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Chapter 11 - Day of Festivities

Art woke the next day finding none of the others remained on the wide bed they'd gone to sleep sharing. They'd left him to wake up on his own time, and he appreciated that. He felt well rested, and the pains all over his body subsiding had attested to the wonders that a good night's sleep wrought.

Art had not changed into night clothes, as he'd not had any to begin with -- those he'd abandoned back at the monastery. He walked out of the bedroom -- the humble home's only other room -- and into the primary room.

"Morning, Art, or should I say noon?" asked Penny, looking up from sewing Art's tattered black gambeson, which rested upon her lap. -- "Morning, Penny… you didn't have to!" -- "No, I didn't, but we can't very well have you walk around in something like that or it'll reflect badly on Nathan and I too." -- "Everyone knows I'm here?" -- "It's a small village, Thistledown. Doesn't take long before the gossip gets around, and I'd prefer the right kind of gossip, thank you very much." -- "Thank you very much indeed." He looked around, noticed the others had left the house. "Where did everyone else go?"

Right on cue, Selena slammed the front door open. "Art! Wake up wake up… oh, you've waked up already," she said, coming to a halt. -- "You have come take a look!" she took hold of him by his wrist and started dragging him out the door. -- "Come now, Selena, what's this all about?" -- "Come on, you'll see!"

Art walked outside and followed Selena as she dragged him to the wide open space that was the village center. There he found what must have been half the village assembled there, crowding around in a big circle around some kind of event. "What is going on?" he asked, though Selena kept quiet, a big grin plastered on her face. He felt stunned. One moment he remembered going to sleep all somber with worry about the future of the village and of the sisterhood, and now it seemed everyone was celebrating? Had they lost their senses?

As they approached, cheers and raucous laughter went up from the crowd. He apologized to several as he and Selena squeezed in so they could see what was happening. "Well, I'll be damned," he remarked to himself.

In the middle of the crowd an oval wooden fencing had been set up, held in place on the dirt ground by two concentric rings of stone blocks. In the middle, two wooden stakes stood driven into the earth, and a man and a woman were racing round and round, the man going around the left and the woman around the right. In each of their left hands they held a length of rope connected to the tops of their respective stakes, and in the right they held a light wooden stick which they batted around as they went. Over the man's eyes was tied a length of blue cloth; over the woman's, a length of red cloth. They laughed as much as any of the onlookers, even as they stumbled from dizziness as they went, beating wildly. Also in the pen a pair of roosters had been let loose and now clucked around as they darted to and fro, occasionally flying but never high enough to escape the ringfence as they tried to avoid getting hit by the sticks and mostly succeeding as the two humans had been blindfolded.

"Red!" -- "Blue!" -- "Blue!" -- "Red!" -- "Blue!" -- and so on the audience shouted, with those on the man's side shouting "Blue" and those on the other side shouting "Red". As he stared, still dazed that this would be happening, he noticed that the villagers had essentially formed into two spectating teams, each of them shouting and cheering whenever their participant managed to land a hit on either of the two unfortunate fowl. And opposite him, sitting on a raised platform, a fat, stocky man in a white tabard stood watching the games, and a boy in a simple blue tunic sat next to him. The boy sat there tallying up the calls, putting little pebbles on one side or the other as each call was made.

"Guys, really?" asked Art, though neither the man on his left nor the one on his right replied. These villagers had time for games like this? What were they thinking? Shouting to be heard above the crowd, he asked the one next to him. "What's going on here?" -- "You've never seen burlesque before? The rules are simple." -- "I know the rules, I'm asking why." -- "Do we need a reason? Can't you see the crowd's enjoying themselves right now?" -- "Yeah but…" -- "Winner of the tourney gets a prize." -- "What prize?" -- "Longbow," the man said, pointing at the man in the tabard.

"A… longbow?" Art mused. Rather cheap, certainly, but odd for such to be a prize; he doubted anyone in the village had the training to use one. The sisters knew their way around the bow and arrow, but he doubted anyone simply lost theirs back at the monastery. And it was a longbow, from the looks of it, quite a tall one. The sisters, women all, might be able to use one, but their builds made them more suited to using shorter bows. Trying to use too long a bow would slow their rate of release. And unlike a hunting bow, it could not be used for much else, being too unwieldy for use as a hunting bow.

Art looked over the man. Beside the platform had been parked a covered wagon, large enough for a man to walk inside, its wooden doors propped open, and with a longbow resting aside it. Also beside the man, on each side, stood wooden tables completely covered with an assortment of goods -- trinkets, clothes, pewterware, bowls and jugs, hammers and knives, belts and broaches, and propped against the tables rested iron farmer's tools of all purposes. Inside the wagon he could see even more goods -- gloves, boots, caps and helms, several quivers of arrows, an axe and sword propped against a round shield in the back.

Then it clicked. This had all been a ploy by the stocky man in the tabard as he showcased his wares. Probably a merchant who had just arrived that morning and set up shop for the day before moving on, and he'd arranged the burlesque for the purpose of attracting all the attention of the village so they'd all come out to look at his wares; and the prize to get the contestants he needed to keep their attention. And a longbow at that -- what a cheap prize, that. It had worked, in a sense. Selena had brought Art over here where he could see what the man had for sale. And he would have gone and bought something from the man too; he'd needed a sword after losing his back at the monastery. Unfortunately for both him and the merchant, he lacked the coin to buy it.

"Finished!" called the counting-boy, opening his palms up to show that he'd no stones left to set down. The crowd settled down and the contestants pulled off their blindfolds, gasping for breath, and turned to the counting-boy, who proceeded to count first the one pile of stones and then the other. "Thirty-three… Thirty-eight. Red wins!" he called out, and the woman contestant jumped with fists pumping the air.

"Next up," called out the merchant, and the two contests walked out of the ring, leaving behind the two lightly bruised roosters and a scattering of shedded white chicken feathers. Art watched as several of the villagers took advantage of the lull to approach the merchant, no doubt making a purchase. From the looks of it, the man closed several transactions in mere minutes, and a not insignificant amount of silver entered his hands. Sly, having a shop while providing entertainment, he thought. Happy people parted with their coin much more easily. Drunken on the foolishness of the games, they'd not even noticed themselves getting played for fools.

Warriv and a woman wearing white and brown gambeson stepped into the ring. Someone from the crowd protested. "She's one of the sisters. How can you allow her to compete? That won't even be fair." -- "Aye, aye," several others in the crowd started nodding. Art joined in on the shouting too. He'd heard tell of the sisterhood's capabilities. If the Order of the Sightless Eye was renowned far and wide, it was for this. Warriv wouldn't stand a chance.

"Hey, can't a woman play in the game?" the sister protested. -- "Not you, you can't." -- "Yeah! You'll win the prize way too easy." -- "This isn't even a competition," said another, walking away from the crowd line. -- "But I just wanted to have some fun, like you do."

"Now now, I'm sure we can come to some kind of arrangement that would be acceptable to everyone," said the merchant, raising his hands palms up to pacify the crowd, to reasonable effect. "If I may make a suggestion? We all know the sisters are world renowned for their way of the third eye, so of course if we allowed a sister to participate, the results are a foregone conclusion. But my dear," he said to the sister, "If you would be so magnanimous as to agree to bow out of the tournament after this round, and forfeit any claim on the prize, then I see no reason why we cannot proceed with it. You get to play and you get to win, the gentleman beside you gets to continue in the next round, and everyone else gets a rare chance to see your way in action. Everybody wins!"

"Agreeable terms," said the sister. "I already have a bow, and have little need for another. Let us begin." Then she and Warriv began to put on their blindfolds. -- "Ladies and gentlemen," said the merchant with a clap of hands, "I present to you… in the blue blindfold, Warriv, of the caravaners. And in red, Liene of the sisterhood. Let the game begin!"

As the crowd cheered in anticipation, Warriv immediately set about racing round and round his stake, swinging his stick to and fro so as to get the most coverage of the space, but mostly whipping his stick through thin air. The chickens darted back and forth between the two contestants, their occasional clucking or fluttering of wings revealing their positions to allow him to land hits on them. "Blue!" shouted the crowd each time he managed to land a hit.

But the calls of "Red!" on the other side came without end. Holding on to her end of the rope, Liene raced about her stake just as quick as her opponent, but refrained from hitting nothingness. Each time she went about, like clockwork, she landed a quick tap of the stick against the roosters on her side of the field, making them cluck and take flight again and again until the both of them wound up in Warriv's half of the oval ring. When that happened she stopped running altogether and simply waited, until the moment either of the roosters, fleeing Warriv's infrequent strikes, came back within her reach, whereupon she would lash out with her stick again. That red blindfold covering her eyes might as well not be there.

"Finished!" called the counting boy, and started to count the one pile, before turning back to the crowd. "Hey, do I really need to count these piles? I mean like, you all know who won." One pile stood considerably higher than the other. The crowd cheered the victor, even as Art reached over to pat Warriv on the back. -- "Don't mind her, you did great. Besides, you're still in for the next round."

"That's fine," said Liene, setting down her blindfold on the wooden stake. "Nice practice." She strode out of the pen to stand by several other women in gambesons all clustered together. "We could all do with a bit of practice in these times," she said to her fellow sisters. "Your turn, Diane."Art watched as the sister she addressed, who looked no more than eighteen, shook her head, looking downright mortified at the prospect, and as Liene then practically pushed Diane forward, almost stumbling, into the ring, causing the crowd to cheer. When Diane promptly turned around and tried to exit, Liene shot her a stern look. "You can't say you're half as good at third eye as I am. Get out there and show them what you can do."

Ah, thought Art; the sisters viewed this as training. To them, the war must surely still remain at the forefront of their thoughts. Two could play that game, he thought as he stepped forward, past the gate and into the pen. The crowd cheered for him as well, then quickly fell silent as they saw his right arm. He didn't have to look about, didn't have to tap into the sisters' way of the third eye to feel their stares. Their whispers to those beside them, their pointing at him when they thought he wasn't looking, told all. Yes, I'm a handicap, thought Art to himself; might as well let everyone know now and get it over with, rather than have the rumor mill take its course.

Warriv ran up to him. "Art, what do you think you're doing?" -- "I don't know, you tell me." -- Warriv held Art by his amputated arm, then stared at him. "You have guts, I'll admit that much. I wouldn't have put myself out like this for the world. And why are you competing, anyways?" -- Art made a nod toward the longbow still propped against the wagon. -- "Really?" -- "Yeah, why not? Impossble's never stopped me before." -- Warriv smiled and gave him a pat on the shoulder. "Well then, you do you."

Warriv then turned to the crowd. "Anyone have some rope handy?" -- "Here!" -- "My good man! Thank you." Warriv then took the rope and started tying it to the rope already on Art's stake, making it longer, and looping it around Art's right elbow. "There we go. Good luck," he said as he set the blue blindfold over Art's eyes, then stepped back to rejoin the crowd line.

Another clap of hands. "Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you… in the blue blindfold, Art, of the caravaners. And in red, Diane of the sisterhood. Let the game begin!" And as the crowd burst into cheers, Art began to race.

A leaf, a petal, a feather, I drift in the open sky.

He could sense the wind flowing past him. Without his gambeson, with just his tunic, he took note of the slightest breeze, the smallest disturbance in the air. So long as it came from right next to him, the way of the dancing leaf would urge him to move out of the way. When he approached a rooster, its very attempts to back away from him shifted the air by his legs, forewarned him of its impending movements.

Carried by the wind, I spin, going where it takes me.

He'd normally use dancing leaf to avoid taking a hit from a thrust spear, a sweep of a sword, the crush of a mace, dodging or parrying without the need to even look, while the sense it provided oftentimes offered him an opening to counterattack. But this time, he pushed down the urge to back away from any movement; these roosters posed no threat, after all.

Slender, soft, small, I float on through the sky.

The sisters' way of the third eye let them see in whatever direction they wanted with a eponymous third eye. That eyeless sight could see at distance. His way of the dancing leaf only allowed him to sense the wind through sense of touch, but in a game such as this, with the roosters always close enough for him to almost touch them, he'd no need for anything more.

Dancing upon the breeze, I sweep past all that approach.

And with stick in hand, he landed strike after strike on the roosters, heard the onlookers cheer his every strike. "Blue, blue, blue," they shouted, almost as often as they shouted "Red", and the panicked roosters clucked and fluttered back and forth between the two contestants who never missed a beat. And amongst those calls, Art heard excited whispers: "How's he doing that?" -- "Is he using the way of the third eye, just like the sisters can?" -- "Is he now? Does he look like a lady to you?" -- "Now they're just making this look too easy…"

"Finished!" called the counting-boy. -- "Finished, already?" several in the crowd asked, groaning in dismay. The counting-boy started counting the two piles.

As Art took off his blindfold, he turned to nod at Diane. "You did well. Liene should be proud of you." -- "You also. I don't recall ever seeing you in the monastery. Is there another school that teaches the third eye?" -- "Oh, what I used, that is nothing. Yours is the real deal."

"Tie," the counting-boy called out. -- "I thought you were using seventy one stones, how could you have gotten a tie?" asked the merchant. -- "Well, you see, when I saw them going about it so well I think my jaws dropped so much that I swallowed a rock." -- "You what?" Gheed turned around to greet the protesting crowd, and held out his hands in an appeasing gesture. "Now, now, I"m sure there's an explanation for this. Tom, why don't you count those stones again, I'm sure it's just a miscount." -- "I uh," said Tom with a sheepish grin, "already mixed the piles back together."

"…You know what, why don't we call this a tie," said the merchant. "Doesn't matter after all, since the sisters have agreed to bow out regardless of how well they did." -- "But what about Art?" someone asked, "Surely he was using the way of the third eye as well." -- "I was not." -- "Oh really? Want to explain how you did that then?" -- "Sure, if you'd like to step right on up and then cluck like a chicken, and if someone can go fetch me a whip, I'll show you exactly what happens when I use my little trick." -- "Burn!"

"Alright alright, who's up next, hmm?" asked the merchant, eyes scanning the crowd. Art looked about as well. Liene prodded another one of the sisters into the ring, but no one else stepped forward. "Anyone," he asked, smile faltering. "Anyone?" Still no one stepped forward. The crowd had started muttering about how no one could have done what Art had done without using the way of the third eye, and how he must be lying about not using the same technique as the sisters. -- "No use trying. No one can beat that," someone shouted from the crowd. -- "Aye, it's clear who's going to win the competition." -- "No point staying here then." -- "Ah, now now, let's not be too hasty about this," said the merchant, waving his arms about frantically.

Art walked up to the merchant. "I think that latest performance I gave put a real damper on this competition. You might want to consider wrapping this up and handing out the prize, and then moving on to the next contest, shall we? Before everyone starts leaving. I'm sure you want to keep your audience more than anyone else here."

The merchant looked at him and then the gradually dissipating crowd and sighed. "Alright, next round! Anyone from the previous rounds want to challenge Art here for the championship?…No? Okay then… Stay, folks! We'll be moving on to the next contest -- archery! Stay and feast your eyes on a performance by our lovely sisters here that you'll never forget!" he said, stepping forward as if to pursue the dissipating crowd.

"Say, I don't think we've been properly introduced. what's your name again?" asked Art, sticking his face in front of him. -- "Name's Gheed." -- "Say, Gheed, aren't you conveniently forgetting something?" Art turned to face the remnants of the crowd, arms raised to get their attention. "Am I right?" -- "Ah yes, of course, I wouldn't dare to forget, why it just slipped my mind for a moment."

Gheed reached out for the longbow propped against the open door of his wagon, then held it toward Art with his pudgy hand, and announced: "As promised -- Longbow, brand spanking new. Bow-shaft exactly two yards long, draw weight one hundred pounds." He held it out to Art, a smile hiding the smirk on his face. "That is, if you would have it."

That made Art reconsider. Why'd he even demanded it from Gheed? It may be his due, but much as with the sisters who'd relinquished their claim, he couldn't do anything with it, not with just his one hand. He couldn't very well sell it to anyone else in the village, seeing as no one else here could use it either. Oh well, he figured, he could just gift it to the Bedfords as a way of saying thanks. He'd not much anything else he could give them in thanks, anyway, and he was loathe to part with what remained of his armor while in the midst of a war.

He took the longbow, and smirked as it wiped the smirk off Gheed's face.

Gheed went into his wagon and fetched out several rings on stands. He turned to the crowd, announcing, "Now then, archery competition it is! Anyone here who fancies himself or herself a good shot with the bow, line on up! Prize is an arming sword this time!"

The hell? thought Art. Giving out a longbow as the prize for a swatting contest and a sword as a prize for an archery contest? Talk about misaligned incentives. Why not the other way around? He saw Gheed shooting him a meaningful look, almost as if to say, 'I know you have a longbow you can't do anything with and you'll want a sword instead; but with just that one arm of yours, you don't stand a chance of winning an archery competition; you want the sword? You can't have it.' Was the merchant mocking him?

And had the choice of making the prize a sword, been a matter of pure chance? From the way Gheed looked at him, he could only surmise that the merchant had already concluded him to be a sword user, and an arming sword at that. Art hadn't a sword or scabbard with him; nor had he told this lot of his being a swordsman. So how could he know?

Think, he thought to himself, what had he let slip? What had he done to give away his training? Ah, of course, he realized; he'd been participating in the hitting game earlier, and with success that one only achieved with a way. He'd used the way of the dancing leaf; had the merchant deduced, from that alone, Art's training in the Flying Feather School, whose preferred weapon was the arming sword? His estimation of the merchant had just gone up several notches.

At least this time the merchant had put up something more valuable as the prize.

As the crowd began to re-form, cheering at the prospect of another game, Gheed set up the ten rings on stands one after another, putting them all in a line, each one standing ten yards away from the next. "Rules are very simple. The person who can get through the most of these, when they are spread the farthest apart, wins."

Art noticed all had the exact same height. An arrow going through that would have to fly impossibly fast or it would miss some of them. "Hey, how is anyone supposed to be able to get an arrow through all this? Arrows have weight, you know."

"Hmm, what's that? The winner of the first competition fancies himself bowing out this early already?" Gheed turned to the audience. "Sounds like you might all have a chance with this!"

From the crowd someone called out, "Hey, isn't this even more unfair in favor of the sisters?" -- "Yeah, they can shoot arrows like you wouldn't believe." -- "So this is just going to turn into a competition between the archers in the order?" -- "Pfft. Why even bother then? It's not like any of us stand a chance."

"Now, now, don't be so hasty. If we're going to do this, surely the sisters will agree not to participate?" he said, turning to Liene and the women standing beside her.

Not having the sisters participate? wondered Art. Why? None here could shoot better than those of the sisterhood; none could provide a better spectacle than they. By doing this Gheed was shooting himself in the foot. So what, he wanted the peasants to be the ones participating? As if peasants would have any training with bows. Khanduran law prohibited all but nobles and those trained for war from hunting, so they wouldn't have the training. Having the peasants do this would just make for a spectacle of failure. Burlesque indeed.

Gheed clapped his hands. "Well then, let us begin! Who will go first?" As the crowd formed a line to watch, one of the caravaners stepped forward and received a shortbow and a quiver of ten arrows from the merchant. The man nocked his arrow, drew it back and released; it streaked through the first ring and bounced off the second. He went through the entire quiver and managed to get only one through the second ring. "Thirty yards. Not bad, but does anyone think they can do better?"

As the crowd cheered them on, one by one the contestants lined up to participate, while the merchant stood back and spent his time making trades with those who sought him out. When he wasn't making trades, he seemed to only halfheartedly glance at the competition, which made Art think something else was up. Art noted he seemed to be making good money, but could it earn back the cost of the sword? Surely a merchant as shrewd as he would not sacrifice a sword just to get back at Art, someone he'd only just met; no money to be had there. What was the merchant playing at?

As he watched the proceedings, he saw another group of gambeson-wearing women, led by one in a story of fiery red hair, walk up to Liene's group, who now stood mere feet away. "What have we here? An archery contest, and no sister participating?" -- "Gheed has forbidden it, bow-mother Kashya," Liene replied, gesturing at the merchant. "Says we are too skilled in the bow." -- Kashya chuckled. "That he is right, bow-daughter, but this treatment I cannot abide." -- "It is okay, elder sister, we keep here only to keep order, and have no need to participate." -- "Ah, younger sister, you are but young still. Were you wiser to the ways of the world, you would not speak as you have."

Then the redhead stepped toward Gheed and announced in a commanding voice, "Gheed, I hear you are not playing fair with my younger sisters. May I inquire why you seek to isolate this village's protectors from the very people we seek to protect?"

"Why, dear sister of the order, when have I ever--"

"You fool no one, peddler. Formerly by proclaiming that, of all the participants in the burlesque, the sisters alone may lay no claim to the prize of the longbow, and now by outright restricting their participation altogether. Are you not relegating my sisters to the status of a second class citizenry?"

Gheed waved his hands in protest, and bowed to her with a grin. "You wound me, my lady, for rest assured, I have done no such thing. To the contrary; I would be the first to acknowledge that your sisterhood has no equal at the sport. I do this out of recognition of that fact. Only in the spirit of fair play, you understand."

"Naturally. Yet, it remains that your antics here have created a bit of a problem for us. The sisterhood has always handled its problems, peddler."

"Aye, you name me correctly, I am but a mere peddler. A mere peddler who finds that solutions to problems present themselves easily when a little silver presents itself also."

"You would dare to hold this little game of yours at ransom?"

The participants of the archery contest had stopped, the crowd fallen silent, watching the verbal spar between the two. Kashya and Gheed seemed to notice their attention as well. Gheed turned to the crowd, arms outstretched to gain their attention. "Well now, audience to my humble event! I had previously stated no sister may participate, but here I find myself in a bit of a bind. But in the end, it is up to you all as to who may play this game. What shall it be, then? Should we let the sisters participate?"

As Art expected, the currently leading participant and those who had lined up to take their turns shouted unanimously "No"; no way would they allow the sisters to take away their chance at the prize before them. And soon after they started shouting no, the rest of the crowd quickly followed in their protests.

"Do you know who you are challenging?" Liene stepped right in front of the merchant's face, her spear in hand and making the wide-eyed merchant take a step backward. But a moment later Kashya put out her hand in front of Liene, gesturing for her to back off. -- "Bow-mother--" -- "Now's not the time for that," Kashya muttered to her. "Do you not see we have the attention of the crowd?"

Turning back to face the merchant, who bore a stupid grin on his face, she said, "I see we may have gotten off on the wrong foot. We of the order of course have no need for such as an arming-sword, of course; far be it for us to attempt to lay claim over it. But you as a peddler must have other wares that may be of at least some worth to us. I see you have quite a few quiverfuls of arrows back in your wagon, and it just so happens that my sisters have an awful lot of acquaintances in need of arrows through the heart these days. And I believe I have already stated that the sisterhood always handles its problems," she finished as she slipped a few coins in the merchant's hands. Quite a few coins; certainly worth the price of the arrows and sword twice over, which meant that the merchant stood to reap a killing off this deal.

Gheed gave it a single glance and closed his fingers over it with a huge grin, then gave her a bow. "Aye, and I am but a humble peddler," he said as he went to fetch out the rest of his arrows, a stack of at least a hundred, all of them broadheads. "He set them down upon the nearby table, then waved for attention. "Ladies and gentlemen, it seems our sisters of the bow have deigned to show us more of their fabled talents. Oh, do not worry; your prize is safe. The sisters shall be competing for these arrows here. And for some added variety, let's alternate contestants between these two separate competitions." He turned to Kashya and the two of them shared knowing smiles.

Art walked up to Gheed. "I suppose congratulations are in order; looks like your investment paid off." -- "That it did. I have to thank you too, Art; had it not been for your intervention, we would still be watching people chasing after chickens and my pockets would still be twenty pence[denarii] lighter." -- "Sounds like you owe me one then," he said, opening up his palm. -- "My, but you sure are quick with your jokes," he replied, not making any move to put any coin into Art's hand, so Art retracted it.

Kashya prodded one of the women in her entourage to step forward. "Show them what you can do, Fiona!" then led the rest of the crowd in a round of applause for encouragement.

Fiona stepped into position, bow readied and arrow nocked, then drew and released the arrow. It went right through all ten of the rings to bounce off the far wall, prompting the crowd to cheer. "Nicely done, bow-daughter, I knew I could count on you," Kashya said and patted her on the back. -- "Had it not been for your patience mentoring me in the way of the sidewinder, how could I have done what I have today?"

Art whistled in appreciation. He'd not thought it possible, but the sisters had proven them wrong. Using some kind of way Art hadn't known about, either one that altered the arrow's trajectory by just the right amount or one that made it weightless altogether… He'd known the sisterhood to be well renowned for their archery, but seeing it himself was a different experience altogether. And just what kind of range could they achieve with a way like that? Just how powerful could they be, as adepts of the third eye and the sidewinder, and who knows what other techniques? He'd not seen them actually use them against the beast or the other invaders, given how things had played out in the heat of battle, and against the beast these ways probably didn't matter one whit, but against the midget warriors and their shamans? Maybe the rogues had a hope yet.

Art strode up to the two, giving a slight bow. "Impressive, Fiona. Way of the sidewinder, is it called? Wish I could have joined your order, would have loved to learn it. Then again, I suppose if I had a wish handy I'd wish to be more handy," he said, raising his stump of an arm. "Say, can everyone in the sisterhood do the same?"

"Oh, that was nothing," replied Fiona, blushing from the compliment. "The way of the sidewinder is wasted on getting an arrow to fly perfectly straight. It's getting it to fly in any way other than straight that's true mastery."

After that performance the crowd seemed quite impressed, and calls rang out for the sisters to show what else they could achieve with the bow. Kashya turned to another of her sisters. "Amplisa, show them what the way of the sidewinder can actually do."

Amplisa strode forward toward the ring stands, then lifted one up and set it down in a position to the left of the rest of the stands, then moved another one of the ring stands, this time to the right. In a similar manner she moved all of the ring stands out of position. Some she turned and set down at an angle; others she lifted the ring stand upon one of the stone blocks retrieved from the pen in from the earlier game, to make them stand higher than the others. The crowd started to give hoots and shouts in anticipation.

"Sidewinder," Art mused out loud, standing next to Fiona. "Doesn't sound like a way of weightlessness. Is that what I think it is?" -- "Why don't you watch and find out?" asked Amplisa, then released her arrow. It went through one ring, then curved up to pass through a raised one, then back down through another, then veered to the right to go through an offset ring stand, and continued changing course as it weaved its way through each of the ring stands until it had gone through them all, then went up high into the air before turning to point downward and stabbing right down into the table a mere inch from where Gheed had been resting his hands, its shaft and fletching quivering. The man practically jumped in his fear.

"Remember," said Kashya as she leaned over toward Gheed. "A mere peddler who reaches out with his hands for something he doesn't have might find something in his hands that he doesn't want to have."

After that the sistershood's 'sideshow' of a contest rapidly became the main feature, making mockery of the performance of the villagers and the caravaners.

Paige rearranged nine of the ring stands to stand three ranks deep, then held and nocked three arrows against her bow, holding one between each of her fingers besides the thumb, then released them all at once, sending one bow through each column of ring stands. Again and again she repeated the process, each volley striking through all three columns of the ring stands. She returned to Kashya's side, her face beaming, while the crowd applauded her success.

A demonstration of martial prowess at its finest, Art mused. One could easily imagine each of these ring stands as an approaching foe. In fact he was sure that many of the onlookers would have caught on to exactly that. Here Paige could shoot three targets at once; it practically invited imagination of how quickly the whole band of sisters could eradicate any foe. And it would not be lost on the villagers. Its message was twofold: The sisterhood, despite its setback, remains a powerful force willing and able to protect its allies from any threat; the village is safe. And: In case the villagers started getting it in their heads that they couldn't afford to feed and quarter the sisters any longer, as Nathan and Penny had expressed their worries about the previous night, it said: Don't mess with us, don't try to resist our rule, or you can see with what ease we can put an end to you.

Ryann stepped forward without a single arrow, only her bow, and when she pulled on the drawstring a shimmering arrow of white light appeared nocked to her bow, glowing all the brighter the further back she pulled on the string, and sent it through a column of ring stands, to knock down the one at the back from the force of its impact. She too returned to the sisters with an air of triumph about her and gasps of amazement behind her.

As Art looked around, he'd noticed that Kashya had called for other sisters scattered throughout the village to join them here. Now they watched on at their sisters' performance, at the enthusiastic reception from the gathered crowd. Gone was that somber look of a defeated order, and in its place, these women and girls had wide smiles plastered over their faces. Not bad, he thought. Apparently this little performance was working wonders for the order's morale, what with how the festivities took their minds off their current situation, and their performances reaffirmed their abilities. After such a devastating defeat as the one at the monastery, that had been something badly needed. Could it be that the redhead captain had realized that as well, and capitalized on this opportunity?

Oriana detached one of the rings from its stand and threw it high into the air, then in one smooth motion she drew and loosed her arrow, and it struck the falling, revolving ring at just the right angle to make it back up into the air, spinning about itself even faster. With another arrow she struck it again, this time knocking it toward her; and with a ringing strike from a third arrow, made it fall without spinning, landing to set right on her head like a tiara. By now the crowd had become much inured to their feats, but this one took the cake, and she found herself beset by commoners asking how she'd done it.

"Now, now, let's give the lady some space, shall we?" asked Gheed, his arms wide to hold back the crowd besieging Oriana. "I'm sure that if any of you ladies wish to learn their tricks, you have merely to sign up with the sisterhood, isn't that right Kashya? I hear the sisterhood could do with some additional recruits right about now." With the smile of a man expecting a reward he looked to the sisters, many of whom shot him hard looks like he'd just reopened some recent wounds.

Kashya however put out a hand to stall their anger, and with a nod to Gheed and a smile as she turned to the crowd. "The way of the third eye. The way of the sidewinder. The way of accusing fingers. The way of hardened light. The way of fortune's arrow. You have seen only a taste of what our sisterhood has to offer. I say now to the damsels among you: Should you join, you will become as a sister to us. You will live with us. You will learn with us. You will fight with us, and, if the vagaries of fate would have it, you will die with us. Don't feel pressured to join now, but the offer stands. Should you choose to take the oath, you know where to find us."

A recruitment drive, thought Art as several girls from among the crowd clamored to join. He found himself having a newfound respect for Kashya, an apparent captain of the sisterhood, for having so easily manipulated a situation she'd come upon into one that would benefit her order. The redhead had taken advantage of the crowd that Gheed had created with his little competition to get potential recruits enthusiastic -- no, positively smitten -- with the prospect of joining, by demonstrating the order's capabilities. The order would no doubt start to receive the first of much needed reinforcements, even if training them would take many months, even years. Despite the setback the sisterhood had received, the captain was already striving for long term goals, and she'd done it for only the cost of a few quivers of arrows, which the sisterhood would have needed anyway.

No, he realized, as he walked away from the crowd as the sun dipped into evening. They'd accomplished far more than just a recruitment. Talk about hitting two birds with one stone; by his count she'd hit at least five birds with her one move. Maybe the sisterhood could rise again from its ashes after all.

Such young women, he thought, rushing to enlist without a hint of the horrors of war, without thought as to their own vulnerability. They'd no training, yet how eagerly they sought to sign up! And here he was, not an eligible damsel but a veteran of a dozen skirmishes, and what would he do? He knew knew how to fight, but without his right hand, without even a sword, how could he? He stuck his left hand in the pocket of his tunic.

And there, amidst the rattling bones, he found his answer.

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