Good Hunting in the Drakwald

Brace yourself- herein lies a World of Warhammer fan fiction short story.

Set in the Old World (of the Warhammer-verse) during the reign of Karl Franz. In the northern provinces of the Empire a nasty war of skirmish and ambush is underway in the dark forests of Middenland and Hochland. The realm of men endures the ravages of the Beastmen of the Drakwald lead by the fiendish Khazrak One Eye. Great deeds and villainous treacheries are marked by the scholars and playwrights of the time, but many of the great are supported by (or even derived from) the smaller folk who fight, bleed and crawl unnoticed out of the muck…

 

 

Good Hunting in the Drakwald

Wherein the lowly huntsman Vladimir puts his woodcraft and sword-work to the test, learns something of magic and command and thus earns his spurs and scars. All to the ultimate misfortune of many.

 

The wind hissed through the trees bringing with it the faint smell of smoke. Vladimir froze and listened carefully. Nothing could be heard above the breeze in the leaves. He crouched slowly trying a lower angle to see through the brambles. The verdant forest kept its secrets hid. A slow turn of his head changed the sound of the breeze on his ears. And there it was again! A distant noise like a cough, and out here in the deep woods, a good league from the nearest track that Vladimir knew of. Something was definitely ahead.

Turning about, the hardy scout signalled ‘quiet’ and ‘listen’. In the forest behind him he could see Rutger and at least two others of his hunting band hidden amongst the ancient mossy trees. Poised, bows ready, eyes slitted, ears peeled.

A few seconds later he heard the noise again, but it was more of a bark than a cough. “A man and his dog?” thought Vladimir.

Rutger moved up to his side cautiously, trying to be quiet. “It’s somewhere to our front. Could be another scouting party?”

“Could be,” whispered Vladimir doubtfully “but what species of scouts?”

Rutger grunted and Vlad gave the signal to advance, which Rutger passed on to the others.

Silently the Empire men crept through the forest, around brambles, and over bracken. Keeping to the shadows, alert for danger, they moved some score of yards before a clearing became evident ahead. As one they moved silently into cover, halted and watched. Movement could be seen and bestial calls and braying became painfully clear.

Beastmen! Burners of fields, eaters of men! Vladimir felt the unwelcome tugging of fear at his breast. These monsters were the terror of the Drakwald. Villages and hamlets across Middenland and Hochland danced to the lethal tune of the Beast herd’s drums. Vladimir hated and dreaded these denizens of the deep woods. There they were cavorting around a smouldering campfire. He gripped his bow tightly then glanced at Rutger. His face was a scowl. They nodded as one and signalled a stealthy advance.

o0o

The huntsmen crept to vantage points where they could shoot into the clearing. Vladimir knelt on one knee in the bracken and carefully raised his bow.  The Beastmen were now scarily close. He could smell them, a rank animal odour, musky and fetid. A quick glance about him told Vladimir that the other huntsmen were ready too. They knew the plan.

Without a word Vlad drew and loosed and the other hunters silently followed suit. Arrows sank into Ungor flesh and several staggered or fell. The capering and cavorting herd barely noticed until a second volley raised even more howls of anger. The whole clearing erupted. Unnoticed Beastmen, a scant 10 yards away, suddenly sat up in the bracken. The scattered irregular braying became a unified roar.

A huge brute, perhaps a Minotaur, strode into the clearing shouting in its bovine tongue and pointing in the hunter’s direction. Vladimir yelled “Run!” as a lackey beast blew a long harsh note on a horn. As the huntsmen darted away into the undergrowth a chorus of other horns from across the forest answered.

Vladimir and his fellow stalkers bolted as javelins and arrows began to fall amongst them. They fled, leaping over fallen logs and smashing their way through bracken. A quick glance behind told Vlad the pursuit was hot. A scant 20 yards away came a howling sea of Gors and Ungors brandishing rusted axes and barbed spears.

Heart pounding in his chest Vlad recognised the rocky outcrop ahead. “This way” he shouted to his comrades and as one they angled towards the mossy boulders. Behind them the sounds of thumping hoofed feet, ghastly howls, irregular blowing horns and snapping undergrowth spurred the humans on.

Within seconds they were vaulting over rocks and darting between boulders. Ahead of him Rutger turned and drew an arrow and raised his bow. Vladimir barked “Just keep running” and then was past Rutger, jumping over the last of the rocks and sliding down a short scree slope.

The beasts were closing the distance. They rounded the rocky outcrop on both sides and tore after the men. Behind Vladimir, Rutger struggled to keep clear. The monsters were just behind him. A claw snatched his cloak and tore it off. Rutger dropped his bow and arrow in fear and stumbled. He hit the ground, rolled and expertly came to his feet sword raised. Only to be hacked by half a dozen axes and pounced upon by the mob that rolled down the hill in a bloody screaming mass fighting for his body.

“Don’t look back!” Vladimir urged his men on, whilst trying not to scream in fear. The herd was only yards behind. Their reverse jointed legs and hoofed feet allowed them to quickly gain on the men. The hunters and hunted hit the bottom of the hill sprinting where the terrain began to open out into scattered dense groves in an open, stream cut valley. Now the Beastmen really ate up the distance and within seconds were right on Vladimir’s heels. Still holding onto his bow he drew his sword from its sheath on his back. If it came to it he wouldn’t be hacked down from behind.

The beast horns bleated again but were suddenly drowned out by the clarion trumpet calls of the Empire, followed by a harsh volley of arquebus fire! Vladimir kept running but a quick glance told him the Beastmen had stopped. Jumping across the small stream the huntsmen turned to face the forest.

o0o

Concealed units of handgunners rose from the stream bed, their lethal firearms spitting hot lead and cutting swathes through the herd closest to Vladimir. On forested heights beyond the stream, cannons and mortars were wheeled forward into commanding positions. Regiments of knights, their bright pennons fluttering in the breeze, cantered out from behind concealing birch copses. Spearmen kitted out in the blue of Middenland marched out of a nearby hollow flanked by detachments of Free Company.

Swarms of Beastmen surged out of the forest. Up and down the small valley the far tree line was buzzing with herds of all shapes and sizes. Here and there a great Minotaur or feral Ogre lurched amongst the smaller Gors. Regimental blocks of Bestigors emerged from the forest depths flanked by packs of hounds. Even some chariots drawn by huge mutated boars rumbled into a clearing upstream.

Vladimir and his half dozen remaining men nocked arrows and drew their long bows. Sending shaft after shaft into the nearby herd. The mob wavered but a large Gor barked something unintelligible and the remaining frothing mutants charged towards the handgunners. The nearest regiment fired a second volley dropping half a dozen more. The regiment commander scoped his Hochland Long Rifle upon the command Gor and fired. The Gor’s hairy bulk collapsed comically onto his back and the remaining beasts turned and fled.

Breathing a sigh of relief Vladimir and his huntsmen sent another volley into their retreating backs. Vlad then turned to seek direction from the lay of the land and the movement of the Middenheimers. Having been involved in several skirmishes since enlisting, Vlad knew that his position on the field could easily determine his men’s fate.

The Imperial cavalry thundered forward splashing through the stream on the left and right flanks towards exposed knots of Beastmen. The Spearmen moved up the centre towards Vladimir and the centrally located Handgunners who were pouring fire into the forest. A thunderous roar announced the artillery was ready. Newly acquired by the Count from Nuln, the black powder weapons were a marvel. Vladimir watched in awe as a cannon ball soared over his head and bounced through the beasts’ line, violently hurling several poor devils back into the trees.

The Beastmen milled around for a moment obviously surprised by the sudden appearance of an Empire army and the loud black powder weapons. Then with a cacophonous roar they came streaming out of the forest towards the Imperial troops. Tribal clusters of warriors gathered around their own barbarous standards. Giant mutated beasts, wielding huge axes and cleavers, marched together in a bizarre parody of civilized units. From out of the trees near where Vladimir had emerged, came large armoured Bestigors. They marched in regular ranks with a discipline that seemed ill fitted to such an animalian force. The two handed axes they carried were rusted and wickedly barbed.

Vladimir knew the beasts were too numerous for the Handgunner units to hold back indefinitely. Where the huntsmen and gunners now stood, the centre, would almost certainly fall. Even with the advancing Empire Spearmen this area was about to become a swirling melee unsuited for the lightly armoured Drakwald Rangers.

“What shall we do?” asked Sergei, a young trapper from Immelscheld. A mortar shell exploded violently not 50 yards away amidst the beasts. It took only Vladimir moments to sum up his position “We’re damned if we stay here!”

o0o

A spinney of Oak and Birch crowded a nearby knoll. “Up there!” pointed Vlad, and the small gang of hunters sprinted for the small wooded hill. As the swarm of Beastmen charged onto the valley floor a few of the nearby Handgunners turned and looked longingly at the departing archers, but a harsh yell from their sergeant held them to their ground. Another volley of Handgunner fire echoed across the forest, as Vlad leapt from hummock to hummock avoiding a marshy patch. Old Count Todbringer was a cunning bastard- ambushing an army of Beastmen in favourable ground was no mean feat. Even now Vlad could see the Knights Panther slam into a disorganised herd to the south and ride them into the ground.

Chests heaving, Vladimir’s rangers gained the knoll and took up vantage points from which to fire. A cannonball skipped across the flood plain and smashed a chariot to kindling sending the ungor driver tumbling back into a pack of dogs. The slavering hounds promptly tore the unfortunate to pieces then raced toward the Empire lines outpacing their two legged masters.

“Shoot the hounds”, barked Vladimir as he nocked, drew and fired in one smooth action. The huntsmen’s arrows fell amongst the pack dropping several of the rabid dogs.  The pack changed directions straight for the huntsmen but another volley of arrows thinned them out till the remaining pair of mutts fled with arrows stinging their rumps.

Spearmen and Free Company irregulars marched bravely past Vladimir’s position to the stirring beat of a drum. Ahead of them the Handgunners on the stream banks were rapid firing into the massed hordes of Ungors scant yards away. Even as Vladimir watched the gunners broke and fled from the overwhelming numbers of Beastmen. One unit was rapidly overtaken and cut down by the manimals, the screaming serving to hasten the other gunner unit.

Scores of Gors and Ungors splashed across the stream, followed by three huge, axe wielding monsters. “Shoot the Minotaurs” Vladimir ordered as the Spearmen halted and lowered their weapons into a bristling array. Suddenly a piercing scream rose above the cacophony. From out of the far tree line a came a swarm of magical bird shapes. The spectral black crow forms swooped upon the spearmen in a pecking, scratching, biting mass. The men flailed ineffectually at the enchanted birds and a dozen stalwarts of Middenland fell to the turf as the spell dissipated.

Sergie gasped, “Evil magic! Ulric preserve us!”

“Steady” growled Vladimir whilst scanning the far tree line where the birds had come from. Across the valley he could see a strangely garbed Beastman holding a large staff. A Sorcerer no doubt! – And relatively unguarded, thought Vladimir. Between the wizard and the hunters were scattered beast units either rushing north to the fray with the Spearmen, or south to counter the Knights Panther who had crossed the stream and were manoeuvring to engage the beast flank. A gap was opening across to the wizard a scant 200 yards away. Vlad looked over the ground with a cautious eye. He could run back across there in a minute, but it would be a risky move.

The Spearmen grunted as the beasts charged their line in a loud clash of rusted iron upon shining steel. The Free Companies charged into the fray countering the flanking forces of Ungors. The Hunters and the surviving Handgunners were peppering the approaching Minotaurs. Vladimir turned his attention to the giant beasts and sent an arrow into the chest of an already pin cushioned Minotaur. The monster bellowed blood and collapsed into the reddening stream. Far up the valley Vladimir was dimly aware of knights engaging Bestigors, beast chariots smashing into Imperial Swordsmen, and artillery intermittently blasting overhead.

Another crackle of magic and the screeching crows descended upon the Handgunners. Vlad looked on in horror as the unarmoured men were enveloped. They fled in screaming disarray and by the time the spell lifted the few surviving men were running for the artillery emplacements. Count Todbringer’s Priests were unable to counter the magic of the beast Shaman. Vladimir realised his Hunters would have to do something about it.

o0o

Not one for grandiose speeches Vladimir put on his harshest, most commanding voice. “We’re going to kill that wizard -follow me!” he roared to the rangers in a tone, and with a look, that brooked no dissent. Vlad raced back towards the stream followed by his surprised looking archers. The battle was perilously close. Spearman and Gor wrestled in the mud. Shot Ungors were trampled underfoot. Free Company rogues traded blows with goat headed mutants. A quick glance to his right showed neither side seemed to have the upper hand yet.

The remaining two Minotaurs were striding around the melee and would be flanking the humans in short order. No time to worry about them, thought Vladimir. It was the Counts domain to bring up reinforcements, and seven unarmoured men will make no difference here. Keeping his sights firmly on the Shaman, Vladimir splashed though the creek pausing only to cut down a straggling Ungor in his way.

Cresting the rise of the creek bed the Hunters darted off, away from the central battle. Some 50 yards to their left several mobs of Beastmen faced off against a unit of Knights Panther. Both groups feinting and refusing to commit. Vlad could only hope the mutants didn’t decide his unit was a more appealing choice. Then a great horn blast rent the air, turning heads of both man and beast.

The long note came from an unengaged unit of Bestigors to the north. At the front of the heavily armed mutants a massive Beastman took a brayhorn from his misshapen lips. Then from the forest behind the Empire artillery came several answering horn blasts. A counter ambush!

Vladimir paused to look back to the artillery emplacements. He could see the crews fleeing onto the valley floor from several beast herds that had emerged behind them. The Count’s reserve squadron of Knights wheeled hastily about to face this sudden threat to the Imperial rear. The ambushers were ambushed.

“Onward!” yelled Vladimir quelling any fears his men might have had by appearing unconcerned at this disturbing development. The Beastmen had known about Middenheim’s plan all along and had been waiting for Vlad and his crew to set their own ambush off! The huntsman tried to clear his own mind of the implications of this and focus on the shaman. There he was, a scant 50 yards ahead at the top of the very rise where Vlad’s rangers had fled down just minutes before.

Two chaos hounds looked up from the corpse they were eating. Seven tender men were running towards them. They bared their teeth, growled then charged snarling towards the hunters. Vlad drew his sword as Sergie, Anton and the others pulled out their assorted hatchets, clubs, and daggers. The two dogs were on them in seconds. Anton fell under the bulk of one rending hound as Vlad and Sergie hacked the other down. Anton was dead before the men could slay the remaining mutt.

Sergei bent to staunch the blood flowing from Anton’s ripped throat. Vladimir flicked the gore from his sword. “Leave him, he’s gone- kill the mage!” He raised a murderous gaze to the Shaman.  Behind the archers the confused and raucous sounds of battle grew more frantic. A Hellblaster Volley Gun went off in a devastating salvo. Another wave of sorcery lashed out over their heads and blasted the Knights Panther, knocking several nobles from their saddles, steam hissing out from their visors.

Hans, a soft-spoken timber getter from Breder, yelled, “Lets gut the pig!” waving his falchion high as he ran with Vladimir up the slope. The Shaman lowered his baleful eyes to the men hunting him. The Goat headed wizard pointed his staff and howled something in an alien tongue. Vladimir gritted his teeth – they still had 20 yards to sprint uphill. Whatever spell the wizard was about to cast it was going to hit before they could get to him. A devastating wave of midnight black shot out from the Shaman and Vladimir felt the icy touch of the winds of magic upon his brain. Then the blast hit.

o0o

A torrent of stimulus scrambled Vlad’s thoughts: screams, evil pseudo-birds pecking, blood spatter, flailing arms, distant harsh laughter, and the taste of grass. Then suddenly it stopped. The light of the sun returned seeming to banish the crows. Vladimir drew a ragged breath, inhaling grass seeds. He lay on his front facing uphill. Ahead he could make out the Shaman scanning the battlefield for another target. Around him lay the Drakwald rangers. All dead. But then someone groaned. Young Sergie staggered to his feet, bleeding from the head with dozens of scratches and small bites covering his exposed skin, but he was still very much alive. Vlad grinned in encouragement and crawled then also stood upright. His body ached all over, and his mind still could feel that ethereal after effect of magic.

Sergie stared at him and Vlad could tell from the look that he must be in as bad a shape. No time for reflection. “Grab your axe”, muttered Vladimir as he strode then ran towards the Shaman.

The Beast Shaman saw his danger but, realising it was only two puny men, he stood his ground, raised his large bulbous staff and bellowed frighteningly. Despite his rage Vladimir’s pace faltered in the face of such a monstrosity. The Shaman stood over six feet tall and was all hairy muscle. Tossing aside his bow Vlad gripped his long sword in two hands and rushed in. The Shaman stepped forward and swept his staff at leg height. Vlad blocked with his sword and felt the impact reverberate up his arms. Ye gods the beast was strong! He slashed franticly but the shaman leapt back.

Sergie rushed around him holding his axe high. Vlad thrust with his blade as Sergie swung. But quick as a flash the Shaman leapt past the blade and rammed his muscled shoulder into Vlad as he parried Sergei’s axe. Vlad staggered back ineffectually slashing his sword across the beast’s side but this didn’t stop the Shaman bringing his staff down in a crunching blow to Sergie’s head. Vlad fell backward onto the ground in time to see Sergie stagger then crumple, his head a broken mess of brain and bone. Vlad gagged, vomited, then quickly spat out the bile as he rolled backward onto his feet. He tried not to look at the twitching body of the young man as he pointed his sword in shaky hands towards the Shaman.

The Beast grunted knowingly at him, then gibbered in his strange language.

Vlad quickly wiped the sweat from his brow then double feinted, high then low. The Shaman swept his bloody staff wildly about not expecting the delaying move. Vlad suddenly remembered he could still hear the sounds of battle. Edging sideways he got the forest to his back and could see beyond the Wizard. The battlefield was a mess of surging men and beasts, pounding cavalry and howling monstrosities. Sensing the man’s delay the Shaman actually looked nervous, realising he should be dropping mighty dweomers upon Imperial nobles, not trifling with a shabby hunter.

Head to the sky like a wolf the beast gave several loud howls. Not caring if it was magic or just summoning help Vlad rushed forward. Down came the huge staff and Vlad stepped aside whilst raising his sword in a parry he’d seen soldiers do in training. The sword clanged as the staff clashed past. Vlad swept his blade classically down across the beast’s legs and opened up a great spurting cut. Yelping the stinking beast lurched away supporting itself with its staff. Vlad laughed at its painful hopping gait. But then he noticed the herd of snarling monsters running from the plain below towards him. They’d given up their cat and mouse game with the Knights Panther and were coming to aid their shaman.

The Mage whirled towards the hunter and with eyes rolling back in their sockets he began incanting a spell. Whilst badly wounded the Shaman was still deadly. The light warped, sounds dimmed and the wind rose as Vlad resolved to try and kill him quickly. He ran into the gathering ethereal web. Time seemed to slow as he stepped into the mage’s coruscation of energy. The Shaman’s gnarled hand was outstretched, pointing at Vladimir and he could see lines of magical force congealing in a ball of energy at the fingertip. Instinctively knowing there was no time for a killing blow he lashed out with his blade at the nearest thing.

o0o

In a blinding flash the magic discharged aimlessly as Vladimir’s sword cut the Shaman’s hand in half. Twitching fingers with magical coronas sailed through the air. The Mage screamed in pain as Vlad blinked away the bright spots in his retinas. Then without a second thought Vlad chopped his sword down into the stunned Shaman’s shoulder.

The Beast Sorcerer staggered, dropping the staff, it’s eyes wide in shock. Vlad yanked his sword out awkwardly, evading a swipe from the other taloned hand. A final lateral slash across the stomach saw the sorcerer reeling backward trying hold its stinking guts in and gurgle some kind of incantation. In seconds its face turned white and the Shaman fell onto its back, expiring in a seeping pool of scarlet.

In a daze Vlad looked down at the Beast’s carcass, too surprised to spit on it or make a witty remark that the plays of Detlef Sierk would have the victor of such a duel do. The crash of gunfire snapped his brain to attention. Vlad quickly stooped and ripped off a valuable looking braided necklace of teeth surrounding a small emerald. Looking up he could see the body of Sergie and further off the magically slain bodies of Hans and the others. This mutant spawn had cost him his comrades. All of his paltry command were dead, what would their families think of him?

The Beast Herd reached the bottom of the hill howling for his blood. As Vlad began to run, the Knights Panther galloped up behind the herd and charged. The beasts turned only to be impaled on lances and crushed beneath hooves. Vlad sighed in relief as he was in no condition to flee from the monsters.

From this vantage point Vlad could see across the valley. The Count’s personal knights guard had scattered the ambushing Beastmen but not before they had destroyed the Imperial Artillery line. Only the Hellblaster and a Mortar seemed to be still in operation. The Spearmen and Free Companies in the centre had been mauled but several Knights bringing down the Minotaurs had swung the battle there. To the north Vlad could make out some confused combats with regiments of Bestigors engaging Imperial Swordsmen and Knights. The left flank was now the Empire’s as evidenced by the squadron of Knights Panther riding up to him.

Vlad stood over the body of the Shaman as the Knights reined in on the hilltop. “Hail and well met soldier!” proclaimed the First Knight raising his visor to reveal a smiling, clean-shaven man. Vlad raised his hand in salute and remembering his manners and wit replied “Greetings sir, I’m afraid I beat you to the mage.”

“Yes I saw your handiwork, well done man” grinned the Knight.

“Thankee sir, though the beast exacted its toll” he gestured grimly to his dead comrades.

“They will be remembered, come now climb astride this spare mount and tell me your name”

“Vladimir sir” he said meekly as he quickly grabbed and slung his bow then climbed stiffly up into the spare destrier’s saddle. The view from atop the warhorse was even better.

“I am Grimbold of Sohk, Vladimir. Are you fit to ride with us to the Counts aid?” he waved to the north where the battle still raged.

Realising the honour he was being given Vladimir nodded quickly.

“Good man, you are unarmoured so keep to the rear and help mop up after the charge.”

“Aye sir”. Vlad felt distinctly uneasy. The horse was truly huge and it bore its own animal stench. An aroma of faeces wafted off the saddle too, probably the previous occupants. He patted the steeds flanks hoping it would accept him.

The squadron galloped off and Vlad was surprised how the horse knew where to go with minimal guidance. Within moments they were on the valley floor and ploughing through fleeing Beastmen elements. Vlad barely had time to slash some fleeing wretch once with his sword and they were through the rabble and pounding off towards the battle to the north.

The Knights Panther splashed through the creek with Vladimir bringing up the rear. Wheeling around a small copse Grimbold pointed with his lance at an armoured Bestigor unit carving up Imperial swordsmen.  “Hussaaah!” he yelled and the regiment spurred their steeds and couched their lances. Dismayed at the speed of the charge Vladimir leaned forward in the saddle, gripped the horse tightly with his thighs, secured his grip on the reins and raised his sword.

o0o

The impact was horrendous. Clashing steel, screaming horses, howling beasts. Vlad was glad he wasn’t in the front. He was barely able to slow his horse to avoid slamming into the rear of the knights. He slashed and thrust down into the sea of snarling beast faces. Blood spattered and sprayed, axes rose and fell, and suddenly the beasts were running and Vladimir was galloping exultantly with the knights, pursuing and riding the mutants down.

And so the next few minutes became a blur for Vladimir as the Panther squadron folded the Beastmen flank. Charging, slashing and pursuing to the tree line then wheeling about seeking more foes. Vladimir was more confident on his steed by now and had taken his share of scalps. Indeed Grimbold even complimented him on his sword work against a ram-horned Beast champion. Though Vlad felt it was more luck than skill that had spitted the horror on his blade. The horse seemd to do most of the damage anyways. He barely needed to steer the horse onto the beasts, its huge bulk crushing the foe beneath its iron shod hooves.

Vladimir later learned that the Volley Gun annihilated Ogre’s threatening the Imperial centre, and then scattered a herd of ambushing Gors before jamming beyond easy repair. Archers from the western vales of Middenheim hunted the remaining beasts from behind the Imperial artillery. The battle was finally decided when the Count’s Inner Circle Knights broke the fierce Bestigor ranks. The Count himself slew the mighty beast General taking his bray horn as a trophy. Alas it was not Khazrak but some lesser minion of Chaos. The war would continue. Atop the piles of dead the Count spiked the Beast Lord’s head on its own grisly standard.

In the late afternoon the depressing task of cleaning up began. Soldiers took care of their own, heaped up bodies, and seemingly trudged aimlessly up and down the valley. Vladimir slumped in the saddle suddenly feeling very old. His head throbbed from the small scalp wounds and his right thigh was stiff from a cut he couldn’t remember receiving.

o0o

Grimbold rode in beside Vladimir and ushered the tired woodsman his way. Faces passed in a daze and before he knew it Vladimir eyes re-focussed on the Count himself. Hard helmed faces stared at him and suddenly Vlad sat up straight feeling very self-conscious. Not the least for he sat upon a steed that cost more than he could hope to earn in several years, wearing his stained leathers when all else about him were plated in gleaming bloody steel. Boris Todbringer’s steely eye looked Vlad up and down disapprovingly then flicked to Grimbold for an explanation.

Grimbold spoke up “Milord, this is Vladimir. He led the men that killed the Shaman.”

“Bloody good work man!” the Count blurted, clasping and vigorously shaking Vlad’s hand, “err I mean forsooth, thou hast saved the battle my good sir.” The Count’s retinue chuckled on cue and Boris Todbringer twirled his moustache.

“Thank you milord, tis only what needed doing when the opportunity presented itself” Vlad spoke softly trying not to stare at Boris’ elaborate eye patch.

“Vladimir also led the hunters who drew the beasts out of the forest” added Grimbold.

The Count’s eyes widened and he took a new appreciative look at the ranger before him. “That was also well done. You and your men shall have an extra ration of ale and a purse of coin.”

“His men were all slain milord”

Vladimir nodded in modest agreement “They fought well, but it was a close run thing sir. Grimbold kept the southern flank busy whilst we did the deed”

The Count looked to the Captain of the Knights Panther who added, “Vladimir himself cut down the Shaman deep within enemy lines. I bade him ride with us. He is good with a blade and rides passingly well.”

The Count thought for a moment while Vlad readjusted his position in the saddle. “My condolences to the men who have valiantly died in the defence of the Empire. Their widows will be compensated. Despite their loss you sir have earned the thanks of Middenheim. Would you care to take a military commission with… hmmm I’d say the East-Gate Pistoliers would be well suited to you?”

Vladimir thought quickly. The Pistoliers were mostly young nobles earning their spurs prior to being knighted. The gods were being kind today so he decided to be bold “I am but a backwoods furrier milord, I have no equipment or horse to my name…”

Grimbold laughed and slapped him on the back. “Your commission will outfit you and see you with a yearly stipend. Fear not, the Count hasn’t mistaken you for landed gentry!” The crowd laughed gently. Vladimir’s bedraggled leather armour, slashed cloak and slung bow were a weird contrast upon the barded destrier amidst the mighty knights of the realm. The Count smiled indulgently and tossed Vlad a small purse “Take this in reward for your services today. Grimbold will direct you to your new regiment.”

“Thank you milord…” Vlad touched his forelock and was searching for more to say but the Count was already turning to the retinue and addressing the numerous details of the day.

o0o

Wheeling his horse with Grimbold he looked to the knight for direction. Grimbold looked squarely at Vladimir “And here we part company. That horse you ride will have to go back to Marius’ family so I will ask you to dismount now. But don’t worry. You have been given a rare opportunity for a woodsman of the Drakwald.”

Vlad slid awkwardly off the huge mount and handed the reins to Grimbold. “How and where shall I be commissioned?”

Grimbold leant down and handed him a medallion with the heraldry of the Knights Panther. “Take this token to Middenheim and report to the Eastern Causeway stable barracks. Ask for the Master of Arms secretary. Oh and flash that token at the high born hospital tent, you need some stitching up.”

Vlad nodded and patted the plate barding of the steed “Thanks for the ride. Interesting to see a battle from the back of a horse.”

“You’ll be seeing more of that. Next time we meet you’ll be an uppity Knight in waiting looking to push me aside. Oh and I’ve been meaning to ask what is your full name?”

“Vladimir Sejanus, of Gorstburg” he replied flipping Grimbold a casual salute, then turned and limped off towards the hospital tent.

Grimbold rode off and Vlad’s mood darkened. He morosely considered how he was going to track down the dead hunter’s wives, families. Trudging towards the baggage train he thoughtfully stuffed his hand into his pocket and removed the day’s takings. The shaman’s barbaric necklace gem he strung around his neck. The Sigil of the Knights Panther he tossed like a coin into the air then stuffed deep into his vest pocket. Lastly he opened the Counts own purse scarcely able to suppress his eager greed. The gold within lightened his step all the way to the field hospital.

 

ooo000ooo