Prequel: The Battle for EbinoWinter IC 2420-3. A short distance south of Ebino
It was less than half an hour since first light and already the burgeoning camp was a hive of activity. Many within had laboured through the night, attempting to satisfy the arch-lector’s demand that the earthwork circumvallation be completed within two days. Considering the proximity of the vampire-ruled city of Ebino, there were very few who begrudged this hurried deadline and even less who yearned for sleep. What mortal man would relish the prospect of being unconscious and undefended as a force of unliving monsters sallied out from the deathly quiet walls?
Having finally shrugged off the queasy terror gifted by yet another night-long torrent of nightmares, partly achieved by the ritual of his morning prayers and partly with a practised effort of will, Father Biagino decided he ought to take the air and stretch his legs. He was keen to see how the camp’s defences were coming along, not least because of the future horrors suggested by his nightmares. The dreams he remembered, despite his urge to forget, had revealed to him a grand yet grisly army much greater and more terrible than that he had faced at Pontremola. He told himself that it could not be so – only yesterday the scouts had confidently reported a weak force garrisoning Ebino – and yet there it was. Before the dream army, and quite unable to escape due to some mysterious thickening of the air, he became as a mouse before a bull - an old, diseased mouse with legs stuck in glue-like mud before the snorting, red-eyed king of all demonic bulls. As the mighty foe came on relentlessly, he turned in desperation to see what safety his comrades could provide, only to discover that they too were living-dead, their eyes empty of all life apart from hateful hunger. The enemy was on all sides. He had not a friend in the world. When he threw his hands up to block out the sight, which was all he could think to do, pain seared into his palms. Tearing them away again, he saw blood pouring from ragged holes. From there, the nightmare took a turn for the worse, becoming the part he could not bring himself even to think about.
He was accompanied by the guard who had been placed as his tent sometime after he retired for the night, a veteran Reman crossbowman called Fazzio who proved to be a talkative fellow. It was a quality Biagino much appreciated for the distraction it gave, and therefore one he was happy to encourage.
“Quite a difference already,” said the crossbowman. “I saw this gate just after dark and it was little more than a few marker posts.”
Biagino stopped a moment to look the earthworks over. Without a doubt much work had been done, for it was no small feat to enclose a camped army as large as this Holy Army of Morr, but it was still far from a reassuring sight. Small sections of earthwork were in place, but most were little more than low piles of earth, the traced beginnings of a defence achieving little more than marking out where the completed circumvallation would sit. He pointed at a finished section by the gate and asked, “Will they make the whole circuit as high?”
“I should think so, father,” said Fazzio. “As per the general’s orders: an outer ditch with an earthen bank no less than four feet high, parapeted throughout, with gabions at the gates. O’course, if we stay any longer than a few days, it’ll grow much bigger than that. This is just for starters.”
They had stopped at the spot where the elaborate volley gun had been emplaced. It had been taken from maestro Angelo’s steam engine, and thus had no wheeled carriage. Just as Biagino pondered the consequences of this, Fazzio spoke.
“Well that’s not going anywhere soon,” he declared. “If it comes to battle here at the camp, I hope this is the spot it’s needed. Seems to me to be a distinct lack of artillery in this army, considering what we’re up against and where they’re at.”
Biagino simply nodded. He had passed the maestro’s steam engine as he made his way to his tent last night. The entire upper platform had been torn away, thus removing all its guns, big and small, so that in its stead a huge ramp could be fabricated upon its back. This was the result of one of the maestro’s suggestions concerning how to assault the city, what with both walls and a moat stubbornly obstructing the army’s passage. He had made the idea sound so simple: remove the gun-platform and in its place mount a flat bridge of roughly-hewn boards obliquely rising from a little way above the ground at the rear, while extending out beyond the front until reaching the same height as the crenellations. Then, using the engine’s proven strength, roll on up to the wall until close enough to allow soldiers to run up onto the battlements. Of course, the maestro had added, if the enemy were living Tileans the enterprise would be severely compromised by artillery fire from the towers, but in this case, it could be assumed there would be no such danger. Biagino had marvelled how the maestro could make the prospect of fighting the living dead sound like an advantage.
Several soldiers were attending to the multi-barrelled piece, while others were filling the gabion beside it with rocks.
A large, rubble filled wagon filled stood nearby, with a sweating soldier aloft hurling the contents to the ground …
… whereupon two labourers wielding pick axes broke the stones into manageable chunks.
If this was the effort required simply to place an engine of war in some earthen defence-works, thought Biagino, then surely the maestro’s breezy description of what was required to make an entirely novel, massive and mobile military amalgamation of bridge and ramp had been somewhat rash?
Biagino turned to his companion and asked, “Do you think the maestro’s plan to mount the walls will work?”
Fazzio grinned, making himself look a tad foolish in the process, and answered, “Why not? As long as the engine moves, and the bridge upon it is long enough, and strong enough, and the enemy does nothing to impede its progress, then yes, it should successfully deliver our lads into the arms of the foe.”
“Besides,” he added, “if it doesn’t work, then there’s the petard. Maybe all the maestro’s engine really has to do is draw the enemy’s attention away from the petard?”
Biagino said nothing, but he had been even less convinced by the maestro’s (second) proposition to construct the ‘biggest petard Tilea has ever known’. The proposed components were lying next to the area where engine was being converted, little more than a rusty, old cannon barrel brought from Viadaza and a battered, spare boiler for the engine, to be fastened together somehow and mounted upon a carriage so that the whole could trundle right up to be placed against the gate, there to blow it apart. Biagino’s doubts were not the of the usual kind regarding petards, which tended to concern the difficulty in finding a petardier, a volunteer mad enough to attempt the placing of it. There really was no difficulty there, what with scores of fanatical flagellants and dedicates committed to sacrificing themselves for Morr in any way necessary, perhaps the messier the better? Rather, he worried about how the petardier could possibly hope to reach its destination without deadly interference from the enemy. The undead might not have missiles to shoot, but they could surely hurl rocks, even just tip them over the parapet? And worse, in his dreams he had watched ghastly spirits swarming through stone and wood as if there were nothing there at all, which meant they could sally out without even opening the gate.
Looking back at the volley gun, Biagino watched a matross ramming home an iron ball into one of the nine barrels, while yet another rock was tumbled into the wicker-weaved gabion beside him.
The two of them then left the soldiers to their labours and walked a little further to a stretch of earthen barricade heaped so low it allowed easy access back into the camp’s interior. Biagino led and Fazzio followed as they headed towards the very heart of the camp, where a second, much smaller ring of earthworks had been quickly thrown up, the beginnings of an inner defensive circuit to surround the army’s carroccio. This time, however, the work had apparently already halted. No-one laboured here, as if the pathetically low mound was already considered sufficient for purpose. Instead, a congregation of clergy and dedicates had gathered within, completely surrounding the holy wagon, being joined in ominous chanting, part prayer and part summonation of Morr’s divine presence.
Biagino heard Fazzio gasp at his side.
The physical cause of Fazzio’s audible surprise was nothing more than the barest rippling of a breeze rolling out from the enclosure, but it was laced with a hair-raising and gut-wrenching sensation of powerful intent, like one might suppose a god’s breath would feel as it washed over you. Biagino had sensed it too, perhaps more forcefully than the crossbowman, because for him it evoked memories of rituals and rites, of prayers he himself had employed to conjure curses and blessings in battle, and especially the terrors inhabiting his dreams. He did not gasp, but for a mad moment he yearned to throw his head back and scream, allowing the spiritual potency to penetrate his being and set his soul alight. He held the compulsion in check, for he knew if he were to give in to it, he would surely and immediately slide into a new kind of madness - the same divinely gifted ecstasy that coursed through the bodies and souls of flagellants as the pain of their scourging reached an unbearable peak.
The congregation had arrayed itself in a ring around the large wagon, consisting of both ordained priests and avowed lay brothers, as well as fanatical cultists and dedicates. A flagellant prophet stood by the carroccio, waving a holy book in one hand and a heavy, studded club in the other.
Upon the wagon-shrine’s lower level a cleric spoke prayers over the gilded tabernacle containing a carefully selected collection of holy Reman relics brought by order of the arch-lector. Upon the upper platform two priests, somewhat incongruously framed by brass-barrelled swivel guns, gestured with raised hands to lead the prayerful chanting of those gathered around. Fluttering above their heads was the cross-keyed standard of the Reman Church of Morr, showing both the gold and silver keys to Morr’s garden
Biagino had to look twice before he realised that one of the officiating priests was none the less than Erkhart, the lector of Trantio, the very same man who only weeks before had arrived wretched and broken at Viadaza, assailed by doubts and the guilt of having abandoned his city. Now, dressed in a humble woollen cassock, he had the steely glint of a fanatic in his eyes, and looked every bit like the sort of man who could successfully channel mighty Morr’s divine will.
“In manus tuas, Morrus, commendo spiritum meum,” prayed Fazzio.
Biagino raised his hand to bless the crossbowman, to reassure him. The power of prayer was indeed evident here, even to a layman. The arch-lector himself had ordered the holy ritual, intending that its potency would crescendo into a force sufficient to wash over the entire city of Ebino, undoing the dark-magics animating the undead. While the maestro Angelo was to use mathematics and mechanical skill to forge his ingenious weapons of war, the church would call upon divine power to strike at the foe. Biagino, however, was not reassured. In his dreams the vampires were unstoppable, their will undeniable, their servants relentless, and inevitably their curse swallowed up the whole world. And if his dreams were only half right, then this ritual was still not enough.
Suddenly a new voice, an ululation more strained and crazed than all the rest, surged up to dominate. It seemed to contain no words, but in truth was just one name, sung without ending: Morr. And it emanated from the mouth of the wild-haired fanatic with the club. His hair blazed from his head like black fire, and his waist was wrapped in penitential chains upon which iron balls swung to bruise his shins.
“ … oooor … oooor ... oooor” went the wail, the sound of the crowd’s chanting undiminished and yet seeming so. Then the wail began to split and fragment, multiplying into a crazed choir of sound. Biagino peered at the fanatic, wondering how such a thing was possible, his bemusement only ending when he caught a glimpse of motion upon the other side of the sacred compound. More fanatics had appeared, racing around the periphery, their weapons brandished, their mouths agape as they too cried out Morr’s holy name.
Fazzio flinched when he too saw the motion, his crossbow falling from his shoulder and his other hand reaching for his sword. Then he too saw what it was. He exhaled, then sniffed. “Here they come,” he said, as if the scene were something tired and familiar. “Father, forgive me, but with a battle brewing I can’t decide if we need more or less of their kind.”
Biagino said nothing. At Pontremola he had witnessed almost every regiment on the field flee from the foe – the battle having been won by General d’Alessio’s slaying of the vampire duke alone, not by any resoluteness or courage in the massed ranks. When the vampire duke fell, his army weakened across the field, some stumbling, others crumbling away, until those left retired under the command of a lesser vampire. There was little the broken Viadazan army could do to stop them leaving, but at least they had won the battle. The Holy Army of Morr could not rely on such a stroke of luck to win its battles, especially as it was unknown whether the vampire duchess would even put herself in harm’s way. Instead they needed fighting men who could and would stand their ground against such a terrifying foe. These flagellants were those kind of men. Once they had whipped themselves into a crazed frenzy, they would fight to the last. Whether or not a general could ensure they did so to some purpose on the field, that was a different matter.
“Hello!” said Fazzio all of a sudden. “Now there’s a leader made to inspire warriors!”
Biagino broke from his reverie and saw immediately who Fazzio had meant. At the head of the column of flagellating fanatics, sword in hand, cassock hoiked up to allow him to run unimpeded, chins and belly a-wobbling, was the Campogrottan priest Peppe di Lazzaro.
“If he carries on like that he’ll do himself an injury,” said Fazzio.
“Isn’t that the point?” quipped Biagino as the crazed priest hurtled passed them pursued by a large gang of much more fearsome followers.
There was little either of them could do while the frantic procession cavorted by them, swinging around the sacred compound and heading off back towards where they came from. No doubt they would re-appear in a little while as their violent dance circumnavigated whatever other part of the camp they had chosen to navigate by. Once they had gone from sight Biagino suddenly felt as if he was being watched. Glancing off to the side he saw the arch-lector’s colourful tent, attended by his Reman guards. It was not them who were looking at him, however, but the arch-lector himself, from within the shadowed interior.
Biagino supposed the arch-lector would surely beckon him over or at least make some other sign of recognition, as he had done on most other occasions. But no, he just stood motionless, staring.
It made Biagino wonder what his holiness had dreamt last night.