First Prequel to the Battle of the Valley of Death

The Great Gathering

At long last an army capable of striking a deadly blow at the vampire duchess’s horrid hegemony of the north had assembled, and not a moment too soon for her foul forces had reached further south than ever before. Consisting of five armies from different city states, including a multitude of mercenaries, it was vast in size. Its soldiers hailed from all over Tilea and beyond – from Estalia, the Empire and even far-flung Cathay, with dwarf and halfling regiments as well as those of men. Their assembly spawned a sprawling camp, filling an entire valley in the wide, low hills west of Trantio. At the camp’s heart stood a massive tent, where the allies’ council of war was about to begin.

Having traveled at the head of the last two armies to arrive, Arch-Lector Bernado Ugolini now made his way to that tent, accompanied by several of his Cathayan bodyguards. As he walked, he scrutinised the soldiers he passed to satisfy himself that there was indeed enough strength in the three southern armies already present to make his (about to be) proposed plan viable. In truth, he had expected more – the Verezzan and Luccinan contingents appeared to be significantly depleted in strength. Perhaps, he thought, they were divided and so also distributed elsewhere in the camp, but he knew this was unlikely for it not at all the usual practice. As the massive Portomaggioran army made up for any deficiency in numbers on the lesser realms’ behalf, he did not let it worry him. Indeed, his spirits were sufficiently lifted to put a smile upon his face. The Tileans in the camp saw this as a sign of his pleasure, his happy blessing upon them, and respectfully made the sign of Morr as he passed. Even Myrmidia-worshipping soldiers knew which god to pray to when facing the undead.

Of course, his expression grew stern before he entered the command tent, for he knew full well that there was work yet to be done inside, and no guarantee of success. He had marched with enough conglomerate armies, either advising or commanding them, to know that it was never easy to reach a consensus concerning strategy. What with commanders from no less than five different states, several of whom did not merely distrust each other but had effectively been enemies until the dire threat of undeath had forced their cooperation, he expected the canvass walls to house a veritable cornucopia of conflicting concerns, incompatible priorities and discordant interests. More than this, there would most likely be disagreements between officers within the same army.

Passing Lord Alessio Falconi’s guards both outside and in …

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… he discovered a gathering of officers and their attendants around a central table. Lord Alessio of Portomaggiore was immediately apparent, standing beneath a painted, silken banner sporting his family’s golden falcon, with an eclectic collection of what must be his captains gathered around him. He was well known to have travelled widely, and it appeared he had brought some of those he had encountered back with him. Upon thinking this, Bernado had to suppress a new smile, for of course he himself was guarded by strangely garbed Cathayans.

The young Lord Silvano, whom Bernado knew very well indeed from their shared adventures and who had rode with him from Remas, was already in attendance, liveried in Pavonan blue and white, and as such identical to the blue and white of Lord Alessio’s army. Some childish remnant lurking in the corner of Bernado’s mind wondered whether this was perhaps a sign that the two armies would work well together?

No doubt some of the others were from Verezzo and Luccini, but Bernado could not see the young King Ferronso amongst them, nor his good friend from youth, the philosopher Lord Lucca of Verezzo. Perhaps they had yet to arrive? What could possibly delay them, considering their armies had reportedly marched alongside the Portomaggiorans, he knew not. Perhaps their absence had something to do with the small numbers of their soldiers outside? As he took his allotted place, a place of honour to the right of the allied armies’ effective captain-general, Lord Alessio, he presumed all would become clear, momentarily.

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Many amongst the officers made the sign of Morr, and Bernado acknowledged them graciously by lifting his hand in a sign of blessing and saying a brief prayer in the ancient tongue of Tilea. Appropriately, it was the captain general, Lord Alessio who then spoke,

“Your holiness, you are most welcome. I think I speak for us all when I say we are mightily reassured by your presence amongst us, especially in light of the task that now faces us. May Morr protect us in the fight to come.

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Bernado did smile now. “And I am most happy to be here with you, captain general, for here at last, it seems to me upon my first impression, is gathered an army sufficient for the work of eradicating the vampires’ evil from Tilea. Morr’s blessings are most assuredly to be poured upon this army.”

“We are most happy too that you brought Lord Silvano with you,” said Alessio, bowing slightly to the young Pavonan lord, who returned the gesture. “Though I have to ask, where is Duke Guidobaldo?”

“My father felt it was his duty to return home,” said Silvano. “Our city currently lies unprotected, a state of affairs that cannot be allowed to continue now that the tyrant Boulderguts has slipped from our reach and the vampire duchess’s army is so close.”

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“Ah yes,” said Lord Alessio. “We marched north in the hope of defeating Boulderguts once and for all, to prevent his further devastation. Indeed, I fashioned this army with the brutes in mind. Now we are faced with a quite different foe. Pray tell, my Lord Silvano, if your father took leave with his army, what command is left to you?”

“My father has fully honoured his commitments, taking only our horse soldiers and a newly raised regiment of Reman bravi. I now command our guns and household foot soldiers.”

“So he left behind only that which would slow him down as he went home,” muttered a grizzled, old soldier, heavily bearded and heavily armoured, wearing the yellow and blue of Verezzo.

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Lord Silvano showed no sign of displeasure at this disparaging remark. Bernado had noticed that since the brutal blow to the young lord’s head at Via Diocleta, Silvano had suffered more than merely physical consequences. One of his eyes was now fashioned of glass, and he looked somehow older than his years. More noticeable, perhaps, was his distant nature, as if he were at one remove from that which occurred around him; as if, as one of the Reman priests had put it, he had taken ‘a step closer to death’. Here now, when many others would have reacted angrily to such a comment, the young lord exhibited an absence of any emotion.

“My father left me with exactly that best suited for an assault upon the walls of Trantio,” explained Lord Silvano.

Bernado nodded. “More than that, my lord, your father removed from our city those left unemployed by the fall of so many noble houses during the recent unrest. Such men could have proved most troublesome to us had they not been given new purpose. I am grateful to your father for this, and that the soldiers he left under your command are veterans who have proved themselves several times over in this war. I for one would never criticise Duke Guidobaldo’s desire to care for the well-being of his people.”

He glanced at the Verezzan captain to gauge the man’s response, but the fellow was an old veteran, an Empire mercenary by the looks of him, and simply looked on as if nothing of consequence had happened. Bernado supposed such a man would have faced such horrors during his life as a soldier that he would barely register a little awkwardness in conversation. Bernado noted, however, the comment had revealed there was still antipathy between Verezzo and Pavona, born of Lord Lucca’s allegedly tardy rejection of Duke Guidobaldo’s niece as a wife for his son. For some time, Bernado suspected Duke Guidobaldo had engineered the perceived slight to serve his own purpose (being to conquer every city-state neighbouring his own) each time claiming some matter of honour or revenge as his motive. Whether this were true or not, the bad feeling engendered between the two states was apparently still felt.

Bernado now addressed Lord Alessio, “I must ask, captain general, where are King Ferronso and Lord Lucca?

Lord Alessio gave only the hint of a frown, but several other officers noticeably glanced at each other, both acknowledging and revealing their general disquiet.

“They have also left a portion of their forces under my command,” Lord Alessio answered. “And indeed, like the good duke, saw fit to ensure that those forces were of the kind useful in an assault. Might I introduce Barone Iacopo Brunetti of Poliena, commanding the Verezzan brigade …”

Here Bernado thought Alessio was gesturing towards the mumbling Verezzan captain, but then realised there was a halfling standing by the man’s side, who now bowed.

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The little barone sported a heavy iron helmet and clutched a polearm in both hands. Behind him was another halfling, an archer liveried in the yellow and blue of Verezzo.

” … and Captain Muzio Vanni.” This time he did indicate the plain spoken Verezzan. Then he turned to address another, “And this is General Marsilio da Fermo, commander of the Luccinan brigade.”

General Marsilio was another old soldier, almost white haired, in full, unadorned plate armour. He leaned upon a great battle axe of an archaic design, its haft almost as tall as him.

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“Your presence, Barone Iacopo and General Marsilio,” said Bernado, choosing not to mention the captain by name, “as well as that of those you command, pleases me greatly. But I must ask again: where are your masters?”

“Blame the Sartosan scum for my king’s absence,” said General Marsilio. “Their love for gold means they care nothing for the living of Tilea. To them, this war merely presents an opportunity to raid the coastal cities whilst our armies are busy elsewhere.”

Bernado had heard the rumours of increased Sartosan activity in the Pirate’s Current, and of some northern seaman named Volker who was attempting to unite them. “The King has returned to Luccini then?” he asked.

“Aye, but unlike Lord Silvano, he has left me with little more than a single regiment to command,” said the general, sounding embittered. And well he might, thought Bernado, for the rank of general sat ill alongside command of one regiment.

“And a great gun,” said Lord Alessio.

“Aye, a single piece,” said the Luccinan with unconcealed contempt.

It occurred to Bernado that the young king might have been glad, at least, to leave his general behind, for the fellow did not seem to care about mincing his words and youthful monarchs often had a certain fragile pride about them.

“Then the pirates are to blame,” declared Bernado, “and not King Ferronso. He cannot be expected personally to fight this foe while his people are being ravaged and robbed by corsairs.”

General Marsilio acknowledged the arch-lector with a nod. Bernado turned to the halfling.

“Barone Iacopo, I was looking forward to meeting again with Lord Lucca. I can only presume he too has other concerns?”

The halfling’s voice, like most of his kind, was somewhat lilting, and in tone like that a of youth.

“A great many, your holiness. They weigh upon him heavily. If you would oblige?” asked the halfling as he gestured for a servant garbed in a flamboyant hat and carrying a polished brass horn, to come up. Bernado nodded his assent, and the courtly youth stepped forwards, unravelled a paper and began to read:

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“This to his Holiness Bernado Ugolini, the righteous right hand of Morr, from your old friend Lucca. I pray you are well, and that your dreams treat you kindly. My heart is heavy with the knowledge that I shall not be with you before Trantio, and it pains me that you might think the less of me for it. Not willing to ask another to make excuses upon my behalf, I would by this missive explain myself to you, and all those with you who are to face the foul army threatening every Tilean realm. I know full well that the fate of every living Tilean hangs in the balance, and yet I cannot ignore the responsibilities of rule and the love and protection I owe my people. None presently know Razger Boulderguts’ whereabouts, but it seems to me that the brute most likely intends to circumnavigate the great allied army in order to attack the south. He has performed just such maneouevres before, and despite defeat at your hands went on to lay waste to Ridraffa. Furthermore, there are reliable reports of a large band of greenskins this side of the mountains, sufficient in strength to extract a ransom from the Pavonan town of Scozzese. Knowing that you are bringing the armies of both Remas and Pavona to join with the Portomaggiorans, and that I have left with you all that is of real use in the assault to come, thus fashioning an army entirely capable of victory in the struggle ahead, I feel that the only course of action open to me is to return to Verezzo to do what I can to keep my subjects safe from these other threats. Furthermore, it seems to me that were the rumours of an alliance between the vampires and brutes true, then it would be remiss to leave the allied army’s rear unguarded, so that Razger could launch an attack to relieve Trantio. My soldiers can guard against just such a move.

If I were a proud man, I would have stayed, but I am justly humbled by my duty to my people, obliged to accept sound reason, and beholden to taking the best course of strategic action. When it comes to the safe future of Tilea, however, I am yours to command, and so if I have chosen wrongly, then simply say so and I will return immediately. Ever your servant, and always your friend, Lucca Vescussi, Lord of Verezzo.”

Bernado dismissed the servant and thanked the barone. “I do not doubt Lord Lucca’s sincerity,” he declared, “for I know him to be as honest as he is wise. However, I was led to believe the army of the VMC is also marching north to aid us in our war, and by way of Verezzo. Would they not be of use in defeating any brutes and goblins attempting to outflank us?”

“In his wisdom, my master did take the VMC into account in his deliberations, your holiness,” said the barone, “but not as a reassurance, rather as a further cause for concern. He does not yet trust them, which in truth made for another reason to return home.”

Bernado could not argue against his old friend’s suspicions, for he himself did not know whether the Marienburgers were to be trusted. An army ruled by merchants was an unusual thing anywhere in the world, certainly in Tilea, and nothing the VMC had so far done proved their intentions harmless. They had offered protection to Alciente, and now they ruled it. They promised to fight Khurnag’s Waagh, and now they ruled all that they took from his forces. They had swallowed up Capelli without a fight, simply because the town knew it could not defend itself against such force. And it was their soldiers who had thought to interfere somewhat unhelpfully with Raverno’s self-inflicted troubles by razing the contado of Camponeffro. There was even a rumour that the VMC had hired mercenary bands of goblins. Mind you, similar tales were told of Lord Alessio, so one could not single out the northerners on this account.

Suddenly the Verezzan captain spoke again. “Nor did our master wish to fight alongside the Pavonan duke.”

The halfling looked askance at his companion. “Not so, Captain Muzio,” he was quick to counter.

“Aye, maybe you’re right,” said the captain. “If it was one of Lord Lucca concerns, I’m sure it was very low on his list.”

One of Lord Alessio’s officers, a bald, fierce looking man in full plate leaning upon his sword like a cane, snorted in laughter at this.

Lord Alessio did not rebuke the man. Instead saying,

“No matter. Even if true, we must put such petty animosities behind us, for the enemy threatens every Tilean. Like you yourself said, your holiness, and it seems Lord Lucca also believes, we have a force entirely sufficient for the task in hand. So now, shall we proceed with formulating our plan of attack? I would know first what powder each army has available, for the walls of Trantio are strong and will take require much battering if we are to breach them. My lord Silvano, were the walls breached during your father’s war against Prince Girenzo?”

“They were, captain general, but they were fully repaired during our occupation of the city. I myself oversaw the commencement of the work, and received a report when it was completed, a matter of weeks before the ogres came. I do not believe the walls were in any way dismantled during the subsequent withdrawal from the city.”

“You mean the flight from the city, after your soldiers stripped it of everything of worth,” said Captain Muzio.

Bernado had had enough of this man. “I suggest you hold your tongue, captain,” he said firmly, noticing the concern writ upon the faces of nearly all gathered, not least the captain’s nominal commander, the halfling Barone Iacopo. “If all you have to offer is accusations concerning Duke Guidobaldo’s past actions, then it seems to me you are of little use to this council.”

“I shall speak no more of it, your holiness,” said the captain. “And I apologise to all concerned for my o’er hasty words.

The young Pavonan lord’s face showed nothing but indifference. If he had noticed the formality of the apology, perhaps revealing its superficial nature, he gave no sign.

Bernado, not for the first time, wondered why – as ever in Tilea – a tangle of complications invariably threatened to imbue any alliance with an intrinsic fragility. Already, several, substantial absences meant this great army, large as it was, was nevertheless a much-reduced version of its potentially massive size. And now those officers remaining were exhibiting their mutual distrust, before a plan had been even been discussed. He had learned the hard way that every commander in a composite force such as this had his own priorities, fears and desires, his own different plans concerning how to achieve victory. Even their ideas of what constituted victory varied. Despite these concerns, he knew he himself was about to be guilty of exactly the same sort of contrariness. Still, what needed saying must be said, so he turned to Lord Alessio,

“Before you proceed, captain general, I would speak of my own concerns, for they will bear heavily upon the plans we make here.”

For the merest moment, Lord Alessio looked perplexed. But it did not last. Perhaps, thought Bernado, his own bitter experiences meant the captain-general recognised the inevitable nature of the game they were now playing?

“Of course, your Holiness,” said the captain general. “I greatly value your guidance. We all do.”

The easy acceptance and subtle flattery of this comment did make Bernado wonder about the man’s sincerity – this was not the first time he had detected Lord Alessio’s clever combination of both business and courtly skills.

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Such skills would serve him well in the juggling act of commanding such an army as this. Bernado was counting on him possessing a similar talent for strategy.

“Know that what I am about to suggest comes from my own bitter experiences, not simply from prayerful contemplation,” Bernado began. “I sometimes feel I have been more a soldier than a churchman. I fought with the holy peasant-army of Viadaza against the vampire duke at the Bridge of Pontremola. Against the odds, perhaps, victory was gained, for by the hand of one man – General Urbano D’Alessio, may he find blissful rest in the garden of Morr – the vampire duke was slain, and his army faltered. Nevertheless, they escaped in force, and in all likelihood became the core of the vampire Duchess’s army. Worse than that, despite a victory bought dearly with the blood of many, the city of Viadaza was captured by the undead the very next day when Lord Adolfo revealed himself to be a vampire. I was also amongst the army that recaptured Viadaza, along with Lord Silvano here, only to watch as the vampire Lord Adolfo escaped with his foul servants to attend his cruel mistress. Only recently I fought at the Via Diocleta, where the joint armies of Remas and Pavona drove the tyrant Boulderguts from the Remas. This too was called a victory, for Boulderguts was prevented from reaching the holy city. But then he marched on to raze Ridraffa to the ground, and to escape northwards in command of a significant force and hauling a vast train of loot stolen at such a cost in lives. Now he presents more than a potential thorn in our side, for he could yet, with perhaps minimal reinforcements, bring ruin to many more cities.”

Bernado fell silent here for a moment, to let the miserable truth of what he had just said, how three of the greatest victories achieved in recent years had ultimately proved fruitless, sink in. He could not help but look at Lord Silvano, who was wounded at Via Diocleta, but again saw only the same detachment. The rest waited in anticipation to hear why he was telling them this.

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“I will not allow another great sacrifice to be made, the deaths of thousands, so much suffering for so little gain. The foe must not be allowed to escape from Trantio, to rally elsewhere. This time the enemy must be annihilated. Even if they flee the city, they must be caught and destroyed. Not one, single, foul servant can be allowed to return north to the vampire duchess.”

He paused again, to judge the reaction of the men before him. They seemed solemnly agreeable so far.

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“So, I propose the following plan: I will, with the aid of brave Lord Silvano here, lead the armies of Remas and the Pavona north towards the contada of Preto, while the rest of you assault the city. When you win, which you surely must do with the strength at your disposal, and our enemies again attempts to escape, we will intercept and utterly destroy them. In this way, the vampires’ final defeat will truly have begun. As we speak, the fanatical army of the Disciplinati di Morr is pursuing the vampire duchess towards Ebino. When they catch her, she will have only what remains to her after the second assault on Viadaza, and nothing from this southern army to come to her aid. Even if the Disciplinati ‘s army fails to destroy her army completely, we can march north with sufficient strength to deliver the necessary coup de grace.”

He knew that those gathered had not in their wildest dreams expected him to suggest dividing their strength at the very moment that such a force had at long last successfully been gathered. But he had weighed everything as best he could and was convinced the enemy could not prevail against the three armies from the south.

No-one spoke, instead waiting for Lord Alessio’s reply.

“I think,” said the captain general, “your Holiness, you have the true measure of what is required of us. We cannot allow the enemy to slip away. Even if we surround the city they could break through, as they have done before.”

Here Lord Alessio fell silent.

“But to take two armies for a task that may not even prove necessary,” said General Marsilio, “surely that is too much? It could weaken us critically before the walls of Trantio. If we cannot beat them, they will not run.”

“By your leave, General Alessio,” said the bald-headed officer by his side. “We need not send all the Remans and Pavonans, but rather send those from each army who are of little use in the assault. My own demigryphs, the Black Guard and the Knights of the Lady would all be wasted before the walls, as would all the rest of the horse.”

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“But do we have sufficient horse to ensure victory over a retreating foe, Lord Black?” asked one of Lord Alessio’s advisers lurking in the rear, a short man, who looked more courtier than soldier. Lord Alessio listened without turning, as if there were such a familiarity between the two that he need not do so. “King Ferronso took his mounted men at arms away with him. Lord Lucca took his light horse. Now we learn that Duke Guidobaldo’s mounted knights have also gone.”

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The captain-general seemed to be pondering the courtier’s concerns – Bernado assumed he was counting riders in his mind.

“Then the soldiers of my army will make up the shortfall,” offered Bernado. “This was my suggestion, and I would have my own forces committed to ensuring its success. My dwarfs cannot move as rapidly as the horse, but they can catch up every evening. My skirmishers and crossbowmen should also be sufficiently fleet of foot, certainly for the task in hand, for we are not asking them to travel a great distance. And we must, of course, send some of my fighting priests, for those we face are our god’s particular enemy, and my priests’ prayers could prove vital to success. I will stay here with you, for then I myself might channel holy Morr’s anger against the foe.”

“I can spare Pandolfo and his galloper gun,” said Barone Iacopo. “Its shots would barely chip the walls of Trantio but could sting the foe in the open field.”

“Good, good,” said Lord Alessio. “Then we can pursue your holiness’s plan, but with a force drawn from all the armies, sufficiently strong, sufficiently fast. Lord Marcus will command this interceptor force …”

“But Alessio …” interrupted Lord Black, only to be silenced by Lord Alessio’s raising of a hand.

“I would have you, Ned, with me before the city walls. If some monstrous creature were to emerge, or hellish riders, then you and your demigryphs may be needed. I think it would be unwise to leave our flanks unguarded before Trantio, considering what horrors may sally forth.”

“Lord-general,” came the thickly accented voice of the arabyan standing behind the captain-general. “What about the colossus, whither would you have it go?”

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“It stays,” ordered Lord Alessio. “The weight of the foe’s magic will bear against us in the assault, and, though very thankful of the priests’ prayers, I would fight like with like. You and your construct will stay, to protect the other flank.”

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