Authors: Chris Wraight - (ebook by Undead)
At the front was Bloch’s own detachment. To a man, they were
survivors of Grunwald’s army. All of them were Reiklanders, tempered in the
fiercest of fighting, as unyielding and hard-bitten as any regular troops in the
Emperor’s armies. No fear showed in their grizzled faces, just a grim
determination to see the campaign through. Many of their comrades lay in the
rich earth of the pastures below, and the deaths required vengeance.
Bloch looked over the heads of the massed troops to the
baggage train at the rear. Reserve companies stood ready, as silent as the main
body of the army. Teams of horses stamped nervously, steam snorting from their
nostrils as they shook their heads against the chill. Behind them were the few
artillery pieces of any size that he’d been able to commandeer. Not much, and
little danger to the Keep.
Finally, there were Drassler’s mountain guard. No more than
two hundred or so remained, the others having been killed or harried into the
high peaks by the tide of orcs. The survivors looked as hard-edged as Bloch’s
own men, their beards ragged and their faces unsmiling. This was their chance
for revenge, and perhaps for some measure of atonement.
All were watching him, waiting for the words of command. As
they stood unmoving, the harsh wind rippled across the army.
Bloch turned away from them, back to the fortress. He
couldn’t make out much from that distance. There was no movement on the plain.
The Keep rose tall and stark from the stone, a block of solid rock thrust from
the core of the earth. Though there was no sign of the infestation, he knew that
the place was swarming with greenskins. Schwarzhelm’s orders, given so lightly
after the rout on the grasslands of Averland, would not be easily fulfilled.
That mattered not. He’d been given them, and he’d carry them out.
He took a deep breath and turned to Kraus. The captain’s face
was as bleak as the granite around him.
“Give the signal,” Bloch ordered. “Let’s do it.”
Noon has passed, and the afternoon sun began to cast long
shadows from the branches of the trees. The seemingly endless pastures of long,
whispering grass had given way to higher country, dotted with straggling
woodland and uncultivated scrub. This was poor land. The soil was thin and the
undergrowth tangled. Ever since the devastation of Ironjaw the people of the
region had been slow to return to their farms, and abandoned buildings, their
roofs white with age, dotted the horizon. Gorse had replaced grass on the
verges, and the roads petered out into stone-clogged tracks.
Skarr pulled his horse up and the column of knights came to a
halt. He rode at the front of it, accompanied by Eissen, who in the aftermath of
the fighting at Averheim had assumed the position of his lieutenant by default.
Leitdorf was close behind. Further down the column, protected by ranks of
Reiksguard, lay Helborg. He’d been placed in a carriage taken from Leitdorf’s
last country residence. It was absurdly ornate, decked with florid coats of arms
and a golden image of the Solland sun on its flanks. If there had been any less
ostentatious choice, Skarr would have taken it. As it was, he was stuck with the
late count’s extravagance.
He looked over the line of troops with a commander’s eye,
checking for signs of weariness or indiscipline. There were none. Though they
now numbered less than fifty, the company held its order impeccably. The
Reiksguard, drilled from their teens to embody the perfection of the Emperor’s
will, had maintained the condition of their armour and steeds with stoic
efficiency. They carried most of their gear and supplies with them, and the
trail of baggage mules and spare horses at the rear of the column was short.
Rufus Leitdorf nudged his horse alongside Skarr’s. The
deposed heir had lost some of the fat around his face over the last few days. He
looked better for it, less effeminate. In the face of the Reiksguard’s open
contempt, some of the habitual arrogance had been knocked from his manner.
“How close are we?” asked Skarr, turning his gaze back to the
road ahead. The track wound through the heathland uncertainly, threatening to
give out entirely. That wouldn’t trouble the horses, but it would make the
carriage’s progress impossible. Like everywhere in the Empire, there were
creatures in the dark places far from the road, ever ready to launch an assault
if they sensed weakness.
“Another day,” said Leitdorf. “No more.”
Skarr grunted. Long hours travelling in the wilds didn’t
bother him at all, but Helborg’s condition did. The Marshal needed time to rest
properly. Skarr had witnessed Helborg fighting on after taking wounds that would
have laid a lesser man low, but this was different. The man’s face remained
bloodless. Even when awake, his eyes were glassy and listless. Something seemed
broken within him, and it wasn’t physical. For long periods the Marshal remained
unconscious. His slumber was troubled, and on the occasions Skarr had watched
over him, he’d seen Helborg mutter words in his sleep. Chief among them was
“I’m going to check on the Marshal,” he said, dismounting.
Skarr pushed his way back through the mounted knights and made his way to the
carriage. The doors had been covered with a black lacquer, much of which had
rubbed off during the passage south and east. Now the proud emblems were
scratched and faded, and the wood was plastered with grime.
Skarr climbed up on to the footboard and pulled the door
open. Helborg was slumped against the far wall of the carriage, swathed in
blankets. There wasn’t room to lay him flat, and he looked awkwardly twisted in
the cramped interior.
Helborg was awake, staring out of the window. Days-worth of
stubble covered his sunken cheeks, and his moustache was lank.
“Marshal,” acknowledged Skarr, cautiously sitting opposite
him. There wasn’t much that scared the preceptor, but Helborg, even in his
diminished state, made everyone nervous.
Helborg didn’t respond. He kept staring out of the glass.
“How do you feel?” asked Skarr.
As soon as the question left his mouth, he knew it had been a
mistake. Helborg didn’t want pity.
“Where are we?” Helborg’s rasping voice was even worse than
“Near the Drakenmoor. Leitdorf’s land. Another day’s riding,
“I should be on a horse. What’s this damned haywain you’ve
got me in?”
Skarr didn’t quite know how to respond to that. The man
looked like he could barely raise his arm.
“I’ll see to it,” he lied.
Helborg finally looked at him. His gaze was penetrating. “My
recollection of events is… unclear,” he said. “What has happened here?”
Skarr cleared his throat. He had no answers.
“We’re being hunted. Grosslich has raised the country against
us. He’s been crowned elector, and there’s an army on our heels.”
“Then turn and fight it. You’re Reiksguard.”
“There are hundreds of them, my lord.”
Helborg grunted with disapproval, as if to say,
did that ever matter before?
“Schwarzhelm was with them,” added Skarr, and it sounded like
a hollow excuse. He’d never run from a fight before, but the events of the
Vormeisterplatz had been horrifying. To see the two greatest sons of the Empire
come to blows had been bad enough. Becoming fugitives was even worse.
“So what’s your plan?” rasped Helborg. At the mention of
Schwarzhelm’s name, his voice had become tighter.
“Keep you and Leitdorf hidden and find out what happened.
Grosslich’s treachery can’t stay uncovered for long, and I’ll find a way of
getting a message through to Altdorf.”
Helborg shot him a withering look. Skarr recoiled,
recognising the imperious disdain all too well. The Marshal wasn’t happy.
“Damn it, Skarr, we’ll do more than that,” he growled.
Something of his old cultivated savagery had returned. “You didn’t see
Schwarzhelm’s face. He was mad. They’d all been driven mad. It was in the air.”
He leaned forwards with difficulty. Skarr saw one of his
hands slip from the cloth wrappings, and it was clenched into a tight fist.
“We’ll gather our strength and strike back,” he rasped.
“Strike hard, and strike fast. Whatever treachery has taken place here will be
Like a long-cold hearth stuttering back into life, the
Marshal’s eyes recovered their old fire. Then, and for the first time since the
fighting at Averheim, Skarr knew Helborg would live to lead him again.
“We are your men, my lord,” he said, with something like joy.
“Forget that!” Helborg snapped, his voice shaking with
fervour. “Forget your loyalties. This is about vengeance. I will recover my
strength, I will return to the city, and I will find the one who did this to
He looked at Skarr directly, and his expression was brutal.
“Sigmar preserves those who
Skarr. We will
fight until the Aver runs dark with blood. We will fight until the last traitor
drowns in his own gore. We will fight until that bastard Grosslich has been cast
down and his soul flayed to the five corners of the world. They should have
killed me. While a breath remains in my body I’ll be too much for them. I’ll
raise the country against them. I’ll tear down their walls and shatter their
defences. I’ll burn their warped dreams and rip out their traitor’s hearts. All
this I will do and more, for I am Kurt Helborg, master of the Emperor’s endless
armies, hammer of his foes, and my name itself is
Black Fire Keep was ugly. Pig ugly. The vaguely star-shaped
walls jutted out unevenly, and the massive ramparts hung like brooding palls of
snow over the sloping walls. Everything had been turned black by age and fire,
and even the orcs hadn’t found many ways to despoil further what they’d found.
“Form up!” Bloch bellowed, letting the sergeants echo his
order through the ranks.
He’d pulled the army in close. The detachments of infantry
were now in clear view of the battlements, arrayed in a wide semicircle to the
south of the fort. All were deployed in company detachments several ranks deep,
Averlanders mingled with Reiklanders. The squares formed a long, ragged line
across the stony ground, and there were many gaps between the clustered
companies. Pennants flew in the strong breeze, snapping and rippling over the
heads of the soldiers. There was no heavy cavalry, and what artillery there was
had been hauled into place on the far left flank of the army, south-west of the
Keep along a narrow shelf of wind-smoothed rock. Reserves were minimal—just a
couple of halberdier companies set back from the main formation.
The troops kept out of bow-range, but only just. If Bloch
could tempt the defenders to waste arrows, then that was all to the good. The
sun was still high in the sky, and there was plenty of time for an assault. If
he had his way, the fortress would be breached by nightfall. It all came down to
tactics, expectation and a generous slice of luck.
Bloch shaded his eyes and looked up at the ramparts. There
were shapes moving along them, hunched against the stone. The greenskins were
agitated. He knew it wasn’t fear. They were cooped up, locked behind walls. They
hated that. It was that hatred he had to use.
“Artillery!” roared Bloch, and the signal was sent down the
The firepower wasn’t much to boast about: a handful of
Helblasters, two Helstorms and a couple of light cannon. Hauling them up the
mountainsides had been a miserable task; now they had to prove their worth.
On either side of the artillery, the reserve companies of
halberdiers edged away. None of them trusted the gun crews, who worked fast in
the cold to get the engines of war ready. Barrels were aimed and last-minute
adjustments made. Buckets of water were drawn up and burning rags placed ready
next to the wicks. The crew captains looked up expectantly.
“Fire,” growled Bloch.
The order went down the line. With a deafening crack that
echoed around the pass, the first guns fired. Cannonballs whined into the air,
smashing high up against the walls and sending the gun barrels slamming back
yards. They were followed by the swish of Helstorm rockets, spiralling in their
wake and exploding in balls of fire. The Helstorm batteries that followed were
less effective—they’d been designed to counter infantry units, not batter down
solid walls—but Bloch ordered them to open fire anyway. The task was not to
reduce the walls to rubble, but to play on the nerves of the orcs. He knew they
were itching to strike back. He just had to keep provoking them.
“Aim high!” he roared, reminding them of their orders. “Dead
greenskins, not cracked stone.”
Standing at Bloch’s side, Kraus gestured to the commander of
the archery companies. There weren’t many of them—no more than two hundred -
and they didn’t have the range or the volume of arrows to seriously trouble the
defenders. Nonetheless, they marched forwards, flanked by heavily-armed infantry
carrying shields. As they came into range, the first bellows of scorn and
challenge came down from the fortress. The orcs were roused.