Shell Case Shorts 12 – Winner 2

The second winner of Shell Case Shorts 12 has written a superb story set in the Dystopian Wars universe but with a far more…domestic twist to it. Enjoy…

The Circus – by Al Phillips

The crack of the gunshot made people scream and scatter in every direction, women scooping up their children and running for the nearest place of safety as the report of the pistol echoed all around the buildings of the Strand. The bullet impacted squarely in the back of the fleeing Prussian spy, pitching him face first on to the cobbled frost covered street with a thud as loyal subjects to the Crown scattering in every direction.

Special Investigator Barclay Pensworth holstered his service revolver his breathing heavy and fogging in the winter air. Pulling his jacket closed, he approached the man lying in an expanding pool of blood, cursing himself for going for the kill shot rather than wounding him. Dead men can’t talk. Wounded men do, especially once the interrogators get hold of them. And the interrogators he knew weren’t the kind of men to let a little blood and a bullet hole put them off.

Crouching down Pensworth rolled the dying agent on to his back. The man, in his thirties, in a cheap tweed suit and messy curled hair took a swing for him but in his weakened state Pensworth batted the fist aside easily enough and pinned the spy down, knee rested firmly on his chest.

‘What was your mission?’ He asked in faultless Prussian. The man didn’t have long left and the analysts back at the Circus had already confirmed his identity, wasting time asking him about it would only benefit the Prussian’s plans, not his.

The agent started to laugh but it degenerated into a hacking, choking cough as blood began to fill his lungs.  ‘We spend half our time looking over our shoulders,’ the agent gurgled in perfectly pronounced English. ‘Convinced that Special Branch is about to spring a trap and kill us all.’ More coughing and blood boiled up out of the agent’s throat and joined the spreading pool beneath him. ‘But you don’t know anything. You think we’re just interested in stealing documents and fucking your secretaries for secrets.’ The spy shook bodily and his face drained of colour, his eyes taking on a glassy look.

Pensworth had seen it a dozen times before and started to stand. The agents hand shot out and pulled him down, bloody hands smearing his shirt with gore.

‘Dies ist nur der Anfang…’ He said before his breath gave out and his body went limp.

Barclay Pensworth stood, his face set with a grim distaste as Clement Barrington arrived on the scene, panting, hands on his knees and sweat seeping through his jacket.

‘What did he say?’ Barrington gasped.

‘This is just the beginning.’

***

Pensworth sat at his desk at the Internal Securities Department, 12 Millbank, London, staring at the coroner’s photo of the dead Prussian spy. The man’s last words were still ringing in his ears as all around him teams of analysts and researchers scrutinised documents, listened to wire taps and deciphered messages from every corner of the Britannian Empire and beyond for some shred of an indication of what the many enemies of Britannia were plotting.

Pensworth knew that there were dozens of spies operating in England alone. Everyone of them hell-bent on learning anything they could about the Britannian war effort and feeding it back to their superiors. Pensworth and his fellow Special Investigators knew this because the Crown had sent hundreds of its own agents around the world to do exactly the same thing. But unlike the thuggish tactics of the Yanks or the sadistic streak of the Prussians, the Internal Securities Department had a remarkable success rate when it came to turning those enemy agents to the will of her Majesty’s war effort.

Setting the photo aside he opened the file that had been hastily compiled as the pieces of the puzzle concerning the Prussian spy’s duplicity had fallen into place. Nothing jumped out at him. Pensworth had learned the man’s real name was Moritz Schweiger, not James Kendal as his impressively convincing counterfeit documents stated. Schweiger it seemed had built a quite unremarkable cover which, from experience, was the best kind.

He had led an unremarkable life as a waiter in some of London’s nicer restaurants, always paid his rent on time, had friends which he visited regularly and even donated money to the Royal War Orphans Trust. He was even seeing a rather pretty young thing, judging by her picture, who was the daughter of the mining magnate Lord Gerald John Richardson the fifth. A veteran of the Crimean and personal friend to Prince Albert, after he was discharged from service he had made his fortune in mining raw materials and after Albert’s death had stayed in close contact with her Majesty.

The funny thing was, Pensworth thought, it wasn’t his connection with the Lord, and therefore her Majesty, that had set alarm bells ringing but Mister Kendal’s parents. The family had, apparently, repatriated from Hong Kong eighteen months ago yet his parents were nowhere to be seen and their beloved son was slumming it waiting tables. Furthermore he would make a phone call every Sunday, regular as clockwork to a West London phone number and, according to the wire taps, spoke to his father. Yet despite the apparent closeness he never once went to visit them or them him which didn’t sit right for parents that would pay hundreds of pounds to transport him from the other side of the world. Pensworth’s instructor when he joined the ISD had always told him; the devil is in the details.

Flicking through the dossier he knew this to be true more than ever with Schweiger. Both the address he had phoned and Schweiger’s home had already been searched. Both locations had turned up very little other than enough transmission and cipher equipment to keep the boys in Technical happy for weeks. Regardless there was nothing to indicate a wider plot beyond the usual espionage and clandestine activities.

Pensworth’s superiors had told him to close the case and move onto a suspected Russian spy network operating out of a Gentlemen’s Club in Soho. The Russians weren’t subtle; it was an easy collar and could wait. Besides these things always went down the same way and he didn’t relish the thought of a protracted gun battle.

But more than that, the dying man’s last words still nagged at him. He took out the photo of the dead man and stared at it once more. He looked past the peaceful expression, the pool of blood, the overly white tooth that contained cyanide that the agent didn’t get the chance to use. He relaxed his eyes and let the entire image sink into his mind.

He blinked as he noticed for the first time a familiar lapel badge pinned to Schweiger’s jacket. He yanked open the top draw of his desk, his hand snaking in amongst the files, half eaten bags of boiled sweets, the cigar tin that contained his last Cohiba as his hand closed around the handle of the looking-glass something heavy slammed into the desk draw, trapping his arm. He yelped in pain and surprise yanking his arm free.

Looking up irritated he saw that the something heavy was Clement.

‘Sorry about that old boy,’ He beamed taking a bite from a sandwich. He leaned over his partner’s shoulder. ‘I thought the Ringmaster had already told you to put Gerry to bed.’

‘He did Clem, but something doesn’t sit well with me.’ He poked the photo. ‘What do you make of that?’ Indicating the lapel badge.

Clem leaned closer, the smell of tuna ripe on his breath. His small eyes, surrounded by a flushed and podgy face, squinted.

‘Looks like the membership badge for the Beefsteak Club on Irving Street.’

‘How on Earth do you know that?’ Pensworth asked. Clement smiled and turned his jacket lining outwards so his partner could see the small round badge.

‘Because I’m a member Barclay old boy.’

‘So how does a waiter, earning three shillings and nine pence per week afford a club membership?’ Clement shrugged as he pushed the rest of the sandwich into his mouth. Pensworth shook his head at his partner. ‘Well grab your coat fatty, we’re going to find out.’

***

The Beefsteak Club was like most of the other up market Gentlemen’s Clubs of London: wood panelling on every wall, tall back leather chairs, thick cigar smoke and burlesque shows three times a day. Had Barclay Pensworth’s mother still been alive she would have been mortified that her eldest son was in such an establishment.

He and Clement walked through the club, noticing fellow members of Special Branch, her Majesty’s crown court and seventeen members of parliament all enjoying the show. Pensworth ignored them all; he wasn’t interested in how the political elite got their jollies, so long as they didn’t break the law in doing it.

It didn’t take long for them to attract the attention of the maitre’d who hurriedly intercepted the pair as the systematically and deliberately opened the door to every private room in the club. By the time the tall, wiry and weasel faced man with slicked over hair caught up with the pair and hurried them into his office they had walked in on four private dances, seven card games or various types, two illicit acts that Pensworth would be referring to the local constabulary and what looked like the shadow education minister lashed face down to a bench and having his bottom whipped by a women clad in a peculiar leather get up. Pensworth didn’t understand it himself but was smart enough to let it lie. Political currency was valuable in his line of work.

‘What can I do for you gentlemen,’ Fussed the maître’d after both men showed him their identification. Pensworth leaned against the oak desk. Like every other room in the club it looked as though a small woodland had been felled to deck out the office. Even the red leather, riveted desk chair was the same cut as those the rich and the fat currently wallowed in. Pensworth nodded at Clement Barrington who dutifully pulled out the photo of Schreiger taken at the scene of his death and handed it to the man.

‘Do you know him?’ Pensworth asked, reaching into his jacket and pulling a pencil and small notepad from his jacket pocket. The man opposite him stared at the photo before handing it back, nodding. ‘That is Mister Kendal, a regular here.’ The man’s tone was disapproving.

‘You didn’t like him?’ Pensworth probed. The maître’d shook his head.

‘He was a common sort, a waiter for a footman if I were to guess. It’s the shoes you see.’ The man cast his eyes down at Pensworth’s own scuffed Policeman specials before continuing. ‘But we had to suffer him as he was a member by another man’s graces.’

Before Pensworth could ask further questions the man continued. ‘And he certainly made use of those good graces. He ran up bar bills into the hundreds attempting to brown nose his way in with our more exclusive members. I even caught him harassing Lord Livingstone Melbrooks-‘

‘Wait,’ Pensworth cut in, ‘Lord Melbrooks as in the new ambassador to the Covenant of Antarctica?’

‘The very same.’ Said the maître‘d.

Suddenly a bad feeling settled in to Barclay Pensworth’s stomach, heavy and brooding.

‘Clem, call the Circus, get as many men as they can spare over to Lord Melbrooks’ residence on Upper Grosvenor, I’ll start the carriage.’ Pensworth darted from the office the door slamming behind him.

The maître’d dropped to his chair startled. Clement smiled down at him.

‘Don’t worry old boy,’

***

The carriage growled and chugged its way through the streets as fast as Pensworth could make it go. Unlike the newer combustion engines now available, Pensworth still used a steam-driven model. It was far better of long distances but perambulating through the cobbled streets of London it was a hateful device and made the 2 mile journey all the more intense for fear the contraption would simply breakdown.

By the time the pair pulled up outside the Lord’s home the sun was starting to set and lights were coming on all down Upper Grosvenor Street. The Melbrook’s residence was shrouded in darkness. Both men disembarked from the carriage, the boiler whistling and clucked as the furnace was turned down to idling, and drew their weapons.

‘Where are the others?’ Pensworth asked. Barrington shrugged. He’d produced a bag of humbugs from somewhere and was cheerfully and noisily sucking on one.

‘They said they were on their way.’ He mumbled.

‘Well we can’t wait.’ Pensworth bounded up the stone stairs of the grand abode and without breaking stride kicked the door in. The black lacquered door splintered from the impact sending splinters of wood in all directions. Before Barrington could stuff his humbugs into his pocket his partner was through the door and sweeping his gun side to side for targets. By the time he’d joined him, Pensworth had already skulked his way through the impressive living room and was now stood in front of the hanging corpse of Lord Melbrooks, in the main dining room.

Pensworth holstered his gun with a curse and surveyed the scene. The body had been there for a couple of days judging by its stiffness and stink. There was a chair over turned below the Lord’s feet and the room itself was largely untouched, the table still set for dinner. Walking back into the main hallway Barrington was the first to break the silence.

‘Looks like the old bugger topped himself.’

Pensworth shook his head. The hallway rug wasn’t straight, something unheard of in a home such as this. Folding the carpet back he could see the parquet flooring was scraped and scuffed.

‘Look,’ He said pointing at the floor. ‘There was a scuffle.’ He turned and walked slowly back into the dining room scanning the floor for more clues. He crouched down next to a drinks table and picked something up.

‘What is it?’ Clement Barrington asked.

‘A small sliver of what I suspect was a crystal decanter. I’d say the Lord put up quite the fight. Little wonder, he was career military and boxed for his regiment.’ Setting the sliver down he moved to a small blood spot. ‘Someone took a nasty sock to the mouth.’

He heard Barrington sigh behind him. ‘How do you know all this?’ He asked.

‘Research, Clem, old chap. When Melbrooks was announced as the next ambassador to the Covenant the Circus did a full work up on him to make sure he wasn’t going to sell all our secrets for his very own snow fortress.’

‘Don’t they all live underground?’

Pensworth rolled his eyes as he pulled himself upright and dusted down his trousers. ‘Come on Clem, we need to report this and make the Foreign Minister he’s going to need a new ambassador.’

Then the window and everything around him exploded. The air was filled with noise, shattered glass and bursting wood. Both men dropped to the ground as the dining room and the hanging corpse of Lord Melbrooks was torn to pieces.

Pensworth and Barrington crawled out of the room, glass and splinters raining down on them from above as the fusillade from outside continued. Making it into the hallway Pensworth risked a glance out of the side window. Three men, nondescript suits, all armed with auto repeating rifles. Military hardware.

Pensworth edged round the shattered door and took aim at the nearest shooter, slowly pulling back the firing hammer with a practised hand. He was about to fire when a hand grabbed him by the collar and yanked him backwards. He span instinctively reversing the grip on his pistol ready to use it as a club on his attacker but it was Barrington pale-faced, his hands held up defensively.

‘What are you doing?’ Pensworth growled, ‘I had a clear shot.’

‘At the first one, yes. But what about the other two? That door affords you no protection old boy, they would have cut you to pieces.’

Pensworth scowled but knew his partner was right. The shooting had stopped and Pensworth spied the shooters jumping into a auto-carriage and sped away. ‘After them!’ He shouted, running down the steps, reaching his own conveyance only to find that the shooters had been thorough and riddled the boiler with holes.

A thought surfaced in his mind but before it could formulate a crumpled bag of humbugs was thrust under his nose. ‘Want one old boy?’ Barrington beamed at him.

***

The following morning Pensworth stood in his best suit and smartest shoes, and ram rod straight as the foreign secretary, Lord Cornelius Blackwood, read his report. It wasn’t much and it was inconclusive at best. Pensworth was unable to pursue the gunmen and so was yet to determine who they worked for or how they knew he and Barrington were there. Only the weaponry was identifiable as a Lee-Enfield Auto-Repeater ARLEIV a British made weapon and one found as a support weapon in every squad, in every regiment bearing the Britannic flag.

Blackwood turned over the last page and folded the report closed.

‘An interesting work of fiction Mister Pensworth.’ Said Blackwood leaning back against his overstuffed chair and steepling his fingers.

‘Pardon me my Lord?’

‘All this nonsense about Lord Melbrooks being found hung.’ He said waving a dismissive hand at the report. ‘A load of poppycock.’

‘My Lord, I saw the body with my own eyes.’

‘Then tell me,’ Blackwood stood and stared out of his window of the Houses of Parliament, staring down at the dirty waters of the Thames, ‘How is it that Lord Melbrooks departed these shores for Antarctica three days ago.’

‘What?’ Pensworth’s surprise overrode his sense of propriety. ‘That’s impossible.’

‘Impossible or not, when plod finally arrived at Melbrooks address all they found were bullet holes and bloody great mess. If you weren’t a Special Investigator I’d have you charged with breaking and entering and criminal damage.’

‘I don’t understand, my lord. Melbrooks is dead and I believe a Prussian spy is behind it.’

‘Enough,’ Blackwood raged. ‘That couldn’t have been Melbrook.’

‘I know what I saw!’

‘You forget you place Investigator! That couldn’t have been Melbrook because the damn blasted fool arrived in Antarctica yesterday and subsequently provoked the Covenant in to declaring war on the Kingdom of Britannia. His body washed to shore on the Falkland Islands this morning.’

Pensworth mind was reeling. Nothing was making any sense.

‘Now if you’ll excuse me, I have Lord Richardson waiting for me in the other room.’

‘Richardson?!’ Blackwood’s irritation was almost tangible at Pensworth’s lack of respect.

‘Yes, Investigator, now we’re at war with the Covenant as well as every other damn fool nation we’re going to need raw materials like never before.’

Pensworth felt numb as he was ushered out of Blackwood’s office.

What did it all mean? Melbrook, Richardson, Schweiger, what did they all have in common?

***

Clement Barrington sat in one of the private rooms of the Beefsteak Club on Irving Street and waited for the showgirl. He liked the burlesque shows as much as the next man but he found it all got a bit awkward when the show got to its racier parts. He’s much rather looking at ladies in a state of undress be a private experience. He reached for the scotch he couldn’t afford and took a long and lingering sip.

The door latch clicked behind him and he smiled. Rose was his favourite, and not just because she offered extras. The door closed and he adjusted, making himself comfortable.

‘Come on Rose my dear, don’t keep me waiting.’

‘I’m afraid Rose will be a while longer. Old boy.’

Barrington froze as he heard the familiar click of a gun cocking.

‘Barclay,’ Barrington said slowly, ‘What are you doing?’

‘I’m doing my job Clem.’ Barrington felt Pensworth move closer but he stayed behind him. ‘Or do you prefer Udo Herzog?’

Barrington let out a sigh.

‘Bravo Barclay old boy, you finally figured it out.’

‘I understand the Prussians wanting to provoke a war between the Covenant and Britannia, we were the only power left that they had remotely cordial relations with, but I don’t understand what Richardson has to do with all this.’

Barrington rose and turned to face his partner.

‘You presume too grand a plan Barclay old boy. Richardson came to us. Gave us the means to infiltrate the Circus. Even offered up his daughter to help maintain Schweiger’s cover.’

‘But why?’ But Pensworth already knew the answer as he said it.

‘Money. Richardson wants to be the exclusive provider or raw materials to the Britannic war effort and a war on another front, especially one as seaborne as the Covenant would hundreds of new warships.’

‘All this over money?’ Pensworth spat taking a step closer to his former friend.

‘Don’t be nieve Barclay. This war will burn out eventually and when it does Richardson will be the only man left standing with any credibility left. And the fortune to silence anyone who knows different.’

Pensworth nodded. He had pieced it altogether after his meeting with Lord Blackwood. He’d subtly investigated Lord Richardson’s holdings and finances and noticed not only aggressive expansion in mines but steel production. He’s also identified Richardson as Schweiger’s benefactor at the club. And for one other.

‘Just answer me this one last question Clem.’

Barrington shrugged, finishing off his scotch with practised ease.

‘Why did you kill the maître‘d?’Barrington smiled. It was a cruel smile Pensworth had never seen on the man before.

‘He gave me up. He didn’t realise it, of course, but as soon as he mentioned Schweiger and the ambassador I knew it would only be a matter of time. I knew my own movements in the club would eventually come to light.’

‘And the gunman outside Melbrook’s house?’

‘Necessary. I had to silence you but when the bullets started flying and they hadn’t killed you in the opening volley I found myself unable to do the job myself. We’ve been through a lot you and I these last two years.’

Pensworth nodded. ‘We have.’ He smiled at Barrington. ‘Which is what makes this so hard.’

The shot was swallowed up by the burlesque music and bellowed laughter of dozens of drunk and happy businessmen. Barrington’s body wouldn’t be found for another three hours by which time Rose had been paid off to say that he’d attempted to rape her and an unknown patron, hearing he screams for help, had shot him in her defence. The constabulary were currently unaware of the shooter’s whereabouts.

The following day the papers ran a headline story about mining magnate Lord Gerald John Richardson the fifth being tragically killed in an automotive accident whilst travelling to his country residence. He had been planning on spending time with her daughter following the shooting of her gentleman friend by muggers barely two days before.

Eye witnesses reported hearing what sounded like a gunshot before the auto-carriage lost control and collided with an oncoming lorry but they were unconfirmed.

Lord Richardson’s business holdings were currently frozen by the treasury while a will is found. However, due to the looming threat of war with the Covenant, sources close to the PM suggest that the assets may be nationalised until the crisis of war is over.

Pensworth folded the paper and tucked it under his arm tossing coins on to the news stand before joining the rest of the commuters on their way to work.

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.