Roderick clambered off the ladder and trudged the last few dozen yards to his post. The earlier shift was already yawning and stretching, collecting their boots and returning their swords to the rack, and grumbling about always having to work the overnight shift.
"Hey, guys," he said as he reached the walls. He glanced at the hill outside the gates and was mildly surprised to see a gigantic barbarian horde gathered. "What's with them?"
Hank glanced down at the horde. "Oh, them? They've been there since around midnight. Not doing much, though; look." He gestured at the front of the horde.
Roderick looked warily for archers, then leaned over the turrets to look. At the front of the horde, two figures appeared to be arguing with each other about something. One was a huge, muscle-bound barbarian, probably the barbarian lord. The other was a short guy dressed in a flowing black robe and a hood that covered his face.
The rest of the horde were just standing around, or sometimes sitting on the ground. A few had lit fires to ward off the slight early morning chill. One group was playing cards. The black-robed guy seemed to be shooting frequent angry glares at them.
"Huh." Roderick pulled up a chest and sat down, still staring out at the horde. "That's kinda funny."
"Yeh, we thought so too," said Hank.
"So, um..." Roderick puzzled over this. "Why didn't you raise the alarm when a huge army came and camped right outside our gates?"
Stan, who had stopped by to pull on his boots, just shrugged. "We get paid either way."
Roderick looked out at the horde for another moment, then shrugged himself, reached into his pouch, and flipped a silver piece at Stan. "Since you two are off your shift, you wanna go grab us some beers?"
The short, black-clad figure paced testily back and forth in front of the barbarian horde. The barbarians paid no attention; they went on trimming their fingernails with their swords, telling dirty jokes, and playing cards.
"C'mon, Darwin," said Valkirg, the hulking barbarian leader. "You know I can't have my troops attack this place."
Darwin spun on his heel and looked the huge barbarian square in the kneecap, then craned his neck back and took a few steps backward so he could see Valkirg's face. "You knew we were going to attack the heroes' stronghold when I hired you for this job," he said, fiercely crossing his arms and playing with the loose thread on his sleeve.
Valkirg chewed his lip. "Well, yeah, I mean, I'd be more than happy to raid the heroes' stronghold. But that... I mean, this isn't really the heroes' stronghold. It's their union headquarters."
Darwin blinked and frowned. "Well, it's got guards, doesn't it? Doesn't that make it a stronghold? Besides, it's a very strategic target. I'm very good at strategy, you know."
"Well, I would assume so," Valkirg nodded, "you being an Evil Overlord and all. 'Course, I'm an Evil Overlord too, and I'm not much of a strategist, so..."
"Just trust me," Darwin said through clenched teeth, "it's a very highly strategic target. Taking this place down will be... well, it'll be a really good thing."
"Doesn't the handbook say things like this are called 'a victory for Forces of Evil everywhere'?" Valkirg prompted.
"Oh, yes, yes, that was it. That's very good," he admitted. "I was never much for memorization, myself. I'm very impressed. But," he started pacing testily again, "whatever we call it, we've got to do it. I can't afford to pay these guys time-and-a-half if this takes longer than I planned, you know."
"But Darwin, we can't attack here."
In what had become a practiced routine during the previous seven hours, Darwin spun angrily on his heel again. "And why the hell not?"
"Well, I mean, just look." Valkirg pointed at the second of the three large plaques mounted high on the castle's walls, the one that said EVIL OVERLORDS UNION, CENTRAL OFFICE.
Darwin's hands clenched, as if he wanted to strangle the barbarian's throat, or at least pull some of his hair out. "Yes," he said through his again-clenched teeth, "but aren't you forgetting something?" He pointed to the first plaque, which said HEROES UNION, CENTRAL OFFICE.
"Well, yeah, there's that," Valkirg admitted, "but you know, with the real estate market being what it is, it makes sense, you know? Especially with the tight synergies between the two industries, and all of the co-marketing opportunities--"
Darwin shook his head wonderingly. "You really missed your calling when you became a barbarian lord."
Valkirg blushed. "Well, thanks. But, you know. Business has been in the family for generations, and all that. Couldn't let the old man down." He glanced around, then leaned down and whispered, "Besides, my grandfather signed his heirs into the union for seven generations. He got a great discount on union merchandise after that."
Darwin scowled. "Well, that's all beside the point now," he snapped. "Synergies or no, this is the job I've hired you for. You can't back out on a contract!"
"Sorry, Darwin. I can't give you a refund until we submit the dispute to arbitration. You've read the handbook."
"But this is the central headquarters of the heroes' union! It's a perfect target! It's your -- your duty, as an Evil Overlord, to go in there and take some names, kick some ass! Do some serious property damage! Loot and pillage and burn! Like it says on your card!"
At the mention of looting and pillaging, several of the nearby barbarians perked up and looked over at Valkirg, but he waved them back. There was a bit of grumbling, but not much. A snatch of conversation drifted through the air: "We get paid either way..."
Darwin's scowl deepened.
"Actually," Valkirg said sheepishly, "it's that property damage that's the problem. See, this building is the joint property of the unions, so... well, I'll have to pay for that property damage. Through my union dues, you see? And my men will, too." He pointed up to the third plaque: HENCHMEN'S UNION, CENTRAL OFFICE.
Darwin started to spin angrily on his heel, realized too late that he was already facing toward Valkirg, and stumbled slightly. He caught his balance and his breath, and roared, "You're worried about your union dues?"
Valkirg blinked. "Well, yeah. I mean, aren't you?"
Darwin breathed heavily for a few moments, then resumed his testy pacing. Valkirg shrugged, pulled out his huge double-bladed axe and a sharpening stone, and set to work honing the blades.
A moment later, Darwin spun on his heel and marched over to Valkirg again, beaming in triumph. "Okay, I've got it. See, there's a lot of money in there, right? I mean, yesterday was the first of the month, so everyone's been paying their dues, but it's a weekend so the banks are closed. So just think..." He took a deep breath and said, loudly enough for his voice to carry, "Think of the loot."
More ears perked up in the crowd, but Valkirg just shook his head and kept sharpening. "But anything I stole would have to be replaced, and I'd just have to pay it back through my dues. Plus covering any property damage."
"Ah, but that's where you're wrong," Darwin said excitedly. "You would get far more than you would have to pay back. The loot would be -- stop that, will you? You're making me nervous."
Valkirg obediently put away his sharpening stone, and slung the axe back across his back.
"Thank you. Now, as I was saying, you'd collect more in loot than you would have to pay back. You'd make a nice fat profit, you see? So --"
"What?" Valkirg shook his head in bewilderment. "But -- well, that'd be like stealing from my own union brothers, wouldn't it?"
Darwin stared in shock, then shouted, "What the hell do you care? You're an Evil Overlord!"
Valkirg frowned. "Well, yes... but that doesn't mean I'm in this just for myself."
Darwin blinked seven times in rapid succession, then said, "Um, correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't that what 'evil' means?"
"Oh no, not at all! Haven't you read any of the union literature? I mean, can you imagine what the world would be like if we Evil Overlords didn't band together to protect our rights and working conditions? And be ground under the iron heel of Big Business?"
Darwin got that expression of mingled disbelief and disgust that people get when they've just realized the person they're talking to is very, very stupid. "Valkirg, we are Big Business. We don't work for anyone but ourselves. That's what being an Evil Overlord is all about!"
It was Valkirg's turn to blink. "I don't remember reading that in the literature."
"Well, of course not! What do you expect? The union managers are Evil Overlords too!" A sudden sly grin appeared on his face. "They are Evil Overlords, aren't they? In this for nothing but their own gain. Why, I'll bet that, if you guys were on strike, they'd be the ones to call in the strikebreakers. For the right price."
Valkirg stared in shock. "Oh, no! You've got them all wrong, Darwin! They would never call in scabs! They're... well, they're the union! Scabs are all wrong! They're against everything unions stand for!"
"Oh, really?" Darwin's brow furrowed in thought. "Well... well, who do you think called in the scabs during the Amazons' Siege of the... of the Apostle's Tower?"
"Well, I hadn't heard of that battle. But it would've been the Heroes, of course," Valkirg promptly answered. "The Apostle and his men, inside the Tower. I mean, it stands to reason, right? What's a Hero without an Evil Overlord to fight? They'd look bad if nobody was storming their keep."
"You're forgetting something, Valkirg. If it was a siege... then how could the Apostle have gotten a message out to the scabs? Nobody goes in or out during a siege, especially messengers."
Valkirg swayed on his feet, then abruptly sat down. "Well, they could have passed a message through the Amazons..."
"No, because the Amazons were on strike, remember?"
"Yes, but... but..." Valkirg suddenly leapt back to his feet. "The stinkin' traitors! I'll tear 'em limb from limb!" He looked up suddenly. "But wait. We don't have any proof, do we?"
Darwin shrugged and pointed at the castle. "If there's any proof to be had, it'd be in there."
Then he had to jump aside as Valkirg, followed by all of the barbarians who had been in earshot, made a charge for the castle's front gates. The rest of the horde was quick to follow.
A many-voiced roar woke Roderick from his light doze, and he glanced over the ramparts to see two thousand pissed-off barbarians storming the front gates of the keep.
He got up and leaned over the wall, watching in fascination as the group reached the front gate. He was amused to note that there was only room for about a dozen men immediately in front of the gates, so the other thousand-odd barbarians, after they had charged their way nearly to the gates, were forced to move out of the way as more poured in. It was a bit like watching leaves blow around during a thunderstorm.
"Hey," said Stan at his elbow. "Looks like I was just in time to catch the fun, eh?"
"'Bout time you got back," Roderick said, taking the beer Stan was holding out. "So do you suppose we ought to do anything?"
Stan eyed the horde critically and shrugged. "Well, there's always the boiling oil, but I don't think we've even started warming it up yet. Besides, that stuff smells pretty nasty. That horde doesn't even have a battering ram, so I don't see how they could get in anyway."
Roderick raised his eyebrows. Stan leaned over the walls for a look, then returned looking a bit sheepish. "Okay, so I overestimated the Carpenter's Union. Maybe they were in labor negotiations while the gates were being built."
"Hello, hello," came a singsong voice from the lower platform behind them. "Did I arrive in time to catch the drama?"
At the sound of the voice, Roderick fumbled his beer, nearly dropped it, then turned around in one fluid motion that left the beer bottle out of sight behind the weapons rack. "Actually, milady, you're just in time," he said, bowing deeply and stumbling slightly. "They've just begun to storm the gates."
The lady Barbara folded her hands elegantly in front of her waist, then snuck a quick look toward the outer walls. "My, they certainly do sound... loud, don't they? Do you suppose we could have a look?" She held up her hands so Roderick could help her up onto the platform. This pose did interesting things to the view down the front of her dress, and Roderick went through a brief coughing fit before he was able to help her up. She batted her eyelashes at him and murmured a quick thank-you, and Roderick grinned a goofy grin.
Stan rolled his eyes and cleared his throat. "So," he said, gesturing at the harp slung over Barbara's back, "you're here on business, are you?"
Roderick snuck a quick glare at Stan in a don't-you-think-she'd-stop-by-just-to-see-me? kind of way, and Stan allowed himself a smirk as Barbara enthusiastically responded, "Oh, yes! I'm hoping to do this one as freelance, you know, and I'm so excited. I've never covered a battle before, even in my internship."
Crack! The sound of splintering wood came from below, and the entire wall shook with the blow. Barbara stumbled, and caught Roderick's arm to steady herself. The front of her dress did its thing again as she regained her feet, and his face went a shade redder.
"Well," she said, brushing her hair back out of her face, "I didn't know it was going to get this exciting this soon!" She gave a puzzled glance to all of the guards standing nearby. "But... where's the boiling oil? I thought famous battles were supposed to have boiling oil. And flaming arrows, and such."
"Oh! I'll go get the flaming arrows," Roderick chimed in excitedly. He scurried off toward the ladder.
She looked at Stan with her eyebrows raised. "Boiling oil?"
He just shrugged. "Well, actually, the union negotiated a change in the boiling-oil provisions about eight months ago. You know, it's so dangerous to handle, there were always liability questions, and then there was the whole problem with dumping it on the invading army. Their health-care provider was complaining, and our renters' insurance wasn't happy with the whole deal anyway."
She frowned. "Oh, really?"
"Yup. The boiling-oil handlers need to execute a notarized liability waiver before we can even start the pots going, and --"
"So you're saying, basically, that you have something available that will help you do your job more effectively, yet you're declining to do so?"
Stan blinked. "I -- well, it's not me personally, you understand."
She looked thoughtful. "Still, it sounds a bit like sabotage, doesn't it? Deliberately reducing your productivity, in an effort to harm your employer?"
"What? There's no effort going on." The words were out of his mouth before Stan realized how open he'd left himself for a witty comeback. "I -- what I mean is, it's not deliberate reduction in capacity. It -- it might sort of look that way, but the union has been over this ground, and we feel --"
"That your employer will definitely be harmed if you don't work to capacity?"
His mouth opened and closed a few times. "Well, but that's not the --"
"And if I'm not mistaken, you'll be harmed as well. If those barbarians break in, there will be a lot of axes swinging -- and afterward, there will be a lot of property damage to pay for." She smiled sweetly. "I imagine your union dues will go up quite a lot."
"Well... it's still not really sabotage," he protested weakly.
She arched one eyebrow. "And if the matter came up before a congressional committee on labor laws?"
Stan opened his mouth, stood still for a moment, then said, "I'll go get the oil," and hurried off.
Barbara chuckled. "Well, it may have been boring work, and may not have done much for my portfolio," she murmured as she found a seat with a good view of the battle outside, "but I guess that time I spent harping for the arbitrator's association did pay off. This should make for quite a nice epic chant by the time I'm done."
Then there was another Crack! and she let out a yelp as a large section of wall crumbled, with her on it.
|Chapter 2 >|