One Bullet

A Markus Reutger Adventure


Tony Carden


 [This story is incomplete. You might like to imagine how it might end.]


‘Lieutenant Reutger to see you sir,’ the steward announced before withdrawing.

Markus stepped into the chamber. He found himself in a study. Books lined one wall and a couple of chests another. A deeply recessed window framed by long patterned curtains provided the room’s only light. Seated behind a desk was the room’s single occupant, a swarthy man with close-cropped hair. Markus assumed this was Baron Veicht, Gauleter of Storenheim.

‘You called for me, sir,’ said Markus.

‘I’ll not mince words, Reutger. I need you and your men.’ Markus said nothing. The Baron continued. ‘You may have heard of the Norse raid that took place three days ago. They attacked and looted a village up the coast.’

‘I’d heard your daughter was taken by the pirates,’ said Markus. He had heard it from several sources and took it to be true. The sources all agreed the Baron’s only child had been visiting a distant cousin at the village when it was surprised and looted by the Norsemen.

‘Yes,’ snarled Veicht, ‘and you’re going to help me get her back. I’m mounting an expedition to sail to Norsca.’

‘I can understand your wish to rescue her, sir,’ Markus replied trying to keep his voice polite, ‘but I’m under orders to proceed urgently to Erengrad. I cannot therefore help you.’

‘Pizzouks, Reutger. I need every able-bodied soldier in Storenheim—including you and your troop.’

‘I’m sorry, sir, I have my orders. I cannot stay to help you.’

‘Yes you will, lieutenant.’ Veicht reached down to his lap and pulled up a pistol and pointed it at Markus. ‘I thought you might prove difficult. I’ll kill you, you know, if you refuse. It only takes one bullet.’

‘I believe you will, sir,’ Markus said in a slow deliberate voice. ‘I see I have little choice.’ Veicht pointed the gun away and Markus then added, ‘This will get back to the Emperor.’

‘By then, I’ll have accomplished my mission. And I will be a hero. Your report will be quietly dumped in the imperial archives,’ said the Baron in a dismissive tone.

‘I pray to Ulric you’re right,’ said Markus. ‘May I go now, sir?’

‘Go pack.’ Veicht waved the pistol indicating that Markus could leave. ‘We’re sailing with the tide at dawn.’

Markus didn’t try to argue the situation further with the baron. As soon as he was out of the room he sprinted along the corridor and down the stairs. He then quickly left the castle and moved as rapidly as he could through the crowded streets of Streonheim.

His troop of Outriders was waiting for him in one of the town squares.

When he got close enough to be heard over the murmur of the crowd, he shouted, ‘Get the men mounted up, we’re leaving. Now!’

‘Aye, sir,’ replied his troop sergeant, a big Kislevian called Boris. The sergeant bellowed to the soldiers lounging around the square, ‘Mount up, we’re moving out.’ They sprang into action and within less than a minute the troop was formed up. ‘Where to, sir?’

‘We’ll leave by the Middenheim Gate.’

Markus spurred his horse into a canter and shouted at the crowd to make way. He could hear the clatter of hooves on the cobblestones as the troop followed him.

Boris joined him at his side. ‘What’s the rush, sir?’

Markus quickly filled him in on his meeting with Veicht. ‘The man’s mad,’ he added in conclusion.

‘Aye, most likely, sir,’ agreed Boris. ‘As my mother used to say, it’s best to just melt away from the ‘ard kind of trouble.’

‘My feelings entirely.’ They were now near the gate. Markus looked towards the gateway only to see the portcullis down and a company of soldiers stationed before it.

He led the troop up to the soldiers.

A young officer stepped forward and addressed him. ‘No one’s to leave. Orders of the Baron.’

‘We’re not of these parts,’ Markus tried to bluff him. ‘We’re on the Emperor’s business. Let us pass.’

‘I cannot,’ said the officer. ‘I have orders to let no one out of the city. Please return to your billets.’

Markus could see they weren’t going to be able to leave. He turned his horse and led the troop back to the square.

As they rode back, Boris said, ‘We could’ve taken ‘em, sir, and got out.’

‘Maybe, Boris, but I couldn’t fight our own.’

‘Aye, that would be ‘ard, sir,’ Boris conceded.

In the square a town official met them. ‘I’ve got your instructions. You’re to leave your horses behind. They’re being stabled at the Jolly Flagellant.’

‘We’re being made into bloody infantry,’ grumbled Boris when he heard the news. ‘The men won’t like it.’

‘You’ll sail on the Sans Pareil,’ the official continued.

‘Now we’re effing sailors,’ spat out Boris in a loud voice. The official looked alarmed.

‘Boris, calm yourself. We’ll just have to go along with it until we get an opportunity to continue on our mission,’ said Markus in a firm voice. He turned to the town official. ‘How big is the operation?’

The official replied, ‘About a thousand men.’

Markus probed for more information. ‘What units are going?’

‘They’re from here, apart from you and two canon crews.’

Markus realised the force was mostly made up of local troops, possibly mainly militia. This explained the Baron’s determination to press-gang his troop. ‘Isn’t the Baron taking any mounted troops?’ he asked.

‘Only one ship is suitable for carrying horses,’ the official informed him. ‘It can take about twenty.’ Enough Markus realised to provide a few scouts and a small cavalry picket. The Baron, in his rush to pursue the pillagers, had only waited to assemble whatever units were at hand. It was a small force with little cavalry. With this he planned to attack an unknown enemy in his own country. The whole enterprise was looking decidedly shaky. He inwardly cursed Veicht for involving him in his mad scheme. He also worried for the safety of his men.

The official led them to the inn. There they left the horses in the company of the inn’s stable hand. Then the official guided the troop down to Storenheim’s docks and to the berth where the Sans Pareil was moored.

When they got there Markus was not impressed. The Sans Pareil was a small two-masted schooner, dark hulled from innumerable coatings of caulking. Reluctantly, he led the men down the gangplank and onto the deck.

A grizzled man emerged from below decks. He pointed in the direction from which he had come. He spoke with a strong accent. ‘You can stow yourselves thisser way.’

Markus indicated to Boris to get the men settled. He stayed on deck. ‘What kind of vessel is this?’ he asked the sailor.

‘She’s a good ship,’ the man replied with obvious pride. ‘Sailed up and down these coasts for years. Been to all the ports and places between, she has.’

‘Will it take us to Norsca?’

‘Aye, that she will. Better than ‘em bigger ones, she will.’ The man pointed at two large ships lying in the harbour. ‘She’s a good ship.’ He spat over the side.

‘How long will it take us to get there?’

The sailor looked up at the rigging and then said, ‘Two, maybe three days—if the wind holds.’

Markus couldn’t think of anything else to ask so he followed the men down into the ship.

It was dark in the lower deck and the low headroom meant he had trouble standing upright. Bent double to avoid the beams, he examined the men’s accommodation. He rapidly toured the small lower deck. He realised they would be cramped and fervently prayed that the sailor was right and that they wouldn’t have to spend any longer than necessary on board.

He found Boris arranging his quarters. Two blankets hung from the ceiling curtained off a small part of the deck. He spoke quietly to the sergeant, ‘What’s our chances of taking over the ship?’

‘Easily done, sir,’ the Kislevian said, ‘but we’d need the crew to sail ‘er. But I reckon the crew are loyal to the Baron.’

‘Maybe we can persuade them otherwise,’ Markus mused. ‘Inform the men. I’ll let you know when to move.’

‘Aye, sir.’ Boris left him to pass the word.

Markus wearied by the events of the day lay down. As he gazed up at the timbers, Markus felt daunted by the prospect of a sea crossing to Norsca. Until now, he had only travelled on the many ferries and riverboats that plied up and down the great rivers of the empire.

He spent some time considering the alternatives and apart from seizing the ship, he couldn’t think of anything that would get them out of their predicament without a bloody fight against his own kind.

Night came and the passengers and crew turned in. Markus was lulled to sleep by the gentle lap-lap of the water against the hull.

When more soldiers arrived in the night they woke him up as they tramped across the deck. Markus found himself sharing his corner with the lieutenant who commanded the guard at the Middenheim Gate.

He realised that the presence of the militiamen complicated his plan to take over the ship. He lay awake for some time trying to figure out what to do before falling asleep again.

Markus awoke to noises above him on deck. The motion of the ship changed and he realised they were underway. He knew now there was little chance of quitting Veicht’s mad scheme without starting a war with the Baron’s troops. Something he was not prepared to do at that moment. It might come to it, he thought gloomily.

Later in the day Markus went on deck. The only thing he could see around him was the sea and sky. Being out of sight of land, surrounded by water, was a new and terrifying experience. The only objects in view apart from the whitecaps were the other ships of the expedition. The Sans Pareil formed part of a lose convoy of four vessels. The largest had three masts and boasted several gun ports along its side. Judging by the number of flags flying from its masts Markus assumed the Baron had made this his flagship. The other two ships were too far away for him to make out any details.

Markus made a quick tour of the ship on which he travelled. The sailor of yesterday was at the helm. Markus asked him, ‘How do we know where to sail?’

The sailor replied, ‘He’s got a magician on board to scree for his daughter.’

Markus nodded. ‘Have you ever been to Norsca?’

‘No, but I’ve ‘eard it’s a hard land. All mountains and snow.’

‘Not a friendly place, then.’

‘No. The Norsemen are savages. All they do is fight each other. The slightest insult and blood has to be shed in revenge.’

‘I feared as much,’ Markus said gloomily.

The wind continued to favour the expedition and in the middle of the second night, the Sans Pareil hove to. The change in the movement of the ship woke Markus who came on deck. The grizzled sailor was again at the helm. ‘What’s happening?’ he asked him.

‘We’re close to our destination,’ the sailor replied, ‘we’ll be landing at daybreak.’

Markus nodded and went to the prow to see if he could see anything. All he could observe was the flagship’s lights about two hundred yards ahead bobbing up and down with the swell. He decided there wasn’t much he could do before daybreak and returned to his cabin.

He felt he hadn’t shut his eyes before he was being shaken awake. He looked up and saw one of the sailors. The seaman spoke to him urgently, ‘You’re wanted on deck, sir. The Baron wants to talk to you.’

‘All right, I’m coming.’ Markus followed the impatient crewman up the ladder. He could see dawn was just breaking. The Sans Pareil had come alongside the flagship and the Baron, a megaphone in his hand, was giving instructions to the militia lieutenant. Markus caught the last few words. ‘…you’ll land with the main party.’

The officer waved to acknowledge the orders and then to the helmsman.

The two ships parted company.

‘What was all that about?’ Markus asked the militiaman.

‘We’ll be landing shortly,’ the man replied. ‘There’s some sort of settlement on the coast where the Baron believes his daughter is being held captive.’

‘What are we going to do?’

‘We’re to capture the place,’ the officer replied.

‘Bleeding great,’ fumed Markus, ‘no reconnaissance, nothing.’

‘The Baron feels we should take advantage of the element of surprise,’ countered the other.

‘What can we expect?’ asked Markus.

‘It’s some sort of fishing village. The Baron says we’ll easily overwhelm it.’

‘We’ll see.’ Markus left the man and returned below deck to get his troop ready for the engagement.

A little while later he heard one of the sailors shout. Markus clambered on deck to see what the matter was. A crewman pointed and Markus could just make out the outline of land on the distant horizon. Overhead seagulls soared on the wind. He knew this was his first sighting of the land of the Norsemen.

Within a few minutes, the course of the Sans Pareil brought more of the continent into view. The land, even at a distance, looked rugged. Tall mountains, capped with snow, formed a wall as far as the eye could see. Markus could see the immediate coastline consisted of a large number of small inlets and bays. He could only spot a few places where it looked safe to land. The flagship was headed for a stretch of coast where a rocky promontory formed a natural harbour.

As the Sans Pareil got nearer to the coast Markus began to pick out details. Most of the land was covered in dark evergreens. Everywhere rocky outcrops and shale broke through the green. Near the coast, Markus could make out a number of cultivated areas.

‘Bleeding hell,’ he exclaimed involuntarily.

What Markus had at first taken to be a natural feature closer inspection revealed to be a fortress. He groaned inwardly, realising the formidable nature of their target. He wondered how Veicht would deal with this development. He mentally calculated how long it would take them to breach the defences. Longer, he realised, than it would take a relief force to come to the assistance of its defenders. Parlay seemed the best choice.

The flagship turned into the wind. Markus could see the deck was a hive of activity as the crew launched the small boats. To his amazement, the Sans Pareil passed the big ship and headed straight for a beach. He rushed back to the coxswain who was his friend the grizzled sailor. ‘Shouldn’t we be launding in small boats?’ he asked.

‘Nae bother,’ the sailor said, ‘we can run onto the beach. You can wade ashore.’

‘Isn’t it dangerous?’

‘Naw, we do it all the time,’ came the reply.

Markus judged that, given the ship’s speed, they would be landing in less than a minute, shouted down the hatch. ‘Boris, get the men ready to move at once.’ Markus was pleased to see his men emerge from the lower deck almost immediately. He inwardly gave thanks for his sergeant’s quiet efficiency.

‘Stand by,’ a crewman shouted.

Just then the boat lurched and tilted over. Markus had to hang onto the side to stop himself falling. He made his way towards the prow. He could see a sailor already wading ashore.

Markus swung over the side and clambered down a ladder into the surf and struggled ashore. He immediately checked whether his repeater pistol had got wet. Satisfied, he jogged across the beach and into the dunes to get a better view of the immediate country.

Clambering to the top of a sand dune he found he could see all the way to the fortress about a mile away along the coast. Grassland made up the area in between. He looked around to see a breathless Boris clamber up to join him with the Outriders not far behind. He turned his attention back to the landscape. He immediately noticed movement away to his left. It was a group of people on foot making their way towards the fortress.

He pointed them out to the Kislevian. ‘Boris, if we move quickly, we can intercept them.’

‘Aye, sir, it’ll be quite a run.’

‘Come on, then.’ Markus plunged down the dune on an interception course.

As he raced the party to the gates of the fortress, he observed them. At first, they did not seem to be hurrying, but then they must have spotted the Outriders running towards them and they started to hurry.

Boris caught up with him. Between breaths he panted, ‘Touch an’ go, sir.’

‘We’ll catch them,’ Markus panted back. Indeed, the distance that he had to run was far less than that which the Norse party had to travel. Then he glanced towards the fortress and saw a group rounding the landward side. A flash of reflected light told him they were soldiers.

‘Trouble,’ he breathed, pointing as he ran.

Boris didn’t reply for a moment, before saying, ‘’Bout twenty, sir.’

The information made Markus change his plans. ‘Take six men and head after the fugitives. I’ll deal with the enemy.’

Boris headed off at a tangent. Markus slowed his pace and indicated to the rest of the Outriders their new objective. They continued to jog along for a few minutes. Markus then saw the relief party halt as they realised that Markus was intent on blocking their line of retreat. He watched and smiled inwardly at the obvious debate that was going on. Then the party about turned and headed back towards the fortress, but in such a way as to block his manoeuvre. I’d have made the same decision, thought Markus.

When they were less than a hundred yards away from the enemy, he halted the troop. Briefly, the two sides eyed each other. The Norsemen were variously dressed and armoured. One or two had bows, but most had either a sword or an axe and a large round shield sporting a simple, but bold pattern.

Markus looked around to see how Boris was coping. He couldn’t see him as a fold in the land hid him from view. Then he heard shots.

‘Right men, rapid pace, advance.’

He stepped forward at the same time drawing his pistol and sword.

‘Wait for my command. Two rounds only.’ Ahead, he could see the Norsemen tensing themselves for the coming fight. The bowmen drew their weapons. ‘Fire,’ he shouted.

Immediately, to either side he heard the loud crack of the Outriders’ repeater handguns. Thick smoke billowed away, snatched by the wind.

‘Advance at the double,’ he shouted. He could see a number of the Norsemen had been hit. He brought the troop forward another twenty yards. ‘Two rounds. Aimed shots. Fire,’ he roared. The guns crashed again.

‘Charge,’ he yelled.

He leapt forward eager to come to grips with the enemy.

But they had not waited and were fleeing back towards the safety of the fortress. About eight lay on the ground, either dead or wounded.

Markus stopped when he came to the casualties. ‘Halt, men,’ he ordered. ‘We don’t know what’s ahead.’ He watched as the enemy made their escape to the safety of the fortress. Turning, he could see Boris leading a number of prisoners in his direction. From where he had come, a large number of soldiers were heading in his direction.

One of the first to arrive was Veicht. ‘Good work, lieutenant. I was right to insist you came,’ were his immediate words. Turning to an adjutant, he added, ‘These Norsemen are obviously greatly overrated.’ He turned to an aide de camp. ‘Order an immediate assault. We’ll have this affair over by lunchtime.’

Markus was appalled. ‘Sir, we were lucky. The men won’t have a chance against the fortress.’

‘Pizzouks, Reutger, I saw it all. They’ll surrender when we attack. You’ll see, one volley and they’ll be running like scared rabbits,’ Veicht retorted airily.

‘I doubt it,’ Markus answered in a sarcastic tone.

‘I want you and your men to support the assault,’ was all that the Baron said, ignoring Markus’ comment.

Realising that argument was futile, Markus simply said, ‘Yes, sir.’ He strode off to talk to Boris.

The sergeant was checking the men’s equipment. Markus filled him in on the assault plans.

‘Bad business,’ the sergeant said.

‘Yes, I know,’ Markus replied. ‘We’ve got to do our best—for the men.’ He spat on the ground. ‘Not for Veicht’s glory.’

‘One bullet,’ said the Kislevian as if reading Markus’ thoughts.

‘One,’ Markus concurred. ‘It may come to that.’

An officer interrupted them. ‘The assault party’s ready.’

A large body of soldiers was assembling just out of bowshot range of the main gate. Markus examined them critically. Between them, they only had two ladders. He knew this was not enough to storm the walls.

He turned to the officer. ‘Aren’t there more ladders?’

‘Baron Veicht says we’re not to await for more to be unloaded.’

‘This is madness,’ Markus said. The officer shrugged his shoulders. Markus recognised in the decision the Veicht’s arrogance. ‘By Myrmidia, may the Baron be right,’ he intoned.

‘Amen,’ said the officer and left.

Markus led the Outriders towards the assault party. As he marched to join them, he had a good look at the stronghold. It was of a type sometimes seen in the empire when a temporary fort was required. Its ramparts were made of tree trunks sunk into the earth. Firing slits had been cut into the battlements to provide cover for any archers manning the walls. At each corner, taller towers had been erected. A gatehouse secured the main entrance. The defenders had raised the drawbridge so the assault party would have to negotiate the ditch. Markus eyed it critically. It would slow up the advance and leave the Nordlanders vulnerable to the archers he knew must be hiding behind the battlements. All in all, he did not like what he saw. He reckoned a dozen determined men could hold the place against an army.

‘Nasty place,’ he said to Boris.

‘Aye, sir. They’re well hid.’

So Boris had seen it too, thought Markus. ‘Tell the men to fire only if they see a target.’

‘I’ll tell, ‘em.’

When the Outriders had joined the main party, a colonel of militia explained the plan to Markus. ‘We’ll assault the gate. Your men will provide covering fire as we climb the walls. Once inside, we’ll cut down the portcullis and open the door.’

‘Simple plan,’ said Markus. He tried his best to hide his doubts.

The colonel placed himself at the head of his men and signalled the advance. As he followed the blue and yellow uniforms in front, Markus noticed that Veicht, surrounded by a posse of officers, had come to observe the attack.

At first nothing happened. Only when the first elements got close to the ditch did the defenders show their hand. Suddenly a torrent of arrows was directed at the lead elements. All order was lost and screams, shouts and yells broke out all around.

A few crossbowmen loosed their quarries at the defenders hiding behind the battlements. None of the Outriders fired.

The attack faltered. At minimal range, many arrows found a target and the hapless militiamen fell, some transfixed by more than one arrow.

Some of the men began to fall back.

A few arrows swished past Markus. He was horrified by the turn of events. Just as he steeled himself to order a general retreat an angry voice interrupted him.

‘Why aren’t your men firing?’

Markus turned to see one of Veicht’s officers, purple faced with rage, striding towards him.

‘My men haven’t any targets…’ Markus said.

The officer interrupted him brusquely. ‘Damn you. Tell your men to fire. Damn you. The enemy’s there.’ He gestured at the fortress with his sword. ‘On the ramparts. Are you blind?’

Markus considered arguing with the man. But instead, shouting, to be heard above the noise, ordered, ‘Outriders, volley fire. At my command.’ He looked at the ramparts. ‘Aim for the slits. Two rounds. Fire.’ All around him he heard the crack of musket fire. He caught the smell of burnt powder carried on the breeze.

He looked towards the fortress. He couldn’t tell whether the volley had had an effect. He bellowed again. ‘Aim at the slits. On my command. Two rounds. Fire.’ Again the sound of firing filled the air. He scanned the battlements. He could get no indication of how effective the shooting was. But the defenders continued their storm of arrows at the now totally demoralised and retreating militiamen. Markus felt defeated. He shouted a further set of orders. ‘Aimed shots. Fire at will.’

He turned to Veicht’s subordinate. ‘My men will have to withdraw to reload.’

The man looked despairingly towards the fortress. The Nordlanders were now streaming back, routed by the stiff resistance and helped on their way by flights of arrows. The officer gave Markus an enraged look and strode off to the rear.

Markus waved his hand in the air signalling for the Outriders to pull back.

When his men were safely out of bowshot range, Markus relaxed a bit. He knew the assault had failed miserably, as he had feared. He gazed back towards the fortress and the many dead and injured lying near the ditch. He reckoned nearly a tenth of Veicht’s army had been squandered in the useless assault. He felt anger surge up within himself. Deep anger at the wasted lives. He also knew at whose feet to lay the blame.

He didn’t join the group of officers around the Baron and wasn’t surprised when no one came to ask him to attend the meeting.

He sat for a while watching the fortress and the men helping the wounded. Eventually the young militia officer who had shared his berth arrived. ‘We’re to spread out around the fortress and invest it,’ he said.

‘What’s going to happen?’ asked Markus.

‘There’s a new plan. We’re going to set fire to the gate,’ the officer replied. ‘The men have been ordered to collect brushwood and we’ll pack the ditch in front of the drawbridge. Then we’ll set it alight.’

Markus grunted. ‘How do we avoid being skewered by their archers?’

‘The men will use a pavise.’

‘At last someone sees sense,’ Markus opined.

‘Come, you’ve been allocated a position next to us. We’re around the other side.’ The militiaman pointed towards the far side of the fortress from which Markus had landed.

As the Outriders followed the militiamen to their new position, thick smoke billowed up from the direction of the harbour.

‘What’s that?’ he enquired.

‘A party has been sent to burn everything the enemy’s left on the beach,’ the officer informed him.

Markus shook his head in disbelief. More of Veicht’s work, no doubt, he said to himself.

Many things required his attention after they had moved to their new position. It was nightfall before he had time to exchange more than a few words with Boris. As he sat down by a fire, his sergeant came over with one of the captives.

‘Sir,’ said the Kislevian, ‘This is Valeen. She’s a Nordlander. She was taken prisoner in a raid twelve years ago.’ He turned and spoke to her. ‘This is the lieutenant, I spoke to you about. You can tell him what you told me.’

The woman looked frightened. ‘Don’t be afraid. You’re free now,’ said Markus quietly I nan tempt to put her at ease.

She smiled shyly at him and then said, ‘I told Boris, I mean the sergeant.’ She looked fondly at the big Kislevian. ‘The young girl I look after is Magnusson’s only daughter.’

‘Who’s Magnusson?’ Markus asked.

‘He’s the chief.’

‘We’ve captured his daughter?’


Markus considered the irony for a moment. He wasn’t sure how he could take advantage of this happenstance. He turned his attention to the current situation and sought intelligence on the enemy. ‘How many soldiers has he got?’

‘He leads about a hundred and twenty warriors. Not counting the womenfolk who can also fight.’

‘I take it he has allies.’ The woman nodded. Markus continued, ‘How long will it take them to get here?’

‘I’ve never been to another settlement,’ she said, ‘but when others go to visit they are usually gone at least two days.’

Markus realised this wasn’t good news. ‘Do you have any information on their strength?’

‘No,’ she replied, ‘I’ve only seen small groups when they come to visit. However, Magnusson boasts he is the most important chief in these parts.’

‘This is useful information. Thank you.’ Markus turned to Boris. ‘See she’s looked after.’ The Kislevian nodded. ‘And keep a close eye on the chief’s daughter. She may prove useful.’

‘Aye, sir. That I will,’ Boris said. He led Valeen away.

Markus, tired, quickly turned in. As he drifted off to sleep he turned over in his mind the predicament he and his troop faced. He couldn’t see any way out that didn’t involve Veicht.

Boris shook him awake. It was dawn. The first streaks of sunlight illuminated the fortress. Above it, a small column of smoke rose into the air, bright in the sunlight before dissipating.

‘Here’s a cup of coffee, sir,’ said Boris, passing him a steaming tin mug.

‘Thanks.’ Markus sipped at the hot drink with both hands, grateful for the warmth it gave. He spoke quietly to the sergeant. ‘Boris, see if you can get hold of some ladders. And set the men to making shields.’

‘Aye, sir,’ said Boris. ‘Care to let me know what you’re planning?’

Markus sketched out his idea. ‘We’ve got to capture the fortress soon, Boris. More enemy will be here tomorrow at the latest. Veicht’s plan for firing the gateway may work. But if it doesn’t we’re in trouble. I don’t see him withdrawing until he’s freed his daughter.

‘Aye,sir,’ said Boris. ‘I’ll set the men to work.’ He set off for a group of Outriders huddling around a makeshift fire.

During most of the day, Markus had little to do. The part of the fortress they were guarding was some way away from the gate, which was hidden by a tower. Keeping an eye on the ramparts, he occasionally caught a glimpse of a sentry peering out from behind a battlement.

Bored, he sat and watched the siege’s progress. At some distance away, near the gate, he could see soldiers arrive carrying bundles of wood. A bit later another group helped to drag two canons into position.

Markus dozed off to be woken by the blast of a canon. He looked towards the crew, partially obscured by smoke, who were working rapidly to reload the gun. The other canon fired. From his position he couldn’t see what effect the shots were having.

He signalled to Boris and the two of them paced nearer to get a better view.

As they headed for their vantage point, the Kislevian said, ‘All’s ready, sir. I’ve managed to get two ladders. We’ll hide ‘em near the walls tonight.’

‘Good work, Boris.’

From their new position, Markus could observe the attempt to fire the gatehouse. At the ditch, using a number of pavises as protection, soldiers were flinging fascines onto a large pile that already mostly filled the moat. Arrows shot from the fortress tried to hit them as they worked to complete the task. A few crossbowmen provided a desultory covering fire.

‘That’ll make a tidy fire,’ ventured Boris.

‘They’ll fire it soon,’ Markus observed.

The two of them stood silently and watched as one of the canon fired. It hit the wall high above the gate shattering the thick timbers and sending splinters flying. The result was a small gap in the wooden palisade. Markus was disappointed to see this was the first visible damage from the bombardment.

‘Slow work,’ said Boris, echoing Markus’ own thoughts.

‘At this rate, they won’t have enough time to demolish the wall before Magnusson’s allies turn up.’ Markus had seen enough to make him proceed with his plan. ‘Come on, Boris, we need to get back.’

The two of them returned to the Outriders’ position. To avoid arousing the defenders’ suspicion, Markus went round to the small groups of soldiers sitting or lounging around their campfires, to brief them on his plan.

By the time he completed his task, he heard a sentry pass the news. ‘They’re gonna light the fire.’ The canons, which up to now had roared out at intervals all afternoon ceased firing.

Markus looked towards the gateway. A group of Nordlanders, pavise in one hand and firebrand in the other, were slowly advancing towards the fortress. His view was cut off before they got to the moat. He waited to see signs of the fire.

Minutes passed and nothing happened.

He heard one of the militiamen shout, ‘They’ve managed to put it out.’ Markus cursed inwardly. He recognised he couldn’t now put his plan into operation.

The boom of a canon signalled the renewal of the bombardment. Markus sought out the young officer to find out what was going on. He found him eating some animal his men had caught.

‘What happened?’ he asked.

‘They doused the fire,’ the militiaman explained. ‘They had some water system for smothering the flames. The whole pile’s soaked.’

‘What about the assault?’

‘Veicht’s using the canon to make a breach. But now nothing will happen until tomorrow.’

‘They’d better hurry, because they’ve got reinforcements on the way.’

‘Yes, one of our pickets reported seeing enemy scouts,’ the Nordlander informed him. ‘But we can hold them off. In the open, they haven’t got a chance.’

Markus said nothing. He worried about the militia being caught between the hammer and the anvil. Concerned about the situation, Markus retired to sleep soon after sundown. He lay looking up at the night sky and the stars considering the day’s developments. He couldn’t see how the fortress could be battered into submission before a large rescue force arrived.

He awoke in the morning to the sound of canon fire. The guns kept up a steady rhythm all through his breakfast and into the morning.

Suddenly a great rumble sounded from the fortress and a great huzzah came from the Nordlanders. Word rapidly spread that the gatehouse had partially collapsed.

The militia officer sauntered over to talk. ‘I’ve just come from a briefing. Veicht’s ordered an assault on the breach.’

Markus nodded. ‘I wasn’t informed.’

‘He seems to have taken a dislike to you,’ said the militiaman. ‘You’re not to be involved.’

‘Suits me.’ Markus shrugged his shoulders. ‘Will you be attacking?’

‘I’m to lead my men in the second wave,’ he answered. He paused for a moment and continued, ‘It’s the arrows I fear most. At least face to face, you’ve got a chance.’

Markus tried to reassure him. ‘They’ll have cleared the ramparts by the time you’re in range.’

‘I pray to Sigmar it’s so,’ said the officer. ‘I can’t help thinking of the poor blighters who were skewered trying to climb the walls.’

‘You’ll be fine,’ said Markus with a confidence he did not feel. ‘Just keep going.’

‘Well, I’ve got to get my men organised.’ The officer walked off towards his men.

Markus lost no time in finding Boris. ‘There’s another attack going in. We need to be ready. Once they’re committed, we’ll put the plan into operation.’

‘Aye, sir,’ answered the Kislevian. ‘I’ve gone over it with the men, sir.’

‘Speed will be important,’ added Markus. ‘Remember your instructions. Once we’re in, you’re to bring up Valeen and the chief’s daughter.’

‘Indeed, sir. The men will do it. Just as you planned.’

‘I pray to Ulric it’s so. If not, we’ll either end up dead or slaves.’

Markus inwardly tensed for the coming battle. Outwardly he tried not to behave in a way that would look suspicious to the guards on the wall. He watched the men. Apart from the sentries, they all lounged about as if engaged in small chores or resting.

A bit later, over by the gatehouse, Markus could see the assault being prepared. Without dead ground, it was impossible to hide the preparations from the defenders manning the fortress. Most of the men carried protection against missiles either individual shields or groups holding a pavise.

Markus looked towards the fortress. He couldn’t see what the defenders were up to, but he surmised they must be bracing themselves for the assault.

Then both cannon fired simultaneously. A loud cry arose from the men. The first group surged forward at a trot. Fascinated by the spectacle Markus reluctantly looked away to see what Boris was doing. He spotted the sergeant rapidly pacing towards him. Markus waved. The Kislevian nodded and headed back the way he had come.

Markus knew the decisive moment had arrived. He shouted loudly at his men, ‘Let’s go.’

All around him soldiers suddenly sprung into action. Many clutched makeshift shields, others held the two ladders.

Markus ran towards the walls. An Outrider pounded along beside him.

‘ ‘Er sir,’ the man said, ‘The sergeant said you’re to have this.’ And passed him a crude shield made out of branches and split timbers.

‘Thanks,’ said Markus. He glanced behind him to see the ladder team racing to catch him up. At any moment he expected a hail of arrows from the fortress. But at first nothing happened. Then a crude trumpet blast resounded from the battlements.

‘Hurry,’ he shouted, ‘They’ve spotted us.’

He dropped back to let the carrying party set up their ladder on the wall. Just then a few arrows streaked through the air, one glancing off the soldier’s armour.

‘Quickly,’ he yelled to relieve the tension building inside of him.

The men raised up the ladder and with a thud brought it down onto the top of the wall.

Even before they had tested its solidity, Markus was climbing the first steps, one hand holding the shield for protection in front of him. Encumbered in armour and holding the shield he could only ascend slowly.

As he climbed a shot rang out. He looked up to see a Norseman slumped over the battlements. ‘Good shot,’ he shouted to no one in particular.

Suddenly an arrow hit his shield. The impact nearly knocked him off and he had to use both hands to steady himself. Another arrow struck his armour a glancing blow, but did not penetrate. Gripping the shield ahead of him, Markus unhitched his handgun before climbing further.

Then he could see over the top of the battlements and the various buildings within the fort.

As he came level with the battlements, an enemy soldier rose up, axe in hand.

Without hesitating, Markus pointed his pistol at the man and pulled the trigger. Two shots rang out and the axeman slowly crumpled backwards.

The shock of the weapon’s recoil nearly led to him falling off. He fell prone onto the ladder, one foot loose. He quickly sought a rung. A yell of pain behind him told him he had stepped on someone’s fingers.

His balance restored, Markus advanced up the last few feet and jumped onto the rampart. He quickly looked around. A few feet away, he could see another Norseman, sword and shield in hand, rushing to attack him. He raised his pistol at him.

Blam. Blam.

The man collapsed. As he did so he dropped his shield which skidded away to disappear into the fortress.

No more immediate threats present, Markus discarded the makeshift shield, holstered his pistol and drew his sword.

Then turning around he saw another soldier rushing towards him.

His attacker raised his sword to strike.

Markus countered with a thrust of his own.

The Norseman parried and tried to drive past his defence.

Markus kicked out violently at the man’s groin. He felt his boot impact and the man groaned in agony before doubling up. Markus then whiplashed him for good measure.

Markus threw the man’s weapons over the battlements. Behind him, as he did so, he could hear one of his men clamber onto the rampart.

‘Cover our position,’ Markus ordered. ‘Only fire if we’re attacked. And keep an eye on the prisoner in case he tries anything.’

Markus now scanned the inside of the fortress. He could see many warriors near the gatehouse. Some, however, were headed in his direction. Others were climbing onto the rampart from the stairs from the courtyard. He stepped over to look back out over the battlements. A number of Outriders were on the ladder. He noted Boris and the two women had just started their ascent. Others were covering the battlements with their handguns. He waved and the men on the ground cheered.

He realised the fort wasn’t won yet. He kept a careful watch for the counterattack he knew was coming. As more Outriders reached the wall, they deployed to defend against an assault from either direction.

Then Boris arrived. ‘We did it!’ he exclaimed.

Markus grinned. ‘Bring Valeen.’ He went over to the prisoner and shook him. The man stirred. ‘We’ll see if we can finish the business.’ Turning to Valeen he said, ‘Tell him that I want him to go to his chief and that I want to talk with him.’

She spoke to the prisoner in Norse.

The man nodded.

‘Come, we’ve no time to lose.’ Markus then set off along the wall towards the gate, keeping a sharp lookout. Two Outriders escorted the prisoner. ‘Can you spot Magnusson?’ he asked Valeen.

‘Yes,’ she replied. ‘He’s by the gate. He’s the one gesturing in our direction.’

‘I can see him.’ Markus pointed out the chief to his prisoner, who nodded. Markus indicated for the man to go.

The prisoner hesitated.

Markus repeated his gesture.

Then the man darted along the wall towards the gatehouse and the Norseman chief.