378YE Summer Solstice winds of war
As the wet Spring gives way to glorious Summer, the banners are raised and the horns echo across the battlefield. It is the season of war! On the eastern front, the Battle of the Iron Plains drives the Lasambrian invaders out of the Seguran heartland. The campaign is not over, but the dry grasslands are Imperial territory once more. Yet whose nation will the Senate judge worthy to take custody of them, to shoulder the responsibility of securing thelast regions of the westernmost province of the Empire?
Further north, thunder echoes through the Silver Peaks as a host of Thule comes sweeping down into the mountains of Sermersuaq bent on conquest. On the far side of the empire, in newly-liberated Karsk Imperial and Thule forces fight to a standstill amid the ruined hills. Only the crows and the rats prosper as the Varushkan armies seek to drive the barbarians out of their territory - and the Thule seem loathe to leave.
Not so the Druj - in marshy Therunin the combined forces of the Navarr and Highborn face advancing barbarians and drive the verminous enemy back to the dark hills of Reikos. Their noses are bloodied - but they are not defeated. Will they lick their wounds and consider their next action, or seek new prey? There are routes they could march their armies that threaten mountainous Morrow, splendid Bastion or - if they choose to test the might of the Sentinel - the heart of the Empire itself.
What of Holberg? The situation in the west has turned from bad to worse. The siege of Holmauer has ended in retreat - the Imperial armies are besieged behind the upper city, with the Druj in command of the rest of the territory. All is not lost - the walls of the city hold, and have never been broken. The gates open when the people of Holberg will it, never before ...
It is easy in the flood of history to forget the little things. To forget that Mournwold and Liathaven still labour under the yoke of Jotun rule - and for all their ceasefire with the Empire, the brave defenders of the Greensward still suffer regular raids from the barbarians. Sometimes the people of the Empire can be pushed beyond their breaking point - witness the sad end of the Virtue crusade. Sometimes, they rally in unexpected ways as the Grendel vessels sunk during the blockade of Apulus can attest ...
There then. Season of war, of hot blood. Here the Empire raises the flag of triumph, there they fight with their backs to the walls. The battle continues.
The Battle of the Iron Plains
Wide, empty and windswept the Iron Plains are a place to pass through or to come from, not to stay. Rain falls rarely, but as Spring gives way to Summer, the arid grasslands are watered with the blood of knights, corsairs, and barbarians.
Two armies of Lasambrian Orcs, driven north and west by the Imperials, seek an orderly retreat. The massed forces of the Red Wind Corsairs, the Eastern Sky and the Hounds of Glory fall on them like wolves on the fold. The battered barbarians give ground at every step, resisting a rout, pushed further back towards the hills that girdle Segura. Then a third Lasambrian army smashes *through* the other two armies. A new army, under an iron banner. It matches the fervour of the kohan and the glorious knights. It secures the escape of the other two armies, to Anduzjasse and Yellow Chase and Burnish.
Alongside the barbarians fight knights in crimson and gold who are neither orc nor human, but emissaries of an Eternal power. Beneath the golden lion banner, they engage Imperial forces without regard for their own safety, fighting astride great tawny lions and accompanied by swooping bull-sized hawks. Here and there among the allied contingent are massive creatures with spreading antlers, or claws-and-fanged wolf-beasts that sing with human voices as they tear into their prey.
Every inch of Iron Plains soil ceded to the Empire is paid for twice over by a price of blood. Near two thousand Imperial soldiers will not fight again. But the Empire prevails. The Red Wind drives the last Lasambrian stragglers northwards, reclaiming the Iron Plains for the Freeborn people. Near the ruins of Anduz, above the standing stones of the Longing Circle, the Dawnish forces establish an armed camp gazing across the churned earth towards the barbarian defenders occupying the old city.
With the Battle of the Iron Plains, the Empire has reclaimed Segura. Yet the Lasambrians have not been driven back into their hills - three barbarian armies remain, facing three Imperial armies across the dry grasslands.
Thunder in the Silver Peaks
In the north, in Sermersuaq, the passes shake to the thunder of drums and of marching feet. A Thule army comes, marching under the banner of the white hound. The pounding of great drums shakes the snow loose from the highest of the Silver Peaks More than ten thousand orcs, out of Skúld, out of western Otkodov, marching to war.
They occupy the northern passes, building fortified camps. They begin to claim the mines of the mountains and the foothills, to claim crystal mana from the Stonefields. With their armies march hundreds of savage orc hunters, wrapped in leather and fur and marked with white Winter runes. They raid deep into Sermersuaq. Hunters returning to Atalaq speak of orc raiding parties spotted as far west as the northern shores of Lake Atkonartoq, as far south as the East Floes above Wreck.
Stealthy scouts are spotted in the hills above the Stonefield Ice Caves. Watching. Planning. It seems unlikely these sorcerous barbarians will pass up the opportunity to claim the bounty of ilium the caves represent, nor the many mana sites of the Stonefields themselves.
It is good they do not march unopposed.
The Green Shield and the Fist of the Mountain are here. When the beacons flame, they have barely stamped the mud of Varushka from their boots. Barely rested from their long westbound trek, they march north-east to stop the barbarian advance.
The armies clash in the foothills. Many Winterfolk lay down their lives in the high peaks above the windswept plains. Many orcs are sent tumbling down the mountainsides.
They have not established themselves, but neither have they been driven out. At night, when the sky darkens enough that the first stars can be seen, the great drums of the Thule boom and shout across the mountains until the last star is hidden by the sun, rising behind the mountains.
The war for Sermersuaq has begun.
A whisper of magic
The wind… it blows through Therunin, whispering. The green shadows are quiet, apart from birdsong and the gentle soughing wind. There is magic in the whisper. A whisper of shadow, heard in the dripping fens of the Lower Tarn Valley. The chorus of frogs and the buzz of flies fallen silent, for a heartbeat. A half-seen castle of woven mist coalesces, spreading across the waters. The marsh itself comes to life, a subtle enchantment of coiling vines, toad spies and shambling swamp guardians.
A whisper of life, urging the waters of the marshy forest to run clear and fresh. Vitality thrums through the soil, dances in every shower of rain, swirls in every well and spring and stream and pond. Blood flows slowly, wounds heal quickly, infection is unknown. Nothing short of death lasts - injuries are washed away by the healing tide.
A whisper of death, heard by the dead. A thousand murdered Navarr and slaughtered Druj orcs rise from the mud, stumbling through the dark trees to join the army of the Black Thorns, falling on the barbarians as they advance.
There are over ten thousand orcs are in Therunin, under the banner of the Hunting Scorpion and the Red Lizard. An iron fist of warriors, a shroud of scouts, skirmishers and saboteurs, invaders out of Reikos.
The Hunting Scorpion is confident in its strength, marching under a dread miasma of fear and doubt. They do not expect the Granite Pillar to turn their own terror weapons back against them, to extend their aegis of protection to the Black Thorns and the Quiet Step. Imperial and barbarian forces clash again and again as the leaves spread and Summer blossom blooms on the boughs.
In the end a tangle of factors grants victory to the Empire. Without their magic, without the discipline of the Highborn, without the captains fighting alongside the Imperial armies, without the wood wisdom of the Black Thorns, the outcome could have been very different... As it is, by mid-Summer, the Druj forces have been pushed back across the border into the ruined hills of Reikos.
Amid Ruined hills
Talk of ruined hills … the hills of Reikos, the hills of Karsk. Thanks to the courage of heroes, Karsk is once again a part of Varushka. Yet there is no peace to be found in the war torn land, not this side of the labyrinth ... and perhaps not the other, either.
The Northern Eagle and the Golden Axe stand alone against over twenty thousand Thule warriors. As in Therunin, the power of Imperial magic makes the waters of Karsk sparkle with life. Here, that powerful Spring magic stands between the Imperial forces and catastrophic casualties.
Here, the Empire faces the dark sorcery of the Dragons of Thule ...
Two great citadels of ice and frozen stone have risen in the hills of Karsk. One raised by the power of Imperial magicians provides sanctuary for the Varushkan forces. From the other, raised in fallen Krevsaty, provides a vantage to orc warlocks who gaze from its frigid towers across the crow-haunted battlefields.Their armies display supernatural enchantments, potent ritual magic woven about their soldiers by the magician-kings of the north. They fight together as if their captains shared one mind, they exploit any opening presented by their Varushkan foes, they seem to respond to their enemies' movements almost before they make them.
Yet for all their magic, the Thule launch no attacks of their own – they simply defend those regions where their strength still holds.
While there are skirmishes throughout Karsk, most of the serious fighting takes place in the northern hills of Branoc. The Thule and the Empire clash in the dark shadow of the Broken Barrow itself, a haunted hill is held by an army of humans, orcs and revenant things that aid neither side. Those who stray within the ring of fallen stones that circles the hill – be they man or orc – are slain without mercy.
The Empire loses no land, but likewise it claims not one square foot of contested territory from the orc defenders. If the Thule had simply attacked, then the Imperial forces would surely have been overwhelmed rather than simply forced back to Nitrost and to Kopvenost.
The crows grow fat on a thousand fallen Imperials ... but the death toll could have been so much worse.
The Siege of Holmauer
Things are much worse in Holberg.
Perhaps fifteen thousand Freeborn, Dawnish and Marcher souls defend the solid walls of Holfried and the tattered walls of Holmauer.
Arrayed against them, perhaps twenty-five thousand orcs, commanded from the shambolic fortress at Rebeshof beneath the banners of the striking scorpion.
The waters of Holberg run with bloody Spring magic. Water turns foul quickly, spreads everywhere creating slippery mud that sucks the strength from the limbs of soldiers. Some who fall lack the will to rise again without assistance. Some never rise. Every wound festers, even minor injuries might prove life-threatening. The orcs suffer as well – but they seem not to care about the misery caused by their malicious magic.
From the gates of Rebeshof the Scorpion Sting lead an overwhelming assault on the walls of Holmauer. They walls hold for a time, then break in one, two, three places. A trickle of orcs through the defences becomes a flood. The Empire retreats back into the upper city, to safety behind the walls of Holfried.
Over four thousand Imperial troops lie dead, slain by poison, by festering wounds, by fearsome beasts, by merciless, stealthy assault.
The ruined suburbs of Holmauer are in the hands of the Druj again. They control the outer walls – although those walls surely will not stand much longer.
It could have been worse.
The barbarians amuse themselves by catapulting the heads and body parts of slaughtered imperial troops over the walls into the upper city. The heralds of panic stir in the city now, unmatched since the retreat of Empress Giselle. Citizens who have endured everything the Druj have thrown at them are beginning to wonder what the weather is like in sunny Sarvos, chilly Temeschwar, rain-beaten Tassato ...
Flickers in the Twilight
Summer nights are short; as the Solstice approaches, they get shorter. The hours of twilight, though, stretch out as the sun balances on the horizon before true night or true dawn. Lights flicker in the twilight, flaring to life ... dying to ashes.
As day turns to night, the folk of the Greensward bank their fires and shutter their windows. They sleep fitfully in their beds, trusting to the flimsy safety of a ring of hay-filled hessian and hollowed heads. The scarecrows of Overton, a scowling ward against the hunger of the Jotun. Empty shirts and sacks stuffed with Marcher straw, bound to stakes, dead faces staring outward in the gathering gloom. The Jotun avoid them; only the greediest raider pushes through the ring to attack the farms of the Greensward, and of those most turn back before they reach the battered palisade that surrounds the town. Still, despite their fear, they still come.
The warning bell rings, loud and fast in the twilight.
Then, the weak and the injured flee to the sanctuary of Greensward Abbey, warded by magic from jealous barbarian eyes. There they find shelter until the bell rings again to signal that the exhausted militia have held the raiders at bay ... or that they have left with the booty they came for. Perhaps it is superstitious dread that keeps the Jotun at bay, perhaps the subtle magic of the Marches, perhaps something more sinister.
How much longer will the scarecrows' magic last? How long before the raiders return full-strength to pillage the last redoubt of the Marchers in the Mourn?
The sun rests beneath the horizon. Torches and campfires mark the borders of Casinea and Bastion, the rough camps of the Virtue Crusade. Several hundred refugees from Reikos, many with little more than the cowl on their head, make ready to march on the Druj. Their hatred of the monsters who have murdered their kin and befouled their homes is stoked by their firebrand wayfarers. Hale or sickly, old or young: all are told that they have a part to play in the coming battle.
The lost and the desperate, encouraged to take up arms to reclaim what is theirs. They are hopeful of a sure victory, one promised by reports of visions and portents and oracular dreams. Their leaders went to Anvil and were promised support by Senators and Generals alike. But as the day proclaimed for the great assault grows darker, the crusade marches to war alone.
Not everyone marches; some fall prey to doubt, slipping away as the ragged column snakes into war-torn Reikos. There is still a mob of at least a hundred Imperial citizens left when the encounters the Druj scouts. The barbarians must suspect a trap - after all, it is what they would have done. Sacrifice a few worthless pawns to lead the enemy into an ambush.
In the end, though, they strike. There are some in the crusade who can fight - a handful of Unconquered, a few displaced guardians, perhaps a dozen cataphracts eager to strike against the hated Druj. They are the first to fall. The Virtue Crusade collapses into anarchy. Even now, it is not too late for some to escape. The unfortunate few, though, those who still believe the promises of victory are denied even the peace of the grave. Brutally subdued, captured and enslaved by the merciless orcs.
The Virtue Crusade is over. In time, the survivors will perhaps come to envy those who had a swift death.
Flames dance through the night until the twilight of dawn spreads across the horizon. Under the banner of the Valiant Pegasus, Highborn guardians man the watchflames of Fort Mezudan, alongside the Urizen sentinels. Under the banners of the Salt Dogs and the Stone Gyre, the barbarians watch them from around their roaring campfires. The Grendel greet the dawn with great shouts and skirling pipes. Both sides are dug-in, waiting. Away from Screed, Spiral is almost peaceful.
Not so at sea.
Imperial fleets engage the Grendel fleets in the deep waters off the Spiral coast. Here fly the flags of Freeborn corsairs and Navarr captains; there sleek Urizen vessels prowl the coast under the banner of the Phoenix; in deeper waters the speedy fleet of a Temeschwari merchant-venturer keeps pace with the rough-hewn flotilla of Blood Crow Yargol. At night, three great beacons burn on the walls of shattered Apulian, warning the Grendel fleets of dangers both Imperial and natural. The shipping routes between the conquered Spiral town and the Broken Shore are disrupted. Attacking the Grendel port directly would be pure folly - especially when there are fat Grendel boats to attack instead. Supply ships from Dubhtraig are sunk, treasure ships transporting looted Urizen goods are captured.
Oh, the land forces will survive well enough - but they will need to keep their scavenged bounties for themselves, need to be a little more cautious in their raiding, with the surety of support from the Broken Shore cast into doubt. Yet there are other routes for trade ... treacherous routes. Returned to Imperial ports, sailors gossip about the handful of Imperial ships seen entering the port of Apulian to trade, betraying the Empire in pursuit of their own personal profits.
There then. Three flickering fire tales when the sun has set and before it has risen. Three short glimpses into the little dramas that spin out across the Empire, before the Summer Solstice, before the nights begin to grow longer once again.