Written in about 2008 and set in a fictional 17th Century with less restrictive gender roles.
Justine is on duty, and thoroughly thoroughly bored. Not for the first time tonight, she reflects that outshooting one’s commanding officer may not be the smartest move, even when there is money at stake. Especially when there is money at stake.
So here she is, guarding the swamp at three in the morning. Except of course, she’s not guarding the swamp. There are two pickets of sentries further out, and no-one in their right mind would come through the swamp anyway. No-one with a nose. It smells so disgustingly pungent that Justine knows that she will not be able to smell anything else for a week, and she’s sure that the Captain with the poor pistol skills meant for exactly that to happen.
Besides, this is Staff Headquarters, well behind the lines, and about as dangerous as walking to market. But even if this is punishment and pure spite, Justine has been drilled well, and understands that lives depend on a soldier doing her duty even when the duty is a complete waste of time. And besides it stops her freezing to death, even if so far tonight she’s challenged twelve trees and one pig. (Weaver alone knows how she got loose, but it’s not Justine’s problem. Her problem is making sure no-one invades the swamp. Unfortunately.)
There is a gust of chill wind, and the leaves rattle together. The moonlight makes everything seem alien, and Justine remembers the tales in the mess hall, of the ghosts of old solders, doomed to fight their battles forever, and sometimes to take a foolish young cadet with them. She doesn’t know of anyone specific that it’s ever happened to, but then it’s a big army, and Josh knew a boy in his cousin’s regiment who disappeared while on watch one night, and all they found was a boot. Justine didn’t believe Josh when he said it, but her in the creaking darkness, with the terrible stench that could easily contain a whole battalion of rotting corpses, it’s harder to disbelieve.
Wait! What was that? Justine raises her musket. The faintest rustle of leaves, like a soft breeze picking up. Except there hadn’t been a breeze. Pointing the rifle ahead of her, she closes in on a thicket of twisted trees, bell gripped in the hand that the barrel is steadied with and ready to ring.
“Halt! Who goes there? Identify yourself or I fire!” There is no reply. Another false alarm, dammit! How can this job be so boring and nerve-wracking at the same time? Justine turns away, and the light of the moon catches on the shadow of the indentation of a footprint in the swamp mud. Justine leaps left with a lightning speed and brings her musket up into the face of the figure squeezed into the shadows formed by a hollow between two tree trunks. The black-covered intruder raises its hand and speaks.
“Friend! Major Woodcock of the Logistics Corps and General Staff. Now would you mind pointing that somewhere else?”
Justine lowers her rifle, her terror as quickly replaced by delight.
“Aunt Amélie! I didn’t know you were in camp.”
“Oh, it’s you, Justine. And that’s Major Woodcock, ma’am, Cadet Blackfriar.” Amélie winks at her. “But since it’s you and me, and you just caught me fair and square, we’ll dispense with the formalities for now. One thing though, squirt, sentries don’t leave themselves in a position where someone can disarm them. Even a senior officer. Has been known for officers to go turncoat. Still have to treat ‘em with respect, but make sure you’re out of their hand to hand range, and don’t let ‘em get the drop on you, OK? Could save your life one day.”
“Yes, ma’am,” says Justine, and steps back out of Amélie’s reach.
“Good lass,” Amélie grins. “Think you’ll get a commendation for this one though. The esteemed general’d be furious if I ended up inside his personal quarters without being challenged again. Looks like the suggestions I made last time helped somewhat.” She talks genially, for all the world as if they were not in a stinking swamp on a freezing cold winter’s night. “Signal to get me an escort in then, squirt.”
Amélie sits on a stump, waiting for someone to arrive to take her to the General. Justine is shy, because she looks up to her Aunt, having known her as long as Justine can remember, and knowing also by virtue of her familial connections that Major Woodcock does a little more than manage supply columns. She smiles shyly at the older woman. “I wish I could come out with you rather than being stuck out here on a dull sentry duty.”
Amélie’s eyes crease where the lines have started to stay, and a sadness comes into her smile. “But you’re a good sentry. You caught me, for one thing, and I’m damn good at avoiding sentries. One day that will save a General’s life, and that’s not to be underestimated. I know it’s boring, but thing is, the two sentries out there,” she points back in the direction of the camp perimeter, “they’re bored senseless too. And it’s three in the morning, and they’re not sleeping, just … fuzzy round the edges, and anyway, there’s two other sentries, so why worry? You’re better than that, and your mother has every right to be proud.”
“Then why, if I’m such a good soldier, and a good shot, am I always so far from any real danger?” Justine asks, petulantly.
“Because your mother’s flesh and blood, squirt, and what keeps her awake at night isn’t the thought of her dying on an enemy blade, it’s reading your name among hundreds in a casualty list from the front. Try to forgive her that. There’s plenty of danger to go around, and everyone gets their turn sooner or later.”
“I’d still rather be out with you, scouting.”
“Would you now? Let me tell you a little story then. Technically, this is all classified, but frankly, the stuff that could help our enemy will all be common knowledge soon enough, anyway. the General wanted to know about troop movements on the Eastern front. He suspects they’re about to launch a major offensive. As to whether he’s right or not, well, that’s not important to the story, so let’s just gloss over that.
“So I’ve been out facing danger behind enemy lines again. Every time I go out, I don’t expect to make it back, and every time somehow luck gets me back in one piece. So far. Hell of a job for a former entertainer, eh? Anyway there I am, in the foothills, heading back towards HQ to report. Cover is so scant I’m in real trouble should anyone happen to come by, and what do I hear but marching. At this point, I think I’m dead, because frankly, I can lie flat in the grass and I’m still going to stand out like a sore thumb, so the only thing I can do is sit by the side of the road, plain as day, and hope that whoever’s commanding this particular detachment is dumb as a sack of shit and thinks I’m a civvie. Not that even that option is likely to be pleasant.
“Anyway, the column comes marching over the hill, and stone me if it isn’t one of our bleeding pike regiments, miles behind enemy lines, and marching straight towards a major encampment that’s sure to wipe them out to a man. The sentries spot me, and I get them to take me to their commander, Colonel Stiller. He’s an arrogant son of a bitch, all right. I have a fair bit of discretion with my orders, and getting the 17th Pike slaughtered isn’t going to benefit anyone, so I let him know about what’s up the road ahead, but the fool just isn’t listening. No idea what he thinks he’s doing, but his Major, Major Daniels, good lad, is just sitting there, listening, backing up his CO like an officer should.
“I know Daniels. He’s proper army through and through. I can see he believes me, and believes Stiller is making a mistake, but like I said, Daniels is proper army, and unless your commander’s stark staring bonkers, you follow orders. Nothing doing, so I bid them good day, and I let them get on their way.
“Fortunately the 17th are on their way back to HQ anyway. Turns out that later that night an enemy assassin snuck through the picket and slit Stiller’s throat while he slept. Some of the people we’re up against are right bastards, never see ‘em coming, and this one worked quiet as anything. Only sign he’d been was that the Colonel’s throat had been cut. Major Daniels assumed command and turned the troops right back round again, so they’ll live to fight another day.
“So what’d you think?”
Justine nods to herself, digesting the story. “Sounds like that assassin wasn’t as smart as all that. If they hadn’t killed the CO, it would’ve gone much worse for the unit.”
“Well, kiddo, that’s why information is so important in a war. The enemy had no way of knowing the 17th were only advancing because they had a foolish commander. Doubtless they felt that without the Colonel they’d be demoralised and easier pickings, but instead they ended up putting an officer who knew the value of tactical retreat in charge, and we’re much better off.”
“It makes you wonder though, why didn’t they kill all the officers if they got that far?”
“Well, each kill is an extra risk. Makes it harder to get back out again.”
“But wouldn’t the risk be worth … hold on, how do you know all this? A lone scout travels faster than a regiment under march, and you were heading away from the front line while they carried on towards it.”
Amélie sighs. “Good point. Well made.”
There is a deep silence, and Justine feels a sickness growing in her stomach that she can’t suppress. When finally she speaks, it is very softly.
“You’re right. I don’t want to be in Logistics.”
Amélie nods slowly, and moves off towards her now approaching escort. “You’re not the only one, kiddo. See you in the morning.”
And finally, as the Major is almost out of hearing range, “and your mother’s not the only one who’s proud of you.”