A lieutenant Markus Reutger adventure
Narissa stepped into the inn. She peered about purposefully in the gloomy bar room. Not seeing whom she wanted she started forward. Then in a corner she spotted the Outrider slumped across the table. In front of him stood a pitcher and two goblets.
She grabbed his hair and yanked up his head.
He stared at her, a distant gaze in his eyes.
‘Hello.’ His voice slurred. ‘Nice of you to come.’
‘Markus, where’s Theorens?’ she asked.
‘He’s gone,’ came the mournful reply.
‘What do you mean, he’s gone?’
‘Gone … gone … gone.’ As he spoke, he swung his arm to indicate the room.
‘You had better tell me about it,’ she said. She caught the eye of the barman and shouted at him. ‘Bring coffee—lots of it.’
The lightening flash momentarily lit up their surroundings. The thunder, as loud as cannon fire, followed a brief moment later. Markus had a picture of the road, rutted, sodden, and little better than a quagmire, twisting ahead through the thick forest of evergreens. He also caught a glimpse of the heavy rain that had fallen continuously all day dancing in the numerous puddles.
‘Taal be damned,’ he exclaimed. He turned to his companion. ‘Should we push on or turn back?’
‘Continue, I think,’ said Theorens. ‘This road leads somewhere.’
Markus took a step forward. His foot sank into the mud up to his knee. ‘Can’t you make a light or something?’
There was a delay, then a pale blue light appeared, turning the raindrops falling around it into miniature crystals. In the downpour, the dim glow only lit the ground a few feet ahead.
‘It won’t last long,’ added Theorens helpfully.
‘I thought that was a simple trick.’
‘Simple maybe, but have you seen what I’m working with.’
Markus could now see enough to lead the two of them around the worst patches. They continued struggling along leading their horses. More flashes, followed by the inevitable thunderous retorts, provided the occasional counterpoint to the drum of the rain on their oilskins.
As they progressed, the ground began to rise slightly. It was enough to get them out of the worst of the mud.
‘See,’ said Theorens. At that moment the light went out.
‘Hold on to me,’ said Markus.
The two of them slowly plodded forward in the pitch-blackness. As they advanced, Markus felt the ground ahead to stop them stumbling into potholes and waved his arms to find any low-lying branches.
Then the rain began to slacken off and eventually stopped.
‘I’ll try the lantern.’
Markus fumbled in his knapsack for a moment. Sparks flew and then the light caught.
‘Magic,’ said Theorens. There was a cheerful underside to his tone.
‘I don’t see how you can be so jolly at a time like this,’ grumbled Markus. ‘I’m wet, cold, starved and dead beat.’
‘I thought you soldiers were used to it.’
Markus didn’t respond to his friend’s jibe.
They trudged on in silence for a while, the light picking out their way.
Then Markus began to get the uneasy feeling he was being watched. He stopped.
Theorens looked at him.
Markus raised a finger to his lips to indicate silence. He slowly panned around them with the lamp. Off to one side, the light caught a pair of eyes looking at them.
‘What is it?’ whispered Theorens.
‘I don’t know.’ Markus reached to his waist, unbuckled the holster and pulled out his handgun.
‘Don’t move,’ he told Theorens in a barely audible voice.
Lantern in one hand and gun in the other he slowly advanced towards the eyes.
The eyes watched him a moment and then disappeared. Markus caught the outline of a cat as it vanished. He laughed.
‘Where’s there’s cats, there’s homes,’ Theorens pointed out.
They laboured on with renewed confidence. Eventually they left the forest behind and the road passed on either side what Markus took to be fields. Then he though he could make out the outlines of various buildings ahead. Their route took them past the first of these.
The road ended at a village green. Markus used the lamp to get his bearings.
‘There’s a house over there that’s bigger than the rest. We’ll try that.’
It was a two-story, thatched, peasant house only noteworthy for being slightly larger than usual. The door and all the windows were shuttered.
There was a sign hanging above the front door.
‘Bullseye, Markus. It’s the inn.’
Markus beat on the door with his fist. Nothing happened. He then used the pommel of his sword.
‘They’re either dead or don’t want to answer,’ he said at last.
He pounded the door again.
Then at an upstairs window a shutter was pushed back a crack. Markus thought he could see faces peering down at him.
‘Go away,’ a voice said.
‘We want lodgings,’ Markus bellowed up at the faces. He could hear a whispered conversation going on above.
‘We haven’t got any rooms,’ said the voice.
‘This is an inn, isn’t it?’ Theorens asked in an irritated tone of voice.
‘No one’s coming in here tonight.’ The innkeeper sounded frightened.
‘Listen, be reasonable,’ said Markus. ‘We can pay.’ He jingled his purse to make his point.
‘I don’t know who you are,’ objected the voice.
‘I’m Lieutenant Markus Reutger, Engineer School Outriders and this is Theorens, my companion.’
The innkeeper peered at them from the window. Markus turned the lamp on his friend and then on himself to show he was not lying.
‘You can sleep in the barn,’ said the voice at last.
‘Hey innkeeper,’ interrupted Theorens, ‘what about a bed?’
Markus was too tired to argue.
‘The barn will do. Where is it?’
‘Around the back. Here take this.’
An object landed at Markus’ feet. He picked it up. It was a key.
‘You lock your barn?’ he asked incredulously.
‘Around here you do,’ said the innkeeper.
Markus and Theorens followed the man’s directions. The barn was indeed barred and padlocked. They let themselves in. Markus threw himself on the straw.
‘Aren’t you going to lock it?’ asked Theorens in alarm.
‘How can I do that from the inside?’ Markus answered tetchily. He paused. ‘You could use one of those spells of yours.’
‘Oh very well then.’
Theorens shuffled over and faced the door. He moved his hands in a complex pattern. He then rejoined Markus on the straw.
Markus blew out the lamp and was soon asleep.
He was being watched. A pair of eyes stared at him in the dark. They began to come closer. Markus was helpless. He couldn’t break away. As the eyes got nearer, he could now see they belonged to a cadaverous face. The skin, pale as parchment, was drawn tightly across the bone. Suddenly, the head began to burn and the flesh melted away to reveal a grinning skull. Markus shrieked and tried to beat out the flames with his hands.
‘Wake up, Markus, you were screaming.’ Theorens was shaking him. ‘Besides, we’ve got company.’
‘I’m all right.' Markus sat up. 'I was having a bad dream.’ He looked at the doors of the barn and saw they were slowly opening, letting in daylight. Then a face peered around the door.
‘See dad, I told you they’d be awake,’ said the face.
‘Stefan, don’t go bothering our guests.’
The innkeeper strode into the barn. The face—Stefan—followed. Markus judged him to be about eight years old.
The innkeeper said, ‘Food’s ready, if you want it.’
Markus realised how hungry he felt. ‘Coming.’
The innkeeper and the boy led them through the back entrance of the inn and into, what Markus thought, must be its main room. It was simply, but adequately, furnished with crude tables and benches. There was no one else about. Their hosts disappeared out the back to quickly return with fresh-baked bread and cold meats.
After they had finished eating, the innkeeper came over. ‘What brings you here? We don’t get many strangers in these parts.’ Stefan lurked behind him.
‘We’re on our way back to Altdorf. We’ve been sent out to find remounts,’ said Markus. ‘We lost a lot in the campaign.’
‘Just the two of you?’
‘We’d parted from the rest of our escort. One of the troopers had a lame horse and had to turn back. I sent the rest back as bodyguard. We continued on alone. I figured we would manage.’
‘Is it true you’re a great warrior?’ Stefan butted in.
‘Stefan! Don’t bother our guests.’
‘Oh it’s all right. I was like him once,’ said Markus. ‘We’re attached to a unit of war wagons,’ he told the boy. ‘We had a big fight with a bunch of orcs near Waldenhorf.’
‘I bet it was exciting,’ said Stefan. ‘I want to kill orcs when I grow up.’
‘Well being a soldier is mostly marching from place to place.’
‘I was in the army,’ said the innkeeper. He pointed at a halberd hanging on the wall. ‘Three campaigns with the fourth Stirland militia,’ he explained proudly. ‘Name’s Wilhelm, by the way.’ He put out his hand.
Markus and Theorens took it in turn to shake hands with the innkeeper.
Stefan was not to be put off. ‘Is that your gun?’ He pointed at Markus’ holster.
‘Come away, young man, you’re being a nuisance.’ Wilhelm tried to usher the boy out.
‘It’s fine, really,’ said Markus. ‘At his age, I was just like him. I too wanted to know everything.’ He took out the gun to show the lad. ‘It’s a repeater pistol. Made at the Engineers’ School. There’re not many like it,’ Markus explained.
Stefan examined the gun minutely. ‘Can you show me how it works?’
‘We’ll see here, this piece moves.’ Markus explained how the mechanism allowed the gun to fire its six shots before it needed reloading.
‘Daddy says guns sometimes won’t work.’
‘Well, that’s true,’ admitted Markus. He showed Stefan how to clear the gun if the mechanism jammed. Then he carefully returned it to its holster. He turned to the innkeeper. ‘We’re heading for Valden, but I think we got lost in the storm last night. How far is it?’
‘You’re truly lost. You’ve come in completely the wrong direction. Valden’s a good twenty-five miles from here. But you’ll have to wait a day or two for the road to dry out. It always gets flooded when we have storms.’
‘Well, we’ll try and use the time,’ said Markus. ‘Does anybody breed horses around here?’
‘There’s squire Wuppen,’ Wilhelm informed him. ‘He lives in the manor a couple of miles up the road. You passed the turning as you came into the village.’
‘We’ll pay him a visit,’ Markus said. ‘Come on Theorens, when you’ve finished eating.’
The two of them went back to the stables and saddled their horses.
They rode back through the village. It consisted of a dozen or so dwellings and barns and outhouses. A number of the houses were falling into ruins.
‘Not an inspiring place,’ Theorens observed.
‘It could be worse,’ Markus declared.
The road to the manor passed through more pinewoods and was deeply rutted, the holes filled with the previous night’s rain. Fortunately, in the daylight they could avoid the worst of the mud. Soon they could make out the manor itself ahead. As they got nearer Markus could see it too had seen better days and in part was not much better than the ruins back at the village.
‘Not very regal,’ muttered Theorens.
‘Don’t judge by appearances.’
Markus directed his horse into the small courtyard and dismounted. The few windows of the main house were still draped, as for the night, although the morning was already well advanced. He went to the front door and knocked.
After some delay the door opened. ‘What do you want?’ said a young man looking him up and down.
‘This is Theorens and I’m lieutenant Reutger, we’ve come about buying horses.’
‘You’d better see my father,’ the young man said.
He led the party into the hallway and up the stairs. On the landing he opened a door and ushered them in.
Markus found himself in what he took to be the main hall. The major feature was a large table and chairs. At one end a fire burned in a large hearth. Two wooden armchairs half faced the fire. Sitting in one was a grey haired man with a crinkled face. He looked up as they entered.
‘Father, we’ve got visitors. They want to buy horses.’
The old man eyed the two for a moment. Then he spoke. ‘Altdorfers.’
‘That’s correct,’ said Markus. He introduced himself and Theorens to the old squire.
‘Johann, please get our guests some refreshments,’ the squire instructed his son. Then they began to talk. The conversation went on for some time as old Wuppen and Johann asked about the latest news and events in the empire. Eventually the discussion got around to horses.
The old man raised a hand to his son. ‘Johann, please see to it,’ he said.
He led to two of them back out and down the stairs again.
Back in the hall, Johann said, ‘Please excuse my father, he’s sickly.’ He gestured at the curtains blocking the windows. ‘He can’t stand the light.’
Just then a door opened and Markus saw a young woman step into the hallway. He was immediately struck by how attractive she was. He then noticed her hand resting in a sling and wrapped in a bandage.
‘Angela, may I introduce you to our guests.’ He presented Markus and Theorens. He went on, ‘Angela’s my second cousin. We’re engaged.’
‘Congratulations,’ said Markus and Theorens together.
She smiled at them. ‘I can’t wait.’ She touched Johann’s hand gently.
‘Nasty injury you have there,’ said Theorens.
‘Silly me,’ Angela said, ‘I burned my hand. But it’s nothing.’
‘May it be healed for your wedding,’ Markus said politely.
‘Indeed,’ Johann added.
‘Will you be staying with us?’ she asked.
‘No, we’re lodging at the inn,’ Markus informed her.
They made more small talk and then parted politely.
The three men headed for the paddock to examine the horses. Markus was disappointed to see only one would be suitable.
‘You should have come here in the old days,’ said Johann wistfully. ‘We used to have many more then.’
‘I noticed the ruins in the village,’ Theorens observed.
‘Yes, the whole estate was once much more prosperous. Father would like to do more to help to get the place back to rights, but what can you do?’
After agreeing a price, Markus and Theorens rode back towards the village.
Theorens made small talk. ‘Nice people, the Wuppens.’
‘I thought Angela was very attractive.’
‘So you noticed,’ teased Theorens.
‘Don’t you say anything to Narissa,’ Markus threatened. ‘Or I’ll kill you.’ They rode on in silence for a while.
As they came back to the village, Markus noted something white near a line of cypress trees. ‘See that.’ He pointed so Theorens knew where to look.
‘Strange,’ said Theorens. They rode over to make a closer inspection. As they drew near, Markus recognised the object. It was part of a ribcage. Partially hidden within the trees were more bones. They both dismounted and pushed their way through the foliage.
They stood in a graveyard. A number of the graves had been disturbed. Markus felt disgust that anyone could have done such a thing. ‘Who would have done this?’
‘Grave robbers, here. Who would have thought,’ said Theorens.
They left and headed back towards the inn. Wilhelm greeted them, ‘Any luck?’
‘Only one,’ Markus informed him. ‘Are there any farms around here?’
‘This is the only village this side of Valden. It’s empty forest up there.’
‘Where does the road go then?’ Theorens asked.
‘You don’t want to go up there,’ the innkeeper said vehemently. ‘That’s Rostein’s land.’
‘Who’s Rostein?’ inquired Markus.
‘Count Rostein,’ said the innkeeper, ‘Nasty piece of work. We’re Wuppen folk here. We don’t have much to do with the count, and all that.’
‘I see,’ said Markus. ‘Old feuds, eh?’
‘Something like that,’ admitted the innkeeper.
They spent the rest of the day at the inn. They were the only lodgers and they shared supper with Wilhelm’s family and met his wife and Stefan’s younger sister. They decided to retire early.
‘Your room’s upstairs,’ Wilhelm told them. Taking a candle, he led them up a narrow flight of stairs and along a passageway. He opened a door and ushered them into a small room where two beds had been made ready. ‘I’ve also brought up your belongings.’
‘Many thanks,’ said Markus. Wilhelm left them to it.
Markus, tired as he was, crawled into bed and was quickly asleep.
Loud pounding in the building woke him up. It was dark in the room. He sat up. More thumping told him he hadn’t imagined it. He nudged Theorens.
‘What is it?’ Theorens mumbled sleepily.
‘Wake up. There’s something going on.’
Markus got out of bed and feeling his way went to the window. He pushed back the shutters and looked out. He could see half a dozen whitish shapes below hacking away at the main door. Then one of them looked up. Markus was confronted with a grinning skull. A sword swung in his direction held by a skeletal hand.
‘Oh no,’ he cried and stumbled back into the room. He sat down on the bed with his head between his hands. All the time, the thudding and banging sounds continued.
‘What did you see?’ said Theorens. He cautiously approached the window and peered out, careful not to expose himself. He then ran back to Markus and shook him violently. ‘There’s skeletons attacking the inn. You’ve got to do something!’
‘I can’t,’ Markus stammered in reply.
Theorens went back to the window. He stood in the opening and began to chant and wave his hands in an intricate dance. Soon a ball of fire appeared in his hand. He threw it. Then another, and another. The banging ceased.
The door opened and Wilhelm rushed in holding a halberd in one hand. ‘Are you all right?’ he asked. Seeing the two were unharmed, he rushed out again.
Theorens went over to Markus. ‘They’re gone,’ he said. ‘It’s all right.’
Markus looked up at his friend. ‘I’m ashamed of myself,’ he said. ‘I knew one day I’d have to confront them.’ Theorens said nothing. Markus continued, ‘I was eight at the time. Father was on campaign. Mother and I were alone.’
He stood up and went over to the window as if searching for something but did not look out. ‘One night, I was woken up by screams in my mother’s room. I was very frightened but I crept out of bed to see what was happening.’ Markus turned from the window and moved back and sat on the bed. ‘It was horrible. There were three skeletons in her room. They had seized my mother and were carrying her out. I didn’t know what to do. I ran away. They found me later hiding in a barn under the straw.’
He stood up again and paced around the small room. ‘I should have helped her.’ There was a note of despair in his voice. He said nothing for a while. ‘A necromancer had taken a fancy to my mother,’ he said, his voice now calm. ‘The witch finders chased him. They cornered him in his castle. They set fire to it and he burned to death, as did my mother.’
‘I’m sorry,’ said Theorens.
Markus felt better with the telling. ‘Let’s go and see our hosts.’
The two of them went downstairs. They found the innkeeper and his family assembled in the main room. He asked them, ‘Has this happened before?’
‘We’ve had one attempt to break in three nights ago,’ Wilhelm admitted. ‘But not in such numbers.’
‘And you did nothing about it?’
‘We told squire Wuppen. He said he’d look into it.’
‘Where do they come from?’ asked Theorens.
‘We don’t know.’
‘No one’s safe, as long as those things are around,’ said Markus. ‘They’re gone for now. Go back to bed. We can’t do much tonight.’
The next morning was dull and overcast. Markus and Theorens found the innkeeper preparing their breakfast. After they had eaten, Markus called Wilhelm over. ‘How many able-bodied men are there in the village?’
‘Twenty four,’ Wilhelm told him.
‘Can you get them organised for tonight?’
‘I’ll speak to them today.’
‘We’ll meet at four. In the meantime, Theorens and I will go and see this Count Rostein. We need to get to the bottom of this business.’
They set out following Wilhelm’s directions for the count’s castle. After leaving the village, they traversed more pine forests before coming to open land that looked as if it had once been cultivated. They then passed a ruined village and then more forest. Eventually, they came to open country again divided up into fields under cultivation. At this point they could see a castle jutting above the horizon. Off to one side in the distant fields Markus could see horses grazing.
As they rode closer, Markus could begin to pick out the details. He noted that, whilst old, the stronghold was in good repair. Someone had observed their approach because four heavily armed guards met them at the gate. Markus explained the purpose of their visit. They were asked to wait whilst one of the guards informed the count.
Eventually they were allowed to proceed.
‘Not a very friendly bunch,’ Theorens whispered to Markus as they were escorted into the main keep. Leaving their horses, they were taken into the main hall.
Markus looked around a large, stone walled room, with a grand fireplace at one end. The room’s main decorative feature was a large tapestry depicting men and women being burned at the stake.
An elderly man walked towards them. ‘I’m Count Rostein,’ he said. He spoke in a brusque manner. ‘Welcome to Castle Drax.’ He signalled to the servants. ‘You may leave us.’
He led Markus and Theorens over to chairs placed in front of the fire. On a table stood food and drink. He indicated that they should help themselves. ‘So tell me what brings you here.’
‘I hope you can help us,’ Markus told him.
‘We’ll see,’ answered the count. ‘It all depends. Let me ask you…’ The count quizzed Markus and Theorens at length.
Eventually, Markus said, ‘We’re looking for horses.’
‘I don’t have any,’ said Rostein.
‘But we...’ started Theorens. Markus lay a hand on his.
‘We’ll pay well,’ suggested Markus. ‘In imperial crowns.’
‘The empire’s not popular here,’ said the count. ‘This is Stirland, remember.’
The discussion continued for some time after that. ‘Come back and talk it over tomorrow,’ the count finally said. The tone of his voice made it plain the conversation was at an end. He rang a bell and a servant appeared.
‘Till tomorrow then,’ said Markus. They were ushered out.
As they rode out of the castle, Theorens said, ‘Why didn’t you insist on finishing the business today?’
‘We wouldn’t have achieved anything.’
‘Hard man, the count,’ Theorens muttered.
The meeting with the count had taken up more of the day than Markus had anticipated. He suddenly realised how late it was and he became concerned that they wouldn’t make it back to the village before dark.
By the time they reached the woods, the light had already begun to fade. Markus, knowing how rutted the road was, didn’t want to hurry the horses.
It was dark, therefore, when they approached the outskirts of the village.
‘What’s that over there?’ Theorens pointed.
Markus peered into the gloom and thought he saw movement.
‘Can’t make it out,’ he said. He urged his horse onward. ‘Come on, we’ve more important things to do.’
As they rode into the village square Markus knew something was wrong. A number of armed villagers milled about. Some held torches. The flickering light added a surreal touch to the scene.
The villagers froze at the sight of the two horsemen. Then they all started shouting at once.
‘Silence,’ Markus bellowed. When they had quietened down, he pointed a finger at one of the older men. ‘Tell me what’s going on.’
The man stammered, ‘The skeletons, they’ve taken Wilhelm’s wife and son.’ The other villagers nodded.
‘Where’s Wilhelm?’ asked Markus.
‘Inside,’ said the old man, pointing at the inn.
‘Theorens, you sort this lot out, I’ll go and investigate,’ Markus said.
He dismounted and headed for the lodge. As he went in, he noticed the front door had been smashed. Inside he heard voices. He stepped into the main room. Wilhelm was there, consoling a crying girl.
‘What happened?’ asked Markus.
The two of them looked at him.
The innkeeper spoke in a voice drained of emotion. ‘The skeletons came back. Maria hid herself. They took my wife—and Stefan.’ At this, the man visibly sagged.
Markus raised him to his feet. ‘If we’re to save them, I need your help.’ Wilhelm nodded. ‘Get someone to look after your daughter, arm yourself and follow me.’ Wilhelm nodded again.
Markus left them. Outside he found Theorens organising the villagers. ‘We must hurry,’ he told them. ‘Follow me.’
As they proceeded up the road, a voice behind them called out, ‘Wait for me.’ Wilhelm came running up, halberd in hand, to join Markus and Theorens at the head of the small column. He fell into step.
‘Shouldn’t we be heading for the castle?’ said Wilhelm.
‘The count?’ answered Markus. ‘He’s not behind this.’
‘He’s an evil man.’
‘Maybe,’ said Markus, ‘but he’s no dabbler in the black arts. He’s a witch hunter.’
‘So who’s responsible?’
‘Your good squire Wuppen.’
‘There’s no one else,’ said Markus speaking in harsh tones. He raised his voice so all the villagers could hear him. ‘He’s probably got those skeletons of his placed to block our advance. You’ll need to keep them busy.’ He addressed himself to the innkeeper again. ‘Theorens and I will try and get around them and rescue Stefan and your wife.’
‘It’s good to have you with us,’ Wilhelm said.
Markus wasn’t so sure. He wondered whether he would be able to face the skeletons. One of the villagers passed him a torch.
They pressed on in silence. The torchlight procession in the dark made Markus recall a night-time ceremony he had attended as a youngster, put on by the local Sisters of Sigmar. They had processed through the streets, torches in hand, to arrive at the temple just before dawn. As they entered the precinct, the pale light in the sky and early morning sun lit up the walls. He shook himself. It would be many hours yet before dawn.
‘There,’ someone cried out.
Ahead, Markus could make out, blocking their line of advance, a series of lighter patches against the blackness. He instinctively knew this was is it. He felt tingles down his arms and legs. He had a fleeting vision of his mother’s face melting away. He fought down the urge to run, to get away. He drew his sword.
‘Spread out,’ he commanded.
Markus led the villagers forward to the attack. Now he could make out individual skeletons. Some still had bits of decayed flesh sticking to their bones. One or two half resembled normal human beings. He heard gasps and muttered incantations from the men at his side.
‘Have courage,’ he shouted. ‘Sigmar will protect us.’
Then a skeleton with a twisted grin, as it had half its jaw missing, rushed at him. It stabbed a rusty scimitar in his direction. Markus parried the blow and then hit back, cleaving the spine in two. The bones continued to lash out wildly, so Markus had to strike off its hand.
He looked around.
Everywhere the villagers were engaged in fighting one, or in some cases, two of the undead. Markus looked for his friend. The melee had separated them. Theorens was standing rigid, somewhat to one side, waving his arms in an intricate pattern. Markus could see a zombie was about to strike him.
‘Look out, Theorens,’ he called.
Just then a fireball appeared in Theorens’s hand and he launched it at his assailant. The zombie burst into flames.
Markus shouted at Theorens, ‘You all right?’
‘Yeh,’ he grinned at Markus. ‘Watch out!’
Markus swung round.
A skeleton was driving at him with a spear.
Markus dodged and kicked the evil thing. He heard bones crack.
The undead fell sideways but still tried to stab him with its weapon.
Markus hacked away at the carcass until it was a pile of bones. Then he checked to see if more skeletons were around. But they were all engaged with the villagers. Judging by the piles of bones around them, the battle seemed to be slowly going the villagers’ way. Although frightening, the skeletons were relatively fragile. Markus thought the villagers would be able to cope.
He went looking for Theorens who had disappeared again. He found him squatting on the ground.
‘This is no time to rest,’ he informed him.
‘You don’t know how tiring it all is,’ Theorens complained.
‘We’ve got to rescue Stefan and the others.’ Markus yanked his friend to his feet. ‘Let’s go.’
He led Theorens at a rapid pace towards the old manor house.
As Markus approached with Theorens at his side, he could see Johann being dragged into the courtyard by three skeletons. Markus quickened his pace and ran towards them.
Johann, seeing them, tried to struggle free, but a skeleton held him firmly.
‘We’d better free him,’ Theorens advised, stating the obvious.
‘Use your fireballs.’ Markus drew his pistol.
‘There’s a limit to these things,’ Theorens informed him.
The two nearest skeletons now turned towards them, swords at the ready. Markus fired at the one in front of him. Its skull disintegrated in a shower of bone fragments. It sagged to the ground.
Theorens’ fireball set the second one alight.
Markus panned at the one holding Johann. ‘Duck.’ Johann dropped. The shot shattered the skeleton's spine and it fell in two. He went over to the boy. ‘You all right?’
Johann nodded. He looked down at the bones scattered around the courtyard. Already they were trying to reform. ‘What are these things?’
‘Creatures conjured up by your father,’ said Theorens.
Johann rounded on the wizard with his fists. ‘My father would never engage in such evil.’
Markus grabbed a wrist and shook him violently. ‘Castle Drax used to belong to your family, didn’t it?’
‘Yes.’ Johann looked forlorn. ‘Father sold the land and title to pay off the heavy debts run up by his father. My grandfather gambled away most of the family’s lands and fortune.’
‘That would give him a motive,’ said Theorens.
‘But father wouldn’t.’ Johann was insistent.
‘You’re lying to protect your father,’ retorted Theorens.
‘Maybe he doesn’t know,’ said Markus in an attempt to sooth the dispute. ‘Come with us and you’ll learn the truth.’ He picked up one of the discarded swords. ‘Here, you’d better have this.’
Markus looked back the way he had come. He could just see the torches of the villagers in the distance. He estimated it would be ten to fifteen minutes before they arrived. Too long.
‘Come on. We’ll have to do this on our own,’ he muttered as he headed for the main entrance.
He found the door shut, but unlocked. He opened it and peered in. There was no one in the hallway. Markus led the party upstairs. He tried the door to the main hall. It was locked. ‘Stand back,’ he said. He aimed his pistol and fired two shots in quick succession. ‘Give me a hand.’
The three of them slammed into the door, which burst open precipitating them into the main hall.
As he burst in Markus got a picture of the room. Stefan and his mother were in one corner, guarded by two skeletons. Squire Wuppen was sitting in his usual armchair and Angela sat opposite him.
The two skeletons immediately moved to attack them. Markus aimed at the nearest and fired. Its jaw and skull split. But it still came on. Markus tried to fire again, but the mechanism failed. ‘Ulric preserve me!’ He knew he wouldn’t have time to correct the fault.
He danced back as the skeleton swung its sword at him and then kicked it in the leg. The leg snapped and it fell over. Markus kicked the torso again for good measure and it shattered. The pieces scuttled across the floor.
Markus looked around. Johann had overcome the other skeleton. Then, before Markus could stop him, he dashed over and knelt at his father’s side. ‘Father, tell them you’re not involved in this.’
‘I’m all right, Johann,’ said the old man in a hoarse voice. He looked pleadingly towards the newcomers. ‘There’s evil in this room.’
Markus took a step forward.
‘Don’t.’ Theorens restrained him. ‘I can only protect you if you stay close to me.’
In the confusion, no one noticed that Angela had passed out. At this moment, Johann stood up and charged at Markus, sword raised to strike.
‘Watch out,’ shouted Stefan.
Markus, galvanised, parried the blow with his pistol. The gun spun out of his hand and skidded across the floor. He drew his sword. They faced off.
‘She’s taken him over,’ said Theorens.
‘You’re all going to die,’ said Johann in a strained and distorted voice.
‘Who are you?’ asked Markus.
‘The wizard knows,’ came the reply. Johann stabbed at Markus. He parried the blow.
‘Don’t kill him,’ advised Theorens helpfully.
Markus snapped back. ‘What am I supposed to do?’
‘You’re all weak, just like this one,’ said Johann.
Their swords clashed again. Markus retreated towards the other side of the hall.
Johann slowly narrowed the distance between them. As he did so, he spoke, ‘They’ve squandered the family’s wealth and ruined its good name.’
Markus spoke to distract the being that controlled Johann. ‘So you’ve decided to restore the family honour.’
‘Yes!’ Johann lunged at Markus.
Markus dodged and the blade stuck in the wall. He quickly sped back across the room.
Johann, pulled out the sword and chased after him.
Then Markus saw the heavy curtains. He turned to face his demented attacker. As Johann got near, Markus pulled down the curtain with all his strength, trapping him under its heavy folds. Markus kicked out at Johann’s head. The body sagged to the floor.
‘Watch out,’ shouted Theorens.
Then a lot of things happened at once. Angela stood facing them, eyes ablaze like a cat’s. Her arms moved in a complex pattern. Then a flame appeared in her hand. She threw it.
Markus seeing the fireball appear dived for cover under the table. ‘She’s a witch!’
Theorens, seeing what she was doing, made twisting motions with his hands. The fireball disappeared. ‘I can’t keep this up much longer,’ he shouted at Markus. ‘Do something.’
Stefan seeing his opportunity dashed to pick up Markus’ gun. He looked at it and started to fiddle with the mechanism.
Markus could see that already Angela was forming another fireball.
Stefan called to Markus. ‘Here’s your gun.’ He threw it. Markus rolled to catch it.
‘It’s not working,’ Theorens wailed behind him.
Markus pointed the gun. Angela’s arm was raised ready to throw the fireball. Markus aimed.
She threw the fireball.
A bloody hole immediately appeared in her forehead and she collapsed.
Markus turned round. The whole of one wall where Theorens had stood was burning furiously. The way to the door was a raging inferno.
‘We’ve got to get out of here,’ he shouted. He smashed a window and helped the survivors use one of the curtains to climb down to the ground.
By the time they had all safely got down to the courtyard, the main building was ablaze. The fire was already beginning to spread to the outhouses and storerooms.
‘So that’s how it happened,’ said Narissa.
‘We returned as soon as we could,’ added Markus.
‘I’m so sorry.’
‘Ah, Narissa, so nice to see you,’ said a voice behind her.
She looked up. ‘Theorens, I thought you were lost….’
‘Men’s business out back—fell asleep.’
‘Markus, he’s all right!’ No answer. ‘Markus?’ She looked down. His head rested on the table. He was snoring gently.