Being able to reconnect with my roleplaying buddies (old friends, very old friends in Grandad's case) was one of the brightest points of 2020.
What follows is the continuing account of our four heroes leaving the Empire and seeking their fortunes in the Border Princes.
Atop the rise, looking down into the valley, five figures, along with three horses, were silhouetted against the grey sky. Below them unfolded a view of a lush valley, quite unlike the hard and barren lands they had been travelling through. Nestled in the valley, astride a river, stood a walled town. Their goal. Their destination. Masserschloss.
For each of the travellers Masserschloss represented something different but important. What's more, for all of them, the town represented a chance to stop. Pause their journey, sleep under a roof and enjoy a few comforts, at least for a little while.
Sat up on his black mare, Heinz Castel surveyed the small town below. It wasn't exactly Talabheim, but did look like it could offer a few luxuries and diversions. Heinz smiled. He wasn't made for the open road, and soaking nights huddled under blankets.
Also mounted was Wolfgang Braun. As neither the Dwarf or the zealot had shown any interest in making use of the horses they'd gained from the altercation with the Outriders, Wolfgang had helped himself to the piebald gelding. Despite working with horses all his life, he'd never actually owned one (if taking a horse from a man you'd killed counted as 'owning' it). For Wolfgang, the town presented the first real chance to find news of his family since leaving the Empire.
Resolutely stood alongside them, Rudiger Reich had refused the offer of the third horse. He had impatiently explained that his calling was to follow in the 'footsteps' of Sigmar, and he couldn't very well do that from the back of a horse. Rudiger saw Masserschloss as a place where he could spread the holy word, and perhaps begin the process of building a new, uncorrupted Empire. He would be alert for signs from Sigmar to show him the path.
Nobody had thought to even bother offering a horse to Garil. He didn't care. He was a Dwarf, and Dwarfs stay close to ground. For Garil, Masserchloss was likely to be the place where he said farewell to his companions. His destiny, and a confrontation with his cousin Barak, lay far to the east in the World's Edge Mountains. It was a dangerous road with little to offer his companions at its end.
The final and newest member of the party was Detlef. For him, Masserschloss was home. It was also where he would have to bring news of the death of his friend and partner Karl to the man's wife, Marie. He would also deliver the body of Karl, currently unceremoniously strapped across the back of the third horse, for burial. It was not the homecoming he hadwanted.
The journey down towards the town allowed those unfamiliar with it to take in details they had missed from the ridge.
On either side of the river that ran through the valley basin, the lush green land was dotted with small farmsteads. Small boats bobbed on the water. Not the large trade barges and pleasure craft so familiar on the Reik or Talabec, but fishing boats, most likely.
The town itself was situated on the western side of the river. An old stone wall surrounded it. Although nothing like the walls if the great city states of the Empire, it was clearly enough of an obstacle to deter all but the most numerous warbands of greenskins.
On the eastern side of the river, connected to the town by a single stone bridge, a weathered old castle sat atop a rocky bluff. It reminded Heinz of the family seats of some of the more rural noble families of Talabecland, built primarily for defence against the wild rather than comfort.
The gates of Masserschloss loomed ahead. Traffic in the form of traders and farmers bringing their wares to market moved along the road with them.
The gates themselves were heavy, wooden and about fifteen feet high. In front of them were arrayed what could only be assumed to be a group of guards. They wore no discernible uniform, save for red sashes bound about their waists. Their weaponry was a varied collection marked only by a distinct lack of uniformity. These were clearly sellswords, like the Outriders, aligned to Dieter von Masserschloss purely for the coin.
Wolfgang was troubled by the number of guards on gate duty. It would surely be a job for only a handful of men in the Empire, but here there were more than a dozen. Even in the event of an attack, it would not make sense to have men outside the walls. The guards looked like they had been deployed for trouble. Was this a welcoming party? Had news of the incident on the road somehow reached Masserschloss?
Wolfgang's fears were allayed when he realised that most of the guards were not actually watching the road. Their eyes were drawn off towards the river where a small shanty town huddled against the city walls. Tents and lean-tos were clustered together indiscriminately, and drawn, pale faces stared out towards the road. As they drew nearer, a distinct smell assaulted Wolfgang's nostrils, clearly emanating from the encampment.
A few disheveled figures broke away from the camp and headed towards the road. The Nordlander now understood why the guards were there. A group of the armed men intercepted the poor folk from the camp and ushered them away from the travellers. Dieter clearly didn't want trade affected by beggars.
Rudiger's attention was also fixed on the camp, but for different reasons. He'd caught sight of a ragged pennant fluttering in the breeze. It bore the unmistakable sign of the twin-tailed comet. The mark of Sigmar. Looking closer, Rudiger saw that several tents had scraps of parchment pinned to them; were they prayers? Were these desperate folk also refugees from the Empire? The faithful of Sigmar in need of support and guidance?
Rudiger felt his soul fill with purpose. This was clearly a test from his lord and he resolved to help these folk escape their plight as soon as he was able.
Passing in to Masserschloss proved no obstacle to those who could pay. The taxes on the gate also gave a reason why the destitute folk were trapped outside. Detlef explained why the group were carrying a dead man, and then guided the group through the streets to their sombre destination.
The town of Masserschloss struck the Imperial travellers as odd. The buildings were constructed of hardened earth and not brick, and the roofs were thatched, not tiled. In fact, very few of the buildings were more than a single storey. The streets weren't paved or cobbled, and mud made it heavy going underfoot. Everything looked like a poor village of the north, but crowded and packed together.
Detlef guided them through the streets to a small house that looked exactly like all the others. He asked the group to wait whilst he broke the sad news to Karl's widow and then walked up and knocked sombrely on the door.
The group watched as the door opened to reveal a young woman with brown hair. She spoke quietly with Detlef and then a looked of tragic horror filled her gentle features. She began to cry. Detlef consoled and calmed her before ushering his companions over.
"These are the men that saved my life and helped me bring Karl home to you," said Detlef gently.
"You have our sincere condolences my good woman," began Garil in a surprisingly warm tone, "I am grieved that we should make your acquaintance in such tragic circumstances."
"I myself am saddened that we were unable to smite the perpetrators of this foul act and bring you vengeance," added Rudiger in what he clearly thought was the righteous way to console the grieving.
"I can only thank you for what you have done," said the woman through her tears, "my name is Marie. I have no means to offer you proper thanks, but whilst you are in Masserschloss, if there is anything I can do to aid you, you need only ask."
"That is true for me also," added Detlef, "my debt to you is large, and not one I shall forget "
Carefully, Karl's body was taken down from the horse and carried into Marie's humble home with reverence.
After taking leave of Detlef and Marie, the travellers wandered through the streets. Detlef had told them the the best inn in town was the Renegade Crown, which stood by the bridge to the castle.
"Should we not look for somewhere more affordable?" asked Garil, "What money we have is going to need to last."
Heinz snorted, "That's not an option. We now have three horses to find stabling for, and after our travels, I would like to spend at least one night in an establishment of quality, before returning to the life of a vagrant."
"He's got a point about the stabling," commented Wolfgang, "but that's going to make it even more expensive."
"I have no need of horses, or the soft comforts of excess," muttered Rudiger, "a common room in a tavern will serve me well."
"I'm not staying in a shithole," spat Heinz, "I want to wash. And my horse is going in stable. I have standards. You can suit yourselves."
"Hold on there, lad," said Garil, gesturing for tempers to calm, "maybe we can compromise? Heinz, you want to stay in this good inn, which I understand, but it's going to be pricey, especially with three horses.
'Well, it seems that neither Rudi nor myself have much interest in riding a horse, although I see young Wolfgang has become attached to that patchwork animal.
'What do you say to us selling this third beast? That will cut our costs and also put some more money in our pockets, allowing us a little bit of comfort."
"I have no need of comfort," stated Rudiger, proudly.
Garil smiled, "aye, we know that. But it's best lodge together in a strange town."
"That seems sensible," admitted Heinz, "although I know little of horse trading. Or any trading, for that matter."
"I could deal with that," put in Wolfgang, "by my reckoning, we could make a tidy sum."
"That's settled then," said Garil with a smile.
Heinz offered to take the remaining horses to the inn to get them stables and secure a room whilst the others set about trying to sell the third. Garil was left awkwardly holding the reins whilst Wolfgang and Rudiger asked around for potential buyers.
Wolfgang, naturally, went looking for blacksmiths, and found one who said he might be able to find a good buyer inside a week. Rudiger, meanwhile, was pointed towards the market square. Travelling merchants were likely to be able to make use of extra horseflesh.
Not wanting, to have to wait around, the three decided to try their luck at the market and before long found a merchant called Ranulf.
After having the animal inspected by his muleskinner, the merchant sucked his teeth.
"It's not a great animal, what were you hoping to get for it?"
"Well...erm...eighty crowns?" offered Wolfgang, taken aback that he was talking about a sum of money that he would never normally see in a year's work.
"Eighty? For this nag?" laughed Ranulf, "don't be ridiculous. He's not worth more than sixty."
Wolfgang held his nerve. Sixty crowns. Sixty. He wanted to bite the man's hand off. He paused, swallowed hard and countered, "well, I suppose I could go to seventy."
The merchant also paused and theatrically stroked his beard, musing, "seventy? I can do seventy, if..." he paused, "if the saddle, tack and harness are thrown in, along with that dangerous looking crossbow strapped to the saddle."
Wolfgang almost choked. He'd presumed he was offering all the tack in with the horse, and had quite forgotten about the crossbow. He realised that he was about to be swindled, but he didn't care. Seventy crowns would keep the four of them going for a while and his share would mean that he wouldn't have to worry about money whilst he searched for news of his family.
The merchant smiled a predatory smile, shook Wolfgang's hand and indicated for one of his men to hand over the money.
The Renegade Crown was indeed a good inn. One of the few two storey buildings in the town, it boasted stables and private rooms and looked for all the world like a coaching inn from the Empire. However, the decor was am eclectic mix of different cultures and odd to imperial eyes.
Heinz had secured a room for the four of them and also arranged for baths to be drawn up. He himself was looking refreshed after having washed and changed into distinctly better quality garments.
In their room, Garil, Wolfgang and Rudiger peeled off their stained and torn travelling gear and lowered themselves into the three copper tubs that were steaming in the centre of the room. The tiredness and aches melted away as they genuinely relaxed for the first time in a long time.
They dressed in the fresher but still humble clothes that they had taken from the waggon on the road and made their way down to the common room, where Heinz had ordered food.
It was strange to be in such a crowded place after so long on the road, and Rudiger seemed resentful of the comfort and warmth. Something was playing on his mind and sat glowering at the table and was avoided by everybody in the place.
Heinz meanwhile, was off talking and gambling with merchants and travellers. He seemed perfectly at home in this environment and laughed heartily in convivial company.
Wolfgang felt concerned about his friend Rudiger. Although he wanted to relax, he knew that the zealot was troubled. He'd seen this mood before and knew that Rudiger could easily be angered. Wolfgang resolved to stay at the table with him to avoid any unpleasantness developing.
Glancing about the room, Garil's eyes set on two Dwarfs by the fire. One was was a young Dwarf with plaited blonde beard, in the fashion of Zhufbar. The other was a grey haired longbeard, clearly worthy of respect and full of tales and experience.
His friends were stout folk, but it had been a long time since Garil had enjoyed the company of fellow Dwarfs. Taking a swig of his ale, Garil approached the two Dwarfs.
"Good evening," said Garil, bowing his head," Garil Ragnarsson at your service. May I join your esteemed company, share an ale and swap a tale or two?" Garil savoured the syllables of the Khazalid tongue as they flowed across his tongue.
The two dwarfs rose and similarly bowed their heads to Garil. The older dwarf spoke first, as was right and proper.
"It is pleasing to find proper manners still exist in the world. I am Harkon Thunderstone and this is my son Dorwin, at your service. Please sit, we would be honoured at you company."
The dwarfs talked seriously about their travels in the Border Princes and enquired of Garil's time in the Empire, nodding gravely at his accounts of the Storm of Chaos. Garil asked of affairs in the World's Edge Mountains and was pleased to hear that everything was much as it always had been. He was feeling like a true dwarf for the first time in years.
"Tell me," said Harkon, "you said your family name is Ragnarsson. Does that mean that you are kin to Barik Ragnarsson at Goldstone just to the south of here?"
Garil's blood froze. To hear the name of his cousin, his enemy, was one thing. But to hear that he was so close to the one who dishonoured him, filled him with vengeful fury.
"Yes, indeed," said Garil through a tight smile, trying to keep his true feelings from his face, "but I have not seen him in many years. How fares my cousin?"
"Very well," responded Harkon, appearing not to notice Garil's change of mood, but Dorwin's eyebrow raised slightly, "I do not know what possessed him to name a silver mine 'Goldstone', but he enjoys a good relationship with Dhouda, the ruler of that land and is building a strong foundation for his descendants. I assume to intend to see him soon?"
Garil's thoughts raced. Barik was within his reach sooner than he expected. He hadn't yet considered how he was going to redeem his name, but he had thought often of confronting his cousin in his years of exile.
"Oh yes. I fully intend to pay my cousin the respect he deserves."
At that moment, the door flew open and a man rushed in. His face was bright red, he'd clearly run from somewhere, and there was wild eyed look to him.
"We're at war!"
The inn erupted with questions and shouting. From what the travellers could work out, the Prince of Masserschloss, Dieter, had despatched his eldest son with some men to deal with some cross border raiding to the south by someone called 'Dhouda'. They assumed this must be a neighbouring prince.
The boy, Hans, had overstretched himself and engaged in a full skirmish that had gon against him and the boy had been killed. Dieter was now mobilising for a full scale attack on Dhouda, something that princes didn't usually do, as it meant stripping their holdings of necessary protection.
The inn was alive with activity as merchants tried to determine how this turn of events would affect their business. Some were making plans to leave on the morning, whilst other were trying to make deals that would allow them to make a quick profit. Harkon and Derwin made their excuses to Garil as they planned to head east in the morning and needed to make preparations.
Garil, Rudiger, Wolfgang and Heinz were back at their table, as the commotion rumbled around them.
"I don't see how this affects us," said Heinz.
Wolfgang frowned, "well you wouldn't, my family could be caught in this. You haven't seen what war can do."
"But you don't know where they are, so there's no point worrying," retorted the nobleman.
Garil was silent, considering everything he'd heard that evening.
"It's not my business," muttered Rudiger, "the petty squabbles of princlings are nothing to the will of Sigmar. I have been shown my path and know what I must do."
The others looked at Rudiger. Hey knew that he was not one for empty promises and knew that what he had decided could have a significant effect on each of them.
"There are good Sigmarites living the life of beggars here. They have been carried here by the tides of one war, and now another threatens to swallow them. I intend to aid and protect them."
"What?" snorted Heinz, "you're going to adopt yet another stragglers of beggars? We've only just got rid of the last lot. You don't expect me to help you do you?"
"Heinz, I expect you to do whatever you wish. I have no hold over you. But your aid would be welcome."
"Well, I'll help," put in Wolfgang, "Heinz is right. Without knowing where they are, I can't help my family. However, I can help these people in their stead, and maybe folk who have come from the Empire might be able to give me news."
"I applaud your zeal, Rudi," said Garil, "but I must consider my own destiny. My intention had been to go east. That has now changed, but we still might be parted. I need to sleep on it."
Heinz was defiant, "well, I'm not getting involved in a mercy mission. Take a look at what's going on around you. This is a time of opportunity."
As the four headed back to their rooms, they each considered that their companionship might be coming to an end.
The following morning, Rudiger and Wolfgang were up early, and set off to the market to purchase food to bring to the encampment outside the walls.
Garil ate his breakfast alone and then went for a walk through the bustling streets. From what he'd heard, the war would be with Dhouda, to the south, who Barik was allied with. Joining Dieter's forces would not only be honourable, as the man sought vengeance for his son, it might also bring him into direct conflict with his cousin. On the other hand, he could not imagine Rudiger, Wolfgang or Heinz coming with him. He be facing Barik without allies.
So be it.
Heinz slept in, and the others had gone before he woke. He'd resolved to set off to market to sell some of his acquisitions from his travels before looking for a way he could make himself useful and turn current events to his advantage.
Gaunt faces gazed at Rudiger and Wolfgang as they hauled several sacks into the centre of the encampment outside the walls. They had spent a good sum of money on bread, meat and vegetables. It wasn't the best standard, but it was what they could manage with folk buying up what they could. Wolfgang was pretty sure that the homeless folk wouldn't complain.
The gate guards had looked at Rudiger incredulously when he explained why they were taking sacks of food out on foot. As ever, the zealot had been a convincing talker and the guards had waved them through.
Now Wolfgang could sense the suspicion in the camp around him. These people had little cause to trust strangers, and clearly feared what the presence off the two men bearing sacks could mean.
"Here will do," Rudiger stated and set his sack down. Wolfgang did the same as the Middenlander began to speak.
"Good people. Children of Sigmar. You have been I'll treated by fate and those who should have cared for you.
The failure of the lords of the north to withstand the oncoming storm drove you out of your homes. The lack of compassion of the lords of the south pushed you to quit the Empire. And here, in the shadow of Masserschloss, you have found a hard welcome.
These are times that are sent to test us brothers. Those, like yourselves, who have lost everything are having your faith tested. But I can see from the pendants and icons you still raise, that your faith has not been found wanting.
For those like myself, to whom fate has been kinder, times like these present a different test. One of character. Do I give up what little I have to help those in need? Or do I turn my back and seek only to save myself?"
Wolfgang looked about him. He could see that Rudiger's oratory had caught the attention of a good number of the poor folk. They were still wary, but the clearly wondered where this preacher was going with his speech.
"I choose not to turn my back. I choose not to give up on the pitiable. And I choose not to think only of myself.
I bring you a sign that your faith has been rewarded. A sign that Sigmar has not forsaken you. A sign that Sigmar will never forsake you!
Come, eat. We have brought food enough for all, if all take only what they need."
With that, Rudiger reached into one of the sacks and held aloft the first item he grabbed. A turnip.
It was an odd image, the wild eyed preacher with a root vegetable in his hand, and in another place, Wolfgang was sure the sight would have drawn jeers and laughter. However, these people were desperate, and they understood that these two men had brought food. And yet they didn't move, there was still suspicion in the air.
Wolfgang took a small loaf out of another sack and held it out to a small girl who had edged closer.
"Here you are. It's for you. A gift."
The girl tentatively took a step forward. Her trembling fingers reached out. She looked uncertainly into Wolfgang's eyes and saw only generosity. He smiled and nodded and the girl suddenly grabbed the loaf and sank her teeth into the stale bread.
This seemed to break the spell of suspicion. Wolfgang and Rudiger immediately found themselves surrounded by a heaving mass of people. However, rather than scrabbling only for themselves, something in Rudiger's words had struck a chord. People took only enough for themselves or their loved ones, and passed food to others behind them. Rudiger smiled with satisfaction, whilst Wolfgang looked on mystified at this collective lack of selfishness.
As the crowd started to break up to sit and devour the gift of food they had received, Wolfgang saw a couple of the town guards sauntering through the camp. They stopped a few yards away and then one of them, a man dressed in worn leather armour with a scar running down his cheek began to speak.
"Now that you've eaten something. How do you fancy more? Prince Dieter is looking for recruits. You'll get food and lodging better than what you've got now. Who's with me?"
Wolfgang suppressed a laugh as nobody even looked up. Even so, rage at the audacity of this request built in him.
"You seriously believe people who you've left to starve will fight for your prince?" snapped Wolfgang.
"What's it to you?" retorted the guard, "these people need food, Dieter needs bodies."
"You have a lot to learn about people. They won't just fight and die for a full belly. They need loyalty if you want them to stand." Wolfgang, turned his back on the guard and went back to giving out the last of the scraps from the sacks.
"He's right," Wolfgang heard Rudiger say, "people won't fight for just anybody, as you can see."
"Well, we'll see about that if I come back when they're hungry again," sneered the guard. "Then we'll see if they're willing to fight the Breton witch.
"What if I have a better offer?" said Ridiger calmly.
Wolfgang turned to look at his companion. Something had shifted in his tone and that familiar fire was in his eyes. He dreaded the next words that would come out of his friend's mouth.
"What if we fight this witch together? As one? Rather than a handful of hungry recruits, if he'll feed them, we'll give your Dieter a entire company of men."
The look on the guards face was priceless, but Wolfgang was horrified. Did Rudiger have any idea what he'd just let them in for?