A Letter to the Arch-Lector Bernado
To His Holiness Bernado Ugolini, Most Highly Favoured of Morr, from your faithful servant, Brother Migliore
Upon the second day of summer, 2404
If it pleases your holiness, I hereby and humbly present that which I have learned from my correspondence with the servants of our Holy Church of Morr, scattered throughout Tilea.
Several great battles were fought this Spring, and as one old enemy was pushed further from Tilea’s heart, another revealed itself to present an open threat. Two undead armies were annihilated by the Lord Alessio’s alliance force, in which your own Reman soldiers honourably serve, but even as these great victories were obtained, a swarm of ratto uomo emerged to the east to capture Ravola, driving out the Bretonnian Brabanzon mercenaries who had only recently taken possession of the walled city from the last of Razger Boulderguts’ ogres. What few Brabanzon survived, led by the wizard Perette, escape to find refuge in the forests, there meeting with the outlawed Arrabiatti Brotherhood, before making their way south to the city of Campogrotta.
It is possible the Arrabiati brotherhood of shadows grew in strength during the time of Razger Bouldergut’s rule, as those who fled slavery joined them to strike at the ogre tyrant’s forces wherever and whenever they could. I can report that they have amongst them at least one Morrite priest, whose name I do not know. Once the ogres departed Tilea, it seems they intended to contribute to the war against the vampires, but now the rat-men present a more immediate threat to their traditional home. The people of Campogrotta have joked that the Arrabiatti would accept with open arms all those they once called tyrants, if it meant that rats, brutes and walking corpses were finally gone!
Campogrotta’s ruler, the condottiere General Mazallini, was awarded governorship of the city realm by the dwarf King Jaldeog as part-payment for his service in the war against the ogres. The general had already dispatched relief north to Ravola after receiving a report that the ogres had returned to lay siege there. That force soon learned it was rat-men not ogres, and that Ravola had already fallen, then travelled back to the city with the wizard Perette and the surviving Brabanzon to report on the situation.
Mazallini has apparently failed to send out another, larger force as yet. It may well be that he is awaiting advice or assistance from his patron, King Jaldeog of the mountain realm, or perhaps he is instead simply preparing for the defence of Campogrotta in the struggle ahead?
The general has published the sent the following missive to all Tilea’s rulers and governors:
A warning freely given to all the lawful rulers and powers of Tilea, concerning a new threat in the north.
I, General Bruno Mazallini, commander of the Compagnia del Sole and Governor of the city realm of Campogrotta, do hereby advertise to all those with ears to hear that once again the wretched Ratto Uomo have poured forth in strength from their vile lairs to taint the land of Tilea. They have already taken the realm of Ravola, and doubtless intend to swarm further south. Reports of their forces have also come from the vicinity of Trantio, where they were sighted by Lord Alessio of Portomaggiore’s soldiers, despite a complete lack of reports from the lands between Ravola and Trantio. From this, two inferences can be made:
First, that the ratto uomo assuredly seize and befoul much more than Ravola alone.
Second, that they have tunnelled under a significant stretch of the realm.
These undeniable facts mean that every Tilean state needs to ensure its preparedness for the oncoming fight, and to join in alliance to bolster the strength of arms that can be brought to bear. Tilea, Estalia and the Border Princes have suffered greatly at the hands of the rat-men throughout history, sometimes caught by surprise due the adversary’s cunning ways, but here is a warning – their hand has been shown. We must act quickly and assuredly. Forewarned is only forearmed if each and every state ensures it preparedness, making what efforts are required, spending the necessary gold and mustering sufficient forces. A forewarning ignored forespells only doom.
No engines were used in the assault on Ravola, instead they arrived only after the city was taken. Whether their tardiness was deliberate or the result of some delay, we know not, but any general would surely consider an assault against a city whilst lacking war machines a foolhardy exercise.
Their noxious catapults and incinerating cannons are only too well known from the many occasions they have been used in the past. Furthermore, my own scouts and others have reported that the ratto uomo have in their possession a poison that can taint large swathes of land, and indeed has already done so, despite not yet being deployed in battle. This is something new, housed in some kind of engine, able to kill every living close to it, even before it is brought to bear against a foe. Something so destructive that it bleeds poison merely by its passage. Its true nature can only be guessed at, but every blade of grass, every tiny, crawling creature upon the ground over which it passed, withers and dies. Those of my men who spent only a short time at the site of its passage have sickened and remain in perilous health. All of which suggests that great ruin and terror might result should this weapon’s potential be unleashed.
Even now brave scouts are attempting to discover the engine’s true nature. I have ordered my own servants and soldiers to do all they can to learn more and am preparing for the battle ahead. But if Ravola, defended by a not inconsiderable garrison, failed against what seems to have been nothing more than an advance force of their main strength, then all should know that any one state alone is unlikely to withstand this enemy.
If you do not wish to see Campogrotta fall, so allowing the enemy to take a step closer to your own realms, and to be made bolder by their victory, then I would advise you act decisively and swiftly, immediately sending what relief you can to assist mine own forces in thwarting this threat. The ogres have ravaged city after city, and the vampires also cut deep, but let not a final, fatal blow be delivered by the ratto-uomo. There remains in Tilea strength sufficient to the task in hand, now is not the time to let it lie idle, nor to squander it for want of trust and cooperation among us.
May all the gods pour their blessings upon us their dutiful servants and may brave Myrmidia inspire sound strategy in our commanders, and true courage among our soldiers.
As I have already alluded to, in the north west, Lord Alessio Falconi’s alliance army fought two great battles, first defeating the vampire duchess at the Second Battle of Pontremola, then driving out the last of the undead forces from the city of Ebino. Not only were the undead armies annihilated, but the vampire duchess herself and nearly all her lieutenants were finally, truly killed. Determined to see his grim task through to its conclusion, despite the threat to his own realm presented by the Sartosan pirates raiding the peninsula’s southern coasts, Lord Alessio forces are even now probing the nightmare realm of Miragliano …
… intending to cleanse the city state of all corruption. In his first victory, the Portomaggioran and Reman soldiers recaptured the carroccio looted by the vampires’ servants from Arch-Lector Calictus II’s defeated army. Lord Alessio has ordered that this be re-sanctified to holy Morr, so it can be used to help in the cleansing necessary in the rotten realm of Miragliano. A young priest from Campogrotta has travelled to assist Father Bendali in this task.
Lord Alessio’s efforts are to be further assisted by the somewhat late arrival of the army of the VMC to join his alliance force, or, more accurately, by the arrival of half of the VMC’s marching army. The VMC general, Jan Valckenburgh, shortly after being entertained in Remas by Arch-Lector Bernado Ugolini and having received the gift of the greatest piece of artillery in Remas, learned of the depredations of the Sartosan pirates in his realm of Alcente, including the razing of his town of Mintopua. So it was that he decided to return post-haste with half his army …
… to the relief of his beleaguered realm, while the Mryrmiddian priestess Luccia La Fanciulla led the remainder of his forces northwards to rendezvous as promised with Lord Alessio and assist in the war against the vampires.
It is said that General Valckenburgh saw fit to take the mighty cannon he was gifted by the leader of the Morrite church with him towards home, despite the fact that it would surely slow him down, or that it was intended for the war against the Morrite church’s old enemy, the undead. Many a Tilean is unsurprised by this, what with the callous, profit-centred nature of the VMC widely spoken of.
Nevertheless, Luccia la Fanciulla, the wizard Johannes Deeter and his apprentice Serafina Rosa and a considerable force of pike, shot and brutes, have joined the Portomaggiorans and your Reman army in the camp outside Ebino, perhaps thus forming the mightiest army mustered in Tilea for an hundred years.
This great army now ready to advance boldly into Miragliano, and it is widely assumed that it will surely sweep all enemies before it, cleansing the realm and exterminating this current line of vampires.
In the far south, Admiral Volker’s army of Sartosan pirates has looted its way through no less than three settlements in the realm of Alcente. They began with the town of Mintopua, where their arrival caught the inhabitants entirely by surprise, then marched on to raze both Motolla and Sersale, facing only minimal resistance at the first and more stubborn but ultimately futile resistance at the second. Made rich by the plunder of all three settlements, Admiral Volker is presumably now weighing up his chances of taking the richest prize, the city of Alcente itself. At Sersale his ordnance was much reduced by mishaps, and one of his two wizards suffered almost catastrophic consequences of his mishandling of magic, thus reducing exactly the elements the Sartosans might need to assail the walls of a major city successfully.
Meanwhile, in the city itself, despite the fact most of the militia tasked with defending the city had already died at Sersale, a compliment of battle-hardened mercenaries survived, while supplies and reinforcements were able to reach the city almost entirely freely, as the Sartosan fleet, stripped of most of its manpower to form Volker’s land army, was unable to hinder the VMC vessels’ passage to and from the port.
Three Alcentian settlements may lie in ruins, their populaces mauled and bruised, anything of value stolen, but the VMC possess several other settlements to the north and east, from which supplies came by way of road and sea, which should allow the VMC to recruit, arm and train new militia and even bring in new mercenary forces. And better still, half of the VMC’s marching army, still a considerable force in its own right, is marching home and is generally believed to be no more than a few weeks away. All of which means the citizens are confident that the enemy cannot take their city, and once again – after a period of some doubt – are of the opinion that their city council made the right decision when requesting the VMC’s protection from their enemies. The orc warlord Khurnag barely harmed their realm, and now, it seems, despite having done more harm, the Sartosan sea dogs’ stride has been broken, and their chance of taking the richest prize has possibly slipped out of their grasp.
It is generally presumed, for want of any report to the contrary, that the Sartosans still possess the person of the Luccinan king, Ferronso. A ransom was neither agreed nor forthcoming, and the young, royal hostage’s uncle, the wizard Duke Ercole Perrotto, remains resident in Portomaggiore, pleading daily for aid in raising the required sum in gold. The duke’s requests have fallen on worse than deaf ears, but rather no ears at all, as Lord Alessio is campaigning far to the north against the vampires. Such a sum as would be required to satisfy the Sartosans could never be raised nor released without the ruler’s express command, and he has many more immediate concerns to occupy him!
General Marsilio da Fermo, once commander of Luccini’s army, has returned to Luccini to take charge of the healing of the grievous wounds inflicted by the pirates. Very little of value escaped their avarice, from precious gems and metals to livestock, but crops remain in the fields and vines still have grapes to harvest, for the Sartosans’ goal was theft, not complete destruction. They took anything of value which could be carried, and all the meat and drink they could find, but grain and grape remain, and enough people to harvest it.
Meanwhile the realm of Pavona continues its own recovery from its mauling by Bouldergut’s grand chevauchee. Much of the city state lays in ruins, but the town of Scozzese has become an almost thriving market and promises the chance yet again for Duke Guidobaldo to raise tax revenues from his subjects – a very necessary source of income now that no banking house will loan him even a copper token. His own, much diminished, army remains intact and retains a core of fanatical, veteran soldiers of several campaigns from which he could possibly, given time, begin to rebuild the sort of army he once commanded. This reassures the people of Pavona and worries the neighbouring realms in equal measure!
As a consequence, there has been much activity in the neighbouring realm of Verezzo, where Barone Iacopo, Lord of Poliena and now the realm’s Capitano del Popolo, is raising new forces to counter any future threat from Pavona. The barone served in the allied army at the Valley of Norochia, then later rushed home to Verezzo when he heard of the death of his beloved lord, Lucca.
Duke Guidobaldo was never punished for his most treacherous murder Lord Lucca of Verezzo, nor his subsequent attempt to have either the Portomaggiorans or the army of the VMC blamed for the crime. The VMC general, Valckenburgh, did not see his retaliatory siege of Pavona through to completion, and although once-mighty Pavona has been much battered by Boulderguts’ brutes, and its recovery subsequently slowed by the short-lived siege of the army of the VMC, it seems that Guidobaldo still rules with an iron grip. The barone has warned all his neighbours that if Guidobaldo was willing to attack Astiano and Trantio when his realm was prosperous and powerful, out of a simple greed for more power, then now that his realm has been much diminished and he has become desperate and friendless, he is hardly likely to be less dangerous. The duke of Pavona was always a proud man – his own subjects were taught to call him ‘Morr’s chosen prince’. Now that he had been humiliated by the forced apology he had to make in order to convince the VMC to leave, he could become an even greater danger. He attacked and looted Verezzo out of mere lust for gold and was willing to have others blamed for his evil actions. Having failed in that (and suffered further as a consequence) his want has only increased. What terrible, faithless deeds is he willing to contemplate now?
So it is that a new regiment of pike has been formed to bolster Verezzo’s forces; or, more accurately, half-pike, for it is halflings who carry them. They drill almost daily, under Iacopo’s watchful eye, while the entire realm is kept in perpetual readiness should the Pavonans raid again.
While the populace of the realm of Verezzo busy themselves with waiting …
… there is one Verezzan who is most keen to exact vengeance on Duke Guidobaldo more immediately – the famous ‘Pettirosso’, Roberto Cappuccio. It is widely reported that this brigand turned captain turned outlaw has pleaded with Iacopo to attack the Pavonans immediately, while they are weak and before the righteous anger at their crimes diminishes (although Cappuccio claims it can never fade for him). The Capitano del Popolo, however, refuses to launch a hasty attack, instead busying himself with ensuring Verezzo’s defences, whilst raising and drilling an army able to face the Pavonans in the field of battle head on. Which leaves the Pettirosso and his dwindling band of outlaws fighting their own petty war of ambushes and assassinations, picking off Pavonans, firing farms and stealing supplies.
Barone Iacopo has even sent secret missives to several Pavonan nobles, even the heir Lord Silvano, in which he declares that perpetual peace and even amity between the two realms is achievable in return for merely handing over Duke Guidobaldo to be tried for his crimes by a jury of peers from neighbouring realms. So far, every missive has been ignored. Indeed, it is said that the duke’s own family and servants have ensured he remains entirely ignorant of the letters, for fear that he might suspect them of treachery simply for the act of receiving them!
So it is, in the very heart of Tilea, while vampires and rat-men threaten the north and Sartosans ravage the south, two once-noble realms are wholly lost in mutual hatred, their long-lived animosity now locked into a desperate squabble over the death of one nobleman.
I hope, your holiness, my letter proves of some use to you. Should you require more particulars, then you have only to ask and if I myself cannot answer I will do my utmost to learn from those who can do so.
Summer, 2401, The City of Pavona
The sound of drums could be heard, growing louder. Giovacchino leaned forwards to look over the crowd between him and the street. When the strong ale in his pot sloshed and threatened to spill, he relaxed a little turned to his companion.
“I think this is lunacy,” he announced. “There’s a new war brewing, right on our very doorstep. I think the bloody Verezzans believe they’re strong enough to take us on. Even if they’re not sure, they might be bitter enough to try anyway. Yet Lord Silvano is taking nearly the entire army away on another foreign war! We should finish off the Verezzans first – put an end to their pathetic whining and make sure they don’t try anything else.”
Corporal Aldus was also peering down the street, and answered without glancing at his friend, “Why don’t you take the matter up with the duke?”
“I’m taking the matter up with you!” said Giovacchino. “Look, see, I know this is what Lord Silvano does – riding off to fight monstrous foes – but there’s a time and a place for that sort of nonsense. This ain’t the time at all, and Campogrotta’s too far away to be the right place. I mean, do the Campogrottans even need our help? They’ve an entire bloody army of their own, and that the gods-forsaken Compagnia del Sole, cousins of the very enemy that put us to all that trouble years ago. Why in all the hells are we sending our boys to do the fighting for them? I tell you, there’s no part of this makes sense.”
A company of drummers, being the first in the column, were now passing by, beating up a jaunty march indeed, which was everything to do with this sort of parade and nothing to do with battle calls.
“So, let me get this straight,” said the corporal. “You’re questioning the duke’s orders, yes? Well, my answer to you, my friend, would be that you should think hard about what you say and who you say it to.”
“No, no, no! I’m no fool,” replied Giovacchino. “I’m not saying the Duke is wrong. I just want to understand it myself.”
“Look, the duke’s a hard man, noble, yes, but a man of war. He takes whatever he believes is his by right. He doesn’t suffer fools and exacts swift vengeance on all who trouble him in any way whatsoever. And yet, all that said, what father would deny his only beloved son?”
“Aye, well, that only shifts the blame to the son. Doesn’t make the decision any less foolish.”
Corporal Aldus fixed his stare on Giovacchino. “You’re really not listening, are you? I already warned you – have a care! There are many would take offence to such words. I shall assume you’re trying to understand why Lord Silvano wants to go.”
“That’s it. That’s all. Why?”
“That’s easy. Lord Silvano is what you call a hero, always has been. I reckon since his brother died fighting Prince Girenzo, he’s been desperate to prove himself a worthy successor in his father’s eyes, to show he’s afraid of no challenge and willing to take on any foe.”
“So, you’re saying our army marches off when we’re at our weakest, and when our closest neighbours and others besides have a whole bag o’ bones to pick with us, because a young lord wants to prove his mettle? Maybe he should worry more about being a worthy successor to rule Pavona when his father dies, and to do that he needs to be alive, and there needs to be a bloody Pavona left to rule.”
“You can’t help yourself, can you? Your mouth’ll be the end of you one day, if you don’t die on the end of an enemy’s blade. Stop complaining. We have the city militia, and I reckon there’s many an old soldier would happily muster for the city’s defence if it proved necessary. Pavona will survive and grow strong again. Who cares how loud the Verezzan dogs bay and howl? Any one of us could take on three of them.”
The drummers had passed by, although the sound they made was still filling the street. Now came the colours, marching together as a little company of ensigns. All were quartered blue and white, with some little extra added to each to mark them out on the field – a border, or tassels or a symbol upon the white.
Giovacchino sniffed. Then in a quieter voice said,
“It’s not just them though, is it? The VMC scum have unfinished business with us – they left off their siege only because they were persuaded the undead were the bigger problem. And the Verezzans may have been weak in the past, but everyone says they’re building an army squarely intent on revenge for Lord Lucca’s death. Their petty, brigand robbers have already begun the fight, sneaking about in the shadows to pick off our soldiers when they can get away with it without risking a fight. Scouting for them; learning the lay of the land.”
Corporal Aldus grinned. “Then it’s no bad thing Lord Silvano is marching our boys away, ‘cos then brigands won’t be able to kill them.”
Giovacchino spoke even quieter than before. “Except we’ll be among the few that remain, and it’ll be us they’re loosing their arrows at.”
Still cheerful, despite the notion, the corporal said, “I didn’t think of that.”
Now came a body of handgunners, one of which stared over at Aldus and Giovacchino as they passed.
“There’s Mariano,” said Aldus. “Does he still owe you sixteen silvers?”
“Aye. He’d better bloody survive ‘cos I need that money.”
“He’ll survive. He’s always been careful. Once told me he never fired his piece in that fight in the Trantine Hills. When I asked him why, he said it was so he wouldn’t have to clean it afterwards.”
“That’s the wrong sort of careful. The stupid sort!” laughed Giovacchino. “Aldus, you say be careful of my words, but it seems to me most people ain’t too pleased about the army leaving. The best anyone could say about this crowd is that it is respectful. None would claim any signs of enthusiasm.”
“They’re just tired,” said the corporal, whose head still ached from the old wound.
“Ha!” laughed Giovacchino. “They’re tired? They want to try marching all the way to Trantio and back, with only fighting to break the journey. If Lord Silvano has the urge to fight a righteous war, then why isn’t he going off to help in the march on Miragliano. The priests are always preaching that we live in Morr’s most cherished realm. Shouldn’t he be fighting the undead?”
“Oh, it’s too late for that,” said Aldus. “Duke Guidobaldo announced in his address that the war against the vampires is all but over. The enemy lost army after army trying to take on the Portomaggiorans and Remans, and now they’ve got the VMC against them too. All that’s left is the filthy job of cleaning up Miragliano, and I wouldn’t waste Pavonan lives on such nasty work. I reckon more’ll die of disease in such a wretched realm than in battle! If that war is over, then Lord Silvano obviously wants to make sure that the ratto uomo don’t gain an advantage while the living realms are weakened by the fight against the undead. Verminkind love ruinous places, and the north is one big ruin right now.”
“Not just the north,” said Giovacchino. “Pavona’s no better! All Boulderguts left us is the city and the southern side of the river. Astiano and Trantio are ruined too. Every realm hereabouts is as sickly and broken as the north.”
“Then praise the gods that our brave young lord is helping to quash the threat of ratmen before they grow too powerful.”
As the corporal spoke, he gestured to the street, for Lord Silvano himself, clad in brightly silvered armour and sporting a tall panache-crest of blue and white, his lance lowered as if to indicate his intention to advance, rode into view.
By the young lord’s side rode his knightly standard bearer, and behind him rode the city’s young nobility, their shields decorated with Morr’s fleshless head, crowned as king of the gods.
“If you have the answer to everything, Aldus, then tell me this: Why didn’t the duke send Visconte Carjaval with the army instead of his only son and heir?”
“Oh, that was the plan. The Visconte had orders to that effect. But then the orders changed. You didn’t attend the temple this morning, did you?”
“My head still hurt from last night. Why? D’you think my soul’s in need of cleansing?”
“Ha! That and the rest of you!”
Giovacchino sniffed at his armpit, spilling some of the ale as he did so, then cursing.
“What about the temple?” he demanded. “Did you receive divine enlightenment? That’d explain all your answers.”
“The priest prayed for Lord Silvano’s success, then told us how the duke knew his son possessed a compassionate heart and a desire to serve the lawful gods, Morr Supreme above all, and that he yearned to defend the innocent, weak, the young and old, from all further upsets. Apparently, the duke even said his son was the better man than he, for where he had always taken rightful anger to bloody conclusion, his son was willing to temper his reactions with an urge to understand and forgive.”
Giovacchino frowned. “That doesn’t sound like the sort of thing the duke would say.”
“Maybe not, but that’s what the priest told us. And more than that, he said the duke had vowed to live ‘quiete and pacifice’ until his son’s safe return from victory.”
“Oh, that’s lovely,” said Giovacchino sarcastically. “It’s like poetry, ain’t it?” Then, more seriously, he asked. “Doesn’t sound like the duke either. Tell me though, is it true? Will the fighting end?”
Aldus shrugged. “I suppose if the Verezzan brigands stop what they’re doing, and everyone else leaves us alone for a while, then why not? Besides, the answer’s right in front of you. The army’s marching off. Say farewell to the young lord and our army.”
“Ha!” laughed Giovacchino. “And say hello to some peace and quiet.”
A Letter to the Mayor
This to Reginaldo Scalise, Sindaco of the city of Portomaggiore, from Chimento Gagliardi, Chief Clerk to Lord Alessio Falconi.
My Lord Alessio has commanded me to inform you of the allied army’s current circumstances and condition. He wishes me to deliver a comprehensive account, for as his deputy in his beloved city, you must better understand the army’s requirements, the urgencies arising from our situation and the necessities of the daunting struggle before us. Furthermore, there is a task you must complete without delay.
We had rendezvoused with a brigade of the army of the VMC at Ebino, led by the Myrmiddian priestess Luccia La Fanciulla.
It was a force considerably weaker than that which was expected, and most disappointingly, lacking in guns, yet Lord Alessio was nevertheless undeterred. He ordered the entire allied army, including the Reman brigade under Captain Soldatovya’s command, consisting of mercenary dwarfs, crossbowmen and Reman bravi, to march along the dread road leading west towards Miragliano.
Our scouts reported that the watchtower of Soncino had been abandoned, which the army council took to mean that the enemy was aware of our approach and most likely drawing in its foul servants to concentrate his strength.
The army marched boldly to the watchtower’s vicinity and set about making an orderly and defensible camp.
As this work was accomplished, our scouts travelled further abroad to learn the villages of Leno were as quiet and empty as Soncino, having also been abandoned by the foe. The city of Miragliano itself, however, swarmed with the vampires’ servants, and its ancient, grey-stone walls hosted a force of rotting-but-walking corpses.
What most concerned the army council was the news that the putrid waters of the Blighted Marshes had been allowed to overspill their artificial bounds to claim the land around the city walls and, most likely, a good deal of the city within.
For several many years the dykes built to protect the city from the vast expanse of wetland to its immediate west have been left untended, so that now the once noble city seems to be sliding inexorably into the filthy waters. Even the road leading to the city has sunk beneath the mire, and the moat has merged with the wide expanse of stinking swamp stretching out for almost a mile in places, riddled with bloated corpses and bustling with clouds of filthy, fat flies. Miragliano is become, as indeed most of those in the army council had ominously anticipated, like a behemoth’s noisome corpse, washed up on the shore of a murky, accursed lake, infested with a host of maggots.
Lord Alessio spoke the plain truth when he said all this was only to be expected of a realm wracked by necromantic magics for so long. He ordered the army to march to the closest dry land to the city, there to build a strongly defensible camp …
… and dispatched the scouts with orders to patrol orbitally about the camp to ensure nothing could approach unnoticed. The siege-master Guccio was instructed to begin work on siege towers and a ram able to approach the city walls. Meanwhile, a force drawn from both our army and that of the VMC should venture into the marshes there to clear out and burn the corpses, so that none remained to be re-animated by the foe in the oncoming assault.
Captain Guccio willingly took on his task and began pressing the men needed to better speed the work, from all three allied forces. Having questioned the scouts closely, he learned that the swamp may be crossable by foot soldiers, but only with great difficulty, thus it is he intends to mount the two towers and ram upon large rafts, which can then be poled, paddled or pushed to the walls, whichever proves feasible.
While Guggio’s men laboured to fell the necessary timber, much of the rest of the army set about not dissimilar work, building the camp on a large, relatively flat hill, about two miles from the city. Guards have been set in watches, ordered to maintain strict vigilance both day and night, with execution promised for any found to be derelict in this duty in any way whatsoever.
Having been here almost a week now, it has become evident that the enemy is in no rush to sally forth to give battle but seem content instead to lurk behind the city walls and the enveloping marsh. Whenever the wind, even but a breeze, blows from the direction of the city, the stench it carries is almost overwhelming, even for soldiers inured to the noisome airs of Ebino. Every day, soldiers bring the freshest water they can find to the camp, yet there is always corruption lurking in the taste of it, eliciting many a complaint. Our supplies of ale and wine are low, for we are now at such a great distance from the living realms, and there is a dearth of foraging opportunities within reach. Worse still, a considerable proportion of the supplies we brought with us – salted flesh-meat, cured fish, even the grain – has prematurely rotted. Perhaps inevitably, although still surprising considering how little time we have been here, a number of men have contracted a camp fever and their misery rings throughout the camp as they moan and thrash delirious upon their pallets!
The scouts have, so far, consistently reported that there is nothing out there. The land around us is truly dead. They know little concerning the marshes as it would be deadly for their horses to attempt to pass through such, so for several days we knew nothing concerning the areas closest the city and out to the south and west, where the marsh has overwhelmed the land. Until, that is, the clearing party returned from their attempted labours.
The VMC’s commander, Luccia La Fanciulla, acceded to Lord Alessio’s request to employ some of her troops for the cleansing of the marshland approaches. She ordered her mercenary ogres, under the command of a Captain Ogbut, as well as the wizard Serafina Rosa to join with the crossbowmen from both Remas and Portomaggiore, the latter commanded by Captain Lupo.
This force returned, however, after two days, reporting that they were entirely unable to complete their task, claiming that to do so was impossible, for not only did the marshes contain the dead, but hide the undead too. Concealed beneath the stagnant waters and quicksands, bloated and slimy zombies would suddenly reach up to clutch with a deathly grip at the legs of anyone attempting to pass through.
Several crossbowmen perished, dragged to their doom by an enemy that the others often could not even see, never mind kill. They had tried, shooting into the waters whenever they espied ripples, or the sudden appearance of a clutching, black-fingernailed hand, but learned quickly this was simply a waste of quarrels.
One of Ogbut’s ogres also perished …
… tripping in the undergrowth as he tried to reach a skeletal corpse, and so tumbled into quicksand …
… there to be grabbed and pulled down, head-first, to join with the undead below.
Half a dozen crossbowmen have apparently been frightened out of their wits, and to add to those who perished, half as many again have since succumbed to the sickness assailing the camp.
Before they left off their grisly, impossible labours, this same party discovered that the city’s moat has become an impassable stretch of noisome water, which merges with the marshland reaching out, passable but, as already revealed, dangerous, some way from the moat. The road to the city, despite becoming submerged, is wadable, like the swamp, and indeed possibly passable all the way to the gate. In answer to Lord Alessio’s query, the wizard Hakim agreed that his colossus could most likely use the road, very much doubting that any bloated zombies lurking beneath the waters could either slow or hurt it, but he immediately warned that there would be the risk of the brass, mechanically-magic giant straying from the road and succumbing to the marsh, becoming stuck or perhaps even sinking below the surface completely.
The siege master attempted to reassure the Lord General by reporting that he and his men were making good progress on the rafts, towers and ram, which should much more safely allow soldiers to reach the gate and walls, first by dragging and pushing, then by use of barge poles or oars, so that even the moat would prove no obstacle.
Lord Alessio accepted that Guccio’s ingenious moat bridges had had great success at Ebino, but stated that here there were many more difficulties to overcome, and that even should the rafts reach the gate and walls, it was unlikely that sufficient soldiers could be carried thereby to successfully overcome the defences. The rest, were they to follow by wading behind, might succumb to a multitude of dangers.
This is why Lord Alessio ordered that I write to you and to several other rulers and governors of the realms between here and Remas. He is thinking of a way in which our forces might be better enabled to reach the city. What he has I mind will require a great workforce, consisting of expendable labourers and not the soldiers needed for the assault.
You are commanded to empty the gaols and prisons directly of all able-bodied prisoners, including debtors and those awaiting either trial or execution, and to gather all sturdy vagrants and beggars (whether imprisoned or not), no less than 1,000 in number, and send them all here to us, under sufficient guard to ensure that none can abscond, by whatever means and route is the quickest. You shall inform them that they are to be employed upon essential and righteous work, and furthermore, that should they survive this reparative labour, they will be pardoned of all past misdemeanours, felonies, debts and wrongdoings of any kind. And if insufficient numbers are thus obtained, then you are also to press into service all common youths unengaged in either apprenticeship or gainful employment that they too might be dispatched to us forthwith, to serve as guastatori sappers, for which service they will be suitably rewarded at the completion of this campaign.
Make haste and obey these orders in full, for the fate of Tilea lies in the successful conclusion of this war against the vampires. They cannot be allowed to recover their strength, nor even lick their wounds, but must be exterminated completely as soon as possible.
Next Installment: Part 36