It took the better part of the day for the camp surgeon to get around to fixing am Stomund’s shoulder, long enough for the rest of us to migrate our camp back from the clearing’s edge to the path that ran by Sir Hagan’s tent. Sir Hagan had given us a grunt when we finished, but he hadn’t told us to tear it down again, and so for the first time in a week we found ourselves with free time.
Oskar had gone to gather firewood out in the forest, taking Ran with him to help carry, and a few minutes later Kellan announced that he was going to try to scrounge up something. I sat by myself for a few minutes, staring into the flames of the little camp fire we’d set up, and then decided I’d go for a walk.
I wasn’t planning on going any place in particular, but before too long I found myself standing outside the surgeon’s tent. From inside, I could hear the plow-boy whimpering, and a man’s voice murmuring encouragement. The tent’s flap was down but not tied shut, and I could just see the surgeon’s hands turning a wooden crank, each twist coming at the same time as another whimper. Like a dog with a wounded paw, I thought.
I heard a man’s voice behind me. “Accident, do you think? Or has Sir Fowl had to peck one of his hounds?”
I turned. There were two men standing behind me, glancing around me at the surgeon’s tent. “The second ‘un, I suspect,” the other man responded in a low, gruff voice. “The Hen never did know any other way to get somebody’s attention.”
The first man turned to me. He was tall, almost as tall as me, but slim, with sandy brown hair, great shaggy eyebrows and a brush of a mustache above his thin mouth. “Did you see how your comrade was injured, my boy?”
I hesitated, unsure how to address the man. He was dressed in a rough, dun-colored tunic and dark trousers, with a belt and boots of tan deer-skin. I could see no sigil or marking of the man’s rank, but there was something in his stance, the way he seemed relaxed and yet ready to move at a moment’s notice, that reminded me of Sir Hagan and the other knights I’d seen around the camp.
The second man was much shorter than the first, though possibly still taller than Sir Hagan, and was built much like I was, like an oaken ale barrel, stout and solid-looking. What hair he had, ringing his bald and weathered head, was red, except where it grayed at the temples, and his mustache extended in points beyond the ends of his mouth. He, too, was dressed well but plainly in leather and linen, with no sign of rank about his person, and he, too, stood like a fighter, though he gave an impression more like a tavern brawler than that of a knight. He chuckled, addressing the first man. “Wouldn’t ‘ave thought it was a hard question, but you seem to have stumped him.”
I shook my head, coming back to myself. “Sorry, sir,” I said to the second man, and then addressed the taller man again. “Yes, sir, I was there. He tried to strike Sir Hagan, sir, and Sir Hagan gave him a lesson for it. That’s all, sir.”
The shorter man sniffed. “Told ya.”
“A lesson, eh?” The first man shook his head. “We’ll need to speak with him about that,” he said, apparently to himself. “Could you please direct us to his tent?”
I pointed. “Just there, sir, the green one with the banner.”
The first man nodded to me. “Thank you, my boy.” He and his companion turned away, toward Sir Hagan’s tent. “Oh, and the ‘sir’ isn’t necessary. Neither Bat nor I have ever been within spitting distance of a knighthood.”
“Wouldn’t know what to do with a horse if you gave me one,” the second man added.
“All right,” I said, “No ‘sir’. Your name was Bat?”
The second man nodded and started to extend a hand toward me, but the first man held out an arm in front of him. “Probably better if we let Henney handle the introductions,” the first man said, “you know how he can be.” The man looked significantly toward the surgeon’s tent.
Bat shrugged, then nodded. “Fair.” He turned back to me. “We’ll talk to you again soon, I’m sure.”
The two men both gave me polite smiles, and then turned and headed toward Sir Hagan’s tent. After a moment, the taller man turned his head to address his companion. “I’d have though it perfectly clear what you’d do with a horse, Bat: you’d eat it.”
“Oh, aye,” the shorter man said. “We could use you for the roasting spit, get you to twist around as the meat cooked.”
“Patent nonsense. You’d end up with my flavor in the meat if you did that, quite unpleasant. Not, of course, that an unpleasant flavor would be enough to stop you.”
“I have eaten some pretty awful things, it’s true. Your wife’s frumenty, for example.”
“That… is a fair example, well done.”
Behind me, I heard a final whimper from the boy in the tent, and then a gasp as his arm popped back into place, accompanied by the rattle of the wooden wheel spinning as the surgeon released the pressure on the crank.
A few hours later, Sir Hagan called for us to assemble by his tent, with the two newcomers standing beside him. Despite the flecks of white in his hair, the two older men made Sir Hagan seem young by comparison, closer to our age than theirs. He shot dark looks at the boys who were last to file in, and then cleared his throat.
“As I will be among the cavalry when we march to battle, it is necessary that there be those in the column that I can rely upon to remember and execute my orders properly. To that end, I am assigning these men as my broken lances, my proxies in the field. This is Norton am Bathe,” he said, gesturing with an open hand to the shorter of the two men, then to the taller, “and this is Harbort Skel. On the battlefield or in any mock battles we conduct, you will follow their orders as though they were my own. In all other matters, though, they are simply spearmen like yourselves, and should be treated as such. That is all. As you were.” He turned to the two men, nodded, and walked away.
For a few moments, we all stood in place, waiting for the newcomers to speak. Finally, the stouter of the two chuckled, and turned to his companion. “They did hear the ‘as you were’, didn’t they?” He shook his head, and smiled. “Got a few things to learn, all of ya. First thing, never stand if you don’t have to.”
Skel nodded his agreement. “Yes, for the spirits’ sake, and especially don’t stand around for no good reason. If you’ve got business to be about, get back to it; otherwise, there seems to be a perfectly good fire here, and we’ve both got some time to chat if you feel like gossiping with a couple of old men.”
The crowd broke up. About half of the boys went elsewhere, back to their tents or off to do other things. The rest of us, including Kellan, Oskar and myself, started pulling in barrels and boxes or finding spots on the ground to sit down.
“You’re soldiers?” Kellan asked, settling in on top of a low crate.
Am Bathe nodded.”Both served during the Happ invasion, and we were both in the force that finally broke the Happ siege of Kintinvale and forced the Grardish bastards to sue for white peace.”
“It’s true,” said Skel, “though I’m fairly certain if they hadn’t been so single-minded in trying to bash down the gates of the city they might have done a good deal better against us. The Grardish always have been stubborn.”
One of the farmer’s boys from Cantlay Town chimed in. “Have you fought in many battles, Mr. Skel?”
Skel smiled. “A few.” He held up a finger. “One point we might have forgotten to mention: while I’m fairly astonished Sir Hagan was able to remember them, with the exception of my wife and his mother nobody has called us by our given names in years.”
Am Bathe nodded. “He’s Skelley, and you can call me Bat.”
“Or Bat the Slender, if you’re feeling extra formal.” A few of the boys laughed, and Skelley smiled. “Oh, you laugh now, but you’d be surprised. I saw old Bat here squeeze through a gap the width of a single fence-pole to get away from a love-crazed woodworker’s wife once.”
Oskar grinned. “Really?”
“What can I say?” Bat said, “Woman got some funny ideas watching her husband work the lathe, wanted to try ’em out on me.”
Skelley laughed, and shook his head. “In all seriousness, though, what Sir Hagan said is true. We’ve seen a few battles, both of us, but we’re not anything more than simple spearmen. Give it a few weeks, and all of you will be, too.”