Your Duty—and More
A lieutenant Markus Reutger adventure
The dark-haired woman approached. ‘I’ve been searching for you Markus,’ she said in a soft melodious voice. She smiled. ‘You’re mine.’ She stepped forward and opened her arms to embrace him. As she did so, she underwent a horrible transformation. Her face widened into a snout. She opened her mouth to reveal razor-sharp fangs. Her skin turned a dark green, harsh and pot marked. Her hands coarsened into claws and her fingers grew talons. With one swipe, she ripped open his belly.
Markus screamed. He looked down as his guts spilled out. He screamed again as she started to feast on his entrails.
‘Wake up, sir,’ said Boris, his troop-sergeant, as he shook Markus awake. ‘You’re having a bad dream.’
Markus tried to make sense of what the Kislevian was saying. The sergeant fumbled about in the dark until he managed to light the lamp. The spluttering flame threw a faint light on the room’s bleak furnishings: a canvas cot, a table and two battered chairs. Boris continued: ‘You’ve got a visitor, colonel Habich.’
At his name, the colonel stepped in, ducking to avoid the low door. ‘I take it you’re expecting me.’ He made it a fact, not a question.
Markus sat up. The first thing he noticed about the visitor was the large scar that disfigured the right side of his face. His eyes travelled down to the muddied white Reickland uniform half hidden by the man’s cloak.
‘I’ve orders for you,’ the colonel said in clipped tones. He handed over a sealed letter.
Markus, taken aback by the newcomer’s tone, broke the wax and read the contents. After a moment he said, ‘I’m to place my troop and myself under your command.’
‘That’s right. As of now, I’m in charge.’
Markus gazed at the colonel. ‘May I know what for?’
‘I need your troop to carry out an important assignment.’ He pulled out a map and unfurled it on the table. ‘We’ll proceed immediately to the Blue Reach at a point near the Black Mountains.’ Habich stabbed a finger at the spot on the map.
Boris looked at their destination. ‘I’d say that’s ‘bout a hundred miles from ‘ere, sir. Right across the Moot.’
‘We’ve got to be there in three days,’ the colonel added. ‘We’ll leave at first light.’ He turned to the sergeant. ‘See to it the men are ready.’
‘Aye, sir.’ Boris saluted and left.
‘Sir, what’s the hurry?’ asked Markus.
‘We’ve got to be the first.’ Habich paced up and down the small room. ‘I don’t know what you know about imperial politics. This I can tell you. There’re no secrets in Altdorf. Soon the Emperor’s enemies will learn of my mission.’ He paused and looked out of the small window into the darkness. ‘And if they do, Sigmar help the Empire…’
‘Ever hear of the times of anarchy?’
‘Not much, sir.’
‘Imperial rule collapsed. It took six hundred years before Magnus the Pious restored a degree of unity. Even then, when Dieter became Emperor civil war nearly broke out again.’ The colonel turned on Markus. ‘You think the elector counts wouldn’t want to seize power.’ His voice grew louder. ‘Do you think the Counts of Stirland have forgiven Wilhelm for taking the throne from them?’ The scar on his face pulsed red.
‘But that’s over a hundred years ago,’ countered Markus.
‘Do you think that envy, greed, and ambition are dead?’ Habich said. There was deep a bitterness to his tone.
Markus nodded his head. ‘I’ve sworn an oath. I’ll do my duty, sir.’ He noted the grim expression on the veteran’s face.
‘You’ll do that and more,’ said the colonel. ‘If we fail civil war will tear the Empire apart.’
The colonel stood silently for a while as if deciding. Then he said, ‘I’ve got Eckle, my sergeant with me. I’m putting him in charge of the troop.’
Markus was taken aback. ‘I must object sir. These are new men. They’ve been in the army just a few months. They’re used to working under Boris, my sergeant.’ Anger gave an edge to his voice.
‘They’ll get used to Eckle.’ The colonel paused before continuing. ‘You lost your previous troop at Black Fire pass, didn’t you?’
The question surprised Markus so he could only blurt out, ‘Yes. They were ambushed.’ As he spoke, Markus could see it all again. The dead men and horses cruelly mutilated by the savage goblins lying where they had perished. He inhaled the stink of rotting flesh mixed with the dank, musty odour of goblin.
‘But you and your sergeant survived…’ The colonel did not voice the implication.
‘We had become detached from the main body,’ Markus explained. He knew it sounded a lame explanation even as he spoke it, even if it was true. The whole troop, except for Boris and him had been massacred. He should have been there. It might have passed differently.
Markus started to protest. ‘But…’
‘Save your excuses for the widows and children.’ The colonel made for the door. Before he went out he stopped and turned to face Markus. ‘Your men are the only ones I can trust.’
‘They’re raw, untried, sir.’
‘But they’re loyal to the Empire.’ With that he stepped out of the door.
‘Giva us a hand, will yah?’ Private Zecker called to his mate Hollenz. The two of them were loading one of the packhorses. The lamps hanging on the other side of the courtyard hardly penetrated the blackness. Zecker couldn’t see to fit the barrel onto the harness.
Fritz swore at his mate. ‘Yah all fingers, that’s what.’
‘And you wouldn’t know a whore from a goat.’
The exchange of words caused corporal Heinman to come over and investigate. ‘What’s the matter? Ain’t happy are we?’
‘Hollenz here ‘s slacking,’ alleged Hans.
‘Naw, it’s Zecker.’ Fritz explained, ‘Can’t tie a knot.’
‘Aw, give it a miss, you two,’ said the corporal. ‘What’s got into yah?’
‘Corporal,’ said Fritz. ‘I thought we were going home, like?’
‘Nah, we’re to nursemaid some red sash into bandit country.’
‘But what’s the hurry?’ persisted Fritz. ‘Can’t they send some other outfit to do it? We’re due leave.’
‘High command says so,’ answered Heinman. This was his way of hiding his ignorance.
‘Eh, corporal, is it true we’re going to hunt vampires an’ monsters, an’ all that?’ asked Hans.
‘Who told yah that?’ brked the corporal, surprised by the question.
‘The boys were mentioning it. On account of the kit and things…’ Fritz explained.
‘Well it ain’t true,’ said Heinman. ‘We’re to help ‘em dig.’ He rubbed his fingers together to emphasise his point. ‘For gold, eh!’
‘We’ll be rich,’ Fritz added, wide-eyed.
‘Fantasy, you being rich,’ said Hans with a dismissive wave of his hand.
The talk had caught the ear of corporal Strauss who approached, puffing a cheroot.
Heinman saw the flame. He tapped on one of the barrels. ‘Put that out, dimwit. You wanna blow us all up? This is powder.’
Strauss taken aback threw his smoke on the ground. He crushed it out with his boot and then quickly walked off.
‘Sigmar preserve us, if we have an emergency,’ Heinman muttered at the retreating figure in a supplicating tone.
‘Eh, Fritz,’ Hans nudged his friend. ‘We’ll go together, won’t we?’
‘Yeh, with Strauss, if he has his way.’
They both laughed.
‘Bloody awful,’ moaned Heinman. The rain fell in torrents. Even with an oilskin, the water penetrated everywhere. To add to his discomfort, the heavy riding of the last day had left him with saddle sores.
‘It’s those red sashes’ fault—the officers,’ sneered Strauss. ‘We could’ve stayed under cover till this passed. No, up before dawn into this filth.’ He spat as he finished. ‘I can’t even light me a smoke.’ He went on muttering to himself.
‘Keep moving, there,’ Boris shouted at the two men as he rode along the column inspecting the progress of the troop.
When the sergeant was no longer within hearing distance, Strauss spat at some imaginary target. ‘Bleedin’ Kislev giant. Thinks he runs the army.’
‘He’s a good soldier,’ said Heinman.
‘He kisses the lieutenant’s buttocks,’ sneered Strauss.
‘It’s said Reutger saved his life.’
‘Yeah, passed over his dirty handgun at parade, more likely.’
A hail of arrows flew at them from the thick undergrowth.
Shouts, yells and screams came from the rattled men and horses.
A second volley immediately followed.
‘Take cover,’ Markus yelled, trying to be heard above the din. Then he added, ‘Aimed fire. Pick your targets.’
All around arrows whistled past, then one clattered off his armour. The crack of guns indicated some Outriders were fighting back. Utter confusion reigned.
To his right, Markus heard sergeant Eckle bellowing, ‘Dismount. Form line. Retire the horses,’ as he tried to get the men into some sort of order.
Markus jumped from his horse. He drew his sword and pistol. He fired a couple of blind shots into the undergrowth.
In return arrows thudded into the ground around him. One glanced off his helmet. His stomach twisted in fear. At the same time, a sense of exhilaration swept through him. The primitive animal urge to fight gripped him, drowning out all rational thought.
‘Attack,’ he yelled.
Raising his sword, he plunged recklessly into the shrubbery.
Immediately the bushes and low-lying branches enveloped him. He could only see a few feet ahead. Branches grated against his armour and scratched his face. More by luck than design he spotted some attackers. Two black silhouettes nearly hidden by the greenery. Grobbi – goblins.
He rushed at them, firing at one and flailing his sword at another. They vanished. Markus wasn’t sure whether he’d hit either of them.
‘Hoy, men,’ he called. No one answered. ‘Rally to me.’
There was no answer.
His battle rage cooled as he realised he was alone.
A heavy blow out of nowhere suddenly struck him. Markus staggered forward and became entangled in some branches. Desperately he tried to free himself but was unable to move.
Even as he struggled, out of the corner of his eye, he could just catch a goblin moving haltingly towards him. Helplessly he could only watch the greenskin’s advance.
Suddenly a yell echoed through the woods. Boris charged. The sergeant’s blade thrust at the goblin. There came the zing of steel on steel. The two exchanged more blows. The Kislevian then delivered a rapid thrust past the goblin’s guard. The blade bit deep and the goblin screamed as it fell dying.
‘Help me, Boris.’
‘Where’s the hurt, sir?’
‘Thank Ulric, just caught in these branches.’
I thought you was wounded, sir.’ There was relief in his voice.
‘Give me a hand,’ said Markus.
The big Kislevite grabbed hold of him and pulled him out.
Markus looked at the dead goblin lying on the ground. ‘Thanks, Boris.’
‘Brave thing, attacking like that,’ Boris said.
‘I was a bloody fool. What happened to the men?’
‘Eckle wouldn’t let them follow you, sir.’
‘We’ll see about that. Where’s the enemy?’
‘You frightened ‘em off, sir.’ He kicked the greenskin. ‘This one had more guts than the rest.’
‘Come on, we’d best get back.’
The two of them slowly made their way back to the road. Once there, he was grateful to sit down. Boris disappeared but came back a moment later.
‘Eckle’s dead. Arrow through the throat,’ said the sergeant.
‘One. Took an arrow in his chest. Silly bleeder had taken off his armour.’ The Kislevian added, ‘And two wounded.’
Markus feeling better, got to his feet and went looking for the colonel. He found Habich standing by Eckle’s body.
‘What do you think you were doing, lieutenant?’
‘Being the bleeding hero.’
‘I thought it was the best thing to do in the circumstances, sir.’ Markus couldn’t understand the man. ‘Counter attack, I mean.’
‘Your job lieutenant, if you live long enough to learn it, is to lead your men. Not to swan off at the first shot. Got that.’
Habich continued in a softer tone. ‘I knew your father. Great soldier. He served under me in my first command.’
‘I see, sir.’ Embarrassed, Markus changed the subject. ‘Sorry about Eckle.’
‘Soldiers only serve to die,’ Habich answered in an emotionless voice. He looked down at the dead sergeant. ‘But he was a good sergeant. As was your father.’
The colonel stood for an instant looking at the dead man. He then called to some soldiers and pointed at the body. ‘Strip him of everything we can use and then bury him—deep.’
Turning to Markus he gestured at the men lolling by the roadside. ‘Lieutenant, get the men ready to move out. We’ve lost valuable time.’
Markus started to walk away.
‘And lieutenant…’ Habich called.
‘I’m trying to save your skin.’
Markus gazed silently at the soldier who, for a moment, looked like an old man. Then at last he said, ‘I’m perfectly able to look after myself.’ There was a slight delay before Markus added, ‘sir’.
‘Sir,’ Boris jogged back to where Markus and the colonel were waiting with the Outriders. ‘You were right. There’s an ambush. In the woods. Greenskins crawling all over the hill. Fifty, possibly sixty.’
The troop had halted some distance from the point where the road, really little more than a track, passed through a wood.
‘I thought so,’ said Habich. ‘Bleeding grobi.’ He used the dwarf word for goblins as a curse.
‘I’ll lead the troop in a flanking attack,’ said Markus.
‘You’ll stay here. I’ll direct the assault,’ Habich countered brusquely.
‘But sir...’ Markus sought to protest further.
The colonel was in no mood to argue. He rounded on Markus. The scar on his face glowed. ‘I’m in charge. You’ll stay here. I don’t want any more of your recklessness.’
‘Yes sir,’ said Markus taken aback.
‘Sergeant, detail six men to guard the horses. The rest will go with me,’ Habich ordered.
Markus had to watch idly as the colonel led the assault party up the hillside and into the wood.
After the group disappeared from view he found the wait impossible.
‘Damn,’ he muttered to himself, ‘I should be there.’ He felt helpless.
To keep himself busy, he began to pace up and down. Even so, he found himself continually glancing along the road at the wood. He tried not to think of all that could go wrong. The troop was up against more than twice their number.
‘What if there should be more,’ he muttered out aloud to himself. He tried to bury the thought. Markus knew his soldiers would do well, but he was still riddled with anxiety. He glanced up at the forest again willing his eyes to penetrate the green wall.
He counted off the minutes and thought the attack should have started. But still he could hear no sound of fighting. Behind him he overheard the nervous soldiers making small talk.
‘Wouldn’t wanna be crawling after them greenskins,’ Hollenz volunteered in the manner of soldiers spared a particularly unpleasant duty.
‘Oh, it’s not so bad,’ opined Zecker. ‘This‘ll stop ‘em.’ He patted his repeater handgun.
‘Yah couldn’t hit a wall at five paces,’ sneered corporal Strauss.
‘Could so.’ He pointed at the badge on his sleeve. ‘Expert, see.’
‘Ain’t that looking after horse manure,’ said Strauss.
A volley of shots from the forest interrupted the badinage. The men looked at each other and fiddled uneasily with their equipment.
Markus scanned the edge of the woods and the path ahead for any signs of what was happening. He could see nothing out of the ordinary. The shooting ceased. He suddenly felt deeply uneasy.
‘Corporal Strauss, deploy the men and keep a sharp lookout,’ he ordered.
The men moved to position themselves to cover the horses. ‘Good lads,’ said Markus half to himself.
‘Aye, sir. The best.’ Strauss, originally from the great port of Marienberg, still used the nautical twang he grew up with.
Markus looked back the way they had come and scanned the landscape.
‘Come on, what’s happening?’ he mumbled. He continued to pace up and down, his mind turning over all the possibilities.
‘Oy, corp. There’s something going on over there.’ It was Fritz’s voice.
Markus spun round. He immediately spotted the movement at the point where the trail entered the wood.
‘Blimey,’ said Strauss.
‘Get into line. Move,’ Markus barked.
The soldiers dashed to take position about twenty yards up the road from the horses. Markus placed himself behind them. He drew his sword.
‘Only fire at my command,’ he told them. Markus looked towards the enemy. In the time it took the guard party to deploy, the greenskins had halved the distance.
A large goblin wearing a chainmail jerkin led the warband. Seeing the Outriders, It waved its scimitar high above its head. The warband let out a series of yells and broke into a charge.
‘I count eighteen,’ said the corporal. ‘No twenty-two.’
The greenskins advanced at the run and rapidly bore down on the Outriders.
‘Wait, wait,’ intoned Markus. ‘Aimed fire. Make every shot count.’
The goblins’ shouted threats and cries of rage could now be clearly heard.
‘Kilz de humanz, deazth, stik ‘em.’
‘Fire!’ Markus bellowed.
A tremendous barrage raked the attackers. Immediately thick powder smoke blanketed the greenskins from view. He yelled at the soldiers, ‘Cease fire. Fall back ten yards.’
A few obeyed, but most continued to blaze away.
Markus rushed down the line, pulling at those that still fired. ‘Get back,’ he shouted.
Dark shapes loomed through the smoke.
Markus turned to face the greenskins.
A goblin lunged at him with a spear.
Markus parried the thrust and kicked out at his assailant.
The goblin doubled up.
Markus stabbed his sword deep into an eye.
Already another was upon him. Its scimitar swung down.
Markus thrust up his sword in defence. His sword arm shuddered with the impact.
‘I’lz killya,’ the greenskin shouted as they faced off.
The goblin blocked the thrust.
Markus feigned, then jabbed at the chest. He felt the blade penetrate and strike bone.
The goblin screamed. It collapsed, blood spilling from its lips.
Markus looked around. The fight was over. The small party of Outriders stood weapons in hand. About their feet the goblins lay dead or dying. Markus noticed Strauss grinning at him.
‘Everyone all right?’ Markus asked.
Strauss quickly looked around him. ‘Teeler cashed in his chips,’ he answered. ‘Breeden’s got stuck in the leg.’
One dead and one wounded. Markus realised it could have been a lot worse. If only they had obeyed his orders to fall back.
‘Strip Teeler of everything we can use—and bury him deep,’ Markus instructed the corporal. He then strode over to the wounded soldier. Zecker was bandaging up Breeden’s injured leg. Markus noted the professional way Zecker handled the wounded man.
‘You done this before?’ he asked.
‘Studied healing a bit,’ Zecker acknowledged. ‘My father was a doctor,’ he added by way of explanation.
Markus went around the remaining soldiers making a point of saying a few words of praise to each of them. He left Strauss to last. ‘Good work corporal.’
Strauss look wild-eyed and still sported the grin Markus noted earlier. He then added, ‘You’d better check the men’s weapons.’
At being given an order, Strauss seemed to come to. He marched off to make sure the men had cleaned and reloaded their handguns.
Markus, duty done, suddenly became conscious of a dank, musty odour. He recognised it immediately as the smell of goblin. It brought back the unpleasant scenes at Black Fire Pass. He cleared his mind of such bad memories as more shots from the woods told him the fight wasn’t over.
It was an hour later when Markus watched the others return. He counted them as they emerged from the wood. Four were missing, presumably dead. He could see three others had been wounded. He cursed. At this rate he wouldn’t have a troop left. Habich was in the middle of the column with Boris. The colonel was cradling an arm.
When Habich got back to the road, he doubled over. ‘Sir, you all right?’ Markus asked.
‘I’m fine, lieutenant,’ Habich replied in a strained voice. ‘It’s this damned wound. Must be poisoned.’
‘I’ll get the healer to look at it.’
‘We’ve no time for that,’ he remonstrated angrily. ‘We must get on. Time’s running out.’ He waved his good hand towards the woods. ‘You think this is coincidence.’
Markus saluted and turned away. He went to find Boris. He greeted the sergeant.
‘Good to see you back.’
‘There’s no grobi hatched that’ll skewer me,’ said the Kislev giant.
The two of them stood in silence looking over the road where two soldiers were searching the cadavers. Then Markus said, ‘I want the troop to practice a new drill. ‘This is what they need to…’
As they continued their journey, the land they entered became more broken. At the same time, the track degenerated into a mere path, like those made by roaming herds. Markus liked the country less and less. Overhead, dark clouds moved threatening more rain. They blotted out the peaks of the Black Mountains which he could see ahead, their detail lost in the distance.
Markus knew the foothills they were crossing marked the effective limits of imperial authority. Now they would be in a no mans land, where lurked outcasts, wildmen and savage beasts of chaos. He knew too, from his experience at Black Fire pass, the mountains were orc and goblin territory.
However, they progressed without further skirmishes. But, as the ground started to rise, it slowed them up and they had to stop to search out the track when it vanished as they crossed rocky outcrops. Every hold up made the colonel fret more. His scar seemed to glow redder with each delay.
As last the path led them to a large rock face that jutted from the side of a mountain. The trail petered out near a narrow fissure.
‘This is the entrance to Crag Mere,’ said the colonel referring to the long flooded and abandoned dwarf stronghold near the Black Water. ‘Not much, eh.’
Markus had to agree. ‘We’ll never get in.’
The colonel immediately called a command briefing. ‘From this point, we go on foot,’ he announced. ‘We won’t be going far. This entrance connects to a part of the old dwarf underway, the ungdrin. I’m reliably informed it’ll be passable.’
‘What about enemies?’ Markus didn’t like the idea of not knowing what they faced.
‘The place’s deserted but there may be inhabitants. It’s a chance we’ll have to take,’ said Habich. The colonel then went over his plan.
The group split up.
Markus lingered. He coughed to attract Habich’s attention.
‘What is it?’ The colonel was visibly irritated.
‘Your wound. It seems to be bothering you.’
‘I’ll be all right. It’s nothing to worry about.’
‘If you say so, sir.’
Markus saluted and went to check his equipment.
‘Eh, sarge,’ called over Zecker, ‘I’ve never been underground before. What’s it like?’
Boris told him, ‘Blacker than one of ‘em orc beasts. You’ll do fine. Just do as I say.’
‘Hey Fritz,’ Hans announced, ‘I saw one once. He could kill yah just by looking at yah.’
‘Get off,’ replied Zecker.
‘Yeh, well what worries me,’ interrupted Strauss, ‘is them red sashes. You notice that colonel. Callous bastard. Doesn’t care about us. Get us all killed, he will. Mark my words.’
Boris turned on Strauss, ‘Shaddup corporal. I won’t have any of that talk.’
‘Just because you’re the lieutenant’s goody-goody,’ retorted Strauss.
‘Watch it, Strauss. Anymore and you’ll be on report.’
But Strauss wasn’t to be put off, ‘Listen sergeant. You too can feel the curse. Seven men diced already. Who’s next?’ He pointed at each in turn.
‘I told you to can it.’ Boris stepped towards the corporal.
‘Aye aye, sarge. If you say so.’ Strauss sidled away from the huge bulk of the Kislevian.
Zecker hurried to change the subject. ‘Sarge, can Fritz and I be together?’
Boris grunted. He looked towards Strauss. ‘Just so long as there’s no trouble.’
‘Move out,’ announced the colonel. A soldier passed over a lantern and Habich led the way into the cave. From his position at the rear, Markus counted the party. Just seventeen were going.
Then his turn came. From the narrow opening, Markus expected the cave to be small and cramped, but it opened up immediately into a sizeable cavern. The first thing that struck him was the stale damp air that reeked like a cesspool. He nearly puked.
‘You’ll get used to it,’ said Habich, who must have spotted his reaction. The colonel was waiting just inside to direct the party.
Markus steadied himself by placing a hand against a wall. It felt cold, but dry. A little way in he spotted some smashed in skulls and broken bones.
The colonel followed his eyes. ‘Grobi remains,’ he said. ‘There’ll be skaven ones too.’
Markus said nothing. The stench, the blackness and damp brought back a childhood memory of his uncle punishing him for running away by locking him overnight in the pigsty.
He wanted to run out towards the light, the fresh air. He felt a hand on his shoulder. ‘Come, we mustn’t fall behind.’
At the far end of the cave, there was a hole. The tunnel’s regular shape and smooth sides indicated it had been excavated. Habich must have been watching his reaction. ‘The dwarfs made it,’ he said. ‘It leads to Crag Mere, the old dwarf fortress.’
‘But it’s been uninhabited for thousands of years,’ said Markus. ‘We’re not likely to find an imperial symbol there,’ he pointed out.
‘Where better to hide that which must be hidden. Who’d look in a long abandoned hole,’ said the colonel.
They moved along the tunnel in single file until they came to a side passage. ‘Halt,’ ordered Markus. He sought out the Kislevite. ‘Boris, chisel an arrow facing the way we’ve come.’
As the group had stopped, Habich turned and strode over to them. ‘What are you doing?’
‘Just marking our trail, sir,’ said Markus. ‘For the return journey.’
The colonel nodded but didn’t stop the sergeant.
The warren of interconnecting tunnels and passages continued for some time. The colonel glanced at a piece of paper at each junction. Then he indicated the way he wanted to go. As they advanced, Markus knew he was descending deeper into the mountain.
In the tunnels time became meaningless. All Markus could think of was to place one foot in front of the other, ducking now and then to avoid low points in the ceiling. Eventually Markus saw that the front of the column had stopped at what seemed to be a bigger cave. Markus joined them.
He emerged into an immense cavern. A faint reddish glow allowed him to get an idea of its enormous size. As he could not see the other side or the ceiling, Markus felt he was back on the surface. The air smelled fresher too. A few feet away, the shelf on which he stood dropped away suddenly. He cautiously peered over the cliff. The sheer drop disappeared into a red mist that prevented him from seeing the bottom.
‘It’s the Tan Kach, the underground river,’ said the colonel. ‘We’re nearly there.’
‘What’s the light?’ asked Markus.
‘The dwarfs say the light comes from the Zharr Grungni. Their legends say the river runs past the forge of Grungni and its fires light the waters.’ Habich gestured at the immense underground chamber they looked out at. ‘They consider this a special place.’ He looked up and down the ledge as if deciding which way to go. ‘We must press on.’ He led the party to the right.
Markus marvelled at the size of the cavern. Try as he might, he couldn’t see the roof nor, peering into the abyss, the river below. As he followed the colonel along the winding road, he observed the walls were rent with large fissures and cracks. On any available flat surfaces, ancient engravings reminded him that this had once been part of the mighty dwarf kingdom.
The ledge on which they marched descended gently and Markus got the impression the cavern, if that was possible, was growing in size. The path suddenly turned sharp right and Markus saw that an enormous fissure barred their way. A humped-back bridge spanned the gulf. Markus could see the underground highway continued on the other side along the main arc of the vast cavern.
Habich stopped the party by the bridge.
Markus caught up with him. ‘Is it safe, sir?’
‘It’ll take us across. The dwarfs knew how to build, Lieutenant. Nevertheless, I think we’ll go in single file.’ He led the way.
When it came to his turn to cross, Markus stopped on the bridge to peer into the redness below. He thought he could see water, the colour of fresh blood, flowing far below. He wished he hadn’t looked as the image unsettled him, reminding him of his recent nightmare.
The path now began to ascend and Markus saw the colonel was having difficulty in maintaining the pace. Markus quickened his step to catch him up. Habich’s face looked strained and beads of sweat stood on his forehead. In the red light, his scar had turned white.
‘Sir,’ he said, ‘are you all right? You look ill.’
Habich answered between clenched teeth, ‘It’s the wound. Must be infected.’
‘Sir, you should rest.’
‘Got to get on,’ muttered Habich. ‘Got to find it. It’s here somewhere.’ He waved his hand at the walls. Suddenly he stumbled.
Markus caught him and sat him down. He got out the colonel’s canteen and gave him a drink.
Habich took a sip. ‘We’re so close,’ said the colonel.
‘Sir. You’d better tell me.’
Habich spoke slowly drawing his a breath between words. ‘We’re looking for a rune—a dwarf symbol. There’s a room hidden behind it. The weapon’s there.’
‘We’ve got to find it, and take it back to the Emperor,’ continued the colonel, as if not hearing him. Habich fumbled in his tunic and pulled out a piece of paper. ‘Here.’ He held it up. His hand shook.
Markus took the paper and examined it. It had various instructions written on it. At the bottom was a dwarfish symbol, similar to the ones he had seen carved on the walls of the cavern.
‘Reutger,’ the colonel spoke in a whisper, ‘you must find it, and bring it back. Leave me here.’ The effort of speaking seemed too much and he sagged unconscious.
‘Get me Zecker,’ ordered Markus.
The soldier quickly appeared at Markus’ side.
Markus pointed. ‘The colonel’s ill. See what you can do.’
Zecker examined Habich. He felt his forehead. ‘He’s got the fever,’ he said at last. He paused and looked up at Markus. ‘If he’s to live, we need to take him back to the surface. We haven’t got the right medicines.’
Markus looked at the colonel. At the same time, he stroked his beard. He considered the piece of paper in his hand. He scanned the faces of the soldiers around him. He knew he was now in command. Whatever he decided as of this moment, what happened next was his responsibility.
Turning to the assembled soldiers, Markus spoke.
‘The colonel’s got the fever. I’m sending him back. We’ll go on to complete the mission.’ Turning to the orderly, he added, ‘Zecker, I’ll assign you three men. You’re to take the colonel back.’
Just then corporal Strauss pushed past one of the soldiers. ‘Lieutenant, beggin’ your pardon, sir. Now’s the colonel done in, shouldn’t we be going back. We don’t have any reason to be goings on.’
‘Shut it, Strauss,’ Boris bellowed at the corporal.
‘No let him speak,’ Markus commanded.
‘Thanks you, sir,’ continued Strauss. ‘Now me and the men, sir, on account of the curse on this mission, like.’ Strauss looked around at the other Outriders for support. ‘Well, we think it would be prudent, an’ all that, for us all to go back with the colonel, like. Sir.’
‘I see, Strauss,’ Markus said. ‘You’re right we’re here on a mission.’ He paused. Then he continued, his voice as hard as steel. ‘I intend to carry it out. You’ll do as you’re ordered. Is that understood?’
‘We don’t see it that way,’ Strauss said. ‘We don’t want to leave our bones in some hellhole…’
‘You’ll have to kill me first,’ said Markus.
‘If it takes that…’ Strauss turned to the men. ‘What ya say?’
At this, Boris strode forward until he was standing in front of Strauss. He towered over the Mareinburgian. ‘You’ll rot in hell first.’ He gestured at the men. ‘An’ all of you, if I have to. Reutger’s in command. What he says, goes.’
The soldiers all nodded. Strauss justified himself. ‘I was only trying to explain how the men feel, sarge.’
Markus broke in, ‘OK. Now get moving. We’re looking for one of those dwarf carvings.’ He showed them the drawing. ‘It can’t be far away.’
He led the party further along the ledge examining each rune as he passed. Looking back he could see the evacuation party descending towards the bridge, carrying the colonel on a makeshift stretcher.
A cry ahead. ‘I think I’ve found it, sir.’ Markus quickly went to the head of the small column. A soldier pointed. It certainly matched the description.
‘Sir, shall I get the men digging?’ Boris asked, pointing at the wall.
‘Yes,’ replied Markus. Four of the men started to chisel away at the solid rock. The sound echoed loudly back and forth through the cavern.
‘Pitsbuin,’ spat Strauss, ‘that’ll bring the vermin running.’
Markus had to admit the corporal was right. He looked up and down the underground road, but could see nothing. As a precaution, he told Boris to post guards further along the ledge.
The tap of the hammers set his nerves on edge. His mouth felt dry. He took a swig from his water bottle but it failed to relieve the thirst. He left the soldiers at it. To calm himself, he strode up and down the ledge.
Behind him, the soldiers suddenly exclaimed. Markus rushed back to see what had happened. He found they had penetrated into a hole. He picked up a lantern and used it to light the interior. He saw a sizeable chamber. ‘This is it,’ he said.
The vigil covering the road ahead arrived breathlessly. ‘There’s something happening.’
‘Boris, go see what’s going on,’ Markus ordered.
‘Aye, sir.’ Boris disappeared up the road to investigate taking the sentry with him.
Markus turned to the soldiers working on the rock. ‘Quick, we haven’t much time. Enlarge the hole.’
The miners set to work furiously. They battered at the surrounding rock with pickaxes, chisels and sledgehammers. Large chunks split away from the hole.
‘Come on, come on,’ Markus muttered as the diggers extended the opening.
‘I think it’s big enough, sir,’ one of the diggers informed him.
The hole was chest high and still quite small, but Markus thought he would be able to squeeze through.
‘Give me a hand.’
The soldiers helped him through the opening. They passed him a lantern.
He scanned the room. It was bare, except for a shelf on which stood a small stone sarcophagus. He went over to it. Placing the lantern on the shelf, he pushed at the lid. It fell to the ground with a loud crash.
Inside Markus saw a leather bundle. He reached for it, only to find it crumble into dust. At the same time his hand touched something solid. He cleared away the rest of the decayed covering to reveal a large war hammer.
He picked it up and examined it in the light. The weapon was in perfect condition. It had been cast as one piece and had dwarf runes forged all down the shaft. The steel gleamed as if oiled.
He hefted the hammer. It rested comfortably in his hand. He swung it to test its weight and balance. It was perfect. As the weapon flew through the air it sang. Markus felt a surge of power. Although he had never touched, let alone used an enchanted weapon before, he knew at once that potent dwarf magic had gone into its making.
Boris’ voice interrupted his thoughts. ‘Sir, you’d better come quick. We’re in trouble.’
Boris helped him out through the hole.
‘What’s it?’ Markus asked as he stood up on the outside.
‘Skaven, masses of ‘em.’
‘How much time have we got before they get here?’
‘Two, three minutes at the most.’
Strauss stood nearby. He shouted at the men, ‘See what’s ‘appening! The curse. We’re doomed.’ He started to edge back towards the bridge. ‘Run for it!’ He dashed towards the bridge.
‘Stay where you are,’ Boris shouted at the soldiers. ‘Move an’ I’ll skewer yah.’ As he spoke he whipped out his sword. Everyone froze, except Strauss who ignored the command to stop. ‘I’ll get ‘im,’ the sergeant told Markus.
Markus placed a restraining hand on the sergeant. ‘Leave him, I need you here.’ He looked around at the soldiers and then addressed them. ‘I’ll not mince words. Follow orders. We’ll use the new drill. We’ll get out. That I promise.’ He gazed at the assembled Outriders. ‘And wait for my command,’ he warned them. Turning to Boris he said, ‘Sergeant, detail the men.’
‘Yes sir,’ Boris quickly sorted the men into formation. ‘All’s ready, sir,’ he called out.
‘Good, I’ll command here. Take two men and mine the bridge.’
‘I belong ‘ere, sir. Can’t you send some’un else?’ he pleaded.
‘I need someone I can trust,’ explained Markus. ‘That’s an order. I’ll manage here.’
‘Aye, sir. If you say so,’ Boris replied in a reluctant voice. He gestured to two of the Outriders to follow him and, picking up two barrels of powder in his arms, he led the demolition team as they jogged off towards the bridge.
‘Right men, second section twenty yards ahead.’ Half the soldiers hastened to take up their positions. Markus looked towards the advancing horde. It was rapidly nearing their position. A large rat, getting ahead of the skaven pack, ran towards him. He kicked it. It flew over the edge to disappear into the chasm screeching as it fell.
Markus instructed the first section, ‘On my command. Two rounds, then double back.’
The chittering cries of the skaven grew louder. The front of the pack was nearly upon them. ‘Fire,’ ordered Markus. The volley crashed into the front of the clan rats. The sound of the fusillade echoed throughout the cavern. Thick smoke blotted out the enemy.
Markus followed the soldiers as they rushed back to their next position. As he got there, he looked back to see the first skaven emerge through the smoke. ‘Fire,’ he shouted. A fusillade of shots downed the nearest ones. They then doubled back to the next line.
Two more times they used the same tactic.
‘Back to the bridge,’ he ordered.
The men ran for their lives, a race between man and rodent. Markus took up the rear. Two clan rats, faster than the others, caught up with him. Markus shot both of them.
His breath rasped in his throat. His heart pounded. After what seemed an eternity, Markus could see the bridge ahead. Boris and the soldiers were still frantically setting the charges.
Between great gulps of air, Markus managed to shout out, ‘Blow the bridge. Now.’ He then turned and fired two more shots at skaven who pressed too hard.
In front of him a soldier suddenly stumbled and fell. Markus ran to his aid and tried to lift him up. The man was half knocked out from his fall. But it was difficult with one hand grasping the dwarven hammer. Behind him, he could hear the rats screech in victory. Then shots rang out from the Outriders on the other bank.
‘Ere, sir, let me have ‘im.’ Boris had appeared as if by magic. He hefted the comatose soldier like a sack of potatoes. ‘Best not linger, sir,’ Boris advised.
Markus smiled in gratitude. ‘No, Boris, I think not.’
‘I’ve set a five second fuse, sir,’ Boris informed him as they crossed the bridge. The big sergeant stopped to light the fuse.
‘I’ll light it. Take the men on to the tunnel,’ Markus commanded.
The Kislevite hesitated.
‘That’s an order. I’ll meet you there.’
Markus found the flint, struck it and the fuse fizzled. He dashed after the rapidly retreating Outriders. He counted off the seconds as he ran. Before he reached four, he was lifted off his feet and thrown to the ground by the explosion.
He lay what seemed like a long time stunned by the blast. As he did so, he could hear the echoes rolling up and down the cavern and the sound of falling rocks dislodged by the explosion. He looked back. A cloud of thick black smoke billowed out from where the bridge had stood. Markus didn’t think they’d be followed. He then scanned the road for the rest of his party, but they had vanished. Getting to his feet he hefted the hammer, and set off wearily after them.
While he trudged after his command, he idly flexed his grip on the weapon.
“I’ll have that,’ said a voice behind him. Markus turned around.
‘Strauss!’ The corporal emerged from the shadows, his handgun pointed at him.
‘Yeh, lieutenant. I could’ve killed yah, right there. But I wanted to see you beg first.’ He spat on the ground. His eyes travelled to the artefact in Markus’ hands. ‘It’s gotta be worth a fortune.’
‘You won’t get away with this.’
‘Oh I’ll sneak out all right,’ said Strauss. ‘Then I’ll make me a nice little sale. Put it down.’
Markus weighed up the alternatives. He dropped to one knee and slowly began to lower the weapon to the ground.
Suddenly, he threw it at the corporal with all the strength he could muster. At the same time he rolled to his right.
The gun fired.
Markus felt the bullet whip past him.
Strauss, struck by the hammer, tried to get in another shot.
But Markus was already on his feet and lunging at his enemy. He hit him with his shoulder, knocking the handgun out of Strauss’ hands and the two fell in a heap.
Markus tried to punch the corporal who was grabbing at his arms. The two rolled across the ledge as they wrestled. Markus now found himself under Strauss and with a kick threw him off. He quickly got to his feet.
Strauss was crouching a short distance away.
They eyed each other to see who would make the first move.
Markus couldn’t see the hammer.
Strauss looked towards the gun lying between them. ‘Come on, Strauss, try me,’ Markus taunted as he drew his sword. The corporal said nothing as he considered his chances.
Strauss suddenly sprinted towards the gun. Markus surged towards him. The corporal saw he wouldn’t have time to pick it up and continued running. Markus kicked the weapon, which skittered over the edge.
Markus turned to see Strauss fleeing down the road towards the bridge.
‘Come back, you fool,’ Markus shouted.
‘Be damned,’ the corporal shouted back, waving his fist in the air. Soon he disappeared from sight.
Markus sagged down exhausted.
From the direction of the bridge, he heard a scream. It abruptly cut off. Markus was gripped by a sudden fear. He rose to his feet and looked for the rune hammer.
Sheathing his sword, he picked it up.
He made off towards the tunnel as fast as he could.
He soon became conscious he was being followed. He scanned the ledge behind him. In the dim red light he caught a glimpse of a shadow lopping towards him. He hurried on as best he could, from time to time stopping to check on his pursuer.
His heart pounded and he felt short of breath. He knew he couldn’t outpace the hunter.
He lost sight of the shadowy creature as the path curved around a bend. He had a sudden feeling it was getting close. He stopped around a bend and turned to face the approaching threat.
Suddenly a huge rat, twice his size, rounded the bend and confronted Markus. Black eyes stared down at him, full of menace and fury. Its massive clawed hands clenched open and shut. It opened its mouth, its tongue rolling across its fangs. It snarled viscously.
Markus was numb with fear. He fumbled with his handgun.
The beast lunged.
More by reflex than conscious action, Markus fired.
The rat screamed.
The gunshot broke Markus’ paralysis. He pulled the trigger again, but nothing happened. He threw the now useless gun at the giant rodent, which batted it away.
He hefted the war hammer.
As the rat set upon him, he swung the weapon in a wide arc. He felt it strike home. The beast squealed in pain and retreated. With some detached part of his mind, he noticed how it smelled strongly of urine.
Markus fled. He knew the entrance to the tunnel couldn’t be far.
His lungs screamed in pain as he ran. He remembered to glance behind him.
The rat beast was following him again.
As he ran round a curve, he lost sight of the monster.
He was in near panic. He had to hide. He spotted a cleft in the wall and squeezed into it.
Not able to see it, Markus could sense the rat ogre sniffing the air trying to catch his scent. It whined. He tried to wedge deeper into the crack. Droplets of sweat ran down his face. His stomach was telling him things his brain already knew. The beast gave a loud belch and Markus caught the smell of rotting meat.
Then he could see it. The monster was making its way along the ledge, its head swivelling this way and that, as it tried to spot him.
It looked in his direction. It snarled. The beast moved purposely towards him, its jaw slightly open to reveal its fangs. Saliva dripped out of its mouth. It swung its clawed-tipped hands towards him.
Markus knew there was no place to run.
The rat rushed in at him, its claws seeking to tear him apart.
He just had enough time to duck and roll away. He heard the claws rasp across the stone where he had been.
He stood up clutching the war hammer.
The beast turned and snarled at him. It took two strides towards him.
Markus swung his weapon. The rat ogre knocked it out of his hands and it flew over the ledge.
Markus backed off as the rat ogre slowly advanced. He was frantic. He drew his sword ready to make the rodent pay dearly.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the ledge.
The beast surged forward and swung a clawed hand to strike.
Markus ducked. The claws grated across his backplate and arm. He cried out with the pain, but still managed to stab back at the beast.
It squealed loudly. It tried to grab him.
He struck again.
The rat lurched forward. It lost its footing on the ledge and swayed violently.
Markus stabbed wildly.
The beast slowly toppled over the ledge, its claws grating as it clutched desperately to stop itself falling. Then it was gone. A screech reverberated through the cavern. It suddenly cut off.
Markus slowly got to his feet.
Markus went over to the litter where Habich lay. He sat down next to the colonel.
‘I lost the hammer.’ He briefly outlined the fight with the rat ogre and how the beast had knocked the weapon into the chasm.
‘Maybe it’s for the best,’ said the colonel. ‘It would have caused trouble.’
‘It’s just a weapon.’
‘No!’ Habich spoke vehemently. ‘It’s a symbol of the Emperor’s authority.’ Markus looked puzzled so he continued. ‘Didn’t you realise you held Ironbeard’s hammer. The one he copied when he made the Hammer of Sigmar.’ The colonel looked straight at Markus. ‘Symbols. Imperial authority relies on acceptance. Think what would happen if there was a second Hammer!’
Still Markus said nothing. Habich continued, ‘We must maintain the unity of the Empire.’
‘Is that what we’re doing?’ Markus could barely mask his anger. ‘Dying to further some political game?’ He gestured towards the tunnel entrance. Even as he did so, he knew deep down how frail the bonds that held civilisation together were. A new symbol, an ambitious prince and a challenge to authority, it had happened before.
‘We’re soldiers, we’re doing our duty with for the Empire—and our Emperor,’ Habich replied in a grim voice. ‘If it means us dying, so be it.’
‘You’re a callous bastard, Habich, you know that.’
They looked at each other. The old soldier broke the silence, ‘Reutger, we’re alike, you and I.’
‘I doubt it, sir.’
‘Oh, I know it. I was like you once. You’ll be a good officer, if you live that long.’
‘I’ll bear it in mind, sir,’ said Markus.
He stood up and walked away from the colonel to the campfire where his men sat arguing. Around him, a cold wind stirred up the first leaves of autumn.