Breathing in and out, he was trying to steady his hand keeping his target in front of him. At three hundred paces he could barely see the center but he could visualize it in his mind. This was his last arrow. He had to make the shot, everyone were looking. His friends were counting on him to make it.
Peter took another breath, letting out the air slowly, releasing the arrow when his lungs were empty. The arrow flew straight hitting the target dead center. The crowd cheered clapping their hands, Gwen, Cathy and Arthur jumped on Peter hugging him frantically. This was his last shot of the day. He had beaten all of his competitors today, over sixty archers including his best friends all using the same English longbow. This shot secured him a place in the semifinal round tomorrow.
Peter gave the three another moment before heading to his opponent to shake his hand, a well-deserved honor he had earned. The archer was a short skinny man wearing a brown traveling cape covering most of his body except for his black shoes, the hood of the cape was covering his head as well shadowing his face.
Peter offered his hand and the archer took it shaking it harder than expected. Peter looked at the man’s face only managing to see his eyes. Peter sensed sadness and acceptance but not the kind coming from losing a tournament. “There are two more” The archer said still shaking Peter’s hand.
“What?” Peter asked.
A loud swishing sound pierced the air and the archer fell forward on Peter who was fighting to keep him standing up.
The archer dropped to the ground lying on his side with an arrow sticking from his back. Peter dropped to his knees beside him unsure what to do.
“Please give this to my son. Thank you” The archer whispered softly, with his last strength he tore a necklace off and laid it in Peter’s palm.
“Please, you’ll be okay” Peter called to him.
Arthur laid a hand on his shoulder, “He’s gone Peter” He said softly.
“He can’t be” Peter screamed.
In the course of events he didn’t notice the place already emptied from spectators and the four of them were the only ones who saw the archer die.
“We have to help him” Peter called.
Arthur hugged him while Cathy and Gwen hugged him from behind turning him from the sight of the body on the ground.
Arthur motioned for Gwen to escort Peter away from them which she did willingly, slowly taking him towards a nearby inn almost four hundred yards away.
Finally seeing Peter head away he turned looking for Cathy only to find her hurling her lunch on her shoes a few paces away into a nearby bush. He hurried over towards her, glancing back towards the body only to find it drenched in its own pool of blood.
Arthur turned in place looking for something. His gaze went back and forth between the body on the ground and the woods in the distance.
“We need to find someone” Arthur said to her seeing she calmed down a bit. “We have to move the body, can’t leave him here” he continued only to be answered by a loud sound of Cathy hurling again.
Throwing a look back towards the inn he spotted a man passing by. He threw his hands up and shouted, trying to get the man’s attention. Acknowledging the noise the man started towards Arthur and Cathy who was calming herself down slowly.
“What is the matter?” The man asked. He was a chubby man with a big bold spot in the middle of his black hair. Arthur now recognized him as one of the official referees in the tournament.
“This man was murdered” Cathy spat at him pointing behind her.
The man shrugged “It happens a lot, you are looking for the sheriff” he continued, “defiantly not me.”
“Don’t you think someone should find out what happened?” Arthur asked calmly, seeing Cathy’s eye twitch with anger.
“I’m too busy with the tournament, I have enough as it is.” With that the man turned and bounced back towards the inn and back to his regular ordeal.
He turned his head. “He probably had a big debt and couldn’t repay” he yelled and kept walking.
When the man was at a safe distance Cathy looked at Arthur who sighed and headed back towards the dead archer on the ground. “We should bury him” Arthur said looking at Cathy, hoping she can help him.
Cathy nodded in agreement and the two went to work.
It took them a long while but they managed to bury the dead archer under a pile of rocks in the edge of the woods, finally returning to the inn where Peter and Gwen waited for them.
“It might have been me” Peter said after telling the two the whole event for the third time.
“I don’t think so” Arthur said.
Peter didn’t seem convinced. “Maybe the black lord is back trying to kill me” he tried, aiming for their adventure in the previous summer where they fought the black lord.
Cathy laughed. “No, it wasn’t.”
“It might have been Seth, his minion. No one saw any of them after the big battle” Peter continued.
“Don’t you think he would have aimed for Arthur instead?” Cathy inquired.
“Then who do you think it was?” Peter asked a little offended.
“I think we will need to find out who the archer was first” Arthur pondered out loud.
“Here you go, lad.” A big woman appeared holding a big plate full of hot potatoes and beef, placing it in front of Peter who ignored the look he got from Cathy.
“He is an excellent archer” the woman told the group. “Can I bring you anything?” she asked.
Cathy started to shake her head but Arthur had a different thought in mind. “We would like four cups of tea please” he asked politely, smiling at her.
“Coming right up” she said and turned towards the kitchen.
“Ma’am?” Arthur called after her making her turn back quickly surprisingly fast for her big rounded figure.
“Yes?” the woman asked politely, “how can I help?”
“Did you see the competition?” Arthur asked.
“Of course” the woman said.
“Did you see his last competitor?” Arthur asked pointing towards Peter.
Passing her hand through her brown curly hair she thought for a moment and then nodded. “I think so.”
“Do you know who he was?” Arthur tried his luck.
The woman shook her head. “He didn’t stay here” she broke their spirits.
“Have you seen him here?” Cathy tried.
She rubbed her chin with her open palm. “I think… I think I saw him with two more guys.” She shifted her weight from one leg to the other. “Well if there is nothing else” she looked annoyed for the waste of her time.
Without waiting for an answer she had turned and walked away.
“This is what he said” Peter said excitedly, “There are two more” he repeated.
They all nodded in agreement, knowing they had their first clue, but there was no knowing how they would find the next one.
Sitting in silence with the exception of some chewing noises coming from Peter’s direction, thinking of their next move. The four where a bit surprised when the waitress came back with their glasses, slamming them on the table trying to hurry away before they could ask her anything else.
She stopped for a moment and turned back to their table. “It’s your lucky day” she said, “the two guys leaving the inn are the two you were asking about.”
Their heads snapped simultaneously towards the door.
“Thank you” Arthur said, already getting up throwing a silver coin on the table and running towards the door with his friends on his heels.
When the four finally made it to the door through the crowd in the large and packed inn, they had to look both ways noticing that the couple had separated and were heading away in different directions.
Without a word Arthur nodded and the four separated into two couples.
Peter and Cathy managed to catch up with their man, first grabbing him by the tails of his cape.
“Sir” Cathy called.
The man looked completely different from the archer Peter had seen die before his eyes, He had turned in an instant with a dagger held in his right hand ready to stab his attacker, making Peter and Cathy to take a long step back.
“Leave me alone” he said once he realized the two weren’t a threat to him.
“Sir, we would like to ask you a question” Peter tried politely.
“I don’t have anything to say” he said and turned back.
“This is about your friend” Peter tried again.
“I don’t have any friends here” he said and started walking with big steps as he was tall and chubby. The two started after him having to run in order to catch up.
“Sir, this is about your dead friend” Peter insisted.
“I told you already, I don’t have any friends here” he said without even turning his head and without reducing his pace.
“A man is dead” Cathy snapped at him.
The man stopped in his place causing the two to stop to avoid hitting him, “Leave me alone” he said raising the dagger again. “I would leave it alone as well if I were you.” They both heard the stress in his voice. After saying that he turned, picking up the pace and left the two standing there.
“Sir, Sir…” Arthur called after the second man.
The man picked up the pace a little and didn’t make a sign he heard Arthur.
“Sir, I wanted to congratulate you for your shooting today” Arthur said remembering this man secured a place in the next day’s semifinals as well.
That did the trick and he stopped and turned allowing the two to catch up. “Thank you” he said, although Arthur and Gwen could hear sadness in his voice.
“You are a very good marksman” Arthur said
A short man with a full brown beard and big hands nodded his head in acceptance. “I’m Liam, I was a bowman in the army for ten years” he said. “I was shooting with a longbow before I could run.” He let himself smile a bit.
“It shows” Gwen said, “You were the best one out there.” She said though she didn’t remember him.
“How can I help you?” Liam asked.
“This is Gwen and I’m Arthur” Arthur introduced themselves. “You might have seen our friend in the competition as well.”
Liam nodded, “I’ve seen you as well” He said to Arthur.
“Well, we tried our luck as well but we aren’t that good with the longbow” Arthur explained.
Liam raised his eyebrow and Arthur understood he needed to get to the point.
“An archer was shot, and died in the arms of our friend” Arthur started. “We got the impression you knew him” He explained.
Liam nodded slowly again, without a smile this time. “Only for a short while, we met a couple of days ago” he said softly.
“Can you tell us who he was?” Arthur asked.
“Well, I think he was a farmer, and I guess he was in debts as we all were” he sighed.
“Why do you think he got killed?” Arthur tried.
“I think this is out of your reach, lads” he smiled again.
“Please” Gwen pleaded, “This man died in our friends arms.”
“Not here” Liam said looking around at the people walking around in the village. “Let’s go to a place we can talk” he said and turned towards a small inn in the other edge of the village.
Unlike their own village, this one was much bigger. The four came here for the archery competition which was held once a year close to the end of the winter, holding a big prize money to the first three places. Arthur and his friends mainly went for the fun and to support Peter who was the best archer in the group. The competition was held by Lord Grey which they met a few weeks earlier and he had extended an invite to the group.
They haven’t seen the lord yet but rumors said he was supposed to be at the final competition the next day.
Liam led the two into a small inn. Looking for a table he spotted one in the far corner and hurried towards it, waiving the inn keeper away. The inn was almost full like the one they left a short while ago.
“We can talk here” Liam said, his look scanning the room. His voice almost absorbed in the noise conversations around them.
“What happened?” Arthur asked.
“I can tell you only what I know” Liam started. “I was in large debts when someone came and told me I have to enter this competition, and if I do what I was told my debt would be cleared”
“What was it they wanted you to do?” Arthur asked.
“Kill Lord Grey” Liam whispered. Gwen and Arthur gasped.
“Why didn’t you say no?” Gwen asked a little too loud, she immediately noticed and looked a bit sheepishly at the two.
Liam shook his head. “They took an insurance with them” he explained, “My wife and son.”
“What about the other two?” Arthur asked.
“Same deal, only one would be able to take the final shot when lord Grey will be in shooting distance. I guess they just spread their bets” he shrugged.
“So why did he die?” Arthur asked.
“He was useless for them” Liam said.
“They would probably kill you when all this is over” Arthur said and Liam nodded his head.
The four met back in front of the inn, everyone looked at Arthur for guidance. He was looking around at the open field where the archery competition was held. The sun was already at the horizon, there wasn’t a lot of light left.
“We should look for the place he took the shot” Arthur said finally.
“How would we find it?” Peter asked.
“We know what is a shooting distance for a longbow. We also know roughly where it came from” Arthur explained. “So let’s look for a clue where the archer was.”
The four headed towards the woods which were bordering the archery field. The forest was thick and muddy and the four had a difficult time moving between the trees let alone finding any clue.
The sun had already set and the red color had almost completely disappeared from the sky when Gwen shouted in surprise.
Quickly gathering around her to see her hold a small piece of fabric in her hand raising it high in victory, they were now looking at the ground and could barely see footprints and even small remains of food.
“Could you have made the shot from here?” Arthur asked Peter, who was looking at the archery field.
“It’s a bit far” Peter shook his head, “But I think that a marksman can make it.”
Heading back to their room in the inn the four were trying to think what to do next.
Gwen and Cathy were sleeping on a small double bed while the boys were sleeping on the wooden floor with two blankets each as bedding.
“We should kill the archer” Peter exclaimed.
“We need him alive” Arthur answered, “We need him to show us where are the prisoners held” he explained.
“We will grab him first thing in the morning” Peter said.
“You will participate in the competition” Arthur said.
“Why? We need to catch him” Cathy wondered.
“We need you to be there if we fail” Arthur explained, “I don’t believe it will be only one archer.”
Peter nodded he understood the reasoning.
“If something happens you have to stop them from shooting Lord Grey” Arthur continued.
“Tell us the plan” Cathy asked what they all wanted to ask.
Walking slowly towards the field Peter felt far worse than the previous morning when he was confident in his skill. It wasn’t only that he was facing the best archers out of almost two hundred which started the competition. It was mainly the knowledge that he had to win this competition as a lot more than the honor held in the balance.
The first phase of the day held the semifinals. Three rounds of six archers trying to reach the final round at noon while only six would make it.
He wondered what have happened to his friends. He haven’t heard of them for so long. It was very hard for him not knowing what was going on and at the same time being separated from all of them for so long. He tried to recall when was the last time such a thing had happened and came to a conclusion it was more than half a year earlier, the night before Arthur first came to the village.
Something was wrong they thought. There was no sign of an archer or anyone else for that matter. They woke up very early before day break and headed for the woods in the cover of darkness carrying their swords bows and quivers with them. No one was out there when they reached their destination. They had maintained a shift routine staying close by keeping an eye on the edge of the woods.
A short while after daybreak the three rose from their places stretching their arms and legs. The village was coming to life before their eyes. People were leaving their houses and starting their daily routines. There was still time till the archery competition would start and the three were using the time to look for the vantage points in the area.
“What is the plan?” Cathy asked Arthur.
Arthur looked around, he pointed for Gwen to head up one of the trees. “Keep an eye around” he told her, knowing she was a better use for them with the bow from above than with a sword on the ground.
Arthur and Cathy placed themselves in the bushes between the trees side by side head to toe, ready with their swords drawn beside them.
Peter was ready to shoot his final shot in the semifinals and there was still no sign of his friends. He kept looking towards the woods between shots. Thankfully his competitors were a far more out of focus than he was and he managed to secure his place in the final with another archer. He had kept an eye on Liam and the second archer which made it to the finals as well.
From the corner of his eye Peter saw a convoy arriving with almost two dozens of guards, he assumed Lord Grey was out there.
His final shot missed the center circle by a bit but Peter didn’t really care. He walked around looking at the woods. How it could be they hadn’t contacted him yet he thought. He was thinking the worst had already happened, they were all already dead.
It was almost noon when the three saw Lord Grey’s convoy reaching the village, it only after the final had started when Arthur heard Gwen whistling from above. She signaled two men were heading their way with bows and long swords.
The two didn’t notice Arthur and Gwen hiding only a few feet away from them. They were so confident everyone were at the competition they didn’t even bother to check the surrounding.
The two were talking between themselves, both of them were dressed like a personal guard of one of the Lords. They were both tall and broad shouldered with short beards and looked older than the average guard.
Arthur caught a glimpse of Gwen nodding at the two. He shook his head. They had to wait and see.
They could see Lord Grey sitting in the crowd now, waiting for the final three competitors to take their shots. Peter was one of the three while Liam looked like he was about to win. Peter was trailing behind but no one could have blamed him at that point.
The three were shifting their look between the tournament and the archers on their side. After a short while the three archers on the field have bowed to the crowd and lined up to greet Lord Grey who walked towards them.
Peter was looking at Liam who was standing in front of him, he was holding the bow in his hand and his right hand was twitching, something was happening in his mind. “Please don’t do it” Peter whispered. Liam didn’t answer, only took long breath in and out. “Please” Peter pleaded again.
Lord Grey was now twenty steps away. It was now or never Arthur realized. He could see that Liam wasn’t going to shoot Lord Grey but suddenly the archers beside them started to talk.
“The fool isn’t shooting” One of them said.
“What are we going to do?” The other asked.
“We’ll have to handle it ourselves” the first said, “I can hit him from here.”
“This isn’t what they asked for” he insisted, but the first raised his bow and started to pull an arrow.
Arthur nodded to Gwen, now was the time.
The archer started aiming when Arthur and Cathy rose suddenly from the bush. Gwen yelled from above and the archer released an arrow a bit low.
Someone in the field fell on the ground and a big commotion had started,
The second archer was standing in shock when both Arthur and Cathy rushed towards him he barely managed to draw his sword and hold of blow from Cathy’s sword.
The first archer was already holding a second arrow in his hand and quickly aimed for Gwen on the high tree above them.
Gwen was trying to aim a shot towards the one who Cathy was attacking, when Arthur rolled on the ground swinging his sword in a circle making a deep cut in the archer’s leg. He released the arrow high passing over Gwen’s head who in return shot down hitting the second archer in the leg.
The two archers were now on the ground moaning in pain. A large group of guards was heading their way with swords drawn.
“This is the second time we meet in these circumstances” Said Lord Grey back in the inn.
“Yes my lord” Arthur nodded.
“This time I owe you my life” Lord Grey smiled.
“Do you know why would someone want to kill you?” Peter interrupted though the lord didn’t seem to mind.
He shook his head, “To think those were two of my personal guards”
“We hope they tell you something to go on” Arthur said.
“”I doubt they’ll reveal their employers” Lord Grey shook his head again, “I will take care of Liam and his family”
“His wife said he would be alright, the arrow hit him in the shoulder, it was only a flesh wound” Gwen added.
Lord Grey nodded to her, he started getting up, “I almost forgot” He took out a small pouch and threw it to Peter, “You won this fair at the third place” He told him and Peter blushed a bit.
The lord started walking away “I hope we will meet again in better circumstances” He said.
They all nodded “Yes Sir” Arthur answered.