A start

  Peering up through a break in the forest canopy, Bob takes a moment to enjoy a shaft of sunlight that slices into the gloom like a giant spear. He breathes a long sigh as the sun warms his face, the bright light turning his closed eyelids red. Humming quietly, Bob steps out of the warm rays and back into the surrounding shadows, blinking as his eyes readjust to the semi-darkness.

  “Why,” he asks himself, “am I wandering through this darkness when the sky above is so inviting?”

  Giving a chuckle, he answers his own question. “Money, of course, money and power and knowledge, the only true lights in this world.”

  Bob slips through a particularly dense patch off undergrowth and continues his trek. The forest itself is silent, the only sounds are the whiskwhisk of leaves sliding against his leather vest, or the soft crunch of wet leaves beneath his boots.

  Just as Bob is getting back into a rhythm, a flicker of movement out of the corner of his eye sends him diving instinctively to the ground. The thwap of two bows released almost simultaneously is followed by two much louder thunks as the thick shafts sink deeply into a tree next to where Bob was walking only moments before.

  “Shit,” comes from the left, carrying clearly through the quiet of the forest.

  “Quiet, fool!” hisses another, near the first.

  That was all Bob needed to pinpoint the location of his would-be assassins. Smirking, he leaps to his feet as a few arcane words roll off his tongue. The runes tatooed along his arms, over his shoulders, and down his chest and back flare slightly as his life-force feeds power into the spell. A quick glance allows Bob to spot both men, the whites of their wideneed eyes enhanced tenfold from the magic now coursing through his body.

  Touching his index finger to his thumb, Bob releases the focused magic towards the two men, a single point of energy flying faster than an arrow at each of them. There is no sound when they hit, only a final gasp as the men crumple to the ground, dropping their bows.

  Straightening, Bob brushes off the leaves stuck to his vest and trousers, and scans the brush for additional threats. Finding none, he quietly wades through the intervening undergrowth and arrives beside the body of the first assassin.

  “A little more discipline, and it would be you standing over me,” says Bob, quietly rubbing his left arm with his right hand. His skin tingles after using the runes, and though rubbing them does no good, it has become a habit to run his fingers along the raised lines. The burning stopped long ago, when the runes first started showing up, and now he was just getting used to the tingling. A leaf slides off his arm as Bob rubs his skin, and floats down to briefly rest on the mans right leg, before sliding off and disappearing into the pile of leaves already surrounding the body.

  Bob drops to a knee beside the man and briskly pats him down, withdrawing a small coin purse and a smudged gold ring, but finding nothing indicating who he was or what he was doing here. Not that he needed any indication, the Affiliates were the only ones who sent assassins after the rune-touched. 

  The only ones with the balls.

  The second man was equally uninformative, but younger than the first, and smelled faintly of oil.     

  Opening the purse, Bob retrieves a few odds and ends along with a single silver coin with a large star stamped in the center. Not a waste of time after all.

  He dumps the junk, snaps the bows, and pockets the ring and coin. Silver is silver, after all, even if it's stamped with the Affiliates mark.

  “Hopefully,” thinks Bob, “there's more out here than arrows and ugly silver.”

  Pulling two fresh arows from the quiver of the first body, Bob shoves one into each corpse, filling the holes made by magic, with wood. He then kicks up some leaves around where he walked, and retraces his steps to check for anything he may have dropped. Finding nothing, Bob glances around one last time.

  Perfect. An encounter with a rune-touched now looks like a routine encounter between bandits.

  With a wry smile, Bob begins humming, picking up where he left off before the ambush. Lady on the knoll begins once again waftingg through the quiet of the forest, punctuated by the crunch of leaves beneath his feet, and the whiskwhisk of leaves brushing against his clothes.


  Outside the forest, the sun slowly dips towards the horizon, painting the sky with a wash of reds and yellows and purples. Beneath the canopy, the shadows gain shadows, dark corners vanish into dark glades, and only faint shafts of red and yellow are visible between the leaves.

  A small group of cloaked figures move laboriously along a deeply rutted track. Though clearly attempting to be quiet, each carries a visibly heavy load, causing them to stumble, grunt, and curse. A lone figure remains unburdened, and leads the group through the trees with an arrow nocked, eyes scanning.

  Another lone figure, lurking in the fading light, watches the group move with obscene glee. Bob leans against a tree with his arms crossed, patiently waiting. As the leader reaches a light spot under a break in the canopy, Bob takes a deep breath and slips behind the tree he was leaning against.

  “Those look heavy, friends,” bellows Bob from behind the tree, “why not lay them down--”

  An arrow thunks into the tree behind which Bob hides, cutting him off mid-sentence.

  “More where that came from, stranger,” calls the leader, punctuating the last word with a second arrow into the tree next to the first. “We've neither charity nor trust for voices in the dark. Show yourself!”

  “None of you need die, I've killed enough for one day, so lets talk options.” Bringing his arms up to cross over his chest, Bob mutters a quick phrase and the lines on his skin flare brightly blue-green.

  A collective gasp goes up from the group as Bob steps out from behind the tree, the runes glowing through his clothes and temporarily blinding them in the sudden illumination. All but the leader, who recognizes immediately the image, and the danger, represented in the man now glowing before them.

  “Get down!” yells Puc, as he looses his third arrow. Not waiting for the effect of his shot, Puc dives into the brush and begins rummaging through his pouch. He figures there are only moments left for him to apply the tincture on his arrows. An ancient magic, arrows supposedly dipped in it would, or so the old crone said, pierce the protection afforded rune-touched and allow archers to kill them.

  So the old crone said.

  Bob sniffs disdainfully as Puc's third arrow glances off his arm without leaving so much as a scratch.
  “I'm afraid that's simply not how you negotiate, at least not where I come from, archer.” growls Bob as he brings his right hand up and hisses a phrase. Light flashes out of his hand and flies over to suspend above the group, turning the dusky gloom into midday. He beings mumbling again as he eyes the few who are too stunned to heed Puc's command.

  Puc, meanwhile, locates the small dusty bottle and rips the tiny cork out of the top, releasing a foul odor like a rotting corpse. Gagging, but urged on by the sound of Bob's mumbling incantations, he quickly taps a few drops onto the head of his lucky arrow. The slimy solution oozes ever so slowly onto the pocked arrowhead, hissing and smoking as it sinks in, turning the splotchy steel a deep black.

  As Bob's incantation rises in volume and tempo, Puc realizes that his time is up. In one smooth motion, he fits arrow to string, lifts to a knee, then aims and fires at Bob. As the arrow leaves the bow, Puc experiences a tugging sensation, then a brief sense of loss and weakness, as something of his own energy accompanies the arrow towards Bob.

  With crystal clarity, Puc watches the arrow streak towards Bob. When it encounters his crossed arms, a sensation of pressure fills the area, as though everyone is underwater, then with a light pop the arrow blasts through Bob's arms and into his chest, pinning his crossed arms as he topples onto his back. The glowing lines flare and blink out as he falls, and the last word of Bob's unfinished spell hangs in the air.

  The pressure evaporates, silence and darkness once more descend on the forest. Everyone is temporarily blind by the sudden gloom, and only the sounds of the men's panicked breathing break the quiet.

  Drawing a shaky breath, Puc climbs painfully to his feet, surreptitiously slipping the dusty bottle back into his pouch.

  “UP! We move! Now!” barks Puc. “Lets put some miles between us and this foul place.” No one complains as they shoulder their packs and continue on their way. A few mutter the words 'rune-touched', but aside from a few wary glances, none dare question Puc.


  “All right, maggots! Stand up straight, shoulders back, chin up, arms extended and thumbs aligned with the seams on your pants!”

  Surveying the pitiful ranks of raw recruits in loose formation on the Green, the Sergeant gives a single, barking laugh.

  “Not even close!” His raspy baritone carries in the cool, crisp morning air. “I've seen milk-maids with better posture, children with more discipline, and cows with more sense.”

  A compact, powerfully built man, he stands with feet planted firmly a shoulders-width apart, hands clasped at the small of his back. His perfectly ironed uniform is spotless, boots winking even in the dim light of the pre-dawn hour. His chest is pushed out and his head back, so that his rows of medals hang out over a cliff in his uniform shirt, and despite his short stature, he appears to be looking down on us recruits.
  “My name is Sergeant Harlon, but for the present, you will refer to me as Sergeant. Do you understand?”

  A few feeble exclamations of “yes” and “yessir” come dribbling out of our ranks.

  “When I ask you a question, you will respond loudly, you will respond together, and you will say 'Yes Sergeant' or 'No Sergeant'. Do you understand?”

  Unable to get in sync, we shouted out, “Yes Sergeant!”, sounding like a handful of pebbles dribbled into a barrel.

  “I said,” he pauses briefly, then, even louder, “Do you understand?”

  Suddenly, as though finding our collective rhythm, and our volume, we belt out all three syllables in unison. “Yes Ser-geant!” The force and beauty of it washes over us, and a few grins break out.

  “Lock it up, stand at attention and wipe those smirks off your faces.” Despite the harsh words, we received a curt nod. “My job, and the whole of your existence for the next six months, is to turn you lot into something useful to the King. I will run you until you puke up every meal your mother spoonfed you. I will train you, and break you down until the pain drives the weakness from your bodies.”

  Across the camp, as the sky slowly opens itself to the first rays of the still slumbering sun, some of the more senior recruits were moving quickly to places and on tasks still mysterious to us. Fires rekindled; a door slaps open, then shut; a dog stars barking in the distance, and Sergeant Harlon continues.

  “Then I will deliver you into the hands of our Master Armsman, who will teach you the sword, the spear, the shield, and the horse. These are the tools of war, but you are far from warriors. Some of you will never be warriors, some of you will be broken and stay broken. Some of you will recognize the coward in your heart and walk out those gates directly behind you.” He pauses, pointing at the heavy wooden gate that represents the only entrance to the training facility. We glance back, but only briefly, and when he resumes our eyes snap forward again. “Just as my training will purge your bodies of weakness, so too will it purge the body of this army of it's weakness. To each I will say, good riddance!”

  Not daring to turn my head, I surreptitiously eye the recruit directly in front of me. His mud-stained overalls and sweat-stained white undershirt mark him as a laborer, or rather a farmer if that manure smell is coming from him. The man to his right is much skinnier, and doesn't have the sun darkened complexion or stocky frame of the men on either side. His ink-stained index fingers tell of a clerk of some sort, and the sloping shoulders indicate a distinct lack of previous physical exertion.

  “Today will be primarily consumed by administrative necessities; issuing uniforms and equipment. You are responsible for cleaning, pressing, and if the need arises, repairing said uniforms. This will be done on your time, not mine, and will be inspected every morning. You will all meet my satisfaction before any of you eats a bite, and if the breakfast hour passes before I am satisfied, we will try again at lunch.”

  An itch begins to develop on the left side of my face, to the point where it begins twitching. Even three rows back, I don't dare move to relieve it for fear of being spotted and called out. As it steadily becomes more and more insistent, my willpower and caution begin to crumble.

  “In addition, you will be issued some basic supplies.” As Sergeant Harlon goes on about our gear, most of which I don't recognize, the itch on the side of my face starts moving towards my nose. This is shaping up to be a long day.


  A loud, harsh voice breaks my reverie, drawing my attention to the building behind me. I quickly finish tethering my horse and move onto the porch, then push through the screen and into the smoky interior. I pause briefly on entering to let my eyes grow accustomed to the gloom.

  “Puc! Stop standing there blinking like an owl and come look at this map with me. Our caravan leaves shortly and I want your opinion on a few particulars.”

  The speaker is a squat, powerful man, not unlike my Sergeant in the army, in both appearance and manner. A good boss, and a great friend, is Bellum. I quickly move to the table opposite him and bend over to survey our route.

  “See there?” Bellum indicates a stretch of land squeezed between an almost solid block of elevation lines. “Once inside that pass, we will be at our most vulnerable from elevated archers. Hell, a gaggle of children throwing rocks could cause serious damage, and ten men with shields and stout hearts could keep us penned indefinitely.”

  “Indeed,” I reply. I frown thoughtfully, “Any chance of a few extra scouts to check that out and shadow us through? How about--”

  “--the Brothers William?” interrupted Bellum with a smile, “I've sent for them. However, we won't necessarily be able to have them shadow the whole way, nor would they be much good alone, and it would cost too many men to blanket the hills how I'd like.”

  “How about a bluff?” I look up and meet his eyes, finding confusion writ large there. “Put every swinging dick in a helmet with a bow and quiver, teach them how to hold it, then just move through as fast as possible. Hopefully, by the time they've done thinking twice, we'll be out and through.”

  “Even so,” replied Bellum, “expecting an armed resistance and holding good ground, anything less than arrow speed will be stopped cold by a decently organized force.”

  I lean back on my heels, and a thought occurs, “Then two convoys. One, a feint, disguised as tinkers, or better yet farmers, a day a head to--”

  “Ohh, yes!” Bellum looks up thoughtfully as I finish.

  “--swing around and fall on any blocking force. Yes, I see you understand, and the Brothers would--” I stop abruptly as the door slams open.

  “Would what?” cries a cheerful voice from the doorway. A bright, unruly mop of red hair caps a boyish face set in shades of glee, replaced briefly by surprise as a second fiery head and equally, nay identically, boyish countenance pushes past the first and into the room.

  “Special duty means special pay, eh Belly?” crows the second.

  The Brothers William, so named for both being named William and none save their mother able to tell them apart. Even seen together, and they're never apart, I can't tell one William from the other, a fact they seem delighted to instigate at every opportunity. Dressed identically in leather cuirass' and kilt, white linen backing and tunic, with a sheathed gladius on the right hip and bolt box on the left, fastened around the middle by a wide black belt and identical, and identically gleaming, wolfs-head buckles, they cut the perfect image of a pair of regular infantry. Indeed, one could easily mistake them for that were it not for the cross-strapped back harness each proudly wears, on which hangs by clever contraption their own custom made, dual bolt drop-trigger hemlock crossbows. Beautiful and terrible, their stocks and gears shine with regular oiling. The deep black twin crossbars rest within brass lockings. Of course, all that can be seen from the front is the shoulder stock jutting above each brother's head, but once seen, one does not forget such weapons.

  Bellum guffaws. “You'll take regular pay or we'll cut you out of the fun!”

  Both Brothers laugh, the first replying, “Wait, we didn't mean it, we're in, we're in!” Throwing an arm over each other's shoulders, they completely fill the doorway and block most of the light. “Can't believe we missed out on that last jaunt of yours, Puc!”

  “Yeah,” chimes in the first, “Is it true you faced a Runie?” Identical faces lean forward, peering impishly at me through the smoke.

  My chest begins to itch, which gives me pause, but I ignore it and meet their expectant gazes for a moment before replying, “Yes, now lets get back to the--,” and begin to turn back towards the map.

  “Oh, come on!” cries the second

  “We've only heard it second hand!” complains the first.

  “We want to hear it from the hand that did the deed!”

  “The hand that led the steed!”

  “The hand that--”

  Bellum slams his hand down on the map table, bringing the Brothers up short. “Plenty of time on the road for tall tales of valor and adventure.” The Brother's grin wide. “Now, how much did you overhear while eavesdropping outside?”

  One Brother assumes a hurt expression, but the other pipes up too quickly, “All of it, and it's brilliant! Can I dress up as the farmer's daughter?”

  Bellum groans, but can't conceal a small smile at the thought.

  “Looks like a yes to me, eh brother Willy?” One nudges the other, “You can be the donkey” His face brightens immediately, and opens his mouth to reply when Bellum interrupts again.

  “You're both natural asses,” he concedes, “now knock it off or we'll hitch you to the wagon and make you pull it all the way to Tallanvar!”

  After a good laugh at that, we all crowd around the map and settle down to business. Provisions, weapons, men, beasts, spare parts, and, of course, whiskey.

  Our first day, and for many thereafter, we did little more than sweat, bleed, and ache. Sweat all day, bleed in the evenings, and ache all night and into morning. Sweat swallowed ache, blood swallowed sweat, ache swallowed blood. While the instructors called it conditioning, we all knew it by the name it was given by those who had come before: the culling. It quickly became apparent why this first part of our training had earned that name, as the weak of mind, of will, body, or spirit began quitting in earnest.

  Some calmly reached their limit and left mid-exercise, unmolested as they limped out of the gates under the watchful sneer of Sergeant Harlon. Others tried to avoid that sneer by spiriting off in the night, only to be dragged back and escorted out during morning formation. One, a larger, bullish sort, tried to strong-arm the instructor into stopping. The instructor gave a peculiar, high pitched whistle and like magic, two other trainers came sprinting around a nearby hut and barreled into the recruit. The three of them quickly subdued, thrashed, and then ejected said recruit out those selfsame gates. There were no more attempts like that in our class.

  I gradually developed my rhythm, and while I didn't precisely get accustomed to the regimen, I did grow comfortable in my misery. I also got to know some of my fellow sufferers, despite very little time or energy to do so. The hour or so alotted every night for uniform and gear maintenance, not enough by half, was spent swapping backgrounds, stories, plans for liberty and hopes for the future.

  Benji, the diminutive, ink-stained fellow I saw in our initial line-up turned out to be made of far sterner stuff than most print shop clerks. After two months, his ink-stained hands were no longer ink-stained, but were rough and covered in hard-won callouses. His face was darker, and leaner, and his eyes held an energy that hadn't been there before. His body, like the rest of us, had transformed likewise.

  Growing up in the large city of Tenencue gave him a world of knowledge, augmented by his work in the print shop. Questions, even if asked rhetorically, often found themselves answered by Benji. Orphaned from birth, raised by the church, he'd lucked into his previous occupation. His dreams consisted of his own print shop, maybe a family. Found one day copying runes out of an old, dusty book he'd discovered in the church archives, he was thrown out of the print shop and threatened with the mines or the military.

  “I had ya figured for the gates a'fore the first sundown, Pinkie!” laughs Gordo, “I guess if the choice is here or the mines, your still being here ain't as surprising.”

  Gordo was an affable sort, large of frame and personality. The sort of person cowards instinctively fear and children instinctively trust. He was raised on his family's farm in Glentown, a tiny village no one here had every heard of, let alone visited. His easy manner belied an inner strength which manifested itself most keenly in defense of a friend or pursuit of a foe. His dreams, like Benji's, were modest and provincial, one day hoping to continue his father's farm as his eldest son. So, too, had fate dealt Gordo a blow to those aims, his handsome visage catching the eye of a local townswoman, and the ire of her jealous husband.

  Unfortunately for young Gordo, said husband happened to be the magistrate for Glentown, and in his cups one night accused him of attempting to seduce his wife away. Given this magistrate was the only magistrate for Glentown, a guilty verdict was practically certain. Gordo's father, interceding on his behalf, made a deal with the magistrate: enlistment for not less than four years in exchange for dropping the case. Since rejecting such a deal would make the magistrate appear petty, and furthermore rob the King's army of a strapping young recruit, it was an easy sell, and off he went.

  For a journey expected to last two months, the first week is always a settling in period. A time during which everyone becomes familiar with everyone else, and each member finds their place and falls into their routine.

  Most of this trip was expected to be relatively safe, so aside from scouting and other mundane security concerns, the good weather and steady pace put everyone in good spirits. I was certainly enjoying stretching my legs. One of my duties as one of our better woodsmen was bringing in whatever game I could while scouting ahead and to our flanks. In addition to maintaining the distance between our actual convoy and the decoy the Brother's occupied to our front, I was anxious to keep our flanks clear of any shadows seeking to track our movements.

  We were nearing Boulderville, a town named for it's unique countryside, in which massive rocks reared placidly among a lightly forested, craggy terrain. Due to the rockiness of the soil, there was very little in the way of undergrowth, and the trees were gnarled, hard-bitten things covered in thorns. It was a place very like the occupants of the nearby town; a hard peoples, independent and swarthy, minimalist in both affectation and possessions. Given the town's distance from the protection afforded larger cities like Ciandry and Polentsia, and it's proximity to the bandit-rich country we were heading towards, such attributes are unsurprising.

  I move almost silently, as there are few leaves and sticks to betray my feet, and those easily avoided. Sound, however, is a minor concern. Due to the scarcity of vegetation (there is almost none), visibility is nearly unimpeded save for the boulders. I could easily see far beyond earshot, which made scouting easy, but made approaching to within bowshot of any game very difficult.

  There, just fifty yards away, the hindquarters of a deer peeks out from behind a massive boulder. I hitch my bow ever so gently, nock an arrow, and check my footing. A little closer, perhaps. Come a little wide, get an angle on it's shoulder. The tail swishes, and it takes a step forward. Almost there, I bring up my bow and draw fletching to ear. One last glance at the ground, two more steps, aim a little low, and...

  I feel the feathers brush my cheek, then glide, as if in slow motion, over my thumb. I don't hear the string slap my bracer, but it must have made a sound, because I watch the deer drop into a crouch just before the arrow reaches it. A soft thud as the arrow strikes home, and the buck (I can see the antlers now), only makes the minutest movement upwards before it's legs collapse and it falls, dead on it's feet.

  I exhale, and bring the bow down to my side. A doe, hidden behind the rock, flashes away to the left, already at full speed, bounding along in that weightless way they move.

  In an instant, everything slows down and time seems to freeze, and I see, almost like I'm remembering it, where to put the arrows. I feel detached, and realize distantly that I have plenty of time, nothing to it. Before I know what's happening I raise my bow, aim almost casually an arrow I don't remember nocking, and release with a sigh.

  What's left of my rational mind is immediately disappointed. The shot is high enough an arc to surely catch a branch, and too far left by at least a span. Yet, in a daze, I confidently watch it slowly undulate as it slips past branch after branch, limb after leaf, settling in for what appears to be a spectacular miss. Too high by half, as well, I note.

  Right before the arrow would have slid by the deer like two ships passing in the night, the doe spooks from the right and leaps wildly to the left, directly into it's path. The sound of the impact doesn't reach my ears until the deer has crumpled to the ground, dead like it's mate.

  Time suddenly crashes forward, and pain explodes in my chest. It feels like my skin is on fire! I fall to my knees as my head becomes light and my vision rapidly tunnels. A single leaf fills my vision and I realize I'm going to pass--

“Today, you begin learning the rudest basics of the archer, a title few will every earn. However, the king does not need many archers, for the poorest marksmen can still hit a massed charge in a pinch.” Sergeant Harlon indicates the tall, thin man standing beside him. He is dressed in mottled greens and browns under a light leather jerkin. An unstrung bow and several feathered shafts peek out over his left shoulder. Side-laced buckskin pants cover his long legs, tucked into muddy leather boots with soft soles. “This man is Gruber, our master archer and scout, and under his care you will learn this weapon.” With a last glance at us, Sergeant Harlon stomps off.

  Gruber steps forward at once and beings to address our formation in a low, raspy voice. “This training will take place in three stages. First, you will learn care, maintenance, and storage of the weapon. Second will be aiming and firing, and finally you will learn how to work as a unit, maintaining an acceptable rate of fire that doesn't make a mockery of accuracy.” He pauses, his bird-like eyes scanning our ranks, his sharp nose seeming to pick us out one by one for death.

  The sun beats down out of a clear blue sky. It's about nine am. Our morning inspection went well for a change, well enough for us to breakfast at length, a more common occurrence in this third month of training.

  Gruber steps over to a table near our first rank, on which is arrayed a number of small pouches and piles of bracers. A barrel full of bow staves of various lengths rests alongside the table, while corked jugs and a piles of rags rest below.

  “Each of you will come when called to the table, where I will assign you a stave appropriate to your height, a string to match, and a bracer. You will whet a rag with oil from the jugs below, careful that you only whet it, and not yourselves or the ground. Then you will return to your place and await further instructions.”

  “First rank, first man, come forward now. Second man follow when he returns, et cetera on down the line.”

  In no time at all, each of us is equipped as described. I assess my stave, check the nockings and grain, and with a practiced eye gained from years under my father's teachings, can't help but admire the craftsmanship. Clearly this army takes archery seriously. Not a prince's weapon, but straight and true, and the flex, divine. Unstrung it stands chest high, the slight curvature of the yew gleams dully in the bright sun.

  “Once a day, or as often as possible barring that, and especially following exposure to rain or snow, you'll apply a thin, even coat of linseed oil and rub it in until there is no residue. This maintains the integrity of the wood, prevents dryness, cracking, and warping. Stow the strings and bracers and begin with the rag in your hand. When you think it's done, raise it high. Be seated, and begin.”

  We sit, and begin. As bows are raised, Gruber rasps that they're unevenly done, not absorbed fully, or acceptable. I learned this process from my father, a great archer in his day, as I hope to be in mine. Taking my time, I slowly massage the oil evenly into the stave until it once again shows that dull gleam uniformly, nock to nock. I raise my bow and receive a cursory glance followed by a quick nod. 

  “Help your neighbor, Puc, he's got more oil on himself than his bow.”

  True enough, Gordo must have slopped the jug over his hand instead of whetting the rag, and was now attempting to wipe the excess off his hand and bow onto his person. I hand him my rag, and pinch a corner of his and set it aside. “Dry your hand on your tunic, hand me your bow.” I reach over and pluck it from his hands, gripping it between thumb and forefinger near the grip.

  Once dry, Gordo reaches over with an open hand. Passing him the bow, I say, “It only requires a little oil to do the whole thing, too much and you'll soften the wood, killing it's natural spring.”

  “That's exactly right.” rasps Gruber from directly behind us, startling us both and almost causing Gordo to drop his bow. Neither of us had seen him move, nor heard him approach. If he moves like a snake in plain sight, he must be a ghost in the woods.

  Speaking louder, he addresses the group again, “Too much will soften the wood and ruin the bow, oil not absorbed or removed will cause the grip to be slick in battle, while uneven or mottled application will cause soft spots in the wood and spoil the whole bow. This is the most important thing for an archer to do right, everything else depends upon it.”

  Consciousness returns, and I feel a great weight against my side. My face feels wet. I lift my head and a sharp pain explodes in the front of my skull. I groan, squeeze my eyes shut and, gathering myself, push off the ground to hands and knees. I reach up to touch my head and bits of leaf and sharp gravel fall away, clumped where they hit the ground. Looking at my hand I see red smears amidst the debris.

  I glance up. The sun hasn't moved, so I can't have been out long. I gather my bow, then rinse off my face with a little water from my waterskin, finding in the process a small cut on my left eyebrow. Must have hit a rock when I fell. I daub a little salve on it to slow the bleeding.

  What the hell just happened?