May’s Shell Case Shorts entries were of an outstanding quality which made it really tough to choose a winner. However, one had to be chosen and in this case it goes to a long-term reader of The Shell Case and first time entrant to the Shorts; Ian Tovey.
A Warhammer Fantasy story, Ian managed to capture the sheer brutality and mysticism of the Wood Elves without resorting to the usual hack and slash type stories that we’ve all seen a hundred times. Entitled Wildwood, it is by far one of the strongest winning entries to date. Ian will be receiving a signed copy of Faith & Fire by James Swallow.
So without further a do, I give you the winning story.
Wildwood – by Ian Tovey
Flies buzzed lazily around the two bodies that sprawled in the dappled sunshine of the forest glade. Captain Schultz stared with contempt at the corpses lying at his feet; spat, to clear his mouth of the taste of fear and death that still lingered about the place and, making a gesture to ward himself against evil, made his way over to where an ashen faced young Ensign leaned against the bole of an ancient oak tree. “Bury them in an unmarked grave”, he growled to a group of halberdiers who stood nervously nearby, “and make it deep enough to deter carrion”.
The dull thump of mattocks and the droning buzz of the clouds of flies that had been disturbed by the arrival of the burial party broke the brooding silence that lay over the clearing. Another wave of nausea swept over Captain Schultz and he spat angrily again. Due to the almost criminal stupidity of the expedition’s leadership desertion was becoming rife and he had wanted to capture these two alive and make an example of them, now he felt cheated.
“What do you think happened here?” asked the ensign, his voice shaking with barely suppressed fear and revulsion. “Simple enough”, grunted the captain, “they argued about something, probably loot, started fighting and killed one another”, his voice dropped to a barely audible mutter, “At least that’s what I’ll tell the Duke”. The two men fell silent each wrapped in his own thoughts.
“Killed each other”, muttered one hard-bitten veteran as he scooped out another shovel full of earth, “in ten years campaigning I’ve fought everything from chaos abominations to orc scum and I’ve never seen a sword spill a man’s guts the way Sigurd’s were”.
“And what about Gunter?” added his companion, “…what’s left of him”.
If Shultz, the hard task master trying desperately to hold together the shreds of a rapidly disintegrating army, and his men could only see beyond these maggot ridden carcasses to the two shades condemned to haunt this place of death for eternity, they would know their story in all its horror and perhaps glimpse their own fate and that of all who violate the borders of Athel Loren.
Two days, and still the trees stretched away endlessly on either side. Gunter groaned as the all too familiar shape of a gnarled oak tree, its bark mottled with a distinctive pattern of moss and lichens came into view for the umpteenth time that morning. Two days wasted hacking their way through this miserable Sigmar forsaken forest.
Fired with romantic ideas of travel, adventure and all the loot he could carry, Gunter, a peasant farmer’s son from a quiet village in Reikland, had joined a company of archers in the retinue of Count Ulrich von Schloss and now found himself part of an invasion force bound for Bretonnia. The days of easy marches through friendly country side dotted with good inns and all too willing wenches had passed quickly and Gunter had soon found himself facing a rapidly emptying purse. The Count’s reputation for being a miser did not help the situation. “If the parsimonious old sod wants to march us half way across the Empire the least he can do is pay us a decent wage to do it on!”, he was heard to mutter on more than one occasion. The crossing of the high passes in the GreyMountains had been cold, miserable and hard, but worse was to come as the army attempted to cross the forested wastes of Athel Loren. Now thoroughly disillusioned by bad food, poor pay and a total lack of loot, he had been persuaded by an older comrade, Sigurd, a grizzled veteran of numerous campaigns to dessert.
“The key to survival”, Sigurd had opined one night as they huddled round their camp fire, “is knowing when to get out. Dead heroes don’t gather loot and the way this campaign is looking to pan out there ain’t going to be any. What say you and me sneak away and head back to civilisation?” So having slipped between the picket lines one night, the two of them were now trying in vain to find their way through a maze of shifting forest trails back to the mountains and ultimately home.
Ahead of them the forest gloom lightened, Gunter and Sigurd moved cautiously as they approached what they were sure was a clearing and fearing some trap or an ambush they inched their way silently through the undergrowth. A sudden shift in the wind’s direction brought them a pleasant surprise as the smell of roasting meat drifted by on the breeze. Gunter found himself salivating uncontrollably as neither he nor Sigurd had eaten since the night of their desertion and all that that meal had consisted of was a thin barley gruel, and a hunk of rock hard black bread. The combination of starvation and nervous exhaustion proved too much for Gunter and, always the more headstrong of the two, he rushed headlong into the glade. He had just enough time to see a rough stone altar with the remains of a fire and a burned offering on it before a heavy blow to the back of his head laid him low.
Gunter came around slowly, wishing that the lights that danced behind his eyelids would leave him alone and that the pounding in his skull would go away. Keeping his eyes firmly shut he waited until the waves of nausea had passed. He soon realised that he was lying on his back and could feel cold, rough stone beneath him. From the sounds around him and the way that the sunlight played across his closed eyelids he guessed that he was lying somewhere out in the open.
The bright sunlight, after the forest’s gloom, made Gunter wince as he opened his eyes to discover that he was strapped to the low flat altar stone in the middle of the clearing. To one side of the glade stood a large oak tree, its lower branches festooned with carved wooden votive offerings. The elaborately horned skulls of beastman, orcs, and what appeared to be giant rats lay in crumbling heaps in the long grass amongst its roots. On the ground at the base of the altar stone stood a wide, shallow bowl of beaten gold its rim crusted with what looked like old blood.
Fighting back the urge to be sick, Gunter moved his head slightly and saw a tall graceful figure wearing robes in varying shades of green and brown covered by a cloak of leaves; the hood of the cloak was raised and cast a shadow that obscured its features. Hearing Gunter’s gasp as he attempted to move the figure shifted position revealing a face that appeared both young and grave, hansom yet pitiless, framed by flowing locks, the colour of autumn leaves. Grey eyes that were filled with the ancient wisdom of many winters, but cold as flint stared at him with disdain. With a shock Gunter realised that he was looking at a wood elf and one of their mages to boot, a member of a race he had hitherto regarded as being the stuff of old wives tales and rather dubious ale house legends. Shock turned to fear as a further movement revealed that the elf was holding a small, razor-sharp sickle.
Seeing that Gunter was now conscious the mage began a lilting chant, his hands etching strange symbols in the air between them as his chanting rose and fell in pitch and intensity. The air hummed and crackled with the build up of magical energy and a corona of amber coloured light began to coalesce around the mage. Gunter watched with fascination as vines and leaves of pure earth magic burst from the ground and twined about the mage’s figure and the altar on which he was lying. Then, with mounting horror, he realised that a sacrifice was being prepared and that he was to be the victim. In vain he struggled against his bonds, the cords cutting deep into his flesh, sending warm trickles of blood sliding down his wrists. Soon his tunic had become a sodden rag that clung to him like a clammy second skin as he sweated with fear. This was no way for a soldier of the Empire to die, he thought, trussed up like a pig ready for the winter slaughtering. His breath was coming in short panicky gasps, “Sigmar save me”, he moaned as the chant continued.
The chanting reached its climax and a deep, expectant silence blanketed the glade as the mage swung his arm high above his head, the sickle glittering wickedly at the top of its arc. Gunter held his breath preparing himself for the pain of the coming blow.
There was a low whistle followed by a soft thud. The mage grunted, his body arching over backwards as he fell, the slender shaft of a grey feathered arrow protruding from between his shoulder blades. The sickle slipped from his hand, struck the edge of the altar stone and fell with a ringing clatter. The accumulated magic discharged itself to earth with a loud hiss and an acrid smell that stung Gunter’s nostrils and left the tang of burnt tin in his mouth.
Sigurd appeared at the glade’s edge, bow in hand, a second arrow knocked and ready. Cut free, Gunter sat on the edge of the altar rubbing the life back into his wrists and ankles. “Where the hell did you get to?” he shouted at Sigurd, “that crazy bastard nearly did for me then”. He kicked the inert form hard in the ribs.
There was a sharp intake of breath and the mage’s eyes flickered open. He extended an arm, slowly, and pointed, shakily at the two men, a froth of blood bursting from his lips and his breath rasping as he tried to speak. “You have defiled the sanctuary…the earth cries out for vengeance…blood shall answer with blood…may the wrath of the hunter be upon you”.
“Shut up you old fool”, snapped Gunter. Sigurd’s knife flashed briefly, blood fountained in a crimson spray and the mage fell silent. A cloud passed across the sun and a chill wind sprang up which blew through the clearing, fluttering the dead elf’s robes. “Let’s get out of here”, muttered Sigurd, wiping the mage’s blood from his face, “this place gives me the creeps”.
The day wore on and gradually a soul penetrating feeling of gloom settled over Gunter and Sigurd; soon they began to feel that they were being watched. The forest seemed to be full of eyes that stared at them balefully, hedging them round with malice. Several times during the afternoon they fancied that they could hear the sound of footsteps following them and by nightfall both men were tired and nervous. Any attempt at communication between them had rapidly degenerated into argument and now they had lapsed into paranoid silence. They spent a miserable night watching turn and turn about, too afraid to light a fire for fear of attracting unwelcome attention. Dark shapes flitted between the trees on the edge of vision and the feeling that some hostile will was bearing down upon them grew stronger as the hours of darkness crawled passed.
The next day found them deeper in the forest and still no closer to their goal. The trees stretched away in endless ranks in every direction, their trunks resembling the bars of an elaborate cage with no sign of a track or trail through the fallen leaves of numberless years. Their hunger and the feeling of being constantly watched increased with each passing hour. The weather began to grow hot and oppressive; soon they began to feel stifled by the surrounding trees.
During the afternoon they flushed a stag that crashed off into the undergrowth, Gunter and Sigurd following in hot pursuit. Despite all their efforts it remained just out of reach until, at last, it became entangled while trying to force its way through a particularly dense patch of bushes. The two men had closed the gap on their prey considerably before it broke free and entered the clearing beyond.
Reaching the edge of the glade, Gunter loosed an arrow and the stag appeared to stumble. Whooping with delight Sigurd charged in, his sword held high, ready for the kill. With horrified fascination Gunter watched as the stag skidded to a halt and turned head down, to face it’s would be attacker. A vicious upward thrust of its antlers caught Sigurd in the lower abdomen, lifting him off his feet and sending him spinning backwards across the glade. Snorting with what sounded like satisfaction, the stag turned and walked into the bushes rapidly disappearing into the gloom, there was not a mark on its body.
Sigurd, on the other hand, lay in a twisted heap; his arms were flung wide and a look of stupefied surprise was on his old face. His body had been ripped open from groin to sternum spreading his entrails like a bloody ribbon across the trampled grass. Gunter, who had never witnessed anything more violent than the annual pig killing, stood stunned by his comrade’s brutal demise. The bitter taste of bile caught him in the back of his throat and he collapsed retching violently until what little was left in his stomach was gone. Lurching to his feet he stumbled from the glade and made his way blindly through the trees until, minutes, hours, or was it days, later he collapsed with exhaustion.
The little rest granted to him that night was disturbed by evil dreams and he tossed and fretted in his sleep. In an effort to gain a little comfort he rolled over and groaned as he found himself standing at the edge of the clearing and saw once again Sigurd’s corpse lying like a dark stain on the moonlight that illuminated the glade. He stood rooted with fear as he realised that Sigurd was moving. Inch by inch the corpse was crawling towards him, its bloody ribbon of entrails slowly extending behind it. With horror he watched as Sigurd’s right hand reached out to touch him.
Gunter woke with a violent start to find he was staring into a lightless, inky black void, no stars were visible and there was no moon. Something smooth and cold slithered across his leg. The forest was a silent, waiting and he lay rigid with tension, every nerve as taught as his drawn bow-string.
Suddenly the forest leaped out at him in a brilliant contrast of stark whites and deep black shadows as a lightning bolt split the night. He had a brief glimpse of a large snake disappearing into the undergrowth as the tree next to where he lay erupted into a ball of vivid orange flame. Thunder crashed followed immediately by a torrent of rain, which soaked him to the skin in seconds. With that first thunder crash Gunter’s tension broke and he leaped to his feet in blind panic and ran.
Blinded by the driving rain, disoriented by the constant crashing of thunder and terrified by what appeared to be faces with nightmarish features which leered down at him from the trees in the lightning flashes Gunter soon lost all sense of direction. His body and clothes were ripped and torn by trailing brambles and overhanging branches and he tripped many times over half hidden roots. Soon he was begrimed and bloody, but still he ran, driven by the basic urge to escape and survive.
With his legs beginning to feel like lead and each breath wracking his body with pain, he was on the verge of collapse when the forest opened up around him and he found himself on the edge of what he sensed was a vast, dark space. Could this be the forest’s edge at last? Hope surged in him and he rushed forward. He had covered only a few yards when his foot struck something soft and yielding, he stumbled and fell sobbing to the ground; his hands sank into something cold and clammy and he gagged as the reek of corruption caught the back of his nose. As if by a miracle, the storm ceased and the clouds parted, flooding the area with moonlight. Gunter found Sigurd’s lifeless eyes staring up into his from a bloated and discoloured face, blackened lips were drawn back in a rictus grin revealing the yellowed stumps of his rotten teeth; somehow a string of guts, already crawling with maggots, had looped around his wrists like a grotesque set of manacles.
Choking back a cry of fear, Gunter leaped to his feet and whirled around trying to regain his bearings as panic gripped him, once again. Small wordless whispers ran through the undergrowth and the bushes at the glade’s edge began to quiver and sway. The volume of the whispering increased by degrees, the movement of the bushes becoming more pronounced as it did so. Gunter’s hand dropped to his side and he drew his sword, gaining a small measure of comfort from the way the blade sang as it left its sheath and the glitter of the moonlight along its edge. The feel of its weight and the solidity of the grip in his hand steadied him somewhat and he shouted his defiance at his unseen foe.
The whispering gradually grew to a roar into which was mixed the baying of great hounds and the bushes thrashed wildly so that Gunter seemed to be standing at the centre of a vast whirlpool of noise and motion. Slowly the roaring resolved itself into a single word and the name Kurnous was repeated with a monotonous regularity that numbed his mind. The sound rapidly became a physical presence that battered his senses and he felt what was left of his courage ebbing away as his mind once more began to slide into abject terror.
Mesmerised he stood watching as will-o-the-wisp lights began to bob and weave about the glade or skittered through the long grass and he yelped in pain as one passed between his legs. Reaching down he discovered a tiny dart embedded in the flesh of his right calf. Others followed thick and fast and Gunter quailed under their stinging onslaught. As fast as the attack had started it ceased and the lights retreated to the glade’s edge where they clustered in the bushes or along the branches of trees.
Figures began to appear at the edge of the glade as if the shadows of the bushes were taking on solid forms. Tall, lithe figures dressed in various shades of brown and green their pale skin and hair gleaming fitfully in the moonlight; spiky haired figures that moved with a languid grace that failed to mask a barely suppressed violence, their semi naked bodies looped and whorled with intricate tattoos; supple limbed, dark-skinned creatures that looked like a nightmare amalgam of women and vegetation. All had eyes that glittered like remote starlight.
The soft thump of a heavy footfall followed by a deep bark of laughter came from behind him and he span around. At the edge of the clearing stood a figure, twice Gunter’s height, head thrown back and arms flung wide in triumph. From the waist up he resembled a powerfully built man; rainwater ran in silver rivulets down his naked torso, the skin of which had the green tint of new spring leaves. Below the waist his heavily muscled thighs and legs were covered in reddish-brown hair and ended in large hooves. Gold bracelets in serpent form entwined his arms from elbow to shoulder and a heavy gold torque circled his throat. In his right hand he carried a heavy spear with a massive bronze head; over his left shoulder was a bright green baldric from which hung a huge silver bound auroch’s horn. His arms dropped to his sides and he lowered his head slowly; from his brows grew a huge pair of stag’s antlers. Gunter found himself staring into a pair of eyes that burned like coals in the heart of a fire pit and bored into the very core of his being. The feeling of malevolence and raw hostility was overwhelming.
A bead of cold sweat trickled between Gunter’s shoulder blades and he shivered with fear. Terror had robbed him of the power of movement and he stood stricken like a dumb beast, whimpering as Orion, King in the wood, hoofed and antlered like a royal stag and terrible in his aspect of Kurnous, leader of the wild hunt, crossed the space between them in a couple of strides, at his heels loped a pair of enormous, grey wolf hounds. There was an animal grace in Kurnous’s step, his muscles rippled powerfully beneath his rain washed skin and the air was thick with the overpowering smell of musk. Stopping a few paces from Gunter he extended his left arm in a beckoning gesture, “I have been awoken from my long sleep and am come”, he hissed in a thin menacing whisper, “the blood debt is now due”. Gunter felt the last vestiges of his sanity snap and slip away. A finger with a nail like a steel talon touched him at the angle of his jaw and a feeling that burned like ice spread through his throat choking off the few sounds he was still capable of making. Losing all control of his body, Gunter soiled himself; his sword slipped from his nerveless fingers and stood quivering in the earth at his feet…
Death had profaned the sacred grove where the mage was murdered and the oak tree now stood stripped of its offerings, save one. From the lowest branch; its face an agonised mask of pain and terror, hung Gunter’s severed head.