No Thin Red Line of Heroes
A Lieutenant Markus Reutger Adventure
A Story set in the Warhammer World
[This is an incomplete novel.]
Lieutenant Markus Reutger swore loudly.
Ahead, where he expected to see the rear elements of the patrol, the old dwarf way was empty. The road he was travelling was in reality little more than a track, rutted by passing wagons and flanked by ditches on either side.
He swore again and cursed his luck. The patrol made up of a squadron of local militia cavalry and the troop of Outriders he commanded were obviously a long way ahead. Why had his horse chosen this day of all days to go lame on him? He saw there was no point in trying to catch up with the patrol. He would rejoin them later in bivouac.
He reigned his horse to a stop and Boris, his sergeant, a long serving veteran and always attentive to his master, did likewise. Markus reflected that Boris always looked uncomfortable on a horse, although Markus knew he was an excellent rider. Something to do with his size, no doubt, as he was the largest man Markus had ever seen.
Turning to look at where they were halted, Markus could see the Black Mountains rising ominously ahead, the heights surrounded by sinister dark clouds that hid the permanently snow covered peaks. From where they were, the mountain range dominated the valley up which twisted the road. To Markus born and bred in the land of Reitland, the black, purple and brown slopes gave off a dread appearance. Somewhere he knew not where up the road was their destination, the Empire stronghold of Hochfestung that guarded Blackfire Pass. To his left, a wild looking forest, largely pine he noted, covered the slope and hid the tributary of the Old Reik that ran down the floor of the valley. To his right a narrow strip of open pasture covered with yellowing grass edged up to yet more impenetrable forest, the line of trees forming a black and green ribbon across the landscape.
At that moment, something on the tree line caught his eye. There had been a movement in the trees. Before he could figure out what it might have been, a large band of dark shapes detached themselves from the shadows and charged towards him. Then he recognized them as enemies.
‘It’s an ambush!’
Screeches came from the advancing foe, which rapidly narrowed the distance between them.
‘Grobi, be damned!’ yelled Boris using the old dwarfish term for goblins.
The dark cloaks topped by green-skinned, ugly and leering faces with wide-open mouths could belong to none other than goblins. Markus knew what it meant, and it sent a shiver down his spine.
Without hesitation, he turned his horse back down the road and urged the poor injured beast into a gallop. Behind him, he sensed Boris do the same. Their only hope against such numbers was flight.
As his steed began to gallop, Markus hoped the goblins had not barred the road further down the valley.
The swish of arrows passing close by made him crouch in his saddle. He heard Boris grunt and shout that he’d been hit.
Markus took a quick glance to see that the fellow was still on his horse. But no more arrows chased them as their flight now put them into a bend in the road. This temporarily hid them from their pursuers.
Gunshots echoed across the valley. Markus knew what it meant. The squadron had also encountered the greenskins. While struggling to stay on his racing horse, he prayed to Sigmar that they would manage to fight their way to safety.
The two riders galloped on some way down the snaking road and then Markus slowed to a trot since his horse was obviously struggling even after such a short dash. He turned to the soldier.
‘How badly are you hurt?’
‘I’ve got an arrow in m’ arm,’ Boris replied, ‘Tis nowt a flesh wound, but it ‘urts like crazy.’
‘Can you ride on?’
‘Doiva a choice?’
‘No. But my horse won’t carry me much further. You’ll have to go on without me.’
‘Don’t be a fool. I’ll be all right,’ and, in a voice with more confidence than he felt, Markus added for good measure, ‘I’ll hide in the forest and make my way back on foot.’
They continued around another bend till Markus thought they were well out of sight of the pursuing goblin warband. He stopped, dismounted and quickly drew his repeater pistol out of its saddle holster and attached it to his belt. He also grabbed his cloak, water bottle and saddlebag with its scant provisions and spare powder and shot.
Commanding his sergeant he ordered, ‘You go on. Without me, you’ll make better speed. Report back and raise the alarm at Feldsheim. May Ulric preserve you.’ He didn’t mention the alternative.
‘Good luck, sir,’ answered Boris as he took the reins of Marcus’ mount.
Without looking back to see if he had been obeyed, Markus dashed down the slope into the undergrowth to be quickly surrounded by the forest. He ran using the falling gradient to take him in the general direction of the river.
He descended as fast as he dared go without hurting himself, his saddlebag over his shoulder, one hand raised up to protect his face from branches and the undergrowth, the other holding the butt of his revolver. His dash to put distance between himself and the green horde meant that despite his helmet his face was soon lacerated and his clothes in shreds. Only his half-armour prevented him suffering worse injury as he careened past trees, through bushes and shot over the many boulders that made up the forest floor.
‘Huh, huh, huh,’ his breath rasped in his throat. His lungs heaved and his heart pounded in his chest.
Markus stumbled. He realised that his mad flight was going to kill him, either directly, or because he injured himself. Also he was leaving a great big, this way sign for the green vermin to follow.
He stopped. He cursed himself. Why hadn’t he paid more attention during the fieldcraft lessons at Altdorf? He tried to recall what Old Wilhelm his instructor had said about scouting and evading. He knew he would have to proceed with greater caution and anyway he couldn’t run much further.
As he considered which way to go, he heard the burble of the river below him. Changing direction to head up the valley and to confuse any hunters, he set course for the river.
After a few minutes of clambering over the rocks, roots, and fallen trunks that barred his progress he spotted the water. It was quite a wide expanse of waterway, a mountain river with a strong current. The water gushed over the rocky bed where fallen branches and rocks had worked together to create pools and miniature waterfalls.
He followed the line of the river upstream for some distance, looking out for a point to cross.
‘Wooahh,’ came from the forest behind him The cry of a wolf. They were using wolves to track him. He felt a sudden shiver of fear at the thought, some visceral memory of his race at the presence of these ancient enemies of man. Unbidden part of one of Old Wilhelm’s lectures came into his mind.
He immediately strode into the water up to his knees and began determinedly to wade up river. He prayed to Sigmar this would confuse his trail and remove his scent and so throw off the pursuing wolves.
He splashing through the shallower parts of the river for some minutes until a second wolf cry, this time much nearer, told him he needed to find a place to hide. Or to fight, he thought grimly.
Casting about on the opposite bank he sought a way to abandon the river without leaving an obvious trail.
After a few moments of further wading he came across a large tree that had fallen and whose branches were lying partially submerged in the river. Clambering over the submerged branches, Markus was able to hoist himself onto the tree and using the limbs as support, walk along the trunk and down onto the bank. There he had a stroke of luck, as he landed on a bed of wild onions. Carefully, to make it look as if an animal had pulled the bulbs up, he extracted a couple from the ground. Using his dagger, he sliced them in half and rubbed them on his boots. This accomplished he hastened into the woods to find a place to conceal himself.
He knew he wasn’t going to be able to outrun a pack of greenskins going uphill in this kind of wood, with fallen trees and branches, not to say boulders and undergrowth of every sort, making the whole exercise an exhausting obstacle course. He found a fallen tree about sixty yards from the river where he could observe the ground he had just traversed and his exit point.
Keeping half an eye on the river Markus checked his repeater pistol to make sure it was working. Just to be sure, he replaced the primer powder for the six chambers. If worst came to worst, he mused; he would take a few of the green slime with him. He wasn’t going to miss. Back at Altdorf, during his handgun training, he had easily been the best marksman in his class. For a while, his unerring eye had provided a nice supplement to the meager allowance his uncle had been able to give him. His fame became such that none in the Engineering School had been tempted to try their luck against his skill. In the end, even the Emperor’s troops refused to take wagers against him.
Back the way he had come, something caught his attention. Along the river he could see movements. Soon he could make out the search party. They were advancing on both banks. Each party consisted of a dozen black shapes preceded by a wolf restrained on a lead. The search parties weren’t being particularly quiet and Markus heard voices, but couldn’t discern what was being said.
The group on the near bank came to the fallen tree. The wolf’s handler said something and the wolf jumped onto the trunk and headed for the river.
Markus froze. He knew discovery was now only a matter of time. He steeled himself for the coming fight and carefully placed his handgun on the tree in front of him and took a bead on the nearest goblin. The odds were not good. He felt remarkably calm now that death was inevitable.
The handler and the wolf returned from the water and jumped down from the trunk. The wolf sniffed about and it was obvious to Markus it was searching for something.
Markus considered shooting both the wolves and then trying to make his escape, but immediately rejected the idea, as the goblins would easily overtake him once he revealed himself.
By the fallen tree, a discussion was going on that was getting more heated by the second. What appeared to be the group’s leader was having an argument with the wolf handler. They seemed to disagreeing about something. Markus caught a few words.
‘You kanna be rit, you oaf …’
Just as Markus thought the two would come to blows, a couple of rabbits broke cover from the branches of the fallen tree and made off into the forest.
The wolf leaped after them, yanking the handler off his feet and dragging him screaming into the woods. At this turn of events, there was a general outbreak of yells, whooplas, snorts, and cahoots from both parties of goblins.
The handler managed to halt the wolf after about twenty yards and was proceeding to lay into the beast with the flat of his sword. At this the leader came to a decision and he shouted to the group on the other bank. Both groups turned from Markus’s hiding place and tramped back the way they had come.
As they ambled off, Markus, much relieved, was able to get a good look at them. They had on black or dark brown cloaks over leather jerkins, some wore chain mail armour. He noticed the party was variously armed with sword, knives, or spears and shields, or else carried short bows. Markus also observed that their shields had a variety of designs based on ugly distorted faces, vaguely reminiscent of a crescent. He now was able to place them. These appeared to be night goblins from the badlands on the other side of the Black Mountains.
With the goblins now out of sight, he considered his situation. The patrol had probably run into a raiding party intent on attacking one of the convoys that resupplied the Imperial fortress at the head of the valley. Or perhaps the warband had been on its way to raid one of the villages further down the valley when they had stumbled on and attacked his party.
The immediate threat over, Markus ripped off his helmet and slumped against the tree and tried not to consider how close he had been to death. I’m not out of danger yet, he judged, looking around at the dark shapes of the trees. He knew it was going to be a long hike back.
His thoughts turned to Altdorf and the pleasures of the great city and he cursed his luck to be skulking behind some fallen trunk in some far off valley of the Black Mountains. His reasons for being here were plain stupid. None of the provincials appreciated the regulars from the Engineering School. As the youngest lieutenant in the Outriders, in fact within the whole Engineering Corps, it had fallen to him to tour the provinces and try and interest the various mounted militia regiments in the great inventions that came out of Altdorf’s military workshops.
In vain, he had explained to the Averlander colonel of horse the workings and advantages of the repeater handguns that his troops had brought with them, and even demonstrated their efficacy. They had flatly preferred retaining the two brace of pistols in their saddle holsters and just would not consider the advantages of the repeater pistol. Nor were they much impressed by the Hochland long rifle’s range and accuracy. Five times in succession, Markus had blown the head off a man-sized dummy at six hundred yards, four times the effective range of the popguns used by the provincial militia. Even that display of the overwhelming superiority of the new weapons had only generated a barbed comment that such niceties were of little use in the field.
In desperation at fulfilling his first independent mission, Markus had therefore offered to accompany the squadron that patrolled the old dwarf road leading up to Blackfire Pass in the hope of being able to demonstrate their use in operational conditions. All this because he had taken seriously the instructions from Quartermaster Colonel Hochmauer to promote the use of these weapons to all the Empire’s forces.
So now here he was, stuck Sigmar knows where, and surrounded by hordes of greenskins intent on spiting him with their swords, or worse. He shivered.
After considering his plight a while, Markus found a convenient spot to sit unseen and observe the river in case the goblins should chose to return, and opening his saddlebag found himself a bite to eat and drink.
‘Sarge, you’d better come look,’ the watchman called down, ‘I think something’s happenin’ in the valley’.
‘It’d had better be good.’
The sergeant-at-arms tossed the dice he held to one of the other players and climbed up the ladder to the observation post.
‘What’s it?’ he inquired.
‘Sarge, I’m sure I heard shots down there.’
‘Can you see anything?’
‘Nothin’s moving down there, sarge. But I’m sure it was shots.’
‘Spot anything unusual at the pass?’
‘I’d better report it, anyhow,’ the sergeant continued, as if reciting, ‘anything suspicious must be reported, however small.’ He continued to the watchman, ‘Keep a sharp lookout and tell me soonest if you see anything.’
The sergeant slid back down the ladder and disappeared from sight down the steps that led from the tower into the innards of the fortress.
He descended for a long time until he came to a corridor. Proceeding along it, he came to a door. Entering he came to attention and saluted.
‘Sir, the lookout reports hearing gunshots down the valley.’
The duty officer looked up at the sergeant, ‘At ease. Did he see anything?’
‘No sir, everything looks quiet. No sign of activity from the pass.’
‘What do you think we should do?’
‘Regulations say we must investigate, sir.’ The sir coming after the briefest of pauses.
The officer sat silently for a moment, then, quietly ignoring the sergeant’s tone, said ‘I agree sergeant. Send scouts to the pass and down the road. Keep me posted. That will be all. You are dismissed.’
The sergeant-at-arms saluted, turned on his heel and marched out. He went on down the corridor until he came to the courtyard. Crossing over, he went through one of the many doors that opened into the enclosure. Inside were half a dozen men sitting at a table or lying on a bunk.
‘The capt’n thinks’ there’s something going on down the road. He’s ordered a scouting party to have a look-see; and also to take a peek at the pass.’
‘Fancy that sergeant,’ came an ironic voice from a large, bearded man.
‘Listen, Hans, it’s not bull.’
‘Yeah, just when I was winning,’ interjected another man.
The man called Hans continued, ‘We’ll go. There’d better be something there. This be the third time in two weeks your lookouts have seen something,’ and adding, in a haughty tone, ‘suspicious activity must be looked into.’
‘This is no false alarm, Hans, my watchmen don’t come crying Mama.’
Hans replied, sarcastically, ‘Oh no, sarge, they just report every leaf, twig and branch swaying in the breeze.’
The sergeant sounded petulant, ‘Just get on with it, Hans.’
Hans turned to his troop. ‘OK, Fritz, Philip, you head for the pass. Karl, Martin, you look over the road. Short patrol with the usual routine.’ Hans continued adding dollops of irony to his voice, ‘Come straight back if you see anything suspicious.’
The chosen men turned to get their gear ready. The scouts were used to the routine and were soon equipped.
With the sergeant accompanying them, they proceeded to the gate tower where the watch opened the wicket gate, lowered the foot drawbridge and the two patrols stepped onto the old dwarf road to fulfill their missions.
Seeing them leave, the sergeant turned away to return to his post.
It was dark when Markus awoke and he realised that he must have dozed off. The air was cold and his whole body stiff and sore. No more soft living, he thought, if he was to undertake any more of this kind of campaigning.
He rose and remembering the river nearby, stripped off and waded in to refresh himself. The water straight off the mountains was ice cold and the shock and pain from his lacerations soon meant Markus was fully awake.
He didn’t linger long and returning to his makeshift hideout he quickly dressed himself in the remains of his tattered uniform.
Looking at the stars, he though it must be around the sixth hour. That meant he had probably slept for the best part of twelve hours. First light, he considered, would be in about an hour. He wondered what he should do. Getting back to Feldsheim and safety was the obvious course of action. But then he remembered the shots he had heard and felt a responsibility for finding out what had happened to the soldiers under his command.
He came to a decision. He would double back and cautiously head up the valley until he came across evidence as to what had become of the squadron. It would add to his journey time, but not greatly. Once he found out what had happened to the patrol, he would then make his way back along the valley until he joined up with friendly forces.
His mind made up, he shouldered his equipment and waded back into the river. Using the same ruse that had worked the previous afternoon, he carefully waded upstream in the darkness in search of a suitable exit point.
The waxing light found him tired but relatively pleased with his progress. He decided to give himself a rest. In the gathering light of dawn, he noted that his blue and red Outrider uniform was a giveaway to all and sundry. He thought of the greens, grays and browns worn by the rangers so that they blended in with the landscape. He knew he had to somehow make himself less conspicuous. Looking out over the river, a mud bank suddenly gave him an idea.
Wading across, he stripped off his uniform. Then he rubbed mud into the cloth. After he had finished, he dressed himself again. Now he was garbed in various shades of dirty brown. He also covered his half-armour with liberal quantities of mud. He tried the same with his helmet but was dissatisfied with the result and decided it would have to be left behind so he reluctantly discarded it, hiding it under a bush. To finish off, he also plastered his face, beard and all, and all over his hands and forearms. Markus was quite pleased with the result of his attempts at impromptu camouflage and he wondered if Old Wilhelm had thought of the ploy.
While he worked, dawn turned into day. He noted the sky was overcast. Steely gray storm clouds had moved in and blotted out the rising sun. In addition a mist hung about the land. The combined effects of clouds, mist and overhead branches meant it remained quite dim under the trees. All was silent and Markus imaged he could hear harsh voices in the distance. Picturing the worst, images of the cruel leering goblin faces passed in front of him. He strained to listen intensely but could hear nothing but the sound of the river.
He shook himself to break the mood. He resolved that he must leave the river and head up the slope to rejoin the road.
He proceeded cautiously through the tangled undergrowth, stopping every so often to listen. The forest muffled all sound and he imagined his approach could be heard for miles. It was lighter ahead and he knew the wood was thinning out. Given the distance he had climbed he thought it could only be the road. He dropped to the ground and crawled forwards on his hands and knees. At the forest’s edge, Markus carefully looked out. In front was the open ground where the road ran up the valley. He cautiously observed both directions to make sure he was alone before standing up, all the while remaining hidden in the forest.
Peering about him, he seemed to recall he had seen the area before and so decided to go uphill, but still keeping under cover within the tree line. This made for slow progress, but it couldn’t be helped. He did not fancy his chances by boldly marching along the road. To survive, he told himself, he needed to remain hidden.
After some distance, he identified the spot where he had been ambushed the previous day. There was nothing there to detain him.
He continued his advance, keeping alert for any sound or movements.
As the day progressed, the mists began to lift somewhat, but the sky remained thick with dark brooding clouds. The head of the valley and the Black Mountains were completely hidden from view. It tried to rain, but it didn’t last.
Markus felt downcast as he made his way along the track. Just as he was about to give up, as the road rounded another bend, he spotted an unusual shape in the distance. He initially thought it was moving and that he had met up with goblins again. But he quickly grasped the object was motionless.
Still keeping within the trees, he approached.
When he got nearer, it suddenly dawned on him what he was looking at. It was the corpse of a horse, one of the ones killed in the ambush. He had found out the fate of, at least, one of the members of the patrol. He continued until he was opposite the fallen beast. Hidden somewhat behind the animal was what looked like a body. He noted that both the horse and the corpse had been partially dismembered.
Examining his find with care, Markus decided that the cadaver was probably a militiaman and not one of his Outriders.
Shaken by what he had seen, he continued his investigations.
About a hundred and fifty yards further on, lying on the road and to either side were more dead animals and bodies and spread out in a haphazard fashion were other victims of the carnage. Peering at them, Markus noticed that both men and animals had been mutilated, undoubtedly the work of the greenskins.
He also noticed a few goblin corpses, left where they had fallen. One group puzzled him at first. A trio of goblins lay dead, and five yards away lay another, pierced by arrows. He then noticed there was a repeater handgun by its side. Markus at once had a thought. Here was the possibility of increasing his armament.
Taking a watchful look up and down the road to make sure he was alone and, stooping low, he dashed over to the weapon. A quick examination showed that the gun appeared to be intact.
Armed with the additional handgun, Markus felt somewhat emboldened and, moving swiftly from corpse to corpse looked for additional weapons. He didn’t bother picking up the militia pistols he came across. He wanted another repeater.
Then his eye chanced on a long slim brown leather bag. He immediately knew this was the carrying case for the Hochland long rifle. Picking it up, it looked untouched. He turned to see if he could find the weapon’s powder horn and shot bag, but he couldn’t see them anywhere.
But over by the side of the road, his gaze fixed on the blue and red stripe worn by soldiers from Altdorf. Going over, he found the headless and badly cut up body of one of his troopers. The dead man still had his ammunition pouch and powder horn. Gagging somewhat at the smell and the congealed blood, Markus managed to remove these. He then looked for the man’s repeater pistol. Searching he saw it had been flung a little way into the woods. He decided to go and examine it.
It was the move into the woods that probably saved him. As he reached to pick up the pistol, out of the corner of his eye, he noticed movement.
Throwing himself to the ground, he scanned the area. His heart missed a beat.
Coming down the road, as if they owned the whole world, was a great mass of greenskins. Leading the pack was a large goblin with a pointed hat, a large shield in one hand, the other holding a sword twice its size. Next to it another, not quite as large, goblin carried a standard, while by its side a third held a primitive drum. Behind in a motley crowd shuffled the rest of the warband. They were rapidly approaching Markus’ position and he felt all their eyes were upon him. They couldn’t possibly miss him. Fear rooted him to the spot and he lay, unmoving, his heart in his mouth as the horde approached.
‘The patrol is back and it looks like trouble,’ the watchman yelled out. He reached for a nearby chord that ran through a hole in the stonework.
Philip’s lungs were about to burst.
The two scouts broke from the woods and sped towards the fortress at a run. It was as if the hounds of hell were at their heels.
Fritz stumbled and Philip grabbed him to keep him upright. Pulling him along, he managed to rasp out, ‘Keep going, we’re nearly there.’
‘Can’t,’ came back in a tortured wail.
‘Gotta get back Fritz. C’mon,’ Philip stuttered out between breaths.
The gate tower was in sight now. He gesticulated and waved his hands, pointing behind him, to get their attention.
Up in the watchtower, the sergeant broke off from his game and climbed the ladder. He joined the soldier on the platform. Two was a crowd on the small crow’s nest. Peering down, they were spectators to the unfolding drama below.
‘They’re coming,’ panted Fritz.
From the woods they had left moments before, a mass of goblins suddenly erupted.
‘Zigzag,’ was all Philip’s answer.
Stupefied by the sight of the horde, the sergeant took a moment to react. Overcoming his paralysis, he yelled to the troops below him, ‘Sound the alarm, we’re under attack.’
Jumping to his feet, a guardsman on the battlements below them rushed over and pulled a lever. Inside the tower a great bell rang out. The other soldiers grabbed their weapons and dashed for the battlements.
‘Ulric preserve us!’ The sergeant slid down the ladder swearing and yelled at his soldiers, ‘Give covering fire’. Elsewhere within the fortress shouting could be heard.
‘Change direction,’ Philip ordered, as a flight of arrows hit the road beside them. Arrows were whizzing past and hitting the ground all around them.
‘We can’t make it. They’re getting closer,’ Fritz moaned.
From the fortress a shot rang out. A goblin at the front of the warband shuddered and fell to the ground.
‘Gotcha!’ yelled the handgunner and danced a little jig.
A moment later a volley took several more.
A few of the leading goblins hesitated, but most continued at a run towards the fleeing pair.
‘Get it down,’ bellowed the gate master to the two other guards who were furiously attempting to lower the footbridge. Another was pulling back the bolts of the wicket gate.
‘What’s going on?’ screamed the duty officer as he rushed into the courtyard, as had two dozen soldiers armed variously with swords, handguns, halberds and crossbows.
‘Don’t give in now,’ pleaded Philip, ‘We’re nearly there!’ The fugitives were now less than a hundred yards from the gate.
‘Look out, there’s one right behind you,’ bellowed Fritz.
The greenskins were gaining fast. The nearest goblin fell back transfixed by a well-placed arrow in his chest. A stream of arrows and a succession of gunshots from the fortress gave them some hope. Many found their mark and goblins writhed in agony or fell senseless to the ground. The rest slowed down.
‘Getcha forvard! Katch de vermin!’ berated the boss goblin.
The slight pause in the pursuit had allowed the men to get close to the fortress. The footbridge was nearly down and the gate open. From the doorway, two guards were anxiously peering out at the scene.
The sergeant arrived in the courtyard. Ignoring the duty officer, he shouted at the milling guard, ‘Gunners and bows get to a loophole, and fire! The rest of you form up near the gate.’
This restored some order and the crossbowmen and handgunners disappeared into the gatehouse. The rest formed up in the open space facing the main gate. The sergeant at arms moved over to the officer.
‘Sir, permission to fall in with the men.’
‘Yes sergeant. What’s the fuss?’
‘Patrols in trouble, sir.’ In a few words, the sergeant summarised the emergency.
‘One last dash, Fritz’. The scouts were nearly at the drawbridge.
‘Look at that,’ exclaimed one of the guards on the tower. Five wolves ridden by goblins had broken through the confused ranks of goblins and charged after the fugitives. At this, the goblin warband surged forward again.
‘Fire!’ ordered the master. The big piece exploded in flame and smoke. Impossible to miss at short range, the cannon shot tore through the dense mass.
‘Arrk!’ screamed the goblins as they turned tail and ran.
‘Didza see that?’ The shot had passed clear over the heads of the wolf riders.
‘Raise the drawbridge,’ yelled Philip needlessly as the two of them pounded onto the platform and the safety of the gatehouse.
The guards started to crank up the drawbridge. It was too late. The first three wolf riders jumped onto the gangway and charged at the scouts as they entered the wicket gate.
‘Get ze huymanz,’ yelped the first goblin rider.
‘Yagzuch,’ screamed the fourth rider as the wolf tried to scramble onto the drawbridge as it rose into the air. He lost his hold on the wolf and with a loud scream was pitched into the chasm below.
The fifth never made it. Wolf and rider missed the footbridge entirely and they arched into the moat, to be smashed to pulp on the sharp rocks.
‘Wooahh’, howled the wolves as they trampled or pushed aside the two exhausted scouts and the three guards as they dashed headlong into the fortress.
‘Look out,’ exclaimed a soldier as he fell back out of the way. The wolves sped into the courtyard.
The surprised soldiers retreated and huddled in a disorganised in the middle of the courtyard.
‘Kill zem!’ screeched a rider as the enraged animals ran around the courtyard, snapping to left and right. Gripping as best they could, their riders swung their swords wildly in the air.
‘Aaah!’ screamed one of the soldiers at the top of his voice.
‘Ulric preserve us!’ exclaimed a swordsman.
The soldiers were trapped. Those nearest the wolves did their best to defend themselves. Swords and pikes flailed about. The wolves kept their distance.
Then one of the wolves charged at an open door from which bystanders watched the developing drama.
‘Close that thing,’ yelled a voice and as the animal sped towards it.
The door slammed shut. Then the other doors onto the enclosure were also quickly closed. The wolves and their riders were trapped but, in turn, they had the guard caught in the middle of the courtyard.
‘Form up! Take position!’ The sergeant tried to make himself heard over the clamour. He cursed and shoved and got the men into some semblance of order.
‘Follow me,’ he cried and leading a small group from the front, he barred the path of one of the circling wolves. ‘Take that,’ he roared and swinging his sword in a menacing arc, he traded blows with the goblin rider.
The wolf tried to bite him. The sergeant dodged the fangs.
The other soldiers now attacked the wolf which slowly backed away from its attackers.
The sergeant’s example encouraged the rest of the guardsmen to set upon the other animals and their riders. A furious melee ensued. Hack and trust by the soldiers was met by snap and parry by the wolves and their riders.
It was a fight to the death. The goblins had nowhere to go and the soldiers knew they had to kill them – or be killed. In the desperate skirmishes, a wolf bit a soldier and screaming in pain he collapsed. Two of his comrades stood over him with their pikes to protect him from further harm. Another was stabbed by a goblin and he keeled over onto the cobbles.
But sheer numbers began to tell. First a wolf succumbed to its wounds, then the goblin, trapped and cornered. No quarter was given nor any asked and he was impaled on two pikes. The victors then turned to assist their comrades against the remaining invaders. While the goblins fought to the last, they had no chance. The soldiers were implacable. Soon no live enemy remained in the yard.
'Well done,’ came a voice. The commander of the garrison stood at one of the doors. He made an impressive figure in his full armour. His one good eye fixed on the scene of carnage, his other eye was hidden by a black leather patch. This gave him a ferocious appearance. ‘Get the wounded seen to,’ he ordered.
‘Sir,’ came a voice. The two scouts, unhurt but badly bruised emerged from the gatehouse and approached the commander. Philip, the one who had spoken, continued, ‘Wish to report, sir, that several very large bodies of goblins, on foot and riding wolves and other creatures are proceeding through the pass.’
‘Thank you for the information,’ replied the commander, ‘You did well. I’ll put in a good word with Hans. You may go.’ He turned to the staff officer at his side, ‘Send a message to Averheim informing them of our situation.’ The duty officer immediately ran to comply.
Markus could now hear the voices of the approaching goblins.
‘Tiz a bet, we kilz da humanz.’ ‘Stop shovin’, sleazebag!’ ‘Keep yer fingaz outa ma face!’ Their talk was a series of insults.
Markus observed that a good deal of shoving and pushing was going on.
Incredibly, the group marched past him.
Downwind, he could smell them now. They gave off a musty, dank, moldy smell, like week-old rubbish on a hot day. Keeping very still Markus observed the main body proceed down the road. It dawned on him that these goblins weren’t on a raid; this was an invasion! The discovery made Markus more determined to get back to his own kind.
The bulk of the force had now passed him and the tail had thinned out considerably. Some of the laggards were eyeing the dead horses. He noticed that a few stopped to cut off parts of the flesh, before hurrying on to rejoin their companions.
Then only two remained.
‘I’ze a bad feeling ‘bout this.’
‘Whatza matter, Snotzy, ‘fraid of dead humanz?’ said the other goblin.
Markus observed the two goblins were working their way down the road, systematically turning over the bodies in search of loot.
‘Wiz be rich from zeth eazy pickings, no Snotzy?’
The goblin called Snotzy looked very glum. ‘Bigga Boss no lika thiz,’ he replied morosely.
‘Bigga Boss no need to know,’ his companion replied acidly.
‘Bigga Boss, no know,’ added Snotzy without much conviction.
Markus was torn between panic and fear. Discovery was certain. Part of him told him to run; the other part was ready to extract a grim price on the green thieves. While his emotions fought, a part of his brain was furiously computing what to do. All the while, the two goblins were getting closer. Their desire to rob the cadavers of all valuables meant Markus’ doom.
‘Eza, lookze ov’r there! In za trees.’
‘Yezza, Snotzy, that’za one we mutza look at.’
Markus knew they had spotted him but they showed no sign that they knew he was alive. They were less than five yards away. It was do or die time.
Jumping to his feet, swinging his sword in a wide arc, he charged the two goblins.
‘Ulric give me strength,’ he shouted as he ran at them.
His attack caught them off guard and they remained rooted to the spot.
Using the surprise to his advantage, swinging his sword in a wide arc Markus struck off the head of the nearest goblin.
This brought the other goblin to life. The greenskin whipped up his sword.
Markus, still charging forward, now thrust at the other goblin.
The goblin danced out of the way and easily parried the blow. Immediately, the goblin struck back, but luckily missed him.
Markus now came to a stop.
For a brief moment, the two adversaries eyed each other.
Markus thrust again; again the goblin quickly parried and thrust back.
Markus held the response, but only just. He thought, this goblin is quick. Markus knew he had to finish him off rapidly and began to reach for his pistol; but thought better of it.
They exchanged strokes.
The goblin hit back.
Once more Markus was able to parry the jab.
This swordplay continued for several more exchanges.
Then the gibbering goblin, realising the predicament he was in against a bigger, more powerful adversary, made a supreme effort and lunged recklessly at Markus.
The unexpected attack caught Markus off-guard.
The goblin’s blade struck him in the chest. Fortunately his armour deflected the blow. Markus only had time to slash out frantically at the stinkbug before him.
The goblin now desperate thrust again at his chest.
Markus was again saved as the blow again failed to penetrate.
In retaliation, Markus’s sword came up and pierced the goblin full in the chest. Markus pulled it out ready to strike again. He didn't need to.
The greenskin swayed a moment and then fell to the ground.
The fight over, Markus fell to his knees, his whole body shaking and his head pounding. He kneeled for only a few seconds as his mind, alert to the danger he was in, prompted him to scan his surroundings. Fortunately, there were no greenskins within sight. All he saw was a lonely bird high in the sky making its way down the valley.
Collecting himself and rising to his feet, Markus wiped his sword on the goblin’s cloak and returned it to its scabbard. Before leaving, he made sure he had all the weaponry and ammunition he had collected. He then proceeded as fast as he could across the road and the strip of grassland and into the woods opposite.
After going some distance through the forest he found a dense patch of undergrowth where he rested. Hungry and tired, he ate the last of his provisions. Then he examined all the weapons he had acquired. The two handguns and the rifle all appeared to be in working order. He proceeded to clean and reload his arsenal. He grinned at the amount of firepower he now possessed. With this, he smiled inwardly, yesterday’s encounter by the river would have had a very different outcome.
Once the task complete, he continued cautiously on his way uphill, trying to make sure his course through the forest led him in the direction of friend rather than foe.
The heavy undergrowth slowed his advance. Markus also sought to avoid leaving evidence of his passage in case he was being followed.
Eventually he came to a clearing. The break in the canopy allowed him to see that the weather was improving. The storm clouds of the morning were beginning to thin and turn a lighter shade of gray.
Keeping to one side of the grassland, he was able to make better progress for a while. However, he was soon back in the undergrowth once more when he reached the far side.
Sometime later, as he proceeded, Markus thought he had stumbled on another clearing. An instinct told him to take great care.
Going on all fours, he emerged through a bush to see a narrow forest track that lay at right angles to his line of advance. A quick reconnoiter indicated there was no one in sight.
Markus retreated into the bush and considered the situation. His previous encounters suggested that it was likely that parties of goblins would be using the paths and roads and that any movement along that way could only have one result. The only alternative was to continue through the virgin forest.
On hands and knees, he carefully crept back to a point where he could see the path in order to cross over and continue his journey through the forest on the other side. He noted that the coast was clear in both directions. Listening intensely, he heard nothing.
Composing himself, he rose to his feet and ran across the path and into the wood and the thickets.
Once over, he turned to face the way he had come and dropped to the ground. Silence engulfed him for a moment. Then he heard voices. He lay motionless, almost fearing to breathe.
Along the track came a party of goblins. In front, yielding a large sword and holding a round shield came a black-clad greenskin, larger than the others. Two other goblins, armed with spears flanked him. Behind came four goblins carrying a stretcher.
Markus immediately noted that they were carrying a bound human. The contours of the body and long red hair told him made it plain the victim was a girl or young woman. Then she moaned. She’s alive, he thought. From his hiding place he watched the party pass along the trail, unaware of his presence.
Markus knew he had to do something for the captive. Deep down some sense of decency, of soldier’s duty or proper conduct told him he had to go to her rescue. The logical part of his mind told him there was nothing he could do and not to get himself killed. Telling himself he was being stupid, he rapidly discarded most of his kit, leaving himself just his sword, dagger, and repeater pistol.
Rising up and drawing his sword, he sped down the trail after the retreating goblins.
Unburdened as he was, he quickly caught up. Without slackening pace, he bore down on the unsuspecting foe. Just as he was about to dispatch the rearmost greenskin stretcher-bearer, his intended victim turned to look in Markus’ direction. Before the luckless goblin could utter a word, Markus’ sword had eviscerated him.
The goblin collapsed, unbalancing the stretcher, and throwing the other three goblins into confusion.
Taking advantage of the confusion, Markus was able to severely wound the other rearmost goblin.
“Aaarghwahh.’ His victim’s cries of pain echoed through the forest.
Now all surprise was lost. The three leading goblins turned at the shriek. Seeing Markus, the two remaining porters had dropped the stretcher and were drawing the weapons hanging from their belts.
Markus now faced odds of five against one.
‘Kilz da humanz,’ their leader shouted. He charged at Markus.
‘Not so fast, vermin, yelled Markus. With practiced speed, he drew his pistol and fired at the nearest target.
‘Eeugh.’shrieked one of the stretcher bearers. The impact of the bullet spun the goblin around to fall crashing to the ground.
‘Yeeh-hah,’ cried Markus.
A second shot a split second later thudded into the other goblin stretcher-bearer who fell backwards over the litter. A curse came from the prisoner.
The goblin leader roared, ‘Killa, killa, killa.’
Markus’ third shot buried itself in the goblin big boss’s shoulder, momentarily stopping him, but he kept on his feet.
The two spearmen, screaming incoherently, now charged.
‘I’m not finished yet,’ Markus cried out as battle rage gripped him.
His forth shot left a big hole in the forehead of the one on his left. The greenskin, killed outright, slowly toppled over backwards.
The big boss, yelled in fury, ‘Spitz him.’
Markus’ fifth bullet winged the other goblin who, his spear leveled for attack, kept on coming. Markus fired once more, hitting the greenskin full square in the chest. The warrior flopped face down on the ground.
‘Aaargh’ screamed the big boss leader as he swung his meat cleaver at Markus’ unprotected head.
Markus ducked, narrowly dodging the assault. He swung his blade at the goblin. There was a tremendous clashing of metal on metal as the two opponents crossed swords.
They separated and eyed each other.
The two contestants circled each other slowly.
Markus watched his opponent for any sudden movements.
The goblin swore at Markus and charged.
Markus jumped. He only just managed to avoid the big boss’ wicked sword as it swung through the air passing where he had been a split second before. This guy’s fast, he thought. He also noted the goblin did not seem much bothered by his wound.
Again the two stood a few feet apart, warily watching each other.
Markus noticed the goblin was trying to move him away from the stretcher that was behind him. So that’s your game, he thought.
He raised his pistol as if to fire.
‘Gurraff,’ the big boss leaped at him.
Expecting the greenskin’s attack, Markus rolled and at the same time used a foot to kick the goblin in the lower abdomen as he passed.
‘Ugh,’ the goblin fell heavily to the ground.
Jumping to his feet, Markus tried to stab the greenskin.
But the goblin, as fast as lighting, used his sword to block the blow. Keeping his sword up, the goblin slowly got to his feet.
‘That hurt, didn’t it,’ Markus taunted his opponent between laboured breaths, trying both to madden and distract the greenskin.
‘Humanz dies,’ snarled the goblin, but did not charge. Markus noticed that blood was poring out of the bullet wound.
‘Grobi dies,’ retorted Markus. Sword at the ready, he advanced on the creature.
The big boss retreated slightly.
‘Garrrgh,’ yelled the greenskin as it suddenly attacked.
But it was not quick enough. Markus sidestepped the charge and evading the swirling sword rammed his sword into the brute’s mouth.
The sword was yanked from his hand as the goblin fell dead.
Markus fell to his knees, his body shaking with tension. As he trembled, he muttered loudly, ‘That was close.’
‘Hey,’ came a voice, ‘what about me?’
Markus got to his feet and went over to the stretcher. In a weak voice he acknowledged her presence, ‘Hi. Give me a second and I’ll cut you lose.’ He pulled the dead greenskin out of the way. Then taking out his dagger he cut the bonds that held her captive.
‘Thanks,’ she said, ‘I owe you my life.’
Looking up at him was a young woman. She wore a plain costume in what he took to be the local peasant style. He noticed again her long flowing red hair. Something stirred within him.
‘Yeah,’ was all he could say.
‘Well, you’re not very communicative for a hero.’ She rubbed her hands and sat up.
Markus realised how he must look. A savage. His dirty, torn clothing in rags, unkempt hair and beard sprouting twigs and leaves. He looked down at her with blue penetrating eyes. Markus saw her look at him and freeze.
He burst out laughing.
‘I’m sorry,’ he said a bit later recovering from the giggles, ‘Please forgive me. I didn’t see myself as a hero. I saw how you reacted.’ Patting himself, he went on, ‘Covered in mud as I am, I must look more like a wildman than a hero.’ He paused before continuing, ‘Let me introduce myself, I’m Lieutenant Markus Reutger of the Engineer School of Altdorf and lately in charge of a troop of Outriders patrolling up the road. And whom have I rescued?’
‘I’m Narissa Daevon’
‘Pleased to meet you, Narissa.’ Then in a business like tone, ‘Can you stand?’
‘I think so, they tied me so tight, I lost all circulation in my hands and feet. But I’ll be alright in a moment.’
‘Good, because we’ve got to get away from here.’
He went over and retrieved his sword from the big boss. He used the dead goblin’s tunic to wipe it clean before returning it to its scabbard. ‘The shots will have alerted all the greenskins in these parts to our presence. And I can tell you there’s plenty about.'
He held out a hand to help her to her feet.
Leading, he walked as fast as she could hobble back to where he had left his equipment. As they went along, he interrogated her.
‘Where you from Narissa?’
‘I live in a village not too far from here,’ she replied. ‘Oh!’ she exclaimed, ‘that hurts.’ She stumbled. He reached out to steady her. ‘I’m sorry,’ she went on, ‘I’m all afire in my hands and feet.’
‘I’m sorry.’ He inquired, ‘Do you know where we are?’
‘Yes,’ she said. ‘Oh!’ she exclaimed again, ‘Behind us, the track leads back to my village. If we go on, we’ll rejoin the road further up the valley.’
‘Is there another way?’ he wanted to know, ‘We can’t use this track or the road. Can we go through the forest?’ Markus pointed in the direction he wanted to go.
‘I think so. The undergrowth is thick around here, but it gets thinner further along,’ she replied helpfully. “And we would soon come to more open pastureland,’ she added.
‘Good,’ he said. ‘I’ve left some equipment just over there.’ He pointed. ‘Look you’d better have this.’ He gave her his dagger. ‘You know how to use it?’
‘Oh yes. Our village borders the mountains. I was caught by surprise and they took my knife. She added with a grin, ‘But not before I had wounded one of them.’
This brought a smile to Markus’ lips, but he did his best to hide it from her.
‘Whatza zat?’ asked Smerzol, the goblin chieftain, to his second in command.
‘Humanz gunz,’ came the reply. In the distance more shots rang out.
‘Wez goz killz uz some humanz,’ Smerzol ordered. Turning to the warband that marched behind him, he bellowed out an order to advance at the double.
The greenskins, weapons at the ready, surged along the track towards the spot from which the gunfire had resounded.
‘I don’t like this. We’re going up. Couldn’t we follow the contours of the hill?’ Markus asked.
The two fugitives were battling through thick undergrowth that barred their passage. This was made more difficult by the fact they were trying to climb up the sides of the valley. The way, a gentle slope at first, had now become a steep climb. Tired and burdened as he was, Markus found the going tough.
Narissa answered him, ‘We’ll be out of the wood soon. The ground should level off a bit when we come to the grazing ground ahead.’ She also found the way difficult and stumbled. ‘Oh!’ she exclaimed. Markus, turned and seeing her fall, reached out a hand. ‘Thanks,’ she said.
Holding hands they climbed on in silence, for the moment too tired to speak. As Narissa had indicated, the forest floor began to open up and the hill began to flatten. Soon they came to a large meadow. At some distance ahead of them, Markus saw forest started again. The rough grassland alternating with rocky outcrops stretched out to either side as far as he could see.
‘I’d like to keep out of sight in the forest,’ he said, ‘Can we follow the edge of the wood around?’
‘This meadow runs a long way across the hill. Judging by where we are, I would guess it’s over a mile before the forests join up,’ she informed him.
‘Um’ He paused. ‘We’ll lose too much time then. I don’t much like it but we’ll have to chance going across.’ He paused again and then muttered, ‘I’ll lead. Keep alert for anything that may be following us.’
His mind made up, Markus set out at the best pace he could muster with Narissa following close behind. The grassland provided fair going. Markus spied out a course for the woods that allowed them to cross in a roughly straight line but avoided the rocky patches. All the while, he scanned ahead to spot if anyone lurked in the woods to their front. Nothing stirred.
Once in the open, he was able to get a good view of the valley. Heavy clouds still blotted out the sky and hid the peaks. Below parts of the road were visible but nothing unusual caught his eye. Their trek was uneventful. They had covered over five hundred yards and the forest was now less than a hundred yards ahead. Markus could begin to make out individual details. Still nothing indicated they were being watched. We’re going to make it, he thought.
They were just passing a rocky patch to his left when Narissa pointed and exclaimed, ‘Oh, Markus, look!’
He turned to look where she had indicated. Behind them, emerging from the woods they had just climbed through was a large band of goblins. Markus was dismayed. He knew without having to count that the force pursuing them was too large to fight and would soon catch them up, tired as they were.
‘What shall we do?’
‘Run for the forest and get away. I’ll delay them,’ he replied.
She immediately replied, ‘I’m not leaving without you.’
‘Don’t be a fool,’ he said, but somehow her willingness to share the danger encouraged him.
Taking hold of her hand, he dashed for the nearby rocky outcrop.
‘Zer zey are!’ exclaimed one of the leading goblins. The goblins were already anticipating their revenge.
The scene of carnage they had found on the track had enraged the goblin big boss and his troops. The trackers had had no great difficulty in picking up the humans’ trail. They had immediately launched off in pursuit. Now their prey was in sight.
‘Faster,’ the big boss shouted.
With howls of anger and anticipation the warband surged up over the grassland.
Markus threw himself behind the rocky outcrop where he could observe the advancing horde.
‘Narissa, watch out and tell me if any of them get too close.”
Placing the two repeater handguns on the ground, he busied himself with the rifle. Taking it from its case he laid the barrel on a rock and sighted the enemy.
Suddenly the weapon barked. She could see one of the leading goblins double up and sink to the ground.
‘You got him,’ she yelled.
‘Darnation,’ snarled Markus.
‘I hit the wrong one. I was aiming at the sharman. That imbecile leader stepped in front as I fired.’
‘Won’t that stop them?’ she wanted to know.
But Markus did not immediately respond. He was frantically pulling out the ramrod and cleaning out the barrel. He barked at her as he concentrated on the job at hand, ‘Tell me what’s happening.’
She turned to observe their assailants.
‘They’re milling around,’ she reported. Pause. ‘There’s one with his hands in the air and the others are watching him,’ she went on.
‘That’ll be the shaman,’ Markus informed her as he poured gunpowder into the barrel.
‘Oh! Two reddish round things with goblins on top are charging towards us.’
Markus redoubled his efforts to reload his piece. As he worked, he felt a sudden spasm and a growing sense of cold. He found it difficult to breathe.
As if down the wrong end of some long tunnel, he heard Narissa ask him what was happening. It’s that darn shaman, he thought. I must go on.
By pure will he managed to ram the bullet into the barrel and cock the rifle. He lay flat, sweat beading his brow. He tasted blood in his mouth. I must, he intoned, I must… Slowly he focused on the scene across the meadow. He called on reserves of willpower and energy he did not know he had.
With every muscle screaming, he pointed at his target. I must hit him, he intoned, I must…
‘Waah, ha!’ chanted the goblins as the shaman intoned the magic spell. The unexpected death of the war boss had momentarily left the goblins stunned and leaderless. The shaman had then begun to cast his enchantment on the human foe.
The goblins had responded to the incantation by wildly dancing around. They could see that both the humans had already slumped to the ground. Soon they would rush up and make them pay. The idea of killing them slowly and painfully drove the goblins to jerk about in exhilaration.
A soft cough. ‘M’Lord,’ came a voice from the door, interrupting the thoughts of the room’s sole occupant. ‘We have news from the pass,’ the voice added.
‘Come in, Victor,’ came the reply.
The man called Victor entered the sparsely, but expensively furnished room. It was a study, dominated by a large desk at which sat a somber man in plain dress. Although the outfit was simple, the shine of expensive silks matched the décor.
‘M’Lord,’ Victor continued, ‘a large body of goblins are attacking the pass.’
‘What do you make of it,’ the other man asked.
‘An invasion, M’Lord. I’m sure of it.’
‘Shall I mobilise the army,’ Victor asked.
‘Can we count on the Emperor?’
‘The White Wolves and the Knights of the Blazing Sun are already here.’ He added, ‘they’re some of the Emperor’s best.’
‘Quite,’ said the other man. Getting up and taking a map out of a rack, he laid it out on his desk. ‘Now, where do you think we should bring them to battle?’
Victor looked at the map for a moment. ‘I suggest here,’ and he pointed at a place on the map where the old dwarf road crossed the Reik. We could allow them to cross this bridge and then, once most of their army was across, we would attack. They would be pinned by the river. That would prevent them retreating. If we had to, we could withdraw along here.’ He traced a route along the map. ‘And regroup here,’ he added.
‘A good plan and may Myrmidia smile on you,’ said the other. ‘However, we must never assume the enemy will do what we want him to.’
‘I don't expect him to, M’Lord.’
‘For the moment, we’ll proceed as you suggest. Give the army the order to march. I’d like to move out in an hour.’
‘M’Lord, I’ve already given the necessary orders.’
‘That’s what I like about you Victor, you don’t wait to be told.’
‘I’ll go and see to the preparations, M’Lord,’ Victor added.
‘Be your efficient self,’ the other said and then, as Victor was about to leave, added, ‘Send in my squire.’
Victor disappeared through the door to see to the movement of the army. As he navigated the many corridors of the palace, he mulled over the fact that Count Marius Leitdorf was always unpredictable. He seemed to like the idea of war, Victor thought. Many he knew thought the count mad. Victor had seen the lad grow up and how war, duty, and disappointment had had their effects on his character.
Ahead loud voices of people arguing in the courtyard stopped him pursuing the line of thought. It was war once again, he reflected as he strode out to sort out the dispute. Victor had seen much war and the idea no longer appealed. He knew he was getting old.
Markus fired. The rifle’s recoil jarred his shoulder hard. Immediately, the drowsy feeling lifted.
‘What happened?’ came a voice.
‘The shaman tried to enchant us,’ Markus explained.
‘Oh no! Look!’ cried Narissa.
The two squigs were bearing down on the pair.
Markus dropped the rifle and snatched up one of the handguns. He fired. He was sure he had hit the nearer of the two squigs, but nothing happened.
‘Yeehah,’ screeched the riders as they bore down on the humans.
Markus fired another four shots in quick succession before the handgun jammed.
The effect was spectacular. The rider was blown off the squig as it disintegrated under the impact of the bullets. The other rider came on at them.
Markus tossed the now useless handgun aside and picked up the second one. He fired.
The bullet grazzed the goblin and appeared to have no effect.
Narissa screamed, ‘Markus, do something!’
He quickly fired again, the gun barked two more times. It too now jammed. Three hits, he was sure of it, but the deadly foe continued to bounce towards them.
‘Kilz,’ yelled the goblin. A wail came from the squig.
Markus slammed his hand on the handgun’s firing mechanism and, aiming from the hip, pulled the trigger.
Bang, bang. Two more shots. One hit the goblin and it teetered and slid off his mount to lie prostrate on the ground. The other buried itself in the squig. It continued its approach, its mouth leering in a savage grin.
‘Ieeeh!’ screeched Narissa as the creature, its huge jaws open to reveal a mass of sharp teeth, sought her out.
Markus drew his sword and rushed to confront the beast as it careered at her. He stabbed at the viscous creature even as it tried to bite him. One bite just grazed him. Another jab and his sword pierced deep into the squig and it backed off, obviously wounded. It tried to escape but with its lifeblood bucketing from its wounds it only managed a few feet before collapsing.
‘Huh, that was close,’ was all Markus could say. He was panting heavily.
The rapid turn of events had left the goblin band paralysed. Now an enormous roar came from the assembled greenskins. ‘Wiz wantz revenge!’
As one they surged forward.
‘Quick, we’ve got to get out of here,’ Markus shouted at Narissa as he scrambled to pick up his weapons.
‘Let me take that,’ she said as he tried to shoulder the second handgun.
The yelling goblins advancing at a run were rapidly crossing the open space that separated them.
‘C’mon,’ ordered Markus.
‘To arms, we’re under attack!’
As if sprouting from the ground, a mass of goblins had suddenly materialised and was trying to assault the fortress. Small groups of the greenskins shouldered a number of roughly made ladders.
The guards posted on the tower, responding to the lookout’s cry, had immediately rung the great bell. Its’ chimes boomed through the fortress.
‘Get t’ ya posts,’ shouted the sergeant-at-arms to the men on the tower.
The soldiers grabbed their weapons and rushed to their positions.
The sergeant looked out at the approaching horde. ‘What the heck,’ he exclaimed as he saw the attackers attempt to escalade the walls. ‘Shoot the vermin carrying the ladders,’ he ordered. Then calling to the halberdiers beside him he led them at speed down to the point of attack.
With the sergeant at its head the party emerged from the tower just in time to see the defenders on the ramparts pushed back by the assaulting goblins. The greenskins had managed to place two ladders against the wall and by sheer numbers were overwhelming the few defenders who occupied the battlements.
‘May this be Ulric’s day!’ the sergeant cried in a loud voice as he charged at the goblins.
‘Aiiiih,’ screamed a goblin as he saw death bearing down on him. The goblin raised its sword in defence.
The sergeant struck at the goblin knocking the sword aside and thrust his steely weapon into the goblin’s chest.
The goblin, mortally wounded, swayed and fell from the rampart to the yard below.
Behind the sergeant, the halberdiers had advanced in line.
The sergeant took control of the group and together they formed a wall of steel, forcing the other goblins back along the wall. Even as they did so, more of the greenskins were clambering off the ladders onto the battlements.
‘Git rid of those ladders,’ ordered the sergeant.
He lunged at a particularly aggressive looking goblin, the point of his sword transpiercing the beast. The goblins gave more ground and, as the group of soldiers fought their way to the nearest ladder, two of the halberdiers used their weapons to push it away from the wall.
The ladder swayed a moment, toppling a number of goblins trying to climb it into the air, before it fell sideways into the moat. The cries of the falling goblins could be heard even above the noise of battle.
‘Kilz dem! Kilz dem! Da plaz iz oorz,’ bellowed a large goblin as it climbed onto the battlements from the remaining ladder.
At the other end of the rampart other troopers had emerged from the doorway to a tower and were beginning to push back the assailants in front of them. The goblins were trapped between the two groups of soldiers.
‘Getz zem,’ yelled the large goblin as it saw its men waver at the two pronged assault.
‘C’mon,’ cried the sergeant.
He fought his way forward, striking down the goblins that stood in his path. He then faced the large goblin.
‘You’re Ulric’s prize,’ he said as they faced off.
‘Humanz, youz end iz now,’ retorted the goblin and struck at the sergeant.
The sergeant parried the heavy blow but the shock of the impact jarred at him. He felt the shock run all the way up his arm.
As quick as a fox, the goblin struck again.
The sergeant warded off the blow a second time. He struck back but the large goblin thrust aside the strike and immediately jabbed back. The sergeant whipped his sword to intercept the blade, but did not quite make it. He felt the goblin’s steel scrape along his ribs. His left side exploded in pain.
‘Huh, huh,’ taunted the goblin as he sought to finish him off. The goblin raised its sword to strike.
‘Not today you don’t,’ came a voice as a sword transpierced the goblin’s neck.
The goblin, still holding its sword as if to strike, slowly crumpled before toppling of the battlements.
‘Hans, I could’ve done him,’ said the sergeant between breaths, recognising the large frame of the scout leader.
‘And if you hadn’t? Who could I fleece at dice during the dark winter months?’ retorted Hans with a smile.
‘I owe one,’ the sergeant shouted at Hans.
But Hans had already turned and disappeared along the parapet to help his men.
As this was going on, the other troops on the wall had pushed away the other ladder. The goblins left stranded on the rampart either had been killed by the soldiers or in a mad panic had leapt into the moat. The victors then went about checking that all the goblins were dead. They attended the wounded, of which the sergeant was one.
‘Course I can get there on my own,’ he grumbled as two of his men tried to help him, ‘It’s nowt but a flesh wound.’ How it hurt, he thought, but he did nothing to show the pain.
Outside the fortress the goblins, thwarted in their attack, had disappeared as rapidly as they had come. The alarm over, the garrison stood down to wait the next assault.
‘Hew, huh,’ rasped Markus, his chest exploding with the effort of running through the forest. His lungs felt as if about to burst. He could sense Narissa was following close behind him.
‘We need a place to hide,’ he panted between laboured breaths.
‘We must keep going a bit longer,’ she replied in spurts.
Their dash from the meadow had taken them back into woodlands. Fortunately, the undergrowth in the part of the forest they were running through was much less dense. The ground under the ashes and sycamores that had replaced the evergreens they had traversed earlier was mostly clear of debris. The major danger was tripping on the roots and stones hidden under the thick carpet of leaves.
Behind them, the sound of pursuit could just be heard in the distance, but they had no idea how close the pursuing goblins were. It was best not to find out. Fear gave them both the strength to run on even as their bodies screamed in agony at the effort.
They had now crossed over the ridge and were now going downhill, which helped a little. The ground ahead began to fall away more rapidly and Markus slowed up.
‘We’re nearly there,’ she breathed in his ear.
‘Down the hill and to the left.’ The direction would lead them once more towards the mountains.
‘Are you sure?’ he queried.
‘I know a place. It’ll hide us,’ she told him. She did not proffer any further information.
They fled on descending into a tree-covered valley. As the slope dropped away, their passage became more difficult. Soon the two of them were sliding down, trying to keep their balance over the rough ground. Below them Markus spotted a river. It was wide and deep.
‘Head up river,’ Narissa told him, ‘there should be a waterfall.’
Their path took them at an angle towards the valley floor.
As the trees parted Markus could see the flash of water ahead. Soon he could make out a spectacular waterfall. It roared over a semi-circle of cliffs that enclosed the end of the valley. Markus looked for a hiding place but could see none. The river was wide and fast flowing. He looked for a place to cross. Making it to the other bank would be difficult, he knew, given how exhausted they both were.
Narissa pointed towards the small lake that had formed at the base of the waterfall. ‘That way,’ she said and, taking the lead, headed for the junction of lake and cliff.
‘You’d better explain,’ he said.
‘There’s a cave behind the waterfall. Nolan and I discovered it when we were last here.’
‘Who’s Nolan?’ asked Markus in a suspicious tone.
‘He’s my brother,’ she answered with a smile.
‘Oh.’ The thought sank in. Then he continued, ‘Wait, I have an idea.’
Taking her hand he led her into the river. He explained, ‘They can follow our scent, especially if they’ve got wolves tracking us. I don’t think they do, I haven’t heard them. But we can’t be too sure.’
They waded through the river and at the lake, keeping within the shallows made for the cliffs.
‘How do we get behind the waterfall?’ he asked as they reached the cliffs.
‘There’s a gap to the side.’
With one hand using the cliff as support they waded as fast as they could towards the sheet of water cascading down the mountainside. Even so their progress, to Markus’s anxious mind, seemed painfully slow. Sometimes the bottom of the lake would dip and they struggled along up to their waists in the icy water.
As Narissa had promised there was a narrow gap, the result of overhanging rocks on the cliffs above. She now took the lead and disappeared behind the curtain of water. Markus, glancing behind to see if the greenskins were in sight did likewise.
His eyes and ears took in the scene. They were in a large cave lit by a diffuse light coming through the water. It was impossible to tell how large it was as the far end was lost in darkness. The roar of the water echoed throughout the cavern.
Advancing into the hole, the floor rose and he stepped out onto dry land. ‘I don’t think they spotted us,’ he told Narissa.
She cast herself down on the sandy floor. He did likewise. They remained like that for some time. Eventually he broke the silence.
‘What is this place?’ he asked.
‘An old legend my parents told me when I was young said this is an old dragon’s lair,’ she told him. ‘The story is that a dragon lived here and terrorised the local inhabitants. It would eat all their sheep and burn down their houses. Eventually, the people banded together and tried to find a way to get rid of the beast. The story says that one of the farmers – an ancestor of our family, of course – came up with the idea of diverting the river to flood the dragon’s lair.’ She paused before continuing, ‘That’s the story, of course. Nolan and I came to see if it was true. We didn’t find anything in this cave. Further up the river though, we did think that it had been diverted to run over the cliff. There is what might have been a dike. It must be very old, as it’s mostly tumbled down now. And we also found what might be the old watercourse. It would have joined the valley further down. So who knows whether the story is true or not.’
Markus smiled, ‘No chance of dragons then.’
For a while they sat in silence. He busied himself with cleaning, checking and reloading his guns. She watched him.
‘I’ve no food,’ he said at last. ‘We’re going to need some. How far is it to your village?’ he asked.
‘It's about two hours walk. The river passes close to the village.’
‘Good, we’ll get help there.’ He did not add the unbidden thought that the village might no longer be there.
He got up and waded back into the water. He tried to peer through the wall of water to see what was happening out in the valley. His efforts were in vain. He did not dare expose himself to get a good view. He gave up and returned to Narissa.
‘We can’t risk being trapped here. We’d better give the greenskins time to leave. It’ll be dark soon, so we’ll head back to your village tomorrow,’ he informed her. Reluctantly she agreed with his plan.
Markus explored the back of the cave as far as the pale light allowed him to see. The floor was largely sand and the area was remarkably dry and warm. He thought they would be comfortable enough for the night. He went back to rejoin his companion.
‘It’s dry enough in here. We can bed down in the sand. Not a feather bed, but comfortable enough. I can’t find anything to light a fire, I’m afraid.’
She nodded. ‘I’ll sleep well even if it was a bed of nails,’ she told him.
‘It’ll get dark soon, I’ll prepare our beds.’
‘Markus,’ she said, ‘I really want to thank you for all you did today. You know, saving my life.’
He interrupted her. ‘Think nothing of it.’ He could not stop himself adding, ‘I would have done it for anyone.’
Her eyes flashed. ‘Well thanks, anyway,’ she said rather woodenly.
As he made up two beds in the sand, Markus cursed himself for being such an idiot.
To be continued…..
Where does the story go from here—the unwritten parts?