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.