#FridayFlash: Time's Arrow
by Tony Noland
The first arrow was less than two feet from his chest when he pushed it with his sword, just a slight upwards thrust to the barbed tip. He'd learned a dozen lifetimes ago not to try to stop arrows completely. Less than an eyeblink later, as men felt time, the arrow rotated around its middle and the wooden shaft slapped broadside on his armor. It snapped and fell, and he rode on toward the archers and warriors. The rest of the first wave of arrows was tightly spaced as it closed on him; these men knew their business. Probably four fifths of them would have hit his torso, even though he was mounted. It took him a moment to see his way through the cloud of arrows, but there was plenty of time. They were still seven feet away.
As they came within reach, he pushed a few of them on the tips, others at the fletching; they parted like a flock of sparrows. Tips of iron, knapped flint and sharpened wood went past his head, over and under his arms, around his body. A dozen shafts broke against his chest, the splintered pieces flying behind him as he cleared the first wave and rode on. The second wave of arrows was already in the air, but he could see the archers' eyes go wide as he came on, untouched.
Five of the warriors took a half-step back from the front line. Their smooth cheeks and shocked faces marked them as boys, probably in their first fight. He'd make a point to leave at least two of them alive, perhaps three. Boy warriors spread the legend best, since they had the longest to live. Maim them so they would never be in a fight again, and they'd have thirty or forty years to scare children with the story of how they'd lost their eye and hand. Of the other hundred or so on the line, he might leave some. It depended on how the fight went.
The hard old soldiers knew who they were facing, and they did not budge. He saw their fingers curling around their axes and swords. The pikemen braced themselves as he came through the second wave of arrows. There was no third; he was too close. He came as fast as his horse would carry him, and ten feet from his attackers, he jumped forward and to the side.
His horse was thrown backward by the momentum of his leap. He twisted sideways in the air, moving almost faster than their eyes could follow. He threaded through the pikes and landed sideways against the front line. His sword caught three faces at a stroke; the spikes of his shin guards impaled another two. He spun away from the impact, turning in the air over the group of men he'd knocked down, and landed on his feet behind them.
His sword in one hand, the mace in the other, he bludgeoned and cut and kicked them down. Their arms sometimes came close to contacting, but they couldn't land blows effective enough to hurt him. He moved among them as a wasp moves among a pack of dogs. In the thick of the fight, they couldn't bring their numbers to bear all at once. They saw it too, and shifted tactics without waiting for orders. They attacked him in small groups, each mass of six or eight men coming hard after the other; as he killed each group in turn, he saw that they were trying to wear him down. A mistake - he did not tire.
Men had never learned how to fight him, and never would learn. Even if he ever left enough of them alive, it was impossible. He could be hurt if they were able to land a blow. In his first century he had been hurt a few times, through foolishness or inattention. Now, old as the forest and clever as a river, he was simply too fast for them to touch.
Hours later, with the sun behind the hill, with the men killed and the boys maimed and unconscious, he drank their supply of mead. He didn't require drink any more than he needed food, but he still liked the taste. A metallic scratch sounded from far off to his left and the world saw only a blur and a flying mug as he spun into a crouch, sword drawn. His eyes scanned for threats, but saw only an unarmed old man sitting on a large barrel, working slowly at tinder and flint. In the gathering gloom, he saw the man's lantern catch and flare.
For what was to him a very, very long time, he waited for the old man to move or threaten. To the old man, it seemed only a moment before the Walking Death moved cautiously closer, his eyes hard to see clearly as they looked everywhere at once. The old man only sat silently, holding his lantern.
"So,” the warrior called out, “is an old crow come to see the wreckage of an army? Shall I kill you, grandfather? Are you truly well into your dotage that you tempt me so?"
The man on the barrel raised the stump where his right hand had been.
"We have met before, you and I," he said. "You did not kill me then. I do not believe you will kill me now." He covered his stump again with the cloth of his coat.
"You mean nothing to me. Don't be too sure of what I will and will not do, foolish fellow. However many years ago I took your hand from you, I left you alive for my own reasons."
"Yes, I know," said the old man. "I thought long and hard on that. You spared my life so I would tell the story of the Walking Death who comes when the world is grown too kind. As you can see, I did what you would have had me do." He waved his wrinkled old hand, indicating the bloody field. "For three generations, I told them. Their grandfathers knew the truth and were afraid. Their fathers knew only the stories and were doubtful. These men knew nothing at all and they were all eager for the fight. Each of them wanted to be the one to kill the unkillable warrior, as I wanted to when I was a young man."
The warrior laughed and spat into the other's sunken chest.
"And they were no more able to harm me than you were, foolish boy who grew into a foolish old man. My ears hear the boasting and singing of every man who thinks he can kill me. To defeat one such man is as nothing to me. I am faster than any man or beast ever was or ever can be. When there is an entire army of them for me to slaughter," he sneered, "that is what makes for a day of good sport." Spreading amid a face covered in dirt and other men's blood, his smile was ugly and feral.
"I know this all too well, oh destroyer, all too well and to my sorrow. I encouraged them to fight you. I encouraged them in their songs of ill-starred glory because I wanted to see you again, and I hoped you would come. Here," he said, climbing slowly and painfully down off the barrel, "help me open this up." He began to lift the heavy wooden lid. Struggling, he said, "Well? Aren't you going to help me?"
The warrior resumed his battle stance, raising his sword with a sound like a flag whipping in the wind. He kept his distance and did not move, but stood with his dancing eyes and twitching arms.
Sighing, the old man strained his hand against the lid. He slid it over, then allowed it to drop to the ground. Panting, he ran his sleeve over his forehead and leaned against the barrel.
Against the purple sky and the red lantern, the warrior's shape was slightly blurry. At the height of caution and readiness, he waited with a smile for something to emerge from the old man's barrel to challenge him. He had nothing to fear from even the fastest viper.
The old man gently set his lantern down onto the black powder in the barrel, and the eyes of the Walking Death were burned by an enormous flash of light. Even if he had seen them, he could not have done anything at all about the hundreds upon hundreds of razor-sharp caltrops flying at him. They were just too fast.
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