Castle Roland


by Arthur


Chapter 3

Posted: 5 Oct 15



Eventide was awoken by the loud sounds of laughter and the extra loud yelling of a familiar voice.

"Wake up brother; the sun is past its meridian and yet you lay in your bed like some common wench of the night."

Eventide felt the hands of more than one person on his shoulders as he was forcefully dragged from his bed. His head felt again like a blacksmith was pounding on his anvil. Eventide tried to struggle but was outnumbered and felt too ill to make much resistance.

Eventide was dragged bodily to the large tin bath and unceremoniously dropped in the cold water by a much larger and very much blacker boy; the other boys could not speak through their laughter as they watched the total look of horror and disbelief on the face of the smaller boy.

The frigid water soon had Eventide jumping out; unfortunately one foot caught the edge of the tin bath and flipped him onto the cold stone floor; much to the delight of all the boys watching. Eventide was now belly down with his very wet butt in the air; his night gown soaked to such a degree that he looked to be totally naked.

The large black teen smiled widely and spoke something to the other boys as he showed his perfect white teeth in a mile wide smile.

Eventide spluttered and shivered as he tried to retain some modesty; once back on his feet he looked at the still laughing Mahmud and asked.

"Wha...what did he say?"

"Ishmael said that your boyish charms would delight even the most jaded of Sheiks." Mahmud began to laugh again as a bright red blush filled Eventide's cheeks.

"Do not worry my brother; Ishmael would not let anything happen to you that he did not favour first."

This comment only brought more laughter from the assembled boys after Mahmud translated for them all.

"Come now brother, there is no more time for fun and games; your Baron has decreed that you will leave for his manor in the morning so we have to get everything ready for you to travel. I have one of my servants checking your horses and these six will be going with you as both your guards and teachers. The good Baron has agreed that in three months time; when I will be finished my lessons at the King's court; that you and I will travel together to see your estate in our homeland. Before then you have much to learn and these six will be your teachers in all things Bedou and Brotherhood."

Mahmud paused as he saw the shocked look on Eventide's face.

"What?" Mahmud asked.

"Uhm...horses? Don't you mean horse? And why would I need guards; I can see where a teacher would be advisable but the need for my own guard seems a little too much."

"Ah little brother, you have much to learn; you are now Kahlif of Wadhi Sufaria, that automatically means you must have a personal guard at all times; it is expected and normal. The horses are a part of those owed you by your elder brother; he has given six of those owed you from the Emir's stable so that your guards can ride alongside. A Kahlif cannot have his personal guard on foot when he is mounted; how will they protect you when the need arises?"

"Well alright, if that is the way then I am not the one to disagree although I cannot see anyone wanting to attack me for anything."

"Last evening I was watching the faces of the Knights while everyone feasted; there are at least ten who would take your head given the chance, and that also means there is possibly ten Squires of the same mind. Were you to be captured; the Baron would have to pay a hefty ransom. Of course there would be ten Knights and ten Squires that would not wake from their sleep the next day if that happened. Now then let me introduce you to your teachers."

Mahmud paused to let Eventide finish pulling on his dry trews and thick shirt.

"You well know Salud; he will be your teacher in our language and customs as well as those with the dagger and Scimitar. This Moorish fellow is of course Ishmael; he is from the far south of our land; he will teach you about tracking the spoor of man and beast as well as the fine art of seduction. In that field he is very accomplished I can assure you. He will also teach you how to lighten a man's pockets. Next is Achmed, he will teach you to be supple and hone your body so that you can move in ways not meant for man; he will also teach you the art of poisons. Next we have Demetrius; he is from the Greek Islands and will teach you about the Thugee scarf as well as how to throw knives. This one is Mohammad; he will teach you the arts of fighting from horse back as well as the art of our bow. Now the last is Medan; he will show you how to disappear in plain sight and how to climb high walls with nothing more than your hands and feet and in total silence; he will also show you how to deceive even the hardest of locks."

Eventide looked at the six smiling faces as they nodded to him; Mahmud continued.

"We have found a good wagon for all your goods and gifts; it will be manned by your four servants from my house; they have all volunteered to look after you and your personal goods and chattels with their lives, so you have no worries about them. When you feel you need more servants we can hire them or we can wait until we go home and you can buy a few dozen or so slaves."

Eventide did not realise the pounding in his temples had receded while Mahmud was going over everything until Mahmud said.

"Now it is past Meridian, let's find us some food and begin our brother's training; first it will be language; the sooner you can understand the easier your lessons will be."

At the mention of food, Eventide's stomach gave a dry heave; after swallowing a couple of times he followed his brothers out of his rooms and down the long passageway; he was not sure anything would stay in his stomach after the feast last night and the rude awakening he had received this morning.

The midday meal was lighter than Eventide expected it to be; a hot beverage soon had his head and stomach in better shape. When the light meal was done, all eight boys went to look for Eventides new wagon; it was soon found in a side courtyard being loaded by four mid teen boys; each one seemed to know what he was doing but Eventide could not understand the amount of baggage laid both inside and outside the wagon.

Eventide turned to Mahmud.

"This can't be all mine; I don't have all that much property."

"Of course you do; did you not receive gifts from the brotherhood? Did you not also receive gifts from the King and the court? Did you not also receive small gifts from myself and the Emir? Well here it all is, now let's leave the servants to pack it all away while we go and start your language lesson for today."

It seemed that no amount of disagreement was going to change the way Mahmud felt; Eventide could plainly see that nearly all of the gifts received for Mahmud now filled his wagon along with the ones he had got. For Eventide; a boy who had very little in life; it was hard to accept the fact others thought him worthy of gifts; it was indeed a strange new world he was now living in.

Four of the boys said something to Mahmud and then left while the others found a comfortable tree to sit under and begin Eventides lessons. The lesson was not easy but, much to Eventides surprise he really enjoyed it although Salud, Mahmud and Ishmael were tough teachers and insisted that he repeat words and phrases over and over until he had the right accent and inflection.

From where the small group sat they could hear the far off cheering where the Knight's melee was being held; for them, their special day was over and behind them; they would not feature in another melee or joust until next summer.

Occasionally they would see a beaten Knight returning to the castle, usually on a litter; the Knights melee was even harder and more fierce than the Squires; the loss of a life was not unknown.

As the boys sat and the lessons proceeded; around mid afternoon three of Mahmud's servants appeared with large trays holding light foods and drinks for those sitting under the huge Oak tree in the summer heat; for Eventide it was good to get a break from the lessons. He sometimes felt his head was spinning as he tried to learn the strange words, accents and inflections of the Aramaic tongue.

As the sun sank and dusk was getting closer; Mahmud called a halt to the long lesson; it was time to return to the castle where they could hear the beginning of the revelry for the winning Knights; the boys did their best to avoid going anywhere near the celebrations. They would all dine together in Eventide's room this night; tomorrow would be a long day for their new friend and he would need his rest.

Eventide discovered that, even after only this; his real first lesson; he could sometimes understand some phrases when Ishmael was speaking. It appeared the long lesson was already having a little benefit. Supper was small and served in Eventide's rooms; the other four boys had joined them for the evening meal and Eventide listened carefully to what they said and how they spoke.

He was surprised at how much he partially understood although finding the words to speak himself was still difficult; he was sure he was missing some very important things and jokes if some of the laughter was anything to go by; even with either Mahmud or Salud translating for him.

It was not a late night as all knew that Eventide would have to leave early if he was to make it to the manor before dark the next day; travelling with the wagon would be far slower than the way he had arrived just on horseback. They had been told by the Baron that he would leave ahead of them as he had urgent business at the manor that would not wait; he had told Eventide that he was sure the boys would make the journey without his help.

The next morning; just as the first rays of the new sun appeared in the east; Eventide's small caravan prepared to leave the great castle. As they traversed the gateway, the guards all signalled to him and wished him a safe journey; there were many that had seen the squire's melee and had been impressed with Eventides efforts.

The four horses pulling the heavily laden wagon were sturdy and seemed to have little trouble with their load; Salud rode alongside Eventide at the head of the caravan with the two other boys behind them. The wagon was next and also held the four servants boys; at the rear were the other three brothers.

It was a leisurely pace but still fast enough to cover good ground before midday; as they came to a woodland; Eventide called for a halt to eat their midday meal before entering the woods; the sun was warm and the shade of several large trees gave an ideal place to sit and eat.

It did not take the four servants very long to have a light meal made ready; two of the brotherhood kept guard while the others ate and then took their turn while two more watched over them. All the time they were sitting and eating; Salud taught Eventide phrases and language while the others listened intently and occasionally made corrections to the accent.

Within the hour; everyone had eaten and the horses fed and watered; they could now enter the woods and be on their way; the last push to the manor would be longer and they would not arrive until after dark.

The rough road wound back and forth through the heavy woods; as they came around one particularly sharp corner; Eventide saw a large log of wood across the road; behind it stood a tall man in a hessian mask that had two eye holes cut into it; in his hands he held the largest bow Eventide had ever seen and the arrow was pointed right at Eventide's chest.

"Hold up youngster; where is your purse and what is a Christian boy doing travelling with Saracens in our woods?"

As their horses came to a sudden stop; Eventide lifted his hands but the other boys reached for their weapons; a word from the figure stopped them immediately.

"Hold your hands; you touch them weapons and you will all die; look around you."

The boys took a few seconds to look about; behind them and on both sides stood what appeared to be young men with the same large bows all aimed at them; altogether there were eight men with hessian masks. The boys were not totally outnumbered but they were at a distinct disadvantage.

"Well me lad; where be your gold; I knows that Saracens carry large purses and that wagon looks near full of goods?"

Eventide pulled himself up as tall as he could for his stature and laid a hand on the fancy dagger at his waist.

"I will not give my property to outlaws."

"Then you will die lad, and we will take it anyhow."

As the man drew the great bow back to its fullest and prepared to release the long arrow into Eventides chest; a young voice came from the darkness of the trees.

"Stay your hand Father; that is the Woad Warrior; the one that led us in the melee."

"The young Warrior? Then why did you not tell me earlier boy?" The man turned to the young teen running out of the trees and then back at Eventide as he eased off the string of his large bow.

"My apologies young Lord; had I known I would not have stopped the likes of you and your friends; give us time and we will remove the log from the road so you may continue on your way."

The young teen from the trees walked up to Eventide.

"I am Gerard my Lord; please forgive my Father; he did not know who you were."

"There is little to forgive Gerard but I am a little confused as I do not know your face or why you would be with a band of outlaws when you have already received a reward from the King himself?"

"It is complicated My Lord. I was in the front rank at the melee as were many others and I know it would be difficult for you to know every face; as to outlaws; well that is a long story."

"We have a little time; perhaps you would enlighten us?"

"This is my family; these others are my brothers; as you can see there are a number of us and three sisters await at our hut along with our mother. Our Lord Baliol ejected my father from his lands even though he was the best farmer on the Lordships land. When father would not let my youngest sister go to the great house as a servant, His Lordship sent soldiers to throw us off. We have been living in the woods in a small hut for more than five months and cutting wood so we can buy food to fill out bellies."

"But what of your reward; that would keep you in food for some time, even with such a large family?"

"Tis true My Lord but with fourteen mouths to feed it would not be for long and there would be little left to buy a hog or two. It is fathers dream to buy our own land one day and return to farming but it now seems so far away."

"Tell me about those bows, I have never seen one of such size?"

"Oh they are from our home county; we call them Longbows; they are stronger and can outdistance any bow made elsewhere if you have the knowledge and strength to use them; had we had them at the melee we could have stopped the Squires while they were still on horseback."

"A good weapon indeed; why do they not use them in the King's army?"

"My Lord Baliol would not allow them in his guards; he called them a peasant's weapon and not fit for honourable Knights and soldiers of the King's army."

"Then the man is a fool, now enough of that; as I see it there are three things I can do; one is to report you and have all of you drawn and quartered but, I am not a blood thirsty type of boy so that is not the answer. Next I can just forget all of this and we can all be on our way after giving you a few more gold coins to help you for a while but, that is the easy way and not an answer to your troubles. This leaves me with only one answer; you must go back to your family Father of Gerard; collect what you have and make your way to the manor of Baron Tremaine. When you arrive just ask for me at the gate; I will talk with the Baron and we will see if something can be done to help you with your life and get you a farm of your own."

Gerard's father looked up at the young boy on the horse above him; forgotten was the bow in his hands or any intention of hurting the boy and his Saracen friends; now there was only a look of inquiry.

"Young Lord, how would the Baron listen to one so young; we all know that Baron Tremaine has no family?"

"He does now; he adopted me so I am his son and heir, I hope he will listen to me and we can all come out of this better off."

"Then young Lord, my family and I shall be at your gate at dusk tomorrow; you have my word on it and; should you ever need our services then all you have to do is call. My family is now forever in your debt and our bows stand ready at your command."

"Thank you but I am sure I have enough guards; I look forward to seeing you and your family at our gate tomorrow at dusk."

"It shall be so Young Lord. Boys get that log out of the way for our Young Lord to be on his way. We have other work to do now so hurry it up."

Eventide nodded his thanks and, after the log was removed; he and the others waved back as they left the large group of young men, teens and their father behind; they would have to increase their pace a little to make it to the manor near dark.

It was the weight of the wagon that slowed them down and it was not until after dark that the small caravan made it to the top of the last rise before the manor; Below and still about one hour away, the members of the small caravan could see the torch lights of the manor in the distance.

Eventide called a halt at the top of the rise to light their own torches; two were placed either side of the wagon front and the other two were held by the two Hashin who were now leading the party from the front with Salud and Eventide behind them.

As they were about to move off for the last stretch to the manor; in front of them, and seemingly from the very ground itself; rose two torches, they were soon followed by two more and then two more until there were twenty moving torches in two columns. They looked to be floating on air until Eventide's eyes adjusted to the darkness and he could make out the dim shadows of the soldiers on horseback under the light.

In the darkness they had not been able to see the lower ground of the valley and could make it out only when the riders rose over the crest. Immediately the other Hashin came to the front and arranged themselves either side of Eventide with the two torch bearers on the outside so that Eventide was hidden in shadow.

Eventide and his caravan waited on the hill top for the guard to arrive; as they drew closer, the two columns slowed to a walk and approached the small caravan with care. At the head of the columns was a single rider; seeing the small group, he stopped and tried to look into the shadow where Eventide sat.

"I am captain Merideth; Guard Commander of his Lordship Baron Tremaine's House Hold Guard; are you My Lord Eventide?"

"I am Captain." Eventide replied although he doubted he would ever get used to being called a Lord.

"My Lord Eventide; My Lord Baron has sent us to look to your safety; he was worried when you did not arrive before dark; there have been reports of brigands and outlaws on the King's road during the Joust.""I am sorry Captain; we had a small delay and took too much time over our midday meal, but we do now feel safer under your command."

"Thank you My Lord, if you will allow us to form up on either side, we will escort you to the manor in safety."

"Thank you Captain, we are happy for your presence; it has been a long day."

The soldiers lined up on each side of the small caravan and they all began the trek to the waiting manor; to say they were happy for the company and to finally be so close to a hot meal and a warm bed would have been an understatement.

As they finally entered the high walls of the manor, the boys saw it was all in a bustle as servants tried to ready everything for the newcomers; on the steps of the manor house stood Freeman; even from his distance, Eventide thought he saw the Baron's shoulders almost slump in relief at seeing his new son arrive safely. Freeman waited patiently as the boys finally slid off their horses and stretched their tired limbs from the long day.

The six Hashin bowed low and salaamed to Freeman; Salud then spoke to Freeman in Aramaic.

"Greetings Elder Brother; we have brought your son home safely as requested."

Much to Eventide's surprise; Freeman answered in perfect Aramaic after also bowing to the six younger ones.

"Greetings little brothers; I thank you for delivering him safely; my home is your home; welcome."

Freeman waited for Eventide to get over his little shock at Freeman's ability with the foreign language; as he waited he opened his arms and said.

"Come on my son; you must be tired and we cannot keep the kitchen waiting; you and your brothers must be hungry and tired."

Eventide climbed the stone steps and stood in front of Freeman and; for what seemed the first time in his life; he stepped forward and hugged Freeman around the waist; even better was the new feeling of two strong arms surrounding his slender body and hugging him tightly back.

"It's good to be finally home...father."

Freeman squeezed just a little tighter after hearing that simple word; for the first time in years he felt the stirrings of contentment filling him. At last he was beginning to feel complete and so far the boy had proved to be just what he thought he would; a fitting son to watch over and teach. His lands would be safe in this boy's hands when he finally passed on.

Before Freeman led the boys away; Salud spoke to him.

"Elder Brother, I must have our brother's servant's see to the horses; your stable hands will not be able to be near them until our brother introduces them properly; we would not want any of them harmed."

Freeman looked at the seven horses and then it dawned on him that Salud had said they belonged to Eventide; he looked at the smaller boy still held tightly in his hug.

"These are your horses, son?"

"Uhm...yes father; they are part of the gifts from the brotherhood."

"Ah yes, I remember now; well you are well on the way to being master of your own destiny; and the wagon; it seems loaded a little heavier than just the brother's gifts?"

"Brother Mahmud would not accept most of his gifts and insisted I accept them instead."

"As it should be among brothers; he is well situated and you are just starting out so it is only fair he pass on to you anything that will help. Now come on, you seven need to eat and rest."

Eventide reluctantly let go of the warm and satisfying hug so he could follow Freeman into the manor house; instead of the great dining hall they went into a smaller one where a table was set for eight. Freeman took the chair at the head of the table and indicated for Salud to take the one at the bottom; he insisted that Eventide should sit on his right hand as the pride of place for a son of his.

It was almost noon before the boys rose to their first day at the manor; as they sat at the same table to eat the first meal of the day; Eventide asked where the Baron was; after being told by one of the servants that the Baron was at the stable; Eventide quickly finished up and, followed by his brothers, went in search of his new father.

When he entered the stables; Eventide saw that Shaitan had not been unsaddled or groomed like the other horses; he looked around until he saw Freeman talking to an older man; he went up to them.

"Father, Shaitan has not been unsaddled yet."

"So I see son, stable master Garrik has told me that no one can get near him; even your own servants fear him."

Eventide looked around at the faces of the young grooms; all showed fear in their eyes whenever they looked at the black horse; that is all except one. He was a young boy of about ten or eleven summers and sat on a stool tending to tack; his right foot was twisted and it was obvious the boy was lame in that leg.

"Stable master, who is that boy?"

"He is my youngest My Lord; Shaun be his name but he is lame and can only repair or look after tack; his leg makes it difficult for him to ride anymore."

"He shows little fear of Shaitan."

"He has little fear of any horse My Lord; he says they can do no more to him than is already done so there is little for him to fear anymore."

Eventide walked down the stable to where the boy sat watching the others; his eyes often straying towards Shaitan.

"Shaun, I would speak with you."

The boy jumped to his feet as best he could and bowed low as he touched his forelock in respect.

"My Lord?"

"You show little fear of my horse Shaitan."

"He is not to be feared My Lord, only respected and perhaps a little bribe would not go astray."

"Yet the other boys cannot get near him."

"I tried to tell them My Lord, but they do not listen to me because I am lame and too young to know."

"I see, well how would you settle my horse and take care of him?"

"First My Lord, I would show little fear as there is little fear to show; next I would speak to him of good things to settle his manner and third I would offer a small bribe while we became friends."

"And how would you offer such a bribe if he will not let you close?"

"The bribe has to be a part of respect it is not difficult if one believes."

"Then master Shaun, I challenge you to befriend my horse Shaitan; should you accomplish this feat then you will be held as Groom to him and him alone; all other duties will be set aside and he will be your only concern; should you accomplish this task you will receive two silver coins from my hand each month; it is all now up to you; do you accept my challenge, son of the stable master?"

Shaun bowed low and touched his forelock again.

"I accept My Lord, but on one condition?"

"Aha... I like a boy with conditions; speak up young Shaun?"

"Should I be in error then I am buried in sight of the stables?"

"Done; now let me see you succeed as I am sure you will." Eventide smiled at the look on the young boys face; there was a fire in the lame boy and Eventide liked it.

Freeman pushed all the others well back from the stall where the jet black horse stood eyeing the young boy; as they all watched, Shaun began to sing softly to the horse as he limped one step at a time closer. Shaitan watched the small lame boy; after snorting a couple of times; he stamped his foot a few more times and then looked as though he was listening to the soft song.

To those watching, the song sounded like a child's lullaby; slowly Shaun moved forward; when he was no more than five paces away, he produced a red apple from his smock and; with a small knife he cut it into four. With one piece of apple on his small hand; Shaun limped a little closer while still talking softly. When he was standing well within the danger zone; Shaun stopped and bowed his head while holding out the piece of apple.

Shaitan looked at the small child and then sniffed the apple; with gentle lips he reached out and took the offering while Shaun stood motionless but still whispering softly. From that moment on it was as though the two had been friends for life; Shaun whispered while Shaitan ate; in no time at all, Shaun had the saddle off and was bent underneath the black horse brushing its belly with a stiff brush; all the while he kept up the soft talking while rubbing the horse with his free hand.

Eventide moved up to the horse and laid his hand on its strong neck.

"So Shaitan you have got a new friend and forgotten me?"

The horse seemed to understand every word and so shook its head in the negative but turned his head and gave the small boy a nudge as the brush worked tirelessly.

"Well Groom Shaun; your place is assured; Shaitan is now your only concern and you will line up each month with the other workers for your silver; I hope in time we can get you back on a horse so you can accompany us when needed."

Shaun stopped his brushing and bowed to Eventide.

"Thank you My Lord; I would look forward to such a time."

As Eventide and the others left the stables; he began to tell Freeman about his meeting with the farmer and his sons and what he had offered and when they may arrive. Freeman looked at his new son with a new respect; the boy had shown common sense and there was a possibility of having a good farmer on his land.

The land around the manor had been used little and would take a strong man to tame it to farming but it could only be to the betterment of the manor lands if the man was as good as his word.

"Well done my son; that is the sort of thinking that makes great men. I look forward to meeting this man and his family; I am also interested in these new bows you speak of; if they are as good as you say, then we may have something to improve our armoury and army."

"I think so Father; he seemed like a genuine and honest man." Eventide made no mention of how they had met or what had transpired; some secrets need to be kept untold.

For the rest of the day, Eventide did not see any of the Hashin; they were all away somewhere and he spent most of his time at his new task of learning to read and write; it was a tiring task but he stuck with it as Freeman patiently worked with him.

It was just at dusk and the six Hashin had reappeared with smiles on their faces; as they were all ready to sit down for their evening meal; Captain Merideth entered the hall and stood waiting to be asked to speak; which came almost immediately.

"Yes captain?" Freeman asked.

"My Lord; there is a man called Bodan, a farmer, at the gate; he is asking for the young Lord, he is accompanied by a number of others; one of the boys is wearing the sash and chevrons of a Yeoman."

"Bring Bodan and the Yeoman in here to the table; have the others taken to the kitchen and make sure they are well fed; have the house keeper find rooms for them in the servant's quarters."

"Yes My Lord."

The Captain left only to return a little later with both Bodan and Gerard by his side; the two newcomers carried a long bow in their right hand although it was unstrung as a sign of no intent; the older man also carried what looked like a very long plain but soft leather case over his left shoulder.

"My Lord, farmer Bodan and his son Gerard as you wished."

"Thank you Captain. Master Bodan; would you and your son take a seat with us and join us for supper?"

"It would be an honour My Lord, but I am sure the likes of us do not deserve such treatment."

"I can assure you Master Bodan that I am serious; I have a feeling that you are much more than a plain farmer and, as we are about to eat I would like you and your son to join us while we discuss our differences."

"As Your Lordship commands and I give my thanks for your generosity."

"Come and sit here on my left; it will be easier for us to talk. I understand you have met my son and his friends from the holy land?"

"Yes My Lord; we met in the King's great forest."

As they began to eat, the conversation stayed light; the Hashin made sure that Gerard was included in the talk and even praised him, through Salud; for his standing in the first rank and holding the Squires for over an hour; which was longer than they thought the boys would be able to do.

As the meal drew to a close; Freeman asked Bodan about himself and why he had been dispossessed by Baron Baliol. At first Bodan was reluctant to speak of another Baron in the presence of one that was of the same rank but, after a little urging; he relented and began his tale.

"My Lord, if you will forgive some of what I have to say about another Noble, I will tell you everything I know and have seen."

"There is no need for forgiveness; I well know about the Baron's way of life."

"Thank you My Lord; well we are not from here; and nor are many other families that work his lands. We are mainly from the area called the Reaches and Moors. I must admit that I was known there as a Clan Leader and Keeper of the Black Bow. I am sure you know of the Reaches and Moors as you have been there before; your name is not unknown to us."

"Ah yes, the Reaches, but I was quite young then."

"Yes My Lord; when I saw you there you were about fifteen summers and were on the hunt for Kendrik the Moor Runner."

"You saw me all those years ago?"

"Yes My Lord, my brother was even part of the hunt; I wanted to go but as Keeper of the Black Bow I was not allowed."

"He was quite the escape artist was Kendrik, I would have liked to meet the man given the opportunity; how he was able to run twenty horsemen for five days and still disappear is beyond me, even today. Do you know he was the only defeat I have ever suffered?"

"I will let you into a secret, My Lord; you were not fighting or tracking a single man; there were more than twenty other young men involved."

"But how could that be? We would have seen if it was a different man when we got close to him; which we did often and then he would disappeared, only to reappear about thirty paces away and lead us on another chase. Each time we closed on him he would do the same thing over and over again."

"My Lord; what you were chasing was a succession of young men; all were dressed the same as each other as is the fashion of the Moor Runners. Their clothing is made from tanned goat skin for its light weight and toughness; their boots come from the coast of the Celts where they have the sea cows come ashore. The skins provide water proof boots which; as you know; are needed on the Moors. Unless you are face to face with the Runner, you could not tell one from the other and that is what they did too you. When one disappeared, he would hide in the heather or a tarn then another would appear where you least expected. As to meeting Kendrik; you did; you even spoke with him."

"I did?"

"Yes My Lord; you were on your way home after five days; as you travelled you met an old man by the side of the road; his cart had a broken wheel; you forced your men to help him put the wheel back. When it was done the old man offered you two apples from his cart; one for you and one for your horse; that was Kendrik."

"But that was an old hunch backed man not the young man we were hunting."

"Kendrik has a way of not looking like he truly is. He told me later that you had impressed him greatly; when others thought only of themselves in times of danger; you stood and saved your horse from the shaky ground at the risk of your own life. Even though you lost five men you never gave up until there was no other option and you had to try to save those that were left; even then you put your men before your own safety. Even today he holds you in high esteem and talks of you when the subject arises at meetings."

"I would certainly like to meet him again now; he must have many good tales to tell about the Moor Runners?"

"He has indeed My Lord and perhaps one day you just may."

"Now pray tell me about this Black Bow you are the Keeper of?"

"Well My Lord, the bow is both a symbol and a trial for any man or boy of the Western Reaches. It is the most powerful bow made by any clan or man. The bow we carry today is the third one made; it is now nearly five generations old. The bows are made in such a way that they can last for ten generations if looked after correctly; some even say it has magic from the old gods built into it; but about that I would not know."

Bodan paused to look around at the rapt attention being paid to his story; that is all except for Gerard who had heard the legend of the Black Bow all his life and, on reaching his majority of eighteen summers would become the next Keeper; that is if he passed the trial of manhood.

"You must understand My Lord; the Black Bow is made for only one use and no other. When a boy gets to the age of thinking he is a man, then he can request to take the trial of manhood; it is by the power of the bow that this is decided. Should the boy fail the trial of which he can only attempt once in his lifetime; then he is either banished from the lands of the Reaches and Moors and must never set foot in them again; or he can meet his death at the hands of one of his family; the final decision is his after failing the attempt."

"I would suppose most call for banishment, Master Bodan?"

"Not so My Lord; most ask for a quick death; banishment means that even should they find a wife and have sons, none of them will ever see the Reaches or Moors again; for our Clan that is unthinkable."

"A very drastic solution Master Bodan."

"It is a hard and dangerous life in the Reaches My Lord."

"So it would seem, and is the trial a secret or can you explain it for us?"

"There are no secrets My Lord, only in the use of the bow and how a boy can tame it; but that is all in his training and self thought. Most bows from other counties are 4'6" in length and pull at 50lbs; for us they are used as a boy's first bow on which he will train until he is old enough and strong enough to have a man's bow. A man's bow is 5' 3" and is pulled at between 75lbs and 85lbs."

There was a short pause while Bodan thought over what he would say.

"Our bows are not made as others; with the other counties they make a bow from a single piece of Yew; it is tapered and the centre bound with leather for the hand grip. Ours are made from laths of Yew and Blackwood. For a boys bow there are three laths; two outer laths of Yew and a central lath of Blackwood; we then added a central grip of Oak. A man's bow is made from five laths; three of Yew and two of Blackwood with the grip of Oak. The Black Bow is made entirely of Blackwood with Oaken grips."

Again a pause.

"Now the Black Bow is 6' long and pulls at 120lbs; it must be used not only with strength but with the power of one's mind and soul; without those last two then the boy is doomed to failure. Each year on the boy's naming day from the age of ten summers; he is asked by his father if he is ready to take the trial. This question is asked each naming day until his majority at eighteen summers; if the boy has not taken the trial by that age he is automatically banished and his name struck from the tales and records; he becomes a non person."

"A harsh sentence Master Bodan."

"As I said My Lord, it is a harsh land. Now the trial is conducted with four arrows; that is all that is carried with the bow. One arrow is fletched with green; that is for the great Mother of the Earth. Next is one fletched with white; that is for the great Father of the Heavens. The next is fletched with the stripes of the hawk and carries the call of the bird for all to hear; it is to scare away the dark thoughts that fills men's minds and bodies. The last is fletched in red; it is the arrow of ascension from boyhood to manhood; it must fly true and strike at the heart where all man's fears die."

Freeman looked at the last son of Bodan; the boy had about 15 summers and; while he had sturdy shoulders and very strong looking arms; his lower body was slender and he looked a little top heavy although he moved with a fluid gait.

"So, if your youngest passes his trial he will then be the Keeper; if there is only one bow then how can those still in the Reaches be tested with you so far away?"

"They must travel to where I am at and have their trial there."

"What would stop them from returning home and saying they have passed when they have not even tried?"

"It is the honour of a man. If a boy lied about doing and passing the trial; he would know it was a lie; that lie would sit heavy on his shoulders and his demeanour would show that; if he passed it truly he would walk in a different way, one of accomplishment and surety; it cannot be disguised by a lie."

"It sounds like a tough trial and even more severe penalties?"

"As I said My Lord; the Reaches are a tough land and must have strong men and leaders. For my youngest it is a great sacrifice; there are two things in this world he ever wanted; one was to travel to the Holy Land and the other was to become a Moors Runner, however fate has placed him on the road of being the next Keeper of the Black Bow when he reaches his majority."

Again Bodan paused to think over his next words.

"As it would be I already have three sons that are Runners, my eldest, a boy in the middle age and the next one above Gerard; the others are all good farmers and hard workers as well as being good bowmen so I have been well blessed. May I ask of yourself My Lord?"

"We eat at the same table Master Bodan and therefore talk as friends; of course you may ask of my life if that is what you choose."

"I am greatly honoured by your hospitality My Lord and so I would ask only in friendship; I notice you have no wife yet you have adopted a son on the cusp of manhood; did your good wife pass over to the other side?"

"This can be a long tale Master Bodan; perhaps we should let the boys go to entertain themselves while we talk more?"

Bodan nodded and smiled at his youngest in agreement; the others stood and thanked Freeman for the meal and Bodan for his company; although the Hashin boys did so through Salud as they spoke no English. Bodan was surprised at the courtesy of the Saracen boys; he thought he would have to ask how they came to be in this land at all, if given the opportunity by his Lordship.

Once the boys had left, Freeman began his tale after calling for hot mead to be served to himself and his guest.

"As you know, at fifteen summers I had my ass kicked by the men of the Moors and Reaches."

Bodan nodded but could not help the chuckle that came to his throat; he noticed that His Lordship was also chuckling.

"I was the second son and my father, then the Baron of Lancaster; I knew that my older brother would hold the title and lands. My Mother had passed at my birth but she had left me a small holding in her homeland in Flanders of few acres so I would not be destitute nor have to beg from my brother should the time come. To this end; when I was nineteen summers, I asked my father for permission to venture to the Holy Land on crusade; of course as the second son he had no hesitation in allowing it as my elder brother would never be allowed to go as he was the heir apparent."

Freeman paused to sip the hot mead then continued.

"As you well know, a young man being freshly released from the oversight of his parent is likely to be a little over adventurous; and so I was. There was a call from the Knights of the Cross to venture into Saracen lands and claim palaces for themselves; and the good Church of course. Being one of too higher spirits I signed their pledge and off I went to a great adventure. There were more than one thousand Knights and twenty thousand soldiers; most wore the Red Cross of the Holy Church; not being one who is over fond of the Church I wore my family colours of Green."

Again a pause to sip his mead and think back to those early times to refresh his memory.

"We travelled for twenty five days without sight of palace or Saracen; by this time there was the beginning of dissention in the common ranks as thirst and hunger took hold; the twenty sixth day soon stopped that. We had camped the night at the beginning of a long sandy valley; the hills rose on both sides and were also of soft sand. We had just finished our breakfast and the baggage train was in the middle of breaking camp when the Saracens appeared on the two hills above us. The men tried as fast as they could to form a defensive line and the Knights called for their war horses and got mounted. Being as I was, young and always in a hurry; I found myself in the front rank of the Knights and at the head of the first charge. As we charged towards the mounted Saracens we found the soft sand slowed us greatly and blunted our charge; their number suddenly increased beyond count but for us it was already too late; I did not even get to strike one Saracen before a lance slid off my thigh armour and pierced my groin; the pain and fear was so great that the blackness overtook me before I even fell from my horse. Many hours later I began to gather my wits again; the air was filled with the smell of blood and death; I could hear the sounds of scavengers feeding on the corpses of the men, but there was another sound; the sound of strange voices; there were also human scavengers robbing the dead."

Bodan watched as the famous Baron shuddered with those old thoughts; he kept his silence.

"The pain in my groin was such that I must have cried out louder than I thought for it was only moments before a dark clothed figure was standing over me; all I could make out was dark clothing and a pair of dark eyes staring at me from behind a cloth that covered his face entirely. The figure called out in a language I could not make heads nor tails of; within moments there were others staring down at me; this was only the beginning of a long stay in the hands of what I then thought were the Saracens."

Another long pause for more mead and to take breath occurred before Freeman continued.

"For some reason, one that I was to learn of much later; the first figure decided to take me with them; two men stripped me of my armour and an old man appeared to take a look at my wound; there was another long discussion before he took out a curved knife and completed the work of the lance; much to my horror and pain; I passed out again and awoke to find myself in a large dark tent with the old man watching over me. From somewhere else in the tent I could hear fast and sometimes furious discussions going on; I was to learn they were talking about my future."

Freeman paused and thought back to that time in his life when everything was about to change but as yet he was not aware of how much.

"They turned out to be of the Bedouin as others call them; they looked upon the Saracens, Sunni, Hadish and other tribes as much lower than themselves. They had few options; one I could be enslaved, sold and used in the mines or, as I had lost my means of creating children; I could be used as what they call a eunuch, in their harems; which is where their concubines are held. Another option was to be tortured and left in the great desert but I was saved from that as I was wearing green and not the Red Cross; what happened was only due to the young man that had found me. He was of a similar age as myself; he stood finally and said something to the others that stopped all arguments and discussion immediately; I learned later he had given what they call a Blood Promise; for the Bedou it is so serious and sacred that it is a promise until death; even if the promise is fulfilled it is still for life. The promise is not only upheld by the one that makes it but is binding on all other Bedou."

Again a long pause and a few more sips from the freshly filled cup.

"The young Bedou had claimed me as a brother; this brought me into the family of the Bedou; his name was Saed, others know him today as the Emir who is at the King's court right now. Once I was considered fully healed; Saed took me under his protection and began to teach me the ways of the Bedou; within a year I was also included in their sacred society of which I am still a member; that is also for life. So master Bodan, as you can see the possibility of a wife and sons is not viable for me and that is why Eventide is now my son and heir."

Freeman watched the thoughtful look on Bodan's face as he finished his story; of course it was only the bare facts and the true story was much longer with many more situations that the man did not need to hear.

"Master Bodan, I would ask if you would consider showing me the advantages of your bows in the morning; perhaps once that is done we can discuss more about the possibility of finding you some free farmland to work?"

"My Lord, it would be my honour to show you our bows and what they can do; perhaps you might have a guard or two that would like to compete for honours against us; it would make for a better understanding of our chosen weapon?"

"Agreed; now then let us finish off this flask of mead and then get some rest. I have a feeling tomorrow will be adventurous and revealing to both of us."

The two men sat and made small talk while they drank the flask dry; it was by now the middle hours of the night as they made their way to their rooms; Bodan being shown by one of the servants where his family was sleeping; of his youngest son there was no sight or sound; all he could do was hope for the best that he was safe.

The next morning there was an air of excitement in the manor; the long open swathes of grassland outside the wall was letting go of the last of the morning mist as the sun rose in the clear sky. A large number of the guards were gathering near a freshly cleared area where a table had been set up for the Baron to sit and watch and food and fruit had been laid out for those who wanted it.

Bodan sat with the Baron as his sons stood behind him and looked at the guards; four of the guards were more noticeable for their large strong right arms; a signal that they were and had been bowmen for a lot of years. A line marked with white ribbon had been set ten paces away from the table; fifty paces from the line sat a wooden frame with a large hessian bag packed tightly with straw. The target bag had a cloth with three wide circles painted on it. The outer line was yellow; the middle line was blue and the round spot in the centre was red. The red spot was no more than a hands span across.

When it looked like all those that wanted to attend had appeared; the Baron stood up and began to speak.

"My guardsmen, son's of Bodan the farmer; this is a test of skill with your chosen weapons, the bow. This is not a confrontation, it is a friendly competition; if there were some among you that wish to lay a wager, I will not stop it. Yeoman Krain, have you selected the four that will take the line for your team?"

"Yes My lord."

"Are you happy to start at fifty paces?"

"Yes My Lord but, if I may ask permission to use our war bows when the distance increases; these practice bows have little else after fifty paces?"

"Master Boden is that agreed with; of course you may also change bows if desired at any time?"

"It is agreeable My Lord."

"Who would you have for your team Master Bodan?"

Freeman expected the man to select his best including himself on his team; much to his surprise, and the amusement of his large guards, Bodan instead said.

"I would select my four youngest My Lord; they well need the practice."

"Are you sure Master Boden; it seems a little unfair to put young teens against grown men who are mostly battle hardened and well experienced."

"My Lord, this is a friendly competition, if my youngest sons are beaten then they will have to practice harder in the future; it would be no dishonour for them to lose to better men and may even give them a little humility in their future lives."

For some reason, Freeman did not think that was likely to happen; there was a faint hint of pride and also fun in the man's voice.

"Very good, all is agreed; each archer will fire one arrow at the target; those with the most shafts closest to the centre wins that round; from then on the target will be moved back twenty five paces and will continue until only one archer remains; he or they will be said the winners and all wagers will be paid without anger or threat."

Freeman sat down and watched as the four young teens stood back and bowed to the guardsmen; allowing them to be first to use the target; it was also an acknowledgement of the guardsmen's age and experience. It did not go unnoticed by the other guards and a few nods of respect went to the four boys.

As the guards were setting their bows and checking them over; Freeman saw movement from the corner of his eye; he smiled to himself and said nothing as Eventide and Salud went among the brothers that were not shooting to give them all a small coin bag; Freeman did not have long to wait before the smiling boys started to move among the watching guards and start to lay wagers on their four brothers which were quickly taken up.

All of the wagers were mostly of copper coins, only occasionally was a wager made in silver; a guardsman was not a rich person even thought Freeman paid his men well above normal.

Silence settled over the early morning tableau; the four guardsmen had taken their places at the line and were preparing to fire their single arrow at the large target fifty paces away.

At fifty paces the Persian practice bow was almost at its maximum range; the normal practice was between forty and sixty paces for these lighter bows. To be able to make a good shot, the guardsmen had to elevate their bows to a quarter of centre; the centre being a straight line from eye to target; a quarter being raised some twenty five degrees.

Silence was maintained as the four men fired; all four arrows hit the target within the blue line and close to the red circle; their green fletching easily seen by the onlookers. A loud roar of approval went up from those watching guards; at that range with a practice bow it was a very good shot.

Freeman watched as the four teens looked at each other and gave the faintest hint of a smile to each other. The teens next lined up; all four were using a white fletching and it was noticeable that their arrows were longer than the guardsmen's by some inches.

Now that he could see the bows plainly and ready to release, Freeman could make out the difference in style and size more easily. His guards had held the Persian bows in the usual manner of a slightly sideways grip; it allowed for the draw string to be pulled right back level with the ear before releasing.

The four boys had a straighter on stance and he saw that they only drew the bow string to their lips where they stood with the string as though kissing it. Another difference was that the four boys wore a leather bracer on their left arm and a three fingered leather glove on their right hand.

The four boys released the shafts all at the same time; they had not elevated their bows but kept them at the centre line; it did not take much for Freeman to see why. The release was so smooth that it was like fluid pouring from a large jug; the shafts flew straight and true and all four buried more than half their length in the target; all four were also only inches from each other and right in the centre of the red circle.

There was a stunned silence as the guards saw what they were now up against; slowly the other watchers began to clap in appreciation of the boy's marksmanship; the four guard archers could only look open mouthed at the results of the four boys.

Krain was man enough to turn to the four boys and bow his head as a compliment of their skill; he also smiled as he said to the boys.

"Very good; for fifty paces, now let us start to play." Krain turned back to his men. "Guards, your war bows, this has just become a true competition and I for one want to see if these lads can keep abreast."

One servant ran the eight shafts back while others measured and then moved the large target back to seventy five paces as the Guards retrieved their larger and heavier war bows from one of their friends. The Persian War Bow, the most commonly used bow of the time; was large and heavy; it was made for long continuous use in the heat of battle and had a good range of one hundred and fifty paces; some said it would fly further in the hands of a good archer.

Freeman watched as the guards watching fingered their coin purses; the use of War Bows was a distinct advantage to the guards; copper coins flowed again with the sons of Bodan.

The four guards retook their place at the line; this time they used less elevation as the bows were far stronger; the guards hit one red, two blue and one yellow; at seventy five paces it was very good shooting. The boys took their places and went through the same ritual as before; when they were ready to release; they all did so together; again four reds but this time there was only one exactly in the centre and the other three were about two inches around it.

The three older brothers looked at Gerard and wagged a teasing finger at him as they turned back to rejoin their other brothers and wait for the guardsmen to shoot at the next range.

There was again a stunned silence as those watching saw the four white fletching's at the centre circle; Krain could only look and shake his head; he had seen the boys barely use a fraction of elevation; it was starting to dawn on him that the long bows were not to be taken lightly, nor should the age of the archers.

The target was again moved back, this time to one hundred paces; as Krain thought about it, it was still well within an accurate range for their heavy bows. At one hundred paces it would need a servant to mark the hits with a painted marker; the watchers got ready for the next round; the four guardsmen were now looking very serious as they nocked their arrows and prepared to shoot.

One after the other, the guards released and stepped back; the results were still good, three blue and one yellow; a loud round of yelling from their many friends met their results; the guards stepped back with smiles on their faces as the four boys took the line.

Again the four boys scored four reds but this time they were more widely separated; the boys waggled a finger at Gerard once again as his was the closest to the centre; one even lightly slapped him on the back of the head making the others laugh at the boys red face.

The target was once again moved back but this time Krain asked for one hundred and fifty paces instead of the one hundred and twenty five it should have been. Krain knew it took a great deal of strength to pull a bow back far enough for that distance; he was trying to tax the strength of the younger boys and also put them off by the extra distance.

For the guardsmen the range made them have to use a full three quarters elevation; the result was one blue, one yellow, one close miss and one shaft short and into the ground below the target; for that range it was still good shooting and they got another loud cheer.

The four boys walked to the line but, instead of taking their position to fire; they all placed their bows across their open palms and turned to face their father with a low bow; Freeman watched as Bodan gave them an almost imperceptible nod.

The four boys turned back to the target still with the bows crosswise in their palms; all four then bowed and stood immobile for a minute before returning the bows to the upright and taking their stance.

"What was that Master Bodan?"

"We call it the prayer of hand and eye; it is a prayer to the Mother Earth and Father of the Heavens that their hands be steady and a prayer to the Hawk for a sharp eye and the banishment of bad spirits."

"They did not use it before?"

"There was no need; before it was just a practice distance used just for training, now they are shooting for real and must hit their target."

Again the four boys drew their bows in unison; the release was just as perfect but this time they used one third from the centre. The four shafts flew fast and straight on their curving flight; the result was three red and one blue; this time the three brothers turned to the elder of the four and shook their heads sadly as they walked back with a smile on their faces.

Krain looked at the result; his men were almost at their limits although he still had a little more to give yet; his was the strongest bow in the King's army, only two other archers could pull it to the fullest and they were both in the King's Guard.

Bodan turned to Freeman and then stood and bowed.

"My Lord, would you permit me to arrange the next distance and conditions?"

"By all means Master Bodan, from what we have seen today it can only get better for all of us to see."

"Thank you My Lord. I would like the target to be placed at two hundred and fifty paces. I have noticed that Yeoman Krain is by far the better archer than the others, perhaps he will take the line for this round and he can use four shafts; I will select one of the boys and he can do the same?"

"That sounds fair, Yeoman Krain; do you accept this new challenge?"

Although he was feeling a little nervous, his honour and the honour of the Baron was at stake. At two hundred and fifty paces he would be at the full extent of his range for the Persian Bow and his accuracy would be at risk but he could not refuse.

"Yes My Lord; it is indeed a great challenge, especially for a boy of tender years; which of the four will I be shooting against, My Lord?"

Freeman looked at Bodan in askance.

"It will be Gerard, My Lord; it is his time."

Freeman nodded and watched as Krain prepared himself; all of the Yeoman's skill would be needed for this round. The watchers were totally silent, even the birds stayed quiet as the large man got ready with his first shaft.

Everybody watched as the large man's arms began to flex and the heavy muscles bunched and bulged with his efforts; as he breathed out he released the first of the four shafts; it seemed to the watchers that the shaft took forever to reach its target; it was short by less than one pace.

The next shaft hit low on the target and inches from the outer yellow; the third and forth shaft zipped and both hit in the blue; it was no mean feat at that range and the roar of the crowd filled the morning air; there was a certain amount of back slapping and congratulations as Gerard prepared for his turn.

When the celebrations calmed down; Bodan stood up from his place at the table and raised his two hands for silence.

"My son Gerard; in two days time it will be your name day; I ask you know even though it is early. Do you, Gerard of the Reaches, take the trial of manhood this day?"

Gerard lowered his bow and turned to his father; bowing his head he called back.

"Yes father; today I will stand trial."

Bodan turned to his eldest son who was carrying the brown leather case.

"Bring the Black Bow of Manhood; Gerard of the Reaches would take trial this day."

The crowd was hushed as they watched the strange goings on; only Freeman and Bodan's family knew what it would mean if Gerard failed.

The elder son stood before his father with the brown case lying in his arms as his father carefully opened it and drew out the six foot bow. At first sight of the black bow, Freeman almost gasped as he saw the great weapon; it seemed to almost hum with a hidden power as Bodan took it out and gave it to his youngest son. From deeper in the case, Bodan pulled out four arrows, one was fletched in white, one in green, one in red and one was striped like a hawks feather; all four were longer than any arrow he had ever seen.

As he received the four shafts, Gerard bowed low to his father and turned back to the line leaving his other bow in his older brothers hands; only those in the family knew that the bow would also be used to take Gerard's life if he failed; none of Bodan's offspring would ever take the option of banishment.

There was total quiet as Gerard prepared for his trial; taking up the green shaft, he held it at arm's length then raised it high and said something under his breath; next he took his stance and held the large black bow at his side; nocking the arrow, he settled into his stance and drew the bow back with surprising ease; with the arrow at his lips he raised it to two thirds of centre, paused, then released.

The green shaft flew high and far; too the surprise of the watchers, the arrow landed right at the base of the target and stuck in the ground where the right leg of the frame touched the ground. There was a sudden whispering of.

"He missed."

Freeman looked at Bodan and was also surprised to see the man nod his head in satisfaction; Freeman decided to ask about it after the boy had finished.

The white shaft flew at the same elevation and this time it landed close to the left leg of the frame; again the whisper of.

"He missed again; he will have to hit twice in the blue or once in the red to win now."

Freeman was watching the face of Bodan and again saw the nod of satisfaction.

Gerard drew the bow again, this time with the fletching of the striped shaft; this time he raised it to three quarters and, after a pause, released it high into the air.

It seemed the arrow was flying for a long time as it went high over the top of the target and disappeared into the distance; what was more noticeable to those watching was the high pitched sound of what could be a Hawk screeching as the arrow flew.

The crowd began to make calls for Krain to be declared the winner; Freeman lifted his hand for silence, the boy still had one shaft left and it was only fair he be allowed his full four shots.

In the silence that followed, Gerard knelt down and, holding the last arrow in his palms, he began to whisper what Freeman assumed was a prayer; the boy then stood, turned and bowed to his father and took his stance and prepared to fire.

There was a hush as everyone watched the slender boy draw the bow to its fullest; with his lips on the string, Gerard released the shaft in a smooth easy way; the shaft went high and straight as it flew towards the far off target. No one could see where it hit but there was little doubt it had made the target.

The servant standing far to one side lifted his painted marker and moved it up and down; no one could believe it; that signal meant the boy had scored a red; he had won the competition with that one last shot; Freeman turned to see the half smile on Bodan's face.

"Gerard, son of the Reaches; today you are a man and on your majority you will become the Keeper of the Black Bow of Manhood; your father is pleased. Boys go and collect the arrows of manhood and do not forget to pace out the shaft of the Hawk."

Krain was the first to move towards Gerard; he held out his large hand to be taken by the boy; as he shook the boys hand he said to him.

"I have seen the best bowmen of this land and of many others; today I saw the best of them all; I am now proud to be beaten by such an archer."

"Thank you Yeoman; had you not been such an archer I would not have had the courage to take my trial so it is I that should be thanking you." Gerard replied.

"What is this talk of a trial young one?"

"It is the law of the Reaches; for me to become a man I must fulfil the laws of the Black Bow."

"But you missed with the first three, what if you missed with the fourth?"

"I did not miss with the first three; I shot them where they were meant to go; had I missed the last one I would be laying here dead right now."

"Dead! But how?"

"Had my shaft not hit the red my eldest brother would have used my own bow against me; it is the law of the Reaches."

Krain looked in wonder at the boy; this strange law was not for the faint of heart; Krain decided to ask Gerard if he could draw the Black Bow to see its pull. Gerard looked at his father for an answer.

"You are the new Keeper; it is your decision to make." Bodan replied to the look from his son.

Gerard handed the Black Bow over to Krain; even with all his greater strength; Krain could only get a half draw on the bow and he looked down at the younger teen with a new respect; for the very life of him, he could not see how the boy had drawn the bow to its fullest; not once, but four times and with great accuracy.

Krain returned the bow beaten by its great power; he promised himself never to underestimate a man or boy in the future.

"What was the meaning of the three misses, Master Bodan?"

"They were not misses My Lord; the first green shaft was to honour the Mother of the earth; the second white was for the Father of the Heavens; the third was the arrow of the Hawk and was to scare all spirits with bad intentions; the last was the death arrow; it is the one that kills the spirit of a boy and reveals the man inside. If the last arrow misses, then his brother would release the shaft he held ready for Gerard's death."

"Then I am mightily pleased the last shaft hit well; he seems a good and honest boy and I would not like to see his blood on my lands."

It was soon after that the last son came running back holding the striped shaft in his hand.

"Did you pace the flight?"

"Yes father." The boy replied.


"Three hundred and sixty paces beyond the target, father."

"Then he has done well, only twenty paces less than my own effort and as you know my son; some thirty paces beyond you and your brothers; he will be a great Keeper."

The boy gave the last shaft back to his father and nodded; he knew that none of his brothers would be able to play anymore jokes on the youngest one; he had bested them on the one true field they all knew so well.

Later that day when it was close to the time for the evening meal; Freeman called for Bodan to meet him in his study room. It was a number of hours later before anyone saw the two men again; it was noticeable that both of them were smiling and seemed happy with the results of their private meeting.

Eventide had now had enough time learning the language of the Bedou to be able to quite well understand most of what was said although his skill at reading and writing the language was still at the level of an infant; Freeman's lessons on writing and reading his own language were of course easier for Eventide to learn although still difficult for one who had not been taught before.

Amongst all the language lessons, there was the other training for his skills within the Brotherhood; these seemed to come naturally to him and his six instructors were happy with his progress. Eventide was feeling a little nervous about this upcoming night. Ishmael had told him he would be learning the first thing about seduction; as Ishmael said; "It is one of the better parts of being a Hashin" Eventide only hoped it was true; he was about to tread into a world he knew nothing about.

Eventide was not really surprised to see Bodan at the table that night; as the meal continued, Freeman began to tell him what they had agreed upon during their meeting. Freeman and Bodan had come to an arrangement for Bodan and his family to take over the manor estate as Freeman's overseer; he would also have given to him for a small peppercorn rent, ten acres to call his own and he would oversee all of the new tenants that would come to work the estate. His rent was to be six long bows and six quivers of arrows per year for five years and the son's time to train his men. Once that was fulfilled, the land would be Bodan's and his family and he would keep his place as overseer.

Bodan had said he would have no trouble finding good farmers for the land around the manor and he had his own sons to help with breaking in the ground and also in his duty as overseer.

When the meal was done; Eventide and the six Hashin left the table and went back to Eventide's rooms. Eventide's four servants were waiting with a hot bath ready for him and the massage table was set out and ready. A warming plate was in his bed to heat up the cold sheets while Ishmael found a large soft cushion to sit on beside the bathing tub.

The other five Hashin disappeared into their own rooms and left the two boys together; there were a number of semi riballed remarks made that Eventide could now understand even though he did not really know what they meant in the context of the night.

As Eventide relaxed in the hot bath water; Ishmael began to tell him a long story of a Prince looking for love in the vast deserts of his homeland. Eventide lay back to listen; a good story that is well told was always one of his favourite things and Ishmael seemed to have the kind of voice that made for a good story teller.

As the story progressed and Eventide relaxed more; occasionally Ishmael's voice would drop slightly and Eventide had to lean toward him slightly to hear the words. Ishmael would then strengthen his voice again. At other times, Ishmael would lightly touch Eventides bare arm or perhaps run a finger lightly up or down his forearm as he explained a part of the story.

When the water cooled, Eventide was still held spellbound by the tale of the desert Prince; Ishmael at one time was almost whispering in his ear and the soft touch of Ishmael's hot breath on his cheek made Eventide feel a light tingle in his nether regions; that is not to say he was not already feeling the effects by the hardness of his boyhood hidden under the water.

Eventide took his place on the table for a massage; always the best part of the many bathings he had to do; Ishmael continued with the story; at times his eyes flashed at Eventide and at other times he whispered words or gave a slight touch on the boys leg, arm or back. Eventide hoped Ishmael did not know what he was doing to Eventides young excitable body; he had never felt like this before when told a story.

By the end of the massage, Eventide's body felt as though it was enflamed and yet Ishmael seemed to not notice anything amiss. When the tale went to a soft part; Ishmael would whisper the words; when it came to an exciting part before a battle or some other part to raise the blood; Ishmael would speak louder but touch Eventide in different places that brought the younger boys blood almost to a boil.

It was two hours later before Eventide realised he was lying on the great bed in all his nakedness; his boyhood was rigidly hard and his skin felt on fire; above him was Ishmael; a thin film of sweat on his dark skin only accentuated his fine muscular figure.

Something was slowly moving between Eventide's thighs; it felt large and very hard but his own boyhood was taking away any other thoughts; it was at a stage when he thought he should tell Ishmael he need to go and pass water, instead he felt a tingling like nothing ever before.

Without warning, Eventide's boyhood began to pulse not once, but many times; above him the bright damp face of Ishmael was smiling widely as he slowly moved back and forth between the younger boys thighs hoping that one day he would get to taste the true delight hidden below.

When the pulsing ended; Eventide suddenly felt very tired; his boyhood did not go soft like some other times but he seemed more drained this time; there was also a stickiness on his belly that he had not had before; other times his boyhood had got hard and he had felt the shivers, there had not been any moister; this time was different somehow.

Eventide awoke with a start; he did not realise he had fallen asleep; as he turned his head he could see Ishmael watching him with wide awake eyes; their noses almost touching and their breaths mixing with each exhale.

Eventide was not sure what it was; the fact of someone holding him close or just that another person was sharing his bed with intimacy for the first time but, whatever it was he would like it to continue. A fleeting thought made him wonder if Mahmud would like to lay with him like this; holding each other close and experiencing the joy of the tingling sensations he had had.

When next Eventide awoke; Ishmael was by the side of the bed dressing. Eventide could tell it was in the late morning as the sun was high in the sky for it to be close to dawn. Eventide felt his naked body under the soft cotton of the bed cloths; his first urge was to make water and he jumped from the bed in a bigger hurry than most days.

Ishmael laughed as he watched the naked boy running for the closet set aside for the disposal of the boy's morning water; it would not be long before Eventide would be back and Ishmael would follow him down to eat a sparse meal before handing him over to Demetrius for the next part of training.

Ishmael could tell by the glow of the boy's skin that his seduction had been a success; all it would take now was to teach Eventide how he had done it without the boy even realising or understanding it from the beginning.

The following week was filled from early light until after dark with lessons; both of the Hashin and his reading and writing with Freeman who also taught him about court etiquette and the other lessons for a Baronet.

Each day had the last two hours of daylight set aside for Eventide to ride his horse; each time he went to the stable, Shaun would be waiting for him. Shaitan would be saddled and the jet black hide would be glowing with a shine to match the brightest of jewels.

One of the Hashin had also been teaching Shaun how to plait the horses black main and tie in small red and black tassels to highlight the horse. On the third day of going to the stable; Eventide was surprised to be greeted with the horse kneeling down on one front knee for Eventide to mount easier; Eventide smiled at what he saw.

"Shaun, how did you get him to do that?"

"Soft words and bribery My Lord."

"More bribery than words I would guess. Thank you Shaun, I would never have thought of that."

"It is a pleasure My Lord; also your friends have been helping me understand this type of horse; they are so different from our own."

"Yes Shaun, they are certainly that. Are you trying to practice riding again?"

"Yes My Lord; I have been trying to learn to re-sit a saddle and find a way to keep my balance; again your friends have been most helpful; it seems they have done this before for their own boys after an accident."

"From what I have been told; in the great desert, if you cannot ride then you die so they must have ways to help those injured."

"Yes My Lord; My Lord, may I ask a question?"

"Of course."

"What is the large barrel for?"

"What barrel Shaun?"

"Your friends have strung a barrel on four posts out back of the stables."

"I honestly do not know Shaun; I will try to find out while we ride today; they must have a reason for it, they always do and it usually means more pain for me." Eventide laughed as the boy smiled back at him. With Shaitan kneeling it was so much easier to mount although he had to tighten his grip as the horse stood back up.

On the long slow canter back to the stable, Eventide called to Salud and asked him about the hanging barrel; the only answer he got was a very evil look and a wide smile from the other boys; they returned to the stable in silence but the smiles were wide and knowing.

Once back at the stables; Eventide was again allowed to dismount after Shaitan had knelt for him; Shaun was quickly there to begin to remove the large colourful wool blanket and begin to remove the saddle; as he worked, Mohammad moved up beside him; Shaitan immediately turned his head to look at the teen and bared his teeth and snorted loudly through his nostrils.

Eventide watched as Mohammad bowed low and salaamed to the horse; he then said in Aramaic.

"Forgive this one Great Shaitan; I have need to give another lesson to the young one."

Shaitan looked the teen over before turning his head back which seemed to be agreeable to Mohammad. When Shaun had removed the large blanket, draped it over a waiting stand and then reversed it so the underside was open to the air to dry; Mohammad then took Shaun to the horses main and showed him something in the plaiting and tying of the tassels.

Shaun was nodding his head as Mohammad explained things through signs as neither could speak the others language. Carefully Mohammad untied one of the plaits and then went step by step to replaiting it; he then took up the tassel and measured the plait with his forefinger and showed Shaun the difference in length before tying the tassel back on.

Shaun nodded his head and then showed Mohammad his much shorter forefinger and giggled; Mohammad laughed and then showed him to use the width of the boys smaller four fingers across the palm instead of the length of the boys forefinger; Shaun nodded again and bowed to Mohammad which the teen returned before turning back and joining his friends.

The walk back to the manor and the evening meal was done in silence; Eventide was still thoughtful about why the six friends had put a large barrel up and what they had in mind for him; he knew it would not be something easy; with these six it never was.

The next morning, Eventide's worst fears were realised as the boys led him to the back of the stables; what he saw did not inspire any confidence. There were four post set in a square; at the centre was a large barrel with one of the strange saddles the boys had told him were for his camels.

The barrel lay on the ground and the four ropes were attached in such a way that they controlled both the front, rear and sides. The four biggest boys went to stand by the posts and gripped the ropes tightly; Salud took Eventide to the barrel and still wore the evil grin as he explained to Eventide how to mount the saddle.

When Eventide was finally seated on the strange saddle; Salud showed him how to wrap his right leg under the knee of his left and tighten his grip; next he gave Eventide a long thin cane and showed him how to hold it in his right hand and tap it against the side of the barrel.

Once all this was done; Salud stepped back and nodded his head; seconds later Eventide found himself on the ground after flying over the front of the barrel as the two boys at the rear had suddenly pulled hard on the ropes and lifted the rear of the barrel up high; all the boys were laughing, not only at the result of Eventides loss of his seat but also at the loud and boyish yelp he let out as he hit the ground quite hard.

Salud helped Eventide back to his feet and then brushed of the dust and straw from his clothes before pointing back to the barrel; this next attempt was more successful until they lifted the front in the same manner. The same results were achieved but this time he went over the back with the same yelp; it took the boys a few minutes before they could stop laughing and help the dust covered Eventide back on his feet.

Eventide was trying to spit out a lump of dirt as Salud led him back to the barrel.

"There is no animal that rises up like that Salud."

"So little brother, you have ridden many camels then to know this?"

"Well, no but I have never seen an animal that would even kneel and then stand in such a fashion; I think you are trying to make a fool of me."

"To make a fool you must first have one who is born a fool; now little brother, back to your lesson and believe me when I tell you; a camel does indeed rise like that and some even more violently if they anger."

This time Eventide stayed on his saddle. At Salud's command, the four boys began to move the barrel in a strange waving motion; Salud had told Eventide that when he was comfortable and thought he could stay in the saddle; he was to tap the cane on the barrel and it would speed up a little.

It took ten more minutes before Eventide was feeling decidedly ill; the forward wavy motion made his stomach heave as well as a slight sideways movement that the boys managed to work into their actions. As Eventide felt his gorge rise; he leaned over the side and lost his breakfast, much to the enjoyment of the six watching boys; luckily Salud caught him before he fell into his own mess that sat in a puddle below him.

Shaun appeared from nowhere with a ladle of cold water and then went to find some fresh straw to cover up Eventides breakfast and pad the ground a little more; the six boys had tears in their eyes as they laughed and held their sides much to Eventides displeasure.

It took another ten minutes before Eventide could remount the saddle and start over; although he felt ill almost immediately; it was only from sheer will power that he held onto what little was left in his stomach. After a little time, the four boys sped up their actions; this time Eventide did not feel so bad as the movement was a little smoother and his stomach settled a little.

For the next two hours, Eventide sat high up on the barrel as the boys worked up a hard sweat moving it around; looking down Eventide could see he was about the height of two men above the ground; it was not a comfortable feeling to know he could easily injure himself from this height.

It was mid afternoon before the lesson finished for the day much to Eventides relief; after being helped down; Eventide made his way back to the manor on very unsteady legs. It was with great relief that he made it back to the manor; his stomach was rumbling with hunger and his throat was dry as Salud and Achmed escorted him into the house.

Freeman took one look and could not hold back the laughter.

"I see you are learning to ride a camel; you're lucky it's only a barrel; I had to do it on the real animal, a much harder form of learning I assure you."

If Eventide could have raised a sneer he would have done so but his aching muscles and shaky legs had taken too much out of him, he just wanted to eat, drink and rest; the first two were soon completed, the last was not to be.


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