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.
'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.