The walls of holfried (autumn equinox 378ye winds of war)

Crossposted from Facebook

[size=200]THE WALLS OF HOLFRIED[/size]

The summer is hot. Hot, and wet. Heavy, warm rain gives way to a stinking, clinging fog. Fecund Spring magic, gravid with sickness, swirls through every drop of rain, pools in every puddle, spawns furiously in the churned up mud of every trench and sinkhole. The incessant buzzing of meat-fat flies during the day gives way to the endless drum beats of the barbarian war machine when night falls. The outer city, within the crumbling walls of Holmauer, is a ruined wasteland, held by the Druj. The upper city, secure within the unbreachable walls of Holfried, is a seething powderkeg of grim soldiers, scared citizens and refugees who have lost everything.

Many citizens of Holberg have already left. To the remaining civillian population of the city, add hundreds of miserable refugees driven from their homes by the Druj with nowhere else to go. To that crowded mass of humanity, add more than thirty-five thousand Imperial soldiers. Everyone is on edge. The city is one random incident away from a full-scale riot. The heat, and the damp, and the constant presence of the Druj, does not help.

Still … the walls of Holberg have never been breached. Not by the orcs, and not even by the Empire.

Mud is everywhere. It is smeared on the faces of the Highborn scouts. It steals the bright sheen from Dawnish plate and Marcher harness. It tracks across every floor, caked on the boots of the bravos from the Free Companies. It stains the hems of Urizen robes; the siege is especially loathsome for the sentinels and magicians used to having space to breathe. The Imperial Orcs of the Summer Storm seem to mind it least, seem almost to appreciate the way everyone is packed together. It suits their tempraments.

Spirits raise briefly when news reaches the city that several hundred soldiers, believed lost in the retreat from Holmauer last season, have reached safety in Drycastle on the edge of the Barrens. Few take more than a day and a night of rest, marching instead to rejoin their armies, ready to continue the fight.

The pressure builds. Everyone knows the attack is coming. The Druj amuse themselves by catapulting the mutilated and dismembered remnants of prisoners over the walls. In some ways, the bloating and disfugurement of the corpses are a blessing - the dead are mostly unrecognisable. Disease and sickness become an ever-present threat. Only briars and draughir are seen abroad without something wrapped around thier nose and mouth. Biting flies breed and swarm everywhere; dismal conditions and the accused magic mean that even a bug bite can quickly fester and turn deadly.

The Towerjacks manning the walls calmly report the number and disposition of the Druj siege engines; the Wolves of War work with mathematicians from the university to position their own engines. The druj throw chunks of stone torn from shattered Holmauer at the city; the League soldiers throw them back. The people are afraid, but the armies are strong. They are well rested, well supplied, and - despite the efforts of the Druj - full of grim determination for the fight that everyone knows is coming.

The walls of Holberg have never been breached. But then, there has never been a force such as this arrayed against them. There are whispers in the empty moments of the night. “Is this the end? Can we hold?” The Druj are a nightmare given form; nobody is in doubt that they will visit unspekable torment on the defenders if they breach the walls. Citizens and refugees alike head west, to Semmerholm and beyond.

Then one night the storm breaks. Just after sunset, immense bonfires explode into light near the base of the walls, sending up great gouts of stinking eye-stinging smoke. The barbarians come through them like a tidal wave, a tsunami of screaming, howling, merciless savages. Great siege engines built on the plains of Rebeshof advance on the last bastion of Imperial presence in Holberg. Makeshift siege towers creak slowly forward, rickety siege ladders slam into place against the walls. Crude trebuchet and catapults rain down rocks and filth and flammable liquid. Great battering rams, each drawn by a dozen ogres, begin to pound against the walls. A thousand snaking tendrils of rope slap against the ramparts, crude iron hooks questing for a purchase. Under the great green-and-yellow banner of the scorpion, the Druj attack.

After the initial wave has struck the wall, the Druj unleash a hidden weapon - a dozen immense marshwalkers, no doubt drawn up from the marshes of the Morass and turned into living weapons by Druj alchemical sorcery. These magically bound elemental horrors tear into the walls, their unnatural hatred for anything built by the hands of man focused on tearing down the walls of Holberg. Each one is as deadly as a half-dozen catapults; a shiver of fear runs through the defenders … but the Summer Storm are here. The discipline of the Imperial Orcs in the face of this monstrous assault helps steel the defenders against it. They pour out through the sally ports and open a path for the the Bounders and the Golden Sun to strike against these primordial behemoths and against several of the battering rams threatening to breach the portals. Marshwalker ichor and hot ogre blood mixes with gallons of Druj blood in the muddy quagmire outside the walls. As soon as the marshwalkers fall, the Imperial forces retreat behind the walls again - the Seventh Wave have been planning routes and fallbacks for weeks by this stage, and while the empire loses troops they lose only a fraction of their strength.

The barbarians are unpreapred for the counterattack; the banner of the scorpion dips toward the mud.

As the first night turns to day, and then toward night again, a more insidious enemy begins to prey on the defenders of Holberg. The wicked magic of the Rivers of Blood curse means that minor wounds fester and steal the life from soldiers who might otherwise survive; worse, those orcs who fight under the banner of the Deadly Blade make a speciality of wielding deadly poison and insidious venom against the defenders. The Urizen sentinels and magi of the Citadel bear the brunt of these attacks - the healing power of their magic helps to counter the worst poison, but they also keep the orcs from the wall by the simple expedient of unleashing magical force against any orc that claims the wall - dozens of barbarians are hurled from the ramparts by the seemingly-gentle touch of a battlemage’s staff.

As the second night falls, the Druj assault slackens. A single echoing horn-blast rolls across the corpse-strewn battlefield. The Druj are retreating! The defenders are too stunned, too exhausted to understand what is happening at first. They just stare, silently, as first one then a dozen then a hundred than a thousand orcs retreat away from the walls of Holberg. Retreating back to the other side of the Holmauer, back to Rebeshof, back to the forests and marshes of Utterlund and the Morass.

The ground beneath the walls is a vast, open cemetary scattered with broken and burning siege engines. Perhaps three thousand Imperial troops will not fight again. Some perished to poison, or to infected wounds, or fell from the walls to lie broken amongst the orc corpses. The walls of the upper city have taken a pounding, but they endure still - the Wolves of War countering the best efforts of the Scorpion Sting war machines - and they have saved hundreds of lives.

The barbarian dead cover the ground outside the walls like a carpet of broken flesh. The Druj losses are almost incalcuable, but might be as high as ten thousand casualties. The groans of the dying orcs persist through most of the night and into the next day; one by one they fade away and by dawn the battlefield is silent. bodies lie everywhere, where they fell, where they dragged themselves, half buried in stinking mud. The power of Spring magic, foolishly applied to the wrong battle, has proved the undoing of it’s makers; minor wounds turned savage by the very magic the Druj sought to use against the Empire, to break their spirit.

The walls of Holberg have never been breached. Not in the earliest days of the Empire, not in the hundred battles fought since … and not today.

[So … there we go. Which do you think was the bigger influence on the battle? The catastrophic miscalculation of the Druj magicians in placing Rivers Run Red, or the excellent tactical and strategic planning of the Military council? Either way … the current phase of the Siege of Holberg ends in an unequivocal rout for the Druj …

One more post to do, before the midnight booking deadline … so don’t go to bed just yet.]