Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Chapter Eleven

Leiftenant Cargill Munros watched the deserted street below intently. Torches mounted on the outside of the Company’s permanent stockade cast fluttering light into the dark night, illuminating the immediate area. Unit protocol called for constant tending of the torches so that the stockade would be constantly surrounded by a pool of light after the sun went down, making it nearly impossible to approach the building unseen.

A hundred years ago, when it was common for mercenary troops to wage private wars against each other to eliminate competition, that sort of precaution was necessary. However, nowadays that kind of vigilance was not really called for, but the Tigers still kept up the tradition. The Colonel always preached; Tradition creates standards, standards breed routines, and routines establish discipline. He often said that discipline is the only habit worth having because it ensured that you always did the proper thing, no matter the situation.

Five years ago, when he had first joined the Argent Tigers, Cargill had absorbed the Colonel’s lessons like holy writ, but no longer. Now he simply accepted them as rules that worked most of the time, but could seem as arbitrary as hell at others. Five years of garrison life wore a man’s illusions of glory very thin.

Cargill sighed, shifting his weight from one foot to the other. Nothing much happened during midwatch, and he was in charge of all that nothing. At this point he did not have much choice in the matter. As a third son of a minor noble, fortune had smiled on young Cargill when his father had secured a commission in the Argent Tigers for him. Cargill had jumped at the chance, his young head filled with tales of exotic places and dashing adventure. The reality of his lot bore little in common with those tales.

The reality added up to months of endless drills, interrupted occasionally by municipal patrols during major holidays or disturbances. Cargill wondered how the Colonel could keep the 300 men of the company paid, fed, and housed with out some sort of income. If someone were sponsoring the Tigers, why would they pay precious gold to keep them in garrison perpetually? Only kingdoms had that much coin to waste. He decided to take a little initiative and look into the finances of the company. At the very least it might break up the boredom.

Cargill spanned to attention as he caught sight of a hooded figure emerging from the shadows near the front gate. He shouted a warning to the sentries just as the figure hammered the iron knocker against the gate.

“Stand fast, men. I’ll be right there. Cargill bolted down the steps, risking two at a time at the bottom of each flight. He hurried across the last bit of parapet and then swung down to the gate post on a rope ladder.

The visitor struck the gate again, sending a solid boom through the empty courtyard behind the gate.

“Hold on,” Cargill shouted as he paused to compose himself. Sliding open a thin metal port in the gate, he peered out. Despite the light cast from the nearby torches, Cargill had difficulty making out their late night visitor.

“What business do you have here?” he said firmly through the open port.

“I am here to see the Colonel, now open the gate, boy.” The voice was like a whispered shout, sending a wave of cold down his neck.

“I…I…I’m afraid that won’t be possible. Standing orders prevent anyone from entering the casern until morning.”

“Hang the rules, boy. I am your employer and you serve at my sufferance. Fetch the Colonel or I’ll have you hung from the gate.”

Cargill nodded emphatically. “Yes…sir. I’ll go get him myself.”

The Leiftenant slapped the port closed and drew a heavy breath. Cold sweat beaded on his forehead as the voice replayed in his head. Without a word to the stunned gate guards he rushed toward the main building in the compound, headed straight to the Colonel’s rooms. He snatched up a shining lantern from a table in the common room as he passed.

Cargill burst into the chamber that the Colonel used as an office and flew to the door behind the heavy desk. With strength born of surprise and haste, He hammered the door leading to the Colonel’s bed chamber. His pounding immediately elicited a barrage of mumbled curse from behind the door.

The Leiftenant could hear the sound of a heavy bolt being pulled back. Colonel Birdwell emerged from the dark room bleary eyed and rumpled.

“What in the blazes is going on?” His eyes furrowed when he recognized Cargill.

“Leiftenant, I trust this is an emergency…or your resignation.”

Cargill nodded, trying to catch his breath.

“Yes…sir, an emergency. There is someone at the gate who demands to see you.”

Anger sparked in the Colonel’s eyes. “You woke me in the middle of the night because some idiot wanted to see me? You buffoon, send him away with an appointment for tomorrow and a boot in the backside.”

Cargill was about to explain further, but was interrupted.

“That would be ill advised,” a strange voice whispered.

Both Cargill’s and the Colonel’s faces turned ashen as they recognized the voice.

They turned toward the open door of the office to see the hooded figure standing in the doorway.

“Your subordinate may leave us now. We have business to discuss.” The mysterious employer stepped into the room and then to the side, leaving just enough room for Cargill to squeeze by. The Leiftenant glanced over at the Colonel, who gave him a quick nod. Cargill was grateful for the dismissal and brushed past the hooded figure. As he did he caught the sent of spices. Most were familiar but one not all were. The mélange smelled pleasant, but left a cloying sweetness in his nostrils.

As he exited the room he overheard the intruder speak.

“Colonel, you will have guests soon, and I want you prepared.”

The sentence was punctuated by the door slamming behind him.

In an attempt to put thoughts of the Colonel’s visitor behind him, Cargill brooded on the gate guards’ failure to keep the visitor from entering the casern. It was a terrible lapse of discipline and he intended to make their lives unpleasant for a few days.

Arriving at the gate, Cargill gasped. The heavy gate hung on a shattered hinge, the iron bolt used to secure it twisted and useless. The pair of guards lay on the ground near the gate, dead as drowned rats. Their faces were sunken and gray as if dead for months.

The Leiftenant made a sign against evil and shouted for more guards. All of the troopers gawked at the bodies of their fallen brethren and an angry current began to run through the normal soldier grumbling. Employer or not, the Tigers wanted vengeance. The Colonel emerged from the company building: alone and shaken.

“Give us the bastard!” one of the soldiers shouted.

His cry was met with loud agreement. The Colonel merely stared at the gathered soldiers, as if searching for the right words.

“Stow that guano, the Colonel has something to say,” Cargill shouted. Showing unusual courage, the Leiftenant purposely put the Colonel in a tight spot. If the commander could not assuage the troopers’ anger, the situation had the potential to spin out of control.

Colonel Birdwell glared at Cargill for a moment and then took a moment to compose himself.

“The blood price has been paid for our loss. Our employer regrets his anger, and has new orders for us.”

The gathered troopers jeered.

“I have agreed to share the blood price with the unit equally. Each man will be given 20 pieces of silver. In addition, our employer plans a feast for use in two days time.”

Cheers of excitement washed away the current of anger.

Cargill snorted in disgust at the quick change in demeanor of the troopers. They sold their brotherhood cheap with such a gleeful display. He wondered if they would accept his death as readily if compensated well enough.

Several other members of the officer corps stumbled out of their billet, looking confused and more than a little concerned. Most were only in partial uniforms and they all looked sleepy and confused. The Colonel eyed the officers with contempt and then turned to Cargill.

“Leiftenant, take over here and make sure that the troops either return to their barracks or to their posts…As you were.”

An officer with Captain’s insignia walked up to Cargill.

“What in the hell was that all about?” he asked.

Cargill briefly explained. The officers seemed as happy by the turn of events as the enlisted men, sending a disappointed ache through his heart.

“Carry on,” the Captain said offhandedly to Cargill as he walked away, slapping the back of one of the other Leiftenants and loudly bragging how he planed to spend his windfall in the local brothels.

No comments: