IPTSF Text 27
Chip Tunage, the Earl of Otoh squinted up and tsked at the sky. "That's dawn, Chief," he said, running his fingers through his messy black hair. He had slept in the saddle, and no start-of-turn cleansing had straightened out that tangled nest. "We're in for it, I guess."
Princess Jillian Zamussels of the Kingdom of Faq—who had not put up with anyone calling her "Princess" in more than two hundred turns—looked up through pine boughs at the starless patches of sky. There was no denying that it was getting light out. The stupid birds nesting in the adjacent treetops twittered in assent.
She nodded, shifting in her own saddle with a leathery scrunch. Her gwiffon shifted its weight on the branch to match. "Yeah, probably," she admitted. "Okay Chip. Put the archers on guard. Watch the ground and the skies."
She took a brown pear from her saddlebag and mechanically gnawed it down to the core, pondering the options the world was giving her today. There were two, really: either they'd find her, or she'd find them. Neither was any good.
The "they" would almost certainly mean Haffaton, a vast powerhouse side which had long ago gobbled up all of its immediate neighbors. Growing slowly, like vegetation, Haffaton had oozed most of the way around Faq, until it had their little three-city side almost surrounded. The only reason they hadn't been conquered yet was that Haffaton did not know Faq existed. Jillian's tiny bubble-kingdom took extraordinary pains to avoid detection.
But that secrecy was now distinctly threatened by the fact that someone else had a turn before Faq's today. That meant that their sides shared a battlespace today; there would be an opportunity for the sides to fight. However much Faq wanted to avoid crossing paths, it was inevitable. Battlespace determinations were Natural Predictamancy. She would be spotted by the enemy and allow them an encounter of some sort, all too close to her own territory.
This was why she hated coming home.
Well... one of the reasons.
Jillian had spent a long time far afield, working as an ally-for-hire with sides who had no idea where the capital of Faq might be. For the sake of maintaining the treasury she took contracts, mostly simple bounties on enemy units. She preferred to fight for weaker sides, partly out of sympathy (it was a lot of fun to rescue a side from the brink of extinction), but also because a side that fell would never tell.
"If they don't find us on their turn, we should bolt back exactly the way we came in," Hedda suddenly declared.
The Countess Hedda Splode was Jillian's other field commander, a sturdy brown-haired Level 6 with a mean temper that served her well in battle... but only in battle. Like Jillian, she considered herself an exile from King Banhammer's court, and saw stabbing things with swords as the only good honest way to earn one's upkeep. Hedda had Jillian's respect, but as blunt and headstrong as she was, probably no-one could really like her.
"You don't think we could swing out over the water?" Jillian asked, mostly for the sake of raising options. "Go for the secondary rendezvous point?"
Hedda made a face. "F'you wanna risk that. But if we're going to be spotted, I say we get spotted as far from home as we can. Then we disengage and flee on a misdirect heading."
Jillian nodded, knowing Hedda was exactly right. That habit was the annoying thing about the woman.
"Yeah, all right. If they don't come here on their turn, that's the plan, then."
She realized she was still holding the core of the pear in her hand. Rather than drop it to the forest floor as a clue to the enemy to look up in the trees, she ate that as well.
Two elves wandered into the clearing before the sun was even visible through the pine needles. One of them was round and bald, with a laurel of white hair. The other was pale and gaunt. They wore loose tunics dyed in crazy multicolor patterns, lined with psychedelic fur. They were armed only with tall staves.
Jillian's units went silent, using the barest hand signals to communicate. The elves talked and giggled as they walked crookedly between the tree trunks. They looked to be on a foraging mission of some kind, studying the ground very closely. With any luck, Jillian hoped they would pass through without noticing the three stacks of mounted gwiffons nested above.
The fat one pointed at something at the base of a large fir tree. As the wispy one bent to look, his companion tripped him with his staff and he fell on his face into the dirt and pine needles. Both of them started laughing, but the thin one looked up and saw.
"Oh, hey. Wait, man, look," he said, pointing and climbing to his feet.
"Ohhhh, wow," said the other, looking right up at Jillian in her saddle. "Hey, up there! Hey! Friend or foe?"
"Neither," called Jillian, trying to sound disinterested even with her heart pounding behind her armor. "Mercenaries. Just passing through."
The big one looked around, counting the units. "You got a lot of heavies. Who are you?"
"Mercenaries," she said again.
The thin one tugged on the fat one's sleeve. "Hey man, let's go. Right? Let's just go."
With a few slow steps, then breaking suddenly into a run, they went. Jillian gave the hand signal to allow them to pass. Their crashing, graceless footsteps faded away into the forest, and the warrior princess had to restrain her hunting instincts. Croaking enemy scouts as first contact rarely went well.
"What kind of elves were those?" asked Chip, when they had left the hex.
"I see." Chip squinted in the direction the elves had left. "I'm guessing... they use it a lot."
"That was the start of trouble, Warlords," said Jillian, quietly. "First pebble of a landslide. We gotta step very carefully now."