Seimon looked out over the battlefield below, taking in everything. The smell of blood, tinny on the wind mingling with the rancid stink of emptied bowels. The sight of hundreds, possibly thousands of bodies, most dead, all interlinked with ally and foe alike. The sound of pitiful cries from the few remaining wounded, crying out for help that wasn’t coming in time. But nothing matched the feeling inside. Survivors guilt, bitter and acidic on his tongue, the joy of living offering no relief from what he’d escaped.
He’d been sat in the local tavern when they’d come for him. Sat amongst his fellow farmers, shoulders tightly packed on the worn benches, every man onto his third or fourth pint of ale. That was pretty standard in Mapleshear, the gold of Vaddon Bonner stretching only to minimal wages, but the crops abundant enough for a healthy intake of beer. Long days tilling, ploughing and digging the land built up quite a thirst. Once darkness fell there were few who didn’t pile into the tavern for their share. Seimon lifted his to his mouth, his fingers tingling as the pains of the day began to wane, comfortable despite the crowded room and smell of turned earth and laboured sweat.
A bell rang and echoed from the rafters of the tavern as noise rose from outside. After cursory glances at the thick door everyone returned their attentions to their drinks and conversations, before the noisy entry of a small group of men drew their attention back. Clanking heavily five armoured men stood to attention at the entrance to the tavern ahead of the entry of another man, this ones dress far higher quality than the men around him.
“Good evening, good sirs,” he declared in a confident, firm voice, “I am Bedwyrr Stackpole, owner of these lands and Lord of all the people in it.”
A grim silence settled over the crowded room, the older men knowing what was coming, the younger sensing something wrong. Seimon was amongst the latter, barely out of his teens he could only fear the worse as the man continued.
“News may have reached your settlement that the throne of your king Iestyn sits empty in the great city of Brodon. As rightful heir to this throne I march upon the city to lay my claim. In anticipation of resistance to my passage to the throne I hereby declare the law of conscription upon every third man of fighting age. At dawn you will present yourselves to my officers in the marketplace and selections will be made. My force has made camp and is thirsty, therefore this beer will be claimed for there needs this evening. Return to your homes and assemble tomorrow.”
More clanking followed as the men vacated the doorway, to be replaced by a stream of more lightly armoured men, marching in and claiming the tapped barrels. Voices began to break into the stunned silence, as the shock set in and the more vocal youngsters began to protest.
“Quiet down lads,” called out Sion Mattick, tavern keeper, “finish up your drinks and head home, no use protesting.”
The older patrons were already on the move, setting their mugs down and making their way to the exits past the struggling soldiers, a single voice called out,
“It’s well and good that Mattick,” it was Meic Wren, village weasel, “you’re too old to be dragged off to war, it’s no concern for you.”
“Now, lad.” Sion stepped from behind his bench, his pained limp drawing everyone’s gaze, “you’re right, thanks to this, and my ageing limbs I won’t be called. But I’ll have to watch is the rest line up for their deaths in fights they didn’t ask for. In lands they don’t call home. For glories and rewards they’ll not see.”
Wren opened his mouth a few times, looking for a response before the keeper cut him off,
“See, I’ve been there son. I was dragged off myself many years ago, on another damned quest. Battle after battle I survived. Battle after battle I saw friends die. Battle after battle I lost more of myself to the slaughter at the end of my blade. Wishing for the end, but to fearful to ever let it happen, until finally my moment came. A rusting blade cut through my leg, near taking it off.”
He paused, his face full of pain, fear, and a tortured grimace only a veteran soldier would recognise, “but I didn’t die, did I. No. No I had to return, to watch generations grow to be your fathers, and the next generations to be yours, hoping for the next to be your children. Knowing sooner or later the call would come again. So don’t tell me it’s well and good. It isn’t. It’s going to be damned hard for everyone who stays, but nothing compared to those leaving are going to go through. And worse again for those who return. Now drink up, return to your women and say your goodbyes.”
Tears were falling from faces all around the room, men Seimon wouldn’t have believed capable. The older men continued their exit, most herding the youngsters along with them. Seimon had no woman to return to, there were a few girls he’d had moments with but none he wanted to see tonight. Instead he gulped down his ale, it felt thick and rotten now, not doing anything to help his dry throat now.
At dawn a weary trudging was accompanied by tears, cries and a few nervous laughs as bravado did its best to keep the men advancing. Seimon joined the throng heading to the centre of the settlement, he kept his head low, not interested in conversation now. It had been a long night. Traditionally a belly full of beer knocked him out as soon as he lay on his straw bed. Instead he’d lay awake, his stomach churning and brain imagining an endless series of gruesome deaths and injuries. Shaking off the memory he told himself there was only a one in three chance, he could be back in the fields by lunch.
As he entered the marketplace his senses felt wrong, the usual hustle of traders and villages not present, instead just loose ranks of farmers stood ahead of the more disciplined ranks of Lord Stackpole’s force. Lord Stackpole himself stood upon a platform at the edge of the central square under a row of swinging bodies. Seimon stopped, the men behind cursing gruffly as they were forced to pull up short, then cursing more violently as they saw what he saw. The bodies were recognisable as villagers, men who’d drank and toiled with them every day. Men who’d been in the pub last night. All men of fighting age. All dead.
“Move along,” a soldier in a rough leather jerkin shoved his way to them, pushing the men forward until their legs carried them on.
Seimon joined the growing crowd, the churning feeling in his stomach becoming nausea as it strove to empty itself. More men joined him, women crowding around the edges of the marketplace in the same way they did at the annual meat harvest.
“Gentlemen, good morning,” called out Lord Stackpole once it was clear everyone was assembled, “you’ll see above me the product of cowardice. Men I’m sure you’ll recognise, they attempted to escape the lawful conscription and paid with they’re lives for doing so. Unfortunately these fourteen men have given me doubts as to your loyalty to your Lord, and so in anticipation of future failed desertions the conscription will be every man of fighting age here….”
Seimon heard no more as outraged shouts and catcalls drowned out Stackpole’s voice. Numb shock and horror turned that lump in his stomach to something far more fluid, his throat burned as he coughed up the contents, splattering the men around him with its rancid odour. The reaction was minimal, he wasn’t the only one, and outrage at the pronouncement far outweighed a bit of vomit on your clothes.
The arrival of more soldiers had settled the protests and the men had been marched through the settlement onto the open fields and separated into smaller groups. One by one the groups were joined by a handful of soldiers and details were taken. Seimon scribbled his initial onto the paper, not surprised to see the majority of squiggles were just that, random marks. His aunt had taught him the basics of reading and writing before dying many winters past, it wasn’t much use to a farmer, but she’d said it was a skill for the future.
He had been conscripted to a unit of spearmen in the second reserve for Lord Stackpole’s army- reluctantly of course. The unit had been given a few days (A few days? I would think that the higer-ups would want more experiened soldires in even the most desperate situations but this is not my area of expertise so I could be wrong on this one…) drilling practice before the long march into Kriils. It was on the grasslands a few miles short of the border town of Graycott the army finally halted, weapons (What kind of weapons?) distributed and units fed. After a short rest the call to order had run through the assembled troops and Seimon had taken his place to march again. But as the army crested the hill above the town a terrifying sight was revealed. Lord Stanlow, rival of Lord Stackpole for the vacant throne, was waiting with a host far in excess of Lord Stackpole’s.