Something smelled fishy and fetid when Jillian awoke. Right, the foggy, boggy lake below her. Stars were up, the moon was down, and dew was dripping from their gear. The Wonderful Royal Expeditionary Company of Doom (WRECD) had slept in the sky again, her cramping back told her immediately.
It was not her favorite way to bivouac. But where there were water hexes available, it was one of the safer bets for stealth. This local marshy terrain–with its sparse roads and lakes every few hexes–was probably a pretty annoying place to live. Your units would have a high move cost, and they‘d rarely be able to travel in a straight line.
So, it might actually be the kind of place she could find a lost capital site.
Only she wasn‘t looking too hard. What would be the point? This area was closer to Haffaton territory than Faq was. It might even be Haffaton territory.
Behind them, above the scrubby foothills, the sky was showing signs of impending sunrise. As usual, it would be bad if dawn came before they started turn. Perched on their dozing gwiffons, Jillian and her three warlords ate their trail forage in silence (boiled bird eggs, and some of the figs they had taken from a Haffaton orchard three turns ago), while casting anxious glances eastward. In two nearby stacks, the stabbers and archers ate their hardtack glumly.
They were now fourteen turns out of home, and far, far to the northwest, but they still hadn‘t found the end of Haffaton‘s domain. They‘d seen a small stack of Charlescomm‘s units once, exchanging grudging waves but no words with them. They‘d also had some contact with local sides, and even entered a bounty contract on Haffaton units with one. But that was just a diplomatic move, and a hedge bet. If she could help it, Chief Jillian did not intend to encounter any Haffaton units (or allies, if they had any around here).
She just needed to know how far around it was. It was getting ludicrous. “We have to know where Haffaton is, so we can go looking for a site where it isn‘t.” That was her flimsy explanation, and none of her warlords challenged it. But really, at this point Jillian viewed circumnavigating Haffaton as her personal quest.
With a sudden flare of orange, dawn broke. They all still had dirt on their faces. And zero move, disband it! She ordered defensive stacks formed. They waited.
Feedbags were tied on their gwiffons, and they relieved themselves into the lake from on high. Chip and Hedda broke out the cards and played “5-Stack Air War.”* Jillian just sat upon her mount and scanned the reeds at the edges of the lake for approaching enemy units. Bart closed his eyes. Jillian thought he was napping in the saddle at first, but then noticed his lips were moving. Great, he‘d picked up the meditation habit. Or worse, prayer.
Nothing happened all morning. Their turn began when the sun had climbed high and the fog had long vanished.
It meant that something would happen when they got moving. That couldn‘t be helped. They were in somebody‘s battlespace whose natural turn came before Faq‘s. Fate said they were bound to encounter units of whatever side that was.
Jillian was pretty sick of Fate. She had named the Company as a joke, but it really wasn‘t funny. The idea that Faq was doomed never quite left their minds. She was sorely tempted to just stay right where she was this turn, just to prove Fate was all a loose puddle of frog crap. How could it make her move? It couldn‘t, right? Surely, someone had put it to the test, somewhere.
But it would not be her, not this turn. She had her mission, however loosely she was choosing to interpret her orders right now. The treasury was dwindling; they weren‘t taking jobs. If upkeep reached a crisis, as it would in another dozen turns or so, then the Court would start disbanding units. The Company had to keep moving, keep exploring. Something would turn up. They‘d map the edge of Haffaton, and be on their way.
And hey, maybe it wouldn‘t be Haffaton they ran into. If it was...well, she was far from home and she could talk her way out of it, she guessed.
They restacked to scout formations and they began the stutter-step scouting crawl by sending a lead out to the northwest. From hex A, first peek hex B, then cross B if clear, peek C, and return to B. Leaders and feeders, ‘til they spotted something. That‘s how it went.
This turn, it didn‘t go that way for long. The third hex they peeked had a Haffaton Level 2 city just on the other side of it. Hedda had crossed the hex, keeping at the treeline, scouted the city, and returned, apparently without having been spotted.
“Titans‘ teabags, they are everywhere!” said Chip.
“You‘re sure they didn‘t see you?” Jillian asked.
Hedda shrugged, but she paired it with a sly, predatory grin. “You can never be sure, right? But if they cared about spotting enemy flyers, you‘d think they‘d deploy some actual units there.”
Jillian‘s heart skipped. She could read her second-in-command‘s face better than anyone, and she hadn‘t seen this expression in far too long. It meant, “I smell easy meat.” She cleared her throat. “You wanna put that in the form of a report, Warlord?”
“Absolutely, Chief,” said Hedda, drawing herself to attention. “Two hexes to the northwest of here stands a Level 2 city, flying Haffaton colors, with no apparent defenders.”
* “Air War” is a card game. It is one of the few that can be played while mounted on separate gwiffons, as players do not share or exchange cards. In 5-Stack Air War, each of the two players shuffles his own deck. For each “engagement,” players draw a “stack” of their top 5 cards and show them to the other player. Then each player arranges his stack into a secret battle order and places it face down. One at a time, the players turn over and reveal the top card in their stack. The higher card wins, and is placed at the bottom of the winning player‘s deck. The losing card is discarded and removed from play. In the case of a tie, the next card in the stack is turned over to join the fight and break the tie (or the next, etc.) If the stack has been fully depleted (all cards played), then players draw tie-breaker cards from the top of their deck (automatically losing the game if they have no more deck cards to turn over). Once a tie is broken, all the cards played by the losing player are discarded, and all the winner‘s cards go to the bottom of his deck. Players never shuffle their deck, but keep drawing a stack from the top of their deck. The engagements therefore get more fierce (and more prone to ties) as the game goes on and lower cards are eliminated. The game is over when one player cannot field a stack of 5, making the other player the winner.