A Six Day Journey

February 2, 2015 - Short Story

A Six Day Journey
Kelly D. Tolman
Two days without food is bad; even one always hurts. By the third day the headache is usually gone and the pangs lessen, but those first six days were utter agony.
For want of bread I left my home. The cottage itself was nothing special; little more than a few boards held together with mud and false hopes. The captain came, and promised bread, so mother put me out of doors with our last half loaf. The captain laughed, but he didn’t send any of us away. Even starved farmers in drought-ridden desolation can carry spears.
The early summer sun was my cloak and cap, while the stars and moon formed the walls of my tent. At once we marched from the tiny collection of ruined houses I had called home. Nearly every man from the village marched with us, and although I was the youngest of the lot, I could tell they all felt as thrown away as I.
The first night was not so bad. There were plenty of others willing to talk, and even some willing to share a sip of wine with an outcast boy. I took what they offered, and listened to their stories. Only a few of us had ever been beyond the last of the fields, but even they did not know the reason for the battles. “There must be trouble in the capital,” was all they could tell me.
“Is that where the king lives?” I questioned.
“Aye,” responded Syven, the shopkeeper, “and all of the princes and lords you could imagine. Not like Craverton. In Harperston, there are merchants and tradesmen, and people so wealthy they ride in golden carriages, and drink fine wine all day long.”
My eyes grew wide at the tales of fabulous golden carriages, and my bread turned to sawdust in my mouth at the thought of fine soft pastries and wonderful golden goblets.
The first day, a corporal in chain armor handed out long wooden spears, and exhorted, “these will save your lives. Obey the captain, and the horde will be conquered.” I didn’t have time to ask the corporal who the horde were, or why we were fighting.
The captain ordered us to march, and we continued on the north road, past the struggling fields of grain, and into the hills. When we reached the hills, the fields disappeared completely, and tall forests of dense trees surrounded us on all sides. The road continued north, and we marched in columns, each man carrying his own spear, and looking as much like a soldier as he could. Towards nightfall, the captain ordered us to create an encampment.
“You men from the village,” he growled, looking at our group of recruits, “you will be known as Eagle platoon. Anik will be your leader,” the captain pointed at the corporal, “do what he tells you to do. Is there a blacksmith among you?” Garold, the village smith raised his hand and stepped forward. “You will not be part of this platoon. Bring one assistant, and come with me.”
Garold looked around our group of village outcasts, and then stopped at me. “Come with me, boy, and do what you are told.”
I nodded, and followed Garold to where the captain waited. The captain nodded to the corporal, and then left the Eagle platoon. We followed him towards the center of the encampment, and he explained to Garold the company’s need for a blacksmith. “We have been without a smith for nearly a month. The last battle was very costly. The dark horde continues to grow in strength while our army continues to slowly weaken. We managed to salvage some equipment, and we took all of the tools from the shop in the village. We will get more iron with time. For now, we need more spears, and our swords need repair. As long as we march, you will march close to my guard. We cannot afford to lose another smith. Your assistant will be trained to handle arms when he is not with you. While we camp you will work. If you must work all night, then so be it. You may sleep in the wagons while we march.” We reached a wagon with a team of oxen nearby. “Set up your shop here. You will have to work as best you can. Treat the horses before the men, and the officers before the recruits. Have you ever made armor before?”
“I have repaired armor before, but I have never made it from the start,” replied Garold.
“And swords?”
“I have made some, a long time ago. I have been with an army before.”
“Make sure the officers have the best equipment you can provide.” As the Captain spoke, another man joined us. His hair was gray and curly beneath a round metal cap. “This is the Quartermaster, Ben. You will do what he tells you to do.” The captain left.
Garold waited, neither smiling nor frowning, until Ben spoke. “You will work at night while we are camped. The animals will be cared for first, then the officers. In two days we will reach a friendly town, where you will find better equipment.”
Ben walked away and Garold told me to help him unload the wagon. We began moving equipment and set up a makeshift forge as best we could. “All we will be able to do, for a while, is sharpen knives and shoe horses,” said Garold. “Pay attention to what I do and say and you will learn what it takes to be a good smith.”
I nodded despite not understanding.
“There will always be wars as long as there is evil in the world, boy, and as long as there are wars soldiers will need blacksmiths. You will learn soon enough that it is better to forge the blade than it is to wield it. You will thank me for saving your life.”
I nodded and said simply, “Yes sir.”
“Do what your officers tell you to do,” he continued as we worked. “How old are you now? Sixteen?”
“Very young. Anyway, do what the officers tell you to do. Learn how to fight; to defend yourself, but do not get caught up in the battles. These men will die because they will fight. We will survive because we will not fight.”
I listened to Garold as he talked, not understanding half of what he said. I did not feel like speaking, so I listened as we worked. Late into the night, by the light of a lantern, he showed me all about horseshoes and all about sharpening knives. I learned about metal, swords, and about his times in the village. Garold knew my mother and my father.
Before daylight we packed everything back into the wagon and prepared to move on with the company. I had never felt so tired as I did after that first night and when the last of the equipment was in the wagon I fell asleep almost immediately.
The second day continued like the first. We marched, and as we marched, Garold and I slept. At times I woke and saw the dust and the soldiers and wondered why we marched. After noon Ben ordered me to drive the wagon. “Just follow the wagon in front of you and stop when they stop.”
Ben was about to leave when I asked, “What is the horde?”
Ben laughed. “The horde is evil, boy.” Then the stout man turned serious and looked at me in the eyes. “A thousand, thousand years ago the wizards conducted experiments in mountain castles far to the north, then they disappeared. The kingdoms to the north died. Starvation spread and the wizards were not heard of, except in stories, where they appear mysteriously to play tricks on good men. One of their number, Pasav, is said to wander the northern wastes. Now monsters issue from the mountains and destroy the towns and villages. The horde is a collection of these strange creatures. If we do not stop them, they will overrun all of our lands. The king has summoned armies from all corners to stop the horde.”
Twisted images of dark shadows crept over my mind as he spoke and I began to feel his fear grow in my heart.
There were no supplies the third day, so Garold and I performed our duties in hunger. My loaf of bread was long ago spent and I resorted to drinking water anywhere I found it.
By the fourth day, I found myself helping Ben during the day almost as much as I helped Garold at night. I slept when I could, and found my body growing weaker by the minute. When the company stopped on the fifth day I felt my spirits rise in hopes of a good meal and a warm place to sleep. Although we saw the village just a short distance away, we did not approach it, and I was not permitted to leave the camp.
A group of armored men on horses came into our camp on the afternoon of the fifth day, and a large man with a short beard went directly to the Captain’s tent. The rest of the horse soldiers stationed themselves outside the tent, and waited for their leader to return.
Another rider came a little while later and waved the guards aside with his hand. He wore a wide-brimmed hat and long beard.
Ben called me to assist him with the chores before I could see anything else, but he in turn was called away by the Captain before we had completed our tasks. I saw the last rider leave the Captain’s tent in a hurry. “Fools,” he said as he went, but he was gone before I could get a good look. When Ben returned, his face and voice were grim.
“The horde is heading towards this village. They will descend from the hills to the north, and overrun the village in the morning. Our general has developed a plan for the battle. We are to gather with the other foot soldiers to the west.”
The Captain had all of the men collected together shortly afterwards, and explained to us the situation. “We will strike the horde from the west, penetrating the flank, and throwing their ranks into disorder. After we attack, the Knights of our King will strike from the east, and together we shall drive a wedge between them. On the morrow, victory will be ours, and the horde shall be driven back into the pits of the north.”
The Captain’s voice gathered energy as he spoke, and the men’s spirits lifted. When he gave the order to march, everyone moved swiftly to obey, and before nightfall we were camped near the top of a hill to the north of the abandoned village below.
Night descended over the camp and the pit of my stomach had still not been filled. Exhaustion overcame me as I had never before felt. I collapsed in a tent near the wagon and did not stir until late the sixth day.
When I woke, the clatter of battle rang in my ears through the soft sound of falling rain. Men screamed and other things snarled. The ringing of metal on metal echoed and re-echoed in my head, mixing with the sounds of death and anger. I searched the barren camp for some spare crumb, but I found nothing. I drank from the tracks the wagons had left and shivered in the cold. Finally, without hope, I took up my spear and went to the top of the hill.
Below me the valley was a writhing mass of men and creatures. Black blood had turned the ground into gore and the gentle rain made the ground slippery and thick. The armies trampled the summer wheat beneath their feet. Untrained spears desperately attempted to hold back fangs and razor-sharp claws. At the bottom of the hill the Captain stood with his sword drawn, shouting orders, and urging the men to engage the enemy wherever possible. My heart sank and I could not bring myself to join the men in the field.
Across the valley, men on horses chased the horde from skirmish to skirmish. Everywhere the horses rode, fresh courage rose in the hearts of the men. I felt energy rising in my own weakened bones as I saw them ride. I was about to rush onto the field of battle when I discovered another great force. Far to the north, I saw a great black beast, dwarfing the horde around it, storm onto the field of battle. Around it fires sprang up and its roars and snarls could be heard easily from my position on the hill. Below me, the hearts of the soldiers faltered. They felt their empty stomachs and sore feet and their spears fumbled in their hands.
Seeing the new threat, the brave horsemen charged their way across the field of battle, leaving behind a trail of carnage. The details of the conflict were difficult for me to see through the rain and cold, but I knew when the general met the beast. A cry of anger rose from the horde, something like a thousand snarling, barking dogs, and the entire battle paused. Around the two, a wide circle opened and then, as if breathing out again, the battle re-commenced. The soldiers fought, and as they fought, the general seemed to gain strength. The horde weakened, but the huge beast seemed to ignore the fierce slashes of the horsemen’s swords.
Before the end of the afternoon, the general’s entire bodyguard had been slain. He fought alone and on foot against the giant beast. Exhausted men weakly lifted spears and swords to fend away the frenzied horde. Within moments, the general fell and the beast began to gorge itself on his crumpled form. The spearmen broke first and fled into the village or up the hill or simply fell where they were. Like a shiver, the fear rippled across the battlefield and men everywhere turned and fled.
In fear and confusion I gripped my spear, not knowing what else to do. Men fell beneath the hungry claws of the horde and within a few moments the black mass reached the desolate village.
When the first beastly form crossed the highway gate it was engulfed immediately in a searing flame. Snarls rang out as flames spread from that one form to every other member of the horde. Like a bright red wave the field became engulfed in fire. The rain turned to steam in the heat and I buried my head in my knees and held my breath to avoid the smell. Had I been able, I am sure I would have wretched a hundred times on the hillside.
When I stopped trembling I looked. Below the fields of wheat were ash and blood. Smoke rose and danced with the steam over the charred bodies of beasts and men. All around me I saw no one.
“You are safe now, boy,” came a deep voice from behind.
I started from my place and nearly fell with my spear down the hill. Behind me stood a tall man in a wide brimmed hat leaning on a sword in a fancy scabbard. I recognized his long beard and the tall horse beside him. I opened my mouth but no words came out.
“The horde is destroyed for a time,” he said. “We have been a long time trying to right our wrongs and today we managed a little. I am sorry that your general did not listen to my warning. Much death could have been avoided.”
I did not understand his words, but I could feel the kindness in them. Finally I muttered, “who are you?”
“Me?” he looked surprised. “I am one of the ancient power, come to dispel the evil we unleashed on this land so long ago. Your general . . .” the man stopped a moment, and looked at my face for the first time. “Of course you do not know your general,” he laughed. “I am a wizard. Pasav is my name. I have come to destroy the horde. What is your name?”
“Kyven,” I said. I looked into his eyes, and he seemed to read my very thoughts.
“Kyven, I have bread and cheese and many other good things for you. Come with me, and leave behind your blacksmith’s hammer. I will show you how to be a good man in the wide world, and how to best serve your village. You will not starve as long as you are with me, but you will earn your bread.”
With a gentle hand Pasav lifted me from the ground, and I let the spear fall. With a willing heart I left the battlefield, and returned only many years later to my village.

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