BY DAVID SPAIN
Copyright is held by the author.
THE COMMANDER gazed down at the village below him. It looked peaceful, and it should: it was so far from the major settlements and cities that any invading force would completely disregard it. It wasn’t like it would ever be able to pose a threat to even a moderately-sized group of mercenaries.
He couldn’t understand why he’d been ordered to wipe it out.
Actually, that wasn’t true: the Commander knew exactly why the orders had been given, and it had everything to do with the man from whom those orders had originally come.
It wasn’t like he hadn’t raided villages before. It was a part of war, if one of the less heroic ones. An army needs supplies, and it’s not practical to expect them to pack their own lunches every day. The Commander had sent out foraging parties and had sometimes supervised them. It wasn’t pleasant, taking food away from people, but he’d tried to be as decent as possible about it: leaving them enough that they’d survive and making sure that his men didn’t carry off anything that wasn’t eventually edible, especially if it was one of the settlement’s young women. Sometimes, he’d even left them some of his own money to help them get started again. It was as one of his superiors had told him: the people weren’t his enemy unless they were holding a weapon. If your lord plans on taking over a region, or your king a country, then it’s in everyone’s best interests that their soldiers haven’t left a red line of horror and destruction in their wake. That sort of thing tends to stick in the mind and, before too long, people who’d never have considered fighting back at first start to come around to the idea. And then everyone was your enemy.
It was the decent way of doing it, and also the most pragmatic.
But the man who’d devised their strategy was not pragmatic. Neither was he decent. Whatever two words you picked to describe him, and there were plenty of them to choose from, it wouldn’t be either of those unless it was to his face.
And then he’d probably kill you for lying to him.
That, the Commander had to admit, was what really felt wrong about all this. It wasn’t that he’d ever liked requisitioning supplies, but at least he’d seen the purpose and logic of it. It had been a necessary part of a campaign: the realities of war.
But this, this small village in the centre of a circle of hills? There was no point to this except cruelty and spite.
And those, the Commander couldn’t help feeling, would be two extremely helpful words if you were trying to describe the man who’d masterminded this approach.
And that was it: they were his orders. And as much as he might hate them, or as much as he might loathe the Prince they had come from, he would follow them through. He was a soldier, in charge of soldiers. Discipline flowed from the top. If soldiers could pick and choose which orders they wanted to follow, then what would you do?
A little voice in his head said that they’d probably do a little less unnecessary crushing of isolated villages, and maybe instead focus the crushing on the sorts of people who ordered things like that, but he crushed that thought before it got too far. That was the sort of thought that led to other thoughts, and before long you’d have to desert because they all made an alarming amount of sense.
He sighed, then nodded to his lieutenant. He’d decided not to lead this raid; he didn’t quite have the stomach for hacking down innocent men. Or women. Or children. His lieutenant, on the other hand, was a bright-eyed young man who kept talking about things like “death and glory” or “the majesty of battle” or “securing the future of our great nation”. He could do with seeing how majestic battle really was, the Commander thought. See if the little prat talked about the glory of death after he’d watched a man try to push his own guts back into his body.
Probably he would, the Commander thought gloomily, as the lieutenant pointed his sword at the village. He was that sort. Just like the Prince, although at least the lieutenant had the excuse of meaning it. To Prince Verenus Kasparin, those were just phrases that he could use to make men paint a field red.
He sat on his horse and watched as his men charged down the hill. Below, he could just make out the shapes of the villagers. They’d noticed the massed ranks of the riders some time ago and since then had been desperately preparing defences that, five minutes before, they’d not had. He could see archers on the roofs of buildings, and even a few straggled lines of pikemen in front of the closed gates. Likely holding tree branches sharpened with a knife thirty seconds ago, if the Commander was any expert. Some of the old men down there would have spent some time in the military, and they’d know a thing or two.
Unfortunately, one of those things would be that experience and cunning usually came in a poor second to real weapons, properly-maintained armour and the discipline of a trained army.
At least you could say that his men were, in fact, outnumbered. He had a force of about fifty riders, whereas the village down there must have housed at least two hundred.
Of course, half of them would be women. Some more would be children. Others would be too old to fight. Most of those young enough to be of much use wouldn’t have any fighting experience and wouldn’t ever have shot the bows they were holding at anything not on four legs.
The pikemen lasted about a minute. He saw arrows fly amongst the riders, but they didn’t have enough force behind them or weren’t aimed at the weak points in the riders’ armour. In their position, the Commander would have told the archers to shoot the horses – one or two stallions coming down at galloping speed could seriously interfere with the efficiency of a cavalry charge – but the bowmen weren’t trying it. A few of them would have owned farms or stables. They’d know it wasn’t the horses’ fault.
It was a nice sentiment, and it was going to get them killed a lot faster.
It didn’t take long for the gates to open, and then what you could have just about called a battle became a slaughter. The Commander didn’t look away and he didn’t try not to hear the screams. He might not be down there, but he was as responsible for this as any one of his men, and he’d not try to spare himself from it.
Several minutes after that, the cries had died away, as had the people making them. The Commander finally turned away, and it was then that he saw the figure.
It was standing on one of the hills, a good distance away from where the Commander sat mounted. He was short, had a bow slung over his back and seemed to have been holding a large sack. When he’d seen what was happening at the village down below, he’d dropped it on the ground beside him.
The Commander watched the young man, wondering who he was. He couldn’t be more than about 16, and there weren’t any other villages for miles. Was he a hunter? If so, he was an extraordinarily bad one unless that sack was stuffed full of rabbits.
As if sensing the eyes upon him, the boy turned and stared at the Commander, almost as though he’d known that the man would be there. The Commander couldn’t make out anything specific about his face, but he could imagine the expression: rage, maybe, or perhaps just that kind of desolated shock that he’d seen far too many times by now. Probably the boy had family down there, but at least he was smart enough not to race down the hill to try and help them. Either that or what he was seeing had frozen him in place.
A movement in the corner of the Commander’s eye caused him to glance back down into the valley where the village sat. He wasn’t the only one who had spotted the boy; two riders had started galloping away from its wooden walls towards the foot of the hill. The boy had seen them coming, was grasping desperately at the bow on his back, not able to look away from the men as they began trotting up the hill towards him.
The Commander watched, not at all interested in seeing what was about to happen but once again feeling that he had some responsibility to witness it.
The boy had got his hands on his bow, had nocked an arrow and was waiting. The Commander was impressed. Most grown men would have fired by now in a panic. The archers on the village walls certainly had. But the boy was letting the horsemen close the gap, apparently aware of the limitations of his aim.
He might get one, the Commander thought. Then the second rider would hack his head off and that would be the end of that. A single casualty at four-to-one odds: something to show that there’d been the slightest hint of a threat in this bloody valley.
He watched the boy draw back the arrow and loose it. One of the horses jerked, reared, and fell into the second. The collision knocked both riders from their saddles, and the dying horse landed on one of them, pinning him to the floor.
The other horseman was trying to push himself to his feet when the boy reached him. He yanked the man’s head back, pulling his helmet off in the process. The Commander saw a glint of sunlight shining off steel and watched as the boy slashed that light across the injured man’s throat.
The boy checked the other rider, who must have been killed under the impact of his horse. He dragged the sword out of the man’s hand, took one more look back at the Commander, and started running down the hill the way he’d come.
The Commander glanced down at the valley. No-one seemed to have noticed what had just happened; they were too busy looting, burning and killing. Only he had seen it.
He liked his men, in a general sort of way. They obeyed his orders, didn’t skive off on those mundane duties of a soldier which didn’t involve sticking a sword through someone and, for the most part, seemed to be good, decent people with hobbies, families and friends.
Still, there was a small, private part of him which felt somehow happy at what had just taken place. A feeling, perhaps, that someone wasn’t going to lie down and let Prince Verenus do whatever he liked without having the courage to raise their objections.
An unpleasant thought started to follow that one, but he squashed it before it could become fully formed. He was becoming very good at that.