Sunday, 21 August 2016

War!

The Royal Palace in Gross Schnitzelring. It has the same smell as all the palaces in Mittelheim: the odour of power; of arrogance; and of people for whom the prospect of a bath appears on the horizon about as regularly as a delivery of salad to northern Scotland. Graf Petr Peiper-Pickderpeck, Lord of Pickelpeipers, King Wilhelm's Royal Chamberlain moves to rap on the door to the King's chambers; he then winces and halts himself. From somewhere beyond the door a voice is raised in incandescent anger.
'Infamy! Treason! Insurrection!' the voice cries.
The Graf turns to his companion, Count Matthias von Sachsenblaus, Wilhelm's Minister for War and Strudels. 'So, my dear Count, it would appear finally that the King has  read my report concerning the Vulgarian revolt.'
Count Matthias shakes his cherubic head.
'No, no, my dear Graf - the chef, unwisely, has tried to give the King some vegetables for his luncheon.'
Graf Peiper makes a silent 'oh' and nods resignedly.
'Abomination! Expectoration! Evisceration!' howls the King's muffled voice.
Count Matthias sighs. 'We're going to have to find another cook for the King. Alas, the current one has been struck dead by a glass of port.'
The Graf frowns. 'But a glass of port can't kill one.'
'It can,' replies the Count, 'if it's on a table thrown by the King.'

The Graf's shoulders hunch miserably: until the Vulgarian fiasco, it had all been going so well. Perhaps not excellently, but certainly better than expected. The King's enforced sojourn in the dungeons of Nabstria had given Wilhelm the time to reflect on what he really wanted in life: and what he really wanted, apparently, was a lot more pudding. It turned out that Wilhelm's pavlovian response to desserts made from meringue and cream meant that the mere promise of them could induce the King to agree to almost anything: so much so that Wilhelm had become known in some quarters as 'Wilhelm the Concurrer.' Life was sweet; the King malleable; the government ran efficiently; or at least, without more than the usual whiff of loondom. But now, here was the Vulgarian crisis, stinking things up like a Herzo-Carpathian codpiece after a forced march in summer.

Don Penguino contemplates the best point in a conversation to
reveal casually that his britches have no seat in them.
Waiting before the doorway, Graf Petr and Count Matthias talk through Gelderland's options and the possible responses to the prospect of Baron Vlad's activation of the Spasmodic Sanction.
'Can't we just refuse to honour the agreement?' asks the Count.
'What!' scoffs Petr. 'Impugn our honour? Hide behind the chaise-longue and pretend when Vlad comes knocking that we're not in? Or bump into him and tell him that my favourite hunting dog ate our copy of the document? Ridiculous!'
'Why?' asks the Count.
'Because I've already tried those things and they haven't worked. Our only hope is that there are no further dramas. We don't want a war with Fenwick, Rotenburg and the Vulgarian rebels. A few days of peace and quiet is what's required. Then, Vlad will realise that Herzo-Carpathia is something that he's best rid of anyway. We need to calm Vlad down; get him to realise that calling on us to honour the Spasmodic Sanction and restore him to the Herzo-Carpathian throne is a bad idea. Actually, we could offer him a bit of Badwurst-Wurstburp: the weather's better and the venereal diseases there less itchy.'
'Where?' asks Matthias, curiously.
'The Margravate of Badwurst-Wurstburp,' replies the Graf. ' It's,' he waves generally eastwards, 'somewhere in that direction. We'll just annex a  bit of it and in return give the Wurstburpers something that they need. Pantaloons. An alphabet. While we're sorting that out, we'll give Vlad a magnificent stay here.'
Matthias nods, thoughtfully. 'Perhaps you could entertain him, Graf Peiper? How do you relax?'
The Graf looks suddenly shifty. 'Oh, you know. This and that.'
'Perhaps you could take Vlad along; ingratiate yourself and help shape his thinking along our lines?' asks Matthias.
Graf Peiper Relaxes: Milk; Bubbles; and
a Midget with a Silly Hat.
The Graf shuffles a little. 'I don't think ... I don't think there would be ... sufficient hats. No, we'll have to think of something else. He must have expressed an interest in something,' he pauses, and then adds quickly, 'that isn't illegal.' He purses his lips. 'I mean, that isn't wholly illegal.' His lips move from a purse to a moderately sized gentleman's money bag. 'I mean, that wouldn't leave any strong evidence behind.'
Matthias nods, 'Well, he has expressed a considerable interest in seeing our glittering balls.'
One of the Graf's eyebrows arches with alarm.
'I mean,' replies the Count quickly, 'state banquets; dancing, that sort of thing.'
Graf Petr nods, 'Ah - excellent,' he says with no small measure of obvious relief.
The Count frowns. 'At least, I think that's what he meant.'
'Well, let's deliberate upon the issues,' replies the Graf. 'Where is Count Vlad now?'
'He is in council. His daughter, Elizabeta, I think is taking a bath in the north wing.'
'Hmmm', nods Graf Peiper. 'Is there any reason to discuss these issues with Don Penguino?'
'No, no', replies the Count vigorously, 'This is one issue of policy that cannot be improved through the application of a comedic Spanish accent. Where is the old rogue anyway - safely out of the way?'
'Oh yes, oh yes,' nods the Graf enthusiastically. 'Actually, I saw him only a few moments ago. He was carrying a towel and some soap and was walking towards the north ...'
The two look at one another for a second, just long enough to emit silent screams and then the muffled ravings of the king are drowned out by the sound of two pairs of shoes pounding the marbled passageways.

'Don't get into the bath!', the two shout, bursting into Princess Elizabeta's chamber. They halt, brought to an immediate stop by the scene in front of them. The Princess' chamber is well appointed. There is a large, unlit fireplace to the right. In front, there is a commodious, though presently empty, bath tub.
The Princess herself stands by the fireplace. She is young, dark-haired and with a physique solid enough to substitute respectably for an artillery bastion of the Vauban style. Though wrapped demurely in a curtain, she is covered from head to foot in soot.
Two men stand in front of her. One, with sword drawn, is Brad, Bishop of Prick, her brother and until recently overlord of Vulgaria. The other, grinning with a mixture of optimism and low cunning reminiscent of a weasel that has worked out how to operate door knobs and firearms, is Don Pajero de Penguino, Wilhelm's rakish confidant.

Graf Petr sizes up the situation immediately: it is crisis of a very large size; a crisis with a ballroom, two residential wings, an ornamental garden and extensive park lands to the rear.
'Bishop Brad', says the Graf, placatingly, 'I'm sure that whatever has happened here has a perfectly innocent explanation; an explanation that will allow us all to leave the room in perfect equanimity and that would any avoid need for emotional outbursts that might result, say, in the activation of any alliance commitments that might be on our minds.'
Bishop Brad scoffs. 'Sir, I shall tell you what has transpired here and you will see for yourself the terrible dishonour that this Gelderland official has visited upon my family.'
'My dear brother,' interjects Elizabeta, 'this is all just a terrible misunderstanding ...'
'Fiddlesticks!' replies Bishop Brad. 'Securely locked in her room and about to take a bath, this Spanish reprobate tried to enter the chamber, first by the door and then by climbing the ivy outside the window. Once in the room, he surprised my sister, causing her to try and hide in the fireplace!'
'Odd, but true,' adds his sister.
'I, passing this room, heard her strange cries, of alarm no doubt. I then entered the room to find my sister clothed only in this curtain and Don Penguino clothed in that self-satisfied smile! He has terrorised my sister!'
'Weeeeell ...,' begins Princess Elizabeta.
'With unwanted attentions!' continues Brad.
'Weeeeell ....,' continues Princess Elizabeta.
Bishop Brad waggles his sword close to Don Pengino's cheerful visage. 'Poltroon!'
'Que?', replies Penguino.
'Poltroon!' repeats Brad, his voice raised even higher.
Penguino's brow furrows and he starts to flap his elbows.
'No!' shouts Brad, 'not poultry - poltroon! I am not accusing you of being a chicken. Chicken,' he repeats in response to the blank look on Pengin's face. 'C-H-I-K-E-N.'
'You've missed out a "C"', interjects count Matthias.
'Not helping!' hisses Graf Petr.
Penguino extends his neck and bends over.
'No! No! No!', cries Brad, 'Not an ostrich either! Or,' he says, as Penguino begins to honk loudly, 'a duck. Look, I'm trying to insult you, you fool!'
Penguino crouches, smiling, and then neighs loudly.
'No! Fool! Not foal! Look, by The Virgin Mary's commodious undergarments, perhaps you'll understand this!' Brad slaps him across the face with his gloves. Penguino springs back surprised, and then beams widely.
Bishop Brad is taken aback and looks towards the Graf. 'Um, does he like that?'
'Well', explains Graf Petr reasonably, 'he is Spanish. Look, perhaps I should translate in order to avoid misunderstandings.' He switches to Spanish and says to Don Penguino: 'My good sir. Please, for the love that you bear our monarch, pretend that you cannot speak German. Just let me "translate" some suitably unctuous apologies and we still might escape from this predicament!'
Don Penguino considers this for a moment, then grins and nods.
Bathing in Mittelheim: Always More
Complicated Than One Might Think.

'Ha!' says Penguino in Spanish, 'It seems obvious to me, you molester of goats on alternate Sundays, that your father was some kind of small rodent, a hamster, perhaps; and that your mother smelt of some kind of soft fruit or berry found on bushes in moderate climes - elderberries, possibly.'
The Graf nods sagely and then turns to Bishop Brad. 'Don Penguino apologises and says that he meant no harm.'
'He doesn't look very contrite' replies Brad.
Both watch as Penguino points to in the direction of Elizabeta and then begins to thrust his hips back and forth.
'Ah', says Graf Petr, 'well, he's Spanish, and this is an altogether traditional Spanish greeting to a respected acquaintance.'
Penguino seems now to be be moving his hands up and down as if holding, say, two large melons whilst winking suggestively in the Princess' direction.
'Don Penguino is making an important moral point,' says the Graf.
Penguino begins to pace up and down in front of the Brad, ignoring the Bishop's sword. 'You Germans!' says the Don, angrily. 'With your arrogance, and your terrible food; and your long sausages that compensate for short sausages in other departments! I am a Spaniard! Spain! It was we who first threw back the forces of Islam in the time of the Reconquista! It was Spain that has built a world empire upon which the sun never sets! Spain whose King Carlos I straddled Europe like a giant Hapsburg colossus! It was our tercios that terrified the armies of Europe for more than a century!'
The Graf nods. 'So, Bishop Brad, the Don extends his abject apologies and now needs to leave this chamber urgently - it appears,' the Graf's eyes become slits, ' because he has an appointment somewhere very far away from here, probably involving an oceanic voyage.'
'So, he is really very apologetic and admits he is a dishonourable, damnable swine that smells of garlic and soot?' asks Brad, his sword wavering.
The Don shakes his head vigorously and says 'No, no, no, no, no.'
'Oh yes, yes' says the Graf, 'He is really very, very sorry.'
Bishop Brad stops suddenly. 'Hang on - why does he smell of soot?'
'Weeeeell ...', begins the Princess.
'And why is it,' asks the Bishop, peering more closely at Don Penguino's face, 'that his ears are sooty?'
The Don smiles and shrugs. Graf Petr and Count Matthias look at one another despairingly.
Brad peers even closer at the Don. 'And why is your tongue all black?'
The Graf gives up. 'Everybody run!', he  shouts, pulling the Don from the room. Behind he can hear Bishop Brad working himself up into a rage that threatens to burst him at the seams. News of the scandal soon reaches Vlad.

And so, thanks again to Don Penguino, circumstances have again conspired against peace. Vlad, furious with Gelderland, insists on invoking the articles of the Spasmodic Sanction: Gelderland is called upon to crush the Vulgarian rebels and their allies and to restore Vlad to the Barony of Herzo-Carpathia. Gelderland orders its army to mobilise. This is a rather extended process, requiring, among other things, waiting for most of the soldiers' voices to break and for them to begin to grow body hair. In the interim, King Wilhelm calls on Bachscuttel, Nabstria and, with the lavish application of shiny objects, the Margravate of Badwurst-Wurstburp, to support Gelderland. At his call, the Spasmodic Army, as it quickly becomes known, prepares for operations to crush Vulgaria. Realising that if Vulgaria falls, they will be next, Imperial Fenwick and Rotenburg sign the Vulgarian Convention, committing themselves to support Vulgaria in its war.

And so, the Perpetual peace comes to an end. The red hand of battle has again raised itself in anger! The conflict which becomes known, because of Don Penguino's sooty-lobed indiscretion, as the Dirty Ears War, is the largest yet in Mittelheim. Who will triumph? War to the death is the cry! No peace without pain!

Tuesday, 2 August 2016

War?

It is morning. Bright sunlight streams through the leaded windows of the council chamber in the palace of Pogelswood. Emperor George XIII of Imperial Fenwick sits at the head of his assembled advisers. Herzog Franz, his brother, sits on his right hand.
'Get off my hand,' says Emperor George.
'Sorry, George,' says Franz.
'Sorry, Your Imperial Highness,' says Emperor George.
'Um', says Franz, 'I thought that you were the Emperor.'
The Emperor rolls his eyes. 'And I thought that you were my wily adviser. If ever we were in need of some wily-ness, I should say that it was now.'
'Is that a canoe in your britches, or are you just
pleased to see me?'
'It's a canoe.'
Towards the back of the chamber comes a faint clanging sound as Duke Joachim, the emperor's son, leans back and crosses his legs. Poking visibly above the tabletop is the Duke's latest codpiece creation from Herzo-Carpathia: the 'Spanish Inquisition'. Although in general, of course, no one expects the Spanish Inquisition, in this case it is really rather hard to miss, consisting as it does of elongated polished silver-work topped with a miniature pope. Whilst the phrase 'my loins are on fire' might normally be considered a boudoir-related euphemism, with Joachim's codpiece it is, in fact, a statement of the literal truth, given that the Inquisition model also features a marvelous rendition in fully working miniature of a heretic being consigned at the stake to the fiery flames of Hell.

The assembled advisers try their best to ignore Joachim's embarrassing accouterment, but this is difficult to do: it seems to follow the eyes around the room.
'This is a disaster!', says Freiherr Gunther von Goebelgass, Minister for Fruit, Vegetables, and Public Morality. 'We are staring, your Imperial Highness, at the possibility of an apocalyptic war in which all of Mittelheim will be arrayed against us!'
A derisive snort emanates from Johan von Schmeligbad, Minister of Toast, Breakfast-Related Bakery Products and War. 'It's hardly an apocalypse, Goebelgass - stop exaggerating.'
'If it is not an apocalypse, Schmeligbad,' replies Goebelgass, 'then it will be something very like it!'
'Hmmm,' says Herzog Franz, 'an approxalypse, perhaps?'
Emperor George thumps the table. 'Cease this bickering! We must have a plan! Herzog Franz, tell us of your communications with Rotenburg. Are they likely to forgive us for implicating them in the Vulgarian revolt?'
Franz sighs. 'My intelligence suggests that Landrave Choldwig isn't very happy.'
'How unhappy?' asks Goebelgass. 'Are we still not popular, then?'
Franz nods. 'Remember when Bishop Frottage decided to lighten the mood at the concave to elect Pope Clement XIII by turning up in a comedy Martin Luther costume?'
'Yes.'
'Well, that.'
The Emperor holds his head in his hands.
Schmeligbad then says 'Fear not, your Highness. I have a plan.'
Emperor George gestures for the Minister to continue.
'It is like this, my lord. We must prepare immediately for war and a rapid rapier-like thrust against Nabstria. Nabstria undoubtedly will use this present crisis to mobilise King Wilhelm's support for an attack on us. They still blame us, no doubt, for the failures of the last war. We must strike them now while they are still vulnerable!'
'Vulnerable?' says the Emperor.
'Indeed', replies Schmeligbad, 'the Nabstrian flirtation with model soldiers has provoked further divisions within the Burgraviate's military. Ceaseless arguments over the rules have utterly undermined the credibility of General von Rumpfler. He is widely cursed now as a rules-meistering cheat with a strangely flexible concept of an inch. He is now known to his officers as "Benda".'
'Benda?' asks the Emperor.
'After Franz Benda,' interjects the Herzog, 'the great German fiddler.'
'We'll need Rotenburg to join us,' continues Schmeligbad. 'We must strike first and win the war before our adversaries have time to mobilise!'
The Emperor nods. 'Hmmmm, this plan carries with it great risks - will Landgrave Choldwig agree to join us?'
Schmeligbad nods. 'Oh, I think so, my Lord - I have taken some steps to encourage them ....'

In Alexandopolis, Landgrave Choldwig stares down at his terrapin pool.
Baron Woffeltop is hard at work questioning a spy.
'Auric von Blonde,' the Baron says, 'You are here to be tortured at the behest of our glorious Landgrave Choldwig. You are a spy, and you will tell us who it is that you are working for.'
There is the sound of bubbles escaping.
'This really isn't working,' says Choldwig, looking down into the pool. Originally, of course, the pool was supposed to be much larger and also to contain within it crocodiles - very angry, very hungry crocodiles: or at a pinch some kind of giant snapping turtles - ravening turtles, preferably; but Choldwig would have accepted some that were just quite cross.

A Crocodile Pit: 'When you absolutely, positively got to kill
every Mittelheimer in the room, accept no substitutes.'
But budgetary constraints had forced some disappointing modifications. In the pool lies the rather sodden body of a heavy-set fellow of middle age. The fellow is slightly too large for the pool and his shoed feet stick out above the water.
'I'm not enjoying this,' says the fellow, his head propped up on the other side of the pool. 'This isn't very nice'.

Woffeltop pokes him with a stick.
'Do you expect me to talk?' says Blonde.
'No, Mister Blonde,' says Woffeltop 'I expect you to die! There's nothing that you can talk to me about that I don't already know.'
'Then why are you doing this? This is inhuman: my fingers are all wrinkled.'
Woffeltop flourishes a piece of paper. 'Intelligence sent to us by our allies indicates that you, Herr Blonde, are a Nabstrian spy intent on assassinating Landgrave Choldwig.'
'Poltroon!', shouts the Landgrave; 'Craven! Dastard! Villain!'  he continues; 'Teapot! Table! Lamp stand!,' he finishes, after exhausting his rather limited vocabulary. With a violent movement he places a terrapin under Blonde's nose. 'Take that!' cries Choldwig. The terrapin looks lost, and then falls off as Blonde sneezes.
'I haven't done anything!' cries the captive. 'I just came here to buy a wagon load of jellied seagulls.'
Woffeltop chuckles. 'A good try, Herr Blonde. But our intelligence was very specific.' He reads from the paper. 'Be on the look out for a Nabstrian spy. He is a man and he is quite tall. He will be wearing a wig. When asked, he will deny being a Nabstrian spy.'
'But ... but ...that could be anybody!' says Blonde.
'Au contraire, Herr Blonde,' replies Woffeltop, 'We have questioned more than forty individuals and you are the first to deny being a spy.'

Woffeltop and Landgrave Choldwig step away from the pool.
'Are we sure that he is a spy?' asks Choldwig. 'He doesn't seem very ... competent.'
Woffeltop shrugs. 'That much might be true - he's possibly an idiot, and certainly from Mittelheim.'
'And the Fenwickian plan - will it work?'
'I cannot rightly say, my lord.'
'Hmm, well can you wrongly say it?' asks Choldwig.
Woffeltop purses his lips. 'It all comes down to Baron Vlad of Herzo-Carpathia. If he can be prevailed upon by Gelderland not to invoke the Spasmodic Sanction, then there will be no need for Gelderland to mobilise. Given time, everyone will forget Herzog Franz's ludicrous book and its fanciful claims about our role in the Vulgarian uprising.'
'Hmmm', says the Landgrave. 'I need to speak to the Gelderland ambassador.'
'My Lord, shall I call you your carriage?'
'No - you can call me "your highness" like you usually do.'

And so, it seems that peace in Mittelheim depends now upon Gelderland diplomacy and the extent to which Baron Vlad can be mollified. This leads us, dear reader, to Gross Schnitzelring, where the question on everyone's lips is 'can the peace be maintained and a disastrous diplomatic cake and arse party be avoided?;'a question soon followed by a second thought - 'Hmmm, where is Don Pajero de Penguino?'


Friday, 15 July 2016

Crisis!

In the chancery of Pogelswood, capital of Imperial Fenwick, all is not well. Herzog Franz, Emperor George's brother and his key advisor, is berating his Chief Secretary, Herr Helmut Shotoff.
'Where's the draft of my novel?' says Franz.
'Novel, my lord?' replies Shotoff solicitously.
'Yes, my novel. It's an entirely fictitious account of a Fenwickian plan, acting in concert with the Landgravate of Rotenburg, to find the surviving heir to the Voivodate of Vulgaria, provide him with men and money, break him into the dungeons of Schloss Feratu, take prisoner the Bishop of Prick and then raise the country in revolt.'
Shotoff emits a strange gargling sound. 'Um. Did it have a black cover?'
'Why yes, and I put it here, just beside my out-tray.'
'My Lord, is that the tray marked "for immediate action upon pain of death?"'
'Yes, Shotoff, that's the one and I ... are you alright, you seem to have gone a little pale.'
'My lord, there's been a terrible misunder...'
'... It's just that I'd like to consider a few changes for another edition.'
'My Lord, I ...'
'I'm having second thoughts about the elephant.'
'Eleph ...'
'And I think, on reflection, that  a rescue party to Schloss Feratu should plausibly have more firearms, and less celery.'
'My Lord, I think that I need to lie down.'
'Well, fine Shotoff: you have my permission to withdraw and, ... oh I see, lie down right here. Well, that's not entirely usual and I ...'
'My Lord,' says a voice emanating from floor level, 'I have something to say of which, I hope, you might see the funny side; indeed, I'm sure that we'll all, at some juncture in the future, probably hoot with laughter when we remember what happened. It's like this. I thought that your novel was in fact a carefully crafted plan. So I had it executed.'
Herzog Franz also pales. 'So, my novel implicating Fenwick and Rotenburg in a plot to raise a revolt in Vulgaria is now a work of non-fiction?'
'Broadly, yes, my lord. Still...,' and here Shotoff seems to brighten, 'no one knows that we are responsible. I was very careful to ...'
Franz pales. 'Shotoff, I'm just going to lie down next to you.'
There are a few moments of silence.
The Chief Secretary pipes up: 'We'll just blame it all on Bachscuttel, my Lord. No one will know that it was Fenwick. Prince Rupprecht is such a numbskull ...'
'Yes Shotoff: except that I've had it published'.
'Published, my Lord?'
'Yes, Shotoff. Our involvement in this revolt is now explained in great detail in all good bookshops across Mittelheim.'
'Published?' repeats Shotoff, in the same tone that one might utter the phrase 'I have discovered an adder in my under-britches.'
'Indeed,' groans Franz. 'It's also available in hardback.'
 'It's not impossible that the plan will never come to fruition,' says the secretary.
'Actually,' says Franz, brightening again, 'that's true - after all, it is Vulgaria.'
Suddenly, there is the sound of approaching footsteps. A courier bursts in.
'Urgent news, my lords,' he gasps panting, 'a mysterious power has found the surviving heir to the Voivodate of Vulgaria, provided him with men and money, broken him into the dungeons of Schloss Feratu, taken prisoner the Bishop of Prick and then raised the country in revolt!'
Franz sighs gently. 'Well, that's knackered it.'

In Nabstria, Burgrave Falco sits in Faltaire's latest invention - the 'horseless carriage.'
'Behold, my Burgrave!,' crows the philosopher-scientist Faltaire, 'this is the future of transportation!'
Burgrave Falco nods thoughtfully. 'Indeed, Faltaire, my good and learned fellow. Marvellous. It's just that, and I don't want to undermine your excellent work, we've been in the carriage for half an hour and we seem to be in the same place that we started.'
The Carriageless Horse: 'It'll never catch on.'
Faltaire nods in agreement. 'Indeed, my Burgrave. One unfortunate side-effect of a carriage without horses is that it doesn't move. But I like to think of it as a work in progress.'
Falco nods amicably. 'As with your homeopathic gunpowder, Faltaire?'
Falco stares out of the window for a while. Though the horseless carriage is less exciting than he had hoped, the meeting with Faltaire has enabled him to turn down Bishop Munschrugge's invitation to an organ recital. Munschrugge's lamentable musical skills are notoriously bad, and not even the fun of watching the Fenwickian ambassador trying to say 'organ' with a straight face can compensate.
Suddenly, though, the Burgave sees a strange sight: it is the Bishop himself, sprinting as fast as his tubby frame will allow. Munschrugge approaches the carriage.
'My dear Burgrave! High drama! Strange events! The  ungovernable machinations of  fate! Emperor George of Fenwick has precipitated a revolt in Vulgaria! Rotenburg also is implicated!'
The Burgrave shakes his head incredulously. 'Madness! To throw away peace! Upon what intelligence is this news based? Is it credible?'
Munshcrugge nods vigorously and flourishes a heavy looking book. 'See here, my lord: Emperor George has had his secret plan published!'
'Published?'
'Yes, my Burgrave.'
'Isn't that a bit, well, unwise?' asks the Burgrave.
The Bishop nods. 'It's certainly unconventional,' he replies. 'But it is marvellously bound,' he says approvingly, running his hands over the spine. 'And this one seems to be signed.'
'Are we sure of the details, Munschrugge?'
'Oh yes, my lord - there is an excellent index. See here under 'T' for 'treachery'; 'F' for Fenwick'; 'N' for 'nefarious plans': it's all here in black and white - except for the colour plates, that is.'
Burgrave Falco jumps to his feet. 'My dear Bishop, we must contact our plenipotentiary in Gelderland at once! And send messages immediately to Bachscuttel - with Rotenburg implicated, we should begin to consider our options.'

In Pfeildorf, Prince Rupprecht heads a meeting of his privy council. He looks bored.
Freiherr Maximillian von Fluck, Minister of Sausages, shifts uncomfortably. 'Is it necessary, my Prince, to hold your council meetings in your privy?'
'I like to multi-task', says Rupprecht, resplendent upon his golden 'throne'. 'Any way, I only agreed to hold this meeting because I thought we were discussing a treat. Where's my cake?'
The councillors avert their eyes as Prince Rupprecht noisily multi-tasks.
Count Geyr von Voeltickler, Minister for Finance and Other Tedious Things interjects. 'My Lord, we are discussing a treaty: in this case, the Spasmodic Sanction and the implications for it of the latest events in Vulgaria. The cake, alas, must wait.'
'Bah!', says the Prince.
Rupprecht's recent lack of enthusiasm for matters of state is notable even by his own lax standards. The origin of this has been a rather surprising enthusiasm on the part of the Prince for literature. In the past, most of Rupprecht's reading was confined to pig reports, accounts of the torture of miscreants, or, at moments when he was feeling especially creative, accounts of the torture of miscreants by pigs. But lately the Prince has a shown a real enthusiasm for actual books. As it turns out, in need of money early on in his career, the English writer Jonathan Swift had written under the pen-name Sven von Hassel potboiling accounts of Lilliput's wars on its eastern frontier against its mortal enemy Blefescu. Thus, Swifts 1726 work Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World. In Four Parts. By Lemuel Gulliver, First a Surgeon, and then a Captain of Several Ships actually was preceded by a range of other less well known works, including: Lilliputian Eastern Front Death Bastard BattalionBloody Road to Blefescu Terror Prison Camp; and Lilliputian Hell Legion of the Damned Beast Regiment Without Any Trousers On.
 'The Gonad Gantry:' Another Lilliputian War Crime.
'Sven von Hassel's' claims actually to have performed heroic exploits in the Lilliputian army were widely ridiculed, not least because, since the Lilliputians were one twelfth human size, his lavish claims of victories both at arm wrestling and in the boudoir seemed to be unremarkable in the first case, and anatomically icky in the second. The Prince, however, has currently run out of 'Hassel's' works. In the lacuna between finishing his last book and the arrival of Brobdingnag Slaughter Laundry of  the Horror Assault Virgins, there seems nothing better to do than attend to some matters of state.
'Gelderland is in a state of great alarm' says Voeltickler. 'Vlad may or may not invoke the Spasmodic Sanction and call on Gelderland to restore his authority in Vulgaria. In such a case, we surely will be called upon to provide troops'.
'We must mobilise at once!' shouts von Fluck.
'Excellent!', shouts Rupprecht. 'Will that mean cake!'

And so, the winds of war waft noxiously through the lands of Mittleheim. But peace, surely, is still possible if there is sufficient will and enough battenberg...

Wednesday, 13 July 2016

The Margravate of Badwurst-Wurstburp

The Margravate of Badwurst-Wurstburp was, in times of old, an eastern province of the Kingdom of Gelderland. Long years ago, however, the margravate obtained its independence through a process that history might label 'secession' but that events might more accurately characterise as 'going bad and then dropping off'.

The current ruler of the margravate is Kasper Johan von Porckenstauffen. The Porckenstuffens hailed originally from the small village of Krackling, where they were in times long past impoverished members of the landed gentry. Being 179th in line to the throne of Badwurst-Wurstburp, Kasper-Johan's ancestor, Gottlieb-Franz von Porckenstauffen, had fully expected to live out his life in the usual manner of the Mittelheim aristocracy: long periods of sleep, interrupted occasionally by trips to church and the commode (though the last could often be omitted by multi-tasking one of the former); a moderate amount of peasant flogging (on condition that they were safely tied up); combined with the occasional persecution of religious minorities (if the weather was good and there was sufficient kindling easily to hand). Gottlieb-Franz owed his ascension to the throne to his failure to attend Margrave Victor Adolphus' coronation. It turned out that the answer to the feeble state of the celebratory bonfire probably shouldn't have been a barrel of gunpowder. The terrible accident that resulted catapulted the Porckenstauffens to the throne because it catapulted their relatives all over the ornamental gardens.

The margravate's position at the eastern geographical extremity of Mittelheim has ensured that it often has been able to avoid being drawn into the petty squabbles and the "yes you did, no I didn'ts" that together comprise in Mittelheim the exercise of diplomacy and statecraft. However, this geography has placed the frontiers of the margravate next to those of Kurland and Zenta. Against the latter, the River Procksi provides a modicum of protection, ensuring that what Zentan raiding parties can steal is limited to those things that can be eaten or that float well. To the north, however, the frontier with Kurland consists of plains as wide as King Wilhelm of Gelderland's nightgown and just as open at the front. Southern Kurland is peopled by the unruly Cassock tribesmen. The Cassocks, they say, are born on their horses; they live their lives on their horses; and they die in the same place. In consequence, the Cassocks hate horses and spend much of their time raiding northern Badwurst in search of wheelbarrows, sedan chairs, or any other mode of transport the using of which doesn't give one terrible sores in excruciating places, or bite when its in a bad mood.

The capital of the Badwurst is the town of Munchausen. Lying on the river Procksi, the town is known formally as Munchausen-By-Procksi. Munchausen draws its wealth through reaping the fruits of the river. On good days this can be fish, but on others it is often strange, bobbly, squidgy things that can be found floating around in its fetid brown waters. Badwurst also has a long-standing textiles industry. This is based in the village of Burstwart. Burstwart produces a unique cloth of hessian, nasal hair, and ginger beard stubble. Most of it is exported to Kurland as punishment for their pervasive border raiding. In the margravate only the poorest wear it, which explains the healthy trade conducted in soothing ointments. The village of Flem comprises one of the artistic hubs of Mittelheim, and is especially known for its schools of painting. In Flem, sensitive, passionate pieces of creative genius are produced for use as fuel by the locals.

However, perhaps the most famous place in the margravate is the town of Shovelin. Shovelin was the original source of the famous story of the pied piper, which was appropriated later by the Saxon town of Hamelin. As told in Hamelin, the legends concerned a famous piper (known as the 'pied' piper for his parti-coloured clothing) who ended a plague of rats by means of a tune on his magical flute. The townfolk having refused to pay the piper, the fellow engaged in the morally questionable activity of luring off the local children, having groomed them with his musical skills. As everyone in Shovelin knows, the Mittelheim reality was even less edifying. In 1348, Shovelin was afflicted by a plague of rats, the rodents having congregated there in preparation for a mass demonstration to complain about the squalid conditions in the town. An itinerant English musician promised to rid the town of rats using the power of his magical flute. The mayor was unimpressed, arguing that 'the notion that a man can do such a thing in this day and age is a bloody fairytale'; but the local burghers were desperate, and the musician persuasive. Spending most of his time drinking, the piper became known as the 'Pie-Eyed Piper of Shovelin'. Finally forced by threats of legal action to take practical steps against the rats, the piper staggered around the town, his main impact being to un-nerve local matrons. It became quickly evident that 'playing his magic flute' actually seemed to be an English euphemism for staggering around the marketplace drunk with his hose down, waggling in plain sight an instrument of an entirely different kind. The English reprobate was finally dealt with by a gang of rats, known as the 'Squeaky Blinders', who were later given the freedom of the town by relieved townsfolk.

Saturday, 2 July 2016

These Aren't the Secret Assailants You're Looking For!

In the doorway stands a liveried servant, dressed in a cloak. He is perched on a box and holds a giant stuffed bat which he seems to be on the verge of mounting on something above the doorway.
'Er....', he says. 'What's going on?'

'Uh', says Hohenlohe, taking the initiative, ' Uh, everything's under control. Situation normal.'
The servant gets down from the box. 'What happened?', he says suspiciously, peering into the gloom.
'Uh, my pantaloons', says Hohenlohe. 'We had a slight ... we had a slight pantaloon malfunction but, uh, everything's perfectly alright now. We're fine. We're all fine here now, thank you. Um, how are you?'
The servant drops the bat. 'I'm going to call some guards up'.
'Uh, uh, no. The pantaloons are leaking now - give us a few minutes to sort it out. Large leak, very dangerous'.
'Who is this!', barks the servant, 'identify yourselves!'
'Uh ...' stutters Hohenlohe.
Dimitri looms out of darkness, and whacks the servant over the head with the butt of his pistol. The fellow falls to the floor, his eyes almost as startled as those of the bat.
Hohenlohe looks disappointed - 'It was a really interesting conversation - I thought he was good company.'
'Really?' says Dimitri icily. 'This is a palace revolution, which I think could be taken to imply the need for a modicum of celerity in our activity'.
'Celery?' murmur the dragoons behind. This is bad - if vegetables are essential to the success of the operation, then they are woefully unprepared, having only pistols, sabres and carbines.

Schloss Feratu: It's usually better to stand
Meanwhile, high up in the tower, Bishop Brad is dealing with his own concerns.
'So you're telling me', he says to Graf Feodor, 'that there is currently no garrison here?'
'Well' the Graf wheezes, the stress setting off his asthma, 'there didn't seem much *wheeze* for them to do, so I sent them off to take a look at the *wheeze* small ship that was found abandoned a few miles further down in the valley'.
'I don't care, Feodor! Find some troops! Call out the goblin guard! Release the flying monkeys! Whatever it takes, get down there and deal with this situation!'
'At *wheeze* once, my lord', says the Graf.
Graf Feodor exists the chamber. A moment or two later, Bishop Brad hears the Graf trying to have the alarm bell sounded.
'No', shouts the Graf, 'that bell, you fool!'
A familiar dinging sound peals out.
'No, no, that's the dinner bell! Ring the alarm bell! Alarm! Bell!'
A strange sound follows.
'No! No!' shouts the Graf, 'That's a pair of maracas. For the love of God, let me do it!'
As the alarm bell finally sounds, Brad contemplates the door for a moment before saying out loud 'I think that I'm going to need a plan B'.

Brad walks slowly to the window. From somewhere down below come shouts, loud bangs, and running footsteps that head back and forth.
The lamplight picks out Prince Brad's strangely sallow skin and his pronounced teeth.
'Igor, bring me some wine', he says to the hunch-backed minion that came with the title of Bishop.
'Yesh mashter', replies the little fellow. Stepping over the supine form of a buxom local peasant girl, he pours wine into a goblet and then capers towards the window.
'Mashter, thish ish the finesht we have'.
Brad takes the proffered goblet, and then says 'You know, Igor, Feodor's gone - you can stop that now'.
Igor nods before unfolding himself to his full six feet five. 'Excellent, master', he says removing his false hunch. 'My back was killing me'.
'And you, Wanda', Brad says to the busty peasant girl on the floor.
'Yes your excellency', she says, getting up and removing the turnips from the front of her bodice.
'Hmmm', says Brad admiringly, 'that's a lovely pair of vegetables'.
In the valley below, wolves begin to howl mournfully.
'Ah', says Brad approvingly, 'Listen to the children of the night - how sweetly they sing'.
'I don't know, sir', says Igor, 'I can't hear for the terrible wailing of those mangy wolves. And anyway, isn't it a bit late for children to be out?'
Brad listens to the wolves for a few moments before finishing the wine in one decisive gulp.
'Dammit, I'm the Bishop of Prick and the ruler of Vulgaria. I must not be captured by these vagabonds. It behooves me to protect the dignity of the Rolodvan aristocracy and the Catholic church. Igor, take off your trousers ...'

In the hall below, Dimitri's force has stormed the gate, opening the way for the arrival of the forces of colonel Hertz van Rentall. Combined, the force now stands in front of the inner doorway. Lucas steps forward in front of the assembled troops, rummaging in his pocket for another key. Before he can open it, the door swings slowly open with an ominous moan.
'Stop that noise', says Dimitri to Lucas.
'Sorry', says Lucas.
Graf Feodor stands there, blocking the way. In his black attire he looks imposing, intimidating, and also a little out of breath.
'You cannot pass *wheeze*', he says. 'For I am Graf Feodor,  right hand of Bishop *wheeze* Brad, ruler of Vul ...' He pauses, squinting at Lucas, and then steps forward uncertainly.
'You ...' he says, softly.
'Er, me?', says Lucas.
'Can it be so?' says the Graf.
'I don't know if it can be so', says Lucas, 'because I don't know what it's supposed to be'.
Dimitri and his troops seem non-plussed by this odd turn of events.
'Cut him down, Lucas', says Dimitri.
'Lucas?', says Feodor, weighing the name. 'Well, Lucas, you must know who I am'.

'Er, no, no: I really don't'.
'I am Graf Feodor: I am your father'.
'No. No, I really don't think ...'
'Search your feelings, Lucas - for you know it to be true'.
'No, no, I was born in ...', says Lucas
'1736', says Feodor.
'1728', replies, Lucas.
'In Heidelburg ...', says the Graf.
'In Paris'.
'To a mother named Esmerelda who was a fish seller?'
'To a mother named Louisa who was an actress'.
'And ... a mysterious ... tall, dark,... German father?'
'To a short Vulgarian father named Mihail'.
There is a silence.
'Actually', says Feodor, 'Now I look at you more closely, *wheeze* I think that I might be mistaken. Which means that I can *wheeze* lop something off you - your hand, probably'. He then pauses, registering for the first time the crowd of mercenary dragoons, their weapons pointed at him.

'But first', says the Graf, 'Oooh, what's that' he then interjects loudly, pointing behind Dimitri's party. Startled, Dimitri's band looks back - when they turn around again, all they can see are the heels of Graf Feodor's boots as he sprints away.
 'The castle is ours', shouts Dimitri: 'Now let us crown our glory and capture the Bishop!' With a cheer, the dragoons surge forwards, heading for Prince Brad's chambers. 


'Ah, the music of the children of the night -
they sing "Flee! Run for your life"!
Brad is quickly subdued. His chamber is otherwise empty except for a flat-chested peasant girl and an open window from which protrudes a long line of curtains and bed clothes that have been tied together. The girl explains that she has been airing the linen. Soon the whole castle is firmly secured. In the courtyard, Dimitri gives an exultant speech to his troops.
'The Schloss is taken, and with it the capital, Urbanspraul! Vulgaria will rise up! Liberation is at hand! But now is not the time for revenge - now is the time to restore to these ancient lands a regime of justice, liberty, and the rule of law!'
'Really?' asks Lucas.
'No - of course not. Bring in the prisoners and break out the mangle! It's time to celebrate!'
As Dimitri begins to get medieval on the small group of captured Roldovans, Lucas eyes Prince Brad disapprovingly.
'You know', says Lucas disappointedly, 'I think I was expecting someone taller'. He regards critically the short, hunched-backed capering form of the Bishop . 'And also', he adds, 'that he would be a bit less ...well, buxom'.
Far below, in the frigid night air, a dark form scrambles, cursing, on the steep rocks. Almost stumbling over what seems to be a pirate hat and the crumpled remains of some kind of chainmail women's undergarments, the real Prince Brad slinks off into the dark ...

Soon, panic spreads through Vulgaria! In Roldova, Vlad IX issues orders for his troops to resist Dimitri's forces to the last man, and then hurriedly quits Herzo-Carpathia entirely, his carriage taking himself and his immediately family to Gross Schnitzelring. And so dear reader, thunder clouds gather upon the horizon of Mittelheim's golden age of peace. Still, the troubles in Herzo-Carpathia surely are nothing that that even a small band of sane and sensible diplomats could not resolve amicably, given the moderate application of some intelligence, empathy, compromise and forethought. Oh dear.


Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Aren't you a little short for a cavalry trooper?

We stand, dear reader, in the inky blackness of the dungeons of Schloss Feratu. From our left, somewhere in the distance of a long corridor, appears the faint glow of lanterns. Soon, the light approaches. It reveals, in the orange gloom, the forms of Dimitri Feratu und Osterberg; his brother, Lucas, and a troop of mercenary dragoons. 
'Hang on - what's this?' says Dimitri, pointing at a small door in the left-hand wall of the corridor. The Prince pauses, and peers into a barred aperture near the top of the door.
There is movement inside and suddenly a female voice  whispers fiercely:
'A rescue! It is a rescue party! Thank the good Lord!' 
There is a moment of shocked silence from the party of soldiers.
'It is I, the Princess Freya', says the woman's voice. 'And now you must save me from the terrible fate that otherwise awaits me at the hand of the fiendish Bishop of Prick!'

In happier days - the dungeons of Schloss Feratu

Shock quickly gives way to an embarrassed silence. 'Well rescue me then', says Princess Freya. 'Get a move on.'
Dimitri then whispers: 'Madam - It's not that we don't want to rescue you, but we are embarked upon an enterprise of heroic adventure and we're a bit short of time'.
'Look' says Princess Freya's voice, 'Just rescue me, sir. It's easy - there's a rubbish chute nearby: we could all slide down it and escape, without any difficulties whatsoever. Probably'.
Dimitri turns and looks at his troop of soldiers. One could, I suppose, try and describe at length the low quality of these mercenaries, but what is the point. Suffice it to say that, in the middle of a terrible European war, with the armies of Prussia, Austria, Russia, France, England, Hanover, Sweden, Saxony and all of the Imperial Circle desperate for new troops, these were the men that were unemployed.
The dragoons return the Prince's gaze with a look that contains the same sort of inquisitive intelligence found in badly educated, hung-over cows.
'No. No', says Dimitri, 'I'm really not feeling a great deal of enthusiasm for that. In any case, my lady, as you can see, we're a bit busy, what with organising a revolution and...'
'I am extremely beautiful and my family are very wealthy'.
'... on the other hand, let me bring my lantern up to this grille and set eyes upon you'.
A shape appears near the door.
'Excellent. Now get out of the way, old crone, so that I can see your mistress, the lovely Princess Freya'.
'But it's me'.
'Kiss me - you know you want to'
Dimitri recoils. 'Madam, I fear that you have been here for quite a while'.
'Kiss me', the Princess croaks, urgently.
'No, my lady - for I fear that our moustaches might get fatally entwined'.
There is an embarrassed silence.
The Princess continues: 'I'll let you touch me'.
Dimitri shakes his head, vigorously. 'No, madam. Something might fall off'.
'I have miniscule undergarments cunningly fashioned from chain mail - hang on, just give me a minute and I'll ...'
'No! No!', gulps Dimitri, 'Look, we'll come back for you -  I give you my word, as a Prince, and an Osterberg, and, most importantly, as a Vulgarian'. As the Princess wails, Dimitri leads his small force on into the Stygian dark.

'We're never going back for her, are we', says Lucas, as the group pauses at an unexpected intersection.
'Of course, we are - I promised', says his brother.
'Really?'
'No - never. We're never going back'.
By the light of their lantern, the two peer at a small map. Suddenly, there is a rush of footsteps: with urgent cries, swords are drawn, and from the left hand corridor a swarm of armed men confront Dimitri and his company. For a moment, the two sides are frozen, like a tableau from the gardens of the Burgrave of Nabstria (but with less ducks, and a lot, lot cheaper). Pistols and swords point menacingly.
With a loud round of 'Har! Hars!' a tall fellow pushes himself to the front.
His large hat, tattoos, and belt full of loaded pistols indicate straight away that he is a pirate and also that he places less emphasis than he should on sensible health and safety precautions. His crew behind are a likely lot, even in the bad light. They might be taken for a swarm of armed rats if weren't for their size and the fact that rats would certainly have better groomed whiskers.
The fellow eyes Dimitri's company. 'Well', he says, 'You look too alert to be guards'.
The dragoons look back blankly, like salamanders confronted by Lutheran critiques of reformed theology.

Then, Dimitri, sweeping off his tricorne, bows low, stiffly.
'I am Prince Dimitri of the house of Feratu und Osterberg, and I am here to liberate Schloss Feratu and take prisoner the fiend that is the Bishop of Prick'.
There are loud 'Har! Hars!' from the scurvy vagabonds to his front.
'And I am Hans Hohenlohe', cries their leader, sweeping down his hat (which also seems to carry with it most of his hair). 'And I am here to rescue the beautiful Princess Freya'. There are more 'Har Hars!'
'What', says Dimitri coldly.
'Rescue the beautiful Princess Freya!', says Hohenlohe, almost drowned out by more 'Har Hars!'
'For pity's sake', cries Dimitri, 'How many secret raids are there on this castle?'
There is quiet, and some embarrassed shuffling.
'Come on. Any more? Does anyone else have any relations that are going to pitch up for this "bring your own rescue party" party?'

There is a moment of silence.
'Look', says Hohenlohe. 'I can see this is a difficult moment, so I'll just be on my way. Carry on. You won't notice we're here. We'll just rescue Princess Freya and then carry her off to my ship, the Centennial Sparrow'.
'Ship?' pipes up Lucas. 'But we're three thousand feet up in the Trans-Carpathian mountains. And we're miles from the sea'.
Hohenlohe nods. 'Yes, yes,  - it took a bit of effort to get it here'. From behind there is a barrage of 'Har Hars!'

Dimitri replaces his hat, sullenly - 'They keep saying that, but it doesn't seem to mean anything'.
Hohenlohe nods, and then puffs his cheeks. 'Very well then, we'll be off. Good luck with the Prick thing'.
Dimitri says a curt farewell and then motions for his party to move .
'Oh', says Hohenlohe, 'One thing - is there perhaps a chute nearby for the rubbish?'
Lucas nods. 'Second corridor on the left'.
'Thanks, matey', says Hohenlohe, and with a last 'Har Har!' Freya's rescuers head off.

As they trudge on carefully for a minute or two, Lucas says to his brother:
'Hmm, something occurred to me. Since we're three thousand feet up in the mountains, won't that chute produce quite an ... extended journey? Shouldn't we tell them?'
Dimitri shakes his head. 'No, we haven't time. Also, I don't care. And in any case, it's so self evident that ...'
At that moment, from far off, they hear the sound of a 'Har Haaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaar!' that drifts off, despairingly, into the ether.
'You know', says Dimitri, 'I also think that they've probably got the point'.

Shortly, the Vulgarians reach the stout door that marks the exit from the dungeons and that will lead up to a small hall and then the outer gate.
As one of the mercenaries holds aloft a burning torch, Lucas fumbles in the pockets of his waistcoat.
'I have the keys here somewhere, I'm sure. There were four of them.'
As he searches, and Dimitri's impatience grows, a sound drifts up from behind them.
'Har Haaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaar!'
Dimitri nods. 'Hmmm, they're really testing that to destruction'.
Lucas fumbles at the door lock. Then again. Then again.
'My brother', he says worriedly. 'The first three keys don't work!'
'Well, use the fourth, Lucas, use the fourth'.
'Dammit, I can't find it', says Lucas, 'I thought I'd put it ... oh, hang on it's fine, the fourth is with me. Right in my pocket'.

Dimitri says 'Now bring up the torch so that we can see the lock properly. That's right just over ...' - but at that moment, a draft sweeps through the chamber and the lanterns are blown out, pitching the group into darkness. There is moment of confusion before Dimitri hisses:
'Silence - it's fine. I can feel the door handle ...'
'That's not a door handle, sir,' says a dragoon. a strange falsetto in his voice.
'Rubbish, I can feel it here'.
'Again, sir, that's not a ....'
'Yes, I can feel a large key here in the lock, and if I give it a really good twist ....'
Above, in the guardroom, a strange sound floats up from somewhere in the depths of the Schloss. It sounds like a gorilla that has been taught, badly, to yodel, and that has also just stepped in a bear trap which, by some terrible twist of fate, is attached to a galloping horse.

The sound drifts away into silence.
Suddenly, from somewhere in the dungeons there comes the sound of a female voice that wails 'Har Haaaaaaaaaaaarrrrrrrrrrrrrr!' before disappearing into the distance.
A few moments later, there are foot steps and Hohenlohe appears, looking aghast.
'Oooooooooh, there's been a terrible mistake!', he cries.
As the confusion continues, the door opens slowly. Framed in the light is a tall form, a black cloak spreading like the wings of a giant bat ...


Thursday, 2 June 2016

In a Schloss, Far, Far, Away!

Schloss Feratu - far away, or just very small?
It is night, high up in the Trans-Carpathian mountains. By the baleful light of a full moon can be espied the forbidding battlements of Schloss Feratu ("where eagles dare"),* chief fortress of the Voivodate of Vulgaria. Like King Wilhelm after a hard night on the pies, outwardly, all seems still, yet inwardly strange events are unfolding. 

Somewhere, deep in the bowels of the Schloss, creeps a party of heavily armed soldiers, stalking menacingly through the labyrinthine dungeons. At their head is Prince Dimitri Eugen von Feratu und Osterberg, only recently returned in secret from his family’s exile, and intent on wresting control of Vulgaria from Roldovan rule. Dimitri is the last remaining Vulgarian heir to the throne of the Voivodate on the basis that, being twelfth cousin, nine times removed to someone who might have been the illegitimate son of the last Voivode, he is, as the chroniclers of the Vulgarian ruling line would have it, 'near as damn it certainly a probably strong candidate for the job'. Prince Dmitri certainly exhibits all of the key traits of the Feratu und Osterberg family. These include the famous 'Feratu chin', which consists of a chin; the equally famous 'Osterberg moustache', which looks remarkably like a hairy caterpillar has got lost on Dmitri's face and wandered down to his top lip for a drink; an ability to whistle through his teeth; and probolems with his spelling. Prince Dimitri has spent most of his life in Holland and Germany, though having concentrated most during his sojourn there on the bits that involved dark beer, tulips and waffles, it hasn't really helped him thus far as much as he had hoped in the tricky pursuit of winning back his throne.

Dimitri has spent long years waiting for this moment. In his darkest periods, which included three months in the dockland taverns of Hamburg working as a spittoon, he dreamed of returning to his ancestral homeland. Even now, amidst the black danger of this most desperate of enterprises, he can remember the tales told at his mother's knee of the glorious exploits of the old Voivode's of Vulgaria: of wars fought against small adversaries, preferably that were slightly deaf, safely tied up, and that had thought that you were their friend; of drawing up hugely ambitious plans for progressive social reform, and then burning them in front of the poorest peasant that could be found; of never having to get up early in the morning (or, indeed, at all); of always having large quantities of other people's money to spend wantonly on luxuries like diamonds, cake, and jellied seagulls; of being able to grope other people when one liked without having to pretend it was accidental or without them being related. And, if he had managed to avoid being poked in the eye by one his mother's boney kneecaps, Dimitri liked to believe that he was the man who could restore the Voivodate to the Feratu und Osterberg family.

And so, it was quite a relief to encounter one day a fellow in a black hooded cloak, with a large bag of money and a plan (fully footnoted and indexed) who asked Dimitri if he would like to be the man who could restore the Voivodate to the Feratu und Osterberg family. A wiser man might, perhaps, have asked this mysterious stranger some penetrating questions; where did he he come from, for example? Whose interests did he serve? And why had he chosen Dimitri over the range of other possible flora and fauna that might have an equally strong claim to the throne? But Dimitri was desperate and also, of course, a moron. So, confining his questions to 'Will their be waffles?' and 'Where do I sign?', he began an adventure that would bring him here, to the gloomy halls of Schloss Feratu.

Thus far, at least, the plan has gone better than expected - by which we mean that it hasn't immediately failed. Having survived a dangerous climb up the mountains, the expedition suffered a slightly worrying amount of buggering about as the company waited for a special kind of moonlight to fall upon the mountain-side in order to show them the requisite hole for the enormously ancient key that they carried. But, as Dimitri's brother, Lucas, pointed out, it was likely that, two and half thousand feet up the side of a mountain it was more than possible that the requisite entrance was the small door in front them marked 'Dungeons - Absolutely No Admittance'. And so, Dimitri's desperate blow for a free Vulgaria (and more time in bed) began. The plan is simple, because otherwise he wouldn't remember it. Dimitris's intrepid band plans to make its way through the dungeons and up to the outer gate, which they will storm and open. Some distance below, hiding in a thickly wooded valley, rests a squadron of mercenary cavalry led by the Dutch soldier of fortune Colonel Herz van Rentall. Once the outer gate is open, the cavalry will ride up, whilst Dmitri's force takes the inner gate as well.Then, the combined force will storm the rest of the Schloss, taking prisoner the Bishop of Prick. This will no doubt spark a Vulgarian revolt, or at least the hiding by wary peasants in bedroom furniture of a suitable size, which, given that the Roldovan regular army is weaker than a Prussian joke about melons, should create the conditions sufficient to re-take the whole of the remainder of the Voivodate. Onwards and upwards!

Meanwhile, in the highest tower, the current Bishop of Prick is deep in conversation with his chief lieutenant, both ignorant of the events unfolding deep beneath them. The Bishop is the son of the Count of Roldova and ruling Baron of Herzo-Carpathia, Vlad IX. Searching for a suitable name for his son some twenty two years before, Vlad took the view that the name should mean something profound. And so, noticing the proliferation of firs around the castle, upright, dignified, and able to weather the worst of storms, Vlad named his son after the Rumanian name for a fir tree: Brad. Over the years, of course, Vlad's strange pride in his son gave way to more normal feelings of bewilderment, disappointment, and a measure of alienation. His son seemed unresponsive to Vlad's attempts to interest him in the basic principles of effective governance, such as the burning of history books and the manipulation of complex tax laws. Instead, Brad spent too much of his time hanging around with his friends in graveyards or playing lead harpsichord in a band. Brad's university years were equally unproductive. Expelled from Wittenberg for consorting with ladies of dubious moral virtue, Brad complained that, whilst he had certainly partaken, he had never, ever inhaled. For this reason, whilst Vlad IX's son is known officially as Prince Bishop Brad von Schnail und Planck, he is more widely known amongst the local population as 'Brad the Inhaler'. When the time finally came to obtain gainful employment for his son, Vlad concluded that, since Prince Brad was a lazy womaniser who couldn't reliably identify what hard work looked like if it put on his nightgown and got into bed with him, the only possible choice was the church.

Conversing with Brad is the dark figure of Graf Feodor von Schwarzenegger-Heilbebach. Graf Feodor wheezes hoarsely as he delivers his report.
'I return *wheeze* from our master *wheeze* the Emperor', says Graf Feodor.
'Excellent', nods Bishop Brad. 'And what says Holy Roman Emperor Francis I about my plans?'
'Well *wheeze* he said a great deal *wheeze* ...'
'Are you ...well, my dear Graf?'
'It's *wheeze* the stairs. Just give me a *wheeze* minute'.
Bishop Brad waits politely, watching as his minion Igor capers around the chamber.
'So yes', says the Graf eventually. 'He said a great deal about his wife, who just keeps nagging him about the Prussians. But, my dear Bishop, he also seemed very interested in furthering your ...'
At that moment, from somewhere down below, comes the wailing sound of a terrible, terrible scream ...



* It's not much of a dare, though, given that they have wings. Challenging them to impersonate a seagull on the docks of Rotenburg without getting themselves jellied - that would be a proper dare.