Fumo the Free - Part 1
If a warlord falls in the forest...
The jokes Erfworld told itself were usually short, strange, and alive.
His name was "Fumo," this warlord. No title, no surname.
His Sign was equally abbreviated, and the Signamancy of his raiment — shiny black boots, navy dungarees, a black leather jacket with gold epaulets, and a black bicorn hat — was a part of the joke. This was not even a seafaring unit. He was standing by himself in a tropical jungle hex, at zero move, being stung at irregular intervals by a colony of bulletpoint ants.
Fumo had given up on slapping himself. He was no longer pacing around the glistening underbrush to avoid being bitten and stung. The ants were everywhere. Instead, the warlord was using his cutlass to hack at the bark of a nylocnut tree.
They were only nibbling at him, Noah could see. But the ants intended to swarm the helpless warlord after sundown. Over the course of the night, they would eat him entirely. He would be gone before he could disband at sunrise. The ants had a plan.
Fumo did not. He only wanted a campfire, but all of the wood he could find was green or wet. So the warlord had chosen to try to use bark, unaware that he'd picked a tree which was as immune to fire as granite. He did not have the Ranger special. He had no specials at all. And he hadn't popped with any particular knowledge of plants or jungles.
Noah knew quite a bit about nature, and some things about the nature of Erfworld. Or rather, he felt that he knew. This was an important distinction, in which the feeling is arguably the superior knowledge. Before Paige, he'd known about the world's cruel indifference to all living beings, especially to those whose hearts were connected to no other. Date-a-mancy was a form of nourishment; units could starve for want of it.
But until the see birds, he hadn't known what the Lookamancers all must know...this thing about the people-jokes. It happened all the time.
Or were they joke people? At any rate, barbarian commander units popped in the wilderness as commonly as other ferals. Empty of purse and with a level 1's limited move, Noah guessed that more than four in five of them would live for only a single turn. In most cases, the Titans gave these poor units no chance of survival. None at all. It did not matter what choices they made or what outcomes they rolled. Like Fumo, their random points, specials, and equipment weren't often a match for the environment. It was possible to pop in a high mountain hex and be unable to move from there. Noah hadn't yet seen a warlord or caster pop in the ocean and immediately drown, but the idea it might be happening constantly gave him recurring nightmares.
Even barbarians who were in their element would depop unless they found a source of upkeep; with a few extremely rare exceptions, forage can only provide half the cost of a unit's next turn. It didn't matter if you'd filled your stomach. If your purse was empty at start of turn, then you were gone.
For the fraction who survived to see a second turn, it was often only by a stroke of fortune. Occasionally a free warlord might pop with the mining special, dig down, and be lucky enough to find a gem. A few might stumble upon a ruin and find treasure inside. This sort of improbable thing was Paige’s story (literally and literarily—he'd published her memoir to the libraries of the world). The Wifequeen had popped here on Nestlý, and this remote island happened to boast an abandoned capital site.
The greater portion of turn-2 barbarians managed to survive by finding someone to turn to. Either they encountered sided units and surrendered, or (once in a while) managed to Sign a contract for freelance work and remain free. Some sides even prefered that arrangement. Some Kings are especially picky about who may call themselves a subject of the King, and barbarians are not at the top of the list of most admired and desired.
And...another depressing discovery...some sides held barbarians in such low esteem that wild-popped warlords were welcomed only as target practice, a chance to level up their real commanders. Nearly as many barbarians met their end this way as by disbanding for lack of upkeep.
Fumo, it seemed, was not about to meet that fate (or Fate, if indeed the world does possess both a will and a heartless sense of humor). But “eaten by ants” was probably worse than “hunted for sport by a prince,” as a way to go back in the box (if indeed that’s where you went). Losing a fight with the local wildlife was a common ending to these stories. The island’s jaguars had nearly been the end of Paige.
Noah, of course, was powerless to help the warlord. These events had passed at least a tenturn ago. He could only sit beside the surf with the see bird in his hands and ask it, then what happened?