Our WFRP campaign continues. The four companions had successfully managed to turn a group beggars and refugees into mercenary cannon fodder and were now on the march to war.
Grey skies hung heavy overhead and a fine drizzle fell on the army of Masserschloss following the Old Dwarf Road as it wound through the hills.
At the head of the column rode what could be considered a troop of knights, without the panoply and uniformity of those in the Empire. However, despite the mismatched armour, these grim men rode with an intimidating confidence that conveyed the familiar sense of superiority that exuded from all of their kind.
Behind them marched a similarly motley parade of infantry. Experienced fighting men, who knew their trade and took responsibility for their own equipment. In any other land, they might be mistaken for a rabble of sellswords, but here they were the closest thing to a professional army that the region could offer.
In stark contrast, behind them came the gaudily dressed Tilean pikemen and crossbows of the 'Blood Eagles'. Arrayed in striking red and black, their movement suggested the regular drill and practice of a professional mercenary company.
Up and down the flanks of the column, ranging ahead and behind rode the outriders. Alert to the possibility of ambush and enemy activity, they screened the main force and allowed it to proceed unhindered.
At the back of the column trudged a small company of poorly outfitted spearmen. Sackcloth tabards bearing the twin-tailed comet identified them as men of the Empire, and anything but professionals. They were also followed by a straggle of women and children, loathe to leave their men folk, and unwilling to trust the protection of strangers.
Heinz Castel rode proudly on his black mare at the head of the bedraggled spearmen. He inwardly bristled at the disrespect of being ordered to march at the rear, but was also grateful that the damp weather and solid Dwarven road meant that he didn't also have to cope with the indignity of either dust or mud created by the rest of the army.
In contrast, Wolfgang Braun, riding beside him, was enjoying his change in fortunes. The last time he'd marched in an army, he'd been on foot, in the mud, with a palpable sense of panic that the force might be overtaken and consumed by the gibbering hordes of Chaos at any time. This leisurely ride didn't exactly feel like war.
Behind them, amongst the men, Rudiger Reich marched with irritable purpose. He sensed that he had truly found his path and that Sigmar was guiding his footsteps. His destiny lay ahead, and he was frustrated that this army was moving at such a snail's pace. It felt almost deliberately slow and left Rudiger eagerly imagining what lay ahead.
Garil Ragnarsson was also thinking about what lay ahead. However, his thoughts extended beyond this petty human squabble. Somewhere along this road his treacherous cousin, Barik, had established a mine, probably with the clan support he had denied Garil. The time was coming when an old grudge would be settled.
As the evening drew in, the column halted once again and made camp. Each company looked to it's own defences and the Sigmarites were no exception. Guards were posted, fires were lit and latrines were dug.
The men and their families were in good spirits. The arrival of the wild-eyed zealot, Rudiger, and his friends, in their camp outside Masserschloss had changed the fortunes of all of them. Whatever lay ahead, they had eaten better in the last few days than they had in some time, and they were being treated with a modicum of respect and decency. What was more, the march was not punishing, and so laughter and singing were heard around the campfires.
"Are we ready?" Heinz asked of Rudiger, Wolfgang and Garil. He had been passed a note by an outrider earlier in the day. Their presence had been requested by Dieter von Masserschloss, their erstwhile employer, and Heinz hoped to make a good impression.
"Aye, let's get it over with," said Garil, "might as well find out what he wants of us."
"Is it wise for all of us to go?" asked Wolfgang, looking sidelong at Rudiger.
"Fear not, good Wolfgang," responded the zealot. "I don't believe you will say anything to upset this petty heathen princeling."
"That's not what I..." put in the farrier.
"Besides," continued Rudiger, "he asked for all of us."
"Yes. That's unfortunately true," said Heinz with a rueful smile at Wolfgang.
The four companions were ushered into the spacious, if less than grand (to Heinz's eyes, at least) tent. They briefly wondered why their arms had not been taken, but one look at the group of hard-eyed, well-armed men gathered in the tent showed that they were clearly not feared.
All eyes turned to them as they entered, and Wolfgang felt the all too familiar inferiority of the common man for the first time since he'd left the Empire.
All were stood, save for one who was seated on an ornate wooden chair. Dieter von Masserschloss. A powerfully built man in his middle years. His strong jaw looked carved from granite, and his pale hair was in the process of turning from golden yellow to steel grey. Leaning against the back of his chair was a fearsome-looking bastard sword.
The prince's flinty stare turned to the new arrivals, appraising what was standing before him.
He stood to greet them, "I bid you welcome, our newest mercenary captains. I must admit, few have announced their arrival in my lands in such a manner as you have. Simultaneously providing my army with recruits whilst removing a problem from outside my walls. I will admit, I hadn't known how to easily clear that camp without undue cruelty or unmerited kindness, and yet you solved my dilemma in little more than a day. For that, you have my thanks."
He smiled, although in such a way that Garil did not feel particularly reassured. He was reminded of the tales of dragons toying with their prey that his mother had told him as a child.
"Now, let me introduce my commanders, and then we can hear about you."
The collection of armed men took turns to curtly introduce themselves, but it didn't take long before the unfamiliar names became a confusing blur. However, the companions did recognise the gaudy Tilean, Capitan Bertinelli, and the outrider Markus they had met just after entering Masserschloss.
Heinz noted that Markus clearly recognised them too, and regarded them with the eyes of someone who was in the process of rethinking a first impression. Was he suspicious of their rapid change in fortunes? Had word of a missing patrol reached him? Heinz was quietly thankful that they had only kept one of the stolen horses.
"Now," said Dieter, "tell us briefly of yourselves, and why, exactly, you have decided to hitch your fortunes to mine so quickly."
Garil's teeth ground together. There it was. This is the trap, he thought. Dieter was, rightly, suspicious of the newcomers' arrival on the eve of war. They would have to choose their words carefully.
Heinz began, and told a not entirely untrue tale of seeking new life and fortune now that the Stom of Chaos had washed across his ancestral lands. In Garil's opinion, he overcooked the pudding a touch with the bit about wanting to prove himself and find service with the greatest lord in the region, but flattery was clearly something Dieter was used to.
"An ambitious man, it seems," responded Dieter when Heinz had finished, then he added with a grin to the assembled warriors, "with an eye for advancement. Watch your backs, gentlemen."
Wolfgang told the truth, as he always did. Of the Storm, his family and the journey south. The prince seemed taken aback by the Nordlander's frank tale.
"An honest man. Refreshing. Honesty is not a commodity that one in my position is used to. Experience tells me that it will not always be so between us, but this is a good start."
Rudiger spoke of his faith and calling to follow Sigmar. He also spoke of his desire to help the faithful and, characteristically, had the temerity to ask what could be done for them. As the zealot spoke, Garil noticed that Dieter's posture changed. He became more defensive. Something about Rudiger displeased him.
"I know little of your faith, and I am less than keen for people to rally to a banner other than mine within my own borders. However, what I do know of Sigmar is not unfavourable, and, so far, your crusade has been beneficial to me. Pray keep it that way, lest we become adversaries. That would not end well for you, or those of your faith."
Garil now spoke. He was, as requested, brief. He only alluded to family issues that would ultimately take him out of Masserschloss after the campaign was over.
"Well, you have my goodwill whilst you fight with us. I shall not prevent your personal quest from continuing, as long as it does me no harm. I know how important such things are to your folk."
"Well, I thank you for you candidness. I choose to believe your tales, for now. But let me be clear. I do not trust you, and nor shall I. Not because of any fault of yours, but simply because these lands will make you wary of everybody. Even those you consider friends. I will reward good service handsomely, but treachery will be punished without mercy."
There was a silence on the tent. It was clear that Dieter's words were not meant only for the four companions, but all present. The prince regarded everybody about him with equal suspicion.
"Now, to business. You will no doubt have observed the slow pace of this army. This is deliberate. Several days ago, Dhouda's raiders struck across the river at Karl's Folly towards several villages of mine. Skirmishes like this happen from time to time. However, my eldest boy, Hans, rather than simply chasing them off, foolishly pursued across the river and paid with his life. This, I cannot let stand."
"Do you mean to kill this Dhouda?" asked Rudiger. "I've been told she's a witch."
Dieter seemed surprised at the interruption, but tolerated the question.
"She's no witch. She is however, a woman with power, and some men always see witchcraft when that happens. She's Bretonnian though, and no fool. No, I won't be invading. It would take much more than this army to storm Karl's Folly against determined defenders. However, I do mean to send Dhouda a message she won't forget in a hurry."
"In the time since Hans was killed, Dhouda has no doubt been trying to consolidate her gains. However, she cannot hope to match me in a pitched battle. As news of our advance reaches them, her men will, sensibly, abandon their positions and make their way south with whatever loot they can carry. That's where I shall catch them."
"This is a diversion?" said Garil.
"Indeed, master Dwarf. Markus here, has quietly moved his outriders to the river. When Dhouda's forces retreat from our advance, which I am giving them ample time to think about, they will all be caught or killed as they head home piecemeal. I'll make that Breton bitch think twice before ever setting foot across the river again."
"And if they do meet us in battle?" put in Bertinelli.
"Then, good Capitan, you shall earn your pay."
The Tilean smiled a predator's smile.
"Which brings me to you," said Dieter turning to the four companions. "Much as I appreciate your efforts, I shall not be placing your ragtag troop in a battle line. Nonetheless, there is a task more suited to you."
Rudiger and Heinz both leaned forward, eager to hear. Wolfgang shifted uncomfortably. Garil braced himself and stroked his beard thoughtfully.
"To the southwest of here, well away from the inhabited lands, lies the ruin of a keep. My scouts tell me that a small force of Dhouda's men have taken it. They probably think that their presence there might pass unnoticed and will likely hope to hold it as a staging post for future raids."
Dieter sat down again and looked directly at Heinz.
"I want you to drive them out and hold the keep against future attack. Capture or kill any you find there. When you are successful, you and your people can take the keep and the lands around it as their home. It's good land. You will owe me fealty, but those families will have a place to call their own. You will find me a benevolent lord."
Whilst Heinz and Rudiger eagerly agreed, Wolfgang considered the thought of trying to lead poorly armed men against a defended position. He'd seen the hordes of Chaos break upon the walls of Middenheim and he didn't relish the reversal of roles.
Garil continued to stroke his beard. There was more to this than Dieter was telling.
Eager to be away early, the Sigmarites had struck camp before dawn and moved off the road, following directions they had been given. It was heavy going underfoot, and with the women, children and the frail following, they moved slowly.
Heinz had taken to decision to ride ahead with Wolfgang to scout the route and locate the keep. They'd been told that if they headed southeast, they couldn't miss it, but Heinz was keen to impress his new employer and was keen to assess the task.
Rudiger and two of the men with woodland experience ranged ahead and alongside the rag-tag group, alert for danger and searching for the best path. Garil marched with the main group. Helping those that struggled and keeping things moving.
The green hills were dotted with the occasional copse of trees and bushes. It was ideal herding country, and it seemed strange to the travellers that the barren scrubland they'd passed through to the north was inhabited, albeit sparsely, but there was no sign of anybody living here. Perhaps it was the threat of the border, but then again, Dieter had clearly talked about villages further south.
It was midday when Heinz and Wolfgang crested a rise and saw the unmistakable silhouette of a castle on a hill ahead. From this side it looked intact, and Heinz wondered if they'd been lied to. They'd need to scout it before approaching.
"I'll keep watch on it, to see if there's any sign of life," said Heinz, "you head back and make sure they find the right road."
Wolfgang begrudgingly turned back, but before long he found himself out of his bearings. The landscape all looked so unfamiliar. He rode back and forth, desperately trying to find some recognisable landmark, worried that he'd not only lost track of the main body, but also that he didn't know how to find his way back to Heinz.
He was about to give up when he caught sight of a silhouette in the trees ahead. It looked for all the world like someone bending a bow in his direction.
Quickly, Wolfgang raised a hand at the figure, "hold, don't shoot!" he called.
The figure relaxed and stepped out of the shadows, "is that you Herr Braun? It's me, Franz. What are you doing out this way, you've almost missed everybody."
After concocting an awkward cover story for his misdirection, Wolfgang guided the Sigmarites to where Heinz was watching the castle. He found his way back more easily because they were moving more slowly and he had plenty of time to check his route.
Heinz reported no signs of life, and whilst the company and their families rested in the shelter of a small dip in the land, Heinz, Rudiger, Garil and Wolfgang set about scouting the area as the early evening began to set in.
Garil and Rudiger edged from tree to tree directly towards the castle. It stood on a hill ahead of them, but was overlooked by another hill to their right. Heinz and Wolfgang had gone there to see if they could get an idea about the state of the whole building. The Dwarf and the zealot had volunteered to see if they could determine how well defended the place was.
"It's in an odd place," whispered Garil, "what's it for? Even your impulsive kind don't build fortifications for no reason."
"I'd thought the same thing," replied Rudiger, "it doesn't seem wise to put it where it can be looked down on, either. And why does nobody live here? We saw no signs of anybody in this area on the journey."
"Orcs?" Garil spat as he said it.
"Maybe. Do you think Dieter would send us up against greenskins without a warning?"
"I think I wouldn't trust that one as far as I could throw him."
"Me neither. Let's be careful."
They continued their approach to the hill. No site or sound of anybody defending the ominous shadow of the keep.
Away to their right, Heinz and Wolfgang looked down toward the ruin, for a ruin it was. Despite the intact keep and tower facing the direction from which Garil and Rudiger had planned to approach, they could now make out three more towers, two of them partially collapsed. The walls between them had also fallen and diverted what had clearly once been a moat to run through the gates and into the courtyard.
To Wolfgang's eyes, this looked much more promising. He turned toward where Heinz had been to discuss heading back, only to find that the nobleman had gone. He was heading down the hill directly towards the castle.
"Where are you going?" Wolfgang cried in a hoarse whisper.
"I want to get a closer look," replied Heinz, turning. At that point he slipped and tumbled down the slope, crashing through the undergrowth, twigs and branches cracking beneath him.
Garil and Rudiger stopped suddenly as they heard the crashing off to their right. They feared for their companions. Had they been caught? Were they fighting for their lives?
Rudiger looked back towards the keep, and where once it had been a dark, impenetrable wall, there was now a glimmer of light shining through an arrow slit.
Someone was in there.
Wolfgang picked his way down the hill where Heinz has disappeared into the darkness. The trail was easy to follow, and the Nordlander feared that he might find Heinz severely hurt at the end of it. Instead he found Heinz groaning in a pile broken branches at the base of the slope.
"Are you hurt?" asked Wolfgang.
"Just my pride," replied Heinz, "help me up will you?"
Wolfgang put out his hand, but at that moment lights could suddenly be seen moving through the trees and voices could be heard in the darkness. They were speaking a language Wolfgang had not heard for a long time. A language he'd learned to speak to traders travelling through the Empire via Marienburg. They were Bretonnian voices.
"Come on. We need to move!"