“Formation! Everyone form up!”
There was the usual clatter and clang of armour as the soldiers formed up tighter. The lines were already there, and now they closed the gaps and squared up for the fight.
Up at the front the king and his generals started parading their horses up and down the line. When the troops were in place, the king sat up further in his saddle and addressed his men. His voice carried across the first dozen lines, inspiring courage and loyalty.
Fifteen rows back, Scothern leant over to Cott. “What’s he saying?”
“No idea. Probably the usual. ‘Go and get killed for my glory, I’ll keep an eye on the mutton’.”
“Huh. Think it would kill him to fight with us for once?”
“Probably. I mean look at him. You think he’s ever lifted anything as heavy as a sword before?”
“I dunno. I’ve heard the rumours about his wife.”
The pair of them snorted as they tried to keep the laughter down, and it earnt them a set of dirty looks from a couple of rows ahead. ‘Try hards’, or ‘die hards’ as Cott called them. Fools who believed all the king’s tales of grandeur and honour.
Up at the front, it looked like the king had finished whatever inspiring drivel he was going with this time. He’d drawn his sword, and was riding up and down the line getting cheers out of the soldiers.
Scothern raised his spear and let out a muted cheer, while next to him Cott only bothered with shaking his spear. He was too busy yawning to cheer, although given he did that every time Scothern knew it was faked.
The problem was, Scothern wanted to cheer. He wanted to yell loud enough that the king would look his way, if only for a second. Because, for all the trash talk he did with Cott, Scothern was actually proud of their king. He seemed like an alright sort of bloke, for royalty. Besides, being in the king’s army meant something. Even with the high risk of death or dismemberment, it was better than just being a farmer. People looked at him with respect, they brought him drinks, and girls wanted to hear his stories.
It wasn’t the life of a king, but it was the best someone like Scothern could ever get.
With the troops suitably riled up, the king rode to the end of the line and out of the way. Let the grunts go first, then come in afterwards and claim the glory. Scothern chewed his lip. That was the only bit that didn’t sit well with him, but the sergeant had spelt it out for him. If Scothern died, no one would care. If the king died, the country would be thrown into chaos as a replacement was found.
It was hard to argue with that logic.
“All right, you lot!” the sergeant yelled. “Get ready to move! Lift those feet up, look like you want to be here. And I want to hear you! Make them fear you! Onwards!”
The front rows started marching off down the hill and one by one the other ranks followed. Just before they walked away Scothern and Cott bumped shields.
“See you on the other side,” Cott said.
“First one back buys the drinks,” replied Scothern. They grinned at each other, making the most of what might be their last conversation, before their row started to move.
Three paces on, just as the sergeant was opening his mouth to yell at them, Scothern started cheering along with the rest of the unit. Cott moved his mouth, but he saved his breath for the fight.
Over the lip of the hill they went. The enemy were spread out down below. Barbarians, by all accounts, though Scothern hadn’t worked out how barbarians had managed to get better armour than them. Seeing all that metal glittering in the sun made him wish he had more than soft leather guarding his guts.
The sound of the cheering increased as the rows in front of them started thinning out. The charge was on, which meant the enemy was near. There wasn’t time to say anything else. Scothern and Cott charged down the hill into the fight.
Battles were chaotic.
No matter how often he’d been in one, Scothern still couldn’t keep track of what was happening. They’d been fighting barely twenty minutes and he was already lost and out of position. Thankfully all the other troops were spread out as well, so he had time to see any enemies before they were close enough to attack. His spear was doing good work keeping them away, although he could feel the wood giving out on the shaft.
Scothern kept moving, drifting away from the large crowds of people and out to empty land. Picking off the stragglers felt like important work. He was still wearing their numbers down after all. A dead enemy was a dead enemy, no matter where they’d been on the field.
He was also trying to work out if he was injured. His arms hurt, but carrying a shield and spear for so long did that. There was something up with his left leg, although he couldn’t remember getting hit. Not that he could ever remember getting hit. After a battle he’d just head straight for a healer and see what damage there was.
A figure appeared off in the distance. Scothern squinted at it, trying to work out what uniform it was wearing. A glint of metal, which meant it was time for duty rather than a quick gossip. He shook his shoulders out and limped over, ready to claim another head for his king.
He didn’t have to get too close to realise something wasn’t right. There wasn’t just a glint of metal; the other person was covered in it from head to toe. And they were tall, far taller than Scothern was.
Though he slowed and looked around, Scothern realised he was stuck. With his wounded leg he couldn’t move fast, and there was no cover other than corpses. The other person had definitely seen him as well. A sword now flashed in the sunlight as it danced around the approaching figure.
Tightening his grip on his spear and shield, Scothern eyed up his new opponent. “For the king,” Scothern muttered.
As the two of them closed, they both knew a fight was coming. But whereas each step made the enemy grin wider, Scothern’s heart beat faster the nearer he got.
The other person wasn’t just taller and shinier. They were… well, everything better than Scothern. The army was clean and not dented, the fabric underneath was good quality and the sword didn’t have a single chip on it. They were clean shaven under the helmet as well and built like a bull.
They were a noble. At least. And that spelt trouble.
For all of Cott and Scothern’s jokes about the king not being able to use a sword, they both knew how well he’d been trained in it. The best instructors had been teaching him since he could walk. Scothern couldn’t see why that wouldn’t be the same for any other rich kid on the field, including the one walking towards him now.
It would be Scothern’s luck versus this man’s training.
Scothern didn’t like those odds.
Knowing he had the longer weapon, Scothern stopped first. He raised his shield and hid behind it, spear ready to start jabbing as soon as his opponent got close enough.
The first shot went wide as the enemy darted away. The next one got blocked, and then before Scothern could work out what had happened he was on his back.
“Nice try,” the enemy said. “Not even a warm up for me though. If the rest of you are this easy to kill, this battle will be done soon enough.”
As the man talked Scothern was weighing his options, so the second the man brought the sword up Scothern rolled sideways. He lost his shield in the move, but still had the spear. A desperate jab as he got to his knees was meant to keep the attack away. The sword came down on the shaft of the spear though and shattered it.
Scothern looked at the broken stick in his hand and whispered a prayer. Cold metal against his neck took his breath away.
“Any last words?” the man asked.
Sorry I couldn’t buy the drinks, Cott, was what Scothern thought. He’d never give the enemy the satisfaction of knowing that though.
And he’d never just lie down and die.
Ducking to the side Scothern threw himself forward at the man. The sword kissed the edge of his neck, but Scothern got the man on his back and started punching his face. All the man’s training did nothing to prepare him for this. He whimpered and tried to talk, but soon he had a mouthful of blood and broken teeth.
But the man was still alive, and alive was dangerous.
Out of other weapons, Scothern stabbed the man in the arm pit with the end of his spear. It slid through a gap in the plates of armour, and with a gurgled cry the man died.
Scothern was still getting his breath back when he heard the sound of hooves. With his own weapon broken and stuck he ripped the man’s sword out of his hand and staggered to his feet to face the threat.
It was a group of riders, and as he got his bearings Scothern could make out the colours of his own army. He let the sword drop point first into the ground and leant on it.
“What’s going on here, soldier?” one of the riders called when they were nearer.
“Sorry, sir,” Scothern replied. “Just taking a breather. Got one of their officers or something.” He kicked the body with his foot. He was too out of it to register the reaction of the riders as they all hissed or gasped.
One of the other riders got off and look down at the dead enemy. Then the rider drew his sword and stabbed the man through the neck.
“What the–” Scothern started. His brain caught up just in time, and before he could finish his sentence he dropped to his knees. “My king.”
No one else was paying any attention to Scothern now though.
“A fine kill, your Highness,” one of the other riders said.
“I’ll get the head removed straight away,” said another.
All around there was a flurry of activity as the king’s unit set about taking credit for Scothern’s kill. All the soldier could do was stay on his knees and hope no one would ride over him.
The riders all mounted up again, the head and the sword safely stowed away as trophies. Scothern was just thinking that he’d gotten away with it and would be left in peace, when one of them walked up to him.
“Hey,” the rider said.
Scothern looked up into the face of his king. “Sire…”
“Good work there. Thank you. I know it’s not much, but for your service.” The king dropped three gold pieces into Scothern’s palm. “Keep it up.”
“T-thank you, sire.”
With a quick smile, the king was gone. Scothern was left kneeling in the middle of a field, bodies all around and gold in his hand.
He could buy the whole regiment drinks with this. He could buy the whole tavern with this.
He looked back at the body of the noble enemy he’d killed. Part of him wondered who the man had been, while the rest of him just appreciated that he was worth three gold pieces.
Getting to his feet again he looked around and tried to work out the way to his own battle line. With his spear broken he figured it was time to go and get his leg patched up.
“See?” Scothern said. “Knew the king wasn’t such a bad guy after all.” As he chose a direction and started walking, he weighed up the coins in his hand. “Guess this means the first round is on me after all.”