Friday, 18 December 2020

The Long And Winding Road

This is the third installment of our Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay campaign set in the Border Princes. Our heroes: Wolfgang Braun of Nordland; Garil Ragnarsson the Dwarf; Rudiger Reich a devout of Sigmar; and Heinz Castel a nobleman, strangely reluctant to share his background, have travelled over Black Fire Pass to the Border Princes to start a new life. They had travelled with a caravan of refugees from the war and faced many perils, most significantly an attack by Beastmen of the forest. Ultimately they'd parted company with the others, who had decided to seek a place to settle in a mining village called Sweetwater. Our heroes have chosen to seek their fortunes in the town of Masserschloss, the seat of power of a local prince, called Dieter.

This session actually happened several weeks ago, and o my memory is a bit hazy, hence the lack of detail at certain points.

The four travellers watched their erstwhile companions disappear up the track towards Sweetwater. Or at least where they believed the mining town to be. Despite losing the safety of numbers, a strange lightness filled each of their hearts.

Wolfgang Braun felt a sense of pride that he had, in a small way, contributed to the safety of those simple folk. He wished he could have done more. Nevertheless, given the dangers they had faced in the forest, Wolfgang knew he had done all that was in his power to protect the vulnerable. Perhaps he was indeed up to the task of finding and protecting what was left of his family.

Garil Ragnarsson’s relief was much more pragmatic. The caravan had made a very big, very slow and very tempting target. The journeys of his younger days had taught him that these lands were unforgiving. At least the four of them now had the option of being able to avoid threats too large to fight. Perhaps not even drawing unwelcome attention at all.

Rudiger Reich felt liberated. He had wrestled with which path he should follow. Should he protect the people of Sigmar, or follow in his footsteps? Now he knew. He would stride into this wild and untamed land, and bring it into Sigmar’s light. Those loyal folk would someday flock back to his banner when the new Empire was born.

Heinz Castel was just glad to be rid of the tedious peasants.

***

Turning south, the four companions had a spring in their step and now made good time. Spirits lifted further as the volcano grew closer, but was now to the west of them. Occasionally they passed small trader caravans that hurried northwards without stopping to encounter the armed travellers, perhaps fearing they were bandits.

At one point, on the side of the road they came across a small shrine to Sigmar.  It was nothing more than a one-foot-thick wooden wall with a small roof over it, with a wooden carving of Sigmar protruding from the wall.  A handful of scraps of parchment bearing prayers were tacked to the wall and various offerings lie at the foot of the shrine: fresh cut grain, flowers, a woven cord bracelet, a wooden carving of a boy, and a wooden bowl containing a few brass pennies.

The site of this shrine, far from where such things were common, heartened Wolfgang, and lit a fire in Rudiger’s eyes. A sign, perhaps, that Sigmar’s hand was on them. They both took time to pray, and leave offerings of their own, whilst Garil waited patiently and Heinz muttered to himself.

***

Pressing on, the land began to rise. A row of hills linked the highlands to the northwest with the land around the volcano, which smoked and loomed. Reaching the crest of the low ridge, the four of them were able to see that the land flattened to the west, into low lying fenland, shrouded in mist. They remembered the warnings of greenskins lurking in the marshes and unconsciously gripped their weapons tightly.

Later in the afternoon, their attention was drawn to what was clearly a large movement on the road ahead. Heinz scouted forward on his steed and rode back to report that a large company of armed men was headed their way, marching in formation. Moving to the side of the road, the four took the time to rest whilst they waited for the company to pass.

Maybe sixty strong, the men wore black uniforms. They marched under the banner of a spread eagle, red, on a black field. Their arms were composed mainly of pikes with some greatswords and crossbows mixed in. Mercenaries. Tilean probably. At least that’s what Heinz surmised from the cut of the cloth of the overdressed dandy that rode at the head of the column. Barely acknowledging the existence of the four travellers, the group passed north, probably heading to the Empire, to profit from the troubles that beset it.

***

As darkness descended, the group made camp away from the road and passing trouble, although they did risk a small fire to warm their bones. They took turns to watch whilst others slept, and it was whilst Wolfgang was on guard that their sleep was disturbed.

Steps in the undergrowth, brought the Nordlander to his feet, hammer in hand. He was immediately reminded of the beastmen attack on the camp, and whispered hoarsely to the others to wake them, and braced himself for combat. A shape came stumbling out of the bushes, and collapsed near the fire. Wolfgang was about to spring forwards in attack until his senses took in that this was a man, bloodied and wounded.  He had taken an arrow through the arm, which now hung limp. 

Quickly, the camp was awake, hands grasping for weapons, but Wolfgang was already tending to the man, who groaned in pain. Through his anguish, the man was able to relay that his name was Detlef. He was a bounty hunter. He and his partner, Karl, had tracked three bandits to a rocky hill nearby, but they were ambushed.  His partner was killed. 

Detlef asked the travellers for aid. He needed their help to retrieve a locket for Karl’s widow, and perhaps even his body for a proper burial. He also offered them the bounty, if they were able to capture or kill the bandits. Eager to see justice done, they agreed, but only in the morning. Blundering about in the dark would likely get them lost, or killed, or both.

The day broke wearily, and after a meagre bite to eat, the travellers shouldered the packs and followed the injured Detlef into the wild. Without real tracking experience amongst them, the journey could simply have found them wandering had it not been for Detlef’s stumbling and falling making a trail so easy to find that a child could follow it.

The trail led to a rocky outcrop that Detlef remembered as where he and Karl were ambushed, and before long the dead man was found. Whilst the bounty hunter tended to his friend, Heinz rode round the outcrop and returned shortly after to report that he had found an opening that looked a likely spot for a hideout.

Moving stealthily around the rocks, Garil and Rudiger led the way, with Wolfgang keeping a sharp eye out for ambushers. Cautiously, they edged into the narrow passage, which opened into a hollow in the centre of the outcrop. Completely obscured from outside, it seemed the ideal location for outlaws or bandits to lair. Indeed, there was evidence of a recent fire, and a camp abandoned. The killers of Detlef’s partner must have broken camp, fearing retribution.

The body of Karl was wrapped in blankets and put over the back of Heinz’s horse, much to the chagrin of the nobleman. A grateful Detlef swore to uphold his end of the bargain and seek to help the four companions however he could once the reached Masserschloss. And so the party made their way back to the road.

***

“Keep moving, don’t get involved,” whispered Detlef as they approached the group by the side of the road.

Three armed men on horseback had crossbows levelled at a ragged group cowering in front of them. Terrified faces of two men and two women quivered in fear. Their sallow complexions and drawn faces betrayed a tale of hunger, whilst their stained and worn garb suggested they had travelled many miles. Meanwhile, the horsemen were clearly well fed and armed, and did not care that there was another group approaching. Their brash confidence said something other than banditry.

“What’s going on?” muttered Garil, uncomfortable with the scene unfolding in front of him.

“See, the red sashes on their arms? They’re Dieter’s men.”

That made sense. These were more of the Outriders, the caravan had encountered in the north. From what Garil understood, they were somewhat akin to Roadwardens, and were likely to deal with criminals, thieves and bandits. However, the pitiful figures stood by the side of the road didn’t exactly look like hardened outlaws, and if they were bandits, they clearly weren’t very good at it.

“Move along,” called one of the men, sneering. “You can buy us a drink to thank us for keeping the roads safe at the Bridge.”

“Please sirs, help us,” cried one of the ragged men suddenly, his voice betraying a Reikland accent “we haven’t done any…”

Before the man could finish what he was saying, there was a sharp twang. A black fletched quarrel embedded itself in his throat, and the man crumpled to the floor.

“I said keep moving,” snarled the rider, reaching to reload.

Wolfgang’s heart sank as he sense his Dwarven companion bristling with rage beside him.

“Why did you do that?” barked Garil, “He was not threat.”

“Be off with you, or you’ll get the same,” snapped one of the others, “we’re Dieter’s men, on Dieter’s orders.”

“Well, I take exception to this Dieter, and I’ll not be moving on,” growled Garin.

Two more crossbow bolts flew towards the Dwarf, but both went wide. Garin strode confidently towards the riders, only to be overtaken by a charging Rudiger, who barrelled, screaming with rage, towards the fray. Rudiger had understood that these were Sigmar’s folk in distress and was now gripped with righteous fury. Rudiger’s flail swung heavily into the legs of the lead horse, causing it to rear up and dump its rider heavily into the dust.

The other horses screamed and reared and the two mounted men struggled to keep them under control. Taking his opportunity, Wolfgang also leapt forward to assail one of the riders. Reaching up he bought his hammer heavily into the man’s chest. The impact collapsed the man’s chest and he fell out of the saddle and lay still.

The third rider, seeing his companions assailed, took flight and hurried to turn his steed around. However, this momentary pause allowed time for Heinz to kick his own horse into action and leap forwards after the Outrider. If even one of these men escaped, Heinz knew that they could very quickly expect a hostile reception in Masserschloss.

Garil stumped over to where the snarling man lay cowering in the dirt. The man was still fumbling to unsheathe his sword when Garil’s hammer smashed across his temple, dropping him back to the ground.

Heinz spurred his horse forwards, desperate to reach his quarry. He knew what it was to live a life pursued, and having made it all the way over the mountains, he had no intention of starting his new life on the run from the authorities. Again.

Drawing level with the Outrider, whose horse was beginning to gather pace, Heinz brought his heavy, iron handled cane round in a wide arc that toppled the man out of his saddle. Wheeling his horse round, he charged and caught the man rising from the dirt with an upswing right under his jaw. Heinz felt bone splinter as the solid metal head of the cane connected.

Detlef looked on stunned. His new companions demonstrated an instant brutality that had shocked and surprised him. These men were either going to go far in the Border Princes, or they were going to meet a very swift end.

***

The inn was warm and welcoming. Wolfgang, Garil, Rudiger and Heinz ate their meal in silence, relishing the first proper meal they’d had in weeks. For some reason, Heinz had paid for the meal secretly so that his companions did not have to dip in their own pockets. It wasn’t clear why hed done this, but nobody was going to look a gift horse in the mouth.

After burying the Outriders in shallow graves, and putting an injured horse out of its misery. They had told the three remaining travellers to head north to avoid trouble, and perhaps head for Sweetwater, where they might find others from the Empire.

The companions had made excellent time with three horses between them, despite the fact that they were now loaded with crossbows liberated from the dead Outriders. Detlef had warned them that there might be suspicions raised at the Bridge Inn, a toll gate and staging post for the Outriders, but Detlef was known to the guards and few questions were asked.

The following day the party paid the toll, crossed the bridge and headed up into the hills beyond. The land rose quickly, and before long they were exposed to searing cross winds which cut through their cloaks.

There was no immediate signs of habitation for much of the way, although at one point, about a hundred yards off the road the travellers spotted a ravine. The wind made an eerie howling sound as it blew through it.  At the top of the ravine there was an old decrepit shack, which listed toward the ravine, as did all of the trees on either side of the ravine. The party barely paid this sight any attention as they were so close to their destination.

Indeed, it was shortly after this that the crested a hill and looked down into a valley, and beheld for the first time, the walled town of Masserschloss. The seat of power in the region and a place that would become so important in their futures.

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