An old soldier keeps watch & reflects on his career. Feel free to suggest a better title.
Joshua placed a steaming wrapped bundle on the upturned barrel before Brann’s stool. ‘Go on then, you’ve got that stool good and warm for me. ‘
Brann stood and groaned as he straightened out crackling knee joints. He knuckled his lower back as he nodded towards Joshua’s bundle, ‘Smells good tonight’.
‘Aye, delivery cart this afternoon had chicken. Salt beef tomorrow.’
‘Heh, they’re spoiling us.’ Brann snatched up his long-gun where it stood against the wall, the barrel resting in a rowlock mounted between crenulations. He cast one last look out across the rocky landscape. ‘Did that cart deliver any news? Oliver reckons they’re meeting today.’
‘Aye and Samuel says they’re meeting next week. The cart driver he says he heard it was last week. I told him if it was last week, we’d all be dead or retired by now. So go on, go and get your dinner.’
‘Eyes open. Eyes up.’ Brann muttered.
‘Eyes open. Eyes up.’ Joshua grunted in reply. He nodded and Brann headed below.
Joshua sighed, placed the barrel of his own long-gun into the rowlock on the wall and tucked a soft leather cloth from his pocket under the rifle’s butt. He looked over the wall, scanning the broken ground from Glenbeigh Tower in the South-West all the way to Mirren Tower five miles to the North-East. Ten clear miles under the watch of the five men here in Tomtine Tower. Nothing moved. Nothing ever bloody moved. For that, Joshua remained thoroughly thankful.
He dropped down onto the stool and unwrapped his dinner of roast chicken and boiled vegetables. It had begun to cool in the evening air but it still tasted fine. It had been a good few years since he had been forced to eat rat, but Joshua still valued every bite of chicken that came his way.
Sure enough, as the gravy trickled into his beard he could hear the screams of the starving back in Nalgene during the siege. The rich had the cats, the soldiers the rats and the poor had each other. Or their children. Aye, that had been a bad year. Cannon fire at night, catapults launching diseased animal carcasses into the city during the day and every few days another desperate bloody struggle on the walls. Joshua had lost two fingers on the wall to an axe. He had slammed his bayonet through that Berlander’s eye and sent him tumbling from his bloody ladder before he even noticed he lost them. He left more than blood and fingers in Nalgene. By the time General Halpin and his army broke the siege the streets of the city were choked with the dead. Plague had taken grip and Nalgene was beyond saving.
They torched the city that night. Joshua had sat on a hill eating from some dead Berlander’s mess tin worrying faintly about the smell coming from the stumps of his fingers. When night fell, the flames had seemed to dance higher. He could still hear the screams of the infected they had locked within the city walls.
Finished eating, Joshua stood and tossed the last scrap of chicken over the side. He quickly muttered the Prayer of Offering and then leaned on the wall and scanned the horizon again. From Glenbeigh to Mirren and back again. Nothing. Brann, Samuel and Oliver were young, still serving their first year in the Border Regiments of Torland’s armies. Joshua and old Eric had served more than twenty years each. Lifers they called them. They knew the value of living in peace. While the young lads craved action and excitement Joshua found he was happy to sit quietly in relative boredom. Excitement had always brought him far too close to dead for his liking.
“Lifers”. When he had signed on that had been the only choice. Nowadays they could sign on for three, seven or twenty one years. Back in his day, with the Berlanders breaking through all across the Northern territories and the country in uproar, they had signed on to serve Torland with their lives. As far as he knew, he was the only one still alive from his first platoon. He was certainly the only one left from his first squad. The rest of them were cut apart at Burke’s Folly when old General Burke had convinced himself three thousand men could charge a gunline through a swamp. They were up to their chests in black mud when the Berland cannon opened up. Joshua had clung to a blackened root and watched men drown or blown apart by those guns. He was half dead from the cold when they dragged him from the slime . He had been at least half-mad too.
Joshua spent six months as a prisoner of war after that. That was when he learned that the Berlander’s, far from being the near savages he had heard about, were much like him. They were just some more young lads that signed on and were doing their best to stay alive. The Guards had been strict but they had been fair. If he was honest, they treated him about as well as he would have treated them, if the roles were reversed. Every day for six months, he had sewn Berland uniforms from dusk til dawn. By the time he was sent home in a mass exchange of prisoners he was quite handy with a needle. It was the only real skill he had, apart from killing.
Glenbeigh…Mirren…nothing. He sat down on the stool once more. It was always after a meal he felt like a smoke. That was what he missed most about life in the Border Watch, a nice smoke after dinner. They kept the beacons dry as tinder. Great stacks of branches held in black braziers five feet across. At the first sign of danger, they were to light the beacon, signalling the two nearest towers. Those in turn would light their beacons and word would spread instantly all along the Ulban Mountains and down into Embar, the city at the foot of the range. One stray spark from a sneaky cigarette and all Torland would be on a war footing within hours. They would not even bother to court martial you for that.
He glanced at the sun. It was tipping towards the horizon but there were still several hours until full dark. His shift would be over a little before then. He gazed out into the wilderness. Even the most barren land could look quite lovely in late evening sunshine. He did not mind the Tower during the summer; it was the winters he hated. The nights were the worst, freezing cold with no fire to warm your bones. Nights were thick black with nothing to be seen. The enemy could be on top of you before you had even a prayer of seeing them. That was when you relied on your hearing and your Faith. Joshua was glad neither had failed him yet.
He scanned the horizon once more. Glenbeigh…Mirren…nothing. Oh, wait, there was something. A hawk. Flying high out to the North-west, gliding on the currents, no doubt searching for its own dinner amongst the shrubbery below. Joshua watched for a while, waiting to see the moment the bird plunged from the heavens only to soar again tightly clutching its prey. The bird disappointed him and just kept hovering up there until finally Joshua turned to another ritual.
He stretched out and lifted his long-gun towards him, almost reverently. He checked the safety catch by force of habit and then picked up his soft leather and began polishing from the barrel backwards. It was still a fine piece of machinery. Longer than the regulation army rifle and much heavier too. It was more accurate than the rifle, with a range over one hundred yards better, but the weight was the problem. You could never carry the buggers in the field unless you could bring a rest to hold the barrel while you aimed. They were brilliant in defence though. Pop them in a rowlock on a wall and you could pick off an enemy before they ever had a hope of firing at you.
He finished polishing the well-worn butt. He was smiling now. The young lads were sick to death of hearing about the Battle of Embra but it was his favourite story. In his mind’s eye he could see the whole day play out in minute detail. The cloudless sky, the beautiful dawn and the whole Berland army arrayed before the city. The whole of Torland lay exposed before that army if Embra fell. Until then the war had been a pushover for the Berlanders . They knew they would win. The Torlanders had stood on those city walls and looked out on the mass of men stood ready to sweep them all away. Then they had placed their brand new long-guns on the shiny new rowlocks atop the city walls. The Berlanders had laughed at the show of defiance. The puff of smoke atop the wall that signalled the first volley was ludicrous. The laughing men fell face first into the trampled meadow grass.
The long-gun had two wonderful tricks to show the Berlanders. The first was the range but the second, oh the second was the real clincher. Joshua smiled as he lovingly polished the barrel mechanism that held the six cartridges. Back then rifles were simple. Slot in a bullet, pull the bolt, aim, fire and repeat. An experienced rifleman could maintain a steady flow of shots every five seconds. The long guns could fire every second. Then when the first rank stepped back to reload, the second rank stepped in. The sheer volume of fire devstated the Berland army. In fifteen minutes the Torlanders felled more of the enemy than in all of the previous year’s battles.
The Berlanders never knew the long-guns could barely be moved. They just watched their glorious, all-conquering army reduced to worm food in a quarter of an hour without firing a shot. Within the week the Torland President was in the Berland capitol accepting their king’s surrender. Joshua beamed as he remembered marching through the streets that day. By God their long-guns had been heavy but there was not a man in the army wanted to be seen without one. Their allies to the west, the Dessians had marched with them. A few had grumbled they had never seen a Dessian when there was much dying to be done but there were plenty there to march that day. The Dessian Premier even stood beside President Crea when King Olaf bent the knee and the troops cheered.
Joshua replaced his long-gun in the rowlock and tucked the cloth back under the butt, laughing to himself. That had been a good day. He had drunk so much Berland whisky he woke up in a horse trough without his trousers. A local family had clothed him just to get rid of him. As it turned out he was not the only one to wake with problems that morning. With relations with Dessia already strained over apportioning former Berland territories, young Prince Stephan had been over amorous with the Premier’s daughter during the festivities. While he called it “high spirits”, she called it rape. The Premier called it war.
The two closely encamped armies dealt each other terrible casualties for three whole days until they could disengage and return to their respective countries to reorganise. The bedraggled forces had been too badly battered to wage any concerted war against one another and a bitter border conflict had developed. Joshua had been redeployed in the newly enlarged Border Regiments and sent to staff the newly constructed Watchtower network.
He sighed as he scanned the horizon once more. Nothing. Except that hawk was a little nearer, silhouetted against the deeper blue of the near sunset sky. As postings went this wasn’t bad. When he first arrived, the fighting had been fierce with each side sending roving patrols over the border every day. His trusty long-gun had seen a lot of use then. As both nations grew more and more war-weary, the attacks had dwindled. Now Joshua had been stationed on rotation at Tomtine tower for nigh on three years. It had been at least eighteen months since he fired a shot in anger.
The word among the Watchmen was that the politicians were meeting to hammer out a ceasefire. Every day brought a new rumour of who was meeting, where they were meeting, who was demanding which outlandish terms. Joshua knew one thing and one thing only. Once all the talking was done someone with brass on their shoulder would tell him where to point his long-gun next. That was how it had been for twenty-odd years and that was how he hoped it would stay. Until come the day they pensioned him off and sent him to one of the retirement homes they reserved for old soldiers with no family to care for them.
Glenbeigh…Mirren…nothing. Family. Joshua would have liked a family, maybe. He wasn’t really sure. He was the eldest of three brothers. They had all joined up together, so proud as they marched away in their stiff new uniforms. Their parents had waved with the rest of the village as they followed the recruiting sergeant with their chests stuck out, their mother had cried he recalled. Both his brothers had fallen at Burke’s Folly. Abe, the youngest, had only been sixteen while Joe was eighteen. It made Joshua sad that he could no longer remember their faces. Grief and a hard life had taken his parents in the years that followed and left Joshua alone.
He had a sweetheart once. Alice. He remembered her as a beautiful, raven-haired girl who stole his heart. The truth, if he was honest with himself, was she had been no more than fine looking. Beauties had never looked at Joshua and he had never bothered to waste much energy on them. But he had loved Alice for a brief time and she had loved him back. Then his Regiment went on and he went with it. Alice did not want to be a soldier’s wife and by then he did not know how to be anything else. She had given him a locket with a little painting inside that resembled her if you squinted. He was not even sure when he had lost it.
He stood up and shook out his legs. The sun had almost reached the horizon now. A little under an hour and his watch would be over and he would be relieved by Oliver. He had the night watch tomorrow. He grimaced. ‘Bloody nights’ he grunted quietly and spat over the side. He leaned on the top of the wall and scanned again, Glenbeigh…Mirren…. ‘What the f….?’ his voice faded away. He rubbed his eyes and looked again.
Dust. Definitely a dust cloud but not to the West towards Dessia, this was to the North. As he strained his eyes to make out the source of the cloud his right hand rose unbidden and grasped the bell rope. He made out a single man. He was riding hard and he was coming straight for their line. Joshua began to toll the bell.
Within seconds the four men were crowding onto the top of the tower each in different stages of dressing. They all carried their long-guns and ammunition pouches. They looked silent questions at Joshua and he pointed at the single man flogging his horse to death. ‘Rider’. He had his long-gun raised, tracking the rider as he came closer.
Samuel bustled forward. ‘But he’s coming from the North. That can’t be right.’
As ever, Old Eric cut straight to the heart of the matter. ‘Is he alone?’
‘Aye,’ said Joshua. ‘Alone and killing his horse like the devil himself were chasing him.’
‘Hmph. Hard to tell what with all that dust. He looks manky.’
‘Must be a Dessian then.’ Oliver looked around wide–eyed at the circle of frowning men. ‘If he’s manky then he must be Dessian. Everyone knows they’re all filthy.’
Old Eric swept his cloth cap from his head and swatted Oliver across the ear. ‘Half-wit. Have you learned nothing? How could a whole country, every single one of them, be filthy? Learn to think son.’
Oliver rubbed his ear looking aggrieved. ‘But everyone says…’
Joshua squinted and spoke again. ‘Well manky as he is, he’s one of ours. That’s a Torland uniform he’s wearing under all that muck. Might even be an officer.’
‘An officer,’ Samuel muttered, as they all fell quiet. ‘That can’t be good.’
Oliveer whispered, ‘why not?’
Eric smoothed his sparse hair before replacing his cap. ‘Because son, officers only hurry for two things,’
The others intoned as one, ‘Bad news and medals.’
‘Lieutenant! He’s a lieutenant. Look at them bars on the shoulders and knees.’ The rider was much closer now and they could all see him clearly. ‘What’s red piping on the shoulders mean?’
‘General’s staff I think. But there ain’t no Generals around here.’
The rider had spotted them and began waving frantically. Joshua felt he should do something so gave a half-hearted wave in reply. He was fine with salutes after all these years but what exactly was the correct manner to wave to a superior officer?
The Lieutenant pulled hard on the reigns and dragged his horse to a shuddering stop before their tower. It was hard to tell who was blowing harder, the horse or the officer.
The officer made a noise like a hoarse bark that made them all jump.
Oliver asked what they were all thinking. ‘Did he just say “love him”?’
‘You what?’ Joshua called back down. ‘Sir?’ he added a little belatedly.
The lieutenant grabbed a canteen from his bottle and swallowed hard. He tried again. ‘Light the flame!’
‘Why?’ Old Eric decided to join in.
‘They’re coming! They’re attacking!’
‘Who are? The Dessians?’
‘No! The peace talks were held on neutral ground just over the border in Berland. But it was a trap. The talks started, all the politicians and Generals agreed on peace, the treaty got signed and then the bloddy Berlanders blew them all up! I barely got out alive. The Berlanders are coming! Now light that bloody flame!’
Old Eric shrugged and turned to the others. ‘Fair enough.’ He nodded at Joshua and without a word led the others below leaving Joshua alone again.
‘Where are they going?’ The lieutenant’s face turned purple as he shrieked at Joshua.
Joshua pulled a match from his pocket and scratched it against the wall. He lit the oil-soaked torch beside him and called back down. ‘Well, they might as well get some kip while they can.’ He plunged the torch into the brazier and the flames roared through the tinder-dry beacon. He didn’t look back as he heard the officer scream and take off on his beleaguered horse once more.
Joshua lifted the leather from beneath his rifle and unscrewed the rowlock from the west wall. He walked over to the north wall, screwed in the rowlock and replaced his rifle, carefully tucking the leather back into place. He nudged his stool into position with his toe. As he settled back onto the stool he saw a fire burst into life atop distant Mirren Tower. He plucked a cigarette from behind his ear and lit it from the torch. As he leaned back, he breathed out a blue-grey cloud and a sigh of contentment.