A Hundred Arrows
“They’ll be here come morning, you lot. Enjoy yer last meal, some o’ ye.” Gerald was tired of hearing the captain berate the men. He shouldered his bow, hands sore from practicing all day, and went to retrieve his spent arrows from the practice dummies. Many of Gerald’s shot’s pierced the dummy’s head, but nearly as many were plunged into the straw pile behind the dummies.
“Heh. I got a ‘undred through my dummy’s head. You put as many in the straw,” boasted the only other boy Gerald might call a friend.
“You only say that ‘cause you can’t count, Nat.”
“Still better ‘n yer one eye!” he said squinting awkwardly, and they both had a laugh. Nathaniel would often imitate the face Gerald was wont to make while aiming, which was, if Nathaniel’s impression was sound, quite comical. After replacing their bows and arrows on the racks, the two boys ran towards the dining hall.
Perhaps it was their youth, or perhaps it was the overwhelming, quasi-conscious desire to escape into any realm other than their present reality, but the boys seemed to run everywhere. To be sure, they were disciplined archers, as disciplined as any boy of fourteen years might be, but they had never seen battle, and were thus unhardened and still inclined to act with youthful energy. The very thought of the coming siege was unreal to them. Growing up on farms may prepare a young man with the strength and some of the skills necessary to bend and accurately shoot a bow, but the dangers one faces in a plow field do not compare to those faced on the battlefield. The boys had marveled at tales about battles for the fantasies that they were – the grand adventures they spoke of, and the larger-than-life heroes that had them. They told and retold stories of famed knights, and in their younger days, would even arm themselves with branches, playacting as the very knights from the stories they loved to repeat. “Pray that your battles are only in your stories, Gerald,” his father told him when he received a small sword of his own on his twelfth birthday. “This can protect, when used with honor. But only to protect. You must remember, son.” He was far more interested in hacking trees or straw with his sword; he never really considered using it to fight another man. It never occurred to him that battles were anywhere else but in the stories. That is, until he was brought to the castle.
When the king’s men came to claim the boys and bring them to defend the castle walls, promising battle and glory, they felt nothing but hesitation, uncertainty, and ultimately fear. They knew nothing of the supposed enemy, the Fowland army that was marching tirelessly towards Dulcenwood Castle. They knew nothing of the politics, nothing of the murders among the royals of each country, nothing of the spies or assassins. Even if the boys had known, they likely would not have concerned themselves to join the militia. They were content to enjoy only the fantasy of adventure, rather than to dive headlong into it.
Upon arriving at the castle, the boys were shocked at the grandeur of the structure. Hulking walls of cut stone atop a hill and towers stretching to touch the clouds were things they never dreamed to see in person. They had expected to see a moat filled with man-eating fish, if the tales were true, but they proved to be false in this case. Their wonder slowly turned to apprehension as they began training. Both boys knew how to hunt, and therefore knew how to bend a bow; but the bows issued to them from the armory were of sterner stuff. “Strong enough to hurl arrows ‘cross a field and punch ‘em through armor,” according to the captain. After some time, the boys learned how to handle their new weapons with acceptable accuracy. But rather than feeling the warmth of accomplishment, the fear of battle began to build ever more inside the minds and hearts of the boys. Old soldiers, with grotesque scars and gruff voices, terrified them as they spoke of the realities of battle. The old stories told of knights vanquishing foes and slaying fierce creatures, but never did they mention fly-ridden corpses rotting in the reddened mud, nor accounts of screaming men desperately trying to hold in their entrails after a sword ripped through leather and into their abdomen. Sleep often eluded the boys, for the fantasies they used to love were replaced more and more often by nightmares. After weeks of training, the boys were deemed ready to stand the wall and defend their king; a king whom neither of the boys had even seen.
Nathaniel won the race to the dining hall with Gerald just behind him. They found their way to a bench towards the back wall, well away from the other young men that regularly tormented the boys. They sat down to a meal of cabbage stew and sweet bread. The sweet bread was substituted for the usual stale bread, likely in an attempt to raise morale. It was successful in this case, as the men of the hall seemed a bit more lively than usual after a day of drilling in the yard. Though the boys refused to admit their fear aloud, their unusual silence was enough indication that they both felt an ample measure of it. All around them was talk of the coming battle.
“I’ll kill ever’ one o’ ‘em that tries t’ come up that wall!” shouted one man across the hall, and his shout was met with cheers from many of the other men.
Another man, closer to the boys, was speaking in a lower voice, “I heard them Fowlanders have got a wizard in their ranks. What ‘r we supposed to do about sumthin’ like that?”
“We put a few arrows through his head, and watch ‘im drop like th’ rest of ‘em!” was the reply, and they all took a draught of their ale.
“W-wizard?” said Nathanial, with a mouthful of sweet bread.
Gerald sipped at his stew and replied, “I don’t know, maybe wizards ‘r like the castle moats. I mean, like they don’ exist, really.”
“Still. Makes ya wonder… if they’ve got a wizard, what else they got? Huh?”
“Hopefully no archers like us,” Gerald said with a smile.
“Heh. I can make that wizard like my dummy was today. A ‘undred arrows!” They both laughed and ate their meal, wondering if it would be their last.
It was not quite dawn when they were suddenly awoken by the ringing bells that signaled that the Fowland army had begun its attack. “Archers, to the wall! Quick, you lot, or we’ll toss yer on the catapults while yer still snoring!” shouted the captain, fierce as ever. His own bow was already slung over his shoulder, as it likely had been all that night. Gerald dressed in his leather armor and ran towards the hallway that led to the wall. Nathaniel was just behind him, losing their usual race for once. They arrived at the wall and stood below one of the many torches that were lit behind the arrow slits in the wall. The boys were positioned on the upper tier of the wall. There was still protection from projectiles, but the danger of climbers would be ever present. For as many archers were placed on the top of the wall, there were nearly as many foot soldiers armed with swords or spears there to protect them from such climbers. The two boys were accompanied by a burly young warrior by the name of Rondel, who had been guilty of tormenting the young recruits in their first few weeks, but would likely prove to be a valuable protector today. The boys looked at each other, both with an expression of hope and fear on their faces.
“You ready, Gerald?”
“Yeah. You, Nat?”
“Yer be fine, little archers. Just keep shootin,’ ” said Rondel, as he clapped them both on the shoulder. He then drew his sword and gave a shout that was answered by the other swordsmen standing on the wall. Their shouts gave the boys some comfort, even as they looked out on the field below and the approaching army upon it.
The Fowland army was massive. The new recruits were not permitted to walk the western walls overtop the gates of the castle, where they could see the approaching army, presumably to keep them from losing hope. As Gerald looked out at the Fowlanders, he was immediately reminded of an anthill that he and Nathaniel had once found when they were younger. They had kicked the sand away, and a blanket of insects poured out of the ruins of their hill. The boys had run away laughing from that little game, but they could not run from this. Gerald thought to himself that he might be the one in the anthill now. The sound of the Fowlander’s drummers echoed against the castle walls, and quickened the hearts of more than one of the men of Dulcenwood. Gerald closed his eyes and wished to be whisked away, to anywhere else than this field… and then the first blow of the battle was struck.
The Fowlanders fired a catapult, hurling a huge stone against the castle wall. The stone struck the wall maybe a hundred meters away from the boys, but they jumped all the same. “Steady! Archers, bows ready!” came the shout from the captain, his face hard, showing no fear or reaction to the blow against the castle wall. “Fire!” he shouted, and fire they did. Fowlander soldiers were already trying to grapple the wall and throw up ladders, and one of Nathaniel’s arrows struck one climber in the face, right through an opening in his helmet. In his success, he only paused, and watched the soldier fall lifelessly off the ladder and into the blanket of soldiers on the ground. He looked at Gerald, and after a few second of silence, grimaced and said, “There’s one,” and notched another arrow. Gerald let fly an arrow at another climber, clipping his leg and slowing his ascent. Another archer’s arrow finished the job, but Gerald had already notched his next arrow and let it fly towards another ladder, another climber, another man. If he had any thought at that moment, it would have been a realization that he was all of a sudden completely numb – completely unaware of his own fears, or even his memories. He was utterly lost in the moment, lost in this battle. His arrows flew, sometimes true, sometimes awry, but each one helped in a small way to slow the approaching army; at least, that was his hope.
The boys had been firing arrows for twenty minutes before a climber made it over the wall near their section. Rondel rushed towards him, sword flashing in the light of the rising sun. His first slash was deflected by the small shield that the Fowlander had strapped to his arm, but Rondel immediately followed with a driving punch to his opponent’s face. As he was stunned, Rondel was able to then bring his sword down unhindered and finish the man. He shouted and moved to the next soldier to scale the wall.
The boys scarcely noticed their protector’s victories, or even the occasional boulder hurled from the Fowlander catapults that flew overhead or into a nearby section of the wall; their attention was locked on the swarm below them. “Drop those climbers, you lot!” shouted the captain, as he shot down another climber himself. “They’re getting’ over the wall!” Gerald caught one climber in the neck just as he was stepping off the ladder, and his limp frame fell harmlessly forward over the wall. He paused for a moment to catch his breath, which he suddenly noticed was quite short. He looked out and saw something in the crowd below, something conspicuous for its flowing red fabric, and for the strange platform upon which it rode.
“Look!” he said as he grabbed Nathaniel’s shoulder, who was about to notch another arrow. Gerald then pointed at this anomaly, this bright red shock amongst a sea of dark shapes.
“Is that… is that the wizard?” Nathaniel wondered. “Yeah, well ‘ere’s yer ‘undred!” He shouted as he launched an arrow toward the flowing fabrics of the wizard’s cloak. Gerald did the same. The wizard was untouched by either of the boy’s shots, but they continued to shoot.
“Shoot at the climbers, not out there! Useless!” shouted the captain, as he shoved a ladder off the wall, effectively crushing the climbers upon it as they struck the ground.
The climbers were beginning to overcome the wall. One jumped off the ladder just behind the captain, and thrust his sword into the captain’s neck. His last sound was weak in comparison to his usual fierce growls. Rondel was next to challenge this soldier, and he was able to easily kill him; the climber’s sword was lodged in the captain’s neck, leaving him defenseless. Rondel slashed him across the face, then lifted him off the ground, and he then threw him like a sack of rubbish at the nearest climber. The two climbers collided and shared their fate as they fell to the ground.
It seemed that for every Fowlander killed, there were two or three to take his place. The boys were beginning to become overwhelmed. Rondel was even showing signs of fatigue. He had collected his share of superficial wounds from the attackers, but the wounds were still slowly bleeding. Gerald and Nathaniel were out of arrows. Some other recruits, the younger ones, had been hauling up more and more arrows for them throughout the battle, continually replenishing their supply, but they had not been back up for some time. Perhaps they had no more arrows to give; perhaps they were overtaken by climbers, as the captain had been. The boys had no way of knowing. They looked out again to see if the Fowlander wizard was still approaching. “Look, Ger! That mus’ be ‘is wand!”
Gerald looked up to see the wizard even closer, and now holding a large staff, lit at the top with a great flame. Whether or not it was magic, he was uncertain, but its flame glowed as nothing else surrounding it. The light of the flames danced on the tops of the helmets of the Fowlanders, and it shone upon the strange platform upon which the wizard was standing. It was a wide platform on four large wheels, and it seemed to be pushed by a group of soldiers. Gerald wondered why a wizard would need to be pushed anywhere, when most of the wizards in the stories could just fly anywhere they wished. Still more curious was what was beside the wizard. Mounted to the platform was a strange-looking metal barrel. Gerald thought that it may contain some sort of potion, and wondered what sort of spell that it may work. The wizard twirled his flaming staff to the chants of the Fowlanders below him, until finally he held the staff low, hiding the flame behind the barrel.
A moment later, Gerald shuddered as a sound like thunder echoed across the field. But there were no clouds in the sky; perhaps this wizard had conjured a cloudless lightning storm which would strike the defenders upon the wall. But before either Gerald or Nathaniel could think of another explanation for the sudden thunder, they found themselves flying back, flying backwards away from the wall as broken stones rained down upon them. Some stones struck the men that had fallen, crushing them under their terrible force and weight. Other men lay writhing in pain in the dirt that once was their training ground. Gerald found himself here, lying on his back, with pain shooting all over his body. He tried to move, and while he found he could still control his limbs, the pain was such that it was difficult to even roll over. Once he did, he spotted his one friend.
“Nathaniel! Nat, are you alive?”
Nathaniel, who was less than ten meters away, turned his head toward Gerald. A stone had fallen on one of his legs, surely crushing his left shin and foot, possibly hurting the other as well, but Gerald could not see. “I shot that climber, din’ I?” was all he said, and he then groaned in pain. Gerald groaned as well, for the pain in his body was almost more than he could bear. He wondered how he came to be lying here, when only moments ago he was staunchly defending the wall, defending a castle for a king he had never met. He thought of this king, and wondered if this king would ever know what he was feeling at this moment; if he would know what it was like to see your only friend trapped under stones; if he would repay the wizard for whatever he had done.
Just before Gerald closed his eyes, he could see the Fowlanders begin to overtake the very ground upon which he found himself, and he wished that he had a hundred arrows at his side.