John Fortner was old enough to be aware of the war, but too young to really understand what was going on. He stood on the porch with his father, watching the soldiers march by. Word was that the enemy was just miles away. There would be a battle.
A battle! The thought raced through young John's head. Visions of glory on the battlefield, with a vanquished foe at his feet!
"Go muck out the barn, John." said his father.
Far from dreamed-of glory, John did what he was told. He finished, and stepped outside of the barn for a bit of fresh air.
He could see smoke on the horizon, and hear occasional shots and shouts. Rarely a cannon barked and echoed off of the surrounding hills.
John's dreams of glory had faded to cow dung on his boots. He made his way to the porch and sat on the steps. One at a time he removed and cleaned his boots. He often thought his father was stodgy and unimaginative, but he respected the value the man placed on necessary things. John cleaned the boots with care.
He looked up in time to see her come out of the woods, walking along the same road the soldiers had used to go past their small farm. The witch of Wickham. She looked like a ghost in the twilight, gliding along the way and looking neither left or right. He watched her pass, moving in the direction of the battle.
As she faded from sight, John realized that the sounds of battle had also faded away. With a sigh, he finished his task and went into the small house.
His father sat at the kitchen table, finishing a cup of tea. John poured a cup from the kettle, and sat down opposite the older man.
John said nothing. He sipped at his tea, and looked down at his feet. His father had not gone to the war. "Growing food for people to eat is contribution enough." he had said some time ago, when John had asked. "Soldiers have to eat, and we know how to grow food."
"G'night, Dad." John said, getting up.
"Night, Son." said his father. John noticed that he looked much older tonight. Perhaps the light. John went off to bed.
It was late in the night when John awoke. He shivered, even though the night was warm. He got up from his bed and made his way to the front door.
His father stood there, looking out at the road.
John joined him. Moments later he caught a glimmer on the road. It was the witch! She walked back up the road, heading toward the woods and the village of Wickham on the other side. She was singing an unearthly tune, one which made John's heart feel cold and hard inside his chest.
As she drew abreast of the farm another glimmer in the direction from which she had come caught his attention. Slowly, two by two, soldiers were marching in her wake. They were keeping pace with her tune. As they drew closer the chill in John's heart grew colder still. He shivered as he watched.
Some carried limbs in their arms. Legs, arms, bits of themselves or other men. One carried his own head. Some shared the burden of carrying a torn and mangled torso, or unrecognizable pieces of what once might have been men. None carried weapons or gear. John realized that they were beyond need of such things, now.
He drew in a breath to ask his father a question. His father touched his lips, gently, and the question faltered on his tongue. He watched in silence as the price paid for a war he did not understand marched silently away into the woods.
The last stragglers finally passed by and faded into the woods. They aided each other, for few were whole and walking was difficult. When the last one passed into the deeper darkness between the trees, John let out his breath.
"Let's get back to bed, Son." his father said. "They may now be beyond need, but others will be in need of the food we can produce."
A multitude of questions tangled John's tongue, and not a one made it past his lips.
His father looked at him. "That is all there really is to the glory of war, Son." he said, gently. "She will lead them to a place of passing, and they will find peace. The rest of us have to carry on. Get some rest."
John returned to his bed. He thought he would lay there the rest of the night, unable to sleep. Instead the haunting melody the witch had sung threaded itself through his mind. He saw a clearing in the woods, and a path that was lit by an unearthly light. The soldiers were now running up the path and into the light. They were whole and young and shouting for joy.
He fell asleep, and dreamed a dream of quiet days and work well done.