The trumpets sound again, and the knights march around to the side, clearing the field. A herald announces that the field will now be reset for the archery competition. All contestants for that are requested to report to the blue station in the southeast corner of the field. At the same time, contestants for the duel are asked to report to the red station in the northwest corner to present their weapons and demonstrate their skill level for pairing.
Tric bids farewell to his cousin, “Good luck. Knock ‘em—not dead, but, you know, down.” Heppa thanks him and leaves for the dueling station.
Tric takes several steps and then hears Mate above him squawk, “Blue station.”
He realizes which way is southeast and adjusts his course. Looking up, he advises the magpie, “Try not to get shot, Mate. Trust me, it’s not a good time. I’ve been shot.”
Out on the field, some people are carrying out bales of hay with targets affixed to them. Others set up two wide lanes with wooden stakes and loosely-hung rope, one for the regular bows and the other for the crossbows. These are then subdivided so that multiple contestants can shoot at once, each at their own hay bale.
At the blue awning, contestants are divided into two groups, bows and crossbows. Each competitor must present their weapon and then be further grouped based on its size and range. Tric recognizes Gwaffalyn among the small hand-crossbow group. His own bow is standard as far as he is concerned, the typical weapon of an elvish archer. He sees other contestants with much longer bows, but Tric does not have the exquisite tool of an elvish markself or sharpshooter that would put him in that division. He is sure such elves would argue that the human version is a separate, inferior class of weapon, anyway. Aside from length, all the bows look about the same to Tric, made of a single piece of wood, bent and strung.
As for the competitors themselves, they are all human, but within that quite a mix. There are some youths in their early teens, of an age with Tilyn’s son Daddoc or the apprentices Tric has seen in various shops. But there are also older humans who look extremely comfortable in how they wear their quivers and handle their bows. As they wait, they limber up, shaking out their arms, cracking their necks, and rolling their shoulders. This does not look like their first competition.
Under the direction of the game warden Sneed, who is in charge of this event, the contestants line up and march out onto the field. Tric is initially surprised to see Mhaev stride out soon after, and then he remembers there was a bow affixed to Zhamayba’s saddle. His mother is not on her horse now, and her quiver is on her back. In her hand, she carries a strange-looking bow, like none Tric has ever seen before. He is too far away to even properly judge the material it is made from. Some of it looks like wood, but other sections have a different sheen to them. Maybe it is from a tree he is not familiar with or has a different finish. Whatever it is, it looks fancy.
Tric leans over to the person next to him and asks, “Hey, have you seen her bow before?”
“Yes, she always has it,” he says, as though that should be obvious.
“Sorry, I’m not from South Tower,” Tric explains.
“Oh! Well, just wait a minute then, and you’ll see it. She always takes the first shot.” He clarifies that the captain of the guard is not in the competition, but she takes the ranging shot in each round. At that point, the game warden announces the first round, short distance. Tric takes a deep breath, steadying his nerves. Mhaev draws, fires, hits the center: a perfect bullseye. “You should see her do that from horseback,” Tric’s neighbor adds.
That might sound impressive to humans, but Tric has grown up among elves where all scouts are trained in that practice. “Yeah, on a nice flat plain, that’s no problem. I’ve seen Baeowin do that at a hundred paces on a galloping mount with a bunch of trees in the way, too. On a nice open field, anyone could shoot anything!” Tric boasts. Then he is called to take his place on the line.
This is his first competition, and he tries to play it cool, strolling casually into position. Clearly, archery talent is in my blood on both sides, he thinks, psyching himself up. Tric nocks his arrow and slowly pulls the string back, aiming his shot very carefully. The arrow slips off, and he feigns having done that on purpose to better establish the shot. “C’mon, pal, pick up the pace!” the next competitor in line calls. In each of the lanes next to his, two archers have already shot since he stepped up. Tric releases his arrow, and it thunks into the target. As Tric circles around to the waiting area for the next round, he sees that Heppa has returned to the audience after visiting the dueling station. She is smiling and clapping at his performance.
As the hay bales are reset farther away, Tric glances over at his mother. Given her job, Tric suspects she is here to evaluate the archers for potential recruits, and he wonders what she thinks of how he did. She is probably already familiar with many of the competitors here; a few even look like retired members of the guard. However, there are a lot of fresh faces, young teenagers who might be able to impress her even if they do not actually win the competition. Tric imagines some of them would be only too happy to go to whatever archery academy exists here rather than return to the dull shops or fields their parents want them to work. Mhaev looks very comfortable in her position of authority. She nods at some shots, frowns at others. The youths around Tric, though, are very nervous. He hears a few of them whispering about how being a bowman would be better than working in a shop, even better than being a spearman.
The winds have shifted a little bit, but Tric has not observed enough about his opponent’s form or style to know if that will help or hinder them. Mate is circling above, and Tric idly considers if the magpie could be of any use in this competition, perhaps intercepting a shot that goes wide. He watches the bird’s response to the wind and then makes adjustments to his aim accordingly. The shot is well-placed, and Tric looks nervously over to his mother afterwards. Then his eyes sweep the crowds, and it really sinks in just how many people are watching him. There are hundreds, maybe even thousands of humans here, way more than at the Parting Glass last night. And I’m a better storyteller than I am archer… He hopes he will be able to keep up this act next round.
For the third round, the hay bales will be a long ways away, farther than Tric would normally feel comfortable shooting his bow. He is not confident he can make this shot, but if he cannot win himself, playing king-maker is just as good. One of the youngsters who wants to impress Tric’s mother is still in the running, having just barely made it past the last round. Her hands are red and swollen from the caustic lye used at her parents’ laundry. Tric empathizes with her; he did not want to be a water dowser like his father. If he can boost her self-confidence so that she performs well enough to get out of a dreadfully dull inherited career, then that is time well-spent. “Hey, you’ve been doing some nice shooting,” he compliments her while the lanes are prepped.
She looks downcast as she replies, “Yeah, but my parents aren’t here to see it.”
“They must be working pretty hard.”
“You would not believe how much my dad talks about soap…” she says glumly.
“Please don’t tell me about soap. Some things cross cultures; you don’t want to know how many different types of dowsing rods there are.” He wonders whether the dowsing rod is why things did not work out between his mother and father. She might hate magic like Damal, and it is an essential component of his father’s beloved profession.
“I don’t need to find water. We’ve got vats of it everywhere in my home!”
Having bonded over the drudgery of their parents’ professions, Tric returns the topic to the competition. “Anyway, your bow looks good, and your form looks good. I think what might be holding you back is your arrows, actually. Did you scavenge these from a field?”
“Yeah, they’re just basic ones. I go out after the bowmen practice sometimes and see what I can pick up,” she tells him.
Tric assures her that is a good way to get started, but he tells her that in this competition, a special arrow might help. He whips one out, and she asks if it is an elvish arrow. “Not just any elvish arrow, a lucky elvish arrow.” Tric tosses the arrow, flipping it with each catch. “This arrow killed a ghost—twice!”
“You killed two ghosts?!” the young woman asks in awe.
“The same ghost, twice. You kill a ghost, it disappears. But if it’s not done, it comes back. So you’ve got to make sure it’s done, that it’s finished its mission… It’s really complicated, trust me. Stay away from necromancy, kid. Stay away from the undead.” Mate lands on his shoulders and echoes the word necromancy. “Shut it!” Tric scolds the bird. The youth accepts the arrow, taking it up with her on her turn to shoot.
On his own turn, Tric steps up to take his shot, feeling good about the pep talk he delivered. And if I miss, well, I can just say it was because I didn’t have my lucky arrow, Tric plans.
From his perch on Tric’s shoulder, the magpie croaks, “Ghost!”
“You’re right, Mate. I totally shot that ghost. I’ve got this.” Tric launches a non-lucky arrow, and it hits the target, advancing him to the next round. The launderers’ daughter does not do as well. However, Tric has instilled confidence in her and given her ideas about pursuing her own interests, so she is in good spirits. He tells her to keep the lucky arrow.
* * *
In the other half of the field, the crossbow competition is underway. Gwaffalyn has a small one, designed for one-handed use. It is not a very common weapon, and she knows most of her opponents from the competition circuit. Indeed, she expects to see some of them in the duel later this day. When she is called to the line, she removes her felt hat and makes a sweeping bow first to the audience on the east side, then to the group watching from the west. The crowds do not respond much, and Sneed the game warden tells her to pick up the pace. However, there is one well-dressed woman in the stands who nods at Gwaffalyn. Excited by a potential patron, the fencer lines up her shot and looses a bolt, landing a solid hit.
The bales are then reset to medium distance. Gwaffalyn notices the wealthy woman rubbing her chin and looking thoughtful. She has got to make this shot impressive if she wants to keep her attention. Gwaffalyn braces her hand crossbow with her left hand, aiming very carefully. The pressure is mounting, but her shot scores her a place in the next round.
In the third round, Gwaffalyn attempts to undermine the confidence of her remaining opponents with a few cutting remarks as each one moves into position. Unfortunately, her old rival Rogier has made it to this round as well. “Fancy talk from someone who didn’t even make it to this round last year,” he quips. Then he raises his voice as he steps to the firing line. “Stand back! Out of the way, everyone!” he says obnoxiously. “Wouldn’t want this in your chest,” he adds, brandishing his bolt before he loads it.
Rogier’s aim is true, while Gwaffalyn’s bolt misses its mark. “Gah, Rogier bests me again,” she mutters. When she looks over at him, he is twirling his ridiculous mustache and smirking. She narrows her eyes at him and then heads off to where those eliminated from each round are directed. As she does so, mood low, she hears someone calling out.
“You there! With the dashing little capelet!” It is the finely dressed woman from the stands. She is now standing along the edge of the field, waving at Gwaffalyn. “I like your style. Quite a bit of panache about you. Join me, won’t you?”
Gwaffalyn smiles. She may have lost to Rogier again, but it looks like she may yet get a patron out of this day.