We stepped forward as one; our feet falling together made a rumbling sound, even on the dew-covered grass. Ahead, the boys under Bat’s command lowered their spears. Bat had arranged their forces like Skelley had arranged ours, with the armored boys in front to protect the more fragile ones behind. I could see Kellan’s face through the slit in my helmet, almost directly ahead of me, just a place or two from the right end of their second rank.
The opposing line was maybe fifty yards away from us. They were advancing as fast as we were, though, and I found myself accelerating my pace to keep ahead of the boys behind me. In only a few seconds, the gap closed to forty yards, then thirty, then twenty. My heart had started to pound in my chest, and my feet kept pace. I heard a yell from behind us, and I don’t know whether it was Skelley or whether he was yelling at us to charge, but charge we did, closing the last fifteen yards to the ‘enemy’ line at a dead run.
There was an enormous crash as our front line met theirs. The point of a spear slammed into my gut, hard enough to force the breath out of me, and I blindly thrust back, striking something and hearing the gratifying sound of a pained grunt in response. The boy ahead of me pulled back his spear for another strike, but I whipped the point of his spear away to the right with the haft of my own just as he thrust, and he stumbled forward toward me. I pulled my spear back, moving my hands up on the shaft to get a better grip, and shoved it hard into the boy’s side, sending him sprawling into the wet grass.
I looked back up away from him, moving my whole head so that I could see through the narrow slit. One of the boys from Cantlay Town, Gil Carver I think, was trying to step forward to fill the space his fallen comrade had left behind, but his spear was tangled up with the ones of the boys behind me, and I ducked forward with my spear held halfway up the haft and caught him in the ribs. He winced, and pulled back his spear haft as he dropped away from the side of the column.
I was forward enough now to be almost even with the enemy front line. There was another boy behind where Gil had been, but defeating Gil had also exposed Kellan’s side to attack, and Kellan was wholly focused on stabbing forward over the shoulder of the boy in the chain shirt who he thought was keeping him safe. I once again ducked low under the spear coming down toward me, leaving that to the boy behind me to deal with, and stabbed left.
Kellan jumped, surprised, and then shook both his head and his fist at me as he fell forward toward me. I let out something between a growl and a yell of triumph, my teeth locked together in a manic grin as I jumped forward over Kellan and into the heart of the enemy line, pushing toward the center. I stabbed out wildly once, twice, striking forward and to my right side, taking out more unarmored boys.
I looked up for a moment to get my bearings, and sighted in on a new target; there, just a half-dozen paces away, was the side of Oskar’s head, the metal of his helmet shining in the late morning sun. I pulled back my spear and then shoved it forward, only keeping one hand on the haft as it lanced out, but before it struck metal I felt the haft grind on wood, and then a few of the enemy rear line all raised their spears at once and the haft was pulled up and out of my hand.
Before I could even reach up to try to recover my weapon, my whole right side erupted in pain, as I was struck by five or six spears all at once. I dropped to my knees, clutching my arms around me for protection as I bent forward, and then felt someone knee or kick me in the side and I went down.
I felt two or three boys step on and over me, and one clipped my helmet with his foot, twisting it so that the slit no longer lined up with my eyes. I lay still, in almost total darkness, and listened as the muffled sounds of the battle gradually receded. Though it probably only lasted a minute or two, it felt like an eternity as I lay there, feeling the damp from the grass seeping into my trousers and the collar of my hood.
Eventually, just before the sounds of battle faded entirely, a cheer went up, and a moment after that I felt a hand on my shoulder. As I got back up onto my hands and knees I felt my helm being pulled off. “Colum? You all right?”
I looked up. Kellan was standing over me, holding my helmet under one arm and offering me the other hand. I nodded, and let him pull me to my feet. “I’m probably one big bruise under this brig, but I’ll be fine.” I tried to take a deep breath, and winced a little; I’d been pretty thoroughly pummeled, but as far as I could tell none of my ribs had broken, nor any of my other bones. I pulled the hood from my head and dropped it in the now muddy grass. “What happened?”
“See for yourself,” Kellan said, gesturing up the hill. Most of Bat’s force stood at the top, clasping hands with each other, while my allies were scattered across the battlefield, picking themselves up and helping the others who’d fallen. “For a minute there it looked like you had the better of us, but Aler got up and started harassing the end of your line so they couldn’t follow you in. Then Bat had our side push on your unarmored flank, and we wrapped you up like a garden snake around a vole.”
I rubbed my face with my hands and cursed. I could feel a gash, running from the raw spot across my left temple and onto my forehead, and my hand came away from my face with smudges of blood on the fingertips. My hood was damaged too, I could see as I picked it back up, a ragged tear cutting through the forward edge just where I’d been cut.
At the top of the hill, Sir Hagan approached Bat and tossed him the purse. “Well fought, victors!” Bat’s boys cheered. Sir Hagan started speaking again, but I wasn’t listening. I took my helm from Kellan, and I could feel him staring at the back of my head as I limped back toward camp.
I sat on my bedroll, as late morning turned into afternoon and afternoon to evening. I’d removed my coat, wincing with every movement as I stripped it off and returned it to the chest, but I’d set my helm on the ground in front of me, and I stared at it as the light changed, the metal seeming to grow darker as the shadows lengthened and night approached.
Skelley had come in to the tent a little after noon and told me not to take it too hard. “We were all young and eager once,” he’d said, but I’d been able to hear him outside just before that, when he’d explained to the unit in great detail that my spirited charge into the enemy formation had left our right flank vulnerable, and it was that vulnerability that Bat had taken advantage of to sweep us from the field. He hammered home how important it was that we maintain formation, and I could hear him punctuating each word by striking his open hand with a closed fist like he was pounding on a table.
Ran and Kellan had entered a little while after Skelley left. Ran had carried a plate of food that he’d set down beside me, but when he tried to talk to me Kellan had shook his head at Ran and motioned him back out of the tent. Oskar had come in briefly too, to drop off his armor, but I never looked over at him and he never looked back at me as far as I could tell.
And so I sat and stared at the helmet, as night began to fall and the sounds of revelry began to break out around the tent, and cursed myself. I’d failed. I’d screwed up, and my failure had let the enemy destroy us. If this had been a real battle, we would all be dead, or the thralls of some Grardish clan, dragged off in chains to serve or be sold into slavery. And it was all my fault.
An hour or so after sunset the tent flap lifted again, and Kellan ducked in, swaying a bit as he stood back up. “Still here?” he asked me. “You should come out, have a drink or two. I don’t know how, but Ran found a keg of mead somewhere and managed to roll it back to camp all by himself, and we bought three bottles of something the alchemist called ‘wine of the spirit.’ It’s… potent. Potent is the word I would use.”
I managed to look up at him, and gave him the best smile I could muster. More of a wince, really. “I don’t think so. Spending time with the fool who lost them the battle is hardly at the top of anyone’s list, I’d imagine.”
“Ah, but to our side, you’re a hero!” Kellan grinned at me.
I resisted the urge to throw the helm at him. “Just leave me alone, sot. Your side beat me badly enough today, no need to give my side a crack at it, too.”
He sat down on the bedroll across from mine. “Honestly, Col, I doubt there are any hard feelings. Hen- Sir Hen- Sir Hagan,” he said, stretching out the ‘a’ sound in ‘Hagan’, “gave a big speech before he handed over the silver, about how it was important for the victors to be gracious in battle, and something about responsibility for the fallen, and something else…” He looked down at the helmet, looking confused for a moment, and then shook his head. “Anyway, the point is, all of the money is going toward getting both sides thoroughly drunk.” He pointed at me. “Everyone except Colum, apparently.”
I frowned. “I can’t,” I said, “I just… I just can’t.”
He sighed, and lay back, stretching his muddy boots out across the floor of the tent. “You know, my friend, this… this is exactly your problem,” he said. “You’ve always got to prove you’re better than him.”
I looked down at the helm again, and then away. “Better than who?”
“Oh, come on,” Kellan said, “I was right there, too. Skelley may call it ‘youthful enthusiasm’, but I know what you were doing. After you knocked me down, you could have swung back, mopped up the far end of our formation and done to us exactly what we did to you.” He stretched his arms up into the air, looking up at his fingers. “Instead, you punched a little hole in our line, and then went straight for Oskar, halfway across the formation.” He brought his hands down to cover his face, and shook his head. “This is Cat’s Night all over again. No, not even Cat’s Night, this is the Harvest Faire all over again.”
I scoffed. “What are you even on about?”
“The Harvest Faire, two summers ago? Before the notorious Cat’s Night Festival Shouting Match. You and Oskar were both trying to shimmy up those greased poles to win a cheese or a kiss from Elene or something.”
“You know, Elene, the shoemaker’s daughter. Elene? Elain?”
“Lanie. Her name’s Lanie.”
“Right. Lanie. Anyway, the point is, you get half a head higher than he is, but do you keep pushing ahead? No, you’ve gotta reach out a leg to try and push him off, and you end up taking yourself down with him. How long did you have to splint your wrist after that?”
I swung my legs onto my bedroll, turning away from Kellan. I’d only barely remembered what happened at the Harvest Festival, but I did remember the winter I’d spent with my hand bound up, unable to help around the workshop, only barely able to feed myself without Master Vardon’s help.
Kellan continued, looking over at me. “You go off, trying to prove you’re better than he is, no matter how badly you screw yourself over in the process. Then, if you lose, you’re miserable, and if you win, you’re as bitter as ever because he’s still the one…” Kellan stopped, then turned his head back toward the roof of the tent and sighed. “Look, I know the situation with Oskar and you and your father is a complicated one. Faith, Col, the whole thing is a big twisted knot of terrible, and for all I care you can blame the ancestors or your father or the blessed Solstice Cat for that. But it’s as terrible for Oskar as it is for you, trust me.”
“And what do you know about how terrible it is for him?” I asked, turning my head back toward him.
He rolled his eyes at me. “Shocking as it may be, Col, there are other people than you who I consider my friends, and Oskar is one of them. Unlike you, I can have a conversation with the man because I don’t have some sort of score I think I need to settle with him.” Kellan sat back up, and gestured out the tent flap. “In fact, if you didn’t hate him so much, I imagine you’d be better friends than we are! You’ve certainly got enough in common.”
For a long moment, neither of us spoke. Finally, Kellan stood back up. “Fuck,” he said quietly, “I think I need a bit more mead. Join me or don’t.” He stopped at the tent flap for a moment, and then pushed it aside and ducked his head down to leave.
“Wait,” I said.
He stopped. There was another moment of silence, and then I stood, picking up the helmet. “Just give me a moment to change, this tunic’s pretty rank.”
He gave me a little nod, and pointed to my forehead. “Might want to wash that off a little, too. Looks pretty ghastly right now.”
“Good call, thanks.” I pulled a clean shirt out of the chest, put the helmet down next to Oskar’s inside, and closed the lid.