Robin’s first thought was: this is no fighter. The friar lay snoring in the shade of a willow, hands clasped piously on a great mound of belly. The morning mist had long burned off and the sun was high, the day hot and still. Damselflies busied themselves over the slow water of the Meden; glints of azure, treasure on the wing. On the far bank, a coot explored the rushes. The friar’s hut stood on an eyot, set apart like a little castle, just a step from the shore, but symbolic enough: this was not a man who liked to be disturbed. Robin kicked him.
He scrambled to his feet like an angered bull.
-Who-what-what do you mean by this? Fists clenched, at full height he was taller than Robin, to the outlaw’s surprise.
-I seek passage over the river: will you help me across?
-Help you? You’re a fit young man. Wade across yourself, trust to the weir, or there’s a bridge at Perlethorpe. But leave me be.
-You, a man of God, would deny help to a traveller in need? It saddens me.
Tuck looked from Robin to river and back. He seemed to twitch all over.
-I suppose there’s not much of you.
-You’ll bear me across?
-On my back, fellow. Come on then, if you’re so eager! Tuck crouched and Robin jumped lightly onto the man’s broad back. Immediately his mount stood up. Most of the man’s bulk was brawn and not really fat. He could smell the friar’s sweat. Tuck hoisted up his robes and, a little unsteadily, plunged a foot into the water, seeking the riverbed. A few dozen slow paces and they reached the opposite bank. With a final effort the friar heaved himself from the water. The coot fled in alarm, and Robin slipped off.
-God bless you; you have my gratitude. Now, if you could just point me in the direction of Nottingham?
-Nottingham? It’s over – he waved an arm back across the Meden. It’s south of here, twenty miles. You’re going the wrong way: north is Barnesdale, Doncaster, York, Scotland even, but Nottingham? No.
-Ah, then would you bear me back again? I seek my cousin in Nottingham, and Sherwood has misled me.
-Back across? Tuck sighed.
-I have some dried meat we could share: it seems only fair recompense. My mistake.
-Very well. On you get.
Once again, Robin leapt on the friar’s back and hooked a forearm about the chubby throat.
-This is a pleasant spot, he said.
-I…enjoy…the…quiet, Tuck panted. The…contemplative…life.
-By the size of you, I’d say you’ve contemplated enough.
-What? Tuck angled his head to hear better.
-I said I’m keen to meet my cousin again, in Lincoln.
-Lincoln? Tuck halted. You said Nottingham!
With a roar, Tuck cupped his hands beneath Robin’s feet and stood upright. The outlaw was catapulted backward into the water. Tuck overbalanced and fell into him as he stood. As he struggled upright he landed a punch in Robin’s gut. They fought, movements slowed by the water, shoving and tugging each other until Tuck found his way to shore. He stood with hands on hips and watched the outlaw clamber onto land. With a snort he wiped blood from his nose, and hauled Robin to his feet. Robin prodded his right eye and winced. Tuck burst into laughter.
-That clears the head! I don’t know whether to drown you or toast your health.
-A toast would be fine. I’m already drowned, Robin spluttered.
The big man roared. Who are you, stranger? Not every man in Sherwood would be as forgiving as me.
-Forgiving? My ribs feel like a horse has run over them.
-A moment. Tuck hobbled through the water to his hut and returned with a jug and two wooden cups. Now, your name?
The smile vanished from the friar’s face. He glanced about anxiously.
-That is not funny. You could get yourself killed saying such things. Robin Hood’s an outlaw; a wolfshead. Do you want an arrow through your breast?
-It feels like I have one now.
-It’s no matter for laughter. What’s your name, really?
Robin looked at him evenly, but said nothing.
-Lord… Tuck covered his mouth with a huge hand. He crossed himself. Robin Hood?
-Where are your men? The others people talk about: Little John and so on?
Robin cupped his hands to his lips and called like a jay. Within moments, figures in green and brown emerged from the fringes of the wood. Among them, a girl. Tuck’s eyes bulged and he scrambled to his feet.
-Lady Budby…he stood, arms limp, at a loss for words. Mowren ran to him and hugged his huge frame.
-Mowren, she said. Lady Budby no more.
-This is too much. He turned to Robin. You are truly Robin Hood?
-He is, said Mowren.
-I need more beer. Tuck scratched his head, his voice unusually quiet. A few of the men cheered. For me, not you! If you’re thirsty, there’s a perfectly good river.
-You’d have me steal?
-Returning possessions to their owner, said Robin. For distribution to the poor.
-Do you think I would be believed if I were discovered? And even if I were, that I would be allowed to make off with them? And if I was, do you think that I would not be followed? Folly! There’s not a nobleman I value – and sorry to say, my dear, that includes your father – but a man of God cannot be party to this. Robin, if what I have heard of you and your men is true, then I commend it: support it, condone it. But I cannot get involved. You may find me a friend, I may be of use to you, but the life of an outlaw is not for me. Please do not ask this of me.
-Things are changing, Tuck, said Little John. You know what’s happened at Perlethorpe and Budby. The days of a quiet life are gone. You’ve seen what kind of man Gisburne is.
-I have, and I sent him packing.
-He’ll remember. And those men-at-arms are now his.
-I’ve said: consider me a friend, but I remain here.
Robin stood. Very well. But the time to take sides is coming, in action rather than just in words. I hope that you remain a friend when the time comes.
-I am not a man of action.
Robin rubbed at his bruised eye, but said nothing.
The seven armoured men on horseback attracted little attention as they made their way through the cramped streets of Nottingham. Progress was slow: the ground was uneven; rocky here, a quagmire there. Up the hill to the castle they rode, over the moat and drawbridge to the outer ward where people were few. At the gate, one of them dismounted and knocked on the wicket door. Their business stated, he returned to his horse, glancing nervously at his leader. Time passed, and no response came; the great door remained closed. Astride his horse, the squad’s leader grew visibly twitchy, and his agitation spread to his men, who feared his growing irritation would be taken out on them. It wouldn’t be the first time.
Finally, the wicket door creaked open.
-The Sheriff will see you now, Sir Guy.
The little door snapped shut and instantly the huge oak doors swung slowly open. Once inside the inner ward, the men all dismounted. Four of them led the horses away, and Sir Guy took the two others with him. These two carried small but heavy oak chests.
Inside the Great Hall, Nottingham warmed his hands at a fire. He never seemed comfortable, thought Gisburne. Something always bothered him.
The Sheriff motioned for the chests to be emptied onto the bare floor. Coins glinted in the firelight. Gisburne’s men were dismissed to the buttery to find refreshments. Both fled, eager to be out of their lords’ presence.
-You and your men wish to stay the night in the Castle, I believe?
-Yes, my lord Sheriff.
-I collect taxes from two counties, Sir Guy, and no-one else makes such a request. Even if they come from the far side of Derbyshire. You should take a house here in Nottingham. You are as parsimonious as your father was generous.
-I am not my father.
-No. No, you’re not.
-Besides, no-one else must traverse Sherwood.
-Hmm. Nottingham dug a foot into the pile of coins, and slid a portion to one side. Minus a night’s board for your men. Doesn’t leave as much as we’d like, does it?
Gisburne tapped fingernails on the hilt of his sword.
-This must be revenue for Birkencar alone. Where is that for Budby’s lands?
-All of it is here, sire.
The Sheriff rubbed his eyes wearily, and turned back to the fire.
-Oh dear. You should be firm with your new tenants. Show them your strength and you’ll have no cause for concern afterwards.
Gisburne searched for the right form of words, ones that wouldn’t make him look a fool in Nottingham’s eyes.
-Resistance is growing. Other lords must have reported this, too.
-I don’t believe I need to advise a warrior on how to deal with resistance, do I? A portion of these taxes go to London, to the King. His Majesty continues to raise the level of taxation, and we cannot be seen to provide less and less. Revenue must increase. We are all in this together, Gisburne. It would not bode well for either of us if a shortfall were recorded. Stop this defiance. Hang the ringleaders.
-It’s Robin Hood, sire.
-Ah. Nottingham drew the word out. Our mutual friend. Things didn’t go too well with your little mercenary, I forget his name-
-Malbete, yes, that was it. He was unreliable. Infiltration didn’t work. I wouldn’t use that tactic a second time.
-Malbete is in York anyway, sire. Seeing to the Jewish problem.
-I hadn’t appreciated that the Jews were a problem. In Nottingham, at any rate, they pay their taxes.
-I have travelled, sire, and seen much of them.
-I defer to your knowledge, Sir Guy. Nottingham waved a dismissive hand, and turned back to the fire. Gisburne stood alone, awkward in the centre of the hall.
-I’m sure you’d be keen, though.
-To infiltrate Robin Hood’s band. I hear he has swayed a certain young noblewoman.
Gisburne ignored the taunt.
-He uses Sherwood as a shield. He hides behind the trees, and uses talk of aiding the common herd to mask his vanity and excuse his villainy.
-You’ve encountered him in person?
-A self-righteous man. I know not what type of yeoman or peasant he is but he shows no respect for rank and title.
-You also have encountered him?
Gisburne peered at the Sheriff.
-If we can’t go into the Wood, said d’Anquetil, perhaps we can lure him out.
-How? They do not want for food; they make free with the King’s deer. For everything else they rob travellers, or rely on sympathetic people in the neighbouring villages. The forest gives them shelter. They have no need to leave it.
-But leave it they do. And if he is as vain as you say, then perhaps we can use that to our advantage. The Sheriff wheeled about, eyes flashing with inspiration. Archery is his skill. We shall hold an archery tournament, the greatest yet held, and open it to all. He’ll come, and if he is as skilled as they say, he’ll win. And we’ll pluck him like a ripe apple. He snapped his fingers.
-But the people will root for him.
-Oh, bugger the people, Gisburne. If he is stupid enough not to come in disguise, then he deserves to be caught.
-How will you recognise him?
–We will recognise him, because you will be there.
-I’d gladly hang him.
-We don’t want that: there’d be a riot! No, we’ll arrest him and transport him to London.
-To the King? But why?
-A gift. It never harms to give gifts to a monarch. Especially if that gift is the cause of reduced revenue for Nottinghamshire, swiftly and efficiently dealt with by – he spread his arms wide – the authorities.
-I thought you didn’t want word of the problem to reach London.
The Sheriff sighed.
-I’m tired, Gisburne. Leave me now.
Nottingham kept his back to the room until the door closed behind Gisburne. Then he turned to the pile of coins on the floor, and shifted a further amount into the pile destined for his own coffers.
-Oh dear, Gisburne. Not a healthy tally at all. Won’t look good in the accounts.
He dragged more across and created a third, smaller pile.
-Administration costs for the archery tournament.
He knelt and gathered all that remained from the original pile.
-Really, Gisburne, this is so small an amount it’s practically treason.