Continuing our Border Princes WFRP campaign, the companions (Wolfgang the Camp Follower, Rudiger the Zealot, Garil the Dwarf Jailer and Heinz the disgraced Noble) have been tasked by their new prince, Dieter von Masserschloss, with recapturing a ruined castle taken by the forces of his enemy, known only as Dhouda.
With only the small company of barely-trained spearman the group had mustered from Imperial refugees (along with their families in toe) a way must be found to drive the enemy from the castle to prove their worth to Dieter and reclaim it as a new home for the soldiers and their families.
The cold water splashed around Heinz Castel's ankles as he, Wolfgang Braun and Rudiger Reich dug earth, moved rocks and placed fallen branches at the direction of Garil Ragnarsson, in an attempt to dam the small stream.
He wasn't happy.
Heinz didn't view himself as well suited to manual labour. His feet were cold, his arms were sore and his hands were muddy. What was more, his idea of creating a distraction by sending a burning raft down the stream towards the ruined castle had been ignored, even ridiculed. Heinz was normally easy going and calm, but an unusual anger was festering in the pit of his stomach.
Instead of creating a diversion, the others had decided to follow Rudiger's plan of damming the stream to draw some of the inhabitants of the ruin to investigate the cause, and then capture and interrogate them about the defences before attacking.
Heinz knew it was a better plan than his. That's why he was angry.
"That should do it," called the Dwarven stonemason. Heinz had thought he'd been a jailer, but apparently all Dwarfs were trained in at least one craft or trade in their youth. Heinz wondered if the mathematical lessons his father had insisted he sit through with his tutor would ever be useful in this godsforsaken backwater they had found themselves in.
"It's not totally watertight," continued Garil, "but it should be enough to get their attention." The Dwarf looked wryly on their construction. He was glad none of his kin were around to pass judgement on the shoddy workmanship, but it was all they could manage without tools or a skilled workforce. It would serve.
"Now all we need to do is wait," said Rudiger grimly as he walked over to where the murderous looking flail he wielded with such deadly skill was propped against a tree.
"And hide too?" put in Wolfgang, "It's no good if they see us and leg it back to warn others."
Garil nodded sagely, "Aye, true. We need them to get close and all strike on the same signal."
"I'll wait nearer the castle," said Heinz curtly, and stomped off, swinging his crossbow onto his back.
Wolfgang stared after him, "what's troubling him?"
Heinz must have been the first to see them approach, but from his vantage point in a nearby tree, it was only moments later that Wolfgang saw the two cloaked and hooded figures moving through the trees along the line of the stream that had been reduced to a trickle.
They didn't seem too alarmed as neither of the men had drawn their blades, and both had bows across their backs. They were walking without speaking as they passed beneath Wolfgang, but didn't seem to be looking around them, and were instead intent on the stream.
When they got into view of the dam, Wolfgang saw them quicken their pace and run. In mere moments they would be between the points on either side of the stream where Rudiger and Garil had hidden themselves.
Wolfgang was supposed to give the signal at the right moment. Too early, and there would be too much space between the ambushers that their quarry might escape through. Too late, and the men would clearly see where the clumsy Dwarf had squatted down behind a rock thinking he was hidden.
He was just about to call when the silence was broken by a twanging sound, followed by a whistle and a thud as one of the two men was pitched forward with a crossbow bolt embedded in his skull.
Heinz hadn't waited.
Wolfgang scrambled out of the tree, desperate to reach the second man before he could turn tail and run.
However, he needn't have worried. Rudiger came barreling from the man's left, and before the hooded figure could get his blade free from his scabbard, had swung his flail low, taking the man's legs from him, dumping him on the ground.
Before he could clamber to his feet, a solid lump of Dwarf dropped onto his chest, pinning the thrashing man in place.
"Calm down lad, we just want to talk."
"That was a damn fine shot, don't you think?" said Heinz as he sauntered up, his frustrations now swallowed by his self-satisfaction.
"Yes," said Wolfgang as they trudged towards where Rudiger and Garil were wrestling with the man on the ground, "if you ignore the fact we wanted them alive."
"What's the problem? We've got one of them."
"Aye, and if you two would stop yer yapping and help us, we might be able to question him," snapped Garil from on top if the man, "I can't even tell what he's saying."
Wolfgang, remembering the voices he'd heard the night before, spoke firmly in the heavily accented Bretonnian he'd learned as a boy, "stop struggling or you'll end up like your friend."
At the sound of Wolfgang's words, the man's struggles lessened, "get this thing off me!"
"Only when you've calmed down," replied Wolfgang.
The man stopped moving. Garil clambered off him and he came up on to his knees. Rudiger stood menacingly behind the man, whose hood had fallen to reveal a weathered face, with a broad nose that had been broken at least once. Heinz slowly and carefully reloaded his crossbow in full view of the man before pointing it at his frightened face.
"Tell us what we want to know, and you might get out of this alive," said Wolfgang.
"You won't kill me?"
"I won't kill you."
The man looked around at the others for some sort of reassurance, but saw only grim, impassive faces. He nodded.
The interrogation turned out to be easier than Wolfgang had imagined. He'd feared having to witness some of the things Garil had said he'd learned in the jails of Delberz to get the man to crack. The Bretonnian seemed to have little loyalty to his comrades and openly told of there being only a dozen of them in the ruin, not enough to hold the broken walls against determined assault.
They were a scouting party from Dhouda's forces, and their orders were to lay low during the coming campaign and be a staging post for future raids and incursions into Dieter's lands.
After Wolfgang relayed what had been said to his companions, Garil asked, "do you believe him?"
"I don't think he's got a good reason to lie," replied Wolfgang, "what he said seems likely and matches what we've seen so far, and he knows we'll kill him if we find out he's lying. I think he's a mercenary who just wants to live."
"That's a shame," said Rudiger.
"What do you mean?" asked Wolfgang.
"We don't have men spare to guard him, and we have orders from Dieter."
Wolfgang's face fell as he looked to the emotionless faces of his comrades. The Bretonnian clearly understood some of the exchange and asked in a worried tone, "now I've told you, you'll let me go, yes?"
Wolfgang looked sadly at him, "no, I'm sorry."
Horror sprang into the man's eyes, "but you said..."
Wolfgang turned away as Rudiger raised his flail.
"I only said I wouldn't kill you."
Rudiger was poised, ready to strike. His faithful flock of Sigmarite warriors were crouched in the undergrowth behind him along with Garil and Wolfgang. They would attack over the rubble of the ruined north tower and drive the defenders before them.
Heinz had taken a handful of men in a flanking attack through the other ruined tower to the southeast. Their job was to hit any determined resistance from behind.
Rudiger knew he would have to strike hard and fast. The small company of men they had briefly trained would waver if they met determined resistance. If the captive was to be believed, there weren't many in the castle, but they would be experienced. Rudiger trusted that the element of surprise and the armour of faith would be enough to win the day.
For himself, he felt more protected than usual. Not only had he Wolfgang and Heinz stripped the corpses of their prisoners of their armour, but Rudiger could feel Sigmar's hand on his shoulder. Victory today would win this place for his followers. Giving them a home and him a place of strength to build his vision from.
His new Empire.
Rudiger stood and raised his voice to the heavens, "now is the time, my brothers! Now is the hour when you cease your flight from danger. Now is the time when you put aside your fear. Now is the moment when you show your true worth. Let us take this place for your families, for your future, for Sigmar!"
A cry rose around him as the spear armed men stood and began to move quickly towards the rubble, "FOR SIGMAR!"
Heinz heard the shout and smiled. He knew he could count on the zealot to make enough of a fuss to draw all attention away from where he and his picked team of men began stealthily moving towards their target.
Rudiger had barely reached the first of the rocks from the tower when arrows whipped out from the darkness of the tower towards them. From the sounds behind them he knew that some of them had found their mark and sent men tumbling to the ground.
Rudiger did not look back. It was not that he did not care for the faithful; quite the opposite. To look back would be to slow down and show doubt. Both would be deadly to the rag tag force behind him. No, he must lead, and charge into the breach as a shining example to those that followed.
Garil saw two men fall in front of him. One of them was hit in the leg, and was simply wounded. The other, though, took an arrow to the chest, fell and did not move again.
The Dwarf remembered talking to the man during the march. His name was Stefan. He was a cobbler from Ostland and had travelled so far to die in this place. He had a wife.
Rudiger clambered as fast as he could up the rubble. He saw hooded figures quickly disappear from view as the arrows stopped coming.
Good. Let them flee. It would inspire the men to see their cowardly foes retreat. However, he knew that they must strike before the enemy could form an organised defence. Even a handful of bowmen could cause havoc amongst unarmoured spearmen if given the chance.
Rudiger increased his pace as he scrambled upwards.
Wolfgang urged the men on. He remembered the first time he had gone into battle in the north. It was nothing like this. The enemy had been a seething mass of mutated filth, determined to rip the men of the Empire limb from limb. Fear had driven him on; the knowledge that only victory would keep him alive.
This fight was different. The unseen enemy were not as terrifying, and just men. But to these simple folk that had fled from the abominations of the Storm, the prospect of charging and fighting for their lives would still hold dread.
It was different, but Wolfgang knew what the men must be feeling. He urged them on nonetheless.
As he clambered down the other side of the rubble, into the ruin of the tower, Rudiger heard a great number of shrill cries go up as a murder of crows were disturbed from their roost and took to the air.
The enemy were also clambering, but upwards, over the smaller pile of rubble on the other side of the tower. Just four of them. That had been why the arrow fire had been so desultory.
Rudiger wondered momentarily where the others were. They had been told to expect a dozen. Were they about to be ambushed? Were they charging into a trap?
It didn't matter now. They had no option but to continue onwards.
Heinz pressed on.
The tower they had made for was more intact that that which Rudiger's force had assaulted. There was less rubble to navigate, but the far side of the tower was still standing, and Heinz guessed that they would have to still get through a door to reach the courtyard. Even a couple of men would be able to hold such an obstacle, and Heinz prayed that his small group had not yet been noticed.
From the shadows of the ruined tower, Rudiger and the leading men reached the top of the second mound of broken stonework and looked down into the courtyard.
Blinking in the light, Rudiger understood why there had been so little resistance. In the centre of the courtyard a troop of horses had been gathered and were being hastily saddled and packed.
They were getting ready to flee.
Of course. Rudiger had assumed that their enemy would stand and fight, but this was a scouting party, with orders to lay low. They knew they couldn't hold the place against determined assault, and they had no idea that their attackers were little more than beggars dressed in sacks. Heinz's 'uniforms' had worked.
Rudiger now took in the full picture. They were going to ride out of the flooded gate. Even if Heinz appeared from the opposite tower as planned, they would be too few to stop them and the horsemen would ride free.
What was more, his own assault was slowing down on the rocks, and below them a handful of the enemy were now stood in line, with bows bent, pointing up towards them.
Garil looked up towards where Rudiger had reached the top of the fallen masonry and briefly paused, silhouetted against the sky.
He was certainly a brave, if not foolhardy, man. Garil did not know what exaclty had happened to the Middenlander, but at times he reminded the Dwarf of his own kin that had taken the oath if the Trollslayer. A path that had called to the wronged Dwarf more than once.
Wolfgang also looked towards Rudiger, but wondered what the hell he was doing. He was making an excellent target to be shot at, posing like a fool at the top of the rubble.
As if in answer to the Nordlander's concerns, a volley of arrows whipped past Rudiger, narrowly missing him. Wolfgang did not know whether his friend's life was charmed in some way, but in the time he had known him, Wolfgang had seen Rudiger recklessly charge into danger many times and emerge unscathed.
One of the men stood alongside the preacher was less fortunate. An arrow caught the man in the shoulder and pitched him backwards. He fell head first onto the rocks, and made a sickening noise as his skull connected with a jagged stone. The man lay still, blood oozing from beneath him.
Still no sign of opposition.
Heinz could hear the noises of battle ahead as he made his way quickly across the floor of the ruined tower. As he had guessed, a door lay ahead, but there was no sign of any guards, save for an ancient skeleton slumped against a wall, a rusted scimitar in its grip.
He reached the door, gently pushed it open and peered out.
The volley of arrows shook Rudiger out of his reverie and he began the descent towards the enemy.
The bowmen did not stay to fire a second volley and ran towards where their horses were being held for them. They mounted up and then the whole group spurred towards the gate.
Rudiger saw the door of the tower opposite open and Heinz appear. He was too late to block the escape of the horsemen, but Rudiger smiled to see the nobleman rush after the riders, slashing wildly at the rear most with his heavy mace, as they passed out of the gate.
Rudiger was overwhelmed. They had taken a castle with little more than a rabble of refugees in an almost bloodless victory. Truly, Sigmar was with them.
Garil moved cautiously up the stairs of the keep.
After the horsemen had fled, it had been quickly decided that they needed to check the place was truly deserted. Rudiger had led the search of the remaining towers and outbuildings, whilst Wolfgang had taken some men to tend to the dead and injured.
Heinz had hurriedly led his party back for the women, children and sick just over the hill to bring them to the safety of the castle. There had been an immediate fear that the horsemen might discover them and do some mischief, and so Heinz had gone with all haste.
That left the job of searching the keep to Garil and a handful of men.
Upon entering the ground floor of the large hexagonal building, it had struck Garil as odd that the great hall of the ground floor showed no signs of occupation. It was untidy and wrecked, of course, but the structure of the building was sound, and it seemed the natural place for a party of men to camp.
As they had moved up to the next level, which only extended across half of the hall below, Garil had discovered two equally unoccupied bedrooms. Motheaten tapestries hung on the walls, and the rooms smelled musty, but again it struck Garil as strange that whilst occupying the castle, nobody had thought to sleep somewhere warm and dry.
Perhaps they had always intended to flee if attacked and so had wanted to be close to their horses? Without provisions, a prolonged siege could turn a castle into a tomb. Yes, that made some sense. It's not what Dwarfs would do, but men might think like that.
Garil and his men pressed onwards and upwards to the top of the keep. Their way lit dimly by arrow slits in the walls. The top floor was divided into several rooms around a central hub. These rooms, again untouched by any recent activity, appeared to have been abandoned in a hurry. Cupboards thrown open, items of clothing left on the floor. As if the original inhabitants of the castle had needed to flee quickly.
The only room that seemed totally undisturbed was what appeared to be a library in the southwestern corner of the building. Rows of shelves held books upon books. Garil could guess why these had been left untouched. Like himself, most men lacked the skill to read, and books would not be what most people of any race would reach for in an emergency.
Garil knew Heinz could read, all nobles could, and he presumed that Rudiger might also know how. He doubted it was an ability possessed by the farrier, Wolfgang. Perhaps there would be something here to in interest his companions.
What interested Garil, however, was in the southwestern corner of the room. Positioned by one of the arrow slits was what Garil recognised as a spy-glass. A device for looking long distances. Unusually, this one was fixed in position, so that it could not be moved and would look only at a single spot in the distance.
Garil wondered what could require such scrutiny as he put his eye to the end of the spy-glass and peered through.
He was surprised to see that beyond the hill the castle was on, not only were there no more hills, but also the lush green vegetation ceased and an expanse of dead, flat earth opened up to the west. Garil presumed that this must be the area Markus had referred to as the 'Barrens.'
In the centre of the fixed view that the spy-glass gave of this desolate landscape was what appeared to be a single tower, pointing up at the sky like an accusatory finger. Unusually, this tower was not grey, as one might expect of a construction made of stone, but instead it was pale. White. Bone-white.