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.