“You’re got a good swing, boy.”
Teo’s head whipped around as his axe continued its plunge. The log in front of him cracked exactly in half.
Three soldiers at the edge of the tree line dismounted and approached. The one in front spoke again. “Lieutenant Calum, on the orders of King Frederick the Third. I’m here to inform you of the changing of your weapon.”
Teo straightened and motioned for his brother, Jax, to put another log on the stump while their youngest brother, Don, picked up a broken piece and brought it to the stack. “Sir, if this country needs defending, I will do it, and gladly. But if this is another raiding party on land that once supposedly belonged to the crown, I’m not interested.”
“If your king calls, you must answer.”
“The king needs farmers to feed his troops.” He brought his axe down again. Another perfect chop.
“That’s what women are for.”
“My axe suits me just fine, sir. I’m afraid I’ll need more convincing to change it.”
A broken piece came rolling toward his feet. He looked up to see Don, arms empty, with a blade beneath his chin. The soldier holding it locked eyes with Teo. “Consider yourself convinced.”
Teo knocked the sword away with his axe while Jax grabbed Don away from behind.
Lieutenant Calum raised an eyebrow. “My, how daring.”
“You wouldn’t kill your bargaining chip.”
“I might kill one, since I have two.”
Teo tensed, then gave the only answer possible. “I’ll come with you. Leave them alone.”
“A wise decision. Come along.” The soldiers turned away.
“I’ll be right there. I just need to say goodbye to my family.”
“Have you a horse?”
“Then I suggest you keep up.”
Teo watched in dismay as the soldiers mounted and began riding away. Then he turned, grabbed Jax’s shoulders, and stared hard at him. “You need to take care of them, alright?” Jax nodded, and he turned to Don. The boy threw his arms around his big brother’s hips. Teo stroked his hair. “I’ll be back soon, Don. You tell Ma that for me.” Don nodded against him. Teo broke the embrace and started jogging after the soldiers.
They followed the worn path through the woods, stopping at every settlement. Men joined them from every farm. Some had to be “convinced”, but most of the men were willing. They must have believed the promises of extra land and titles that Lieutenant Calum was doling out.
When they reached the camp, Teo was slightly heartened by the steaming cauldrons that hung over campfires. The trencher he received had a generous serving of the brown, gloopy mess, and it tasted amazing after a hard day’s work and march.
Conversation started as they sat on the ground, emptying their bowls. Some of the men were boasting about their past successes on such forays, and the others were planning their glorious victory. Only a few questioned the orders.
A ruckus caught the men’s attention, and they slowly quieted as voices were raised near the dais. Lieutenant Calum was pointing his finger at a man on the ground.
“You are a coward!”
The man hollered right back. “Just because I won’t go kill innocent people?”
The lieutenant shut his mouth and marched down across the dais, then down the steps, not taking his eyes off the man, who would not be intimidated.
“You expect us to go to war with a people that have never done us wrong? This only creates enmity between our peoples. Causing a war will destroy us. This will benefit no one!”
“I expect you to follow orders.” He reached the man on the ground and began to draw his sword.
Teo jumped up, but the men on each side of him grabbed his arms. “Let me go! Can’t you see what he’s going to do?”
“It’s no use, lad,” one of them growled. Their hands, rough farm hands, dug into his shoulders and biceps.
The man knew what was coming, but still he did not stop. “You are leading these men to their deaths!” In fact, he stood only straighter, almost stretching his neck for a clean stroke. “Do I looked scared?” And it came. “I am not a coward!” His body stood still for a moment after his head tumbled off, then quivered and collapsed to the ground, twitching.
Lieutenant Calum knelt beside the corpse and used its cloak to clean his blade. He stood up and sheathed it, then looked around. “Well?” He looked around till he found Teo. “Did he look like a coward?”
Teo clenched his jaw and shook his head.
The lieutenant pretended to examine the headless body. “You’re right. He doesn’t look like a coward. He just looks dead.”
Guffaws broke out among the loyalists.
“That was a good one!”
“Think he’ll stay down this time?”
“About time he learned his lesson.”
The pressure on Teo’s arms released, and he was pushed back to the ground as everyone else sat. One man shoved his trencher at him. “You’ll need your strength.”
Teo shook his head. “I can’t fight for a man like that.”
The man shrugged and took a slurp of his own bowl. “The more fighters we have, the sooner this’ll all be over. And you’re strong. You’ll make it through.”
“I don’t care!”
“I’ll wager you have a family. Maybe a girl? You’ll have to fight.”
Teo lifted his bowl and choked down a mouthful.
They were given four weeks of training. The work was hard, but Teo knew he was learning more quickly than expected. The grip of the sword felt good in his hand. The blade was an extension of his arm. Everything went well—except when he closed his eyes. Then he saw blood.
The orders came to march on a day when the weather had turned chilly. Dark, low clouds billowed overhead as the regiment journeyed to war.
They met other green-clad regiments along the way, who fell into step before them. Some of them looked confident in their stride; other groups marched clumsily, obviously new recruits. When night came, they made camp while the leaders met in the largest tent.
Lieutenant Calum came back with his face dark, eyebrows drawn and jaw clenched. Teo couldn’t sleep all night, knowing something was wrong. He was called to the lieutenant’s tent in the morning.
“Here as ordered, sir.”
“Soldier. You have proven yourself as an excellent fighter, and I am extending you an honour.”
“What is it, sir?”
“You have been assigned the front row.”
The blood drained from his head. He could feel the hairs on the back of his neck bristling. “But sir, I haven’t been trained with a shield—”
“You’re not there to protect yourself.”
“But doesn’t the front line always—”
“Shut your mouth, soldier! Tactics are not your domain. I need a fighter out there. Now take your place.”
Teo saluted and made it out the tent flap. He was a dead man walking. He was ashamed to think it, but there would be no escape on the front lines.
Soldiers hemmed him in from behind, and they marched forward. When they reached the top of the hill, Teo saw what the problem was. There was a huge army awaiting them: countless mighty men wiling to defend their homeland. Teo didn’t blame them. His own party were in the wrong. What could he do? He couldn’t turn and fight his own men, his friends. His only hope was to die quickly.
The soldier beside him, supposedly another lucky soldier sent to the front without a shield, tripped. Teo realized for the first time how short the soldier was as he quickly helped him up. A noise came from under the helmet, and his heart stopped cold. His head spun, and he tried to explain it away, but the possibility of it being a child froze his blood. Could the king be so cruel? They kept marching, and once they had fallen back into rhythm, he lifted the soldier’s visor.
“I’m scared, Teo.” Big brown eyes looked out at him.
Despair filled him. “Don. What are you doing here?”
“Soldiers came yesterday and made me and Jax come.”
“Jax is here too? Where?”
Teo watched in horror as Don pointed out the slim figure astride a horse, carrying the pole with the king’s flag. “No.”
The army halted. Teo’s muscles tensed and his heart pounded. It was like waiting for the starting yell of a race, only much worse.
There was no yell, no challenge. The only sound was of leather and armour, then wind. The arrows sailed high overhead—and one found its mark in the standard bearer’s chest.
Teo screamed as Jax tumbled off his horse.
Don was crying. “Teo? Teo!”
But he couldn’t hear his little brother any longer. The army ahead of them roared as they charged.
Teo drew his sword and cut down the first man who reached him. Another followed, and another. Steel met steel, then flesh as his muscles obeyed their training. He whirled around, trying to protect his brother, but soldiers were everywhere. “Don! Stay close! Don!”
A thud knocked the air from his lungs. Something was stuck in his back. It had to be an arrow. Pain pulsed from the intrusion every time he moved, but he couldn’t stop. Don was still standing. He had to get him out. Another arrow hit him, and he fell to his knees, but got up again. He swung violently. The crowd began to thin.
But it was inevitable. A high pitched scream split his eardrums. He turned just in time to see the little soldier fall. Another arrow struck his back, and he fell this time, sobbing into the dirt.
It seemed like an eternity passed before the noise dissipated overhead. The tears had stopped coming, but his breathing was ragged and shallow. The very air seemed to choke him.
He struggled to his knees, his bleared eyes taking in the messy field. Snow was falling. The field before him was being covered in white as if nature itself were ashamed of the spectacle.
Crunching footsteps approached him, and he turned his head. A spike of pain shot through him and he closed his eyes, then opened them again. This solider, who wore the hard look of duty, also wore a blue jerkin. They had lost.
Teo knew what was coming, and he reached for his sword. His stiff hand grasped the hilt, and he brought it before him, blade down. He planted the tip in the puddle at his knees and wrapped his other set of cold fingers around the blade. The footsteps approached. He opened his lips.
“Please. Just kill me.”
The soldier already had his sword out, and Teo heard the creaking of leather as he drew it back. A new pain came from his fingers, and he saw a trickle of blood running down his blade, discolouring the puddle.
Then he remembered no more.