Friday, 28 December 2012

The Winter Wedding

The chill of early winter stirred the fine hairs on the back of her neck. Though Isabella couldn’t be sure that it wasn’t just the apprehension. Her resplendent white wedding train whispered sadly against the marble floor as she made the inexorable slow march towards Sigmar’s High Altar. A sense of impending doom settled over her. Try as she might to squash it down into her stomach, the undeniable feeling of dread surged up over and again.

Dmitri had once been an attractive match. In her girlhood Isabella had stared longingly past the other young nobles assembled at Father’s court, hoping to catch Dmitri’s eye. He was tall and darkly handsome, with easy smiles and a sonorous yet gentile voice. She had dreamed that one day Father would accept the overtures to a marriage. The Drazkharovs were, after all, a powerful house and worthy in-laws to the Alptraum dynasty.

Such were the idle dreams of youth, she reflected ruefully. Since the War everything had changed. The Drazkharov Rebellion had turned her beloved Dmitri and his family into bitter enemies. Until today the last time Isabella had seen him was at court, the very day before the Rebellion had ignited and war had consumed the realm.

And now Isabella found herself the symbol of the rebel victory. The cavernous Cathedral of Sigmarheim seemed impossibly full, packed to the buttresses with the great and noteworthy of the Empire. They were a panoply of ruffs, lace, capes, collars, crests and vivid grandeur. All had come from across the realm (no small number grudgingly or against their will) to see Princess Isabella married to the young Dmitri Drazkharov. This union, it had been declared, would heal the wounds of civil war and usher in a return of peace, fealty and trust between the great families. Isabella found herself the final transaction in a peace treaty. Though the terms had been meticulously dictated by the victors.

Isabella glanced to her father as they walked arm in arm towards the high altar. His frozen expression masked the abject humiliation that she knew he must feel inside. The Drazkharovs had used every aspect of this wedding to parade their victory over the House of Alptraum. The toppled Emperor now leading his daughter to the arms of the triumphant conquerors, with all the world here to bear witness. Father’s abdication, and Isabella’s betrothal to Dmitri, had been the culmination of decades of politicking and schemes. She would sit the Imperial throne of her forebears, and through their puppet monarchs the Drazkharovs would hold the realm in their despotic grasp. Yet her sorrow was not for her own fate; her pity was for the aged and weary old man who walked beside her. Trying to hide a sideways glance, she saw a brow that now looked bare without the Imperial crown resting upon it. Had Father always been so small, so wan? Isabella thought that she could see tears glistening in his eyes. She looked away and stifled her sorrow. She strained to recall the giant of her childhood whose mighty hand had once ruled an empire.

Near the front of the congregation was her brother. It was almost impossible to believe - he looks even worse Father! The savagery he had witnessed and hardships he had endured through years of war now weighed leaden against Karl’s soul. The defeat had aged him by twenty years. His hair was shot with grey and his skin lined with grief. Surrendering his armies and the capital to the rebel generals had crushed his spirit.

Isabella tried to catch his gaze, fervently wishing to see a glimpse of the lost Karl of her youth – the one who would have leapt up, who would have fought like hell itself, who would have sprung some chivalrous plan that would thwart all the Drazkahrov ambitions in a single bold stroke. But the dejected Karl she saw before her had no fight left in him. He had not even spoken out when his claim to the imperial throne was quietly set aside. Nor had he done ought but murmur his acknowledgement at the news that his younger sister would marry the enemy against whom he had once fought so fiercely. The new government had bestowed upon Karl the dubious honour of “Protector of Kustenland and Ebenland” - an office that was in truth a poisoned chalice. It made him responsible for maintaining the peace in these recently annexed and still fractious territories.

As she reached the altar steps to stand beside her betrothed, Isabella’s new family were there to greet her. Isabella the girl had been dazzled, as many had, by their dark majesty and exotic charm. Now, the events of the civil war had unveiled the villainous Drazkharovs. Isabella the young woman and soon-to-be-Empress saw, too late, the old fa├žade stripped away. Their courtesies, etiquette and sycophancy of the old days were now abandoned for the gloating and crowing of their triumph.

Up close, they were a menagerie of mismatched characters; tall, rigid Viktor – he nodded courteously and feigned a smile to her, though it barely managed a flicker across the eyebrows and a flash across the lips – austere as stone. Beside him, hunched and hideously battle scarred, grim-faced Ivan leered with a hungry atavistic gleam from his one good eye. Waiting at the altar to meet her was oily Boris, a grasping rodent of a man, looking faintly absurd in the ostentatious confection of a gold and crystalline crown that had been commissioned to mark his appointment to the holy office of Grand Theogonist. In the background a score of others, the prodigious offspring of House Drazkharov- lackeys all - jostling behind their seniors. They were a nest of insidious vipers trussed up to masquerade as regal peacocks.

But in their midst, cold and statuesque, was the architect of the Drazkharovs’ ascension to power. The grand matriarch herself, Anastasia Drazkharov. She was a majestic vision in flowing crimson silk, bodice studded with garnets and rare black opals, all trimmed with finest ermine and topped with a spiked lace collar that framed her face. She, at least, seemed the very image of nobility. Though it was less the gown she wore and more the bearing she carried with it. She held the kind of expression that was at once haughty yet somehow oddly maternal - in a stern sort of way - a look that only a true queen could carry off with such natural grace and ease. A most befitting countenance for she who had been dubbed The Mother of the Realm by her conniving brood.

The ceremony passed as some half-remembered dream. Looking into Dmitri’s eyes, Isabella saw only emptiness. A blank gaze, vacant of expression. There wasn’t a thought in his head or a word on his lips that hadn’t been planted there by the Drazkharov elders. He was a splendid marionette, mouthing honeyed words and oozing allure. It that had wooed her younger self, along with so many others. Yet now the memory of it alone turned her stomach. But the Drazkharovs had played a long and patient game in their bid to charm the realm and garner the crown’s trust in their ruthless quest for power. How had she - how had everyone?! - been so blind to the charade?

As Grand Theogonist Boris lowered the Imperial crown to rest heavily upon her head, Isabella’s thoughts raced as she considered the future. She wouldn’t become the puppet monarch that they intended! She would resist the Drazkharovs wherever she could, slow and stymie them when she could not openly defy them. They may be powerful, but she was still Empress! And there were those who were quietly loyal to the House of Alptraum, and more still who loathed the Drazkharovs. Across the seas her eldest brother, Johann, had taken refuge in the colonies along with other nobles who had managed to escape the fall of Sigmarheim. In the Durom Mountains the stalwart warriors of King Morgrim still held out against a Drazkharov siege. Morgrim had long been an ally of the Empire and a friend to the Alptraums. There were still glimmers of hope. She forced herself to believe it.

Newly- wed and newly-crowned, Empress Isabella and the wedding procession passed out of the cathedral doors with great fanfare. Outside, bitter night had lowered its cloak upon the city. There were hints of the odd snowflake skittering across the frosty sky. In the flickering torchlight she saw streets lined with soldiers wearing Drazkharov livery. Isabella shivered to see their ghastly shadows dance and coil, tormented in the light of the wavering flames. The cobbles echoed back the crunching of hobnails and of armoured plates as the Knights of the Grimholt assembled an honour guard for the new Empress. Faceless, encased in lobstered steel, swords glinting in the firelight- these dread knights were the iron fist that had crushed the Imperial army mere months before. They were a bleak reminder to those who dared to forget the might of House Drazkharov.

High above Sigmarheim, from every tower and spire, every rampart and bastion, flew the re-designed Imperial standard. It proudly displayed the ancient Imperial symbols coupled to the grim arms of the House of Drazkharov. It blazoned a new world order, forged in blood and battle, now cemented with Isabella’s marriage and coronation. As she stepped into the enveloping darkness of the Imperial carriage, gazing out through the glass panes upon a Drazkharov city, Isabella could not help but feel doubt creep back into her heart.

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

The Fall of the South

A Drazkharov host mustered in Sigmarheim in 671PC as cousins Count Ivan and Count Viktor united their armies for the final act of the conquest of the Empire. Standing against them were Count Toumas von Schaffenacke and Lord Larkin, holding out in Sudhafen and Galamory respectively. Both were faced with a nigh impossible choice; if they held to their defensive lines then the two cities would find themselves isolated and surrounded by superior numbers. Yet marching out to meet the Drazkharov forces would leave both cities easy prey should their armies be bested in open battle.

In spite of the risks, neither von Schaffenacke nor Larkin was willing to subject their towns to the horrors of a Drazkharov siege. Moreover, both recognized that their large contingents of cavalry would be better suited to open battle where prowess and strength of arms could be made to count against the northern infantry. So it was that the armies of the south united to meet the enemy in the field. The two massive opposing forces from north and south marched in the early summer of 671PC to face off at the Habrung Forest at the eastern borders of the Kusten Plain.

The Drazkharov host numbered hundreds of loyal northern soldiers, many of whom could now be counted veterans after the years of bitter conflict with their southern neighbours. Mingled with the army was the whole spectrum of undead terrors, slinking ghouls chattering in the vanguard whilst shuffling zombie hordes brought up the rear. The skies above darken in the eclipse of shadow-black wings, as whirling Vargheists soared with three immense Terrorgheists. Count Ivan himself rode to battle mounted atop one particularly gruesome fiend, a colossal putrefying behemoth whose screams could pierce the very soul. Leading the ground forces from the front, Count Viktor rode at the head of the dread Black Knights of the Grimholt, their glittering lances promising steel-tipped death to any would dared stand against them.

Arrayed against the Drazkharov army were the stalwart southern soldiery, counting among their number many regiments of great renown, some of whose famed names counted battle honours that spanned scores of battles. The Galamory Silverspurs were at the head of Lord Larkin’s army, magnificent visions in gleaming plate armour sitting astride their regal Demigryph mounts. The Sudhafen Greatswords formed up in serried ranks, proudly bearing the fluttering colours of House von Schaffernacke before them. Behind, with the tightly packed foot troopers, rolled the fantastical Hurricanums, huge sorcerous war engines drawn by muscle-bound draught horses the size of oxen.

The Steel Count’s cavalry began the attack, hoping to pre-empt a Drazkharov strike. But as the knights emerged from the tangle of the Habdrung Forest, Ivan and his flying minions took to the skies to avoid being engaged. Meanwhile the Silverspurs went on the offensive on the right flank, aiming straight for the densely packed infantry leading Viktor’s assault. All the while the artillery train blasted the Drazkharov lines, hoping to pick off the largest undead monsters. Cheers went up from the southern battle lines as cannonballs struck home, only for glee to be dashed to dismay as the rancid flesh of brutish grave horrors knitted sinew and bone back together to heal the wounds mere moments later.

As they plummeted from the clouds, unearthly death shrieks heralded Ivan and his Terrorgheists as they hurtled down toward the field to join a Drazkharov counter-attack. The terrible screams struck the Sudhafen cavalry stone dead in an instant, leaving Rikard von Schaffernacke to complete his father’s offensive with only a handful of knights. They fought bravely and well, but the overwhelming numbers told against them as their gallant charge gave way to slugging hand to hand combat.

The Silverspurs fared little better. The ground had shaken beneath the pounding tons of beast and steel as they collided with Count Viktor’s front line as an ironclad battering ram. But the glorious attack waned to a deadlock. The furious talons and snapping beaks of the Demigryphs couldn’t grind down the sheer number of foes, while the waves of ghouls that leapt upon them fought with frustration as their grasping claws scraped and glanced off the lobstered armour plates.

A surge of hope rippled through the southern army as the legendary Sudhafen Greatswords joined the battle in earnest, their double-handed blades a shimmering blur as they hewed deep into the Drazkharov lines. However, high above the battlefield once more having seeing off the threat of the Sudhafen cavalry charge, Ivan led the Vargheists swooping down behind the lines into the midst of the Galamory artillery. With arcing talons they over-turned the cannons and scattered the gunners. The threat of the artillery now nullified, the unengaged Drazkharovs regiments held in reserve now had free reign of the battlefield.

As Count Toumas and Lord Larkin tried to reinforce their faltering assault, the Drazkharovs seized the opportunity to move to outflank their foes. The grave-eerie low moan of warhorns signalled the charge of the Grimholt knights. Viktor and his riders charged down the slope of the low hill, lances levelled. They were bearing down on the Sudhafen Greatswords who were still engaged in the dogged toe to toe grind against the Drazkharov foot soldiers in the centre. Further west, Ivan was wheeling his Terrorgheists around to attack the Silverspurs from the rear. The jaws of the Drazkharov army finally snapped shut. Caught on three sides, having witnessed the annihilation of the south’s best and bravest, the remnants of the loyalist army broke and fled.

Sudhafen and Galamory, now all but defenceless, were forced to surrender to spare the populace the depredations of a grueling siege at the hands of Ivan and Viktor. With the fall of the south the Drazkharov victory over the loyalist forces was total.

The bannermen and supporters of House of Alptraum had been decimated and forced into submission or exile. Many towns had been sacked and vast swathes of countryside lay barren following the ravages of war. Yet for all those years of civil strife and desolation that has followed, the Drazkharov vision is beginning to take form - out of the ashes of the old order a new Empire will rise.

Saturday, 1 December 2012

Refugees flee the Holy Sigmarite Empire

The fall of Sigmarheim in the spring of 670PC saw an exodus of aristocrats, once loyal to the Alptraum cause, now fleeing to safety in the south where Sudhafen and Galamory stood as the last bastions against the Drazkharov hegemony.

Close links to the Imperial fleet had made it possible to maintain the continued support of the Navy. Though the Drazkharov armies now dominated the land there was still a large and formidable Imperial presence at sea. Lord Larkin and Count von Schaffernacke had kept the ports safe from the rebels. Now they would orchestrate the evacuation of the many noble families who clamoured for passage to the safety of distant Ulrichshafen and the colonies in their attempt to escape the reach of the new masters of the Empire.

However Galamor Bay had been subject to unrelenting blockade by the corsairs of the Dominion for the duration of the war. The Imperial captains would be forced to run the gauntlet of some of the world’s most seasoned pirates.

The Navy determined to weigh the odds in its favour as best they could. With Sudhafen and Galamory now a bristling defence it would be some time before the Drazkharovs could mount an assault against the south. This bought a few valuable months in which the Navy could re-arm and up-gun every vessel at their disposal.

As early autumn mists swept over Galamor Bay the Imperial fleet captains seized their chance. Under the cover of thick morning fog, they slipped from the harbours as a single mighty armada. As one force, the colossal fleet closed on the blockade to punch through the line by sheer force of weight. Indeed, the obscuring fog allowed the Navy to accomplish this task as the Dominion ships were within firing distance before they sighted the approaching armada. The exchange was brief but fierce as Imperial vessels raked the corsairs, who were desperately trying to bring the strength of their many vessels to bear. The swift dominion ships harried the Imperials as they passed through the blockade, but the mighty cannon volleys of the Navy guns broke the line and the majority of the Imperial armada escaped to the open ocean before the full strength of the vast Dominion fleet, strung out in blockade all along the Canaur coastline, could be brought up in response.

The Imperial fleet was not without its losses. A good many went down with their vessels in the desperate escape from the bay, taking many able sailors and doomed refugees with them. But joyful was the arrival at Ulrichshafen when the fleet safely made landfall, delivered (they hoped) from the Drazkharov grasp.

Back in Sudhafen and Galamor, the defiant army defending the independent south waited anxiously for the promised return of the fleet, ready to embark at a moment’s notice to escape west to the safety of the colonies. While Lord Larkin and Count Toumas fervently shared this hope for salvation, both had already privately admitted a terrible truth; should a rescue attempt even make it back across the seas and through the Dominion blockade, it would be unlikely to appear before the arrival Drazkharov army, which messengers reported was now marching south from Sigmarheim. The two generals steeled themselves for what they hoped would not be their final battles.