Chapter Twenty

13 May

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Chapter Twenty

“The only easy day was yesterday,” I said, cheerfully.  “Tomorrow will be a great deal harder.”

I hid my amusement with an effort as I stood in the training field, surveying a scene that would have made my old drill instructors faint in horror.  The troops in front of me looked decidedly the worst for wear.  It would have been easy to think we’d lost the battle, rather than smashed the enemy army and given the warlord a bloody nose.  A couple of days of wine, women and song – I was amused to note that some of the songs I’d rewritten had already spread from one end of the city to the other – had clearly taken their toll.  I just hoped the men understood we’d won the battle, rather than the war.

“We gave the bastards a damn good kicking,” I continued.  “We blasted them to hell and back and send them running home, crying for their mamas.  But next time, they’re not going to come in so fat and happy.  They’re going to know what we can do and be a little more careful.  We have to be ready for them.”

I allowed the words to hang in the air as my gaze moved over the troops, lingering briefly on the handful of prospective sergeants.  I hoped – God, I hoped – that my judgement wasn’t flawed.  There was no support structure, not here; there were no MPs to enforce my judgements nor senior officers who’d actually understand what I was doing.  A single bad apple could and would poison the entire batch.  I’d gained one hell of a lot of credit when I’d led the troops to victory, but … victory had a habit of concealing all the problems that could have easily proven fatal, if the battle had gone the other way.  It was easy to learn from defeat, harder to learn from victory.

“So … we’re not going to take it easy.”  I gave them a cold smile.  “We’ll be working even harder to get back into shape, so we’ll be ready when the shit starts flying again.”

I kept an eye on them as I led them on a long march, alternating between running and walking to push them to the limit.  There was surprisingly little grumbling, despite the hangovers from too much alcohol and dubious potions.  It worried me a little.  Grunts always grumbled, in my experience.  When they didn’t, it suggested their CO was a dipshit or someone was planning something.  But here … I told myself, firmly, that everything I’d put them through had been soundly validated during the battle.  They knew – now – I hadn’t been making them suffer because of sadism.

And having the entire city turn out for them can’t have hurt either, I thought.  They have pride in themselves now.

The grumbling didn’t get any worse as we sweated out the alcohol, then started the march back to the garrison.  Rupert had arranged a rapid expansion, dispatching a small army of carpenters to build more barracks and training grounds for the growing army.  I would have preferred to barrack the men inside the city itself, behind solid stone walls, but the city fathers had flatly refused any suggestion the men should be allowed to live freely inside the city.  I supposed they had a point.  It would be a great deal harder to desert if one had to cover a mile of flat ground, rather than just leave the garrison, turn the corner and vanish.

We stopped by the mess hall, the men looking tired but happy.  The suspicious bastard in me wondered if they were up to something.  The more optimistic part of me kept insisting we had won a battle and it would take a few more days for the post-victory thrill to wear off.  I hoped I was right as I turned to face them.  I didn’t need more trouble.  I had Harbin lurking in the background, no doubt planning trouble himself.  He’d been assigned to raise more cavalry regiments.  Rupert had insisted it would keep him busy.  I had my doubts about that too.

“Horst, Fallows” – I snapped out three more names – “remain behind.  The rest of you, go stuff your faces.”

The men cheered and hurried into the mess hall.  I made a mental note to work on discipline later, then turned to the five men I’d held back.  They looked torn between eagerness and concern, if not fear.  Being singled out by one’s commanding officer was rarely a good thing here, where commanding officers could use their men as slaves – or beat them to death – without consequences.  That was going to change, I vowed as I led the prospective sergeants into the training hall and motioned for them to relax.  The army was going to treat its recruits like family, not tools that happened to think.

“The first set of new recruits will be arriving this afternoon,” I said.  I would have been happier if things hadn’t moved quite so fast, but we needed to get the process well underway before the city fathers started having second thoughts.  Or the recruits themselves started thinking better of their sudden attack of patriotism.  “You five have been tapped to serve as training officers.  The good news is that there will be more pay.  The bad news is that there will be more responsibility – and if you fuck up you will be in deep shit.”

I allowed my voice to harden.  “You know how I trained you.  You know – now – that the training served a useful purpose.  I expect you, if you accept these positions, to do the same as I did.  If you mistreat the recruits, if you bully them or steal from them or forget your duty to train them as I trained you, I will fucking take you behind the bike shed and break you.  Is that clear?”

They nodded, hastily.  They might not know what a bike shed was – I hadn’t seen anything resembling a bicycle on the streets – but they got the general idea.  I took advantage of their silence to outline the training program, talking them though everything I’d done – to them, when they’d been raw recruits – and explaining the rationale behind it.  They listened nervously, as if they were too worried to ask questions.  I sighed, inwardly.  I wouldn’t have complained if they’d asked questions.  It was often the only way to learn.

“Some of you have done training duties before,” I finished.  “This will be profoundly different.  Do not, and I mean do not, fuck it up.”

I dismissed them to the mess hall, then followed, hiding my concerns behind a blank mask.  It was hard to play the bully without actually being a bully, without going too far and crossing the line into outright sadism.  I’d heard stories of troops who fought because they were more afraid of their commanding officers than the enemy, but they rarely ended well.  The poor bastards who’d tried to stop us when we invaded Iraq had often surrendered, when their commanding officers were blown away.  A number had even shot the regime’s mouthpieces in the back and simply gone home.  I wanted them to be a solid cadre of training instructors, not bullies.  I promised myself that, if any of them screwed up, I’d stamp on them so hard we could use them for paper.

“The section leaders will escort you to weapons practice,” I said, when the troops finished eating.  “I’ll join you in an hour or so.”

I gathered the instructors and headed back to the training ground.  There was a spell, I’d been told, that allowed someone to be in two places at once … I wished I could do it, although I had no idea how it actually worked.  It was hard enough to multitask in one body, let alone two.  I shook my head, putting the thought aside as I strode into the training ground.  The new recruits were waiting for us.  They looked surprisingly eager.  My eyes swept over them, feeling a twinge of amusement.  This was no motley collection of drunkards, poor men and petty criminals given the choice between the army or mutilation.  They’d actually volunteered to join.  I spotted shopboys and the teenage children of prosperous merchants and a recruit who looked suspiciously like a woman in male clothing.  I wondered, idly, how she intended to maintain her disguise in the barracks.  There was no privacy, even in the privies …

“Welcome,” I said.  “I am Master Sergeant Elliot” – I’d effectively given myself a promotion, although the rank structure was so fluid I doubted anyone would notice until lifted myself up to General – “second-in-command of this garrison and chief instructor.  With me are sergeants …”

I ran through the same spiel I’d given the first time around, with a handful of tiny modifications.  The recruits would know their rights, although if they wasted my time by complaining someone expected them to actually work they’d regret it.  I had a feeling there would probably be some issues.  Damansara wasn’t very democratic, as I understood the team, but citizens had certain rights.  The shopboys considered themselves a step or two above the lowest of the low.  They might try to protest if we pushed them around.

They can try, I told myself.

I answered a couple of questions, then directed the recruits on a march and hammered basic commands into their heads.  They did better than I’d expected, although some grumbled more than others.  I wondered, idly, if they’d expected a training montage they could just breeze through, making them trained men at the end of the day.  It wasn’t that hard to train men to use muskets, and other basic firearms, but if they didn’t learn to work together they were going to be of very limited value.  I kept a wary eye on the new sergeants as I let them take the lead, hoping and praying none of them screwed up.  Thankfully, my warnings seemed to have sunk in.  They behaved themselves.

A messenger arrived, just as the new recruits were being marched to the mess hall for their first taste of military food.  “Sir, the special recruits are on their way.”

“When they arrive, have them shown into Bond Hall,” I ordered.  It hadn’t been easy to locate enough special recruits.  I’d had to promise Seles an exclusive interview in exchange for his help.  “Have them served food” – a sign, by local custom, that one was welcome – “and then inform me.”

“Yes, sir.”

The messenger hurried off.  I winced, inwardly.  Rupert knew what I was doing – vaguely – but he hadn’t asked anything like enough questions.  He wouldn’t be the first commanding officer I’d had who’d wanted to maintain a certain degree of plausible deniability, just in case he had to pretend he’d been ignorant of what I was doing, yet … he faced worse than a court martial if my plans turned into a political hot potato.  I cursed under my breath.  The city fathers blew hot and cold all the goddamned time.  It would be so much easier if they just left the triumvirate alone to get on with it.

Not that Harbin would let me do it, if he knew what I was doing, I thought.  And Lord Winter is about as effective as a band-aid on a sucking chest wound.

I sighed inwardly as I spoke briefly to Fallows, leaving him in charge of the sergeants and the recruits, then headed to Bond Hall.  It wasn’t much, just a framework building that could easily have passed for a gym ball.  I stepped inside, taking a moment to inspect the special recruits before they noticed me.  There were ten of them, in hard-worn clothes with hard-worn faces.  A couple looked vaguely familiar.  They might have been amongst the men I’d freed, back when I’d been a guardsmen.  I hoped so.  It would be helpful if some of them had reason to trust me.

They turned to face me, looking worried.  I didn’t really blame them.  Seles had promised safe conduct, if they came to meet me at the garrison, but they had no reason to trust his word.  Or mine, come to think of it.  The city spent half its time exploiting runaway serfs and the other half rounding them up and sending them back into slavery.  That was going to change, I was sure.  There’d be no need to send the serfs back after we’d thrashed their masters and given the poor bastards their freedom.

“Many weeks ago, I freed a bunch of you from captivity,” I said.  They’d know what I’d done, I was sure, even if none of them had actually been there.  “Do you remember?”

“Yes,” one of them said.  His voice was thick with doubt.  “Was that really you?”

I nodded.  “I got caught in a sorcerer’s trap,” I reminded them.  “And I ended up looking a complete fool.”

They eyed me thoughtfully.  I hoped that meant they’d listen.  I couldn’t ask for anything more.

“The war isn’t over,” I said.  “Warlord Asshole” – I saw them smile – “is going to resume the offensive, the moment he thinks he can win.  It won’t take him long to obtain muskets for his own men, train them in their use and point them at us.  Even before then, he can keep the pressure up by harassing convoys heading towards the city or simply blocking his farmers from shipping food to us.  A smart commander would realise that trying to starve us out – rather than meet us on the battlefield – is the better option.  And if he does, he might just win.”

“How reassuring,” the spokesman said, dryly.

I smiled.  “We are currently working on building up our forces to give him a bloody nose when he tries again, which he will, and take the offensive,” I told them.  “I need two things from you, both of which will make it easier to plan a more … final end to the war.  If you assist us, you will be granted citizenship and a hefty financial reward.”

The spokesman met my eyes.  “And if we refuse?”

“You can go back to the city and vanish into the population,” I told him.  “The choice is yours.”

I waited, bracing myself.  They had no love for their former masters.  They wouldn’t have fled if they hadn’t been discontented.  And yet, they had no reason to trust me – or my masters – either.  I wouldn’t be surprised if they were already considering contingency plans, for when – if – I betrayed them.  I’d had nothing to lose, as far as they were concerned, when I’d broken some of them out of captivity.  Now … I had altogether too much to lose.

And none of it is permanent, I reminded myself, as they exchanged speaking glances.  It could be taken away at any moment.

“We’ll stay,” the spokesman said.  “What do you want us to do?”

“Two things,” I said.  “First, we know very little about lands beyond the city’s formal border.  The maps show roads and suchlike, but little more.  I need you to help fill in the blanks, to tell me where the farms and villages and strongpoints and castles are … to tell me, if you know, how the warlord actually governs his lands.  Everything, basically.  Who did you report to, when you were there; who they report to … and so on and so on, right up the chain.  I have a lot of questions and more will develop, I’m sure, as you tell me more about the warlord’s lands.”

“We can try,” the spokesman said.  “But many of us had very restricted lives.”

“Every little helps,” I assured him.  I wasn’t expecting vast qualities of completely trustworthy intelligence.  The serfs – even their masters – lived in very limited worlds.  They knew very little about life fifty miles away, let alone the other side of the world.  Places like Zangaria and Alluvia might as well be Narnia or Neverland, as far as they were concerned.  “I just need an idea of how things work.”

The spokesman nodded.  “And the second thing?”

I let out a breath.  Rupert knew I intended to learn from the runaways.  He didn’t know what else I intended to ask them to do.

“I want some of you to go back and prepare your people for liberation,” I said.  Serf revolts were apparently common, even though they were brutally crushed very quickly.  “I want you to tell them that we’ll be coming, to take weapons and supplies and whatever else you need to give your people a fighting chance.  Tell anyone who wants their freedom to plan for an uprising, but to wait until our troops are in position to support them.  It will happen sooner than you think.”

The spokesman scowled at me.  “Really?”

“I hope so,” I said.  “I’ve already placed orders for thousands of muskets, flintlocks, cannons, barrels of gunpowder and everything else we’ll need to fight a war.  It’ll be easy to skim a few of each off the top, for you to smuggle into the warlord’s lands.  I don’t promise the uprising will be easy, but it might be better for you if you and your people play a major role in your own liberation, instead of waiting for someone else to free you.  It can be done.”

“We need to discuss it,” the spokesman said.

“I’ll give you an hour,” I said.  “Once I’m back, you can give me your answer.”

I left them alone and went to check on the recruits, then the more experienced soldiers.  The section leaders were doing better than I’d expected – if that continued, I promised myself, they’d become sergeants or lieutenants in their own right.  The troops, newly aware of just how formidable their muskets could be, were training hard.  I calculated that they’d be shooting four balls a minute within the week.

As long as supplies hold out, I thought, we should be able to win.

The spokesman greeted me when I returned to the hall.  “We’ve decided to accept your offer,” he said.  “If you give us the supplies, we’ll take them home.”

“Good.”  I allowed myself a moment of relief.  The runaway serf community was fairly tight-knit.  If they said no, the rest of the community would probably say the same.  “Now, let us discuss the lay of the land.”

3 Responses to “Chapter Twenty”

  1. gbarbay00 May 13, 2021 at 7:49 pm #

    Love the story! Please keep it coming!

  2. Kris S May 16, 2021 at 9:12 pm #

    Edits for you.

  3. Michael A May 19, 2021 at 5:03 am #

    I am LOVING this story. And each time something from the main series is brought up I feel a little thrill of glee! Maybe it’s because you are only putting it up chapter by chapter but it felt like it took forever for the MC to get this far, to find his place.

    If it was a whole book I’m sure it wouldn’t feel like nearly as much. I’m really looking forward to more Stuck in magic as well as the conclusion to schooled in magic!

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