The Horde, Part Fifteen
Part Fifteen: Betrayal
by Thomas K Martin
Dale paced the confines of her cell in the dungeon of what had once been her home. In the three thousand turns of her life, she had never been captured by an enemy. Indeed, she had rarely left the capital. She had been sent to cities in danger of attack to spell up their towers, but never before had she come face to face with the enemy.
Not until this mad barbarian had taken her captive. And mad he was – mad in his hatred of the Titans, and mad with his desire for her. She shuddered at the thought. Every night, after end of turn, that horrible woman came and attempted to cast her crude turnamancy on Dale. Fortunately for Dale, whatever Lady Kala was, she was no turnamancer.
Sometimes the other caster would come with her – the man in the golden mask. Even as a prisoner, her dateamancy could sense the strong bond between them. She knew Lord Klytus’ discipline – thinkamancer. He would link with the Lady Kala and, on those nights, it was all she could do to resist their crude but powerful attempts to turn her. She did not want to know the full nature of the bond between those two evil creatures.
Dale heard the entrance to the dungeon open. Instead of Kala’s quiet gait, she heard the rattle of armor. So, this was to be one of the nights that Minghis himself graced her with his presence. Usually that only happened when Kala worked on her with Klytus. Dale turned and kept her back to the cell door as she listened to Minghis’ armor rattle with his approach. The overlord’s attempts at turnamancy were even more crude than those of the Lady Kala – his promises held no appeal for her.
“Face me,” an unfamiliar woman’s voice commanded. Dale was so startled that she did not think to attempt to resist the order. The warlady who stood outside her cell was stunning in her beauty. She wore no helmet to hide the long, red hair that fell past her shoulders. Her almond shaped eyes were as green as gemstones. Unlike most Mangolians, the woman’s complexion was almost as light as Dale’s.
“Hm,” the warlady said when Dale turned to face her. Her gaze wandered over Dale, taking in the blue gown she still wore despite her status as a prisoner. Then the warlady looked past her at the furnishings of the cell.
“Your cell is certainly more comfortable than the prince’s,” she noted, sourly. Dale did not doubt that. Minghis had ordered a thick mattress placed over the cell’s wooden cot and had given her a pitcher and washbasin which rested on the cabinet that held her chamber pot.
“Who are you?” Dale asked. The question brought the warlady’s attention back to her. She met Dale’s eyes with a look of anger.
“Chains!” the warlady ordered. Manacles appeared on Dale’s wrists and ankles. Chains pulled her wrists behind her back while her ankles were brought together. Thrown off balance by the sudden binding, she fell to her knees as the door to the cell swung open. Dale looked up as the warlady walked up to her.
“I am Sonja,” she said in response to Dale’s earlier question. “Warlady of the Mango Tribe in service to Minghis Mango, Light of the Dawn, Master of Horses and Lord of the Skies. Who are you?”
“Dale Ardent, of Dixieland,” Dale replied. Her dateamancy senses were telling her something about this woman. Her loyalty to her overlord was strong but, somehow, strained at the moment.
“What is your discipline?” Sonja asked. Dale closed her mouth and met the warlady’s gaze evenly.
The backhanded blow from the warlady’s gauntleted hand caught her completely by surprise. After nine turns of captivity, this was the first time she had been struck by one of her captors. Dale had come to believe that Minghis had given orders that she was not to be harmed – that his desire for her was protecting her. Apparently that had now changed.
“Answer me, prisoner!” Sonja commanded. “What is your discipline?”
Dale inhaled with a gasping sob from the pain, but again closed her mouth and looked up defiantly at the warlady. With a grimace of rage, the warlady grabbed Dale by the hair and pulled her head back. Dale closed her eyes as Sonja drew back a gauntleted fist to strike her in the face.
“Warlady!” Lady Kala’s voice shouted. To Dale’s surprise, there was genuine fear in the caster’s voice.
“What?” Sonja demanded. Dale opened her eyes to see Sonja half turned to face Kala in the open doorway of the cell. Sonja’s fist had dropped even though she still held a tight grip on Dale’s hair.
“I…I have orders,” Kala stammered, obviously shaken. There was a delay while Sonja apparently waited for the caster to continue.
“What orders?” Sonja finally asked.
“N-not in front of the prisoner…” Kala began.
“Answer me!” Sonja shouted. “Now!”
“No harm is to come to this prisoner,” Kala replied, meekly. Dale relaxed a little. She had been correct – Minghis had ordered her fair treatment to this point. Kala continued to speak, her voice gaining conviction as she continued.
“By order of Minghis Mango, Light…”
Sonja turned back to Dale and the fist that had been dropped to her side flashed out to land solidly in the center of Dale’s face. Kala’s shocked gasp of surprise was loud enough for Dale to hear even over her own cry of pain. Lying on her back, Dale blinked away the tears caused by her broken nose and looked up at the warlady standing over her.
“Light of Brains and Mastered by his Genitals,” Sonja paraphrased Kala’s intended honorific.
Now Dale understood what her dateamancy senses had been telling her. This warlady was Minghis’ lover and she had just found herself betrayed. Sonja turned to face Kala and gestured at the turnamancy whip on the caster’s hip.
“Are you telling me that you are not even allowed to use your…accessory on this prisoner?”
“N-no, my lady. I…”
Sonja did not wait for Kala to finish stammering out a reply. Instead she stormed out of the cell.
“My lady!” Kala called behind her. “Where are you…?”
“To have a talk with Gonad the Barbarian,” Sonja snapped in reply. She suddenly stopped and turned back to face Kala.
“Turn this caster!” she ordered. “Use all means at your disposal. I am countermanding Minghis’ orders. Your Duty to the side demands it!”
“And get Klytus down here to help you!” Sonja added as she turned away and strode down the hall.
“Yes, my lady!” Kala replied, all trace of fear gone from her voice.
Kala turned to face Dale and, as her dark eyes met Dale’s, she smiled.
* * *
Minghis looked up as the door to his chambers opened without his permission, but relaxed when he saw it was Sonja. The look on her face gave him renewed cause for concern, however. He set aside the Book of Fanon and rose from his chair.
“Sonja, what is…?”
His question was interrupted by the slap across the face she gave him – hard enough to knock him back into his chair.
“How dare you?” he roared, leaping to his feet. Sonja did not step back from his anger.
“How dare you?” Sonja demanded in return. “Tell me, oh great Minghis, what is the upkeep of that caster we have in the dungeons? One hundred shmuckers? Two?”
“Upkeep?” Minghis repeated, caught off guard by the question. “I don’t…”
“How much?” Sonja shouted. The demand hit Minghis with the force of an order, which should not have been possible.
“One hundred, sixty shmuckers,” Minghis replied. “What does that have to do…?”
“So, you have wasted over a thousand shmuckers of the tribe’s finances because you want to user your lance on this woman?” Sonja shouted him down.
“You are jealous,” Minghis said.
“Oh, yes, I most certainly am, but we are not discussing that at this point,” Sonja replied. “This is about you betraying the tribe.”
“I am the tribe!” Minghis shouted back. Sonja took a step back at that point.
“Oh,” she said, holding her hands out to her side in mock submission. “So we are like all of the other enslaved sides, now, are we? The tribe exists only to service your needs? If you have to spend enough shmuckers to support the tribe for a turn just to replace your woman, that’s all right, then?”
“I have not spent even close to that much,” Minghis said, finding himself oddly on the defensive.
“You would have,” Sonja said. “The orders you gave Lady Kala make it impossible for her to turn the prisoner. A real turnamancer might be able to, but not Kala.”
“I am not replacing you,” Minghis said. “She is just a prize…”
“You take a prize!” Sonja interrupted. “You take her, use her and discard her! You have already replaced me. I will not lie under you while you dream of another! Unless you intend to order me into your bed, oh great Minghis?”
“I would never,” Minghis assured her.
“You will never,” Sonja assured him in turn. “I swear, before my overlord and the Titans themselves, that I will lie with no man who does not honor me, my tribe and who does not first defeat me in single combat.”
“Sonja…,” Minghis began.
“I so swear!” Sonja finished. Minghis watched as she staggered under the sudden burden of the oath.
“What have you done?” he asked in a whisper.
“What my Duty demanded of me,” she gasped. “And my pride. How will you answer your betrayal of the tribe?”
Minghis looked away, unable to bear the indictment of her gaze. This was why she had been able to command him. Her Duty, both to the side and to himself – to his own stated ideals, had enabled her. There could be only one answer.
“I will send word to King Condon in the morning,” he said, finally able to meet her gaze. “I will ransom her for more than enough to cover what I have…wasted.”
“Well, you had best hurry before Kala turns her,” Sonja said.
“I thought you didn’t believe it possible for Kala to turn her.”
“Not before I countermanded her orders,” Sonja agreed. “Kala’s probably stripped the skin off her pretty back with that whip by now.”
“Titans, what have you done?” Minghis said, running for the door to his chambers. “If she turns, I can’t ransom her! Cashcarry, meet me in the dungeon! Kala, stop turning the prisoner at once!”
* * *
Gordon felt his hat vibrate atop his head. He ordered the blue dwagon beneath him to hover while he removed the hat and retrieved the message within. Suddenly he found it difficult to read. He clutched the uncoded message in his hand like a drowning man would cling to a log and wiped his eyes with the other as he tried to catch his breath.
The enemy has opened negotiations for the ransom and return of Baroness Ardent. I thought you should know.
Condon Dixon, King of Dixieland.
Thank the Titans! That was one less thing he had to worry about. Hopefully, he would see Dale again soon – assuming that King Gray of Earl Light didn’t take him prisoner. Of course, that would violate their truce, but only five turns remained of that – three by the time Gordon would arrive.
Gordon folded the message and placed it into his saddlebags before ordering the dwagon to resume its course toward Whitecliff.
* * *
Sonja’s room in the tower was, of course, much smaller than the chambers she had enjoyed sharing with Minghis. For that matter it was even smaller than the grand yurt she had shared with Minghis in the field during this campaign. Still, it was more than sufficient. She was a warrior of the Mango tribe and this might as well be the grandest hall in the city so far as she cared. She had certainly made do with less.
She found herself smiling at the memory of the eight of them crammed into a tiny yurt, huddled around the great twoll Gomar for warmth. She angrily wiped away the moisture from her eyes.
“Stupid woman,” she muttered to herself as she continued to stow her gear. “Weeping like a captured hoe elf.”
Of course, that made her think of their first battle – against the hoe elves. Where they had lost Tangent. She had known him barely better than Arnold who had perished in the ruins where they popped. Still, thanks to Minghis’ leadership, he was the only one they had lost against a much larger tribe of elves.
They had lost so many since then. Douglas had fallen at Summer Fort. Dalia had been blasted from the skies here at New Mango City. Likewise, Kherlen had fallen in battle here against Gordon’s knights. Since then Lawrence and Moe had started spending time with one of the ram commanders who had been promoted to lead a stack of knights. Despite his promotion, Lawrence and Moe still called him Shepherd, from his days herding the rams.
Only the three of them remained from the original tribe. Still, if it had not been for Minghis leading them through the wilderness to Mango City, they would all have perished after only a few turns. He truly was a brilliant leader.
Sonja suddenly hurled her breastplate into the cabinet, knocking all of her gear from its rack and onto the floor.
True, he was a brilliant leader. But why was he such a lump-headed…man! This caster woman from Dixieland had almost made him lose himself. If Sonja did not know it was not possible for a prisoner to cast, she would have sworn the bitch had enchanted him. Especially since they now knew she was a dateamancer. Kala had accomplished that much at least once Sonja had freed her to truly work on the prisoner. Talk about a waste of upkeep – what use would the tribe have for her?
She took a deep breath and resumed placing her armor in the cabinet. She was almost finished when she heard a light knock at the door. Her heart leapt in her chest – Minghis! But she knew that was not true. He would never knock at her door so timidly.
Sonja buckled her swordbelt over the leather garments she wore under her armor and turned to face the door.
“Enter,” she said. The door opened to reveal Lord Klytus. He stepped into the room and briefly bowed his head to her as he closed the door.
“Lady Sonja,” he said by way of greeting. “I was wondering if I…might have a moment of your time.”
Ornella had never liked this caster and Sonja had to agree with her. There was something about the man that felt…oily.
“Lord Klytus,” she answered. “What is on your mind?”
“This business with the prisoner has made me realize something,” he said.
“What is that?”
“You were able to defy, even countermand, the orders of the great Minghis because of Duty to the side,” Klytus began. “As I understand it, you were even able, albeit briefly, to command him as well.”
“What is your point?”
“I know that Minghis plans to rebuild our armies and then raze our cities to continue this war against Dixieland.”
“I wonder if that is truly what is best for the tribe,” Klytus said. “Think of this for a moment. We have seriously hurt the enemy side, and our forces are growing rapidly. If we were to take and hold the rest of Dixieland’s cities we would have fourteen cities. Minghis could rule over Dixieland’s nine cities and cede our original five to, say, Khan. Then our two sides could conquer the six cities of Earl Land and Earl Light and cede those to the Lady Ornella. We would have a powerful three side alliance from which to expand further.”
Sonja blinked in surprise. What Klytus was saying had merit. Their original five cities could never have stood against a serious attacker, but twenty? There was only one problem with Klytus’ plan.
“I never took you for a strategist, thinkamancer,” Sonja said. “Why do you bring this plan to me instead of your overlord?”
“I was hoping to enlist your aid in presenting this to him,” Klytus explained. “This plan would gain credibility if you were to lend it your voice.”
“So now you are strategist and politician,” Sonja noted. “It is not a bad plan. Not bad at all. Save for one detail.”
“What is that?”
“Minghis will never agree. He feels his duty to the tribe is to provide us with security and freedom. He would never agree to subject us to the rule of an overlord, not even himself.”
Klytus nodded at her words.
“You are correct, of course,” he said. “However, there may be another way.”
“Once we raze the capital, before the oaths of alliance are sworn, one of the other tribal commanders could reclaim the capital,” Klytus explained. “Perhaps yourself, even. I am certain that many of the barbarian warlords would support a coup by one of the original…”
Sonja had crossed the three steps to the caster before he even had time to realize she was moving against him. She slammed him against the stone wall hard enough to do damage and pressed the blade of her sword against his throat.
“My…lady,” Klytus gasped out, finding it difficult to speak against the pressure she was applying to his chest and with her blade at his throat.
“Silence, dog!” she commanded. “If you were not essential to the tribe, I would take your plan, and your head, before the Light of the Dawn. I stood there on that mountain, in that frozen ruin, when our overlord was revealed to us in the golden light of the sun. You popped in a city – comfortable and warm. None of the original tribe will betray our Lord, and Lawrence or Moe would not have hesitated to take your head.”
“They…also…would…never…have…defied…his…orders,” Klytus gasped out.
“It was not my loyalty to the side that enabled me to do so,” Sonja explained. “It was my loyalty to him. I could not allow him to defy his own beliefs.”
Sonja took a step back and hurled the surprisingly lightweight caster to the floor. When he looked up, the tip of her sword met his gaze.
“Leave me, and never speak of this again,” she commanded. “I will be watching and I will be listening. If I hear anything that makes me believe you are continuing to plot against the Lord of the Skies, you will be croaked before you realize I am coming for you.”
“Yes, my lady,” Klytus said as he scuttled backwards away from her like a crab. “Thank you, my lady.”
Once he reached the door, he climbed to his feet and fled through the door into the hallway beyond. Sonja turned back to her cabinet.
With a sigh, she removed her swordbelt and began putting her armor back on. She needed to go speak with Lawrence and Moe before that idiot Klytus got himself croaked.
* * *
The hawks overtook Khan’s army three hexes outside of Dogwood. With the four new hawks she had waited for in Arborea and the eight that had popped in Summer Fort and another eight from New Mango City, Ornella’s force was back to well over half of its original strength. More than enough to take the level three city of Dogwood. She did not know many of these new knights and archers, but they were Mangolians. They would prove themselves over the skies of Dogwood.
She landed her stack at the head of Khan’s army and dismounted to meet him.
“Sister!” he shouted in greeting as he rode up to her and dismounted. “Back from your holiday?”
“Holiday? I was taking cities for our glorious father, not sitting on my bum in a comfortable level three tower for the last tenturn while someone else did all of the work!”
Khan laughed and scooped her into an embrace, briefly crushing the breath from her before setting her back on her feet.
“Empty cities!” he said. “No glory in that, but no more! Today we will face the enemy once again!”
Despite herself, Ornella found herself smiling. It was true that retaking their old cities had been a mindless chore, but today was the reward for both of them.
“Do try to keep up, brother,” Ornella baited him. “My hawkmen may just take Dogwood before you can get through the gates.”
“Oh, you can dust off the walls for us, but it will be my knights who capture the garrison!”
“We’ll see about…”
“Hold,” Khan interrupted. “Klytus is ‘gramming me.”
Ornella waited as her brother slipped into the trance of thinkspace. She shuddered at the thought of that caster touching her mind. Better Khan than her. Khan looked at her with a shocked expression once the call had ended.
“The enemy has razed Dogwood,” Khan told her. “Their army is on the road to Emerald Coast. Ha! The cowards were too afraid to face us!”
“Hold,” Ornella said to her brother as she felt the touch of Klytus’ mind on her own. Her surroundings faded and she found herself in the black, featureless void of the thinkamancer’s mind.
“Welcome home, Princess,” Klytus ‘said’ to her. He knew that fake title annoyed her, curse him.
“Get on with it, Klytus!” she ordered.
“Very well. You are to overfly Dogwood and intercept the forces on their way to Emerald Coast. You should have just enough move to reach them and then withdraw back to the forest. Do as much damage as possible with as few losses as possible and disengage.”
“Understood,” she replied. “Break.”
Ornella smiled at Khan once her vision had returned to the real world.
“Well, brother,” she said. “Looks like I’ll be the only one seeing combat this turn. Enjoy taking your empty city.”
* * *
“Dixieland will cede no cities as part of this alliance,” Gordon insisted to the two kings before him. King Black of Earl Land had joined them at Whitecliff for these negotiations.
“What we will offer is a one hundred turn non-agression treaty,” Gordon added. “Said treaty will take effect immediately once the threat from the Mangolians has been eliminated. In addition, Dixieland will pay Earl Land fifty thousand shmuckers over the first ten turns of the treaty. Earl Light will receive ten thousand shmuckers over the same term.”
“That is unacceptable,” King Black said. “We will accept nothing less than two hundred thousand shmuckers for our assistance against this enemy of yours.”
“Trust me, your majesty,” Gordon replied, “these barbarians will become your enemy as soon as Dixieland falls. And, as we have learned, with enough numbers, their hawks are more than a match for your dwagons.”
“For your dwagons, perhaps,” King Gray interjected. “My father and I know how to use them. Dixieland has less than a hundred turn of experience with dwagons. And my father and I can field many more of them than you.”
“Yes, and Minghis will have fourteen cities popping hawks,” Gordon pointed out. “It is in your own interests to keep Dixieland from falling to these savages.”
“Well, we can’t do it for free,” King Black insisted. “Two hundred thousand shmuckers for Earl Land and fifty thousand for Earl Light, if that meets with my son’s approval.”
“Unless Dixieland is willing to cede Azalea,” King Gray repeated.
“No cities,” Gordon insisted. It was going to be a long night.
* * *
“Five thousand shmuckers, plus another two thousand for her upkeep these last twelve turns,” King Condon said to the image of the barbarian overlord floating before him. “That is the best offer we can make at this time. Our treasury is a bit strained as we’re sure you can understand.”
“I will release her at your start of turn tomorrow,” Minghis said to him. “You have someone waiting to meet her?”
“Then we have an accord,” Minghis agreed. “I will release her as soon as we receive her ransom.”
“You will have the gem at dawn,” Condon promised. “I presume you still have Chief Gordon’s hat?”
“I do. How is Chief Gordon?”
“Eager to make you pay for your atrocities against us,” Condon replied. He really shouldn’t have said that, but dealing with this barbarian was…trying. Fortunately, Minghis simply laughed at his comment.
“He will have his chance soon enough, I am certain,” was all the barbarian said.
“And you are still unwilling to ransom my son?”
“If you can only afford seven thousand for your Chief Caster, I doubt you could pay his ransom even if I were willing,” Minghis replied. “Be assured, he has been well treated.”
“Break!” Condon snapped and the thinkagram ended.
Dixieland’s treasury was not as depleted as the barbarian had reason to believe. Before fleeing the capital, Condon had filled the purses of all of his warlords not in immediate danger. Upon resuming the throne at the new capital of Azalea, he had recovered those funds, fourty-two thousand shmuckers in total.
“Count Barkoff,” Condon ordered, “I need you to enter the Magic Kingdom and procure a seven thousand shmucker gem from the moneymancers. Dale is coming home.”
* * *
Gordon had just left the city of Whitecliff and was on his way back to Azalea. Dixieland had agreed to pay one hundred and fifty thousand to Earl Land and fifty thousand to Earl Light once the Mangolian threat had been eliminated.
The terms weren’t quite as good as he had hoped for, but at least they had not insisted on any cities. No doubt, both kingdoms would be back at their throats as soon as the hundred turn truce had expired. Hopefully, by then, Dixieland would have new allies. He would fly back to Azalea and find out what progress King Condon had made in his negotiations with the UFP.
Just then, his hat rumbled and Gordon ordered his mount to hover while he retrieved the message. He smiled when he read the king’s message.
Dale has been released and is enroute to Azalea. Will be here when you arrive.
Condon, King of Dixieland.
Gordon folded the message and put it in his saddle bags before resuming his journey home. Things were finally starting to look up.
* * *
Minghis paused outside the wooden door. How odd that he should be hesitant to knock on a door in his own tower. He could simply order the door open and walk inside. Best not to do that…
He reached up and rapped smartly on the wooden door.
“Enter,” Sonja’s voice curtly replied to the knock. Minghis opened the door and stepped inside. Sonja rose from the chair in which she was seated, in full armor. The room was small – Minghis wondered if it had been a storeroom before Sonja claimed it has her own. Only a narrow arrow slit opened to the outside.
“My lord,” she said, formally.
“The prisoner has been released,” Minghis told her.
“I had heard that,” Sonja said. “How much did we get for her?”
“Seven thousand shmuckers,” Minghis replied. He paused for a moment. Sonja simply stared back at him.
“Was there something else, my lord?” she finally asked.
“Sonja, I…I was hoping you would…return with me,” he replied. Disband it, why was he so timid with her all of a sudden?
“I was a fool,” he said, gaining courage as he waded into battle. “I see that now and I want you to share my chambers again. I will…not fail you again.”
Sonja thought for a moment and then nodded to him. Minghis felt as if a great weight had lifted from his chest. He began to smile and then Sonja drew her sword.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
“Have you forgotten my oath already?” she asked him.
“Ah, yes,” he said. He had forgotten one part of it. Minghis drew his own weapon and dropped into a crouch. The two of them began to circle each other in the tiny room.
It occurred to Minghis that he might not actually win this battle.
I want to apologize for the delay between updates. My goal is to update this story at least every other week, but there have been a lot of issues taking away from my writing time recently. I will have an update this coming weekend (6/11) and will hopefully be able to maintain a more consistent posting schedule. Thanks for being patient.