The Archer
0 / 0 / 1416 Celes Era

                The sword lay in the grass, coated with dark dried blood.  The leather-gloved hand that held it had taken at least one life in exchange for its own.  Diarmuid reached down, his chain mail rattling; then he realized he was using his right hand.  The hand that was now wrapped in bloody bandages, missing two of its fingers.

                Anger burned the back of his eyes as he switched to his left hand and pried the sword out of the fingers of his fallen countryman.  “I’ll carry on your work,” he whispered in his thick Angean accent.  “So rest easy.”

                “Where are you going with that sword?”  The voice was dark and cold as a forest night: the sound of a commander.

                Diarmuid paused, but did not turn back to look at his superior officer.  Instead, he looked down the length of steel he held in his left hand.  His bad hand.  The feeling of holding something, controlling something with that hand was new, uncomfortable.  He tried to hold it still to communicate his resolve, but his wrist wavered, unable to stay firm under the unaccustomed weight.

                Diarmuid turned and looked back towards the remnants of his troop.  Seven men including himself, all dirty and bloody, all bearing white bandages with red stains around their right hand.  “We are no longer archers,” Diarmuid growled.  “But we are still men!”

                His superior officer, Corman, stepped forward.  The grass rustled against his leather boots as his chain mail clinked.  Corman stroked his trimmed red beard and laughed shortly.  “A heroic speech, from a sorry hero!  Look, there, you can’t even hold it properly.  Are you going to route the Gartanian army with laughter?”

                “I’m going to kill at least one of them,” Diarmuid said, studying the glint of the steel in the chilly morning light.  “They can’t have gone far yet.  And I’ll have revenge for my shame.”

                Corman crunched toward him, stepping over the bodies of Angean and Gartanian soldiers from the battle of the day before.  Diarmuid shook his head.  “They’ll answer for what they did to us!” he said loud, so the rest could hear.  “If you are men, too, then find a blade and follow me!” 

                Corman snickered, a theatrical gesture.  He turned half toward Diarmuid and half toward his men.  He was shorter than Diarmuid, but somehow, the shadow under Corman’s eyes always gave the impression that he was looking down on everyone.  Diarmuid scowled.  He’d thought fiery Corman would agree with him on this.  Had Corman turned craven when he lost his fingers?

                “You’re going out there to die,” Corman said, putting his heavy, black-gloved hand on Diarmuid’s shoulder.  His left hand--his right was as mangled as Diarmuid’s.   “You’ve never been trained with the sword, you’re using your off hand, and you can’t even carry a shield.  You’re going up against Gartanian knights who trained in close-quarters combat from the time they could wipe their own asses, men who slaughtered the best of our own fully-armed and armored infantry.  If you follow them, you will die in the dirt.  Just like our friends here.”  He waved at the corpses scattered all around the rocky hill.  “You will avenge nothing.” 

                Birdsong drifted in from the forest to the north, a mockery of man’s troubles.

                Diarmuid shifted under Corman’s weight.  He’d always had an unpleasant relationship with Corman that wavered between respect and distaste.  Today, the man was wrong.  He had to be wrong.

                “Better to die, with sword in hand,” Diarmuid said, “than to waste away behind castle walls, cowering like a craven, useless as a beggar!”

                “I understand how you feel,” Corman said.  He nodded to the other five who were watching and muttering amongst themselves.  “I understand how all of you feel.”  He raised his bandaged right hand and studied it as if it were a wounded bird.  “Since I was a child, I shot the bow.  Sunup to sundown every day, I shot the bow, so I could serve as my father had served.  And I was so proud…”  He pressed his lips together, then shook his head.  “I, too, want revenge.  And I will have it.  But this is not the way.”

                Diarmuid’s right fist balled up in anger, an unconscious motion.  Alarm bells of pain cried from the stumps of his two missing fingers, the fingers he had once used to pull arrow and string towards him in a perfect and deadly motion.  He clenched his teeth together and hissed through his lips, squinting his eyes together as he forcefully relaxed his hand.

                “We continue our march home,” Corman said.  “Like our fists, we must heal before we can fight again.”

                “Heal?” Diarmuid said through the pain.  He held up his half-hand, wrapped in bloody bandages, for all to see.  “Flesh may mend, but my pride never will!  I gave up my family, my friends, my woman, my youth to be an archer, to take our land back from these thrice-damned Gartanians.  For years and years I trained, I sweated and I bled.  I became the arrow, I became the bow.  And they took it from me.  They took it from me, and they laughed!  I—I—I will—“

                Corman took him by the shoulders and shook him, lightly.  “That’s enough—“

                “They could have killed me, like they killed the others.  I wish they had!  But instead, they made a joke out of me—out of us!  They--“

                “They have broken you,” Corman said.  “You have let them inside your head.  They want you to feel shame and loss.  They want you to suffer.  Do not let them.”

                The remnants of Diarmuid’s unit looked at each other, voices rumbling.  Just yesterday I was right, Diarmuid thought, watching them.  I was right and I was brave and I was whole.  I had a purpose.  I had pride.  How I long to go back to that time.  But I cannot.  That is why I must go.  I cannot live like this.  I cannot…be…this.

                “Go home if you like,” Diarmuid said.  “If that contents you, then gods speed you.  But I…I will find them, fool or not, and I will claim me some heads.”

                A couple of the men hollered.  Perhaps Diarmuid would not have to go alone after all.

                “You forget yourself,” Corman snapped.  “You are a member of the Angean military.  And you report to me.”

                “Order me if you like, Corman, but I’m going!”  Diarmuid took a step away.

                Corman’s fist swung like a hammer.  Diarmuid’s teeth rang with the sudden blow, and his stomach soared as he dropped backwards onto the ground.  The wind was knocked out of him; his brain swam in his skull.  His thoughts were cleared of all but the shock. 

                The sword he’d held was lost in the thick grass.  Without it, he felt suddenly helpless.

                “I am your superior officer,” Corman thundered.  “Defy my authority, or raise your voice to me again, and I’ll bury you here.”

                Diarmuid looked up from the ground at Corman’s face, shadowed by the morning light.  Corman was not much older than he, but right now, with his eyes veiled with darkness, Corman looked very old indeed.

                “You think of yourself as an archer,” Corman said, “but you are an archer no more.  You want to hunt, but your days of hunting are over.”

                Diarmuid pushed himself up with his left hand as he clasped his maimed right against his heart.  “What am I to do, then,” he said to that shadow, framed by the sky, “if I cannot die, and I can no longer be me?”

                “Stand up, soldier.”

                Diarmuid chuckled darkly as he drew his knees toward him.  “Want to have another go?  Sir.”

                Corman frowned and muttered something under his breath.  Then he extended his left hand downwards.  “Stand, and receive your new orders.”

                Diarmuid considered the hand for a moment, wondering how Corman was staying so strong.  Was it real strength?  Or the mask of a leader?  Diarmuid felt distaste at his own weakness as he took Corman’s left with his own. 

                Diarmuid stood to his full height. 

                Corman’s chest expanded with breath.  “Squad Seventeen!  Form up!”

                Diarmuid hustled, as best as he could on the uneven ground, to fall in line with the other five men, who were forming their own positions.

                “Attention!”

                Unconsciously, Diarmuid’s body snapped to posture.  His right hand sang bloody curses as it slapped against his leg, but he had been drilled not to show weakness.  He kept a hard face as Corman straightened into a formal pose and turned to face the line.

                “Squad Seventeen!” Corman said.  “We have lost, but we have not been defeated.  They wounded us and let us go, thinking us no threat to them.  But they were wrong to do so.  For our bows were not the weapon.  We were.”

                Corman marched down the line, his head held high.  “Diarmuid is the fastest runner in the division.  Nolan has an eye sharp enough to shame an eagle.  Martrad can beat generals in a game of Castles.  And Rex can clear a mess table set for ten men.”

                Laughter was not allowed in Form; but some of the men chuckled anyway.

                “Some of us will return to be scouts, some strategists.  Perhaps some will oversee undermining or catapult operations.  As Diarmuid said, we are no longer archers.  But we are still men.” 

                Corman paused and turned towards the line.  “Are you men?”

                Together, a roar: “Sir yes sir!”

                “So, as men, we will march home, and we will continue to fight, as long as we are able, in whatever ways we are able!  Is that clear?”

                “Sir yes sir!”

                Even as Diarmuid barked assent, his mind was silent, his heart uncertain. 

                “Corporal!  Lead the march!  That is, if you think you can handle it, you one-handed son of a bitch!”

                Corporal Diarmuid broke into a smile.  It was a fractured smile, but it felt like his own. 

                He hollered the marching call and the men formed behind him.

 

 




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