Rain crashed down onto the muddy field, swimming downhill through ranks of men. Ove looked up, iron helm heavy on his skull. He scratched his neck under a thick auburn beard and ducked his head down, trying to keep the rain out of his eyes.
A thick heat swelled deep in his stomach, when he finally saw the approaching castle. Four long beams towered in misty clouds with a square keep standing strong in the center.
A leftward glance showed a mass of iron strangers walking towards their doom or glory. A young boy, no older than fourteen by the looks of him. Thin blonde hair flopping down in a wet fringe on his forehead. He had chucked his guts up twice already, frail fingers clinging to an already drawn sword. It looked heavy in his hands.
Ove stroked the hilt of his own short sword, he’d purposely kept it under his chainmail tunic for now, not wanting the pommel to get too wet. Losing your weapon is death sentence out here. He scratched under his beard again.
To his right a siege engine splattered with metal patches of where it had been repaired over the years. A sixty-foot colossus that had overseen men at their worst.
Ove wondered when the reinforcements would be coming. ‘If they came before we take the castle, then we’re doomed, if after, then we’re victorious’ the boy next to him hand been repeating all morning. If we took the castle. The words, rattled in his head. If we took the castle. If.
As he got closer to the slumbering keep, he couldn’t help but think how warm it must be within the food halls. He hadn’t had a warm meal in weeks and couldn’t remember the last time he’d had a peaceful night’s sleep. Yet again, that wasn’t solely the fault of the siege.
He thought back to the best day of his life, before he joined the royal army. Before he could fight. Before he had killed countless men of war. A mere boy. Afraid and confused, but happy.
The city where he’d grown up in was under siege as many were in this age of blood. He and one other took refuge in an abandoned house, tall with four floors and an attic, burning books, old papers and even some floorboard planks to keep warm. They overlooked their burning city and waited for the inevitable to happen. As the siege dragged people came and went, took refuge for a day then tried to flee the city. He never knew what happened to them, but escape always seemed unlikely.
Ove stayed till the end along with a girl he had met early on in the siege. She had a puffy frizz of ginger hair and faint freckles. He initially thought freckles made women look childish and unattractive. She seemed to made them work however. She made everything work.
She had even taught him to read, before they burned the books of course. One word at a time. He wasn’t very good at it, only said yes to it so that he could hear her talk. She held his fingers and dragged them across the page, taught him how to spell his own name and how to spell hers at his request.
‘Look down there, there’s a fight under that scorched tree’. Her voice as sweet as honey. She looked out the crooked attic window like a slim silhouette in a framed picture.
He got up and went over to the crooked window, there arms brushing against each other as they watched on. He felt lucky to spend the last of his days with such a girl.
She looked at him shyly. He returned with an awkward smile, grim teeth showing through a thin puff of ginger hair.
‘How long do you think the city will hold?’ looking straight at him now. Her eyes twinkled with a green jade, an endless canyon of sparkling emeralds.
‘Maybe the night, not the week I reckon.’ He said as he shrugged glumly. He turned to her again and did his best to give a warm smile. ‘Ahh. Us redheads gotta stay together though, we’ll light the way for the others.’
She giggled and rested a soft, warm hand rested on his arm. Goose bumps sprung all over his body immediately, the warmth of her hand against his cold, clammy skin, forced a blush to spring on his cheeks. He took her hand in his, stroked her dainty hands, soothingly. One finger at a time, their heads lightly coming together as they turned to hug.
Her velvet-like cheeks brushed against his own, he sunk his head into her shoulder. A utopia in a living nightmare at this point. They had been locked up in the tall house for two weeks, barely making a sound, worrying if the next day would be their last. Scavenging for food, trying to survive. She made the fear go away without even trying.
He kissed her neck lightly, brushed his hands against her cheek. Soft lips touched against his own as she dropped her clothes off her shoulders, to the floor. She made a man out of him that night and every day after till the city was taken.
They fled the tall house and ran like everybody else. There were brawls and scraps everywhere. Men and women fighting for their lives. On the walls, in chapels, on the rooftops, in the alleys, down the street he grew up on.
They gripped each other’s hands tightly but she slipped away from him. He lost her in the crowds, her sweet freckly face disappearing into the sea of people rushing for their lives. Like a swarm of locusts, the chaos had taken her from him.
He searched for near on a year with no trace, no clues. Nothing but memories. He looked in towns, villages, cities. In taverns, churches, brothels, bars and bakeries all the same. Nothing.
The choice of absolute poverty over losing his life to war wasn’t a tough one. He had joined the royal army almost two years ago and thought of her every day since. His ginger haired beauty.
‘She’s most likely dead’ he muttered under his breath, wiping a would be tear from blurry eyes.
Horns blew impossibly loud, rumbling through the ranks. Chaos erupted and the army ran towards the castle.
Ove drew his sword and ran with everyone else, towards the castle walls, rain flicking of his armour with every stride he took.
Keaton sat in one of many food halls, clad in someone else’s boiled leather and light chainmail armour, just as he’d been for weeks. Long, miserable weeks waiting for battle or freedom.
He tore into crusty bread with dirty fingers, dipping it into a small portion of a watery stew. His grey clammy skin sagged as he looked down at the meal.
Raising his head, he peered around the poorly lit room. Dismal faces, eating ever reducing rations for months. He himself was beginning to get flustered at the growl in his shrunken belly.
He thought back to the day when he left the farm, said goodbye to his daughter. He had left to sell fruits, wheat, eggs, porridge, feathers, wood and more. A full wagon load to the castle market.
He ruffled her curly ginger locks and gave her a big hug. Squeezed her tight. He looked into her eyes, green diamonds that swelled with tears.
‘Don’t be too long father’ she said softly.
She hardly wanted to be alone these days. He ruffled her again, climbed up in his wagon and took the reins. ‘Wouldn’t dream of it’. She smiled back warmly as he knew she would. ‘Now tend the farm, it’s time to feed the chickens my dear’.
He rode off slowly, down the dirt path through a field of golden grass. Turning back, he saw her watching, bucket of chicken feed heavy in her small hands.
‘Aaah, she’ll be fine.’ he said to himself. He lit a pipe and sucked in, a plume of grey smoke whirling from his mouth and disappearing into the summer breeze.
Far off there was a low-pitched howl that silenced the hall. Weary faces looked at each other. Again, the noise howled, louder this time. Clearer. Closer.
The men went for their shields, axes, their swords and helmets. Keaton sighed, and dumped the crusty bread into his stew. He slipped on leather gloves, dyed a wine red. Squeezed each cold, nervous hand into the finger pockets. He stood up, tall and broad, grabbed a huge double-edged battle axe and twisted it in his hands.
‘This one’s for you my dear’ he said through clenched teeth.
Arrows whirled past Ove like lightning bolts sent from the gods. He ran behind the siege tower, trying to get cover. He’d noticed that the boy had followed him. He threw up violently behind him, spewing bits of regurgitated meat on the back of Ove’s boots. He hardly cared though, there were bigger things to worry about.
As the tower approached the wall, Ove climbed the cold iron steps. He could hear that they had breached. Men above him drove forward and spilled onto the castle walls. A volley of arrows punched through men at the top. Blood trickled through the cracks in the floorboards, dripping onto Ove’s shoulders. Sliding from his helmet onto the sides of his face.
He looked through a tiny slit in the wood. A crudely built battering ram crashed against the castle doors. There seemed to be ladders everywhere he looked. Still the arrows and crossbow bolts thundered into the battlefield leaving a cascade of bodies behind. He thought about his ginger haired beauty. Fair skinned and full of life, even in the most awful off times.
Ove continued to climb, one cold step at a time, now more slippery than what it had been before. As he got to the top he walked forward into allies, shield high, just under the eyes with his trusted short sword hidden behind. The stone floor had been stained a wet red. The walls, for the most part had been taken. A few skirmishes were happening on the eastern side and he could hear the archers in the towers being slaughtered but couldn’t see any enemies near him. Just the dead.
The boy behind him panicked and started to retch.
‘War isn’t meant to be pretty boy, now man up and keep that shield up.’ He held his shield up at least.
Fighting ensued into the castle courtyard. Ove held his shield high, trying to avoid crossbowmen in the inner towers. He edged down cold, red steps to join the battle.
The sound of pierced flesh, crunching of bone and the ring of metal were all swallowed by screams. Carnage flared and still he thought of his ginger haired lady.
Moving down the steps, he could hear the thick wooden doors shatter behind him and a gust of men poured into the courtyard slashing at the enemy.
A lonely soldier ran towards him, axe high in the air and a broken shield in his left arm. His crazed grin as threatening as it was strange. He swung his axe hard against Ove’s shield, sending uneasy stings up his arm. Ove returned an empty slash and jab of his sword.
They circled each other, his shield kept high as the mad man hammered down his axe. Blow after blow crashed down. He leaned down and jabbed the man’s inner thigh, through bulky leather bottoms. He could feel the muscles tear, squirts of blood spluttered as the sword drew back. A sickly wail rang from his lips, coupled with a hard grimace.
Another slash at his legs again but he was able to stumble back and avoid it with much discomfort. An overextended lunge missed but he thrusted his sword hilt into the soldier’s jaw, sending him down to the soaked ground.
His broken shield and axe had abandoned him. He held his hands up and Ove sliced down into them. Hacking into his skin, tearing away his forearms with every downward stroke. The man shrieked a bloody yelp, as he was drenched in his own blood. Ove shoved his short sword hard into the man’s face silencing him for good. His near severed arms fell limply to the muddy ground.
He looked up, breathing heavy, damp breaths into the cold air. His face adorned in a thick scarlet red with syrup like sweat droplets running down one side of his cheek. The young lad watched him horrified. Ove could do nothing but return a sorrowful look, still breathing hard from the ordeal. A bolt struck the back of his head and sprayed onto Ove. He fell to the ground with a lifeless thud.
A hail of arrows breezed past Ove, cutting him ever so slightly on his upper arm. He recoiled and ran to find cover. Blood weaved its way through the chainmail and dripped slowly down his arm.
After the arrows had subsided, he regretfully tore off a part of the dead boy’s under cloth, it was unaffected by the bolt that crushed the back of his now shattered skull. Pink goo leaked onto the wet ground. Ove tied the cloth tight around his arm, grimacing a miserable wince as he did so.
The defenders were few now, as far as he could tell, but he kept his shield high and thought of his sweet love, to give him strength and courage. It did neither.
Keaton thought about his daughter back on the farm. If she was doing okay, if she had maintained the farm well in his absence, if she was still alive. He hardly knew what the outside world even looked like anymore.
There weren’t many of his allies left. The last remnants apart from the archers, included a couple dozen trained Soldiers, the lord, four old men and even a few maids, fighting to their last breath.
Archers loosed a flurry of arrows through the tower slits behind him. They whistled through the air, past him. But it wasn’t enough, the castle would be taken, within the hour Keaton guessed. The lord was giving some war speech but he hardly noticed what he was saying.
Red gloves twisted the belly of his axe uncomfortably. He felt a lonely tear swim down his cheek. Wiping it away quickly, he rocked his head slightly, regaining his focus at the battle at hand.
He bellowed his best war cry and ran through the courtyard, towards a young lad, thick boots slopping in the wet ground with every step he took, battle axe high in the air.
He blasted his axe down, into the lad with a meaty thwark, severing his shoulder and killing him instantly. He tore away from ripped skin, chainmail ringlets flinging from a lifeless corpse and sinking into the ground. He pulled the axe to his shoulder and let the body slump to the ground, a dark pool of blood painting the earth and soaking into Keaton’s worn boots.
He looked up and saw a bearded man with a red cloth tied around his arm. He held up his axe, howled and then ran towards him shattering blow after blow on his shield, driving him into away from the courtyard and down towards the castle’s bakery. Arrows continued to hiss around them as Keaton growled in the man’s face.
Every blow which clanged against his shield sent spirals of pain shooting up his arm. He finally dashed out of the way dodging another blow altogether.
They stood opposite each other in a blood-soaked street, littered with the dead. There wasn’t anyone fighting down here now, just the two of them. Ove could see the man was visibly breathing heavier than him. Big and strong for sure. But no soldier.
He advanced cautiously, shield high anticipating another flurry of strikes. A lazy swing and Ove ducked under and jabbed his shield into his gut, sending him to one knee briefly, a barren lurch of his sword failed to cut the man’s face.
‘It’s only a matter of time’ he said with a faint smile. Ove could’ve sworn he heard a horn blow in the distance but took no notice of it, eyes fixed on the old haggard man.
Shield high, he stepped forwards, unhurried. A quick jab of his short sword almost punctured the shoulder but the man had moved out the way in time, he returned with a labored swing that Ove danced out the way of easily. A fierce thrust slit the side of his enemy’s leg, buckling him to the ground with short panting breaths.
Ove held his sword high and struck it down with a furious blow. It pinged of the belly of the axe. Again, and again, sending echoing rings through the empty streets. He tried to swing down in different areas but the old man kept blocking, kicking at Ove’s feet recklessly. He could tell that the man was tiring with every strike.
He held his sword up to the sky and screeched, blood, mud and sweat thick in his beard, the rain still slamming down. He was tackled to the ground, dropping his shield and sword in the process.
They wrestled and wriggled in the mud, tossing and turning. Ove swung his forearm into the side of the man’s chin. He returned with a hard punch to Ove’s wounded shoulder. He winced in grizzled agony. Again, he punched, Ove couldn’t help but wail with pain at the second one. The third one sent an angered cry that echoed through the abandoned street.
He caught the arm and delivered a headbutt to the man’s jaw, mud clapping against it. He forced himself on top and rained down punches and elbows, some hitting arms, some the wet, bloody ground, but most got through to the face.
Cuts and swells started to form on the man’s leathery skin. His own arm was throbbing, bolts of aching pain with every punch he threw.
The old man waved his hands and flailed, trying to fight back but with every blow Ove landed, he could feel the strength leaking away. He stood up and kicked the man in the gut, curling him up with a tormented grunt. Again, and again and again. A swung to the face this time knocking a couple of teeth out with a bloody spurt.
He couldn’t get his ginger haired beauty out of his mind. Through the blood, the mud and the swelling, he could see faint freckles on his face, just like she used to have.
Ove punched hard into his face several times, hands wrapped in chainmail, shouting as he did so.
Keaton barely felt alive. His face bubbled with blood and broken bone. He couldn’t feel his legs beneath him and was certain his jaw was mangled mess. His conqueror stood up gasping for air, a red blur looking for his executioner’s sword.
‘It’s you or me’ the man growled, breathing heavy and bringing the sword up high. A sense of understanding washed over Keaton, he shut his eyes tightly and waited. His life flashed before his eyes. His sweet little girl who had watched him ride away and never return painted his mind.
The ground shook and the man in front of him took a panicked pause and looked around. He stumbled back sword high in the air but another sword swung at his neck from horseback, chopping a deep laceration into his neck and cutting away most of his beard. A spurt of blood sprayed out into the wet air.
He fell slowly, onto another body, like an anchor sinking through water and continued to clutch at his neck, trying to breath or scream, Keaton could hardly tell.
He watched on, comatosed. He wriggled across the baker’s street, blood bursting from in between his fingers. He laid still and looked with scarlet red eyes and a mouth full of blood before slumping into the mud, face first.
Keaton slid up to a ledge and struggled to his feet. It took a while but he stumbled to his feet. Everything was weak and fragile, but alive nonetheless. He edged his way to the courtyard, bodies everywhere, enemies and allies alike.
The Cavalry had saved him and this keep from certain death.
Keaton limped out through the ruined doors trying desperately to plod faster. He came across what looked like to be a captain or general of some sorts but he didn’t know for sure, his brain was fried.
Keaton nodded his head towards him. ‘Thank you’ he said through swollen lips. The officer barely acknowledged him. He slumped up the hill slowly, turning back at the castle, siege engine on fire and bodies cluttered the ground. He gave a bloody spit and walked away, over the hill, towards his farm.