Roland Bigelow drew his longbow’s string back to the edge of his mouth and released. —snack— The arrow hit just outside the yellow bullseye in the red.
He made the arrows himself, a craft he’d fallen in love with almost more than the sport. These ones were Port Orford Cedar, unpainted except for the black one that stayed in his quiver, silver tipped with red fletchings, each of them numbered to keep track of their accuracy.
He shot five more, about a four-inch grouping, two in the yellow.
“Not bad.” The voice was silk, but Roland always played it cool, and she shouldn’t be talking while others still shot. He tapped a few meaningless numbers into his tablet.
The range supervisor hit the buzzer.
Roland strolled downrange to his target and pulled the arrows. Now more focused, he recorded the real results and returned to the front.
An ageless woman with brown hair smirked at him from the bench next to his gear. “Nice grouping.” Silk.
Roland pulled off his armguard. “Thanks. It’s coming along.”
“You here for the tournament?”
“Yep. Warming up.” He dropped his accessories into his bag.
“What kind of arrows are those?”
“I made them myself.” He couldn’t help grinning. He propped his bow against his foot and unstrung it.
“Nice.” She hitched her mouth. “What about the black one?”
She chuckled. “What’s that mean?”
“He’s never missed, so I save him for special shots.”
“Wow. Really?” She fixated on the arrow. “That makes me want to touch it. Get some of it’s energy.”
“I wish you wouldn’t.” Roland zipped his bag and picked up his bow.
She furrowed her brow, but the warmth never left her face. “Well, good luck.”
Roland had an hour to calm his mind before the competition, but he couldn’t stop thinking about the woman, hoping more and more that she would be there to see him victorious. Fighting it wouldn’t be good for his nerves, so he embraced it instead, bolstering his excitement with a medieval passion to capture a lady’s admiration.
He felt pretty good going into it and sized up the archers, recognizing some of the better ones in the region. The woman stood behind the observation window and winked at him when they locked eyes. Truth be told, Roland had never felt more ready.
He started off strong, keeping pace with the leaders, always within a few points, but slipped a tad in the third and fourth rounds. He avoided looking at the lady, but risked a glance, her elbows on the shelf in front of the window, she chatted with the man next to her.
He recovered ground in the fifth and sixth rounds, going into the final only a point behind the leader, a regular at the range named George Hammer. Roland’s first four arrows were gold, all in the yellow, three in the ten point circle, one in the nine. George had an eight, two nines, and a ten—Roland was ahead by two.
The tournament was his to win. He took his next shot before George and hit an eight. George hit a ten, and like that they were even again.
Both archers took their time. George pulled and aimed. It seemed like he held it for a full minute when he released. Nine. Roland had to hit the ten to win, the nine to stay alive.
Roland reached into his quiver and pulled out Beauregard, the black arrow. He felt the presence of the silk-voiced woman behind him as he notched it to his string and positioned himself to draw. He visualized the path of the arrow, an arc that landed dead center in the yellow. He drew. It felt good. The strength of the black arrow steeled his nerves, and he released with absolute confidence.
—Thwack— Red. Seven. Defeat.
Roland couldn’t find the woman afterwards, he never learned her name. He went home, determined to prepare for the next contest and set to work on a fresh set of arrows, six of them, each one receiving his utmost care to make them straight with clean fletches. He made a slight adjustment to their length and used a new brand of tips.
He had a full quiver of old and new when he hit the range, all to himself on a Tuesday morning. He warmed up with his old ones, then gave each new arrow his fullest concentration. The grouping was tight, three nines, two eights, and one ten. He pulled them from the target, saving the ten for last, keeping it separate from the rest.
Back in his workshop he painted the lone arrow black.
“I dub thee Malcom.”
He’d take it to another range Friday. Someone will ask, they always do, and the answer is always the same. “He’s never missed.”