#FridayFlash: Time's Arrow

#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.

Comments and constructive criticisms welcome. Other #FridayFlash pieces can be found here


  1. Can't ever be too careful, even when you're fast as lightning, can you? Good bit of narration; the voice matched the piece well. The character's arrogance came clearly through. Well done.

  2. Nice stuff. Put me in mind of Calvino and a historical version of "The Book With No Name".

    Anyone who uses the word 'caltorp' is cool with me!

    Marc Nash

  3. Unkillable? I think not...there's such a thing as too complacent, you know?! Nicely done...I was somewhat sickly triumphant when he met finally his maker!

  4. I really liked the walking death character, sort of the evil twin of an immortal. I did have to look up the word caltorp, but that's probably just because I'm a girl. :-P Wow, he waited all that time for revenge...interesting. Enjoyed this lots!

  5. Well done! This statement: "the eyes of the Walking Death" gave me a fierce mental picture. Your writing is mesmerizing!

  6. Thanks guys! I was trying not to telegraph or overplay the (very) patient revenge planning that the old man had done.

    Told from the POV of the arrogant, supernaturally fast psychopath, I wanted it to be a complete surprise... caltrops and all.

  7. Very cool. I liked the pov in this, and the images. Different and well done.

  8. Hundreds of caltrops! No way to avoid that hard death and, yes, a complete surprise.

    Purple sky, red latern: beautiful image.

    Excellent story.

  9. I had to look up the word "caltrop" as well. :) Nice pacing--couldn't wait to see what would happen next. Kept thinking of the Iliad and Dan Simmons' Ilium while reading. Epic, seemingly-immortal, but too-human characters. Enjoyed it.

  10. Very engaging piece Tony, and I love the voice here. Bravo!

  11. Thank you for the link for caltrops. :) Very engaging story. I like the arrogance being brought down by a man with one hand.

  12. Great stuff, I always found battle scenes hard to write. You make it look easy.

  13. Great battle scene -- never a dull moment. Like the cockiness of your MC. Well done, nice voice for you. Peace, Linda

  14. Tony - This may be my favorite of yours so far - it's a total change of pace for you and you did an excellent job of staying in the period and I loved the concept. Revenge is sweet, especially when it's for such a good cause and all ;-)

  15. Revenge was sweet, but I loved the fact that the "hero", though patient, was as cruel as Walking Death, sacrificing so many for his cause.

    I was totally into the story while I read it; great job of hooking the reader and holding the (my) attention.

    I really enjoyed this read. Plus I learned a new word.

  16. Tony, this kept me engaged from beginning to end. I kept wondering how and when the revenge would come. I had to keep reading. Loved it!

    Thanks for sharing it and Merry Christmas!

  17. So many great comments, and I'm humbled to be put even tangentially in the same category said the Iliad (thanks, Melissa!). I am not worthy, truly.

    Linda, Al: Writing battle scenes is an odd thing, whether they are slaughter fests like this one, a gang melee or a mano-a-mano bar fight. I don't think about it much, since the mechanics of the action are pretty easy for me to visualize, for some reason. I'm glad that the description of it worked out.

    The POV here was arrogant, dismissive and cruel, an archetype of the villain protagonist. I'm glad that, despite that, it was so engaging for everyone. I had to re-write the dialogue a dozen times before I made the killer sound arrogant but not cartoonish, and made the old man sound respectful reserved but not fearful or servile. After all, he's getting ready to kill this guy... he needs to keep it together and keep his cool.

    PJ, I am especially encouraged by your terrific comment! That gives me some confidence, even hope, that my writing is getting better and better.

    And to all: Do please check back next week. It's a sweet and sappy tearjerker of a #FridayFlash for Christmas. VERY different from what I've done up to now.

  18. Revenge that waits is oftentimes the sweetest. This was a great story. I think this (almost) immortal warrior's story would make an excellent longer piece.

  19. Tony, I agree so much with the comments about the voices of the two characters. They really came through marvelously.

    I was immersed in the story as I read it. I thought at first it was medieval fighting. You had many interesting surprises and such a wonderfully paced, exciting story!

  20. I really liked this, it absorbed me. Being immortal (or nearly) isn't really 'cricket' so I was rooting for someone to take that ugly, feral smile from his face. And how pleasing that it was an old, maimed thoughtful man!

    I loved the Walking Death's preoccupation with his brand too - genius. Great story. Thanks for sharing.

  21. Skycycler: Hell no it isn't fair that he's superfast, doesn't age and doesn't need to eat, drink or rest. That's why he had to die!

    Well, actually he had to die because he was a murdering sociopathic jerk, but that was why his dying was all the more satisfying. It was especially so since the deathblow was delivered by an old man who was weaker and slower, but much, much cleverer. ;-)

  22. Great story Tony! Love the concept of your MC - fast as light, but not as fast as an explosion of caltrops (a new word for me too, for which I thank ye kindly!)

    What a way for your arrogant Walking Death to get his come-uppance!

  23. One of your better #fridayflash stories. Good pace, both dialogue and narration fits the cocky character.

    Nice work.

  24. Mazzz & Draco: Thanks! He made the mistake of thinking that incredibly fast equated to infinitely fast. An arrogant guy like that was bound to get nailed by someone with the right tool to exploit his weakness.

  25. Hmm...I'm afraid I'm a little skeptical that someone who is fast enough to leisurely contemplate how he should knock arrows out of the air actually *would* be too slow to dive for cover from an explosion.

    I need a physicist to clarify :P

    Quite well-written and a good action piece!

  26. Dana: You raise a good point. From a pure speed standpoint, he might actually be able to outrun the caltrops. I'm not sure of the ballistics, or of his top speed in panic mode.

    As I thought about this guy, though, since the worst thing he could conceive of to be in the barrel was a viper, I'm assuming he's never seen an explosion before, so he wouldn't know how to react.


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