“…and the inverted task will be building and destroying a tower with those wooden beams,” Master Palthio extended his arms and pointed to each side of the field. On the right-hand-side there was a pile of tree trunks laid about haphazardly. At the opposite end they had been stacked into a four-tiered tower.
“Who is building?” Reis asked.
“You and yours. Any other questions?”
There weren’t, and so the eight students divided into two teams of four. They gathered their weapons–staffs padded on each end, iron helmets, and wooden shields–and then marched off to their respective sides of the field.
Every week they had a contest against each other, the rules of which were slightly altered each time. They were to play as two militias, each trying to earn their victory in the field.
The paths to victory were multiple.
First was through brute strength. Whenever a youth was knocked to the ground, he had four seconds to return to his feet. If he failed to then he was pronounced dead, and if all of one side was pronounced dead then the other side won.
Secondly was to carry all five stones at the end of your own field to the other field’s end. They were very large, and required both hands to manage.
And thirdly was to fulfill a special task. This was the part that changed each week, but what never changed was that the task was always inverted from one side to the other. Thus in this case Tharol, Bovik, Janeao, and Avro had to protect their tower from being toppled until all the sand ran out in Palthio’s timer, while Reis, Inol, Golu, and Beesk had to build their tower before that same timer ran out.
Tharol and the rest of his team waited until they were out or earshot of the others, then immediately launched into strategy.
“We would have a hard time of it trading blows,” Tharol observed. “Reis and Golu are too dangerous.”
“You and I would have a chance with them,” Avro countered.
“Maybe one time out of three,” Tharol shook his head. He knew it was important to be practical about one’s strengths and weaknesses. Over-confidence in these practices was what usually doomed the losing team. “But we could at least hold them off while getting the rocks over. You feeling like carrying stones, Janeao?”
“No, actually. I twisted my ankle coming down the ladder this morning.”
“Who else knows about that?”
“Golu was there.”
They all looked sideways to where Reis and his team were similarly huddled in strategy.
“Well they all know about it now,” Bovik sighed. “Looks like we go for their tower. Press in on all sides and keep them distracted so they can’t finish it in time?”
“Or play defensively,” Tharol suggested. “Protect our own half and hope they make a mistake.”
There was a moment of silence as each boy thought the options over on his own. Then each of them slowly looked to Tharol to make the final call.
Tharol looked up from the rest of them, over to where the other team was still having their own deliberation. For a brief moment Reis looked up from that group and made eye contact with him.
“I would say defensive…” Tharol turned back to his own team, “and Reis knows that. So let’s go aggressive!”
Master Palthio finished his ascent up the small tower that stood at the edge of the field. He paused to watch as the boys finished their council, then nodded to them and struck the gong.
“Janeao, you defend the tower!” Tharol ordered hurriedly as he and the others began streaking across the field.
Ahead of them Reis and his team were retreating towards the back of their field, either on their way to build the tower or start carrying stones.
So now they’re the ones playing defensively? Tharol thought to himself. That was unusual for Reis. “Don’t strain yourselves,” he called to Bovik and Avro. “Let them fatigue themselves.”
They slowed down to a jog, which allowed them an opportunity to see exactly what the other side’s strategy was. As soon as Reis’s team reached the back end of their field they split into two pairs. Inol and Golu went off to the stones, while Reis and Beesk made for their wooden beams.
“Do we follow both groups?” Bovik turned to Tharol.
“No, don’t worry about the first stone. They can have that one.” Tharol felt a rush of excitement. Reis and Golu might have been the best fighters of them all, but they had just split themselves apart from each other. Tharol, Bovik, and Avro would be able to overwhelm Reis and Beesk, get them pronounced dead, and then turn around and do the same with Inol and Golu. They were going to win!
“Fan out,” Tharol ordered. “We’ll trap Reis between ourselves and get him down as quickly as possible.”
Tharol kept the center, his comrades on either side. By now they were right on top of Reis and Beesk at the wooden beams.
“Ho!” Reis called, and Beesk dropped the beam he had been carrying. Both of the boys drew their staffs from their backs and raised their shields.
Tharol was closest to Beesk, and saw an opportunity to temporarily take him out so that they could focus on Reis. With a grunt of exertion, he thrust his staff forward like a javelin. Beesk barely managed to catch the blow with his shield, and the force of it made him take a step back, tripping right over the wooden beam he had just laid at his own feet.
Reis exclaimed in disgust before Tharol, Bovik, and Avro all rushed him together. He took a strong defensive stance, keeping his back to the mess of wooden beams sprawled on the ground so that none of them could get behind him without losing their footing.
They didn’t need to, though. A direct three-way assault was too great to be denied. Reis couldn’t block three swinging weapons with one staff and one shield. Though he tried to dodge about, tried to block two of their weapons and sidestep the third, his stamina and focus could only be sustained at such a high level for so long. Before long he took a blow. Then he took another. Pain and disorientation started to dull his reflexes. His movements began to be heavy and slow. He was quickly waning.
Tharol suddenly realized that Beesk must have returned to his feet by now, and he whirled around to ensure that the youth wouldn’t sneak up on him from behind. Coincidentally, Beesk had been sneaking up on him, and Tharol’s swinging staff caught him fully in the head, knocking him to the ground, unconscious!
“Oh Beesk,” Reis groaned.
Tharol spun back around and raised his staff for a mighty blow.
“Wait, wait wait!” Reis stammered, lowering his own weapon and shield. “I surrender.”
“What?” Tharol asked.
“Can he do that?” Bovik wondered aloud.
“Here, look,” Reis dropped his weapons to the ground, then lay down beside them. “One… two… three… four… I’m out, right? It’s official.”
“But–why would you do that?!” Avro demanded.
“Is it really so strange to not want to be clobbered in the head?”
“For you…yes,” Tharol asserted. Reis would never take a loss willingly, no matter what the cost was.
“Ah well…you see…”
Suddenly it started to dawn on Tharol. Reis wasn’t surrendering to spare himself pain, he was wasting their time. And at the same time that he realized this, his ears started to pick up on the sound of distant shouting, so faint he hadn’t noticed it before.
Tharol turned sharply about, eyes racing to the other end of the field. And there he saw that Inol and Golu had abandoned their stone as soon as they were out of sight of Tharol, Bovik, and Avro. They had sprinted down the field to where Janeao defended their tower alone. Janeao was valiantly trying to thwart their assault, propping back up the fallen beams that had already been knocked over and shouting for assistance. But he wouldn’t be able to hold out for much longer. Already, it might be too late.
“Run!” Tharol ordered, then thundered down the field towards the battle. He didn’t check to see if Avro and Bovik were following behind, he just raced faster and faster. He dropped his weapons to the ground, let his arms pump at his side unhindered. He threw off his helmet, stretched his legs for every inch possible.
He wasn’t going to make it in time. Janeao had permanently taken the place of one of the fallen beams, helping to hold the entire structure up by sheer strength. Given that he couldn’t move from that place, Inol and Golu had resorted to taking out the other supports until the weight or imbalance would force the whole thing down on him.
“JANEAO, GET OUT OF THERE!” Tharol roared.
Janeao looked to him in confusion.
“DON’T TRY TO BE A HERO!” Tharol pleaded. “IT’S OVER!”
Janeao winced as another support was knocked away, suddenly increasing the burden on his shoulders. He flexed his arms and legs, trying to correct for the shift of balance.
At last Tharol reached the scene and flung his arm around Janeao, jerking the boy out from under the tower, tumbling with him to the hard soil as the entire tower came crashing down all around. One or two of the beams ricocheted into them, scraping them as they passed overhead, but then all was still.
“What did you–” Janeao panted as he rose to palms and knees. “Why did you– Why did you do that, Tharol?!”
“It was over, Janeao. It was coming down.”
“I could have held it! You were already here…you should have fought with them and let me do my own job!”
Tharol couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “I just–I just saved you, Janeao.”
“I didn’t come here to be saved, Tharol! I came here to win a battle. It’s time to be men and start taking care of things.”
“What are you talking about?”
“What was it you were shouting? ‘Don’t be a hero?!’ You think that’s how a warrior prevails?”
And with that he rose to his feet and stomped away in a fury.
Tharol looked around in confusion. Inol and Golu were leaping up and down, rejoicing in their victory. Bovik and Avro stood off to the side, shrugging at Tharol, neither approving or condemning his actions. Reis was pulling a dazed Beesk back to his feet, and then the two of them came over to join their team in celebration.
“Did you get hit?”
Tharol was snapped out of his reverie and turned to see Master Palthio, approaching from behind.
“You seem dazed. Did one of those wooden beams hit you?”
“No sir…I was just…thinking.”
“Ah, I can imagine. Come walk with me.”
Master Palthio didn’t wait for the boy, but turned and strode off so that their conversation could be private. Tharol quickly scrambled to his feet and caught up with his mentor.
“So why are you so troubled today? You’ve lost at these competitions before, haven’t you?”
“Yes, but…I really thought we had this one. One moment we seemed so close to victory, and the next…we had lost.”
“Mmm. Reis definitely stepped up his performance today, didn’t he? I hope you don’t mind me saying so, but you boys had been getting downright silly in these practices: beating on each other with brute force over and over, with never a thought for strategy. I’m pleased to see someone finally deciding to take it seriously.”
“Well we were trying to be strategic, too. We figured they would expect us to take a more defensive stance, and so we flipped it to catch them off guard. But…”
“But Reis knew you would do that, and he put together his trap? Yes. So why are you so confused?”
“How did he even know that we would do that?”
“Ah…well exactly how I couldn’t say. But to be sure, Reis is a trickster…and you are not. So if you’re trying to come up with something cunning, you might as well assume that he’ll see it coming from a mile away, and already be two tricks into his own plan.”
“What do I do then?”
“You’ll have to find the way that you overcome a trickster,” Master Palthio said simply, then turned from Tharol and walked away.
On Monday I shared about boredom, and how it has served me well, both in finding my life passion and in improving my craft in that passion. I’ve especially benefitted from my ability to detect boring passages when writing action sequences, such as this one of the boys having their mock battle.
In most cases, action is meant to be rapid and precise. While one could spend a great deal of time detailing postures and angles, that would kill the momentum of the scene. Several times while writing this piece I caught myself straying into unnecessary, weighty details that bogged down the action. I updated things to be more succinct, striving to make it so that the amount of time it took to read an action would be the same as the amount time it takes to actually perform it.
That sort of 1:1 balance can be a tricky thing to pull off in stories, especially given the fact that everyone reads at different speeds. But when done well, it allows the story to feel active and alive, like it is happening around the reader in real time.
I’d like to take the time to explore this notion of time-lapse in a story in greater detail, particularly in terms of an action scene. Come back on Monday where we’ll look more closely at this, and then next Thursday as we continue with The Favored Son.