Some years back our game of choice for some time was Hawkmoon. An off-shoot of the Stormbringer RPG, the first edition of Hawkmoon was a threadbare affair in a gorgeous box. We most recently used the Mongoose edition, largely a variant of their first Runequest revival. It had a bit more beef but the background and adventures were not to our tastes, so we did our usual thing and created our own scenarios, mostly Loz but I took over for a wee while at one stage.
Our history with Moorcock-inspired role playing games goes way back and I, in true Moorcockian fashion, have played the same character (or variants of) for over twenty-five years, although there was a significant gap during our wilderness years.
Gerard Arthur Connelly, a thinly veiled Oswald Bastable clone, was an airshipman from an alternate 1970s Norfolk somewhere amongst the Million Spheres. I had a lot of fun with him, much to Loz’s chagrin at times, as he varied in tone, appearance and sexuality (although never gender, perhaps next time).
As mentioned in previous posts, I had at one point taken up the habit of writing up games as a narrative aide memoir for the players as there were gaps of up to three months between sessions. On this occasion I put a little bit more effort in (harbouring as I did at the time a desire to write lame Moorcock pastiche) and decided to tease the other players by employing the unreliable narrator shtick (not that any of them read it, but it entertained me at least). As usual I ran out of steam and it ends rather abruptly, but it does I think give a reasonable taste of our love of Moorcock’s style and themes.
Here it is, for what it’s worth.
Please forgive the poor sentence construction and rogue commas. I’m too lazy to proof read it.
1. Loose stitches and a chance meeting
Major Howard was a burly, heavy browed Texan with a laconic wit and a dangerous gleam in his prominent blue eyes. He was a friend of my father’s and a keen airshipman of the frontier variety. I recall his view of the world even now, twelve years later by some reckoning and a million spheres (countless cycles?) by another. Howard referred regularly to the ‘gentility of civilised women’, almost in exasperation, as if yearning for a simpler, more instinct driven breed of woman. This I suppose was a reflection of his somewhat simplistic view of the world but it was an assertion at odds with his otherwise egalitarian attitude to the fairer sex.
Howard would frequently enter my thoughts in the days that I spent recklessly at the Brothel in Rosenstrasse, where gentility was not a quality generally shared by the women of that establishment. Sweet Orb Mace in particular would challenge that perception and she, more than any woman I have ever known or loved, is a product of civilisation, albeit that which will exist when our sun has long since grown cold. Nevertheless I saw Frau Schmetterling’s palace of pleasures as a haven from the grotesquery I have faced since departing my own world. As an idealistic teen I was often infuriated by Howard’s view of civilisation and his ironic contempt for progress. Now I frequently find myself aching for the pastoral simplicity of my childhood and have developed a deep loathing for civilisation and the corruption and lawlessness it breeds.
I believe it was that yearning that made my decision to leave Mirenburg a simple one. I had spent some time with The Librarian, validating my plans for the inflation device that would carry my harness and we were confident that ploon gas would provide sufficient lift to clear the crystal spires. We were correct. Unfortunately I failed to pay as much attention to the quality of the stitching on the gas bags and, once the storm hit, I heard the canvas rip apart like an onion sack. It was instantly apparent that the storm was unnatural, I have witnessed such cloud patterns in the mittelmarch, and as I hung upside down, suspended in the boughs of an ancient, gnarled beech, I knew that my path had shifted once more.
I pondered this awhile as the branches creaked and splintered above me, straining to hold aloft the tattered remains of my apparatus. The last vestiges of ploon gas escaping from the torn shrouds wailed like a starving cat, eliciting startled looks from a young doe forty feet below me. Whilst entertaining hasty thoughts of freeing my boarding sabre from its scabbard and cutting myself free of the canvas harness I was hailed from below. Looking up, or in fact down, I saw that the deer had been replaced by a formidable looking man of apparently northern European descent. This impression was strengthened when he hailed me again in a thick voice with a distinctly Scandinavian brogue.
‘Are you a beastman?’ He asked. The compact frame of the man was held upright, tense and prepared, his weight balanced finely on powerful legs evidently made for running and bounding great distances with ease. His was a far cry from my own doughy frame, muscles wasted by months of tobacco, La Fée, seven course meals and general neglect. His keen eyes regarded me with some suspicion.
‘I confess that I am not,’ I replied, ‘although I am rather inconvenienced and somewhat out of my element.’
The man frowned and scratched his heavily bearded chin, the fair wiry growth giving way reluctantly to heavy, calloused fingers. Those fingers then drew a heavy axe from a sheath on his back and leaned it carefully against a bole. They then unfastened a stiff leather girdle festooned with all manner of implements and pouches and this was hanged from the haft. Two smaller axes, tools rather than dedicated weapons, emerged from a heavy hide jerkin and a reputation for manliness and physical prowess was quickly established as this remarkable individual set to climbing the venerable beech by dint only of the two small axes and a remarkable display of upper body strength. In scant seconds he hefted himself alongside me and gripped my harness with one vice-like paw and freed my aching legs with the other. Using his fist as a pivot gravity swung me upright and down to a pair of leafy boughs from where I was able to begin a cautious descent to the scree at the foot of the bole. As the blood and sensation returned needle-like to my extremities I snatched a look back up above me. The man was regarding me with curiousity and no apparent hostility. My glancing up prompted him back to movement and he set to releasing my haversack from the half inverted basket that was slung beneath the wreckage of my former vehicle. He accompanied my luggage back down to Terra Firma. I straightened my back, removed my deck gauntlets and proffered my right hand.
‘Sir, I am indebted to you. Had you not happened along I fear I would have eventually landed upon my head.’
A youthful smile flashed white teeth briefly before the grim look returned to a prematurely weathered face. My instant impression was that his visage was aged by experience rather than years.
‘My name is Gerard Connelly.’ I said, arm still outstretched.
He gripped my forearm. Had I not been wearing my heavy deck gunner’s coat I fear his fingers would have left bruises.
‘Morton.’ He said simply.
2. Europe, but not as I have known it. Another inversion.
Satisfied that my home county of Norfolk was many miles away and not on his list of potential allies of the enemy, Morten explained much to me. In the interest of minimising exposition I shall summarise here. I was still in Europe. In fact by my reckoning I had crashed somewhere in the Ardennes region on the borders of France and Belgium, although that name had little, if any meaning in this sphere. Similarities did exist, and in sufficient number that Morten and I had enough in common that we could converse freely and easily and as we travelled east I would experience flashes of familiarity. These were quickly dismissed when we came across ruined areas of land upon which grew mutated, poisonous flora, or blasted heaths upon which nothing grew at all and, according to Morten, never had and never would.
More disturbing still is the nature of the enemy he described. The Beast Orders of Granbretan were marching relentlessly into Europe and, it appeared, no city-state could stand before them. Their methods of war are nauseating and they had taken a terrible toll upon the inhabitants of any city, town or village that does not embrace their presence. Morten described his journey from his home in Scandia, and his flight from the disastrous defence of Bruges. Other refugees on the roads reported news of Koln, fallen two years since but risen in rebellion, and the Duke of Koln taken in chains to Londra, the capital city of the ‘Dark Empire’, to be presented to the ancient and god-like King Huon. I felt sickness welling up from the pit of my stomach as I heard more tales of the bloody crimes of my ‘countrymen’.
We made for Sahbruck, a walled city just inside the country you and I would know as Germany. We were not alone. Many refugees and some surviving soldiery from encounters with the invaders were placing great faith in the Earl of Sahbruck and his walls of steel and stone. Many times we were forced to flee the roads when strafed by fire from gleaming gull-winged flying machines. These ornithopters gushed steam from the joints of their colossal, wings which swept back as they dove and, spitting ruby lances of light, turned fleeing men, women and children into shrieking torches that ran on a few steps before falling, their clothes and flesh burning fiercely in the tallow of their body fat. So fierce is the power of these weapons that I saw steel armour fused with the bones of not only their wearer but their unfortunate steed. I have witnessed the wholesale destruction of people before but only ever from great distances, usually from above, aboard more elegant yet similarly deadly vessels of war. Those incidents seem like several lifetimes ago and could not prepare me for this experience, made all the more visceral by the immediate sight but also sound, smell and even taste of human ruin. The dastardly craft would then scream overhead, trailing an acrid exhaust, then their wings flap like metal thunder and away they flew, until the next time. This ritual was doubtless being repeated on all roads leading away from the battle zones. Morten would, wherever possible, lead me and any others who would follow along paths less trodden than the packed roads that so easily became charnel.
We arrived in the vicinity of Sahbruck only in time to witness the fall of the walls and the slaughter of her brave defenders. It was near dusk on our third day of travelling together and we stood in a tree line with an unobstructed view across miles of vale. Arrayed before the walls was a morass of struggling men. The familiar sounds of a large engagement assailed our ears. The din was punctuated by the harmonic cries of huge bell shaped war engines that made short work of seemingly impregnable walls and shattered the minds of any defender upon them. The greasy, soot-laced smoke from an incinerated cavalry charge drifted across the fields of ruin and we heard the raucous roar of heavy foot infantry in snarling masks crafted to resemble wolf, boar and goat. The ragged gaps in the once proud walls were flooded with ruby, gold and black armour and the grotesque banners of beast orders. The gates fell in with a groan and the fight was over. But not the killing. That would last well into the night. Wails and screams pursued us east as we fled once more.
We would learn sometime later that the commander of the Granbretan force, one Baron Meliadus, was not content with the defeat of the garrison and had ordered the sack of Sahbruck.
3. Heirs and graces
Chance meetings have ever been crucial influences upon the direction of my tumbling down, across and over what more accomplished wanderers commonly call the moonbeam roads. Chance, destiny, fate or a combination of all three had conspired to lead me into Professor Hildebrand’s workshop all those months, or was it years ago? I can no longer tell.
A day after witnessing the fall of Sahbruck’s walls Morten and I were once again negotiating congested roads and trails. I had learned by now that the Scandian was an agreeable cove and easy company. In the absence of any obvious pursuit from above or behind, the refugees were more relaxed in pace as the day wore on. By nightfall we had succeeded in putting healthy fifty or so miles between the beleaguered city and our backs. I had stopped and explained to Morten that I was bloody famished and could not possibly march on without some decent food, a foot massage (self-administered of course) and at least a couple of hours sleep. Regarding me as though I were a weeping woman, or a weakling, he grunted assent and led us into twisted copse that gave way, unbidden, to an escarpment littered with the stumps of felled oaks. Below us a deciduous wood of rich green was gilded briefly with the first gold of autumn by the dying twilight. For a moment I was reminded of home. Casting aside the feeling of loss I ran down the slope to catch up with my companion whom by now was forty paces ahead. Before reaching the edge of the trees we glimpsed briefly the lights of some settlement away beyond the sprawling wood but it was impossible to judge distance by now.
Confident that within an hour we would have some meat to cook Morten plunged soundlessly forward. I followed, feeling utterly clumsy and conspicuous by comparison.
Once swallowed by the dense undergrowth surrounding the mighty trunks any feelings of familiarity with the terrain evaporated. The boles were twisted into grotesque shapes, as if the trees had grown in spite of some internal agony, and the air carried a heavy smell of decay.
Factor in the darkness which, as we proceeded further, was almost total and I had taken to holding onto Morten’s axe shaft lest he get ten paces ahead and I lose all sense of direction and become utterly lost.
Morten halted, tensed and grunted his irritation when I stumbled into his broad back. I smelled pork. I am not, nor ever will be any kind of tracker but the smell of seared meat could draw me from leagues away. Someone nearby was cooking pig or boar over an open fire. My knees grew weak. I had in truth eaten the best part of seven quail and a haunch of silverside only three days previously but after walking pretty much ever since and surviving solely on biscuits, salami, dried apricots and salted herring a la Scandia my stomach was protesting loudly. Hot food was imperative if I were to travel any substantial distance further. I boldly stepped past my companion and strode forth, batting aside low branches and foliage until I stepped into a half-glade illuminated by a crackling fire. My gauntleted hand gripping the pommel of my sheathed sabre I straightened my back and spoke in my finest and deepest officer’s voice.
‘I am Connelly, my companion here is Morten,’ Morten obligingly emerged from the trees across the clearing, I still do not know quite how he managed the trick. I continued, ‘Should you feel obliged to share your meal you would be subject to a show of our deepest appreciation.’
The two occupants of the glade were already afoot, no doubt having heard my headlong crash through the foliage, and facing me, armed. Although accoutred radically differently they shared common features and were evidently brothers. The larger of the two, and immediately the most imposing, wore the majority of a suit of full plate armour of great craftsmanship and wielded a similarly well wrought sword. His eyes bore into me as if attempting to divine my nature and capabilities by sight alone. His eyes continued to fix mine even when his brother swivelled at the slender hip to face the emergent Morten. Younger and slighter in build but possessing of a lithe physicality, his rich cloak was fastened at the neck with a clasp that echoed the livery of his sibling’s breastplate. Unarmoured but poised with a slender duellist’s blade, held as if it were simply an extension of his slim wrist, this second was, on further examination, possibly as dangerous an individual as the other.
Had we emerged from the trees armed I have no doubt that I at least may well have come a serious cropper. As it was my gentlemanly mien won the day and the brothers relaxed slightly. Or of course I simply may not have seemed particularly threatening. I prefer to think the former. I rummaged into my haversack and produced a half bottle of Madame Blavatsky’s 30 year old oak-conditioned cognac and the younger brother’s face lightened. Within minutes the countenance of the tank had also lightened and, following a swift prayer to the God of flight, we were sitting together around the generous fire sharing slices of seared, wild pig and toasting each other’s health with the warming liquor of an alternative universe.
Thus were Friedrich and Vincent, sons of the late Earl, and heirs to the ruins, of Sahbruck, introduced to Connelly of Norfolk and Morten of Haarket.
We talked late into the night. Vincent, the elder of the two was intrigued by my accent and unusual apparel. His armour and brusque soldierly manner only partially hid a sharp intelligence and I fear he found my vague answers to his probing questions unsatisfying. He did not pursue the issue. He was, I think in a suppressed state of shock, his noble bearing refusing to bend to the trauma of losing everything, including his father, to the invaders.
Friedrich on the other hand seemed to be taking everything remarkably well although I suspect he was more adept at masking his emotions than his elder brother. Duty to his city was not as fierce a priority and it had been he that half-dragged Vincent into the catacombs below Sahbruck when the walls were breached. Vincent, already reeling from seeing his prized cavalry and loyal captains and friends butchered by the vile technology of the Dark Empire, had acquiesced only when ordered away by his father. Morten had heard on the road that the Earl had been flayed and hanged from the parapets above the south gate. We thought it best not to share that with the grieving brothers.
4. The Fox and the Coney
The following afternoon we reached the settlement that I had glimpsed before entering the woods the previous evening. The village of Treybach consisted of barely twenty dwellings but the presence of an inn was a welcome sight. Although I had slept in the woods it had hardly been quality sleep. I was never a particularly happy camper at the best of times and the damaged, almost pained nature of that place had me constantly on edge. I woke regularly as if shocked and feeling that my heart was about to fly from my mouth. On one occasion I must have cried out and as I lay back down I realised that Vincent was awake by the embers of the fire, studying me. I turned my back and pulled my knees up into my coat. The next I knew I was being shaken by Morten and handed a wooden bowl of bitter tasting water and a strip of dried herring. I had as a result suffered the most appalling indigestion all morning as we walked and the sight and sound on three occasions of ornithopters scouting the countryside only made the fire in my gullet worse.
My hopes for homely food and drink were satisfied by Gunther’s hop heavy ale and a steaming bowl of Lotty’s hasenpfeffer. The husband and wife team were landlord and landlady of the Gasthaus zum Gunther Keller and made us most welcome. Gunther was hungry for news and we obliged. We learned that only a light sprinkling of fleeing refugees had passed through Treybach in the past days, although the village had learned quickly of the desperation of the passers by when all of the work horses, ponies and most of the livestock had been taken by force. The culprits were apparently a group of unscrupulous Sahbruck city watchmen and other assorted stragglers. On hearing of the conflict heading their way a number of the villagers had hastily packed up and fled.
Lotty’s skill at trapping rabbits had benefited us in more than one way. She insisted that when emptying her traps early that morning she had spotted more men in the woods from which we would later emerge. She swore that one had watched her as she headed back to the village before he vanished. She described his ornate armour in detail, in particular his helm which was fashioned into the likeness of a keen-eyed fox.
Vincent looked up sharply from his beer.
‘Scouts,’ said Friedrich, ‘and they were in the same woods as we.’
‘Aye,’ Vincent spat, ‘and no doubt they would take a great interest in the likes of you and I brother.’
Gunther appeared to notice the clasp on Friedrich’s cloak for the first time and yelped.
‘You must leave. You cannot be found…’ he floundered.
Vincent stood with a curse.
‘You mean found here you sweaty pile of grease!’
‘He is right.’ Morten was also standing now.
‘These people will be crucified for harbouring enemies of Granbretan. The village will be burned and the boy children impaled. We can not stay here.’
A dramatic pause…
I, so far the only person in the inn still seated, rose and interceded.
‘Gunther, we wish no harm to come to you or your village. You have been, for all of forty or so minutes, a gracious host. Now we have one further request.’
He nodded eagerly.
‘We require bread, cheese and any further dried meat you may have available. We also require… two. Make that two further requests. Food and a map. Do you have any maps of this country?’
He shook his head and cast his eyes downward. Lotty nudged him in the ribs and hissed. He started and blurted, ‘Grevenburg!’
‘Grevenburg!’ echoed Lotty.
‘Grevenburg?’ said I.
‘Count Baden is no friend of the Dark Empire they say,’ Lotty continued. ‘And the Countess is a local girl. They must help you. You are fellow nobles.’
Morten and I were satisfied that she did not mean us specifically but Friedrich frowned and glanced at his brother.
‘I have never heard of any Count Baden in these or any other parts.’
‘Nor I’ agreed Vincent, ‘although Grevenburg does sound familiar somehow. If this Baden is not a friend of the Empire then he may be a friend of ours. He at least should offer us hospitality and a place to gather our wits and plan our next moves. Foxes may have sharp eyes but they cannot see through walls. Gunther, give us directions.’
5. Foxes and Crows
We set out from Treybach with full bellies and the knowledge that, all being well, by late evening we would be enjoying the hospitality, and soft beds, of Castle Grevenburg. The early part of the journey was dominated by argument.
‘Lobkowitz is a freak and a dandy. He has not a militaristic bone in his pudgy body. He will not stand against Granbretan for long, if at all.’ Vincent spat.
‘Militarism never did Sahbruck any good brother.’ Friedrich was picking herring from his gleaming white teeth with a lady’s hairpin as he walked.
‘Lobkowitz may be a lover of the alternative lifestyle but he is no fool, and his scholars and libraries are renowned across Europe. Where there is knowledge there is power. You know that Vincent.’
‘Hrumph. Mark my words Friedrich, as soon as the first beast mask comes within a league of Berlin Lobkowitz will soil himself. It is sad that his cousin is such a cripple. He had promise when we were children, a shrewd one he is. But Lobkowitz’s hangers on and sycophants always ostracised him even then. I doubt he has any influence over the court.’
‘Ha,’ cried Friedrich, ‘you were always drawn to the smarter children brother. You would have been a formidable scholar yourself had you chosen books over horses and steel.’
‘And you would have made a worthy commander of men had you felt able to stay away from wine and skirts.’
‘Wine I can resist, but the skirts I am powerless against, particularly the common ones. Why do you think I cannot resist the Scandian’s salt fish?’
Both laughed raucously and gripped the other’s shoulder.
The laughter died.
The road we followed had described an arc around a row of hillocks crested with dead, blackened trees of a genus I did not recognise. Upon swinging northward the trees on either side of the road fell away and an ancient stone bridge spanned a sluggish, brown river to a distance of some three hundred or so feet. On the far bank stood a number of dwellings, some smoking, and we could see even at this distance carrion gathered on corpses.
As one we left the road and crouched in the undergrowth along the tree line. Friedrich unslung an ornate bow and set to stringing it. Morten, who had been hanging back regularly and using his woodsman instincts to check our backs, squatted next to me.
‘It looks like the foxes have been ahead of us all day. I do not think they are on our trail.’
I agreed that was most likely. We would surely have been accosted by now had that been the case.
‘Grevenburg is on the other side of the river,’ Friedrich said. ‘We must cross.’
‘Then we cross at once, fast and low. Come.’
With that Vincent stood and, not quietly, began to run towards the bridge.
Friedrich sucked in a breath, blew it out through puffed cheeks and followed his brother.
I looked at Morten. He rolled his eyes.
‘Over there is just as well as over here I think.’
Almost understanding I nodded assent and we followed the brothers. As usual Morten ran with poise and stealth while I wheezed behind him inwardly cursing my penchant for Woodbines. Twenty paces ahead I could here the chink and clatter of Vincent’s mail. Friedrich kept pace with him, scanning ahead for trouble, a long arrow knocked, bow ready to draw in an instant.
We reached the far bank without incident. The bodies had been there at least half a day and were scattered along and across the road. All but one were local and apparently had fallen prey to the same or a similar band that had taken Treybach’s animals. The one uncommon body was that of a man in garb familiar to the brothers, a member of the Sahbruck City Watch. He had fallen foul of a heavy mattock. His companions had not afforded him any greater respect than their victims and his boots and belongings had been pilfered. No effort had been made to police the bodies and they were heavily worried by vermin and larger animals.
The dwellings were those of riverfolk. A narrow wooden jetty stood out in the shallows of the river. No boats were present, having seemingly been taken by the raiders.
Morten emerged from a hovel that had not been burned.
‘They left nothing,’ he said.
We continued in silence. I have witnessed many such scenes in my life yet I still struggle to fathom the baser nature of those who, when threatened from outside, turn upon the weaker of their own not as a last resort, but as a path of least resistance.
Vincent broke the silence.
‘If we find the men that did this they must be punished swiftly, but if they still wear the livery of Sahbruck and they act in this way then they must be judged and punished by city law.’
Friedrich nodded, ‘I will make the gibbets myself if I must.’
We proceeded more cautiously and as the afternoon waned a bitter chill accompanied the wind blowing off the river, prompting me to pull my heavy leather deck coat tighter and retrieve my flight cap from my pack. Morten raised an eyebrow as I fastened the straps below my chin but I am sure that inwardly he was only jealous of the fleece-lined ear flaps. My feet were rubbed raw from the relentless trudging so when Morten hissed and directed me towards the foliage between the road and the riverbank I groaned and cantered towards it obediently. Once sprawling in the long grass I looked to where he was pointing. We could all see clearly a column of smoke some way ahead. It was twisting a path upwards into the grey sky from beyond a bank of woodland off to our left. Up ahead the road, tracking the river, swung sharply towards the source of the smoke.
‘Perhaps this time,’ Vincent said grimly to his brother, ‘we can catch the devils in the act.’
‘Aye! I’m bored of walking, and my bodkin is restless too.’ Friedrich partially drew his weapon and gently caressed the blade below the hilt with a thumb.
I popped a piece of Gunther’s cheese in my mouth and chewed. It tasted like a vagrant’s socks. The pungency cleared my sinuses like fiery mustard and tears came unbidden to my eyes. Lest my companions think I was weeping I thumped Morten in the shoulder and sprinted, head down, for the trees. Slowing slightly I allowed the woodsman to take the lead, a good thing too as the diminishing light almost vanished altogether beneath the brooding canopy. Within minutes Morten had led us over gnarled roots and under grasping, diseased boughs until we spied the source of the smoke.
I had never seen a more ostentatious coach in my life, with the possible exception of His Majesty’s gold festooned jubilee carriage. Where the Royal Coach was polished mahogany and gold this was a baroque display of metal-working in pearlescent blacks, blues and greens, and obviously the product of a fevered mind. The overall impression was of an entwined marriage of machine and serpent. There was no sign of the team of horses that had pulled the thing and a fire had been set beneath it.
‘Perhaps our brigands have raised their sights a little.’ I ventured. My terminology may not have been familiar but my companions understood the meaning well enough and all three shook their heads.
‘Something else happened here,’ said Friedrich.
‘No bodies,’ Morten agreed, ‘and no dropped weapons.’
Vincent rubbed his stubbled chin. ‘This looks to have been a well plotted ambush. A brave one too, to take on a Granbretan dignitary by the appearance of that coach, and recently.’
‘The dead may have been stacked within,’ I suggested, ‘We should check for survivors.’
Morten unstrapped his great axe. ‘We must be cautious. The attackers may still be close.’
‘Grevenburg is close now, no more than twenty miles. This may be Count Baden’s work’
‘Perhaps,’ the Scandian replied, ‘but let us be on our guard.’
We all nodded assent except Friedrich. He was staring back along the road, from where we would have arrived had we not cut through the wood at our back. The road faded to the right, as did the river, perhaps fifty paces away from which we currently crouched. Friedrich stiffened.
‘We’re not the only ones to spot the smoke.’ He said.
He was right. There was movement on the far bank and the flash of a heliograph signal.
‘Verdammt! Who are they signalling?’
‘Let us not wait to find out,’ Vincent suggested wisely.
I loosened my scabbard and was about to run for the coach when Morten gripped my arm.
‘Stay down.’ He said.
I raised my furry ear flaps and heard what was bothering him.
‘We know who they were signalling,’ he spat.
An ornithopter was approaching. Within half a minute the crashing sound of the wings and the hissing of steam escaping from the inefficient pneumatics became deafening. The trees above us creaked and snapped in protest as the huge mechanism reared to a brief halt not fifty feet from our position and dropped the last few feet to the ground onto heavy duty dampers crafted like the claws of a cruel bird of prey. The wings folded back with a groan and a high pitched whine became audible as it diminished in intensity, finally disappearing altogether. A canopy above the vicious snouts of heavy flame cannon at the business end of the craft disgorged three men in padded flight suits trimmed with black fleece. All wore meticulously crafted helmets fashioned in the likeness of black crows with emerald eyes. One turned to the river and waved across before unhitching a case from a stowage area below the fuselage. He unpacked an ornate black apparatus, a heliograph, and began signalling the opposite shore. His comrades walked casually towards the smouldering carriage.
‘Complacent buggers aren’t they,’ I said. ‘Up and at them?’
Vincent looked quizzically across from his hiding place behind a stout bole. He chewed it over for a second.
‘I’ll take the one at the bank.’ I suggested bravely. I needn’t have as Morten and Vincent were already rushing the other two.
I set off at a sprint, drawing my heavy boarding sabre as I ran. Adrenaline supercharged my aching muscles and fired my blood, anxiety channelled into focused aggression in a heartbeat. The familiar weight of Sheffield steel balanced in exquisite union with my shifted centre of gravity enabled me to choose the specific part of the keen blade that would impact the crow mask on the crown of the head for maximum penetration. Had the crow reacted in time he may have deflected the blow or minimised its impact but he did not. His own weapon was barely drawn before he fell, his skull cleft by the savage blow which was further strengthened by the battle cry which came unbidden to my lips…
I gasped and tugged my blade free of the ruined helmet, exhilarated.
Friedrich was by my side firing arrows past the ornithopter. Foxes were attempting to cross the river under cover of missiles of their own. Black quarrels began to fall, biting deep into the earth around us. We fell back into cover behind the ornithopter.
Over by the coach Vincent was hacking pieces from one unfortunate crow as Morten was recovering his heavy axe blade from the spine of the other, who had evidently thought discretion the better part of valour when faced down by a charging knight and a snarling Northman.
The crew had been utterly unprepared for the ambush, thinking themselves safe with the foxes so close by. They had fallen quickly but the foxes crossing the river would not be so easy a proposition. At least eight or nine were now half-way across and we had no idea whether others were crossing nearby. The black quarrels were still falling and restricting Friedrich’s return fire to occasional snapshots.
I shouted to Vincent and Morten that the coach must be of great importance. We could do nothing whilst it stood above the fire. The two exchanged words and came up with a plan. They each put a shoulder to the front wheels and began to heave. I snatched a glance around the housing of the gleaming ornithopter’s portside cannon. The foxes were over half way across and more were emerging from the trees on the far bank. A thought occurred to me and I hauled myself up the handholds that afforded access to the pilot’s canopy. Dropping into a padded seat I was confronted with a baffling array of levers, crystals and cryptic measuring instruments. I could not make heads nor tails of it I must confess but, inspired, I gripped the most ominous and expensive looking crystal and twisted it. A vibration ran through the entire machine and moments later the familiar whine steadily increased in pitch. As it did so ruby studs to the left and right of the central panel illuminated. Although not intuitively positioned to any rational mind the colour matched that of the man-portable flame lances I had witnessed in the field at Sahbruck. I had little opportunity to look for a driver’s manual so I hit both simultaneously. Nothing happened. Looking closer I saw that retaining clips held them in place and that they were designed to be turned and not pushed. After a brief struggle I freed the retainers and twisted them hard. Two ruby needles instantaneously connected the nose of the craft to the water 20 feet behind the farthest swimmer. Twin columns of steam erupted upwards as the water boiled and evaporated violently. The men on the far bank froze momentarily before throwing themselves bodily into the treeline, fully aware of the destructive potential of these weapons. I released the crystals and they snapped back to their original position. The men in the water were now swimming frantically, some turning back to the shore from which they had departed only a minute earlier. I quickly examined the retaining clips again and realised they must serve an additional safety function. I broke them away with my pocket knife, threw both crystals to the on position and leapt from the canopy. As I hit the dirt the coach trundled past me, down the bank into reeds and to a standstill, steaming gently in the shallows of the river. I glanced back towards Morten who shrugged nonchalantly.
The coach in the event was empty save for a slim, folio sized journal of some description. I would never have seen it save for the light from the still firing weapons behind me which were beginning to emit a worrying shrieking and crackling. In the river the foxes were beginning to wail. I was reminded of the scream of boiling lobsters and wondered if the Dark Empire had an order of lobster masked sailors. The thought passed quickly and I decided it may be wise to put some distance between myself and the increasingly anguished sounding aircraft that was now visibly vibrating and venting steam from its fuselage.
The far bank was no longer visible, nor in fact were the foxes that had made it more than two thirds of the way across the now frothing river. A heavy steam, dense as a Turkish bath, hung over the entire scene.
Sensing my urgency Friedrich began to run as I did and I hollered and gesticulated at Morten and Vincent who were now simply staring goggle-eyed at the proceedings. We all ran back to the trees where we had left our packs and dashed into the wood. At our backs the whine was gradually dampened by the trees but a sense of pressure built steadily until I thought my inner ear must burst. The sound ceased abruptly and seconds later my ears popped violently as the silence was rent by a tremendous cracking sound.
The four of us paused to take stock of a frantic five minutes before we allowed Morten to get his bearings. We then made ourselves extremely scarce.
6. Sore feet. A bath at last.
We made Grevenburg by nightfall. If the castle had ever had any defensive walls to speak of they had long since crumbled into the soil. A number of low stone buildings cowered close in to the keep as if seeking shelter from the wind that scoured the high hill upon which it stood, commanding a view of the approaches from the forest and the desolate lowland marsh that fell away behind it. I thought it fleetingly strange that despite its prominent position in the landscape hereabouts we had not seen it from the road until almost at the foot of the hill. I attributed the oversight to fatigue.
Pallid light flickered from lanterns that framed an iron-shod wooden door of hefty proportions. A front door complete with knocker.
‘I confess I am somewhat underwhelmed,’ said Friedrich. ‘We four could take this castle.’
He may have been right. We had observed no guards or watchmen and there was no sight or sound of hounds or any kind of sentry, animal or otherwise.
‘Be on your guard,’ replied his brother, ‘there are other methods that can guard a keep that are not so obvious.’
‘In Scandia castle guards you.’
I turned and looked at Morten, once again not entirely grasping his meaning. I clapped him on the shoulder and banged the door knocker three times.
A gaunt young man with hooded eyes opened the stout door and, following Vincent’s introduction (of himself, his brother and his ‘retainers’) ushered us in. The interior was sparsely appointed with faded tapestries and once lush runners now worn flat and threadbare by heavy shod feet. Our guide introduced himself as Karl and invited us to follow him past a number of side chambers and on up a shallow staircase onto a gallery that overlooked a reception hall. My eyes were fixed instantly upon a glowing hearth but my instinct to throw myself on the fur rug before it and sleep for a year was interrupted by a sensation in the corner of my eye. I looked for the source of the distraction but saw only stone wall. A trick of the flickering light perhaps? It was like an itch in my vision, but it passed as we left the gallery.
Karl led us down steps and toward the fireplace which was framed by a colossal mantle of some dark form of marble. Arrayed around the walls were items of furniture which we were invited to pull close.
‘Please make yourselves comfortable. I will arrange vittles and inform the Count of your arrival.’ Karl exited through a door in a dark corner where the firelight did not penetrate.
I achingly extricated myself from my deck coat and draped it over the back of the high chair I had chosen. I pulled my boots from my protesting feet and examined the soles. The six week old Italian leather had almost worn down at the heel thanks to four days of yomping for which such luxuriant craftsmanship was never intended. I sighed as I realised that finding a cobbler worthy of these boots would probably be a tall order in these parts.
Next examining my socks I winced in pain as I pulled them free. In places my blisters had worn away leaving gaping sores to which the fabric had adhered with matted blood.
I almost jumped out of my skin with a yelp when a voice said by my ear, ‘A bath and some salve will ease your discomfort.’
The voice was soft and deep, unmistakably feminine. The other three looked up from their private ruminations in surprise. Morten drooled slightly. It belonged to a handsome young woman, generously but by no means overly-proportioned and draped in ermine and samite. She was accompanied by another man, similar in appearance and garb to the first. He bore a platter of meats, breads and cheeses which he placed on a low table by the fire before withdrawing.
‘I am Sabine,’ she declared.
We introduced ourselves. Her face was not unattractive but bore the heavy, ruddy features of the region and her attempts at a noble bearing were noticeably that. Still, she made an agreeable hostess and I thanked my stars that I had not been found at a disadvantage by a lady of breeding. Her eyes met mine and she lingeringly examined me, taking in every detail, my haircut, my clothes, my general bearing. Had she been at all my sort I would have found this exciting. As it is she simply seemed enraptured for a moment by the likes of which she had never seen. It was a perfectly normal human reaction and one I had engendered countless times during my travels. She shortly transferred her attention to the Scandian from whence she found her attention reciprocated in kind.
I cleared my throat, ‘A bath would be most welcome my dear. Could you direct me to the bathroom?’
‘Countess Sabine,’ she said pointedly.
I bowed slightly from the hip.
‘Of course, Countess.’
‘Karl, Sebastian,’ she called. The two men emerged from shadow. ‘Please show Herr Conn…’
‘Lieutenant!’ I corrected sharply.
Her cheeks deepened in colour and I am sure she bit back a curse.
‘Please escort lef-ten-ant Connelly to his quarters and ensure his needs are catered for.’
They nodded and gestured towards another recessed door in the gloom of the hall. Karl collected my boots, socks and haversack from the rug and I allowed myself to be led, wincing slightly at every step, up to a hallway two levels above the floor of the hall. As we proceeded I noticed that paintings were hanged at intervals in the hallway, the gap between each punctuated by another recessed doorway. Each door was framed in darkness and none had the telltale crack of light at the base indicating occupancy. The paintings were variously gradable by age according to the amount of decay to the weathered canvases. Almost all however portrayed the likeness of a man, or generations of men, of the same family. A similarity existed in each that suggested the current Count Baden was from a long line of succession stretching back some considerable distance. It became apparent also that Sebastian and Karl had some features in common with the men in the paintings.
At the far end of the curving hallway, that must have taken us to the other side of the keep by now, a door stood ajar and soft light emanated from within. I was ushered inside to find a steaming bath in the alcove of a sparely appointed bedchamber. The presence of a roaring fire and a huge bed were enough however to make me feel immediately grateful to my hosts.
The men withdrew after indicating heavy towels and a clay pot by the fire.
Before closing the door one of them, I am not sure which as I was already undressing, said, ‘The Count will see you at dinner in one hour.’
I nodded and the door closed.
7. A late dinner
Dinner was lugubrious affair. Count Johan Baden II was evidently not overused to company and, beyond platitudes apparently intended to indicate sympathy with the heirs of Sahbruck, he had little to say and seemed if anything impatient to wrap up the occasion and leave. The Countess said little and barely looked up from her plate other than when snatching glances at Morten who appeared troubled, although his appetite was not damaged. Sebastian and Karl did not share our meal but served us. In the flesh it was apparent that the Count was of the same blood as they. The wine they served was sweet and heady and Friedrich had evidently become as impatient as I at the pregnant pauses between each burst of dialogue.
‘I must say this for you Count, you keep a sensational cellar,’ he said before quaffing the remnants of his cup and holding it out to Karl for a refill.
‘I am gratified that it pleases you,’ the Count replied steadily as he meticulously cut a piece of breast from a delicious platter of slow roasted capon with fennel.
‘It came from some distance away and I doubt very much you will find the like anywhere else.’
‘I would be intrigued to know where you sourced it,’ Friedrich pursued but he was brought to a halt by the Count.
‘We receive few visitors. The road to Grevenburg is seldom trod these days. Beyond us lay the marshes. We are on the way to nowhere. What brought you here?’ He continued to eat steadily.
Each of us glanced at another for inspiration, discomforted by the sudden change of tack.
Vincent spoke up first.
‘The roads are watched by scouts and ornithopters. We had thought of making for Berlin and the court of Prince Lobkowitz but we were overtaken by events.’
‘Events?’ The Count arched a brow. For the first time his face appeared less the mask of pallid flesh it had been and his eyes shone. For the first time I took a moment to study him closely. He was tall and broad at the shoulder, a characteristic not shared by Sebastian and Karl. His clothing was rich, but faded and worn, much like the keep in which he dwelt. Now he appeared engaged his face betrayed an intelligence that was not present moments ago when he appeared bored. I found it impossible to determine his age. His face was weathered and pock-marked, his hair and beard greying but he seemed, now at least, possessed of something vital and strong. He could have been anywhere between a weathered forty and healthy seventy.
Vincent explained our last two days. The Count listened intently.
‘It is true,’ he said, ‘I am no friend of Londra. I travelled there many years ago. The people of that Isle are a sick breed, and ever have been. Even in times when they were not so rabidly twisted and paranoid they were ever a peculiar sort.’
I wondered what he meant by that.
As if reading my thoughts he looked directly at me and said, ‘Eccentric, arrogant, wrong-headed. Jingoistic they would call it at times.’ His gaze held mine for a moment, and then dropped back to his plate.
‘Nevertheless you can see that we are not equipped as a stage from which to fight a war.’
‘Do you not fear their presence on your lands?’ asked Morten.
‘Of course not,’ scoffed the Count. ‘We are well protected here, are we not my dear.’
He patted the hand of his wife who shifted uncomfortably and nodded.
‘Now I must retire. It has been a long day and I am not as young as I once was.’
He stood, nodded and led the Countess away. Before leaving the hall he turned to us and addressed us once more.
‘You are my guests. My home is yours. I strongly recommend that you do not stray far from the keep tonight, the marsh is home to strange creatures. I believe a baragoon may have made home there recently.’
With that they left.
‘What’s a baragoon?’ I said.
8. An effective defence. Brothers versus brothers.
We did a mighty job of clearing the table between us but afterwards no more wine was forthcoming and, after policing the remains of the meal, Sebastian and Karl retired also leaving us sitting by the fire. There was no talking to Morten, he was grumbling and preoccupied. Vincent and Friedrich were talking revenge and how best to serve it. I decided to take a walk to clear my head.
Outside of the keep the wind had dropped, leaving the night air heavy with moisture. It settled immediately on my face and clothes and ran into my mouth. It tasted bitter and of decay. I regretted leaving my cap in the bedchamber but felt comforted by the heavy weight of my familiar side-arm. The Webley Mark IX had stayed with me throughout my travels and fortunately I had seldom been forced to draw it. Although a thing of beauty it is not a subtle weapon and, as a demonstration of power, it could draw precisely the wrong sort of attention were I to wave it about willy-nilly. Besides, the day I met Hildebrand I was not tooled for an expedition and the six shells the revolver carried had now become two. I still carried the empty cartridges in the hope that I should find a way to reuse them but the opportunity had never arisen.
Reassured I took a heavy brass lantern from its hook by the door and picked my footsteps carefully around the wall towards the outhouses. I was wearing my faithful slippers on my feet as, caked in salve as they were, I did not wish to damage the inners of my boots. Sadly each stone and uneven rock I stepped upon aggravated my sore feet through the insubstantial rubber soles and soon the tartan was sodden with moisture.
The nature of the dense night air seemed to change as I passed through it, it took on an almost tangible consistency and I felt as if I were powering my way through it, much like an ironclad ship would cleave through a heavy brine. The analogy pleased me and gifted me the much-needed confidence to press on. Clutching my sidearm tightly I made for the outhouses, steering a course from memory as visibility was poor and deteriorating further by the second. I fancied that I glimpsed indistinct shapes slipping through eddies in the fog and heard the faint creaking of timbers and clatter of wheels on stone, and over it a wheezing sound like that of a great diseased pair of lungs struggling to suck breath from the air. My resolve was close to breaking when a lumpen silhouette loomed over me in the gloom. I choked back a cry and stood rooted in fear. The shape did not move and momentarily I realised that, though it felt to have taken an age, I had crossed the twenty or so feet from the portico and reached my destination.
The first of the buildings was an extensive set of stables, a dozen horses were adequately quartered beneath its shingles. I was greeted by nervous whinnies as I made my way down the row of stalls to the stock at the far end. An adjoining stone hut served as a tack room. It was piled high with barding of a familiar design. Pearlescent black and ochre fashioned in the likeness of scales. I turned back to the stalls. Six magnificent black horses were housed that looked to fit the finely crafted harness and tack that accompanied the heaped armour to a tee.
I hurried onward to the next building. The door was stiff but I forced it open. My lantern illuminated a veritable armoury but there was little sign of any artisan’s tools. This looked like plunder, and amongst the pillage, some old and worn, some new and fashionable, were several glistening helms and breastplates. They were of the order of the snake. The finest example was of superior craftsmanship to the others. I surmised it to have belonged to be the occupant of the richly appointed coach. Of the former occupants of the armour there was no sign. By now my nerves were ragged and I hastened back towards the keep at speed.
The hall was empty when I returned. I returned to my chamber, divested myself of my soggy slippers and gingerly pulled on my boots. After packing my haversack and donning my coat and scabbard I determined to head back to the hall and attempt to locate my companions. As I exited the bottom of the stairwell and entered the gallery I felt a familiar sensation, although I could not pinpoint in my mind from whence the physical memory originated. An ingress in the wall appeared to be the source of some invisible emanation. It struck me that the sensation was similar in some way to proximity with the ornithopter’s power source but more closely resembled that felt when in Hildebrand’s workshop. The light from the main hall penetrated only a few feet but revealed a recessed passage that I had somehow failed to notice earlier, seeing only a plain wall. Stepping gingerly into the opening I saw that it ran for a dozen or so yards before curving down into gloom. A recessed door was set into the stone halfway down on the left. Now curious as well as concerned for my travelling companions I made for it.
The door opened freely to reveal a cavernous library come study. The walls were shelved from floor to ceiling and packed tightly with volumes of all shapes, sizes and states of decay. I was drawn to a desk at the far end, illuminated by dying embers in a stone hearth. A strange apparatus of tubes and crystal defied my attempts to fathom its function but as my fingertips caressed a number of slight depressions on a smooth surface the emanation ceased. I heaved the strange construction into my haversack and returned to the dim passage.
By now my senses were becoming finely attuned to my situation. I have found many times in the past that I have an affinity for the strange and unusual, or at least my subconscious mind does, and my facility for negotiating uncommon situations belies my somewhat ordinary upbringing and civilised breeding. I determined to locate my companions and confer as to our course of action. The Count was evidently hiding a great deal and, although not a friend of the Dark Empire, may not be as philanthropic as his proffered hospitality suggested. The exposed position of the Grevenburg keep appeared by daylight to leave it acutely vulnerable yet I had a needling suspicion that an assault from without was the least of my concerns. The unnatural composition of the heavy dew hanging about the exterior of the keep reinforced this feeling.
And there I ran out of steam/mental energy/inspiration. The game went on for a long time and many sessions were spent in drunken revelry all over the multiverse, with a multitude of false-endings and tenuous restarts. Other player characters came and went before it all stuttered to a conclusion that is legendary in our circle for being a brilliantly hilarious combination of drunken GMing, destructive powergaming and ill-judged absinthe/chartreuse/benedictine accompaniments.Happy days.