Northern Tilea, Spring 2404
They made their way along the lesser-known paths in the woods, some of which were so well hidden that they had to push their way through the undergrowth to access them. Their new friends asked them not to cut the branches as they did so. Once they were on the secret sylvan byways, however, they were able to ride at a pace. Captain Gesualdi had informed Perrette that some of the paths, the wider and more level ones, were the remains of ancient roads from the time when Remas ruled the entire peninsula and many lands beyond. The stonework had long since sunk beneath the ground, but for considerable stretches there was a surprising lack of trees, even saplings, to hinder them. She began to suspect this was not by chance, and that their new companions had a hand in ensuring these passageways remained relatively clear, all the better to enable speedy, secretive forays.
Having met their new friends a week ago, Perette and the last of her Brabanzon had spent most of the intervening time searching for any other comrades who had escaped the assault on Ravola, with some success. She now had with her most of the company’s riders, a small band of archers and a handful of the camp followers. She was afraid that no-one else had escaped. They had failed to find even one of the young baron’s retinue of knights. It pained her to think of the poor souls she and the baron had led to the city, and all the others who came there when told it was safe to return now that the ogres were gone. A surprising number had come out of hiding, bedraggled and thin, like wilderness hermits on the edge of starvation. All these were now most likely suffering cruelties at the ratmen’s clawed hands. Horrifying as the thought was, it occurred to her that perhaps the best they could hope for was a quick death, being butchered for their flesh. During the fight she had seen several monstrous creatures amongst the enemy’s number that bore horrible scars and blemishes, with patches of iron somehow riveted onto their very skin, even piercings to allow intestine-like tubes to penetrate their bodies! If they could do that to their own kind, what might they do to prisoners? Better death than such mutilation.
Every night since the flight she had slept badly, even when her new friends had offered her relative safety. She would toss and turn for two hours or so as her mind raced, considering what she could and should have done different, and when she finally slipped into brief, fretful sleep she dreamt only of the battle. She had come to Tilea expecting to face ogres, ostensibly to assist in the reclamation of a realm for a less cruel master and to save what poor souls had been enslaved by the brutes. When that work had been done, however, she had first learned that vampires were also ravaging great swathes of Tilea, and had then, only weeks after ridding Ravola of ogres, been driven from the city by an army of ratmen. This land had been cursed thrice over!
Although it was less than a year ago, it felt like a decade since Perrette had departed Bretonnia. When she set off to cross the high pass into Tilea, she merely wanted to escape Bretonnia, to put her old life behind her and find a new, hopefully better one. Joyously carousing with the Brabanzon one raucous night she found them to be better company than either peasants or noblemen, and not at all as uncouth and callous as one might expect of such a mercenary band. Indeed, she had discovered that the Brabanzon, at least those there that night, possessed an unexpected yet welcome decency, however deeply concealed beneath their swaggering bravado, cruel jests and coarse language. When they told her they were employed to travel to Tilea she had not hesitated in choosing to go with them, despite having no contract herself. Leaving Bretonnia as little better than a camp follower, since the second assault on Campogrotta (and by the Brabanzon’s own choosing) she had come to command the whole company. At least, what was left of it now.
The Brabanzon’s new allies were a mysterious bunch, whose number she had yet to estimate, nor had she ascertained who truly commanded them. The particular band they travelled with had a leader, being the burly Captain Valfrido Gesualdi, but although he had said nothing concerning the matter, something told her that he served another. The name they called themselves – the Arrabbiati, or ‘Angry Ones’ – she had heard during her brief time in Campogrotta when one of the city’s inhabitants had asked her if the reason the Arrabbiati were not amongst the army was because the dwarfs refused to accept their help. During the short conversation that followed she had learned that during the Campogrottans’ time as slaves of Boulderguts’ ogres there had been several incidents of sabotage and assassination against the brutes and it had been generally believed that the Arrabbiati had been behind the deeds. For more than a decade, the brigand band had earned a reputation amongst the common, labouring folk for robbing the most arrogant and tyrannical of the nobility and the greediest of the merchant families – leaving nothing behind but bodies and whichever of their red-fletched arrows had snapped. What with Boulderguts being the very worst of tyrants, his man-eating brutes the most merciless of oppressors, then surely, said her informant, the Arrabbiati would target them? Although at the time she thought it sounded like wishful thinking, it seemed likely that for want of anyone else to rob a band of outlaws might be forced to rob instead from the ogres. Later she learned that they might indeed possess some truly noble motivations, for it was said they been decimated when they had ridden out of nothing but love for the Duchess Maria (regarded as an enlightened and fair ruler, before she became a vampire) to assist in the fight against the vampire Duke Alessandro’s army.
A broad-shouldered man, with a chin as wide as his cheeks, Captain Gesualdi was armed with a bow like the rest of his men but had a scarf about his head instead of a helmet. Like his entire company, he wore dark clothes – his tunic being a dull shade of purple, his scarf burgundy.
Back in Campogrotta Perrette heard one inhabitant refer to the Arrabiatti as the Brotherhood of the Shadows, and it seemed they were indeed suitably dressed to lurk unseen during their nocturnal and crepuscular activities. Some of their horses, however, were white, so either they only hid in shadows when creeping about on foot, or the habit was an affectation to suit their reputation, or, and this surely was most likely, they were loath to waste good horses when they got them.
Their standard was that of a wolfshead, argent upon a sanguine field.
Their modus operandi indicated that this was not a wolf like the white one of Middenland – the forever brawling, bloody, winter wolf of Ulric. Instead, this was a hungry wolf, carefully choosing which prey to stalk and howling at the moon when there were none for miles to hear. The Arrabiatti disparagingly called it the mutt. When the mutt was mounted, they all had to make ready to move. Twice now she had heard them say, ‘Meet at the mutt’, an action made all the easier by the fact that the company’s horn blower always travelled with their standard bearer. Of course, the horn had a sound like a wolf howling.
Now Perette had met them, they seemed so far to warrant their heroic reputation. ‘Goodfellows all,’ they had called themselves at their first encounter, and they did not hesitate to help her and the fleeing Brabanzon. They had offered victuals and shelter, then assisted in the finding of the other Brabanzon survivors. Now they were guiding them by way of these obscure paths away from the city to put them safely on the road back to Campogrotta. In return, they had asked for nothing – at least, not yet. Her own Brabanzon would also have found it in them to help strangers in need, but the matter of remuneration would definitely have been broached long before now! Captain Gesualdi had even gifted her a coat of scale armour which he said would not interfere with her magics for it had once been the property of a wizard. When she asked how it had come into his possession, he answered with a grin that she should not look a gift horse in the mouth.
Three days before, with surely little prospect of profit from a city that had nothing of value left in it when they arrived, and with even less now that the ratmen had infested and consumed it, the captain had dispatched several of his men to scout much closer to the city, out of concern that the ratmen might be preparing to march from the city. She offered some of her own soldiers to accompany the Arrabbiati scouts, for they had recent knowledge of the lay of the land, but Gesualdi had insisted that his men knew the area like the ‘back of their hands’ and that the Brabanzon would do better to scout ahead as they made their way south, searching for any last remaining escapees wandering the wilds.
Perette’s second in command, Osmont, rode much of the way beside her. The riders had previously been commanded by a Sergeant Huget, but he was missing in action, believed to have been shot from his horse by one of the enemy’s long-barrelled muskets before getting out of sight of Ravola’s walls. The man who reported this had died of his wounds only minutes after imparting the news, and so none could now ask him if he was certain! Even if Huget turned up, however, Perrette would keep Osmont as her second, which would put him in command of the riders.
Osmont had an easy relationship with her, often joking – doing so whenever he thought she needed such to lift her spirits but falling quiet when she had a need for sombre contemplation. He had been there in the typpling room of the inn when she first met the company and from the start he seemed to see something in her that she herself had not really been aware of. He was also quite protective. On two occasions, including that first night, he had, with the slightest shake of his head, subtly signalled that the man she was getting close to was not someone she should favour! A veteran of many a war, or at least, many a bloody squabble between this baron and that marquis, he had a calm confidence about him, and a watchfulness. During the fall of Ravola it was he who had understood it was time to leave – not in the sense of being panicked into fleeing, but rather in assessing the situation and recognising that they were beaten.
Early in the afternoon a cry was heard from the column of riders behind.
“Ho! Riders! To the left.”
At first, Perrette could see nothing but trees, but then she caught a flashing glimpse of something in motion through the foliage.
“It’s Iginio!” came the same voice again.
“That it is!” came an answering cry. A few moments later the three Arrabiatti scouts emerged from a smaller path which joined the main group’s own route like a tributary stream might merge with a river.
The chief scout, Iginio, wore a dark cloak like many of his comrades and rode a chestnut mount. He came right up to the front of the column to ride beside Perrette and Captain Gesualdi.
“Good captain, my lady, well met!” he said by way of greeting.
“Glad to see you back, Iginio,” said the captain. “Did you get close to the city? The enemy?”
“And the people? What about them?” added Perrette.
“We got close, captain,” said the scout. “Close enough for some of the ratmen to espy us, which is when we left. Apart from a few poor wretches, no more than a dozen, shifting stones under guard where a tower has collapsed, we saw no other people, my lady. There was acrid smoke coming from within, the stink of burning hair and flesh. They must have been burning either beasts or people.”
“Is their entire force still present?” asked the captain.
“Aye, I reckon it is,” said Iginio. Then he addressed Perrette directly. “My lady, you told us they had no war machines?”
“None,” said Perrette. “They took the walls by weight of numbers and had just enough to do so. We battered them badly, killing so many, yet still they came. I pray to all the gods it was their fur you smelled burning.”
“I wish I could affirm that. What I can report is that they do have machines now.”
“They must have lagged behind on their march,” suggested the captain. “Which means they attacked before their full force was mustered, before they had that which could shoot upon the walls.”
“Perhaps arrogance convinced them they would win?” said Perrette. “And that we would not prove a troublesome foe.”
“If so, they learned their lesson, my lady,” said the captain. “From all accounts you put them to far more trouble than an equal number of any other soldiers could have done. The ratmen are bullies, cruel and cunning. They do possess a species of arrogance, for they think they are the only creatures worthy of living in the world. But they are not brave. They rely on strength of numbers in battle, and on terrible machines that can conjure lightning itself. They first bombard their foes, then quickly swarm to overwhelm them before they can recover. There must have been a pressing reason for their haste. It’s likely they were worried you were soon to be reinforced.”
“We did send for help, from Campogrotta. But they attacked long before our messengers could possibly have arrived.”
“My lady, help was sent,” said the scout. “We met with a force from Campogrotta, both heavy and light horsemen, and even some dwarfs following them, catching up every night to sleep for half the time the men did.”
“Compagnia del Sole soldiers?” asked Perrette.
“Aye, my lady, they were. Dispatched from Campogrotta to relieve Ravola but arriving four days too late. They’d scouted the enemy too and were about to return.”
This made little sense to Perrette. Neither the messengers she sent to Campogrotta nor any force of mounted men at arms and dwarfs could possibly have travelled fast enough. The distance was too great. She knew because she had made the journey herself. Even on secret paths such as these for part of the way, it could not be done. Which meant the Compagnia soldiers must have set off long before her messengers arrived. Then it occurred to her – perhaps the soldiers were already on their way for some other reason, and they met her messengers part way?
“Master scout,” she asked. “When you spoke to them, did they say they were ordered from Campogrotta to ride to Ravola’s relief?”
“Yes, my lady. Someone from Ravola came to them and begged that the whole Compagnia go north to your aid. Their captain general sent the riders and dwarfs ahead to learn what they could. They claimed not to know if the commander was following with the rest of the army.”
Perrette held her tongue, but what the man was saying was impossible. Apparently Osmont had not considered the mathematics of the claim, for he asked,
“Master scout, the dwarfs – did you meet with them?”
“Not to speak to. Their commander, I think, was named Greyfury.”
Osmont laughed which made the others look. “He could not bear to be parted from his true love,” he said.
While the others wondered what he could mean, Perette just rolled her eyes and gave Osmont a look meant to silence him. She did not think these men were currently in the mood to entertain private jests. Almost as if she were precognitive, the scout Iginio’s tone changed.
“There was something else we saw. Strange indeed, if truth be told. When we drew close to the city we passed over a long patch of poisoned ground, where all the plants had withered as if baked by a hot sun for many days.”
“We could plainly see no animals had trespassed upon it. There were tracks passing along it, as if left by three large wagons. They had crushed some small trees while brushing past others, so that their blackened remnants still remained erect but sagging. Our mounts became fearful, acting most contrary and we ourselves felt a sudden imbalance in our humours …”
“We did not linger. I don’t think we could have done if we tried. Saladino’s stomach ain’t been right since. We went over it and on, thinking that some poisonous ratman taint must have been released there, a magical curse cast by something on the wagon or some spillage of aqua fortis or the like. Perhaps the ratmen spread corruption from the wagons, as if scattering the very opposite of seeds – sowing death instead of new life? After spying upon the city walls, we chose a different path back, all the better to learn as much as we could of the enemy’s disposition, but mostly to avoid the tainted ground. Yet we again encountered an exactly similar strip of corruption! Loathe to cross it, men and mounts alike, we thought to skirt around it this time. But there was no going around, for the poisoned land proved to be like unto a path, which stretched all the way at least to the first place we had crossed.”
Iginio fell momentarily silent, while the others just waited to hear what else he said.
“I cannot say for certain, but the dead path looked to follow a curved course around the city. We were unable to discover if this was true, for to linger so close to the enemy would surely have meant we were attacked, and to travel any length of time even just beside the corruption may have meant we became too ill to return. But, before we crossed back over, I reckon we got the measure of it. I’d lay all the gold I have that it goes around the entire city.”
“Some sort of magical barrier, perhaps, meant to prevent approach?” suggested Perrette.
“I think not, my lady, for we crossed it twice, there and back again, howsoever loath we were to do so the second time. I doubt anyone could travel along the length of it for more than an hour, yet crossing it takes only a few moments and so is bearable.”
Perrette now noticed the darkness around Iginio’s eyes. She saw too that his horse was sweating noticeably more than her own or the captain’s mount.
“You were exceeding brave to do so,” she said. “And all that you learned of the ratmen, the poor inhabitants and the poisoned band could prove vital to our plans.”
“Iginio,” asked the captain, “how long did you linger in that poisoned place?”
“When we first crossed, just enough time to dismount and look closely at the ground, to notice that the wagons that passed seemed to have differently sized wheels, and some very large, and that they apparently not hauled by draught animals, but of course we could have worked that out without noticing the lack of prints. When we crossed back, we wasted not a moment’s time in getting to the other side.”
“I don’t think it likely they were wagons, but rather some sort of war engines,” said Osmont. “Probably came up with the others you did see. Perhaps they were like giant censers, emitting a cloud of noxious, noisome vapour, which they intend to push at the enemy in battle? As to why they travelled round the city, I know not. Seems a great waste of effort to me just to kill a few trees and weeds.”
“We shall have to take a look at whatever made the dead path,” mused the Arrabiatti captain. “Perhaps then we will learn its true nature and purpose? In the meantime, if your friends the Compagnia soldiers are making their way back to Campogrotta, then we should take you to them.”
“They are not far away, captain,” said the chief scout. “Only two hour’s ride, I reckon.”
“But don’t they have a head start on us?” said Perrette.
“They do, my lady,” agreed the scout. “But they do not know the paths as well as us, and they travel with a long journey in mind, at a pace they can maintain, while we can make a dash to catch up with them.”
Two hour’s later the riders descended from a high path and rode out towards the even higher hills between them and Campogrotta. Ahead of them, where their present path met with another, they could see a company of horsemen.
Their banner bore the white baton and half-sun emblem of the Compagnia del Sole. They looked surprised at first …
… but Perrette urged her horse out beyond the body, knowing that the soldiers would recall her from Campogrotta. Indeed, the fellow at their fore had drunkenly tried to woo her the night before she left for Ravola!