It was grim. The troubled heavens, the mood, the landscape, all of it was grim, gloomy, dreary and above all, grim. Looking out from the battlements of the modest stone tower of the weathered keep of Hoffnung, Franz Hubermann squinted through the biting wind. He leaned into the lee of the stonework and pulled up his furred collar to keep out the chill. It felt like the icy fingers of the dead down the back of his neck.
Over the last two weeks it seemed as though he could never stay warm, save in front of the roaring hearth, but with the enemy abroad, their dwindling stockpile of firewood was more precious than ever. He fancied he even saw fleeting flickers of green witchfire in amongst the dancing yellow flames, whilst sitting there late at night on the edge of sleep. A sign of dark powers at work he was sure. Then again, it could just be the beguiling nature of a hypnotic fire and a sorrowful ode of deeds long passed.
There was a dull click, and the heavy steel bound timber door to the inner tower squealed open. The rotund smiling man that struggled out into the wind, a pair of embossed pewter tankards in one hand, and his other trying to prevent the door from smashing itself against the lichen spotted wall, greeted Franz with an even broader grin, displaying a rank of uneven gap teeth. With an effort, he squeezed his body around the edge of the door, and then pushed it shut with his ample behind.
“Here, mein Herr. A warm spiced wine to keep your insides from curdling!”
He held out one of the tankards to Hubermann. Franz took the proffered drink gratefully, and sat down on the bench under the wall, out of the whistling wind. The other man came and eased down next to him, the old bench creaking like a deaf old woman in protest at the load.
“It’s true then, Claus? Vicelli means to betray us?” Claus turned to look his friend in the face, his expression suddenly serious. This was why Hubermann valued Claus Hungard, both as an old companion and as an advisor. He was jovial and full of light heartedness in the main, lifting the spirits of those around him, but dour and focussed when graveness was called for.
“Reilman and his outriders arrived back an hour ago. I spoke to him before he even had his riding gear off and a drink in his hand, such was the urgency in his voice.” Claus leaned closer, so Franz could hear without raising his voice too high. “He was deadly afraid, his voice all a quiver as he spouted about all of our souls being forfeit, and pacts with daemons.”Hubermann was sceptical. Reilman was a horseman second to none, but with a propensity for strong drink.
“What did he see, Claus?”
Claus Hungard sighed, and took a breath before he responded. In that dim light, sitting on that rickety bench leaning against the cold stone, the man looked his age, though he was younger than Hubermann by five years. Both of them looked worn, he thought. Too many cold nights, too many battlefields.
“Reilman said they rode out northeast, two days since, taking the road that skirts the Grey Hills. They followed the trail of a group of horsemen for a day and a night, until they came to a small camp in a hollow, out of the wind. Just a dozen men and beasts under canvas. Seeing it was Vicelli and his men, they made to ride down and join them, but they noticed at the last moment another group of mounted warriors approach the camp from the north.”
As Claus told the story, Hubermann nodded in understanding. It was the way in these remote parts to be wary of travellers, and the signs of the passing of bands of mounted warriors near to their homes warranted investigation, as Reilman was tasked to do. These were dark times, growing darker by the year. Hubermann cut into Claus’s monologue.
“And who were these others Claus?”
Hubermann was keen to get to the crux of the report, and he knew how Claus Hungard liked to stretch out a yarn. He was a teller of stories of some renown, but this was important. Chastened, Hungard continued.
“Ah, yes. Reilmann said they were cloaked in black, and there was a dread air about them. Vicelli’s men were very wary of them, and they kept their hands on the hilts of their swords. Their horses shied and were unsettled by their very presence. When their leader threw back his hood, it was him, underneath. That devil Schwarznacht.”
The devil, Schwarznacht. Count Schwarznacht, a terror from the north of the region. His castle was said to be in the Grey Mountains somewhere, but none had ever found it, or at least not returned to tell the tale. The army of this monster had swept through the northern marches of the Border Princes, setting flame to hamlets and villages.
The shambling meat puppets that made up the bulk of the unnatural enemy brought with them disease and decay and the terror that spread before the Count’s army was as potent a weapon as blade or shot. Great loping wolves had been seen in the blanketing forests, and ancient barrows in the Grey Hills had been broken open and their occupants seemingly vanished. More likely they had been called forth to war by the Vampire’s foul sorcery.
But this was not the heart of the Old World. There were not castles and lords aplenty here to face this threat. The settlements of men were few and far between in this part of the world, and many townships raised one year could be cast down and ruined the next.
“And, how did this meeting play out? It could not have been unlucky chance surely?”
Now Hungard’s face was as grim as the fleeing clouds above their heads. Fat raindrops began to drum off the wooden cover beneath which they sat.
“They have made a pact, an agreement between Vicelli and Schwarznacht, that the forces of Sperenza will not stand against the undead when they march on Hoffnung. In exchange, Sperenza will be left untouched.”
Hubermann clenched his meaty fists. His face was a picture of rage. He banged his hand down hard on the end of the bench.
“Fools! Do they know what they’ve done! They’ve damned us all! We cannot stand against the Vampire’s army without Vicelli’s forces to support us, and Vicelli knows this. The alliance between Hoffnung and Sperenza has stood strong for a century. Our grandfathers drew up that alliance at the founding of the two towns, and through it we have remained strong, survived where others have perished. If they spurn our ancient agreement now, both the people of Hoffnung and the people of Sperenza could be doomed to suffer death, or worse.”
Claus nodded vehemently in agreement.
“The people of both towns would be doomed for certain, for there is no chance that the feind will keep his word and spare Vicelli’s people. Once we are out of the way, the undead will turn on Sperenza, and there will be naught Vicelli can do.”
Claus spat on the floor, to ward off the darkness that talk of the Vampire carried with it. They had mentioned him too many times in the last few moments, and Claus thought he could hear even now the whispers of unquiet spirits drawn to their conversation, waiting just the other side of the eternal veil. The spies of the undead.
“So, what do we do?” Claus asked his old friend.
“We take the only chance we have. Not for naught were Hoffnung and Sperenza named for hope. Let us grasp that hope now, with both hands. We ride out to face the Vampire and his army. If we can cut the heart from the undead force by striking down Schwarznacht himself, maybe we have a chance. If we allow ourselves to be trapped here, they will starve us out or despoil the water supply, and we are all dead.”
Franz Hubermann, Burgomeister of the Border Principality town of Hoffnung got to his feet, a new vigiour in his aging frame. His friend stood with him.
“Come, we muster the army."
The ground that Hubermann had chosen to face the undead was favourable. His troops were sitting on a gentle slope, facing down the hill, which gave them the height advantage, but as the low ground was the flood plain of the swift moving River Grimmig, it also meant that the Vampire’s force would be deployed in the waterlogged mire, under his guns. Let them trudge up the hill towards him.
The force that marched out of Hoffnung was an army born of a proud Empire heritage. To either side of Hubermann’s central position were arrayed ranks of Swordsmen in the black and red of Hoffnung. Flanking them were detachments of Hand Gunners, and Militiamen in their mismatched gear. At the far ends of the line on either flank, Hubermann had positioned his cannon, and to defend them against flanking units of fast moving wolves and other worse things, he had positioned his Outriders, the sons of the ruling council of Hoffnung, and small contingents of keen eyed bowmen.
Hubermann himself was surrounded by his loyal Knights, as splendid as any Order of the Empire. They may be a month’s ride from their ancestral home, but they kept to the old ways as well as any.
He hoped it would be enough. They would dearly miss the presence of their old ally Vicelli, and the pikemen, armoured crossbowmen and mortars he would have brought to battle. Over the years, the alliance between Sperenza and Hoffnung had allowed the soldiery of the two towns to train together and become accustomed to each other’s presence. They had become adept at fighting alongside each other, maximizing on the other’s strengths and learning to mitigate their weaknesses. Now the men of Hoffnung stood alone.
As he sat, mounted upon his armoured charger, the horse snorted and weighed it’s proud head up and down. He rubbed the beasts ears to soothe his fear.
“There now Hertz, I can smell them too. They smell worse than Claus the morning after the Midsummer Feast.”
He was unsettled, as were they all. It was no natural enemy they faced, and few were the men who could stand and face the horror of things that should by rights be dead and buried stumbling forwards to claw their eyes out. He heard the sound of hooves, and Claus rode up beside him. His face was beaming.
“They come, the Sperenzari, to our left, they are marching up the reverse slope towards our position!”
Hubermann was wary.
“Towards us? Or to our flank to take up battle positions?”
Claus’ horse stepped quickly left and right, empathic to the excitement of the rider.
“They march in the traditional battle formation set down by your grandfather, Sigmar bless his soul, in a fighting column, ready to turn when they reach our flank to face the enemy. They have knights to their front, and mortars in tow behind, with a great phalanx of pikes in between. Should I send a rider with a message?”
Hubermann knew not what to expect of his oldest friend, Capitano Vicelli. He was overjoyed at the news that the army of Sperenza had marched after all, but what of the pact witnessed by Reilman? Could the outrider have been mistaken?
“Signal the drums to beat the ‘Comrades in Arms’, and see how they respond.”
Hubermann turned his attention back to his front. From the trees on the opposite side of the river, there was a glimmer of bone and old metal from between the trees, and glimmers of ethereal witch lights flitting to and fro. A thousand yards to the enemy, as the carrion crow flies.
Within moments, to his left the Burgomeister could hear his own drummers beating out the traditional welcome to allied warriors, the ‘Comrades in Arms’, older than the pact between the two towns.
Even as the silent regiments of Skeletons marched out of the woods, cold and rusted blades in fleshless hands, and began to array themselves for battle, the clouds began to darken casting a spirit sapping shadow across the field.
The Burgomeister heard the change of drums, as his ally’s drummers returned the salute. They were really here, here to fight at the side of their old friends. They could win this fight. If they held true, they could win this fight here in this sodden field. He risked a smile to himself.
As Franz Hubermann and his knights looked on, the banks of the river were wreathed in a creeping mist which obscured the waters. On the far bank could now be seen regiments of skeletal knights: riders in black, who held themselves tall and proud as they might have done in life. There were massing unruly packs of vile corpse eaters, those depraved men who had shed any semblance of humanity to follow the lords of the dead and feast amidst the battlefield carnage. To the far left and right of the field, Hubermann saw undead wolves of great size bound out of the woods towards the banks of the river, and other, larger shadows beyond, which moved too quick for his old eyes to make out through the gathering mist.
It was time. Hubermann raised his hand to signal his troops to give fire, but as he did so, he noticed the water. There were things in the water, bodies. Hundreds of them. The river Hubermann had hoped would keep the undead at bay so that his troops could cut them down at range, the river that would buy them time to array themselves on the banks and strike at them as they struggled against the freezing currents, was a mass of writhing corpses. They were packed so tightly, the regiments of enemy warriors did not even break step when they reached the bank, but marched straight across the bridge of dead limbs and heads and backs and onto the near bank.
Hubermann dropped his hand, and the sound of black powder discharge thundered across the hill. Then the rain began slowly to fall, just a few drops. He cursed under his breath. It was as if all the fates were slowly turning their gaze from him. Where before there had been hope, now that hope was was being drawn from him. As the few sporadic drops of rain came down and became a torrent, and then a storm, he knew the fire from his troops would falter, powder would be soaked, bowstrings become heavy with moisture, and then they would be fighting for their lives, face to face with death.
Again, the sound of hooves behind him. Hubermann turned, the clamour of his battle line engaging the enemy at range rising in his ears. As he turned, his heart sank. Claus Hungard pulled up his horse beside him. He looked as though he had been slapped across the face.
“We are undone! Undone I tell you! Vicelli means to destroy us!”
Hubermann saw through the billowing powder smoke, even as another crack and boom from elsewhere on the slope told him that his guns were still firing, a solid mass of pikemen advancing towards the rear of the Hoffnung troops. Like a stone thrown into a pond, the ripples of panic spread up and down his line, and soldiers turned at the sound of approaching drums marching up the reverse slope towards the men of Hoffnung. Hubermann swung round again, to see the relentless lines of Skeletons marching slowly up the hill from their opposite side. At their centre came a solid armoured core of heavy infantry, marching beneath a flapping banner, and leading these elite warriors was the Vampire himself, Schwarznacht.
Hubermann tore his helm free and tossed it into the dirt. He turned his horse around to face Vicelli’s troops once more.
“So this is the pact you have made, you bastard! Not just to leave us to our doom, but to strike the blow yourself! Have you no honour?!”
Franz Hubermann was incandescent with rage, his reason leaving him as he realised the full extent of the treachery of his oldest friend, Andrea Vicelli.
A rider burst from the advancing troops, and galloped towards Hubermann. The Knights around him prepared to defend their commander, but the rider stopped short. It was Vicelli. He too removed his helm. He shouted across the din to Hubermann.
“Franz, my oldest friend and comrade, get your troops out of here. This is my fight, my honour that is at stake! Live to fight another day.”
Hubermann led his horse step by step over to Vicelli. The advancing men of Sperenza had stopped short of the Hoffnung line, and prepared to face the undead trudging inexorably up the sodden slope. Their Hoffnung counterparts looked on in confusion, and all the while, the cannon and handguns continued to give fire, chipping away at the approaching enemy all too slowly. Where Skeletal warriors were shattered by cannon balls, or rotten zombie limbs burst by lead shot, more stepped forward to take their place and continue the march up the hill, even as the broken remains clawed their way back together.
“You cannot win this fight alone, you need us.” Shouted Hubermann.
“No.” Vicelli stated adamantly “Another army marches from the High Peak, a great army of Dwarfs. You need not perish here. Join the Dawi and fight another day, at a place where the evil of the Vampire can be ended at last.” Vicelli’s face was set, and Hubermann knew there was no dissuading him in this.
“Get your men off the field. It is I who am shamed by not marching alongside you when I should have honoured our ancient pact. I was a fool.”
Hubermann drew close to his old friend.
“But why? Why treat with that daemon? Surely you must have known the wretch would not keep his damned word! The oaths of such creatures are empty as their souls.”
A hundred yards. Just a hundred yards separated the two lines of warriors, living and unliving. The armoured crossbowmen of Vicelli’s column added their fire to that of the Hoffnung bowmen. By a miracle, the rain was slowing. They might still be blessed. Then the mortars opened fire as well, belching forth explosive munitions which obliterated entire blocks of the dead. Did they have enough time? Once the lines met, it would only be decided by the courage of the living, their ability to hold their nerve even as it frayed.
“Lucciana. The fiend has taken my wife. He swore he would spare her life if I ordered the army of Sperenza to stand down. It was a slim hope, but the only one I had. I could not forsake her. Now I know it was a lie of the blackest kind, the kind that sets man against man, friend against friend, and brother against brother. He would never let her live.”
Vicelli clasped his friends hand, and looked into his eyes.
“You can’t save her Andrea.” There was a peace in Vicelli’s face.
“I know. Old friend, let me do this. Let me be with her. If I can reach that fiend, maybe I can end this, with a single sword thrust.”
Franz Hubermann nodded. He turned to his drummer.
“Signal a withdrawal, quickly man!”
40 yards. The drums of Hoffnung rang out. Almost at once the troops of that town began to step backwards, down the slope the army of Sperenza had marched up minutes before, slipping through the gaps between the units. They exchanged words of comradeship and encouragement. The cannon crews of Hoffnung, with old time bonds of friendship to the crews of the Sperenza mortar crews, elected to stay behind. Their guns could not now be moved in any case, it was too late.
25 yards. As the army of Hoffnung advanced down the slope, Hubermann turned to see his friend Vicelli lead his household knights in a charge towards the centre of the undead line, even as blocks of pikemen crashed against massed ranks of skeletons, and heavy crossbowmen loosed at point blank range into the charging forms of enemy horsemen and red eyed dire wolves.
As Andrea Vicelli thundered across the field, he fixed his gaze on his enemy. Tears streamed down his cheeks, and in his mind he called out to his wife, Lucciana.
“My love, my wife. I swore on the day of our union that I would allow nothing to separate us. Today, I make good that vow.”
Eric Schwarznacht glared back at him, his fangs barred, opening his arms in welcome.
Two weeks later. Another battlefield, another icy river. As mists rose to hide their broken and despoiled forms, another mass of putrid zombies waited in line to slip beneath the surface of the murky water. Huddled together at their centre, oblivious to the heaving mass around them, stood two decaying bodies, a man and a woman. Though they no longer knew it, or had any comprehension of anything outside the compulsion to inflict violence on the living at the bidding of their dark master, their wrists were tied, one to the other, by a slender silk ribbon. By the tying of a ribbon are marriage vows made unbreakable, in the Border Principality town of Sperenza. A last promise kept.