I awoke chilled in the room my father and I shared. It was the morning of a miserable winter day. That is not to say there are many pleasant winter days in the town of Swineton. The northern location of the town ensured winter was a constant drizzle that chilled to the bone, with little breaks from the icy rain. I would have welcomed living in a town a little further to the north, where the rain and drizzle would often chill so far as to make snow. Snow at least would cling and grip to your boots and trousers, perhaps wetting your feet. But would not soak and chill you to the bone to the same extent as rain found at the brink of freezing.
I peered out of my blanket to find my father already vacant from his sleeping pallet. This did not concern me and was a usual occurrence in the Robason household. My father, Obair Rabason, an Aon descendant, was a stout man who was dark of hair and skin; as descendants of the Aon tended to be. He was a diligent man. Over many years of living and working together in close quarters, a son gets to know his father. And if there was one trait I had come to respect of my father, it was his diligence. What my father lacked in brains and face, he made up for in his effort and want to do well in his task. I have lost count of the times he has told me ‘If the works worth doing, it’s worth doing well’, and despite the disagreements me and my father have shared, I feel that that is a lesson I will take with me to the grave.
It was my thirteenth winter since my nameday and, since two summers ago, had been expected to work alongside my father on the farm. Many a man has enlisted and joined the war at the front, leaving the young to work the fields. After several minutes of resigned contemplation, I crawled from my pallet and walked through to the communal area of my family’s house. It was a small and modest house, situated on the outskirts of Swineton, and consisted of just three rooms. One which me and my father slept in, a similar room for my younger sister and mother, and a communal room with some simple wooden chairs and tables and a humble stove. I have been told throughout my life that I should be thankful for all my parents provided for me, as with my father’s meagre wages as a farm hand and the small amount of coin my mother made through weaving and writing simple notes or letters for our neighbours, made this lifestyle a difficult one to sustain. A residence with more than a single room was a luxury not many could afford with just a farm hand’s wage. But through the upkeep and repair of the household, our family persevered. And I suppose I should be thankful for the life they have provided me, as you were never far from poverty in the kingdom of Imperium. Vagabonds were a common sight in Swineton and I am told even more so in The Capital.
Before the stove I saw my mother stirring a pot of what I already knew was porridge. It was always porridge.
My mother greeted me ‘Good morning, Sed’.
Her mousy brown hair platted and bunched to the back of her head. Like my father, my mother had a plain face. She wore an undyed woollen dress. Dye was a costly luxury, and one our family could not afford. It was the same dress that she has worn for many years. In fact, I struggle to recall a time when my mother was not in that dress. Its vigour bewilders me. As opposed to my father’s Aon heritage, my mother was Imperium born and served as a servant in Lord Kitchener’s manor, our towns governing noble, before leaving this position to marry my father. During this time, she was taught her letters, which not many servants in Imperium could claim to have done. But Kitchener was a fair man and insisted that both noble and common children of the manor partake in basic education. My mother follows this example and imparts this knowledge upon me and my sister on an evening.
‘Morning’ I replied, as I made my way to the table.
As the usual routine went, I joined my sister at the table. We exchanged a casual “Morning” and ate breakfast in the comfortable silence often shared by siblings. Flos looked strikingly like our mother but accompanied by a darker Aon shade to her skin. Each day she seemed to become more alike our mother. But she was undeniably her father’s daughter and shared a darker shade of skin, a symbol of her Aon blood. My sister was three summers my junior and has clung to the hems of our mother’s dress since birth.
Where my sister reflected our mothers looks, I am told I take after my father. I hope this to be true, for I am slight of build. Boys of a similar age tower above me and do not hesitate to use their physical prowess when the opportunity arises. I can only hope that one day I will grow into my Aon heritage.
After swiftly breaking my fast, and right on cue, my father entered the door. ‘Ready?’ he called.
It was more of a command than a question. Without reply, I left the table, found my leather jerkin, and followed my father into the winter morning.
We made our short journey down the boggy track to the farm we worked year-round. The farm was owned by the affluent Bunter family. Following the sudden fever and death of the head of the Bunter family, Bortius Bunter, a younger son, Balius Bunter, stepped up to manage the family business. This did not, however, have a significant effect on my daily routine. In place of Bortius, Balius stood each morning in the farm’s courtyard, his round face chilled pink in the crisp morning. A fine woollen cloak lined his shoulder. Using speech and mannerisms much like his father, he would divvy up the tasks of the day. Most of time I was given the same task I started yesterday, as there were few small tasks on the farm entrusted to a boy such as myself.
The winter season promised the ploughing of the fields and the planting of winter wheat. As Balius was noting attendance and assigning today’s tasks, I made sure to position myself slightly closer to the tool shed. I knew that my task was to be ploughing in the fields and wanted to ensure I has the use of a good plough. Too early I learned the effect of a day’s use of a plough with a splintered shaft.
I found my childhood friend lingering by the tool shed, his red hair tufted at the back from last night’s sleep. Patrik and I shared the same idea and habitually met each morning in this location. He stood a full head above me and where I had not yet begun the changes that boys had when they make the final journey towards manhood, Patrik had a patchy, yet noticeable fuzz on his chin.
‘Fine day for it’ Patrik groaned with the look a man has when he tries to allow as little of his skin to touch his wet and cold cloths.
‘Perfect’ I replied, trying to put a chuckle into my voice.
We moved through the fields, ploughs in hand. We lined up at the same point where we had finished the previous day and started our work. I welcomed the gradual warming that comes with physical labour. After several moments at my task, as one does with long repetitive tasks, I let my body take over and my mind wander to a place where time did not drag as much as it did when focused in the task.
The day grew warmer. The smudge of sunlight beyond the clouds travelled over the field. At its peak, we heard a whistle and returned to the farm’s courtyard. Here we collected our simple lunch of bread and stew from a large container, guarded by a younger daughter of the Bunter family. The was at the front ensured food was scarce and expensive. But most were happy to play their part in the war effort. After being issued with a child’s portion of stew and bread, I followed like a sheep the other farmhands to a barn just beyond the courtyard. It was not the first time I thought myself likened to one of the farm animals.
I reached the barn and found the most comfortable and available piece of hay I could and sat down. Before long, Patrik found me and joined me for our afternoon meal.
Patrik commented on the bread ‘This could kill a man if it was thrown hard enough’.
‘It beats the soured cheese they were giving out last season’ I replied.
He winced ‘Don’t remind me’.
The meal was over soon after it began. A morning’s manual labour will make even the Bunter family’s hard bread and stew palatable. Patrik and I arose from our hay seats and did our typical wander around the barn in search of Mendax, our resident soldier turned farm hand. For he enjoyed sharing his stories of war with the two of us. We found seats on the floor near to where Mendax was sitting.
He greeted us ‘’ave I ever told you about the ambush I was caught up in on our way out of South Sarrage?’
He had, but this story was a good one. ‘No, I don’t remember it’ I fibbed.
‘We were on our way back to the Fort, Fort Libertas that is, after a full day o’ patrollin’ the local area’ He started. ‘Usual stuff, nuffin’ fancy. We were in a herringbone formation, one on each side o’ the road with a little distance between us and the man in front. That way, it was easy to make a long line and lock our shields on either side o’ the road when we encountered any of those Muqatil feckers. An’ it helps to avoid the traps. On the way back, we passed through some forest and green that sits on either side of Sarrage river. Them Muqatil bastards know what they’re doin’. They put some of them traps, big enough to rip a man’s leg right off him, under the tracks. The rain an’ sun makes ‘em hard to spot after a few weeks. I was sat in the middle o’ the patrol. I couldn’t see the front man through the thick forest, but I heard his scream. I got down on a knee and put my shield out towards the side o’ the road. Arrows started to fly from all directions. I saw one of the other soldiers, a good man by the name of Dalais, a man who I first met during our Initial Soldier Training and thought him my friend. He was a few men behind and made the textbook mistake that they are supposed drill out o’ you in trainin’. He ran for cover. Fear does that to a man, you never realise just how little control you got over your body until you lookin into yer death. And just as they tended to do, the Muqatil trapped the mound to the side of the road Dalais ran fer. In most places, yer would think a mound like this was a good bit o’ cover. But, surely enough the large metal trap snapped his shin in two and he fell forward from the newly found bend in his shin. He didn’t scream for long before three arrows hit him in the back. And that was him done.
There is always one soldier who knows a bit o’ healin’ in every patrol. Wain was the name o’ ours. He didn’t stop to look at Dalais lied facedown at the foot of the mound. He was already gone. Instead he ran to the front an’ folded the injured man’s cloak so that he could be carried as we ran. We gathered him up and ran through the forest. The green cleared, we slowed to a walk, got back into herringbone and made our way back to the Fort. I ne’er did catch sight o’ the faces of the them Muqatil bastards. You ne’er really do. One minute its peace, and the next its chaos.’
I looked over to Patrik, his eyes wide at Mendax’s recollection. Excitement ran through me. Oh, how I envied his adventures in the front line.
‘Did they ever find your friends body?’ Patrik asked.
‘Not until a few days later’ Mendax replied. ‘It turned up battered on one of the roads one day. Looked like it had been dragged by the back o’ a horse. He was a good man, was Dalais, I still think about him sometimes. Muqatil bastards’ He spat.
A confusing and familiar emotion ran through me. Even the loss of his friend was something I envied.
The whistle blew, and we returned to the fields. On my way back to the spot I was working before the midday break, Patrik appeared at my shoulder.
‘Didn’t he say three people died last time Mendax told that story?’ He asked.
‘I think so. It’s probably hard to recall clearly after all these years’ I replied. Mendax wouldn’t lie, would he? He was a veteran of the Imperium army after all.
‘You’re probably right’ Patrik broke off from my lead and made his way back to his task.
The Afternoon passed much like the morning, the drizzle ever present. I retreated into my mind and before long the final whistle signalled that toady’s tasks were over. The short days that accompany winter meant that daylight would soon disappear. I made my way back to the courtyard. I returned my plough to the tool shed and waited in line to receive my pay. I flexed my hands, my skin felt tight and cracked around my knuckles. It was only my second winter working the farm and my skin had not quite built up a complete resilience. Last year was worse. I remember the sting of my weather ravaged hands when they would touch even the softest object. My blankets felt like prickles, my broken skin feeling every fibre of the blanket. The memory of it still sends a cringe down my spine.
I reached the front of the line where Balius stood behind a small table.
‘Sedibus Robason’ he said with a nod, reaching into a wooden box which sat on the table.
He placed five coppers into my hand and nodded to the man waiting behind me. five coppers. A child’s wage. My father would receive twelve. I did not grimace at this however, for a boy of thirteen, it was a fair wage. Especially as my body more clearly echoed that of boy of eleven years. My father would take four coppers from my wage to help support our family, leaving one copper for me. After the six days of work a week, this left me with six coppers to spend on the one day of the week I had to myself; restday. More than a generous amount of coin for a boy of my years. On my restday, I would often make my way down to the markets with my coins and select from an assortment of sweet buns from the bakery. With six coppers, I could usually afford three. I would try to will myself to save some of these for the week ahead, but usually giving in and finishing the lot before sundown.
My father and I made our way back up the boggy track to the family home. By the time we arrived, the sunlight that had peered through the overcast had vanished from the sky, leaving the moon in its stead. The moonlight lacked the strength of the sun to pierce the clouds, promising a dark and gloomy night. We entered the house through the front door to find my mother and sister preparing a simple meal of dark bread and stew made from the few vegetables grown in the small garden my mother and sister kept. Dinner was always the same. The only change was with the seasons, as some ingredients could only be grown and flourish at certain times of year. This season’s speciality was a mixture of spinach, onions, carrots, and peas. After eating this most evenings for over a month now, I longed for something different. Despite the repetitiveness of the stew, however, it was always better than the Bunters.
The evening before the restday, my mother and sister would venture into the markets and purchase some meat for our family to share. The thought of fresh meat after a long-weeks work always set my mouth to watering. However, meat was not on tonight’s menu.
I shed my jerkin and soiled garments for a dryer set hung on a line by the stove. I placed my wet garments there, to make sure they were dry for tomorrow’s day at the farm and joined Flos and my mother at the table.
‘How was your work?’ my mother greeted.
‘Much the same.’ I replied, the long day ploughing the field was not something I wanted to think about.
‘How was your day, girls?’ my father asked as he mimicked me, swapping his cloths on the line, before joining us at the table.
‘Pleasant, thank you’ my mother replied. ‘Do you remember the Morgan family who run the bakery?’
My dad spoke through a mouthful of dark bread ‘The ones with the lad serving at the front?’.
‘Finish your mouthful, dear’ my mother retorted ‘And yes the very same. They asked if I would write a note to their son stationed at one of the foremost outposts in Haram’
The name of Haram rang familiarly in my ears. Every citizen of Imperium knew of this country. A country that hated the kingdom of Imperium for our prosperity and for simply existing. Our nations had a long history of war. We were currently engaged in the third great war. The previous two not resulting in victory for either side but established a new set of borders between the kingdoms. The current state of the third great war, I am told, is heavily in our favour. We have liberated a lot of ground from the Haram rule and established outposts to help secure this. The Kingdom of Haram is so broken that their army has succumb to guerrilla warfare. Calling themselves the Muqatil. I had heard a lot about the Muqatil from Mendax’s stories and did not hold a high opinion of their “hit and run” tactics, where they retreated from the honourable face to face fighting of the Imperium army.
‘Poor lad, Haram is a blasted land I hear’ my father said, with sympathy in his voice ‘we should just leave that country to its own devices. Let the devils destroy themselves’
‘It is a just cause they fight for on the front’ my mother stated ‘I am told it is the people themselves who want to be freed from the clutches of their heathen leaders. That they rejoice at the site of the arrival of the Imperium army.’
My father responded ‘Sending young lads off to their death is not a price I would be willing to pay to liberate others from a country I’ve never even seen’
I cut in ‘But is it not an honour to lay down your life for a cause greater than yourself’
‘Well said’ my mother agreed.
My mother and father rarely disputed. But at times like these, there Aon and Imperium differences gave them very different views of the kingdom we lived in. Like most of those with Imperium heritage, who were born and raised in the kingdom, had a fierce sense of patriotism. One which is instilled into my mother. My father’s more rustic Aon blood has given him a little bit more of a considering mind when it comes to the matters of Imperium.
Aon, an old and ancient kingdom to the north, was overrun and occupied by Imperium over a century ago. Every piece of strategic and advantageous land was taken by force. This left the Aon in a state of anarchy which led to the formation of small tribes and nomads who lived off the land. These tribes are of no threat to Imperium of today and are mostly ignored.
‘Then would you allow me to join, when I come of age?’ I muttered. I had never told anyone except Patrik about my ambition to join the Imperium army. I braced myself for a laugh that I expected to escape from my father’s and mothers’ mouths. I was sure that the image of the small, unmuscular lad that I was wearing a soldier’s garb would be a hilarious sight. But none came.
My mother broke the silence ‘And is that something you would wish to do?’ concern in her voice.
My father was silent.
‘It is’ I answered truthfully.
I could feel the tension in the room.
My mother cleared her throat ‘Well finish your dinner, wash, and both of you get ready to study your letters’ my mother coughed again ‘I will consider it. You have over a year before you can even be considered for service. Perhaps you will change your mind’.
Despite her earlier commendation of the war effort, I could sense her reluctance to allow me to go. I could see the struggle between her claimed devotion to her country and concern for her only son wrought on her face.
I scoffed the rest of my stew and bread and headed back outside towards the well that the dozen or so neighbouring families shared.
I learned at this moment that patriotism is fickle. It is easy for citizens living in peace in the absence of war to get caught up in the righteousness of your countries actions. With a patriotic comment here and a small donation to the cause there, one could be assumed to be a great and noble patriot. But when that patriot is asked to make a significant sacrifice for your kingdom’s cause, it is plain to see those patriotic feelings drift away into nothingness.