(Tilea Campaign) The End of Spring, IC2403
Part Six: They were going the other way!
As always, they were riding a little way ahead of the army, scouting out the intended route. Being the Compagnia’s fastest troops, well-mounted but lightly armoured, it had always been their job to act as outriders and scouts, and they had done so a hundred times in Estalia. Here, however, back in their own homeland, it was different. The razed villages were familiar enough, for such destruction was to be found anywhere a war was being fought, and there was no shortage of ruins: barely a plank of sawn wood that was not charred, nor any door that was still fitted properly to its hinges. It was how they felt that was different. Back in Estalia they were searching, unsurprisingly, for Estalians. Here, however, they were scouring the terrain for signs of brute ogres or the foul servants of vampires, both of which were very different prospects compared to your average Estalian – the stuff of nightmares made real.
The company’s ensign, whose guidon bore the Compagnia del Sole’s Myrmidian emblem, was up at the front with the sergeant, while the rest of the company rode loosely in pairs behind. Apart from the ruins, the land was otherwise green and pleasant, what with it being late Spring, but eerily quiet, there having been no sound of birdsong, or ought else, for the last quarter of an hour. Dotted along the route were several copses of trees and one or two good sized woods, and the sergeant insisted on riding close to each to see what might lurk there, which meant they were tacking their way through the valley like a flotilla attempting to sail close to the wind. Twice now they had turned almost back on themselves because the sergeant had noticed a clump of trees they had earlier missed. This was a level of caution the sergeant had never exhibited in Estalia, and although he tried to hide his nervousness, his actions very clearly advertised his true state of mind. There was one good thing about their exertions – at least the journey back should prove a short one, as not only was the army itself moving up behind, but they could return by a straighter, and much shorter, course.
Amongst their number rode Ramondo Pisani upon his dun-coloured mare Pulce. For the last half an hour or so he had been deep in thought, allowing Pulce to much of the work following the rest of the company. He wasn’t the only quiet one – just about everyone else had been silent for some time, the only sounds being the dull thuddering of the horses’ hooves, the clattering of harness and trappings, and the occasional snapped command from the sergeant to wheel here or incline there. The quietness of the land had somehow pervaded them. It was not a peaceful sort of quiet, however, but ominous, imbuing them with a growing sense of foreboding.
Ramondo’s thoughts had definitely taken a darker turn. He had begun the day by waking from a dream about Gianetta. She had been laughing at him from her window in Urbimo, happy to see that he had returned as he promised, and that he now wore a cuirass of steel marking him out as a mounted man-at-arms. There had been some tomfoolery during breakfast concerning what Lazzero had said in his sleep, which had everyone laughing, and then there was the need to harness Pulce and prepare for the ride. Almost as soon as they had left the sounds of the camp behind, the rest of the army being tardy in their preparations for the march, Ramondo’s mind had begun a journey of its own. He began by pondering what the rocky realm of Campogrotta might be like, and whether they would be required to march into the mountains to the dwarven realm, but this soon turned into a contemplation of the enemies they might face along the way. Would the ogres be like the ones he had encountered before: huge, strong, clumsy, loud and sweaty, with a cruel streak and a taste for human flesh, yet mercenaries nevertheless? Or would they be wilder, crueller, and crazy in battle like the stories of the savage brutes from the eastern lands? Then he wondered whether they would have to face the undead before they even reached the ogres. It seemed they were attempting to stand well out from Viadaza and Ebino, taking the more direct route to Campogrotta, one without roads or even, for much of the way, paths. But as no-one knew exactly where the vampires’ forces were in the first place, the precaution was merely a best guess strategy.
If only to distract himself, for a while he had joined in his comrades’ conversation, limited as it was to occasional shouted jokes and jibes. They talked of events in Urbimo: of the women, the drinking, the gaming, but then someone said something about an old Urbiman grandmother begging them to stay, to keep her family from falling into hell, and their enthusiasm for the topic paled, then died. Then they talked of the sea journey from Estalia, of the sea sick pig sliding around the deck in its own vomit, and the flying fish that knocked the flux-ridden Donnino from the head into the sea, his pants left dangling behind, but then someone mentioned the shadowy ships seen at night and the eerily threatening shout, part chirruping, part squealing, that came from the darkness and once again the conversation died. When someone mentioned the vampire duchess, they were met by immediate silence, which became prolonged and so toppled Ramondo back into his own gloomy thoughts.
That was when Ramondo noticed the smoke in the large wood to their left. Someone up at the front shouted,
“Have a care! Fire!”
Everyone looked, their trotting pace slowing a little, but then someone else declared,
“No, it’s fog.”
Ramondo knew immediately that something was not right. It was surely too late in the morning for fog to appear. They had seen no sign of it until now. Besides, why was there no fog in any of the other copses they could see?
As they rode on, nearly every face turned to the fog.
“That ain’t natural,” said Arrigo, riding just ahead of Ramondo. “That’s wizardry, or elves.”
“I pray you’re right,” said Franceso, from behind. “For if it ain’t, then its necromancy!”
“Necromancers don’t summon fogs, they summon the dead,” argued Arrigo.
Ramondo rolled his eyes, wishing Arrigo wouldn’t talk about summoning the dead. It could not be good luck to mention such things.
“I don’t know,” said Francesco. “They mess with the etheric winds, which makes all sorts of funny stuff happen, not just what was intended. Remember that time Albiete tried to conjure fire against the crossbowmen on the walls of Vizeaya and burned half the …”
“Keep your eyes peeled!” barked the sergeant. “Ramondo, Francesco – rear-guard!”
Ramondo pulled on Pulce’s reins to slow her down, as did Francesco, and they fell back to the rear of the little column.
“It’s always us!” complained Francesco. “You and your nimble eyes, and me to look after you.”
Ramondo managed a wink, as if untroubled by the situation, and then set about scouring the tree line.
The fog thinned then thickened, then thinned again, giving Ramondo hope that it might not be so sinister at all. Maybe it had rolled down the slopes of the hill to the north, a heavy cloud grown too tired to remain aloft? The thinning never lasted, however, and each time it thickened up they slowed a little, falling incrementally further behind the others. He narrowed his eyes to peer into the misty gloom of the trees. If he had allowed his imagination to run wild he could have seen anything he liked in there, for the branches stretched, bent and criss-crossed to fashion up all sorts of possibilities: there a huge face with ragged holes for eyes, and there a man kneeling in prayer before a rock. Each image was momentary, as Pulce trotted on and the branches no longer played their trick.
Then he saw two grinning faces, looking right back at him. They were white like the fog, misshapen, imperfect representations of human faces. Grown used to the playfulness of the branches and their shadows he looked with simple curiosity at first, but this changed quickly into fear, for these faces did not melt away with his motion, and indeed they had a motion of their own. They were not imperfect due to the lie of the branches and the fronds upon them, but due to their lack of flesh! Worse still, there were bodies below the faces, weapons in their hands and bony horses to carry them.
Ramondo felt his body weaken in fright, his insides seeming to shrink, his grip upon the reins threatening to loosen. Pulce could not have noticed, for she ran on like before, but when she sensed the change in Ramondo, her stride faltered a little. He could not speak, being only able to watch as he rode one way and they the other. Their heads turned to keep their eyeless sockets fixed upon him, and as they moved into a thinner patch of fog he realised there were more than two of them. Their mounts wore barding of an ethereal hue, and flecks of green fire speckled both their weapons and bony bodies.
Coming to his senses – at least all those he could muster – he spurred Pulce on, and began to gallop towards the rest of the company.
“What is it?” shouted Francesco, as he joined the gallop. “What’s wrong?”
Ramondo’s answer was merely to gallop faster. He had to tell the others, and quick. The vampire duchess’s servants were much, much closer than anyone had thought!