Part of a small piece I’m working on for a short story competition, for the prompt “he awoke to the sound of birds”. The pieces will hopefully begin to fit together into a coherent jigsaw as the story continues, but it’s taken from a legend. (Though, if it gives you a clue, I’m utterly ignoring the latest adaptations of it; this is my own odd, unfinished little version, with badly-named horses and coin tricks.)
He awoke to the sound of birds. Leaves fell from his hair as he sat up, shook his head.
How long had it been? He didn’t know. All he knew was the green of the forest, the weight of the bow on his back; the days had begun to blur into the march forward, the march home.
Steed, the only constant in his life, was dead; lying far behind him, on foreign sands. Steed had been there in the stables when he had first learned to ride; when Marian had still jested about his eyes, so different from his parents’ – the bright green of forests, of mischief, of changelings. Steed was the horse he rode when he went hunting, the day he heard his parents’ land had fallen to him; Steed was beneath him when they both almost fell, steady in an ever-changing battlefield, men being spent like coin round him. No one who had seen the Crusades could ever have called them holy.
He was almost there – he could feel it in his blood, feet moving to the beat of his heart. His land, his country, his home.
He shut his eyes tightly, unable to afford himself distractions; he wanted to have a clear mind when he saw his home, savour it, breathe in the sweet, familiar air.
He realised that his nails were digging into his palms, his fists clenched too tightly; he barely felt it – odd, since he was usually so aware of his hands. They were strong, calloused, but fast and steady. They had been the making of him.
He was easily the best archer in these lands, in many; it was neither false boast nor jest, simply fact. He had amused the men, on the nights when home had seemed far away, with talent that he had pretended was tricks, downplaying his skill. It had almost been like the simpler days, the appreciation and the split arrows, but never quite – his audience were soldiers, not the rich, clapping with grubby, bloodstained hands.
He had been friendly, well-liked amongst the men, and intelligent enough not to mention his wealth in a camp of several starving, over-taxed farmers. He had seen it happening where he lived; watched, and done nothing. He felt bile rise in the back of his throat from the shame of it, but bit it down. Home.
He saw light, clear grass through the foliage, the trees beginning to clear, and sped up, breath coming faster now…
The castle rose up before him in all its glory, as if welcoming him into its familiar embrace, and he smiled.