A sampler

I’ve mentioned in other posts that my system involves writing pieces and leaving them to stew, returning to polish them later, however, I don’t want to talk about writing and not deliver. Below, for your amusement is a short vignette, if that’s the right word. It forms part of a world I’m building and exploring. It is a very rough piece for now but it’s written. I’ll not progress until I get used to throwing something out there…

The layered sky was just starting to shade into sunset. Sundown was some time away yet but the skies here were vast, and the sunsets lasted for hours. Straight up the air was so blue it was almost black, high layers of sheet cloud lay across it in bands and rippled folds, sedate and unmoving, lower down that blue blended to white in the distance where the layers overlapped and thickened, then, below that, lemon rubbed into the blue and faint lines of orange spoke of the fire that was to come once the sun encroached on the horizon.

Beneath this majestic tableau smaller clouds rolled and ran, scudding across the openness as if embarrassed to be caught in the open, chasing the thick knots of conflict as the war marched slowly over the horizon, a great machine that pulled in vital raging souls and spat out lifeless bodies.

Ned the Coward snuggled down in the trench amongst the dead, making himself comfortable. He had a reasonable view of the battlefield, the trench was shallow and the shape of the landscape was as much made from the slumped piles of bodies as the ground underneath. He lay at an angle, propped up over another body, wedged in by various other people, he had spent a good deal of time in battles and had what he thought of as the final hiding phase down to a fine art.

Some would say he was a coward, pure and simple, and he would be the first to agree with them in his lower moods. But he had fought, rough and hard, and always edged with fear. Twenty years ago he would be in the thick of the fighting still, engaging the enemy through the last running battles, hiding and dispersing, trying to get intelligence and warnings back to other camps, planning counterattacks and regrouping. These days he was content to let others do all that, he was just happy to apply his trade, get through it without serious injury and then spend a few respectful hours with the dead, before a bit of light looting to pad the old purse out.

Ned was very pleased with his position on the field, he had a reasonable outlook over the largest areas, he could see small groups from the victorious army picking over some of the corpses, there were stands of trees and rocky mounds which had been used to great effect by both sides, providing useful cover for advancing forces whilst the exchanges swung back and forth. In his humble opinion both sides lacked much of the martial skill and that the Western military showed, even simple elements like tracing trajectories to figure out firing positions meant that he was currently enjoying himself by taking random pot shots at the remaining forces, picking off further men from a distance. Any reduction of future forces was always welcome.

He had pulled a selection of bodies across himself and built a classic scene from the elements at his disposal, he had loosened his upper breastplate and wedged it between the bodies either side of him so that he could breathe without the rise and fall of his chest giving him away, likewise he had a few ragged strips of flesh ready to drape across his face and allow him to see any attack whilst pretending to be dead. He had gathered a number of spare limbs, an arm sat over an artfully arranged slit in his cape to look like it had been hacked off, whilst his own arm lay hidden underneath, a short sword nearby and ready to thrust up if necessary.

He eased his feet into the stirrups of the broad foot-bow again, notched a long arrow into the stock and slowly angled his legs upwards. The bow was one of the biggest he’d ever come across and it took all his strength to draw it back, at the end of the draw his arms quivered slightly whilst he steadied his aim. A sharp puff of breath ruffled the flights on the upper side of the arrow and then he loosed it. The bowstring thrummed and the arrow simply disappeared from view. One second it lay along the grooved stock, the next it was impossibly far away, a foreshortened line rising gracefully into the sky. Ned sank back into his hide, a faint smile on his face, slitting his eyes to track the arrow’s progress. The line contracted to a dot as it reached the zenith of its trajectory, seeming to hang in the sky forever. Then it lengthened again beginning the slow fall to earth. The man he had been aiming for was bent over, no doubt picking through the pockets of another corpse. The arrow stuck straight in his back. Ned fancied he could even see the head poking out the man’s stomach as he first straightened then dropped to his knees. A moan carried to him on the breeze.

This was the first arrow to find it’s target. Ned had already used two for range finding, making them fall a little behind the group he was concentrating on. The arrows were long and thick, and must have made a satisfying sound when they struck since the men had turned to scan the area both times, but they seemed to dismiss the noises as those of the field, the snap of a flag in a squall, the settling of limbs.

He let out a whoop of delight before realising they might be close enough to hear him. They continued to scan the area, squatting low to the ground whilst their comrade screamed the last of his life into the air. Ned relaxed, they were still looking everywhere, with no clear idea of his resting place.

A yell from close by almost made him jump from his hide. A different group of looters were marching almost directly towards him. One of them yelled and pointed into the trees that lay further behind his hiding scene. Holding his breath Ned very slowly pulled the scraps of flesh across his face and turned his head a little. He tucked the stock of the footbow between his legs, pushing the broad metal curve of the bow under the torso at his feet and gently wrapped one hand around a little steel hand bow and the other round the shaft of a long pike hidden down the side of another body. A quick check with an extended thumb confirmed the position of the short sword.

There were five men in the group that had seen his arrow. One remained convinced he had seen the shot from the trees and seemed keen to lead the rest headlong into the forest. Two others were cautioning his urgency, as they crested a low rise of bare ground and looked over the final broad spread of bodies where Ned lay, they held the first man back, pointing their arms variously across the field. All three were quite tall and with the lean efficient look of seasoned soldiers. The fourth man Ned guessed as their leader, he was an impressive height, possibly nearing the seven foot mark, with shoulders so broad they would seem comically over armoured if not for the fact that bare arms hung below the ill fitting plating and the rest of his dress showed more leather than armour but for a segmented metal collar which looked very finely tooled.

Ned spared more than a thought for the man. Normally such a giant would be quite heavily employed in the thick of the battle, if not up front, both to boost morale for the supporting side and to put a little water in the opposition. This man was either late to the party, on some other mission and temporarily distracted to this battle site, or just a little too attached to his own skin to risk placing it in front of another army, despite seeming prepared for the fray. The fifth and final man came over the rise, and Ned instantly revised his thinking. The last was by far the shortest although he came with quite tall company, so it meant little, and Ned had seen enough contradictions in size and shape to be surprised by anything much. What made him think again was the way he was spotted. 

The man came over the brow of the low mound looking directly at him, an easy smile visible even from the current distance. Ned felt a cold prickle creep up his spine and his muscles tighten a little, preparing to flee instead of wait it out. But if the man had marked his position he made no sign to his fellows. They began to kick their way through the fallen bodies stopping here and there to check weapons and purses that caught their eye, and as they came closer to where they believed the saboteur lay, they brought out murderous looking pikes and halberds to prod at various bodies in case they lived still. The fifth man did not trouble himself with this. He hung back, letting his comrades move ahead but all the while keeping his eye fixed on Ned so that he became sure he had been spotted.

A few random but well considered suggestions steered them to the little hollow where Ned had set himself. Still the other men had no idea he was there but the grisly scene he lay within gave them pause. The eager one and his two companions came within range first, Ned stilled his breathing and opened his mind to possibilities. The first three bothered him not at all, the giant he might take in a standard bout but the fifth had unnerved him and he could not find reason for the man not identifying his location. He decided not to wait for the answer. The three stood side by side looking down at the scene, silent for a moment. As one started to speak Ned triggered the short bow and shot the man in the mouth, a good straight shot which from his low angle went deep into his skull through the roof of his mouth. It looked for all the world like the more intact body next to Ned had fired the bow and the other two looked quickly to that side whilst bringing their swords round. Ned raised the pike from his other side and thrust it deep into the groin of the second, the blade was broad and flat with a bent edge near the back, as he pushed the point through and out the back of the man he twisted the shaft and felt the edge catch on the man’s spine, he pulled hard and used the man’s falling weight to haul himself up to his knees, the third man had still barely brought his sword round properly and Ned batted it aside and almost gently pushed the point through the exposed side of the other’s armour, piercing lung and heart, he stood up into the move, embracing the man and using him as a shield as he looked over to where the giant and the man who had seen him were stalking over. He whispered an apology into the third man’s ear and lowered him gently to the ground.

If they had been a close group the last two were liable to seek revenge in the most brutal way possible. Often this could be worked to advantage, blind rage did as advertised, impaired the vision and made it easier to dance around before the finishing move. The giant made a good target, but the fifth man was still unnerving him. He continued to smile despite seeing three of his colleagues killed in short order. He made a sort of ‘after you’ gesture as the giant began to bound towards Ned.

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