The next morning, they all assembled in the yard. The Colonel had a grin on his face and his hand resting on a big pile of blue cloth.
“Ready?” he asked.
The squad looked at each other.
“It’s a simple exercise,” he said. “You get blue, they get yellow.” He held up each hand in turn. “Bibs. Cloth markers. Nothing else in the field is either of those colours.” He gestured to the training field. They hadn’t used this one yet. It had a few short trees and hedges, and over lunch, it had been set up with scattered wooden structures and barriers. Wilom was immediately and chillingly reminded of the little run-down farmhouse where Rickart, Inushi and Keri had hidden. Someone had done a terrifyingly good job of making all the destruction look haphazard.
“So,” the Colonel continued, and Wilom drew his attention back, “you’ll need to prioritise camouflage. You have five minutes to hide ten markers around the field, and they’ll try to find them and take them. Then it’s their turn. They’ve done this before, of course, so we’re putting them at a disadvantage: They can’t hide theirs in the same places you hid yours, so find all the good, defensible spots this round, alright?”
Wilom mentally made a note to suggest Harie should make their final choices. He was already scanning the field and was considering three or four spots.
“Then we won’t know where to look!” Yolin protested. “That’s not much of an advantage.”
“No interruptions!” the Colonel snapped, and Yolin immediately felt ashamed that he had spoken.
“As for defense,” the Colonel continued, completely ignoring Yolin’s embarrassment. “You will choose where to post defenders and how you’ll communicate. Tag a member of the other team anywhere on the body and they’ll move off the field. Same goes for you. Does everyone understand?”
Wilom joined in the chorus of “Yes, sir!”
The Colonel grunted. They weren’t quite in time, like he wanted. But he also felt frustrated with himself for still caring about it so much. “Good. Get talking! Efficiency is key, so no wasting time!”
It wasn’t precisely making Wilom feel any better about this whole thing to know that the experienced old Colonel didn’t think much of their chances.
Despite the Colonel’s misgivings, they did manage to get their markers hidden without any argument. The rest of the team had come to the same conclusion as Wilom, and were happy to let Harie make the decisions. Firin and Javrinnen were really the only other ones giving any input.
Then they split up. Wilom paired up with Yolin, and they hid together behind a broken-down wall. They were technically the front line of the group — Harie was in the rear so he could see everything, and Firin and Javrinnen were behind Wilom and Yolin, slightly offset.
Yolin was facing one way and Wilom the other. Technically, it was so they could watch opposite sides of the field, but Wilom found it useful as well, so that he could close his eyes and concentrate on the Ferryman’s Knowledge without letting Yolin know something was wrong.
Since arriving at the barracks, Wilom had pretty much stopped trying to get rid of the Ferryman’s Knowledge.
It hadn’t exactly stopped things from going pear-shaped last time, after all. It still felt like cheating, but, well. Thinking like him hadn’t worked before, so maybe it was time to try thinking a little more like Vanda.
He let out a long breath.
Yolin was wondering if he was alright, but he didn’t want to turn around and ask, didn’t want to break concentration.
With his eyes closed, Wilom could tell roughly where everyone was. Teams were easy to determine — anyone who seemed confident wasn’t with Wilom’s squad. Even Harie was tense, worried about how his teammates would perform.
He had no idea where the cover was, so he couldn’t tell who was behind cover and who wasn’t. He couldn’t even make a guess based on whether they were crouching or not. That was the Ferryman’s Knowledge. Just people and places.
No — Wilom amended his assessment. The difference between them wasn’t stress. It was humour. Wilom’s team was focussed on, if not winning, then at least making it through with most of their dignity. The other squad just found it relaxing, to be ‘helping train the greenhorns’. They’d been doing this for real a week before, and this was in no way the same.
There was no hesitation. Wilom’s team weren’t being given enough time to think. The other squad was making directly for Harie’s hiding spots.
Yolin still hadn’t noticed the two advancing on them. They were watching for movement behind cover, stepping between obstacles quickly, never leaving themselves out in the open for long.
“They’re coming,” Wilom hissed.
“What?” Yolin asked, and turned to Wilom. “Where?”
Too late. Wilom rolled out of the way as one appeared around a corner, managing to twist his body out of the way of the palm of her hand, just managing to spin himself back around and tap her on the shoulder.
The other was just too quick for him, and he’d lost the advantage of knowing they were coming. Yolin followed soon afterwards, and they both moved off the field together, Yolin looking sheepish. The one that Wilom had tagged moved off to the other side of the field, feeling disappointed, but almost amused.
“I really thought you had them there, for a second,” Yolin said.
“Same,” Wilom said. “But I shouldn’t have gotten cocky.”
Yolin shrugged. “Well, you got one of them. That’s better than me.”
And thankfully, the conversation went no further.
Over dinner, the mood was subdued again. Harie ate with his usual brusque speed, though he was stabbing her sliced patty with more than usual venom. He wasn’t disappointed, just frustrated. Losing wasn’t his fault, and they had no chance of winning, but it was still a blow to his pride.
From Cathlin’s son’s stories, Wilom had expected to be mercilessly mocked for their loss. At the very least, there should have been some ribbing. The Ferryman’s Knowledge told him that the others in his squad had expected it, too. But the other squad had just shaken their hands, offered a few pieces of advice, and went to get their dinner.
“They might as well have turned us upside down and used our teeth to mow the grass,” Firin grumbled.
“We’re new,” Javrinnen said. “They look like they’ve been in the field for months.”
It was almost, Wilom thought, like a pro sports team had just gone up against a team of children. You didn’t mock the children for losing. It wouldn’t be fair.
“Concentrate on tomorrow, not today,” Harie told them.
“Good advice,” Wilom said. Harder to follow than endorse, but that wasn’t a problem he could solve.
The other squad left the barracks only three days later.