The Bow And The Arrow

THE BOW AND THE ARROW

 BY EDWARD DRAKE

At an archery tournament a young man’s future will reveal itself in the most unexpected of ways.


William delved his hands into the bucket of well water before splashing it over his face. His ginger hair and beard were already wet with sweat and he badly wanted to wash in a bath or river, but knew he could not until much later in the day. It was a hot summer, not a cloud in the sky and the sun hanging above them. He felt horrid, sweaty and tired from the previous night’s festivities. The red shirt he wore had been patched with sweat, but was now soaked by the water, which felt good in the heat. His head pounded with a constant headache, a reminder of the many tankards of ale and wine he had enjoyed. Thinking over it now, it probably wasn’t the best preparation for the tournament.

‘Good luck today,’ wished a young maid, with a shapely figure and rosy cheeks, as she hurried on by with sheets to be scrubbed clean.

‘Thanks Marie,’ William called after her. He would see her later that night during the on-going celebrations of the summer fete and he was already really looking forward to it.

The fete had been on-going for three days now, festivities planned by and paid for by the lord of the village of Barnstone, Duke Harewood. Despite the poor and desperate days, the Duke had lavished gold at the festival, bringing life and happiness to the village, if only for a short time. Feasts would keep going for another two days, finishing on the Sunday night. Today though was a day of tournaments, of jousting and archery. If there had been a contest involving swords then William would have been heading to that, eager and confident, but as there wasn’t he paced towards the field where the archery ranges had been constructed.

To the left of the field was a sheltered stand big enough for fifty people, a seat costing two pennies and a cushion costing another. In front of the stand was a barrier where spectators could gather and watch for free. Altogether about seventy people, most of the village, had turned up for the spectacle. They waited excitedly and cheered as each archer approached and practiced.

William headed to the third of the targets, the furthest from the spectator stand and tested the cord on his bow, feeling its tautness and being satisfied. After straightening up the guard over the inside of his left forearm he lined an arrow, a broadhead, along the bowstave and attached the nock of the arrow to the cord. Straightening up and looking at his target, he hauled back on the cord, drawing it back to his right ear. He released and the arrow soared true, striking the target just to the right of the centre.

In the distance he heard a small number of those watching cheering and heard the chant of ‘Scarlett! Scarlett!’ With a broad grin he held a hand to them and they cheered even louder. Then the nerves hit.

Unlike with the sword which he had practiced with since childhood, he had only studied how to wield a bow over the past two years, learning how to hunt boar through the woods around the village. Again he wished this was a sword tournament, knowing that he could be beaten by near no one, and that in this tournament it would be far, far difficult to achieve the prize.

‘Looking good William!’ called out the man standing nearby, an older hunter by the name of Andrew North. His face was wrinkled and his hair thinned, but despite his age he held his bow straight and pulled the cord back with no sign of effort. He let an arrow fly and struck his target dead centre. William knew that Andrew would be his main competition and he knew that to win he would need to beat the man who had taught him to wield the bow.

‘Still not as good as you Andrew!’ he called back. The aged hunter responded with a modest shrug before lining up another arrow. He had tried calling him Andy once but had received a slap from a bowstave for his effort, so Andrew it was.

William loosed two more arrows himself before retiring to allow others to practice. He was happy with his preparations and eager for the tournament to begin. A chorus of horns signalled that Duke Harewood was eager also. The large, over-weight Lord took his seat in the shade of the sheltered stand, at its very centre which had the best view, and then called for silence. Beads of sweat rolled down his flabby face and rolls of fat at his chin. He wore layers of fine clothes with a gold necklace hanging from his neck that shone in the sun.

‘Ladies and gentlemen!’ Duke Harewood called out. ‘Today is our third day of the summer festival and we shall begin our day of contests with a tournament of archery. We have eight brave men out there, all eager to display their skill and abilities. Each round an archer will fire three arrows and be allotted a ranking. Those who rank lowest will be eliminated. The rounds will continue until only one, the winner, remains. The victor will be rewarded with this silver goblet.’

A cheer emanated from the crowd as Lady Ana, the Duke’s devoted wife, held the shining chalice up for all to see. It would be worth a pretty penny indeed, thought William, and that silver could pay for food for over a month.

‘Our competitors today!’ Harewood said, gesturing to the archers before them. William raised a hand and waved to a number of people he recognised. The Duke then called out each of their names, William’s beginning the chanting once again.

The first round proceeded without troubles or any big shocks, as did the next two rounds. William progressed, scoring a high tally with every set of arrows. Despite the nagging headache and the searing heat, he was focussed and took his time with every attempt at the target. It was in the fourth round that the first surprise happened, as Andrew skewed his final arrow away to the right, not even hitting the target at all. He cried in pain and clutched at his shoulder, saying he had torn a muscle of something. His loving wife helped him away and attempted to console him for his loss, eliminated because of that final wayward attempt.

The next big shock came in the sixth round when the captain of the duke’s guard was eliminated. This left just William and Robert, a stranger amongst the village who had stated he was merely passing through. He was a handsome man and loved the crowd, encouraging their cheering with every arrow he released. William had watched him during the early rounds and his skill with the bow was extraordinary and unbelievably he did not even seem to be concentrating, drinking ale in between the rounds.

‘And so we come to the final!’ called out Duke Harewood. ‘We have William Eversham, a man of our own people, and we have Robert of Locksley! Whoever does the best in this round will take home the silver goblet!’

The crowd cheered again but then hushed as Robert stepped up to the target to launch his first arrow. Like all the others it flew straight and true, hitting the heart of the target. He threw up his arms, drawing more cheers from the spectators, before draining the contents of his tankard.

William took a sip of water from his own tankard, soothing his dried, sore throat, before striding forth and lining up an arrow. He steadied himself and let it fly, hitting the target dead centre. The crowd roared and chanted and with a grin that William couldn’t contain he paced back, knowing that Robert’s eyes were staring at him, watching his every move.

Both of their next arrows hit the target at its centre again and then Robert prepared for his third and final arrow. He paced forward, his face as hard as stone, a fury of fire in his eyes. He aligned his arrow, took a slow breath and then released. Like every single one of his arrows throughout the contest, it hit the target at its very centre.

The crowd then cheered the loudest that it had all day before hushing as William stepped forward. Sweat covered his face and his arms ached from the efforts of the day. His headache pounded in his skull like a never ending drum and he had a slight tremor in his hands through nerves. He then felt the cool breeze, heard the crowds breathing and hushed whispering and the birds singing in the trees nearby. Taking several deep breaths he lined the arrow on his bowstave and hauled back on the cord. Taking yet another deep breath he released the arrow and everyone in the field watched it fly and smash into target, impaling in its thatch. The arrow hit just to the right off centre.

‘And we have our victor!!’ shouted Duke Harewood as the spectators cheered and screamed even louder. Robert paced forward, arms aloft, soaking in the praise with a huge grin as William walked back and called for a bottle of wine from a nearby serving wench. He then saw Robert gifted with the silver goblet that continued to shine and shimmer brightly in the sunlight. As the victor celebrated, William tore the cork from the newly arrived bottle with his teeth, spitting it to the ground before drinking deeply. Around him minstrels and jesters began to entertain, singing and merriment abound. The wine and ale would be flowing long into the night.

As he lowered the bottle he saw Robert standing before him.

‘I just wanted to say well done to ya,’ the stranger said, his grin still present. ‘That was some impressive accuracy.’

‘You were obviously far better,’ William replied bitterly, but he offered the bottle. Robert drank deeply from it before wiping his mouth with his sleeve.

‘I’m going to guess that you’ve not been using a bow for long?’ he asked.

‘Two years,’ William confirmed. ‘If it’d been a sword I would have beaten you.’ Robert laughed heartily, his smile even broader.

‘You’ve got spirit about ya, I like that, and you’re obviously popular here,’ the stranger said, referring to the chanting as he handed back the bottle. ‘Where’d you learn to fight?’

‘I was a squire for Sir Anthony Cooper.’

‘Sir Cooper is a good man,’ replied Robert. ‘What’s your name?’

‘William Eversham, although friends call me Will Scarlett.’

‘Good to meet you Will,’ Robert said and although William was still sore after losing the contest, he found himself liking the talkative and friendly man.

‘I may have a job for ya, if you’re interested,’ Robert explained. ‘My band and I are always on the lookout for skilled warriors. The more the merrier says I!’

Copyright. Edward Drake. 2011

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