Above the meadows of Heisenleman, grey clouds are banked menacingly. The heavens, it seems, are ready to add their own drama to the events unfolding below.
'And so', says General Barry-Eylund with gravity, 'we are witness to the great struggle of our times. Who can guess what the outcome will be? The efforts of man alone will surely not suffice. Only Fate, it would seem, can decide.'
'Yes', says Furst Augustus Saxe-Peste. After a pause, he adds 'How long do you think that he'll take to work it out?'
Through his telescope Barry-Eylund continues watching Prince Rupprecht of Saukopf-Bachscuttel, as the latter tries to work out which way around his tricorne should go. 'It could be some time. It's probably best if we get this battle out of the way.'
Two armies face one another in the clash that will surely decide the War of the Spanish Suck Session. (Below) On one side stands the Grand Combined Army of the Palatinate of Saukopf-Bachscuttel and the Landgravate of Schillingsfurst-Hesse-Rotenburg. Furst Augustus and General Barry-Eylund have held a brief council of war, agreeing on the dispositions of their troops for the coming battle. (Below, top) The forces of the Palatinate hold a third of the line, occupying the position between the village of Popdorf and a small stream. The infantry are in two lines, with guns interspersed. Light troops occupy a small field to the right of Barry-Eylund's line, mainly because the General cannot think of anything better for them to do, and also because it is important to keep the irregulars away from any habitations that might be sources of leech brandy and women's clothing. To the rear, all three regiments of Horse are deployed in march column, held ready to cross the stream, swinging out, perhaps, onto the Grand Combined Army's left.
(Above, bottom) Furst Augustus' troops hold the remainder of the front. From Popdorf, which is garrisoned with a regiment, to the nearby village of Dangelbalz, the Furst deploys all of his infantry, supported by his two batteries of guns. A wall springs out to the right from Popdorf, providing some potential cover to a portion of his line. A field of turnips to the immediate rear of his troops makes manoeuvre a little inconvenient. On the extreme right of the line, and massed behind a wood, are the four regiments of Rotenburg cavalry, under the command of Colonel Michel-Georges du Vicque. The allied plan is as simple as it is elegant: don't lose the battle. The troops of the two armies must fight until victory is achieved, or failing that, until their Generals and their retinues have been given an appropriate opportunity to quit the field safely. To this end, Barry-Eylund and Furst Augustus have both agreed that there should be no displays of initiative on the part of their troops; no innovative application of the campaign planning tools; no strategic ad-libbing; no displays of tactical flexibility or any other such nonsense. Flair, innovation, and blue-sky thinking are immediately forbidden in both armies on pain of death, or an unpleasant evening with some aubergines and a battalion of Zentan mercenaries (whichever turns out to be cheaper). Only blind, unthinking obedience to orders, the turnip-headed, rigid application of doctrine, and a bovine lack of interest in adapting to changing circumstances will be sufficient to execute the allied plan. If Herr Cock Up comes knocking, then emphatically, no one has permission to answer the door.
Across the meadows stands arrayed the Combined Grand Army of the Empire of Fenwick and the Burgravate of Nabstria. Marshal Ignacio Grace a Dieu Cavandish, Generalissimo of Imperial Fenwick, is already exhausted. He has been up since the crack of dawn. This is not, of course, something that he can say to his staff officers, since any sentences that have the word 'crack' in it are likely to have near fatal consequences for Fenwickians, given their wearisome love of japesome double-entendre. Besides, since General Heironymous von Rumpfler has a cousin named Dawn, it might cause some unnecessary inter-allied misunderstandings.Talking long into the night, Cavandish and Rumpfler have created a plan that seems so cunning it could con a weasel into paying for utterly unnecessary insurance protection for future financial payments. Now, the orders have been sent out and the troops arrayed. Cavandish, who in deference to the solemnity of the moment has pulled his dress-uniform coat over his night gown, looks out over the assembled forces.
(Below, middle) Behold! the Combined Grand Army has concentrated all of its artillery into a stupendous six battery behemoth of potent projectile power. Four batteries are provided by Imperial Fenwick, and these have been trained rigorously at the Camberwick School for Artillery and Gifted Children. This monstrous military mass of gargantuan gunpowder alliteration stands ready to blow a hole in the Wilhelmite line. To exploit the havoc that will be wreaked by the grand battery, Cavandish and Rumpfler have concentrated their infantry forces into two, three line formations. (Below, top) On the right, opposite the forces of Bachscuttel, are the musketeers of Imperial Fenwick. At the appropriate moment, they will launch a resolute attack forwards, cross the stream and drive the bewildered remnants of the Palatinate's forces from the field of battle. (Below, bottom) On the left, the Nabstrian infantry is deployed for an assault upon the Rotenburg line: since the Rotenburgers must defend a longer line than their callow allies, and since they lack the protection of the stream, this is likely to be the scene of the battle's decisive act.
(Above, bottom) Desirous of maintaining for his cavalry the flexibility that comes with deployment into march column, but fearful also of the effects of the Rotenburg artillery, Rumpfler positions his cavalry behind the hill: what could possibly go wrong with that? After his endeavors at Dammenblatz Paul, Duke of Clarkeshire, is now back in his more familiar role as commander of the Nabstrian horse; and also, hopefully, most of the riders as well.
And so, the stage is set; the pieces arrayed; the game afoot; the metaphors exhausted. General Barry-Eylund peers through his telescope, moving it down the opposing line - when he reaches the enemy artillery, he gulps, and then, to make himself feel better, he turns the telescope around, making the grand battery look much, much smaller. Behind him, Prince Rupprecht and his entourage are making merry. The Prince has been in a boisterous mood. Rupprecht also has been up at the crack of Dawn. Having dismissed Dawn, by tipping her a few shillings, the Prince has been whiling away the hours by playing cards with one of his favourites, the young rake, Count Ferdinand von Erlock-Weisse. Rupprecht is munching on a chicken leg. His subordinates ignore the flapping and squawking of the bird. Swiftly Rupprecht slaps down a card, his tricorne, the right way around but the wrong way up, wobbles alarmingly.
'Snap!', cries the Prince.
'Um' says Count Erlock-Weisse
'What are they playing?' asks Barry-Eylund to a nearby staff officer.
'Whist, my lord', he replies.
Across the meadow, General von Rumpfler waits a moment longer. From each of the armies drifts the banging of drums and the trill of flutes; except, that is, from the direction of the army of Bachscuttel, where Rupprecht's military orchestra produce a delicate tinkle with the fruits of Rupprecht's brief dalliance in the triangle trade. In the middle of the Palatinate's musicians stands a single woman, banging on a tambourine. The musicians look askance at her: as the paramour of the conductor, they fear for the future of the band. Finally, Rumpfler turns to a courier and says simply 'It is time'. Bowing, the courier mounts his horse (not something that could be done in the army of Imperial Fenwick) and gallops towards Cavandish's headquarters.
The courier approaches Marshal Cavandish. The Marshal is upon his horse, Keith, and attended by his Chief of Staff, Captain Fabius Nitwitz. The courier bows. 'My Lord Cavandish', he says, 'General von Rumpfler begs to suggest that it is time now to commence the bombardment of the village of Popdorf.'
Cavandish says nothing. Indeed, he is slumped forward on his saddle, with no sign of life except the gentle sway of the tassle on his night cap.
'Um', says the courier. 'My lord Cavandish?'
Nitwitz interrupts: 'The good Marshal is cogitating'.
'Cogitating?', says the courier. He watches the Marshal for a moment. Cavandish moves slightly and sprawls even further forward onto Keith.
'Cogitating?' says the courier again. 'Are you sure he's not asleep?'
'No, no', replies Nitzwitz, 'just the moment before you arrived, the Marshal was entertaining me with a most amusing story about the poor footnoting conventions in Marshal de Saxe's 'Mes Reveries.'
The courier peers a little closer. 'Is that dribble on the Marshal's saddle?'
'No, no' says Nitwitz vigorously. 'He is certainly awake. My lord Cavandish, should we open fire with our artillery?'
There is a short silence. Cavandish starts suddenly, then breaks wind, and murmurs 'More lard, less pixies: that's the trick.' He slides slowly from his saddle onto the grass and begins to snore loudly.
Nitwitz turns to the courier. 'Lord Cavandish agrees: let the firing commence!'
'Fire!' shouts Nitzwitz.
'Fire! shouts the courier.
'Fire! shout the surrounding staff officers.
'Blimey, where?' murmurs Cavandish blearily alarmed.
Nearby, Death settles down for a nap against the trunk of a tree. The sudden activity amongst the nearby cannons can signal only one thing: the traditional symbolic start of a Mittelheim battle, comprising the noisy, and casualty free, making of smoke by the artillery arm. Death rests his head gently, experiencing once again the sense that naps aren't half so much fun now that he has no eye-lids.
Meanwhile, in the village of Popdorf, one Rotenburg musketeer turns to another:
'You know', he says, 'I have a good feeling about today.'
'Really?' says his compatriot, clutching his musket tightly.
'Well yes. The birds are singing, life is good. In fact, I think it's time that I started paying into a pension or something. I have the strong feeling that something really big will be coming my way very shortly.'
'Fire!' cries the Fenwickian artillery officer.
'Fire!' shouts the commander of the Nabstrian artillery.
Thirty six porte-fires are placed into thirty six vents....