Behind me, I could hear someone shout something that might have been my name. I hardly noticed; I had other things on my mind, and I wasn’t about to let myself be distracted. I walked a few more steps before I felt a hand grip my arm and spin me around.
It was Oskar. He shouted at me, gripping my shoulders in both hands, his helmet’s eye slit inches away from my eyes. “Not you too, arsehole, not now! Snap out of it!”
I shook my head. Clearly, Oskar had misunderstood the situation. I started to talk to him, trying to explain. “No, everything’s… it’s fine, Oskar, we just…” My mind felt fuzzy; it was almost impossible to find the words I needed. “We just… we have to…” I gestured toward Kellan, trying to show him that we were both fine.
Oskar yelled something else at me, something about helping Kellan, but I’d stopped listening at that point. Oskar either didn’t know what he was talking about, or he was being a stubborn idiot. Either way, I didn’t have to listen to him, didn’t have to take this from him. I pushed his arms away from my shoulders and started to turn back toward the cliff.
Oskar shook his head and closed his eyes for a moment, then grabbed my arm again, harder this time. As I held my hand up to push him off again, he pulled his other arm back and drove his fist into the side of my head.
I stumbled and fell, the armor plates in my coat clanking dully through the canvas as I tumbled to the rocky ground. Shocked, I scrambled back away from Oskar. He stood still, watching me.
I shook my head at him, then put my hand down to pick myself up only to pull it back as I felt something cold and sharp under my fingers. I looked down. A helmet was lying on its side on the stony earth. My helmet, I realized, the eye slit facing up toward me as though the thing was staring at me. I shoved the thing with an open han, making it roll a pace or two before it struck a rock, and then pushed myself to my feet, beginning my walk toward the cliff edge again. Kellan was more than halfway there, now. I’d have to pick up my pace.
I got another half-dozen steps toward the cliff when a hand closed on my arm again. Who would be interrupting me now? I turned head to look. Oh, right. Oskar. Oskar was still here. Oskar who’d hit me just a moment ago. I put my hands up, ready to deflect another blow, but Oskar shoved my hands aside, and before I could do anything else he reached forward with both arms and slammed something down on my head.
On one particularly hot day the first summer after I was apprenticed to Master Vardon, Kellan and I and a few of the town’s other children had gone up into the woods outside of Cantlay Town to go swimming. There was a place where a stream had been dammed up to run a water mill a generation before any of us were born, and while all that was left of the mill were a few mossy stone walls and a ruined paddle wheel, the pond remained, the water deep and dark and muddy green in color.
We’d spent the day paddling around, splashing at each other, climbing onto the limbs of one of the old oaks that stood at the edge of the pond and jumping into the water. Kellan and I had only recently become friends and I was new to this group, eager to prove myself, so every time that someone had dared me to climb higher, to dive deeper, I’d done it, and when young Sibley the shoemaker’s daughter talked about how brave it would be for someone to climb the walls of the mill and leap from there, I’d done that, too.
It had taken me a moment to realize that I was in trouble. Several of the times I’d jumped from the tree I’d touched the muddy bottom of the pond, but the water near the dam and the mill was deeper than it was on the other side, a fact I only realized as I felt the deep mud of the bottom flow between my toes. I’d pushed off of the bottom, frantically swimming for the surface, as my breath burned in my lungs, eager to force itself from my mouth and nose. Darkness crept in at the edges of my vision, and I and everything around me slowed down, my thoughts looping in on themselves.
For a single moment that seemed to stretch into an eternity, I believed with my whole being that I was going to die. And then, with a final kick, I pushed my face above the surface of the water, and life, hot and golden, flowed back into me as I pulled in that first gasping, shuddering breath.
The world went black, and suddenly I could think again. I staggered back, shaking my head to clear the cobwebs from my mind, and brought my hands up toward my face only to feel the rough touch of unpolished iron.
My helmet. Oskar had put my helmet back on my head, and now my mind was once again my own. I twisted the bucket helm around until I could see out of the slit, ignoring the scratches that the rivets drew across my forehead and cheeks.
Oskar was stepping toward me again, his arms outstretched, but I held up a hand. “No, I’m good now.”
“Good?” Oskar stopped, but his arms were still out toward me. “You sure?”
I nodded. “Yeah, no jumping for me. I’m good.” I took a breath. “How-”
“No time. If you’re good, I need your help.” Oskar pointed toward the cliff.
I turned my head so I could see what he was pointing at through the narrow slit. Kellan was now almost to the cliff’s edge. “Shit!”
Oskar started toward him, running. “You grab the right arm! I’ve got the left!”
I took off after him. We reached Kellan’s side no more than two or three paces from the cliff’s edge. Kellan seemed oblivious to our presence. He stared up at the creatures on the bridge, craning his neck to keep his eyes on them, paying no attention even to his footing. He began to struggle as Oskar and I grabbed him, but there was little he could do against the both of us.
As we began to drag him back, one of the boys from Wollen whose name I didn’t know stepped around me and silently slipped off of the edge. For a moment I heard nothing, and then there was a dull, thumping splash that seemed to echo from the inside of the bowl. Oskar and I redoubled our efforts, and dragged Kellan away from the edge at almost a run.
I looked up and around us, trying to figure out where to go now. The unit was in chaos. Some of the remaining men were doing as Oskar and I were, pulling others back away from the cliffs. The rest had already begun to retreat, or had… otherwise left the battlefield.
I saw several of the knights still fighting, though none were still mounted. One or two were on the ground, struggling to get back to their feet in their full plate. The remaining few were doing what they could to help restrain other men and pull them back. Sir Hagan spotted us, and waved us over to him with a free hand as he dragged an unconscious man backward with his other. We drug Kellan toward him.
The pointed faceplate of his helm was dented, preventing it from opening, so he shouted to make himself heard through the steel. “We need to regroup!” He lowered the man he was dragging to the ground and then straightened, moving his whole body to look right and left. “Have you seen Lord Carson?”
I shook my head, and Oskar shouted back, “No, sir!”
He made a fist with his gauntleted hand, and then stooped to grasp the unconscious soldier’s collar again with the other. “Nothing for it, then! You’ve done all you can here, boys! Get back to the inn, and wait for me there!”
We nodded to him, and dragging Kellan kicking and mumbling we started back down the road as quickly as we could manage. As we went, I turned to look back behind us. The enemy still stood on the bridge, staring down at what they’d wrought, their expressions serene and unreadable.