He stood guard from the watchtower as the two moons made their slow orbit in the distance. The faint sound they made through the sky reminded him of hearing a boy in a neighboring village drag his father’s suit of armor across a stone floor. The best bow in Hildebrand, his aim owed as much to his keen hearing as his sure hand. Far closer than the sound of orbiting moons was an owl, roosting in the high pines in anticipation of dawn. The owl’s weight tested a dry branch, making a sound in its acuteness distinct from wind moving through the trees. Cryspin readied an arrow, trained it on a final hoot, and then released his grip to the pop and vibration of bowstring, the arrow swallowing air as it cut through the night. If Cryspin hadn’t lost his sight during the Palladian Wars, he would have seen three owl feathers held up by a breeze before they began their delayed descent to the ground.
The subsequent thud did not escape his hearing, and he questioned whether his boredom justified the carnage. By now the three detached feathers must have caught up to their owner, but the sound feathers make upon contact with the ground was beyond even Cryspin’s hearing. After he lost his sight, the Royal Guard positioned him for the night watch at North Gate where an expanse of dense pine trees marched for miles into the northern forest until tapering out into icy and inhospitable tundra. There was never any danger from that direction, and the smell of pine marked his nights with memories of youth. What other pastime was available to him than cataloguing sound?

“Cryspin!” his second called from inside the tower. “Time for your relief.”

“Morning already?” This time of year, dawn didn’t bring enough warmth for detection.

“Close enough. There’s light in the sky, and I couldn’t sleep.”

“You want me to stay up with you for a while?” A night outdoors had acclimated Cryspin to the cold, and he wasn’t ready for the unnatural warmth of fire. Fire had a way of reminding Cryspin why he was alone.

“They’re making cast iron cakes in the hall,” Perimmon said. “By the time you find your way, the cakes should be ready. I can help you down.”

“I’m as sure of step as you,” Cryspin said. If fire had a useful purpose it was in making cast iron cakes. This time of year, without berries to top them, the cakes were all he could know of sweetness save the occasional detection of a maiden rare enough to have acquired perfume.

“And as sure of bow,” Perimmon said.

Cryspin, drifting in thought, missed the reference.

“The owl.”

“You saw that?”

“On my way up,” Perimmon said, his eyesight growing stronger as he entered maturity. “That was some shot.”

“By the sound of it I’d estimate more than half a mile in the distance.” 

“By the look of it, too, from the tower window. What you can do with a bow and arrow is a marvel.”

“You mean for a blind man?”

“For any man.” 

Cryspin, from years of winning feats of accuracy, knew the compliment was sincere, not given out of pity, but it provided him little consolation as he felt his way down the tower, years of grease from polished weapons rubbing off on his hands. He almost lost his appetite, but the smell of cast iron cakes made finding the hall easier than usual, and he took breakfast back to his glorified stable as he did every morning.   

Cryspin slept by day, never knowing the sun’s warmth, and he’d long forgotten what it felt like to have a woman’s palm on his face. He didn’t need his sight to know women recoiled from scars the Greek fire left him in exchange for his eyes, and he refused to reduce intimacy to the sound of coins changing hands. Sometimes before falling asleep, he’d remember playing as a child in Hildebrand’s northern forest, but mostly he heard the endless procession of owls hooting, trees bending in the wind.

When he returned to his post at nightfall, he heard the torch’s subtle crackle from within its sconce. Did Perimmon leave the torch burning as a gesture of solidarity, or did he think its tepid glow could warm a man through the night? The fire only reminded Cryspin of the hero’s embrace he’d once dreamed of receiving upon returning from war; but if military conquests weren’t enough for a fair maiden to look past his scars, no amount of felled owls would convince her otherwise. Men might be impressed with the accuracy of his bow, but that did little more than earn him an occasional mug of warm mead to go with his breakfast.

The trees swayed and moaned in the distance. It was the dry season; the wind blew towards the south, cold on his face. He readied a pine arrow, sharp as blade, and inserted it into the torch’s fire, the crackle traveling from the tip of his arrow towards his bow. He turned back towards the northern forest before the fire could reach his hand, released his grip, and followed the sound of flame on the wind as it traveled in a high arc towards the tree canopy. He estimated the fire began like a low star nearly a mile in the distance, his longest shot by far, possibly the longest by any archer on record. That, he supposed, would be his mark, listening as the fire spread towards the walls of Hildebrand.

The trees were tall and a mile a long way for fire to travel even in the dry season. Perimmon would raise the alert in time to preserve Hildebrand with little risk to its people. While Cryspin awaited the sound rope makes when stretched to the limit, his second would enjoy the fruits of a young hero. Pinecones, in response to the heat of fire, would release their seeds, and saplings would pierce through the ashes.  


J. Spinazzola is a writer and former attorney. In addition to previous publications on Stymie, his stories have appeared in Boston Literary Magazine, Charlotte Viewpoint, Full of CrowMetazen, The Molotov Cocktail, and The Nakedist. His serialized fantasy novel, A Year Without Magic, is featured on JukePop Serials.