tagRomanceThe Archer

The Archer

bySpencerfiction©

"And the next bowman to shoot at the butt is William Fletcher, who came ninth and fifth in the first and second rounds. Please show him your encouragement, one and all."

There is a light round of applause in reply to the Town Crier's booming announcement and one or two slight insults arise from a group of locals, who have clearly partaken of more flagons of ale or mead than is wise so soon past the forenoon, before I step up to the oche. I pull a light-tipped target arrow from my worn leather belt quiver and notch it into the taut string of my tall Welsh longbow.

I glance around the throng gathered at the archery field just outside the town walls. This is the main town of this shire but it seemed smaller, poorer, meaner than it had last time I came through. It has been five, no six years since I was here in this market town last and won that particular year's contest. I was known by another name then, and no-one here knows or has thus far acknowledged that they recognise me.

The circular straw-stuffed target, with its red-painted outer and inner circles, gold centre, with bright white lime wash daubed betwixt, has been moved a further twenty paces away down the field. Even my rheumy old eyes can see the target quite clearly in the cloudless early May afternoon sunshine. There is a slight breeze, running from left to right, but I adjust my aim allowing for those light airs and elevate enough to take account of the longer distance. I draw my bow string comfortably up to the greying three-day-old whiskers on my chin, before letting the arrow fly. It arcs in flight and hits the target on the outer circle, which is good enough for my purposes. Then I loose my final two shots, both very slight improvements, which I am sure will edge me into the final round upon the morrow. I hope by my efforts to conceal my talents without raising too many concerns from the local favourites, the wager mongers or the throng gathering to see the spectacle, now that the average archers and worse have been winnowed from the assembly by the earlier rounds.

The town is a small poor one, a city once that has now fallen on hard times, and the reduced archery purse on offer is in proportion to the present size and economic potential of the area. It has a noisy noisome farmer's market both today and the morrow, thus providing a large throng with an interest in the present competition.

A rude-constructed and dilapidated stone motte and bailey stands on a rise by a bend in the river in which the town nestles. A group of soldiers from the castle have descended to watch the competition and jeer at the competitors. They are a ragtag outfit, wearing a variety of old and ill-fitting armour and I presume their sheathed weapons are likely to be equally unimpressive. They make no attempt to marshal the unruly crowd; clearly no-one of any quality seems to be in authority here.

I decide I will not come this way again. This shire has always been a problem for me; I find I am drawn back here, time and time again, more times than I care to admit even unto myself, which only adds to my eternal torment. Loneliness tears at my heart like a starving dog worrying a flesh-picked hambone.

I turn my attention back to the field and closely watch the remaining contestants as they complete the last round of the day, the penultimate round of the main contest, watching with as casual and uninterested an air as I can maintain, in case I am being watched. I have the measure of the prior shooters to me, mostly locals, judging from the ribaldry of the crowd and casual exchange of nicknames. I recognise two old mercenaries, who are also playing the same tentative and watching game that I am. They try to ignore me as I do them. They are likely where my competition lies.

A further entrant in the contest is a spare-framed lanky youngster, a stranger to the town like us veterans, without any rapport with the crowd. The youth is clearly trying his best and not quite achieving the return appropriate to his efforts. I find my attention drawn to him. He looks like a nice lad, not as boldly disrespectful as the local town boys who have been given far more rope than is good for them. The gangly youth holds a vintage longbow, one far too powerful for him; his belly needs to thicken up and relieve a notch or two on his belt before he will be able to realise that bow's full potential. The ancient bow itself certainly intrigues me, it seems it hath a familiar look about it.

When the round ends and the survivors for tomorrow's final round are announced by the Crier, I garner up my accoutrements and watch a different round of shooting, this time reserved for the younger boys of the town. Meanwhile the crowd ebbs away, no doubt to the inns and eating houses dotted around the stinking market. It is now that the gangly beanpole introduces himself to me.

"Robert of the parish of Oaklea in the west of this fair shire," he declares seriously, puffing out his chest with pride, "But everyone at home calls me Robin," he finishes his introduction with a disarmingly shy boyish grin.

"Good afternoon to you, young Robin of Oaklea," I reply with an easy smile. I try not to betray my inner emotions as the name of his parish careens through my head like the flooding waters of a collapsing dam.

I concentrate on the youth, only the youth, with the cold calm I learned under fire in war: no matter how huge the horde of knights charging at you, if you accept that you can only deal with one target at a time, you might survive. Focus, Will Fletcher, this is not an army, nor a nightmare haunting your nightly sleep but a single near-child who should be shooting targets with the children gathering on the field of play even now, not standing up toe-to-toe with the men.

He is tall, I ken that aplenty. He is a full inch taller than I and still has some growing left in his bones. His dark hair is overly long for my taste but then he doesn't have the problems I have of travelling over country on foot, sleeping rough when inns are full, or not available or where rooms are too expensive when my stock of silver pennies are short. Pennies are always short in these recent lean years.

My hair is thinning much on top of my head, rather like a monk's, so I keep it cut short in the Norman fashion. The youth hasn't started shaving either, judging from the bum fluff on his chin, as downy as the sparse hairs clinging onto my own pate, although the fresh whiskers on my chin be hard and bristly. I fear I will have to cut off a quarter penny for a shave or perhaps as much as a half at town prices but presently require all my coin intact for stakes upon the outcome of the final round in the archery contest.

The youth enquires if I might permit him leave to trifle a butt or two with a trial of one of my longbows, all fashioned in the Welsh style and apparently identical in appearance to his own antique monster, upon the practice grounds.

I assent to his polite request with a forced smile; reminders of the past pain me but the youth piques my interest.

At the outset of my spring tour of the May Fairs in various parts of the country, I usually set out with a dozen or more longbows, fashioned during the long Welsh winter, hoping to sell the most part of them on my travels through the shires. Many of these transactions, in but ones and twos, immediately follow the results of the local archery contest. I am rarely beaten in these events, so I aim to ease through the early rounds relatively unimpressively, to lengthen my odds, and thereby wager a few small silver coins at favourable odds for the final shoot-out. By this device I invariably earn as much or even more coin than the winning prize itself, by the simple manipulation of the fortunes, or otherwise, of chance.

Unfortunately, my reputation as an archer of some renown has ruined my chances of securing good odds against my chances of winning, so each spring I have to travel further north, east or south from my home to compete against strangers and seek out unfamiliar wager mongers among the throng.

These last two winters though, have been particularly hard. I lost my mother and invalid father three winters ago and now have to entreat my neighbours to work my allotment strips during the spring and summer, paying them two-tenths of the resulting produce, leaving me barely enough food in store to survive the winter. I have no living relatives, my only cousin, a fisherman, drowned at sea these four winters past. Thus I am forced to tarry at home in the early spring to sow my beans, onions, leeks, peas and root crops.

This means having to resort to returning to some of my older haunts this year, resulting in changing my name to Fletcher and thereby carrying rather more fletched and unfletched arrows for sale than longbows. Even so, I have as a consequence missed the early spring and Easter fairs, this early May Fair being my first contest of the season. Following this tournament, a three-week break will dent my earning potential until the next rounds begin in the richer towns downstream towards the coast.

This young Robin has some natural talent as a bowman, I observe on the archery training ground, for a young near-man clearly with little or no competitive experience. He is somewhat sloppy in his approach, though, loosing his arrows while holding onto his full-drawn breath, thereby tensioning his shoulders. This makes him anxious and stiff, to the ruination of his aim.

Veterans of wars, standing in long line abreast, facing a charge of French or Burgundian heavy knights, wisely learn that you take two deep breaths of air, draw bead on your target as you exhale your second breath and release the dart when your lungs have completely emptied; your body still, nerves ice cold, as you deliver that first telling arrow deep into the pounding heart of the leading horse.

After that, you veterans of many battles, breath evenly and deeply, unhurriedly, as you notch, draw, and release eight or nine iron-tipped shafts a minute until the horses stop coming. They always stop coming, if you do as I did back in the day ... always.

Farmers, husbandmen and town tradesmen, though, drafted into the line by those who know nothing about the art of archery or war and care about their welfare even less, dither and hesitate to kill the horses. Too early in the charge they aim for the armoured knights astride, who laugh full scorn at the ineffectual darts like they were wasps' stings. Farmers, husbandmen and town tradesmen sense the futility of their actions, rush and fumble their shots in their panic and are trampled and die under the hooves of heavy French cavalry, leaving widows to grieve for their menfolk thereafter.

Hunters and soldier bowmen, though, kill the horses without a second thought or hesitation and the eager pikeman waiting at the archers' shoulders move ahead to hack and stab at the floored horsemen, too heavy to rise and defend themselves without their squires' aid. Hunters and soldier bowmen invariably survive the battlefield but the lords and baron gentlemen often refuse to release them to return home, as they are too valuable for war to rot bent over working the fields.

Some like me have no lord to serve. That hasn't always prevented me being swept up into the draft for battle but makes it easier for me to slip away at the earliest opportunity and return to my roots in North Wales. I have been known by several names over the years, apWilliams, Archer, Bowman, Stringer, Fletcher, all preceded by my own given name, William, after my father William, craftsman bow maker of Wales, before me.

I offer the youth, Robin, the use of a lighter, slender and rather whippy bow, counsel the boy on his breathing, which he listens to carefully and almost achieves, hitting the target far more assiduously than his previous measures. He has a natural eye and talent for the Welsh longbow which I recognise needs to be encouraged.

I tell him that were he to repeat his improved aim upon the morrow, being the lowest qualifier and therefore the primary competitor to trouble the target butt, that he could set a high benchmark which would discourage the aim of many of his peers.

"Would you permit me to use this marvellous bow in the contest, then, Sire?" he asks with eyes wide open.

"Aye," I assent, knowing full well that the improvement in his scoring could be so impressive I might double the bargains for my wares following the contest, whether I was successful in winning a prize myself or no. He grins like a mule with a sack of carrots.

He is a curious young man, indeed. His clothes, while old and well-worn, were once well-made in good cloth, possibly hand-me-downs from an older brother or father where there once was wealth. Possibly still monied, in these straightened times, when 'tis dangerous to openly display one's means and attract attention. I try my best to deflect attention from myself too, although I have little wealth myself. If I believe his family are wealthy, even if he can't rattle the one and a half shillings for his new bow, the father may well indulge the son. The winter had been a long hard one and everyone's reserves have dwindled by consequence; pickings, legal ones at least, are as rare as goose teeth.

"How may I address my thanks to you for the loan of this splendid bow?" the boy enquires.

I smile and introduce myself as Will Fletcher. He looks askance, saying he has been informed different, and asks outright if I am indeed also known as the infamous William the Bowman who had travelled these parts previously, most recently known to have done so some six summers past.

I pull the callow youth closer and hiss in his ear that I am simply Will Fletcher and that any mention of a Will Bowman in my presence or in any association with me is not to be countenanced. He foreswears ever mentioning the name again but persists in beseeching me to privately confirm or deny to him my true identity.

"And why do you need to know this, young man?" I ask, staring into his wide, innocent young eyes.

"My guardian has charged me with finding you, Sire, for I understand you travail these parts but once upon each five or six seasons and my guardian wishes that you in particular would honour us by partaking of our May tournament this year, as our very especial guest archer."

"And why would your guardian wish this particular travelling William Bowman fellow to participate in your tourney? Is this some new event? I am sure that myself and all the other archers of my nodding acquaintance have long ahead planned out their time this early in the spring and summer seasons. This is the very last tournament of the opening spring series and many of us will wish to return to our homes and rest or work our fields for three weeks until the next round of fairs commence at Whitsuntide."

"That is where the Oaklea tournament would bridge the gap betwixt events, sir; it commences in but three days' time and a venerable purse will be offered at the two-day event, many times richer than this one, but offered only on one very singular condition."

I smile at the innocence of youth. Merchants and City Aldermen alike approach travelling entertainers all the time, aiming to entice them into promoting a new market or restored roadway. Damnation, even a manufactory of coloured bolt cloth needs to draw a crowd to whip up trade. And what are archers in these troubled times but entertainers? An archery contest always draws large and mainly boisterous crowds, eager for food, drink, accommodation and, among the marketers and provisioners, those who earn hard silver coin through sporting wagers and the subtle weaving of odds which gives them an advantage of profit, whichever archer in due course wins the pot offered up as prize.

There are always incentives offered by the promoters of such events, and where there are incentives there are always strict conditions applied, always.

"And the single condition which applies in this case?" I smile and ask of the youth.

"That the champion archer William, also known in times past as Will the ... aforesaid, enter unto the tournament as a competitor. My guardian was very specific, no William B-, the archer, bow and arrow smith of renown, then no high-prize will be offered in the tournament," the youth insists.

"So, let me see if I ken this aright? Provided this legendary Will you mention, apparently so well known in these parts despite the paucity of his frequenting, can be found and persuaded to participate in your village tournament, it will proceed as richly as indicated. Otherwise, if this Will cannot be enticed, no such event will be promoted?"

"Messengers have already been sent in all directions from Oaklea to announce the event and therefore a smaller but still tempting prize will be offered. So there will still be a popular contest held, that should attract the best archers in this and nearby shires. A messenger awaits even now at my lodgings, to fly hotfoot back to Oaklea, should you agree to participate, in order to redouble the efforts to cry out the announcements to the four winds.

"T'will be an event unmatched in the entire region," Robin grins, his smiling lips stretched wide enough to split.

"If such a miracle were to happen, what is the value of the prize purse and what are the particular inducements for the said champion to enter?" I ask.

"The purse consists of five prizes, for four different events, each of them for a prize of ten shillings in silver, plus minor prizes for high scores, with an additional pound of silver for the final shoot-off between the four winners," replies the youth with a grin of anticipation of the event on his lips.

"And the inducement for this er, Will ... Bowman?"

"Sorry, Sire, I should have told you those earlier. Full board and exclusive lodging in our inn's finest bedchamber, no sharing will be required with any other guest. This includes the evening of the completion of this morrow's contest, until you require yourself to depart for the next tournament come Whitsuntide. In addition, upon completion of the contest, whatever the final outcome, will be a one-off payment of five pounds of silver."

God's oath! Five pounds of silver alone is as much as I would clear in five years of making and trading bows and fletching arrows, without the effort of travelling and lodging expenses involved in earning that tidy purse. Along with the prizes, perhaps winning two or three of the five of them, would see me with enough coin to rent a workshop and finish paying the rent for my old cottage in which to see my few remaining years out. It is an irresistibly tempting offer but I bear concerns regarding the reasons behind such a generous set of inducements to one particular man.

"Why should such a sum be on offer merely, it appears, to uncloak this William the Bowman?" I whisper, careful of hidden ears, despite the desertion of the practice grounds, all the other competitors having departed to the taverns for supper.

"Oh, the Archery Fair is to celebrate the impending blessing of the marriage of my sister and guardian, Lady Alwen of Oaklea."

***

I well remember the village of Oaklea, I was there last six summers ago. I was there seeking my banker, Jacob, who had disappeared from his substantial city house without trace. It was in late summer, as was my habit, to meet with him in the east coast city in which Jacob traded as a merchant and banker. It was not a large river port but was successful enough to support a comfortable number of merchants, mostly dealing with wool and grain going out of the country, and dyed cloth from Flemish weavers and spices from much farther afield coming in. All merchants need bankers and middle men with contacts and understanding with which to smooth the passages of trade and the exchanges involved, not all of which are in coin acceptable on each side.

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bySpencerfiction© 29 comments/ 43344 views/ 76 favorites

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