A Stark Reality
When evening began to darken the quad outside Trendel’s window, and he was just finishing up his lesson plans after long hours at his writing desk, a hard rapping came from his door frame, signaling the arrival of Sergeant Hennesy.
Trendel called out, “Come in!”, and Sergeant Hennesy walked into the room, closing the door behind himself. He saluted Baron Trendel and announced, “Sergeant Hennesy reporting as requested, sir. I have news concerning the challenge, as well.”
“Well,” said Terin, “Sit down and tell me what you know.”
Sergeant Hennesy pulled up one of the other camp chairs in Terin’s main room and said, “Well sir, it turns out that Grant has chosen his brother Lawrence to serve as his second. Now that ain’t gonna surprise nobody, but what I find peculiar is that no one will stand second for Mikkelson. I guess I just never noticed that Mikkelson hadn’t made a single friend among the other trainees. A couple of the Corporals have offered to volunteer if nobody comes forward, but it still bothers me that the boy ain’t got no friends at all. Being a hot shot ain’t gonna help him none if he can’t work with a squad right.”
“Well Sergeant, the immediate future of trainee Mikkelson is one of the subjects we need to discuss tonight. But first, there is something personal I want to discuss with you.”
Baron Trendel stood and picked up a rather large and heavy leather sack from his desktop. He handed it to Sergeant Mikkelson, saying “I told you I would match half of your losses if my strategem succeeded. So be it. The bag holds 185 gold crowns, half of your lost goal.” Trendel held a hand up quickly as Sergeant Hennesy immediately began spluttering, saying “Stop! Don’t say even one word! You told me you stood to win three hundred and seventy gold crowns, plus enough silver to pay off your bar tab. Well, since I refuse to contemplate just how large a tab you may have, I choose to pay you half of your clearly stated amount, and I don’t want to even think about your bar tab. It’ll just give me even more of a headache than I already have.”
Baron Trendel sat back down, and motioned Sergeant Hennesy to do the same.
“I was very impressed by your coaching today, Sergeant. I’ve been watching you for a long time now, and I’ve been thinkong on how you handle yourself, and the approaches you take to getting your duty done. You show a skill in taking what’s given and winning. Your side nearly pulled off a win this morning, and I imagine most of that was due to your fast thinking and tactics when you wren’t given much warning. It’s that kind of fast decision making, and turning out to have the right instincts, that impresses me the most.”
“I intend to promote you to Captain of the training cadre. I am sending a courier to Colonel Marcus West, Commanding Officer of the Border Guards, to inform him of the reasons I feel justified in promoting you. The Duchy needs more officers with your skills to lead where it counts. Most of the men sent here are green and they need a man such as yourself to look up to and teach them what they need to know to survive. I know that you can take the recruits and make them respect what they have and strive for more.”
“Of course, this will leave you the senior officer in the Training Cadre remaining when I leave after the Challenge tomorrow morning.”
Sergeant Hennesy leapt to his feet, already red in the face, exclaiming, “Now hold on a minute, sir! What do you mean, I’ll be in charge! You cannae be leaving me here with this herd of lollies, it’s nae right, sir! I’ll resign first, that’s what I’ll do!”
Baron Trendel motioned Hennesy back into his chair with a brusque gesture, and he waited the Sergeant out with a calm, patient level stare. As Hennesy grumpily sat back, down, Terin resumed his instructions.
“I have to leave in the morning, Sergeant. The Duke has sent word that he wants me to join him at his hunting lodge for the fall season. This isn’t the timing I would have wished, but the Duke has summoned me, and I must obey. I was detailed by the Order to serve the Duke in whichever way I could to help share my own experiences with the Orcs in my own homeland andfprepare your forces, and I knew that organizing and founding this academy was only the start of the tasks your Duke would ask of me. I have to leave the Academy, for I know not how long, and before I go I will be certain in my mind that I am leaving the Academy in good hands, hands I can trust to get the job done.”
Baron Trendel stood up again, and began to pace the floor as he spoke. “I have written up a lesson plan to help guide you in training the men, for as long as I may be gone, but you are the one that’s going to have to make it work. Lieutenant Darling is a decent man, but he is too stodgy and strict to inspire the men to work as hard as they might. Your escapades are legendary throughout the Guards, and I am sure that, IF you are able to control your temper AND your drinking, and keep yourself under control, they will follow you into the darkness itself.”
Terin looked squarely into Hennesy’s eyes, and even though Hennesy was by far the older and more experienced man, something in Baron Trendel’s stare seemed to cause the old warrior to hesitate, and he started to calm down a little and listen carefully to what the Baron had to say.
“There are many an officer you and I have both seen that tries to act the part of the warrior, and for the most part they are mild and cautious men, men that have the spirit of the lamb but learn to make noises like a lion and play the part. In the thick of things, however, they react as a lamb would, and take their men down with them.”
“It’s no flattery, and very little in the way of kindness, to be pointing out that you have the true spirit of a lion of Tyr, and your inability to temper your derision for the little lambs that have crossed your path has landed you in no end of trouble. Well, you know damned well that the Doneghal Border Guards are going to need lions to get them through the war we both know is coming here, and if you will learn to act like a damn lamb around the fine gentlemen, they will come to kiss your ass and carry your water for you as if you were the Duke yourself.”
“Make no mistake. They know themselves to be lambs, and when presented with a lion, they resent the living hell out of you, and do what they can to make your way harder than necessary. That wastes time and energy that could be best spent training and fighting. If you will learn to show them the calm face, and conceal your dislike behind a mask of duty, they will make way for you in confusion. You aren’t stupid and you’ve been in the Guards long enough to know that they need someone like you to lead them, and keep them from getting good men killed.”
“I think you are capable to take on the responsibility, and as the only man here that I would trust with it, I need to know if you will take it. Can you hold on to your temper and be a fair Captain to these men? Do you have the heart to take charge and carry this duty for me?”
Sergeant Hennesy sat in his chair for a few minutes, thinking things over, while Baron Trendel worked at his desk finishing a draft of a warrant of rank. Finally, Hennesy looked up at the Baron with an evil grin and said, “You know there are a lot of Lieutenants in the Guard that’ll never see Captain, Lieutenants that I’ve taken a swing at, one time or another. No matter what bullshit yer shovelin’, they’ll never see me as anything other than a jumped up grunt with mud on my boots and my hat in my hand, out of place agang my betters. Aye, I can do the job, but I’ll not be making any friends for you among the other officers while I’m aboot doing it.”
Baron Trendel just smiled a wintery smile. “Captain Hennesy,” he said, as he handed over the promotion warrant, “Any officer that takes me for an enemy over this promotion is just the kind of officer the Dukes’ Guards would be best rid of. If they want to get me, they can just stand in line. And if any of them are stupid enough to be rude to you where you can hear of it, I imagine they’d just love to face you in an engagement over a matter of a gentlemans’ honor.”
At that, the newly-made Captain Hennesy laughed aloud, a short, sharp bark of amusement. “A gentleman! Hah! Unless I’m mistaken, I’ll be fightin’ a hundred duels outside of my first year! Come to think, that’ll be one fast way to winnow out the sheep, that’s true.”
Just about that time a knock came once more upon the door, and Baron Trendel called out for Lieutenant Darling to enter.
Lieutenant Darling entered promptly, his face freezing for a moment when he saw that Hennesy was already in the room, and his eyes narrowed when Hennesy remained seated at his entrance. Darling offered the nights’ greeting to the Baron, before accepting a seat in another of Trendels’ dwindling supply of camp chairs. Once Darling was settled, Baron Trendel immediately launched into giving his final instructions to the men.
“Lieutenant Darling, at the command of his highness the Duke, I am to leave first thing in the morning to join him at his hunting lodge to the southeast. Seeing as my orders leave me no time to send for an experienced officer of sufficient rank and command experience to replace me here, I have had to choose from amongst the men here to fill the need.”
“I have followed my instincts and the guidance of Tyr in making this decision, and I have chosen to advance Sergeant Hennesy from the ranks of the enlisted men to a position as Captain in the Border Guards, to serve as provisional Commanding Officer of this Academy in my absence. You will continue on here as Captain Hennesy’s Executive Officer, and you will continue to assist him as you have done for me.”
The face of Baron Trendel was hard and unyielding as he watched the sick shock of being passed over cross Lieutenant Darlings’ face.
Terin let a hint of gentleness enter his voice, as he said, “I want you to understand that this is in no way meant to be taken as a personal insult to you, or as a sign of disfavor. However, I can not be certain that I shall be returing to this place. My course will be guided by the intentions of the Duke. We are here at this place to see about the business of training young men to be ready for the hardest kind of war you’ve ever seen, and the heart of it is taking real experience at the sharp end and teaching the men what really works. I need the person leading that charge to be the most experienced and seasoned man that I have available, one that knows which aspects of training are the most critical in a real battle. In point of fact, no man in the entire Guards that I have yet to meet has seen more combat or experienced more of the chaos of battle than Captain Hennesy. He may have rough edges,” Trendel said with a hard smile, “but he will do what he can to prepare our men for battle.”
Lieutenant Darling managed to put a brave face on his obvious unhappiness, as he whispered, “Yes, sir. I understand.”
Baron Trendel paused a moment, to allow Lieutenant Darling the chance to continue, but after a moment passed and nothing further was said, he went on. “I have also been instructed by the Duke to bring along a squire or manservant, if I have one. I am choosing to take trainee Mikkelson with me in the morning, should he survive his Challenge.”
Baron Trendel turned to look down at his desk, as he gathered his thoughts. “Hopefully, this will allow Lawrence to calm a bit, and serve to prevent another challenge. It would be a shame to lose a second trainee so soon after the first.”
Looking back up at the two men, he went on in a hard voice. “Captain Hennesy has told me that Lawrence will serve as Grants’ second. Captain, since you will be, as of tomorrow morning, the Academy’s new Commanding Officer, I want you to serve as the Supervisor of the Challenge. Mikkelson has had no one to step in to serve as his second, so he shall have none.”
“It’s a harsh business all around, and it’s too late in the day for us to be trying to discover the why of his having no friends. There are too many good men in this cycle for it to all be put down to jealousy, there have been others of Scout heritage in the Guards before. I’m sure I’ll get to the bottom of it on the road, but it bothers me that it’s something I was unaware of.”
“Immediately after the Challenge, I want Mikkelson ready to go. Get his things packed in the morning before the Challange, and a horse readied for him. Once the Challenge is over we will be gone and gone fast. After we leave, if you’d like you can pass along the information that Mikkelson will be having a mighty hard time of it with me on the road. You won’t be lying, and it may defuse the anger here at camp. As Captain Hennesy so rightly pointed out, a man that cannot earn the trust of his team and work together clean is a poison to any unit. A man as has been here this long and is after having no friends at all is something worth getting to the bottom of, and getting out of this camp with the bad blood that’ll be building should he stay.”
The Baron leaned back against his desk, and at just that time, a knock at the door announced the arrival of one of the mess orderlies bringing the evening meal. “Now, gentlemen, if there’s nothing else, I suggest we eat and part company. Tomorrow will come too early for us all.”
As the orderly bustled about the room, setting out folding trays and laying the food out, Baron Trendel observed the Leutenant carefully. As the events and discussion had time to settle in, the Lieutenant seemed to be taking the promotion of Sergeant Darling with a growing sense of relief, as though he had narrowly avoided a nasty duty, and was glad to see it land on the shoulders of another. It was a small thing, but it served to help reassure Baron Trendel that he was doing the right thing in choosing Sergeant Henessy to take over. A man relieved at avoiding tackling a difficult or challenging duty wasn’t a man Terin particularly wanted watching the henhouse in his absence. Shaking his head slightly, as if to dispel the last of his doubts, Baron Trendel turned to his meal and set the question of the future aside to worry about in the morning.
At the end of the meal, he thanked both men for coming, and escorted them to the door. After watching them leave in the gloom of the rapidly darkening evening, Trendel returned to finishing his packing. All he chose to leave out were the traveling clothes, weapons and armor that he would need for the journey in the morning.
As the last hours of the night began to fall, Terin decided to take a last long walk around what he had come to think of as his own Academy, walking through the mess halls and looking over the trainees and the instructors.
He reflected on his feelings as he strolled though the cool night air. The Academy had been a safe place, and it had come to feel like home, and he had enjoyed the challenge of preparing the men that came to his Academy to better survive the battles that always lay ahead. But, tonight, feeling that part of his journey ending, he couldn’t help but feel a fresh surge of excitement as he wondered what the new days’ dawn would bring.
When Baron Trendel finally returned to his quarters to slip into his soft, comfortable bed, the Commandant for one last night, he knew satisfaction that his eagerness to see what might be coming next would figure more in his dreams than any sense of loss at what he would be leaving behind.
Terin awoke, as usual, at the time he had intended, and lay in bed for a few minutes, until the sound of the Corporal Instructors shouting in the barracks of the men, rousing them from their racks, reached his ears. He grinned at the sound, imagining the men scrambling in a frenzy to get their chores done and get themselves ready before the dawn reveille.
Terin never tired of hearing the sound of men hard at work in a controlled state of madness early in the morning.
Getting out of bed with a chuckle, Baron Trendel donned his traveling clothes and padding, and then started attaching the pieces of his armor. The straps and buckles, as usual, were difficult to work in place, and for what must’ve been the hundredth time that year, he swore to himself he would work them with oil when he settled down again for the night. But for now, it was time to get his own ass out the door. Baron Trendel draped his tabard over his head, and after tugging it into place, he belted on his weapons, grabbed his pack, and without a backward glance headed out the door.
Stepping outside his quarters, Terin looked around to see what the feel of the camp was. From the amount of organized shouting coming from the outside of the palisades, it was clear that the Instructors had bustled all of the trainees off for their exercise already, and the mess hall was getting ready to handle the morning rush. Chores were getting tended to by the permanent Academy staff, and there was a good feel to the activity. Terin was willing to believe morale was still positive in the camp. But the Challenge would prove a strong test of everyone’s spirits.
Heading for the mess hall, Terin smiled at the cooks in the line, pretending not to notice their obvious surprise at seeing him dressed for hard traveling, and selected some bread and got his usual coffee in his laminated tin cup. He walked over to the officers’ portion of the mess area, and sat down to wait out the morning activities. For the first time in over a year, Terin found himself with no duties to perform, and the luxury of some time to himself. Terin knew that a fire eater like Captain Henessy would’ve known to take over the actual duties of Commandant immediately, without waiting for any change of command ceremony, and Terin smiled to himself as he heard the distant shouting that proved that Captain Henessy was on the job, and from the sounds of things, a bit more energetic about voicing his displeasure than Terin was in the same situation.
“Well, each man has his own style of getting things done, and it’s not like I didn’t know that Henessys’ was to plant a boot up a recalcitrant soldiers’ butt to get him moving in the right direction.”
After his first cup was done, Terin decided to have a second one while he waited for the men to be gathered together to witness the Challenge. Finally hearing the noise begin to settle down around the area of the sparring sands, Terin stood up, packed his cup away in the top of his pack, and picking it up, headed for the door.
Striding towards the sparring circle, he was relieved to see order amongst the trainees and training cadre. Everyone was well arranged at a decent distance around the circle, and although there was some nervous whispering, everyone was showing strong discipline.
As Baron Trendel approached the circle itself, he could see that neither Mikkelson nor Grant were present yet, but trainee Lawrence was already standing by the circle, clearly upset, with dark circles under his eyes.
As Terin approached the head of the platform that had been set up for the Challenge Supervisor and the official witness for the Dukes’ court, he saw Captain Hennesy was already there. Looking around, Baron Trendel could see that all the rest of the training cadre were dressed well and turned out in formal uniform. An idle thought made Trendel wonder where the new Captain had found a set of officers’ dress greens in his size in such short notice. Dismissing such thoughts as irrelevant, since the man was the longest serving Sergeant in the Guards, and thus by definition, a miracle worker, he strode forward faster, eager to get it over with.
As Baron Trendel stepped up onto the raised platform, the circle of trainees grew quieter, as they saw the Baron and wondered about his wearing of traveling clothes, armor, and tabard of the Order rather than his customary Border Guards styled training uniform. The whispers became louder as the trainees began speculating about what this meant when they added it to Sergeant Hennesy’s sudden elevation to Captain.
Terin came to a halt beside the Captain and set his pack down. Raising his hand in a salute to the new Commandant of the school, Terin heard the whispers grow louder, rising into a discordant babble when Captain Hennesy returned the salute. Once the brief exchange between the two men was concluded, Captain Henessy turned to glower blackly at the Corporals and Sergeants of the training cadre, who hurried out amongst the trainees to shut them up.
Baron Trendel turned to face the trainees, and in his command voice, projecting to the furthest reaches of the area, proclaimed, “This morning, we are gathered to bear witness to a Challenge, called by trainee Franklin Grant against trainee Martin Mikkelson. In ordinary times, I would be responsible for Supervising the legitimacy of the Challenge today.”
The sound of the trainees whispers immediately resumed, but the sound of Terins’ voice rolled right over them and shut them down again. “However, this Challenge has come at a most inopportune time. Yesterday, I received a summons from our Duke, requiring me to leave immediately.”
“This summons requires me to attend the Duke at his hunting lodge in the mountains, as fast as I am able to travel, there to stay for the rest of the season. I hold my duty to the Duke very seriously, and if it is his wish that I travel hard and fast, then I will do so.”
“This of course means that there shall be, effective immediately, a new Academy Commandant, and I have chosen to elevate B’rian Hennesy to Captain and Commanding Officer of this Academy.”
“Since I will be leaving immediately after the Challenge, it would not be proper for me to Supervise it. Therefore Captain Hennesy will Supervise, and will take command of the remainder of these proceedings.”
The subdued whispers threatened once again to become a cacophony of babbling at this announcement, but the training cadre managed to get them quieted back down, if only so they could hear what the next shocking pronouncement would be.
Captain Hennesy, however, did not give them the chance for more entertainment. Taking immediate charge of the proceedings, he showed his displeasure at the repeated outbursts by having the Corporals get the trainees up and on their feet, and then had them take the trainees for a run around the outer walls of the Academy, running a good solid lap at top speed. By the time the trainee herd had come thundering back through the gates with the Corporals dogging their heels, the restlessness had clearly been wrung out of them a bit, and they were only too ready to sit quietly on the sand, gasping desperately for breath.
Under the eyes of the Dukes’ witnesses, Captain Hennesy directed the two seconds to go and collect the principles for the engagement. Baron Trendel and the Dukes’ witness for Mikkelson, a stout older man with a walrus mustache named Alred Boundridge, made their way towards the barracks Mikkelson was bunked in. Once at the entrance to the barracks, Baron Trendel called out vigorously, “Private Mikkelson, front and center!”
Moments later, Private of the Guard Mikkelson appeared at the entrance to the barracks. He seemed calm, well rested, but just a little subdued, and Teri thought charitably that he was perhaps worried over what the events of the day would bring.
The calm of the morning was shattered, however, when a cry of horror came ringing out from across the quad, and Terin noted to himself that it came from the direction of the barracks reserved for Visiting Dignitaries. Just as Baron Trendel, Lieutenant Lord Boundridge and Private Mikkelson rounded the last corner and started approaching the sparring circle, Trainee Lawrence appeared at a sprint, running from the direction of the barracks, shouting out, “He’s dead! He’s dead!”
In the commotion that followed, and after the trainees were sent to barracks for impromptu field day under a horde of watchful Corporals’ eyes, it became clear that, during the long and lonely night, the coming duel had begun to weigh very heavily upon trainee Grant, and sometime in the darkest hours of the morning, he had apparently looped his own sword belt around one of the high oak beams of the ceiling in the Visiting Dignitaries quarters, and kicking off from the back of a camp chair, had hung himself by the neck. And there he had remained, undisturbed, until found by his brother, Lawrence.
As Captain Henessy directed two of the Instructors in the task of getting the body down from the rafters, Terin thought that the worst part for Lawrence had to have been seeing the way his brothers’ clawed fingers were trapped between the noose and his neck, and knowing that, right at the end and much, much too late, trainee Grant had changed his mind.
While trainee Lawrence was in the medical hut, under the watchful eye of Physicker Wellsly, Baron Trendel took his leave of Captain Hennesy. The business of the morning was one of the worst outcomes that Terin could think of having happen, but the thing was done, and the sooner Mikkelson got out of the camp, the better for all concerned.
Terin found his thoughts kept returning to wondering if he should have kept Grant surrounded by friends, or under a watch, or any of a number of things. But he kept coming back to knowing that, in the Doneghal Border Guards, a man has to be trusted to do his best and stand his ground. No one could be expected to believe that any man that had come so far, or done so much as Grant, would give up and take the coward’s rope rather than face his demons on the field of battle and risk all for one last dance. It would be something Terin knew he would keep returing to worry over in the days ahead, but for now, he had his own duty, and administering to the details of the Academy were no longer part of them.
He took the opportunity to pull Mikkelson to where their horses and all their gear were gathered, and made ready to leave. Private Mikkelson stood silently, while Baron Trendel explained to him that, for the next several months or more, Mikkelson would have to serve as Terin’s squire.
When Terin explained that the Duke had summoned him unexpectedly, Mikkelson seemed to show none of the concern he had the day before. He in fact seemed very passive and subdued, which was perfectly reasonable under the circumstances, and only stirred to ask the Baron what his duties would be that day. When told they were only going to ride for the Caer to gather provisions, he nodded shakily and swung up into his saddle.
With a feeling of failure dogging his heart, Baron Trendel and Squire Mikkelson rode out the front gate of the Academy, headed on the road towards Caer Doneghal, an easy ride east that Terin knew could be made in a few hours on a fresh horse, and that he decided to take fast to try to use the work of the body to break Mikkelson out of his daze. The boy seemed to be lost in thought, but Terin could recognize the first signs, from personal experience, that Martin was just starting to sink into depression.
Terin knew each man faced stress and loss in different ways, and he decided he would have to trust in hard work and exhaustion pulling Mikkelsons’ thoughts away from dwelling on his part in the choice Grant had made. And a good hard ride for an infantry-trained boy unused to the saddle ought to focus his attention entirely on more physical concerns.
“I hope”, Terin thought, as he spurred his horse to a faster trot, “that the start of this journey does not foreshadow how the rest of the trip shall go. If so, it might be wise to get better armor for Mikkelson. Just in case.”