Thursday, 29 October 2020

The Road Goes Ever On...

The second session of our online WFRP campaign saw our adventures on the road with a refugee caravan and me trying a different method of creating a narrative.

I knew that the next part of the adventure would involve travelling and so I used a random generator to work out if there would be encounters on the road, when they would be and where.

These wouldn't be encounters thrust on to the party as in a linear narrative, but would be things that the players could encounter and respond to as they chose. What's more, other people and creatures would have their own agendas and act according to what seemed most likely in response to the PC's choices.

This actually led to what might seem an uneventful session, but I think that I ended up learning more about their characters, and they got to begin to piece together how the realm of Masserschloss works as I tried to weave each encounter into a wider tapestry.

Episode 2

Markus and the outsiders were swallowed once again by the misty morning. Soon, even the faintest sound of their passing had gone.

The train of refugees began to move again. Grimly clinging together. Pressing on, hopeful of a better tomorrow. Or, at least, a delayed fate.

The dawn crept forwards into morning and with it the mist began to clear. The road led down from the hills and into a wide plain of rolling grasslands, pockmarked with woodlands. Wisps of rising smoke here and there betrayed the presence of some sort of settlements. Nothing like the great cities of the Empire, or even the smaller market towns. Hamlets, maybe, or villages at most. Tucked into the landscape, not advertising their existence.

Dominating the plain to the south was a single mountain at the tail end of a ridge of hills. It's shape seemed odd to the former Imperial citizens. It was as if one of the gods had sliced off the peak, or flattened it with a hammer. Above this single height was a dark cloud which seemed to issue from the mountain, as if breathed out. 

Only Garil, Dwarf of the World's Edge Mountains knew what it was that shaped the mountain in this way. He had passed this way many years before. He remembered the still stirring volcano on his shame-filled journey to the Empire, fleeing an undeserved strain on his honour. The wonder on the faces of the humans at the sight of it made him smile. For him, though it was a landmark that showed him the way home. The hour of his reckoning was drawing closer.

Beside Garil, strode Wolfgang, leading the mules. He was keen to keep a close eye on them after the disturbing events of the night before. The poor animals were likely to bolt in the event of any more surprises. That would be yet another hardship to bear for the ragged travellers. Something Wolfgang would do what he could to avoid.

Rudiger was not taking in the landscape ahead of him. He was busy offering inspiring words of, what he thought, comfort to those who would listen. Telling tales of Sigmar's undoubted joy at the victory they had won in the woods. The zealous preacher scarcely noticed the faces of those around him flinch as he continually stirred bad memories.

At the head of the column, Heinz rode alone. He casually took in the morning air. For a brief time he was taken back to his days riding in the woods near his home. Momentarily he forgot everything that had happened since then. He savoured the feeling, taking deep pleasure from the tranquil nostalgia and the moist air on his skin.

Some way behind him Garil was beginning to appreciate that the road they travelled was actually really rather good. The muddy trail in the forest had given way to stone slabs. Well carved and evenly spaced, the craftsmanship was more than he expected from human. Especially outside the Empire. He began to ponder the likelihood that the road was of Dwarf-make. Yes. That would make sense.

Garil's thoughts were interrupted by the appearance of a small boy at his shoulder. Scrawny and short, the boy was hovering that bit too close. Enough to suggest that the boy had something to say, but was trying to be polite about it.

"Well, lad, out with it," said the Dwarf eventually. Garil wasn't not fond of children, he just had no real experience of them. Especially human ones.

The boy hesitated. "Erm..."


Beside Garil, Wolfgang smirked at his companion's obvious discomfort. He, in contrast, was very familiar with having children around. He missed his nephews. The boy reminded him of little Stefan, the youngest.

The boy continued, "can I...erm...can I ask? What's it like?"
"What's what like?" responded the Dwarf, bristling at the lack of directness. Were all human youngsters this tentative?

"What's it like to be a Dwarf?"

Wolfgang almost snorted at the impertinence of the question, and stole a glance at a what he thought was a baffled Garil, who apparently had no clue how to respond.

For Garil's part, he was taken aback. Not by the question itself. The child was just curious. What had floored him was the fact that in that moment he realised that he didn't know the answer. It had been so long since he had felt like a 'real' Dwarf. So long living amongst humans. So long hiding from his responsibilities.

Sensing that Garil was struggling, Wolfgang stepped in.

"What's you name, lad?"

"Pieter," came the reply, "I'm eight."

"Pleased to meet you Pieter, who's eight," said Wolfgang with a reassuring smile. "Who are you travelling with?"

A darkness passed over the boy's face, "my mother and father, and my grandfather was with us until he went away last night." It was if a great weight had descended that those young shoulders were too slender to bear.

Too late, Wolfgang realised that he'd said the wrong thing. He thought quickly of a way to change the subject.

"I'm really sorry to hear that Pieter. Hey, would you like to ride on one of the mules."

Like a cloud passing over the sun, the darkness was gone and Pieter looked like a carefree child again.

"Can I?"

"Of course," smiled Wolfgang and lifted the beaming boy to perch amongst the baggage.

At the head of the group, Heinz was brought out of his reverie. To the left of the road the landscape sloped away some twenty yards until it hit a thick line of brush and scrub. Protruding from the tangle thicket of branches was, what looked to be the corner of a wagon.

Heinz brought his chestnut mare to a halt and dismounted to get a better look. Yes, it was a wagon. Heinz could see the furrows cut in the damp earth where the wagon had clearly tumbled from the road and down the sloped. The nobleman's thoughts turned immediately to Esther, the pretty girl he'd had his eye on. Her family had fled the battle the night before.

Behind him, the cautious refugees came to a stop. Aware of the possibility of further attack, Wolfgang helped Pieter down from mule and sent him back to his family. Rudiger issued swift commands to those around him to stay close as Garil and Wolfgang strode towards Heinz. They watched as the young nobleman, cane in hand to support himself, made his way carefully down the wet slope.

Pushing through the bushes, Heinz saw the wagon, but no sign of horse or driver. In the back, personal possessions, mainly blankets and clothes, lay strewn as if they had been hurriedly searched. Ominously,  he discovered a single crossbow bolt embedded in the front of the wagon, close to the driver's seat.

Bandits. The horse and anything of value would be gone, and the wagon's owners would be dead or worse.

The faintest flicker of sympathy for the fate Esther might endure played across Heinz's and passed. His thoughts turned to himself. He quickly climbed into to wagon bed and rummaged amongst the clothing. As he suspected, the bandits hadn't looked closely, and there were some relatively well made garments in amongst the rags. Heinz grabbed the best shirt, breeches and tunic he could find and stuffed them into his bag. He smiled to himself, they weren't the best quality, but they were better that his filthy travelling clothes.

"What have you found, lad?" Garil asked as he crashed through the undergrowth.

Heinz quickly put his bag behind his back turned his attention to the Dwarf and Wolfgang, who had made their way down the hill.

"Whoever they were, looks like bandits got them," Heinz replied, "I was just thinking we should distribute these clothes amongst the group."

"Not a bad idea," said Wolfgang as he pushed his way forwards to inspect the halter and tack, these haven't been cut, with a few men I'm sure we could get this wagon on the road."

"And then what?" responded Heinz dismissively. "We don't have anything to pull it. Unless you suggest hitching up mules?"

"What about your horse?" asked Garil. The frosty look that Heinz shot him answered the Dwarf in no uncertain terms. He wasn't sure how he'd upset the young man, but it was clear that this issue wasn't up for discussion. He also noted the Wolfgang had also visibly balked at the idea, suggesting that he said something foolish.

Garil put the issue out of mind, "well, let's get these rags up the hill."

The three of them quickly stuffed the clothes into a couple of sacks that were in the heap and began to haul them up the hill. Back at the road, Wolfgang and Garil passed amongst the travellers and distributed garments and blankets as best they could to a grateful crowd.

Heinz came last, hauling a bundle and what looked like an abacus, drawing an enquiring look from Rudgier.

"The bandits must have overlooked it, or thought it worthless," said Heinz, responding to the unmasked question, "I thought we might be able to sell it in Masserschloss."

Rudiger nodded at the sense in the man's actions. They might need to sell a god few things before long, just to feed themselves. His thoughts turned briefly to how low the food supplies were. At least he had his faith to nourish him.

The ragged caravan began to move again, and people turned their faces away from the wagon. The tried not to think about what may have happened to its owners.

The day drew on. The road continued south for some time before bending east. From time to time, faint tracks betrayed the possible existence of settlements some distance from the road. Only once did a wider path branch off, but the caravan headed the advice of Markus and continued along the paved road to Masserschloss. All the time, the smoking mountain, now on their right, grew larger and closer. 

Despite the quality of the road, they saw nobody else on it, save for a small group of charcoal burners moving slowly ahead of them. As the refugees closed on then, the broad shouldered men dropped their loads and stood to the side of the road as the Imperial travellers passed by. Pleasantries were exchanged, but Garil noted the men's hands placed warily on their weapons. Whatever Markus had said about the outriders protecting it, this wasn't a safe land.

Several hours passed. The rain came, thin and pervasive. Soaking the travellers down to their bones as the landscape continued to crawl by. The only change in view was the mountain of smoke edging closer and a line if hills slowly appearing in the distance. Occasionally, the scrub and trees would stray close to the road and everyone's breath would be held in anticipation of potential ambush.

Heinz was still ahead, nominally scouting for trouble. The sun was beginning to dip when he saw something odd in the trees ahead. He cautiously rode forward to see a brutal sight that cut him to the core.

Three of the thicker trees by the side of the road had been stripped of their lower limbs. Each had the corpse of a man roughly nailed to it with thick iron spikes. The looks on the stricken faces suggested to Heinz that these brutalised people had not been dead when their punishment had been administered.

Their 'crime' was clear enough. Two of the bodies had clear and visible mutations. One had a cluster of livid purple appendages sprouting from his throat and chest. They looked not unlike fingers that lacked the rigidity provided by bones. The other had a mouth that had hardened and elongated to form something like a bird's beak. Who knew what other mark the third body held?

Above the central corpse, the one with the 'beak,' a rough sign had been put up, bearing a simple statement, "deth to monsters".

Heinz felt sick. Was the answer to humanity's fear of the warping influence of Chaos really this level of brutality? He knew from the experience of his father's serfs that mutation struck families randomly. Were these really 'monsters'? Or were they just poor unfortunates, driven out of their communities only to be tortured and killed for simply existing? Was this really the only way?

Sickened, Heinz turned his horse around and rode back to the others. It would be best if the womenfolk and children were to avert their eyes as they passed.

Warning delivered, Heinz rode quickly ahead, not wanting to look at the grisly sight again. He also had no stomach for hearing Rudiger celebrate the rooting out of corruption with one of his interminable sermons.

The the afternoon became evening and a camping site was found. The remaining wagons were used to provide a sort of central strong point in the camp, and the youngest and oldest were encouraged to sleep beneath them out of the rain. Tents were pitched around the wagons, but no fires could be lit. Food was scarce too. People huddled together, hungry and shivering until exhausted sleep took them.

Heinz had volunteered to watch. He couldn't sleep yet anyway. Images of the impaled bodies lodged behind his eyes. He avoided contact with the other man, whose name escaped him, as he was in no mood for small talk. He stared into the darkness and thought of the soft beds, and softer bodies, of his days in Talabecland.

Suddenly he became aware of a light in the darkness. At first he thought he was imagining it. However, some way away, directly away from the road, a light definitely flickered in the dark.

Quickly, the nobleman roused a few others. Garil, Rudiger and two other men, Mattias and Karl-Heinz. Heinz pointed out the light.

"Lucky bastards," grumbled Garil, "how'd they get a fire going?"

"Do you reckon they'd let us share it?" offered Matthias.

Rudiger scowled, "they're a good way off, no point rousing everybody. I could take my lantern over there and bring a light back. I could also check if they're a threat."

"You shouldn't go alone," said Karl-Heinz.

"Good point," added Garil with a grin, "you and I should go with him."

Karl-Heinz looked horror stricken at this suggestion, and Heinz had to stifle a laugh.

"That's settled then," said Rudiger, "we'll head that way, see who they are and see if we can at least get some fire."

Despite the dark, cold and wet, Rudiger felt better to be doing something. He had been waiting to be shown where his path should lead. A veritable light in the darkness seemed as good an omen as any. He gripped his flail in one hand and his unlit lantern in the other, prepared for whatever course of action Sigmar required him to take.

Garil stumped through the undergrowth behind the snivelling and whimpering Karl-Heinz. The Dwarf was certain that if this did go bad, the human would be more of a hindrance than a help. Rudiger was a stout sort, so at least he wouldn't be fighting alone. 

The land was slowly rising as they walked. It appeared that the light was atop a small rise, and as they approached, Garil could make out trees surrounding what might be a small campfire. He slid his warhammer out of his belt as they got closer.

Suddenly, there was a shower of sparks, and everything went dark. Somebody must have kicked out the fire. They'd been spotted.

Everything was quiet as the three edged slowly forward. Having lost the element of surprise, Rudiger tried a more diplomatic approach.

"Hello," he called, "we didn't mean to startle you. We were just hoping that we could share your fire. It's a cold night."

No answer. Only the wind and the patter of rain on the leaves. Although Garil could swear that he heard the faintest cry, as if from a muffled baby.

With no reply, the three pressed on into the camp site. There were signs that a small group had been here, but they were clearly travelling light, as nothing has been left as they fled. Even the fire had been stamped out totally, meaning that the few flickering embers were not enough to light the lamp.

Tired, cold an frustrated at their futile mission. The three companions turned back to their own camp.

The morning brought further bad news. One of the mules had disappeared from where it had been tied. It seemed bizarre that it could have got out of the camp without disturbing somebody. Without it being led, at least.

The caravan took to the road again, the landscape rising in the north east, until, after only about an hour's journey, they arrived at a junction. It was presumed that this was the road that Markus had told them led to the Sweetwater mine.

A man called Gunter loudly declared, "I don't know about anybody else, but I'm done with travelling."

There was a murmur of agreement in the crowd.

"I'm taking my kin up to this here mine," Gunter continued, "that Markus fella said that there would be work if we wanted it. Now I know nothing about mining, but I'm willing to learn. I can't think that it would be worse than being cold and hungry on the road, waiting for bandits or worse to take me."

The man was clearly speaking what many had privately thought. Heads were nodding, and some were speaking in agreement.

Mattias shouted up, "Gunter's right. We came on this road to find a better life. That means settling somewhere. Why not here? We might at least be welcomed. And if we're turned away, we're no worse off."

Gunter took over again, "I'm not going to tell other folks what to do, but I'm going to Sweetwater, and I'd suggest you come too, at least for a time. Then you can continue your travels if it's not yo your liking. What do you say?

A ripple of assent ran across the group. Only four faces seemed impassive.

Wolfgang knew his brother. Being a miner would not have called to him, and so the Nordlander would continue on to Masserschloss. He was sure he'd find news in the taverns and inns there. Perhaps his brother might even have left him a message.

The thought of becoming a miner did not appall Garil. Not yet though. He'd put off his reckoning long enough. His road led east.

The thought of becoming a miner did appall Heinz. He did not know what fate had in store for him, but he was certain it did not involve a menial job amongst peasants. Masserschloss must hold better opportunities and diversions than this.

Rudiger brooded on the night before. No. This wasn't his calling. This wasn't Sigmar's path if anything, the misadventure in the dark had taught him that straying from his path, no matter how tempting the reason, would only lead to darkness.

And so, a short time later, the four companions watched as the bedraggled travellers they had come so far with took the path into the hills. Farewells were given and blessings were offered.

No, their fate was not to be a life of honest toil in the mines. And so Garil, Heinz, Wolfgang and Rudiger turned their faces south.

Towards Masserschloss.

Wednesday, 28 October 2020

Feel the Magic, Hear the Roar

Half-term has come along given me a bit of time and space to pick the brushes up for the first time in a while. And what better way to get my mojo back that witha bit of eighties cartoon nostalgia.

Oh yes! The Thundercats are loose!

These 'Beastmen Heroes' are from Crooked Dice, and as ever are fantastic miniatures that are a joy to paint. If I have a gripe it's that Panthro should be bulkier. I particularly like the fact that the sculptor has avoided the temptation to make Cheetara as striperific as Deviant Art and Cosplayers would have you believe. It was a kids' show in the eighties, after all.

I was a little daunted by some of the cats, especially Tigra. Not only is he the third set of tiger stripes I've painted this year, but his costume was actually much more varied than I've made it look. I've actually made the blues on him and Lion-O (who I've learned was t one point going to be called Lion-L) darker than the show. This was mainly down to the paints I was working with.

However, I'm actually really pleased with how they've turned out. All they need now are some villains to beat up.

The oddly named Mutants (they are all typical members of their races) of the plant Plun-darr.

Also from Crooked Dice and also labelled as Beastmen, these four came out around the same time as the Apocalypse box. I held off from buying them until I had some cats for them to face, after my first attempt at buying some custom sculpted models resulted in my obtaining oversized, poorly detailed, badly cast monstrosities that I sold fairly quickly.

Given the more earthy nature of their colours, the Mutants were easier to do than the cats thanks to the transformative powers of the Ancient Spirits of Agrax Earthshade. However, I may revisit Slithe to darken his spots as the base green I used was probably too dark.

Whilst we're on the subject of Ancient Spirits, check out this decayed form...

Mumm-Ra and his 'dog', Ma-Mutt. Both from a custom sculptor. Really straightforward to paint with base colours and washes, although I took the time to highlight each bandage, which has given Mumm-Ra a little more 'pop', which I like.

Crooked Dice does a similar model to Mumm-Ra, labelled as an Abomination, and it's equally as good. However, I opted to get this significantly pricier version as a birthday present because, not only did it come with Ma-Mutt, but it also came with this...

Mumm-Ra the Ever-Living.

Yes, I know he doesn't have wings in the cartoon, but the model does, and I like them - although I do keep thinking 'this is a gargoyle' in a gruff Australian voice.

I really enjoyed painting him, as despite my fears, every element turned out easier than I expected.

I'm really pleased to have taken a project from start to finish in only a few days. I've no immediate plans to expand the collection. Thundercats characters are quite hard to proxy (beyond a few human looking ones like Safari Joe or Hachiman), so unless Crooked Dice add to their range, I'll leave this lot as a completed set.

In terms of profiles, I think I might need to do custom 7TV cards for them. The Masters of the Universe fit neatly into 7TV: Pulp, but Thundercats has more superhero and fantasy elements that existing profiles might struggle with (Cheetara's speed springs to mind).

Despite my productivity, free models on the front of magazines and an unexpected (and very generous) delivery of superheroes from Leon, means that I've not actually made that much progress. The numbers are still good though.

Acquired: 217
Painted: 251

Friday, 16 October 2020

Renegade Crowns

Apologies for the delay in posting. Being back at work has drained some of my painting motivation, and current events have been having a limiting effect on my gaming.

However, our locked down reality has encouraged a group of my friends to begin roleplaying online. We've been roleplaying together, on and off, for about twenty years, using a variety of systems. For this, however, we've returned to the tried, tested and trusted Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 2and Edition.

I'm in the hot seat as GM, and I've wanted to run a campaign in the lawless Border Princes for a long time, and so, in the wake of the Storm of Chaos, that's where the group is heading.

The motley (and randomly generated) party consists of:
  • Garil Ragnarsson - a Dwarf Jailer
  • Heinz Castel - a Noble from Talabecland
  • Wolfgang Braun - a Camp Follower from Nordland
  • Rudiger Reich - a Zealot from Middenland
As other gaming is curtailed, I've decided to start writing up the party's adventures. It's not quite an actual play, as I'm not keeping a transcript, it's more 'based on' what happened.

And so what follows is the events of the first session, which primarily focused on the learning the combat rules and lots of exposition.

Episode 1

The rain pattered dismally through the light tree canopy that partially obscured the pitch black sky and onto the broad head and ran down the nose of Garil Ragnarsson as he sullenly tended his small fire. He looked about at the ragged collection of humans he had fallen in with since leaving Delberz.

Most of them were little more than refugees, fleeing the horrors of the war in the north, clinging to each other to survive the journey across the mountains. Some families, some loners, all aware that as a group they were less likely to fall prey to bandits, orcs or worse.

However, Garil had to admit that amongst this flotsam and jetsam of humanity, there were some stout folk that he had begun to think of as friends.

Take young Wolfgang Braun, the Nordlander, who was currently prowling the edge of the camp peering into the darkness, always alert. He'd voluntarily joined his Elector Count's army and served as an attendant and smith to the Knights Panther, who famously rode to their doom in a vain attempt to hold back the gibbering hordes of Chaos. Now the war was over, Wolfgang was seeking his brother's family who'd fled south when the war came.

Then there was Rudiger Reich. He'd survived the sacking of Untergard and had undergone some sort of religious conversion during the siege of Middenheim, where he'd also met Wolfgang when the Nordlanders retreated there.

Garil didn't pretend to understand the humans' fiery approach to faith, but the fire burned bright in Rudi, who was now driven by a zeal to follow the last journey of Sigmar and found a new, purer Empire. He was currently engaging three of the simple folk, Mattias, Klaus and Karl-Heinz, in a theological debate that Rudi was clearly winning...possibly because of the way he gestured with his fearsome looking flail so vehemently.

Finally, there was Heinz Castel, clearly of noble blood, who was fooling nobody with his tattered cloak and muddy boots. The rapier at his hip, education in his voice and the quality of the gems in his rings were all telltale signs of having come from wealth. And then there was the bloody great thoroughbred horse he rode, as if born in the saddle.

Garil wasn't sure what drove the nobleman over the mountains, and Heinz wasn't telling yet, but he knew someone on the run when he saw them.

Garil glanced about and realised that he couldn't see Heinz anywhere in the camp, but assumed the lad was probably off with that serving wench, Greta, who was too free with her favours. Mind you, they were both probably warmer than he was right now.

As for Garil, he had found himself surplus to requirements for his former employer when the jails of Delberz were emptied to fill the Emperor's armies. A chance encounter with his three new friends over a game of chance in an inn had convinced him to join them and head back towards his homeland in the World's Edge Mountains.

So here they were, on the southern slopes of the Black Mountains, having officially left the Empire two days ago. A ragged band of refugees looking for new beginnings in the Border Princes.

"And that," exclaimed Rudi, gesticulating wildly with his flail, causing the chains to clank and rattle, "is why we must not despair! We must look to the example of our Lord Sigmar, who showed us the way. We must leave behind the corrupt and divided Empire and forge a new land in Sigmar's footsteps."

"I must say, master Rudiger," responded Mattias, "your unswerving faith is a blessed reassurance in these trying times.

"And your certainty of purpose," continued Klaus, "does help calm my own doubt about the rightness of bringing my family on this dangerous journey."

Rudiger smiled, the tattoo of the twin-tailed comet on his forehead seeming to shine in the firelight, "nothing worthy is ever built without cost, brothers." He patted Karl-Heinz on the shoulder as he said this, almost sending the small man tumbling forwards.

Meanwhile, Heinz Castel was fastening his doublet as Greta adjusted her skirts and smiled at him in the darkness. Flickers of firelight lit up the bad teeth that marred an otherwise plain face.

"Any port in a storm," thought Heinz, smiling ruefully. Still, she was willing, and had proved an ample distraction whilst he was unable to get closer to Esther, the pretty daughter of the wealthy burgher with the cart, a man who looked at Heinz like a shepherd would look at a wolf. Heinz might have been offended if he himself didn't look at Esther like a wolf looks at a spring lamb.

Having made himself 'decent' Heinz made his way back to the circle of firelight, not waiting to see if Greta was with him.

Wolfgang was tense. He'd been uneasy all day, certain that he could see shapes moving in the trees alongside the road that the small caravan of refugees had been moving along. Maybe it was just his nerves, still traumatised by his experiences in the forests of the north, but a shadow under threat had been growing in his mind.

He had just about convinced himself that he was imagining things and was about to go back to the fire, when he heard the distinct, ominous crunch of something treading on the undergrowth just beyond his sight.

Wolfgang was not some burgher, easily spooked by the night noises of the forest. He'd grown up in a small hamlet outside Frote, which was now a smoking ruin, and could recognise the scamper of rabbits, the scurrying of rats or the light steps of a deer. No, this noise he heard was the deliberately placed step of something heavy.

"Garil," he whispered, hoarsely, "come here!"

The Dwarf looked up from his fire, and saw that Wolfgang was more tense than usual. Grabbing his hammer, the dwarf strode over to where the man was staring into the dark.

"There's something in there. Your eyes are better for this, what can you see?"

Garil strained to look into the dark woodland, but saw little that he could distinguish from the surrounding trees and was about to say so when the quiet night suddenly erupted in guttural shrieking and braying that chilled the souls of all who heard it and froze the hearts of those who had heard the same cries echo through the woods in the north.

A volley of crude spears came arcing from the tree line, some thudding into the earth, some embedding into the sides of the carts and some finding their mark amongst the stricken humans. A cry behind Heinz made him spin round in time to see Greta pitch forwards into the ground, impaled by a primitive spear. With a wry smile, he hefted his heavy cane and quickly drew his trust main gauche, and prepared to meet whatever emerged from the tree line.

Meanwhile, Rudiger had seen the effect that the impending assault was having on the panicked people about him. Mattias and Klaus were edging backwards and Karl-Heinz was ready to run.

"Stand with me, brothers," he urged, "if we scatter, they will hunt us down and tear us apart like prey. But if we hold together, they will meet an unbreakable line of vengeance filled with the righteous fury of Sigmar. Stand with me!"

A fire lit in the eyes of the men as they drew daggers and grabbed any potential weapon that was at hand: a burning brand, a heavy branch, an iron tent peg. They braced themselves for what was to come.

Garil and Wolfgang had also braced themselves, but didn't have long to wait as a shadow crashed through the bushes and coalesced into a shaped that towered of both Dwarf and Man, a goat-headed monstrosity that walked on cloven hooves and wielded a crude, but deadly, axe in one hand, and a shield that looked to be covered in the flayed skins of its enemies in the other. It charged towards Garil, who managed to duck under its swinging axe and sidestep to cause the beast to tumble into an exposed tree root, throwing it off balance.

Wolfgang ran into the side of the creature, swinging his smithy hammer, aiming to catch the creature across its back, but found his blow suddenly blocked by the dreadful shield. Before he could press his attack, Wolfgang found himself attacked by another assailant bursting through the trees, a smaller creature, still with cloven hooves, but with a snarling, bestial face, and clutching a vicious looking club. Wolfgang ruefully turned to face this new foe, leaving Garil to confront the larger beast alone.

More of the smaller beasts leapt from the bushes all over the camp, sending shrieks up from those who could not defend themselves. Heinz was confronted with one armed with a wickedly serrated spear, that was jabbed towards his midriff. The nobleman calmly arched his body to avoid the thrust and brought his heavy cane sweeping round to thump heavily into the creature's chest, clearly winding it.

Rudi saw the devastation and panic all around him, the foul beasts were everywhere. One had grabbed an old man and was dragging him towards the tree line, another was bearing down on a mother and child, whilst a third leapt over tents into the middle of the camp.

Uttering a ferocious war cry in praise of Sigmar, Rudi surged forwards, furiously swinging his great flail above his head and bringing the twin chains thumping down into the back of the head of the creature menacing the woman and child, caving in the beast's skull and splattering all nearby in gore and bone.

Looking up from his bloody work, Rudi saw Mattais, Kurt and Karl-Heinz had stood with him and were wrestling with a beast with their bare hands. Again, the flail chains sang their song of death and again bloody ruin rained down on the unaware beast, ending its foul existence quickly, and from Rudi's perspective, far too mercifully.

As Rudi turned to look for next abomination to purge, he was almost knocked over by a cart being driven quickly past him. A panicked burgher had managed to hitch up his horse and was trying to flee, with his wife and daughter in the back of the cart. Rudi cursed the man's cowardice and stupidity. Did he not know that separating from the herd was what the wolves wanted the sheep to do? Rudi spat in disgust and returned to his bloody work.

Heinz continued to ride his luck and calmly dance with death, as the crude spear leapt time and again towards him, and time and again he blocked, parried and jabbed back inflicting a light blow to the shoulder or a scathing hit to the legs. Finally, tiring of this charade, Heinz sidestepped quickly, lunged forwards and brought his main gauche up under the creatures chin and into the the skull, ending its miserable existence. Withdrawing his blade with a flourish, he turned on his heel to survey the camp.

Despite the ferocity of the beasts attack, they had met more resistance than they clearly expected and were beginning to waver. They looked to their leader, who was locked in combat with the Dwarf.

Garil feared he was over-matched but had used his height to manoeuver his opponent under low hanging branches, impeding the swing of its deadly axe. He kept his swing low and brought his warhammer in a wide arc that caught the beast's thigh, bringing it briefly to its knees. The creature bellowed in rage and pain.

Nearby, Wolfgang and his opponent had both continued swing wildly at each other, wary of getting in each others reach. Suddenly, the beast stepped in, and for a moment it seemed that its club would make a bloody mess of Wolfgang's face, but in an instant the smith's dagger was brought up to block the blow, and, taking his opportunity, Wolfgang smashed his hammer into the side of the creature's head, pitching it sideways to die in the dirt.

With its underlings falling around it, and a grim and implacable dwarf advancing on it, the bestial leader let out a more plaintive bleat and began to back away from its assailant. All over the camp, beastial creatures broke from combat and made for the safety of the dark forest.

Not willing to let his foe flee, Garil sprang forward to unleash one last mighty blow, but perhaps because he was more exhausted that he cared to admit, his blow fell short and he watched in fury followed by grim satisfaction as the monstrosity turned tailed to run for safety but within feet of the tree line it was caught unawares by Wolfgang barrelling into it from the side, knocking it to the floor, where, with a sickening squelch, its head met with a jagged tree stump and was impaled by the force of the impact.

With that, the few remaining beasts broke and openly fled.

The camp was in total disarray, its inhabitants in disbelief. Numbers were injured, several were dead and some were just missing. Nobody talked about those who were gone as contemplating the terrible fate that might await those poor souls seemed too much to fathom.

Garil moved among the injured, using the skills he had learned keeping prisoners alive for another round of questioning. Rudi led efforts to dig shallow graves for the fallen, and as the closest thing to a cleric that the camp had, said a few words of righteous vengeance over the dead. Wolfgang looked to the mules and horses, checking them for injuries sustained in the panic. Heinz and a few others hacked the heads off the dead beasts and impaled them on stakes.

The night passed without further alarm, in fact the rain slackened and subsided, but nobody slept well. When the grey light of morning arrived, it brought with it a seeping mist that curled its tendrils through the woods.

The sluggish camp stirred and began to pack. Even though they had travelled far from the Empire together, there was now a greater sense of community to be observed. Children and the frail were helped on to the carts which had been jealously guarded by their owners. Men folk shared each other's loads to ease the burden. Those who had lost loved ones were comforted and accompanied.

Despite this burgeoning community spirit, there was still one who stood aloof. Heinz mounted his chestnut mare and trotted out to the head of the column, ostensibly to check the road ahead, but Wolfgang chuckled at the nobleman's obvious discomfort around the common folk. He, meanwhile, stayed with the mules, leading and guiding them along the road. Rudi stayed amongst the people offering words of guidance, encouraging the unpopular view that the attack had been a test from Sigmar and that all who had survived should rejoice. Garil stumped along slowly at the rear of the column.

After only a short time walking, Heinz came trotting back warning that there was something coming along the road ahead.

"More beasts?" asked Rudi, pushing forwards, struggling to conceal his eagerness.

"No," replied Heinz, "I think it's horses."

"Bandits?" asked Wolfgang, wearily.

"Unlikely," announced Garil coming forward, "not if we've heard them before they've seen us." He then added, with a smile, "unless they're really stupid bandits, but I don't think we're that lucky."

"I suppose we'd better just wait, then," said Wolfgang, "there's no way we can hide now."

And wait they did. Huddled together in the road, pensive and tense.

Shortly a small company of about a dozen mounted men emerged from the mist. They rode with an air of casual confidence, but the keen eye could discern their caution: crossbows were in hand and loaded; swords had clearly been loosed in their sheaths; and eyes were fixed, hawklike, on the bedraggled collection of individuals in front of them.

Wolfgang knew enough about warfare to know that despite their unkempt and travel worn garb, the riders were skilled and dangerous. The only indication that they were anything other than the bandits they appeared to be was a tattered blue and red guidon held firmly by a rider just behind what appeared to be the leader.

The leader himself was an imposing figure. His helm was of imperial design and from beneath this flowered long blonde, almost white, hair. He wore a great white animal pelt as a cloak, in the style of the birther marauders or kilevites. Across his back was sheathed a bastard sword and his powerfully built frame was protected by a muscled breastplate, which looked like it might have been sculpted on him. He smiled easily as he trotted a little forward of the others, his steely gaze taking in each and every figure in front of him, as if assessing them as potential threats.

"Greetings!" he called, "I am Markus of the northern Outriders, and I bid you welcome to this land. Where are you from and where are your headed?"

As Markus spoke the Imperial refugees almost sagged in relief as they took the man's lack of hostile intent at face value.

"We're travellers from the Empire," responded Wolfgang, "looking to build new lives for ourselves."

"And rebuild our land anew," added Rudi. At this Markus seemed to momentarily twitch.

"Some of us just want to pass through on our way home," threw in Garil, to move the conversation on.

"Mainly," said Heinz, dryly, "we want to get out of these accursed woods before we get attacked again."

Markus' eyes widened, "you've had trouble with the beastkin and lived? If you can wield a blade and will bend the knee, Dieter can find plenty of work for you keeping the land clean of monsters.

"If you're looking to settle and work," continued Markus, "you'll still be welcome, but don't expect any villages to be opening their gates willingly to a large party like yours. Perhaps you could try the Sweetwater Mines in the hills to the northwest, as they're short of labour. Short of that you could make your way to Masserschloss itself.

"But be under no doubt, all the land between this forest, the marshland to the west and east, right to the Barrens in the south is the domain of Dieter von Masserschloss, so there'll be no new lands built here. If that's what you seek, you could try to the west, out towards Pendor Hill and Quaterain, but you'll be tangling with greenskins if you do.

"If you're passing through, well, so be it. You'll not meet many tolls or taxes here, Masserschloss prefers to take coin in trade for goods for your onward travels. Fair warning though, there are bandit princes to the south who'll not be so accommodating.

"Now, given what you've said, we need to press on and see if any more of the beastkin are abroad. Not all travellers are as capable as you."

Markus immediately spurred his horse forwards and his mean followed him slowly. As they passed the little caravan they scanned the ragged travellers, seeming to appraise them, or their goods.

As the riders disappeared back into the mist, the tired travellers began to move again. The mist began to clear and the early morning sun slowly lit up an unknown landscape of possibility and dangers.