K Parker: The Belly of the Bow

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K Parker The Belly of the Bow
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    The Belly of the Bow
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‘Don’t just stand there,’ he grunted. ‘Your turn.’

The boy swung; typical boy with a big axe, wanting to show how strong he was. It was a wild, flailing swing, and he missed, hitting the tree with the handle of the axe rather than the blade. Needless to say, the head snapped off, whistled past disconcertingly close to Loredan’s elbow and landed in a patch of nettles.

‘Idiot,’ Loredan said indulgently. He remembered doing exactly the same thing himself when he was just a kid; younger than this boy, of course – by the time he was the boy’s age he really had known everything there is to know about felling a tree, instead of merely thinking that he did. ‘Go and find the axe-head.’

‘It went in the nettles,’ the boy replied.

‘I know.’

He carried on cutting, swinging the axe in a slow, economical rhythm, letting the weight of the head do all the work. After twenty or so strokes he moved round to the other side and evened up the cut; then he started again a quarter-circumference round, until he’d cut through to the core on three sides. He paused and leant on the axe-handle.

‘Found it yet?’


‘Gods, you’re slow, it’ll be dark soon,’ he said. ‘Come on, leave that and fetch the ropes.’

Together they roped the upper branches and made fast to what was left of the cottage’s doorframe. ‘Keep back,’ Loredan warned. ‘And don’t get under my feet.’

He finished the job then; and when he was all but through, the weight of the tree ripped away the last few splinters of heartwood and the trunk jerked sideways, came up against the restraint of the rope and slid off the stump, coming to rest more or less where Loredan wanted it to be.

‘That,’ he said, stepping back, ‘is the proper way to fell a tree. If you’d been paying attention, you might have learnt something useful.’

‘You told me to look for the axe-head,’ the boy replied. ‘Anyway, what’s the big deal about cutting down trees? You just hit them till they fall over.’

Loredan breathed out slowly. ‘Absolutely,’ he said. ‘Get the saw. There’s still just about enough light left to make a start.’

The boy yawned and fetched the long two-man bowsaw, and together they trimmed off the axe-cut point of the log, leaving a flat circle with the growth rings clearly visible.

‘That’ll do for today,’ Loredan said. ‘We’ll leave the next stage till tomorrow; that’s the important bit. Now find that axe-head while I light the fire.’

‘My arms are all stung,’ the boy pointed out mournfully.

‘Use the hook to cut back the nettles,’ Loredan said patiently. ‘Then you’ll be able to find the axe, and you won’t sting yourself.’

The boy grunted. ‘You might have told me that earlier,’ he said.

Loredan looked up from the pile of kindling and smiled. ‘I was hoping you might have worked that one out for yourself,’ he replied. ‘Get a move on, we haven’t got all night.’

They came an hour after sunset; five long black ships with their masts down, making almost no sound as they slipped through the two rocks that stood in the mouth of the cove. It was a fine piece of seamanship, bringing five warships through a narrow gap at twilight, and it was done with confidence and efficiency.

They disembarked quickly and quietly, every man knowing what to do, then their officers marshalled them into two parties and led them up the beach. There was nothing to hear, no clinking of armour or weapons or creaking of straps, no talking or careless footfalls. From where he lay, Gorgas couldn’t see well enough to count them, but he put the number at over two hundred, possibly as many as two hundred and fifty. A substantial force for a simple foreclosure, except that no foreclosures were simple any more.

‘There’s more than we expected,’ whispered the man at his side. He sounded frightened, which was how it should be.

‘We can handle them,’ Gorgas replied softly. ‘Now shut up and keep still.’

Brave words, he said to himself; odds of nearly three to one aren’t good business. He glanced up the hill towards the farmhouse; there was a light burning in the tower, as he’d ordered, and the path from the beach led straight up to the front gate. Logically they’d follow the path until they were maybe a hundred yards from the stockade and then split up, one party to the front, the other round the back. That’s what he’d have done. There weren’t that many options; it was a relatively simple job.

The raiders were hard to see against the rocks that crowded the sides of the path, and Gorgas could make them out only because he knew what he was looking for. It would have been much simpler to have taken them there, with the rocks for cover, but the line would have been too extended; he couldn’t have engaged all of them at once and the rearguard might have made things unpleasant for him if they kept their heads and didn’t run. Besides, if they were expecting an ambush, that was the obvious place for one.

The leader of the first party was passing the stone Gorgas had measured off as his fifty-yard mark. He could see them rather more clearly now, there were recognisable arms and legs and heads instead of a dark moving blur. It was, he realised, all rather like still-hunting deer in the forest when he was a boy. The trick was to be patient, to wait for the last possible moment before standing up and shooting, but with the proviso that the longer you waited, the greater the risk of spoiling the whole thing with a careless sound or movement. There was a small, fine irony there: he’d always been the impatient one, anxious to get it over with and shoot as soon as the animal was within range. Just as well he’d learnt his lesson.

The last man was clear of the rocks, and they were still moving at a smooth, unhurried pace, unaware that there was anything wrong. Probably, if they were experienced men, they were feeling a little surge of relief now that they were clear of the rocks, where an ambush might have been waiting. Between them and their objective, the ground was open and level. They’d be reckoning they were as good as home and dry.

Gorgas stood up and called, ‘Loose!’ at the top of his voice.

He’d chosen his ground well. The path ran along the crest of a slight ridge, so slight that you’d hardly notice it, but just enough to give his men sufficient angle to shoot up towards the path without the risk of dropping arrows among their own people on the other side. At fifty yards, even in this light, there was no excuse for missing, and he’d seen to it that his men could shoot. The first volley was gratifyingly effective.

The enemy leader was down, so there was no one to give the immediate orders that might have made a difference. Instead, most of the raiders froze, not knowing what to do, plenty long enough for a second volley. Gorgas realised his own first arrow was still on the string. He picked a man at random, looking at him down the arrowshaft as he drew back with his right hand, pushed forward with his left; then, as his right forefinger brushed the corner of his mouth he relaxed his right hand and let the arrow fly. He didn’t stop to see where it went; the enemy was still holding, but he could hear their officers shouting – Left wheel, about face, keep the ranks together! – and there was no time to lose if he wanted to keep the initiative. They were one volley ahead of the game already, which had probably gone some way towards reducing the numbers problem. He shouted, ‘Go!’

It was an awkward business, that clash of arms in the darkness. The man he came up against must have taken him for one of his own, because he turned to meet him with his shield lowered, started to say something but never got the chance to finish. Gorgas shot him from about four feet away, and he could hear the arrowshaft snap under the force of such a close impact. The man went down without a sound, and Gorgas looked around quickly. He could no longer tell friend from enemy himself, which was disconcerting. He quickly nocked another arrow and started to flex the bow, ready to make the last pull and push to full draw as soon as a target presented itself. In the event, he didn’t have long to wait. Someone barged towards him, presumably an enemy, certainly too close to take risk. He opened his chest into the strain of the bow, and something snapped.

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