The Burgermeister of Spitzburg, Erich von Dank, could see the writing on the wall. He had heard word of the approach of the Aschenbach army, drawing far closer than the Luftberg force. Then, the roads had been cut by bluecoat foraging parties and scouting groups. The city was about to be taken, obviously. No force was present to resist a serious assault, so all accepted that the only thing to be done was to surrender the city in return for good treatment, and keep the disruption to profitable trade as small as possible.
Then, one morning, the thump of artillery and rattling musket fire could be heard to the south. Von Dank headed south out of the city to a small hill a short distance from the gates, a small delegation of the city’s magnates accompanying him. His secretary brought the large ornamental key to the city, to present to the occupiers when they arrived. A large welcome ceremony with Aschenbach flags was prepared in the city’s central square.
They didn’t have to wait long, as a column of fast-marching Aschenbach infantry quickly appeared out of the woods and came on down the road, with the General von Zaub riding at their head. The general cantered forward and halted in front of the delegation, whose small band energetically sprang into action.
Von Dank held up his prepared speech and launched into the oratory the occasion demanded. ‘General Graf von Zaub, rightful heir to the province of Zaub, and representative of the Kingdom of Aschenbach – ‘ von Dank tried to concentrate and press on, but faltered as the column of infantry swept past them, ignoring the usual niceties which dictated they should wait until the surrender was accepted.
Even Von Zaub, although he waited politely, seemed distracted. As Von Dank faltered, he seized his chance to cut in. ‘My thanks, Herr Burgermeister. I’m proud to accept this city’s surrender. My men and I will be heading straight to the riverside docks.’
Von Dank struggled again with this news. ‘The docks Herr General? But that’s the worst part of the city! We have a welcome ceremony for you in the city centre, if – ‘ Once again, Von Zaub cut him off with the barest politeness.
‘I’m afraid we have some matters to attend to. Nonetheless, the Aschenbach state is grateful for the loyalty of it’s rightful citizens, and shall be issuing a sum of funds in a display of appreciation.’ At this, the attentiveness of the delegation picked up. Von Zaub continued, as the troops marched past them and on into the city gates. ‘I’m sure the Spitzburg Bank will forward the money for us in the meantime. How much do you currently hold in your vaults?’
‘Around forty thousand thalers, herr General’ piped up von Dank’s secretary before he could stop him.
Von Zaub didn’t even blink. ‘Excellent. Release it at once. All 40,000 thalers. Distribute it as a gift from Aschenbach to the worthy citizens and nobility of the city. You can decide between yourselves who is deserving.’ The band’s music suddenly died away. Members of the delegation exchanged looks. Von Zaub, seeing the tail of his column disappear into the gates, raised his hat and with a cheery ‘Goodbye Gentlemen!’ he galloped after them.
Von Dank gawped after him, the dust cloud all around. As it settled, he realised that many hangers-on and even some official delegation members had slipped away, heading back to the city to reach the bank first. Von Dank headed back to the city himself, with his secretary in tow, still holding the ceremonial key.
By the time he reached the gate, the whole city was in an uproar and he was instantly waylaid by a mob, with dozens shouting at him at once.
‘Von Dank, is it true that the Aschenbachers are emptying the bank vaults?’
‘It is! I’ve seen them! They simply opened the doors and left it!’
‘I want some! I’m a worthy citizen!’
‘I’m more deserving! Give me money!’
‘The Aschenbach troops are all down in the riverside!’
‘They’ve commandeered boats to cross the river and have abandoned them on the far bank!’
‘The mob’s turning into a riot! Call out the militia!’
What on earth was Von Zaub playing at? Von Dank was going to have to find him and demand an explanation for this chaos, but he could barely get beyond the gate, never mind make it to the riverside.
A voice called down from the gate walls. ‘Sir! Look! Back up the road!’ Von Dank looked back behind him. Coming up the road was another column, this time of white-coated troops flying Luftberg colours, hot on the heels of their enemies. An officer galloped ahead of the column towards him. Von Dank began to feel distinctly unwell.
The officer pulled up. ‘Herr Burgermeister, this city is now being occupied by the Luftberg army of Feldmarschall von Hentsch. Have there been any Aschenbach troops spotted near here? That rogue von Zaub has been cut off from the bridges south of here, so he can’t get across the river. He’s trapped for certain as long as nobody dos anything stupid.’ As he finished speaking, the officer glanced past Von Dank and noticed the chaotic scenes in the street, framed by the gateway’s arch, which told him a whole city’s worth of ‘anything stupid’ was happening right now.
With a furious glower at von Dank, he wrenched the horse around and pounded back to warn his superiors, leaving the Burgermeister in yet another dust cloud. His secretary appeared at his elbow. ‘It’s been a bit of a strange day, hasn’t it sir?’ Von Dank grabbed his lapels and pulled him up. ‘Get to the square and pull those Aschenbach welcome flags down – quickly!’