Season 4, Episode 7
Written and Read by Neil MacDonald
Ulrick came to him every day, and brought him news. The witch, the Maid of Mewwald, had been found guilty and burned at the stake.
“Wish I could have been there to see that,” said Reuven. “I would have liked to hear the bitch scream. I think I screamed when her men took my fingers, but I have no clear memory of the thing. Mayhaps it was in my dreams.”
Reuven’s dreams were full of terrors; plunging horses, scything swords, and the faces of the dead. When he was well enough to leave the infirmary and wander into the streets of Esterholme, it too was full of terrors. He would start, and whirl at every clink of armour. Horsemen especially frightened him. He would shake and cringe at the jingle of spurs and the clop of their feet, seeing again the great black charger rearing over him, hooves lashing. He felt himself a coward, and was determined to overcome his fears, or, at the very least, to stop them showing.
And that was why, after a few weeks, he accepted Ulrick’s invitation to go into the hills, and view the lines. The climb was hard for him. His side ached by the time they reached the top. The green hilltop had been scarred by earth mounds surrounding the lines of trenches. It reminded him of the face of the man in the bed next to him in the hospice; a face that had been carved into a cobweb of scars.
The conflict around Esterholme had settled into a war of attrition. Men at arms clanked down the trenches to their posts at the front line. The timbers and sinews of a great siege catapult creaked as it was cranked back to hurl boulders into the enemy positions. Everywhere there was tumult and noise. It was terrifying. Reuven steeled himself not to turn and run. And then, from nowhere, a horse burst past him, a messenger bound for the captains at the front. Reuven screamed and cowered, protecting his head with his maimed hand.
“Not me, not me,” Reuven pleaded. “Spare me.”
He felt a reassuring hand on his shoulder. “Reuven. Mate. Balin’s blood, it’s alright. These are our men.”
Reuven was shamed to realise he’d pissed his breeches. “It’s my first time back,” he said gruffly, rising stiffly. “Noisy you know? Sorry. It took me back.”
“Of course, mate,” Ulrick patted his shoulder. “Of course. Mayhaps you should go back down.”
“No,” Reuven forced the words out between gritted teeth. “This is where I belong. This is my place. Lead on.”
Both men knew this was no longer Reuven’s place. He would never fire a bow again. But Reuven spoke a deeper truth; he needed to face the front line, or forever live with the terror of his memories.
They pushed down the branching trenches towards the front. Reuven wanted to shrink into himself at every rattle of spear and clink of armour, but he forced himself on.
It took half an hour to reach the front trenches. There was surprisingly little going on. Men lounged in makeshift shelters dug into the trench. Some diced, others bantered. Two men fought over a scrawny chicken. A boulder from a catapult screamed overhead, and Reuven ducked.
For long minutes, nothing more happened, though the fight over the chicken came to an end. The very nothingness seemed to mock Reuven’s fear, calling him craven. He mounted a ladder, leaning against the wall of the trench.
“Reuven, mate, what are you doing?” Ulrick shouted.
But Reuven was already on the ladder. “I want to see them.”
He peeked over the lip of the trench, but could see nothing. There was no sign of the enemy, hidden in their own trenches a couple of hundred yards across a pitted and empty landscape. Reuven took another step up the ladder.
“Reuven come back, for the Gods’ sakes. You’ll get yourself killed.”
“Come on, you fuckers!” Reuven took the last step up the ladder and stood on the lip of the trench, shouting at the Lorradian trenches. “Come on. Fucking kill me if you can.”
He felt a hand on his ankle. Ulrick was half way up the ladder trying to pull him back.
He twisted out of the grasp and kicked with his other foot. “Fuck off.”
A half dozen arrows flew from the Lorradian lines. They fell short, though one thrummed into the earth a yard from his feet.
“Ha ha. Missed.” Reuven did a little dance. “Call yourselves fucking archers? You couldn’t hit a barn door at twenty paces.” It felt good to taunt them. The danger felt thrilling. They couldn’t frighten him. He was a man.
“Reuven, you mad bugger.”
Ulrick had climbed the ladder, and grasped both his ankles, yanking him off his feet. He crashed face down into the dirt, a searing pain in his side as he twisted. He kicked at Ulrick, but this time his comrade didn’t let go, and pulled him back, sliding down the ladder, so both of them sprawled in the trench.
Reuven pulled himself to his feet, holding his side, and started back up the ladder. Ulrick’s fist crashed into the side of his head. Dazed, he collapsed onto the floor of the trench.
“Sorry, mate, but you’re a danger to yourself. I’m getting you out of here.”
Reuven made no protest as Ulrick led him back through the maze of trenches. He knew that what he had done was stupid. But it had been thrilling too, confronting the enemy all by himself. He had his pride back. Next time he would have a weapon.
Over the next weeks, he drilled at the butts with his bow, trying to learn to draw it with his remaining two fingers, and with his other hand. Neither was very effective. The bow wobbled and the arrows flew short of the mark. But he persisted, day after day. Some of the other archers laughed, others were embarrassed. Many praised his sheer determination. One man told him he was wasting his time.
“Is that so?” Reuven enquired calmly, and without emotion swung his fist up right into the other man’s chin. He went out like a candle. Without another look at him, Reuven picked up his bow, and carried on practicing. He learned to keep the arrow in place, but his aim never got any better.
And then came the orders he had dreaded. He was to report to the convoy making for the coast, and take ship for Ceweth.
He raged to Ulrick, “I just needed a few more weeks. It’s nearly there. I can use those fingers better now. Just a few more fucking weeks. Is that too much to ask?”
“Reuven, it’s over. Be glad. You’re going home.”
“Home to what? To be a beggar? How can I hold a hoe? Who will give me work?”
“If you practice half as much with a hoe as you have with bow, you’ll do alright, mate. But here you’re a danger to yourself and others. You keep picking fights. And sooner or later you’re going to try to go up to the front again, and get yourself killed. Go home. Be with your wife and son. You’ll have a goodly purse in wages to tide you over ‘til you get on your feet again. You’re done with warring.”
“I’m scared, Ulrick. I’ve seen terrible things. I’ve done terrible things. I’m not a peasant anymore. I’m a soldier. How can I go back to Jyoti and my son?”
“What are you scared of?”
“I’m scared they won’t know me. I’m scared of what I might do. Here there’s an enemy I can hate and kill. What if I can’t stop hating and killing when I go home?”
“Why would you hate the Lorradians? They’re just fighting for their land, same as you or I would. They’re peasants just like us. They’re not to blame.”
Rage blazed in Reuven. “Then who can I fucking blame? Who can I hate?”
“Dunno, mate. Blame Byrom maybe. It’s his war.”
© 2016 Copyright Neil MacDonald
Presented by BigWorldNetwork.com