‘Attack? What attack?’ Herry had asked in the great hall. An hour later, he was gripping a pitchfork flanked by Mister Bill and Fatface Tolly. His heart in his mouth.
‘Charge?’ Herry just wouldn’t. He would go no further. Not anymore. He can’t keep doing this. It wasn’t working. Twice they had charged and twice a rider had aimed at his head, an arrow missing him to strike Kelman. He was no soldier trained for a bloody war. He just couldn’t. He just wouldn’t.
The captain had urged the mayor to leave. Send words to lords in Ghosburgh. He had refused, stacking Aurens and Gillings in chests. The mayor would not leave, not without his coins. A foolish step that had them all trapped in the manor to the screams of dying men and children.
Herry was just a messenger boy hours ago, begging ale from Serena the serving girl to eat with his brown bread. The brown bread was still in his pocket but he couldn’t feel it on his clad mail. Holding a pitchfork, he had no notion how to use. A peasant added in number to stall the attackers while the mayor loaded the town’s gold and silver.
Half the true guards protecting them had fallen. They could barely make out the raider’s attack and still contend with flying arrows in all this smoke and darkness. Wave after wave, their flanks reduced in number, sending goosebumps as to who is next.
It wouldn’t be a bad idea to flee now. The captain had left his side and Mister Bill is dead. No one will know, the next charge is all they see.
‘I’m only an errand boy’ Herry said, consoling himself. He clutched the pitchfork tighter with wet hands, looked round as his comrades charged, and fled.
He didn’t look back. Running as fast as his legs could take him past the manor to the market at Biscany. Every man for himself.
A rider followed him, picking him down. Herry’s face caught a mace, sending him crashing to the rushes. His lips tore and his front two teeth broke in half. His ears rang and his head drummed. Another horseman joined. He had long plaited beards on a square jaw, dressed in black. Together they circled him, waiting for him to get up.
Herry scrambled. He couldn’t feel his legs. Were they broken? He couldn’t feel his legs!
They lunged at him, hitting him on the chest and leg. The messenger boy couldn’t. He laid on his back, inhaling through his mouth. Slow, hoarse breaths, trying not to cry. There wasn’t enough air. He gasped and spluttered blood but the raiders took no notice, getting ready to strike. This would be their final blow and his last.
He regretted leaving the others. They would all be dead now, believing they died saving the village but what was he? He was a coward. A coward that cared only about himself. A selfish prick! There, that’s what he is. A selfish prick that ran away for his life. The gods frown on cravens. This was his punishment.
Herry thrust forward. His hands groped for something. Anything. They still moved. He would shame the gods. He would not die here like this. He would not die a coward. He had seen soldiers fall, surrender like cowering dogs. They close their eyes, never to open them. He would not die that way.
The pitchfork wasn’t far. It could be used as the third leg.
The riders sneered at his insolence. They must imagine how he could still move after those hits. They both came down from their horses, unsheathing their swords. They would take their time in killing him.
At the market of Biscany, no one was around to help. The battle hardly reached this part of the outskirt. He would die soon, Herry thought.
The men watched Herry crawl, reaching out to his pitchfork. They gave him time to fumble with it, use it as a third leg. A limping fellow. Half a man on one leg but a man, he stood. The raiders approached and stopped. Taking turns to ask who would go first. He was a dead man. He would be dead anyway but they wanted to test him if he still has the spine. Barbarians would have attacked simultaneously, the better the evens. Not free riders, they stuck to the old ways.
The raiders attacked together running towards him. The strength left Herry. They are barbarians on horseback. He would die now. They didn’t even give him a chance to try running.
An arrow whizzed past hitting one of them in the eye. The man with the ragged cloak howled in pain, dropping his sword. The other, stood his ground now wary. There was another arrow and he saw it, diverting the strike with his sword. The ragged man was still down, gritting his teeth. Holding his head.
Herry lunged at the raider standing but he dodged, sending him crashing to the ground. More arrows flew but the barbarian was alert to parry. The man was no ordinary robber, he moved like a knight. Keeping stances that showed his experience. He was young, not more than the thirties from the looks of it. Clean shaved with a breastplate that glistened brightly. The archer was well aware and capitalized.
An arrow, he parried. Holding his ground and observing. Whoever fired noticed their tactics weren’t working and staked attention to the ragged man on the floor. Arrows rained hitting his leg, chest, stomach. He was dead, heaving a moan. The panic in his comrade’s eyes.
Herry smiled. In these woods, there lives a master marksman. He was not alone. The soldier noticed too and braced himself, studying Herry as he scrambled to his feet. A wry smirk on his lips. The moon was almost as bright as the sun, yet the soldier panicked. He ran for his horse but was stopped on tracks by arrows tailing him. The horse bolted in fear from an arrow whizzing past its ear.
Herry was limping towards him. Dread in the air as the rider fumbled to maintain a stance against a limping man and still be wary of impending arrows. Herry would fight now, not because he would win. He had a sinister idea to maim the man back for what he did. Pay the tax lender, his very own coin.
He lunged at the rider; the man dodged. An arrow hitting his thigh. The barbarian steadied himself in quick breaths, facing Herry. He winced in pain but his courage was back. Staring down the errand boy with bloodthirsty eyes. He cared less about the archer. He would kill Herry. They met striking. Herry’s flesh was pierced by his blade, it sank into his ribcage.
Herry coughed a dry cough. He smiled, holding the rider’s sword hand. Pushing the sword within to the amazement of the barbarian. His guard was down. The arrows rained, striking both of them but the barbarian took the brunt of it. Two, just grazing past Herry. They slumped together. Only Herry blinked.
From the brushwood, a scrawny black kid appeared. He was holding a bow but his quiver was empty of arrows. He moved over to the bodies, kicking them hard to know if they were truly dead.
‘So, it’s you’ Herry smiled. ‘Should have guessed’ Taking quick breaths to steady himself. The sword weighed down his last two broken ribs. How he even managed to not pass out amazed even him.
Maurin said nothing. He just kept on kicking the shaggy man’s body.
‘Stop that kid! He is dead!’ Herry coughed, covering his mouth. Spitting blood mixed in phlegm. ‘Leave him! Let him be!’ He muffled in between coughs and spit.
‘They killed my father. All of them. They killed him with an axe’ said the boy crying. He held his head crying.
Tib’s dead? Herry didn’t know what to say. He was dying too.
‘They killed Mister Bill, Fatface Tolly, and Edward. They even killed Bard the poet. They killed them all’ Herry’s voice sank. ‘And they got me too’
The boy stopped kicking, wiping his tears with the back of his palms. He gave Herry a stern glance before returning his gaze to the body.
‘Does it hurt much?’ Maurin inquired, sitting on the rushes with Herry.
Maurin was always a sad kid with a scowl. Nothing seemed to make him happy. When the other kids played, he would cower in a corner talking to himself. He was odd, this boy. Herry was certain at one time that he was dying from an illness or something. He would just murmur as he slouched, fidget as he walked. Sometimes he would play dumb, widening his eyes to your speech like you were the stupid one. The only time Herry saw him smile was when he offered him a Burchard’s tome on his name day. Burchard, the lord of horses. So, if someone like Maurin asks him if he was dying, he should at least grin to keep the conversation going.
Herry chuckled, looking at the sword. ‘Well I’ll be fine once I pull it out’
The boy knelt beside him, getting ready to pull.
‘Please don’t pull it out! Do you want to kill me quicker? You never read about wounds and healings in a scroll?’
Maurin fell silent. He just got the mummer farce. Herry was taking things in a lighter mood. ‘You know if you say things like this, you’ll end up confusing all I’ve read’
Herry smiled. He was after all just a boy. Horrors like this should be witnessed later in one’s life and he saw it all even to Tib’s death. Tib loved the boy. He was the only one that loved him more. You don’t just see an orphan in the East, call him your name and take him as a son. Tib was the one stone folk who could. There was a time the town felt he should pick a maiden and remarry, he was young then and Herry younger but he never did.
The boy is an orphan again. If everyone around him continues dying, he might believe he is surrounded by bad luck.
Herry coughed blood.
‘Are you going to die?’
‘I don’t want to’ He smiled.
This boy. Who could have guessed Maurin would be beside him as he wasted away? Herry thought. Everyman wishes to die peacefully after a long life. Feasting with the gods or playing a tune. Some want to continue fighting in Valhalla, never to die. Testing their skills with other men as they danced to the delight of gods and men. Herry had not thought what he would do when he got there. He always thought he was too young to die. Now as he thought of it, maybe he’ll join the serving boys to pour drinks for the great feast and mime a tune if he could. In his mind’s eyes, the gates were opening.
’Tell me a story, Maurin’ He asked, trying to lighten the mood.
‘You would not listen. I know what you’re trying to do.’
The boy did not reply. He had his thoughts. He was lost in them. Whatever they were, they saddened him. Herry felt sorry for him but he had no words to say. Speaking was killing him. All he could do was pull long breaths and every draw was more painful than the last. He was dying, he shouldn’t be told.
‘Can you still walk with that thing?’ Maurin asked, pointing to the pitchfork that lay bare.
Horsemen were approaching and they could both hear them. How far can they flee before they killed the boy? Herry pondered, staring down his chest. He isn’t out yet and the pain was getting intolerable. The sword mocked him; clinging to him, seeping the life out of him.
’Come here Maurin, listen to what I have to say’ The boy frowned but pricked his ears to listen.
Herry frowned too, shifting the boy’s eyes to his face. Maurin wanted to say something but he had blacked out. Herry had headbutted the child on the nose, knocking him to the ground. This was a trick Morcant had taught him. Leaves you cold for days.
They played warrior knights on the plains of Mattock, Morcant, and he. They had just eaten a warm meal and drank a keg of beer. They flushed all over with stupidity and hungered for madness. Push turned to shove and shove to a brawl. Morcant, good old Morcant. One minute, Herry was swinging a jab only to blackout with a ringing in his ears. When he woke, he was tied to a tree and fed grilled tuna.
Best if they find them all dead. Maurin was on the rushes, bleeding through the nose. Unconscious.
Herry closed his eyes. ‘The boy will live, he is strong’ He said, pulling the sword out from him with the last of his strength. The rusted iron clanked.
He hoarse. Drawing a long breath. ‘Let him live, gods of the South’