A Short Story:
Cowards and Sheep
The raiders from the sea, confident in the strength of their arms and fresh from other victories down the coast, came in four long ships to our village when the last stars of morning fled as if terrified from the heavens. They numbered fifty tall, proud and fierce warriors armoured in chains of steel, each carrying wooden shields a yard across brightly painted with terrifying beasts, and wielding brutal axes, swords and long spears whose points caught the early rays of the sun. Thus illuminated they appeared to us as if spirits of fire and iron coming out of the water.
These and others like them had appeared that spring from the eastern sea and fell upon our pregnable coast like a great storm crashing in wave after wave against the fishing villages and market towns. There were many who saw in their fury and ferocity a punishment from heaven for our lack of piety and devotion. Only, they said, in prayer and supplication would we be saved. Yet, the most devoted of souls fell alongside the most corrupt beneath the same sharp edges. Could sheep like us hope to face the wolves from the sea?
To our village the sheep had come. In ones and twos, the survivors and victims from the other villages came and told their story, and the story terrified us. Of houses burnt, women raped and children slain or taken as slaves they told us. Of churches put to the torch, only the relics of silver and gold were saved, not from adoration but simply for precious metals therein. The demons took everything of worth and left ashes where their wrath had passed. We were to be next.
Our village lay on a rise beside a stream at the top of a long sloping beach on which the fisherman would drag their boats out of the tide and on which the raiders had landed. The stream ran from the fens behind the village and cut though the rocks at the southern end of the beach creating a gorge with steep sharp sides. The other side of the beach ran into dunes and scrub which separated us from the next village and over which we could still see the smoke rising from its burning hovels as if from a funeral pyre.
Having grounded on the beach each ship let forth their warriors. Briefly forming around their boats likes packs of wolfs the raiders soon came on towards the village, their eyes and swords bright with lust for our blood and what wealth we had. Surging up the beach they saw us quaking in terror of what was to come.
Thirty of us, young men and old, had lined up there. We had no armour and between us but one sword and two spears. Most wielded scythes and long knives or pitch forks. Only ten of us owned shields and these were old and almost rotten but were kept by sons to remind them of the deeds of their fathers. I was one and also had the only sword and stood in the front rank. I also carried one other thing. I carried a horn by my side.
When they saw us the leader of these pirates stepped out from their ranks. Tall as his men were, he was fully six inches taller. Fierce as they were, he was fiercer. His armour shone like the sun and he seemed almost a god. He drew his sword and stood before us pointing at us in challenge.
“Who will fight me?” he asked in a clear voice full of menace and contempt.
“Who will fight me? If you win, my men will leave this place. Come and fight me.”
None of us moved forward.
His lips curled in derision and he spat on the sand.
“Cowards: then you will all die this day.”
Pathetic we looked and our faces showed fear and dread. The enemy roared with laughter but came on none the less ready for the slaughter. We started to back away and, jeering and insulting us, they came closer. We retreated further until the houses now lay on each side and the jogging raiders had caught up with us. Their spears went back in readiness to draw our blood.
It was then that I blew my horn.
When the next village to us had fallen into embers our village elders had met and all the men were called together. What, they asked, should we do? Should we offer the raiders what meagre wealth we owned to go away. Or should we try and fight and at least die in honour: hopeless though it seemed. There were some who argued for us to flee the village and head for the fens and waterways behind. Many men nodded at this. Then they asked me what I thought.
“We should not flee and hide like cowards in the waterways, and my heart burns at the idea of offering anything to these monsters. To fight and die with honour is as many have said pointless.”
“So farmer,” a voice called out, “what is it you propose for there seems no other way.”
I stood up and stepped forth into the circle and slowly looked each man in the eye.
“We must put aside honour for the sake of those who we love and turn to deceit and guile to defeat the wolves. We must have the courage to appear to become cowards for their sake.”
But the cowards had stopped retreating. We locked our shields and readied our weapons and then I roared defiance at the enemy. The entire village joined in. The enemy looked surprised but charged our shield wall. With a great crash their shields smashed into our shields and the struggle began. Axes went up and fell down aiming to crack open skulls, swords and spears went back and forth stabbing and thrusting in the gaps between. The enemy warriors pushed at their shields trying to force us back, whilst our men braced and opposed them.
It seemed a stale mate. The enemy had more men however and would expect to lap round our flanks and attack us from the wings. We had foreseen this and our retreat had brought us into a gap between the houses that huddled round each other. The gap was narrow and, funnelled as they were, the enemy could not simply go round us. Even then we would lose in the end for sooner or later their captain would send a dozen men round the village and find some other way in and so fall on us from behind with no pity or mercy. As I looked, I saw the man pull men out of the shield wall and pointing send them to do just that.
So I sounded my horn a second time.
It echoed from the village to the beach and beyond the beach to the dunes and in the dunes were our sheep. The men who had fled the burning villages along the coast, the men who had seen their houses and churches torched and their loved ones killed or carried away to slavery and were now the men with one thing on their mind: vengeance.
With more a bellow than a shout thirty men burst out from the dunes. All the best weapons and shields and armour had been given to these men. Thus as the captain of the raiders turned to see this new threat, I saw in his eyes fear and doubt. The sheep surged across the beach cutting off the invaders from their ships and then swung round to head for the village.
Too late the raiders started to pull back from us and now it was we that jeered and insulted and pushed forward with axe and scythe, and with us pressing from one side and the ambushers from the far the raiders were surrounded. They had one possible way out. As one they moved toward the stream running in its gorge. The first to reach it tried to jump to the far side. But it was too far and they crashed onto the unforgiving rocks and were killed or suffered broken legs. Others tried to clamber down the near side. The rocks were slimy from seaweed and after one lost his footing and fell screaming onto the boulders down the slope they abandoned that.
So, hemmed in and trapped they turned back to face us and reformed their shield wall. But they were now forty and we sixty and we pushed them mercilessly knowing that they would have given us no mercy. There was no room for pity or mercy that day. All must die so we pushed them by the strain and force of our backs over the edge and into their grave in the gorge below.
Their captain, stronger and more agile than his fellows, ran and leapt and desperation lent him the yards he needed to make the jump. He stood staring back at us waving his sword mockingly and shouting that we were cowards. Then he was silenced as I jumped too. It was anger not desperation that spoke to me and whispered encouragements in my ear to make the distance.
I landed next to him, a sword in my hand. He swung at me and I parried and then slashed back but he knocked my sword to one side and thrust again. We fought back and forth on the top of the gorge. Neither of us could gain an advantage.
So again I brought the horn to my lips and blew for the third time that day. The other times had signalled a change in the battle and I could see his eyes darting back and forth suddenly anxious at what the latest trick would be; and in that moment of indecision his sword point dipped and mine was past his and with a juddering and jarring slid between his ribs into his heart. He fell to his knees his eyes shining and burning with anger that he had been deceived again this day.
Yes it had been cowards and sheep that had beaten him. So, the raiders from the sea, defeated despite their strength of arms were burned on funeral pyres when the first stars of evening returned tentatively to the heavens.
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