I crested a small ridge and the countryside became familiar. It wasn’t anything that could be seen, not any feature or landmark, it had to do with the scent of the air, the feel under my feet and the quality of the sunlight. I inhaled deeply and knew that I was almost home.
I was but a child when I was ripped from my parents’ arms and given an unbalanced spear and loose fitting leather cap. I was told to kill or be killed, that king and country depended on me and my fellow farm hands that were rounded up to be shipped to distant lands to fight for noble arguments none of us understood.
Within weeks I was the only person from my village left alive. Within months there was no other surviving commoner from within day’s walk of my childhood home. The local lord, who had taken me from my fields, died within the first year. His lord, a baron, was dead within three. Ten years of constant battle and we had taken the enemy’s capital. Another five and I was sent home, dressed in fine silks and fine mail, a bag of gold and silver at my hip and another tied to my saddle.
And yet, I would trade all of that gold and silver, all of the silk and finery stolen from the dead hands of our enemy, for the familiar voices of my parents.
I soon recognized the hills and the shapes of the land itself. Before too long I could see the distant bell tower of the village church and the silhouette of the local lord’s castle on the hill. Only a few more miles, through the village and then to the fields beyond, I would return to our farm. I was thinking that perhaps I could use the money I had gained to buy my family’s freedom from the serfdom that tied our land and muscle to the local lord, when a thought struck me.
I had not seen another living person in hours. All of the fields laid fallow, the homes derelict. I continued on, more afraid than I had been in any of the countless battles I had faced.
The village was deserted, the buildings in ruins. I could tell that the castle had fared no better.
I dug my heels into my horse, urging him to go faster.
With every passing footfall, the dread grew deeper. Nobody had been here in years.
Rounding a corner, I came to my childhood home, or at least what was left of it.
I dismounted and left my horse to fend for itself as I walked around the burnt-out buildings. Wading through the weed choked gardens, I came upon an old lady who was bowed in front of a wooden grave marker.
“Please, ma’am, what has happened here? What has happened to the people?” I asked.
Without turning, she answered, “The king sent all of the able-bodied men, many no more than boys, away to fight in a useless war. With all of our defenses overseas, wave after wave of invaders came through, killing most, taking the rest as slaves.”
“And the king, he knew about this?”
“Of course he did. Messages were sent pleading for help. But he just came and took more of our people to feed his insatiable appetite for foreign conquest as he stayed totally derelict of duty here on the home-front.”
“And yet, you are still here,” I said.
She stood up and turned around to face me. With a gasp, I recognized the gnarled, stooped old lady.
“I was waiting for you,” my mother said.