15 Arrow’s Flight
The repeated strum of released bow strings drew Kedor, Shikha, and Tabitha to the contest. They weaved their way through the bewildering mass on the South Ward, nearly loosing the cordon of like dressed Bedouin that followed. Watching a frantically spiraling cloud of pigeons rise, as they sought to escape, Kedor broke free of the raucous crowd. The archers lined before them were releasing arrow after arrow into the rising flock above them.
Kedor watched the birds plummet, as Tabitha picked out her fellow Scyth. Leda’s gold jewelry marked her as clearly as a sign post.
“There’s Leda!” She grabbed Kedor’s wrist, excitedly dragging him behind her.
Confusion showed on Tabitha’s face as she approached. “What are you doing? I’d thought you would compete!”
“It is to be his day.” Leda smiled fondly as she gestured toward Arioch. “He shall speak for all of us today.”
“There are rumors they have changed the contest this year.” Kedor interrupted the bodyguards.
Leda nodded in confirmation. “‘tis true, my Lord.”
She pointed to a woad tattooed archer. “Tabitha, your brother has entered one of his men and Sheikh Rashidi sent competition as well.”
“This is, by far, the most popular the archery contest has been, in my memory.” Shikha carefully studied the crowd behind them, as she absently fondled the hilt of one of her talwars.
She had never seen a gathering like this, for any preliminary event. She scanned the structures surrounding the South Ward and noticed faces clustered in every window. The rooftops of these buildings were teeming with jubilant spectators.
“What are you doing here, Kedor?” Arioch strode into their group, smiling.
“Shouldn’t you be resting, or preparing for the tournament this evening?” He took the full quiver, Leda handed him, tossing the empty aside.
Shikha nodded, in agreement. “I told the young master just that, before I caught him and Tabitha sneaking off with out me.”
“You know I wouldn’t miss this for anything! Your first contest! How are you doing, anyway?” Kedor placed his hand on his cousin’s shoulder.
“Leda and I have been practicing with these cursed arrows she’s been insisting I use.” He shook the packed quiver at Kedor.
He pulled an arrow and waved it. “They don’t fly true…”
He showed Kedor the tip, a shard of bone no bigger than a fingernail, honed to razor sharpness. “I’m pretty sure I hit fourteen, last round. I just don’t know the tallies of the others.” Arioch tilted his head, in question to Leda.
“She knows what she’s about, Arioch.” Kedor absently handed the arrow back. “Leda, who’s the toughest competition here today? I would keep count.”
Leda frowned. “You hit fifteen, but you are correct only fourteen were struck in the manner we discussed. The Bedouin bagged sixteen, all breast shot. The Hyrcanian managed fifteen. You stand, tied for second as of now, young prince.”
Leda turned to Kedor. “My Lord, there will be another release of birds as soon as the judges have finished gathering the downed ones from the first round. After that they will tabulate the scores and choose the top three for the final event.”
Tabitha, flushed with the excitement, encouraged Arioch. “You can beat them! We all have faith in you!”
“Leda, have they said what the new addition is to be?” Kedor’s brow furrowed in concern.
Leda shook her head, sadly. “They seem to have settled on a mounted contest of some sort to decide the winner.”
“But that’s not fair! My brother’s man will have an unfair advantage, if true,” Tabitha blurted.
Leda gave Tabitha a cryptic smile. “We shall see, youngster. By the way, would you take care of Arioch’s mount? Ahmar must be saddled and present fifteen minutes prior to the event.”
“Hey Kedor, did you see Kay this morning? He was whistling as he passed me at breakfast. An absolutely frightening sight, I tell you.” Arioch shuddered.
“I haven’t seen him today,” He shot a sly smile at Tabitha. “but father says he is looking forward to drubbing that “arrogant Scyth” that showed up at the palace last night.”
“He also expressed his heart felt desire to add to the scars Heydar carries with pride.” Kedor burst into a hearty laugh.
The others looked nervously amongst each other.
Arioch chuckled awkwardly and changed the subject. “Did you hear about Khammu- Rabi? Half the guardsmen were ribbing him this morning.”
“He’s one of my father’s wards, Tabitha. The rightful heir to the throne of Shin’ar, his father was a business partner and named Satrap of Shin’ar. They’re some how related to Sargon the Great, so I’m told.” Kedor shrugged.
Arioch grimaced. “He is a strange one. I’ve seen him creeping about the palace at all hours of the night.”
Kedor frowned. “You would do well not to underestimate that one, cousin. Our shared tutors swear to his genius, that he will be an intellect to be reckoned with in the future.”
“Anyway, he won the Shah-Mat match this morning.” Arioch winced. “Imagine, a fourteen year old competes against the finest generals in your father’s army, and fleeces them. Half the greybeards are in shock and the others are wroth over his audacity.”
“Need I remind you, you’re only fourteen yourself? Perhaps this year our younger generation makes a clean sweep of the games.” Kedor beamed.
“But Pajah Nouri! He’s won six years running. He doesn’t lose!” Arioch said, with excitement.
Leda nudged Kedor, good naturedly. “I’d heard rumored…”
“Ah yes, is it true?” His cousin spoke up. “ Did you beat the Pajah last winter?”
Shikha rubbed her hands together with relish. “The young master certainly made a hash of that one. Firstly, he feigned total distraction, carrying on with a chambermaid during the whole match. He then compounded the situation by displaying excessive delight, declaring, “He must have accidentally won and wouldn’t everyone be just pea green with envy when they heard!” You could say the Pajah was less than pleased, a fourteen year old fop thrashing him, then gloating.”
The call for the archers to return to their marks brought their laugh at the Pajah’s expense to an abrupt end.
Kedor moved down the line of contestants, to keep an eye on his grandfather’s. He could feel the tension in the crowd growing. Bets being made and taken, shouted encouragements to the archers and the endless speculations on the winner of the last round, all disappeared in a collective gasp. The throng seemed to hold its breath as one. Hundreds of pigeons thundered into the sky, driven from the cage by slaves with sticks.
The command of “RELEASE” rang out in the hush, accompanied by a tremendous “TWANG” as the poised archers sent their first shots into the flock, in unison. A roar from the crowd erupted as the first pigeons began to drop into the cleared area between the lined contestants and the curtain wall.
Kedor counted as the Bedouin smoothly plucked birds from the sky.
… thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, crack…hah, a miss!
The arrow knifed through the flock to shatter on the wall. Kedor risked a glance down the line to see Tabitha concentrating on her brother’s man.
… sixteen, seventeen, crack…
Another shaft exploded against the glazed tile facing of Susa’s ramparts.
The mass was thinning to just a few pigeons. The thrum of the bows slowed as the archers took more careful aim.
There are not enough fowl this time. Clever that! Speed as well as accuracy will tell the tale this time. Eighteen, nineteen…
The Bedouin released his final arrow, spearing a bird just topping the fortification, dropping it above on the wall walk. The crowd responded with a raucous cheer. Suddenly a low flying pigeon darted over the firing line. Kedor, from the corner of his eye, caught Arioch as he turned and let fly his last shaft. The response was nearly deafening as the squab dropped, disappearing into the cheering mass.
“YES!” Kedor could make out his cousin’s elated cry, over the roar.
A hush fell over the crowd as a crier announced they would take a small break as the fowl were counted and they prepared for the final event…