"Junker! I bring reports from the baron Edelgade!" the rider shouted. He had galloped across the white sheet covering the fields around the windmill, reining in his foaming horse just as the faint thunder of far away cannons could be heard from beyond the forest to the south. He wore the brown and black uniform of the 4th Rederhafen Militia Regiment.
The man he addressed, Junker Hans von Stachelswein, was aloft, on the top deck of the mill, a good eight yards above the ground, in open air. A somewhat portly, quite sturdy-looking bald and bareheaded man, in a thick, wool-lined winter coat. Junker von Stachelswein had a perfect view of the serene, snow-covered landscape of southern Wezell; frozen fields, covered in an inch of new snow, the winter-bare trees distributed throughout the scenery in the subtle methodical manner of the Wezellians – here Man has tamed his world. A channel cutting a dark silver line through the picture a few yards from the windmill. Smoke rising in a lazy, unaffected tendril from the lonely farm on the other side of the waterway. All in sharp contrast to the flat, empty, gray morning skies above.
The Junker had been trying to capture all of this in watercolor for the last hour, and seemed almost relieved by the disturbance. Stepping back a pace, he took his sword, handed to him by his old bugler. "Not altogether bad, if I have to say so myself," he said, as if speaking to himself while fastening scabbard to baldric.
"I've seen better, Hans," the scruffy old soldier said as he took down the easel and packed up the tools of the artist.
The officer gave his subordinate a hard glance, muttered something about his general contempt for the uneducated, and descended backwards down the ladder, into the belly of the mill.
The currier, a young man, not much more than a boy stood shivering at attention, trying not to rattle his teeth too loudly. The four blue-coated troopers of Stachelswein's Dragoons had left their cards and now sat watching the newcomer with the anxious patience of veterans. Beneath their winter coats each man wore breastplates of tempered steel. Junker Stachelswein tutted at the men as he climbed the last steps.
"Let's not waste more time before you get a blanket and some schapps, lad", he said as he stepped up to the freezing soldier, folding his hands behind his back and tilting slightly forward on his feet as he stopped. The private was not a large man, still he had a good head on the much older officer. "No good to anyone dead, now are you?"
The messenger seamed to have stumbled in his rethorics, and managed no better answer than a confused stutter.
"Well?" The Junker raised his voice slightly and squinted his eyes. "Let's have it, man!"
Duty overwhelmed his confusion, and the baron's dispatch rider straightened up, looked ahead, and made his report: "Junker von Stachelswein, baron Edelgade sends his compliments and wishes to inform you that the Pendrellians have been locked down in battle at Arber Bridge, three-quarter league south-east of Zaarbrügge. The strength of the enemy is twelve thousand infantry, rifles all. They field four and a half dozen of their best cannon, as well as three lesser batteries. Four regiments of horse have been confirmed – three thousand Ironbellies, and the Kings's Own Blackriver Cuirassiers."
"The baron informs you that while the artillery will no doubt prove costly, he is confident that he will carry the day, Justice willing. What small matter of discomfort he begs you assist him in is that Lady Thorne and her Black Coats have not been accounted for."
"Heh!" The Junker turned to the closest of his men, a hawk-faced, ushaven lance-corporal and was handed a rugged brown, ceramic bottle. Turning again on the militiaman he said, "Not as dumb as you look, are you lad?" He further unbalanced the poor man by handing him the bottle. "Distracting me with open blasphemy while delivering my orders." The old Junker tutted, and muttered something about heathens in general, and youth in particular.
"So the Black Thorn is loose under the good baron's skirts, and now he feels it's time for me to earn my pay?" He had held the question so that the messenger was interrupted as he was about to take a drink. "To end your duty here, Citizen, does His Grace wish to inform me of anything else?"
"Only that he bids you make haste, and not dally, Junker." It was apparent that the young militiaman enjoyed delivering the insult from behind the shield of the messenger.
Von Stachelswein laughed, clapped his hands, and shouted upwards, "Bugler! Sound the Lance! Let's hunt!"
Turning again to the currier, he said, "We'll leave you a meal, that bottle, and I'll send you a fresh horse shortly. Tell your master that he can worry about the cannon, and I will keep his backyard clean."
From the top of the windmill, an insolent, defiant, clear, call to arms rang over the landscape. Immediately a murder of crows took wing from a lonely oak across the channel. From the nearby wood faint command-cries arose, and within minutes a long, gray line of horsemen faded into view along the forest-line.
The four troopers had left the mill, and now sat mounted outside, awaiting the Junker and his bugler. One of them had unfurled a white standard with a black hedgehog, von Stachelswein's coat of arms. Inside the old officer stood bent over a map he held down to the deserted table, while the last of his men came climbing down the ladders from above. The messenger stood discarded, trying not to be in the way, and not long after he stood alone in the windmill. The sound of the horses faded, and around him silence descended. Nineteen years old, a university student, called to fight in what the Pendrellian Parliament have named the Witch's War.
As the six riders galloped off, the line of horses by the woods merged into two long columns and cut across the fields to meet up with their commander. The regiment moved with the effortless efficiency of veterans, confident and proud. They were mercenaries, and some of them had followed the Hedgehog-banner in wars all over Eria for more than a dozen years. While few of them nurtured any loyalty to any royal house, every man would follow the old Junker to the edge of the Abyss, and perhaps even further. Bastards and cutthroats all, yet they were amongst the best paid in the Wezellian army.
The bugler's horn sounded again, and while the regiment came to a halt five officers spurred their horses and rode up to the Junker. There followed a short discussion, and before long the officers returned to their men. Orders were given and distributed down the lines by shouting corporals. Two companies spurred their horses and wheeled off, one heading north along the channel, the other south, towards the distant thunder of the artillery. Only minutes later, the rest of the unit rode west at good speed.
After having put a league behind him Junker von Stachelswein ordered a halt in a small forest and dismounted. He walked a few paces off the road and stood there, gazing off between the trees for a time before calling for his bugler.
"What do you think she's up to?" he asked when he could hear the steps in the snow behind him.
"The Lady Thorne, you mean?"
"Off course, you goat-faced old fool! There's no reports of her or her Black Coats since yesterday when they burned the village of Anster."
"Why do you always talk to me about things I know naught about, Hans?"
"I'm not talking to you, I'm talking to myself. I just like the company." The Junker picked up a wooden pipe carved like a naked woman and started the process of filling it.
"She has one of the best outfits the Parliamentarians have fielded, yet she does not take battle," he continued. "She's not a soldier, she's a killer."
Behind him the bugler drew out his own pipe and for a while the two men occupied themselves with the familar ritual. From around them the sounds of horses and men, waiting patiently, came through the winter wood.
"I have a hunch," the officer said when both pipes had been lit and smoke hung around their heads like clouds obscuring mountain peaks.
The old bugler knew all about his commanders hunches. They had been riding together for a generation, and the Junker had always had a way of guessing what their enemies were up to. Some of the men even believed that their commander had the Gift. He didn't say anything. Instead he drew deep from his pipe and let the smoke pour slowly from his nostrils.
"She knows she's being hunted," the Junker finally said, "that's what she wants. She will try to draw us into a battle where her dismounted carabineers can use their repeating guns to full effect."
After a pause to send a few smokerings up among the branches he continued. "She will find a soft target, likely a town behind the lines, and she will make sure we find her. She will burn and kill. She hopes that we will become too enraged by the plight of the poor citizens to think clearly and storm the streets." He spat in the snow and stuffed the pipe back in his pocket just as the sound of a galloping horse could be heard coming towards them.
"Junker!" The young private reined in his horse, its hooves kicking up powdery white snow as it came to a standstill. "Rittmeister Fegel sends me! He has found the enemy in Erstmannshof a league and a half from here. Black smoke can be seen rising from the center of the town. Peasants say scores of black-coated soldiers rode into town less than an hour before we came there."
"So it is as I thought," the Junker said. He turned to one of his officers. "Ride in all haste to baron Edelgade. Tell him that he is free to die in front of the enemy's cannon, the Black Thorn is lodged behind him, and I will make sure it breaks when it comes out."
Other orders were given, riders bearing dispatches galloped off, and then the bugle called the Hedegehogs to advance.
As the day wore on into afternoon, Stachelswein's Dragoons moved up to within sight of the town of Erstmannshof. The town seemed small and insignificant, almost unreal contrasted against the snow, ocean and sky, all in shades of grey. Normally there would be smoke rising from the many chimneys, instead only a thick, dark tendril snaked upwards from the middle of the town.
Von Stachelswein took up possition on a low ridge about three furlongs from the nearest houses. In front lay the town, behind it a dense thicket of trees. From here he could respond to any attempt to escape. He kept half his strength hidden behind it and had three companies line up along the crest. The remaining two stood in plain view a little to the left.
The Junker dismounted, cursing the cruel fate of old age as his joints groaned at the effort. Pulling up his telescope he took in the scene. "Good ground," he muttered, "if the enemy behaves."
"Order Fegel to advance on the town," he said to the bugler. "Let's see what she's got," he added, to himself this time.
The two companies to the left trotted down the gentle slope in two columns. They stayed in formation until they had covered half the distance, then they split up. One company continued ahead on the road, the other broke off and advanced on a farm about one and a half hundred yards from the nearest houses.
From the ridge the movements on the field were watched carefully. Some held their breath, others muttered thanks to fate or even gods for not having been chosen to test the enemy's guard. Those who grew too bold in their blessings were quieted by gruff corporals.
The company, looking like a small, grey line against the white to those on the ridge, closed the distance at a carfree trot. One hundred paces. Seventy. The spectators held their breath. They could do nothing but wait and watch. The Junker had his telescope trained on the houses in front of the small force. Fifty paces. Twenty. The bugler swore a foul oath under his breath.
The company halted, and after a short moment a single rider continued ahead. On the ridge the men looked on, intently, as if they were watching a juggler try a particularly difficult trick and expecting him to fail.
The bugler stepped closer to the Junker. "Something ent level here, if I know anything about killing," he said in a low voice.
"I agree," the Junker replied, "I've had a bad feeling since I first saw the infernal town. There's something here I can't put my finger on..."
"Shall I sound the recall?"
"No, it is too late. The game is afoot."
The lone rider had vanished between the houses. The thin line of horsemen sat motionless. The company headed for the farm had dismounted and were occupying its buildings. The men on the ridge stood silent, behind them restless horses snorted, their riders standing beside them fiddling their weapons. Black smoke coiled upwards from within the town. Not a sound could be heard. A lonely sparrow landed on a naked shrub not five feet from the hedgehog standard.
Then the rider returned to his company, and not long after the men dismounted. As they fell into ranks around their banner a dispatch sped off towards the ridge. He had not covered half the distance when a single strand of smoke seemed to speed towards the dismounted soldiers from one of the outer houses. Only a heartbeat after, seven more shot forth. As the first reached its mark there was a voilent burst of fire and smoke, then as the rest struck the company vanished in snow and soil and smoke. To the men on the ridge the sound that reached them was like that of a cruel nightmare bearing down on the guilty dreamer: long banshee-wails followed by hard knells of thunder.
Before the dust had settled, hundreds of black-clad riders sallied forth from the northern edge of Erstmannshof. They cut straight for the ridge, threatening the flank of the three dismounted companies holding it.
The Junker reacted swiftly, and gave orders for the five companies behind the crest to mount up. Just as the bugle's challenging call rang across the field shouts came from the thicket behind the ridge The shouts were quickly drowned by a volley of gunfire. It sounded almost like a coarse, wet canvas was being torn by strong hands.
Junker von Stachelswein looked down to where now several men fell from their steeds, and almost obscured by the thick smoke from discharged powder he saw black-coated soldiers kneeling behind his own troops. He saw the same man fire twice without reloading his musket before he vanished in the smoke and chaos. All along the edge of the thicket gunfire could be heard, no longer the massed volley, but the sound of repeated shots, fired at close range at an enemy who had been caught unawares. It all lasted perhaps half a minute, and when it was over nothing but screams of men and horses, dead, wounded or panicked, scattered command calls, and the increasing thunder of approaching cavalry could be heard on the ridge.
The old Junker lay on the eastern slope, away from town. The ground he lay on was trampled and cold. He had caught a stray bullet in the throat, and his life was running steadily into the soil. On the hill the remainder of his men prepared for their last stand.
A tiny, brown sparrow landed on the hilt of a discarded sword stuck in the ground only a few feet from the old man. It sat there, unaffected, watching with its black, unblinking eyes as Junker Hans von Stachelswein died.