“Time to go.”
The turn had only just begun, and the sun was still low to the horizon. Most of the garrison was stretching and blinking, but the Spidew Cavalry stack was assembling in the courtyard, the riders awake and armed, the arachnids skittering and chattering amongst themselves.
The Stack Champion saw his ruler coming and called for attention.
“All present and correct, my Lord.”
Gwegor nodded. He didn’t know the Champion’s name, he was only newly popped.
“Mount, and prepare to ride.”
Gwegor turned back towards the keep, and started muttering under his breath. The Spidew riders mounted, and formed march column. Still, their ruler waited, striding up and down, glaring at the keep, and growling from time to time. Finally he stamped his foot and opened his mouth to bellow.
At that very moment, the side door opened and out came the Courtiers, led by the Treasurer bearing a small grey chest.
The nearest warriors were sure they heard Gwegor mutter something along the lines of “about booping time”.
Instead his words were slightly more polite.
“You won’t keep me waiting again.”
The Treasurer merely inclined his head.
“It does not seem likely, my Lord.”
“Give me the box.”
The Treasurer handed it over slowly, with as much dignity as an old gobwin can muster. Gwegor took it and handed it to the Champion.
“Don’t lose this, or we all cwoak.”
The Treasurer cleared his throat.
“On behalf of the staff, I would like to say it has been an honour and a privilege.”
Gwegor turned to face him.
“I would like to say it, but I fear I cannot. To do so would be a lie. These past hundred turns…”
Gwegor waved him to silence.
“Enough. You’ll make me all weepy.”
The ruler climbed onto the Spidew behind the Champion.
“Enjoy your last day.”
He pointed to the gate.
“Time to go.”
The Champion was enjoying himself enormously. He was a Spidew Rider, and this turn he was riding a Spidew across open hexes for the first time. It was certainly a different experience to riding around the City streets of the Little Bump. Out here there were clouds, and sparrows, and insects that buzzed nearby, making the Spidew dance and scamper. At one point, just as they crossed into a new hex, the Champion noticed a slight breeze brush past his cheek. The experience was so delightfully unexpected that he gave a little gasp of joy. The sound seemed to wake the ruler, who had been riding with his eyes down, unmoving.
“Yes, my Lord?”
“What is your name?”
“Bruxen, my Lord. Champion Rider, level 1.”
“How many turns are you?”
“Five, my Lord.”
“And what do you think of it? Life, I mean.”
Bruxen had to think about this question for a little while. The first few turns had certainly been interesting, challenging, disconcerting. Bruxen had popped as Champion to a stack of riders, all of whom looked to him for answers that he didn’t have. Oh, he knew quite a lot about shining armour and caring for Spidews. That stuff was inbuilt. But the deeper questions, he didn’t have answers for those. Now his ruler, the one who had decided to create him, was asking what he thought of life. What to answer? Perplexing? Frustrating? Amazing?
The Spidew gave a little kick of the hind legs out of sequence. Bruxen looked back to see what had caused this and noticed a dark brown Wat fleeing across the hex. The sun was shining, the clouds drifted white and fluffy, the breeze was cool on his face, the grass was green and danced.
“I’m quite enjoying it at the moment, my Lord.”
Gwegor gave a little grunt.
“At the moment, yes. I might even agree with you there. At the moment, things are fine. But in a few more hexes, your Spidew will run of move, and then I’ll have to end turn. And then… well. We’ll see.”
Bruxen didn’t quite understand.
“What will we see, my Lord?”
“We’ll see what the enemy does. We’ll see what they decide about the future. The future of you and me, and the rest of the side.”
“What do you think they’ll do?”
Gwegor was quiet for a few moments.
“I think they’ll cwoak us in the field. Like they cwoaked those siege guns.”
“Then why are we in the field? Wouldn’t you be safer in Little Bump?”
“Are you trying to teach me strategy, Champion, level one?”
Bruxen shook his head rapidly.
“No, my Lord. But I do have a strong urge to turn this stack around and head back immediately. An urge that I’m not sure I can overcome.”
“It’s called Loyalty, Champion. It’s innate. You have a titanic urge to protect your ruler, because ultimately, you are protecting yourself. Do you know what happens to the units of a side whose ruler is cwoaked without an heir?”
“They cease to exist, my Lord. They simply go – cities, units, courtiers… Is that why the Treasurer said farewell? Because he expects you to cwoak this turn?”
“Very possibly. It is quite likely.”
“Then why are we out here?”
“Because I want to force the enemy to make a choice. Cwoak me, or take my cities. If they strike me down where I stand, then my cities cease to exist. If they spend the time to take the cities, we buy ourselves another turn to get away.”
“Get away to where?”
“To life, of course. It is the strongest of all the titanic urges – life. The desire to keep on experiencing it. Great, average, or booping terrible, we all want to keep on experiencing it. And I am no different.”
Bruxen was silent for a good while. The Stack crossed into another hex. The sun was high in the sky now.
“How will you continue to live if your cities are all gone? How will you pay the upkeep?”
“You’ve stopped calling me ‘my Lord’. Have you noticed that?”
“I’m sorry, my Lord. I’ll try harder.”
“No, don’t bother. If we survive this turn, I won’t be a Lord anymore. You’ll have to call me ‘Chief’.”
“I don’t understand, my Lord.”
Gwegor patted the grey chest the Treasurer had brought from the keep.
“We’re going independent, Bruxen. Striking out on our own. No more cities for us. We will be creatures of the wilderness, living in tents, eating what we can forage or scavenge. It’s going to be great.”
From somewhere deep in the back, the word “Barbarian” floated through Bruxen’s mind.
“If we survive this turn.”
“What are the chances of that?”
“Meh. Call it, what, one in seven?”