could not defeat alone.

 

“It must feel good to be home, my friend,” Master Twin said, walking up beside him.

 

“It does and it does not,” Gordon replied.  “With my prince and the baroness still captive this is at best a bittersweet arrival.  You have been in contact with his majesty?”

 

“I have,” Twin assured him.  “We will receive three thousand shmuckers upon your repatriation and another foah when I deliver your hat immediately afterward.  In addition, we will remain in port long enough to provide your side with another eight ballistae.  Three turns, I would estimate.”

 

A stack of stabbers waited on the pier as the Queen pulled up to dock.

 

“I hereby release you to your own side,” Twin said.  Immediately Gordon’s prisoner clothing was replaced with a new suit of armor.

 

“…and present you with your new hat,” Twin concluded taking a broad-brimmed hat with the crossed bugles of Dixieland from Finn and handing it to him.

 

“Thank you, Mahk,” Gordon said.  “For everything.”

 

“Always good to help a friend,” Twin replied.  They watched as Twin’s crew leaped onto the pier and began tying the riverboat up to the dock.

 

“Sound the end of turn!” Twin ordered.  From the cabin a ship’s bell rang out three times and Gordon felt Dixieland’s turn begin.  Almost immediately he felt the office of Chief Warlord return to him and then new orders.  He was to travel to Palmetto immediately.  First, however, he had a letter to write.

 

* * *

 

King Condon leaned back into the overstuffed chair in his quarters.  Thank the Titans that Gordon had managed to escape from that barbarian!  That was the best news he had received since arriving at the new capital in Azalea.  If only he had been able to rescue the prince and Baroness Ardent as well.

 

The crown rumbled on its cushion on the end table beside the chair.  It was almost the end of turn – who could be sending him a message at this time?  Condon drew the wand from a pocket inside his robe.

 

“Bismarck,” he intoned.  To his surprise a blue book appeared in the crown.  Condon pulled out the book and his breath caught at the sight of the seal on the front – two olive branches surrounding a stylized map of several islands.  He read the title printed beneath the seal.

 

United Federation of Princes: Diplomatic Encryption Key

 

The crown rumbled again and Condon pulled out an envelope with the seal of the UFP in blue wax.  He broke open the seal and pulled out a small stack of encrypted documents.  He unfolded the documents and began to read with the key in his hand.  The scrambled text of the document arranged itself into legibility before his eyes.

 

From: The office of the Chairman, United Federation of Princes

To: His Majesty, Condon Dixon, King of Dixieland

Re: Terms of Temporary Alliance and Request for Strategic Information

 

Your Majesty,

In response to your Chief Warlord’s request for alliance, the UFP is extending the offer of a two turn alliance during which it is requested that you explain the current strategic and tactical situations which have motivated your request for alliance.  All information received from you will be held under strict non-disclosure for as long as your side exists and is not actively engaged in hostilities against the UFP.  Full terms of this alliance and non-disclosure agreement follow.

 

Condon set the sheaf of documents in his lap.  Had it come to this?  Three thousand five hundred turns ago, King Louis had turned his back on the Federation because they did not boogie.  Was it to be during Condon’s reign that Dixieland went crawling back to them for help?  The Titans knew they needed help from someone.

 

With a sigh of resignation, King Condon rose from his armchair and walked over to the writing desk.  It seemed that, for him at least, the turn was not yet over.

 

* * *

 

Once again, Ornella stood in the branches of the great tower of Aborea.  Her father had upgraded it to level three as soon as she had claimed it, almost draining the treasury in the process.  But that was no matter, for next turn another nine thousand shmuckers would flow into his coffers.

 

When they had left here, her hawks had blotted out the sky.  Now, less than a third were returning home.

 

Home.  A strange word for a barbarian, but Orenella had not been popped as a barbarian.  Not for the first time, Ornella felt a burning conviction that the Mangolians should never have left their cities.  The cities gave them a strength they did not have as barbarians.  Even a single level five would give them the ability to range further, strike harder.  Entire stacks would not pop out of existence just because they had lost a warlord.

 

How could she express this to the man who had willed her into existence – had willed his entire people into being in defiance of the Ttitans themselves?  True, her time as a barbarian had given her a taste of freedom she would otherwise never have known, but at what cost?  At what cost to the Mangolians?

 

Ornella took a deep breath and resolved to think further on this subject.  If those thoughts did not lead her away from this belief, she would speak with her father the next time she saw him.

 

* * *

 

King Condon was waiting on the tower roof when Gordon brought the yellow in for a landing.  Gordon leapt down from the saddle onto the tower roof and immediately dropped to one knee before the king.

 

“Your Majesty,” he said, bowing his head.

 

“The UFP, Gordon?” King Condon asked.

 

“We had no other choice,” Gordon replied, still kneeling.

 

“Rise,” the king commanded.  He turned and headed for the tower stairs as Gordon followed.

 

“You are correct, of course,” Condon told him.  “And that is what truly vexes me.”

 

“How fare the negotiations?” Gordon asked.

 

“I have been speaking with them for only six turns and I already want to go to war with them,” Condon replied.

 

“Are they…that bad?”

 

“No!” the king shouted.  “And that is the worst part.  They are perfectly polite and proper when they tell you that you don’t know how to run your kingdom.  King Louis was right about them.  They…have no soul – no rhythm.  I would almost rather you had asked Earl Land for an alliance.”

 

“Actually, your majesty, I wanted to discuss that with you,” Gordon replied, softly.

 

* * *

 

It was near the end of the turn when Ornella finally reclaimed Ornate.  Minghis smiled, cruelly.  All five of his former cities had been brought back into the fold along with two of Dixieland’s.  He silently ordered Ornate to change production to twolls.  In a few more turns he would start razing the furthest cities and marching all of their troops toward Arborea.  The Mangolian horde would be reborn and the rest of Dixieland would fall before it.

 

Minghis headed for the dungeon to listen to the Lady Kala’s latest set of excuses for why she had failed to turn the Dixieland caster.

 

“End the turn,” he commanded.

Part 14 of 16 in The Horde