North East of Campogrotta, Very Early Autumn 2403
Having circumnavigated Campogrotta three times, which at over two leagues out from the city meant travelling a considerable distance, the Brabanzon riders were within sight of the rock-strewn area between the villages of Buldio and the Astigo River. They were one of three such scouting bands circling the besieged city in order to discover any approaching relief forces. Lord Narhaz, the ‘great-thane’ commanding the army of Karak Borgo, had every reason to expect the enemy to attempt a relief, for not only was the tyrant Razger Boulderguts reportedly returning to the city having completed his grand (and very profitable) chevauchee, but there were also reports of an ogre garrison at Ravola to the north and smaller forces scattered throughout Campogrotta’s compass. The ogres’ iron grip on the entire realm had relied on gangs of club-wielding brutes to ensure the native citizens’ continually cowed obedience, and any or all of these ogres could be on the move.
Evrart, the longest serving Brabanzon mercenary amongst the riders, his toothless mouth and sunken cheeks belying his sturdy toughness and considerable strength, rode at the head of the little band, regaling his friend Bossu with his latest theory.
“Ask anyone,” he suggested, “even the locals. No-one has ever seen him.”
“Well, wizards like to keep to themselves,” said Bossu.
“Not always. That dwarf Glammerscale’s been riding with Jacquot’s lads, if you can call it riding. He’s full of friendly conversation.”
“Dwarfs aren’t proper wizards, so that don’t prove anything.”
Evrart pondered this a moment. “Alright,” he admitted, “I’ll grant you that. But what about Perette? She doesn’t exactly hide herself away; quite the opposite. Not that I’m complaining.”
“She’s not what you’d call ‘proper’ either,” said Bossu with a grin.
“Well, no. But they’re both just petty wizards. I’m talking about the great ones like Niccolo. They get noticed.”
“Not so,” said Bossu. “Most wizards shut themselves up in a tower or some such place and go about whatever strange wickedness they’ve set their minds to.”
“Perette doesn’t need any tower to be wicked,” joked Evrart, now grinning himself.
Their conversation stopped a moment as they heard a horn from up ahead.
“That’s the others,” said Evrart. He tugged the reigns a little to send his horse, his companions following, in the direction of the sound. Bossu kept by his side and returned to the topic in hand.
“I’m talking about the mighty wizards too. They say Niccolo’s lived more’n twice as long as anyone should hope for or expect, harbouring his grudge until he returned to retake the city with the ogres. No-one had heard of him for decades – everyone thought he was dead. That’s a lot of practice at hiding away. Now he’s returned, maybe he’s trying to finish off whatever it was he was doing before the Campogrottans threw him out?”
“I don’t buy it,” argued Evrart. “If Lord Niccolo really ruled that city, there’d be at least one report of him. Instead everyone talks about the ogres, about Razger and Wurgrut. How they took the city, then took Ravola, then robbed their way through Tilea. Razger gives the orders, his brutes do the damage. I don’t see how Niccolo fits in at all. You saw yourself, Bossu, it was their banners on the city towers, no one elses.”
“Oh, and you know Lord Niccolo’s coat-of-arms do you?”
“No, but I know it isn’t a line of teeth-mountains or a bull’s skull tied to a pole with catgut. He’s a nobleman of an ancient family. All the rulers are here, even the vampires, just like home. It’ll be some flowery leaf or a golden crown or fancy swirls in bright green or red or …”
“You’ve no idea what it is!”
“Ah, but I don’t need to know to make my point. Those banners were ogre banners. The whole realm is ruled by ogres. It’s Razger who leads the armies – he decides what they’ll do – so it’s no surprise that they spend all their time smashing places up and plundering. If Niccolo was some great and mighty wizard kept o’er long in this world by necromancy, then why didn’t he make an appearance on the walls during the assaults? Why didn’t he fling lightning down, or summon the undead to serve in the defence? Brute ogres, that’s all that was seen; blood-spattered shamans waving bloody innards about. That’s all.”
“From what I’ve heard of the assault, I doubt our lads would have noticed some old man amongst the brutes. What’s a flash of lightning here and there when Razger’s lads are shooting cannons like handguns and the walls are tumbling left and right?”
“Well,” said Evrart, “Let us see what’s what when we take the city. I’ll bet you ten silver ecus that there’s no sign of any wizard, nor even that there ever was one besides them butcher-shamans. Wizard Lord Niccolo’s nothing but a story.”
“I’ll take that bet,” said Bossu. “And you’ll pay me as soon as you get your share. I’m not waiting to hear your drunken excuses after you and your purse disappear into the stews for a week.”
The horn-blowing riders were the other half of their own band – led by a veteran called Raol – who had split off earlier in the day to sweep a little further north and so cover more ground, aiming to rendezvous near the strangely shaped black-rock they had camped at on their last circuit. Upon meeting it was immediately apparent the new arrivals did not intend to stop, so the two groups merged to ride as one.
The riders were mounted on good horses, but not destriers like the nobility of Bretonnia favoured in battle, nor palfreys like the same nobles rode when travelling. These horses were best described as rounceys, trained for both long journeys and battle, but not able to support the weight of a plated knight and barding. Each soldier wore a light armour of chainmail and carried long spears, so they could deliver a charge if the opportunity arose, and sported parti-coloured yellow and green shields, being the company’s livery. Every one of them also carried bows and quivers, allowing them to loose volleys at a distance to harry the foe. As they rode now, some clutched their spears, their bows wrapped in waxed linen and slung across either their own back or their mounts; while others held their bows, their spears slotted into long pouches behind their saddles and their shields slung on harness hooks. One or two, Evrart and Raol included, found it more convenient to have both weapons wrapped and bagged while they concentrated on riding and keeping an eye out. They had experience enough to know that should trouble arise, they would have time to prepare whichever weapon they needed, and if they hadn’t time, then they could draw their swords in a moment.
“News, then?” shouted Evrart to Raol, as they both rode at the head of the reconstituted column.
“Aye, and not good. There’s more coming.”
“Don’t think so,” said Raol. “This lot came from Buldio.”
“Could be some trick of Razger’s, trying to swing around and arrive where he ain’t expected?”
“We thought so too,” said Raol. “So to make sure we got a proper look at them. They’re just a band of bulls, too small in number to be Razger’s army – no warmachines, no baggage, an’ only one banner. I reckon they’ve been off bullying Buldio, but now ordered to return.”
“Could they be meeting with Razger?”
“If that’s their plan, then they’re meeting at Campogrotta. The road they’re taking leads straight there.”
(An hour later.)
As they reached the southern stretch of the rocky-ground they spied one of the other two bands of riders heading their way, led by the riders’ commander, Sergeant Huget. The company’s colours were easily made out at the sergeant’s side, long before much else could be seen. Once again the two groups rode towards each other …
… to join each other on the move; and once again Evrart kept his place at the fore, thus joining the sergeant. As they made their way to the path they had found previously, which led through the wide band of rocks bounding the southernmost reach of this stony land, he reported all he had learned to the sergeant. By the time he finished they had entered the gap through the rocks.
“They’re not the only enemy heading this way,” said the sergeant. “We’ve seen more on the Iron Road.”
“Razger?” asked Evrart.
“I don’t think so. They’re much the same as you described, except that there were greenskin runts with this lot too. And they were coming from the east not the west, which is where Razger will come from.”
“They can’t be from the Lugo watchtower, that place was dead. And there’s no way they came down the Iron Road,” said Evrart.
“No, I reckon they came from the villages of Sermide, only they went north to meet the road before they turned west, instead of just going straight to Campogrotta. They might be planning to meet the ones you saw. ‘Twould explain their diversions.”
“They’re bringing everything they can, then?” asked Evrart.
“As to be expected,” said the sergeant.
“So does that mean Razger’s coming too?”
“Who knows? If he is, then the army’s in big trouble because the enemy’s closing from all sides. If he isn’t, then the army still needs to know about this lot because they’re trouble enough.”