IPTSF Text 45
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Three turns out of the capital, Jillian was still a fugitive. The weak sun rose over her shivering body, its redness filtering down through the damp rushes to where she’d made a little bed to sleep. Caked mud vanished from her face and hands. Her next dash began.
Despite having left the paddlewheeler at the bottom of the river after her first turn on the run, she found herself still roughly following the river. In trying to cut straight across the marshland, she’d encountered its winding course three times now. Each time, she swore at it, took off her clothes, and swam across the frigid thing again.
As a fugitive, she took her move on Haffaton’s turn. But she moved first, as if she were the first Haffaton unit to receive orders. This gave her a jump, and she had been putting it to good use, scouting and evading. She’d probably been spotted at least once by a patrol, and had skirted one large city, but was able to flee without any engagements.
She rose and took up a familiar cross-country pace across the marsh—squish, squish, thump, squish, crunch, squish, squish. She made a break for the leafy forest that began in the adjacent hex to the southeast. Yeah, enough stinking swamp. And for that matter, the next time she saw that disbanded river she wanted it to be from the air, when she’d be leading a capital strike.
The fugitive’s turn advantage was pretty much Jillian’s only one. For one thing, she was now on her own for upkeep. And she had no purse, like a barbarian would have. So besides escape and evasion, she had her mind on foraging. If she couldn’t hunt or forage enough for a meal, then her move would drop to zero, the chains would reappear, and she would become a captive again. Haffaton would again become responsible for her upkeep, and their Ruler (whoever that was) would know her exact location.
She hadn’t let that happen yet, and she wouldn’t today, either. In the forest, there wouldn’t be any of the prayfish and slugbugs from the river that she’d been eating raw, but there would be something she could gather up or slay without too much move penalty.
Leading with Bart’s sword, she cut and tore through leaves, picking up on a little trail. She felt newly buoyant, her lungs and heart pumping powerfully, her feet carrying her onward.
A stray thought from her time in the glass box did bubble up to darken her mood, though. This path she was following...it was Lady Firebaugh’s “hard way.” Maybe she was running into something worse up ahead. Maybe she was hastening her doom, or Faq’s.
But still, it felt pretty good right now. As long as she was alive to choose, she supposed this is the way she would always go. She ran onward, following her feet.
The woods went deep, but they were not as promising a place for forage as she’d imagined. None of the trees bore edible nuts or fruits, and the forest floor was all mulch and poisonous blushrooms. She’d never seen a forest so devoid of huntables. The only sizeable unit she’d seen was a yellow dwagon, very high in the sky. Probably a Haffaton lookout, though it might have been feral. Either way, in that relationship, she was the huntable. She’d ducked quickly out of sight, cringing, half expecting a battlecrap bomb to hit her as she fled.
With each new hex she crossed, food became more of a crisis. Twice, she’d spotted enemy units and had to double back, costing her more move and probably exposing her position again. She’d seen a stack of six Haffaton soldiers and a patrol of distracted-looking High Elves, and wasn’t sure if she’d been spotted. But if she couldn’t find something to eat soon, it wouldn’t matter.
Finally, she was down to three move, standing in the middle of a forest that might as well have been a desert. She had a singular choice, upon which her life and maybe her Kingdom depended.
It would cost two move to follow the trail to the southeast, toward home, leaving her one to hunt with. If she left the trail and cut into the wooded hexes to the south or northeast, she would have no move left for chasing game. She might be able to gather some plants, but that didn’t seem too promising.
None of it seemed promising.
She gritted her teeth. This trail had been so bad to her, so barren. Taking the easy way (of the hard way) had not been rewarding. But the field logic—leaving herself the move to hunt—was ingrained in her. Going into the deep woods was practically giving up, wasn’t it?
She peered into the dense foliage in all directions. As tough as this was, she was glad the choice was hers. She could picture the Court trying to make this decision, and grinned at the petty-polite argument that she imagined would follow. The Court of Faq would all sit here and be captured, after proving all courses of actual action to be conclusively undesirable.
“Okay, screw it,” she said out loud. “I said I’d always take the hard way.”
She charged into the thick leaves to the south, feeling herself drop to zero move.
When she heard the tambourine and the reed pipe music, she knew she’d made a serious mistake. There were High Elves in a clearing just twenty paces ahead of her.
Their loud and inexpert musical attempts had covered the sound of her arrival, fortunately. She lowered herself and crept forward slowly, trying to see what she was up against.
They had rations, she could smell that immediately. So her food problem had a solution. But it had been replaced by a much bigger one: the elves numbered six, that she could see.
Rulers do not have a natural Thinkamancy sense of where their natural allies are located, so if she croaked them all, then Haffaton might not know what happened to them in time to find her here. But at zero move for pursuit, six was just at the very edge of the possible number she could take out without any getting away. If she was not very, very lucky in the attack, then Haffaton would find out exactly where she was.
They sat in circle around a dwindling campfire, eating (or mostly, drinking) their breakfast and smoking elaborate glass pipes. They laughed loudly, and passed around both types of pipes, playing on or smoking whatever came to them.
She sat on the moss behind a tree, mere feet from the enemy, and tried to think of a solution. Stealing their supplies, even if successful, would tip them off and cause them to search the hex for her. Hiding until they left (if they left) and trying to forage was a poor risk too. She didn’t see a way to divide them, or pacify them. There was no help coming. There was no way to run.
In the end, the bladder of one of the elves made the decision for her.
“Oh man, I gotta whiz like a... Like a whizzing thing. Haha! A big one!”
Jillian readied her blade in response to the elf’s unsteady footsteps toward her tree. Grasping at the bark, he stepped around to her side.
She had his heart out of his ribcage before any other organs were in view. Then she leapt, shouted, and charged at the campfire.
It wasn’t her best fight. Three of them got away healthy, more or less guaranteeing that Haffaton would be here shortly to collect their lost prisoner.
She sat on a log and ate the elves’ bread, picking through their miserable equipment and thinking about Lady Firebaugh. There was very little sense in hiding here. Jillian just wondered what “Mistress” would have in mind, now that her pretty box was busted. Hard to imagine, but she couldn’t help thinking about it. She’d misbehaved, violated the little trust she had been shown. She was going to be punished. And... why was that thought so persistent?
She listened carefully, waiting for the inevitable shouts and tromping of boots and/or hooves through the trees. Of course, there was the chance that Haffaton didn’t have any significant forces near enough to reach her. But even the patrols she’d ducked on the trail would be worth sending to nab her.
Seemed crazy, to ever try to escape from a side so huge. To cut across it in a beeline for home. Did she really think she could get away—
And, yeah, there were the boots. Right on time. Distant, but approaching with a vengeance. Jillian had excellent hearing. They were coming for her, and playing no music this time. Through the treetops, too, a flash of yellow. Oh, Titans, and the dwagon was back. They were using it to scout her from the air, and yeah, it had definitely spotted her.
She stood up and planted her feet in the dirt, holding the hilt of Bart’s sword with both hands as the dwagon spiraled around above her. The sounds of approaching troops were clearer now, following their very large hunting bird to its target.
Only... the dwagon was not mounted.
Not only was there no sign of Haffaton markings on its saddle, there was no saddle on it. This dwagon might be theirs, sure. Or it might just be feral. Either way, it was taking a keen interest in her, it had just done the little J-loop they do before diving on a ground target.
She made a desperate call, and sheathed her sword. She did not run, but turned away from the dwagon she knew would be in an attack dive, and picked up the body of one of the slain elves. She hoisted it above her head, and closed her eyes.
Either the dwagon was going to clobber her or not. Either it belonged to Haffaton, or it didn’t. Either this would work, or it wouldn’t. She’d made her decision.
There was a huge crash of tree branches, and the ground shook with a meaty thud.
Jillian was still standing. She opened one eye.
The dwagon grunted. It was sniffing at the body. Here, she motioned with the elf. For you.
The dwagon opened its jaws and snapped. “It’s okay,” said Jillian. “It’s good for you. Take it. I’ll get you more.”
Sniffing once again at the fallen elf, the great beast gingerly took the body from her upturned palms. The weight came off her arms at once. The beast tilted its head side to side, holding the body in its maw.
“Go on...” she encouraged.
The chewing and swallowing was gruesome, but Jillian didn’t watch. She was already dragging another of the elves to the base of the broken tree, where the dwagon sat on its haunches.
The Haffaton patrol force that charged into the clearing contained two warlords: levels 4 and 6. The infantry and archers they’d brought along appeared uncharacteristically battle-ready for Haffaton troops. There were no uncroaked. Nobody was smiling or singing. They were very, very serious about recapturing her.
But they were clearly not expecting her to be mounted.
Arrows flew and blades flashed, but the blades never reached the retreating tail of Jillian’s glorious new friend. With a quick crap-bomb that sent the Haffaton troops scattering, she spurred her newly-tamed mount to the southeast. It had 26 move left, and they were in the air.
But before it had reached the hex boundary, it had collided with two trees.
“What’s wrong, are you hit?” She asked, in consternation. But she knew it wasn’t seriously wounded; she was stacked with it. It had taken a couple of arrows, nothing critical.
It was definitely struggling, however. The thing could barely fly straight. It would hurtle into the sky and then wobble down unsteadily. Its eyes were half closed. She thought it might even have loosed an uncommanded bomb.
“What are you doing! Fly right, you bloated bag of bones! What’s wrong with you...?” The dwagon belched. Suddenly Jillian understood, and groaned.
This thing had just eaten three High Elves.
When they settled into the trees on an island in the middle of a lake, as safe and sound as she could have hoped for, Jillian threw up for the third time. Her dwagon joined her. Again.
“I hate you so much,” she told it, and went to sleep on the ground.