Count Joe Kürbisgärtner
Count Joe Kürbisgärtner appears to be a weathered old farmer dressed in overalls and a hat. In reality, he is a humble Vampire Count who lives on a plot of land on the outskirts of some damned blighted ground somewhere in the Empire. He cultivates multiple fields of crops, which he trades in the nearby town found just out of sight of his estate. His secret is well known, but ever since his presence was first reported almost three hundred years ago by a terrified tax collector who found a Master Vampire paying him in chickens and a pumpkin, he has sat on the backburner of the local nobles as well as the Witch Hunters. After all, most individuals are bright enough not to poke a sleeping dragon without cause.
No "living" being has knowledge of his origins. Only a few clues exist, like his family name appearing on the wall of a crumbling ruin atop an old mountain in Kislev once known to house a company of Blood Dragons; an old polished suit of armor that gathers dust in the corner of his "thinkin' room" in the old Estalian style; a skeletal horse, whose movements seem more deliberate than that of a mere reanimated beast; and a wagon wheel made of Gromril hung ornamentally from a fence post.
Count Joe has never been seen to exhibit a lust for blood in the living recollection of any man in the village. Some of the older gents who spend their days spinning yarns of incensed charging into portals to war on the domains of the Ruinous Powers, races of Dwarfs swallowed by locusts from the blackest of nights, virtuous knights that draw power from the blood of maidens, and similar such nonsense will claim to know what makes their neighbor differ. Sit enough with them on the right day and you'll hear that he was planted in the Earth a sinner and grew into a saint. That like a dog that loses sight but can hear for miles, the lack of light made Ol' Joe attune himself with the soil. That Joe loved a woman from the village, and she bore his child to another man so Joe turned to watch over his kin in the village for all time. No matter the story, the ending is the same. Count Joe Kürbisgärtner is here to stay, and is as good a neighbor and a better farmer than any have ever known.
When angered, he summons an army of corpses from his blighted locale: the first time because a Warriors of Chaos army on their way to destroy the Empire pillaged his fields for rations while he was at market. The Emperor, only knowing that the intervention of "a crazy old farmer and his farmhands" saved the day, granted him title and a medal for his service. Joe added the former via simple black paint to the name on his mailbox; the latter hangs proudly on on his favorite scarecrow.
His "field hands" are various skeletal and incorporeal undead. The skeletons who work the fields wash up in the creek every evening, keeping their bones a bright polished off-white color, and the tools they use to work the fields are sharpened, oiled, and re-fastened while their master slumbers during the daylight hours. Phantasms appearing as the perfect visage of leering Death turn shimmering scythes on wheat and whisk them into bunches on the ground to be bundled by their corporeal companions. Joe never utilizes Zombies as he finds them disturbing (particularly to his flower beds), and finds the table manners as well as the outlandish slang and music preference of Ghouls to be offensive. He only ever had one Dire Wolf, an old hound dog named "Rip" who can be found terrorizing (literally) Chaos mutated wildlife down by the creek most days.
His personal symbol is a sunflower growing out of a skull. It adorns the crates he transports goods to town in, as well as an old battle flag that hangs from his barn when not borne into battle by skeletons wearing gardening gloves. When well and truly riled, there are stories that the plant life acts in unnatural ways; trees will leave a plot of land and avenge the owners slain by villains in the night, pathways into the area close before armies of the damned, fields of wheat blaze like fire when raiders attempt to cross them.
When he and his crew march into battle, the old haywagon is hitched to a team of skeletal steeds. Whatever remains of Count Joe's crop is loaded into the rickety old oak vehicle and thrown at the enemies of the farm. The ill-will felt by scores of cheated laborers strengthens the frame of the wagon and passes into the plump ammunition causing pumpkin innards to wrap around men and strangle them, corn cobs to burn flesh and steel, and rhubarb to strike men with the force of a fully loosed broadhead arrow.
Count Kürbisgärtner has a special rule when it comes to stragglers and weary travelers: all can resupply and rest in the solitude that is the amber acres of his rule, but you must be courteous, polite, and provide stories to entertain the old man. Those expecting him to feed an army must prove themselves worthy of his boons. There have been many times that Dwarven and Empire soldiers have stopped by while en route to the middle lands of the Empire, their waterskins dry and their cheese as hard as their bread. As travelers approach the fields, their presence has already been reported by the many scarecrows that dot the landscape, each shifting slightly as if buffeted by an unseen breeze in sequence until the sound reaches the Master wherever he may be. If need be these scarecrows are capable of taking care of the more rowdy visitors by shifting on their poles to bring their poisoned talons to bear, tearing into flesh and cutting loose the bone.
When visitors arrive to the Count's humble mailbox he appears, walking through the golden stalks of wheat. Small groups of travelers are greeted by an old man in stitched trousers waving them inside the house to refill provisions and rest their weary bones. But when bands of mercenaries or armies come to his lands, they are greeted by a far different sight. Out of the tall hay he strides into the light from the starry sky above, clad in full armor and with a countenance more fiercely noble than any who had seen his former adornments could have thought possible. His ancient Blood Dragon armor is more simple in design than that of his former brothers, being made up of overlapping chestplates bordered by smoothed spaulders. A heavy skirt of leather with studs of brilliant copper covers his legs like a long kilt. While most Blood Dragons wield mighty swords of daemonic power, Joe bears an extremely heavy pitchfork on his shoulder which appears simple and elegant in design as if made by Elven crafstmen on Ulthuan. There have been times that the pitchfork has pierced through the armor of Chaos-tainted marauders and embedded into the flesh below, the unfortunate screeching in horror as their legs hardened into wood. Within moments the assailant transforms into a tree, their soul stored deep within the heartwood.
The sight of the Count alone, emerging from the wheat, has caused travelers to flee in panic. Those who stay are often desperately weary and hungry, and ask the Count for food, water, and a place to sleep away their exhaustion. That is when the Count challenges the leader of the group to one-on-one combat and the travelers can earn their vittles and fresh hay to sleep on. If they fail to impress the Count, they are given directions to the town and are promptly stalked by the scarecrows to make sure they do not attempt revenge upon the fields.
Those who are worthy enough to venture forth into the fields are lead down a dirt path. As they walk they are greeted by the sight of skeletons silently farming and tilling soil, plucking vegetables gingerly, and stacking arms upon each other to grab the ripest fruit. The skeletons are not the usual gritty specimens summoned forth by von Carsteins or Lahmians, but polished so their very bones shimmer and shine in the sunlight giving them an almost silvery appearance. Soon the Count shows his guests to the grand barn, made not of hay and wood but of of formed stone and marble, three levels high and just as long. Inside it is clean and tidy, with skeletal horses stomping and tossing false manes while in stalls. The horses show fluidity and personality, as if the spirit of the horse still finds joy in undeath. Past the stalls are the guest quarters; immaculate yet spartan racks line the walls with cloth covered hay beds in every bunk. On the opposite wall are kegs of wine, beer, water, and stacks of raw veg and fruit as high as an elf. This is where the worthy sleep and recharge to go about their journeys. Everyone from Bretonnian Knights and Dwarven Dragon Slayers to wary Witch Hunters touting droves of pilgrims have slept and gotten drunk in those halls, and all show their thanks to Joe when they leave. As they leave they always see Joe clapping a skeleton on the back and retiring to his room with the rising morning sun barely kissing the horizon.
The Dark Elf Incursion
The bordering town that rubs shoulders with the Many Acres has flourished from the Count's kindness. However... No other race loves healthy Empire citizens more than Dark Elves.
One fell night the Dark Elves moved into the city, dispatching the lightly armed guards with sinister efficiency. Thankfully a quick-minded Patrolman threw a torch in a high arc, the flaming bundle landing within the wheat of the field that lay just within reach. The Patrolman was cut down like a dog, but his death was not in vain: A scarecrow, sensing an attack on his plot, had stalked up to the torch, wary of its burning embers. It cocked its head when it heard a blade being shoved through flesh, and saw the town under attack. With a startled skip, it took off down the fields to warn the count.
In the town things were looking grim; the Dark Elves had rounded up the villagers, stripping them naked and tying them to poles for transport. Corsairs tossed babies in the air, catching them on swords while footsoldiers broke open kegs and drowned the weaker men in the frothy beer. Cries and sobs echoed in he night, filling the starry air with sorrow and pain. There was however, a noise; a noise that caused the Dark Elves to stop their gleeful slaughter and look up into the quickly cooling air. Fog moved in over the walls, crawling along the ground, the fingertips of the Count's rage that echoed into the sky.
The first attack was abrupt. As soon as the echo of the Count's challenge stopped, the scarecrows leapt the walls under the cover of the fog. Sentries posted on the walls cried out, but were cut abruptly short as taloned hands sliced through necks and bowels, spraying viscera on the clean parapets. The veteran soldiers and common ground troops rallied to the center of the town, dropping their prisoners and leaving them to their doom. Scarecrows bounded over the walls and rooftops, quickly dispatching the archers in their little roosts. With this completed, the Skeletons began their advance, quietly coming out from the fog in iron-willed silence. The Dark Elves panicked as the Skeletons marched past the helpless townsfolk, their gilded armor and mail clean and perfect, but silent-- not even the softest "chink" to be heard. Then with a terrible screech the Skeletons tore into the Dark Elves, scythes and swords cutting them down as if it were just another day in the field. Finally, with a challenging roar Joe came cutting in through the Skeleton ranks, thrusting the fork of his great weapon into the Elves still standing. The squalls of Elves changing into trees could be heard over the screeching of the Skeletons as their skin gnarled into wood and limbs twisted painfully. Then the leader of the Dark Elves grabbed Joe's son, placing his barbed sword to the young boy's neck. Joe stared at the Elf holding his boy hostage, his pitchfork glowing a sharp green in the night. Then Joe smiled, flicking the pitchfork into a spear position and chucking it into the throat of the Elf. His boy slipped away, running back to his mother as the Elf began to silently scream into the night.
As soon as it began, it was over. All that was left of the Dark Elves and the Undead warriors were bloodstains on the streets and the small grove of trees in the middle of the square.
The Surly Highborn
The High Elf prince sniffed in disdain at the little creaky mailbox before him, giving the stout wooden post a kick. He had heard of the Count who lived and tilled these lands, as many said he would give provisions to those worthy enough. He looked back at his men, sucking at near-empty waterskins and picking at rocks with their spears in boredom. In his haste to find a magical item across the lands in Bretonnia, he had not bothered with trivial things such as "packing adequate supplies", but his men would never know that nor would he take the blame for their laziness and lack of will. They sat there until dusk, and then the count himself strode forth from the hushing stalks of wheat. His blood-red armor shone, almost glowing, in the night, and his pitchfork was a gleaming barb of silver resting on his shoulder. With little ceremony the prince drew his sword and pointed it at the Count, putting on an air and tone of nobility.
"Listen here, you abomination," he began. "My men and I need provisions and we know you have them, as well as having more than enough coin to pay our way. I will not partake in your barbaric system of dueling and demand that you let us in your lodgings at once!"
Joe just laughed, planting the butt of his pitchfork into the dirt.
"What's the matter, little elf? Afraid that 'ole Joe will show you up in front of your men, and your titles of nobility will be called into question?" Joe laughed heartily. "No one enters my lands without proving themselves worthy, and I have no use for your damned gold coins."
"Oh please," said the prince, waving his sword at the Count nonchalantly. "I would have no trouble from some uppity farmer who parades around as a warrior."
Joe's lips curled into a smile, his fangs gleaming pearl in the dying sun. "Care to make a wager, my little elf?"
"Hah!" the prince barked. "I would sooner shovel your shit field for eternity than lose to one like you!"
"Accepted," said Joe quietly, and began to advance on the prince. The prince lunged forward with a snarl, whipping his sword about him with the speed and precision of his race. What he didn't expect, however, was z vicious right hook from the Count, his iron knuckleduster glove cracking the Prince across his cheek. The prince fell to the ground with a cry, dropping his sword and clutching his face like a wounded child. The count slowly drew a dagger from his belt, dried blood crusted black on the blade. The prince's men were quickly corralled by policing scarecrows, forcing them to bunch together and watch as the Count advanced on the sobbing prince. With little ceremony, Joe plunged the knife deep into the chest of the prince, the sudden howls and screams of the elf filling the darkening sky. His men looked on in horror as the flesh melted from his face; he still screamed as blood and tissue ran from his face like water. The stench of rotting meat invaded their noses as the Prince's exposed eyeballs came free of the sockets and dangled on his face, until they too rotted and fell to the ground. The cries cut off abruptly, and the skeleton lay there silently. The scarecrows silently slid back to their posts leaving the stunned and horrified High Elves standing alone. Not quietly, however, as the Count's attention was caught by one of them voiding their stomach.
"The town is 10 miles down the road, make it there and you can use your coins to buy food. Then go home," the Count told them quietly, smiling his gentle smile at them. The men quickly ran down the road, not even stopping to grab their packs, only grabbing their bows and spears. The Count looked down at the skeleton, then willed him to stand. The Skeleton responded obediently, the trapped Elven soul glowing in its empty sockets. "Welcome to the Fields, prince. Now start shoveling shit."
The Cycle of the Land
A violent gust of wind threw Roggard's short, rotund frame against an oak tree's bark. "Well, if this ain't an eve for demons and monsters, by Bugman's hat." The Halfling got back into stride, putting his hands deeper in the pockets to shelter his plump fingers from the bitter cold. There was a somber air of tranquillity that night -- a gentle moon was irradiating a ghostly pallor onto the fields just on the verge of the forest, making the acres of wheat shine like pearlescent seas of fragmented waves. Roggard stood there for a second, watching the hypnotic undulation of the plants in the night breeze, growing strong even in this unforgiving time of the year. The acres were separated by patches of dry ground. "Typical", he thought "they only cultivate wheat and the land impoverishes".
Slowly, a stronger buffet of air caught him unpleasantly unprepared. Clenching his arms along his side and shrugging his neck in his shoulders, Roggard Tumbleweed forged on. Lanterns were glimmering on the side of the road, put at ground level and sending off regular dots of light that were puncutating the road just meters outside of the woods. The Halfling found it strange - those lanterns must have had a whole lotta oil to burn into this sort of wind. Curious, almost allured by their dancing flame, he scooted off of the woods' protection and started to move towards the road.
As he took to the main path, the intense gusts seemed to stop altogether. Puzzled, Roggard tried to make sense of it, so he looked around for a bit before proceeding on the path. The wind was still there... somewhere. Of course he could still see the wheat dwindling in the breeze, and the strong oak trees undulated their leafy manes in assonance with the powerful buffets - just not there on the path. The lanterns were shielded by coppery domes with small wooden structures holding them up.
All of this was strange. Sure, due to the fires and the tempered breeze on the trail, the Halfling felt a little less cold, but still, he could almost touch the spot on his sternum where a growing sense of uneasiness was welling up. Stepping on the rising path, he made his way between the high fields, walking like a child in a high-ceiling corridor. It took a while for his stubby legs to make the path between the woods and the first two hills, not to mention his knees straining on the steep path, so it was to his most pleasant surprise that Roggard spotted a great farm, with a flapping flag heralding some great house's symbol on its silos.
"There! Maybe I could sleep in their stables tonight!" He started to approach the big farm, when something felt amiss. Maybe because of the high wheat that he didn't notice sooner, but there were many scarecrows in that field.
A whole awful lot really, all looking in his direction as he crept closer to the farm.
The breeze was completely absent now.
With renewed haste, the Halfling strode forward, impatience and dread starting to boil ferociously in his belly. He started to feel very hungry. "Of course..", he thought. That was the whole problem, wasn't it? He always felt hungry. He always took the last bit of bread in the box. He always went in boredom to raid the cupboards of anything edible. He always wanted more of this plate, more of that wine, more of those smoke-herbs... yes, it all went back to hunger. Roggard repressed a bad thought about the past, and forged on clenching the teeth.
"Well, bless the Comet, sure it does not happen every night to encounter a wanderer your size, Halfman. Please, come closer."
The voice came from in front of him, but in the dim light of a pale wintermoon, the little wanderer could not see his interlocutor. Swiftly, he put hand to the sling, and started talking nervously and too loudly. "Sir, or c-creature, wherever a-and wha-a-tever you are, know that I am skilled with my weapon and will reta-a-aliate to any form of violence! I am... er.. Fork-Wielder! And... Terror of Taverns!"
A hearty laugh came from a few feet ahead of him. A tall and lanky shadow was coming forward, only his boots illuminated by the dim lanterns on the road. "... heh, now that's a coincidence, I fancy myself a fork-wielder too. Come closer, friend. I think you are looking for shelter, and while it's not the best settle you can find, I've got space in my house if you have stories to share."
Perplexed, Roggard reflected on those words. Stories? What did this thing thought he was, a bard? The life of a Tumbleweed was already the least interesting thing possible, and after his exile, it hadn't changed much - and for sure he didn't want to tell the tale of that time he escaped the clutches of a slaver by soiling his pantaloons.
Then the figure appeared. A tall, grizzled man, in simple clothes but with a stern air. A big pitchfork, inlaid with intricate carvings, was lazily dangling on his shoulders. His eyes reflected the light like those of cats. "So, you have a story to tell?"
Roggard froze in place. The simple appearance of the tall farmer in that eerie setting was enough to give him the chills, but the tone of his voice was unsettling; he spoke with ease but with the confidence the accent of a well-mannered marshall.
For Karl Franz knows what reason, Roggard just looked at the fields, and in a shivering voice, he stuttered "D-d-do you give enough rest to your fields?"
Count Joe Kürbisgärtner stopped, perplexed and taken aback by the question. "I ... beg your pardon, little one?"
Shielding his face, Roggard added "I... I asked i-if you give your fields enough rest. M'lord. Sir."
Inquisitive, thevampire crept closer, squinting a little more. "And why do you ask me this?"
Still shielding the plump cheeks, Roggard pointed at the patches of dry ground near the woods and the house. He backed away a bit again, shuddering.
"The.. the plants are competitive, sir. M'lord. They choke the others out if they grow in an acre for too long a time."
The old man smiled, perplexed, then kneeled to meet the eyes of the Halfling "Tell me more, little one..."
Hours later in the night, in the great main room of the farm, fire was crackling in the chimney as the ageless Count and the small halfling were still talking about the finesses of agriculture with such verve and involvement that they were from time to time interrupting each other. Roggard was devouring loaf of bread after loaf of bread with so bright a fury in talking botany that he barely noticed that his incorporeal chef went straight through the pavement with a moaning sound. Of course, the Count had made the little man aware of the nature of the servants he had, but Roggard was busy discussing the seasons of every crop and the ways to make them grow stronger and more nutritious.
"So I should go for rhubarbs, wheat and beans, in this order?" retorted the old Count.
"No, sir, your Highness, it's beans, then rhubarbs, then wheat. Beans give nutrients to the soil and do not require a lot of humours of the land to grow - even if they need a lot of water, and I mean a whole awful lot my lord, sir; then rhubarbs balance the salinity of the terrain and compact it with the roots; only then you put the wheat to grow in the summertime. Even better, after you reap your bountiful harvest of wheat, grow clovers on the land for a month or two."
Laughing heartily, the pallid farmer put on a show of being offended "Clovers? Do I look like cattle to you, little one? My stallions need no fodder, and my flowers need no pest-herb around them."
Roggard staggered, losing his thoughts for a second, then, with renewed push, explained, gesticulating wildly. "No, sir! It's not for the cattle, and it's not for the garden - it's a way to give back to the ground something after you made something rise from it! Equivalent trade, sir, M'lord. Around clovers a whole little world thrives, flourishes and dies - soon enough, your fields will be filled with little creatures pollinating the fields, living, dying and regenerating the ground on which they have spawned - going from one plant to another, crossing the flowers with one another, mixing the green pumpkin patches with the orange ones, making your fields brim with all sort of life. Then when the clover's passed away, send their roots upside down and let their stalks decompose in the ground to make a fertile terrain for the beans who will have a strong base where to grow!"
Making the ground have something back after he had so many things rise from it? Now that was a lesson for him. For many of Count Joe's ilk, really. He found himself thinking that the avarice of men was hiding even in the hearts of those who fancied themselves as rigorous pacifists and noblemen like him. Had he ever left the field to rest for more than one month? Maybe due to his unlife, the concept of time had become a little tricky to the Count... and yes, the only way he knew to enrich the soil was to feed it with corpse remains and horse manure. Giving back something to the ground after making things rise from it...
The Count's eyes widened. He reclined on the big armchair, tapping a finger on the nearby table. "I... I am pleasantly surprised, little one. So many years of unrest walking on the surface of this world and here I am, in school again. Thank you dearly, Roggard. Stay a day, please. I know I haven't give you enough time to rest, and you must be exhausted from your travels."
Smiling for the first time in a long list of months, Roggard nodded, then went back again to talk about the properties of many officinal plants up to the coming of dawn. Then, the two parted ways for their respective beds. The halfling did not see due to tiredness hazing his eyes, but for the first time in a long list of decades the Count was smiling too.
The next night, the Count awoke to the visage of Roggard patting his shoulders and getting ready to depart once again. Nervously snapping from his state of distraction, Roggard jumped "Oh - heh! Sir, it's a pleasure to see you before I depart again. I have already abused of your hospitality too much, M'lord, and it would not be fair to empty your cupboards even more. You were already too kind a host to this poor wanderer -"
The old farmer waved his hand, smiling. His long canines were visible but his visage was not threatening. "Wise Roggard, you gave me more than you could imagine, and you do not even know what balm to my old soul it was. So don't say you have abused my hospitality, I was barely able to repay you. Go to the next town, find a place where to set up business - make your path, agreed? And make that path come around by this old man sometimes, I will gladly partake of your company."
Roggard smiled nervously, and replied with a hint of doubt. "Sir, M'lord, I am but a son of a farmer, a glutton and an exiled one, I do not deserve such kind words -"
The count kneeled and patted him on the back. "Shhh. You are Fork-Wielder. Just like me."
And so it was that the Halfling left the acres of Count Joe Kürbisgärtner. Many say that he went back many times to the farm of the old vampire, claims disproved by the Tilean mercenaries who saw him embark for Naggaroth and Lustria searching for new plants and foods, every time seeming to be in a hurry "to bring new gifts to a friend."
But this is a story of the World-That-Was. Now the realms are shattered, far from each other, and many strange things happen in those vast, wild and indomitable lands. Some whisper in Azyr that there are impenetrable Gardens of Toil, where they say that Alarielle herself has forged an uneasy alliance with a mysterious Gardener and his plump attendant. A new eternity of working in the Gardens awaits Nurgle-worshippers who think they are safe from the scourge of unlife in the realm of the Everqueen...