Those who failed to find their own heroes moved aside to allow the mounted warriors to pass, then sat by the road waiting for the oxcarts that trailed behind bearing the wounded. Wives and mothers walked toward the slow-moving ambulances when they came into sight. Some ran as they neared. Most climbed aboard when the oxcarts arrived in desperate hope that they could avoid the sack cloth and ashes of mourning. They pleaded with the few among the wounded who could talk, begging for news. Those yet missing when the last cart passed were assumed to be dead.
Hoping against all hope, some few mourners peered into the failing light. They saw a boy carrying a spear without a tip. His mother gasped when she recognized him and ran to his side. “Andrew, what happened?” she asked.
The boy answered without taking his eyes off the road at his feet. “I have been shamed,” he said, his voice barely more than a whisper choked with unshed tears.
The woman could learn no more. Her son uttered no sound as they made their way home to a mud wattled hut where their husband and father waited, anger etched in every line of his face.
“What happened?” she pleaded with her husband.
“Not now,” her husband responded. “I'm hungry. The stories will be told tomorrow.”
The woman cut a large wedge of cheese for her husband and another for her son.
“No,” the man interrupted. “None for him. Just bread.”
The woman knew by the tone of his voice that it was futile to argue. She cut slices of bread for both and turned to the kettle hanging over the fire to dish bowls of mutton. Again, the man stayed her from delivering one to their son.
The people gathered outside the king's long house the next morning. It was time to celebrate the heroes and mourn those lost. Stories would be told and spoils awarded. More importantly for the boys who had fought, they would be circumcised and become men.
Five boys were called, but only four were joined by their fathers. Andrew stood alone.
The king's surgeon stood before the first and called in a loud, clear voice, “Who brings this boy?”
The boy's father replaced his smile with a frown of importance and responded, “I, Albert, shield-bearer of the king, bring John, my son.”
“He fought well?” the surgeon asked.
“Aye!” the father beamed. “His spear is stained with the blood of our enemies,” he added as he held the iron tip aloft for all to see.
The surgeon looked to the king who signaled his assent with a nod. He then lifted the boy's breech cloth. “Hold the foreskin with your fingertips,” he whispered to the boy, “and pull.”
Sweat broke out on the boy's brow and his knees began to shake, but he held the foreskin of his penis as instructed. The surgeon wrapped the thumb and forefinger of his free hand around the boy's penis and squeezed forcing the head further back into skin surrounding the shaft. In his other hand he held a sharpened flake of obsidian. He hesitated just a moment to stare into the boy's eyes. He smiled at the fear he found there, then cut away the foreskin in one clean motion. The boy stumbled back, but his father caught him before he could fall. Staring dumbly, the boy discovered the foreskin still between his fingers.
The surgeon leaned close to the boy again. “Brace yourself lad,” he instructed. “This will sting. Make not a sound or you will be teased cruelly.”
The boy sucked in a deep breath and waited. Despite the warning he almost called out when the surgeon poured wine over the wound and the alcohol stung him. He kept from crying out by biting his lower lip until blood ran down his chin.
The surgeon took the skin from the boy and held it aloft for the king to see.
The king nodded and proclaimed, “It is well done. He is a man.”
The crowd cheered as the surgeon stepped towards the next boy.
The second circumcision also went well. When the third father stepped forward to proclaim his son, the crowd murmured. Stories had already swept the town that the boy had blooded his spear in the corpse of a fallen warrior following the battle. However, none dared challenge his circumcision and face the wrath of his father.
After the fourth circumcision, only Andrew remained, standing alone. When the surgeon called for his father, the man turned his back on the proceeding.
The surgeon called again. Andrew's uncle was tempted to step forward, but a menacing glare from the boy's father stayed him.
A murmur began to rise from the onlookers and Andrew's mother rushed to her husband's side. She grasped his arm in both hands and pleaded, “Please acknowledge your son.”
The man drew Andrew's spear tip from a pouch at his waist and held it before her eyes. “See, woman,” he said, “it is clean.” He then turned to the crowd and held the spear tip high over his head. “This is my son's,” he announced in a loud voice. “It is clean. He didn't even have the wits to stick it into a corpse like that idiot,” he added while pointing with his thumb to the third boy to have been circumcised.
Andrew balled his hands into fists and stuck his chin in the air, but said nothing.
Looking directly into Andrew's eyes, his father proclaimed, “The boy is an idiot as well as a coward.”
Something exploded inside Andrew and he snatched the obsidian scalpel from the surgeon. “I am not a coward,” he cried as he reached down and circumcised himself before anyone could react. He then grabbed the wine from the surgeon's helper and poured the entire contents of the bottle onto the bleeding wound.
The king was the first to react. He summoned his master-at-arms with a flick of two fingers and the two men walked up to Andrew. “Tell them what happened,” the king commanded.
Andrew stared without comprehension. “Go ahead,” the king prompted, “tell them.”
Andrew fell to his knees. “I can't, sire,” he responded and his chin dropped to his chest.
“My master-at-arms saw it,” the king continued. “Tell them.”
Andrew breathed deeply before whispering, “My father faltered...”
Andrew's father stepped between the king and his son. “My name is Bernard,” he said to Andrew. “Call me thy father no more.”
The king laid a hand on Bernard's shoulder and steered him aside. Then, turning to his master-at-arms, he commanded, “Tell them.”
Phillip had served the king many years as master-at-arms in many battles. His voice could rise above the din of the bloodiest tempest. He now moderated it to be heard at every corner of the assembly. “Bernard stood at the center of the shield wall during the last charge attempted by the enemy,” he began and everyone quieted to hear the story. “His son stood with the other spearmen looking for openings in the shield wall to attack the enemy. It was a desperate charge. To fail was to lose the battle. Fell warriors crashed upon our shield wall and a gap began to open. At least three men put their shoulders against Bernard's shield and he began to succumb. If they had succeeded in breaching the shield wall, they could have won the day, but Andrew put his shoulder to his father's back and lent him his strength. Man and boy, they not only held the line, but also began to push the center of their shield wall back. Their shield-bearers began tripping over the spearmen behind and the enemy was routed.”
A tempest arose in Bernard's face as he heard how his son had helped him. “I didn't know,” he stammered. “I didn't know.”
“You couldn't,” the king explained. “Bodies were pressing on all sides in the heat of battle.”
A cheer arose from the people until the king raised a hand and they quieted. Turning to Andrew he said, “You proved your courage and your strength, but you failed in your duty.”
Andrew's jaw dropped at the king's condemnation.
The king looked on the boy with sympathy before continuing. “It was a mistake,” he said. “Your duty was to use your spear, to reach past the opening in the shield wall and slay the enemy that beset your father. In so doing, you might have saved the shield wall from disaster.”
Andrew thought hard on the king's words and nodded. “Yes, sire,” he said. “I see that I failed.”
“No,” the king corrected him. “Several spearmen stood against you through that gap. You would have died had you tried. In the end, your failure saved us from disaster.”
A new murmur arose from the crowd as they discussed and agreed with the wisdom of the king's words.
Once again, the king held his hand up for silence. Then, turning to Bernard, the king asked, “Will you now proclaim your son?”
Bernard nodded. “Yes, sire.”
“Very well,” the king replied. He then turned and took the foreskin and obsidian scalpel from Andrew's hands and examined them. After a moment of reflection, he held them aloft and announced, “It is well done. He is a man.”