White Dwarf “Wood Elves” – A Review

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From the mists of Athel Loren emerge the warriors of the Wood Elves to repel the encroachment of man and daemon alike…

Today we get our first official look at the new Wood Elves as they return with a vengeance to the world of Warhammer. Anyone who’s been involved in the fantasy tabletop Games Workshop scene will know that Wood Elves have been long overdue an update (to put it mildly) and there’s no doubt now, that despite many of the rumours regarding scrapping them, combining them into a dual or multiple army book with Bretonnians, Games Workshop have given them a full army book makeover and the results look pretty special!

Thematic shifts

One of the most interesting shifts in the Wood Elf army is the emphasis that Mat Ward seems to have placed on the duality of the Wood Elves and their alignment to nature as both a creative and destructive force. This is borne out in what little we know of their rules (through things like access to both Dark and High magic lores, with the suspicion of more like this to come) and in the way that they are described, as walking a dual path, embracing the unpredictability of their choices and revelling in the somewhat chaotic environment that they reside within.

New Models

The most obvious changes with the release of an army book refresh prior to anyone actually having seen the inside of it (not available until next Saturday), is the model range. This week’s White Dwarf (issue number 13, not unlucky for Wood Elf players) contains new models across the range, including characters, monsters and new infantry in the form of what could be a new Eternal Guard kit.

Treeman!

Model

The biggest release, in both change of style and size of model has to be the new treeman model. Available as a ‘triple kit’ and capable of being assembled either as a Treeman, a Treeman Ancient, and the special character Ancient ‘Durthu’ (that’s him with the giant sword on the front cover) it’s a stunningly detailed kit with a myriad of options available to the hobbyist putting it together. The leaked pics available earlier in the week have already proved that it’s something of a marmite kit on first impressions, but I predict that few will be unswayed once they see it in the plastic, as it were. It’s obviously a break from the traditional Tolkien-esque versions available for the Wood Elves previously and I suspect that’s in no small part due to the Lord of the Rings line that Games Workshop have been selling since the Wood Elves were last re-done. The new Treeman kit certainly will make it clear to everyone whether you’re using a model that is what Games Workshop call a “Warhammer Wood ElfTreeman” as opposed to a “Lord of the Rings Ent”.

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Rules

The rules for Durthu, included in full in White Dwarf, are interesting and he looks like he’ll be a very cool option for anyone’s army. Your standard Treeman probably hasn’t changed that much but the Ancient Treeman certainly has – they are now all spellcasters (as is Durthu, as the oldest of all Treeman Ancients) and though it remains to be seen what lore choices standard Ancients get (Durthu is a Level 1 in Beasts) it will certainly give Wood Elves an interesting new dimension – especially given that standard spellweavers now have access to Dark and High magic alongside the 8 standard schools, albeit with their own special lore attributes. Durthu is also listed as having the “Blessings of the Ancients” special rule, which isn’t articulated anywhere. I presume that’s what makes him a Treeman Ancient, or possibly the big cheese of all Treeman Ancients, but that’ll take the army book to work out. Durhtu also has the rather nasty Tree Whack option in melee, which allows him to sacrifice his 5 standard attacks (at WS7, S6!) for one big bertha, that requires your target to fail an initiative test for you to deal d6 wounds with no armour save – ouch!

Araloth and other special characters

Model

The main character model featured in White Dwarf is Araloth, again with his rules, a Wood Elf noble who was diverted from his arrogant path by an encounter with an Elven Goddess. Araloth’s model is rather nice, posed giving flight to his hawk Skaryn, who can pluck the eye from any enemy careless enough to leave it unguarded. There also look to be a number of other new special character models appearing, but pictures are rather small so we’ll await confirmation on that front when the army book arrives!

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Rules

Araloth has a number of generic special rules, such as Always Strikes First (does this mean this isn’t a standard rule for all Wood Elves as had been previously rumoured? Or is it simply Games Workshop listing it this way in White Dwarf to avoid revealing more than they want to?) and Stubborn. He is armed with an Asrai Spear, which itself appears to suggest that any ‘Asrai’ weapons will be armour piercing (Asrai arrows, anyone?). A further interesting comment by one of the Games Workshop staff interviewed about using Araloth is the comment that “If you keep him in a wood, he’ll be able to re-roll To Wound rolls of a 1”, which suggests that Wood Elves may gain some benefits from being inside a wood as a general army special rule.

Eternal Guard?

One of the most interesting new models on show (though you have to peer quite hard to see them) are potential new Eternal Guard models. The Eternal Guard are definitely still in the army, as they’re mentioned several times in White Dwarf by those interviewed, and it would seem that they will retain their role as the ‘elite guard’ and ‘hard hitters’ of the Wood Elf army. The new models, if Eternal Guard they are, appear to be armed with a two-handed extended axe type weapon that could either be a halberd or a two-handed weapon. Whatever it turns out to be, I’m assuming it will be an ‘Asrai’ weapon as well, meaning it’ll either be S4 Armour Piercing, or S5 Armour Piercing. If Wood Elves don’t get ASF across the board, it’s probably going to be a halberd, but it will be interesting to see how it turns out. Either way, the new models look pretty damn cool.

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And what models are not there?

No pics of stag rider models in this White Dwarf, though two different art-works featuring them are in there, including those in the leaks earlier in the week. There aren’t any pics of treekin either – which given the way that the Treeman model now fits the theme of the dryad models suggests that there could well be new models forthcoming from them, but that’s a long way from confirmed. There is a very ‘in the background’ picture of a warhawk rider, but it’s impossible to say whether it’s new or old.

And the rest…

There’s also a nice paint splatter section on painting a Treeman, a whole load of interview content with people who’ve used the new Wood Elves in battle and lots of lovely pictures!

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New Wood Elves White Dwarf Leaks

The internets are aglow with many wonderful pictures of the new Wood Elf releases due out in May.

First up we have the teaser video from Games Workshop themselves:

And then there are the lovely, lovely White Dwarf leaks from Saturday’s forthcoming issue, enjoy:

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I don’t think it’s too early to say that Games Workshop have absolutely nailed this one on. The Treemen alone are enough to make me consider picking some Wood Elves up!

 

Wood Elf Art Leaked

It looks like all the naysayers and teeth gnahsers were dead wrong about the Wood Elves being amalgamated into the High Elves book. Indications the pointy eared tree hugging bastards are slated for a May release. Ian of The Chaps will be delighted.

Here’s some sexy artwork to prove it.

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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. 

The Shell Case Shorts 5 – Winner

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.