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By Schism Rent Asunder: Section Twenty Five

       Last updated: Monday, March 3, 2008 07:13 EST



Marine Training Ground,
Helen Island,
Kingdom of Charis

    Golden-tongued bugles sounded, and the five hundred men in the dark blue tunics and light blue breeches of the Royal Charisian Marines responded almost instantly. The compact battalion column split smoothly into its five component companies, each of which marched rapidly outward from the original column, then wheeled and formed neatly into a three-deep line.

    Orders rang out from bull-throated sergeants, rifle slings came off shoulders, cartridge boxes opened, and ramrods flashed in the sunlight. Barely five minutes after the first bugle call, the early afternoon came apart in flame and smoke as the battalion fired its first volley at the targets set up a hundred and fifty yards from its position. A second volley roared fifteen seconds later, and a third fifteen seconds after that. No non-Charisian musketeers in the world could have come remotely close to matching that rate of fire. A matchlock musket did extraordinarily well to fire one shot in a minute, far less the four rounds a minute the Marines were managing.

    And they weren't firing as rapidly as they could have. This was controlled, aimed volley fire, not maximum-rate.

    A total of six volleys cracked like thunder in just over seventy-five seconds, and the row of targets literally blew apart under the impact of three thousand half-inch rifle bullets. Very few of those bullets missed, and that, too, was something no other musketeers in the world could have matched.

    While the battalion was forming up and delivering its volleys, the four pieces of artillery which had been rolling along behind it on the newly designed two-wheel carriages and limbers had come up behind the firing line, Earl Lock Island noticed from where he stood on his hilltop observation post with Brigadier Clareyk. The six-legged hill dragons harnessed to the limbers clearly didn't care much for the sounds of massed rifle fire, but equally clearly, they'd grown more or less accustomed to it. However much they might dislike it, the big beasts — they were smaller than their jungle dragon counterparts, or even the carnivorous great dragons, but they were still the size of an Old Earth elephant — were remarkably steady as their drovers turned them to face back the way they'd come while the gun crews unlimbered.

    The guns were the new twelve-pounder field guns, not the much heavier siege artillery the earl had seen demonstrated several five-days ago. He hadn't yet seen the twelve-pounders in action, and as he reached down to rub the soft ears of the massive black-and-tan Rottweiler sitting alertly upright beside him, he watched with intense interest while the company forming the center of the Marine firing line marched briskly aside. The line opened smoothly, and the guns were wheeled up into position.

    The gunners weren't loading with round shot; they were loading with canister, and Lock Island winced at what he knew was coming. He hadn't actually seen "canister" used yet, but he'd had it described to him. Instead of the nine to twelve small projectiles customary for a stand of grapeshot in naval service, the canister rounds were thin-walled cylinders, each packed with twenty-seven inch-and-a-half shot. The tubes were designed to burst apart on firing, releasing their burdens of shot and turning the cannon into the world's largest shotguns. Not only that, but these were what Sir Ahlfryd Hyndryk, Baron Seamount, called "fixed rounds." The powder charge was already attached to the tube of canister, and the entire round could be rammed home with a single thrust.

    With the new ammunition Baron Seamount had designed (with, of course, a little help from Seijin Merlin, Lock Island reminded himself), the artillerists could load and fire with preposterous speed. Indeed, using the fixed rounds, they could load as quickly as the Marine riflemen who'd already shredded the waiting targets. Lock Island knew no one down there was moving as quickly as they possibly could. This was a training exercise — and demonstration — not actual combat. Which meant the officers and noncoms in charge of it weren't about to push their men hard enough to produce unnecessary casualties and injuries.

    And which also meant that the rate of fire being demonstrated was "only" four or five times the rate of fire anyone else could have managed.

    The guns were loaded now, he saw. Gun captains crouched behind them, peering over the simple but effective sights Seamount had devised and waving hand signals to their gun crews while the tubes were carefully aligned. Then they were waving the other gunners back, safely away from the weapons, while they took tension on the firing lanyards. One last look around to be sure everyone was clear, left hands raised in indication of readiness, and then the battery commander barked his order and the artillery bellowed with a flat, hard, concussive voice that dwarfed the sounds of rifle fire.

    Each of the guns spewed its lethal canister downrange in a spreading cloud. Lock Island could see splashes of dirt kicking up where the dispersing patterns "wasted" some of their shot short of the targets. It didn't matter, though. Where the rifle bullets had ripped the wood and canvas targets into tatters, the canister simply flattened them. Well, that wasn't quite fair, Lock Island decided, raising his spyglass and peering through it. The targets hadn't been flattened; they'd simply disintegrated.

    More bugles sounded, and the gunners stepped back from their weapons. The riflemen grounded the butts of their rifles, and whistles blew to signal the end of the fire exercise.

    "That," Lock Island said, turning to the Marine officer standing beside him, "was . . . impressive. Very impressive, Brigadier."

    "Thank you, My Lord," Brigadier Kynt Clareyk replied. "The men have worked hard. And not just because we've made them, either. They're impatient to show someone else what they can do, as well."

    Lock Island nodded. He had no doubt at all who "else" Clareyk's men wanted to demonstrate their prowess to. Or, rather, upon.

    "Soon, Brigadier. Soon," the high admiral promised. "You know better than most what the schedule looks like."

    "Yes, My Lord." Clareyk might have looked just a teeny bit embarrassed, but Lock Island wasn't prepared to bet any money on it. And if truth be told, no one had a better right to be impatient than Brigadier Clareyk. After all, he was the one who'd written the training manual for the Royal Charisian Marines' new infantry tactics. And he'd also been Seamount's primary assistant in devising the world's first true field artillery tactics and integrating them with the infantry. He'd been a mere major then, not a brigadier; there hadn't been any Charisian brigadiers at the time. In fact, there hadn't been any brigadiers anywhere. The rank was less than six months old, suggested by Seijin Merlin as the Marines' buildup began to hit its stride.

    Lieutenant Layn, Clareyk's second-in-command while he worked out the basic tactics for the new, longer-ranged, and far more accurate rifles, was now a major himself and in charge of the ongoing training program here on Helen Island.

    And, Lock Island thought, looking back at the men of Clareyk's second battalion as they formed smoothly back into column formation, Layn was doing just as good a job as Clareyk had.

    "Actually, High Admiral," another voice said, "I think we're probably going to need to consider moving our training operations. Or, perhaps, simply expanding them into other locations."



    Lock Island turned to the short, almost pudgy looking officer standing on his other side. Baron Seamount had lost the first two fingers of his left hand to an accidental explosion years before, but the mishap hadn't dimmed his passion for loud explosions one bit. Nor had it affected his sharp, incisive intelligence. Some people had been fooled by Seamount's relatively unprepossessing appearance, but Lock Island knew exactly how capable the brain behind that . . . unimpressive façade really was. And how valuable.

    Although Seamount had been promoted from captain to commodore, Lock Island still felt vaguely guilty. By rights, Seamount should have had his own admiral's command streamer by now, given all he'd done for Charis. And he would have had that streamer, too . . . except for one minor problem. Despite his undeniable brilliance, despite the fact that it was his brain which had devised the basis for the new naval tactics and, with Brigadier Clareyk's able assistance, the new infantry and artillery tactics, as well, Seamount hadn't been to sea in a command capacity in almost twenty years. He'd have been hopelessly out of place actually commanding a fleet, or even a squadron. Besides, he was far too valuable where he was for Lock Island to even consider exposing him to enemy fire.

    Fortunately, Seamount — who claimed he could get seasick taking a bath — appeared quite content. He got to play with fascinating new toys, especially over the past couple of years, and he was too busy stretching his brain to worry about whether his sleeve bore the single embroidered kraken of a commodore or the two gold krakens of an admiral.

    "I take it that you're thinking in terms of expansion because we're running out of room here on Helen," the high admiral said now, and Seamount nodded.

    "Yes, Sir. The real problem is that we don't have a great deal of flat room here on Helen. In some ways, that's good. As the Brigadier here pointed out to me months ago, we can't count on having nice, flat, spacious terrain when we actually have to fight, so it's not going to hurt us a bit to figure out how to fight in cramped terrain. And the security aspect here is very good. Nobody's going to see anything we don't want them to see. But the truth is, with the larger formations, it's hard to find the space to let them practice tactical evolutions. Too much of this island is vertical, Sir."

    "That, believe me, is a point of which I'm well — one might almost say painfully well — aware," Lock Island said dryly. "Keelhaul, here," he gave the huge dog's massive head an affectionately gentle cuff, "actually likes coming up here. I suppose he doesn't have sufficient opportunity for exercise at sea."

    Baron Seamount managed not to roll his eyes, although Lock Island suspected that the commodore was sorely tempted to do just that. The high admiral's dog's tendency to race madly up and down the decks of his flagship was legendary. Fortunately, Keelhaul — despite the dubious humor of his name — was as affectionate as he was . . .  energetic. Not a minor consideration in a dog which weighed the better part of a hundred and forty pounds. Lock Island put Keelhaul's boisterousness down to his Labrador retriever grandmother; certain less charitably inclined souls put it down to the high admiral's influence. Wherever it came from, though, Keelhaul actually looked forward to their trips up the mountain. And he was calmer and less worried by the sounds of gunfire than most humans. Certainly it bothered him far less than it did the artillery's draft dragons. Which shouldn't really have been so surprising, Lock Island thought, given the amount of gunnery practice he got to listen to whenever they were at sea.

    However Keelhaul felt about it, however, the high admiral's feelings were far more mixed. Fascinating as he always found Seamount's demonstrations, he and horses had not been intimate companions since he first went to sea far too many years ago. Unfortunately, his posterior had made the reacquaintance of both saddles and saddle sores as he trundled up and down the steep, winding road from King's Harbor to the Marines' training ground.

    "The Commodore has a point, My Lord," Clareyk put in respectfully. "About the biggest formation we can really work with here is a battalion. We can squeeze two of them into the available space if we push a little, but we're really cramped when we do that. There's no way we could put both my regiments into the field as a single force given the space constraints here."

    Lock Island nodded. Each of the new regiments consisted of two battalions, and each brigade was made up of two regiments, so Clareyk's total command had a total strength of just over twelve hundred men, counting officers, corpsmen, buglers, and runners. His actual strength on active operations would have been even higher than that, once other attached specialists were added in, and Clareyk and Seamount were right about the space limitations. That had never been a problem before, since about the largest Marine formation in pre-Merlin days had been a single battalion. Now, though, they weren't simply training Marine detachments for the Navy's ships; they were building an honest-to-God army. The first true army in Charis' history.

    For the moment, that army still belonged to Lock Island, but he had no doubt a time was coming, probably in the not-too-distant future, when a Royal Army would have to be split off from the traditional Marines. There were simply aspects of what armies had to do that sea officers like himself had never been trained to do.

    Maybe so, he thought with just an edge of grimness. But the job's still mine for now, so I suppose I'd better get off my saddle sore, horse-bitten arse — figuratively speaking, of course — and figure out how to do this right.

    "I believe you, Brigadier. I believe you both. And General Chermyn and I have already been giving some thought to the problem. For right now, though, I'm still more concerned about the security aspects. As you say, we can keep things under wraps out here on Helen a lot better than we could anywhere else. Once we've actually committed the troops to action, when 'the cat's out of the bag,' as Merlin put it the other day — and, no, I don't know where he got the expression from — that's not going to be such a concern."

    "We understand, Sir," Seamount said. Then the roundish little commodore grinned suddenly. "Of course, we're still going to have a few things we want to maintain security about, even then."

    "Ahlfryd," Lock Island said severely, turning a speculative gaze upon his subordinate, "are you up to something . . . again?"


    "You are up to something." Lock Island cocked his head and folded his arms. "I suppose you'd better go ahead and tell me about it now. And how much I'm going to have to tell Baron Ironhill this idea's going to cost."

    "Actually, I don't know that it's going to be all that expensive, Sir." Seamount's tone was almost wheedling, but his eyes gleamed.

    "Of course you don't. You don't have to talk to Ironhll about these little matters," Lock Island said severely. "So try to look a little less like a boy caught with his hand in his mother's cookie jar and just go ahead and tell me."

    "Yes, Sir."

    Seamount rubbed his chin with his mangled left hand. Lock Island was thoroughly familiar with that "sorting out my thoughts" gesture, and he waited patiently. Then the commodore cleared his throat.

    "The thing is, Sir," he began, "that I had this . . . conversation with Seijin Merlin the last time he and the King were out here watching an exercise."

    "What sort of conversation?" Lock Island asked just a tad warily. "Conversations" with Merlin Athrawes had a distinct tendency, he'd discovered, to go off in some very peculiar directions.

    "Well, we were watching some of the twelve-pounder crews training, and it occurred to me that with the new rifles, even the twelve-pounders don't really have a significant range advantage over infantry."

    "They don't?" Lock Island blinked in surprise. "I thought you told me they had a maximum range of almost sixteen hundred yards!"

    "Yes, Sir, they do — with round shot, which is the least effective round against an infantry target. Canister range is substantially shorter than that, though. And, Sir, with all due respect, finding clear ranges sixteen hundred yards long is going to be more problematic in a land battle than it is at sea. At sea, we don't really have to worry about things like ridgelines, trees, and ravines."

    "I see." Lock Island nodded again, this time more slowly as he remembered his own thought of only minutes before. Another one of those things sea officers don't know about from personal experience, I see.



    "It's not quite as bad as the Commodore might seem to be suggesting, My Lord," Clareyk said. Lock Island looked at him, and the brigadier shrugged. "Oh, I'm not saying it won't be a problem, My Lord. I'm just saying that finding firing lanes two miles long isn't going to be all that difficult as long as we make good use of things like hilltops. Or, much as the farmers are going to hate it, cropland and pastures."

    "The Brigadier's right about that, of course," Seamount agreed, "but even without the question of terrain features, there's still the fact that the effective range of rifles can match or exceed the effective range of grape or canister. If a battery's exposed to the fire of a couple of hundred rifles, it's going to lose its gunners in short order."

    "That's true enough, My Lord," Clareyk said a touch more grimly.

    "I take it this is going somewhere?" Lock Island said mildly.

    "Actually, it is, Sir." Seamount shrugged. "As I say, Merlin and the King were watching the artillery demonstration, and I raised the same point with him. You see, I'd been thinking about the new muskets. It occurred to me that if we could increase their range and accuracy by rifling them, why shouldn't it be possible to rifle artillery, as well?"

    Lock Island's eyebrows rose. That idea had never occurred to him at all. Probably, he thought, because he was still too busy being so impressed by the revolutionary changes which had already overtaken the naval ordnance with which he'd grown up. Trunnions, bagged powder charges, carronades — the increase in shipboard artillery's lethality was enormous. Yet even with the new guns, sea battles tended to be fought at relatively low ranges. Longer than before the new guns, perhaps, but still far shorter than the theoretical range of their artillery might have suggested. One of the new long thirty-pounders had a maximum range of well over two miles, for example, but no gunner was going to hit a ship-sized target at that distance from a moving deck, no matter how accurate his artillery piece might theoretically be.

    But the ground didn't move. So what sort of accuracy and execution might be possible for a land-based rifled artillery piece?

    "And what did Seijin Merlin have to say in response to this fascinating speculation of yours, Ahlfryd?"

    "He said he didn't see any reason why it shouldn't be possible." Seamount met Lock Island's eyes for a moment, and both of them smiled slightly. "He did . . . suggest, however, that bronze probably wouldn't be the best material for rifled artillery pieces. As he pointed out, bronze is a soft metal, Sir. Even if we can figure out a way to make a shot take the rifling in the first place, a bronze gun's rifling grooves wouldn't last very long."

    "No, I can see that."

    Lock Island discovered that he was rubbing his own chin in a gesture very like Seamount's.

    "Master Howsmyn told me he was making good progress with iron guns," he said after a moment.

    "He is, Sir." Seamount nodded. "They're heavier, and there are still some of what Merlin calls 'quality control issues' that haven't been completely solved. Despite that, I think we'll be able to begin arming ships with iron guns instead of bronze within the next few months, or possibly even sooner.

    "But that brings up another problem. The pressure inside a rifle's barrel is higher than the pressure inside a smoothbore musket's barrel, because the bullet seals the barrel and traps more of the force of the exploding powder behind it. That's one reason rifles have more range."

    "And if the pressure inside a rifled artillery piece increases, and the piece is made out of iron, not bronze, we're likely to see more burst guns, since iron is more brittle than bronze," Lock Island said.

    "That's what I'm afraid of, Sir." Seamount agreed. "I can't be certain how much it will go up, because I don't know if the bore will be sealed as efficiently in a rifled cannon as in a rifled musket. Too much depends on how we finally figure out a way to do it for me to even hazard a guess at this point. At the moment, I'm playing around with several different ideas, though.  And I'm sure we can come up with a solution for the problem — assuming it actually arises — eventually."

    Which means Merlin hasn't told you it's flatly impossible, Lock Island thought. I wonder why he's so prone to throw out cryptic hints instead of just going ahead and telling us how to do it? I'm sure he's got a reason. I'm just not sure it's a reason I want to know.

    "Oh, the Commodore is definitely playing around with 'a few ideas,' My Lord," Brigadier Clareyk said. Seamount darted him a ferocious look which was two-thirds humorous and one-third serious, and the Marine went on. "After Merlin and the King had headed back to Tellesberg, the Commodore and I were discussing weapons in general, and he suddenly got this peculiar expression. You know the one I mean, My Lord."

    "Like someone about to pass gas?" Lock Island suggested helpfully. From Clareyk's expression, the suggestion didn't seem to help as much, perhaps, as one might have hoped it would.

    "No, My Lord," the brigadier said in the careful, half-breathless voice of a man trying very hard not to laugh, "not that expression. The other expression."

    "Oh! You mean the one that always reminds me of a wyvern contemplating a chicken coop."

    "That would be the one, My Lord," Clareyk agreed.

    "And what, pray tell, inspired that particular expression this time around?"

    "Actually, My Lord," the brigadier's own expression was suddenly serious, "it was a very intriguing thought indeed, when I asked him about it."

    "But it's one I'm still working on," Seamount interjected in a cautioning tone.

    "What's one you're still working on?" Lock Island demanded with more than a hint of exasperation.

    "Well, Sir," Seamount said, "the truth is that simply increasing the range and accuracy of a cannon by rifling it won't make the shot it fires any more effective against infantry than traditional round shot. It would just let us fire the same sort of round further and more accurately, if you see what I mean. So I was still turning that problem over in my mind even after discussing it with Merlin. Then, last five-day, the Brigadier and I were watching a new batch of Marines training with hand grenades, and it occurred to me that, right off the top of my head, I couldn't think of any reason for it to be impossible to fire grenades — only they'd be a lot bigger, a lot more powerful, you understand — out of a cannon."

    Lock Island blinked. If the notion of rifling artillery had opened new vistas, that was nothing compared to the possibility Seamount had just raised. And not just when it came to killing infantry at extreme ranges, either. The thought of what a "grenade" five or six inches in diameter might do to a wooden hulled warship was . . . frightening. No, it wasn't "frightening." For any experienced naval officer it would be terrifying. Heated shot was bad enough. It was undeniably tricky to fire, and dangerous to load, since there was always the possibility that it would burn through the soaked wad behind it and detonate the gun's charge prematurely, with nasty consequences for whoever happened to be ramming it home at the moment. Despite that, however, it could be hideously effective, because a red-hot mass of iron weighing twenty-five or thirty pounds, buried deep in the bone-dry timbers of a warship, could turn that ship into a torch. But if Seamount could fire explosive charges — explosive charges that could be reliably detonated, at least — it would be infinitely worse. Not just an incendiary effect, but one which would literally blow its target open and provide plenty of kindling, as well.

    "Ah, have you discussed this particular notion with Seijin Merlin?" he asked after a moment.

    "No, not yet, Sir. I really haven't had the opportunity."

    "Well make the opportunity, Ahlfryd." Lock Island shook his head. "I find the entire idea more than a little frightening, you understand. But if it's possible, I want to know about it. As soon as possible."

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