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One Who Left by Sean Regan
SUMMARY: For the April flash fiction contest, theme is "the forbidden"
At dusk, the baron's lieutenant ordered us to set our stakes.
"Dig deep and plant them strong," he said. "Point them east, because that's where the enemy will emerge. We'll battle tomorrow, if he doesn't run."
When we weren't digging, we stared over the fields. The Duke of Alba hid his main force behind a distant rise, but he sent a troop of cavalry forward onto the plain. We knew they were his soldiers because of their orange surcoats. They galloped up and walked their horses out of range of the archers. Some wielded lances, some bows, all armored. Against such riders our squadron's defense were sharpened stakes, half a man's height, thrust into the ground.
The digging done, we took some meager dinner and circled our fire. We talked as a unit, one of twenty-two squadrons levied from the baron's lands into the queen's army. Some thought Alba would refuse the battle. Others, among them myself, laughed at the notion. His soldiers were better equipped and trained, and regarding the quality of commanders, I merely pointed toward the hill behind our lines where the Duke of Trabzon, commander of the queen's army, slept in a perfumed tent. The baron, our lord, also rested in comfort while we slept in the chill. We had quilted waistcoats for armor and hammers and knives for weapons.
Midnight passed. As the fire declined to glowing coals, most left to snatch what rest they could manage behind our line. Soon only Rustu and myself accompanied the fire. Fears of the next day filled our silences.
"It is bad," I said softly to Rustu. "Alba has eight thousand horse, twice as many foot, and we have naught but stakes and hammers, and no fair meal in four days. That's no way to keep an army."
"I heard we have twenty thousand of our own," Rustu replied. "Some good ones too, all with deadlier weapons. The queen's guards looked like giants."
"Alba's smarter than Trabzon, smarter than any leader we have," I said. "And he's a magician. If you see Alba tomorrow, and he's pointing at you and talking strange, know that your life's at the end. We'll get a ripping, that's what I think."
I'd known Rustu only a half-month. We lived in villages thirty miles apart. He was younger than me, but his wife survived the plague two years before. In our hurried training, he handled his weapons no better and no worse than anyone else.
"I'm glad the others went to sleep," Rustu said finally. "You're poor for morale."
"I'm no commander, friend. Just one like you who's been asked to defend this line. The noblemen are the ones hurting the morale." I waited for Rustu to deny this. "We'll get a ripping, I promise you."
"Maybe we'll rip them first," he said. "They must pass through those spikes of ours."
"They are no defense against arrows, or a horseman throwing a spear. They'll break through and we must face them with long knives and hammers. I'd rather have my pitchfork."
Silence again, and Rustu and I stared at the coals. The fire no longer offered any warmth. What he thought in this shared moment forever remained a mystery.
"I've a mind to sit it out," I said softly.