Shell Case Shorts 9 – Winner

September’s Shell Case Shorts winner is a previous winner from way back in May who wrote a fantastic Warhammer Fantasy story about desserters lost in the treacherous woods of Athel Loren, entitled Wildwood. This month’s winning entry is, effectively, the events leading up to and running along side that story. Aside from being a great story it’s fantastic to have the other side of the story.

The Hunt – by Ian Tovey

He was sitting in the darkest corner of the most disreputable drinking hole he could find located in Altdorf’s harbour district in a part of the city known as backstabber alley, trying to shake off yet another attack of the shakes. Long greasy hair shot through with grey framed a sweating face bloated by drink and the beer belly betokened a once dashing figure gone to seed. Closer examination showed that his doublet which had once been finely tailored in a deep plum coloured velvet was now faded, threadbare and crusted with drink and food stains, the matching britches were worn thin at the knees and ripped at the rear revealing a large portion of ample buttock. He picked up the leather jack with shaking hands, slopping some of its contents onto the table and into his lap and drained what was left in a single draft, tipping it back so quickly that some of its contents dribbled down his chin and soaked into his shirt. Wiping at his wine stained whiskers with a grubby sleeve he gripped the edge of the table to steady himself as he stood, cautiously, breathing heavily and swaying while he gained his bearings before stumbling towards the back door of the bar.

At a nearby table a group of half a dozen fashionably dressed young blades, full of bravado and cheap beer exploded in a fit of giggles. ‘Aah! The poor old sod’s pissed himself!’ one of them howled seeing the damp patch on the drunk’s groin. Another stuck out his foot as the drunkard tottered past sending him sprawling into a table laden with drinks and empty mugs, bringing him to the floor amidst shattered class and broken pottery, soaking him with slops. The drunk staggered to his feet and drew himself up to his full height; he glared at them with red rimmed watery eyes then belched explosively sending the blades into further paroxysms of laughter.

‘Oi you!’ shouted the barkeeper over the general hubbub, ‘we don’t want no trouble here, so bugger off you old sot!’

Gathering the little dignity left to him, the drunk staggered through the door and out into the gathering dark. As the cold night air hit him like a slap in the face, a wave of maudlin self-pity washed over him; he sank into the gutter and buried his face in his hands, shaking uncontrollably as he wept. Ten years ago things would have been very different, he thought as he got unsteadily back to his feet and headed for the cheap lodging house he reluctantly called home.

 ***

Captain Albrecht Schultz turned in his saddle and shading his eyes against the sun’s glare looked back along the line of troops as it snaked its way along the banks of the river Sol and felt his heart sink. At his side the army commander, Count Ulrich von Schloss spotted his movement and grinned, ‘Finest body of men a man can hire, eh Schultz my good man?’

‘Yes my Lord,’ Schultz replied though gritted teeth almost chocking on the lie; the Count was not a man to be crossed with impunity. In all his long years of soldiering this was by far the most badly equipped, ill-disciplined rabble that Schultz had ever had the misfortune to be associated with. Why he had allowed himself to let the Count to talk him into taking part in this crackbrained invasion of Bretonnia he would never know. Maybe it had something to do with the fat purse of gold that was being constantly dangled before him but which never seem to make its way into his palm.

With whoops and hollers a wild-looking bunch of extravagantly moustachioed men, dressed in an assortment of furs galloped by on shaggy ponies. The Count looked towards their rapidly dwindling forms, a beatific smile on his thin face, ‘Kislevite Cossacks, the finest irregular cavalry in the world!’ he breathed reverentially.

‘The biggest bunch of thieves, cut throats and drunkards more like’ Shultz thought to himself, but refrained from voicing his misgivings aloud. From his vantage point among the Counts personal retinue of heavily armoured knights, at the head of the column, he could see through the cloud of dust kicked up by the marching troops. The sunlight flashed and twinkled from arms and armour beneath the flags that cracked and fluttered in the breeze. He could make out blocks of halberdiers, scruffy looking troops of militia, several companies of archers; his own included amongst them, and a small group of highly professional looking great swords. Marching just behind the retinue came the Count’s other pride and joy, a troop of mercenary crossbowmen supplied by Duke Bastinado of Tilea who had also provided maps, information and funds in exchange for a battery of impressive looking, but ultimately useless canons. At the rear of the column, creating an even greater cloud of dust was the artillery and the baggage trains, chirgeon’s and sutler’s carts, whores, wives and children and the associated hangers-on that accompany an army on the march.

The day had ended in a glorious fiery sunset and the army had pitched its last encampment on the banks of the Sol before it turned west across the plain towards the Grey Mountains, camp fires filled the evening air with smoke and the smells of cooking. Captain Schultz sat in the command tent listening as the Duke’s reedy voice ran through the final plan of attack, ‘… so you see gentleman we will approach Quenelles from the east through the forest of Athel Loren, a totally unexpected quarter. In no time at all we will have swept aside any opposition and the city and its vast wealth will be ours.’ The other captains, arse lickers to a man in Schultz’s opinion, nodded and murmured their agreement. Schultz plucked up courage and addressed the Count, ‘My Lord,’ he tried hard not to sound sarcastic as he said the word, ‘are you sure that at this time of the year the mountains can be crossed at the point our guides are pointing us towards?’

The Count shifted his thin frame in the overly ornate chair that he had insisted on bringing on campaign and turned his ratty looking face towards Schultz, staring at him with cold dead eyes before answering, ‘Duke Bastinado runs the largest private ring of spies in the known world, and they have mapped the passes and the outer edges of the forest beyond. He assures me that there will be no problems on the road that we have chosen.’

‘Ah, the forest,’ replied Schultz, ‘have you considered how the wood elves will take to us trespassing on their lands?’

‘Pah!’ snorted the Count snapping his fingers in contempt. ‘Wood elves are a myth peddled by fat, ignorant peasant women, especially the garlic stinking Bretonnians, to keep their ill-behaved spawn in order. They’re a convenient fiction put about by that old blow hard the Duke of Quenelles as propaganda to convince the credulous that his precious city is invulnerable to a flank attack. You Schultz are rapidly turning into a whining old woman and we are growing tired with listening to your constant carping; your presence is no longer required at our councils. From now on you can march with that rag-tag rabble that passes for a company of archers!’

Schultz took one look at the Count’s bulging eyes, foam-flecked lips and crimson features and swallowed the impulse to comment on the folly of trusting a Tilean spymaster or entering the dark and foreboding homelands of the wood elves. He stood, saluted and, turning heavily on his heel, returned to his tent.

***

Things started to turn bad for the expedition as soon as it attempted to cross the mountains. The sun, which had shone on them for weeks on end, disappeared into massed banks of threatening grey cloud and the temperature dropped dramatically as they started to ascend the upper slopes of the foothills, shortly followed by heavy snow. ‘So much for Duke Bastinado’s information’ cursed Schultz struggling through a particularly deep drift. By the time that they reached the high mountain passes the pace of the army had been reduced to a slow crawl. The paths were narrow and icy making it difficult to move the artillery and the baggage, resulting in the larger canon and some wagons, mainly those carrying the tents, being abandoned.

And that was just the start. As the weather worsened and the men grew tired accidents started to occur with growing regularity. Whilst traversing a particularly difficult section of path with a cliff to their right and a sheer drop of a thousand or more feet to their left, a pony train, heavily laden with food supplies, slipped on a patch of ice and plunged screaming over the precipice dragging the five others in the string and their unfortunate handler to their deaths. Exhausted men collapsed by the side of the path and froze to death where they lay, their bodies rapidly becoming formless white humps beneath the constantly falling snow.

The army that came down from the mountains to follow the course of the river Brionne to Quenelles was a shadow of its former self with what little sense of discipline it had possessed at the start of the march beaten and frozen out of it. However, its real troubles were only just beginning. As soon as the Count’s army entered the forest men began to disappear. Stragglers at the back of the column disappeared. Outriders began to be picked off by archers hidden amongst the trees. Then just as suddenly the entire column would fall under sudden and brutal attack by figures in cloaks and covered faces, reaping a heavy toll.

Yet the men marched on, in mortal fear of feeling the bite of a white feathered arrow in his throat or back. Scouts moving ahead of the main column encountered deadly traps; shallow pits lined with sharpened stakes designed to maim and cripple an unwary man or horse, dead fall animal traps with a central spike on which the unfortunate victim became impaled or short poles cunningly arranged so that when trodden on they brought a spiked board up into the victim’s chest or belly. In the morning after the first night’s camp the sentries were found at their posts with their throats cut. During the second night the sentries vanished on for their bodies to be discovered strung up in the trees along the line of march, the last one still jerking and twitching as the column reached him. Yet of their attackers there was no sign.

The strain became too much for the common soldiers, many of whom were young men taking part in their first campaign. Despite the dangers around them desertion became rife and two of Schultz’s archers slipped away one night. Schultz wandered the woods for days, carefully marking his route with torn strips of his jerkin, careful to do nothing anger the wood elves further. Despite the pervasive sense of dread he was determined to find the men make an example of them. The army might be falling apart around him but he was damned if he was going to let his own regiment go the same way. The discovery of their mangled remains in a clearing had frustrated his plans and, he had to admit to himself, badly shaken him up.

Eventually the Count had decided to turn away from the river and head south towards the borders of the forest where reports said that it opened up into large easily crossed clearings. After a day’s hard slog cutting a path through dense undergrowth they finally broke out into open ground, a glade the size of a large meadow. The grass was thick and lush the small creatures flitted between its blades. As the Cossacks, strung out and agitated, emerged into the glade disaster struck. Spying a herd of magnificent looking pale grey and white horses grazing at the far end, drunk on vodka to a man, they set off without warning at the gallop to capture them. They had travelled less than half the distance to their goal when a single arrow took their leader in the throat with a wet thud. He continued to sit astride his horse, a bemused look on his face, choking on his own blood for several seconds before slipping from his saddle and falling beneath the feet of the horse next to him. Before his comrades could react a blizzard of arrows broke from the surrounding trees and scythed into them. Ponies screamed and plunged as the arrows struck home and men fell screaming and cursing from their saddles transfixed by the long shafts. One rider, pierced through the right shoulder, found his left foot tangled in his stirrup strap and was dragged for several hundred yards dashing his brains out as he bounced behind his mount. The few survivors of the arrow storm broke and galloped madly back towards the safety of the main body of the army; they were picked off one by one long before they reached it.

The Tilean crossbow men had been called up to provide covering fire, but before they could manhandle their heavy wooden pavaises into position or find a target to shoot at they too fell victim to a storm of unerringly accurate bow fire. With a bellow the Count led his knights in a mad charge across the glade and by some miracle he and a couple of survivors made it to the tree line where they kept going. Schultz realised with a sick feeling in his stomach that the army had been abandoned to its fate by its erstwhile leader. Strung out in a column of march it fell easy prey to its attackers and all hell broke loose. He watched horrified as the army disintegrated around him as the men fought shadows.

The air crackled with magic and the great swords who were attempting to cut their way out of the glade suddenly found themselves trapped by a dense tangle of viciously thorned bushes that sprang up out of nowhere and ripped the flesh of those who tried to break free from their grip. As fast as they had appeared the bushes vanished and the unit was attacked on all sides by a small group of semi naked, tattooed warriors who cartwheeled and cavorted around them wielding their swords with an effortless grace. As the dancers tightened their circle around the doomed great swords they were cut down one at a time without the Empire soldiers ever landing a blow on their opponents, their captain was the last to fall, beheaded by a lithe female warrior executing a deadly pirouette with a flash of silver.

The enemy was not however having it all their own way. As the men came to their senses and not even the elves supernatural agility could evade every thrust of arrow fired at point-blank range. But the losses were insignificant compared to the slaughter inflicted on the men of the Empire. To Schultz’s left a unit of halberdiers was holding its own against a group of elf spearmen only to be torn asunder from the rear by a group of nightmarish figures that seemed to be a mix of female elf and vegetation. They were unbelievably quick and strong and literally tore men limb from limb. His own company fared little better and soon only a handful of archers remained in isolated knots trying to fend off their attackers.

As suddenly as the attack had started it ceased and the elves began to withdraw to the edges of the glade; a deathly hush filled the clearing as the survivors stared at each other in astonishment unable to comprehend what was happening. A horn sounded close by and from the bushes emerged an elf twice the size of any man, his skin glowed with the fresh green tinge of new buds, his heavily muscled legs were covered with reddish coloured hair and ended in large hooves while from his brow sprang a pair of antlers that would have put a royal stag to shame. The figure was accompanied by two large wolf hounds and a retinue of hunters consisting of archers, spearmen, dancers and the peculiar tree women. ‘To the hunt!’ he bellowed before once more sounding his horn. The elves at the edges of the glade gave a great cheer as the figure and his retinue surged forward. The remaining men of the Count’s grand expedition panicked, broke and ran hither and thither; but all were hunted down mercilessly, except for Schultz who stood rooted to the spot with horror as death and destruction swirled around him. When it was all over the hunter stood before him, his naked torso spattered with gore and with strips of flesh hanging from his antlers. He cradled Schultz’s jaw in his great, gore soaked, hand and stared deep into his eyes, ‘I grant you the gift of life. You will be permitted to go back into the world of men and tell them of the power that lies in the forest. Worn them to never return.’

***

How Schultz found himself in the suburbs of Quenelles, his body battered and bruised and his mind broken he could not tell, but he did as he had been ordered and told all who would listen about the horror that awaited the unwary in Athel Loren. He slowly made his way back to the Empire and discovered that the Count and the few surviving knights had fled back across the southern spur of the Grey Mountains into Tilea. He had made his way to the court of Duke Bastinado where he had received a less than friendly welcome; the Duke had tried his new artillery train against a rival and discovered that several of the canon had been miscast. Barrels to had exploded when firing, killing their crews, whilst several of the others had defective touch holes that prevented them from firing. The Count was seized and thrown into the Duke’s dungeon where he eventually died lonely and raving like a madman in the darkness.

It didn’t take long for the locals of taverns across Altdorf to grow bored of his tales of woe and warnings and stopped listening to him. Soon he had become just another bitter old drunk, someone to be avoided at all cost or jeered at, but no matter how much of the cheap Altdorf beer he drank or how much raw spirit he poured down his throat he could not forget what had happened to him or his comrades and the warning he’d been charged to deliver. Nothing could provide the oblivion that would blot out the sights, sounds and the horror that he had witnessed.

Schultz opened the door of his lodging house with all the exaggerated quiet of a man who knows that he has drunk too much and staggered upstairs to the tiny cupboard that his landlady laughingly called a room. Still fully clothed, he collapsed into the flea ridden bed and pulled the soiled sheet over his head. Lying alone in the dark he shivered, closed his eyes and waited for the hunt to begin again. 

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