Once there was a man named Frederick Alarcy who lived and died. He left a widow and two strong sons, and they lived through their grief on the slopes of Broken Pine Tor, close to where the great waterfall hits the Darwin River and the place where the deer come to drink.
They did not want for pity or help, as Frederick Alarcy had been an honest and respected man. By summer's end, the crops were in, the firewood put by, and people's minds turned to other things. Widow Alarcy was a fair woman and soon found the attention of some of the local men. They came from the town on the night of the first snow and asked for shelter.
"But you have your own homes." said the widow from behind the door, waving her sons to silence.
"Yes, but we would have some comfort from the heat of the wood we helped to lay in." One replied.
"I hear you Benjamin Resker, but your own wife will be waiting with your girls. Warm yourself by your own fire, and take my gratitude with you, for this wood is dry and burns well."
This did not satisfy them, for they were worse for drink and pushed into the small house without the caution of sobriety. They made free with dead Alarcy's beer and spirits and with his wife. They left the widow tearful and clutching her sons to her chest, and the door swinging in the first swell of a winter gale.
The snows came and went, and with them, the widow's hope, for she was heavy with a child. The boy arrived in high summer and was named Thomas. Through custom, he could not take the name Alarcy, for he was, as the people said, a child of force, and although he was not an outcast, he was shunned, both by his half brothers and the people of the town. As time passed, he was educated not in the school but by Madam Foxmere, the cunning woman from the wood above the great waterfall. She took the slow ones and the lost ones and made of them what she could. The children of the town learned high words and history, while Thomas learned with his hands the ways of the wood and of the earth. His words were few, both to his mother, who gave him what love she could, and to others, who were happy for him to pass in silence.
He went far into himself and learnt focus, being able to concentrate for hours on the smallest thing. He learnt from the old woman that a man may have a purpose even though others would deny him one. He made catapults and slings from the deadfall and vine and cultivated a sure eye, though, unlike the other children, his targets were not the birds or the small scurrying things but blankets stuffed with straw made into effigies of men. These he struck without error or hesitation, and their fabric became ragged with the scars of many sharp stones.
In his seventeenth year, Thomas's name was put forward for the war lottery. Many assured his mother that this was the best future for a child of force and that even though the boy's life could never serve a true purpose, at least he could show his family some honour. The widow Alarcy cried many tears, and his half-brothers shared a smile as Thomas's name was pulled from the drum by the recruiting Sergeant. Thomas, focused and silent, stepped forward to acknowledge, and without turning, walked slowly to join the line of the chosen.
The march to the barracks took them past the woods and past Old Mother Foxmere, who sat in the shade of an oak, whittling. As Thomas drew level, she stood stiffly and matched his pace.
"Take this as a gift, Thomas, and find your purpose."
She handed him an arrow, straight and true, carved from ash with a flame-hardened point and with crow feathers for its flight. Thomas nodded without a word. He tucked the arrow into his shoulder bag and walked away from the town forever.
Their training was hard and short, for the war would not wait. It had held the two nations in its bloody grip for many years, and the disputed borderland, the origin of the conflict, was laid waste. Horse, sabre, cannon round, and bullet were the only shared dialogue, and their daily exchange fuelled the need for endless sacrifice.
Thomas fared better than most at the barracks. Where others complained at the hardship and discipline, he embraced it. Where they took their comfort in comradeship, he rejected it, content to be alone and without purpose, his focus his only friend. His sure hand and eye brought him to the attention of the rifle masters, who pressed him to join their ranks as a sharpshooter. He asked instead to join the company of archers, preferring the form and silence of the bow. It called to him of the trees and earth, of the spirit of the forest. Once again, he attracted scorn, for his choice of weapon was an uncommon one.
He was, however, called to the ranges one morning, and the Master Bowman addressed him haughtily.
"This is not a weapon of mass slaughter, boy, but of surgery. The company of archers plough a lonely path. We are assassins and approach our targets as a cat stalks. Each bowman travels with just his marker for company. One arrow must suffice, for then you are discovered and must retreat to hiding. Few have a natural skill that I can develop."
Thomas met his eye and, without a word, strode forward, picking and weighing a bow in one fluid movement. He withdrew three arrows from a leather quiver, stuck each in the ground, and spun towards the targets that stood across the range. Releasing a slow breath, his focus took him, and he loosed all three arrows in twice that number of seconds. All struck true in the red stain at the centre of the farthest target. He shouldered the bow and once again met the master's eye.
The man reached out and lifted Thomas's chin.
"What do they call you boy?"
"They generally call me nothing, sir. But I am Thomas of Broken Pine Tor, and I have no purpose."
The man nodded slowly.
"Well, you do now."
So Thomas took the green and grey of the company. He was teamed with a marker called Rafe Feasley, a slight man with whom he shared a mutual dislike. Rafe prized his spyglass as Thomas prized his bow, and together they served in forest and field, taking missions as they came. Here, a General of the opposition, visiting the forward lines, there, an enemy sharpshooter who had wreaked havoc all summer long amongst their cannon crew and many others. Thomas never missed, and his reputation grew, along with the envy of his fellows. Once again, he stood apart.
One cold autumn dawn, they lay hidden amongst the ferns at the top of a wooded ridge. Rafe, propped on his elbows, held his spyglass steady and scanned the village that hugged the bottom of the hill. The village, though belonging to the other side, had recently been occupied and looted by their troops. Food was short at the front, and the infantry ill-disciplined and hungry. Shouts of protest reached their ears as the troops moved from house to house, demanding provisions and making rough work of those that argued. Rafe focused on the meeting hall, occupied by the officer corp. Their intelligence had told of a dignitary from the government who would visit that morning and would serve as their prey. As he moved the focus wheel, the marker's breath condensed in the freezing air.
"Cover your mouth Rafe Feasley, your breath will reveal us."
"Mind your own mouth, archer. It is your talent for death that has us here in the first place, and not around the breakfast pot with our fellows."
Thomas made no reply but regarded the town with his own keen eyes. A commotion arose louder than the rest, and a group of infantry poured from one of the thatched houses dragging a woman. Her cries and their laughter cut the morning.
"See what you get now, you sow? We'll take your food, and we'll take this."
Two of them threw her roughly across a barrel as the others, swigging their loot, circled around. The ringleader ripped her top and spread her legs. Thomas tensed and began to rise, but Rafe took his arm.
Two black horses pulled a carriage into view around the corner of the meeting hall. They pulled up at the door amidst a flustered ceremony and standing to attention.
"It's him, bowman." He raised the glass again. "He will be out in a moment. Be quick and sure."
Thomas had already appraised the scene but turned back to regard the struggling woman.
"Bowman! On my life, she is a peasant and probably deserves her lot. Let them have their force, she will beg for more when they are done, and maybe they will give her a strong and arrogant son like you."
He kicked out and struck Thomas in the shin. Below, a fat man in the purple uniform of government office stepped from the carriage with the aid of a footman. Thomas stood, glancing from one to the other. Rafe's cheeks reddened with fury, and he hissed.
"For God's sake, you forced scum. Find your focus. Who do you think you are?"
Thomas lowered his eyes to the man while reaching back to his quiver. He spoke quietly.
"I am Thomas of Broken Pine Tor. I have my focus, and I have my purpose."
In a blur, he bent his knees and loosed his first arrow. The dawn air hissed, and the government man fell dead. The second was drawn and found its target in Rafe's left eye. He died gasping. Thomas now took one step forward and broke cover. Five more arrows followed, and five of the drunken infantry hit the cobbles amidst broken glass and spilt beer. The woman's screams died in her throat as her aggressor withdrew and clutched at his pants, turning around agape.
Thomas reached into the quiver once more. His hand closed on yet another arrow. This one, however, had not been turned and straightened by some military fletcher's hand. It was whittled from the wood of his native forest, with a flame-blackened tip and crow feathers for flight.
As he watched, the panicked infantryman drew the struggling, half-naked woman in front of him, crouching behind her and staring wildly around. Shouts arose from the meeting hall as physik doctors rushed to tend to the dignitary. Shots rang out and cracked the branches behind Thomas. He stood still. The soldier's upper body was barely visible now, an improbable shot at too long a distance. Thomas drew three long breaths as more bullets strafed the hillside.
His focus descended once more and wrapped itself around him, guiding his eye and hands. The arrow whistled as it flew, as if eager for the icy air and freedom. It entered the soldier's neck, and he slid to the ground as his life bled away.
The woman ran.
Thomas of Broken Pine Tor shouldered his bow, turned, and strode quietly through the bracken. His green and grey met the colours of the forest. They took him and swallowed him, allowing him to share space with all the things that scurried and ran there and to share its secrets and its darkness.