Tilea Campaign, Part 37

DISCORD, DANGERS AND DISINCLINATION

An Excerpt from Bonacorso Fidelibus’s Work: The Many Wars of the Early 25th Century

The First Months of Summer, 2404

In the far south there was much relief in Alcente when the Sartosan Corsairs’ army moved away from the city, without commencing a siege. Perhaps the mauling they had received at Sersale, or more likely, the haul of loot they had already taken, had convinced them to depart.

When it became clear, however, that they were not making their way to their ships in the Black Gulf, but instead had begun marching east along the ancient road towards Pavezzano, the citizens’ relief was coloured by concern. Soon, those who liked to boast of their wisdom in the ways of the world, were claiming that they had always known this would happen, for pirates never attack strong foes, like a dragon might challenge another of its kind, but instead seek out the weak, like wolves pick out the feeblest amongst their prey.

Pavezzano would prove a much easier prey to capture and consume than the stone walled city of Alcente.

Despite being hindsight, there was undoubtedly truth to this professed wisdom. The Sartosans had struck first at the relatively small city state of Luccini, while the prince and his army were absent. Then, upon learning that the army of the VMC had marched far north to assist in the war against the vampire duchess, they attacked the realm of Alcente (although the westerly winds of the recent spring storms had likely played a part in restricting their options, by making an easy return home to Sartosa unlikely). They had not attacked the much richer realm of Portomaggiore, for although Lord Alessio was also fighting in the far north, he had left a substantial force, in size an army, to protect his realm. Nor had the Sartosans sailed to Remas, similarly protected despite its own continued involvement in the war to the north.

The Sartosans now discovered that despite their destruction of several companies of Alcentian militia, the stalling at Sersale had allowed time enough for more professional soldiers, including a renowned regiment of mercenary pikemen from the northern parts of the Old World, to be landed at the city of Alcente. If there was one thing the VMC could get plenty of, it was gold. Their investors’ contributions would only dry up if the prospect for future profit began to look less likely.

The VMC’s ships were still able to serve the port, for although the Sartosan fleet was massed out in the gulf, only skeleton crews remained aboard – sufficient, it was thought, to defend themselves (or at the least, sail away from any threat) but entirely lacking in the fighting strength required to actively blockade the city from the sea. Furthermore, Captain General Valckenburgh was widely reported to be returning from his northern enterprise, with a significant portion of his army, to relieve the city.

With all this in mind, no doubt, the Sartosan Corsairs had decided now was the time to leave the city’s environs. And if they were to return to their ships, then why not do so from the port of Pavezzano? For it was a place their fleet could easily sail to and which they could loot at their leisure en route to the wharves!

At Pavona, only a few days after the young Lord Silvano’s departure to assist Campogrotta in the war against the ratto uomo, grave news came to the city of a most inauspicious event. Duke Guiodobaldo had been attacked during one of his hunts in the hills to the north of Montorio. The Verezzan brigand, Pettirosso, had attempted to assassinate him with a poison tipped arrow, seeking vengeance for the death of Lord Lucca.

Of course, such a slippery fellow had subsequently escaped, along with his band of robbers, into the wooded hills, while those with the duke had, at least in the first instance, been distracted by the need to get their master back to the city. Only once that was done did they pursue revenge, sending search parties out to scour the southern stretches of the Trantine Hills.

It was feared the duke had been mortally wounded, for his physicians reported that the arrowhead had pierced deep and the poison had entered his blood to bring about a deathly fever, the gangrene setting in at thrice the normal speed.

Within a day, however, his two most able physicians, from the best universities in Estalia, a realm renowned for its medicinal knowledge …

… announced that his humours had been re-balanced and the poison countered with a potent combination of healing magics and efficacious medicaments, thus thwarting the duke’s death. This cause great relief in the city, and even celebrations, encouraged by the duke’s officers and courtiers, who paid for wine to flow from the city’s fountains and conduits!

Yet the duke remained bed-ridden …

… and it was whispered that he was so weak as to be unable even to feed himself. It was clear he could not continue his daily duties as ruler. His most trusted advisors and privy councillors, knowing this to be a dangerous time for the recently ravaged city state, what with the ongoing discord with Verezzo, the new dangers of the ratto uomo and pirates, and the disinclination of the banking families of Tilea to loan the duke any more monies, agreed with their lord and master that his son, Silvano, must immediately be recalled to the city to serve as regent during the period of his father’s ill health.

Lord Silvano was to have full and unbridled authority, so that his father need not be troubled by any affairs of state, neither great nor petty. Indeed, the young lord would effectively be serving an apprenticeship for that he would attain upon his inheritance. Silvano thus abandoned his noble quest and returned with great alacrity.

There to be welcomed home by the city’s populace much more keenly than they had so recently bid him farewell, for he was generally considered a hero, having always strived his utmost to fight evil, at no small risk to himself, whether near or far from home, and was known to love both his father and the people of Pavona dearly.

Indeed, his new rule, in practice total (at least until his father recovered) was welcomed by many a ruler in Tilea, including not least the Arch-Lector of the Holy Morrite Church, Bernadino Ugolini, who knew Lord Silvano well, having served with him in the vampire wars and even once cleared the young nobleman in court of all wrongdoing (during the Pavonan brigade’s mutiny at Viadaza). Most were agreed that Silvano’s regency bode well for Pavona and its neighbours, although many were too cautious to admit this was because it meant Duke Guidobaldo’s tyranny had, at least for now and perhaps forever, ended.

The young lord’s regency was considered a chance for a renaissance for Pavona, an opportunity to begin again afresh: to thrive in trade, to build new alliances and new bonds and to forge a bright future under the enlightened rule of a valiant, principled, and compassionate ruler.

It remained to be seen whether Barone Iacopo, regent of Verezzo, would remain implacable in his distrust of Pavona. He himself had served alongside Lord Silvano in the war against the vampires, and so knew full well how different the young man was compared to his father. Yet such was the wickedness of Duke Guidobaldo’s past actions, that the halfling lord, who loved his old master well and yearned deeply for revenge, might find himself unable to forgive Pavona. If he were to continue his hatred, perhaps it would manifest in something as small as choosing not to punish the brigand Pettirosso for his actions? Or perhaps it would manifest in continuing to prepare for war against Pavona?

Another even more powerful captain, General Valckenburgh of the VMC …

… also had unfinished business with Duke Guidobaldo, concerning a most vile defamation. But the VMC’s considerable forces were engaged in wars both to the far north and the far south, providing entirely sufficient distraction to tie them up for some time. Besides, the general had himself yielded to young Lord Silvano’s persuasive requests to leave off the siege of Pavona, finding his petitioner to be an honourable enough fellow. All this considered, it could well be that like several other rulers, General Vlackenburgh was amenable to the notion of turning over a new leaf in his affairs with Pavona.

In the north-west, Lord Alessio Falconi’s mighty alliance army was floundering at the edge of the corrupted marshes that had overspilled to claim the environs of the city of Miragliano. On one night, early on in the attempted blockade, a vampiric fiend crept from the city under cover of darkness intent on assassinating the captain general himself. It seems that the unholy priest Biagino hoped to emulate the success his now truly-dead mistress had had when she sent Lord Adolfo into the camp of the Disciplinati di Morr, so killing both their Praepositus Generalis, Father Carradalio, and his second in command, the Admonitor Vincenzo, subsequently having such a deleterious effect on the Disciplinati that they were utterly, even easily, wiped out in the field of battle.

Luckily, Lord Alessio’s personal bodyguard regiment, his brave Sea Wolves, discovered the monstrous assassin before it reached Lord Alessio, and (at the cost of several many of their own lives) they cut the monster down. Afterwards, Lord Alessio ordered its foul head cut off and placed atop a pike within sight of the city walls.

It was doubtful such a sight would in any way stir fear in the foe, but it was at the least an advertisement of the alliance army’s defiance. Several soldiers began taking it in turns to guard the grisly trophy, whilst at the same time adding to the line of observation posts strung about the large army as it prepared for battle.

Then, as well as knighting one of the wolves who fought the most bravely, Lord Alessio posthumously honoured those who had died by ordering their names recorded upon the city realm’s roll of honour, which kept the memory of all the heroes who had served the state with distinction.

It was one thing, however, for soldiers to defeat an assassin, another thing entirely to defeat sickness. The army camp’s proximity to a corrupted marsh harbouring a festering mass of undead had concerned Lord Alessio …

… which was why he had initially attempted to cleanse a route through it in order to attack the city promptly. This proved impossible, due to the dangerously slippery nature of both the foe and the land which harboured them, and so the captain general ordered a redoubling of the efforts to make rafts, battering rams and towers with which to assault the city walls. Then, at the first (inevitable) signs of camp fever and the flux, the general ordered the army moved to the nearest, properly dry land and instructed his soldiers and those of the Reman and VMC forces also under his command to drink only the water brought from the river near the Soncino watchtower by a dedicated contingent of horse and foot soldiers.

Meanwhile, his newly appointed siege master, Captain Guccio, oversaw the construction of several large rafts, including some to carry siege towers and one to carry a battering ram.

These were to be propelled through the deeper waters of the marsh now surrounding the city by way of setting poles. Guccio, being a man of great practicality, had ordered the soldiers to practise along a deeply flooded stretch at the eastern edge of the marsh.

Where the waters were not so deep, the soldiers would have to dismount the rafts and carry them to the next flooded area. That task did not really require practise, just strength, and the army’s Captain General, Lord Alessio, had commanded that the soldiers should not be put to unnecessary exercises before the fight ahead, as he did not want them weakened, injured or made ill by wading the foul waters. The sickness threatening his camp was bad enough, he declared, without risking further losses from the rank and file. Punting, however, he permitted, for the soldiers need not go into the water, nor was it the most taxing of activities.

It did, however, require learned skill, and practiced coordination between the men involved. If necessary, closest to the city walls, where the moat added considerably to the water’s depth, oars would have to be employed, but Guccio hoped that would just be a short distance. There would be a lot more punting to do, and plenty of opportunities for insufficiently skilled men to fail.

So it was that the alliance army, so close to the foul enemy and about to embark upon their most difficult assault yet, witnessed the incongruous sight of rafts coursing back and forth along the waters, not entirely unlike gentle-folk at play in gondolas on a moat within a grand city park.

In the north-east, the vile ratto uomo had pushed further southwards, presumably employing the ancient tunnels known as underpasses, which had long been generally thought to have collapsed. Emerging south of Campogrotta, upon the far side of the River Tarano, they had sent a terrible engine towards the city with sufficient guards to ensure it would get close.

Luckily for the city, although not at all for those who went out to thwart the engine’s advance, it failed to lob its grenado over the walls, but instead blew itself up, instantly killing almost everyone, friend or foe, within two thousand braccia!

A good number of the Compagnia del Sole and the Karak Borgo dwarfs survived, for several companies had remained within the city during the attack, and more had the night before marched north to Buldio in response to reports of multiple instances of arson, believed to be the ratto uomo’s main attack, later presumed to have been a deliberate distraction.

A regiment of King Jaldeog’s dwarfs had been among the casualties, which left Lord Narhak with a much-reduced garrison in the city. The Compagnia suffered even more significant losses – several bodies of foot soldiers and companies of light horse, which for a mercenary company was no small matter. One of its captains, the respected Venusto Masin, perished in the blast, but the company’s marshal, Captain Luigi Esposito, strode away as if untouched by the effects of the poison, supporting the only two survivors of the regiment he had led onto the field of battle. Or at least, he was untouched bodily, for the state of his mind was another matter entirely, and compared to his past self, he was ever after like another man entirely.

The wizard Perrette, despite having approached the engine to cast her fire magic against it, also escaped, along with her Brabanzon riders, for they departed the engine’s vicinity just in time. In hindsight, no-one questioned the Brabanzon’s actions, for whether they were fleeing in panic or retreating in good order and with good reason, they had avoided almost certain death. To suggest they had done wrong was thus a moot point.

Perette had been wounded during the skirmish, and subsequently kept her own counsel concerning her plans. Only she and her riders knew why they rode from the city so hastily, heading north.

It was suggested she might intend to return to Ravola now that the ratto uomo’s main strength was removed from thence, or that she would cross the Nuvolonc back to Bretonnia, or that she looked to hide in the forests and wilderness again, with or without the Arrabiatti’s aid, there to nurse her wounds as she had done after Ravola. The most hopeful citizens wondered if she had gone to fetch the Arrabiatti to aid in Campogrotta’s defence, while the more pragmatic knew she had no real reason to do so.

She left behind confusion within the city. A huge area of dead and deadly ground now lay to its immediate south, and it was very likely that a ratto uomo army was close by somewhere.

Those who knew something concerning past wars assumed, with good reason, that the ratmen had exited through one of their legendary tunnels hidden somewhere in the rocky, forested hills to the south.

If the enemy were there, then they would have to find a way around the poisoned land and cross the river elsewhere, with no bridge to carry them over – which was possibly why they had yet to appear at the city. Nothing lived in the newly corrupted land; nor, if it entered, could live, and even the river waters were poisoned as they passed through, so that the trees closest to the river began to wither all the way to its junction to the River Bellagio. It was most fortunate that no large settlement lay any further down river, for such a place would surely have suffered from the corruption in the waters, but the elves of Tettoverde must surely (and quickly) have noticed the poisoning of the northernmost reaches of their ancient, sylvan realm.

The Compagnia del Sole’s condottiere general, Bruno Mazallini, was less than happy to be the governor of a realm now half-poisoned, with sickness spreading through the city, and panic all around. The dwarven thane, Lord Narhak …

… recorded in his personal book of grudges that the general and the remaining portion of the Compagnia del Sole intended to quit the realm and flee southwest, leaving it to the rat-men, with the general declaring in council that an army can never win when it goes into battle against a plague!

Lord Narhak, keenly aware of the danger of remaining in the city when all others were likely to leave or had already left, and that his loyal, dwarven warriors were just as susceptible to the rat-men’s foul poisons as any soldier, marched his small force to the watchtower of Lugo on the Carraia del Ferro.

There he halted and garrisoned the place, apparently intending thus to guard the gateway to the road to Karak Borgo, and at a suitable distance from the miasmic horror to the city’s south.

There was little in the way of defences, for the tower was more a toll house than a stronghold, so he ordered his soldiers to make what defences they could, and quickly. What few engines the possessed were placed to face towards Campogrotta, for Lord Narhak reckoned any ratto uomo advance must surely come from that direction.

He either knew or presumed that the rat-men’s tunnels could not possibly reach his mountain home, for the mining skill of dwarves was renowned and so any such passageways must surely have been discovered and collapsed or otherwise rendered impassable. The Iron Road was the only way to Karak Borgo. So, while his messenger made his way to King Jaldeog, and any reinforcements made their way down the Iron Road to him, he and his rump of a force would have to stand their ground as best they could.

……………………………………………………………..

A CORNUCOPIA OF CORPSES

A Prequel to the Assault on Miragliano

They had already approached the city walls as close as they dared and had no intention of doing so again. Nofri convinced the other two that there was no real need, for their orders were to scout the sodden land around the city, and did not specify any need to draw particularly close to the walls. Indeed, as he mulled the matter over, he was able to justify their caution further. For example, if they were to approach the walls too closely, then that would likely result in their demise, ensuring they never returned to report what they had found, which he considered to be the most important element of their orders. And, added Benedetto with a wry smile, their animated corpses would only swell the enemy’s ranks, thus greatly annoying their captain.

They were but one of several parties of Portomaggioran handgunners sent out from the alliance army by the Captain-General Lord Alessio to ascertain what exactly might be the best approach to the city. As foul flood waters had spilled out from the Blighted Marshes to surround the city, just drawing close was not going to be easy for the army, never mind the act of assault. Miragliano was moated – a moat which had swelled as the water level rose, to become, on the face of it, three times as wide. Of course, it ran deep only along its original course, while the newly extended reaches were much shallower. Nevertheless, it now presented a much greater challenge for the army – not just because of the difficulty of moving through the sinking muds and tangled weeds, but because of the horrors that dwelt (or should that be un-dwelt?) within.

The city had been ruled by vampires for several years, and their necromantic dominion had turned it and the land around into a kind of hell. The three soldiers had quickly learned this upon their initial, more direct approach, when they had witnessed first a bubbling in the putrid moat waters, and then the emergence of a monstrous, plated creature, something akin to a crab or a scorpion, but as big as a boat.

It lolled heavily in the waters, splashing and scraping in equal measure, while its elongated, barbed mouth-parts chittered and spurted gobbets of noisome fluid. Red in colour, it undoubtedly hailed from the corrupted waters of the Blighted Marshes, tainted to grow unnaturally large and foully twisted. A nightmare made real, so that just the sight and smell of it sapped strength from the soldier’s legs, to leave them staggering in unsteady fear.

“Not this way then!” Benedetto had declared loudly, as the three of them turned away to move as swiftly as their weakened limbs would allow over the soft ground.

Glancing back, they saw the beast had begun to lift itself out of the deeper waters, as another of its kind surfaced behind.

Once they had put some distance between them and the beasts, sufficient that they could no longer be seen, and had satisfied themselves that the monsters were making no attempt to pursue them, they all agreed that this particular stretch of the city walls could not be considered a suitable approach for the army. The beasts were massive enough that even while submerged and unseen, they could surely tip a raft, even a large one. And if they instead chose to rise up and attack, then they would surely make short work of all the unlucky souls it carried. Zanobi had voiced a concern that the creatures might move anywhere in the moat, and so should be considered to present a threat across its full circumference, but both his companions argued that they could make no such presumption. Neither beast had chased them, which could indicate they were of a somewhat sedentary nature. And even if that were not the case, then what more could they do than report where the beasts were spotted. Surely a confirmed sighting in a particular place counted for something, Nofri had suggested, and only a fool would subsequently choose said place for the armies crossing?

They picked their way forwards, adopting an arcing route that would keep them out of sight of the moat and the walls.

“A moat is a moat, and a wall is a wall, from wherever you stand,” said Nofri, feeling a need to further justify their continued caution. “Whatever spot we attack from, there will be the moat and the wall. Our task is surely to find a sound route to the moat’s edge, not to assess the moat itself.”

“They’d have given us a boat if they wanted us to test the waters,” said Benedetto, to bolster his friend’s argument.

“True enough,” agreed Zanobi, happily.

The three of them carried matchlock handguns, with all the necessary accoutrements, although only Zanobi and Nofri had a bandoleer, each of the several wooden boxes containing the necessary measure of powder for a single shot.

Benedetto preferred to pour directly from his powder horn into the muzzle, judging for himself the necessary amount, and believed he had the knack of getting it just right. Nofri was now glad of Benedetto’s decision, for even without a breastplate, the wooden boxes’ clattering was worryingly loud, especially when creeping around such a dangerous place as this. With a breastplate, the clickety-clack of the boxes against the steel would have seemed deafening.

It was that clattering, however loud, and the need to keep a match lit at all times, that meant hand-gunners on the move were never likely to gain surprise. Nofri had consoled himself with the thought that many of the undead may well be deaf, and a lit match was not such an advertisement in daylight as it was in the dark, but he had not fully defeated his fears concerning the matter.

The occasional grey rock protruded from the ground, both large and small, although the pot-marked nature of the stone in these northern parts made them appear as if they too had begun to rot and fester. Other than the rocks, which were occasionally sharp and so not the most reliable stepping-stones, the ground was boggy at best and treacherously mud-sucking at worst. There was still some life in the land, limp greenery in the form of weeds and marsh plants, but despite the summer season every tree was leafless. Perhaps the miasma fermented from the foul marsh waters had poisoned them? It had certainly begun to work its harm on the army, forcing it to remove to a considerable distance from the city for the sake of its health, which in turn necessitated the discovery of a suitable route by which to approach the city whilst maintaining a good, fighting order.

Nofri took the lead, by a few steps, as he often did, his piece at the ready, match affixed. At regular intervals he would shift the hempen cord, so that the end did not burn down to the serpentine’s metal jaws, either to extinguish itself or burn through and thus cause the match to fall out. Like the others, he knew that while carrying his piece in such a way meant he could heft and shoot almost immediately should it prove necessary, needing only to open the pan as he did so, it did mean there was the constant risk of a spark landing on the pan, where, despite the closed lid, all it would take was a few stray powder-corns to cause a premature firing. So, he ported his piece at an angle, taking care never to allow the muzzle to point at his comrades.

For some time, Nofri’s only utterances were in the form of, “Have a care,” or “Watch your step here.” As they settled into a steady pace, however, and the fear of monstrous pursuit subsided, he became more conversational.

“I profess no particular knowledge of the foul art of necromancy,” he began, “Nor have I seen the undead particularly close, what with them retreating so promptly at Norochia and with us doing nought but waste powder firing volleys up at wall-tops at Ebino, but I do find myself wondering what exactly drives them.”

“Evil, plain and simple,” offered Benedetto.

“Aye,” agreed Nofri. “I understand it is evil that conjures them into existence, through foul and despicable magics, but I’m asking what makes them do this and not that, attack one and not another? What directs them to do particular things?”

“The will of vampires or necromancers,” said Benedetto, with a tone implying the answer was obvious. “Otherwise, they would come on in battle like a mob, or like a herd of enraged kine, with no order nor cohesion.”

“I always thought they might have some memories of drill,” suggested Zanobi. “Despite having died since they learned it – enough at least to maintain their dressings. I don’t think I could ever rid myself of the memory of such an aching misery as early morning drill.”

Nofri frowned. “There’s more to it than that though. They know to attack the enemy and not each other; and they can stand regardless of provocation and opportunity until the moment is right for a charge.”

“Again … it’s evil magic that both raises them and drives them forth, directing them,” said Benedetto.

“So, without a vampire to play them like marionettes, they would flail and founder?” asked Nofri.

“Who’s to say they are played like marionettes? They might have just enough will left in them, howsoever wracked and tortured it is by what they’ve become, to imbue them with a burning hatred of the living – those who still possess what they have lost. Puppets possess no such will. Think of a necromancer as more like a hunter with a pack of hounds. He raises them vicious but loyal, makes them fit for the hunt, then chooses when and where to let them off the leash. The hounds have a hungry lust for the kill, but they obey their master’s commands. Out alone, the hounds are still dangerous, just less particular about who they attack.”

“Do necromancers tie them up like hounds?” asked Zanobi.

“What?” said Benedetto, obviously confused by the strange question.

“Look, see,” said Zanobi, pointing ahead. “Like that one!”

The three halted, and Nofri and Benedetto followed Zanobi’s gaze.

Up ahead stood a zombie, clothed in filthy skirts, it’s face almost entirely hidden by long, greasy, matted hair. Its hands were shackled in iron and chained to a sturdy looking post set into the ground by its side.

“That’s odd,” said Nofri. “Why chain it up like so?”

“I haven’t a clue,” said Benedetto. “She can’t act as a guard, as anyone can walk around her. She can’t be a look out for she ain’t going to cry for help. And she surely hasn’t been raised to swell the ranks of the defenders, for if so, why is she here?”

“Do you think she was chained before or after she died?” asked Nofri.

“And was it before or after she became undead?” asked Zanobi.

Nofri’s brow furrowed. “Eh?”

“That’s not the mystery here,” said Benedetto. “Think on it. The undead are raised to serve necromancers and vampires, yes?”

“Aye,” the others both agreed.

“So why did they trouble to raise her then leave her chained?”

Nofri’s face drained of colour. “Is she a vampire?” he asked, gulping. “For they have their own wills, not beholden to those who sire them?”

“That’s debatable,” said Benedetto, hinting at a whole new argument.

“Well if not a vampire, then is she alive?” asked Zanobi. He took a step forward and asked, “Shall I go see?”

“No, Zanobi, there’s no need. Stay put,” ordered Benedetto. “We can just ask.”

He cleared his throat, then shouted: “You there? Are you hurt?”

The zombie’s head snapped up, the ragged and rotten mess that was its lower jaw made visible as its hair fell away, and it issued a disgusting, gurgling groan.

“It’s a zombie,’ declared Benedetto. “Why is it here, though?”

“Perhaps whoever magicked it up couldn’t be bothered to go to the trouble of freeing it?” suggested Nofri.

“Then why go the trouble of raising it in the first place?” asked Benedetto. “Necromantic magic has to extract a price, surely? I can’t imagine one goes about it lightly.”

Zanobi sniffed, then pointed at the zombie, shaking his finger. “Then maybe it raised itself, only then to discover the somewhat inconvenient fact that it is chained?”

“It can’t raise itself,” said Benedetto.

“Can’t it?” argued Nofri. “This place has been corrupted long enough, surely? Maybe the magical taint of necromancy has rooted and grown to curse the whole land?”

Benedetto pondered this, while the others stared with sick fascination at the zombie. He then said,

“More likely whoever raised her decided they had plenty enough defenders and she was surplus to requirements, not worth the effort of freeing. But we can’t be sure and you could be right. Whatever the truth, we must tell the captain that here in the marsh, the undead require no necromancers to sustain them; nor to command them, nor perhaps even to conjure them up in the first place. In a realm as old as Miragliano, that could mean one hell of a lot of walking corpses. Worst of all, it could be that Miragliano is so replete with defenders that they have no need of more!”

“Should we shoot it?” asked Zanobi.

“No,” said Benedetto. “It’d be a waste of powder. She’s not going anywhere. And I don’t want the shot to alert every foul creature around to our presence.”

“Best be away, then!” suggested Nofri.

They now began to veer away from the city, intending to navigate an arc which would cover a rockier stretch of ground to the south-west and bring them back to the army’s current camp. To reach the rocks, they would pass some stone ruins, once a farmstead, which they had been ordered to scout due to a report of activity there in the night. The three of them now moved even more carefully, picking their way slowly and carefully around the boggy pools and stopping frequently to look around, hoping to espy any enemies long before they drew close.

Their caution proved justified, for as soon as the ruins came into view, they could see movement –several long polearms and spears, even a ragged banner. The idea that it could be some of their own comrades did not even enter their minds, for they could see immediately that the banner took the form of a human hide, daubed crudely with blood.

“Have a care!” whispered Nofri, needlessly, as the three of them halted. “There are more here, and these aren’t chained.”

“I don’t see anyone to command them,” said Benedetto, squinting against the grey-glare of the sky. “I was right. This place is swarming with zombies, and not because some vampire is leading them to war, but because the land is thoroughly cursed.”

Each of them adjusted their match and blew on their coals, in readiness, while straining their eyes to take in the details. Beside the bearer of the grisly standard stood an armoured figure, in mail and plates of some strange and archaic design. Such might be expected on the animated bones of long dead warriors, but not on the still rotting carcasses of zombies. Nofri wondered if the bog waters had preserved the corpse’s flesh over the centuries.

The closest zombie seemed to be looking at them with malicious intent, but what else would such a creature feel? It clutched a long staff upon which two blades had been clumsily tied, as if to make kitchen tools and a staff into a polearm. Perhaps some ancient dweller of these parts had been forced in desperate circumstances to fabricate the makeshift weapon when faced with wicked foes, only now to become that which he had once fought?

No wonder he looks so annoyed, thought Nofri.

The clutch of zombies to the left also carried odd-looking weapons, of equally long proportions. Nofri suspected they had all died together in the same incident, during which encounter they had presumed, for whatever reason, that they would be best armed with very long weapons. Perhaps they had been trying to keep zombies at bay? Or even attempting to round them up? Whatever they had intended, they had presumably failed, and died clutching their unusual weapons. Now, in undeath, they had found those weapons quite literally ‘to hand’.

“Right,” Benedetto said. “We’ve seen the ruins. We know what’s here. There’s no need to get any closer. I say we skirt around the rocks rather than head straight for them. I don’t fancy finding out if those blades have kept their edge!”

The other two said nothing, instead just loping off after him as he altered course. They moved less cautiously now, splashing through the muddy waters, stumbling occasionally. They removed their matches from the serpentines to clutch in their left hands, so as not to cause an accidental firing. Even just the noise such a shot would make worried them, never mind the damage they might do to each other, for like Benedetto had said, they did not want to advertise their presence to all within a mile. They could see the southern spur of the rocks they had intended to pass through and made for that.

Suddenly Benedetto, who had taken the lead momentarily, halted, raised his hand and shouted: “No!”

Nofri and Zanobi stopped also.

“Not this way either,” Benedetto added. “This place is swarming with the devils.”

Up ahead was a pond, upon the far side of which were more zombies. A score or more, reckoned Nofri.

“Too many,” said Zanobi, breathlessly. “There’s too many!”

Nofri glanced at his friend. “Fear not, Zanobi. They’re not known for speed, and they’re on the wrong side of that pond.”

“Aye, but they’re already coming around,” said Benedetto, affixing his match once more.

The zombies were dividing, some to go one way …

… the rest to go the other.

Nofri could see that the enemy’s passage was somewhat obstructed by thorny, scrub-bushes, and that they would have to cross a rocky stream before they reached this spot. Emboldened, and regardless of the fact his two companions had already turned to flee, he stood a while, hoping to see who or what, if anyone, commanded this particular mob.

His attention was drawn immediately to a tall figure in the centre, who seemed yet to have decided which way to go.

The heavily armoured, cloaked warrior carried a huge iron mace and what appeared to be a broken sword. His face was hidden behind his horned-helmet’s steel vizor, so that Nofri had little to go on regarding the true nature of the warrior. It could be a zombie, a vampire or even a living man for all he knew. The manner in which it stood, simply waving its mace about its head, might suggest the dim wits of a zombie, but it could well be the pose of a vampire urging his foul servants on to do the dirty work of fighting for him. Perhaps he knew how worthless his armour would prove against handgun bullets at close range?

“Come on, Nofri!” shouted the others, almost in unison.

The barked command dislodged Nofri from his ill-timed reverie, and he too turned and ran.

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