This is the story of my failure.
Why couldn’t it have been a simple test? A contest like archery, where if I get the most arrows in the center of the target, I win? In archery the lines are apparent, giving rise to little dispute over who the winner is. In the case of a tie the archers can always shoot another quiver of arrows to settle the contest.
I have always been skilled with a bow.
I am getting ahead of myself, though. I am no bard, but I do know that I should start from the beginning.
It was early Naia and I was in Dargon city for the first time. In my sixteen winters, I had never been to a city before; my first experience with any human collection of such magnitude had been viewing Kenna from the opposite bank of the Coldwell, nearly five days back. Yet Kenna was a minnow to Dargon’s barracuda, so much smaller in size and sensation as to almost defy comparison of the two. In truth, even Kenna was significantly larger than Dawnsmist, the valley hamlet that I called home.
I entered Dargon with the late-morning sun over my right shoulder. I traveled a stone’s throw from the northeast bank of the Coldwell, walking a dusty track between riverside fields being prepared for planting. I continued until I reached the point where the river causeway signaled the southeastern end of the city. As I passed, the farmers and hands stopped their work for a few moments to gaze at me across the fields with what I assumed was interest. I was uncomfortable under their gazes, feeling distinctly alone in a foreign place. Yet, with the relaxation of their gazes, the tension growing in my chest only seemed to further increase. I would have expected a man armed with a bow on his back and a sword at his side to elicit more concern.
I took two deep breaths to control my anxiety. I felt the weight of responsibility pressing upon my shoulders. This burden was rooted in the knowledge that there was a void in my village: a void created by the prolonged absence of the trained and experienced fighters of my clan. Only the very young and very old remained to defend Dawnsmist. There were many dangers that threatened a village amid the wilds of the deep duchy woods and I was determined not to let my people down in any time of need.
As I walked, my thoughts became dominated by Oyrault’s Bald, a rocky hill a few leagues from our village. The hill held a one-room shack nestled amid a small grass clearing. My grandfather had built the shack and because of his labor the hill bore his name. My favorite times were when I could journey to the bald and practice my target shooting as wispy clouds passed through the deep azure sky above me.
Attempting to focus on the task at hand I followed the directions Sybator, my teacher, had given me, soon reaching the edge of the city proper. As I approached the city, I climbed the side of a small hill, which offered an elevated perspective for my first glimpse of Dargon. I paused, breaking the stride that had carried me the sennight’s walk from my home, to gaze at the city in wonder.
Splayed before me to the northwest, the city was a patchwork of buildings separated by meandering streets that gave the impression of roots grown by an ancient tree, whimsically choosing their paths through time. Tall stone spires and steeples paying reverence to the blue sky marked what I took to be the temple district. Closer, to the west, where the causeway spanned the Coldwell River, the water sparkled in the early morning sunlight as it sought its destiny in the Valenfaer Ocean.
The most majestic feature of the city, though, was a stone castle, set atop a rocky crag on the far side of the river. From what Sybator had told me, that would be Dargon Keep, seat of Duke Clifton, the ruler of our lands. I could not believe the power displayed in a building of that sort. I had to stop and reflect on the labor, time, and the all-defying might necessary to raise stone to such heights, and then hold it there against its nature.
I started on my way again, down the gently sloped rocky trail before me, shortening my usually long stride to a slow shuffle, as I tried to digest the sight laid before me.
I continued towards the riot of stone and timber dwellings before me. Part of me began to wonder what necessity would drive the construction of an unnatural structure like Dargon Keep: an artificial mountain, yet without the true majesty of the Darst range, only a pale imitation of the real thing.
With that realization, I quickened my pace again. I was able to put Dargon city in perspective. Who would want to live in the squalor I saw before me? People scurried about at a hurried pace, their feet sticking in the street muddied by the previous day’s spring rains. I began to hear a sickening drone, like that of a swarm of bees, coming from the marketplace directly in my path. The sticky and unpleasant tang in the air borne inland from the Valenfaer Ocean assaulted my senses. I could see filth, like sores on a diseased animal, lining the banks of the Coldwell. All of that led to one conclusion: this was not my home.
Again, thoughts of Oyrault’s Bald crawled into my head and settled, unbidden. This time I saw my father, pulling back on his bow with power and grace, and remaining completely still before the subtle movement that signaled release. He had always seemed so sure when he fired; I had spent the past two years trying to mimic, from memory, the instinct with which he shot.
I shook my head to clear the scar-filled reverie. I stopped at the side of the first road that I came upon and pulled out the map Sybator had given me. It was a rough sketch of Dargon, with streets depicted as lines and words scrawled next to them. Underneath I held Sybator’s letter of introduction, cradled against my sweaty palm like the blanket my young sister favored.
As I stood there on the street’s margin, I tried to avoid acting like an outsider. Yet, it seemed to me that many amid the hordes of people that passed stared longer than would be normal or altered their pace to gape at me. I surmised that few of them had ever seen a woodsman in person, but later I was to realize that more likely they were just surprised that I could read at all.
Woodsmen have never been known for literacy. I was among the first generation of our clan to be able to read and write. In our village, though, Father Tannuay, a Stevenic priest, had made sure that every child was taught his letters. Some would have called him a religious zealot, trapped in his passion about reading and writing, an ability that few elders in our town saw there being much use for, but this account is a testament to his success.
I found myself standing on the Street of Travellers, glancing quickly back and forth between the map and the landmarks around me. Peering once more at the map for good measure, I tried to memorize where I was. I then proceeded to roll the map and the letter together with shaking hands and carefully enclose them in the metal carrying tube Sybator had given me. Placing the tube back amongst the jars and small pots stowed in my pack, I headed into the city. I found my lungs laboring, as apprehension constricted my chest.
I passed the edge of the marketplace and walked slowly past dozens of shops and small houses crammed together like rotted logs in a blowdown. As I headed down Traders Avenue, I felt long gazes following me. The attention only heightened my anxiety, adding to the pressure of attempting to not gawk around me like some kind of country lout.
I finally halted my travel at a shop with a merchant’s symbol underscored by elegant scrawl that read “Abaleen’s Traders.” Seeing the door open to the street, I entered the cramped, low-ceilinged shop. Behind the counter was an old, thin, gray-haired and bearded man peering squint-eyed at a ledger placed on a pitted and sliced hardwood bench.
Sybator had told me that Abaleen was an old acquaintance. The past was something that Sybator talked about infrequently. However, his silence wasn’t enough to prevent rumors of his true origins from circulating within the village. His prowess with the sword and written word suggested a noble upbringing, but his knowledge of the wilderness and the bow demonstrated ample time in the wilds. Some said he was a fallen noble, torn from his lands for a crime he did not commit. Others said he had served the current duke’s father — his skill with weapons and tactics lending some credence — as a general. Some even said he had walked away from his holdings and title, living on his wits alone in the wilds for decades before reaching our village fifteen years past, not long after the end of the Shadow Wars.
No matter what the story, he said Abaleen was one of the few honest men in a trade of thieves, and that he was the man to whom I should trade my wares. “May I help you?” the man behind the counter questioned, without looking up from his reading.
“Errr … Abaleen?” I began, flustered by his inattention.
As I moved towards the counter, I quickly tried to review what I should say. I had hoped he would look at the letter before asking too many questions. His glancing up from his work, prompted by my noncommittal response, saved me. “Yes, I’m sorry,” he answered, looking at my rough garb, ieonem bow, and laden pack, “You must be another one of Sybator’s students; I wasn’t expecting one again, so soon.”
“Yes,” I responded, handing him the letter that I had pulled out of its metal case. My older brother Dynhault had undertaken the same challenge less than a month previous and had come home with little to report about his journey, but he was Dynhault: the born leader, heir to the title of Clannac, head of our family. Although only a year older than I, he had always been the best at everything. He was the fastest in a foot race, the most skilled swordsman, the quickest with his letters. Only in skill with the bow, for which he had little interest, was I better than him. And I had little doubt that if he put his mind to it he would be the best archer in our village.
Abaleen skimmed quickly through the note and looked up at me with a friendly smile. “I understand, then, that you have some more goods for me.”
I nodded in agreement, unslinging my pack and placing it on the dusty floor against the counter. He came around to the front and we began pulling the poultices and jars of salve out of my pack.
“So, what do you think of our city?” he asked as we set to work.
“Uh … I’m finding it … different,” I stammered out a reply.
“Yes, I guess you would.” He laughed heartily. I only shrugged, slightly embarrassed by his mirth. I could find no words to really describe what I felt and even Abaleen’s easy manner could not ease my anxiety.
How could I describe to him the wonder that I felt? I can remember the two distinct emotions tugging at my body: awe and fear. Both were twisting and curling together in some kind of hypnotic and sickening dance inside my gut. It was good that I had eaten little when I had broken fast that morning. Yet words like wonder and awe are limited in their scope, and my emotions at that first moment when I had seen the city spread out before me had been boundless. I had never seen anything of such magnitude and majesty as the city and it both terrified and elated me in the same instant.
“Here are the iechyd poultices, foxglove, ieonem blossoms … ” I had begun pulling the various herbal restoratives and remedies out of my pack, looking to change the subject back to the task at hand.
Once all of the wares were out, Abaleen went into the back room and returned shortly with a cloth bundle. He unwrapped it to show the goods that Sybator had requested. Inside the oil cloth lay two medium-sized books, bound with leather, the letters on the cover beginning to fade with age. One of them read “Memoirs of Istabalt, Alchemist to Kings” and the other “Tales of Magnus.” Books were the one luxury that Sybator seemed to allow himself. He supplied and maintained a small library in our village.
After we had rewrapped the books, Abaleen reached under the counter, pulled out a small sack, counted out a half-dozen coins and placed them into another, smaller sack.
“The last batch sold well; here’s some of the extra coin I earned. Why don’t you use it, son, to experience city life? You could stay in an inn — possibly the Spirit’s Haven — for the night?”
“Thank you for your generosity,” I concluded, reslinging my pack upon my shoulders. My time with Abaleen had been short, yet seemed long, perhaps because of the novelty involved. Again, I yearned to be on Oyrault’s Bald, straining against the controlled power of my bow as the springtime sun warmed my back.
“Take care, son. Give my friend Sybator my best wishes and tell him he’s been away from Dargon too long. Remind him that memories are shorter than the tides,” he said by way of leave-taking. I nodded in response.
As I exited the shop, I turned to the left and stopped. Looking back the way that I had come, I saw the edge of the bustle that surrounded the marketplace. In the other direction, I knew, lay the docks and seashore, although any chance of seeing them from that spot was lost in the labyrinth of the city streets. Then, I made what seemed a simple decision, yet one with unexpected ramifications, like ripples formed from a stone thrown into a pond.
In the end, I chose to head down towards the wharf, my decision prompted by two factors: the mystery of the sea drawing me towards the shore and the press of people pushing me away.
As I walked along Traders Avenue, I wondered what to do with my extra coin. Should I save it and bring it to Sybator? Should I use it to sample the life offered by the city, during my first experience in one? Should I give it away to one of the churches, possibly a Stevenic one, in honor of Father Tannuay? I could hear my father’s advice in my head: “Trust in yourself, son. Your aim is true.” I wished, not for the first time, for his companionship rather than just his memories.
In truth, I wanted, with all of my being, to leave the city and return to Dawnsmist as soon as possible, but I felt that I was expected to spend more time in the city and to learn something more of its ways. Sybator had given me this task, this journey into town, as one of his practical tests, probably to challenge my skills at adapting to a new situation, a strange place. Sybator spent very little time standing, talking to us of our lessons, as Father Tannuay did. A man of few words, Sybator much preferred to show us, teach us through experience. Sometimes these kinds of lessons, I had found, were hardest. My fear was caused by my desire to not fail him … and my village.
Again, my thoughts flitted to Oyrault’s Bald, calling to mind my waiting target and the jay that liked to sit on the roof of the shack, moving his head in jerky motions as he scanned the clearing for food. I would have much preferred his company to the foreignness I found on the street around me.
Approaching the wharves on Traders Avenue, I got a better view of the bustle of the harbor, marveling at a large ship, probably some kind of merchant vessel, which was entering the harbor under sail. Nearer to the docks, I could see sailors loading and unloading various cargoes onto the quays that lined the shore. As I continued, the crashing of the waves and the salty taste to the air were new, yet not altogether unpleasant, sensations.
Lost in my wonder, my attention was yanked back to my surroundings by a yell from further down the street. On the other side of the lane, a young boy sprinted out of a shop, clutching a bundle to his chest. A little middle-aged man followed, waving a large pair of shears and yelling “Thief! Thief!” A sign depicting a scrawled representation of the shears hung above the shop doorway.
At first, the chaos exhibited in this display kept me rooted in place as the child raced past me and entered a narrow alley two shops away. I quickly broke into a lope, my pack pulling taut against my shoulders and slowing my arm glide. I dared not leave it, though, so I strode on. Running with a full pack was very similar to some of the exercises we did for Sybator. As I rounded the corner, the child was only five cubits away. At the far end of the alley I could see people walking on another street running roughly parallel to Traders Avenue. Even hindered, I ate up ground pursuing the short-legged child. He seemed to be about ten years of age.
The boy looked behind him and shock came over his face. I do not think he expected the soft-looking tailor to have been able to keep up with him and judging by the faces I had already seen on many of the other people on the street, apathy was the way of the city.
In response to the sight of me, the boy quickened his pace just a little more, his bare feet slapping on the mud, and he turned into another side-alley, this one seeming to run behind the houses on Traders Avenue. I turned the corner less than three strides behind and in five steps was able to close the distance to him. Without slowing my running, I reached out and grabbed the back of his neck as he began to scale a rickety wooden fence that ended the alley ten cubits in. He seemed limber enough to scale it easily, but the package in his arms was awkward and forced him to climb with only one hand. That was all the aid I needed to catch him.
“What are you doing, boy?” I growled. I placed him back on the ground against a wooden wall, where there was no place to run, except past me. He squirmed in my grasp.
Letting him go, I said, “Very well, we’ll have it your way. You can run, but I’m just going to catch you again, like I did last time. I’m no soft tailor you can out-run and out-climb.” His eyes darted back and forth looking for an opening to escape through.
Finding none in my wary stance, he appraised me. “Who are you? What do you want?”
“I’m a woodsman, from the deep forests to the southeast,” I answered. “And what I want is that item you stole.”
“Oh, I thought you looked strange,” he responded. The diversity of the city left him less disturbed than I would have expected. He did realize who had the control over the situation, though, and power was something he seemed to understand. “What will you do if I give it back?”
“I’ll let you go on your way, as long as you promise not to steal again.”
“Straight?” he said.
Not entirely understanding his slang, I said: “Yes, if you mean: am I telling the truth.”
“Because I trust your word and think that getting caught will teach you a lesson about stealing.”
He looked at me in shock, but measured me in a surprisingly shrewd manner for one so young.
“Straight.” He said, handing me the bundle he had held clutched to his chest throughout the exchange. “I’ll be leaving now,” he continued, starting to walk past me.
“*There* he is!” a voice yelled at the entrance to the cul-de-sac. I looked over to see the tailor standing, pointing accusingly at us. Behind him came four men in armor, swords at their sides.
Again, I grabbed the boy’s arm as he took the first step towards scaling the fence.
The five men came down the alley and approached the struggling boy and me. “Who are you?” the tailor asked brusquely.
“My name is Oyreen of clan Deshiels. And I have your cloth.” I answered, not understanding why his voice held such a tone of accusation. I offered it to him.
“It is not just any cloth,” he responded in a starchy tone, grabbing the bundle out of my outstretched hand. “That dress was commissioned for Lauren Dargon, the duke’s wife, and is very valuable, bumpkin.” He spat out the last word and held out the gown, looking for some sign of damage. I clenched my jaw in simmering anger. I could not tell if the boy’s touch or mine worried him more. The boy had calmed down and was standing warily in my grip.
“You are a woodsman?” one of the soldiers said, more as a statement than a question. He was in the fore of the group and an insignia on his tunic seemed to indicate he was their leader. “My name is Lieutenant Kalen Darklen of the Dargon city guard. Did you get the dress from this boy?”
“Yes to both, lieutenant,” I responded. The lieutenant seemed at ease, but the three guardsmen behind him seemed more wary of my appearance, shifting their weight back and forth between their feet, as those ready for immediate action do. None of them bordered on the outright hostility of the tailor, though.
“How did you come by it?” he then asked. I told him my part of the story, including my journey into the city on Sybator’s errand.
As I finished telling of my covenant with the boy, the tailor burst in: “Lieutenant, you can’t just let that little thief go, on this … man’s word.” He spat the last two words as if they were distasteful in some way.
At that point, my anger flared. “What did I ever do to deserve this treatment?” I fumed at the tailor. Sybator had told me many times that my temper would get me into trouble if I did not control it. But at that moment, I could not take any more of the man’s abuse. “I am as much a man as you. Just because I don’t live in Dargon city, it does not make me any less of a member of the duchy or the kingdom. My father, uncles, and cousins still have not returned from the war with Beinison. Do you think just because the war is over here that the king in Magnus has let all men return home? You in your safe homes have returned to normal, but my clan may be involved in fighting every day — hundreds of leagues from our home.” I stopped to pant in anger, looking down at the muddy street for focus. Emotion poured out of me like spring runoff overflowing a river’s banks. What I had said was true. My people had long been employed in the armies of king and dukes alike as scouts and archers. Skilled soldiers like that were the last to return home.
All around me the city dwellers, guards, tailor, and boy gaped in shock. The eloquence of my attack seemed to produce most of the response as opposed to the truths of my statements. I had already seen that few city dwellers considered woodsmen, wearing rough leathers and simple clothing, to be completely civilized. I had Father Tannuay to thank for my ability to orate. For the first time I was thankful for his long bells of lessons on letters, grammar and discourse.
“Well, I … are you in league with this boy?” the tailor began. “I don’t care what the king owes your family, the boy is a thief and should be thrown in the dungeon. Those are the laws of the city — and of the kingdom.”
“You’ll have to excuse Goodman Mudge. While a good tailor, he has had a difficult day today,” Lieutenant Darklen interrupted the beginning of the tirade. “Ealun, why don’t you return home with the dress and see what you can do with it? I’m sure your amazing talents will have it repaired even better than it was for the duke’s wife.”
“He’s only a boy,” I finished, glaring darkly at the tailor.
“No, he’s a thief,” Mudge contradicted, “Lieutenant, you are right, my talents are better served back in my shop. I *trust* you will handle this matter appropriately.” With that the tailor stormed off, back down the alleyway towards Traders Avenue.
As my attention wandered with the statements of the tailor, the boy made a sudden move at my side. My grip had relaxed, allowing him to drop to the ground, breaking my hold with his weight and unbalancing me so that I fell to the ground as he scuttled out of my way. Before I could recover my feet or the guards could act, he had climbed the fence and could be heard running deeper into the alley.
The lieutenant was the first to reach the fence, but as he dropped to the other side and I reached the top, the boy turned another corner and was lost from sight heading back towards the wharves.
“We’ll never catch him now, and maybe that’s for the better,” the lieutenant stated, seemingly disgusted at the situation. “He was too young for the dungeon, likely has no family, and there is little we can do for ones that start so early.”
At that moment, I felt the worst defeat. Jumping down to stand next to the lieutenant, I noticed a change in the heft of my equipment. Reaching up into the side sash of my pack, I realized that two strands were all that remained of the purse containing the extra coins Abaleen had given me. “He stole my money!” I said in shock.
The lieutenant turned and looked at me for a moment and said: “Yes, he probably did.” I stood there, jaw agape and wondered how I could have misread the boy so badly. I had defended him, preventing the judgmental tailor from getting a hold of him and he had repaid me, by robbing me.
“Where are you staying tonight?” Lieutenant Darklen asked.
“I was to stay at the Spirit’s Haven, but I have no coin left, and think I should be on my way. I’m not sure I care to spend a night in this city.”
“That is probably for the best; Dargon doesn’t seem to be your kind of place,” the lieutenant said. “We can help you out by walking you to the edge of town.” He did not seem to be offering a choice. In truth, I was not sure if he wanted to stay with me in order to protect me, or more likely, to keep me out of any more trouble. At the time, it did not matter.
I had already failed.
That night I slept in a copse of trees near the Coldwell and the next morning was on my way home. In just over a sennight I was home in our village reporting on my journey to Sybator.
He said nothing upon hearing my story, which seemed right. I did not feel worth the time or effort after my failure in the city. Instead, he took me out to the clearing on the edge of the village where we practiced our archery. Suspended from trees at the far end were straw targets with an innermost bullseye and a much larger outer circle.
“Get yourself set, but do not draw an arrow,” he said in his traditional no-nonsense tone. Once I had gotten in my stance, he came behind me and blindfolded me with a dark rag he had taken from inside his tunic. “Now shoot,” he said once he was sufficiently assured that I could not see.
“But, master, I can’t see the target.”
“True … Shoot anyway.”
My frustration quickly gave way to acceptance, though. I nocked an arrow from the quiver by my left knee; an easy feat, even blindfolded, for someone who had done it thousands of times before. I then followed the steps I had been taught to take before shooting: the canon all archers lived by. Sybator and my father had drilled these lessons into me since I first hefted a bow. I placed my lead arm forward, made sure my fingers were positioned evenly on the string, pulled back on the bow until I could anchor my hand against my chin, and aimed where I thought the target should be. I waited for that feeling of complete rightness I knew signaled the moment I should release. Even blindfolded I felt confidence in my technique, if not my aim. I let the arrow slide free.
I heard the dull thunk of it embedding in the straw.
“What did you hit?”
“The target, I think. I heard it hit.” I responded with relative confidence.
“Where on the target?” he continued.
“I don’t know, I can’t see it.”
“Where do you think?”
“High right?” I asked. Every archer has his favorite spot to miss.
“Do you really think so?”
“How could I know where it hit? I can’t see it.” I answered in frustration.
“Was it a good shot?” he asked.
“Uh … I guess so. My form felt good. The shot felt right.”
“Good. That is how a great archer shoots: by feel. Pull off your blindfold,” he commanded. I did, finding the arrow lodged in the target near the outer edge of the smaller circle.
“Could your shot have been better?”
“Yes, I could have hit the center.”
“Could you have?”
“Maybe? … I don’t know!?” I became flustered, not really sure what we were even talking about anymore.
Then, abruptly, without ever a direct word on my trip to the city, he took my bow and sent me to Oyrault’s shack on the bald. He gave me simple directions: sit alone, write down this story, and return for archery practice tomorrow morning.