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Black Fire and Brimstone [Complete]

This is a dark age, a bloody age, an age of daemons and of sorcery.

Black Fire and Brimstone [Complete]

Postby Athelassan » Fri Jul 13, 2012 7:16 am

This story was mentioned in another thread so I thought I'd repost it, as there's no conveniently available copy of it elsewhere. I do have a PDF (available on request) if anyone wants to read it in non-forum format.

I originally wrote this some years ago (2008, iirc). I have undertaken a couple of minor edits since I first posted it to address criticisms originally aired, to improve the reading of some sentences and to correct a couple of internal inconsistencies. However it remains substantially unchanged.

Please note this was written some time before the Swords of the Empire novels and any similarity is entirely coincidental. Also, if you like this, or would like to see something similar but in full novel-length, you should totally check those out; they're very good.

Also, since I wrote this, the release of the Reiksguard novel has revealed that Kurt Helborg was not in fact the Reiksmarshall at the time the story is set, although he was a high-ranking commander in the Reiksguard. I have chosen to leave the story as is rather than correct the "error", as references to it crop up throughout.

C&C welcomed as ever, although I'm posting this really for archival reasons and not planning on making any major adjustments! Still, it's good to know which passages work well, or badly, so that I can bear that in mind in future writing.

Ath



Black Fire and Brimstone


Einhardt Fuhrmann winced as he found himself riding straight into the sun. This far west, the mountains did little to shield those on the road from its glare, and a moment later the other riders in the column found themselves in the same situation, judging from the curses from behind. He slammed down his visor with his free hand and allowed a slight smirk to cross his lips. The fools had moaned like nothing else when he had ordered them to ride in full armour, but now they would at least be grateful of the shade. Not, he had to admit, that it was comfortable riding in this heat in plate, but appearances had to be kept up.

Not for the first time, he cursed the boatman who had dumped his charges fifteen miles downstream rather than continue to Averheim itself. The man had refunded their money, at least, but that wasn’t really the point. The Reiksguard weren’t just cargo to be abandoned. Fuhrmann had toyed with the idea of reporting the man to his masters when he returned back from Averland, but there seemed little point. He had simply been simply scared and unsettled, and he could scarcely be blamed for that.

The Emperor was dying. What would have been treason even to have muttered a month ago was now indisputable fact. The only question was whether he had weeks to live or days. For all Fuhrmann knew, he could be dead already. That was what made it all the more important to ride in the full panoply. He was not old enough to remember well the death of the last Emperor, but he remembered well enough the horror stories his father had told him of the riots and unrest that had accompanied it. Whatever he could do to prevent that, so much the better.

The village they were approaching was, with any luck, the last before Averheim. It stood off to the west of the road, so they would thankfully not have to pass through it. A small mob was lounging outside the gates, but they should present little enough problem. He had heard things were far worse elsewhere in the province. He watched the peasants notice the small column, and shuffle to their feet, before moving to block the road.

“Column,” he barked over his shoulder, and within moments the straggling line of men and horses had been transformed into an absolutely military formation- four ranks of five, knights in front, squires behind.

“A steady trot,” he said, more quietly. “Keep your swords sheathed, but unfurl the banner.”

The knights approached the peasants at a threateningly slow pace. No knight had so much as glanced in their direction, but it was abundantly clear that at any moment they could spring into a gallop, and no-one wanted to think about the carnage they could wreak if provoked. A young lad of perhaps fifteen, probably younger, hurled a small pebble, but his aim was so bad that it sailed harmlessly over the knights’ heads. They knew by now to ignore it; they’d had worse on the streets of Altdorf.

The last of the peasants stood aside as the knights approached, waiting until the standard passed him, then spitting forcefully on the ground just to the side of the knights. Fuhrmann gave him the briefest of glances, but the man seemed not to be intimidated by the faceless visage of his helmet. An instinct told him to wheel the knights about and crush the fool like an insect, but the more restrained part of him, the part that had carried him to this position, knew that it was more trouble than it was worth.

“Useless peasants,” Sir Karolus growled once they were safely out of earshot. “Don’t they have work to be doing?”

“You’re right- the sun is shining. They should be making hay, I believe,” Sir Julius said from the rear rank. Fuhrmann wasn’t sure if that was a jest or not; it was difficult to tell with Julius even when you could see his face.

“I’m sure they’ll be dealt with in due course,” Fuhrmann said stiffly. “Disperse,” he added, now that the danger had passed. On the horizon there was a sight to cheer the heart; the smoke from rising chimneys. Averheim within two hours, and then he could get this infernal armour off and maybe take a bath.

***


It was closer to three hours before they reached the city, and the better part of four by the time they reached the palace. The streets were clogged, with humans, with human filth. The city seemed balanced on a knife-edge; the slightest push and it could collapse into anarchy. The gaudy-clothed city guards seemed particularly wary, desperate not to provoke a confrontation. Fuhrmann and his knights, the weight of their horses counting in their favour, managed to push their way through the scrum in the winding streets until they finally reached the gates of the Averburg. The guards at the gates uncrossed their halberds and let them pass without question- either they were expected, or he had simply decided not to argue with a man wearing the Emperor’s livery.

The Averburg was a vast fortress within the centre of the town; the walls even higher than those of the city itself, looming over the town square ominously. Despite its formidable exterior, however, the interior was luxuriously appointed. The central avenue leading to the palace was bounded by buildings of various shapes and styles, ranging from barrack blocks to what looked like the provincial mint. The palace itself was one of the largest Fuhrmann had ever seen, and without a doubt the most garish, its yellow walls offset by the black classical decoration.

The streets of the Averburg were almost as busy as in the town outside, although this gave the impression of organised chaos rather than an unruly mob. Soldiers were more in evidence here, and most of the other pedestrians seemed to have a destination in mind rather than wandering apparently aimlessly. Fuhmrann steered his way through the crowd into the courtyard before the palace. A small, balding man was already running over to meet them.

“Preceptor Fuhrmann?” he asked, his slightly-too-high voice bubbling over even as the knight was clambering from his saddle. “I am Artur von Staller, Chamberlain to the Countess. You are most welcome.”

Fuhrmann dragged his helm from his head and extended a hand and a wan smile. “Pleased to make your acquaintance, Herr von Staller. I trust everything is prepared for our arrival?”

“Of course, Preceptor. Your horses shall be stabled with the Countess’s own, and chambers have been prepared for you and the knights in the east wing of the palace, with quarters for your servants.”

“Thank you, Chamberlain. I do not wish to seem too churlish, but would it be possible for someone to direct me thereto posthaste? We have had rather a tiring journey and I have no wish to present myself to the Countess in the manner you here see me.” Fuhrmann found it difficult to tell, but he knew he must stink of sweat and horse. Probably not stenches unfamiliar to Averland, but one could never be too careful. Johann took the helm from his hand, and he nodded his thanks to the squire.

“Would that were possible, Preceptor. However, the Countess is holding a council of some urgency with the nobles and burghers, and is to begin within the hour. We were hoping you would be able to attend.” His face took on a conspiratorial aspect, and, in a lower voice, he added, “perhaps your travel-stained appearance will help to win over some of the more cloistered members of the council?”

Fuhrmann barked once with laughter, and nodded. “Very well, I shall be there. Please take care of the rest of my knights.” He paused for a second as a thought occurred. “Will the Reikland ambassador be at the council meeting? I wish to speak with him as soon as is practical.”

Von Staller frowned. “I am afraid we have had no contact with the Reikland ambassador for a few days. He seems unwilling to leave his residence while the streets are still so dangerous. It is for that reason that we arranged for you to be accommodated here rather than at the embassy. Nonetheless we had hoped he would be able to meet you here.”

“So had I. Never mind; I will seek him out tomorrow. Please show me to the council chamber, and arrange for the rest of my companions to be taken care of.”

“Of course, Preceptor. Please follow me.”


***


Von Staller showed Fuhrmann to the council chamber, a large hall that the rulers of Averland had evidently decided was no longer needed for dancing or feasting. There were rows of stepped benches on either side, where he understood the luminaries of the city took their places. Beyond these was a wooden railing which cut off the final quarter of the hall, and beyond that was a large table with a number of rather more plush chairs behind it. In the centre was the Countess’s own seat. A second door stood behind the railing, allowing the family entry and egress without having to fight their way through the notables before them.

The room was about half-full by the time that Fuhrmann arrived, and the low hum of chatter pervaded the room. Unable to hear anything but the vague tone of the muttered conversations, Fuhrmann knew that the councillors were worried. If the display he had seen on the way in was anything to go by, they had every reason to be.

“As a guest of the Countess, your seat will be third on the left behind the table, sir,” von Staller said, gesturing towards the far end of the hall. Fuhrmann was still taking in the room. Two thirds of the way up the room was a mezzanine floor, running along three of the walls.. Only the Countess’ table was not overshadowed, and the Reiksguard knight looked at it quizzically.

“There is an audience to council meetings?” he asked,.

“Of a sort, sir, of a sort.” Von Staller’s face was perfectly straight. Fuhrmann guessed he would discover what that was about later.

“Does the Countess not wish to see me before the meeting starts?”

Von Staller smiled. “The Countess is… no longer always able to receive visitors in person. These days her family handle most of her visitors on her behalf.”

“And you’d rather I didn’t meet them?”

“It’s not my place to say, sir.” Von Staller paused a moment. “But if I were truly honest, sir, I’d say that perhaps you would rather you didn’t meet them.”

Fuhrmann nodded without thinking. He had done some research on Averland, in addition to the ambassador’s briefing, before he had made the journey; it would have been remiss of him not to. From what he understood- and he had enough of an education to know not to trust everything he read- Averland was these days almost entirely dominated by various members of the Countess’s family. He was of course prepared to reserve judgement on them until he met them, but rarely had he met what the Bretonnians would deem noblesse de la robe whom he had liked.

When the family did arrive, the initial impression did little to dissuade him from his prejudice. They resembled nothing so much as a particularly fat and spoiled pack of dogs, displaying almost to a man bulging waistlines and multiple chins no matter what their age. Ten of them made laborious progress through the rear door, and only the last of them dared to break the mould. He was young; perhaps even under twenty years old, and, unlike his relatives, had a relatively slim frame and a thick hatch of blond hair. Fuhrmann racked his brains for memories of the Alptraum family tree, and came upon the only name that matched: Otto von Alptraum, the Countess’s great-nephew.

The young man, ignoring the rest of his waddling cousins and uncles, strode over to where Fuhrmann stood, right hand extended.

“Sir Einhardt Fuhrmann, one presumes.” He had a serious look in his eyes, despite his youth.

“Quite so,” the knight replied, taking the man’s hand. “You must be Otto von Alptraum?”

“Well done.” The nobleman smiled. “I-”

He was cut off by a fanfare from at least one trumpet that took Fuhrmann entirely off guard. Had it not been for years of experience of loud noises at short notice, he would almost certainly have jumped out of his skin. His companion winced slightly, but removed his hand and nodded to the door.

The ancient and somewhat decrepit Grand Countess of Averland, Ludmilla von Alptraum, was making her entrance, supported by a rather sturdier man whom Fuhrmann guessed to be another nephew. The Countess’s age was a state secret, and always had been, but she was at least seventy-five and probably older still. Apparently she had once been a great beauty, but even were that once true, she now carried every single one of her advanced years in her face. Looking at her, Fuhrmann was forced to wonder who would expire first, Ludmilla or the Emperor.

Ludmilla was followed by a young woman, heavily made up, and a man who seemed, if anything, to be older still, carrying a large book. He was bent almost double, and Fuhmrann had to restrain himself from rushing over to help. His attention was, however, momentarily distracted by a military tread, and he glanced up to see halberdiers marching into the gallery, in Averland colours and full military regalia.

Ah. That sort of audience.

The Countess made slow progress to her chair, and almost equally slowly the old man made his way to a lectern off to the left, upon which he placed, and opened the book.

“Please be seated,” he croaked, in a voice rather more powerful than Fuhmrann had anticipated, but one that still would have sounded more appropriate from the mouth of a corpse. There was a brief hubbub as the handful of notaries still standing made their way to the benches. The hall was perhaps four-fifths full. Knowing how these things went, Fuhrmann guessed that was a good turnout.

“In the name of Her Imperial Excellency the Grand Countess of Averland, Elector Palatine, Warden of the River Aver, Guardian of the Grey Forest, Regent of the Moot, Baroness of Wuppertal and Grensztadt,…”

“Regent of the Moot?” Fuhrmann mouthed in disbelief, but the man was far from done.

“… Beloved of Ulric, Taal and Rhya and Sigmar, Protector of the Black Fire, Heiress of Siggurd, Ludmilla, Blessed Be-” the man paused to draw breath- “I declare this council session open.”

The room seemed to exhale as one, including the von Alptraums. The Countess blinked.

“Lord Chancellor Erstenhall has the floor.”

Erstenhall was a balding, harassed-looking man of middle years, who seemed to unfold from his seat at the front of the chamber, and brushed a hand nervously through his thin hair.

“It has come to the attention of the Council that the peace and security of Averland is under threat.”

“You can say that again!” a jeering voice echoed from one of the back benches. There was a round of sniggering, but Erstenhall did not appear to be rattled, staring at the perpetrator until the sound had subsided.

“A warband of greenskins,” he continued, an edge in his voice now, “of considerable size and fortitude, is gathering in the plains beyond the World’s Edge. Our scouts have informed us that this band has conquered a number of its near rivals and it seems only a matter of time before it makes a play at Black Fire Pass and the rich lands of our province beyond.

“It is also the case that the internal security of Averland has deteriorated in recent weeks. Unfavourable news about the health of the Emperor seems to have invigorated various unsavoury and revolutionary groups within the province.”

“And what do you propose to do about all of this?” a red-faced burgher cried, leaping to his feet opposite Erstenhall. “The peasants rise up around us, intending to murder us in our beds, and nothing is done!”

“What about Streissen?” another cried, also standing. “The town is practically in open revolt!”

The floodgates appeared to have opened, and soon virtually every man in the chamber was standing, haranguing the high table, and those around him, with whatever grievances were uppermost in his mind. Erstenhall shook his head, a slight sneer on his face, and sat down.

“The province is in uproar and subversives are in control, and yet the Emperor does nothing!”

“An example should be set! Send the army into Streissen!”

“How are we to defend against the orcs and the rebels at the same time?! We must request immediate aid!”

“Silence.”

The word was not spoken loudly, but firmly, and the uproar gradually subsided as it became clear who had spoken. Immediately opposite Erstenhall a man had stood up. He was tall and thin, with dark hair that reached almost to his shoulders. He was also, Fuhrmann noted, impeccably dressed, in the latest Altdorf fashions. He remained standing as the chamber stilled itself and gradually the notaries returned to their seats.

“The council will hear Feldsmarschall Marius Leitdorf,” croaked the ancient Speaker. Leitdorf nodded.

“Gentlemen,” he began, “where are our manners? We have amongst us a guest; First Knight Sir Einhardt Fuhrmann of the Reiksguard, who has arrived today on an urgent mission from the Emperor to render us assistance, and yet there are those in this chamber today who would stand there and claim the Emperor has paid no attention to our plight! Shame on you, I say, shame on you.

“Herr Erstenhall, to whom you gave such a rude reception, has outlined the issues facing the council, and now, in answer to your bawled demands, I shall give tell you what action I shall take.”

Leitdorf’s tone was admonishing, but not condemnatory, as if he were a kind but fair father laying down the law to an unruly child. Fuhrmann could tell that his credit amongst the delegates was high from the way they had responded to his call for silence, and the way most of them now hung on his every word. He risked a glance along the table to the Countess and saw her observing the scene with her usual stone-faced impassivity. She must be torn between regarding Leitdorf as an invaluable tool or a deadly threat.

“The most serious threat, as things stand,” Leitdorf continued, “is the orcish warband gathering to the east. In order to meet this threat, I have arranged to double the guard on Black Fire Pass. The necessary troops are assembled, and with the Countess’s permission, I shall lead them out tomorrow at dawn to reinforce our position there.”

“What of the unrest?” a burgher called, but in an altogether more respectful tone than they had addressed Erstenhall.

“Gentlemen,” Leitdorf smiled, “what you so dramatically describe as ‘unrest’ is little more than summer high spirits on the part of the Countess’s subjects. It is common knowledge that within a matter of months, perhaps weeks, there will be a new Emperor. Perhaps the Countess’s loyal subjects favour her to take the crown?” There was a small round of almost sycophantic laughter.

“The facts, gentlemen, are these. Last autumn saw an exceptionally poor harvest and so food supplies in Averheim and the major towns are running low. This has naturally caused a degree of unhappiness and uncertainty amongst that section of the populace who cannot afford to dine every night on stuffed goose prepared by their halfling chefs. This, coupled with the political climate, has driven a number of the Countess’ subjects into a state of unusual excitement. This will pass.

“You gentlemen talk of unrest, but there has been not one reported casualty, not one reported theft, not one case of arson, nor even assault upon the Countess’ soldiers. In the mean time, a deal has been negotiated exchanging two hundred of our finest Averland horses for sixteen barges of Reikland grain, which even now are on their way upriver. It is anticipated they will arrive within the week and enable us to establish a grain dole in the more needy towns until such time as our own grain can be harvested.

“I promise you, gentlemen, if you are prepared to wait and allow this phenomenon to run its course, you will see it evaporate like summer mist. I would also suggest that, as soon as the barges have arrived, regular guard patrols by the Countess’s soldiers be re-established. We need to reassure the people, not to crush them. It is a time for kid gloves, not an iron fist.”

Leitdorf returned to his seat to a round of cautious applause from the gathered dignitaries. The Speaker again cleared his throat.

“Has anyone anything further to say on the matter?” He paused for a moment, glancing behind him to the table where the von Alptraums and Fuhrmann sat. One of the nobles shook his head almost imperceptibly, and the Speaker turned back to the room.

“Then I hereby open the council session to petition.”

Petition? Fuhrmann leaned across to Otto.

“If this is an emergency meeting, why is the council hearing petitions?”

Otto shrugged as if to indicate he was equally bemused. “Protocol.”

After nearly two hours of petitioners, most of them dealing with trivial and petty concerns, Fuhrmann was bored almost to tears. He had sat through several tedious council sessions at the Castle Reikguard, but at least there procedures had never been held up for ten minutes because a commoner was wearing the wrong coloured hat. Every minor detail seemed to merit several pages’ worth of regulation. For those who had grown up with it, it was probably frustrating, but for those who had no idea what was going on, it was maddening.

Nevertheless, he thought he was beginning to get an idea of how the Averland political bureaucracy worked. At some point many years ago, some Count or other had been too lazy or busy to run the tax collections, and had created the post of Provost Marshal. Another had realised the impracticalities of commanding all the armies in person, and so created the position of Feldsmarschall. Gradually the responsibilities of the Count had been parcelled off, until the present situation was reached where the Feldsmarschall and the Chancellor ran the Province, and the Countess was free to enjoy herself.

Of course, there would be squabbles and disagreements among the ministers, but so long as they were fighting for position, and so long as the Count stayed out of such disputes, they only served to secure his throne. Fuhrmann guessed that in any case, the Feldsmarschall, having a smaller brain than his opponents but a correspondingly larger army, would tend to emerge the victor from such quarrels.

When the end came he was astonished by the lack of ceremony. The Countess stood, and the rest of the notables scrambled to their feet. Fuhrmann was unsure if this was part of the script, or if the Countess was simply as bored as he was. In any case he had not been paying attention.

The Speaker did not look overly surprised, but then his face was so ravaged by age that Fuhrmann doubted any emotions could be reliably discerned from it.

“Session is ended,” he rasped, as the Countess and her escorts made their way from the room.

“Thank Ulric for that,” Otto breathed. He smiled weakly at Fuhrmann. “Not quite the reception you were hoping for, I’d wager.”

“You could put it like that. Is the council always so, er, formal?”

“Usually more so. There were more people here than usual today, so some of the regulations were relaxed. I suppose you could say-”

“Sir Einhardt!” Marius Leitdorf appeared at Fuhrmann’s left shoulder, cutting Otto off in mid-sentence. “I’m dreadfully sorry you had to sit through that, old man. Come and have a drink and let’s catch up.” he placed an arm around Fuhrmann’s shoulders and steered him away. Otto nodded curtly, his face dark.

“How was your journey? Terrible, I don’t doubt. Sigmar’s eyes, but those dignitaries prattle on…” Leitdorf raised a finger to catch the attention of a passing boy with drinks, and casually lifted two glasses of wine before passing one to Fuhrmann.

“Now,” he continued, “this is your first visit to Averland, isn’t it? Is there anything I can do for you?”

“If I’d asked the Reiksmarshall before I left,” Fuhmrann said dryly, “I daresay he’d have said not to trust you.”

“Ah yes, dear old Kurt.” A slight bitterness crept into Leitdorf’s voice for a moment.

“How long does the Emperor have? Really?”

“Officially, he’s in the rudest of health, as you know. Unofficially, he might already be dead. Weeks, not months.”

“As I thought. And Karl-Franz is the favourite for the crown next time round, needless to say…”

“He will doubtless stand as the Reikland candidate; I can say no more than that. Where does Averland stand?”

“Averland, or the Countess?” Leitdorf scowled, and Fuhrmann noted for the first time the amulet of the twin-tailed comet hanging from the Feldmarschall’s neck. Leitdorf tossed his head, as if dismissing the issue.

“I’m afraid I shan’t be seeing too much more of you, since I’m leaving in the morning, but if there’s anything you need, ask me and I’ll fix it for you.”

“That’s kind of you, thank you.”

“Don’t mention it. We’re Sigmarites at the Averburg; we need all the friends we can get.” Leitdorf stepped back, bowed, then turned and departed. There was a gleam of something in his eye as he turned, but Fuhrmann could not see it for long enough to pass proper judgement.

He turned to look for Otto, but the young nobleman had disappeared. Most of the dignitaries had left, save for a small knot standing in the corner of the hall. Two men of relatively advanced years were haranguing what looked like one of the Alptraums, while Erstenhall and another man stood by, watching. There was an unpleasant look on the nobleman’s face which Fuhrmann did not entirely like, and as he watched he shook his head with a smirk and turned on his heel. One of the dignitaries grasped his shoulder and pleaded with him, but the nobleman shook his head again and waddled off. As he passed, he realised it was the same man the Speaker had looked to for guidance earlier.

The silent man whom Fuhrmann had not recognised turned and saw him observing the scene. Not wishing to intrude, nor to appear to be eavesdropping, the knight nodded politely before leaving to see to his bath.

The man watched him leave, and as the knight departed, the four remaining men were once again deep in conversation.
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Re: Black Fire and Brimstone [Complete]

Postby Athelassan » Fri Jul 13, 2012 7:18 am

Fuhrmann awoke the next morning to the sound of knocking. He dragged himself out of bed with difficulty and threw open the door to see the smiling, blond-haired face of Julius in front of him. He groaned.

“What do you want?”

“To talk to you. There’s a chambermaid on the way, so you’ve got about half an hour. Unless that’s added incentive to stay in bed, of course.”

“What would you say?”

Julius waggled a hand to demonstrate ambivalence and walked over to the window to throw back the curtains.

Fuhrmann winced. “Do you have to do that?”

Julius ignored him. “How was the council meeting last night? Wait, one second.” He fiddled with something under the curtain for a second, then emerged holding a small length of brass tube.

He shook his head. “You’d have thought they’d at least put them in different places in each room. Sloppy.”

“What the hell’s that?”

“It’s a listening tube. Klement found one in his room, and it turns out the rest of us have them too, all in the same places. I’ve taken off the end, so they’ll have difficulty making anything out for the moment. Until they fix it, I suppose.”

“A listening tube? They’re spying, on me?”

“Wouldn’t you? You’re the Emperor’s envoy, so no doubt they’d be interested to find out what you’re saying in private. Besides, it’s probably just standard policy here.”

“All the same… Sigmar’s oath!”

“So, this council meeting of yours?”

“Boring as all hell.”

“There’s a surprise. So, what are we doing here?”

“I don’t know yet. Leitdorf claims everything’s under control.”

“Do you trust him?”

“I don’t know. I know what Helborg would say on that, but I suspect his judgment on this particular matter is somewhat clouded. Leitdorf can certainly talk, I’ll give him that. Whether we can trust him, I don’t know.”

Julius sighed and walked over to gaze out of the window. “What are we doing here, Einhardt? Why are we wasting our time in this backwater? We’ll be called back to Reikguard before we have a chance to change anything.”

“I’ve been asking myself the same question since I arrived, and I’m no closer to an answer. It’s a long way to come to give the armour an airing and keep up appearances.”

“The real question, I suppose, is whether we’re here on behalf of Luitpold or Karl-Franz.”

“Now there you have a point,” Einhardt nodded grimly. “How are the others?”

“Fed up, to be honest. Like you say, it’s a long way to come to sit on their backsides and look impressive, and they reckon that’s all they’ll be doing.”

“They’re probably right, but there is one thing you can do for me that might prove entertaining.”

“Oh?”

“Our ambassador seems to have encountered difficulties with leaving his residence to meet us. I thought perhaps you and some of the others could go and render whatever assistance you think necessary.”

Julius smiled briefly, then jerked his head in the direction of the door. “You’ll be wanting to get dressed, unless you want to surprise that chambermaid.”

Einhardt turned without nodding and headed for his closet, only to find it empty. “Damn that squire. Johann!” he bellowed, then turned back to Julius

“Go and get the ambassador whenever you find it convenient. I’ve been waiting on his convenience long enough; it’s about time he started waiting on mine. You’ll be fine in the streets?”

“Please.”

“Sorry. It would be embarrassing if any of you got injured on a diplomatic mission.”

“It would at least liven things up a bit.” Julius peered out of the window again. “Who’s that chap in the gardens?”

Fuhrmann walked over to see the figure of Otto Alptraum making his way through the garden towards the wing where the Reiksguard were quartered. He cursed.

“He’s the Countess’s nephew. I ought to speak to him. Johann!” he yelled with increased urgency. The squire burst into the room a moment later.

“Where the hell are my clothes, Johann?”

“In the wardrobe, sir.” Fuhrmann turned to see a previously unremarked wardrobe in the corner of the room.

“Ah.”

“Would you like any help getting dressed, sir?” It was a credit to the squire that he managed to keep a perfectly straight face. Julius failed to restrain himself and smirked openly.

“Get out of here,” Fuhrmann snarled at the knight. Julius nodded and departed. Fuhrmann turned back to his wardrobe.

“Are these all the clothes I have?”

“I’m afraid so, sir. We had to leave the rest when the boatman ditched us; I’ve arranged for them to be sent on, of course.”

“But how long will that take?”

“Honestly, sir? We could easily be gone by the time they arrive. Having seen how things are here, I wouldn’t be surprised if we never see them again.”

“I’m not sure about that. They seem to be reliable, just have no sense of urgency at all. At any rate, I have a feeling I’m going to need something slightly more… imperious if I’m going to make any headway here. We can’t have the Emperor’s envoy being outshone by a load of provincial sheep-erm”

“I think ‘sheep-farmers’ is the diplomatic term, sir.”

“Thank you. Here-” he tossed the squire a small bag of coins. “Go into town, see if you can find a tailors’ that’s still open. You think you can manage that, you know my measurements, don’t you?”

“I’ll try not to get murdered, sir.” The squire bowed and retreated from the room, while Fuhrmann selected the most gaudy of his outfits, in the Emperor’s colours of blue and red. He winced as he caught sight of himself in the mirror, but at least it wasn’t a cotton shift. He had to look the part, even if he only understood every second word of what was going on here.

***


Otto Alptraum and the chambermaid arrived at his door at the same time, so Fuhmrann was doubly pleased that he had finished dressing by the time they arrived. He greeted Otto with a handshake and a smile.

“I trust you slept well?” Otto asked.

“Like a log, thank you. The accommodation is far superior to what I’m used to, I must admit.”

“Shall we take a walk in the gardens?” Otto nodded in the direction of the chambermaid. Fuhmrann assented, and the two of them proceeded down the corridor. Fuhrmann made to speak, but Otto raised a finger to stop him.

“Wait till we’re outside.”

It took them a few minutes to reach the doors to the grounds, and Otto steered Fuhmrann in the direction of the lawns, away from the high hedges and shrubs of the inner gardens.

“I’m sorry about that, Preceptor. We can’t be too careful; you never know who’s listening in.”

“What do you have to worry about? Aren’t you one of the listeners?”

“In theory, but who watches the watchers? Even I don’t know that.”

“I would also hope that you’re not planning on trying to co-opt me into anything that any watchers would be interested in.”

Otto chuckled. “Fear not; I have nothing like that in mind. But one’s privacy can never be overvalued, don’t you think? If you’ve got nothing to hide you’ve got nothing to fear, but not everything that’s hidden need be. And apart from anything else, this will drive the secret police mad, so it’s worth it just for that.”

“I’m afraid you’ve lost me.”

“Sorry, I am rather talking in circles. I can assure you that my intentions are honourable, however.” He squinted into the distance. “I trust you have found everything so far to your satisfaction?”

“I have nothing major to complain about, at least not to you.”

“That’s good. But if there is anything you want, please let me know. I’ve got precious little else to do at the moment, so I may as well ensure you are well provided for.”

“Isn’t that the chamberlain’s job?”

“In theory, but I was brought up never to look a gift horse in the mouth. Not that that’s particularly good advice here, I admit,” he sighed.

“I have noticed how everyone seems to be very keen to be on my better side. Apart from the rest of your family, who have all but ignored me.”

“You shouldn’t be surprised about the buttering up. You’re the Imperial representative, after all, and everyone knows the Emperor’s on the way out.”

“Maybe so, but I’m not here to buy votes.”

“So you say, but that won’t change anything. As for my family, they’re Ulricans to a man. To tell the truth, most of them don’t want you here.”

“I got that impression, strangely. Averland business is Averland business?”

“Absolutely. If you’re looking for gratitude, you’ve come to the wrong place.” He sighed. “At any rate, I should leave you alone. I merely wished to introduce myself properly, since we did not have a proper chance to talk last night.” He extended a hand.

Fuhrmann took it. “My pleasure to make your acquaintance properly.”

“Likewise.” Otto bowed slightly, then turned on his heel and walked back towards the palace, leaving Fuhmrann alone in the middle of the lawns. He watched the nobleman go.

“Now what was all that about?” he muttered to himself.


***


There was another council session called for the evening, but until then Fuhrmann and his knights had been left to their own devices. He was rapidly losing patience with the inhabitants of Averheim- the hospitality he had received had been courteous but impersonal, and he was to all intents and purposes confined to the palace grounds because of the alleged danger of the streets. Nor was there any sign of the ambassador, though Julius was meant to have left for the embassy by now. He chose to occupy himself by strolling around the gardens; at least the weather was fine. Had it not been he would have been even more bored than he was now.

After a day inside, the walls of the Averburg seemed less a security measure and more a prison. The palace itself was as stately as any he had seen elsewhere, in Nuln, Wurtbad, or Altdorf, but there was a sense of self-consciousness about it. Where the Imperial Palace in Altdorf soared in an airy and carefree fashion, there was a defiance about the Averburg palace. It was ever so slightly more robust: the windows slightly smaller, the barracks at its east more obvious, the guns deployed more visibly by the side of the avenues, the gardens largely open to allow a greater field of fire. Fuhrmann took it all in with a practised eye.

Over it all loomed the slab-sided walls of the fortress proper, the famous fortifications of Siggurd and Sigismund, which had never fallen to an invader. Even from the inside, there was something threatening about them as well as reassuring. Fuhrmann imagined a regiment of handgunners positioned on the walls, and then calculated their potential coverage of the grounds in front of the palace. If the Countess took a dislike to anyone, it would be almost as hard for them to get out as it would be to get in.

“Preceptor Fuhmrann, might I have a moment of your time?”

Einhardt turned to see a man hurrying up behind him. It was a moment before he could place him, then he recalled the man who had watched him leave the council meeting the previous evening. He stopped and extended a hand.

“How may I help you, sir-?”

“Clothair Kaufmann at your service, Sir Einhardt. Shall we walk together for a moment?” He gestured ahead, and Fuhrmann turned to walk with him between the tall hedges.

“I am an agent representing the burghers of Streissen. I think you saw me with them last night.”

“Indeed- with the Chancellor and, er…”

“Lewes Alptraum, one of the Countess’s nephews.”

“Of course.” Fuhrmann made a mental note of the face. “Streissen- that’s the town which was under discussion at the council meeting?”

Kaufman nodded. “That’s right, sir. Do you know anything of the history of the town?”

“I must confess not. My briefing notes on Averland were less than extensive, and I am yet to meet with my ambassador to find out more on the current situation.”

“In that case please permit me to enlighten you.” Kaufman’s expression remained serious. “Streissen is a wealthy town, and fifty-six years ago we succeeded in purchasing a charter from the Countess.”
Fuhrmann nodded. “Who holds the charter?”

“The town burghers. We've done well as a free town, and most of our people have known nothing else. However, in recent weeks, what with the rumours of the death of the Emperor- Sigmar forbid- we have experienced some… troubles.”

“I understand that the unrest is not confined to Streissen.”

“Indeed not, but it is there that the trouble started, and if it can be laid to rest there, I believe the rest of the province will swiftly follow. In any case, the situation there is far worse than anywhere else. There is open rioting; there has been looting, and mob violence. Our local militia have been overwhelmed. They have managed to prevent all-out chaos, but they can do little more, especially since many of them have defected to the mob.”

Fuhrmann nodded. “I understand. How can I be of assistance?”

Kaufman sighed. “My colleagues and I came to Averheim to speak with the Countess and ask for the assistance of state troops in quelling the problems we have there. Unfortunately so far we have failed to receive any.”

“I understand the state troops are tied up elsewhere.”

“That is what we have been told. There is obviously a situation with the orcs on the eastern frontier, and some of the soldiers are needed in Averheim. But there are still entire companies lying idle, and it would not take many men to render assistance to us. We have also been privately told that, since we are a free town, the Countess is not obliged to send aid. I suspect that might be closer to the truth.”

“I must confess I understand relatively little of the minutiae of feudal law, but she would seem to be in the right. Free towns are generally expected to look to their own defence.”

“Legally, perhaps, but morally not. We pay taxes to her and duties on any goods we import through Averland territory. Besides which it would be in her interest to help us, since most of the problems elsewhere in the province stem from Streissen. In any case we have not been able to speak to the Countess in person- only men like Lewes. I am not even sure the Countess herself understands the depth of the problem.”

“Would you like me to speak to the Countess myself? I may have more success gaining an audience.”

“In all honesty I fear that would no longer be enough. The Alptraums have made their position clear and we can expect no help from them. I came to you to request your personal assistance in this matter.”

“How can I personally help?”

Kaufman stopped walking and stepped closer to Fuhrmann. He was a tall man, and had to lean slightly to meet Fuhrmann’s eye. He glanced around slightly and lowered his voice.

“We are good Sigmarites, Preceptor. If the Countess will not protect us we must seek help where we can.”

“I am not sure I understand you.” Fuhmrann knew exactly where the man was heading, but wanted to hear it from his lips.

“Our loyalty is to our god first and our Emperor second. The Countess comes a distant third. It is scarcely even a secret any more that the Alptraums favour Ulricans. We are starting to question for how much longer we can continue to chafe under this yoke.”

“You are coming dangerously close to treason, Herr Kaufman.”

“Nonetheless. Ten Reiksguard knights would make more difference to Streissen than a hundred of the Countess’s troops. And if we can settle this without resorting to Averland troops, the town would be eternally grateful to both the Order and the Emperor.”

Fuhrmann looked away. The pieces were falling into place; he was going to strangle that damned ambassador for not telling him all of this beforehand. He sighed.

“I understand and sympathise with your plight, Herr Kaufman. My duty is to protect the subjects of the Emperor in whatever way I can, and so I shall render you every assistance that is within my power. I should warn you, however, that I am the guest of the Countess, and as such I will have to ask her permission to move my knights to Streissen. If I have her permission, I shall ride there immediately. There is nothing more I can do.”

“I understand, Preceptor. Thank you.”

“A bit early to be thanking me. This could still all come to nothing.” Fuhrmann nodded, and stalked off in the direction of his apartment.

***


By the time Fuhrmann returned to his rooms, his blood was up. He flung the doors open to see a small, rheumy-eyed man sitting on the chaise longue in the middle of the room, Julius standing a short distance away. Fuhmrann caught his eye and gestured in the direction of the curtains, where the listening tube had been found. Julius nodded to indicate it was safe to talk.

The small man had got to his feet. “Preceptor, I really must protest at the conduct of your knights. I have been dragged here, against my will-”

“You must protest?” Fuhmrann bellowed, without breaking stride. Ambassador Kelser retreated, his face contorting in fear and failure to understand.

“You must protest?” Fuhmrann repeated, more quietly. “You were supposed to brief me on the situation! I arrive and you are nowhere to be found; my men had to go and seek you out, by which time I’ve found myself embroiled in a Sigmarite bloody revolution! What the hell are you playing at?”

The ambassador’s face was ashen. “Sir Fuhrmann, really, I-”

“Did you not know? Had you failed to notice? Or did it slip your mind when you came to write your brief for me?” He sat down. “I’m listening. Talk.”

The ambassador stared aghast, breathing heavily. His eyes flickered behind Fuhrmann to where Sir Julius still stood, watching apparently impassively.

“Sir Einhardt, I have been remiss, and I can only apologise. The situation here has not been good, and I have felt my influence at the Countess’s court waning over the recent months. I thought it best to speak to you in person about the situation here rather than commit myself to writing- the secret police…” he waved a hand in the direction of the window.

Fuhrmann nodded and indicated that the ambassador should sit. “I understand. So why did you not come to meet me when I arrived?”

“I lost my nerve.” Kelser lowered his eyes to the carpet. “I can offer no other explanation.”

Fuhrmann nodded again. “Very well. Let us try to make up for lost time. You are the one man in Averheim who I can trust to be on my side. Who else can I count as a friend?”

“Erstenhall is trustworthy, but his power is so limited that as an ally he’s virtually worthless. Our natural allies are the Sigmarite factions, but they are all fiercely patriotic and suspicious of Imperial intentions, so I would advise against getting too cosy. The Dwarfs are all honest, obviously, but their influence at court is negligible now.”

“What about the Alptraums?”

“A nest of vipers. Whatever they may appear to say or do, their priority is and always will be the survival of their House. Even when they’re at odds they’re working together.”

“Who’s in charge of them?”

“The Countess, just, but the heir apparent is Marlene. She doesn’t get involved in day-to-day matters much; it’s too important for the family that she keeps her nose clean.”

Fuhrmann frowned. “Thus far I’ve met Lewes, and Otto. What can you tell me about them?”

“Lewes is a complete bastard, even by the standards of his family. Otto I barely know. He seems a bright lad, but he’s still one of them.”

“You mentioned that there were different Sigmarite factions. How many?”

“Three or four major ones. The Alptraums have managed to keep them divided and thus maintain their rule that way, but that appears to be changing. Pretty much seven out of every ten men at the court are Sigmarites, and Marius Leitdorf is their leader in all but name. You already know about him?”

“He’s not exactly a great friend of the Reiksguard.”

“No, but he could be a great friend to the Reikland. On the other hand, he’s a very slippery customer. The only clear water between him and the Alptraums is his religion, and I’m not even convinced that that’s genuine.”

“Leitdorf’s gone, in any case. He left for Black Fire Pass this morning.”

“Really?” Kelser looked genuinely surprised. “That’s a risk on his part. Without him here, the Sigmarite court faction could easily collapse.”

“Perhaps. You said it yourself, though, the man’s an eel. It may all be part of a larger plan.” Fuhmrann shook his head. “I need some time to think. Thank you for your time.”

Kelser stood. “I am glad I could be of assistance. If you need anything more from me…”

“I know, I know. That’s the way here, isn’t it? If there’s anything I can do for you, Preceptor? Appearing to be helpful is what’s important.” He looked up and met the ambassador’s eye. “You do realise that on my return to Altdorf I will repeat everything you have said here to the Reiksmarshall. There is a good chance he will wish to appoint a new ambassador.”

Kelser nodded. “I understand, yes.” He bowed and took his leave.

Julius sat down opposite Fuhrmann. “Still none the wiser?”

“Barely. I thought I had the measure of it, but it seems I’ve only scratched the surface of what’s going on. I still don’t have any friends. It seems the only person here I can trust is you.”

“Don’t get ahead of yourself.”

“Shut up.”

“What are you going to do?”

“I’m damned if I’m going to sit around here much longer. There’s a council meeting this evening.” He stood and walked to the window to look out over the gardens. “I think it’s time to start interfering.”
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Athelassan
 
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Re: Black Fire and Brimstone [Complete]

Postby Athelassan » Fri Jul 13, 2012 7:19 am

“Order,” croaked the Speaker. Fuhrmann was amazed the man’s voice could penetrate the hubbub, but nevertheless the muttering delegates were quieted by it.

The Countess was not present; Lewes was presiding, together with another member of the Alptraum brood who Fuhrmann had not seen before. Apparently the man’s name was Karl, a handsome moustachioed devil with the look of a soldier about him. He was quiet, however, seemingly happy to let Lewes deal with the chamber alone.

Fuhrmann had disliked Lewes Alptraum from the moment he had first seen him, and nothing he had heard or seen since had changed that, but he had to admit the man was skilled at manipulating an audience. Many of the delegates, particularly those who felt their estates were under threat, were haranguing him with all their might, and although the tension in the room was mounting, the nobleman seemed to be keeping the lid on things with his deft answers and deflections.

He turned in surprise as Fuhrmann stood.

“Preceptor,” he said, smoothly, after a moment, “Was there something you wished to contribute? The council would welcome your input.”

“Thank you, Sir Lewes. As you will know, I and my knights have been guests of the Countess for a couple of days now and I feel terribly aggrieved that I have not been able to repay her generous hospitality with anything meaningful. Therefore I wish to make it known to the council that the services of myself and my knights are available to them to use in whatever way they see fit.”

“Will you ride to Streissen and quell the disturbance there?” one of the delegates blurted, but by the time Lewes had turned to survey the room the man was again anonymous. Fuhrmann chose to answer the question plainly.

“If that is the wish of the council, I am more than happy to lend my assistance and help put an end to the unrest at Streissen.” He looked back and met Lewes’s eye. The nobleman was still smiling, but there was a fixed quality to it.

“Preceptor, thank you for your gracious offer. I hope however that you do not feel obliged to, as you say, repay our hospitality. You are our honoured guests and we are always delighted to receive the representatives of the Emperor here. However, we are very grateful for your magnanimous offer and I shall take it to the Countess to see if there is any matter in which she feels your assistance may be necessary.”

Fuhrmann nodded and returned to his seat. He scanned the faces of the delegates, but could not make out Clothair Kaufman among the crowds. At least he had tried, and the man would have to recognise that, even if there was no chance the Alptraums would actually take him up on his offer.


***



CITIZENS OF AVERLAND AND LOYAL SUBJECTS OF COUNTESS LUDMILLA!

Good news from Black Fire Pass! The forces of Countess Ludmilla, commanded by Feldsmarschall Leitdorf, have won a glorious victory over the barbarous greenskins. The threat to Averland from the main orc force has been ended! Small raiding parties still exist, so it is advised that citizen militia are maintained until these have been dealt with.

Feldsmarschall Leitdorf now takes the fight to the enemy. More soldiers have been requested from Averheim so that the orcs can be dealt with once and for all!

For the glory of Averland!


“One of the squires brought it to me. Apparently they’re up all over town.” Julius held out the poster to Fuhrmann.

“Clever chap, Leitdorf,” Einhardt replied after reading it. “The Alptraums aren’t going to like this.”

“I’d wager not. There’s another council meeting called for tonight, apparently.”

“Another one? Gods. They’ll be wanting to send one of their own out to relieve him, I’d bet. It’s all very well Leitdorf winning them victories, but not if he takes all the credit.”

“Do you think we should get involved?”

Fuhrmann shook his head. “Not unless we’re asked to. This is still internal affairs. If they want help with the orcs, they can have it, but otherwise I’m not moving from Averheim.”

“They’re not going to let you go to Streissen, you know. They’re not thinking about it; they’re just putting off saying no.”

“Yes, I know. Averland business is Averland business…”

“What?”

“Nothing, just something someone said to me a while ago. Gods, I hate this place.”

“I know what you mean. Most of the others are bored witless.”

“It’s the same for me, believe me. Those council sessions don’t exactly liven things up. This isn’t what I was trained for, and it’s starting to get to me.”

“Well, you can’t solve your problems here by killing everyone, so you’ll just have to grit your teeth and bear it, I suspect.”

“For how much longer, though, that’s the question?”

“How long is a halfling’s lunch?”

Fuhrmann snorted. “Get the others together and we’ll have a sparring session. If we’re going to sit around here we might as well use the time for something productive. Might give us a chance to get the frustration out of our systems, too.”

“Unless you’re planning on sparring with the Alptraums, I doubt it, but it’s a decent idea. I’ll see you downstairs in half an hour.”

***


“Sir Einhardt!” Fuhrmann paused in mid-strike to turn and see Otto Alptraum striding across the courtyard towards him. Julius, his sparring partner, took a swing while he was distracted, and he had to snap back quickly to parry in time. He gave the knight a warning glance, then disengaged and walked over to meet the nobleman.

“Morning, milord. How can I help you?”

“You’ve seen this, I suppose?” Otto flashed the news-sheet in his direction. “Everyone else seems to have.”

“Yes, I’ve seen it.”

“We’re sending a relief force to Black Fire Pass.” His eyes flicked from side to side, as if checking to see if anyone was close enough to hear him. “We can’t have Leitdorf taking all the credit, can we?” He looked away, sharply, a slight tic in his cheek demonstrating his displeasure.

“You don’t think they should be going?”

“Oh, that’s fine. Leitdorf says he needs more men, and he’s probably right, but we’re sending them for the wrong reasons. It also means pulling more troops out of the capital, and I have a feeling there’s another aspect to this that I’ve overlooked.”

Probably precisely what Leitdorf’s hoping you’ll do, Fuhrmann thought, but kept his mouth shut.

“In any case,” Otto continued, “how would you like to join the relief force? It’s not Streissen, I know, but at least you’ve a chance of seeing action.”

Fuhrmann was taken aback. “Since I’ve arrived everybody has been cautioning me to stay in the Averburg for my own safety and so forth, and now you want me on a military expedition?”

“That’s just so we can keep an eye on you. To be honest I think Lewes will be glad to get you out of his hair, and I’m leading the relief force, so you’ll be my problem, not his.”

“You’re leading the relief force?”

“Oh, I know, I’m dreadfully young and inexperienced, but I’m not a total buffoon. I have been through the pistoliers, you know. In any case Leitdorf will be there to babysit me once we get to Black Fire, and I daresay I’ve got enough men to take care of me until we arrive.”

“Very well, I’m in. When do we ride?”

“Tomorrow morning, at dawn. Can you and your men be ready by then?”

Fuhrmann smiled. “We are the Reiksguard. We're ready now.”

***


The relief column made its way through the great gates of the Averburg and into the square beyond. Crowds were still in evidence, despite the arrival of Leitdorf’s grain barges; Fuhrmann suspected that, although the food had been distributed, regular patrols had not yet been re-established. Nevertheless, the populace, however unruly, were careful to stay well back from the soldiers advancing through the city. Tossing the odd cobble at a passing horseman was one thing; antagonising an entire regiment was quite another.

Fuhrmann himself rode at the head of the column with Otto, followed by the rest of the Reiksguard and a small detachment of the League of the Vine, the Alptraums’ own knightly bodyguards. Behind them were over a thousand infantry in the yellow and black of Averland, the fearsome troops who, their rulers maintained, were the best state soldiers in the Empire. Fuhrmann did not doubt their prowess, but rather their numbers. He was not privy to the quartermasters’ reports for Averheim, but he suspected the figures remaining in the capital were thin.

Otto pointed to the centre of the square, where a monument stood well over fifty feet high. Fuhrmann had noted it on his way into the Averburg a few days before, but had not examined it closely.

“Do you know what that is?” Otto asked.

Fuhrmann looked at the monument more closely. “It’s a big pile of orc skulls.”

“So it would appear, though they’re not really skulls, it’s marble. The old skull pile fell down centuries ago.”

“What does it signify?”

“In 1707, as you’ll doubtless know, Gorbad Ironclaw came through here. No-one’s quite sure whether it was before or after he did his number on Pfeildorf and even the fanatical patriots can’t decide which reflects better on us. In any case, that monument marks the spot he reached. Well, actually, it’s a few feet off; they moved it when they put the marble sculpture up, but you get my point. He lost so many troops here he gave it up and headed on to Nuln.”

“An interesting story.”

Otto smiled mirthlessly. “That monument represents the greatest moment in Averland’s history. Since then Averheim has been the city that defied the Ironclaw. And this was when he was at his peak, mind, not the wreck he was by the time he turned up at Altdorf. Averlanders have been living off that memory for eight hundred years.

“Preceptor. May I call you Einhardt? It seems so much less formal.”

“Of course.”

“Excellent. The courtesy is of course returned.” He pursed his lips. “Einhardt. You have no reason to trust me. I’m an Alptraum, I’m an Ulrican, and I’m potentially an enemy. So I’m not going to ask you to. I’m going to tell you where I stand, and you don’t have to say anything. I’m not going to ask you to incriminate yourself.”

“That’s kind of you.”

Otto ignored him. “Averland is stagnating. The Empire has changed in the last fifty years, but we haven’t. Oh, I know, compared to Ostland and Middenland we’re a bastion of modernity, but that doesn’t cut it in the south. We’ve been left behind through pride and stubbornness and sheer wilful pig-headedness. The really shocking thing is that we’ve made a lot of progress in the last fifty years.”

Fuhrmann said nothing, but raised an eyebrow.

“Oh yes, dear grandmother was quite the progressive when she first came to power. It used to be a lot worse, but now it’s ground completely to a halt. We’re going backwards, and I can’t see that changing.”

“That’s hardly surprising; the Countess is old and has lost her verve; that’s to be expected.”

“It’s not going to change even when she dies. I know Marlene, and I know the rest of my family, and they’re interested in only one thing and that’s keeping as tight a rein on power as they can. It’s asking for trouble.”

He paused and glanced around the squalid street they were presently passing through. Fuhrmann’s gaze came to rest on a heap of rotting vegetables. It was not an auspicious moment.

“We could build something great in Averland,” Otto said, apparently without irony. “We could build something really great, but we won’t, because we don’t have the imagination.”

Fuhrmann opened his mouth to speak, but Otto waved him down. “Don’t say anything; I said that I wasn’t going to incriminate you. But there is something you can do for me. When you get back to Altdorf, give a message to the Chamberlain of the Seal -is that still Amedeus Mencken?”

Fuhrmann nodded.

“Tell him Otto von Alptraum has taken an interest in the reign of Mattheus II and is interested in discussing it further. He will know what I mean.”

***


They travelled east for the better part of two days, and Fuhrmann had to admit he was impressed at the discipline of the Averland troops. Considering the delicate situation in the province as a whole they had retained their composure admirably- easily the equal, he thought, of the Reikland troops he had observed in his time. They were still nothing compared to the Reiksguard, of course. His knights should not have needed reminding that they were on display and, to some extent, in competition with the Averlanders, so he had not, and they had yet to disappoint him. Every now and again he caught an envious look from one of the Knights of the Vine and had to suppress his pride in the prestigious Order to which he belonged.

The journey had given him a chance to talk to Otto more openly; the young nobleman was less restrained now that they were out of the city and apparently away from the fearsome secret police, but they had both been careful to keep the conversation to neutral topics. Nevertheless, and despite his reservations and the warnings of the ambassador, he found himself warming to the man. He was clearly intelligent, well-educated and cultured, qualities that Fuhrmann had not until now associated with the bulk of Averlanders.

It was also obvious that, despite his admiration for and interest in the rest of the Empire, and the Reikland in particular, he was fiercely patriotic. In everything but appearance he really had much more in common with Marius Leitdorf than to the rest of his family, which, Fuhrmann thought, could make the political situation interesting. Until now he had been assuming that the victory of the Sigmarite court faction and their charismatic leader was something of an inevitability, but in Otto the Alptraums had a talisman to match him.

Until now the view from the road had been of idyllic fields and pastures, and even the villages they had passed had seemed relatively quiet, content and peaceful. Fuhrmann suspected that the small army marching with him had something to do with this newfound respect for authority. He had ridden to the middle of the column to speak with his knights when they came across the first signs that they were riding to a war zone.

It was not a surprise to meet the refugees on the road, but it was nonetheless sobering. Fuhrmann had spent years at the sharp end of war, but he still never got used to the pitiful sight of people fleeing their homes. It was all very well to deal in statistics from the comfort of a secure castle; a few hundred more peasants dead here, a village destroyed there, but when the statistics were streaming past you on the road, their eyes full of hunger, fear, resentment…

He took a closer look, and yes, there was resentment there, mixed in almost equal measure with gratitude. He would be resentful too in their situation; angry that too little had been done to defend them, that the men commanding this column had been safe at home in Averheim while their livelihoods had been destroyed.

It was good to see, though, that there was some good in humanity. The column halted, and Fuhrmann saw several soldiers calling refugees to a halt and handing over some portion of their own rations. Small comfort, perhaps, to a woman who had lost everything, but at least it guaranteed them one more meal. They were nearly all women, too; the men must have fought and died with the village. A feeling of impotence struck him again, as he watched the refugees trickle past him. He was supposed to protect people like this, and yet he had done nothing. That there was nothing he could have done made it no easier.

Having passed the column, most of the villagers were milling at the back, unwilling to sacrifice the security of the company of armed men. A couple of the captains were walking over to talk with them, and Otto von Alptraum had appeared from somewhere. Fuhrmann spurred his horse alongside.

“I wasn’t expecting to meet any refugees so soon,” Otto growled, and Fuhrmann nodded in response.

“What do you intend to do?”

“We can’t take them with us, they’ll only slow us down. And it’s more mouths to feed. But we can’t leave them here, it’s not right.”

Fuhrmann knew Otto was making the silent calculation in his head. The lives of these refugees against the further lives that would be lost, amongst the Blackfire garrison, and nearby villages, were he to let them slow his relief column down.

“Mistress!” he called to a young woman, slouched despondently on the ground. “Where have you come from?” The wench scrambled to her feet.

“Volsbach, m’lord,” she replied with a small attempt at a curtsey. Otto swore.

“That’s only a few miles from here. If the orcs followed them…”

Fuhrmann nodded, and swung away.

“Destriers, now! Knights, to me!” At the rearmost wagon, the squires leapt down to release the knights’ warhorses. They had been kept armoured for exactly this eventuality, a precaution Fuhrmann was glad he had taken. He dismounted and ran to his own steed, hauling himself into the saddle without waiting for Johann to offer a hand. He smirked down at the surprised squire.

“There are some things I can do for myself, you see.” The man grinned, and tossed up his lance. Fuhrmann caught it easily by the haft, and nodded his thanks to the squire. The rest of his knights were ready within moments.

“Send help!” he bellowed to Otto, who raised a hand in acknowledgement, then waved to the knights to follow. They advanced at a steady canter past the startled soldiers. One of them, a halberdier, watched them pass, mouth agape, until his captain slapped him and regained his attention.

“So how many orcs are there, out of interest?” Sir Julius called, as casually as was possible over the sound of hooves.

“Do not ask how many there are, only where!” Fuhrmann yelled back, with a grin. He knew this was reckless, stupid even, but no force in the world could have stayed his hand. He wagered all his knights would have said the same. He turned to Klement, the trumpeter.

“Single line, at a trot. Let’s not wear out the horses.” The note duly sounded, and the knights responded with pinpoint timing. Ten abreast, they ground forward quickly but steadily, leaving the column behind. The trees on either side were starting to thin.

A horseman passed them, out of breath, pistol hanging from his left hand. One of the scouts.

“Behind me-” he began.

“We know!” Fuhrmann cut him off. The man did not pause, but hurtled on in the direction of the column.

He could see them now; more than he had hoped, but fewer than he had feared. Perhaps a hundred orcs swarming along the road towards him, a half-mile distant at most. A little way ahead of the main mass were a smaller number of cavalry; lower and squatter than the knights. Boar-riders. At least this would be interesting.

“Increase pace! Unfurl the banner!” The notes rang out again, and the knights spurred to a canter. Years of training kept the line steady even as it sped up. The boar riders had spotted them now, and he could hear their bestial roars of challenge. A few hundred yards now. Let them come.

After all this time in Averland, it was good to have an honest enemy in front of him that he was allowed to kill.

No more orders were needed now. The knights had practised this - had done this - so many times that it was second nature. They were now at a gallop. The lances came down as one. Fuhrmrnn picked out his opponent; a roaring spearman, mounted on a snarling, steaming boar. The spear was vaguely aimed at his chest, but the ill-disciplined animal couldn’t keep it still.

“Sigmar!” Fuhrmann bellowed, although it came out as more of an inarticulate roar, a roar that was echoed by the rest of the knights. He lunged.

The point of his lance went straight through the orc’s chest, and he swept his shield across to knock the spear point away. The force of the impact drove his opponent clear out of the saddle, and into the path of the boar behind him. The second pig bucked, and reared slightly as its rider desperately tried to keep control.

Ten lengths of steel glinted in the afternoon sun as the knights drew their swords. Fuhrmann swung backward, and took the struggling orc in the neck. Black blood sprayed up his arm.

The knights burst through the line of boar riders with one massive, bloody blow, like a fist thrust through the orcish defences. Had the infantry behind them been formed up and ready to receive cavalry, they might have presented a challenge. Instead the Reiksguard carved through them like soft cheese. For a moment the destriers seemed to be held in check by the press of green bodies, and then they had penetrated right through the orcish force.

“About!” Fuhrmann roared, and each knight hauled on his horse’s reins, spinning the entire formation on the spot. The orcs had not yet come to terms with the first charge before the knights were formed up for a second.

It proved too much, and the orcs were running even as the charge hit. Beyond the orcs, Fuhrmann could see the pistoliers approaching, and a small detachment of halberdiers behind that. He made out the figure of Otto Alptraum at the head of the pistoliers, the knights of the Vine not far behind.

Fuhrmann waved his hand back and forth above his head, and the knights broke formation, spreading out to shepherd the fleeing orcs back towards the larger body of reinforcements. A few of the greenskins were still bellicose, swiping at the incoming knights and pistoliers with their huge cleavers, but they were isolated and totally outmanoeuvred - they stood no chance at all.

“Kill them all!” Otto roared - a superfluous command, but one which seemed to stir the bloodlust of his troops even more. The savage whoops of the pistoliers sounded above the cracks of their weapons, while the knights went about their work in a grim silence, the crashing of hooves and the butcher’s sound of steel in flesh the only accompaniments to the killing.

The last orc died, hacked to pieces by the cavalrymen, and the pistoliers amused themselves by dismounting and emptying their weapons into the green corpses. Otto rode among them.

“Let’s get these bodies off the road before the rest of the column gets up here! Stop shooting the bodies and move the things. Move!”

He crossed to Fuhrmann. “My thanks, Sir Einhardt. That would have been one hell of a lot harder if you hadn’t been here.”

“A pleasure to have been of assistance. Is that all of them, do you think?”

“We’ve only had reports of one warband, so I’d hope so, unless it’s fractured further, but one can never be too careful.” He looked thoughtfully back in the direction of the column.

“You’re worried about the refugees.”

Otto nodded. “We can’t guarantee they’ll be safe without military escort back to Averheim, especially with all the trouble we’re having at the moment anyway. But I can’t bring them with us, nor can I spare the men.”

“You don’t have to provide an escort.”

“I don’t have to, but I’m not sure I could live with myself if anything happened to them if I didn’t.”

“There is another solution. I could go back with them.”

Otto looked round at him. “Are you sure? I thought you wanted to get away from Averheim?”

“I’m not in a hurry to get back to the place, that’s true. But you can do without me, even if you can’t spare any of your own companies.”

Otto nodded thoughtfully. “You may be right. And I wouldn’t be entirely sorry to see you back in that council, either. Someone needs to keep an eye on my family.”

“I don’t think I’m your man there, really. I don’t have a clue what I’m doing.”

“That’s what makes you valuable. You’re honest and untainted. I can trust you.”

Perhaps it was the adrenaline from the battle, but Fuhrmann found that all his emotions and frustration had boiled up to the surface. By the time he realised he was shouting it was already too late.

“For Sigmar’s sake, Otto, I can’t deal with those people! I’m floundering in the dark, drowning in a sea of paperwork and protocol! Your trusting me is useless because I don’t know what to do!”

“Just do your duty, Preceptor.” Otto seized his hand and looked gravely into his eye. “Do your duty.”

Otto wheeled away and called over a couple of pistoliers. “Scouting party! With me, up the road! I want this section clear by the time I get back!” He galloped off up the road.

“Otto!” Fuhrmann called after him. The nobleman twisted in the saddle. “What do you mean? What duty, Otto?”

Otto simply raised a hand in valediction and spurred his horse on.

“What the hell?” Fuhrmann muttered.

“Your orders, sir?” Klement asked, abruptly, with a straight face. Fuhrmann knew from experience that his outburst would never be mentioned again, even by Julius.

“Back to the column,” Fuhrmann said, still gazing after Otto. “We’re taking the refugees back to Averheim.”
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Re: Black Fire and Brimstone [Complete]

Postby Athelassan » Fri Jul 13, 2012 7:21 am

The mood was sombre by the time they returned to Averheim, and not just because of the refugees. They were almost pathetically grateful for the assistance the Reiksguard had offered them, but there was still a reserve to them, a slight accusation in the backs of their eyes. If they had been there sooner, their families would not have died. Fuhrmann ignored it. He could not blame these people; it was not his fault, but it was not theirs either. He had done all he could, but it had not been enough. He had learned to live with that many years before.

And what of you? There was a nagging doubt at the back of his own head. How good it had felt to lead his knights to war once more. He allowed himself a slight smile as he remembered how long it had taken the Order of the Vine to react to the orcs’ approach. That was one he suspected the Averlanders would prefer to forget. It seemed strange to think that it might be the last time he led the Reiksguard into battle.

It doesn’t have to be. He would lose nothing from changing his mind, that was true; he had shared his feelings with no-one, but he had made his decision for a reason, and he had made it, he thought, long before he had even arrived in this accursed city. He was good at this, but it was not who he was.

He stripped off his armour in the stables with Johann’s assistance and walked with Julius back to his room. Neither of them spoke- Julius appeared to be waiting for Fuhrmann to break the silence, and while he welcomed the company, he had no desire to speak.

His door was ajar, so he pushed it open cautiously, and found a familiar figure sitting casually on the chaise longue. His visitor had been gazing from the window, but looked up, smiled, and rose to his feet as the two knights entered.

“Good afternoon, Preceptor,” said Lewes Alptraum, mouth still wide in a smile that did not extend to his eyes.

“My Lord. What a pleasant surprise.” He left a pause before ‘pleasant’, long enough to be noticeable, but too short to be rude.

“I hear congratulations are in order. You have done well, Preceptor. Thank Ulric you were here.”

“Your lordship’s nephew had things well under control. I am simply happy I was able to render assistance.”

“Nevertheless, a job well done, Preceptor, a job well done.” He stopped speaking, and the smile faded slightly.

“You did not come all this way simply to congratulate me, I hope, my Lord?”

“I am afraid not. An urgent political matter has come to our attention. Are you familiar with one Clothair Kaufman? He was part of the Streissen delegation.”

Something turned over in Fuhrmann’s gut. “I met him once, yes.”

“I am sorry to say that something tragic has happened to him. He was found dead this morning in a back alley. His purse was taken; some footpad must have ambushed him.”

And I’ll bet you know exactly who it was, too, Fuhmrann thought. Just how long was his body there before that patrol conveniently happened across it? One hour, two?

“That’s terrible. Are there any suspects?”

“Sadly not. Normally we would depute a watch captain to investigate the matter, but they are so tied up with everything at this time that we simply cannot spare anyone.” He shook his head. “The lawlessness here simply is unbearable.”

“Indeed.”

“Awful things can happen to men on the streets of Averheim, especially those who aren’t familiar with them.”

“What of the other Streissen burghers?”

“Happily they are all well, although understandably a little shaken by the loss of their companion. They, like we, are eager to seek an end to this matter.”

“Of course.”

“There will be a council this evening at which the judgment of the Countess will be dispensed and hopefully this whole sordid business can be resolved.”

“Do you wish for me to attend?”

Lewes spread his hands and laughed. “That is entirely up to you, Preceptor. You will certainly be made most welcome should you wish to.”

“Thank you, my Lord.”

“My pleasure.” Lewes walked past, heading for the door. Julius stood aside to let him pass.

“Oh,” he said, turning. “Will you be wanting to raise anything at the council, should you attend?” If so I should let the Speaker know. It helps to keep the wheels oiled, if you know what I mean.”

“What would I possibly have to say?” Fuhrmann asked. “Averland business is Averland business, is it not?”

Lewes looked at him for a long moment, then smiled. “Quite so.” He turned on his heel and departed.

“Do you want me to follow him out and kill him?” Julius asked.

“Yes.”

Neither of them moved. Fuhrmann remembered that the Alptraums would by now have had a chance to replace the listening tube, and decided he no longer cared.

“I don’t take kindly to being threatened,” he said in a neutral tone

“None of us do. It’s a fairly fundamental part of being human. But still, what can you do about it?”

“Absolutely nothing.” The fire in Julius’s eyes told Fuhrmann that he had been understood.

“Do you think you could arrange for another visit from Ambassador Kelser? There are a few matters I would like to discuss with him.”

“Of course, sir.”

***


The sun was setting by the time the Countess was ready to receive council. Fuhrmann wondered if this was evidence of her rapidly deteriorating health, or whether she just happened to be feeling lazy. It could be either. Absurdly, he was agitated about the forthcoming session. Charging into fierce melee at great personal risk was second nature to him now, but confronting a room full of dignitaries had him genuinely nervous. There was a lightness to his limbs, and a deadness in his stomach. As he entered the chamber, he had to make an effort to keep a neutral expression. In the corner of his eye, he could see the burghers of Streissen watching him. Deliberately, he avoided their gaze, though he was sure his face flushed as he ignored them. Damn these nerves!

Lewes Alptraum was more persistent. Fuhrmann could not resist a glance in his direction, and saw that the nobleman was watching him intently. Their eyes met, and Lewes nodded deliberately. Fuhmrann looked away, trying desperately not to smirk slightly. Only a few minutes now.

The Speaker called the council to session, and the burghers of Streissen stepped forward, all according to the script. The familiar pleas for assistance were repeated, then Lewes Alptraum got to his feet.

There was something really repulsive about Lewes Alptraum that went beyond his slightly corpulent belly and his fleshy, smirking face. Everything from the timbre of his voice to the oily way he moved screamed to the onlooker that here was a really nasty piece of work. Fuhmrann imagined Julius running him through, and was unable to suppress the smile that followed. No loss to the human race there.

“My lords, ladies and gentlemen,” Lewes oozed, “it causes the Countess great distress to hear of the continued suffering of her loyal subjects. We are united in our grief and sympathy for that which her subjects have lost. All assistance that can be rendered unto them will be rendered.

“However, there are those here who are not so worthy of our compassion. Men who have allowed personal greed to lead them from the path of righteousness, men who have rejected the protective embrace of the Countess to further their own selfish ends. I am sorry to say that the burghers of Streissen are such men. When times were good, they impressed upon our great Lady to grant them their freedom from the responsibilities of her fair and even-handed rule, that they might better pursue lucre and wealth. Yet now, when their luck has fallen, they still venture here, to her court, and beg for her assistance, having already rejected her!

One of the burghers had actually fallen to his knees. Fuhrmann could swear he saw tears in his eyes, as he extended his hands to the Countess in pleading. Lewes walked between him and the Countess, sparing him only a callous glance.

“Nevertheless, the Countess is merciful. She is willing to forgive her wayward subjects. They have brought ruin and destruction upon themselves, but she is willing to help retrieve their sorry lives from the mire of their own creation, at her own expense and inconvenience. This is the extent of her mercy and compassion! A regiment of Averland state troopers shall be dispatched to the town of Streissen to restore order.”

There was a stunned silence across the council chamber, and then the room as one seemed to inhale, one huge breath that threatened to explode in a cacophony of noise a second later. Lewes killed it dead.

“In exchange,” he declared sharply, deflating the councillors, “in exchange for this deed of boundless compassion and tenderness, the Countess merely requests that the citizens of Streissen show their gratitude by revoking the foolish charter that led them to this destruction. Only this, in return for her assistance, is requested.”

The burghers, whose faces had lit up with elation at Lewes’s first proclamation, recoiled as if struck. Fuhrmann knew what they were thinking. They were as good as being offered their lives in exchange for their freedom.

It was the triumphant smile on Lewes’s face that did it. Fuhrmann knew that his moment had come, and stood. It did not have quite the impact he had hoped for; the council were still too fixated on Lewes’s terms, but the burghers spotted him, and, seeing their gaze drift in his direction, Lewes turned too. His expression wavered for a second - this had not been arranged - and Fuhrmann could see him trying to work out his motives. He let him stew for a second.

“Herr Speaker, Lords, Ladies and gentlemen,” he announced, “I would like, on behalf of the Emperor, to extend thanks to the Countess and to Sir Lewes here for their kind offer to quell the unrest in Streissen.” Lewes still looked uncertain, so Fuhrmann favoured him with a cold smile. “However, it has been brought to my attention that, as a free chartered town of the Empire, Streissen falls under direct Imperial protection. It is my responsibility therefore, and not that of the Countess, to see that the interests of the citizens of Streissen are safeguarded. To this end, I and my knights shall be riding out in the morning to put an end to the unrest. The Countess need not trouble herself.”

Lewes’s composure had almost completely vanished. He stood agog for a moment, then virtually screamed at Einhardt.

“You have not been granted permission!”

“I did not ask!” Lewes was an experienced councillor, and Einhardt did not doubt there were few men in Averland more skilled at manipulating an audience. But Fuhrmann was a military man, and when he shouted, it was infinitely more impressive. His voice thundered around the hall, shocking Lewes into total silence. Fuhrmann lowered his voice slightly, but maintained a tone that made it clear he would brook no argument.

“I am not your prisoner here, Sir Lewes; I am a guest of the Countess, here to fulfil my responsibilities towards the Emperor. As his plenipotentiary, I have taken it upon myself to resolve the Streissen situation in person. It is a chartered free town, not part of the Province of Averland, and therefore I do not need to request the permission of anyone in this room, including the Countess, before I do so. If I could have her blessing before I leave, then I would greatly appreciate it. But if not, I shall still go, regardless of any further objections you may have.”

The council was murmuring. It was difficult to tell whose side they were on, though Fuhrmann thought he had a good idea. Sigmar help him, he was actually enjoying this.

“Is this legal?” Lewes demanded of the Speaker.

The old man hesitated for a second- long enough for an awful worm of doubt to appear in Fuhrmann’s stomach- and then nodded.

“Perfectly,” he said.

Fuhrmann wished he had a way of capturing the look on Lewes’s face at that moment. It was an image that would stay with him forever; a proud man who had had the ground cut from under him at the moment of his greatest personal triumph, and been made to look a fool in front of dozens of his peers- a clever man who had been caught being not clever enough. He stood, stunned, for a moment, as Fuhrmann seated himself again. The burghers were openly smiling, and Fuhrmann nodded magnanimously in their direction, as Lewes passed behind him.

“You’ll pay for this,” he muttered.

“I doubt it,” Fuhrmann replied, breezily.

Julius was waiting for him as he left the council chamber.

“I can tell from the look on your face that it went well, but I should ask anyway, just to check.”

“I did it. I beat the bastards, at their own game.”

“Well done. Who would have thought it? Einhardt Fuhrmann, the famous muscle-headed knight, revelling in his achievements in the council chamber. I suppose there’s a first time for everything.”

“Muscle-headed knights seem to be more popular than hard-nosed cynics.”

“You wound me. Congratulations, in any case.” He held out a letter. “This came for you. Reiksmarshall’s seal.”

Fuhrmann’s heart sank in an instant as he took the letter and ripped it open. It took him only a second to scan the contents.

“Oh no,” he muttered, crumpling the letter in his fist and collapsing against the wall. “Oh, no, no, no.”

“Something wrong?”

“Get the others together. There’s been a major complication.”
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Re: Black Fire and Brimstone [Complete]

Postby Athelassan » Fri Jul 13, 2012 7:22 am

It took only ten minutes for Julius to locate and assemble the other eight knights in a deserted room a few doors down from the council chamber. Years of training to be ready at a moment’s notice had their uses other than war. A waiter laid out and filled ten port glasses before Fuhrmann dismissed him and turned to face his knights.

“Thank you all for coming at such short notice. I have just received word from Altdorf. We are to return to Castle Reikguard immediately.”

It was Karolus who spoke first. “Then has it happened?”

Fuhrmann nodded, and raised a glass. He waited for the other knights to pick theirs up before continuing.

“The Emperor is dead. Long live the Empire.”

“The Empire!” the knights echoed, and drained their glasses.

“We ride out at dawn,” Fuhrmann continued. “We don’t have time to lacquer our armour properly before leaving, so get your squires to use black paint, soot, whatever they can find.”

“What about Streissen?” Julius asked, quietly.

Fuhmrann sighed. “It looks like it might have to fend for itself after all.”

“Are you going to stand for that?”

“You know the rules, you know them as well as I do. We don’t have a choice.” He exhaled. “I wish we did, but there’s nothing we can do, short of desertion. We leave tomorrow, at dawn, and that’s the end of it.”

“Who can we tell?”

“Tell the squires. I’ll leave the Averlanders to find out for themselves. We don’t owe them any favours.” He almost spat the last words.

He looked at the floor. “I should also let you know that, since the Emperor’s death has released me from my obligations, I intend to resign my commission in the Reiksguard on my return.” Even Julius looked surprised at that. “It has been an honour to command you, and I only wish my last assignment with you could have been more productive.”

The knights looked first at him, and then at each other. None of them had seen this coming. Klement was the first to react.

“Why are you resigning, sir?”

“None of your damned business.” He smiled a little, to show he intended no malice. Truth be told, he was no longer entirely sure. There were many reasons, but trying to pinpoint them all would be fruitless.

“You should go; get some rest. It’s a long journey tomorrow.” The knights nodded and departed. Julius hesitated and looked back at him. Fuhrmann shook his head.

“You too, Julius.”

Fuhrmann waited until the sound of his knights’ feet had retreated down the corridor. When they could no longer be heard, he opened the door a crack to see that they all had genuinely departed, then returned to the room.

He opened the scroll again. Its instructions were clear and unambiguous.

Preceptor Fuhrmann,

The Emperor Luitpold died peacefully in his sleep this morning. Glory be, long live, etc.. You and your knights are to return immediately to Castle Reikguard to await the election of a new Emperor. Emphasis on the immediate.

Return directly to Reikguard. Failure to comply will be construed as desertion. I trust your knights are in good order.

Kurt Helborg, Reiksmarshall.

“Sigmar help me,” he murmured, then screwed up the letter and hurled it across the room.

“Damnation!” he screamed. “Damnation and bloody hellfire!”

***


Fuhrmann left the squires to tend the horses and made straight for the Reiksmarshall’s office, where he tossed his report on the desk of the startled clerk outside before retiring to remove his armour. The castle was swarming with knights, all, Fuhrmann suspected, bored witless. When the place was fully occupied it was really quite overcrowded, and the thought of his spartan accommodation made Fuhrmann wish momentarily that he were back in the Averburg. On his way through the fortress, several knights - old friends and comrades, most of them - tried to greet him, but he shook them off.

When he reached his cell, he tore off those pieces of armour he could manage quickly and without assistance and hurled them on the bed. Reckoning that the Reiksmarshall would have had time to read his report by now, he turned, still half-armoured, and headed straight back to the office. The door was ajar, so he knocked and entered without bothering to wait for a reply.

Kurt Helborg, the Reiksmarshall, was seated at his desk, buried in paperwork. He looked up and smiled as Fuhrmann entered.

“Einhardt, please, come in, take a seat.” Fuhrmann drew up a seat on the other side of the desk. The despondency and latent anger that had assailed him at Averheim had mostly dissipated despite his efforts to retain it; now he was just bone-tired.

“How was Averheim?”

“Pretty awful, to be honest.”

“That doesn’t surprise me. I’m sorry, Einhardt, really I am. It’s a hellish posting, but someone had to go and it needed to be somebody good.”

“The most frustrating thing is that I’d only just started making progress when I was recalled.”

“That doesn’t surprise me either. I’m afraid that one was out of my hands.”

“I know, but it doesn’t change anything. It wasn’t anyone’s fault, not mine, not yours, not even that smug idiot Lewes Alptraum. But I still failed. I had a chance to make a difference, to help people, to fulfil my duty -” he spat the words - “and I failed.”

Helborg sighed. He was not a particularly old man - Fuhrmann had heard from somewhere he was around forty - but in that moment he looked worn out and weary.

“You weren’t responsible, Einhardt. You can’t hold yourself to account for something over which you had no control. It’s a lesson I learned long ago. It’s only natural, to blame yourself, to think about what you did over and over, trying to find another way of doing something, but sometimes you just have to accept that there wasn’t anything you could do. There was nothing more you could have done. You couldn’t save Streissen.”

“If I’d had another few days, one day even…”

“But you didn’t. You did what you could in the time available. I didn’t even need to read your briefing to know that. That’s why I sent you, because I can trust and depend on you to do everything in your power to do your duty. There was nothing more you could have done. Nothing else matters.”

“Perhaps.”

“I get the impression that’s as good as I’m going to get from you. Anyway, you’re back now, so let’s make the most of it. I’ve got some decent wine, for starters. The stuff they drink out there is frankly piss.” He retrieved a bottle of Bretonnian red and filled a glass for Fuhrmann, who accepted it.

“Actually, I was thinking of leaving the Guard.”

Helborg started. “You’re serious?”

“It’s something I’ve been considering for a while. I don’t think I’m cut out for this.”

“Nonsense. You wouldn’t be Preceptor if you weren’t. You’re an excellent swordsman and a first-rate leader. You have a brain in there somewhere as well; anyone who can make it out of the Averburg and retain his sanity has to. You could make Marshall in a few years, even Reiksmarshall one day.”

“I have a mind to go to the provinces.”

“The provinces? You’re a Reiklander; what the hell is there out there for you?”

“Nothing. That’s the point. I can find somewhere with no expectation, no politics, no… complications. And after Averheim, to be honest, that sounds like paradise.”

“Is there anything that I can say to change your mind?”

Fuhrmann shook his head. “I don’t think so, sir.”

“Very well then.” Helborg stood and extended his hand; Fuhrmann took it. “I’m genuinely sorry to see you go, Einhardt. We’ll miss you.”

“I think I’ll miss this place, too. Just not enough to make me stay.”

“You do realise you’ve put me in a difficult situation now. Who am I going to replace you with as Preceptor?”

Fuhrmann smiled slightly. “How about Julius Kassel?”

“Apart from Julius Kassel.”

“I can’t think of anyone off the top of my head, but if a name occurs, I’ll let you know.”

“You do that.” Helborg hesitated. “Goodbye, Einhardt.”

“Goodbye, sir.” Fuhrmann threw a salute, then turned on his heel and left the office of the Reiksmarshall for the last time.

***


Epilogue


Somewhere a baby was crying. It was not crying properly, in the sort of ear-splitting wail that would draw too much unwelcome attention, more like loud whimpers. Even a child of that age had rudimentary survival skills. It was certainly not the baby that Wolfgang Fremder could see. That infant was unquestionably dead, though its mother clung to it regardless. Were it not for the silent sobs that wracked her body, she could be dead too, from her appearance at least.

Fremder watched as a passing soldier stopped. For a moment he thought he was trying to offer comfort, but then he realised that he was merely lifting her face to gauge her attractiveness. Obviously the soldier thought he could do better elsewhere, for, having seen her face, he let go of her and walked off.

The girl- she could not have been older than twenty- caught a glimpse of Fremder and turned to look at him. She might have been pretty once; probably had been earlier that day, but the gang of soldiers that had found her had not been gentle in their affections. Fremder found he could not return her gaze and walked on down what was left of the street.

Further down the road a couple of corpses lay face down in what had once been the first storey of an overlooking building. Embers still smouldered somewhere in the tangle of wood, stone and plaster, so Fremder carefully picked his way through. The bodies were all male, though he could not tell from this angle what had killed them. It did not really matter in either case. Marauding soldiers could be just as indiscriminate as mortar fire, and both had been used here.

On the right side of the road were the ruins of another house. The dusty corpse of a woman lay in the rubble, a knife buried up to the hilt in her chest. Her own hand was clasped about the blade; clearly she had preferred death by her own hand to the indignities the soldiers would visit upon her. Fremder could respect that; he had often wondered what he would do if ever put in that position, not that he was likely to be. Someone else had evidently had less respect; the fourth finger on her left hand had been severed at the knuckle.

The university was ahead. At first, the soldiers had deliberately targeted it, hurling burning torches in through any available window, but it was too large to destroy completely. The assembly hall and master’s lodge had both been thoroughly sacked, however. The library, miraculously, had survived almost unscathed.

Lewes Alptraum stood before the university, a number of smaller, nauseous-looking men by his sides. Fremder recognised them as some of the town’s burghers. Lewes spotted Fremder approaching and beckoned him over.

“Captain Fremder! Good work!” Wolfgang simply nodded.

“Look at that!” An impromptu gallows had been set up across the square from the university. There were eleven hanging corpses. Four of them, from the looks of them, had been lecturers, while the remainder looked like students. Some enterprising ransacker had stolen their shoes. Fremder had long since ceased to be surprised at the greed of the men under his command, but every now and again he felt they reached a new low. First the ring and now this. Above the gallows, someone slightly more thoughtful had erected a sign reading ‘trators’. He wondered if anyone other than him had noticed the error.

Lewes was still talking. “It’s good work, Captain. Set a proper example, eh?”

Fremder looked up again at the gallows, and across the square to the street where he had entered. The thick pall of smoke hung in the air, given life by the screams and cries of women and children, and the whoops and laughter of soldiers running amok. He turned back to his master.

“Yes, sir. I don’t think anyone’s going to forget the fate of Streissen for a very long time.”
***


The officers’ mess at Black Fire Pass was deserted save for one patron, who seemed engrossed in his own world. He had been there most of the morning, and all of the afternoon, nursing a single whisky. The barman was, frankly, annoyed, but the man had a right to be there even if he was a lousy customer. Besides, he had a feeling the man was well-connected, and didn’t want to upset him if that proved to be the case.

The Feldsmarschall entered and nodded to the barman before walking over to join the lone drinker. Otto Alptraum looked up as he approached, while the barman quickly busied himself.

“May I take a seat?” he asked, pulling out a high-backed chair.

“Only if you agree to take a drink with me,” Otto replied, signalling to the barman for another whisky. Leitdorf nodded and sat.

“A toast,” Otto declared, when the second drink had arrived.

“May I ask what to?”

Otto looked Leitdorf directly in the eye. “To the house of Alptraum. Glorious, wonderful, ancient beyond reckoning. Created through years of bravery and honour, maintained through centuries of cunning and duplicity, and destroyed by an hour of idiocy.”

Leitdorf raised his glass and smiled wolfishly. “I’ll drink to that.”
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Re: Black Fire and Brimstone [Complete]

Postby Ghurlag » Fri Jul 13, 2012 3:19 pm

Very nice, Ath. I like the inbuilt fatalism/realism of the whole thing. You manage the politics of the Empire very well, as I should expect from your other work. The main character is well written, and there are no obvious issues with your dialogue. The story seems pretty well-honed. I can offer up only a few tidbits of minor criticism.

First, a trivial error with the plurality of guards
The guards at the gates uncrossed their halberds and let them pass without question- either they were expected, or he had simply decided not to argue with a man wearing the Emperor’s livery.


Second, a bit of awkward phrasing:
Ludmilla was followed by a young woman, heavily made up, and a man who seemed, if anything, to be older still, carrying a large book.


The 'older still' is a bit off to my mind, seeing as we were just told about the younger woman. Perhaps 'older than his regent' or some such contraption?

More broadly, the only niggling thing was the way certain strands didn't seem large/twisted enough. They ride out to deal with the Orcs and deal with the Orcs. The main character considers retiring and retires. These aren't things I necessarily disapprove of (I like the 'lifelike' feel of it, actually), but you might want to watch it in a longer work.

I very much approve, as I said (but it bears repeating), of the way victory was snatched away and horrors were left to be committed. Very in the feel of the universe.

As the misty veil of Albion is cast aside, we turn our gaze to the war-torn island of Albany, where the Red King vies with his former master for the control of a realm in dire threat.
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Re: Black Fire and Brimstone [Complete]

Postby Gaius Marius » Sat Jan 19, 2013 4:00 am

Now that was a damn anticlimax worthy of the gods!
Space Cowboy, Spartan II, Specter, Reclusiarch

'I see the fear you have inside.'
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Re: Black Fire and Brimstone [Complete]

Postby Athelassan » Tue Jan 22, 2013 2:04 am

I did begin work on a sequel to this dealing with events in Averheim, but it's slipped a long way down the list of priorities. Maybe one day. There's yet another story - also started, but an awfully long way from complete, about how Einhardt ends up working for the Weyrothers. I'm still keen for Lewes von Alptraum to get his comeuppance somehow though!

Speaking of the Weyrothers, Friends in High Places has been updated.

Ath
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Re: Black Fire and Brimstone [Complete]

Postby Vivia » Sun Mar 03, 2013 10:42 pm

Just wanted to tell you I'm halfway through the story. Sorry for being so slow.
This might sound silly but it's the dialogue that made the story for me, real people having real discussions. I greatly enjoy reading a well-written story after my last disappointment with a WHF novel. Balm for the reading soul.

I also have to mention the PDF you gave me is of excellent quality, I've purchased e-books in the past that are nearly unreadable, so this of great help for me. :)
There is nothing gay about the Princeton fight song. "Oh, the men of Princeton are charging up the rear, holding all the balls..." Okay, I hear it now. – Jack, episode Queen of Jordan
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