“As long as there are sovereign nations possessing great power, war is inevitable.”
-Artificer General Sebastian Nemo
28th of Cinten, 611 AR.
Enlistment posters plastered the walls of the little office.
DIG IN! ENLIST TODAY! FOR KING AND COUNTRY! Slogans shouted over drawings of heroic trenchers storming enemy lines with guns raised in victory. One of them depicted an arcanist, arms raised mid-spell, flanked by two massive ironclad warjacks in silhouette. The room smelled of dust and a clock ticked loudly on the wall, belying the chaos of the enlistment line outside the office.
Kirk felt small. Out of place. The man at the desk had a scarred, rough face and was built like an ogrun. He sat in an immaculate uniform of trencher dress blues and wore a tired smiled.
“Welcome, lad,” the man said with the slightest hint of a Thurian accent. “I’m Sergeant Briggs. I’ll keep this simple, because I reckon you already know what we do here. My job is to make sure you aren’t crazy, or too young, or physically inhibited. If you aren’t any of those things, then we welcome you.”
“Thank you, sir,” Kirk said, not sure how else to respond and feeling stupid already.
“Now then,” Briggs said calmly as he reached for a small stack of paper sheets amidst a few towers of them on the desk. He grabbed a quill pen from an inkwell and donned a pair of small reading glasses. “Name?”
“Kirk. Kirk Hobbs.”
“D’you have all your limbs?” Briggs asked, looking up over the rims of his tiny glasses. He looked like a giant making sure Kirk was fit for a pie. Kirk looked back dumbly.
“Uh, yessir,” he replied. Sergeant Briggs ticked a box on the sheet.
“Are you at least seventeen years of age?”
“Yessir,” Kirk replied. Sergeant Briggs looked at him for several moments before checking another box.
“Can you lift fifty pounds?” he asked.
“Well, yessir, but surely the Corps. will expect more than that—” Sergeant Briggs waved a giant hand.
“Nah. Not to start, anyway. They’ll have you haulin a hundred pounds a gear through mud and rain in no time, don’t you worry. Fifty is just a start to make sure you have the size to manage.” He ticked another box, then paused. He leaned back in his chair, which squeaked loudly in protest.
“Are you ready to kill people, lad?” Sergeant Briggs asked. His voice was still casual, but his eyes were searching. Kirk shifted in the seat uncomfortably.
“Well, yessir. I mean, so long as it’s the enemy, sir. Only those that deserve it.” This seemed to satisfy Briggs. Another box ticked.
“Have you got any magic ability? Any arcanist training?” the Sergeant asked. Kirk blinked.
“Uh, no sir, I don’t,” Kirk replied, not sure how to take that question or whether it would affect his chances of enlistment for better or worse. Sergeant Briggs checked a box.
“Any training in engineering? Mechanika?” he asked. Kirk shrugged.
“Not really. My father has an old steamjack on the farm, but it doesn’t run anymore. Something wrong with the cortex, we think. Nothing any of us know how to fix, anyway. I’ve tinkered on it over the years,” Kirk answered. Briggs checked a box, then set down the paper.
“Tell me a little about yourself, Kirk,” he said, taking off his glasses and setting them lightly on the desk.
“Well sir, what would you like to know?” Kirk asked, unsure of himself. Briggs folded his hands in his lap and shrugged.
“Anything, really. Where you’re from, who your parents are, what they do.”
“Well, I live on a farm outside the city a few miles,” Kirk began. “My parents are both farmers, and so were their parents. It’s hard, dirty work. Honest work sir—don’t mistake me for complaining—” he added quickly, “but, well, I’d like something a little better for myself. Not that I’m ungrateful for what I’ve got,” he added hurriedly, “just that…we’re simple folk. We haven’t much money, or any real special skill. And, well, everyone can see the country’s turned a corner, and I’d like to be a part of that sir, in my small way.” Kirk took a breath. Briggs seemed reasonably pleased.
“That’s a good attitude, lad. It’ll take you far in the Trencher Corps. if you hold to it,” he said amicably. Kirk felt tension drain from his shoulders. “Can you read?” Briggs asked.
“Yes. I mean yes, sir, but I’m a little slow.” Growing up so close to a large city had given Kirk the advantage of access to well-funded public education. The schoolhouses on the outskirts of Caspia were far from the vast halls of learning and colleges inside the city, but he had received a basic education. Briggs nodded, picked up another sheet and slid it in front of Kirk.
“Can you read that?” Briggs asked. Kirk leaned forward to read it.
“Cats have a long and interesting history,” he began, then stopped, looking at Sergeant Briggs questioningly. Briggs motioned Kirk continue. Kirk cleared his throat and began again slowly and deliberately.
“Erh, cats have a long and interesting history. In—erh, ancient Caspia, cats were praised for their ability to catch rats and mice…” he continued on for several more sentences, feeling like an idiot.
Sergeant Briggs suddenly started laughing.
“That’s quite enough, lad. Some men claim to do things they can’t, and it’ll cause them and others problems later on, so I have to check,” Briggs said. Kirk nodded, relieved that he wasn’t the butt of some joke or prank.
“Well lad, you seem fit enough to me, and have a decent head on your shoulders. The fact you know your letters will go a long way, that’s pretty important,” Briggs said. Kirk nodded sagely.
Briggs turned the stack of papers he had been checking boxes on, sliding them in front of Kirk over the ludicrous paragraph on cats. “This here’s your contract. I’ve checked and signed that you’re fit to serve, as far as I’m able to tell.”
He flipped through several sheets of dense print so small Kirk could barely discern the words, revealing a line at the end of the contract. He took a deep breath and began a rapid monotone speech that was well-practiced:
“This means you willfully agree of your own accord to four years service in the Trencher Corps., in whatever capacity or place His Majesty—and by proxy, his generals—see fit to have you serve in. You acknowledge the terms to fulfill your duty for the duration of your service until you are discharged or until four years are up, whichever may come first, and that you will serve the Cygnaran Military and His Majesty with unyielding loyalty and obey all orders given, disobedience of aforesaid orders warranting court martial or other battlefield discipline, according to the Rules of Military Conduct. If you are unable to complete basic training, you will be released from this binding contract with no penalty and will not be considered to have entered military service, nor afforded consideration for time served if you chose to re-enlist.”
It was clearly a speech Briggs had given many, many times. He said it quickly and with almost lazy ease. Kirk struggled to follow him.
“Good. Then sign here.” Briggs handed Kirk the quill pen. Kirk took it.
The room felt suddenly hot, the air becoming a thick mud that slowed his movements as he took the quill from Sergeant Briggs’ enormous hand. Was the ticking clock getting louder? He set the pen to the contract, slowly tracing his name. The sound of the quill tip on paper seemed incredibly loud.
For the first time, the enormity of his choice began to settle on him.
He pushed through and completed his signature. Sergeant Briggs snatched the paper away, briefly checked it, shook it once to help it dry, then stood and held out his meaty hand. Kirk rapidly stood in response, kicking the chair back with a loud squeak. He winced.
“Welcome to the Trencher Corps., lad. You’re a part of something big now. Congratulations.” Sergeant Briggs’ giant hand gripped his shook it vigorously.
Briggs placed his hand on Kirk’s back and lightly—but forcefully—guided him towards the door. “You are to meet the garrison officer at the 2nd Army Trencher Corps. barracks in the Iron District for orders by the fifth of Rowen of this year. What you do before then is your time and your will. After that, you will do as told.”
“B-but, that’s in only a few days,” Kirk stuttered. Briggs nodded.
“That’s right. I suggest you spend it with your family and friends. You won’t be seeing them again for a long while,” Briggs said as he opened the door and ushered Kirk back onto the chaos of the street.
Kirk met Alex outside the recruitment office, both of them feeling rather somber after the enormity of their decision to enlist together. They had known each other since boyhood, neighbors on one of the many farms stretching for miles outside the massive walls of the ancient city of Caspia. They both had no siblings– an unusual circumstances for farming families– so Alex was the closest he had to a brother. Alex was a little taller than Kirk but a month younger, with a curly mop of golden hair, surprisingly thick eyebrows to match and mischievous green eyes. Kirk always fancied himself the more responsible of the pair. This may have been technically true, but Alex’s antics had always seemed to get them both in trouble even when Kirk made any effort to stop him. Not that he made much effort too often.
It had been Kirk’s idea to enlist. They had always talked about it as young boys. It wasn’t until the last year or so– with the impending weight of life as an adult farmer bearing down on him– that the idea had really grabbed ahold of Kirk. It hadn’t taken any convincing for Alex to join him; Alex wasn’t about to stay behind in farming country while his best friend went to war and had adventures. He’d also insisted that Kirk was going to get himself killed without Alex by his side, and there was no chance of him attracting women without Alex’s charm to back him up. Kirk couldn’t really argue with that. He’d always been the more homely of the two: straight mousy brown hair and brown eyes, with a gangly awkwardness that had struck him at puberty and never quite seemed to leave. His main advantage over Alex was his comparative size, something he’d utilized to settle more than a few scores between them–friendly or otherwise.
“Boy, d’you see the size of Sergeant Briggs’ hands?” Alex said, whistling. “What’d they have him do in the army, drive railroad spikes with his fists? And that face! Damn, he was awfully friendly in there, but I wouldn’t want to look across a field with that man coming at me,” he said, shaking his head. Kirk laughed. “Well,” Alex sighed, “we’re trenchers now, buddy.”
“Not quite,” Kirk said ruefully. “We’ve still got three months of basic training ahead. Then we’ll be trenchers.”
It was still fairly early, but they decided to stop in a pub across the street to celebrate with what little coin they had left before returning home. Seeing their parents after enlisting wasn’t something they were in a hurry for.
A tiny bell rang as they entered the front door. They were met with a blast of warm air smelling of a delicious combination of wood smoke, cigars, coffee, bread and ale. It took a moment for their eyes to adjust in the dim light of the surprisingly busy pub. About a dozen circular tables huddled with sturdy chairs filled a long but narrow hall, a massive fireplace blazing at the opposite end and a long bar stretching along their left. A barmaid bustled past with a tray of ale and late breakfast for several customers in the middle of the room. Clumps of patrons sat at the bar, smoking and talking. Cheers went up from one of the tables over some card game being played.
The two sat at the bar and ordered light ales, toasting to their new careers, trying not to feel like children. A few stools over, another young man’s ears perked at mention of their enlistment.
“Hullo, lads, d’you just sign up, too?” he asked. He’d already had at least one more beer than he should have, judging by his slurred speech. Alex and Kirk looked over at him. He was a skinny fellow with a shock of red hair in wild disarray and eyes the same shade of green as Alex’s. They seemed to be overflowing with boredom and mischief like Alex’s, too. His smile revealed a small gap in his front teeth.
“Gods, it’s barely eleven in the morning, how many have you had?” Alex asked the stranger. The red-headed man laughed.
“Well, probably won’t be having much to drink once they ship us off to basic, so I—” he paused to belch, “—figgure I oughta drink extra between now and then to make up for it.” He smiled and took another swig from his flagon. Alex and Kirk glanced at each other.
“Morrow, is everyone in the city signing up?” Kirk mumbled.
“My name’s Gerard Chester the Third, at your service,” the man said, getting off his stool with only a little trouble and bowing dramatically. “Allow me to buy you two a—hic—drink!”
“I like this guy,” said Alex. Kirk didn’t bother pointing out they had hardly started their first mug and definitely didn’t need a second one before lunch.
“So you’re in the Corps. now, too?” Kirk asked. Gerard nodded and sat back down unsteadily.
“Aye. Like all six of my brothers before me!” Gerard declared proudly.
“All of them? Lords! Your mother must worry sick,” said Alex. Gerard waived a hand dismissively.
“She died years ago. My father raised us all, and he is an absolute bastard. It’s no mistake we all enlisted the moment we could.” Gerard winked roguishly. “I’m the youngest. All the others survived being trenchers, so now it’s on me to keep the family record, you see? A bit of pressure, that,” he muttered, but seemed to show little concern. It vanished as fast as it appeared. “If I die in battle, they’ll never let me hear the end of it! Hahaha!” he guffawed loudly at his own joke, enough to make a patron at the far end of the bar look up from his drink in annoyance. “Why’d you fellas enlist?”
“War’s about to turn around,” Kirk answered excitedly.
“Near everyone in our village has enlisted already,” Alex added. Gerard nodded.
“Why the Corps., though?” Gerard asked. “Why not go join a mechanic unit and stay nice and safe on the second line?”
“Because if I’m going to have Reds shooting at me, I’d like to be surrounded by the best,” Kirk said, eyeing Gerard with a little bit of concern. Surely this idiot would wash out in training.
Gerard raised his mug and smiled. “To the best! To us!” he toasted.
“Don’t get too ahead of yourself, pal,” said Alex. “We’ve still got basic to contend with. I’ve heard one in four drop out, it’s so hard,” he said nervously. Gerard shook his head dismissively.
“Nah, not nearly so high as that. More like one in six, or something. Besides, it’s really only the first week that’s terribly hard, or so my brothers say. They try to wash everyone out at the front of it all, then work on the survivors. After that it’s just rifle training to get your accuracy up,” he said confidently.
Alex breathed a sigh. “Well, that’s a relief,” he said.