How Not to Save a King!
(A dramatised Battle Report)
Winter 2403-4, North-East of Aversa
It was a crisply cold day when the Sartosan fleet’s army arrived before the Luccinans’ fortified camp in the rolling hills where the westernmost reaches of Sussurio Forest peter out. Admiral Volker’s entire strength was not present, for he had left Captain Ansselm and his crew back in Luccini to guard the fleet and the captured king. As soon as he saw the enemy’s camp and less than impressive force with his own eyes, he was satisfied that his decision to split his army had been sound.
The admiral was personally in command of his own crew, their number diminished by the short but bloody fighting of weeks before when Luccini was taken. By his side was his personal standard, the same design as his ship’s ensign – bleached bones crossed behind a skull atop a cutlass. The fleet’s most powerful sorcerer, Adus Arcabar, accompanied him, using his staff more as a badge of office and occasional walking stick than a focus for sorcerous energies. Still, with a battle about to be joined, no doubt magic would soon begin flowing through it.
Arcabar’s able apprentice, Esorin Vedus, had sprinted away from his master’s side a few moments before to clamber up a nearby mound, all the better to observe the enemy camp.
Upon the admiral’s right was the newly formed body of pikemen, who were being subjected to a veritable torrent of corrective orders and criticisms from their Marienburger sergeant. Having once served in the city-state’s army, the sergeant was well-aware how badly they compared to a trained regiment of Tilean militiamen, never mind the professional condottiere regiment that the scouts had reported spotting in the enemy army. At least he could hope the Sartosan pirates’ firepower would make up for the discrepancy in skill at arms, and indeed behind the pikemen, set upon raised ground so that they could shoot over the main battle line, was one of the army’s brace of guns and one of its two companies of swivel gunners.
To the admiral’s immediate left was Bagnarm Farq’s goblin crew. Fifty in number, they vastly outnumbering Volker’s little company. Farq himself was at the fore, dressed in the long, braided coat he had won in a game of bones and the gold trimmed, cocked hat he took from the very same gamester after the duel they fought when the fellow accused Farq of cheating. Considerably more noise came from the goblins than from the pikemen, for while only the one irritable sergeant could be heard among the men, almost every goblin was keen to whoop, yell and ululate in a peculiarly inharmonious manner, a confusion made all the more discordant by the occasional blast of their musician’s horn and the peppered cracks as pistols were excitably discharged into the sky.
Two bodies of deck gunners formed the other elements of the battle-line. Captain Jamaar Garique’s crew had moved up in front of the second gun, which like its counterpart had been placed upon a low hill. Garique’s pirates mostly wielded long handguns, apart from the captain’s one-legged mate Jambalo who cradled his many-barreled muskatoon.
The rest of Admiral Volker’s crew were out on the far-left flank of the line, armed with blunderbusses. Their master was the black-bearded dwarf Hurmaes, who made a point of not being bothered by the fact that only the two goblins in the company were shorter than him. One of the men was so tall he was known as Long Jack, being nearly a bald-head taller than all others in the company, but only because the great orc Draja, despite being more than twice as heavy, was bent almost double, so that his head seemed to grow out of his chest rather than his shoulders.
Draja lugged a mighty blunderbuss bigger than a ship’s espingole – a wide-muzzled, swivel gun that would have to be mounted on stanchions if a man were to attempt to fire it. He called it ‘Mine’. Once, when asked why he called it that, he had simply said, “Because it is.” Over the years, Draja had suffered several, self-inflicted injuries as a consequence of his general clumsiness – he lost an eye to the flash of an over-charged pan and obliterated his foot entirely when he squeezed the trigger at just the wrong moment. Even so, his love for it remained true and the bloodthirsty excitement he got from discharging it had diminished not one jot. Luckily, he was not known for nimbleness and his companions nearly always had sufficient time to get out of his way when he hefted it to give fire. Several of those who had hesitated, or just failed to notice him bringing the piece to bear, were no longer part of the company. When the rest of his crew told tales of what ‘Mine’ had done over the years, Draja usually just sat grunting, “Hur, hur, hur!” whilst affectionately patting the gun by his side.
The second little company of swivel gunners had found a little sheep pen to fortify themselves in, and now waited, with lit match cords, for the larger pieces to fire as that was the sign to loose their own first volley of heavy lead-shot.
The remnant army of Luccini was drawn up behind its earthwork defences. They had but one piece of artillery, ensconced in a semi-circle of earth filled gabions, by which their small regiment of professional pike stood.
Although the pikemen had not fought in years, they had marched many a mile fir many a month until finally camping here in the hills. They had been present at the Battle of the Valley of Death, but had done little more there than spectate as the guns big and small had torn into enemy sufficiently to convince even the undead that to stay would be madness. Here, however, it seemed inevitable that they would engage the foe, unless, as some of them had darkly muttered, the Sartosans’ guns proved as effective as their own had in the necropolis valley.
Upon the other side of the piece was one half of the peasant militia that had been formed from those who had escaped the city and the surrounding realm when the Sartosans landed to begin their depredations. They had arrived at the camp for want of anywhere else to go, and General Marsilio had made it clear that if they were to stay then this time they must be prepared to fight. He could not arm them, however, for he no longer had access to the city’s magazine, and so while some had weapons of war such as spears and fighting axes, and one or two had swords, just as many again were armed with nothing more than pitchforks, scythes, cudgels or knives.
The other half of the peasant militia (they had been divided on the general’s orders so that they might better man the defences) were on the far right of the camp’s front, with the condottiere crossbowmen between them and the pike regiment.
The wizard Duke Ercole Perrotto, uncle to the captured King Ferronso, watched from the defences in between the pike and the crossbow, whilst behind him was General Marsilio and the few remaining royal bodyguard who had pledged to fight to the last as a penance for the fact that they had allowed the king to be taken by the pirates.
Captain Girhur Brewaxe and his dwarf sea dogs had struck out to the left as the Sartosan army made its approach, so that they could now advance upon the camp’s flank.
Girhur carried a club carved with a magical rune that added an unnatural strength to its blows, more than compensating for the fact that his lack of a left hand meant he could only wield it one-handed. His compass was also magical, stolen from an Arabyan corsair, and possessed the mystical power to guide its user in many more ways than a needle of iron fed with lodestone could ever do. Indeed, it was the compass that had allowed him and his dogs to move so close to the enemy so quickly, despite having had to travel a wide arc to get there.
Behind the palisade, the wizard duke moved over to stand with the crossbowmen and watch the enemy deploying with a heavy heart. Only luck, he thought, could grant him victory today, for nothing else was in their favour.
He did not feel lucky.
Yet there was nothing else he could have done. His nephew, the king, was the pirates’ prisoner, and the city was theirs too. He could neither retake the city nor leave, for he lacked the strength to do the former and was too honourable to do the latter. Nor could he rescue the king by other means – the enemy had magicians of their own, and capable ones at that. They would no doubt sense whatever spells he conjured to assist a party of rescuers, and then both they and a large army of pirates would be roused to put a stop any attempt made. All he had was the remote hope that, despite the wars against both vampires and ogres, someone would send some sort of force to assist them. Perhaps the Portomaggioran ruler Lord Alessio might do so? He had attended the king’s crowning and seemed even to like Duke Ercole’s nephew somewhat. Yet even that was made unlikely due to fact that Lord Alessio was currently marching north to face the vampires, many hundreds of leagues distant. First the news had to reach him and then whatever relief he dispatched would have to travel all the way to Luccini.
Duke Ercole’s thoughts were interrupted by a sudden crunch and violent motion along the earthworks to his left. He turned to see a rapidly rising cloud of dirt and debris, from which a man staggered screaming, his shirt bloodied, accompanied by the booming sound of the enemy’s guns. It seemed the enemy’s iron-shot had traveled quicker than the noise of their firing! He tried to recall what had been there moment’s before, then as the debris tumbled down, he saw it was their own gun, or, more accurately, what remained of it, for one of its wheels had been smashed to pieces and the rest of the crew had been felled by the strike. Both he and the crossbowmen were momentarily stunned into inaction, even as the sound of the enemy’s other guns rattled out and splinters of the wattle fencing holding their walls of rubble together span through the air.
They had lost their gun before it had even fired one shot!
The sound of gunfire ended abruptly, and after a moment’s silence, a cheer went up from the enemy and their entire line began to advance. The duke then gasped as he sensed a coiling burst of magical energy sizzling in his vicinity. He had been too distracted to sense it a moment earlier, and now had insufficient time to counter it. He heard screaming from behind and turned to see three of last surviving mounted nobility of the king’s bodyguard slide off their mounts to crash heavily onto the ground. General Marsilio and the standard bearer’s own horses were considerably perturbed by this turn of events and as they bucked their riders allowed the reaction to turn into a canter towards the gate on the flank of the camp’s defences. The general had spied the advancing dwarfs.
Duke Ercole returned his attention to the enemy. As the men around him hefted their crossbows to loose a volley at the pirates with Admiral Volker, he conjured a curse to fall upon the same body. Moments later it was Volker’s turn to be surprised, for in a a matter of seconds his already diminished crew had been thoroughly decimated yet again!
As Girhur and his dogs now drew close to the defences …
… the peasant militia had noticed their movement, as well as that of their own general. The leader, an old wheelwright (no less than master of the city’s guild of wheelwrights), pointed and announced that if the general was going to charge to dwarfs, then they would too!
As the general and his lone companion rode their barded horses through the gate, the peasants clambered over the defensive fence and began hurtling towards Captain Girhur and his dwarfs.
The dwarfs fired their pistols with practised skill against the two riders, but their shot was insufficiently powerful to pierce the steel armour encasing men and horses.
As bullets pinged off its metal carapace, General Marsilio’s horse picked up speed and began thundering directly towards Girhur, whose eyes widened as he realized the force of the blow he was about to receive!
The horse battered into the dwarf to send him reeling and the general struck a deep blow with his sword, cutting Girhur’s face, then drew the blade back to thrust it right through the dwarf’s throat. It took the rest of the dwarfs a moment to realize their captain was dead, for they were occupied with the easy slaughter of the peasants, whose charge had been considerably less damaging than the general’s. Once they knew, a fury gripped them. Fury, however, did not make their legs longer, so when the surviving peasants turned to flee, as did the general now that the impetuous of his charge was spent, the dwarfs could not catch them!
The condottiere pike now steadied themselves as the enemy drew close. Some in the rear ranks witnessed General Marsilio’s flight, and a muttering spread through the regiment concerning whether or not they too should run. Why die for a cause when it is not only almost certainly lost but it is not your own? They fought for pay, not for the honour of Luccini. They saw to their left that their Sartosan counterparts had now engaged the peasants at the fence line …
… and it was immediately apparent that the enemy pike would feel little real resistance. To their right they saw that round-shot had smashed a substantial gap in the defences, killing several of the crossbowmen and a few of the peasants who had moved from the camp to stand near them.
Captain Bagnar Farq’s goblins were marching right up to that gap …
… while the last of the crossbowmen and even Duke Ercole were now running away. The duke, not exactly spritely for his age, was not quick. Looking through the gap, the smartly dressed goblin Captain Farq could see the enemy wizard clearly and raised his cutlass as a sign that his crew should halt.
Loudly, he shouted, “Watch dis, lads!” and stepped forwards from the body to aim.
Pointing right at the wizard, with the confidence of knowing his magical bullets never missed …
… he pulled the trigger and watched with glee as the bullet did indeed strike the wizard. The evil grin was soon wiped from his face, however, when he saw that the wizard had not been killed and was still running.
“Bugger!” he shouted as he fumbled to find his powder flask to prepare for the next shot.
(Game Note: Auto hit, Strength 5 magical pistol, against a wizard already reduced to one wound due to enemy magic and shooting. The player rolled a 1 to wound!)
As the peasants broke on one side of them and the goblins now rushed past their captain (still fiddling with his pistol) to pour through the gap upon the other side, the pikemen dropped their eighteen foot burdens and joined in the general flight.
No-one was going to rescue King Ferronso today!
New Friends and no Rest for the Wicked
An Alley, Somewhere in Tilea, Winter, IC 2403-4
Baldassarr had known the meeting would not be pleasant. He had never heard anything good about the ratto uomo, only that they were foul, lice-ridden creatures, with invariably murderous intent. Yet despite the fear and disgust he knew he would most likely experience, he was sufficiently desperate to seek their assistance, for it was indeed murder he had in mind.
Why they had chosen to help him, he did not really know. His accomplice in crime, Naldo, had arranged the meeting, promising that he could trust them. They had apparently assisted Naldo with his own problem, being that of a rival cutpurse who had moved in on his domain. When Baldassar questioned their motive, Naldo had simply answered,
“The enemy of their enemy is their friend.”
“I can’t see why the ratto uomo bear some grievance against the Besutio gang,” said Baldassar.
His friend laughed as if the reason was obvious. “Everyone hated the Besutios!”
Right now, having laid eyes on the creature for the first time, he was having second thoughts on his choice of new ‘friends’.
At first glance, the creature seemed to be half his size, but when he considered its squatting, hunched posture, he realised it was most likely at least as heavy as him, if not heavier. Its face was almost exactly like a rat’s, but its body and limbs much more like a man’s, albeit with a horribly large, fleshy tail sprouting from its back and matted fur covering much of the rest. It was clothed in little more than a ragged over-sized hood and had half a ratto uomo skull clamped oddly over the right-side of its long face. What had drawn Baldassar’s attention immediately, however, were the four heavy blades apparently sprouting from its clawed hands.
He could not help but stare at them, and in so doing saw that they were bandaged to the back of the creature’s hands, leaving its fingers free to clutch and unclutch beneath. When the creature spoke he almost jumped with shock, not because of the strangeness of hearing a giant rat speak, or even the lilting timbre of its gravelly voice, but because whatever had intruded so suddenly into his nervous gaze upon the blades would have had the same effect.
“Balda-Baldasssssar?” said the creature, its coarse tongue fluttering in a quiver to hiss every sibilant component of its words. “Friend-accomplice of Naldo, yesss?”
“I am,” he said, unsure whether he should ask for the creature’s name – to do so seemed as preposterous as asking a dog or rat.
“You are, are you?” came the response as the creature looked him up and down with its red, seemingly pupil-less eyes. “No sharp-ssword? No pissstol? Yes?”
Baldassar felt his throat tighten and stomach knot as he wondered why it was asking him this. Then he remembered Naldo had told him to take nothing but a small knife.
“Only my knife,” he said, tapping the hilt protruding from behind his belt bag and beginning to wonder if he had made more than one very bad decision.
“Always knives, yess of course, always those,” said the creature, whilst its own four blades twitched and scraped, perhaps ensure Baldassar kept them in mind.
“Naldo said …” began Baldassar, then faltered.
“I know Naldo said-spoke this and that. I listened-heard,” said the creature. “You have enemies, nastiness, yess? You want to cow-rule your corner of the nesst? With our aid-help you can-will. Naldo has his choice-pick of purses – no interference, no troublesome worries. Now you too, yess, want rid of trouble?”
Baldassar nodded. “The Scarria Brothers have been taking what is mine. People are paying them not me …”
The creature raised the back of one of its blades to its lips, as if to shush him.
“So ssad. Poor you. You want all the gold, yes?” The creature grinned, revealing its large, horribly sharp teeth. “You want me to slice-cut; chop and chop Sciarra into rot-corpses?”
“You could just scare them,” suggested Baldassar.
“No, not enough. Never enough. I kill-remove, yess? Then they are gone for good.”
“That would work too.”
“Yess. Best for all. You will be happy-glad, and I will feel satisfied in a job well done.”
“What of payment?” asked Baldassar. “What do you want from me in return?”
“Do not worry-concern yourself,” said the creature. “Naldo knows. You become my good friend, and when I need-require, you return the favour, yess?”
Baldassar frowned. “You want me to assassinate someone?”
The creature gave out a sound, part cackle, part giggle, yet wholly horrible to hear.
“No, no. I can always kill, easy, quick. You help, yess? You find, you open, you lure, you reassure. I am happy-willing to do the rest. No blood-mess for you.”
“Who do you want to kill?” asked Baldassar, immediately regretting his question.
“Later, my friend. So many choices to make. Put it from your mind-thoughts. These are things for me to worry about. Yess?”
“Now,” continued the creature, “you tell me where and you tell me when, then all your desire-dreams come true.”
How to Fortify Against Death Itself?
Winter, IC 2403-4
South of the river Tarano, near the Bridge of Pontremola
“How are the works coming on?” asked Chimento Gagliardi, Lord Alessio’s chief clerk.
The siege master Guccio de Ieroldis looked up from the little book he had been studying, in which his predecessor had recorded all sorts of useful advice concerning the construction of a fortified camp. He had been so deep in thought he had not even noticed the clerk’s approach.
“Ahh, Master Chimento,” he said. “Well enough, although more labourers would speed the process.”
“I have it on good authority you already have every available soldier,” said the clerk. “Those not here are busy guarding or scouting, as entirely necessary. Or resting, again a necessity. We must have a substantial force in perpetual readiness in case of an attack.”
The clerk wore a sleeveless fur lined gown, with paned sleeves on his doublet, all dyed in fashionably rich reds and purples. Only his velvet cap was in the quartered blue and white of Portomaggiore – his one concession to his current role. He was several inches shorter than Guccio, a fact exaggerated by the siege-master’s tall hat.
“Could we not have placed our earthworks closer to the river?” inquired Guccio. “For then we might have employed the water as a ready-made moat, improving our defences considerably? And we would have completed much sooner with a natural barrier already in place.”
“It was discussed in the council of war, but Lord Black thought it to be a foolish notion – that it might allow the undead to advance under cover of the water and so draw very close to our works before our bullets and bolts could thin their numbers.”
“I didn’t think of that,” admitted Guccio.
“Few did. Luckily we have Lord Black.”
“Aye, we do,” agreed Guggio. “Did no one in the council point out that should the river continue to flow so strongly, as to be expected in winter, that a good proportion of the undead so immersed would be washed away and thus never reach our walls?”
Master Chimento gave no immediate answer. Indeed, outwardly he seemed entirely unperturbed by the notion. Perhaps, thought Guccio, this is one of the reasons he has risen in Lord Alessio’s service? Finally, he did speak.
“I believe if we ensure they cannot pass over the bridge then they will indeed have to cross the river. Perhaps then, as you say, a good number will be washed away. Whatever force does emerge upon our side, we can then shoot.”
“I heard the city of Ebino is moated,” said Guccio, hoping to move the conversation on from the uncomfortable place he had taken it.
“Yes, it has both a deep moat and substantial walls. Not at all an easy prospect for assault. Lord Black saw it for himself and believes there was something stirring in the moat.”
“And thus Lord Black’s concern?”
“Yes.” There was the faintest trace of irritation in the clerk’s answer. “I was sent to ask what more needs to be done, and how long exactly until completion?”
“As you can see, the towers are finished, which is a good thing considering there’s no more suitable timber left. We are almost done here with the last of the earthworks. There’s a few stretches of earthworks yet to be dug, and quite a bit of palisading yet to be done, as you can see, but the stakes are cut and ready to be placed. I’d say sometime the day after tomorrow. Unless, of course, the general orders a modification or extension.”
“He might,” said the clerk, peremptorily.
“Oh. Is this not satisfactory?”
“There may well be more armies on their way to join us. Attacking the duchess and her foul legions is not something to be undertaken lightly, or when ill-prepared. Too many have come close to victory only to fail because the enemy escaped. We had a much greater force in Norochia Valley, and inflicted a great slaughter upon them, as did our riders to the north, yet still too many of them got away.”
Guccio nodded gravely. “They say that in the arch-lector’s battle not far from here, despite hundreds being cut down by the first charge, they simply got back onto their feet to fight on.”
“‘It is the nature of the foe to do so,” warned the clerk. “This time we must prevent their escape. Not one vampire can be allowed to leave the field. We must overwhelm them; destroy them entirely. Only then will our further advance northwards be bearable.”
Meanwhile, Another Conversation
“You reckon this is almost the last of it then?” said Fede, as he leaned upon his spade.
“I do,” said Berto, still shovelling soil. “We turned a corner yesterday. There’s nowhere else to go. As soon as the palisade’s up along the full length, it has to be done.”
“Good, ‘cos my back’s aching like never before and the blisters on my hands burn something rotten.”
“Better than the alternative,” Berto said.
Fede wiped his furrowed brow. “What?” he asked, bemused. “Better than marching about a bit or sitting by the fire warming our feet?”
Berto laughed. “No, better than going up ladders to face living corpses harbouring deadly intent.”
“Well, true,” admitted Fede. “Except now that we’ve built this and the corpses know we’re not going to attack the city, won’t they come to us anyway?”
Berto rolled his eyes. “Don’t ask me. I don’t know. Chances are, they don’t know either. In which case, nobody knows.”
“Funny,” said Fede. “D’you at least know where Cola and Bandino are, ‘cos by my reckoning it’s their turn to do some shovelling.”
“Cola went off to fetch more stakes, but Bandino’s over there by the wagon”.
Berto stopped work for a moment and pointed behind Fede. “See that boy you laughed at on the way over?”
Fede turned his head. “The skinny lad with the painted helm and the ill-fitting plackart.”
“And no other armour?” added Berto. “Yes, him.”
Fede snorted, as he had done when he first laid eyes on the boy. “I seriously doubt anyone in this world is less well equipped to strike fear into the undead foe than that boy.”
“Not gonna argue,” said Berto, recommencing his shovelling. “Look to the boy’s right.”
“Oh yes, there he is. What’s he doing?
“Call of nature!”
“He’s taking his time over it.”
“Well, it’s like he says, if a job’s worth doing …”
Fede laughed again. “I’d agree with him, if he was over here doing the job he’s meant to be doing.”
Berto paused again, this time with a serious look writ upon his face.
“D’you think they’ll come?” he asked.
“Aye, they will. It’s what they do. They can’t help themselves.”
“Hopefully, after we’ve finished.”
Next Installment: Part 28