CHAPTER ONE: An Ancient Bow
“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 nock 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 farmers’ 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 that 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. I watch 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 at all 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 the morrow’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 beaver 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 grown men.
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