“Guns are toys which don’t surprise you when they prove to be dangerous.”-Ord fregnost proverb
She measured the distance between the little holes in the flat surface of scrap wood. A pretty consistent level of accuracy, all told. With how far she was shooting, that was both extremely impressive and a frank disappointment of the highest order. A tight clustering deviating from her intended target was just a more efficient failure.
The varnish covering every scrap of the thing’s components besides the string had a slightly pretty quality – the word, she’d learned after a bit of sideways dictionary exploration, was chatoyancy. When the long wood stock he’d produced was convinced to mate with the iron arms, and suitable projectiles seated in the place of ritual significance, she could almost feel the tension setting the whole device to quivering. That quivering, or maybe the unusual distribution of weight, gave her an eerie colorful sense of anticipation.
To her chagrin, compared to where she thought it should send the lengthy spikes of metal, the arbalest was going considerably off-course upward. The target was only twenty body-lengths and therefore well within her range of easy targeting if using her sling. A deviation of a whole body-length sideways per twenty away would have been embarrassing under those preconditions.
With the weighty thing she was trying to stabilize and manage? She hoped that Eihks wasn’t making mock of her in his own mind. Instead, what she was getting with all the surety of death was a supremely tight clustering.
No, she couldn’t correct her aim for offal. Yes, she had the power of magnificent stability when maintaining an angle and distance.
“Shoot when you’re breathing out, once your lungs are empty,” Eihks advised from behind her.
He’d said it once at the beginning of the exercise. She hadn’t forgotten. Neither, though, had she succeeded in following the directive as she probably ought to have done.
She looked, waited, shifted her supporting arm just a little bit, exhaled, then repeated the simple action of pulling back with a single digit.
Some quality in her brain shifted, and a little mental indicator with “happiness” written upon it adjusted in a positive direction.
A deceptively gentle snap heralded the application of physics which – thanks to her nightly studying – she was beginning to understand in a far more complete fashion. Momentum imparted as potential transitioned into kinetic, pulleys received enough slack to perform work upon a surface, the surface shifted under its action, and the object of which that surface was a part decided it was time to fly.
Her ears went flush with her skull as the bolt whistled a gay high thin tune for what seemed like too short a time to even quantify, before it sank easily into dead tree flesh.
Eihks held up an arm, and she lowered the arbalest’s business end so it pointed earthward. When he strode out to the wide target, he had a bit of spring to his step. A hard yank, and the dart was pulled free of its prison.
“Well, not too bad!” he announced, a bit disingenuously perhaps, while sliding it back out of the wood that had been darkened with charcoal. The projectile was not enormous; if she wished she could hide it entirely with both hands. However, it was plenty long enough for putting a living creature down.
Eihks returned the little metallic bringer of death, and smiled.
Fonlat, seated on a half-subsumed rock with Ktsn between her and the target, dispensed yet another set of hard short questions. Eihks replied with some pantomime.
“Could you hold it up vertically?” he asked the karkshesh.
She obliged, and he indicated the long-handled metallic lever on the weapon’s side. Fonlat peered along the length of his hand’s described arc.
“Pull it back, if you would,” he instructed after another short gabbling. Ktsn coaxed the long handle to transfer torsion back up a sturdy if strange ladder of mechanical components. He assured her that she managed with admirable ease. Halfway through the process, he asked her to slow down. The exact same demonstration had occurred twice before.
It wasn’t clear whether Fonlat was just getting reinforcement on the principles for clarity’s sake, or if she had an interest in peeling apart some new characteristic of function in the device each time. It could have been some combination. It could have been neither.
It was, to Ktsn’s mind, very nearly irrelevant.
The crank finished cranking, a barb of lethal metal was laid into the track, and the thing Eihks had spawned from his sack of surprises snapped once more.
A sprig of metal suddenly grew from the target with a rasping hiss. It was not centered, but came much closer than the last shot.
“Having fun?” Eihks asked, from far to the side.
When she paused in the act of resetting the weapon’s draw, he smiled.
“I know it’s not a gun, and this place’s chemistry and thermodynamics support everything we need to put one of those together. Introducing something with that level of disruption potential into this sort of not-quite-warring environment, though?”
He thumb-swiped, then down-signed.
“Not a good idea.”
She was a bit surprised when he frowned at her, head aslant, then looked down the range. One fan of fingers held themselves out, obviously measuring something against the apparent distance, then he snorted.
“Wait. I think I see the issue.”
His arms flowed overtop of each other, elbows slotting together.
“You haven’t done any real work with your sling since we arrived.”
A sideways head-bob, then he picked up a rock and put it into her hand.
“Give it a shot, if you would, please?” he entreated.
“With the sling?”
“With the sling.”
She spun up the length of leather, a small part of her mind telling her that she needed to think about replacing it soon. The rock left its entrapment at great speed, though an extra rotation after when she’d initially intended to release. She heard a little grunt from Fonlat behind her.
The rock sailed on a smooth, beautifully clean arc – right over the upper edge of the wood.
Dumbfounded, she only processed the way it careened off into the growth with a tiny part of her mind. After a few seconds, though, she remembered how she’d felt when she’d first stepped into a bamboo grove, and found herself almost floating off the ground.
She repeated the process again, aiming lower once her brain performed the wonderfully complicated estimates of solving for derivatives and vectors based on relationships between masses.
This time, the target shuddered with a nearly-perfect strike.
“Very good!” Eihks said, hands clapping together.
Okay. Starting to become just a bit annoying with that occasionally patronizing attitude.
“I managed to learn something after years of practice, you know,” Ktsn told him.
Upon turning to glare at him, she began scowling at the man as he held an arm high. Rather than looking at her, he was engrossed with a small creature stepping slowly across the arm’s back. His lips twitched.
“A most curious display of motor coordination,” he said aloud, watching the high-step walk of the little chitinous animal. Ktsn made the connection that he was putting on a show for his – for their – publication’s audience.
But then his free hand extended in her direction at the last moment before she started sniping at him with words or rocks. The animal came to a halt, then sprang somersaulting away.
“You have the knack of aiming yet?” he called.
“I believe so,” she admitted, hefting the bowed arms of her weapon again. Her sling went back home.
“Let’s see small increments of large victories, then. Show what you can do.”
It turned out that her aim, if anything, was the best it had ever been.
Just as she finished loading and was about to fire at the knot near the tree’s base, she heard a soft gasp behind her. A sound of surprise. A sound of outrage.
Her aiming eye shot closed and the eye pointed behind her crept open.
Eihks was staring into the distance, one palm aimed at Fonlat despite the fact she faced away for the time being. His spine stood straight, his digits were clawed, and unless she was mistaken he shook very slightly. Almost half a minute went by with him frozen in that pose.
“Amazing,” he said, in rusted Rhaagmini.
The sound as he refocused on Ktsn was a bit like the sound of unexpectedly getting hit in the side.
“Ah,” he said at her. “Ah, sorry. I just received some personal news of an unusual nature.”
One of the clawed hands waved.
“Please carry on, and ignore me.”
Ktsn stood there unmoving, the arbalest slack in her grip.
“I’m still metabolizing what it means.”
“Fine! Fine. I should have said ‘I found out about something that you can safely ignore for the time being.’ Happy?”
Well, that was something she was definitely planning to revisit later. But not now.
For now, she’d settle for remembering.
The arbalest clicked back. Ten minutes passed with practicing a quirky new breed of archery.
After a handful more metal barbels, Fonlat started going on about something in a quiet impassioned stream. Eihks replied to her in a more cogent measured way: that way he had when he was giving one of his speeches. It was the equivalent of a farmer showing the ins and outs to a new hand, with a short stop here, a bit of directing attention there.
Then the lecture became overlaid, or maybe accented, with a vegetative rustling.
A rustling that sent Ktsn’s ears back, and bent her legs.
The rustling gave way to a familiar-looking sort of head emerging from the distant brush. One of those udnura things, scrabbling out of the titanic grasses toward her. She froze, pulling back into the clammy cloistering that was a total lack of thought.
It only lasted for a second, though.
“You’ve got the weapon and the skills,” she heard Eihks tell her in the sudden silence. “Now, make use of them.”
The eye of her mind summoned him idly spinning one of those knives, watching the beast that squirted from the forest’s womb. A vague and neutral look had taken up residence on his face. It was what she thought might be on a human’s face if they’re debating whether they should step in and discipline their child. Brain-conjured Eihks slipped her a clandestine glare and flipped his hand over, gesticulating at the oncoming animal.
Ktsn thought of the last confrontation with one of these critters, and hair stood up down her whole length.
Not going to let her colleague steal the fun. Not at all.
It felt like a long while, but less than a full breath went by before she began to raise her metal-winged weapon. A deft alignment, an exact discharge. The bolt flew.
All four of the animal’s legs slackened as the projectile soared into the upper part of its open foliate mouth. Some small amount of blood and flesh flung itself away when the head punched out through the neck. A determined moan rose, warbling and ill. Several widely-separated abductor muscles in the udnura’s body suddenly clenched, and it slopped to the ground like a viscous phase of milk.
Then it continued, pulling itself onward, hoping for who-knew-what. Maybe its instinct drove it to kill or feed at even the cost of its own life. Maybe it no longer had an accurate bearing of which direction would bring it away from danger.
Ktsn approached, hefting her pickax, despite her associate’s vaguely cautionary movements at her lee. She eyed the strong stuff that was the head of her tool of choice. After all, what is good for savaging the untamed soil often suffices for flesh.
The dull light caught the recurve of the blade as it drew up.
There were twitches and bleeding, then the creature softened and stilled forever.
Killing an animal was no reason for joy; vanquishing this particular beast, though, bought her relief far out of proportion to the actual deed.
“You’ll be dispatching much bigger and better things soon,” Eihks told her, somehow audible over Fonlat’s exuberant exclamations.
The way he refused to look at or get too close to her put Ktsn in mind of that strange outburst of his.
Just before he walked off and started delivering emergency dissertation supplements to the other human, he added, “Just make sure you’re confident in the consequences you court when you do the shooting.”
She had the duty of cutting the bolt free several minutes later. Her hands didn’t shake, and she couldn’t forget the gently weeping scar that remained when she pulled the square-tipped object free.
She had no idea what the full consequences of her adventure in this land were going to be. She just knew that she was confident that this was the path she needed to walk.
The bolt stayed bloody until Eihks cleaned it later.