A low horn echoed out across the camp, and Bat stood. “That’s The Hen’s horn, lads. Sounds like it’s time to assemble.”
We all stood and tossed our spears and partial spears onto the weapons cart, and then followed Bat back toward Sir Hagan’s tent. Skelley and the rest of the boys must already have been headed back to our section of camp, because they reached Sir Hagan’s tent and the wide spot in the path that had effectively become our unit’s assembly area just before we did and had already started arranging themselves in neat rows. We filed in behind them.
I ran an idle hand gingerly back through my hair, taking care to avoid the raw spot on the right side of my head. About the same time that Bat and Skelley had joined us, Sir Hagan had started running us through drills in unit movement; how to stay in a column or in ranks, how to quickly switch between the two, how to raise and lower a spear haft without smashing it into the head of the man in front of you. Oskar and I and the handful of other boys who’d brought any sort of armor, as well as the dozen or so who’d fit into the spare chain shirts Sir Glen had donated to our unit, had been told to wear our armor for said drills, in order to ‘accustom ourselves to the weight.’
It wasn’t the weight that was a problem for me; I was well used to carrying heavy loads for at least short distances, and my mother had done good work on the coat. My problem was that my father was clearly no armorer. The helms he’d made, or at least the one he’d made for me, was ill-fitting and uncomfortable, and the rough edge of one of the rivets that held the thing together had rubbed against my scalp until I bled. Pulling on my hood under the helmet had helped with the rivet problem, but it also made the thing uncomfortably tight and swelteringly hot, and I could tell that the sharp metal was already starting to wear its way through the wool, and that soon both my hood and my head would have matching holes.
Sir Hagan stepped out of his tent, and gave the unit an appraising look. “For nearly a month,” he said, “you have trained and drilled in the skills that will make you capable and useful in battle. Today, those skills will be tested against your fellow soldiers.” He walked to the middle of our formation, and extended an arm down between two of the rows. “Clear a path here.”
As we all shuffled to one side or the other to make room for the boys moving away from the line Sir Hagan had indicated, he gestured toward the side of the column I was standing on. “All to the left, you are under the command of Mr. Skel.” He gestured in the other direction. “You will be opposed by those under the command of Mr. am Bathe, those standing to my right.”
I took a quick glance across the split unit. Ran ev Stony and both of the am Leward boys were on my side of the line, as were most of the boys from Wollen and a few of the other apprentices from home. Oskar and Kellan were both on the other side of the line, with Bryce Haeward and most of the other farmers’ sons from outside Cantlay Town. Kellan gave me a little shrug, and a grin. I returned both, despite being a little disappointed to be fighting against my friend instead of along side him.
Bat and Skelley both approached the front, and Sir Hagan nodded to both of them. “Lances, have your troops on the north field before the hour, with practice spears in hand.” He clapped a hand on each man’s shoulder, and then strode off into the camp.
Skelley immediately turned to address us. “Well, my lads,” he said, with a wry expression, “it seems we’ve been called to duty, against the dastardly Bat the Slender and his henchmen. I suggest you get suited up quickly, that we might steal a march on the ruffians. Spears and armor! Now! Then back to the column ready to run!”
I turned and sprinted towards the tents, at the head of gang of thirty-odd whooping, galloping boys. I may have whooped myself. Ran pulled up beside me. “Need help with your armor?” he asked.
I shook my head. “Need a spear though, can you grab me one?”
“Got it!” Ran yelled, and broke away from me as I ducked into the tent.
We’d only managed to acquire a single storage chest for the four of us to share among us. Oskar and I had both been wearing our coats and helms almost every day, and so they sat on top of the rest of the clothes and sundry items we’d decided were worth keeping someplace dry. I threw open the lid and grabbed, pulling out one of the helms.
Oskar ducked around the tent flap, and saw the helmet in my hands. “That yours or mine?”
I looked at the helm. I hadn’t really gotten a chance to look closely at Oskar’s armor before, so my suspicions that his were better-made than mine had been just that, only suspicions. Now, though, I could see the truth of it. Oskar’s helmet was well-polished where mine was hammer-marked; the backs of the rivets and the edges of the eye slits looked like they’d been carefully filed smooth, not left rough and ragged. I stared at it for a moment, and then looked up at Oskar.
“Well?” he asked, motioning me to hurry with his hands.
I hefted the helmet once, and then turned and tossed it out the back flap of the tent. “Yours!”
Oskar gaped at me for a moment, his eyes wide. “Y-you, you… arsehole!” he shouted at me, running past me and out under the other flap.
I pulled my helm and coat from the chest, threw the coat on over my shoulders, and dashed back out the front of the tent. I wasn’t the last back to the column, but by the time I’d grabbed my headless spear from Curran and pulled the laces of my armor closed Skelley was shouting to move out, and set a quick pace for us to march.
We reached the north field in just a few minutes. Sir Hagan sat on a wood camp chair at the far north edge of the clearing, with a small low table beside him. Skelley called on us to pause for a moment, and then pointed across the field, where the ground rose up some before meeting the scrubby underbrush of the wood. “There’s where we’ll make our stand. Striking from the high ground is almost always to your advantage, lads. It’s easier to stab down than up, after all. Forward!” He started marching, and we followed in loose formation.
By the time we had crested the low hill, the boys under Bat’s command had reached the other edge of the field. I could hear Bat’s low, rumbling voice shouting something, though the words didn’t carry, and the other boys started forming into a combat line.
Skelley nodded, and turned to us. “Right, form up! We’re low in number, but it doesn’t look like Bat’s spreading out so neither will we. Three even ranks, armor up front.” He gestured to one of the Wollen boys, a stout older boy like me who wore an old breastplate he’d found or bartered for somewhere in the camp. “Sedge, you’re on the left flank.” He then pointed at me. “Mason, you’re on the right.”
The name startled me. I was still getting used to being Colum Mason, not Colum Smith or Colum ev Cantlay or Just Colum, If It Please You. “Right flank. Got it.”
I moved into position at the end of the column, planting the butt of my spear in the grass and cradling the haft in my elbow so I could tend to my helmet. As I pulled out my hood from inside the iron shell and settled it onto my head and shoulders, I looked out across the field to where the other boys were lining up. Even from here I could pick out Oskar, toward the center of the front line of Bat’s formation, and I could feel the excitement I’d had about the mock battle turning to anger as I stared at him. I didn’t know if it was his helm or my new name or something else that brought it on; all I knew is that I was gripped with a sudden, intense desire to ram my spear into his face.
I pulled my helmet down over my hood, barely wincing as the rivet on the side pressed wool and hair down into the scabbed wound on my scalp.
“All right, boys! Look lively!” Skelley shouted from the far end of the column. “Sir Hagan looks to be in a speech-giving mood!”
I stopped staring at Oskar, and looked to the edge of the clearing. Sir Hagan was standing. He picked up what looked like a leather pouch from the table and started walking toward the center of the field, halfway between our two little armies. Both sides went quiet as he reached the center, where he stopped, raising one hand palm-open.
“Today,” he began, his high voice cutting through the dewy mid-morning air, “you will fight as you have been trained to. While you have practiced these formations and tactics before, today is the first time you will use them to combat another human being. Keep in mind all that you have been taught, and listen to my broken lances, your commanders.”
He passed the pouch from one hand to the other, and held it up above his head. “The first lesson I was taught about battle is that any soldier who fights must fight for something. Today is no different: today, you’ll fight for your wages.” He lowered his arm and tossed the pouch in his hand. Even at a distance of thirty paces I could hear it jingle. “The rules should be simple enough for you to remember: If you are struck with the point of a spear and are wearing no armor, lie down and stay still. If you are wearing armor and you are struck thrice, lie down and stay still. Your goal is to reach the enemy’s end of the field without allowing the enemy to reach yours.” He tossed the pouch again. “Win, and your side gets the purse. Two days worth of wages for one day worth of work, and given to you now, not at the end of this campaign.” He tucked the pouch into his belt. “Lose, and you get nothing. No payment for today, no feather in your cap.”
Sir Hagan removed his gloves, tucking them into his belt beside the purse. “Whenever you are ready,” he said, and then jogged back toward his seat at the tree line.
Skelley and Bat shouted, almost in unison. “To arms!” I readied my stance, gripping my spear tight. Beside the formation, Skelley raised his spear in the air, waving it like a standard. “Remember, lads: no matter what happens, stay together! First and second ranks, spears to charge! Third rank, spears to ready!” We lowered our weapons, pointing them forward; the spear of the boy behind me bumped my right shoulder as he lowered it.
Skelley lowered his spear, and then pointed it toward the enemy. “At a walk, advance!”