Summer’s End, IC2402
New Arrivals, Part One: REMAS
One by one the companies halted, forming a line thirty or so yards from the city walls. The foreigners were as unexpected as they were unusual to most citizens, but it was clear that Captain-General Duke Scaringella had been expecting them, for although the garrison soldiers were mustered upon the walls, they showed no sense of urgency or concern, while the newcomers below were manoeuvring as if on parade, not in preparation to launch an assault.
Within an hour word had spread through the city. These were the infamous Sons of the Desert, a mercenary army commanded by General Gedik Mamidous. To a man, they hailed from Araby, beyond the Black Gulf, and never before had so many of such mustered and marched together in Tilea.
Each company wore its own particular style of clothing, nothing at all like the fashions favoured in Tilea. The officers strode ahead, and as each body of men came up, raised their hands to signal the halt, thereby neatly arraying the rank and file.
They included a regiment swathed in black, with polished helmets and bright steel shield rims shining in the sunlight, commanded by a captain clad in a coat hemmed in intricate silver lace.
Their standard bore the text of a vow in the Arabyan tongue (albeit one which might be interpreted in several ways, so that it was rarely broken, howsoever the company acted). As they halted, they drew their blades with a theatrical flourish, and gave a guttural cry that seemed to be half laugh, half curse.
Another company, spearmen in white linen decorated with red patches and bands, and a scattering of chain-mail coats, halted tiredly, their captain gesturing left to signal that they should dress up to the neighbouring body.
As they did so, their drummer beat a final flourish, rounded off satisfactorily with the clash of a pair of cymbals from his fellow musician.
The regiment to their right sported clothes of silver-grey cloth and much more armour, being both scale and mail.
They too bore spears, many of which being viciously barbed. Again, with an exactly similar call, their drummer signaled the exact moment they were to halt.
This was the heaviest foot regiment in the army, considered the best of its soldiers.
Before the Arabyans was the southern entrance to the city of Remas, between two round-fronted towers, fashioned like the walls from huge blocks of stone.
Soldiers watched from almost every gap in the crenelations, some armed with crossbows, others with great-swords, while the muzzles of two iron cannons peeked over the top of the gate towers.
More than half the garrison soldiers sported a red plume, to finish off their brightly hued livery.
Many were Remans born and bred, for the traditionally foreign mercenary army of Remas had marched away, almost to a man, upon the arch-lector’s holy war against the vampires.
And yet, nearly all had the look of ultramontane soldiers, with hair and beards cropped in the fashion favoured by the Empire’s mercenaries. The northern style had become de rigour amongst the arch-lector’s palace guard, and had caught on among the newly raised native troops.
It had now become the look of a Reman soldier, rather than a particular form of mercenary.
Duke Scaringella had already ridden out of the gates, accompanied by a small body guard. The herald Vittore rode by his side, bearing the cross-keyed colours of the Reman Church of Morr, and announced the general with sharp blasts of his brass horn.
On his other side rode a Morrite cleric bearing the holy relic of Saint Salladro’s forefinger (the very same finger he laid upon the demon Hagblood’s tongue) which was suitably encased in silver and mounted upon a staff.
The duke wore ornate armour, his horse brightly caparisoned in enameled barding, with a matching lance and a shield bearing the keys to Morr’s garden.
As he was here to welcome the new arrivals, he wore a smile rather than a helm. Those who looked closely could see it was a rather fixed expression, a somewhat feigned good humour, which faltered slightly as he flinched at the repeated sounding of Vittore’s horn.
The mercenary General Gedik Mamidous was atop a camel, also accompanied by a standard bearer, although in his case the body guard behind him was an entire army. He wore unadorned, dull chain-mail and clothes of plain blue and white plain, appearing every bit a fighting man. The only decorations he carried where the silken tassels upon his shield. It was a fashion shared by several of his camel riders, so even that was not a personal affectation.
Before Duke Scaringella could begin his formal welcome address, the arabyan mercenary spoke.
“I have been told that we are late to the feast. I hope, my noble friend, you will forgive the tardiness. It was not our doing.”
The duke was confused. Did Mamidous mean the food now being prepared to entertain the arabyan officers?
“Feast?” he asked.
“I chose the wrong words for my joke, I think. I should have said fight. No-one would wish to feast upon the foul flesh of the undead. Are we too late for your holy war?”
Now the duke understood.
“A little late perhaps, but I assure you, in no way unwelcome. I have orders from the arch-lector. He means to put you to use immediately.”
“Ah yes, of course. We are paid to fight, and we intend to earn that pay.” Mamidous gestured to the army behind him. “The Sons of the Desert are at your service, sent by our most generous employer, Lord Alessio Falconi.”
“Did not King Ferronso send you hither?” asked the Duke.
“We came from Luccini, yes, for we served him last. But Lord Alessio paid the king handsomely to release us from our contract, and then found money enough to hire us. The cause might be holy, but the best warriors still need paying. I think Remas has a very good and generous friend in Portomaggiore.”
“Of that I have no doubt,” said the general, perhaps hoping to give the impression of being better informed than he obviously was. “You and your officers are, of course, warmly welcome to lodge within the city, and indeed I can promise a feast. Your men will be directed to their own quarters, where they might rest a day or so. But you must not tarry, for although Viadaza is already taken, you are needed for the battles ahead. His holiness intends to outnumber and overwhelm the foe, and this he cannot do until you join him.”
“I thank you, noble lord, for what we are about to receive. And I can assure you, any apparent tardiness on our behalf was not of our doing, but rather a consequence of the interminable wranglings of the chancellors and clerks of Luccini and Portomaggiore.”
New Arrivals, Part Two: TRANTIO
“What do you mean ‘Scorcio is taken’?” asked the acting governor of Trantio, the wizard Venutro Belastra, fixing his eyes on the fidgeting, shirtless militiaman before him.
The fellow’s foul stench had got the interrogation off to a bad start, and now it threatened to become even more uncomfortable. Clearly irritated, Belastra asked another question, without even waiting for an answer to the first.
“Are you saying the Remans have turned against Lord Silvano?”
The filthy Scorcian looked confused.
“No … no, your honour,” the man stuttered. “The Remans came and went, to a man, and Lord Silvano with them – north, as they always intended, to fight the horrors.”
“I know,” snapped Belastra. “As if the arch-lector would lead an army to attack a living town. It is preposterous on every level: his blessed soldiers would surely refuse such a command, while his own reputation would be ruined; never mind that he would be turning his back on the real danger.”
Belastra’s irritation had clouded the fact that it was he himself who had asked if it were so. Then he suddenly turned pale as he remembered how Viadaza had fallen to the undead in the very same week that its own brave, crusading army was victorious in battle, killing the vampire duke. Had the vampires played the same trick again? Had they outflanked the arch-lector? Were they already south of the holy army? Where they already with the bounds of the Trantine state?
He stabbed a finger at the Scorcian. “Are you saying the vampires have passed them by?”
The militiaman furrowed his brow. “No, not vampires, your honour. Bruti. Hundreds of them, more. Brutes and beasts and all manner of Ogrish things.”
In that instant, Belastra went from fearful befuddlement to sickening understanding. Of course it was brutes. There had been reports of a large force of ogre mercenaries on the Via Nano, some saying it was the infamous Mangler’s Band come through the mountains from the Border Princes. Country folk from the northern reaches of the Trantine Hills had arrived at the city by the score, seeking refuge from the monstrous army. When the scouts returned to report they could find no such army, Belastra had presumed all the fuss had arisen from a mess of fearful rumours. He had said so much to Lord Silvano – that the sighting of some caravan guards had surely been enlarged into an army; or the tale of a tavern brawl bloated into a battle. He had allowed himself to wax lyrical with the young, impressionable lord, about how it might be compared to a child’s account of snarling kittens being twisted into a tale of sabre-toothed tigers.
Lord Silvano had laughed. He had laughed.
It was not so funny now.
The militiaman was still talking: “ … and they had big guns. It wasn’t them that holed the walls though – for that they had a huge, iron piece, strapped to the back of some grey-skinned monster …
… Mind you, even that didn’t do all the work, just weakened and cracked the stones so that the biggest of the bruti could bash their way through using massive, iron-bound clubs. And all the while they hurled filth and jaggedy bits over the walls from a goblin crewed thrower on the back of another hulking beast. Then, for a moment, they stopped, as if to rest. All of them, which made us wonder. But then there came a shouted command, and they came pouring in through the gaps …”
Belastra felt light headed. This was all his fault. It was he who had advised the young Lord Silvano to leave Trantio; to join the arch-lector’s Holy Army; even to take his own army with him.
What had he been thinking?
Of course, in truth he knew full well what his motivations had been. With the young lord gone, he could rule in his stead, acting governor of the entire city state of ancient and famous Trantio. He had imagined a hundred ways in which to enrich himself, the opportunities tumbling over each other in their abundance. Young Lord Silvano had hesitated, asking what would his father think? After all, the duke had ordered his son to ensure Trantio was well-defended, and not to be drawn easily into a holy war that did not need him, especially when there were threats enough all around, not only from the north. As Silvano considered the matter, Belastra had feared his chance was slipping away.
“There was no stopping them,” the soldier was saying. “They queued outside as those at the front climbed over the rubble. Their blades were as big as men, bigger even, and they had banners made of grisly skulls …”
Belastra had worked on the young lord with words of assurance and encouragement. His father would be proud of him, for he could make his name in battle. Not any battle, but holy war in the name of Morr. Silvano said something about his brother, his father’s terrible loss, how he was now the only surviving heir, but Belastra had pressed on with his persuasions,
“This is your chance, as prince of Pavona, a true servant of Morr, the king of gods, to show the strength of your faith. The Remans will see that you are blessed, and that there is neither the slightest schism nor heresy in the church of Pavona, but only truth and wisdom, and that they too should accept the full ascendancy of Morr.”
Trembling as he spoke, words were still pouring from the soldier’s mouth,
“I never saw one so big before, and I’ve been to Viadaza three times.”
“The third to enter was layered in iron plates, a right clattering mess of them. All the rest were in awe of him – kept out of his way …
… and as he came inside he crushed the broken bodies of the dead and wounded beneath his feet.”
“They had goblins with them, scurrying around like rats, looting from the fallen …”
Belastra was still remembering. The young lord had admitted he dare not go alone, nor with only a petty force at his command. And again Belastra realised his chance was slipping away, so he had advised the young lord to take all he wanted.
“None should be half-hearted in the service of Morr, my lord, nor think it foolish to use all the strength they have at their disposal to defeat that which threatens all of Tilea. Your father would surely think you most remiss not to equip yourself fully for battle. He is not a man for half measures, and nor would he wish you to be.”
Still, Lord Silvano had worn an expression of concern, and so it was Belastra had played his final card.
“I can stay here,” he had said – knowing the young lord was too young and naïve to hear the truth behind his words – “I can stay here to ensure Trantio’s obedience. Just leave me some guns, and the garrison soldiers who were once Compagnia del Sole, and Di Lazzaro of course. He and I would hardly be welcome among the holy army’s priests anyway, for they fight with prayers, not spells. You should take all the veterans with you, the best of the Pavonans, those who have fought for both your father and your brother – they’re skilled in arms and afraid of nothing. Let the arch-lector witness what you and they can do. Make him grateful to you personally. Become famous in your own right. Taste glory, and earn the respect of the whole of Tilea. This is your chance, my lord.”
Belastra had started to believe it himself. Silvano would surely thrive in war, like his noble father (but not his brother), while he himself would prosper from all he could wring from Trantio. And Duke Guidobaldo was unlikely to complain, for Belastro would ensure to fill his coffers too. There was plenty enough in Trantio to enrich them both.
“ … rampaging through the town,” the Scorcian was saying, wringing his hands.
“There were none could stand in their way. If a door was barred, they tore it off. If a window was shuttered, they punched it through. They killed everyone they found, every man, woman and child, even the beasts, making mountains of flesh for their feast …”
Now, thought Belastra, all could be lost. If the Brutes came south to Trantio it would ruin all his plans: his reputation would be destroyed, the wealth of Trantio stolen, and his life in peril from the duke’s anger.
What now? Was there any way to salvage his honour? Or should he look simply to saving his life?
“Many folk hid … well, they tried,” continued the militiaman, wincing in a distracting manner. “It worked for me, maybe for some others too. I climbed into a privy, as I reckoned bruti don’t bother with such niceties but just go wherever they like. Besides the stink would make them think there was no food to be found. I stayed put inside until dark.”
Belastra now knew why the man stank, and why he had discarded his shirt. The knowledge did not in any way lessen the stench.
“But I could still hear them in the streets,” the Scorcian continued. “They played with anyone they found, like they were nothing more than poppets and rag dolls, laughing so loud, and inventing cruel and bloody sports before they killed them …”
Belastra shook his head, as if attempting to empty it of upsetting thoughts. He should not give up so easily. Great men, rich men, did not weep and wail at the first hurdle. His end had not yet come. He still ruled Trantio. Maybe there was a way to save himself, even to prosper? He held up his hand to silence the militiaman.
“Who commanded them?” he demanded.
The militiaman shrugged, a nervous spasm twisting his face like a stage buffoon.
“Did you hear a name? Did you hear the name Mangler?”
“I don’t think so, your honour, not that name.”
“Any name then?”
The militiaman grimaced alarmingly, then answered.
“Aye, there was a name, your honour. I’ve heard it before, in stories about Campogrotta. They chanted it, very loud, over and over: ‘Razger, Razger, Razger’.”
Divided We Fall
Outside the Walls of Viadaza, Summer’s end, IC 2402
The city of Viadaza was belching black clouds – foul and noisome – which drifted eastwards, inland. The dead, both those once undead and those lucky enough never to have been stirred post-mortem, were being burned, by the thousand. For two whole days, the arch-lector’s army had busied itself with piling corpses in city squares and upon stone-built wharves, then, after a generous dousing with oil, tar and pitch taken from the warehouses, had set them alight. Within an hour, none could bear to stay within the walls, not only because of the heat, but also the vile, vomit-inducing stench of burning mountains of flesh. The soldiers removed themselves to the sprawling camp outside, where the smoke was lifted by its passage over the walls, then carried by a westerly breeze to pass mostly overhead, only occasionally lowering heavy, greasy coils to sicken those below.
The camp contained hundreds of tents and sod-walled huts, in some places arranged tidily, but largely a higgledy-piggledy confusion of differently sized structures placed wheresoever the soldiers had happened to stop.
Dotted throughout were fires and braziers, originally intended for cooking and to illuminate the otherwise ominous night, but now heaped with smoking herbs and green sticks, some also sprinkled with incense, in an only partially successful attempt to fend off the awful stink pouring from the city.
Near the southern stretch of walls stood a large tent of brightly painted canvas, belonging to the army’s military commander, General Urbano d’Alessio, hero of Pontremola. Above it flew two flags, the highest, and thus pre-eminent, was the cross-keyed standard of the Reman Morrite church, while the lower was the raven-winged hourglass of the Viadazan crusade, which the general had adopted as a personal standard. The general himself, in full armour, casually shouldering the massive blade with which he had slain the vampire duke of Miragliano, stood before its open front. At his side was Father Biagino, an unassuming Morrite priest whom the general had come to recognise was a sturdy ally in the fight against the horrors of the north, being not only insightful and useful, but increasingly influential. It also helped that Biagino was not remotely aloof, as were so many clergy, but willing to suffer a soldier’s lot without complaint.
Not that Father Biagino looked like a soldier, what with his tonsured head and a paunch evident even in his loose, grey woolen cassock. Or that he would describe himself as happy with his lot, for his sleep was wracked with nightmares and his waking hours filled with doubts, the two difficulties feeding off each other in a miserable spiral. Still, he was resigned to his fate.
Having barely left the general’s side during the last few days, Biagino was listening to a Reman captain delivering his report.
It was not good news. The captain and his company had been scouting the Trantio road some distance south of Busalla, where he had learned of the sacking of the town of Scorcio by a large force of ogres.
He returned quickly to the camp, binding his own men to silence. He knew, however, that there were others with the same story to tell, as he had encountered several groups of fleeing Scorcians on the road, having headed this way not merely because it was the easiest escape route, but because the holy army was here and who better to offer them protection than the soldier-servants of the gods?
“I reckon before it grows dark the entire army will know,” the captain said. “The news is spreading fast, your excellency, even as we speak.”
Biagino felt the now familiar fear welling inside. Yet again, he had dreamed of this, and more than once. His oneiric visions had repeatedly twisted this Reman army and last year’s doomed Viadazan crusaders into one, so that the cheers of soldiers celebrating battlefield victory unfailingly transformed into the wails of citizens as yet another town fell to enemies. He had thought the nightmare was born of his weakness, allowing fear and doubt to hold him in their grip, yet now he saw the truth of it. Morr had guided his dreams, and although the foe’s true face remained hidden, it was revealed that they would strike a terrible blow just as the Reman’s backs were turned, and so turn victory into defeat.
The general drew all that he could from the captain, learning that the ogres had issued from Campogrotta, bolstered by mercenaries from over the eastern mountains; that they had looted the town as thoroughly as they had done to every settlement in the city state of Ravola; and that their leader was Razger Boulderguts, the tyrant general commanding the mysterious wizard Lord Nicolo’s forces.
He then turned to Biagino.
“What happens then, father, when this news does the rounds in the camp?”
“It does not bode well for harmony among an army of allies. If Scorcio is fallen then the young Lord Silvano may no longer wish to march with us. He was made ruler of Trantio by his father, which makes Scorcio his responsibility.”
“Aye, but his father stole the realm of Trantio,” said the general. “And now the brutes are doing so too. I do wonder if there really is any difference?”
Biagino nodded. “I understand, general. Yet I do not think the young lord will see it that way. I have spoken to him. Lord Silvano idolises his father; sees neither greed nor cruelty in him, only stern nobility. He himself told me how his father humbled the Astianans when they threatened to strangle Pavonan trade, then marched north to remove a warmongering tyrant from Trantio, thus freeing its people. To his eyes, his father is a noble and honourable hero, destined to become the stuff of myth and legend, while these ogres will surely seem nothing more than base and cruel robbers.”
“Well,” said the general, “Lord Silvano would be right about the ogres, at least. And they won’t stop at looting and plunder – they’ll probably eat the populace too. Yet father, I too have spoken with Silvano, and I am not so sure he would now leave us, for that would mean forsaking his oath to serve Morr in this holy war.”
“It is not what has already been done that will move the young Lord, but what is about to happen,” said Biagino. “Considering what was done to Ravola, Razger Boulderguts probably considers Scorcio a mere aperativo, which makes the city of Trantio the main course. How can Lord Silvano remain with us when he is obliged to protect Trantio?”
“Ha!” laughed General d’Alessio. “He is honour-bound to serve us here. And besides considerations of his duty and oath, even if he did leave this very night, he could not hope to reach Trantio in time to save it from destruction.”
“He is young and hopeful, general, and will likely try anyway.”
“Yes, probably so,” agreed d’Alessio. He pondered a moment, never one to rush when speaking, despite his renowned dexterity in combat. “Silvano fought beside the Campogrottan brutes in the battle, did he not?”
Biagino had forgotten that.
“Yes, he did. They fought the undead riders together, and for some time, before he was saved by the intervention of his foot-soldiers.”
“So,” the general said carefully, “while he and the brutes stood together against the foe, the brutes’ own cousins were attacking his possessions to the south? It seems clear to me that there is a cruel and clever cunning at play here. This Campogrottan wizard lord sends his soldiers, man and ogre, to join our holy army, and then when the Pavonan lord marches north with us and them, the wizard-lord’s ogres begins plundering the now undefended towns. Thus he fights as both the Pavonans’ ally and enemy at one and the same time.”
Biagino now wondered about the Wizard Lord Nicolo Bentiglovio, remembering his niggling doubts in the past. Driven from his realm many decades ago, Nicolo had returned unnaturally old and retaken it with an army of mercenary ogres. Could he, in fact, be a vampire? Would that explain his remarkable longevity? If so, perhaps there was an alliance between him and the vampires to the west, which would conceivably lead to exactly this sort of strategic manipulation? Perhaps the wizard lord and the other vampires intended to carve out Tilea between them?
Biagino did not, however, voice these concerns, for if he was correct, then he had no doubt the general would work it out for himself; and if he was wrong, he did not want to further promulgate a misconception. Besides, he had dreamed nothing of the sort, and so had no reason to believe this particular insight was gifted by Morr.
The general was also lost in thought, scraping the edge of his shouldered sword against his steel pauldron as he did so.
Finally, he announced, “It seems that we are to be tested in even more ways than I imagined – and I thought I’d imagined the worst. We are now surrounded by enemies, to the north and south, and even if I chose not to divide the army in response, it could well do so of its own accord. Furthermore, we have potential enemies in our midst – a whole battalion of Campogrottans. Clearly, we must take measures to ensure they can do us no harm. I shall speak with his Holiness.”
The Reman captain coughed – not the sort of wracking cough gifted by the miasma emanating from the city, but short and sharp. Both general and priest looked at him.
“Yes?” enquired the general.
“Beg pardon, your excellency, but the Pavonans already know what has happened. I saw considerable fuss in their camp as I came here to you. They looked to be readying themselves.”
“Leaving already? Without seeking my permission?” asked the general.
“They looked to be arming themselves for a fight,” said the captain, “not preparing to march.”
Suddenly Biagino understood.
“They’ll be wanting vengeance against the Campogrottan brutes in our army,” he suggested. “They’ve been tricked, mocked even – what with the brutes helping their young lord in battle. All Pavonans are proud, even the common soldiers. They believe their faith is more perfect than everyone else’s, so that all they do is right and proper. If they can hate dwarfs so much as to banish them from their realm, how much more will they hate these brutes? It’s likely they will expect us to thank them for the slaughter they are about to cause.”
“We must act now,” said the general. “There’s no time for an audience with his Holiness.”
He turned to the Reman captain and the Cathayan officer by his side.
“Gentlemen, muster your men and make haste about it. Not only do we need to restrain the Campogrottans, we must get between them and the Pavonans. If we act quickly we might prevent this army mortally wounding itself.”
While the general’s soldiers marched to the Campogrottan quarter, Father Biagino hurried away to find young Lord Silvano. The lad had always seemed amenable, and honest – perhaps too much so for the world of Tilean politicking – and Biagino hoped to persuade him to order his men to stand down. Near the Pavonan camp, the stinking smoke thickened as the breeze died away and the noisome pall descended to linger more stubbornly. Looking around, Biagino quickly realised he was probably too late. There was hardly anyone about, the soldiers had already gone. Outside Lord Silvano’s pavilion there was only one guard, and a wounded man hobbling near the huts.
“I wish to speak with Lord Silvano,” said Biagino.
The guard, a large and moustachioed fellow, sniffed.
“Not here,” he answered, a rudely brief reply considering he was addressing a priest of Morr.
“Then where is he?”
The guard grinned.
“Gone to teach the Campogrottans a lesson in manners, and not the kind they’ll get to put into practice later.”
Biagino pelted off through the camp as fast as his legs would carry him. He had never been much of a runner, and the thickly fouled air did not make it any easier. But then, he hoped, it may have slowed down the Pavonans too. As he approached the rocky outcrop behind which the Campogrottans had settled, he could hear shouting. Unwilling to hurtle into the middle of a skirmish, he slowed his pace and picked his way more carefully between the huts. The first Pavonans he saw were handgunners, making ready their pieces. Halting, he consoled himself that he had not yet heard any shots. The fighting had not yet begun.
He stepped back, then crept behind the huts in the direction the Pavonans had been facing. Crouching behind a large barrel he peered over to see what exactly was confronting them. He was much reassured to see that it was a body of the arch-lector’s Cathayan Guards. They had arrayed themselves to block this particular access to the Campogrottan’s camp – an opening in one of the many rocky ridges that peppered the land around the city. As the Pavonans were not moving off elsewhere, he assumed there must be other loyal troops blocking the other gaps, no doubt facing more bands of angry Pavonans.
The Cathayans had formed into a double rank of crossbows, the first rank kneeling, while behind them stood a body of soldiers armed with the odd-looking polearms they favoured. An officer and a sergeant stood beside them, while their banner, bearing a single Morrite key, fluttered above. It was not them who were doing the shouting.
The Pavonans stood close, so close in fact that a volley from the crossbows now would surely prove very bloody, very deadly. They were disorganised, and although neatly liveried in their blue and white (as always), they looked more like a rabble than a body of soldiers ready for battle. Biagino wondered if this was because they were unofficered, acting without orders, without direction. They certainly seemed to lack discipline. As well as the handgunners, he could see halberdiers and swordsmen, muddled together, and all as tense as an angry crowd set upon lynching a suspected felon.
Some Pavonans were coughing, the stench here threatening to overwhelm them, but all had drawn their blades or were preparing their handguns. Biagino looked around to see who was doing the shouting. He had already decided it was not Silvano. If the young lord was here, was he merely watching? Or was he with another mob, at another gap between the rocks? Perhaps he had lost control of his unruly soldiers, whether unwillingly or not.
Just then, Biagino spotted the man doing the shouting – a stern looking fellow, armed with somewhat over-sized hammer and pistol, which nevertheless he wielded with ease. By the steel plate hanging at the man’s chest, Biagino recognised him as a provost.
Trust the Pavonans, he thought, to have a provost who stirs up trouble rather than quelling it.
The man was agitated, moreso even than the mob behind him, and straining to shout while breathing the poisoned fumes fogging the camp.
“This is folly,” he yelled. “Why would you defend such villains? You have no right to bar our way. I would see justice done here this day, yet you would protect them. Their very presence here befouls this holy army. Perhaps you do not see it, for you yourselves know not the glory of Morr? Your lack of faith is a lack of understanding. Ask yourselves, what is all this to you? I shall tell you – it is Tilean business, Pavonan business! You have no right to prevent us meting out proper justice.”
The Cathayan captain spoke with a heavy accent, and much more calmly than the provost.
“We have our orders. You are to return to your camp. The matter is in hand.”
“It is not! While those abominations live, justice is ill served. They are enemies, who have raised their hand against our prince. Would you have us leave them be? Stand by idle in the face of their guilt?”
Behind him the Pavonan soldiers’ protests grew louder, yet they did not press any further forward.
“You are not arguing with me,” said the Cathayan, “but with General d’Alessio, whom your own master has accepted as his military commander, and who serves in turn the arch-lector. It is by the general’s order that we are here. Leave now or I will give the order to shoot.”
The Pavonan provost laughed.
“The arch-lector is not the apex of power, but holy Morr, who is above all men and all offices, above all gods. It is not for the likes of you to tell Tileans how to cleanse their own land and make it good in the eyes of Morr.”
He turned to his men, raising his hand, then shouted: “Handgunners to the fore. Form on me. Two ranks.”
The handgunners began to move hesitantly forwards while the others stepped aside to get out of their way. Just then a sound was heard from beyond the rocks – a growling roar at once both angry and pained. The Cathayan officer turned to look. Biagino was impressed that not one of his soldiers so much as stole a glance, instead remaining fixed and at the ready, awaiting orders, the very definition of discipline. The advancing Pavonans halted, uncertain, straining to peer beyond the ranks of Cathayans.
Biagino could not be certain, but it had sounded a lot like an ogre.
The ‘Incident’ – Part One
Near Viadaza, Summer’s end, IC 2402
“We have arrested all those we could find afterwards, both Campogrottans and Pavonans, your holiness” reported General d’Alessio. “They are now in custody awaiting your pleasure. At the very least they are guilty of improper conduct and insubordination, at worst, mutiny and murder, although in the circumstances it might be unfair to consider them murderers, considering the provocation.”
Biagino noticed the general had chosen not to carry his famous broadsword, probably because it would be inappropriate for a meeting with the arch-lector. That, along with the blue sky, the pleasant surroundings of the gardens of the Palazzo Sebardia and the absence of stinking smoke of the last few days, made for a very welcome change. Compared to the scrape of steel upon steel, corpse burning in the dark and derelict city streets, and the threatening air of tension in the army camp, this afternoon felt most civilised.
The Palazzo Sebardia was situated a little south of Viadaza, constructed of the same grey stone as much of the city, and of a design similarly influenced by more northern architectural fashions. Atop the roof fluttered the arch-lector’s standard, as he was ‘in residence’. A walled moat of calm, deep waters sat to the side, in which living fish still swam, and all around were full grown trees to provide ample shade for those who sought it. There was, decided Biagino, no sign here at all of the nightmarish horrors that had gripped this realm while the vampire lord and his foul forces had possessed it.
Yet it was not possible to forget the war, for on the lawn immediately before the building stood a colour party, including an ensign, drummer and sergeant …
… while many more of the arch-lector’s guards were posted throughout the gardens. Crossbowmen watched the trees …
… while halberdiers stood sentinel at every door and along the wall of the moat. And they were not idle, for their eyes busily scoured the surroundings for any signs of trouble.
“I cannot say whether we caught all those involved,” continued the general. “It is likely some Pavonans slipped away before we could arrest them, creeping back into the mob gathered around the Campogrottan camp. Those we caught were nearly all wounded. The Campogrottan men were also badly mauled, leaving as many dead as injured. As for the brutes, there was not one left alive.”
“You accounted for all of the brutes?” asked the lector of Viadaza, Bernado Ugolini.
“We think so, your excellency. There were no sightings of ogres anywhere else in the camp. The art of concealment is not exactly their forte.”
Biagino laughed inside at the thought of an ogre attempting to conceal himself. It was an idea as ridiculous as the poppet play he had once seen in which wooden headed snotlings attempted to play chess. Perhaps engendered by his lack of sleep, this thought threatened to transform into an outward laugh, but he checked himself.
The arch-lector gave a heavy sigh, then spoke the words of a prayer: “Morr guide us, Morr take us and Morr keep us.”
Biagino wondered why this particular prayer had been chosen, in the end deciding it was most likely merely a general appeal to holy Morr in times of difficulty.
Looking down at his clasped hands, left thumb over right, the arch-lector let his eyes lose focus for a long moment while the others stood in respectful silence. Then he turned to fix the captain general with a direct gaze.
“Now, General d’Alessio,” he asked. “Exactly what happened in the Campogrottan’s camp?”
For the briefest moment d’Alessio looked uncomfortable, as if a sliver of doubt pricked at him, then he continued in the same matter of fact voice as before.
“I hold myself partially to blame, for I had already noticed how the Campogrottan archers harboured bad feelings towards their brute comrades. I assumed it was nothing more than that which all men feel in the company of ogres. Of course, now it is obvious in hindsight – these men were filled with hatred. They were most likely just biding their time until a chance arose to attack their brute and foreign oppressors. Campogrotta is a conquered realm, cruelly subjugated by a monstrous army. Perhaps Lord Nicolo sent the archers away simply to remove such potential trouble causers from his realm.”
“While simultaneously satisfying our insistent calls for soldiers to join the holy cause,” said the arch-lector. “Yet if so, then why did he also send two companies of his ogres?”
“That I do not know,” admitted the general. “Nor, I think, shall we ever know, now that the ogres are dead. It may well be that they intended some sabotage, perhaps even to attack the Pavonans among us when news of their brethren’s attack on Scorcio was received? That way such soldiers could not return to Trantio to harry the ogres from behind. If so, then it may well be a good thing that they were killed.”
The arch-lector regarded d’Alessio sternly. Like the lector standing behind him he wore a wine coloured, hooded cloak, although the cassock beneath was of a much richer, velvet cloth, decorated with silken braids and golden zucchini. His hands were no longer clasped together as if in prayer, which Biagino took as a sign that his holiness was not in the mood for ifs and maybes. Luckily, the general seemed to notice too, and returned to answering the question.
“We will know more, your holiness, when we question those involved. Perhaps, by your leave, in a court martial? For now, it seems that the Campogrottan archers, nearly to a man, took the news of the attack on Scorcio as a signal that they should begin the slaughter. They were joined in their bloody work by several Pavonans who had arrived with exactly the same slaughter in mind. The soldiers I sent to isolate the Campogrottan camp prevented any more Pavonans getting in. But it was too late, for although the handful who had already slipped through could not have prevailed alone against the brutes, allied with the Campogrottan archers they were sufficiently strong to do so. Nevertheless, it was a hard fight, and the attackers were severely mauled, losing more than half their number. Apparently, both the Pavonans and Campogrottans were willing to risk all in the attack.”
“I understand how they might feel,” said the arch-lector. “What with their homes and families conquered by these brutish creatures. But still. The brutes were here to do Morr’s work, and fought hard in the cause. That work is not done yet.
“I understand, general, that military discipline must be maintained, but there is more to this. We have an abomination to the North. Every living being has a duty to cleanse this world of the undead scourge. All right-thinking people know this is so. Each life given in this holy war is well received by Morr. Each life wasted in petty squabbles over possessions, pride or plunder is an insult to his name.
“Tell me, did young Lord Silvano order this attack upon the brutes?”
General d’Alessio shook his head.
“My officers have yet to ascertain the details, but as far as I know he does not seem to have done so. Not directly, at least, and he certainly did not lead it. None of our men witnessed him at the camp. His soldiers were disorganised, driven by their anger rather than an officer’s commands. He may otherwise have encouraged the attack, or simply allowed it to happen, or he might have been entirely ignorant of it. We have yet even to establish his whereabouts at the time.”
The arch-lector turned his gaze and reached out his right hand in the gesture of free speech.
“Father Biagino! I left many of my trusted advisors in Remas. But you have seen more horrors than them, and perhaps prayed all the harder as a consequence for Holy Morr’s guidance. I would have your counsel if you would give it. You have spent some time in Lord Silvano’s company. He joined our crusade eagerly, I know that, but does he truly serve Morr? Will he stay with us or will we be forced to let him go?”
Biagino had found the young lord likeable, open and honest, but whether he would order such an attack as this, however, who could say? Luckily, the arch-lector was not asking that.
“The young lord does appear devout in his service to Morr,” Biagino said. “He has his own confessor, of course, and has never spoken to me of any Sagrannalian heresies or schismatical beliefs. I took his willingness to join our crusade as a sign that he was happy to be guided by your Holiness and the true church. In truth, although he never expressed this exact thought, I believe he would much rather fight a holy war against the undead than die like his brother in a vendetta against the living. Yet …”
Here Biagino faltered and it was the arch-lector who picked up his thought, repeating the earlier question.
“Yet, will he leave now that Trantio is threatened?”
“I cannot say for certain,” admitted Biagino. “But I think it likely he will. He is proud to be the Gonfalonieri of Trantio, even if the honour is clouded by his brother’s death. Now he has learned of Scorcio’s suffering and the very great threat to Trantio, he must surely be torn between continuing this holy war and defending that which he rules. He swore oaths to do both, and in his naivety, I suppose, he never envisaged how the two duties might conflict. But the boy loves his father, and furthermore can see no wrong in the man. In the end, his filial duty will probably win out.”
The lector of Viadaza stepped forward to address the arch-lector.
“If I may speak, your Holiness? We can do nothing to stop Lord Silvano leaving if he so wishes. And in light of his rank as the noble son and heir of the ruler of a sovereign state, we have no rightful authority to try him. Even if we did, how could we weigh one oath made before the gods against another? If we had evidence that he himself espoused heretical doctrine then we might proceed against him under church law. If he ordered this attack and we chose to see it as the act of an enemy, then we could make him our prisoner, our hostage. But in so doing we would be declaring war against his father, which is surely madness with the vampire duchess north of us and now the tyrant Boulderguts to the south. We have more than enough enemies already.”
Biagino was not surprised to hear Lector Bernado talk so easily of the Campogrottan ogres as enemies. The arch-lector had not actually declared them so, yet now they had begun burning and robbing a second Tilean city state, which like Ravola had in no way provoked them, nor offended them, then they were clearly enemies of all mankind.
“Lord Silvano is untouchable in terms of military law,” said General d’Alessio. “He is the commander of his own army, sworn as a willing ally, not as a serving soldier who is duty bound to obey my every command. If he merely lost control of his men, we cannot prosecute him. If he failed to keep some vow, that only shames him. And even if he ordered the killing of the ogres, that is nothing more than a lord seeking retribution for crimes committed against him and his own. However, with his permission, we can proceed with a court martial concerning his men’s actions. If only to question them.”
“What would that gain, general?” asked Lector Bernado. “We have a war to fight. Can we waste time with inquiries?”
When all turned to hear what the arch-lector had to say, Calictus again allowed a long moment to pass, as if he were reaching out silently for some guidance. Biagino wondered if the arch-lector could feel Morr’s presence – not through riddle-filled dreams as he himself experienced, but rather to know the god’s will directly. If a lowly priest such as himself was blessed with divine visions, surely the highest-ranking clergyman in the church had access to much, much more? There was no way of knowing, of course, whether the arch-lector was merely weighing his advisers’ words or indeed waiting for god-given guidance.
When Calictus’ attention returned to his company, his eyes seemed to light up, as if an amusing thought had tickled him.
“Good Lector Bernado,” he said, “you have shown your grasp of the situation. I have no desire to do anything more than offer advice and friendship to Lord Silvano and his father.” He then turned to Biagino. “And good father, not only do I think you see much more than most when you look upon a mortal, it seems to me that Morr has guided you, blessed you, so that his will might manifest through you. I pray it will always do so. You both speak wisely. We must recognise the inevitable – move with it rather than against it – and so should aim to support Lord Silvano if he moves south to retake Scorcio.”
“Might I ask, your holiness,” inquired Lector Bernado, “how can we make this situation serve Morr’s greater purpose?”
“First, we must bring this matter of unrest in our army to a close, without making any more enemies than we already have. General – you may hold a court martial. I cannot imagine, if you inform the young lord it is my wish, that he would argue. We must be seen to follow a proper process, and the rule of law must prevail. Let the Pavonans and Campogrottans express their anger, explain their justification. And …” Here he paused, perhaps to ensure they all registered what words followed,”… it will hopefully become very clear to all that Lord Silvano was innocent of mutiny.”
He turned to the lector of Viadaza. “Bernado, I would have you attend, for the deed was done within your diocese, and by soldiers serving in Morr’s holy army.”
Both Lector Bernado and General d’Alessio bowed.
“What sentence do I pass when their deeds are revealed?” asked the general.
Again, Biagino saw a glimpse of humour in the arch-lector’s eyes.
“The Pavonans should of course be returned to their own camp, there to be dealt with as Lord Silvano sees fit. The Campogrottans will be found guilty of misconduct, and will await my pleasure. In the meantime, I shall consider how best to deal with them.”
It seemed to Biagino that the arch-lector already knew full well what he intended to do, although no-one but the arch-lector could know exactly what that was.
The Incident – Part Two (Court Martial)
Within the city walls of Viadaza
The gnomish clerk of the court was bringing the legal preamble to a close, his somewhat squeaky voice being both audible and authoritative despite its inauspicious nature.
“… and as the matter to be investigated concerns soldiers serving different sovereign princes, so that none of their own officers has authority over all the parties involved, then General Urbano d’Alessio will himself act as judge, in that he carries the baton of command over all brigades, granted him by the authority of the arch-lector …”
Biagino was not one of those Morrite clergy officially attending the trial, for that honour fell to the Lector Bernado and the lesser priests under his immediate jurisdiction.
Needless to say, there were not many lesser priests. Two, to be exact. Times had been more than hard for all Viadazans, including the clergy. So much so, in fact, that some of the previously walking corpses cremated over the last week wore grey and red priestly robes, ragged and filthy but still recognisable. That priests of Morr might become the living dead was beyond most Tileans’ imaginations, yet it had happened here in this hellish place. Ever since witnessing the corpses in question Biagino himself had struggled to free his mind of concern.
The square in which the interrogation was to be held was not large, made smaller by the collapse of the building lining its southern side. Biagino wondered whether the damage occurred during the burning of the corpses, the recent siege, or the earlier fall of Viadaza to the undead. Attempts had been made to tidy the rubble, creating a kind of wall behind which a group of observers had gathered, Biagino amongst them.
Several of the arch-lector’s own liveried bodyguards were scattered about the place – a drummer to beat the appropriate rudiments as prisoners were brought forward or removed, an ensign to bear the arch-lector’s standard, and the others to escort the prisoners and guard the various portals around the square. A second gnome assisted the clerk, while a priest of Morr was ready with a holy book upon which those to be examined might swear an oath that they would speak the truth.
As Biagino stepped forwards to get a better look, the first soldier to be examined was being brought into place.
When the prisoner and the guard came to a halt, Biagino noticed a large stone block behind them, decorated with chains and manacles.
Now he knew why this particular square had been chosen – it had obviously served a similar purpose in the past, back when Viadaza was filled with a living populace rather than soldiers and ghosts. The prisoner was a Pavonan, his blue and white quartered garb unmistakeable. Only Campogrottans sported a similar livery, and there were none of them in the holy army. Unlike most prisoners Biagino had seen over the years, this man was clean, combed, his linen unstained. The court might be going through all the usual motions, but it was obvious that the sort of ‘back-stage’ cruelty and deprivation that was a prisoner’s usual lot had not been inflicted.
Once the Pavonan had sworn his oath, he was ordered to give an account of what had occurred.
“It weren’t anything,” he said, an element of disdain evident in his tone. “We heard what the brutes had done and decided we would teach them a lesson.”
“You decided?” asked the general. “Not Lord Silvano?”
“Lord Silvano wasn’t with us when we heard the news. We didn’t need him to tell us what must be done. Besides, to find him out would have meant delay, and we were in no mood for that. They say patience is a virtue, but not always.”
“So, you were acting without orders?” suggested General d’Alessio.
The soldier nodded. “The brutes were revealed as enemies in our midst, no doubt with some bloody intention to add to the deeds done at Scorcio. We did what had to be done, and we did it quickly. It was what Lord Silvano would have wished.”
The general raised his hand to silence the soldier, his face registering annoyance. “Never mind what you think Lord Silvano wanted. Answer me straight: Did Lord Silvano give orders to attack the Campogrottan brutes?”
The Pavonan’s confidence was ebbing. He glanced around as if to look for help. “No … no, your excellency. He gave us no orders.”
The general gestured to the gnomish clerk. “Write that down,” he commanded.
As the gnome did so, his scribbling hand unfaltering, he raised his bushy eyebrows, registering a kind of surprise. Biagino noticed, and smiled. The gnome was no doubt thinking: ‘What do you think I’m doing?’
“Did Lord Silvano in any way indicate that it was his intention that you attack the brutes?” asked General d’Alessio.
“He is Gonfalonieri of Trantio, and Scorcio is his to rule. He would not want the comrades of those who had attacked his own possessions to go unpunished. We did …”
“Quiet!” barked the general. “And listen. This time I want you to answer the question put to you, and that question alone. You have ears, use them!”
The Pavonan nodded, now clearly discomfited.
The general waited a moment, taking a breath as if to compose himself, and then asked, “Did Lord Silvano, in any way whatsoever, encourage, embolden or advise you to do this deed? Did he either indicate his happiness at your intentions, or so much as suggest that you might do as you wished?”
“No and no,” said the soldier. “He couldn’t, see? Because Captain Minnoli took him away upon some errand before anyone could tell him what had happened.”
So that’s why young Lord Silvano had not been present at the incident, Biagino thought. His men had tricked him away, perhaps to prevent him from interfering, or to ensure no blame could be put on him. Or both?
General d’Alessio was not subtle in his satisfaction. He brought his hands together in a clap and turned once again to look at the gnome. Before he could speak however, the gnome, without lifting his eyes or even pausing his quill pen, said, “I’m writing it down.”
Biagino almost laughed at this. Gnomes had often had a comical way about them, a kind of pride, manifesting most often as sarcasm or rudeness. They were very good at what they did, yet men had a tendency to confuse their squeaky voices and short stature with childishness. He could see behind the general’s subsequent fixed expression, but he knew the man well enough to know it was more likely to be an attempt to conceal his own mirth rather than anger at the gnome’s impertinence.
General d’Alessio now turned to the crowd to make a short speech.
“This man acted without his commanders’ orders, neither mine nor Lord Silvano’s. Lord Silvano bears no blame for the deed. This man speaks for himself and the rest of the Pavonans involved in this incident. It is not my place to discipline another lord’s soldiers, and so this man and the rest will be returned to their camp, there to suffer whatsoever punishment Lord Silvano sees fit to inflict. They are his to do with as he pleases.”
Addressing the guard standing behind the prisoner, he added, “Take him away.”
Biagino was surprised at the speed at which the investigation had been conducted. Of course, he knew that all those officiating had already been briefed as to what must be done, and that the whole event was for show, but he had thought the general might make more of an effort to appear thorough in his examination. Still, there was a war to fight, against a most terrible enemy, and thus little time to waste on the niceties of tradition and procedure. He watched as the Pavonan was led away and a Campogrottan brought to stand in his place.
This man too had an air of defiance about him, like the Pavonan had when first brought forward, but his eyes revealed a nervousness. He was dressed in a colourful green and yellow doublet and a blue artisan’s hat. His hands were bound before him with rope, and he was prodded into place by a helmeted, hammer wielding guardsman. Biagino knew this Campogrottan was on much shakier ground than the Pavonan, for he and his comrades had no officers they could be returned to – they had killed their commanders when they killed the ogres!
The gnomish clerk declared that this man had been chosen to speak for himself and his comrades, then read out the man’s name, describing him as a retinue archer. The general seemed intrigued by this, asking, “A retinue archer? Whose retinue?”
“Sir Bruno Dalilla, knight of the Hollow Order.”
“There are no knights in your company.”
“No, your excellency. The brutes killed them all.”
The general nodded gravely. “And this was the cause of your action?”
“It was, your excellency. Lord Nicolo and his servant Boulderguts have killed or imprisoned every noble in our realm – lord, lady and child – excepting those who managed to flee or hide, which were not that many. The brutes stole the whole of Campogrotta, enslaving every living soul they found, then they took Ravola and stole all they could from there too. Now they’ve set upon Trantio. They’ll burn the whole of Tilea if they’re not stopped.”
“You have grievances a-plenty,” acknowledged General d’Alessio. “I see that plainly. But you had no orders, and certainly no right to take matters into your own hands. You are soldiers serving in his holy army of Morr, and ought properly to have awaited instruction. We would have dealt with the brutes as best we saw fit.”
The archer stared down at his feet. Biagino wondered whether the act of rebellion had given the man any real satisfaction, considering all that he had likely lost to the brutes, family at home, comrades here. It was a small revenge for the cruel conquest of an entire principality. The archer could hardly be said to look proud about what he had done. Or, thought Biagino, perhaps he was simply afraid of the potentially brutal consequences of being caught disobeying orders in a time of war?
“Look now,” commanded the general. “You will tell us exactly what happened. Speak.”
The man winced, then began his tale.
“News came of what had happened at Scorcio. The brute Gollig was one of the first to hear it. He was laughing, which wasn’t like him, and I wondered what was so funny. Then Enzo, who’d heard what had been said, stepped up to him and stuck him with a knife, deep into his belly, beside the metal plate. That stopped the laughing, but o’course it didn’t put Gollig down. He broke Enzo’s neck with a back-handed blow, then started shouting that we were all maggots, and asking who else wanted a slap. I could see he wasn’t himself, but whether that was the knife still buried in him or because he knew there was going to be trouble now that he and his kind had become enemies of the very army they were serving with, I know not. Enzo’s brother, Luca, sent an arrow to accompany the knife, then umpteen lads started filling him with shafts too. Even before he fell some of the others had run into the brute’s tents to cut their throats before they woke properly. And some managed it, but not all, and those brutes were roused by the noise and began fighting back. A lot of us were killed – we were hard pressed – and it were going bad for us until the Pavonans turned up and joined in. They had halberds, which cut broad and deep, and the blood flowed freely. It wasn’t easy, and a lot of good men died, but together we did what had to be done and killed every one of them.”
It went very quiet in the square. For a moment Biagino thought that there might be applause for the prisoner, but none came. He sensed it was being held in check – there was probably no-one present who had anything but respect for the prisoner.
General d’Alessio glanced over at the gnomish clerk still scribbling at the paper. Then he spoke:
“In light of the cruel tyranny of Boulderguts and his ogres, and their treacherous attack to the south of us, I am minded to excuse your actions. You and your comrades showed courage, and were willing to suffer as a consequence. Also, I would have it known that you bear no blame for the attack upon Scorcio. But I cannot forgive your indiscipline. Soldiers should act upon orders and not upon impulse. Therefore, I hereby judge that you will serve a term of parole, under conditions to be set by myself and the council of war, according to his Holiness’s will. This court martial is adjourned.”
Biagino was once again surprised by the abruptness with which the general brought things to a close. He knew exactly what the arch-lector had ordered – that the Pavonans be released into the custody of their own commander, and that the Campogrottans be freed only on provision that they continue to serve the arch-lector in whatever capacity he saw fit – yet had not realised how quickly such a declaration would be made. Only two out of three dozen men had been questioned, and neither had been pressed to reveal anything other than what they wanted to say. Perhaps this was the military way? No room for lawyers and cross examinations; no place for bickering, wrangling or disputation.
Not that he was unhappy about it, for now they could get back the important matter of waging war against the vampires. Or should that be the war against vampires and ogres?
A Letter to Lord Lucca Vescucci of Verezzo
Summer’s End, 2402
To my most noble lord, from your loyal servant Antonio Mugello. May this missive find you blessed by all the gods, in good health and prosperous. I humbly present all that I have learned from my travels and conversations over these last summer months concerning the realm of Tilea. Having carefully sifted, examined, compared and weighted all that I have learned, I humbly believe this report comes as close to the truth as is possible for a mere mortal to ascertain.
Arch-Lector Calictus II at last began his holy war early this summer, leading an alliance army of his own troops, several Viadazans of note and a brigade of Campogrottan ogres and men. He marched northwards from Remas. While Duke Scaringella remains Captain General of the armies of Remas, he also remained in the city, and so it is General d’Alessio, the Viadazan hero of Pontremola, who commands this great Morrite alliance army upon the march and in the field of battle. Of course, his holiness Calictus II attends the army’s councils, acting as would a liege lord, but chooses not to shoulder the burden of tactical command.
At the town of Scorcio they halted to dwell a while in the army camp constructed for their use by the Pavonans, and there they were joined by the Pavonan Lord Silvano Gondi, Gonfalonieri of the newly conquered city realm of Trantio. The young lord’s father, Duke Guidobaldo, had left him to rule while he himself returned to Pavona, and there has been considerable debate concerning whether the duke intended his son to abandon the city so soon to join with the army of Morr! Lord Silvano took a substantial brigade of veteran Pavonan soldiers with him, making the conjoined force mighty one indeed. And yet even more was on the way, for another force, paid and sent by Lord Alessio Falconi of Portomaggiore, consisting of the arabyan mercenaries known as the Sons of the Desert, is intended also to join them. But they were sent too late to reach Calictus this summer, and are now believed to be close behind. They could thus provide a ready source of reinforcements some time in Autumn, and will no doubt be most welcome to the arch lector in light of what happened at the end of summer (which I will detail below in its proper place.)
This holy Morrite army moved quickly to attack and capture Viadaza – or I suppose, as the Viadazans amongst their number would say, re-capturing it. The defeated vampire Lord Adolfo fled away with the ragged remnants of his army using the last remaining ships and boats in the harbour escaping even as the arch lector’s soldiers began pouring in through the breaches blasted by their cannons. The victors then began the horrible business of cleansing the befouled city, burning putrid corpses by the thousand in order to prevent them from rising yet again to fight, and to prevent disease ravaging their camp. Of course, burning the dead is not the usual way of the Morrite church, but when it comes to corpses tainted by evil magic apt to stir once again upon unholy nights if allowed to lie in the ground, the church actively encourages cremation. Indeed, when there are mountainous heaps of them, I doubt there is any other sensible way to proceed.
This victory brought hope to those who dwell in northern Tilea, being the first occasion in two years the undead had lost something which they had taken, the first truly effective blow delivered against them. Even when the vampire duke perished at Pontremola and his decimated army retreated from the field, nevertheless the undead dominion widened, for Viadaza was captured and corrupted that very same week – thus the victorious peasant crusaders lost their home even though they won the battle. Now, however, a battle was won and this time the enemy has definitely been pushed back. The vampire Lord Adolfo fled with his tail between his legs, in all likelihood running to his wicked mistress. Perhaps she, being a heartless creature of evil, will kill him as punishment for his failure? Whatever she does, she will surely recognise that her hold on the north has weakened. The victory failed to bring much joy to the Morrite alliance army, however, as they were busy about their nauseous and noisome task in the city. Instead they felt only trepidation concerning when the vampire Duchess would strike.
There are very few alive who can reliably report on exactly what is happening within the far north-west, where the walking dead shuffle and shamble about their foul errands. According to the handful of brave Urbiman spies who have ventured forth into that hellish domain, the vampire duchess Maria has now established her rule both in Miragliano and Ebino. The first was once her uncle’s realm and would now be hers by right of inheritance if she were still alive; the second she herself ruled before she turned. The Urbiman spies report the undead fought bitterly amongst themselves over the winter and spring months, which is why their advance southward slowed. Most educated men agree this is most likely, for when the vampire duke perished, his lieutenants were left leaderless. Such cruel and vain creatures most likely set upon each other to claw their bloody way to power, and in the end the vampire duchess Maria won the struggle. As to what strength she can now muster in the field no-one knows. Nor can anyone claim knowledge of her intentions, but her realm is large, with a plentiful supply of charnel pits and graveyards from which she can increase her marching strength. Perhaps she had intended Lord Adolfo to hold Viadaza, but now perchance he will instead join her in to increase her marching strength? But I must write no more concerning this in case I give the false impression that I have any true understanding of these matters. The far north of Tilea remains a darkly shrouded place, despite the vivid nightmares it weaves across the whole of Tilea.
At the end of summer terrible news came to the grand Morrite alliance army’s camp at Viadaza. They learned that the town of Scorcio, in the northern part of the realm of Trantio, had been attacked, looted and razed by a large force of ogres led by the Campogrottan Tyrant Razger Boulderguts. This led to a bloody, arguably mutinous, incident in the army camp as the downtrodden men of Campogrotta turned against their brute masters and killed them. They could well have been looking for an opportunity to do this for some time, but until now were hindered by the fact that the arch-lector seemed to consider the ogres a useful and important addition to his force. They were helped by several Pavonans, themselves looking for vengeance over the sacking of Scorcio, one of their young lord’s possessions.
I have heard it said more than once how these two make strange bedfellows – the Campogrottans being a conquered people, the Pavonans being conquerors. An alliance of convenience, perhaps? Considering the Campogrottan men are merely peasant soldiers, and outcasts from their own realm, it is no alliance of equals. How this internal conflict will affect the holy army of Morr has yet to be seen – their losses in ogres were just as bad in this incident as in the assault on Viadaza. Yet there is an entire mercenary army of Arabyans on its way to them so perhaps the arch-lector’s field strength can be maintained despite these troubles? What the arch-lector will do in response is a topic of much speculation. If he considers Boulderguts his enemy, which most folk assume must be the case, then he is close to being entirely surrounded by foes, and cut off from his own city. Will he turn south again now, his fight against the vile undead very much unfinished, or can he risk lingering in the far north to complete what he has begun?
It is a much-discussed mystery why the Campogrottan Lord Nicolo and his tyrant ogre Boulderguts sent a force including ogres along with the Morrite alliance army, when he apparently intended simultaneously to attack the Tilean realms also supporting that army. Many suppose that if the ogres had lived they would certainly have gone about some other treacherous, murderous activity. Of course, the Campogrottan brigade set off many months before Trantio was taken by the Pavonans, so it cannot be presumed that the ogres had particular enemies in mind. Perhaps their presence was intended to poison the Morrite army, to weaken it fatally, or at the least to make it unfit to return to Trantio to aid its defence? When Boulderguts discovered the realm of Trantio to be ruled by servants of the Pavonan Duke rather than the Trantian Prince I doubt he would have thought twice about continuing his assault, for why would it matter to him who exactly he looted from? He consumed the realm of Ravola leaving only the barest of bones to show what once was. In truth, it was perhaps inevitable that the ogres would turn south to continue to feed their lust for loot. I am loath to admit that I failed entirely to recognise that Bouldergut’s assault on Ravola revealed his true nature, and what (of course) he would do again and again until stopped.
I now wonder whether there is an evil alliance between the wizard Lord Nicolo and the vampire Duchess Maria. It has for some time now been conjectured that Nicolo, impossibly ancient as he is, is himself a vampire. If so, then it occurs to me he may well have been the root cause of the curse that so recently brought Miragliano so low. Perhaps the vampires that have come to dominate the far north were begotten of him? One might counter that vampires lead only the armies of the dead, which means Lord Nicolo cannot be so, but why couldn’t a vampire hire an army of ogres to fight for him? Perhaps he believed them to be a better fighting force than the shambling hordes of undead, and in an urge to gain power by the best means possible, preferred living muscle to magically animated sinews? Perhaps Lord Nicolo recognised that the people of Campogrotta would never serve him, even begrudgingly, if they suspected what he was, and so thought it best to rule through the whip-wielding hands of brutes?
The existence of such a vampire alliance could explain the timing of the attack upon Scorcio, for both sides have gained much – the Campogrottan ogres able to plunder almost freely now that the fighting men of Remas and Trantio have marched northwards, while the Duchess Maria benefits from the confusion, doubt and weakening of the grand alliance army just as it began to get to grips with her newly won realm. Furthermore, my lord, I would ask you to consider this: As the ogres satisfy their hunger – looting, slaughtering, devouring – they leave behind them a wasteland – exactly the sort of ruinous realm that would suit vampires perfectly. Once the ogres are sated and have moved on elsewhere, the undead could simply move in to take possession of the strongholds and raise hordes of servants from the unguarded graveyards and tombs to re-populate the realm. Both parties obtain exactly what they desire. If the wizard lord Nicolo is indeed a vampire, then sending a hired horde of ogres before him to destroy the land could be considered a strategy of terrible and wicked genius. I admit that this is mere speculation on my behalf, for no-one seems even to have witnessed the wizard lord of Campogrotta, not even those Campogrottans who escaped his ghostly yet tyrannical regime (which in itself could lend more weight to the theory that he is a vampire, hiding his face from his conquered people).
The only good to come so far from this situation – and I do not write this flippantly but rather as you commanded my honesty in communications – is that in light of Duke Guidobaldo’s recent, unwarranted, unfair and untrue threats against your lordship, the ogres’ assault upon his newly won territories might well be considered good news, for he must surely now be too distracted to continue his aggression against Verezzo. How can he continue his attempts to inflate his feigned grudge into a reason to go to war (and further increase his possessions) when a massive force of plundering ogres are even now rending their way through his Trantine possessions? Surely, he must now look only to defend rather than attack?
As the garden of war in the north blossoms with blood red blooms, in the south its tired, browning petals are falling away. The forces of the VMC continue to pursue the scattered remnants of Khurnag’s Waagh. Even though many of the goblinoids apparently dissipated at the ultramontane mercenaries’ mere approach, nevertheless enough remain to require the VMC’s continued efforts. The greenskins, however numerous, have been fatally wounded by the lack of a leader to unite them. Such has always been true of goblinoids, who harbour a hatred for each other just as strong as that they feel for men, a flaw that can only be subdued by an awe-inspiring warboss. When leaderless they become more an annoyance than a real danger.
As nothing has been heard from Monte Castello in several months, not one boat nor even a lone traveller coming thence, it is supposed that it fell to the greenskins some time ago and that any Tileans who remain there are either dead or held prisoner. No-one knows the fate of Pugno, but its isolated situation, sitting beside the very route many of the greenskins are thought to have travelled from the Border Princes, does not bode well for its survival. Thus it is that even though the VMC are unlikely again to face a grand field army like that which attacked them at Tursi, they may well still have their work cut out if they are to secure the south-eastern parts of Tilea: to make Alcente and Pavezzano safe, and to clear Monte Castello and Pugno of squabbling bands of goblins. It is commonly complained that the VMC will only complete their task if there is profit in it, and that if a goblin infested settlement was irreparably ruined they would simply pass it by as of no interest. I myself am not so sure of this last contention for they have rebuilt Pavezzano and invited many to settle there under their protection, and that was presumably in a very bad state of repair after its occupation by the goblins of the Little Waagh! Some others claim that the VMC would be happier bribing the goblins to leave, although most laugh at this suggestion, pointing out that the northerners have fought well enough so far, not only defeating Khurnag’s Waagh but somehow finding the time to punish Raverno along the way. These are not the actions of a wary or weak force. If anything, the VMC will become more of a threat once the greenskins are dealt with, for surely they will turn their attentions to other potential sources of profit, and will care not if said sources are in Tilean hands. As is commonly heard on the streets of Pavona: “A foreigner is a foreigner, whether his ears are pointed, his skin green or his accent northern.”
Lastly, I wish to tell you of something that is most likely already known to you. If so, pray forgive me and know that I would be remiss if I did not mention it. The Estalian brigade Compagnia del Sol has begun sending letters to various rulers and powers in Tilea, suggesting that in light of the conjoined threats of vampires, ogres and greenskins, their military skill and strength are surely needed. They boast that through the hard fighting they have experienced in Estalia thwarting the rebellious northern and eastern lords, they have become a much more dependable force than their recently dispersed Tilean cousins ever were, and they claim that they are of at least equal strength. They intend to land agents at the western coast port cities, and have already begun to suggest that one state alone need not pay them entirely, for it might be arranged that two employers might share the cost, perhaps several many sovereign states each paying a mere portion of their fee, so that all can benefit from the protection of a large and potent fighting force which would otherwise prove too expensive for their purses. If then joined by detachments of native militia and troops to further bolster their numbers, an army the likes of which has not been seen for decades in Tilea might be forged. I cannot say whether or not their boasts and promises are true, but as a good many of them are Tileans by birth, and are only called Estalian due to dwelling this last decade in that place, then they could indeed prove to be sturdy warriors in the defence of Tilea.
Next Installment: Part 11