A short story by John T. Clark
Jenk could feel his heart pounding in his chest and hear the blood rushing through his ears. It happened every time he drew back this bow, a rush of excitement and anticipation that should have muddied his concentration and boxed his shot. Instead he was focused and the energy surging through his veins became steady power shutting out all thoughts. His eyes marked the target, a deer’s gold flank at fifty paces through dense thickets, a difficult shot with his old hunting bow, but with this…
In a tree above him a bird called a warning note that echoed across the canyon. The dear raised its head; ears pricked and eyes scanning motionless though the trees and underbrush. Jenk held his breath, this was not his first hunt. They’re all badger brains. I know what I’m doing. He was well concealed and could still get his shot, but if he moved even a hair the deer would bolt and it would be greens for dinner again tonight. Not proper orc food, and even though he was part human he had no taste for vegetables. His human mother had tried to feed him turnips and beetroots for most of his childhood and time after time he would sneak the greens out the window and later to the animal’s pen. Of course his father made no moves to enforce the consumption of “food fit for pigs”, until he saw how puny his son was next to the other orc spawn in the tribe. “Eat everything on your plate or you get nothing tomorrow.” He would then say. His mother would only smile in satisfaction.
He had grown eventually, just a little slower than his friends, but taller and faster in the end. Certainly a better bow shot, and now with this bow he was an amazing shot. He knew his father would not miss it, he would not hunt again for another four or five days. He knew. He hoped.
Jenk steadied his eye on the deer and felt the surge of focus lock him to his target. Thoughts drained from his head again and the world seemed to slide into slow motion. He loosed the arrow with a quiet twang, his string hand drawing back past his ear and his bow hand dipping in a relaxed follow-through. The deer heard the string and its eyes flicked toward Jenk. The arrow sped on sure to the target, straight with no arch even at 50 paces.
Yet suddenly the deer was gone, or grew or had been replaced, and the arrow struck. Jenk heard a bellowing howl that made the wiry hair on his back stand straight on end like a patch of asparagus. Then his eyes drew back from their intoxicating focus and he saw the massive form of a manticore twisting around toward him. The deer was now under one of the huge clawed feet, its flank gashed open and neck twisted under its body. But the Manticore was not looking at the deer that it had apparently been hunting, its massive head and blood red eyes were turned directly toward Jenk and instantly marked him through the brush. Then it turneded its grizzled head, with human-like face framed in a lion’s mane, to look down where dark blood dripped from an arrow that was half buried in its shoulder. With a shudder that might have been pain, it bent its neck around and gripped the shaft in yellow, pointed teeth, and with one quick yank it had the arrow out.
Jenk gulped dry air. That was one of his backbiter arrowheads, barbed to the rear to make pulling it out painful, if not deadly. The Manticore did not look dead, and any pain it might have felt looked to be boiling into rage as it once again raised its glaring eyes to Jenk. The boy found himself wishing that he was anywhere but there. Even before the tribal council, receiving lashes for washing himself. Even surrounded by the orc tribe warriors, being kicked and spit on for asking to hunt with them – that was only yesterday. Anywhere. Wishes never washed dishes. His mother often said strange things that no one understood, and he found himself repeating.
There was another arrow knocked and drawn to his cheek and his focus was pulled to the approaching Manticore. How had that happened? But his mind emptied of thought and blood roared through his veins, his eyes marking a target between the two massive lion shoulders. Somewhere outside the bubble of concentration he hoped that Manticores had hearts, especially this one.
He let the arrow fly just as the creature spread its leathery wings and launched itself into the air. The wings beat together slamming a gust toward the arrow, a trick it must use to great success with ordinary bows. The arrow pierced the wind, only veering slightly, and struck same wounded shoulder, drawing another anguished cry, filled with as much disbelief as pain. The Manticore looked down at the new arrow, buried to half its length in the thick shoulder, and its face twisted into a mask of rage. Still almost thirty paces away it spun its thick lion’s body in the air and cracked a long quill-tipped tail like a whip, letting fly a barrage of deadly spines like darts from a blow gun.
Jenk dove for the ground, near-panic finally seizing him, as the Manticore’s tail spines tail spines whistled by overhead. He rolled to his feet, arrows clattering in the quiver at his hip, and turned to face the monster. The beast was hurling toward him again, its huge wings beating the air so furiously that dust blasted up from the ground.
How could even those wings fly such a massive creature, and at such a speed? It seemed impossible. Magic. It seemed that everything dangerous in his life used magic, he hated it, yet he knew that it was part of almost everything. Even this bow. Magic.
Without his own will another arrow was knocked and all thoughts were shoved from his mind with the roar of blood though his ears. He sighted the target as if the decision was not his, then loosed the shaft with a smoothness that he knew he was not capable of. The creature was only ten paces away when the arrow found its mark, this time without err, and buried deep in the left eye. It spun and went down with a howl that shattered Jenk’s false calm, sliding and rolling across the ground and throwing dust, sticks and rocks through the air and into the half-orc’s gaping face.
Jenk, crouched for another dive, shielded his squinting eyes with his free hand, looking for the creature that was completely obscured by the dust. For a moment he could see nothing and no sounds came to his ears and panic welled up again beating his heart like his tribe beat their war drums. Then a breath broke the silence, deep and labored, and another, then the dust settled and Jenk could see the muscular lion body sprawled in a heap on the rocky ground not two paces from where he stood. Its wings were twisted under it, he would bet that at least one was broken, and the spiney tail lay motionless behind. The massive ribcage was expanding for another breath. It was still alive.
Another arrow was nocked, and he felt his finger resting on his face. Blood pumped in his ears and he sighted the heart through two thick ribs, almost point blank, this would surely slay the creature. His finger moved to loose. No! He worked to force his own thoughts to his limbs. Wait. The bow fought him, it needed to kill, it knew the enemy, knew the danger. It locked on target once more and Jenk steadied for the shot. No! Sweat burst out on his forehead and his face crunched into a mask of struggle.
The Manticore forced its head toward him, arrow protruding from one eye and blood running down a cheek to stain the once proud lion’s mane. There was no more anger on that human-like face, nor fear, only a pleading that almost snapped Jenk out of his own struggle. His target shifted, finding the uninjured eye; the bow knew the most critical area and measured it against the distance and even the strength of its wielder, Jenk. A simple shot.
Yet the eye pleaded, and Jenk fought. No. He tried to force the thought into his arms and they quivered, wavering from the eye. The bow fought to regain the mark, but Jenk forced new thoughts into his mind. I… will… stop… this… He lowered the bow, and spun to the ground in a heap as his own will rushed fully into his body and his muscles had nothing left to fight against.
For a moment he lay there, gasping with the effort, but he heard the Manticore stirring and remembered the tail that still had spikes left to throw. His left hand clenched the bow and his right had moved for the quiver, but he intercepted the motion and threw the bow down. The Manticore breathed again, its breath sounding more labored, and Jenk rose to his feet. The big eye was still on him, and the pleading had become pain. His guts twisted in sorrow and he wished he could take back those arrows. But there had been no other choice. It was a terrible mistake, and that bow. It had saved his life, true, but at what cost?
The Manticore’s mouth moved and croaking words came out. Jenk move closer, his fear was gone, this creature was dying.
“What are you saying?”
It sucked another ragged breath and spoke, the language was common speech, and though muddled, he could understand. “Cave, my, potion to… heal… go, get, I reward, I oath on my god… Carakan. Cave, bottle, blue, under stone. Go.”
Jenk reached out a hand to touch the creature, excitement and relief filling him like he had never known. He could save the creature. “Where? Where is your cave?”
The Manticore hesitated, its cave was its home, and safety from hunters, from humanoids like Jenk. “There.” It lifted it’s tail and pointed toward a high rock outcropping that hung over the wide canyon floor where they were.
Jenk swallowed hard. How many times had he been to this canyon, hunting, wandering, or camping? Since he was a child, it had been a refuge from the rough treatment of the young of his tribe and the disapproving stares of the growns. He stared up at the outcropping with mouth hanging open. It could’ve killed…me… anytime, so many times. He looked back to the dying creature, determination filling him. “Hang on, I will return, stay alive Great One.” He meant that last part.
His bow lay off in the dust, and he move to pick it up, then stopped. It seemed a tainted thing now, it had done terrible harm, but it saved his life. Yet it caused the wound that brought on the threat. His thoughts clashed, and he found himself gripping his own leather breeches with white knucked fists. “No.” The word came aloud and the struggle ended. The bow would stay there, for now, until he understood it, how it controlled him. He should never have taken the cursed thing, and he knew there would be more trouble when it was returned to his father. He unhooked the quiver at his belt, set it by the bow and turned and dashed through the scrub and trees toward the canyon wall.
It was an long climb to the outcropping, his lungs heaving from the exertion by the time he reached the ledge. He reminded himself to practice climbing more as he rolled to his back and sat up. Before him, was a cave mouth that looked rather small for such a huge manticore, though tall enough for Jenk to enter with only a duck of the head. The ledge itself showed very few signs of use other than numerous tracks of huge “lion’s” feet, and some shredded and stacked tree limbs that he guess were used for nesting.
Jenk pushed himself to his feet, sucked in a breath in a feeble attempt to relax, and stalked cautiously to the looming entrance. An odor of decay clung to the air, wafting from the cave. It sent a shiver down his spine, and set his heart to racing. He reminded himself that the current resident lay dying on the canyon floor below. I’ve gone as skiddish as the naked old shaman, howling and chasing after ghosts though the village at night. The thought almost made him laugh, but came out as a hiccup that echoed into the dark cave. He stopped, frozen and listening, ears twitching, but there were no sounds other than his own breathing. Skiddish.
He stepped into the cave mouth and walked forward into the darkness. His eyes, much like his father’s, worked well in the dark, even the total dark of subterranean caves, yet they still required a moment of adjustment. In less than a breath he could make out the details of the cave within, as the opening quickly widened into a sizable chamber that stretched back some fifteen paces. On the far side, spread on a huge mound of bleached animal bones and tree branches was a fur lined nest that seemed large enough to sleep his entire family – minus the bones of course. Beside the nest was the nearly devoured carcass of a deer, it had been eaten rump first leaving the animal’s empty dark eyes staring at him lifelessly. The floor of the cave was relatively level and curved up to jagged and uneven walls and finally a stony ceiling that was high enough for even a Manticore to take flight in. He looked back at the nest. It was certainly big, big enough for two such creatures. Maybe even a–
A massive paw slammed into his back, sending the wind out and throwing him half way across the cave, where he lay gasping for breath. His thoughts wirled in panic as his eyes dimly saw what had attacked him. Another manticore… the mate. Was it a trap? His mind conjured the memory of the dying Manticore, and its pleading eye. Not a trap. It had sworn an oath, and it was a creature of magic. Such creatures took their oaths very seriously, or so his mother had told him. He believed it was true.
The mate moved so fast she was a blur in the dim cave slamming into Jenk again, huge claws pinning his shoulders to the stone floor. The pressure was like boulders rolling over him, and what little breath he had managed to suck in was squeezed out. The creature had no lion’s mane like its mate, only short, bristly hair around a humanoid face with female features; it looked almost like… his aunt Thoraka. How can I make joke now!
The creature twisted its mouth into a snarl and raised a paw for a strike that would likely snap his neck like a stick. Female or not, it meant to end this business quickly, yet the release of pressure was just enough for Jenk to pull a breath into his lungs. “Wait.” He said through a cough using the common speech. The paw paused in mid-strike, and the creature’s eyes showed a glitter of curiosity, but it just as quickly raised the paw again. “Wait… your mate! Needs help.” Jenk squeaked the last with the desperate little air in his lungs.
This time the female had questions in its eyes. It set the paw down beside Jenk’s head and bent so low that its hot, acrid breath almost made the half-orc vomit. Then it sucked air through the wide nostrils; it was smelling him. Now it really looks like aunt Thoraka! How he could find humor at a time like this was beyond him, but it had always been that way. He suspected is jokes are why the young ones of his tribe had let him live long enough to see grown years. He could still remember Gronk Hurrkak sitting on top of him with his homemade dog-skull club ready to split his head. All he could say was “Hey Gronk, can’t kill me yourself, so you gotta do it with someone with more brains.” It took a minute for the orc spawn that were all around watching the sport to figure out that he meant the club, but when they did they laughed so hard that even Gronk started laughing, though he doubted that Gronk ever really got the joke – or half of the spawn for that matter.
The Manticore’s eyes widened in shock and back away to look at Jenk. Her nose must have found what it was looking for. “Where… he… is?” The words came out in slurred Common, but the half blood understood and a shudder of relief flooded through him. Not out of the stew yet. Though the biggest reminder was the massive paw that still crushed his left shoulder into the rocky floor.
“Below.” He said hoping it would understand. “Needs help, needs potion, it heal your mate.”
Suddenly the pressure eased up and Jenk filled his lungs with air, he was sure he shoulders would be sore for weeks, even longer where it had landed that paw on his back. The creature stepped away, yet was still poised on the edge of striking and that spine covered tail hovered dangerously behind it. Jenk became very aware of his lack of weapons, only a long hunting knife hung on his thigh, and that would do no more than tickle this beast. He had to reassure it more, somehow.
“I help you. You mate hurt. I show you. Bring healing potion. Blue bottle.” There, it must know that I was sent by its mate now. Yet those vein filled eyes did not change expression and the thick muscles tensed for a charge. Jenk eyed the entrance, a mere six or seven paces away, but he knew that was hopeless, so he readied himself for one final fight for his life however short it would be.
The creature sprang toward him, and he dove for the floor rolling to one knee with knife drawn, it was a move that his mother had taught him to defend against the tribe youngs. They had quickly learned never to charge him after he found bone with his blade a few times. But as he arced up with the knife he realized that the Manticore had leapt right past him, so he dodged and spun, ready for an attack from the rear, but no attack came. The massive creatures was over by the cave wall, pulling a flat stone away from a dark recess that had been almost completely hidden. It reached a paw inside and pulled out a hide bag that was lumpy with contents, then using teeth and claws it carefully removed a blue vial that appeared to be full of liquid. With the vial in its mouth it flapped and leapt in one bound next to Jenk, then motioned with its head toward its broad back. When the half-orc only stared wonderingly, the Manticore grunted impatiently and gestured again. Jenk took a step backward as understanding dawned on him. “You want me… to… ride… on your back?”
The creature bent its front legs and lowered to a mountable height. But Jenk only gaped in horror, fighting to keep his legs from trembling. It wants me to… “I c-can’t.”
This time the Manticore had anger in its eye and it extended the six inch razor sharp claws on its front paws.
“O-okay. I’ll try.” He said, but immediately wish he had not, flying for some reason seemed worse than dying. That concept made no sense he told himself and he forced his weakened legs to move forward. I’m mad… mad. Any other orc would have not only left that Manticore to die, it would have cut off the head for a trophy, made a blanket from the hide and hair pins from the spikes. Yet the notion had never crossed his mind – he was surely mad. Just to prove his point, he leaped on the creature’s back, legs dangling down the sides and arms clinging to the fur around its thick neck. The creature straightened and leapt through the cave mouth, and in three bounds they were airborn. Jenk’s stomach lurched into his mouth turning his ruddy skin green. He fought to keep his eyes open, but the turning ground beneath him made his head spin like a knucklebone in a jar. He gripped the creature’s neck and tried desperately to search the ground for the spot where he had left the other Manticore. But the ground rushed up at him and realized that they were landing, the female had found her mate. Within moments the huge wings broke the descent in a cloud of dust and Jenk rolled off the high back and thudded to the sweet Earth. Never again. He swore to himself as he scraped his grateful fingers through the dirt.
When he finally looked up he saw the two creatures only a few paces away. The female had pulled the cork from the bottle and was pouring the contents into the open mouth of the limp male. The arrow still protruded from the eye socket and dark blood was already drying on the golden fur. The creature did not move, and tears – tears!were pouring from the female’s huge eyes.
Jenk stung with guilt. It would have killed me. For a long moment nothing happened and the male’s chest did not rise for a breath. Its mate placed a paw on the huge shoulder and nudged him, then bent down and began grooming the dark lion’s mane with a rough tongue.
Jenk looked past the two and his eyes found the bow on the ground. I had to do it. He rolled and rose to his feet, emotion choking his throat. They had come too late. His chest heaved and he fought what he knew were tears, wretched tears. Water had come to his eyes as a young spawn, and had almost had him banished from the tribe. Before all the elders and the crazy shaman, his mother had to swear on her life that Jenk would never threaten the honor of the tribe with his eye water again. He had not and would not, but there had been many struggles, yet none so hard as this. He lowered his gaze but the struggle did not ease.
Then he heard the female smelling the air with wide nostrils and he looked up to find it glaring furiously at the bow on the ground. It smelled the air again, and as it did the hackles rose on its shoulders and the eyes became dark pools of fury. When they locked on Jenk, he knew it had found the murderer. He opened his mouth to tell it that he wished he hadn’t done this terrible thing, but he shut it just as quickly. The creature would get her revenge. The Manticore opened its mouth and let out a roar that shook the canyon walls and launched thousands of birds into the sky, then it lowered its head and stalked in an arc toward him, each step bringing death closer. Jenk hoped it would be over quickly.
It roared again and crouched for a devastating pounce, Jenk lifted his gaze to the furoius creature’s eyes. He knees trembled, but he stayed erect facing death with no fight in him.
But then a sound, a breath, and yawn from the male manticore froze them both. The female whipped around in surprise and her eyes widened in joyous wonder – her mate was alive, bathed in a deep blue glow. In a swift motion, the female was standing cautiously beside her mate’s slowly rising rib cage.
Jenk almost dropped to the ground in relief, though he wasn’t completely sure it was over, but his amazement kept his eyes focused on the pair of Manticores. The blue glow grew in brightness until it rivaled the daylight around them and obscured the creature from his vision. For a long moment the light remained intense, then gradually began to fade until it revealed the Manticore once again. The arrows in the eye and shoulder were gone, and apart from the dried blood, the eye looked as good as new, and it was looking directly at him.
Jenk took a breath. Running was still an option, but he doubted that his legs could get him far before their spines or claws brought him down. Slowly the male rolled to its feet and stood on shaky legs. The arrow wounds in its shoulder were gone as if they had never been. What happed to the arrows? Magic. I’d like to have a few potions like that around for emergencies, even if it is magic.
The male turned to its mate and pressed its forehead to her own, then spoke quiet words in a language that must be their own. The female looked at Jenk with a hateful glare, but a few more words from the male and the resentful scowl melted into something that almost resembled pity. Better that than hate. Then the female turned and leapt with beat of its leathery wings into the air and spiraled up toward the ledge and the cave.
The male manticore looked at him, then glanced at the bow on the ground with a flash of disgust. It turned back to Jenk and strode forward, its chest proudly arched. He felt himself tense, the creature stood taller than a warhorse yet twice as broad, and still wore a bit of disgust around the corners of its mouth. He cleared his throat, “I…uh-“
“That bow, evil for you… not use. Cause sorrow only.” The manticore’s voice was mesmerizing, like water washing over rocks.
Jenk couldn’t agree more, it… he had caused a lot trouble that he wished he could take back. Magic always seemed to be at the source of trouble, and not just in stories anymore. “I will not use the bow.” And he would return home empty handed to be jeered by the grown hunters, with no explanation that he could give. “I will go.”
“You wait!” The creature’s voice boomed with command. It expected to be obeyed. Then Jenk saw its eyes turn upward and he looked to see the female descending quickly with a bundle held in one claw. She landed lightly and lifted the bundle to her mate, who took it in a massive paw. It appeared to be something wrapped in well oiled cloth. Then the male turned toward Jenk and extended the bundle to him in offering. “I reward, you help.”
Jenk’s stomach wrenched and the memory of the arrow protruding from the creature’s eye filled him with disgust. “No, I cannot… I have injured, almost kill-”
“Take!” The creature said with a thundering growl. “My oath, I give… now.” It emphasized the last, and Jenk opened his mouth then shut it again. The manticore would have its way, a creature not used to argument, especially when an oath was involved. How could he accept a gift after what he had done? Yet he must… or risk evoking its anger once again.
He stepped forward and cautiously reached a hairy hand to the bundle and was surprised to find it rigid and light. Then he pulled the oiled cloth away to reveal a thick, unstrung wooden bow with gracefully recurved, glossy black limbs and a curved black grip that slid into his hand as if it was made for him. It was carved from multiple layers of bonded dark wood, not a single piece like the bows he knew of, and all along its length were strangely inlaid silver runes. From the Wood People maybe? He had never seen Wood People writing, but he was sure that it must be as graceful and flowing as this. He turned the bow and saw that above and below the grip were carved proud stags so lifelike that they might leap away at any moment. There was even a fiber bowstring that looked very old, yet strangely intact, with a fresh sheen of beeswax.
He looked up at the Manticore. He had almost killed the creature, how could it give him such a thing? Yet the fierce eyes stopped him short of refusing the bow, refusing could mean his death. He looked over at the female but its face was expressionless and unreadable, they both seemed to be waiting for something. He stepped back holding the bow before him and cleared his throat. “I accept –“
“Oath kept.” The male said before he could continue. Then it pointed with a claw at the other bow on the ground. “Use never bow of evil. Use never… not for you.” Indicating the recurved bowed in his hands it said. “We cannot use… calls it to your heart… great heart… great power. It lead you to wisdom, never ill. Go now. Go home. Never come again.” The manticores stretched out their wings and launched into the air with dust cloud that blocked out the sky, leaving Jenk stunned on the canyon floor staring at the bow in his hands.
Slowly, almost without thought, he bent the bow between his legs and slipped the string eye over the notched ends. Easily, too easily. Yet something told him that the power of this bow was great. He took an arrow from the ground and smoothly had it nocked and drawn to his ear before he was aware of the action. He turned skyward and his eyes found two tiny black shape flying far above. Calm enveloped him and a cool strength filled his arms like a misty breeze through a hot desert. The target became large in his mind as if it hovered in front of his face, and he released with a silent smoothness that seemed far too confident to be real. The arrow shot skyward and disappeared from his sight into the bright blue day. Who am I kidding? He laughed and started to look away, then stopped. The distant flapping speck suddenly began to drop toward the earth, and as it came closer, he could see that it was a bird. A goose! When it finally struck the earth, Jenk could see his arrow protruding from exact center of its breast like it was spitted on a stick. He looked at the bow in his hands with his eyes wide and mouth hanging open. Then a smile, ever so slight, curved across his ruddy face. No… there’ll be no greens and turnips for dinner tonight.