The sun was setting majestically over the estuary of the Backslush, the hex-wide river that separated Homekey from Delkey. Digdoug probably had the best view in town of the Titans-painted sky, but he barely gave it a glance. His day‘s juice was about spent, and the Dirtamancer shuffled his way down the tower stairs again.
It was the Feast Hall he wanted now, and not just for the food. The stuffed cabbage or whatever else they were preparing was bound to be great, but he was even more starved for company. A day of working alone after three days of solo travel like that...well, it wasn‘t fun. A few friendly faces and some news of the war would help him feel connected again.
Cleansing was Dirtamancy, and he‘d saved just enough juice to banish the grime off of his body and restore himself to new-turn condition before his shoes touched the palace floors. Not that the patterned gray carpets were anything special, but they were clean, and Digdoug respected that.
“Caster Digdoug!” He wasn‘t halfway down the second hallway before he was hailed by a warlord he‘d never met. The brown-moustached, smiling man in a green leather jerkin trotted up to him, extending his hand. “Lord Hunt,” he said by way of introduction. “Where are you headed now?”
Digdoug shook the man‘s hand. “Feast Hall?”
“Oh no, no,” said the warlord, “there‘s nobody there. Just the new-popped enlisted and some Delkey spanks. Forget it, I‘ll take you to The Space.”
There was nobody at “The Space” yet, either.
It was a bit of an architectural hiccup in the otherwise smooth design of the palace. While King Posbrake had envisioned sleek curves for his city, the interior structure still needed to be supported vertically. This resulted in a long, irregular empty hollow on the level just below the street, running along the eastern side of the building. It did not have an official room name, nor a number in the palace‘s floor-numbering scheme.
Some enterprising courtier had discovered it and decided to drag some tables and roll a few casks down here between the support columns. It became a private tavern for those in the know. Digdoug had never heard of it until this evening.
“I really don‘t think it‘s personal. I think it‘s strategic,” Lord Peck was saying, “and I think they‘re bound to start seeing the worth of horizontal strategy after a while. But even if they stay stubborn, how much say have they really got any more? Hm? Every time a Numloch city falls, their influence with us falls a little with it.”
“Look, shut up about Delkey for one moment, okay?” Hunt said, leaning over the table and cradling his tankard of warm ale. “We‘ve got a caster, all right? We‘ve got the Caster here. I want to hear him talk, not you.”
The Space looked as if it could seat as many as thirty, but there were only four people down here now, all seated around the same round table. As it happened, they were also the four highest ranking units in the city.
Lord Peck, a ruddy-faced warlord with ash blond hair, nodded Digdoug‘s way, yielding the conversational floor. Digdoug had been happy enough to listen to the two warlords squabble, while he chewed on some cakes of potato and onion. He looked up sheepishly. “I don‘t know what to say.”
“What were you doing in the tower all day?” Hunt asked, and not for the first time.
Digdoug glanced again at Bucky Bits. The Chief of Staff was nearly through her fourth glass of white wine. She looked completely different, away from her office. If anything, she looked amused, almost daring him to break his orders. “I can‘t say,” Digdoug repeated.
“Well that‘s ridiculous! Buckeee!” Lord Hunt physically leaned against the courtier, in a familiar way. “Tell him he can tell me.”
“No,” she said firmly, hiding her smile behind her glass.
“We should know,” agreed Peck. “Lord Carl could fall in battle any turn–Titans forbid it–and then either of us could become Chief Warlord.”
Chief Warlord Carl Tunnel was known for leading daring actions. Right now, he was off fighting at the southern front. Lord Hunt started to argue about the relative likelihood of either of them being named as Carl‘s replacement, but Peck shushed him and continued his appeal to Bucky. “We have to understand the concerns of the realm, the whole strategic picture.”
“Bring it up at the meeting,” said the Chief of Staff. She proceeded to refill her glass, draining the remainder of the green bottle in front of her.
“What‘s going to happen at the meeting?” asked Digdoug. He took a sip of his own wine.
“Prince Creen will whinge,” said Hunt, and the other two nodded. “That‘s what he does. He doesn‘t fight. He barely plans. He just comes here and whinges about everything we‘re doing wrong, then goes home and whinges to King Minus about his brother.”
King Posbrake didn‘t hold a formal Court per se. He preferred “meetings of the Long Table.” Digdoug had attended several of these in the Key Boardroom, but never when Creen was visiting. He knew the King‘s brother only by his prissy reputation. “What‘s his problem?” he asked.
“Well that‘s what I was saying,” said Peck, picking up his earlier momentum. “It‘s strategic. We weren‘t meant to be doing as well as we are against Numloch. When His Majesty was Chief Warlord of Delkey, before any of us were popped, he tried to lead the army Homekey-style, but Minus wouldn‘t have it. I personally think Minus allowed King Posbrake to start a new side just to see him fail. Simply because there was no other way to settle their disagreement. But we haven‘t failed, have we?” He took a drink of his ale. “So Creen comes here all the time to complain about how we‘re winning.”
Tactics and strategy weren‘t much to Digdoug. He had been present at two defensive actions, both of them as a unit of Homekey, but he had never personally engaged another unit in battle. He had orders not to, in fact, if that could be avoided.
He shook his head. “I didn‘t even know there was a ‘Homekey‘ or a ‘Delkey‘ way to fight. I always see us fighting side by side.”
“Not on the battlefield,” interjected Lord Hunt. “He doesn‘t mean tactics, he means strategy. Top level stuff. Chief Warlord and Ruler decisions. Like what to pop and when to level your cities.”
“And trades,” said Bucky, her eyes fixed on Digdoug.
Hunt nodded. “And trades, yes. Creen‘s got a real problem with you, Caster. I‘d stay quiet in that meeting tomorrow, if I were in your place.”
Digdoug raised his eyebrows.
“‘Homekey style‘ means we fight for land,” said Peck. “His Majesty likes to say ‘horizontal gains, not vertical.‘ Prince Creen likes to say we fight cheap.”
“We do,” said Hunt, into his raised tankard. “That‘s no insult to me.”
“I don‘t understand,” said Digdoug. “Sorry, it‘s...I‘m a Caster. You know? Horizontal?”
Peck leaned in. “Look, the treasury is refilled from the cities your side has, right? And high level cities make a lot more Shmuckers than low level ones. So most sides try and hold on to the cities they have, and save up enough to build them up. A lot of sides will skimp on their army size to do that, hoping not to lose their precious city to the enemy while they save up and try to level it. That‘s ‘vertical‘ growth. His Majesty says those sides ‘play tall.‘”
“We don‘t do that!” asserted Lord Hunt.
“Right, we play wide. We put all our money into the army, and then we go out and take those tall expensive cities away from Numloch,” said Peck. “And maybe we sack a Level 4 down to a Level 2, or even raze a Level 5 and put up a Level 1 in its place. And then we take those Shmuckers and promote a warlord or two, pop more infantry, and it‘s on to the next fight.”
“That‘s Creen‘s real problem,” said Hunt, turning suddenly and poking a single index finger into Peck‘s bicep. “The promotions. He‘s a full-on Royalist snob. He doesn‘t like you and he doesn‘t like me, he doesn‘t like Carl...any unit without a Noble title. He hates us. I‘m telling you.”
Peck shook his head uncertainly. “I‘d...like to give Prince Creen more credit than that, I suppose. Anyway, Dirtamancer, you play a critical role in this strategy.”
“Oh?” said Digdoug. He had just finished his potato cakes, and he reached for an apple from the bowl of fruit in the center of the table.
“Low level cities are hard to hold on to. Fighting in a Level 1 might as well be fighting in an open field, as far as defensive bonuses go. But when you go in and shore up one of our cities with magic, then perhaps it can act like a Level 3 or higher. Mind you, it doesn‘t produce the Shmuckers of a Level 3, so we‘re still a poor side. We farm and we forage. And it can‘t pop the tougher units that a Level 3 can. But from the enemy‘s perspective, as a target, it is a Level 3. I promise you that‘s a great frustration for them.”
Digdoug felt the warmth of the wine in his stomach and up around his cheeks and his ears. It kind of hurt to think like a warlord, but he could see it now; he could see where he fit in. In all those turns with Follywood–working down in a dank pit, making golems and sending them off to be destroyed who knew where–he‘d never had a clear sense of his worth to his side. Now he understood what it meant for Homekey when he went out there and dug a few tunnels and spiked a pit trap. It was helping them keep their cities. He could even understand why King Posbrake might trade his only son and heir for a lowly Dirtamancer...
“Certainly frustrated ‘em at Weatherbug,” added Hunt, with a sneer.
Peck raised his tankard somberly. “Weatherbug,” he toasted.
“Weatherbug,” repeated Lord Hunt, clacking his ale against Peck‘s.
A bite of apple on its way to Digdoug‘s stomach seemed to stop and lodge in his chest. He did not raise his glass. Neither did Bucky, who stared straight at him. “There was an action at Weatherbug?” he asked softly.
Hunt‘s eyes went wide. “You didn‘t hear?”
“No,” said Chief Bits, still looking at him, “he hasn‘t.”
Digdoug swallowed, hard. “What happened? Tell me.”
“Ohhhh, my Titans! Wait til you hear this!” exclaimed Hunt, but Lord Peck raised a hand to quiet him.
Bucky spoke gently, never breaking eye contact with him. “Numloch attacked Weatherbug the morning after you left it, Digdoug.”
“It was a hard counter,” said Peck, his eyes narrowing. “They brought as many heavies as we had men, and thrice that in infantry. Six warlords. We still have a map set up for it in the Battle Room. It‘s a sight.”
Digdoug shook his head, imagining the scene. The pouring rain, the horns of enemy felgercarbs digging through the city wall. Then he shook his head again harder, to clear away the image. “It must have been...a massacre,” he said distantly.
Peck‘s face pinched into the stingiest, grimmest smile Digdoug had ever seen. “The city held, man,” he said in a low, gritty tone. “Whatever you did there, it made the difference.”
Digdoug leaned forward, feeling suddenly angry at Peck for no reason he could explain. “That‘s not...that‘s not even possible! With those odds? I mean, I‘m not a warlord, but even I know that. I didn‘t put anything in that city powerful enough to repel a force like that! No, it was the troops that did it. Lady Chains fought them off!”
The other three at the table were silent. Only Bucky still looked at him. In the distance beyond the great column, Digdoug heard the scraping of the secret door that led into The Space, and several jolly voices. This evening‘s party was about to get started.
“The troops,” said Lord Peck slowly and quietly, “fought well. They fought to the last, Homekey and Delkey alike. Lady Chains and Duke Eften and all their soldiers. They inflicted great harm upon the enemy, as did your traps. But they fell, Caster. They all fell. To a man.”
Digdoug shook his head. “You said they held.”
“Numloch ran away!” whispered Hunt. Shouts and laughter and shushings could now be heard, closing in.
“With their heavy losses and the city not completely secured, and still under sporadic fire from your traps,” said Peck, “the enemy forces withdrew. Reinforcements arrived on our own turn, and we‘ve held Weatherbug ever since. They never knew how close they came to taking it.”
Lord Hunt held up a single finger, significantly. “One golem.”
A crowd of six courtiers finally appeared on the other side of the bar. Hunt waved to them and called, “Hail!” They cheerfully waved and called back, and made their way over.
Peck leaned toward Digdoug so as not to be overheard. “Lady Chains kept a rock golem in reserve. It may even have been intentionally hidden, so as to give the traps more time to work, if by chance she was that shrewd.”
Digdoug stared blankly at the bowl of fruit in the middle of the table, now vaguely aware of babbling bodies all around him, pulling up chairs and uncorking bottles. “She was,” he said.
“Well,” said Lord Peck, “more‘s the pity we lost her, then. But she did her Duty, and so did you.” The warlord suddenly clapped him on the shoulder. “Homekey held the day.”