Shuffling through the dusty streets, the black haired youth approaches the barracks building. He looks over at the practice yard furtively as he walks through the doorway of the building and steps up to the counter.
A bored looking functionary gives the youth a perfunctory glance and asks “What do you want?”
The broad shouldered youngster says simply “I want to join the archers.”
“You’re too young boy. Be off.”
“I’m near on a score of years!” he protests.
“18,” he lies.
The man at the counter gives him a dubious glance. “Come back when it’s true,” he says.
“It is true,” the boy responds, “and I’m a good shot too. Give me a chance and I’ll prove I’m good enough.” His eyes issue as bold a challenge as his words, peering intently at the older man.
The counterman chuckles softly and says “Okay, boy, if you be outshooting Gervan I will swear you in.” Turning, he calls out loudly “Gervan! Got a challenger here!”
The boy looks at the ground and says quietly “My bow’s broken.”
“Don’t worry, lad, be a poor day indeed when the Alabaster Archers can’t muster a spare bow. The arms room is through this door over here, step in and pick one out that suits you.”
As the youngster heads into the armory, Gervan appears from the other direction. Sporting a long thick mustache, Gervan has the look of a grizzled combat verteran. The counterman fills him on on the challenge. Gervan stares doubtfully after the boy.
“What be your name, lad?” asks the bowman.
“Ferrill, honorable sir,” he replies.
Gervan snorts loudly. “No honorable sirs in here, boy. Can you even bend one of our bows?”
Ferrill responds by stringing the one he has selected and testing its draw.
“Not bad, lad, but shooting it is a much harder test yet. Let’s go.”
The two step out into the practice yard and set up targets 100 paces out. When that is done, they set up with five arrows each in the shooting area. Ferrill sits quietly as Gervan tests the wind and sights down his shafts.
“I’ll shoot all of mine, then you shoot all of yours. Shots are scored for which ring you hit. Center ring is worth the most.” Gervan continues his preparations as he explains the simple rules, waxing up his bow and checking the fletching of the arrows.
Eventually Gervan finishes his preparations and nocks his first arrow. “Now, lad, you will see some shooting.”
Carefully setting his shoulders into the bow and drawing back the string, Gervan takes aim at the target. He holds his breath for a beat, then exhales slowly, releasing his string on the exhale. The thwing of the bowstring and the thunk of the arrow are the only sounds in the practice yard.
He repeats the process four more times, and when he is finished three of his arrows are in the center ring, and the other two in the next ring out.
Ferrill, idly checking his fletchings, looks up at the fifth thunk and offers “not bad. Now you will see some real shooting.”
Without waiting for a response he nocks his first arrow and whips up the bow. Faster than seems possible, he sends all five arrows streaking toward the target. All five fall in the center ring.
The two older men stare in shock at the target downrange, and slowly turn their stunned gazes toward the youth. He returns their looks levelly and says quietly “Are you satisfied I can shoot?”
The man from behind the counter is the first to recover his speech. “That be an amazing display lad. Where did you learn to shoot like that?”
“In the orchards. One needs be quick to shoot the pests among the trees, and many of them are small targets.” Ferrill offers a slight shrug with the words, as if nothing more need be said.
Gervan guffaws heartily. “The lad has showed us alright, Shrayben. Go ahead and swear him in. I’ll take shooting like that on my flank any time.”
* * * * *
Ferrill looks around the yard at the other members of the Alabaster Archers, watches their shooting, waits for his turn. The practice lines alternate by squads, as the yard cannot accommodate all of them shooting at once. Most of the archers are only adequate. Some are good. A few, like Gervan, are very good.
The broad shouldered youth nods slightly to himself. None are so good as he. When it is finally his turn, he steps up to the line and grins before reaching for the first arrow. By the time he has fired his third, those on either side of him have stopped to gape. His hand moves between the quiver and the bowstring at incredible speed, and he doesn’t stop to re-sight between shots. A half dozen shots in and the whole yard is watching him. Voices begin to mutter as he empties the entire score of arrows in his quiver in the time it takes most archers to shoot a third of them.
“…black haired devil…”
“…Glad he’s with us…”
Ferrill permits himself another tight smile before he steps back from the line without acknowledging the comments around him. He lays his bow against the stand and heads downrange to collect his shafts – all sticking out of the center ring of the target.
* * * * *
“Sir, I only bring it to your attention because he be too young to shoot like that. He has been with us only a few eight days, and out does everyone in the squads. You always tell us to keep watchful for… extraordinary folk, and he seems to be one.” The mustachioed bowman nervously stares at the floor.
The figure in white nods and purses his lips momentarily before responding. “Quite right, Gervan, your instincts do you justice. I will accompany you to the morning practice session to see this young marvel.”
The thin man stands and walks outside toward the stable with a contemplative look. “Where did this Ferrill come from, exactly?”
“Well sir,” says Gervan, walking with him, “can’t rightly say. He appeared one day at the main barracks and asked to join. Doesn’t talk much.” The big archer screws up his face. “He mentioned the orchards, I think, sir. Might be he worked for one of the growers keeping the deer and rabbits from the fruit. He shoots like the very demons of light though.”
“Most interesting…” the other man trails off as he approaches the stable. “Saddle my horse, quickly now,” he says to the bored looking stablehand before turning back to the archer. “What does he do besides shoot?”
“Well sir mage, he eats enough for two regardless of the fare. He follows orders. He doesn’t seem to sleep much. Mostly he keeps alone. Doesn’t go out with the others, doesn’t take ale, doesn’t chase the wenches.”
The mage nods to the stable hand as he mounts and gesture to Gervan to lead the way. The two make the short ride without further conversation until the mage suddenly pulls up short a few hundred paces shy of the barracks. He wears a look of disbelief as Gervan turns to him.
“Sir? Are you alright?”
“Never better, Gervan, never better… As I said, your instincts are tremendous.” The mage’s lightly-bearded face slowly breaks into a broad grin.
* * * * *
“Ferrill, come in, come in, have a seat.” The older man gestures to a pair of high backed wooden chairs as he speaks, then sets aside the notes he was working on. The dark haired youth takes one of the indicated chairs and fixes his gaze on the short bearded man in white.
“You summoned me, sir?”
“Yes, young Ferrill, I did. Do you know why?”
“Sir, aren’t you the sorcerer’s representative to Syphral? I can’t guess what you would want with a junior member of the Alabaster Archers.”
“You don’t have to call me sir in private, Ferrill, my name is Derrak. As for why I asked you in today…” The mage trails off, fingering his beard as he looks thoughtfully at Ferrill. “I think a brief history lesson is in order first. Do you know anything of the mages of Alburb?”
“Only what all know, sir Derrak, that the mages be powerful and wise.”
“That has been more and less true at different times, but has little bearing on our discussion here. For centuries now, the guild has sought to promote the greater good in all the lands of Duravita. We have built the great highways, we have helped maintain the peace and we have helped train the power wielders to keep them from becoming a danger to themselves and others.
“Years ago, those who found the way to the power without the guild were simply killed. Were it years ago, Ferrill, you would be ashes already. You have clearly been using the power.”
Ferrill frowns and starts to object, but the older man holds up a hand for patience.
“Just listen, you can ask questions later.
“At the end of our last war with Latebros, our sorceror imperator Cyril The Great implemented a plan to use those who found the power outside the guild. Rumors were that he followed that path himself, and thought that these rogue power users could be turned into an asset to the guild.
“Now, through the mage advisors in every land, we actively seek out those the power comes to and bring them into the guild for instruction. This is to help them, and to help the guild. Cyril foresaw that we would need every mage available to maintain order throughout Duravita, and so we have.
“We don’t gather in any who display talent. It has to be enough to matter. The beekeepers might have a pittance of power manipulation and we leave them alone, because it helps the bees produce more honey.
“You… you do not have a pittance of talent. When you fire that bow, you twist the fabric of the power far out of balance. That you have been doing it without thought means you are a danger to yourself and your comrades as well as your enemies. The power unchecked will kill you, Ferrill.”
Derrak pauses to drink from the mug on his desk before continuing. “You clearly need training. You cannot be allowed to continue like this without it, because it won’t be just you that gets killed. So what I propose, for the time being, is this.
“For now, you will remain with the Alabaster Archers. You will continue in the drilling and training with them in the mornings. In the afternoons, you will come here and I will train you to harness some of your… other talent. My only purpose is to make you safe to be around. The political situation here is such that I can’t spare a talented archer, but you must learn control. Now, you may share your thoughts.”
Ferrill leans forward and asks quietly “How does the training work?”
“There is only one chance at this. If you fail, you will be turned to ash. If you succeed, you will receive further training from the Alabaster Order. This training is given, and in return you will faithfully serve the Alabaster Order in its quest to improve the quality of life all across Duravita.
“For you it will be especially difficult, because you are older than most when they begin training. You are also more powerful than most, which is why you have a chance… And why you are dangerous.
“The first thing you must learn is how to sense the power and order, and that will lead to you learning when you are using it. The sooner you can learn that the sooner you can learn control.”
Derrak stands and gestures to the doorway. “We can start now, but let’s go outside… just in case.”
The two stride out into the clear afternoon with Derrak, slightly in the lead, still lecturing. “Flinging the power about is kind of like shooting a bow. Anyone with the talent can learn enough to get by easily enough, but it takes training, practice and self-discipline to be one of the best.
“From what I observed, you seem to be using the power to… accelerate your motion and that of the arrow. You may also be smoothing the pathway to the target. That’s why you are so much faster than the others, and more accurate at the same time. Once you can sense what’s happening you can describe it better yourself.”
The two reach a relatively clear area a few hundred paces from Derrak’s quarters and halt. The dusty air is quite still beneath the scorching summer sun. Derrak’s white tunic and trousers are immaculately clean, while Ferrill’s Alabaster Archer’s uniform is spotted with dirt and sweat from his morning’s work.
“Close your eyes,” says Derrak, “and try to reach out to me with your thoughts. I am going to raise the power around you.”
Ferrill complies, and Derrak closes his eyes as well. Slowly, Ferrill perceives a shimmering light mist gathering in the air around him. Without trying, he scatters the white force in every direction.
“Darkness!” Derrak staggers a little and opens his eyes. “Try not to react so hard, we are only working on sensing!”
Ferrill frowns, then shrugs. “I didn’t try to do anything but sense it. I could sort of see the light mist and then it sort of blew away.”
“That’s because you blew it away. Brute force you have in abundance. Control you must learn, and that comes only through diligence. Now, reach out with your senses and watch what I do…”
* * * * *
In the darkness, Ferrill rises. The soft breathing and snoring of his fellow archers surrounds him. He quietly pulls on pants, a tunic, then his boots, before slipping out into the darkness. He marvels at how well he can see in the dark as he retrieves his bow and some arrows from the armory.
It only takes him a few moments to reach the practice yard. Once there he strings the bow, nocks a shaft, and sights down it. He draws the bow slowly, and reaches out for the shimmering mists that were so clear in his last session with Derrak.
The swirling mists are indeed all around him. He feels his way through it, and makes a conscious effort to draw it into him. As he does so, the bowstring seems to lose all its resistance, even though it is at full draw. Aiming at a target 100 paces distant, Ferrill looses the shaft while holding on to the white mist. It flies true, striking the target just where he intends.
The feeling of the the power inundating his body is wonderful. Ferrill draws another arrow, drawing more of the intoxicating white into him. His hand moves faster than he can ever recall. He can feel the blood rushing faster through his veins. His muscles are reacting to his commands almost before his mind can send them.
Reaching out with his thoughts, Ferrill tries to lend some of the same… acceleration… to the bow, and the arrow leaps off the string as if it had triple the draw. With his mind moving faster than ever, he reaches out again to the very air around the arrow, smoothing its path, following it to the target. The arrow hits very high, and Ferrill laughs aloud.
Realizing his error, he draws and sights again, this time aiming low. His heart is racing, the blood is thundering through his temples, his thoughts are reaching out with his hands, the arrow flies… and hits dead center of the target.
Ferrill laughs again, and fires off five more arrows in an eyeblink. He reaches out for more of the white mist, and gathers it to him, and laughs and laughs.
Suddenly he stops laughing, and stares speculatively at the arrow he didn’t even realize he’d drawn. He reaches out with his thoughts again, frowning, and tries to force the power into the arrow. His brow wrinkles, and sweat beads on his forehead, but nothing happens.
He grits his teeth and focuses harder, and the arrow bursts into flame in his hand.
“Demons!” he exclaims, dropping the arrow. His concentration broken, the power he has been clutching to himself flees his body, leaving him drained and disoriented. He wants to draw more, and more, and more, but he is exhausted.
Instead, he stumbles back towards the barracks, where he collapses into his bunk, totally drained. He doesn’t even care that Gervan will find him fully dressed in his bed in the morning, and plummets into the depths of sleep with a satisfied grin on his face.
* * * * *
“So,” Derrak says, “how was your solo practice last night? Successful I presume?”
Ferrill tries to look innocent. “What do you mean, sir?”
Derrak snorts loudly. “Don’t try to play that game with me Ferrill. I told you before I could feel you twisting the power all out of balance when you didn’t know what you were doing. It is obvious our sessions here have given you some confidence. Last night I was brought awake from deep slumber by your manipulations. Learning a little subtlety wouldn’t kill you. But, we don’t have time for that.”
“The Syphral separatists aren’t going to wait around for us to learn how best to kill them.” Derrak runs his fingers down his light beard as he speaks. “No, they are going to force the issue sooner rather than later. I don’t mind telling you, Ferrill, that you may be the key to this whole thing. You are clearly strong in the power. If you can learn enough to turn the tide, wonderful, I look like a hero. If you don’t, you will die, and that won’t hurt me either.”
Ferrill purses his lips and cocks his head. “Sir, I would prefer to be a hero.”
“I would prefer that too, young Ferrill, although for different reasons I imagine. So stop evading and tell me what you learned.”
Ferrill looks at Derrak long and hard before replying haltingly. “Sir… As you said, sir… I was able to use the… the power… to make myself move faster.”
“Yes, I told you that’s what you were already doing.”
“Well, sir, I figured out how to do it better.” Ferrill grins wolfishly at his pronouncement. “I also figured out how to use it to make the arrow fly faster… and to… keep the air from stopping it.” He drops his gaze. “I could not bind the power to the arrows though. That only burned them up.”
Derrak looks wide eyed at Ferrill for a long moment before breaking out into hearty guffaws. “Ha! Hahaha! That is what you did? Truly?” He laughs some more.
Ferrill turns red, and begins to smolder with crackling white energy. “I fail to see the joke.”
Derrak’s face turns from levity to near panic in a heartbeat. “Whoa now, young battle mage, be easy. I meant no offense. You have only figured out uses for the power in a night that take seasoned mages years to learn.” He shifts his gaze up, into the distance. “In fact, I am not certain of the last of us with abilities like you have… perhaps the great Jessel himself.”
Derrak looks down again and gives himself a shake. “I can show you how to bind the power to your arrows. It is a simple thing. I do it with my own locks here, to prevent intruders, and in the alabaster city the power bound locks are common indeed. It can be done with any physical object, really. Watch me with your senses.”
So saying, Derrak picks up a quill. As Ferrill follows his actions, he reaches out to the the power and draws it toward the quill, but twists it just so as he does. Then he drains the power away and repeats it two more times for Ferrill.
“As you can see, young mage, it doesn’t take much power to do. My own abilities are poor enough.” Derrak hands the quill to Ferrill. “Enough of a jolt would make this quill explode after what I’ve shown you. You try.”
Ferrill takes the quill, frowning. “What if I set it off?”
Derrak frowns. “Please don’t.”
Ferrill sighs, then sends his senses out into the mists of the power, forcing the swirling white into the quill… but with that crucial twist. As soon as he is satisfied, he turns and hurls the quill at the wall.
The explosion blows out most of the wall, and rocks the two mages where they stand.
Ferrill surveys the rubble of Derrak’s wall and smirks. “That works, sir mage, and I thank you for the showing.”
Derrak is aghast. “Ferrill! Why did you do that?”
“I had to know. And now I do. Thank you again.”
“You can’t just…”
“But I did. And you can’t stop me. And even if you could, you won’t. You need me to kill the rebels. Don’t worry, I’ll kill them by the ton lot.”
So saying, Ferrill smoothly rises and leaves through the smoking rubble of the wall. Derrak stares after him, seething.
* * * * *
Ferrill surveys the rebel lines, wondering when the action will begin. His eyes stray to Gervan, to his left, as he waits for orders.
“Damned rebels don’t know what’s good for ‘em,” offers one of the archers on the other side of the line. “The Alabaster’s’ve made all lands richer.”
Ferrill snorts derisively. “They don’t seem to care, do they Hawknell?”
At that moment, a trumpet clarion rings out across the morning. A large cavalry detachment starts to trot toward the Archers’ position. Shortly, another trumpet signal follows, and infantry follows the cavalry.
“String ‘em up, nock arrows and stand ready!” Barks Gervan. “There’s more o’ them than us, so make the arrows count. Lancer reinforcements will be here tomorrow, we have to survive until then.”
Ferrill grins a predatory grin. Survival will be a question for the other side, not him.
As the Syphral cavalry approaches, Gervan murmurs toward Ferrill “you remember the plan, boy? Don’t wait for an order, slip out when the timing works for you.”
Derrak and Gervan have drilled the plan into him for hours upon hours, while poring over maps. The odds of him forgetting even the smallest portion of it are slim.
Finally, the cavalry are in skirmish range, and the Alabaster Archers begin shooting. After only a few unnaturally accurate and rapid shafts, Ferrill slips toward the flank. Crouching low through the tall grass, he turns and sprints in the direction of the rebel forces.
The cavalry are losing men under the sleeting arrows, but are nearly inside the archers’ range…
Right on cue, Derrak unleashes a torrent of flame at the cavalry’s far flank. The screams of men and horses mingle in the air and hot greasy smoke rises from the west flank of the rebel lancers. The column shifts perceptibly to the East.
That is all Ferrill needs. He stands up to his full height and draws hard on the power. Shoulders planted firmly forward in his bow, his hand moves faster than the eye can follow. Almost before the horse column has finished its shift ten men are down. Before they spot Ferril’s position it is a score.
More fire flares from Derrak, and the bulk of the archers retreat 50 paces before reforming and firing again on the confused riders. In a matter of minutes the charge is shattered. The few surviving horsemen scatter and flee.
Meanwhile, the infantry advance halts outside of bow range. Expecting to have mop up duty and only one sorcerous foe, the commanders appear to be considering how to proceed.
Ferrill decides to take the choice from them.
Again getting low in the tall grass, and again surging the power through his muscles, he takes off at an inhuman speed toward the infantry center.
When he is within 100 paces, someone notices the movement in the grass and the soldiers start yelling and pointing. Calmly, Ferrill stands up and reveals himself. He is still smiling, showing his teeth in a snarling challenge.
Some soldiers start to come for him, but they have no chance as long as his hold on the power stays strong. He fires, takes down three, six, a dozen – but he is almost out of arrows. Three quivers seemed like plenty when he started, but with only seven shafts remaining, it is time to get creative.
Seizing as much of the power as he can, Ferrill gives it that subtle twist as he forces it into his arrows. Now, instead of speeding up, he slows down and focuses on clusters of targets.
The first shot leaps from his bow and slides through the power-smoothed air, landing precisely in the sternum of a soldier in a large group.
Fire erupts from the smoking hole that used to be a rebel soldier, surges outward, and engulfs the men surrounding him. More greasy smoke taints the air. The shockwave knocks down everyone within 10 paces. Ferrill’s animal grin widens.
He looses two more shafts into the tightest-clustered groups he can, unleashing two more eruptions of flame to devastating effect, before he realizes a single soldier is getting too close to risk one of the exploding arrows on.
Smoothly, faster than perception, he reaches into his boot, pulls a dagger, and flings it at the rebel, simultaneously reaching out with the power to smooth its path. The blade buries itself in the man’s throat, loosing a spurt of gore into the afternoon sunshine.
By the time Ferrill has another arrow nocked the rest of the rebel soldiers are running pell-mell back toward their encampment.
Ferrill looses his hold on the power, and exhaustion crashes into him. He is ravenously hungry, his vision blurring, his knees weak, his head drooping. Slowly, slowly he makes his way to the soldier who almost got to him and retrieves and cleans his dagger.
With exaggerated care, he replaces the dagger in his boot and turns toward his own force. Derrak is riding toward him.
“Young Ferrill… that was most impressive.”
Derrak’s voice sounds far away, and as if it is coming through water.
“You certainly have cleared up the rebel problem. I don’t believe we’ll have any more trouble collecting our tithes from the Syphral.”
“Derrak…” The word comes out as a croak. Ferrill clears his throat and tries again. “Derrak, what is wrong with me? Everything looks funny, and sounds funny, and hurts.”
Derrak laughs, a humorless sound. “You pushed as hard as I have ever seen anyone push with the power, Ferrill. Do you think that comes without consequences? With a few days’ rest you will be fine. The several score rebels you killed, on the other hand…”
Derrak stops short and lunges half out of his saddle to catch Ferrill as he lurches and nearly falls toward him.
“Ahhhh… Ferrill… have you bled the power from those arrows? I thought not, let me prevent an accident.”
Then Derrak gets down and boosts Ferrill up into the saddle. “I will walk with you boy. We will get you to your bunk in the barracks, and you can rest.”
* * * * *
A week later, Ferrill is bound for the white city. His passage on the freight ship was paid by Derrak, who also gave him a letter of introduction stamped with Derrak’s personal seal.
Derrak’s final words of advice were simple, blunt, and chilling: “I have never seen anyone with your sheer power, Ferrill, but your control is still lacking. That will make you a target. Keep your head down and your mouth shut, or you’ll end up getting turned to ash. Even if you can best one of the others, there will be others, and others, and others, and eventually one will get you when you are worn out, or not paying attention, or even asleep. Don’t let on how strong your grip on the power is to any who can’t sense it themselves, and you’ll live longer.”
Well, Derrak was a weakling.