The Raiders Are Coming
William sat at the table and smirked as he pushed away last night's tallow candle in its clay holder. As usual, he was the first in the kitchen and the fire in the mud brick hearth was unlit. Not that it would be lit today. They had far too much to do, even with the preparations of the last two days. William didn't care about that though. He pulled the loaf of bread that had been left out for breakfast towards him, pushed off the flimsy cloth covering and tore off a chunk. Next he looked for the cheese. Usually he'd have rummaged through the various sacks and bowls that lined the wooden shelf on the wall of the room opposite the fireplace, but this morning all those were already packed up, ready to be loaded into the cart. He found the cheese behind the bread under another of his mother's prized linen cloths to protect it from the mid-summer flies. Knowing how he liked to eat his breakfast before anyone else was up, William's mother always cut him a few slices and left them ready for the morning, but this time it had evidently slipped her mind in all the hassle of the previous night. William's smile faded and he replaced the cover. Then his eye alighted on the milk jug on the shelf. Quickly he crossed the room and moved the jug to the long wooden table. The ten mugs belonging to the various members of his family were also arrayed in two lines on the table, waiting to be packed after breakfast. William picked up his and filled it with some of the creamy milk. Leaning back dangerously on the only stool that hadn't yet been packed into the cart, he took a long slurping swig and his smirk returned.
A heavy thud resounded from the boys' room, even through the split log board walls and closed door. "So someone else is up," he thought. "It could be any of my brothers from that thud," but then he revised his analysis. It wouldn't be Lance. Lance had a quiet ease of movement that William shared and his other three brothers lacked and envied. The noises from the boys' room continued with slightly less volume. Then they were joined by softer rustling sounds from the girls' room. The smallest room where their parents slept was still silent. That was no surprise. William had been long asleep before they stopped fussing about packing things.
He glanced at the rough ladder that lead up to the storage space under the thatch. Should he hide and keep out of the way of his brothers this morning? No. he took another swig from his mug and finished off the bread he'd taken. The sun was warm and bright, falling through the open shutters of the small window, showing up the bare room and beckoning him to play. Outside was where he wanted to be, not hiding in the thatch. The small farming village of around twenty houses, with no more than three or four rooms in each could easily be searched for him, but the grassland and the fields were vast. No one would find him out there. They never did.
His uncle George had gone travelling once as had his dad and they'd told of houses with twenty rooms. Such things were beyond William's imagination. Perhaps you could enjoy being in such a place, but here, the grass was his playground and the animals, his intrigue. He brushed the crumbs off his tunic and slurped some more milk. Yes he'd go out today, even if everyone said he mustn't. He tipped the mug and swallowed the last of the milk, running his tongue round the edge to pick up the cream that clung there.
His oldest brother walked in, rubbing his eyes and yawning. "How many mugs of milk have you had?" Stan demanded authoritatively.
"One," William said defensively as he jumped to his feet and near enough dropped the mug on to the table. He wasn't going to be caught sitting down if Stan decided to hit him, as he had done the day before.
"Like I'm going to believe that," Stan muttered.
William was used to Stan being nasty. It was as though he relished being mean to William, although his bad temper extended to all in the early mornings.
"Don't forget we're moving today," he barked at William although William knew that what he really meant to say was "Don't forget to empty the straw from your mattress and pack it with your blankets and clothes on the cart and generally help us with the move." Stan had never been very good at saying what he actually meant and William was used to it.
Their dad had been telling them that they were moving for the last three days, ever since he'd brought the news 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, crops and larger pieces of furniture behind. This was the day that they were bound to leave. It was thought by the more optimistic villagers that they could come back later to harvest the crops, if any remained, but most doubted that there was any hope of that.
"Where are we going?" William asked for the twentieth time since he'd heard that they were moving.
"Don't know," Stan growled angrily. "Just 'cos I'm nineteen 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 he'd have to go to school.
"I'm going out," he announced, knowing full well that he'd meet resistance.
"No you're not," Stan snapped predictably. He stepped towards William and in front of the door. William tried to duck round him but it didn't work. For once, Stan was too quick.
"Alan! George! Lance!" Stan called the other boys.
As soon as Stan started calling, William decided to try another trick before Alan who blindly followed their older brother in all things and George who thought he was being tuff, picking on his youngest brother, could come in. He didn't care about Lance. Although Lance would join in, which irritated William, he was the only one who would be kind to him when they were alone. Now, he backed off cautiously, then turned round and darted into the girl's room. Lucy's horrified screech greeted him as he sprinted across the earthen floor to the window. The other two girls, still in bed, ducked under the covers.
"Go away!" Lucy cried out. "I'm getting dressed!"
She was already wearing her white dress with a thin red apron over and her long dark hair was tied up into its customary ponytail with a bright red ribbon. The only thing that she had not donned was her floppy summer hat, which she held in one elegant hand.
"Go away! You're not meant to come in here anyway." She screamed.
William pushed the shutters open and jumped out the window.
Lance ambled into the kitchen and picked up what was left of the bread. "What you calling for?" he asked quietly, pointedly unconcerned.
"William's just run out again," Stan 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 into it. Fumbling among the other items it already contained, he pulled out a new goat water skin and filled it with the milk from the jug.
"Hey!" Stan exclaimed indignantly. "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. I'm going to view the world!" He seemed excited, something Stan had not seen in his brother before, but he chose to ignore it.
"Doesn't mean you can have all the milk.2 he snapped. 2You couldn't drink all that for breakfast anyway," he declared and made a grab at the skin.
Lance jerked it away and struck at Stan with the other hand. Stan, strong and muscular as he was, was no match for Lance's clear tactical judgement and agility and could easily be knocked down with one quick move. Now, however, he only found himself shoved back against the wall, watching perplexed as Lance helped himself to the goat's cheese, wrapping it in a piece of cloth and bagging it. A role of writing paper fell out of the bag and Lance quickly retrieved it.
Stan scowled. Lance was the only one in the family who could read fluently and Stan was jealous of him. He 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". His days were spent working on the farm and looking after the cattle with Alan who was a year younger. Farming was what he did best and he liked it. He tried to comfort himself with the thought that you don't need to be able to read to farm, but whenever he saw Lance, at sixteen, reading fluently, it filled him with envy.
He continued to scowl at his brother while Lance opened one of the packed baskets of food and removed a lump of salt beef, a lamb chop and a bag of beans, putting them all into his leather bag and closing the lid again. He was obviously packing for the journey and not just for breakfast. How come he was going to Uncle George anyway?
"You can't just go," Stan whined, watching while Lance packed even more food into the bag from a second basket. Their parents had left out these baskets when they were packing the cart so that they could have food to hand should they need more than expected. With Lance taking the bread and cheese, it would indeed be necessary for these baskets to be opened again.
"Why not?" Lance replied casually as he put his leather bag across his shoulder again.
"Because," Stan 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. "That would only end in arguments and this is an opportunity I am not going to miss. I've been thinking about it. I think William's got the right idea. Just go." He pushed the door open. "Goodbye," he said and walked out leaving Stan 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 sisters' room but it was the only window that was big enough and easy to open. He ran past the last house, dodged round the conker tree that stood at the corner of the village and ran out into the open grassland of the Hin.
He was free, but only for a short while. All the carts would gather together soon, towed by oxen or donkeys. Everything they could take with them was already packed up. Soon they would leave.
William had no intention of joining them. He wanted to hide in the grass and sleep outside for the night. He wanted to watch rabbits, badgers and birds and knock down the conkers in the coming 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 anywhere. Anyway, he didn't believe that everyone would run away. Everyone trembled at the mention of the Raiders and William thought that was stupid. He lay in the sun and half-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. Would he go with them? He didn't want to, but what else could he do? Run away? He had time yet to decide.
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 above his head. The kestrel thrust its wings out and soared away.
"William," his father gruffly demanded 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 none had ever come. For over a year now he'd questioned their existence, but still come out.
"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. The sea had always held some intrigue, mostly because he'd been banned from going down to it. No children were allowed to use the steep slippery path that snaked its way down to the sand that the sea left when the tide was low. Once he'd gone down with his father, but it was so long ago he didn't remember it. In general there was no reason to go down there. The hard sand that the sea exposed and the slimy cliffs didn't support anything edible and with nowhere to safely keep a boat, fishing was out of the question. The only time the adults went down was after a storm when some seaweed would usually be washed up. This they would collect to put as fertiliser on their crop fields. At sixteen the boys could join their fathers in doing this, but before that it was forbidden. It was considered too dangerous. All the adults agreed on it. Apparently a child had slipped and fallen to her death when they were still children and the memory of it stayed with them. Now they drilled into their children the danger of the cliffs. The path was too steep. They might fall and even if they didn't, the Raiders might see them and they might catch them.
The Raiders in Black! A mighty army of all kinds of the fiercest men, fighting, killing, burning and destroying wherever they went. Thieves and rebels. Murderers. A legend that they lived in fear of. What proof was there that it was anything more than a legend? No one had seen them in the village, so why should he believe in them? 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, his voice a mild growl.
"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.
"He's probably gone already," his father griped. "You know what he's like. He'll most likely be with my brother and Lance. Remember what Stan said about them going off together? But even if he isn't, if we want the rest of the children to live, we're going to have to go now. I'll ask Jeffrey to keep an eye out for him just in case he's still here, which I'm sure he isn't, and when he sees him, If 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. In fact you should go now and I'll catch up."
"But William…" the words faded to a stammer and then a stifled sob.
"Go woman," His father's voice seemed irritated. "I've already said…"
William pushed away his parent's voices and crawled quietly towards the cliffs. He had made his decision. He would go down to the sandy beach below and once again see the sea. It was now or never. 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.
William slipped over the edge of the cliffs and found the start of the path about two and a half feet from the top with his feet. Without the protection of the long grass the wind brought a slight chill to the air brushing his face. He breathed in the smells of land and sea, surprised that he was suddenly cautious. Then he turned and descended the path keeping close to the cliff and often gripping tightly to clumps of grass that grew near the top. As he got lower the grass gave out and he had to grasp at the cliff itself. He felt the slimy algae beneath his feet, constantly threatening to make him slip off the narrow path. The wind that blew from the southeast was now nearly completely blocked by the cliffs and a slight mist hung over the water giving it a queer, silvered appearance. The sea birds were calling mournfully further out at sea. William paused on the path and looked out at them, but the mist obscured the more distant details. Even so the immediate view was clear in the warmth of the still summer day. A small boat ventured across the otherwise empty rolling sea, but William paid that no heed. The riches of the beach with its golden sand and silver water were waiting for him. He hurried on, sliding a little in his haste, but catching himself in his normal easy way and continuing with a little more care.
Ignoring the path he slithered the last few feet to the bottom and brushed the sand from the 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 shore appeared to be no higher than his calf but he couldn't 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 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 smooth 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.