tagNovels and NovellasThe Archer's Apprentice

The Archer's Apprentice

bySpencerfiction©

Author's note

The first story in this tale "The Archer" was entered into the "Romance" category of Literotica was very well received. This second story was written largely in response to the encouragement I received from Literotica readers wanting a follow-up to the original. I have envisaged a trilogy, the third story entitled "The Archer's Lady" has an outline, prologue and one chapter written; whether it will ever be written may depend on how this part of the story is regarded.

The middle volume of any Trilogy is one of transition between the First, written as a self-contained story with no thought of a sequel, and the Third, which is expected to completes the whole and tie up the loose threads of the Middle, so it is natural that the middle may be regarded as "middling".

So, please let me know what you think. I always regard positive criticism as valuable feedback. I warn you readers also, that like the first tale in this series, the romance is more in the mind behind the eyes than behind the buttoned pissflap.


*****

THE ARCHER'S APPRENTICE

Book 2 of The Archer Trilogy

1.

Brown eyed girl

(Will Archer narrates)

The archer kicks a small water pail across the path in his anger as he leaves the field, cursing for missing the target altogether with his second shot.

I can understand his frustration. It was a sudden, unforeseen lull in the otherwise stiff and freezing breeze that affected his shot, fired such a long distance from the target. His first shot had been nigh on perfect and, as he calmed himself after his last miss, he was able to release the final shot of his set of three calmly but resolutely, and found the centre of the bull.

John of Wakefield's irritated outburst is regrettable, however, considering he had already overcome that extraordinary miss. It was no doubt his realisation that, through that simple error, he had slipped from second to fourth place in the tournament, behind the improved Gilbert Derby and Ali the Half-Moor's curiously curved bow. The thought of him having to yield prize money had given him more ire than he could any longer contain. He must have felt confident at the outset that just three near-perfect shots would challenge the resolve of such an inexperienced youth currently leading the competition, who was now the only competitor left to test his skills against the target butt before the winners were declared.

Now, even if the last archer falters and slips up under pressure, John of Wakefield's best result would be third place and a much reduced purse, or more likely fourth and no purse at all. And no winnings at all to collect from the wager mongers gathered around like vultures for the tourney to expire.

I look around the crowd gathered at the archery grounds at Wellock Brigga. This market town's celebration of the arrival of spring has been blessed with a well-attended May Fayre, held upon the lush floodplain by the swollen banks of the river Wellock. It is a well organised event, as rich in its offering of rewards as it has been for quite some years, with a respectable purse for the top handful of winning archers.

I have not been in this town for seven or eight seasons and am not even actively participating in the contest this time. Though I, William Archer, am recognised by many who are gathered about, I feel no need to hide behind any alias or two as I once did in my former life as a travelling hawker of archery goods. The town lies within the boundaries of my shire and, as the Shire Reeve, I have had several parleys with the Lord here, the wily Gerald of Wellock, during my brief tenure, appointed a year since by King Henry. Now I sit in an open-fronted tent, watching the spectacle alongside lords, knights, and other worthies of their community, as an honoured guest rather than the common competitor I so recently was.

The Lord Wellock, the Mayor and his Aldermen, along with all their wives, sit around me, mostly well wrapped against the chill air in thick woollen cloaks over their silk, lace and fur finery. The freezing cold northerly wind, whistling down the river valley, knows no difference between master and serf, it chills each in turn as it pleases, 'tis only the number of clothing layers and the quality of the broadloom cloth covering the skin, that separates rich from poor. At least today it is not snowing and the unseasonal falls of the last few days have melted away in the sunshine as the day grows older, but the weary wind is one which sucks the heat out of everything and everyone.

To my right sits Lord Wellock himself, a huge gingery man in his late forties, red of face except for a large sword slash scar on his left temple and cheek, a glowing white testimony to a failed helm in some past battle, one that the possessor will never forget, one imagines. Besides him sits his Lady Elsbetta, a comely, fair haired Saxon woman, at least twenty years her husband's junior, and presently heavy with child.

The sight of her fills me with remorse for agreeing so readily to depart for three weeks from my own pregnant wife, the Lady Alwen, left alone at home a week since, and only seven weeks away from our own precious baby's due date.

I worry about Alwen. But then I always worry about so many things. I have worries heaped upon worries: about my responsibilities as a first time expectant father to be, as well as carrying the wellbeing of this shire on my shoulders, and that of the Manor of Oaklea, having only just renewed the annual tenancies, this Lady Day just passed.

The idea of having serfs dependent upon my lordly whim still sits uneasy with me, an independent minded man from the Principality of Wales. A couple of the more able serfs I made free that day, giving them each a half-share in a vacant tenancy, after I fairly apportioned them in two equal halves. Serfs or carls have to serve their masters under the Norman law of England. Their place in this Merrie England of ours is not so merry, as they are but the same as the slaves that ancient empires once boasted of. They cannot leave their parishes, without permit from their Lord, nor may they marry whom they wish without their Lord's say so. Neither may they own animals other than the granting of a single swine, or hold land, nor may they enter into tenancies or take up apprenticeships, like free men can. Once, these proud Saxons had their own King and Earl and Reeve. Now they survive under the yoke of the Norman dukes and counts, and forced to labour for three-fourths of the year for their overlords, for a daily ration of bread and ale. They only toil exhausted on their own assigned strips, upon the common grounds, on those days the Lord releases them from his own demesne, should he think fit.

Lady Alwen runs our commodious Inn and, to be honest, mostly runs our Manor estate too, while I tend to my responsibilities in the Shire Castle, or in my longbow workshop atop the hill by the church in the middle of Oaklea, teaching my son Robin the arts of bow making, as my dear-departed father once passed onto me. The great oaks which once filled the parish that took their name for its own, were cleared out long ago, turning the hill and valley into rich farmland, a wealth that was once wasted by an earlier Lord, carrying on warfare away from these islands, despairingly defending estates from the French and Burgundian kings, which are now lost to this manor forever.

My thoughts of home are interrupted by a resounding round of applause, as the final competitor is summonsed to the mark by the Events Marshall to fire his final set of darts at the distant target.

Most enthusiastic of the hand clappers are the refined ladies of the audience about me, who lean forward perilously from their wooden bench perches, in order to better catch a glimpse of the handsome young man whose progress they have followed since the opening rounds begun, well before the meridian yesterday.

He is tall and lean, this Robin of Oaklea, my son by marriage; though I know now that he is also the natural son of my loins, borne by his late mother, the mother of my own dear wife, Robin's sister Alwen. We are a complicated family! But true love makes light of such complications and we are comfortable in our filiations. He seems to be all legs in his green linen kirtle and brown woollen breeches, though he has drawn on a sleeveless leather jerkin against the biting wind sweeping across the sward. True it is that the young feel the cold much less than we, his elders, made of old bones.

He wipes his overly long and unruly black hair from his eyes with his right hand as he walks to the mark, while his left holds his ancient bow, one of the first that ever I made, back when I was still indentured into the art in my father's Welsh workshop.

As Robin settles himself, he looks our way, no doubt seeking me out and, when he does so, he winks. A maiden sitting behind me gasps, as if the wink was aimed just at her. Other gasps from divers other maids, and madams too, as if his gesture was to each individual female in this tented stand.

Robin notches his first arrow and bends into his bow, firing his three shots quite quickly in succession, but for all that, smoothly and confidently, fully in control. Without delay, the target master announces the three bulls scored almost nonchalantly, as all of Robin's shots have been near perfect during these two long days of skilful bowmanship. He has a natural gift with the bow, allied with the supreme confidence of youth.

Minutes later he and the other winners have collected their individual bags of silver coin for their efforts, to the accompaniment of more rounds of applause, and a few encouraging whistles from the direction of the ale and wine tents. We retire to the town's best tavern to change into finer clothing before meeting our social obligations to the notables of the manor in the tavern's main dining hall.

I am required by my place to sit at the top table to share salt with the other shire nobles, though I be a recent appointee to the upper tier, while Robin perches with his fellows upon the lower benches. He stands up, when called upon by the Mayor, to receive toasts upon his noble victory, before sitting again to receive further slaps on his back from Henry, my man at arms and Hugh, Robin's friend from childhood, who insisted on accompanying him on the trip, though his lack of prowess with the longbow is as dangerous to him as it is to anyone around him. Still, Hugh is a jolly, mostly harmless fellow, whose constant company Robin has always remained fiercely loyal to, despite Hugh's wayward and chaotic nature. The boy Hugh was conceived by force, at the same time as my Alwen's daughter Alice, when the village was pillaged and plundered by marauders, but Hugh's mother was one of the older widows, unable to attract new husbands, as so few of the village's men returned unmaimed from their pressed service in France.

Children like Hugh bear the scar of Bastardy and were unfairly shunned in shame by those fortunate to be born within the accepted confines of wedlock. Robin, to his credit, as one of the leading families in the village, spurned these prejudices and befriended the group, bringing to them a better sense of purpose.

Although none of them were able to secure recognisable trades for themselves, Robin persuaded Alwen to take on Hugh in the Oaklea Inn's farrier shop, employed in helping to maintain the inn's stables and aid the Master Farrier in shoeing the many horses who stayed at the inn from time to time. Lately, I have paid the Farrier an incentive to take on the boy to learn his trade, as a properly indentured apprentice, but reports are that the boy has little interest in the business to spark his enthusiasm to learn.

I am not able to keep my eye continually on my son Robin during the evening, engaged as I am in keeping the Lord of the Manor and his Town Mayor abreast of happenings elsewhere in the shire and to receive their entreaties. Particularly of interest is the Lord's unfavourable appeal to the Royal Courts of Justice, over repairs to the old wooden bridge over the river.

Wellock believes that such repairs should be the responsibility of the King, as the bridge is on the King's highway, while the King asserts that the bridge was built by one of the Lord's predecessors, a long deceased Saxon noble, and should therefore be maintained by Lord Wellock, who has been granted all the positive potentials of the estate and must therefore respond in like to the occasional drawback.

The Mayor was also unhappy at the unsatisfactory ruling, knowing the Lord will surely raise the tenants' rents to pay for the repairs, driving valuable businesses away to towns offering cheaper rents. The original construction of the bridge had for many years influenced the flow of water over the original ford, gouging deep channels, while silting the bed aligning with the bridge's pillars, rendering the old ford unusable for traffic, other than by herd animals. Anyone with a business in the town is likely to be impoverished over the necessary repairs. I am only too aware how difficult it is collecting the taxes owed to the King and the Church for their tithes; additional taxes for repairs may be the straw that breaks the ass's back.

It is the eighteenth year of the reign of King Henry, the last but one remaining son of the Conquerer, a year which is also counted as the year of Our Lord 1122. There is a crisis of succession with the throne of England, the crown prince having died by drowning just over a year ago and the old Queen's health giving out the year before. Though Henry has had many children, only his daughter Maud, also known as Matilda, the Empress of the Holy Roman Empire, is his recognised heir to his fortune. Now, he is quietly sounding out the powerful barons that Maud should also be the inheritor of his crown, the Jewel that is the Throne of England, until Henry has another legitimate child as crown prince. Many of the barons are upset by his preference, so Henry has in recent months taken a new bride, the lovely Adela of Louvain, who accompanies him everywhere, so no single opportunity to impregnate the Queen goes begging. But the barons remain restless, some quietly seditious, while others pay only lip service to his regal wishes and aspirations.

When I do manage to escape the attentions of my peers, I notice that Robin is no longer sitting at the trestles. Also, both his companions Henry and Hugh have over drunk their fill and are slumped asleep over the table, like many others in the hall. I rise from the table to find him. The "whole" ale at Wellock inn is older and drier than the sweeter small or "half" ales that the boys of Oaklea are used to, all that the carefully mothering Alwen has ever allowed the boy and his friends to drink, as he celebrates his win in the tournament.

Leaving my seat, I see that Robin has stepped outside the main hall of the inn, and is leaning on a post, taking in lungfuls of fresh air. I hang back out of sight so not to embarrass the youngster by my concern.

A covered cart pulls up to stop immediately in front of the youth, manned by a coachman at the front and a couple of armed guards hanging on at the back. Before the cart even stops, right in front of the boy, out steps a man about my age, pulling a young girl out behind him. I can see his face clearly. It seems he is angry at his daughter, over some trifle I know not what, and drags her into the inn, though she clearly doesn't want to go. Both of the new arrivals are clearly Lord and Lady of the first rank, dressed in the finest of clothing, he in ermine robes, she in blue silk, with a dark blue velvet overcloak.

From my vantage point I see that Robin and the girl's eyes meet and I feel they share a moment, similar to one I remember with Alwen ... from so long ago. The girl's face is pale, her hair dark chestnut, her eyes the deepest brown I have ever seen. They exchange their shared glance for only an instance, and then she and her companion are gone.

2.

Plague!

(Robin Oaklea, son of Will Archer, narrates)

I slept bad last night. 'Twas not for the paillasse of good straw, stuffed fresh two nights since. No, it were well worth the quarter penny my father paid. Nor was it the noise in the bedchamber. My father snores at times when he turns on his back, but it is a comfort rather than a disturbance.

My father worries about my sister Alwen and their coming child, which is understandable. He never shared in my harvest, only the sowing. But I think I know my sister better than her husband does. I have never seen her so happy, both since her lover's return and the blessing of their reunion. Why, she sings all day and bears the aches and pains of her swollen belly as if it were a burden that gives too much pleasure to ever put down.

Is my lack of sleepiness, down to being excited over my second win out of only three tournaments in my life? Or am I anxious over the next one that we ride to upon the morrow?

No, it were none of these trifles. I couldn't sleep because I had witnessed the most arresting looking girl I have ever seen. She were a brown-eyed Angel with eyes that I could slip headlong into and drown, whether I wanted to or not.

I had gone outside the hall last night after the ale, that I had been drinking quite freely, suddenly went to my head. It was stronger and harsher tasting than the sweet dark half ale that Alwen fashions for the womenfolk and youths, though I thought I had been advisedly cautious in my imbibing. I had even switched to mead for a while, when I heard from a serving wench that a little honey wine was available.

It too has to be admitted, that the farmyard smell (and worse!) of some of my fellows in that hall had also been overpowering. I am used to having more fresh clean water drawn from our home wells in Oaklea than we could ever drink and Alwen has always insisted that we bathe and change our top and underclothes once a week, whether we felt the necessity to or not. And I was starting to scratch at my crawling skin almost as badly as one of the fellows sitting a little too close along the bench from I.

I remember sucking in the fresh cold night air and leaning onto a post holding up a sheltering roof over the entrance to the hall. I was starting to feel better, when a cart pulled up in a thunder of galloping hooves. The contraption had four beasts pulling, much alike the wagons used to haul lumber from the river or a heavy load of ale to the town. At the moment it stopped, a Lord stepped out, dressed in his finest furs, with a great broad sword swinging at his hip.

He dragged a girl, presumably his daughter, out of the wagon behind him. It were clear she weren't a minded to 'company him in anywhere near keen a fashion as he insisted upon her. He tugged her out of the cart in his fury. She arrested her headlong fall with two tiny but long-fingered hands on the very post I leaned on, right in front of my eyes. We stood there eyeball to eyeball.

She stared at me with eyes that pleaded for help. Perhaps, I thought, she was going to be whipped by her assertive parent for some perceived insolence? I knew not. Her face was pale, as if in shock, her brown eyes gleaming in the glow of the bone lantern light above our heads, the highlights in her hair like the glossy coat of a spring vixen.

I can see her image now, as I find dreams slipping away from me just before dawn. I awake early, unsettled. In dire need of air, I leave my father deep in his slumbers. He was drinking at the top table throughout the long night of feasting, and much of the younger, better ale found its way there. There were raised voices from the upper echelon, some in anger, over I know not what. These be hard times and the King's tax collector, as well as peace officer for the county, isn't always fêted where he tarries. They may move from feast to feast. which appear gratis of tariff, but are rarely free of argument and attempted persuasion of policy to lean towards the host's favour.

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bySpencerfiction© 19 comments/ 9238 views/ 22 favorites

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