Luccini, Very late Autumn 2403
This was the second time young King Ferronso had to return to his city in shame. It seemed strange to him to suffer the ignominy twice, but such was his life recently! Nothing was going right for him.
Once again, the sky was darkening angrily as a storm brewed, and like before he knew there would be no warm welcome awaiting him, rather scowling faces and half-heard grumblings. He had expected to return a conquering hero, yet this was as far from that as could be imagined, which laced his shame with heart-wrenching disappointment.
His one consolation was that his people did not know just how deep his guilt ran. If they had known, then instead of mere, muttering sullenness there would be mockery, the hurling of insults, even rocks. His own silence and that of his guards who shared his secret shame, was all that was needed to conceal the truth. It did not, however, stop guilt wracking the king himself.
That summer, Ferronso, brimming with hopeful pride, had ridden off with Lord Alessio of Portomaggiore to join the holy war against the vampire duchess’s servants. In his absence, his city and the realm surrounding it had been invaded and overrun by Sartosan corsairs, who stripped it of everything of worth, ravaged every lady, maid and wench they could find and killed any who complained or stood in their way, even those who merely looked askance at them. Meanwhile, just before the great battle of the Valley of Norochia, doubt suddenly assailed the young king, filling him with such a fear for his realm that he abandoned the ‘holy’ cause, leaving behind just sufficient strength to save face and hurried homewards with his royal guards. Returning too late to stop the pirates, he had now failed doubly: breaking both his vow to fight the vampires as well as neglecting his kingly duty to protect his realm.
But neither of these failures were what really troubled his conscience, rather it was the fact that when he had returned the Sartosan pirates were still there, ransacking his realm, and he had dared not interfere. His guards told him it would be not only tactical folly but almost certain death. So, he had hidden in the trees and watched as his enemies plundered all they could. Worse still, he had felt comforted by his soldiers’ words, for they meant he did not have to place himself in danger.
He had watched his people suffer while feeling relief that he should not interfere!
Now, under an ominous sky, he and his companions skulked home. An observer who knew nothing of what had happened would never have thought to employ the word ‘skulk’, for the king and his guards were gloriously attired in their most fashionable and expensive armour, plumed in copious ostrich feathers, riding the finest of mounts, barded in colourfully enamelled plates. But to the king, skulking back was exactly what they were doing.
Ferronso was deep in thought as he and his company drew near the city, wondering if his name had already been tarnished for the rest of time, before he had even fought one battle. ‘Ferronso the Absent’? ‘Ferronso the Fool’? The glowering sky reflected his dark mood. The city was quiet, as one might expect from a wounded animal, curled up in anguish. Although perhaps, thought the king, there should be the sound of whimpering?
He could hear his royal standard fluttering by his side, the jangle of harnesses, the clattering of armour and the thump of hooves as the heavily burdened, heavy horses trotted along. Although he knew the outskirts of the town were now close, he could not bring himself to lift his head and look, but instead fixed his eyes on his hand clutching the reins. Strange, he thought, these are the reins I had on my pony as a child! The memory was not a happy one, for he had taken far too long learning to ride, fearful first of the pony, then of falling, then of failure, and he had known even at the time that everyone noticed his fear. Had his guards witnessed a similar fear when he watched the pirates from the trees? Would his people see his fear as he rode through the streets to his palazzo? How could anyone hope to hide so much fear?
Reluctantly, he lifted his head and glanced at a little knot of people close by, and yes, they seemed as sullen as he had expected. There were not many of them – some children, some old folk, a few women and a monk. Not the crowd a returning hero would deserve, the crowd he had imagined when he had set off months ago with Lord Alessio.
Was it terrible, he now asked himself, to wish the pirates had burned his city and butchered these wretches, so that his present shame would not be witnessed? Of course it was, he chided himself. He would never want such a thing. In truth, what he really wanted more than anything was the privacy and comfort of his palazzo, where such pitiful folk could not see him. Let them live their miserable lives, as long as they could not heap that misery on him.
To reach the street leading to his palace, he had to ride further along the city’s periphery, and as he did so more people came out to watch. Like before, he tried not to look at them, but he could not help himself. This time he saw there were men among the people, some sturdy fellows too.
Where had they been when his city needed defending?
Why should he shoulder all the blame?
Then he realised the men were armed! This was something the Sartosans would never have allowed while they occupied the city, which meant these fellows must surely have fled, returning only after the pirates had departed. What base cowards could do such a thing? Or perhaps these men hid their weapons during the brief and brutal occupation, cowering before the pirates and begging for mercy? What annoyed most was such men were able to stand amongst the people without any apparent malice directed towards them, while he himself had to suffer every sharp, accusative stare!
Something was niggling at him, more than his shame, more than his disgust that the men did not look ashamed too. There was something wrong about them. He could see a long-barrelled musket, a bearded fellow clutching two axes, a blunderbuss in the hands of a … dwarf!
A horrible thought struck him. Had some pirates stayed here in his city? Were his subjects so bruised and bewildered that they had feebly allowed these men to remain amongst them?
It made no sense. Unless … was this treachery? Had Barone Vettorio lied when he said the Sartosans had gone? Did his own courtiers and guards despise him so much that they were willing to hand him over to his enemies? Was he to be given as a hostage until the pirates had whatever else they wanted?
All these thoughts were surely madness. His burning guilt must be broiling his brains and addling his mind. It was the barone who had advised him against challenging the pirates with a force entirely insufficient to defeat them. If any should be blamed for inaction and made a hostage, it should be the barone!
Or did that make no sense? He shook his head in confusion, unable to straighten his thoughts, nor order them sensibly. Who had done what to whom with whose help? And why, oh why had they done it?
There were more people gathered further along. Once again, he stared at his horse’s reins to busy his mind with the act of riding and so avoid looking upon his subjects. The reins were not those of his old pony as he had first thought. Of course not. They could not possibly be – his horse was far too big for them. What had he been thinking?
Then something caught his eye – another gun! More than one! And more vicious looking men. And … unbelievable! The gurning, green face of a goblin, armed with a monstrous handgun decked with a barrel-load of barrels! Worse than that – two goblins [i]and[/i] an orc!
They were there right in front of him, standing among his subjects, who paid them no heed. This was impossible. Was everyone blind?
“Look, look there,” he ordered Sir Ormanno, the royal standard bearer at his side.
Ormanno did not seem to hear him, or perhaps did not want to hear him. Indeed, Ferronso spied a flash of disdain in Ormanno’s face, as if he found the very sound of the king’s voice annoying.
Ferronso felt no anger at this, however, for he was so nonplussed at the presence of greenskins in his city that there was little space left in his thoughts for other concerns.
“How?“ he began. “Why?“ His words faltered. He did not know what to ask, nor who to ask it of. Words failed him entirely.
There was a sudden noise from somewhere within the city. A thunderclap. Yet the sky, though dark, was surely not quite heavy enough for a storm. The came another boom, like the last.
Was it cannon-fire?
His horse seemed oblivious to the sound; his guards ignorant of it. Why could only he hear it? More than this, there were other sounds too that made no sense. He could hear wind and lashing rain, despite there being no such things. And though the people, including the greenskins, stood silent, he could hear shouting too.
I’m not going into the city, he decided, and pulled on the reins. But the reins were rotten and snapped, leaving him clutching their ragged remnants. His company of guards, despite his unvoiced wish to flee, were turning to go into the city; his horse, unyielding to any command and now reinless, was drawn along with them. Before them stood more people, almost a crowd. This time they were pirates all, plain as day, including goblins, brutish orcs and sea dogs clutching every kind of gun.
Why couldn’t his guards see?
Why had Vettorio allowed him to come here? Where was the barone? Everything was wrong. It was obviously not safe to return to the city.
Another boom sounded, startling him. And someone was shouting.
“Wake up sire! Please, hurry!”
There was a man before him, sharply silhouetted by the bright light flashing through the window behind.
“The Sartosans came back, sire. Wake up!”
It was Vettorio’s voice. A peal of thunder followed the flash, the same as the sound in his dream. As soon as Ferronso sat up in his bed, Vettorio took his hands and began hauling him out.
“The storm must have forced them back,” said the barone. “The streets are swarming with them! Hurry, please sire, we must leave. We must get you to safety!”
By Your Leave
Before the Walls of Pavona, Winter IC 2403-4
“Still hungry?” asked Jorien absently as he picked at a spot of rust in his handgun’s pan.
Nikolaas groaned. “Please, not again,” he said. “It’s not funny anymore.”
“I never said it was. But at least it was a new joke when I first said it.”
“What?” asked Nikolaas, shaking his head.
“Well, we’ve never been hungry before in Tilea. The company has always kept our bellies full, ‘til now. Fleshmeat twice a week, sometimes more’n that, fish a-plenty, and if not beer to lull us to sleep and ease our aching limbs, then wine in lieu of it. And not bad wine, either. Even when we took on the orcs and gobs, we always fought with a good breakfast inside us. These last two weeks it’s been biscuit and pottage, in meagre portions, and not scrap of flesh.”
At first, it seemed Nikolaas would not answer, perhaps in protest at Jorien’s annoying joke, but it turned out he was merely pondering things.
“Do you think they have wine?” he asked, pointing at the walls. “And food?”
Jorien looked back at the walls too. “They must have, otherwise they’d have sallied out by now, or someone would have tried to take supplies in. They’ve an army in there, good sized too, as well as all the citizens. That’s a lot of mouths, yet it’s been more than five weeks now and they’ve done nothing but shuffle about on the walls, waving flags now and again.”
“I heard there was some shooting last Tuesday,” said Nikolaas.
“That’s because half a dozen new arrivals were trying to creep in, so the handgunners on the walls wanted to lure our attention elsewhere. The sneaky sods got in quick too, helped by the fact they had little with them – certainly no supplies of any consequence. Besides, the Pavonans [i]can’t[/i] take in supplies when there’s none to be had. They must’ve already taken everything in from miles around while we were trying to cross the river. ‘Twould explain their lack of concern about our blockade.”
Nikolaas shook his head. “I don’t they think they did. I’ve been out scrounging three times now, and good deal off a-ways too. Every place I saw, big or small, looked to have been dead for some considerable time, ghostly-quiet. Wim reckons the ogres razed everything but the city last year and the Pavonans have been suffering ever since. He said that’s why the Pavonans robbed Verezzo.”
“I can’t argue with that,” agreed Jorien. “You only have to look at the walls to see why the ogres didn’t even try to assault the city. They are the most substantial walls I’ve seen in Tilea, and I’ve seen a few.”
“If their land was razed completely,” said Nikolaas. “That’ll mean they’ve had no harvest, nor swine or kine to butcher. They must be living off whatever they robbed from Verezzo. And I doubt that’ll last much longer. They even lost some of the Verezzan loot trying to cross the river before we got to them.”
“Just a matter of waiting, then.”
The two of them fell quiet for a while, staring at the walls, which just happened to be exactly what they were supposed to be doing.
Then Jorien piped up again, “Why do you keep getting picked to go scrounging?”
“Don’t start complaining. I already told you there’s nothing to be had out there.”
Jorien frowned. “It’d get me out of these works for a change of scenery and a stretch of my legs.”
“The sergeant has nothing against you, Jorien. He picks my file because he knows we did a good job the time before.”
“And the time before that. And the time before that,” said Jorien. “At this rate no-one else will ever get to go. I wonder if he’ll pick you to go out when he wants a forlorn hope, what with you proving how good your legs work?”
Nikolaas grinned. “No, he’ll pick your file because he knows you’re good at staying put.”
“Very funny,” said Jorien.
The two of them then noticed a little more movement on the walls than usual and went quiet for a while they watched to see if it looked likely to amount to anything. When nothing much seemed to come of it, Jorien continued the conversation.
“You know, when you think about it, philosophical ‘n all that, we’re here because the Pavonans robbed Verezzo. But if they only did that because the ogres robbed them, then the ogres are the real reason we’re here. You know I’m not the biggest fan of Tileans, but it was the ogres who started this mess.”
“The ogres were always the reason we came north,” said Nikolaas. “Them and the unmentionables. But we’re not here because the Pavonans robbed Verezzo, we’re here because they then told the world that we were the robbers. General Valckenburgh can’t have people slandering him, and the company won’t profit if no-one trusts us to trade with.”
“Then profit’s the real reason, as it always is,” suggested Jorien. “It’s gold that drags us across the world, though we ourselves only ever see silver, and that rare enough. You know, we should be being paid almost full wages right now. They can’t deduct much for meat and drink when it’s little more than biscuit and peas, and while we tarry here, they aren’t giving us shoes in lieu of pay either.”
Nikolaas tutted. “Find a better complaint, Jorien. There’s nothing to spend silver on while we’re stuck in these works. We don’t have to pay for the view.”
“I’ll grant you it is nice to look at.”
As Nikolaas smiled at this they both looked out at the city again. The walls remained strong, which might not have been the case had the VMC’s guns been plying iron against them. Instead, for want of orders rather than powder or shot, the guns had remained almost wholly silent. The gunners had been told to fire upon any who tried to leave or enter, and otherwise do nothing but be ready. A stalemate had thus set in, then dragged on. As it was winter, the northerners in the army, mostly Marienburgers and mercenaries from Middenland, Reikland and Westerland, could at least be thankful they were not too hot, as they surely would have been had it been six months earlier.
“Wait a moment,” said Jorien, suddenly and loud. “What’s all this?”
A little party of men had emerged from one of the sally ports, preceded by an ensign sporting a white flag.
“Looks like someone wants to talk,” said Nikolaas.
“Well they took their bloody time about it,” complained Jorien.
As the party drew close to the siege works, it became clear that Duke Guidobaldo Gondi’s son, Lord Silvano, had been tasked with the negotiations. The armoured nobleman who approached was far too young to be the duke yet was accompanied not just by the white flag of truce but the ducal banner also – apart from the duke, only his heir would be allowed to do so.
Lord Silvano had already acquired fame as a brave commander, a dutiful son and for dedication to the war against the undead, despite his young years, and despite also losing his older brother in the war against Prince Girenzo of Trantio. He was with the holy army serving the arch-lector Calictus when they assaulted Viadaza, and drove the vampire Lord Adolfo from the city, and by all accounts acquitted himself well in the fight. It was his men, along with the enslaved soldiers of Campogrotta, who had murdered the ogres marching with the holy army, but it was generally accepted (as indeed it was by the court martial held at the time) that he was not at all responsible for their actions, neither ordering, assisting or by deliberate inaction allowing them to do what they did. After much of his army was ordered south by his father to help in the war against the tryant Boulderguts’ double army, he himself rode with his Sharlian riders to further assist the arch-lector of Morr, Calictus II, in the holy war. He was at the Second Battle of Ebino when the arch-lector died, having charged deep into the terrible foe and later escaping the field with the mere handful of his elven riders who survived. He made his way south and was reunited with his father just in time to join the Reman/Pavonan allied army that pursued the ogres from Pavona and then prevented their approach on Remas at the bloody Battle of the Diocleta, where he sought the fiercest of the fighting and was badly wounded leading a charge against a body of mournfang mounted brutes. His recovery took several months, in Remas, while his father failed to catch the ogres, but as soon as he could ride in armour again, he joined with the grand alliance army commanded by Lord Alessio of Portomaggiore and was present the Battle of the Valley of Death in the necropolis of Norochia. Only after all this had he returned to Pavona, ordered by his father to do so in case the ogres had circumnavigated the allied army to return southward and finish what they had begun.
When the young lord was brought before General Valckenbugh and his officers, however, he began by saying little of himself or his past deeds, other than that he was his father’s sole surviving son and wished only to serve his father loyally. This elicited much angry muttering from the officers, but Valckenburgh silenced them with a mere look.
“You yourself do have the reputation of being an honourable nobleman, and a courageous fellow to boot,” said the general. “In light of events, I might well have baulked at speaking with your father. As it is you, however, I am willing to listen to what you have to say, despite suspecting it is your father’s words you must deliver. Before you proceed, sir, know that I will not brook one more Pavonan lie. Have a care to speak only that which you know or wholly believe to be the truth.”
Lord Silvano showed no sign of displeasure at the implied accusation. Perhaps once a person has faced the living dead in battle upon repeated occasions, the nervousness or bitterness a meeting like this entails must surely pale in comparison? He simply acknowledged the general’s words with a bow.
The officers of the VMC glowered at him, their anger palpable, especially that of Luccia La Fanciulla, the bearer of the VMC’s blessed Myrmidian standard. Of course, she of all of them, valued honour, discipline and martial prowess. She had as yet barely been able to bring herself to speak of the Pavonan duke’s treachery and lies.
If Lord Silvano noticed, he gave no sign, and began to deliver his speech.
“Good general, by your leave, I would have you know it was my father who originally wrote to Lord Alessio and other Tilean rulers last Autumn to propose an alliance against Bouldergut’s ogres, before Pavona was even attacked. Sadly, but of dire necessity, my father was forced to raze Trantio and several of his own towns in order to deny the ogres the plunder they so desired, after which he then helplessly witnessed almost the entirety of the rest his realm being ravaged, knowing that to attack Boulderguts’ double army with his own weakened force would mean the pointless death of many a brave Pavonan soldier. I confess freely that I myself bear a large portion of the blame, for I had entreated my father to allow me to march away with much of our army in order to join in the arch-lector’s war against the vampires. All my father could do was defend the city itself, successfully ensuring the ogres could see the folly of attempting to storm its sturdy defences.
“My father then joined with the Remans in the war against the ogres, while single-handedly brokering the agreement which saved Remas from being engulfed in a suicidal civil war between the established church and the Disciplinati di Morr, myself being unable to assist at the time. When he marched homeward, he graciously allowed me to join with Lord Alessio’s grand army in the war against the vampires, and to command, once again, the largest part of our army.
“On his journey home my father was required, by necessity of war, to travel near unto the Verezzo. He did not, however, intend to ride through any part of that realm, due to the old animosity between Lord Lucca and himself, which had been exacerbated by Lord Lucca’s insulting slight against my father concerning the nulling of the marriage contract between my noble brother and Lord Lucca’s daughter. Nevertheless, my father cared little for such grudges, what with the dire circumstances of the wars and the much more terrible acts intended by the vampires and ogres. He sought only to return home and to avoid any trouble arising from the old animosity.”
General Valckenburgh raised a finger to silence the lord momentarily.
“I am wholly aware of the constant, internecine rivalries of the Tilean city states,” he said. “If there were not that disagreement, then I do not doubt there would be some other. These are particularities of little interest to me, considering the unforgiveable slight your father made against me and those under my command.”
The young lord simply nodded, apparently unperturbed by the general’s words, nor showing disdain either.
“By your leave, general,” he continued, “I mean to say only that my father was returning to his sorrowful realm, a city surrounded by wasted ruins and fields empty of livestock, believing his last surviving son was many leagues away facing unknown horrors – he could not know of the ease of the victory at Norochia – whilst fearing with the dreadful prospect that vampires, ogres or both might yet attack his beloved realm before he could return to defend it. The last of his concerns was the old rivalry with Verezzo, if he thought of it at all.
“It was then, in this hour of deepest distraction, my father received the report that during mine and his absence from the city, and indeed Lord Lucca’s absence from his own realm, a band of Verezzan brigands had raided and robbed Pavona, taking ruthless advantage of its weakness. It was not a big raid, indeed only a handful of Pavonans died, but the news of it made my father furious – that Verezzans would so cruelly exploit Pavona’s misfortune and at such a dangerous time for the whole of Tilea. Being so close to Verezzo, he decided he must exact immediate revenge for the insult. He knew that were he to inflict merely like-for-like injury it would be seen as a sign of weakness, nor would it serve as a suitable punishment for such a crime, and so he intended to plunder Verezzo of sufficient riches both to recompense for the losses his own realm had suffered and to teach the Verezzans that if ever they were so wickedly bold again they should expect a swift and suitably punishing response.
“Instead of attacking the city of Verezzo itself, my father moved against Spomanti, for he believed that Lord Lucca was, like myself, with the grand alliance army, and could not possibly have been behind the raid, nor even known about it. It had been, by all accounts, Verezzan brigands and so Spomanti seemed to be a more appropriate target.
“For what then happened, good general, my father sincerely offers you, Lord Lucca’s family, the people of Verezzo and holy Morr, an honest and heartfelt apology. The force under my father’s command contained, of military necessity, several companies of mercenaries, including a large body of Reman bravi, who set about plundering Spomanti more thoroughly and cruelly than my father ever intended, and in so doing first spurred and then, by their continued disobedience and the delay it caused, allowed the Verezzans to dispatch a relief force to Spomanti.
“What my father could not know was that Lord Lucca himself was in command of that force, for he fully believed Lord Lucca was still with the allied army to the north.
“The fight that ensued was bloody, and Lord Lucca was slain. When my father was rightly appraised of the matter, he was aghast, even ashamed. He knew that such a mistake would never be believed. He also felt heartily sorry for the poor people of Verezzo, for he was, howsoever unwittingly, responsible for the death of their protector just when the danger was greatest, what with the threat of the vampires and brute ogres.
“Wracked with guilt, my father decided he must help the Verezzans, yet he understood that they would never trust him if they knew he had commanded the very same force that killed their lord. Thus it was, by dire necessity, he had to concoct a story that would engender the Verezzans’ trust, for their own good. When he heard of the claims that the Portomaggiorans were behind the raid (an easy mistake to make what with the similar liveries of the two realms) he realized this might mean the Verezzans would distrust yet another ruler who wished only to protect them. And so, with little time to weigh any other possibilities, nor consider the myriad consequences, he declared it possible that soldiers from your army of the VMC must have been to blame, disguised as Portomaggiorans.”
Every pair of eyes drilled into the young lord in this moment, the VMC officers’ hatred and anger positively palpable. Silvano seemed not to register.
“As you are foreigners,” he said, “the superstitious and ignorant Verezzans would expect no better from you, and in so misdirecting their ire, my father could then do what must be done to help them.
“He knew at the time that it he was issuing a deplorable slur, but he was acting in the midst of war, to help a people he knew already distrusted him, when not to do so could mean their utter destruction. Not only did he need to return home quickly, he needed to convince the Verezzans to travel with him immediately, so that there they might be much better guarded against the several many foes. As such, despite the untruths and slanders necessary to convince the Verezzans to trust him, he believed his ploy to be a desperate gamble worth taking.
“He is now willing to reveal the truth to the world and in so doing clear your name and that of the VMC completely and entirely: That he had fully intended to inflict punishment upon the Verezzans for the crimes against his own people, but that then he lost control of his own forces (admittedly not the Pavonans amongst them, but the base bravi from Remas), and that afterwards he slandered your name in a misguided and desperate attempt to fool the Verezzans into allowing him to guide them to safety.
“My father offers prayers of confession even now, day and night, to most holy Morr, and vows to suffer all the penances the holy priests see fit to prescribe.”
Here Lord Silvano fell silent. His words had no hint of arrogance, nor passion. Instead they had been delivered calmly and unhastily, like a messenger might carefully recount the message he had been instructed to carry; words that were not his own and so could not be used against him.
Van Riekert and his officers had listened to the latter part of his elaborate explanation with stony faces. When the young lord was finally done, the commander of the VMC breathed deeply as he considered what had been said. He then coughed, as if trying to find his voice, and spoke,
“Your … explanation of events paints an unfortunate picture of your father and even worse of his hospitality towards an ally who marches in the field to defend land, lives and property that will profit me not one iota.”
“When news of the insult heaped upon my men reached them, my honest and valiant soldiers, who have taken this land and her people into their hearts, were filled with fury. It took all the discipline of my officers to hold them back from making an immediate assault, which had it been carried would have seen Pavona burn. But that disaster was averted, and it seems time was thus granted to your father, or more certainly for you, to realise the folly of his actions.
“Your father’s offer of apology, and his suggestion to put publicly declare the truth, will do little to salve the wounds done to the reputation of honour of the VMC. Once a lie is released into the world, it will fester in dark corners like vile goblins or ratmen, no matter how much the flame of truth scours the land.”
The tension amongst the officers had, if anything, become greater. They stood more rigid than ever, adopting the formal stances of officers at such a gathering, but with an anticipation that added a tremulousness to their postures, as if it took a great effort merely to stand remain quiet.
“But,” said the general, “my purpose here in the more northern parts of Tilea, away from my duties in Alcante, is to fight a common enemy …” Here he paused a moment, perhaps needlessly because all present hung upon his every word, “… not to be drawn into the internecine rivalries of city states. While the forces I have at my disposal could surely carry this siege, it would serve in the long run only to weaken Tilea’s defences, and thus strengthen the hand of our mutual enemies.”
The disconcertion of his officers was now very visible, as each of them now realised what it was their general was about to do.
“So, Lord Silvano Gondi,” said the general, pointing directly at the Pavonan prince, “On your word of honour, my armies will break camp and get on with the crucial business of making war against the undead and the ratmen …”
Lord Silvano’s face just noticeably registered the slightest sign of surprise at the mention of the ratmen. General Valckenburgh did not seem to notice.
“… but rest assured,” the General continued, “If your word is broken, so shall be the walls and the very back of Pavona.”
Note: Thank you Ant, the player of the PC General Valckenburgh of the VMC, for providing his character’s words!
Leaving Luccini, Again!
(Prequel to How not to Save a King.)
Captain Anssem Van Baas had made his way up to the roof of the building where he, his sea artists and officers were lodged, to watch the rest of the Sartosan army as it marched from the city. His bosun, Moukib Brahimi, having just returned from the ship after overseeing repairs to the rigging, and his master gunner, Harrie Otmann, joined him at the roof’s railed edge.
The Captain had been tasked with guarding both the city and the captured king, as well as perhaps most importantly the enharboured fleet, which was being repaired after the battering it had taken during the recent storm. To minimise the damage, several crews had even had to cut their mainmasts to the board to prevent them being ripped from the ships by the wind! The storm had forced them to return, much against their wishes, to the city they had only just picked clean of every scrap of profitable plunder. While the work of mending was hard, the royal hostage they had gained upon their unexpected return was a welcome gift and potential recompense for their tempestuous troubles.
The three of them were wordless for a little while, as they watched the pirates assembling along the street at their lodging’s front. Anssem’s raggedy, black hat joined with his copious beard to frame the weather-worn and pockmarked flesh of his face. A scarf of yellow silk encircled his waist, wrapped around his long, grey coat. His companions flanked him: his master gunner, wearing a patch to hide the mess that a shiver of the ship’s hull had made of his eye during a firefight seven years ago, and the bosun, a burly Southlander clutching a belaying pin that was more a club than a tool.
“Ha!” laughed Moukib as he looked at the first pirates in the column. “Garique’s handgunners are at the head! No wonder it takes them all so long to leave!”
The captain grinned, for he too had noticed Garique’s men, specifically his mate Goerdt, at the fore. Garique’s Bretonnians called Geordt ‘Jambe de Bois’, while the Estalians called him ‘Pie de Palo’, for obvious reasons. Everyone else in the fleet called him Jambalo, although most knew not why. Anssem pondered what mischievous notion had possessed Admiral Volker to order a one-legged man to the fore? Perhaps there was genius in the decision, for it gave that little bit more time for the wine-addled or sore headed sailors to get in line?
“I still don’t see why so many agreed to go,” said Harrie. “The whole enterprise is a waste o’ time and effort, if you ask me.”
“They were ordered to go, and you have the captain to thank for the fact that we do not go too,” said Moukib.
Anssem was absently scratching at his bearded chin with the iron hook that served as his left hand, a habit which often drew blood, creating the scabs that would, in turn, generate a new itch.
“’Tweren’t my decision to stay,” he said, “despite it being my desire. The admiral wants us here. We’re the strongest crew and the one he can trust. He wants to keep his eye on the rest of ‘em.”
“If those lads come back mauled and bloody,” said Harrie, pointing dramatically at the men below, “then they’ll bear a mighty grudge against Volker. The best he can hope for is that they scare the Luccinans off easily and complain only of the time it took to do so. If they suffer unnecessarily then for certain it’ll be the end of his admiralcy.”
“Volker only fights when he needs to,” argued Moukib.
“But he don’t need to fight this time,” said Harrie. “The Luccinans haven’t even attacked! They’re too weak to do so. We have their baby king yet still they squat in the hills too afraid to do anything about it. They’re not going to attack us, so why pick a fight with them? I say why trouble ourselves over anything that ain’t pursuit o’ gold, silver or anything else worth having?”
“Our army marches to protect the gold we already have,” said Moukib. “The enemy might be weak, but they have waited some time now, while we cannot leave until the fleet is made fit to sail. You have to ask what they are waiting for? If they cannot beat us, then why do they not leave? They must be waiting for help. The admiral intends to scatter them before that help arrives.”
Anssem was nodding. “We are not the only ones to have banded together. This is a time of grand alliances, with city joining city to defend against the vampires and ogres.”
“Don’t sound like a good time for us to start a-raiding then,” suggested Harrie.
“No, it is the best time,” said Moukib. “Because their grand alliances have failed so far. Now they are allied out of desperation and even when marching together they are weak. Besides, when they leave to fight in the north, no-one is left behind to defend their homes.”
“Except there is an army out there in the hills, however small it might be, and men will die fighting them. I still say it’s a waste. There’s no-one coming to help them. No-one cares. We have their king and they cannot do anything about it. But honour means they cannot leave either.”
“They can do something! They can pay us for their king,” suggested Moukib.
“That they cannot do, Mouk” said Harrie. “I doubt there’s a Luccinan left with even a copper token to offer up for a ransom.”
The Sartosans had ransacked the city and the surrounding realm more expertly and thoroughly than even brutes or greenskins could have done.
“The soldiers could find the gold,” said Moukib.
“I doubt that,” said the captain. “They’re not returning from a war of conquest, laden with plunder. They’re returning from an already ruined land, after fighting the living dead. They’ve nothing to give us. Harrie is right, Mouk, they cannot pay and they cannot retake their city. We should just let them be. Would you ram a wounded sea serpent just because it swam close to your ship?”
Moukib chortled dismissively. “If the army is a wounded sea serpent, then it is an infant. They have little more than two regiments, one gun and the king’s doddering uncle to command them.”
“Don’t be so sure the fight will be easy,” said Harrie. “They’ve dug themselves some fine earthworks at a carefully chosen spot, and they have grown in strength.”
“How so? No other armies have come to their aid.”
“You have been working too hard, Moukib my friend,” said Harrie. “Your thoughts have been all a-tangled in cables and lines. We found out two days ago that they now have a large body of men who fled Luccini when we returned, and even a few of the King’s mounted guards who escaped.”
“Ha! And you had me worried!” laughed Moukib. “Such as they count for nothing. Cowardly peasants who fled without a fight and steel-clad noblemen so noble they forgot to guard their king! Their sort add weakness to an army, not strength.”
“Let’s hope so,” said the captain, “for all these lads’ sakes!”
For whatever reason, down in the street march had faltered a while, but the pirates now began to move again.
“Moukib,” said the captain, pointing down at the boy lugging a bucket alongside the marchers, “you should take a leaf from little Janneken’s book. He don’t look worried.”
“Aye. He’s got other things to worry about,” said Harrie. “I told him last time that when he brings water there ought to be more than a spoonful left in the bucket when he arrives. Woe betide the lad if he spills it all again.”
“You’re too hard on the boy,” said Captain Anssem. He’s a good ‘un. Too small to carry that bucket, mind you, but he’s run through more’n one firefight with charges for the guns, his ear’s a-bleeding last time too.”
The army was beginning to move off properly now, and more and more were turning onto the street.
The van was mostly made up of deck gunners, many armed with handguns. The Sartosans, like the VMC (of whom a good proportion were also from Marienburg) favoured the use of powder in battle, both on land and sea. They had wagons to carry several artillery pieces hauled from their ships, as the gun’s diminutive trucks were incapable of travelling the roads. One small company struggled along with swivel guns. Even those among them without a ranged firearm of some kind, of which there were several large bodies expected to engage the foe in melee, were festooned with pistols, whether they be human, dwarf or even goblin, although the latter had a tendency to cause harm with their pistols not only to the enemy but also to themselves.
They also had a predilection for the more exotic kinds of guns, with an entire company armed with blunderbusses, and several, like Jambalo, carrying multi-barrelled oddities designed to allow the firer to shoot rapidly, for instead of reloading all they had to do was twist the next pre-loaded barrel in place. Needless to say, perhaps, these mechanically extravagant guns were not the most reliable pieces in the pirates’ arsenal.
Before long Admiral Volker’s own crew, who bore the brunt of the fighting during the initial capture of the city, were marching into view, being in the centre of the column. Captain Anssem espied the orc Gudyag, who had proved himself one of the admiral’s most loyal crewmen.
Gudyag, like several other orcs in Volker’s fleet, had been of Scarback’s Greenskin Corsairs, being separated from the orc admiral’s fleet during the storm which drove most vessels onto the rocks along the Caretello coast. Gudyag’s ship had been forced south, running before the wind while the crew cursed the cliffs on the lee shore as if foul language might convince the rocks to shy away! Once the storm subsided, he and his crewmates presumed the rest of the corsairs, Scarback included, must surely have perished when wrecked. Gudyag later discovered that Scarback and a good portion of his corsairs had survived and were in the paid service of Portomaggiore, but like almost every one of his crewmates he now signed a Sartosan commodore’s articles. Choosing to stay with the Sartosans was a decision he was later glad of when he learned of the Greenskin Corsairs’ massacre at the hands of Khurnag’s Waagh! Those who now remained of Gudyag’s original crewmates were scattered throughout Volker’s fleet, serving different captains, partly because they struggled to get on with each other partly because the Sartosans did not want too many burly orcs serving in any one particular crew.
An exception had been made for the goblin boss Bagnam Fark, for although he commanded a large ship and a full greenskin crew, they were almost all goblins, and the Sartosans found it hard to imagine that they could cause anything but minor annoyance to Volker’s fleet should they become troublesome. Fark had an unusual way with words and had haggled his way into serving with the fleet. Admiral Volker seemed to have the notion that having the goblin boss in his fleet would come in useful, although exactly how, whether strategic, tactical, diplomatic or for some other reason, only the admiral knew. Captain Anssem now pondered whether the goblins were included in the fleet for just such a situation as this, for who better to throw against the earthwork defences of a stubborn and desperate foe than goblins? While the Sartosan men, dwarfs and orcs poured lead-shot into the mix, the goblin mob could fight their way into the defences. If they failed, nothing of importance had been lost. If they succeeded, then well and good. And either way, the more casualties they suffered, the better.
As the rag-tag army passed by below, several of the marching pirates glanced up at the three men watching them from the roof.
Anssem did not need to be able to see their faces clearly to know that they wore angry expressions. Most in the fleet were of a like mind with Harrie. Very few were keen on fighting the remnant Luccinan army when there was no loot to be gained. Having to pass by the captain of the one crew ordered to stay in the city was like rubbing salt in their wounds.
“I’ve seen enough,” said the Captain. “Let’s go below.”
Next Installment: Part 27