Reynolds dusted off the boulder to try and read the inscription. It was faded and difficult to make out, and the words were written in some unknown language. The Lieutenant walked over to inspect the stone, and peered at it, his mind clearly whirring away. He cocked his head over to one side and squinted at the inscription. After a few seconds, he stood up, leaning back with his hands on his hips, and stated, conclusively, “I have no clue what this says.”
“Me neither, sir,” responded Reynolds.
“Well, anyone here know how to draw? We can take back a copy to show the higher-ups.”
“Aye, sir. I can draw. I’m not great, but I’m alright.” This time, it was MacCallaghan whose gruff voice was heard.
MacCallaghan sketched a copy of the boulder, and then was sent back to the beach to deliver the drawing to the headquarters.
The rest of the unit donned their caps and set off again, marching southwards, and clearing a rough path through the jungle as they went. Every hundred metres or so, they would tie a red string to a tree to mark the route. By the end of the day, they hadn’t encountered another living human being, and were beginning to get hungry.
They stopped for the night beside a stream, pitching their tents and gathering some wood for a small fire. The tents used here were much smaller and simpler than the ones back on the beach: they were simply a single sheet of sewn canvas draped over a central pole, sleeping two soldiers. Two of the men from Reynolds’ already under-strength section affixed bayonets and used their rifles as spears to try and catch some fish. They enjoyed only limited success in this task.
After nibbling away all of the single chargrilled sardine he has been given, Reynolds lay back on his blanket and relaxed. He was sharing a room with a young private soldier named Richard Simms. Simms was known for being talkative, and lived up to his reputation on this occasion.
“Say, Corporal, what day is it? The 6th?”
“7th, I think.”
“Ah, Ok. God, look at me. I’m here in the middle of nowhere, huggin’ Brown Bess, an’ my brother starts a new job as an accountant next week. He must earn double what I get… An’ he’s allowed to go home in the evenings, an’ get married. God, I’d love to get married. Find me a beautiful woman an’ settle down together. We could live in Kemble, that’s where I’m from, see….” It was around this point this point that Reynolds stopped paying attention, and instead tried to sleep.
He was surprised, the next morning, at how deeply he had slept. The pain of trying to beat the mosquitoes hadn’t occurred that night, and he’d drifted away relatively quickly. Perhaps, thought Reynolds, Simms had bored him to sleep. It was certainly not unfathomable.
Following a brief breakfast of one more chargrilled sardine (or some other, similar fish), the soldiers moved off once more, still heading almost due south. They still wore their coats around their waists like aprons, and this made the heat and humidity marginally more tolerable.
It only took a couple of hours of marching to reach the southern coast of the island. The landscape there was notably different to that where they had landed, in the north, only a few days ago. There were far fewer mangroves here, and longer, sandier beaches. This was not, though, the most notable change – for here, in the south, were villages. They were only simple, the traditional kinds of houses that the locals had probably been living in for centuries. They were built of a combination of wooden planks and dried sticks, with a basic, square shape. They were of the same kind as Reynolds had seen on the northern side of Kasapur. The locals built the houses (or more precisely, huts) on stilts in order to stay dry even in case of floods or storms. As the group of forty or so apron-wearing soldiers of the Matilum Empire advanced cautiously towards the settlement, the locals were utterly indifferent to their presence. They carried on with the tasks at hand: tying up fishing nets; pulling a small wooden boat up the beach; hanging clothes out to dry. Seeing that the villagers weren’t hostile, the Lieutenant ordered the soldiers to form up into ranks of four. They snapped smartly to attention on his command, and marched proudly through the village, their footsteps crunching in unison on the sand. They halted in the centre of the village, next to a wooden post about one and a half times the height of a man. At this point, the Lieutenant reached into his satchel and drew out a Matilum Flag, and tied it to the post with two of the same pieces of red string the platoon had been using to mark their way. He clapped his hands together, and stood up straight. In a loud, bellowing voice, he made an announcement to both his men and the villages, most of whom weren’t listening.
“Listen up! This village now falls under the control of Matilum! It will most likely be incorporated into the Greater Kas Settlements. This is no cause for alarm, do not fear. People of un-named island south of Kasapur, you are all now citizens of the Matilum Empire. We shall introduce to you machines, techniques and overall civilised things, the likes of which you will never have seen in this place. We do not wish to fight you, but if we did, you would lose.”
To end, he turned around and saluted the flag. Reynolds, and the other soldiers, followed suit.
Having discovered and colonised the village (through leaving the flag behind), the platoon set off back through the jungle towards the beach. It was on this trek that the only shots of the entire expedition were fired. Someone in the first section, Reynolds wasn’t sure who, spotted it first. Up ahead of them, only a few hundred metres away, sat a group of three or four deer. The Lieutenant whispered to the men to form two ranks, and ready their weapons to fire. With everyone in position, and the deer still oblivious, he raised his hand.
The deer didn’t know what had hit them. As the Lieutenant dropped his hand, twenty rifles let loose a deadly barrage of fire and smoke, dropping all but one of the animals instantly. Then the second rank fired. When the gunpowder smoke settled, the men’s success was instantly visible. Someone in the second section had been a butcher before joining the army, and he skilfully cut up the meat, before it was roasted over a camp fire. The Lieutenant decided it was best to camp for the night near where they had killed the deer (even though it was still the morning), to avoid having to carry the animals any further. With full bellies, and cheer in their hearts, the men slept well that night.
This might not be too bad, Reynolds muttered inwardly.
After all that had happened the previous day, the final march back from their encampment to the beach was so uneventful it was almost dull. The platoon arrived on the beach in the early evening, with the sun low in the sky. It bathed everything in a warm, orangey glow, making the fledgling settlement in the bay seem friendly and inviting.
The people in the settlement, however, were less friendly and inviting. As the platoon marched past, back towards where the regimental headquarters had been when they left, everybody seemed to be giving them strange looks for some reason. It was only when the Lieutenant reached Lieutenant Fletcher and saluted that Reynolds realised why.
“Lieutenant Rogers? What in the name of the Lord have you done with your uniform? And your men’s, for that matter? Who do you think you are, waiters? You’re not! You are soldiers of the British Army! The redcoats! How can you be redcoats when you aren’t wearing red coats?”
“With all respect, sir, this uniforms are totally unfit for purpose. It is too hot in that jungle,” replied the Lieutenant, gesturing at the forest as he did, “to wear these coats. One of my men passed out from wearing the damn thing on the first day! It was due to this that I authorised the rest of my men to wear their coats in this fashion from then onwards.”
“That may be, Rogers, but regulations are written to be followed. If you have complaints about your uniforms, you can take them up with the island’s governor.”
“And who might that be, sir?”
“Colonel Percival Sanders,” replied Fletcher, with a grin. There was no chance of going against Fletcher when it was Fletcher’s puppet in the top seat. Grudgingly, and with some curses muttered under his breath just loud enough for Fletcher to hear, the Lieutenant put his coat back on, and ordered the men to do the same. With a few more brief words from Fletcher, the platoon returned to the location where their tent had been before they set off. Upon arriving, Reynolds was amused to note that the tent had been replaced by a simple wooden building, with a sign over the door which read, ‘Harbour Masters Offi’. It seemed the sign-writer had run out of space before he could add the ‘ce’. Up ahead, Corporal Wilks looked around, maddened, and perplexed. Reynolds and his section didn’t care. Reynolds led them away to an empty patch of ground, where they pitched their individual tents.
Before sleeping that night, Reynolds decided to take a walk around the little settlement, to see what had been done. The progress was staggering. Aside from the small wooden Harbour Master’s hut, two more huts had been built, along with a perimeter fence. The jetty, before only big enough to launch a rowing boat, was getting further and further out to sea, and was probably almost far enough to moor one of the Navy’s warships. There was a canteen tent with benches and tables, a hospital tent with very little activity, and a ‘governor’s tent,’ which was, in fact, one of the tents designed to sleep most of a platoon, except Sanders had it to himself. Reynolds was slightly curious about the process that had led to Sanders, of all people, becoming governor.
Reynolds was woken once more by a fanfare the next morning, and the roll call was taken as usual. From then until the early afternoon, nothing really happened. Reynolds largely just sat around, occasionally helping some of the other platoons with chopping down trees or moving timber. In the afternoon, however, the last platoon returned to the beach, and a meeting was called. Sanders stood up on his pedestal, drunk, as always, and spoke to the men, “Shouljers of the Matilum Empire! Congratulashunsh on the shucshesful conquesht of thish island. The naming committee has met, and we have decreed that thish island shall henshforth be known as Pershival Island, in honour of its conqueror!”
This shouldn’t have come as a surprise. Of course Sanders would name it after himself.
After Sanders’ speech, it was back to work. The little settlement was far from habitable, and according to Fletcher, there were businessmen from the East Playstone Company who wanted to set up shop there. It seemed as if prosperity was on the way for this tiny, until now irrelevant island….
Next Chapter: The Rise of Jian, Part 1