Scildan was tending to his field when he saw the dust rising in the distance. He knew instantly what it meant. It was still hard to imagine, living and working in such a peaceful corner of the world, that war and destruction even existed, let alone that they threatened him and his family.
He had been to war before many years ago, when he was young and his father still lived. Back then his king (who he had never even seen, much less met) had called for him to be an invader. To help grow the kingdom. He had gone as every young man would, unafraid, only imagining glory for himself and a country he did not truly understand.
Now that king’s son, who was now the king, would call upon him to be a defender. Some foreign invader had also decided those lands they had taken all those years ago were desirable. Scildan looked around at the river running past his field, the cattle in the field next to his grazing, the trees swaying in the cool summer breeze in the meadow down the bottom of the hill, and the sun bathing the land. It didn’t seem all that threatening to him.
He began walking back to the village. “No point wasting any time,” he thought. Just as Scildan trudged back into the village the horsemen who had been kicking up all the dust were beginning their proclamation: “by royal decree all men over the age of thirteen are to fight for their king and country against the invaders. If you have swords or armour you are to bring them with you. If not, such items as can be found at the camp will be provided to you. You have ten minutes.”
Some women began weeping, some of the younger men, some of them little more than boys really, began whooping at the prospect of going to war and defending a country they had seen but a fraction of. Scildan found he did not really feel anything. He would go and hopefully return, but he did not think he would be any better for it. For him this war seemed more of an inconvenience.
As he was standing there he felt some arms wrap around his waist. Scildan looked down to see his son, Hereweald. In an instant he forgot about himself and what the war might mean to him. Scildan thanked every god and spirit he knew that his son was not yet ten years of age, and so could stay here in peace. He looked up from Hereweald to see his wife Leoflӕd also running over to him. Scildan took them both in his arms. “I’ll protect you, both of you, you hear me? The king and country don’t matter an ounce to me but I’ll fight if it means saving you two.”
Scildan ran quickly to his house. He would be luckier than some of those going off to fight as he still had a shirt of chainmail and short sword from the last time he had gone to war. He had not used them since then, and as he dug them out of the bottom of a trunk he realised he would need to clean and scour them of rust if they were to be of any use.
When he returned to where the horsemen had gathered he found them wrestling with one of the old men, Theobald. Scildan ran over asking what the meaning for this was. “The decree stated that all men over the age of thirteen would fight. This one is certainly not twelve so he will fight,” replied the soldier who had called them to arms earlier. “But he can barely hold a sword!” Scildan retorted.
“He will or he’ll die,” was the soldier’s blunt rejoinder.
There was no more to be said. Scildan was now greatly impressed by how seriously the king must be taking the threat of invasion. The young fought, the old stayed back. They had done their fighting already, that was always the way of it. For such greybeards as Theobald to be called upon they must be truly desperate, hoping that such men could cut down as many invaders as possible, and if not to at least be a distraction to the enemy. Scildan looked again to his son. “The reason they aren’t being taken as well is the hope they will have some time to grow stronger before being needed. Children have become soldiers in waiting,” he thought. “What has happened to the world while we have been whiling away our days in peace?”
Scildan and the other men from his village trudged off with the horsemen. He noted that while two of them rode in front of them, the other two were behind. “No escape,” he thought.
After a few hours they came upon a camp where dozens of other men like Scildan were sitting around, some in quiet contemplation, others making speculative boasts of how many invaders heads they would take. Dotted about were more horsemen. From their armour and bearing you would imagine they were worth ten of each of the poorly clothed, dirty village men they had corralled. Scildan though was sure this was not true. “Once you get through their armour they bleed as easily as anyone else.” He recalled screams of agony from the wounded and dying on the battlefield when he had finally reached it years ago, “they die just as any man does”.
They spent the night at the camp. At dawn they set off. The clear sky and cool air seemed like a favourable omen and was good for the spirits so they went on their way full of hope. Scildan thought the invaders must also be waking up to the same pleasant morning. “When two sides go to battle the omens can’t be good for both,” he thought, but he saw no reason to dampen the spirits of those around him so he held his tongue.
So far things were much as they had been the last time. The first major change happened when their small troop reached the main camp. Scildan was surprised. When they had marched off as invaders they had gone straight through this area. He remembered it well for he had first seen here what he had thought were clouds in the distance, but was told were actually mountains with snow covered peaks. Back then they had marched all the way to those mountains and over them before winning a great victory in their shade. Now they camped here where the mountains were still distant prospects. All of a sudden Scildan took the threat of the invaders far more seriously. They were within two days’ march of his home, and his family.
The camp was like any the night before a battle. Nobody could sleep so everywhere there was activity. With so many people about it was difficult to avoid company so those who wished to take solace had to go away from the camp. Those who remained were caught up in the whirlwind of activity.
Scildan found himself sat around a camp fire with some of the younger men from his village and some others they had met. All of them were telling stories of the glory they would undoubtedly take from tomorrows battle. One of them turned to Scildan and asked him about the triumph of the last war. “Bodies everywhere, screams of agony, blood and shit,” he thought, “a great triumph to be sure, glory for the living and even more to the dead” he boldly declared.
“But what did you do, Scildan? How many of the enemy did you slay?”
“None. By the time I reached the battlefield it was over. The only man I killed already had an axe stuck in his chest. I did it out of sympathy, not for glory,” he thought again but what he said was “dozens at the least. I chopped them down like summer wheat.”
The boys cheered and starting singing those old war songs they knew. Scildan knew all he had told them were lies, but what good would the truth of war do them? They would see it for themselves soon enough. They needed to feel as bold and fired up now as possible. They would fight all the harder for it, and probably not feel the blow that ended their life.
Morning arrived after Scildan had already woken. He saw the night gradually clear away for a bright morning and felt the dew gather over the grass and himself. Others like him were already sat outside their tents, anticipating the day and what it would bring. Very few awoke from a peaceful sleep. Every now and then a gasp could be heard of an unexpected sleeper awaking unsure of where they were or if any of their chaotic dreams had been real. Some were roused from an alcohol induced stupor which still fogged their minds and numbed them to feelings of fear.
Soon captains were moving amongst the tents to make sure all were awake and ready. Scildan was already on his feet, making sure his belt and boot straps were tight, and his sword was sharp as it could be.
Scildan and the other men from his village filed off after one of the horsemen that had pulled them from their lives. Soon they were lost amongst a sea of farmers and smiths, cobblers and coopers, young and old. Looking around and feeling the noise, and sight, and smell of such an army they felt like many, and they felt like one. Whether they cared for the king or not they all had lands and loved ones they would defend with everything they had. The same grim determination filtered through them all. Thousands of minds all felt the same thing.
As they came over the lip of a hill they saw the reason they were there. A seething mass of people whose names and language they did not know and who they would now try to destroy. The stifled emotion of the army now came unrestrained. At first in isolated shouts and roars of anger, then a great rolling wave of aggression.
Scildan gazed at the invading force before him. From this far away they were just a faceless sea of malice. He imagined that sea sweeping over his village, tearing apart his home and farm and drowning his family. His jaw clenched and so did his fist around his sword. He was breathing heavily, his chest straining the chain mail and leather that covered it.
From somewhere at the head of their army a group of great figures appeared. All of them were on the backs of powerful warhorses, with billowing cloaks, and shining armour. There was one at the front who sat the biggest horse of all and whose helmet was topped with gold. Scildan realised that for the first time he was looking upon the one he was supposedly fighting for, his king.
The king drew his sword. A piercing spike of steel that caught the sun. Some vibration on the wind told Scildan and those around him that the king was saying something but they had no chance of hearing what was said. It did not matter though. The ones at the front who could hear the words of the king carried the feeling back through the whole army. Like a water droplet striking a pond the waves of passion caused by the king’s speech spread throughout the assembled force.
Even Scildan found himself caught up in the moment. For the first time he was not just fighting for his family and home, but for the king at the head of the army who had brought them all here. He found himself crying out with the rest for blood. In his mind he saw himself cutting through the enemy mass for the glory of his king and country.
The charge began. Scildan and those around him pushed forward eager to wade into the battle. Suddenly he found himself charging at full speed with his sword in his hand, though he could not remember drawing it. Somewhere up ahead he could see that the king and those noble knights he had around him were already striking deep into the enemy. Scildan’s war cry must have been terror itself, his eyes crazed with bloodlust which he would soon sate. He was coming close to the enemy. He could just make out their faces when an arrow pierced his brain. Scildan fell to the floor where he was buried under bodies and mud, and was no more.