"What are we doing here Tiago?" Erbér was not happy outside the walls of a city. And there was no way this place counted as a city, not in any regard.
The ruins of Holmauer stretched around them - they were creeping cautiously along the rubbled line of what might once have been some Merchant-Prince's summer home. Years ago it would have been an impressive barrier against the jealous gaze of the Prince's rivals. Now, it barely came up to their shoulders. What hadn't been destroyed in the fighting had been cannibalised by one side or the other to shore up makeshift barricades.
Tiago shushed Erbér, paused briefly to unshield his lightstone for a moment to check the ground ahead, and continued to creep forward. The flash of dull red light made Erbér nervous. There were said to be vyig in Holmauer - and perhaps worse, priests of the Vigilant and militia searching for those same vyig. He was painfully aware that he and his friend looked a lot like thieves in the dark, and some of the Vigilant shot first and asked questions at their leisure. They didn't even need you to be alive, he had heard. He wanted to stay alive very much.
After a few more minutes of stealthy movement, they reached the ruined house itself. Tiago gestured for Erbér to precede him, and drew a wicked throwing knife. Erbér steeled himself and slipped through the door, crossbow at the ready.
The hall of the ruined building was empty. Now they were inside - for a given value - Tiago unveiled the lightstone.
"My contact said to meet him here," he said. "Not in the usual place. The Vigilant are making it too dangerous to meet in the city. That's why we're out here. I brought you in case he tries something, see?"
He frowned and looked around him.
"I expected him to be waiting for us. Come on, let's find him. I want to be back inside before anyone notices we're gone, if you know what I mean." They explored the lower level of the ruined house. It might have been opulent once, long ago. Now it was little more than weed-crowded pile of rubble with walls round it. it felt ... haunted. Oddly as if it were inhabited, despite the ruin. Erbér found himself jumping at shadows. When Tiago tapped him on the shoulder, he nearly cried out. His finger convulsed reflexively and sent a length of razor-sharp metal and wood into the ceiling. Rotten plaster cascaded down on both of them. Tiago swore in a hoarse whisper.
"Idiot!" he hissed. "You could have shot me! Have more care - who walks around with their crossbow loaded in a place like this?" he smacked Erbér round the ear, and the bigger man blushed furiously, grinding his teeth.
"I said, I think I have found him come this way." Tiago lead the way into what had once been the kitchen. It was thick with unruly vegetation that had overflowed from the garden. There was a bedroll, and the remains of a little campfire on the near side, away from the undergrowth. Tiago made a satisfied sound - next to the bedroll there were several sacks. He looked around cautiously, then knelt down and opened one. He whistled through his teeth.
"Here we go, here we go. Mithril. Raw mithril. Straight from the slave pits and almost certainly not haunted! Enough to keep me - us - in brandy and cheese for a year, if not two the way the markets are right now.”
“Where's your friend?” Asked Erbér. He was eyeing the door in the wall not too far from the little camp site. It seemed to open onto some stairs. It looked a lot like a cellar door. And it was open – well half of it was. The thick wooden door hung off its hinges, but only the top half was present. The bottom half was missing entirely. There was an odd smell coming from it.
Tiago was unconcerned. “Not a friend, a contact. I don't have any friends.”
He seemed to be weighing the odds.
They both heard it then, an odd scraping noised from the cellar. Tiago and Erbér froze.
“Hello?” called out Erbér in that strained whisper people use when they want to be heard and at the same time do not want to be heard.
Tiago was more forthright. He stepped across the cellar and held the lightstone out across the threshold.
“Are you there?” he said. “We were not stealing from you, I was just looking.”
There was no reply.
“Maybe he is hurt?” suggested Erbér.
“Maybe.” Tiago narrowed his eyes. He drew a short blade from its sheath and stepped forward onto the stairs, testing them.
“You had better stay here, you are too heavy for these stairs.” said Tiago. Erbér shrugged. He did not want to go into the cellar anyway. He turned to look around the roofless kitchen again as Tiago stealthily made his way underground. Erbér felt a little sorry for Tiago's contact if he was hurt; the little murderer would not hesitate to kill him and keep both the mithril and the payment.
Seconds stretched and then suddenly the silence was shattered by a high-pitched shriek and the sound of someone running up the stairs. Erbér whirled round, to see Tiago desperately scrambling up the cellar stairs, his eyes wide. In his haste he missed his step, fell forward onto hands and knees, dropping the lightstone. It bounced down the stairs … illuminating horror.
Three immense black rats, the size of attack dogs, were close on Tiago's tail. They were the biggest rats Erbér had ever seen – dire rats he thought, they look like dire rats. Their fur was muddy with fresh blood and he suddenly knew beyond a shadow of a doubt what had happened to Tiago's contact.
Tiago pulled himself up, desperately, managing to thrust himself forward up the stairs just ahead of the snapping jaw of the lead rat. He scrambled up, kicking back as he did so. One of the rats took his boot to its head and was sent squealing, tumbling away. He used the momentum to lift him the last two steps …
… and stopped. Froze in place. He gaped stupidly down at the length of wood-and-metal protruding from his chest. A moment later, a second bolt blossomed beside the first, and he gently toppled backward, sliding down the stairs, landing on top of two of the rats. They didn't bother to wait for Tiago to bleed out before they started to feast.
Erbér quickly reloaded his crossbow,
He looked briefly down into the cellar. Tiago was sprawled halfway down. One of the rats had its head buried in his stomach. Another, the largest of the three, met his gaze with its crimson eyes and it reared up on its haunches and hissed at him like a cobra. It took a step up towards him without fear. He considered shooting it but knew that if he missed he would not get a second shot.
Instead, without taking his eyes off the rat, he hefted one of the heavy sacks over his shoulder. He could come back for the others. During the day. With some friends.Because unlike Tiago Alto di Holberg, Erbért von Temeschwar did have friends; it was just that Tiago Alto di Holberg was not one of them
With the liberation of Holberg, the League is finally able to field its second army. The Towerjacks have always held a great deal of affection for Holberg - historically, many of their officers and more than half their generals were graduates of the college of engineering there. When the Druj came in force, the last general of the Towerjacks took the contentious decision to focus the entire army on the defence of the city.
With support from the rest of the League, the remaining Towerjacks have mobilized their forces and taken up their battle-standards again. For the first time in decades are ready to heed the call of the Imperial Military Council. They will need a general, of course, one who is prepared to take advantage of their skilled siege engineers and battlefield architects in the pursuit of victory.
They may well encounter difficulty before they ever leave Holberg, of course.
The League senators will be expected to appoint a general to take charge of the Towerjacks, and take a seat on the Military Council beside the general of the Wolves of War. As with any other general, the decision about who holds the post lies in the unanimous decision of the four League senators. If they are unable to reach a decision, any Senator may raise a motion in the Imperial Senate to have the general appointed by the Empire, rather than the League.
The Trees Walk
The most obvious are the animated trees intent on tearing down the walls of Holberg. This season, without the presence of Old Tom's Finest the evil vegetation is free to attack the fortifications without significant opposition. The order eventually has to be given to the garrison to stop pouring oil onto the trees and lighting it; many of them hail from the Morass in the south and are too damp to burn well, and those that do burn have a marked tendency to spread the fire around in a way that threatens to do even more damage.
The walls of Holberg have weathered entire Druj armies, however. The attack of the trees is a nuisance, but the walls have withstood worse. According to magicians versed in the lore of Spring, the trees should cease their attacks shortly before the Spring Equinox. The Holberg College of Engineering estimates that the walls are still at two-thirds their full strength, and unlikely to drop even to half unless something dramatic changes.
The animated trees have nearly run their course, but there is one last season during which they will attack any fortification or Imperial army in Holberg. Once they have returned to immobility, there will be an obvious opportunity to look at repairing the damage they (and their creators) have done to the territory.
Mines, Ruins, and Marshes
While the animated trees are somewhat more "cunning" than might be expected, like all such entities they are drawn to large structures over small ones. As a consequence, the restoration of the Great Pits of Ennerlund are continuing with minimal problem. There is some concern that there seems to be a lot more water in the lower mine tunnels than anyone was expecting, but the new (built with the assistance of engineers from the re-invigorated Wunderkind) appear to be up to the challenge of combating the worst of the flooding. The tunnels will never be dry but they can at least potentially be worked.
Then there are the ruins of Holmauer. Once beautiful suburbs surrounded by a secondary wall, they are now little more than rubble. The killer trees continue to damage anything resembling actual structures, but they are only part of the problem. In the absence of human settlement, Holmauer is becoming overrun with nests of vermin - some of whom walk on two legs. There have already been clashes with vyig agents trying to hide out in the ruins. Now there are reports of cat-sized rats and dog-sized feral cats roaming in packs through the shattered streets and lairing in the broken villas and townhouses.
During their time in control of the territory, and especially during the final years of the occupation, the Druj dismantled the dykes and levvies that helped to keep the Morass quiescent. In their absence, the marsh is slowly spreading north. The potent spring magics used by both the Druj and the Empire appear to have exacerbated the problems. A large stretch of southern Rebeshof has become subject to regular flooding, and each time the waters rise they subside a little less. If the situation continues unchecked, the Morass will engulf Rebeshof and significant parts of Ennerlund. Unfortunately, the Morass is also one of the places from which the murderous trees are issuing - until the curse subsides it is extremely difficult to get an idea of the full extent of the problem.
With the ghosts dealt with, estimation by the civil service is that the Great Pits will begin producing their first Imperial mithril shortly after the Summer solstice 380YE, and the first mithril will be received by the seat at the Autumn Equinox 380YE. Assuming nothing else goes wrong.
The ruins of Holmauer are not a problem at the moment, so much as they are an eyesore that attracts vermin. With aggressive trees running riot in the territory, it is difficult to do more than make speculative plans for what to do with the ruins. Once the trees settle down again, there should be an opportunity to see what can be done about the devastated region.
Finally, the Morass. It is not a pleasant place, being full of large mosquitoes, unpleasant stench, and the occasional marshwalker. However, it is surprisingly fertile, perhaps because of the amount of Spring magic that it has been exposed to. The Kröger Steading is an example of what can be achieved through taking advantage of the natural outcroppings of high land, but Doctor Ventner's Greenhouse is perhaps a better example of what might be achieved if, rather than trying to contain the Morass, it was allowed to spread and carefully cultivated. Doing so would mean abandoning perhaps a third of Holberg's arable farmland to the Morass, and might even mean that filthy water and vicious alligators were added to the vermin infesting Holmauer.
While this might be bad for more conventional agriculture, the marshes could yield a cornucopia of herbs for the people of Holberg - if they were properly harnessed.
The Twisted Briars of Misericorde
Lastly... in the northern forests of Misericorde and Utterlund something unwholesome has sprouted. A few scattered bands of orcs still haunt the northern forests. They avoid all contact with Imperial troops, preferring to keep themselves alive through banditry and brigandage. It is a pattern the Empire has seen before. Within a generation, they will have forgotten they were once soldiers and will have adopted the practices of the common cut-throat and ruffian. Young heroes of the Empire will cut their teeth tracking them down and putting them to the sword. They are not the problem.
The problem are the vines and briars that began to sprout, largely unnoticed, over Autumn. In defiance of natural law, they have grown stronger and more vital through the cold winter months. They have not yet encroached onto the Sorensdromen but it is likely only to be a matter of time. They possess a grim potence that marks them as something other than natural, and they have spread through most of the northern forests and may well reach as far south as Rebeshof and Ennerlund.
Since the Summer Solstice, the forests of Misericorde and Utterlund have been gradually changing. Barely noticeable at first, over the last few months, the land where a so-called Druj "poison beast" shed its venom has been transformed. Throughout the forests a strange bramble has been growing. This hardy, thorny plant has embedded itself round many of the trees. It is often difficult to spot through the undergrowth, but the scratches from the bramble carry a potent venom. The venom does not survive long outside the plant itself, but direct exposure leads to light-headedness, disorientation, confusion, unconsciousness, and in some cases death.
Small groups can generally move through areas where the plants are found without too much difficulty, as long as they are mindful. Any sort of large scale deployment of troops, however, could be significantly impeded by the presence of this unfamiliar creeping bush. There is little doubt that there is something unnatural at work here - it is simply too coincidental that the Druj spent so many forces protecting the "poison beast" and then this deadly vegetative threat grew out of the ground where it had spilled its foul milk.
At the moment it is not clear precisely what is going on in the heart of the forest, but hopefully an Imperial expedition will be able to uncover more details soon.