(This story was an entry for Clue #4 in the 2013 Treasure Hunt -- see the collection for related stories and images! )
A hush of anticipation settled as Thornbow stepped up to the red strip of silk pinned in a line across the trampled-down grass. Longshot conceded the starting line with a grin and a flourish; in the distance, the iridescent purple fletching of his arrow winked in the sun, while the target hoop with its painted sinew spokes continued to rotate in the steady breeze.
“It always comes down to the two of them,” muttered Otter, sour with defeat as he watched from the edges of the gathering, “Everyone expects one of them to win. But I’ll surprise them all someday. Just wait and see.”
“I’ve seen bare-breasted tavern girls in Voedana who could throw better than the whole lot of you!” Lionkiller paced the edge of the colony’s training grounds, scowling at his students. Not recruits -- not here, in this damp, rotting ass-end of the empire. These men were not physically soft -- no, days spent cutting lumber and tending the harvest put muscle on the body and built strength. His students knew what hard work was -- a quality not always guaranteed in the recruits gathered from the cities of the desert lands Lionkiller so missed. But these men were all good Ebeans. They valued diplomacy and women’s words, and none of them had ever been bloodied beyond the slaughter of cattle and goats during the winter culling.
Lionkiller snapped his fingers, and his wry, slight shadow appeared at his heels, pale and thin-boned as a bird. The Bukno-Baha girl held a willow whip in one hand, tied into a supple hoop. In the other she held a slender javelin, the sharp tip just fire-hardened wood.
“Boys of the desert play this game,” Lionkiller said, sweeping his students with his dark, fierce gaze. The angry battle scars on the left side of his face gave his stern, sharp features added ferocity and left him kinkenda to look upon. “I want to see how well you play it. Sigi, show them now.”
The Bukno-Baha girl grinned for a moment, relishing the display to come. With a flick of a delicate wrist, she sent the hoop spinning across the dusty square, giving it a twist so that it bounced when it hit the ground and twisted before rolling away at an angle. One. Two. Three. Each javelin she held flashed away in succession, and each passed cleanly through the fast-moving hoop.
“A mere girl of this land can do it. As easily as you spit.” Lionkiller surveyed his students again, eyes lingering on those who were already beginning to sweat with anxiety in the summer sun. “Now show me if any of you can do half so well.”
The four riders charged headlong down the hill, whipping and spurring their ponies to full speed. Nikhil rode bareback, easy in his seat, feeling the strength and power of the mare beneath him like a song in his blood. He was the first to the bottom of the hill and the first over the midden ditch. The mare flew over that obstacle as effortlessly as an eagle, and her rider scarcely felt the jolt of their landing. Half a dozen strides and he spotted the first of the target hoops. He shot his first arrow clean through the center. Another half-dozen of the mare’s galloping strides and he put a second arrow through the second hoop. Rustham’s grey stallion was pounding up beside them then, drawing even with the mare. Nikhil felt rather than saw Rustham’s arrow skim past at the same moment as his own shot -- both arrows sailed together through the third hoop. Neck and neck, the brothers raced for the last hoop.