Black Iron's Glory - Chapter 31

The four stalked across the forest.

"Wero, I remember reading in the history books that firearms have been around for several hundred years, why are we still using matchlocks?" Claude suddenly broke the silence as something occurred to him.

Guns developed much further much faster back on Earth. It took just three hundred years for the world to go from the first proper matchlocks to automatic, breech-loaded weapons. And if the stories he'd heard in his final years there were to be believed, they were only a few decades away from energy and magnetic weapons. Things were not going apace here. Six hundred years had passed since the first matchlock was first fired, and they were still being used in essentially the same form. Not even the continent's near constant state of war did anything to speed that up.

"What else would we use?" Borkal snipped, "Matchlocks are much better than anything else we have."

"That's not what I meant, idiot," Claude snapped back, "Muskets don't seem to have changed much since they were first introduced, despite several hundred years having passed. I'm sure there are many ways to make them work better, more reliably, and fire faster."

"It's not like no one's been trying. I heard the kingdom has a whole research team dedicated to finding out ways to improve muskets. The new Aubass Mark 2 is much better than this," Welikro shook his gun twice, "It can kill a man about another half a time as far as this can. I've even heard they've started using a special kind of knife you jam into the barrel once the enemy gets to close, turning the gun into a spear. It's a nightmare to get it back out again, but I doubt you'll have a chance to shoot again before the fight's over if it comes to hand-to-hand combat."

That's not it... What's the point of increasing the range if you can't hit anything that far?

"Slow-match isn't very reliable is it? You said yourself that it snuffs out sometimes when you fire the gun, and I'm sure it just goes out on its own sometimes as well. I'm sure there are better ways of lighting the powder."

"I know," Welikro admitted, "Dad is always complaining about the slow-match. The kingdom has four armouries, ours is the smallest. Together they can make several tens of thousands of muskets a year. Quite a few of them go to that team the king has looking into making the muskets better.

"Dad was a guard at that team's facility for two years. He says they're all mad. He's seen what they call 'flintlocks' and 'breechloaders', but none of them can compare to even the oldest matchlocks.

"Dad was very happy when he left. He saw 17 people crippled when the guns exploded in their hands. Dad was even willing to go to the frontlines to get away from that place, but the war ended before his request was processed. In the end he was made part of the cleanup crews but he says he doesn't regret it at all."

So they're at least looking into improving the guns. But flintlocks and breechloaders are so clearly and substantially better than matchlocks, so how on earth did they screw up the designs so badly that they performed even worse than matchlocks? How useless are they?! Maybe they really are insane.

"Isn't anyone else tinkering with firearms at all?"

Much of the development of firearms came not from the army back on earth, but from hobbyist tinkerers and inventors, many of them hunters who wanted to make their guns better for their purposes.

"I don't doubt there are. Dad has tinkered with his guns a lot as well, he designed his two guns, after all. But no one can just make their own guns, anything new they come up with belongs to the research team by royal decree."

So they were even preventing people from making and developing their own guns? Sure, it kept unwanted people from getting their hands on guns, but it was clearly also stopping so much innovation! And why was the research team so focused on increasing the range? It meant nothing without a corresponding increase in accuracy. And rate of fire was far more important for situations where firearms were used en masse, such as in wars.

Claude kept his doubts to himself, however. He didn't want to attract too much attention, after all. One of the main reasons development was probably going so low, if it was happening at all, was because physics had not emerged as a field of study yet, and without that understanding of how things worked, any research was basically blindly grabbing at straws.

Welikro suddenly waved his hand from the front. Claude trained his ears, and heard the soft bubble of the stream.

"Alright, go hide there," Welikro said as he pointed at a pile of rocks, "You see that huge one? Behind it. It'll hide us from the stream but give us a good view and a clean shot on both banks. It should also be downwind of the stream."

It was a decent spot, Claude reflected, the rocks stood just a few metres from the stream, and would no doubt find itself in the streams more often than not during good downpours, so snakes shouldn't be a big problem. The three huddled behind it as Welikro scampered up the biggest rock to gaze at the stream.

Eriksson's short-barreled musket wouldn't be of much use. No animal was going to drink close enough to them for his gun to hit them reliably. Instead, it would be their backup gun like Welikro's father's second musket.

Borkal's arbalest and Claude's hunting bow had their uses, at least. But the two had never practised at night. At best they might be able to punt a bolt or arrow in the prey's general direction and hope it hit home. Welikro was the only one who stood a half-decent chance of hitting something, anything, edible.

The breeze blew freshly up from the lake and the moonlight slowly took over from the sun. It filtered down through the trees in long needles and danced rhythmically on the stream's bubbling water.

The tallest trees shrugged ever so slightly with the breeze, leaves rustling playfully in slow waves as the sounds of the night slowly descended from the hilltops towards the lake to meet the breeze.

Borkal lowered his head further at a howl from somewhere upstream, and huddled closer to Claude, eyes fixed in the direction of the sound. Claude suddenly realised he was shivering when he felt the cold rock slap into the hollow of his back.

"Don't be afraid. It's all normal," he said as much for his benefit as for Borkal's.

He knew, probably better than most, thanks to the various documentary programmes he watched, what tended to make the sounds he heard. Once he reminded himself what it sounded like when a leopard or panther hunted something, and how much this sounded calmer than then, he calmed down.

"Aren't you afraid?" Eriksson asked, suddenly turning to Claude.

"Afraid of what? Most of this is all just in your head. Haven't you ever wondered why all those terrible monsters you're so sure must be in those woods, never come out and get you? They certainly know where we are with how your teeth chatter--"

"--Shut up!" Welikro barked quietly, "What did I tell you about talking? You've probably scared off everything within three hundred metres of us now!"

The three shut their mouths obediently.

Claude was on the brink of dozing off when Welikro's foot suddenly tapped his head.

"Shhh!" was all he heard.

Claude lifted his head and looked up at the boy. He motioned for him to take a look soundlessly.

He heard a series of splashes as his head popped up from behind the rock. He only noted the movement in the leaves, but couldn't make out any figures.

Welikro sighed slightly and slid down the rock, yanking Claude down with him.

"What's wrong?" Claude whispered his question.

Welikro shook his head.

"Won't work. They're wild boars. Nothing we have will take them down. We'll just make them angry and get ourselves in trouble."

"It's fine. Boars are some of the most cautious animals, so if they come to drink, you can bet other animals will come drink as well. It's just a matter of waiting for them."

Claude turned to his two companions, to find them fast asleep, lying on top of one another.

It didn't take long for a group of eight animals to show up.

"What are those?"

"Deer. We're pretty lucky," Welikro smiled.

Welikro slowly and gently snapped the cock back and lit the slow-match. He pressed the tip firmly between the two prongs of the cock, smouldering tip aimed at the flash pan.

Time slowed as Claude stared down the barrel, his head pressed right next to Welikro's, who held the gun. The striking of the match to light the slow-match must have alerted the deer that something was going on. They'd all stopped dead and were staring in his direction.

Claude heard a click, followed by the sound of metal striking metal as the cock hit home and drove the embering tip of the slow-match into the powder in the flash pan. The powder hissed to life and a puffed smoke in all directions for half a moment, then smoke blasted out of almost nowhere over the pan as the powder in the barrel lit. Another fraction of a moment later the hissing was drowned out by a sloppy bang and a second, brighter flash from the muzzle blinded Claude. He heard something thud and splat before his sight recovered. When it did, he saw one deer twitching on the ground, the tip of its rear hooves splashing at the edge of the stream.

Borkal and Eriksson jumped up.

"Thunder?!" one shouted -- Claude couldn't be sure who.

Welikro slid down from the rock happily.

"Got it. Good hit, too. Went straight down. Light the lamp. Let's go take a look."

Claude took his first breath after the shot went off, and smelt sulphur and soot.

The deer was about the size of a goat and it had just two small studs for antlers. It was at most a juvenile, Claude concluded, no more than nine months old.

Welikro had indeed scored a good hit. The shot had gone straight through the base of the deer's head, and its skull dangled loosely by its throat, it's spine completely disintegrated.

"Put the lamp down. Keep a close watch on our surroundings. The blood is bound to attract unwanted attention. We'll skin it here and bleed out the worst of the blood so we don't leave a trail right back to our camp."

Welikro was already on his knees, knife in hand, by the time his words finished.

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