This story was originally inspired by Ernest Hemingway’s The Capital of the World
England is full of girls called Kip, which the wives of fishermen will tell you once meant “The pointed hill”. There is a joke about fishermen and their wives, but perhaps it is not an appropriate tale for here. It is a joke oft told by Kip, the only daughter of a forgotten, landless lord. She will tell it while she washes clothes for Gertha, the keeper of the inn Kip has worked at since her ninth year. Kip’s older brothers were squires for a local knight, though both of them had only received such positions due to growing up near the knight’s son, and forming a bond with him. Through her siblings had Kip earned her place at the inn; and only by the knight’s fondness for alcohol did the inn stay open at all. She came from a region where food and work were equally scarce, and had worked hard for every privilege she had.
She was a strong girl, with straight black hair and skin that made her mother envious, and she had a sly and curious smirk that had oft got her out of trouble. She was good with her hands and loved her family dearly, and she loved her great and proud home.
There were another ten who worked for the inn-woman; the serving girls, the cleaners, the attendants. None of the rest mattered to Kip though, for she only saw the bowmen.
Second rate bowmen, they were. Though Kip would never say that. Released from King Edward’s service with honours for the skills of their brothers in arms. The food at the inn was not perfect, nor were the rooms the cleanest, but the most important thing to a soldier is the flow of beer, which flowed cheaply at the inn and drained all soldiers who came through. These bowmen though, everyone at the inn knew they would live there until their last breaths.
The inn was home to three bowmen who had lived their retirements through the tap. Of these three, one was wounded and trying to conceal his injury, one had passed his short life as a bowman having never fired an arrow, and the third was a coward.
The coward had at one time, before he had come face to face with a Castilian knight with a quick blade, had an incredible aim and remarkable skill. He was hearty and rude, and beloved by the inn. He had, in his days with a quiver, been known for his terrible jokes, but he had given these up as laughter was replaced by groans by the unchanging crowds of the inn.
The man who was injured never allowed others to know; he was careful never to use his left arm when eating, and was extremely polite and quiet, to avoid attention. He had witnessed the battle of Les Espagnols sur Mer, where an arrow had pierced his leather cuirass and forever ruined his left arm. He was an old fashioned man, and was nothing but polite to the serving girls, which made him the target of endless mockery from his compatriots.
The strange bowman who had never fired a bow was short and stocky, and spoke often with little purpose. He was known in the inn to be lecherous and crude, but his purse flowed with a lord’s coin, and so he was always welcome. He fled his company not long after he learned that the reputation given to knights as valorous and womanising did not oft stretch to the bowmen.
On this evening all had retired to their rooms except for the injured bowman, a sickly trader, and two monks from a local monastery: at the inn officially to spread gospel, but truthfully to partake in beer and women of ill repute, much like everyone else who stayed at the inn.
The washer girls worked hard out in the yard, just out of sight of the inn patrons. It was the rule of the inn-woman that they stay working until every shirt, sock, and satchel be clean and ready for the next day.
Upstairs the craven bowman was lying in his bed alone, dreaming old dreams of the life he’d given up. The bowman who had never fired was sitting in his bed as one of Kip’s friends, a cleaning girl, was clearing up after much of the man’s beer and dinner had returned to the floor. She was laughingly refusing his drunken advances at every turn.
‘Come little girl, come to my bed.’
‘No.’ Laughed the sister, ‘Why should I?’
‘Because I say so!’
‘You’ve had, and lost, your dinner. You’ve no need of dessert.’
‘Just once, what harm can it do?’
‘There are men of God downstairs. Leave me be, I tell you.’
‘It is but a little thing to do!’
‘Leave me be.’
Downstairs behind the bar, the servers were speaking. The tallest server said, ‘Look at these pigs drink.’
‘That’s no way to speak!’ Scolded the inn-woman. ‘They pay well, and do not drink us dry.’
‘It makes me feel better to say.’ Grumbled the tall server. ‘There are two plagues left in England, the cowards and the godless.’
‘Surely not the individual craven or godless man.’ Spoke another server.
‘Yes!’ Exclaimed the tall waiter, ‘Only through the individual can you judge the whole. It is necessary to kill the individual coward or the individual heathen. All of them. Then there are no more.’
‘Save it for another day, there are still customers about.’ The inn-woman said.
‘Ah, the barbarity of England today.’ Continued the tall server, ‘It is past midnight, yet they still drink.’
‘They only ate at ten,’ said the quiet server, ‘They ate a lot, and the beer is cheap. They’ve paid their dues, let them be.’
‘So much for the solidarity of serving folk.’ Said the tall server.
‘Hey now,’ protested the inn-woman ‘I have worked this inn all my life. Whatever years I have left I will work this inn. I have no complaints with my work. To work is to live.’
‘Yes, but this lack of work kills.’ Said the tall waiter.
‘I have only known work. You are still young. Off now, to bed. You are working tomorrow.’
‘You are a good woman. But the washers still wash, the cleaners still clean. I will work.’
‘Go on to bed.’ Said the quiet server, ‘There is not enough work for three.’
‘Then it is a brief respite, I may be needed.’
‘Well I am going to bed.’ Spoke the inn-woman, ‘I would recommend you do the same.’
‘It’s OK, my friend.’ A cleaner said, ‘Look, they have all either retired or fallen asleep in their drinks. I am almost done as well, we shall all sleep soon.’
‘Merci, mon amis. And goodnight.’ The tall waiter relented.
Kip had said nothing through all of this. She did not understand the inn politics, but she found them fascinating. She found it thrilling to hear the server talk of killing cowards and heathens, just as she loved to hear of fights with the Spanish from wandering knights. The tall server represented to her the solidarity and strength of England, but also the romantic notions of the exotic as well. He was Christian, and a patriot clearly, and he held a steady job as well. She respected the man, even if she did not understand him.
In the meantime, Kip’s friend had released herself from the lecherous grasp of the bowman as skilfully as any knight, and she was angry ‘You are just thirsty. A failed archer. With a craven’s load of fear. If you have so much fight, use it against the Spanish!’
‘That is the way a whore speaks.’
‘A whore may be a woman, but I am no whore.’
‘You’ll be one.’
‘Not for you.’
‘Leave me, whore.’ Said the bowman, refused and feeling the nakedness of his cowardice returning.
‘Leave you? Like all else have left you?’ Said Kip’s friend, ‘Shall I finish cleaning? I’m paid for that.’
‘Leave me, you dirty whore. You whore!’
‘Archer, my archer.’ She laughed, shutting the door.
Down in the dining room the injured bowman sat looking at the monks. If there were women still up at this hour, he would stare at them, if there were no women he would stare at those he did not know, but lacking women or strangers, he stared with drunken insolence at the monks.
The monks did not stare back at the bowman. One of them was complaining ‘It is a week I have been here waiting to see him. His people say he is busy, and so I am left here all day.’
‘As it has always been. What can you do?’ Spoke another monk.
‘Nothing of course, one cannot go against authority, especially in a small town like this.’
‘I have been here almost a month now. I wait, and he does not see me.’
‘We are the abandoned people. Nothing is holy anymore. When his people get angry, he will call for me, and then I can go home.’
‘To abandoned people. What does Britain care for us now? The druids are defeated, we are no longer the heroes we once were.’
At this moment the bowman got to his feet and approached the monks, smiling with sharp eyes and a clumsy step.
‘An archer.’ Observed a monk.
‘Aye, and a good one.’ Said the bowman, before turning and leaving the way he had come, drunkenly smiling to himself. He had interrupted the pretentions of the monks he saw as bafflingly useless, he was satisfied.
The monks left immediately after the bowman, suddenly aware they were the last conscious patrons of the inn, and that all eyes were upon them.
In the yard were the washer girls cleaning the next night’s linens. Kip was washing with the Scottish girl, who was three years older than her.
‘Here, have this.’ The Scottish girl offered Kip a small draft of mead.
‘Why not.’ She replied, drinking deeply from the bottle.
They drank together as they washed the rest of the linens.
As the water turned grey and the last of the cloths was cleaned, Kip moved to a dying tree. From its roots, she pulled a makeshift bow, crafted from clean cut willow and strung with flax. She made the motions of firing upon an imaginary enemy, though she notched no arrows.
‘How many Spaniards have you killed there, Kip?’ The Scottish girl laughed.
‘Hundreds. They come at me from all sides, the knights are felled, but the archers stand strong. Look!’ Kip mimed the rapid firing of many imaginary arrows.
‘And the Spaniards?’
‘They are many.’
‘You are a fool, Kip.’
The Scottish girl walked to the dead tree, removed a branch, and mimed the firing of arrows. She assumed the archers stance, used her bow fingers perfectly, and felled absent Spaniards with ease.
‘Look at that. And I wash clothes.’
‘Fear.’ The Scottish girl said simply, ‘Peur. The same fear you would have upon the battlefield, facing down metal men with shining blades.’
‘No.’ Said Kip, ‘I wouldn’t be afraid.’
‘Menteur, liar! Everyone is afraid. Only a warrior can control his fear so that he can stay the field. I fired a bow at the fair only last year, my hands shook so I couldn’t even notch another arrow. Everyone thought it was so very funny. So would you be afraid. If it wasn’t for fear, every true Brit would have felled a Spaniard or two. You, a village girl, would be frightened worse than I.’
‘No.’ Said Kip.
She had done it too many times to know fear. She had even crafted working arrows, and fired them at the tree; her aim was true.
‘I wouldn’t be afraid.’
‘Let me prove it.’
‘I have arrows, my aim is good. I will fire at a target.’
‘No, I could do that. There is no-one to see you fail, there is no fear of death. You must know that, should you fail, your brothers in arms will fall and die.’
‘How then can I prove it?’
‘Here, see this apple? I will place it upon my brow. If your aim is true, I will not die. If you fail, I will die, and they will hang you. See? You will fear death too much to fire.’
‘We’ll see. Pass me the apple. I shall prove it, three times.’
‘No, no don’t do it Kip.’
‘Yes. I’m not afraid.’
‘You will be when you must release an arrow, and choose our fates.’
‘We’ll see. Stand over there.’
At this time, as the Scottish girl was moving to position, Kip’s brothers were at the theatre, watching a play with a girl they both wished to court. Of the monks, one was saying his prayers by his bedside, while the other had long passed out from the drink. The bowmen had all gone to bed, dreaming restlessly of what may come tomorrow. All of them secretly feared the day their king demanded they resume their service.
And now, in the deserted yard, the Scottish girl stood with an apple upon her head and two more by her side.
‘I am scared. Look, Kip, don’t do this.’
Kip had notched an arrow, and was taking her time with her aim.
‘Stand still, like a frightened Spaniard. Replace the apples as I pierce them.’
‘What about the wind? What if a gust blows the arrow into me?’
‘I will adjust for the wind, I have done so before. Be not afraid.’
‘All right.’ Said the Scottish girl, closing her eyes.
She loosed an arrow. Thunk! The Scottish girl opened her eyes as sweet juice flowed down her face. She laughed a nervous laugh and replaced the arrow. Kip notched another arrow, and fired again. Thunk! The Scottish girl had not winced quite so badly this time, and quickly replaced the apple.
Kip notched another arrow, but did not realise that this arrow had been made from beech, which is known to warp over time. She had had this arrow for many months, and it had dried and curved in its age. She pulled the string back, aimed it as best she could, and fired.
Sticky liquid flowed down the Scottish girl’s face. Kip was silent, briefly. The Scottish girl opened her eyes, blinked twice, and stared in shock. Kip cried out in joy.
Kip had done it.
‘You are a surer shot than I thought. You would make a good knight, were you not just a washer girl.’
‘I know it is a fanciful dream. But now you’ve seen it; I was born to be an archer.’
In the theatre, Kip’s brothers sat, both disappointed in the strange French play. The bowmen slept a sleepless sleep, the inn-woman said her prayers. None would ever know of the dance with death that had occurred so very close to them all.