Despite the hopes raised by the crushing victories achieved in the realm of Trantio, first at the necropolis valley of Norochia and then further north in the Trantine hills, as well as the news of the ogre tyrant Razger Bouldergut’s departure through the mountainous pass of the Via Nano into the Border Princes, the entire peninsula of Tilea remained wracked by war or the imminent threat of war. Great armies were on the move, alliance-forces combined and divided in response to this particular threat and that, and old enmities and hatreds continued, as ever, to interfere with the greater need.
The army of the VMC had marched all the way from Alcente upon the southern-most tip of the peninsula to Pavona. Its general, Jan Valckenburgh, was intending to join with the Lord Alessio’s mighty army to drive the vampires once and for all to their destruction but had instead become distracted by the reported treachery of the ruler of Pavona, Duke Guidobaldo Gondi.
The Pavonan duke had claimed in a public letter that a force of VMC soldiers, disguised as Lord Alessio’s Portomaggiorans, had attacked the realm of Verezzo, killing the philosopher Lord Lucca Vescussi and plundering the region known as Spomanti. General Valckenburgh, who had interrogated a band of Verezzan rogues fleeing the troubles in their realm, declared Duke Guidobaldo’s words to be lies, claiming instead that it was Duke Guidobaldo’s own Pavonan soldiers, disguised as Portomaggiorans, who had performed the foul deed, spurred by a greed for plunder now that their own realm was so weakened by the depredations of Bouldergut’s brute ogres, and also in order to distract and damage all the realms around them, so that Pavona might not appear so weak in comparison.
Many argued over the truth of the matter. Some said that the Pavonan duke was guilty and had made the false claim simply to hide the fact that he himself was responsible for the raid and murder, cleverly befuddling the picture so that if people learned that the Portomaggiorans were not to blame, he could respond with another lie on top of the original deception. Others said that the VMC was responsible, being dishonourable plunderers by their very nature, and had used the lie as an excuse to go on from plundering Verezzo to plunder Pavona also, all the while claiming to be entirely innocent, instead simply responding appropriately to Duke Guidobaldo’s outrageous defamation and hoping to find proof of his foul deeds to restore their honourable reputation!
Whatever the truth, the army of the VMC now drew close enough to lay siege to the ancient, mightily walled city of Pavona, wherein was garrisoned the last of the Pavonan armies. The young Lord Silvano, who had fought so bravely in the war against the vampires (at Viadaza, Ebino and Trantio) had only recently arrived home, given leave to depart from the grand alliance army after the victory in Norochia, where his men had not even needed to unsheathe their swords.
Lord Silvano’s father Duke Guidobaldo also returned, having travelled from Verezzo where he had offered sanctuary to all the citizens, promising them homes, livelihoods and protection in his own realm. Learning of the VMC army’s approach to his city, however, he could not tarry to escort those who accepted his offer, but raced back to his own city, arriving in the nick of time, only matter of hours before the army of the VMC drew themselves up to within handgun shot of the city walls, in preparation to lay siege. He was greeted by his son, but any happiness that they might have felt at being reunited was surely dwarfed by their concerns regarding the forthcoming struggle.
The VMC had marched north to share the burden of the terrible war against the vampires and brutes. Instead they had now embarked upon a war of honour against one of the oldest Tilean city-states, despite the vampire Duchess Maria’s complete destruction of the army of the Dedicati di Morr at Ebino, and the landing of an army of Sartosan pirates upon the coast at Luccini.
It is to the latter event that I shall next turn. King Ferronso of Luccini had taken leave of the grand alliance army at Trantio as soon as he received reports of the Sartosan threat to the coastal realms. He did not do so lightly, and indeed left a significant portion of his small army’s strength with the alliance force, under the command of the condottiere General Marsilio da Fermo. The army’s council of war agreed that they had more than adequate strength to defeat the enemy’s army in Trantio, and so it would be unfair to demand that the young king remained with them when his realm faced such troubles. But the journey home was long, and although the king rode as fast as he possibly could, accompanied by his guard of noble men-at-arms, he arrived too late to defend his realm. The Sartosans had landed in great strength, utterly overwhelmed the city of Luccini itself, plundered it thoroughly, and then moved on to take all they could from Aversa to the east. Thus it was that the young king could only watch, more spy than warrior hero, as his realm was ravaged by an enemy far too strong for him to face.
All is Lost! Is All Lost?
They had left their mounts hidden deep in the woods, with the rest of the company, then the three of them, cautiously, if a little clumsily due to their armour, picked their way to the trees’ edge. Although he had already been informed of what was happening in Aversa, the young King Ferronso insisted on seeing with his own eyes, and his companions, for several reasons – not least that he was their king – chose not to argue. Signore Pierozzo went a little way ahead of the king and Barone Vettorio, stopping to beckon them on only when he had made sure it was safe to do so.
Before they reached the boundary, they could hear the enemy, some laughing, others shouting. Pierozzo insisted he go ahead alone to assess the situation. He returned a little while later and led them to a spot he had discovered from where the town could be seen, but where the trees and bushes where thick enough to provide concealment. There they halted and watched a while in silence, until, as was proper, the king chose to speak.
“All is lost,” he said, dejectedly. “If only we’d got here quicker. If only I’d left the Portomaggiorans sooner.”
“Your highness, you bear no blame,” said the barone. “We came as soon as we heard, and none but the gods could ride faster, not in armour at least.”
“Then we should have left our armour and used faster mounts. And we should never have stopped for sleep.
“Then we would have arrived ill-equipped in every way to thwart such a numerous foe.”
“We are ill equipped, Vettorio! Why did I leave so many soldiers in Lord Alessio’s service? Why did I not bring them back with me?”
“Sire, you were honour bound,” said the barone. “The vampires were yet to be faced in battle, and to refuse to lend any aid to such a design would be wrong in the gods’ eyes.”
“Aye, your highness, you did only what was right,” added Pierozzo. “Besides, the pike and guns would have slowed us to less than half the pace and still made us no more able to defeat such a numerous foe.”
“But it is a king’s duty to protect his realm. First and foremost. In that I’ve failed.”
“You strove to do exactly that, sire, against the brutes who had torn realm after realm apart, and against the restless dead who threatened far worse,” argued the barone. He gestured at the men before them, “These Sartosans bear all the blame for this deed. Not only are they thieves and murderers, but cowardly opportunists for choosing to strike just when we were engaged elsewhere upon a rightful and necessary war. They too will stand before Morr in the end, and he will scorn them.”
“If it is capable for men to be worse even than vampires,” said Signore Pierozzo, “then these men are so.”
King Ferronso squinted as he watched the activity between the trees and the town, where several bodies of men were engaged upon drill practice.
“All is lost,” he repeated. This time his companions said nothing. He sniffed, then turned to the barone. “Vettorio, is all lost?”
“This is bad, sire. But not as bad as it could be. These men have plundered and raped your people, most likely stolen the strongest to sell as slaves. But they won’t eat them as the brutes would have done, nor will they kill them and turn their corpses into foul servants as would the vampires.”
These words did not seem to reassure the king at all. He merely winced at the hearing of them.
“Nor will they stay, your highness,” the barone quickly added. “Sartosans do not conquer, but rather they steal what they can, and then move on.”
“So, when they choose to go, I can return to whatever ruins they leave behind them?” said the king. “Weeping women and frightened children? Not a scrap of gold to pay my debts, nor wine to drink, nor even beef or mutton to eat?”
“The realm will heal, sire, given time.”
“Yes, I suppose it will,” said Ferronso, somewhat dismissively. “I am still king.”
His two companions fell silent, at a loss as to what to say to such a child-like remark.
“They have pikes,” the king announced, unexpectedly. “I never knew pirates to be pikemen.”
“Aye, sire,” said Signore Pierozzo. “Those are our pikes.”
“The town militia’s. They must have taken them from the arsenal. Maybe they feared we might return, and well-mounted?”
“If they did then they expected more of us,” said the king dejectedly.
The three of them then watched the enemy a while. The Sartosans had divided themselves into little companies, all the better to practise with the pikes. Each little body had a commander, no doubt a fellow who was experienced in the handling of a pike, to guide them through their postures, and ensure they could do so as one. Some were busy at the charge, although unusually they did not hold the pikes at their necks but thrust them from their waists like spears.
This struck the barone as odd, for it was not the Tilean way. Perhaps the fellow in charge was from some far away realm where such a drill was employed? Others stood at order and watched, while a heavily bearded northerner in a huge green coat and an orange scarf, a Marienburger most likely, tested the strength of the hold of one of their number.
Still others came up as if just about to join in the practice …
… while one tardy fellow stood by a stand of pikes leaning against a building, trying each one as if deciding which was best.
“There don’t seem to be that many of them,” said the king.
His companions, somewhat judiciously, and knowing the young king well, said nothing.
“But then I suppose these are just some of them,” the king added after a while.
“There are indeed many more, Sire,” said Pierozzo. “Here, in the city and across your realm. They have a great number of handgunners, batteries of cannons and swivel guns.”
“What guns?” asked the king.
“Small pieces of artillery, such as are mounted upon stanchions on ships’ gunwales. Neither handgun nor cannon, but somewhere in between.”
“Yes,” said the king, sounding impatient. “I know those.”
Pierozzo nodded, then continued, “There are dwarfs amongst them, even greenskins …”
The king scowled at this comment, which made Pierozzo stop.
“Go on,” said the king. “What else?”
“And regiments of fighters festooned in weapons of every kind.”
“No armour though?”
“None, sire. I’m led to believe they fear the consequences should they fall into the sea.”
The young king thought about this for a moment. Then he pointed towards three pikeless men who were watching the rest.
“Who are they?” he asked.
“I cannot say, sire. Captains, perhaps? At least one of them.”
“The one in the black coat, I’ll bet,” said the king. “That one by his side in the robes, he’s a wizard, surely?”
“Most likely, sire. And the other one, some other officer, like a first mate or a Bo’s’un or such like.”
“Would it not be for the best, sire, that we leave now, before someone spies us?” asked the barone. The king did not answer, but just turned and began strolling away. His companions joined him.
“I will not wait until I can creep home, skulking in the shadows in the meantime,” announced the king. “These Sartosans must be punished. What they’ve taken must be retrieved. My people need to know I am a vengeful king, and others must learn what happens to those who offend me.”
“Of course, sire,” said Barone Vettorio, glancing briefly at Pierozzo.
“So, how exactly do I do what must be done?” asked the king.
Next we will return to Bonacorso Fidelibus’s Historical work