..Basic Training– 2nd Week
12th Infantry Regiment training depot, outside Bainsmarket.
18th of Rowen, 611 AR.
Moonlight glistened on two-hundred and seventy bald heads.
Kirk was struggling to stay awake in the early morning dark. Any real sense of time had completely fled his mind. They had been woken up very early, perhaps two or three in the morning—he had not had time to glance at the clock—rushed out of the barracks in nothing but their undergarments and ordered to stand totally still in the cold mud.
A few in the platoon had not heeded the order to parade ground as quickly as Captain Willikers had liked. More offensive yet, they had muttered questions about the captain’s sanity whilst running out to summons, and were now entering into what was probably their second hour of treading water in the frigid lake on the southern edge of the training depot.
As miserable as Kirk felt at that moment, only the frantic splashing of the recruits kept his own suffering in perspective. Alex had been among those unlucky victims of the captain’s ire. Nobody wanted to join them. Kirk had an irrational fear that Willikers would find out Kirk was Alex Bettencourt’s friend and make him jump in as punishment by association.
A tiny wisp of breath fogged in front of his face, lit by a shockingly bright full moon.
Captain Willikers had seen fit to personally direct the misery of the three unfortunates and had left the company warjack to watch over the tired, cold recruits standing at attention in the muddy parade ground. The eight- and a half- foot, three-ton, steam-powered, vaguely humanoid-shaped machine idled in front of them, its engine making a soft chuff-chuff sound that didn’t really cover the panicked splashing in the distance. Smoke and ash drifted out of its stacks while it swept its imposing helmeted head back and forth across the terrified young men, eye slits glowing with arcane energy from the magical cortex buried in the chassis.
The grenadier-model warjack sported a rather savage-looking mattock in one hand and a grenade launcher in place of the other. Captain Willikers had carefully and loudly ordered the machine to drag away any recruit who moved. The Captain had no arcane psychic bond to the machine, and so presumably the grenadier’s magical brain had been left to interpret the exact meaning of ‘drag away.’ Kirk did not want to imagine what that would look like. He suspected it might involve being punctured by the giant mattock. He stayed very, very still, mind wandering in boredom.
His mother had been utterly destroyed when he chose to enlist. Kirk’s father had served as a field medic in the Scharde Invasions. In an attempt to dissuade Kirk from enlisting, he told horror stories of Cryxian necromancers turning dead comrades against them, chemical weapons melting fellow soldiers to bubbling puddles, titanic Cryxian warjacks barreling down on them spewing necrotic ash and tearing the very souls from the men they killed. Those that survived came back with mental scars that would never heal.
“I’m not going to fight the Nightmare Empire,” Kirk had insisted. “I’m going north to fight Reds. Humans.” Facing fellow humans felt far less intimidating than the deathless misery of Cygnar’s aggressive southern neighbor, a horde of the undead ruled by iron liches and a monumental dragon. Not that he’d really have any choice where he ended up: it was certainly possible that he be stationed in some border town or fortress tasked with repelling Cryx. He sure hoped not. That would be a test of mettle, indeed. Khador was a different story entirely. A war with their expansionist northern foes was a war with enough familiar conventional weapons that Kirk could wrap his mind around it.
Besides, Western Immoren was a tremendously hostile place. There were many dangers to its inhabitants besides war—the wild places outside their walled cities were full of terrible risk. Violent death was no stranger to the citizens of the Iron Kingdoms. He saw no benefit in hiding at home while his friends and neighbors were enlisting.
If he was going to die, he’d rather it be in a trench with a rifle in hand. At least, that was the driving motivation behind choosing to enlist.
Now, At three in the morning standing in the cold with hardly any clothes on, he was definitely regretting those earlier patriotic sentiments.
Kirk was roused from his reverie by the sound of Captain Willikers stomping up from the lake, towing the three recruits who were tied together at the waist with a large rope. They looked dangerously exhausted, stumbling along, dripping wet and shaking with fatigue. Kirk avoided looking at Alex.
“Lieutenant Reynoooolds!” The captain bellowed. Captain Willikers was a stout, broad-bellied man with an outrageous handlebar moustache and eyes that bulged when he screamed, which he did frequently. He also had only one arm—his left sleeve was rolled and tucked into his breast pocket Captain Willikers addressed 4th Platoon’s lieutenant at the front of their rank: “See to these three, get them dried and back in formation immediately.” Lieutenant Hank Reynolds snapped a salute then motioned for Bettencourt, Harcourt and Lawrie to follow him swiftly. Alex, sopping wet and shaking, avoided Kirk’s gaze in shame as he was led away with the others.
Willikers paused a moment to stare disapprovingly at the company of men shivering on his parade ground.
“Hammer Company!” he suddenly screamed, and they all reflexively snapped further into attention despite their tremors. “Return to barracks, gear up and be back out here in five minutes! I will be timing you! Anyone late gets to strip their gear and spend the rest of today’s drills buck naked! FALL OUT!”
Nobody wasted a moment. The entire company sprinted back to the line of barracks in groups of sixty or more according to platoon. Kirk jostled with his platoon mates to get in the large double-doors as fast as he could, imagining himself performing the day’s march with no garments and grimacing with shame.
Everyone made it back to the parade ground in time, but it was in a sorry state. Almost every man was absent some vital part of his huge collection of gear, be it one or both boots, a helmet, the bandolier with wooden balls in place of grenades, light breastplate or some other piece of armor, ammo pouch, canteens… the list of missing gear was exhaustive. Captain Willikers stormed back and forth in front of the assembly, screaming for men to straighten their ranks. The warjack had been led off and Kirk found himself wishing it was the machine watching over them again, not their sadistic captain.
“Fuck my auntie! Is THIS how you bag of maggots plan to be ready for a firefight!? My gods, you’re going to get every ONE of yourselves killed! Do you want that on my conscience!?” he roared. A second passed. “I ASKED YOU A FUCKING QUESTION!!” he shouted so hard his whole body almost left the ground.
“NO SIR!” the company shouted back.
“I’ve seen gobbers with better combat readiness than this! This is disgraceful!” He suddenly halted. “Lieutenants Reynolds, Black, Linwood, Webster! Take a tally of how many pieces of gear are missing from your platoons! NOW!”
The beleaguered officers spun about in front of their respective platoons and began checking each man one-by-one, counting his missing gear. When Reynolds arrived to check Kirk’s getup, Kirk was relieved to see he was only missing his canteen sling and had somehow managed to grab (if not fully put on) everything in his kit. His shoulder pauldrons were comically crooked, he was holding his belt in his hand instead of around his waist, and one boot was unlaced—he wasn’t sure how he’d managed to sprint back to parade without it or his pants flying off—but was in otherwise decent shape.
“Good,” Lieutenant Reynolds whispered to him as he checked. “But don’t let Captain Willikers catch you sharing anyone’s canteen today,” he warned. Kirk blinked in response, trying not to breathe too hard from the sprint.
Willikers waited impatiently. Ten minutes passed as inventory was taken. The lieutenants returned to their positions at the front.
“Lieutenant Webster! Report!” Willikers began.
“One hundred and thirteen pieces of gear missing, sir!” Webster barked. Kirk could practically hear First Platoon’s collective heart drop. Captain Willikers began pacing.
“Lieutenant Black! Report!”
“One hundred and forty pieces of gear missing, sir!” came Lieutenant Black’s reply. Second Platoon was even worse off. Willikers did not respond.
“Lieutenant Linwood! Report!”
“Ninety pieces of gear missing, sir!” Linwood barked. Willikers stopped his pacing and marched nose-to-nose with Lieutenant Linwood.
“Are you lying to me, Lieutenant!?” Willikers howled. “Or do you not know how to count!? I hope for your sake it’s the second one!”
To Linwood’s credit, he held his ground.
“No lie, sir! I counted each piece, sir!” Lieutenant Linwood barked back. There was a tense standoff. Willikers finally moved on, and every man in Third Platoon realized he’d been holding his breath.
“Lieutenant Reynolds!” Willikers shouted. “Report!”
“One hundred and ninety-eight pieces of gear missing, sir!” Reynolds shouted back.
Kirk and a few others inhaled sharply in fear. By Morrow, couldn’t he have fudged the number down a little? They braced for the inevitable outburst. It didn’t come. Instead, a wicked smile spread over Captain Williker’s moustached face.
“Your boys are going to be real tired today, Lieutenant Reynolds,” was all he said. He turned back to face the entire company. “Can any one of you pieces of donkey shit tell me why this organization is called the Trencher Corps.?” Willikers demanded. There was a dumbfounded silence at this sudden change in subject. Nobody responded.
Willikers walked up to the front rank of second platoon. He glanced at the patch on a recruit’s uniform. The recruit stared straight ahead. “Recruit Judas Brown. Please tell me!” Willikers screamed into his face.
“Because we dig trenches, sir!” Judas screamed back shrilly, spittle flying.
“ABSOLUTE. FUCKING. GENIUS!” Captain Willikers announced to the moonlit heavens. “And today, you idiots will dig your first trench. Each platoon will dig a continuous trench twice the length in yards as the number of missing pieces of gear in your platoon.”
And there it was.
Kirk and fifty-nine other men in Fourth Platoon would be digging a four hundred yard trench.
It was well past sun-up before they got started, and blazing hot. A huge field of dirt at the southern end of the depot was clearly used for just such trench-building exercises, and they had begun with a series of instructions from their platoon lieutenants on simple trench construction. Lieutenant Reynolds explained to Fourth Platoon that this would be a basic field trench, usually made in haste after taking new ground and meant to be expanded and reinforced later. The field wasn’t long enough to accommodate their 400-yard trench, so their line had to double-back at the far end of the field.
Kirk found the collapsible trowel to be too short, forcing him to bend awkwardly to shovel the loose, rocky earth. His back began to ache almost immediately. Sweat trickled down his neck. They dug in a long line, the men at the front digging a two-foot deep and four-foot wide furrow, the men behind digging a foot more, and so on down the line until the men at the back were in a trench five feet deep and four feet wide digging drainage sumps. Kirk was somewhere in the middle of the work detail.
The sound of shovels scooping dirt filled the entire field, the officers and the Captain walking the length to check quality of work. The recruits talked quietly among themselves as they dug.
“That fat bastard nearly killed us,” muttered Alex as he shoveled behind Kirk.
“Thamar’s tits, do you like swimming? If he hears you talk like that, you’ll be back in the lake,” Kirk replied softly. “Besides, you had a rope on you,” he said.
Alex snorted. “That rope wasn’t there to save us, it was to make sure if one of us went under, we’d all go under,” he said bitterly. Kirk doubted that was the real reason, but he wasn’t certain enough to argue.
“Aw, shut your trap,” spat Brett Lawrie a few feet up ahead. “If you hadn’t opened it in the first place, we wouldn’t have been punished at all. Only reason I got dragged in is because I was running too fucking close to you when you spouted off and the Captain couldn’t tell which one of us said it.”
“What did you say, anyway?” asked Peter Jakes, who was digging to Kirk’s left. Peter had a soft, sing-song voice that was uncomfortably child-like. Peter couldn’t have been more than a child, actually—he was the smallest of all of them. With wide brown eyes and a pale freckled face he didn’t look a day over sixteen. He probably was sixteen and had lied about his age when he signed up. Kirk found it hard to believe, and a little unsettling, that any recruiting officer would have let him sign the papers. He looked even more diminutive covered in his gear.
“Don’t answer that, Alex,” Kirk said sharply. “I don’t want to know, and I don’t want to be unlucky enough to be nearby when you say it again.”
Almost on cue, further down the field in Second Platoon’s line Captain Willikers’ voice rose in a furious scream. Kirk and the others paused to look up. He was clearly dissatisfied with the work ethic of the men at the front of their trench and had decided they should go stand at attention in the lake for a while, since they were clearly in such need of rest.
“Something tells me we’re all going to do a stint in the lake by the end of the week,” Kirk said darkly.
“Hobbs! Jakes! Lawrie! Nobody told you to look up, get back to your trench,” Lieutenant Reynolds suddenly appeared over them, arms folded.
“Yes sir, sorry sir,” they muttered. They hadn’t had enough time with the officers to form a real opinion of them, but so far, it seemed the lieutenants were solid men; hard but fair, unlike Willikers who seemed totally insane. The officers were all freshly-promoted cadets out of the Strategic Academy in Caspia so like the recruits this would be their first experience with military command. Having them here as part of company training was as much about training the new officers as it was about breaking the recruits.
Reynolds squatted down over their little ditch. “Bettencourt,” he whispered. Alex looked up, surprised. “I am rather curious what you did say to draw the Captain’s ire,” Reynolds said out of the side of his mouth. Alex smiled.
“I said he was a sadistic fat-arse with a head full of bees,” Alex whispered back.
“That’s not all,” taunted Brett from down the trench.
Alex’s smile widened. “I also said he’s probably just mad that his wife is busy showing the underside of her petticoat to the more attractive young captains in Bainsmarket, while he’s stuck out here,” Alex elaborated. Everyone in earshot had a sudden fit of coughing.
Lieutenant Reynolds let out a surprised whistle.
“Holy Morrow, you sodding idiot,” he said, shaking his head. “You deserved every minute of that swim, stupid bastard. Belay that talk. If I ever catch you insulting your superiors—or their wives—again, I’ll drown you myself, got it?” He stood back up and walked off down the line, hiding a smile. There was a longstanding rumor amongst the officers that Mrs. Willikers was rather liberal with her marital vows, a rumor that had apparently leaked in among the enlisted men.
Fourth Platoon was forced to miss the noon meal due to how much trench they had left to dig compared to the other platoons. When they finally finished it was nearly two o’clock, and they were shuffled off to the barracks to drop gear and shower before platoon classes. Their officers were on them to move quickly. The escapade in the field would not afford them any leniency in the classroom; time they missed would have to be made up at the end of the day, which meant even less sleep than usual.
Sleep deprivation, physical exhaustion, and missing a meal meant Kirk and his platoon mates were barely able to stay alert during the afternoon’s lecture on enemy war assets.
Today they were covering Khadoran warjack chassis and weaponry. Their northern enemy favored a heavy-handed approach to their war machinery, focusing all of their production efforts on huge, heavily-armored, slow titans that could take an astonishing amount of punishment and deal even more both up close and at range. Seeing the bulky outlines and specs of each known model and their aggressive-sounding names—devastator, juggernaut, destroyer, and so on—filled Kirk with unease. There were techniques for infantrymen to deal with such enemy armor but generally they were to rely on friendly artillery and warjack support to take down these hulking nightmares.
And so it went for days. Not enough sleep, punishing early-morning drills usually starting with a hard 10-mile run in full gear that left everyone dry-heaving at the end, a hasty meager breakfast—sometimes just field rations, to get the men “used to the taste,” as though there was any taste at all. Following this would be some sort of exercise that resulted in one or all of the platoons being punished in an arduous, unpleasant, and frequently embarrassing fashion. At noon they washed up, scarfed down an actual meal in the enormous company chow-hall, and spent three or four hours in classes focused on practical combat knowledge and techniques: how to cope with incoming artillery fire. How to storm a fortified position. Patrol tactics. Scouting tactics. What to do when you encounter a larger force. A few more hours were dedicated to cleaning gear and learning about its various uses. Still no real guns. In the evening they ran drills in ten-man units with wooden toy rifles. Dinner, then bed around nine, then up at two or three in the morning to start again.
They dug trenches.
They stood in company formation and executed bizarre and humiliating orders.
They performed unit drills on obstacle courses.
They dug more trenches.
Time ceased to have meaning. Men began dropping out almost immediately, one or two a day. After three weeks they hadn’t even touched an actual rifle, and Kirk was seriously beginning to doubt the efficacy of their training captain. Kirk’s hands were badly blistered and his back in a state of permanent agony from hours of digging and reinforcing holes then burying them again only to repeat the process. Meanwhile out in the larger world, war had already been declared against Khador and the rest of the First Army was massing at Northguard in preparation for the initial push into Llael. The invasion would be well underway by the time they finished their training in two and a half months. Kirk had never felt so frustrated and disillusioned in his life.
The few peaceful moments of those grueling days were found on patrol. No man ever went anywhere alone even in the training camp; they were ordered to be in a minimum of pairs at all times as practice for the field. At first this made Kirk feel claustrophobic, but he quickly grew close with the men in his unit and platoon. This was the purpose of the rule more than likely. Building esprit de corps was a crucial part of turning them from a rabble of boys into a single fighting force.
One evening he and Peter—the freckle-faced boy with the sing-song voice—were ordered on a two-hour night patrol around the barracks. They were quiet for a long while as they made their circuit, enjoying the warm night air as summer finally began to take hold. Crickets sounded loudly across the fields. Stars shone down peacefully from the cloudless, moonless sky, and the air smelled of fresh pines from the copse of woods that surrounded the training camp.
Kirk sighed. “What are we doing here?” he asked quietly, partly to himself.
Peter looked up with his perpetually wide eyes.
“We’re on patrol, Kirk,” he said, puzzled. Kirk glanced at him, then looked back up at the stars.
“No, I mean why are we here? What’s the point of all this? I enlisted to serve my country. I feel like all I’ve done for two weeks is churn the dirt in that field. If that’s all I wanted to do, I would have stayed on my farm.”
Peter blinked, looking out over the field of thsier suffering.
“Oh,” Peter said. There was a pause. “Well,” he began slowly, “I don’t know why exactly Captain Willikers makes us do all that crazy stuff. Y’know, dropping our pants, picking our nose,” he said, embarrassed. “But I do know they make trenchers here. And I do know they won’t send us into a fight until we’re good and ready for it. I’m sure of that. So, I figure it’s just to test us, to make sure the weaklings drop out before the real dangerous stuff begins,” he ended, his voice trailing off.
Kirk sighed again. “Look I know, I was just griping,” he said, a little bothered to be lectured by someone who looked like an actual child. “How old are you really, Peter?” Kirk asked. Peter looked up at him abashed, then back at his feet as they crunched through a gravel road.
“Sixteen,” Peter whispered.
“Liar,” Kirk chided.
“I’m sixteen,” Peter insisted.
“Yeah, alright. How the blazes did you enlist?” Kirk asked, shaking his head. Peter smiled at him, and it was an odd smile. It made Kirk suddenly uncomfortable.
“As bad as this is, I’d still choose to be here than where I came from,” Peter said darkly.
“Oh? Where’s that?” Kirk asked, not sure he wanted to know the answer, but curiosity won out. Peter was silent for a long moment. They turned along the road.
“Turinsvale Orphanage in Corvis,” Peter said finally. “It’s an awful place. Been there long as I can remember. Almost nobody gets adopted. It’s barely a step above living on the streets. The people who run it are…terrible.” Peter shuddered involuntarily. “I spent most of my life there working in sweatshops. We were beaten. Badly.” he paused. “Lots of other bad things happened, too. Kids would go missing. The owners refused to talk about it but we knew they had something to do with it. We all figured they were being sold. Nobody knows where.”
Kirk was taken aback. His life hadn’t exactly been easy, but he had a family and lived in a relatively safe place. He couldn’t image Peter’s suffering.
“I’m…sorry,” Kirk said finally, not knowing what else to say.
“That’s what the recruitment officer said too,” said Peter, his voice less hushed now. “I escaped Corvis and made it all the way to Caspia by hopping trains. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do. Worked odd jobs for a few weeks. Then I saw all the enlistment posters, and saw they pay you a full monthly salary, and I imagined having an honest, respectable job, and, well… I promise you, I would rather dig a trench under Khadoran mortar fire for a month straight than ever go back to that orphanage,” he said with calm finality. “When I told the recruitment officer that, he fudged my height and age on my application and let me in. Probably figured I’d wash out anyway.”
They were quiet for a while after that.
“Why did you join?” Peter finally asked. Kirk looked at him.
“Well, nothing so dire as your story,” he chuckled awkwardly. “I… it’s simple, I guess. I’m a farmer.” He shrugged. “My parents are farmers. I knew if I didn’t do something drastic, that’s all I would ever be. When rumor got out that Cygnar was gearing up for a big fight, I wanted to help. I imagined living the rest of my life knowing all my friends fought and died to protect me, and I knew that if I stayed home…” Kirk groped for words. “I couldn’t possibly live with myself. So here I am. My best friend and I enlisted together.”
“Bettencourt? I mean, Alex?” Peter asked.
“Yeah, Alex,” Kirk said smiling. “We grew up neighbors. He’s the closest I have to a brother. We’re lucky to have gotten into the same company together, let alone the same platoon,” he said. Peter shook his head.
“Not luck. They distribute most recruits by order of enlistment. Hammer Company was empty, and you were in line together, so you both got put here. I wager most of the people you stood in line with got put here,” Peter said.
“How do you know that?” Kirk asked.
“Because most of the people I stood in line with got put here, too,” Peter answered.
“Huh, I guess you’re right,” Kirk said. He was seeing a lot of familiar faces from the enlistment line that day over four weeks ago. “I wonder why so many of us ended up in Hammer Company? In fact, now that I think about it, the entire 121st are all greenies.”
“Like I said, it was empty,” Peter said.
“That makes no sense,” Kirk said. “Are you sure it’s not just a new company? The army’s growing, they’re adding them all the time.”
“I asked Lieutenant Reynolds,” Peter said.
“So, what? Where did two hundred and forty men go?” The words faded on his lips even as he said them. Peter simply looked at him.
“One hundred percent casualties in the Battle of the Thornwood,” Peter said quietly. “They never got replacements. We’re the first Hammer Company in over two years.” Peter turned and looked at him. “Oh, don’t spread that around. I wasn’t supposed to tell anyone.”
They were silent for the rest of the patrol.