Broken Bow Part One
The Last One
When I first knelt before the shaman as a child and he gave me the name, I did not understand it. Broken Bow. There was murmuring among the gathering as the now-nameless shaman spoke the words over me. And why shouldn’t there have been? Names were considered sacred among my tribe and were not granted to an individual until their sixth year of life. Names were so revered those with attachments to the gods, such as the shaman, held no names men could know. What names they had belonged to the gods who had granted them, and it was only with the gods those names were used.
As for simple men, they were not given names that held the weight of symbolism or apologue unless their lives were to be embroiled with destiny or fate, and no man wished for a life wound up with the threads of predetermination. Most often such a life did not end well, and those unfortunate enough to have lived such a life were glad when it was over. So, why shouldn’t my fellow tribesmen mummer at the name the shaman spoke over me?
A broken bow symbolized an end. And the one who held it was the last of something. My very name foretold my life from the time I was a child and there was no way I could have escaped it.
Though, in the beginning there was no inclination as to how the foretelling of my name would come to be.
My antecedents brought me back to the shelter we shared the night of my naming and we did not speak of it. I lay in the shadows and watched the blue flame of the gods’ beacon spiral upward from the top of the Dragons’ hill and wondered what I was to be the last of, but no one pressed me to express my feelings regarding it if I did not wish to. It was the way of my tribe. If I wanted to speak of it, I could. If I did not, that was my own choice to make.
And following that night I was presented to the gods, I had no desire to uselessly talk of my fate. I saw no point in it. None of my tribe could change what was coming, not even the gods could do that. Gods could foretell, but it was the living who birthed reality. So, I walked with my people, quietly considering why I was different from them, but not voicing those internal ruminations. And the years sped so quickly I could hardly follow their path.
Each night the beacon lit the sky above our woodland so bright the stars were little more than imagination and tales of the further lands where the light of the gods was distant. And each day that same beacon competed with the sun, staining the air a mellowed, melancholy hue, and I grew from fresh-named to almost a man. I learned the skills of my people, trapping and tanning, leatherwork and storytelling. But it was the hunt that claimed me and set my feet down my path.
The forestlands my tribe wandered spread in curving arcs around the hill of the Dragons, and the forests teamed with game. The hunters provided food for the tribe, and being one of them soothed me in ways nothing else did. There was quiet under the trees and eternal stillness in waiting for the prey, as well in the endless shadows between moss-covered trucks, and slipping down hidden deer trails alongside my fellow hunters cooled thoughts of possibilities I could not escape otherwise.
A dozen years may have stood me just outside adulthood among my people, but I was still only a boy and I was confused and there was a silent trepidation in my heart I did not know how to explain to my antecedents or my peers. So I kept it hidden away in my secret thoughts and I picked up the bow that my name foretold and carried it into the hunt.
When at last fate came for me I was not expecting it. It is a strange chance of life that we so often look for what is coming, and yet at the moment of its arrival our attention is elsewhere. I was not thinking of my name or what it meant when that meaning showed itself to me on the bright colors of the day. I was more interested in a boy named Sky, and how his long fingers tangled with mine and how warm his skin was. I wondered if his lips would be as warm and if they would taste like sunlight, and I had no mind left for thoughts of predestination or how all things came to their end until that end met me with the force of a toppled tree.
Part of me would hold that last dreamy moment with Sky in my memory for years to come. The light of it, the feel of it, the simple carelessness of it. That moment would keep me alive when I had no other reason to remain so.
Perhaps we would have attempted a shy kiss, we two boys curious what it even was to have feelings for another. Possibly we would have gone our separate ways and not thought of each other again. What chance could have come was taken away by a subtle disturbance in the air. It was like the reverberations of some massive shift underground. Something shook the very earth and it passed through the air like a shiver that swayed every leaf on the trees. We felt it travel up our legs, passing through bone and sinew and crawling up our spines like an unpleasant thing.
We both were hunters. We both knew what it was to sit still and silent among the wild things until the very rhythm of the living earth seemed to become a part of us, until we could feel the heartbeat of nature pounding alongside our own. This sensation was utterly opposed to that. It was unnatural and instantly set off alarms in us, heralded by cold chills seeping down our arms, even under the warmth of the day. Our fingers unwound from one another and we turned our heads up to watch the strange swish of the leaves. Then we glanced at each other and as one bounded away from our place at the edge of the stream where we’d stood and began running fleet and swift through the secret forest ways back toward where the tribe had camped.
Instinct and ancient fear made our feet fly far faster than we had ever run the trails before, and with each beat of our hearts we felt the grinding and growling and weird thudding under foot that rippled into shudders in the air. The monstrosity of the aberrant, unknown something was drawing nearer because we were running toward it. We and it were converging on our people, and this only intensified our terror.
And with the heavy, preternaturally slow thudding of my heart, I wondered if this was the course of fate. If the foretelling had found me unaware and the cold, which had crawled down my arms, spread to my chest and chilled my heart before I ever saw the full horror awaiting me.
Awaiting me and only me. Perhaps the forces of unfeeling predestination harbored the barest dregs of pity, or possibly only bitter humor. Whatever it was, Sky never saw what would be painted behind my eyes each time I closed them over the course of the preceding decades of my life.
He was running beside me, swift as any deer, one breath, and in the space between it and the next a splash of his bright blood was dyeing my face and the boy whose hand I’d held was pinned to a tree by a bolt as large around as a young sapling. I froze in my flight, simply locked still, caught in that moment between breaths and between steps. Sky’s blood-dampened hands struggled with the shaft a slender moment, gripped it, and then slid away as his eyes went dim, and all I could do was stand and watch with numb fascination.
If I had not been so impossibly trapped by the slow drip of his blood down my cheek and the macabre tableau I may have cheated fate and died as well. But my stillness meant my life. I was not an amusing target if I was still, and the iron and steel clad monsters who had come to disturb the quiet under the trees only laughed at me from behind and knocked me to the ground before my unfeeling nerves would awake to the knowledge of their existence.
The force of the blow that toppled me woke me even as it caused my vision to blur and my head to ring. I found myself on hands and knees, shaking my head and trying to clear it. But I was given no time. Strange men and women such as I had never seen in the lands beneath the Dragons’ hill surrounded me and one shoved me back to the ground before I could rise.
I lay still under his booted foot, knowing if I were to move I would suffer for it, and listening to the discussion they were having over me. As my mind cleared and the ringing in it dissipated, I understood they were speaking a dialect my tribe called the Cut tongue. I had been taught it, alongside our own language, from the time I was born and was told the men of the tall towers far away over the grasslands spoke it, but had never heard it in my own woods before. Not from men such as this. In the mouths of my tribemates the language sounded light and airy, but hearing it spoken by these harsh people I understood why my people called it the Cut. The vowels seemed to slice across my skin and the longer consonants to burn. I felt I hated the words for the sound of them as much as their meaning, and ground my teeth together there in the dirt.
Listening to what was said it was as though I understood the meaning, even if the actual words escaped me in how they were spoken so roughly, and I knew they were discussing whether or not they should kill me. They called me a “lone hunter” and a “worthless runt” in the same breath, and wondered if I could be any use. Use in what I could not tell and was not sure I wished to know, and all the while those vibrations went on in the ground and with my ear pressed to the dirt I felt they were more real to me than the words floating above me in the air.
Groaning. The earth itself seemed to be groaning, as if it were forced to bare up under some immense weight. And in the groan I detected the beat of many feet and the plod of many hooves. Men and animals in large number were traversing the land, and I felt sure this was just outside the rim of the forest. My tribe had encamped only within the bounds of the trees, so that we might see the beacon of the gods more clearly by night, and in that moment, laying there under the foot of an unknown adversary, I wondered if this was an error in judgement. The people of the tall towers had come en masse and they had not come for peace or to transport tribute to the gods.
And as if this knowing were not terrifying enough, the groaning of the living earth spoke of something else. Of something worse. The very reek of steel and iron seemed to seep from the dirt to invade my nostrils and to choke me, and mirroring the stench were other sounds carried by the ground. Foremost was a thudding such as I had never heard before. Unable to do anything but listen and attune myself to the vibrations radiating out of the ground, it was as though things were turning far away. Turning and turning and beating at the living earth as they did so. And under it all was a tearing, rending moan.
The living earth itself was in pain, and I dreaded what it was these men had come for if they could make the land itself cry out in such agony.
I was not given long to dwell on it. The men above me came to some agreement, mixed with laughter, and the heel that had been pressed to my neck was taken away, only so they could lash my arms behind my back and haul me scrambling to my feet.
Then there was nothing but hard hands and pain-filled prompts to move. I struggled against it as best I could, hissing at them through clenched teeth, but they may as well have seen me as nothing but an amusing catch. There was airy laughter above my head and I was kept so off balance I did not even realize when it was I stumbled out into what my tribe’s camp had become until my feet caught in something twisted and tangled and I fell to the moist earth with a grunt.
I remember most sprawling there on my face, wondering why the dirt held the consistency of clay, and then trying to gather my knees under me and use them as leverage to push myself up. It was when I was partly off the ground, bent in the middle and breathing with difficulty because of the bindings restricting my motions and the awkward angle I was forced to employ, that everything came sharply into focus and I expelled a sound of horrified terror I could not even identify as mine.
Where once smooth forest floor had stretched out to the sloping lands, which climbed toward the Dragons’ hill, now rutted and furrowed ground rippled in seams and fresh wounds. Trees that had stood straight and tall were splintered and torn up by the roots, as if a great storm had passed by. And it had. Looking at the world before me at the slanted angle my attempt to rise afforded me, I knew a storm had wrecked this place. A storm of men and women clad in iron and carrying steel.
A tide of strange, inhuman-humanity, which had as little care for what the gods had granted life as they did for their own kind.
It was not the devastation these people had wrought that ripped the scream out of me. It was not even the configurations of wood and steel and rope and metal that sat in hideous heaps across the expanse separating the forest from the hill where the beacon of the gods spiraled into the sky. It was the fact my tribe was here. My people were still in this ruined place. Their bodies decorated the remains of trees or lay scattered on the ground. Their blood had turned the earth into a quagmire.
And I shrieked at it.
Shrieked until a hand struck me and knocked me back to the blood-soaked ground.
I lay still after that, half unaware. It was not until I was shaken and made to attend to bitter reality again that I could take in further details. I was pulled back to my feet and pushed forward through this dread graveyard of nature and mankind, and as I crossed the tortured earth I discovered not all of my tribe was here.
There were many of those I knew well and many I knew less well, but not all. A few of my fellow hunters were missing, as were several of the elders and others of the tribe. I saw it, and for a short breath I harbored a dull hope my destiny had not come to its ultimate completion, in some distant place in me I prayed fate had passed me by.
When I had been roughly thrust out into the open plain where a mass of these brutal people had formed a kind of shifting ring, I knew this hope to be false and nothing more than a child’s fantasy. Because the rest of my tribe was here. Hunters, elders, all. They were arranged on their knees in a crescent, flanked by iron-clad men and women who held naked steel in their hands.
Laughter echoed disturbingly in what was otherwise a silence broken only by the sounds I had hereto solely felt vibrating out of the ground beneath my feet. Pressed toward what was left of my people, I could at last understand the weird reverberations that had set Sky and I running toward this terror. An army of the people of the tall towers was crawling toward the Dragons’ hill, dragging with them hideous machines of war.
I had no names for the things I saw being pulled and pushed and heaved across the grasslands, but even amid the wreck of it all those devices slowed my steps and claimed all my attention. Looking at them and taking in the teams of tortured men and oxen driving them forward with sweat and blood and strain, I felt my heart pound in my head and my breathing still. It was as though everything in me stopped, save my runaway heart. My lungs were frozen in my chest and heavy as my tripping footsteps. It seems everything took on an obscene slowness and all I could do was stare in disbelief at this obscenity hurled at the gods and nature itself.
How long I would have been lost in myself, lost in this numb inability to comprehend how it was man had come to make war on the living world, I’ll never know. If I had not been forcibly dragged from my stupor only the gods know what would have happened. There were times after that I wondered if I simply would have dropped to my knees and never gotten up again, but I was not given the opportunity for more than a cursory glance at the intent to subdue the forces of the natural world being played out before me.
When I came to a stumbling near-standstill, one of the men herding me forward shoved a hard hand into my back and I sprawled onto the ground, yet again, only to have the same member of my capturers roughly grip a fistful of my clothing. With a cry, I was dragged across the ground the last few yards separating me from what remained of my tribe, and tossed into their midst.
I lay there a few unsteady breaths before I was able to do more than stare at the sky and gather myself. Then with effort I was able to turn myself enough to witness what it was that was occurring in this gathering of the men of the tall towers.
The remnant of my tribe knelt bound under armed guard, facing a man sitting on a large stone as if it were some seat of power. A man in an iron crown with an immense war hammer in his grasp. A man at whose feet were scattered the broken bodies of many of my people. Broken… I blinked at the wreck of life and the one who sat so placidly in its epicenter. The head of the hammer rested between his feet and was smeared with blood. Blood spattered the shaft of the weapon and gloved his hands. Blood sparkled on his face and his reeking crown like rubies in the light of the dying sun.
And as my breath escaped out my parted lips for the second time, one of my fellow tribesmen was pulled from his place and brought before the iron king. Aside from my rush of breath and the eerie, echoing laughter there was no sound. My tribesmen was forced to kneel in silence. In silence the king gripped the heft of his hammer and rose. And in silence the weapon was brought down, adding another ruined life to that arranged before this king’s feet.
Mine was the only cry to break the silence, mine the only voice to shriek its misery to the sky. And mine the only weeping in that place of tears. As quietly as they lived their life, my people went to their deaths, and I watched them come to their ends one at a time under the war hammer of the iron-crowned king.
.Silent… at least in weeping. my face when the final member of my tribe was brought before the man on his makeshift stone throne. I had no more mourning to offer the earth and was as silent as my fellow tribesmen when it was my turn on my knees before the iron king.
Silent… at least in weeping.
“This is the last one,” the man who forced me onto my knees said, and the king studied me with distant uncaring.
And though I did not want him to know I understood all that was said, I could not keep myself from meeting those beige eyes looking down at me, or from screaming curses at him in my own tongue. Curses, not because I thought he would end me with the rest of my people, but because I knew he would let me live. I knew this was destiny come for me, and I railed against it and fate with all the despair that was in me. Shrieked at it and strained forward in my bonds so that I had to be held back.
Perhaps it was this very defiance that sealed my future. What do I know of predestination and the way of prophecy, other than that it is those who live who birth the events of the world? All I know is the iron-crowned king stood slowly, but he did not bring his hammer down on me. He turned away instead and said with no feeling, “Bring him with us. Let him see what becomes of those who will not bow.”