Henry V, by William Shakespeare; Act 4, Scene 3
A portion of Henry's Eve of St. Crispin's Day speech:
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.
Years have passed since that famous speech:
We saw the smoke when the sun came up.
Most of us had been up and working for some time already. Fields need sun light to be worked, cows can be milked by lamplight.
We could tell from the smoke that the village in the next valley would have precious little to eat this winter… if there was anyone left to do the eating.
We’d been expecting this for a while. But just as with mortal man knowing that death would someday come, we had hoped it would somehow pass us by. That hope was lost when we saw the smoke and soon thereafter saw Geoff come charging up the road. He flung himself off his horse in the square of our small village. The horse was lathered, gasping, and barely able to stand; Geoff was little better, “They’re here.”
We sent the women and children into the hills where we had prepared a place for them. As many of the animals as possible went, too. The marks of their passage could not be hidden. But if it wasn’t us coming to get them the women had already made it clear that their lives would come neither cheap nor easy.
We weren’t always farmers and herdsmen. Each man went to his home to prepare for what lay ahead. Dusty sheaths were brought from under beds but there was nothing dusty about the honed and oiled steel within them. Longbows were brought down from rafters where they had lain idle, but not forgotten. Sheafs of arrows with clean gray fletching and bright steel piles were pulled from chests. Brown chain mail sighed softly as it was pulled over heads, as if it knew what lay ahead. What passersby had thought an odd assortment of low rock walls outside the village became bulwarks to blunt charges. What our old men had been whittling in the evenings as they told stories to the children became caltrops spread in the long grass before our walls. We weren’t always farmers and herdsmen.
Their scouts hung back to await the main body when they saw us. They weren’t sure what to do when they came upon a village that seemed to be protected by something other than farmers with pitchforks. Still, they were proud and fierce men who had not known defeat. Not since they left the steppes of their people.
What I remember most is the smell. A smell that I never have forgotten since I first laid sense to it so many years ago. A smell of bright blood and dark bowels loosened by steel or death. A smell of sweat and fear. There is noise in a battle, screams of horse and man as well as the clash of steel and the thud of blows. But ears become deafened to the din and ring for days afterwards. The nose never forgets the smell of battle. It lingers for days afterwards and richens as the sun rises and wild animals glean the fields of dead.
I finally became aware that it was over when no foe stood before me. Perhaps we had resisted unexpectedly. Perhaps they had decided it was not our day to die. Not a one of us had escaped wounds of some kind. Here and there were wounds that would overwhelm their bearer in the hours and days to come. Some wounds would bring limps or shortened limbs to remind us of the day. Some of us lay in quiet heaps in the torn and bloody grass, never to rise again. But more of us stood than lay in the grass, and more of them lay in the grass than rode away.
Perhaps we won because of our resistance; perhaps we won because it was not our day to die. But perhaps we won for the day, St. Crispian’s day. It was a day that marked another day, before we settled here in our retirement. Another Crispian’s day, when we few, we happy few, we band of brothers, had stood against another foe, and carried the day there, too.
We few, we happy few… We weren’t always farmers and herdsmen.