The First Draw (Short Story)

by strassur

 

               The rain had stopped and the early morning sun was beginning to pierce the dreary gray cloud cover. Wet clothing and hunger provided a restless night as the long line or archers battled not only fatigue from a poor night’s sleep, but fear. Fear of dying and fear of failing the man next to them.  On the brink of combat, the two large armies stared each other down like crouched tigers waiting to pounce.  Colorful banners and flags flapped quietly in the wind, the silence only broken by the occasion commanding shout amongst the ranks or the weary soldier losing control and emptying the contents of his stomach on the battlefield.

               Jerl stood quietly on the line, peering across the field at the heavily armored infantry preparing for their assault. Large war horses danced anxiously as they moved into their ranks, nearly touching the haunches of the mount next to them. Their skilled riders controlling the beast with one hand on the reins while their other grasped a sharp lance.  Long shafts of wood with barbed metal tips that when wielded skillfully could skewer three armed men. 

               Thinking of the lances, Jerl removed an arrow from his heavy leather quiver. The tip of the bodkin looked like a lance, as sharp and pointy as a stiletto, able to penetrate the highest quality armor.  A broad sword or a broad head arrow created a much larger wound channel, but could not penetrate the modern metal armor crafted by the finest of smiths. 

               Perhaps, thought Jerl, a creative smith of neutral party invented the theory of the bodkin and the lance.  One destructive device for each side of the war.  It gives both sides an advantage and keeps the blacksmith in business.  A quality craftsman could greatly benefit from a war, one they wouldn’t even have to wield a sword in.  Crafting quality weapons and repairing damaged armor during a campaign could bring steady work for decades. 

               Jerl could not seem himself as a craftsman.  He possessed the large frame to swing a hammer, but preferred to use his size to draw the full weight of a longbow.  Having shot for years, he built up the strength to maintain a sustained rate of fire, and the callous tips of his fingers allowed the full weight of the waxed bow string to roll off hundreds of times a day.

               He placed the bodkin arrow across the top of his long bow. The freshly oiled yew wood glisten in the rising sunlight. As he knocked the arrow, he realized how bad his hands were shaking, and so did his mentor. 

               “Jerl,” Marcus said giggling, remembering his first war and how a large portion of the battle was against yourself. “You must calm your nerves, boy. They are just like any other targets ya hit before, except if ya miss too much, these targets will kill us.” 

               “Comforting thoughts, sir,” Jerl replied smartly.

               “I’m just teasin’ ya. Tryin’ to make light.” Marcus stopped laughing and looked Jerl in his eyes, squaring his shoulders with his hands.  Jerl stared back and saw eyes deep and dark, the look that had no doubt stared down many enemy armies in the past.  Their edges were worn with stress that a position of leadership can bring.  Although Marcus never had the desire to promote, he has trained green archers for nearly a score of years.

               “Look boy. There is no doubt the knights and men-at-arms across that field look scary, but I assure you, they are men. Men just like you and I. Aim true, breath and release, and they will drop.”

               Jerl nodded, “I can do this.” 

               “Yes you can,” Marcus replied in a near whisper. “And don’t stop,” his voice elevated. “Drop as many of those bastards as ya can.”

 

               “Ready your arrows” shouted the section leader.

               Jerl reseated his arrow, this time with a steady hand. His callous finger tips slid up and down the waxed string in one final inspection. This arrow would be the first arrow he will have shot in combat. His first attempt to take another human life and he still didn’t know the full reason of the war. Did the enemy really hate him and his countryman, or were they doing their job? Did his prey have a family waiting at home, keeping the fire warm and the children in line until his return? Or maybe a beautiful lady they tried to court into marriage, similar to Lisa that Jerl had left behind.  Oh he missed the smell of gardenia and rose oil she used to spot her neck with.  He could always catch a quick scent before she pushed him away when he tried to kiss her neck.  He remember the soft touch of her hands as they walked through his families wheat fields, never wanting to let go, long past the setting sun.  She used to shout encouragements when Jerl strung his bow and launched arrows the length of the fields.  “Good shot, Jerl. Just a little to the left, Jerl.”

               He could still hear her voice.  She would read her studies out loud when preparing for an exam.  She said it help her remember better, but Jerl always thought it was another attempt to lure him into a passionate frenzy, teasing him before she got called away to help transcribe text in the Keep. 

               Jerl would return from this war, and he would ask Lisa’s father for her hand in marriage.  How could he say no to a war hero?  A soldier returns from combat with the spoils he earned, wealthy and ready to settle down.

               The young archer looked down the line at his fellow soldiers.  He relied on them to take down the enemy.  To shot true and fast, and when the time came, drop their bows and fight up close and personal.  Jerl always heard his own blood pound and stir in his head as excitement and fear rose, but never heard the blood of his enemy splash onto the ground, wetting the soil like rain. 

               His mentor told him to keep firing, and never give up.  The other archers relied on him as well.  And the knights, the fighters, the true heroes, they needed Jerl to thin the lines, cause havoc, and slow the horses change.  Thousand pound beasts did not stop easily.

               Jerl raised his head up from his bow, sweat trickling down his brow as he again gazed across the field at the approach of the enemy.  He picked his target.  A well armored knight atop a gray war horse.  The lance was held high with pride as a bright yellow and blue banner flowed like silk behind him.  It was a beautiful scene. How the banner stayed clean amongst the flying mud kicked up from the trampling hooves surprised Jerl.  But, it did not matter.  That was about to change.  Jerl was going to make it home, and so was his fellow soldiers.

               “I will see you soon, my love,” he whispered.  Pulling back his string, Jerl’s muscles easily fought against the full draw of a six foot long bow.  He again caught sight of his first target, and released.

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