The Iron Duke (Part 1 of 2)

Posted by on Jul 19, 2011 in Blog | Comments Off on The Iron Duke (Part 1 of 2)

The Iron Duke (Part 1 of 2)

Written by Admin | Tags: , ,

This short story was submitted to us by Luke Farren, a Dystopian Wars gamer who was clearly inspired to create this entertaining story about his Kingdom of Britannia force. We hope you enjoy reading his work as much as we did:

Even the glare of the midday sun couldn’t penetrate the thick, all-obscuring banks of fog as the Kingdom of Britannia fleet patrolled the Norwegian coast. In late autumn, with winter beckoning, the grey fog rolled in from the sea and clung to the shoreline, enshrouding every hint of a landmark. It made the bleak, icy North Sea even more barren. Each of the slate-grey Kingdom ships was a tiny bastion of noise and light, rolling on the back of every swell.

Aboard the Kingdom of Britannia battleship HMS Iron Duke, officer of the watch Lieutenant Arthur Redwood sipped at his steaming tea as he stared into the blank grey wall. Arthur was a burley young man, twenty-two years-old with the last ten being spent in service to the crown. His light brown hair was thick with a natural tendency to curl. Combined with his handsome if earnest face, he still appeared to be much younger. His face was currently raw and chapped, exposed as it was to the cruel humours of the North Sea.

Ahead of the battleship, Arthur knew, ran the frigate HMS Dagger. It was all but invisible to the young officer. Occasionally to port he saw running lights and could only assume it was the Tribal–class Cruiser HMS Dover under Captain Vickers. It was all speculation, the fog being impenetrable.

Three sturdy Kingdom cruisers and three terrier-like frigates were running as escort to the Iron Duke. All of the vessels were part of Vice Admiral Ross’s North Atlantic fleet. Even in these times of war and conflict the Kingdom’s reach stretched far and wide, these patrols serving both as valuable training and a visible reminder to the rest of the world of Britannia’s might.

Redwood’s reprieve was disturbed by a presence approaching silently from the forecastle. Turning, the young officer hastily swapped his mug of tea between his thickly gloved hands to offer a rather belated salute.

“As you were, Lieutenant,” said Captain Fergus McLaren with his soft Scottish lilt. The big, powerful man with his square cut beard was the first officer of the HMS Iron Duke. He leant against the iron railing, starring out into the gloom. The ship’s lanterns reflected off the silver buttons on the Captain’s imposing red dress coat.

Redwood, somewhat intimidated by the stern Captain, merely nodded and resumed his watch self-consciously. Arthur Redwood was newly promoted to the Iron Duke, having first served aboard the frigate Trident. He was yet to get the measure of the impressive Scotsman, though he knew the Hibernian ran a tight ship.

“Nothing to see out there laddie, least not yet,” the Captain muttered, tapping out a plain wooden pipe and loading it expertly. Smoke soon wafted up into the encircling fog. “Easy enough to get complacent out here in this,” he said gesturing with the pipe. “But not you. I’ve been watching you, boy. You take your duty seriously. Commendable. But I would expect no less from one of my officers.”

Redwood nodded, sipping his tea, wondering why the grim Captain had picked his watch to interrupt. “I’ll stay sharp sir,” Arthur answered after a pause, feeling some comment was required of him.

Captain McLaren nodded sagely, puffing out smoke. “I know you will,” he said solemnly. In the ensuing silence the big man looked up to the sky, contemplating. “Wind’s changing,” he noted. Redwood could only nod in agreement with his Captain’s assessment. Fergus McLaren’s seafaring senses were far superior to his own. “Fog should clear before long. Should make things easier, eh?”

“I believe so, sir,” Redwood agreed. “Easier for us to see. And be seen too,” he added as an afterthought.

Fergus McLaren gave a brief wry grin, patting the Lieutenant on the shoulder. In silence the pair looked to sea – one young, one old, both joined in the long watch on the unforgiving sea. His relief arrived and with a salute Redwood retired, leaving the Scotsman with his pipe and the stillness of the sea.

“Ah, McLaren. The fog’s lifting I see,” came the erudite voice from the bridge as Fergus descended the iron stairwell from the top fore deck. The Scotsman offered a salute to the tall, slight figure standing before the bridge view-ports. As always, the gruff Captain suppressed a bemused grin at his Commanding officer’s near-omnipotence. He was sure his presence had been undetectable, yet Rear Admiral George Crowsdale had an uncanny knack of knowing exactly what was going on.

At nearly fifty the Admiral had worked his way up through the ranks and had served on every type of Kingdom ship afloat. He was as sharp as a knife, as quick as a viper and as smart as a fox. But he had an air of aristocratic coolness and a chillingly calculating mind that unsettled people. He had risen far on pure talent and ambition and people respected him, if not overly liking him. But for George that was enough. The sea was his mistress.

Without taking his eyes from the chart table, George Crowsdale gestured towards two steaming cups of tea in dented navy issue tin mugs. The charts laid bare the intricate yet hostile Norwegian coastline, illuminated by numerous annotations, markings and notes, the last in Crowsdale’s own neat script. His tricorn hat perched on a chart corner.

“It’ll lift within the hour Admiral. That’s three or four hours of daylight left. We can use it to tighten up formation,” McLaren added darkly.

“Indeed,” the Admiral agreed. “If the blasted radarograph can be trusted the Southampton is a mile adrift of where she should be,” he noted, looking up from the maps. “Captain Torbert is a rather enthusiastic gentleman to say the least,” he added drily.

“You’re too damn charitable,” McLaren muttered darkly, adding “Sir” as an afterthought. “The man’s a dithering idiot. A walrus who waddles around his ward-room while his ship does the same in formation.”

The Rear Admiral sipped his tea to disguise a smirk at the Captain’s blunt appraisal. “A touch discourteous to a fellow officer,” he rebuked mildly, “but remarkably accurate otherwise,” he confessed. “I’m sure though, but for his reluctance to embrace these marvellous engines and devices, the Southampton would be well at its appointed place.”

“Aye,” McLaren said with a sigh. Everyone in the services had been veritably bombarded with astounding technologies since the opening of Wells Chasm. New sciences had been applied to nearly every aspect of the forces day-to-day lives. A fresh wave of young talented officers were rising to the challenge, but the older office cadre often found it harder to adapt. “An excuse is an excuse, no matter how you dress it up”.

“Enough,” the Admiral declared. “The sun will shine, the birds will sing and the Southampton will find her mark.”

McLaren knew better than to press on. The Scotsman’s sentiments were both well known and equally well documented, from the Sea Commissioners board down to the Iron Duke’s engine room. The grease-soaked mechanics were quietly proud of the outspoken Captain, knowing full well that both his ire and praise were fully merited. The Captain glanced at the charts, reviewing them before stabbing his finger at a set of islands. “We’ll make Asveer and our rendezvous with the re-supply steamer with time to spare.” The island was an isolated and remote islet, a convenient and covert re-supply point in the unfriendly Norwegian waters.

“Say two days to re-stock,” Crowsdale suggested, to which McLaren nodded his assent. “Then homeward bound.”

“A brief run out,” McLaren noted.

“Old Spencer has us on a short leash. The Admiralty doesn’t want its assets spread too thin if things heat up in the Baltic.”

“Bloody Prussians,” McLaren said darkly.

“Exactly,” Crowsdale agreed. “But if Emperor Frederick finds his nerve it will be a grave day for us all. He has some competent officers at his disposal. Be thankful Von Schterlig hasn’t been allowed out to play!”

“I’m not familiar with the man,” McLaren admitted.

“Schterlig is a hard man, a strict disciplinarian. Met him over drinks at an entertainment held by the American Ambassador. Oh, back before the war. Unforgiving, unflinching and disagreeably competent. A real talent.” He sipped his tea thoughtfully. “Speaking of which, how is young Redwood settling in?”

“He’s doing right enough. Quiet lad, but sound.”

“Good. I served with his father. Good stock the Redwoods. He’ll be a real asset with a touch of experience.”

“Aye, sir. As long as he’s got keen eyes for the watch, that’s good enough for now,” the Scotsman said truthfully.

As the thick Norwegian mist dissipated before the westerly wind the battle group reformed, reigning in the Southampton and its errant Captain Torbert. The Kingdom of Britannia ships made good speed for the Norwegian island Asveer and its promise of respite from the bitter North Sea.

Watches were rotated and, nearly stiff from the cold, Arthur Redwood settled down in the officers’ fore wardroom, shedding gloves and cap while watched from the walls by a stern painting of Her Majesty Queen Victoria. He had to wolf down a light supper before being off to inspect the port anti-aircraft batteries which were his responsibility in the evening watch. Shipboard life was a rigorous, unrelenting routine of activity. The Admiralty definitely frowned upon idleness in all its forms.

Arthur tiredly chewed on his salt pork while the numbness in his face ebbed. The North Sea was a savagely raw environment, weathering man and machine alike with evenhanded indifference. Beside him, Charlie and Henry, fellow junior offices in the great navy, shuffled out cards between them. Quiet conversation drifted around the wardroom, discussions of politics, news from home and the gossip of war. It was the inconsequential small talk of tired young men everywhere killing time between shifts. Arthur listened with half an ear and smiled wryly as a chap named Wilbur bemoaned his sister’s feckless fiancé.
It was to this weary domain that the sudden ring of the alarm bell intruded.

Everyone stopped in surprise. Cards where half dealt, letters half read and food half eaten. Suddenly all was in commotion and within minutes the wardroom was clear. Charlie had held a winning hand, the fiancé would live about twelve years longer than Wilbur and Arthur’s pork would remain uneaten.

Arthur strolled purposefully; a gentleman never ran. His duty station was at the port ack-ack battery and he re-buckled his sword belt as he went. All was quiet, bar the ringing of the alarm bell calling the crew to action stations. The men attended their weapons in a cool, efficient manner befitting the creed of the Royal Navy. Other nations carried out drafts or presses but the sailors of her Majesty’s ships were model professionals. Britannia ruled the waves. Even at action stations all the crewmen were properly attired and all protocols had been attended to with textbook precision.

Over the ringing of the alarm the deep, rhythmic, melodious hum of the ship’s generator could be detected. Arthur felt more than heard the mighty machine become active through the deck plates of the Iron Duke. But there was something else too. A distant, barely perceivable thud was carried by the breeze. Instinctively Arthur knew it to be the concussive sound of a main battery firing. Arthur swallowed hard. The same sounds he had experienced at first hand in practice now brought his hand unconsciously to the hilt of his slim rapier.

The opening salvos of the bitter Norwegian Sea conflict had been fired.

The bridge was a hive of tightly restrained energy. Rear Admiral Crowsdale, unmoving, looked out from the bridge’s main cathedral-like windows as Captain McLaren moved tirelessly between duty stations – one hustle and bustle, one ice-cold confidence.

“Sir, telegrapher from the Southampton,” an ensign said, saluting and handing over the sheet of tele-typed print. Fergus McLaren acknowledged the salute, taking in the report at a glance and returning it immediately.

“Note this in the ship’s log, time, 15.42 hours,” he reeled off, snapping shut his pocket watch. “Have navigation confirm their position and have this re-sent on to the Admiralty.” Orders given, the Scotsman strolled to the Admiral, affording his own salute. “Torbert has verified his initial report. Their radarograph confirms between four and eight contacts in two distinct groups and the patrol has now been fired upon. Torbert estimates range of about 40km.”

The Admiral turned slowly to the Captain in mock surprise. “That’s cruiser-class at the least. The Prussian Revier class carry long 15’s I believe,” he said as much to himself. “I wonder who’s out here,” he mused. McLaren simply shrugged. “Telegrapher Sullivan. I want his squadron screen the cruisers. Let’s bring Torbert and the others back here before we go off half-cocked.”

“Aye, sir. No need to be hasty.”

“The Admiralty’s been informed.” It was a statement rather than a question.

“They’re being transcripted as we speak, sir,” McLaren confirmed.

“Excellent. Let’s hope it’s not a ruddy French cruiser getting skittish! We might be able to wrap this up before it becomes all diplomatic. The press would have a field day if we sunk one of them by mistake!”

“You think it is? The French out here this far north?”

With a negative nod the Admiral returned his gaze to the window. McLaren sighed and went about his duties. Battle was coming.

Spray kicked up as the Iron Duke slowly picked up pace. To the fore the sleek predatory forms of the patrol’s frigate squadron took off like greyhounds, racing ahead to the distance. Beyond a long low slate-grey island of granite was where they were aiming. Off to where the echoing thunder of cannon fire originated and cordite smoke wreathed the seas.

The bluff granite protrusion was one of a number of Norwegian islands, solely inhabited by thousands of herring gulls and colonies of black-legged kitty hawks. They were the audience to the explosive conflict taking place as the Kingdom of Britannia Cruisers engaged their foes. Ominous flashes of red lit up the banks of smoky black cannon discharges that hung close to the water.

At his post Arthur watched the distant scene play out, his throat going suddenly dry as the great ship crept closer to the cacophony of war. There was an oppressive sense of foreboding and Arthur was distinctly reminded of the time he had tried to ride his father’s horse. At the age of ten, with his own horse at the farrier having thrown a shoe, Arthur had thought to take the great chestnut gelding of his father’s out. Only minutes in the beast had recognised Arthur’s inexperience and took off at pace. Throughout that frantic race Arthur had clung on for dear life, a hair’s breadth away from catastrophe. Now, over a decade later, dire peril was again upon him and Arthur recognised that feeling as it once more washed over him.

Arthur Redwood had never felt so alive.

“That’s not good.” Arthur looked to his left and touched his cap in greeting to Royal Marine Master Sergeant Sloane who had ghosted up bedside him. The hatchet-faced soldier wore the marine’s distinctive red coat and his Martini-Enfield rifle rested comfortably in the crook of his arm. Everything about the man oozed lethal intent and a certain callousness. He jutted with his stubbly chin towards the slab of Norwegian rock protruding from the sea and the thick plume of smoke now twisting above it into the chill air.

Somewhere a ship was dying.

“That’s one of ours,” Arthur said, wishing his words were false.

Sloane nodded. “A rough time is coming, Lieutenant. That’s why his Lordship put on the old ‘Almighty’. He’s a canny one like that,” the Master Sergeant said knowingly.

The ‘Almighty’ was the marine slang for the powerful Mk X static shield emitter nestled rear of the aft castle. It was just another marvel courtesy of Wells Chasm. Sailors and marines were superstitious to a fault and many referred to the technological genius as the hand of the Almighty to explain its unfathomable powers. Its workings where near-mystical, well beyond the ken of both normal men and most of the intelligent educated ones too. They trusted it to protect them and it quite often did too.

“We’ll catch the worst of it,” Arthur deduced, guessing the marine’s presence was no mere coincidence. “If they’re Prussians then there’s no outrunning them. We haven’t got the pace for that race.”

“His Lordship won’t run. Not in his nature,” Sloane said with a shrug. “They’ll cut around that big old hunk of rock and we’ll run right across them, all guns blazing.”
“It’s called crossing the ‘T’,” Arthur said helpfully. “Perhaps you should have been the Admiral Mr Sloane.”

The marine smiled, a chilling experience for the young Lieutenant. “Thank you, but no. I prefer the buggers right up close where I can see them. That way I know they’re dead, and they know it too!”

“I’m rather of the opposite persuasion, Mr Sloane. However, at least one of us will be satisfied today,” Arthur noted drily, to the Master Sergeant’s cackle of laughter.

To be continued.