A Markus Reutger Adventure
In the centre of the market an enormous bonfire blazed like a gigantic volcano belching smoke and sparks. The flames lighted up the black midwinter night and illuminated the square. Elsewhere numerous braziers placed around the periphery added their lesser lights to brighten the square. It revealed the revellers in all their carnival colours. Mixed together were performers and entertainers, jugglers and acrobats, men walking on stilts and others dancing in exotic costumes. Around each act, a group of town people clustered enjoying the spectacle. Between the groups, merchants had set up stalls to hawk their wares. Others wandered around carrying trays laden with various pies and delicacies. Their rich aroma wafted mingling with the smell of burning pinewood. The noise was terrific as the beating drums, bugles and fifes from the various performers competed with the peddlers’ cries and the roars and occasional loud applause from the crowd.
Markus stood with his companions watching a juggler go through his routine. As the various hucksters passed by, he caught the smell of hot pies and buns, or other exotic fare. In front of him the act was fast approaching its climax. He saw the fire-eater blow a large jet of red flames into the night sky.
‘And now,’ the performer announced, ‘for my final—and greatest—act, I’ll create red and blue flames at the same time.’
Many in the crowd muttered in disbelief.
‘That’s impossible,’ someone in the crowd shouted at the juggler.
Markus heard an elegantly dressed young man next to him in the crowd address someone at his side. ‘Ten crowns, he can’t do it.’
‘Done,’ the other replied.
As if in response, the performer pulled out a purse and jingled it in front of the crowd. ‘When I’m done. Reward me well, if I please you.’
The well-dressed young man stepped forward.
‘Show us, then,’ he said in a loud voice.
He opened a small bag at his waist and flipped a coin towards the showman. As it sailed through the air it sparkled brightly. The recipient caught it expertly and stuffed it in his bag.
‘Thanks, matey,’ the juggler said in a tone halfway between insolence and gratitude. Addressing himself to the crowd, he continued, ‘People of Altdorf. You are now about to see the precious secret of Calif Albara, Sultan of all Araby. High Master of Magic.’
He danced around the circle, occasionally turning cartwheels and clapping his hands. The young man looked decidedly unimpressed by this display. But the crowd roared with approval. Having performed two laps, he stopped and reached for a torch held by one of the audience. Grabbing it, he blew another large flame into the air, this time blue in colour.
‘That’s not red and blue,’ an onlooker shouted.
Another added, ‘He’s a fake.’
‘Wait!’ the showman cried. ‘That was just a warm up.’
The crowd guffawed loudly at the joke.
He reached down into a large brown leather bag that occupied the middle of the circle and pulled out what looked like a wine bottle. He gulped a draft from it. Again dancing around, he positioned himself so that the young man could plainly see him. He paused a short moment and, lifting the torch towards his lips, blew out. Twin jets of red and blue fire erupted into the night air.
The whole crowd gasped and cried in amazement. They then bellowed their approval, quickly followed by a shower of small coins. The showman ran around picking them up. This made the crowd roar the louder. At this, the young man shook his head and stomped away with his partner following closely on his heals.
Markus turned away and nudged one of his companions on the arm and whispered, ‘I’ve had enough, let’s go warm ourselves.’
The man pulled on the sleeves of two other men to attract their attention. The four of them headed towards one of the side streets.
‘Good show,’ offered one.
‘I wonder how he managed it?’ asked another.
‘Magic, undoubtedly, Johann,’ answered the first.
‘Whatever it was, it paid off,’ the third suggested sarcastically.
‘Brrr. With all this standing around I’m frozen solid,’ said the one called Johann.
‘Here have a shot of this.’ One of the men passed over a bottle.
Johann joked, ‘That’ll be the third bottle tonight.’
‘What’s one more?’ jested the other.
When it came to his turn, Markus took a long swig. He felt the brandy burn down the back of his throat. It felt good, but he knew he was drinking too much.
‘A bit quiet, aren’t we, Markus?’ asked one of the men.
Markus said nothing, his thoughts still on the spectacle.
As they moved towards the edge of the square, the crowds surrounding the various acts blocked their way. Markus could, at first, just make out a troop of clog dancers through the press of people. Then half a dozen blue and yellow uniformed gymnasts pirouetting together obstructed their progress. As a result, Markus and his companions had to detour from their intended route to get around the large group of spectators blocking their way. This brought them to a less densely packed corner of the square.
As they went around a sausage seller, Markus noticed a small crowd was silently watching three women performing a mock fight. He stopped to look.
‘Sisters of Sigmar,’ said one of Marcus’ companions in a derogatory tone. Then he added loudly for all to hear, ‘That’s all they’re good for—play-acting. They’re not real warriors.’
A sister they hadn’t spotted in the crowd rounded on them. ‘We’d make short work of the likes of you.’
The companion who had spoken earlier taunted her. ‘Not likely. You’re not fighters. Go home and make babies.’
The other joined in the fun. ‘If you don’t know how, I’ll show you.’
At the sound of the raised voices, the other sisters had stopped and come over.
‘What’s going on?’ said the eldest.
‘Marin, these…’ She paused and closely inspected Markus and his companions. ‘These grumbaki,’ she used the dwarfish term for grumblers as an insult, ‘these whiners are mocking us. They think we can’t fight.’
‘We’re no dregs,’ replied Johann, ‘We’re officers from the Engineers’ School.’
‘What behaviour!’ exclaimed another sister.
‘You’ve challenged our honour,’ Marin said. ‘Shall we settle this with a contest?’
Johann chuckled. ‘If you think you can win.’
‘Since we’ve been slighted,’ continued Marin in a calm voice, ‘we reserve the right to choose the weapons—and combatants.’
‘If you want,’ replied Johann dismissively.
Without further ado Marin paced up and down examining the four men. She stopped in front of Markus. ‘You’ll do,’ she said.
One of the men interjected mischievously, ‘Don’t make it pistols.’ The others laughed.
During the exchange Markus had a chance to look Marin over. He thought her strikingly attractive. Her dark eyes and long copper-coloured hair, tressed up into ponytails according to Sigmarite custom, framed her pale oval face. She wore a long cream-coloured habit, lined with an offsetting deep blue, in a pattern common among the sisters.
Marin turned on the men. ‘For the added insult, we’ll go two rounds. Pistols, then hand weapons.’ Hearing this the men smirked all the more.
One of them added, ‘You’ve met your match, sister.’
She turned her back on him disdainfully and gesturing to Markus led him through the crowd. As he followed her, his friends roared their approval.
‘Go for it, Markus,’ one said.
‘I’ll bet you ten crowns that Markus wins,’ the companion shouted.
‘You’re on,’ answered a man in the crowd.
Markus could now see a small table on which rested a number of weapons, including a couple of pistols. The other sisters who had followed them now pushed back the crowd nearest to one of the houses that ringed the square. One of the sisters then affixed a small wooden target to the wall. She then paced out the distance before scratching a mark on the cobblestones with a knife.
Marin spoke to him. ‘The same pistol, or will you be happy with separate weapons?’ She thrust the two guns butt first towards him. He took them in each hand and felt their weight. One was a light weapon only good at close quarters, the other the heavier and longer range type favoured by mounted pistoliers. He smiled inwardly at the ruse being attempted on him.
‘The same,’ he informed her. ‘We’ll use this one.’ He handed her the heavier piece. Then added, ‘You may fire first.’
‘If you want,’ Marin replied in a cold voice.
She took the firearm and proceeded to speedily load it. While she did so, Markus observed that more people were joining the crowd. The spectators spoke quietly among themselves. Several pointed in his general direction. He supposed that word of the contest had spread.
Marin soon finished and took up a firing position behind the line. She looked towards the mark. She raised the gun and took aim and stood for a moment immobile. Markus observed her actions casually, noting her expertise. Then she fired.
Immediately a sister went and marked the hit with a red disc. It was just outside the bullseye. Markus knew the Sigmarite had done well and it would take all his skill to better her.
Now it was his turn. He took the pistol and went to load it. He then moved into position and carefully drew on the target. As he sighted down the barrel adjusting his aim, his eyes blurred. Ulric spare me, he swore inwardly. He then cursed his companions for the amount of brandy he’d drunk during the evening.
He wiped his eyes with his sleeve before taking aim again. His arms trembled. He tried to stay rock still and gently squeezed the trigger. The gun shuddered and, for a second, he caught the acrid smell of burnt powder.
Marin and he now went to inspect the target. A sister beat them to it and was examining the result as they approached. She then noticed Markus. ‘A draw, I think,’ the sister announced. Markus looked closely at the two holes and had to admit it was impossible to tell which was closest.
‘We’ll decide it with the hand weapons,’ announced Marin. ‘We’ll fight with hammers. Best of three strikes.’
Markus was about to protest and the idea of dueling, but thought better of it. He was handed a warhammer by one of the sisters. He noted it was a training weapon with a head, not of iron but shaped from leather and stuffed to give it shape. Although he had heard of them, this was the first time he had held one. He tried it for weight and swing. He thought it a bit light and unlikely to inflict much damage. He wasn’t going to hurt her much then.
‘When you’re ready,’ came Marin’s voice behind him.
Markus turned and saw the sister ready for combat. She stood in the characteristic pose of a hammerer, legs apart, one foot forward, hands raised gripping the shaft of the weapon ready to deliver a devastating downward blow. Looking at her, he recognised a skilled practitioner.
Taking his time, he positioned himself opposite her.
‘En garde,’ he finally declared.
‘Vaah,’ Marin countered and immediately rushed forward, swinging her hammer at him as she did so.
Taken aback by the suddenness of her attack, Markus barely managed to dodge the blow. She immediately danced away and resumed her position ready to strike again.
Markus, now somewhat wary of her abilities, hoisted his weapon and, determined to make a quick end of it, advanced. As he got within reach, he swung a heavy blow at his victim. But she easily sidestepped and counter thrust with a low horizontal swipe at his thigh. Markus, caught off balance, was unable to avoid the hit.
‘First strike,’ Marin cried exuberantly. The crowd roared out in approval.
Markus was in pain. Although only a practice weapon, the blow hurt like hell. He knew it had also severely bruised him. Limping somewhat from the stroke, he repositioned his hands on the shaft to get a better grip, and once more faced the sister.
She immediately rushed forward, at the same time swinging the hammer as if to strike at his head. Markus, now knowing something of her fighting style, knew this was a feint. Instead of reacting predictably, he thrust his hammer forward, as if a pike. Marin, taken off guard, just managed to avoid his blow by leaping over him.
Markus quickly turned to face his opponent. He was only just in time as the sister had already turned and started another attack. Markus, on the defensive, dodged—but not quickly enough. He felt a glancing blow on his right shoulder as he swerved away.
‘Second strike,’ Marin gloated.
‘Come on Markus,’ cried Johann from his place in the crowd.
Taking no chances, he hefted the weapon and methodically advanced towards the sister. She danced back out of his range until she was nearly in the crowd. Seeing his strategy, she tried a trick to make him think she was attacking him and then tried to sneak past. Markus had anticipated this and was just able to place a glancing blow on her left arm as she passed.
‘One to me,’ he announced.
‘Best of three,’ she snapped back.
Emboldened by his success Markus now tried to repeat the tactic that had served him well. Marin seeing what he intended now reacted by launching a furious assault, her hammer aimed to deliver a devastating blow to his head. Markus countered and the two weapons jarred together. He now found himself in bodily contact with his opponent as they wrestled to strike each other. He found the experience of hand to hand combat with the woman unsettling.
‘Huh-hah,’ he cried as he pushed her away from him. Marin fell back losing her balance. Seeing an opportunity to equalise, Markus rushed forward to strike.
Like lightning, Marin jumped to her feet and was ready to defend herself.
Amazed at her speed, Markus misjudged his move.
Seeing an opening, Marin immediately struck out.
Ill positioned from his attack, Markus was knocked off balance and he fell, sprawling headlong onto the cobblestones, the hammer skidding out of his grasp.
‘Third strike! Match’s mine,’ Marin exclaimed loudly for all to hear. She immediately did a victory run in front of the crowd before returning to look down at Markus. ‘You’re lucky we were just play acting,’ she advised in a condescending tone. Then she turned and, signalling to the other sisters, led them away through the crowd and out of the square.
Markus, now on his feet, watched them go with mixed feelings.
The orderly called out, ‘Lieutenant Reutger.’
‘Over here,’ Markus replied, waving at the youth.
‘Colonel Habich wants to see you in his room, sir. He said it was most urgent.’
‘Guess, I’ll just have to bow out,’ Markus told his companions. He threw down his cards and stood up. ‘I’ll be back soon enough to finish the game.’
He followed the orderly out of the mess and across the courtyard and through an arch. Crossing a second yard, they entered a door that gave on to a spiral staircase. At its top it led into a long narrow corridor with a solid-looking wooden door at the far end. A guard stood outside. The orderly rapped on it loudly.
‘Come in,’ shouted a voice from the other side. The youth opened the door and ushered Markus in, before leaving and closing it with a slam behind him.
‘Ah, Reutger,’ said Habich, ‘you’re here.’ As Markus entered, the colonel got up from behind the large desk at which he had been writing. Markus noted the scar on Habich’s face pulsed red. He knew it meant the colonel was in a bad mood. Habich gestured at the occupant of a seat partially hidden by the door. ‘This is Dalton.’ He then pointed at a chair. ‘Sit down.’
Markus did as commanded. Habich remained standing. Dalton didn’t move. Markus looked her over. She was a sister of Sigmar. From her habit, he took her to be a superior. He wondered idly what business she had with Habich.
The colonel continued, ‘Dalton here is an emissary from the Sisters. There’s been a bit of an incident.’ He turned to the sister. ‘It’s settled then. We’ve issued an arrest warrant for Reigemar. He won’t get far.’
‘Thank you, colonel,’ she answered. ‘I knew I could depend on your co-operation.’
Habich led her to the door. As she went out, he added, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll also find your precious bitch…’ Markus failed to hear Dalton’s response, if she made one, as Habich quickly closed the door and returned to his desk.
The colonel sat and examined the papers in front of him drawing out the silence. Eventually he looked at Markus. ‘You know Reigemar, don’t you?’
‘I know Johann Reigemar well. We often spend off-duty time together,’ Markus answered. ‘What’s happened?’
‘Seems he has seduced and run off with one of their sisters. A senior to boot. They want us to get her back,’ Habich explained. Then he added darkly, ‘And punish the culprit. But Reigemar got wind we were after him—and he’s vanished, with the woman.’
‘Unlike Johann,’ proffered Markus, ‘he’s usually only interested in money.’
‘Well, he won’t get far,’ Habich went on. ‘But this affair complicates things. He was due to take an urgent shipment of gold to Miragliano.’ He glared at Markus before continuing. ‘We’ve borrowed money there to pay for mercenaries and we’ve fallen behind on repayments.’ He shuffled some papers on his desk. ‘This is where you come in. It’s essential we get it there as quickly as possible. Reigemar was going to take it. Now he’s…’ Habich paused, as if lost for words. Then added in a calm voice, ‘I need someone to undertake Reigemar’s mission.’ He pointed his finger at Markus. ‘So I’m ordering you to take the shipment and deliver it to our bankers.’
‘It’ll take months at this time of year,’ Markus said. ‘Winter’s hardly over and the roads will be impassable.’
Habich roared. ‘Roads, bah. You’ll go by ship. There’s a cruiser, the Lion of Nuln, ready to sail at Reiksport. You’re to join her immediately. It’ll leave as soon as you‘re on board.’
Markus gulped inwardly as he took in the implications of his assignment. As a landlubber, he wasn’t particularly happy at the idea of a major sea voyage. He looked at the stern expression on Habich’s face. He saw the scar on his face had gone a vivid purple. There was no arguing with the colonel. Markus knew he had to go.
He simply agreed, ‘Yes, sir. I’ll leave immediately.’
‘Here are your orders.’ Habich passed him a sealed document. He then waved his hand to dismiss him.
Markus saluted, turned and quickly left the colonel’s office.
As Markus walked down the corridor he reflected bitterly on the unkind fate that would take him away from Altdorf for several months. And by ship. He wondered whether he was angrier with Johann for landing him the mission or Haubich for sending him.
‘Khaine take them both,’ he muttered in a bitter voice at the bare walls.
Markus stood at the foot of the gangplank of the Lion of Nuln. He hesitated. He looked around at the waterfront. Markus sighed inwardly at the thought it would be a long time before he stepped on imperial ground again. He gazed longingly at the workshops, inns and merchants’ emporia that lined the quay. Then he looked at the harbour and the mass of ships’ masts that sprouted from the many vessels at anchor. They reminded him of the forests of his homeland in winter. He then gazed up at the tall masts of the Lion looming above him as if seeking some reassurance. But he could make no sense of the arrangement of shrouds, cables and tackles, and the various spars and crosspieces. Unhappy with what he saw, he slowly climbed up the gangplank.
An officer was waiting on deck.
He introduced himself. ‘Lieutenant Reutger, reporting on board.’
‘We’ve been expecting you,’ replied the duty officer, He bellowed towards the poop deck, ‘Pass word to the captain, the lieutenant’s on board.’
A voice shouted back, ‘Prepare to sail.’
A bell rang out several times.
Crewmen immediately sprang into action. Some climbed the rigging, others began to turn the capstan.
Markus stood and watched the proceedings. Although it appeared chaotic, he sensed that the crew was working to a well-rehearsed pattern.
‘Remove the gangplank,’ the officer yelled to the longshoremen.
It was immediately withdrawn and the opening, through which Markus had just passed, closed behind him with a thud. Markus felt a lump in his throat. Now there was no going back.
‘Belay the moorings,’ the officer roared.
Seamen unhooked the large tar-covered cables that snaked around solid upright posts set into the deck. Immediately, the great vessel began to drift away from the dockside on the current.
Markus now looked around the deck. He was surprised to see a crowd of what seemed to be civilians emerging from the forward hold.
‘Who are they?’ he asked the harassed officer.
‘Tileans and their families heading home after being discharged,’ the officer replied, in a tone that made it obvious he was not interested in the passengers.
Markus looked at the crowd realising they would be his companions on the journey to Miragliano. As he did so, he saw a man who looked familiar.
‘Johann,’ he called, ‘is that you?’
The man looked surprised and turned away.
‘Reigemar,’ Markus called out again. ‘It’s Markus.’ He stepped forward.
As if this was a cue, the man threw off the cloak he was wearing and dashed to the side. Without pausing he dived into the river. Markus ran to the side to see Johann strike out for the shore.
At that moment, a voice boomed from the bridge, ‘Make sail.’
Markus looked up to see the large canvas topgallants being unfurled. Within instants, the wind caught and Markus felt the ship lurch as it picked up speed.
Markus turned and shouted at the officer. ‘There’s a man overboard.’
The officer quickly joined him and looked down at Johann.
The ship was now about a hundred yards from the swimmer and gaining speed all the time. Johann, if it was indeed he, was now closer to the shore than the ship.
‘He’ll be all right,’ the officer said. Then added mischievously, ‘Probably couldn’t stand the idea of being stuck on board for the next couple of months with some old hag.’
Markus could sympathise, as he wasn’t sure he would last out the voyage either. Nevertheless, he was greatly puzzled by Johann’s behaviour. He surely knew that Markus would not betray him. He gazed for a moment at the retreating head bobbing up and down in the water.
As he turned away, he caught the eye of one of the Tilean women. Their gazes met for a moment before she gave him a haughty look and turned away. Markus felt somehow that he knew her, but couldn’t think when he might have met her.
He took one last look at the bobbing form of Johann, now close to the shore, before heading for his cabin.
Something woke him. The cabin was pitch black. He didn’t move. There it was again. A slight rustling sound that didn’t belong. He listened attentively to the sounds of the ship: the creaking of the timbers and gentle rushing of the river as the ship ploughed down the Reik. He couldn’t detect anything amiss. Then it came again, a soft shuffling. He turned his head slowly to look around. He couldn’t see anything but felt sure there was someone in the cabin.
He listened for a few seconds to determine the intruder's position. At the same time, he tensed himself to strike. When he was reasonably sure where the invader was in the cabin, in one swift movement he leaped from the bed and lunged at the trespasser.
They both went sprawling into a corner.
Markus tried to get a bear hug on his assailant. As he did so, he was disconcerted to realise it was a woman. The two grappled for a moment until Markus’ greater strength prevailed. He pinned the intruder to a bulkhead. The woman ceased struggling.
‘What are you doing here?’ he demanded. He let his anger enter his voice.
She said nothing.
He nudged her to show he was in control. ‘I’ll ask you that one more time.’ He felt her relax.
Suddenly she kicked out. A tearing pain shot up his leg and he collapsed. Surprised, he let go of her.
‘Ha,’ she cried.
The woman hit him again.
Markus groaned in agony.
Then she rushed out of the cabin, slamming the door behind her.
Markus lay where he was until the pain eased off. Then he levered himself back into his bunk.
When he felt better, he found the flint and lit the lantern. He then minutely examined everything in his cabin. Nothing was missing. He’d clearly disturbed her before she found what she wanted.
He made sure the door was well secured before blowing out the light. He lay a long time in his bunk mulling over the meaning of the night’s events. He was sure the woman was after the gold. This worried him. He wondered whether he should inform the captain, but decided against it. He wouldn’t be able to recognise her. But with a thief on board he would have to be more careful in future.
In the dark, Markus was finding it difficult to work his way on deck. Feeling his way as best he could he sought for the door. The ship shuddered violently and the unexpected lurch threw him against the corridor bulkhead. Picking himself up, he felt for the door and unlatched it. The wind swung it open violently. It banged loudly against a support. Holding on with one hand he eased himself out on deck and pulled the door shut behind him.
Once in the open he now felt the full force of the storm. The wind howled frightfully like a banshee. Driving rain immediately soaked him. He tried to get his bearings. Then the ship ploughed into a wave and a wall of water swept along the deck towards him.
As it struck, Markus grabbed at one of the stanchions. He held on frantically as he was submerged, and then the wave was past.
For a while, he didn’t dare move and stayed clasped to the support. As his eyes adjusted to the blackness, he could now just make out above him the shapes of the masts, a deeper black against the storm clouds, swinging wildly as the ship bucked about.
Then another wave struck. Water engulfed him again.
When it receded, he tasted salt on his lips. He knew he needed to either get to the poop deck or return below.
Unwilling to retreat, he carefully worked his way towards the steps. Several times, he had to endure being swamped by huge waves that broke over the ship. Ignorant as he was of life at sea, even he recognised the perilous situation the ship was now in. For the best part of four weeks since their departure the journey had been uneventful. The only incident had been the female intruder in his cabin on the first night. But she had not returned. And now, for two days this storm out of hell.
Then a flash of lightning illuminated the sky. Markus caught a glimpse of the ship and the tyrannous waves that moved towards them like the walls of a fortress. He now had his bearings and quickly dashed for the steps before the next wave hit. Pulling himself up with both hands he reached the relative safety of the poop deck. As he did so, he was showered once again as if to remind him the ocean held a grudge against him.
Still holding tight to a line across the deck, he made his way to the captain and the three helmsmen battling to control the wheel.
‘Can’t we put into port?’ he shouted at the commander. ‘You told me we’re near Estalia. They’re friendly to the Empire.’
The captain shook his head and shouted back, ‘We’ve got to run with the storm.’
Markus was about to question him again when a massive wave hit them. The ship sank beneath the mountain of water. He clung on as water surged over him.
A voice shouted, ‘The rudder’s snapped.’
‘Look out!’ another voice yelled.
Markus heard a loud cracking noise. He turned and saw the mainmast jerk violently. Around its base, it splintered and then it buckled. Ropes snapped and flayed around. Bits of yardarm, shrouds and rigging fell crashing to the deck. Then the mast slowly toppled over the starboard side to lie half in the water. Parts of the rigging remained dangling, swaying dangerously in mid-air. The other masts, although looking badly damaged, still remained standing.
‘We’ve got to cut it lose,’ the captain yelled above the howl of the wind.
Then the ship lurched violently and tilted to starboard. It began to turn so as to come broadside to the waves. The sailors abandoned the helm and immediately rushed to grab an axe from a rack near the steps before disappearing down to the main deck.
After watching them go, Markus realised he should help so he also grabbed an axe and followed them. As he slid down the dripping steps he cursed his own foolhardiness. The main deck was a mass of fallen timbers, sails and rigging.
‘Cut away everything that’s attached to the ship.’ It was the captain.
Markus made a sign that he had understood and began to chop away at any cables that appeared to be still connected to the ship. As he did so, he saw the next wave towering over the forecastle. He grabbed at some of the rigging to secure himself. In seconds he was knocked flat by the wave as it sped across the deck. He found himself being carried along by the force of the water. Immediately, he was crushed against a bulkhead. Then the water eddied away and he was able to stand up again.
The wave had shifted the fallen rigging against the stanchions of the poop deck. Markus quickly got back to hacking away at the ropes. So intent was he on cutting away that he failed to notice the next wave until it struck him. Caught unprepared, he desperately grabbed at a spar just as he was swept off his feet.
The next thing he knew he was in the water holding onto the yardarm. Nearby he could just make out the bulk of the Lion of Nuln as it dipped into the trough of the wave he was riding on.
‘Help,’ he shouted at the retreating ship, but the fierce wind whipped away his words. He shuddered despairingly. He knew he was lost.
Markus lay where he had crawled up onto the beach. He felt the rough, gritty sand on his face. The sun shone in his eyes. He tried to open them, but it was too bright. He felt desperately tired. His throat was raw from swallowing seawater. He had a raging thirst. He didn’t know how long he lay unable to move. Maybe he slept. Then he was shaken violently. ‘Uggh,’ he mumbled.
A shadow blocked off the sun. ‘You’re alive,’ said a woman’s voice.
Markus peered up through screwed up eyes. The woman stood looking at him. He noticed she held a war hammer in one hand. Dimly it triggered memories of the last midwinter festival in Altdorf. He thought he was imagining things.
‘Water,’ he croaked.
‘There’s a pool not far from here. Here, I’ll help you.’ She knelt down and pulled him to his knees. Markus now recognised the woman he’d seen on first joining the ship.
‘You!’ he wheezed.
‘Come on, it’s not far.’
She got him to stand up and with her support he was able to stagger along. She guided him towards the cliffs that stood a little distance back from the shore. At their base a small natural pool was fed by a trickle of water that dripped down from the rocks. Scooping up some water in her hand, she wet his face. Markus sank to his hands and knees and buried his face in the water.
When he had finished he sat for a long time with his back to the rocks, looking out at the seascape and saying nothing. Apart from the cliff stretching away in both directions, there was only beach and rocks.
‘Where are the others?’ he eventually asked.
‘You’re the first,’ she replied. ‘By the way, the name’s Marin.’
On hearing her give her name, the pieces of the puzzle fell into place. ‘You’re a sister. We sparred at the midwinter festival. In the square. You bested me at the hammer.’
‘And you beat me at the butts,’ she replied modestly.
‘I thought it was a draw.’
‘Sister Francis measured it later. You were very slightly closer.’
‘Then we’re evens. I’m Markus Reutger.’
‘Oh I know.’ She laughed. ‘You very nearly beat me with the hammer.’ At this she raised her weapon in a salute.
‘If I remember correctly, you got three hits to my one.’
‘I was lucky.’
‘I was drunk.’
They both laughed at this. Feeling somewhat better, Markus got up.
‘Where’s the ship?’
‘It’s around the headland.’ She pointed along the coast. ‘It’s stuck on some rocks.’
‘You’ve no idea what became of the other survivors?’
‘No,’ she replied. ‘I was knocked out when the ship hit the rocks. When I came to, I shouted out. No one answered. I tried to find my way out. Then I found a huge hole in the hold. I escaped through it and came ashore.’
‘We’d better take a look at the ship.’
‘What’s the point? It’s a wreck.’
He held up a torn piece of jersey. His clothes had been ripped to shreds as a result of his night as a castaway in the sea holding on to the yardarm. ‘New clothes for one. But we’ll also want food and supplies. And weapons.’
‘We’d best be doing it soon. It won’t be long before sundown,’ she said.
Marin lead the way. They set off together around the headland. As they climbed along the seashore Markus took a good look at their surroundings. The shoreline was made up of alternating sandy beaches and rocky outcrops. A little inland a tall sandstone cliff acted as a natural seawall. At intervals along its length the rock had been eroded away to form natural gullies. Apart from seaweed, there was no evidence of vegetation. It was a savage place.
They hadn’t gone far when Markus spotted the Lion of Nuln. Its dark colour contrasted with the yellowish-white of the rocks and the bright blue sea. As Marin had told him, it had come to rest on a reef someway out to sea. He could see it was obviously badly damaged. There wasn’t much left of the masts or rigging. He was amazed it had managed to stay afloat.
When they had arrived opposite the wreck, Markus stopped and stripped off the remains of his shirt. He started to wade into the water. When he was up to his middle he turned to see Marin hesitating. ‘Aren’t you coming?’ he asked.
‘I can’t swim.’
‘How did you get ashore then?’
‘I used a barrel to support me.’
‘We’ll do the same again,’ Markus suggested to encourage her. He waded through the water until he reached the barrel that was bobbing up and down gently on the swell. ‘I’ll be with you, so you’ll be all right,’ he said to reassure her.
She smiled and, placing her hammer on a nearby rock, waded in to join him.
They splashed out to the wreck. Markus examined a hole he’d spotted. It would be a difficult passage. ‘Did you escape through that?’ he asked her.
‘No, the one I used is around the other side.’
Markus splashed towards the steps set in the ship’s side. ‘We’ll climb on deck.’
He let her climb up first. He then followed behind her.
When she reached the deck, she cried out in alarm. ‘Oh!’
‘What is it?’ he shouted. He scrambled up onto the deck to join her. A quick glance told him. Several bloody and dismembered corpses lay scattered about the deck. The bodies had been ripped apart and severely mutilated. Many of the victims’ skulls and even bones had been smashed open. Dark red blotches of congealed blood coated much of the deck. He placed his hands protectively around her shoulders.
‘What happened?’ Marin whispered at last.
‘I don’t know,’ replied Markus trying to keep his voice calm, ‘but it explains why you didn’t find any survivors. Look over there.’ He pointed at the hatchway leading to the lower deck. It had been wrenched off its hinges and shattered. The surrounds of the hatch had been heavily gouged as if attacked by a demented woodcutter. ‘Do you want to go back?’
‘No, I’ll be fine. I’d rather be with you.’
‘Come. What we want is below deck.’
Taking her hand and avoiding the worst of the gore, Markus led her below. Descending, Markus noted the lower deck hadn’t been ravaged. They saw no further bodies. Whatever had attacked the crew hadn’t managed to penetrate into the cabins and Markus breathed easier realising they were momentarily safe.
‘Food first,’ he told her.
The galley was a mess, but the larder held ship’s biscuits and tack. They both ate ravenously. Markus found a bottle of rum and they both took a long swig. Then together they collected all the unspoilt food into bags.
He then led Marin along the corridor to his cabin.
‘I’ll collect my possessions. We’ve also got to find food,’ he told her as he prised open the door. Inside all his belongings had been scattered about.
‘It’s easier to find things now,’ said Marin.
‘You were my mystery thief!’ Markus exclaimed. ‘What were you trying to steal?’
‘I was looking for the gold.’
He gave her a sharp look. ‘How did you know about that?’
‘Johann told me.’
‘I should have guessed,’ he replied in bitter tones.
He started to collect together his clothes and the other possessions he might need. He examined his repeater pistol before stuffing it in a bag.
After a while he asked her, ‘What’s between you and Johann?’
Marin laughed lightly. ‘Johann and I grew up together in Nuln. We used to be really close. Did all those childhood things together. You know, fought dragons and ogres, stole apples.’ Markus nodded. ‘But as we grew up we drifted apart. His family moved to Altdorf. I hadn’t seen him in years. When I was posted to Altdorf, I ran into him in the street. We sort of got together again.’
‘Why did you run off together?’
‘We were surprised in the convent by the mother superior one night. Johann panicked and knocked her out. Fearful of the consequences we both fled. That was when he told me about the gold shipment. He had the idea that we should steal it and start a new life in Tilea. We disguised ourselves and took passage on the Lion. He didn’t reckon on your being sent to take his place.’
‘So he panicked when he saw me come on board.’
‘Exactly,’ she looked downcast. ‘He abandoned me. I thought he had double-crossed me and had hidden the gold in Altdorf. So that night I came into your cabin to see if the gold was still on board. I wasn’t planning to steal it.’
‘I see,’ said Markus. He didn’t speak for a while, then asked, ‘Do you love him?’
‘In a brotherly sort of way,’ she informed him somewhat grudgingly as if trying to justify her earlier actions.
Disguising his confusion, he said, ‘I’ve got everything I need here. Let’s go and find the supplies.’
He led her downwards into the hold. As Marin had indicated, the main hold was half filled with water. A number of barrels and boxes floated about.
Markus had an idea. ‘We’ll lash the barrels together to make a raft. See if you can find some rope.’
Marin scrabbled around the sacks and cases until she found a coil of thick cord. ‘Will this do?’
‘that’ll do the job,’ he said. ‘You make the raft. You’ll be all right here. There’re still a few things we need to get from the cabins.’
‘Be careful,’ she said. She gave him a thoughtful look.
He grinned. ‘I won’t be long.’
Markus then retraced the way they’d come. He looked in all the cabins until he found the blankets, flints and other items he wanted. He then returned to the hold with his loot.
In his absence Marin had made considerable progress in lashing a number of barrels together into a makeshift raft.
‘Good work,’ he told her as he put down his burden.
Without stopping to think he gave her a hug.
Sensing he had done wrong he stepped back. ‘Sorry,’ he mumbled.
He turned and quickly scrambled back towards the steps to the upper decks.
Marin called out. ‘Markus.’ He stopped and turned to look at her. ‘It’s alright,’ she said then smiled. Then added a parting, ‘Thank you,’ as he vanished up the steps.
As he made his way once again to the stern of the ship, Markus knew there was one more thing to find. He went to the captain’s cabin. The door stood ajar. Inside everything had been flung about. He first searched the gun locker. In it he found two heavy pistols, a powder horn and a bag of shot.
He then went to the bunk. Heaving away the mattress, he pulled off the boards to reveal a strongbox. Looking about as if he might be watched, he turned the combination lock. He then opened the chest and pulled out the first of three large leather bags. He carried them one by one down to a point near the steps leading down to the hold.
When he had fetched all three, taking one of the bags with him, he descended to the hold to seek out Marin. She turned as he entered. He was pleased to see she had finished tying up the barrels and had started to load their salvage onto their makeshift craft. Suddenly, there was a loud groaning of timbers and the ship lurched alarmingly. Markus had to steady himself to avoid falling over.
‘We’d better go,’ Marin suggested in a worried voice.
‘There’s one more thing we’ve got to take.’ He held up the bag he carried. Then he carefully placed it into one of the barrels together with the pistols, powder and shot and started back. He then repeated the exercise two more times.
As he placed the last bag onto the raft, the ship shuddered and groaned again. Markus then said, ‘I think we’d better be off. Let’s finish loading and go.’
‘Let’s,’ Marin replied in an eager voice. She helped him stow the remainder of their gear on the makeshift vessel.
‘You get on,’ he told her. He held the raft steady as she climbed on board. It sank down alarmingly. ‘Here take this.’ He then handed her a halberd he’d found earlier. ‘You can use it to paddle. I’ll push.’
He propelled the makeshift vessel towards the open sea.
Once away from the ship, Markus relaxed a bit as he steered towards the shore. The raft ran aground a short distance from the beach. Markus now stood waist deep in water. ‘This is as far as we go. You’ll have to get wet,’ he told her.
‘Or you could carry me,’ she replied.
In response, he picked her up in his arms and carried her to the beach. When he got there he put her down gently. In some inexplicable way her request had opened the door into an unknown chamber of his soul. She clung to him a second before breaking away. He watched her briefly as she strode away along the beach to fetch her hammer before turning to the job of unloading the raft.
As he worked, he examined the coastline. He wondered whether all of Estalia was as barren as the spot they’d washed up on. Then Marin returned.
‘There’s a cleft in the cliff where part of it has come away.’ He pointed it out to her. ‘We can use it to shelter tonight.’
‘I’ll start moving our supplies,’ she answered.
Picking up the blankets and waterbags, she headed for the cliff. Markus continued the task of unloading but left the bags until last. He was unloading these when she returned.
‘Will it do?’ he asked.
‘It’ll give us some protection.’ He grunted as he staggered ashore with the third bag. She gave him a quizzical glance.
He explained. ‘The emperor’s gold.’
‘Planning a new life in luxury are we, Markus Reutger?’
‘My mission’s not finished until I deliver it to Miragliano.’
‘Plan to carry it there?’ she asked. There was a playful tinkle to her words.
Markus grinned. ‘No.’ Then he went on more sombrely. ‘But people will cut throats for less.’
‘Then why didn’t you just leave it on the ship?’
‘I planned to, at first. But you saw someone attacked the ship. Perhaps they know about the gold. For the moment, I’ll hide it around here.’ Markus gestured at the shoreline.
‘You’d better hurry,’ Marin said, ‘it’ll be dark soon.’
Indeed, the day seemed nearly over. The sun had already turned orange and cast long shadows on the ground as it sped towards the horizon.
Realising that night would fall soon, they both grabbed a load of salvage and set out for the cleft. It was nearly dark when they had finished moving everything to the shelter. The collapsed cliff had created a cave. Whilst quite sizeable at the entrance it rapidly contracted into a narrow fissure.
‘It’ll do us,’ said Markus once he’d inspected the interior.
‘I’ll start a fire. You collect some driftwood,’ volunteered Marin.
‘Best not,’ Markus replied. ‘I don’t want to advertise our presence until we know more about the people around here.’
After more ship’s biscuit and tack for supper washed down with the remainder of the brandy, they settled down in the blankets that Markus had liberated from the ship.
Tired out, as he was Markus was soon asleep.
Markus was suddenly alert. The loud animal cry that had woken him repeated itself in the distance. He scrambled to his feet and went to the mouth of the cave. It was a clear, starlit night.
Suddenly something caught his eye. A shape flew through the night. Where it passed it blocked off the stars. He could make out the vague contours of a winged creature. In the dark it was impossible to make out properly. He thought it had bat wings. Merely a bat out hunting, he decided. But nevertheless something bothered him about the shade. Then it disappeared from sight in the general direction of the wreck.
The apparition troubled him and he lay awake wondering what it was. As he did so, Marin’s hand sought his. They remained thus, until sleep overcame him again.
He woke at daybreak. The weather had turned. A strong wind had brought dark clouds, together with a light spitting rain. The sea had turned rough again and large whitecaps rolled landwards. There was a roar from the surf as it pounded the shore. Wrapped as he was in warm blankets, he was reluctant to get up.
He looked at Marin. Seeing she was sitting up awake, he said, ‘We’ve got to decide what to do.’
‘We’ll have breakfast first and then decide,’ she suggested.
She busied herself with preparing dumplings from the food they’d salvaged from the ship. Markus propped himself on an elbow and watched her. He liked the methodical way she went about her task.
‘It’s ready,’ she eventually called.
They both attacked the food hungrily.
‘I’ll see to the gold,’ he told her after he had finished eating. ‘I’ll be happier once it is hidden away.’
From out to sea came a loud groaning noise.
‘What’s that?’ asked Marin anxiously.
‘It’s the ship. Look!’ The Lion of Nuln, battered by the waves and wind, was shifting.
‘Damn. I had planned to go back later,’ said Markus.
They watched the ship break up and sink. Within a few minutes only the prow stood up out of the water. The golden figurehead now attempted to leap up out of the sea at the racing clouds.
Marin asked, ‘What now?’
‘This is Estalia. We’ll find some local inhabitants. They’re friendly towards the Empire.’
‘Do you think we’ll have to go far?’
‘This coast doesn’t look very hospitable,’ he said. ‘We’ve probably got quite a journey ahead.’ He surveyed the angry sea before continuing. ‘I don’t much like the idea of travelling in this weather. We’ll rest up today and start out tomorrow.’
‘I’ll be pleased to be away from here.’
‘Right now there’s something I must do.’
Markus retired to a dry spot at the back of the cave with the weapons he’d taken off the ship. First he carefully checked out and loaded the two pistols. Then he struggled with the mechanism on his repeater pistol, but was unable to get the firing mechanism to work. Eventually he gave up and threw the useless weapon in his bag.
He passed one of the pistols to Marin. ‘Here, you’d better have one of these.’
‘You keep them Markus. You need them more than I do.’
‘I’ve got my sword and the halberd,’ he countered.
‘I’ve got my faithful hammer. That’s all I need.’
‘As you wish.’ He got up sticking the two heavy pistols in his belt. ‘I’d better see to the gold.’ With that he set off for the shoreline.
The rest of the day passed quickly. Hiding the gold took Markus longer than he anticipated. By the time he’d finished, the storm had passed and the sun had returned. Hot and tired from his work, he was glad to rest up. Marin and he spent the afternoon lazing about and talking.
‘Reikland is wonderful,’ he told her, ‘a land of flowing rivers and endless forest. At this time of year, it’s full of spring flowers.’
‘In Nuln, where I grew up we’d be celebrating the spring festival. They’d be dancing in the streets,’ Marin countered. ‘It’s far more fun than your dark forests, country boy.’
Markus smiled. ‘A country boy, maybe. But I know what I know. You take me to the carnival at Nuln and I’ll show you the Reikwald.’
Her eyes sparkled. ‘It’s a deal.’
After they had talked, they enjoyed an early evening meal as they watched the sun go down. As the dark gathered around them, they settled down for the night.
Markus found it hard to fall asleep. He turned restlessly.
‘Markus,’ came a whisper, ‘you awake?’
‘Uh huh,’ he mumbled.
She reached out a hand to his and gently tugged. He moved next to her. They lay thus unmoving for a few minutes.
‘Do you think I’m beautiful?’ Marin eventually asked.
‘Yes,’ he answered very softly. Then he kissed her.
After that the night didn’t seem so lonely.
Markus woke as if from a dream. The sun was already high in the sky. He reached for Marin but she wasn’t there. He called her name.
She appeared from around the entrance to their shelter.
‘There you are sleepy bones,’ she called out. There was humour in her words. ‘I thought you’d never wake up. Weren’t we supposed to set out today?’
‘Yeah,’ he replied. ‘Just as soon as we’re ready.’
‘Well, I’m ready.’
Indeed Markus noted that Marin was dressed. She had even tressed her hair in the style favoured by the sisters.
‘After breakfast, anyway,’ she added, then grinned.
‘Good idea,’ Markus agreed realising how hungry he felt.
He watched her skilfully start a fire using driftwood she must have collected earlier. Then she boiled up porridge. They sat together as they ate.
After they had finished, Markus said, ‘I’ll go and fill the waterskins. This country’s so bleak there’s no knowing when we might find water again.’
He dressed, making sure to strap on his sword and brace of handguns, picked up the skins and stepped forth.
As he strode away over the rocks towards the spring, Marin shouted at him, ‘While you do that, I’ll sort out the bundles.’
He turned and waved an acknowledgement before continuing.
His task didn’t take him long. He had just started back when a loud roar from the direction of the shelter startled him. All of a sudden he felt a shiver of icy cold fear run up his backbone. For a second, he remained motionless undecided as to what to do.
Then up ahead, Marin cried out.
This decided him. Heedless of the danger of hurting himself he rushed towards her. He shouted as he bounded from rock to rock.
‘Hold on, Marin, I’m coming.’
Then he saw it.
Shocked, he stopped to stare, paralysed by what was in front of him. It was like nothing Markus had ever envisaged in his worst nightmares. At the entrance to the cleft, a large winged lion-like beast with a long insect tail was attacking Marin.
Positioned at the entrance to the cave, she was swinging her hammer in order to keep the monster at bay.
Frustrated, the animal roared again. Then it tried to swipe at her with its claws.
Marin swirled her hammer at the attacking paw.
Suddenly its long insect-like tail swung down.
‘Watch out Marin,’ Markus shouted. Waking from the unreality of the situation he unfroze and leaped forward to help her.
‘Aaaah,’ Marin screamed as the stinger in the creature’s tail stabbed her. She collapsed to the ground, dropping her hammer as she did so.
The lion-thing straddled her.
In desperation Markus pulled out one of his pistols and fired.
The startled beast glanced in his direction. It backed off and turned to face him. Then it snarled.
Slowing to a walk, Markus drew his sword and the other pistol. Fighting down the urge to run away, he advanced deliberately on the hideous creature.
As he did so, the beast slowly paced backwards.
Markus raised the gun to fire.
At this the animal turned and bounded away, flapping its wings to take flight.
An instinct told Markus to hold his fire. He watched the beast for a few moments, lest it turn back, as it disappeared away following the line of the coast.
Sure it had gone he rushed over to Marin.
She was conscious. She smiled when she saw him.
‘Markus,’ she whispered hoarsely, ‘it stung me.’
Markus could see a hideous puncture in her leg. Already it was swelling up.
‘It’s nothing to worry about,’ he said to reassure her.
‘It hurts so much,’ she hissed.
He looked around for something to give her to make her feel better.
He spoke brightly, ‘When we get back to Altdorf, I’ll take you to Regensbourg. From there you can see the Reikswald stretching away into the distance. You’ll love it. And then you’ll show me Nuln. Don’t forget, we’ve promised.’
‘Yes,’ Marin said, her voice barely audible. Then she added in a hoarse whisper, ‘Please hold me, Markus.’
He held her close in his arms. She felt cold.
She looked at him and tried to smile. ‘I feel so tired.’
‘Everything’s going to be just fine,’ he said.
He heard her breath rasp. She shuddered and then was still.
‘Noooo!’ he wailed.
Markus lugged the last stone into place. Then he stood up. He tried to speak the words of the prayer for the dead, but couldn’t. He picked up Marin’s hammer that was lying nearby and headed back to the encampment.
Once there he rummaged in his sack for his handgun. Then he went into the cleft’s farthest recess and sat down with his back to the wall. He remained thus for some hours as he worked on the repeater’s intricate mechanism. Eventually satisfied it would work, he loaded the six barrels. He also loaded and checked the two pistols.
Eventually Markus got up and picking up his sack placed his repeater inside before putting the strap over his shoulders. He then went out and made a fire on the beach, taking care to add damp wood so that it threw off thick grey clouds of smoke. Once it was well established, he withdrew in to the cleft.
He didn’t have to wait long.
Carried on the wind, he heard the monster’s roar at it approached. Hearing its cry sharp stabs of fear pierced his insides as he remembered the earlier encounter. Markus tried to fight down his rising panic.
To calm himself, he thought of Marin and how she had died. And the revenge he would take.
Then he saw the creature. It was gliding through the air heading in his direction. He saw the bat-like wings twinge as it soared on the thermals given off by the rocks heated by the afternoon sun.
As it approached it banked and he caught the profile of its lion-like body and the long insect tail that trailed out behind. It was indeed a vile creature of chaos. It was at least four times his size. Larger than any bear he’d ever seen in the Reikwald. As it flew, the beast’s paws trod the air.
Now that it was getting closer Markus could even make out the hideous claws on each of its feet. His gut wrenched in abject fear. Markus now regretted his plan to confront the beast.
Whimpering, he retreated further into the cave.
The animal landed a little way off and stared around suspiciously.
Markus watched it swing its head to and fro. It emitted a sense of utter malice. It looked in Markus’ direction and he felt it could see right through him. He felt his arms and legs twitch erratically. Then the creature sniffed the air. Its gaze swung once more up and down the coastline before it padded deliberately towards him.
Markus whined as it approached. He scrambled as far back as he could into the cleft to get away from the monster.
It spotted him and leapt forward. At the same time it roared.
Not knowing what he was doing, Markus pulled out one of the pistols and fired. At this, the beast howled. It also stopped advancing.
Seeing the creature stop restored some element of Markus’ sanity. He quickly pulled out the other pistol and, taking aim, fired at the beast’s head. It gave of a terrible shriek and backed off out of the cave. Markus remained where he was, watching.
He’d obviously hurt the animal as it stood there trembling, its wings furiously beating the air. It then turned this way and that, as if undecided. It swung around and looked straight at Markus.
The evil in the creature’s gaze made Markus cry out in despair. ‘Sigmar, preserve me!’
Hearing his voice, the monster snarled at him. His defiance seemed to enrage it and it leaped towards him once more.
Markus cried out in fear, ‘Ulric protect me!’
Without being totally conscious of what he was doing, he reached into his bag and pulled out his handgun. Pointing it at the monster, he pulled the trigger. Nothing happened.
‘By Sigmar,’ he entreated.
The creature roared as if in triumph and Markus got a blast of its foetid breath. He gagged.
Desperate, Markus threw the useless handgun at the monster.
It easily bated it away with a paw. Then it snarled and bared its teeth.
Seeing death approach Markus suddenly felt his panic melt away, like the sun melts the overnight frost. He knew he was doomed, but he would make the creature pay for what it had done to Marin.
His mind was now totally calm.
As if exercising, he hefted the hammer in both hands and stepped forward to give himself room to use it.
The monster eyed him and then lunged forward. Markus sidestepped and swung his weapon with all his might. He felt the hammer strike home.
The chaos beast roared in pain and retreated out of the cave.
‘Strike one,’ Markus shouted exuberantly as it backed off.
The animal stood looking at him. Its eyes blazed. From its mouth came a low rasping sound.
Markus watched it carefully. The stand off lasted over a minute. Markus knew he’d have to break the stalemate. He took a step back and bent down to pick up one of the pistols he’d dropped.
As if realising what he planned, the beast charged forward. Markus only half expecting such a reaction had to spring out of the way to avoid a swipe from its savage claws. As he did so, he slashed out with the hammer. It hit home and the creature screeched in agony.
The beast rapidly backed out of the cave again.
‘Strike two,’ Markus shouted jubilantly. He could see blood on the being’s flanks. He was glad it was hurting. As it had hurt Marin, he told himself.
A stalemate ensued. The monster tried an attack and Markus would swing the hammer. As if frightened of its effects, the lion-thing would back off. This deadly dance repeated itself several times. Then the animal seemed to pause. It stood unmoving watching Markus. He thought it was about to flee. It made as if to fly.
Thinking it was about to escape, he charged out of the cave.
In an unexpected turn of speed, the creature lunged at him. Markus realising his mistake swerved away, swinging the hammer towards the monster to frighten it. He only partly succeeded. A searing stab of pain ran up his arm as claws raked him. He almost collapsed with the shock. But an inner sense of self-preservation made him stagger on.
He found himself back up against the cliff face. The chaos beast now blocked his retreat to the relative safety of the cave. It growled viscously at him, baring its teeth as it did so.
Markus quickly examined his wound. Fortunately the claws hadn’t penetrated very deep and with some effort he was still able to use his arm. But he knew he wouldn’t be able to keep up the fight much longer. Then he spotted his repeater handgun. This gave him an idea.
He once more advanced towards the monster.
It roared in defiance and leaped.
Diving beneath its outreached claws, Markus snatched up his gun.
He quickly ran on, feeling the swish of its tail behind him as it whipped in his direction. Then he turned to face the beast once more.
It had swung around and was about to lunge again.
He quickly aimed the gun and using the sharp end of the war hammer, struck the firing mechanism. The barrel fired.
Markus wasn’t sure the bullet had struck home. He rapidly rotated the mechanism and tapped it again with the hammer. The second barrel fired.
This time through the gun smoke he saw he’d hit a hind leg.
The enraged beast now attacked him again. But the monster was obviously crippled as it could only advance with difficulty.
Markus had time to prepare his defence.
As it tried to swipe at him, he struck with the hammer with all his remaining strength. He hit the animal’s front paw. He sensed rather than saw the damage he caused.
The beast gave a hideous shriek of pain.
Markus staggered back. He watched the monster writhe in agony. It foamed at the mouth. Then it slowly retreated a few feet. It turned and, moving as best it could, beat its wings furiously to take to the air.
Markus, feeling his strength sapping from him, stood motionless and watched the monster as it tried to make its escape.
The chaos thing managed to get airborne, but Markus noted its flying was erratic. Then he realised it might get away. This galvanised him into action.
Aiming his pistol, he used the hammer to fire another barrel. The beast was now fast disappearing. Desperation seized him. Markus fumbled with the mechanism to align a loaded barrel. Then he aimed as best he could and used the hammer. The gun discharged.
He looked at the monster, now a black spot against the sky. It was soaring unevenly. Then it vanished beyond his vision behind the cliffs.
Markus ran down towards the sea to bring the beast back into sight, but it was nowhere to be seen.
He sank to his knees, muttering repeatedly half-delirious, ‘Khaine take you… Khaine take you…’
It was midmorning, three days later when Markus saw a low slung ship emerge from behind the headland. He jumped up and down and waved his good arm frantically. Then he quickly lit a fire and, to make it fume, smothered it in wet seaweed.
A thick cloud of smoke rose up into the sky.
He was pleased to see the vessel hove to and a little while later lower a small boat.
He gathered his belongings and walked down to the beach to await the boat’s arrival.
As it approached the shore he could make out the details of the crew. Four men rowed whilst the fifth, a handgun across his lap, held the tiller. The boat ran aground and two of the sailors jumped into the sea to pull it ashore. He noticed they were armed with cutlasses.
Markus waited motionless for the men to complete the operation then he walked slowly forward hands clearly visible.
As he approached, the man with the handgun cocked the weapon. He pointed it in Markus’ direction.
‘Stay there,’ the man ordered. Markus stopped. ‘Who are you?’
‘Lieutenant Reutger from Altdorf.’ Markus spoke up to be sure he was clearly heard.
Something behind Markus suddenly seemed to get the man’s attention.
Markus turned to look. Outlined against the sky a party of riders had appeared on the cliff top. He couldn’t make out any details.
The man barked an instruction. ‘Get in, we’d best be off.’
Needing no prompting, Markus ran forward and clambered into the boat to sit at the prow. The two sailors then expertly refloated the craft before jumping aboard themselves. Then they dipped the oars and began to pull back rapidly towards the ship.
As they rowed away from the shore, Markus gazed back at the coastline.
The riders hadn’t moved from their position. With nothing more to observe, he then turned his attention to the remains of the Lion of Nuln. Just the prow remained visible, washed by the swell. From seaward, the hull was hidden by the squared off forecastle. It made him think of a gravestone. And the sea will soon claim that too, he thought bitterly.
He climbed on board. On deck, he was met by one of the officers.
‘I’m Giles de Morlay, captain of the Provocateur. Out of Marrienburg. What happened to your vessel?’
‘It was wrecked in the storm,’ Markus told him.
‘Bad thing to be washed up on these shores. Only the foolhardy…or the greedy come here.’ de Morlay gave Markus a sharp look. ‘Which is it in your case?’
‘We were on our way to Tilea,’ Markus explained.
‘What was the cargo?’ Markus could detect the greed in the man’s voice.
‘We were transporting discharged mercenaries.’
‘What happened to them?’
‘I don’t know. I’m the only survivor,’ replied Markus. Announcing this he felt a deep sense of loss.
‘You’re luckier than you know. It’s a good thing we came along when we did.’ He gestured towards the cliffs. ‘The Arabians aren’t kind to foreigners. They’d have given you a slow and painful death.’
‘Then I’m going home?’ Markus couldn’t believe it.