A cold forge was a depressing thing, thought Brandt. He’d only been the smiths apprentice for six months, and yet in that time he’d learned how the hot forge and steady clink-clang of the smiths hammer was like the beating heart of a town. Farmers came for new scythe blades and to straighten bent plows. Soldiers came to purchase new weapons or to have dents planished from breastplates. Tailors, butchers, and all skilled tradesmen, unskilled peasants, skilled knights and noble lords all might pass through the open arch of the smiths forge. They dropped off and picked up, commissioned and socialized with others doing the same.
Even when they relocated from the village to the small motte and bailey castle, the forge and anvil were a popular spot in the small courtyard behind the walls. That was early on, however. In the first weeks of the siege, a shell from a mortar caught his master, Gerald the Smith, in a blast of shrapnel. Since then Brandt’s paltry skills had been put to the test. Truth be told, he thought he’d done quite well considering the sudden end of his tutelage. The full mysteries of metallurgy hadn’t been part of Gerald’s rough and rambling curriculum and so Brandt wouldn’t be able to create much from rough stock iron, but he knew enough to fix and repair and replace with inferior components. Well enough to get by in the circumstances.
The siege had dragged on, however. Lorch Keep was well supplied, but weeks had turned to months. Now any wood was fuel for cooking, and the forge would no longer be fed. Brandt was resigned to pounding out dents in helms and breastplates and sharpening blades. As the attackers had settled in, however, there was less and less of that to do, and now Brandt had mostly taken to meandering strolls along the inner wall, and polishing tools in the smithy. As he cleaned a pair of tongs of ash and tarnish that seemed older then he was, Brandt couldn’t help but think that a cold forge was a sad sign of a town in decline. The thought was made all the more bitter, when he heard the familiar ringing of a hammer from the other side of the wall - from his own forge being used by their enemies.
Roderick hurried through the muddy streets of Lorch, a fitting name for a pimple of a town on the banks of the might Reik River, his long brown robes trailing in the filth. The streets were mostly empty save for a few children scavenging for food and a party of soldiers trying to repair the garrisons only cannon after it had been blasted from the wall. He nodded to them as he hurried past but none paid him any heed except to spit in his direction.
The Priests of Sigmar were nominally neutral in this fight between Imperial subjects. As a result the small chapel he called home still had a few pieces of wood furniture and a small stockpile of bread. He could understand why they would resent him as their friends and family died on the walls and in the streets while he sheltered behind the chapel walls.
His hurried steps carried him past the smithy, now cold and disconsolate since they had run out of coal. It was sad, he had always enjoyed finding his way into the warmth during happier times to listen to the village gossip and enjoy an ale with the farmers visiting town. He thought he saw Brandt's shadow in the darkness but did not veer from his path to visit. Even here he might not be welcome.
He rounded the corner and felt himself relax slightly as he caught sight of the chapel door. He pushed the heavy wood open and stepped inside. It was a small building, large enough to fit the full time residents of the keep. Today it only had a pair of women praying to Sigmar for salvation. He privately thought it was a waste of time, why would Sigmar chose one side or the other in this fight? It wasn't as though they were besieged by Chaos or Beastmen.
There was a single window at the rear of the chapel that looked out over the river, a weak light shining down on a plain white altare adorned with only two items. The first was a silver hammer with a red stone fitted into the side. Roderick knew that it was a simple war hammer tricked out with silver and a blood stone to look like it was something impressive. The second item was a Book of Sigmar, the holy book of his order. He had been permitted to leaf through it once or twice before when Father Gerwig was to drunk to read it himself.
He bowed to the altar and was headed for his small room at the rear of the chapel when he heard the bell. It was a small one, mounted atop the walls to sound a warning, and it was ringing as though it could repel an attack by the noise alone. He turned and hurried back to where his own bellrope hung from the high ceiling, throwing his considerable weight on the cord so that the heavy bell above him thundreded out its warning.
The smiths apprentice watched the priest scurry past his forge in silence. Roderick wasn’t very popular as far as holy men went. He wasn’t a fully ordained priest, as far as Brandt knew. That makes him what, a monk? A friar? wondered the apprentice. Far from the brimstone spitting war priests you heard about on the great battlefields, Roderick seemed mostly to continue as if the siege hadn’t happened at all, delivering services every Sonntag morning with Father Gerwig to those who would listen. Not being a particularly pious man himself, Brandt had yet to attend the chapel since the siege began.
An enthusiastic peel of brass pulled Brandt out of his melancholy and by the time the heavy church bell joined it, the apprentice was striding out of his forge in his kit. All scavenged from deceased defenders of the wall and skillfully adjust to fit his tall frame and muscled upper body, he wore the open faced bascinet and breastplate of a State Trooper with the addition of rough clamshell gauntlets and greaves he’d managed to hammer together using scraps of battered armour leftover from the last real bombardment a month ago. He had a beaten heater shield strapped to his arm, and a heavy warhammer whose head he’d remounted on a broken spear pole in his hand.
In his mind he cut quite the heroic figure, striding forward and armoured like some noble footknight to meet his foe. In reality, he wasn’t used to how he had to move in a cuirass and while he bore the weight easily on his strong shoulders, the armour and warhammer were heavy. Still, he was strong and thanks to his skilled hands the armour was free of dents and shone bright, the way it should.
Other men were emerging from the keep and coming down the hill, or from where they were resting inside away from the cold of the morning. They had a decent rush about them, though few really had the fear. The last two assaults on the walls had been halfhearted. They’d run up with a few ladders, the men on the walls had bashed a few heads, and the ladders were pulled down. There’d been few casualties on either side, and the attackers had called it a day. The frantic ringing of the lookout bell started to grate on Brandt however, and he hustled up the stairs to where the men were gathering near the gatehouse.
“Brandt Dittmar!” huffed a gruff voice as the smiths apprentice made it to the top of the forts outer wall. “If we had any fuel for your forge, I might send you back down to keep you alive to keep our swords straight. As it is, I think they might be making a real go of it this time.”
Brandt clapped shields in greeting with Sergeant Hoefler, who was the highest ranking member of the Lorch State Troops, which consisted of a depleted unit of spearmen that once numbered 50, a half dozen handgunners who’d been caught betting amongst each other with their precious supplies of powder and shot. They were joined by two Greatswords who acted as the personal guard of Lord Waldo Seidl, and the handful of farmers, tradesmen and unfortunate passersby who happened to be trapped in the town when the army of Gerwin Wendl marched on the town.
One of the Greatswords could be seen above the gatehouse, standing grimly with his flamberge resting at the ready on his shoulder. The other would surely be found with Lord Waldo, who didn’t participate in the fighting, which was for the best. The truth of the matter was that Waldo Seidl, a cousin of some sort to Count Seidl, was not quite a boy and not quite a man, having turned thirteen years of age on the second day of the siege. He and his entourage had been passing through Lorch when Wendl’s men had arrived just before daybreak and he’d become trapped with the rest of them. In theory, Lord Waldo was in command of the fort, and either of his Greatsword bodyguards would have outranked Sergeant Hoefler, but none of them seemed to have any interest in command. Thus the defense had fallen to the veteran Sergeant, whose chief mission had become keeping Lord Waldo out of Lord Gerwin’s hands for use as ransom.
“They don’t look any more organised than the last time, what makes you think they’re taking this one seriously?” asked Brandt as he shielded his eyes to look out on the town. Troops in the yellow and red of Talabecland had begun to muster out of bow and handgun range, and they bristled as one of Hoefler’s men raised the green and red banner of Hochland.
“There,” the sergeant pointed. “They’ve brought up their cannon, and there behind that garden wall? I saw them bring the mortar around behind it. Either they saved their powder for a final go, or they’ve scrounged some more. I doubt it’s for show, as I don’t think even that fop Gerwin would roll them out just for show.”
Brandt gave the troops across from them another look, and realized that they had a certain swagger about them that perhaps they’d been missing. They hustled to and fro, the orders from their sergeants and corporals were crisp and followed immediately. There wasn’t any sight of Lord Gerwin as yet, but that could mean anything. Brandt felt a lump of apprehension in his throat, and spun the warhammer once in his grip. He suddenly didn’t feel very heroic at all.
"Roderick, come with me!" Father Gerwig roared the words as he stumbled through the Chapel, bottle of only Sigmar knew what in one hand, and a dagger in the other. Roderick, who was in the middle of sweeping the aisle between the pews stared dumbfounded at the man. Gerwig hadn't been out of his bed for nearly a week now, drinking everything he could lay his hands on since the enemy siege gun had begun firing.
Roderick leaned his broom against the chapel wall and, with a quick bow to the altar of Sigmar, he hurried after the older man out into the cold drizzle of the late afternoon. The bell above him no longer tolled and he could see the helmets of the assembled townsfolk and garrison on the high walls above. They were all silent as they stared across the marsh lands toward the enemy.
Gerwig led him up a set of stone stairs made slick by the rain so that he stumbled and nearly slipped into the mud below. He only managed to save himself by grabbing onto the cloak of a man on the wall who cursed him out and yanked the cloth away. Roderick made small apologies and stumbled again on the top step, almost crashing into Father Gerwig who had found a place at the wall. Roderick glanced around but no one was paying them any mind, all eyes were fixed on a thin figure standing nearby, a crossbow aimed flat across the parapet. The archers hair was long and fell like black velvet to the small curve of the back, extenuating the flair of a very feminine set of buttocks. The blue dress that the archer wore fitted well enough to confirm that it was indeed a woman, a woman they had all come to call the Blackbird.
Her real name was Maria Fosdick, she was the only child of a merchant couple who had died of the plague some years before. They had left her their estates and a fine house by the river. The arrival of the Hochland forces had seen to the destruction of all of her property beyond the walls and she now sought to take some form of revenge against her detractors by firing at them from the walls. At this very moment she was taking aim at a tall man with a large plume on the top of his helmet. She closed her eyes as she squeezed the trigger and the crossbow gave a satisfying "click" as the bolt hurtled across the empty ground between the town walls and the besiegers.
It buried itself in the earth just short of the man but caused him to jump back in surprise, causing a roar of jeers and catcalls from the defenders who lined the walls. He shook his fist and then turned to yell back toward his own lines. At that moment Gerwig leapt up onto the battlements, bottle disappeared somewhere, and began to scream curses at the enemy lines.
Roderick wasn't sure what drew his eye but at that moment he saw several bales of hay being dragged aside and the muzzle of a cannon seemed to be pointed directly at him. He opened his mouth to shout a warning but in that instant flame erupted from the cannon muzzle.
His world exploded into a mixture of dust, flying stone, tumbling weapons, and screaming bodies. The blast heaved him off the wall and tossed him like some ragged thing into the muddy roadway beneath the wall. It was this mud that probably saved him from injury as it cushioned his fall. He hit the ground with a heavy "splat", mud sloping itself across his face and robes. His ears were ringing, something he had never experienced before, and he tried banging on the side of his head to make it stop.
Something clawed at his sleeve and he jerked in surprise, turning to find himself staring into Father Gerwigs face, a face blanched of all colour. The old priest wasn't looking at him, but at the chapel behind them. He was shouting and pointing. Roderick could just make out at the words "The Book!".
Roderick followed his gaze and saw to his horror that flames were shooting up from the chapel. He staggered to his feet and stumbled toward the building, staggering on his overly long robes, tripping on a corpse to fall face first in the mud. Through sheer will be managed to clamber to his feet again and rushed to the door. The flames had already engulfed the sleeping quarters and were now devouring the roofbeams.
His gaze went instantly to the altar where the Book of Sigmar sat beneath the silver hammer. It glinted in the fire light, its ancient leather pages a strange reddish colour. Without a further thought he plunged into the heat, holding a sleeve to his face as the smoke tried to choke his lungs. He grabbed the heavy book and then, with a last glance toward his bed chamber, he also grabbed the silver hammer.
He burst back into the clear air, greedily drinking in great gasping breaths before doubling over in a coughing fit. Behind him the chapel gave a rumbling sigh and the roof caved in, sending sparks and smoke billowing into the sky. He gazed up at the pillar as it rose into the heavens, mixing with the grey rainclouds until it vanished. Rain drops hissed on the fire, sizzling with some angry energy and he looked down at the Book and hammer in his hands.
Roderick knew Father Gerwig was dead before he returned to him. He could see that the mans belly had been eviscerated by the cannonball, or the stones thrown up by it. The old face, oddly enough, finally looked as if it were at peace. As he knelt in the rain next to the body, Roderick realized that he didn't really know anything about Gerwig. They had never really spoken and the old man had always done his best to shield Roderick from the true evils of the world. He wouldn't be able to do that anymore.
“Oh, Jurgen! Oh Jurgen, yes! Jurgen!” Priska thought she was very convincing. Certainly Jurgen was enjoying himself, and so he should. It was unlikely a bland man like Jurgen Wolter could talk his way into an ugly milkmaid, let alone a lady of her standing in an regular situation. However, as the siege wore on and the tediousness of it all had nearly driven Priska to who-knows-what, her standards had to be adjusted. He was a fine enough lover, and though his face was as dull as his personality, his body was firm and strong in all the right places. It was to be expected in a Greatsword and one of Lord Waldo’s bodyguards. Jurgen had other uses as well, she mused. Before this afternoon’s tryst, he’d brought her a small package of delicious dried apple strips. Lord Waldo didn’t like apple, he had said, but Priska Steiber was smarter than some simpering lordling. She’d hungrily eaten a few strips, then wrapped the rest up. A treasure like that could buy all sorts of favours, or at the least be enjoyed alone. She’d had to share some of her initial taste with Jurgen as a half-hearted form of foreplay.
She could feel in his hastening efforts from behind her that he would reach the top of his end soon, and so she reached down to make sure she did as well. Moments later, however, he faltered. She turned to look over her shoulder to see if he’d already climaxed when she heard the tolling of the chapel bell. Jurgen extricated himself quickly and awkwardly with a grunt and Priska gasped. “What…?”
“What are you doing?” she demanded, rolling to a sitting position on the straw filled bed.
“The bell is ringing,” replied the dull soldier stupidly as pulled his trousers on.
“What?” sputtered Priska. “So?”
“It’s an attack,” answered Jurgen, though his voice was muffled as he pulled his undertunic and smelly arming coat over his head.
He’d pulled his boots on and turned to look back at her with a blank expression on his face. The fool probably thought he looked romantic or dashing or something, but he just looked sweaty. He pulled open the door and left without saying anything, which was probably in his favour.
“Jurgen!” repeated Priska in equal parts surprise and afrontment. “But what about me?”
- - - - -
The Blackbird loosed a few more bolts at the Talabecmen, but the enemy were more wary after her first and kept out of range and behind cover. Brandt, along with most of the other men on the walls watched with interest, admiration and in the case of some, undisguised lust. Brandt was admiring how a cold breeze had lifted Miss Fostick’s dark hair when a distant booming caught his attention. By the time he realized the source of the urgent angry whistle that followed, it was too late to do anything about it. The crenellations on the other side of the gatehouse from Brandt exploded into shards of stone, several men being thrown to the ground below. The rest of them took cover, screaming curses or prayers or just screaming. Only a moment passed and the roof of the chapel exploded, scattering flaming timbers amongst the grounds inside the wall. Most guttered out in the cold and the mud.
There was a shocking moment of quiet, the only sound being the ragged breath of angry and frightened men and the groans of the wounded. Sergeant Hoeffler, a half dozen feet down from Brandt, was the first to move. He stood, looked up and down either end of the wall then stood up with a grunt between two still intact crenellations.
“You missed me, you cross-eyed cunts!” hollered the old soldier, punctuating his declaration with a gob of phlegm spat towards the enemy. The Hochland troops inside the wall stood up as one, cheering and jeering in equal measure. The Sergeant hopped back down and started shouting orders to his men, all about his business.
“Schmitt, Bachmann! You two are on lookout. They’ll be sending more at us with that artillery and I don’t want my head taken off by the next one, so you watch the crews and give us as much notice as you can. Handgunners! Spread out and keep your heads down until they’re in range, we’ll let you know when your guns can bark.”
There were a few more shots aimed at the top of the wall, but it seemed as though the first had been lucky for the gunners, as the next few either hit the wall or went high, impacting the hill that the small keep sat upon. The cannoneers readjusted their aim to the gate, smashing balls into the iron-sheathed oak and the rusty iron portcullis beyond. The mortar, however, was what gave the men worry as they hunkered down under the slow bombardment. Over the span of half an hour, it blasted apart two more buildings and set several others on fire. It seemed as though each shell landed closer to their position on the wall. This one to their left, this one to their right, but nearer every time.
Brandt stayed where he was and kept his head down. He couldn’t help but wonder what had saved most of them so far: The love of Sigmar, inexperienced gunners, or something as mundane as strong winds fouling the mortars trajectory. The other men had begun to mutter, however, that the Talabecmen were moving forward. Hoeffler ordered the Handgunners to stay where they were. The enemy were using the artillery as cover to bring forward improvised mantlets, and the six Handgunners couldn’t afford to waste a single bullet.
Roderick was sitting in the mud, his back to the smithy wall, staring at the body of Father Gerwig in front of him with a detached curiosity. It was not as though he hadn't seen death before, there were enough rampaging Beastmen, Greenskins, and Sigmar knew what else, coming and going to leave a trail of death across the land. Life in Lorch was cheap, as it always had been for the race of Man.
None of that made a difference at that moment, however, as the light rain ran down Roderick's shaved head, collecting on his eyebrows before dripping down onto his cheeks like tears. He did not cry tears of his own. He had never known his parents and Father Gerwig had never treated him as anything other than a servant to clean the Church while the old man got pissed. He never shed a real tear in his life.
A cannonball trundled by overhead, vanishing beyond the rear walls, presumably to splash down in the river somewhere in the distance. The Church alone had burned, though the mortar that fired as irregularly as the cannon had managed to smash the rooves in on a pair of smaller buildings.
Men crouched in the rain on the walltop and Roderick raised his gaze toward them. They were pitiful things, the fear in their eyes masked by bad jokes and insults screamed across the walls. Everyone pretended not to see when a men had to piss, or vomitted in fear. It was as human as anything else that had happened that day. It made it all the more ridiculous that their enemies were Men when there were so many other enemies to fight.
The Blackbird had remained on the walls and her dressed was drenched now, clinging to her body like a man to a broken spare in a great storm. Her cloak was thrown back over one shoulder and she was busy cranking the handle on her crossbow while every man who could see her stared in open desire. There was no arguing that she a stunning girl.
Shouts from further down the wall brought everyone to their feet, the half dozen handgunners unwrapping the cloth and leather covers from their flints. It seemed that the enemy was coming at last. Roderick didn't know what to do.
The Book of Sigmar and the silver wrapped hammer lay in his lap and he idly traced the engravings on the books cover as he watched the Blackbird take aim with her crossbow, close her eyes, and squeeze the trigger. A roar of approval came from the defenders, she had scored a hit.
"Priest!" Sergeant Hoeffler's voice sounded from the wall and Roderick blinked up at him. "Kindly escort the lady to the Keep."
The Blackbird gave a last wave to the cheering defenders, blew them a kiss, and then quickly descended the stonesteps, her dress trailing in the mud. The Sergeant had always insisted she return to the keep during an assault. Her death would do more damage than good to the garrison morale and none of the defenders begrudged her the safety of the main fortress.
"I don't need your help." The voice was cold as ice when Roderick extended his hand to help her through the mud. She brushed past him, her upper lip drawn back in what might have been a snarl. "I am sure I can manage without the help of a man who has no balls."
Roderick stood dumbfounded in the mud as he watched her walk away, her hips swaying as she went. Someone in the village had started a rumour that all Priests of Sigmar were gelded when they joined the Order and it seemed that rumour easily extended to him. To be fair, he had never given anyone any reason to think otherwise.
A guardsman at the keep entrance bowed as the Blackbird entered and she offered him a dazzling smile. For some reason that made Roderick angry. It was not an emotion he was familiar with as he had been a mild mannered youth, taken into the clergy when he had nothing left, and now he was being treated like scum for no reason other than an accident of birth.
The rage inside of him began to grow and he picked up the silver hammer, slinging the heavy Book over his shoulder by its dull grey chain. He wanted to hit something and it seemed that the enemy intended to oblige him.
Brandt desperately needed to piss. Sure, he’d already taken the time to crouch at the inner edge of the wall and let fly whatever nervous half-hearted stream he could manage twice already since the bombardment had began, but that didn’t seem to have any bearing on his suddenly tightening bladder. It’d happened the same way during the last assaults. The nerves would come, he’d relieve himself thoroughly before things really kicked off, but the moment the time was upon them the only thing his body seemed to care about was letting loose, though he knew he was empty.
“Ladders!” someone shouted, and Brandt joined in the chorus of curses and prayers. For an insane moment he couldn’t remember if he’d prayed or swore, and he laughed a bit. Nobody seemed to mind, each of them seemed to handle the fear in their own ways, and so long as a man stood strong on the parapet nobody judged. There was a ragged crackle as their handgunners fired their first volley, and Brandt peaked up over the wall to see the results. One of the ladder teams had fallen over in the mud as several of them had taken wounds from the spinning bullets. Then the rest were at the walls.
The ladders were hoisted against the walls and everything was a flurry of action. Men armed with spears who’d lashed crosspieces to their poles had the job of shifting the ladders off the wall, either backwards or more usually to one side. They managed to toss two of them down, but by then men had reached the top of others. Panic threatened to grip Brandt Dittmar, but he pushed it away. He was angry at himself for being afraid, and he forced that anger towards the enemy. One of the ladders that had been shoved away was raised again nearby, and Brandt brought his heater shield up under his eyes with a snarl, hefting his warhammer at the ready.
Earlier in the day, the smiths apprentice had imagined himself as some bold hero with a memorable battle cry that would elevate him amongst his fellows as a warrior of renowned. He imagined himself standing shoulder to shoulder with the famed Greatswords, perhaps with his own bold chinless beard. As the first Talabecman reached over the crenulations towards him, Brandt met him with instinct instead of intellect, spitting and shouting.
“Fuck!” he bellowed thoughtlessly, and obliterated the mans face with his hammer. The man went limp and fell back from the wall, but the next man managed to hop over from another ladder. Then the battle began for real, a desperate ugly fight at the top of the wall. There was a rhythm to it, and the BOOM-CRACK of the cannon acted as metronome.
The defenders did well and the attackers never managed to get a hold on the wall.
“Sergeant Hoefler!” came a shout from the Gatehouse, a deep bellow that carried over the noise of battle. It was the Greatsword who’d been almost single-handedly keeping his stretch of the fall free of the enemy with great battlement-clearing sweeps of his flamberge. “Sergeant, they’re massing!”
The old fighters stepped towards each other to speak together and Brandt wasn’t able to hear their conversation. Horns were sounding from the other side of the wall and Brandt raised his now-battered shield, ready for the next man to come in range of his bloodied hammer. That man never came, and as doubts and questions started to push against his raging heartbeat, Sergeant Hoefler began hoarsely barking out orders.
“Down from the walls, lads!” he pointed towards the keep. “That cannon’s done its work, we’re falling back! Handgunners, give us cover as long as you can.” The four surviving handgunners answered with a ragged cheer as the rest of the men reluctantly pulled themselves from their hard-defended parapet. Brandt joined them, keeping close to the Sergeant as they hustled down the stone steps to the mud below. He tried not to look at the corpses that had tumbled to their side of the wall; a few of their own men, and a handful of the enemy that had been shoved over to keep the space cleared for the warriors feet. Brandt saw the gate as they went past. Jagged metal from the outer portcullis reached inward through the mostly shattered oak of the inner gate, and bent cannon balls littered the ground nearby.
There was shouting, and the sounds of horses. Brandt heard a clang and turned to see grapples flight into the wreckage of the gate. There was a barked order he couldn’t quite hear, and the ropes were pulled taught. A great groan went up as the wreckage began to twist away.
“The gate…” Brandt muttered, until the reality of the situation set in. “The gate! Sergeant Hoefler, the gate!”
"Ladders!" The shout came from the walltop and Roderick jerked his head around to look at the parapet, expecting Talabecmen to come pouring over the crenellations. His heart had begun pounding and he could feel a heavy knot in the middle of his chest as he ran toward the battlements, the silver hammer in one hand.
He went quickly up the stairs, his free hand clutching his robes high so he did not trip on them as he had a short time ago. He paused and pressed his body to the wall when the hand gunners fired, not realizing it was the Hochland men until he saw the smoke drifting away and their feverish movements as they reloaded. He took the last few steps and arrived on the fighting platform just as the first Talabecmen ladders slammed into the stone.
"Get out of the way priest!" Snarled a man with a long spear as he shouldered Roderick aside to drive his blade into the face of an enemy swordsman who had appeared between the crenelations, lips drawn back in a snarl beneath his huge moustache. The spear grazed his cheek and blood misted the air, but it was enough to send the man hurtling into space. He vanished from sight with a scream.
The spearman gave his own horrible scream as a crossbow bolt, fired from the ditch beyond the wall, slammed into his forehead, ripping his helmet off to leave a savage red gouge that instantly welled with blood, blinding the man. Roderick watched in horror as the next man up the ladder drove his sword into the spearmans mouth. Without thinking he took a step forward and slammed the silver hammer down with all his strength on the attackers helmet. There was a heavy "bonk" sound as the helmet caved in and the skull beneath it was crushed into pieces. He had killed a man. He turned and vomited.
He was still on his knees, dry retching when he felt a strong hand on his shoulder. Brandt's voice was kind, and he was speaking perhaps more loudly than he had wished to mask the fear in his eyes.
"Good job Brother. You've done yourself proud." The smithy helped the priest stand and Brandt grinned at Roderick who glanced down to see that the front of his robes, and the holy book, were smeared with vomit. "Come on, the Sergeant wants us off the wall."
Brandt gave Roderick one last heavy backslap that almost sent him over the edge and into the mud again before jogging after the Sergeant. Roderick glanced about the walltop as the hand gunners unleashed a ragged volley. Bodies of both sides lay crumpled in heaps along the wall, looks of surprise, fear, and pain, stamped on the faces of so many young men. What a waste.
A short sword had fallen nearby and Roderick picked up, swiftly sawing the lower hem of his robe off so that he might run without issue. He has just tossed down the muddied piece of cloth when he heard Brandt's voice from below. A bellow that turned every head.
“The gate! Sergeant Hoefler, the gate!”
A horrendous screech of protesting metal and the sound of cascading stone filled the space even as the gatehouse shifted and seemed to buckle slightly as the portcullis was ripped from its mounting. Roderick saw the Sergeant leading a rush of defenders to the gate and he glanced around. The stairs were a ways away. So he jumped, aiming for the same mud patch he had hit before.
As he struck the ground he felt pain shoot through his left ankle and he pitched forward, managing to save himself from falling into the mud, the the book of sigmar, one its loose chain, smacked him across the face and his nose began to bleed. He would have laughed if he wasn't so damn scared and the chuckle he had felt at the ridiculousness of his situation was replaced by a sob of fear.
Sergeant Hoefler and his men reached the gate in a rush, trying to form a hurried shield wall. They never stood a chance as two Greatswords, like the legends they were, appeared through the dust and took their heavy weapons to the gathered militia. Men fell screaming into the mud, or were trod underfoot as they were knocked down in the panic. Talabec militia followed, along with crossbowmen and behind them, dark shapes looming in the archway, Roderick could see horsemen.
"Brandt! Tell his lordship the gate is lost, get him to safety!" Hoefler was screaming at the smithys apprentice even as he hefted his sword and shield. There was no one else to call upon. The only two men not engaged in the fight at the gate were Brandt and Roderick. The two looked at each other and then turned as one and ran for the keep. Behind them they could hear the shout of the Talabec commander.
"Throw down your weapons and you will be spared! Surrender!"
The last sight Roderick had as he limped up the steps to the keep was that of Hoefler sinking into the mud, a long pike in his chest, and the rest of his men throwing down their weapons and holding their hands wide in surrender.
Brandt stared as the gate was pulled away in a great screeching lurch. Sergeant Hoefler didn’t give an order so much as a bloody-minded yell, surging forward with his men loyally at his back. Brandt’s hesitation gave him a wide field of vision of the event, as only two Talabecmen surged into the hole between the wrecked gate. The smiths apprentice could see the two men, each a head taller then most of the defenders, and wielding huge straight zweihanders, in contrast to the Hochland Greatswords’ wave-bladed flamberges. The first swing of the man on the right took the head off a green and red clad spearmen before smashing through the collarbone of the man beside him. The warrior on the left swung lower, clipping several of the Hochlanders along the arms and chest, whirling his blade around his head and following through with a second swing.
Just as he began to move forward, Brandt saw Sergeant Hoefler back out of the melee and look over his shoulder towards the smith and the mudstained priest. "Brandt! Tell his lordship the gate is lost, get him to safety!" He nodded dumbly and spared the priest a look before they both turned tail and ran for the large double door that was the keeps main entrance. Their flight was unmolested, and a voice called for their surrender just as they made the doors. Brandt slammed into one of them hard, then remembered which of the had been left unlocked and pushed through that one, pulling the panting clergyman in behind him. Together they pushed the door closed, then hefted the large beam up and down into its catch, barring the door.
They stood together, heaving in ragged breaths after their sprinting retreat. Brandt leaned is head against the door, his helmed clunking dully against the wood. He’d hesitated. When the moment to defend the gate came, Brandt Dittmar had stopped dead and stared while his comrades had rushed forward. He tossed his bloodied warhammer aside and and slammed his fist against the door angrily. Beside him, Roderick gave a start at the noise.
“Brandt, your arm,” the young man said, pointing. The smith looked at his left arm, still clutching at the cut-up ruins of his heater shield. A crossbow bolt had hit him and pierced through. Closer inspection revealed the head of the broken off bolt had gone clean through the shield and into the makeshift clamshell gauntlets the smith had cobbled together for himself.
“I’m all right,” he replied, trying not to think about it. He hadn’t noticed, truth be told, but his arm had immediately started throbbing. “We need to find Lord Waldo and tell him we’ve lost the courtyard. If he doesn’t already know.
- - - - - -
The women and those few who were too young or infirm to fight had gathered in the well appointed bedquarters at the top of the keep, usually reserved for the ruling lord or his guests. They’d done this each time the Talabecland forces had attacked, watching as the soldiers and those men who’d formed the town of Lorch’s small militia fought off the attackers. Priska Steiber was amongst them, tactfully in a different bedchamber then that of Lord Waldo and more importantly Jurgen, who was back to being the loyal bodyguard.
They women with her watched in silence, for the most part. There were a few muttered comments, both good and bad, as that merchant's daughter Miss Fosdick left the wall. For her part, Priska had nothing to say. That woman who played at being a soldier was below her station, and certainly impertinent. She probably rolls about with the men in the storeroom, she thought, completely missing the irony of her musings. They watched as the ladders were lifted and the fighting began. They watched as the Hochlanders fell back from the wall and the gate was pulled down. There were gasps of horror as their men were cut down by the two Greatswords and despairing moans as the surviving soldiers and militiamen threw their battered weapons into the mud.
One man didn’t surrender, however. Jurgen’s comrade, the second Greatsword stood firm, his bloodied sword at the ready. The Talabecmen surrounded him with spears, until a ripple of movement went through them and they pulled back. The pair of enemy Greatswords in their muddied red and yellow uniforms approached the stubborn warrior, blades raised in challenge. Priska saw the lone man nod, then set his feet in a combat stance.
The Talabecmen rushed him as one, and there was a swift clash of blades. The defender held his sword by the haft with one hand and at the leather wrap with the other, giving him the control needed to fend off the two swordsmen who assailed him, for a time. In the end, a probing swipe at clipped his calve and caused him to stumble, and he ended up with a blade plunged deep into his armpit from the other side. It looked to the onlookers that some words were exchanged between the warriors as the defender fell to his needs, but soon enough the man had topled forwards into the mud. The surrendered men looked on sullenly as their victorious counterparts cheered.
There was talk among the women of what a brave man he had been, how he’d be remembered. Priska thought he had been an idiot for fighting when the battle had already been lost. The onlookers watched with worry as their captured men were marched out, and a panicked chatter rose amongst the room until a man walked forward to the base of the small bluff on which the keep sat. He had the bright heraldry and dyed plume of a Noble and was recognised at once as Lord Gerard Wendl, commander of the besieging forces.
“Waldo!” called out Lord Gerard, the insult of not using the boys proper rank echoed in the man's tone. “Get out here, Waldo! It's time for you to surrender, my boy!”
Maria Fosdick stood at the rear of Lord Waldos chambers watching the crowd of civilians, a few crossbowmen, and the young lordling himself stare out at the chaos beyond. The battle was over. She could feel the tempo shift when the gate collapsed and knew that it was only a matter of time. She heard rather than saw the death of the single Greatswordsman, his compatriot loyally standing next to Lord Waldo as his partner died. A great defender indeed.
Her dress was clammy and wasd chaffing against her body so that she pulled irritably at it. She had found a long red cloak on her journey up into the noble bedchambers. The irony of her coming here willingly after the number of times Lord Waldo had tried ordering her here so that he might make a conquest of her was not lost.
“Waldo!” called out Lord Gerard, the insult of not using the boys proper rank echoed in the man's tone. “Get out here, Waldo! It's time for you to surrender, my boy!” The voice boomed up from the courtyard and she saw the little lordlings face turn red.
"Boy," He spluttered. "I am lord of Lorch! And he calls me a boy!"
Maria privately thought that she had rarely seen a young man look more like a boy. He was short, skinny, and his face was pockmarked with acne and measle scars. Years of inbreeding throughout the noble family had left him with one eye that tended to wander on its own and his black hair was already whispy. He was hardly a man to inspire confidence in anyone. Yes, boy was an accurate description.
At that moment the bedchamber door was thrust open and two men staggered into the room. One was Brandt, the smithy's apprentice, and she smiled involuntarily at him. He was a handsome enough lad, funny, kind, and always ready with a quick wit when she had visited his forge in the winter. He was wounded, a strip of white cloth already turning red about his arm, a heavy hammer clasped in one hand. The second man was the priest, though it took he a moment to recognize him. His long clean monks robe was torn, bloodied, and covered in mud. The Book of Sigmar was likewise covered in blood. He too carried a heavy hammer and she could see that the silver had been badly disfigured near the head. It seemed the priest had learnt to fight after all.
"I will not surrender, boy," Waldo chuckled to himself at the joke. No one else shared his mirth. "Come and get me!" He was yelling out the window and turned to see the two bloodied men, taking them in an instant, though clearly not recognizing either of them. "Excellent! More warriors. Come, follow me."
Lord Waldo scutteled to nearby table where he took up a sword and belted it to his waist. He was at least wearing a suit of fine chainmail with a plate chest piece.
"Jurgen," The Greatswordsman saluted. "Come along, bring what soldiers we have, we will use the tunnel to escape and find my uncle to avenge this defeat. You two, with me." He hurried out of the room on his chicken legs, waving at the new newly arrived men.
Maria felt an instant flash of fear. She had no doubt that the attackers would recognize her from the battle and she doubted they would be terribly kind in their victory. A vision of being thrust onto her back and rutted by a dozen soldiers filled her mind. She hurried after the small group, quickly catching up to the priest who was limping at the rear of the group.
"You look terrible, Father." She said, trying to crack a small smile but her face was locked in a grimace of fear. He did chuckle however and nodded slightly.
"I am indeed terrible m'lady. I may not be cut out for soldiering afterall. My balls may not be as heavy as I had hoped."
The reminder of her cruel words brought a blush to Maria's face and she stammered an apology that he waved off.
"No need. You were not wrong. I have never been a warrior but it seems I may have no choice now."
She gave a small nod in ascent as they continued into the depths of the keep, passing the main door that was already shuddering under the impact of the attackers axes.
Lord Waldo and his entourage of soldiers left the bedchambers in a hurry after taunting the attacking Lord. Priska basked in their superiority for a moment, then the words that had been hastily exchanged between the young Lord and Jurgen settled in. She immediately left the room of wailing women and servants too old or young to have butchered in the courtyard below. Priska caught up with Waldo, the two men covered in blood and soaked in rain and mud who were talking to that merchant's daughter and Jurgen, who marched dutifully behind Waldo. They passed the main door, which sounded like a dance floor the way they were banging on it. The reality of what sometimes happens to noble Ladies when a keep is taken dawned on her, and she pushed past the warriors to the front of the group. Huffing to keep pace with the long-legged Jurgen, she grabbed him by the elbow, pushing her long nails into the inside of his elbow between the steel plates of his armour.
“Jurgen! You have to take me with you,” she hissed, cutting him off as he was about to protest. “You will not leave me here to be raped and ransomed! I’m coming with you and that’s final.”
The dull brute looked back and forth from her and his liege, eventually nodding. “Just keep close and stay quiet, Prisk--- Lady Steiber.” Priska slowed her pace, falling in behind the fighting men and the Fosdick woman. The hammer-wielding warriors gave her curious looks, but otherwise didn’t say anything and Priska refused to engage the merchant’s daughter with even a look.
They wound their way through a spiral staircase into the cellars. Lord Waldo lead the group, but every so often Jurgen would point him in the right direction. Priska suppressed a grin. The two of them had found a few quiet corners down here over the last few months, and made sure they didn’t stay quiet. They passed the keeps well, that had kept them in clean if unpleasant water throughout the siege, and came to a room full of now-empty cider barrels. Around the back of one huge puncheon barrel, was an old iron bound door. Lord Waldo produced a set of iron keys with a self important flourish and what he surely thought was a charming grin aimed at the merchant’s daughter. Any charm he may have mustered was ruined as he had to try several keys to open the old door.
“My Lord, I must insist I take the lead,” Jurgen said, surprising both Priska and Lord Waldo with his forthrightness. “Nobody from Lorch has been in this tunnel in years, and it’s possible the Talabecmen have found the other entrance.”
“A fine idea, soldier! You should take the lead, one of you others watch our rear,” commanded the Lordling, handing the keys to Roderick. It occurred to Priska that he might not even know Jurgen’s name, despite having been guarded by the Greatsword and his deceased comrade for months. The large man grabbed a torch from the wall, plunging the cellar into darkness and handed it to his Lord before entering the tunnel. Waldo followed, holding the flame high. Priska immediately went after, not bothering to wait for the other three.
Behind her, Brandt looked at Maria and Roderick, then pulled his wounded arm through the remains of his heater shield with a wince. “I’ll take the rear, if one of you wants to grab another torch for us.”
The small party hurried through the passage, the flickering light of Jurgens torch casting its feeble light on the tunnel floor while Roderick's own torch served only to highlight Brandt's bloodied face and very little of the tunnel behind. Jurgan had been right, there had been no one in this tunnel for a very long time. Twice they came upon partial caveins that had to be navigated by crawling through the dirt.
There were no sounds of pursuit however. Roderick had pushed the door closed after they went through and then locked it behind them. He doubted it would slow any pursuers for long, but at the moment he doubted the enemy even knew where to begin the pursuit. He admired Brandt who had maintained a stoic expression as they went. The mans arm must have been on fire with pain now that he had dragged his shield onto it. Roderick for his part carried his hammer and the torch, having secured the keys by slinging the belt from his robe across one shoulder. This had allowed his robe to billow freely and he was certain expose poor Brandt to a free show when clambering over the caveins. If it had been so, the smith politely never complained.
Plant roots clutched at their hair as they hurried through the darkness and the ever present smell of earth was welcome. The tunnel was mercifully dry, whoever had done it must have known their trade. Roderick wondered if it might have been Dwarves, all of the tools marks he could see in the walls were very precise. Heavily tarred wood beams had been used to brace the ceiling every five paces and the smell of burning occasionally wafted through the air as the flame of a torch came close enough.
They paused once in their journey when they reached a long room, small beds down either side confirmed that the workers must have been Dwarves. Lord Waldo had thought to bring a wineskin which he took a deep swig from before offering some to both Priska and Maria. Priska drank greedily. Maria refused. She did take time to borrow a small knife from Brandt which she used to cut the bottom off her dress, and then slit it up the front to just above the knee so she could better move in it. Roderick had stared hard at the ground when he saw the flash of her legs, swallowing as he reminded himself that he was a Priest of Sigmar.
Brandt had seen his gaze and winked at him despite their situation and Roderick had smiled involuntarily. The Book of Sigmar was across his knee and the heavy warhammer was leaning against the wall next to him. As he looked at the ugly weapon he noticed that the serrated head, where he had smashed a mans head in, was missing some of its silver. A shame. To damage a relic of the Church, even one as pitiful as this, was a sign of the age they lived in.
"Onward!" Lord Waldo had stood and pointed grandly down the tunnel as if he were leading some great campaign and not a disgraceful flight for safety after abandoning his home. Priska had at once leapt up to walk behind him, curtly continuing to ignore Maria who was sitting on the tunnel floor with her knees drawn up to her chest.
"M'lady." Roderick had stood and offered her a hand. She blinked up at him, the smokey light of the torch harshly illuminating her features. Roderick thought it made her look even more beautiful.
She didn't hesitate more than a moment, reaching up a hand and allowing him to pull her to her feet. "Thank you, priest."
He nodded and then paused as she held out a hand unmarked by pox or the brutal rigours of their age.
"I could carry the torch, if you would prefer. I think that hammer might need two hands to swing." She smiled to show she meant no insult and he grinned back, handing her the foul smelling thing at once.
Jurgen, for all of his dull wit, had waited for them to rise, and now turned to plunge into the darkness once again. He was followed by Lord Waldo, who grandly insisted that Priska go before him. He tried the same with Maria but she shook her head, planting herself between Roderick and Brandt, who still kept a vigilant watch on the darkness behind them.
For the better part of an hour the little band of fugitives hurried through the dark, stumbling occasionally in places where the ground had shifted, clambering over smaller caveins, and twice pausing to listen for pursuit and hearing nothing. At length, and at last, they came upon another iron bound door. Lord Waldo snapped his fingers at Roderick who had to unsling his belt, fumble with the knot and then pass the key ring forward. Roderick rebelted his robe as Lord Waldo selected a key.
Like the tunnel, the door was well made, and the lock turned at once when the key was slid home. Jurgen stubbed his own torch out in the dirt and then glanced at Maria who did the same, plunging them all into instant darkness. Maria instinctevely placed a hand on Brandts shoulder.
Jurgen pushed gently at the door and a welcome rush of fresh air blew into the tunnel. A sliver of daylight blinded them an instant and Jurgan waited for their eyes to adjust before pushing the door open further, his sword ready for a lunge. They were greeted by the sight of the fast moving Reik River, its banks lined with bright green vegetation and patches of water lilies. Closer to the bank the water foamed white as it rolled over rocks just below the surface. Small fishing boats plied the surface of the river.
The cry of birds could be heard everywhere and a butterfly flitted quickly past the door where it was set back beneath an overhang. It wasn't until they were into the clear afternoon air that Roderick observed the door had been painted to look like the rock face, and had even been carefully fitted with real stone chunks to make all the more real. It looked invisible if you didn't know where to look. Roderick found himself wondering if he might get to meet a Dwarf one day, maybe visit one of their Holds. He imagined that something as simple as this door would pale in comparison to their own homes.
For a long few minutes they stayed in the shade of the overhang until Jurgen at last stepped fully into the sunlight and glanced up above, then into the trees around. "All clear m'lord."
Roderick let out the breath he didn't know he'd been holding and then grinned at Brandt, then Maria. It seemed that no enemy had found this exit quite yet. They were safe for the moment.