Chapter One - Death in the Drakwald
The Drakwald, south of the fortress city of Middenheim, The Empire, 2522.
Captain Lucarius was quicker than the beastman, deftly avoiding the huge cleaver. In retaliation, his own slender blade sliced through the creature's body, cleaving deep matted fur, thick muscle and malformed bone. He pivoted swiftly and decapitated another of the foul creatures, his speed far surpassing their own crudely powerful movements.
He risked a glance to see how the rest of his command fared and witnessed two of his own hacked down. The beastmen were no match individually for the elvish warriors, but they had come in numbers and whilst slender blades were momentarily mired in dark furred bodies, so their pack mates took full advantage.
Lucarius ducked a wild blow from a bellowing monster and parried a swinging club as he dropped to one knee and then launched himself forward to stain his blade again in another creature. However, this time his rapid pivot took him into the path of a mighty fist and it sent him reeling back, scarcely retaining his grip on his sword.
Blood pouring from his shattered nose, the captain rolled and scrambled from the fists, axes, clubs and cleavers that sought a more decisive blow. The bloody mud of the forest floor clung to his armour and clothes, slowing his movements resulting in his left leg being crushed by an ill crafted club, little more than large tree branch.
His own sword, the product of a craftsman who had spent centuries mastering his art, sliced the tendons of a beast, but then like the hand that wielded it was hammered deep into the yielding ground by the hefty hoof of another. Growling in triumph, the creature ground his foot, shattering the bones beneath and causing a cry of pain to leap from the Elf officer.
Even as another club hammered into the side of his helm, a crude axe slammed into his chest armour, glancing off the ithilmar surface, yet the impact still crushed ribs such was the force behind the blow. Spitting blood, Lucarius fumbled for his long knife with his good hand, his vision blurring from the pain of his wounds as he fought to stay conscious.
He could no longer hear and incoherent shapes moved in and out of his view, but he could feel no further blows. In a moment of clarity, he wondered if this was because he was dying and then he saw no more as the world was drowned in the void.
The return to consciousness was a journey into searing pain that seemed to suggest something was sawing at his head with a very blunt blade. His eyes snapped open to view the worst, increasing his pain when he thought that was no longer possible and his throat erupted in a scream of pent up agony.
The woman crouching by his side flinched visibly at the noise before responding in reikspiel - "I suppose this means you will live then?" She concluded her words with a smile and rose to her feet in a smooth graceful movement.
She was tall for a human woman with an athletic frame which she protected with a combination of heavy leather and chainmail. In contrast, her short brown hair did not conceal her youthful features and she obviously disdained the use of a helm or at least had recently lost it in the conflict. At her left hip was a worn scabbard, absent of decoration, housing a bronze hilted sword.
She extended a hand towards him, offering him assistance in standing, the smile remaining to brighten her appearance. He shook his head, the pain intensifying as he did so and he became conscious of an odd taste in mouth and throat as he tried to recall the crude language that humans used.
"Leg snap...broken, no good" he stumbled through the words, and moved his damaged right hand instinctively to show the cause of his concern. However as it moved into view he realised that, beneath the mud and congealed blood, it seemed whole again.
The woman shook her head as if finding fresh amusement in his actions and grasping the outstretched limb with her own hand, pulled him swiftly to his feet. She was obviously stronger than she looked as his weight appeared to elicit no signs of effort at all. For a moment he gazed down at her in confusion before he realised that his leg was as intact as the hand he knew had been so recently mangled.
Brown eyes met his violet ones, dancing with amusement, just as his were clouded with confusion and pain and he swayed slightly. She casually steadied him with one hand, even as she turned to acknowledge another figure approaching from his right.
A bulky fur clad warrior, a large axe strapped across his back, swiftly dropped to one knee in the mud before addressing her, his scarred face adopting a expression of reverence that seemed out of place on his fierce countenance. He had few teeth left and those that remained were blackened and rotten but his voice was strong, matching the rest of his physique.
"My lady, the beasts are slain; the men await your command" the devout nature of his gaze was continued in his tone.
"Excellent... I am pleased," her words seemed to invigorate the man with her praise and he dropped his head in acknowledgment. "Our work is complete here, we return to our charges." She turned back to the elf, even as the warrior rose to his feet and strode away across the corpse strewn clearing to where more of his ilk waited.
"I assume that you know how to ride?" an eyebrow rose inquiringly.
The pain had become a background throb and so Lucarius was quickly regaining control of his faculties and his sense of duty asserted itself. "My men..."
"Dead" her tone was curt, but then she paused for a second as saw the effect it had on him in his weakened state. "I am sorry we did not arrive earlier but..." she trailed off, evidently unsure of herself for the first time and then she stepped back so that the solider could view the whole scene.
It was clear that all of his men had died hard, fighting to the last even as they were brought low by the creatures of the forest. He walked up to each of them, ignoring the curious gazes of the humans clustered about the scene of the slaughter. He retrieved a small item from each torn and ravaged corpse, something to bring home to loved ones so far away - presuming they themselves survived the trials his own homeland was currently undergoing.
As he rose from the last he realised that the lady had followed him, her tread so light that he had not noticed her unhurried movements. His task completed, the captain had returned to himself, his gaze cool as he looked at her and the blade she was now carrying. She presented it to him, in a formal movement he had observed before in the human knights that he fought alongside as allies.
She looked down at the beast at her feet, her hand straying seemingly unconsciously to the hilt of her sword, as if in remembrance. "The first enemy I ever killed was such a creature, in a forest not unlike this one." She looked up as he sheathed his sword and nodded.
"Come, it is time we left this place before more find us".
Months ago Lucarius would have insisted that his men be burned or buried, but the increasingly desperate conflict had meant that practicality had often meant such niceties were impossible. He would honour them properly them in time, but one had to live to achieve that. If there was one thing that was certain, there would be more of the beastmen, no matter how many were killed, there always seemed to be more and perhaps worse would come with them. It often did.
He followed the woman towards her men where they were mounting up on a variety of horses, from knights chargers to what appeared to be former pack horses. As they approached, the men fell silent and dropped their gaze from the lady as she accepted the reins of a black mare.
She turned back to face him, once again smiling. "It was my pleasure; we are after all allies are we not?"
He persevered, retreating to formality, his words slow but precise now, "You have earned the thanks of Captain Lucarius Shuarth of the Kariandriath Curiali, remember the names, Lady, for my kin and I owe you a debt."
In turn, she made a slight bow, "I accept your thanks, Captain, and know that your debt is owed to Sabina Hafna, late of the town of Krugenheim."
She returned her attention to her horse and mounted swiftly as a grim faced warrior brought up a horse for the elf captain and handed him the reins. Just as gracefully Lucarius joined her in the saddle and they formed up with her company of warriors and rode away from the scene of carnage, even as the carrion birds and beasts began to emerge and feast.
They had hardly gone half a mile through the trees when Sabina reigned in, looking expectantly towards the thicker stands of trees to her right. After a moment, three figures stalked out, their clothing perfectly crafted to blend with the dappled shadows and dark depths of the forest. Two carried bows with notched arrows whilst the third had not, as yet, drawn the blade she wore at her waist.
The three elves stopped some ten feet away from the mounted warriors and their leader swept her eyes across the company, disdain and suspicion stark in her gaze. When she noticed the battered looking captain, her eyes narrowed further in rapid assessment before moving back to the leader of the company.
"Malitha, a pleasure as always," Sabina leaned forward slightly in her saddle, "I trust our accord is still in place?" The elf woman scowled in response but did not speak, allowing the human woman to continue "For my part, I persevere in hunting the beasts that plague your woods...as we agreed."
The elf nodded grudgingly and strode quickly past the company until she reached the area of churned mud and hoof prints that marked their passage. As she passed, Lucarius moved his horse round so he could watch her and whatever she intended, thus far he had found his cousins across the sea less welcoming than the humans or even on the rare occasions he had encountered them, the dwarves.
Malitha surveyed the ground and woodland around her before she began to chant in the tongue of arcane. Immediately in response the air turned cold around her and a wind swept through the trees, stirring and shifting the branches and disturbing a small group of crows, who swept off to the north at a rapid pace.
The trees continued to move, even as the wind abruptly abated and she continued to chant, their roots beginning to surface from the earth, churning and erasing the trail that had been left. As the spell continued, the chant became a song and loose branches and even small bushes joined in the erasure of the path. Smaller trees even shifted position as their roots writhed in the soil.
"She certainly has talent..., although it is my opinion her manners could be improved", Lucarius glanced at the human woman, conscious that neither she nor her followers seemed to be taking much notice of the display of power behind them.
"Perhaps, my kin are often considered... aloof?" he continued to speak carefully, as his command of Reikspiel was still not to his satisfaction but he completed his words with a rueful smile.
The song of power reached a crescendo and abruptly concluded as the three elves turned their backs on the small column and vanished quickly into the depths of the woods. Sabina appeared satisfied and spurred her horse forward, leading her warriors onwards through the forest.
Lucarius was conscious that the day was drawing in and whilst his own vision was keen enough to see well even in near darkness, he was aware that humans were not so adept in this area. However no one seemed concerned by the approaching night - despite the increase in dangers it normally brought. The beastmen and the other chaotic inhabitants of the woods often saw perfectly well in the darkness or had other senses to compensate.
The light filtering through the branches became increasingly scarce as they continued on winding through the trees, following no path that the elf captain could see. Whilst his unease grew, no one else seemed to share his concerns, indeed the human woman was softly humming a tune clearly audible to his ears, even if the composition was unfamiliar to him.
It was only as night fully took hold of the forest that some sign of a destination was revealed, glimpses of torchlight began to be seen through the tree trunks and mostly leafless branches. A few more minutes travel and the trees begin to a fade into a few isolated scrub bushes and a cleared area of land was revealed in the limited light of the stars and the single waning moon.
To the sharp eyes of Lucarius, the remnants of previous battles were obvious, shattered skeletons of beastmen and larger stranger things littered the ground away from the stone walls of a small settlement ahead. Torches gave some small light to the defenders of the old and now battered wall, who as the column began to approach, sounded a horn to alert others within. Two lingering blasts sounded through the night and the elf glanced at the human woman but she had not reacted or even gave pause to her humming.
She only gestured for them to halt as they reached the track that led to the settlement. Its gates were fire blackened, making it seem like a empty void in the gatehouse, its stubby left tower sagging significantly under its own weight and from whatever assaults it had recently suffered.
Unbidden, the fur clad man had ridden alongside Sabina, evidently anticipating her requirements and she smiled in recognition. He stood up in his stirrups and bellowed into the darkness.
"Hail Untergrad! We return - open the gates".
The elf captain blinked in surprise, expecting some form of identification being used in these dark times, but evidently the powerful voice of the man was well known to the guardians of the town. Several minutes passed and a light drizzle began, adding to the small puddles already evident in the moonlight.
Slowly the great gates creaked open, evidently it was harder than it should be, likely a result of damage incurred the captain mused to himself. Torchlight flickered against the wood, metal and stone as several men emerged to stand staring into the half darkness beyond the walls.
"Hans, take the men in and see them to bed or food and drink as they will, I will speak with Captain Schiller."
"My lady, as you command", the man growled, and immediately turned to give orders to the rest of the men who quickly entered the town, intent on finding shelter. An older human man sloshed through the mud, accompanied by a young boy trying to keep up and hold his flaming torch aloft to illuminate the scene. The man was armoured in mail despite the late hour, although the torchlight highlighted the strain in his aged features, the rain falling on his unhelmed and thinning white hair. Around his neck was a chain ending in a silver wolf, a common talisman for warriors in the Empire.
"It is good...to see you... return... Lady Sabina," The captain's voice was punctuated by a hacking cough, but otherwise he seemed not to acknowledge the rain.
"Captain - all is well I trust?"
"Food is low, but you...know that. Maybe Hans and some of the others could hunt something in the morning?" A grimace that could be taken for a smile was briefly seen as Sabina nodded. "Father Gustav has gone to Sigmar, ten others... with him and it's... likely they will not be the last."
He looked up and across at the elf captain who was watching the exchange with interest, "I see you have brought another mouth to feed eh?" Before either could respond, he continued, "Well then, I say we speak more... in the morning." He turned and began to trudge back through the mud towards his home.
As they entered the town, it was obvious that not only the walls had suffered from the assaults of the enemy, wooden buildings were ruined and burned out and one had obviously been crushed by the impact of something huge. A few bedraggled sentries huddled out of the rain, whilst an unlucky pair of men struggled to shut the gates again.
Some buildings seemed to have survived intact including what could be the town hall, to its left was the ruins of a small temple to Sigmar, whilst that of Ulric stood still defiant to its right, the great wolf emblem still unblemished. Lights could be seen in a few houses, but no one had emerged into the rain to view the returning warriors, Lucarius understood that they likely had more pressing concerns, like staying warm and dry.
Through the rain could be seen more buildings beyond and a shattered bridge that once crossed a wide river and joined the two halves of the town. On the other side of the river, the devastation seemed total, with the ragged stumps of buildings bearing witness to what was once there. The former covered market now served as barracks for Sabina's men and a stable for their mounts, lights now burned bright within as they made themselves at home.
The two rode past and the noise of singing commenced shortly after from the men, a song the elf had heard before in the camps of the alliance, a song that would certainly have made some of his kinfolk blush to hear, male or female. A large townhouse was the woman's destination, and outside it stood Hans, evidently awaiting his mistress's arrival.
She dismounted fluidly and passed the reins to him, "Thank you, ensure that you get some rest, Hans,"
He nodded and turned to stare at the elf who had also dismounted, his pale blue eyes devoid of emotion and his expression neutral. The two looked at each for a long moment, before Hans extended his left hand towards the reins of the captain's horse and began to lead the two mounts away. Sabina had already entered the building and Lucarius found himself standing alone in the rain.