A great many things have been written about war. Be it the dry and terse tactical analyses of wars long since won; or tales of glory, valour and valiant last stands; or of its myriad horrors, of blood, disease and senseless loss. But for all these assembled words, scare little of it mentions the mundane. Be it the quartermaster parcelling out rations; or the waggon driver dealing with a team of restless and ill-tempered horses. Even less of it focuses on the rank and file, it’s always generals and colonels and officers. For ever daring cavalry charge that will live on in the annals of history there are scores of irregulars and auxiliaries holding the flank.
Then there’s the mercenaries. No one ever really wants to talk about the mercenaries. They’re like war’s dirty little secret; the lover who would be really awkward to explain to your spouse.
The brave and noble soldiers of his great and august majesty celebrate, for they have vanquished the forces of the enemy and claimed new lands for their nation; the foe is routed, glory and valour bestowed, the day is theirs. As far as the men of The Lucky Hussars are concerned, the day is also theirs. The day is Wednesday, they’ve just fulfilled their contract. Which means its pay day and a well earned debauch. So they count their coins and put their feet up.
Jurg Dziuba killed fifteen men yesterday, now he is stripped to the waist, sitting before a well-worn camp table, the wind is cold against the bald skin of his head and the taut flesh of his back. He is gently strumming a lute, waiting for his brethren to join him and pondering the eternal dilemma of his profession: the complex mathematical equation which determines the precise proportion of his pay which will be spent on booze and the precise proportion which will be spent on ladies of negotiable virtue, and whether he’s feeling fancy enough to spring for brandy over vodka.
The first of his brothers in arms to arrives is Mad Yuri Chaplinski, known throughout the company for his exquisitely poor judgement, a moustache which crawls all the way over the back of his ears and being more or less impossible to kill.
“Today is a fine day my friend!” Said Yuri to Jurg as he collapsed onto the bench next to him. “I have a pocket full of gold and by sundown I will have a girl in each arm and a belly full of wine.”
“Plus…” Jurg replied “You have once again, resolutely refused to accept Lady Death’s invitation to dance.” Jurg smiled and rested the lute on his lap.
“Pfhaah!” Said Yuri “Lady Death is a brunette. You know I prefer blondes.”
“Do you, in your infinite and worldly wisdom, possess the present and exact location of the rest of our enriched platoon?” asked Jurg
Yuri looked smug
“Right there.” He said, pointing to a motley group of men who were wending their way towards them, in their wake they dragged the trailing mass of lesser platoons, ever seeking to curry favour or find a way “in.”
The remaining six members of the platoon collapsed, slumped, perched and arrayed themselves around the camp table Jurg and Yuri had claimed for them. First came the bookish Vladmiri Gulyayeva, clad in his smart black doublet, his hair now neatly trimmed and greased. Carefully his placed his little leather satchel on the centre of the table top and pulled out his quill, his ink and his iron-bound ledger. By appearance alone you would never expected that this time yesterday he was filleting an enemy Sergent Major.
Next came the two Nicolais, as ever joined at the hip. Kulaga strutting imperiously in his tan tall coat and a fancy black ushanka he’s pilfered from a duke last winter. Demko was the second and last of the Nicolais, a fawning and weasely sort of half-man who liked the dark and peculiar kinds of long knife.
On the tail of these svelte killers came “the big men.” A pair of robust and heavy-set men who had found a niche in the quaint and ancient art of hitting people very hard with very large hammers. Griegor Stadnik, the younger of the two, his wrist bandaged and broken, his head bloodied, yet unbowed. Wounds which would have felled a lesser, smaller man. He was cowled in a black bear skin cloak. Most people assumed he’d killed the bear himself, with his bare hands. Most people weren’t far wrong. Beside the lumbering and sour faced Griegor rolled the venerable and jolly old fat man that was Sergent Anzor Klyugin. He sported a large white moustached and had changed into his off-duty clothes; garments of red silk and golden brocade. He was in essence, what Old St. Nick would look like had he chosen the life of career violence. Anzor was one of the great masters of this red art, one does not get to be as old as he without a strange amalgam of skill and love for what you do.
Last, but by no means least, came the Captain; Borris Beregovoi. He wore a coat of patchwork leather; repaired, re-stitched, patched and replaced piecemeal year by year over a dozen different campaigns in a score of different countries. His coat was a patchwork map of the known world rendered in leathers and textile. Both of his hands were buried deep in the folds of his pockets. Clamped between his teeth was a pipe, lost in thought he puffed at it, wreathing his head in smoke. It was hard to tell where the smoke ended and his great, drooping moustache began.
Each of the men found their way into seats or perched on barrels or simply loomed about the table.
“I call this meeting of the Red Platoon of the Luck Hussars to order!” Boomed Sergent Anzor in a voice that could shake mountains. The platoon replied with a raucous cheer. All save Captain Beregovoi. He sat in silence, lost to his own reverie. The rest of his men laughed and joked about the campaign now over, rehashing the highlights and polishing their war stories to a fine sheen; they talked of their spoils and loot; of their body counts; and finally and invariably, they talked about how they were going to spend their money. The good natured banter of Red Platoon was interrupted by the Captain.
“I’m sick of being poor” said Borris out of the blue. His men fell silent.
“But we have all this gold captain!” laughed Yuri, much to the murmuring ascent of the others.
“Aye, we do.” The captain replied “But for how long?”
“Till we’ve spent it of course!” shouted Yuri, eliciting a round of deep belly laughter.
“What then?” asked Borris. This cut to laughter short.
“Eh?” asked Yuri, his face a picture of confusion.
“A week, a month from now, what happens then? Once we’ve spent it all?” Silence fell across the table as they all thought.
“We’re back to having empty pockets and needing to trudge our way across another battlefield to get some more coin. And I for one, am sick of it.” Said Borris with a harrumph.
“What are you suggesting sir?” asked Jurg, the spark of curiosity flaring in his beady eyes. The Captain leaned forward, giving them all a conspiratorial look.
“I…” he began “Have an idea.”
“I hope this isn’t like that time in the lowlands when you thought it’s be a great idea to storm that hill in the dark.” Snorted Kulaga, Demko nodded furiously in agreement.
Vladmiri waved Kulaga into silence.
“Let’s hear the Captain out. Need I remind you that the little adventure on that hill actually turned out quite well in the end.”
Griegor gave a slow deep laugh.
“Six heads” he laughed “Squashed like grapes. Hah!”
“So tell us about this idea boss.” Asked Yuri, nudging the conversation back on track.
“I propose that instead of spending all of our recent gains, we invest them.” Said Borris, puffing on his pipe.
“In what exactly?” grumbled Kulaga.
The Captain reached into the inside of his coat and produced a small glass vial, which he gently placed in the middle of the table. Inside the vial were less than half a dozen thin orangey-red filaments.
“What the hell is that?” asked Yuri, peering at the contents of the vial.
“This my brothers” said Borris picking up the vial and raising it to the light “Is saffron. This little glass vial cost me a quarter golden mark.”
“For that?” said Kulaga seeming unimpressed.
“Would you be more impressed if I told you that back west I could sell it for a hundred and fifty whole golden marks?” asked Borris with a sly grin.
Kulaga’s eyes went wide and Yuri let out a low whistle. Everyone around the table began to murmur with interest.
“That’s more than I’ve made in the last year.” Wheezed Anzor.
“And that Anzor, is exactly my point” said Borris point the tip of his pipe at his men “Together we have enough money to buy and fill a dozen caravans. We’re always moving around and we’re always risking our lives, why not capitalise on our situation to the fullest?”
The murmurs of agreement grew louder.
“Griegor, what’s the biggest thing a merchant has to worry about?” Borris asked.
“People like us” Griegor smiled.
“Exactly! But we wouldn’t need to worry about that, because who’s going to rob us?!” The Captain added
“You know” began Jurg “My cousin is head of the customs house back in the capital. He could probably be persuaded to give us some help.”
“And I’ve got a friend who runs a few dock heads out on the coast.” Added Anzor enthusiastically.
“I suppose I could drop my brother a letter…” said Yuri hesitantly.
“Why? Who’s your brother?” Asked Kulaga with a sneer.
“He’s Lord Provost of the Old City.” Replied Yuri.
The others stared at him with gaping mouths.
“Yeah” Yuri laughed rubbing at his neck “I’m the black sheep of the family.”
Vladmiri began to unfasten his small bottle of ink and sharpen up his quill. Carefully he teased a fresh sheet of parchment from the back of his iron-bound ledger.
“Suppose I better start writing up some articles of incorporation.”
“We’re going to making a killing!” snickered Demko. Everyone turned to stare at him.
“Well, not literally of course.” he added
“So…” continued Vladmiri “We’re going to need a name…”