Siege of the New Castle Part 2
The following morning, Danagrim guards arrived early, escorting Manzio and Heraclief to the Wall. The New Castle and surrounding fortifications was not far from the wall itself separated only by a still operative Vallum with the promise of a grizzly death for those foolish enough to traverse the no man’s land directly between the wall and castle.
The weather had worsened overnight and the companions found themselves chilled to the bone in making the short trip. Arriving at the wall, they found Cole and two other Danagrim waiting for them. Manzio was pleased to see the scout, Salinor and his companion, a tough, no-nonsense female by the name of Gretna with an unfortnate growth of thick facial hair.
Gathering the five together, handing Manzio and Heraclief thick furs to use against the horrific cold, Cole outlined their mission. ‘We need to monitor the movements of the enemy army. Our job is to follow the wall west before tracking them. Between us, we can relay messages back to the castle.’
Quickly seeing that the immediate threat represented by the Norwegians shown to him in the Cave of Making was yet to transpire, Manzio was not to see the enemy camps until much later that day in the half light of dusk, with the snows finally relenting a little. The enemy fires were less than a mile away built close to the protection afforded by the wall.
‘No fire tonight,’ grumbled Cole but to Manzio’s delight, a nearby mile castle provided enough compact bracken to reduce the chill. Burrowing like a rodent into the insulated, organic debris and trying to ignore the overpowering stench within, the companions rotated their watch each hour as exposure to the full force of the blizzard was brutal and quickly debilitating.
Points of light in the distance suggested that large bonfires had been lit in the camps of the Norwegians. Less than two hours before dawn and with Manzio about to take his watch, Cole beckoned for the Vesuvian to follow him down below and away from the safety of the mile castle. Leading Manzio safely through the Vallum, Heraclief was waiting sheltered behind a large rock face jutting from the hillside and piled high on one side by snowdrifts driven by the biting northern wind.
’I’m needin a better sense of what we face out there and I cannae think of two more able scouts than the twos of ye.’ See if yooz can get as close as is safe and report back to me before dawn.’ Reaching mischievously into his fur skin, Cole revealed a small bottle full with a rich golden liquid. ‘A wee dram to stave off the cold first.’
Manzio felt warmth spread from his stomach to his neck and back into his mouth as the whisky exploded throughout his body. Heraclief smiled, nodding his appreciation and catching the wicked glint in Cole’s eye.
‘None oh yer usual human rat’s pish spirits. Yon whisky is Danagrim made and aged in casks enchanted back in the days of Emperor Hadrian himself. This is a vintage lads, so don’t yooz be thinkin I’ll be in the habit of lettin yooz take a nip ah regular like. A century old vintage. Put a beard on yooz face. Clearly Achilleus does not partake before yooz ask.’
With the heat of the vintage whisky still like fire in their stomachs, Heraclief and Manzio set out into the thick snow separating them from the vast army beyond, Cole and even the wall itself quickly fading from view behind them in inky darkness.
The biting winds sweep snow up into the air creating blizzard conditions. Subsequently visibility is poor for the two scouts. However, bit by bit they begin to piece together a large camp. The horrendous conditions provide excellent camouflage for the two especially when combined with the pure white pelts worn to insulate them from the cold. Manzio is forced to wade waist high in order to cut a pathway through the thick snow. Little more than 200 yards from the camp perimeter the two crouch low trying to catch a glimpse of what is going on beyond. Gradually, the two begin to make out tents set close together. It is hard to be sure but it appears that larger tents lay beyond at the heart of the camp, presumably serving commanding officers and perhaps even the White Queen herself? Back from the tents there are some large bonfires probably lit with magical fire as normal fires would likely to be dowsed in such arctic conditions. A few of the Norwegians can be seen sat in front of the fires looking out in various directions, or at least some of those unlucky enough to be on watch duty but few appear to be vigilant, much to the relief of Manzio and Heraclief. Notably the camp maintains no ditches, staked wooden protection or any of the other protections afforded to most armies. Clearly the bad weather is considered deterrent enough for any so foolish as to consider an attack.
Attempting to circumnavigate the camp marching east and then south, they are able to get some sense of scale when assessing the army. Whilst there are clearly different sections of the force, Manzio estimates that each tent on average serves between 4-6 men. He guesses that at least 1,500-2,500 mean are situated in the section of camp he can see. Perhaps more exist beyond the visibility of his positon. At one point, the snow slows for a few seconds and as Manzio peers into the early morning gloom, he sees a massive metallic figure striding through the camp. Even from several hundred yards his blood freezes as he recognizes the metallic colossus faced in Mull or a creature of similar ilk. The construct appears to be attaching huge planks of wood onto some kind of siege weapon.
‘I have seen these weapons before.’ admits Heraclief. ‘Once. In Sicily. They are known as trebuchet and are likely to do our walls no favours,’ he observes grimly. ‘That said, they are wooden and subsequently vulnerable to fire,’ smiles the sorcerer.
Without wanting to risk a potential conflict with the Construct, Manzio leads the pair away further east to the very edge of the camp. Outside the main body of the army, Heraclief taps Manzio’s shoulder alerting him to what at first appears to be snowmen, statuesque in the gloom! Several hundred of them to be precise. As they get closer both are shocked to see Danagrim and Elven wights stood rigidly, oblivious to the ferocious blizzard conditions. Manzio notes that at the heart of this bizarre camp is a central ring of undead surrounding a single figure. From his vantage point it is impossible for Manzio to identify any further details.
The ghoulish undead and freezing conditions persuade the two scouts that they have enough information to provide Cole with a useful report. Manzio is just suggesting that they return to the wall when he is startled to see two figures bursting from the snow not more than twenty yards behind them.
The first quickly advances, Manzio barely having time to register the archaic armour and slim elven blade held by the creature. The livery is undoubtedly that of Morganna, with the distinctive sigil of the skull emblazoned on what is otherwise, rusting armour. The skeletal frame is dessicated, as though ready to buckle under the weight of the armour but contained as though by a necrotic, crackling purple energy.
Arching its back, the creature lets rip a scream of terrifying, screeching proportions. Manzio desperately protects his ears from the onset but feels a sharp pain within his left eardrum. For a moment, time stands still as he feels a quickening of his pulse, followed by a hunger unlike anything else he has experienced. In desperation, as the creature lunges for him with a notched blade, Manzio activates his shadow figurine. The creature seems confused as the blade connects with nothing more than a phantom version of the assassin. Ever cautious, Manzio avoids the temptation to drive home his advantage with a sneak attack, selecting instead to back off securing an escape route for the two scouts.
Meanwhile, Herclief faces a second form of undead, this time a stocky Danagrim also clad in ancient, rusted armour and wielding an axe with a half rotten shaft, part of the blade broken with a wicked sharp edge. The sorcerer blasts fire missiles into the advancing creature, emerald fire igniting but quickly the flames quelled by the freezing snow.
With both undead now attacking the tall sorcerer and shouts of alarm beginning from the main camp, not to mention the slow animation of the undead surrounding them, Manzio immediately decides that they needed to break free or face impossible odds.
‘Heraclief, we must escape. Now!’
Racing forward, the assassin plunged his favoured druidic dagger, held in his left hand, into the neck of the Danagrim. His weaker right hand missed but as he ripped his left dagger free, a massive crack opened in the neck of the undead, the head rolling free.
Simultaneously, Heraclief engulfed his elven assailant with a massive conflagration of emerald fire, abandoning any sense of subtlety. The creature exploded in fragments of ancient armour, Heraclief and Manzio avoiding the worst of the blast.
With Manzio using the trail broken shortly before, the two sprint free of the quickly swelling search party behind. Using his boots of speed to quicken the escape route Manzio was quickly able to put distance between the two scouts and their pursuers. Heraclief did his best to keep pace with the Vesuvian but started to lag behind just as the Wall came back into view. The blizzard now tore at the escapees as though deliberately attempting to slow their progress.
The two arrived at the Wall further East from their original rendezvous point with Cole but to the relief of both spotted the three Danagrim running along the top of the wall towards them. Throwing ropes down, first Heraclief and then Manzio ascended up into the safety of Hadrian’s Wall.
Heraclief had just finished providing Cole with a quick overview of their scouting findings when Manzio reached the top. Salinor quickly stored the rope and then pointed over Manzio’s shoulder into the snow where the dead emerged from the blizzard.
’Let’s be gannin,’ warned Cole.
The group set off at a sprint and then slowed their pace to a more sustainable speed, Manzio in particular beginning to pay for the back breaking snow paths cleared as part of his scouting duty. Cole once again provided relief from the cold with a nip of Danagrim fire whisky and the group was able to resume their escape east.
About halfway back to the New Castle, the three Danagrim bid Manzio and Heraclief goodbye.
’We’ez three had best keep an eye on the enemy. You’z two take word to Achilleus of all you’d have seen. The battle is comin lads.’
It was late afternoon before the two reached the New Castle. Once again accompanied by Danagrim guards the two were shown straight to the Solar, high in the Keep. They found Achilleus in conversation with the Baron and a tall man so similar in build and looks that it was no surprise when Richard Umfraville, son of the Baron and heir to the Prudhoe estate was introduced.
Between Manzio and Heraclief the two provided a full account of their scouting mission with Achilleus and the Baron pushing them hard for further details. News of the giant Construct visibly troubled the three listeners as did Heraclief’s description of the trebuchet.
‘Wood is vulnerable to fire,’ added the sorcerer attempting to bring some glimmer of hope to the report but Achilleus was quick to point out that reaching the siege weapons would be virtually impossible if protected by the metallic Construct.
‘Morganna has clearly aided her sister with a force of undead,’ added the Baron.
‘But not the animated peasants used primarily to date,’ responded Achilleus. ‘Manzio was lucky to shake off the enchantment inflicted by the elven wight. The hunger described by Manzio is the blood fever and in time would have transformed him into one of them. You had a lucky escape boy but the bravery of you both, risking your lives for our cause is humbling and I thank you both. Now get some rest for tomorrow, I suspect the war begins in earnest.’