Where There’s a Will, There’s a Way by David Macfie
The army was on the move again. They were advancing as rapidly as their numbers allowed. There were ten thousand military personnel and one thousand prisoners that had been collected along the way. The strategy was simple. Kill anybody who resisted, steal anything that could be sold, eaten or used and destroy the rest. Behind the army was twelve weeks of carnage, slaughter, rape and pillage. The landscape was barren and empty, dotted with burned out villages and farms. Nothing moved in the wake of these human locusts.
The prisoners fell into the categories of things that could be sold or used or both. The youngest children and the prettiest girls would be sold as slaves. The young women who didn’t make it to the first group were used as camp harlots and servants. The young men and any men with useful skills were put to work and the rest were used for entertainment. Every evening a selection were tortured using methods that caused maximum pain with minimum damage to the victim. After all, a dead prisoner was no fun at all. Apart from fetching and carrying, setting up and taking down the camp, sharpening and cleaning weapons and delousing the troops, the biggest job was being drovers to the large herd of animals and birds that had been collected as fodder for the army. There were cattle, sheep and goats, pigs, ducks, chickens, geese and turkeys, all needing fed and herded together in the back of the marching hoard.
The King rode in the front of the vanguard, of course. He gave no thought to the logistics of moving this unwieldy throng about the countryside. He only thought about the final conquest of this, the final enemy of his empire. All the others had been swallowed up by his voracious predations over the past five years. He was near to achieving his ultimate goal of being the supreme ruler of the twelve nations and nothing was going to stop him.
He had personally killed the kings of the first ten subjugated nations and he was looking forward, with great anticipation, to dismembering the king of the eleventh. This last king had frustrated and mocked him for years, always being one step ahead, and always winning any direct skirmishes that took place. But this foe was running out of options. The King’s army was closing off the bolt holes and driving the last enemy into a smaller and smaller corner of his country. Soon he would have nowhere to go, nowhere to run and hide. Then he would be skinned alive and pulled apart by four galloping horses.
The scouts approached and reported that the army was approaching another village. They said the villagers had been warned and were preparing to defend themselves. The king laughed.
“How far are they?” he asked.
“About a mile over the next hill. The village is in a sheltered valley, but there are no walls,” reported the scouts.
The king called his commanders together.
“Usual battle formations,” he commanded. “Surround and then squeeze, but send the fire arrows first. That will drive the villagers into the open, where you can decide who to kill and who to save. Go and get on with it.”
The army was experienced. They’d done this many times. In perfect silence, they got themselves organized. A rearguard peeled off to contain the prisoners and the animals and the rest headed for the hill. At the top the army stopped, while the commanders spied out the terrain and the feeble barricades. Final decisions were made and final orders were issued. Then the army silently topped the hill and, fanning out, they circled the village. Again they stopped. Archers sent several flights of fire arrows into the flammable parts of the village. Fires sprung up everywhere and villagers appeared and got a bucket brigade going. The archers intensified the fire and picked off the obvious leaders who were directing activity. Soon the villagers couldn’t douse the rapidly spreading flames and now their barricades were set on fire. Panic ensued. The villagers piled out of their hiding places and milled about as far from the flames as possible. Predictably, everybody ended up in the square, which was at the centre of the village. Now the outcome was inevitable. The army closed in and watched as the flames ate the barricades and the buildings, then they doused the ashes and surrounded the square. Several men, with more courage than brains, charged and made a nuisance of themselves, but their game was ruthlessly ended and their bodies were trampled in the dirt. All resistance ceased.
The King and the commanders entered the square and ordered the villagers to assemble, youngest to the front eldest at the back, women and girls to the left and males to the right. With the competence of much practice the villagers were sorted into the previously determined categories and the new captives were driven back to join the other prisoners. The army remained to strip the village. Later in the afternoon, everything had been done and the troops rejoined the hoard. That evening the army partied while the king planned the final battle. His adversary was little more than ten miles away and could be reached on the morrow. The king issued his orders for a daybreak start, ate his supper and retired to dream of his triumph to come.
At daybreak the army was up and away. They marched hard with the camp followers dragging at the rear. Then they hit a snag. They came upon a river. It was only fifteen yards wide but looked deep. The king sent a horseman to try to swim across. He was tipped off his mount and swept away. The commanders had no suggestions, but the king was not to be thwarted.
“Here’s what you will do,” he whispered. “Separate those of the prisoners to be sold and move the rest away from the army. After the village we took yesterday there should be more than a thousand of them. Kill them all and then make rafts out of the corpses. Lash them together in groups of six, side by side, shoulder to shoulder and hip to hip. Tie nets of stones to the limbs on the outside of each raft to weigh it down. Then build a road across the river. The first layer must be from this bank to the other side. Line the rafts one in front of the other, head to toe. In the second layer, place the rafts crosswise, side by side, along the first layer, heads pointed upstream and toes downstream. Keep alternating layers until you reach the surface. The road will only be used once. Now go and get on with it. You have three hours.”
The commanders were horrified but dared not refuse. The road was built. The army crossed and the King won a great victory.
But, ever afterwards, even once the grisly remains had been replaced by a sturdy stone structure, the crossing was known as “The Bridge of Bones”.