Sunday, 2 February 2014


     May 1758. The sun begins to set over the rolling Gelderland meadows to the east of the village of Chestwig. 'Chestwig': a name that will live long in the annals of Mittelheim history as one of the bloodiest, most brutal, and closely fought encounters of the Wars of the Gelderland Succession.

     Two mounted figures pick their way carefully through the corpses piled thickly across the grass as far as the eye can see. Clad in Nabstrian and Rotenburg uniforms, the dead make a sobering sight. Some, cut down by musketry, lie slumped in dark pools of blood, still arrayed in their ranks; others, hit by cannon balls, lie spread-eagled, ghastly looks of surprise on their faces. Many seem to have died the traditional death of a Mittelheim soldier: slaughtered as they attempt an olympic sprint rearwards. The two figures halt. One, an-aide-de-campe, surveys the scene reflectively:

     'It is well that war is so terrible, my Lord; or we should grow too fond of it', he muses. His companion, none other than Furst Augustus Saxe-Peste, Generalissimo of the Landgravate of Hesse-Rotenburg, nods sagely in agreement.

'Indeed', says, Furst Augustus, 'War really is terrible - I mean, these pantaloons have chafed me raw. Pass me some ointment, won't you?'

     But, gentle reader, how is that we have reached such a state of affairs? How is it that the armies of the Burgaviate of Nabstria and that of the Langravate of Hesse-Rotenberg have come to be locked in mortal, and surprisingly competent, combat? To answer this question we must go back in time some three weeks, to the palace of King Wilhelm of Gelderland, sometime in the morning.....

.... Peace talks are underway. It is symptomatic of the seriousness with which the search for an agreement is being pursued that great pains have been taken to remove the obstacles to effective negotiation: all the wisest heads in Mittelheim have been brought together and Baron Albrecht Steinhagen, plenipotentiary from Saukopf-Bachscuttel, has been locked in a cupboard. Lands are exchanged; negotiations made, but still a general peace cannot be reached, and time bleeds away. Suddenly, King Wilhelm intervenes: kingly, suave, magisterial, he smooths over the differences between the protagonists and, demonstrating his usual empathy and silky skills of persuasion, he brokers a peace agreement between the states of Mittelheim and the pixies. Pixies?

     This is, of course, a dream sequence. It is a notably surprising one for King Wilhelm, since usually his dreams tend less to feature superhuman feats of sophisticated international diplomacy and tend more to feature serving wenches, uniforms, and bratwursts, in varying combinations. Congratulations are due to Wilhelm's subconscious for its valiant efforts to remind him of his duty as a sovereign to shield his subjects from war and its terrible consequences. Still, Wilhelm's subconscious, like his self-control, sense of fair play, and taste in wigs, has fought a losing battle: Wilhelm wakes with the nagging feeling that there is something important that he should do, a feeling that evaporates immediately at the sight of his morning sausage (an event that on Wednesdays and Fridays is indeed quite as unpleasant as it sounds). Beyond Wilhelm's bedroom, Mittelheim's political crisis spirals out of control.

      Yet again, new political combinations arise in Mittleheim. The relationship between Emperor George of Grand Fenwick and his protege, King Wilhelm, collapses faster than King Wilhelm's self-control in a nunnery. Wilhelm has shown himself about as easy to handle as a larded monkey*, and slightly less able to appreciate opera. Wilhelm's failure to secure the passage of pro-Fenwickian legislation in the Gelderland Diet (indeed his lack of concern for virtually any passage that he can't fit a sausage into) has led the Emperor to conclude that Wilhelm must go. But King Wilhelm will never be induced to abdicate: he loves his job - the hours suit him, the job is very well paid, and he is able to work from home. Only the bayonets of the Emperor's troops will be able to prise Wilhelm's mammoth posterior out of the throne of Royal Gelderland. But the Emperor needs allies: who can he enlist he support his cause?

     Not Saukopf-Bachscuttel. Relations between the two previous allies have reached new lows. Incensed at the ethnic cleansing in the Imperial capital, Pogelswood, directed against the Palatinate's merchants, Prince Rupprecht has instigated against Fenwick a savage campaign of economic warfare. A penny is slashed from the price of Bachscuttel cabbages and the Imperial economy is brought almost to its knees by a cunning 'but one, get one free' on turnips.

Prince Rupprecht: 'Guards! Fetch me my Christmas monkey!'

     Not in Hesse-Rotenburg either. For this, Emperor George has his son, Joachim, to blame. Having acquiesced finally to his father's orders to cease the wearing of a 'Vlad the Impaler' codpiece, the roistering rogue has instead spent the months sporting some of the most eye-watering items from the 'Judicial Punishment' range of Kurlandian cods. Egging on the impressionable sons of the Rotenburg branch of the Stein family, Joachim encourages them to experiment with the 'Off with Your Head' model. Sadly, the codpiece's combination of crushed velvet, metal springs, and sharp blades mixes poorly with an excess of plum brandy and a vigorous horse ride. The results are messy and leave the Steins themselves in need of urgent medical attention and the Stein family as a whole in urgent need of another means of carrying on their line. Pushed by his father to produce an apology to Rotenburg that will smooth things over diplomatically, the best that Joachim can come up with is that the accident is 'terrible: I'll be washing the Steins out these britches for weeks.'

     And not, surely, in Nabstria, either. In the Burgraviate, the Enten Gessellschaft continue to agitate for the return from Fenwick of Nottelbad and its scintillating rococco duck-pond. Paulus von Fusselstein, poet Lauriate of Nabstria, has received wild adulation in the Burgraviate for his latest work, a sensitive, philosophical piece entitled 'Fenwick stinks of piss'.

     But Fate is a fickle thing, and the diplomatic constellations of Mittelheim realign themselves in but a single night. The cause: a peccadillo too far on the part of Don Penguino, King Wilhelm's court favourite. The target of the amorous adventurer's attentions is poorly chosen: the wife of the Nabstrian ambassador to Gelderland, and coincidentally also Burgrave Falco's cousin, the Duchess Birgitte. Lavishing his charms upon the winsome waif, Don Penguino is caught in the act, tragically, by Birgitte's husband. Don Penguino has, quite literally, put his foot in it, being caught by the ambassador sucking his wife's toes. The ambassador chokes with rage; the Spaniard chokes on toes; swords are drawn, and before one can say 'cassus belli', the Nabstrian ambassador lies slain.

     In Falkensteinburg, the news of Penguino's actions cause uproar. Only the most sensitive handling of the situation by King Wilhelm can prevent Nabstrian troops from descending on Gelderland to seize the saucy Spaniard. But Wilhelm, a man who couldn't reliably find his own backside with both hands and a lantern, naturally fumbles the moment. As messengers speed from Grand Fenwick to Nabstria offering to support Burgrave Falco in an attempt to seize the Gelderland capital, King Wilhelm is nowhere to be found. At this key point, King Wilhelm is bed: back problems have left him unable to read the lettering that allows him to distinguishes his wobbling tum from his enormous backside, and the King is now dealing with the painful consequences of an evening spent stuffing himself with eclairs.

     In Pogelswood, Emperor George declares war! The Emperor announces, first, that King Wilhelm 'was never anything more than Fenwick's monkey', a comment that brings raucous cheers from his courtiers; and, second, that it is now time that he 'gave his monkey a good spanking', a comment that elicits nervous coughs from the assembled advisors, and some shuffling towards the door. With Nabstria and Fenwick declaring an alliance, Bachscuttel and Rotenburg form their own agreement in order to resist them. With Mittelheim's armies assembling, the first actions commence of what becomes known, thanks to Penguino's activities, as 'The War of the Spanish Suck Session.'

     Before long, rumours are rife that the armies of Rotenburg and Nabstria have clashed in perhaps the most titanic struggle yet in the Wars of the Gelderland Succession ....

*In Mittelheim, rubbing monkeys with lard is generally frowned upon, except in Saukopf-Bachscuttel where is forms an important, if rather messy, part of the traditional Palatinate Christmas. Never turn up for Christmas dinner in Saukopf-Bachscuttel without the means to fight off a very angry primate.