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"A man who seeks truth and loves it must be reckoned precious to any human society."

- Frederick the Great

Friday 30 September 2011

Werewolves and Cannonballs

“So, have you got Cynthia properly sorted?” asked Brian as I collapsed onto the sofa in his study. “Is she now all pointy teeth and hairy legs? Or did you decide to eat her after all?”

My afternoon flight from Heathrow to Stuttgart had been delayed nearly two hours and I was exhausted after a week of MI6 debriefings about Libya. Thus I was in no mood for Brian’s questioning.

“The Initiation proceeded exactly as expected,” I said, resting my feet on his expensive coffee table, “and Cynthia does make a very attractive werewolf.”

“A natural blonde, is she?” He offered me a cushion to protect the mahogany finish from my boots. 

“That’s a typically male question,” I observed. “If you must know, she is blonde from top to bottom – rather a novelty among the Sisterhood. Beautiful fur, but hard to get clean after the hunt, with all that blood.”

“You took her hunting? Presumably the steppes of Russia provided ample game for the purpose.”

“In fact, the Initiation is the only exception to the Sisterhood’s rule prohibiting the killing of humans, and the ceremony concludes with a ritual sacrifice. In the past, when Initiations were more common, dozens of virgins were often sacrificed at once. Last week we had trouble finding even one, however, so I suppose it was fortunate that there was only Cynthia.”

Brian turned pale and reached for the wastepaper bin.

“It is a great honour for the human thus chosen,” I reassured him. “In her next lifetime, she will be initiated into the Sisterhood herself.”

“Rather poor consolation for the murdered girl,” commented Brian, still holding the bin. “And where is Cynthia now? You haven’t brought her back here, I hope. By now the Russian authorities will be searching for the killer, and they will surely make a DNA match to Cynthia’s CIA records.”

“Not to worry,” I said. “Our DNA undergoes the transformation as well, and is quite untraceable. As for Cynthia, after the Initiation we took her back to the CIA outpost in Libya, where she pretended to have escaped from al-Qaida. I’ve put a request through channels for Cynthia to be transferred to Cairo next week, so that Kasaqa can begin training her before the next monthly bleeding. We don’t want any uncontrolled transformations.”

“So Kasaqa is to be her Companion? I thought you two…”

“Yes, well, things don’t always work out. But perhaps it’s for the best. Cynthia’s dreadful American accent was beginning to get on my nerves. Now if you don’t mind, I’d like to take a shower. I’m completely worn out.”

“Have you got a new assignment from MI6?” Brian was being annoyingly persistent today.

“They were considering sending me to Syria, but I declined – no more Arab dictatorships for a while, thank you. Maybe I’ll be assigned somewhere relaxing, like North Korea.”

“You’re joking of course.”

“Not at all. The hills outside Pyongyang are beautiful in the wintertime. Besides, I’m not likely to come under artillery fire there. I had quite enough of that in Tripoli.”

“Don’t tell me you’re afraid of artillery? I thought werewolves could only be harmed by silver.”

“And fire. The Sisterhood thinks that the flash from a high-explosive round might be sufficient to cause fatal injuries, and I certainly don’t want to find out. Besides, being struck by non-silver weapons is quite painful, even if ultimately harmless. I once took a direct hit from a three-pounder, and would not care to repeat the experience.”

“A three-pounder? Sounds like an extra-large McBurger…”

“It’s a cannon,” I said, “the most common field-artillery piece in the eighteenth century and extremely deadly when canister rounds were used.”

“Canister rounds? Please forgive my ignorance, but I am a musicologist, not a soldier.”

“Imagine a thin metal casing filled with fifty musket-balls, like a giant shotgun shell. When fired, the canister peels away and the balls disperse in a conical pattern. At ranges between two and three hundred metres, canister-shot perforates infantry like a sieve. And the Austrians had dozens of three-pounders firing into our lines advancing from Sterboholy.”

“You’ve completely lost me now. Your lines? Sterboholy?”

“The Battle of Prague in 1757. I was performing field-espionage for the Prussians and was drawn into the fighting in the marshes around Sterboholy, east of the city. It’s a scene I’ll never forget. Thousands killed in less than half an hour. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m really dying for a shower.”

I stood up wearily and headed for the bath.

“Wait just a moment,” said Brian. “Surely you’re not going to tell the beginning of a story and just leave me hanging like this.”

“You can read about it in my memoirs, in volume three somewhere.”

“But it’s so much more exciting to hear first-hand. Besides, you owe me for aiding and abetting Cynthia’s kidnapping.”

“Very well,” I said, sinking into the sofa again. “But I’m warning you, the story will upset your delicate stomach much more than Cynthia and the human sacrifice.”

Brian reached for his whisky decanter. “Go on. I can take it.”

 “It was early in the morning on the 6th of May 1757. The Prussian army had marched all night and Field-Marshal Schwerin asked that his troops be allowed to rest. I had access to the Austrians’ plans for the defence of Prague, however, and therefore I recommended to Friedrich that we attack immediately.”

“Do you mean to say that you told Frederick the Great how to conduct a battle?”

“I was one of the king’s closest advisors – secretly of course, since he would never have admitted to taking advice from a woman. In fact, I helped him out of more than one scrape. How else do you think that the Prussians won the Seven Years’ War, surrounded by enemies many times their strength? Friedrich had help from the Sisterhood because the Austrians had help from the Apostates. Remember the story about Austrian chancellor, Graf von Kaunitz?”

“You mean the Apostate who had once been Kublai Khan? Yes, of course.” Brian poured himself a large whisky. “But while we’re on the subject of Frederick the Great: did you ever hear him play the flute? I’ve been thinking about writing a book about royal musicians in eighteenth-century Europe…”

“In fact, I heard Friedrich play quite often and he was indeed an excellent flautist. But you’re letting the musicologist hang out again. Do you want to hear about the battle or not? Otherwise I’m off to the shower.”

“Sorry. Please continue.”

“The ground east of Prague was full of streams and bogs, but I had learned of a causeway which would afford safe passage through the marshes. If the Prussians succeeded in crossing it, they could outflank the main Austrian lines and cut them to ribbons. On the ridges above the causeway, however, were artillery batteries consisting of nearly one hundred three-pounders.”

“Loaded with canister-shot.” Brian’s grasp of military strategy was astounding.

“Disguised as a peasant boy, I led the Prussian infantry under Generals Winterfeldt and Schwerin toward the village of Sterboholy, behind which lay the causeway. From the vantage-point of the town, I pointed out the strategic path to Winterfeldt, who without the slightest hesitation ordered the Prussian first line to advance. I watched in horror as Winterfeldt’s grenadiers marched straight toward the Austrians with fixed bayonets. After two hundred paces, they received the first volley of musket fire, but continued on as if they were on a Sunday stroll. A second volley was fired, and still they marched. Even at the third volley they did not falter, but by now the Prussians had entered the effective range of the three-pounders on the ridge. The Austrian gun-crews opened fire, and the grenadiers were raked by a hundred canister rounds all at once. Every second man died on the spot. Winterfeldt himself was struck and toppled from his horse. Seeing their general fall, the men hesitated, and then began to retreat under the hail of canister-shot. For most of these veteran grenadiers – the toughest in the Prussian army – this was the first time in their lives they had retreated in battle.

“Despite having seen this, the elderly Field-Marshal Schwerin – who was over the age of seventy – now commanded the Prussian second line to advance. They came under the same withering fire. When his own regiment began to falter, however, Schwerin himself seized the Prussian colours from the flag-bearer and rode forth in front of the entire corps. ‘Follow me, my children,’ he called and turned directly into the enemy fire. Within seconds, the old general was struck by canister-shot and fell dead. The colours covered him like a funeral shroud. The general’s adjutant took up the standard to rally the troops, but he too was shot down.

“At that moment, I knew that there was only one thing to be done. I rushed forward, picked up the colours, and shouted ‘Für Friedrich und für Preußen!’ In the thick black-powder smoke, the troops behind me could see nothing but the flag itself and not its bearer. I had only to keep marching and they would follow.

“Now it was my turn to be shot. The first musket-ball struck me in the leg, the second in the chest. The wounds were painful but not incapacitating. Shifting would shake out the bullets, but there was no time for that. As I continued across the causeway, I was hit again in the arm, and then in the side of my head. I reached up to find that a fist-size piece was missing from my skull; fortunately the bullet had glanced off and not entered my brain, as even a lead projectile might have temporarily affected my vision and orientation.

“I had just reached the far end of the causeway when a canister round caught me full in the abdomen and knocked me off my feet. At least twenty balls had opened me like a sieve. I looked down to see that my intestines had been shredded and were hanging out the gaping wound. As my spine had not been shattered, however, I could still walk. So I got back on my feet and raised the flag with one hand, whilst holding my guts in the other. Though I knew this wound could not kill me, it was blindingly painful and the extreme loss of blood would cause me to lose consciousness within minutes. Nevertheless, I continued up the slope of the ridge toward the artillery positions. Seeing the Prussian colours, the men of Schwerin’s command cheered and pressed forward. Soon they reached the gun emplacements, where they put the gun-crews to their bayonets. 

“At this point, I fell by the wayside, groping with my hands at the hole which had been my stomach. I needed to put my intestines back inside before I passed out, as the healing process would begin at any moment, and it would be opportune if my guts were where they belonged before the wound closed. With my last ounce of strength, I stuffed the final bits back into the hole and shifted into my wolf form to accelerate the healing. Then everything went black.

“When I came to again, my abdomen was whole but still very painful. The healing process does not come without cost, and I had lost a great deal of blood, so it was necessary to feed. Fortunately, there was a wide selection of battlefield casualties from which to choose. I felt a bit like an Apostate as I put two wounded Austrians out of their misery, though I did resist the temptation to eat their brains. Afterwards I headed for the top of the ridge to observe the situation. Even my wolf-brain could tell that the battle was won. The Austrians had been taken completely by surprise by the ferocity of our onslaught, and I saw that their entire right wing was collapsing as other Prussian units attacked from the north.”

“So you actually won the Battle of Prague for Prussia?” said Brian. “Did the king ever learn about this?”

“I'm just getting to that. After the battle, I ran to Friedrich’s camp to report. Fortunately, nobody notices a lone wolf running about on the battlefield. I was just about to shift back into human form when it occurred to me that I had lost my clothes, so I stole a peasant girl’s dress from a drying-line before entering the camp. As there were a number of women and children milling about in the streets not far from the king’s tent, I was able to approach within twenty feet before being challenged by the Garde du Corps.

“‘Here you, don’t you be getting too close to His Majesty,’ called one of the royal guardsmen, pointing his bayonet at my breast.

“‘No harm is meant, sir,’ said I, ‘but I bring a message for the king. Please be so good as to tell him that the flowers of Wales bloom in the spring.’ This was our pre-arranged password.

“‘I’ll do nothing of the kind. Do you think I’m going to tell the King of Prussia that some filthy little whore is looking for him? Now you run off double-quick, or the lads and I might decide to have some fun with you.’

“‘Corporal!’ shouted Friedrich, emerging from his tent. ‘Let that woman through at once, and mind your tongue if you don’t want a flogging.’

“The guard bowed and let me pass. Inside the tent, the king motioned for his staff to withdraw, as he did not wish to be seen conferring with me. 

“‘Lady Llewellyn,’ said Friedrich, ‘for the life of me, I cannot fathom how you manage to be everywhere at once. But surely you have news, as always.’

“‘Your Majesty, it is my sad duty to report the death of Field-Marshal Schwerin, who was killed while leading a charge upon the Austrian ranks near Sterboholy. Spurred on by his heroic sacrifice, Schwerin’s regiment succeeded in breaking the enemy’s southern flank shortly before another corps attacked from the north. Thus, the entire Austrian right wing was routed and fled the field. The rest of the army has withdrawn into the city, where they will be preparing for a siege.’

“‘It saddens me greatly to hear of Schwerin’s demise,’ said Friedrich, ‘but there can be no greater glory for a Prussian general than to die for his king in battle. Please tell me, what brave officer continued the charge in Schwerin’s stead?’

“‘I cannot say, Sire, as the confusion on the battlefield was very great. Perhaps it will never be known.’

“‘So you claim, though I have heard that a young peasant boy distinguished himself in service to our cause today. History may not record the name of that boy, but you may be assured that he has my deepest personal gratitude. Please see that he receives this token of my thanks.’

“The king handed me a leather purse, which by the weight I judged must have contained about forty Friedrich d’or – a small fortune in gold. He then doffed his tricorne and bowed to me. At that moment, several of Friedrich’s officers entered the tent. The astonishment on their faces at seeing the King of Prussia bowing to a dirty peasant girl can hardly be described.”

“A fascinating story,” said Brian, “but you realise that there’s no way to corroborate it. None of the history books mention peasant boys or girls playing any role in the Battle of Prague. How do I know you’re not just fabricating the whole thing?”

“You don’t,” I replied. “But I do have something here for your collection of eighteenth-century rarities. I’ve been carrying this around for a long time as a good luck charm, but you may have it.”

I dropped a gold coin bearing the Prussian eagle into Brian’s hand.

“May I have my shower now?”

Brian nodded wordlessly and downed the rest of his whisky.

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