Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Indian interlude

If pressed Captain Gustav Adolphus Horngebläse would confess to few romantic feelings, yet even he admitted the scene before him was breathtakingly beautiful.

He stood on the low sandy shore gazing out at the ocean, the wind ruffling his hair, listening to the loud hiss and rattle of surf in the stillness of the night. Moonlight shone on the Bay of Bengal, etching the waves in pure silver and lapis all the way to the far horizon where the full moon hung low. Away across the sea a ship sailed, the Clomer, one of his, heading for port, her sails filled to the gentle breeze under her coat-tails. The moonlight picked out every little detail of sail and rigging, and Gustav could almost fancy he made out the fine buff color of her hull. As he watched her tranquil path, his heart felt full of a mélange of emotions ranging from homesickness to humility. Even the name of the place where he stood had a special ring to it that spoke of the Orient: The Coromandel Coast: A long way from home.

A soft cough sounded from behind him. Gustav brought his mind back to the present, regret for the lost moment of peace filling his soul even as his active mind returned to more worldly matters. He turned and regarded the man walking toward him. The stranger, clad in the lungi and angavastra of the region stopped a few feet away, pressed his palms together and bowed. “Good evening, Ganan,” Gustav said in the Tamil of the country as he responded in kind. “You have a message for me?”

The man nodded, his fine dark features lit by the moon over Gustav’s shoulder. “Yes, Gustav sahib. My master will see you now. He waits by the old pagoda in the casuarinas grove but one kaadham from here.”

About half a mile, Gustav translated. Not a great distance to walk on such a pleasant night. Yet much rests on what I’ll find there. “Will you guide me?”

“I shall, sahib.” Ganan gestured. “This way, please.”

Gustav followed, after casting a last longing glance back at the shining sea.

The dunes along this part of the coast were not high but they soon blocked the sound of the sea. Only the wind sighing in the palms could be heard above the soft tread of his booted feet as Gustav followed the guide. Ganan was barefoot: He trod as lightly as a ghost. In a moment of whimsy to distract him from his darker thoughts Gustav swore the man could’ve been a spirit, flitting ahead in the moonlight.

After a while the dunes grew lower before disappearing into level ground. They came to a fishermen’s trail that ran inland for about a hundred paces before joining a broader track. Ganan crossed it without glancing back, plunging with single-minded purpose through a strand of coconut trees. Beyond came a millet field and beyond that Gustav’s first glimpse of the casuarinas grove and the stumpy tower of the pagoda. A glint of water in the far distance betrayed the presence of the Paler River.

Together they skirted the edge of the field. Even the comparatively short distance from the sea made a difference to the air. The humidity seemed to increase with every step, although the soil beneath his feet was parched and dry. Gustav could taste the dust and feel the grittiness between his teeth. He plucked at his shirt, the workaday garment sticking to him like a second skin with the sweat streaming from his pores. Ganan forged on, untroubled by his native clime.

A soft nickering sound came from somewhere in the grove and Gustav heard the tread of a restless horse. Someone spoke softly in liquid vowels and the tread quieted. “Who goes there?” someone demanded in Tamil, the challenger’s voice firm but not alarmed.

Ganan stopped. “It is I, Ganan. I have brought the ferengi sahib.”

“You may advance.”

Gustav followed Ganan into the grove, and became aware of the presence of a number of men around them. A veritable retinue, in fact, for moonlight shone through the trees to gleam off armor and weapons, and eyes shining in dark, warlike faces. The great sugarloaf hump of the pagoda rose up from a clearing ahead. His eyes thoroughly adjusted to the gloom, Gustav could pick out the carvings that covered it, most of which seemed erotic in some ill-defined but uncomfortable way.

Lights shone near the base of the structure, showing a sizable party of warriors gathered there near a broad cloth spread upon the ground and surrounded by low cushions. One man stood almost alone, his form picked out by rich robes of pale silk over a dhoti. Ganan stopped before him and bowed. “The ferengi, Maraan-sahib.”

“Thank you, Ganan. You may go.” The man’s chin lifted as he regarded Gustav. “Welcome, Gustav-sahib. Please, be seated and take refreshment.”

Gustav bowed and followed his host’s gesture to sit upon one of the cushions. Maraan followed suit, crossing his legs into the lotus position with effortless ease. He waved a hand and a servant set a European-style lantern in the middle of the cloth to illuminate the faces of those sitting around it. A young woman bearing a ewer emerged from amongst the warriors followed by another with a tray of fine cups and goblets. Gustav was offered a goblet, which the young ewer-bearer filled with sparkling liquid. He inhaled the aroma softly, trying not to sniff and cause offense. To his relief the scent of sandalwood sharbat met his nose. Raising his cup in salutation to his host, Gustav drank one mouthful of the sweet liquid and set the cup aside.

“You have come far, Gustav-sahib,” Maraan said.

Gustav studied the man, placing his age at somewhere in the mid-forties. Fine dark eyes shone from a handsome visage dominated by a hawkish nose, and the hair beneath the close-fitting turban he wore showed wings of gray. The Rajah of Sadras-Patnam had a presence that more than hinted at his power. “Indeed, I have traveled many thousands of leagues to be here, Maraan-sahib,”

Maraan gestured to Gustav’s attire of shirt, britches, stockings and buckled shoes. “You do not wear a coat like many of the ferengi here.”

Gustav smiled. “I mean no disrespect, sahib: it’s just that I prefer not to boil alive.”

Maraan chuckled. “You’re a practical man! I like that. Your Tamil is also very good.”

“I had occasion to learn from a young age, sahib.”

“How so?”

“My father traded along this coast when I was apprenticed to him, many years ago.”

“You spent your time well.” Gustav nodded. Maraan leaned back and placed his hands on his knees, regarding Gustav squarely. “Now I am told you seek an accommodation with us on your own account?”

“Yes, sahib; mine – and my Rajah’s.”

“Your Grand Duke.” Maraan’s mouth worked as if he savored the strange feel of the German term in his mouth.

“Yes, Maraan-sahib.”

Maraan’s eyes glittered. “There are many ferengi making their presence felt along the Coromandel Coast. The French down in Pudacheri; the Dutch: the Danes further north. I learn the British are striving to expand their influence in the west, that Tradgardland have a presence on some of the islands.” He reached for his goblet, drank, set it aside. “Why should we tolerate any more interference in our affairs from ferengi?” His tone was light but the steel lay there in his words.

“Why indeed?” Gustav spread his hands, noting the watchfulness in the visages of the warriors. One word from them and poor Gustav will be no more… “Yet with respect, Maraan-sahib, I feel you will have no choice.” The on-looking warriors shifted and stirred at this, and a growl of disapproval rose from over a dozen throats. Gustav plunged on. “The western nations are powerful and any one of them is far better organized than the disparate states and princedoms of India. They will seek to divide and conquer. We of Hetzenberg do not.”

“No?” Maraan’s eyebrows rose.

“No, sahib. My sahib commissioned me to seek nothing more than a trade agreement and the right to set up a factory in your territory through which goods may flow.”

A silence fell. Maraan regarded Gustav thoughtfully. “I’ve no doubt your exact words were said to other lords around India by those ferengi seeking entrance to our lands and possessions.”

“I don’t doubt it either,” Gustav said in an equable tone.

“So tell me; why should your Hetzenberg be any different?”

Gustav had rehearsed his answer to this inevitable question from the moment he heard a covert audience with the Rajah would be granted. “Hetzenberg is not a large nation, Maaran-sahib. In size we are on a par with your own lands. Furthermore, I received news but recently that my nation is now at war with a jealous rival.”

“So your nation has not the capacity to project a quest for colonies – at the moment.”

Gustav spread his hands. “Not at the moment, nor do I doubt it will always be so. We have no desire for military adventures on far foreign shores.”

“Then what do you offer us?”

“We offer you fair trade, Maaran-sahib; our goods and products in exchange for yours.” Gustav glanced around until he spotted his guide, watching quietly from the sidelines. “Ganan there will tell you a ship is currently sailing north, bound for Sadras-Patnam. That ship is one of mine. In her hold is a quantity of muskets of the latest make, along with associated accoutrements. There are also six field cannon of French manufacture with associated limbers and a caisson.” As a stir ran through those present at this news he went on. “All of which will be yours in exchange for a perpetual trade treaty and the right to establish a factory in Sadras-Patnam.”

Maaran stared at him while his retinue chattered excitedly. Gustav watched and waited. The moments passed. Finally Maaran’s eyes narrowed. “How many muskets are there?”

“There are enough to equip a battalion on the European model. The cannon can equip one battery.”

“Do you have anyone aboard your vessel who can train men to use such weapons?”

Gustav nodded. “An experienced infantry drill sergeant of the Hetzenberg army is aboard. My own gunners can teach your men to point the artillery where it’ll do most harm to the enemy.”
He waited then whilst Maaran chewed this over. Excited chatter among his men was reaching fever pitch before the Rajah spoke again. “I will agree to your terms, subject to safe delivery and prior inspection of the goods.”

Gustav breathed easier. “That is most kind of you, Maaran-sahib.”

Monday, 29 March 2010

RECRUITS con report

In search of trouble...
Major Hardleigh-Worthitt & Party aboard the prototype
Spottiswood-Gallant Mk 2 steam tank.
We had an interesting weekend, in more ways than one. The Recruits convention in Lee's Summit, MO was a very good experience on the whole, marred only by a contretemps at the silent auction where a guy attempted to put the CON in convention. The matter is now settled to my satisfaction so no names, no pack drill.

I hoped to take pictures of the event to post here but the batteries for our camera died. Such is the way of the damned things...

Flames of War had a good showing, with around a dozen tables all busy with 15mm games. They're not my favorite WW2 set by a long chalk, but the figures, models and scenery in use looked very good. Warhamster 40k had a good turn out too, although I was less than impressed by the presence of so many unpainted figures and models on the table. C'mon, people! If you're setting out to impress and recruit others to the hobby, at least put some effort into applying the pigments!

Other games included sci-fi, naval warfare in various eras and scales, and plenty of Napoleonic, including some superb 10mm figures. My hat goes off to whoever painted them for their skill and sharp eyesight.

Baron J of Unterklant and his fellow Basement Generals put on a Wild West skirmish game, followed by an excellent little scrap to GASLIGHT rules. Cindy and I arrived late and had too much else to think about to take part. Even so it was great to watch as the youngsters had a ball with steam tank and gatling gun in search of Professor Archibald Standpipe and his hidden treasures.

Plenty of traders attended, with heaps of figures, artwork, models and even clothing in evidence. I was able to restrain myself to buying a pack of Victorian-era figures in 28mm for a GASLIGHT/steampunk project. Baron J, you have a convert!
* * *
On Sunday morning Cindy and I headed into Kansas City itself in search of the steamboat Arabia museum. In the event they only open at 12 noon on Sundays, so we opted for plan B - the National World War One Memorial and museum. Baron J recommended this place highly and we could immediately see why. It's excellent! There's really too much to describe in this one post, so I'll put some pictures and a report up soon.

Friday, 26 March 2010

Off to Recruit!

Today my wife and I are heading over to Kansas City, where they're really up-to-date (a brownie point for whoever gets the movie reference!). Our first stop this weekend will be at the Recruits convention in Lee's Summit, MO. I'll hook up with Baron J of the EvE blog for a western skirmish game, and hopefully trade some painted "Pony Wars" figures in 25mm at the silent auction. Recruits is a popular convention, drawing folks from as far afield as Texas and Minnesota. This will be our first time there and I'm looking forward to a good time. Afterwards, we'll be heading into Kansas City itself and a trip to the Arabia steamboat museum.

A classic riverboat of pre-Civil War days, her career on the Missouri River came to an inglorious end in August 1856 when she struck a submerged tree and sank. Over time the river shifted course by a half-mile and her grave became a cornfield. It was located and excavated not long ago, and the wreck proved to be a time capsule of Victoriana.

Bundles of goods belonging to pioneers on their way out west were found. Far from the drab image generated from black and white photos of the era, their clothing – especially that of the ladies – proved colorful and delightfully delicate. Boots, tools, equipment of all kinds, all wonderfully preserved. Several crates of sweet pickles in sealed glass bottles were also recovered – and they proved edible!

Doesn’t the wreck paint a poignant picture? Imagine those poor pioneer folks of so long ago, keyed up with the excitement and anxiety of starting a new life. What stories they could tell us today, stories full of hardship and danger, but success too. They lost their belongings in the wreck, but at least their lives were preserved. Who knows, someone among the passengers of the Arabia may be an ancestor of yours.

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Outside Randstadt

The third squadron, Guard Horse Grenadiers filled the view in the telescope. They were fresh: Grand Duke Karl could tell from the swift way they maneuvered. Each squadron took turn and turn-about to fulfill their duties, keeping the heavy troopers and mounts fit for longer.

For the past week the regiment had assisted in pressing the retreating remnants of the Margraf’s blocking force back from the border with Hetzenberg. Although never profligate with the lives of men, Karl regretted the necessity of preserving his meager cavalry resources. It made the task of pressing the enemy that much harder and meant fewer resources elsewhere.

Their immediate opponents wore the green uniform of Dummebettler's Regiment of Dragoons. All that day had been a case of advance and retreat, advance and retreat, both sides’ cavalry matching the moves of the other with precision. Now the enemy had their backs to the town of Randstadt. Here they could no longer stand, so they must by necessity withdraw into the town or ride away, refusing battle. It was that or face annihilation at the hands of superior forces.

He lifted the instrument to gaze at the distant town, ignoring the charming spires and towers to focus on the gray line of the ramparts stretched around its circumference. Men moved there, and cannon showed in embrasures sited at intervals. He gauged the distance between the leading troop of his cavalry to the edge of the defense works.

“There goes their cavalry,” Count Ostenberg murmured as the line of enemy dragoons peeled away into column of twos and rode fast for the nearest town gate. “Any moment now…”

Karl glanced at the Chancellor, gazing through his own instrument with rapt attention. “That’s the Neuburg battery, is it not?”

“Yes, Your Grace.”

Karl nodded thoughtfully. “If I recall correctly, that young scamp Ursula reported six eighteen-pounders there.”

“Just so. Ah!”

Karl saw it at the same moment, a big puff of dirty white smoke erupting from one of the dark dots that marked the enemy guns. He counted the seconds under his breath. At the count of six a gush of earth sprang from the ground about a hundred yards in front of the Horse Grenadiers. Two of the men hurriedly guided their mounts to one side before the heavy ball bounded between them. The signal was plain: thus far and no further.

“It didn’t bounce far,” Ostenberg commented, closing his telescope with a snap. “The soil is damp from the thaw.”

“It’s just as well. It’ll be easier to entrench.” Karl watched the captain commanding the troop ride toward the town, leaving his men behind. With an elegant sweep of his tricorn he saluted the distant enemy gunners. A few seconds later the flag above the battery dipped in acknowledgement.

“Easier to entrench, but we must beware of the miasma that can rise from wet ground. Disease has carried off more soldiers in a siege than ever cannon did.”

“You’re quite correct.” Karl refused to dwell upon such practical but gloomy thoughts. Instead he directed his attention to the rest of his army.

In accordance with orders they proceeded to shake out of column of march into column of divisions, colors flying at the head of each regiment. Every step of the process passed in measured and stately fashion until the army marched parallel to the defenses of Randstadt. Karl admired the maneuver even as he nodded approval of the way his officers directed their commands. All that remains now is for us to seal off the town. Everything else will follow in due order.

Almost as if following a cue Colonel Wilhelm Schmutzgräber walked up to the command party. He carried a yardstick under his left arm and the end of a measuring tape poked out of a coat pocket. Drawing his lanky form up to its full height, he saluted. “My boys are ready to proceed on your command, Your Grace.”

Karl returned the salute and cast a glance back at where the army was deploying off the Kimmelsbrücke road. Sure enough the engineering train was parking in a field alongside the road. The lumbering flat-bed wagons were laden with tools, and enough duckboards, gabions and fascines to make a start on siege works.

Beyond those lay the pride of the siege train. “Ah!” Karl said, turning his horse and galloping over to view the passing guns. Oxen lowed mournfully as their drivers goaded them onwards, following directions from a harassed-looking major. Standing close by him was a young woman in the crimson coat of the new Guard artillery. Karl checked his mount by the side of the road and regarded her thoughtfully. “Good morning Major Thom, Lieutenant Amadeus.”

The pair saluted. “Good morning, Your Grace.”

“Please continue with your work.”

Karl watched for a while as they guided the guns through a gate and into a broad field that would serve as the artillery park for the siege. In truth, he was still uncomfortable in the presence of Lieutenant Amadeus. So was Major Thom, judging by the stiffness in his bearing. Had he known what his son proposed, Karl would’ve forbidden the granting of her commission. Now the act was a fait accompli and he could not rescind the order without making Philip look foolish. The only saving grace in the whole affair lay in the young woman’s competence. Her work on the wedding fireworks for Grafin Ursula had been the talk of Europe. She bore watching – especially if, as some sources had it, there was something else in the relationship between Graf Philip and his protégé.

Karl found a genuine distraction in the shape of his guns, shiny new twenty-four pounder castings from the ironworks at Wöhl. Each bore the legend Ultima Ratio Regum, Latin for ‘The Last Argument (literally ‘reason’) of Kings.’

Once the town is encircled and all threat of interference removed, we shall begin the siege, he thought. Those little beauties will have their say in the matter. He gave the new lieutenant a courteous nod. And give this young lady her due; she’s more than competent to direct their fire. We shall prevail here at Randstadt, and the Eisenwasser Valley will be ours!

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

A Study in Bearstein

Professor Iago Knappenberger entered his chambers, situated high in the Baroque New House on the University of Bearstein campus. Ordinarily a sense of repose would come over him as he entered the study-cum-sitting room, a charming room with a south facing view over the university lawns and gardens to the river beyond. After a busy day of tutorials and lectures, he welcomed the calm surroundings. This afternoon, however, he had a knotty conundrum to consider, a problem of the utmost political delicacy.

It had arrived in the form of a simple missive, apparently written in haste by a surprising correspondent - to whit, Grafin Ursula von Hetzenberg-Pfalb. He picked the document up from his cluttered desk and read it again.
‘I have a dear friend who is what is known as a commoner. She is of age, and wishes to marry my cousin Graf Philip, heir to the Grand Duchy. There is no family or blood tie between them. Would their marriage be legal?

‘All correspondence will reach me if directed to:- the Grand Ducal Army in the Field, Somewhere inside the Margravate of Dunkeldorf-Pfühl. Hopeful in your reply being yes, yours sincerely, Ursula von H-P.’

As an authority on international law Knappenberger had handled the matter of the Grafin’s claim to the Grand Ducal throne via Sacro Illiac law. He little expected correspondence from the young woman herself, let alone on such a subject. “And with so little data to go on!” he expostulated, setting the letter aside. As an afterthought he weighed it down with a wineglass then went to stand before the window. “What to do, what to do…” he muttered.

The door opened behind him and his servant entered the room with a soft tread. Knappenberger turned to regard the newcomer with some irritation. “You’re late, man!”

His servant bowed, holding the tray he bore tightly so as not to spill the tankard of small beer upon it along with a platter of soft bread and überreifem cheese. “My apologies, Professor,” he mumbled and carried the tray to the desk. Knappenberger shook his head. The man spoke with an atrocious form of the local dialect, something his ear had difficulty attuning to even after several months residence in Bearstein. “Would that the cretin spoke French!” he sighed in that language, returning his attention to the view. “You may go,” he said in German, dismissing the man with a wave of his hand.

The servant bowed and departed the room. Knappenberger stared out at the sunset, his mind returning to the problem posed by the Grafin. “So very difficult, and yet I think there is precedence.” His stomach rumbled and he sighed. “But first to feed the inner man.”

He sat at his desk, folded the napkin across his lap and proceeded to devour the meal. Even as his teeth worked on the crusty bread his mind kept working on the problem, until at the end of the meal the solution was clear. Picking up pen and parchment he wrote.

‘To Her Excellency the Grafin, greetings.

‘My dear Excellency. With reference to your communication of the third instance: I thank you for the generous payment received and give you this advice subject to further research on my part, and upon the presumption both parties in the relationship are agreeable to a match.

As my awareness of Ducal law stands there is no inhibiting factor to such a marriage between His Excellency the Graf and your friend. Social and traditional constraints exist in plenty, of course, and your friend will doubtless be aware of this. To summarize, my answer to your query is a provisional yes.

Please advise your friend to await further instructions from myself before undertaking any moves toward her nuptials.

Your humble, obedient servant, I. Knappenberger.

“There!” He laid his pen aside, sanded the document, yawned and sat back in his chair. “An answer, I feel, that will satisfy the presumptuous young lady whilst allowing me time to consult with her elders – in particular, His Grace.” He yawned again, removed his wig and scratched his scalp. “Bless me! I feel quite fatigued. Now, uh. Uhhhhh…”

Bartolomeo Gundaker stood patiently the other side of the door, listening to the Professor as he talked to himself. His cue came when he heard the solid thud of a body hitting the floor in the study. With a quick glance around to ensure privacy Bartolomeo entered the room, shutting the door carefully behind him.
Professor Knappenberger lay prostrate on the floor alongside his desk, his wig resting near an outstretched hand like a strange birds nest. Bartolomeo knelt alongside the fallen academic and tested for a pulse. Nothing.

“A cretin, am I, Monsieur le professeur?” he said quietly in French. He patted the cooling cheek in a familiar manner. “At least I’m not the one now taking up residency in that special circle of Hell reserved for lawyers!”

Rising, Batolomeo quickly scanned the desk. Locating the recently written note he shook the blotting sand onto a spare sheet of paper and replaced the document with a carefully-forged note of his own composition. The original he stuffed into his jerkin. Pausing only to scatter the ink-stained sand onto the forgery he departed the room, locking the door behind him.

By the time a porter summoned by an anxious colleague had battered down the Professor’s study door, Bartolomeo was already across the Bearstein border and bound for home.
* * *
So begins a new Hetzenberg Chronicle. As things stand such excerpts may appear at least once a week, if not more often. It all depends on what time I have among other projects. Watch this space...

Monday, 1 March 2010

On Sale Now!

The Hetzenberg Chronicles, volume 1: Prelude to War is out now at Amazon!
Buy it here!

The year is Seventeen-hundred and frozen-stiff...

In the space between European empires two small nations hover on the brink of war. As great men on both sides ponder the future, a secret agent and two unconventional women are about to make their mark.

The Convent of St. Ungulant is home to Sister Mary Amadeus, a nun with a passion for blowing things up, and her best friend Ursula Reitzell, a bold and beautiful novice. Little does Mary A suspect her friend is a spy in the employ of Hetzenberg secret agent Konrad Beckenbaur. Little does Konrad suspect Ursula hides a secret that will light the fuse for war.

When fate calls the three are swept up in events that lead them through moments of high terror and drama, comedy and pathos. Will their combined talents for explosives and mayhem see them through?

The Hetzenberg Chronicles Volume 1:

Prelude to War