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It took Tom several days to make a decision. Jonesy came out of the medical unit with a new arm but he wasn’t the same guy. He still joked around exactly like he had before, but he jumped at loud noises. He was pale, and his jokes had a new edge to them, a kind of meanness and anger that was never present. It was a factor in what made Tom decide. The other factor was Lord Conrose . The man was an ass, everyone knew that. Short tempered, cruel, he treated the men as if they were worth nothing, as if they were furniture. He was doing inspections shortly after the battle, and everyone in camp was terrified. Lord Conrose was likely to throw a man in the stockade for a bad look. He was rumoured to have had a man flogged to death for failing a bed inspection fifteen minutes after a battle. He rode into camp on a tall white stallion, dressed in the finest clothing, not a spot on it. As he wound his way through camp, moving slowly, Tom tried to get his men to make sure everything was perfect. He already knew it wasn’t going to work, that Lord Conrose wasn’t going to let them pass an inspection. It was his way, he found fault with every unit. Tom guessed he did it due to some misguided idea that if he didn’t find fault people wouldn’t work as hard. Stupidity of course. Being fair and even handed, that was the way to establish discipline. If people knew they could achieve something they would strive for it. If it couldn’t be achieved, why bother?
The high lord came down the line of tents, reaching Tom‘s area. “What a slovenly patch of garbage. If you men were any less prepared for inspection you would be wild animals. Look at the tension on that line, it’s entirely too slack. I guess slack is the word of the day. Who’s in charge here?”
“I am your lordship sir.”
“Well, a slovenly devil to lead a group of slovenly devils. I expect better from my men.”
“Certainly sir, we will do better in the future sir.”
“So, you are saying this isn’t your best effort? Am I not worth your best effort? Am I a joke to you soldier, someone to be trifled with then?”
“Sir, no sir.”
“Then why is this not your best effort?”
“I’m down four men sir.”
“Excuses. There are always excuses. Pathetic. You get half rations for the next week. Your entire squad. Also, double work detail. I want these men peeling potatoes for the next week.”
This last remark was aimed at a clerk who was scurrying around trying to keep up. The clerk looked at Tom, apology and humiliation clear on his face.
There was no physical punishment, which happened often, so Tom considered himself lucky. Luck that was until a new private said under his breath, “and fuck you too Lord Cornhole“
The great lord turned around. “Who said that?”
“If nobody owns up to what they said I will punish you all. Your entire squad will be in stocks within the hour.”
“Sir, it was me sir. I apologize, my emotions got the best of me,” Tom said.
Of course. The slovenly sergent. Or rather, the slovenly private. You are coming with me. Clerk, make sure this squad has a new NCO.”
The stocks were standard issue. Tom wasn’t whipped, that was reserved for real crimes. Instead he was left standing there for two days. He was a private again. Well, as Adrian had pointed out it was hardly the first demotion of his career. He was up and down all the time, too good at his job to keep at a bottom rank. Too defiant to allow to stay at a higher rank for any length of time.
Once he was released he was thrown into a new unit. It didn’t seem malicious, more random. There was no spot for him where he used to be. The Lieutenant who told him where to go didn’t even look at him. “You’re with the 127th squad now. It’s part of the 12th platoon, sigma company, over on the west side of camp. Look for Captain Pemberton. He’ll be able to tell you where to go.”
“You need someone to show you how to get there?”
“Nope, not many who know the camp better than I do.”
Tom found his unit. Captain Pemberton was a dandy, but didn’t seem a bad sort. “You’re the new private right? Came over from Lord Conrose? Welcome to sigma company.”
“Thank you sir. I will attempt to fill my role to the best of my ability sir.”
“Of course. I know who you are. Your reputation. Don’t worry, I know about Templeton‘s methods. Not mine, I’m a more hands off leader, I trust you men to do your jobs. Go meet your squad. Your sergeant is Ernest Blake. He’s a decent sort. Doesn’t have quite your experience, but he’s fair to the men. Try not to piss off any more nobles and you will be back in the NCO ranks in no time.”
“Thank you sir. Will that be all?”
“Oh, right, formality and all that. Dismissed.”
Tom went to the mess hall to meet his new squad. That was it, the core of his military career. Get promoted because everyone above him was dead, then get busted back down. If the military hadn’t needed men so desperately he would have been in the stockade for the rest of his life long ago.
Ernest Blake was a few years younger than Tom, a slightly disheveled man with a patchy beard and close cropped dark hair. He said, “Welcome, welcome, welcome. We’re down a few, so you’re a welcome face. Normally we give the new men KP on day one, but, well, you’ve got more years under your belt than anyone here. Not quite sure how to handle that.”
“Give me KP. It’s what I would do. Not the first time I’ve peeled a potato in his Majesty’s service.”
“Alright private, get to it. Go see cookie. First though, let’s introduce the men. Charlie here’s been with us the longest.”
The man wore corporal’s bars on his uniform. He was tall, Tom wasn’t short, but Charlie had at least half a foot on him. Tom also outweighed him by a lot. Charlie’s face was hatchet thin, with long sideburns down his unshaven face. Everything about him looked wrinkled somehow, even the straightest lines. His prominent nose propped up a pair of round spectacles, filled with dark green glass. He was leaned back in his chair, body in a state of complete repose, boneless despite his length. He half raised one hand, a small wave.
“Pleased to meet you Charlie.”
“Yep. I’m sure you are. I would be, I was you,” Charlie replied with a lazy drawl.
“Moving on then, Russel here is the squad’s comms specialist. He’s still alive, so that tells you something.”
“Hey, welcome to the squad Tom. Glad to have you aboard.”
Tom gave him a quick nod.
“The rest of the men are out, earning their keep, not like these slackers. We have a pretty good record for keeping men alive, something I hope you can be a part of. We don’t like losing people. It happens, but we watch each others backs.”
“Thank you sir, that’s always been my motto. Most of my demotions came from doing exactly that. This one as well.”
By the time Tom had finished peeling potatoes he knew he was going to join Adrian.
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