Her Majesty’s Warlord CH12

18 Nov

Chapter Twelve

The problem, I discovered, was that I simply had too many irons in the fire.

Some of them could be left to others, at least some of the time.  Others needed to be handled by me personally, either because I was the only one who knew what I was talking about or – worse – because the people I needed to work with refused to work with anyone, but me.  I wanted – I needed – to create a staff that could handle the day-to-day jobs, yet my subordinates were commoners and they couldn’t tell aristocrats what to do.  There was no way, too, I could get aristos to help me.  They’d be more trouble than they were worth.

I gritted my teeth as I stared over the makeshift training ground, Princess Helen standing beside me and watching as the royal troops went through the exercise.  It was a mess.  The troops were good at looking good, like the British troops who spent half their time guarding Buckingham Palace, but unlike the Brits these guys didn’t spend the rest of their time on the battlefield or honing their skills on the exercise field.  Sure, they could march in line and perform ceremonial duties with the best of them, yet one unscripted exercise and they went completely to pieces.  I had a mental list of officers I intended to remove, or reassign to somewhere well out of the way or even promote upwards into a harmless office job.  And yet, doing it was damn near impossible.

Perhaps I could arrange for them to be kidnapped and sold to the warlords, I thought, crossly.  I’d once read a book where officers had been replaced by NCOs and unit efficiency had doubled.  Here, I was pretty sure it would be literally true if I tried.  It could hardly make things worse.

I rubbed my forehead.  It hadn’t been easy, sweeping up new recruits.  I’d had to offer high enlistment bounties and even that had been unproductive.  There were just too many people who saw the military as a pool of losers, rapists, thieves and murderers.  I’d had the same problem in Damansara and it hadn’t gone away until I’d produced my first battlefield victory.  The raw material was there, but getting it into service was a pain the ass.  It didn’t help that half the aristocracy still saw war as a contest of champions and the other half feared what would happen if the commoners got their hands on weapons.  I supposed the latter had a point.  My last army had grown a hell of a lot more assertive pretty damn quickly.

And good for them, I thought, as my eyes swept the training ground.  The more they can stand up for themselves, the harder the aristos will find it to put them back in their box.

The training ground was bustling with life.  My men – old and new – were working their way through a series of exercises, designed to both teach lessons and – hopefully – isolate prospective officer candidates.  A number of women, aristo and commoner, were watching the display, while working on their medical training.  The turnover was high, I’d been told, but we were getting some good candidates.  It had actually been quite helpful that some dimwit in the aristocracy had insisted women couldn’t do medicine because they would faint the moment they saw blood.  Word had spread rapidly and a great many women who might have done nothing had taken up the cause, just to prove the ignorant idiot wrong.  I just hoped they’d stick with it when they realised it was going to get nasty very quickly, when the cannonballs started firing.

As long as the knowledge spreads, it is likely to make things better, I thought, as I watched a row of men crawling towards their targets.  The aristocrats would call them cowards, I was sure, but standing up and walking into enemy fire was a good way to commit suicide.  I wanted my men to live and learn, not die to satisfy an idiot’s ego.  It was bad enough that half the lessons I was teaching them would be proven wrong, when the guns started booming.  They need to learn to think for themselves.

Princess Helen glanced at me.  “The new recruits seem to be doing better than expected.”

I shrugged.  I’d been careful not to overpromise.  Doing more than what one promised was an important part of counterinsurgency, as opposed to making promises that were then – deliberately or not – broken, leaving disillusionment in their wake.  Princess Helen might be pleased if I promised a thousand men and trained two thousand, but I hated to think what she’d say if I promised twice what I delivered.  I sighed as I spotted Sir Essex and Lord General Suffolk, watching the scene with expressions that suggested they’d smelt something disgusting.  They could fuck up time and time again and remain aristocracy.  Me?  One fuck up would be the end.  I’d taken a few precautions – I’d concealed money and weapons in places I could find them in a hurry if I had to go on the run – but a fall from grace might lead rapidly and inevitably to my execution.  I’d put too many noses out of joint.

“There are no such things as bad men,” I quoted.  “Just bad leaders.”

The princess smiled.  “Very wise, Sir Elliot.”

I smiled back.  It wasn’t as if anyone here had ever heard of Napoleon, let alone his more famous quotes.  He’d been right too.  A good leader, backed up by a good officer corps and supply system, could lead his men to glory.  A bad one, a fool or coward or worse who lacked the respect of his troops, was a recipe for disaster.  I’d had officers in the past who’d forced me to consider my escape routes, just because I didn’t trust their military acumen or their willingness to stand up for the men under their command.  Perhaps it had been wrong of me, but respect was a two-way street.  You had to serve your people if you expected them to serve you.

Something else to blame on modern communications and the media, I reflected, sourly.  A lie can go around the world before the truth has even got its boots on and, by the time the truth arrives, the damage is already done.

“The new recruits have less to unlearn,” I explained, seriously.  “They are starting from scratch.  The raw material is good.  The only real problem is making sure they don’t pick up bad habits.  If they do, they’ll have to be purged and we’ll have to start again.”

I noticed Sir Essex motioning to his men and sighed.  The Master of Horse – the effective commander of the king’s cavalry regiments – was no coward.  I’d seen him on the jousting field and even I had to admit he was brave and skilled, running the very real risk of death or worse when he charged his opponent.  But he’d picked up the same bad habits as Harbin Gallery and Clarence Aldred, Warlord Aldred’s dead son.  A charge into the teeth of enemy cannons would accomplish nothing, beyond getting a lot of cavalry killed.  I’d seen it happen.  I’d told him, time and time again, that it had happened before and would happen again.  And yet, he’d nodded and smiled and made it clear, in body language if nothing else, that he didn’t believe a word of it. 

And we can’t get rid of him unless he gets himself killed, I thought.  I’d already shot one idiot in the back.  Why not a second?  I’d have to be very careful – I’d killed Harbin on the battlefield, where the evidence had been destroyed within seconds and he could be hailed a hero now he was dead – but it might be harder here.  Perhaps I can frame him for something instead.

The thought made me smile as the day wore on.  Violet had been a goldmine of useful information, once she’d realised I had no intention of using and abusing and then discarding her.  It was astonishing how much the street kids saw, although there was little they could do with it.  Blackmail wasn’t so easy here, not when the only people worth blackmailing didn’t have to worry about the law or the judgement of society.  Sir Essex could spend half his time in a lower-class brothel with lower-class women – or men – and no one would do anything more than shake their finger disapprovingly.  Hell, I was pretty sure he spent half his time cutting a swath through the ranks of adoring aristocratic women.  He had the attitude down pat.  And if a suspicious husband caught him in bed with his wife, he’d take it out on the poor women and let the man go.  It was that sort of society.

“There have been some rumblings along the border,” Princess Helen told me.  “The warlords might be planning something.”

I winced.  My attempts to set up spy networks had not been as successful as I’d hoped.  It was the age-old problem.  The locals might think you were better than their former tormentors – true back home, less so here – but they wouldn’t go out on a limb for you unless they were sure you weren’t going to abandon them to the tender mercies of their enemies.  It was easy to feel frustrated at locals who did nothing, or sided with the bad guys, yet who could blame them when you left them in the shit?  The warlords were nasty.  They could give lessons in sheer unrelenting brutality to Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, Communist China and Islamic State.  And the king had even less credibility as the protector of his people than we’d had when the war on terror had begun.

“I think …”

I stopped as I heard shouting, coming from the edge of one of the training fields.  My heart sank as I hurried forward, only dimly aware of the princess following me.  Sir Essex had gone over there, hadn’t he?  He’d been taking part in an exercise … I cursed under my breath as I hurried into the field, looking around at the trenches and half-ruined mock houses we’d thrown together to teach the men their skills.  It had been perversely easy, with a bit of help from the magicians, to create a proper training field, with fake guns that projected spells rather than bullets.  There was no way for anyone, I’d thought, to dispute with the umpires and insist they hadn’t been hit.  I was starting to fear I was wrong.

My pace slowed as the scene came into view.  Sir Essex was bellowing at a junior officer, a bastard son who’d been sent into the army to get rid of him.  His father had bought him an infantry commission, or so I’d heard, and then washed his hands of his unwanted child.  I didn’t pretend to understand how he was both aristo and commoner, or how he was both a cut above the commoners and well below the aristocracy.  I’d only cared about his military skills and, in that, he’d shown promise.  It was strange to find an aristocrat in the infantry, certainly in the lower ranks.  I gave him credit for that, if nothing else.

“… Worthless pig-headed bastard son of a …”

I raised my voice, cutting off Sir Essex before he started something he couldn’t finish.  The junior officer – his name was Wilhelm, if I recalled correctly – was looking like someone who was starting to think he had nothing to lose.  There was only so long one could berate one’s social inferior before he snapped, drew his sword and tried to kill you.  Sir Essex was too stupid or too arrogant to realise it.  The nasty part of my mind was tempted to let it happen, but Wilhelm would be executed if he succeeded.  I had other plans for him.

“And what,” I asked, “is the meaning of this?”

Wilhelm glanced at us, his eyebrows shooting up as he saw the princess behind me.  Sir Essex looked, just for a second, like a deer caught in the headlights before starting to double down.  I’d seen it before, people who realised they’d crossed the line and yet thought if they pressed on everyone else would ignore it.  It might have worked, for him.  Sure, he was swearing like a sailor in front of the princess, but he was still a powerful aristocrat.  There were limits to what society could do to him.

“This … this person disobeyed orders,” Sir Essex thundered.  “And he stole my glory.”

I tried not to roll my eyes in disgust.  I hadn’t joined the military for glory.  “What happened?”

Sir Essex spluttered, as if he’d expected his word alone to be enough to convict Wilhelm of everything from disobeying orders to Bearing An Unsympathetic Facial Aspect In The Presence Of A Superior Officer.  I felt a flicker of dark amusement.  In my experience, anyone who couldn’t put together a rational explanation of just about anything didn’t have a case, knew he didn’t have a case, and was resorting to shouting and threats in hope of covering it up.  And anyone who tried to force you to rush to judgement was invariably not your friend.

“I told him to hold position,” Sir Essex said, waving a hand at the mock battlefield.  The men had hurried off, probably without orders.  No one wanted to be caught up in the chaos when the boss was throwing shit everywhere.  “And he attacked the enemy!”

“I saw an opportunity,” Wilhelm said, when I looked at him.  “And I won!”

“I told you to stay where you were and let the cavalry handle it,” Sir Essex snapped.  “We should have thrown them off the battlefield.”

“You would have been killed,” Wilhelm predicted.  “Wiped out!”

I cleared my throat.  “One at a time,” I ordered.  “Wilhelm, you first.”

Sir Essex sputtered, but had the sense to remain quiet.  I listened, carefully, as the story came together.  Sir Essex had ordered Wilhelm and his men to hold the line, to keep the enemy from advancing while the cavalry readied themselves for a charge.  The battle had been surprisingly fluid, given the limited tech and even more limited weapons, and Wilhelm had seen an opportunity to get the enemy before the enemy got them.  He’d ordered his men to fix baronets, then led a quick charge that had taken the enemy by surprise and overrun their positions before they could do much of anything about it.  I was quietly impressed.  We’d joked, back home, about commanders who’d won battles by ignoring every order their superiors gave them, but I’d never really seen it happen.  There might have been times when an order had to be reinterpreted so it could be carried out, yet actual disobedience …

“The idea was to win,” I told them both.  “It does not matter who gets the credit for the attack, but which side comes out ahead.”

Sir Essex started to splutter again.  I groaned, inwardly.  There were some officers who’d be more annoyed their orders had been ignored than anything else, even though it was the perfect opportunity to claim the credit.  A smarter man might have stolen at least some of the credit, or won a medal for putting the right man in the right place, but Sir Essex was more pissed his subordinate had won the battle for him than anything else.  Idiot.  The perfect opportunity to take the credit, and pass the blame down the ladder if things had gone the other way, and he’d missed it.

“Your Highness.”  Sir Essex glanced at Princess Helen.  “Surely, you are not going to allow this to stand?”

I spoke quickly, to give the princess time to consider all the political implications.  “The battlefield is a very fluid place,” I said.  The pre-firearms era had been one of sieges, when magic wasn’t involved.  I’d studied a number of campaign histories and most of them had agreed the combatants had done their best to avoid pitched battles.  The cavalry might dramatically thunder around the field, in hopes of smashing or scattering enemy troops, but they were rarely as effective as their leaders thought.  “There will always be opportunities that come and go, granted fleetingly by the gods themselves.  Wilhelm took advantage of one and won the battle.”

Wilhelm looked pleased.  I pressed on.

“You deserve credit for putting Wilhelm in precisely the right spot at the right time,” I said, applying – thankfully, only metaphorically  – my tongue to his ass.  It galled me to flatter him so thoroughly, to cover him in praise he’d done little to earn, but if it kept him from causing trouble I’d put up with it.  “Your thinking was extremely good.  It is a rare officer who can spot talent and arrange for it to be showcased, so it can be promoted.  Wilhelm owes his coming promotion to you.”

I laid it on with a trowel.  But Sir Essex didn’t seem impressed.  “I gave him orders,” he snapped.  “And he disobeyed them!  This bastard son of a …”

“That will do,” Princess Helen said.  “We are at war.  We do not have time to waste fighting each other, when we have to fight the enemy.”

Sir Essex bristled.  I tensed.  If he drew his sword, if he even started, I’d shoot him and to hell with the consequences.  I couldn’t let him take a swing at anyone, not even me.  If he cut the princess down …

“The council will hear of this,” Sir Essex snapped, turning away.  “And your father will hear of it too.”

I would have laughed – it was pathetic – if it hadn’t been so deadly.  Sir Essex could cause real trouble, if his father or someone else didn’t manage to calm him down.  And who knew what would happen then?

As it happened, it didn’t take me long to find out.

2 Responses to “Her Majesty’s Warlord CH12”

  1. nayruke November 18, 2021 at 3:43 pm #

    I really hope he runs into a proper war mage that reality check would be fun

  2. Rod November 19, 2021 at 7:47 am #

    “ordered his men to fix baronets”, I think that’s supposed to be bayonets.
    “he’d take it out on the poor women and let the man go”, shouldn’t that be woman?
    Enjoying the story so far.

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