Archery Lesson

Over the next week Cecily and Master Auvray met on ten separate occasions. These meetings were entirely out of her control, but it seemed as if Cecily was talking with him more than most anyone else. They never spoke for long, but each time Auvray—or Jevan, as he insisted on being called—was more courteous than at the last. Could it be that he was finding her on purpose? It did seem more than coincidental that he should be reading as she cleaned the library, picking lilies as she weeded the beds, and just dropping into the kitchens when she happened to be working there.

Longbow competition by hans s
Longbow competition, a photo by hans s on Flickr.
Certainly, though, Jevan could have no control over Luveday sending Cecily out to the Butts on Denby hill where Lord Geoffrey and his guests were practicing archery. The afternoon was especially fine—warm, with barely any wind—and it was natural for the men who had been closeted so long by winter to long for a bit of outdoor sport.

Watery sunlight splashed over the countryside as Cecily made her way through the mud and up a gentle rise, swinging the pitcher of ale as she went, glorying in the chance to get off of her knees. The company of archers was made up of the earl himself, three local lords who had come to pay their respects to the newly-arrived heir, and a passel of small boys whose job was to fetch back the arrows from the straw-stuffed “stags.” Geoffrey was red-faced and jittery as he tried to notch his arrow to the bowstring. Sir Warin stood behind him, and his face looked longer than ever as he viewed the proceedings—like a bored schoolmaster watching idiotic pupils. Cecily quietly announced the arrival of drink and Lord Geoffrey, glad of the interruption, thrust his bow at an underling and came over to pour out a large helping.

It truly was strange, the way she always seemed to meet Jevan by the purest chance. It was more likely that he should have more occasion to see Lady Mallkyn’s waiting maids (who were generally entrusted with the more exalted castle duties) than herself (one of the castle’s servants-of-all-work and one who spent the majority of her time weeding), but Cecily had only just heard Sybll lamenting over the few scarce moments she had been in the young man’s company. “He is always out wandering the countryside on his horse, and when he is at the castle he seems never to be in the same place twice. A proper young gentleman should know his duty better and spend his time inside the castle, learning valuable lessons from milord the earl.” And paying a bit more attention to you, I’d wager.

The line for ale was growing, and the third away from her was Jevan. His cheeks were flushed with the nipping breeze and his tousled hair sought to escape the velvet cord that bound it. Cecily found herself switching her weight from one foot to the other and splashing the drink a little as she poured. He isn’t even looking my way. Does he know I’m looking at him? 

She wanted to talk to him. Alone. She was not quite sure what she would say, but her mind was swarming with questions like a cloud of midges. And why shouldn’t she talk to him? He was not a king that she should cower back in fear—only the very important, handsome, educated heir to an earldom. Nothing intimidating there.

Before she had quite convinced herself to speak to him, Jevan took a cup from where it hung on his belt and held it out for her to fill. She took the utmost care in pouring, studying his hands in detail—finely formed and uncalloused, but strong, and adorned with a single ring—gold gilded, in the shape of a rose. When she looked up she saw that he was smiling directly at her. He kept looking at her over the rim of his cup as he drank from it. Cecily could feel the heat rising in her face and ears, and desperately busied herself with the pitcher.

“Have you ever shot with a bow, damsel?” She jumped at Sir Warin’s voice cooing in her ear. He had positioned himself directly behind her.

“No, no sire. I haven’t.”

He seemed about to offer her his own bow when Jevan interrupted, “That means that all she lacks is the opportunity to try her hand.” He walked over to where his equipment lay on the grass and picked up a huge bow, along with a slightly smaller arrow. Bringing them over to Cecily, he gave Warin a cold smile and waved her over to face one of the battered targets. The men around them stopped swigging ale and gathered in a semicircle around them. Jevan put the smooth wood of the bow to her hand and slipped the arrow into her fingers, holding them himself as he moved the arrow into position with her. Cecily was annoyed at the slight thrill that ran through her arms as he touched them, and kept repeating to herself that he was a selfish, arrogant prig. He meant nothing by it; he was just showing off.
longbow shoot by hans s
longbow shoot, a photo by hans s on Flickr.

Jevan spoke his directions softly. “Nock, mark, draw, loose. Those are the four steps. It’s fairly simple in abstract concept, but takes years of training and a lot of strength to do it properly.” He gave his crooked little smile. “So don’t get your feelings hurt if it doesn’t go right at first.” That put a bit more heat in her cheeks—the angry kind of heat brought on by condescension—and Cecily pulled back with all her strength (nock, mark, draw, loose, nock, mark, draw, loose…). She let the arrow fly. It shot out about four feet before diving into the grass. Jevan only murmured and reached for another arrow, but Sir Warin’s face cracked into a toothy smile.

“Indeed, Master Auvray, you seem unable to impart your remarkable gifts to the girl.” He gave Jevan a push—slight but firm—and took up the position beside Cecily. He bent his face so close to hers that she could smell his rancid breath as he whispered, “Now, pretty wench, you won’t be getting away that easy.” She shuddered as he grabbed her hand and forced it to the bow. After her next arrow fell even shorter than the first, the men around them gave a few lusty laughs, as if thoroughly enjoying themselves. Cecily’s fingers had gone numb and she didn’t know when she had felt more humiliated in her life. She tried to give an excuse and slip away, but the circle around her tightened and one man called out, “Come on, lass, let’s see a bit more! Maybe a kiss from old Warin will make your shots stronger, eh?”

Now she had to leave, but Warin was notching another arrow and beckoning her to the firing line. This time he didn’t even pretend to give her the bow but slipped one hand around her waist and dragged her so close that his lips touched her left ear and he began saying something that made her squirm—when a firm hand grabbed Warin by the shoulder and wrenched him away.

“It seems, good sire, that you are even worse at instruction in archery than I am, which is no small feat.” Jevan’s words were calm, but his jaw was clenched and his free hand rested on scabbard at his belt. The others guffawed as Warin’s long face reddened. “I would venture to suggest that you limit your instruction in future to men of your own sort.” Not waiting for an answer, Jevan took Cecily’s hand and led her away from the range.

Stumbling down the hill, heart thumping in her breast like a caged animal, Cecily dragged Jevan along behind her.

“Slow down, missy! It’s all right, they’re not coming to get you.”

She came to a stop within sight of the castle and heaved a few scratchy gasps.

“There, there now. Were you all that scared?”

Looking back, of course, it seemed foolish to have been so unnerved, but the laughter and the embarrassment and the cloying closeness of them all had struck a nerve she seldom felt. But there was no way to explain all of that. “Thank you, sire. I am truly grateful for your…intervention. It is most appreciated.”

Jevan had let go of her hand by this time and now stood as if not quite sure which direction to go. “You are more than welcome. Any time I can be of service to you, please call on me.”

“I don’t understand you.” Cecily straightened up to look him full in the face. “One moment you are acting like a selfish ass, and the next you’re trying to save me. Can you explain that?”

He would have had every right to be offended—any other noble would have slapped her face and had her thrown in the cellar for insubordination—but he only picked up her hand and held it to his lips, then let it fall back to her side. “We are all contradictions, mistress, and we are all prone to change.”


They walked together until they reached the castle courtyard, then Jevan drew Cecily into the shadow of the stables. He seemed to be working up the nerve for something when a loud hemph sounded from a few feet away. Lady Mallkyn and Lady Leticia stood on the castle steps, beckoning to Jevan. He gave Cecily a flash of a smile and a wink, then ran towards the other women, bowing and kissing each of their hands in turn.

Try as she might, Cecily could never be indifferent toward this man. Her first impression had been violent dislike and a vow of eternal hatred, but recent events had made her think better of him.

She came out of the shade and moved toward the kitchen door, but caught sight of two people standing near the well. Coming nearer, she realized that it was her mother and Old Rivens. That too-familiar dread invaded her stomach. Mum had been getting worse and worse; just yesterday she had seemed to be losing her mind. They had been standing together outside the cottage when Alis said, “Dearie, who are those people out there, in the street? They look as if they were lost, looking for something. Can we help them?” The street had been empty.

Alis now drew a bucket from the well, wrestling it to the top, then pitching backwards as she lost her balance. Rivens steadied her with one hand and grabbed the slipping rope with the other. Back on her feet, Alis said something and Rivens laughed, then they both turned in the direction of the stables. Cecily slipped around a corner where she might hear without being seen, and caught her mother’s words.

“…what it is with those two. I thought at first it might be a mother’s imagination, but I think it’s pretty nearly confirmed—if only by the times I’ve heard the story from others. What say you, Rivens?”

“Hmm.” He chewed his lip a moment before answering. “I must admit I ‘ave seen them more than once together.”

“Can there be a reason?”

“I think we must both of us know a few, madam.”

Alis grabbed the bucket, sloshing water all over the pavement. “It can’t be that. She’s nothing to him! He will be a great earl someday, and, much as I love her, Cessy is a cotter like the rest of us. It does no good for them to hang about together.”

“He’s a good boy, Alis. Isn’t afraid to speak to us ordinary people, and I rather like him. He’s got ideas, that one.”

“But I’m afraid for Cessy. She’s got ideas, too. I don’t know where they’ll take her. You will watch out for her, won’t you Rivens?”

“Haven’t I always?”

“And I would say to watch out for him too. I’ll take your word for it that he’s a good boy—foolish, perhaps, but good..”

Rivens shifted his weight on his cane. “He seems a bit crooked in places, but nuthin’ that mightn’t be straightened out in time.”

Alis lifted an eyebrow. “You’ll not go about reforming him, will you? Everyone else at the castle has had quite enough of your moralizing for many’s the year.”


“Ah, do what you will, Rivens, do what you will. No doubt everyone will be all the better for it.” Alis turned to walk away, then the bucket clattered to the ground as she burst into a coughing fit. Her hand clenched her chest and the rasping hacks were painful to hear for several minutes. She staggered, teary eyed, as Rivens gave her the support of his arm. “Thank you Rivens, you’re too kind.” Cecily could barely hear her; the voice was weak, like a small bird growing too frail to fly.

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Constructive criticism is welcome! Please remember, though, that nearly every excerpt posted here is my first rough draft.