The Banjolele is a strange instrument, but one that Lord Edenred loved to listen to, especially when it was being played by his faithful manservant, Burke. Standing at a mere five and a half feet, he was a methodical and meticulous man, making the most of the generous clothing allowance granted to him by his employer.
Looks aside, Burke had a wicked sense of humour and made up some of the funniest rhymes Edenred had ever heard. Most of them were considerably ribald in nature, whilst avoiding using truly offensive language. All of them were accompanied by a frantic strumming of the banjolele. ‘Sherry Monocle’ was a particular favourite.
Despite being surrounded by his peers, Edenred far preferred the company of Burke and his family to that of Lord Blah and Lady Titter. Nothing bored him more than vacuous conversation with nincompoops with no true understanding of life, hardship or the brave new world they lived in. God only knew how they expected to continue to live in the manner to which they were accustomed prior to the Horde.
Edenred had been quick to realise that no matter how much people wished for their lives to return to normal, it wasn’t going to happen. Ever since the assassination attempt on Queen Victoria, the opening of the aether gates, and the arrival of the Horde and aether-born; the old ways were gone.
The loss of London had shattered British morale at first, but everyone had quickly rallied and pulled together, working class and nobility standing shoulder to shoulder and dying in their droves to prevent the horde from gaining even more of a foothold.
Still, the divisions of class remained, but they would no longer be the same. Working class heroes had been well rewarded for their actions, merchants had been quick to see opportunity and seize it and nobles had lost lands and income.
Edenred’s father had been a progressive landowner. His people weren’t forced to live on his land in hovels, struggling to make their pay stretch to buy meals, too poor to pay for a doctor when one of their family fell ill. His father had been scorned for the way he looked after his staff ‘spare the rod, spoil the servant’, but he had built up a business that employed people one hundred per cent loyal to him and his companies.
Edenred had kept up this tradition, loving the freedom that being allowed to mix with the estate staff’s children as a child himself. Chess and croquet were most certainly not on the agenda. Boxing, mud fights, wrestling, stick fights, marbles, hoops, fort making, fort breaking and poaching became cherished memories as he grew up, with many a black eye and split lip being met with a disapproving sniff from his mother and a pat on the head and a penny from his father.
Burke was the lasting legacy of hat childhood. A friend whom he knew he could, had, and would trust with his life. The son of the Head Gardener, Burke had always been a part of Edenred’s life. Whether it was as part of the gang that ran through the estate, or as his batman during his time in the British army, Edenred knew that Burke would be at his side.
This bond went far beyond that of employer and employee, master and servant. They were as close as two men could be without being brothers. Edenred smiled as he remembered the day that they, along with the hastily formed Edenred Militia, had rushed to London’s aid, finding themselves being thrown into battle with no orders, tactics or strategy beyond that of ‘kill the buggers, and save our people.’
Those days had been some of most terrifying, dreadful, horrific and exhilarating days of his life. Pouring off of the train that had transported them into the heart of London, they joined other desperate defenders at the hastily erected barricades. Creatures of myth and legend had ripped, sliced, torn, bitten, crushed, and smashed their comrades, brothers, fathers, sons and friends, whilst the men that came to be known as Slavs added to the confusion. Too often a unit of militia would realised that the humans approaching them were the enemy.
Following days of battle, street-by-street, house-to-house, the shattered defenders had been slowly and inexorably pushed out of London, their blood buying time for as many citizens as possible to escape the horror that London had become. Even now Edenred felt his stomach twist and the bile rise, as images of those days sprang unbidden into his head. Snatches of Vampyres, Werewolves, Hags, Gargoyles, Grotesques, Marsh Fairies, Dracos, and any number of other horrors whisked through his mind’s eye. Side-by-side he and Burke had killed or maimed all that fought them, saving each other countless times, and keeping their morale up with a barrage of jokes and insults.
He shuddered as he remembered how only twenty men had returned, leaving over three hundred of their unit dead. The loss of life had been almost too much for the village to bear, and it was only through his father’s reputation and business acumen that they were able to encourage new staff to join, offering all of the widows not only positions on the staff, but also a pension.
Burke had moved on to another equally ribald song about how one couldn’t rape a goat these days, and the staff sat in the room with them laughed and clapped at the ridiculous lyrics. Smiling, Edenred reached down and slipped his hand into his pocket, stroking the mask that he was never without. He looked up as Burke missed a note, and saw that he was looking at him, hand on pocket. A knowing smile touched his lips and he continued the song as if nothing had happened.
Closing his eyes for a brief second, Edenred cast his mind back to the day they had found it. Or, had it found them?
‘Faster damn you, the bastards are just behind us.’ he could feel the bike rising into his mouth as he tried to force his legs to keep running. The baying of the wolves behind them helped him dig a bit deeper.
Up ahead, Burke turned, hands fumbling at his cartridge pouch as he desperately tried to reload his rifle. The others caught up with him and turned, forming a line that was ragged in more ways than one. Firstly, not one was able to catch a full breath. Days of too much fighting, too little sustenance and too little sleep had robbed men in their prime of their vitality.
Secondly, their clothing was little more than rags. Initially bright red, the pride of the Edenred Volunteer Militia, their uniforms had fared badly during the battles. Some of the men shifted as their feet bled, the leather of their shoes having been worn or rotted away.
There was a rattle as they brought their weapons to bear. No order was needed a they all knew that they had to hold their fire for as long as possible. Ammunition was too valuable to waste on shots that might not hit. Some, rather than raising their rifles to their shoulders held them low, bayonets glinting in the light.
The wolves poured towards them, as many as five times more than the men arrayed in front of them.
‘Thank God they’re only wolves this time sir.’ Burke’s rifle was the only one that was rock steady. It was perfectly clean as well. All of them had quickly learned that whilst it might be permissible to miss out on the odd wash, it was not permissible to fail to maintain their weapons. Their lives and those of their comrades depended on their weapons being in tip top condition.
Edenred raised his pistol, having waited until the last moment to do so, he wanted his arm as fresh as it could be.
The wolves were mere yards away, their yips and yaps piercing the air. Slowly, as if he was just seeing how far he could curl his finger back, Edenred pulled his trigger. The revolver, bucked in his hand, and a wolf tumbled over, yelping.
The others opened fire, rifles cracking, pistols barking and shot guns booming. A few well aimed rocks slammed into wolves, doing them little damage but slowing them nonetheless. Corpses slid along the brick-strewn street, their brethren flowing over them like a river of fur.
With snarls and screams the wolves punched into their line. Edenred pulled his trigger as fast as he could, the heavy rounds blowing chunks of flesh from his targets.
‘Watch out sir,’ Burke slammed a shoulder into him as a particularly large wolf leapt at him from his blindside. Burke’s bayonet thrust forward, tearing through the soft underside of its belly, using its momentum to pitch it over his head, much in the manner of a farm worker tossing a bale of hay onto cart.
Edenred barely had time to register what had happened before another wolf appeared snapping at his face. Offering his free hand, he shoved it into the creature’s mouth. Grimacing as it clamped its jaws around his forearm he steadied himself and then thrust the barrel of his pistol clear through its eye, savagely wiggling it around in the skull. Like a suit falling from a hanger, the wolf collapsed to the ground. He carefully prised the jaws open and removed his arm, reloading his pistol as fast as shaking hands would let him.
Glancing around he saw that the wolves were eating the worst of the encounter. Normally, after suffering so many casualties, they would have made off to lick their wounds, but this pack seemed almost unnaturally persistent.
‘Fight hard lads, these bastards seem to think that they can lick us!’ he strode forward and calmly shot a wolf that had pinned one of his men to the ground, ‘Up you get lad, no time for having a lie down.’ the lad in question was probably a good ten years older than him.
There was a sudden blur of movement, a spray of warm liquid, and the man’s had slowly toppled from his shoulders. Another blur of movement made him flinch. A line of searing pain scored its way across his face, cheek to cheek, and he cried out in a combination of shock and pain.
A cloak flashed across his face and he raised his arms on reflex. More pain, this time on both arms. He desperately back pedalled, trying to get distance between him and his shockingly fast adversary.
He caught sight of a face, leering at him like some mummer’s mask, the mouth filled with razor sharp teeth and the eyes bare slits. The skin was a dark purple, and shone like well polished leather. Ears resembling those of a cat thrust up from its head, twitching at the sounds of the fight around them.
All of this took less than a second to take in, but in a fit to the death, such a delay can be deadly. Indeed, if this fight had taken place at the start of the Horde’s invasion, such an horrendous visage wild have seen him frozen to the spot. Now however, he was a hardened veteran, his mind able to accept any manner of strangeness in this new world.
He snapped his leg out, stabbing the toe of his boot low into his opponent’s shin, and snatched a shot off from his pistol. Both seemed to hit as the man – creature? – Staggered, pausing momentarily. That pause, whilst lasting only a hundredth of a second was enough. Burke – who had desperately been trying to help his master – stamped forward and punched his rifle forward, the eighteen inch bayonet easily parting cloth and flesh alike.
With a scream that brought tears to their eyes, the creature slashed downwards, the razor sharp talons at the ends of its fingers cutting through the barrel of the rifle easily.
Taking advantage of the opening, Edenred snapped off four shots, keeping the muzzle of his pistol close to the creature’s body. The gases from each of the shots opened a gaping hole the size of his feet, the heavy rounds blowing chunks of flesh out of the exit wound.
With a gasp that was choked off by a clot of blood, the creature fell forward into Edenred, its face sliding down his chest. As it did so, the ghastly visage seemed to slough off, just like a snake shedding its skin.
‘Bloody’ell, it’s nothing but an ‘uman.’ Burke stood, mouth agape as what had previously seemed to be a demon, turned into a man who looked as though he should be consulting on a matter of accounting.
Edenred started at the sound of his voice. The sounds of battle had stopped. He looked sharply around, twisting this way and that, realising that the wolves had gone. Barely half of his men stood, all of them bearing testament to the fight they had just been in. The rest were down, blood pooling in the dust and debris on the road, making islands out of broken bricks. Burke quickly set about getting the injured looked, and keeping the healthy men too busy to think about what had just happened.
Edenred knelt down and cautiously prodded the skin, it’s a mask, a grotesque mask. In of itself the mask didn’t look particularly spectacular, where the bloody hell are the teeth? He reached over and peeled the man’s lips back, revealing nothing but normal teeth.
Picking it up, he felt a tingle shoot up his spine and shivered, can’t hurt to try this on.
Slowly, he pulled the mask towards his face, lowering his head to tie the laces around it.
‘Another drink sir?’ he started at the voice, eyes struggling to focus as Manfred, one of the servants leant forward, a bottle of claret hovering over Endenred’s glass.
‘Yes, thank you,’ with supreme self-control he willed his hand not to shake as he raised it to be filled, his heart hammering in his chest.
Once again he caught Burke’s eye and raised his glass, whilst tapping his pocket. Burke smiled, nodded his head, and continued playing.