Stirling and Steel
___Stirling and Steel___
In September 1297, the Scottish Highlands were not as beautiful or as peaceful as they are these days. The countryside and surrounding area was currently in the midst of a desperate battle against the corrupt King Edward I and his English forces, who were attempting to take the country by force. A small band of Scottish rebels, under the leadership of William Wallace and Andrew de Moray, were making their way across the land to meet the invaders at Stirling Bridge…
Ralph was a simple man. He owned a small farm and hut next to the River Forth in Stirling, Scotland. He looked just like any other Scott at the time; bushy, red beard and hair, muscly arms and legs and broad shoulders. He farmed wheat and was happy enough doing so. But on September the 8th, two armies met on either side of Stirling Bridge. Ralph knew these to be the English army and the Scottish rebellion. He shouted rude phrases and foul swear words at the English with the rest of his farming neighbours, but either they were not heard, or they were ignored. Ralph saw an important looking man step forward from the English side of the bridge. Even from his distance, Ralph could hear what the man was saying very clearly.
“You have defied the rightful king to the Scottish throne for long enough!” The man screamed. “Your unlawful foolishness is causing your nation constant pain and struggle! On behalf of the King, I give you the opportunity to stand down and end this once and for all! Your families will continue to suffer until you do so!” he stepped back and waited. Nothing happened.
Nothing happened for three whole days. Then finally, ever so slowly, the English army began to move onto the bridge. It was hard to tell that they were moving at all; the only obvious way you could tell they were, was by the deafening clanking of the weapons and armour. But if you looked close enough, you could see the glinting armour moving slightly.
It seemed to take hours, to Ralph, for the soldiers to get even a quarter way across Stirling Bridge. At last they reached the middle of the bridge. Suddenly, a piercing scream split was added to the clamour. Ralph started with surprise at the new noise and looked around in confusion. The he spotted the Scots. They were still on the other side of the bridge, but now they were hurling spears and loosing arrows down onto the defenceless English soldiers, who were rushing about madly, trying to get off the bridge. Some attempted to escape by jumping off the bridge, but they were shot in the water as easily as fish in a barrel. Ralph saw yet another soldier jump into the river, thinking maybe that he would be the one to escape. But an arrow pierced his torso and he disappeared. No body floated to the surface of the water though. Ralph assumed the man had sunk from all the heavy equipment he had been carrying.
Ten minutes later the countryside was quiet again, except for the chirping of birds and the rushing of the river. The Scottish had defeated the English. Those who had not been shot had managed to escape, but not many had. Carnage was strewn across the bridge and the river had not yet devoured the last of its meal. As Ralph approached the aftermath of the battle, he was filled with a sense of horror. Severed limbs were lying here and there and the empty lifeless eyes of the soldiers gazed up at the lone living figure. Blood was pooling out of the arrow wounds in the corpses, tracking a path across the bridge, then dripping into the water below, which was beginning to blush a bright crimson. Ralph hurried away before he was sick. To think that people would do that to fellow humans, it was disgusting. And it bought back horrible memories. Memories from not so long ago… Ralph shook himself. He knew he shouldn’t think about those things.
On his way home, the farmer noticed a trail of trampled wheat leading to the small shed just outside his hut. Curious, he followed the path that had been tracked through the crop. He assumed it must have been a lost dog or some other animal, but then noticed that it was far to wide and that blood was splattered along the trail. Now worried, Ralph increased his pace until he was running. He arrived at his shed but slowed to a cautious pace. The door of the tool shed was slightly open. Only a person could have done that. Ralph gently pushed the door open, which creaked ominously. “Ahhhhhhh!” the sudden shout split the morning air. A man rushed out of the gloom brandishing a sword. With lightning fast reflexes, Ralph grabbed a scythe off the wall and parried the swipe the man had directed at his head. In return he swung back, but the shot, which would have decapitated his opponent, was likewise blocked. The move had knocked the man off-balance, though, and Ralph quickly overcame him with a series of swift and graceful motions. It was as though the farmer were holding a sword himself. The stranger swore loudly when he hit the ground, but he immediately tried to get back up. Ralph stood over the man and signalled for him to drop his sword and give up. The man glared at the farmer but stabbed his sword into the ground. “Where did you learn to fight?” the man demanded.
“Who are yeh? What do yeh wan’?” Ralph boomed in his harsh Scottish accent, ignoring the man’s question.
“I am a soldier of the British army, traitor! I jumped off the bridge during the battle and swam here, looking for a place to hide.” Now that he mentioned it, Ralph could hear the educated British accent in the soldier’s strained voice and see the tattered, bloody remains of his uniform. “Yer the soldier who I saw get shot in the water!” Ralph realised. “Yeh got away. Yeh must have a lot of strength in yeh after being wounded. But where did yeh get shot?” The soldier rolled into his side, displaying the shaft of an arrow buried in his flesh. Ralph winced. He nearly regretted what he was about to do. But he had to. This was a traitor. He had probably killed many innocent people in his time as a soldier.
Suddenly Ralph was transported back to a moment when he had been younger. He saw his beautiful wife, Caroline. She was so beautiful it appeared she was surrounded with a golden, glowing halo. But something was wrong. Caroline was not laughing or dancing. In her hands was a small, furry form; a bunny. It’s silky soft side was covered in blood. Ralph stood and stared as his wife rushed into the house and tended to the baby rabbit. She washed it’s wound and applied herbs to it before stitching the cut up. “You see,” Caroline said softly “A little kindness goes a long way. People are grateful when you are kind.”
As the image of Caroline faded in Ralph’s mind, he knew he could not and would not be able to kill the man. He let loose a deranged and frustrated cry. The soldier shrank back. Ralph lowered his gaze to the man sitting on the ground before him. “I will no’ kill yeh, but yeh will have ter help me on the farm in exchange.” Ralph held out his hand.
“How do I know you won’t kill me later?” the soldier asked with a concerned look on his face.
The soldier nodded and allowed himself to be hauled up by his would-be killer. “Walter. And you are?”
“Thank you for not killing me. You don’t know how much it means to me, being saved by your enemy.”
“Don’ mention it.” Ralph muttered gruffly through his beard. “It’s just the decent thing ter do.”
Having someone else on the farm was a huge help. Things that would have taken two days before Walter’s arrival now took one. In addition, Ralph had company for the first time in five years. Ever since Caroline’s death in 1292 from the plague, Ralph had been on his own. At first his grief had completely overcome him, but eventually he got back to work, knowing that Caroline would not want him doing nothing because of her.
The farmer told Walter all of this, and in return, Walter told Ralph things about his life. For someone who was still in their early twenties, Walter had experienced a lot.
“When the Scottish Independence overran my village, I enlisted to fight against them. I soon found out that I cannot fight. I pretended I was merciless, but the other soldiers knew that I wasn’t real. I had to do something to get away, so when we arrived at Stirling Bridge, I took my chance. Unfortunately, though,” Walter said through gritted teeth “some bloody Scott got me when I tried to escape.”
The arrow wound in Walter’s side was now bandaged up and healing, but it still caused him grief in the night.
“I had to shrug off my chainmail when I was swimming away, so I didn’t drown, but I managed to hold onto the sword. I thought it might come in handy in case I ran into trou-“
“What? What’s oh no? Oh no!” Two figures were approaching in the distance and by the clothes they were wearing, Ralph and Walter knew them to be Scottish warriors. “Quick, hide! I’ll deal with ‘em.” Ralph whispered urgently. As Walter scurried off to hide in the shed, Ralph approached the men. They met about twenty metres from the hut. “We wan’ yeh back.” The first man said simply in a voice deeper than Ralph’s. “I’ve told yeh, I’m not comin’ back! I will play no further part in this war! I will kill no more! I will no’ fight again!” Ralph replied fiercely.
“William Wallace requested yeh himself.” The second man said, referring to the leader of the Scottish Army. “We need yeh! Yer the best warrior in the land. Without yeh, we canno’ win this war!”
“I won’ do it! Never again!”
“Fine then! But mark my words, when we win, ye will be remembered only as the coward who would not defend his country and its rights!” the second warrior shouted at the farmer’s departing back. “And they will remember ye and the rest of ‘em as kill-mongers!” Ralph thundered.
Back at the hut it was clear from Walter’s angered expression that he had heard everything. “You used to be one of them? How could you not tell me?” the young man exclaimed angrily.
“It don’ matter. That was a different life. A life I want ter forget forever. A life I regret.” Ralph muttered shamefully. “It does matter though! If they find out that you’re housing me, they’ll hang us both!” Walter said nervously, beginning to panic. “They can’ have known though,” Ralph reasoned “You hid before they could have recognised yeh. Didn’t yeh?”
“We can only hope.” Walter said despairingly.
The next evening the two men were outside planting trees, when they saw another group of warriors approaching Ralph’s land. “So many visitors we’re gettin’, eh?” Ralph joked, trying to look on the bright side. Both Ralph and Walter were nearly certain they knew why the men were there, though. “They know.” Walter hissed.
“We can’ be certain, though. I say we greet ‘em but carry tools in case things get ugly.”
“You won’t abandon me?” Water asked, looking relieved.
“Course no’.” Ralph replied. They got up, grabbed a scythe and pitchfork and casually walked over to the approaching men, which was incredibly difficult, seeing how terrified they were.
“Evenin’!” Ralph said in a falsely cheerful tone. “Wha’ brings ye all to my fine estate?” Ralph noticed that the two men who had been there yesterday were not present in this group. “Cut the chat, traitor!” one man spat savagely. “We know yer sheltering an English invader!” He pointed at Walter, who was standing partially concealed behind Ralph. “So wha’?” Ralph asked bluntly, dropping his cheery demeanour. “So wha’? So wha’?” another man repeated. “They’re murderers! They’re savage! They’re tryin’ ter take our land and rights along with it! How dare yeh help one of them!”
“By order of William Wallace, ye are ter stand trial for your terrible crimes.” A warrior said calmly.
“I’ll die before I’m declared guilty of doin’ nothin’ wrong.” Ralph growled.
“As will I.” Walter said proudly, placing his hand on Ralph’s shoulder.
“Then die you will.” The same warrior said. He swung at Ralph with great power, but the move was blocked with the scythe. In return, the ex-warrior lunged and sliced, finally delivering a blow that knocked the man’s head off his neck. It rolled on the grass before coming to a halt face down. Two more fighters came at him, but both were defeated with relative ease.
Next to him, a blood-splattered Walter was engaged in combat with a tall and powerfully built man who looked as though he was about to overcome the slighter soldier. “Duck!” Ralph roared. Walter did so, and Ralph incapacitated the man, who had been about to do the same to his opponent. “You might want to do the drop as well.” Walter panted. He suddenly lunged forward over Ralph’s head and drove his weapon into the last warrior. Ralph was helped up by Walter and the two embraced, both breaking down and crying. “Thought yeh couldn’t fight.” Ralph managed to get out between his sobbing. “I can fight to protect my friends.” Walter replied tearfully.
A sharp pain erupted suddenly in both men’s midsection. Looking down, they a saw a blade cutting through both of their bodies. It withdrew and looking around, they witnessed a man collapsing with a bloodied blade in his limp hand. Ralph collapsed. “Stay with me, mate.” Walter groaned through his pain. He dragged himself and his friend across the ground to a nearby alder tree. He propped up Ralph’s body against the tree and then sat down painfully next to him. “It was good knowin’ yeh.” Ralph said softly. “Thanks for everything.” Walter managed to push through his lips. He placed his arm around Ralph’s shoulders and the dying man did the same. In the setting sunlight, the men’s lives drifted off together, eternally friends, even in death.
Not far off, the sword that remained from the day the friends met, glowed pink in the last light, and was swallowed by the night.