I had been walking for many days leaving behind a territory in turmoil, devastated by too many conflicts. The streets were full of refugees. Despair was ingrained in every look I met. Disease, poverty and hunger seemed to be the only masters of the world, ready to feast at every corner, to bend every man under the yoke of suffering.
There was nothing I could do about it, an old soldier of fortune like me did not have the power to change things All the time I had spent fighting hardened my feelings, now I looked at others and saw the sad reflection of my miserable existence.
Certainly, what for many was misfortune and ruin, for me was fertile ground in which to make my work flourish. A sword in those days was far more useful than a hoe. Though I was not the best, I mastered the art of killing and it paid off.
I didn’t like what I did, but I didn’t really have any other talents, and a few coins in my saddlebags were a palpable sign that some people appreciated my trade. One day I could serve a Lord, the next day his enemy, but no one seemed to mind, that was the way the world went.
Sometimes I was called a turncoat, sometimes a traitor, but everyone knew that the term that did me most justice was mercenary.
A life spent on the battlefields, long nights defending or trying to burn this or that castle, a watchtower, or who knows what else, sometimes even making ends meet as an escort for the merchant caravans.
When you were looking after horses and a few rich idiots, the days were quieter than usual, you ate better and slept more, but these days were rare assignments, it was not easy being a merchant in the middle of a war…
If one could really speak of war. The subtle art of war had long since been replaced by trivial raids, lootings and incursions. One did not fight to gain victory, or weaken the enemy, but to grab goods, wealth and people.
I was paid to frighten villagers into paying taxes and tribute, to brutalize some budding revolutionary, to enforce the hard fist of martial law. There was nothing nice about beating up old men and children, slapping some hothead with metal, or even stretching the rope of a public hanging, but I obeyed. They paid me and I obeyed.
I had enough money to retire, but the problem was where to retire. My home village no longer existed, taken away by leprosy, fiefs changed hands with the seasons and no land seemed stable enough to promise a future. The more I fought, the more I realized that fighting could be the last thing I would ever do.
One evening I was passing through a small village overlooking the sea, the home of a handful of fishermen who smelled of salt and piss. Although it was only a tiny hamlet, isolated and forgotten, I noticed that there the conflict seemed not to have arrived. The houses were dilapidated but standing, the small pier was dangerously tilted but basically intact and even the inhabitants, though grey as the winter sky, at least did not seem malnourished.
An old man stood just outside a small wooden house, not far from the shore, on a crooked chair, busy repairing a large, strong net. Looking at him I had a strange feeling, although he was doing nothing wrong, I almost felt a resemblance to me, his petrified look, the apparent disinterest in his work… a feeling, I told myself, just a feeling.
I approached the man, asking where I could spend the night and get something to eat, jingling a purse with a few coins in it, but the old man did not even look up, remaining impassive as he continued his work.
Maybe he had lost some sons in the war, maybe he didn’t like soldiers, or maybe he was just deaf, not my concern. After a few moments of stony silence, I moved on, looking for someone more cooperative. I was unsuccessful: a woman forcefully pushing a little girl towards the inside of a hovel, shunning my gaze; a boy almost running away from me, refusing to answer my calls; a fisherman pulling his small boat aground, chewing noisily on seaweed, looking me straight in the eyes, not saying a word.
No one seemed to want to help me or to give me any information, and I sincerely thought of continuing on my way, but it was almost dark. The prospect of a night in the cold was not appealing and made me hesitate. My tired bones were yearning for a bed, my spirit for a break, and my muscles for relaxation.
Just as I was about to try again to find someone more cooperative, I saw them. There were three of them, kids no more than ten or twelve years old, right under the jetty that juts out into the sea, about halfway down the village. They wore no clothes; they were completely naked, their feet in the water, dirty with mud, thin in an almost grim way. Their eyes seemed lost, dark, alienated, and while I was trying to figure out if what I was seeing was real, one of them turned towards me, looking at me still and silent.
I looked around outraged, to see if it was only me who had noticed that there were abandoned children, but the few passers-by who had not gone home yet, passed by the children without looking at them, not paying attention, as if they did not even exist.
A fisherman noticed me looking lividly at the villagers and spat a dark lump on the ground, almost a sign of the rottenness in his soul. “Why don’t you help them, if you really want to? – What’s the matter, break the chains of those little bastards!”
I was about to draw my sword and reduce the man’s bluster to excuses and whining, when the meaning of his words struck me late, chains?
I turned to look at the children and what I had not seen at first glance, now appeared sharply.
The children were chained to the heavy wooden poles of the jetty; they were iron chains, rusted, shuffling and hanging in the mud, but they were undeniably real. They gripped the ankles of these young boys, though they did not seem to care and silently waited in the darkness.
The atrocities of war are difficult to accept and endure, you see things that are etched deep into your memory; and the worst thing is that even if you wanted to, there is often not much you can do, certainly not to avoid the deaths, the maiming, the burning, the hunger, the disease…
At the beginning, one finds it hard to accept reality, wondering if it is right to refuse to carry out certain actions, but with time one gets used to it, one’s sensitivity becomes less acute, the atrocities so frequent that they cease to be significant. And one day you stop seeing, it is easier, more comfortable, it is a way to survive.
But when I was confronted with the senseless act of a handful of ignorant peasants, something snapped inside me, a desire for revenge for all that I could have done but never did.
I had seen too much over the years, I had turned my head too many times, and what had I got: a few coins and a heavy heart, and you would think that it would bury me in time, under a bed of remorse.
I approached the children, stepping into the muddy sea water with my shoes on, moving slowly towards them. The fisherman approached too, though he remained out of the water, and crouching down on the ground, talked to me again, “I wouldn’t do that, stranger.”
I glared at him, and advanced undaunted, until the dying sun disappeared above my head, hidden by the wooden pier.
The three children looked at me silently, there was no trace of fear in their faces, nor hope, nor madness, and they just seemed to be waiting silently for their release. When I reached them, I groped for the chain that bound them in the mud and pulled it out of the water, placing a portion of it on a large stone, and then I drew my sword, preparing to do exactly what the fisherman had advised me not to do.
The twinge I felt in my thigh I didn’t immediately understand, but it was painful and sudden, and I looked down and saw a boy who had placed his delicate hands against my leg, then literally bitten me. At first I thought he felt he was in danger, but the next instant another jumped on me and bit me on the neck, just above the ruff. The third one was on me before I could react, and with one swift blow broke the arm that held the sword, sending it sprawling in the water.
There was no longer any doubt at that point, these were not children I had naively tried to rescue, they were monsters….
All my caution, all the care that had dominated my existence in recent years had failed on a single occasion, and I immediately remembered why it was important never to expose oneself: death was always waiting.
I grabbed the brat who had bitten my neck with my good arm and with an extreme effort wrenched him off me, but it turned out to be yet another mistake. The accursed brat, while I was trying to shake him off, took a bite out of the flesh of my neck, causing me to bleed. As my strength began to fail me, my experience as a soldier came to the rescue. With one kick I got rid of the child who had bitten my leg, grabbed the chain to which the three were tied and pulled it with all the energy I had left.
The children lost their balance, but I was exhausted, my vision blurred by blood, I began to think with difficulty. My neck was throbbing and spurting out streams of blood that dyed the sea in red, my broken arm was numb and my legs could not hold me up. As I gasped for breath, I touched the sword that had fallen into the water with my foot. I thought it was a stroke of luck and bent down to pick it up, but I was slow, too slow…
The fisherman who had laughed at me pulled the sword out from under my hands, while the first of the three children jumped on top of me, first throwing me to the ground, then dragging me further into the darkness, under the jetty.
I looked at the man in disbelief, but he was smiling calmly, not far away, still lit by the last rays of the sun. I lifted myself out of the water one last time, only to see a foretaste of hell: those monsters, childlike in appearance, were now upon me and were already feasting on my flesh, tearing it from my trembling bones. The reaper was finally calling me, claiming me in the worst of ways, announcing itself with claws and fangs.
As the pain slowly turned to torpor and my life dissolved, I had time to hear a few last words from the beggar fisherman, who had played me like the ultimate idiot: “Did you see that, stranger? We’re not the monsters after all,” he said, while chuckling softly, “and even ghouls have their purpose.
When someone threatens the village, or some poor fool passes by, we feed them and they silently accept their captivity, waiting ravenously for their next meal.
Excellent guardians who have kept the village out of your stupid wars so far, in exchange for a small price of blood, yours in this case.” As even the man’s words rang hollow and distant and the night took hold of me, I smiled one last time, thinking that I had finally found a good place to put down roots, far enough away from the shadow of war.