Hold The Gates
"Ten minutes!" came the shout from above. The man turned and faced the people scurrying around below his ladder. "Ten minutes!" he shouted again.
In the distance the cloud of dust was growing rapidly closer and the sound of thumping hooves could be heard on the wind as they approached the village, only ten minutes from the gates now. They had first been noticed just under an hour ago, and ever since then all the able bodied men and children had been desperately running around trying to prepare, trying to find anything and everything they could use as a weapon. The old, greying man atop the ladder had been looking out over the village walls and counting down to the army's inevitable arrival...Fifty minutes, fourty minutes, thirty, twenty...now only ten remained.
The air was filled with the sounds of crying as mothers clutched their children to them, refusing to let them go, braying horses being pulled this way and that through the crowds, and metal on metal as every last piece of the heavy material was swiftly rounded up and thrust into the hand of a trembling villager.
"Ashton! Ashton where are you?!" a woman's voice cried through the noise and panic.
"I'm here!" A young man - no more than eighteen - pushed his way through a group of men and hurried over to his mother's side.
"I can't find your sister! Have you seen her?" the woman cried, wiping the tears from her eyes and leaving a dirty black stain on her face.
"Wait here, I'll find her!" Ashton shouted and then turned and ran back through the crowds.
"Lianne! Lianne where are you?" he shouted, trying to make out her face through the rush of bodies. "Lianne!"
He tried desperately to remember where the last place he'd seen her was. Was it the market? No, she had left there before him earlier, but where had she gone? She must have said! Damn it, just hurry up and remember!
He pushed on through the seemingly endless crowds of terrified people, knocking several of them to the ground as he ran, but there was no time to stop and apologise.
"Rowan!" he shouted, as he saw one of his friends close by. The boy turned to see who was calling him, his face was almost white with fear. "Rowan, have you seen Lianne, I can't find her!" Ashton asked, panting as he made his way over to his friend.
"I think I saw her down by the Southern gates earlier", he replied quietly, his eyes darting around all the time, watching as people went running by.
"For God sake boy, hurry up with those swords!" Boomed a huge voice from behind them.
"Sorry, I've got to go", said Rowan, picking up several swords and running towards his father.
Ashton didn't have time to offer to help, he headed immediately for the Southern gates. It was a little quieter towards the South of the village, the army was coming in from the North so that's where everyone was gathering, but there were still a few stragglers there taking their time to get ready, trying to put off having to go and fight. Several pairs of eyes watched him from their homes as he tore through the dusty streets, his footsteps thudding heavily on the ground as he ran.
"Lianne!" he shouted again, hoping that wherever she was she would hear him.
As he reached the gates he looked around, but he couldn't see her anywhere. The gates were firmly locked, so there was no way she could have gotten outside, she must be there somewhere!
"Ashton!" cried a young girl.
He whipped around and saw her over by the wall, crouched down, hugging her knees. He rushed towards her.
"Come on Lianne, we've got to get you back to mum."
The girl was crying quite heavily, the tears were pouring down her face, leaving light red streaks on her cheeks. Ashton held out his hand and she tentitively took it.
"Come on, it'll be alright, " he reassured her, helping her to her feet.
She tried to respond, but all she managed was a tearful hicough.
They ran back through the streets, not as fast as Ashton would have liked, but Lianne's legs weren't as long as his and she couldn't run as fast.
Their mother let out a cry of relief when she saw them approaching and she rushed to hug them both. Ashton pulled himself free of her embrace and turned to look at the gates.
"Five minutes!" came the shout from above once again, and Ashton gave his mother and sister one last kiss on the cheek, then tore away to find his sword.
He burst through the door of their home and ran straight to his room. His sword was by his bed like it always was, he picked it up and held it out in front of himself for a moment, just staring it, feeling the cool metal in his hand.
Five minutes, that was all they had left...all he had left. Would his life end in five minutes? He didn't see how they were going to get out of this alive, they were just a small village of farmers and tradesmen, they were not an army. They had all known this day would come eventually; as soon as word reached them of the invasion they knew that one day the forces would reach their home, but what were they to do about it? There was nowhere else to go, nowhere was safe anymore, and by just getting on with their lives and trying to forget about it, it started to seem as if maybe they would be okay. The army was thousands of miles away fighting in the cities and the towns, they would have no need to come all the way out here to a small village, what would be the point? The war was nothing but a story to them - words told over and over again of fighting and death on the other side of the country. But now it was real...much too real.
For a moment he had the overwhelming urge to just throw down his sword, get into bed and go to sleep. If he was asleep he wouldn't have to think about any of this, the army would get here soon and they could just kill him in his sleep, he need not even know it was happening, just drift off into a pleasant slumber and never wake up.
Who was he trying to kid, he knew he would never be able to get to sleep even if he tried. Besides, it was his duty to stand and fight, to defend his home, his family, his friends. He was no coward!
He gripped the sword tightly until he could feel the rough edges of the hilt digging into his skin. He didn't want to fight. As much as he knew he had to, he didn't want to. He was only eighteen, he had had so many plans for his life - meet a nice girl, get married, have some children, watch them grow up into fine adults and go off to make their own way in the world. When he used to picture those moments of his future they had seemed so clear, he could really imagine himself kissing that girl, standing holding her hand as they married, watching as their children ran off to play. Now the image was blurred and fading, like a dream you try desperately to remember but can't. And that's all it was now - a dream, nothing more.
It wasn't fair. Why did he have to die so young? Why couldn't he have the life he wanted and craved? What did he ever do to deserve this?
He wiped a tear from his face, half ashamed at himself for being so cowardly and half just wanting to break down and let them flow.
"Two minutes!" the shout came from outside.
Ashton took a deep breath and turned. He made his way slowly outside, savouring every last second, every sensation as he stepped across the wooden floor of his home for the last time.
Outside it was much quieter now, all the men and boys were lined up facing the gates. Ashton stood by his door and gazed out over the terrified faces. For a moment he felt the urge to laugh as he looked at them, they looked ridiculous - the young boys in huge pieces of rusting armour, with helmets falling down over their eyes and swords almost as tall as themselves. But when he looked closer at their faces the urge left him. Most were crying, even some of the grown men were wiping tears from their eyes. No-one was talking, but the sound of metal scraping and clanging against metal as the boys stood there shaking was loud enough.
Ashton moved forwards and took his place in the rows of fighters, beside a young boy he had seen a few times before. He must have been barely ten, but there he was, covered from head to toe in brown and grey armour, barely able to stand under the weight of it all.
"They're here!" the man shouted from above. Then the rush of an arrow tore through the air and the man fell backwards from his ladder, landing with a crunch on the ground below.
Beyond the gate they could hear men shouting and horses thumping on the ground. The gates began to shudder as the army charged them. How long would they last? A minute? Less?
Ashton raised his sword in front of him, and the crowd followed suit. How long did he have to live now, he wondered, thirty seconds? He closed his eyes and listened to the booming sounds as the gate was rammed again and again. It all seemed so unreal, like he was dreaming. This couldn't really be happening could it? Well if he was dreaming he had better hurry up and wake.
The boy beside him let out a loud wail and struggled to hold up his sword.
What would death be like, Ashton wondered absentmindedly. Would it be quick and painless, like a swift crack to the head and then nothing? Or would it be long and drawn out? Would he lie bleeding for hours, wishing and hoping it would end? He hoped it was quick. He didn't want to know he was dying. Just let it catch me by surprise before I know what's happening, he thought to himself.
The sound of wood cracking filled the air and the gate smashed to the floor. Ashton opened his eyes and looked out at the army, all sitting atop magnificent horses, shining in their spotless armour. How many of them were there? There was no time to count, but hundreds no doubt.
For a moment nothing happened. Neither side moved, neither side spoke. They just stood there staring at each other. The silence seemed to go on for eternity, and Ashton thought of his sister and his mother.
Then they charged.
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