Spring 2402, The Via Nano, south of Tettoverde Forest, Eastern Tilea
The gnoblars emerged from the trees, scuttling over the rocks in their usual higgledy-piggledy manner. Habbdok did not bother to count them as he could see there were still plenty left for his purposes, which was all that mattered to him. Most men who saw his servants laughed. One captain in the Princes described them as ‘funny little things’. Knowing them – their nastiness, their unpleasant goblin stench, their foul ways (and it takes considerable talent to seem foul to an ogre) Habbdok could not see what the man had meant. Annoying, yes. Too small and skinny for both their arms and armour, yes. Funny, no, not in the slightest.
As they clattered to a halt, Habbdok squinted, flicking his eyes from one to another in search of any he could expect to get some sense from. The closest to him was so out of breath he did not look as if he could speak if he tried. All his own fault, of course, for he had a triple-layered helm tilting to one side on his head and an ill-fitting iron breastplate, all made heavier by several, dangling lengths of chain with no apparent purpose. His cheeks were puffed, and he all but dragged a battered and most likely blunted iron axe with both hands, his back and legs bent from the strain.
There was a clutch of four gnoblars off to one side, even more misshapen and bent than the puffing one, but they simply stared at him as if they were expecting him to speak. Habbdok could feel the usual surge of furious impatience already building, his head throbbing beneath his skull plate, as he wondered yet again at their stupidity. They were here to report to him, yet they seemed to expect him to report to them!
Still they stared.
Just as he was tempted to stick the razor-sharp tip of his hunting bolt through the panting pie-hole of the foremost gnoblar, he caught sight of a little runt with ridiculously over-large horns adorning his noddle-pot, and not a single tooth to line his raggedy maw. That was one he recognised, and one who had proved capable of something approaching intelligence in the past. ‘Horny’ was the name Habbdok had given him before.
Indeed, the gnoblar took the cue, and pointed towards the forest canopy. ““Mighty Hunter, lord of gristle and bone, we’s been over there an’ all ‘round an’ back agin,” he said.
“Very nice,” snarled Habbdok. “Stretching your legs and ‘aving a breath of fresh, eh?”
Horny grinned to reveal swollen, bloody red gums. “An’ looking, o’course. A lot o’ looking.”
“So here’s a thought for you,” said Habbdok. “Why not tell me what you saw before I get so angry you’ll never have a chance to tell again? Did you see the … the … denizens, or not?”
The gnoblar’s grin changed to a rather more fixed affair, almost imperceptibly. Habbdok certainly noticed no difference, having never been of a mind to look for such subtleties in runts like this.
“No denizens. Nuffink. If they’s there, then they’s slippery an’ sneaky, leavin’ not so much as a bent leaf behind.”
Habbdok pondered this. If there was no-one there, then why was the army going the long way around? It had been obvious that Mangler had first planned to march right through the forest, then he had changed his mind, never saying wh. Most of the lads seemed to think it was because what little they might find in the forest would not make up for the effort of finding it. One or two had suggested, though never within earshot of Mangler or any of his lieutenants, that Mangler was afraid of the trees and what they contained, conjuring thoughts of bark-skinned, monstrous demons and invisible foes planting arrows in your eyes, just like in the old stories of the forest. Habbdok had given this latter suggestion little credence, yet still wondered why they couldn’t go a little deeper, if only to find some bigger cuts of fleshmeat for the supper pots, or maybe some flesh of the sweetest kind. And if the trees were thinning, as they seemed indeed to be, surely it would save time to go along a forest path which went the right direction than continue this circumambulation?
Then again, there could be so many other reasons for their route, including the likely possibility that Mangler simply intended to enjoy some good looting ‘off to the side’ as they made their way. Having a destination in mind was one thing, but there were many reasons to take one’s time getting there. None of the lads were complaining about taking the easy route: the rootless route; the flat ease of the old road instead of the tangled briars of the ancient forest. Just a pity that the wild animals Habbdok would dearly love to hunt were so unlikely to favour the same route, nor were the Sylvan folk the sort to traverse such an open road. He had never tasted their flesh, but he had heard more than one report that it was delicious beyond compare.
While Habbdok the Hunter did his thinking, two of the gnoblars were sharing their own thoughts.
“He’ll ‘ave us running back in any moment,” said Frokit Anglegrinch, both hands clutching the shaft of his bill-hook as if he might fall without it. “Look at ‘em. Everyone else gets to walk .. I’d go so far as to say amble … while we has to scamper never-ending hither and thither through a tangle of thorns.”
His companion, Pooshin Cotchwallop, twisted his frowning mouth to ever lower depths, his chin thrusting more prominently between the sagging lips. If one took into account his protruding eyes and his potato nose, neatly framed by his chainmail hood, the sum of the parts made a very ugly whole. Mind you, Frokit was no looker either.
Pooshin looked beyond the Ogre hunter at the marching column on the road.
“Some ain’t even doing that, Frokit,” he said, watching the huge, grey beast carrying the scraplauncher and its numerous gnoblar crew. “Sitting all comfy-like as their beast does the work beneath their idle arses.”
“I hope they get splinters in their backsides,” Frokit spat through his teeth, “and all the jolting gives their joints the jip.”
At last, Habbdok had come to a decision. Clearing his throat loudly enough to make the beast of burden behind him grunt …
… he gave his orders: “You’re all going back in, and this time you’ll look properly, or I’ll have your eyes in a bowl for a tasty treat while supper roasts. Everyone knows what lives in these woods, and if you can’t find them you’re not looking hard enough. Do something naughty and get their attention. I know you’re good at running away. See if you can’t get someone to chase you. And if you can’t net them, bring them my way and I’ll stick a stick through ‘em.”
Behind him the column continued its journey, Mangler the Merciless’s Mercenaries, flags a-fluttering overhead while their iron shod boots ground the road to dust.
To see modelling articles on the scraplauncher and the ogre hunter, go to Ogres,
The Reman Town of Stiani
Baccio had been watching the door to the other room for a while now, awaiting his friend’s return. This was not his customary habit – usually he would get on with drinking without a care for his friend’s absence. But, considering their current situation, there was a genuine chance his friend would not return, and that would leave Baccio entirely alone in the world. He had attempted to distract himself by listening to the inn’s landlord talking loudly with some local fellow – exactly as Ottaviano had suggested he did. Then when they shut up, he had brooded in silence, eyes fixed upon said door. Relief flooded through him when, at long last, Ottaviano burst through it to take his place back at the table.
“Not good,” said Ottaviano. He gestured to the little company of men he had left feasting in the next room. “They [i]are[/i] Verezzan merchants, and they [i]are[/i] returning from Trantio.”
“Well, that’s what we wanted,” interrupted Baccio. “News from Trantio. Or were they tight lipped?”
“Oh they talked alright. What I mean is that they didn’t have anything good to say. ‘Til now we’ve been at best defeated soldiers, at worst cowardly mercenaries. But now we’re apparently murderers too.”
“Why? We were paid to fight and we fought, even against the odds. That should stand us in good stead.”
“The story they told me happened after the battles and the fall of Trantio. They said some of our lads have killed a Morrite priest. And not some lowly father, either, but an emissary of the arch-lector himself, carrying a message for the dead prince.”
“Why carry a message for a dead prince?” asked Baccio, confused. Then his faced took on a look of horror. “You mean … Girenzo is a vampire?”
Ottaviano shook his head. “No, you fool. of course not. The message was sent when Girenzo was alive. It just didn’t get to him in time.”
“Oh,” said Baccio, sounding reassured. “Still, it doesn’t sound right. Why would any of our lads kill a priest? Especially a Reman one, when Remas is one of the few places left we can go?”
Ottaviano shrugged. “I honestly don’t know. And no-one ever will, because the lads in question were caught and killed by the Duke’s men. No trial, no questions. Dead.”
“Well the last part doesn’t surprise me. The Pavonans are killing everyone who fought against them, no mercy given.”
“They [i]were[/i] killing everyone,” corrected Ottaviano, “but not now. The merchants said that Bucci’s crossbow company have been offered a Pavonan contract to remain as part of the garrison. ‘Needs must’, it seems. Now that his newly enlarged empire happens to sit so close to the undead, Duke Guidobaldo wants all the soldiers he can get, even ex-Compagnia men.”
“Well, that’ll be it then. The Duke wouldn’t want to anger the arch-lector, not when everyone needs to stand together against the vampires – and so he had the priest killers executed.”
“Except the story doesn’t make sense. You yourself said so. Why would any Compagnia lads do it?”
Baccio frowned, then sighed. “Maybe they didn’t know who he was?” he suggested. “Maybe the priest was in disguise? Or the priest threatened to tell the Pavonans where they were?”
“You could be right. Whatever the reason, it doesn’t help those of us still on the run. No-one likes priest killers, especially when Tilea needs all the holy men of Morr it can get.”
“So,” said Baccio, “we don’t tell anyone who we are … I mean, who we were. It’s worked well so far.”
The two of them had indeed found it remarkably easy to gain free passage, by the simple expedient of telling any who asked that they were off to join the arch-lector’s crusade. People did not then merely let them pass, but fussed to find them provisions and beds, and to see them on the right path. ‘All roads lead to Remas’, was the saying. Right now, it was true.
They ordered another jug of wine, more bread and cheese, then ate silently for some time. They were hungry. It was Baccio who finally piped up.
“What else did they say about Trantio?”
Ottavio talked in between stuffing chunks of bread in his mouth. “Martial law … bad for trade. Duke Guidobaldo setting all the prices … The army’s still in the city, not sacking the place, but eating everyone out of house and home.” He drank a deep draught of wine. “And the Duke’s got elves in his service now. Riders on white horses. He might not like dwarfs, but he doesn’t seem to have a problem with elves.”
“Maybe it’s beards he doesn’t like?” quipped Baccio. “I heard the arch-lector will excommunicate him for continuing the war.”
“I don’t think that’s way the duke sees things. He calls himself Morr’s ‘most obedient’ servant, and claims all he has done was so he can better defeat the undead.”
“You said as much in summer, didn’t you? How he would be the hero when the time came.”
“I did,” said Ottavio, rolling his eyes. “I just didn’t expect it all to work out so well for him.”
“Apart from the death of his son.”
“Aye, apart from that. Apparently not one for grieving though. The merchants said his son’s corpse, still warm, was packed off to Pavona in a cart while he simply commanded his other son to come and serve in his brother’s place. He’s going to give the city to the lad – a mere boy!”
“In name he might. But in truth he’ll be ruling.”
“He will,” agreed Ottaviano. “I think the man wants to rule all Tilea. I think he wants to be a king – they’re even calling the war the ‘War of the Princes’. But I counted only one real prince.”
“Dukes, princes, lords – they’re all much of a muchness to me. And arch-lectors too.” Baccio snorted, then looked his friend in the eye. “Are we really going to join this crusade?”
“Well, we are going to Remas, even if it’s just to make sure we don’t end up in Pavonan hands. Let’s see what happens when we get there, eh? Might be preferable to spend a while labouring on defences or such like. That way no one will suppose us to be mercenaries and start asking where we came from.”
“The Remans won’t care if we were Compagnia men, surely?”
“No,” said Ottaviano, “I doubt they will. Could be the opposite – they might like us all the more for being soldiers. Remans like mercenaries. Their army is made of mercenaries, by law.”
Baccio raised his hand to hush his friend, a smug look of cleverness coming over him.
“It was,” he said, “but no longer. Now they say … at least the landlord said to one of his neighbours before you came back, that the arch-lector is raising Remans to serve him as citizen soldiers. Maybe he wants to emulate Duke Guidobaldo’s successes with his Pavonan fanatics?”
Ottaviano gave a fake laugh. “The arch-lector just wants soldiers, and all he can get. He’s already threatened to excommunicate everyone who in any way hinders the crusade. He’s even asked the wizard lord of Campogrotta to send his Ogres. The arch-lector means business. This crusade is going to be big.”
“That lad in Palomtrina said elves from Tettoverde forest were joining the crusade,” added Baccio.
Ottaviano laughed loudly. “That lad in Palomtrina told us that painted Skaven were swarming on the western coast, and that flying arabyans had captured Luccini while the young prince, who was actually a girl, cried. I wouldn’t put too much stock in what he said.”
“Maybe not. But I’m not so sure the crusade [i]is [/i]going to be so big. They say the arch-lector won’t send help to Urbimo.”
“What?” asked Ottaviano. “Why?”
“That’s what the landlord’s neighbour was complaining about – he has family there and the arch-lector has sent no help. The man said his holiness is only really concerned about Remas’ safety, not that of Tilea. Calictus hasn’t even recognised the hero of Pontremola, neither rewarded him, honoured him nor even invited him to attend upon him, because that would mean acknowledging the Viadazan crusaders were forced to fight alone, and lose their city in so doing.”
Ottaviano rolled his eyes. “Nonsense. That’s just gossip and tittle tattle. If the arch-lector was so embarrassed by the fall of Viadaza, why has he lodged its exiled lector in his palace? And only a fool would think he could defend Remas while all the rest of Tilea fell to the undead.”
Baccio grinned. “So, the landlord’s neighbour is an idiot. But it’s good to know what people are saying. Did you ask the Verezzans about Raverno? Verezzo is close to their own city, so they should know what’s going on there.”
“I did and they do,” said Ottaviano. The two of them had talked previously about going south not west, maybe to Verezzo, or maybe Raverno. As there was no love lost between Pavona and Verezzo, however, this meant it could well be Duke Guidobaldo’s next conquest in his desire to forge a mighty empire. Neither men were keen on fighting the Pavonans again so soon, which left Raverno looking like the best choice.
“There’s trouble of a different kind there,” Ottaviano continued. “Since Khurnag’s Waagh was defeated, the VMC northerners in Alcente have begun throwing their weight around, just like general Fortebraccio said they would. A VMC army has already held Raverno to ransom, claiming they were exacting revenge for the ‘defenestration of Raverno’ – the gods alone know what that is. Apparently, they’ve burnt the settlements at Camponeffro south of the city, and extracted a large sum of gold from the terrified Ravernans. I doubt they’ll stop at that, nor honour whatever terms were agreed. The merchants said the VMC were little better than armed robbers, who call their threats ‘haggling’ and their plunder ‘profits’.”
Baccio shrugged his shoulders. “That sort of trouble could be good for us, maybe we should go there? It could mean work.”
“You’re still thinking like we’re part of the marching Compagnia. It’s just me and you now. I don’t want to go where we might find ourselves on the losing side, and with no friends left.”
“How is going to Remas better then? Fighting the undead is going to be one hell of a bad war. Wouldn’t you rather be paid to fight in a war between merchants rather than between the living and the dead? Maybe we should go to Estalia and join Captain Mazallini? They still call themselves Compagnia del Sole, despite taking a separate contract. I reckon they’d take us on gladly. I know the captain well, and I didn’t join in any of the nastiness when he left.”
“I don’t know,” said Ottaviano. “What if the seas are swarming with painted Skaven? Maybe it is best we join the crusade? Be more than mercenaries for once? Fight for more than money? We’ve never been anything else and look where it’s got us. If the undead defeat the crusade while we’re burning crops in Alcente, all we’ll have done is bought ourselves a little more time before they get to us. I’m not talking about duty, but common sense: We’d be fighting so that everyone might live, including us. That might be the only good choice left.”
Remas, Spring 2402
Standing by the window, Father Biagino could already hear the bell, which was sounding a little earlier than it had the previous day. His friend and fellow Viadazan refugee, Father Antonio, who commanded the bell, must have intended a larger circuit through the city streets that night, and thus the early start. On each successive occasion Antonio’s procession had grown as more and more joined in the whipping and wailing, scourging their mortal flesh to purify themselves in Morr’s eyes, provoking a frenzied urge to fight the foe no matter how horrifying it was. The very existence of the flagellants was entirely due to Antonio’s efforts, his incendiary street-corner sermons and powerful prayers. He was stirring Remas from slumber. The highest clergymen, following the arch-lector’s dithering lead, seemed forever locked in vacillation, unable to decide exactly what should be done, nor when or where. The way things had been going, it had seemed no Reman blade would be unsheathed until the undead legions were already scrabbling over the city walls.
Biagino could not fault Antonio’s ardour, nor deny the need for action. Yet he was not sure that raising another army of apprentices, peasants and ill-paid mercenaries was the best course. They had done exactly that at Viadaza, and marched at the head of the rag-tag army so created. That force had pushed the enemy back and even brought down the vampire Duke Alessandro, yet it was not enough, for while their backs where turned, Viadaza was lost, and the battered remnants of exhausted peasant crusaders could do nothing about it. Death begets death, it seemed. Here in Remas was a chance to do things differently, better: to gain the backing of church and nobles as well as the common people, and thereby forge a mighty army able to feed itself, march, fight, then march and fight again, and again, until victory was won. This time they should learn all they could of the enemy, plan and prepare for all possible contingencies, ensure that their lines were secured, the towns and cities guarded, the armies properly armed. If Father Antonio had his way he would once again lead a rabble from the city, unprepared, unsupported and ill-advised. Biagino, however, would rather such men were put to use digging earthwork defences, repairing crumbling walls and driving mules and carts to move supplies. Then the professional soldiers would be properly supported, ready and able to do battle.
The bell’s sombre tone was quite contrary to its size and placement. If it were three times the size and housed in a great, stone tower rather than suspended from a wooden gibbet, then such a sound might indeed be expected. Biagino wondered whether some enchantment had been put upon it to make it ring with the note of a different bell, from another time and place. That was no doubt the intention – as if it were the bell hanging at the gates of Morr’ s garden, singing the receipt of each passing soul. Estimating it to be at least two streets away, he turned back to the chamber just as the door opened to admit the man he had been waiting for.
Even if Biagino had not been told he would have known the fellow was a fisherman, what with weather-beaten, leathery flesh clearly advertising decades of hard labour in the wind and sun. Carlo Gora was his name, a Viadazan by birth, although now a refugee like every other living Viadazan.
Carlo closed the door then, by way of greeting, said only, “Father.”
Biagino gestured to the chair. When Carlo hesitated, he spoke, “Please, do sit. I am not some great, noble bloodied churchman with airs and graces. Merely another homeless wanderer just like yourself.”
The fisherman seemed barely to register Biagino’s words, but took the seat nevertheless. Hearing a howl from the street, Biagino glanced out of the window again. There below ran a half-naked old man, thin as a rake, bearing bloodied scars upon his back and carrying the knotted cord that had made them. A flagellant, off the find the bell no doubt. When he turned back Carlo’s face appeared to be, but for the briefest of moments, stripped of all flesh and fearful to behold. Biagino hid any sign of fear, but could not, for a moment, bring himself to speak. It seemed his oneiric visions were bent on plaguing his waking hours too.
In his dreams, for several nights now, Biagino had found himself back at Pontremola, once more with the militia pikemen of Viadaza, his stomach knotted with fear as he witnessed the foe’s inexorable advance. Just as in the waking battle, he became fascinated by the motion of their lifeless limbs, the glaring hatred somehow evident in the shadows of their empty eyes. Everything was as he remembered – the way his hand slipped upon the hilt of his sword, the foul stench wafted on the breeze from the massed body of animated cadavers at the centre of the enemy’s line.
Then (every night) his attention was drawn away from the vampire duke’s army as it dawned on him that he was not where he thought he was, but instead on the southern side of the river, its water now laying between him and the foe. When had they moved back across the bridge? Why had they changed their plan of battle? Why could he not recall the retreat? Still, he thought, perhaps it is better to be on this side, for then the enemy must ford the river to reach us, being weakened in the attempt? This glimmer of hope, however, died almost instantly, as something else caught the corner of his eye. In that moment, his neck stiffened and the air suddenly congealed about him to become an invisible force pressing against him. With effort, he forced his head to twist so that he could look at the men by his side. In turn, they looked back at him. Every face sported a fixed, fleshless grin, while their bony hands clutched at splintered and mouldy pike-shafts. Every pair of eyes was sunken within black, bottomless pits. The nearest opened its mouth and screamed an ear-splitting silence, making him stumble weak-kneed from the ranks then tumble onto the dirt. Then a shadow fell across him, which took away not just the light but the warmth too – the shadow of something bent yet strong, its head horned, his hands clawed, wielding a blade almost as big as itself. Finally, just as he saw the shadow-blade lifted in readiness to strike, he awoke. Bathed in sweat, shaking and weak of bladder, he scrabbled from the bed, tearing the sodden blanket from him as if it were the thing that had held him in the dream.
What could it mean? He knew the dream was certainly sent by Morr, for he had become adept at recognising his god-given premonitions, yet he could not even say whether it concerned the past, present or future. All he could do, as ever, was suffer the wait until the meaning revealed itself. In the meantime, he had questions to ask the fisherman.
“I am told you have been back to Viadaza. Is this true?” Biagino asked.
“For my sins, yes.”
“Why would you go there?”
“To get my best boat,” said Carlo. “I thought maybe the dead would not think to watch the sea.”
“And do they watch the sea?”
Carlo shuddered. “They do.”
“Oh,” said Biagino. “You are brave. Better than that, you’re lucky. I ask you now to be helpful too. To tell me what you saw. Exactly what you saw. When that is done, you can put it from your mind forever.”
“Yes father, I would like that, to forget,” said Carlo. He took air, as if about to jump into the sea, then spoke. “I got into the bay after dark. This was no difficulty for me as I know it like the back of my hand – every shoal, every rock, how the currents play in the tides. It was darker than ever before. Not one fire burned in the city, not one window was lit. I suppose the undead do not need or want light. But the moons were waxing, which gave me light enough to get my bearings. Dark shadows divided the buildings, everything was black and grey. I couldn’t descry any boats at all, thought maybe they had been hauled up further than usual, so I paddled closer.”
The bell’s ring grew louder.
“That’s when I spied them. I took them to be Adolfo’s dock guards, brute ogres from the east. And I suppose they were … or once were. Now they looked not just mean but wrong. Their flesh had changed – it was torn, bloodied, blue! And pricked with bones. They had skulls dangling all about them. And they stank – not of sweat and dirt like before, but worse even than rotten pork after too long at sea. I could smell them even though I was not close.”
“I knew some of them. Seen them many times, guarding gates or addled with ale in the typpling houses. Ugly brutes with dead-eyed stares that looked right through you. Now their eyes really did look dead. One of them carried a mast, I think, from which hung a string of skulls. Another carried a gravestone as if it were merely a piece of flotsam.”
Rang the bell. It must be entering the street now, thought Biagino.
“There were half a dozen of them. Standing, stock still, like statues.”
“Then I spied another one, smaller than the rest, with its back to me, and I knew that the others were ruled by him. He had a brute’s blade, which he hefted as if he were as strong as any of them. Even before he turned I could tell he knew I was there. And when he did turn, slow and deliberate, like he wanted to rub the fear in deep, his red eyes found me immediately, looked right into me.”
“In truth, father, I think he’s been watching me ever since.”
Biagino frowned. From the moment Carlos spoke of a huge blade he had suspected that this was the shadow in his nightmares.
“What …” his voice faltered, “I mean, who was it?”
“The beast was no man, but it was Lord Adolfo. Twisted and foul, all teeth, talons and horns. But still Adolfo.”
Biagino could now hear the clattering of the bell-cart and the creaking of the wheels, and a familiar voice preaching Morr’s hatred of the walking dead. The light of the flagellants’ torches flickered into the room. He turned to the window once more.
As usual, Father Antonello led the little procession, sword in hand. Behind him came the first of the flagellants garbed in priestly reds and greys. One had somehow set a burning crown of iron upon his head, and yet still walked beside the others – surely some sort of clever illusion. Biagino was surprised that Antonello would stoop to using stage trickery. The other flames, born on torches, were real enough, as was the battered and bruised state of the self-tortured flagellants carrying them. The bell cart was decorated with pages of scripture and an inevitable hourglass. Two robed men struggled with all their might to push it.
Biagino turned back to the room.
“Thank you, master Carlo. Your report will be passed to those who need to know. You have done good service, and holy Morr will assuredly reward you. I will speak of you in my prayers. For now, however, make do with some broth and some ale. You’ll find both in the kitchen, just tell the servants I sent you.”
When Carlo had taken his leave Biagino looked at the mad rabble of flagellants processing along the street in the wake of the bell cart. He did not really see them, however, for his thoughts were elsewhere. Lord Adolfo was indeed now a vampire, just as the Urbimans had claimed. And he still ruled Viadaza. And he was in Biagino’s dreams.
To see how the undead ogres were modelled and painted, take a look at Undead Ogres
End of Spring, 2402
Part One: Not Gormless
As soon as he saw the burnt-out tower, Big Boss Gurmliss knew where he was. The ruin was no more than a mile from where the mob had been camped when he left them a couple of weeks ago. They might not still be there, but once he found the camp it would be very easy to follow their trail. Greenskins were not what you would call tidy. Even when they made an effort to hide their passage, Gurmliss still knew the sort of signs to look for.
“Boss,” came Frabble’s urgent voice. “I knows that tower. We was ….”
“Ssh!” ordered Gurmliss.
Someone was approaching. He always seemed to know when someone was creeping up on him, though which of his senses did the work of revealing the fact he had never quite pinned down. He unsheathed his heavy bladed sword. There was a skittering sound, the clatter of stones, then a familiar goblin lurched around the tower. Known as the Ratter – on account of his constant companions, being the mangy pack of red eyed rodents who were indeed with him along now – his real name was Mig.
Mig yanked upon the leads to bring his rats to a jerking halt, while cocking his pistol by rubbing the hammer upwards against his shoulder. “You came back then?” he said, scowling at Gurmliss and the other two survivors.
Gurmliss laughed, wondering if the sight of his unsheathed, bloodstained blade had prompted Mig’s unfriendly preparations, or whether such suspicion was due to yet another shift in power in the mob. Out of the corner of his eye he saw that his companions had both knocked arrows to their bows, and it dawned on him that all this nervousness could result in him playing a deadly game of piggy in the middle. So he cut short his laugh and answered quickly,
“Yer lookin’ right at me Mig. It’s not like ya need them rats to sniff me out. Ya thinkin’ I’m all ghostly?”
“I see you,” said Mig. “An’ I see only two gobs wiv you. So, I reckon you left some behind.”
“Some, yeah. And before you go a-askin’ where our snarlers are, we’ve got wolf flesh in our bellies to answer that question. Tasty too.”
Mig’s lips curled in a snarl as he pulled on his rat-pack’s leads.
“These are mine,” he warnd. “If you get to thinkin’ you’s wantin’ some seconds, I’ll set ‘em on yer an’ then we’ll see who bites who.”
“Don’t you go worrying. We’s all full up,” said Gurmliss as he patted his chainmail clad belly. “Never mind yappin’ about dinner, I’ve come back with stuff to tell and I wanna know who it is I’ll be telling it to, and where they are.”
It was Mig’s turn to laugh.
“So Big Mosher and his boys didn’t want you then? That’s why you’re back, lookin’ for your old mob to take you in? I bet all your missing gobs and snarlers are in orc bellies not yours.”
“Look here,” said Gurmliss, “I said I was going to see what they were up to and that’s what I did. I’m back ‘cos I was always coming back. Besides, even if I were the naughty gob you think I am, there was barely anything left of Mosher’s mob. They can’t decide what to do and so they’re doing a bit of everything, some going this way, some going that, and what with an army after them, they’re doing it all quickly. Mosher’s got no more’n a dozen to boss around now. Even the Bull’s left him.”
“An army after them, you said. What army?”
“Same as that smashed and bashed us at Tursi, o’course, with its stinking black-powder an’ a gun in every hand. An’ it’s on its way here right now. Seems Old Firgle was wrong – leaving the orcs didn’t shake the men off our tail, and now they’re pickin’ us off one by one. So, tell you what, I’ll ask again and we’ll make this the last time shall we? Where’s the mob and who’s in charge?”
Mig had become fidgety, something his rats seemed to sense, their fur bristling, and when he spoke Gurmliss could tell his mind was elsewhere.
“Old Firgle ain’t running things anymore, on account of him being dead,” he said. “Moonface Dulldrood’s the boss now. The mob ain’t that far away, neither. I can show you.”
“Moonface is in charge! How low can the mob sink? Old Firgle was bad enough, with his gammy foot, but I’ve seen Moonface struggle to work out how to unsheath his blade never mind use it in a fight.”
“He ain’t one for scrapping, true, but he’s got ideas he has. He says he can read man words for one, and he knows how to mix up black-powder – good stuff an’ all. Most important he knows how to get secrets from the stubbornest of gobs.”
The last part got Gurmliss’ attention.
“What gobs? What secrets?” he asked.
“One of Scarback’s runts. Whispered to a blabbermouth that he knew where some great prize was, something the ratmen would pay a lot more than a lot for. Moonface got him to say it a bit louder.”
Even Frabble, not the brightest of goblins, was interested now.
“A ratman prize?” he said. “Gold and glitter? Magic and machines?”
“Dunno,” said Mig. “Don’t think the runt knows either. If he did know he’d still have some fingers and toes. But he knows where it is, an’ Moonface reckons when we get it we can buy our way out of Tilea.”
End of Spring, 2402
Part Two: Dis Ducibus (Directed by the Gods)
The Northern Stretch of the Via Diocletta, near to Remas
Almost every day, at about this time, Frediano crossed the road here, invariably burdened with a snapsack containing a loaf wrapped in linen, a pot of soft cheese and whatever else his mother had packed to take to his grandmother’s hovel. His grandmother had simple tastes and was always grateful, fussing over him and offering something seasonal she could gather nearby, either olives from the bushes in her little garden, an orange from the little tree by her door, or more often a cup of goat’s milk from Rubina. And she always shared the bread saying: “That’s too big a loaf for me. You have some, sweet boy.”
Today Frediano was stuck on the wrong side of the road, his growling belly forgotten as he gazed at the unexpected traffic. Of course, he had seen soldiers on the Via Diocletta before – little companies of mercenaries with crossbows, pikes and colourful clothes, sometimes riding nags but most often afoot, their nags pulling wagons. But these soldiers were different in every way. Their clothes were mostly loose, white linen, with blue or red scarves, either around their waists or coiled about their heads. They carried shields of strange shapes, decorated with golden orbs and tassels of golden silk. They sported neatly curled beards, shaped rather more elegantly than the mercenaries wore. Strangest of all were their mounts – hulking beasts with overlarge heads, lazy eyes, spindly legs and large fleshy lumps heaped upon their backs to provide a cushion upon which to strap a saddle. He’d heard about them in stories, desert animals called cammelli, but he had never seen one before. They were not how he had imagined.
He could have crossed the road before they reached him, but on spotting the vanguard of the column he forgot his errand and stumbled to a halt, standing wide eyed and curious. A lone trumpeter led the way, mounted on a fine black horse, something like the sort that lords use for hunting but more slender and graceful. Then came the cammelli riders, their double-pennant banner fluttering high above them, accompanied by the booming sound of the largest drums Frediano had ever seen.
“Not them orcs then?” came a voice. “The ones everyone was going on about, eh?” It was Peppe speaking. Frediano had not noticed his approach, nor did he turn to look at him now.
“Arabyans,” he said.
Peppe sniffed. “I know, Freddy. ‘Sons of the Desert’ they are,” he said all matter of fact, as if he were an accustomed witness to such sights. “My papa told me all about them. The boy king bought them to fight the greenskins.”
“But the orcs have been beaten by the northerners down in Alcente?”
“They have. Now that the northerners beat them to it, this lot are marching north.”
Peppe laughed. “Your mama and nonnina should not keep the world from you. You must know there’s a war in the north, vampiro and scheletri?”
“Everyone knows that.”
“Well, all the soldiers are supposed to go and help.” Peppe sniffed. “And it looks like they are.”
Remas, The Street Outside the Palazzo Montini, Residence of the Archlector of Morr
Father Gonzalvo was alive.
Like everyone else, Biagino had believed Gonzalvo was cut down with the rest of the Viadazan swordsmen at the Battle of Pontremola. In truth, he had lain unconscious and covered in mud amongst the corpses at the river’s edge, to be taken away with the badly wounded in wagons to Rapallo. Only just able to walk when the undead arose throughout the realm of Viadaza, he fled with a farmer’s family to Scorccio, remaining there until he recovered, both physically and mentally, from his ordeal. Not that he was quite the same man as previously, for now he was utterly committed to fighting the undead armies of the north. He had no conversation, nor even a thought in his head, that did not pertain to that cause. He had become the very personification of the crusading cause. Which is why, perhaps, it was him and not Biagino who stood upon the wooden dais beside no less than the Morrite Lector of Viadaza, Bernado Ugolini and the archlector of Morr, Calictus II himself!
While the greater clergymen watched the military parade in the street, Father Gonzalvo raised his hand to bless each passing company of soldiers, saving his most impressive and powerful prayer for the great engine of war at the heart of the procession. Designed and built by the genius polymath Angelo da Leoni, the hopes of Remas were bound up in this machine, a mighty contraption of iron and timber intended to smash the undead legions. Buried inside its sturdy hull was a steam powered engine, its clanking, grinding red hot heart fed coal by two sweating crewmen. Atop this was an iron-armoured platform mounting an impressive artillery piece of nine barrels and several more brass patereros besides, about which the liveried gunners busied themselves to fire occasional shot-less salutes for the encouragement of the crowds.
Da Leoni himself, like the master of a ship, was directing his invention, dressed like the others in Reman livery, honoured to be joined by the arch-lector’s own standard bearer whose crossed keys flag fluttered from the rear as they trundled along the wide street. The genius was deep in thought, listening to every croak and rumble from the engine below, occasionally breaking his reverie to shout correctional instructions down through the peep holes drilled through the upper platform’s base to allow communication with the driver’s down in the darkness of the lower deck.
Just ahead of the machine strode another priest of Morr, repeatedly chanting the words of blessings not dissimilar to Father Gonzalvo’s. Rarely, even in the city of the gods, had so many prayers and blessings been poured upon something other than a mortal soul. It was as if the engine were being transformed into a carroccio not by carrying holy relics, but by washing it with prayers for hours on end.
In contrast to the constant priestly intonations, the vigorous beating of the drums, and the steaming judders of the steam-powered workings, the watching crowds fell silent as the engine passed them by. Although they had cheered every company of soldiers as they came into sight, the monstrous, horseless engine was so strange to their eyes that their voices invariably petered out in awe. This was not magic, nor illusion, but an ingenious, artificial construct so heavy it ground up the road, and so well armed that it must surely prevail against the enemy. It had been a topic of conversation in every inn and typpling house in the city, and so many hopes were pinned upon it, that it could do no other than draw everyone’s eyes.
Now at last, said many in the crowd, Remas is ready to go to war.
Note: Go to Tilean Steam Tank to see how the scratch built steam tank was made.
End of Spring, 2402
Part Three: Occupations
A Letter to Lord Lucca Vescucci of Verezzo
This to my most noble lord, from your loyal and obedient servant Antonio Mugello, being an account of my continuing travels in your service to gather true intelligence from the lands surrounding the beautiful realm of Verezzo.
Having tarried sufficiently long in Remas to dispatch my earlier report, I determined to make my way to the newly conquered realm of Trantio, there to discover how that realm fares under the dominion of the conquering Duke Guidobaldo Gondi of Pavona, as well as to do what I could to ascertain the Duke’s intentions. Upon the day of my departure from Remas I witnessed the arrival of a regiment of brute ogres, accompanied by brigand archers, all hailing from the northern realm of Ravola. They processed through the streets led by several chanting priests of Morr, and all those who witnessed their passage declared them to be the strangest of crusaders – a quite unexpected addition to Morr’s holy army, yet not at all unwelcome.
I know full well that the people of Verezzo grow daily more concerned at the Pavonan duke’s conquests, for if both Astiano and now the entire city state of Trantio have fallen to him, then it is not inconceivable that the duke might turn his inquisitive – nay acquisitive – eyes upon Verezzo, especially in light of the Gondi family’s continued yet entirely unworthy and unwarranted complaints concerning the annulment of Lady Leonara’s marriage. Like so many recently ennobled families the Gondi’s pride has the sharp, hot edge born by those who still worry about their worthiness for such rank. Thus it is that Duke Guidobaldo is said to be as angry as ever at the unfortunate misunderstanding over his niece, although it is also whispered that he stirs the coals only to ensure he has a complaint ready to hand as an excuse for future military action.
Upon arriving at Trantio, in the guise of a Reman petty-merchant, I immediately learned how oppressive is the new Pavonan rule, being not one jot less than that of the tyrant prince Girenzo, indeed, probably more so. The city was in a state of alert, having just learned that a sizeable army of mercenary ogres was upon the Via Nano with unknown intentions yet sensibly presumed to be unfriendly. This added to the native populace’s sense of unease over Duke Guidobaldo’s declaration that his surviving son, Lord Silvano, was now Gonfaloniere of Trantio, to become its de facto ruler when the duke himself left. Nor was the barely hidden bitterness ameliorated by the news that the region of Preto had been subdued, what resistance there was eliciting cruel reprisals by the Pavonan soldiery. This meant that the whole realm was now as one again, the city of Trantio – the town of Scorcio and the olive groves and vinyards of Preto – but it is a unity bought at a high price: the tyrannical oppression of Duke Guidobaldo. Ancient, proud Trantio has become a mere servant to Pavona.
I lingered a few weeks to better judge the people’s mood and to learn what I could of the strength of the Pavonan forces present there. Here I humbly direct your attention, my lord, to the document accompanying this letter in which I attempt an accounting of said forces. Before I left Trantio to continue my journey I learned that a large fortified camp was being constructed near unto Scorcio. This seemed somewhat to alter the mood in the city, the common people now believing it possible that Duke Guidobaldo’s promises of Pavonan protection against the incursion of the dead may indeed be true, and that rather than simply burden them with taxes and impressment, the duke is indeed preparing to defend their realm. Nor is he intending to do so at the walls of Trantio itself, by which time the rest of the realm would surely have been lain waste, sacrificed to weaken and disperse the foe, but rather to make his stand at the northernmost borders, thereby halting the foe before they encroach upon the rest of the realm. Yet my Lord, you must not think this to mean I am certain of these matters, for I was unable to ascertain what exactly the Pavonan army intends to do next. Apart from a company of light horse sent to scout the Via Nano to learn of the mercenary ogres, I know not whether the rest of the army intends to remain at Trantio, occupy the fortified camp at Scorcio or march away to some other purpose. Duke Guidobaldo keeps his own counsel concerning such matters.
Thence I travelled towards Pavona itself, intending to reach that city in a week’s time. I write this from Astiano, which has become settled in its subservience to Pavona, and indeed has raised both a fighting regiment for their new master’s army and a militia to guard the town in Duke Guidobaldo’s service. I will send a letter to you as soon as I arrive in Pavona, where I hope to gain a much better understanding of the Pavonan’s intentions towards your fair city of Verezzo.
Ever and always your servant.
Camponeffro, South of Raverno
“There’s nothing here for us. Nothing of any worth, anyway” complained Pasquale for the third time that hour, his voice loud enough so those riding ahead of him could hear.
Tino answered, not bothering to turn in his saddle to look. “You knew that, Pas, before we even set off. We’re not here to loot, nor to have a holiday.”
“Never mind holidays and looting, there’s not even food or shelter. Fields all barren, cattle stolen, and what few folk we’ve found in a bad way and a worse mood. We may as well be in a desert.”
They had ridden for three days now, different companies of Portomaggioren soldiers scouring different parts of the region – this road, that village, this path – while some patrolled the forest edge at the southern border. The VMC had done a thorough job of sacking the place – it seemed northerners were no less adept at plundering than even the most veteran of Tilean mercenaries. Now all that remained were the ragged victims and scattered bands of brigands bolstered in numbers by the desperate and the dispossessed.
Tino gently slowed his mount’s pace until he was riding beside his irritable comrade. “You’re looking at it wrong. You should be glad that the northerners came, for if they had not fought Kurnag’s Waagh then I reckon it would have been us who had to do it.”
“I’ll tell you what I am looking at – this place!” countered Pasquale. “I’m looking at what the northerners did! They may be heroes for fighting the Waagh, but then they did this, turning honest farmers into beggars and robbers.”
“Aye, they did. But I say again, you’re still not seeing it right. Why not be glad the northerners attacked here instead of Portomaggiore?”
“Oh, I’m ecstatic about it. I suppose next you’ll be telling me that I ought to be happy I don’t have to carry all the loot they took, and that the wine they stole would’ve given me a headache in the morning, and that …”
“Hush now,” interrupted Tino, pointing ahead. “No shelter you said? That looks like shelter to me.”
It was a dwelling of modest size, which on first sight appeared as ruinous as nearly every other they had seen, but upon closer inspection had obviously been repaired, if in a haphazard and makeshift sort of way. The original roof was gone, replaced by a tangle of broken timbers supporting a canvass sheet. Faces peered over the walls.
Tino rode off the road through a gap in the hedge. Three of the column, including Pasquale, followed him. The other riders did not share Tino’s curiosity and carried on down the road, tired of this miserable land and its meagre pickings. Besides the place was too small for all of them, and they knew they would have to find somewhere else for the night.
As Tino drew close he saw three inhabitants who were everything he had come to expect from this region – an old, bent man leaning heavy on a stick, a battered and bruised peasant with his arm in a sling, and a wench carrying nothing more exciting than a bundle of twigs.
“You there,” shouted Tino, having unholstered his long horseman’s pistol, a habit formed from bitter experience over the last few days. “Is this place yours?”
“What’s left of it, aye,” said the injured man in a thick Ravernan accent. “All ours. Why? Are you intending to smash it up some more?”
Pasquale laughed. “There’s not much left to break, friend.”
“You needn’t fear us,” reassured Tino. “We’re here to make things better, not worse. Stupid question, I know, but who did this?”
“Foreigners, of the ultramontane kind,” said the old man in a croaky voice.
Tino asked the question he had been using a lot recently. “Why?”
Now the old man gave vent to a bitter laugh. “Because this is what soldiers do. I know, I was one once.”
“No, old man. I meant why here and not somewhere else? Why attack Camponeffro?”
“They said we were being punished,” said the man with an arm in a sling. “I told them I hadn’t done anything to them and this is what I got.” He held up his injured arm.
Tino frowned. This was new. “Punished for what?”
“I don’t know,” said the wounded man. “Having hens? Being nearby?”
The old man coughed and everyone looked at him. “They said, ‘This will teach you not to throw Marienburgers out of windows.’”
Pasquale swept his hand as if to indicate all around. “Seems a bit too much punishment for a spot of tomfoolery and rough and tumble,” he said.
“That was their excuse,” said the old man. “Not their real purpose. When I was a soldier we found fighting greenskins to be a very unprofitable affair. The sort of things they treasured weren’t exactly what we wanted to loot. I reckon the ultramontanes came here because they needed pay, and plucked at any old excuse to make what they were doing seem more than mere robbery.”
“You can tell us about your adventures over supper, old man,” said Tino, smiling. “In the meantime, wench, how about using your burden to get a fire burning? Oh, and what have you got to eat?”
Next Installment: Part 9