I recently had a go at writing a short story inspired by the Old World setting of Warhammer Fantasy Role Play (WFRP). Please let me know what you think in the Comments.
Time Bomb by Mark Lord
Berta looked down at the note again.
I am not paying for this terrible pile of bricks. Workmanship is poor. The whole thing is crooked. The joints don’t fit. The doors don’t shut properly. The arrow slits face the wrong way. And the murder holes are too narrow.
And then she read the last line. The one that really hurt.
I can’t believe Berta Hadrasdotir claims she is a Dwarf. The Gatehouse looks like it was built by a goblin.
Those words made her angry even now. Even after she had realised that her anger was misplaced. She wished she had misplaced that bomb. She looked up at the sun as she walked briskly down the hill towards the town of Alfensburg. But it was obscured by clouds. Not unusual in this part of the Drakenswald. She couldn’t remember the last time it hadn’t been cloudy or rained. She rummaged in the pouch on her belt. She had a sand timer that would measure an hour. She reckoned that was about how much time she had before the fuse burnt out. If she turned the sand timer now, she could keep track of how long she had left. The trick though was to keep the timer level as she walked down into the town.
She turned it anyway and carried on thinking about that problem as she walked. She carried the timer in front of her looking at the tiny grains of sand as they slipped from the top of the glass to the bottom through a very narrow gap. Already the sand at the bottom seemed to be filling up. She knew that was just her anxiety playing tricks on her. Her legs started walking just that little bit quicker.
As she thought about the problem of the timer, something else sprung to mind. The list of ingredients for Herda’s cake. Her daughter was desperate to make a cake for her dad. Okri had been injured during a cave-in at the mine. His leg had been broken in two places, and although he would heal, he was grouchier than a hill troll. Herda had set her heart on making a carrot cake with icing to cheer him up. But they needed ingredients from town. Berta checked in her pouch again and her pockets. No list in there. She was terrible at cooking herself and left that to others – Okri had passed his cooking skills onto Herda. She couldn’t turn back now. She was already ten minutes away from camp—she would waste another twenty minutes going there and back. Eggs? Flour? Carrots? That would do wouldn’t it.
Berta repeated the words “It will be fine,” to herself under her breath, but there was sweat on her brow. I need to be fitter, she thought, not used to this fast walking.
The trees of the Drakenwald began to open out. There were some fields along the path and some small farms. A boy herding some goats in a field waved to her. She raised her hand to wave back and knocked the sand-timer. The hour-glass nearly slipped from her hands, but she held on. Her heart jumped and began thumping more loudly and her hands felt greasy. By Grimnir, she needed to have a plan for this timer.
She looked down at her coat. She was wearing the work clothes she used when building. There was a leather tie that was used for holding a harness in place when working high up on the scaffold. Human builders thought such safety measures were an extravagance. But Berta and the other dwarfs knew that far more human builders died from accidents than dwarfs. She was more than happy with that extravagance. She could tie the sand timer to the leather tie. If she stayed upright so would the timer.
Good. That was one less thing to worry about. Now she just had the big thing. Oh, and the shopping list. But the big thing was more important. She would sort that out first. And then she could go shopping couldn’t she. She would be so relieved at not blowing up the Graf that she wouldn’t mind buying the whole of the grocer-shop’s supplies if that would keep Herda happy. She might need a mule to carry the stuff as well.
The path became more of a road now. There was a village half a mile from the walls of Alfensburg. A good tavern there as well. Often Berta and her work crew would stop on the way back after a day’s work. You built up a thirst cutting and hauling stone around. The door of the tavern was open. A sign with a picture of a swan towering over a fat little halfling hung outside. A couple of her crew were there. Gromli and Tromli. They had finished the work yesterday and were taking it easy today. They nodded at her.
“Coming in, Berta, for a pint? Ale’s nice and warm,” said Tromli.
She shook her head vigorously. “No, I have to stop a … I have business in town,” she corrected herself.
“We’ll still be here when you’re on your way back,” said Gromli.
“Don’t spend all your coins. We’ve not been paid for the gatehouse yet,” she said as she strode past.
“Eh what?” called Gromli after her. “Wait up Berta. What’s the hurry? They owe us, don’t they?”
Berta didn’t answer that. She would have had to turn around and slow her pace. They certainly did owe her and her crew. A few of the materials like the wood and the iron fittings had been paid for. But the stone had been quarried from the dwarf’s own works in the hills, and their labour hadn’t been charged for yet. They were owed a lot of money by the Graf for building him such a fine new gatehouse for Alfensburg.
But if she blew up the Graf and the gatehouse then there was no way that they were going to get that money.
Above the fir trees of the thinning Drakenwald she could see that gatehouse. She felt pride when she saw it. It was a fine construction. Solid and well-built. They had spent a year building it. That was quite fast—especially considering the special extra features. And then that beastman attack had not helped. They really messed up the scaffolding when they tried to charge into the town that night through the gap in the walls.
That’s probably when it started, the tension with the Graf. She had shouted at him the next morning about not leaving enough guards in place. He had come back with an accusation that the temporary palisade had not been strong enough. But she knew it had. They had spent three weeks just setting the foundations with proper cement for the palisade, and then another two weeks lashing the wooden stakes together. That was a good palisade. And there was a ditch dug by the Graf’s serfs. But a good wall was no good unless it was guarded well.
After that raid there were always complaints. On both sides she had to admit. The Graf would complain about how long the work was taking, even though they had got back onto schedule. Or his steward would come to her and question all the receipts for materials. He was a slimy individual. And she grew irritated with how often her crew were stopped and searched by the guards. Sigmar’s love of dwarven kind did not extend to Alfensburg. They were Ulricans here and had decided that if Ulric’s rival Sigmar loved dwarfs then they would take a dislike to them. She had made her views known to the Graf personally about that.
Then yesterday they had laid down their trowels after putting the finishing touches to the last piece of stonework. All was perfect. Solid and sound. Just how Berta liked it.
She had sent Tromli to let the Graf’s steward know that the construction was complete. She was hoping for him to rush down and tell her what a great job they had done, and that despite all the issues between them all forgotten, and here’s your payment.
Tromli returned and passed on the steward’s message that the Graf was busy and would come another day. She had shrugged and looked at the ground and pushed a bit of dirt around with her boot when she heard that. She knew in her heart that she was sad that the Graf wasn’t excited to see the finished gatehouse. But she didn’t let that show to her crew. “Come on lads, you all deserve a pint. And yes, for once it’s on me!”
They had celebrated that night—not at the Swan and Halfling, but back at the mining camp in the hills. To say it was a mining camp did it a disservice. Dwarfs had mined there for ten years now and the homes and storehouses of the dwarf community were solid stone and timber buildings. Not permanent like a hold (or that gatehouse), but better than any human construction.
Despite having a sore head, the next morning Berta had gone in alone to see the gatehouse again and to enquire if the Graf had seen it yet. The palisade was still being guarded by the Graf’s soldiers—that would need pulling down once the guard had been shown their new quarters. She nodded at them as she passed, as she always did every day. But something felt different that morning. No-one wanted to make eye contact with her.
Her jaw dropped when she saw it. Someone had stuck a dagger into her new gate. The dagger had been used to pin the note to the gate. A double insult to her work. The words just made it worse. The Graf’s crest was stamped in black ink at the top of the paper. Although it was not signed and not pressed in wax with his personal seal.
She had all she needed on the building site still. They hadn’t taken away their tools yet, just in case. She was an alchemist as well as a builder and found the ingredients she needed to make saltpetre quickly enough. At that moment she didn’t know how she was going to deliver her special reply to the Graf. But she certainly wanted him to get the message loud and clear. She always felt a nice big bomb helped to clear up any misunderstandings. She was in the site workshop next to the palisade when the steward came. He announced himself with a cough outside, which was lucky as that avoided him coming in and seeing what she was making. She rushed out, her anger at the note forgotten in her excitement at working on her revenge.
“Yes, well,” he said, as if expecting Berta’s quizzical look to be different. “Ahem. I see you are still busy. Have you actually finished the gatehouse?”
She nodded. “Yes of course.”
“Well the Graf would like to inspect it. He wants to brief his captain of the guard on it and show the burghers what their taxes have been spent on for the last year. He will come this afternoon to view it. Will you be there to show him everything?”
Berta nodded. “Of course. That would be perfect. At what time exactly? I need to return to the camp first.”
“At five o’clock. Is that acceptable?”
“Oh yes quite. That makes it just the right length.”
“Length of time to get to the camp and back again, that’s all.”
The steward nodded and left. His news was perfect. An opportunity to repay her grudge against the Graf. The bomb would damage the gatehouse, but not destroy it. The structure was excellent. And she would place the bomb near the ground underneath the arch. She could even shield the structure of the gatehouse itself and ensure that the blast went outwards to harm people. She had enough fuse for a four-hour timed explosion. That would give her plenty of time to walk back to the camp. She had no intention of coming back again at five. Shortly afterwards to see the results would do well enough. It was important to know that a grudge had been satisfied. Some dwarf holds retained whole books of grudges, but she had plenty of space in her own head to store hers. And besides, she was the type of dwarf who liked to get payment as soon as it was due. In this case it looked like she wouldn’t be collecting on what was owed for finishing the gatehouse.
She was panting hard but felt relieved as the walls and fabulous new gatehouse of Alfensburg came into view. Pennons flew from the towers. Looked like the Graf had sent someone to put the bunting out. There was a large gathering already inside and outside the gate. Townsfolk milled about chatting. Stallholders had set-up to sell food and drink. A small band of musicians were paying and passing round a hat for contributions. The bomb was likely to kill and injure a lot more people than just the Graf and his cronies. And he wasn’t even to blame.
She had realised it only when she got back to the camp. She had gone through the contracts and all the letters and receipts again. She wanted to check what their rights were if the gatehouse was destroyed before payment was made. She knew whoever was left of the Graf’s household would be in little mood to pay out after the explosion. They may even point a finger at her. But even so it was always good to know what your rights were. If there was a chance of still claiming payment, then she would. It would be worth sticking around. If not, then she would suggest to her crew and her family that it might be time to move on.
She didn’t rush to look through the papers. She had lunch with Herda and Okri first. She had noticed that Okri seemed down as well, and afterwards said to Herda quietly that she could make her father one of her cakes that he liked so much. She didn’t think that would result in her being given a shopping list. As she read through it, she was reminded of another list that she had been given a while ago. The list was on the Graf’s letterhead but, like the note pinned to the gate insulting her work, not signed, or sealed by the Graf. And she knew not written by him, because the person who wrote it told her as much.
The Graf’s steward had given her the list. A list of the materials they had bought for the construction. He wanted to have confirmation of what had and hadn’t been used. The implication had been that Berta didn’t need it all and would use it for other projects or sell it. At the time she put it down to the normal tension between both parties. She rushed off to look for it in her files.
Soon she was surrounded by boxes and scroll-boxes. She needed to sort out her filing system. That was something Okri could help her with now that he wasn’t moving around very much. Would give him something to do. She must remember to talk to him about that, but not today.
She found the list finally and drew the note from the gate out of her pocket. She had crumpled it up in anger and had to lay it flat on a table next to the materials list the steward had given her. The handwriting was the same.
The steward had been undermining her. He was obsessed with money. More than likely he was stealing from the Graf and wanted to pin the blame on her. She remembered a conversation they had early on at the start of the project. He took her to one side and suggested she add on twenty percent to the cost of everything. She had refused. She thought he meant to be kind to her in a strange way—to facilitate her making more money, but she had taken it as a minor insult on her honour—not enough for a grudge, but she never liked the man after that.
Whatever his motive the insult against her work was not from the Graf himself. Indeed, it looked like a carnival had been arranged to celebrate the new gatehouse. Alfensburg needed better defences and the gatehouse was supposed to be the first part of that. Berta was hopeful up until yesterday that they would get a contract to do the rest of the walls as well—that would take years, but it would be very lucrative and would give Alfensburg the ability to fend off any beastmen raids—as long as they were guarded well as she kept on reminding the Graf and his captains.
But now she had to stop the bomb killing them and wrecking the gatehouse. But she had time. She looked down at the sand timer. It was still upright. She untied it. About a quarter of the sand left to go. She had plenty of time.
She walked through the crowd. People got in her way. They were idling as if there was nothing to worry about. Did they want to get blown to pieces? Suddenly a man in robes was in front of her. The steward. He smiled. He looked pleased with himself.
“Back just in time, I see.”
She would dearly love to send him flying with a good right hook. But she didn’t have time for distractions. She could deal with him later. She side-stepped past him, but there was a shout as she knocked against a man carrying a tray of drinks through the crowd. She was covered in ale. It was crappy human ale at that. Nasty stuff. She coughed and spluttered as the ale ran down her face and got in her eyes and mouth. She breathed the stench of malt through her nostrils and felt like retching.
The man carrying the tray was shouting at her. She didn’t hold back from thumping him hard in the gut and he bent in half at the waist in pain. She pushed him away and forced her way through the crowd. She was stopped again. Someone put her a hand on her shoulder and pulled her to a halt. She spun around spitting with anger. The next second she was apologising as she saw the Graf looking down on her, with the steward just behind him. The man was tall even for a human, and also aging. His grey hair was long and straggled underneath a fine broad hat. He was wearing his best clothes. Silks and furs. Gold and jewels glittered from around his neck and on his fingers.
The Graf looked stern. His mouth tended to always look cruel. But to her surprise it broke into a smile. “Getting into the party spirit I see! Where are the rest of your work crew? They should all be celebrating with us this afternoon. My steward said you had gone back to get them.”
“Umm, they’re on their way. Some of them just stopped off at a tavern. Could you excuse me for a minute? I need to get something from the gatehouse. Just some last final additions.”
She didn’t wait for a reply. Soon she was inside one of the towers. She unlocked the manhole cover that took her to the tunnel that went under the gate. There was a sally port that opened in the ground on the outside of the gate. That’s where she had placed the bomb. The bomb would be strong enough to blow through the concealed trapdoor and hit anyone underneath the gatehouse. It would have destroyed the tunnel as well. So, while the rest of the gatehouse would have been left standing the gate and the sally tunnel would have been ruined.
But the bomb wasn’t there. But there was another note.
Berta. I was watching you and saw that you placed the bomb. I have it in safekeeping now. You will remit to me half the payment for the gatehouse. You know who I am. Although you have no evidence to frame me, so don’t even try. And I can always use your nice big bomb whenever I choose. So, watch out! Enjoy the carnival!
This note was on plain paper and the handwriting was different. Almost a scrawl as if someone had tried to obscure their handwriting on purpose by using a different hand or writing upside down.
Berta took the piece of paper. Fine. The steward had won that day. But she would take that piece of paper and take it back to the dwarf camp and bind it into a book. Time to create her own book of grudges.