The Grendel Duke of York
Warning: contains bad writing
Our story takes place on a hill. History is undecided about the name of the hill, Geography tells us nothing of its location, and Geometry is unclear about the ratio of its circumference to its diameter, but we can be sure it was a hill because of the action that follows. The fields around the hill were covered in soldiers, their valiant uniforms glistening in the midnight rain, all still upright and not a gippy tummy amongst them. There were ten thousand of them, all proud to be doing their duty, although each a little ashamed at not yet having died for the King.
The Grendel Duke of York, who had once fought Beowulf and several of his Beocubs, rode anonymously amongst his men on an unmarked horse. “How are we feeling this night, oh common footsoldiers just like myself?” he inquired. “Missing your hovels and diseases? I know I certainly am.”
“Pardon me, your common footsoldierness,” ventured one of the men, emboldened by the Duke’s unknown anonymity, “but your horse is standing on my foot. I might well need it tomorrow, being a footsoldier and all, just like yourself, begging your pardon and not wishing to inconvenience you in any way.” Like many of his class he had difficulty concealing agonising pain and began to cry.
The Duke took pity on him. “Bring that man a bucket,” he commanded. “I knew no good would come of doubling your grog rations. Yes, it is I, the Duke, travelling incognito which, for those amongst you who are not scholars, means I don’t know who I am. Incognito, ergo sum, as Descartes would often remark at dinner parties before sliding under the table in a drunken stupor. He had another one, but it had geometry in it and, for all I know, venereal diseases, so is not a suitable thing for a gentleman to know. Sums are bad enough; ergo sums are an abomination.”
“Now I have revealed myself,” he continued, “I’ll do you a little speech.” He cleared his throat. “Let us all do our duty this Saint Crisping Day. Let our saints be crispier than ever before. And if anyone ever says that an Englishman cannot march to the top of an ambiguous and ill-defined hill for no very good reason whatsoever, then he’ll just have to change his tune, that’s all. Put your jim-jams on and get a good night’s sleep, men. Farewell until the morrow. Oh, and sleep standing on one leg, it will save wear on your boots. The army isn’t made of shoe leather, you know.”
With that he trotted away, leading his horse behind him. “Nor choux pastry neither,” he called back. “Or should that be either?” His voice faded into the distance. “Gadzooks and bugger, I hate it when that happens,” he growled, and galloped after it, leaving his horse behind to fend for itself. His horse was quite happy to take part in the same joke twice, indeed he regarded it as a military duty, and chewed contentedly on the trousers of a sleeping colour sergeant, who was today a fetching shade of blue, although at midnight in the night you couldn’t tell. The Sergeant swapped perching legs but didn’t wake up.
Next morning the sun rose at dawn, as was its habit. A plain, or monochrome, sergeant was posted at the top of the hill with a list of ten thousand soldiers’ names, mostly X since literacy was not highly valued in the olden days and fathers liked to give their children names they could write. He had instructions to cross off each soldier’s X as he successfully breasted the summit, or titted the top. This was to prove a grave tactical error.
The Duke first cautiously dispatched a group of five soldiers and watched through his twin monocles as they marched up the hill. He wasn’t certain whether he’d just invented binoculars or a pair of glasses, but was fairly sure it wasn’t a sandwich or a rubber boot. Maybe it was a york or a dewkov? He put the monocles in his pocket for later analysis, then found he couldn't see the soldiers. “Where are they?” he demanded of his bombardier.
“I’d say they were only half way up, sir,” replied the Bombardier respectfully. “They are neither up nor down, sir, just like the Colour Sergeant’s trousers, sir, which look as if they’ve been chewed by a horse.”
“Shouldn’t there be another ‘sir’ at the end of that?” inquired the Duke suspiciously.
“No ‘sir’ needed, sir. Takes the accusative, sir. Romanes eunt domus and all that.”
“People called Romanes, they go the ‘ouse?”
“I thought it meant ‘thwow him to the floor’, sir, but what do I know? I’m just an uneducated assistant acting lance bombardier, sir.”
“You’re all that? How come I’m just a duke?”
“Dukes trump bombardiers, sir. I’m pretty sure you win, sir. Unless dummy is unexpectedly strong in clubs, of course.”
“Shouldn’t there be another ‘sir’ at the end of that?”
“Takes the biscuit, sir. Or maybe the ablative. Please don’t ask me any more hard questions, sir.”
Thus the military talk continued until the soldiers boldly arrived at the top of the cowardly hill. Once there they proved unable to identify their own Xs in a list of ten thousand similar ones. A fight broke out, but that’s what soldiers are for. Eventually one of them identified his own mark and the Sergeant crossed it out with an X of his own, leaving it just the same as before. The talk then turned to the incompetence of the officer classes and their inability to anticipate the simplest tactical and administrative problems. But orders were orders and they each chose a cross to be overwritten by the Sergeant.
It was now midday and it was becoming clear to the Duke that, if they continued at this rate, they’d be here until the saints were burnt to a frazzle, not just crispy. He tried to work out exactly how long by asking the Bombardier.
“You take the total number of soldiers, sir, divide by the size of the groups you’re sending them up in, sir, then multiply by the time each group takes, sir.”
“How do you know that?” demanded the Duke angrily. “That’s officer stuff, that is. When I ask you for an opinion I want some homespun wisdom based on your granny’s chilblains, crows flying south and cows howling at the moon. I want something I can use, then laugh at afterwards to prove I don’t really depend on your peasant nonsense. What I don’t want is an answer correct to ten decimal places that will make me look a fool for not knowing it myself. Is that understood?”
“It was my speciality at Flogging Camp, sir. Soldiers and hills, sir. I was considered a bit of an authority on the subject, sir.”
“Oh were you, indeed?” sneered the Duke. “I suppose you’d like my job, eh? Got your eye on my horse, have you? Where is the confounded thing anyway?”
“It’s in the laundry tent, sir. Seems to have developed a taste for military trousers, sir.”
The Duke thought for a moment, then brightened. Now was a chance to show off a speciality of his own. He’d always been pretty good at anti-espionage, saying ‘bonjour Fritz’ to suspected spies and seeing which language they answered in, that sort of thing.
“Send the soldiers up one at a time,” he ordered, “and have them stop half way. You know, the neither up nor down position, which we shall mark with a flag. Did anyone remember to bring a flag? And don’t suggest the Colour Sergeant’s underpants, it wouldn’t be dignified and he might catch cold.”
When Private X, the first soldier, was half way up, he planted the flag. He knew it was in the right place because it was where he was standing when he was half way up, and he knew he was standing in the right place because he was next to the flag that marked the correct position. It had all worked out very well and he looked forward to writing to his mum, as soon as he’d learned to write, to tell her what a good impression he was making. He waited expectantly to see what he could excel at next.
Down in the valley the Duke took up his megaphone, winked at the Bombardier and shouted, “Long live the Kaiser!”
Private X was confused. He hadn’t been shown how to long-live anything and, although he didn’t know what a kaiser was, there didn’t appear to be anything on the hill but grass and a flag. He decided to guard the flag. Guarding was a thing he had a lot of experience of and he knew he did it well.
“What on earth is he playing at?” demanded the bemused Duke, peering through his monocles. “He’s just marching backwards and forwards. Does he approve of the Kaiser or not? Maybe I should shoot him just in case.”
“If that’s Private X, you could order him to shoot himself, sir. Very keen recruit, sir. Does everything he’s told.”
“Shouldn’t there be a…?”
“Just thought I’d ask. Bit of a linguist, aren’t you?”
“Nothing posh, sir. Just Welsh, Sioux and ancient Pikey, sir. My parents are foreign, they weren’t born at home, and they travel about a lot, sir.”
“Who guards their castle while they’re away?” The Duke was curious. “Don’t the servants steal everything they can lay their hands on? I’ll bet mine are selling the silver goblets at this very moment.”
“That’s one of the advantages of poverty, sir. In fact, it’s the only one I know of. If you don’t own anything, you don’t have to trouble yourself over who might take it away from you, sir. That last ‘sir’ wasn’t actually required, sir, and was very bad grammar, but I put it in out of respect, sir.”
“Why thank you, Bombardier.” The Duke was touched. “When nobody’s looking I’ll let you have a go on my horse. I don’t really like it myself, bad tempered brute, but one has to keep up appearances. At least there’ll be no need to feed damn thing tonight, now it’s full of other people’s trousers.”
The Duke looked at the sky. “Looks like rain,” he said. “Have you got any homespun wisdom about it, or do you merely observe the cumulonimbus clouds, hear the thunder and feel the raindrops splashing on you?”
“I’m inclined towards the latter, sir,” admitted the Bombardier, “but next time we climb a hill by the coast I’ll be sure to get myself a piece of seaweed.”
“I think we’ll call it a day now,” said the Duke. “Rain stopped play and all that. Do you think you could tidy up here? Get everyone perched up for the night? Except Private X, who can spend the night guarding the flag since he seems so keen on it. We’ll continue tomorrow at dawn.”
“Yes sir,” said the Bombardier and saluted smartly. His own plans for the evening involved looking for wenches in the nearby village and offering them protection from the weather in a cosy hay barn. A soldier’s life had its moments.