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Author Topic: Die Schlammländer part II  (Read 1263 times)

Offline Alagoric

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Die Schlammländer part II
« on: October 31, 2004, 08:35:09 AM »
—oOo—


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.


—oOo—


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.


—oOo—


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.

“How much?”

“Ten silver schillings?”

“Done!” said Brother Franz. “Take it away at once.”


—oOo—


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.”


—oOo—


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.”

“Yes Sir.”

“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.”


—oOo—


“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.”


—oOo—


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.”

“And?”

“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.”

“Yes?”

“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.”


—oOo—


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.


—oOo—


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?”

“No.”

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.

He began.

“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.”


—oOo—

Offline xnet445

  • Posts: 487
Die Schlammländer part II
« Reply #1 on: October 31, 2004, 11:02:10 AM »
Stunning :clap:  :clap:  :clap: Bravo!!!

When can I read more of this story?
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(these rumors are) like getting a free candy bar, but only if you let somebody kick you in the nuts first.
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Offline General Helstrom

  • The Old Ones
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Die Schlammländer part II
« Reply #2 on: November 01, 2004, 12:10:09 PM »
Huzzah!

On to parth three then :-D
I don't know what Caesar thought when he got to the Ides of March
Don't know what Houdini bought when he went to the store
But I sure do miss the eighties

Die Schlammländer part II
« Reply #3 on: November 01, 2004, 04:11:20 PM »
:clap:

Offline Midaski

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Die Schlammländer part II
« Reply #4 on: May 08, 2005, 06:09:43 PM »
Mod guilty of bumping!
However people need to see these in order.
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Metal to Finecast - It is mostly a swap of medium. 

You mean they will be using Ouija boards instead of Tarot cards for their business plans from now on?