SideQuest Adventures No.1(The Foreworld Saga)(8)
Author:Mark Teppo

    He spoke English, expecting that she wouldn’t understand what he was saying.

    She poured carefully, dwelling overlong on her task, and was nearly finished when a boot was firmly placed against her behind. “Move,” the English speaker growled in German, firmly pushing her out of the way. Startled, she complied, realizing she had been blocking his view of the archers.

    The Germans were using crossbows, and she understood why the locals were agitated. The crossbow had better range and more power than a hunting bow. Less skill was required to shoot the crossbow, and she surmised that the village’s magistrate had, for reasons that were most likely financial in nature, opted to allow the Germans to compete in the village’s festival games with the heavier weapons. She glanced about, wondering if the English were using crossbows as well, and noticed several long staves strung with taut lines of hemp. Longbows.

    And the attitude of the competitors suddenly made sense. The locals were grumpy that crossbows were being used, putting their talents at a disadvantage, but the crossbowmen were also losing to a trio of drunk Englishmen who were using traditional bows, albeit ones that were nearly twice as tall as the hunting bows.

    One of the Germans raised his crossbow to his shoulder, laid his cheek against the stock, and squeezed the trigger. The weapon jerked in his hands, and the crowd fell silent for a second, everyone intently staring at the wooden post on the other side of the field. A distant thwok echoed back—the sound of the bolt burying itself in the wood—and the crowd cheered.

    Maria peered at the post. There were several rings drawn on the white circle, and on the edge of the innermost ring, there was a dark blot—the end of the crossbow bolt protruding from the target.

    The German grinned at the other competitors and then began the laborious process of drawing back the string on his crossbow. One of the Englishmen, the fair-haired one with a neat beard and an easy grin, made a disparaging remark about how the audience was going to age a day before the German finished reloading his weapon. One of the other Germans barked an insult in return, but his words were lost beneath the general laughter that swept through the crowd.

    The German with the crossbow ignored both the jibe and the crowd’s response. He raised his reloaded weapon to his shoulder and shot a second bolt. It struck the target in the middle of the second ring.

    The fair-haired Englishman made a rude noise, eliciting further glee from the audience.

    The German’s third shot pierced the center of the target, and the audience reacted with an extended silence. It was broken by a clapping sound from the fair-haired Englishman. “Nicely shot,” he called to the German. “I admire a man who can shoot under duress.”

    The German crossbowman had the grace to incline his head and thank the Englishman for his compliment.

    The long-legged Englishman had said nothing after admonishing Maria to get out of his way, and as the Germans returned to their chairs and their cups of wine, he unfolded himself from his seat. He strode over to Maria, pausing before her to inspect her face closely for a moment, and then he handed her his cup. She stared back at him, noting his crooked nose and his flashing green eyes. His hair was long and fell across his face, and his beard was a tangled mass of brown and red. He was an attractive man, and while he seemed to be aware of his beauty, he was not arrogant about his looks.

    Unlike King Richard, for instance.

    Suddenly flustered by his gaze, she accepted his cup. Her fingers brushed his, not entirely by accident, and she found herself offering him a shy smile as he put his hair back with his hand and turned to select one of the three longbows.

    It was nearly as tall as he, and pulling three arrows from a cloth bag filled with them, he walked to the same spot from which the German had shot his weapon. He stuck two arrows in the dirt in front of him, and laying the third across his bow, he turned to his companions. “How long did it take Gerhardt to shoot all three of his bolts?” he asked in German.

    “Several minutes,” the stockier of his companions replied. He had a heavyset face with a deep cleft in his bare chin, wide shoulders, and thick forearms. He reminded Maria of a bear.

    “An eternity,” the fair-haired one said with a laugh.

    “Indeed,” said the longbowman. “Would you be so kind as to count to twenty?” he asked the German crossbowman who had just finished shooting.

    “Twenty?” the German responded, somewhat confused.

    “I’ll do it,” Maria heard herself saying.

    The longbowman looked at her. “Even better,” he said with a grin. “An innocent observer. Count to twenty, please. As fast as you can.”

    Maria nodded. She took a deep breath as the longbowman turned to face the distant target. She began counting, the numbers spilling from her lips as fast as she could say them.

    The longbowman convulsed, seeming to collapse around his tall bow as he raised it, and then stretched his body out again—his back straight, his chest thrust up and out. The string of his bow sang, and she gasped slightly between “three” and “four.” His right hand dropped, grasping the fletching on one of his remaining arrows, and he repeated the same motion again. “Eight,” she said as the hard echo of the first arrow reached the crowd. There was no other sound than the creak of his bow, the tightening strain of his string, and her voice, calling out the numbers. Ten. Eleven. Twelve. Thirteen.

    “Fourteen,” she said and stopped. He had released his third arrow already, and in the wake of her voice came the sound of it hitting the target. The noise was different from the other two. There was still the heavy report of the arrow striking the wood, but it was preceded by splintering noise. A brief crackle of wood breaking.

    The longbowman didn’t even bother to examine the target. He turned his back on the field and walked over to her, plucking his wine cup from her hands. “Thank you,” he said simply, raising the cup in salute and then taking a long drink from it.

    Around him, the crowd was starting to make noise. Isolated murmurs of wonder at first and then, like a spark landing on dry kindling, a whooshing noise as the audience erupted into loud cheers. Maria glanced past the longbowman, peering at the target.

    At first, she couldn’t make out where the longbowman’s arrows had landed, but then she realized all three arrows were buried deep in the wood, much deeper than the crossbow bolts had gone. All three were clustered in the center of the target. One above the center, one below, and the third had shattered the German’s crossbow bolt as it had pierced the very center of the target.

    “A most impressive display,” she said.

    He shrugged as if it were nothing out of the ordinary.

    “Tell me,” she said, raising one of her jugs to refill his cup. “Do your friends shoot as well?”

    “No,” he said with a large grin, “but not for a lack of trying.”

    “Ignore him,” said his broad friend who had risen from his seat and wandered over. “He only shoots like that when he is drunk. Most of the time, he can’t even draw his bow.”

    “You are jealous, John,” the longbowman replied good-naturedly, “because it only takes a few drinks for me to regain my skill. No amount of wine or practice will ever make you that good.”

    John clapped the other man on the back, smiling broadly at Maria. “He is a liar and a cad,” he said to her, “and you should not believe anything he says.”

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