Cross My Heart, This Is My Crossbow
An Allohistorical Tale of Amerindian Arbalists
An Allohistorical Tale of Amerindian Arbalists
mid 10th century AD, North America, spring
During the first few weeks, he struggled with the sudden twist of fate he now had to live with. Possibly to the end of his days. The medicine man and his friends did the best they could. His leg had healed enough that he could eventually stand up, then walk. But walk with a pronounced, distinct limp. Even though they fashioned a wooden crutch for him and often helped him with walking, whenever he needed to get somewhere quicker, he still felt rather helpless.
Though he was a calm and patient soul, like any bowyer should be, his predicament unnerved him like few things had before. He didn't show it much, but at times, he felt a pent up blend of anger and disappointment quietly brewing within himself. Some had merely thought him cranky from time to time and humoured him, only to receive annoyed glares. Others noticed his silent grief and did take pity on him. A few of these tried to come up with ways to take his mind off of this small, but all the more impactful personal tragedy. He both welcomed and disliked that pity, fittingly for the torn feelings he experienced.
In time, he tried to get used to his new situation. The other villagers generally did their best to make him feel comfortable and supported, even if many were unsure how to deal with his anguish over the wound that caused his now permanent limp. He knew they genuinely meant well. All the more that he was long considered the most skillful bowyer in the village. While others also manufactured and repaired bows and arrows, few could even approach his level of craft. Hardly surprising, as it was something passed onto him since childhood by his late, equally skilled father.
The fact that his neighbours still required bow-related craftsmanship every now and then, regardless of his injury, gave him some semblance of hope. Yes, he can't go on hunting trips anymore, nor can he help with fighting off the occassional raiders and attackers, but he can still be a craftsman. His neighbours and most people in the village get along well with him, and are supportive. Bows need regular maintenance, a few new ones need to be fashioned every now and then... He might not be the youngest at this point, but he's still far from an elderly man, and his talent can continue to shine. He won't just sit in a corner, reliant on the charity and kindness of others. He can still walk, though slowly and with difficulty, and his two arms and hands are all right. To get back into daily life, he has to start working again, and it'll surely take his mind off things.
Though still worried about what the future will bring, now that his life had taken such an unpleasant turn due to the serious injury, he was determined not to give up. Surely he still has many years ahead of him, many years filled with creating wonderful and useful items that others will appreciate, just as they always have. Spring is here in full bloom, summer will arrive soon... The year is at the height of its hospitable nature, so why not seize that opportunity ? He can begin again.
The neighbour had asked for a new ashen bow, one of a more medium size. His old bow had cracked a while ago, and despite careful repairs to the small crack, continued to slowly splinter in recent weeks. The neighbour figured it wasn't worth it waiting until the selfbow snaps and hits him with splinters in the face, so he dismantled it and used the bow as firewood. After fetching the bowyer the wood he asked for, the limping bowyer got to work.
Though this had been one of many new bows he had crafted over the years, each bow always felt like a brand new experience, hardly a thing of routine. Despite his middle age and some romantic escapades with pretty ladies in his youth, he hadn't taken a wife and married yet. Something other members of the tribe gently ribbed him about, from time to time. "He has his mind full of bowstrings, sinew and carved wood, a married life would be a distraction to him, no doubt...", giggled the neighbours occassionally, while he grinned and waved a hand dismissively. He knew there was no mean-spiritedness to their words, and he had gotten used to others' curiosity about his loneliness. As he had no children of his own, he often liked to think of every bow he hand-crafted as his own peculiar offspring. Inanimate, perhaps, but it received all the love and attention a parent would give to their child.
His old habit while tillering the bow was to work outside. A few years ago, he had a a smaller, younger tree cut down. It had a fine, straight, arm-thick trunk. After debranching the trunk into a simple wooden post, he burried the lower third into the ground. The post made from the trunk stood vertically near his hovel, nice and straight. Then he proceeded to modify the post into a simple tillering device, useful for bows of various size and draw weights. He fashioned the upper end of the trunk into a shape resembling a shallow trough. This allowed the post to better anchor the bowstave under manufacture, preventing it from sliding off. Finally, he made the all-important tillering grooves into one side of the trunk, all carefully measured in roughly equal, regular distances from each other. After every longer session of carving the limbs, he limped to the tillering post. He put the bow in place and tested the bending of the limbs and the stretching limits of the bowstring. All individual bow woods had their limits. There was no point in manufacturing each and every one to the greatest possible extent of the grooves on the tiller. Even a weaker, but well-balanced bow could still pack a punch.
It was a fine, though somewhat boring day for him. Work on the new bow was progressing well, and he was starting to get a little hungry and thirsty.
The bow was placed on top of the tillering post, and the bowstring was currently pulled down and placed all the way into one of the lower grooves. The limbs already seemed rather even, but he still needed to tiller them down just a bit more... He carefully grabbed the bowstring and slowly pulled it from the groove and released it slowly upward. He payed close attention not to tense the bow more than it needed to be. With the bowstring now back in an idle, neutral position, he felt it was time to get some food and rest.
He left the bow mounted on top of the tillering post, as he limped away to his hut, propped up on his wooden crutch.
A boy from a family nearby, one of his immediate neighbours, had an interest in the bowyer's workplace. At most nine summers old, the boy had a growing interest in bows for a while now, and had been naturally drawn to the older man's work. In the past, he had occassionally stopped by and asked the man how things were going. Occassionally, the bowyer would exchange a few words with him, or laconically provided a quick reply to a question related to his daily work.
Ever since he had gotten injured and started limping, even opportunities like that had slowly dried up. He wasn’t exactly interested in other people bothering him, least of all a little boy. The boy didn't know that much about people older than him, other than his own parents, but he did realise the bowyer is probably sad because of his injury. Thinking about it with his young mind, it was somewhat hard for him to comprehend what that must feel like, not being able to run around and enjoy life in a greater way, but he was still at a loss of what it was really like.
That didn't discourage the boy from seeking a new opportunity, any opportunity, to approach that workplace. Though bowmaking was a craft, no magic, to a young and curious mind, it might as well have been magical.
Seeing that the bowyer had decided to take a bit of rest, this felt like the perfect opportunity to the boy. The time was ripe, ripe like his favourite berry bushes in the summer. He snuck over to the workplace slowly and carefully, eyes peeled for the bowyer returning from his hut. So far, things seemed calm. He could snoop around the bowyer's work space, rummage through all manner of wonderful and interesting tools and things.
Two things caught his eye almost immediately: A completed arrow, maybe used for test-shooting. And a new bow being fashioned by the bowyer, currently mounted atop a tillering post. Funny, thought the boy, he just left it up there.
The boy became curious. Looking around whether the limping bowyer isn't coming outside of his hut, he decided he wants to try something. Something that the adults would probably never allow him to do, under the usual circumstances. He picked up the arrow, walked over to the tillering post.
Quietly, he giggled to himself. I wonder how high it could fly, he pondered.
He started pulling back on the bowstring, towards one of the tillering grooves. The bow was rather strong, his child arms and hands could barely handle pulling it to higher draw weights. Finally, he managed to pull the string back into one of the middle-distance grooves. He then pulled a very tiny part of the bowstring out of the groove, placed the nock of the arrow in that section of the bowstring, and started slowly releasing the string.
The boy was so focused on his curious little experiment, that he didn't notice the footsteps and the thuds of a wooden crutch, both outside the hut now and fast approaching.
"Heyyy !" yelled the bowyer and angrily waved a piece of wood he was holding.
The boy turned around hastily, in a panic, noticing him.
"What are you doing there, boy ?! Leave that be !" the bowyer shouted and started limping faster towards the tillering post.
The boy, surprised by the bowyer’s return and confused, quickly let go of the bowstring and ran.
"You... little !" growled the bowyer, but the boy was swift-footed and had already disappeared behind the nearest hut.
The bowyer looked upwards. The arrow, borrowed by the boy and shot upwards when he released the bowstring and started running away, was now descending back to earth. Turning downward, falling down arrowhead-first, the bowyer winced as the arrow approached the ground. The arrowhead bore into the soft soil, the shaft of the arrow tipped over. Falling to the ground, the arrow kicked up a tiny cloud of dust.
"Ooh ! Careful there..." he heard the voice of a female neighbour, passing by, holding a small basket of squash. He turned to her, just in time to notice she's grinning a bit. "If you’re going to be trying out new bows by shooting upward, take care to avoid those arrows falling on our heads."
He wanted to protest that it wasn’t his fault, that little rascal was behind it, but he decided to reply only with a mild frown and a quiet nod. As she left the scene, he turned his gaze towards the bow. When the boy shot from it upward, the shock had sent the bow jumping slightly upward, and it had fallen out of the trough-like upper end of the tillering post. Now the bow was lying on the ground next to the trunk. It looked all right, but he wasn't sure.
These children and their foolish games... he thought, annoyed.
He limped closer to the tillering post, and carefully bent forward and downward to pick the bow up from the ground.
That insolent little rascal... Straining the bow I’ve been working on so hard... he grumbled in his mind.
Leaning against his wooden crutch, he looked the bow over. Every single surface, bend, curve, the state of the bowstring... It all seemed all right, undamaged.
Thankfully !, he thought. He didn't dislike children at all, he was quite the playful and cheeky imp back when he was a little boy, some thirty or more summers ago. The boy's antics had still angered him, though. If he wasn't a more charitable man, he'd be entertaining ideas of catching the boy when he passes near his workplace, and giving him a proper spanking.
Recalling the events that occured just a little while ago, he was suddenly struck by a certain notion. It was just vague and indistinct at first, but rather than let it run away, he decided to follow that train of thought like a crafty predator pursues his prey... He was onto something, and it was becoming clearer. The idea was on the tip of his tongue, just one or more details were missing...
Perhaps in some other timeline of the myriad timelines of the multiverse, he would have let go of that not yet fully formed idea. Dismissed it as unimportant, or a folly, like many things that cross a person's mind on a daily basis. This was not that timeline, not that universe.
He propped the arrow against the tillering post, so he could launch it better... Then he released the string from that particular groove. Interesting.
Though he intended to continue work on the nearly finished new bow, he felt overcome by a strange curiosity. One so powerful, almost overwhelming, one he hadn't experienced since the accident. Or even for a long time before the accident.
Once he completes the current work, he's going to try something. Something he hadn't tried before, or even thought about. Purely out of curiosity. He felt that he was onto something. Maybe something outright useful. And if not... Well, at least he would have given it a try.
The next day, the boy walked over to the bowyer.
"I’m not here to bother you."
"Then why are you here ?" the man asked calmly, concentrated on his work.
"I came to apologise. What I did wasn’t right. I’m sorry I angered you."
The bowyer raised his eyes to the boy, his expression serious but kind.
"Thank you. But don’t do it again. It’s not about me being angry. I’m just worried the new bow I promised to a neighbour would get broken. I’ve already put quite a bit of work into it."
He paused for a moment, sniffled, as if deep in thought.
"They found me a good stave. Very even ash. The bow’s coming along nicely," he explained further.
"What are you doing now ?" asked the boy, sounding genuinely curious, looking at a piece of wood he was carving. "That doesn’t look like a bow. Why do you need it ?"
"Aren’t you a nosy little raccoon !"
"I can see you have the bow over there," pointed the boy to a nearby spot. "It even has the string attached and looks rather ready,."
The bowyer did a mock-annoyed grimace, then smiled faintly.
"To tell you the truth, boy, I've thought of something. Something interesting that I want to try out."
"I'm all ears ! How did you come up with this idea ?"
"Thanks to you."
The boy looked at him in disbelief.
"What ? Me ?"
"Believe it or not, your little misbehaving around my tiller post showed me something I didn't entirely notice before. Those antics of your’s with the arrow… It didn't exactly fly upward, nice and straight, as you no doubt wanted it to..."
The boy lowered his head and smiled a bit, embarassed.
"...but the way you released the string and how it flung the arrow upward, that made me think."
"Will you try and make a bow that’s very good at shooting upward ?"
"No, not like that," the bowyer shook his head, then picked up the mysterious, thicker piece of wood. "Instead, I will try to place the bow to the front of this," he nodded at the elongated block of wood. He pointed his hand at the trough-like shape he had carved into one end of the block. "Attach it very similarly to how I'd attach a bow to the top of a tillering post..."
"What an odd idea !" noted the boy quietly, walking closer to the bowyer, who handed him the block of wood and let him observe it.
"But what about the bow you were making for the neighbour ? What if you accidentally break it ?"
"You’re right I shouldn’t play around too much with the new bow. At least not for this idea…" he took back the block of wood and nodded towards the near-finished bow. "I’ll be making a separate bow for my little attempt. Would you want to help me work on it ?"
"Could I ?" asked the boy, still rather astonished.
The bowyer shrugged.
"For all I care, you can."
"Thank you !"
"You've already given me one idea, maybe you'll come up with something new again while I work.", he frowned at the boy and did a hearty chuckle. "And if you have any friends who are as smart at coming up with things as you are, maybe you could invite one or two of them to help. You're probably not that good at wood-carving yet, and I could always use more helping hands."
The arrow hit the old, but hardy test target, made from layers of old wicker baskets and hand-woven mats, with a satisfying thud.
The boy jumped in place, laughed and clapped his hands.
"It shoots well ! And it shoots so straight !" declared the boy.
The limping bowyer had a wry smile on his face.
"You have it well thought out, boy," said the bowyer. "First you annoy me, then you indirectly give me an interesting idea, and now you're here, pretending as if I built this specifically for you," he groaned, but followed it up with a chuckle.
The boy smiled at him.
"Such a strange, but wonderful bow !" exclaimed the boy.
"That it is. Would you like to try shooting it ?"
"Yes, yes ! I would really love to ! Please, please !"
"Fine. But as I'm limping, you'll have to collect all the arrows we shoot at the target. Deal ?"
"Here you go..." he handed the bow to the boy and explained how to shoot. "Hold it well. Lift the bowstring with your two fingers from below. Don't wrap your fingers around the bowstring ! Just lift it slowly from below. Nice and slowly, nice and steady..."
The boy raised his fingers slowly, lifting the bowstring from the groove carved into the piece of wood the bow was mounted on.
The bowstring, released from the groove, flew forward, hitting the back of the arrow and shooting it into the target.
It didn't escape the boy's attention that the bowyer had removed the nock from the back of the arrow, since there was no necessity for placing the nock into a bowstring. The now flat end of the arrow reacted better to the impact of the bowstring from behind, when it was lifted from the groove.
"Nice," smiled the boy, looking at the arrow stuck in the test target.
"What if I didn't pay attention and the bowstring hit my fingers ?" asked the boy, a degree of worry heard in his voice.
His remark gave the bowyer pause for thought.
"Hm, actually... You make a good point. It could be dangerous."
"We'll just have to be careful."
"That we certainly can be. But I have a better idea. We'll try to improve my bow design."
"Improve ? How will we do that ?"
"I'm not entirely sure yet, but Ill try to add something that will keep our fingers free. Something that would release the bowstring without us needing to put our fingers on the string."
"A bow where you don't even touch the bowstring ? How odd ! You really are almost like a magician !"
The bowyer chuckled, flattered.
"Hardly a magician, dear boy. I just try to think things through," he pointed at his own head. "The sign of a good bowyer. Would you like to be a bowyer when you're older ?"
The boy nodded, his eyes outright shining.
"Then you'll have to practice those sorts of skills. Looking at things differently... Looking ahead... Thinking ahead... Keeping your mind as sharp as a thin, sharpened spearstone."
"If I try to be a bowyer, I promise I'll try to think like that."
"I'm glad to hear that."
"But I also know something you don't know !"
"Is that so ?! " laughed the bowyer rather merrily. "What do you know ?"
"Your bow needs a name."
"Oh. A name ?"
"We need to give your strange bow a name," said the boy almost resolutely.
"You don't say..."
"Yes, it needs a name ! How will the people tell it apart from a common bow, if we don't give it some sort of name ?" urged the boy, clearly rather invested in the development of the simple, but strange contraption.
The bowyer frowned for a moment, obviously in thought. It took him only a few moments before he shrugged, looked at the new-fangled weapon, then at the curious boy.
"A tiller-bow ?" asked the boy, surprised, and looked at the odd weapon the bowyer was devising.
"Why not. Tillerbow, as I said. If it wasn't for your mischief with my bow tiller, maybe the idea wouldn't have occured to me."
"See, now you thank me ! And just a little while ago, you were so annoyed I was playing with your tools," proclaimed the boy with no lack of joyful, somewhat cheeky satisfaction. He began to laugh happily.
The middle-aged bowyer smiled lightly and playfully frizzled the laughing boy's hair with his palm. The boy kept laughing, but pretended to get angry and shook his hands wildly at the man's hand.
"I still think you're a rascal, you little raccon of a thing," laughed the bowyer. "That said, sometimes mischief can deliver an idea when one least expects it. I suppose your mischief was useful for once !"
"Glad to hear that."
"How's the tillerbow ?" asked the boy right after he greeted the bowyer a few days later.
"Now that I've finished the hunting bow for my friend, I had more time for our strange little idea. I've worked on it further. "
"And did you add anything new ? Please, please ! Let me see..."
The bowyer laughed briefly, then stretched his arm to grab the device he was slowly working on. It was resting near the stool he was sitting on.
"My dear boy, you might remember my promise that I would find a way to avoid getting our fingers hit by the bowstring. "
"Yes," nodded the boy, his face clearly showing interest.
The bowyer gestured at him to come closer, and turned the tiller part of the bow around.
He pointed at a new feature, the boy raising his eyebrows in surprise.
"Oh, and this will lift it ! Right ?"
He had created a small opening, a small hole, in one side of the tiller of the tillerbow. It was just slighly behind the groove with the bowstring. He burnt the hole out with a small piece of hot coal from a campfire, and with some help from his old stone drill.
In the hole, he mounted a shorter wooden peg, carved out of a straight part of a thicker branch, gluing the peg in place with some leather glue and fish-guts glue, and some tree sap. On the peg, there was another small piece of wood, something of a wooden thumb, with a small hole drilled or burnt out around its middle. This hole was used to mount the wooden thumb on the wooden peg, and it was similarly glued into place. It could still pivot, though. Up and down...
The front end of the strange wooden thumb was long enough that it reached below the bowstring placed inside the sole groove on the tiller.
"Hand me an arrow," said the bowyer with a laidback calm. He spanned the bowsting and placed it in the groove, just like recently, when they were first testing the whole thing.
He took the arrow handed to him by the boy. He placed it safely on top of the tillerbow, in front of the groove holding the spanned bowstring. He aimed at the test target nearby. He then carefully pressed the back end of the new thumb addition.
The front end of the thumb pivoted upwards and lifted the bowstring. The bowstring was released.
The arrow hit the test target with the same decisive thud as recently.
The bowyer tittered, and grinning, looked at the boy.
"See ? No fingers !"
The boy laughed and clapped happily.
"You are not a magician !" he said, laughing. "But you are very smart ! " he added.
"Thank you," said the bowyer. It was moments like this that he regretted not having children.
They were a bit outside of their village, on a nice large meadow near the forest.
"You might be wondering why I bothered to limp all the way to here," asked the bowyer.
The boy looked at him.
"Because it's even safer to shoot here, than in the village. We won't shoot anyone by accident."
"Yes, that too. But aside from that, I wanted to keep a little surprise for you."
He took the long cloth bag slung across his shoulder, unpacked the familiar single-grooved tiller and its purpose-built bow. He lashed the bow to the front of the tiller, tying it in place tightly.
"I like that you can take it apart and then put it back together again, " said the boy cheerfully.
"Yes, it is interesting. But this is even moreso... Look here !"
He turned the tillerbow towards the boy by its back side. He pointed at the middle portion of the weapon. The little wooden thumb or lever, mounted on a peg at the side, was no longer there.
Instead, the bowyer cut and chiseled into the middle of the tiller, in the area right behind the groove for the bowstring. Here, he burnt out and chiseled out two more holes, and another hole of similar size into a smaller, carved piece of wood.
The carved piece of wood was mounted in a small gap cut into the area behind the groove, and pivoted in place on a little round peg, cut from a straight tree branch. It was similar to the previous thumb, lifting the bowstring, but this time, it looked and felt far more comfortable and far less awkward to operate.
"Ah ! That looks even better," opined the boy.
The bowyer smiled.
He pulled two or three shorter arrows from a quiver he carried on his belt.
"Would you like to try some shooting ?"
"Do I ! Of course I do !"
The bowyer handed him the tillerbow and showed him how to operate the top-mounted wooden trigger.
"You can prop it against your shoulder, with the back side. That's right, like that ! Now put it at eye height, aim as if you were aiming an ordinary bow, more or less. Excellent. Now press the back part of our little wooden thumb. Release."
"Ahhh !" cried the boy, in astonishment. "Ahhmaziiing !" he laughed and jumped in place happily.
"And now..." the bowyer continued, "press the front of that little thumb forward, to the bottom of the groove. Yes, like that. You can't shoot until you have the thumb under the bowstring, and the bowstring needs to be hidden in that groove before you can release it and shoot. It's all about the right order."
"Yes, I understand. It's very easy !"
"Good to hear ! Now, as I have more strength in my arms, I'll span the bowstring back into the groove for you. Then you can take another shot. Oh, and..."
"I am supposed to pick up the arrows later, because you can't walk all that easily."
The bowyer laughed.
"Correct. You children really do learn fast !"
late 10th century AD, North America
"You say the people in your villages use these ?" asked the village elder.
He was surprised that his unexpected, wayward guest, was armed with a very strange hunting weapon.
"Yes. I haven't seen anyone else using them, outside of my people's settlements. Maybe it's not a widely known thing, I don't know."
"Have your people always used these ? I haven't come across these yet. And I've lived long and travelled rather far and wide."
"Well ?" asked the elder, in a somewhat bemused tone.
"No, not always. Me and a late friend, a much older friend, thought it up one day. "
"What ? This strange bow ? How on earth did you think of such a... device ?"
"It wasn't necessarily me. I just... advised, I suppose. My friend was the one who really thought up the whole thing."
"How peculiar... Very, very peculiar..."
"It's.... It's a long story..." smiled the middle-aged man, once a little boy from a more distant village.
It's been years since the last time he got lost during a longer hunting trip and had to search for the nearest settlement, any settlement. He was lucky the dialect of the locals was, for the most part, still intelligible.
He felt somewhat bemused at the village elder's interest in the tillerbow. Certainly a thing you don't see every day. He wondered whether the elder and local villagers will ask him about building a bow as strange as this, ask him whether all that additional craftsmanship is worth a weapon that can shoot well. As he himself knew, the weapon had plenty of advantages, but also some generally tolerable downsides.
Him and the elder were lying prone in the taller grass. A small flock of wild turkey were wandering nearby.
"Are you sure you can hit them from here ?" whispered the elder.
"This thing can't shoot as well as a bow at a greater distance, but short to medium distances..."
"In a word, there is a good chance you can hit one of them."
"There certainly is. Wish me luck." the bowyer concluded, and fell silent.
It's remarkable that one can lie prone with this strange bow, thought the elder to himself, and shoot very comfortably at prey, without needing to give himself away. Remarkable !
He watched patiently as the bowyer peered down the straight top surface of the... tiller ?
Then he pushed the strange wooden lever at the top and...
One of the turkeys began panicing, squawking and shrieking uncontrollably, flapping its wings in every direction. Its companions, terrified, ran and flapped away as best as they could, unsure where the sudden death had come from.
The bowyer quickly stood up, nodded at the elder to follow him. They both ran towards the turkey. The short arrow – a "bolt" or "arrowlet", as the foreign bowyer referred to it – was sticking from both sides of the turkey, in one of the most vulnerable parts of its body. The elder raised his longer wooden club and put the fowl out of its misery with two or three well-placed blows. He slowly looked at the bowyer. A grin appeared on the bowyer's face.
"Impressive", nodded the elder slowly.
The now middle-aged bowyer kept smiling and patted his strange bow. They treated him well in this village, their hospitality was exemplary. The least he could do is teach them a new thing that could come in handy. Especially if they wanted more stealthiness during hunting.
After all, it's not like this unusual bow would change all that much... Would it ?