“Bup-bup-bu-bu-bup!” she shushed, holding up her hand urgently. “Please, Your Majesty. No communications. We’ve been informed that you are operating under silence, and we were instructed not to communicate with you in any way.”
The Archon and her two wingmates hovered near Duncan’s megalogwiff, where he had positioned himself to screen her as soon as the Charlescomm units had entered the hex. It was morning, on Charlie’s turn. Faq’s army was coiled to strike. Everybody was on edge.
All of Queen Jillian’s flyers and riders hovered in formation above the pine trees, with the giants and men standing in stacks below. The City of Gobwin Knob was just within reach this turn, and they’d made it this far without being spotted. But right now was when it was most likely they’d be discovered.
So what was this encounter about, and why did she need it? Was this Archon admitting that she was violating orders? Violating Charlie’s orders?
She goggled at the prim little thing in blue, and gestured with the tip of her sword as if to say, then why the flip are you talking to me now? Duncan looked back over his shoulder at her like, right?
The Archon gave a shy, embarrassed smile and said, “But, well...I love trees.”
For a moment, the only sound was from the chill mountain wind rustling the pines. Maybe they appreciated the compliment. Jillian only stared.
“Don’t you?” The Archon held up her hand quickly. “Don’t answer that. I’m sure you do, too. Well, we were passing through the area. And I just had to tell you that the foliage two hexes northeast of here? Is simply divine. If you do appreciate the beauty of trees at all, then you should go out of your way to have a look. I promise, you’ve never seen anything like it!” She clasped her hands together in front of her, with a gushing grin. “Well, we really must be going. Goodbye!”
The three of them fled the hex.
Her Chief Warlord held up two fingers. “There were two,” he said with great emphasis, “trees in that hex.”
“I thought so!” Jillian blurted out, in vindication. Okay. She still knew this terrain, after all. That particular hex was still a barely-passable bald mountain, just like it said on their maps. Just like she remembered. Foliage?
Duncan crouched behind his saddle perch and opened the hatch. “This was at the base of one of them,” he said, withdrawing a bulging duffel bag made of light blue canvas. It bore the gold crest of Charlescomm.
With their ground move restricted and the possibility of this being a trap, Duncan had ordered her to stay put, while he scouted that hex by air.
Jillian was not worried about a trap. Charlie had his weird and secret agenda. Trying to guess at what he was up to gave her a literal headache. But it was clear enough to her that he was backing Faq pretty hard. Whatever this was, it wasn’t an attempt on the Queen of Faq’s life. She was, however, painfully eager for battle. And it was certainly an assault on the Queen’s patience.
Duncan pulled the drawstring and withdrew from the bag a black steel staff of some kind. From the way he handled it she knew it was a weapon. He was a warrior, one she respected very much, and although she did not recognize it, this was a weapon he respected very much.
With the staff in one hand, he took a calculated leap from his mount to hers, and landed with a clack of steel boots on horn plating.
He rose and presented her the staff. “Take this, Queen,” he said with a distant smile. “Touching it makes war a different thing.”
The rifles made their plan a different thing, anyway. Originally, Jillian had the giants going into the hex and up the mountain first. She’d lead half the flyers with them in support, with Duncan holding the rest in reserve. From there, it depended on the enemy’s response.
If there were a lot of dwagons, she’d keep to the hex periphery, trying to draw their fire and lure them out. She’d want to establish control of the airspace without approaching the garrison, in order to minimize the effectiveness of their tower. She knew firsthand what it was like to face this city’s tower, and it would be fully spelled-up. Stanley had more casters than ever, disband him.
If the city seemed undermanned (which it wouldn’t be, because Ansom), or if the defending warlords overcommitted to the outer walls, then her flyers would make a show of aiding the fight at the main gate. That would be a feint. Duncan and company would then loop around through adjoining hexes and attack from the northeast, pouncing on the tower and hopefully taking the garrison before the enemy knew what hit them.
If the city turned out to be packed with defenders, or they weren’t biting at the bait, or if she couldn’t gain the airspace, then the flyer reserves would have to join the main gate assault. Her own flyers would screen for the siege while Duncan raked the walls clean of defenders.
When they got a breach, they’d go to ground and dismount. Everybody, all ground units. A boots-on conventional assault on the garrison gate wasn’t really her style, but she had giants now, and it was the giants’ style. They were pretty vocal about that.
It was a good, solid, well-laid plan. And she was more happy to ditch it for a better one, which they made up in just a few minutes.
Because of Ansom, this fight—and everything else in her life for the last three or four hundredturns—was going to be harder than it needed to be. And like everything else with him, in the end it was probably her own fault.
She’d been drilling the assault force out in the field, just on the friendly side of Doak Pass, and some little intuition told her she should have been bivouacking out there as well. But Duncan wanted her behind walls on the enemy’s turn. And she wanted her big, stupid, comfortable queen bed (that was giving her a big, comfortable Queen’s keister). Stupid, lazy princess...
And alright, she also wanted to check on Albert. Although she barely talked with him, she had a strange compulsion to return home each night and hear Vinny talk about how her son the future tyrant was doing. And Vinny had become a comfortable feature of that comfortable bed. Lately she’d been mulling a plan to get him to turn to Faq...
Then, Ansom. Ansom had flown in to Faq the only way he could have. The sentinels gave her the warning, but he flew right through.
The giants were massed just behind them, preparing to march on Gobwin Knob at start of turn. He saw everything in place. Ansom was a 10. He certainly knew an assault force from a defensive camp. And Gobwin Knob had a Thinkamancer. He would have called it in. So even with him in the dungeon, they would have had a two-turn notice that she was coming.
And the disbanded giants couldn’t even shoot him down.
He’d come in low and slow at first, they reported. When they started banging boulders at him, he took it high and outside, and juked his way through the pass. That trick that Western Giants do...launching rocks by hitting them with their clubs...it’s a pretty scary anti-flyer defense. In her mercenary turns, she had faced it a few times herself.
But it was nothing that a high-level, experienced flyer like Ansom couldn’t handle. Bottom line, it’s just not that hard to fly through a mountain pass, even if it’s full of giants.