Fire on the Mountains
It begins - as so much does - with storms. Vicious winter storms raised by magic that roll in off the Bay of Catazar and lash the coast of Spiral. Great waves bound the coast of Apulus, and beat against the cliffs of Ateri. Thick, black clouds race across the horizon, and the frozen winds whip the hail and the sleet into stinging icy missiles. Yet for all their fury, the storms do not touch the thick preternatural fog that cloaks the bay. It undulates like a blanket as the waves rise and fall, but it does not break up. When a bolt of lightning strikes the water, the mist seems to catch fire burning with a crackling effulgence that races hither and yon before fading to nothing.
The waters of Spiral are further infused with life-giving essence. The hail, the sleet, the rain, the salt-water and the fresh; Spring healing magic flows through them all. It ripples across the icy walls of the frozen citadel raised in the hills of Ateri, where a garrison of one-eyed giants watches both east and west for Grendel aggression. Only the most calamitous of wounds are fatal; rarely do any of the soldiers fighting over this mountainous land die save through malice. Both human and orc benefit from the benediction of the life-giving waters.
Fighting past the adventurous Grendel forces in Redoubt, Dawnish forces come to join the campaign in Spiral. The Hounds of Glory charge north and east through Cinion and Ankra (avoiding Screed, and the black behemoth that lurks at its heart). Alongside the Dawnish march a host of eternal soldiers in crimson-and-gold livery. Sharp ears, spreading antlers, flowing manes, mithril-and-gold chain, and deadly spears. The cyclopean warriors defending the icy citadel curl their lips as the elfin host passes. The knights of Eleonaris glare back at the warriors of Cathan Canae, not bothering to conceal their anger. Imperial soldiers who fight alongside them can attest to their rage. The Imperial Conclave has declared their Queen to be an enemy of the Empire, after all. Bound by ancient oaths, they must fight when they are called forth. But they do not have to be happy about it. More than one of their human "comrades" is concerned about the legality of what they are doing; the knights of glory are inseparable from their mistress and the power of the ritual that calls them proscribed by law. It is likely the magistrates will investigate the situation that has lead to three thousand of Eleonaris' troops marching alongside those of Dawn.
The knights of glory have ample opportunity to express their anger; the Hounds of Glory charge triumphantly down on the Grendel whenever the opportunity presents itself. The army unleashes its collective wrath against the orcs, seeking victory whatever the cost. The Eastern Sky strives to match their glorious example, engaging in their own overwhelming assault against the defences of Spiral's occupation force.
The Citadel Guard, the sentinels and war-magicians of Urizen, follow close behind. Wrapped in a mantle of supernatural power, they fight almost recklessly taking calculated risks to gain great rewards. They actively seek to be at the heart of the fray, and despite the danger in which they place themselves, their magic protects them. Wounds that might have been lethal even with the protection of the Spring enchantment turn out to be flesh wounds. Forces that might otherwise be overwhelmed by Grendel counter-attacks hold out until they can be relieved. The Citadel Guard fight valiantly, but inexplicably they suffer not a single fatality in three months.
The Northern Eagle, and the Green Shield can barely keep up with the other three. The Grendel have taken up defensive positions throughout the territory, readying themselves for the hammer blow of Imperial forces, but again and again they are driven back. The Empire does not have everything its own way; the Grendel forces expertly coordinate their defences with supernatural clarity. While their forces are spread out and outnumbered, the orc troops possess an almost instinctive intuition for what their fellows are doing, and their armies move with cool precision to slow the Imperial advance.
Some of the most brutal fighting of the campaign takes place in the valleys below Ossen's Spire in Ankra. At the gateway to Damakhan's Forge the Grendel have prepared makeshift defences and meet the Imperial forces in a pitched battle. At the height of the fighting, with the Citadel Guard in the vanguard, something unexpected happens. Whether some long-forgotten magic is disturbed, or whether it is some trick prepared by the Grendel is unclear, but a great wildfire sweeps across the battlefield consuming orc and human and elfin knight with equal hunger. Thanks to the healing magic in the waters the casualties are somewhat reduced, but nearly a thousand men, women, and orcs are slain or permanently maimed in the eldritch flames. The flames burn for a day and a night, and nothing dampens them. Only when they have run out of fuel do they flicker and die. The next day, the wind is full of choking ash and burnt cinders.
The fire was hot enough to melt stone and even metal, powerful enough to buckle and warp even mithril armour and weapons. Ossen's Spire is consumed by the flames, and there is significant damage to Damakhan's Forge as well. The slopes of Cinion are swept clean of trees and even the dark purple heather is reduced to blackened ruin. Paragons preserve those who were caught in the woodlands when the river of flame poured down the mountainside.
Only the Citadel Guard are untouched by the fire. It marks the end of the battle for Cinion - the Grendel forces flee east toward Ankra, and after a short respite the Imperials follow.
First Cinion falls to the Empire, then Ankra, and the Empire makes significant headway towards recapturing the mithril mines at Ossuary. There are casualties, of course, despite the power of the healing waters. Perhaps two-and-a-half thousand men and women and orcs fall, all told. While their wounds too severe even for the potent healing magic to save them, not all those who fall die immediately.
Indeed, some of them do not die at all.
Stories from the battlefields and the field hospitals of Northern Spiral speak of pale figures who move among those whose injuries place them beyond help. Wrapped in black or white robes over blackened armour they speak in quiet tones to the dying. Sometimes they offer a swift and painless death. Sometimes, the fallen rise from their deathbeds and accompany the pale figures into the darkness, never to be seen again. The Military Council has given leave to the servants of the Dark-Between-The-Stars to walk their battlefields and choose among the fallen those who might find a place in their mistresses' Grim Legion. The healing Spring enchantment means there are not many for them to choose from ... but there are enough.
Only among the Citadel Guard do these grim harbingers find no opportunity to claim the fallen for their cold-hearted queen. Where the Urizen sentinels march, the heralds turn to watch them, their faces bleak, empty, but above all patient.
The Empire has captured the regions of Cinion and Ankra, and made some progress into Ossuary. The sea-storms will cease shortly before the Spring Equinox, but they will mean that any fleet based in Spiral will have suffered a small penalty to its production or fighting strength.
Ruins of Gray Charge
Three armies march to Reikos via the mountains of Redoubt. The Granite Pillar, the Wolves of War, and the Quiet Step. Their journey through Urizen is not uneventful. The remnants of a Grendel guerilla force in the southern hills and mountains target Imperial forces, arranging ambushes and destroying bridges and roads in an effort to restrict travel through Redoubt. Yet their impact is blunted by a potent spring enchantment laid over Redoubt, which heals all save the most lethal of injuries.
On reaching the Highborn territory, the Empire's armies focus their attention on clearing out the barbarian orcs who still inhabit the westernmost regions. There is some resistance, but it is scattered and disorganised. Without the influence of the Stone Toad, the orc warriors seem incapable of proper coordination. Still, clearing them out is not a straightforward task - they have had plenty of time to prepare their defences.
The Quiet Step lead the way, launching an overwhelming assault against the scattered orc settlements built amid the ruins of the fallen chapter houses. The Granite Pillar are a little more cautious - at least compared to the Navarr.
Accompanied by wagon raiders, the Wolves of War focus on plundering stolen Imperial wealth from the defeated orcs. The tactics of the League do not go unquestioned; there is little doubt that the wealth they are claiming from the scattered orc strongholds was stolen first from the people of Reikos. There are a few scattered reports of angry exchanges between champions of the Granite Pillar and the looters and wagon raiders supporting the Wolves of War.
As in Spiral, there are supernatural agents in Reikos. Wherever the Imperial armies fight they are accompanied by quiet, dour-faced agents of the Queen of Silence. They lurk patiently around the outskirts of the battles, watching. Now and again there are reports of them approaching a fallen orc and speaking in quiet tones with them. The fallen orcs disappear shortly thereafter, taken by the emissaries of the winter realm for their own purposes.
Over the course of the campaign, the Imperial forces clear most of the orcs from Gray Charge, and make significant headway in Tamarbode ... but they do not complete the liberation of Reikos. Parts of Tamarbode, especially the mysterious Sign of Tamar, are still in barbarian hands. It will take at least another season to completely remove the lingering barbarian presence.
Partly the slow progress is a result of the ever-present aura of fear the Druj have left behind them. Partly it is a result of the more cautious tactics employed by the League and Highborn armies - had they followed the Navarr lead there is no doubt that the last of the orcs would have been driven out of Reikos.
Imperial forces have conquered Gray Charge and made some progress in taking Tamarbode. All three armies have suffered some casualties for passing through Redoubt, although they are reduced due to the presence of the Rivers of Life enchantment on Redoubt.
Under a Crimson Sky
Crusade! Say the word softly, and see the banners raised in the Dawnish mind's eye. With the Hounds of Glory and the Eastern Sky fighting in distant Urizen, and the Gryphon's Pride not yet ready to march, it falls to the Golden Sun to raise those banners over Dawnguard. Into the Barrens they march, the first Dawnish army in the Barrens in generations.
Alongside them come the Towerjacks of Holberg, and the Varushkan Golden Axe. They strike their camp in the shadow of the Towers of the Dawn and prepare to defend the Dawnish territory. The crusade has had the desired effect, it seems. The armies are joined by some six thousand Dawnish troops lead by independent captains, and one band of Imperial Orcs. The auxiliary forces are split roughly half-and-half between directly supporting the Golden Sun and garrisoning the Towers of the Dawn.
The armies are ordered to avoid engagements with the barbarian orcs as much as possible, merely attempting to slow their advance. There is some dissent from the Dawnish captains outraged by the inglorious defensive strategy, but the orders are clear. Give ground, do not engage except where necessary, let the enemy come to us.
And come they do. The armies of the indigenous orcs attack with passionate zeal, throwing themselves into an all-out assault against the Towers of the Dawn and the Imperial defenders. Even though they are significantly outnumbered, they fight desperately; one last-ditch attempt to try and claim Dawnguard. They are still doing their best to avoid unnecessary casualties; in some ways the presence of the Imperial forces makes this easier. It is much easier to tell the civilians from the warriors when they are arrayed in a crusaders panoply.
Just over a fortnight after the end of the Winter Solstice, just as the fighting is beginning to heat up, the unexpected occurs.
A malign miasma falls over the Barrens. It comes without warning; one morning the twilight before sunrise is tinged with a deep, malevolent crimson. The rain that falls is oily, heavy, thick with the implication of sickness and dread. Corruption creeps into the water. A thin film of foulness covers everything from breakfast wine to garden ponds to fountains to the bee-painted waterskins of the Varushkans. The rivers run with death, and uncleanliness. Blood flows sluggishly; injuries do not heal. No wound is suffered save that it festers, turns black. The soldiers of Holberg mutter with grim certainty. They have had a great deal of experience with these conditions, having fought for decades under the periodic taint of this particular curse.
It strikes both sides; the knights of Dawn and the barbaric orcs feel its sting in equal measure. Yet it is the barbarians who suffer the lion's share of casualties. The Imperial tactic of withdrawing back to the defences in the face of orc aggression minimizes losses, at the same time as the twisted enchantment causes the deaths of so many who might otherwise have survived.
The orcs fight on as best they can, but they make little progress against the Imperial defenders. As the year draws to a close, the noble estates of Dawnguard are littered with the corpses of dead orcs.
As the Spring Equinox comes closer, rumours of fighting in the south begin to percolate through the ranks in Dawnguard. A force of Navarr have attacked the orcish supply trains, burning several villages belonging to the Great Forest orcs, slaughtering their inhabitants, then fading back into the woods. Speculation suggests this is the work of special forces attached to the Quiet Step. Whatever else it achieves, it almost certainly puts paid to any suggestion of an alliance between the Navarr and the Barrens orcs.
The Imperial forces in Dawnguard have held off the orcish attack, but it was a close-run thing. The presence of the malign magic spread across the Barrens has resulted in significant casualties - to the orcs. The defensive orders of the Imperials mean that they have suffered perhaps a fifth as many casualties as the Barrens orcs, and a significant amount of the damage inflicted has been absorbed by the white granite and weirwood of the Towers of the Dawn - the fortification takes damage that might otherwise have killed over six hundred Imperial soldiers.
Nobody has gained any ground - the Barrens orcs still have control of a portion of Dawnguard. It is possibly worth pointing out at this time that one of the things that has saved Imperial lives has been the damage to the Towers of the Dawn - damage to fortifications tends to represent broken walls rather than dead soldiers - and the apparent reticence of the orcs to murder unarmed civilians.
This Far, No Further
This winter in the Marches is harsh. In the wake of the disastrous harvest, spare food is in short supply. Belts are tightened. Compromises made.
Nearly forty-thousand Imperial soldiers fight in the Mournwold, supported by perhaps another five thousand troops lead by independent captains. They outnumber their barbaric opponents nearly two-to-one. The Jotun have a fortification at Southmoor - but the Marchers control a fortification of their own on the Greensward, and work has already begun on a second castle in Ore Hills.
The Valiant Pegasus prepare to unleash hell against the Jotun fortification in the ruins of old Sarcombe, in Southmoor. They bring up catapults, siege towers, and ladders. The Seventh Wave is ready to support them, the Tusks and the Strong Reeds ready to exploit any weakness the engines reveal.
The Fire in the South, fleeing Liathaven, join the rampaging Summer Storm and the more cautious Winter Sun in attacking Jotun positions across the Mournwold.
At the same time their fellow Freeborn of the Red Wind Corsairs set about gathering as much wealth from the Jotun encampments as they can, being reasonably cautious not to steal too much from the human farmers and "land owners" who labour under the orc yoke ... although it is not always easy to tell who is an oppressed Imperial citizen and who is a treacherous collaborator with the barbarian forces. There are still more human warriors fighting alongside the Jotun than anyone on the Imperial side is comfortable admitting to.
The Empire's strategy is straightforward. While the Highborn and the Marchers attack the castle at Sarcombe, the rest of their forces strike at the Jotun in Freemoor and Alderley. The outcome appears predetermined.
Unfortunately, the Imperial strategy does not count on the rage of the Jotun.
Orc reinfocements have marched uncontested through the forests of Liathaven to join the Jotun armies falling back before the Imperial advance. After their stinging defeat in Ore Hills, the barbarians rally under a banner surmounted by the masive skull of an elder mandowla.
These new forces do not fall back. On the contrary, they draw a line, and then they hold it.
For three months, the Empire throws everything it has in the Mourn at the Jotun armies. For three months, they take everything the Imperials have to offer, and hand it back to them.
Lead by a mountainous orc wielding a two-handed warhammer the Empire batters itself against the Jotun defences and makes absolutely no headway. The barbarians fight without quarter. This is unsurprising, perhaps, given that the Winter Sun in particular take special pleasure in murdering any Jotun that fall in their hands, and the Summer Storm slaughter any enemy - orc or human - who gets in their way. And there is more than enough blood spilled for even the thirstiest Imperial Orc.
The Jotun seem to burn with an absolute confidence that they cannot be defeated. Oh, their warriors fall in battle but those who do not fall soon return to the fray. As near as the scouts of the Seventh Wave can tell, the new Jotun forces include many thralls - human and orc alike - trained in the medicinal arts, and even some magician-healers. They do everything they can to help the Jotun hold against the Imperial advance.
The Unconquered also deliver unsettling reports that the Jotun appear to have a surprising amount of intelligence of their own, at least as regards the composition, positioning, and strength of the Imperial forces.
The Jotun armies are further supported by perhaps two thousand elite champions - warbands drawn it seems from across the western jarldoms. They take risks that even the bravest orc soldier might eschew, and time and again they seek out the heroic captains of the Empire, seemingly to test their mettle on the field of battle.
Thousands of Jotun orcs fall. On some days, the Imperials must practically wade through orc bodies and blood. The moors are stained crimson with sanguine excess. Even the clarity with which the Valiant Pegasus and the Tusks plan their strategies cannot overcome the Jotun defence - perhaps because it is so straightforward. Nothing brilliant, nothing complex, is being attempted. The Jotun have simply decided that they will not move and their glorious stand against the Imperials meets no counter.
The fields are scattered with the dead and the dying, and between them pick the chosen of the Black Dog (never call her the Black Bitch in the hearing of her chosen). They are untouched by the warriors of either side, walking with the protection of the military council when they are among the Imperials, and under some protection of their own when they walk among the Jotun. Now and again they stop, and speak to one of the fallen. Sometimes, they raise up one of the dying and escort them from the battlefield. Only if someone tries to impede them in their strange duty do they fight, revealing a ruthless, supernatural skill. The Jotun make no attempt to bar their way, and after the first Imperial Orc tries to stand between one and the Jotun she has chosen, no Imperial gets in their way, either. Those who leave a battlefield with the black-clad, pale-skinned emissaries of the Queen of Silence are not seen again.
As the Spring Equinox draws closer, the leaders of the Imperial forces must face the cold fact that they have achieved nothing in this cold, bitter winter ... nothing save a slaughter on an almost unprecedented scale.
Nearly three thousand Imperial troops will never fight again. Yet the Jotun defence has cost them at least twice that many of their own forces.
Was it worth it? Was it heroism, or insanity? It hardly matters.
Those who fought under the mandowla banner have paid a heavy price, but by the end of the harsh winter, the Empire has gained not one square-foot more of Mournish soil than they had when the Winter started.
The glorious Jotun forces have held firm in the Mournwold. Both sides have taken significant casualties - but the Empire has not made any gains in the territory this season.