Fort Griffon, Alnus Hill
"Excited?" Erhardt asked Pina as they both mounted their horses, "You will be the first Saderan through the Gate since the initial invasion."
"I would be lying if I said I was not nervous, but I am far more eager to go to another world. Of my fellow Falmarters, only Tuka has had the honor of semi-regularly traveling between them."
"Then you are in for an experience." Erhardt replied with a smile, "While we are there, I will show you the many wonders and marvels of Altdorf, my home, and perhaps beautiful Nuln on the way back. Then, one day, I will take you to see the great mountain city of Middenheim, Talabheim, which has been constructed out of an epic crater in the earth, and Marienburg, the richest city in the world."
"I look forward to it; for now though, let us focus on getting through the Gate."
"You need not concern yourself with that." Erhardt stated as he directed his horse towards the caravan, "Traveling through it is simple enough; when you get down to it, it's no different than stepping through any other door."
Erhardt's eyes darkened, "It is what comes next that you must reserve your caution for. The Reikwald forest may not be as large, or as dark as the Drakwald, but it is host to its own share of dangers. The usual cutthroats and highwaymen, but the beastmen are also present. The last great horde was dispersed, in part thanks to your first invasion force, but surviving warbands abound. We will have to be on are guard, at all times, till we reach Ubersreik."
"Is your homeland always so dangerous?"
"To be honest Your Highness, Reikland is far safer by comparison than any other province. I would recommend sleeping in your armor, and with a sword close by."
Pina said nothing, but resolved to take his words to heart. As the two royals approached the caravan, she looked over their company once more.
A dozen and a half wagons carried enough supplies to supply several hundred men for at least a month. Her own retinue included Bozes, her oldest friend and right hand, Hamilton, her squire, experienced knights Shandy, Grey her teacher, Nikolasha, and a handful of others, including their pages and servants.
Erhardt was bringing a mixed company of halberdiers, swordsmen, and spearmen, along with crossbowmen and pistoliers for ranged support. His surviving knights and greatswords would be coming along as well, lead by Siegfried. In addition to this party, Father Wilhelm, and Lelei la Lalena would be joining them; Wilhelm for his role as both holy man and warrior, and Lelei due to orders given to her by Cato and Gelt. What exactly Lelei's mission was, Pina and Erhardt did not know, but decided that it was better to leave the affairs of wizards alone.
"Are we all ready?" Erhardt asked Siegfried.
"We are." Siegfried nodded, "We await only your approval."
"Then it is given." Erhardt stated, "Order the company to march!" and he then directed his horse towards the Gate, followed closely by Pina
"Company march!" Siegfried ordered, and the company began to follow, all marching step by step towards the Gate.
It was a massive thing, and very intimidating. Pina felt nervous approaching it, but was resolved to go through all the same. After all, she had a duty to uphold.
The closer she got, the more the Gate seemed to glow with a bright light, it was almost blinding-
Fort Griffon, Reikland
And then just like that, they were back at the Fort. All around her, there were soldiers running drills, manning the walls, and marching in formation.
"This looks just like Fort Griffon?" Pina asked Erhardt, "Didn't we just leave it?"
"There are two sides of the Gate Princess; naturally we would erect fortifications to defend both entrances to it. This is still Fort Griffon, it's just the Reikland side."
"Of course." Pina said, noticing that, instead of open sky, this Fort was located in a rather dense forest, with the songs of birds mixing with the hustle and bustle of the Fort, "Rather obvious I suppose… in my defense, it looks rather similar to the Fort on Alnus."
"The dwarfs who constructed it weren't very creative." Erhardt admitted, before then shouting to the soldiers who were manning the gatehouse, "Let us pass!"
"As you say My Prince!" the soldiers said. With some effort, they pushed open the oaken doors, allowing the company passage.
Erhardt and Pina were the first out through the gates. Before them was a rather relatively recently constructed dirt road, with a sign up ahead with markers nailed to it, reading "Ubersreik" "Nuln" and other words that Pina assumed were cities.
"Princess Pina Co Lada," Erhardt began, smiling, "On behalf of my father, the Emperor, and the entire Empire of Man, I welcome you to the Reikland, and to the Old World."
Hours and the Gods only know how many miles later, they made camp for the night … at least, Pina's internal clock told her it was night. Traveling through the thick Reikwald forest made it hard to tell at times.
They had set up tents at the first moderately sized clearing they had come across, though even that was quite cramped. As a result, the tents were all packed close together, making navigating them a bit of a struggle.
To conserve space, Erhardt and Pina decided to share a tent, setting up two beds, one next to the other, separated by a foot of space.
"So, you really are sleeping with your armor on?" Pina asked as she watched her would-be fiance get into bed, groaning in discomfort.
"In the Reikwald, it only makes sense." he stated, laying on top of the covers, grimacing as he shifted to get somewhat comfortable. He then looked at her out of the corner of his eye, "I believe I already told you that; though it seems you decided not to follow my advice… not that I am not enjoying the view."
Pina was dressed in a sheer nightgown, colored in a deep, deep red, like her hair. Unlike Erhardt, she looked very comfortable.
"I have ridden in armor all day." she stated, pulling the covers on top of her, "If there was no other choice, I would have remained in armor; I've done it before after all. However, tonight, I do have a choice to not spend my precious sleep in full plate. If you want to suffer, go right ahead."
"Hmph. Suit yourself." Ehradt grumbled, and then began experimenting with positions, seeing which ones were better, before finally laying on his stomach, and settling on that. After about a half hour though, he relented, and started removing it.
"Is the Great Erhardt ignoring his own advice?" Pina asked coyly.
"The Great Erhardt… is man enough to know when he has made a mistake." he replied, undoing his chest piece, "I'd rather get to sleep sometime before midnight. I will be keeping my sword close to me though."
"That is the only bit of your advice that I am following." she said, holding up her sheathed blade for emphasis, "First rule of Knight Training; always keep your weapon closeby."
"A universal rule it seems."
Finally, Erhardt pulled off the last piece of his armor. With a contented sigh, he fell back onto his bed.
"Better?" Pina asked.
"That isn't the armor you usually wear… the black one."
"The Armor of Austres? Yes, well, ever since the ward broke, I keep it secure in that chest over there." he pointed at the chest in question "I'd rather not take any chances until it is repaired properly."
"It is odd that your god would give you an artifact that runs the risk of killing its wielder."
"It is odd that Morr gets involved in mortal affairs at all. I am honored though, that he has selected me as one of his servants. My only hope is that I continue to serve him well. Though speaking of gods… I understand that the people of Falmart declare their devotion to one god above all others, and then demonstrate that devotion by taking the first few letters of that god's name as their own middle name."
"That is ture."
"FOrgive me for asking, but which of your gods is 'Co' short for? While I am unfamiliar with your entire pantheon, I don't think I've heard even a passing reference to that deity."
"You wouldn't; the worship of Cosmin is not widely practiced outside of his chosen worshippers."
"His chosen worshippers being?"
"Knights of course." Pina explained, "And even then, not all knights follow Cosmin. His way is exclusive, and you cannot just chose to worship him; you must be chosen by one of his priests or priestesses at his Temple in Sadera. The criteria is unknown, understood only by the clergy, but if selected, the initiate must undergo a nightlong vigil, locked in a chapel, communing spiritually with Cosmin. He will then send you a vision, unique to each initiate, and with it comes a challenge."
"What was your challenge?"
"Apologies, but that is only between myself and Cosmin; it is one of the rules of the Cult."
"Say no more, I understand."
"If the challenge is overcome, then, and only then, will you have earned the right to the name 'Co.' Many of the most famous knights in the Empire have had this name, with songs and legends sung of them for centuries after they lived. It is my hope to one day join their illustrious number, and to inspire many more to take up the Calling of Cosmin with my deeds."
"Well, should we succeed in our mission, I'd say that your place in the legends all but assured."
"You are kind to say so."
"You are kind to share that tale with me; thank you."
"You've talked at length about your gods to me; it was the least I could do to return the favor."
Two days later, the company continued their march through the forest. Thankfully, they were yet to be harassed by anything hostile.
Still, Pina longed to see any sort of civilization. The ever present trees were becoming oppressive in their size, and the shadows they casted upon the road.
Above all else, she could not quite shake the feeling that she was being watched the whole time… and it was a feeling that Erhardt shared.
"There's something wrong here…" Erhardt sated, placing his hand on his sword, "But I can't quite make out what…"
"I feel the same way." Pina gripped her sword tighter, "Like a calm before the storm."
"Do you hear that?" Erhardt asked, "The birds?"
"No." Pina said, realizing what it was he was getting at.
"Exactly." Erhardt drew his sword, "They've all gone silent."
At that moment, up ahead of them, something came crashing through the trees. To Pina's eyes, it looked like a demihuman satyr, similar to the ones she had seen back home in Sadera.
Satyrs had the torso of handsome men or lovely women, the lower body of a goat, and the gift of music, famed for both their vocal melodies, or the songs played with their trademark flutes, earning them jobs as musicians in the Imperial Court and other noble houses.
This creature, despite the passing similarities, was nothing like a satyr; for while it had a man's torso and a goat's lower half, it was ugly, both in appearance, and no doubt in it's spirit. In one arm, it carried a crude spear, and it's body was covered in tattoos, piercings, and strange fetishes.
"Ungor!" Erhardt growled, "Beastmen! If there's one, there's bound to be more hiding in the wood!"
"Hold a moment." Pina said, "Is it just me, or is it wounded?"
Sure enough, it was missing it's other arm, which ended in a bloody stump just below the shoulder.
"What could have done that-" Pina started, but did not get to finish, as the answer to her question made its appearance
Faster than it took Pina to blink, something lept from the woods, and pounced on the ungor, killing the beastman instantly with wicked claws and a powerful beak; the mutant only managed to get a half scream out of its mouth before its head was swallowed whole.
"Sigmar and Morr above, it's a demigryph!" Erhardt said, backing his horse up, "Smaller, wingless cousins to the griffons, but utterly fearless, and full of hate, or so I've been told. We don't want to draw it's attention to us."
As he said those words, the demigryph raised its head, and looked at them. It was fearsome, but majestic, and it's amber eyes appeared as if it was looking directly into Pina's soul.
"Alright birdy… lion… please take your kill and leave." Erhardt whispered under his breath, "We won't bother you, if you won't bother us-"
An arrow came whistling through the air, and hit Erhardt's breastplate, which thankfully deflected the missile.
A horn call was blasted, followed by several more. In their wake came inhuman crys, neither animal nor human.
"To arms!" Erhardt shouted, "To arms! Beastmen are coming! Fight for your lives, for death is preferable to being taken alive by these monsters!"
Out of the woods they came; great gors, armed with axes, and smaller ungors with spears. They had completely surrounded the company, like a snare, and were now closing in.
"When ambushed, the most prudent course of action is the counterattack, hard and fast!" Erhardt shouted as he and Pina were joined by the other mounted warriors, "We will be the point of the sword! Lay into them! Send the mutants to whatever black hell they crawled out of! Charge!"
Pina brought down her sword on the beastman's head, splitting the skull and cutting into the brain. She pulled it out of the now dead mutant just in time to parry a blow from an axe-wielding gor. The mutant hit with a force that was much stronger than a man, and it took all her skill in riding to keep herself from being thrown off her mount.
When she saw an opening, Pina took it, driving her sword into the creature's skull, killing it instantly.
All over the road, beastmen engaged with humans. While the mounted knights were busy breaking through the beastmen encirclement, the infantry had formed a formation around the wagons; melee soldiers in front, and missiles behind them. Halberdiers fended off the charging beastmen, while a well placed shot from a crossbowman or a handgunner brought them down.
Erhardt's sword was a like a farmer's scythe, cutting into beastmen like grain, severing limbs and slicing throats with every swing. As the Reikmarshal's squire, the beastmen were the first foe he had ever fought against, and his first kill had been a particularly foul smelling ungor, whose skull he had caved in with a rock after he had lost his sword.
After months of fighting the vampires and their undead hordes, fighting beastmen was almost like coming home.
As he slew another gor, he noticed that he had broken through the encirclement. With a grin, he turned his horse around to face the other knights.
"We've made it through, but now is the time for we to flank them! Circle around with me, and we'll cut off their means of escape; now charge!"
Erhardt kicked his horse, and sped off towards the main body of the herd followed by knights of the Reiksguard. The Beastmen were was attacking the company, and had their backs exposed to the charging knights.
"Morr and Sigmar! Take these monsters to hell!"Erhardt shouted, sword pointed at the foe, as he and his knights smashed into the backs of the herd; the hammer to the state troop's anvil. The impact of a score of heavily armored knights, charging full speed into their backs, led to dozens of mutants dying within seconds, and caused further confusion as to where the enemy was coming from.
The weaker ungors tried to make a break for the cover of the trees, only to be cut down by a well placed crossbow bolt or bullet.
The larger gors continued to fight, but closed in like this, their mob fighting style was no match for the well disciplined and drilled formation of the state troops, nor the almost mechanical like way the knights swept out with their blades, killing a mutant with each blow.
Eventually, the fight left the herd, and even the gors broke and ran for their lives.
"We've done it!" Erhardt shouted in glee, "After them, kill as many as you can before they can reach the treeline!"
Following their Prince's command, the troops were upon the fleeing mutants, stabbing or shooting them in the back, while some knights even made the effort to trample the dark creatures under their horses' hooves.
Pina as finished running her sword through a fleeing ungor when she saw something charge from the treeline, and towards her. It was massive, even moreso than the gors, and looked like a minotaur from back home, except unlike those beasts, this was was carrying a huge greataxe.
The minotaur reached her and, with a single swing of its axe, beheaded her horse, which threw her from the saddle, causing Pina to land in a painful heap on the ground.
As fast as she could, Pina got to her feet, and saw that the large monster had grabbed her horse's body, and was drinking the blood from it's severed neck, pouring it into its mouth as if her deceased mount's corpse as if it was a gruesome wineskin.
The minotaur then threw the body aside, roared, and advanced on her, greataxe at the ready, killing any of the state troops that was hapless enough to cross its path with a swing of its axe.
Desperately, Pina looked around for a weapon, and saw it in a spear from a fallen soldier. She picked it up, and held it in both hands, pointing it at the oncoming monster.
Picking up the pace, the minotaur raised its axe over its head, and roared, making to bring it down on Pina. The Saderan Princess was only saved by the timely arrival of an unexpected ally.
Larger than a horse, the demigryph from before, whose presence no doubt had spoiled the beastmens' ambush plan, had leapt onto the minotaur's back, and immediately bagan clawing into the flesh with its claws, while sinking its strong beak into the back of the minotaur's neck. The magnificent beast was ripping out large chunks of flesh, and in doing so caused the minotaur unimaginable pain, forcing it to drop the axe.
The monster screamed in agony, but it was going too fast to stop now. When it was almost upon her, Pina quickly got out of the way, nearly being crushed when it passed by here by a hair length.
The demigryph released its claws from the minotaur's neck, but clamped down hard on its neck, and by doing so forced the monster onto its back. Immediately, the demigryph attacked the minotaur's neck, taking hold of it in its mighty beak, and ripped out the oversized beastman's throat in a mess of blood and gore.
Pina stared at the demigryph as it began to disembowel the minotaur. The creature… it had saved her life. Without its assistance, she would have died. Why did it not take off when the fighting started, and why did it target the minotaur targeting her specifically?
Most of all, why had it been staring at her earlier, before the beastmen attack, with its big amber eyes.
Swallowing her terror at approaching such a creature, Pina began to step towards the demigryph. It heard her approach, and turned to face her, amber eyes visible, even in the darkness of the Reikwald.
"You helped me, didn't you?" Pina asked as she moved forward, and Cosmin help her, but it looked as if the demigryph understood what she was saying, "Thank you; I owe you my life."
She held out a hand, and reached out towards its beak. Amazingly, it dropped to one front knee, almost like it was bowing, and then allowed her to touch it. When she did, it began making a soft noise that was halfway between the 'chuff' of a tiger, and the cry of an eagle.
"You're gorgeous." Pina cooed, stroking the demigryph, and hugging the animal's enormous head to her chest, "And you have the soul of a warrior."
"How in the name of Sigmar, Morr, Ulric, Taal, Rhya, Verena, Shallya, Myrmidia, Ranald, and all the rest are you doing that without getting your hand ripped off?"
Pina faced left to see Erhardt, still on horseback for once, approach her, his eyes, full of amazement, locked on her.
"It saved my life." she simply stated, "And now he's letting me stroke him."
"T-that should be impossible!" Erhardt almost shouted, "Demigryphs are wild, and dangerous! They're impossible to breed in captivity, so knights have to go out, catch one themselves, wrestle it into submission (provided they don't die in the process) and even then, the demigryph will always be half wild! And yet this one just let you walk up to it, and stroke it's massive head! How? How are you doing that?"
"I… don't know." Pina admitted, while the demigryph proceeded to rest its aforementioned massive head on her shoulder.
Erhardt tried to speak, but his vocabulary failed him, and while he looked over the fearsome demigryph act like a docile housecat towards Pina, he was currently doing his best impression of a beached fish. Taking a deep sigh, he spoke again.
"Well, when we get to Ubersreik, I'm certain we can find a saddle to fit it."
"Him, not it." Pina corrected as she looked at a certain piece of demigryph anatomy, "And a saddle would be lovely."
"I don't suppose you've thought of a name for your new pet, have you?"
"Hmmm…" she began, scratching her demigryph above his amber eyes, while at the same time looking at the corpse of the minotaur, "Bullslayer is a fitting name, wouldn't you agree Prince Erhardt?"
Erhardt let out a short laugh.
"You share my father's naming sensibility it seems. Bullslayer is a fine name for a noble beast like him."
Erhardt turned to look at the other beastmen corpses, scowling as he did so.
"We've managed to kill most of them, but I doubt that this was the whole herd. We'll have to be careful moving forward on the road."
Erhardt cleaned the blood from his sword, sheathed it, and pulled out a map of Reikland, looking it over intently.
"There is a village closeby called Lachenbad. It's a prime target for any warherd. If we leave within the next ten minutes, we can be there before nightfall. We'll warn them of the possibility of a warherd, and prepare them as best we can."
He put the map away and began barking orders to his men.
"Put the wounded in one wagon, and the dead in another, but do it quickly! We leave in ten minutes!"
He faced Pina again, and was met with another surprise; she was on Bullslayer's back, riding bareback over to Erhardt, with an incredibly smug smile on her face.
"I am incredibly envious of you right now." he said.
"I know." Pina replied.
Screams were everywhere. The beastmen had descended upon them, and instantly began killing the villagers, and setting fire to the houses and other buildings.
Valten rushed through the burning houses towards his own; the village smithy, where he apprenticed under his father as a blacksmith. He had to see if his parents were alright, to keep them safe from a gor's axe.
As he turned a corner, he came upon an ungor, which was going to spear a small girl of eleven; it was Berta, one of the pigfather's daughters. Not even thinking, Valten grabbed the ungor by the shoulder, turned it around to face him, and drew back his fist. The force of Valten's punch was enough to cave in its skull and break its neck, killing it instantly.
"Berta!" he exclaimed as he dropped the beastmen, before then grabbing the girl's shoulders, "Are you injured? Did it hurt you?"
Berta, crying heavily, shook her head.
"Good; quickly now, you need to get to Temple of Sigmar, as fast as you can! It's the most secure building in the village, and it will be safe for you. Do you understand? You have to be brave now."
Berta nodded, and shot off towards the Temple. Valten then grabbed the ungor's fallen spear, and continued on towards his home.
He encountered several more of his neighbors, and a handful of beastmen after that; he slew the latter, and directed the former towards the Temple, just as he did with Berta.
When Valten finally reached home, he saw to his dismay that the door to the smithy had been broken open. As he stepped through it, his worst fears had been realized; his mother and father both laid dead on the floor, with a gor standing over them, a bloody axe in its hand.
Shouting a great roar of anger, Valten threw the spear into the gor's shoulder, and rushed it. The gor screamed in pain, and lashed wildly out with its axe at Valten. The axehead only managed to tear Valten's shirt, but otherwise missed him.
Valten gabbed the extended arm holding the gor's axe with both of his strong hands and, with a sickening 'crunch!' snapped it at the elbow. As the gor roared in agony, Valten gripped both of its horns in both of his hands, and brought its face down into his rising knee, over and over again, until finally it was dead form the dozen or so blows.
Valten threw the unholy spawn of Chaos aside, and rushed over to his parents, kneeling at their bodies.
"Mother… Father…" he whispered, hot tears forming in his eyes and rolling down his cheeks, "I… I can't… forgive me, but I cannot mourn you now. Those monsters killed you… and if I do nothing, they will kill everyone in the village."
Wiping the tears from his eyes, Valten stood, and walked over to his father's workbench. Upon it were two hammer, the pride of any smith. Valten grabbed both of his father's hammers in each hand, and began walking back outside, his torn shirt revealing his birthmark, in the shape of the Twin-Tailed Comet of Sigmar, to the world. No sooner had he stepped out, when a group of gors ran by, saw him, and changed direction.
"Come on then you unholy bastards!" Valten shouted, hamemrs raised, "Come and face justice for your crimes! Sigmar!"
Valten moved like lightning, killing the pack of gors within seconds, each one with only a single blow from his father's hammers.
When the last one fell dead to the ground, Valten saw another group of beastmen chasing after more villagers, murder in their eyes.
With a grim look of determination on his face, Valten ran towards them. Too many had died today; he would not allow one more man, woman, or child to die without killing three ebastmen as recompense!
Rargarth was strongest of his herd; that is what made him Beastlord after the disaster nigh on a year ago, where many gors died in battle against the army of men emerged from the stone gate. After the demise of Sharphoof, many pretenders to the leadership rose up, only to be cut down by Rargarth's scimitar.
It had taken months to restore the Herd, to unite the survivors. In those months, the man-filth had grown complacent, and had started to expand into the forest… his forest.
This… insult, could not stand. So Rargarth had rallied the warherds, and unleashed them against the man-filth settlement; the first of many such raids.
Rargarth walked through the burning structures, taking joy in the sight of so many murdered humans. Rargarth took particular delight in the sight of the man-filth children being exterminated; what better way to hurt the humans, than to destroy their next generation. Perhaps in the next town, he would order the villagers to be gathered up, seperate the children, and then exterminate them while their parents watched.
Letting out a throaty chuckle at the thought, before he heard a shout; it was a name, and the very sound of it filled his black heart with rage.
Valten smashed his way through the gor, shattering its skull with a fast blow from his hammer. The youth then turned his attention to a group of spear wielding ungors, who had encircled him, with the intent to run him through.
He would not give them that chance. Valten swung out with one of his hammers, catching the first ungor in the neck, snapping it in two..
With his free hand, he grabbed the spear shaft of another ungor, and pulled it forward, knocking the beastman off balance. Valten then released the spear, and clotheslined the ungor, snapping its neck on his muscled arm. Without wasting any time, he grabbed his remaining hammer in both hands, and knocked the last ungor's spear from its hands with a downward strike, then brought a knee up into its crotch. It screamed (in a rather high pitch tone), and dropped to its knees. Valten then raised his hammer, and brought it down on its monstrous head, practically liquifying it from the force he put into the downward swing.
The young man looked up and saw a small crowd of his fellow villagers approach him, led by Heinrich, the cobbler. Each of them was carrying a improvised weapon, such as woodaxes, pitchforks, and even heavy rolling pins and metal frying pans.
"Heinrich, what are you doing here?" Valten asked.
"We saw you killing beastmen." Heinrich explained, "Quite handily too. We thought we could could help you drive this filth from our home."
Valten started to object, but saw the determination and bravery in the eyes of his neighbors. Who was he to deny them their right to defend their homes and kin?
"Then know this!" Valten shouted as he recovered his other hammer, "The hearts of these creatures may be black and devoid of all virtue, but in the end they possess only the heart of a coward! If we kill the Beastlord leading these monsters, then the rest will turn tail and flee! This will not be easy, but if we are to save our homes then we have no choice! Are you with me?"
The cheers told him all that he needed to know.
"Then follow me! Sigmar!"
With that shout, Valten lead his neighbors against the attacking beastmen. Where once they had fled before the monsters, now the villagers of Lachenbad fought to defend their homes, with a fearlessness that was not present before.
The beastmen were fierce, but in the face of this unexpected counterattack, they began to lose ground, not helped that any gor or ungor that came within reach of Valten would be slain within seconds.
While in the middle of finishing off another gor, Valten saw a beastman, much larger and fiercer looking than the others, advance on him, wielding a sinister scimitar, bathed in human blood.
It was the Beastlord Rargarth… and Valten's goal.
Valten met Rargarth's charge with one of his own, swinging his hammers at the beastlord's torso. Rargarth sidestepped and lashed out with his scimitar, making a shallow cut in Valten's cheek. Undetered from his wound, Valten struck out again, with a blow aimed for Rargarth's shoulder, but once more, the Beastlord moved out of the way, its scimitar almost taking Valten's head off had the youth not stepped back.
This duel continued for a while, with Valten trying and failing to land a blow, and Rargarth inflicting several light grazes, but unable to finish off the young man with a killing blow.
Then, in one move, it seemed that the match was decided. Rargarth had drawn a serious wound by slashing his scimitar across Valten's chest. Valten cried out in pain, and dropped one of his hammers. The beastlord, crying out in triumph, brought his scimitar down on Valten in an over head swing, and Valten barely managed to get his hammer up in time to block it. The force of the blow sent the young man to one knee, grunting in pain.
Letting out an animalistic chuckle, Rargarth stepped back, and leveled his blade with Valten's chest, preparing to run him through.
Using all of his strength, Valten rose to his his feet, and, grasping his hammer in both hands, raised it above his head.
Letting out a feral roar, Rargarth charged, his cloven feet kicking up dirt with every step. Valten gathered all his power, and threw his hammer at the Beastlord. It struck the monster in the chest, crushing its ribcage, and bringing the stampeding beast to a halt.
Rargarth dropped his weapon, and clutched its ribs, blood gurgling from his mouth. Valten then ran up to the Beastlord, and grabbed ahold of each horn on the side of Rargarth's head.
With a mighty roar, Valten began to pull, and pull, making Rargarth scream in agony, until the man heard the horns began to crack. With a final tug, he broke both of them off, and, turning them around in his hands, stabbed them into both of Rargarth's yes, driving them deep into the Beastlord's brain.
The young man let go of the horns, and the Beastlord fell to the ground with a sickening thud, as dead as could be.
Valten then looked up, and saw the other beastmen were looking right at him, with a mixture of hatred, anger… and fear.
Standing straight, Valten took a deep breath, and roared at them.
"Which of you is next?!" he shouted, pointing his finger at the herd. One gor, braver than the rest of its kin, charged Valten, who was still unarmed, axe out with the intent of cutting down the youth. Valten sidestepped the attack at the last moment, grabbed the gor's arm, and, with all his strength, threw the gor to the ground. Still holding the beastman's arm with both hands, he twisted it out of its socket, dislocating it. He then raised his bootheel, and brought it down on its head, creating a gory mess and ending its miserable existence.
Shouting coming from behind him told Valten that the other villagers were coming. Turning around confirmed it, and he saw a mob of several hundred, covered with beastmen blood, charging, intent on taking revenge on those who had slain their kin.
Wasting no time, Valten picked up his hammer, and charged the beastmen, shouting "Sigmar!".
Their courage all gone now, the gors and ungors fled, tripping over and trampling themselves in an effort to get away.
As he saw them flee, Valten stopped, and held up an arm to hold his neighbors from pursuing.
"Why don't we follow them?" Heinrich asked, confused.
"If we follow them into the woods, then we've given them the advantage. Besides, we've killed their beastlord, and a good number of them. They won't be back for a while. For now, we must see to our families… both those who are living, and those who are dead."
Heinrich, who had been bloodthristy the minute before, nodded, seeing the wisdom in Valten's words.
The villagers' first priority was putting out the flames, before they took the rest of the village with it. Forming a bucket brigade at the well, they set to work, with Valten overseeing everything.
An hour later, most of the fires were put out, and then came the grim task of collecting the dead.
It was almost nightfall when they heard the horns; state troop horns, accompanied by Reikland banners.
"Dear Gods." Erhardt gasped, "They were here too."
Smoke was rising from the village of Lechenbad, and the smell of blood was in the air.
"Into the village, now!" Erhardt shouted, at his men, "We need to search for survivors! Keep an eye out for beastmen!"
"Your Highness, look!" Siegfried shouted, pointing towards the village.
A small group of men and women had emerged from the burning settlement, covered in ashes, and carrying bloody farming equipment. The lead man, carrying a woodaxe, addressed them.
"Who are ye My Lords?" he asked.
"I am Prince Erhardt Franz, fourth son of your Emperor, journeying to Ubersreik! What has happened here, and what assistance can we offer?"
"My Lord!" the man and the others bowed, "This is an honor. I am Heinrich, a cobbler by trade. Our village was attacked by a band of beastmen. They killed almost half of us, and set a portion of our village aflame. We were saved though, when, by the grace of the Heldenhammer, young Valten slew the Beastlord."
"Who is this Valten?"
"Forgive me My Lord; Valten is the son of the village blacksmith, Morr rest his soul. He led the counterattack against the beastmen, and, like I said before, he killed the beastlord; ripped off its horns, and forced them into its black eyes he did!"
"Direct me to this Valten then." Erhardt ordered, "Meanwhile, meet with my right-hand Sir Siegfried; he will give you what aid we can."
"Thank you My Lord." Heinrich said, then he raised his head, "Young Valten is at our Temple of Sigmar. He's sort of nominated himself leader, on account of Mayor Franz being dead and all."
Erhardt nodded, and rode his horse into the village, followed closely by Pina, and her second Bozes.
As they rode, Bozes looked over the burned buildings, and the corpses of the fallen, still waiting to be recovered by their families.
"This reminds me too much of the villages in Alnus, after the vampires had been through." Bozes said to Pina, "Except this is somehow more… brutal, more primal."
"At least the bodies are staying dead, and not getting up to stab us in the back." Pina replied.
As they went deeper into the village, they came across the survivors; they were dirty, covered in soot and blood, and there were more than a few crying children left unattended, no doubt newly orphaned after the beastmen slaughtered their parents. The survivors quickly swarmed around the trio, begging for help, though more than a few were intimidated by Pina and Bullslayer.
"My men are just outside the town!" Erhardt shouted, "They have food, water, and bandages! Go to them, and they will help you!"
Words of gratitude followed, and some blessed Erhardt and the Imperial Family as a whole in Sigmar's name.
Finally, they arrived at the temple; the only building in the entire village left unscathed from the attack, minus a few stray beastmen arrows, representative of Sigmar's steadfast resolve against the forces of Old Night. They dismounted and tying their steeds to a post, Pina whispering to Bullslayer that he should 'behave,' and the trio made their way inside.
Many wounded villagers were laying on the floor, the pews having been pushed to the walls to make room for them. Near the altar stood a small crowd of men and women, all gathered around a single figure, who was busy giving them instructions.
"I am Prince Erhardt Franz, and I have brought aid for your wounded!" Erhardt announced, stepping forward, but taking care not to step on any of the wounded, "Tell me good people; tell me which of you is the one named Valten, I wish to speak with him."
"I am Valten." a strong, clear voice said from across the temple, and a young man walked over to them.
He looked about as old as Erhardt, give or take a year, and was quite large and muscular, standing about a head taller than the Prince, which Erhardt noted with a drop of envy, before banishing the thought from his mind; there was work to be done after all. There was something oddly familiar about him as well, but Erhardt could not quite put his finger on it.
As Valten got closer however, Erhardt noticed something that made his heart stop; Valten wore no shirt, and upon his exposed chest was a birthmark… in the shape of the holy Twin Tailed Comet, a symbol of Sigmar Heldenhammer.
It was then that revelation dawned on Erhardt; this youth looked familiar, because Erhardt had seen his face before; on statues, paintings, and tapestries depicting the Ur-Emperor himself. In fact, Valten looked as if the grand Statue of Sigmar in the Altdorf Cathedral had come to life and was walked off his platform.
Erhardt had spoken to Morr's servant once, and had received a blessing from the god in the form of the Armor, but this Valten… this was a man truly touched by a God, and it took all of his willpower to not fall down to his knees in reverence.
"What can I do for you?" Valten asked, shaking Erhardt out of his stupor.
"I, yes, of course. My men and I were traveling along the road when we were attacked by beastmen earlier today. We fought them off, and were, hoping to stop at your village for the night. When we saw the smoke, we assumed the worst had happened. I understand that you fought them off?"
"I killed the Beastlord." Valten said, "And the rest fled after that. Still, it did not come without loss. Many died, including my parents."
"I understand." Erhardt lowered his eyes, "I am sorry for your loss. I am prepared to offer you whatever aid I can. Speak to my Second, Sir Siegfried."
"I can take him to see Siegfried." Bozes stated, "If that is agreeable to you Your Highness."
"It is." Pina replied, then turned to Valten, "Bozes is my most trusted friend; if it is agreeable, then she will lead you to our caravan, and help you distribute supplies."
"I would be glad to." Valten said. With that, the two left the temple, leaving Erhardt and Pina alone with the wounded.
"I saw that." Pina said to Erhardt.
"You froze up when you saw Valten. Why? I mean, he's easy on the eyes, but I doubt that was the reason-"
"I froze because this blacksmith's son is a mirror image of Sigmar himself."
"Oh… that's… unbelievable."
"An understatement if there ever was one my dear."
"You are not safe here.." Erhardt stated plainly to the assembled villagers, with Siegfried, Pina, and Bozes standing beside him, "Over half your number has been slain, much of the village has burned, and we do not know if the warherd that attacked was the main force, or a vanguard for a much larger herd. Therefore, if we are all to survive, we must travel to Ubersreik."
"But this is our home Your Highness!" a villager said, "We cannot just abandon it, not after we had to fight to take it back."
"If you stay here, you will be slaughtered." Erhardt stated coldly, in an attempt to get across the seriousness of the situation, "If under normal circumstances, I would remain here with you until your Lord sent proper help to rebuild your lives. However, I have my own mission, and I cannot delay. Still, I have given you food, and had my own healers look to your wounded; I have not offered my assistance, only to now abandon you now to whatever else may dwell within these woods. If need be, I will force you all to come with me, but I would rather you agree of your own free will."
The villagers looked apprehensive and scared; unsurprising, as it was most likely that few had ever ventured more than a day away from their village for their entire lives.
A rather plump woman, with bloody bandages covering her face, now stood up.
"With all respect for Your Highness and your Royal Father, but how would we survive in Ubersreik? Wasn't the city destroyed in the ratman invasion?"
Something about what the woman just said unnerved Erhardt; Pina noticed it when he clenched his hands together rather tight. At first glance, it seemed to be out of frustration, that this lowly peasant wasn't heeding the words of those who knew better.
But Pina had come to know Erhardt quite well; long days spent fighting alongside him, as well as sleeping together had given her an insight into his body language. It was that word the woman had said 'ratmen,' that had caused Erhardt to clench his jaw.
"Ubersreik was damaged heavily in the beastman attack." Erhardt said, and Pina noticed the emphasis he had placed on 'beastmen,' "But the attack was repulsed, and much of the city's infrastructure remains."
"But then we will be refugees." another man said, "Ones of countless, sleeping in camps outside city walls, or in the slums, slowly starving to death, or waiting till some ratspawned disease takes us, just as it did in the times of Mandred Skavenslayer!"
"I assure you all, you will not languish in the camps, or in the slums." Erhardt said, "For I own land within the city; a manorhouse which belonged to the late Empress-Mother, Morr rest her soul, as well as its surrounding grounds. The manor itself was heavily damaged during the attack, and is currently undergoing repairs, but the land is good land, with a metal fence surrounding the property, to help protect you. I hereby offer for you to stay on my estate grounds, until I can arrange for both your safe passage back to your village, as well as protection and support for you to rebuild. What say you? Will you accept my offer?"
The villagers immediately started to talk amongst themselves; some were willing, others fearful of leaving home. It was then that Valten stood up.
"His Highness is most generous." he addressed the villagers, "And he is also correct. If we stay here, we'll be nothing more than easy pickings for the next warherd. If we go with him, then we survive, and can return here one day. I know you are all worried; none of us have ever ventured far beyond this village before. But if we, the people of Lechenbad are to have a future, then we must go with Prince Erhardt. We will not stay in Ubersreik forever; we will return here one day, and rebuild our village; and by doing so, we spit in the face of the beastmen who tried to destroy us! They thought to stamp us out? All they have done is strengthen our determination to deny the fate they have tried to force upon us!"
The villagers cheered in support of Valten, the fear in their eyes, while still there, overshadowed by hope and determination. Hells, even Pina wanted to cheer for a moment. She then looked at Erhardt, and noticed that a look of esteem for Valten was crossing his face. He then blinked and addressed the crowd once more.
"Yes, well, start packing tonight, we leave in the morning. The wagons will be reserved for those who are too wounded or otherwise incapable of walking, so bring only that which you can carry, and I suggest burying anything valuable that you cannot but do not wish to leave to the beastmens' mercies."
With that, the villagers dispersed, leaving Valten alone with the highborn.
"I want your promise that you will help us return here one day." Valten said to Erhardt.
"You shall have it."
"No; not like this." Valten shook his head, "I may not know much of the world, but I know that Lords break their word to commonfolk, and think nothing of it. I would like to believe that you are sincere, but I require more proof than just your word."
"How dare you." Siegfried said with a growl, "My Lord is a man of honor; if he gives his word, then it worth more than all the promises of so-called nobles put together."
"Then he should have no problem proving it." Valten stated, and then pointed at the Altar of Sigmar, "Over there, in the eyes of the Heldenhammer, you will swear your oath of aid to us, in front of witnesses, and in return… in return I will swear my oath to you."
"And what oath would that be?" Erhardt asked.
"You are going to war." Valten stated, not a question but a fact, "And you will have need of strong warriors. I am strong. I may not have a soldier's education, but I slew a beastlord in single combat. Let me join you, and I will repay my village's debt to you."
"You drive a hard bargain." Erhardt said, "Perhaps you missed your true calling in Marienburg. Nevertheless, I accept. Let us make our oath over the Altar of Sigmar."
The two young men stepped over to the altar, and clasped hands together, just as their ancestors, the Unberogen, did so long ago in the times of Sigmar himself.
"In the eyes of Sigmar, I, Erhardt Franz, a Prince of Reikland, swear to ensure the safety of the residents of Lechenbad, and to see to it that they will one day return to their homes."
"In the eyes of Sigmar, I, Valten, swear to repay the debt owed to Prince Erhardt by the residents of Lechenbad, and hereby offer my good strong arms into his service."
"In the eyes of Sigmar, I accept your offer and your oath."
They shook, and broke apart.
"I suggest you join your neighbors in packing, and then get some rest. We start early tomorrow." Erhardt said.
Valten tapped the hammers at his waist.
"Everything of material value to me in this world I already carry. Everything else is just things. Those closest to my heart, I have already buried."
Just as Erhardt said, they had started an early march to Ubersreik. There were barely a hundred villagers coming with the initial company of State Troops, and thankfully, most could walk. Of those who could not, several were wounded, or too old, and were loaded onto the wagons, alongside the wounded soldiers. Furthermore, several of Erhardt's knights had taken orphaned small children, and sat them upon their horse's backs, sparing them from the tiring road, and giving them a little joy in the darkest time of their young lives.
Valte noticed this, and smiled, before helping an old grandmother into a wagon.
"You rest no elder." he told her, "We'll be in Ubersreik in three days."
"Thank ye kindly young Valten." she replied with a grin, "ANd SIgmar bless you for all you've done for us."
Valten nodded and jumped off the wagon, taking one last look at his home.
"I'm sure you will see it again one day." a woman's voice said from behind him.
Valten turned around and saw the blonde woman, whose hair was formed into elaborate drills, approach him, leading two horses by the reins in one hand.
"I don't think so." Valten admitted, "I will be going with Prince Erhardt after all, and something tells me that he will not be coming back to Reikland for a long time."
"You are observant." she said, "The Prince goes to war again before too long, though a part of me believes that you will be at home upon the battlefield, if your handiwork from yesterday was any indication."
"You pay me a kind compliment Lady… I am sorry, but I did not get your name."
"Do not apologize, we only met once before when I took you to Siegfried." she held out her hand for him to take, "I am Knight Bozes Co Palesti, of the House Palesti."
Valten took her hand, and shook it, looking right at her, and unaware of the faux pas he had just committed. If Bozes minded though, she did not show it.
"Your name… it is not a Reiklander one." he observed, "In fact, if you don't mind me saying, you look far too different to be one of my countrymen, or from one of the other provinces."
"You are observant." she said, "I come from the Saderan Empire, from beyond the Gate."
"The Gate?" Valten asked, shocked, "I've heard tales of it; they say that an army of daemons emerged form it."
"No daemons, only men, like you… well, perhaps not quite like you." she admitted.
"Are you not the enemy though?"
"I am not your enemy." Bozes said, "My Princess and Prince Erhardt have formed an alliance against both our mutual foes. As such, you have nothing to worry about from me."
"I'm glad; I would hate to be your enemy." Valten said, "I would not like fighting such a lovely lady."
"Well thank you." Bozes said, a slight flush of red on her face, "I would hate to fight you as well… considering you can kill mutants single handedly. I must admit, you fascinate me."
"The men of Sadera and the men of your homeland are not so different, physically I mean. But then there is you, who despite having no background whatsoever in the arts of war, can rout an army of monsters by himself, and slay their chief in single combat?"
She closed her eyes, as if lost in thought.
"In my homeland, the gods have messengers on earth called "Apostles." They are immortal, ageless demigods, who far stronger than mortals, with each one a one-person army unto themselves. What you have done here, I would compare to the stories of them."
"I assure you Lady Bozes, I am neither ageless, or immortal."
"And yet you bear the symbol of your god, Sigmar, upon your breast." she opened her eyes now, "I will be keeping a close eye on you, to see what you do next."
She handed him the reins to one of the horses she had.
"Here, do you know how to ride?"
"A little bit. Enough to not fall off."
"Good enough. Come, you can ride alongside me."
She mounted her horse, and trotted off to join the main company. Valten shrugged, and followed her example, though he was less confident in getting up on the saddle.
'Alongside Bozes eh?' he thought to himself, looking at her long blonde drills from behind, 'There are worse places in the world to be I suppose.'
It took closer to four than three, but eventually, they made it to Ubersreik.
The walls, damaged during the attack, were the first to be not only repaired, but strengthened. The towers now bore the banners of the Prince of Reikland, signifying Karl Franz' stewardship of the town until a new ruler could be appointed.
The guards at the gatehouse recognized Erhardt's own banners, and immediately let his company through. The villagers were gaping and looking around at everything in awe; even undergoing reconstruction, Ubersreik still seemed larger and grander than anything they had ever seen before in their whole lives."
"Siegfried." Erhardt ordered, "Bring the company to my property, and get them settled in. Then go to the bank, and withdraw as much money as you need to in order to purchase supplies to feed, water, and otherwise support them."
"What of you?" Siegfried asked.
"I will be going to the palace, to speak to whomever my father has placed in charge. I will ask him to contact Lechenbad's Lord, whomever that is, and to inquire as to the exact location of the Emperor's Army."
"Will you be going with him, Princess Co Lada?" Siegfried asked.
"I will Sir." she answered, riding alongside Erhardt, "I want to present a unified front after all."
"Of course." Siegfried bowed his head, "I will do as commanded Your Highness. I will see you back at the manor."
Erhardt nodded, and then he and Pina separated from the main company, and began making their way to the palace, Pina mostly following Erhardt.
Pina looked around, and took in the sights of Ubersreik; compared to Sadera, it was an ugly city, and she suspected it had always been that way, even before the attack. The buildings were cramped close together, and when available space had run out, it seemed as if the people had begun to build on top of already existing structures, to the point where it seemed as if every story of a house was a mess of different designs, each equally as grim as the last one. She was honestly surprised that they were still standing. As for the people…
The people were dirty from all the reconstruction work going on, a bit smelly, and not very pleasant to look at, making the most average Saderan look gorgeous by comparison.
Still, the sounds of jovial laughter, mixed with song filled the air, even if the lyrics were of rather more dark material than she was used to, mostly about death, but living well before you were sent to 'the Garden.'
Eventually, they reached the palace, though it was more humble than the seats of noble power that Pina was used to, and a lot more skull decorations; the damned things were everywhere!
Nonetheless, they were swiftly down the halls, and into an audience chamber. Sitting at a large desk was an older man, with spectacles, dressed in blue robes, a small cap on his head, with a ridiculously large tailfeather from some exotic bird sticking out of it.
"Prince Erhardt, welcome, welcome!" he said, sitting up, adjusting his spectacles as he did so, "I am Viscount Todfinder, and I have the honor of being the Emperor's Interim Graf of Ubersreik. It has been too long since you visited our fair city!"
"War has kept me away." Erhardt replied, "And war has brought me back. If we could begin, I have several questions for you-"
"I'm sure you do." a woman's voice, bursting with matriarchal authority, interrupted from behind Erhardt, who froze at the sound of it, "And I have questions for you as well."
Erhardt and Pina turned around, and, if it was possible, Erhardt looked ever paler.
The woman was wearing a black dress with red highlights, and her equally dark hair done up in an elaborate hairstyle, sticking up into the air, with a priceless tiara on her brow. She regarded Erhardt with with experienced eyes and a knowing smile, one that became almost catlike when she turned her gaze to Pina.
Erhardt was shocked; standing before him, completely unexpected, was Charlotte Franz nee Falkenhayn, Empress of the Empire, Grand Princess of Reikland, Princess of Altdorf, and most importantly, his mother.
Behind her stood a man in the garb of a Templar of Sigmar, and he certainly looked grim enough to be a part of that order, though he had only one eye.
"Well then," she started, amused, "are you just going to stand there boy, or are you going to embrace your mama?"
Erhardt broke his shock, and smiled, a genuine, happy smile.
"Of course mother."
Mother and son wrapped one another in their arms, the Empress planting a kiss on his forehead. She then took a step back and looked him over.
"Gods, but the letters were right; you look awful."
The Empress then looked at Pina, and the Princess immediately felt a chill go up her spine when the older woman smiled in a predatory way.
"And this must be the famous Enemy Princess I've heard so much about. Well, Erhardt, are you going to introduce me?"