Ancient History, art, Crossbow, Fiction, history, Medieval, Weapons

The Bowman Part I (A Short Story)

Gian stepped up to the wooden fence lodged in the pavement. He knelt and closed one eye, looking out over the expanse between him and the thatch bundle that was the base of his target nearly 2 meters away. The target consisted of a circle with facing out with a horizontal tower of cylinders stacked smaller upon bigger until it jutted out to a bulls-eye about 10 centimeters in diameter. He squints and he mentally fires hundreds of bolts toward that tiny bulls-eye. Some hit dead on, most miss the exposed edges on the other cylinders and even more miss the target altogether. Another man took his place next to him 5 yards down the range. He was using a much more efficient iron cranequin to pull his bow taught. Gian did not begrudge him this, but he rather liked the feel of the windlass. I made him feel connected to the power of this formidable piece of weaponry, and to its history as a weapon of tension and strength.

Gian believed that if you choose to use a tool of this precision and engineering you might as well make yourself as much part of the thing as possible. The more the weapon was thought of as an extension of yourself the more devastating the power of it was against your foe. A warrior does not kill with a weapon, he kills with his mind. The mind sees the target, the mind judges the wind and the light, the pitch of the field and the distance, the mind calls upon the arms to use the windlass to pull the bow taught, the orders the hands to hold the weapon steady and the mind calls upon all of its instinct and experience as it aims down the length and pulls the trigger.

Gian was the scion of an old family from a tiny but proud nation, San Marino. He, like every man who comes of age in his nation, was ready to take his place in the armed forces. He simply had to prove himself physically fit to join the Great Guard of the rock but he strove for a much more prestigious post. He wished to join the famed Crossbow Corps, the greatest assemblage of marksmen the world had yet born witness to. He longed to follow his father, his grandfather, and forebears going back over a century into this corps of esteemed heroes. Only the best hunters, arrow-smiths and archers even bothered to try out, and only 5 out of the 30 men who made the effort actually were accepted into the unit in the end. Gian’s pedigree in no way promised him a spot, but he did inherit his forebear’s skill with the bow.

The man next to Gian knelt before the fence and brought his weapon up to his right shoulder. He placed his bolt in place on the shaft of the weapon, which he had already primed with the aforementioned cranequin. He leveled the bow and took a deep breath before pulling the trigger. The weapon jerked almost imperceptibly to the left, and the bolt shot out and just barely grazed the upper left edge of the inner bulls-eye and lodged deep in the straw bundle support. In spite of himself Gian felt bad for his opponent. He had made the fatal mistake of exhaling while firing. Never exhale until the bolt is firmly stuck in the target. The very act of breathing sets off every mental calculation you make, and throws your aim off by that fatal centimeter that is the difference between dead center and missing completely.

The fact that his opponent did not seem to know this fact showed him to be a rank amateur at best with the weapon; probably someone who hunted with it on occasion but never practiced it as an art. That is what separated Jan from the rest. He was an artist with the crossbow. He had been practicing since the age of 8, and before that he had watched his father fix the bow and string it. He knew how to take apart and reassemble the weapon long before he knew how to shoot it at all. His father had long been commissioned by the Crossbow Corps to build and maintain their cache, and as an apprentice to his father Gian was often brought along to the arsenal. These trips made a huge impression on the young man.

As his father went about his business inspecting the bolts and restringing the bows Jan would wander about and look at the ancient weapons and marvel at their beauty and elegance. He would imagine himself as a soldier on the front line of some distant conflict, marching under the blue and white banner of his nation, and caparisoned in his colorful martial finery. Once during one if these boyish reveries he was snapped back to reality by the voice of his father calling him over. The old man had wanted to show Gian a new bit of technology that he was employing to improve the accuracy of the weapons. He pointed out a small nodule at the tip of the shaft and told his son that “this is where you will now place the head of the arrow Gian, and it will fly truer and straighter then it ever has. All of our bows will now have this innovation, and San Marino will have the most feared bowmen in    all of the world!” At the time Gian barely understood what his father was telling him, but now as he stood as a young man attempting to make some part of his childish dream a reality he recalled that day and smiled. That little bump at the end of the bow would keep most of the bolt from dragging against the stock of the crossbow, reducing drag and improving the flight of the bolt. It was as Gian’s grandfather used to say to him: “The sparrow does not fly with his belly scraping the earth. He sours upon the wind.” This coupled with his natural ability made Gian confident of victory. But confidence is not a currency he could trade for his space in the corps. Only action would do.

A few more men had sauntered up to the range, some holding 2 meter high pavise shields, other with incredibly ancient family heirloom weapons made entirely of wood and animal sinew. All were quick to load their weapons and take shots at the target. A few had rather good form, even fewer had excellent form. None so far were proving to be a master with the weapon. The Captain of the Corps arrived just as the last bowmen were stringing their weapons; Giovanni Lorenzo Pecora was a family friend and as good as an uncle to Gian. That being said, Gian was not foolish enough to think that his cordial relationship with the man would have any positive impact in his favor regarding his entrance into the corps. On the contrary, the Captain would surely scrutinize Gian with that much more vigor, and expect the best from him as the son of an acclaimed bowyer and former corpsman.

The Captain picked Gian out of the lineup and walked over to him, an enormous grin brightening his battle scared face. “Ah! Ah! Gian Bernardo Spada. Yet another one of you Spada boys trying out for the Corps, eh? Just yesterday you were running around naked as a plucked chicken in your father’s parlor. Now you are a strapping man with an eye towards being a hero, eh? Blessed Virgin how time flies.” Gian smiled and leaned his crossbow against the fence so he could turn and face his friend and hero. “Oh how that is so Captain. I only wish my father were alive to see his eldest son try to take his place in the family profession. Oh how he would weep with joy!”

The Captain slapped Gian on the back and bit his lower lip in a manly effort to hold back tears.

“Well…ahm…Yes. He was a good man your father, and his father before. In fact it was your Grandpapa that taught me everything I know about the art of archery and shooting. He was a genius was Bernardo Spada, and your father took after him. It remains to be seen if you exhibit that same acumen and greatness that seems to run with the proud blood in your family’s veins.” The Captain cleared his throat loudly and frowned seriously. “Oh! Enough of this womanish squawking! We must get this test underway! Good luck to you young Spada.” He clicked his heals and walked away towards the small viewing stand where the other members of the Corps sat evaluating the prospects. Gian saluted the spectators and turned back to make last minute adjustments to his bow. He wanted to make a real impression on this group of Sammarinese dignitaries.

Trumpets were sounded, and the blue and white banners of the Republic were unfurled. The small crowd stood and bowed their heads as the flag bearers marched in front of the stands with the national colors. With choreographed poise and dignity the Senior of the two Captains Regent stood up on a small dais set up facing the archers. We wore a blue and white cape and a medal bearing the likeness of the patron St. Agatha. He cleared his throat and went into his brief prepared remarks. “Assembled before us today are young men who wish to honor their Republic and themselves by joining the storied ranks of the Crossbow Corps of San Marino. I salute you all for making the attempt, and even if you are found wanting your efforts will not be seen in vain. You are the sons of the Republic, and there is no shame in failing in the pursuit of serving your nation.”

He paused to allow the crowd to applaud politely, and then moved on to the rules of the tournament. “Whether you realized it or not you have already been, and are still being, judged by the members of the Corps. They have been making notes as to your form, care of your weapon, and general fitness for duty along with sundry other things. You will not proceed to make your final attempt at impressing your betters: you each get one bolt, and one attempt at hitting the target. A misfire counts as a shot, and whomever hits closest to the bulls-eye wins the tourney and the prize of 15 pieces of gold. The captains will then make their picks, if any, for the corps. There will be no arguing with their decisions, just except their judgment like the men you are. Thank you my young fellow countrymen, and good luck to you.”

To be continued in Part II 


The work of Sir Ralph Payne-Gallwey in his book The Crossbow: Mediaeval and Modern

Military and Sporting- its Construction, History and Management with a Treatise on The Balista and Catapult of the Ancients (republished in 2007 by Skyhorse Publishing) has proved invaluable in the creation of this story.


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