In a dark, rain-soaked tent beneath a roiling sky, Lord Shivar Blackbelly hunched at a writing desk penning requisition documents in blood red ink. As he wrote, his tail twitched behind him in short, irritated sweeps. The scratching of the quill against parchment was thirty-third on the list of things Shivar hated. At the moment, he was considering moving it up.
When completed, the documents before him would go back to the underempire, where, the Thirteen willing, his father would be convinced to send more clanrats to the surface to support Shivar’s expanding war campaign. So far, Clan Rictus had been forthcoming with a supply of fresh soldiers, rations, and equipment to replace Shivar’s losses. It seemed the clanmasters had been buoyed in their support by reports of new territories to loot and victories to exploit. Shivar was actually surprised how little he had to lie considering some of his early setbacks against the elves.
As Shivar scratched out another report, a rain-soaked pawleader arrived at the tent’s front flap. The armored rat waited a moment for Shivar to look his direction, then cleared his throat to try and get his commander’s attention. He had to do it three more times before Shivar turned to demand irritably, “What?!”
The pawleader straightened to rigid attention, “Pardons, many pardons, my general, your excellence. I have a scroll from Lord Longfang.”
Shivar scoffed loudly and turned back to his papers, “What is it? Does that fool need another plague furnace to feed to the lizards?”
“No magnificence,” the pawleader groveled, “He says he won.”
Shivar’s quill stopped where it was on the page and his tail froze in mid-twitch. Shivar turned to interrogate the messenger with a turned lip and suspicious eyes, “What?”
The pawleader produced a roll of water-stained parchment, “Here, here.”
Shivar took the paper, unfurled it, then quickly scanned through the nearly-illegible scrawl looking for key words. He found several words to his liking, but most of the content seemed beyond belief.
Shivar narrowed his eyes distrustfully, “Gritter says he slaughtered one of the lizardmen’s armies and drove another from the field.”
“Good news,” the pawleader smiled, “Yes yes?”
Shivar crumpled the paper in one paw and tossed it in the corner, “More like damnable lies. Longfang can’t be trusted further than the tip of his tail.”
The pawleader stared a moment in confusion, then started looking around the tent. Shivar judged his expression to be covetous.
“Go get Skowl,” Shivar ordered, “Tell him we need to talk about strategy.”
The pawleader bowed deeply, “Of course, of course, as his excellency demands. I am but—”
“Now,” Shivar growled.
The ratman scampered out. Shivar rubbed a clawed finger at either temple.
A few minutes later, Skowl’s impressive shadow appeared at the doorway. He asked, “You called Lord?”
“Get in here,” Shivar demanded.
Skowl ducked in beneath the tent flap, and Shivar drew back in revulsion as the light fell over him. Skowl was covered whisker to tail in dark, sticky mud. As Shivar stared, it dripped in great gooey globules across the furs that lined his tent.
Shivar grimaced, “Nurgle’s scroat Skowl, what the hell have you been doing?”
Skowl straightened, “Digging with the clan.”
Shivar realized suddenly that he didn’t care, “Whatever, just look at this.”
Shivar had unfurled a map on the table at the far side of the tent. On it, Shivar had assembled little wooden counters to represent the banners of the other armies patrolling the border provinces. Shivar’s forces, represented by green counters, were spread across the southern portion of the map in a haphazard pattern.
Shivar pointed to the marker at the far side of the map, “Gritter says he’s beaten the lizardmen at blood river. Do you believe him?”
“He is not lying…” Skowl answered knowingly. Then, thinking, Skowl added, “…about that.”
“Well that’s fantastic for him. Good to see he’s worth at least some of what I paid for him.”
Skowl pointed to another marker sitting on a nest of rivers labeled ‘the Blood River Bogs’, “Lord Skrolk has made it to the bogs, and is in the process of draining them. When he is done he’ll march East to meet up with Gritter.”
As Skowl gestured, a glob of slimy brown mud splashed across the marker indicating Lizardmen’s central camp. Shivar moved quickly to wipe the stain away, “For hate’s sake Skowl, you’re getting mud everywhere.”
Shivar reflected bitterly how un-sorry Skowl sounded. He frowned as he pointed toward the center of the map, “I hear grumblings from Malko. The Ogres have marched over the Elves on the Silk road, and are looking for other conquests. They’ve already made peace with the Lizards, and it doesn’t look like they care to challenge the Dwarfs. So that leaves us. We’ve got to arrange a defense.”
Skowl nodded, “Yes.”
Shivar gestured across the breadth of the map, “The problem is that we’re all over the place. We need to consolidate, unite in a defensive line. We’re spread too thin.”
“Our enemies combine,” Skowl warned, “If we pull back, they will take what we leave.”
“Ogres and Lizards working together are no threat to us. Let Gritter and Skrolk dance with their armies in the East, it’s no concern to us. All they need to do is hold them at bay while we consolidate here.”
“There is word that the Elves may make peace with the Dwarfs.”
Shivar hissed, “Elves allied with Dwarfs? That’s ridiculous Skowl. The way I hear it they’re fighting back and forth over the same ground, just the way it’s always been.”
“Our spies say that an elven emissary went north after the elves broke their truce with us.”
Shivar blinked, “What?”
“The elven emissary went—”
“Who broke what truce?”
Beneath the caked mud, Skowl’s features turned awkwardly, “_Our_ truce."
“When?” Shivar demanded angrily.
“Three days ago.”
Shivar screeched in frustration, “WHAT?!”
Skowl nodded, “The elves have already taken the road south of the crossroads and temple field. Their magister marches for Alduim.”
“And when were you going to tell me this?!”
Shivar grabbed the hair behind his ears and pulled down with both hands, “Elves and Dwarfs! Ogres and Lizards! What next?!”
“The Ogres have also made peace with the Elves.”
“Perfect!” Shivar shouted upwards, “Wonderful! A grand alliance united against me! A golden crusade! I kill a few hundred people and suddenly every army on the surface is marching on my camp!”
Skowl didn’t know how to respond to his commander’s distress—so he didn’t.
Shivar spun a few quick circles on the rug, then stabbed a clawed finger toward Skowl, “Get Qweek on this, send him up the South Road. He drank my damn Skalm, the least he can do is—”
“Qweek is gone.”
Shivar balked, “Gone where?”
“He goes North,” Skowl answered, “To fight dwarfs.”
“I don’t care about dwarfs! We have elves on our doorstep! And Ogres! And Gods know what else!”
“You told him—”
“I don’t care what I told him! I need him here! Get him back!” Shivar slammed him paw on the table, sending map counters flying, “Tell him to get back here! Right now!”
Skowl stood silent a moment, then shook his head and said gravely, “It is too late for that Lord. Qweek and his headhunters are gone.”
Shivar started to yell again, but realized as he opened his mouth that he had no energy for it. Instead he leaned his head forward into open paws and scratched angrily at the pits of his eyes. He could feel another headache coming on, he already had a stabbing toothache, and now there was a strange new itch near the base of his tail. He blamed the surface weather. The sun was bad enough, but the rain was definitely worse. Everything was terrible on the surface. Everything…
As Shivar opened his eyes, he realized Skowl was still dripping mud on his best furs.
He ordered bitterly, “Get out.”
Skowl saluted with a fist across his chest, then ducked back into the rain.
Shivar turned back to his mapboard, and began setting the counters right one-by-one. He had some difficulty remembering where they all had come from. He cursed Skowl for making him so angry.
When the mapboard was reset, Skowl stared down at it for several minutes with vacant eyes. After a while, all the markers but his own seemed to blur into the same color. The banners of Elves, Ogres, Lizardmen, and Dwarfs seemed to approach as a united front. All were against him. None could be trusted.
His verminous features clenched. Fine, if they wanted to fight, he would oblige. He was not out of tricks, not out of resources, not nearly. Shivar may have hated war, but he was beginning to understand it. War wasn’t about winning battles or conquering territories, it was about hurting the other fellow more than they could allow. There was still much hurting he could do.
Shivar turned to the front of the tent and bellowed, “Slave! I want wine! A big skin of it! Now!”
Shivar then sat back at his desk and began writing furiously.