by Brian K. Asbury
Tom Archer lay in his hospital bed, contemplating his future — or, more to the point, whether he had a future. In truth, there was little else he could do. It had been months since rebel Atlanteans had joined forces with Martian invaders to attack the Earth, yet the injuries he had sustained in the battle had not yet healed. (*) The doctors continued to be mystified by the strange burns covering most of his body; it was clearly radiation damage of some kind, but they could neither identify its nature nor reverse the ravaging effects on his skin and his lungs.
[(*) Editor’s note: See Justice League of America: Between Sea and Sky.]
Is this how it’s going to be from now on? he wondered. The athlete that I once was — the hero that I tried to be — reduced to little more than a vegetable, not daring to move lest it cause more haemorrhaging?
Not for the first time, he considered reaching out, ripping out the IV drips, and walking out of this hospital once and for all. Bleeding to death from a thousand ruptures in the scaly mess that had once been his skin was not a pleasant prospect, but then neither was this travesty of existence.
He slowly reached out his arm to operate the TV remote control. At least no one had to see him like this. Someone — he suspected his old friends at Scotland Yard — was paying for this private room, but he wanted no visitors. He could not bear the thought of anyone seeing what he had become.
The TV flickered into life; a news bulletin was in progress on ITV, and Margaret Thatcher’s voice droned out of the screen. With a rasping sigh, Tom changed channels, only to find the other choices were between a tedious soap opera, a game show hosted by a washed-up, sixty-year-old alleged comedian, and the umpteenth rerun of the original Star Trek.
He flicked the off button. If this was the alternative, then walking out and letting himself bleed to death was looking more and more attractive all the time.
“Depressing, isn’t it?”
Tom started. He had neither observed nor heard anyone entering the room, yet someone was standing to one side of the bed. With painful slowness, he turned his head toward the newcomer.
“All these miracles of twentieth-century science and technology,” the man continued, an air of disgust in his tone, “and all the networks can serve up is mindless fluff for — oh, what do the Americans call them? — couch potatoes. One might as well drink oneself into a stupor. At least it’s more enjoyable.”
Tom stared at him in curiosity. He was stockily built, with a full beard and piercing green eyes. His long, greying brown hair was tied back in a ponytail, and he was wearing a dark green business suit in a manner that suggested he was uncomfortable with formal dress. “Who are you?” Tom croaked, his lungs burning with the effort.
“Apologies,” said the man. “You are Thomas Rhys Archer.”
“Didn’t ask who I was,” said Tom. “I know.”
“Perhaps not. But I feel it is worth restating your identity, since in your present plight you seem to have lost sight of it.”
“You are, in fact, more than merely Thomas Rhys Archer. You also are known by another name — the Bowman of Britain.”
“How do I know that?” The man smiled enigmatically. “Because I have come here to help you, Thomas Archer. Because it is time for the Bowman to serve his country once again.”
“In case you haven’t noticed,” rasped Tom, “I’m hardly in a position to play hero these days. Have you got any idea what I look like under these bandages?”
“My, my,” said the stranger, “aren’t we feeling sorry for ourselves today?”
Tom shut his eyes and counted to ten. “We have good reason to. Look, I don’t know who you are, but I’m not in the mood for this. And don’t even think about telling me there are people who are worse off than me, because I’d love to know how!”
“Do you think taking that attitude really helps?”
Tom glared angrily at him. “OK, that’s it. You think I need counselling? I don’t. I’ve had counsellors till they’re coming out of my ears. Go away and leave me in peace.”
The stranger smiled. “In peace? But surely, Thomas, you can never be in peace while you are like this. You are a man of action.”
“I am not saying this to mock you, my friend. I know how you are feeling. I know how being helpless like this is anathema to your very being.”
“You can’t know anything of the sort!”
“Oh, but I do. I have watched you from the very beginning, Thomas Archer. I know how, as a boy, you were inspired by your family name; I know how you became fascinated by the legends of Robin Hood and William Tell; I know how you researched all you could about the medieval longbow and the men who wielded it; I know how you became a champion with the bow, winning a gold medal for Great Britain in the Olympic Games; and I know how, thrilled by the exploits of the American Green Arrow, you determined to become like him and took up the mantle of the Bowman of Britain, his counterpart in these isles.”
“Somebody, somewhere, obviously has a big mouth — somebody at Scotland Yard, I’d hazard a guess,” muttered Tom. “All right, so you’re not a counsellor, are you? What, then? A reporter?”
The bearded stranger threw his head back and laughed lustily. “It’s good that you haven’t lost your sense of humour, my friend. A reporter? Ha-ha-ha!”
“Then who the hell are you, and why have you been digging into my affairs?”
A curious smile played on the man’s lips. “Suddenly, my friend, you seem to have less trouble talking…”
Tom blinked in surprise. Yes, it was true; just a few minutes ago, every word seared his throat, made his lungs feel as if they were full of acid. Yet now, it was not hurting him to talk at all. In his annoyance, he had not even noticed.
“And is there anything else, Thomas? Are you, perhaps, feeling more like the man you once were?”
“What are you talking about?” Tom raised his hand to point at the man. “Just who the hell are…?” The words spluttered to a halt. He stared at his bandaged arm. The movement had been swift, not slow and careful at all, yet he felt no pain, no telltale wetness of scabs bursting open to soak the bandages with his blood.
“What the hell–?” He sat up. Sat up. What was happening to him? The constant pain that had pervaded every waking moment since the Martian ray-blast had struck him was fading fast. Scrabbling at the bandages swathing his left arm, he uncovered an area of the skin — bare skin, clean, pink skin, undamaged skin, healed skin.
“Who… who are you?” he gasped.
“Don’t you know?” asked the man. “Don’t you recognise the one who has inspired heroes to come to Albion’s aid throughout the ages? Don’t you know the mentor of Robin Hood, of Merlin, of thousands of others?”
He straightened and seemed to shrug. His green business suit shrugged with him and became a robe of deepest leaf-green, trimmed with ermine. “I am Herne the Hunter, Thomas. And I have come to call you back to be a hero to your people!”
La Rochelle Rouge, Louisiana:
Rhea Jones sat nursing her empty cup as she watched the trucks come and go from the diner’s parking lot. Sooner or later she was going to have to pluck up the courage to move out, to approach one of those drivers and try to hitch a lift to take her closer to her goal. But it was a long, long way to California. And that meant a long, long procession of sweaty, redneck truckers ogling her, contriving ways to touch her, to snatch a feel of her leg or her breast… or worse.
She groaned inwardly as she thought of the trucker whose arm she had been forced to break only two days before. She didn’t want to hurt anyone; she was a gentle soul who wanted to cause no harm to anyone. But what would have been the alternative? Submit to rape? There were limits to which turning the other cheek could be pushed, and that guy had overstepped them by a long, long way.
“Another coffee, hon?” Rhea looked up at the waitress and nodded dumbly. If only she had been able to stay with the carney. Rhea Rhodes, the world’s strongest girl — she could still see the posters now.
But Matt had lacked the courage to keep her on. “Sorry, sugah, but th’ payin’ customers are startin’ ta suspect th’ truth about you.” The truth. Yeah. That she was a freak.
She stared at the ghost of her reflection in the window. She was pretty and curvaceous, with long, dark-red hair that a model would die for — but she only saw the dark shadow of her sunglasses. Every time she removed them, she prayed that they would revert to the normal, emerald-colored eyes she’d had as a child, but no. They weren’t green any more. Since the accident changed her, they had been totally white. No irises, no pupil. Just white.
She sometimes wondered how she could even see at all with eyes that lacked any trace of a pupil, but see she could — and far more than she had ever been able to see with her normal eyes. To Rhea, the Earth’s magnetic field and all that it touched was real, visible, alive. And seeing it, she could control it — manipulate it — bend it to her will in a hundred different ways. Yes, it was exciting to do that, to be able to do something that no one else could do.
But she would willingly have traded all those amazing powers to have her normal eyes back.
Worse, of course, was the fact that the powers were becoming even stronger. Recently, if she was not careful to keep her power level low, it had started to manifest herself as a purple glow around her. It was that, more than anything else, which had prompted Matt to drop her from the carney. Clever lighting effects could cover up so much, but the more power Rhea used, or the more excited she became, the stronger the glow became. Her all-white eyes she could cover up with trademark designer shades, but this was too much. It also didn’t help that Matt had discovered she was really only seventeen, not twenty-one as she had told him.
Sighing, Rhea finished her coffee, paid, tipped the girl, and made a quick visit to the ladies’ room before making her way outside to the parking lot. She had enough money for food and an occasional motel room, but if she were to survive when she got to California, then she had to economize somehow. If that meant truck-stop hitchhiking, then so be it. She would just have to put up with the men who drove these rigs until she got there. In California it would be different. People were less judgmental in L.A. She would be able to find a way to use her powers to make herself money without being considered a freak.
A burly, blue-shirted trucker was just making his way to his rig, which had Nevada plates. This looked promising; if he could take her all the way to Vegas, that would be just great. And who knows? She might be able to find work there without having to go all the way to the West Coast.
She started to walk toward him. He had a kind-looking face; perhaps this would be one of the nicer ones — a family man, perhaps, with maybe a daughter of her age of his own, who would treat her with some respect and not keep trying to grope her.
Her thoughts fragmented as a glowing vortex suddenly opened up in front of her. As she reeled back in shock, a white-haired, golden-skinned woman leaped out from the vortex to land lithely on the tarmac in front of her.
“Time for bed, honey,” said the newcomer with a smirk. She let fly with a roundhouse cross so swiftly that Rhea had no time to react and erect a magnetic shield. Rhea staggered back in pain, somehow managing to keep her footing but too stunned to bring her powers into play. Her sunglasses clattered to the ground as a second punch knocked the wind out of her. She could sense that some of the truckers were running toward them, but they were too late. A chop to the back of Rhea’s neck send her spinning into blackness.
As consciousness faded, Rhea felt herself being lifted over the strange woman’s shoulder and carried into the vortex.
The trees were thickly planted in this part of the New Forest, making progress difficult. Fortunately, the new growth of spring was still a few months off, otherwise this barely visible path would have been overgrown with fern and brambles and completely impossible. As it was, Tom was thankful that he had decided to wear sturdy denims and a heavy leather coat; a suit would have been ripped to shreds by now.
Then, suddenly, the trees gave way to an almost circular clearing in which stood a single standing stone. A man in green stepped out from behind the stone and smiled in greeting. “Welcome, Thomas. Welcome to the Greenwood.”
Tom shrugged. “Thank you. I have to say, though, that you don’t make yourself easy to be found.”
“Ah, but he who is prepared to make an effort is he who is truly worth the effort himself.”
“Regardless, I am glad to see you, my friend,” said Herne, moving up to Tom and shaking him warmly by the hand. “You are fully healed now?”
“Yes — something I’ll always be grateful for. It’s a miracle, Herne. I feel stronger than ever!”
“Good, good.” The legendary Hunter looked him up and down. “You choose not to come as the Bowman of Britain, though, I see.”
“I haven’t been back to my London flat yet,” said Tom. “And anyway, my old costume and equipment were toast. They had to cut it away from my flesh.” He shuddered at the memory. “I’ll probably design a new one when I get back. Something different — it’s about time I moved out from under the shadow of Green Arrow and found my own distinctive identity. Something in red, white, and blue, I think.”
“I see. So where did you get these clothes, my friend?”
“The hospital lent me a few things, and I had some money sent up from London so I could go out and make a few purchases. Boy, though, you should have seen their faces when they saw I was healed. You couldn’t move for consultants probing me to try and figure out how it happened. I had to practically use force to get out of there in the finish,” said Tom. Herne laughed. “And you didn’t help, either!” Tom added. “Why did you disappear like that?”
Herne was suddenly serious. “It is not for mortals to see Herne the Hunter unless I wish them to do so, Thomas. And now,” he added, moving toward the rock, “I have a gift for you.”
From behind the standing stone he produced a longbow carved with runes. Tom whistled. “That is some bow! Is it an antique?”
“It is called the Thunderbow in your language,” said Herne. “It is one of the seven legendary weapons of the gods of Albion. Take it.”
Tom hefted the weapon and drew back on the string. “Wow! There’s some power here. At least a hundred pounds, probably more.”
“At least a hundred and fifty.”
“Whew! Can I try it?”
“I wish you to do more than try the bow, Thomas. I wish you to use it. The Thunderbow has been offered to many great archers down the centuries, including Robin of Loxley himself. None has been able to draw on its powers. However, I sincerely believe that you may be the one.”
“That’s very flattering, but how could it be? I’m just a part-time hero. How could I compare with Robin Hood and the like?”
“Your modesty ill-befits you, Thomas. To use the Thunderbow requires a pure heart and an open mind. Loxley had one but lacked the other.”
“I don’t understand.”
Herne smiled patiently. “The medieval Christian church, Thomas, had little room either for any ideas or powers which were outside of its own narrow creed. Robin, for all that he lived outside of the law, was a devout Christian and unwilling to step outside of the church’s teachings, which told that the ways of the old religions that preceded it were evil and corrupting. While he was happy to accept my counsel in other things, he would not accept that the older powers could be beneficial. Thus, his mind remained closed to the power of this bow, which I now ask you to try for yourself.”
Tom paused for a moment, taking this in. “I’m a Christian, too, Herne. While I’m eternally grateful for your help and healing, I’m not about to convert to paganism.”
“I do not ask you to do so, my friend — I ask only that you open your mind to the possibilities. Robin Hood was not capable of that, but you are a modern man, and you have seen and accepted many things that would have been anathema to the Christians of the Middle Ages. The Thunderbow has great power which can be unleashed if you will only believe in it.”
Tom considered this. “All right.” He looked around. “But I don’t see any arrows. How am I supposed to try it without any arrows?”
Herne’s expression was of mild amusement. “The Thunderbow will fire normal arrows, as will any other bow — but it will also fire arrows of the imagination.”
“Take aim at yonder tree,” Herne said, “and draw back the bow to its fullest extent. When you are ready, let fly and spear that trunk with your shaft.”
“Believe, my boy. Believe.”
Tom shrugged. He sighted on the tree in question and drew back the mighty bow. As he did, he felt a tingling of incredible power suffusing his arms. Looking down, he saw, to his astonishment, the pale ghost of a shaft gripped between his fingers. Taking aim, he released the imaginary shaft.
A flash of lightning-like energy streaked from the bow and struck the tree. It impacted the wood and exploded in a fury of fire and smoke, sending shards of bark all over the clearing.
“My… God!” Tom breathed.
Herne was beaming. “It is as I said, my boy. You are the one. You are the one!”