The spearman limps into the clearing, his body weary and his mind wearier still. He’d been beckoned by the melody of rushing water, and having the stream finally blossom into view is a much-needed respite from the day’s wounds.
And by Athor, what a day it’s been. The cries of men and women in their death throes still ring in the depths of his psyche, mingling with the clang of metal against metal and the aroma of spilt blood cooking under the sun. Naturally, he loves Athor as much as the next Sunseas warrior, but can’t the Lord of the Day and Bringer of Warmth stand to bring a little less warmth on this day He’s lording over?
The spearman crouches on the bank—knees hugging the little pebbles, but no lower, just in case he never gets back up. Someone hovers into view on the crystalline water—a dark, dark face, ravaged by sun and steel, with black waves that go down to the temples and hollow eyes that stare at nothing in particular. He swears he could reach into those eyes and scoop out the dregs of his soul that might have decided to stay. Instead, what he scoops out is warm water. He doesn’t tip it past his lips, as much as his throat pleads for the moisture—no, that would be foolish, what with the worms and other nasty things the realm is known for. Instead, he splashes it over his face, savors the cool rush of it leaving his skin as vapor. Then the cuts and scrapes flare to life, and there is nothing more to savor.
A second face idles in the metal point of the spearman’s weapon of choice. This one is brimming with rage, and glares back up through a seething curtain of blood. He lets his fingers loosen, and the spear drops to the pebbles beside him. There is a facet of him that uncoils then, a brief severing of any obligation to kill, and the sigh he releases is a heavy one. How he yearns for a chance to leave the weapon there for good, inert and harmless like a concussed serpent. To never have to point it at a beating heart, to never have to feel the rush of cruel intent as he tightens his grip on the sweat-stained haft and guides it through skin and flesh and bone. A weaker mind would blame circumstance, or the thrill of battle, or other such irrationalities.
A weaker mind would also have a spear driven through it by now.
The spearman wills his knees to straighten, and then his years of experience bring him to the edge of the clearing. The trees here are small, skeletal things, huddling together as if that will protect their bark from being harvested. They say that the trees in other realms are tall and proud, with roots that stretch for leagues underground and canopies that blot out the sun. A world where Athor’s light doesn’t shine is inconceivable.
The spearman snaps away branches until he has enough firewood for a decent meal, and that’s assuming the stream will be kind enough to lend him its bounty. He picks a dry spot of dirt at the center of the clearing and makes camp, using the pebbles by the stream to make a ring before arranging the wood for the fire. The spear is in his hand again before he knows it—it always finds its way back, like a bird returning to its nest. He runs a rough stone against the spearhead once, twice, until the sparks find the kindling and smoke scurries into the sky. People will see it, but that’s fine. He’s not delaying anything inevitable.
After fanning the flames, the spearman removes his battered helmet and uses it to scoop up a morsel of stream. It goes over the fire like a mini-cauldron, hanging from the haft of his spear that he balances horizontally in between two upright bits of bark. Again, his weapon comes to his aid. He sips from the helmet after it boils and cools, layered leaves wedged between the metal and his palms to deter any heat. Oh, the things he’d do for a bit of rum, or a tall clay jug of coconut wine. He’d rushed into battle with a gourd full of the stuff at his hip, and an arrow had to find its mark there. At least the sand had a good swig. There’s booze and other comforts back at the camps, but the spearman has been pining for some time away from his warrior brothers and sisters.
He needs this.
The gentle churning of the water brings him to its edge again. Spear in hand, his gaze traces the path of a silvery teardrop gliding just beneath the surface. He raises the weapon, tenses in preparation to kill yet again—
—and throws it. Mud blooms where the spear lands. The spearman sighs. He knows all too well the melody of metal biting into flesh, and that wasn’t it. The one time he wants to kill…
At the snap of a branch, the spearman’s gaze flicks to the trees. A tattered figure, bow slung over a shoulder, ambles into the clearing from the other end. He relaxes. Just another warrior.
The bowman smiles sheepishly when they lock eyes. “Not intruding, I hope?”
The spearman gestures to the flames he has created. “Make yourself at home, friend.” He stumbles through the water to retrieve his weapon.
Once the mud disperses, a second teardrop frolics into view. It twists and teases. He raises the weapon a second time. Then, doubt creeps in and paralyzes his throwing arm.
“Here, friend, allow me.” The spearman is surprised to find the bowman standing attentively at his side instead of heating some water or tending to his wounds by the fire.
The spearman retreats, giving in to hunger and curiosity. The bowman takes his place, notches an arrow from a hipside quiver, and draws the string to one cheek. “You’ll see: a bow will do for you what a spear cannot.”
One heartbeat later, a trout floats motionless at the water’s surface, an arrow bristling from its silvery scales. Another shot later and two fish are turning over the fire, grease dripping from their charring flesh.
The two men sit across from each other as they eat, the smoking wood pile cleaving a polite space between them. Each time the spearman bites down, the trout bites back, sending tendrils of grease and meat juices into the cracks in his lips and the gash across his chin. Not that it stops him. The stuff is in dire need of chili peppers and vinegar, but food is food, and food is strength.
In the trudging silence, the spearman’s gaze is drawn to his companion. They’re two of a kind, red gashes against burnt coconut-husk skin, cords of muscle glistening with sweat. It’s like looking into the stream, or the metal sheen of his spearhead. There’s a key difference, though: where there’s a golden scarab painted across the bowman’s torso, there’s a blue scorpion splashed across the spearman’s. The former signifies resilience, and the latter dexterity. Yet he can’t even hit a trout from three paces.
The bowman’s quiver rests against a rock and holds a lone arrow. “Busy day?” begins the spearman after swallowing.
The bowman raises his right arm to reveal the bright-red face of his bandages just under the elbow. “Busy as it gets. Got this from one of our own, believe it or not. Clumsy bastard needs to check his left before he ruins my right.”
It’s a wonder he can still shoot with any amount of precision. “You’re lucky it wasn’t the enemy. I suspect they would have aimed at something a little more vital than a bicep.”
The bowman suppresses a grin. “Don't worry, the enemy couldn’t hit a crocodile in the mouth from five paces if it opened wide and started to sing.”
It’s the spearman’s turn to suffer a tugging at the corner of his mouth. He had craved solitude, but this isn’t so bad.
Inevitably, the conversation trickles down the ladder of intimacy, one rung every bite of roast trout. “Where were you stationed, then?” asks the spearman.
“As far back as can be. It’s not cowardice if you prefer the bow. Not that it mattered in the end. Rearguard was smashed to bite-sized pieces, and everyone went down in the blink of an eye. Well, almost everyone.”
The spearman nods solemnly. His mind travels back to the chaos on the sands, to his allies dropping like flies left and right. The trees at the clearing’s edge are a barrier to a battlefield strewn with corpses, but even those aren’t enough to keep them out of his head. He snaps his attention to the gentle passage of the stream, to the serenity of this clearing, to the company of the bowman. His eyes speak of the same breed of pain.
The spearman tears off a strip of crisp skin, and flavor floods his mouth. He finds himself watching the golden scarab again, and he imagines it scuttling up the bowman’s chest using its six spindly legs.
The spearman blinks back to reality. “I doubt I had it as rough as you tell it, but my whole squad and three others were caught crossing the passage between the two big dunes.”
“That’s a chokepoint. Nasty way to go.”
“I wouldn’t know.” The spearman recalls the screams of surprise reverberate between the dunes, and the sickening crunch of bones. “If it wasn’t for the call to retreat, I might have pressed on a few more paces. I might have joined the others.”
“And then we wouldn’t be here having a nice chat.”
“How true.” The spearman whittles down the trout, meaty flake by meaty flake. “How many kills?”
“Today, or since the war drums started beating?”
“Whichever is more impressive.”
A contemplative look flutters across the bowman’s face. “Today, then. That makes two kills.” He looks over the remains of his trout, and a grin creeps across his face. “Assuming each fish counts as one.”
The spearman gestures to the remaining arrow. “I suppose you dropped the rest of those on your way here, then.”
“You, my friend, are sharp. By Athor, it’s the enemy that I dropped on my way here.”
The spearman holds up a finger. “But you have managed to impress me. I defeated a dozen warriors this morning, and yet I can’t defeat two fish in a stream.”
“Then be damn thankful to Athor that this war isn’t against trout.”
The two men share a chuckle. It’s a curiously genuine sound that, for a fleeting moment, eclipses the sting of every cut and bruise, the ache in their soul, the sense of fragile, fragile impermanence to this exchange between warriors. The trees hem them in, ensuring that the chuckle is theirs to savor and theirs alone.
When the trout is sitting contentedly at the bottom of two stomachs, the men keep it down with boiled water before being inevitably drawn to their weapons. One of them turns to his spear and uses a few leaves to wipe it clean of mud and the bits of blood that have decided to stay. His reflection mellows out with each smear removed, and soon it looks like the weapon hasn’t had its daily dose of warrior blood. He watches the other man do the same; restringing the bow, testing the draw weight, combing out the fletching of his only arrow.
They both prepare for the inevitable.
The conversation progresses the same way the sun does across the sky: slowly, steadily, indulgently. They share stories of incredible battles and nail-biting escapades, of their pastimes back at camp and the men and women that they eat and drink and sleep with. They lend an ear to complaints of incompetent comrades, of reckless commanders, of stomach-churning rations. “The rice and coconuts take ages to arrive by cart where we’re based, thanks to a rockfall in the supply lines,” explains the bowman. “That means we can only make so much booze, some of which is supposed to be turned into vinegar for the cooking pot. Let’s just say that the company is leagues better than the food these days.”
The spearman mulls it over for a heartbeat—would he rather be deprived of good food, or a good drink? But maybe this dilemma only exists because of their circumstances, where wants and needs and life’s simple pleasures are rationed along with the camp stew.
As the spearman becomes lost in his partner’s ramblings, not to mention his own, the sunlight’s beatings begin to soften, and gnarled black fingers start to stretch across the dirt from the base of each tree. The wounds of his body and mind seem to ebb along with Athor’s rays.
Eventually, those helmetfuls of water scream for release. The spearman limps over to a tree (not the stream, because that would be discourteous of him) and listens to the dirt drink up.
“It seems I haven’t heard the tale behind your leg,” points out the bowman when the spearman limps back over.
“It’s not much of a tale, really.” The spearman lifts a trouser leg to expose his amateur bandaging. “Took an arrow just above the knee, but it’s nothing too serious, thank Athor.”
“Yes, thank Athor that archer wasn’t me. I make it a habit to always go for the head.” The bowman squints at the site of the wound. “Here, lay your leg out. I’ll show you how that’s done.”
The spearman cocks his head in amusement. “And where might the equipment for that be?”
“Right here.” The bowman unwraps a full layer of bandages from his arm.
“No, no, I can’t accept that.”
“You’re right. I ought to boil it first.” And that’s exactly what the bowman does, heedless of the spearman’s protests.
Perhaps it’s the comfort of each other’s presence, or the rapid cooling of the air, but sleep overcomes the two men. It comes and goes in the blink of an eye, as dictated by a warrior’s habits, but it’s all their bodies require.
The sun is halfway down the horizon’s throat by the time the spearman sits up and urges himself awake with a splash of water. The bowman does the same. For a few serene heartbeats, they sit there and watch the shadows grow and multiply and march their way across the dirt like a dense horde of ants.
“It’s almost time,” murmurs the bowman.
“I know,” is all the spearman can say.
The black tide of evening gradually floods the clearing. Stars fade into existence overhead, onlookers to the mess that must be the realm below. The campfire burns defiantly, having been replenished to fend off the gloom and the creeping chill of the night. The bowman rubs his temples and exhales a finger of mist.
“What are you going to do?” asks the spearman. “After all this is over.”
“Pack up and go home. There’s a man waiting for me, you know. What I’d give to feel his arms around me again, to hear his sweet voice call me to dinner. By Athor, his oyster stew could nourish an entire garrison by aroma alone.” The bowman smirks, as if amused by his own sentimentality. “I miss him so much that it hurts. That it makes all of this… hurt less.” The bowman studies his companion, flames dancing in his eyes. “What about you? Is there someone you’re fighting a goddamn army for?”
“Not a lover, though. My niece. I’m all she has left.”
The bowman nods. That’s when the night finally envelopes everything, and the two men are trapped in the orange bubble of campfire-light.
A horn sounds in the distance, long and low and all-reaching. It’s the same tune that saved the two warriors and brought them together.
“The truce is over,” observes the bowman.
“It’s about time.”
They both get up, weapons in hand, and dutifully move to opposite ends of the clearing. A cacophony blares in the distance: cries of fury, frantic stamping of feet, war drums beating in tandem to the spearman’s heart. Then the spear snuggles further into his palm and stills his unrest, fuelling him with the bloodlust that had waned when he entered the clearing.
He looks across the flames. On the bowman’s torso is the golden scarab, taunting and teasing as it flashes brilliantly in the firelight. It’s the same scarab he’s seen time and time again, on the other side of the battlefield.
The same one he’s driven a spear through, exactly twelve times today before the truce began.
The bowman notches his arrow, face impassive. “After you, friend.”
The spearman takes one limping step.
The snap of a drawstring rings in his ears. He ducks at the very last heartbeat, and the arrow whistles past him. I always make it a habit to aim for the head. The bowman’s face remains stoic as the spearman vaults the fire, pain flaring in his overtaxed muscles. The former stands proud, daring the latter to charge him through—
—until he dances out of the way. The spearman scrambles to track the movement and manages to land a clean hit with the blunt haft. The bowman tumbles away with a grunt, followed by a splash that echoes throughout.
All goes still. “And a spear will do for you what a bow cannot,” murmurs the spearman.
The bowman raises his dripping head out of the water. Something resembling a smile of acceptance flickers across his face when the spearman lifts his weapon.
He doesn’t miss the trout this time.
The fire fizzles out as soon as the spear lands, condemning its thrower to his own thoughts. A weaker mind would have spared the bowman out of sentiment, or demanded his name, or other such irrationalities.
A weaker mind would also have an arrow embedded inside it by now.