Chapter 1: Green 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, which was fired from such a long distance from the target. His first arrow had been nigh on perfect and, as he calmed himself after his second shot missed, 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, and now the callow youth was the only competitor left to test his skills against the target butt, before the winners were declared.
Now, even if that last youthful archer falters and slips up under pressure, John of Wakefield’s best result would be third place at best 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 end.
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 melted snow-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 around. 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 and archery contest competitor. This 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 himself. Now I sit in an open-fronted tent, watching the spectacle alongside the 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 their wives, sit all around me to witness the entertainment of the contest, mostly well wrapped against the chill early spring 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 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 in Oaklea Manor a week ago, 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 passed.
The idea of having serfs and tenants 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 in my retinue 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 empires once boasted. 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 pig, or hold land in their own name, 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.
#2686 in Romance
#100 in Historical Romance
#281 in Thrillers & Suspense
#50 in Action thriller