Just across the bridge from the southern gate of Scorccio.
There was sufficient breeze to whip the flag in a lively fashion, revealing the white rod and yellow half-sun emblem of the Compagnia del Sole. Its bearer was the black-bearded Banhaltte, a sturdily built ensign born far to the north in the Empire, who had served the company just as long as any other present member. Like most ensigns, it was not just the flag that marked him out, but also his elaborate clothes. His helmet was ringed with an upstanding crown of yellow and white ostrich feathers, his parti-coloured breeches slit in the shape of the company’s emblem, trimmed with braid, and his long beard was of a northern fashion.
Ahead of him rode two of the company’s chancellors, Ottaviano and Baccio. They too wore the company’s colours of burgundy and blue, the company’s emblem embroidered upon their left shoulders. Ottaviano was upon a grey rouncey, his companion on a black. Earlier they had been busy preparing for the trip, then conversing with the guards on the gate regarding their right to pass. Now that they were properly on their way, Baccio picked up a conversation they had begun the night before. “How about Urbimo?” he asked. “Would they hire us?”
Ottaviano rode with his arm crooked, hand on hip, one of several affectations he believed made him appear more gentlemanly. “Urbimo is prosperous enough to afford the whole company, I’ll grant you that, but its old enemy Trantio has laid aside all ambitions to re-conquer it. The Trantians went to war over the matter in the time of the Republic, and as the tyrant Prince Girenzo hates everything the Republic did, not least its rebellion against his family’s rule, he is unlikely to want to continue the policy over Urbimo. Besides, if there was still enmity between the two, it would be very bad form for us to leave our current employer and join immediately with his enemy.”
“We’re mercenaries. What do we care what Prince Girenzo thinks when we’re no longer contracted to him?”
“I would not care at all,” Ottaviano said. “But who would later want to hire us knowing that we might so easily, simply for coin, join their foe and turn against them?”
“But you just said that Trantio and Urbimo are not at war.”
“That does not make them friends. Besides, the point I was trying to make is that if Urbimo is no longer threatened by Trantio then why would they need to hire a company the size of ours?”
The Compagnia del Sole was biggest condotta force in the whole Tilean Peninsula, and could claim an almost wholly unblemished reputation arising from the quality of their soldiers and the honour of their commanders. They had never before divided their strength to take separate contracts, except for the odd occasion when some amongst them had left the company to take employment as a new, distinct company. Currently they had halberdiers and pikemen, artillery and heavy horse, crossbowmen both mounted and upon foot, as well as a small town’s worth of dependents and hangers on, and they drilled every morning to maintain their readiness and prove their worth. For the last two years Prince Girenzo of Trantio had marched them about the Trantine Hills upon manoeuvres, even fought mock battles with them, and had found no fault. He paraded them through his city’s streets almost monthly and never once found any real reason to complain. Best of all, he had seemed happy so far to merely play at soldiers with them, requiring no actual fighting. Now however, as the eighth week before the end of the ‘Ferma’ period of their contract had passed without an agreement being reached concerning re-employment, the company was allowed to send forth its chancellors to negotiate with potential new employers. It was not that the company really wanted to leave Prince Girenzo’s employment, rather that they wanted to demonstrate the bids made by others to convince him to agree to better pay. Their commander, the condottiere general Micheletto Fortebraccio, believed that Girenzo had tired of drill and manoeuvres and was finally ready to make war, which bode well for the negotiation of new and better terms.
Baccio was not yet ready to yield on the matter of Urbimo. “Miragliano is close enough to pose a threat to Urbimo, surely? Is not every state in the north afeared concerning the Vampire Duke’s intentions?”
This made Ottaviano laugh. Baccio’s habit of not thinking things through was well ingrained. Still smiling, he looked his friend in the eye. “So you want to fight the already dead? You want to face deadly vampires and poison clawed ghouls and foul, stinking hordes of zombies?”
“Well … no,” admitted Baccio, apparently confused by his friend’s merriment at the prospect. “But to be paid well would be good.”
To be paid well is everything, thought Ottaviano. “If Urbimo did not offer us better terms than Prince Girenzo, then we could not demand improved terms from him.”
“Surely they are willing to pay generously for us to defend them against the horrors in the north.”
“Not when they know the vampire duke cannot yet reach Urbimo, nor for some time. They’re clever merchants, who pay no unnecessary expenses. Supposing the Duke of Miragliano does sally forth, he must first get past Ebino and Viadaza. I have a doubt they will stand idly by as the walking dead shamble through their realm. And like I said, that’s supposing he leaves Miragliano. Who knows what a vampire wants? Perhaps he will simply sit where he is, ruling his bony court and drinking goblets of blood? ”
“He could cross the gulf,” suggested Baccio.
“I do not think the dead steer ships,” answered Ottaviano. Yet even as he said it, he felt a distinct lack of conviction.
“Dead sailors do!” Baccio spoke Ottaviano’s fears for him.
Ottaviano pondered a moment. Undead ships were not unheard of – there was once a whole fleet of zombie pirates who preyed upon visitors to the shores of Lustria. Vampire named Harkon commanded them. “It’s much more likely the vampire duke has dead soldiers and peasants, not dead sailors. What sort of seamen would stay in Miragliano when all hell was breaking loose? Any sailor worth his salt would have got away, and quick.”
“I suppose,” Baccio muttered, grudgingly.
“Tell me,” asked Ottaviano, narrowing his eyes, “Why does Urbimo fascinate you so?”
“In truth?” said Baccio. “Because it is not far away.”
“Ha! So it is idleness that makes you keen!”
The jibe made Baccio frown. “Not so. It is simply an added expense for us to travel far, and if the journey takes too long then there is less time left to re-negotiate with Prince Girenzo. I was thinking of the practicalities.” Suddenly, he perked up. “If not Urbimo, then what about Lord Guglielmo? They say he escaped his uncle’s deathly turning and is looking to gather a force to claim what is now rightfully his. They say the Church of Morr will surely back him, make it another Holy War.”
Ottaviano laughed louder than before. Tilea had enough of Holy Wars – they had even tried a Holiest War. All such things proved ultimately to be the product of worldly ambition. It’s all about the pay “We’ll get no good terms from Lord Guglielmo. He has no means to pay us. No doubt he would promise us great rewards, to be paid after his victory, but tell that to Prince Girenzo and he would no doubt happily offer to pay us with even better promises. We want gold, not promises.”
“It was a stupid idea anyway,” Baccio admitted apologetically, “for it would mean we not only had to fight the undead but must also march right into their hellish domain.”
The party was passing a thatched cottage, along the hedge lined road that led from the bridge. Behind Banhaltte the standard bearer marched the chancellors’ guard, four halberdiers – two sergeants in armour and two more lightly armoured rank and file soldiers. Bringing up the rear was the young servant Donno leading a mule laden with supplies for the journey. The general had offered more guards to accompany them, but Ottaviano did not see the need. Mercenaries looking for a new contract were hardly likely to be carrying much gold, and so were unlikely to attract the attention of robbers. Anyone else would think twice at the sight of their banner, rather than their number. Few would want to make an enemy of the Compagnia del Sole. They might be mercenaries but they looked after their own, and there was honour amongst them. The company had both the urge and the means to exact vengeance.
Baccio fell silent for a while. The flag fluttered, hooves clopped, harnesses jangled. Eventually he spoke again. “If we did gain an offer of terms in some far away place, and Prince Girenzo refuses to match them, then the whole company will be forced to slog it all the way there.”
“That might not be so bad at all, especially if we head southwards. Would you not rather fight greenskins than the undead? The southern cities and towns are looking to better their defences, no doubt, now that the Waagh had taken root in the lands around Monte Castello. Luccini is hiring Mamidous’ Sons of the Desert, even building barracks for them. Alcente has hired northerners to help them, or sold itself to them – no-one seems sure about the exact terms. Whatever the agreement, an army of Marienburgers guards them.”
Baccio snorted. “So, not much work for us then?”
“On the contrary, Baccio, once Raverno agrees upon a proper government, or some tyrant grabs the reigns for himself, then they can do something about opposing the Waagh. And who’s to say that Remas, Pavona, Raverno, Portomaggiore, even Luccini and Alcente, believe they have sufficient strength to counter the threat. In this worrying time any or all might offer us better terms compared to the Medizi prince.”
Braccio nodded whilst looking off into the distance, then turned to look at his comrade. “General Fortebraccio said it will be only a matter of weeks before Prince Girenzo marches us to war, and not against Miragliano or goblins. In truth, Ottavio – our mission, new contracts – are we trying to leave Trantio just as the real fighting starts?”
“Never think that,” commanded Ottaviano. “We are the Compagnia del Sole, Myrmidia’s free sons. We do not shirk battle, nor would we shun a chance for plunder. ‘Aut spoliis opimis aut mors gloriosa’. I suggest you look at the situation in either of two ways. If you want to feel noble, then you can believe we take employment fighting greenskins or the undead because we would rather kill those than fellow Tileans. Surely it is right and proper that Tileans should stand together against such threats, instead than squabbling amongst themselves? If, however, you want to feel clever, then tell yourself that we are looking for employment because that way Prince Girenzo is forced to offer us better terms. He will want to lose us just at the moment he needs us.”
It was Braccio’s turn to smile now. “I suppose the first way, the noble way, is something you have rehearsed ready for the ears of our prospective employers.”
“Ah, you know me well,” exclaimed Ottaviano. Perhaps his friend was finally waking up. “As you obviously doubt I be so nobly motivated, then you may as well hear my true thoughts upon the matter. If we are to serve the prince in war, then he can bloody well pay a good price for us. We do not sell ourselves cheaply. If instead we are to go south, then perchance it will mean nothing more than parading our strength for some southern lord so that the greenskins take fright and look elsewhere for their cruel sports. If it were for me to choose, I would say south, where our very presence in the field may be sufficient to break the foe’s resolve. The walking dead in the north have forgotten how to be afraid, they will never flee but instead come straight at us, no matter how strong we are. Our men would die, then worse still, rise again to fight us.”
Ottaviano wondered if the men behind could hear him. Glancing around he decided maybe Banhaltte could, but not the others. That was not so bad. Banhaltte was a veteran and had no doubt fathomed the depths of mercenary thinking a long time ago.
Perhaps Braccio caught sight of the glance, and knew it for what it was, for he now spoke quietly. “So, let me get this right. You don’t want us to fight the undead, under any terms. What you do want is either better terms from Prince Girenzo to fight his neighbours, or adequate terms to go south and scare the greenskins away.”
“You have it. Except there might well be just be enough gold in the north to keep us here. The company have fought the undead before, and survived to tell the tale.”
“Oh, so in the end it is all about the pay?”
Ottaviano grinned broadly, and patted his purse hanging from his saddle pommel to make the coins chink. “Has it ever been anything else?”
A Monstrous Assault
Spring 2401, near Terme Castle, Northern Tilea
The man was nervous, and not just because he was addressing his master, Sir Fromony of Terme. He stared wide eyed from his scallop-edged, yellow hood and fidgeted constantly, clasping and unclasping the rim of the buckler hanging from his belt. He was armed, unusually, with a large-bladed adze, something Sir Fromony believed would be a very clumsy weapon, yet which would leave grievous wounds indeed upon its victims. Nor was his choice of weapon the only oddity about the man, for he also wore armour solely upon his knees and his elbows, as if his joints were the most precious parts of his body and as such warranted extra protection. How Sir Fromony had not noticed such an unusual sort of fellow amongst his lesser servants before he could not say.
These thoughts distracted the old knight just enough that he failed momentarily to hear what the man said.
“You saw how many of them?” he asked.
“In truth, your honour, I thought at first it was just one of them, come up from the south, like they do on occasion. A bodyguard for a merchant or some such – your honour will know how the south is riddled with all sorts of hired thugs. And I freely admit I almost left then and there, your honour, but I decided I ought to see who or what the brute was guarding, so that I might give a better report to the sergeant …”
Sir Fromony was starting to get annoyed, something a more observant man than this peasant soldier would have quickly noticed. He looked down sternly from his green barded horse, his forked white beard framing his frowning mouth, whilst behind him Mainet his squire rolled his eyes.
“Answer the question will you?” he barked, so halting the man’s rambling account. “How many?”
“Yes, your honour. Sorry, your honour. The one I saw was but one of half a dozen.”
That did not sound too bad. “Only a half a dozen?”
“No, your honour,” said the man shaking his head, “if I might be so bold. That half a dozen was but one of several such companies. I couldn’t stay to count them all, for they was all strung out along the road, see, and there were goblins with them, sneaky looking gits they were with eyes dancing every which way.”
“You were seen?” asked the knight.
“Oh no, not I, your honour. I was in the shadows, and gone before any beady little eyes could alight on me. All the better to come back with a report see”
“Is this all you can tell us, or did you see anything else? Flags? Men? Baggage or machines?” He hefted his mace as if to point at the peasant. “Be precise.” If such is possible!
Screwing up his eyes (perhaps imagining what such a mace might do to his skull) the peasant made an answer. “Their banners were raggedy things, clattering bones and such, not furled but not exactly fluttering either. The one at the front had a red and yellow flag as well as all the grisly bits. There was beasts, aye, and big ‘uns at that. I saw one very clear. Like a giant cow it was, funny sort of horns though, with the thickest sort of skin I ever seen, and dragging a mess of wood and iron with goblins clambering upon it.”
“The flag,” asked Sir Fromony, “Gules two bars-gemel, Or?”
“Gule-gemmy or what, your honour?”
Fromony felt foolish for speaking that way to a peasant, although compared to the worry now knotting his stomach concerning this enemy force, this new emotion paled into insignificance. He tried again. “A red field, two pairs of yellow stripes?”
“Can’t say for certain, for the breeze wasn’t up to much, but red with yellow stripes seems just right for what I did see.”
Campogrotta – it has to be. It seemed that the recently (and most mysteriously) returned wizard lord Nicolo Bentiglovio did not intend to live out the remainder of his unusually long life in peace, and he still had his regiment of brutes, the army of Ogres which had long brought shame to his rule. For many decades – beyond the span of an ordinary mortal – the wizard lord had seemed satisfied with the cruel, tyrannical rule of Campogrotta, jealously guarding his secrets. Today, however, he marched upon the fortress of Terme.
Sir Fromony knew his day’s hunt was over.
Now, if he did not move fast, he would become the prey. He had a castle to defend and, if that was to happen, he must send word to Duke Giacomo and hope relief was dispatched without delay. Turning to his hunt companions he gave his instructions, starting with his knightly guard.
“Sir Eudes, ride with all haste to Ravola and tell the Duke of our need. We shall of course hold as best we can, but to an Ogre our walls are half the height and so do not present quite the same challenge.”
Sir Eudes nodded his assent, pulled upon his reigns to turn his horse about, then spurred the beast into a gallop. Luckily he was not armed and armoured as for battle, but wore only mail and a half helm, and carried only a hunting spear. Provided the enemy did not hinder him, he would make it to Ravola before dark.
Sir Fromony turned next to his crossbowman. “Landri, you will go and look at this foe and discover their true strength.” Gesturing at the yellow hooded peasant he added, “Take this man with you if you wish, he seems to know the lie of the land well enough to have stayed hidden.”
Last he addressed his squire. “Mainet, with me.”
The party divided. As Sir Fromony rode he could not stop the flood of concerns and regrets assailing him – the ditch which should have been cleared, the wall that needed strengthening, the incomplete hoarding clinging to the western parapets, and most of all the recent departure of a band of knights for Bretonnia. He could have done with them now, to stiffen his garrison.
Yet the castle could surely hold for a little while, hopefully long enough for relief to come.
Spring 2401, Terme Castle, Northern Tilea
The castellan of Terme Castle, Sir Fromony Dalguinnac had arrayed his limited force as best he could. All he had to defend the fortress were longbowmen and men at arms – mere peasants bolstered with only a handful of yeomen – and they were not even sufficiently numerous to man every wall and tower. It took some careful thought as to where to place each of his three companies so that they could move quickly enough to wherever they were needed. His men at arms, which he personally commanded, guarded the gate, while his archers flanked him, one company on a wall to the left, the other on the tower to the right.
Although they were twice as tall as a man, Sir Fromony was pretty certain that the Ogrish foe would not be able to scale the towers, so the archers to his right were instructed to move to the defence of the wall beside them if the foe made for it. This disposition still left stretches of undefended walls, but the enemy were surely not so numerous as to be able to attack all at once, and all he and his men had to do was buy time for he had sent for relief and knew full well that his master, Lord Giacomo Uberti, would not abandon Terme Castle to its fate.
As the red and yellow standard of Ravola was placed upon the battlement beside him, Sir Fromony peered over the crenulated parapet at the foe mustering upon the rocky ground before the walls. He wore his heavy armour of polished steel, and atop his helm sprouted a red fleur de lys crest, a twist of yellow braiding decorating its base.
He could see that two large companies of grey fleshed brutes made up the main strength, their grisly banners of bones, skins and the looted shields of old foes held at their fore. Upon one flank a shaggy beast dragged some sort of trebuchet, whilst upon the other was a company carrying cannon barrels – no carriages, no trucks, just the barrels. These brutes were strong enough to discharge cannons as if they were handguns! They were hauling plenty of ladders, suggesting that they intended to climb the walls rather than batter at them with shot and then assault them. And they were moving with haste, for at the very moment their companies were finally sorted into ranks and files a bellowing cry immediately signalled the advance and they came on.
If the relief did not come right now, Terme was surely doomed. No almost wholly peasant garrison could stand against such fearsome assailants, even protected by castle walls. Sir Fromony heard shouted commands to ‘loose’ from both his left and right, and volleys of arrows arced impressively from the walls. It was a sight which momentarily gave him hope – surely such a storm of sharpened steel would sting any foe? But to his horror, as the arrows landed, not one of the Ogres fell. Umpteen shafts could be seen, hanging from their chests, arms and shoulders, bouncing about as the ogres marched on, yet not one of the grey-skinned brutes seemed remotely perturbed.
The large contraption pulled by the hairy beast proved indeed to be a species of trebuchet, for suddenly a timber and iron arm swung up to hurl its own ragged cloud of missiles in the opposite direction. Sir Fromony wondered to himself why they were not throwing large rocks, and watched with mild confusion as the remarkably well placed shot resulted in a mere clattering against the castle gate. (Note: The Ogre player had forgotten that the scraplauncher – and there is a clue in the name – did not employ stones as ammunition but merely scrap iron. All he could recall as he gleefully watched the dice roll a direct hit on the gate was that the rules said it worked something like a stone thrower. Oh, how we laughed when we discovered the sad truth. :lol:)
Then came the joyful answer to Sir Fromony’s prayers – the sweet sound of horn blasts, followed quickly by the thunderous beat of heavy hooves. The relief had come, and not a moment too soon! (Note: a 3+ chance from the second turn onwards for the relief to arrive, as per ambush rules.) Two large bodies of gorgeously bedecked knights came hurtling through the morning mists like heroes from some legendary tale of knightly courage (and immaculate timing).
And just as they arrived, a cannon-carrying ogre did succumb to a second volley of arrows from the walls. These two events meant men of the garrison had every reason to cheer, and cheer they did. Their joy, however, was suddenly cut short as the ogres, showing remarkable alacrity for such hulking creatures, charged at the walls. It became obvious they knew full well the danger they were in, what with lance-armed knights to their rear, and that with this in mind they intended to gain the sanctuary of the walls before the knights could prick at them. For Sir Fromony, the thought that the foe might be acting out of fear, failed entirely to reassure him. All it meant was that they redoubled their pace. One company reached the walls with terrifying speed, laid their ladders promptly and began their climb …
… while the cannon-wielding ogres spun about to point their cruel muzzles at the Knights Errant among the advancing chivalry.
The Slaughtermaster with them conjured up a bonecrushing spell to kill two of the Knights Errant, then conjured up further magic to enfold him and his unit in magical protection. The cannons now blasted and felled another knight, whilst a load of scrap clattered off the young knights’ armour. Meanwhile, up at the wall the Ogres climbed quickly and surely, ripping a yeoman warder right off the wall to send him tumbling horribly to his death, the sight of this, along with the death of several more archers, sapped all courage from the defenders who leaped down into the courtyard leaving the Ogres to clamber over onto the parapet. While several ogres jeered and laughed at the running archers, the rest calmly turned to see if the knights had caught up with their comrades, as if taking the wall had been little more than a walk up a hill.
The knights of the relief force could see that the foe’s trebuchet pulling beast was threatening to charge. Unwilling to be so distracted, the Knights of the Realm charged across the Knight’s Errant’s front to slam into the cannon-wielding Ogres, hoping to burst through and gallop along the base of the walls and so reach the second company of brutes before they too took a wall.
In this they had some success, driving one of their lances right through an ogre in the first impact, then riding down the rest and they fled, even felling the Slaughtermaster himself. In a somewhat ungainly fashion their mounts made their way over the piled corpses and towards the wall. They could see the enemy up ahead, but could they reach them in time?
While the scraplaunching monster shuffled unsurely towards the Knights Errant (Note: A stunning failed charge roll of 2,1,1!) the footslogging ogres wasted no time themselves. Hurtling at, then up, the walls, they hacked down several foes and sent the rest, Sir Fromony amongst them, fleeing into the courtyard.
Outside the chivalry was dismayed. They had come, by mere moments, too late. The Ogres were up and over the walls, and the screams from within the castle, as well as the peasants tumbling from the walls to thud into the rocky ground beneath, made it very clear that Terme had fallen. The knights had no ladders, and the ogres were laughing as they drew up their own to leave none outside. The gate was locked and barred, and showed no signs of opening.
Frustrated, the Knights Errant threw themselves at the only foe they could, chasing the Ogres chariot-cum-stonethrower across the field to watch it smash itself to pieces trying to cross a hedge (Note: 1 on dangerous terrain, 6 for wounds.) Inside the castle two bruisers leaped from the wall, leaving the other ogres in possession, and charged across the courtyard to make mincemeat of the momentarily rallied archers.
(Note: Interestingly you can compare the rather contrasting painting styles of my friend and myself, as he borrowed a figure from my own collection to serve as his army standard. Mine = cartoon, cell shaded. His = realistic and subtle. You know, my figures never seem to fit in with anyone else’s collection!)
The castle was all but taken, and all that remained was the butchering or capture of the last of the garrison, an activity the ogres took grisly pleasure in. What became of Sir Fromony nobody knows, but most would say it is not hard to guess.
Meanwhile the Ogres’ commander, the fearsome tyrant Razger Boulderguts, was not happy. He had come to fight, something which he did not feel he had done. Outside the knights were galloping up and down, apparently unsure as to what they should do next.
“Come out,” cried one of them. “Come out and fight!” Others now joined in, adding mockery to the suggestion, “You came here to hide did you?” one shouted. “See how the Ogres run?” jeered another.
Then one of them, a paladin bedecked in a surcoat and barding of red-bordered blue, bearing a white griffon rampant upon his shield and a drake’s head crest to his helm, ordered silence. This gained, he now shouted, “I challenge any one of you to single combat. Come out, if you dare, if you any semblance of honour. Come out and face me one on one!”
Boulderguts, not an Ogre ever to suffer doubt, laughed. His god had answered his prayer – here was his chance to sate his bloodlust. He ordered the gate opened and strode boldly out before it, hefting a rusty and blooded blade bigger than a man in one hand, and an ironbound war-mallet heavier than a man in the other.
“You!” he bawled. “You want to fight? Then fight!”
With a roar he launched into a run, whilst the paladin spurred his destrier to charge. (Note: We agreed that both would count as charging.)
When they met there was a mighty crunch as Bouldergut’s gut-plate horns thrust through mail and deep into horse flesh. The ogre tyrant’s armour glittered magically as the knight’s frantic blows simply glanced off it. Then, after pausing for a moment as if to consider which weapon to favour, Bouldergut swung with his huge blade and sliced right through both the horse’s head and the paladin.
As the ogre tyrant let loose a bellowing victory roar, the knights, knowing that single combat had been offered and accepted, decided to combine honour and common sense and ride back to Ravola.
They had some bad news to deliver.
Some historical notes concerning Tilea in the Spring of 2401
Things were stirring in Tilea, although perhaps not quite what people expected. In the far north, contrary to the fearful concerns of many, Miragliano’s vampire duke had been quiet. No shambling legions had yet spilled forth to spread the waking nightmare of undeath. Yet the fear had not lessened, for few had supposed that the living dead would move quickly. Surely the evil duke was even now strengthening his cold grip upon his realm, weeding out the living wherever they hid, then killing them in order to create more servants?
The vampire duke’s nephew, Guglielmo Sforta, fled Udolpho and successfully made his way to Viadazza, though it was said he had little in the way of strength with him – certainly no army. One might suppose he was merely a pretender to his uncle’s title, but many claimed, including the Church of Morr, that as Duke Allesandro had died then the honour has indeed already legally and fully passed on to Guglielmo as his heir. Guglielmo had been made welcome in Viadazza, feasting with the city’s greatest as an honoured guest of Lord Adolpho, where he petitioned all who would listen to aid him in cleansing Miragliano. Indeed, Lord Adolpho was amassing his not insignificant fleet, surely in light of the very real threat Miragliano presented? Whether or not he intended to take the war to the foe by sailing into Miragliano’s harbour was another matter altogether, as a fleet could be used instead to supply or escape a beseiged city.
So it was that Archlector Calictus II of the Holy Church of Morr made the following proclamation, to be read throughout Tilea:
Good people of Tilea, faithful servants of Morr and all the lawful gods, heed me for I speak with the voice of Morr to deliver dire warnings. Dark days have come, as a power most vile and most evil threatens every man, woman and child in our lands. We know greenskins raid in the south. We know that the foul ratto uomo scuttle beneath us sowing their poisonous corruptions. Yet these threats pale into insignificance compared to the wickedness in the north. For there, in Miragliano, an evil has arisen which is beyond mere sinfulness, beyond violence and hate, but is a triple heresy – for it is an insult to most holy Morr, an insult to his holy Church, and an insult to his people; it is a wickedness in direct opposition to Morr’s will, a usurping of the church’s rightful jurisdictions, and a terror to all in Tilea. Hundreds, thousands, of souls belonging to Morr have been twisted and tortured to become trapped in this realm, then made to kill the living so that even more souls might be reaped. If this wickedness is allowed free reign then all that is good will be destroyed; all that is ours, even our very souls, will be taken from us. Now is the time for the rulers of Tilea to accept their duty and so do what is noble, just and lawful, as well as entirely necessary. All those who can bear arms must march forth to cleanse the north of corruption. Let no prince be so unworthy as to shirk this duty. Let no council be so bickerous as to fail to act. Let no condottieri be so cowardly as to seek employment elsewhere. Let all our prayers be to Morr, for it is he who must guide us and bless us in our endeavours. Let our cry be ‘northwards’, for it is there that the fate of all those now living in Tilea will be decided!
Yet, as has been said already, the undead had so far been quiet. Rather, it was from the lands east of Miragliano that news of war came. The great castle at Terme, guarding the road north to Ravola and the Nuvolonc Pass, had been taken and burned. Corpses floated down the River Iseo to become caught on the footings of the bridge at Ebino, and the sky above Usola had become blackened by smoke. This was the work of an army of Ogres led by a brute called Boulderguts, brought over the mountains by the returning wizard-lord Nicolo of Campogrotta. They looted the castle of everything of worth, enslaved what few of the inhabitants they did not kill, and then marched further north. Whether Duke Giacomo of Ravola could make a stand against this threat was yet to be seen. Some said that Lord Totto of the Arrabiatti Brotherhood must be laughing to see the fate of Giacomo’s Bretonnian knights, while others said he cried for the poor serfs killed by their masters’ sides. What few were left simply raised their eyes and said a man who isn’t real can neither laugh nor cry. What the dwarfs of Karak Borgo thought of these events no one could say, for none were willing to risk travelling the Iron Road through Campogrotta now that the Wizard Lord Niccolo’s tyranny had resumed.
But it was not just outsiders who stirred trouble in the land. Lord Polcario, son of Duke Guidobaldi, had captured the town of Astiano in a bold attack. The Astianans had provoked Pavona’s wrath by tolling all mercantile goods upon both the road and the river. Perhaps they believed that with the Greenskin Waagh in the south the Pavonans would not dare to strike back at them? Not so. A blue and white army cut their way through the town’s gate in a lightning assault and so took Astiano with barely a loss of their own. The realm of Pavona was thus grown – stretching westwards along the river Remo. Furthermore, Duke Guidobaldi seemed to have believed that the dwarfen moneylenders of Pavona had a hand in encouraging Astiano’s greedy boldness, and as a consequence banished all dwarfs from his realm, conveniently decreeing their goods forfeit.
There were sightings of a force of greenskins upon the hilly coast of Caretello. At first it was feared that another Waagh had landed, and that the southern city states would be attacked from both flanks, but it transpired that these were Sea Boss Scarback’s Green Corsairs, an infamous company of rovers who have served as part of several Sartosan fleets, and once as mercenaries in Viadazza’s pay. It was commonly presumed that they were looking for employment – and if they did not get it, then they would simply take what they needed. They were not the only company making enquiries, for the famous Compagnia del Sole’s contract to Trantio was drawing to a close. Renewal negotiations were ongoing, but if they proved unfruitful, then this most famous company – a veritable army in itself – might soon find itself serving a new master. Duchess Maria Colleoni of Ebino, faced with a vampire lord to her west and a rampaging army of Ogres to her east, was said to be reckoning up every scrap of gold and silver, even the copper pennies, in her treasury, praying she had enough to hire such a force, if only to pay the first installments necessary to seal a contract.
In the far south warlord Khurnag’s Waagh remained concentrated upon the western coast of the Bay of Wrecks, especially around the massively fortified fortress town of Monte Castello. Nothing had been heard of Lord Roberto’s garrison there for nearly a month, and no ships had returned from the castle. Those sailors who risked approaching the mouth of the bay reported that the greenskin fleet was grown much larger, and that fires were burning all around Monte Castello, as well as in the hills stretching to the south. The beating of drums was heard and the blaring of horns, both somehow sounding louder in the hours of darkness.
Part One: Defence
Summer 2401, The walled city of Ebino, northern Tilea
“I cannot understand why Lord Guglielmo rode past us upon his flight. Have I offended him? Is Ebino of no worth? Or are we so clearly doomed that he dare not visit us, never mind ask us for help?”
The Duchess Maria had been nursing this grievance ever since she heard of Guglielmo’s passage. She was family, as the granddaughter of Duke Ludo Sforta she was Guglielmo’s first cousin. Her little city of Ebino was Miragliano’s neighbour, and for years enjoyed not unfriendly relations. Lord Guglielmo had met the Duchess upon several occasions, fostering a familiarity she had thought genuine. Yet he had fled from his vampiric uncle’s terrible new rule not to Ebino and her, but to Viadaza and Lord Adolpho, a beast of a man with orc in his blood.
No-one answered her immediately, which did not bode well. The dwarfs, both Captain Urginbrow of her Ironsides and her chief engineer Welleg, simply stared, as if the matter were so outwith their ken that an answer could not be expected of them. Captain Urginbrow was dressed as always in plate amour, his beard concealing the breastplate even down to his tassets. He wore no helm, but his bald pate seemed perfectly formed for such, as if it were crafted for a helm rather than the other way around. Welleg was hooded in grey cloth and bore a huge, iron headed mallet that he obviously had not thought to lay down before attending the council. His fur-lined, green jerkin was decorated sparsely with iron studs, making him appear as if he had been lightly peppered with leadshot. He had the sort of bulbous nose many dwarfs were gifted with, and the flatness of the rest of his face was accentuated rather than diminished by a protruding bottom lip caused by his underbite. All in all, not the sort of face that promised wit and wisdom, yet he was rightly renowned for his skill with engines of war.
Both men in the chamber were similarly silent. Her mercenary commander, Captain Sir Giorgio, wore a furrowed brow as if wrestling with mental turmoil, while the Morrite priest Father Remiro was apparently engaged in silent prayer. Perhaps he was seeking enlightenment?
“Well,” asked the Duchess, “why did he not come?”
Sir Giorgio cleared his throat, “We have sent a messenger to Viadaza to enquire of him what he intends, your grace, but as yet have received no answer.”
“I know about the message,” said the Duchess, a note of exasperation in her tone. “And I know that no word has come back. In lieu of that, I would like your thoughts upon the matter.”
She presented quite a contrast to the armed and armoured soldiers in the chamber, as well as to the priest in his dark grey woollen robes and plain cap of maroon cloth. Her light brown hair was fastened up fancily in the Reman fashion, with a band of tight curls to frame her brow and bunched ringlets upon either side. Her dress was of dark green silk damask, edged at her low cut neck line and sleeves with fine, white lace point. She wore gold at her neck, wrist and upon her breast.
It was Father Remiro who ventured an opinion first, gesturing dramatically as he so often did – this time presenting his arms as if he were weighing the matter in the air before him. “Your grace, it may well be that Lord Guglielmo was not thinking clearly, neither acting sensibly nor in his best interests. To discover that one’s uncle and liege lord has become so evilly corrupted as to embrace undeath, and that he intends to massacre his own people and plunge his entire realm into an unliving nightmare, can be no easy thing. It would unhinge the best of minds, certainly those not prepared by their faith in Morr to stand up against such horrors.”
The Duchess was not convinced. She had the measure of Lord Guglielmo and he had never given her reason to suspect he was weak. Quite the opposite – he appeared sure of his nobility and purpose, and very much a leader of men. “A man so afeared would run to the nearest safe haven, surely? If he did not come here, then perhaps he thinks Ebino is not safe? Perhaps he knows what his uncle intends next and travelled accordingly”
“I reckon it’s more likely his lordship couldn’t come here,” said the Ironside Captain Urginbrow. “If he was chased from Miragliano by dead and deadly things, then he would go whichever way he could to escape.”
Sir Giorgio was nodding. “We know the vampire duke’s foul servants came close, the tracks we found proved the peasants’ frightful reports were not false. Mounted men, or at least things that were once men. Perhaps they followed Lord Guglielmo then turned aside?” He pointed with his gauntleted hand at the large map laid upon the table.
“They were seen here in the orchard by the mill at Rucai, not far at all from the road, and here where the road fords the Valgetty.”
“If they were pursuing him, then why would they turn aside?” said the Duchess. “Such creatures are not easily distracted from their purpose. If they were scouting my lands, then they were sent to do so.”
“Lord Guglielmo might have shaken them off with some trick, perhaps?” offered Sir Giorgio. “He may have led them along the road, giving the impression he was heading here, then cunningly snuck off southwards.”
“If that were so,” said the Duchess, “and his move towards us was merely a ruse, then it still leaves my question unanswered.”
The mood in the chamber was darkening, something the Duchess would not have thought possible concerning the peril they all faced. Perhaps her line of enquiry seemed desperate? Harping on about why Guglielmo had not come was hardly likely to lift her men’s spirits, and besides, as no answer was forthcoming, it served no real purpose. She looked down at the map, traced her finger along the line marking the road. “Well, it’s all by the by. He did not come. We must of course consider what we can do, what we should do, not what he did not do.”
Sir Giorgio obviously took this as permission to say something that had been on his mind. “By your leave, your grace, we could – considering how many good dwarfen folk dwell within our walls – we could send to Barak Borgo for aid.” He turned to address the two dwarfs directly, “Surely your brethren would be willing to help us against such a monstrous foe?”
To all but the engineer’s surprise, Captain Urginbrow issued a snort of laughter. “You are wrong, commander. They may be distant kin, but they owe us nothing, neither love nor even respect. They look upon us …” Here he stopped, turned to bow to the duchess, and said, “No offence to you, your grace, nor to the good folk of this city, for I speak the karak dwarf’s mind and not my own.” Then to Sir Giorgio, “… They look upon us as no better than men, and for no more reason than that we chose to live among you. They are proud to the point of folly, and they love only their own.”
“And, your grace,” said the priest, “Karak Borgo is many leagues from here. If they were to send help it would surely come too late.”
“Then you believe that the abomination will strike at us soon?” asked the Duchess.
“I fear so. That which he has become will still possess the living Duke’s memories, and will revel in corrupting all that was once his – including those he once held dear, even his kin.”
“If his outriders have tried to count us,” added the captain, “then he must at the least be considering it. If they succeeded in their count – and who is to say where they crept in the darkest hours of the night – he will know we are not strong.”
“But our defences, the moat, my ironsides and your mercenaries, every able bodied man we have practising drill – is this not strength?”
“Ebino has never been strong in comparison to Miragliano, and now that the duke has fashioned an army from hell, summoning long dead soldiers, it has become terrifying also. We can do all that we can to prepare, but we cannot stop men fearing the walking dead. How did you put it, captain Urginbrow: ‘dead and deadly things’.”
The duchess untangled her delicately entwined fingers and placed her hands on her hips. “I shall stand with my brave soldiers, and if needs be I shall perish in the defence of mine own.”
The men looked aghast, Father Remiro almost tripping over his words to discourage her. “Your grace, there is no need for you to put yourself in danger. You have your soldiers to do that. If you were to die here, and your daughter also, then that would be another victory for the foe. If you survive there is hope for the future, for Tilea must surely come to its senses, heed our holy church’s call to arms and cleanse Miragliano. Not the mountain dwarfs, but the faithful of Tilea. ”
Captain Giorgio was keen to add his own discouragement. “Your men will fight better knowing that you are safe, that you have gone for help. To face such horrors when their own noble mistress is in dire peril could only dishearten them. They would surely rather know that you are gathering allies to come to their aid.”
The duchess was apparently not convinced. “Our walls are strong, and we have the Ironsides to stand immovable upon them, two full companies of crossbowmen to shoot from them, and more militia besides. Every wall has been blessed by the priests and brothers of Morr, with charms and wards to fend off evil magics. The moat is deep and our storehouses full to brimming with supplies, carefully gathered and rationed. And the shadow lord Totto of the Arrabiatti promised to come in our hour of need. If Guglielmo receives our plea, then he too must send help. What could he be doing in Viadazza but raising an army?”
“I believe we can hold Ebino for some time, but not indefinitely,” said Captain Giorgio. “The enemy will not flinch from our quarrels as mortal men would do. Their fallen will lie in heaps even as those still standing calmly fill the moat with faggots and the truly dead to fashion a crossing, then raise their ladders beneath torrents of boiling oil without feeling the burning pain. Oh they will burn, oil will do that, but they won’t let it distract them, and will labour until they fall into pieces. And those who do fall may well be raised again. We can indeed hold for some time while they busy themselves fearlessly and steadily to overcome our walls. Such brave defence, however, would be wasted unless a sufficiently strong and timely relief force came to drive the foe away.”
“So you would have me run from Ebino during its greatest trial?”
“Yes your grace,” admitted the Sir Giorgio. “But only because I would have you bring succour to Ebino during its greatest trial.”
“We have sent word to Guglielmo, promised pardons to the Arrabiatti, and the church has preached on our behalf. These will bring succour.”
Captain Urginbrow harrumphed, and all turned to look at him. “Guglielmo passed us by, the Arrabiatti are like the mist that hides a thief not the steel that arms a soldier, and the church can only preach – people have to listen, then believe, then decide, then act. You, your grace, can promise rewards. You can shame the princes into doing what they know they should. You, your grace, will be Ebino standing there right ‘afore them. They can hardly ignore us then.”
Summer 2401, The city of Ravola, northern Tilea
There was precious little time to prepare – certainly not enough to send a plea through the pass for help from the north. Those knights who had ridden south to Terme Castle’s aid had arrived only to see the brutish foe clamber over the walls and drag their ladders up behind them. After then witnessing the death in single combat of the brave paladin Sir Theulenor, they were left stuck outside the castle, unable to help as the awful slaughter began within. Now they had returned to the city of Ravola, and although the foe (busy with looting) was not exactly hot on their heels, it seemed obvious to all that they would come, and soon. The horribly successful surprise attack on the southern fortress would be wasted if they did not march on to catch the city just as ill-prepared. Even Ogres would know that.
So it was that Lord Giacomo ordered that all those who dwelt in the hovels and cottages outside the walls should hurry into the city for safety. They did so very willingly, until the land outside lay silent.
The grey stone city walls were studded with towers built in a variety of styles, the result of many decades of piecemeal extensions and improvements. The gate was a little keep in itself, with a more massive tower to its west. Upon that bigger edifice was mounted the only working war machine currently in Ravola’s possession. It had been carried in pieces from a storehouse no-one had thought it would ever be removed from, and hastily re-built. The floor beneath was strengthened from below. Large chunks of masonry were hoisted up, while the last surviving man in the city to have seen it in action imparted what advice he could to the serfs who were to crew it. No-one, not even the most chivalrous of the knights, complained about its use, for the foe were vicious thugs, with not so much as a trace of honour, and fully deserved such a death. In truth, even the knights wished there were more such engines, and several workshops were ordered to begin fashioning copies with all haste.
The new machines were not to be completed, however, as the ogres, evidently sated with their bloody ransacking of Terme, came thumping into view, their ironshod boots tearing up the ground as they advanced almost as quickly as any destrier. They were not numerous, but such hulking creatures did not need to be. Led by the tyrant Razger Boulderguts, two regiments marched through the abandoned hamlet to the south, their banners of bones and battle trophies clattering a veritable cacophony to accompany their fiendish bellowing.
The order given my Lord Giacomo satisfied some and surprised the rest. He decided his realm’s knightly warriors should not man the walls, but would sally forth to meet the foe in the field. In his speech to his knights he asked them why own such fine mounts if not to use them in the fight? Why possess such horsemanship and skill in arms if not to employ them? And would not the Lady bless them all the more if instead of cowering behind the walls to let arrows and stones do the killing, they rode gallantly and chivalrously to face the foe in the field of battle? Last, he held aloft his lance and sung most lyrically of its virtues, describing how such a weapon, deftly and solidly placed by a man of courage and well-honed skills, could surely skewer even a beast twice the size of an ogre. This last remark with met with the loudest cheer, and every knight hefted his own lance to show their agreement.
And so, after dutifully praying to the Lady that she might bless them, three companies of knights rode through the gate and arrayed themselves in the shadow of the walls. Lord Giacomo, riding a horse barded in heavy black cloth, a large, purple panache adorning his helm and a heavy, and a scarlet cloak to mark him out, rode with five knights (the survivors of those who had fought against him all those years ago in the tourney in which he won the realm).
To his left rode his Knights Errant, ordered to stay close, all the better to receive Lord Giacomo’s shouted commands. Off to the right rode to the largest of his companies, being ten Knights of the Realm. The noble paladin Sir Galwin carried Ravola’s standard, ‘per pales gules and or a bull’s head sable’, upon a striped argent and sable silk flag.
Above the knights, upon the walls, were two score longbowmen and a small company of men at arms, as well as the lone trebuchet, all of whom watched with trepidatious fascination as the armoured riders manoeuvred into position and dressed their ranks and files. Then the attention of both those upon and below the walls was caught by something else which revealed the test was about to begin. The brute bellowing surged and the attackers now came on. The two regiments of bulls came together to the flank of the hamlet, the tyrant Boulderguts raising his huge, cleaver-like sword aloft, its blade still besmeared with the blood of the garrison at Terme.
The only other ogres present, a brace of leadbelchers with their heavy burdens, moved up upon the other side of the hamlet, then released a thunderous blast of iron and lead with no noticeable result. It was a disappointment mirrored by the magics summoned by the limping Slaughtermaster, who also failed to harm the knights. More than one of Giacomo’s men began to believe the Lady had truly blessed them, and thus gained a confidence they had not really possessed before, despite their outward cheers.
Lord Giacomo dipped his lance to signal his command, guiding his own company and the young knights on his left to wheel a little and trot leisurely towards the main bodies of the foe. His intention was to hit the ogres to the flank and front with a synchronised assault from all three companies of knights. If, that is, all went well.
The plan went awry almost immediately. The oblique advance of the Knights Errant had put their flank within sight of the two cannon-carrying ogres. Considering their cannons were now empty, the two ogres now attempted to charge. Left to their own devices the young knights would most certainly have preferred to stand rather than flee from such a base foe, but Lord Giacomo did not intend to waste their lives and so with another gesture of his lance, he ordered them to run. He knew this would hinder his plans somewhat, yet hoped it would not do so irretrievably: the Knights Errant would surely reform beneath the walls, while the leadbelchers would be drawn within range of his many longbows. Then, just a little later than he intended, the young knights could come up and join the fray.
The young knights obeyed and came thundering to the rear of Lord Giacomo’s company, doing so in a manner that appeared so much like a charge that the men at arms upon the wall looked down utter confusion. The tyrant Boulderguts, however, barely noticed. His attention had been entirely upon the foe before him, then was distracted only by the faltering advance of the other regiment of bulls, who had at first seemed intent upon charging Lord Giacomo’s company but for some reason failed to do so. Unhappy at their hesitation, he simply marched his own regiment calmly towards the foe, bawling: “March on, lads. Let them charge us! I am not afraid. Their wooden sticks’ll splinter and snap. Their bones’ll break as we bash their armour in. Let ‘em come. We’ll kill every last one of them and you’ll be sucking their marrow for breakfast!”
Perhaps the Slaughtermaster was not convinced by his master’s speech, or possibly he thought to make sure it came true? Either way, while the tyrant shouted his boasts, the magic wielding ogre summoned up a magical fortitude and stubbornness to bolster the bulls’ natural strength.
Boulderguts’ bravado was rewarded by the charges he asked for. While Sir Galwin’s Knights Errant smashed into the tyrant’s own regiment …
… Lord Giacomo led his own smaller company into the Slaughtermaster’s regiment.
One of the two large companies of longbowmen, who had been placed upon a wall from which their arrows could not reach the foe, had been making their way out of the gate so that they could lend what bloody contribution they could. The trebuchet had so far been incapable of landing anything near the foe, but now, upon witnessing the brave charges of their knights, these men joined with half the other company of Longbowmen still on the walls to send a hail of thirty arrows at the leadbelchers.
One of the brutes, his grey skin fatally pricked from head to foot by arrow heads, collapsed with a wail to the ground. His comrade, keen not to suffer a similar torment, turned and ran.
As the leadbelcher thrashed about in an ever increasing puddle of blood, his waling subsided until replaced by the sound of maniacal laughter. Razger Boulderguts had cut a paladin in two and found the sight of the horse carrying a pair of disembodied, stirruped legs very funny. Despite this horror, the other knights managed to wound the Slaughtermaster and fell an ogre, losing two of their own number. Some amongst them thought for a moment that the foe was giving way, entertaining a brief glimmer of hope that the impact of their lances at full charge could indeed discomfort the foe just as Lord Giacomo had promised. It was not to be, however. The ogres stood firm and the fight went on. (Note: the combat was a draw – I had a feeling this was the turning point, and an early one at that, in the game.)
Lord Giacomo threw himself even more enthusiastically at the foe, becoming entangled in a one-on-one fight against a bruiser. While he and the brute hacked at each other, Giacomo’s armour becoming bent, battered and bloodied, four of his knights fell to the enemy’s battle standard bearer, who waded through them swinging his blade as if he were merely scything hay and not steel clad men. The last knight was cut down by the rest of the ogres so that suddenly Lord Giacomo found that he faced them all alone.
Facing such odds, and filled with despair at the quick slaughter of the men he loved, all the bravery Giacomo had ever known was insufficient. He turned to run, intent on the crazy desire to apologise to the people of Ravola for what he had done, only to be cut down and trampled into the dirt as the bulls hurtled onwards. Upon seeing what lay before them, the ogres happily turned this impetuous motion into a charge and crashing headlong into the stunned young knights beneath the walls.
The knights fighting Boulderguts and his regiment put up a better fight …
… yet they too were doomed. Two by two, then one by one, they fell, until only madness kept them fighting (A snake eyes break test was passed). When finally reduced to one man, being the paladin carrying the standard of Ravola, even madness was not enough to keep him there. Like his Lord only a few moment’s before, he turned and fled …
… and like his Lord, he too was run down and ground into the mud by ironshod feet.
Cruelly, the Knights Errant were easily swept aside, their short lives ending in a combat lasting barely a moment. The victorious ogres simply stepped over their corpses and right up to the walls …
They still had the ladders they had used at Terme. What happened next was something like what had happened that castle, although here there were no knights advancing at their rear so they could take their time. When they did climb, the men on the walls stood no chance, something the ogres knew from the start and the men, even the slowest witted amongst them, knew from the moment they saw the first ogre pluck a defender from the wall, then clamber over to push two more from the parapet to their deaths.
Screams echoed in the streets, mingled with coarse voices crying “Give it hear!” and “Smash it down” and “Where do you think you’re running to little rat runt?” Misery and pain became the order of the day, and by nightfall, Ravola had well and truly fallen.
Never mind a castle, Razger Boulderguts had now captured no less than a city.
Part Two: Attack
Summer 2401, The city of Trantio, central Tilea
As always, Prince Girenzo Medizi of Trantio appeared calm. It did not mean he was content. All his orders, even those to have this person punished or that person tortured, were delivered quietly, assuredly and entirely without expression of the commonly expected emotions such as sadness or anger. Although he was young, his was a cold species of tyranny and most of those who served him closely and often had quickly learned not to search his face nor scrutinize his demeanour to ascertain his mood. These things could only ever be known by his words, which were direct and clear, if necessary determined and cruel.
He wore a long gown of richly embroidered satin-cloth, his hair cut neatly in an unflatteringly practical style, bulging out from a purple cap of velvet. In his right hand he clutched his sword and scabbard, the belt hanging loose, as if he had brought them as an after thought, a nod to the fact that the meeting was to concern war and that he was speaking in his capacity as Lord General of Trantio’s forces. He had been silent since told of the Pavonan conquest of Astiano, his attention fixed upon the map and the papers detailing his current military strength. Watching him were his chief secretary Master Maconi and the commander of the Compagnia del Sole, Captain-General Micheletto Fortebraccio. The only others on the battlement were the prince’s and the captain-general’s guards.
“It seems Duke Guidobaldo believes we are so afraid of events in the north that we are unwilling, even unable, to protest against his actions. The ambassador we received was without doubt here to gauge our fears concerning Miragliano, but not because Pavona wished to ally with us against the threat. Guidobaldo has other battles in mind, serving his own greed and lust for power. When he ought, by all that is right and proper, to stand beside his neighbours, he looks instead to snatch at what he can like a common cutpurse.”
The town of Astiano was not a possession of Trantio, but the prince had family there, and the merchants of both towns had good trade relations, even if the road between them was in such a poor state as not to warrant a scratch on a map. What really annoyed Girenzo, however, was the fact that one neighbour thought to seize another, whilst not only keeping their intentions secret from him, but actively misleading him. And why did Guidobaldo think he had any right to conquer Astiano? If anyone had the right to rule Astiano it was him.
He drew his finger across the map, then tapped at Astiano. “I liked the duke of old, but not the man he has become. While I was busy cleansing this city of heresy and the improper influence of lower clergy and rabble rousers, he was encouraging such follies. Everything has its place in both the heavens and the earth, proper hierarchies both civil and religious. To raise one god above all others is – as our own dear city’s ugly past attests – to topple all rightful authority. The duke is playing with fire, fanning the flames of rebellion, burning down lawful precedents, and why? Greed. Just as the Arch Lector preaches how all Tilean princes should stand together in the service of Morr against the vampire duke, Guidobaldo instead cries ‘For Morr’ as he robs and steals from his neighbours.”
As he fell silent no-one present thought to comment. To speak now, even during the silence, felt like interruption. Eventually, he spoke again.
“I know this duke only too well, but his son, the commander of this army at Astiano – of him I know almost nothing.” He turned to look at his secretary. “Master Maconi?”
Recovering quickly from the discomfort of such a sudden enquiry, Maconi answered. “Your grace, the young Lord Polcario is, from every report I have heard, simply a soldier obedient to his father’s will.”
“Ah, but what kind of soldier?” asked the prince. “Soldiers, like dogs, come in many breeds. Is this boy a pampered lap dog? A turnspit? A hound or a spaniel? A shepherd’s cur or a bold mastiff like our captain general here?”
In response, Fortebraccio simply nodded, taking care not to show any discomfort. None but the prince could know whether the comment was meant to be in jest. Nor was anyone going to ask.
Maconi put his hands upon his hips, an action which accentuated his portly shape. The copious green cloth of his bonnet flopped to one side and the silvered badge of office beneath his black beard glinted in the sun as he answered.
“Oh, definitely a hunting hound, your grace. He is wholly given over to the practise of arms, to riding, hawking and the company of soldiers and knights. This may of course change as he matures, but at present his youthful straightforwardness makes him merely his father’s instrument.”
The prince gave a nod, both a sign of his understanding and that the secretary should stop speaking. “The musician plays the tune.”
Once again he studied the map, tracing the line of a path through the Trantine hills. “What of Guidobaldo’s other ‘instruments’? This army at Astiano – what does it consist of? How many mercenaries? And which companies?”
“Apparently none, your grace. The soldiers are Pavonan, though not mere militia hurriedly raised for the campaign, but contracted soldiers, well armed and drilled. Astiano fell quickly.”
Once more the prince simply nodded to show he had heard. After a long moment’s silence, he turned to captain-general Fortebraccio. “Did the duke seek your service?”
The captain-general gave a smile of sorts, being one of the few men in the prince’s circle apparently untroubled by nerves in his presence. Of course, if he was, he would hide it, for it would not do for a condottiere to be so easily cowed. His head was uncovered, as he held his yellow feathered hat (a field sign of the Compagnia del Sole’s officers) by his side. His left hand rested on the pommel of his sword, its blade hidden beneath the generous folds of a copious cassock of scarlet cloth. His slashed tunic was blue, thus complementing the cassock to make the company’s colours.
“As was our right, your grace, we dispatched our chancellors to several realms.”
“He did not agree to your terms then?” asked the prince. He had only very recently re-hired the condottiere company, on a contract almost identical to the previous one. But he knew they had looked for better terms before they agreed to his.
“He procrastinated,’ said the captain-general, “while lecturing my chancellors on the proper worship of Morr.”
“As is his wont. Perhaps Sagrannalo’s spirit has returned to haunt us, having taken residence in the body of a foolish duke? Yet … can he be so foolish?”
“His star is in the ascendant,” offered Maconi. “While his son succeeds, his subjects are kept happy. The merchants of Pavona no longer have to pay Astonian tolls, and his citizen soldiers can share the loot they have won. Of course, there are some Pavonans who are not so content, for various reasons.”
He prince fixed his attention upon his secretary. “Are you suggesting,” he said calmly, “that I stir up insurrection amongst the duke’s subjects?”
“It was merely my intention, you grace, to report the situation,” replied Maconi, stumbling a little over his words. “Not to suggest anything at all.”
“Still, it is something we should consider. Who exactly is dissatisfied?”
“Those who remember how the men of Astiano aided them in their hour of need against the hill goblins forty years ago. Those who believe the city cursed by the ghosts of the victims of the plague, unquiet spirits who cannot rest because they know some terrible truth. Those who …”
“This is all by the by,” interrupted the prince. “I don’t want to hear of old men’s grudges, superstitious gossip and alehouse ghost stories. Does anyone of any consequence complain against the duke?”
Maconi pointed to a paper upon the table, one yet to be perused by the prince. “The dwarfen exiles, moneylenders and craftsmen in the main, have expressed their disgust at their banishment, and desire support for their cause.”
“Moneylenders.” Here anyone else would smile. The prince merely tilted his head a little. “Rich, then?”
“Not so much now considering their present circumstances, your grace, by which I mean having been driven from their stronghouses and robbed of their treasures, but with connections, no doubt, and practised in the skill of raising money.”
“And who would no doubt fall over each other in their scramble to raise monies for those who would aid them in their cause?” He picked up the letter in question and briefly perused its contents. “You must enquire as to their terms, master Maconi. Let us see how much gold they can conjure; how generous they are prepared to be for the right cause.”
Maconi bowed silently, and the prince pointed at the captain-general.
“In the meantime, we will show our troublesome neighbour both our displeasure and what forces we have at our disposal, whilst ensuring our strength is maintained. I would have this done in such a way that we are able at any moment to turn northwards should the situation require. The soldiers of your company should find such an activity satisfies their lust for action and their desire for rewards. This shall be performed strictly according to the terms of our contract. Do you understand, captain-general?”
Again, General Fortebraccio smiled. “Yes, your grace, I understand. A punishing show of strength, incurring little loss amongst my men. That’s exactly what we do best.”
Prince Girenzo turned the map around so that the captain-general could look upon it the right way up, and launched immediately into instructions as if the whole plan was already carefully weighed and reckoned. It soon became clear he had not been idle during his silences.