The Best Laid Plans
Baron Trendel frowned, looking the boy over as he considered his reply. The lad was long in the leg and thin across the shoulders, with the chest of a decent long-distance runner. His hands looked as though he had never done physical labor until only recently, as the puffed and reddened skin of his hands showed clear signs of prolonged exposure to hot soapy water, but only a well bred young son of the nobility would have such a perfect manicure.
“You’ve only lately come into the Dukes’ service, then, lad?” Baron Trendel said, as he held out his signet ring towards the scroll.
With a sudden flash of white light, the scroll’s red seal shattered with a sharp cracking sound, and fell away. Trendel felt his jaw drop, and exclaimed “Tyr’s Blood!” as the sharp burst of bright power startled him. He quickly regained his composure, however, as the boy handed the scroll, without the seal but still rolled tightly, to Trendel.
The boys face screwed up in an expression of worry as he answered Baron Trendels’ question, not seeming to notice Trendels’ momentary loss of composure. “Yes, my lord, my father sent me to serve as a page at court only this last month. Pardon my asking, but have I given offense in some way?”
Baron Trendel smiled gently as he tightly gripped the scroll. “No, lad, you’ve done fine. I’m sure you’ll go far in the Dukes’ service. Thank you, you may attend to the rest of your duties.”
A look of relief darted quickly across the pages’ face, to be chased away by a more serious visage. The page bowed low, and then turned and trotted off towards the gates once more. Baron Trendel paid little attention to the lad, however, as his thoughts turned to the scroll he held in his hand. It was of a very expensive grade of paper, quite stiff with the rich fibers, and well bleached to a uniform ivory. The seal had entirely fallen away once broken, leaving a reddish dust littering the hard packed dirt of the training field.
Baron Trendel looked around the practice yard thoughtfully, while tapping the rolled scroll into his left palm. He had never had experience of a message touched by magic before, and had no idea of what to expect. The seal might have been the extent of whatever was done, or there might be more things set to happen when once he opened the scroll.
Trendel knew that Duke Arneghast had a Court Wizard, but he had never personally met one before, much less knew anything about their capabilities. During the times before the War of Darkness, there were no wizards as such, only the Loremasters, and as far as Trendel knew, there was no limit to their power, if they chose to pay the spiritual price for whatever they set in motion. But the Loremasters for the most part followed their own interests, and obeyed no lord or general. Most of the scholarly works Trendel had read from before the fall of the Empire of Arkadia had completely avoided the discussion of military uses of magic. In one volume, the author had hinted that the Loremasters even went so far as to put to the torch any general or ruler impertinent enough to ask for magical aid in battle. Of course, all available tomes and written works dated from before the War of Darkness, as there had been no survivors among those that had stayed behind to hold off the Darkness as the noncombatants fled to the North. Although the Loremasters had, by all accounts, striven mightily against the Hordes of Darkness side by side with the last remnants of the Army of Light, only the winners have the luxury of writing about past battles. And if the quantity of written material marked the victor of a war, Trendel thought to himself with a grim smile, then the War of Darkness had no victors, and precious few survivors.
The books and scrolls written since the fall had only recently included mentions of magic, and even then only since the reign of Duke Hope of the Duchy of Mordant to the south. The new Wizards rising in the growing realms of Felwaithe had tried to hold themselves apart from politics much as the Loremasters had, trying to trade on the reputation of power the Loremasters had once possessed, and had mostly succeeded in impressing the lords of the Coastal Cities and Borderlands, but Duke Hope had recently insisted that they were his subjects just like any other, and had pressed them into service in his Duchy, whether they wanted to serve or not. It had lately become apparent that, no matter how powerful the Wizards of today might be, they were not Loremasters, and were as susceptible to threats made upon their families as anyone. After Duke Hope had pressed into service every Wizard in his lands, any Wizard not affiliated with an official Circle or Guild throughout Felwaithe had quickly found themselves a permanent part of their local Lords’ household staff. And as far as the Circles and Guilds of Wizards were concerned, Trendel had heard that they had banded together in alliance to prevent any of their members from suffering from similar harassment, especially by the Nobles of the Coastal Cities.
Trendel didn’t know what the full ramifications of these recent changes to the traditional independence of the Wizards would be, but it seemed clear that the Circles and Guilds were now openly hostile to temporal authority, nearly to the point of open warfare, and it was the Circles and Guilds that held most of the secrets of magic. Maybe some of the wizards currently in service to the Lords would be able to train apprentices, but they would certainly only be able to teach what they themselves knew, while the Circles would have historical works and records, and people that could spend the time to develop new ideas and theories. Just like Trendels’ current training program, the quality of a students skills improved dramatically when he was trained by someone who is himself an expert in instruction, as well as in all of the varied nuances of the subject matter. The Border Guards had been good before, but under Trendels’ personal instruction they were benefiting from actual field experience and Knightly training theories, and the difference between a Border Guard of the old school and the new Instructors at Trendel’s Academy was becoming glaringly obvious. The new Border Guards held themselves as Elite soldiers, and the morale of the entire force was improving.
What Trendel had read from some of the recent scrolls suggested that a modern wizard on the field of battle had to remain fairly still, and concentrate his attention fiercely on whatever he did that summoned forth the dark powers, and a battlefield is rarely still and quiet. Most mentions concerned showy uses of power, such as great roaring balls of flame that seared down out of the sky to strike amidst the enemy, setting harness and men afire. Little mention was made of any subtle magics, such as the seal on the scroll. For all Trendel knew, a voice would start reading the scroll aloud when he opened it, and Trendel doubted that it would be wise to let the entire training grounds know what it said.
Still, Trendel could not in good conscience leave his rounds unfinished to return to his quarters to open the scroll. He finally decided on a compromise. He would only attend to the most critical training area before returning to his quarters, and skip the routine areas he would normally inspect, such as the kitchens, the barracks, and the latrines. He hated to skip over the archery yards, but at least in that one area, the primary instructor, Lieutenant Curryroot Bryskill, was far more skilled than Trendel at actual training and hands-on instruction with the Borderer Horsebow. It was only during the afternoon strategy sessions that Trendel’s expertise in the use of the bow in tactical situations became important to the process. Skipping all but one area would cut at least three hours out of his tour, and leave most of the morning to travel if he needed to leave on the Dukes’ business.
Trendel tucked the scroll under the strap of his shoulder dagger sheath, under his tunic where it would not come loose or get lost on its own, and resumed his walk to the next training area, where Lieutenant Darling and Sergeant Hennesy were supervising the sparring circles.
It occurred to Trendel occasionally that it would have been nice to be able to retain the majority of the senior men he had trained as instructors while forming his little Academy, and have much larger class sizes for a shirt period of time rather than having to run small classes piecemeal for the next few years. However, the Duke had overruled him, feeling that having the majority of his senior Sergeants and Officers tied up at a school instead of out leading their men was a waste, and so Baron Trendel had been left with 5 junior Lieutenants, only one of them combat trained and all of them sons of local nobility, one overly officious senior Lieutenant, three highly experienced and well trained Sergeants, and a score or more of Corporals out of over a hundred and forty men that had gone through the instructors’ course. Not including the three supply Captains, two supply clerks and an entire cooks platoon. And of course, in the finest traditions of company commanders everywhere, of the trained instructors he had been left with after the rest were reassigned after graduation, each was in their own way a bit of a trouble case.
The two instructors Trendel had placed in charge of the sparring circles, the most critical training area, were a perfect case in point. They were at that moment leaning on waist-high wooden hitching rails as they watched twenty-four pairings of trainees fight each other using straight double-edged broadswords and heavy shields. The men at work sparring were each wearing heavily padded leather garments, with special pockets filled with lead shot positioned at wrist, ankle, waist and both front and back of the torso. All told, each man carried an extra hundred-weight of lead on top of the normal weight of a Border Guards’ half armor as they tried to fight with weapons that required quick, precise strokes and absolute muscular control. The fine white sand of the circles they fought within was already becoming damp from the sweat running off the men in rivers as they danced about. The blades the men bore were triple-weight lead that had a wonderful tendency to bend on any impact, coated with a sticky black tar. The men fought to get through each others’ defenses, and the Corporals that walked around the circles watching kept a keen eye out for a solid stroke to award a point. The men had an excellent incentive to want to win, as the shields that quickly became splattered with tar could be left alone, but the leather garments the men wore had to be scrubbed by hand to get the sticky mess out of them after being marked, and the loser had to clean the winners’ garments as well as their own after each days’ sparring.
While the Corporals scurried about doing the actual judging of the sparring matches, Trendel’s two main instructors for the station, Lieutenant Darling and Sergeant Hennesy, focused their attention upon the events going on at the nearest circle, a circle twice as large as the standard ones, where four young men were getting warmed up, and they seemed to be discussing the coming match.
Lieutenant Darling, the senior Lieutenant on Trendels’ instructor staff, was a tall, thin, heavily tanned man with a clean cut face and a very wiry build, a legacy of the long years he had spent directing the work on his families’ fields before he left to sign up with the Dukes’ Home Guard. A literal, by-the-book, bloody minded sort of man, he had been promoted to the Officer Corps upon his transfer to the Border Guards. Rumor suggested he was bribed with the promotion by his last Commanding Officer to get him to transfer out of the Home Guard, but the man seemed like such a humorless barracks lawyer that Trendel found it unlikely Darling would have accepted the promotion if he thought it was meant as a bribe. Whatever the reasoning behind the promotion, Lieutenant Darling showed excellent discipline and a willingness to follow orders and achieve clear-cut goals, but he was sadly lacking in imagination or initiative. Trendel found it highly unlikely he’d see promotion to any higher grade in the near future, but with the rigid structure and well-defined rules of the Border Guard Academy to rely on, he was performing splendidly at his current post. It was well to keep in mind, however, that Lieutenant Darling was not a man to trust when going outside the normal rules and procedures of the Border Guards. It was very fortunate that Trendel had been the one to write those rules, particularly as they pertained to the Academy and the interactions of the instructors assigned to it.
Sergeant Hennesy, however, was a different kettle of fish entirely. The most senior Sergeant in the training cadre by a couple of decades, Sergeant Hennesy was a very short, stout tree stump of a man, very nearly as broad across the shoulders as he was tall, and possessed of a legendary amount of flaming red body hair. His thick hair and beard were the envy of the training detachment, and the commonly spread joke was that if someone were to toss him naked into the Dukes’ menagerie, the aristos’ would have a hard time telling which was the wolverine and which was Hennesy. Of course, the finish to the joke was, toss a raw steak into the cage, and after the wolverine and Hennesy fought over it, stick a Sergeants’ hat on the winner and you’d probably do just fine, although the wolverine would be cheaper to feed, would start fewer fights, and would drink less ale.
Sergeant Hennesy was a slow runner, but he could keep running long after everyone else was blown and gasping at the side of the trail, Trendel included, and when it came to drinking there was no one even close to matching him. Baron Trendel had kept a sharp eye on Hennesy ever since his first liberty during the initial instructors training course, but no matter how hard Hennesy drank, he never showed any sign of the effects come time for duty next morning, or even during surprise roll-outs in the middle of the night. And a deeper check into Hennesy’s records had shown that the man had to have been well into his fifties, and more likely his sixties, because he had enlisted in the old Dukes’ Border Guards nearly thirty-five years before, and after a quick rise through the ranks to Sergeant, had stayed there ever since. His record jacket was filled with commendations for hard work, excellent leadership, and bravery and courage in battle, but also with citations for public drunkenness, brawling in drinking establishments, and frequent charges of insubordination against senior officers. As the files showed, one Major that had to deal with a junior Lieutenant with a broken jaw and a drunk Sergeant Hennesy had written, “Sergeant Hennesy is a fine soldier and an asset to the guards, but he has shown no understanding of the concept of rank based on education and social status. He seems more comfortable with the ‘big stick’ method of leadership. Essentially, the one with the biggest stick is the leader, as far as he’s concerned. And it is the rare ‘gentleman’ that wields a bigger stick than he. It would be wise in the future to keep him separated from our… younger… and more impressionable officers.” Sergeant Hennesy had proven himself to be the most capable, and deadly, warrior out of the entire first instructor course that Baron Trendel had given, and Trendel felt grateful to have been left with the efficient and well respected, some might say feared, Sergeant. Still, the Sergeant had shown a tendency to ignore the presence of officers when a decision had to be made and orders given… at least, he ignored the presence of other officers. Around Trendel, he always seemed to be on his best, if somewhat sarcastic, behavior. And it had to be said that, out of all the men that had occasion to hear the rumors and backstabbing of his long departed travel companions when Trendel first came to the Duchy of Doneghal in the company of his two novices, only Sergeant Hennesy had never given any sign whatsoever that he had less than complete faith or trust in Trendel’s abilities or methods. For his ability to ignore rumors and form his own opinions based on the facts he saw before him, Trendel was inclined to enjoy the company of the short Sergeant.
Baron Trendel settled himself against the hitching post next to Sergeant Hennesy, and said, “Good Morning, gentlemen. So, who drew the short straws against Mikkelson today?”
Lieutenant Darling drew himself to attention and saluted the Baron, while Sergeant Hennesy merely looked over, grinned evilly, and nodded hello. Baron Trendel leisurely returned the Lieutenants’ salute from his relaxed position against the hitching post, as tradition held that Commanders should always appear relaxed to show they were at ease among the men, and waited for Sergeant Hennesy to reply to his question.
“Wasn’t no lottery this morning, sir. Dickson, Grant and Lawrence volunteered to take on Mikkelson all together. The Lieutenant and me was just talking about it.”
Lieutenant Darling returned to his slouch against the rail, but it was clear from his body language he still felt uncomfortable slouching within view of his Commanding Officer. There was a place inside of Darling that enjoyed the drama of the positions of attention and the manual of arms. There would always be some officers that thought all of war was a bunch of men on parade.
Trendel shook off the pessimistic, and even depressing thought, as Darling interrupted. “I’m of the opinion that the three of them have been working together in secret, hoping to earn themselves squad leader positions by taking down Mikkelson with good strategy and sound teamwork. The Sergeant, however, seems to believe that they think that if they lose, they only have to clean one extra outfit amongst the three of them.”
Trendel chuckled, thought about it for a moment, and then asked, “What are the odds running this morning?” Both men looked briefly startled, as though they were surprised that Baron Trendel was aware of the gambling that went on hot and heavy over the sparring matches between the men, and there was a long pause before either of them answered.
Sergeant Hennesy darted a glance at the Lieutenant before finally saying, “Well now, I can’t be saying for certain, but I think it’s running somewheres in the area of thirteen to one that Mikkelson wins it, with a few of the normal side bets, such as number of strokes traded, that sort of thing.”
Baron Trendel grinned. Thought so. Age and treachery, every time. And that evil grin the short sergeant was trying to hide was a dead giveaway. “Sergeant, how much, exactly, do you have bet on the trio to win?” The Sergeant got a huge shit-eating grin on his face as he replied, “Oh, about all of my drinking money for the next three months, sir. I’ve been watching those three, and I’m pretty sure they’ve been sandbagging it the whole last month. And I happened to find out from a friend of mine in the Quartermasters’ service up to the Caer that two of them, Lawrence and Grant, are brothers, despite their never mentioning it when brought in for training, and all three of them joined up from the same village out near Gleichester (pronounced GLEI-ster) last year. I’d bet they grew up together and know how to work together real good, and they’ve been waiting for something like this to happen somewhere along the line so as to get the best odds before they let the cat out of the bag. If they win, I stand to get about three hundred and seventy gold crowns. Plus enough silver to balance my bar bill at Jenny’s.”
The Lieutenant stiffened up and looked with shocked horror at the Sergeant, completely forgetting for the moment about the trainees engaged in the matches. “You did WHAT!? Good God, man, I can’t believe you’re betting with the trainees! That’s completely against the code of conduct, Sergeant!”
The Sergeant looked over at Lieutenant Darling and waggled his thick red eyebrows at him. “Don’t get your breeches all bunched up, sir, I didn’t fraternize with the troops. The boys in the NCO barracks got ourselves our own action going on. It’s perfectly legit. And most of the high rollers in our ring are your brother officers, even though they technically shouldn’t be mixing with us any neither. If we were going by the book, that is. Sir.”
Baron Trendel smothered his grin at Lieutenant Darlings’ discomfort and turned his attention to the nearest circle, the overly large one, where the four young men were in the last stages of limbering up.
The three challengers, trainees Dickson, Grant and Lawrence, were all doing little hops and deep knee bends as they finished stretching and getting their armor and padding settled. As the Mikkelson rules specified, the three challengers were allowed to fight with standard leather armor and padding, without the customary lead shot to weigh them down, and normal weight broadswords. Although they each had already donned their padded safety helmets, Trendel thought he recognized two of them from their similar stocky builds, heavily muscled torsos and scraggly sandy brown chin hair.
“Those two, the beefy lads, that’s Grant and Lawrence, right? I’ve seen them doing wind sprints most nights, behind the kitchens? You say you’ve heard they’re really brothers?”
Lieutenant Darling replied, “That’s right, sir. Very promising lads, hard working, strong drive to complete the training. Very much the sort to push to be the best and back down to nothing or no one. Word seems to have gotten out that the top of this class will be promoted to Corporal and held over as part of the training cadre. Can’t fault their enthusiasm, sir.”
Trendel returned his attention to trainee Mikkelson, and wondered, as always, why there always seemed to be at least one in every class that not just bent the learning curve, but broke it. Of course, Trendel was used to that someone being himself, but all things considered, Mikkelson was still a very extreme example.
Trainee Lars Olaf Mikkelson was fresh off his parents’ hay farm, and had barely been in the Border Guards for two months before his Sergeant sent him straight to the Academy for special training. His name was pure Borderlander hillbilly, and his coloring, pale nearly white-blond hair, eyebrows, and lack of facial hair, coupled with his indifference to extremes of heat and cold, marked him as damn near pure-blooded Imperial Scout from the ancient and rarest of surviving bloodlines. There had only been a few Imperial Scouts to survive the ancient war and the diaspora to make it into what became the Home Guard, and then the Borderland, and they were all exotics that generally bred true, but it was still rare this many generations later to see one with the sharp clear features unblurred by dark haired, dark eyed common blood. Mikkelson’s build seemed normal enough, average height, average weight, no unusual muscular development. But put a sword in his hand, and there were suddenly two classes of swordsman: Mikkelson, and everybody else in the world, several rungs further down the ladder. If all of war was only about being good with a sword in your hand, Mikkelson would be in the running for top dog.
Trainee Mikkelson stood looking unconcerned at his side of the circle, wearing the padded leathers, and twice the normal amount of lead weights. The sword he wielded was a little shorter than a training broadsword, but twice as thick and two hands wide at the base of the hilt. He gripped the sword loosely, as though it weighed a few mere ounces, and held himself still while he studied his three challengers closely.
Ever since Mikkelson’s first sparring match, it had been obvious that, whatever life he had led on the farm, the boy was born to fight. With any melee weapon, in any conditions, he showed an instinctive expertise, speed and grace beyond anything Trendel had ever seen before. And the most amazing thing was that, to Trendel’s trained eye, Mikkelson showed no signs of ever having had a lesson before in his life. He achieved through sheer speed, agility and grace what most experienced swordsmen could not hope to match. It had taken Trendel two weeks of adding weights, modifying circle sizes, and increasing the numbers of opponents to find a reasonable balance. Even so, Trendel doubted that they had it right yet. The point was to get the trainees fighting to push themselves harder than usual, to extend their muscles and become accustomed to harsh conditions, and build their endurance. But when the fight was to the first solid touch, it still didn’t really give Mikkelson a solid workout or force him to learn the basics to real technique. Trendel remained privately convinced that, if they gave all four trainees real weapons, and told them to go at it, Mikkelson would be the only one walking out of the circle, and tar marks be damned.