The corporal, a man named Makentire from the name tag on his breast, looked Gwyllm up and down and chuckled. “You almost look like a bandit in all that gear we confiscated on our patrol of the zone,” he said. “Alright, it’s getting dark. Before we lose the light I want you to gather as much dead wood as you can from up and down the roadway and help the men get a watch fire going. Look smart now and snap to it,” he ordered.
“Yes, sir!” Gwyllm replied before trotting down the shoulder of the cracked asphalt roadway searching for branches to take back to camp. It was dim in the evening twilight, but the rising full moon shed some light on the ground and helped guide him to the dry, gray firewood. In about an hour the troop had a big pile of fallen branches stacked into a pit they had dug. A short, chubby private crouched near the pile and arranged tinder and twigs to kindle the flames. He sparked the tinder with steel and flint, then blew the glowing point gently in his hands until flames leapt up and the burning furze was set beneath the pile of twigs to ignite the pyre.
The evening meal, cold leftover stew, was meted out to the troops, and though there wasn’t a surplus, there was enough to keep their bellies from growling. Gwyllm was hungry, so he ate what had been proffered as rations, using the utensils from the mess kit he had been issued in his sack of personal items. He thought about his Dad and his poor Mom at home alone. What would become of them now that he had been taken by the army?
As he finished his meal, Makentire sat down beside him at the fire and spoke: “You must know, boy, that this has all been a ruse to get supplies and a new conscript for the Duke. We set you up and you fell like tenpins. The lieutenant had a good laugh at what the constable did to you and your family last night. He carries that scroll with him everywhere, and the funny thing is nobody ever questions him when he pulls it out. If they had bothered to read the dates on the commission, they would know that it had lapsed three years ago. It’s hard to argue when the army stands in front of you in full force.” The corporal smacked him hard on the back, laughed, and stood. Gwyllm stashed away his mess kit and rose silently. “Report to Gundry, soldier, for guard duty. And mind you don’t sleep at your post or you’ll get ten stripes on your back from the sargent,” the corporal ordered.
Gwyllm walked over to a large oak tree on the western edge of the camp where an old, gaunt, gray-bearded soldier leaned. “Are you Gundry?” he asked.
“That I am, and you must be the new recruit reporting for duty. Tell me lad, what do you know of keeping watch through the night for trouble?” Gundry asked.
“Nothing at all, except to keep your eyes and ears open and call out if you see anything.” Gwyllm looked over the old man, who seemed out of place in the company of young soldiers.
“Well, I’ll be. You come to us an expert already and you haven’t even stood your first watch. Let me tell you something: Don’t stand too close to the fire, it will dim your vision and leave you an open target for marauding archers. Don’t talk too much either, unless to challenge anyone who approaches, or you will give away your position. Notice how quiet the camp is now that the men are turning in? If you see anything, call out for help. I’ll be at your back in an instant. We’ll need to secure the perimeter, so move around on the verge of the camp and observe from a variety of angles.” Gundry paused to let his information sink in.
After a minute Gwyllm asked: “The corporal said you could teach me something about swordplay.”
“Now that I can boy. I’ve been in many fights myself and carry my fair share of scars and broken bones from combat. I will tell you that fighting with a sword has little to do with play. It’s damned serious business. You don’t dance with the enemy, they’re not your mistresses. You fight with everything you got, sword, fists, elbows, boots and teeth if need be. I once caught a man off guard, kicked him in the balls, then drove the point of my sword down through the top of his shoulder while he was doubled over in pain.”
“That doesn’t seem fair,” Gwyllm flatly stated.
“What’s fair about war son? It’s their life or your own. Are you going to play Jesus and die so that others may live?” Gundry sneered.
“You have a point,” Gwyllm said.
“Your sword has a point as well, keep it sharp and use it often. All the slashing and jumping around you hear of in storybooks and see on the stage are just for show. Swing your blade to knock your opponent off guard, then drive the point of your blade into some soft, vulnerable flesh. Give the hilt a good hard twist when it is set in your enemy’s body and you will bring him down with pain. Place your boot on your enemy next to where your sword has entered and yank the weapon out. If you have made a lucky hit and severed an artery, a fountain of blood will follow the blade and your enemy will bleed out. Then move on to the next opponent. There’s always another enemy to step in when one falls.”
“That seems so cruel,” Gwyllm stated.
“What do you think war is son, a birthday party with iced cake and donkey rides? You must have lived a sheltered life out there in the fields. How cruel would you be if you came home one evening and found a bandit raping your wife? Well, the stakes are just that high in war and more. There are people in this world whose evil knows no bounds. Lesson one over. Time to take your post lad.”
“Where am I supposed to be stationed?” Gwyllm asked.
“I’ll take the west end of the camp and keep watch of the road to Lancaster. You take the east and watch for trouble from our back. We’ve a good eight hours of the night to keep guard, so mind you don’t wander far from your post or sleep.” Gundry set off from the fire toward the west side of the camp and Gwyllm walked the 30 paces to the east end. There was to be no more discussion, only duty.
Gwyllm kept watch in the darkness through the night, patrolling the perimeter by the wagons and the roped-off temporary paddock where the horses nickered and slept. He watched as the moon slipped in and out of high clouds in its transit of the night sky. He tried to make out constellations, but the sky was too misty for most stars to shine through. From the woods to the north he heard the hooting of an owl, but thought nothing of it.
The loud “crack” of a broken stick snapped him to attention. “Who’s there?” he called. He heard a rustling from the woods across the roadway and followed to investigate. It might have been a deer or a raccoon, but it might have been a person as well. He stopped to look and listen, getting ready to turn back to camp, as he was now almost out of sight of the fire. Before he could react, an arm wrapped around his belly from behind and he felt the cold steel of the edge of a blade placed to his throat.
“Quiet now, and nobody gets hurt,” a voice, obviously female, whispered close to his ear.
“Who are you and what do you want?” Gwyllm stammered back.
“That’s none of your business. We need to move.”
Gwyllm felt the arm removed from his waist and his sword pulled from his scabbard by the unseen stranger. He was pushed from behind, away from the camp as he heard Gundry shouting to the men to raise the alarm, his absence now clearly noticed. “Quickly now, and not a sound, or I cut your throat soldier boy.”