Biagino had not at first thought it unusual that a fellow clergyman should wish to speak with him in private, but when he discovered it was to be a secret rendezvous with a Pavonan priest unknown to him, at the ancient ruins beside Lago di Scandarro, that struck him as odd. The young messenger carrying the invitation only further stirred his suspicions. The gangly lad had been so agitated he was barely able to stand still for more than a moment, and although a youth who could surely be no more than a novitiate, yet he was tonsured and wore a cassock, and must therefore at least have made his temporary vows.
Perhaps, Biagino thought, the purportedly schismatic Pavonan church had less strict requirements concerning the age at which brotherhood could be bestowed? Indeed, during the Trantian Sagranalian uprising (several decades previously) there had been a veritable army of boy-monks, and Biagino had heard it said on several occasions that the Pavonan schism was an off-shoot of old Father Sagrannalo’s revolutionary theology, although of a kind that fortuitously permitted the noble and rich to remain in power, which suited Duke Guidobaldo of Pavona very well.
Was he about to be lured into some radical, Pavonan design?
Of course, Biagino let none of this dissuade him. Considering all he had experienced, to shy away now from merely speaking with a fellow clergyman, even in secret, seemed ridiculous. If the priest had bad intentions, then it was best that Biagino learned of them; and if the man proved to be a true servant of Morr, then that too required his attention.
Either way, he must play along.
It was late afternoon when Biagino approached the tumbledown temple. All was calm, the lake waters adding to the peacefulness. Were he still a boy the chance to sit by the water’s edge and skim stones would have been irresistible. The only urge that vaguely tugged at him now was to take advantage of the quiet, to lie down, and to sleep. That would mean dreaming, however, which for him was not at all restful, for in sleep his mind ran fast and deep into realms removed in both time and place, there to reveal horrors into which he had sunk deep. The urge to rest was a remnant of his youth, and no longer an activity to enjoy.
There were four men waiting. The priest who had sent the invitation, Father Claudio, was immediately obvious, standing ahead of the others and elevated a little by the lie of the ground. He was a large man of many chins, clothed in a grey, course, woollen cassock; so well fed that he was likely to be a priest of some authority. There was also the boy-brother Biagino had already met, while the others were either lay-brothers, flagellant-dedicates, or some unique Pavonan admixture of the two.
The boy-brother carried an axe, more tool than weapon, but held in such a way that it was clearly intended as the latter. One of the dedicates had a viciously barbed mace, and a lighted torch in his other hand. It was not yet dark, and Biagino struggled to guess why it was lit. (Had they made their way here through some underground passage? Were they intending to burn something, or scare wild animals away? Neither theory seemed likely.) The other dedicate lurched drunkenly, his arm extended as if to steady himself against some unseen support. It occurred to Biagino that the man’s condition was likely due to an over-exuberance in his self-administered admonishments – a common cause of injury, instability or insanity in flagellants.
Father Claudio had apparently been engaged in prayer as Biagino arrived, and now gestured the conclusion of his prayers by bringing his hands together.
“Good day to you, Brother Biagino,” he said. “Holiest Morr protect and guide you and yours. Are you alone?”
“There’s just me, brother,” Biagino answered cheerfully. “Why, were you expecting others?”
Father Claudio simply smiled, shaking his head so that his jowls wobbled. “You have the ear of the arch-lector, yes?”
Biagino had expected this, just not so soon. Ever since the raising of the holy Viadazan army he had received appeals, requests and entreaties of all varieties, to be passed on to those in power, whether military, secular or clerical. It was rare that petitioners were so abrupt, however. He chose not to answer and instead asked,
“You’ve come from Trantio?”
“Sadly, yes, we have,” said Father Claudio. “A terrible thing, the fall of such a great city to plundering brutes. It greatly shames Tilea that such can happen, yes.”
Biagino wanted to ask, ‘Was it worse than when the city fell to you Pavonans?’ Instead he said, “There are wicked foes all about. This is not an easy time for Tilea. Yet Khurnag’s Waagh has been defeated in the south, and the vampires in the north now face our holy army, having already been driven from Viadaza. If the princes in between would stop squabbling among themselves and deal with this Razger Boulderguts, then all would be put right again.”
“Squabbling? Ah, hasn’t it always been thus – the way of things in Tilea, yes? The goddess of war would diminish to nothing if it were not so. Yet it is one thing for Tileans to wrestle over matters of honour and revenge; another thing entirely for orc, vampire and ogre to loot, burn and murder. Our Duke Guidobaldo knows full well when it is time to put aside territorial disputes and slights against him and his people, and instead make a stand against evil.”
The duke certainly took his time to come to this realisation, thought Biagino.
“It is a great shame that the realm of Trantio has fallen,” he said. “Not once, but twice, and the second time to be left abandoned and ruined. Where have its people gone?”
Father Claudio gave no indication that he recognised the implied criticism.
“Those who did not perish fled – some south to Astiano, some west to Remas, and some – as you can see – north to Viadaza.”
“Come to join our holy war against the undead?” suggested Biagino.
“Come to ask the arch-lector to recognise the war is now made larger, and that he cannot leave central Tilea to its fate while he completes his vow to destroy the vampires in the north. To do so would be folly, yes, for there would be no home for his victorious holy army to return to, nothing left of what they are trying to defend.”
“So,” asked Biagino, “you want me to ask the arch-lector to commit forces to fight against the ogres?”
“He must. Not to do so would be the gravest folly.”
Biagino began to wonder whether Father Claudio was working entirely on his own initiative, as his words and Duke Guidobaldo’s actions did not sit well together.
“But the duke himself has ordered that his son and the Pavonan force he commands continue here, in the service of the holy army of Morr,” said Biagino.
“As is only proper,” replied Father Claudio, “for Duke Guidobaldo is Morr’s truest servant, and his son has made a holy vow. The arch-lector has other forces, however: his garrison at Remas, a whole army of mercenary Arabyans already bound to his service, and plenty more mercenaries available for employment. My lord will do all he can to defeat Razger, that goes without saying, yes, but if his strength should prove insufficient it is not only Trantio and Pavona that will suffer. Boulderguts cannot be ignored by Remas, nor can the fight against him be delayed, whether that be until the war in the north is won, or until Razger is before the walls of Remas.”
“The arch-lector is guided by holy Morr,” said Biagino, “divinely inspired to know when and how best to act …”
“… Yet you are right, he cannot know the true desires of Tilean princes unless he is made aware of them.”
Biagino paused, wondering whether he should give voice to such a line of thought, for it might unduly encourage and embolden such men as these. Best, he thought, to blather instead, so as to obfuscate what he had already said.
“Holy Morr concerns himself with the fight against the undead,” he continued, “guarding our souls in his garden so that we may rest undisturbed for all eternity. To him it matters most that we do not succumb to evil after our death. We, his priests, must also concern ourselves with the living, however, for not only are we ourselves living and therefore cannot do otherwise, but we must act as guides on the path to Morr’s garden, so that more souls may reach its sanctuary.”
Biagino could see that Father Claudio’s eyes were glazing over, and knew his tactic was working.
“It is not right,” he continued, “to hasten our own end or that of our flock, however, for Morr prefers to welcome us when he is ready to do so, not when the servants of foul gods’ cause our deaths.”
Here Biagino’s words dried up, for he has so effectively meandered in his meanings that he himself knew not what to say next.
Father Claudio gave a confused chortle. “I … thank you for your sermon, brother, but I am cognizant of the church’s teachings.”
The torch bearer thrust his arm forwards, causing the flame to sputter. His eyes were glaring, sunk deep into his face like that of a starving man, yet his bare arms revealed muscles a-plenty.
“When Morr tests us,” declared the man in a Trantian accent, “it is no easy thing. He doesn’t play with us, tickle us, tease us, like a loving mother would her infant child. He teaches us through suffering. We become strong through those trials, and so ready to thwart any necromantic threat. The undead are the first enemy, and Razger’s ogres the second, being a trial to truly test our faith. To fight both is not easy because to serve Morr is not easy. But fight both we must.”
Biagino now knew for certain the man was a flagellant-dedicate, for his words contained the mantra of such creatures. Besides, only someone filled with an agonising commitment to Morr would fail to baulk at interrupting the conversation of two senior priests. The man was probably a captain among the flagellants.
“My companion Brizzio knows the truth of it,” said Father Claudio. “It is scarred into his flesh. We must indeed fight both undead and ogres. If we fail against the ogres then Tilea is burned, our dead are unguarded, and the vampires will work their evil all the more easily, raising wicked legion after legion to serve them. The fall of Trantio is most assuredly a sign of Morr’s displeasure. It is clear now that our lord’s removal of the tyrant prince was not punishment enough for the people of Trantio, and that the gods saw fit to allow the city to fall completely, despite our worthy attempts to cleanse it. All Tileans must work together to prove to Morr that they are indeed deserving of his love. We cannot ask for Morr’s blessing, without obeying his commands, nor can we expect to enter his garden without accepting his wrath. You must surely recognise, yes, that Morr is not merely the king of gods but the god of gods? If the lesser gods think to test us, how much moreso the god of gods?”
Biagino looked at each of them. One dedicate with his crazed expression, the other reeling unsteadily; the boy-priest hopping from foot to foot as if stood upon a hot griddle, and Father Claudio staring down at him like a disapproving teacher. These were indeed disciples of the Pavonan schism, Claudio had openly admitted it. And they were strange in their beliefs, as well as their ways.
Of course, he wasn’t going to tell them this. Not when he was here alone, unarmed (apart from his hidden stiletto).
“Your request would be taken more seriously if presented formally and with proof of Duke Guidobaldo’s agreement,” Biagino advised. And if you and your companions were not schismatic fools, he thought.
Father Claudio nodded.
“That can be done, yes,” he said. “I shall speak with Lord Silvano for he knows his father’s wishes. If he knew also that the arch-lector was likely to listen, then I am certain that he himself would present our case.”
Biagino now wondered who it was had most likely sent these men to speak to him. The young Lord Silvano had not shown his face at the army’s councils since the trial of his men for their ill-disciplined attack against the Campogrottan ogres. It had been supposed that he was wracked with indecision concerning whether to leave and return southwards or stay with the holy army. Perhaps instead it had been the youthful embarrassment of having to admit that he had lost control of his troops, while they had lured him away so that they could do what they desired? Mind you, knowing the boy’s family, it might instead be that he was annoyed he had not given the order for the assassinations himself. And if none of these, then it could be a matter of pride – the need to know his request would be taken seriously rather than risk being shamed by a brusque refusal. Whatever the truth, it seemed likely these men had been tasked with obtaining an invitation from the arch-lector for Silvano to attend upon him, thus saving the boy’s face, and allowing him to present his father’s wishes.
“Leave it with me, good father,” said Biagino. “I can but speak a word or two, here and there. Then we shall see.”
Gladly taking leave of the party, Biagino returned the way he had come. The whole encounter made little sense to him. In the end, he decided that Lord Silvano’s inexperience must be to blame for such a bizarre and round-about method to gain an audience with the arch-lector, if indeed that is what it was. It also occurred to him that the arch-lector, wise as he was in the ways of the world, should perhaps have recognised the need to reassure young Silvano that his presence was still desired at the council table. Once Biagino began to ponder the request to assist the fight against the ogres, however, any clarity he was beginning to feel slipped away to be replaced with a heady concoction of doubts, fears and frustrations, riddled with images from half-remembered, and less than half-comprehended, dreams.
Was this really the time, as Tilea faced doom at the hands of vampires and ogres, to pander to schismatics? Could they be a symptom of a gangrenous rot growing within the Tilean church of Morr? And was the best course right now to placate tyrant princes? Could Pavona be the rusted hinge that caused the bolted door to Tilea to break? Or were the ogres the real danger, threatening to fatally wound Tilea as it was distracted by the vampires in the north?
Biagino was glad he was neither lector, prince nor general. But then of late, he was not particularly happy to be himself!
Capitano di Ventura
Autumn, 2403. Estalia, east of Solsona, at the western mouth of the Tramoto Pass
Ottaviano found himself pleased and thankful to be wearing the Compagnia’s livery once more. He could see Baccio was experiencing a similar satisfaction. The two of them now had a purpose beyond mere survival, a chance to prosper in the security afforded by an army of comrades. The wine was good too.
Their journey from Tilea had not been easy, nor pleasant, and their first weeks in Estalia were a time of hunger and doubt. When they finally found the Compagnia del Sole they cursed their ill-luck, for had they taken the Tramoto Pass instead of the sea route to Almagora they would have walked straight into their comrades’ arms as soon as they entered Estalia. But they were so happy to have arrived, to be made so welcome, that they put their troubles behind them.
Having delivered the letter they carried, and briefly sworn themselves into Capitano Bruno Mazallini’s service, the pair of them were permitted to sleep long enough to take the edge off the pain in their aching legs. Upon waking they were summoned to an examination by the capitano and his marshal Luigi Esposito. It was an unusually warm afternoon for autumn, so the meeting took place at an open-air table at the edge of the camp, with the foothills of the Abasko Mountains looming in the distance.
The capitano di ventura had spent the morning hawking, and was still fussing over his bird when they presented themselves. With a simple gesture and the word ‘Please’ he invited Ottaviano and Baccio to partake of the wine and fruit on the table. Serving themselves they drank deeply of the sweet, spiced Borgas, then Ottaviano noticed Baccio staring at the banner mounted behind the capitano – the Leon de Oro of Almagora. Technically the Compagnia were still in Almagora’s employ, having dealt with the last of the rebellious senors in Solsona, and now entering the last three weeks of the additional ‘ad beneplacitum’ term of their service. Ottaviano decided it was very unlikely that the Compagnia would, or even could, be ordered upon some further enterprise, which was probably why, having pursued the remnant rebels along the Tobaro road towards the Tramoto Pass, they had halted. From here they could make a relatively quick return to Tilea as soon as it was honourable, and had indeed already sent chancellors to secure transport from Tobaro eastwards across the Tilean sea.
“We read your letter,” said the capitano, still admiring the hawk. “Did you know of its contents?”
“We knew only what we were told it contained,” answered Ottaviano. The letter had been sealed with a particularly stubborn wax of dwarven making, and although Baccio had picked at it upon several occasions, Ottaviano had managed to stop him before he broke it.
“And you were told what?” asked the capitano, finally turning to look at the two of them, balling his fists to lean on the table.
“A dwarf called Boldshin gave it to us in Remas, after he had spoken with us at some length. It was plain he wanted to ensure we were what we said we were and that we were going where we said we were going. He claimed to served Tilean dwarven interests and that the letter was an offer of contract, well paid and well worth consideration.”
“He didn’t lie,” said the capitano. “It seems when you stir up some dwarfen bankers and miners, then add a very wealthy Bretonnian baron, you get a very tempting dish indeed.” He turned to address Baccio directly. “Tell me more about this Boldshin.”
The hawk suddenly squawked, almost as if the name meant something to him. The capitano turned to shush the bird. It settled quickly, so he settled his eyes on Baccio.
“Erm … a dwarf’s a dwarf,” said Baccio hesitantly. “Long beard – very long – brownish. He didn’t look old, not for a dwarf anyway. Had gold on his fingers and a mean looking guard with him. Talkative, with a Tilean accent. Not a mountain dwarf, but moneylender I reckon.”
“If you weren’t liveried, then how did he know you were Compagnia men?” asked the capitano.
“I can’t say for sure,” Baccio answered. “Well, we did tell him, but that was after he’d spoken with us for some time. Maybe he was talking to everyone at the docks, until he found what he wanted with us?”
The Capitano frowned. “He told everyone he was trying to get a letter to us?”
Ottaviano shook his head and jumped in before Baccio could answer. “No, capitano, I don’t think so. We weren’t keeping it secret that we were Compagnia men, not in Remas. He most likely just asked around and got pointed our way.”
“We heard a story,” said Marshal Luigi, “that the Compagnia were blamed for the death of a high ranking Reman priest. How come the Remans didn’t set upon you?”
“I don’t think the Remans believe that story,” said Ottaviano. “It was put about by Pavonans, giving them a reason to hunt down and kill as many of us as they could.
“Most Remans think the Pavonan duke makes up reasons to justify his actions; that the truth has little to do with it.”
“The Pavonans are not to be trusted,” Baccio chipped in. “Everyone knows they are liars.”
A muttered agreement came from the little knot of men standing nearby: a guard, a drummer and a sergeant. The capitano glanced at them and they fell silent.
“It seems we must tread carefully then,” the capitano declared. “Especially considering Duke Guidobaldo might well be our next employer.” He let that notion sink in for a moment, before explaining, “Apparently, he has invited other city states to join with him to hire us.”
Ottaviano had neither known nor expected this – he and Baccio had not exactly been moving in the same high circles as the Estalian Compagnia’s chancellors. But it made some sense.
“I did hear that Renzelli’s Compagnia men are already in Duke Guidobaldo’s service,” he said. “They weren’t at the Battle of the Princes, being garrisoned at Trantio. Despite the Pavonan’s hatred of the Compagnia, wily old Renzelli must have convinced them that he could be trusted, and that two companies of mercenary crossbows would be of good use.”
“We’d heard that too” said the marshall, his armour clattering as he shifted his stance. “Which was why we took the stories about the Pavonan hatred with a pinch of salt.”
“With respect, Marshal,” said Ottaviano, “Renzelli’s hiring was most likely a matter of simple pragmatism on both parties’ parts. Duke Guidobaldo needed a garrison for his newly conquered city, and Renzelli needed to live.”
Baccio sniffed loudly. Staring at his cup he said, “There is no doubt about what the Pavonans did. After the Battle of the Princes they hunted our boys down with deadly purpose in mind. Ottaviano and I were lucky, but many weren’t. I saw Ruggero’s head mounted on a stake like a common criminal. He was a soldier’s soldier.
“A lot of men died who did not need nor deserve to die. And as for our boys killing a Reman priest, that’s a lie. I said it then and I say it now, it makes no sense. If they wanted to rob him then they’d knock him down and tie him up. No-one kills a Morrite priest before his time. It’s a double insult against Morr.”
“If it was a lie,” declared the marshal, “then they chose the wrong people to lie about.”
“Let’s not make threats until we know what is best for us,” ordered the capitano. “Remember that General Fortebraccio did not command us, nor did we owe him any allegiance. Even before we parted he was not our commander. The simple truth is that he went his way and we went ours and the Compagnia was divided. All we shared was our past, and the name we went by. I mean no offence to you two gentlemen, for I know you played no part in the bitterness that divided the company, but Fortebraccio’s men were not our brothers-in-arms and it is not to be presumed that we should want vengeance for what was done to them.”
A silence fell over the company. No-one was going to argue. They were all mercenaries, not retinue men. They did not fight for vengeance or honour, but for pay and plunder.
Late Autumn 2402
1. Holier Than Thou
The City of Viadaza: Outside
The bulk of Gedik Mamidous’ mercenaries, the ‘Sons of the Desert’, had already marched by, an exotic collection of long-robed spearmen, black-clad swordsmen carrying curved blades and camel riders. Although few of those watching had ever before seen such far-southern warriors, the arabyans had taken so long to cross the river that their arrival was not unexpected. Many a campfire joke had revolved around the fact that this desert army had been brought to a halt so effectively by a river.
“An arab found himself by a river. Seeing a fellow countryman upon the other side he shouted, ‘How do I get to the other side?’ His countryman looked puzzled, and answered, ‘You are on the other side!”
“Why did an arabyan sleep for a month beside a river? To get to the other side.”
After weeks of delay while the few mouldering vessels remaining in the city docks were hastily repaired, there were finally boats enough to transport Mamidous’ soldiers, and now they had arrived at the city, observed by those on the walls, and those in the camps outside the walls (a not insubstantial number for the stench of undeath had still not quite quit the city). Unexpectedly, at the rear of the column, accompanying the baggage of camels and mules, came a company of Tilean mercenaries – the famous Captain Pandolfo da Barbiano’s galloper guns. It seemed Lord Alessio Falconi of Portomaggiore had felt very generous indeed when he employed this army to aid in the arch-lector’s holy war, for he had spent even more gold to compensate for the arabyans’ lack of artillery.
Captain da Barbiano led the brace of guns, wearing a surcoat of green and red, and riding a caparisoned and barded horse. Each gun and limber was light enough to be hauled by a single draught horse and its whip-wielding rider. The rest of the gunners and matrosses jogged alongside clutching rams, sponges and worms. Da Barbiano had fought for several city states over the last decade, demonstrating the worth of his company during lightening raids to despoil an enemy’s realm – burning crops, looting livestock and driving the populace to despair. Heavier guns would obviously be useless in such an enterprise, but these lighter pieces were capable of keeping up with a mobile force, and allowed a rather unexpected element to be brought into play whenever some sort of local resistance was mustered. “Guns of the Desert” they jokingly called themselves now.
Amongst the tents, watching the gunners, were several Reman soldiers and a company of Morrite dedicants.
These hooded fanatics were becoming a common sight in Viadaza – the first people to return in any number after the arch-lector’s soldiers had driven out the undead. Almost all wore robes and cloaks in the grey and maroon colours of the Morrite clergy, and all to a man had sworn themselves to the service of Morr. This did not, however (at least at first) mean they were unified, for Morr speaks mysteriously through dreams, and who can know whether they merely dreamt of Morr or were truly visited by him? Besides, there were many much more mundane reasons for their divisions. Some were lay brothers, officially accepted into the church of Morr, others were flagellant-dedicates recruited by unsanctioned demagogues and visionaries. There were Viadazans who had fought at Pontremola against the vampire duke’s horrid legions, grizzled veterans who had lived a hard life since the fall of their city, and Viadazans who had simply fled the city when the undead arose to live as refugees in the south for a while. There were both Pavonans and Trantians. Amongst the latter were some who shared a common cause with the Trantians, having been ‘favoured’ by them during Duke Guidobaldo’s short rule of their city, and others who hated their former masters with a vengeance. There were haunted Urbimans who had travelled secretly through the nightmarish realms in the north to spy upon the foe, Campogrottans serving their parole in dedication to Morr, and a good number from the far southern city states who had never-before smelled the stench of undeath until they arrived at Viadaza. What resulted was a somewhat tangled complexity of hierarchies, loyalties and intentions. While some Viadazans wanted to defend the city, never to be driven from it again, others yearned instead to march north without delay and repeat the victory gained by the first popular army of Viadazans. Many Remans meant to stand by their oath to obey the arch-lector’s divinely inspired will in every particular, while a handful of accomplished dreamers thought they themselves had a much better understanding of Morr’s wishes. Some Pavonans and Trantians wanted immediately to return southwards to defeat Razger’s Ogres, putting their own houses in order before continuing their fight in the north, whilst others argued that what was happening in the south was Morr’s punishment for the hesitation and delay that kept this great, holy army at Viadaza, and thus they should continue their march northwards.
Yet this wide disparity was on the wane, for as the Autumn weeks rolled by, turning into months, all non-noblemen in Viadaza found themselves pressed into compulsory service by orders of the arch-lector. Their labours included the burning of corpses, the hauling of stones to rebuild the walls and all required to make Viadaza habitable once again. And all the while waiting for the Arabyans to get a move on. Apart from a handful of Viadazans who vowed to make a stand here never to lose their home again, everyone else found this state of affairs somewhat frustrating. This was not the urgent holy war they were expecting. They were Morr’s warriors, not the Reman arch-lector’s labourers. The grumbling and complaints began to have a common theme, which in turn engendered a shared cause amongst nearly all of them.
Four Morrite dedicants, three being Viadazans by birth who had served at Pontremola and the fourth a Campogrottan archer who claimed to have killed two sleeping ogres during the famous ‘Incident’, scowled as they watched the galloper guns trundle by.
All were hooded, two with only partially concealed faces (as was becoming popular amongst the more fanatical dedicates). Azzo was doing most of the talking. Up until now he had commented on every company that marched by, each and every time pointing out how these men worshipped different gods and so were not really suitable to do Morr’s work. Now that Captain da Barbiano’s company had appeared he fell silent.
“That lot look Tilean,” said another, called Jaco. “I bet they pray properly.”
Azzo scowled. “They might well do, but they’re nothing but a fly sitting on this army’s arse. The rest ain’t fit to serve in a holy war such as ours. The desert gods are little more than demons, not even divine.”
“They have but one, true god,” declared the largest of them, Guido. “He’s golden, and his name is Lucre. Give them their god and they’ll fight as well as any Tilean soldiers. They’d not be here if it had not been promised plentiful.”
“Fighting’s not enough,” said Jaco through his teeth, his gauntleted hand clutching his sword hilt tightly. “We fought, fought well, at Pontremola. Won the day. Hurray! For all the good it did us.”
Azzo rolled his eyes. “We all know who’s to blame for that. Lord Adolfo’s corruption alone brought ruin to Viadaza. He bears all the blame. Besides,” he said, gesturing back towards the city walls as if were helpful, “we’ve taken it back now, with Morr’s holy blessing.”
Guido nodded. “We have that. But the work’s not done, and we’ve tarried here too long. Now that these southerners are here, the arch-lector will order us northwards. If Ebino and Miragliano are not cleansed, and quickly, then the enemy’s strength will double and double again. You cannot win by wounding the undead. You must obliterate them and grind their burned bones to dust.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure of his holiness’s plans, Guido,” doubted Azzo. “There’s a new proclamation going out to all of Tilea about how he intends to repopulate the city, make it a Reman protectorate, and wants worthy folk to settle here. Maybe this is where he intends to make a stand?”
“Make a stand!” spat Jaco. “That won’t work. They got ‘round us even when we killed the vampire duke. If we just sit here on our arses they’ll march right by and …” His words petered out as his face set into a grimace of anger.
“I know that,” said Azzo. “You know that. And all too well. But the arch-lector is a Reman and this might well be far enough north for him.”
Tullio the Campogrottan, who had until now stood a little apart from the others, leaning on the shaft of his viciously tipped spear, sniffed. “If this is where we’re gonna stay, and that lot have just arrived, then I hope the arch-lector has arranged for a fleet of ships to bring some grub. There’s nothing to harvest here and nothing much alive but us. I don’t know about you, but I don’t fancy camel stew and pickled Arabyan for supper.”
The four of them fell silent and watched as a rag-tag crowd of stragglers and camp-followers brought up the rear of the Arabyan column.
(Several days later)
The City of Viadaza: Inside
This was Father Agostino’s third visit today, all made to examine petitioners requesting an audience with the arch-lector. It seemed nearly everyone in Viadaza had an opinion regarding military or political matters, which meant his holiness’s second secretary was being kept rather busy. The first visit was to an official embassy from Urbimo requesting reinforcements for their own garrison in case the undead send a naval force from Miragliano to attack them, the second was a distant relative of the Duchess Maria offering written proof of his inheritance of the dukedom. This third visit involved a much more sinister group, being the leaders of the most substantial (and fanatical) faction of Morrite dedicants in the city.
Upon arrival, he discovered they were somewhat more worrying than he had envisaged. He was himself unescorted as it had seemed an unnecessary waste of manpower in a city populated by none other than the arch-lector’s soldiers and professed followers of Morr, especially now that the only truly rebellious element, the Campogrottan Ogres, had been destroyed. Logic told him that whichever soldiers might provide a guard were no more or less likely than every soldier in the city to be trustworthy. Now he regretted that decision, for he found himself escorted into an ancient chapel by hooded spearmen, passing more and more guards on the way in. These men might garb themselves in the colours of Morrite clergy, but they did so in a fashion that nevertheless marked them out as both distinct and threatening. Agostino found himself wondering whether Morr would grant him a prayer-spell if it was to be used to harm those who also proclaimed themselves his loyal servants!
As he entered the chapel’s nave, the ironbound door clanged shut behind him, closed by one of another pair of guards standing upon either side. The two men escorting him came to a halt with a clunk of their spears on the stone floor and the dedicants there to meet him stood up from the tables they had been seated at and made the sign of Morr, which Agostino answered in kind.
The dedicants introduced themselves as the leaders of the Vaidazan Disciplinati di Morr. Azzo, who named the others, was a peculiar looking fellow, for instead of robes he wore only a mask-like hood and a small cloak over his ordinary clothes, which made him seem both slight and awkward amongst his comrades. Guido was a brutish sort, a big, bald fellow carrying an axe, but obviously not with wood-chopping in mind. Azzo named the others as Jaco, Cordill and Galeb, but too haphazardly for Agostino to know who was who, apart from the fact that the one with overgrown teeth was not Jaco.
Without any further formality, Azzo began to speak. “Father, my dreams are blessed with Morr’s wisdom. He has shown me what must be done. Last night I rode a horse upon a long journey and thought to let it lie down and rest a while, but this and that distracted me until my mount’s legs grew weak and it could not get up. The night before I baked a loaf and thought to save it for a special occasion, but I left it too long and it grew mouldy. A dreamt the wheat in the field was ready for harvesting …”
“I understand,” interrupted Agostino, raising his hand. “You fear we have stayed here too long. It is a common concern, and it must indeed weigh heavy upon many consciences. I am sure a whole host of sleepers dream of such things, but whether or not Morr has any part to play in those dreams I am not so sure. I can assure you his holiness also dreams …”
“I know when holy Morr speaks to me,” said Azzo angrily. “And even if he did not, it would yet be true that further delay will likely ruin our cause.”
“The army’s council of war believe that winter is not the season to be marching to war,” said Agostino.
“Do you think the undead care about the cold?” asked the hulking Guido. “They have no need to scour for firewood, or find thicker blankets, or preserve the harvest. Snow and ice will hardly slow them at all.”
“The frozen ground will make it harder to raise more undead,” countered Agostino.
“Morr’s blood!” cursed Guido. “Do you think, father, that the undead grow tired because the ground is harder to dig? Do you think they break from their labours when it falls dark?”
“It is plain to all that have eyes to see that we must march on, and now,” said Azzo. “We have stayed here all Autumn. If the arch-lector wishes to linger, let him do so, but that does not mean he can keep the rest of us with him. Morr watched over us at Pontremola, and will do so again. Viadaza was lost because of Lord Adolfo’s failings, but that would not happen again, for the arch-lector cannot be so tainted. So, why not have the arch-lector and his guard provide a safe haven here, a place from which to send supplies and reinforcements, while the rest of us go now to finish our holy work. We shall complete what we began, with the arch-lector’s aid, with whatever forces he will grant. I am sure General d’Alessio would be pleased to command us, as he did before. There’s no soldier more blessed in the eyes of Morr.”
Agostino was flabbergasted, but he did not show it. Instead he nodded as if in contemplation. Then, with no sign of displeasure in his voice, he said, “I will return to the arch-lector and put this to him. If it pleases him then he will wish to speak with you, I am sure.”
Guido sniffed. “And if it doesn’t please him?”
“Then he will pray for guidance.”
(An hour later)
The outer yard of the Viadazan Lector’s palace.
It was already growing dark when Father Agostino arrived at the palace forecourt. There he met with the restored lector of Viadaza, Bernado Ugolini, returning from his afternoon constitutional. The lector, recently made secular governor also by the orders of the arch-lector Calictus II, was accompanied by his gnomish clerk (who had no doubt been speaking with his master of both church and state matters). Even as the lector took exercise he was kept busy with such things. Father Biagino was with him too, having been appointed the lector’s adviser.
Immediately upon spotting Father Agostini, the lector and his companions halted.
Agostino bowed, and the lector spoke, “Good father, you met with the Disciplinati?”
“I did, your excellency.”
“And is it as his holiness feared?”
“In some ways, yes, I am afraid so. He will be happy to hear that they gave no sign of being schismatic in their faith, but they do not accept the arch-lector’s military command. The spirit of the Viadazan crusade lives on in them. They would march northwards themselves this very hour, made brave by their devotion to Morr and their memory of the glory of Pontremola. They expect d’Alessio to lead them, as before, and believe the arch-lector will supply them with soldiers and supplies.”
The lector frowned. “When they marched before they did so with the arch-lector’s blessing, and mine, which to my shame I was late in giving for I was fooled by Lord Adolfo, may Morr curse him for what he did in life and what he is now. But they had not Lord Adolfo’s blessing and I think that necessarily rebellious deed, along with the victory which followed and Adolfo’s subsequent treachery, has made them irreverent of all worldly authority, even that of Morr’s holy church.”
“Yet they’ll fight?”
“They will fight,” said Father Biagino. “I know that. I know them. I marched with them; thought like them. I was with them when they gained their victory, despite being battered hard. They now believe Morr truly guides them. But we lost Viadaza. Faith alone is insufficient. It is an ace card, granted, but a full hand is needed to win this game. If they’re allowed to leave it will divide our strength, and the enemy might devour us piecemeal.”
“What you say is no doubt true, Father Biagino,” agreed the lector. “But how do we convince them to act as one with us?”
“We can’t,” said Biagino. “But with Morr’s blessing, his holiness might.”
Late Autumn 2402
2. The Once Mighty Monte Castello
Southern Tilea, on the western shore of the Bay of Wrecks
(Co-written with General Valckenburgh’s player, my good friend Ant.)
As his scouts gave their report, Lord General Jan Valckenburgh considered the maps they had provided and carefully assessed all they told him. They were good men, ritters from the Wasteland and seasoned scouts in good standing with the company, so he knew to trust their account.
“Lord General, the walls already have a number of breaches,” explained Thomel, who had drawn the map. “Even the gate tower is thrown down …
… There is no sign of the engines that did the damage, but the remains of the goblin’s siege-works can still be seen around the citadel.” Thomel’s finger gestured to the lines on the sketched map as he explained. The castle walls themselves were drawn thick, while thinner marks traced a vaguely crescent-shaped circumvallation of earth forts on the outside. The scout now indicated the gaps in the walls. “The repairs to the breaches are mostly double-timbered walls, filled with rubble, and not all completed. They’re being worked on right now, but idly, and only by a few runtish looking goblins”
Captain Singel, the company’s captain of works, broke in, eager to give his help. “Sir, their works are quick and shoddy, nothing more than deal board and old timbers filled with rubble. They might repel an assault without any artillery, but would burn very easily…”
Nodding, General Valckenburg pointed in turn to each of the breaches illustrated, then gestured to Thomel that he should continue the report.
“While they do not seem to have artillery pieces,” the scout went on, “there are bolt throwers on at least three of the towers and a stone thrower oddly positioned forward of the gate. Most are crewed by goblins but we saw some larger orcs too.”
“How strong is the garrison?” asked Valckenburgh.
“It seems to be not overly large, Lord General, but who knows what else lies hidden? Goblins can be sneaky like that.”
The Marienberger general was still running his fingertip over the map, mentally placing the forces at his disposal. Assuming the greenskins had no proper artillery his guns could pound the walls with impunity. The great siege piece would certainly make short work of any defences, no matter how well made, and should very quickly smash through a patch-work of rubble-filled planks, although this did not mean it would necessarily be an easy or quick fight, especially if the goblins could defend the re-breached sections in strength. He knew from experience that fighting over defended piles of rubble was often a brutal and drawn-out affair. The year had turned, and he could not afford a protracted siege. Captain Singel had earlier suggested that only the insane would venture to sea in a supply-laden ship in the autumn storms that lashed the Black Gulf. The problem was that greenskins were not known for their sanity, and Valckenburgh currently had no means to blockade the sea lanes.
The men around him were waiting in silence while he deliberated. He approached the decision something like his brother might have weighed up the pros and cons of an investment, balancing his long-term plans, the available options and both the factors that he could and could not control. Finally, he addressed the scouts.
“Well done. Take your troop and range out. Make sure there are no hidden bands of goblin scum hiding hereabout. I want eyes on the castle too, just in case they are concealed within in strength. If you hear battle, fall back to the reserve position.” Then he turned to his officers. “Captain Singel, move your train into range of our largest pieces. If you use the abandoned works – for they should be very well placed to target the repaired breaches – then first ensure they are safe, then make all necessary improvements with gabions and works. I doubt the greenskins did a good job. Colonel Van Hal, order your men to invest the castle and Captain van Rooyen, prepare your rodelaros for the attack. You will follow the ogres in as soon as a suitable breach is made. The firelocks will provide cover.”
The company snapped to attention, the officers giving stiff bows. This was not as sign of naïve eagerness, however, for all of them were professionals, and they knew their trade well.
Hunched behind some rocks, the three of them had a good view of what remained of the castle gate, or at least they would have done if they had the eyes of hawks. Luckily Thomel had a spy glass to compensate. He scrutinised, while Rutiger and Halmut squinted.
“Definitely some coming out now – carrying pikes,” Thomel said. “They’re marching, and being neat and tidy about it.”
“So they’re not goblins then?” asked Halmut.
“O’course they are,” said Rutiger. “What else would march out of there?”
Thomel shifted himself, and wiped the end of the spy glass with his linen kerchief. “They’re goblins alright. Lots of them. Came out in a column of twos on account of the timber hoarding making the gate so narrow, but now they’re doubling their front. Like I said, neat and tidy. We’ve seen it before, at Pavezzano and Capelli.”
“At Pavezzano they just walked into our guns. They weren’t so tidy then,” laughed Halmut.
“Guns’ll do that,” said Rutiger.
“Wait!” blurted Thomel, surprising the other two men. Halmut stiffened, while Rutiger got part way through drawing his blade. “They’ve stopped,” Thomel added.
“And so did my heart there for a moment,” complained Halmut. “Why not save your sudden shouts for the moments that matter?”
“What are they doing now?” asked Rutiger.
“They’ve divided into two columns, each turning to face the flanks, and then stepped forwards doubling from the rear to form one rank upon either side of the road. Someone’s been teaching them how to look like real soldiers.”
“You’re like a living drill manual today – it’s very educational,” said Halmut.
“I think the general’s recent praise has gone to his head,” added Rutiger.
Thomel ignored them. “One of them has split off – he’s the one shouting orders. They’ve about-faced to line the road upon either side.”
“I can see that much myself,” said Thomel. “They must be planning on a parade.”
Rutiger laughed. “You’re not far wrong. I reckon they’re doing this for our benefit. They’re showing strength – in numbers and discipline – as well as how unperturbed they are by our presence. You have to admit, it’s impressive for goblins.”
“Anything beyond farting is impressive for goblins,” said Halmut with a snort. Then his brow furrowed. “Why are they doing all this though? Why don’t they just man the walls and wait for us to make a move? That’s what we’d do.”
“I see why,” announced Thomel. “Come on, follow me. Let’s get us a closer look.”
“Makes sense,” said Thomel sarcastically. “Three men should do well against a greenskin army!”
“Ha!” snorted Thomel.“They’re not sending an army out. They’re coming out to talk.”
On lower ground, the three of them could get much closer while remaining concealed. They now saw a little band of banner bearers and horn-blowers had emerged, led by several meaner-than-average looking goblins.
“This wasn’t the best idea you’ve had Thomel,” complained Halmut. “They could be at the head of an army, and if they have wolf riders amongst them then I reckon we won’t be having supper tonight.”
Once again Thomel was playing his eyeglass upon the scene. “No,” he said thoughtfully. “There’s no army behind them. There’s just what you see – a bunch of bloody banners and bosses. I knew it! They’re coming out to parley.”
Thonel could make out leering, green faces peeking over every wall and tower, watching the party as it processed between the arrayed pike soldiers.
“Best be off to warn the general then?” suggested Halmut. “He’ll want to give them a suitable reception.”
Thomel raised his hand to signal that they should wait a moment. He wanted a better look, and focused the spy glass upon the lead goblin. “Now he IS ugly,” he muttered.
The great goblin in question sported a ridiculous grin, his teeth widely spaced as if he had plucked every second one out. A spiked helm, too small for his bulbous head, had been thrust down onto his chain-mail hood. His mail, extending down to his waist, was also insufficiently sized, so that it could not be fully fastened. His belly burst from the gap, which made the wearing of mail a somewhat pointless exercise (unless what he really feared was being stabbed from behind). As he lumbered along, he clutched at both the hilt and scabbard of his sword, it’s black blade just visible, as if he was ready to draw it on the shortest of notice.
Several of the VMC’s officers had gathered to await the goblins’ arrival. All within easy distance of General Valckenburgh had been sent for, the exceptions being those busied with their military responsibilities in preparing for the siege. Captain Singel, for example, was wholly occupied with siting the siege pieces, and most of the other field-captains were with their own companies, directly commanding them. But most of the general staff were present.
General Valckenburgh was fully armoured, apart from a helmet, wearing instead the dark skull cap he most often favoured. Over his armour was an orange surcoat, which along with blue was the VMC’s usual livery, and in his right hand he clutched the baton de commandement. Closest to him was Luccia la Fanciulla, carrying her blessed, Myrmidian standard. She too was armoured from the neck down and wore a liveried surcoat. There was enough of a breeze to reveal that the holy standard bore an image of the goddess’s shield and spear.
Upon the general’s other side stood the scholarly linguister Pieter Schout, looking nervous as he clutched and unclutched the hilt of his sword. More at ease moving in courtly circles, even conversing in Arabyan or Elvish, it was hardly a surprise that he might feel a little discombobulated at the prospect of an interaction with goblins from beyond the Black Gulf. He was praying to Myrmidia that they might speak at least some Old Worlder, which was likely if at least some of the commanders had served in the Border Princes where it was not uncommon to employ even greenskins as mercenary soldiers. Next to him was the long-bearded Johannes Deeter, looking somewhat incongruent in his long black cloak, curl-toed shoes and clutching a set of brass scales to allow the channelling of a subtle spell he claimed could help the parley proceed smoothly.
Several little companies of soldiers were present too, all the better to ensure the goblins could not play any murderous tricks, but not so many as to make the goblins unwilling to approach. The scouts had already counted the enemy party, and so it was easy to judge what would be exactly sufficient for safety. On one side a single rank of Captain van Luyden’s handgunners stood with loaded pieces at port …
… while on the other Pieter Schout’s pistolier guard were also made ready with weapons drawn.
A little way behind, guarding the rear even though it was hard to see how the goblins might scramble over the rocks there, was another file of handgunners (mercenary Estalians), a dozen Marienburger pikemen from the Meagre Company, and in between them two sergeants guarding the bearer of the VMC’s company colours. There were no army scouts present, however, for the general had ordered every one of them to scour the army’s entire periphery and beyond to forestall any attempted surprise. Valckenburgh knew of many supposedly honourable men who would not baulk at using the distraction of a parley to launch an attack, and so certainly would not be so foolish as to trust goblins.
The wizard Deeter broke the silence, his curt question unadorned by social niceties such as using the general’s proper title. “What could these creatures possible want to discuss? They must know what we’ve done to their kin, and what we will inevitably do to them. Why waste time coming out to babble their inanities at us?”
“They know full well what we have done,” said General Valckenburgh. “Which is why they come to talk with us. They’ll bluster, no doubt, and threaten, and their wilful stupidity will be painfully evident, but in truth they’re hoping to save their skins. Perhaps they hope to spin out time, or believe they will learn something of our disposition and strength.”
The general scanned the distant outline of the castle’s towers, and what he could sea of the waters of the gulf to the south of it.
“Most likely they have no means of escape; no ships and no allies to come to their aid. We shall see. It should not prove too difficult to guess what truth is masked by their attempts at deceit.”
The flags flapped and snapped in the wind, while the VMC’s welcoming party fell silent as they waited.
After a little while a knot of greenskins appeared through a gap in the rough ground ahead. They too had standards, ragged and dull-hued flags hanging from yard-like supports and adorned with beasts’ skulls. One standard appeared to be a ship’s wheel which had the skulls but no rag. Somewhere amongst them a goblin was playing bladder-pipes, sounding a high-pitched tumble of notes accompanied by a wheezing drone.
“Not the most imposing of parties are they?” quipped Deeter.
“My lord general, surely it would sully the honour of Myrmidia to let such base creatures approach her holy standard unchallenged,” said Luccia.
“On the contrary,” said the general. “The goddess teaches wisdom in war – strategic prowess and tactical cunning over brute force and wild rage.”
“I have seen them try to fight,” said Luccia. “Tactical cunning is not necessary to beat them, just numbers and a little discipline.”
The general glanced at her, reminding himself how young she was and that all she had seen of war was the battles at Pavezzano and Capelli. “They are now behind walls, my Lady, and I do not have time to waste. I want this fight over and done with as soon as possible. I want this land made safe, and productive. There are greater threats to the north, and we have spent too long already chasing goblins hither and thither. If I can gain victory one single day sooner by listening to what these foul creatures have to say, then I am happy to do so. Here I risk wasting one hour, against a potential gain of days if not weeks.”
“If these are their leaders,” suggested Deeter, “then I say let us kill them now. Would that not almost certainly mean the rest either flee in disorganised panic, and if not that, then set upon each other, squabbling over who should command? Either is a more likely outcome than hoping a talk will make them simply lay down their arms and hand us the castle.”
“I never said we shall not do just that,” said the general. “Only that I would hear them speak before deciding upon a course of action. We got the name Big Boss Grutlad easily enough out of the petty goblin we caught yesterday, and a veritable volume of sordid stories concerning who had lopped bits off whom. I want to see what we can get out of Grutlad himself.”
The greenskins had halted whilst the general spoke. A horn sounded a pretty trill of notes from the hills behind the VMC soldiers. General Vlackenburgh knew this signalled the all clear, that there was no sign of goblins approaching from elsewhere.
“Well,” he declared, “unless each of them conceals a grenado, it looks like they are indeed here to talk. We could yet fight this battle with words and have them surrender without the loss of one of our men. Despite the honourable Luccia’s misgivings, I might even have a use for them.”
“My lord general, you cannot mean that?” asked Luccia.
“I do, brave Lady. If I can convince one enemy to fight another enemy then I shall have a lot fewer enemies as a result, and yet as many men to defeat them with when it finally becomes necessary.”
The goblins had been halted for some time now, and could be seen to be engaged in their own conversation.
Eventually, three of the goblins began to approach, leaving the tatty banner-bearers and musicians behind. Captain van Luyden’s handgunners stepped forwards too, closing the gap between them and the goblins so that any shots they fired could not fail to meet their mark.
The large goblin at the front, presumably the leader, was obviously the one Thomel the scout had described earlier. He gripped his sword hilt in a manner the general recognised from historical etiquette – neither quite drawn nor left to rest, symbolic of an undecided outcome. This seemed to be a good sign, for he had not expected etiquette of any kind. If the goblin thought there were rules to this game, then there was indeed a game to play. The other two consisted of a similarly paunchy goblin with a blood-stained sword resting over his shoulder like a soldier might carry a handgun or pike, while the second grinned widely whilst clutching an axe almost as big as himself.
The goblin leader spoke first. “I’m big boss here. This castle’s mine, this army’s mine and you can get lost.”
“We’re not leaving,” said the general. “But you know that, because you’re here to talk.”
“If you’re staying it’ll be long wait for ya, ‘cos I got lots of gobs, and you ain’t getting in. Might as well bugger off now than sit here hungry while we eat salt-fish and man-flesh a-plenty inside. We ain’t intending to share, and if you tries to take what we have, then we’ll salt you up nice and tasty too.”
General Valckenburgh laughed. “You took the castle. What makes you think we cannot? We have bigger guns and better powder than you had, and you’ve got a wall patched with wooden planks instead of unbroken stone. However long it took you to get in, we shall do it ten times as quickly. You’ll be dead long before you’ve even made a dent in your stock of food.”
“If you try, then men’ll die, lots an’ lots. Smash up the timbers if you like. You still has to get over the mess you make, and then you’ll pay dearly for every inch, ‘cos I’ve got plenty o’ gobs who don’t mind sticking spears into men as they scrabble and scramble on rubble and splinters. Why put yerself to so much trouble and lose so much to gain this broken castle?”
“We know your true strength is nothing compared to what Khurnag’s commanded. We batted that army aside without breaking a sweat. Warlord Khurnag had not even ordered the advance when he took a four-pound roundshot to his belly in our first volley. And that came from one of our smallest pieces.”
The goblin glanced over at the one on his left, who nodded briefly as if to confirm Valckenburgh’s words. That one was obviously there that day, thought the general. That’s why they’ve come out – they know full well how badly it has gone for them so far.
Big Boss Grutlad sniffed in a horrible gurgling manner, and Valckenburgh spied glistening beads of sweat forming on his brow. When he spoke, however, it was with the same apparent confident disdain.
“Place is ruined anyway. We squeezed all we can from it. ‘Taint much use to us now. Might be we could sell it to you, then you don’t have to suffer in the taking of it. If you’ve got enough of the shiny stuff then I reckon you’d save yourself a lot of nastiness.”
General Valckenburgh smiled, thinking that they had now reached where the goblin always intended to go. It was not far enough for him, however.
“We both know who will really suffer in the taking of the castle. And you know that our attack will be the end of your command, one way or another. I didn’t drag all this artillery here just to turn around and go back. I killed Khurnag and now I’m sweeping up the mess he made. You think the latter task will be more difficult than the former? I’ve done the hard work, now I’m just tidying up the loose ends. I have already defeated my enemies, all that’s left is to kill them too.”
Grutlad’s eyes narrowing and lips twisting as it all sunk in. The goblin’s bluster had turned to fluster. Both his companions stared at his back, as if they did not know what to make of his silence.
“See now,” said Grutlad, “I would’ve sold cheap, but I’m willing to let you have the pile for nothing more than letting us go. We never wanted to stay here, not since Khurnag copped it, and was just waiting for ships to take us. You give us yer word that we can leave without bother and you’re welcome to the place.”
General Valckenburgh said nothing, but just stared at Grutlad.
The big boss twitched, an involuntary motion he attempted to turn into a shrug. “It don’t even ‘ave to be all of us. I don’t care what you do the rest of them, just let us lot and a few others go. Bugger the rest. I’ll take only what’ll fit in a ship.” He leaned forward conspiratorially. “Between you an’ me, I can get the rest to come out so it’s easy fer ya.”
“No,” said Valckenburgh, revelling a moment in the obvious fear now writ upon the goblin’s face. “That’s not what I want. You can keep your mob, but not the castle. And you can buy your lives, all your lives, by serving me as mercenaries. That’s the deal: You die, all of you … or you serve me, all of you.”
The grinning goblin with the axe surprised the general by somehow widening his already impossibly large grin, while the other companion looked at him as if taking the measure of him – which was equally surprising. Grutlad slid his sword fully back into his hilt, and said, simply: “You’s got some more soldiers, then.”
Late Autumn 2402
3. A Letter to Lord Lucca Vescucci of Verezzo
This to my most noble lord, from your loyal servant Antonio Mugello. I pray this missive finds you blessed by all the gods, and that the realm of Verezzo lies both happy and secure. I hereby and in all modesty present that which I have discovered this Autumn, having made every effort to ascertain what is true from the chaff of tittle tattle and rumour. If I have been misled then I humbly assure you it is due to the mortal frailties I share with all men rather than any idleness or carelessness on my part.
First, I must explain that my movements have become curtailed by force of circumstance, as I have been trapped in Pavona for over a month due to Razger Boulderguts’ double-army of ogres rampaging all around Duke Guidobaldo’s city. Anyone foolish enough to venture out from the security of the stones would certainly suffer a terrible fate. In the face of this dire threat, when one might expect the Pavonans’ martial aspirations to shine, instead they have dimmed, for rather than fighting for what is theirs by right of conquest, they have retreated at every opportunity. They have even gone so far as to raze their own lands, thus hoping to disappoint the ogres’ expectations of loot, as well as deprive them of subsistence, and thus encourage the starving brutes to cease their encroachment and look elsewhere for satisfaction.
As I travelled upon the Via Aurelia I encountered many poor folk fleeing from Trantio, and so learned how the duke’s garrison soldiers had stripped the city itself and the villages and farmsteads of Preto of every moveable of value. Indeed, as they departed, they fired the city so as to deny even its roofs to the ogres. Boulderguts might be responsible for Scorcio’s destruction, but the Pavonans chose to deny the rest of the Trantine principality to him by themselves destroying it first. Many a poor Trantian curses the Pavonan duke’s name, and swears that Prince Girenzo, for all his pride and youthful ambition, could never have turned upon his own realm in such a way. The Pavonans bashed their way into Trantio, then burned their way out, and their rule was as short as it was cruel.
At Astiano it was plain to me that the walls could not possibly withstand a sustained attack by an army of brutes. Only last year the Pavonans had captured the city quickly and with a relatively modest force, battering the walls in doing so. Now those weakened walls faced a much greater threat, bigger in every meaning of the word, and would surely fall within days of the tyrant Boulderguts’ arrival. Consequently, I decided to continue onwards to Pavona itself, being the place in which I could best serve you by learning of Duke Guidobaldo’s plans. So it was that I found myself passing through the ruins of Venafro, destroyed by the Compagnia del Sole during the War of the Princes, and then through Casoli, which was being stripped by the Pavonan soldiery of all goods and stocks in a manner exactly like Trantio. It seems the duke has grown so timorous as to order the dismantling and destruction of his very own hereditary estates! Some said it was a sign of his strength that sentimentality and mercy did not stand in the way of his calculated strategy, yet to mine own eyes it appeared most strange to see the mighty army of Pavona become little more than a band of armed bailiffs collecting goods and chattels, while the people of Casoli wept and pleaded as if they too were a conquered people like the Trantians.
It became common knowledge, advertised by heralds in Pavona’s main piazzas, that the Duke had dispatched letters to all Tilean principalities to the south and west – including the boy king Ferronso, Lord Alessio Falconi, Conte Gabriele Mastroianni and your noble self. You, my lord, will of course know the truth of this, and indeed the actual contents of the letter. All I know is what was announced: that these princes had been asked to provide military aid in the war against Boulderguts, before the heart of Tilea was burned and the ashes consumed. I was surprised to hear nothing said in the declarations concerning any alliance betwixt Boulderguts and the vampire-duchess, for this remains a commonly held belief, especially in Pavona. It is said to explain why even in this hour of dire need the duke has not recalled his son and his ‘old army’ from the arch-lector’s holy war – if the ogres and undead are indeed allies, then Lord Silvano is already engaged in the fight for Pavona.
And yet it is rumoured throughout the city that in truth Lord Silvano has not fought for many months, instead being forced to bide his time in Viadaza, due to need to transport Gedik Mamidous’ mercenary army, the Sons of the Desert, over the swollen River Trantino. When this was finally done, arch-lector Calictus is said to have ordered the formation of a garrison from his now massively swollen forces, to remain in defence of the city, while declaring that he himself, Lord Silvano and the newly arrived arabyans, would soon march northwards to face the vampires.
Whether it is giddy fear brought on by Boulderguts’ threatening circumambulation of Pavona, or the schismatic Morrite tendencies rooted here, or simply their old bravado, I know not, but I have often heard it said (and I report this only so that you will understand the depth of the people’s impudence) that a priest like Calictus is not fit to lead an army, for it takes nothing but the thought of the winter’s wind to make him huddle by the fire in Viadaza, nursing hot, spiced wine and prayerfully contemplating how he might, when it is warmer, perhaps, should the rain cease and the winds diminish, possibly consider engaging the foe. Letters sent home by Lord Silvano’s soldiers reveal that there is considerable faction and strife in Viadaza concerning the best course of action. Fanatics preach either caution or action, but mostly action, and the soldiers grow frustrated that they are being employed as mere labourers, clearing streets and repairing walls rather than bringing the war to a swift conclusion.
I fear the vampire duchess does not share such a tendency for tardiness, and her forces are unlikely to suffer such divisions. The arch-lector’s delay allows her to grow even stronger, when she was already strong. Having been forced by my confinement into close quarters with all and sundry, I discovered more than just native Pavonans in the city, and by chance spoke on several occasions with a Viadazan who was present when Lord Adolfo’s curse was revealed, and his murdered-and-raised army began their terrible slaughter. This man escaped death first by hiding and then by fleeing. Being of a sombre and sober disposition, and not one for fanciful talk or ill-thought assertions, he told me how the vampire duchess marched from Viadaza with a much greater force than that which remained with Lord Adolfo. While Adolfo corrupted his living soldiers to forge his foul horde, he also desecrated every Morrite shrine and gateway, allowing the vampire duchess to reap all the graveyards had to offer, harvesting corpses by the thousand. In the Cerverozzi necropolis north of Busalla, and many other graveyards and burial pits, she unquieted long dead legates, luring them from the dry earth. These then issued their own commands, adding potency to the magic she channelled through them, calling upon their centurions and signifera to attend them, who in turn demanded their cornicines and drummers …
… whose eerie reveille woke the rank and file, until lines of long-dead legionaries snaked along the funerary paths.
Only a day after I had passed by Astiano, I learned of the cruel fate of the main body of Trantian refugees. I doubt there is a Tilean alive who has not heard the tale, for it must have spread like wildfire. It is possible that because I was so close to the source, the account I heard might well be nearer to the truth than the jumbled stories that pass between travellers, and which might be all that has so far reached your own ears. Put plain, the Pavonan soldiers and even their artillery pieces managed to enter the city gates to safety, given precedence by the garrison who held back the Trantian crowd to ensure said passage, but then, because Razger’s brutes were so close, the garrison commander ordered the gates shut before the refugees and their wagons could themselves enter. Some say that one Pavonan wizard even conjured a fire to hold back the mob, although others say there was a fire-mage amongst the foe. The Pavonans do not speak of this event with sadness or disgust, rather they more commonly describe it as a clever ruse, adding, ‘More fool the Trantians for not moving quicker’. It is claimed that many an ogre perished from the withering hail of missiles launched from the walls, so keen were they to drag off the wagons and people of Trantio, the first to add to their ill-gotten plunder and the second to feast upon. I cannot believe such a deed has improved Duke Guidobaldo’s already bruised reputation, for he first conquered the Trantians, only then to allow this horrible fate to befall them. But of all the complaints muttered against the duke’s decisions in the streets of Pavona, this deed is not included.
Boulderguts’ army proved true to its reputation and set about ravaging the land for sport as much as food and plunder, then, as if perhaps they suddenly remembered why they were there, they assaulted and captured Astiano just as quickly as I had feared they would. Much to the surprise of his own people, Duke Guidobaldo chose not to march to Astiano’s aid, despite the army he had at his command. I suspected this was due to his lack of knowledge concerning the whereabouts of Bouldergut’s hired allies, the mercenaries from the Border Princes known as Mangler’s Band. If they had been close to Razger’s force, the Duke may have found himself greatly outnumbered in the field, and if instead they were hidden among the Trantine Hills to the north, then the duke’s departure would leave Pavona itself insufficiently defended to withstand their attack. So the duke chose to stay behind the city walls, and turned his entire army into a garrison.
Astiano was, of course, brutally sacked by Boulderguts’ army, and the small Pavonan force guarding it was lost entirely. Thus began Pavona’s time of waiting, which continues even now. Each and every report received has been bad news. First came word of sightings of petty-goblins near Casoli, and even within sight of the city walls, being the sort of slippery little creatures who often serve as scouts for ogres. No-one knew whether they belonged to Boulderguts or Mangler, but the question proved academic when word came that both tyrants had rejoined their forces and now marched as one through Casoli. The only source of solace in the city was that Casoli had been stripped completely bare – even crops only a week or so from harvesting had been burned. The brutes would find little sustenance. Yet even this source of reassurance was tempered by the fact that the brutes’ hunger might drive them on more violently.
Most recently, it was reported that both enemy armies had swept around the city to the north, heading eastwards. This came as a surprise as many had presumed they had left off an immediate attack upon Pavona in order to take the less-solidly walled town of Scozzese. I cannot know the truth, and have heard conflicting accounts concerning this turn of events. Some claim that the bridge at Casoli has been destroyed thus preventing the ogres’ passage, others that the Duke has fortified it to achieve the same end. Some claim that the ogres are afraid to put themselves on the southern side of the river in winter, so far from Campogrotta, while others laugh at that idea and suggest the ogres are simply saving Scozzese until last. Montorio tower fell quickly, it’s garrison butchered to a man, and yet still the duke ordered no sally from the walls.
At the end of Autumn, even though the ogres threatened the routes to the north, Morrite priests delivered a letter from the arch-lector himself, sent to all Tilean lords, both clerical and secular, and ordered to be read aloud in every Morrite temple and church. I cannot know if you, my lord, received exactly the same, so I will include a transcript here for your perusal and comparison.
This to be read to all the faithful servants of Morr and the lawful gods. His Holiness Calictus II wishes it to be known that the city of Viadaza has been rescued from the vile clutches of vampires and their unholy servants. Morr’s holy army has driven them northwards, beyond even the River Tarano, and has already completed the work of cleansing the city of all corruption. I have ordered a strong garrison formed to defend the city from further attacks, so that even while our most holy war continues, the city of Viadaza need never again suffer the horror that once befell it.
Lord Adolfo, who ruled Viadaza in life, and who now serves the wicked vampire Duchess Maria in unlife, left no living heirs, and so it is that I have declared the city and all the lands appertaining to it to be a protectorate of Remas. The Reman church of Morr will hereafter provide safe sanctuary to all Morr-respecting and law-abiding souls who wish to return and settle therein. As long as empty dwellings remain they will be made available to those who desire them. All skilled labourers and artisans who present themselves, and prove their worth and skill, will be allowed to freely practise their trade for the betterment of both themselves and the city, without redemption demanded of them. All taxes will be fair and equitable, and all appointed officers and magistrates will be required to exercise the laws in a just and decent manner. Hourly prayers will be sung in temple and church to the glory of Morr, and to beg his protection from all evil.
Come all ye who wish to prosper.
Sing hymns of thanks and praise, for Morr is good and his church likewise. Let Viadaza thrive and share a happiness and prosperity ne’er known before to its denizens.
Despite my confinement here in Pavona, I have learned what I can of the rest of Tilea. Due to the restricted nature of my sources, I suggest, my lord, you take this information with a pinch of salt, but I offer it nevertheless so that you can balance it with that which you have learned from elsewhere.
Over the summer several merchants had reported that the dwarfs of Karak Borgo were growing unhappy, disgruntled by the failure of their previously profitable trade with Tilea. The wizard Lord Nicolo Bentiglovio’s tyrannical rule in Campogrotta, the city through which both the Iron Road and the River Astipo access all other Principalities, has effectively closed the gate by executing, imprisoning or levying exorbitant fines upon the city merchants, then requiring ever greater taxes and tolls from anyone left attempting to carry out the dwindling trade. This account quickly transformed in the taverns of Pavona, inevitably infected by the Pavonans’ own prejudices, intertwining with another rumour concerning the dwarfs. As soon as the first reports of Boulderguts’ attacks came in, it was quickly put about that the Pavonan dwarfs exiled by ducal decree were behind the ogre tyrant’s choice of target! This was revenge for that which was done to them. Some few have pointed out that the Pavonan dwarfs would thus be allying with the enemies of their mountain cousins, the ogres, yet this argument was rebutted by the claim that the Pavonan dwarfs have used their urge for revenge to draw away the ogres’ main strength from Campogrotta, probably in preparation for an attack by a force from Karak Borgo. If this were true then it would be a false alliance made with one enemy to gain revenge against another, and lead them both into ruin in the end. I myself doubt this theory, for I have visited the mountain mines and found them a mostly empty place, worked by only a few stubborn dwarfs and surely not enough to muster a force of any size. And it seems to me the exiled dwarfs are also too weak, too scattered and insignificant, to achieve such influence. Furthermore, if the Pavonan dwarfs had a hand in advancing Boulderguts’ power, then this would by default mean they were allying with the vampires (if, as is still generally supposed, the ogres and the vampires do have an unholy agreement). Make of these rumours what you will, my lord.
In the far south it seems the VMC is very close to finally ridding Tilea of the last remnants of Khurnag’s Waagh, and its army is even now marching against Monte Castello to drive out any greenskins remaining there. I also heard a tale concerning the ratto huomo in the far north, concerning how they have mustered a force in the Blighted Marshes and intend to press an attack on their ancient enemy Miragliano now that the Vampires are distracted. If this were true, then it would provide an unlikely (if temporary) ally for the arch-lector in the war against the undead. Yet, what with the Reman church of Morr’s clouded history of dealings with the rat men – arch-lector Frederigo Ordini’s supposedly ‘false’ Holy War and secret alliance with the rat-men causing the ruination of the north half a century ago – this could prove a harmful political complication for the current arch-lector. Again, I do not claim to speak the truth here, but simply impart what people are saying.
I eagerly await your further instructions and remain your obedient servant.
Post script: I will attach to this missive a short report concerning what I have learned from the soldiery of Pavona.
A Second Letter to Lord Lucca Vescucci of Verezzo
Further from your servant, Antonio Mugello.
This is to impart to you, my lord, something of Duke Guidobaldo’s army, concerning the common soldiery rather than the plans and purposes of the duke himself, or his captains. I present this to reveal unto you something of the nature of the force at the duke’s disposal, and also because I cannot access the Duke’s mind, being myself neither ambassador nor emissary, unable to visit lordly palaces, but instead having eyes upon the streets, so to speak.
I have spoken with several soldiers, acting the part of an amiable drinking companion, generous with my gold and agreeably attentive to their opinions. Among those I befriended is a sergeant named Antabio, a veteran of many years’ service and a born and bred Pavonan. He is a gruff fellow, heavy browed, who usually wears the hint of a pained scowl, which occasionally blossoms into its full form.
To understand much of what he says requires careful consideration, for his words must be untangled, and much that he has not said needs be ascertained from what he has said. Not that he has guile in him, nor loathes to reveal his inner thoughts, only that he struggles to do so with any clarity. I was able to learn that he held Morr to be the God of gods, having been taught as much from his youth. For him the world is divided not between good and evil, nor between chaos and law, but between those ‘enlightened’ souls who accept Morr as supreme, and all those who do not. The latter, even including the Reman Morrite clergy, are his enemies! When he fought against the Astianans he fought against sinners, when he marched against Prince Girenzo’s forces he faced wicked heretics. He holds no doubt concerning this, nor questions whether Duke Guidobaldo is in full agreement with these beliefs. He speaks in awe of the duke, even praising his lord for sacrificing his own son in the taking of Trantio; and he curses all who voice fears or doubts concerning the duke’s actions. He described the fall of Trantio to the ogres as a final cleansing brought about by Morr’s will! When I asked why Morr’s will had not then stopped the Ogres razing Astiano and was now allowing their close approach to Pavona, he said simply that they were being drawn in for the kill. I thus learned that the expression he so often wears belies his simple satisfaction that nothing at all is wrong, and that Pavona can neither fail nor fall. One might look upon his face and think him a man tortured by doubts, but no, it is disgust for the rest of the world that pains him, born of conviction not doubt. I suppose even now, as he stands at his post in the defensive earthworks that ring the entirety of the city walls (making a double layer of defences), he expects the brutes’ bodies will simply pile up before the Pavona’s guns and his great sword.
I do not claim that many Pavonans have Antabio’s child-like conviction that the duke cannot fail, but I can report that those born in the city do for the most part share his complete devotion to the one god, Morr, and believe only the priests and rulers of Pavona truly know Morr’s will. Until recently, however, Pavona was a growing Empire, and many of the more recent recruits to its army are not natives of the city, but hail from one of the newly conquered states. On the whole I would describe these soldiers as the worst sort of men, base rogues who have been lifted from deserved misery in their own homelands to become swaggering and proud in their livery of blue and white. Some were released from gaols, others being brigands who sought to enrich themselves from their own countrymen by serving their conquerors. Their conceit is made all the more hateful by the fact that their own homelands have been destroyed either by the brutes or by Pavonan soldiers attempting to deny the brutes the pleasure of doing so, and yet they still serve their new masters and count themselves among the best of the Duke’s men.
One such fellow is a young Astianan called Goldoni. He serves with the most recently formed company of handgunners and yet to hear him speak you would think him a member of one of the oldest and most famed military institutions in Tilea. Upon first encounter, he appears to be the very model of a soldier, deporting himself with the confidence of a disciplined fighter, and careful to ensure his clothes and trappings are kept pristine and in good working order. But as soon as a degree of familiarity has been established, his course wit begins to manifest, brought into play to decorate his malice and embellish a litany of tales concerning his past cruelties.
There is no religion in him, and it might seem that nothing more than brutality fuels his fastidious service as a soldier, but when one probes a little deeper it is plain that his new but steadfast loyalty to the Pavonan cause arises at least partially from his fear concerning what fate would have in store for him if he were to leave his current profession. His cruelty, although entirely sufficient in itself to make him do what he has done, conjoins with his desire for self-preservation and the fear it instills, to produce the vile creature he is.
Much work has been done to circumvallate the already strong city walls with earthwork defences, each bastion bristling with stormpoles and many containing very modern, low, stone-built gun platforms. Most of the Pavonan handgunners have been stationed there, and drill daily to prepare themselves for what is considered the inevitable (if delayed) assault by Bouldergut’s huge army.
Perhaps Boulderguts already knows of these formidable double-defences, and this is what delays him? Or perhaps he is happy to plunder everything else that the city state of Pavona has to offer, satisfied that Duke Guidobaldo’s army is afraid to move away from said defences?
Pavona’s army thus remains a mighty force, perhaps being greater than ever before? And yet although at the height of its military strength, nevertheless the entirety of its newly conquered possessions have been razed to the ground, and its own homeland is even now being destroyed in a piecemeal fashion. Despite the soldiers’ pride, conviction and determination, they are but men. None can tell me why their previously undefeated lord has become so timorous that he refuses to order his vast army to battle, yet none complain either, for what sane-man rushes to face a horde of brutes?
Next Installment: Part 13