A bit of Warhammer-inspired fiction I wrote a while back, about a young scholar in Altdorf called Otto. Its both a bit of fluff, but also about the fluff in some ways. Enjoy...
Otto Kleinhund sniffed the air issuing from the trapdoor.
"You say no-one has been down here for more than 20 years? I would believe it, Master Wilhelm." He took a torch from the massive slab of a man to his right, and began to descend the rickety ladder, nearly setting his straggly beard aflame as he tried to hold the torch, while gathering his ornate robes to avoid tripping on the staircase, whose side-rail he was also attempting to grip.
"Perhaps, Kleinhund, you should drop a torch down first?" suggested the aged Master of the College of Speculative Antiquarians, a lesser-known cousin of the Guild of Historians.
"I would, Master, but the steps are made of wood, and there may be parchments in the room," explained Kleinhund, after a moment's thought.
"Ah, I see, might need to fight them off, you mean? Good thinking," replied Master Wilhelm.
Kleinhund stared at him. "Parchments?" he asked.
"What? Parchments? Sorry, I thought you said trolls. Anyway... carry on." Having grown bored, Master Wilhelm wandered away, back towards the better-lit corridors of the ancient and crumbling College. He beckoned the large man who'd provided Kleinhund with his torch. "Come, Dorothy, there's a wardrobe I want you to move. I think it has a witch in it."
Kleinhund stared at the two backs slowly receding down the corridor. "Well, this is it, my old son," he said to himself, "you knew you'd be on your own in the end. When you come out you'll either be a hero to historians everywhere, or a laughing stock to any man who can write his own name." A horrid thought struck him, causing another pause. "Assuming you do come up that is. Here goes..." and he rattled down the rest of the ladder, into the musty dark.
x X x
The cellar was dark, the air cold and stale. Yet Otto began to sweat. Why had Master Wilhelm mentioned trolls? Was there something that Otto hadn't been told? He took a last look up at the comforting square of light above him, raised the torch and scanned the room.
Barrels, sacks and some wooden crates. And spiders. Not very promising. No shelves of scrolls. And crates wouldn't hold the parchments he was looking for, would they? He looked in several, disturbing several kinds of crawling thing from their nests, but found nothing of interest. Rolls of cloth, and some old robes. Some wooden cups and bowls. A small chest containing knives and spoons - not of any great quality as far as Otto could tell. Perhaps they'd been moved down here when the College got some nicer ones, he thought.
So, no scrolls, no scrolls... he scanned the room again. Piles of crates, barrels, black mouth of sinister unexplored corridor that I'm not looking at, barrels, sacks, and back to the piles of crates. It was no good. He would have to go on into the darkness.
"Come on Otto, no point delaying." Not for the first time, he wished that he had never left Knisterbad. But, then he thught of Ruglinde and her scornful words at their parting. She had mocked him soundly as a pale excuse for a man, more like a shrivelled thing one found under a stone. "Oh well, at least I don't have that problem any more," he said aloud. Inside the College precincts, the only female he came into contact with was Old Mother Grout, who was in charge of cleaning the linen. She was even older than Master Wilhelm and had a face like a gnarled foot. What lurked under her clothing was anyone's guess, perhaps even Mother Grout no longer knew, but whatever was there, it was bulky, even though her clothing was bulky too. Fortified by the thought of Old Mother Grout's formidible frame, scary enough to put fear into a troll for sure, Otto steeled himself, thrust the torch into the black gap, and continued forward.
The next room was a disappointment too. Almost a copy of the first, it contained some thin metal buckets with lids containing dried-up but still smelly liquids - some kind of wood preserver, Otto supposed. He placed the torch in a bracket helpfully fixed to the wall, and continued his examinantion. There was also a tapestry, though not a particularly interesting one. The central panel seemed to have some shapes that might be birds but it was difficult to tell behind the cobwebs, dust and mildew. As he was examining it, he heard a slight noise behind him. Instantly he spun round, wishing the torch was in his hand not the bracket on the wall. It was a small sound, a scuttling sound. Not trolls. But, perhaps, rats?
In a second his mind was running through all the stories he'd ever heard about people being eaten allive by rats... even worse, the rumours of ratmen who walked on two legs, who were the size of a person and used weapons... foolish, foolish stories, but then, who knew for certain what lurked in the dark in the city's underbelly?
After a few momemts, he remembered to breathe. Slowly, slowly, he expelled the air from his lungs and began to edge towards the torch. But he saw nothing. At last he reached it, and his fingers closed around its shaft - just as something furry moved across his hand. Terrified, he called out and jumped back, but saw that it merely a thick cobweb.
"Otto, get a hold of yourself!" he said angrily. "You are a man of learning, not a fool to be spooked by imagined terrors!" With difficulty, he controlled his shaking hands, lifted the torch from the bracket, and resolved to continue.
A short corridor joined the tapestry room to the next. No trolls, no ratmen, Otto repeated to himelf, silently with every step. It seemed an age - though in reality it was less than 20 paces - to the next room. Otto paused at the doorway, then thrust the torch forward.
What he saw took his breath away. The room was perhaps five paces square and most of the walls were covered in shelves - piled high with scrolls and sheets of parchemnt, and small chests, some of which were open and, Otto could see, also contained documents. This was surely the archive to which Master Wilhelm had referred - the lost treasure-house of knowledge of the Guild of Speculative Antiquarians.
x X x
Otto stood in his Master's study, his bounty scattered around. The wardrobe had been bound shut, he noticed, and a cabinet moved in front of it. Dorothy, the huge servant, was no-where to be seen.
"Master Wilhelm, there are incredible things here. You were right about the work of the Two Reikhardts... I found some of it. Look, Reikhardt of Heiligwelle... Reikhardt of Prustlaage... this is amazing! There is something titled in Tilean as 'The Day-Book of the Little Fortress' and another as the 'Bringing Together of the Little Fortress'... and look! More than 40 early volumes from the 'Book of the White Dwarf'! It's unbelievable!" Kleinhund was shaking with excitement as he held up scrolls of parchment and vellum, dusty, mildewed, but fundamentally undamaged.
The old scholar peered at the trembling offerings as Kleinhund went on. “This scroll contains many details from the lost Life of Bugman the Brewer! And here is a completely different account of the War of Grom the Paunch! Look, this scroll here lists various commanders and their forces, including two Orcish warlords who fought alongside Grom... did you know it was not Grom who sacked Nuln, but a warlord called Mudat Brokenbone, whom Grom himself slew at the Battle of Gonnear? I didn't know there was a battle at Gonnear. Or that a Goblin warlord called Bogdan Legbreak, a king with many chariots, is credited with the slaying of Bugman? Or that there is no mention of Grom's expidition to the Elflands? In fact, it says here-" and Otto waved a roll of parchment at Master Wilhelm "- that Grom was killed leading an attack against Middenheim... a Dwarf city. Why does it say Middenheim is a Dwarf city?"
Master Wilhelm frowned. "Well, it was a Dwarf city. Not ninety years ago, but certainly hundreds. And Dwarfs have always lived there. The city we call Middenheim is really Middenheim-opper-Bergen; I assume the reference is to Middenheim-onder-Bergen, which was still inhabited. Perhaps the population fled into the Dwarf tunnels when the greenskin forces besieged the city? I shall have to look into that. It's all a bit before my time you know."
The old man waved his hand vaguely. "I knew men who had fought in Grom's War, of course, but I was only a child at the time of the Middenheim siege. Not even born when Nuln fell. It's very difficult to say exactly what happened... Every man's story was different. Some swore that Grom was not a normal orc, but his father was an ogre so he was tougher than other greeenskin breeds. Others claimed he had eaten troll-meat to gain powers of healing himself. They all agreed he was very difficult to kill. And then he was killed, either at Middenheim, or in Ulthuan, who now knows? Did he go to Ulthuan, then return, to die at Middenheim? Did he survive the attack on Middenheim, go to Ulthuan, and die there? Who is left to ask?"
"But Master Wilhelm, these records stop just after the Battle of Mad Dog Pass... they say that is the end of Grom's War, even though Grom was dead by then. That is when his Guard and the chariots of Bogdan the Warlord were destroyed. They were written at the time of the events they describe... but they're not like any account I have heard."
"But they may be true. Perhaps some of the greenskins who had marched with Grom still lived until then, and kept the memory of the warband and its old warlord alive. We have regimental traditions do we not? The Reiksguard is still the Reiksguard though its first commander died centuries ago, and an old soldier who died 25 years ago would have been a young man, I think, when Grom was alive."
Kleinhund laughed. "Surely, master, you're not comparing the Reiksguard to an orc-band? You don't mean that they're actually intelligent enough to... to... oh," faltered Kleinhund as Master Wilhelm frowned from under eyebrows so bushy that, in moments of extreme disapproval, the old scholar's eyes almost disappeared under a bushy grey avalanche.
"Whatever you were going to say, young man, I think I would not like to hear it. Now; look at it this way. Have you so little respect for our Empire that you think a rabble of mindless beasts could nearly have overthrown it? Do you think oxen or wolves or swans could have done this thing? Grom was a great warlord. He would be a great warlord whatever race he came from. Even if others helped him or commanded other armies, he sacked several Dwarf cities, his armies rampaged across the Empire and, we think, invaded Ulthuan. They then returned, and carried on raiding the Empire for another 30 years. Are these the actions of unthinking brutes?"
"I'm sorry Master Wilhelm, you're right. Grom was an extraordinary general, these documents show that.” Otto stared at the scrolls around him. His fame as a bold adventurer, premier historian of the age, and upholder of the shining truth in the darkness of ignorance, seemed assured.
x X x
Both men sat and took documents almost at random, scanning vellum, parchment, and reed-paper scrolls in a whirl of curiosity and wonder.
“Master,” Otto inquired, after a few moments, “have you ever heard stories of the origin of the White Dwarf? I believed he was some king from ages past, who became an ancestral spirit and protected the Dwarf people… but these texts say he is an exiled king himself, a living Dwarf who wanders the world looking for adventure, and cheating at dice games.”
“The Dwarfish folk are very secretive, Otto. I think we may never know the truth of it, but it would not be impossible for any Dwarfish wanderer to claim a lost kingdom, there are enough of them.” Master Wilhelm thought for a few moments. “Perhaps ‘The White Dwarf’ is a title, borne by the heir of a royal house, whose sons travel the world, defending their people until their home is reclaimed?”
Otto nodded. “Here is more about the Dwarfs… have you ever heard of a king called Dumin Ironbeard? Is he related to king Kurgan Ironbeard, who befriended Holy Sigmar at the time of the Empire’s foundation?”
Master Wilhelm held Otto's gaze for a few moments. The younger man thought he looked troubled. "These are deep questions, Otto. I fear they will lead you along tangled paths. Have you found anything relating to Sigmar and the foundation of the Empire?" asked
Kleinhund paused. "Very little, Master. A note that the kingdoms of the north became united to resist the greenskins. Something about a hero who killed a dragon, and was honoured both by the tribes of the forests and the northern barbarians - I think he is called Sigurd. But that is even more reason to publish these documents! Their value to historical scholarship is incalculable!"
The old man did not sound so sure. "I think our friends in the Cult of Sigmar would not agree. What if we challenge the teachings of the Cult of Sigmar through our scholarship? Why should they want us to prove that orcs are intelligent? They teach that orcs are vicious beasts and should be destroyed. What would happen if we could demonstrate that no early records mention Sigmar at all? Would that not suggest that, far from being a God, he was not even a man?"
The younger scholar whistled through his teeth. "Master, we've talked about this as a possibility, but, really, are you seriously suggesting...?"
"Oh yes," replied the old man. "There are no known records more than 200 years old that mention the Empire, and nothing that can be said to form any proof that Sigmar lived. There are references, surely, to the belief that Sigmar existed; but nothing more. He appears as a legend, not a living man. I think, rationally as our Tilean cousins would say, that there is no evidence that Sigmar ever existed. He may have done; it is not improbable that there was once a war-leader of the Unberogens called Sigmar. But there is no evidence he founded the Empire. Indeed, the existence of our Empire itself is doubtful at any time before the reign of Magnus the Pious. He said he was re-uniting the Ancient Sigmarite Empire. Quite simply, he seems to have made it up."
x X x
I hope to have some further adventures for Otto as he journeys across the Empire trying to verify his extraordinary tales - if the Cult of Sigmar doesn't silence me first...