Just across the bridge from the southern gate of Scorcio.
There was sufficient breeze to whip the flag in a lively fashion, revealing the white baton 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 from its very beginnings. Like most ensigns, it was not just his flag that marked him out, but also his elaborate clothes. His helmet was ringed with an alarmingly upstanding crown of yellow and white ostrich feathers, his parti-coloured breeches were slit in the shape of the company’s emblem, trimmed with braid, and his long beard was of a northern fashion.
They had just left the Trantian town by the southern gate, where the river was bridged. The town was not fully moated, but from this side appeared to be so. Ahead of Banhaltte rode two of the company’s chancellors, Ottaviano and Baccio. They too wore the company’s colours of burgundy and blue, and the company’s emblem was embroidered upon their left shoulders. Baccio was mounted on a black rouncey, his companion on a grey. 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 could pick up a conversation they had begun the previous night .
“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. He was the senior of the two of them, with two years experience as a chancellor. Baccio had only recently taken on the role, and was here as much to learn as to assist. They had been friends for some time, which was what had motivated Ottaviano to press for Baccio’s promotion from mere clerk.
“The Urbimans,” said Ottaviano, “are likely to be prosperous enough to afford the whole company, I’ll grant you that, but do they need to? Their old enemy Trantio has laid aside all ambitions to re-conquer their realm. The Trantians went to war over the matter in the time of the Republic, but 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 old policy concerning 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.”
“Well, we are mercenaries,” complained Baccio. “Why should 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 want to hire us in future knowing that we might so easily, simply for coin, turn against them to join their enemies?”
“But you just said that Trantio and Urbimo are not at war.”
“That does not make them friends,” explained Ottaviano. “Besides, the point I’m trying to make is that if Urbimo is no longer threatened by Trantio then why would they want 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 only once before divided their strength to take separate contracts, after a bitter argument which left the two parts never likely to rejoin as one again. Otherwise, there was only the odd occasion when some amongst them left the company to take employment as a new, petty company, or to join another company.
Currently the Compagnia 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. All but the latter drilled every morning to maintain their readiness and prove their worth. For the last two years Prince Girenzo Medizi of Trantio had marched them about the Trantine Hills upon manoeuvres, occasionally fighting mock battles with them, and had never once found fault. He paraded them through his city’s streets monthly, as if proud of them. Best of all, he had so far happy to merely play at soldiers with them, having required no actual fighting.
Now, however, as the eighth week before the end of the ‘Ferma’ period of their contract had passed without agreement being reached concerning re-employment, the company was permitted by that contract to send forth chancellors to negotiate with potential new employers.
It was not that the company was keen to leave Prince Girenzo’s employment, rather that they needed to demonstrate better bids made by others to convince him to agree to better terms. The Compagnia’s 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. “Surely, Miragliano is close enough to pose a threat to Urbimo?” he asked. ” Does not every state in the north harbour fears concerning the Vampire Duke’s intentions?”
This made Ottaviano laugh. Baccio’s habit of not thinking things through seemed well ingrained. Still smiling, he looked his friend in the eye.
“Are you suggesting you want to fight the already dead? 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 offers us better terms than our current contract with Prince Girenzo,” he said, “that makes it much easier to demand improved terms from him.”
“It does seem likely,” suggested Baccio, “that Urbimo will be willing to pay very generously for help in defending against the horrors of the north.”
“Not necessarily. They will know the vampire duke cannot yet reach Urbimo, nor for some time. They’re wily merchants, unlikely to pay unnecessary expenses. Suppose the Duke of Miragliano does sally forth, then he must first get past Ebino and Viadaza before he reaches Urbimo …
…I have a doubt either will stand idly by as the walking dead shamble through their realm. And, like I said, that’s just supposing he leaves Miragliano. Who knows what a vampire wants? Perhaps he will simply sit where he is, ruling his bony court and drinking from 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!” said Baccio, speaking 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 – the vampire Harkon commanded them. Then something occurred to him.
“It’s much more likely the vampire duke rules 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 about it.”
“I suppose,” Baccio muttered grudgingly.
“Tell me,” asked Ottaviano, narrowing his eyes, “Why does Urbimo fascinate you so?”
“In truth?” said Baccio. “Because it’s not too far away.”
“Ha! So it’s 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 only of the practicalities and profits.” Suddenly, he perked up. “Well then, if not Urbimo, then what about the Miraglianan Lord Guglielmo? They say he escaped his uncle’s deathly turning and intends to gather a force to claim what is rightfully his. They say the Church of Morr will surely back him, make it another Holy War.”
Ottaviano laughed louder than before. Tilea had had enough of Holy Wars – they had even tried a Holiest War. All such endeavours proved to be the product of worldly ambition, and ultimately descended into the usual, messy and desperate squabbles, as factions formed and opinions differed.
“We will not get as good terms from Lord Guglielmo,” Ottaviano suggested. “He hasn’t the means to pay us. No doubt he would promise us great rewards, to be paid after the war, but if we tell that to Prince Girenzo he will no doubt quickly give us much better promises. Anyone would happily hire us if we were willing to accept their word alone as our price. We want gold, not promises.”
“It was a stupid idea anyway,” Baccio admitted apologetically. “It would mean we not only had to fight the undead but must also march deep into their hellish domain. That’s too much.”
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, consisting of two Zweihänders …
… and four halberdiers. Bringing up the rear was the young servant Donno, leading a mule laden with supplies. The general had offered the chancellors more guards, 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. Besides, any Tilean would reconsider causing trouble at the mere sight of their banner, rather than because of 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.
“You know, if we did gain an offer of good terms in some far away place, and Prince Girenzo refuses to match it, then the whole company will be forced to slog it all the way there.”
“If so,” said Ottaviano. “Then lets hope we head southwards, as that would not be so bad at all. I’d rather rather fight greenskins than the undead, any day. The southern cities and towns are looking to better their defences now that the Waagh had taken root in the lands around Monte Castello. Luccini is hiring Gedik Mamidous’ Sons of the Desert; building barracks for them! Alcente has hired Marienbugers to help them, some say they’ve sold their realm to the northern merchants. I don’t know the exact terms, but whatever the agreement, an army of Marienburgers now guards them.”
Baccio snorted. “So, not much work for us then?”
“On the contrary, Baccio, if the trouble in Raverno ends, or some tyrant grabs power there for himself, then they might want to 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 goblins’ threat. In this worrying time any or all might offer us better terms compared to the Medizi prince.”
Baccio nodded whilst looking off into the distance, then turned to look at his comrade.
“The general said it will be only a matter of weeks before Prince Girenzo goes to war, and not against Miragliano or goblins. He’s furious about the Pavonans seizure of Astiano, perhaps afraid that his realm will be next. Tell me, in truth, Ottaviano – our mission, a new contract – 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 evil, instead of squabbling among themselves? If, however, you want to feel clever, then tell yourself that we are looking for employment because that way Prince Girenzo will be forced to offer us better terms. He will not want to lose us just at the moment he needs us most, and his hand will be forced.”
“Forced to open his purse!” laughed Baccio. “I suppose the first, most noble cause, is something you have rehearsed ready for the ears of our prospective employers?”
“Ah, you know me well,” exclaimed Ottaviano. “As you obviously doubt I could actually be so nobly motivated, then you may as well hear my true thoughts upon the matter. I do not want to go north. I’m for staying here or going south. 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. It is one thing to be on hand, drilling and practising postures, but another thing altogether to take on Pavona – for the that we should expect more pay. It is the prince’s own fault he allowed the Pavonans to gain the initiative, and foolishly found himself needing us most at the moment our contract is coming to an end. If instead we are to go south, then perchance that 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 go south, where our very presence in the field may be sufficient to break the foe’s resolve. If not that stay here to argue with Pavonans. But not the north. The walking dead 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 the mercenary way of thinking a long time ago. Perhaps Baccio caught sight of the glance, and knew it for what it was, for he now spoke quietly.
“So, we avoid fighting the undead, under any terms. Instead we either get 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 enough gold in the north for us to go. It would have to be a lot, but someone might have sufficient. The Compagnia has fought the undead before, and lived to tell the tale.”
“Oh, so in the end it is all about the pay?”
Ottaviano grinned broadly and patted the purse hanging from his saddle pommel, making 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 would hew grievous wounds indeed upon its victims. Nor was the 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 had failed momentarily to hear what the man said.
“You saw how many of them?” he asked.
“In truth, your honour,” said the fellow in a peasant’s accent, “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 becoming 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, thus 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, my hood off – the better to hide my noddle – and I was gone before any beady little eyes could alight on me. All the better to come back with a report, you see?”
Sir Fromony had wondered how the peasant could have escaped detection whilst sporting such a brightly hued hood. He would have been better off in the green hunting livery he and his squire wore, and even Mainet’s iron pot would have been less visible. Still, many of his subjects favoured yellow, for that and red were the colours of his coat of arms, and yellow was the cheapest dye of the two. Even when hunting Sir Fromony and his squires had a little yellow somewhere on their person. Not that it mattered, as the peasant had somehow survived. Some folk, not many, just happened to be lucky. Perhaps it was due to an abundance of luck that the man had never needed to hone his wits?
“Is this all you can tell us?” asked Sir Fromony. “Brutes by the dozen and goblins, or did you see anything else? Men? Baggage? Machines?” He hefted his mace as if to point at the peasant. “Be precise,” he commanded, whilst thinking ‘If such is possible!’
Screwing up his eyes (perhaps imagining what Sir Fromony’s 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 kine it was, funny sort of horns though, with the thickest 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, with two pairs of yellow stripes?”
“I can’t say for certain, for the breeze wasn’t up to much, and all was limp as a consequence, but red with yellow stripes seems right for what I did see.”
Campogrotta – it has to be, thought Sir Fromony. It seemed that the recently (and most mysteriously) returned wizard lord, Nicolo Bentiglovio did not intend to live out the remainder of his unnaturally long life in peace. Furthermore, he obviously still possessed his regimented brutes, the army of Ogres which had 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. Returned again from his double banishment, however, he was apparently feeling more aggressive, and now his brutes marched upon the fortress of Terme.
Sir Fromony knew the 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 Terme 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. “My lord, should I ask for anything in particular?”
“Ask for whatever can come quickest, for the enemy is already close and I doubt they intend to blockade us and starve us out. Whoever else the duke wishes to send can follow on as best they can. Now, go.”
The knight 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 and no other misfortune should befall him, he would make it to Ravola before dark.
Sir Fromony turned next to his crossbowman, Landri. He was an old soldier, with a keen eye and skill enough to pierce an apple at a four-score paces more often than not.
“Landri, you will go to take a look at this foe. Discover their true strength, then return to me as soon as you can.” Gesturing at the yellow hooded peasant he added, “Take this man with you, he seems to know the lie of the land well enough to have stayed hidden.”
“That I do, you honour. Spent my youth hereabouts, and was indeed born not more than a stone throw’s from here and was named in this very chapel before the fire that consumed …”
“Wisht,” snapped Sir Fromony. “There is no time for fond remembrances, fool. Go with my man here, and hold thy tongue, for brutes might be loud, but they are not deaf.”
Last he addressed his squire, who carried the bow Sir Fromony had been using for his hunt. “Mainet, with me.”
The party divided. As Sir Fromony rode he could not stop the flood of concerns and regrets assailing him – the clogged ditch which should have been cleared, the deacaying 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.
He consoled himself with the thought that surely his castle could hold at least for a little while, and long enough for relief to come.
Spring 2401, Terme Castle, Northern Tilea
The castellan of Terme, Sir Fromony Dalguinnac, had arrayed his limited force as best he could. All he possessed to defend his home were longbowmen and men-at-arms – merely peasants bolstered with a handful of yeomen – and not sufficiently numerous even to man every wall and tower. It had taken some careful thought as to where to place each of his three companies so that they could move quickly to wherever they might be needed in the fight. 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 any man, Sir Fromony was sure the brute foe would be unable to scale the towers, so the archers to his right were instructed to move to the defence of the empty wall beside them if the foe showed any likelihood of approaching 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 a request for relief. He felt assured that his master, Lord Giacomo Uberti, would not abandon Terme Castle to its fate.
His confidence was not misplaced, for two large bodies of mounted knights were indeed thundering by way of the shortest possible route from Ravola towards Terme.
Knights of the realm galloped at the fore, commanded by the paladin Sir Gregoire de Vienne, bedecked in a surcoat and barding of red-bordered blue, bearing a white griffon rampant upon his shield and a drake’s head crest on his helm.
By his side rode Sir Galwin, the ensign, carrying Ravola’s standard, ‘per pales gules and or a bull’s head sable’, upon a striped argent and sable silk flag.
Behind them rode the Knights Errant, younger in years and a little less ornamented. They could have ridden at the fore, and easily outstripped the older knights in pace, but it was not their place to ride at the head of the little column. The two companies made eighteen riders in total, which was not all the soldiers Duke Giacomo had it his disposal, but he had been loath to send more for he suspected the attack on Terme could well be a deliberate distraction, a ruse intended to draw off his strength so that another attack might be launched against Ravola itself. Such strategies had been employed by the Campogrottan brutes in the past.
As his own red and yellow standard 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 hided beast dragged some sort of trebuchet, whilst on the other flank a company of brutes carried cannon barrels – no carriages, no trucks, just the barrels. He had heard stories of such but had presumed them to be exaggerations. Apparently not so – these brutes were indeed strong enough to discharge cannons as if they were handguns! The larger companies were hauling ladders, suggesting that they intended to climb the walls rather than battering at them with shot to fell them. That made sense, for the guns they had – no matter how impressively handled – could hardly be considered siege pieces.
At the very moment their companies were finally sorted into ranks and files, a bellowing cry signalled the advance, and they came on hastily.
If the relief did not come right now, thought Sir Fromony, Terme was surely doomed. The almost entirely peasant garrison could not hope to stand against such fearsome assailants, even protected by sturdy stone walls. His fearful reverie concerning his doom was broken when he heard shouted commands to ‘loose’ from both his left and right, upon which 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 hit home, not a single ogre fell. Umpteen shafts could be seen, hanging from their chests, arms and shoulders, waggling 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 rock, 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.)
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. A relief force had indeed arrived, 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 bodies of colourfully bedecked knights came hurtling through the morning mist like heroes from some legendary tale of knightly courage (and uncannily fortunate timing).
Just as they arrived, a single, cannon-carrying ogre did succumb to the second volley of arrows from the walls. These two events meant the men of the garrison had every reason to cheer – and cheer they did. Their joy, however, was cut quickly short as the ogres, showing remarkable alacrity for such hulking creatures, charged the walls. It seemed clear to Sir Fromony that the enemy 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 reach them to deliver their thrusts. Yet for Sir Fromony, even the notion that the foe might be acting out of fear, failed entirely to reassure him. All it had achieved was to double 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 ogres’ magic using Slaughtermaster now summoned up a bone-crushing spell to kill two of the Knights Errant, then conjured further magic to enfold himself and the brutes by his side magical protection. The hand-held cannons gave vent to a thunderous blast and felled another knight, whilst a second load of scrap hurtled down to clatter off the young knights’ armour. None of this perceptibly slowed the knights’ advance, yet they were still in danger of closing in too late for up at the wall the Ogres were climbing both quickly and surely, the first to reach the top ripping a yeoman warder up and over the parapet to send him tumbling horribly to his death. The sight and sound of this, along with the only fractionally less gruesome death of several more archers, sapped all courage from the defenders who leaped down to flee into the courtyard. This allowed the Ogres to clamber almost leisurely over the crenelations and onto the rampart. 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 nothing more than a stroll up a hill.
The gentlemen of the relief force could see that the foe’s trebuchet-hauling beast was threatening to charge, bucking and rearing as it turned and picked up pace. Unwilling to be so distracted, the Knights of the Realm charged across the front of the Knight’s Errant and slammed into the cannon-wielding Ogres, intending to burst through, then gallop along the base of the walls to reach the second company of brutes before they too surmounted a wall.
In this they had some success, one of them driving his lance right through an ogre in the first impact, after which the knights rode down the rest of the brutes as they fled, felling the Slaughtermaster himself who was carried along by the others. Apparently, the magical protection he had conjured was not powerful enough! In a somewhat ungainly fashion, the knights spurred their mounts over the large, lumpen corpses and towards the wall. The enemy was there, up ahead, but could they be reached in time?
Perhaps distracted by the knights’ dash, the scraplaunching beast now shuffled unsurely towards the Knights Errant (Note: A stunning failed charge roll of 2,1,1!), but the footslogging ogres were wasting no time themselves. Hurtling at, then up, the walls, they hacked down several foes and sent the rest, Sir Fromony included, fleeing into the courtyard as had happened at the other wall.
Outside the chivalry was dismayed. It was clear now that their arrival, by mere moments, was too late. The Ogres were already in the castle, and the screams emanating from within, as well as the peasants tumbling from the walls to thud horribly onto the rocky ground below, made it very clear that the fight was lost. The knights had no means to scale the walls, the ogres laughing raucously as they drew up all their ladders 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 of the last of the garrison, an activity the ogres took grisly pleasure in. What became of Sir Fromony nobody knows, but most would agree it is not hard to guess.
Meanwhile the Ogres’ commander, the fearsome tyrant Razger Boulderguts, was not happy. He had worked himself up for a fight, which he did not feel he had yet done. Outside the knights were galloping up and down, obviously 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 the paladin, Sir Gregoire de Vienne, ordered silence. This gained, he shouted,
“I challenge any one of you to single combat. Come out, if you dare, if you possess 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 the chance to sate his urge to fight. He ordered the gate opened and strode boldly out, hefting a rusty and blooded blade bigger than a man in one hand, and an iron-bound 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 Boulderguts’ gut-plate horns thrust through mail to pierce deep into horse flesh. The ogre tyrant’s armour glittered magically as the knight’s frantic blows glanced off it. Then, after pausing for a moment as if to consider which weapon to favour, Boulderguts swung with his huge blade and sliced right through both the horse’s head and the paladin sat behind it.
As the ogre tyrant let loose a victorious, bellowing 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.
An Excerpt from Bonacorso Fidelibus’s Work: The Many Wars of the Early 25th Century
In the Spring of 2401
There was a stirring in Tilea, although perhaps not what most rulers had 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 he elicited had not lessened, as people felt foolish for supposing that the living dead would move quickly. Besides, it seemed likely that the wicked duke was strengthening his cold grip upon his realm, weeding out the living wherever they hid, and killing them in order to create even more servants.
The vampire duke’s nephew, Guglielmo Sforta, had fled Udolpho and successfully made his way to the city realm of Viadazza. He had no army, only a handful of servants and but a few cards to play in the game of politics.
Considering the vampire duke’s continued rule of Miragliano, one might suppose Guglielmo was merely a pretender to his uncle’s title. Many claimed, however, including the Church of Morr, that as Duke Allesandro was no longer alive then the honour had already legally and fully passed on to his heir. This was the best card in the young noble’s hand, besides the fact that many a ruler would be only too glad to have him do the fighting against such a terrible foe. Guglielmo had been made welcome in Viadazza, feasting with the city’s great and good as an honoured guest of Lord Adolpho, where he petitioned all who would listen to aid him in the cleansing of 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 such a fleet could be employed instead to supply or escape a beseiged city.
So it was that Arch-Lector Calictus II of the Holy Church of Morr made the following proclamation, to be read throughout Tilea by every Morrite cleric:
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 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, forever sowing their poisonous corruptions. Yet these threats pale into insignificance compared to the wickedness now possessing 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 unnaturally 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 condottiere be so cowardly as to seek employment elsewhere.
May 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!
This letter was heard by every gods-fearing citizen in throughout Tilea.
Yet, as already revealed, 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 so to 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 was 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 eat, 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. The doubters simply raised their eyes, and said that a man who isn’t real can neither laugh nor cry. What the dwarfs of Karak Borgo thought of these events none could say, for no one was willing to risk travelling the Iron Road through Campogrotta now that the Wizard Lord Niccolo’s tyranny had resumed.
And it was not just outsiders who stirred trouble. Lord Polcario, son of Duke Guidobaldi, had captured the town of Astiano in a bold, surpise attack. The Astianans had provoked Pavona’s wrath by tolling all mercantile goods upon both road and river. Perhaps they believed that with the Greenskin Waagh in the south the Pavonans would not dare to strike at them? Not so. A blue and white army cut its way through the town’s gate in a lightning assault and so took Astiano with barely a man lost in the process. The realm of Pavona was growing – reaching westwards along the river Remo, and Lord Polcario’s army was on the move yet again.
Furthermore, Duke Guidobaldi had come to believe that the dwarfen goldsmiths and moneylenders of Pavona had had a hand in encouraging Astiano’s greedy boldness, and as a consequence banished all dwarfs from his realm, conveniently decreeing their gold and goods forfeit.
Then came reports of the sighting 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 had served in 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 whatever they could lay their hands on. They were not the only company making enquiries, for the famous Compagnia del Sole’s contract in the service of the Trantine Prince Girenzo 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. Meanwhile the 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 just such a force as the Compagnia, or merely enough to pay the first installment 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 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, and along the hills stretching southwards. The beating of drums was heard, and the blaring of horns, both made somehow louder by the hours of darkness.
One might say the first year of the century had been the quiet before the storm, a time of dark skies and heavy air, but that this second year was when the first rumbles of thunder were heard as lightning began to flicker all around.
Deliberations, 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? Does he believe Ebino is of no worth? Or are we so clearly doomed that he dare not visit us, never mind ask us for help, nor offer it to us?”
Duchess Maria had been nursing this grievance ever since she heard of Guglielmo’s passage. He 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 many years enjoyed good relations. Lord Guglielmo had met the duchess upon several occasions, fostering a friendly 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 beastly man known to have goblin blood in his veins.
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 outside of 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 as it reached down to his belt. He wore no helm, but his bald pate was perfectly formed for such, as if it were crafted for a helm rather than the other way around. By his side, 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, 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 the furrowed brow of a man 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, maroon cloth cap. Her light brown hair was fastened up in a complexly Reman fashion, with a band of tight curls to frame her brow and bunched and hooped ringlets upon either side. Her dress was of green silk damask, edged at her low cut neck line and sleeves with fine, white linen and 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 seems to me that such would unhinge the very best of minds, certainly those not prepared by their faith in Morr to face 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 natural born leader of men.
“A man so afeared would surely run to the nearest safe haven?” she suggested. “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 could not 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 from the road, and here where the road fords the Valgetty.”
“If they were pursuing him, then why would they turn aside?” asked the Duchess. “Such creatures are not easily distracted from their purpose, nor the possessors of great initiative. If they were scouting my lands, then they were sent to do so.”
“Lord Guglielmo may well have shaken them off with some trick?” offered Sir Giorgio. “Perhaps he led them along the road to give the impression he was heading here, then cunningly crept 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 considering the peril they all faced. Perhaps her line of enquiry seemed desperate? Harping on about why Guglielmo had chosen not to come was hardly likely to lift her advisers’ 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 – in light of 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 shall speak the karak dwarfs’ mind and not my own.” Then turning back to Sir Giorgio he continued, “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. Even if they were to send help it would surely come too late.”
“Then you believe the abomination will strike at us soon?” asked the Duchess.
“I fear so. That which Duke Alessandro has become will still possess his grace’s living memories, and will revel in corrupting all that was once his – including those he once held dear, especially 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, your mercenaries, every able bodied man we have practising drill – is this not strength?”
“Ebino has never been strong in comparison to Miragliano,” said the captain. “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.
“Then 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. But 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, and especially if they know 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 replete with supplies, carefully gathered and rationed. More than this, the shadow lord Totto of the Arrabiatti has 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,” said Captain Giorgio, “that we can hold Ebino for some time, but not indefinitely. 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 both faggots and the corpses of the truly dead to fashion a crossing, then raise their ladders beneath torrents of boiling oil while oblivious to any pain. Oh they will burn, oil will do that, but they won’t let that distract them, and will labour until they fall into pieces. Even those who do fall may well be raised again. Still, we can hold for some time while they work to overcome our walls. Such brave defence, however, would be a fruitless waste of effort unless a sufficiently strong and timely force came to relieve us and drive the foe away.”
“So, you would have me run from Ebino during its greatest trial?”
“Yes, your grace, I would,” admitted the Sir Giorgio. “But because you could bring succour to Ebino during its greatest trial.”
The duchess was still not entrirely convinced. “We have sent word to Guglielmo, promised pardons to the Arrabiatti, and the church has preached throughout Tilea on our behalf. All these things will surely bring us succour?”
Captain Urginbrow harrumphed, and all turned to look at him.
“Guglielmo passed us by and the Arrabiatti are like the mist that hides a thief, not the steel that arms a soldier. The church can only preach – the people must first listen, then believe, then decide, then act. You, your grace, can promise rewards. You can shame the princes into doing what they know is right. 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.
Next Installment: Part 3