Raymond gritted his teeth as he limped along with the other boys. The fight with the army from the north of the country had gone badly. They'd won and it would be counted a youth army success, but the north army had killed many of them before retreating from the small village where they were posted. Raymond looked down the line. Other than him there were many boys who were wounded. Some more than others. Most of them didn't even have something to tie their wounds closed with. Raymond had had no choice but to take another boy's tunic to tie up his leg but most of the boys couldn't find cloth. His best friend was stumbling at the back of the line. He smiled suddenly at the blessed thought that they had not been parted by death. They were both alive.
The commander strutted down the line his wooden club swinging with his arm as he walked. '27203 stand up straight,' he barked at the boy at the back of the line and struck him with the club on his back. 'Keep in line and don't slack.'
The commander was only five years older than Raymond and at nineteen, was by far the oldest person in the group. Striding back up the line, his tall thin figure passed Raymond without comment. Raymond almost sighed with relief. If the commander noticed that he was limping he'd probably be shouted at and told to march properly. He didn't want to get into trouble.
The snow began to fall again as they crested the hill and saw the camp below. The roofs of the wooden huts were peaked with pyramids of white frosty snow and the ragged black painted walls threw odd shadows where the pale sun glittered on the snow from under the heavy clouds. They turned slightly to the left and headed towards the road. One boy near the back of the line stumbled and fell. Raymond couldn't help but look back with most of the other boys. The commander bellowed something at them and started down the line hitting anyone he saw looking back. 'Keep marching like soldiers!' he ordered and turned back to the front.
Raymond stared vacantly ahead as he limped along. He could hear the ankle-deep snow crunching under forty young feet as it sloshed up against his bare legs. He could hardly feel his feet in the thin-soled, hole-ridden boots, but the stinging, throbbing pain in his leg compensated for it. The blood seeped through the thin cloth and ran down his leg. He kept on.
"And halt," the commander bellowed. The boys stumbled and stopped. No one was keeping step and so everyone stopped at a different time. 'Right face,' he ordered and they turned with some precision to face him as he paced down the line. "What's your number, boy?" he demanded of the boy to Raymond's left who was almost too weak to walk anymore.
"34216 sir," the boy murmured.
"Well stop slouching, 34216. And get into the line. I saw you trying to sneak off earlier. When we get to camp I'll report you 34216. You understand?"
"Yes sir," the boy replied in a whisper.
The commander moved on to Raymond. Raymond stood to attention for the brief moment that the commander's eyes were on him, before relaxing again. Many boys were shouted at but Raymond didn't notice until he heard the commander bellowing a number he knew well.
"What are you doing, 27203? Get in line and stand up. Don't cower there on the floor. Get up."
After each phrase Raymond heard the commander's wooden club hit his friend and a sickening feeling rose in his throat. He knew that his friend was badly wounded. Some spear had struck him in the stomach and by all normalities he was not meant to be alive. He'd kept up with the rest but could he for much longer?
Raymond started as the commander walked past him again. "Stand up straight," the commander told him and struck him with the wooden club. Raymond obeyed for a few seconds. "Left face," the commander called. "Quick march!"
The road was covered in ice, and snow was piled high up on either side. The boys trudged on. A few slipped, falling into the snow banks, without the will to rise again. No one looked back. They didn't dare. At the gates of the camp they were counted and marshalled into a long, low tent. The black canvas was heavy with ice and snow had been blown into the tent where the door flap had been left open. The boys crowded in out of the now heavily falling snow.
Raymond glanced the feeble bunch. His friend was not among them. He'd fallen in the snow and wouldn't survive. Raymond knew that for certain. He was jostled into one corner of the tent where the snow lay heavily on the top and sides. He lay down and closed his eyes.
This was not unusual, but that didn't make it right. What did they care if boys died? What did anyone care? They wouldn't be stopped, but they had to be. Someone had to stop them. Someone had to arise and strike at the head of the beast. The Raiders had to fall.
The cloth round his leg was coming loose. 'I'll re-tie it in a bit,' he thought as his mind clouded. It was cold, but he wasn't sure how cold. He couldn't tell with his feet,
lower legs, hands or face. He woke and looked around. Two boys near him were shaking another boy.
"Wake up!" they were saying. "Don't sleep! It's too cold. You must move around!"
Raymond closed his eyes again. He was so tired. Someone came across to him and kept shaking him. "Wake up!" he was also saying it. "Move around and keep warm. It's too cold to sleep." Raymond had an odd idea that the boy shaking him was right, but he didn't want to move. He was too tired. Too cold. He just wanted to curl up and sleep. He ignored the boy's attempts to rouse him and drifted away. Sleep took him and so did the cold.
The Raiders are coming
William sat at the table and smirked. He was the first in the kitchen, as usual, and had already rummaged through the sacks and bowls that lined one side of the room opposite the fireplace. He ate some goat's cheese and some of the old bread. It was baking day that day and no one would want to eat the old bread, but William knew there was nothing else that he could eat cold. The fire wasn't even lit in the hearth yet. William picked up the jug from the table and poured some of the creamy milk into the little china mug that he'd got for his tenth birthday. Before then he'd had a tin mug. He didn't know where that was now but he'd liked it. It didn't matter if he dropped it.
He heard movement in the other room. His house had four rooms. It was the biggest house in the village. There was a room for the boys, a room for the girls, a room for his parents and the kitchen. The house was made from split log boards and the roof was thatched. The village wasn't big. There were about twenty houses in it and most of them only had two rooms. His uncle had gone travelling once as had his dad and they'd told of houses with twenty rooms. William couldn't imagine it.
His oldest brother walked in rubbing his eyes and yawning. "How many mugs of milk have you had?" Luke demanded authoritatively.
"One," William said as he jumped to his feet. He wasn't going to be caught sitting down if Luke decided to hit him, like he did yesterday.
"Like I'm going to believe that," Luke muttered. Luke was always nasty in the mornings, but then again, he was always mean to William. "Don't forget we're moving today," he told William.
As if he'd forget. His dad had been telling him for the last three days, ever since the news came that the Raiders were attacking and burning villages in the area. The villagers had held a meeting and decided that it would be better to move than lose everything, even if they'd have to leave their farms and crops behind. This was the day that they were bound to leave.
"Where are we going?" William asked for the twentieth time since he'd heard that they were moving.
"I don't know," Luke growled angrily. "Just 'cos I'm nineteen and getting married next year doesn't mean I know everything." William shrugged. His dad had once mentioned going north. They'd most likely start again in a town as his mother had hoped. William didn't like that idea. He liked being able to go off alone. If he lived in a town then he'd have to go to school.
"I'm going," out he announced.
"No you're not," Luke stated firmly. He stepped round William and in front of the door. William tried to duck round him but it didn't work.
"Lance! Malcolm! George!" Luke called to his brothers. They liked teasing their youngest brother. He always said that he was strong enough to go out alone, which none of them did. So when he was inside they enjoyed making him look small and pathetic.
William backed off cautiously. Then he turned round quickly and ran into the girl's room. A horrified screech from Lucy greeted him as he sprinted across the room to the window. The other two were still in bed and ducked under the covers while Lucy yelled.
"Go away!" Lucy cried out. "I'm getting dressed!" She was already dressed. "Go away! You're not meant to come in here anyway." William pushed the shutters open and jumped out the window.
Lance came into the kitchen and picked up what was left of the bread. "What you calling for?" he asked quietly.
"William's just ran out again," Luke complained. He had wanted to annoy William and now he couldn't.
"So?" Lance shrugged. He pulled an old leather bag from over his shoulder and put the bread in it. It had other things in it already. Then he pulled out a new goatskin water skin and filled it with the milk from the jug.
"Hey!" Luke exclaimed. "That's not all for you."
"Oh, that's too bad," Lance said sarcastically. "I'm off too. You're going with dad and the village. I'm going with Uncle George."
"Doesn't mean you can have all the milk." Luke snapped and made a grab at the skin.
Quick as lightning Lance pulled it away and struck at Luke. Luke was strong and muscular but Lance had a good eye and could knock Luke down with one quick move. Now, however, he only shoved him against the wall and helped himself to the goat's cheese. He wrapped it in a piece of cloth and bagged it. Luke scowled.
Lance was the only one in the family who could read fluently and Luke was envious of him. Luke couldn't read well but that wasn't from lack of trying. The letters seemed to move on the page and he often read "saw," instead of "was". He worked on the farm and looked after the cattle with Malcolm who was a year younger than Luke. Lance was sixteen and could not only read but also swim, although he kept this a secret, even from his father. His uncle had now invited him to go with him and view the world. He liked the idea and had no intention of his father finding out and stopping him.
Luke continued to scowl at his brother while Lance packed a lump of salt beef, a lamb chop and a bag of beans.
"You can't just go," he whined, watching while Lance packed even more food into the bag.
"Why not?" Lance replied casually as he put his leather bag across his shoulder again.
"Because," Luke began and didn't continue. "You can't," he protested at last. "Dad won't let you."
"I'm not going to ask him," Lance shrugged. "I've been thinking about it. I think that William's got the right idea. Just go." He pushed the door open. "Goodbye," he said and walked out leaving Luke staring after him open mouthed.
Once on the hard beaten earth track that ran round all the houses in the village, William didn't even check which way he turned as he broke into a run again. He didn't like going into his sister's room but it was the only window that was big enough and easy to open. He ducked passed the small schoolroom where the children would all congregate in about an hour for morning lessons, while their parents put the finishing touches to the packing. He dodged round the conker tree that stood at the corner of the village and ran out onto the grassland. He was free, but only for a short while. All the carts would gather together soon, towing oxen behind. Their worldly goods would be packed up, and then they would leave.
William had no intention of joining them. He wanted to hide in the grass and then sleep outside for the night. He wanted to watch rabbits, badges and birds and knock down the conkers in the oncoming autumn. He wanted to do as he liked. He laughed and rolled over in the long grass. He was going to enjoy himself today. He didn't care if it was the last day here. He wasn't going to go with them. He couldn't believe that everyone would go with them anyway. Did everyone tremble at the mention of the Raiders? That was stupid. He lay in the sun and closed his eyes. There wasn't a cloud in the sky and the day was warm. Perhaps he'd go down to the sea today. If he did go with them he'd never have the chance again. He rolled over and crawled further away from the village.
A kestrel hovered in the sun and William sat down to watch it. He loved kestrels. It was about to dive into the grass when a sharp sound cut through the air.
William sighed as he heard his father's voice carried on the light breeze that ruffled the grass that rose above his head. The kestrel thrust its wings out and soared away.
"William," his father called again. "Come out, wherever you're hiding. The Raiders are coming."
The Raiders. William had heard that threat for every one of the twelve years of his life. The Raiders are coming. So far he'd come out every time and obeyed his parents in the fear of the Raiders, but they had never come.
"William? William!" He ignored the voice failing to hear the urgency in it. He thought about the sea just ahead of him, about two hundred yards away. He'd often watched it from the cliff top and always wanted to climb down the cliffs to see it close up, to touch its rippling mirrored surface. But his parents had always stopped him, saying that the Raiders might see him, might catch him.
The Raiders in Black were a legend that they lived in fear of, but no one had seen them in the village and William didn't believe they existed. He wasn't going to do everything he was told. He didn't anyway, so why should he humour them by coming out when the Raiders were mentioned? He could hear his mother and father conversing in hurried clipped sentences, but he wasn't interested.
"Where is he?" his mother asked.
"I don't know. I've been calling but he hasn't come out." His father answered in a lower tone.
"We're the last here. Everyone has gone except Jeffrey, but he's not leaving."
"Then we must go," his father stated flatly.
"We can't leave William. He's only a child." His mother said fretfully.
"If we want the rest of the children to live, we're going to have to. Look, I'll ask Jeffrey to keep an eye out for him and if he sees him, when he sees him, I'm sure he'll look after William. The Raiders won't hurt Jeffrey and he'll look after William. I'll go and ask him now, but then we have to go. We can't delay any more."
William pushed away his parent's voices and crawled carefully forward towards the cliffs ahead. He had decided to climb them. He would go down to the sandy beach that lies below and go to the sea. Carefully he looked over the edge, making sure that he couldn't be seen. Although he didn't believe in the Raiders, if his parents saw him they would stop him having fun. It was only because they couldn't find him that he got to leave the village at all. He had often planned his journey down the cliff and he didn't need long to spot the route now and begin on it. Down he climbed, a little cautiously now he was actually doing it. About half way down he clambered across to a ledge that looked wide enough to sit on. He sat warily on the ledge holding on tightly to it with both hands and looked out at the sea.
A slight mist hung over the water giving it a queer, silvered appearance. The sea birds were calling mournfully to one another and swooping down from the clear air into the mist only to reappear again and join their friends. After a few minutes the chill of the wind bit him and he decided to continue down the cliff. He slithered the last few feet to the bottom and brushed the sand from the sandstone cliffs off his hands. Then he stared. The sea that moved restlessly a little way away was more real and big than he'd ever realised. Its shimmering blue edge lapped upon the glinting sand while its further depths were green and slightly ominous and at the same time inviting. The gently ruffled waves that lapped on the sand appeared to be no higher than his calf but he couldn't quite help wonder whether his father had been telling him the truth that they could easily drag a man away and kill him. Surely such delightful surf as this couldn't be so dangerous? As though drawn by the sound and the smell and the sight of this new marvel, William stepped towards the water edge.
The cool water lapped over his bare feet. He tucked his tunic higher into his belt and waded happily out into the sea. The soft sand on which he was walking suddenly disappeared from under his feet and he found the sea round his shoulders for a moment and then too quickly for him to react, it leaped up over his head.
William slipped helplessly into the grasp of the se. He struggled desperately, trying to find the surface. It only lasted a moment but it was enough to scare him. As he broke the surface William gasped for air frantically thrashing at the water.
'Easy there lad,' a man's voice said gently. 'I've got you. You're not going to drown.'
Instantly William remembered every warning and threat his parents had ever said. Panic struck him at the thought that perhaps he'd been wrong and the Raiders did exist. He tried to squirm away from the strong hand that held him by the shoulder, but he simply found himself lifted out of the water and onto a boat. The man looked down at him where he half lay, half sat. "You ok lad?" the man asked kindly. William trembled slightly not knowing what to do. He decided that he didn't like the sea any more.
"What were you doing?" the man continued.
"I was only looking at the sea," William whimpered.
The man looked at him thoughtfully and then asked, "Where are your parents?"
William hesitated and then answered nervously. "They left the village. Everyone is leaving because of the…" he trailed off thinking of what may happen if this man was a Raider.
"The Raiders," the man finished. William simply nodded. "Then why didn't you go with them?" the man continued.
"I didn't believe there was… I didn't think the Raiders were real," he admitted.
The man laughed. "Where have I heard that before?" the man chuckled. "No lad. They're real all right," the man said grimly. "But now the best thing I think for you to do would be to climb back up the cliffs and re-join your parents and leave this area."
William considered this proposal. He could go back and be with his family, with his three sisters and four brothers, arguing over the best place at the table. Being told what to do. Always in fear of the Raiders who were now fact it appeared. Never being allowed out to play alone. Having to stay where everyone could see him. No fun, no adventure, only a closed-in childhood and then working on the farm like his oldest two brothers. Learning his letters like his other two brothers and his sisters. He shook his head fervently. He didn't want that life. "No," he said.
The man looked at him amazed. "Don't you want to be with your family?" he asked. "Don't you want to be safe from the Raiders?"
William shook his head again. "No I don't," he told the man. "If the Raiders really are a truth, I want to face them, not run from them."
"That's not a safe course to choose," the man told him.
"How would you know?" William said defiantly. Too defiantly. The answer he got left him speechless.
"Because I chose that course," the man answered, gently.
William was silent for quite a while before he could make head or tail of what the man had said. "If you know what to do," he said slowly, "Then you could teach me, couldn't you?" he suggested.
"Look. You really ought to go back to your parents. It's not safe to fight," the boatman argued, trying in vain to get the lad to go home.
"No," William protested and then added, "I don't know where they went anyway. But you could teach me all I need to know, couldn't you?"
The man paused before answering with questions. "Why do you want to fight them? As I've said, it's dangerous. Why fight when you can be safe?"
William thought for a moment then decided how best to answer. "If I go home," he began thoughtfully, "then the Raiders will only terrorise me and the village more. If I can't fight against them, I'm easy prey for them. But if I can fight, then I can protect others who can't. If I can fight I don't need to fear them and so others can be at ease. I want to fight so that I don't have to run. No one should have to run and I want to help in making that happen. I want to make a difference. That's why I want to fight. And you can teach me can't you? You will won't you?"
The man gave up as he saw the determined look in William's eyes. "Do you really think you've got what it takes to do it?" the man asked quietly but without really believing that this would put the boy off.
"Yes," William said quickly and then added more shyly "I think so."
The man laughed. "Maybe," he said thoughtfully and then smiled. "What's your name?" he asked more briskly.
The man paused then said, "Haven't you got a nickname or something that could be used instead of your real name?"
William shook his head. He didn't have friends and the name, "loner," that the boys in the village called him, he was not willing to share.
The man shrugged. "Well, Bill is often the Nickname given to Williams, so what about Billum?" he asked.
The way the man had said that name appealed to William. He smiled. "I like it," he told the man. "But what do I call you?"
"Jistern," the man said and picked up his ore. "Now tell me. Can you swim?"
"No," William replied remembering the frantic struggle with the sea.
"Can you row?"
"I don't know. I haven't done it before,"
"So that's a no,"
And so began William's training.