I hadn't the slightest thought in my mind of signing up for Lord Hamworth's Regiment, which already composed nearly all the majority of the men and lads of our town, Meryton. Besides, I was 'too young', I kept insisting to everyone in town who kept asking why I wasn't wearing the blue and gold arm banner of enlistment around my arm! I was too young, being still three months from my sixteenth birthday, even for the beating drums and whips of a conscription team, eager to claim their silver crown for each and every conscript they obtained. No ... not for me! My birth record at the church was quite clear and unambiguous; I was too young to go and no one could make me! Besides, this particular war didn't sound like any sort of fun anyway.
From what I'd heard from travelers, the Eorfleode invasion of the Southern Duchies had caused tremendous damage and the slaughter at many of the cities and towns had been great and nearly total. In my view, this was going to be a nasty vicious war that was going to earn its soldiers very little glory, and get a large number of them buried under foreign soil. Fuss or not, I was determined to miss all of the fun by any means possible and just stay home!
My father had a good bit of coin, being the steward for Baron Hamsworth's estates. He also had a nice big fertile farm of his own with a dozen farmhands to run it, and a stipend waiting for him when he retired. He had placed me into the best local private school to learn to read and write and do sums, to someday soon become an apprentice clerk for him, learning the duties of the baron's estates, and ready to in turn replace my father someday as steward. Surely he would not want me to leave school over two years early as well? This sort of attitude, when I thought I had logically presented my case to my stern patriarch, just earned me a cuff to the ear and a good many harsh words.
True, I was too young to be forced into military service, but voluntarily serving in the army was honorable duty, he insisted. His own father had been a career sergeant, and he in turn had served in his youth for two years during one of Caestor's regular incursions onto our lands. He had volunteered, and a bit too early as well to be taken by the conscription gangs. Why could I not do the same, he wondered, to uphold the family honor? Even the baron's young son, Larque, who was just barely seventeen himself, would be the commanding officer of the regiment, which would also comprise all of the men from the Jasper Valley, which included our town and about a dozen surrounding villages.
"The Boar-Men had invaded Tellismere!" So what. It was just a place far to the west on the other sea shore that I had learned about only as a place on a map. Why the Duke of Oswein had decided that his entire army must be gathered to sail, and with fresh recruits as well, completely escaped me! My father's words of duty and honor touched me not, and I privately decided that it would be a very chilly day in the seven hells indeed before I'd willing take arms to go to battle ... especially a battle very far and beyond our shores.
A war to go repulse the Caestorian legions from our borders once again? Ok, maybe ... that was an honorable purpose for which perhaps even I could be probably persuaded to go. But to risk my young life for fetid stinking Tellismere? What was even there that anyone cared about?
Melenna Carlson, in her own unique manner, found a way at school the next day to change my rather firmly made-up mind. While boys and girls did not share classes together, or even much free time except during our lunch period, she and her tightest friends, Elma and Hillæ were checking out the boy's armbands, eager to find some craven lad from the upper classes who had not yet signed up for service, with the deadline before muster and departure being just two days away.
"Malcome, where is your armband? Surely you've already made your oath-pledge!" She asked in a much too loud voice, so that everyone in our lunchroom could clearly hear. The room fell silent and I knew that I was going to be in serious trouble. Now I suddenly realized that her long postponed revenge was coming quite due!
We had been friends once, sort of. Well, we had held hands together for a month or two during the early summer, in private, and we'd kissed a bit, and she'd even once let me feel her bare breasts inside of the open neck of her dress. Melenna was a bitch with a stuck up nose, but she did have very nice round soft breasts! She tired of me suddenly, for reasons that I never did quite figure out.
It was perhaps because one late evening while we were kissing, that I ran my fingers along her legs, up the inside of her dress, curious to see how far she'd let me go, and she didn't stop me at all until my fingers reach her secret hair-covered place. For one magical young teenaged moment I had my hands inside of her, fingering her slit and hole until she screamed and squirmed in my hands. I was untying my trousers so that she could do the same for me when she suddenly got all formal and angry with me. She avoided me for the rest of the month, and a month after the autumn start of school, I saw her kissing another boy, Jensen, from the senior class ahead of me. School rumors were that the two of them were 'doing it', fucking like rabbits, every day after school, but I didn't much care by then anymore.
Jensen had his armband, as did every single one of the other lads from the two classes above me. Every single one of my seniors was going to war, but then again they were all a year or two older than me. Another quick look showed that nearly all of my class year was now wearing the regimental armband as well. Why didn't anyone seem to get the point?
"I'm too young." I replied to her, for what must have been at least my tenth explanation of the morning, so far.
"That's cowardice talking!" She exclaimed, delighted to now make me twist under her knife. "Robeson, Matters, Carver and Rudulf ... all friends of yours from your class year, have just made their oaths to go volunteer this very afternoon, why not you as well? Will you be left here then all alone, devoid of any honor?"
In fact, a quick accounting of the situation showed that the odds of reasoning with her now were quite remote. Virtually all of my classmates, even the under-aged ones that were still fifteen like me, either now wore the armband as well, or were standing and lifting a hand in oath to say that they would be joining that very day. As one, they had all been shamed or browbeaten into volunteering. Few of them looked happy about it, but they had now agreed to serve.
It was madness! There were even some armbands on younger classmen boys from the classes lower than mine. They had their armbands as well, boys of thirteen and fourteen driven by a storm of masculine enthusiasm towards the rocks of war! Was I the only one left that had any sense at all? What good were boys who didn't even have pubic hair yet going to be in battle against inhuman monsters nearly double their size?
What a bunch of rat-assed bastards! Leaving me alone, the only one from my class not volunteering for service! The way Melenna and her friends were glaring at the few remaining holdouts, by the end of the day there wouldn't be a lad or boy in the entire school left who hadn't made their oath-pledge. Had everyone gone completely mad?
"Since you apparently have no notions of honor," she sniffed, as if I were a freshly dropped cow turd, "I shall leave you alone in your cowardice with this one little gift!" She then dramatically flourished and presented a white bird's feather to me. Probably a common gull feather, but the symbolism of this singular gift was much more important. She had publically branded me as the lowest sort of coward, unfit for honor or the respect of any of my peers ... pretty much forever. This sort of black stain did not wear off like drops of ink from my fingers. For a month, a year, or even ten or more until the end of my life, I would be known as the town's coward, and shunned accordingly.
The scheming manipulative cunt had now really left me with no other choice at all. I had to defend my honor, such as it was, and with anger I rose to my feet.
"Fine. If Pieter will join with me, we'll take our oaths this afternoon."
There! That had really done it! Other than Pieter, who was sort of my best friend and the poorest of us at sports, I was apparently now the last lad or man left in the village that hadn't joined. He gave me a frightened look, but after watching the rest of our schoolmates glare at him, he quickly nodded his head in agreement. He was going to be as useless in war as tits upon a bull, but I swore to him that I'd try to keep his skinny and short ass protected, and somehow we'd both try and live to the end of this fiasco!
Together that afternoon, we walked dejectedly over to the recruiter bearing the baron's banner and reluctantly swore our oaths to serve for the duration of the emergency, or at the pleasure of the Duke, and we signed our names to the muster-roll sheet. We each received a single silver shilling, symbolic pay for our enlistment, but we were each pretty sure that this was the last coin we'd ever see again while in uniform. Not quite so, we did get a small wage for our service, which was very irregularly paid, but that's a later complaint.
It was indeed madness, but we were all caught in a flood that we could not escape from! I was not the only male who had received a white feather, and by the time the regiment was ready to march out of Meryton two days later, the jingo-women, and girls like Melenna had done their job well, for there was hardly a male face left in the entire valley to watch us march off to war.
For better or worse, and to my eyes it seemed worse, every lad capable of growing a pubic hair in the next year or three, and every able man still without a full field of gray or white hair upon their heads, had signed their lives and perhaps their very souls away as well. Every one of us had raised our hand and taken oath to serve our Duke, and our young pimply commander who was barely older than I was. Virtually every single male in the entire river valley was now under arms, except for young boys and aged grandfathers.
As they watched us march off, I wished I had rocks to throw at the smug faces some of some of the women, like Melenna Carlson, and her friends. A few of the smarter, more reasonable women were just now realizing that it was quite possible that many of us wouldn't return.
Most of us, in fact, did not.
Four hundred and eighty-eight men of Meryton, and the villages of the Jasper Valley marched out together on that cool autumn day, watching the women, all alone, tend to the remaining harvesting. Five years later we returned ... just eighteen of us, to a strange land that we didn't quite remember and no longer understood.
A land nearly entirely without men.
The terrible winnowing of our ranks started nearly at once as we marched east towards Palista, the most southern port city on the Paliskios River. It was not at all far, barely three days travel if it were to be straight marched, but it took us a full five, as we had many stops for drill and exercise, stopping and starting our trek along the stony river road.
Jacobs, a senior from my school, was the first to die, falling from the roadside down a deep and rocky hill into the river. His head struck a stone sharply and he could not be revived. Two others, valley villagers that I didn't personally know, drowned while practicing an exercise to cut logs and then cross a river. The Paliskios was rapid that day, swollen by rains on its short trip to the Inner Sea, and the two were swept away by the current and were never recovered.
Another I did not know, died from a blow to the head stuck by an improperly unpadded weapon during drill practice. He died slowly, over two days, crying loudly nearly constantly for his mother. Most of us, myself included, just wished the lad would hurry and die, or at least be quiet about it. This memory bothered me considered in the years afterwards, but I already knew that our numbers were cursed to further decrease, without respite.
The wrecking of our troopship, a tired worm-eaten old merchant ship named Gruul's Anger, a week later in a storm on our first night out of sea, just confirmed for me our dire fate. Fortunately we were not at all far out to sea when the keel of the ship broke upon a hidden rock, tossing us all to the tender mercies of Lagufæ, the banished Sea Goddess. We had been packed into the old half-rotten ship like sardines, both above and below decks. Those of us who were topside managed to leap safely into the sea, but some of those below were trapped unable to escape in time when the old merchant ship turned turtle and rolled over into the sea, soon lost under the angry waves. Some of the survivors in the water fared harshly as well when thrown by the great waves of the sea unto the jagged rocks of the coast, but most ... the ones that the goddess deemed to be spared for yet further torment, made it to the upper sands of the shore, and to safety.
Of our number, barely more than half, two hundred and seventy-one to be exact, survived to be boarded upon another transport. Friends and chums I had known for my entire life were swept forever away from me. Already, with but the first major blow, over half of the men and boys that I knew in life were now dead, and we had yet to face our terrible, legendary enemy, the Boar-Men. The only comforting thought to this disaster was that my former romantic rival Jensen was one of the ones lost to the sea. Not that I wanted anything to do with Melenna anymore, not under any circumstances!
Joran, a young man I knew well who worked on my father's farm, died four days later on the ship and was the first of our number to be formally buried at sea. Two other younger boys that I barely knew from the lowest form at our school, both caught the flux and died within a few hours of each other, with just weakly croaked whimpers at their fate. I saw no honor or glory in their deaths either. Already about half of our number were lost, with not a single tale of glory earned in return.
After landing briefly in Broadmore, and with but a short stretch of our cramped legs, we were once more loaded back onboard ship, with another long voyage to Tellismere ahead of us. The ship's scuttlebutt did not bear any particularly happy news. Rumors of the complete and total devastation of that Duchy were everywhere. Reports of the size of the horde that we would face were preposterous, and their numbers only seemed to grow. While I could tell that other armies on the other fleets of ships were near us, it was clear that we could be outnumbered, and we would be far away from any further friendly support. Alone, together, we would stand or fall.
Our formerly merry regiment was now a rather morose company of two hundred and sixty-eight men who had already seen too much death, even before we saw the first arrow flights of battle.
Of my first battle, the relief of the sieged town of Haldyne, I can say little. Nearly at once after landed upon the shores of the lake in the early morning hours of darkness, our numbers were much divided and we became easily lost from one another in the dark. With Pieter close at hand, the two of us boys, little more than reluctant soldiers in ill-fitting leather garb much too big for us, moved inland and we tried to find the poor dirt road that led to the town in the dark. We never found it, although we must have crossed it at least twice in the pitch black darkness before dawn.
I did have a good spear, that I had kept well sharpened, and Pieter had a short bow that he had been barely trained in its use. Still, we went looking for trouble, and as invariably happens, trouble found us first. We had a short messy and utterly terrifying short battle with a lone boarman who stood at least two heads above either of us. I think he was as surprised by the sudden encounter in the dark as we were and he just let out an astonished cry of pain when I instinctively without thinking skewered his belly with my spear. He fell, wounded and not quite dead, and we immediately ran away in the other direction, satisfied that we'd done our bit in this first battle.
Tripping over the body of one of our slain countrymen in the dark a little while later, we found that he had a full skin of good wine, and huddled behind a tree we drank it all, without becoming even the slightest bit tipsy. Battle can be a great sobering influence. We had both pissed ourselves at the start of our short little skirmish, and our stock of heroism and courage was empty. The wine didn't seem to help that much either.
In the morning, meeting at last back at the formerly besieged town, we lined up for assembly to discover that nearly a full score of our number were already missing. A few trickled in from the forest later that day, lost like Pieter and I had been, but by the time the march began for Lacestone, our company had been permanently reduced in number to two hundred and fifty-one. Of the lost, I remembered the happy ginger-haired lad Osric the best, and I much mourned his loss. I knew him well from my class and the cheerful lad had every talent to become a great gléaman, as he was ever a merry teller of songs and stories. His happy voice would never sing in our town tavern.
Of the great epic battle of Lacestone, the mightiest and most terrible fight that any veteran could ever remember being involved in, I will say little. There are a thousand stories of that terrible battle, of the valiant Lord Rowan and his equally indomitable mate Lady Gwenda, of Duke Boyle's heroic charge against the dragon, and how his lover the Duchess heroically smote the foul beast into destruction ... but I personally saw none of those courageous and noble things. Pieter and I, and our little company, were at the back of the right wing of our army, held back behind the battle-line in reserve.
It is true we saw smoke, fire and death everywhere we looked, but this was all mostly shrouded by steam clouds towards the center of the battle-line, and the heavy downpour of sheets of cold rain so limited our view that we could barely see a few yards in front of our faces. Still, our miserable company served, and we did what we had sailed a thousand leagues to do. We were slightly to the rear of our lines, near the center of the battle-line, waiting in reserve to be called if our regular Oswein soldiers fell back or had their lines breeched. Clouds of Boar-Men blood-red sheathed arrows fell upon us nearly as thick as the pouring rain, and again in a matter of moments, nearly half of our numbers fell never to again arise, but when our call to duty was cried, some of us were indeed left to answer the call! When the center of the main battle-line began to break, our young leader, the son of our baron, ordered us surviving ill-trained men and lads up to help seal the breech and he was the first of us to fall in actual combat but a few moments later. By then we were reduced to about a hundred and fifty men, but as one, we grimly marched forward towards our doom.
Like entering a dark cloud of death, we entered the smoke and the fire, and the fury of combat for which we were in no way prepared. In the midst of the steam, smoke and haze of rain, and over the din of crashing metal I clearly remember hearing the voice of the Duchess calling to us from the center of these dark baleful mists, to rally to her and to hold, to hold until death, and I ran towards her voice to reinforce the line ... and to hold it. To my memory her voice was loud and clear, calm and confident, without a hint of worry or panic. It cut through the noise and chaos of the slaughter like the calling of an angel, and I knew that I must obey her. I was no longer a frightened boy - now I had a man's job to do and I resolved that I would hold my ground against the endless horde of huge monstrous appearing Boar-Men, and somehow my feet held and I never took a single step backwards despite the horrors that faced me during the terrible slaughter at the front of the battle-line.
When the sun set upon our great victory many hours later, the salvation it was said of the entire Southern Duchies, it was with but barely three score survivors of our numbers that we had still left standing, all bearing some physical wounds ... and most with emotional ones as well.
Pieter remained safe by my side, but Largo, Hamton, Reese, Telmud and another score of my personal school friends remained still, forever to remain buried in that worthless forever bloodstained brown mud.
We pulled the blood red feathered arrows from out of our slain friends and companion's bodies, but Pieter, as if in a daze, kept gathering even more of fatal shafts from the fallen, stripping and gathering the feathers and placing them into a small sack. An odd choice for pillow stuffing, I thought, but most of the other survivors of this horrible battle were all quite half-crazy as well, so I let my friend continue his grim collection task until it became too dark to see.
Of our wounded that had fallen from the Eorfleode arrows, even the lightly injured surrendered quickly one by one to fever and fell into the Shadowlands. The soulless monsters had poisoned their arrowtips with their own spoor waste and the slightest scratch brought on wound-fever and then blood poisoning that our ill-trained and far too few medicuses were mostly helpless to treat.
Sixty-three lads and men we were remaining, and we cheered that our duty was done and that we might now return to our homes. Our Duke, for whom we served at his pleasure, had lost a great many men, just over a third of his original numbers, and we barely blooded recruits and conscripts were now a core and very irreplaceable part of his remaining army. An army, he soon discovered, that he needed to ship off at once back to his frontiers, to defend against the ever encroaching Caestorian legions to the north and east, and two years later, to man the depleted border forts against the raids of the barbaric Hen'kal nomadic tribesmen of the wastes to the west.
Being unluckier than most men, our troop of sixty-three was sent in turn to each frontier, losing over the next several years, slowly but surely, yet another two-thirds of our remaining number, one every month or two. Even the wounded were never given their medical release from duty, but we were returned back to our ranks time and time again to risk our lives yet once again, until we all abandoned any hopes of ever regaining our freedom, or even living long enough to see the next season.
When at last, the surviving twenty-four of us received our release orders to return to our homes, after nearly five full years of service, with the thanks and praise of our Duke and of our officers, we could scarcely believe our eyes and ears. Even the most optimistic of us thought that we'd never see our green fertile valley ever again!
For my best friend Pieter, this wondrous news came about a month too late. On a previous patrol a Hen'kal arrow, fletched with a feather of sandy-gold color, had pierced his hip deeply. Although the arrowhead was not in any way poisoned, it was a bad injury after our camp medicus had painfully dug out the imbedded arrowhead, and the wound soon began to fester. The blood sickness took him slowly and painfully to join our comrades and friends in the Shadowlands. I added this new feather to Pieter's bag, already quite full of other feathers, all taken in combat. In the dullness of fort garrison duty between patrols, he had painted the names of every boy, lad and man who had fallen from our numbers, since the first day we had marched off as innocents to war. Over and over again, each evening his white paintbrush would inscribe the names of our lost friends onto the blood red feathers of the Boar-Men, or the blue feathered shafts of Caestor. Now with a fresh pot of red ink, I added Pieter's name to a bundle of these golden yellow feathers, to complete his collection.
For the last few years I had hardly known my very best friend. He hardly ever spoke anymore and when he did, it was just a few quiet short glumly spoken words. His eyes were forever haunted by the things he had seen and done, and he slept ill most nights, if he slept at all. We all had bad nightmares often, but his night terrors seemed to be more frequent and more unpleasant. I think he knew that he'd never return home to his family. I actually think he was relieved and happy to die, to escape the shadowy life of horror that he lived now. He was not afraid of dying, but he was sorely terrified of dying alone, somewhere forgotten and lost in the sandy wastes with no marker to remember his bleached bones. I held his hand and comforted him as he passed into shadow and I made sure that Pieter got his grave marker, on the southeast side of a grassy hill near the fort so that he could forever rest looking towards a home that he would never return to. As I buried him, my very last speck of my own hope for ever returning home someday was buried with him.
This large pillow sack of feathers was the first item I packed when we made our preparation to leave the fort to our young replacements, to return home. Pieter had never found a long term use for his feathers, other than to repeatedly mark the loss of our friends, but now I had a more proper idea for a good use that they should be put to.
Three of our number declined to return, and they all stayed at the fort, perhaps to remain forever, and accepted postings as sergeants, to make a career with the army. Another two, immediately upon reaching the capitol, instead took service with a mercenary company, earning an enlistment bonus pay sack that was quite heavy with silver. Our pay had been irregular, to say the least, especially out in the wastes of the western frontier. Upon our discharge, it took the very real threat of violence for us to receive our final six months of owed back-pay. It wasn't much, but we wouldn't have any other traveling expenses ... the cheap army paymasters cut us off high and dry without any travel money with which to make our last journey home. Still, with our packs loaded with army rations and several full ale and wineskins, we had few needs for the week long journey home from the capitol city, where we had been discharged.
Ronald, who was my last surviving school friend from my school class, after Pieter had died, began acting increasingly oddly as we traveled the final four days towards home. On the surface he was pleasant and talked of his memories of home, but each night as we stopped at an inn, he would drink with a thirst that both amazed and frightened me. We all drank quite heavily those last years, especially while we were either bored or terrified while out on the western wastes, where there was little to see besides sandy desert outside of our fort, and even less to do for amusement, and not a woman to be found in over a dozen leagues. The look of utter madness grew in his eyes as he drank though, and he started fights at every opportunity, hardly caring when he lost them and he awoke beaten and increasingly sore every morning.
On our last night before we reached home, Ronald became especially drunk and was in a mean and sour mood. I left him to his cups and went off to sleep. In the morning, I found that he had hung himself in the barn. He left no note of explanation, but now years later I realized that he could not bear to bring the inner demons he had inside of him back to his old home. Perhaps he too should have stayed in the army, unable like the others to face the quiet life of farming once again back home.
He had been a jovial lad, even while facing constant danger on patrol in the frontier. He hadn't done anything particularly heroic on his own, and he had faced the exact same dangers all of those years that the rest of us had. Once he knew that the ordeal was finally over, he now cracked ... unable to cope with peace. I worried that I might someday do the same, that all of the terrible memories would now become too much for me to bear as well.
While the epic battle of Lacestone had been horrible enough to permanently damage the minds of most of the men who fought there, for me, my own personal worst memory was the night skirmish with Caestor, on top of Belyer's Ridge along the border, about a year and half later. A small troop of their scouts discovered our lines in the middle of the night, and with stealth and long knives they slit a few of our throats before the alarm was given. I'd been one of the ones asleep and I suddenly awoke to find a grinning legion-man about to put a knife into my own throat. I quickly drew my own dagger and we rolled in the rocks and dirt for nearly twenty minutes together before it was my blade that sunk in-between his ribs. Every single night since, I've dreamed of that desperate awakening, unless enough wine or ale was available to numb my sleeping thoughts.
Still, with the packs upon our backs, the last eighteen of us walked those last couple of leagues home to Meryton, and to begin our old lives, anew once more.