“She’s called the Bösewicht,” said Captain Fuchs. She is a vessel of a type originally designed in Tilea, and known in that land as a brigantino. I believe the word translates from their language as ‘skirmishing ship’, or something similar. Very forward-thinking people, the Tileans. We in the north call vessels of her type a brig. She was built in Marienburg, you know, paid off a few years ago, which is when I got her.”
Mrs Starkleiter leaned over the jollyboat’s gunwale to get a better look. Her movement rocked the little craft and old Mother Kessel, who had been nauseous from the moment she had clambered aboard, groaned miserably. She leaned over the side and her daughter began fussing around her. Max and Hermann, the two sailors pulling at the oars, sat in silent admiration of the younger woman’s ample posterior.
Jürgen, holding the tiller, frowned at them. “Eyes front, lads. Steady as she goes.”
“How big is she?” asked Mrs Starkleiter. The sailors sniggered to themselves until they caught Jürgen’s stare.
“She measures around seventeen yards in length, near five yards across her beam, and displaces about one hundred and fifty tons, using the calculations favoured by the Marienburger mercantile guilds,” replied Fuchs.
The sailors bit their lips.
The vessel they were approaching was low to the water and rounded in shape, her rakish lines quite at odds with the cumbersome merchant cogs anchored out in the deep water. Her hull was constructed of dark wood and was almost entirely free of decoration, save for an unpainted figurehead at the prow depicting a bearded man brandishing a cosh.
She was built to the most modern of designs, incorporating all of the latest ideas, and Fuchs was intensely proud of her. “You can tell she’s a brig by the masts, you know.” he volunteered. “There’s two of ‘em, as you can see, and along with the rig, that’s what makes her one. A brig, that is.” He coughed awkwardly.
“Really? What is that third mast sticking out from the front?”
“Madam, that is called a bowsprit, and the front of the ship is called the bow.”
“And how many men does she take to sail?”
“When she was in naval service she was used as a packet boat. I believe she carried a complement of some sixty souls, though she had more guns then, and most of the people were actually soldiers, marines if you will. I have a crew of nine, including myself, which is sufficient to run her in all weathers. As occasion demands I take on more, but I rarely sail with less.”
Entertaining the wives of the local dignitaries never hurt, Fuchs thought to himself. A good impression went a long way when it came to securing a deal. And besides, it made for a diverting entertainment.
The jollyboat came alongside the vessel beneath the forechains, and Max fended them clear of the wale with his oar. They eased the little craft to the waist and Jürgen took hold of a line that was lowered overboard.
“Ahoy there” he called.
Lukas’ face appeared at the cathead and grinned down at them. “Hallo, we’re ready and prepared.”
Fuchs scaled the side and slid over the gunwale, and a few moments later a painter seat, which had been rigged to the mainyard, was swung down. Mrs Starkleiter perched herself on it and rocked herself back and forth like a child on a swing.
The sailors hauled her up to the level of the deck, then manoeuvred her inboard. As she was gently lowered the Captain offered his hand and assisted her in a graceful dismount. For a somewhat portly woman of a certain age she was surprisingly spry.
Mother Kessel watched her friend disappear. “I’m not doing that” she moaned. “It isn’t dignified.”
“Nonsense, Mum,” scolded her daughter as the seat returned. The old woman was bustled into position and sat with her hands clamped to the ropes. She screwed up her eyes and mumbled prayers of deliverance as she was pulled up. The girl followed, and once the party were aboard the boat was made secure. A gull wheeled overhead, cawing raucously.
“Welcome,” beamed the Captain. “Perhaps some refreshments in my cabin?”
“That would be most pleasant” said Mother Kessel. She still looked queasy.
“Don’t be silly, Ulrike,” snapped Mrs Starkleiter, staring up at the maze of lines and shrouds and stays and braces above her. “Mr Fuchs, I demand that you show me around at once. I very much desire to see the whole workings of this boat.”
“She’s a ship, Mrs Starkleiter. And it would be a delight. If you have any questions I will strive to answer them.”
He had opened the floodgates. She began to enquire about everything, though he was barely able to provide an answer before another query was presented. At first it was gratifying, but before long it became exhausting.
Fuchs started the tour with the capstan, located towards the front of the ship’s waist, and explained its use as a hoist and winch. He then pointed out the two brass cannon, one to starboard and the other to larboard, both lashed down securely and covered by oiled sailcloth as proof against the damp.
Once the weaponry had been fully appreciated they went through to the forecastle cabin. The younger Kessel woman made a fuss over the little galley stove while her mother inspected the contents of the ration chests, glaring disapprovingly at the selection of spices and herbs that she found there. Mrs Starkleiter left them to it and made her way out onto the beakhead. She regarded the two heads with some distaste, then fixed her eyes on the mist-shrouded shore. The Captain was glad of a moment’s peace.
Once she had drunk in the view they headed back through to the waist, collecting the mother and daughter on the way. Fuchs climbed down the steep companion ladder into the hold, then helped the party down, a task not eased by their full skirts. Mrs Starkleiter managed the descent with a minimum of assistance, but the two Kessel women made a meal of the whole affair.
“This is the lower deck, or the orlop,” said the Captain once they were all safely footed. He took the lantern from its bracket by the steps and held it up high.
“Ooh, goodness, what is that terrible smell?” asked young Miss Kessel, covering her nose with her handkerchief.
“The bilge, madam, below these planks on which we stand. The ballast is broken Marienburg bricks, and foul water collects among them. It is pumped out every few hours, but the residue, I’m sorry to say, does rather stink.”
At the head of the deck were compartments containing lamp oil, seasoned timber, pitch, oakum, nails, blocks, and all of the other minutiae required to keep the vessel working. Behind them were the sail lockers and stores of cordage. Barrels of fresh water, salt beef and dry biscuit were stacked up and lashed into place.
Next were the cable tiers, the long hawsers snaking from their neat coils up over the bitts and out through the hawse pipes. Fuchs pointed out how the thick rope could be wound around the capstan shaft to allow the anchors to be raised.
They continued aft, past the heel of the mainmast set into the mast step, and came to the blackpowder magazine. It consisted of a compartment lying beneath a raised step in the deck, and was accessed from above by a hatch. The Captain described the little chamber in detail but refused to open the cover, for fear of a stray spark igniting the volatile powder and blowing them and the ship to fragments.
“If we should have a fire aboard,” he explained, “this compartment can be flooded, which will stop an explosion.”
He lingered at the shot locker, pointing out the differences between round shot, chain shot, and grape, and allowed a detailed examination of the armoury and its range of muskets, pistols and cutlasses. Mother Kessel was rather dismissive. “My husband’s gun cabinet is larger than that,” she exclaimed. Her daughter shushed her.
They stopped to survey the tiller and the steering gear, and when they were done the Captain led them up the aft companion ladder into the wardroom. Mother Kessel plopped down onto one of the benches and threw up her arms.
“Mr Fuchs, I have seen more than enough. Knees and beams and timbers, goodness, my head is spinning. I swear I can’t go another step.” She turned to her daughter. “Klara, dear, would you remain here with me?”
Lukas was assigned to see to the needs of the two women, and in truth Fuchs would have been happy to join them, but Mrs Starkleiter was not yet satisfied.
She headed back out to the waist, paused to look into the steersman’s hutch and enquired about the whipstaff and the binnacle. She scaled the ladder up onto the quarterdeck, studied the mountings for the swivel guns, and eyed the poop cabin, bare save for an empty cot. Finally she made it onto the steeply sloping poopdeck and up to the iron and horn lantern at the taffrail. Fuchs followed her.
From their lofty vantage point the Captain indicated each of the masts and named the yardarms that crossed them. He pointed out the tops, the crosstrees, the shrouds, the stays and the braces, and explained the various elements of the standing and running rigging. His guest had yet more questions and expressed an interest in being hoisted up to the maintop, but Fuchs, just a shade too hastily, pointed out the lateness of the hour and suggested that they should retire. Reluctantly Mrs Starkleiter agreed.
At last they entered the great cabin where Mother Kessel and her daughter sat sipping warmed punch from turned wooden beakers. The prospect of a hot drink and company, however, did nothing to deter the woman. She had spotted the little doors leading out onto the stern gallery and swung open the one to larboard. She eased herself through and edged along the walkway. Fuchs, like the good host he was, doggedly followed.
A few minutes later she re-entered the room through the starboard door and the Captain followed, a pained expression on his face. “Now, where’s my cup?” she asked cheerfully.
The cat struggled down the low stone step into the little kitchen with a huge rat clamped between its jaws. It’s prize, still very much alive, wriggled and squirmed and managed to get loose. The cat watched it for a second and sprung, pinning it with its mouth. It rearranged its grip and straddled its catch, and then stumbled across the polished flags as bow-legged as a saddle-sore pistolier.
Once it had reached the hearth the moggy released its prey and sat down, folding its tail neatly around its legs and casually washing a paw. The terrified rodent, panting in tiny gasps, lay in front of it.
“What’s the matter with you?” said Granny Schmidt. She struggled up out of her rocking chair and took hold of her walking stick. She hobbled around the scrubbed table, blinking short-sightedly, and peered down.
“What’s that you’ve got there?”
Meow! The cat had a smug look on its face.
The old woman poked at the rat with her stick. It squeaked loudly and dashed away. She shrieked and jerked backwards, only just keeping her balance.
The cat, all claws and teeth and malign intent, pounced after the creature, snatching it up in its jaws. Horrified, the old lady wobbled after it, waving her stick. The cat, none too keen on receiving a good prodding, disappeared under the table.
Something caught her attention on the narrow windowsill. The rat!
“How did you get up there?”
She looked reproachfully towards the cat’s hiding place and smacked her gums. “Some mouser you are, if you let it go again.”
She propped her walking stick against the table, shuffled over to the corner by the hearth, and took a hold of her broom. She turned carefully and squinted at the little brown beast, which was sitting on its hind legs and preening its whiskers.
Granny Schmidt swung the brush at the creature and it leaped away, landing with a plop on the floor. She shrieked again as it darted towards her and scurried over her shoe. She flailed wildly with the broom, stumbled, and fell heavily against the dresser. Crockery tumbled and smashed on the stony ground.
The cat dispatched its catch with a flick of its head, breaking the little creature’s neck, then raced off in pursuit of the new target.
Another of the little monstrosities appeared, scrabbling towards the open door into the main room. Granny Schmidt cried out again and hopped about frantically as it scampered past her, treading heavily on one of the broken plates. Her foot skidded away and she fell to the ground, dropping her stick.
More and more of the rats were appearing, boiling out of the cracks in the walls.
The cat, seriously outnumbered, leaped onto the table, bounded across it and jumped onto the dresser’s counter. It came face to face with another of the huge rodents, thought better about a confrontation, and sprang up onto the top of the heavy sideboard. And there it sat, licking its lips nervously, its tail puffed and flicking.
She tried to get up but her legs refused to work. She moaned weakly, flailing her arms in front of her face as the verminous swarm engulfed her. Suddenly she tensed. Her eyes bulged and her tongue lolled, and a series of convulsions racked her spindly frame.
Mrs Lieber, Granny Schmidt’s next-door-neighbour, rushed from her house out onto the mist-shrouded track that led off of the Feldweg. She peered to the left and right but there was no one else in sight. Even the old woman’s cottage was an indistinct grey shadow in the murk.
Another crash rang out.
Heide, her little daughter, trotted to the door behind her. “Mama, what’s happening?”
“I don’t know, sweetheart. Come along now.”
She took hold of the girl’s hand and walked carefully along to the house. She tried the latch, but the door was bolted from the inside.
“Hello, Agi?” She hammered on the wood with her fist. There was no reply.
She knelt beside the little girl. “Heide, I need you to run to the square and find some men. Bring them back here as fast as you can, you understand?” The child nodded and dashed off as fast as her little legs could carry her.
“Hurry now”, called her mother after her, then turned back to the house, beating on the door again. “Agi!”
Very shortly afterwards the girl returned with three watchmen, who she had chanced across a little way down the road. Mrs Lieber, keen to be of assistance, quickly related all that she had heard. The watchmen nodded and their senior man drew his pistol.
“Right-ho,” he said, “stand back please.” He cocked the weapon, then squared himself up and charged the door. It burst inward and he stumbled through, only remaining on his feet because he collided with the heavy kitchen table.
The place was alive with rats. The verminous creatures streamed through the ruined doorframe, spilling out onto the lane in a wave of brown fur. Everyone hopped and shouted as they surged past, Mrs Lieber snatching up her shrieking child before it could come to any harm. Within moments the mass had disappeared, with only one or two stragglers visible. Soon even these had vanished.
The other two watchmen cautiously entered and joined their companion, who was leaning over the body of the old lady. She was covered in bites and scratches, quite dead.
The watchmen near jumped out of their skin. It was the cat, still sat atop the dresser and watching them nervously.
The evening was drawing in by the time the jollyboat had returned the party to shore. A pony and trap had been sent to the quayside to meet them, and when promises of return visits had been made and the ebullient thanks had finally ceased it was quite dark. Fuchs felt drained.
“Well, Jürgen, do you think that was worth a hold full of smoked fish?” he asked as they clattered away.
The mate shrugged his shoulders and scratched his nose. “Dunno, Sir. Probably.” He paused for a long moment. “That woman, the one who gave you the runaround, begging your pardon. The mayor’s wife …”
“Yes, her. Seemed very interested in the ship. Why do you think that was?”
“Oh, I see what you mean. Nothing sinister, Mr Hirsch, nothing sinister. Its because she’s got brains, you see.”
Jürgen frowned. “Captain, I don’t understand.”
“Look around you.” The Captain gestured broadly at the squalid warehouses and the dank wharves. “This village isn’t exactly the intellectual capital of the province, is it? If I were in her position I’d have made the most of a distraction, too.”
The mate grunted and nodded.
Fuchs pressed his palm against his forehead and wiped his hand down his cheek. “I need a drink.”
“No, I think not,” he replied after a few moments thought. “I’ve spent quite enough time with these good folk for one day. Once we’re back aboard I shall take brandy in my cabin, I fancy.”
“Right you are, Sir.”
A rat paddled frantically across the greasy waters of the creek. It held its whiskers above the surface, its eyes glinting red in the mist-filtered moonlight. Its nose twitched, guiding it towards the tempting odours wafting from the jetties ahead.
The creature brushed against an anchor cable holding a great sheer-sided cog in place. It managed to get a hold with its front paws and scrambled to pull itself out of the water. The massive cord was thick with algae and slime and the rat lost its tenuous grip, tugged gently away by the sluggish current.
It swam along the side of the hull and rounded the bows of the vessel, bobbing up and down in the chop, then struck off towards the dark pilings lining the shore. Chance brought it up against another cable, this one anchoring a sturdy coaster. It scrambled onto the topside of the line, stopped to shake a strand of green weed from a hind paw, sniffed the dank air, and then started upwards.
The vessel shifted slightly on its moorings, creaking gently. The rope gradually took up the weight and pulled taut.
As the line tensed the rat scrabbled for its footing, slipped, and performed an acrobatic spiral in the air. Its sharp claws found purchase in the rough hemp, leaving it hanging upside down above the water. Unfazed, it continued its climb.
A few moments more brought it up to the hawsehole. It clambered back onto the top of the thick rope and slipped through the opening, dropping to the rough deck with the softest of thumps. It paused for a moment among the coiled cordage, sniffing the air and surveying its surroundings, then scurried off along the scuppers.
There was a hiss and a flash, and a pained eeek! cut short. The blade thudded as it hit home, pinning the little creature to the planks.
A sailor, clad in a thick coat and oversized woollen hat, stepped from the scant shelter of the forecastle door and leaned down to retrieve his knife. He pitched the twitching carcass off of the blade and into the water, hawked loudly, and spat overboard.
“Vermin” he mumbled, his breath misting in the chill air, and wiped the steel clean on the leg of his filthy breeches. He surveyed the darkness for a few moments, found nothing of any interest, and ambled back into cover.
The moonlight caught a pair of eyes behind the larboard gunwale. They gleamed a bloody red, narrowed, then withdrew into the shadow.
KER-RASH! The door splintered under the weight of the militiaman’s shoulder and the noise echoed through the mist.
The squad charged into Willi Schwarz’s shutter-darkened cottage, closely followed by Brother Hans. Willi was sprawled face down on his squalid bed, still fully clothed except for one shoe, and smelled as though he had soiled himself. A half-empty bottle made of dark glass lay beside him.
The noise of the trooper’s entry had just filtered through to Willi’s addled brain, but he was finding it impossible to react.
One of the militia took a firm hold of the scruff of his neck and hauled him to his feet. He sagged and retched slightly, disorientated by the sudden movement, but he found his feet. He looked distinctly green and the early morning light filtering through the broken doorway made him squint.
“Don’t mind if we take a look around, do you?” asked Brother Hans.
“Ugh…” was the most comprehensive answer he could manage. He wobbled and steadied himself against a wall, fighting a wave of nausea.
The militiamen started opening the cupboards and rummaging around in the linen chest. One of them turned over the bed, revealing a sack that proved to contain no less than nine bottles, all filled with liquid.
“What have we got here then?” said Brother Hans, in a mock-surprised tone of voice. “You’ll coming with us.”
One of the troopers picked up the sack and he and his burly companions escorted Willi into the street. Brother Hans had one final check around, pulled the remains of the door closed, and joined them. A number of Willi’s neighbours had appeared at their windows, watching the early morning spectacle.
Willi suddenly doubled over and vomited, issuing a gush of filthy liquid. He coughed and spat, retched again, and wiped his face on his sleeve. “You done?” asked the trooper with the sack. Willi nodded and wobbled unsteadily to his feet.
They marched him to the square, to the horse trough outside the stables at the back of Die Silbermünze. When they reached it two of the militiamen picked Willi up and dunked him into the water.
He gasped and thrashed and came up for air but Brother Hans submerged him again. He surfaced once more and the soldiers lifted him out. He coughed and spluttered, streaming water and shivering violently from the cold.
Brother Hans sniffed him. “That’s better.”
They continued on to the chapel, entering through the side door that led into the vestry. Brother Franz was busy with his ablutions, stripped to the waist and shaving his head. His muscular frame was dark with hair and the skin on his back was laced with old scars. Brother Otto stood nearby, a towel draped over his arm and holding a mirror.
The Priest turned and stared darkly at the cowed and bedraggled figure in front of him. Brother Hans took the sack and nodded to the militiamen, who saluted him and left. He closed the door behind them.
“He had ten bottles,” said Brother Hans, “though he had drunk almost half of one of them. We found them under his bed. Looks like Marienburg geniver.”
The Priest shook his head. “Ten bottles of geniver. That’s a lot for someone of your position!” He waved his razor dangerously. “And where did you decide to hide them? Under your bed! The first place anyone would look!”
“Tell me,” Interrupted Brother Franz, “where did you get them?” Brother Otto handed the Priest the towel and he dabbed at his scalp and temples.
“Er, off of one of the sailors on that boat about two weeks back,” answered Willi, “when we was bringing in that load of cloth. Real bargain. Traded ‘em for my old pistol and a couple of blades.”
“You got them when you were in my employ?”
Willi nodded miserably.
“I will not have it,” growled the Priest. “Nothing comes through without me knowing about it. Would you like to know why?
Willi nodded again.
“Its because you aren’t smart enough to keep your mouth shut or cover your tracks, that’s why. How do you think we discovered what you were doing? Then, before you know it, there’s revenue officers all over, they ask you lots of difficult questions, it leads back to me, and then life gets harder for everyone.”
“Sorry, Mr Schwarz, is not going to be enough.”
Brother Hans picked up one of the bottles and eased the cork out with the dip of his dagger. He smelt the neck and recoiled. “Is this what you’ve been drinking?”
Brother Hans replaced the cork. “It’s a miracle you haven’t gone blind. This isn’t geniver, it’s rot-gut of the worst kind.”
The Priest looked across to Brother Hans. “Take him outside and teach him a lesson.”
Captain Fuchs adored maps. He sat in his leather-padded chair, lost in the charts and plans spread before him on the table. They all depicted the northern parts of the Empire, particularly that region known as Nordland, and the southern and eastern reaches of the Sea of Claws. Some were on a larger scale, showing in detail the coastal flats disparagingly named Die Schlammländer, The Mudlands, by outsiders.
The topmost depicted the section of coast known as the Beträchtlichsalzsumpf, though almost all referred to it as the Weitflach. Coast was perhaps a generous term when describing the mist-cloaked expanse of streams, sodden marsh and tidal mudflats that almost imperceptibly merged with the great shallow expanse of ocean called the Flachmeer.
The largest river flowing through this maze of shifting waterways and lakes was the slow and silty Braunführung, rivalled in size only by the equally sluggish Schleimigbach. The two, along with their countless un-named and ever changing companions, emptied into a wide bay called the Feinkohlemündung. On the higher land the Gebremsterwald, a wind-sculpted forest of dwarf willow and birch, grew in profusion.
He took a sip of his wine.
The chart showed the Flußstraße, the main highway, which ran north from the interior following the Braunführung. At Kohlstadt, the largest community in the area, it crossed the river on a great stone bridge built at the expense of the Electors of Middenland.
A few miles further north it became the Küstestraße, the coast road. This track led east to Schlammigerdorf, a little fishing port on the banks of the Schleimigbach and the current anchorage of the Bösewicht. From there it continued on to the tiny hamlets of Rauchendorf, Trockener, and Osthügel. Other than that, the land was little more than isolated farms and barren wilderness.
Fuchs grinned to himself as he studied. The people of this area were infamous for their terse and direct nature, and the place-names only served to reinforce the myth. They certainly didn’t waste time with notions of romance or mystery. No Valley of the Flowers or Glade of Happiness here, that was for certain.
Back to the job in hand.
Fuchs selected a furled chart from a tall rack and unrolled it, weighing down the edges with his inkstand and the oil lamp. It showed the upper reaches of the Schleimigbach in great detail, marking the depths of the channels and the lie of the shore.
He selected a sharp pencil, a straight rule and a pair of brass dividers, and used them to mark out a series of precise crosses on a blank section of the vellum. He set about transferring the soundings and sightings from his notebooks onto the map, carefully checking the calculations for each. In his spidery hand he carefully noted the depths and bottom compositions against the marked points.
There was a soft thump from outside the shuttered windows.
The noise was almost imperceptible. Leopold Fuchs, however, was a man who had stood in the line of battle, and senses honed by years of soldiering and action tingled. He carefully put down his pencil and drew his pistol from the sash around his waist.
There was a muted creak from just behind the door into the wardroom, a chamber he knew to be empty. His stomach suddenly felt hollow.
He caught the faintest trace of a smell, a strange musty odour quite unlike the normal stinks and vapours that rose from the murky creek or the foul waters in the bilge. It made the hairs on the back of his neck stand up.
He cocked the pistol’s lock, crooked his arm, and rested the weapon on his shoulder. There was another creak from beyond the shutters, but the Captain’s attention was wholly focused on the door handle. It slowly turned.
The door was locked.
The cabin suddenly seemed very dim and cramped, and the shadows loomed large indeed. An airless silence gripped Fuchs.
There was another slight creak from within the wardroom.
The door shattered inwards. Fuchs jumped and tensed, wide-eyed, his heart pounding. A shape rolled to a crouch, silhouetted by the wardroom light amid a cloud of fragments and splinters and drops of water.
The reek of marsh and mildew was overpowering.
The dripping monstrosity was, in its form, manlike. It was perhaps a little larger than a child, but stocky, and with a sinuous naked tail that doubled its length. It was for the most part covered in wet black fur, and was clad in saturated leather and rags that sculpted themselves to the contours of it’s muscular frame. It supported itself on three of its limbs, but the fourth grasped a long, wickedly curved knife.
At its waist swung a pendant suspended from a braid of woven hair. It was a rat’s skull, with tiny red jewels set into the eye sockets. The motion was almost hypnotic.
It moved forward slightly. The lamplight illuminated a sleek almond-shaped head dominated by a toothy gape fronted by long yellow incisors. It twitched a rodent nose that sported long whiskers and shook ragged ears festooned with golden rings. It peered from side to side, sniffed, then fixed on Fuchs with its beady, soulless eyes.
The … thing … seemed as surprised to find him sitting in his chair as he was to behold it, and for an endless second Fuchs sat, enthralled by the exquisite detail. Another creak from behind the shutters broke the moment.
Fuchs fired the pistol over his shoulder, never once taking his eyes from the monstrosity in front of him. The lead ball smashed through the wooden screens and thudded into something behind them. A great puff of white sulphurous smoke billowed and hung in the air, and a shower of glowing sparks tumbled down the front of his doublet. The roar of the report left his ears whistling.
With a gurgling hiss the creature sprang.
As it leaped he hurled the discharged pistol with all of his might. The monster, already committed to its move, made an attempt to spin out of the way, but the brass-shod butt caught it just below the eye, impacting with a crunch. The beast crashed to the deck, its nose clipping the corner of the table as it fell. The gun clattered off into a corner.
Fuchs sat absolutely still and ever so slowly breathed out.
The shot and the commotion had woken up the ship. Fuchs listened as his crew tumbled from their beds and dashed towards his cabin. The first to arrive was Josef, the carpenter, who had been on watch. He peered in through the ruined door, then pushed at the splintered wood with his finger. The lock had not survived the impact, and what was left creaked open.
He sharply drew breath when he saw the thing on the floor.
The other sailors crowded into the wardroom and jostled to get a look, though none broke protocol and entered the Captain’s cabin. The last man to arrive was Jürgen, the mate. He muscled his way to the front.
“What in the name of Morr is that thing?” he said, prodding the creature gingerly with the toe of his boot. It twitched, and he backed off, mumbling prayers under his breath. The sailors grinned at his discomfort.
“Yes, I’m fine, thank you all for asking,” said Fuchs sarcastically. “Please feel free to come in.”
“Don’t just stand there gawking,” barked Jürgen, frowning at the men. “Sepp, Ernst, get some cord and tie that thing up. And be quick about it. Hermann, Max, everyone else, arm yourselves and search this tub from stem to stern. Stay in pairs, and shout if you see anything.”
As the sailors rushed to their duties Jürgen’s hand shot out and caught hold of a fistful of shirt, holding back the cabin-boy. “Not you, Lukas,” he said, letting go his grip “You’ve got a very important job to do. You’re going to guard our friend here.”
Jürgen opened his belt pouch and retrieved his blackjack. ”Take this”, he said, “if he even so much as twitches, whack him right between the eyes.” He handed the cosh to the wide-eyed lad, who took hold, gave it a few practice swings, and then hunkered down beside the prone form.
Fuchs eased himself out of the chair and nodded at the mate. “Jürgen, you’re with me”, he said. “I got something, out on the gallery.”
He retrieved his pistol from the corner, put it on the table, and selected a short, thick-bladed cutlass from a rack on the wall. He patted Lukas on the shoulder, nodded to the mate. He opened the tiny door in the larboard bulkhead, his lungs filling with the damp night air, and edged out onto the narrow walkway.
The older sailor opened the matching door on the starboard side, his dagger in his hand, and clambered through.
Fuchs paused and listened carefully. Silence, save for the waves slapping against the hull and the slow, lazy tolling of a distant bell. He edged himself to the corner, the weapon held before him, and stole a glance onto the stern part of the balcony. There was just enough light from the cabin to illuminate a bulky shape hanging over the rail.
He approached cautiously and prodded it with the tip of his blade, then grinned at Jürgen as his head appeared around the corner. “It’s dead, I think,” he said. “Looks rather like the thing in there. Lets get it inside.”
Sepp and Ernst returned in double-quick time, armed to the teeth and suitably equipped with ropes and twine and large sheets of canvas. For Lukas it wasn’t a moment too soon, and once they had relieved him of his prisoner he hurried to the shutters at the stern and opened them. The Captain and the mate manhandled the soaked, bestial corpse through the window and slung it onto the deck, climbing in behind it. A quick examination revealed a ragged and bloody wound in the neck.
The sailors set about trussing the creatures, stripping them of their weapons and equipment as they did so. Once they were suitably bound the bodies were hefted onto the squares of sailcloth, which were gathered up to form crude sacks and tied off.
“Hoist ‘em up on the mainyard and leave ‘em dangling,” said Fuchs. “We’ll deal with them in the morning. If the live one gives any trouble then hit it. And we’re posting double sentries from now on.”
“Captain, take a look at this,” said Ernst. “It’s a map case. The rat-thing that you shot had it tucked inside its rags.”
The captain took the damp tube. It was made of waxed brown hide and had a monogram, F.H., punched into the side. The lid was tight fitting and gave a hollow pop as it was opened, revealing a tarred interior that was quite dry and totally empty.
Fuchs frowned, then looked at the charts and papers spread out on his table.
Jürgen climbed through the hatch from the forecastle cabin onto the beakhead. He took hold of the forestay, stepped up onto the gunwale and scaled the gammoning. Settling himself astride the bowsprit, he took a deep breath and cupped his hands around his mouth.
“Ahoy, Kaufmann von Altdorf” he bellowed. She was the closer of the two vessels anchored in the deep water, and the only one he could make out.
“Ahoy there” came back a muffled reply.
“Did you have any trouble in the night?”
“None. We heard a shot, though.”
“That was us,” yelled Jürgen. “All dealt with. And the Zweites Wagnis? Have you heard from her?”
“Aye, she’s sound.”
“Manann watch you” he called, and clambered back down.
The shouting woke Captain Fuchs. He lay perfectly still for a moment, trying to work out what was happening, then glanced round the room. The great cabin was dark, though a little daylight filtered in through the shutters.
He untangled himself from the blanket, clambered out of his cot, and stretched to loosen the knotted muscles in his shoulders. He was still in the clothes he had worn during last night’s action, and they had twisted uncomfortably while he slept. He stripped and washed, shivering in the chill air, and pulled on clean garments.
Once he was dressed he opened the shutters a crack to check the weather. It was a miserable grey morning, still and calm, and the air was filled with a drizzly mist that dampened noise and soaked through to the skin.
He lingered for a few moments over the ragged hole in the panel, gently stroking the splintered wood with the tip of his finger. He drew breath, closed his eyes, and mumbled a prayer of thanks to any god that was listening. It was blind luck that had guided his bullet to its target.
No time to waste pondering what might have been. He selected a pair of stout seaboots, slipped a long stiletto down beside his right ankle, and slung a baldric supporting a short cutlass over his shoulder. He checked his pistol and tucked it into the sash around his waist, jammed a broad-rimmed felt hat onto his head, and wrapped himself in a heavy boat-cloak. His toilet complete, he strode out through the wardroom onto the waist.
Vague echoes carried across the misty water, the sounds of the town waking up.
“Morning, Cap’n Sir” said Lukas, peering out from the forecastle door.
“Good morning, young man” replied Fuchs, treading carefully on the slippery planks. He looked up at the two bundles hanging from the yardarm. “Our prizes have given us no trouble, I trust.”
“No Sir” answered Lukas. “Not a squeak.”
Old Sepp the sailmaker was leaning against the quarterdeck rail doing his turn at sentry. “All’s quiet, Sir” he reported. He was wrapped in a thick blanket, under which he had tucked his musket to shield it from the penetrating damp. A short clay pipe was clamped between his teeth.
The captain nodded up at him.
“Nothing to report here” confirmed Anton. He was huddled miserably at the top of the foredeck companionway. His hands were clamped around a steaming tankard, and his musket hung from a crude sling around his neck. The brim of his oversize hat, heavy with beads of dew, drooped limply.
“Good, good” said Fuchs, and ducked through the door into the forecastle cabin.
The room was warm and dry and filled with the tantalising aroma of a cooking breakfast. The rest of the crew were inside, their chat half drowned by the sputtering and hissing of frying food. They were lounging on rolled bedding, and shuffled along a little to give him a space.
Ernst, busy at the galley fire, passed a broad platter to the Captain. It held bacon and eggs piled atop a slice of toasted bread and a bowl filled with thick porridge sweetened with honey. He tucked in, and washed it down with a pot of small beer that had been warmed in the embers at the edge of the hearth.
“Excellent, thank you.”
Captain Fuchs was something of a trencherman. He had experienced starvation during his years of soldiering, and when at sea the necessity of preserved food meant that the diet was bland and tedious. When fresh produce was available he made sure that he stocked the stores well, usually at his own expense. Since they had arrived in Schlammigerdorf the crew had eaten like the Electors themselves.
“What are we doing today?” asked Lucas.
“What have we been doing all week? What were we doing the week before?” replied Max, one of the deckhands, popping a morsel of bacon into his mouth. “If I see much more of this excuse for a river I’m going to organise a mutiny, I swear.”
“Is that right?” said Fuchs from around a mouthful.
“Yes Sir, Captain Sir” answered Max.
The other sailors grinned at them.
“This is quite an easy job, don’t you think?” Fuchs remarked. “And you seem to be enjoying the benefits, like your breakfast.” He gestured to Max’s empty plate.
“Yes Sir, Captain Sir” Max repeated.
The work was boring. Every morning they would row out to some forsaken spot a few miles downstream and wait for the captain to precisely establish his bearings. Once he was happy they would measure the depth of the water, examine the composition of the bed, and make other relevant observations. They’d move a few yards, then repeat the process, over and over, until the mists closed in and the daylight began to fade.
Fuchs took a sip of his drink. “Well then, today should be a real treat. We’re going ashore.”
Despite the isolated nature of communities along the northern coast news travelled with surprising speed, oft carried by the hunters and watermen who worked the marshes and fens. Word of Granny Schmidt’s unusual death had reached her granddaughter, Berdina Breitermann, who resided in Trockener, the same day as it had occurred. By that evening she and her husband had made the trip to Schlammigerdorf to see to the arrangements.
They were taken in at once by Mrs Starkleiter. She sat them down in her wood-panelled drawing room and once they were replete with warm cordials and cold meat she told them the circumstances of the old woman’s passing. Berdina blanched.
Mrs Starkleiter was able to tell them that preparations were already underway. Before his own untimely death Granny Schmidt’s husband had seen to it that certain monies had been deposited to pay for the expenses of funerals for both himself and his wife, the cash being left in trust with the Church. And morbid though it was the chapel kept a supply of coffins, storing them in the attic of one of the barns they owned. An appropriate casket had already been chosen.
The next morning the chapel bell tolled, it’s slow peal echoing across the mist-shrouded fields and meadows.
Brother Franz and Brother Otto, dressed in all their ceremonial finery, met and greeted people at the door. Presently the entire congregation was gathered.
The signal was given and the pallbearers made their appearance. Brother Franz walked at their head, bearing before him the ceremonial hammer, and following him was Brother Otto, carrying a single lit candle. Behind them were the pallbearers, four stout militiamen who bore on their shoulders the linen-covered coffin. Finally came Berdina and her husband.
As the cortege passed through the doors and moved towards the altar the assembled congregation sang a solemn hymn. The coffin was laid on the ground, feet facing towards the altar, and the candle was placed at the head.
Brother Franz spent a few moments in contemplation, his eyes closed and his head bowed, and then he began. “Sigmar makes us a promise,” he said. “‘Because I live, so shall you live too’…”
And so began the liturgy of the Burial of the Dead.
The Priest, an eloquent orator, spoke with clarity and power, telling of the balance between life and death, and urging the bereaved to accept their loss and from it to take hope in the promise of the life still to come. Another hymn was sung, and prayers and blessings were offered.
Next he summed up the life of Agathe, telling of her good deeds, remembering her husband, a fine soldier, and her three children, all of whom she had outlived. Finally he turned to Berdina, her granddaughter, and encouraged the community to support and aid her as she returned to the duties of her life.
A further blessing was said, and Brother Franz concluded with a prayer, raising his arms and looking towards the heavens.
“And now our dear sister dwells at the great hall of Sigmar Heldenhammer. Within, death is destroyed, disgrace is removed, and joy is unending. There will be prepared a rich banquet for all peoples, of aged wine and the best of meats and the whitest of bread. There will be soft fleeces on which to lie, the company of all of those who are dear to us, and nought to pursue but that which is our heart’s true desire. This our Lord hath spoken and told us, and in Him we trust. Let us rejoice and be glad in His salvation. Amen.”
The congregation filed slowly out of the church, leaving behind only the priests and the pallbearers. Overhead the bell tolled mournfully.
The plot where her husband and two sons were buried lay close to the wall in the little square of consecrated ground behind the chapel. The sexton had opened the grave, the grass and brambles had been trimmed back, and the aged board that marked its position had been replaced with a new marker that now included Granny’s name.
The mourners had gathered by the graveside, among them Mrs Starkleiter and Mother Kessel. All were dressed in their best church clothes.
The cortege, led by Brother Franz, made its way out of the chapel and into the graveyard. The bearers lowered the coffin to the ground, resting it across a long pair of leather straps, then lowered their heads respectfully. The congregation, as is the custom, stood for a few moments in silent contemplation.
Everyone gradually became aware of noises – little scratches and scrapes that were difficult to pinpoint.
“Down there!” One of the militiamen was pointing into the grave.
A large clod of damp clay fell from about halfway up the wall of the excavation, and a whiskered nose protruded from the hole. A huge rat, apparently quite unaware of its audience, squeezed through the gap and dropped down onto the floor of the grave.
It suddenly caught a scent of the people around it and scuttled about, trying to find an escape. Berdina shrieked in horror.
“They killed her, the filthy little beasts,” she sobbed. “Will they not now let her rest in peace?”
Hobard Schaufell, the sexton, who had been standing a respectful distance away, dashed forward. He leaped into the hole and brought down his shovel with a solid thud, cutting short a squeak as the wretched creature darted hither and thither to escape. He picked the little corpse up by the tail and clambered out again, dangling his prize before him, and hurried away to dispose of it.
Berdina’s husband, a strapping fisherman with a full beard, put his arm around her and pulled her to his chest while she wept. A slow, steady rain had started.
Brother Franz cleared his throat and indicated to the militiamen. They each took a hold of one end of a strap, and together they gently raised the casket and lowered it down into the hole. When they were done the straps were pulled out and they stepped back.
“In the sure and certain hope of our eternal place amongst the honoured dead who sit in the great hall of Sigmar Heldenhammer, I commend to the protection of Our Lord our sister Agathe Berit Schmidt, nee Fische. And so we commit her empty body to the ground; earth to earth; ashes to ashes; dust to dust;…”
Each of the mourners threw a handful of damp soil down onto the coffin.
“… Sigmar watch her and keep her and grant her rest and peace. Amen.”
“Amen” echoed the congregation.
The jollyboat bumped up to the pilings supporting the wooden quayside, coming to rest next to the ladder and beneath a wooden crane. Sepp secured the craft to the blackened posts while the others scrambled to the top. Hermann disappeared off, busy about some duty, and Jürgen set about rigging a block and tackle on the scaffold. Soon the cargo was being hoisted up.
Lining the square were tall, narrow buildings, little more than dark shadows within the haze. Many were warehouses, built of imported wood and brick, and for the most part dark and empty. Light spilled from the windows of Der Lustige Seemann and Die Silbermünze, the village’s two taverns, bright and welcoming against the enveloping gloom.
A rusty squeaking announced Hermann’s return, and soon he emerged from the gloom pushing a dung-covered tumbrel. The two sacks were dumped into the barrow and the chest was settled beside them.
They set off along the Nordküstestraße, which took them past fishermen’s huts, upturned boats, damp gardens, and rickety fences. They halted at the watchtower at the edge of the village where two guards crouched around a brazier filled with glowing coals. Fuchs strolled over to gossip, and after a few minutes rejoined his men.
Beyond the perimeter ditch the grandly named highway became an ill-maintained and badly rutted track, passing through sodden watermeadows which gave way to swampy scrub. Those few locals whom they passed were less than curious, shunning the party.
After perhaps a half mile of trudging they came to the corner of a high brick wall, over which could be seen the tops of trees. They followed it for some hundred yards until they came to a gate of stout timbers studded with iron nails. Captain Fuchs tried the heavy iron handle. It lifted, and with a heavy creak the door swung open. Fuchs strode through and the sailors followed.
It was like walking into another land.
The wall enclosed a huge garden, wild in verdant profusion yet perfectly cultivated, fringed by trees red with autumn foliage. The last bees of the season hummed across a lawn of wild clover, which was bordered by full hedges and beds of late blooms. Amid the splendour was a rambling house, the lower floor solid walls with arrow slits, the upper all beams and chimneystacks and gable windows. A manicured path led to a porch thick with ivy.
There was an air of calm and tranquility that left the sailors staring in astonishment. Fuchs, who had visited a number of times and was quite unfazed by the beauty, marched off towards the house. He paced up the steps to the door and knocked loudly. The sailors gathered behind him.
After a few moments a spy-hatch slid open. There followed a series of mechanical clicks and the door opened a fraction. A frowning, sour-faced woman glared at them. Her grey hair was pulled back into a tight bun, and she wore a plain, sensible dress. In her hand she carried a rolling pin.
“Good morning, Mrs Schüssel” oozed the captain, beaming a broad smile. He swept his hat from his head and executed a perfect bow. “I wish to speak with your master.”
The sailors plucked off their caps and held them against their chests, shuffling their feet awkwardly. Hermann, holding the handles on the barrow, lowered his eyes and bobbed his head frantically. Something about the woman turned battle-hardened mariners into naughty schoolboys.
The housekeeper drew herself up and peered down her nose. “You can go round to the back, Mr Fuchs, and you can take your … friends … with you. Someone will be there to meet you shortly.” She turned and strode back through the door, slamming it behind her. The boom echoed inside the hall.
Fuchs replaced his hat. “Lovely woman …” he mumbled to himself, and turned back to the crew. “Gentlemen, if you please …”.
He followed the path to an archway that led through into an enclosed kitchen garden. Within was a rolled lawn, and behind it was a vegetable plot filled with neat rows of ripe produce. Bushes heavy with fruit grew in trained profusion against the walls, spilling over two long sheds made of glass and filled with luxuriant growth.
Hermann set the barrow down and looked around. “Captain, what is this place?”
“The residence of Doctor Cornelius Ungerade, our employer. He is something of a gardener, but you’ve probably already guessed that.”
The back door opened and two figures walked out. “Ah, Doctor!” exclaimed Fuchs. “We were just talking about you.”
Cornelius Ungerade was surprisingly young, with thick brown hair pulled back into a ponytail and a sparse beard on his chin. He wore ordinary clothes, though cut from fine material, and clasped a small metal trowel. He peered solemnly at the sailors, then shook the Captain’s hand.
His assistant, Rüdiger Schlechtmann, a rather hunched, elderly fellow with a bald dome fringed with long grey hair, accompanied him. The man squinted myopically at the guests and waddled over to the barrow. “What’s in ‘ere then?” he asked, prodding at the sacks. One twitched obligingly and he jumped back.
Hermann hefted the bundles off of the barrow and dumped them on the ground. He undid the bindings holding the canvasses together and they fell open. The limp corpse rolled onto the grass, but the live creature struggled against its bindings and thrashed it’s tail.
“Oh, my word” said the Doctor. “This is very exciting, very exciting indeed. I’ve never seen anything more than dubious bones and scraps before.”
He leaned forward to examine the body and poked it experimentally with the trowel. “Quite a lot like rats, don’t you think? Note the teeth and the whiskers, and of course the tail. Prehensile fingers, interesting. This will answer a lot of questions.” He gestured to his assistant. “Mr Schlechtmann, would you oversee getting them down to the cellar?”
Fuchs retrieved his bag and cases and indicated to Hermann to bring the chest. The Doctor led them into the house, down a long hallway, and through into a humid conservatory.
The Captain had never seen so much glass before. The walls and ceiling were made of hundreds of panes, each no bigger than the palm of his hand, set into a latticework of wood and supported by ornately sculpted beams. It was truly a wonder.
The room was full of all manner of potted plants, some no more than seedlings, some grown almost up to the ceiling, and others of every size and shape between. Among the masses of creepers and foliage were benches, strewn with clippers and dibbers and all manner of esoteric horticultural tools. In the very centre was a clear area, in which were set a pair of comfortable chairs and a small table.
Hermann put down the chest, touched his cap, and departed. Fuchs opened the box to reveal the creatures’ effects, then took a seat.
“Fascinating” said Cornelius. He gingerly picked up one of the long-blades knives. “This looks nasty.”
“I’ve completed the survey, Doctor. It’s quite interesting. There’s a dome under the water, close to the mouth of the Schleimigbach, in just about the place you said.” He produced the chart he had made and indicated the spot.
Cornelius dropped the weapon and came to look. “You know,” he said, “I can’t help but wonder if the two creatures were sent to stop you finishing this work.”
It was an unpleasant thought, and a point that they discussed at length.
The housekeeper galloped to the conservatory door, slithered to a halt on the polished tiles, paused for a moment to compose herself, then rapped on the panels. Without waiting for a reply she bustled through.
“Mrs Schüssel …!” started Cornelius, peering out from behind a leafy frond.
“Oh, I am sorry Sir, but Brother Franz has come with some men from the village. They’ve got weapons and are demanding to speak to you!” She was breathless and flustered. “Mr Schlechtmann and the visitors are arguing with them outside.”
Fuchs and the wizard jumped up, knocking over the table in their haste, and raced to the garden.
Jürgen was standing with his hands on his hips, scowling furiously and blocking the arch through to the rear of the house. He was eye-to-eye with a stocky, bald man clad in a long scarlet robe and hefting an ornate hammer. Max and Sepp loitered behind the mate, watching a group of armed locals who lurked on the lawn and stared coldly back. Everyone ignored Schlechtmann, who babbled and hopped back and forth.
The priest used their arrival to extract himself from the mate’s gaze. “Doctor Ungerade, I understand you are looking after something for me?”
“I’m sorry?” enquired the wizard, wheezing slightly after the running.
“The creatures. I’m here to collect them.”
“I think not. They are far safer here, where I can study them …”
“Study? STUDY?” The priest’s face turned red. “Such monsters are not for understanding, for no sane man could withstand the horrors such enquiries would reveal!” He took a deep breath. “No, Doctor, foolish scholars would be consumed by foul passions, and their essence would be twisted and corrupted. These beings, these horrors, they are to be scourged from the world, they are a cancer that needs to be cut away.”
“In order to, ahem, scourge this menace, perhaps we should understand it a little.” interjected Cornelius.
“We know all that we need to know. They bear the mark, the taint of disorder. We cannot suffer them to live.” He raised the hammer with one hand and shook it with righteous indignation. “I warn you, Doctor, if you don’t hand them over we will take them by force.”
The wizard lowered his head and gazed out from under his brows. Suddenly he seemed much taller and darker, almost rippling with unearthly power. “Through me flows the Wind of Ghyran, the force of Life, and even now you stand in the midst of my sanctuary. I wield power beyond your understanding.” His voice was low and laden with menace. “Would you dare threaten me here?”
The groups of men tensed, ready for trouble, but unwilling to provoke forces they had little hope of defeating.
“CALM DOWN” shouted Fuchs. His pistol was in his hand.
He had their attention.
“Unless someone recompenses me pretty sharpish no-one is taking MY prisoners anywhere.” He looked to the militiamen. “Me and my men are skilled with the sword and the fist. Would you really risk injury or even death over possession of … well, such monsters …? And you should know that one of them is already dead.”
The band of cut-throats looked to one another but they held their ground. The sailors shifted their gaze between the Captain and the priest, who drew himself up and opened his mouth to speak.
“As you wish”, said the Captain loudly, before the man had a chance to utter a sound. “I’ll cut the live one loose and let it run back to whence it came. The body, well, I’ll just dump it somewhere.”
“No no no no no” stammered the cleric. “That is not acceptable, not acceptable at all.”
“Then perhaps we could trade them in kind” suggested Fuchs helpfully.
“I would give a … er, a whole round of cheese, to make good any damages” offered Cornelius, “in order that I may continue my examinations. When I am done I would happily turn over any remains so that they may be properly disposed of.”
“This is ridiculous” mumbled the priest. “I’m not going to stand here bidding over ownership of the Spawn of Pestilence.”
“Fair enough” replied Fuchs. “Well, Doctor Ungerade, it seems that you are the proud possessor of two …”
“One moment, please” interjected the priest. “I’m sure we can come to some compromise. To my mind there is less harm in studying the remains, the empty shell as it were, than being in the presence of a living servant of darkness. And in truth there is wisdom in knowing your enemy. The Doctor can perform his … investigations … on the corpse, if it is agreed that the body is given into my care when he is done. I will take the … thing …with me.”
Fuchs raised his hands. “And what do I get?
“Perhaps a firkin … no, two … of smoked fish?
Fuchs looked back to Cornelius, who nodded in approval.
“Gentlemen, we have an agreement.”
Hands were shaken and arrangements finalised, and the living beast was manhandled, still firmly trussed, out of the cellar. The thing’s eye was swollen, and where the fur around the socket was thin the flesh looked bruised. It was dumped unceremoniously onto the barrow and trundled off, the priest chanting prayers of cleansing and the grim-faced militia providing an escort. Schlechtmann trotted after them and secured the gate once they had gone.
“And what exactly are you smiling at?” asked Jürgen.
“I wasn’t looking forward to taking the barrow back. I didn’t exactly ask when I borrowed it.”
A dense, soaking mist had settled, shrouding the Bösewicht in an ethereal blanket of white.
Ernst paced back and forth across the quarterdeck. Old Sepp was on the waist, close to the door into the forecastle cabin, playing with his knife. Captain Fuchs and the rest of the crew, after their return from Doctor Ungerade’s residence, had set off again surveying along the river.
“I reckon they’ll be back soon. The Captain won’t get much done when it’s like this.”
Sepp shrugged by way of a reply, sniffed, and wiped his nose on the sleeve of his doublet.
“I mean, how much can they see? Tens of yards?”
He strolled over to the larboard rail and leaned on it, looking out across the still water. From somewhere overhead a gull cried and a breath of damp wind played across him. He shivered, huddling deeper into his thick cloak.
The mists thinned a little, and for a moment he was able to see all the way across to the reed-studded mudflats. Something on the foreshore caught his eye. He leaned forward a little and squinted at it, but couldn’t make it out.
“Oy, Sepp,” he called, “come take a look at this.”
Sepp wearily pulled himself to his feet and went over to the rail at the waist. “What?”
“Over there,” said the cook, pointing towards the distant, indistinct shapes at the margin of the water. “I reckon it’s a person.”
“I can’t see nothing.”
Ernst clambered down the companion ladder and trotted through the wardroom to the Captain’s cabin. He retrieved the spare perspective glass from its rack on the bulkhead wall and rejoined Sepp out on the deck. He extended the glass, then scanned the shore until he could make out the shapes.
It was a figure, swathed from head to toe in grubby brown rags, sitting hunched close to a little outcrop of hardy grass.
“My turn now.”
The two sailors squabbled for the glass. Sepp grabbed it out of the cook’s hands and trained it on the shore.
“Oh yeah!” He watched for a few moments longer. “I wonder what he’s doing?”
He caught a flicker of movement. The shabby individual had been joined by two skinny figures. They were hard to make out, even with the instrument. Suddenly Sepp lowered the glass. He looked at Ernst with an astonished stare, then raised it again.
“Gods, but they’re nasty-looking,” he mumbled.
“Let me see!”
Ernst wrestled the glass from his companion and adjusted the length so that he could see. The two new arrivals were rat-men, very like the pair that had come aboard the ship. And as he watched, the ragged figure handed something to one of the creatures.
A bank of mist rolled in, carried on a rain-laden zephyr. It obscured everything.
Ernst lowered the glass. “I can’t see a thing now. What should we do?”
Sepp rubbed his chin in thought. “Nothing, keep watching I suppose. What else can we do?”
“We could give the alert. Do you think we should?”
“No, we’re not under attack.” Sepp settled himself back into his spot by the forecastle cabin door and rearranged his cloak. “We’ll make a report when the Captain returns.”
Ernst grunted and raised the telescope to his eye again, scanning the pallid brume. There was nothing to see.
The night passed dawn had illuminated another grey, miserable day. Despite the ungodly hour and the bone-chilling damp the square was filled with stands and stalls, and people from all walks of life were there buying the victuals and supplies they needed to see them through the next couple of days. The air rang with the calls of the retailers and the raucous squawking of gulls.
“Mackerel, get ‘em while they’re fresh!”
“Winkles by the pint!”
Buyers lingered over trestles laden with provisions, they queued for steaming bowls of soup vended by greasy-faced sutlers, and they perused a fine range of cloths and fabrics housed in a gaudy pavilion watched by a skeletally thin trader. The fishwives offered fresh hake and cod and herring, other more mysterious denizens of the deep, shellfish both big and small, and smoked fish, dark and aromatic.
“Lovely carrots, only a pfennig a pound!”
Suppliers of leather goods hung fine examples of boots and belts and pouches to attract custom, and cobblers, lips gripping spiked hobnails, repaired shoes. Goats bleated and geese honked from within hurdle pens. Tinkers and peddlers of trinkets vied to out-shout one another, and children stared in fascination as bright sparks flew from the knife-grinder’s wheel.
“Honey! Fresh from the hives! Only a few pots left!”
The party from the Bösewicht stood on the quayside.
“They’ve been there since first light,” said Captain Fuchs, peering at the market-goers and huddling into his coat. “If we don’t hurry there won’t be anything left that’s worth having.” He reached into his pocket, produced a purse full of coins, and handed it to Lukas.
“Ernst knows what we need,” he said to the young man. “You and Max go with him. Use the money to pay for the purchases, and when you have all that is needed load them into the boat and ferry them back to the Bösewicht. When that is done return to the shore and wait for me. I have duties that I must be about this morning.”
The Captain strode off, heading for Die Silbermünze, and the cook made a beeline for the line of stalls where the Farmer’s wives were selling their produce.
Some vended ripe wheels of goats-milk cheese and eggs of varying sizes and colours, others sides of bacon, cured hams, and long strings of sausages. Still others sold sacks of cereal, fruit preserves and pickles, root vegetables and leafy greens, and all manner of other foodstuffs. Soon Max’s arms were considerably fuller and Fuchs’ purse somewhat lighter.
“What next?” asked Lukas.
“Well, I was considering getting some new rush matting in for the Captain’s cabin,” said Ernst, rubbing his chin. “The stuff that he’s got down in there is getting pretty ropy.”
The little group headed off, Lukas pacing ahead and Max, laden like a packhorse, trailing behind. The boy had spotted an elderly woman selling baskets woven from dried reeds.
“Look!” The cook had stopped and was pointing to a figure on the other side of the square. “It’s the person what me and Sepp saw talking to the rat-creature!”
Lukas squinted towards where Ernst was indicating. “Who?”
“There! The one in brown rags!”
The figure Ernst had pointed out was squatting down on his haunches, his back against the wall of one of the warehouses on the far side of the square. He wore a heavy cloak with a hood that completely covered his head.
Lukas sucked his teeth. “That’s just some beggar.”
“Since I’ve been in this place I ain’t seen a single vagrant of any kind. I’m telling you, that’s the person who was talking to the rat-thing.”
“Well then, lets go and find out,” said Lukas. “Max, you take all that stuff to the boat and wait for us there. We won’t be more than a few minutes.”
The big sailor nodded and stomped off towards the quayside. Ernst and Lukas continued among the stalls, pausing every now and again to inspect the wares that were being offered. Soon they had worked their way near to their quarry.
The beggar, or whatever he was, seemed to have noticed their approach. He got to his feet, though he stayed against the wall. Lukas, in an effort to remain unseen, busied himself at a table laden with sacks of goose down, but Ernst stared right at the stranger. The cabin boy fussed the ruddy-cheeked cook’s attention onto the feathers in an effort not to give away their advance.
But it was too late. The beggar turned and shuffled off towards the Nordküstestraße. Lukas broke into a run and sprinted across the square, dodging in and out of the people about their business in the market. Ernst set off after him.
Wallop! Lukas ran headlong into a watchman, sending him flying onto his backside. The boy bounced off of the fellow, skidded on the slick cobbles and almost fell, but somehow he found his balance and dashed off again.
“Oy, you rascal, come back ‘ere!” yelled the soldier, shaking his fist indignantly. Ernst, wheezing heavily, came to a halt beside the sprawling man. He offered his hand and dragged the fellow to his feet, and then the pair of them trotted off after the lad.
The beggar dived into an alley between two of the warehouse buildings and Lukas, in hot pursuit, followed. He slithered to a halt and gasped in astonishment; it was a dead end, and it was empty. He looked around to try and see where the man had gone.
A few moments later the watchman shambled into the passageway and clapped his hand onto Lukas’s shoulder. Ernst was right behind and puffing fit to collapse.
“Got you, you young scallywag! You’re coming with me!”
Lukas was staring upwards and pointing and the soldier’s gaze followed his finger. He looked up just in time to see a figure in filthy brown rags disappearing over a wall, some three yards above their heads. Behind it thrashed a sinuous and hairless tail.
“Well, I’ll be…” he mumbled, and released his grip on the boy.
Now that Granny’s cottage was vacant the tenancy reverted back to the Church. Soon after the burial her granddaughter had hired a cart, and the militia had helped load the old lady’s meagre possessions onto it. After thanking her hosts for their kindness she and her husband departed back to Trockener.
Johann Jaeger and his wife had expressed an interest in taking the place on, the young couple putting on brave faces with regard to the previous tenant’s demise – there was no saying when they’d have the chance of their own house again. “We’ve imposed on my parents for long enough,” he declared, “and we have to make our own way in the world, no matter what the dangers.”
Brother Otto, who administered such things, announced that the property would be theirs, upon receipt of a deposit in addition to the first quarter’s rent. Johann had been working hard and saving his earnings; his income was not great, however, and he was only just able to make the payment.
When he enquired about the possibility of having the problem of the rats looked into, he was told that such a service would him cost extra. He had no money left to cover such an expense.
When Mrs Starkleiter found out about the arrangement she wasn’t at all happy. She stormed off to the chapel and entered like a thundercloud, sending the gruff militiamen who were assembled there scurrying away like frightened children. Once she was alone with Brother Franz she told him exactly what she thought of the church’s attitude towards those who were supposedly under its care.
Once he had established the cause of her fury Brother Franz retreated to the defence of church doctrine, but Mrs Starkleiter tore a very large strip off of those who would carry out such faceless bureaucracy. She insisted that the cottage should go to the new tenants in a habitable condition, and as the building was part of the church’s property, it fell to the church to ensure that the place was in a decent state of repair.
And so it was that Hobard Schaufell, the sexton, came to be preparing to lift the stones below the kitchen floor, and all at the church’s expense. With him he had young Sigfrid Ausmann, his assistant, along with Trude, a little terrier with a reputation as a ratter.
“Right then, Sigfrid, when I get this bar under that slab I’ll lift it, and you push in that bit of wood to hold it up. Understand?”
The lad nodded and took hold of the indicated timber.
Hobard slid the flattened end of the bar between two of the stones and got the feel of the balance. He braced himself and put his weight behind it, and the edge of the polished slab lifted. The gap he had created was just enough for Sigfrid to wedge in the beam.
“Good lad!” said Hobard, red faced from his exertions. “Now, ready…”
The pair of them got their fingers under the edge of the flagstone and together they pulled it upright. Below it was a tunnel, roughly the diameter of a man’s leg. It appeared to run from the front door towards the back wall. Trude got her nose in and began whining, then set off sniffing all around the kitchen.
They followed the run, raising another stone, and then another, until they had uncovered a complex network of passages. A few led into cracks in the walls, evidently the routes that the little horrors had used to enter the kitchen, while others led into the garden.
The pair made their way out to the little vegetable plot, their breath misting in the dank air. Trude followed them, sniffing around the door and along the bottom of the wall. She continued along the fence, heading for a huge compost heap at end of the garden. It was steaming slightly in the chill.
“You found a scent, girl? Sigfrid, be a good lad and go and fetch some shovels.”
The little dog set to digging, excavating a spray of rotting vegetation that filled the air with the pungent, earthy smell of humus. Almost at once she came down onto a tunnel and began sniffing and growling. She began digging again with almost frantic haste.
A rat suddenly broke from cover and galloped along beside the rickety fence that marked the end of the garden. Trude bounded after it and snatched it up in her jaws, biting and shaking the little beast to death. She dropped the carcass and trotted proudly back to the compost heap.
“Good lass,” mumbled Hobard.
Sigfrid returned with the shovels and handed one of them to the older man. They began to excavate down through the decaying layers while Trude stood with her tongue out, watching intensely. Soon they hit a tunnel and another rat, a huge brown monster of a creature, dashed out and away. Trude was after it in an instant.
The men watched her for a moment then returned to their work. Soon they came down onto a hollow, lined with fur and feathers and full of fragments of dirt and debris. A whole swarm of rats issued forth, and for a few frantic moments Hobard and Sigfrid laid about them with their shovels while Trude dashed joyfully around, thrashing her kills from side to side.
Panting, the two men looked about them then exchanged glances. Something was still moving inside of the hollow.
“What is that?”
It was a bizarre thing, no less than eight albino rats whose tails had somehow become knotted together. Each of the rats was roughly the same size, and all hissed and gaped evilly at their discoverers.
“I dunno,” said Hobard. “See if you can lay your hands on a bucket, would you?”
Sigfrid found one and put it on the ground. The pair took hold of their shovels, Hobard lying his flat next to the monstrosity while Sigfrid used his to slide the thing onto it. When it was aboard Hobard picked it up and gently slid it into the pail. It squirmed and wriggled appallingly. He covered the bucket over with a bit of sacking.
“Right, we’re getting this off to the Priest. Lock this place up and then join me at the chapel.” He departed, the bucket in one hand and his shovel in the other, just in case the monster tried anything.
He trotted through the square, glancing at the drilling militiamen, then made his way along the Südlichestraße towards the chapel. Brother Franz was standing in the doorway talking with, unusually, Doctor Ungerade. The sexton made his way towards the group, waiting respectfully a little way off.
Hobard coughed to get the Priest’s attention. “Excuse me, Sir, but I think you ought to take a look at this.”
“Inside, if you please,” said Brother Franz brusquely, glancing at the bucket. “We don’t need everyone knowing the church’s business.”
The sexton followed him into the narthex, gently put the pail on the ground, and lifted back the sacking. The Priest frowned darkly at what he saw. “Doctor, maybe you should see too.”
“Now, what have we got in here?” The Doctor peered into the bucket and his eyes lit up. “A rat-king! Oh, to see such a thing! I have only ever read of them, and even then only in the worst kind of broadsheet!”
“How did you come by it?” asked the Priest of Hobart. The sexton quickly related the details of its discovery in Granny Schmidt’s garden.
“It is clearly a thing of Chaos,” growled Brother Franz. “It has been warped and corrupted by those dark forces. Why, its very shape mimics the eight-pointed symbol of Chaos.”
“That is not necessarily so, my dear fellow,” chimed in the Doctor. “Remember, that symbol is most closely associated with magic, be it good or evil.”
“So it is, Doctor,” rumbled the Priest. “So it is.” He looked across to Hobard. “Thankyou, Mr Schaufell. You may be about your duties.”
The sexton touched his cap deferentially and stepped through the doors. He very near collided with Sigfrid, who was just entering. The older man fussed his associate away.
Doctor Ungerade had squatted down and was peering at the creature. “I would very much like to add such a curiosity to my collection,” he said, “if you were agreeable to such a thing. I wish to study it to determine how these creatures came to be joined.”
Brother Franz pondered for a few moments.
“I will pay the church for the expense,” ventured the Doctor.
“Ten silver schillings?”
“Done!” said Brother Franz. “Take it away at once.”
The grey and dreary afternoon had slipped into a dark and dismal evening, the algid fogs rising and bearing within them a fine, saturating drizzle. The damp seemed to seep through every layer of clothing, numbing fingers and toes and noses and chilling right through to the marrow.
The forecastle cabin was warm and cosy, though, heavy with a comforting smell of food that quite effectively masked the underlying odours of sweat, mildew, and bilge water. A single lantern, hung near the waist hatchway, cast a soft yellow light that filled the little chamber with dancing shadows. Other than the clatter of pans and the occasional burst of flatulence the only sounds to be heard were the slapping of wavelets against the hull and the gentle creaking of timbers.
Josef and Hermann had gone out on watch, set to their duties by the mate. Ernst was busy clearing away after dinner and Max was assisting him, sopping the last of the gravy from one of the pots with chunks of bread and stuffing them into his mouth. Sepp and Anton and Lukas lounged on their bedding, sipping from their cups and contemplating nothing in particular.
Jürgen stomped in and closed the door behind him, pulling off his cloak and hanging it from a nail protruding from a timber. He accepted a cup of ale and produced a flask of spirits from within the folds of his jerkin, pouring a little of the liquor into his drink. He took a sip, sighed, and eased himself down onto a low stool, settling his back against the bulkhead wall and stretching his legs in front of him.
He eyed the men around him. “Quiet tonight, aren’t we?” he said.
Sepp grunted in a non-committal way. It was the only reply he got.
He pressed on regardless. “Did I ever tell the about when I was on my last ship, under old Captain Weissmann?”
“We’ve heard the odd story or two,” mumbled Anton.
“The Kleiner Spatz, she was called,” said Jürgen. “Well, the Captain and me were up on the quarterdeck when this shout comes from the masthead. ‘Sail ho, fine on the starboard quarter!’ So we rushed over to take a look, and what we saw made our blood run cold, I can tell you!”
“What was it?” said Lukas, all attention.
“A black sail, shaped like a claw, on a dark hull, sleek and long and with spiky bits sticking out, that cut through the water like a knife. Crewed by tall and slender figures with long white hair and skins as black as the night. A Druchii corsair! And she was closing fast! The old Spatz, she didn’t have the Bösewicht’s legs, y’see.”
“Quick as a flash the Captain had the ship cleared for action and the cannons loaded. While the commotion was going on he took me to one side and said ‘Jürgen, go to my cabin and fetch my red shirt.’ So I did, and when I got back he put it on.”
“Anyway”, he said, staring at his drink, “pretty soon she had shortened range, and in truth we let her. As she was passing along our starboard side we opened the gunports, ran out the guns, gave her a broadside, and then for good measure we peppered her decks with shot. They grappled us and swung across, but with the Captain at our head we drove them off and left their vessel a burning wreck.”
He paused to pick something from his teeth. Everyone was gripped by the tale.
“We sailed away and later that night, when we were passing out the tots of rum, one of the men asked ‘Captain, Sir, why did you wear your red shirt?’ He answered ‘Should I have been hurt in the fight you would not have seen my blood, and you would not have lost heart.’ And the men cheered him and drank a toast to his good thinking.”
“So, the next day, there we was, cruising along at a fair clip when again a shout comes from the masthead. ‘Sail ho, broad on the larboard quarter!’ When we looked this time, there were two more of the black corsairs, bigger and faster than the previous one, and bearing down on us with terrible speed.”
Lukas’s eyes were wide and his mouth hung open.
“Again the Captain had the ship cleared for action and ordered that the cannons be double shotted. And again he took me to one side and said ‘Jürgen, would you be so good as to fetch me my red shirt from my cabin.’ So that’s what I did, and again he put it on.”
Jürgen refilled his cup from the pitcher of beer and swilled the liquid around. He found his flask again and added another shot of liquor.
“Soon the black ships were coming alongside of us, one to larboard and one to starboard, and so close that we could see the whites of the crew’s eyes. We opened the gunports on both sides, ran out the guns, gave each of them a broadside, and scoured their decks with shot and grape just for good measure. They grappled us and boarded in droves, but with the brave Captain fighting at our front we won the day and left their vessels no more than sinking hulks.”
“That night, when we were passing out the tots of rum one of the men again asked ‘Captain, Sir, why did you wear your red shirt?’ He replied ‘Had I been injured you would not have noticed my bleeding, and your courage would not have wavered.’ The men all saluted him and raised their cups to his sharp mind.”
“So, the next day, there we was, sailing the main with a breeze at our back when once more a shout comes from the masthead. ‘Sail ho, fine on the starboard quarter!’ And when we looked what did we see? A whole squadron of corsairs! The horizon was near filled with their dark and menacing sails!”
“Once more the Captain had the ship cleared for action, and he ordered that the cannons be double shotted. And again he took me to one side, and he said ‘Jürgen, would you be so good as to go to my cabin and fetch me my brown breeches…”
There was a brief pause.
Anton smiled broadly. “Oh, very good,” he mumbled. Ernst forced his face into a frown and shook his head, disguising his chuckle as exasperation. Sepp nodded and grinned toothlessly.
Lukas sat staring for a few moments longer and suddenly burst into convulsions of hysterical laughter and slopping his drink – the proverbial pfennig had just dropped. “Brown breeches…”
“What?” said Max blankly. He looked at the laughing men and then back at Jürgen. “How did you get away from all them corsairs?”
“There weren’t any, I don’t think,” wheezed Lukas, dabbing a tear from the corner of his eye. “It was a joke.”
Max glared at him sourly. “I don’t get it.”
Lukas scrambled head-first down the rope to the jollyboat. He let go his feet and swung himself into the little craft, landing nimbly on the planks. He unshipped the oars, locked them between the tholepins, and rowed around to the waist. He caught a line lowered over the side and steadied it as Sepp clambered down beside him.
Lukas rowed to keep the craft steady while Sepp stowed a pair of wicker hampers that had been fetched from the great cabin and lowered down to them. Next came Max, who made a meal of his descent and near upset the little boat when he landed. Jürgen, peering over the gunwale, offered loud and unfavourable opinions about the man’s parentage and ancestry.
The Captain strode onto the waist, a broad leather folder under his arm and a tubular map case in each hand. He looked over the side, then back to the sailors working on deck.
“Mr Kalb”, he said, and Josef touched his hat in acknowledgement. “There seems to more water in the well than I am happy with. I would very much appreciate it if you could see to it. Anton and Hermann can assist you. ”
“Aye Sir”, answered the carpenter.
“Ernst, I’m afraid you’re housekeeping again”, he continued. “Doubtless the bumboat will be out later, so see what provisions you can secure. No rubbish, mind.”
“Jürgen, of course is commanding. All of you, if there’s any trouble start shooting. We’ll be close enough to hear, and we’ll get back as fast as we can. Try not to stay on your own for too long, just to be safe.”
He clambered down the line and dropped into the boat, settling himself at the stern. Sepp and Max had taken over the oars from Lukas, who was now perched in the prow.
“Gentlemen, if you please…”
They pulled away from the Bösewicht and across the waters of the Schleimigbach until the dark shape of the foreshore loomed out of the pallid haze. The oarsmen gently brought the craft alongside the pilings and tied it up. One by one they clambered up the ladder onto the quayside and the sailors busied themselves raising the hampers.
When they were all ashore the Captain glared sternly at the cabin boy. “Mr Scharf, a moment of your time, if you please.”
Lukas looked up nervously. “Yes Sir?”
“I have an important mission for you.” He reached into his pocket, took out a strip of paper and a small leather purse, and handed them to the lad. “Take the two hampers to the address I’ve written, and when you’ve seen to that pay a visit to the chandlers and collect all of the items on the list.”
“Yes, Sir” answered Lukas earnestly.
Fuchs leaned conspiratorially towards the cabin boy. “Did you know, Mr Scharf, that you and I are the only ones who can read? That means you’re the only one whom I can ask to do this. I am trusting you not to let me down.”
He stood away again. “Sepp, you remain here with the boat,” he ordered, “and Max, you are to accompany Mr Scharf here and see that no harm befalls him.” The sailor touched his hat in acknowledgment then and hefted up the hampers, tucking one beneath each brawny arm.
“Be about your duties, people,” he ordered. “When you’re done you are to return here. Good day.”
“If you would care to follow me…”
Doctor Ungerade opened the heavy wooden door and raised the lantern to illuminate the broad brick steps leading down into the cellars. They led into a spacious chamber with a vaulted brick ceiling. Much of the space was given over to storage of barrels and boxes, and one entire wall was lined with bottles, rack after rack of them, the dark glass covered in dust and cobwebs.
“I like to maintain a good stock of wine, to go with meals.”
Fuchs wondered how the place was kept so dry, for anything this far below ground was very liable to be flooded by seeping water. He grunted. “I too maintain a supply aboard the Bösewicht. I’m lucky enough to possess some fine Estalian vintages.”
Doctor Ungerade led them to another door, this one solid and age-darkened. He unlocked it with a large iron key that he produced from his pocket.
It creaked open to reveal another chamber, smaller than the first, and lined with shelves and benches and chests of drawers. Upon them was a clutter of jars containing samples pickled in alcohol, beakers and bottles full of mysterious alchemical compounds, leather-bound tomes, grinning skulls, ingenious tools and implements, and other esoteric and arcane items. The air was heavy with the cloying stink of rancid meat, accompanied by other less identifiable but equally unpleasant odours.
“This is my laboratory,” he said.
Dominating the centre of the room was a solid wooden table, easily six feet long. On it lay the body of the creature that Fuchs had killed.
The torso had been sliced from the groin to the throat, the ribs had been cut through, and the carcass had been laid open, revealing the pinkish-brown organs within. Darker areas among the tissue showed where the blood had pooled and congealed. The top of the head had been sheared off, too, and the interior of the skull was empty.
“I have extracted the brain,” said the Doctor conversationally, picking up a pair of soft leather gauntlets from a bench and putting them on. “I am pleased to report that your bullet didn’t damage it. I must say, the structure is quite fascinating. It weighs much the same as that of a man, which may point toward a similar level of intelligence, but it is of a rather different shape, indicating perhaps that it functions in a different manner.”
He moved to one side of the table and lifted the creature’s paw, turned it so that the palm was upward, then examined it closely. Fuchs hung back, as though he expected the thing to rise up and extract retribution for the indignity that, ultimately, he was responsible for putting it through.
The Doctor noticed his discomfort. “I assure you that it is quite dead,” he said.
“So you say,” growled Fuchs in reply, “but I’ve seen the ‘dead’ raised and walking more than once. Mark my words, cremation is the only way to be sure. The Priest was right in that much at least.”
“Hmmm…” The doctor was thoroughly absorbed, paying no attention to the Captain’s remarks.
“Broadly speaking,” he continued, “their hands are the same as ours. The fingers are longer and thinner than those of men, and like us their thumbs are opposable, which imparts a similar ability to grip and manipulate.”
He straightened up, glanced around and spied a long brass probe on a bench. He picked it up and used it to point to the upper part of the body, which was empty of tissue.
“This space just here, the thoratic cavity, contained the heart and the lungs. I removed them to weigh them, you understand. Their capacity can tell you much about the creature. Here is the diaphragm, a muscular layer which works both to ventilate the lungs and keep the digestive tract separate.”
He pointed out the pale and shiny structure, then indicated to a purple-crimson organ tucked below it.
“That, Sir, is the liver, and like that of the common rat it is five-lobed, overlapping the stomach, here, and the right kidney, here. Note the omenta, the bluish-white membranes that you may observe there” – he indicated with the probe – “and more clearly there. They serve to hold the organs in place and prevent them from sloshing around, as it were.”
“From the stomach you may follow the small intestine, here is the spleen, there the caecum, and there the large intestine. This just here is the bladder, the right kidney, which I have already indicated, and the left, there. It is interesting to note that this fellow here has no gall bladder, just like his relative the common rat.”
“I was not aware that you had such a knowledge of anatomy” said Fuchs.
“Ah, well, I have no medical training as such. Much of my learning comes from the writings of Galen, a Tilean physician and philosopher of antiquity. His works form the foundation of much of the medicine of the Old World, and that is why so many of the organs and structures of the body have names that are of his tongue.”
He put down the probe and removed the gauntlets. “And also, I owe no small debt to my assistant, Mr Schlechtmann. He has acted as a barber-surgeon around these parts for years, you know. His experience has given me many insights into the workings of the body.”
The Doctor made his way to a desk that was littered with sheets of paper weighed down with a heavy inkstand. He pulled out a sheaf and leafed through them. They were covered in sketches of the internal parts of the dissected creature, along with notations in a cramped and spidery hand.
“As you can see, I have made extensive notes. In time I hope to publish my findings.”
They left the morbid chamber and returned to the conservatory, where they settled into comfortable chairs among the abundant flora. Mrs Schüssel brought them refreshments on a silver tray, then disappeared off about her duties.
Doctor Ungerade produced a long curved pipe, a tiny pocketknife, and a small leather tobacco pouch. He scraped around inside the bowl, tapped out the debris, and then proceeded to fill it with the shredded leaves.
“That really is a nasty habit,” said Fuchs.
“I quite agree,” replied the Doctor, producing a box of strikelights and striking one against the edge of the table. It flared into life and he held it over the bowl, puffing away until the leaves were glowing crimson-white. A cloud of fragrant smoke surrounded him.
“The map is finished, yes?”
“It is,” replied Fuchs, wrinkling his nose. “As agreed, there are two separate copies – my own, which I will add to my chart locker, and yours. Both are identical. Also, as agreed, you are to take possession of the notebooks.”
The chart and the journals were passed across and the Doctor spent a few minutes poring over them. “Excellent, thankyou,” he said. “And now to the business of payment.”
By the later part of the afternoon the Captain was ready to depart. He was presented with a broad cheese and three bottles of a fiery Kislev spirit that looked like water but tasted like fire, a part of the wizard’s half of the bargain. Fuchs wrapped them in his cloak, suspended that from the hilt of his sword, and slung the entire arrangement over his shoulder. With the briefest of farewells he made his way to the gate.
He stepped through, entering a dreary landscape shrouded in mists and hazes, chill and damp, and desolate to behold. He heard Mr Schlechtmann drop the doorcatch behind him and began to tramp through the muddy sludge coating the unmetalled surface of the road. By dusk he was approaching Schlammigerdorf.
A column of white smoke rose into the air from the far side of the village, blending into the mist and low cloud as it gained altitude. It was visible for quite some distance. The guards at the watchtower were civil but reticent, and seemed keen to move him on.
The square was for the most part empty, though a few people were crossing from the direction of the Südlichestraße. They were quiet and solemn, and all hurried to be about their business. The Captain paced over to the quayside and looked down.
The jollyboat, loaded with bags and boxes, was tied against the pilings. A lantern suspended on a boat hook cast a soft light. Max was lounging in the prow picking at his nails with a dagger, Sepp was busying himself unpicking a length of old rope, and Lukas sat in the stern, ashen-faced and staring into the distance.
“Ahoy below” called Fuchs.
Max and Sepp glanced up and nodded but Lukas near jumped out of his skin. He sprang to his feet, setting the little craft rocking back and forth, scrambled up the ladder, and stood wide eyed and miserable on the quayside. The Captain took him by the elbow and led him away from the edge of the quay.
“What happened?” he asked.
“Um, me and Max finished our duties, and, erm, we came back and loaded the boat.”
“Err, the priest and some men came back with the creature that you caught the other night. There were people everywhere, and there was a lot of shouting, but the loudest was the Priest. Some of the men went off, and others started fetching firewood.”
“Err, we had put everything in the boat, so Max stayed there and I went off after the people. There were lots of them around a big post, and they had tied the creature to it, but it looked pretty beaten and wasn’t moving. Some of the other men piled more wood around it, and all the time the priest was reading from the Holy Writings and shouting about cleansing and purity.”
The boy went quiet and swallowed hard.
“They tried to set the wood on fire. It wouldn’t catch at first, so they poured on some oil, and then it started burning but only on one side, and one of the men hurt his hand. And … and …”
Lukas went quiet.
“Come on lad” urged Fuchs. What happened?
“… the creature woke up. Captain, it woke up and started screaming. Its fur was on fire on one side, and all the people were cheering, and it was screaming.” The boy was fighting to hold back tears. “I know it was cruel and a beast and wanted to kill us all, but Captain, it was really horrible the way they cheered and danced while it burned and made that horrible noise. I just ran back here.”
The Captain nodded somberly. “These are folk who live a hard life, Lukas. Because of that they are hard on those who threaten them. As men, we like to think of ourselves as being somehow better than the monsters that inhabit the world. We find it disturbing to discover that we are capable of equal cruelty.”
He paused, then continued. “You witnessed a terrible thing, and I’m sure that it will stay with you all your life. But if it has taught you a little about the minds of men, then you have gained something, and from that maybe you can find a measure of comfort.”
It was barely an explanation, or even an excuse, but in some small way it seemed to settle the lad. He turned to leave, then stopped
“There was something else, Sir,” added Sepp. “When they knew we was here, a man delivered two casks. They smell like fish.”
“Good.” Fuchs removed the cheese and the bottles from within his cloak and handed them to the boy. “Pass them down so that Sepp can stow them.”
He set about donning the cape again. “Now, your duty is to continue to guard the boat,” he continued, fishing around to get the sword back into its scabbard. “Stay here until I get back.”
He crossed the square and headed along the Südlichestraße, and once he reached the junction he followed the Feldweg, the track between the town and Farmer Gerstemähen’s estate. Just past the last barn was a fenced paddock where the air was heavy with the stink of burnt flesh and singed fur.
The rat-thing had been burned at the stake, just as Lukas had described. The pyre was still furiously ablaze, the crackling flames enveloping the blackened, seared corpse and sending glowing embers high into the air. The lower part of the body was little more than a skeleton, though the torso, arms and head were still bubbling, crackling flesh.
The crowd had almost dispersed, though Brother Franz stood with a few of the hardcore faithful, concluding their prayers. He caught sight of Fuchs staring into the conflagration, offered his blessing to the assembly, and made his way over.
“You do not approve, Captain?” he said, gesturing towards the blaze.
“Somehow I had expected the Church of Sigmar to set a better example.”
“What better example is there? Such is the fate of all of those who ally themselves with the forces of decay and pestilence.” countered the priest. “The holy books ordain that you shall not suffer such a thing to live. The burning of the creature was the only way to ensure that its corruption did not overtake others.”
“Yes, but if it had been up to me, I would have shot it or stabbed it or killed it in some other way before I set it to the flames.”
“You know nothing of the ways of the church …”
“I know plenty, Brother Franz. My father was the personal chaplain to Baron Dieter von Reichenhall of Auerswald, and my younger brother is an ordained cleric. I spent the whole of my youth immersed in faith, and if there was one thing I learned it was that Sigmar was merciful to defeated foes. He dispatched them quick and clean, Brother. That particular mercy seems to have been lacking here.”
The priest stared at him.
A lad, no more than ten years old and barefoot despite the chill, came sprinting into the enclosure. He pointed, breathless, back down along the Feldweg.
“There’s soldiers coming” he gasped excitedly.
Brother Franz shifted his gaze from Fuchs, glad for the distraction. The boy, suddenly the centre of attention, pulled his hat from his head and clutched the brim, panting nervously.
“Soldiers?” said the priest, frowning. “How many? How far? Tell me what you saw.”
“There were some on horses and lots more walking and there was a man in front and some had guns and there was a cart and some donkeys too.” The torrent of words was followed by a thoughtful pause. “They were near the Grünerteich and there were lots more of them than Mrs Haube has pigs.”
The pond the boy had mentioned was no more than ten minutes away, and at the last count Mrs Haube’s sties held sixty swine. The priest looked to the men stood nearby. “Otto, go ring the bell, and Hans, round up all the militia you can find and get them assembled in the square.”
The muster was barely complete before the first of the troops arrived. All the local dignitaries had gathered, the mayor, the clerk, and the priest prominent among them. They stood on the steps to the town meeting rooms, doing their best to look authoritative. Captain Fuchs and Jürgen found themselves a comfortable spot against a wall and settled to watch the coming spectacle.
Eight horsemen clattered into the square. Six were roughriders, enlisted men, tough and lean, garbed in worn leather and armed with pistols and swords. The seventh, their officer, was a haughty fellow decked in mud-spattered finery and finely wrought armour. He rode alongside a thin-faced figure dressed in an elegantly tailored black suit. Neither seemed to be enjoying the company of the other.
The troopers formed a line with the officer, facing towards the block of militiamen, while the man in black headed over to Die Silbermünze. He swung off of his mount and tethered the reins to a post, then produced a leatherbound notebook from his coat pocket. He spent a moment checking it then snapped it shut.
A few minutes later the waiting soldiers were joined by three sections of infantry. The leading unit was composed of swordsmen and the two following of musketeers, in all numbering nearly eighty men. They were led by a moustachioed officer clad in plain armour with a blue sash around his waist, and by a lad carrying a drum covered against the weather.
Their uniforms were of a plain cut, with a halved blue and yellow colour scheme, which marked them as being in the service of Nordland. All had heavy doublets made of a coarse brown fabric as proof against the weather, and on their feet they wore startups, laced boots that came to above the ankle, rather than the soft, expensive slippers currently in vogue in other areas of the Empire. They looked bedraggled and tired.
Accompanying the soldiers was a train of four donkeys led by an older man in civilian clothes, and with them was a two-wheeled cart drawn by a stout, shaggy pony. The back was piled with tents and kit for the troops, while the driver, a bearded man with a peg leg, sat atop a solid chest. Bringing up the rear were another three grim-faced roughriders.
The troops formed into blocks, standing patiently to attention. The foot officer spent a few minutes inspecting them, gave the order to fall out, and then turned to the luminaries.
“Good evening” he said cordially. “I am Captain Jakob Langer.”
Greetings were mumbled.
“Mr Abdecker and myself …” he indicated the figure at the tavern “… represent the Province of Nordland in the capacity of inspectors of the Imperial revenue. I request and require you to provide one night’s billeting for my men and stabling for the horses. Sergeant Felsen will be over shortly to make all the necessary arrangements.” He looked at the dignitaries for a moment. “Presently, one of you good gentlemen will tell me about the little roast that you’ve had. That will be all”
He turned and strode away.
Die Silbermünze was one of the grander buildings in the little dorf. It was a rambling three-storied structure built from wood and imported brick, with towering chimneys, overhanging gables, and leaded windows. A broad and studded door allowed entry to the snug from the square, while a walled yard and stables gave egress at the rear. Like the rest of the town the hostelry was shabby and run-down.
Mr Abdecker peered around the smoky interior. A few ancient fisherman sat mumbling in a group near the fire, while a couple of drunken lads, doubtless from one of the outlying farms, made crude passes at the sour-faced maid as she went about her duties. Behind the bar, which was actually little more than a wooden trestle laden with jugs and cups, stood the innkeeper. He was a short, plump, rheumy-eyed man clad in a filthy shirt and breeches and a stained leather apron. His odour was quite overpowering.
“Your pleasure, Sir?” he asked, revealing a mouth full of yellow teeth.
“Your best room, please.”
“I’m sorry Sir, but all of the rooms have been retained for the Officers. We have places left in the common hall.”
Abdecker gave him a look. “I see.” He retrieved his purse and placed two silver schillings on the table.
The innkeeper pocketed them. “If you would care to follow me, Sir, I’ll show you upstairs myself.” He clicked his fingers at the maid, who rolled her eyes and came over to the bar. “Hedda, see that this Gentleman’s luggage is sent up to his room.”
The rotund little innkeeper led them down a passageway and up two flights of narrow steps. He quickly lost his breath and was gasping and wheezing by the time he stomped up the final few stairs. He staggered to a halt on a little landing, leaned against the rough-plastered wall, and nodded to the open door ahead of him.
“Your room, Sir,” he panted. “The best we have.”
Mr Abdecker eased himself past the strange-smelling little man and into the chamber to see what his expenditure had got him. It was spacious, with views over both the square and the anchorage, but it was spartan. The floor and ceiling were rough-sawn boards, and the walls little more than limewashed brick. There was a broad hearth where a lad was just finishing setting a fire, and a small lantern was set on a bracket near the door. The furniture consisted of a large curtained bed, a few chests for storage, a table with a jug and a washbowl, and a pair of overstuffed chairs. It was adequate.
Heavy footsteps on the stairs announced the arrival of his trunk, which was manhandled through the doorway by a burly stable lad and deposited at the foot of the bed. The innkeeper hurried both him and the fireboy back downstairs.
“Everything is to your satisfaction, I hope?” he asked, his hand held out for a gratuity. Mr Abdecker looked down at the grubby paw, then back at the owner.
“Oh, er, right you are Sir. Will you require waking in the morning?”
The innkeeper tugged his forelock and beat a hasty retreat, clumping heavily down the narrow stairs. Mr Abdecker watched him go.
“Peasants, one and all,” he mumbled to himself as he locked the heavy door. He took the time to close the window shutters as well, pausing for a few moments to peer down at the militiamen assembled in the square, though they were difficult to make out in the guttering light of the torches they held.
He opened the chest, which was divided into two separate compartments. “Come on, you nasty little bastard,” he mumbled, and removed a metal cage covered in a rough sack from one half. He carefully set it down and pulled the cover clear, revealing a huge brown rat. It was a brute, easily as large as a house-cat, scabrous and ragged-eared, with beady crimson eyes, long yellow teeth, and a sinuous tail that continually lashed back and forth. It obviously resented its imprisonment.
Mr Abdecker returned to the chest and unpacked his neatly folded clothes from the second compartment, putting them into tidy stacks at the foot of the bed. Below them was a deep box made of close-grained wood and inlaid with fine marquetry. He made the sign of the hammer over it, reverentially took it out, and laid it on the floor.
He returned to the chest and removed a circular three-legged brazier, made of brass and dark and stained from years of use, and an equally timeworn brass bowl that sat atop it. He closed the chest and went over to the hearth, using the fire tongs to fish out glowing coals until the brazier was filled.
There seemed to be some ongoing commotion downstairs, but as yet it had not disturbed him, so he continued.
He returned to the middle of the room and settled cross-legged on the floor, the brazier beside him. He opened the box and removed each of the carefully wrapped contents, mumbling a blessing and repeating the sign of the hammer above each as he unwrapped them. Once all the preparations were complete he rested his hands on his knees and focused his attention on the crimson embers in the tray. He breathed deeply, clearing his mind of distractions.
“Sigmar, Ulric, Taal, Deities unnamed but revered, and honoured ancestors and allies alike, I appeal to you through these words and deeds of power. Heed my call.”
He took a piece of chalk and drew a large circle on the boards in front of him, all the while mumbling prayers to Sigmar under his breath. Within it he drew a second smaller circle, and then divided the whole into eight segments. He paused to refer to his notebook, then copied a symbol into each segment.
“Hysh, I acknowledge your flow with the illumination that I set at the points, and Chamon, I honour you with the metal in which those lights stand.” He placed a wax candle seated in a gleaming golden pricket at each point of the circle. “Aqshy, you I represent with the coals that heat my brazier.” He lit a taper from the embers, and mumbling words of protection he transferred the flame to each of the candles in turn.
“Uglu and Azyr and Shyish, you are recognised through these tributes, black silk to symbolise the shadows that surround us, bright jewels to represent the stars in the firmament, and bone to show the fate that awaits us all. And Ghyran, I pay homage with a fair bloom.” He laid out the scrap of cloth in the centre of the circle and scattered a few tiny gemstones across it. Next to them he placed a tiny polished vertebrae, and across them all a small red rose.
“But most honoured is Ghur, who is heeded with these talismans.” He scattered a few white feathers and some pointed teeth among the other items.
It seemed to get colder in the room, as though a chill breeze was blowing, although the flames on the candles remained steady and upright. He glanced around uncomfortably, suddenly aware of the darkness. It almost felt as though he was being watched.
He took a small ornately decorated knife and nicked his left thumb, letting a few drops of blood drip into the hot bowl. They hissed and spat and sent up a little curl of smoke. “With this my own blood I bind myself into the enchantment.”
Mr Abdecker reached across to the cage. The rat inside became frantic, throwing itself around and hissing evilly. He timed his moment and grabbed a pinch of its fleshy haunch as it pressed up against the mesh. The creature squealed horribly and spun to launch a bite, but he whipped his fingers away, along with a good clump of fur.
“And with this pelt I connect, through the flow of the wind of Ghur, to this creature.” He sprinkled the fur into the bowl, where it crackled and released a vile-smelling smoke. He flipped over the page of his notebook and began to invoke words of power, words that were able to influence and even change the subtle flow of the winds of magic, and as such the substance of reality around him.
His voice became distant and hollow in his own ears and the chamber seemed to curve away into infinity behind him.
He watched distractedly as his hands swung round to the cage, apparently of their own volition, and undid the catch on the door. Curious, he found himself thinking, how docile the rat had become. His voice, strange and deeply bass, continued the chant. His hands swung back to his knees and rested themselves there. The rat poked its nose out of the cage, sniffed the air, and scurried into the shadows.
One by one the candles guttered and flickered and then went out, each glowing wick leaving a thin tail of smoke in the still air.
And then everything snapped back to normality. The shock of it made his head spin.
He was drained, utterly exhausted. Wearily he wrapped each item, placing it back in the box, and when he was done he carefully put the box and the cage back into the chest. At last he slumped gratefully into one of the chairs.
Presently – Mr Abdecker had lost all sense of time – there came a knock. He pulled himself up out of his seat, walked stiffly across the room, released the latch, and opened the door a fraction. It was Captain Langer. He had donned comfortable clothing, including a soft leather cap with a ridiculously long feather.
“I brought a bottle”, he said, holding up the offending article. “Some cups, too. A local brew. Supposed to be quite good.”
Mr Abdecker grunted in reply and opened the door. He turned and wearily made his way back to the chair. The Captain joined him and busied himself pouring out generous measures of the spirit.
He handed one of the cups to Mr Abdecker. “Is it done?” he asked.
“Yes. The creature is released and is hurrying to join its brethren. Tomorrow, when it has had time enough to travel, I will do the Seeing. Then we shall know.” He sipped his drink and winced at the taste. “And you? How did it go with the … erm, good citizens.”
Captain Langer ran his hand down his face. “Reinhard von Schullenberg-Kültz, our brave Ensign of the Imperial Corps of Pistols, may Sigmar bless the little fool, is busy billeting the men and stabling the horses. He will be the most unpopular man in town before the night is out. Tomorrow I will entertain him with some searches and patrols. For my part, I have endured an evening of scripture and theology, shouted at me very loudly by a twisted and bigoted man who is utterly convinced of the rightness of his actions.”
He stood up, adopted an angry pose, and scowled out from under his eyebrows. “Thou shalt not suffer the servants of Daemons to live,” he yelled in a fair approximation of the Priest’s accent, “for they are the ordure of those that dwell beyond, they are vile filth. Thou shalt cleanse through flame, and the purity of fire shall sear the corruption of the flesh.” He straightened up and stretched. “Classical scripture.”
He sat down again and took a sip of his drink. “The trouble is … this stuff really is awful, isn’t it … the trouble is, he was convinced that I didn’t agree with his course of action, hence all the shouting, and my headache. Did I mention that I’ve got a headache?”
Mr Abdecker shook his head. “No.”
“The Priest has caused us trouble. He has antagonised them, and we don’t know what they’re likely to do. The man will cause us all manner of problems unless we get a firm grip on him.”
“And how do you propose we do that?”
“Well, Julius, tomorrow you have the chance to go over their papers and books, and see what little irregularities you can turn up. I’m going to do much the same. A few of those lay brothers looked shifty as you like, that’s for sure.” He swilled the liquor round in his cup. “Give me a headache, will they? I’ll show them.”
Otylia Tischler shook her husband’s shoulder until he woke up.
“What is it?” he grumbled groggily, peering around the dark room.
She drew breath sharply and cradled her swollen belly. “I think the baby’s coming.”
Rald was out of bed in an instant, grabbing his breeches and trying to pull them on. He tripped over the chamber pot and stubbed his toe on the leg of the bed. “Dammit” he mumbled.
Otylia found a strikelight and used it to light a candle.
Rald had managed to dress himself and was struggling with his shoes. “I’m going to fetch Mrs Heuscher from next door,” he gasped. “Will you be alright without me?”
His wife smiled and nodded, then winced as a contraction took her.
Rald made for the door, turned, and hurried back to the bed. He took her hand and kissed it tenderly, then made his way into the little kitchen. There was a crash and a muttered curse as he collided with another unseen obstacle.
Within a few minutes he had come back. Mrs Heuscher followed him into the bedroom.
“There, there, dear,” she said comfortingly. “I’ve sent my daughter to fetch Mrs Libehilfe. She’ll be here shortly.”
Otylia nodded, then screwed up her face and grunted as another contraction racked her body. She had Rald’s hand in her own and near crushed it.
There was a brisk rap on the front door. Rald extracted his aching paw and headed to greet the guests, leaving his wife in his neighbour’s care.
It was Mrs Heuscher’s daughter, newly returned with Mrs Libehilfe, the midwife. She was a grave and modest woman, dressed in a plain brown dress, a clean white apron, and a prim bonnet. In her left hand she carried a basket with a cloth cover, and in her right was a small hatchet.
Rald invited her in. “What’s that for?” he asked, pointing to the cleaver.
“It is to be placed under her bed, to cut the pain and length of the labour,” replied Mrs Libehilfe. Superstition, she new, but it made the women that she helped feel better, and that was a good thing. She set her basket on the table and began to remove the contents. It held the various implements that might be needed, and bottled tinctures and jars of unctions of her own devising.
Ralf turned to head back into the bedroom but Mrs Libehilfe shooed him away. “The birthing bed is no place for a man,” she said curtly. “You can light the fire and set the kettle and the pots to boil. And when you’ve done that go and fetch all of the clean linen that you have. And make sure there is enough cut wood to keep the fire going.”
And that was what he did. Once the fire was blazing and the water was hot there was little to occupy him except pacing up and down. Occasionally his wife cried out, and when she did it was all he could do to stop himself entering the bedroom. Common sense won through, though; she was in the best care, and besides, what could he do anyway? Eventually Mrs Heuscher emerged with her sleeves rolled up and collected one of the pots of hot water.
“How is she?” Rald asked anxiously.
“Her confinement is almost done”
“When may I see her?”
The midwife appeared at the door. “Go and attend to your duties with the militia, or something like that,” she ordered. “You will be sent for when you are needed.”
Rald had no choice but to wait. Better in company, he thought to himself. He donned his heavy cape and with a last long glance at the bedroom door he headed off.
He found himself at the watchtower on the Nordküstestraße, where a few militiamen were standing sentry-go, warming themselves at a metal brazier. He told them what was happening and they were immediately forthcoming with that unique blend of crudity and sympathy at which soldiers excel. A big jug of spirit was produced and passed round “to wet the baby’s head”. Rald gratefully accepted.
And so the hours passed. Just before first light Brother Hans made his appearance and the corporal of the watch gave his report.
“And what are you doing here, Mr Tischler?” enquired the Priest.
Rald, tired and worried and just a little drunk, told of his imminent fatherhood. Brother Hans at once performed a blessing, but when he was asked to undertake the same service for the mother and child he declined.
“It is not proper for me to do so until the child is safely delivered and has lived for one full day,” he said gravely. “Besides, Mrs Libehilfe will carry out all of those ceremonies and rituals proper for Shallya, which are required during childbirth. And she’ll be with you for a few days yet.”
“How so?” asked Rald.
“Do you think poor Otylia will be recovered enough to do all of her chores? It is normal for the midwife to remain in the household for a few days to allow the mother to gain back her strength, you know.”
A few of the older militiamen grinned. They had children of their own and knew what Rald could expect.
“She’s a stern one is old Hedwig,” ventured one of the troopers. “You’re going to have to make sure your boots are clean and your neck is washed, that’s for sure!”
“And for the sake of Sigmar don’t call her Hedwig,” chimed in another, “or your first child will most definitely be your last!”
And just at that moment Mrs Heuscher’s daughter appeared. “Please Mr Tischler, Sir,” she panted, “but Mrs Libehilfe says that you are to return now.”
Brother Hans slapped Rald on the back and shook him firmly by the hand. “It is time to find out what your good wife has produced,” he said, grinning from ear to ear. The young man cast him a panicked stare and rushed off down the road.
He came to a halt outside of his house. From within came a choked squawking, the unmistakable wailing of an infant who has just found what its lungs are for. With his heart pounding he pushed open the door and peered anxiously into the kitchen. Mrs Libehilfe was there, preparing to do some washing.
She glanced up at him and smiled. “Congratulations,” she said, “you have a beautiful baby son. Both mother and child are doing well. You can go and see them now.”
Sergeant Felsen’s detachment tramped rather than marched along the bleak grey Feldweg, sidestepping the puddles and ruts and huddling into their doublets as measure against the spitting rain. All had shields slung over their shoulders and sheathed swords on their belts, and one of their number carried a small wooden casket.
The tall shingled barn that marked the edge of the village loomed out of the grey haze. They passed the damp structure and followed the track into the fenced paddock where the burning had taken place the previous night. The swordsmen filed through the gate, formed a line, and stood to attention. Their breath misted in the chill air.
The Sergeant followed his men to the gate then stopped in the cover of a bush that grew there. He stood for a few moments, then made his way back out onto the track, disappearing into the nebulous grey. He was absent for a minute or two, then reappeared at the entrance. He paused, walked over to the troops with a thoughtful look on his face, and began to pace up and down in front of them.
“Monke, Schwarz, Corporal Schmidt, you get that mess sorted,” he barked, pointing to the heap of charred timbers and ashes in the centre of the field. The stake still stood and steamed, and what was left of the creature hung obscenely from it. “Any bone, fur, or flesh, put it in the box, and put your gloves on before you start. Get to it, lads. Tascher and Beinmann, you’re with me.”
The three troopers set about their grisly work. The blackened skull was largely intact, along with the flesh-crusted upper parts of the ribcage and spine, though the jaw and the arms had fallen away. The pieces were pulled down and collected, and then the soldiers set to kicking through the rain-sodden ashes to look out any other fragments.
Sergeant Felsen and his squad ambled out of the field and back down the track again towards the barn. “You’ll notice, lads,” said the veteran, indicating towards the building, “that the left door is ajar. When we came past just a few minutes ago it was closed. I had a feeling we were being followed but I didn’t see anyone, so we’re going to take a little look.”
As the group neared the dark-walled structure they stopped and waited for a few moments. “Looks clear,” mumbled the Sergeant. “You two go in through the front, I’ll take the back.” He waited for nods of acknowledgement, then ducked off along the brambles and undergrowth that grew in profusion along the building’s edge, quickly disappearing from view in the murk. Both soldiers unslung their shields, drew their swords, and advanced cautiously. The leading man, Beinmann, eased the door open with his shoulder. It creaked softly.
There was an audible gasp from the gloom and a sudden movement. Straw fell and motes of dust danced in the air.
Beinmann burst in with his shield held before him and his sword in his hand, but not knowing his bearings paused for a moment to orientate himself. He caught sight of a shape disappearing into the hayloft, then Tascher pushed through next to him, blade at the ready. There was a creak from above as a door or shutter was opened. The two soldiers, braced for action, peered around and moved into the empty byre, cautious in case there were others hiding.
There was a crunch and a muffled “ooof!” from outside, and a few moments later the Sergeant walked in through the door with a wriggling, kicking youth held firmly under his arm. The lad, dark-haired and thin-faced and barely into his teens, was barefoot and splashed with mud and swore profanely at his captors. Sergeant Felsen set him down and cuffed him round the ear.
“You’re in enough trouble already, sonny. Might be best if you kept quiet.”
A quick search uncovered a trapdoor in the floor that had been partially covered in straw – the youth had been in the process of disguising it. When the hatch was pulled open a cellar was revealed, and in it were six barrels, two of a fine vintage of Marienburg brandy and four of strong geniver. From the look of them they had been there for at least a couple of weeks.
A search of their captive turned up, significantly, half a silver schilling. The youth bristled with indignation and fury at its loss.
“Assisting smugglers, boy, that’s a pretty serious charge,” growled Sergeant Felsen. “That makes you a smuggler too. You know what they do to smugglers, don’t you?
The lad stared straight ahead, his arms folded across his chest.
“They string ‘em up, that’s what they do! Stretch their necks, leave ‘em dangling and kicking and pissing in their breeches. Big men, the drop breaks their necks nice and quick, but a little squirt like you, it could take minutes. Reckon it hurts, too, what with that rough old rope cutting in. Nasty business.”
The boy had gone quiet.
“Seen an execution or two, ain’t we lads?” The soldiers mumbled agreement. “They like to make a bit of a show of it, keep the crowd entertained and all. Bit of a build-up, taunt you some, read out the charges. Then they put the rope round, but they make you wait before the drop, until … just … the … right … moment …, and … BANG!
The lad jumped near out of his skin.
“A really good hangman, well, he could keep you dancing for ten minutes even,” said the Sergeant. “The noose tight enough to kill you, but loose enough to do it nice … and … slow.” He leaned down towards the boy’s ear. “Ten minutes,” he whispered, “imagine that. Agony. Every second like an hour.”
The boy had gone very pale.
“Fancy it, do you? No? Well, if you were to mention who gave you this …” Felsen held up the half coin for dramatic effect “… maybe I could talk to a few people. You help me, I’ll help you. If not…” He clasped his fingers around his throat, contorted his face, and made a horrible choking noise.
The boy wobbled and swallowed, then looked up at the two soldiers either side of them. “I didn’t know, I’m not a smuggler, honest.” He sounded on the verge of tears. “Hans Kessel gave he that…” he pointed at the money with a trembling finger “… to come up here and cover over the trapdoor. That’s all. Please don’t hang me, I didn’t do anything!”
Sergeant Felsen stared at the boy, then nodded at the soldiers. “You two stay by the door and keep an eye on our little find,” he ordered, “while I go and check on the lads. I’ll take junior here with me.”
Where the brown waters of the Schleimigbach became the Feinkohlemündung, where the salt waters of the Sea of Claws gradually nibbled away at the flat wetlands, was a great expanse of sodden marshland. To outsiders it was little different to any other part of the swamps that covered this coast, but not to the men of the fens. To them it was unique and valuable. They called it the Unreinfluß.
It was an almost endless collection of ponds and lakes, some brackish and some of fresh water, linked by a shifting maze of shallow streams and saturated mud scoured smooth twice daily by the sea’s tidal flow. Occasionally, however, the flats bore great expanses of yellowed sedges, vast watery reed beds, and meadows of coarse long-stalked grasses. There were even stands of wind-sculpted willow here and there. It was treacherous and boggy, and almost always shrouded in fogs and mists.
However, it teemed with life. There were crabs and lobsters and all manner of things in shells, fish small and big, and birds, including bitterns, ducks, geese, cranes, gulls, and even noble, elusive harriers. Birds made a welcome addition to the diets of the neighbourhood, and those who braved the wetlands to hunt them could make a decent living.
A particularly favoured spot for such wildfowl was a broad mere called the Entewasser. It had many drier areas around its edges that were ideal for setting camp, and the lie of the land was good for netting. Wolfgang Müller and Gunter Braun had been there since before dawn.
“Eight,” mumbled Gunter from around a huge bite of meat pie. “That’s not bad. And I only lost one arrow.” Occasional drops of rain fell, accentuating the intense odour of humus and decay. He glanced up at the layer of heavy grey clouds.
His dog, sitting at her master’s feet and transfixed by the food, sensed his distraction and made a move for the wedge of cheese he was holding in his other hand. “Down, Heidi, bad dog!” he shouted, spitting crumbs of pastry.
Wolfgang grunted. He was never the most vocal of men.
“Of course, if I’d been luckier I might have bagged more, but I shouldn’t be greedy. Eight is quite reasonable.” The huntsman took another huge bite of pie and brushed a lock of wet hair from his eyes. “And what with your six, not a bad catch at all.”
“In a minute, girl,” said Gunter in a firmer tone of voice. But the dog didn’t quieten. It got to its feet and padded to the waters edge, all the while growling.
“What’s got into her?”
They felt it more than heard it at first, a resonating, deep and bass, which seeped up through the ground and made the water ripple. The vibration seemed to lessen a little, but was overtaken by a solid, heavy thud. The shock of the crash became another dull rumble that gradually faded to nothing. The silence held for just a moment, then startled birds began shrill calls. Heidi, trembling from her nose to the tip of her tail, barked and growled.
Gunter stared at his friend with wide eyes. “What in the name of Taal was that?”
“I don’t know.”
“Should we go and look?”
Both men snatched up their packs and equipment and hurriedly donned them. “Go, Heidi!” shouted Gunter, and the dog streaked off into the mist. They dashed after her.
They followed the length of the promontory on which they had made camp and splashed across an expanse of firm, damp mud dotted with clumps of stranded seaweed. The mud merged into the flowing waters of a stream, on the far side of which was an irregular, fence-like shore of tall green reeds. The fog hung in dense banks above the sluggish waters, but the shadowy outlines of trees indicated that there was firmer footing beyond.
The dog, barely visible in the grey drizzle, waded through the water, sniffing back and forth along the thick stalks. Eventually she found a game trail and pushed her way through. The hunters, who had paused to catch their breath, exchanged glances and set off after her.
The stream was almost knee-deep in the middle but became shallower again towards the reeds. Wolfgang shouldered his way in among the stiff green stems and Gunter followed, eventually emerging onto a marshy shore covered in sedges and sphagnum. The ground gently trended upwards into the mist, becoming firm enough to support a few twisted and black-barked willows that were barely as tall as a man.
Heidi was only a few yards off, sniffing the ground again and whining. She looked across at her master and then was away. The men exchanged glances and set off after her. They laboured up the slope, crested the rise, and stared in astonishment.
The centre of the island had collapsed.
The subsidence, which was loosely triangular in shape and had a curiously regular quality about it, had to be near twenty yards along its longest edge. Here and there flecks of white could be seen. The interior was a mess of mud and roots and debris, and gnarled timbers, blackened and ancient, jutted skywards from the centre.
Gunter pointed into the hole. “Its deeper than the water,” he said, “but it ain’t flooding.” Something worried him. He pulled his bow from his quiver, fished his bowstring from an inside pocket, unrolled the tough twine, and strung the weapon.
Wolfgang grunted. “I’m going to look at those beams. There’s a few schillings-worth there, I’d wager.” He tested his footing on the loose slope and began a measured, careful slide down towards the centre. Heidi, who was now silent, sniffed her way around the edges of the fall.
Gunter watched his friend work his way down, then made his way to the cusp of the slope where the vertical straight edge first became apparent. The dense layer of moss and grasses that had grown above it now hung down in a torn and ragged screen.
A fragment of white caught his attention, gleaming amid the clods of umber earth just at the very top of the slump. He knelt down, placed his bow beside him, and carefully excavated with his knife. He unearthed a stone the size of a fist, creamy white along a fresh break but otherwise caked in layers of clay and dirt. He picked off the worst of the mud with his fingers, revealing a face that had been finished. Splashes of rain carried away trickles of the remaining soil, revealing a filigree of carving.
“What is this place?” he whispered to himself as he tucked it inside his snapsack, nestling it below the ducks he had caught earlier.
Something moved a few yards from Wolfgang … a clod of dirt dropped from view. A hole was appearing in the spoil around the wood.
A rat scurried out of the hole and along one of the beams. It sat on its haunches, cocky as you like, sniffing the air and peering around. It was a sturdy beast with beady eyes and long yellow incisors. Its dark fur was matted with dried mud. Wolfgang stared at it.
Heidi had frozen. She began a deep rolling growl.
A swarm of rats emerged, boiling out of the hollow, squeaking and swarming over the ground. The hole widened as their weight and scurrying claws pulled lumps of muck and dirt away. The dog, staring loll-tongued from the rim of the fall, tensed for a second and then sprang, diving among the panicking vermin and snatching the creatures up in its jaws. It joyfully despatched each victim with a savage flick and sprang after more.
From the hole there emerged a clawed hand clasping a jagged-bladed knife, followed by a head, as big as that of a child but quite inhuman. The snout was long and scab-crusted, the small red eyes gleamed, the round pink ears were torn, and the stained yellow teeth were chipped and uneven. Its pelt, or at least what could be seen of it, was scarred and the brown fur grew in untidy clumps. It seemed to be struggling to get free.
Wolfgang was scrambling backwards, trying to get away from the thing. He couldn’t seem to find his footing.
Gunter grabbed his bow and stood up. He pulled an arrow from his quiver, nocked it in the string, drew a bead, and let fly.
The shaft pierced the creature just below the eye, killing it instantly. It went rigid for a moment and then limp, dropping back down the hole. Wolfgang looked across to his friend and spun round onto all fours, scrabbling up the loose dirt.
“Come on!” yelled Gunter. He turned and sprinted down the slope and into the scant cover offered by the willows. The mist hung in tendrils around the trees and made it difficult to see. He caught his breath and pulled two arrows from his quiver, clamping one between his teeth and nocking the other into the bowstring.
Just for a moment the mists parted and he saw Wolfgang, in grey silhouette, crest the rise. There was the sound of a high-pitched canine yelp, cut painfully short, from behind him. Wolfgang tripped and fell, sprawling on the ground.
“Come on!” he mumbled from around the arrow, his arm outstretched in a futile gesture of aid. The mists closed again.
Something moved ahead of him. His fingers returned to the string. “Wolfgang?” he called, his voice distorted by the shaft between his teeth, but the only response was a sudden burst of footsteps moving to his right. He tracked the movement and squinted through the gloom, then caught a glimpse of a form. He drew back the string and fired.
His target collapsed backwards with a shriek, slipping down the muddy bank and writhing grotesquely, grasping ineffectually at the shaft jutting from its abdomen. Mercifully the mists swallowed it up, though he could still hear its muffled squeals and grunts.
Even before his target had fallen Gunter had nocked the other arrow.
A shape loomed out of the murk, off to his left and little more than a shadow. He fired again, more on instinct than aim, and was rewarded with another fleshy thwack. There was a heavy thud as the target tumbled, a sudden burst of violent thrashing, then silence.
A shriek rang out from ahead of him. It took him a moment to realise that it was Wolfgang.
Gunter drew another arrow from his quiver and nocked it into the string, then began to back away. He was panting, he realised, his hands were shaking, and he was clammy with sweat. From all around he heard noises.
They’d got Wolfgang. And Heidi. If he stayed, he reasoned, they were going to get him too. Sigmar alone knew how many of the horrors there were. The only sensible thing to do was to leave.
He backed towards the reeds, keeping his eyes towards the willows.
The mist seemed to be lighter away from the trees, and again he caught a glimpse of movement. More of them, at least three … no, four. He could barely make them out, but they seemed to have caught his scent and were peering towards him.
The nearest pair of the creatures uttered high-pitched shrieks and launched forward. For just a moment he thought about firing again, but chose against it and struggled his way into the reed bed. They were chasing him.
Fear lent him wings. He crashed noisily through the tall stalks, glancing back and catching sight of the plants behind him whipping back and forth, betraying the positions of his pursuers. A treacherous root tripped him and he lost his footing, stumbling and nearly falling flat on his face. He dropped his bow and the arrow as he fought to retain his balance, then tumbled with a splash into the stream.
He dragged himself to his feet, coughing and streaming water, and loped towards the mud. He struggled up it, the thick mire sucking at his boots and slowing him to a painful crawl. Gasping for breath and with his muscles aching he dragged himself onto firmer land. He drew his knife and surveyed the shore, searching back and forth for any sign of movement. There was none.
He turned and ran as fast as he could to where he and Wolfgang had moored their punt. He cast off and made for home with the greatest possible haste.
Captain Langer, clad in his plain armour and with a rain-dampened cape around his shoulders, walked through the narthex and into the nave. The building was plain and clean and the air was heavy with the heady aroma of incense. He paused to bow towards the altar and make the sign of the hammer across his chest. A brother-initiate, busy in one of the transepts, took slow, measured paces to his side.
“I am Brother Otto,” he announced. “How may I assist?”
“I wish to speak to Brother Franz.”
“I’m sorry,” replied the clergyman, “he’s away tending to the needs of one of the parishioners at the moment. He may be some time.”
“Hmmm.” The Captain idly tapped a finger on the pommel of his sword. “Then maybe you can tell me who possesses the byre and paddock on the far northern side of the village?”
“On the Feldweg? Both the barn and the paddock are part of the church’s holdings. They are generally used to store tithes, and when they are needed they can be used by the local folk. For a small fee, of course. I believe they are under lease even now. I am sorry, but I do not have the appropriate papers to show you at this time.”
“Do you know who is responsible for checking their usage, perhaps?”
“Both myself and Brother Hans. One or the other of us inspects all of the various properties and holdings of the church every week to ensure that no harm has come to them.”
“And this Brother Hans, would he by any chance be one Hans Kessel?”
“Related to one Georg?”
“Yes,” answered the Priest. “Hans is his younger brother.”
“Thankyou,” breathed Captain Langer, looking up to the heavens and making the sign of the hammer across his chest again. Brother Otto looked at him strangely.
“Barrels of contraband spirits were found in a cellar within that property, Brother Otto. An individual was apprehended in the act of hiding that contraband. Under questioning he revealed that he had been paid by one Hans Kessel to hide the barrels. I made certain enquiries and discovered that the said building is currently under lease to one Georg Kessel, who, you have just informed me, is the older sibling of Hans Kessel. I smell conspiracy to defraud, Brother Otto.”
The priest’s mouth opened and closed as thoughts raced through his mind, though no sound emerged.
“You have implicated yourself too, Brother Otto,” continued Captain Langer. “Those barrels have been there for some time, so either you are a party to the activities that placed them there, or you have been negligent in your duties to the church, in that your searches to guarantee the security of the building have been less than thorough. Which, of course, brings into question all of the other duties that you’ve performed. There will doubtless be … consequences. All of the obvious secular drawbacks, of course, with trials and fines and executions and the like, but then there would be the ecclesiastical repercussions as well.”
“How do you mean?”
“Matters of this nature will quickly come to the attention of your See at Salzenmund, perhaps even to the eyes of the Lector himself. What with the empty Electoral seat being run from Middenheim and the resulting growth of the church of Ulric, the followers of that god now outnumber Sigmar’s faithful within this Province. Your church’s revenue and influence are dwindling, Brother Otto, and your Prelacy will be less than pleased to discover that you have been doing harm to their good name at such a crucial time.”
He paused for dramatic effect. “The Electors themselves may even pressure them to do some housekeeping, and where would that leave you, or Brother Hans, or Brother Franz even?”
“Would you excuse me for … just…” mumbled the cleric as he strode down the nave and out through the doors. Captain Langer clasped his hands behind his back, paced over to the wall, and peered at the carved wooden frieze running around them. It was almost the only decoration and depicted mighty fur-clad barbarians locked in savage combat with all kinds of monsters and terrors. The composition was excellent and the actual detail was exquisite.
It didn’t take Brother Franz long to appear. He stormed in, his scarlet robes streaming and an ornate hammer clasped in his hand. Initiates and lay brothers trailed in his furious wake. “What’s all this I hear?” he bellowed.
Captain Langer smiled amiably. “Fine carvings you have here. Really very good workmanship.”
“I’m a great admirer of ecclesiastical architecture. I see quite a lot in the course of my work. The quality of the woodwork is really very fine. Some of the best I’ve seen on the northern coast.”
“Never mind that!” the Priest thundered. “You have been making accusations!”
“I have?” Captain Langer looked up at the roof. The beams and trusses were all very neat and true, and turned bosses were set at all the joints. “Maybe it’s the tradition of building boats that accounts for it,” he said to no one in particular. “Exceptional, quite exceptional.”
The Captain’s disinterest seemed to have drawn the Priest’s rancour; he was used to people paying attention when he raised his voice. He took a deep breath. “We should talk.”
Captain Langer met him with a steady gaze. “Yes, we should,” he answered. “Would you prefer to go over things here, or do you have a chamber where we may enjoy a little privacy?”
Once they were safely away and seated the Captain once more explained the situation. Brother Franz sprang to his feet and denied all knowledge, placing the blame squarely onto the Initiates under his advocacy. He raged and fumed, and Langer let him do so. Eventually the severity of the situation took a hold in the Priest’s mind, and miserably he sat back down.
“What is to be done, Captain?” he asked.
“I’m sure that in return for your co-operation we could come to some mutually beneficial arrangement.”
“And what exactly do you mean by co-operation?” For a moment the light of hope shone in the Priest’s eyes. A pay-off, perhaps? Or a favour owed in return for silence?
At that moment Captain Langer knew for certain that Brother Franz was deeply involved in whatever nefarious activities were being carried on. And who, in all honesty, could blame him? The Church provided little support for such a backwater, the area was poor in resources, there were constant dangers, and there was precious little return for the taxes that were paid to the Province.
The Captain fished around in a pouch on his belt and recovered a small flask, taking a draught of the spirit it contained. He offered it but it was refused.
“My duties are more than as a mere inspector of revenue,” he said. “Such a role is useful, though, for it gives me a great deal of access to places and to information. Mr Abdecker and myself have been charged with hunting down and destroying creatures of the kind that you killed last night.”
He took another swig of the liquor.
“For reasons that still escape me” he continued, “certain authorities within our great Empire dismiss the notion of these creatures existing. It is rather like a fellow who dismisses the existence of a tree, and all the while he is standing in a forest. Fortunately there are a few of our peers who are more enlightened. It is they who have charged us with our mission and provided the means for us to carry it out. But in order to do that we will need two things from you.”
“I … see,” said the Priest slowly. “And these things would be?”
“Firstly, we require intelligence. We have been tracking a large group of these creatures for many months. We know that their nest is nearby, but the exact location escapes us still. I would consider it beneficial…” he laid a heavy emphasis on the word “… if your good Brothers could go and talk to the parishioners, particularly those who spend time in the marshes, and gather all of the stories about strange happenings that they tell. Be sure to send men who can write, so that they may note down all of the details, and when they are done have them bring those reports back to me. And with all haste, too – before the day is out, ideally.”
The Priest nodded. “That can be arranged.”
“Second, I suspect that there is going to be a big fight, and I will need your men when that time comes.”
“A battle? With whom?” asked the Priest.
Captain Langer was incredulous. Who else would it be? “Those creatures,” he replied acidly. “They’re called Skaven, you know. They have a considerable force.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. If there were an army around here I’d surely know of it.”
“They are out there, Brother. Every man, woman and child in this town, and in the other communities around these parts, is in the gravest danger. There are not ten of these creatures, or twenty, or fifty even. There are thousands. We are terribly outnumbered by them, and you have angered them.”
“You exaggerate numbers, surely? Someone would have seen such a force. Besides, how would there be enough food for that many?”
“No, Brother Franz, I do not exaggerate at all. These creatures, for the most part, live in tunnels that they excavate, and I suspect that for the moment at least they have provisions. I believe that they gained those provisions from merchant barges on the lower reaches of the Schleimigbach. Several looted and burned hulls were discovered about a week ago, along with evidence that strongly suggests that Skaven were responsible.”
“This is nonsense…”
“It is not. Soon they will be hungry, and I have seen the effect of that. All they leave behind is desolation and pestilence and death.”
“If what you say is true, Captain, then we are doomed. Our only sensible course of action is to abandon this place while we still can.”
Captain Langer snorted. “You would give up these folk’s homes so easily? All that they have toiled and sweated for?”
“And what would you have me do, good Captain?” snapped back the Priest. “Leave them to be slaughtered by monsters? Is that what you suggest?”
The Captain took another gulp from his flask. “No, there is another way. We draw them out and attack them at a place and a time of our own choosing.”
“And how exactly do you propose we do that?”
“To be honest, Brother, I can’t yet answer that question. But I will need the Militia, and above all I will need you to lead and inspire them. And I also need to be confident that when the time comes you will carry out my orders.”
“You have no idea of the strength of your enemy, other than that there are some thousands of them, while we can barely muster two hundred. You have no real idea of where this enemy is, or how you will go about fighting them…”
Captain Langer held up his finger. “Not true!” he interjected. “I do know how to fight them.”
“So the choice I have comes down to becoming your lackey on a suicidal enterprise, or…”
“… or not. In which case I hand my findings over to the appropriate authorities, and we let justice take its course. Assuming that you’re still alive to face whatever charges may be brought against you.” Captain Langer grinned affably. “The choice, of course, is entirely yours.”
The Priest furrowed his brow and scowled. “So be it. I will assist you.”
The atmosphere in the jolly boat was miserable. Everyone huddled into their cloaks, their hats pulled down over their ears, damp and bored and wishing they were back aboard the Bösewicht The rain landed in big heavy splashes, sending a fine spray off of the water and making the boards slick. The chill grey mist hung heavy, laden with the stink of seaweed and stagnant water and mud.
A fishing line trailed from the gunwale of the little boat.
Captain Fuchs had spent the morning trying to take sightings from his fixed points. The most prominent was a small island, about a mile off, on which there stood a single willow tree. Others included a number of distinctively shaped banks of reeds and mud flats that only submerged at the highest tides. However, they were only visible when the weather was clear, and on a foul day like today there was little to be done.
Jürgen had assured them that the weather would lift by the middle of the day at the latest, and his judgement was rarely wrong. But it seemed that today he could be mistaken.
“Gentlemen,” said the Captain from within the folds of his muffler “I have to announce that I consider our task to be done. We are now crossing old ground, or rather old water, to check our previous findings, and I am glad to inform you that our results remain the same. As such I see little benefit from remaining here catching our deaths of colds.”
There was a general murmur of approval from the others.
“I propose to complete the chart this evening – it is all but done anyway – and present it to Dr Ungerade either on the morrow or the day after. We shall then get our money and be away.”
Josef’s shout startled everyone. The fishing line had gone taut.
Max retrieved a net from the kit lying in the bottom of the boat and rushed to Josef’s side. His movement set the little craft rocking from side to side and earned him a tirade of curses.
“Easy, you brute,” muttered Josef to the fish.
He wound the line around a belaying pin that he used for the purpose. With muscles straining he hauled in his catch, but the creature was strong. He let it run out a little, a few loops of the twine jerking over of the end of the pin, then hauled again.
Everyone peered to see what he had snared. Presently they were rewarded with a flash of silver-green amid the dark waters.
The battle continued back and forth until the beast became exhausted. When it was close enough Max scooped it into the net. Jürgen went to help, and the pair of them brought aboard a mottled green pike of impressive proportions. It thrashed and gasped in the shallow rainwater sloshing around in the bottom of the boat.
Josef cracked it a mighty blow on the base of its skull with the belaying pin. Then he hit it again, just to be sure. The fish had a muscle spasm that set its flanks twitching.
“That’ll make a fine supper,” said Jürgen. “Do you think Ernst will know how to cook it?”
“It’ll be muddy,” announced Anton. “All of them are, from these waters, ‘cos of the silt. You want to get rid of the muddy taste, you put them in a tank of running water for about a week or so. Alive, of course. Then they taste good. That was a trick my old grandpa had.”
Fuchs held out his hand and tested the weather. The rain was definitely easing and the visibility did seem to be improving.
“Jürgen, you seem to have been proved right,” he announced. “I do believe we shall continue here until the end of the day, just to be sure. Have good cheer, lads, for our work is very near done.”
Those last few hours were really going to drag.
The afternoon was dull and dreary, but somehow Mr Abdecker’s darkened chamber seemed gloomier and less welcoming than the bleak outdoors. Captain Langer glanced at the litter of charts and depositions scattered about the room and settled deeper into the chair by the fire. He wrapped his long cloak a little tighter around his legs, glad to be out of his armour.
Mr Abdecker prepared himself, setting his accoutrements before him; the brazier, filled with glowing embers and with the brass bowl set upon it, a single candle set into a golden pricket, and an earthernware washbowl. This he filled with water, muttering a prayer of protection while the liquid settled mirror still.
He settled himself cross-legged on the floor next to the circle he had drawn the previous night. He opened his notebook and thumbed through the leaves until he found the appropriate page. He referred to a particular set of notations and began a soft, low chant, words of power and invocation, only occasionally glancing back to the spidery jottings.
The water in the washbowl seemed to ripple, as though blown by a gentle breeze. He could feel its ghostly caress on his skin and it filled his nostrils with the pungence of fur and breath and blood. But the flame on the candle was steady and the papers lay flat and unmoving on the floor.
“Through this sacrifice, I invoke and stir the winds of Ghur. He pricked his thumb and squeezed a few drops of blood into the hot bowl atop the brazier. It hissed briefly and evaporated. “Transport my essence so that I become one with my servant, bound by me to become my vessel.”
The water in the washbowl transfixed him, it’s surface again limpid. It seemed to draw him in. His head swam and for a moment he felt nauseous.
He seemed to be floating above his own head.
Everything became like a half-remembered dream. The room around him bowed and stretched away into infinity, though he could still see the far wall. The taste of wine in his mouth, the hard wood below his buttocks, even the texture of his clothes against his skin, all were distant and nebulous and were sensations belonging to someone else. The only remaining fragment of reality was the water.
And then there was darkness. It surrounded him and smothered him, enveloping him forever and yet for no time at all.
Not total darkness. Here and there were areas of light, or rather not so dark. It was almost as though he was peering through a fish bowl. Gradually he became aware of colours, greys and greens and shades of red, but they were dull and hollow. And then the smell! Intense wafts and pungent odours, a thousand subtleties contained within a single zephyr. Some were warm and familiar and comforting, but others, sharper and keener, were laden with menace and danger. Stronger feelings sleeted through him, warmth and cold, gnawing hunger, and overwhelming, saturating fear.
Mr Abdecker gasped for breath. His brow was furrowed and beaded with sweat.
He was not alone. He was in the presence of teeming masses, hordes of scurrying shapes and fleeting shadows… There were other things, beings, indistinct but tall and upright, and with them came that same deep sense of fear.
And darkness again, sudden and intense. The shock of it bowled him over backwards.
He opened his eyes. For a moment he was disorientated. He was lying on his back and Captain Langer was crouching down beside him.
“Are you all right, old fellow?” the soldier asked, concern etched across his face.
Mr Abdecker nodded. He eased himself back upright and gave himself a few moments to regain his composure. When he was ready he reached inside his shirt and retrieved a pendant, a natural crystal shaped like a teardrop and hung on a golden chain. He lifted it over his head and suspended it from the fingers of his right hand, then held his arm out vertically.
“The map,” he croaked.
Captain Langer scrabbled for the charts and spread them out on the floor. He selected a sketch of the town and placed it below his companion’s hand.
“May the winds of Ghur sway this my talisman.” intoned Mr Abdecker.
The crystal began to circle, but with every loop its orbit became more oval, until finally it swung back and forth in a direction that the compass rose indicated as north by west. To be certain Captain Langer gave the vellum a quarter turn. Gradually the crystal’s swing became circular, then settled into an oval, and finally became a back and forth motion that was again north by west.
“The map of the marshes, quickly.”
Captain Langer scrabbled around and found the appropriate chart. It was poorly detailed, but it had marked on it the rudimentary positions of the major streams, the larger lakes, and the islands. He slid it under Mr Abdecker’s outstretched arm. The crystal began to circle again, and once more the swing became an oval. Captain Langer and Mr Abdecker exchanged glances. Eventually it settled into a back and forth motion that was a little south of west.
Mr Abdecker lowered his hand and the Captain passed him a tankard of beer. He took a mouthful. “So, west of the marshes and north-west of the town,” he said, “which places our little friend squarely in the waters of the Schleimigbach.”
“Could it be swimming?”
“No. It was clearly in a dry place. There were … other … things there as well. They could have been men. I couldn’t tell.”
Captain Langer got up and walked over to the window. His eyes came to rest on the little brig bobbing at anchor. “Could it perhaps have been aboard a ship?”
Mr Abdecker looked at him. “I do believe it could,” he replied.
Captain Langer picked up some of the depositions from the floor, then settled himself back into the chair by the fire. “The priest has been very prompt in producing these,” he said. “They make interesting reading. A lot are mere gibberish, and I have set them aside. Of those which are pertinent, about a half relate to people losing livestock, and about two thirds of the remainder are sightings of our quarry. These we will study in greater detail, for they may reveal valuable clues.”
He waved the papers he clutched. “But, all of the stories that are left, they relate to the activities of a group of sailors, the ones on that foreign-looking ship in the harbour.”
“Schlammigerdorf doesn’t have a harbour, to be precise,” countered Mr Abdecker. “Big vessels anchor in the deepwater channel. There is a part that escapes the worst effects of tide and current, though it is exposed to the weather. Shallow-draught vessels and small craft may make it up to the pilings, but they get beached at low tide.”
The Captain blinked at him.
“Erm, well, yes. These sailors spend all their days among the marshes to the north of the town,” he said, “and every few days the Commander of this group visits a rather reclusive individual by the name of Dr Cornelius Ungerade. The fellow maintains a large estate along the Nordküstestraße. However, I should stress that this Ungerade is very well spoken of.”
“Indeed.” Mr Abdecker began to pack away the items, blessing each as he did so. When he was done he put on his coat and hat. “You and our brave young Ensign should continue about your martial duties,” he suggested. “I believe I will pay a visit to our friends aboard that ship.”
Captain Langer nodded. “I agree. However, if you’re going visiting, you’re taking someone to watch your back. Sergeant Felsen will assign you an escort, just to be safe.”
Mr Abdecker and a squad of five soldiers were ferried out to the Bösewicht aboard one of the grubby little smacks. The grizzled old fishermen who manned the helm and trimmed the sails hailed the ship as they approached.
Lukas peered down from the forechains and scanned the visitors, then disappeared from view. A few moments later old Sepp’s head appeared, followed by Ernst’s, and then the pair ducked back out of sight. The sound of hushed conversation filtered down, then Lukas appeared at the waist.
“You may come aboard,” he called.
The boat was brought alongside, and with more agility than his rangy frame would have suggested Mr Abdecker climbed through the entryport and onto the deck. He straightened his clothing, adjusted his hat, and surveyed his surroundings. “Where is your Captain, young man?” he asked.
“He is about his duties, Sir. He will be back soon, within the next half-hour, I’d wager.”
“I shall wait.”
The handgunners following behind him were making a meal of coming aboard. One barked his shin on the port lip and swore, stopping his climb and in turn holding up everyone behind him. The three sailors hurried to the aid of the lubbers, and while they were distracted Mr Abdecker strode off to the aft companion ladder. In a moment he was in place on the quarterdeck, and there he remained, pacing back and forth, until the Bösewicht’s crew returned.
And had Lukas actually put money down he would have won.
Fuchs and the men, having spotted their visitors, remained quiet until the jollyboat came alongside the brig. The Captain scaled the side and glanced at the soldiers, who stared impassively back, then took charge as his sea chest was swung aboard. When it was safely on the deck he headed aft. He paused at the wardroom door and looked up to the quarterdeck rail. “I am retiring to my cabin, Sir,” he called. “You may join me, if you wish, or you may continue to take the air.”
Captain Fuchs had shed his cloak, had taken a seat, and was sipping from a goblet of wine by the time Mr Abdecker knocked at his door. The man had to duck to avoid knocking his head on the low beams. Fuchs offered him a seat. “Wine?” he asked. “It’s Estalian, you know, and very nice too. The sun shines bright on that land and the grapes grow sweet.”
To the Captain’s surprise the man accepted. Somehow he had expected him to be an abstainer. It just went to show that you couldn’t tell by looking.
“Abdecker. Julius Abdecker,” the visitor provided.
“How exactly can I help you?”
“Your activities for the last couple of weeks have been very interesting. Very interesting indeed.”
“I wouldn’t say that, exactly. My men are bored half to death.”
Mr Abdecker gave him a look. “And what work are you conducting?”
“Very strange, Sir, that you find my work so fascinating, but you don’t know what it is that I do,” answered Fuchs.
“You have been seen to leave this vessel and row out to the edge of the marshes, and there conduct … activities. Of a nature you are unwilling to discuss.”
“I am working discreetly, yes, but at the request of my employer. Who is well thought of in these parts, I should add.” He paused as a thought came to the fore. “You think I’m smuggling!”
“I’m more than a simple revenue officer, Captain. I have been entrusted with other duties, as has my companion, Captain Langer. Presently I am investigating whether your actions were … worse … than mere smuggling.”
Captain Fuchs frowned. “Worse?”
Mr Abdecker’s voice was calm. “Consorting with our enemies,” he replied. “Undermining the fabric of the Province of Nordland and the Empire, and thereby the lawful rule of Karl Franz himself. Treason, Sir.”
“Treason?” Fuchs snorted in contempt. “You’re mad! A few barrels short of a full hold, that’s for sure. Have I been accused by someone?”
“No, Sir”, replied Mr Abdecker, retaining his icy composure. “No accusations have been made. However, I have other means of knowing such things. An agent was sent, and revealed that you and certain, how shall I say, enemies, shared a common place and time. My investigations have revealed that you have had similar engagements for a number of weeks. Ergo, Sir, it is treason.”
For a moment Fuchs was speechless. “An agent, you say? Well, he’s got it wrong. The whole thing is ridiculous. We never saw a single soul, not once, friend nor foe alike. We were in a boat the whole time, on the water. I suggest, Sir, that you hire a more reliable agent in the future, for this one seems to have made a patsy of you.”
“In a boat? That is most interesting. And yet my agent most clearly revealed the presence of dry land. Is there not, perhaps, some island or firm place among the reeds? A spot where you might put ashore?”
“I will admit that there are shallower places, and banks and bars that become exposed at low tides. In fact, one of the sighting points that I use is an island with a single tree growing upon it. But there are no dry areas anywhere near where we were about. The only place we have put ashore in the whole time we have been here has been in the town.”
Fuchs paused and thought. “But then, would you believe the word of a supposed traitor? Perhaps it would be best if you returned ashore and asked among those who have lived on this coast all of their lives. They would know the land, or rather the water, far better than I. They could tell you if there was a spot where I could have landed.”
Mr Abdecker nodded. “I will,” he answered, and took a sip of his wine. “But before I depart, perhaps you would care to enlighten me as to what you are about in your boat for all those days. I shall find out in the end, in truth.”
Fuchs pondered for a moment, then seemed to come to a decision. “We are making a precise chart of the area,” he said. “Our day is spent taking sightings to ensure an accurate position, and taking soundings to measure the depth of the water. Our employer is Dr Ungerade, with whom I am sure you’re familiar.”
The Captain got up and opened the chart locker, selecting a rolled sheet of vellum. He brought it back to the table and unfurled it, holding down the curling edges with a decanter and one of the glasses. It showed, to the untrained eye at least, very little. The paper was covered with a mass of dots and crosses with tiny numbers written next to them, along with a series of curved and straight lines. In one corner there was a scale and a compass rose.
Mr Abdecker looked blank. “What is this?”
“This, Sir, is the said chart. It depicts the lower reaches of the Schleimigbach, where those waters become the Feinkohlemündung. To be more precise, Sir, it shows the contours of the seabed below the water. The depth is measured in fathoms and feet. The higher the number, the deeper the water.”
“And why would Dr Ungerade commission such a work?”
Fuchs shrugged. “I don’t know. He is something of a natural philosopher and has all manner of interests. So does the charge of treason still stand against me?”
“As I said, I am still investigating…”
There was the sound of a commotion from the fore, the thumping of running feet and a clamour of voices. Captain Fuchs snatched up his pistol and took his perspective glass from its shelf. He rushed out through the wardroom and onto the deck, Mr Abdecker hot on his heels.
“Report, Mr Hirsch, if you would be so good,” he called as he scaled the companion ladder onto the quarterdeck.
“There’s a light on the shore, Sir, fine on the Larboard quarter,” answered Jürgen. “A big one. It just suddenly started.”
Fuchs focused his glass on the distant glare, then lowered it. As Mr Abdecker came to a halt beside him he passed the instrument to his guest. “Take a look, Sir,” he said sombrely.
Mr Abdecker raised the glass to his eye and focused on the distant image. It appeared to be a pyre around a stake. The flames were engulfing … it was difficult to make out … a figure, who was secured to the upright. The figure was writhing.
The archers moved through the fading twilight, picking their way through the mire with practised skill, all the while watching and listening for the slightest hint of danger. Ahead of them the pyre blazed and spluttered and filled the air with the sickening, cloying stench of burned flesh.
They crested the scrubby rise where the vile act had happened. It was a lone mound amid a great expanse of flat and sodden peat-marsh. A single withered bog-oak clung to one side.
The men scouted the area and quickly determined that they were alone, then divided into small groups. They silently vanished into the deepening gloom, making the most of the scant cover offered by stands of grasses and wind-beaten shrubs, and formed an unseen defensive perimeter.
Soon a group of militiamen, marching in loose order with their weapons at the ready, joined them. One of their number led a stout pony which had tools and a long wooden casket strapped to its back. Brother Otto, pale and nervous, was at their head.
They surveyed the scene.
A stake, made from the broken yardarm of a ship, had been driven into the spongy ground and the unfortunate victim had been tied to it. All manner of driftwood, brush, and green boughs had been piled around and then set afire. Even now flames leaped into the air, hissing and popping and shooting sparks and embers into the darkness.
One of the militiamen on the far side of the mound illuminated something with his lamp. It was a human coffin lid, time-blackened and stuck into the ground like a signpost. Three gnawed shinbones in the shape of a triangle were crudely nailed onto it, and below them were three vertical lines, like the swipe of a claw.
Brother Otto and the men with him stared up at the fire-twisted carcass. The body was blackened and burned, the hair and most of the clothing had singed away, and the features of the face were drawn back into a ghastly broken-toothed grin. Fluids oozed and sizzled from cracks in the fractured skin. It was all but unrecognisable as a man.
Brother Otto held his handkerchief over his face. “Take it down!” he mumbled, and looked away.
Buckets were filled with the black and silty water and thrown over the flames, and when the worst was out the wood was kicked and knocked away and the embers were scraped back and scattered. With gloved hands they took hold of the body and the cords that bound it to the stake were cut through with an axe. They lowered the roasted corpse into the rude wooden casket.
There was a sudden commotion. The warning signal, an animal call, had been sounded.
In a few moments one of the archers appeared. “Horses, Sir,” he reported, “difficult to be sure how many.”
Brother Otto, grateful for the distraction, gathered some of the unoccupied troops and led them back towards the road. It took a few minutes to traverse the rough ground and by the time they got onto firmer footing the archers had already made contact with the horsemen and determined that they were friends.
The lead rider, who had dismounted and now led his steed by the reins, introduced himself as Rudi Klaus, Corporal of Militia from the village of Trockener. He and two of his men were escorting one Gunter Braun, a local hunter with a tale to tell, to the estate of Doctor Ungerade. They too had seen the pyre and had determined to check it as they passed. They had become concerned when they saw it extinguished, anticipating an ambush.
Once the situation had been explained the Corporal expressed a desire to go and see the burning for himself. It would be useful, he explained, as Brother Albrecht, the village’s Priest, would be expecting a full report when he returned. Gunter Braun decided to join them, though in reality it was an excuse to get off of the horse. The man wasn’t at all used to riding and was more than a little tender and sore.
By the time they reached the mound the stake had been taken down and the casket had been closed.
“Do you mind if I see?” asked the Corporal, indicating towards the wooden box.
“If you must,” replied Brother Otto. The lid was lifted off revealing the hideously broken corpse.
Gunter retched. “Oh Gods,” he coughed, choking back the bile, “it’s Wolfgang.” He turned away.
The lid was replaced and nailed shut.
Brother Otto bowed his head and began chanting prayers and blessings to cleanse the mound. A few of the militia doffed their caps and joined him in his exhortations, Gunter among them, though most remained at guard, scanning the darkness. When the Priest was done he made the sign of the hammer.
“Bring that … thing,” he said, pointing to the coffin lid with the symbols on it. “It may be important.” A fighter began levering it out of the ground.
“Alright, let’s get back.”
The casket containing the body was lifted onto the back of the pony and tied into place, and then the tools were secured. The militia made their way back among the pools and tussocks until they reached the road, and were soon joined by the silent and grim-faced archers. After a quick head-count they began the trek back to Schlammigerdorf.
Captain Fuchs felt that his crew deserved shore leave whilst there was still time for them to enjoy it. Jürgen assembled the men in the waist while the Captain went through into the great cabin and retrieved the ship’s strongbox. He sat himself down at his desk and when he was ready Jürgen escorted in each member of the crew.
Each was given two silver schillings, and a notation to that effect was made in the account book. People signed as they could, Hermann, Max and Ernst each producing a squiggled X as their marks, while Anton, Sepp, and Josef signed with shaky but legible signatures. Lukas signed his name in a steady and flowing script, and Fuchs made a mental note to involve the lad the next time he needed to produce a chart.
Arrangements were made. Sepp and Ernst were to remain aboard, mounting a guard and seeing to the vessel as necessary. Jürgen would crew the jollyboat, heading between the vessel and the shore as necessary. The Captain had business to attend to with Doctor Ungerade and intended to be away until late, and quite possibly the whole of the night. The other men were free to do as they pleased in the town, but they were to report back to the quay by the time the tide turned or face losing a whole day’s wages.
Everyone seemed quite happy as they cast off and rowed towards the shore.
The boat bumped up against the pilings. The men scrambled up the ladder and gathered in the gloomy square, making merry and trying to decide where to spend their evening. Anton announced that he already had plans, doffed his cap and gave a low and theatrical bow, and strolled off towards the Nordküstestraße. Josef and Hermann too gave their excuses and departed in the direction of Der Lustige Seemann, in search of a couple of locals with whom they had some kind of an arrangement.
“So, just me and you then.” Max looked down at his young companion. “Much of a drinker, are you?”
Lukas shook his head. “Not really, no.”
“Shall we?” Max indicated towards Die Silbermünze
Lukas nodded and they headed across the square.
They swung open the door and let themselves in, nodding to the odious barman and glancing at the other denizens. A pair of elderly fisherman, nursing their beers near the hearth, eyed them suspiciously. Three lads, two strapping in build with cropped red hair and sunburned complexions, and the third, a taller, darker youth with the beginnings of a moustache, looked them up and down and sniggered to one another.
The snug was a shade low ceilinged for Max, who had to duck to avoid braining himself on the beams. He found a bench and settled himself onto it. Lukas drew up a chair next to him.
Max grinned. “So, what’ll it be?”
Lukas thought about it, and decided that he had no idea. “Erm, what do you recommend?”
Max’s expression turned serious. “Do you want to get drunk quickly or slowly?”
Max laughed at his companion’s discomfort and clicked his fingers in the air. “Barman, a bottle of good Geniver and two steins of beer!”
The watery-eyed proprietor cleared his nose and wiped his hands on his filthy apron. He fished around among the boxes stacked behind his trestle, and after some glassy clinks he produced a squat, dark bottle. He plonked it onto the counter and retrieved two glazed earthenware cups to go with it. Finally he took a pair of leather jacks and filled them with drafts of a thick, foamy brew drawn from a large barrel.
He ran through the sums in his head, peering up at his eyebrows and keeping tally on his fingers. “We’ll call it one schilling and six pfennigs, Sirs,” he called, then turned towards a curtained arch beside the trestle. “Hedda,” he shouted, “get out here and do your work.”
The curtain swept back and a young woman marched out, frowning at her employer. She retrieved a battered tin tray, put the jacks, cups and bottle onto it, and carried them over. As she placed them onto the table she leaned forward, revealing an ample cleavage. Lukas blushed and looked away but Max leered and laughed.
Lukas, still red-cheeked, found his purse. It clinked with money. He pulled the drawstring open and got two schillings, then dropped them onto the tray.
“Erm, thankyou. And miss, you can keep the change.”
The barmaid flashed him a smile. “Why thankyou, Sir!”
The three youths, who had been staring at the girl and exchanging whispered comments, focused on the two sailors. Their expressions changed and they exchanged a few heated words. Lukas felt most uncomfortable.
Hedda took the money and headed back to the trestle, handing the barman both coins. “That’s ten pfennigs you owe me” she said, and paced back through the arch. The landlord scowled after her.
“Oho, young Lukas, feeling generous tonight, are we?” Max uncorked the bottle and poured each of them a generous measure.
Max sealed the bottle again – “You can never be too careful,” he mumbled – and raised his cup to his friend. “Your health, Sir.” He downed the lot in one and slammed the beaker back onto the table. His face went through a strange muscular contortion. “Sigmar,” he wheezed, “… if that’s the best stuff…”
He picked up his stein and drank the entire pot down in one, wiping the foam from his lip with his sleeve and letting rip a thunderous belch.
“Another beer!” he shouted at the landlord. He took one of his schillings and flicked it expertly onto the counter. “Keep ‘em coming until that’s all spent.”
The landlord touched his forelock. “Right you are Sir.”
Max stood up. “Better make some room for it!” he announced shamelessly, and headed off towards the door into the stable yard where the collecting bucket was located.
The barmaid had obviously been near, for she appeared through the curtain again as soon as the innkeeper began drawing another beer. When it was ready she took it over to Lukas’s table.
“Here we are, Sir,” she said, putting the fresh jack down on the table and picking up the empty. She caught Lukas glancing at the three youths. They had stopped talking and were staring at him.
“Don’t you worry about them, Sir. That’s Treffen and Kelby, the Tölpell brothers, and the other one is Roswald Drecke. All mouth and trousers, if you know what I mean.” She winked at him and went about her duties.
Treffen got to his feet and produced a coin, a schilling, from his pocket. He held it up and wobbled unsteadily. “See, Mr Sailor Man, we got money too.”
The two elderly fishermen drained their cups and got up to leave.
“Good night, Grandpa!” said Treffen rather too loudly. “Good night, pops!” The two fellows mumbled a reply and closed the door behind them.
“Hey, Hedda, fetch us over some more beers too!” the yokel shouted. “If you’re not too busy talking to the sailor, that is.”
Lukas remained quiet, his drinks untouched before him and a horrible hollow feeling developing in the pit of his stomach. The barman filled a large pitcher and the girl picked it up and carried it over to their table. Roswald held up his jack for her to fill while Kelby grinned inanely at her.
“Mine too,” said Treffen, and as she lifted the jug he snaked his arm around her neck, pulling her close. “How much for a kiss, then?”
The barman backed off and began gathering a few of the better items of crockery into his arms. “Now, now, gents, I don’t want any trouble…”
Lukas sprang to his feet. “Look, all I want is a quiet evening with good company…”
“Are you saying we ain’t good company?” growled Treffen. “Or are you planning to run off with our women? Hedda wriggled in his embrace but kept a firm hold on the pitcher.
“Not at all, no. Please, just let her go. You’re being foolish…”
Kelby lumbered to his feet. “You insultin’ me brother?” he yelled.
“No, no, of course not! I just…”
Kelby put his fists up and shambled towards the cabin boy. “COME ON THEN!”
Lukas’s mind was racing. What had Max and Anton said? If you’ve got to smack someone, swing a punch like you’re trying to hit a person standing right behind ‘em. Time seemed to be running slowly. He pushed past the table, bumping it and spilling the drinks and toppling the bottle.
The big lad, loping towards him, raised his arms.
Lukas ducked a wild swung and connected a mighty blow right on the fellow’s nose.
There was a horrible bony crack and an explosion of red. Kelby’s head shot backwards and he collapsed to the ground, completely poleaxed. Lukas straightened again, trembling, and shook his aching fist. His throat was dry and his heart was pounding fit to burst.
Roswald jumped up, a look of utter astonishment on his face, and Treffen stood transfixed. Suddenly he shrieked and whipped his arm away and Hedda twisted from his grip. She had seized the moment and sunk her teeth into his exposed flesh.
“Why you little…” Treffen threw down his jack and paced towards the cabin boy. The lad barely had time to raise his fists before the labourer planted a savage left hook on his cheek.
Crunch! Lukas smashed sideways into the table and fell to the floor like a sack of sand. Cups and jacks tumbled down around him.
Max, newly returned from his relief, had seen the blow land. He launched across the little room, coming up to Treffen just as he was turning to meet the new threat. He used his inertia to drive a solid blow into his target’s ribs, knocking the wind out of the young man. He turned his motion into a spin and he piled his elbow into the lad’s open mouth, jarring teeth and splitting flesh and spilling more blood. Treffen pitched backwards and landed heavily, rolling and gasping to catch his breath.
Roswald backed away with his hands in front of him. Hedda put the jug on the floor and knelt beside Lukas, cradling the back of his head and examining the blue-brown bruise that was spreading across his face. The door burst open and three militiamen charged in, two with drawn swords and the third with a Corporal’s sash and a long pistol.
They looked around at the various protagonists.
“What has been going on here?”
One of the militia troopers edged round behind Max, his blade at the ready, while the other hauled Treffen to his feet. The Corporal cocked the gun, pointing it squarely at Max’s chest. “Put up your bloody hands!” he ordered. The big sailor complied.
“Ith himm, Mithter Gruber,” lisped a crimson-faced and raging Treffen, spitting blood and phlegm and pointing to the boy sprawled on the floor. “He stharted it.” He dabbed at his swelling lip with his fingertips and indicated the big sailor. “But hee’th the one that hit me.”
Roswald tried to help Kelby get to his feet. The lads face was a mass of crimson and mucus and snot, and both of his eyes had swollen almost shut. He was still utterly dazed and crashed down onto his backside the moment his friend released his grip.
“They’re the smugglers from that foreign boat,” said Roswald accusingly, giving up on Kelby. “They’re the ones that the Priest was asking all them questions about yesterday.”
“That’s as maybe,” said Hedda from where she was crouched, “but you should know that the boy here was attacked while he was trying to defend me, and that man” – she indicated to Max – “was trying to help his friend. The farmers thought it was fine to paw me and manhandle me, while my protectors objected.”
Kelby had dragged himself upright using one of the chairs and blinked blearily around the room, keeping a firm grip and wobbling unsteadily back and forth. The Corporal lowered his weapon.
“You,” he said to Max, “take your friend and get out. Any more trouble and you’re spending the night in the lockup.”
Max picked up Lukas with one hand and the bottle of Geniver with the other. He slung the lad over his shoulder and bowed to the company. “I wish you all a very good night,” he said, and let himself out through the door.
Corporal Gruber watched them leave and waited until the maid had righted the table and collected the cups and jacks. The three youths stood awkwardly, nursing their wounds and shuffling their feet. It was difficult to say which of the two brothers looked the worse.
The officer rounded on them. “If you’re big enough to be sat here drinking and getting into fisticuffs, then you’re big enough to be in the Militia,” he barked.
“But me Maam says I ain’t old enough,” bleated Roswald.
“Me father thays he can’t sthpare the labour,” put in Treffen.
“He can spare it enough that you lads come out here every night, drinkin’ and throwing your weight around. Don’t think I ain’t noticed.” He picked up one of the leather jacks and took a mouthful of beer. “Well, as of this moment, you’re conscripted. Lets go find you some jackets.”
The house was as silent as the grave. Mr Schlechtmann had retired to bed hours ago, as had Mrs Schüssel, the housekeeper. Captain Fuchs and Doctor Ungerade, however, were both in the laboratory. The sailor had picked out a decent Brionne wine on the way and had cracked it open, drinking mouthfuls straight from the neck of the bottle.
The Doctor, who had planned a quiet evening compiling his papers, quickly decided to introduce his guest to the wonders of a tubo di vedere, having recently acquired one from a manufacturer in Tilea. The principal was similar to that of a perspective glass, with which Fuchs was familiar, but it allowed tiny objects, rather than distant ones, to be observed.
The device itself consisted of a brass tube with a crystal lens at either end. The tube was attached to a solid base by means of a cogged mechanism that enabled it to be raised or lowered in very fine increments. The base also included, below the lower end of the tube, a stand on which small glass plates could be placed, and an adjustable mirror that allowed light to be played on the specimen being studied.
And having had a couple of drinks the good Captain was finding all kinds of things to examine. “Gods, he’s an ugly one!” he announced. “Have you seen this?”
The Doctor grunted non-committally. He was busy going through the anatomical notes he had made during his dissection of the Skaven.
“Who would have thought it? Would you look at that mouth? I always thought they were nasty little buggers.”
“I’m sorry, what are you talking about?”
“Fleas!” exclaimed Fuchs. “Ghastly wee beasties!”
“Hmmm. Quite. Funnily enough, the instrument is sometimes called a flea-glass.”
Fuchs stretched and blinked, then rubbed his eyes. “Is there any chance that I could have a bigger candle? It’s hard to see clearly.”
The Doctor gestured broadly around the chamber. “Please, help yourself.”
Fuchs looked around the room. “How curious!” he said.
Doctor Ungerade looked up. “What is?”
The Captain pointed to a candle that stood in a sconce made in the shape of an eight-pointed star. It guttered as though a draught had caught it, even though the flames on the other candles nearby remained upright.
The Doctor leaped to his feet, his eyebrows arched in surprise. “Oh my word! How very careless of me!”
“I’ve become such a creature of habit of late. Every night I perform the ritual and light the candle, and then I completely ignore it. Amazing how quickly we take things for granted, eh?” He peered at the candle again. “A little north of west.”
“It is part of a warding that is cast around the house and grounds,” explained Doctor Ungerade as he started towards the laboratory door. “The flame blows towards the direction of any trespasser that crosses the threshold of the enchantment.”
He pulled it open and crossed the wine cellar and raced up the stairs into the darkened hall. He tripped on the leg of a small table, cursed under his breath, and tugged violently on the pulley that connected to the bells in the servant’s quarters.
Captain Fuchs was right behind him. He had his pistol in his left hand and was struggling to draw his sword with his right as he ran. “Could an animal have set it off?” he asked.
The Doctor had moved to the front door. “No,” he answered. “It is triggered by the workings of the brain, you know. The intruder has to have some degree of intelligence for it to work.” As quietly as he could he pulled back the heavy iron bolt.
Captain Fuchs finally managed to clear the blade from the scabbard. “This is much more my area of expertise,” he whispered. His host nodded in agreement and backed away a little, letting the sailor lift the latch and ease the door open a crack.
He peered into the gloomy garden. The air was clear, as it always seemed to be around Doctor Ungerade’s home, but the shadows were deep and menacing.
“I can’t see anybody,” he hissed.
Mr Schlechtmann, clad in his nightshirt and carrying an oil lamp and an ancient blunderbuss, hurried along the hall, having come down from his room by way of the servants’ stairs. The housekeeper was right behind him, brandishing a hefty rolling pin.
“There’s someone in the garden,” whispered the Doctor to the new arrivals, “as best as I can tell a little to the left of the gates.”
Mr Schlechtmann handed the lamp to the housekeeper and took a firm grip on his gun. He joined Captain Fuchs at the door and the pair of them exchanged glances.
“I’m going out,” mouthed Fuchs. “Follow me.”
He gave the door a mighty kick – it sprang outwards with a crash and bounced half closed again – and leaped onto the gravelled path. He levelled his pistol at a particularly dark patch of shadows and fired.
Boom! A shower of sparks fell from the pan and a tongue of flame lanced from the barrel. There was a stony thud as the ball impacted with the wall.
For the briefest instant Fuchs caught a glimpse of movement from across the garden, and then Mr Schlechtmann was at his side. “There, man!” he shouted, pointing towards the spot. “Shoot, for the God’s sake!”
Mr Schlechtmann squeezed the trigger bar and the gun discharged with a sharp crack, issuing forth a spectacular shower of sparks and a pall of white smoke. There came the sounds of shredding foliage and a whole series of little thumps as the birdshot hit brick.
There were other noises too, coming from the left of where the old man had shot, but they were difficult to identify.
Brandishing his sword Captain Fuchs advanced cautiously over. He reached the shrubs and undergrowth that bordered the lawn and poked around with his blade.
“There’s no-one here,” he called. “I reckon they’ve gone over the wall.”
Mr Schlechtmann set off around the house to make sure everything was sound. Doctor Ungerade retrieved the lamp from Mrs Schüssel and made his way over to the sailor. He held up the light, illuminating the trampled brambles and torn ivy that proved the Captain right.
“I say, would you mind?” he asked, handing over the lamp, and then knelt down. Fuchs fumbled his pistol back into his belt and illuminated the Doctor as he began searching around among the undergrowth.
“A-ha! What have we here?”
He pulled something from among the thorns. It was a wisp of woollen yarn, stiff with mud and grime. He held it up to the light; it was brown, but it told him no more.
Mr Schlechtmann paced over, his blunderbuss still at the ready. “Don’t look like there’s anyone else about, Sir. I reckon we scared ‘em away.”
The Doctor stood up and looked around. “I have been thinking that perhaps it would be wise to take on some additional staff,” he announced. “An assistant gardener or two, maybe, and a maid. I’m sure you and Mrs Schüssel can find them duties around the place.”
The old man nodded. “Mightn’t be a bad idea at that. Neither me nor Idna are getting any younger.”
“Maybe I should get a dog or two as well. Loyal and obedient friend and all that.”
Mr Schlechtmann sniffed. “I ain’t too keen on dogs, begging your pardon Sir. The last one that came to stay dug out all of the rose bushes and did unspeakable things in the vegetable garden.”
The town hall was a plain rectangular building that sat on the opposite side of the square to Die Silbermünze. It was built of imported timber and brick and tile and only differed from the warehouses that stood around it because it had windows. The main room, dominated by the platform that held the high table, was packed with citizens. The most important were seated on long benches, while lesser souls were forced to stand at the back and along the sides. Their chattering voices quite filled the chamber. Quite a large group had assembled outside, too, and strained to follow proceedings from the doors and windows.
After the inevitable discussions about status and appropriate positioning the luminaries took their places at the high table. Mr Starkleiter, the mayor of the berg, sat at the head, with Brother Franz and Brother Otto to his right. To his left were Captain Langer, Mr Abdecker, and Ensign Kültz. At one side was a separate desk where Mr Tintedaum, a tiny white-haired scrap of a man who served as the town’s clerk, kept the minutes. Two seats had been reserved for Doctor Ungerade and Captain Fuchs, and but as yet neither had arrived.
The Mayor beat his fist on the table and called for order. Gradually the hubbub of voices quietened and he peered around the room. For the record he stated the date, thanked everyone for attending so early in the day, then set about introducing all of the parties who were present. When he was done Brother Franz stood and performed a solemn but brief prayer to Sigmar. He made the sign of the hammer over the bowed congregation, then passed the floor to Captain Langer.
The Captain stood and surveyed the faces in front of him.
“My companion, Mr Abdecker” – he gestured towards the sombre, black-clad man – “and myself are tracking a host of wily and implacable foes,” he announced. “We have been hot on their heels for weeks, and at last we have them cornered. However, these enemies have now discovered that they are stronger than we are, and now intend to attack us before we can call for help. They made that clear last night when the hunter was burned. And while they know exactly where we are, we in turn do not know their precise location.”
There was a sudden clamour of talk. “And who might these foes be?” came a voice from the back of the room.
“They are generally called Skaven, though that is our name for them – we have no idea what they call themselves. They resemble the common rat, and indeed those verminous creatures seem to flock to them. They worship a dark and terrible entity, and they carry plague and pestilence with them.”
He paused and looked around the room.
“They inhabit a vast labyrinth of tunnels and caverns below the earth, where they breed and multiply. While we have no real idea of the extent of their domain it is generally reckoned that the northern boundary of their expansion is near the city of Middenheim. Until now the province of Nordland was generally considered to be free of their vile infestation. We now know that is not the case, as they appear to have established a nest in the marshes north of Schlammigerdorf.”
There was a sudden burst of voices in question and argument. A worried “Sigmar help us, what can we do?” A concerned “is it hopeless?” A panicked “should we leave?”
The mayor beat his fist on the table until he had everyone’s attention. “Settle down!” he shouted, his deep voice carrying above the din.
“But what about old Granny Schmidt?” called out someone from the crowd. “That was rats, they say. Did these rat-men kill her?” There was a burst of chatter as opinions were exchanged.
Hedwig Libehilfe stood up and looked around her. Gradually the room quieted.
“I examined the body,” announced the midwife. “What killed Mrs Schmidt, may the Gods grant her rest, was a seizure of the brain. It was not the rats themselves, at least not directly.”
“You’re sure of this?” asked Mr Starkleiter.
“It is beyond a doubt. As I said, I examined the body myself; all of the signs were there.” She paused for a moment, considering her words carefully. “But she might very well have been alive today had those creatures not terrorised her so.”
She sat down.
Brother Franz took the floor again. “It is clear,” he said in his deep voice, “that Mrs Schmidt was plagued by an unnatural number of vermin. The militia who broke down her door also reported seeing someone lurking nearby. We don’t yet know who it was…”
The room exploded into a cacophony of argument and accusation and suspicion. Mr Starkleiter beat his gavel on the table but to no avail.
“PEOPLE, PLEASE!” Brother Franz’s shout was loud even above the din, and order quickly returned. “Thankyou.”
“Yes, indeed,” said Mr Starkleiter, clearing his throat. “Terrible and tragic though all of this is, we really should move on to other business.”
Mr Abdecker stood up. “I should explain,” he said, “that these Skaven are a fractious lot, and fight among themselves more than against men. That group whom we are pursuing are not true colonists, but refugees, the losing faction in one of their internecine wars. They only have with them what they were able to carry upon their backs, or what they have stolen along the way.”
“We know that they travelled to these parts across wilderness and under cover of night, seeking shelter where they could and either bypassing or destroying all obstacles to their progress. They have gone to ground here because they have nowhere left to run to.”
He picked up a pile of the depositions that the Priests had gathered the previous day and waved them at the audience. “By the tales you have told it seems that they have been here for a month, six weeks at the most. The instances of animals disappearing, food stolen, strange figures glimpsed, diminishing numbers of wildfowl, they all point to this.”
There was a low chattering from the audience as they digested this new information.
“I do have a plan to deal with these Skaven,” continued Captain Langer, “but it is dangerous. I have already been promised the full co-operation of the Church and the Militia, and I expect no less of every person in this town.”
“We are to tempt the Skaven from their lair and ambush them in a place of our choosing, and there fight them until they are broken. We will lure them by bringing all of the food harvested and stored over this season to the warehouses in this town, where it will be secured and held under guard. Such a source of nourishment will undoubtedly attract them. I have no doubt that they will attempt to steal it.”
“Will they not just dig new tunnels to bypass our defences?” The voice was that of the mayor.
“I am sure that if they could dig tunnels and burrows to Schlammigerdorf they would, but in such a short time that seems unlikely to have happened. As such, I am certain they will make their raid over land. And therein lies our single greatest advantage.”
He looked at the faces staring up at him. “How so?” ventured one of the audience.
“You know the lie of the marshes, the secret paths and ways, where the ground is firm and where it isn’t. Though they far outnumber us, their great benefit of numbers will be cancelled by the difficulty of the terrain. These creatures rarely carry bows or firearms, so I propose that we hem them in, and then hit them with as much firepower as we can muster.”
The room remained silent. The audience seemed to be expecting more.
“That, in essence, is the basis of my proposal. There are of course further subtleties, but it is not prudent to discuss them openly.”
The silence held for a few moments more, and then came a thunderous din of voices and questions. “That’s not a plan, its suicide!” shouted someone from one side. “What about reinforcements? Can we expect any help?” And then a shrieked “think of the children! For Sigmar’s sake won’t you please think of the children!”
Captain Langer raised his arms. “Make no mistake,” he shouted above the cacophony, “a war has been declared on us. Riders have already been sent to Kohlstadt requesting additional troops, though I very much doubt whether any force can get here within three days.”
There was a further commotion at the doors. Captain Fuchs and Doctor Ungerade, who was clutching a large leather-bound tome, pushed their way through. They made their way to the high table though both remained standing. The Doctor bowed towards Captain Langer, who nodded curtly and sat down.
The voices filling the chamber faded to a mere murmur.
“Good people,” he said, “I have received new information that may be of help to us. However, I first need to discuss it with these gentlemen.” He turned and bowed to Mr Starkleiter. “Sir, if it pleases you, I wish to call a recess and retire to private chambers.”
The mayor nodded. “Agreed.”
The dignitaries got up and headed for a door set into the wall behind the table. There was an uproarious explosion of discussion and argument among the people in the hall.
“Botolf, I want to go home!” moaned Farica. The hem of her skirt was damp and muddy and her shoes were wet through. “Momma will be angry with us! She says there are rat monsters waiting to kill us.”
“Don’t be silly!” scolded her brother. “I just want to go as far as the Clover Field. Otto Munter said that there was a dead cow there.” He paused for a long moment, then looked slyly at his sister. “You’re not scared, are you?”
The little girl crossed her arms and pouted angrily. “I’m not scared of anything!” And with that she marched purposefully past the boy, who grinned and set off after her.
Something caught his eye. “Farica, wait just a minute. Who’s that?”
“If you’re trying to frighten me it won’t work.”
“No, look, over there!” He pointed out across the misty meadows, towards the edge of a stand of wind-stunted willow.
“I can see it!” exclaimed the little girl. “Papa said about a stranger, do you remember?”
Her brother nodded.
“Botolf, I think we ought to go and tell the soldiers.”
Her brother nodded again, still staring at the distant figure.
Farica turned and ran, heading as quickly as she was able along the rutted and muddy Nordküstestraße. Botolf suddenly became aware that his sister had gone and started after her. “Wait for me!” he called. The pair of them raced back towards the town as fast as their legs could carry them.
There were six soldiers gathered at the watchtower. Two were on guard, leaning on their spears and looking bored. Four more were gathered around the brazier, gossiping and warming their hands. Two hounds, narrow-headed and long legged, sat panting on a fleece at their side.
The chatter stopped and all eyes turned to the two breathless children as they came to a halt. “There’s a stranger … there’s a man in the marshes … I don’t know who he is…” they babbled, one over the other. “He’s near the willows … I think he was hiding … I don’t think he’s a hunter…”
Corporal Gruber held up his palms. “Slow down a minute! What’s this all about?”
Botolf and Farica excitedly retold the story, each filling in the bits that the other forgot.
“You were right to come to us,” said the Corporal seriously. He turned to the sitting militiamen. “Mr Drecke, you heard everything? Good. Get into town and tell Brother Franz or whosoever else you can find all about it. Mr Tölpell, Mr Haller, get the dogs and come with me.”
He looked down at the children. “I’m going to have to ask you to do one more thing for us. Will you lead us to where you saw this figure?”
They nodded in unison.
The little group set out, dodging puddles and scanning the hazy horizon. After a couple of minutes walking they reached the spot. Both children pointed out the willow trees, though there was no sign of anybody.
“You run along home now,” said Corporal Gruber to Botolf and Farica. Mr Tölpell here will see you safely back to town.” He looked at the soldier. “You wait at the tower. If any officers turn up bring them here.”
The red-haired militiaman touched his cap. “Yes, Sir.”
The two soldiers, each holding a leashed dog, worked their way slowly along the edge of the sodden field. The dogs quickly picked up a scent, sniffing and snuffling at the ground and the air.
Soon the men found curious tracks. They appeared to be the imprint of a staff, and footprints that looked as though the person who made them was walking on his tiptoes. Occasionally there were long narrow marks, parallel to and between the footprints. It looked as though something long and thin had occasionally brushed along the ground.
The dogs were straining at their leashes, whining and growling.
“I don’t like this,” muttered Corporal Gruber, and drew his sword. His companion did the same.
The Corporal crouched down and released the clip on the lead, holding the excited animal by the collar. He indicated to Mr Haller to do the same, and at the same instant they loosed the dogs. The creatures bounded off into gloom and the men followed with all haste.
They ran past the willows and came to a broad expanse of mud and brackish pools. They pushed on regardless, struggling from tussock to tussock and slipping in the ooze. The sound of mist-muffled barking echoed through the air, and then a yelp.
“Quick!” gasped the Corporal. “They can’t be far ahead now.”
The pair of them struggled up a slight slope onto a drier ridge. On the far side, where the ground dropped away again, one of the dogs was lying motionless. Its pale coat was spattered with blood and a jagged-bladed knife jutted from between its ribs. The other hound, equally bloodied, sat nearby, whining and shaking and fussing at a paw. Nearby was a long strip of rough brown cloth.
“Poor girl,” panted Mr Haller. He knelt beside the dead animal and gently eased the weapon out of the wound, then rubbed its head affectionately. “I’m going to miss you.”
Corporal Gruber was checking the other. “I think her leg’s broken,” he announced. “Nothing that can’t be mended, given time. She ain’t got no other wounds though.” He patted her and looked her in the eyes. “You stay here girl,” he said. “We’ll be back to tend to you in a bit.”
It was easy to pick up the trail in the soft ground; they followed cautiously. The marks and prints in the mud told of erratic, unsteady movement, and every few feet or so there were spots and spatters of blood. A short distance further on they found a wooden staff.
“Over there!” whispered Mr Haller, pointing out a dark shape. It looked like a mound of tattered and stained brown rags.
The two soldiers readied their weapons and edged towards it. Corporal Gruber poked at it experimentally. It was a body, slumped over a tussock of coarse grass. Its left side was a sodden mass of crimson.
The Corporal leaned over the slumped shape and lifted a fold of cloth with the point of his sword. It was a rat-man, quite dead, though the body was still warm enough to steam. From the looks of things it had suffered a deep wound in its thigh and had bled to death.
He straightened up. “One of the dogs did for it, I’d say.”
“I believe I have found Eolanaith!” the Doctor announced grandly, setting down the weighty tome he had been carrying.
He was met with an expectant, but slightly awkward, silence.
“Surely it is nothing but a legend?” ventured Mr Abdecker after a few moments. “If it did exist, it wouldn’t be here.”
Captain Langer exchanged glances with the others seated around the table. “Am I the only one missing something?”
Doctor Ungerade frowned. “Oh, I am sorry. I thought everyone was familiar with the story. Maybe I should explain. Uelfrik the Wise, a Priest of Sigmar, originally penned the tale in about 810, and a copy of the manuscript was in the possession of that great Tilean antiquarian Giovanni Nicoletta in the late 1400s. The original has long since vanished, I’m sorry to say. Did I mention that the good Uelfrik was a native of these parts?”
He gently patted the cover of the heavy book. “I am lucky enough to possess a third edition of the so-called Liber Consequentia Diu, printed in Miraglio around 1890, which includes transcripts of many of the works that Nicoletta held. I’m afraid that it is written in an ancient dialect of the Tilean language, as was the custom of the time, so I’ll have to translate as best as I can.”
He found the appropriate page and ran his finger down the yellowed paper.
“Erm, yes, here. Eolanaith, the Bright Haven … was founded in the earliest days of the reign of Bel Shanaar … on the northern coast of the Eastern Lands. It was a majestic fortress-port built atop a column of black basalt lying close to the mouth of the mighty river Loras. The walls were of the purest marble, as white as the driven snow, and all covered in the finest and most delicate engraving…”
He peered around the room, then produced the lump of stone that Gunter had brought to him the previous evening. The carved face had been polished to better show the delicate tracery of lines and curves that covered it.
“The carvings are letters, writ in the old High Elven tongue,” he explained “They translate as ‘…r of the ma…’ From what the hunter told me, there was much of this stone, and it seemed to form a wall. This was a loose piece.”
He let them ponder that for a few moments and then continued to quote. “…and the great bay, dug by a star called down from the heavens with mighty conjurings … was able to hold a score of the great white arks… Through Eolanaith came all the goods of the eastern world, timbers and fabrics and spices and beasts both great and small, metals and gems of the purest hue, and all manner of treasures undreamed of today.”
He mumbled past a few paragraphs, glancing up at his audience. “Lists of Kings, that sort of thing. Not terribly useful.”
At last he found the appropriate section. “The lands were rent asunder in the time of Caledor the Conqueror, when the basalt mountain was shattered after a great siege and fair Eolanaith lay ravaged and in ruins. The remains of the city were picked clean by scavengers and savages. … The sparkling Loras became dark with silt and faded into the land, the great harbour filled and choked, and in time even the bare stones sank into the morass, never to be seen again. This tale was related to me by Aethor the Wanderer, a traveller from the … land of Saphery, in Ulthuan.”
He was met with silence.
“You must understand that this tale begins, as best I can tell, seven millennia in the past, and if I understand correctly the city has been lost for five millennia. In that time the land has changed considerably, and what was the Loras is now the Braunführung and the Schleimigbach. The land has sunk and the rivers have carried an unimaginable quantity of deposits, to a point where we can’t see anything of the remains at all.”
Brother Franz sniffed dismissively. “But a mountain? The nearest range is the Middle Mountains, or perhaps those of Norsca.”
Doctor Ungerade spread his hands. “To a poor man, a schilling is a fortune. To a rich man it is simply a schilling.”
“Yes, yes, very sage and wise of you, Doctor. But…”
“I think what the good Doctor is trying to say,” interjected Mr Abdecker, “is that in this flat land even a relatively small hill may be called a mountain, especially with each successive retelling of the tale. And given the passage of so many years and the laying down of such a quantity of mud, that smashed and broken mound may well have totally sunk away.”
Doctor Ungerade nodded. “Quite.”
“So where is this city, then?” Brother Franz’s voice dripped with sarcasm.
“Right here, below our feet.”
“But I thought you said it was in the marshes.”
“Sir, it is the marshes. The levelled stones of that once great metropolis give anchor to the mud.”
Brother Franz scowled. “Surely not, Sir.”
“I can show you. Mr Fuchs, if you would be so good.”
The sailor produced a cylindrical map case from within his cloak and extracted the rolled chart from inside of it. He spread it on the table before the dignitaries, holding down one of the short edges with the Doctor’s book and the other with a pistol.
Everyone looked at the paper and then, somewhat blankly, at each other. The map was an incomprehensible mass of dots and lines.
“You see?” The Doctor’s enthusiasm was audible.
“No,” said the Priest, “I don’t. What’s this supposed to be?”
The Doctor produced a lead pencil and drew a series of concentric circles around a cluster of dots, and then a collection of other shapes beside them. “This is a dome,” he explained, “and here is a plaza with structures all around it. He continued sketching in the details. “Another great monolith here, and there an avenue lined with blocks. It’s as plain as day.”
Brother Franz frowned. “All you can show is a few shapes on a piece of paper? They could be…” he pursed his lips trying to think of something “… they could be anything at all.”
“Have you ever been to a city?” asked Doctor Ungerade. “A real one, I mean, like Marienburg or Talabheim? It is not just one place, you know. It has a centre, and districts that lie beyond the walls, and even other smaller towns that form its outskirts. From what I can deduce the Elven port was many miles across.”
“It would explain a lot,” said Mr Abdecker absently.
He looked up darkly. “Well, Eolanaith or not, there are ruins of some kind in the marshes, and the Skaven have found a refuge amongst them. It is clear that they made their nest there. We must flush them out at once, before they breed and expand and ravage the land.”
Two large wagons were standing in the square. Teams of harnessed oxen, their breath misting in the chill morning air, stomped and bellowed impatiently while their drivers supervised the unloading of their cargoes. The militia and the soldiers had formed human chains to one of the warehouses and were passing along heavy sacks to be stacked inside.
Two troopers came running into the square from the direction of the Nordküstestraße, with Brother Hans close behind them. The young Priest was leading a white horse on which was seated a lad. The beast, saddle-less, was lathered in sweat and its rider wobbled unsteadily. His legs were cut and bleeding.
Mr Starkleiter and Brother Franz, who were overseeing the stockpiling, hurried over, and Captain Langer joined them. The officer took a firm hold around the boy’s waist and lowered him to the ground.
“I recognise him,” said Brother Hans, panting slightly from his exertions. “He’s called Poldie Förstersohn. Employed as a stable boy at Die Springenden Fische in Trockener. Both his parents died a few years back.”
“Poldie, what happened?” asked Mr Starkleiter.
“They’ve burned Trockener!” the lad gasped. “The whole place is alight! They came out of nowhere, hundreds and hundreds of them, a little before dawn it was.”
“And who are they, precisely?” said Brother Franz haughtily.
Captain Langer shook his head and rolled his eyes to the heavens. Who else was it likely to be?
“They were like men, sort of, but with fur, and there were rats everywhere,” the boy answered. His eyes were wide and the words came pell-mell. “It was sort of lucky because when Corporal Klaus and the men got back yesterday evening Brother Albrecht called a meeting and told us what had happened to Gunter, and also that Wolfgang had been burned. His brothers were all for going and hunting down the monsters there and then.”
He paused for breath then launched on. “Well, that gave everyone a bad case of the nerves, I can tell you, and nobody slept well. And then the rats came, swarms and swarms of them, and that got everyone up, so most of the people had already run to the chapel before the creatures appeared. I saw shooting and arrows firing from the windows and from the tower.”
Somebody thrust a tankard at the boy and he grabbed it, guzzling the cool ale gratefully. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.
“I was sleeping in the stables, up in the hayloft, but the monsters threw in fire through the doors. I don’t know how they opened them. Where I was hiding, I could see more smoke and flames from across the town, so that’s how I know they were burning everything. I didn’t know what to do so I stayed hid, but the fire was getting worse and the smoke was getting too bad. The horses were all kicking and making a terrible noise.”
He took another mouthful of the beer.
“Old Mr Weiss and Corporal Klaus and a load of the other men came and started fighting in the yard, and they also had the hounds from the hunt with them, and the dogs were making the rats and the monsters run all over. It was getting light by then and I could see them from the gap in the loft door. I had to jump down from the hayloft because everything was catching fire, but I landed in the straw. Three of the monsters were inside the stables with big knives, so I opened the doors on the stalls and let the horses out. They pranced and kicked so much that the monsters fled.”
“What then?” asked the Captain.
“More and more of the creatures were coming and Mr Weiss was shouting at me to ride to get help. I managed to get a hold on Bathild here” – he patted the mare’s flank – “because she had reins on. The monsters tried to stop me when I rode through and they cut at my legs, but we made it, and when we were out of the village I galloped her as far as she could stand it and trotted the rest of the way.”
Captain Langer grunted and nodded. “Thank you,” he said, “you have been a great help. Now you must see to your wounds and tend your mount. There are stables at the inn.”
The boy was escorted away by Brother Hans and the soldiers.
“What can we do?” asked Mr Starkleiter once they were alone.
“What indeed.” Brother Franz’s answer was more of a question.
Captain Langer held up his hand for silence. “How far away is the place?”
“Trockener? Seven miles, as the duck flies, but more than ten along the road.”
The Captain considered for a moment and then shook his head. “A good few hours marching, then. What’s the road like?”
“In this weather, well, muddy,” replied the Priest. “It could be worse, though. Last year we had rain enough to entirely wash away the path.”
“We have to send them aid,” urged Mr Starkleiter.
“No.” Captain Langer’s voice was firm. “We do nothing.”
There was silence for a few moments. “Pray explain yourself,” demanded the Priest.
“My dear Franz, what good would sending troops do? By the time they arrive the enemy will have long since departed, and pursuing such a large force is just stupid. In truth, I believe that the Skaven are trying to draw our troops out. Should we send a relief force, they would very likely be ambushed on the way, where I have no doubt they would be overwhelmed and slaughtered to a man. No, we fight when we are ready, not before. It is our only chance.”
“I can only hope that there is someone left in Trockener who can appreciate your reasoning.”
Captain Langer nodded. “So do I.”
He looked at the two men with him. “From this time forward,” he said, “you must consider yourselves subject to martial law. As the senior military officer present, this town and the surrounding areas are now under my direct supervision, and all decisions are subject to my approval. Proclamations are to be posted to that effect and read out to the people. Curfew will be set between the hours of dusk and dawn. Of course, all of the civil authorities will retain their freedom of movement to carry out their duties.”
He turned and strode away, leaving the two men standing staring after him in astonishment.
Refugees from Trockener began to arrive early in the afternoon, tramping wearily along the rutted and muddy road. They were in twos or threes to begin with, but gradually there came more and more.
All were silent and grey-faced with a strange hollow-eyed look about them. The weakest and the worst injured were borne on improvised stretchers or were simply carried, bearing the discomfort and pain with grim determination. Some carried pathetic bundles or pushed handcarts laden with their meagre possessions, but they were the lucky ones. Most had nothing other than the clothes they stood up in.
Escorting them were a detachment of militia, some twenty fighters and an equal number of archers. The men were sombre-faced and armed to the teeth, sporting pistols and axes and blades of all shapes and sizes. One of the warriors, a huge hairy bear of a man, had a tiny and grubby child riding on his shoulders.
Soon it seemed as though half of Trockener was there. Among their number were the very old and the very young, nursing mothers, and the sickly – a mass of wretched humanity, bewildered and exhausted and with nowhere else to go.
The people of Schlammigerdorf flocked to help them, taking the poor souls out of the cold and into their houses where they were cared for and fussed over. Mrs Starkleiter was prominent in the effort, directing the goodwives to heat big cauldrons of pottage, and seeing to it that dry blankets and bread and apples and cheese were distributed to one and all, along with steins of warmed beer. The sustenance and shelter was gratefully received.
A great many of the arrivals were hurt. Some bore the obvious marks of combat – lacerations and cuts, dark swollen bruises, and broken bones – but most had burns, got while escaping from blazing buildings. The women set about tending to the injured; unctions, ointments, and lotions were dabbed onto wounds, poultices and dressings were applied, and clean white bandages were wrapped around torsos and heads and limbs.
And there were those who were lost and scared, separated from their loved ones and fearing the worst. On occasion Mrs Starkleiter was able to reunite families, but all too often all that she could do was see that an individual was taken care of. She refused to be downhearted, though, cheerily pointing out that many people could have instead gone to Rauchendorf or Osthügel.
But in her heart there was a gnawing fear that she was merely shielding the newly widowed or orphaned from their tragedy.
By the middle of the morning the militia rearguard, another thirty men in all, had entered the town. They were led by Corporal Klaus, who saw to it that he was the last man in. Among their number were poor dead Wolfgang Müller’s two younger siblings. They shepherded the last of the refugees before them.
With their duty complete the fighters joined their companions, who had been put up in a warehouse stacked high with dried peat. It offered shelter from the rain and afforded them a chance to rest. They were glad to see one another alive but were still reeling from the events that had overtaken them.
Schlammigerdorf’s populace had seen to it that Trockener’s fighting men were well supplied with hot food and warm blankets, and there was plenty for the new arrivals too. Once he was sure that his command had been properly cared for the Corporal left them to their own devices.
The entire town seemed to be in commotion. The whole waterfront was filled with screaming children and pallid women being ushered here and there, lines of soldiers carrying out orders and shouted commands ringing out, beasts neighing and bellowing, and patrols going back and forth. It was all rather overwhelming.
The Corporal headed around the edge of the square to avoid getting caught up in the activity, passing the town hall as he did so. The mayor and a man in armour were stood on the steps directing the unloading of a wagon. He strode by and turned onto the Südküstestraße, marching with a determined tread to the chapel.
He lifted the heavy iron latch on the age-blackened door. It creaked open and he stalked through. The atmosphere within was calm and the air was heady with incense. Brother Franz and a number of the militia were in conversation near the altar, but as soon as the Priest saw the soldier he hurried over to him and shook his hand firmly.
“My dear fellow,” he exclaimed. “I am so sorry for you all. I have offered prayers on behalf of all of the people of Trockener. Please, what happened?”
The Corporal clicked his heels together and executed a curt bow. “Thankyou.”
He relaxed and sat down on the steps leading up to the altar, taking off his cap and fiddling with the brim. “Well, me and the lads got back from the house of Doctor Ungerade pretty late into the night,” he began. “I told Brother Albrecht what had transpired. He called a meeting despite the lateness of the hour and told everyone what had happened to the two hunters. It put the wind up pretty much everyone.”
The Priest nodded. “This I have heard already.”
One of the militia passed a cup of wine to the Corporal. He put his cap back on and took a hold of it.
“Well, I’d not got me head down for more than a few hours,” he continued, “before I was awoken by a great commotion, on account of the rats. Hordes of them, there were, all over everything and back and forth as bold as you like. So me, and those of the lads that were there with me, we got kitted up and went to find out what was going on. It was still dark, which threw me a bit to start with.”
He paused to take a mouthful of drink.
“The rats had woken everyone up, so lots of people were heading to the chapel. Most of them were dressed, nice and warm like. Must have been sleeping in their clothes.”
“Then came the creatures, like the dead one that Doctor Ungerade had. Rat-men, I suppose I’d call them. Shorter than us, they were, with tails too, and they stunk real bad. There had to be five of them for every one of us, but they were disorganised and never seemed to concentrate their numbers enough to fight effectively.”
He was silent for a moment, thinking things over. “Odd, it was. They were far more concerned in carrying things away. I saw a great mass of them manhandling a wooden dresser out of Mother Gerstein’s cottage before they set the building to the flames. What would they want with such a thing?”
Brother Franz shook his head. “I really couldn’t say.”
“Those of the militia who were about their duties managed to muster near the square. There was a great commotion from the direction of the Ostweg, where the monsters were fleeing before Mr Weiss and his servants, who had armed themselves and had brought the hunting hounds. We joined with them, and we got into a desperate fight near Die Springenden Fische, where the horses were being got out of the stables. Mr Weiss had spotted Poldie Förstersohn, who was with the horses, and sent him off with a message.”
The Priest nodded. “He arrived here earlier today,” he confirmed.
“By this time the creatures were pressing us more sorely, and once the wounded fell there was little chance of rescuing them. They just got dragged away and torn to shreds. We knew we couldn’t stay in the open so we fought our way towards the tavern, and finally we made it inside, where there were a few other men.”
Corporal Klaus took another sip of his drink. “Tell me, Brother,” he said, “why wasn’t any help sent?”
“You cannot blame me for that,” said the Priest, spreading his hands in a gesture of piety. “No assistance was sent on the orders of that foreign Captain, whom, you should know, has declared martial law and put himself in charge. He reckoned that there was too much chance of an ambush on the road. If it had been left to my devising, troops would have been dispatched with all haste.”
“Maybe he was right,” answered the Corporal absently. “It was strange, the way they fought. They could have wiped us out, I’m sure. But instead they didn’t.”
It wasn’t the answer the Priest had expected. “If I may ask, how many do you think are dead?” he said, quickly changing the subject.
“More than thirty, at a guess,” came the reply. “Wouldn’t like to say how many more are going to pass away of their wounds, like, but it’ll be a few.”
Brother Franz closed his eyes and intoned a prayer. “May Sigmar grant them rest,” he mumbled, and made the sign of the hammer in the air. “And what of the others?”
“Brother Albrecht and the other fighting men of Trockener have abandoned the place for Rauchendorf, to better prop up its defences. That spot is far better for defence, you understand. They have taken what they can with them. I believe a small cadre remains to defend the chapel, but, other than them, this evening the town is empty.”
Captain Langer looked at his map, then at the scrubby and mist-shrouded rise ahead of him. “This will be the spot,” he said, his breath misting in the chill. The assembled men, some seventy in number and all dour-faced and purposeful, remained silent.
Brother Otto wiped a drip from the tip of his nose with his gloved finger and glanced around at the cloak-wrapped and bearded huntsmen. “Given an early warning of any enemy, we can be at this spot and formed into bodies in around an hour. But only if we receive early warning.”
Captain Langer frowned at the assembly. “We must ensure that it happens.”
The chosen ground was a long oval mound known as the Kreuzweginsel, which lay a little less than two miles north by north-west of Schlammigerdorf. It was the largest and most southerly member of a tiny archipelago that ultimately became the great sodden expanse of the Unreinfluß.
To the west of the island was the Tiefelagune, a great hollow in the sea floor fringed all around by tide-washed and muddy shallows. To the south-east was the Wenig Grüneswasser, a broad but shallow pond, and to the north-east was the Grösseres Grüneswasser, the southern part of the great lake called the Entewasser.
The tracks that led through the marshes gave the mound its name. To the south a well-trod route connected to the Küstestraße, while to the north a narrow path hopped between the gradually smaller and wetter islands before opening onto broad expanses of saltmarsh. A second trail, carried on a narrow causeway and fringed on either side by broad mud flats, snaked between the two Grüneswassers and around the southern edge of the lakes before heading off towards the western parts of the Weitflach.
Brother Otto looked around the dismal hill, sniffling in the chill air. He tried to imagine the troops arrayed, but it was impossible. The place was just too big. The Skaven would lap around them and overwhelm them in no time at all.
“We have our left flank secured by the waters,” said Captain Langer grandly, “and any attack from the right will be badly hampered by the poor terrain.”
Brother Otto nodded.
Captain Langer turned and addressed the huntsmen. “Gentlemen, your mission is a vital one. You must move out into the marshes and watch the trails and the ways, and when you see the enemy send word back to us with all haste. Then you must draw them towards this place, attacking to goad them on and then fleeing before them. But you must not bring them on too fast, or we won’t have time to assemble.”
He dug his heel into the ground. It was spongy and wet, the imprint quickly filling with dark water, but it was firm enough for his needs. “Once the enemy have been drawn onto our defences you should retire into the reeds and sedges along the shore and meet with one another. When you see the signal you should then attack the enemy, killing as many as you can.”
The huntsmen nodded in acknowledgement.
“The task I charge you with is not an easy one,” said the Captain. “It will expose you to a great deal of danger, and it is likely many of you will not live to see another day.”
Johann Weiler, their senior man, bowed his head in acknowledgement. “It is a burden we all accept. We shall not fail. You will receive word in good time, and we will lead them here at a pace of our choosing.”
“May Sigmar watch over you,” intoned Brother Otto. He made the sign of the hammer over them.
The huntsmen began to move off, some heading towards the causeway and the others trotting along the northern path. Soon the mists closed around them, their grey cloaks speeding their disappearance into the opaque haze. Captain Langer, the Priest and their militia escort were left standing quite alone.
“Brother Otto,” said the solder, “I have a task for you too. When we return to town take some men and requisition as much lamp oil, candle wax and grease and fat as you can find. Get it all put into kegs, mixed together how you like, then bring them back here and make two secret caches of them, one on either side of the southern shore of the next island up. And see to it that those caches are guarded night and day.”
The priest nodded curtly. “It shall be done.”
That evening the officers assembled in the town hall in closed session. Present were Captain Langer, Mr Abdecker, and Ensign Kültz, who sat on the right side of the table, and Brother Franz, Doctor Ungerade, and Captain Fuchs, who sat on the left. Mr Starkleiter was presiding; his wife was at his shoulder, keeping minutes and speaking for the womenfolk and children of the community. Gunter Braun’s presence had been requested and he stood close to the door, looking uncomfortable and feeling out of place.
Captain Langer stood up and cleared his throat. “Thankyou all for attending. I have called this meeting to finalise our plan of battle. You should know that I have chosen the ground where we shall make a stand; it is the Kreuzweginsel.”
He produced a chart of the area and spread it out on the table, then pointed out the town, the road, and the island. Everyone except Fuchs, and Gunter Braun, who stayed close to the door, peered over it to get a better view.
“I have deployed a screen of scouts to inform us of the enemy’s approach,” continued the Captain, “and I have sent one of the roughriders to Kohlberg to inform them of our situation and call for reinforcements.”
He clasped his hands behind his back and wandered over to the far wall, where there hung a portrait of a previous and illustrious Elector of Middenheim. He peered up at it, then turned to face the room.
“This band of creatures, as I believe I have mentioned, are the survivors of a petty war. They were soundly beaten and forced to flee by their foes, and were sore harried by our Imperial forces as they did so. And, as I have previously said, they were unable to bring any of their equipment with them.”
He paused again.
“However, now they have a base they will be starting to build their war machines. In the depositions you provided, I couldn’t help but notice a curious trend of thefts, mostly of wheels, chains, sheets of metal, pipes, seasoned wood, and all manner of other little trinkets. These, I think, are significant.”
“I believe that as yet they have not finished sufficient numbers of these machines to bring them to battle. And further, I suspect that they are actually raiding the towns and villages in this area to acquire the items and equipment they need to finish building their army, in addition to gathering food and other such supplies. And when that happens…” Captain Langer spread his hands.
“We don’t even know if they will attack,” put in Brother Franz. “This whole thing might blow over now that they’ve attacked Trockener.
“Make no mistake, they will come, and soon, too. I believe that they will raid this place for the supplies that they need, and they will likely do it before our reinforcements arrive. And, in all likelihood, it will be in the dead of night.”
“But what can we do against such a huge army?”
“A good question. The simple answer is that we fight as best we can. The force we are going to meet will not be expecting to encounter us. They are there to plunder and steal, not to fight against a determined foe. They are expecting to surprise us in our beds, or at worst to find us still mustering in the square.”
“So this would give us the element of surprise?” mused Brother Franz.
Captain Langer nodded. “Quite so, and I intend to extend that surprise still further. I have arranged for quantities of flammable material to be placed close to where their attack should come from. At the most opportune moment it shall be set aflame, so that it lights the scene and takes away the cover of darkness. Brother Otto is engaged in that duty even now.”
“I wondered what he was up to” mumbled the Priest to himself.
“Also,” added that Captain, “the sailors, in boats, are to form an assault force in the marshes along the edges of the Tiefelagune. They will remain hidden until I give the signal – the ringing of a bell and the repeated shooting of flaming arrows over the waters. When that happens they are to launch an assault, hopefully taking our enemy in the flank and causing harm.”
Captain Fuchs nodded in acknowledgement. “I have men drawn from all the ships,” he announced. “We have made all necessary preparations and await your word.”
“Is there anything else we should know?” asked Brother Franz.
“One thing, and some good news this time. To the best of my knowledge they have no particular missile weapons. Some may well be equipped with slings, and some may throw rocks or spears, but generally these have nuisance value only. They appear to have little warpstone, so many of their more dangerous creations will not be present.”
“Warpstone?” said Brother Franz. “What’s that?”
“It is a stone of celestial origin, and of a magical nature,” answered Mr Abdecker. “What little I have seen is a green colour, rather like jade, and glowing with its own inner light. It is dangerous because it is closely associated with Chaos, and in sufficient quantities it induces madness and even physical mutations. The Skaven use small fragments of the stuff in the weapons that they construct.”
“And you say they haven’t got any of these weapons?”
“As far as I know,” replied Captain Langer. “They may have brought a quantity of warpstone with them, I cannot deny that, but I doubt whether they have enough to build more than a few of their contraptions. And besides, transporting any such constructions through the marshes would prove extremely difficult.”
“That’s as maybe, Captain,” said Mr Starkleiter. “But how do we deal with their nest?”
“That, my dear Mayor, is the core of our plan,” replied the Captain. “Ensign Kültz is to lead a force of troops who will enter the lair through the tunnel located by the hunters from Trockener.”
He indicated towards Gunter Braun. “That good fellow will take our party to the proper place and help them gain entry. The raiders are to follow the tunnels until they reach the heart of the Skaven nest, and then they are to destroy it.”
Gunter took his hat from his head and toyed with the brim nervously.
“This party will include all of the Pistolier troopers, and in addition volunteers have stepped forward from among the local men. I have chosen those with experience in construction and in masonry. A number of fen folk will act as their guides and escorts on the journey through the marshes. In addition to his weapons and any other kit he chooses to take, each man will carry a substantial charge of blackpowder.”
Doctor Ungerade held up his hand. “I would very much like to accompany the Ensign,” he said. “I hope that my skills would prove useful, and I must admit that I have a great desire to see Eolanaith before it is once more consumed by the mud and the sea.”
“Doctor, I really don’t feel…” began the Ensign, but Captain Langer cut him off.
“An excellent idea,” he said loudly. “Doctor Ungerade is to accompany you. His wisdom and council will be of great benefit.”
Kültz executed a curt, tight-lipped nod. “So be it, my Captain.”
“By engaging in battle with the main part of the Skaven army we shall give our raiders a chance to penetrate their nest while it is relatively empty. The truth, gentlemen, is that we are simply the decoy to draw away our enemy’s attention.”
That caused a ripple of comments, and the Captain waited until they had died down.
“We should have no illusions about the Skaven,” he continued. “They are a wily and devious enemy, full of tricks and capable of surprising even the most experienced general. When they engage us they will be relying purely on their vast numbers. Make no mistake, if they can bring a host sufficient to overrun us it will not matter whether they have warpstone or weapons or anything else.”
“However, don’t think that I intend to throw away our lives. The Kreuzweginsel is a place that has few approaches, and those routes are difficult to follow. The Skaven’s great numbers will work against them, for they will become confined and disorganised, and will find it difficult to engage us on anything except equal terms. If we are resolute and just a little lucky we may yet be able to effect a victory.”
A silence settled on the room.
“Well?” said Captain Langer eventually.
Mrs Starkleiter raised her hand. “And what of the good citizens?” she asked. “What, pray, is to happen to them?”
“My dear lady,” answered the Captain, “the town is not to be left empty. Brother Otto is to remain with a cadre of troops. I propose splitting them into two bodies, one at the chapel, which is a good place to defend, and the other to guard the storehouse where the food is being held. Those women who wish to remain here are of course welcome to do so. Any who want to leave have been offered sanctuary aboard Captain Fuchs’ ship.”
His answer seemed to satisfy her.
The Captain looked around the room. “If there is no other business, I suggest that we set about our duties,” he said. “As I’ve already mentioned, I am quite sure that our foe will be upon us sooner than you imagine.”
Captain Langer was proved right. They were coming.
One of the scouts, a wiry little fellow wearing ragged and mud-spattered clothing, emerged breathless from the darkness of the Nordküstestraße in the very small hours of the morning. The militia soldiers challenged him as he reached the watchtower, and once the password had been given two of their number escorted him into the square.
Sergeant Felsen, bright and alert despite the hour, immediately sent one of the musketeers to rouse Captain Langer. Both men returned within a very few minutes, the Captain fully dressed, but rumpled and lacking his armour and with a bleary look about him.
The officer retrieved his pocket-watch, an excellent timekeeper with a dwarf-made clockwork mechanism. It was a half past the hour of two in the morning. “Please, make your report,” he mumbled, shivering in the chill and stifling a yawn.
The scout did.
“I was with Johann Weiler” he said, “on account of me being a good runner and all. He’s a fine huntsman and is good at organising folks, which is why all the reports got sent to him and he got to give the orders. I heard most things, see, so I was the best choice to come back here”
Captain Langer nodded. It was best to let the man tell the story in his own words.
“One or two of the lads, they were way out in front. They came back to us and said that there was a great host on the move. It seemed that they were heading southward, towards us. But it got confusing, ‘cos others were coming back saying that the enemy were in a body taking a south-easterly route. In the end we worked out that they were gathered into two separate columns, about a half-mile apart. The left-hand force, the one heading southward, was by far the larger.”
“Were you able to determine if they had any war machines with them?”
The scout shook his head. “I don’t think so, they didn’t have anything like cannons or mortars or stuff like that, leastwise not that we were able to see.”
The Captain closed his eyes and offered up a silent prayer of thanks at the news. It was the one thing that had been truly worrying him.
“They did have a couple of odd things, though,” continued the scout. “Sort of like a pair of great long rifles, they were, big ends on ‘em, and with teams of the creatures carrying them along.”
Captain Langer’s heart dropped. “Jezzails,” he breathed. “Gods, no. I’d hoped they hadn’t had time to construct any.”
“They was making hard work of it, and were a bit aways from the rest of their mob. Trying to find better footing, I shouldn’t wonder. Well, a few of the boys was able to get in real close, and they let fly at them. Popped a few of the monsters, quick as you like, and the others dropped everything and legged it.”
“The lads went and finished off the wounded, and got their arrows back, then they set to them guns with their axes and wrecked ‘em. But a big rabble of the beasts was close by and came after them. They had to be away sharpish, and even then one or two didn’t make it.”
“You mean to tell me you destroyed their guns?”
The scout blinked awkwardly. “Did we do wrong?”
“Gods, no. I couldn’t have asked you to do more.” Captain Langer had to stop himself from laughing out loud.
“Well, next, like you ordered,” said the scout, “we took on the larger force. Vicious little buggers, the ones they send out in front. Skirmishers, like us. They had slings, too, and were launching rocks and stuff at us. Lost a few of the lads that way. Anyway, we retreated as slow as we could, but it weren’t easy. They pushed forward in such numbers that we had to leave or we would have been overwhelmed.”
“How bad is it?”
The scout sucked his teeth. “When I was sent off they were fighting down towards the Nordinsel, and the lads were assembling on the far side of the crossing to shoot them while they were in the water.”
“Let us pray we have enough time,” breathed the Captain.
As its name suggested, the muddy islet was the most northerly member of the archipelago, and if the Skaven really were preparing to force it they might be able to get far enough south, on to the open ground, before he was ready to meet them. That would be an absolute disaster.
The Captain acted at once. He set the drummer boy, who had been woken by the Sergeant and hadn’t had a chance to dress properly, to beating out the alert. Soon the lad was joined by a militia drummer, and before long the whole square was alive with running men and echoed with shouts and orders. Within a very short time the men were forming up into their units.
Next he sent for Ensign Kültz. That officer had already picked the men who were to accompany him on the raid, and had assembled all of the supplies that were needed.
His force had quite a distance to travel.
The roughriders, of course, had their horses, but Captain Langer had arranged for the militia and the supplies to be carried aboard a pair of horse-drawn wagons. The big carts had been loaded since the middle of the day, and even now they were having their nags harnessed.
Doctor Ungerade, rather than remaining at his estate, had taken a room at the mayor’s house in order to be ready with the minimum of delay. He arrived in the square with commendable speed and was helped aboard the leading cart by the militia, where he did his best to make himself comfortable among the packs and tools and weapons.
Mr Schlechtmann, his assistant, who had been prevented from joining the mission on account of his age, fussed around his master, urging him to take care and avoid danger.
The little force was to be dropped off a few miles along the Nordküstestraße, and from there they were to continue on foot with Gunter Braun as their guide. They were keen to be off and the Captain saw no reason to delay them.
Ensign Kültz and Captain Langer shook hands and wished one another luck, and then the young man mounted his steed. He wheeled his horse around, urged it into a trot, and they were away. The two wagons clattered out of the square with the roughriders forming an escort.
A few moments later Brother Franz and his two acolyte Priests made their appearance, splendid in their scarlet robes and polished armour, and each hefting a warhammer. They surveyed the assembled men, watching as equipment was checked and a final edge was put onto blades. Most of the troops stood in silence, deep in contemplation and trying to prepare themselves for the coming ordeal.
Captain Langer joined the clergymen. “My apologies for the hour,” he said, “but this seems to be the time our foes prefer. Now that you are here, you can see to it that the archers are sent off immediately. Make sure that they all have stakes to drive into the ground, and that all have extra arrows. The scout who brought us word of the Skaven” – he pointed out the little fellow – “will lead them to where they need to be.”
Brother Hans grunted. This was to be his duty.
“When that is done see that those men who are to stay to defend the town are about their duties. The main force should be ready to march before the hour of three.”
“And what, pray, will you be doing?” asked Brother Franz sourly.
Captain Langer looked down at his clothes, then back at the Priest. “I do believe that I will go and don my armour and my sword.”
Mrs Starkleiter had awoken as soon as the drums had started.
It was still dark, and it took a few moments for her mind to understand what her ears were hearing. She sat bolt upright in the bed, taking the covers with her and leaving her husband, who was still fast asleep, pawing ineffectually to try and pull them back over. She shook his shoulder until his eyes opened.
“Listen, you old fool,” she whispered, and suddenly he was sitting up too.
“Are they coming?” he hissed back, as though the sound of his voice would attract a horde of furry knife-wielding demons.
She used a strikelight to light the oil lamp, and soon the pair were hurriedly getting dressed. She decided on extra petticoats and chose her best winter cloak, wrapping it around her shoulders, and checked that her husband had put on his warm woollen hose rather than the colourful but flighty cotton things he preferred.
They locked the doors to their chambers as they left, then made their way down the broad staircase and into the hallway. Most of the male servants had already departed to join their respective militia units, but the maids and the cook and Mr Wruck, their elderly butler, were gathered there.
By the front doors was a neat pile made up of baskets and packs and rolled blankets, supplies and bedding and useful things for this very circumstance. Each person took their allotted items and filed outside. Once all were accounted for Mr Starkleiter produced the big iron key and locked the front door.
The Südlichestraße was full of people, most carrying packs of their own, and all hurrying towards the centre of the town. The drums were still beating.
The square was filled with mustering soldiers and baggage and all manner of other clutter. Two heavy wagons, both filled with men and equipment, and with a group of horsemen riding alongside, were pulling out along the Nordküstestraße. Orchestrating the chaotic proceedings were the Priests, and Mr Starkleiter departed to go and talk with them.
Mrs Starkleiter caught sight of Ulrike Kessel and her daughter, who were watching the proceedings from close to the quayside. She ordered the servants to go to the town hall, which had been decided on as the meeting point, and paced across to her friend.
Shouts and orders rang out and the archers begin to collect their kit. They formed into two small bodies, with Brother Hans at their head, and once they were ready they too departed along the Nordküstestraße.
“A fine man, your Hans,” said Mrs Starkleiter. “There he is, all grown up and leading our soldiers off to war.”
Mother Kessel produced a vast white handkerchief and noisily blew her nose into it. “Who would have thought it?” she sobbed. “His father would have been so proud, may Sigmar rest his soul.”
Captain Langer and his companion, Mr Abdecker, emerged from the tavern and made their way over to where her husband was talking with the two remaining clergymen. They entered into an animated though inaudible conversation that involved a great deal of pointing and gesturing.
With a good deal of shouting, and lots of running back and forth, the troops prepared to march. The drums struck up a new and more urgent beat, and the officers moved to the head of the column. Mr Starkleiter and Brother Otto began to make their way over to the women.
Mrs Starkleiter had a sudden and awful attack of nervousness. Each of the regiments – she very much doubted whether they really should use that title, for, to the best of her knowledge, they were below the strength of a company of State troops – were about to march away to almost certain death.
In the ranks she recognised a boy whom she tutored, barely sixteen years old and terrible at his letters. Now here he was hefting a sword and a dagger, and the chances were that he wouldn’t survive to see another day. And a few files over, one of the leather-faced fishermen who sold his catch on the quayside every morning. He always gave her a special price, though the Gods knew he couldn’t afford it. There were others, but she couldn’t look.
This would probably be the last time she saw any of those men’s faces, and the thought upset her and deeply disturbed her.
Her husband took a hold of her hand. “You all right, old girl?” he asked, concern etched across his features. “Come on, chin up! We can’t let them think we’re worried.”
“What…?” She blinked blankly, then managed a weak smile. “Yes, you’re quite right.”
One by one the units of soldiers set off across the square, slowly disappearing into the chill and misty darkness as they made their way onto the Nordküstestraße. Behind them four pony-drawn carts followed, loaded with all manner of martial supplies, and bringing up the rear was a squad of handgunners. Mrs Starkleiter tried to look proud and confident as they left, giving each body of men a cheery smile and a wave.
Gradually the rattle of the beating drums faded into the distance. The square seemed so wide and empty.
She took a deep breath, drew herself up to her full height, and gave her best stern expression to those around her. “Well, gentlemen, your troops await. And those poor souls who need sanctuary must be taken to safety with all haste.”
Brother Otto nodded in agreement. “I will command from the chapel,” he announced, “and that will be the place where those who wish to remain will gather for safety.”
“Quite so,” said Mr Starkleiter. “The other strong points will be the warehouse where the food is being stored, and the town hall, where I shall be with a force of men. Also, I understand that the proprietors of the two taverns have been given permissions to remain within their establishments. Also, there will be patrols, who will rove from place to place to ensure there is not a sneak attack.”
Once the arrangements were known Brother Otto performed a blessing and said his farewells, keen to be about his duties.
Mrs Starkleiter made the sign of the hammer over herself, then turned and looked down at the dark waters lapping at the quayside. She gritted her teeth and fought back a sob. Mother Kessel, at her side as ever and quite unaware of her friend’s efforts to hide her emotions, waved at the elderly sailors preparing their craft. They hailed back, shouting that they were ready.
“We really ought to get everybody to where they need to be,” said Mrs Starkleiter firmly, and with that she bustled the little group off towards the town hall.
The place was packed. Babes squawked and bawled as mothers and grandparents rocked them on their knees, and children considered too young to stand in the line of battle stood or sobbed amid the confusion. The sickly and the injured, pallid and sweat-beaded, lay on improvised stretchers gritting their teeth against the discomfort and pain. Wives wept for their husbands, comforted by silver-haired and shawl-wrapped ancients. And all around them were the sacks and packs and bundles that represented the pitiful remnants of their lives.
Mrs Starkleiter picked her way through to the raised platform on the other side of the room and clambered onto it. “Everybody, could I have your attention please!” she shouted, and gradually the hubbub of voices died back, though one or two recalcitrant nurselings still bleated noisily.
“We are to take refuge as of now,” she announced. “Those of you who wish to remain within the town are to go to the chapel, where Brother Otto will see to your needs. Everybody else is to go to the quay, where there are boats to take you to a waiting ship.”
People began to pick themselves up and retrieve their things. They had a tired air to them, but they hauled themselves up and trudged through the doors with a slow and dogged determination.
“And what about you, Ulrike?” asked Mrs Starkleiter of her friend.
Mother Kessel sucked her gums. “I ain’t going back on that boat, I’m not,” she whined. “It makes me ill. No, I’ll take my chances within the chapel, thankyou very much.”
“And if mum stays, then so do I,” chimed in Klara.
And that was that. The women embraced and wished one other luck, and then mother and daughter joined those heading towards that refuge. Mrs Starkleiter watched them until the rounded the corner onto the Südlichestraße.
Once they were gone Mr Starkleiter took his wife’s hands in his own. “While you’re busy looking after everyone, my dear,” he said, “remember to take care of yourself. Sigmar willing, I shall see you again before the day is out.”
“And you, you silly old fool,” she replied affectionately, and leaned forward and kissed him on his cheek. “Don’t take any chances.”
And with that she was away, striding purposefully over the slick cobbles towards the quayside. There were people there who needed her. She couldn’t let them down.
Those of the huntsmen who had survived their first engagements grudgingly retreated, harrying their foes and drawing them through the treacherous mudflats and pools of the Unreinfluß. The darkness and the fog were claustrophobic blessings, concealing both friend and foe alike and leaving individuals utterly isolated mere yards from others.
The huntsmen stayed as far away from open ground as they could, for it was in such places that the Skaven might overwhelm them with their numbers. Instead, they set ambushes at critical points, where paths narrowed between deep pools and the creatures had no choice but to come in twos or threes.
From those spots a few well-placed men rained fire on the beasts, shooting almost blindly into the oncoming mass, with perhaps one or two of their number, more sharp eyed in the gloom, felling any of the monsters that escaped to slither and slip along the narrow causeways. Soon their dead lay so thick that the next waves had to clamber over the corpses before they could proceed.
A lack of arrows eventually forced the men to retreat. They withdrew through the inky brume as fast as their legs would carry them while their enraged oppugnants slithered and slipped close behind. The men, sure-footed on the hidden trails, reached other easily defended spots.
Earlier in the day Johann Weiler had ordered caches of arrows to be placed in such locations, and now blessings were heaped upon the man for his foresight. Rearmed, the men paused and caught their breath and peered into the darkness and prepared themselves as best they could.
Their time was filled with awful breathless silences, tense seconds dragging into aching minutes, and then an explosion of action as foes were sighted and shots were taken. The air was rent by the sharp whacks of arrows piercing flesh and the shrieks and squeals of the targets.
Draw and fire, draw and fire. The action became mechanical, the motions automatic, until finally the enemy were too close and the arrows too few to continue.
And then away again, dashing off in a frantic sprint and diving into the scant cover of a tuft of grass or a sedge-studded ridge. Rolling, and scrambling onto one knee, praying the others were still there and covering you. No time to worry, just force your aching limbs to pull another arrow from the quiver, nock it into the string and draw it back, waiting for any sign of movement.
The survivors from among the rat-men rushed on in blind fury, searching for a target, whirling their slings around and around and launching weighty pebbles of chipped white stone at almost anything. But their stinging, infuriating attackers had melted away again, vanishing into the fog and the darkness. Only the last vestige of their stink, strange and musky and disconcerting, lingered in the air.
The monsters appeared to have no regard for their lives, perhaps more scared of their despots and overlords than their enemies. They sacrificed themselves in futile charges that provoked hails of arrows from the shadows and resulted in corpses bristling with shafts. Their companions lay dead or suffering ghastly wounds, but there were rarely any casualties from among their enemy to show for their exertions.
When they did chance across their opponents they rained down a hail of slingshots and, very occasionally, came to melee. These were bloody and vicious affairs, the men fighting like demons, falling only when the Skaven overwhelmed them and hacked them to pieces.
The last of the defendable places on the Unreinfluß was eventually over-run, and the final few defenders splashed across the expanses of waterlogged mud onto the Nordinsel, taking their places alongside their companions and receiving additional arrows.
It was disheartening to see how the ranks had thinned. But through their efforts they drew the Skaven army onward.
It was a great unstoppable mass, lumbering inexorably southwards towards the Kreuzweginsel. The awful ground, sodden and slippery and trampled into a clinging morass by thousands of clawed feet, slowed the monsters to a crawl. Individuals and even whole mobs lost their footing and slid into foetid ponds, or were trampled beneath the scrabbling paws of their companions.
A few braver creatures began to test the waters, and the huntsmen concealed among the reeds and hollows let them do so. When they had gained a little confidence the rat-men began to wade across, and then the Huntsmen let fly.
Arrows struck home and shrieks and squeals rang out. Bodies fell and writhed and twitched in the dark water.
A hail of stones impacted among the shore as the rat-men sought to strike back at their foes, and a pained cry told that at least one had scored a hit. Then they started forward in ragged groups, dashing towards the sodden beach in frantic skittering gallops that threw up great sprays of water.
The archers picked off targets as soon as they could see them, and sometimes aimed their fire only by the noise of their opponents in the darkness. The first few of the rat-men’s skirmishers made it onto the strand, but they were taken down in moments. The remainder, still up to their waists in the numbing water, turned and fled back into the gloom. The huntsmen waited, bows drawn and ready.
Long minutes passed.
A cacophony of high-pitched squeaks pierced the air, a terrifying, ear-aching war-cry that chilled to the marrow. Then came the sounds of hundreds of splashing paws as a great wave of the monsters surged forward into the shallows.
These weren’t the light and scattered skirmishers that the men had been fighting before. The monsters had changed tactics, instead deploying a large body of tougher troops.
Once more the hunters began to fire, and almost every shaft found a target in that great solid wall of fur and flesh. But soon they were running low on arrows, and they seemed to have done no significant harm to their foes.
The beasts began their charge, storming up the muddy beach in a furious assault, and once more the surviving huntsmen fell back before them. But their foe pressed in such numbers that the retreat quickly became headlong flight, and some of those who fled were caught and butchered.
The most fleet of the huntsmen dashed to the southern shore of the Nordinsel, then frantically splashed across the shallows onto the Vogel-Insel.
The reeds and willows that grew in abundance on that isle offered many opportunities for ambush. The horde of Skaven that had so easily crossed the flat and barren northern island suddenly found their progress far more difficult. Again, caches of arrows had been laid in advance, and once more the oncoming rat-men found themselves cut down by a maddening, invisible opponent.
But again numbers counted, and the huntsmen were gradually overwhelmed and driven back, though the toll on their attackers was appallingly high, leaving dead and dying rat-men fair littering the ground. Once more the men retreated across the water onto the larger Mittlere Insel, where Johann Weiler had set his headquarters.
Behind their retreat a few of the huntsmen had gone to ground among the reeds and the hollows, sheltering in prepared hides that would only be discovered if the rat-men literally tripped over them. Those Skaven that pursued them into the watery beds fell one by one, as arrows thudded into mangy hides bringing sudden death.
The remnants of the huntsmen gathered as fast as they could. There were pathetically few of them remaining – less than thirty, and many were wounded. It was hopeless to try and fight the horde with such a tiny band, they decided, and all felt that they had brought as much time as they could afford.
It was decided that the injured men would retire back to the Kreuzweginsel and seek help, while the remainder were to melt into the darkness and hide, ready to strike when the signal was given.
Johann looked at the men gathered with him, all cold and tired and spattered with mud and dirt. He called for volunteers to join him, men who would keep up a steady retreat to ensure that the throng continued onto the defences. The last cache of arrows was distributed as fairly as possible, so that everyone had at least a few shafts to fire.
The Skaven found no opposition on the Mittlere Insel. It seemed to confuse them. They advanced cautiously, milling and shuffling about aimlessly despite the savage whippings liberally administered by their hooded overseers. A few well-placed flurries of arrows felled some of their number and goaded them forward again.
But the big mob of the monsters held its ground, once again changing the nature of their assault. Again they sent forward the remnants of their skirmishers. These troops swept southwards onto the Flache Insel, sprinting through the murk and leaping in sploshing bounds through the water. They struggled ashore and almost immediately blundered into a small group of men. Each party seemed as surprised to see their foe as the other.
It came to melee almost at once. Frantic, random shots were loosed, blades were drawn and bodies slammed into one another. It devolved into a vicious and bloody fight that rent flesh and shattered bones and left twitching corpses from both sides. But it was the men who broke first, the last few of them hurtling off as fast as their legs could carry them.
The skirmishers pursued them and soon reached the expanse of sticky mud that became the shallow waters that led across to the Kreuzweginsel. Their quarry was already in the water, splashing across the frigid flow. There were shouts from other spots around them, distinctly the deep and gravelly voices of men.
They launched into the water and galloped off in pursuit.
Rald tenderly stroked his finger across the baby’s chin, inhaling the heady odour of fresh linen and warm milk. The infant cooed and gurgled from among the blankets in which it was wrapped.
“We still haven’t decided on a name,” he said.
Otylia smiled weakly. “We’ll do that when you return. It’ll give you a reason to make sure that you do.”
“I’ve got enough reasons already.” He leaned forward, lifted back the hood of the cape his wife was wearing, and kissed her on the forehead. “But I may not return, and where would we then?”
She pressed her finger against his lips. “Shhh,” she breathed. “I don’t want to hear any more talk like that.”
The swirl of drums filled the square and shouted orders rang out. A group of archers with Brother Hans at their head began their departure. Behind them the Nordland soldiers and the rest of the militia were forming into a column.
Rald glanced around at them. “I’ve got to go,” he said, and turned to leave.
“And where exactly do you think you’re going?” The voice was deep and gruff.
Rald looked around. “Me?”
“Yes, you.” It was Corporal Gruber. He was frowning.
“To join the others…” He pointed towards the militia assembling around Corporal Lüge.
“I don’t think so. Your duties are to be here in the town. When you’re done with your farewells report to the town hall.”
“Those are your orders. See that they are carried out.” And with that Corporal Gruber stamped away to be about his duties.
With a good deal of commotion and accompanied by frantic drumming the soldiers began to move off. The mayor’s wife was gamely smiling and waving to them, trying to put a brave face on things. One by one they disappeared into the gloom of the Nordküstestraße. Old Mother Kessel blew her nose noisily into her handkerchief from behind them while her daughter fussed around.
“You’d better do as he said,” whispered Otylia. “I’ve got to go too. Mrs Starkleiter has insisted that I stay at the chapel, Sigmar and her alone know why.”
The hounds of the hunt were baying and yelping, their eerie howls and cries filling the grey air. They had caught the scent of vermin and were hauling at their leashes, near choking themselves in their enthusiasm to be upon their prey.
Mr Abdecker sat himself down on a tussock of coarse grass near the centre of the Kreuzweginsel and untied his laces. He eased off his startups and removed his hose, rolling each stocking into a tight little ball and pushing them down into the toes of his boots. He stood up and removed his hat, handing it and the footwear to Captain Langer.
“If you could take care of these for me I would very much appreciate it.”
“Of course,” replied the Captain. “A little cold for going barefoot, don’t you think?”
Mr Abdecker pulled his bulky snapsack from around his shoulders and extracted a varnished wooden case, revealing a pair of pistols that had been specially made for him by Messrs Faße and Stanger, quality Gunsmiths of Nuln.
Past encounters had taken him to damp and watery places, and he had experienced problems with weapons that refused to fire. These pistols were repeaters, the stock housing a sealed revolving barrel that carried three charges within it. Each chamber carried its own priming charge and was fired by a spring-powered snaphance mechanism that moved the next loaded chamber into place and reset the trigger.
“If I’m wading through mud in my shoes,” he answered, rummaging through the bag for the other items he needed, “I’d probably have one bare foot within a couple of minutes anyway. At least this way I can collect them again, clean and dry.”
He removed the weapons from the case and blessed them, along with the blackpowder and the lead balls that he had retrieved. He carefully loaded each of the chambers and stopped up the barrels with soft wax.
To further waterproof them he smeared goose grease, which he kept in a small pot, around all the joins and moving parts, and forced some up into the slot in the stock for the trigger. Finally he wrapped them tightly in oilcloth. Satisfied that the pistols were going to stay as dry as he could manage he tucked them into the waistband of his breeches.
When he was done he extracted a final item from the sack, a tightly rolled and stinking pelt, the exposed flesh a pallid pink and the fur a translucent grey, and all tied into place with its long and sinuous tail. The head still contained the crown of the skull.
“What’s that?” asked Captain Langer.
“The pelt of a Skaven spellcaster, of a rank which is known as a Seer. The beast that this came from I slew with my own hand, and it is saturated and chill from the winds of magic that the monster wove.”
He put the gun case, the shot, the grease tub and his powder horn back into the snapsack, then handed the bag to the Captain. “Would you mind looking after these too?”
“Of course, delighted. And what does it do, this pelt?”
“It is a means of turning the tables, as it were. They have moved among us, unseen, causing all kinds of havoc and mischief. Now my intention is to do the same.”
“I have performed blessings and enchantments over it, and now it is able to blind these Skaven to the truth of my appearance. And, also, the pelt seems to retain some of the authority of its previous tenant. It will give me the ability to move with some freedom amongst the Skaven, provided I strive to avoid close contact.”
He tucked the rolled skin inside his doublet, making sure that it was secure. “The authority that the pelt exudes,” he continued, “seems to encourage lower-ranking creatures to keep their distance. However, their sense of smell is better than is ours. If they get too close they are able to distinguish my odour and the illusion crumbles.”
Captain Langer walked with him to the edge of the water.
All along the northern shore of the Kreuzweginsel the archers were busy driving thick wooden stakes into the ground with long-handled mallets, and the air was filled with the sharp clacks of wood hitting wood. The timbers were set at a low angle, and when they were firmly in place axes were used to sharpen the ends to points.
The Captain juggled the shoes and hat and bag and shook hands with his friend. “Good luck, old fellow, and good hunting. I pray to Sigmar that we will be recounting our adventures to each other over a bottle, come this evening.”
Mr Abdecker grunted. “So do I, Jakob,” he said, “so do I.”
He released his grip and turned, pausing by the edge of the water to test the chill with his bare toe. He grimaced and waded in slowly, taking his time to cross.
The cold was bitter, at first making his feet sting and ache intolerably, then turning them into numb and leaden lumps that he could barely move. The flow of the water tugged and pulled at him and the wavelets slapped at his raw calves. Each footstep was an agony.
He was in mid-channel now, and the water was up to his knees. Just a few steps further, he told himself, and he’d be there. He squinted ahead but the Flache Insel was still invisible, hidden by the lightless mist. He glanced back but the dark and eerie miasma had also consumed the Kreuzweginsel.
His foot tangled an obstacle stuck in the muddy bottom and he struggled to free himself, fighting back a wave of panic as he lost his balance. He flailed his arms and steadied himself.
Careful, he thought to himself. He realised that he was gasping like a fish out of water and forced himself to take regular, even breaths.
Forward again, in slow and measured steps. The cold had seeped up through his thighs and into his groin. Ignore the pain, he thought, and push onwards.
His teeth were chattering.
At last the water shallowed. He staggered up onto the mud and dropped to all fours, crawling through the mire and onto a spongy bed of sphagnum moss. He dragged himself upright and forced himself to walk, following the boggy shore along its eastern edge until he found a muddy hollow. He peered around, scanning the gloom for any sign of movement, but he seemed to be alone.
He sat himself down and tried to massage some life back into his extremities. He winced and grimaced at the intense stinging and tingling, then tried stamping his feet to see if that helped. It didn’t.
Ignoring his discomfort he unrolled the pelt and settled the skull onto his head, tying it below his chin with leather thongs and letting the body of it hang down behind him. He used more thongs to secure the quadrants of the hide around his thighs and his wrists. When he was suitably adorned he offered up another prayer.
Noises! He crouched down low, his heart pounding, and looked around. The brume was as thick as ever and he saw nothing.
There were gruff shouts, those of men, and the squeaks and squeals of the Skaven foe. They were hollow and distant, hollow in the fog, and soon faded. After pausing for a few moments longer he staggered to his rebellious feet and set off again, moving as cautiously as he was able.
Mrs Starkleiter assumed command almost as soon as she stepped aboard the Bösewicht, quite usurping young Lukas.
She quickly spied Roderick Weber, a venerable and silver-haired mariner who had been at sea since his youth, amongst the faces gathered on the deck. She requested that he, Sepp, and the cabin boy joined her in conference. Resi Schultz, the chief amongst the boatwomen, and Gertrud Fall, one of the sturdy and matronly fishwives from the town, came along as well.
She bustled them into the wardroom and sat them down around the table. When they were all placed she declared her intention to sail the ship close to the spot where the battle was being fought.
“Captain Fuchs left me in command, and his orders were to stay here as a sanctuary,” Lucas announced, his quavering voice betraying his nerves. His eye was blackened and swollen half shut and he sported a dark bruise on his right cheek.
“Nonsense,” she snapped back. “We ought to avail our brave kinsmen of the fine weapons aboard this craft. And this vessel will make a good refuge for the injured, too.”
“How are we going to manage to do that?” asked Sepp.
“Sir, we shall sail there!”
“But we have no crew, madam.” Sepp pointed out what seemed to be the obvious.
Mrs Starkleiter smiled. “Look around you. We have Resi and Gertie here – they sail their own boats out to provision you often enough. And then there’s Baldhart, who oft crews alongside her sons since her poor Bruno passed away. Or Mrs Grunnerstein, or any of the others who can work the water just as well as menfolk. So don’t tell me that we haven’t got crew.”
The ladies murmured in agreement
“This is foolhardy” squeaked Lucas. As acting commander he felt he had to protest.
“Such big words for such a little man.”
Lucas bristled. “Madam, I…”
“Don’t Madam me! Mr Weber here will run the ship, and yourselves and the seamen will guide the others in their duties, if of course it is agreed.” The sailor and the ladies nodded in agreement. Sepp looked across to the lad.
Lucas stood up. “Madam, I…”
Mrs Starkleiter slammed her hand down on the table. “So it’s settled, then.”
Lucas opened his mouth to speak but Sepp took a hold on his arm and pulled him back into his chair. “We agree,” he said loudly, throwing a stern glance at his young companion.
“Splendid!” She got up and pothered off to the waist, her entourage firmly in tow. Mr Weber was the last to leave, rolling his eyes to the heavens and mumbling under his breath as he stomped away. Sepp and Lucas watched them go.
Lucas was beside himself. “What’s the Captain going to say? He’ll have me thrown overboard, that’s for certain. The only thing he’ll trust me with now is scrubbing the decks!”
Sepp scratched his white-stubbled chin. “Mark my words, boy, don’t ever get in the way of a woman like her. She’ll trample you to death and never even notice.” He smiled a gap-toothed grin at the lad. “As I see it we’d have to shoot her to stop her. This way we get some say over what happens.”
Lukas sighed. The pair got to their feet and made their way outside.
Most of the refugees had assembled on the waist. Mrs Starkleiter addressed them from the quarterdeck rail, informing them of the plan, while Mr Weber stood behind her nodding every now and again. She called for skilled volunteers and a number of individuals with sea experience, mostly bumboat-women and retired fishermen, stepped forward. Others, less able, offered to lend a hand in any duty they were thought capable of carrying out.
They waited for the ebb tide but the waters seemed to take forever to turn. The wind shifted slightly, gusting from the east, damp with mist and heavy with the promise of rain.
When the time finally came those picked as the sailing crew were sent aloft. They scaled the shrouds and edged along the fore and main topyards, carefully picking their footing high above the decks.
Mrs Starkleiter had assembled a group of the younger women, particularly those of a rather more robust frame. She led them onto the waist of the vessel and pointed out the capstan, and to the bars that fitted into it. They picked up the heavy beams and set about preparing.
She nodded across to Georg Roth and Heinrich Schröder, two ancients who were waiting by the forecastle door, and they made their way below. She fussed around the girls to make sure everything was ready, and after a few minutes the men’s voices carried up from the orlop, declaring that the anchor cable was secured.
Mrs Starkleiter suddenly had butterflies in her stomach. Was she doing the right thing? If it went wrong, and it easily could, she’d be placing everyone in the most acute danger. All of the people aboard the ship – she was suddenly aware of just how tiny and fragile it was – assumed that she knew exactly what she was doing and trusted her judgement. Yet here she was, setting off on a reckless adventure. And quite of her own volition too.
She swallowed hard. “Raise anchor,” she shouted, then turned back to the women. “Right, ladies. Put your backs into it. And … push!”
They took the strain and with a deep creaking the capstan began to rotate. The first half-turn took up the slack in the thick hawser, but as the cable grew taut it became harder to wind. The women leaned into the bars. Slowly, gradually, the anchor began to lift and drag along the seabed.
They felt the vessel move, her tethered bow fighting to turn to starboard.
“Come on! Push!”
The anchor dragged again. The women at the capstan had their shoulders set to the wood and were straining with all their might.
Their steady action had its effect. The anchor lifted clear of the muddy bed and the Bösewicht began to swing into the current.
“Rudder to starboard!” bellowed Roderick from the quarterdeck rail. “Loose the topsheets!”
The people out on the yards undid the ties. First the main topsail fell, the ropes squealing through their blocks as they took the strain, and then the fore topsail came down. The figures picked their way back along the footropes and onto the top-shrouds, beginning their careful descent back onto the deck.
The Bösewicht was slipping sideways now, being carried with the current. Her bow was coming around fast.
“Man the braces! Helm to larboard!”
Teams of children and women, under the supervision of the aged sailors, hauled on ropes and secured them around belaying pins. The vessel trembled and the canvas flapped and billowed, swelling and straining in the gusting breeze.
The ship’s spin slowed and she began to edge forward through the water. The strip of damp marsh that formed the northern shore slipped past the bowsprit.
As the Bösewicht made the centre of the channel Roderick ordered the main topyard backed, and her movement slowed as the wind spilled from the sail. The current carried her down the river, broadside to the flow, at just a few knots, while the foresheet kept her edging forward. She was holding her position in the fairway.
Roderick moved from the starboard rail to the larboard side, every now and then peering at the shores to the north and the south. After a few minutes he ordered the fore topyard backed as well. The sail trembled and slackened, and almost imperceptibly the vessel’s stern began to drift to starboard. All forward momentum was lost, and the vagaries of tide began to draw her back to the south.
“Steady, lads, er, ladies. Bring ‘em round!” Calls went up and the braces were hauled, and the yards were trimmed so that their tips faced into the wind. The sailcloth luffed and flapped in the breeze. The Bösewicht, finely balanced, was carried only by the Schleimigbach’s lethargic flow.
Mrs Starkleiter watched the headland slipping past the bow. Interminable minutes passed.
“Bring round the fore!” As the yard was brought into place the sail filled and the brig began to draw ahead. The tide still had her, but as the minutes passed she began a slight but noticeable progress.
“Bring round the main!”
The second sail swelled and her motion increased. Roderick ordered the helm to larboard, keeping her off a little and allowing her to gain speed through the water. Her bow gradually slipped to the north-west, and he held her there until she was making sail.
“Helm to starboard! Bring her round.” There was a rush of activity as the ropes and sails were worked.
“Loose the spritsheet!”
The vessel was making a fair speed now, and Roderick saw to it that they were trimmed by the wind. Soon she was clear and standing into the broad estuary, still under topsails and on the starboard tack.
The wagons left the Nordküstestraße a few miles north of the town. Gunter Braun directed the drivers over perhaps half a mile of rough and scrubby ground, stopping them only when the terrain became so waterlogged that the horses were struggling to make headway. Once they had come to a halt the troops clambered down and began distributing the kit they had brought. The roughriders dismounted, harnessing their steeds to the back gates of the wagons so that they could be led on the return journey. Soon everyone was ready.
Ensign Kültz directed the wagons turned around, and soon they were heading back towards the road with orders that they were to return to Schlammigerdorf with all haste. A head-count was conducted, a marching order was established, and then the raiders set off.
The fogs and mists surrounded them and soon Ensign Kültz was utterly lost, but the hunters were as sure of their location as ever and set a punishing pace. They followed game trails and crossed mud flats, running when the ground was firm enough and hauling themselves through banks of vegetation, across sticky mudflats, and through waters both shallow and deep. They followed a narrow peninsula, forded a shallow flow, and pushed through a bank of reeds onto an island.
This was the place. The centre of the isle had collapsed, and from the dirt and spoil long beams jutted into the air. Small lanterns were lit, their tiny glow feeble in the darkness, and they were passed to nominated men.
“Dig there,” said Gunter, pointing to the blackened wood at the centre of the hollow.
Three of the roughriders divested themselves of unnecessary kit, selected shovels and picks and a length of stout rope, and slid down to the bottom of the slope, coming to a halt near the upright beams. A lantern was hung from one of the lengths of protruding wood. Their companions lined the edges of the collapse, weapons at the ready and keeping a keen lookout for any danger.
Corporal Galland took command and directed the digging.
The men began to excavate and very soon had created a sizeable hollow in the loose spoil. A dull thud rang out as one of the shovels hit wood. The discoverer cleared the soil away, revealing a thick and blackened plank, and took a step back to give himself more space.
There was a loud creak and a sharp snap.
The man flailed his arms, sending his shovel flying, and disappeared downward amid an avalanche of clods and soil. In just a few moments the slip had become just a trickle of pebbles and dust, falling around the edges of a hole.
His two companions dared not move. After a breathless moment one of them trod forward experimentally, peering down into the darkness.
“I think, uh, I’m alright.” The voice was muffled. “A bit winded.”
“What can you see?” Ensign Kültz’s voice was distinctive with its soft southern accent.
“Uh, not very much… It’s an, er… a hole. A bit cramped, not much head room.”
They dug out the opening as fast as they could, then shored it up with planks they had carried and some of the timbers that projected up from the soil. When they were done they tied a stout rope around one of the jutting beams and lowered it down to the trooper, who climbed back out, grateful to be in the fresh air for a few minutes.
“Everyone, prepare yourselves.”
Equipment was checked and rechecked, straps and belts were tightened, weapons were readied, and one by one, with Ensign Kültz in the lead, they slid down into the opening.
The hole dropped into a large hollow made largely of damp but packed dirt, with an untidy mesh of planks and logs forming the ceiling. A tunnel dropped away towards the west. Doctor Ungerade, once he had slithered down the rope, made his way over to the edge of the little chamber and pulled out his knife. He used it to clear back the dirt and muck, and soon he hit a solid wall.
“I say, could you bring a light over?”
Ensign Kültz joined him, holding up the lantern. “What is it?”
“A wall, of stone, and…” he pulled away another clod and used a corner of his robe to wipe the surface clean. It was a brownish-cream hue, stained from millennia of submersion. “… Yes, look, carvings. It appears to be a floral motif.”
The Ensign sighed. “Doctor, please, time is very much against us.” He scrambled back over to the hole and then began to descend. As he eased himself along he noted that a section of the tunnel became broken white stone, then returned to the dank mud and sodden wooden shoring – he guessed that the Skaven had broken through a sunken wall at this point.
He continued his way forward and came to an opening onto a wider tunnel. Keeping himself low he peered around the junction, but there was nothing to see. No lights, and no sound except for a distant, steady dripping. He slid through, his sword in one hand and the lantern held high in the other. Soon the other soldiers were joining him.
He stuck the sword into the muddy ground and produced his little pocket compass, flicking open the lid and holding it up to the wan light of the lamp. The tunnel ran north south.
The good Doctor, once he joined the line of men crouched in the passageway, squirmed his way up to the officer and peered at the compass.
“The tunnel to the south, we ought to see how far it goes,” he hissed. “It might lead to the town.”
“No, we go northward. It is the direction most likely to lead to the nest.”
There were a few words of protest but Ensign Kültz would have none of it.
The huntsmen took the lead, and the party scrambled and slithered maybe sixty or seventy yards before coming to another ragged stony opening. The leading men, with great caution, clambered through, entering a space sloped at a steep angle. It was the corner of a room, emerging from a wall of mud. A section of the tilted mosaic floor was visible, along with rough walls made of a dark stone, still with fragments of painted plaster still adhering to them.
“Black basalt!” breathed Doctor Ungerade. “You see, it all fits!”
There were two further tunnels leading from the space, the larger trending north-easterly, and a smaller cut sloping downwards towards the north-west. A light was shone into the latter, revealing that it disappeared into black water.
“Well,” said Ensign Kültz, “our decision seems to have been made for us.”
They pressed on. The north-easterly tunnel was very wet, but it was passable. They followed it for quite a distance – Reinhard reckoned about one hundred yards – when again they came to a junction; the tunnel they were following continued on its course, but it was joined by a new cut rising from the south-west.
After a brief discussion they again carried onwards towards the north-east.
It opened onto another chamber, an intact fragment of a collapsed room, but with the walls and floor massively cracked and fractured. The floor sloped up at a steep angle and disappeared into the dried silt. To the far left side another tunnel gaped open. For the most part the shoring seemed to be driftwood.
And they pushed onward. Everyone was filthy, caked in mud and slime and soaked through.
They crawled along the excavation, following its twists and turns. Sometimes it was tall enough to walk upright, while in other sections the only way through was to crawl on all fours. The tunnel began to trend upwards, still running towards the north-east. The tunnel broadened and became lined with stony blocks and planks of water-sodden wood. Reinhard had lost all sense of distance, but the consensus was that they had gone more than three hundred yards.
There was a glow of light from ahead, soft and guttering.
“My sort of work, Sir,” hissed Corporal Galland, and began to divest himself of his pack and much of his kit. He armed himself, with a pistol in each hand and his sword at his waist.
Ensign Kültz nodded. Probably best not to ask, he thought to himself.
The slightly built soldier stalked forward, treading as lightly as he could.
He came to a wall of scarfed planks, black and rotten, with a splinter-edged hole as big as a man clean through them. He eased himself up to the wood and listened.
There were noises – scratching and occasional thumps – from the other side. Slowly he peered around.
Inside was a chamber, its walls for the most part of excavated sediment but in places the same dark planking as outside, and lit by a single flickering candle. The whole space was a wreckage of boxes and barrels and ropes and other less identifiable flotsam.
Two creatures were scraping among the jumble of debris. Skaven! The rat-men, the implacable foe! But they didn’t seem to be the fearful monsters that Corporal Galland had imagined. Instead they seemed neither rats nor men, but emaciated and mangy, like grotesque children.
“Thou shalt not suffer a demon to live…” he mumbled under his breath. He brought up his arm, took a careful bead, and squeezed the trigger.
The shot struck the nearer of the creatures in the chest and bowled it over backwards. The other froze for a second, then made a dash to the left. Corporal Galland leaped through the hole and fired the second pistol in mid-flight.
The ball ploughed into the creature’s hind leg, tumbling it as it scurried forward. The shots sounded like cannon reports.
The Corporal landed in a spray of sludge and rolled, throwing the pistols aside. He sprang to his feet, drew his sword, and rushed over to the struggling form. Without a moment’s pause he plunged the blade down through its neck. The steel tore flesh and split bone, releasing a foamy gush of dark blood. He twisted the weapon and the beast twitched violently, then lay still.
The others piled in behind him, weapons drawn and ready.
The Corporal withdrew his sword and wiped away the gore on the thing’s filthy rags, then recovered his pistols and began to wipe them clean. Everyone was waiting, with pounding hearts and baited breath, for … something …
But nothing happened.
A last few of the huntsmen broke from cover, rushing towards the water and firing off a final arrow or two as they did so. The Skaven skirmishers launched after them, loosing stones from their slingshots as they pursued. The men splashed through the swell and scrambled up the mud, crawling onto the sphagnum and staggering towards the reed screens that hid the stakes. Friendly hands were outstretched to aid them.
Behind them the first of the rat-men were coming ashore, confident that soon they would run down and slaughter their antagonists.
“Now!” shouted Brother Hans.
A great cloud of arrows was released, streaking towards their targets and fair riddling them.
“Apprentices, draw your blades and get forward,” yelled Sergeant Felsen. “ Make sure they’re all dead.”
The boys fell upon their foe, hacking and chopping like maniacs at anything that lay or writhed or slithered on the muddy bank. They tore at the bodies with crazed fury, and occasionally they were rewarded with a pathetic squeal as an injured creature met its grisly end. At last they retired back to the gun line, standing panting and gore-spattered and thrilled beside their nominated man.
One of the militia soldiers appeared from the gloom. He spied the Sergeant and made his way over to him.
“Captain Langer’s complements, Sir,” he said breathlessly. “The officer requests that the guns should be conserved until the last moment. No handgunners should engage the enemy with blackpowder weapons until he so commands.”
“You can inform the Captain that it shall be done,” he answered, and the runner departed.
Each handgunner, in addition to his own weapon, had been assigned two other guns, for the most part long fowling pieces lent by the good townsfolk. The apprentice lads were there to assist the soldiers. Their duties were to recover the discharged firearms and to pass forward readied weapons, in order to give a greater rate of fire.
“You heard the orders. Swords out, lads.” Sergeant Felsen squinted along the line of handgunners. “Stand the guns so they stays dry. Chop any of the little buggers that get close. The boys too! If I say to attack, you goes in with blades, and when there ain’t any more to kill you come back here. Understand?”
“Yes-sir!” The replies were mumbled in a discordant chorus.
The troopers drew their tucks and the boys once more readied their daggers. Their jollity had entirely faded. The enemy they were facing was very real, and if they got it wrong they would die as horribly as the helpless and stranded creatures they had so carelessly slain just a few minutes before.
A noise, warped and muffled by the fog, hung in the air. It was a discordant series of squeals and grunts, accompanied by occasional sharp cracks. The main part of the Skaven force was moving onto the Flache Insel.
This was the moment that the troopers assigned to guard the caches of flammables had been waiting for. Smouldering tinder, which had been carefully nursed and tended throughout the day, was blown into glowing, crackling life.
The Gods alone knew what horrendous mixture Brother Otto had concocted, but he had done a fine job. First the cache to the left ignited, burning with little blue flames that seemed to hover above the kegs, and a few moments later so did the one to the right. Then both flared into sudden and violent life, bursting into huge and searing balls of flame, and singing the beards and eyebrows of the troops around them. The resulting illumination was truly impressive.
The men turned and sprinted into the water, their work done.
The body of monsters swarmed onto the flat and gradually came to a stop, concerned by and scared of the increasing light. There were a few of the men wading off through the shallows. A few of the weaker creatures were goaded and prodded forward after them, and then the entire mass began to move forward. They shuffled into the sea.
Every detail could be made out.
These were poor specimens of their species. They were emaciated, and their eyes held a starved, haunted look. Their fur was sparse and dotted with sores, many of their number displayed injuries, and what clothing they wore was little more than filthy rags. A few were equipped with rusted blades or simple cudgels, and some even carried the crudest of shields, but most had nothing other than their teeth and claws.
Behind the main body of them were larger and stronger rat-creatures, heavier of build and darker of fur, clad in leather capes that were drawn up over their heads. They wielded long whips and brandished wickedly barbed blades, which they used to drive the swarming and terrified mass onward.
The archers began to fire, peppering the advancing beasts with arrows as they waded across the shallows. Shaft after shaft thwacked home, dropping enemy after enemy. But still they came on.
The front ranks fell, the beasts that were following stumbling over the corpses and tripping on the wounded.
The horde came up the beach and still they took all of the damage that the men threw at them. Closer and closer they came. One monster carried a long pole, impaled upon which was a severed human head. The eyeballs had rolled right back into their sockets, the mouth gaped, and the tongue lolled noisomely. It was being paraded like a standard.
The grim visage redoubled the archer’s efforts, and they cut great swathes through the ranks, but still they came on. As their claws found purchase on the mud they rushed forwards. The archers began to drop backwards, though a few around the edges stood their ground and continued their fire.
More shots landed, almost unable to miss at the range they were being fired. One beast was struck twice in the throat but staggered on for a few steps before pitching face down. Another was hit in the belly and thrashed around, squealing and knocking over other creatures wading near to it. Casualties were falling all around.
The baleful howling and barking of the dogs, held back towards the centre of the island, echoed through the vaporous air. The sound seemed to disquiet the attackers.
“Now!” shrieked Sergeant Felsen, brandishing his own sabre and urging the men to engage. “Get in there and let ‘em have it.”
The Skaven, rushing forward, impacted with the concealed stakes, and it broke their formation. A few of their number, carried forward by the momentum and weight of their companions and unable to wriggle out of the way, were impaled on the sharp wood. They shrieked horribly as they bled and died.
And moments later the musketeers and the apprentices fell on the shocked mob, laying about their foes with their blades, hacking and chopping with gusto. They were joined in their assault by a little group of the archers, led by Brother Hans, who crashed into the flank of the formation.
Blades gleamed and flew in the darkness, silhouettes lunged at shadows and the air was rent with thuds and cries and cracks and screams. It seemed to last forever, time either surging forward in leaps so fast that it was impossible to react, or so slowly that stabbing and slicing and parrying were laughably easy.
Suddenly, as quickly as they had appeared, the rat-men fled, abandoning anything that might weigh them down.
A great cheer went up from the soldiers. Individuals with drawn swords and knives dispatched wounded and skulking creatures, showing no mercy. A few of the worst injured from among the men were taken out of the line and carried back to where old Mr Schlechtmann was preparing to operate on their wounds. Those with lesser cuts and scrapes were tended to and bandaged by their companions.
The archers advanced to the line of stakes again, eyeing the cruor and carnage arrayed around them. The musketeers retired back to their positions and sheathed their blades, and the apprentices readied themselves. All looked pale-faced, and a few faces were missing.
Brother Hans appeared and a roll call was taken. Between them the archers, the apprentices and the handgunners had suffered only eleven casualties. It was almost unbelievable. The Priest offered a blessing and returned to his own men.
“You’ve done well, lads,” said Sergeant Felsen. “But that ain’t the end of them. Ready your guns and see that your match is still lit. If I know the good Captain, he’s going to want to give the next bunch a bit of a warmer welcome.”
He was right. Minutes later another runner made his appearance, carrying orders to deploy the handgunners forward. When he was done he was sent back to report the losses that had been taken. Sergeant Felsen marched his men forward and positioned them alongside the archers.
The noises began again, odd warbles and squeaks and other unidentifiable sounds. They signalled the approach of another great block of the beasts. It emerged from the gloom, awful and terrifying and magnificent.
The ranks and files were far straighter than those of the previous attackers had been, and they generally seemed more disciplined, though their formation would have given a Reiklander drill-sergeant a fit of apoplexy.
They differed in appearance too. They were much larger, their fur was dense and brown, and prehensile tails lashed behind them. Most wore dark singlets or jacks. They carried small round shields and wielded weapons that resembled sword blades mounted on long poles. They advanced before a standard, too, stitched together from a collection of rotting hides, and with a strange symbol marked on it.
“Aim low!” Felsen told the men in his calm, even voice. “Remember, aim low. We can’t afford to waste our shots.”
They came on, reaching the southern shore of the Flache Insel.
“Wait for it, lads…”
The gloomy air was full of the noise of the advancing monsters. Their leading ranks began to enter the water. Arrows began to thud into the advancing column, picking off individual fighters.
Still they came on. The leading ranks were reaching mid-channel, silhouetted by the two blazing infernos behind them.
The line of musketeers loosed a crisp volley, red tongues of flame licking into the dark and a great cloud of white smoke billowing before a brief gust carried it away.
The balls tore through the ranks, splintering shields and splitting bone and flesh. The grim standard fell, only to be snatched up and brandished by the warriors following behind. The wounded twitched and wailed in the water, plucking at their injuries. Their companions pushed on over them, submerging them and trampling them as they closed in.
The boys took the discharged guns and passed forward another loaded weapon to the man they were assisting. All the while a storm of arrows were falling among the attackers.
Another volley rang out, cutting down hordes of the monsters. The casualties, plucked backward by the impact of the lead, dropped and shrieked and died. Again the standard fell, and once more it was raised and waved defiantly. Still they advanced.
The empty guns were passed back and fresh weapons readied.
The third volley, at such close range, could barely miss. The shots tore through the bodies of their targets. Bone and flesh and blood sprayed into the air. The devastation was awful to behold. The monsters, their ranks thinned appallingly, seemed to slow. The leading troops were faltering while those behind still pushed on. And still the arrows fell, picking them off in ones and twos.
The brief respite had allowed some of the handgunners to reload, and some of the boys had done the same.
“Pick your targets and fire at will,” bawled the Sergeant. “Make every shot count.”
One of the handgunners, his face and hands blackened by the firing, leaned across to the man to his left. “Very good of him,” he hissed.
The fire became sporadic, and with a single final effort the rat-men made for the shore. They staggered up the beach in ones and twos, but they made easy targets for the archers. The waiting men were able to pick them off.
The handgunners blasted away. A shot tore out the throat of one of the beasts, the side of another’s head evaporated into a red mist. One by one they fell.
The survivors had huddled into a knot close to the centre of the beach and were still pushing on towards the line of stakes. Brother Hans took the initiative. He gave a mighty scream and charged onto the strand, swinging his hammer over his head. A few of the archers followed, shrieking and yelling as they flung their bows aside and drew their blades.
That was enough for the rat-men. Those few that were unhurt disappeared into the dark, leaving broken corpses floating in the water and the wounded pitifully dragging themselves along. The whole line of men surged forward and set about butchering any of the monsters that remained alive.
Sergeant Felsen held his men back. “Let them have their fun,” he said, “and get the guns loaded again. Any that are fouled, worm them. Make sure the touch-holes are clear. Do it proper and check your work. Take your time now, while you can.”
“Sigmar’s luck to them” mumbled Odo Viel as he watched Doctor Ungerade and the raiders vanish into the enveloping gloom.
When they had disappeared from view he clambered down from his seat and took a firm hold of the horses’ bridles, pulling their heads round to start them turning. The creatures, winded and blown, struggled in the sticky ground. He glanced across and saw that Old Menno, the other driver, was doing the same.
“Steady there, Ebba old girl,” he said gently. “Senta, around you come.” He pulled her harness and she bucked her head and snorted indignantly.
The two horses wallowed forwards, then managed to find firmer footing under their hooves. They dragged the wagon up onto the rising ground then slithered into another muddy hollow. Odo trotted alongside, spattered with mud and slime, guiding them through the mire.
“Come on, girls,” he urged, clicking his tongue and flicking the reins. “Come on.”
The pair’s momentum carried them up onto another drier rise but they lost their grip again, their hooves slipping in the muck as they struggled to pull the back wheels clear. The roughriders’ mounts, tethered to the rear of the wagon, pulled and jostled and made progress difficult.
“Ha!” he shouted, and cracked the reins again. The team surged onto drier ground and began to gain some speed. Odo deftly jumped up onto the step and settled himself into his seat.
Menno had got ahead, though in the brume it was difficult to make out anything other than the rumps of the nags trotting along behind his cart. They made headway with agonising slowness, but gradually they left the expansive mudflats and pushed up onto the saltmarshes.
The four boats, each crammed to the gunwales with a motley collection of heavily armed men, bobbed gently amongst the reeds. Two were from the Kaufmann von Altdorf, the third was from the Zweites Wagnis and mounted a small gun on the prow, and the fourth was the Bösewicht’s jollyboat. The crews were drawn from their parent vessels, though they did include a smattering of local folk who were acting as guides.
As a man with both a military and a nautical background Captain Fuchs had naturally gravitated towards command of the force. Neither of the other two merchant captains was keen on the role and both had been happy to relinquish responsibility, though they were leading their own men.
Fuchs had overseen their preparations very carefully.
Untidy bundles of reeds had been secured to the bows of each of the boats, and though they wouldn’t stand close scrutiny they offered camouflage enough in the haze. The bottoms of the little craft were piled with enough firearms to equip four times as many men as they carried.
Among this arsenal were long fowling pieces, sturdy Nuln-made muskets, and a number of heavy arquebuses with broad barrels and flared muzzles, loaded with a lethal mixture of sharp fragments and buckshot. The mariners themselves were armed to the teeth, bristling with pistols and all manner of blades and daggers.
A signal had been arranged with Langer’s force – the tolling of a large bronze bell that had been brought along especially for the purpose, and fire arrows shot into the sky. Until those signals were seen Fuchs and his men were to remain concealed. When they were sent he was to attack at once.
There was no telling how long the wait might be.
He glanced at the men in the boat with him. They were nervous, that was certain, but Jürgen was keeping them busy checking and rechecking their weapons. That way they didn’t have too much time to think about the dangers they faced.
“Captain,” said Anton, “why does the road have different names? I mean, there is only one road, isn’t there? Apart from the Feldweg, which doesn’t really go anywhere.”
“Hmmm?” The Captain was taken quite off guard. “What do you mean?”
“Well, sometimes the road is called the Küstestraße, and sometimes it’s called the Nordküstestraße.”
“Well, properly, the road is named the Küstestraße, and that is what you will find marked on the maps. Where it passes through Schlammigerdorf it is simply called the Straße. To the north of the town it is called the Nordküstestraße, and, conversely, to the south of the town it is called the Südlichestraße. It is a local thing, done, I’d imagine, to help with directions.”
A noise carried in the air. It was strange and distant, warped and stretched by the mists.
“What was that?”
The Captain hushed Anton. Everyone became tense and still.
The noise started again. It was a cacophony of abrupt high-pitched squeaks, chilling and eerie and echoing out of the haze. Gradually, slowly, it faded away. There was silence again, and then came shouts, distinctly those of men
The noises became softer and receded to nothing, leaving a pregnant hush that seemed to last an age. A glow, orange and surreal, began to emanate from the marshes ahead and to the right of them. A second glow flared, close in location to the first.
“What’s that?” hissed Max, leaning forward to get a better view.
“Rat-magic!” whispered Hermann. “Look at it! Its evil, I tells you!”
Fuchs shushed them back to their seats. “Don’t be so foolish. It’s Langer’s lights, as some wit dubbed them. Oil and the like, set aflame so that the soldiers can see. In order to shoot their enemies, you understand.”
There was another burst of the muffled and muted sounds, then gradually it became silent again, with only the orange-white light illuminating the haze with an ethereal glow. The sailors glanced at one another. Had the men been over-run already?
A long moment passed and nervous glances were exchanged. Only Captain Fuchs seemed calm.
More of the strange ululations and squeaks echoed through the mist, followed by a crisp volley of musketry and then a series of rather more random pops and bangs.
Captain Langer’s tiny force was engaging the enemy.
By the time the floor of the channel began to rise Mr Abdecker was soaked to above the waist. A few other archers had advanced into the water close by, and being considerably fitter they quickly began to outpace him, disappearing into the dark gloom. It was all he could do to drag himself up onto the muddy shingle.
Many Skaven dead were lying on the ground and floating in the water, most with arrows jutting from their bodies. There were two human corpses there as well, both lacking their heads and their hands. And, judging by the gory messes that had once been their groins, other trophies had been collected too.
The sight gave him a queasy feeling, an awful realisation of just how nasty his death would be if these monsters captured him. Tendrils of mist drifted in and masked the grisly scene.
There were noises, a discordant series of squeals and grunts, accompanied by occasional sharp cracks. They were difficult to pinpoint, drifting and echoing in the air.
He patted his pockets and belt. “No blade,” he whispered to himself. “Stupid of me.”
He looked around and spotted a rat-man’s knife, jagged and rusted, that was lying on the ground near to a furred corpse. He took a firm hold of the handle, which had an odd, uncomfortable feel to it, and scanned the nebulous gloom for movement.
There were noises again, significantly closer. They sounded like voices.
“… got to be soon! I can hear ‘em.”
“Get those coals glowing. You ain’t let ‘em go out, have you?”
They were men, and well hidden at that. He couldn’t see a thing in the darkness.
And then “Ssshhh! I think I can hear something!”
He began to pick his way past, staying as low as he could and easing himself along through the mud. It seemed to take forever.
Once more strange noises, warped and muffled, hung in the air. These were different, as though they were much closer, and a little nervously Mr Abdecker crouched and peered around. The perpetual mist seemed to roll back a little, revealing what seemed to be a solid wall of dark bodies. A large body of Skaven was moving across the Flache Insel.
Gods, but there were so many. It terrified him just to look.
Keeping low, he edged along the shoreline using the scant cover of the grassy tussocks to remain unseen. A few lost rat-men, survivors of the first engagements, galloped past, heading back up towards the north. Some of them passed him so closely that his heart missed a beat, but none of them stopped to investigate.
There was a sudden burst of light from close behind him, then another from slightly further away. He threw himself to the ground as the intensity grew, then craned his neck round and stared in astonishment at the bright ethereal glow. These were the pyres that Captain Langer had ordered to be prepared. Brother Otto had obviously taken his work very seriously indeed, for the two raging fires were almost too much to look into.
From where he crouched Mr Abdecker looked at the horde of Skaven. These were big brutes with dense brown fur and rudimentary clothing, carrying spears and shields and marching under a grotesque banner. But despite their fierce appearance they had come to a halt in front of the fires, apparently unwilling to either advance or retreat.
One of their number, a huge member of his species, began laying about some of the smaller rat-men with a staff, goading and prodding them on. The first one or two rushed between the blazing pyres and onto the shore, pitching backwards as arrows thudded into their bodies, and then the whole mass began to charge forwards.
A crashing volley of musket-fire rang out, crisp and regular. A few moments later there came another, and then a third, followed by rather more sporadic pops and bangs.
He got back to his feet, and maintaining a low crouch he continued forward. It seemed to take an inordinate amount of time to wade through the slippery mud and slime.
An arrow hissed past, the sharpened tip slicing by close enough to cut the cloth of the sleeve of his doublet. He dived backwards and landed heavily, quite knocking the wind out of himself as he impacted the wet ground.
He lay dazed for a few moments, then came to his senses and painfully rolled onto his belly, dragging himself forward a little in case they came to investigate their kill. He gagged and retched at the sudden stink of split bowels and felt something wet amid his fingers. He had crawled into the spilled and bloody innards of a slain Skaven. The rest of the hollow carcass lay nearby.
He peered around as he found fought to breathe. Amid the murk, close to the edge of the water, he was able to distinguish figures. Two bearded men, dimly illuminated by the raging flames, were crouching close to the shore.
Hunters! They obviously hadn’t recognised him as a man.
One of them stalked forward, peering around in the darkness looking for his arrow. He came perilously close but gave up at the last moment, retreating back to where his comrade waited. Mr Abdecker fought the urge to vomit and crawled off as fast as he was able, wiping away the offal on the rough grass.
At last he reached the narrow channel of water that separated the Flache Insel from the Mittlere Insel. He crouched among a stand of coarse grass and scanned the shore. It was unguarded, he noted. That was something.
Keeping low, he edged into the water, gasping at the cold and peering back and forth as he waded through the oily chop. There were dark forms on the water; floating corpses, arrow-spiked ratmen bobbing up and down in the swell.
“How much does she draw?” asked Mr Weber.
“Two fathoms and a third when laden, at most,” replied Sepp. “Maybe a shade under two fathoms when she’s light.”
Mr Weber grunted. “She’ll make it.”
They were nearing the shore, its treacherous edge marked by stands of reeds and rushes and obscured by the mist that lingered along the water’s edge. The topsails were furled, the foresail was lowered and reefed, and a spanker set on a boom to aid steerage. They stayed in the fairway, ghosting along barely faster than the lazy current.
The ship rounded a muddy headland on a northerly course and then steered towards the north-east, close inshore on the larboard side, and seemingly heading directly towards a long muddy spit. Mr Weber had set a leadsman in the bows, taking sounding every minute or so.
Sepp leaned over the rail and peered at the shallows ahead. Mr Weber appeared to be intent on wrecking them. “You’ll run her aground,” he shouted.
Mr Weber shook his head. “There’s a channel, the fishing boats use it to get into the lagoon. It’s going to be close, though, I’ll grant you that.”
Distant noises carried in the air. They seemed to be shouts and wails and strange hollow pops. It was difficult to pinpoint their location.
“Two fathoms and a half, shallowing,” sang out the leadsman. A few moments later there came “two fathoms and a third.” The muddy bank was directly ahead now and approaching fast. If Mr Weber had got it wrong they’d ground and maybe even a mast would go by the board.
She drew closer. They were committed now, for she could never turn aside in time.
Sepp held his breath. The fore was over … and then there came a scraping and a deep shuddering that he felt through his feet.
Oh Gods, we’ve beached!
But the Bösewicht’s inertia carried her forwards and then she was clear and into the lagoon. He screwed up his eyes, blinked, and breathed out. He leaned out over the rail and craned his head to aft, watching the spit disappearing behind them.
The vessel’s wake was full of freshly disturbed mud.
Sepp rushed to the forecastle cabin door, pushing past a group of pale-faced children who were sheltering within. He scrambled down the companion ladder into the hold and took the lantern that was hanging there. The space was full of people, mostly old women and very young children, huddling pathetically in little groups and looking up at him fearfully.
Picking his way among the refugees and holding the lantern over his head he checked the planking and the ribs for any sign of damage. The Bösewicht was a tough old girl, though, and she had been built in a port where vessels were expected to spend some of their time stranded ashore. As far as he could tell she was sound.
He went back to the ladder, hung the lamp on its hook and returned to his gun. When he arrived at his station he glared up at the Master. “That was too close!” he shouted.
The large chamber, thick with silt and slime, was something of a crossroads. From it the tunnel they had followed led back to the south, and a second passage led off generally westwards, exiting through another hole in the wooden wall. To the north was an excavated cavity that narrowed into a tubular burrow, while to the east, past a partition made of dark and sodden wood, were unfinished diggings that led nowhere.
Doctor Ungerade held his lantern high and peered at the black and rotten timbers. “It’s a ship!” he exclaimed. “Lying on her side, as best as I can tell. We appear to occupy a part of the bows and forecastle. Fascinating.”
Kültz glanced around and grunted vaguely, rather more interested in getting his bearings. It was difficult to make out the compass in the gloom.
“I’d say she was of a considerable age,” continued the Doctor. “I certainly know of no shipwrecks that have involved a vessel of this great size. Such a wrecking would surely be remembered for many generations.” He continued to poke around among the wood and debris. “I wonder if there is anything left within her that would indicate her origins.”
“Doctor, I don’t wish to be rude, but you seem to be treating this like some jolly day out. I wish we had time to study all that we see, really I do, but we must press on, and with all haste.”
“I say we take the western path,” said Doctor Ungerade somewhat huffily. “The tunnel is the larger, and it shows signs of use.”
“I must disagree,” put in Kültz. “There is evidence that the northern route is also used, and it tends more towards where we believe the Skaven lair to be. We should continue along that path.”
“As you say, we need to find the correct path. I propose that perhaps we should check both of the ways, and as yet opposition to our progress has been minimal. Our allies are relying on us, after all.”
Ensign Kültz thought for a moment and then nodded. “Agreed,” he said. “But, if there is any sign of trouble, any sign at all, get out and get back here. And no matter what, a man is to be sent back here to report in no less than ten minutes. Is that understood?”
And so the group split into three parties. One was to remain in the space where the rat-creatures had been killed, ready to come to the assistance of any who needed it. The second, under the Ensign, proposed to push northwards, while the third, with the Corporal the good Doctor at its head, was to follow the hollow to the west .
Doctor Ungerade watched the Ensign and his men disappear into the darkness, then he and his group tentatively began the descent into the westerly tunnel. Before very long the tunnel began to slope downward, turning towards the south-west as it did so.
“We’re going in the wrong direction,” said Corporal Galland.
“Nonsense. This tunnel may very soon double back on us and take us to where we need to be,” answered the Doctor brusquely.
They slithered and slid down the widening tunnel, finally coming into a great dark void. A cloying stench of rot and faeces and an intense odour of mud assaulted their nostrils, and a steady sound of dripping filled their ears. The soldiers held handkerchiefs across their mouths and noses to help block out the stench.
Below their feet the ground was of stone, but it sloped away at a steep angle and was slick with slime.
Corporal Galland held up his lantern. The feeble glow barely illuminated the little group. “I can’t see a thing,” he hissed.
“I believe I may be able to help,” said Doctor Ungerade. He reached inside his shirt and retrieved a milky crystal, which was suspended on a chain around his neck. The multitude of faceted faces gleamed and sparkled in the glow from the lamp.
Corporal Galland stared at the gem. “What is it?”
“A rare thing, named in learned books as the tears of the moon. When properly enchanted it has an extraordinary property, in that it soaks up and absorbs the wind of Hysh, which flows all about us. By employing a relatively simple cantrip it may be made to release that stored power in the form of a luminescence. However, the brighter the incandescence, the shorter the time that it will last.”
“What is it?” repeated the Corporal with a blank look on his face
“A magic light.”
“Oh. Can you make it work?”
“Of course.” The Doctor eased the chain from his neck and held the crystal out in his hand. He mumbled an incantation, waved his fingers over it in an esoteric fashion, and the thing came to life, bathing the room in a bright blue light. The assembled group blinked and peered around.
“Get some of those lanterns put out,” Corporal Galland barked at the men. “We’ve got to conserve our supplies of oil.”
The soldiers did as they had been ordered.
As their eyes adjusted to the light they peered around. Their shadows, elongated and sinister, danced and played around them. Everything seemed to be covered in a sticky layer of wet clay and silt, bland and brown-grey. Corporal Galland busied himself at once, picking his way through the shadows with his dagger in one hand and his lantern in the other.
The chamber had been huge. The floor was made of marbled squares, though most were now out of place; it tilted off at a drunken angle, disappearing below a mass of debris and filth. The white block walls, fractured and leaning, barely supported a vaulted roof of finely carved stone. Deep alcoves lined the walls, and the statues that had once stood in them now littered the floor, half buried in the layered silt. Their haughty features, with epicanthic eyes, slender noses, and pointed ears, gazed upward with petrified stares.
“Best as I can tell there seem to be three other routes, Sir,” reported Corporal Galland after he returned. “One up there,” he said pointing towards the collapsing roof above where they had entered, “another down by the water, and the third, a tunnel off that way.” He indicated towards the western wall.
The hole in the roof was far too high and dangerous to scale up to, and the tunnel by the water was flooded. The one in the wall was a wide opening with an arched roof, and seemed to be the source of the sickening odour. A little distance up it were scraps of cloth, lumps of putrid flesh and gnawed bones. A brave militiaman ventured a little way along it, but soon returned nauseous and clammy.
“Blocked, far as I can tell,” he said. “Looks like the roof has fallen in a little ways up.”
They were in a dead end.
“The decision has been made for us,” announced Doctor Ungerade. “We should return to the sunken ship with all haste.”
“One good thing, though,” put in Corporal Galland. “It don’t look as though we’re going to get ambushed from down here.”
They retraced their steps, scrambling up the tunnel and crawling along on their hands and knees. It took long minutes of scrambling and slithering to reach the soldiers waiting for them, and they emerged, coated in filth and slime. The troopers gave them a few moments to catch their breath and then hurried them along the northern tunnel. It continued for a short distance and then dropped, twisting and turning for what seemed a huge distance.
A wave of suffocating, nauseating claustrophobia swept over Doctor Ungerade.
Sometimes a little knowledge could be a bad thing. He knew how close to the seabed they were. He knew that a tunnel bored through the wet clay could not remain standing – it only stood to reason, what with the impossibly great weight of the waters of the Sea of Claws bearing down on it. In moments the entire shoddy structure could collapse, dooming them all to an appalling death. Just the thought of it made his head swim.
He stopped for a moment and composed himself, drawing in short, sharp gasps of breath.
“You all right?” asked the man behind him.
“Yes, yes, I’m fine,” he stammered. “Just a bit, um, you know…”
With leaden limbs and a pounding heart he forced himself onward.
Mr Abdecker scrambled onto the mud, winded and streaming water. He crawled on his hands and knees up the foreshore and collapsed, panting, amid the tussocks. Again the misty air was filled with strange sounds; high-pitched squeals, the flat clangs of broken bells, and the discordant beating of drums.
He crawled forward, staying close to the shore. The vegetation was denser here, the stands of reeds extending high up onto the land. Here and there he could make out dark forms, the bodies of arrow-punctured Skaven. The hunters had taken a steady toll of their foes as they had retreated.
He pushed the stems aside and peered through.
Monstrous hordes were marching past, hosts of creatures with banners made of flayed and painted hides nailed onto broken spars and festooned with skulls and severed hands and other grisly trophies. There were hundreds and hundreds of them, not lined up like the soldiers in an Imperial regiment, instead formed into a great mob with the weakest on the outer edges to serve as a living shield for those at the centre.
A plague of rats burst forth, spreading over the ground and forming a squirming, living floor of scurrying vermin. A few jumped to the sodden folds of mud at the very fringe of the waters, paddling frantically away.
Interesting, he thought to himself, how none of them are approaching me.
The Skaven troops began to wade to the south, making their way onto the Flache Insel. The rats swarmed all around and over them, crawling up their legs and onto packs and trailing weapons. The ratmen kicked at them and threw them off as they spotted them, apparently without any second thought, but many of the cunning rodents managed to get a ride.
Mr Abdecker remained hidden among the reeds close to the edge of the water until the majority of the force had passed. Once he felt a little less exposed he carefully began to make his way onwards.
Another host of the vile creatures was approaching, again marching under a banner made of stitched hides, and like the previous force they were armed with shields and spears. Once more they were grouped into a huge pack, with those at the rear pushing the unit forward and those at the front jostling and pushing to get behind the others.
Stray Skaven began to stream up from the south, the remnants of some fighting unit that had been engaged on the Kreuzweginsel. They collided with the terrible horde tramping toward the fight, and the warriors in the fresh units hacked and slashed at their cowardly companions, who skittered past them and dashed off into the gloom.
One creature dodged around the flank of the warriors and limped and slithered to a halt just a few feet from where Mr Abdecker lay. It stopped and sniffed the air, peering back and forth. It was so close that he could hear its wheezing breath.
He remained lying in the shallow water among the bodies, barely daring to move. The knife was clasped in his hand.
It seemed to sense him.
It was an appalling beast, with dark brown fur and red eyes and a single broken tooth in the front of its mouth. The creature was badly wounded, with a seeping gash across its chest and the broken stump of an arrow jutting from its leg. It seemed confused and very defensive, hissing and bearing its single fang at him.
He rolled onto his back and tried to move away but it lunged clumsily towards him. Mr Abdecker swung his foot around and his heel hit the creature’s wounded shin, the force of the impact hard enough to jar his own leg. The Skaven collapsed with a pathetic squeal, convulsing and clawing wildly at the air.
In one fluid motion Mr Abdecker came up into a crouch, gripped the handle of the knife with both hands, and plunged the blade downwards. The creature wriggled and tried to catch hold of his arms, but the force of the blow was too much and the jagged metal pierced it below the clavicle. A gush of dark blood spewed from the ragged hole and the body twitched so violently it tore the weapon from the man’s hands.
He collapsed backward onto the boggy ground, his eyes wide with horror. His hands were slick and sticky with blood, and his body was splashed with appalling charnal remains. He scrambled away from the cadaver and lay in the mire, face down and gasping.
The handgunners and archers crouched behind the screen of wooden stakes, taking a few blessed moments to wet parched throats and tend to cuts and scrapes. Those of clearer mind wormed out their barrels and cleared the touch-holes, then set about loading as many of the guns as they could.
It was a shade lighter and the mist was thinner, though great banks of sodden fog wafted across, blanketing everything in a chill haze and then thinning again, carried on their way by a faint zephyr. The higher cloud was clearing too, and the wan rays of a gibbous moon were beginning to filter through.
They illuminated a charnel scene of utter carnage. Dead and wounded Skaven littered the ground, lying amid gore and severed limbs and spilled offal. The men had already carried their own wounded back to old Mr Schlechtmann to be patched up as best as he was able, but a few human casualties still lay among the jumbled heaps of corpses. Sergeant Felsen shook his head.
He looked along the thin line of men – only twenty of the soldiers still able to hold a weapon, and many of those hurt far worse than they cared to admit. Perhaps the same number of the apprentices still remained. Their youthful exuberance was long expended, replaced instead by a gut-churning fear held at bay only by their stubborn refusal to be the first to run.
Of the archers he couldn’t be sure, but perhaps there were some thirty or so still at arms, and they had their Priest, Hans, at their head. But given how many shots they had loosed already their reserves of arrows had to be dwindling. They would be at a disadvantage if they were forced directly into hand-to-hand, as most only carried short blades and very few wore any kind of armour.
In his heart the Sergeant knew it was useless. Less than eighty men against the Gods knew how many. All they could do was sell themselves as dearly as possible, to try and buy a little more time.
But for what, he wondered, before he caught himself. No, that was not the way of a soldier. He had orders, and his duty was to follow them.
The sound of shrill screeching and of weapons being beaten against shields drifted through the air. They were coming.
The advancing mass, illuminated by the glow from the two pyres, was approaching the water. They were brutes, huge black-furred monsters armed with wicked-looking sword-blades mounted on long poles. They carried a banner before them, a great square patchwork of cloth and skins painted with an arcane symbol and festooned with severed hands and feet and heads and genitalia, grisly trophies from the human corpses they had found.
The archers had already begun their fire, pouring arrows into their foe. The shafts fell with eager whispers, thudding into their unfortunate victims and throwing them off of their feet.
“Second Company of Handgunners of Colonel Reinhagen’s Regiment, to arms!” he shouted. “Come on, come on, the enemy approach.”
The men began to stir, sluggish in their actions. They were exhausted, both physically and mentally.
“Up you get, lads,” he barked. “Take up your arms, the boys too. If you see ‘em, shoot ‘em. Don’t wait for me to tell you. The moment they’re out of the drink, ditch the guns and ready your swords and blades.”
The pathetic line of handgunners dragged themselves to their feet and brought their guns to their shoulders, as did those of the apprentices who were big enough to hold a firearm. Each took a bead on a target and let fly. The flashes from the pans briefly lit their besooted features and tongues of flame lanced from the muzzles.
The bullets tore into the advancing Skaven, felling a great mass close around their filthy standard. Eager claws snatched at the pole the beasts fighting for the honour of holding the banner upright. And all the while the archers maintained a steady fire, picking off individual rat-men on the fringes of the formation.
“Dress that line!” bawled the Sergeant, his voice cutting through the fog of smoke given off by the guns. “Come on, let ‘em have it!”
One huge brute, notably taller than the others and immensely fat, was struck several times in its distended belly. It collapsed into the water, flailing wildly and tangling its companions. Its size tripped the others behind it and within moments the following ranks were surging around and over the pile, trampling and drowning those unlucky enough to have fallen.
The handgunners frantically exchanged firearms and brought them to the shoulder. Another volley of shots, surprisingly crisp, rang out, and more of the Skaven fell.
And again new weapons were brought to bear. The smaller apprentices had set to loading some of the discharged guns as a sporadic series of shots rang out, and individual beasts spun and collapsed as the lead smashed into them.
It was never going to be enough.
A few of the state troops brought their guns to bear at the same moment, just as the enemy’s leading ranks were all but wading ashore, and together they gave fire. The ragged volley was a last hurrah, a final defiant act from men who knew they were doomed.
“Swords, draw your swords!” bawled Sergeant Felsen.
The men didn’t need to be told. A few, though, spun their guns round, gripping the barrels and gritting their teeth against the heat burning their hands, ready to go club-musket against the foe. The ashen-faced apprentices stood at their sides, blades drawn and ready.
Those archers that still had any arrows left continued to loose shafts at any target that presented itself, but the majority, Brother Hans among them, had fallen back into the darkness.
The thin line braced as the Skaven drove past the stakes and broke over their position, and then all was a brutal and deafening anarchy of impacts and blows and screeches and cracks. In the frenzied darkness metal and wood shattered bone and shredded flesh; they hacked and slashed and smashed with all their might.
The men disappeared, consumed by an unstoppable and awful wave.
Time passed, long silent pauses punctuated by strange zephyr-bourne noises, some clear and some distant. When they were audible the defenders of Schlammigerdorf listened. People knew that the mist played tricks with the ears, but these were the sounds of battle, the cries of their own kith and kin spilling their blood to save their home. The thought made the atmosphere even more sombre.
The patrol tramped along.
Movement caught Rald’s eye, off towards the far side of the square. He stopped and crouched, squinting into the shadows, but he couldn’t make anything out. The rest of the patrol, all ahead of him, only gradually became aware that he had halted, and Johann Grau, the senior of the four militiamen, made his way back to see what had caused the delay.
“What’s the problem, lad?”
“There, on the other side of the square,” hissed the young man, pointing out the spot.
Johann squatted down beside him and peered towards the shadows. Everything seemed still. “Are you sure?” he whispered. “I mean, we’re all a bit on edge. You didn’t just…”
Rald shushed him and pointed. He wasn’t imagining it. Something was moving.
“You’ve got sharp eyes,” Johann hissed. “I wouldn’t have seen that, so you’re coming with me.” He indicated to the other men. “You two go and get help, and make it fast.”
The pair going for reinforcements trotted away, heading in the direction of the haze-shrouded town hall.
“Weapons ready, and stay close,” said Johann. “If you see anything, then hit it, don’t wait for me to tell you.”
Rald grunted his understanding and they cautiously made their way across the platz, towards Die Silbermünze and the Nordküstestraße. The cobbles were slick with moisture and treacherous under the leather of their soles. They stalked forward as they approached the wall of the tavern, listening for the least noise and with their eyes wide.
There was another flicker of movement and the splash of feet in the mud.
Johann and Rald launched off in pursuit, the older man in the lead. They sprinted along the road and slithered to a halt in front of a narrow alleyway that led between two of the buildings.
Rald sniffed. “Can you smell that?”
Johann grunted. He held his sword and dagger poised and ready and advanced into the dark opening. Rald was right behind.
A blade flashed out of the shadows, spiking Johann in the shoulder.
He tumbled backwards, tearing the blade out of his foes’ paw and collapsing onto Rald as he fell. The lads’ sword clattered off into the darkness. A rag-wrapped form darted away, leaving behind it a stink of mould and sewers. Rald scrambled to his feet and chased after it.
The alleyway led to a courtyard surrounded by high walls. The creature was crouched in the centre, sniffing around and surveying its route. Rald galloped towards it, and it made a decision, bounding upward and catching hold of the capping stones.
As it scrambled over the brickwork he leaped and grabbed, somehow catching hold of its clammy, fleshy tail. It issued a piercing shriek of pain as Rald’s weight ripped it back over, and the pair crashed to the ground.
The creature began to struggle and kick, raking at its antagonist with the claws on its hind legs and leaving long, vivid welts across the man’s cheek. He kept his grip, though, and even managed to get a hold of a limb. But the thing writhed and squirmed, snapping at any part of him it could see with its yellowed fangs.
Where was everybody?
He hung on grimly, using his greater weight to wrestle and throw the monster around, trying desperately to pin it down. The thing became frantic, squirming and writhing in ever more frenzied efforts to escape. Somehow the thing wriggled around so that it was half sitting, half pinned below his body.
Gods, the thing stank.
Rald heard the sound of footsteps and glimpsed men running towards him. The squealing suddenly stopped and the creature went rigid, then collapsed below him. He felt a hot wet sensation across his chest and belly.
He released his hold and rolled away from the body, lying for a few moments staring up at the grey-black haze above. A hand was offered and, panting and shaking from his exertions, he was helped up. One of the militiamen had driven a spear into the monster. Behind him Johann was being seen to.
Rald looked down at the corpse then gingerly touched at the red, swelling scratches on his neck and cheek. They were sore. His shirt was wet and heavy, saturated with the rat-man’s blood.
“Thank Sigmar,” he breathed, “I thought I’d soiled myself.”
“What was it doing here?” asked one of the militiamen.
Corporal Gruber pushed at the body with the toe of his boot. “Scouting?”
Corporal Altmann, an ashen look on his face, pointed towards the east. “Oh Gods, they’ve flanked us!”
Brother Franz spun round and squinted into the gloom. Scrawny, malevolent silhouettes scuttled towards them through the darkness, an endless, unstoppable tide of skittering monsters surging along the muddy span. There were Skaven pouring across the causeway.
“Morr’s teeth, we have to go now!”
The Priest grabbed a lay brother and turned him bodily in the right direction, then punted another in the backside with the side of his boot to encourage him to move. And with that he barrelled off, howling like a banshee and swinging his hammer around his head.
His command only gradually became aware that their leader was away. “Come on”, yelled the Corporal at the top of his lungs. “Get after him!”
The shrieking Priest met the leading elements of the incoming horde less than fifty yards along the narrow strip of dry ground, slithering to a halt and laying about him with his hammer. The two men he had bullied onward stood shoulder to shoulder with him, slashing and jabbing and hacking at any of the monsters that got close.
The beasts flung themselves upon the trio in random, haphazard attacks and died as they advanced. And then there were men, in ones and twos to begin with, then more and more. Grim and determined they formed a knot around Brother Franz and stood against the multitude.
And then the main body of the monsters were upon them, wild-eyed and furious, brandishing their weapons and shrieking battle cries. There were thuds and crunches and the blasts of pistols, shrieks and cries and wails of agony, and above it all a horrid, wavering ululation. More and more of the rat-men piled into the fight, surrounding the men and streaming around their flanks. Soon the combat had become a vicious, merciless melee, an orgy of plunging blades and raking claws and jostling, dying bodies.
Captain Langer only gradually became aware of the dark forms leaping and running along the shallow mud of the foreshore. He squinted at them and stared for a moment in surprise. Skaven! Hordes of them! They were almost across the causeway!
“Form up!” he yelled at command, and they braced themselves, swords at the ready.
The tide kept coming, more and more of the monsters passing by in the shadows and moving along the causeway.
“Charge!” he yelled, brandishing his blade. “At them!”
They set off at a trot and were able to get up a fair turn of speed before they met the first mass of troops. The leading men impacted the foes with their shields, smashing into the scrawny rat-men and chopping at anything that moved. Their comrades came to their sides, fanning out as best they were able in an effort to cut off the narrow neck of land.
They carved forward, their opponents’ weapons deflected or bouncing off of their armour as they hacked and stabbed. They pushed on, their advance slowing as the great weight of Skaven bore down on them and rained down a furious frenzy of blows.
“Onward,” shouted the Captain hoarsely, half severing a scrawny-necked head and freeing his blade by kicking the body backwards.
Their advance was slowing. No matter how many of their foes they cut down more appeared to fill the holes in the ranks.
A gap appeared among the monsters ahead of Captain Langer and he stepped in, swinging his shield and clipping the back of another creature’s neck. A heavy blow struck his ribs, making him groan and stagger. He tried to turn but he didn’t have room even to swing his sword. Another blow hit his back.
A shriek rang out, then he felt another impact, this time on his shoulder. He tried to look round and caught a glimpse of a furred snout, the whiskered lips drawn back to reveal sharp wet fangs. And then a bright glimmer as steel flashed by, followed by a flow of bright crimson. The horror dropped, its skull split wide open.
“Sir,” said Trooper Tascher as he turned to face another threat.
The men fought hard and dropped the creatures in swathes, but their efforts to gain ground seemed all but hopeless. Their own formation was folding in on itself, the men on the edges pressed back by the sheer weight of numbers.
“Come on lads, one last push and we’re there!” shouted the Corporal. “You ain’t getting paid for polishing them swords!”
“Kill ‘em!” bellowed the Captain above the infernal din, gritting his teeth and redoubling his efforts. “Kill ‘em all!” he shrieked, bringing down a huge blow and severing an arm as he urged his command to ever greater efforts.
His men gave it their all, slicing and chopping and thrusting at the scuttling forms that appeared in front of them.
Time became meaningless; the past irrelevant and the future of no consequence. All that mattered was now. Survive the next few seconds, look around for an enemy, keep the shield up, parry the blow, then cut them down. Check your position, keep it tight, engage another target and strike.
The enemy numbers were thinning, and then there were men, some sprawled, others standing. Somehow they had made it to the militia. But the pressure hadn’t eased. Now they stood, aching and gasping, fighting shoulder to shoulder alongside their bloodied comrades.
There, ahead, was Brother Franz, sporting four or five nasty-looking cuts and gashes. He clasped hands with Captain Langer, then smiled and shook his head. “When you first got to this town,” he wheezed, “I could not wait for your departure. And now, well, never have I been so glad to see a face.”
And then, once again, the creatures were all around them, a huge press of damp fur and fangs and claws and beady red eyes. The rescuers were as cut off as those they had sought to assist.
The handgunners had vanished, entirely swamped by the horde. And yet, somehow, they were holding the monsters back.
Corporal Klaus’ and the men of the Trockener Militia, sprinting in a ragged body, drove hard into the flank of their adversaries. Right behind them were the boys and old men of Schlammigerdorf, with Corporal Lüge at their head and a few experienced fighters among their ranks to stiffen their resolve.
They impacted the wall of fur scaling the line of stakes with a blind, violent fury. Pistols discharged with blunt barks, slamming searing lead through armour and hide; clubs mashed limbs and heads; blades thrust and sliced; blood surged and spurted, hot life draining away onto the cold ground.
It was a maelstrom, hell incarnate, with no quarter offered or taken.
So close packed were the maimed and dead that they remained upright, borne along by the press of the living. Shrieks and crashes and cries rent the air, already heavy with the stink of damp fur and sweat and leather. Everywhere was the sickly odour of spilt blood, tinged with the cloying stench of spilt bowels and scattered offal.
Roswald Drecke, quite by chance at the back of Lüge’s unit, felt as though he were running through a dream, or rather a nightmare. It was as though his feet weren’t touching the ground as he charged towards the silhouetted mass ahead of him. His hearing seemed to have failed too; everything sounded as though it was miles away, though his own breathing was as loud and as ragged as a rasping saw.
A great bank of mist and sulphurous gunsmoke drifted across, embracing him in its ghostly tendrils. He slowed to a trot and then to a walk, panting from his exertions. He was gripping his sword and his dagger so tightly that his knuckles had gone white.
There was enough moonlight filtering down to give the mists and smoke a strange inner glow. The wan illumination revealed the litter of corpses on the ground and grey and shapeless flickers of movement to either side. He wandered forward, looking from side to side, disorientated and unsure of himself.
How was this possible? Where was everybody? The fight was so close-packed that the monsters should have been all over him. He felt was as though he were alone.
“Well, come on then!” he shouted at the world, though his voice was lost in the muffled din.
It seemed to break the spell. A form emerged from the gloom and turned towards him.
It was a rat-man, and what a sight it was; its glistening brown fur, the patchwork of leather panels stitched into a rough jerkin, a necklace of sharp white fangs, the ragged ears festooned with metal rings, the long whiskers and the beady red eyes glinting in the dim light. He stared at it for a second that seemed to stretch into eternity.
And then it sprang. He couldn’t believe how quickly it started towards him, its scythe-like blade drawn and ready. At the last moment it leaped and hacked downward, but somehow Roswald got his sword up and stopped the blow. The ringing blow sent blue sparks and the impact jarred his arm, knocking him back a little.
The creature landed, rolled, and sprang to its feet again. It dodged around, its sinuous tail balancing its movement, and tried to land a mighty strike. Roswald twisted back and almost lost his balance, his foes blade slicing through the air mere inches from his head. He gasped in a great breath.
The creature tried to get behind him again and the lad spun the opposite direction, bringing his sword round and smashing it into the Skaven’s weapon, knocking it aside. Almost unconsciously he punched with the dagger and punctured the soft flesh of its windpipe.
His opponent froze.
Roswald ripped the stiletto sideways and a vast spurt of blood gushed from the wound, drenching his arm almost to the elbow. The creature fell, leaving Roswald panting through bared, gritted teeth and staring at his crimson hand.
Still numbed and dazed he stumbled forward, and then there were men all around him again, furiously slashing and carving at the endless waves of mangy hides and rusted metal bearing down on them.
“To your front! To your front! At them, boys!” It was Corporal Klaus, the man leading the Trockener militia
They had almost no arrows. Bowmen armed with little more than daggers were not going to be of any use.
He looked forward and his stomach leaped. More of the rat-men were streaming up the beach towards the line of handgunners than could ever be knocked back by the ragged volleys of shots. These weren’t the rag-tag mob of half-starved wretches they had been blasting earlier, either. They seemed more fierce, more determined somehow.
Sigmar, there were so many!
There was a great commotion from behind. Men were beginning to appear from the gloom, militia soldiers armed with a variety of wicked-looking blades. Among them he recognised Corporal Lüge, of the town militia, and Corporal Klaus, who was leading the men from Trockener.
Gods, reinforcements. They were too late and too blown to charge, but they would be there to stand in the line and try and hold the monsters back.
If he was going to go back for supplies, now was the time.
Brother Hans looked across at his men. “Anyone who has shots left, stay back here and make them count,” he ordered. “Everyone else, head to the supply wagons and re-equip yourselves. And if you haven’t got any kind of a blade, pick one up.”
He fell back with perhaps thirty men in all, first moving past running men and then trotting through the still brume, with only the distant roar of combat to tell them they were still on a battlefield. They reached the supplies and the Priest climbed up onto the back of one of the carts. He threw back layers of sacking, revealing leather quivers filled with arrows, and pulled them out, throwing them down to his men.
A dark shape galloped past their position, heading north towards the glow of Langer’s lights. A Skaven!
For a few moments Brother Hans gaped after it, then he came to his senses. The rat-men were on the Kreuzweginsel!
The men arrayed below him had also become aware of their opponents. They were crouched in a broad circle around the wagons, passing shafts between them and drawing back their bows. One or two picked off targets as they saw them.
It quickly became apparent that this was no advancing regiment, instead being individual rat-men, and poorly armed ones at that. They ran here and there, showing no sense of cohesion and wildly attacking anyone that got too close to them. It was almost as if they were trying to avoid fighting.
Those men occupied on the middle of the island were getting themselves together, however, and had formed into little knots and stands for better defence. The creatures, poor fighters at best, were being cut down by anyone who could wield a weapon.
“Spread out and hunt them down,” growled Brother Hans. “Stay in pairs at least, though.” He clambered down from atop the wagon and readied his hammer. He directed one group to move forward to his left, another to do the same to his right, while he took the centre.
They set off at a trot, the Priest striding ahead and bellowing at the top of his voice for others to join them. As they advanced they gained a motley collection of archers, carters, boys, the wounded, and every other straggler and lost soul. Their line was never straight, kinks and bows and gaps forming as fights developed and ended, but they swept the monsters before them.
Their general trend had carried them to the south and east, where the ground close to the water became soft and muddy. It was from here that the creatures were coming, and Hans was appalled to see that many were fleeing southwards, towards the town. The monsters dodged and dived out of their path, apparently keen to avoid engaging the men. Most of the casualties his troops were causing were from arrow fire.
The Priest threw groups of men across the neck of the causeway, little bodies of archers each supported by a few militia. Together they pushed forward in sporadic bursts of fighting until they had stopped the rush of creatures across the neck of the causeway.
The flow of rat-men had slowed, the archers picking off any that approached too closely. Brother Hans, panting heavily and taking some tepid water from his canteen, peered out into the darkness.
There was a dark cluster in the distance, all but impossible to make out in the thick gloom, from which emanated roars and shouts and clangs and strange, high squeals. It was a great host of the ratmen, stalled and fighting, desperately trying to overwhelm a cluster of men.
Seemingly, the swordsmen had made it through to the militia and the two forces had combined to expand their frontage, somewhat choking the flow of monsters. In doing so they had eased the pressure on themselves; fewer of the monsters were able to lap around behind them. But, from the look at it, it was an appalling close-quarters melee, ruled not by senses or skill but by fear and adrenaline and, above all, blind luck.
Brother Hans held his hammer up in the air. “Cha-a-a-a-arge!” he yelled, and began to lope forward. It was more for show than anything, for many of his command were already engaged, fighting stray Skaven that had ventured too close to the thin Human line.
The men began to move onto the narrow spit of land, penning the creatures in and herding the whole lot before them. A few of the archers had even made their way out onto the broad expanses of mud at the flanks. The press became thicker, but it was as though any martial spirit had abandoned the Skaven. The whole writhing, dodging horde had begun to stream back.
They hacked and chopped at the skinny, reluctant forms in short, brutal melees where no quarter was expected or given. Swords split heads and impaled bodies, limbs were smashed, and blood flowed and pooled on the rough ground. Few of the monsters stood and fought, and reasonably so, for when they did they were quickly cut down. Here and there targets fell as arrows thudded into flesh.
The Skaven had abandoned almost everything and were leaving so fast that it was difficult to keep up with them. Then, quite suddenly, there were men ahead, a motley collection of swordsmen and militia surrounded by twisted heaps of furred corpses.
The scratch militia streamed past the defenders, laying about the Skaven as they fled, and enthusiastically aiding the rout. It dissolved into a slaughter, a bloodbath from which few of the monsters escaped. The archers moved forward to form a defensive screen, finishing off every target that they saw and recovering all the arrows that they could find.
Amid the commotion that had been the human defence Brother Hans spied the two commanders. Brother Franz, supported by one of his men, was looking in the worse condition. His breastplate was dented and scratched, his robes were ragged, and his hammer was matted in clotted gore and fur. Captain Langer was crimson-faced but seemed otherwise unharmed.
“My complements,” he panted with an almost nonchalant air, “but I have pressing matters to see to on the northern shore. May Sigmar be with you.” He bowed to the pair and made the sign of the hammer over his chest. Then, in the company of his archers, he turned and departed.
It was an appalling confusion, the press of creatures so close that he could smell the stink of their breath and fur. It was as though Roswald’s senses deserted him and primitive instinct took over. A thrust and a convulsing body fell, another mangy form leaping atop the still twitching corpse only to crumple as a blade punctured it clean through. Shrieks, piercing and ghastly, rang out.
Another monster barged through the mass and faced the boy, launching at him with something akin to a sword on a haft. He dived aside, barely in time, for the passing edge tore through his doublet. He scrambled to get to his feet as the monster swung the haft round, but some miracle caused him to slip and fall and the blade passed over his head.
He rolled onto his back and chopped sideways just as his foe lunged, his timely parry knocking the thrust aside and undoubtedly saving him. He gasped a breath and tried to scramble backwards but the beast launched another strike.
Thwack! An arrow smacked into its head just below the eye and knocked it sideways, its weapon impaling the ground right next to Roswald’s shoulder. Gasping and shaking, he struggled to his feet and peered around.
The archers had returned, rallied and reorganised under the firm stewardship of Brother Hans. They were picking off individuals, sharpshooting rather than blanketing the Skaven with fire.
And then the men had the upper hand again, at least in this few square yards, and those few Skaven still standing fell in short order. Corporal Klaus, his face bloodied from a long but shallow wound across his scalp, appeared from among the shadowy forms.
“You,” he barked in his husky voice, pointing at Roswald. “Are you hurt?”
The lad shook his head. “No Sir.”
“Then get to that foreign officer as fast as you can and get us some help. Tell him there’s more of them coming. Get him to send anything, understand?”
Roswald nodded. “Er, where is he?” he ventured.
“Last I saw of him he was up at the north end of the island. Come on lad, jump to it!”
Roswald turned and sprinted off, the Gods knew how far, and again he was favoured with the luck of Sigmar himself. He chanced across a small knot of figures in the gloom; it was the Nordland swordsmen, in the process of reforming. Their kit was damaged, many bore wounds, and all had the hollow-eyed, distant look of men who had just seen action.
Ruddy-faced and panting, the lad asked after Captain Langer and one of the soldiers pointed towards the causeway. Roswald nodded his thanks and set off in the direction that the man had indicated, and soon he found his quarry.
He snatched his hat from his head and clutched it nervously as he explained the situation and repeated the Corporal’s request for reinforcements.
The Captain too was crimson-faced and breathless. “Release the hounds, for the sake of the Gods,” he wheezed. “Take the handlers, too.”
Roswald executed a curt bow and ran back past the soldiers, letting the baying and the howling of the dogs guide him to their location. He passed the field hospital, a simple roofless tent lit from within and surrounded by injured fighters, and at last he came to the men who were holding the whining, barking hounds.
The beasts, standing almost as tall as a man’s waist, with stocky shoulders and slender waists, were excited to the point of frenzy. It was all that their handlers could do to hold them as they half-strangled themselves against their leashes.
“On the orders of Captain Langer, with me!” he yelled with an authority that surprised him, and once he was sure they were following he charged back off towards the north. The handlers, doing their best to restrain the dogs, were near dragged off of their feet as their charges strained after him.
As they drew near the fight the hounds were let slip, and Roswald saw them streak past as he ran forward. They joyfully raced off, disappearing in a great pack towards the commotion ahead. They fell on the Skaven with snarling primeval fury, a hackled mass of bared fangs and foamy drool, leaping and biting and killing.
Poor beasts, he found himself thinking. I wonder if any will survive? And even if they do, how many will find their way back to their kennels?
Then, off to his left, he caught sight of more fighting. A knot of militia, probably no more than five or six in total, was battling against a great horde of the monsters. Among the surrounded and outnumbered men he caught sight of a familiar broken-nosed face; it was his friend Kelby.
He glanced around. The dog-handlers had stayed with him, and most brandished pistols and blades of some kind. “At them!” he yelled, and veered towards the combat.
They slammed into their foe and cut them down. Shots rang out and lead ripped through hide, sharp steel blades tore through soft flesh, clubs split skin and bone alike, and bodies fell. Roswald flailed madly, chopping at anything furred. He saw Kelby ahead of him, furiously fending off at least three of the horrors, and he redoubled his efforts.
Almost there. He swung downward, severing a ragged ear and felling the former owner, then barged aside another beast that seemed to be doing nothing other than spinning in circles.
He chopped into the back of another Skaven that had abandoned its weapon and dropped to all fours. Just ahead. A great cheer seemed to be going up around him. Kelby’s eyes met his and then his friend toppled, a look of pain and surprise crossing his face.
“No!” Where was he? In an instant he’d lost track of the lads position.
He swung and chopped wildly, aware of more men joining him and carried onward by their presence. And then they were at the stakes, through to the final stand of blue and yellow-uniformed figures. They were the last of the handgunners, and with them were a very few of the apprentices. The Gods alone knew how any of them could have lived through that.
It seemed that was enough for the Skaven and they began to scatter and flee, streaming backwards into the water with a few dogs chasing after them. Any form organisation quickly vanished as their retreat disintegrated into a rout, and within minutes the sounds of a great commotion could be heard to the north of Langer’s lights, on the Flache Insel.
A few archers begin to push forward to scout the situation.
Somehow the human line had held, but it was stretched to the point of breaking.
The north-western tunnel continued its gradual descent, though its composition began to change. It was less the stratified layers of silt that they had become used to, instead containing lumps of jagged, dark stone.
Finally the passage broadened into a large chamber, some eight yards across and tall enough for them to stand comfortably. The floor and the northern wall were masonry, brown-grey blocks mortared into place but slanted at a sharp angle, and two new tunnels followed the stonework. Rivulets of dark water trickled and ran down the stonework.
The men fanned out, readying their weapons and taking positions at the corners.
Doctor Ungerade held up his lantern. “It seems that the Skaven’s excavations have come upon what was once the surface of a road – look, Sir, it is still possible to make out the ruts worn into the cobbles by carts and the like. That wall is likely a building that stood upon its edge.”
Ensign Kültz held his compass close to his light. “In all probability the rat-men followed the easiest route to clear, which in this case is along the edges of the wall. We seem to have two choices; either go to the east, which to my mind is not forward progress, or instead we head towards the north-west.”
Doctor Ungerade had scrambled up the slick cobbles and was standing next to a shadowy area of the wall. He looked down to the officer. “There may be another option!”
One of the militia soldiers picked his way over. “He’s right, Sir,” he called. “There’s some planks and what looks like a bit of canvas covering up a hole.” The man tore away the coverings, revealing an intricately carved arched doorway. A tunnel had been bored through the silt that blocked it.
The Ensign snapped the case of his compass shut and made his way up to the portal. “Far more northerly,” he announced. “That’s the route.”
Doctor Ungerade frowned at him. “How on earth do you know that that’s the right way?”
“Sigmar will guide us.”
“Yes, well, as much as I trust Lord Sigmar’s undoubted skill at navigation, I don’t believe in divine intervention. He may well know the way, but I don’t think he’s going to tell us.”
Ensign Kültz grinned. “Neither do I. I’m assuming that the Skaven have made their lair in the sunken city, and that the centre of the city is the dome, which as best as I can tell lies to the north of us. I have been relying on my compass, and we have been trending in that direction throughout this journey.”
The Doctor nodded.
“Also, I have been looking for indications that we might be in some kind of ruinous burg.” added the Ensign. He gestured to the stonework around them. “I feel that this qualifies.”
Doctor Ungerade held his lantern out to illuminate the tunnel. “Bit of a squeeze, though.”
One by one they scrambled through the narrow opening, dragging themselves forward on their hands and knees. They entered a colonnaded courtyard, slanted at a steep angle, that had been cleared of the debris and mud that had filled it. The space had originally been open to the skies but was now roofed by a ragged ceiling of grey sludge. It appeared to be unsupported and dripped water alarmingly.
They slipped and slid across the floor to the far wall, where there was another arched doorway. Beyond it was a tunnel barely wide enough to crawl through, which ended in a pair of stone windows similar in shape to the doors. They squeezed through, dragging their kitbags along behind them to ease their passage, and continued along another claustrophobic tunnel.
They followed it for who knew how far, and then quite abruptly it ended in a screen made up planks of wood crudely nailed together. The leading man pushed it aside and eased himself into a dark space, very high but narrow enough to be able to touch both sides with outstretched arms. Salt water dripped from above like an intense shower of rain, echoing and sploshing as it fell. One by one the other raiders emerged from the tunnel.
“Make sure the powder stays dry, that above all else,” shouted Ensign Kültz. “Wrap the bags in your doublets if you have to.”
One of the hunters made his way over to the officer. “Can’t be sure, Sir, but there may be a way up over there.”
Kültz was impressed. His eyes were stinging so much he could barely see the walls on either side of him. “Gentlemen,” he yelled, “we go up.”
They began to climb, first over loose and slippery rubble and then up jagged outcrops of black rock. The stones were sharp and tore their hands, the salty downpour drenching their wounds and adding to their misery. Eventually they reached a level where the dark stone gave way to pallid cyclopean blocks that made up the foundations of an immense wall. They were slanted at an odd angle and wide gaps had opened between them. Progress was far more treacherous, too; the blocks were polished smooth and slick with slime, and offered few safe spots.
We are gazing upon the very walls of the city! thought Doctor Ungerade to himself. I ought to be overawed. He spat out a mouthful of muddy-tasting water, risked a glance upward, and wished that the whole experience would end.
The leading man had spotted an opening where the stones had slipped apart and headed towards it. He crawled inside, sliding through a narrow tunnel that lay beyond, and slithered down a rubble slope. He held up his lantern, his dagger ready in his other hand just in case, revealing a small room with fractured walls and an insanely angled floor. A doorway led into another larger chamber, and that in turn led through onto an ornately carved staircase.
One by one the other raiders joined him, all of them relieved to be in the dry. Water seeped from the walls and pooled in the rough ground, but at least it wasn’t the incessant drenching they had endured outside. The powder was removed from below clothing and checked to make sure that it was still sound, and men stripped to wring out their sopping garments.
When Ensign Kültz arrived he dropped off his bag of powder and headed straight to the staircase. He retrieved his perspective glass from inside his doublet, crouched down, and peering through the instrument he surveyed the lie of the land.
They had entered a huge space, a place of black and midnight blue and deep grey, and like all of the ruins they had seen it was tilted at a severe angle. It was a monumental hall, filled with a jumbled forest of pillars, some upright, some leaning, and some fallen and broken. A constant rain of muddy droplets fell from the blackness above, sploshing onto the dirt and running away in thick, silty rivulets.
It wasn’t completely dark, however – occasionally flickers of light were visible away in the distance. Somebody was home.
He switched his attention to the left side of the huge chamber and followed the course of a walkway that ran around its perimeter. Once he was done he snapped the glass shut and made his way back inside the rooms.
Everybody was filthy, caked from head to foot in slime and filth, and probably as exhausted and aching as himself. He called a break and they slumped in relief against the walls. The officer moved amongst them, seeing that everyone took at least a little drink and sustenance. He allowed no more than a few minutes rest, though in truth everybody was eager to press on.
The archers had already pushed ahead to seek other routes and prevent any ambushes. They had followed the stairs down onto the balcony, the smooth tiles that covered it slick with moisture and ooze, and perhaps some one hundred yards along they found that a section had collapsed, leaving a gap a few yards wide. The steep angle of the floor made any jump across a tricky prospect.
One of the bowmen, crouching near double to stay concealed, made his way back to the main body of troops as they approached. “Can’t be sure,” he hissed, “but it looks like there’s at least one sentry.”
Corporal Galland divested himself of all of his kit except for a long knife. He breathed deeply, squinting at the gap and judging the landing. When he was composed he took two great bounds, leaped clear across the chasm, touched down on his toes, and trotted a few steps forward; all this he achieved in complete silence. He paused for a moment then slunk off into the gloom.
After a few moments he reappeared from the shadows, spattered in blood and beckoning the others across. He glanced down at his gory shirt. “Don’t worry,” he hissed, “it isn’t mine.”
A number of the raiders jumped the gap, including Ensign Kültz, a rope was thrown across, and then a bundle of cloaks and soft clothing was transported over. The bundle was untied and the cloth was laid out over the stony floor to avoid undue noise. Then, by means of a loop in the rope, the rest of their kit and the bags of blackpowder were ferried to the far side.
Doctor Ungerade peered into the abyss. The darkness was intense and the depth made him feel giddy. There was no avoiding it, he was going to have to jump. He breathed deeply, copying what he had seen the other men do, and backed up a little. Summing up all of his courage he dashed forward and launched himself, landing on the very lip of the broken floor on the other side. He stood teetering on the edge for what seemed like an eternity, then a filthy hand clamped onto his shirt.
“You intending on leaving us, Doctor?” said Gunter Braun, pulling him forward.
The Doctor gasped and scrambled to safety, hissed thanks to his saviour, and with his heart pounding at the thought of what could have happened he went to recover his bags. The Ensign and Corporal Galland were ahead of him, crouching down and peering over the rail of the balcony beside the body of the Skaven the Corporal had killed.
The officer waved him over. “Doctor,” he whispered, “given your interest in all that we’ve found, perhaps you should take a look at this.” He indicated downward.
Below them was a roughly rectangular chamber, accessed through a tall doorway and partially filled with rubble. Scant but steady illumination came from a small lantern hung on one of the walls; the glow it cast was a disturbing shade of green. Skaven guards armed with long spears and jagged swords stood at the entrance, watching as wretched slaves, whipped and beaten into compliance by their brutal overseers, went about their duties.
It took a few moments for their eyes to adjust. Much of the floor was covered over in hides and bracken, and lying on top of it was a … thing.
“What is that?” hissed Corporal Galland.
It was a huge fleshy sausage, at least ten feet in length, its breathing setting the obese body wobbling obscenely. Vestigial stumps of limbs flailed ineffectually, while the head was little more than a gaping, ravenous maw. The vast belly was covered with teats; suckling at them were dark-furred monstrosities, a horde of squabbling, squirming whelps.
“I do believe it is some kind of a sow-rat,” ventured Doctor Ungerade. “As it were, a machine for breeding Skaven.”
As they watched another whelp was birthed, expelled ungraciously from the rear of the bloated mother. It was scooped up by one of the slaves, who freed it from the slick membrane that clung to it and gnawed through the umbilical cord, and then carried it to a teat occupied by a far larger and furrier sibling. The two were swapped over and the new arrival flailed for space while to slurping furiously.
“I would very much like to see where they take that one,” mumbled Doctor Ungerade, indicating the rudely weaned offspring.
Ensign Kültz shook his head. “In truth, Doctor, so would I, but we have no easy means of doing so. We must press on.”
They continued to move along the balcony, cautiously making their way towards the northerly end of the hall. Below them were more of the antechambers, each holding another titanic Skaven-mother with her huge brood of offspring. They passed a total of four.
“It brings me to wonder,” whispered the Doctor, “whether we are actually facing their army at all. I mean, they have none of the fantastical war-machines that worried the Captain so, or indeed anything much by way of magics. I wonder if, instead, the rat-men that are being engaged on the surface are merely raiders, sent out to steal food and supplies to create this” – he gestured at the pit below them – “which is, or rather will be, their true force.”
“In which case our mission becomes even more important. There is not a moment to waste.”
The Doctor nodded curtly. “Quite so.”
The line of stakes was a shambles. Gore was piled upon cruor, bodies eviscerated and laid open, exposed ribs and organs and yellow fat surrounded by dark pooled blood. Obscene and twisted corpses, the ghastly remnants of living beings, lay and steamed and stank in the scrubby grass.
Kelby gritted his teeth and grunted. “Gods, that hurts.” His breath misted in the air.
Roswald knelt down beside his friend and peered at his leg. The boy was wearing dark hose, which made it difficult to see if there was serious bleeding.
“I’ll take a look then.”
Roswald lifted back the ragged flap of linen hose and blanched. The wound had completely ruined the ankle; the flesh was severed through to the chipped and broken bone, and tendons and other structures were plainly visible. There was blood, but it was a slow drip rather than a steady flow.
“H-h-how bad is it?” Kelby was shivering.
He tried to put a brave face of it. “Oh, I’ve seen worse.”
Roswald remained silent for a few moments. “Look, the truth is, it isn’t good. You need to get it seen to. I know where Mr Schlechtmann is. I’ll take you up there.”
He got to his feet and headed off to find Corporal Klaus, and as fortune would have it the man was nearby, dabbing at his cut pate with a handkerchief. Roswald outlined the situation as he led his commander to where the wounded boy lay, and the soldier sucked his teeth when he saw the injury.
“Do I have permission to take him back?” Roswald asked.
The Corporal nodded. “Agreed, but when you’re done you get yourself right back here, you understand? I need every man I can get.”
The Corporal and Roswald carefully raised Kelby upright and the colour drained from his face. The injured boy, faint and unable to support himself, hung on to his comrades and winced and moaned and his useless limb dangled and scraped.
Roswald manoeuvered himself into a position where it was possible to sling his friend over his shoulder, and when he was in place he hefted the lad up. “Gods, but you’re heavy!” he wheezed as he set off, bent almost double under his burden. Soon he was gasping and sweating profusely. His target was easy to find, though, lit as it was from within and surrounded by prone forms.
“Where are we?” asked Kelby through clenched teeth.
“At the surgery. You lie down here, near the doors, and they’ll come and get you when they’re ready.” Roswald helped ease his friend to the ground and checked on his foot again.
From where he lay Kelby had a good view inside the tent, actually little more than a rectangle of canvas, supported by wooden poles and open to the skies. Within it were a pair of tables where Mr Schlechtmann and Mrs Libehilfe were frantically tending to the poor wounded souls. A few of the burly fishwives held down the agony-wracked bodies while they were cut and probed and cleaned and stitched.
Around them were set a number of staffs on which were hung lanterns. In one corner was a metal brazier full of burning coals, and set on a firedog above it was a cauldron of boiling water. All around were boxes and chests holding tools and bandages and medicines. Behind the surgeon was a small heap of amputated limbs.
Kelby stared in horrified fascination for a few moments then tore his eyes away. Standing a little distance off was an unhitched tumbrel, and nearby was a pony whose reins were being held by a pallid-faced youth clutching an oversized dagger. Poor little mite, he thought to himself. This is no place for a child. Despite his own tender years he felt very old and very tired.
Roswald, still panting from his exertions, leaned over his friend. “They’ll take good care of you here,” he whispered. He looked around and spotted a body covered over by a blanket. He retrieved the cloth, taking a moment to close the eyes of the corpse that lay beneath, and draped it over Kelby. “That should keep you a bit warmer.”
Kelby extended his hand and Roswald grasped it. “T-t-thankyou,” he said. “I’ll s-s-see you later, count on it. We can s-s-swap our war stories over a c-c-cup or two.”
Roswald nodded and released his grip. “I promised Corporal Klaus I’d get right back,” he said, and without a backward glance he disappeared off into the gloom, leaving his friend staring up into the misty darkness.
Kelby swallowed hard and found his attention drawn towards the surgery. An injured youth, one of the apprentices who had been assisting the Nordland handgunners, had been lifted up onto a table. His arm had been shredded; one of the women was frantically tearing away his doublet and shirt to expose the wound.
As the cloth came away his shoulder seemed to fall to pieces and blood gushed forth by the pint. Mr Schlechtmann, the old surgeon, tried to hold back the flow but it was futile, and before Kelby’s eyes the boy died, twitching and writhing, on the table. With no ceremony the women produced a blanket, rolled the body into it, and manhandled it away.
“Bring in the next one,” shouted Mr Schlechtmann. “Quickly now.”
Once they had deposited the corpse the two ladies began examining the waiting patients, assessing their wounds as best they were able and deciding who had the greatest chance of survival. Much to his surprise they settled on Kelby and gently lifted him up, carried him to the bloody table, and laid him out on it. His heart was pounding fit to burst.
Mr Schlechtmann peered at the damaged limb, his aspect hunched and sinister in the flickering light. “A single long cut, goes right across your foot,” he announced. “A couple of the smaller bones are broken, and it looks like most of the tendons have been severed too. Bit of a mess, I’m afraid.”
He studied the injury a little more closely. “Hmm. There seems to be dirt and some fragments of cloth within the wound.”
“What are you going to do?” asked Kelby.
“Take off your leg,” said Mr Schlechtmann in a matter-of-fact tone. He turned to his instrument table and selected a long, straight-bladed knife.
“T-t-take off my leg?”
“Yes, that’s right.”
“Why? C-c-can’t you, er, mend it?”
“Your foot is smashed,” answered the old man as he tested the keenness of the edge with his thumb. “It is better to remove it, so as to prevent infection spreading throughout the body.”
“Wherabouts?” asked Kelby, eyeing the stained blade.
“By that I take it you mean ‘where will I cut?’. The answer is below the knee.”
“Below the knee?”
“Yes, below the knee. That’s right.”
Mr Schlechtmann produced a long leather thong and tied it around the lad’s thigh, tightening it so that it pinched the skin. “A tourniquet,” he ventured, “to help prevent excessive bleeding during the procedure.”
“D-d-doesn’t the patient usually g-g-get liquor?” stammered Kelby nervously.
“Have you got any?”
“Bite down on this,” said one of the fishwives as she popped a wad of soft leather between Kelby’s teeth. “It ought to help.” She linked her arms through his to hold him steady, and he found himself surprised by her strength.
“Until recently, when I was called upon to remove a limb I would cauterise the stump to stem the bleeding and purify the wound,” announced Mr Schlechtmann, as much to focus himself as anything. “However, I recently read a most interesting pamphlet by Pietro of Miraglio, a surgeon of some repute, who advocates the virtues of stitching a flap of skin across the wound to seal it. The trick, apparently, is to leave a channel for the drainage of fluids.”
A second woman, a large lass by any standards, lay across the lads’ hips and quite effectively pinned him to the table, while a third kept a firm grip on his feet. The boy, sweating profusely, braced himself.
“Right, hold him now. He’s probably going to try and kick.”
The surgeon raised Kelby’s leg to the right position and took a firm grip around the thigh. He looped his arm underneath the calf, holding the knife so that the point was almost in his own armpit. He pressed the steel hard up against the skin and drew it round in one steady motion to form a deep spiral cut, turning the blade to join his starting point and create one continuous incision. The wound leaked a steady flow of crimson.
Kelby lunged forward, biting down on the leather and grunting bestially. The searing intensity of the pain rendered him near senseless. He bucked and tried to wriggle backward, but the fishwives had him and kept him solidly in place.
Mr Schlechtmann continued to slice down through the meat until he located the bones, then reached around to the table and swapped the knife for a saw. He used his left hand to pull the flesh up a little and then hacked down with rasping strokes. The boy convulsed and spat out the leather bit, gasping in a great breath.
The severed leg dropped to the wooden tabletop, attached by just a few stringy lengths of meat. With the bruised flesh still pulled back the surgeon used the saw to ease the sharp edges on the bones, lest they work their way back through the skin, and picked out the resulting fragments. When he was done he returned the instrument to the table, took up the knife again, and sliced through the last sinews.
“You may remove that,” he said to the girl who was holding the boy’s feet. She nodded, hefted up the dismembered limb, and tossed it onto the grisly pile to their rear.
“Almost done, son,” said Mr Schlechtmann. “That’s the worst of it behind you.”
He returned the knife to its place and selected a long curved needle with a fine horsehair threaded through its eye. “Now, lets see if we can’t stop that bleeding.”
He inserted the needle below the artery, easing it through the flesh, and tied a loop in the hair, pulling it tight to pinch off the channel. The boy, vacant-eyed and streaming spittle, twitched and thrashed violently, almost pulling the thread from his fingers.
“Hold him steady, if you please ladies.”
He repeated the process on the vein and when that was done his experienced fingers located the severed ends of the nerves, crushing the tip of each and rolling them back a little. He took up the needle once more and positioned the flaps of skin over the wound, taking care to leave a hole for drainage, and secured everything into place with long sutures. Finally he removed the tourniquet from around the lad’s thigh, then took a few moments to look over his handiwork.
“It is the best that I can do,” he said, but Kelby, quite delirious from pain, gave no response.
The surgeon wiped his crimson hands on his apron. “Take him over to Mrs Libehilfe, if you would be so kind, so that a dressing may be applied.”
The semiconscious boy was carried off and another casualty was brought and laid out on the table.
Brother Franz, his weight supported by a trooper, squinted darkly along the causeway. The mob of demonic fiends had vanished, leaving behind it a litter of shattered corpses.
“What happened?” asked Captain Langer, his breath misting in the chill air.
The Priest shooed off his aide and turned slowly . “We were too far back,” he replied. “There were just too many of them and they surrounded us. But for yours and Hans’ timely interventions we would surely have been overwhelmed.”
“They will come again, of that I have no doubt,” mused the Captain. “But perhaps there is a way that we can improve our position.”
“Send some of your men back and collect all of the carts and the wagons, and wheel them out onto the causeway to form a barricade. Don’t bother unloading them, either. Their freight can be added to the defences.”
The Priest nodded. “It shall be done,” he said, and soon a squad of men had been assembled.
The Captain accompanied them as they made their way back onto the corpse-strewn Kreuzweginsel. The men quickly took charge of the supply wains and set about unhitching the horses from the trails. The poor beasts, terrified by the noise and commotion, shied and pranced and kicked wildly. The carters hung desperately to the reins in an effort to keep the animals in check.
To his left, a little way off, was the surgery, and covering the ground in front of it were those too badly injured to fight. He paced over and looked at the wretched men gathered there. “If there are any here who can still use a weapon,” he said, “you should make yourselves known to the militia. Everyone who still draws breath is needed on the eastern path. The rest of you, may you rest easy in Sigmar’s hall.”
Kelby Tölpell, lying close by, struggled to raise himself up onto his elbows and nearly passed out as his stump brushed against the ground. He fought back waves of nausea and watched as the officer strode away into the dark.
A little way away some militia soldiers were manhandling off the surgeon’s tumbrel. He struggled to raise his hand and managed to catch the attention of one of the troopers. “I’ll go,” he croaked.
The bearded veteran stepped over and looked him up and down. “Gods, but you’re a game one,” he growled. “Are you armed?”
Kelby shook his head. “No.”
The militiaman looked about and spied a prone and senseless figure with a pistol clenched in his hands. He pried the weapon from the man’s fingers, then set about searching through his pockets, recovering a powder flask, a leather bag containing shot and wadding, and a long knife. “Don’t think he’ll be needing these,” he mumbled, and handed them over to the lad.
Kelby took the equipment and secured it about his person while the soldier got the assistance of one of his comrades. Together they hefted him up and carried him over to the back of one of the big wains. They were fast rather than gentle and he gasped and grimaced as his stump bumped against the wooden gate.
There were already two other casualties there, a deathly pale man who, like him, sported the bandaged stump of a leg and a fellow whose head was swathed in bloody rags. A fourth volunteer, sporting a heavily bandaged chest and shoulder, was helped up and settled in beside them. The soldiers set about manhandling the wain over the rough ground towards the causeway, jolting and bumping their passengers agonisingly.
Lukas had schooled the women in the basics of gunnery in the half-hour it had taken to cross the estuary, and they seemed to have taken to it well enough. However, to be on the safe side, the guns had been slowly and carefully loaded as the Bösewicht had run towards the shore. That way they were guaranteed at least one good shot.
They made light work of unhooking the starboard gun and trundling it across the deck to the open larboard entry port, where it was made secure and the tackles and breeching were set up. Though the gun was not particularly heavy both Sepp and Mr Weber made sure that barrels filled with water were lashed to the starboard rail to help maintain the trim of the vessel.
They sailed in as close as they dared, and finally, with the water shallowing once again, Mr Weber ordered all sail to be taken in so that the vessel could drift. The mist was a little denser here, hanging thick among the reeds that lined the shore.
Just as the leadsman called three fathoms they heard another noise, a strange ululation warped and twisted by the cold and clammy air. It was followed by a volley of musketry, then by sporadic shots, some distant and faint, some sharp and clear. The sounds faded, becoming ethereal and haunting and then vanishing altogether.
“Two fathoms and a half,” shouted the leadsman.
Mr Weber ordered that the anchors to be dropped. His decision was timely, for as the cables squealed through the hawse-holes and the flukes bit into the muddy bottom the very forward part of her keel touched the muddy seabed. The ship came to a halt making her shudder fearfully. Sepp rushed below again and frantically checked the planking, but nothing had sprung and she was dry. The huddled passengers watched him, terrified.
He raced back on deck to join his gun and crew, panting from his exertions.
Lucas leaned across to him once he had returned to his gun. “Now what?”
“Nothing. We just wait.”
And so they did. It was interminable.
Mrs Starkleiter scanned the shore with Captain Fuchs’ spare perspective glass, which she had ordered brought up to her from the cabin, but all she could make out was the green of the rushes blending into the soft white haze. Then, due to the capricious whim of the wind, the bank of brume rolled back and quite unexpectedly, she was able to see.
“Oh my, there are so many of them!”
Mr Weber had also observed their foe. “Range, well, I’d say two hundred yards!” he shouted.
“Raise the breach!” ordered Lukas.
As they had been taught, two of the women threw themselves over the barrel to tilt it on its trunnions, and when it lifted Lucas pushed the bed and the quoin that sat upon it forward a little. He glanced across to Sepp, who peered at the lad’s work and nodded approval. The barrel was gently lowered back down, it’s elevation now slightly depressed.
Lukas removed the sheepskin that had been draped over the breach to keep the powder dry. He gripped the lint stock with a sweaty palm and blew gently on the slowmatch until the tip glowed a bright orange.
He dipped the match into the powder in the touch hole and looked away, shielding his face with his left hand. The piled black grains burst into a smoky fountain of orange-white sparks, and a fraction later the gun fired.
The shock made the whole ship shudder. Barrel and carriage recoiled, their motion damped and stopped by the train tackles and breeching. A dense cloud of sulphurous white smoke billowed into the air, masking the commotion on the deck as the women scrambled to reload. Lucas’s ears were ringing and his throat was dry.
Sepp’s gun discharged, adding enormously to the clouds of bitter smoke and shaking the deck with its recoil.
“Swab out!” Lukas shouted hoarsely.
Scouring worms were used to draw out any burning fragments, then sponging sticks were drawn from water buckets and rammed down the barrels, hissing and steaming as they went. Their sheepskin ends emerged dark and sooty. Finally Lukas took a vent auger and pushed it into the touch hole to ensure that it was clear.
Mrs Starkleiter was standing at the larboard rail and had just taken the glass from her eye. “Those were difficult to see, but both seemed a little high,” she called in a shrill voice. “Can you aim a little lower?” Lukas’s ears were ringing so much he could barely make out her words.
“Aye, Ma’am, lower it is,” and dutifully the order was relayed across to Sepp. Once more the women lay over the hot metal barrel and the quoin was edged slightly further forward.
“Charge your piece!”
A rough sack filled with a charge of blackpowder was put into the barrel, a wad of rags followed it, and then they were driven home with the ramrod. It was followed by the shot – two half-cannonballs joined together with a length of chain – along with more wadding, and once more the whole lot was rammed firmly down. The crew moved away and the gun was hauled forward.
Lukas jabbed the sharp brass reamer down into the touch hole and jiggled it back and forth, ensuring the channel was clear and puncturing the powder bag. He drew it out again and filled the hollow from the powder horn slung around his shoulder. He took hold of the lint stock and blew the smouldering tip to a white glow.
He touched the matchcord into the blackpowder.
And then, a second later, BOOM!, as Sepp’s gun loosed.
The two guns recoiled back. Flame belched and smoke billowed, hanging in the damp air until a sudden breath of wind shifted it in a rolling cloud across the water.
“Oh, I say, Lukas, that was very fine shooting.” Mrs Starkleiter’s voice was distant and tinny, and his eyes were watering so much that the cabin boy could barely see her. He nodded up towards the deck and prepared to reload.
“Swab out!” he shouted.
Everyone in the little boat was unnerved by the sounds of battle that filled the air. They were eerie, sometimes distorted and distant, and sometimes horrifyingly clear. Langer’s lights, the two great fountains of orange fire, still blazed away, but their intensity seemed to have dwindled a little.
Anton sniffed and wiped his nose on his sleeve. “Why are we still waiting here?” he asked.
Fuchs’ orders had been strict. No enemy was to be engaged unless it was directly attacking. At that point surprise would have been lost anyway. The other boats seemed to be holding their nerve.
“They’ll send for us when they need us, rest assured.” replied the Captain.
“But what if they can’t send for us?” chimed in Max.
“Look, would you rather be here with us or out there with them, fighting?” asked Jürgen in a matter-of-fact tone.
They all sat in silence for a few minutes, peering over the screen of reeds to be sure that they hadn’t been spotted. Great banks of fog and smoke drifted lazily by, some stinking of sulphurous blackpowder.
There was a deep boom, and then another, close enough to send ripples through the water. It was cannon-fire.
Captain Fuchs shot to his feet and the jollyboat bobbed violently. “That’s the Bösewicht! I recognise the guns!”
Anton and Max shushed him and struggled to get him back down onto his bench. He sat in the prow, glowering and fuming quietly.
Another rolling boom echoed across the water.
Fuchs shot to his feet again, rocking the little boat alarmingly. “Damn it, she was supposed to be moored in the channel. I’ll be having words with young Mr Scharf, I can tell you.”
Max wrapped his arms around the Captain and wrestled him down, clamping his great paw over his commander’s mouth. “Begging your pardon, Sir,” he hissed, and nodded towards the shore.
Fuchs twisted himself free and peered towards the reeds. A figure had emerged from among the hazy vegetation at the edge of the water, barely fifty yards away. It was in silhouette, but the great round ears, the blunt snout, and the snake-like tail left no doubt. It was a Skaven! The creature raised its head, as though it were scenting the air, and peered directly at the boats.
And then thwack! An arrow struck it between the shoulders, killing it instantly. The monster toppled into the water, the splash of its body masked by the crash of another shot.
A long moment passed and two more figures appeared, men this time. Each carried a bow and each moved with exquisite caution. One of them spent a few moments hunched over the body, and then they too melted away.
Anton looked at the Captain. “So there are still men out there.”
“Yes,” he replied. “It’s … comforting … to think that we’ve got some allies.”
“That’s only if they don’t shoot us as soon as they see us,” put in Jürgen. “Fire first and ask questions later, that’s what I’d be doing if I was them.”
That shut them up.
Captain Langer made his way back over to where the swordsmen had reassembled and inspected the ragged block of troops. Many bore wounds, but only three were missing. Considering the numbers they had faced it was a remarkable achievement. He turned and watched as the wagons came to a halt and the wounded volunteers were helped down to the ground.
“Brave bloody fools,” he mumbled.
The militia rolled the wains onto the causeway, manoeuvring them over the obstacles and bodies that lay on their path. About thirty yards along the first was tipped onto the left bank, with its trails lying across the narrow path, and likewise the second was toppled onto the right bank, where it lay with its open tailgate buried in the mud. The remaining wagon and the surgeon’s tumbrel were laboriously pulled onto their sides and positioned so as to block the centre.
As quickly as they were able the troops heaped on barrels and sacks and boxes and crates and all manner of debris, and, as Captain Langer had suggested, the bodies of dead Skaven were used too. Once they were done the men took their positions along the makeshift barricade. With painful slowness the casualties had helped one another into position, for the most part on the ground below the cover offered by the vehicles. Finally Brother Franz took his place at their head.
And there they stood, checking and rechecking their blades and loading their pistols, ready to meet the assault. A few courageous archers even pushed ahead to give warning of the enemy’s approach. It was not as dark now, but with the rising mist it was, if anything, even more difficult to see.
Treffen Tölpell was with them, his sword in his hand and his dagger at the ready, peering into the murk for the first sign of trouble. He glanced at the men around him and stared in astonishment. A few yards away, lying among some spilled sacks, was his brother Kelby.
“I’ll be right back,” he hissed to the Corporal and loped over to the lad, recoiling at his pallid appearance and his bandaged stump.
“What in the name of the Gods happened?” he hissed. “Your leg!”
With effort Kelby looked around. “I had an engagement with the surgeon,” he croaked huskily. “Mrs Libehilfe gave me one of her brews. Tasted bad, but its not hurting too much now.”
“Be careful, brother,” said Treffen. “I’ll be watching out for you.” Kelby nodded weakly as his sibling stepped back to his place
The wait seemed interminable, though in truth it was little more than a few minutes.
And then, from ahead, calls rang out. A few of the archers began loosing shots into the mist, and the thuds of shafts striking their targets were clearly audible. Within moments the lookouts came running back, scrambling over the defences.
“There’s a whole lot of ‘em,” they reported breathlessly. “Way more than before. Big brutes, too, with black fur, and well armed.”
The mass appeared as silhouettes amongst the gloom. A barrage of shot and arrows began with such intensity that great swathes were cut through the Skaven ranks, but the gaps refilled with disheartening speed. The monsters surged forward in an awful wave, clattering their weapons against their shields and issuing blood-curling squeals.
They collided with the little line, the carcasses of their dead carried onward by the press of those behind, but somehow the men held them back. It degenerated into a hideous and utterly brutal hand to hand fight, a bewildering cacophony of shouts and shrieks and metallic thuds and clangs, blurred movement and limb-aching chops and jars, punctuated by the sharp reports of firearms.
Treffen chopped and cut at anything that moved. He sliced at a dark form and a furred limb was gone, he lunged and punctured a belly, releasing a sickly stink of spilled innards and blood. He ducked a blow and punched with his guard, to be rewarded with a spray of sharp teeth and blood and a shriek of anguish. A metal edge nicked his arm, tearing his shirt and releasing a crimson flow. He swung wildly and connected with something solid, then staggered back.
Sweating and trembling, he drew a gasp of breath through a throat that was as parched as a desert. Above him Brother Franz was standing atop the barricade, quoting scripture and exhorting the men to greater deeds in his stentorian voice, all the while laying about him with his hammer.
A furred monstrosity appeared from above and was blasted backwards by a shot, impaling itself on its companion’s blades. Another appeared in its place and he sliced into its leg, plunging his dagger into the writhing form as it fell. Two more leaped up. One was struck by a crunching impact from the Priest’s weapon and tumbled lifeless to the mud while the other leaped down, crouched and ready to fight. Treffen hacked at it with a mighty blow, his heavy blade striking the beast in the neck and slicing it half through.
With effort he dragged the weapon clear and the reeking body crumpled to the ground in front of him, quivering and gushing out frothy gore. He looked to his left and time seemed to slow to a crawl.
A few yards away a gap had appeared among the human defenders. A great black-furred rat-creature clad in a coat of rotting leather bounded up onto the top of the barricade and peered around, a long knife clenched in its clawed paw. It caught sight of Kelby lying on the ground, tucked below one of the upended wagons and desperately trying to reload his pistol.
“Above you!” Treffen yelled, but his words were lost in the cacophony of noise.
At the last moment the boy caught sight of the monster poised over him. He put up his arms as it leaped but the weight was too much and the jagged blade ripped across his stomach, tearing a vast gash. The creature dragged the weapon back, pulling with it a bloody loop of gut, and just as it began another downward stroke a shot blasted off most of the front of its head. It collapsed across the eviscerated lad, who twitched and jerked horribly.
“No!” shrieked Treffen at the top of his lungs, and shambled across.
Kelby was fading, his flesh an awful grey and his breathing shallow and irregular. Treffen knelt beside him and took a hold of his hand, tears welling in his eyes.
“Farewell, brother. You will surely feast with Sigmar this night.”
A shadow loomed behind him and he span, lunging wildly upwards with his sword and deeply puncturing the furred belly of another rat-monster that had just scaled the upturned cart. It issued a shrill cry and toppled forward, taking the weapon with it and spinning and unbalancing Treffen.
Yet another Skaven appeared at the top of the defences, this one armed with a long wooden pole upon which was mounted a long and notched head made of rusted metal. It spied its target and thrust down with all of its power, striking the young man below the shoulder and running him clean through.
“Nnnngh…” The strangled cry was involuntary.
Treffen shot to his feet in shock and pain, ripping the haft from the creature’s paws and snapping the wood as he toppled backwards. He collapsed among the debris of the cart’s contents and writhed in the filth and mud as he fought to draw breath. He came to his senses and stared, wide-eyed and disbelieving, at the jagged metal point protruding from the centre of his chest and the crimson stain spreading over his shirt.
He experienced a lingering, hollow nausea and, for a few moments at least, a curious sensation of detachment. Then a spasm wracked his body, a gripping embrace of aching chill punctuated with waves of fiery, intense pain. All of his strength seemed to drain away and when he drew breath, if his tiny, suffocating gasps could be called that, he felt a bubbling sensation deep within his lungs.
“Oh Gods,” he coughed, “they’ve done for me.”
The fight was growing more intense around and above him, but it seemed very distant, like something happening in a dream. The shrieks and cries could have been a thousand yards off.
The mass of rat-men were beginning to overwhelm the defenders, and all he could do was watch the men as they dashed off along the causeway and disappeared into the haze, desperately trying to get behind the laughably small line of swordsmen. Then, finally, the last little knot of his comrades, clustered around the Priest, embarked on their withdrawal. They sold themselves very dear indeed as they fought their way back.
Those too hurt or too slow to flee quickly perished at their pursuers’ bestial hands, though they missed Treffen, lying as he was below the wagon. He breathed a prayer of thanks to Sigmar for the cover and painfully looked around. Among the boxes and sacks were a number of wooden kegs. One had split, and leaking from it were trickles of blackpowder.
This was the powder cart! In their haste they’d wheeled the thing down when they’d built the barricade.
He leaned forward and struggled to catch hold of Kelby’s pistol. The pain was intense and he grimaced as he forced himself to move. He slipped his crusted finger through the trigger guard and slumped back, dragging the weapon to his side and gasping from the exertion.
He struggled to pick up the firearm. With a trembling hand he managed it and rested it across his lap. It was a good gun, too, with a wheel-lock mechanism, in all likelihood something that his brother had rescued from a body. With painful slowness he cocked it and held the lock close to the spilled powder.
Kelby let go a faint, pathetic wheeze.
“It looks as though we go together, brother.”
Hordes of the creatures were pouring over the barricade now, their clawed feet making a tremendous noise on the wood. Treffen began to laugh, a bubbling, choked chuckle that racked his body. He squeezed the trigger.
Thud-KA-BOOM! and a fraction of a second later a deeper, baser BOOM! that shook the ground.
The air was filled with fire and shrapnel and splinters. The explosions shredded through the tightly packed ranks of rat-men, searing fur and skin and mincing bodies and flinging the charnel fragments high into the air. The swordsmen formed at the end of the causeway recoiled in shock as the blast knocked the wind from them and left their ears ringing.
The Skaven pursuit stalled.
Captain Langer saw the moment. “Forward you dogs! Tear at them, smite them!” he shrieked, the spittle spraying from his lips.
A savage fury had gripped him, his eyes shone with blood lust, and his features were locked into a fixed grimace. He launched forward into the mass of bewildered creatures, setting his armoured shoulder to the fore and smashing about with his sword. The blade flew in a blur of chopping and slicing, and behind him he left a bloody and body-strewn wake.
His fury seemed to seize the rest of the swordsmen and even infected a few of the bloodied militia. As a body they set off after their commander and slammed into small knots of the milling enemy. A few of the furred horrors fought back, but the press of the men and the rain of blows that fell on them ended their resistance in short order.
And quite suddenly there were no more ranks stepping forward to replace the casualties. Those Skaven further behind who had survived the explosion appeared to have been seized by a wave of panic, and now they were turning and fighting against one another in an effort to get back along the causeway. Within moments there were rat-men scurrying everywhere.
The first few made it through the smoking craters and the wreckage and the pieces of corpses, but soon the press of panicking, penned, fighting bodies caused calamity and disaster. Many were crushed underfoot, the blades of their own companions did for some, and still others took their chances in the unforgiving mud. But most died as their triumphant foes relentlessly cut them down. The rout rapidly became a slaughter.
Captain Langer dared not risk losing control of his men. “Reform, on me!” he shouted hoarsely. “Reform!” He held his crimson-stained sword high in the dawn-lightening air to mark the spot. Reluctantly the gore-spattered troopers withdrew, their place taken by the rallied but exhausted militia, who with a final frenzy set about dispatching any rat-thing that was still moving.
Archers pushed forward into the grey haze, and after a few minutes the first of them returned. They reported only dead and wounded. The eastern way, at least, appeared to be theirs. But still the roars and shrieks of combat rang in the air, though distant and warped by the mists.
Still panting from his exertions, Captain Langer surveyed the men as they assembled in front of him. A few more faces were missing. “Here, it seems we are done, and by the grace of Sigmar it is in our favour,” he croaked. “But over yon our comrades need us more than ever.”
He turned and began to trudge towards the sounds of battle. The swordsmen wearily formed into march order and set off after him.
At last the ground was firm below Odo’s wagon, the horses’ hooves finding purchase on the moss and scrubby grass. They gained real speed over the rough ground, and within a few minutes the clattering, creaking carts had made it onto the rutted surface of the Nordküstestraße, where they were brought to a halt.
All of the horses seemed agitated, stamping and turning and whinnying, far more so than might result from their exertions in the marshes. Even steady old Ebba snorted and shied.
Menno clambered down from his seat and went round to his pair, patting the creatures on their sweat-damp haunches and mumbling to them in an effort to calm them. “So what’s got into you then?”
There were strange sounds, distant, high-pitched shrieks. They echoed through the gloom and agitated the horses even more. A series of pops and bangs followed, then the noises seemed to fade away.
“Sigmar, what was that?”
Odo stood up on his wooden seat and squinted into the gloom. “I dunno. Guns?”
He stood for a few minutes longer, resting the horses. If anything, they seemed to be getting twitchier. Then he heard something else. It was like rustling, or perhaps a sniggering laugh. It was different, too, and closer.
“What’s that?” he hissed. Menno shrugged.
There was something on the road to the north. The grey haze seemed to shimmer and move. Odo peered harder.
Just for a moment the mists parted.
There were creatures, curiously reminiscent of a dead hare he had found as a child, loping forward a huge, disorganised mob. Those he could make out were thin and sickly-looking, with a cowed, scared air to them. Many lacked teeth or eyes or even whole tails. Their mangy hides bore welts and sores, they were clad in filthy shreds of cloth, and were armed, at best, with little more than the crudest of clubs.
The whole shambling mass were herded and bullied by larger, furrier examples of their kind. These tormentors wore cowls of dark cloth, and thrashed at their charges with sinuous whips and goaded them with long knives.
Ashen-faced, Odo looked across to Menno. “Gods,” he said, “it’s ratmen! Thousands of ‘em!”
“Get out of here!” yelled his companion, a tone of panic in his voice. The old man hurried back to his cart and struggled to pull himself up into his seat.
Odo needed no further prompting and dropped back into his seat. “Ha! Move!” he shrieked, and cracked the reins with all of his strength. Senta reared up and Edda pulled to one side, but he hauled on the reins and shouted them on until both came into line and began forward. He risked a glance back, but there was nothing to see except the enveloping grey.
Equine shrieks and a stomach-knotting crash echoed from behind. They spooked the roughriders’ horses and in a panic the beasts all dashed to the left, trying to get away from the noise. They were faster than the wagon, but they bunched together, tied as they were to the back door.
The wagon, already travelling at a fair clip, slewed sideways.
Odo fought to retain control but Senta lost her legs in the mud and crashed over, pulling Ebba with her. The other horses, trapped by their reins, flailed and kicked and dragged the wagon over. Time slowed to an impossible crawl as Odo found himself in the air, and then he landed, knocking all of the wind from him. Everything went black.
He came around, his left side aching intensely. Above him was the sky.
Noise. A horrible shrieking. What was that?
He staggered to his feet and swallowed hard as his head span and his vision blurred.
In a daze he looked to the shattered wagon. His poor horses writhed broken-legged and screaming appallingly among the wreckage of trails and tack. He closed his eyes for a second and breathed a prayer to Sigmar, then looked back along the road. There were shapes in the mist, skittering and fast, and they were moving towards him.
One of the roughriders’ horses, a snorting and wild-eyed roan, had broken loose and was trotting nearby. He made towards it with his arms outstretched, catching hold of the leather rein as the beast tried to start away. He clutched onto the strap with all of his might, gasping the creature jerked him sideways and grimacing as he crashed against the muscular neck and shoulder.
And then everything was a clamour of scabrous fur and thrashing legs and a din of shrieks and squeaks and screams. The Skaven had caught up.
He kicked out, and felt a degree of satisfaction as his heel hit a furred snout with considerable force. The horse plunged and kicked, and then a surge of white-hot pain seared through his leg. He had been stabbed.
And then they were clear.
Somehow he hung on as the horse galloped, partially running in great bounds but mostly dragging and bumping along.
“Whoa, there,” he shouted, struggling to pull the creatures head around and slow its progress. “Stop now, there’s a good horse.”
Odo painfully coaxed it to a halt and stood panting while the horse stamped nervously. He glanced down at his leg, scowled at the dark stain, and then dragged himself up into the saddle, pushing his feet down into the stirrups. The pain in his shoulder made his head swim, he was finding it hard to breathe, and his leg was numb.
He slumped over his mount’s neck, winding his fingers into the coarse mane. “One last run, girl,” he whispered, “and then we’re there.” He jabbed the creature in the ribs with his heels and it began to trot, then broke into a canter. Every step sent jolts of pain through his chest.
It was all he could do to keep himself astride the beast, but eventually they passed the watchtower on the northern edge of Schlammigerdorf, followed the road towards the centre, and clattered into the square. A few militiamen broke from the cover of the buildings and ran over. One took hold of the skittish animal’s reins while the other eased the injured man from the saddle. He slumped to the cobbles, his breath misting in the chill.
Mr Starkleiter emerged from the doorway of the town hall and trotted over to the little group. “Who is it?” he asked.
“It’s Odo Viel,” replied a militiaman. “He’s one of the carters who took Doctor Ungerade and the others off earlier.”
The mayor’s eyes widened. “Gods, did they make it?”
Odo nodded weakly and began to cough. “They got us on the way back,” he wheezed. “A big lot of them, on the road.”
“Them…” he whispered, pointing back along the road. “The rat-creatures.”
The far end of the immense hall terminated in a sheer wall, against which there was a great mound of rubble. The balcony itself disappeared into a tunnel dug through the spoil slope, its entrance supported and shored by props and planks. Short of scrambling over the edge and sliding down there seemed to be no other way through. With some trepidation they made their way inside.
The excavation was haphazard, to say the least; dirt had been scraped aside, and it looked as though a hole had been driven through the stones of the wall with hammers and chisels. Beyond that the tunnel continued down through the silt, again propped to prevent collapse, before emerging into a large unsupported hollow. Ahead of them was a fissure that ran through a face of dark stone, while the tunnel doubled back on itself, leading down towards the floor of the Hall of Pillars.
One by one they clambered up into the fracture, struggling forwards until the space around them began to broaden and the floor became flat and gravelly. As they emerged the smell hit them.
It was appalling, an intense, gag-inducing stench of mould and faeces, mixed with the heavy reek of burning fat and the odour of woodsmoke. Torches burned and lights twinkled everywhere, casting deep palls of shadow. The raiders, with their sleeves over their faces, gazed around in astonishment.
It was a chamber, rectangular in shape though noticeably angled, and by rough judgement more than fifty yards long. The lower half was hollowed from the black rock, while the upper part was made from a smooth pale stone. The darkened ceiling was a half-collapsed mass of lintels, somehow remaining suspended above the rubble-choked floor.
But it was not the reek or even the dimensions that astounded them. The whole of the place was filled with constructions. There were strange anarchic shanties, lean-tos abutting lashed-together hovels, and tiers of huts and shacks packed together atop frail-looking stilts. The whole jumbled clutter was festooned with treadmills and ropes and scaffolding, linked by suspended walkways and rickety gantries, and strung with rubbish and scraps and rags of all kinds.
Ensign Kültz surveyed the bizarre landscape. “Gods, it must be their nest!”
“So where do we go now?” asked Doctor Ungerade, peering around.
The Ensign pondered for a moment. “It appears that before this place became the residence of the rat-men, it served as some kind of a dock. I believe that we should make our way up to the level of the quayside, as it were.” He pointed up towards the layer of white stone. “It is likely that there are further pathways there. I cannot imagine that these Skaven would not have a way through.”
“It’s a little chancy, though, wouldn’t you say?”
“Doctor, it is the best I can offer. I don’t know any other way. Please, if you have any better suggestions, feel free to make them.”
He waited for a few moments and then called over Corporal Galland, ordering him to select a group to act as a vanguard. The chosen men divested themselves of all but the most basic of their equipment, and their loads of blackpowder were distributed between the other raiders. Then, with all haste, they set off to secure the route ahead.
The raiders struggled through the loose and foul-smelling rubble that lay around their position and at last began to climb, making their way in fits and starts onto the scrapes and hollows and levelled dirt that formed the lower parts of the nest. The leading men scaled an ordure-stained ladder and signalled to the others to be still.
Whatever had disturbed them evidently offered no threat and they advanced into a lowly shack made from wormed and splitting planks. It was evidently used as a store, if the sacks of mildewed grain and the joints of putrid, rancid meat were anything to go by. Another ladder led up from within the building, terminating on a broad but rickety platform that wobbled alarmingly. From this, suspended boardwalks disappeared off towards dark structures.
Ensign Kültz joined the advance party and discussed their route. When it had been decided they clambered across the swaying gantry and jumped down onto a floor of planking built atop poles that had been driven into the ground. At either side, impaled on iron spikes, were decaying human heads.
One by one the soldiers dropped onto the flimsy path, each making the sign of the hammer over their chests as they passed the rotting skulls. “Sigmar protect us!” whispered one.
The scouts forged ahead again, scaling another ladder lashed together with rawhide and entering a stinking room piled high with straw. The smell of damp and urine was overpowering.
There was a scraping sound and a scrawny, mangy-furred figure, dragging a bundle of rushes behind it, emerged from within the recesses of the structure. It became aware of movement as the men darted into whatever cover they could find, and without a moment’s hesitation it galloped out of the far side of the hovel and off along another boardwalk. The scouts charged after it, but it was getting away from them.
“Kill it!” hissed Corporal Galland as it appeared and vanished among the forest of stilts.
One of the hunters went down on one knee, drew his bow, and took a bead on a spot a little ahead of the beast. At just the right moment he let fly.
Thwack! The fleeing form tumbled and fell, rolling off of the walkway and plunging into the darkness. There was a crash as the body landed.
They waited, their weapons gripped in damp-palmed hands, expecting that at any moment a swarm of the monsters would arrive to find out what had happened. A long moment passed.
The rest of the raiders, Ensign Kültz and Doctor Ungerade among them, began to arrive at their position. The Corporal explained what had happened.
“Why do you think that they didn’t come?” hissed the Ensign.
The Doctor thought for a moment. “I can only imagine that squabbles are common among the denizens of such a place,” he suggested. “It may not be out of place to hear the sounds of fighting.”
Everybody exchanged glances and they set off again.
They climbed another ladder, forcing their aching limbs to lift them, and stalked through a linked series of filthy chambers. They crossed another sagging rope bridge and entered another dingy store-room, this one containing a variety of rusted and bent blades, recognisable as being of human manufacture. Some were made in the Tilean style, a few were characteristic of Estalia or Bretonnia, but the vast majority had originated in the Empire.
In one corner of the store was another ladder, which lead up into a dark space. The soldiers were filing up it one by one and disappearing through.
“Up you go, Sir,” said one of the militiamen. “Wait until the man in front has moved off a bit, then follow him.”
Doctor Ungerade clambered up and emerged into a tiny shed, apparently randomly nailed onto the structure below and braced against the rocky ceiling with heavy, crudely worked logs. A doorway led out onto a veranda that seemed to be little more than sticks. He eased himself out and tried not to look down.
From here a pair of poles lashed together with twine served as a span, descending onto another wooden platform where a splintered mast, complete with its top and shrouds, leaned up against the wall. The soldier ahead of him strolled across the dubious-looking span as though he hadn’t a care in the world.
He risked a glance across to the quayside. The leading scout was advancing slowly along the cobbled surface towards the door, easing himself towards the stony frame. His stomach knotted as he spied a flicker of movement from ahead of the fellow. There was a burst of activity, then an awful, breathless moment as the man fell back. He was lost from view as his comrades surged past him.
And then thwack! as an arrow slammed into a target. There was another flurry of motion and a frantic scrabbling noise, as of blunt claws on stone, then a shrill squeal cut painfully short. Moments later came another thwack as a second arrow found its mark.
He had crossed the bridge before he was aware he had done so and quickly scaled the broken spar, clambering up onto the masonry blocks. He squatted, panting, beside Ensign Kültz. “I saw what happened,” he said. “How is the man?”
“One of the Müller brothers has taken a look at him. The spear went right through the belly and out the other side. Reckons his spine is cut through, and he’s bleeding bad, too. He won’t see out the hour, in truth.”
“What are we going to do?”
Ensign Kültz stared off into the distance. “We can’t stop, and we can’t take him with us,” he said. “And they won’t leave him behind.” He paused. “He has a friend who will do it.”
The Doctor was silent as his mind worked through exactly what the officer meant. “You can’t seriously mean…”
“It’s what he wants.”
Doctor Ungerade got to his feet and hurried along the quayside, glancing at the wounded man and his crouching attendant as he passed. He stepped through the door into a large antechamber, again tilted at an odd angle and so tumbledown that the Skaven had shored up most of the roof and one of the walls with lengths of dark timber. On the far side was another archway.
He felt a wave of nausea wash over him as the true nature of his situation became apparent. There was no escaping it; he was probably going to die. His imagination began to fill in the gaps – the spilling of his blood, the ruin of his mortal flesh, the tearing and the stabbing and all of the pain and agony that came with it. He tried to think of anything but gory death, but his mind refused to let it go.
He shuddered. “Gods,” he whispered to himself, and sank to his haunches.
Time passed. It couldn’t have been many minutes, but it seemed to stretch on forever. Then the trooper reappeared, looking pale and with blood all over his hands. “It is done,” he said sombrely, and picked up his bags. He rejoined his comrades and the soldiers quietly began to move away. The dead man’s load has already been shared around.
The Doctor caught sight of a splash of crimson on the ground. It had dripped from the man’s fingers as he had passed. He could feel his heart racing.
Corporal Galland peered at him. “You alright?”
The Doctor furrowed his brow and then, with supreme effort, he stood up. “Yes, thankyou,” he mumbled. Suddenly his attention was drawn to something else. “Can you hear that?” he hissed.
The Corporal nodded. There were muffled sounds, deep and difficult to distinguish.
They stalked forward, and after checking for sentries they entered a second chamber, again heavily shored with props and timbers, and again with an arched doorway on the far side. The noises, if anything, were louder; there were reverberating bass thuds and booms so intense that they could be felt vibrating through the floor.
Ensign Kültz had joined them. Together they edged across to the opening and peered into the gloom.
It took a few minutes for their eyes to adjust to the dim light, a flickering orange occasionally punctuated with great flashes of intense white.
The din was astonishing. There were solid crunches like boulders slamming into one another, the pained squeal of sliding but unlubricated wood, the roar of gushing water, and a relentless and utterly non-rhythmical metallic beating. The cacophony filled the empty space, the sounds booming and echoing as they faded.
“Where in the name of Morr are we?”
Then it dawned on them. They had entered the dome. It was enormous beyond their imaginings, cavernous and magnificent, its far edge lost in the darkness.
Mr Abdecker raised his head from the muck and peered through the scrubby sedge-grass. There was a great commotion from ahead of him and in the dim light he could make out many silhouettes. He slithered forward a little to get a better view.
A large body of troops was moving past, perhaps some hundreds in number. These were different to the other creatures he had seen; they were big muscular brutes, very dark in colour, and clad in armour. They marched with grim determination below a triangular banner, marked with what looked like huge red claw marks and festooned with gory fragments of bodies. Their route would lead them down across the islands to the meagre human defence on the Kreuzweginsel.
Mr Abdecker continued to crawl northwards, making his way through the sodden banks of reeds that formed the eastern shore. Something caught his eye.
Off to his left was a palanquin, supported on two long poles with four slaves bearing the load at each quarter. Within it was a warlord or chieftain, a huge bloated rat-man wearing loose brown robes worked with strange designs. Runners scurried back and forth, carrying messages that were communicated in frantic, guttural squeaks. All around was a bodyguard of muscular black Skaven, clad in fantastical verdigris-green armour and hefting long spears tipped with jagged, sword-like blades.
It was as though the presence of their leader attracted plagues of rats. However, these were huge verminous rodents, dark furred and blunt-nosed, quite unlike the ones that rat-catchers or farm dogs caught. There were so many that they made the surface of the mud a roiling, living carpet, and scurried among the guards’ legs and all over the chair.
As he watched the chieftain snatched up one of the writhing, squealing little beasts and shovelled it into his mouth, chomping away and swallowing hard. Mr Abdecker shuddered and looked away.
There was something else, larger forms that were further away, hidden in the gloom. He squinted and peered, and for a moment the mists cleared.
He saw two … things, creatures more nightmare than reality. They were humanoid, each easily twice the height of a man, and they were muscular beyond belief. Each had a tail, easily as thick as a man’s leg, which lashed back and forth. Both were covered, for the most part, by a layer of short fur; however, both sported areas where the skin didn’t seem to have formed properly and bare muscle was exposed.
One had a head that seemed almost skeletal, covered all over with a network of blood vessels below a completely transparent skin. Its mouth was full of huge pointed teeth, more suited to a big cat than a creature that seemed to have originated from a rodent, and within the sockets were glowing red eyes. The other monstrosity sported no less than three limbs, an additional one sprouting from the right shoulder. Huge claws, easily twelve inches in length, jutted from the tips of its stubby fingers.
Around their necks were huge collars, from which were suspended long chains. Hanging on to these were gangs of hooded handlers, guiding their charges onward while others walked behind, huge goads clasped in their paws. A scrawny Skaven, carrying a staff and decked in a ragged red robe, appeared to be giving the orders. The beasts reared and snapped angrily at their tormentors.
Rat-ogres! Gods, but they looked bad. He’d never actually seen one before.
Mr Abdecker drew his pistols and unwrapped the cloth covers. Despite their frequent dunkings along his journey the weapons had remained dry. He spent a few moments preparing himself and mumbling a prayer to Sigmar. He lay there and watched the comings and goings, but there was no chance at all to get close. There are just too many of the guards.
Time passed and Mr Abdecker lay and watched.
Amid a flurry of activity the palanquin and its escort began to move to the south. The bearers struggled to lift it from the ground, then settled it onto their shoulders and set off. Mr Abdecker stayed close to them, moving on a parallel track close to the shore. After what seemed like an eternity they reached the crossing down to the next island.
The ogre-monsters were already there, their handlers struggling to get their charges into the water. There was a distant boom and a strange whistling, then something long and sinuous and whirling with deceptive speed scythed into the creatures.
It shredded across the skull-headed beast’s abdomen, spraying innards and gore over a wide area, then bounded and leaped over the tussocks, knocking the guards around the palanquin aside.
The ponderous monster, mortally wounded and pouring blood from the shattered mess that had been its guts, took a final tottering step and pitched forwards, landing in a great splash in the muddy water. The second of the giant rat-ogres went insane, wildly clawing and trampling blindly about, the frantic handlers swinging from the chains as they fought to regain control.
It blundered into the bodyguards, knocking them aside as it fought to escape.
The guards were in commotion, skittering about and confused. Mr Abdecker saw his moment and readied the guns, cocking them with his thumbs.
He stood up, ran forward at a crouch, and took aim. “Sigmar see that these my bullets fly straight and true.”
One shot punched a hole through the woodwork to the left of the creatures’ head, and the other impacted with its shoulder. There was a flash of bright blue and the bullet stopped, flattened and spent, then dropped to the ground.
There was a soft click-click as the chambers rotated, and then blam-blam!
The round blew a gaping hole in the side of the monsters neck, kicking out a spray of filth and gore. The second drove a hole through the wooden frame of the chair.
Click-click, and then blam-blam!
Both shots slammed into the creatures distended belly, tearing ragged, bloody holes. The corpse toppled forwards and tumbled onto the ground, its head so far back that it was almost resting on its own shoulder blades. Dark, frothy blood gushed from the thrashing and twitching form. At once the miserable creatures bearing the chair abandoned their burden, scuttling off into the darkness.
The bodyguards, torn between the raging rat-ogre and the death of their master, milled around aimlessly for a few moments. Then it was as though the illusion of the Grey Seer’s pelt melted away. As a body they turned to look at the intruder in their midst and then sprang to the attack, charging towards the crouching man.
“Oh crap,” mumbled Mr Abdecker. He turned and sprinted away as fast as he could.
The guards were in hot pursuit.
His heart pounding, he dashed away, slipping and sliding across the swampy ground that dominated the eastern edge of the island. He fumbled with the pistols and managed to stuff one back into his waistband.
In a sudden morbid outpouring he began the Liturgy of the Dead.
“In the sure and certain hope of our eternal place amongst the honoured dead who sit in the hall of our Lord and Protector Sigmar Heldenhammer…”
He risked a glimpse over his shoulder. There were forms, dark and malevolent, closing with him. He was never going to get out of this alive.
“… I commend to the protection of Our Lord our brother Julius Marius Abdecker; and we commit his empty body to the ground; …”
He leaped a tussock of grass and splashed into a broad pool, his feet sliding as he fought to find purchase in the slick mud.
“… earth to earth; ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Sigmar watch him and keep him…”
He galloped forward, kicking up a great spray of water and gasping for breath, and scrambled among a stand of reeds. There was a loud splash, then another, as his pursuers entered the water.
“…and grant him rest and peace. Amen.”
“Swab out!” The order was automatic, for Lucas was utterly dazed from the noise and recoil of the cannon. They weren’t even that big.
The women were slowing, gradually becoming exhausted, but once more they went through the routine of worming and sponging the gun, charging it with powder, and running it out. Once they were done Lucas stepped forward and jabbed the reamer down the touch hole, then poured in a measure of priming powder from the horn. He stepped away and blew on the glowing end of the slowmatch.
He touched the matchcord into the blackpowder.
The gun leaped backwards, the tackles and breeching absorbing the recoil.
The tools were readied; debris was wormed out with the iron corkscrew and the wet sheepskin hissed and spat as the swab touched the hot metal. The weapon was clean.
“Charge your piece!”
Another charge of blackpowder was put into the barrel and wadded with rags, then shot was put in and wadded, and the whole lot was rammed. The gun was run outboard
BOOM! Behind them Sepp’s gun fired. They felt the vibration through their feet.
Lukas reamed the touch hole and filled it from the powder horn. He lengthened the match in the lint stock, blew on it to get it good and hot, and stood ready.
He touched the glowing embers to the powder and they fountained into flame.
Nothing happened. A misfire!
Lucas waited for a few moments and then stepped forward. He jabbed the reamer down the touch hole again to clear it.
At that moment the gun fired. A spout of flame erupted from the touch hole, searing the leather glove he was wearing and blowing the reamer from his grasp and into the air. It lanced through his cheek, tearing a jagged gash through flesh already bruised and swollen from fisticuffs, and nicking the top of his ear as it went. The carriage, leaping in recoil, barely missed crushing his feet.
Lukas suddenly felt very nauseous and he almost lost consciousness, staggering forward slightly and slumping against the hot barrel. He forced his legs to continue working and fought to retain his balance. It was probably only his pride that kept him upright, his determination not to let down the ladies under his command.
“You’re bleeding!” It was one of his crew.
He touched his fingers to his cheek and recoiled in horror at the blackened, seared glove that still encased his hand, now coated in a slick sanguine film. Shaking, he pulled it off and dropped it. His hand tingled and looked rather pink, but was otherwise unmarked
“Only a scratch,” Lukas croaked, and tried to grin. It wasn’t very convincing.
One of the ladies, a huge woman with forearms as thick as his thighs, produced a huge white handkerchief from an apron pocket and offered it to the boy. He accepted it gratefully and dabbed gingerly at the wound before pressing it up to his face.
“Oh, for goodness sake!” said the woman. She snatched the cloth from Lukas’s hand and quickly cleaned around the wound. “Cheeks always bleed worse,” she offered, and tied the entire thing around his head.
“Swab out!” ordered the cabin boy, though with his jaw held firmly in place he found it difficult to talk.
With very commendable speed the gun was wormed and sponged, and the touch hole was cleared with the auger
“Charge your piece!”
A measured bag of blackpowder was carefully loaded into the barrel and pushed home, following by wadding and shot. The whole lot was meticulously rammed and the gun was run outboard again. Their duties done, the women stood away.
Lukas found himself another reamer and cleared the touch hole, then filled the hollow from his powder horn. He took a hold of the lint stock and blew the glowing tip of the slowmatch to a white heat.
The big gun shot backwards, a vast jet of flame lancing from the barrel and a huge and choking cloud of smoke filling the already thick air. The gun crew moved to take their places.
It may have been delayed shock from his injury, or perhaps the noise and the recoil, but Lukas’ world seemed to slow. People gained a curious blur around their edges and appeared to loom towards him. Voices were distant and deep and hollow.
“Stop … firing! … Stop … firing!” It took him a few moments to realise that it was Mrs Starkleiter. She was pointing to the shore and yelling down at the gunners.
“Cease … fire,” he heard himself say. “Swab … out…”
Everything seemed to catch up with Lukas in an instant. His nausea grew and with it came a prickly, sweaty heat, and he became intensely aware of the sound of his own heartbeat pounding in his ears. His vision channelled into a tunnel and then he passed out.
He opened his eyes. He was lying on the deck, surrounded by faces, blackened with soot and framed by long hair. They were the ladies who had so valiantly crewed his gun. One of them was dressing his scorched hand with some rag and another was wrapping a long strip of bandage right around his head. It was Hedda, the barmaid. She smiled down at him.
Old Sepp stood above them and watched, a frown across his lined and leathery face.
“Did we win?” mumbled the lad.
“Boy, the battle ain’t over yet.”