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Author Topic: Ensign Dunning (part of a larger project)  (Read 2227 times)
Queasy Dillo
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« on: August 21, 2011, 07:51:07 pm »


Evening, all.  Sort of an oddity we have here tonight.  As the title says this is an excerpt from a larger project (mostly unwritten).  It's also an oddity in that it's not a western per se, though it wanders into a western setting eventually.  Sort of an alternate-history western, I suppose.  Be that as it may I've since run it by Forty Rod, who tells me it's borderline readable.  

At any rate...it's unlikely I'll be posting any more than the two parts here in the near future (being as it's not written and all).  That said, I'd be interested in your opinions on one of the character as depicted.  

Good, bad, or ugly...any opinions appreciated.  

***


   Ten years he had wanted this, and now he was sick to his stomach at the promise of tomorrow.  Of course the uncertainty didn't show.  It never did.  He studied his reflection in the small mirror as he closed the front of his cadet's jacket; the uniform spotless, seams in perfect alignment, brass buttons polished to the sheen of gold, the fingers moving in practiced order.  On his feet, high boots buffed by hand until the leather shone like black glass.  Around his neck the heavy black collar required of all who attended the Citadel as students.  Above it all the face, the expression faintly aristocratic, the eyes calm as they measured the man opposite.  

   Early on, Val Dunning had learned the value of a properly composed countenance, the ability to show a presence of mind not always felt.  Composure was his armor, and behind that he could conceal anything.  He had learned to hide the disappointment before the army, almost a decade ago.  In time he taught himself to hide pain, confusion and uncertainty.  Or so be believed until he came to the Citadel, the best reputed of all military academies on the Continent, where every seasoned officer, every instructor, and every upperclassmen were finely honed to detect fear, pain, or uncertainty and - if those were found lacking - to gift the student with suitable replacements.  

   He brushed at his uniform and listened.  Outside in the square, the third year cadets were shouting, forming the underclassmen for the morning's ceremonies.  

   But he had a leg up.  He was not immune, but he suffered less than most of his classmates, boys from noble families less accustomed to be told of their limitations who tended to lock up and stand frozen save a quivering jaw or a mouth agape, responses that only seemed to enrage their tormentors or, if the day was going especially sour, draw others.  More than a few had broken when drillmasters or upperclassmen attacked en masse, reporting to the commandant within the hour to surrender the small silver disk that was the primary measure of their worth at the Citadel.  

   This is your commission! a senior cadet had screamed at them in their first formation, holding his own token above his head.  The class was newly issued tokens of their own, most clutched in sweating hands since - as explained only minutes before - proper officers in the king's army did not carry things in their uniform pockets.  Four hundred boys stood in ranks and listened in rapt attention as the upperclassman stalked up and down their rows and columns.  You do not lose your commission!  To lose your commission is to disgrace the service!  To be disgraced is to be dead!

   In truth, they would later learn, the token itself was not the commission.  Rather, those who survived their time at the academy would take theirs to the farrier at the Home Guard stables to have their name, class rank, and service commencement date stamped graven one side, the likeness of the king on the reverse.  Then and only then would they have a formal officer's commission and a place in the crown's army.  Until such time it was one more article for which a cadet had to account, a coin-sized piece of silver easily misplaced and quite frequently the target of senior cadets, who in their free time devised new and amusing ways of separating an underclassman from his token.  

   If they succeeded - or if the cadet broke and surrendered it of his own accord - there was one final insult that remained.  

   Dunning remembered those.  No matter the hour, no matter the weather, the full academy would muster in formation on the parade ground.  At the head of the field was a long stand where instructors and honored guests and generals would stand to watch their charges pass in review.  At one end would be the commandant, at the other the cadet, and before the eyes of his peers he would be forced to cross the hundred feet of open stand and place his token in the pot.  

   Night seemed to be the worst.  Of the class of four hundred and some only seventy were left standing, and most of those who had searched and found themselves lacking had done so in the dark hours of the morning, their departure ceremony held under weak electric light.  They were hated especially by those that remained; not necessarily because of their weaknesses or shortcomings, but because any inconsiderate soul who forced his comrades from warm beds and much needed sleep was held in low regard on general principle.  To a man they would have been markedly better liked - if not respected - for having waited until after breakfast.

   In a move that had become habitual over the past days he touched two fingers to base of his throat, pressing lightly and feeling the disk in the small  pouch he carried around his neck, the token newly replaced.

   As was traditional at the Citadel, seventy men graduated in a class.  Some would go to the army, others to the navy, a very few to the marines.  The top ten percent - the best seven of the seventy - would carry forth the distinction by trading their silver blank for a gold commission.  A man with a golden ticket was almost assured the assignment of his choice.  Since the moment he had decided his destiny lay in the crown's service Dunning had known which he wanted.  

   In his second year he was called with his classmates before a board of serving military officers to declare their preference.  When called from the ranks he marched to the board, squared his shoulders, and stood at attention before a panel of men who had fought across oceans and continents under the royal colors, who had visited the farthest corners of the world, gazed on spectacles that the best of correspondents could never capture with words, and whose records were sufficiently distinguished as to allow them the option of returning to train the next batch.

   "Your preference cadet?"  The speaker was a man past forty, stout, his dark hair salted with silver.  From his left hand were missing three fingers.  

   In an instant he felt the temptation of vast golden deserts, of jungles, of faraway places where snowcapped mountains stretched as far as the eye could see, of people with brown almond-shaped eyes or skin the color of obsidian who spoke in strange languages.  Of animals that could only otherwise exist in the imaginations of children.  Of massed armies clashing on the plains against some faceless enemy and ironclad ships of the line firing desperate broadsides in precise sequence.  For the moment all the world was before him.  He could choose any station where the crown held sway.  It was a heady moment.  

   But he held firm.  He stood at attention with his cap tucked under his arm and his heels touching and his uniform spotless.  He did not hesitate.

   "Imperial Horse Guards, sir," he said crisply.  

   He waited.  The board had his records.  Two years so far, impeccable as his dress and military bearing.  Even then he was a top cadet.  

   And the Imperial Horse Guards were the finest soldiers.  He had seen them once, when he was young and the king crossed the ocean on a tour of his empire.  Great men on stout black horses, parading in flawless order.  Unlike the regular army the Guards kept to the old.  Each man wore a shining breastplate and flowing cape in the king's colors.  On their heads they wore steel helmets like knights of old, and instead of rifles - with which, as the royal household guard, they were quite proficient - they carried polished halberds and heavy swords.  Their horses were warhorses proper, huge animals bred to fight with hooves and teeth from the time they were placed under saddle, hooves flashing with steel shoes.  

   He waited.  For a moment the board studied him.  Dunning kept his face an impassive mask.

   "Noted, cadet."

   "Sir."  He clicked his heels, made a parade-perfect turn, and resumed his position in the formation.  There was no confirmation or denial, but even then he was certain of his place.  He was an ideal cadet.  They could not refuse.  

   Even now he allowed himself a faint smile.  Picturing himself not in the anonymous white of a cadet, but the king's own colors.  He would have to leave the Continent, of course, but that was both expected and acceptable.  With no luck he tried to imagine what his father might say.  To attend the Citadel was one thing.  To survive was a mark of distinction.  Now to get the Imperial Horse Guards - that was an achievement.  For a bastard, especially.  

   And bastard or not, nobody would throw that in his face one now.  Regardless of the circumstance of his birth the army was a grand equalizer.  Dunning might not carry his fathers name, but he possessed considerable merit of his own.  Name would count for less than deed.  Before it had been opposite, perhaps.  Not now.  

   He finished dressing and turned to his left and right, inspecting for wayward threads or specks of lint.  Seeing none, he put on his inspection gloves and straightened his dress jacket.  All that was missing now was the sword.  A man might hold a commission, true, but until he held a sword he wasn't a real officer.  Those would come later, issued in the order of graduation.  

   With some small feeling like sadness he surveyed his room.  Plain, unadorned like all the cadet quarters.  A narrow bed.  A small desk.  A window which was never allowed open in summer and forever let in the cold during winter.  The standing closet inspected at random intervals once a week.  On the foot of the bed his waiting luggage.  

   Nothing in the room remained of his life before the uniform.  Very little within him remained, for that matter.  No longer was he Val Dunning, low-born natural son of a railroad man.  Now he was Brevet  Lieutenant Valantine Dunning of His Imperial Majesty's Royal Army, soon to be Lieutenant Dunning of the Imperial Horse Guards, and heaven alone knew beyond that.  He would see this room only once more when he came to collect his things.  Then he would be off to serve king and country and the space would be assigned another cadet, another boy who would learn to hide things, to give nothing away.  Another gold commission, possibly, though he knew it was unlikely.  

   He let himself out and walked to the parade ground under a sky scudded by clouds the color of pewter.  Already the other cadets were drifting that way though the formal ceremonies would come later in the day.   Most of those who remained he recognized, some he greeted and most he acknowledged with a nod.  Making friends at the Citadel was a chancy affair.  Some would fail.  Some would quit.  Most learned early in their time here not to forge ties too closely.  Still, acquaintances were inevitable and as the seasons passed cadets gained a feel for who would stay and who would disappear.  

   Near the field he encountered one who had stayed.  Jahnst Fremant was an odd match for Dunning and a odder match still for the army; where the academy lived and died on good order   Fremant was frequently haphazard, where instructors sought to instill  a sense of bearing and dignity Fremant was perpetually grinning at some small joke....where Dunning was fourth in his class Fremant would be sixty-eighth.  Doubtless there was a place in the army for the man, though Dunning was hard-pressed to imagine where.  

   Fremant spotted him across the crowd and waved a half-greeting.  He cut across the trickle of cadets, families, and well-wishers and drew himself up ramrod straight to feign a salute.  

   "Luhten-ut Dunning, sah!"  The voice was pitched, but not by much.  Fremant came from the provinces down south where life was slower and more sultry - which Dunning took to mean merely lazy and hot - and he'd brought his accent north, much to the delight of local women, which for reasons known only to God and females was found a source of great amusement and appeal.  Winters at the Citadel had proven a challenge, unaccustomed as he was to the biting gale winds that blew in off the bay or snow in any significant accumulation and duration, but he had survived somehow.  Fremant was a man of considerable surprises.  

   Dunning mirrored the salute, embarrassed at the exchange having drawn the attention of several passers-by.  By regulation it was not altogether out of place, with Fremant entering the crown's service as an ensign and himself breveted to lieutenant as a reward for his class placement, but the significance was minor and largely a formality.  A brevet lieutenancy netted him pay equal to a full lieutenant and no more; for all intents and purposes otherwise Dunning was an ensign, would serve in an ensign's capacity, and would have only the duties expected of an ensign.  He would, however, have the privilege of being addressed by the higher rank and the not-insignificant advantage in silver.

   "By God," Fremant said, clapping him on the shoulder.  "Not a day out of the academy and already a lieutenant.  A captain with the month, a major by year's end, and soon enough you won't even recognize your old schoolmates."    

   "I'll recognize you," Dunning allowed himself to laugh.  "By odor, if nothing else."

   "Oh, you're a cruel one, lieutenant.  Terrible cruel.  But since you cut the very image of a fine young officer of the king I'll let it go.  Have you got your orders yet?"

   "No, not yet.  I've been told it'll take a day or two, depending.  Why?"

   "Well - " Fremant rubbed his hands together.  "A little bird flew by and told me earlier of a particular house on a particular street over in the lovely burg of Lowell, where a freshly minted servant of the crown might chance to find a number of patriotic young ladies who - "

   "And what would these fair maidens ask in return?"

   "Naught but to do their part for those brave young men who wear the uniform."  Fremant laughed.  "Patriotism is a wonderful thing."

   Dunning eyed his friend, conflicted.  On the one side it seemed trivial that his outing after the academy would be a pursuit of something as shallow.  On the other, the Citadel was a place of strict discipline and few of the comforts a man might have enjoyed before the uniform.  And the commandant had not yet passed on his orders for a new station, and likely would not for a few days at least and a week at most.  Until such time he had no obligations.  Most ensigns would take the opportunity to return home, to visit relations and old friends before they were called away to their first stations.

   Most of them.  He himself had no real home to which he could return.  The alternative - spend a few days idling away in the transient officers' quarters - appealed to him not at all.  He weighed the possibilities.  

   He thought of the small room where he had spent the past years, and he shuddered at the prospect of staying another night.  A lively evening in town, a decent meal, and a willing girl on his arm was just the thing.  

   "Sounds like an evening," he said.  

   "Good.  There's a few others coming along.  I'll find you after we're done.  We'll have to hurry, though - last train for Lowell leaves at seven.  We'll be cutting it fine."

   "I'll be there."  He clapped Fremant on the shoulder.  "Hold the train for me, if not."

   Fremant laughed and melted into the crowd.

   Just like the man.  Not even graduated and out of the academy and already he was arranging celebrations and victory marches.  Still, there was a certain liveliness about Fremant.  Any acquaintance knew that so long as he was around the atmosphere would be seldom be dull.  

   Dunning tried to remember his last woman.  It wasn't difficult.  It wasn't altogether pleasant, either - he knew she had been not much older than him, pale and redheaded, and that he'd been too preoccupied with having his traveling chest in order and making the train the following morning and his future with the army to pay much attention.  Afterwards he was glad of the opportunity to hand over the silver to be rid of her.  

   "Lehtenna Dunneh!" a man called from within the crowd.  

   Dunning half-turned and spotted the source, a middle aged man with a perpetual fighter's grimace.  In the third year Captain Allmant lectured on leading small units and countering irregular warfare.  In his lectures he paced back and forth before his audience, gesturing with a short curved sword that he had taken as a prize early in his army career.  He cut an intimidating figure, even years away from his last battle, and not on account of his choice in accoutrements; his former garrison in the far east had suffered a nighttime infiltration by native guerrillas, and he'd been nearby when they succeeded in setting fire to the magazine, which proceeded to explode, burning him badly and pelting him with flying debris to which he later lost an eye.  As a result the left half of his face was a veined and miscolored pink, peppered with smaller scars.  On occasion he neglected to wear his eye patch, which today was not the case, thankfully.  

   Allmant offered a crushing hand.  "Eh see ye've mede it."

   "Yes, sir."  

   "Et's good.  I knew ye'd still be ere.  Ye get too ged a mend fer tectics etherwise  End eh see ye've get a ged home they gev yeh.  Ged feghtin' men weth a ged leng hestry.  Lets eh glery en the neme."

   "Sir?" Dunning cocked his head slightly, less because of Allmant's natural butchery of the tongue - thanks in part to jaw injuries from his last duty -  but because the Guards, despite their long history, were not widely considered a fighting unit.  The captain's grip slackened somewhat.     

   "Eh?  Heven't ye heard?"





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"Get it together?  Lady, last time my people got it together we needed most of Robert Lee's backyard to bury the evidence."
Queasy Dillo
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« Reply #1 on: August 21, 2011, 07:51:37 pm »

"Native Rifles!"

   Dunning stalked back and forth in the confined space before the major's desk, a sheaf of folded papers in hand.  He had come to plead his case, and in the time leading up to his arrival he had foreseen a calm, collected exchange in which he  made a reasoned appeal to authority and authority, having mistakenly wronged him through bureaucratic oversight, cheerfully corrected their slip and filed straightaway for the new orders that would send him to the correct station.  He had hoped the simple clarity of his argument would sway them.  Failing that, he hoped that his blood ties to the major would grease the wheels and add the necessary weight to expedite his appeal.     

   He was thus far disappointed. 

   Major  Kerr only leaned back in his chair, fingers laced together across a belly that fought to escape the confines of his uniform jacket.  Like most officers in administrative positions he had arrived a fit junior officer, only to see the years and a life of formal dinners and frequent parties take the polish from his boots and more than a little iron from his spine.  He had smiled when first the young officer had entered his office; he was not smiling now, mouth drawn in a taught line, eyes fixed on the ensign - his nephew - as he stopped and drew himself up ramrod straight before a window smeared to opacity by the steady thrum of rain. 

   "Valantine," he said.  "Ensign Dunning, sit down."     

   Dunning stood still, motionless as a statue in the parade posture known to all who had endured the forge of the Citadel and been refined from common men into the officers who would someday become colonels and generals.  It was a proud stance.  That of a man who had seen the enemy and elected to sink his heels in, plant the colors, and fight to the death. 

   Dunning turned to look over his shoulder at his uncle. 

   "They can't damn well do this to me."

   "It seems they have," his uncle said.  A peal of thunder broke, rattling the window panes.  Dunning faced forward, through the murky glass.  He didn't dare let his shoulder sag or his bearing slip.  If he was to make a convincing argument he would have to keep all signs of slack and weakness out of his posture and countenance. 

   "I graduated fourth in my class, Uncle."

   "I am aware."   

   "Tell me then," he said, making a fist.  "How is it that the army takes me from the Imperial Horse Guards and hands me off to a mongrel regiment like the Rifles.  Explain it to me so that I can understand.  I want to know."

   The major made a sound that could have been a cough or a stifled laugh. 

   "I remind that you were never a part of the Imperial Horse Guards.  You are a new ensign, subject to the whims of the army, and they will send you where you are needed.  That, nephew, is the nature of the service." 

   He scoffed, fingering the disc worn on a leather cord around his neck. 

   The Imperial Horse Guards, the King's own household cavalry.  By rights he should have gotten it.  Instead they had given him the King's Native Rifles, two companies of horse and eight of foot that bore a reputation more akin to the barbarians of old than any modern royal army, their recruits drawn from jails, doss houses, and the far western frontier they were frequently called to police and pacify.  To a professional military man such as himself the KNR was above the local militias kept by western lords, but not by much.    

   "I'll be wasted there."  He slapped his orders on the edge of the desk.  "This isn't good enough."

   "Perhaps not."

   "What can I do?" he asked.  "How can I be reassigned?"

   "If you must know, there is a way."  The major snorted and rooted through his pockets for a handkerchief.  He found one and blew his nose, then studied the result. 

   "Tell me," Dunning said, pleading.  "Anything but the Rifles."

   His uncle sighed and put away his handkerchief, pushing himself upright behind his desk.  He picked up the orders his nephew had dropped.

   "Go to the Rifles.  Serve for a year.  Comport yourself as the crown expects of its young officers.  Then put in your request.  The army will find you a place, of course.  It won't likely be to the Horse Guards - in fact it almost certainly won't.  But you'll be out of the Rifles and on to better things."

   "A year," he said.   

   "Yes, a year.  Twelve months.  Four seasons.  Enough time to learn the workings of the army and bloody your knuckles.  If you find yourself unhappy at that point at least you'll be a man with a year's service to his name rather than a bothersome green cadet."

   Dunning's temper flared. 

   "Fourth in my class," he growled.  "Is that a bothersome green cadet?"

   "Valantine, Valantine," his uncle laughed.  "You were fourth in your class, yes.  Your class was at the academy, and you are presently an officer in his His Majesty's Army - which you will find is not the academy.  All tales and lore and legends aside, that golden disc you wear gets you no more weight than your peers.  First in your class or last, when you leave the Citadel you are all of equal value to the crown, and as you've begun to learn the career of an ensign is not of much importance to anyone save an ensign."

   "So it means nothing."

   "It means you acquitted yourself well in the classroom and on the parade field," his uncle said.  "No more.  You cannot ride your achievements in bookwork to glory.  Everything must be earned, nephew.  If you want the Horse Guards you'll need to start now, and you'll find the game is changed significantly.  You'll be against other good officers.  Other men who were fourth - and third, and second, and first - in their classes, men who've got years of distinguished service to their name, men who have friends and blood relations in a proper court instead of fat old uncles who shuffle paper in a corps headquarters on the Continent."

   "And if I do - if I go the Rifles, and if I do well, and I prove myself - what does that get me?"  Dunning tugged at the hem of his jacket.  Part of him - some small part - was inclined to follow his uncle's advice, to put in a year's service with the hand he was dealt.  The greater part, the pragmatist, the realist, knew that the regiment in which a man began his career was more often than not the regiment from which he mustered out.  He would be promoted or penalized under its colors, serve with the same pool of men for the duration, and be borne by its caissons upon death.  By turns, his every action would be known not only in the records, but in the minds of the men he was to lead.  Any missteps  would follow him to the end. 

   Transfers were not unheard of between regiments; they were however sufficiently uncommon as to raise considerable interest and require a good deal of paperwork and interventions from above.  And, as leaving one's unit was considered a sign of weakness, inability to control subordinates, or poor temperament a man granted a transfer was often regarded in dubious light.  Even if it was possible to escape the fate the army bureaucrats had chosen for him it was long odds he'd ever get anywhere near the Horse Guards. 

   Standing before the blurred panes of the window he felt the knot of doubt settled deep in his stomach that told him he would not win here.  Worse yet, he was long beyond the point of a dignified withdrawal. 

   Coming in, he had walked a long corridor lined with the offices of important men, of colonels and generals, and suspended and aligned carefully between doors hung gilt-framed paintings of great battles ranging back into antiquity.  He thought of the wide-eyed horses, erect on hind legs and pierced and bleeding in half a dozen places, of wounded officers still in the saddle and shouting orders, of the last man standing alongside, legs braced, one armed extended with a smoking pistol in the hand, the other bearing the colors, clutched to the breast as the waves of an enemy army broke around them like an angry sea. 

   Not all were victories.  Yet knowing as much, he found some of the most stirring to be those in which determined men kept the faith until the moment of death.  In which the King's battle jack waved in defiance until the last of his men were cut down.  Since the day he had resolved to make the army his livelihood they had been his heroes, the men who had died long ago in the distant and dismal corners of the world, falling with a defiant curse on their lips for the hordes that streamed ever onward over the bodies of their fallen comrades. 

   He admired them not for dying but for the manner in which they faced death, for knowing that even if the colors were cased afterwards and the regiment stricken from the rolls that the names were not forgotten and their heroism and gallantry assured a legacy wherever the King held sway and army officers drank together.  There were those who argued that honor meant little if life was the cost.  For the most Dunning paid them little mind - tavern drunkards, educated men who lived comfortably in the protected glow of imperial might, those whose homes were protected by the batteries of guns they so wanted smelted into plows, who preferred to shower money and favor on the lazy and shiftless rather than pay the wages of a single soldier.  Men with no need or understanding of honor and no grasp of any calling beyond their own contentment. 

   The battleground here was certainly not of his choosing, and the odds were not good.  In the dreams of youth he had always seen himself as one of them.  One of the fortunate few who faced the impossible and, with a little luck, lived to tell.  Holding the line against whatever barbarians made up those parts of the world he'd seen only on yellowed and brittle pages of the old atlases in his father's library.  Slowly it dawned that he might be able to salvage something of an otherwise untenable situation.  The King's Native Rifles had a reputation, true, and by common knowledge they made for competent fighters, but by turns their shortcomings in the field of martial formality was no great secret. 

   Dunning stood, thinking. 

   True, he was only an ensign himself - a brevet lieutenant, if he opted to flatter himself - but while an ensign was hardly a powerful figure in the army's organization he was far from powerless.  Supposing he went to the Rifles he would have two dozen men and a sergeant at his command.  Not an army, perhaps, but not inconsequential.  Highly consequential, in fact, should his squadron distinguish itself.  If the wartime record of the KNR could be matched to a proper respect and observance of custom and ceremony it would be a fine achievement for a lackluster unit - not to mention a feather in the cap of the man who brought about the change. 

   Suppose, he mused, that his greatest glory came not from fighting to the death on some far continent but instead by the transformation of a lackluster regiment into the pride of the King's army?  It might not get him a shot at the Imperial Horse Guards, but it could scarcely hurt.  Given time it might even mean he'd get command of the KNR himself - an unappealing proposition at present, yes, but after the fact...that was something else. 

   "You've gone quiet, nephew," his uncle mused.  "Resigned yourself to cruel fate?"

   "I suppose."  Dunning took his time in answering. 

   "It's a strange turn, sending a man Citadel man to the Rifles.  Usually they promote their own - sergeant to ensign.  Rare thing in this army, in this day and modern age.  Perhaps even a touch barbaric.  But I suppose they get along.  You'll scarcely find a regiment with its name on more battles.  It'd be a fine show of colors, did they carry any."

   Dunning arched an eyebrow and dipped his chin.  "Say again?"

   "Hmm?  Oh, right.  They don't have colors, the Rifles.  No flags, no streamers.  Not a properly numbered regiment for that matter.  Not even the imperial jack.  I believe they have company guidons for parades and inspections, if they still hold those. "

   He wondered if his face betrayed the disbelief that blossomed suddenly in his chest.  He felt lightheaded.  No colors!  No number!  Raising enlisted men - some of them probably even conscripts - to the officers' mess!  Lunacy itself let free within the King's army. 

   "Good God," he said.  "Are we sure they're even ours?"

   "I'm afraid so," the major chuckled.  "But all is not lost, ensign.  Rough they may be, but the Rifles have always answered to the summons of the crown.  'Loyal Silvers' they call themselves.  Should you see fit to delve deeper into their lineage you'll find they've won a goodly number of battles by themselves and turned a fair few others.  I believe the KNR - what became the KNR, at any rate - was the first of the..."

   He half-listened as his uncle went on, talking at great length about the role of the volunteer militiamen who had armed themselves with all manner of private weapons (of which rifles of comparatively small caliber were favored over larger bored muskets of the day) elected their own officers, provided their own uniforms and kit, and preferred to lie in ambush and kill at long range rather than standing should to shoulder in battle lines with their regular army brethren.  They were a highly insular group - hated by the King's enemies, kept at arm's length by the King's officers, and decried widely in the gentlemens' circles as a form of institutionalized murder. 

   The Rifles, their ranks graced by precious few gentlemen, took little notice.  In the beginning the unit raised itself from a small hamlet on the coast - the major forgot which one, exactly - and so, with ranks comprised of butchers and tanners and tinsmiths they marched to war, fortifying their ranks from taverns and small gaols along the way.  More than a few men had escaped the noose by donning rifle green, and more than a few others had traded the life of a father and husband for a chance at uniformed adventure.  There was no great formality in joining, few disqualifications and, so long as a man kept his rifle clean and demonstrated an ability to put it to good use, no questions asked.

   "...of course all the army carries rifles now, so the title is somewhat redundant.  Still, they take a considerable degree of pride in the fact that they had them first.  It may very well be that's the only thing from which they take their pride but no matter."

   Major Kerr had been gesturing as he spoke, hands waving back and forth to lend action to descriptions of battles or weight to the words shouted by Rifle officers past.  Now he leaned back in his chair and laced his fingers together over the gold buttons of his straining red jacket. 

   "You may not believe this, nephew, but you might have done worse."

   "Possibly."  Dunning's excitement at the possibilities of turning his squadron into a crack unit was ebbing.

   Still - he forced himself to stand straight, to touch his heels together - he was a Citadel man.  Top of his class with the gold disc as proof.  That was no small trick.  There were unseen machinations in the hierarchies and bureaucracies that had a hand in this, that much he was certain.  Fleetingly he wondered if his uncle was so involved, perhaps as the result of some long-ago slight he himself had forgotten.  But no - no, he knew the cause of this, the one reason that held up where others failed. 

   He tapped the backs of his fingers against the window glass, chilled to the touch.  The high collar of his gray woolen cadet's jacket chafed his neck.  Buttoned up to the throat it was ideal for the cool, damp autumns and winters at the academy, markedly less so for a cramped office kept hot by a potbellied corner stove.  He could see orange flames licking inside through gaps around the door and kept close to the window, which was steadily admitting a cold draught. 

   "Should you decide to pursue the matter I can provide you the names of officers who might be willing to hear you out.  This assuming you can convince them." The major produced a scrap of paper and selected an ink pen from a well on his desk.  "I regret that I have no real pull outside this office.  Keepers of records aren't held in great esteem by the rest of the army, it seems."

   "No," Dunning said. 

   "No?"

   "No, I'll take it."  Dunning's voice was measured.  Composed, as had been drummed into him over the course of the previous years when facing an unpleasant obstacle that nevertheless had to be surmounted before progress could be made.  If nothing else the Rifles were a regiment that took to the field; he supposed he'd rather that than assignment as a quartermaster's assistant or hospital administration or any number of other bureaucratic dead ends.  He might not be getting his first choice, but damned if he was going to survive the Citadel and wear the uniform for the purpose of shuffling papers.  He had no desire to follow in his uncle's footsteps. 

   The major moved as if reaching for a pen and paper.  "You're certain?"

   "I'll take it," he repeated.  There was a silence. 

   "Well then.  I believe that concludes our business, ensign."

   "I believe so."

   "Right.  Now I find I must get back to my bean counting - God forbid the army misplace its head, though I'm certain it's been done before.   Good day to you, nephew.  Good luck."

   "And to you, major."  Dunning stiffened his spine, clicked his heels, and turned to go.  He eased the door closed behind him and tried to muffle the sound of his footfalls.  Having made a false advance he had no desire to explain his presence to any curious officers who might question the nature of his visit.  He trusted his uncle would pass it off as a farewell visit before his departure west.  How the major would have explained the raised voices earlier he didn't know.     

   Fremant was waiting outside, sitting on the gallery rail.  At Dunning's approach he sprang from his seat, dusting the seat of his trouser, and shrugging into his heavy overcoat.  Like many of the Citadel's former cadets, he had not yet acquired the silver to have his general issue uniforms tailored, and the misfitting dress and oversized coat gave him the air of a well-dressed beggar.

   "Well?" he pressed.  "Did you get him?"

   "We spoke," Dunning said. 

   "And?"

   "The matter has been settled."

   "Good."  Fremant grinned, donning a broad-brimmed hat.  Assuming a dramatic pose, he swept an arm across the panorama of the street, blocked on the opposite by the fortress-like side of a brick warehouse.  The rain had slackened, but the sky remained cloudy, rumbling with discontent, and the cobblestones were polished to high sheen.  "We've got a few minutes for the train, but no need to lag.  Officer or not, the railroad waits for no man."

   "I may not go," Dunning said, his earlier optimism for the future dampened by the wet, miserable state of things.
 
   "The hell you say."  Fremant grabbed him by the arm dragged him down the steps.  Dunning didn't fight him.  He'd already lost one battle today, and he hadn't the heart to lose another.
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Forty Rod
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« Reply #2 on: August 22, 2011, 10:23:37 am »

Good start of a story.  Let's see more and find out where it goes.
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« Reply #3 on: August 24, 2011, 07:49:38 pm »

I like it.  As for the main character I see him as winning the Victoria Cross and helping change the reputation of the KNR to become the delta force of that time period. I look forward to future installments. 
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« Reply #4 on: August 25, 2011, 08:04:26 am »

My sincerest thanks to you both.  Further installments are currently in plotting (along with the half-dozen other poor souls involved in this particular undertaking) and though it may be a while yet, Ensign Dunning will return. 

I'm a little unsure about the VC, though, Mr. Watson, as this isn't strictly Victorian - at least as we know it.  That said, I'm sure the forces of the crown have something of similar distinction. 

But he's still a green junior officer.  So it's a ways off yet.   Grin
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« Reply #5 on: August 26, 2011, 09:48:33 pm »

I must read the final product.
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