Wednesday, 30 November 2016


Death sits on a small hillock, watching the armies of Vulgaria and Bachscuttel as they deploy. His mood is good - this battle will take place on one of the few flat areas in this dark and treacherous country, and Death generally is an unenthusiastic hill walker. His ability to bend time means that technically he can without moving be everywhere at every instant. In consequence, however, his cardio-vascular fitness probably isn't what it ought to be. And also, of course, he has no lungs.

Fighting the Vulgarians upon the plains of Leipflute is not general Barry-Eylund's first choice. His first choice, of course, would have been to have been back in the tender embraces of his winsome mistress, the English actress Henrietta Mellons. But since Leipflute is at least very, very far away from his wife, it is a reasonable second, even if the word 'plain' is a constant reminder of her. Still, having out-scouted his Vulgarian opponent, Barry-Eylund has set about choosing the best place for a fight. The best place to fight Vulgarians usually would be a tavern, once the Vulgarians have drunk themselves to sleep on their national drink, pish. But this is impractical given the numbers involved. Though the battle has occurred upon a plain, Barry-Eylund had been in command of an army long enough that he is well able to marshal random vegetation to his cause. (Below, to the right) In general terms, the Bachscuttel army is positioned so that its right is covered by the loop of a small stream. To the left there is a wood, which Barry-Eylund occupies with his two regiments of irregular infantry. To the front of the Palatinate's position is another small wood and a marsh that hopefully will serve to break up any assaulting Vulgarian battle line.

(Above, left) General Hertz van Rentall has deployed the Vulgarian army across a wider front. In the centre, his infantry is arrayed in a single line, interspersed in the middle by his three batteries of artillery. On his left flank he places all four regiments of his regular cavalry. On his right (at the bottom of the picture) he places his uncouth Vulgarian irregulars: two regiments of hussars and two of infantry. Having only just begun the process of establishing a national Vulgarian army again, much of Rentall's army is made up currently of mercenaries from various parts of Europe (mostly the rude parts). The native Vulgarian contingent is limited at this stage to two regiments of infantry and Eugene's own mounted Garde du Corps, Colonel von Ruthven's Osterberg Cuirassiers. Rentall does at least have the support of two European military notables. The Vulgarian artillery is commanded by one Cameron von Muller, an exiled Scottish catholic ennobled in Munster. Von Muller was wooed into Vulgarian service by the prospects of adventure and the surprisingly comprehensive medical plan. His sojourn with the new Vulgarian army has not been an entirely happy one. The logistic support for his artillery train is poor; and no one seems to take as seriously as they should his health and safety briefings: cannons are dangerous things, you know; and they could have your eye out or injure a small child. Also in Vulgarian service is the Florentine mercenary Giovanni di Tripodi. Tripodi hates horses; and also saddles, riding, cavalrymen, and sugar lumps. Indeed, as a cavalry commander, Tripodi would be about as useful as a device for inflating sheep. Naturally, therefore, he commands the Vulgarian cavalry. Of rather less help is one Baron Tostov. Tostov is a well-connected nobleman who fancies himself as a general officer. He has accompanied the Vulgarian army, and is now amusing himself by riding across the front of the Vulgarian troops making mocking references to their adversaries. Rentall would send him home, for Tostov is a loose cannon (of which there are otherwise very few in the Vulgarian forces, thanks to von Muller's efficient grasp of health and safety considerations). However, in addition to his royal connections, Tostov is wildly popular with the Vulgarian rank-and-file. The baron seems to embody all the qualities that Vulgarian peasants prize - impetuosity; rudeness; and an ability to play the national anthem by breaking wind.

(Below) Rentall has contemplated long and hard the strengths and weaknesses of his forces. His infantry has at its core a regiment of Foot Garde du Corps. Splendidly drilled, loyal, fragrant; these troops of course, aren't Vulgarian. The remainder of his infantry are a mixed bag; if, that is, one's bag was mixed full of really quite disappointing things. Having witnessed them during their training at Schloss Feratu, Rentall can vouch for the reliability of his infantry force: no force in Mittleheim is reliably as bad. By the application of some drill and a much larger quantity of beatings, the Vulgarian infantry has been pushed into a battle line. Cognisant of their skills, Rentall has for the coming battle allocated his infantry the key role of catching cannonballs until they are dead. The only movements in this line are likely to take place in the infantry's own britches. Instead, van Rentall plans first to advance his irregulars, using them to draw out the Bachscuttel reserves. Then, on his left the regular cavalry will advance and attack the other flank of Barry-Eylund's forces.

Through his telescope, Van Rentall contemplates the dispositions of his Bachscuttel adversary. The Bachscuttel deployment has brought forth from their antagonists the usual round of tutts, catcalls, salty oaths, and even saltier hand gestures. Not for nothing has Barry-Eylund become known widely as 'The Turtle King' and 'The Mole of Mittelheim.' (Below) Confident in the relative quality of his infantry, Barry-Eylund deploys four infantry regiments forward, supported by his artillery. On either side of the road stand the guard regiments (the Milchfrau Lieb Garde are in red), each flanked by an elite quality regiment. Realising that the Vulgarians likely will try and use their advantages in cavalry to flank his positions, the general places on each side a regiment in a reverse oblique, ready to turn as required. Trying to maximise his flexibility, the general then places in column his remaining two regiments of infantry and all three of his cavalry units. With his right covered by the stream, he has covered his left by placing his two units of light troops in the woods.

Barry-Eylund is looking through his telescope. 'Who in God's name is that loony; and what is he up to?' he murmurs. The general focuses in on the distant figure of Baron Tostov.
'What's that fellow doing, sir?' asks Major Bohner, his aide, squinting.
Barry-Eylund focuses his telescope. 'Well, Bohner, he seems to be addressing the Vulgarian army; no ... he's turned and is now making some rude gestures at us ... oh, no hang on; he's now fiddling with his britches, and he's now got something in his hand; let me see, it's ....' the general suddenly snaps his telescope shut.
'It's what, my lord?' asks Bohner.
The general sighs. 'Never mind, major; but let me put it this way - he's unlikely to be able to reach us with it from over there.'
Suddenly, billowing white smoke erupts from the Vulgarian line, followed by the whistling of cannon balls: the game is afoot!

(Right) Continuing a surprising trend in recent battles in Mittelheim, the fight begins in earnest with, of all things, an artillery bombardment by the Vulgarians of the Bachscuttel line. Under the skilled eye of Captain of Artillery von Muller, the cannonade causes some concern in the Milchfrau Lieb Garde. As the Vulgarian cannons belch fire, Tostov rides along the front of the Vulagrian host.
'Yaaaaaaaah! Yaaaaaaah!' he shouts in defiance of the enemy army assembled across the plain. At one end he turns, waving his sword frantically. The Vulgarian troops roar with approval. 'Yaaaaaaaah! Yaaaaaaaaah!' shouts Tostov, heaping upon Barry-Eylund's army imprecations of an inventively risque nature. Riding back to the middle of the army and pausing in front of the cannons, the Baron stands in the saddle and bellows to the troops assembled in front of him:
'Forth and fear no darkness!' shouts Tostov. 'Arise, arise soldiers of Vulgaria. Spears shall be shaken! Shields shall be splintered! Other things shall be wiggled at the enemy in a manner likely to cause them consternation! A sword day! A red day! A Wednesday! Ere the sun rises! Ride now! Ride! Ride to ruin and the world's ending! Death! Death! Drink! Girls! Feck!'
Again the cannons thunder. At this point, is becomes clear, as Tostov doubtless would have known if he had attended one of Muller's health and safety briefings, that standing in front of three batteries of artillery when they fire is strictly for those who believe themselves to be very lucky or very, very thin. Tostov, alas, is neither. The baron disappears in the great billowing smoke. The Vulgarian army's cheering suddenly ends. There is a moment of quiet. The smoke dissipates slowly, revealing the remains of four horses hooves on the grass. Death peers down at Tostov's remains. Contemplating the odds and ends in front of him he places his scythe carefully to one side. He then rummages in his pockets for a moment before pulling out a small spoon.

Rentall's second-in-command, Captain of Infantry Duke Walter von Neucheim, looks at the general.
Rentall says something in Dutch which Neucheim can't understand but which, given the look on the general's face, is probably not something that he would have said in front of his mother. Rentall then shakes his head.
Before them, the Vulgarian ranks clearly are dismayed by the death of their hero!
Rentall curses again: 'Now da tulipsh have really hit da wafflesh. Da morale of our troopsh ish dented already!'
Duke Neucheim pauses for a moment and then says determinedly: 'General - I have a plan.'
Rentall frowns: 'Ish it a good plan? 
The Duke looks like he wants to lie, but then shrugs resignedly: 'No my lord, not really.'
'Becaush if itsh not a good plan...,' continues Rentall.
Neucheim points. 'My lord, look at our infantry - they are already beaten.'
Rentall looks across his battle line. It is true. With the death of their hero Tostov, the Vulgarian infantry's morale has drooped lower than Princess Caroline of Bachscuttel's bust after she has been cut out of her corset.
Rentall thinks for a moment and then nods. 'Neucheim, do what you can.' 
Accompanied by some staff officers, the Duke rides to Tostov's remains. He looks down from his horse and then mops his brow with his kerchief. 'Captain,' he says.
'Yes sir?' replies a subaltern.
'We're going to need some boxes,' says the Duke.
'Yes sir.'
'And a shovel,' says Neucheim.
'Right sir.'
'And ...,' says the Duke, peering a little closer at the ground, 'another shovel.'
'Right sir.'

In the meantime, the Vulgarian artillery continues to fire. For the Milchfrau Lieb Garde, the cannonade proves to be a rather stern education: certainly an education more rigorous than the university learning possessed notionally by many of the regiment's officers. A little Latin and Greek, leavened with a rather broader selection from the under-graduate smorgasbord of lie-ins, wine, late night essay writing, kicking the poverty-stricken, and libidinous contortions with ladies paid by the quarter hour may qualify one for a plum job in the army of Bachscuttel, but it is not especially relevant to surviving an artillery bombardment. Casualties quickly begin to mount. Troops begin to shed their limbs; lips begin to wobble; chins begin to drop and then fall off as the heads that they are attached to are re-positioned elsewhere on the battlefield by the passage of artillery balls. Whilst cursing sergeants with hard use of swords and spontoons force shut the gaps in the line, several officers begin to remember urgent appointments elsewhere. Many begin to remember that, whilst fleeing battle might subject them to lifetime of ridicule, shame and dishonour, so does a commission in one of the armies of Mittelheim, so it might be possible to live with it. To their right, however, the Tchokolet-Feyer Garde seem immune to the maelstrom. Ignoring the storm of shot, they remain in perfect order, ramrod straight; held there by their discipline and also, of course, the ramrods shoved up their backs. As Barry-Eylund tries frantically to rally his sagging line, this would, of course, be the opportune moment for a Vulgarian assault.

Giovanni di Tripodi gallops up to Rentall. 'My lord, when will our flanking forces be sent forwards?'
Rentall sighs. 'We have a problem with da Baron.' He points towards Duke Neucheim.
Neucheim is addressing the Vulgarian infantry.
'Men - your brave Baron has been sorely wounded!'
'He was blown apart by our own cannon fire!' wails a soldier.
'He was indeed quite shaken up by his injury,' shouts the Duke.
'He was blown into a thousand pieces by the near simultaneous impact of seven twelve-pound cannon balls!' shouts another musketeer.
The Duke nods, 'It is true, men, that the Baron has been made somewhat deficient in limbs and other sundry appendages - but he is even now being treated and will return soon to battle - do not fear!'
'Somewhat deficient?' shouts a musketeer with a better vocabulary than most. 'Somewhat deficient? Our poor baron is like a porky human billiard cue!'
'How is he being treated?' shouts another soldier suspiciously. 'How will you get his legs and things back on?'
'Well,' says the Duke, for a moment non-plussed. 'I expect ... I expect that the doctor will use bandages ...and ...leeches, probably lots of leeches.'
'Leeches?' the soldiers murmur, impressed. 'Well, if they're using leeches there just might be chance! Hurrah!'

Neucheim has Tostov's remains whisked off to his tent for some first aid. As the Vulgarian infantry watch on in morose silence, a line of skilled professionals are called into the tent to deal with the Baron's wounds: a physician; a barber; a tailor; a blacksmith; and then a small detachment of pioneers. Above the noise of the cannonade, the sounds emanate from the tent of hammering and sawing, interspersed by such medical jargon as: 'you pull it out straight and I'll give it a good hammering;' and 'Dammit, where's the pickaxe?'
Rentall hurrumphs disagreeably. Time is passing and he has yet to be able to put into action the next key part of his plan.
Finally, as von Muller's cannonade halts, Neucheim leads out into the morning sunshine the newly recovered Baron Tostov.
Rentall blanches. 'Watsh dis? Da men will never believe dat dis is da Baron!'
Neucheim looks at his handiwork. 'I think we've done a fair job - like El Cid of old, the Baron will live again in the minds of our soldiers and lead them to a crushing victory!'
'But, but,' splutters Rentall. 'Hish head - da Baron's head: it wash shertainly not made of wood; nor did it have da word "flour" written on itsh shide!'

'This might sting a little.'

'We had to work with what we had,' says Neucheim.
'And look,' moans van Rentall, 'one of hish fingersh have fallen off!'
'Not a finger, my lord,' says the Duke discretely pocketing the fallen digit. 'A sausage.'
'He's made of food?' asks Tripodi.
The Duke nods: 'I think you'll be very surprised with what we've managed to do with the aubergines.'
Rentall points at the Baron's feet - 'And da wheelsh?'
The Duke nods: 'We had to make some pragmatic decisions. I think the new Baron looks rather healthier than the original. And he's certainly a better conversationalist.'
'He shpeaks?' asks Rentall.
'Ask him something,' replies the Duke.
Tripodi chips in. 'Baron Tostov - how then do you suggest that we employ our forces to clear the enemy irregulars from the wood to our right?
A voice, entirely unstrangely reminiscent of what Duke Neucheim's voice would sound like if he were a fourth rate Grimsby ventriloquist pipes up in reply: 'A gottle of geer!'
Rentall slumps in his saddle, head in hands as Neucheim wheels Baron Tostov off to the assembled Vulgarian army.
'They'll never fall for it.' says Tripodi, shaking his head sadly. 'The troops will never fall for it. Only a moron would fall for it. No, I am incorrect! A mere moron would see right through it! Only a moron who had quaffed four strong gallons of absinthe and who had, as a consequence, gone completely blind and so mad that he had come to think that he was middle-aged penguin from Liepzig; and who then had gone to what he thought was a barber but had actually turned out to be a physician; and who then, by a freak misunderstanding, instead of having 'a little taken off the top' was trepanned a dozen times; and who was then beaten repeatedly about the head with a moderately sized haddock wrapped around a two-handed mallet - only that sort of moron would fall for it!' 
'Hurrah!' roar the Vulgarian soldiery, their morale returning. 'Our Baron is alive! Three cheers for Tostov! Death to Bachscuttel! Advance! Advance!'
'A gottle of geer!' shouts the Baron in encouragement, 'A gottle of geer!'
Rentall shrugs phlegmatically. 'Shurprishing, yesh: but it will do. Lord Tripodi, order forwardsh our firsht asshault!'

As the Vulgarian right wing begins to swing into action, a tall fellow in a black cloak is crouching over the place where Tostov expired so dramatically. Death snorts with annoyance and moves some more pieces around on the grass. It had started well in the corners, but now there seem to be some pieces missing.

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