Shooting at the Butts

I have just realised that if I edit my blog posts by adding several new pieces to the existing one before moving onto the next, then notifications don’t go out about the new post. So I am going to start putting each piece out as a new blog postloads of posts into each bloI am going to post, whilst simultaneously updating the much larger chapters on my main web page. Starting now …

The End of Spring, IC2403

Part Two: Shooting at the Butts
(Terrene, part of the city state of Verezzo)

At Poliena, the largest settlement in Terrene, that part of the city state of Verezzo inhabited almost wholly by halflings, the afternoon was as pleasant as could be expected. Three regulars were taking in the sun outside the Hairy Hog alehouse, supping of the best the landlord had to offer. In many ways, for them, this was no different to any other afternoon, except that they were dressed in blue and yellow livery, and had a very important visitor.

Pablo was drinking deep of his cup, so that ale ran down his chin.

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“Best not over do it,” suggested Tino. “We have to put on a good show.”

Pablo, who heard him, continued to gulp down his ale, while Benneto, who was not listening, stared absently at what was happening on the green. Tino watched with raised eyebrows until Pablo drained his tankard then slammed it down on the table.

After wiping his chin with the back of his hand, Pablo hiccuped, then gave a silly smile. Tino’s brow furrowed, which made Pablo smile all the more. He threw in a chuckle for good measure.

“I heard you,” Pablo said, before Tino could give vent to the inevitable complaint. “I just think my shooting’s better with a belly full. Steadies my aim, see?”

“Makes you care less about your aim, you mean,” said Tino. “You’re lucky Lord Vescucci is twice your height otherwise he’d smell the ale on your breath.”

“But all soldiers drink before battle.”

“Ha! This ain’t battle. This is us showing our lord what we can do.”

The silly smile reappeared on Pablo’s face. “All’s well and good then, ‘cos drinking’s what I do best,” he said.

The word ‘battle’ had jolted Benneto out of his dreamy daze. His brow furrowed. “You think we really will have to fight?” he asked.

“Ridraffa’s fallen, so it’s likely we’re next,” explained Tino. “Boulderguts has ravaged his way through Tilea. Why would he suddenly decide to stop unless someone stops him?”

“But no-one has stopped him, neither Pavonans or Remans, and not for want of trying.”

“That they haven’t,” agreed Tino, somberly. “But they must have hurt him.”

“How can you know that?” demanded Bennetto.

“I know because he did not try to take the city of Remas, where gold is piled high. And they say he passed through Frascoti in such a hurry that his brutes took barely anything from it.”

“But they didn’t rush by Ridraffa, did they?” argued Benetto. “They bashed everyone’s heads in and took all they could. Which is a lot.”

“Ridraffa isn’t Verezzo,” said Tino. “We have an army, they only had some militia and a handful of mercenaries.”

“Oh aye, an army that includes us. Great!” said Benetto. He plucked an arrow from his quiver and laid it on the table. “Will our shafts even pierce the brutes’ flesh deep enough for them to notice?”

“We’ll just have to see, won’t we? The only alternatives are to run away from our homes, or wait to be served on their platters.”

The three fell silent for a moment, then Pablo piped up.

“Best have another ale then? While we can.”

Upon the green before them a company of archers were already letting loose at the butts. They too were liveried, apart from the hunter Roberto Cappuccio, known to all his friends as Pettirosso, who always favoured green despite his nickname.

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Their weapons looked like longbows would in a man’s hand, yet they were no longer than what men called bows. Every fellow there had practiced regularly since youth, honing his skill and strengthening the muscles (moreso on one side of his body than the other). They could match the range and punch of a human bow, but they hit the mark more frequently, and they could generally shoot for longer, provided there was some nourishment to hand to keep their spirits up. And they were just as well practiced at ensuring there was always food to hand.

The village constable, Giusto Corumo, was also watching the practice, his two brothers by his side, his big baton resting on his shoulder.

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It was his responsibility to muster the militia, though not to lead them in war. He was the stepping stone that took the able-bodied from the world of peace to field of battle; or more accurately, the short-tempered, foul-mouthed, club bearing elder who roused them, rounded them up and presented them to the military officers. For many a year he had rallied the rabble to ready them for their bi-annual drills, with no shortage of cruel jests to shame them into activity. This morning his tone had been just different enough, however, that nearly every somewhat surprised warrior recognised there was something different going on, and not just because the muster was a little earlier in the season than usual. The constable had also rushed like he had never before done, rousing every eligible soldier from each and every village and hamlet in less than four hours, which was no mean feat for a fellow as stout as he, especially when garbed in an iron breastplate to add to his military countenance. And they were right to be suspicious, for this was no mere holiday drill, this was the real thing. Their Lord, Conte Lucca Vescucci of Verezzo, had summoned them to make ready for war.

The conte had arrived at noon, just as several many of the gathered archers were beginning to hope that the muster was some sort of mistake, and he had immediately asked that the several companies show them what they can do. He had only a small company of guards with him, which included the handful of halflings who attended upon him at court in Verezzo. At first, Lord Lucca seemed uninterested in their drill, but rather wanted to see their skill with their bows. So began an archery tournament lasting the afternoon, which the conte observed intently.

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One rank at a time, the halflings came before him, planted their shafts in the ground, then began loosing them at the butts. This would go on until Lord Lucca cried “Enough! Well done. Bring the next.” Then an army of younglings would pluck arrows from the butts while one rank marched as best they could away and another took their place. Always a thorough man, being a natural philosopher and organiser of his realm’s affairs, taking great care over matters of trade, finance and agriculture, studiously acquiring the knowledge he needed to keep his realm prosperous and safe, he was showing the same attention to detail here. As the afternoon lengthened, it became clear he intended to witness the skill of each and every archer, to see for himself whether (to a lad) they could be relied upon.

And as time wore on he seemed to relax somewhat, for rank after rank showed impressive consistency in their aim, peppering the targets’ centres with ever more holes, while leaving the periphery virtually unblemished.

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All was done in a leisurely, sedate manner, like a lazy game of stoolball on a late summer’s afternoon, until almost everyone was thinking of the fine evening that must naturally follow this sport, with a pleasant pipe or two and a jar or three of ale.

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But the slow pace was due to Lord Lucca’s usual thoroughness, rather than any lack of urgency, and as the last company was dismissed (looking forward to their first drink of the night) he turned to the attending captains and ordered that the whole militia now assemble. He intended to inspect their brigade drill.

Within a quarter of an hour the halfling militia had drawn themselves up into two bodies, being four ranks each but arrayed in double width and so presenting as two double length ranks. Each company had its own colour, red and blue, as indicated by their flags’ edgings.

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Lord Lucca was joined by Barone Iacopo Brunetti, the lord of Poliena. The barone would have cut quite a dash, cloaked and clad in armour upon his stout pony, if it were not for the conte’s contrasting bulk. Still, Iacopo’s pony bucked and reared as if keen for a fight, and he brandished his sword as he gave commands for the captains to repeat.

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Once their manoeuvres were done, having doubled their front, countermarched and demonstrated the neatness of their dressings, they halted. The conte, apparently satisfied, now ordered them to stand, and began a short speech.

“You all know why you have been called forth this day. All of Tilea knows of the evils that beset our land – how other cities have suffered indignities at the least, and destruction at the worst. That will not happen to our dear Verezzo, for you and I will not allow it. Today you have proved yourself more than fit for any fight ahead. To a soldier you shoot well, and as a body you are as well drilled as any mercenary, or even any palazzo guard. Long practice has made you this way, and all that effort was done for this day. This e’en, first sharpen your arrowheads and fix your flights; hone your blades and look to all the trappings you need for war. Make these things as fit for battle as your yourselves have proven today to be. Whether brutes come or the unliving, or both, we shall be ready for them, and they shall learn that what is ours cannot be taken from us, and that we will not allow those we love to be harmed. The men of Verezzo and Spomanti, and the halflings of Terrene will stand strong together, each being the best I could hope for, and each complementing the other to forge a fighting force of courage and skill.

“Myrmidia has watched us today, and I know she will be pleased. Tonight, when every edge is as sharp as a razor, every bow waxed and all the armour oiled, say a quiet prayer to dedicate yourselves to her, and ask her to guide both you, your captains and myself in the days and weeks to come. Then, fill your flagons and drink a health in her honour!”

“Evviva!” came the cheer, again and again, as the Alfieri flourished the colours aloft.

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