Birth of a Philosopher, Part 2
It was often that Shyrrik did his best thinking just before sleep. When his mind grew tired, logical thought frayed just enough that it would begin to creep out into places that wakeful focus could not, blessing him with lush imagination that was often his greatest healing resource. But Shyrrik did not find that comfort this night. He laid awake in bed, nervous and sweating, hands never seeming to be in the right place and thus fidgeting and fussing with the thatchings on his quilt. It was his expectation that when the opportunity for freedom from Iskask finally presented itself, it would have been something that he would have to plan for, something that would require many preliminaries and scheming trials before he could slip free from the valley that trapped him. And yet, here he laid, on the eve of a whirlwind happen-stance that could sweep him cleanly from this shackled existence, if he could prove himself worthy of it. This had knocked him soundly from his bearings, rendering him a quivering mess of nerves, more tightly strung than ever he’d been in his young life.
He wasn’t sure that he’d faded from consciousness, so much as he’d simply failed to notice the dull and welling light cleaving through any open orifice in the hut. But the morning had come upon him, sure as the rising sun itself, and stole away his time to brood. The day was grey and overcast, holding no patience for him it seemed. It didn’t feel like a day brimming with potential adventure; it felt like any other stifling Iskask day, and that troubled him. All glamorous myths began with putting the right foot down first, and Shyrrik felt as disoriented as ever. He pulled himself out of bed, and tried to shake the rust from his joints, awkwardly swinging his elbows back, which groaned and ground like old gears. Aside him was his bow, laying faithfully with him through the night, and he grabbed it like one would grab the edge of a cliff. There was a copper taste in his mouth, the kind often welled in before a person became ill, and he spit it out into the dirt with a grimace.
His father stepped in then, one foot in the doorway. He spoke quietly enough to be gentle on Shyrrik’s ears, which rang maddeningly.
“They’re gathering. You’d best move along, Shyrrik.”
Huffing like he’d run a mile, Shyrrik pulled his quiver up on his shoulder and galloped with as much energy as he could.
The contest was held in a field outside the city’s barrier-like edge. There was no clear pathway to this area, and so all who congregated there were seen to be streaming through alleyways and out the back doors of buildings, bleeding out into the open from a mostly featureless wall of wood and adobe. The grass in this place was short and gray, owing to the soil’s infertility, where only carefully tended sections bore crops. It was a flat and dull stretch of land, but visibility was good, which held at least a promise of clear sight lines for the archers to thread their bolts upon. The air was calm, as if the gods had reserved this morning for just such a tryst. As the townspeople amassed, it was clear that this competition was going to be a fair draw for the city. Normally bitter and unloving of sport, the civilians had taken an interest to this little spectacle, even those whose sons and daughters were not involved. Perhaps it was a curious distraction, or perhaps they were curious whom would no longer dwell among them when the contest had completed. Once a crowd had formed, there forth stepped the hopeful many, a motley assortment all clutching their bows and posturing as well as could be. Shyrrik stood in their ranks.
There were in all nearly forty individuals vying, mostly elven and human men, with speckles of other races and the fairer gender among them. They were of varying ages, some even younger than Shyrrik, others nearing their twilight years. All were common hunters of the town, useful in their own right, and not particularly jealous of one another. But in the minds of all, there was an acknowledgment that there were perhaps five or six of the lot that stood far above the rest. Shyrrik was one of them.
Diedrick and his ilk sat on horseback before the crowd, a command regiment of cloaked figures. Once settled, he spoke out above their muttering and called them to attention.
“I am pleased that you heed us now, and we thank you. We will keep you no longer than necessary. My men have constructed targets in this field,” at which he gestured out with a waving arm, “and we will have you attempt to strike them. You will be required to perform many feats with your bow, far beyond simply hitting an object right out.”
Out in the field were a number of constructs, hastily built wooden stands with round targets painted with a red center for each. Shyrrik looked to each of them, trying to decipher what kinds of tasks they would be required to perform, but it seemed he would not know until told. He cursed the misfortune that he’d not had time to prepare for this bout, as even though none of them had any notice, he was out of sort and struggled to maintain focus.
“The rules of the contest are simple.” Continued Diedrick. “You will amass points for your performance. To strike the center of the target shall earn you three points, while striking the wood plain will earn you two points. Missing entirely shall grant you none. Now assemble yourselves, and we shall begin!”
With that, all contestants began to form a misshapen line. Shyrrik ended near the back, as they marched on towards the first target, led along by Diedrick dully clopping atop his steed. The first target lay out before them at medium range, out fifty paces or so. It was slightly bigger than a grown man’s chest, an appropriate size, a ring cut from the heart of a fair tree. There were many like it, but the young archer remained staid on this one.
“The first shot is but a simple one, to thresh out those who have no business plucking twine. Good first impressions, lads!”
Diedrick then invited the first archer to the ready. It was an elf that Shyrrik had known of all his life, a gruff sort who fashioned boots as his means. A sturdy fellow, the bow creaked under his strong draw, his insisting upon it seeming so effortless compared to Shyrrik’s boyish manners and lanky arms. They’d never spoken, the two of them, just acknowledged each other in passing. Once, Shyrrik had gone to him to purchase new boots for his father, which was the only exchange that had ever occurred between them to his recollection. It had been as simple as the passing of the boots on the left, and the money on the right. Most of the townsfolk were this way, silent merchants out for nothing except those with coin to lose. With his poor experiences, it was an outlook on life that Shyrrik had begun to appreciate in other people. As the elf contemplated the shot, he let fly with his bolt. It lanced through the air with an audible hiss, sailed on an arc, and struck true into the uncolored wood.
A distant soldier, pawing a piece of parchment, recorded this tally.
Next, there was another man, a burly and pot-bellied human. He was a scornful individual, and had seemed to relish in every opportunity to harass Shyrrik for his mixed heritage. Accordingly, he was not fond of elves, and for the longest time Shyrrik excused his persecutions as somehow less sinful acts of racism, rather than the more fearful notion that someone would harbor malevolence for him alone. His bow was of poor quality, but Shyrrik knew he had at least a decent shot in him. They had often been grouped in the same hunting regiment; every time Shyrrik stepped beyond the treeline, he worried that he would never return. He became so paranoid, that in a twisted way he would often find himself being amiable in the midst of the man’s mockery, suffering such a pathology that it was a grace to him that the human never put a bolt in the back of his skull. Of course, then Shyrrik grew older, and took care to always ride the rear of the party. He was a stupid one, easy to outwit. As he took his stance, his chubby fingers obscured the fletching on his arrow. He let it free, and it traveled on a line just as the first had, striking the opposite area of the elf’s prior attempt. Once more, the soldier took score.
One by one, Shyrrik saw many of the people he’d grown to know compete for a chance to escape from this prison in the mountain delta. He was actually quite surprised at the amount of volunteers that had committed. He’d thought that these people were proud of the niche that they had so painstakingly carved, yet as it would plainly seem, many were eager to vacate this desolate place for somewhere else. It was a revelation to him, and for a moment, it distracted him from the knotting in his stomach as it neared his turn. Inevitably, however, he was called to the stage, and those dreadful feelings surfaced with ferocity, inducing a shiver in him as he trudged into position. It was a simple shot, and from that he tried to pull some comfort as he locked his weak knees, pulling his bow up at the ready. Fitting the arrow against the string, he stared down its shaft and off into the distance, furrowing his brow that perhaps squeezing on the lenses in his eyes might clarify his vision. He saw the target, right off the barbs of his ammunition, and made his usual calculations. Rustling a bit on his feet, he pulled himself into a tighter core. Then, when he’d honed in, he released, and sent the arrow on its way. Launching off the twine with a low twang, it shot forth with great speed, and he watched it fly.
The arrow impacted on the thin crust of bark at the edge of the target, shattered it into a spray of wooden debris, and skipped off into the grass.
Shyrrik’s jaw sank. Amidst a few deriding snickers at his back, he wore a look of utter heartbreak on his face, and nearly fell into a sob in that very instant. He dared not look at Diedrick, he did not want to see the skeptical face that he could only imagine was skewering holes into him. Dejected, he lumbered away and found cover amid the contestants, where he bowed his head low and tried to condense himself into invisibility, hiding in a silhouette of hair. To say he was embarrassed was an understatement. But worse than that, he was flustered – whatever confidence he’d had in his aim had promptly vanished, and whatever meager hope he’d let wrench him from his bed that morning was now wounded beyond repair.
The crowd was quickly ushered to the next target, just aside the first. As was the first one, it was a lone and open mark, but this one was laid on its back, slightly obscured by the weeds if not for a slight propping up that faced towards the group. Otherwise, it was identical. Diedrick rang out again with his boisterous commands.
“Here, you shall strike the target justly, but you must lob your arrows on high to do so. There may come a time where we need you to fire over our men. So help me, you will have an axe in your spine as repayment for the bolt you land in a brother’s.”
Once more, every would-be ranger formed up. There was a quiet rumble among them, a disapproval of having to perform cantrip shots such as these. Nevertheless, they lobbed their arrows thus, putting metal into wood with impressive accuracy, though this time around there were a few that missed the mark. It wasn’t such an embarrassment to do so this time around, but Shyrrik did not know how many rounds this contest would endure; as such, every point was valuable, and to miss the easiest shot entirely was unforgivable. He carefully studied each archer’s shot, noting their draw and angle, fully exercising the benefit of having his turn near last. But when it came time for him to volley once more, that uneasy feeling crept up on him with icy breath on the back of his neck. He rolled his clammy hands as they pulled his bow into position, and this time he could not keep his breath steady, lungs heaving as he fought for control. Looking between the target and the open air, he finally squinted one eye shut, and launched his arrow high into the air. It sailed on a perfect parabola, heavy metal tip leading without a wave, and as it careened back down to the ground, it split right through the wood just outside the crimson-colored center with a healthy splintering sound.
Shyrrik’s breath burst from his lips, a breath he hadn’t realized he was keeping clenched in his chest, and he let every tense muscle fall limp and lazy with relief. He’d managed to prove himself capable of at least connecting with a desired target, staving a suicidal loss of spirit. But some of the archers had already struck bull’s eyes, and he was falling behind, so this paltry victory did not raise his hopes. Once more, he retreated away and sat to knead his hands together in agitation, a painfully stressed heart beating violently against his ribs.
As the group amorphously shuffled once more, one of the captain’s men swung his leg over atop his horse, dismounting. He walked it near and transferred the reins to Diedrick, who pet across its chestnut snout to soothe. Then, he called out, having seemingly prepared a speech for each leg of the contest, a pompous regard of the responsibilities of an archer in their rank.
“An army, we are not! We travel light, and we do so with speed. It is in this same spirit that we fight. You will be required to provide cover from horseback. You will ride quickly, parallel to the target, and strike it along the way.”
What had been a slight grievance at first now swelled to a dull roar, groans and grunts amidst with hands thrown around erratically, disbelief among many that this was the standard for an archer in Diedrick’s battalion. A few threw their bows in the grass, disgusted, but the discontent seemed to waver eventually as they all reminded themselves of the ultimate prize of all of this. And for Shyrrik, it only made him salivate. As the men filed along in their given order, many more missed the mark this time around. Each galloped on, shoulders tossed with the steed’s bouncing back, plucking their twine only to have a sudden jerking motion cause them to fire wildly, or misfire altogether. An unfortunate few even found themselves flung from their mount, unable to steady themselves without their arms to support their weight, and they violently kissed the dirt. The collective morale was low. Yet Shyrrik’s competitors performed valiantly, and struck true on their intended targets riding by.
It was his turn, then. He timidly approached the horse, a creature with which he’d had little experience with. Up close, it seemed so much more broad and massive, and as it pulled at the reins and shook its long muzzle, it was clear that it had become irritable from the constant exchange of riders. Aside it was its keeper, a burly human with a beard to rival the stoutest dwarf, and he seemed just as impatient as his animal, waving a gloved hand to hurriedly invite the half-elf up. Gulping, Shyrrik tried to be hasty and quickly put his foot through the stirrup, but the horse was keen to demonstrate its aggravation. Bellowing out with a neigh that pierced his sensitive ears, the stallion pushed off from the ground onto its hindquarters, rising to an impossible height, and promptly tossing Shyrrik from his hold upon it. Like those before him, he landed in the hard grass, striking first on his shoulder, which served to stun him and elicit a painful groan. The human, quite tired of this routine by now, stepped to the half-elf boy with chain boots clanking, and hurriedly grabbed him by his clothes.
“Get up! For the sake of the gods, you are all a worthless lot!” His last word was punched home by a rough tugging that brought the lightweight boy immediately to his feet. He gave a flat-handed shove at Shyrrik’s back as added insult, nearly causing him to tumble right back down. Shyrrik rubbed his shoulder and drew in a hissing breath. He thanked his lucky star that it wasn’t his drawing arm.
The horse, looking no more calm, was waiting for his second attempt. Again Shyrrik fed his foot in, and whether by the animal’s grace or by sheer holy intervention, he managed to bring his leg over and complete the mounting effort. He sighed, relieved for the moment, but instantly let the severity of the situation grip him again. The horse was turned about by its owner, and Shyrrik looked out towards the intended target. With a loud smack, the soldier clapped his leathered hand against the horse’s hind, inciting a bellow and sending it into a charge along the line of ripped up grass and dirt clumps. Even with a well-made saddle under him, the ride was choppy and rough, and Shyrrik immediately found that it did not have the precise tempo to its churning that he’d hoped for, thus making this imminent shot all the more difficult. He grit his teeth, and pulled his bow up before his eyes. Centering, for all the jostling, aiming.
When he’d learned to be proficient with a bow, he’d taught himself to reduce the world around him into a set of instances, a sequence of events to be considered at the leisure of his mind. Since then, it’d been his way. Now, riding down the line and nearing closer to his goal, Shyrrik set the world slow in his head. He considered all things, one at a time. Speed, elevation, distance, and the crests and troughs of the horse’s gait. Slowly, the red eye of the target came into his view, and rather than his arrow, he locked his gaze upon it. And once he came to the desired angle, he released. The arrow flew with a slight sideways trajectory, but otherwise kept on straight. Shyrrik knew that his arrows would need to be of high quality make to prevent wavering and tumbling in the air, and on a shot like this, he was relieved that he gave his craft the time. And as the arrow flew, its sharp head struck with a hollow knocking into the crimson paint, scoring him his first bull’s eye of the day. And he allowed himself a moment of victory, celebrating in silence, even if outwardly all he’d done was wipe his damp brow.
The contest continued, but Shyrrik’s incomprehensible luck did not change. So often would he flub easy shots, and then land difficult ones, that he began to wonder just what sin he wore so proudly on his sleeve that he deserved such inexplicable vengeance. What was worse, he knew he was the best damn archer in that town, he knew that to be the truth. Yet he lagged behind his opponents, unable to climb ahead, his nervous twitches getting the better of him on every other volley. Wood, then grass. Diedrick had the group complete many different tasks. He’d had them fire an arrow over an obstacle obscuring their vision, had them fire at a target fixed through the branches of a tree, even had them fire through multiple destructible objects. No round was simple. And as the contest dragged onward toward its foreseeable conclusion, Shyrrik’s blood began to thicken. He was running out of time.
The last target then loomed before the all of them. Two of the archers had pulled well ahead of everyone else, having snagged a couple extra arrows in the paint, and now sat comfortably in a lead that could not be matched. Shyrrik hung in third place, trailed closely by many a hungry bowman, by no means safe in his placing. The last shot was a plain one, an absurdly far laid target, well past the point that Shyrrik could accurately judge its distance. The very sight of it, just a speck out on a gray and foreboding hill, was enough to shake his spine. Even the leaders had missed their mark here, but they did not matter, for what mattered were the few that were biting at his heels like a coal carpet. Slowly, his competition weeded itself. The hillside was littered with arrows, sticking out among the waving grass as if they were stalks of grain themselves. Only a certain few managed to land their arrows true, and the greater portion held no threat to his placement.
There was one, however. Immediately preceding Shyrrik in order, and presently taking the front, was a young girl just near his age if not a bit older. She was a half elf, like him, though unlike him she seemed to retain the more classic features of an elf in her green eyes and hair of a lighter hue. Her name was Laelia and she was a fixture in his childhood, ingrained in nearly every memory he had. As children, they were not specifically drawn to each other, but as mutual victims of cruelty they were often found back to back. For all Shyrrik’s misfortune, it seemed that she came away the embittered one, always quick to bare her fangs and quite the avid scrapper.
And, unfortunately for him, a damn good shot.
The deficit between them was a single point. He’d done the math in his head already, and it slowly built up a fear in him. He knew that she was capable of landing this shot, and worse, he knew that it was most certainly within his power to miss it completely. The fact that a portion of his fate laid entirely outside his locus of control was a realization that quickly unseated him, and he waited in agony as the half-elf girl took her place on the line. She had a determined face that she wore without compromise on her dimpled cheeks, and however strongly Shyrrik felt about these games, he knew he’d get no sympathy from her. And for all his good graces, Shyrrik’s mind was bellowing blood-curdling obscenities in hopes that he might reach across some hidden plane and influence her to failure. She drew her elbow back with a feminine grunt, flexing the decorated shaft of her bow with cascading creaks of both wood and twine, and then launched her bolt with a misting puff of breath and a slight spray of string dust. It arced, and arced still, and for all others its time in the air might have dragged on unbearably, but for Shyrrik, it did not wait nearly as long as he would’ve cared for.
“It’ll hit!” “It’ll miss!” “Not even close.” “She’s got it I think.” “That’s a bullseye, that is!” “Are you blind?” Came sporadic commentary from those who’d long since been doomed to lose, finding sport in it now, heckling unwittingly into Shyrrik’s unwanting ears.
The heavy tip of the arrow brought it down on the perfect trajectory. It descended with a slight wave, and as it impacted, there came no sound from the target out of hearing distance. But the eye could plainly see, sticking out from the outermost stretch of wood, an arrow that bobbed to and fro. A noise fell out of Shyrrik’s mouth, the garbled strain of a closing throat robbing him of breath to speak. What was once tense in him now strained so tightly, he thought his chest would rupture. As the girl fell from her stance and turned on her heel, she walked away to await the results. She looked sideways at him as she passed by, and in her face she conveyed many things. Pride, clemency, and challenge.
Shyrrik’s physical composure was ruined. He pushed himself to his feet with his bow, but for whatever control he managed to hold over his unsturdy knees, he could not blink away the blurriness in his vision. A good portion of the townsfolk had left, having quenched their thirst for entertainment, yet it felt like those who remained bore their eyes into him with the full scorn of the entire city. He stepped to the line, and stamped his feet around confusedly, suddenly forgetful of which side he shot from. His breathing was not steady, and on his forehead was a glisten of sweat that threatened to further damage his vision. He pulled an arrow, promptly dropping it. He pulled another, nearly losing that one, too, and somehow nocked it in its proper place on the twine. The draw felt like bending a tree branch as he came back with it, and under the stress his fingers ached and his larger muscles buckled. It was all severe enough to cause him hesitation and a slacking, but he grew angry with himself, and as he picked the bow back up, he clenched a fortuitous jaw.
But his hands pained, and his lungs burned, and in his head he was screaming for help, panicking at the thought that he’d never see the other side of these fields. He’d never get through the trees, never wade through the swamps, and never conquer the mountains to a free existence that’d had him yearning since he learned it was real. He’d perish in this town, and they’d bury him in the barren soil in a nameless grave when he’d wasted away long enough that Nerull himself could wring sympathy from his reaping fingers. Shyrrik the half-elf would be a meaningless name in the halls of history, just another desiccated soul in the pits of the underworld without a single redeeming memory to soothe his rotting mind in death. Fear gripped him. Fear of irrelevancy, fear of ignorance, and fear of the snuffing of his life flame while a mindless molding in his image sloughed through life, uninspired and untouched. And as his legs shook like a wagon off the beaten path, he tried to sturdy his frantic self.
What’s wrong with me, he thought. Why can I not shoot? I would gladly die just past the forest, if I could see the ocean only once, or the Undjask plains. Anywhere but here! Please, do not let me perish in this place! I would do anything, I would murder men, I would sin until all my good favors had gone from this life. Damn all karma, I don’t care what it takes! I don’t care what I have to do! I don’t care!
I don’t care.
I don’t care.
And then, all became eerie.
All became silent.
For as the light drained from Shyrrik’s eyes, the desperate tears forming no longer threatened to fall. He stopped shaking…and let the arrow fly.