“The Great Wyrms of Westerwood were incredible beasts, easily as long as twenty wagons stretched end to end and weighing more than a full grown oak.”
My grandfather was a doddering old fool but he knew how to tell a good tale. I had heard this one so many times, even when I was out of earshot, his telling of this particular tall tale came back to me, in my inner ear.
“These were the greatest of the Great Wyrms. None had been seen like that since the wars of the Third Age in which they were all destroyed. Unable to be tamed, we battled them until they were driven from our skies. Our mountains still bear the great scars as the Wyrms fell and destroyed themselves against the mountain walls.”
I turned around to see the White Mountains and the brutal scars which adorned her sides. Trees grew halfway to the summit before the mountains became inhospitable, only ice and snow covered the rest. There were three gouges in the side of the mountain, large even from this distance, as if the mountain had been struck by a one of the Clockwork King’s bombs. Up close, it might take half a day to cross one of the scarred regions. Nothing natural grew in those places now.
“They had four legs, as thick as tree trunks. No I don’t mean seedlings either. It would take two men to be able to reach around those legs, I tell you. Their wing span was nearly as wide as they were long. Great wings which blotted out the sun if you saw them during the day. Their wings were thick as the leather armor I once wore serving the God-Emperor of Qin. But they were supple, too. They could be folded back along their body and this made them able to run faster than the fastest horse. Even on foot, they were something out of nightmare.”
My grandfather would sit and look out over the field with a short bow helping to protect us against predators while we farmed. Our county lost our last dog to the dire wolves which prowled the kingdom since the Clockwork King’s armies began their assault against Qin. The youngest who were too small to farm would sit with him and listen to his stories about early Qin and our southern border neighbors Wester, named after their greatest invader conqueror King Wester.
“Unlike their smaller wyvern cousins we tamed, the Great Worms could not be broken. They were proud and noble beasts. In the end, they flew high in the skies to avoid us. So high even my bow, Dà Gōng Nán couldn’t reach them.”
My grandfather was not nearly as humble as my father, Wu Chao, thought he should be. Perhaps it comes from grandfather having once been a great warrior. He was called Ruo-jian Chao, the Unsurpassed Blade, once known for his mastery of the sword and the great longbows of the Southern Provinces. But what battle does not take from a man, old age eventually does. Closer to seventy summers than sixty, he had grown infirm from a back injury he acquired during one of our many border wars. He could walk but it was agony for him, even using a cane brought him no relief.
I carried him to the edge of the field into a small covered tower to let him keep his eyes on the children. I was no warrior but a scholar like my father. This disappointed my grandfather greatly. He insisted I be trained in the basic arts of war. He honed my body’s strength and I secretly cheered even as I outwardly chaffed being taken from my studies. I gained the best of two worlds. I enjoyed the fact I could carry him to the field without struggle or strain.
He insisted on being allowed to stand watch and telling stories to the youngest of the children which kept them from underfoot until they could help with the farming chores. Though he could not stand for long, his arms were still strong enough to choke a wolf to death, barehanded. His archery, even with the inferior short bow, was never less than perfection itself.
My father, thanks to his own craft and my grandfather’s service held this land on the edge of the kingdom with a small garrison to help keep the farming resources flowing into the empire. My father was always fond of saying, “Shen, one day, this will all be yours. All I ask is you be ready for it.” The life of a farmer was not one I sought but came to me anyway.
“Their skin was tougher than the strongest iron and as black as the midnight coal. Up close, their scales were pitch black and cast no reflection at all. These were creatures designed to hide in dark places, only their gleaming golden eyes would give them away. They were thought to be so dark, men were known to take cover and stand right next to one without knowing, thinking they had found a shadow perfect for the waiting. A yellow glow and a final chomp was all that was left of them.” The children laughed at his overemphasis on the sound effects of his story.
Since the Clockwork Wars began nearly thirty years ago, they ravaged the kingdoms and provinces to the north and east. Recently, King Wester’s family and the bordering forest of the Westerwood have made overtures of peace and my father and the other elders have been eager to entertain them, since both sides have suffered great losses. Our province which encompasses my father’s land and the lands of Wester, south of us have begun to see more of the forces from the once distant war creeping ever closer to home.
“What about at night, noish-pa, did the Great Worms hunt at night?” One of the children piped up at the appropriate time.
“An astute question, young one, planning on a career in dragon-hunting?” The young child hoisted his tiny bow, a perfect replica of grandfather’s bow, Dà Gōng Nán.”
“Noish-pa, there are no such things as the Great Wyms anymore, only their much smaller cousins. You told us there hadn’t been a dragon seen even in the forest of Westerwood for thirty summers.” One of the girls from a neighboring farm, Pa-mel, shouted as she dropped off a bundle of rice and took a sip of water in the shade.
“Nonsense girl, they have just taken to flying at night because of bows like mine. Our province once boasted some of the finest archers in Qin. Even the dragons knew they had better take to flying only at night. But as much as we feared them in the day, at night they were even worse. Night hunters, they flew silently, snatching cows from the field barely disturbing even the grass under their feet. By the time you heard the whoosh of them overhead, all you would feel would be the wind of their mighty wings and the cries of your cow moving away in the distance. It was chilling.”
“Brrrrr.” the children squeal in unison.
“Would one of you youngsters bring your noish-pa something to parch an old man’s throat?” As the youngster hopped down from the covered overlook built for archers, Grandfather picked up his bow and moved the arrows in between his knees. His face lost the smile we had come to expect from him.
Then I heard it too. A whistle in the distance, the whistle of a steam engine, something large and mobile. The whistling sound grew steadily closer. As it crested the hill, we could see it in the distance; grey and brown with a stilted gait. It was a clockwork machine! There weren’t supposed to be any of their machine armies this far south. The machine moved slowly, clumsily, not like anything my father or grandfather described.
“It’s damaged. That makes it twice as dangerous. That device usually has at least two men with it. But it could support two dozen. I don’t see anyone but that could mean it is just being used to draw fire while their soldiers steal and burn food supplies. Shen, bring me Dà Gōng Nán and her arrows from below. Then get everyone out of the field. Pa-mel, you go with Shen and the other men to arm the two ballista at the edge of the field. Wait for my signal. I will stop it where you have the best chance at a shot.
“Grandfather, how will you get to the machine?” He stood up at the top of the tower and made some rapid handsigns. Signs he had never taught me. Then he walked to the edge of the tower and jumped to the ground. Qi mastery was not something to be taken lightly. He explained to me it should be used only in emergencies. This must qualify.
“I’ll walk, you take care of everyone else.” Taking Dà Gōng Nán from me, he turned and ambled down toward the road to face the deadly mechanism. Alone.
End of Part 1 – Duck into the tall grass and read Archer, part 2
Archer, a Tale of Mythic Qin © Thaddeus Howze 2013, All Rights Reserved
Archer © JOOse, Deviant Artist, All Rights Reserved