Fritz and Witless rushed the defensive line, screaming at the top of their lungs, and crashed into the center; pushing it back with a clash of shields. Colin and I followed close behind and, somehow getting our timing just right, ran up our blockers backs and leapt over the opposing guards and blockers directly into the middle of their square.
Colin and I immediately put ourselves back to back, he protecting me while I kept open the hole Fritz and Witless had made in the line. The rest of the Demons followed closely and, within a minute, we had collapsed their defenses in the middle and split the opposing force into two armies instead of a single defensive line.
The army on our right flank was the Northport Whales and nothing to be overly concerned about. Colin directed two squads their way to spread confusion and keep them from reforming properly. The Wolves on our left were another matter altogether.
I could see the Wolves commander only a five or six meters from me, turning his line and working up a pincer maneuver; which might have carried the day if the Whales were less gormless. Still, it seemed best to derail his efforts quickly.
“Vincent!” I shouted to get his attention. When his eyes met mine I threw my sword at him as hard as I could and followed the sword with my shield, spinning it like a throwing disk. I had hoped only to distract Vince for a few critical seconds, but he didn’t look back up after dodging the sword and caught my shield right on the side of his helmet, knocking him over backwards.
Even with their leader senseless on the ground Murphy’s Wolves were no pushover like the Whales. Nonetheless we soon established control over the flags and set up a defensive line they could not break as easily as we had shattered theirs. We were still holding the flags when the horns blew.
I finished the battle with a Wolve’s sword and a Whale’s shield, which seemed appropriate somehow. The casualties were as high as I had ever seen; at least a dozen Demons had been carried away to the medical tents and an equal number of Wolves, including Vince Nguyen. The Whales fared somewhat better, but mostly because they had given ground so easily.
Colin had me form up the remaining Demons for the closing ceremony and I was dressing their lines when I heard a commotion behind me. I turned to see Vince and his first lieutenant at the Proctor’s table, engaged in a shouting match with Colin. Nodding to my second to take over, I rushed over to stand beside Colin.
Vince looked terrible, his head wrapped in a bandage and his eyes bloodshot. Mostly likely he had a concussion and should not have been on his feet at all, much less striding back and forth in a fury. When he saw me his anger only mounted.
“It was Griff here who delivered the foul blow! I demand a demerit for the Urbane Demons on his behalf!”
I shook my head. “It was no foul. Unusual maybe, but cleanly delivered!”
“It was a coward’s attack! Without honour!”
My own anger rising I stepped forward to make a formal challenge for this insult. But Colin, who knew me better than I knew myself, threw out his arm and pushed me back.
“Griff got your attention before attacking and you were facing him when he threw the sword. You saw it on the recording.” Colin nodded towards the screen on the Proctor’s table, “The fact you cannot remember is due to your injury. As, I think, are your rash words; spoken while not fully competent.”
“Enough!” The head Proctor stepped forward. “We have reviewed the recording and agree it was no foul. However, we cannot award Griff Logan or the Demons casualty points for such an unusual blow.
“This is our final word on the subject. Any further disagreement between you today and we will award both teams demerits for dishonourable conduct off the field!”
Vince’s lieutenant pulled him back while Colin and I returned to our troops to make our victory march past the reviewing stands. Afterwards we went to the medical tents to see to our casualties. That was when we discovered Witless had taken a fatal blow when we broke the lines.
Witless’s real name was Jo Li and he wasn’t actually a dummy. Just slower than the rest of us and prone to making bad decisions about women, even when sober. He and Fritz O’Malley were our blockers because they were giants; both nearly two and a half meters tall and built like bears. Witless was also my roommate at university.
He overflowed the cot they had him on, his feet propped on a stool and sticking out from the blanket. There were tubes running into him everywhere and a ventilator was making wheezing sounds in the corner. He didn’t move, other than the rise and fall of his chest as air was pushed into him.
It turned out Witless had taken a sword through his armour, into his liver. The subsequent pounding his body took while the rest of us used him as a bridge into the enemy square had pushed that sword back and forth, slicing up his insides like a sausage grinder. The doctors had given him the usual wound treatments, but that wasn’t enough in his case. They explained that he needed a full treatment and several operations to survive. That they had already done what they could here and were waiting to transfer him to a hospital by copter.
I listened to all this, squatting at Witless’s side and holding his hand while Colin talked to the doctors. Finally Colin took me by the arm and pulled me out of the tent.
“We’ve got to get him a hero’s treatment!” I said, fighting back tears.
“Yes, of course.” Colin was silent for a moment. “He was certainly valiant enough, but it usually takes a lot more than Jo did today to qualify. We need some political pressure. Pressure you can swing more easily than any of us.”
I knew what he meant at once, although it wasn’t something I wanted to do. “Yeah. Reese was in the stands today. He is most likely at the fete. I’ll go talk to him.”
. . .
As I expected my uncle was at the after-party, holding court with a gaggle of sycophants. When I appeared, still in my dirty and bloody armour, Reese’s eyes flicked to his man Oliver; sending a message I was sure to hear more about later.
For the moment, however, Reese was congeniality itself. “And here he is! The hero of the day, who turned the battle on a spinning shield!”
I put on an equally insincere smile. “Hardly uncle. The proctors wouldn’t even give us casualty points for that. Besides, it was the blockers who broke the line and made our victory possible.
“In fact,” I stepped closer and lowered my voice a bit, “There is something we need to discuss about that.”
Reese’s eyes narrowed, but he soon made excuses to his audience and stepped outside with me, offering a cigar and then lighting one himself.
“So what is the problem?”
I fussed a bit with the cigar, lighting it. “It’s Jo uncle. He took a sword in the gut when he cracked the line. The doctors say he won’t survive without full treatment.”
“And you want him a declared hero to get it, eh?”
Reese turned away, sucking at his cigar and blowing fragrant smoke into the night air. I waited as patiently as I could manage. Long experience with Reese had taught me the surest way to make him withhold something was to beg for it.
Finally Reese turned back. He grimaced and dropped his half-smoked cigar, grinding it into the dirt with his boot. “Sorry son, but that would be a waste of political capital.”
“No, Griff. Listen to me! Your entire life you have talked only about your ambition to one day become a Chief, even daring to hope for the Captaincy. And you have it in you to do so! I can see it in in you. But climbing to such lofty heights can only be done over the backs of others. You know this. You’ve seen how I keep my position.
“If I do this for you it will cost me. And it will cost you, because those who need to think you firm and strong will begin to think otherwise.”
It was true, what he said. Reese was a hard man, prone to making hard decisions. In my heart I had known his answer even before I asked.
“I know. But I had to ask. Jo is a friend and comrade.”
Reese nodded approvingly. “Loyalty to your underlings is how you earn theirs to you. We cannot get him declared a hero. But I think it possible we can make him one of the honourable fallen.” He smiled his wolf’s grin at me and returned to the party.
I found Colin in the locker room, freshly showered and putting on his party clothes.
“Reese says no can do. But we can send him to Valhalla.”
Colin nodded. “That’s something, at least.”
As Colin left I sat down on the bench and started to remove my armour stiffly, noticing my bruises and cuts from the battle for the first time.
I never did go back to the party.
First: First steps are the hardest
Previous: The banners and the blood
Next: To walk among the fallen