I don’t want to be here. I’m not a soldier. I don’t even own a sword. Hardly any of us do. There can’t be more than a dozen swords between us.
The king asked me to come. So here I am, a farmer armed with a farmer’s tools facing another army of farmers, carpenters, blacksmiths and weavers, all armed with what fell to hand.
I’m here because my king asked me to be here. I’m not a killer. I don’t want to kill anyone. And I don’t want to let my king down, wouldn’t be able to live with myself if a neighbour died and I might have been there to protect him. So today I will fight for my friends and beacuse my king asked me.
At last I will prove myself worthy of leading these peasants. When I am victorious in battle, I am proved a man, and if my father dies here, better still. I might be king by sunset. The old man is past it, too old to lead. He can barely lift the weight of that ridiculous old sword he carries.
A boy from the neighbouring kingdom didn’t show proper respect and I put him in his place. I am a royal prince. I deserve respect. The boy’s king demanded an apology! The cheek of it. My father refused and demanded tribute. For one lousy sheep they could have prevented this, they are responsible. After this battle, we will have all their scrawny sheep and their daughters as well.
I set the tip of my ancient sword on the ground and let the weapon take some of my weight. Today this old steel will taste an enemy’s flesh again.
I don’t want this and I don’t know how to stop it. My idiot son has severely beaten a neighbouring boy. Their druids don’t know if he will live. The boy’s king demanded an apology which I dare not give. Instead, I demanded tribute, just one sheep to show proper respect.
I dare not show weakness or mercy in the face of this rival king. They would slaughter us all, take our sheep, our wives and daughters. We must show strength in the face of this ruthless enemy. We want peace and will only have it when the neighbour is defeated.
How has it come to this? This isn’t what I wanted. Two armies, mostly farmers, facing each other across a field. Today we will break the hearts of mothers, wives and children. Any man who returns from this not covered in someone’s blood will be shunned as a coward.
All it would take to stop this would be an apology. Very little to ask when a young man of our tribe lies beaten almost to death by a hot headed prince. Instead my rival demanded tribute. Only one sheep, granted, but to show weakness to this ruthless rival would spell disaster. They would overwhelm us, take our land, our homes and our livestock. We dare not show mercy and so we will fight, we will kill and many will die. We want peace and will only have it when the neighbour is defeated.
But wait! Who on Earth are these four, walking towards the centre of the battlefield, unarmed? A harp, a lyre, the old poet, and there’s an ancient bard leading them. Do they not know there will be a battle here in a few heartbeats? They will be cut to pieces when the armies meet.
As we step between the two armies, I remember my mentor’s words: feel the fear and go where your heart leads. I know these people revere bards, and it is taboo to hurt us, but today their blood is on fire and they are ready to kill. Will someone forget himself and fell me with a sword? In the centre of the field, my mentor makes a tiny gesture and we come to a halt. Looking across to the southern king, I see confusion, and on the prince’s face, annoyance and impatience. What hope is there for my mentor’s plan?
We stand silently for a moment, then the musicians begin. Beautiful harp music is carried away on the breeze. I hear the fear in the harpists fingers. The lyre joins the harp, the music a little louder now. Will it carry to the armies facing us? Can beautiful music soften the hearts of men this fierce?
The musicians fall silent. We pause for a moment. Again I look to the king’s men and see puzzlement and impatience. Is there perhaps a little less blood rage than before? Or is this my wishful thinking? I turn back to my mentor, he nods slightly and I begin my song.
I sing the most heroic song I know, the one I’ve been writing all my life, the one that began with a vision. I hear the fear in my voice, it breaks and falters. I pause, collect myself and begin again. This time my voice sounds its best, even if quivering with fear.
I weave in stories from another poet, one I have never met. I sing of fantastic beasts from far away places no one here will will ever visit. I sing the lives of angry wild dogs the size of horses, who snarl and tear at their friends and family with their fierce teeth. I sing their their hidden fear and sadness, their longing for love and their fear of showing themselves.
Will the armies see my meaning? Can their hearts be softened?
I continue my song, I sing the long necked beasts as tall as ten men, with hearts the size of barrels. I sing their stories of kindness and gentleness, of care for all, of courage when they face the fierce ones, daring to offer love to those afraid to be loved.
As I near the end of my song, fill my lungs again and feel my body more alive than ever before. My song of love and courage carries easily now, no one will miss a word.
Across the field I see the king lose his grip on his sword. The oversized weapon falls slowly to the ground, like a felled tree. The king sinks to his knees, several of his men follow, then a few more. The king’s shoulders are shaking. I do believe he is weeping. On the opposite rise, the rival army is unravelling. Everywhere men are weeping, some are holding each other. Weapons lay discarded on the ground.
My song ends and I fall silent, exhausted, ready to collapse. As my knees give way, my mentor on the harpist catch me and hold me upright.
There will be no battle here today. No mothers will mourn sons, no wives will mourn their husbands, no children will lose a father. There is no sign of the prince. There may be more work there, but his sword will not taste flesh today.
And in my bones I feel the truth of what the druids told my parents the day I was born.
I am a poet.
I can stop an army.