Berthold's Beard - By Joshua Reynolds

BERTHOLD’S BEARD

Josh Reynolds

No birds sang.

Felix Jaeger paused, one hand on the hilt of his sword, his eyes flicking from the ruined doorpost to the shattered wall to the gaping ceiling. The ancient house had more holes than Averland cheese and it stank of age and beasts. The foundations might be stone, but the rest of the manse was rotting. Walls slumped against one another and the roof sagged down with alarming inexorability. Rotten support timbers stabbed down into the floor like the fangs of some long-dead leviathan. A pelt of hairy mould covered everything, and as he stepped through the hole in the wall the floorboards beneath his feet creaked and dipped alarmingly and Felix imagined for a brief, sickening moment that he was stepping onto the back of some vast, breathing thing.

‘Gotrek,’ he hissed; then, louder, ‘Gotrek!’

There was no reply save the sound of the house shifting on its foundations, settling. Swollen wood squealed. Felix stopped and glanced over his shoulder. It had felt as if there had been something on their trail since they’d entered the wild hills north of Wolfenburg. The Middle Mountains were rife with beastmen and had been for centuries, as the degenerate descendants of the rampaging hordes of Gorthor the Beastlord bred in the dark glens and bowers.

‘Aldrich,’ Felix tried. Aldrich Berthold was the sole heir to the substantial mercantile empire of the Wolfenburg Bertholds, a family that had, of late, gone through an inordinately unusual number of suicides, accidental self-immolations and at least one incident involving cuttlefish. Aldrich was also the nominal owner of the ruin Felix found himself in.

Star Hall, as it had once been known, had been abandoned centuries earlier, during the invasion of the aforementioned Beastlord. The Bertholds had left behind their former lives as country gentry for the urban comforts of Wolfenburg and had flourished ever since. At least if you listened to the gossips and wags. But though it had been abandoned, Star Hall remained and its secrets with it.

Felix cursed under his breath. ‘Gotrek,’ he cried out. ‘Where are you?’ It had taken them several days to reach the hall; its location was a well-guarded secret among the Berthold clan, and for good reason, to hear Aldrich tell it. But evidently not that well-guarded, for Gotrek’s keen senses had caught a whiff of a cooking fire before either Felix or Aldrich had seen the thin query mark of smoke rising above the ruin and into the deepening dusk as they crossed the bluff above.

Gotrek had insisted on circling around. Aldrich had vanished not long after. Felix found himself in the unenviable position of being utterly alone.

Wood creaked beneath a sudden weight.

Instincts first shaped by the finest fencing master in Altdorf and honed in hundreds of melees since brought his sword up to almost gently tap aside the falchion’s grimy edge as it dropped towards his head. His perception of the world around him had slowed to a crawl in those first few moments of surprise, but now as the blades touched and rang, motion, thought and time once more lurched forwards at their proper speed. Felix did not stop with the parry. Instead, he loosened his red Sudenland travel cloak from about his throat and spun, stealing his opponent’s momentum and tangling the snorting, gibbering beastman that had leapt at him in the cloak’s folds.

The creature, more goat than man and more man than dog, staggered to its knees. The edges of the cloak flared, revealing its broad, hairy back. Felix rammed Karaghul between its shoulder blades and sawed upwards with professional brutality, cutting short a bleat of agony. He rode the creature to the ground, forcing his weight down on the hilt of the sword. Beastmen took altogether too much killing for Felix’s liking. As he wrenched the sword free, he heard Gotrek’s joyful roar and noted that for some, however, it was just the right amount.

A sense of relief flooded through him as another beastman crashed through one of the rotten interior walls and landed in a heap of blood and wood splinters. Another staggered backwards through the hole, its boar-like maw opened in a squeal of desperation. A moment later, a short, impossibly broad shape followed with a bloodthirsty roar.

Gotrek Gurnisson buried his rune-scrawled axe into the swine-thing’s prodigious belly and lifted it off its disturbingly childlike feet with the force of the blow. Bone cracked and flesh ruptured as the wailing thing folded over the blade and slid off in two squirming pieces. ‘Ha!’

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