Victory is far from certain, but without strategy defeat is inevitable.
Serious business

Overview

To the surprise of many, Karsk remains an Imperial territory; the Thule and the Imperial forces watch each other carefully across hills covered in a carpet of green by an early Spring. The barbarians seem to have used no large-scale magic here; there is also a question about what is going on with the forces of the Charnel Lord, the sovereign of the Broken Hill.

In Reikos, Imperial forces push westward following the retreating Druj. The Vigilant Swan is liberated but has been transformed into a monstrous charnel house. A dread miasma continues to slow progress, as does the presence of the Druj citadel that squats over the ruins of what was once High Chalcis. Every season in Reikos appears to be a season of unmitigated grief.

The deadlock continues in Sermersuaq - both the Empire and the Thule continue to reinforce and weave potent enchantments in this vicious, grinding engagement.

In Holberg the Empire wins a massive victory, and pushes the Druj back into the northern forests. Four thousand Imperial lives are lost in the process. The Druj are still present but their forces are greatly reduced; vicious curses including a pestilential taint and malignant spirits possessing trees contribute to the chaos and destruction.

Meanwhile, fifty companies of elite Imperial troops are engaged in campaigns outside the borders of the Empire; thirty companies support the forces fighting the Jotun in the hills of Faraden while a further twenty companies brave the trek to distant Axos and attempt to break the siege of Ipotavo. It remains to be seen what effect this will have.

Oh ... and massive storms wrack the seas off the coast of Spiral, impeding Grendel shipping and preventing any naval reinforcement of their positions there. It is not entirely clear what effect this has had on Grendel plans, but it definitely happened.

Sorrow and Hope

There's a dichotomy to Karsk. It seems like a year now, that the waters have run with magic, full of life and potential. The tramping boots of soldiers alive and ... not alive ... crush bluebells and crocuses but all the soldiers in the Empire could not stamp out the carpet of green, growing life thrusting its way through the black soil. A riot of new life, an ocean of growth. Spend a few minutes lying in a field and you can almost hear the grass and the trees and the Spring flowers growing. In the cool light of the morning sun it is easy to forget where you are, easy to simply marvel at the good, fresh life surrounding you. Even the rain tastes of hope.

As with so many seasons before, twin citadels rise from the hills of Karsk. A monolithic fortress of ice and granite in northern Nitrost, a squat keep of ice and carved ivory in southern Moresvah. For the first time, however, both magical citadels belong to the Empire. They provide safe havens for the Northern Eagle and the Black Thorns. There is no answering citadel from the Thule.

The Empire holds in Varushka.
The Thule avoid encounters with Imperial forces.

The Northern Eagle has fought in Karsk before, so many times. They know the hills and the forests and the soft, boggy marshes. They take refuge in hidden camps and secluded valleys across the western ranges. The Black Thorns, likewise, make little effort to issue forth from the frozen citadels and the safe havens of Kopevnost and Lestazny. Both armies defend Imperial territory, but do not seek to engage the Thule. There are occasional skirmishes between patrols, of course, but no clash of armies. The miners of Morsevah take advantage of what seems to be a lull in the fighting; ten wagons of weapons and armour are delivered without warning to the Northern Eagle along with several dozen new recruits ready to fight for Varushka. Not only do the Varushkans and the Navarr suffer no significant casualties, but the Northern Eagle is actually made stronger ...

Perhaps, if this were anywhere else, it would be time for optimism?

Indeed, the barbarian orcs seem almost ... absent, in a way. They do not advance; wherever possible the avoid encounters with Imperial forces, falling back rather than standing their ground. It is not a rout. The armies are disciplined and organised. Most of the time they fight only to secure their retreat eastward and northward, and when they counterattack they do so quickly and then melt back into the hills and forests. There is little sign of the Thule's magical might. Oh, there are warlocks and spellbinders and sorcerers aplenty - they are still Thule - but of cohorts of elves and the golden citadels there is no sign.

Yet it would be wrong to say there is no conflict in Karsk. The ramshackle allies of the Varushkans - the backwoods folk of Branoc and the northern regions - continue to fight the orc armies. Battle rages around the Broken Hill in particular but without the support of the Imperial armies, the native forces suffer defeat after defeat. Their cautious attempt to drive the Thule out of northern Karsk is disastrous - even though the barbarians are on the defensive. Even with the rivers running with life and healing power, Imperial scouts report significant losses to both the living guerillas and the army of accursed unliving soldiers lead by the chained draughir, and trivial losses among the Thule.

There is one other significant set of casualties in Karsk this spring. As the weeks turn to months, the unliving warriors accompanying the Black Thorns begin to rot. Perhaps the vital energies of the Spring enchantment that cloaks the territory speeds the process, but many Druj and Navarr husks begin to ... blossom. And not in a pleasant way. As the magic that sustains the corpses unravels, fresh life takes root in the shambling dead. Fungus and moss for the most part, but by April it is possible to find the occasional walking dead horror with a snowdrop growing from an empty eye socket. In one's and two's at first, and then in handfuls, the dead return to death. The only warning is a great sigh - then the creature simply drops where it stands. By the Equinox, they are all gone.

In the end, the Empire holds Karsk. No significant territory changes hands. The hills run green, rather than red, for the first time in a long time.

Is there anyone left in Reikos to liberate?
The liberation of Reikos brings naught but grief.

Blood and Stone

Three Imperial armies engage the Druj in ruined Reikos. The Granite Pillar leads the offensive, with the Quiet Step and the Valiant Pegasus spreading out to recruit and relieve what few defenders remain in hiding amidst the shattered chapterhouses. Where they pass, the Highborn cut down the tattered remains that decorate the crosses and stakes along the roads and around the broken chapters. They lay them to rest with what reverence they can muster. It slows their advance a little, but there is no attempt to tell the champions of the Granite Pillar and the Valiant Pegasus that they should leave the bodies of their countryfolk behind.

At least there are few fresh bodies - it is as if the Druj have simply run out of Highborn to murder.

In a way, it is just as well these remains are skeletons rather than flesh. When the Valiant Pegasus arrive, marching from mountainous Spiral to the east, they are accompanied by a thousand flesh-hungry walking corpses. Bloodless husks in tattered Urizen robes shamble alongside the animated cadavers of battered orcs from the Broken Shore, and unidentifiable bodies whose provenance is difficult to determine. The Highborn champions seem less than happy with the cohort of barely-controlled unliving horrors.

As to the Druj, beneath their white toad banner, they are on the defensive ... although this does not stop them trying to make the Empire pay for every inch of ground. There are multiple engagements across the southern territories that, while they end in defeat for the barbarian orcs, still cost the lives of Imperial soldiers.

In the end though, the Druj forces fall back east to their great, dark citadel at High Chalcis. They abandon baggage trains, maim human slaces and sacrifice injured or weary troops - whatever it takes to slow the Imperial advance.

The Empire seizes the ruins of Tabernacle and claims Riverwatch, purging the left-behind Druj ambushers. They push westward into Haros Water, and the devastated remains of Haros town. After three nights of fighting in the broken streets, the Druj fire the remaining buildings to cover their retreat. The broken town burns through the night, like a beacon of sorrow.

Next, the Empire liberates the Vigilant Swan. Once, the lands around the great white granite quarry were a rolling parkland, carefully planted stands of trees expertly placed to conceal the stoneworks and preserve the beauty of the landscape. Now Imperial forces advance through a wasteland dotted with blood-dulled stakes and mass graves. A year under undisputed Druj control has turned it from a carefully maintained source of fine white granite blocks to a twisted open-cast scar in the surface of the earth.

As their last act before withdrawing, the Druj do their best to butcher and cripple the remaining quarry slaves. Only a few dozen survive to be freed by the Imperial forces. The last, vicious fighting here takes place among the bodies of the warm dead and the freshly maimed. Some of the casualties suffered claiming the Swan are from wounds not to the body, but to the spirit - soldiers whose will to fight died behind their eyes when they saw what the Druj had done to their victims.

Which is not to say that the ony wounds are spiritual - the orcs of the white toad banner are Druj, after all. When their weapons are not envenomed, they are coated in filth, or designed with jagged edges to tear flesh and rip through muscle. There is no particular spring magic to spread disease here, but there does not need to be - conditions are ideal for sickness to prosper, and wounds not dealt with by a chirurgeon tend to fester and rot. The Highborn are less vulnerable to these dangerous conditions than the Navarr, due to their peoples' traditions of cleanliness and washing. In this case, he practicality of the Navarr sometimes plays against them, in a way; too many soldiers end up needing a physick because they did not think "a little bit of mud" would harm them.

Progress in reclaiming Reikos remains slow, even after Riverwatch and the Swan are freed. Over everything hangs an almost physical pall of dread and despair. It weighs on the Imperial forces like a dead weight It is in the air, in the water and the soil. It claws at the spirits of the liberators, slowly grinding away every positive emotion and threatening to undermine every virtuous thought. At night, it is so much worse - in the long watches after midnight dark thoughts might overwhelm the strongest mind. It becomes too easy to dwell on the surrounding horror, too easy to imagine the tormented spirits of the dead crying out their anger and despair.

The stars are wrong. It is easy to remind oneself that this is just magic, just a penumbral veil of illusion designed to counter magical scrying. But on clear nights when one looks up to the sky to see dark constellations seen nowhere else it is easier still to imagine that Reikos is a world of its own, an empty tortured world where there is no light and everything, ultimately, will be dragged down into the cold mud and a darkness that never comes. Even the most rational must worry, in the last hour before the eastern sky begins to brighten, that no dawn will come.

Against the snow, the steel line.
The defenders hold, but the line is being pushed back.

Fire and Ice

Winter in the northernmost peaks of the Empire is harsh. Very harsh. The magic of Spring still sings in the water, but in these cold northern peaks that water ... freezes solid. In the lowlands, the lakes of Sermersuaq still burst with life but on the slopes of the Silver Peaks the healing potential of the river of life lies trapped in glittering icicles and frozen streams. Its magic is still potent - once the ice is thawed. The miraculous waters will heal almost any wound short of a fatal blow. Yet there is something a little ... ominous ... about the way its power is trapped by the spreading winter.

As snow flurries wrap the lowlands, a great squat tower of smooth glacial ice and rough black iron appears on the lowest slopes overlooking the Stonefield Ice caves. Two hundred hulking soldiers garrison the walls, with the seemings of eight-foot-tall orcs wrapped in thick furs. They are marked from head to foot with spiralling scars and dull blue tattoos, and their eyes are the vibrant blue of a clear winter sky. Their voices rumble like a tide of snow in distant peaks. Each is armed with a twelve-foot barbed spear of polished bone - and they seem intimately familiar with its use. They are, despite all appearances to the contrary, on the side of the Empire - knights of Cathan Canae drawn from her frozen realm by Imperial magic to help hold the Thule from the foothills. They butcher any barbarian who strays too close to the walls of their fortress without mercy or hesitation.

Their frozen citadel provides a relatively secure base of operation from which to direct the defence of Sermersuaq. Orders go out to take defensive positions, to give the Thule no quarter but to hold ground rather than pursue the foe. The Hounds of Glory chafe a little, but news has recently reached them of the destruction of the distant Spires of Dusk. It brings with it a rumour - just the whisper of a rumour - that the people of Dawn are be about to begin a long-delayed campaign of conquest into the Barrens. There is joking - surely joking? - that the sooner the Thule are pushed back, the sooner the Hounds of Glory can return to Drycastle to begin mustering for the invasion!

If the Dawnish are ebullient, the soldiers of the other armies are more sober. The Winter Sun engages in carefully planned assaults against the Thule flanks wherever they advance, taking advantage of the deep snow, the broken gullies and the scrubby forests to strike and retreat. Their strategy is defensive but effective - a few well-placed rockslides and one spectacular avalanche, and they are able to block the easy routes from the upper peaks to the lower peaks at least until the spring thaw comes.

The Fires of the South have withdrawn, but their place is taken by both armies of Wintermark. The Green Shield and the Fist of the Mountains march together - resupplied and eager to return to the fray. They fight side-by-side, eight thousand Winterfolk defending their home against the depredations of the northern barbarians. There are problems, of course - the tensions between the Steinr, the Kallavesi and the Suaq are increasing but for now the generals and the captains are able to keep their armies from flying apart ... but it is getting harder. They channel the increasing frustration of their soldiers into the Thule, and when the barbarians attack they often regret engaging the Winterfolk on their home ground.

Where one army of Freeborn has fallen back, the other forges ahead. Not for them the dubious cover of icy walls and stony barricades. The Red WInd Corsairs fall on the Thule where they are weak, actively intercepting Thule raiding parties wherever they can. Their raids are supported by unliving allies - perhaps a thousand half-frozen corpses of humans and orcs dragged from the gullies of the Silver Peaks, the victims of nearly a year of war. They serve as an unnatural shield for the raiders, taking the brunt of the Thule reprisals while the Freeborn fill their sacks and packs with plunder left behind by the Thule.

There is a little grumbling, a little rumble of discord, from the shieldbrothers and swordsisters of the Wintermark armies, when they hear of the antics of the Red Wind. The opportunistic warthief, the battlefield plunderer - these are not well thought of among the Winterfolk. Sometimes, when they needs must share a billet, a Steinr or a Kallavesi or a Suaq will spit when they pass the Freeborn and mutter "maggots" under their breaths.

Twenty thousand Imperials await the barbarians, give or take. They do not have long to wait.

The horde comes with the snow. Day and night the drums pound. Down from the high passes and up from the Stonefields come the Thule. Their advance is relentless - an overwhelming assault against all Imperial positions.

The orcs do not come alone. As well as packs of ogres, a cohort of eternal soldiers continues to fight alongside them. Tall warriors of the Summer realm, crimson and scarlet against the pale snow and the dark stone. They raise incarnadine standards bearing the golden runes of Tykonus and Feresh. Their captains fight from the backs of great cats, sleekly-muscled golden beasts larger than an ox that move with epic grace across the difficult terrain. Where the orcs and humans struggle through the snow, they seem almost to glide along its surface ... laughing.

The eternal knights are only one of many Thule sorceries. Their warriors fight with preternatural insight, with supernatural coordination, with the raging fervour of the blizzard barely contained within their flesh. They seem to pass messages across great distances, to be able to read the vagaries of the winter weather and the treacherous mountain terrain with unmatched precision. Some engagements are supported by monstrous beasts; dire wolves with oiled hide armour and great blind apes from who-knows-what abyssal caverns beneath the mountains of Otkodov. There are even some encounters with things that cannot be classified with any confidence as creatures of the realms or of the mortal world - creatures combining the worst traits of men and beasts.

The most visible sign appears on the upper peaks on the last day of winter. Three hours after dusk, a great fire runs across the northernmost peak. It grows steadily brighter, until it seems as if the peak itself has caught aflame. Then, just after moonset, it erupts into a flare, churning and blazing and roaring loud enough to be heard in East Floes and Suaq Font. It roars up into the dark night sky, bright as a false sunrise, then explodes.. It bursts into a great sigil against the darkness - two spreading wings, a roaring tossing draconic head, a twisting tail. The echoes send snow cascading down the slopes, wake every restless soldier from their tent. Then it is gone, the only sign a rain of embers that seem to the eyes of the mystically inclined to spell out a rune ... perhaps Queros, perhaps Hirmok, perhaps Mawrig.

Then nothing. An omen, or a sign. A warning, or a promise, perhaps.

At the end of the day, though, nothing seems to come of it immediately. The forces warring over the Silver Peaks remain almost equally matched. While the magic of the Thule counters much of the Empire's strategy, it is likewise true to say that the preparations of the Empire counter the magic of the Thule. The barbarians' absolute commitment to their attack gives them savage strength, but the Empire's defensive tactics prove almost a match for it. it is impossible to point to one advantage on either side that is key - as always when two foes are closely matched, no one factor measures victory or defeat.

And the Empire holds ... holds ... and then is slowly .. slowly ... is pushed back.

An inch, then another. It never becomes a rout, but positions are overrun and soldiers are forced to retreat to lower defences. As the weather breaks and the first shoots of spring are seen beneath the lowland snow, the Thule claim another portion of the Silver Peaks from the defenders. But their come with the painstaking slowness of the glacier, not the overwhelming force of the avalanche.

Many, many people died in the Silver Peaks this winter. More still might have died, if not for valuable intelligence gathered by the heroes of the Empire through the Sentinel Gate. Advance warning of some of the Thule plans allows for troops to withdraw from exposed positions or blunt the force of savage barbarian attacks. But the toll - for both sides - remains considerable in spite of the magic of Spring. Perhaps fifteen-hundred Imperial soldiers die between the first and the last snows of winter. It is difficult to judge how many orcs, beasts and eternal knights die among the Thule, but their incautious strategy suggests that the numbers should be at least equal, probably higher.

The deadlock, more or less, continues.

When an Anodyne Analgesic wears off, it wears off hard
The Summer Storm set the pace in Holberg

Hammer and Blade

Holberg sickens. The Winter brings with it a pall of dirty snow. Ice makes muddy battlefields even more treacherous, and for the first time in a decade the Morass freezes solid. There is a pestilential curse in the water, a fecund malaise in the snow. Wounds fester, gangrene is a constant threat. The curse conspired with the numbing cold, the mud, and the filthy weapons of the Druj conspire to kill many soldiers who might otherwise have lived.

Worse still, the Druj have unleashed a second devastating curse across the territory. The trees of Utterlund and Misericorde, and the stunted vegetation of the Morass, have been infused with malignant spirits. There seems to be no rhyme or reason to which plants are affected; a mighty oak, a supple sapling or a twisting vine might all come alive without warning. The only good news is that the plants are drawn to structures and large concentrations of people rather than individuals. The remaining parks in Holmauer are closed, and guarded.

The trees cannot be controlled - they attack without favour both human and orc, both Holberg and Rebeshof. Imperial magicians know a similar ritual, the Thunderous Tread of the Trees - but in keeping perhaps with the nature of the Druj the spirits that infuse the vegetation of Holberg are more sneaky. Days may pass without incident; then a dozen trees launch a crushing attack against a patrol. The trees often pretend to be sessile until targets come within reach, erupting with a terrifying rage. It makes everyone extremely jumpy, to put it mildly.

Unpleasant and unsettling as these effects are however, it is the movement of soldiers that has the greatest impact in Holberg this winter, not magic.

The Wolves of War seem to be everywhere at once. Their numbers are swollen by over sixty companies of elite troops from across the empire. They are also supported by mercenary captains well versed in quick movement and battlefield manoeuvring. They suggest several plans that will allow the Imperial forces to envelop or outflank enemy positions. Their strategies are not kind - they are Leaguers one and all, and they have no pity for the Druj in Holberg. General Anke Carsten von Temeschwar would be proud.

The Wolves are supported by three armies of Marchers - the Drakes joining the Strong Reeds and the Bounders shortly after the Solstice to form a twelve-thousand-strong hard core to the Imperial force. Passing through Holfried, many take the opportunity to visit the war memorial there - barren and dark in the depths of winter. The Marchers are grim faced, relentless - fighting across the open plains of Holberg suits their temperament and experience.

The Urizen Citadel Guard join the Imperial force shortly after the first snow, tired by the long march from Varushka and down through Dawn. They come with an escort of Seventh Wave scouts, and set up camp alongside the muddied palanquins of the Golden Sun. It is the mages and sentinels of the Citadel who are able to offer advice on the nature of the twin curses laid across Holberg, and suggest ways they may be dealt with - avoiding the trees, for example, or leading them away from vulnerable groups or into Druj forces.

Shortly after their arrival, a final force appears to join the battle. A contingent consisting of a few thousand mercenaries from the Autumn realm appear with the Dawn a week after the Solstice. According to the scouts, they arrived in a column seven abreast through a regio in Holmauer, with almost machine-like precision. The majority are minotaurs, standing half again as tall as a human or orc, with spreading horns. They are well armed and armoured, and possess a keen appreciation for the Imperial strategy. A little over a third of their number are shorter, quicker - inhabitants of the otherworldy City of Locks.

Their presence is not universally welcomed - and while they immediately align themselves with the Wolves of War and look to the general for orders, their attitude is less than ideal. Arrogant, scheming, cruel ... they are reliable enough but it is clear that they are fighting only for payment. They avoid taking risks, and keep to themselves when they are camping.

All told, at the start of winter, there are thirty-six thousand soldiers in Holberg, mostly camped around the crumbling walls of the fortress at Rebeshof.

The scorpion banner still flies over the battered walls of the orc fortress, but the army within seems in disarray. The rumour among the troops is that the general of Rebeshof was caught outside his defences and slaughtered during the Winter Solstice. Without orders, the orcs try desperately to defend the castle, while their allies desert them. All across Holberg, the Druj are falling back, giving ground, retreating in the face of Imperial aggression. The forces at Rebeshof become increasingly isolated.

After three weeks, the siege breaks. A minor breach caused by League catapults is capitalised on by Urizen sentinels who hold the opening long enough for the Summer Storm and the Bounders to force their way through, widening the gap as they do so. Within an hour, the fighting has moved within the walls. In the face of utter annihilation, the scorpion banner Druj finally pull themselves together and pull out but they have left it nearly too late. Nearly two thousand Druj corpses are accounted for once the fighting ends, the remainder of the once massive army fleeing north and east in disarray.

Rebeshof itself is no more; rubble would be too kind a word for what remains. With the fortress in pieces, its ruins occupied by victorious Imperial forces, it is a simple matter for the Wolves of War and the Seventh Wave to sweep the plains and claim the region for the Empire.

Then on to Ennerlund, with the Imperial orcs setting the pace for a relentless assault. The Druj seem especially afraid of the Summer Storm - this winter the Druj seem to want to put as much space between themselves and the Imperial orcs as possible. With good reason, it must be said - the Summer Storm slaughters any Druj that comes within reach of their weapon, pressing relentlessly forward against any Druj position, giving no quarter and accepting no surrender.

The Golden Sun, by contrast, move more cautiously. They focus on consolidating the gains the Empire has made in Holberg. Wherever the Druj go they leave behind hidden agents, guerillas - the Dawnish knights ruthlessly hunt them out, scouring each region and securing it against the stealthy malice of the barbarians. It is dirty, thankless work but it makes it extremely difficult for the Druj to outflank or ambush the main force.

There is a battle at Ennerlund, but it is a messy, vicious affair. The Druj under the banners of the crimson lizard and the black snake make forays out of the Morass to the south, leaving deadfalls and traps behind them. They have extensively trapped the flooded ruins of the collapsed Great Pits, making an assessment of the damage done especially difficult. Preliminary reports suggest the entire mineworks has been collapsed ... with the miners still inside. Several hundred dead League citizens, buried alive. The lucky ones were killed in the collapse, the less lucky left to suffocate or starve or die of thirst.

The Druj are quickly overcome, their banners fleeing north into the deep forests of Utterlund and Misericorde. Part of the Imperial force pushes south into the marshes, rooting out the remaining Druj. Some escape south to the dubious safety of the Barrens, but most of those barbarian orcs trying to make a stand in the Morass are slaughtered.

On the edge of the forest, a pitched battle results in major losses to both sides ... but without a doubt the Druj take the worst of it. They are not the cocky, fearsome force that attacked Holberg less than a year ago. They are still deadly, still dangerous, but they seem to be on the verge of routing. It is still wise to be cautious however. The Druj may be retreating now, but they have feigned confusion and weakness before, luring their enemies in until they are ready to spring their trap.

Between curses and the malice of the Druj, there are almost four thousand Imperial troops who will not fight again. The Summer Storm has lost nearly seven hundred orcs, while the other armies have seen somewhere in the region of five hundred soldiers each. The Golden Sun have escaped comparatively lightly - their heavy armour and tactics have cost them "only" four hundred yeomen and nobles. In contrast, nearly *eight thousand* Druj corpses are accounted for - and many of those who died in the Morass in particular are entirely unaccounted for. The brunt of the casualties have been taken by the scorpion banner, who are a shadow of their former strength. If the Druj had not been retreating, or if the Empire had pressed a more aggressive attack, then the casualties on both sides would have been even higher.

The Druj have been dealt a crushing blow in Holberg, one they will find extremely difficult to recover from, but the Empire has by no means escaped unscathed.

When the snow clears and there is time to take stock, the situation in Holberg has changed dramatically. The Empire now holds everything south of the forests of Utterlund and Misericorde, including the shattered pits of Ennerlund. Civil servants supported by scouts and bounders are already picking through the ruins, putting together a report on whether the mines can be re-opened or not - if it possible it is unlikely to be cheap.

The surviving commanders of the Towerjacks hold a closed meeting in the garrison at Holfried, discussing their future. If the Druj really have been driven back, then what remains of the second League army may be ready to leave the walls and take to the field again. They have a long history as excellent engineers, both siege and otherwise; but they have also spent many years abandoned on the eastern borders by a succession if ineffective or actively corrupt Emperors, Senators and Generals. They have not made the results of their meeting public knowledge.

For the first time in thirty years, Holberg is once again part of the Empire. There are inevitable questions about how many League citizens remain in the territory; the lower half of Holberg has collapsed into uninhabitable ruin and thirty years of Druj occupation have stripped much of the countryside of its population. Still, there is cautious rejoicing throughout the League.

But they know from their own history, better than anyone except perhaps the Dawnish, that the disposition of Holberg is very far from a "done deal"

For once it is the Druj who are at a significant disadvantage.
The Wolves of War have made excellent use of their mercenaries.

The Future of Holberg

Five regions of Holberg are now Imperial (Holfried, Holmauer, Rebeshof, Ennerlund and the Morass); the Great Pits at Ennerlund have been recovered. The fortress at Rebeshof has been destroyed.

A Senator now needs to raise a motion of Assignment. They need to name the nation they want the territory to go to, but anyone else can contest it and say it should go to someone else. Once the senate makes its decision, it's final - unless (say) the Druj steal the territory back and it then gets liberated again.

Once the Assignment is out of the way, someone in the Senate may want to raise a motion of Allocation for the Great Pits of Ennerlund. They can declare either that the Pits be Imperial (which means they get auctioned annually through the Bourse) or National (which means they get assigned by members of the nation who control a certain resource - the list by nation is here).

Bear in mind that the "National" allocation always means that the resource is controlled by the nation who controls the territory. If Holberg is assigned to the Brass Coast for example, and the Great Pits are allocated as National they are automatically controlled by the Freeborn - you can't allocate the pits Nationally and then name a different nation.

The Senate may wish to delay the vote of allocation until after they receive the civil service report on whether they can be reopened, and how expensive it will be.

The Towerjacks are also mentioned here, but only the League really needs to worry about those. They represent a fairly obvious opportunity for the League, regardless of how Assignment turns out.

Normally at this point I would mention Spoils of War, but it is difficult to confirm whether the list will have been prepared by the civil service in time for the Spring Equinox.

What would it mean if the territory of Holberg ended up Allocated to a nation other than the League? The likelihood is that the remaining League citizens of Holberg would either live in effective exile (suffering a penalty to their resource production as detailed here), or slowly convert to their new national identity with the aid of the egregore, or maybe just move to one of the other cities and start new lives there. The territory would slowly attract a new population from the nation it was assigned to, and within a generation or so the story of how Holberg used to be a League city would just be another part of the history of this oft-contested land.

The rampaging tree situation continues.

Interludes

These represent short pieces of fiction designed to highlight other significant events in the world related to the military campaign. They are mostly just a bit of fun, and include nonplayer characters not player characters. Think of them like a cutaway during a movie.

Owls

There was a light knock at the door.

After a moment the door opened, and a stocky man stepped across the threshold.

As the sentinel crossed the floor to the dais where she was studying, Illuminate Nissea studied his stance and expression. She surmised he did not have good news, on balance. He paused on the third step of the dais and waited for her to acknowledge him. She closed her book and smiled welcomingly.

"I take it you have news?" she asked, quietly. He nodded.

"Has Magister Horace safely left the mountains?"

The sentinel nodded again. His face darkened.

"And the abominations have accompanied him."

"Yes. All accounted for. I lead a patrol myself to ensure there were no stragglers. I still think that it was a questionable decision not to separate out the fallen Urizen from the horde." The sentinel's voice was deep and low.

Illuminate Nissea could sense his carefully contained disapproval.

"It could have been dangerous,"she said, calmly. And we might have made the situation worse. In the absence of the fallen general, I think it was wisest not to risk stretching the Law of Dominance to breaking point. They are outside our borders, now, and no longer our immediate problem. The body is just a vessel, after all."

The sentinel was still not happy, but he did not press any further. He reached into a fold of his robe and withdrew a tightly rolled scroll.

"An ephemeral owl arrived an hour ago, bearing this. I believe it is from one of the scouts down near the plateau, given the method of delivery." He offered it to the Illuminate but she moved her head slightly in a fractional negation.

The sentinel unrolled it, reading swiftly.

"Yes I thought so. It is from that Causus. The local." The sentinel could not quite contain a hint of irritation. With the Black Plateau cleansed of the worst of its malignant influence, more and more of Spiral's "missing" mages were emerging from their spires and sanctuaries. Causus the night magician was one of the most frustrating. Even the best of them were proving ... difficult ... for the residents of Fort Mezudan to get along with.

"He says that there is good news and bad news. The good news is that the Black Plateau continues quiescent. Many of those infected with madness are showing signs of slow recovery and it does indeed seem that Day magic can help in their return to wholeness. The worst sadly are the youngest who have known nothing else. He makes a questionable suggestion about how we might best use them which I will not repeat."

The Illuminate did not ask for details. Many of the local mages, cut off from Urizen for decades, were displaying a callousness that she found disturbing. They would have accepted the use of unliving husks to support Imperial armies without question - and some of them would have suggested ways to make the rituals involved more effective and the abominations created thereby more monstrous.

The sentinel continued reading.

"The bad news is that he has also spotted barbarian scouts in Screed. The Grendel almost certainly know the Plateau is neutralised as well. He suggests we begin preparations."

Illuminate Nissea allowed herself a little sigh. She tilted her head, enquiring if there was more. The sentinel turned the scroll over in his hands reading quickly.

"Nothing else of immediate importance. Some theoretical suggestions about ways to harness the power of the Plateau that even I can tell are a disaster waiting to happen. I think that perhaps he only includes them because he knows I read his reports. What will we do now?"

Illuminate Nissea chose her words carefully. "First, we should ensure everyone knows the important elements of the scout's report. Then we should begin making preparations."

The sentinel nodded.

"You do not think this treaty with the Salt Lords will amount to anything?"

Nissea stared at him for a moment before replying.

"What treaty? Do you mean the suggestion from the Senate that now might not be a good time to raid Grendel shipping? Coming at a time when the law prevents attacks against foreign vessels? How effective do you think that is going to prove, even in the short term?"

"You have a point," the sentinel replied, smiling mirthlessly.

Nissea picked up her quill and a smoothed out a roll of scrollpaper with one delicate webbed hand.

"I will ensure that the Senators and the General are aware of the situation, and send a letter to the Civil Service at Anvil. There are decisions that need to be made, and they are decisions that should be made by people more pivotal than you or I."

A slight smile quirked her thin lips.

"Poor Magister Horace. It appears he may have departed for his homeland just in time to miss the chance to take the fight to the Grendel - one way or another."

The sentinel inclined a fractional bow, turned, and left the Illuminate to her task, closing the door quietly behind him as Nissea began to write.

Wolves

The Kallavesi woman grinned viciously as her vessel closed on her prey. She drew an axe in either hand, with practiced ease, and sent one spinning through the air toward the enemy ship.

"Grapples! Lines! Axes!"she roared. "Time to bloody the waters, to soak the decks, to show those Steinr how the true Winterfolk fight! We are the wolves of the sea! We are the eagles of blood and salt! Leave no orc alive, and their stolen wealth will make us rich!"

An answering roar went up from her marines, three dozen Kallavesi warriors hungry for blood and plunder.

"But what about the Senate? " asked the nervous civil servant clinging to the mast for support. "And the Freeborn - shouldn't you let them know you've found their prey?"

"Damn the Senate!" roared the captain, her eyes glowing behind her wolfhead helm. "If they wanted to stay the axe-hand of the sea wolf they should have passed a law! And damn the Freeborn! They will have their star metal to keep them warm, but the nights in Kallavesa are cold indeed and we have no ilium to keep them at bay. Let us show them how the children of the crows kill orcs!"

She turned then, and ran, and leapt high into the air, one hand outstretched, her axe held high, hurling herself toward the decks of the Grendel ship, and her crew followed close behind her ...

Dawn

As a line of pale illumination flooded across the eastern sky, Jekal hauled himself up onto the rough standing stone with practiced ease. His joints clicked and his bones ached, but he concealed it with practiced ease as he pulled himself erect. He looked out across the sea of faces, judging their mood, waiting for those nearest to notice him. Fifty banners bearing some variant of the red moon of House Ogudai rustled gently in the early morning breeze. Among them stood out banners and standards that looked out of place to his eyes - the banners of the Empire. A large number of rough Wintermark and Marcher standards, with a scattering of Freeborn, Navarr and League.

He was not a tall man. Stocky, his width emphasised by the plated leather and bloodgold armour he wore over a crimson silk tunic. He eschewed a helmet this morning - he wanted to be sure of uninterrupted eye contact with his troops. In a different environment it would have been easy to overlook him completely - just another tired warrior. Not today though. Today he burned from within with a fervour that made him someone to be reckoned with.

Those nearest the stone noticed his present, fell silent, turning their faces toward him. A ripple of awareness spread across the natural amphitheatre, as soldier after soldier - Faraden and Imperial alike - recognised the general and stopped what they were doing.

"It is dawn on the last day!" He said, without preamble.

His voice was deep and confident, low but amplified by the natural properties of this hollow and the efforts of three magicians who stood around the base of the stone on which he stood. Nobody would miss a word of his speech.

"We have come to the edge of hope, to the edge of the world, to make a stand. We have chosen not only to believe in ourselves, but in each other. Today there is not a man or a woman who shall stand alone - not today. Today we face the monsters that are at our door, and we bring the fight to them as never before."

He raked the crowd with his gaze, suddenly pointing out specific banners.

"We do not stand alone. Thirty captains from the east have come here to fight alongside us against the beastmen. Thirty companies, three thousand soldiers of the Empire, come to fight and spill their blood and die alongside us. To drive the beasts from our hills, to push them back into the trees, to send them howling into the abyss from which they will never return.

"Today, they are our brothers and sisters. If they fall, we will avenge them tenfold. War does not alter, but today maybe there is the promise of something new."

He began to speak louder, his voice echoing as the sky turned red behind him. No other sound save the wind among the pennants.

"Today, this red day, we will raise the red moon standard and we will fall upon the invaders like a great wind. We will scatter them like sparrows before the storm. We will fight today so that our children will not have to fight tomorrow. Three thousand Imperial brothers and sisters raise their banners alongside us this morning, raise their banners alongside the banner of House Ogudai, beneath the red sky, in the Roaring Hills.

"Today, we cleanse Tebukan of the blight that spreads from the north. Today is the beginning of the end. We will grind them beneath our boots like worms, like snakes, like the filth they are.

"Today, oh my sons and daughters, oh cousins from the east, we drive the Jot'une from Faraden! Today we shall deal them such a blow that their mewling pups shall be born with the mark of our wrath! Today, we teach them why the hills of Tebukan shall never be theirs!"

He took a deep breath and bellowed, turning his face up towards the sky.

"They have dared to tread the hills of Tebukan! They have dared to spill the blood of Faraden! I am Jekal Swordborn, Lord of the Fifty Banners, scion of House Ogudai! AND I SHALL HAVE VENGEANCE! IN THIS LIFE! OR THE NEXT!"

He drew his great falchion, raising it above his head so that it caught the sun and seemed to catch fire for a moment, before he leapt down from the stone, landing lightly for a man of his age. As soon as his feet hit the ground he was moving, toward the north, toward the Jotun.

The army exploded around and behind him, roaring in answer, drawing their own steel and raising their own weapons, echoing some variant of his challenge in ten thousand ragged voices. The banners rose into the sky, and the army of House Ogudai and three thousand allied Imperial soldiers marched to join the other defenders, marched to war in the rolling hills of Faraden beneath the winter sky.

Dusk

Whispers, and the sound of velvet on velvet, heralded the approach of Grand Ilarch Adonai through the gathering dusk. The scribes kept their eyes on the flagstones and waited for him to address them.

"Well?" His voice was old, but did not quaver, full of authority and the expectation of respect.

"An initial head count suggests an estimated two thousand Imperial troops. We're still evaluating enchantments and the quality of their panoply and should have a better idea in the morning, but the preliminary assessment is that each of them is easily a match for one of the Agema. At the rate discussed, this would amount to at least sixty crystals of mana which is more than we expected but less than we wanted. We can meet the price, but the amount could go up. Until they are settled we can't perform a proper ..."

The Grand Ilarch silenced him with a sharp gesture.

"I am not interested in crystals of mana." He said flatly. "We are stood on the brink of the abyss and you talking to me of sixty crystals of mana? For two thousand troops - trained, skilled, hardened in battle? I am not here to quibble over the payment of mercenaries. If this goes well, if we survive the winter, then we will be well served if they return to their people with tales of the generosity of Ipotavo!

"I am interested in the people who have come here, not their price. Tell me about them."

The first scribe fell silent, twisting one hand in the belt of her heavy robe. The other looked over her wax tablet to refresh her memory.

"Ten Urizen captains, all told. These are a true prize - and an unlooked for gift. They are experienced fighting alongside magicians and they have an excellent reputation for being able to react to the realities of the battlefield and wield their power at a point. It is more than we could have hoped for. We may need to keep an eye on them to ensure nobody accidentally sneaks off to go in search of libraries or catacombs but I am not worried. They understand what it means to be a guest.

"Half a dozen - no, five - five Navarr captains. I suggest we simply leave them to get on with their slaughter. I have circumspectly suggested that Ipotavo is a good deal less concerned about manners than they may be used to in the Empire and if they wish to ... ah ... let themselves off the leash, we would not only not censure them but might in fact welcome such behaviour. We are fighting Druj after all.

"The others are Varushkans and Highborn, two captains each I believe. If I understand the nature of Varushka correctly, I think they will be used to fighting alongside the honoured dead. I am a little worried about the Highborn, but I think that as long as we keep them away from priests or temples there should be no incidents.

"Still ... Imperial troops. I have spoken with the Agema and the Toxetai, and we have reached a compromise with those Tavos Ageli who remain. The sensibilities of the Imperials will be accommodated as best we can given the circumstances. At midnight, the Covenant of the Gatekeepers gather in the chamber above Plaza of Leaden Chains. Everything is prepared, the general has been meditating since last night. Once the enchantment is complete ... "

Adonai nodded, impatiently.

"Yes, yes. With the advice of a thousand years of captains and strategists, General Danica will be best placed to exploit these mercenaries. How do you think the Imperials will react?"

The scribes looked at each other. The male spoke, choosing his words carefully.

"This is likely to be their first exposure to the necromantia ... but we are confident that if they have come this far they must know what they are likely to encounter. They surely have ghosts in the Empire."

He cleared his throat nervously.

"However ... I have suggested discreetly that we have some advisors on hand in case the Highborn start waving bells or aspergilla around. The advantage of the ritual is that once it is in place, once we are all bound to a single intent, it should make it easier for them to understand what is happening. If the Far Seer is with us."

Both scribes touched the metal phylacteries that hung at their belts, almost without thinking. The Grand Ilarch lightly ran his finger along the old, bone-handed knife that hung at his belt. The three shared a moment of reverence.

Adonai broke the silence first.

"That sounds adequate. The Druj will not know what has hit them. I have one last question before you go, however. In your candid opinion will it be enough?"

The scribes exchanged glances. Neither wanted to give the Grand Ilarch bad news. The woman spoke up at last.

"Possibly not. The walls will hold, and we have plenty of mana left but the Druj take every opportunity to circumvent our defences rather than attack them directly. They know how to hurt us - they the steal bodies of the fallen and befoul them. it is no wonder we are seeing desertions. There is still no hope of aid from Issyk, Malykop or Kantor.

" If we had another twenty captains? Then I think we would turn them back. As it stands, unless something unexpected happens we will win and the remaining gates will hold at least until spring. But ... after that ... in the long term ...."

Her voice faltered and she fell silent. Adonai said nothing for a long time. Behind his mask, his eyes were closed. When he spoke it was more to himself than the scribes.

"In the long term, we are all dead. If you cannot avoid death, then you should do whatever it takes to delay it. Another dusk is another dusk."

He sighed and moved away, over to the window, and looked out across the sea of Druj campfires that stretched as far as he could make-out in the thick darkness around the citadel. Ten thousand orcs, give or take; and all the things that they brought with them. Two thousand Imperial troops and the remaining defenders, behind the gates of Ipotavo; against ten thousand orcs.

"It will have to be enough." He said fiercely. "We will have to *make* it enough."

Steak Pies

"What am I looking at?" asked Sir Jory suspiciously.

"It is a pudding of steak and offal, steamed and served with a healthy selection of vegetables and a thick beef gravy."

The Knight glared at the Highborn cook.

"And is this it?"

The cook blinked, nonplussed.

"Well, there is a pudding. A suet pastry sprinkled with currants. raisins and other dried fruit, served in a bowl with a thick custard. Also steamed."

Sir Jory was unimpressed.

"This is what you serve the heroes of the Empire, come victorious from Segura? Steamed meat and steamed fruit? Two courses only? For knights of the Eastern Sky."

The cook took a cautious step back, looking around for support. She found only a sea of Dawnish faces, some of them bandaged, staring stonily back at her.

"We might be able to find a platter of roasted vegetables, and possibly some sort of sweet potato hash ..."

Sir Jory growled.

"It will have to do, I suppose."

He sniffed the bowl of clear liquid.

"Is this water!" he shouted suddenly. "Are you giving us water to drink!"

The Highborn tried to explain that the water was for washing the hands, but the knight was having none of it.

"Wine, damn your eyes! Red and white! We are tired from a long march and Casinea tries to fob us off with water! THIS WILL NOT STAND!"

The cook retreated quickly, keeping her composure by effort of will.

The Dawnish knights waited until the door had swung shut before exploding into laughter. Jessica shook her head disapprovingly as the knight took his seat again. Several of his companions slapped him on the back.

"That was cruel," said Jessica. She thought for a moment. "Although quite funny."

Sir Jory was unabashed. "I am already sick of steamed pastry. And if a Highborn tells me that man eats to live and does not live to eat one more time, there will be trouble."

He sighed. Casinea was tame, and dull. He wanted to be liberating Holberg from the Druj, or battling a Thule beast on a crumbling ledge in the Silver Peaks. Or leading his knights into the Barrens to claim the ruins of the Spires of Dusk.

Jessica patted his hand.

"Cheer up," she said. "What do you think the chances are that the Highborn have wine that is up to our refined Dawnish palates?"

The pair shared a grin that vanished as the door opened and the cook returned with two bottles. Sir Jory stood up again, face like thunder, and started to remonstrate with the cook for bringing only *two* bottles of wine to serve *thirty* Dawnish knights of the Eastern Sky.