Horsekiller

He was known by the archers as Horsekiller.

Horsekiller stood with the rest of his company, staring down from a ridge above another trampled battlefield. A moment before, their arrows had fallen like torrential rain; but the cascade ceased as the king’s army clashed with the Kallim invaders. It was now the archers’ task to snipe and harry the enemy, ensuring they didn’t split off to this side in a pincer movement. Each man was reminded of the need to select his shots carefully, lest he hit his own; black banners against Tesserland’s blue were already melding together under blood red and earthy brown. Many in the company had reaped the anguish of striking friend over foe in previous conflicts. They had grown more skillful as penance.

At least this day was clear; thin clouds veiled but did not block the sun, and little wind swept across the craggy lowlands. The Horsekiller’s nearest fellow shot with him, both men following their arrows with keen eyes as they redrew.

“A hit!” his fellow declared proudly. The younger man cast a condescending smile on Horsekiller as an anguished neigh rose faintly above the tumult. “Got that one in the throat, eh. You do earn your name.”

Horsekiller grunted, already releasing his next arrow and nocking a third. Another horse went tumbling to the ground, the warrior atop it crashing across the field like an armored tumbleweed. The younger archer chuckled dryly. “Entertaining, but still a miss. I understand that the horse is a larger target, but surely you might luck into a man’s torso once in a while. Loose mounts can be claimed for the king, you know.”

Other archers glanced up at his words, then quickly returned attention to their bows. This man was new. He’d understand soon enough.

“I hit where I aim.” Horsekiller struck another animal down, not pausing to watch as his target thrashed atop several soldiers.

The new archer snorted. “Are you saying you mean to hit only horses? I know they’re dangerous units, but we’re here to kill soldiers, not butcher noble animals!”

Another horse’s distant scream. “They may be noble, but they aren’t men.”

“No, they aren’t!” his fellow stressed, then realized his own firing rate had slowed. He loosed three more arrows before curiosity drew his attention back to his neighbor. “I know your reputation, Horsekiller. They say you never hit an enemy soldier, only mounts. I assumed you had a special kind of bad luck that is somehow useful enough to keep you in this company. But to hear you say it… why, it’s unconscionable! A kingsman who won’t kill for his king?”

Horsekiller never took his eyes from his aim, drawing arrow after arrow at a rate that would have impressed a more observant man. But he paused long enough to sigh. The little exhale spoke of words repeated more times than he cared to count. “It’s against my conscience to kill a man. But I can kill horses.”

His fellow jerked back, disgust contorting his features. “Against your—? Are you a man or aren’t you? Are you a soldier or aren’t you? What do you think we’re fighting for?” He pointed accusingly down at the soldiers embroiled in deadly combat. “We are the defenders here! These Kallim dogs would subjugate Tesserland and take our women and children as slaves! Our countrymen are fighting to the death to protect this country, yet you are too noble to do the same?”

“Nothing t’do with nobility. Some men make peace with God about killing in war. I ain’t found that peace yet. But the king called me to fight, so I had t’find a way to do my duty.”

“So you admit you’re a coward!”

“You stopped firing,” Horsekiller said mildly. He had shot down four more animals in this time, and a fifth ran wild with an arrow in its flank, cutting a swath of new chaos through the old.

An indignant splutter was followed by the renewed twang of the young archer’s bowstring. But he continued to mutter darkly. “Foolish and wormblooded. I’ll have you reported to the captain.”

Another nearby archer coughed, and a few twangs slowed. A bark from the captain set everyone’s attention back on the battle. He passed the Horsekiller and the new archer with a sharp look but continued down the line.

Some minutes passed as the fighting below reached a steady churn, the smells of sweat and dirtied blood rolling up over the ridge’s grassy lip. Horsekiller and his fellow stepped back to let others take their places, accepting the offered water and rags. Horsekiller wiped his face and handed the rag to his neighbor, who merely glared at him.

Another sigh and a glance towards Heaven accompanied Horsekiller, and then he gestured through the line of archers, down into the battlefield. “How much is a horse worth?”

The new archer blinked. “What?”

“A horse. How much does it cost, d’you think?”

His fellow pondered for a moment. “I don’t know. I’ve never owned one. Perhaps I shall if I continue moving up in the ranks,” he added haughtily, glancing with no small amount of pride at the badge on his coat that had elevated him to this company.

Another gesture from Horsekiller, this time towards the mass of enemy foot soldiers pushing back against the king’s lines. “And how much is one of those men worth?”

The new man’s face reddened. “If you’re going to get theological, I will remind you that this is war—”

“Which d’you think the Kallim tenlords count as worth more?”

A pregnant pause, full of the twang of bowstrings and the drifting screams of clashing metal and pain. The two armies were caught in a deadlock now. A stiff breeze briefly passed over the ridge, but the men of this company knew how to adjust against the wind.

Horsekiller wiped his mouth and took up his bow again, tapping another archer on the shoulder to signal he was ready to switch. “Kallim foot soldiers are peasants—lowest and least willing. Cheap, because they aren’t trained and aren’t expected to live long.” He paused before adding, as if he felt a need to defend, “Not ours. Tesserland’s blessed with a good king who cares about his men, requires us all some basic training. Those down there, their tenlords use ’em for numbers. Arrow fodder. Acceptable losses.”

He began firing again, pausing his steady words only as he released. “Horses are prized. They take money to raise. Good war horses, fast and strong and smart ones, they’re near worth their weight in gold. Peasants are measured in pence.” He briefly pointed his shaft towards a man garbed in rough armor and a shabby black tabard, holding his sword like a club. Horsekiller changed targets and shot the horse behind him. “Which loss d’you think causes the tenlords more grief?”

The other fellow looked out over the battlefield, a new kind of heat flushing his face. He glanced sideways at Horsekiller, reluctant to agree to the point. “You expect me to believe that this… this absurd estimation of the value of units is the real reason you only shoot horses?”

“Already told you my reason. You seemed to need a different one.”

Horsekiller’s bow tracked a fine steed – it was rearing up, commanded by its rider to trod on the head of a Tesserland foot soldier caught on the ground. The arrow bit the animal in the neck, toppling the screaming horse and surprised man on their side. Even from this distance, Horsekiller and his neighbor could see the knight being cut down by his intended victim. The Tesserland soldier possibly raised a hand in gratitude towards the archers’ ridge before being swallowed back up by the battle.

The new archer switched back into the firing line, but his indignation was colored with bemusement. A sidelong glance darted towards Horsekiller. Three arrows left his bow before he spoke again. “That horseman. He died anyway.”

“He did.”

“The men whose horses you shoot, they’ll likely be cut down. And a fall from a running horse can be just as deadly as an arrow to the heart. You aren’t blameless in their deaths.”

“That may be so.” Another arrow was lost in the flood below, matching another equine scream.

The new archer turned an irritated glare on Horsekiller. “And how, exactly, does that align with your conflict of conscience?”

For a long moment, the Horsekiller was silent apart from the consistent rhythm of his bowstring. He never slowed, but his gaze grew briefly distant. “…I can’t say for certain. It’s still a burden. But it’s a lighter one than the other, and it gives me a little peace. I do my duty to protect king and country, and they get a chance.”

Irritation turned to puzzlement. “A… chance? What chance?”

Horsekiller merely shrugged. “God’s chance. A fall from a horse might kill you. An arrow to the heart will.”

Derision spread across the young archer’s face. “Oh, so we’re back to that, are we? Your claim of impeccable skill! Well, I remain unconvinced that you aren’t just excusing away poor aim.” An accusing finger that should have been drawing a bowstring pointed at Horsekiller. “Perhaps it is fear. You fear joining the men who’ve shot a comrade by mistake, so you play it safe and aim for a target you might not miss.” A snarl, haunted by his own harsh memories, further disfigured the young archer’s face. “You ought to be sent back to the rank and file for your attitude. A man shouldn’t be an archer at all if he hasn’t the skill or conviction!”

If not for the urgency of their task, more than a few of the men on the ridge would have been staring at the confrontation open-mouthed. It was a testament to their training that they kept their eyes—if not their ears—focused on the battle. Only the captain watched the two from a short distance, impassive and silent.

There was no pride, no arrogance, no lack of focus in Horsekiller’s words as he calmly restated, “I hit where I aim.”

Before his detractor could form a comeback, a change in the commotion below drew the eyes of all perched on the archers’ ridge. “The general’s been cut off!” Several hearts rose in fear, but then the company saw it was not their officer in danger. The Kallim general had made a foolish tactical error, probably trying to cut behind Tesserland’s defenses; he was surrounded now, alone but for a few other men on horseback. Kingsmen pressed in urgently—some on horses, most on foot, but all trying to capture the man and beat back the soldiers who fought to rejoin him.

It was difficult to see him amidst the tight ring of Tesserland’s own—but they had not conquered him yet. The Kallim general was a formidable opponent in his own right, and his tiny company fought through the press with halberds and shields, slowly but determinedly edging back towards their own army.

“Hold!” the captain of the archers ordered as several turned their bows to assist. “We can’t risk our men!” There were a few boastful mutters, some cries of frustration that this opportunity to turn the battle was about to be lost; but most lowered their bows gladly. One did not join this company without an awareness of one’s skills and limitations. Even the new archer followed suit.

Then the captain looked over at Horsekiller, an unspoken command passing between them.

Horsekiller turned without a word. Nocked his arrow. Sighted.

Fired.

The despairing scream of a dying animal could be heard across the battlefield one second before the horse hit the ground with startling force, sending its rider rolling. A roar of jubilant voices followed, a surge as men fell on the prone general. Shocked enemy troops, mostly peasant foot soldiers, scattered in confusion at the sight of their leader on the ground. The tide of the battle turned suddenly as kingsmen, their fighting spirit renewed, crashed back against the confused enemy front like a concussive wave. The opportunity had not been lost.

There was little fanfare atop the ridge. The captain simply nodded in satisfaction, and several of the men slapped Horsekiller on the shoulders and back before returning to their bloody work. The new archer could only stare at the scene below, looking for an explanation other than the one all the others had readily accepted.

“That… that shot was… impossible.” He spoke as if his denial might cause reality to reassert itself into a form that made sense.

Horsekiller was already nocking another arrow. “Battle’s not over yet. Keep firing.”

For once, the new archer didn’t have an acid reply. He returned to his own bow, looking over between shots to study Horsekiller with puzzled eyes now showing the first hints of respect.

The company settled into a rhythm they had learned and refined through many battles together. A rhythm the now-silent new archer finally noticed and entered.

It was not long before the Kallim army entered full retreat. There were no cheers from the soldiers this time, only organized advances that pushed the invaders farther out of Tesserland’s borders. Kallim would regroup and be back—their thirst for Tesserland soil would not be erased by this one loss—but having their general in hand might give the soldiers a longer reprieve. The captain of the archers called his men to stand easy, their duty done, as the battle moved out of their range and into its closing stages.

As Horsekiller unstrung his bow, a cough drew his attention around to the new man, who stood with the stiff tension of uncertainty. There was a struggle in the younger archer’s eyes—a much smaller but no less difficult battle waged between pride and wisdom. When at last he spoke, his words were quiet, intended for Horsekiller’s ears alone.

“I suppose…”—One last struggle, but then he met Horsekiller’s gaze—“I suppose I can see how a man might find ways to obey a conscience like yours without dishonoring his duty.”

It was not the best nor most humble apology ever spoken from one man to another. But for the first time that day, a warm smile broke Horsekiller’s stony features. “Some ways are harder than others. But it helps t’be blessed with good aim and a good king.”

Some of the tension left the new archer’s shoulders, relief that he had not made a dangerous enemy of a more skilled soldier. But his eyebrows rose again as another question escaped across his lips. “And do you… do you believe you’ll find that peace other men have with this war?”

The Horsekiller shrugged and walked towards the captain’s muster, clapping his fellow archer on the shoulder in passing. “Maybe. Maybe Kallim’ll withdraw before then. I’ll leave it in God’s hands.” He paused, then looked back with a gleam in his eye. “But I look forward to the day I can stop shooting good horses.”

END

—-

A/N: This concept came to me one evening and the first draft poured out pretty fast. But I’m grateful for a writing forum I was on that gave me some revision suggestions; I ended up expanding it quite a bit in two more drafts, exploring some more of the consequences and effects of Horsekiller’s philosophy. I hope I portrayed them well. =) I’d like to submit this one to some online magazines, although the fact that there are very little obvious fantasy elements is making it a bit odd to place (I mean, it’s not really historical fiction, either; everything is made up, so that’s still a kind of fantasy. XD; ) Until I have more luck in that regard, I hope ya’ll enjoyed the read!

Have a great weekend (and stay warm)!

-Jenn/River

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