“Release,” Fane said, his voice crisp and quiet in the still morning air. The arrows flew, a few embedding into the trees, some striking and clattering away, but most sailing harmlessly past, or worse, hitting the ground well before reaching the target.
“We don’t have the luxury of sights, or the time to do this properly,” said Fane. “We live or die by our skills with the bow. If you missed, adjust your aim as I taught you.”
The assembled men and women nocked new arrows, and fired again. Fane shook his head at the outcome. Their lives meant nothing to him; but if he were to make it out alive, he needed them. He had to impart his martial skills to them, and quickly.
A pair of the archers, a man and a woman, were progressing much faster than the others. Fane struggled with their position in formation; closer to him and he’d be safer, closer to the weakest archers and the group would be safer. He depended on the group, but dying early was worse than outliving the group.
“You there,” he called out, pointing to the woman. “What’s your name?”
“Mira.” She spoke in an accent he didn’t recognize.
“Take this lot and show them how to shoot.” He turned to the man, but was interrupted by a roar so close he was nearly deafened.
A startled scream accompanied the roar, and Fane barely ducked in time as a body flew over his head. Nocking his bow in one smooth motion, Fane turned to see a gigantic bear sweeping away a second body with a brutal swipe of its arm. The bear’s victim was surely dead from the blow, if not from the impact with the tree when he landed.
Fane fired, his arrow burying itself into the bear’s hairy coat. “Release!” he screamed, nocking another arrow. “Kill it or we die!”
He released again, wishing not for the first time that they had been equipped with anything stronger than small bows best used for horseback archery. These were best used by experts, and he had a gaggle of novices instead. If not for the two quick learners, it would be hopeless.
The bear surged forward, driving its razor claws into the chest of Mira’s partner, the man who could actually shoot. Fane felt a moment of despair break through his terror; they were doomed.
Arrows struck the ground all around the bear, and Fane would have been impressed that the ragtag group didn’t break immediately if he weren’t disgusted by their shots. He’d repeated over and over that the feathers for their arrows needed to come from the same side of the bird. Otherwise, the arrows would rifle away in a random direction, like they were doing now.
Fane watched with horror as Mira launched herself at the bear, a blood-curdling scream escaping her throat. “Mira, no!” he yelled too late.
Mira ducked under the bear’s swinging arm and slid between it’s leg, firing an arrow while lying in her back underneath the beast. Once on the other side of the bear, Mira leapt to her feet, and scrambled up the bear’s back by grabbing handfuls of its shaggy fur.
If the bear noticed her, it gave no indication as it surged ahead, cutting down anyone to slow to give it distance. Fane’s arm ached where his string kept hitting his wrist, but he ignored the pain. Knocking aside three people at once, the bear turned its focus on Fane as Fane loosed another arrow at it.
With no time to dodge, Fane grimaced in the face of certain death. The bear stumbled, crashing into him, and Fane almost didn’t notice the arrow protruding from its skull. Mira rolled off the bear’s shoulder while Fane took the brunt of the impact, nearly getting crushed by the humongous body.
Lying on his back, Fane watched as Mira entered his field of vision. She extended a hand and Fane shakily got to his feet. “Good shooting, Mira.”
She nodded, and Fane turned to survey the damage. We just went from legion-strength to squad-strength. And it’s not over yet.