‘Come Under the Shadow of this Red Rock’
A wordsmith once penned that April was the cruelest month. His turn of phrase was based on the fact that in April the world should riding the high tide of spring but due to the ravages of perpetual and modern war it was as sterile as it was within winter’s grasp. Captain Basil Redgrave on some level understood such melancholy all too well. His first tour had been in the trenches of France trying to hold the line against inhuman invaders. He had survived no man’s land and returned to find his country ravaged by the people of the spires as well.
In the face of such horror the Scot of dubious mix, as his cousins once put it, had seen hundreds of examples that told of the tenacity of earthly life: From flowers blooming within stark wastelands to displaced animals forging ahead despite scare resources. Then there was batch of fresh face recruits before him ready to replenish the holes in his squad. The holes had names of course, faces, loved ones left to grieve. Their wake was barely hours over. Basil knew not to focus on any of that, like the beasts of the world he knew he could make his way if he stayed focused on the now.
The fomorians, as the moon-men had come to be called, wanted to wipe clean any trace of humanity from every corner of the globe. It had been a long decade since the first full-scale offensives within Eastern Europe kicked everything off and mankind was still standing strong. They would not go gently; every inch of land would be paid for in blood and bolts. Every nation that remained had one cause and that was to make sure humanity survived.
As he leaned against the edge of a desk that within a few hours would be being used by another captain Basil gave the lads a crooked and devil may care smile. He didn’t say a word.
“What?” One of the rookies, a thick farm boy from Herefordshire, finally asked. Their CO had just sat there, smirking at them, for nearly a quarter hour now.
“What, eh?” Captain Redgrave’s steely blues struck irritation from the enlisted man’s face. His own smug expression remained. “Could you be a bit more articulate there, Private Hurst. This isn’t the town square. We speak the King’s English here.”
All eyes in the room turned to the peon who shook but refused to duck his head. That was a good sign of how much mettle the man really had by Basil’s reckoning. “I was wondering, sir, why you’re just lounging there and smirking?”
“Well.” Basil eased one leg up with the creak of well-worn boot as its heel hitched on the desk’s edge. The battlefield never left Redgrave, even when he was on leave or on base. It was with him in all time in his clothing. In the Captain’s opinion dress uniforms were for nancies and wankers. “I’d thought the articles regarding female recruitment into the King’s army were still the subject of shouting matches at the houses. Yet here I am looking at a room full of ladies. I guess I’m just confused, private.”
Other officers might have gotten groans and jeers for such a line but not Captain Redgrave. His easy wink and pleasant demeanor bore laughter instead. With the ice broken he tilted until he was back on his feet and moved over to the chalk board. It was rotated forward. “Righto. You all know we’re at war and what we’re at war with. You’ve all be basic training and they taught you there to know the enemy, eh?”
A wave of murmurs and nods washed back and forth through the new soldiers.
“Trust me lads.” Whistling Basil clapped both hands behind his head before rolling on the balls of his feet into a tall stretch. “None of you know what it takes to stay alive in or out of the trenches once things go tits up. Fortunately for all you wet behind the ear babes you’ve got me here to give you a crash course. So eyes ahead and pay attention. It’s my job not only to win the day but get as many of you back to your mums’ teats in once piece.”
The men rumbled in amusement to hide unease. Every soldier felt invincible the first time they laced up their boots, only to realize how wrong they were as soon as their commander whistled and the bullets started flying. Most of them never made it home, even in boxes.
“Brilliant.” The sandy blonde captain broke into a fresh grin and tapped the board. “So you all know where the fomorians come from, right?”
“The moon, Balor’s eye, sir.” One tall and wiry late teen tried not to roll his eyes. It was a reality that every man, woman, and child had come to terms with. Intelligent life hadn’t been far off in the universe at all. It had been waiting just above, lurking and ready to strike.
“Hey, it’s a good idea to start at the beginning, Private Norton.” Basil’s boyish smile didn’t dim. “Right, so after Bedford and Cavor took a gander up at the moon and riled up the men that lived under its surface for some reason not long after Bedford’s return it turned into that big red ball. Then it started to flake apart like the ‘biscuits’ down at mess.” He paused for laughter to come and go. “Those flakes, the spires, rained down to pierce the earth all across the Empire and beyond.”
“Ready made fortresses, they told us.” Another recruit spoke up. He was a balding man just below the cusp of rotund. The army really needed every able bodied man and those close enough these days. “Is that right sir?”
“Exactly, Belcher.” A he leaned against the side of the board the captain pattered a few photographs affixed to it. “It was just a few years later, the Selenites, what we now call fomorians and their mechanical soldiers started marching out of the areas devastated by the nights of red tears. Now the two most common ‘fairies’ you’re going to run into out there have been designated redcaps and trolls. You can tell them apart ’cause trolls, they’re fuck all huge.”
All the privates were listening raptly now.
“If you run into a troll? The thing you’ve got to do is try and get a grenade into its chassis or run. Ignore all that boot camp bullshit about trying to pick it apart. In fact assume most everything your instructors told you is bullshit. To them you’re all expendable, to me you’re not. Got it?”
“Yes sir.” The classroom resounded back. Loyalty was being formed piece by piece.
“Good lads, good lads.” Basil winked.
“Even what they said about French whores sir?” Private Hurst cleared his throat before waving one meat hook of a hand. “I mean, what do we do about redcaps, sir?”
“Aim for the head or their crystal heart. You break either of one of those and they go down.” With a firm nod Basil tapped a picture of that particular breed of automata. “Their swords are big and will make you into a broken pile of meat if they hit you. However that also makes them slow. Dealing with them in an effective manner though takes a different tactic. Just like breaking down one of our squads you’ve got to go for the head of the snake.”
As Captain Redgrave pointed to the next photograph Private Belcher vocalized what was coming. “Kill the fomorian taskmasters.”
“Exactly, Belcher, exactly. It’s good to see you lads have some common sense.” He made a snapping gun motion at the tubby Brit. “Ugly large brutes, really that’s all they are. But at least they’re alive and that’s a start. They’re also bullies and like most bullies, cowards. Underneath all that black and alien armor is a misshapen beast lashing out at the world. You’d think they were Prussian.”
A hand shot up at the back of the room. Basil took a moment to look the young man over. Due to the aristocratic cut of the man’s chin and pale head of hair surely he had ruined many a woman’s heart. “Yes, Private Moore?”
“Thank you, Captain.” The proper man’s tone was even and toneless yet his face was appreciative for the knowledge being shared, even if it was in a rather crude manner. What else could one expect from military men? “As I understand it the overseers tend to use rather exotic ranged weaponry and will use their playthings to assure their own personal safety first and foremost. I take it this is the weakness you are going to expound on?”
“Something like that, Private Moore.” Laughing Basil dipped his chin. Dimples appeared casting his look deeper into handsome. “I’ve been on the other end of their storm callers, black lances, and spitters. Just like the rest of their arcane technology I don’t suggest being struck by them at all. It may be exotic but it’s all hideously effective.” His gaze roamed over the soldiers for a quiet moment. Outside another greenhorn squad marched by, singing along to the drill. “You’re correct though, private, you put the pressure on say with a rifle.” With a slow gesture he directed everyone to look over at his own that was sitting in the corner of the room. Where as he let his boots take a beating and look that way the captain always made sure his rifle was spotless. “The overseers will forgo any strategy just to save their own hides.”
“So if you keep attacking the fomorian leading them it keeps their tactics off kilter?” Belcher leaned forward.
“Precisely.” Basil nodded firm. “It doesn’t work all the time and if it doesn’t, you can bet that one of their bosses, the top of the food chain is around. I’m talking of course about one of the Beautiful Ones.”
“Sir.” Norton had the good sense to cough in apology after interrupting. “I’ve always wondered, are they even all of the same race? I mean, well you know. The fomorians are so ugly and the beautiful one’s I hear are… well… beautiful.”
“As far as the brass tells me, yes?” The blonde war hero scratched at the bottom of his throat. “We know they’re both alive, both speak the same language and both roughly look like humans. Now I’ve never seen a Beautiful One up close, I pray I never do. I’ve seen plenty of the destruction they leave in their wake. So, let’s hope we never run into one, eh?”
“If we do though, sir, how do we deal with it?” With a deep grunt Hurst frowned.
“I don’t know. No one is really sure how to deal with them easily. Most of the time they’re taken a lot of heavy artillery.” Basil winked to relieve tension. “And a bit of luck. Not to worry though, our unit has the second in spades. Most of it is even good.”
“Not to worry? I dare say, captain, I would think that is easier said than done.” It was Moore who spoke out of turn. A man of his social baring in all truth could have started as a captain. The fact he didn’t was enough to give him a pass, this time. The others drew silent though because most officers would take a man who spoke like that to task.
“You’re right, Private.” Basil turned the other cheek and just kept smiling. “Luck’s not a thing to rely on alone. All I ask is that you all follow my orders and protect your brothers in arms. Otherwise I’ve got a pretty easy going way of running things, lads. If you can’t fulfill your duties, well I don’t like being unkind but I will be. Does anyone have any questions?”
“Where’re we going to be shipped?” Norton cracked his thin neck and frowned. The captain was one of the good sorts but the luster of fighting for one’s country was starting to already loose its shine.
“Scarborough Castle. So its fine beaches and great sun for us.” After giving the chalkboard a spin Basil sat back on the edge of his temporary desk. “We’ll be part of the defense forces there but not garrison. We’ll be roaming off to surrounding communities to keep the peace.”
“Brilliant!” Belcher cheered and made a small bounce. “I hear the springs there are lovely. That and there hasn’t been a serious raid there since the first year of the war.”
“And it’s been heavily fortified. It’s good that we won’t be cooped up in the castle all the time I hear garrison duty can be so droll.” Norton chimed in.
“Well of course we cannot forget that four of the Thistle Sisters do dwell there.” Even the Normally level headed Moore turned a shade toward giddy. “Will we be working closely with the young ladies, Captain?”
Basil had spread a hand over his eyes and was chuckling lightly. “I don’t think so, lads. I don’t think so. Don’t worry though you might catch a glimpse of them now and again.”
“Oh that Ms. Sage is a lovely one.” Hurst mused out loud and shifted in his seat. “So very right and proper with a sprinkle of what is it, Spanish? I think this’ll be a very good assignment.”
“Have you ever met one of them, Captain?” Belcher grinned wide. “I mean I hear you spent a lot of time in France and it’s clear you like rifles. I hear that Ms. Hellebore is quite the looker. She’s the one that uses a rifle, no?”
“She is and I’ve never met her.” Shaking his head Basil moved back to his feet but for now decided to let boys be boys.
“I dare say that we shall be able to survive on luck then.” Private Moore looked around at his lessers and gave them a very strong bob of his head. To have one of his lineage speak with optimism emboldened the rest. “Any of the sisters are warriors for the crown non-par. I think we can put our faith in them.” His lips pursed and for a moment it was clear he was warring with what he wanted to say next. “I do have to admit I have seen photos of Ms. Rosemary and she does have an attractive air to her.”
“For an Irishwoman.” Norton laughed and the good natured sound rolled through the crowd.
Moore sighed and gave the man a mild grin. His attention returned to the captain. “Pardon the bawdy talk, Sir. Still they are something we can put our faith in, no?”
“Come on, Captain.” Fueled by his own amusement as well as others Norton kept going. “You’ve got to have one that you pine after. Our drill sergeant said that every military man has a thing for one of those clockwork angels.”
“You really want to know what I have faith in, lads?” Basil in truth wasn’t that much older than most of those in the room. He moved over to where his rifle was leaned in the corner. Bending down he rummaged in his pack before coming up with a footman’s bible. “It’s all right here.”
Now that got a wave of groans, even from a room full of good God fearing men. Several rolled their eyes or shook their heads. The fact that their commander had gone right to religion wasn’t expected but all of them suspected he was using it to dodge the query.
“Seriously. Everything I need to keep me going is in here. I can flip to my favorite page if you like and give you all a read.” Basil’s expression turned smarmy. “Or I can dismiss you all so you can get your things packed up. We ship out at 17:00 this evening.”
The men looked to one another in a chaotic motion trying to decide exactly what to say. Eventually most of them turned to Private Moore. There was something about the gentry that made them automatically spokesmen.
“While the Lord’s good advice and word has its soothing qualities, Captain.” As he folded his hands before him Private Moore schooled regal features back to placid. “It is not Sunday and you are not a Vicar. I believe I speak for the men when I ask to be excused.”
They all muttered in agreement. Basil sighed and creaked open the marked page before giving them an impish look. “Fine, fine. Dismissed. I’ll see you all on the train tonight. Remember, 17:00 hours.”
As the rookies rose with the usually cacophony of mixed voices and moving furniture Captain Redgrave looked down at the page before him. In truth he couldn’t even tell you what book and verse he’d opened to. The book mark was a tattered publicity card of Ms. Parsley. He’d seen her once up close back in London along with the three other Thistle Sisters stationed over at Scarborough. Harper, his best mate, had passed out from a night of heavy drinking and he needed to kill some time.
Whenever Basil looked at the small slip of colored paper complete with faded lipstick print it gave the animal part of his brain a twinge. There was something about the tall blonde’s lines, the way she smiled, even if it was just a portrait. She’d been more than happy to ‘autograph’ the photo with her lips that night before planting another on his cheek. Sure the Captain knew that she’d probably done that for dozens of doughboys that night keep their hopes up but he couldn’t help how he felt. Hell, he was ecstatic at the chance, just the chance, to watch her gracefully walking by once more. Not that he could let the lads in on that. He was Captain Basil Redgrave now.
In truth he was sure he’d just be pleased as all hell to see Harper again. The good book closed Basil tucked it away. He slung pack over shoulder, followed by rifle. He had a bunk to clear out before 17:00 too.
“Hold me close, until the shadows pass.” He sang under his breath as he stepped out of the room and neglected to shut the door. The rest of the song just came out as light humming as he wove his way through the halls stuffed with men ready to return to the grinding gears of war.