The Battle of the Isean Hills
Prequel: Each to Their Own
The army of the Disciplinati di Morr, bereft of its beloved, founding father, but still bound to the service of holy Morr, had drawn close to the city of Ebino and then halted. When they learned the vampire duchess had more than sufficient forces within the city to repel any assault they attempted, their new pastor-general, Father Lorenzo of Urbimo, ordered the fortification of their camp so that they might instead blockade the city, harrying any forces attempting to leave the city or join the garrison, while awaiting reinforcements of their own.
Fully aware of their depleted strength (indeed, having sent her servant Adolfo to prey on them to bring about just this end), the Duchess Maria decided she would not give them time to lick their wounds, nor allow any more forces to join them, but would instead march from the city in strength to deliver her ‘colpo di grazia’.
On the morning of the battle, each of the two armies prepared themselves for the fight ahead. In the part-completed, fortified camp they were building upon the hills to the south of the city, the Disciplinati di Morr gathered for prayers; while in the fields below the ruined Church of San Sabrella to the east of Ebino’s moated walls, the vampire Duchess Maria drew all the unliving servants she had in the city to her.
The Disciplinati’s new pastor-general, the Urbiman priest Father Lorenzo, was not the orator Father Carradalio had been, and so instead of an inspired, stirring speech, he simply read from the holy book of Morr. A swathe of dedicants crowded around him, as well as lesser priests and Captain Vogel’s palace guards, and all fell silent as he intoned.
Father Lorenzo chose his passage carefully. While in Urbimo, overseeing the cruel cleansing of the town, he had favoured the verses concerning the purity of the soul required for passage into Morr’s heavenly garden, and the punishments necessary for those who tainted themselves with wicked words, deeds and thoughts, or lured Morr’s living servants into the same. When the impure were burned, he had concentrated on the chapters describing the torments awaiting those who were not suitably cleansed either through their own will and discipline, or by the punishments inflicted upon them as a curative penance.
Here, however, before battling the vampire duchess’s foul army, he knew that something more uplifting was required. The men gathered around him were to face hell later that day, which made threatening them with the same seem somewhat redundant. He wanted to inspire them to fight fearlessly, to lay down their lives without hesitation, and so it was that he read of the abundant rewards awaiting them in Morr’s garden-paradise.
Several priests, their hands clasped in humility, stood closest to Father Lorenzo. These few knew the text well enough to add their own voices to the most important parts, thus ensuring those words were better heard by all. Other than the priests’ occasionally conjoined voices and the fluttering of the ragged banners (these fashioned from the tattered remains of ancient saints’ robes), the only other sound was the occasional ripple of mutters and whispers through the crowd as they involuntarily muttered repetitions of this or that inspired phrase.
The holy book’s words revealed that every drop of blood the dedicants shed in Morr’s service would be amply compensated with heavenly wine; that long labours for their lord-god would earn them ages of ease; and that every moment of agony would be rewarded by eons of ecstasy. Indeed, those who were sufficiently holy in the here and now could experience the first hint of that eternal ecstasy within the very agonies themselves, their pain tinged with the perfect pleasures to come.
The dedicants’ attention was given a keener edge by the knowledge of what they were about to face, and as they listened to the holy book’s powerful promises, their fears were swept away and replaced with excited anticipation. The more they suffered this day, the greater the rewards would be. It was all many of them could do not to begin their flagellation there and then!
Maria knew Lord Adolfo was dead, for she had sensed his demise two weeks before. As for Biagino, he had gone so far from her that although she could feel something was amiss, she could no longer know whether he (un)lived or not. Here and now her only her vampiric servant was captain Bernhardt, who would be her lieutenant in battle. There was a necromancer, Saffiro, a wretched fellow whose fawning company she could hardly bear, his blood so dry as to be undrinkable, his very being seeming to be composed entirely of mould, dust and rags, but even ignoring her distaste for him, such a creature would prove a poor second on the field of battle. Bernhardt, on the other hand, was very much a warrior, having been a condottiere captain in life, during which he fought both in the northern realm of the Empire and all over Tilea.
As her army assembled almost in silence, she beckoned Bernhardt over. He was clad in full plate armour and carried a blade almost as long, from tip to pommel, as she was tall. When he came to a halt before her, she said,
“Good captain, faithful, favoured servant, your hand.”
Despite not knowing why she asked, he reached out without hesitation. She laid her own hand upon his, her cold, pearl-white fingers resting upon the layered steel plates of his gauntlet.
Now he understood. This action was a sign of her favour – that this day she honoured him above all others. As she looked at him, her eyes seemed just as palpable as her touch, and for moment he forgot all but his fierce love for his mistress. All about them the duchess’s undead servants became still, momentarily bereft of any directive will.
Moving one step closer, Maria brought her mouth almost to Bernhardt’s cheek. She spoke quietly concerning what she expected of him in the battle to come, which was that he should give his all in her service, both his sword arm and his military ken and, if necessary, his life. She wished the foe killed to a man, so not one could escape to reveal the nature of her own forces to her enemies in the south. Having been sired by her, and utterly beholden to her will, he willingly accepted all she commanded. He could do nothing else.
Less than an hour later, near the head of the army, the two of them rode together towards the enemy’s camp.
Battle Report to follow.