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Author Topic: Die Schlammländer Part V  (Read 1466 times)

Offline Alagoric

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Die Schlammländer Part V
« on: June 09, 2005, 11:17:08 PM »
—oOo—


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.


—oOo—


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.”


—oOo—


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.”


—oOo—


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.”


—oOo—


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.”

“And…?”

“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.”


—oOo—


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.


—oOo—


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.


—oOo—


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.”

“But…”

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.”


—oOo—

Offline General Helstrom

  • The Old Ones
  • Posts: 5322
  • Chicks dig moustaches
Die Schlammländer Part V
« Reply #1 on: June 10, 2005, 08:11:04 AM »
Goody goody goody :-D

You're a talented man, Alagoric.
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

Offline Midaski

  • Sunny Sussex, England
  • Administrator
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Die Schlammländer Part V
« Reply #2 on: June 10, 2005, 01:39:38 PM »
Great Stuff as usual - however now the tension is getting unbearable - how long before the next chapter???
Quote from: Gneisenau
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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?

Offline xnet445

  • Posts: 487
Die Schlammländer Part V
« Reply #3 on: June 10, 2005, 08:03:41 PM »
You MUST collect and publish this as one volume (one the tale is told)

Marvelous stuff
Quote from: sawgunner101
(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 SKEETERGOD

  • Posts: 1049
Die Schlammländer Part V
« Reply #4 on: June 12, 2005, 11:20:56 AM »
Excellent story.  I am hooked.  So when can I expect to see VI?  Thanks
It takes but one foe to breed a war, and even those without swords can still die upon them.

Offline Douchie

  • Posts: 518
  • The Army of Eastern Stirland
Die Schlammländer Part V
« Reply #5 on: February 22, 2006, 04:02:02 PM »
Let me just add how much I have enjoyed this ongoing saga. Really good stuff.

Can I ask what was you inspiration?