Heroes, p.33
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       Heroes, p.33

           Leigh Barker
Life for the twins—both the real ones and Anella and Woe—slipped into a sort of relentless routine, as schooling tends to: get up, bash each other with wooden swords, learn about tactics and weapons, reading ’n writing, eat, go to bed, get up.

  The boys became known as the Twins and their natural fighting ability and instinctive grasp of strategy raised them to the top of the class, then of the school. Leaving Woe and Anella safely in their usual place as last and last-but-one. Alternating positions depending on the subject.

  Being born on the same day meant Anella and Woe were the same age—less of a surprise than it might have been—but Anella was a girl. In her thirteenth year, things were still the same, until the night her brain fired its first surge of hormones and her life changed forever, in ways no one could have imagined.

  The change woke up the magic hiding deep in her mind.

  It was a sunny summer morning, and she was feeling really fed up. Tired of having to be nice to people who just ignored her. Sick of having to listen to those really old people telling her what to do, when she obviously knew more about pretty well everything than they did. And being blamed for everything. Like it was her fault. So just for a little peace and time to herself, she ducked out of fencing practice—using real, pointy swords. And how stupid was that?—and left the city by the small pedestrian gate leading down to the woods.

  She picked up a thin stick and whipped the heads off the wild flowers as she strolled down the narrow trail, and tried to avoid the dog poop. She was still fed up. Was this it? Was this all there was for her? Playing at soldiers with stupid boys and stupid weapons? She lashed out with her stick and toppled a bunch of tall flowers.

  “Hey, stop that!” said an angry voice.

  She spun around, expecting to see some uniformed old person telling her what to do—again. There was no one there. She looked again, searching the shadows under the trees for the speaker. It could be one of those weird people who jump out suddenly and say boo!

  It wasn’t. It was the flowers.

  She knew it, but refused to accept it. Flowers can’t speak. Get a grip, girl.

  “I was quite fond of those two,” said the voice in her head. “And now you’ve chopped their heads off. Thanks a bunch. So now who am I going to talk to? Well, who? Nobody, that’s who. And all because you think it’s funny to hit folks with your stick. You know, it’s people like you who give humans a bad name. Have you seen where humans have stamped through the flowers over there? It makes my blood boil. How hard is it for you stupid—”

  She chopped off the tall flower’s head with her stick. Good lord, was there no peace anywhere?

  That was strange, I mean really strange. She frowned and looked around again slowly. Maybe a weirdo was hiding in the undergrowth after all.

  “That wasn’t very nice,” said another voice in her head, this time in a much deeper tone.

  She stepped back in readiness for a speedy exit.

  “Still,” said the voice, “she was a terrible nag. All day long, moaning about this, moaning about that.”

  “I did you a service, then,” she said slowly.

  “I suppose so,” said the voice. “Bit harsh, though.”

  “Just a flower,” she said, by way of excuse.

  “And I suppose you’ll say I’m just a tree?”

  That threw her. “Are you?” she asked.

  “Am I what?”

  “Just a tree.”

  “Don’t know. I’ve never really thought about it.” The voice was silent for a moment. “I’d have to be self-aware to contemplate the nature of my existence.”

  Anella frowned. “You sound quite self-aware to me. But what do I know?”

  “A lot less than you think.”

  How rude.

  “How rude,” said Anella, and started to retrace her steps away from the talking shrubbery.

  “Rude or not, it’s the truth,” said the tree. “Look at this, for example.”

  She stopped and looked, but could see nothing particularly exceptional. Just trees.

  “No,” said the tree. “I mean, look at the fact that you’re having a conversation with a tree. That’s something you didn’t know.”

  “I never really thought about it, so I can’t say if I knew it or not.”

  “Fair point,” said the tree. “I’ll give you that one.”

  “Big of you,” said Anella, then realised the truth of the statement and laughed.

  The tree laughed, which is something you don’t hear every day.

  “I have to go now,” she said, turning to walk back up the trail. “I have homework.” Which, though true, wasn’t the reason for the quick exit. Trees don’t talk, so that meant she was going quietly nuts. She vowed not to mention it to anyone. Can you imagine? Hey, everyone! I’ve been talking to the trees. Well, only one, so far. Seemed like a nice fellow. Yeah, then the banging of the padded cell door.

  She returned to school to find no one had missed her, which made her feel loved and truly wanted. Except Woe, and he didn’t count.

  He was just coming out of the building, fresh from a lesson on siege tactics that meant nothing to him. Who wants to catapult dead and sick horses into a city? A nutter, that’s who. Knock on the door. Tell them to give up, or else. That’s how to handle a siege. But that would be too easy for the military, who’d done all the training and would damn well want to put it into practice, if only to see if it worked.

  “Where have you been?” he asked, taking her by the arm and leading her to their place in the corner of the entrance gatehouse.

  “Out. About,” she answered, descriptively.

  “You were about to miss bow-shooting,” he said, with a slow shake of his head to signify how sad that would be.

  “Archery,” she corrected almost automatically.

  “Who is?”

  “Not who, what.”

  “What?” Woe’s head was starting to spin. A familiar feeling when talking martial things with his sis.

  “What?” Anella frowned deeply. “What are you talking about?”

  He had no idea so went back to the start, as if nothing had happened. “You were about to miss bow… archery.”

  Ah, he’d got it.

  “And I care why, exactly?”

  Woe was puzzled. “Because you love it.” He frowned. “What’s the matter with you lately? All moody and don’t-care-about-anythingish.”


  “Okay, don’t care about nothing,” Woe said.

  “No. I mean, there’s nothing wrong with me.”

  “All right then. Let’s go and shoot arrows at idiots.”

  She nodded, beginning to see the therapeutic benefits of shooting her schoolmates.

  They had practiced archery a hundred times, a thousand, but this was different. Anella felt it the instant she picked up the longbow. It was no longer a piece of wood with a string of hemp stretched across it. She felt its texture, its strength. And an echo of its former life. So she dropped it like it was hot.

  The archery instructor, Longfella Chip, an impossibly tall old guy whose legs were way too long for his body, loped over to her and looked down at the bow in the dust. Here was a man who lived up to his name. His eyes moved slowly up until they met hers. Chips of flint would have been softer. “That,” he said quietly, “is how you will be slaughtered on the battlefield.”

  Oh, a nice way to talk to a child. She was going to have nightmares for sure.

  “Not likely,” said Anella. She fixed him with her pale, blue eyes, which meant she had to crane her neck, but it was worth it. He looked away.

  “And why is that?” he asked gruffly. “For the edification of the rest of the class, you understand.”

  “Because,” she said firmly, “none of the enemy soldiers will get close enough to do any slaughtering.” And she meant it, which surprised even her.

  Chip smiled and looked down at her again. He actually didn’t look too bad, now he was smiling. “I’m sure we would all benefit fr
om a demonstration of that singular skill.” The smile twitched, but stayed in place.

  He ordered the other squires to form a line twenty yards away across the dirt yard and strode over to the racks against the side wall and returned with an armful of arrows. It took him three strides. The arrows were not the pointed things she was used to training with, but had thick, stuffed leather pads secured to the ends.

  He pointed at the squires. “They will rush you,” he said with the same smile, “as an enemy would rush you.” He raised his voice. “Five at a time.” He looked back at her. “We must be fair, mustn’t we?”

  She shrugged. “Send them all if you like,” she said sullenly, seeing her future shrinking.

  “No, I think five… ten will suffice.” He walked off to the side and raised his hand. “Are you ready?”

  She stepped over to stand beside the rail that pretended to be fortifications, a ship’s side or a fort, depending on the training. Without any sign of nerves or hurry, she leaned ten of the padded arrows against the rail and then nocked one of them onto the bowstring. And nodded.

  Chip watched her for a moment as she corrected her stance to shift her weight equally over her feet, which were shoulder-width apart and equal distance on either side of an imaginary line leading to the squires. He was impressed, but time would tell. He raised his hand, glanced at her, and dropped it.

  Ten squires sprinted onto the twenty yards of dirt and headed for her, intending to flatten her in the dust and knock some of the arrogance out of her.

  Anella extended her right arm and drew the string back using her index, second and third fingers. The boys were coming, but it was as if they were in slow motion. She felt the living wood blend with her left hand, and the hemp bowstring between her fingers of her right, and heard its memory of living in its parent stem. And she saw the wind. Not the tatty flags flapping, but the currents of air playing across the yard as flickering silver ribbons. She saw the path the arrow would take as a streak of turbulence in the ribbons, and adjusted her aim a fraction to the left.

  She released the arrow and reached for another without looking at its flight. She knew it would be true.

  It was. The thick leather pad hit the squire in the middle of his forehead and dropped him like a heavy sack. She raised her bow, fired and picked another arrow. Like a graceful machine. Fire; sweep up another arrow; fire.

  The boys were dropping with every thudding shot. The unconscious bodies tripped and tangled the feet of the others as body after body dropped to the dirt. Before the attackers had covered half the twenty yards to their quarry, the yard was littered with both moaning and silent squires, while the four who remained suddenly lost their enthusiasm and looked for somewhere to hide. They didn’t find it before they went to sudden and painful sleep.

  Anella dropped the last squire as he legged it for the safety of the school house, then she picked up an arrow with a hammered tin point, nocked it onto the string, turned and fired in a single, fluid move.

  Longfella Chip’s mouth was open and he was staring at the squires groaning and coming to, but it clicked shut as the arrow whistled past him. He followed its flight over his shoulder and into the centre of the black circle in the middle of the target he’d leaned against the far wall for later use. The far, far wall.

  Anella carefully rested the bow against the rail, now that she knew it was alive, and walked casually towards the school. But her heart was pounding.

  “Where do you think you are going, young lady?” Chip’s voice rang out across the yard and bounced back from the walls.

  She stopped and turned around slowly. Now what?

  “That is the wrong way,” said Chip quietly. He pointed across the yard to the barracks. “The mess hall is that way.”

  She frowned.

  “And no one deserves the ice cream and cookies special award more than you do.” He smiled a real smile. “That was outstanding. But now I will expect you to be that good and better all the time.”

  She shrugged. “No problem.” She could no longer see the air currents, but knew she would when she needed to. Things had changed.

  Everyone treated Anella with a new respect and more than a little fear after her demonstration of blur-speed archery. She was excused all weapons practice, except archery. No point dulling the sword by using it as an axe, Chip would say when asked, and asked he would be.

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