(OOC thread here)
A Wintry Welcome
The high-sided carts rattled along the rutted road, the bare trees to either side raising thickets of twigs like black, skeletal fingers against the clear sky. It had been a cloudless night, and the air was bitterly cold: the shadows of the Drakwald to either side seemed almost friendly, since the fathomless sprawl of the forest around the little caravan offered the only shelter from the wind. The carthorses plodded onwards with their great heads bowed, heavy hooves disturbing slicks of wet, dead leaves – the last leavings of autumn.
There were two carts, and two coachmen. The one who had named himself simply as “Hans” was in the lead, a face as lined and sour as a pickled lemon set with a fixed determination on the road ahead. The second man had said his name was Jurgen Mettrinker – a red-faced, rough-skinned man with a black, bushy beard and eyebrows to match. He seemed of a friendlier disposition than his colleague, and was engaged in an enthusiastic attempt to get the group who were riding behind him to divulge some morsel of gossip.
“You folks ever been to Delberz before?” the coachman asked. One of his passengers shook his head.
“Big place. Bigger now, with all them folks what ran from the fighting. Can’t say I blame ‘em.”
The man took a small swig from a flask at his belt.
“Goin’ to get bigger still, too, if ol’ Kemperbad has his way. The Church has got a lot ridin’ on these here shipments, y’know. Well, ‘course you do, that’s why they hired you. Goin’ to be the biggest Temple to Sigmar for leagues around. Maybe even as far as Altdorf.” He took another swig. “Biggest piece o’ luck for them, the Baron gettin’ hitched. I suppose you folks would know about that?”
Another shake of the head. Jurgen looked slightly disappointed.
“Neurich, I heard her name was. Elena Neurich. Very pretty, but her blood weren’t blue, so the Baron’s chums got in a bit of a strop. That was, ‘till they heard her daddy were so rich he could practic’lly buy their fancy manors from under ‘em.” The coachman cackled. “In she comes with a dowry fit fer the Emperor’s daughter, and within a couple o’ weeks, the Baron’s givin’ it all to von Kemperbad’s cathedral, ‘cos she wants it so. ”
Jurgen grinned widely.
“It’s all the same with these high-class ladies, eh? Gettin’ married off to men twice their age, and as soon as the ring’s on their finger, they’ve conveniently found religion.” He paused for a moment, a tinge of caution creeping into his voice. “Not that I’m not a religious man meself, you understand. Say my prayers every day, like the priest says.”
“Will you shut it, Jurgen?” muttered Hans, from the front. “I can’t hear myself think with your blethering.”
“And a good thing that is too!” retorted Jurgen, merrily. “You’d be bored to death!”
Hans seemed to stifle a snarl.
“In case you ain’t noticed, Herr Mettrinker,” he said, carefully and slowly, “the reason you’ve got passengers to jabber to is ‘cos the last two shipments what came down this road have gone missing. So maybe you could lay off the bottle for ten minutes and keep your mind on the job?”
Jurgen made a rude face at the man’s back, and took another, defiant swig from his flask. “Miserable bugger,” he muttered to himself under his breath. Lowering his voice, he turned to the passenger on his left.
“Where’re you from, then?”
Ahead, there was a sudden rustle – a swathe of fallen leaves exploded upwards in a cloud of dead vegetation, the thick rope that had been hidden beneath it pulling taut at chest-height across the road. The coarse hawser had been tied in irregular knots around a collection of sharpened branches and rusted iron spikes, presenting a wall of ugly points to the oncoming carts. Hans’ horse whinnied in alarm, turning aside and making the heavily-laden cart’s wheels slip briefly on the wet leaves – his reactions dulled, Jurgen nearly drove his own straight into its back, heaving hard on the reins at the last moment. The man’s torrent of curses was blotted out by a sound from the darkness of the trees – the braying of some wild beast, unsettlingly close.
Emerging from the undergrowth with a crackle of twigs snapping underhoof, the creature loomed into view, a pale spectre beneath the shadows of the forest: its fur was a silky white, its unusual cleanliness a striking contrast to the filthy berdish axe the monster hefted in its disturbingly human hands, and the blackened, almost certainly looted mail tunic that hung around its ribcage. The sight of the caravan’s guards seemed to give it pause, its bestial face contorting in a yellow-fanged snarl – behind it, a smaller, almost child-like mutant was grimacing and capering in the shadow of its master, jabbing in the direction of the carts with a crude spear. Ahead, on either side of the road, horned shadows like the first beast were looming out of the trees, metal glinting in their hands.
Seeing the weapons in the humans’ hands, the leader made up its mind – pointing its rusted blade towards the carts, it brayed a command to its followers before swinging forwards into the charge itself...