The Noble Gases Chapter 20

By tadthornhill (Tipped by 4 people!)


 <--Chapter 19


 

It was a beautiful spring day, and the smell of roses in the air reminded Marilyn of Mistress Arbor's garden from so many hundreds of turns ago. There was a lovely, warm wind behind them: just enough to push them along without being a distraction, while keeping the scent of roses continually in the air. They were still at a gallop though, they had to get to Gallopton before the Angles did. Marilyn didn’t know why it was more urgent than any other battle, but it was. They had to get there in time. And they had to hold it when they got there. Belmont, the blue-haired lancer she had made friends with several turns ago, was talking about the way the Titans had made the world.

 

“That one hex between Writing and Caer Lundein is stormy. This one is pleasant. The Titans balanced the Numbers. You’re right, it is nice here--riding point going south.” Belmont agreed, “But when you’re in the back ranks heading north you eat everyone else’s dust, and the occasional mount plop makes those roses smell sick rather than sweet.” He didn’t have much poetry in his soul. Still, they were riding south, so she could put his imagery out of her mind.

 

She was getting better at scouting too. Marilyn didn’t feel like a real scout yet, but she didn’t have to stop to notice things—well except Numbers—Marie was the one who was good with Numbers, Marilyn was always the Erfier sort. She could tell what a unit was out of the corner of her eye, but she had to look to know their Number. Not that scouting was her special. It was just something she did. But that was true of all courtiers.

 

Marilyn often wondered what it would be like to be in a court with real courtiers. She had read about them in the Library. No one had Ordered her not to go there, but she was careful not to get caught while there, no reason to tempt Fate. That was the one thing she taught all the other Bunnies: avoid Orders as much as possible. If you don’t get Ordered to do something then you can do what needs to be done flexibly, you can do two things at once, you can think and plan and prepare. The best Bunnies didn’t need orders, they looked for things to do, they just knew what to do. Maybe she needed to think like that as an Operator also. Now what would Prince Artha need before he knew he needed it…

 

Marilyn listened back towards where Artha and Gwalchmai were talking with another northern warlord as they rode south. She had learned to hear an idle comment across the hall over the ruckus of King Urtha’s evening parties, so listening in on a conversation behind her with only the rhythmic sounds of galloping hooves was nothing.

 

“Dammit, Sir Aggravation, I don’t want to Order you to do what needs to be done, I want you to trust me. You’re a knight. You’re a warlord. I’ve seen her in action and you haven’t.” Prince Artha was arguing with Sir Gwalchmai’s brother about the need to hurry rather than to scout first.” Many of the northern warlords had incredibly accurate Signamancy in their names.

 

“I would never disobey an order from your Highness--never. All I’m saying is it’s worth the price of a scouting stack just to make sure they’re not headed for Portsouth. The records tell us that that City won us the last war. My Duty compels me to examine all possibilities. Plus, if we move one turn slower, we’ll have several extra stacks of infantry. We took the city before, we can take it again.” Sir Aggravation had a reputation for being very thorough--and cautious--and methodical. Not cowardly, not at all, just--slow. No-one wanted him on the field next to them during an attacking exercise or across the field during a defensive one. He also spoke slowly. Aggravatingly slowly.

 

“During the war, the Romaine Empire lost their Rhyme-o-mancer in an attack by the Pix long before we took Gallopton. We didn’t have to face their army in that place with any real magic support. The Tower of Song makes that city a harder target than any on this island--if a rhyme-o-mancer is there. Not only that, she is a true combat rhyme-o-mancer. I’ve seen her up close. I’ve heard her in action. With her singing on the other side we only held a garrisoned, fortified, level 5, capital site, commanded by a royal chief warlord because of a mercenary trick!” Artha’s voice was rising.

 

Was he embarrassed about that? Marylin thought suddenly.

 

Artha paused for a moment, regained his composure, and then went on. “If I knew you were right, Sir Aggravating, I’d still do the same thing. If we guard the right city--well and good--if we guard the wrong one, they’ll take the other. I’d still rather dig them out of Portsouth than with her singing in Gallopton. We have to harden that city to make it impregnable until the lancers and the mercenaries are finished slaughtering the Saxmen. Then they can come south with the rest of the northerners and the West and we can crush the Angles.” He had gone back to being passionate.

 

So that’s what it was. She thought. If that vicious Mistress Acute got to the Tower of Song before we do there’s no telling what she could do. One thing for sure, a Rhyme-o-mancer in that tower could cast spells that would make a level four in a swamp as hard as a level five on a mountain. What can I do to help? She was an Operator now, not a Bunny. She couldn’t make him feel good, she’d have to figure out how to get him more information. Or was that a Scout’s Number? What was hers? She started sending messages, asking Operators how things were going--hoping that her authority as Chief Operator would be enough for the other Operators.

 

Artha’s command continued to the southeast for awhile, and then turned southeast by northeast. It took two whole hexes of travel for Artha to argue Sir Aggravation into his point of view, but Artha managed to do it without resorting to Orders. Sir Aggravation had a fine defensive mind--if a slow one--and it would have been slowed even further if it required Duty pushing it along as well as Loyalty. The ability to lead the Northern knight seemed to cheer Artha up some, so Marilyn moved those worries to her reserve stack.

 

King Utha had sent Maria to Gallopton to act as operator while Marie was busy with the mercenaries and the Lancers. It was irritating the way he was always picking Operators whose names sounded like hers, she almost had to think of them by town or mission rather than by name. It was some superstition he had about Natural Signamancy—well, he was the king, and they were all good units—even Merika when she wasn’t talking about how wonderful her old home was.

 

The pikers Artha had sent to Sele Mill before he headed southeast were bringing down plenty of paper, and Maria was sending it everywhere, so their paper shortage problem was over. The casters in the Capital were making Operator Hats as quickly as they could, but they weren’t going to be having a spare for the Mill anytime soon, so that was the best they could do. That evening when they stopped to rest Artha told her to ask around for a list of troop movements.

 

“What do you mean you already have them?” Artha asked, staring at the bundle of papers in his hand.

 

“I'm your Chief Operator, not just some simple Stabber.” Marilyn replied with a satisfied smile. “I'm here to get you information from all over the kingdom and to make sure that you don’t have to delay your Duty to do it. Anticipating your needs is my Duty.” She saluted and turned away. She had plenty more to say, but now was not quite the right time.

 

The news on the reports was mixed good and bad. There had been an engagement between the Saxmen and the Lancers, and the Lancers had suffered the worst of it by far. Warlord Ewell was croaked, and they had lost half their force and plenty of lancer warlords. The enemy was estimated to have merely lost some infantry. Their Heavies were still doing very well. More information was still to come. The Lancers had reached Upswitch well before the Saxmen, so Marilyn was sure they could protect the city.

 

On the positive side, the mobilization was going well. King Utha had stripped the garrisons from everywhere but the three northern border cities and sent them south to deal with the new invaders. The three northern cities were popping stacks of Very Men to start scouting up north. The few quick scouting missions that Robin’s stack had done revealed a quiet North. The Pix were unaware of their problems and would give them time to deal with the southern threat.

 

Utha had the Yobs were popping from more than just Redpool and Follows—Stick, Hole, and Eastern Bromeliad were also producing. The king felt that Warlord Shankly's leadership would be high enough to keep them in line, even with their tendency to quarrel. Marilyn smiled smugly at that, it was really only S*nnie who hated Yobs, and everyone knew she just spread rumors and evil lies.

 

Their road curled back and forth, southeast and northeast through the Southlands, until they saw the Tower of Song shining over Gallopton in the next hex to the southeast. The tower was so tall it dwarfed the walls of the level 3 city beneath it, and so smooth and beautiful that comparing the two made her think of a swan sitting in a bramble bush. The tower had a slight curve to it as it climbed into the sky, just like the neck of a swan. The study room on top was like two china plates, one hovering upside down above the other, seemingly supported only by light. As they entered the hex and got closer, she could see the roof of the Tower was held up by countless curved and interwoven glass rods.

 

It was beautiful.

 

“I’ve never seen anything like it.” Marilyn said in a soft voice.

 

 “Very few units have.” Artha had rode up behind her. Looking at the tower, he too, had a relaxed grin on his face for once. “It’s one of the treasures of the kingdom. It has both natural and magical Rhyme-o-mancy on it that helps casters of that class. While they’re there, their spells are stronger, and they learn faster. Even talking about it increases natural Rhyme-o-mancy.”

 

“Why don’t Rhyme-o-mancers come from the Magic Kingdom to learn here then? Why couldn’t the king have gotten one to turn to Prytain long ago?” she asked.

 

He lifted an eyebrow at her, “Because—well--father. Think like a Bunny again.”

 

She did, and then it was immediately apparent. “The female Rhyme-o-mancers don’t want to be treated like Bunnies and the male ones don’t want to have to live up to Taliesin's standard.”

 

He nodded, “Bunnies weren’t as much a part of the court then, so you didn’t see the Rhyme-o-mancers who did come. Several tried to get along with him, but none could. Not even with that as incentive.” he said, waving at the tower, “Eventually they stopped coming. Father finally hired a Predictamancer to tell him when he’d get a Rhyme-o-mancer.”

 

“And?”

 

“I never heard the answer, but he was so furious I thought he was going to invade Pixland--by himself. He made a vow he was never going to pop another courtier as advisor after that.” Artha shook his head. “He calmed down eventually. That was when he really started to pop Bunnies.”

 

Marilyn remembered that time vaguely, she had served the Rulers of Prytain for thousands of turns, but she hadn’t really started thinking much until all those other Bunnies had started popping and needing some kind of leadership. Only when she had started teaching them had she started leveling. That was also when she had started going to the Library for ideas; she was the oldest, and she sure wasn’t going to give up even informal status to some bouncy young Bunny who happened to catch the king’s eye.

 

They rode on in silence after that, enjoying the sight of the Tower as it rose higher into the sky as they approached. As they got closer, she started to hear sound of the wind singing in the glass rods in the highest level that gave the tower its name. What finally brought them out their reverie was the familiar challenge at the city gate. The garrison forces were happy to see their chief warlord arrive, they had felt his bonus when he entered the hex. As they passed through the city gate Artha set his face in its usual noble look as he prepared to be the Chief Warlord again.

 


 

 

Lute was miserable. They were travelling through a swamp hex, headed Southeast for a battle. Lute hated swamp hexes; the smell reminded him of home and made him think of smelly socks--even if they were created by the Titans. The scripture went through his head.

 

The Titans unrolled the map of Erfworld and labelled each hex unto its kind. They raised up the mountain hexes and shallowed out the valley hexes. They drew water from the desert hexes and they poured it out over the ocean hexes. (Setup 1:3-5)

 

And they wrung out their socks in the swamp hexes. Lute added heretically.

 

Lute being miserable was nothing new. Lute was miserable whenever he wasn’t playing his lute. He was miserable whenever he was out of his Number, or when he was in it, for that matter. He had been popped as Radian the Jester rather than as a musician, but no-one enjoyed his jokes.

 

“Why is a raven like a stabber?” he had asked King Kurt when he had fresh-popped.

 

“Why?”

 

“They both croak after they fly.” Radian had grinned and flapped his arms and looked around the hall. His first joke had been met with stony silence. And so had all the rest. King Kurt had been told that all the truly noble kings popped jesters—so he did. He had also been told it would have been ignoble to disband a jester or send him into direct combat—so he didn’t. He did tell Radian never to come to his court again unless invited, and to forage from the kitchens whenever possible to offset his upkeep, so Radian went and scrubbed pots in the kitchen for his first hundred turns or so just to have something to do. Not living in his Number kept him from getting more than negligible XP, and that kept his level—and his upkeep—low, which satisfied King Kurt. Then Mistress Acute popped and changed his life.

 

All rulers are happy to pop a caster, it happens so rarely, but King Kurt had wanted a more directly useful caster, say--for example—a Shockamancer for direct combat, or a Thinkamancer for communication, even a Moneymancer to keep costs low. Any of those would have been good. He had no idea what to do with a Rhyme-o-mancer, so he threw her into the next battle to see what happened. She ended up getting a level on the points of her daggers while capturing a healomancer. That was how she learned of the Magic Kingdom.

 

The two casters went through the portal to make ransoming the Healomancer a simple task, and two turns later, King Kurt had many more schmuckers and a caster who knew her Number. From then on, she was on the field of battle every chance she got--but singing rather than slicing. Lute's turn for happiness came later.

 

Adept Acute had stepped into the kitchen to get a snack one turn, and found the jester turned scullion banging on the pots instead of cleaning them. Recognizing his natural rhythm, she put a lute in his hands and found he could play it far better than he could pots and pans. Adept Acute talked to the king and requisitioned him from the kitchen as accompaniment for her next battle. The king reluctantly agreed, and a partnership was born.

 

Caster Acute soon made Mistress by working out how to use his completely non-magical playing to enhance her magical singing. She became even more effective and being a part of victorious battles started to raise Lute’s level. His jokes, however, were still unappreciated. The other units did enjoy seeing him lift his lute over his head, though. It wasn’t because of him, it just meant Mistress Acute was about to sing. After a while, units stopped calling him Radian the Useless Jester and started calling him Acute’s Lute and then just Lute. That was OK with Lute; it meant he was accompanying Mistress Acute, and there was nothing and no-one he loved more.

 

Lute never forgot he was popped as a jester though, he always wore the black and yellow cap and bells and jester’s jacket he had been popped with. Living out of his Number, with no juggling or somersaults to keep in shape started to show in his Signamancy and eventually he was no longer able to button his jacket. What also showed was his yellow undershirt, the black helmeted head with the circle around it and the line through it showed him as a noncombatant--not that that really kept him safe. Even with his Signamancy, he was happy—when he was playing. Right now, Lute was not playing, so he was miserable. Worse, his Mistress and his Prince were arguing.

 

“This is a stupid idea. We should have stayed together.” Mistress Acute was saying as they rode along.

 

“What do you know of tactics and grand strategy, witch?” Prince Right hated casters with a passion. All casters, even his own. He felt they interfered with battle rather than enhancing it.

 

“I know strategy and tactics. Our strategy is to kick their ass. Our tactics are the means by which we kick their ass.” Mistress Acute replied, her voice dripping with scorn, “And I’m a Rhyme-o-mancer, not a witch, remember that. I know Rhythm and Rhyme, and your rhythm is off—way off. We should have attacked and took that capital site with everything we had as soon as we saw it. Instead you waited to scout. Then a royal chief warlord showed up. We should have attacked immediately with everything we had in case they requested reinforcements. Instead you waited to negotiate for something you didn’t even think you could get. So, by the turn we did attack, they used a trick to bring in reinforcements--and we lost.”

 

“There were reasons you cannot understand, caster. Reasons you will never understand. Codes that all Noble units live by, even our enemies.” Prince Right replied, “You are a unit, your Duty is to obey. I AM AN HEIR. MY FATHER COMMANDS THROUGH ME.” His voice began to grow harsher.

 

She continued on, her fury and contempt blinding her to the warning. “Then you sent our allies north while we went south. Even Lute over there is smart enough to keep our forces together in the presence of the enemy. Their cavalry will slaughter those Saxmen if they get caught in the open without my singing to enhance them. Every one of them who dies somewhere else, is one that isn’t dying distracting the enemy from killing our units.”

 

“Every one of their units that is dying somewhere else is being killed by an enemy that is also somewhere else. I split the enemy forces at the cost of a few inconsequential and temporary allies. Even you should be smart enough to realize that. All our enemy will have to defend the city to the southeast is a few hastily-gathered garrison units from a small part of their kingdom. Not only that, I have kept our ‘allies’ from capturing your precious ‘Tower of Song’ by ‘accident’. I don’t want to have to negotiate with a non-noble side for a city that should be ours.”

 

“Should be?” she spat, “Should be? I will sing from the Tower of Song. It was Predicted!” Mistress Acute’s voice rose to a shrill scream.

 

“Be silent.” Prince Right Ordered. “In fact, unless your Duty demands it for the safety of the side, remain silent until I permit it. Now, spend your time for the rest of the trip to Gallopton thinking about how you will inspire my father's troops to battle. Off with you.” He said dismissively.

 

Mistress Acute's eyes blazed, and her mouth worked in what were clearly terms of abuse, but she obeyed Orders and remained silent. She reined her mount back, so she was level with Lute and stared furiously off at the horizon, her mind churning, turning her rage, her contempt, and her shame into a battle song to serve her side. After a few minutes of this, she held out her hand for Lute's lute. He passed it over and she plucked out a few chords and handed it back. That was his cue.

 

Lute started with her first few notes and built them into a repetitive arrangement. Once he had something for her to work with, he passed it back. She selected the parts she wanted to keep, added to them, and returned his lute. They passed the instrument back and forth between themselves over the next turn, wordlessly working out the music to the Rhyme-o-mancy she was creating for the battle ahead.

 

The Angle army finally reached the city of Gallopton. The beauty of the Tower of Song subdued even Prince Right's arrogance for a time—for a short time. Finally, he addressed her. “This has been two of the most peaceful turns I have spent since you popped. Even with the plinking from that abominable toy of your manikin. Perhaps I should order you to silence more often—hmm?”

 

“Bad. For. Voice.” Mistress Acute forced out.

 

“I didn’t order you to speak yet." Prince Right stared at her with a frown.

 

DUTY, she mouthed.

 

“Ahh. Well, as long as you do nothing but voice exercises, you may warm up for the battle. There, see, I’m not unreasonable. Tell me when you are ready.” Then he motioned with his fingers, shooing her off.

As Prince Right rode forward to demand surrender before the siege officially began, he saw something flying from the walls--something large, round and brown. A trebuchet-load of mount-plop landed wetly ten paces in front of him.

 

“Turn around and go home or the next load will be aimed and fired by a trained crew!” Came the shout from the city walls. There would clearly be no surrender. So, Prince Right returned to his lines and summoned his caster.

 

“Mistress Acute, let them know why we are here.” Prince Right said coldly.

 

“With pleasure, Your Highness.” She replied and began to sing,

 

Hey there, all you garrison

Throw away your fancy duds

And stop your lazy leanin' on a wall

So, get stacked up and come down here

Cause battle ain't no waiting game

Fighting should be done straight, straight up

Straight up, let's go

 

Heavies fight like Stabbers when they run into our shields

We got our Pikers coming up from the rear

Are you listening to the thunder from the steps we take?

Are you croaked, or can you take some more?

We're just gonna wipe you all out

Forget about your towns

They’re gonna fly our banner

You’re only gonna croak, only gonna croak

 

We ain’t here for gems and schmuckers

We ain’t here for magic toys

We don’t want negotiations

All we want is to destroy (yes, we do!)

 

I scouted out your side when we hit land

You’re fat and lazy sleeping in your towns

Well, I asked you to surrender and to run away from us

You said you want to fight it out instead

We're just gonna wipe you all out

Forget about your towns

They’re gonna fly our banner

You’re only gonna croak, only gonna croak

 

We ain’t here for gems and schmuckers

We ain’t here for magic toys

We don’t want negotiations

All we want is to destroy

 

We ain’t here for gems and schmuckers

We ain’t here for magic toys

We don’t want negotiations

All we want is to destroy

 

We ain’t here for gems and schmuckers

We ain’t here for magic toys

We don’t want negotiations

All we want

All we want is just to destroy. Yeah!

 


 Chapter 21-->


 

 

Notes

 

We Ain’t Here for Gems and Schmuckers should be sung to AC-DC’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution (but not quietly—please—this is AC-DC after all.)