Dozy from a long watch duty upon the roofed bastion tower, spearman Lin-Tzu of the Grand Imperial Army of Cathay jerked upright as the two hollow-head signal arrows shrieked and whined from the north-west. The tribal scout rider who had loosed the projectiles could be seen three hundred paces away, galloping hard around a rocky ridge as he made for the western gate castle of fortress Jian Xia, home to a garrison of ten thousand men and eight hundred horses on Cathay's western steppe frontier.
Lin-Tzu pivoted around his spear shaft and relayed the scout's arrow message with a shout towards the busy fortress yard inside the walls. It was the signal Enemies approaching, if his ear was any judge after all those drills and maneouvres. Simultaneously, a dozen other soldiers on guard duty yelled the same words. Hundreds of men suddenly abandoned their tasks and rushed for the barracks and armoury. A gong was struck in the western gate castle, which opened its triple gates to let the exhausted rider and mount inside.
The spearman couldn't hear any of the scout's agitated words at this distance. He held his post and stared out into the rolling, inhospitable landscape south of the Great Bastion far to the north. The titanic Mountains of Mourn towered at the western horizon. Lin-Tzu fingered nervously on his thick, red-painted paper scale armour. It was designed to stop arrows and crossbow bolts, and was massproduced in large glue-workshops as the cheapest armour available for the lowliest footsloggers.
His mind raced with fear, anxiety and thrill. It made him edgy. Speculations hunted each others in Lin-Tzu's alerted thoughts. Who were the enemy? They were probably migrating Ogres from the inaccessible peaks, or ambitious nomad riders of either Hobgoblin, Kurgan or Hung tribes, who had dared the easternmost passes through the Mountains of Mourn to circumvent the Great Bastion.
Or could the giant wall to the north have been breached? What about the jade Tower of Ashshair? Did it still stand? Were they alone in the wasteland? Would the Dragon Emperor send reinforcements? Could they hold?
The reality of it all dumbstruck Lin-Tzu for a long time. Four dark, smoke-belching columns appeared in the distance and snaked their way towards the fortress. He stared, and stared some more as he saw sights he could not believe. As a Cathayan, Lin-Tzu was no complete stranger to mechanisms, fireworks and mystical magic in the world, but this...
Inside the fortress, alarms were sounded, orders shouted. The senior officers' voices had taken on a different pitch as the foe approached the thick walls of Jian Xia. Weapons and harnesses clattered. Troops assembled hastily. Cannon, bolt thrower and rocket batteries were readied in a hurry. Additional ammunition baskets were moved up to the walls by men with yokes across their shoulders. Crossbowmen rushed to the battlements. Lin-Tzu was joined by twenty warriors in his tower alone.
Frantic activity ensued within the fortress, yet outside the enemy spread out sluggishly with their metal cohorts and iron behemoths, their fire and monsters, their war machines and lines of large wagons without horses or oxen. He thought he saw short men with large beards beneath their full-face helmets. Lin-Tzu could not estimate the foreigners' numbers, but even with the large contingents of chained slaves and scurrying Greenskins they appeared to be less numerous than the defenders. That was a good sign.
The fortress commander, Yen Huangshi, apparently thought so too. Noises were made as the western gate castle once again opened up. This time it let out the garrison's elite cavalry, two hundred and sixty riders, both mount and man equipped with heavy lamellar armour. The cavalry poured out of the gatehouse with a thunder of hooves and a rising dustcloud. Banners and tassels fluttered in the wind.
Lin-Tzu guessed the cavalrymen's purpose was to disrupt the enemy before they could close off the fortress and begin a siege. Cohorts of thickly-built warriors advanced to meet the Cathayan riders. The heavy cavalry reformed and adopted a diamond formation as the gates closed behind them. Then they started to trot. At a range of about fifty paces from the enemy lines, the riders lowered their lances. At thirty, they charged with shrill warcries which could be heard at the walls.
So too could the very loud bangs of firearms. Before the gunpowder smoke engulfed the enemy ranks, Lin-Tzu thought he could make out strange, flared handguns. Were they shaped like trumpets to amplify the noise and scare horses? If so, the strange men were in for a surprise. The Grand Army was thorough in its training of horses. If the mounts could not stand the booms of gunpowder, the animals had no place in a Cathayan battleline.
The cavalry formation collapsed in thrown men and thrashing horses. Lin-Tzu gasped and exchanged shocked looks with the soldiers around him behind the crenellations. The riders had fallen like wheat before a scythe. What kind of handguns could cause such devastation? Why had the enemy not used them at longer range, but instead risked a charge?
The attack barely hit home, but the few foolhardy or bravehearted survivors who crashed into the enemy infantry could not shatter their formations in the least. The foes stood their ground even when horses slammed into them. Axes and other weapons rose and hacked down the cavalrymen methodically. It was soon over.
There was then a large commotion inside the walls amongst the privates. Officers stomped around and barked down their subordinates' rising panic. Discipline was eventually restored, but by then a solitary iron Daemon approached the western gatehouse on grinding wheels of steel. It belched smoke, hissed and clanked loudly as it went. No order to fire upon it was given from the Cathayan officers, but Lin-Tzu could see the fortress commander and his splendid retinue climb the neighbouring stretch of wall.
One wall cannon team's leader lost his nerve and had his crew ignite the loaded piece. With a roar, the artillery projectile bunched into the front end of the smoking behemoth, yet only buckled it. Commander Yen yelled and ordered the artillery crews to wait for his signal.
A tall shape climbed down from the rear platform of the wagon and walked stately towards the gatehouse. No, it wasn't a tall man. Lin-Tzu peered, and saw that it was in fact a short yet rotund figure with the tallest hat the spearman had ever seen in his life. The dwarf was followed by two metal-masked guards in heavy plate armour. Fifteen paces before the gatehouse, the trio stopped.
What happened next would haunt Lin-Tzu to the end of his days. The hat-wearing figure did not need to cup his hands around his mouth to be heard. Instead, he spoke with strong lungs and a loud, throaty voice which must have been amplified by evil spirits so that his words could be heard all across the fortress. The volume was unnatural, like thunder given a tounge. Lin-Tzu involuntarily made gestures and motions with his hands to ward off Daemons.
Yet more disturbing than the strength of the voice was the almost perfect Cathayan language which the foreign enemy spoke as he gave the garrison of fortress Jian Xia its first, last and only offer to surrender:
"I speak to the men on the walls, the men who will have to drink their urine and eat excrement behind the battlements. Cast out your leaders and surrender the fortress to us, or suffer a siege of hunger to quench all hope and end life itself in thirst and starvation.
I speak to the men on the walls, the men who will have their bones crushed and skulls cracked upon the battlements. Cast out your leaders and surrender the fortress to us, or suffer a siege of bombardment by hellfire to strangle life itself in flames, ash and smoke.
I speak to the men on the walls, the men who will have their limbs cut and their skin flayed when we break down your battlements. Cast out your leaders and surrender the fortress to us, or suffer a siege of carnage to butcher life itself in a massacre of blood and Chaos.
Will the men on the walls surrender their leaders and their fortress to us? Or will the men on the walls suffer a siege to be feared for all time? Make your choice now."
Lin-Tzu realized his teeth clattered when the Chaos Dwarf had finished speaking. Unlike the private spearman, the grizzled fortress commander soon regained his composure and declined the offer with defiance and insults. It was a decision he would regret gravely before his backbreaking death in the slave pits of Zharr-Naggrund. As would the ten thousand men under his command.