Thursday, August 19, 2010

Fiction: "Ploughman"

I have no real comment to make for this one, except to thank you in advance for any feedback you might give. I have published it in its entirety on this page.

**This is the version that I have edited for submission. It is quite a bit different in phrasing, rhythm, and style than the first.


Somewhere overhead, flies buzzed and a hawk called. Tall grass swayed in the breeze, tickling his face and arms. He breathed raggedly, open-mouthed, the only human sound around. Beyond the smell of blood and death, the scent of wheat still lingered, drifting to his nose, his mind. The smell of good earth and green grass; it was the smell of life to a ploughman.

He touched again the blade that pinned him to the earth. Slick with oil and his own blood, it had resisted his attempts to pull it from his belly. He’d lacerated his fingers trying; now he was too weak to do anything but try to push it away.

He had never meant to be a soldier. He’d never wanted to wear the leather for his king, never wanted to go into battle with an axe in hand. An axe was meant for trees and stumps. It wasn’t meant to be used on another. His axe was steel and oak, and lay just out of reach. He had always planned to use it until the grave, never knowing how close that would be.

His king had called him, and he, a man of the plough, had come.

The king was not a bad man. He taxed his subjects at the same rate. It was steep, but it was fair. The taxes paid for the wardens who patrolled the lands, the roads that carried the goods, the priests in the city, the walls of the stronghold, and the men that stood upon them. They paid the price of civilization.

They paid the price of protection.

Never before had the king called on his subjects to stand and fight, to pay the price. He had called them all – ploughmen, smiths, tinkers, greengrocers. They had come. He had left his plough sitting in the field, his mules standing in the stalls.

His son, Jed, could reach the plough handles, but he was still too small to control it. Sharlotte would have to hire a man to work the fields that he had worked since he was a boy. She would do so, even though she would grieve the loss of her husband in battle. She would never know that he waited for an army that did not come. She would never know that he had fallen, not to the soldiers of an invading army, but to something worse.

She would never know that his life was taken by heroes.

He lifted his head, trying to find his axe. He reached for it, unable to touch the wooden haft. Stretching, yearning, his fingers fell short again and again. Exhausted, his head fell back to the earth. Coughing, blood spat from his mouth, alighting on his chin and neck, joining that which was already there.

A tyrant, one of his fellows had said. From over the horizon, an army rode toward us, and they believed our king to be a tyrant. Taxing his people wrongly, imprisoning his people in the gaols below the stronghold; our king was a tyrant whose reign needed to end.

Yes, there were men and women in the gaols – people who deserved to be there. Bandits and thieves, murderers and drunkards; these sorts were held to task for their crimes. Had he been king, had he been born to rule and not to plough, he would have done the same.

Yet he was no tyrant.

He lay still, wishing he had brought his cutting knife with him to the battle that had never come. A knife in his hand would have ended the pain quicker than the sword that was doing it.

This blade would be his epitaph. No words would be spoken over it.

No one made any noise, save for the insects and the birds. The others had died during the night. Those few that had lasted until morning had coughed, cried, and prayed, but all were silent before the sun rose to noon.

The ones who survived, those few had run. He would have run, had he been able to. But he had fallen early to a man in mail, a man who drove him to the ground and left his blade inside him. Heroes fought not for king or country or coin, but for an idea. That their king should die and so should all who tried to stop the heroes – that was an idea.

He and the others had arranged themselves in ragged lines, watching the horizon, waiting for the army to come from the north. None of them knew who would sit on the throne if the king were gone, but all of them would fight to keep him there. They were not warriors, but they were men of honor, men of the earth, their king’s men.

As boys, they often dreamt of fighting for honor and king. Jed did, with his friends. Holding sticks like swords and axes, they played at war, but it was only play. Like his father, Jed’s hands would callous from the plough handles, not from weapons he would choose not to wield. He would never be a warrior. He would never be a hero.

The heroes had come, seemingly, from nowhere. At one moment, it was only the king’s men, watching and waiting. A moment later, a dozen or so men appeared, cutting into them, opening chests and bellies, taking heads from shoulders. The heroes bristled with weapons – swords and poleaxes, bows and crossbows, some things he had never seen. The man in mail who had left him pinned to the ground had drawn another blade from off his back and cut open the neck of the smith who had spoken of tyrants.

It was over as quickly as it had started. Those that couldn’t run lied on the grass and joined their fellows in death. Cursed or blessed with a few more hours of life, he had sweated through the night, weighed down by the leather, unable to free himself. He didn’t sweat now, now that he was cold.

He raised his chin, straining to look back over his head at the sun. It was descending to the west. Nightfall would soon arrive, and like all ploughmen he would close his eyes with the coming darkness.

For a moment, sunlight glinted off his axe’s unstained blade. He smiled and reached once more. Turning his body, forcing the sword deeper into him, he stretched and found the handle. He wrapped his calloused fingers around it, pulling it to him.

Strength gone, he sank back to the earth, gripping the axe, but unable to lift it. Cold and exhausted, he closed his eyes.

This is not a weapon. It is the tool of a ploughman. In a just world, this would become my son’s.

He pulled the axe as close to his chest as he could, pressing the oak and steel against him.

Sharlotte, my wife, I should never have left. I should never have taken the leather and left the plough in the field. I should never have left you my widow, or my son without a father. I will pass with your face in my gaze.

I dream of a place where we see each other again, where we can watch our son play. I dream of a place where an axe is only a tool, where the earth is rich and moist, where the grass is green and sweet, and the harvest is bountiful.

I dream of a place with no heroes…

Somewhere overhead, flies buzzed and a hawk called.


  1. Creepy...that's the main feeling I get from this. That, and vidication that D&D characters are inherently evil. :)

    I like it, but still have to say I preferred "A Chilling Wind" for it's shudder inducing, and "Melbourn's Storm" for haunted human moments.

  2. Thanks, Tony. I think of it as part of the same tableau. A sort of "Reflections of Darkness" if you will...

  3. Reminds me of Russel Crowe's death scene in Gladiator-- he touches the wheat as if all of those stalks are children, and the dirt it grew in is an old friend.

  4. I have some mixed feelings about that, myshorterstories. (Can I call you "stories?" Calling you "my" seems a bit forward.)

    I love "Gladiator," and think that is one of the most memorable death scenes in movie history. However, I didn't mean for this to be reminiscent of it all.

    The germ of the idea came to me while listening to a song referencing a World War I battle.

    Until your comment, I hadn't even put the two scenes together in my head. Now I'd a tad worried that everyone else will...

  5. Actually, this reminds me of epic poetry, if you put some rhyme and meter to it.