CHAPTER THREE: THE ARCHERY CONTEST
Corin woke up in the dungeon in Thane Haraldr’s castle, hungry and thirsty. He’d never been so hungry and thirsty in his life. He looked around for Arin. Arin was not there. They had taken him somewhere else. Where? To be tortured? What was the punishment for squires going out without their master’s permission? Corin did not know. Would he be next? Surely they should have brought Arin back by now. Maybe Arin wasn’t coming back.
The dungeon door opened and a guard walked in. Corin stood up.
“You there!” He cried. “Where’s Arin? What have you done with him?”
“Shut up, boy,” the guard said gruffly. “If I was you, I’d be more concerned about my own life.” The guard unlocked the cell door. “The master will see you now.” The guard grabbed Corin by the collar and dragged him none too gently along with him.
They came up out of the dungeon, across the castle courtyard and into another passageway. Corin had never been in Thane Haraldr’s castle before. It was much larger than it looked from the outside and he wondered if he would ever leave again.
They arrived at last at a door at least twice as high as a full grown man. They entered the door, which led into a long and richly decorated room with about thirty people sitting in it. At the other end of the room were four large, ornate chairs, though only two of them were now occupied. The largest and most elaborate was occupied by a hard-looking man, dressed in scarlet lined with gold and a coronet on his head. He leaned on one arm as Corin approached and silently, but thoroughly surveyed Corin with his eyes. This, surely, was Thane Haraldr. Corin kneeled down.
The two chairs immediately to Haraldr’s right were both empty. In a smaller chair on his left, a young girl with golden hair, about ten years old, looked at Corin with pity. Corin thought this girl was the most beautiful girl he had ever seen and she was the only creature in the room that looked upon him with anything like kindness.
“What is your name, boy?” Thane Haraldr asked him.
“If you please, sir, my name is Corin. I live with the hermit Oswald in the forest. I’m twelve years old.”
“Who were your parents?”
“I don’t know, sir. I’m a foundling.” A few people in the room laughed at this admission.
“Your—companion—seems to be, let’s say, indisposed for explanation at the present,” Haraldr said with a leer. “Therefore we should like to hear your explanation of how you two came to be in the forest with my wife’s dead body. Which of you did it?”
“Father!” the girl next to him protested. “You cannot possibly—”
“Silence!” Haraldr cut her off.
“Neither one of us did it!” Corin said. “Arin had a sword, I had a bow and the Lady Evelyn was killed by neither. She was killed by a witch.” There were more laughs.
“A witch?” Haraldr repeated incredulously.
“We think she’s a witch, anyway,” Corin said. “She came out of the water after Lady Evelyn walked into the sea. They knew each other. Lady Evelyn called the other woman Nerina.” This time there was murmuring around the hall and Haraldr’s brow furrowed. “Anyway, they argued a bit and Nerina murdered the Lady Evelyn with some sort of magic staff.”
“How do I know you didn’t use some sort of black magic?” Haraldr demanded. “Who knows what that old hermit does in the woods? I dare say he’s taught you some of his tricks.”
“Oswald is no sorcerer!” Corin protested. “He’s never done a bit of magic, as long as I can remember! And I would never kill anyone! Ask Arin. He can tell you what happened. The witch conjured a sea spider and we fought it and killed it.”
“Now listen here, boy!” Haraldr rose from his seat. “Your stories are getting more incredible by the minute! Do you take me for a fool?”
“No sir,” Corin said. “I’m speaking the truth.” The door to the hall opened and an old man with a long beard entered with a pretty girl with auburn hair, about Corin’s own age.
“Oswald!” Corin cried out.
“How dare you barge in like that when I’m questioning a criminal?” Haraldr cried. “You, young lady, are to be confined to your chamber for a month!”
“Of course, Father,” the girl replied. “I shall gladly submit to my punishment. But I must first be certain this boy’s life will be spared. For I know you are too just to punish an innocent boy.”
“This boy murdered your mother,” Haraldr said. “And you wish to defend him?”
“He did not,” the girl replied. “My mother was killed by some sort of water-witch with the help of a sea spider she conjured.” Corin wondered how the girl knew all this. “This boy’s guardian and I have recovered the body of the sea creature as proof.” She motioned to the guards at the door and six soldiers entered the room bearing the body of the sea spider, which was nearly as large in diameter as a grown man, on a wooden platform, with nearly a hundred black, rope-like legs dragging behind it. There were gasps of shock and disgust as the soldiers brought the creature nearer and Haraldr himself looked utterly repulsed. Even Corin was surprised at how much more menacing and disgusting the creature looked in the light.
“Take it out of here!” Haraldr exclaimed, turning his face away. “You’ve made your point. Now take it away.”
“Will you promise not to harm the boy?” the girl demanded.
“Yes, yes,” Haraldr said quickly. “Now take it away.” The girl motioned to the guards and they took the sea spider out of the room.
“My lord, if I might speak,” Oswald said. Haraldr looked at him but said nothing. “I would like to point out that this boy not only fought the creature responsible for the Lady Evelyn’s death, but, at risk to his own life, tried to see her body returned to the castle. He has shown great courage and moral fiber to do so. Therefore I petition you to allow him to become a squire in your company and train with your knights.” Corin could hardly believe what he was hearing.
“Out of the question,” Haraldr spat. “He’s not of noble blood.” Corin wasn’t surprised at Haraldr’s reaction and wondered that Oswald could even dare to request such a thing.
“Forgive me, my lord, but you have no way of knowing that.” Oswald’s words were calm and his manner placid.
“Do you know something of the boy’s lineage that he does not know himself?” Haraldr demanded.
“I will tell you what I do know,” Oswald answered steadily. “If you deny this request of mine, the day will come when you will heartily repent of it.” Haraldr’s beady eyes looked into Oswald’s.
“And why is that?” Haraldr demanded.
“Because there is more to this boy than meets the eye,” Oswald told him. “This boy has extraordinary talents. Young as he is, I see potential for greatness in him.”
“And this is no predisposition in his favor?” Haraldr sneered. “What special talents has he, that make him worthy to fight alongside the noble blood of the land?”
“He is fair enough with the sword,” Oswald answered, “But his real talent is the bow. He is an extraordinary archer—such as I have never seen in all my days. And believe me, that is saying something. He has keen powers of observation and a good eye. In fact, you may pit him against your best and most experienced archer, and if the boy does not surpass him by a hundred feet, you may put me in the town stocks.” Haraldr eyed Oswald skeptically. Corin himself looked at Oswald in astonishment. Surely it was too much of a wager to put on his ability. A look from Oswald, however, warned him to keep silent.
“And in the extremely unlikely chance that he does succeed, I am to allow him into my company?” Haraldr asked.
“If he does succeed, would he not be an invaluable asset to your men?” Oswald countered. Haraldr could not argue with this.
“Very well,” Haraldr said with another sneer. “And if he fails, you shall both be in the stocks for three days.”
Corin shook slightly as Haraldr, Oswald and a whole crowd of spectators accompanied him to the edge of the forest, where the archery contest was to take place. Surely Oswald was mad to make such a wager. Corin was a good archer, it was true, but he had never felt his hand shake so. Suppose he should shoot amiss?
“You will do well, my boy,” Oswald told him reassuringly. “Be sure you concentrate. If you succeed, you may become a knight yet.” Corin tried to take comfort in Oswald’s words, but could scarce believe it.
His competitor was slight man of about thirty. His name was Elrich, and Corin thought he looked rather cocky and full of himself. It was evident that Haraldr and his men were expecting this man to win as certainly as Elrich himself was.
The target was set at a hundred feet first. Corin shot first and hit the center of the bulls-eye. Elrich shot, and his arrow landed exactly next to Corin’s. The targets were taken another twenty-five feet. Once again, both archers hit the bulls-eye. The targets were taken yet another twenty-five feet, and another. Finally, the target was so far that nobody but Corin could even see it. Elrich’s last shot had barely been within the bulls-eye, though Corin could still hit the very center.
“Alright, boy,” Haraldr said. “Let’s see you hit that. Hit the center, and I shall declare you the winner. Corin readied his bow and set his eye on the bulls-eye. He aimed and held. Moments passed and the others began to mutter.
“What are you waiting for, boy?” One of the spectators shouted. “Shoot already!”
“If you please, sir,” Corin replied, bow still at the ready, “There’s a spider in the bulls-eye and I’m waiting for it to get to the center so I might pin it there with my arrow.” There were outright exclamations at this statement.
“What do you mean, boy?” Haraldr said. “We cannot even see the target from here.”
“Perhaps you cannot,” Corin said. “I can.” As soon as he said this, he fired his arrow. Haraldr sent one of his servants to fetch the arrow. The servant returned, bringing with him both the arrow and the spider. Haraldr looked at the spider in furious astonishment, looked at Corin, and turned away without a word.
“The boy, my lord,” Oswald called out to Haraldr’s retreating back. “I presume you mean to keep your end of the bargain?”
“Let the boy be brought to the courtyard tomorrow morning to begin training,” Haraldr said, rather ungraciously. Still, Corin could not help but be happy. He was to be a squire, and perhaps, one day, a knight.
After a last evening with Oswald and many professions of good will and leave-taking in the morning, Corin went to his first day as a squire. The other squires were clearly surprised at Corin’s ability with a sword, though it was not yet equal to their own. A young squire of about fifteen, named Wilfred, was kind to Corin and showed him around the castle. All this time, he never saw Arin, and was almost afraid to think what might have happened to him.
Corin sat next to Wilfred at the squires’ table at evening banquet, and at the other end of the hall, the pretty girl with golden hair sat at Haraldr’s left elbow and the girl who had spoken for him the day before sat on his right.
“Wilfred, who is the girl sitting on Thane Haraldr’s right?” Corin asked.
“That is the Lady Ariana,” Wilfred replied with a smile, “Eldest daughter of Thane Haraldr.”
“She spoke to her father on my behalf,” Corin said. “I thought it very kind of her, considering she never saw me before.”
“Lady Ariana does not like to see the innocent suffer,” Wilfred said. “She’s as good-hearted as she is beautiful.”
“But I almost think her sister is prettier,” Corin said. “She’s the most beautiful girl I ever saw. And she seems very kind too.”
“That is the Lady Lenora,” Wilfred said. “Perhaps she will be the beauty of the two. But Lady Ariana has considerably more spirit, I can tell you. And I like spirit in a girl.”
“You fancy Lady Ariana, do you? Are you in love with her?”
“It’s no use to fall in love with either of them, really,” Wilfred said. “Their father would never let them marry a mere knight. So you’d better not even think about it.”
“Of course not,” Corin said.
Over the next few weeks, Corin finally gained enough courage to ask the others about Arin. This was not much use, however, for they often merely laughed and told him not to worry his pretty little head over it, and to consider whether he was not imagining things. Had Arin escaped and run away? Surely he was not dead.
One day Corin saw Lady Ariana and her sister strolling about the castle alone.
“My Lady Ariana,” Corin said, approaching them. They both looked. He bowed to them. “Forgive me, my lady, but I don’t think I ever got a chance to thank you for speaking for me, that day you came with Oswald.”
“You did nothing wrong,” Ariana replied. “I could not stand by and let an innocent person suffer for a crime they did not commit.”
“But my lady, how did you know all those things?” Corin asked her. “About how Arin and I defeated the sea-spider and how the sea witch killed your mother?” Ariana looked uncomfortable.
“Do you mean you haven’t told him, Ariana?” Lenora asked her sister. “It is common knowledge among all the other squires.” Ariana looked slightly ashamed of herself, though Corin could not imagine why she should. “That was Ariana who was with you that night,” Lenora resumed. “She disguises herself as a boy sometimes, and goes by the name Arin.” Corin looked at Lenora in disbelief.
“But why?” he asked.
“Why?” Ariana repeated, with more spirit, “Because women are prisoners. Women can do nothing. Men can fight and go on adventures, they can die in glorious battle as heroes. What do women do? We sit at home and do nothing. We sit by and watch, waiting for news, waiting for the return of those that may never come back. I took it upon myself to learn the sword. I can fight as well as any squire here. It feels good to do something.”
“But our father does not like it,” Lenora added. “He was very angry when he found out.”
“Yes, that is why I was confined to my own chamber for a month.” Ariana said bitterly. “He has forbidden me to practice among the squires any longer. Arin shall be no more.”