The Sheriff looked out of his bedchamber window. The town was hidden by the walls of the castle but he could see the throngs within the courtyard, busying themselves for the day. The sky was clear, the shadows chill but sunlight warm: a day full of promise. In such unaccustomed good mood was he that he exchanged pleasantries with his dresser, a sapling of a man who, quite discomfited, didn’t know where to look or what to say. Nottingham had risen from undisturbed sleep confident, expectant, even. His slumbers, as ever, had been deep and unhindered. Only lesser men dreamed.
D’Anquetil itched, his innards buzzing, when he thought of the day ahead. It was improbable – not to be countenanced – that Robin Hood would shun such a chance to display his vanity. In whatever disguise he might don, the Sheriff’s men were ready. This would be a day to remember, when the fox would be drawn from its den and strung up for all to see.
The town had been busy all week but the streets rippled with heightened anticipation. An unexpected festival, whatever the citizens thoughts of the Sheriff, merited a glass raised to his largesse. Outside the walls, great covered wooden stands bordered the butts, their coloured canopies fluttering in the early breeze. A multitude of flags rose and fell; everywhere, colour. Colour and noise and people and, soon enough, smells and tastes. Fresh bread and fruit and sweetmeats; ale began to flow early as the population trickled through the northern gate. The stands filled with the finely-dressed; around the perimeter of the arena were those who had travelled to the contest but found no lodgings in the city. Jugglers, wrestlers, hawkers and pickpockets; today, it seemed, Nottingham’s guard was down.
A rope marked the arena. Canvas targets had been stretched tight across great mounds of turf, which stood in a row like sentries. Their isolation gave them an air of reverence, like relics in a cathedral. Untouched and unblemished, they awaited the tournament in perfect indifference.
The men went by different routes to Nottingham. Stutely, Much and Scathelocke took the road south from Worksop. They travelled separately, dressed as hopeful archers bound for the contest. John fell in with a small crowd travelling the forest road. Wine and bread were passed around, but as they neared the city walls and the crowds grew, John became anxious. Before the walls stood a gallows; he passed so close he could smell the freshly-cut timber. In all other ventures they’d moved as one, united and strong. He didn’t like this. The Sheriff dangled a bauble, and like kittens they all reached for it. At least Robin had stayed at camp. He left his travelling companions. Behind them, the fringes of Sherwood were bright in the morning sun.
He moved slowly through the crowd, circling the butts. He saw Scathelocke and they shared the briefest glance. He counted soldiers as he walked, marking their sentry positions. A trumpet blew to summon the contestants and dozens of nervous archers lined up in rows. As he took up his place John saw Stutely in the next row. The Bishop of Leicester made an unintelligible speech in which he blessed the archers. Another trumpet sounded to herald the arrival of the Sheriff. A cheer – part hearty, part mocking – rose from the crowds. In the stand, John could see knights and abbots and lords and ladies in their brightly coloured, expensive clothing. Gisburne was there, too, deep in conversation with the Bishop of Leicester. John smiled grimly: they were as much a gang as the outlaws, but only looked out for their own interests, at the expense of everyone else. The Sheriff acknowledged the crowd with a slow wave, then the marshal began to read out the rules of the tournament. John spat, and unsheathed his bow.
Stutely was too keyed up to listen to the herald. He fidgeted endlessly. He felt like a horse cooped up in a storm, longing to flee. At every moment he expected discovery. There were too many people here for him not to be recognised. He’d lost count of faces he knew; other foresters among them, and he’d stooped and shuffled off before their gaze could set on him. His hands were slick with sweat, and the cloth which wrapped his bow was dark with moisture.
The Sheriff exchanged pleasantries with those around him: those whose taxes he claimed, and for whom a day’s entertainment with food and drink flowing freely, was a way of sweetening the pill. There were few here he cared to spend time with, but such was a politician’s existence. So he shook clammy hands and laughed at poor jokes and genuflected as necessary. But the day was his, power here was wielded by him, and today was a demonstration of that.
His eye fell on Allan-a-Dale, and he signalled for the minstrel to be dragged before him. He indicated the archers.
-Now, minstrel. Somewhere in there will be Robin Hood. Find him, and it will go well for you.
-My lord…Allan swallowed. My Lord, I have never seen Robin Hood. The time I spent with his men, he was away.
The Sheriff said nothing for a moment, but let the man continue to sweat.
-You did not think to say this before?
-For days, sire, at the hands of your torturers. I said it endlessly.
-But you were seen. With Little John. Nottingham leaned so close he could smell the grease which matted the man’s lank hair. If you are lying to me, I will hang you on those gallows. If you are telling me the truth, you’re of no use to me and it’s back to the dungeon you go.
-Nock! Mark! Draw!
With an extended fanfare of trumpets, the contest began. Every archer was allowed three arrows, to ensure a fair chance. Those who had not hit at least the edge of the target in this preliminary round would progress no further.
After the initial excitement, as the crowd realised the entertainment would last for hours and they were unlikely to miss anything of interest straight away, the tension abated. People talked and ate, drank and laughed, fought and traded just like market day. There was always a crowd to watch the archers, but only after a particularly fine shot and the ensuing hubbub did the numbers swell and an expectant hush descend. Some shot well and passed to the next round; some shot badly and were eliminated, to drink and mull over what might have been.
Much was one of the first to shoot. Nerves bested him and only his final arrow nicked the black, outermost ring. Scathelocke’s shots were neither especially good nor especially bad, and this plunged him into a mood. Stutely, to his surprise, hit the gold twice, and the crowd responded. Eyes in the covered gallery noted his proficiency.
John was full of doubts. Should he miss on purpose? His tournament would be over and the pressure off. But what of Much, of Scathelocke, of Stutely? And Mowren, wherever she was? He sensed the crowd’s impatience and absently nocked an arrow as he turned his thoughts over. They had come, so they had to stand together, therefore John had to play his part. Who knows? Maybe they would win after all.
He loosed the arrow and it buried itself in the centre of the target. As did his second, and third. The crowd rose to acclaim him. Those nearest him clapped him on the back, and one of them raised his arm. But all John could think was that he’d just sentenced himself to a fate as yet unknown.
Nottingham rose as the archers finished the next round. The targets were being dragged ten paces further back. He moved awkwardly through the rows: he was not a big man but the benches were narrow and he brushed with distaste against noble and cleric, merchant and lady.
To his surprise, Gisburne was with the Bishop of Leicester. Exchanging hunting tips, perhaps. Whatever the reason, he masked his bewilderment before they saw him. When Gisburne looked up, an expression of horror crossed his face. Nottingham beamed, glad his approach could still unsettle the upstart knight.
Gisburne spluttered, and he looked in mute appeal to his companion. The Bishop turned, perfectly composed, and greeted the Sheriff.
-Sir Guy and I were just discussing our mutual problem. Please, sit with us.
-By tonight he’ll be in irons, your grace.
A wry smile crossed the Bishop’s face. Gisburne’s expression was a rictus mask.
-That would be a result indeed. You will sit with us?
-Sadly not, your grace. Some business demands my attention. Excuse me.
The Bishop gestured serenely. Gisburne half-stood, half-bowed, and sat down again awkwardly. Nottingham moved on.
John went in search of food after his third round of arrows. He peered and prodded at various foodstuffs, haggled here and there, and eventually bought a pie. He squeezed through the crowds, spilling watery gravy as he picked at the crust. A trio of women caught his eye. They stood by the city wall in suggestive poses, cackling at men and women alike. One of them, the youngest, nudged her companions.
-He’s a big one!
Darting forward, she pinched John’s arms and cooed like a pigeon.
-You’re very strong, sir. Care to show me how strong? John shrugged her off with a laugh and walked on. He felt hands about him and he turned, with a retort on his lips. His eyes met the girl’s.
-Sure, why not? Excuse us, ladies. The other two whooped with delight. He let the girl lead him through the gate and into a narrow lane.
-You were right, said Mowren. One of the other girls was with a soldier, and he was boasting that there are dozens of them in plain clothes. They’ve all got our descriptions.
-Have you told the others?
-I haven’t seen them. I’m sorry, John.
-Don’t be: you didn’t want to come either. At least Robin isn’t here.
-We should leave.
-It’ll look suspicious if I don’t return.
-Not if you were seen with a lady of questionable morals.
-No. No; we came, so we stay and do this. If we don’t win, we don’t win, and we leave as quickly as we can: no harm done. If it comes to a fight, so be it. I’ve not a had a good scrap for days.
-Against dozens of men?
-Do you know what a badger is like? When it gets cornered, it stands its ground and fights. If we can’t learn from the forest, what’s been the point?
-I think Robin was trying to tell me something; a week or two back. Like he was worried.
-Now you tell me!
-I thought as long as we were all together, nothing could happen.
-Neither it could, lass; but we’re not all together, are we?
Nottingham bowed low.
-Lady Illiers; Lady de Guermantes. My dear – he kissed his wife’s hand and glanced at the narrow wooden case that lay before her.
-My lord Sheriff. Have you come to check your treasure?
-I have. And now I have seen that you are well, how is the arrow?
The ladies laughed.
-This cannot be my husband! I’ve never been called a treasure before. She opened the hinged lid. An arrow, slender and gleaming, nestled within. She stroked it.
-Such a pretty thing. Are you sure you trust me with it?
Her companions giggled.
-If you are proved correct, and the outlaw wins, do you trust me? To give it to him?
-Are you mocking me, my dear? The Sheriff flushed.
–Pas du tout! I am only teasing.
-Then I am certain that you will behave with all correctness.
-You have set your cats in place?
-To catch the mice. The women giggled once more. Nottingham clenched his teeth. A trumpet sounded to announce the next round.
-I’ll have him. Now, if you will excuse me…?
His wife gestured. He bowed hastily and turned. Behind him, the giggles began again.
Robin slept fitfully. He remembered no dreams. Whatever assailed him was too huge to be articulated by something as flighty as a dream. He ate a stale breakfast of bread and cold rabbit. Nervously, he closed his eyes and stretched out his senses. All he could taste was the deep life of the forest: leaf, stream and sinew. There was a brief taste of blood in his mouth and he thought again of the earlier vision: beginnings and endings. But what was ending, and what beginning? Was an ending necessarily an evil? A tiny cut could lead to infection and the loss of a limb. Portents need not be obvious, signs could be subtle.
He nocked an arrow, to verify the health of body and mind. Even as he loosed it, he knew it would fall short. Instinctively he nocked another and then hesitated. A shot that missed its mark was nothing. He was an arrow, loosed by the forest. He could not, surely, fall short. But a shot not attempted was worse. He tried again, and again. He retrieved as many arrows as he could, despondent, and went to the Oak. He crept into the inner chamber of its hollow trunk. He needed his companions, and they him. So many times the forest had given him strength, yet this illness had come from the forest; and it was a warning. But the forest was not all there was. It, too, had come from something.
Deep he went, deeper than before. He sensed his mind plunging through the sandy Sherwood soil to the bedrock, past even the root-ends of the mighty Oak. He shivered, and moved on to where everything was cold and moist and still. He sensed something massive, something awesome; some huge thing which, feeling itself observed, now turned its attention to him.
He was paralysed: his instinct was to flee. In the face of something so dark and huge and powerful he was a leaf in a storm. It could crush him with the minutest glance; annihilate him with a stare. But wasn’t this what he sought: the elder source, the force behind the trees? Something shifted and Robin was trapped in its glare. His mind opened to loose a scream-
-but no scream came. Instead, a great calm rose up within him, flooding his senses and dulling the desire for flight. It was the calm of a newborn in the arms of its mother.
-You sought me, Hooded Man. No voice spoke, just a movement of earth and stone and rotting matter. Robin searched for words; words that would be futile in the face of such an entity. Images played in his head but found no expression in words. And yet…if a book could sense its pages being turned, Robin could feel these thoughts inspected, considered, analysed.
New strength filled him. Like a tuned bow or well-balanced sword he felt ready, honed. Without words he tried to express his gratitude for this gift of vitality. Again the subterranean noise.
-There will be a reckoning.
There was no creeping retreat, back through layers of earth; he simply opened his eyes, slung bow across his back and was gone.
Ragged, stinking and parched with thirst, Allan-a-Dale cut a desperate figure as he moved through the archers, begging for food and drink. Snatches of song and story looped in his mind and would not be stilled; he spoke lines of verse thinking he asked for bread, and stood uncomprehending as he was shunned. But here and there, a familiar face: someone seen in a tavern, or…
He clung to Little John, tugging at the big man’s sleeve.
-I know you. We shared…we drank…we…
-I’ve nothing for you, friend. Here. He pulled a coin from within his tunic.
-No…you are…you are…
What was he? A friend?
Nottingham watched, and signalled for a guard.
-The giant. Keep an eye on him. See that if he doesn’t progress he doesn’t leave. And ask Sir Guy to sit with me.
Stutely watched helplessly as the frantic minstrel pawed at John. He was shocked at the man’s appearance. What little he recalled of the man barely tallied with the pitiful figure he saw now. He couldn’t step in to help: he and John could not be seen together. Reluctantly he moved to take his next turn. The first two arrows were perfect; he shot the final one high on purpose.
Nottingham watched, and motioned for the herald.
-How has that man been scoring? The thin one. He seems most consistent, but for that last arrow.
-Indeed, sire. The marshal consulted the scroll in his hands. One of the five best archers of the day, so far.
Again, he called for the guard.
Gisburne was twitching. He never sat for longer than it took to eat a meal, and sitting while others were active was purgatory. Protocol demanded he remain in the gallery. He had no wish to insult the Sheriff at this point. The Bishop had circumvented such etiquette by falling asleep. Head slumped on his broad chest, he snored loudly.
Gisburne stood. Two men – contemporaries of his father – were leaving the stand and paused by him. They reeked of wine. It took a moment to recall their names.
-Lord Illiers. Sir Combray.
-Indeed, said the older man, Lord Illiers. His face was the colour of a radish. I was sorry to hear of your father’s death.
-He was a great man. A true noble. He embodied all the qualities we aspire to. And he was a fine warrior, too.
-You are too kind.
-Not at all. Kindness is not one of my faults. I’m speaking the truth! Flecks of spittle sprayed Gisburne’s face. Your father is a man the younger knights and nobles would do well to emulate.
-And yourself. I heard about your ill-fated match with Budby’s whore of a daughter. Your father would not have suffered such an insult! No, he’d have found her and shown her the full use of his weaponry. The old man guffawed and nudged his companion, who nodded solemnly. A true knight of the realm would not stand for it!
Gisburne’s fingers itched.
-Sir Guy! A man in the Sheriff’s livery sidled along the benches. He bowed. The Sheriff demands your presence.
Illiers dismissed Gisburne with a wave.
-Run along now, boy, he sneered.
Scathelocke stomped from the butts in a foul mood. He’d believed – really believed – that he’d been in with a chance of winning. And, until the latest round, it had seemed that he still might. Then luck deserted him. But only just! He’d rather have missed by a yard than by the finger-width he’d landed in the blue ring. Two archers he presumed to be Stutely and John were still there but he was in no mood to cheer them on right now. He needed a flagon of ale, and maybe two or three more.
People wanted to talk, to commiserate, to ask for his comments or insights on the tournament, but he shrugged them all off, finding solace only in drink. He wanted to be alone. Until he saw Emeline. He bit back a cry. Was it really her? He had drunk a few and only glimpsed her, but-
Here she was again, with Thomas, leaning to hear him over the noise of the crowd. A flash of her smile as mother and son laughed then they were swallowed by bodies. Will plunged after them, deaf to the protests as he shoved people aside.
-Emeline! Emeline! Any number of women turned but finally she heard and stared, mouth open. He put a finger to his lips and shook his head. She looked about, whispered something in Thomas’ ear, and motioned to Will to follow. They passed through the gate, and he followed her as she ducked into a lane by a baker’s.
-Will! She threw herself at him, pulling Thomas into their embrace.
Scathelocke blinked hard, then looked her up and down.
-Are you well?
-I am, I…we’re surviving.
-What of him?
-He houses and feeds us, Will. We aren’t hungry now. Without him…
-Will. She placed a hand on his mouth and kissed his cheek. Don’t. Let’s enjoy this moment.
-Join me, Emeline. In the forest.
-In the forest! I couldn’t live in the forest.
-Well, why don’t we run away?
-To where? Blidworth is my home, Will.
-Derby. Lincoln. Anywhere out of this county. London!
-You’re drunk, Will Scathelocke. She seemed to see the bow for the first time. Have you been shooting?
His expression mingled pride and despondency, and evidently told her all she needed to know.
-Your Dad’s one of the country’s best archers, Tom: who’d have thought?
-I’d rather be no archer and home with you.
She shook her head.
-That’s in the past. This is how it is, Will. I don’t blame you for what happened. I’ll always love you, you rogue. But things have moved on. You…you’re an infamous outlaw. Not the man I married.
-I’m still me!
-But we’ve grown apart. You have a life I could never be part of. Where are your friends?
-Around, he grunted.
A roar beyond the walls made Scathelocke start.
-Go now. Just promise me you’ll survive, William.
The crowd had settled on their favourites. The targets had been moved to the extreme end of the butts, near the top of the slope beyond. There was little distance left they could go.
Much stood in the crowd; his three poorest shots had come all together in one round and he’d been eliminated. One moment, in the eye of the public; the next, part of them. He felt dizzy with relief. So few archers remained he’d felt anxious and exposed. Shooting from the concealment of trees was very different. Even here, bow slung over his back, he was aware of glances from those about him and the occasional word of commiseration.
John was still there, and Stutely too. He watched them, expecting a gasp of recognition at every moment; a denouncing of the outlaws. But none came. More and more archers dropped out. At a signal he couldn’t see, soldiers took up position around the arena. Much started to sweat. The crowd had noticed too, and began to gossip. To his horror, John and Will were pulled from the butts and marched to the Sheriff’s pavilion. Much could see Gisburne there, too, and an abject-looking man, a prisoner surely, sitting incongruously by them and gesturing wildly.
A hand took his. Much jerked as if stung and pulled away. It sought him again and squeezed. He peered around, tricky in the crush of people, and met the clear gaze of a girl little older than him.
-Alright, my love? she chirped. The squeeze grew tighter, almost painful. Understanding at last, he hugged her to him and gave her an awkward kiss. The people around him looked away, unconcerned.
-Ooh, looks like trouble, said Mowren.
-These, my lord. These men. Outlaws, sire.
Nottingham heard Allan-a-Dale’s words and looked sceptically at the two archers before him. Disguise he’d expected of course, but part of him had hoped that their essential depravity and lawlessness would somehow make itself obvious, or be made so when the harsh light of scrutiny was turned on them. These men – the size of the giant aside – seemed little different to the other competitors. He peered at the shorter, thinner one. The minstrel babbled on.
-Little John, sire. And the other…Will…Will…Stutely! Will Stutely.
-Gisburne? What do you think? You have had close experience of the outlaws. Do you recognise these men?
Gisburne vaulted the barrier that separated stands from arena, and walked all the way around the archers. Shouts came from the restless crowd. Gisburne looked into their eyes: both seemed bewildered, and more than a little scared. At length he turned to the Sheriff.
-No, sire. I don’t know these men.
-I tell you, sir, these-
-Silence! Nottingham barked at the minstrel.
-You are certain, Sir Guy?
-Quite. Little John is taller. Will Stutely is a similar build, but…it is not he.
-Down, you vermin! Guards! Allan-a-Dale was dragged away, protesting.
-The minstrel, sire, was not a disinterested party. He would have volunteered his mother to see himself freed. If Robin Hood is here, my lord, I have yet to see him.
-Very well. Continue with the contest, and allow these men an extra arrow in the next round.
Stutely returned to his place, his whole body trembling. He glanced at John, who seemed at ease, joking softly with one of his opponents. Will was desperate for a drink, something to cool him down. The look of bewilderment on his face as Gisburne had given them their liberty was not faked. Some game was being played, he was certain: lulling them into a false sense of security. Gisburne had seen them all at close quarters at Perlethorpe, and was not a man to easily put aside suspicion.
-Hang the minstrel, Nottingham said curtly. He swung around to face Gisburne. I’ve shown my mercy, now I show my justice.
Justice, wondered Gisburne, or revenge?
-Yes, my lord, he said. Nottingham leaned in close.
-You had better be correct in your judgement, Sir Guy. He prodded Gisburne in the breast, an act Gisburne would cut the hand off a lesser man for. He had had quite enough insults for one day.
-No mistake, sire.
Gisburne knew the risk he’d taken. When might he next have Will Stutely and Little John at his mercy? But, so politicians such as Nottingham were always counselling him, there was a time and a place for everything. He watched coolly as the minstrel was hauled to the gallows. The crowd, sensing further entertainment, seemed undecided in which direction to look. The archers had no hope of proving a greater draw than an execution, and lay down their bows as the condemned man was given to the hangman. Gisburne reached for a goblet of the Sheriff’s finest wine, and sat back to watch.
John looked helplessly to Will. He didn’t care that Allan had tried to give them away: the state of him told John the pressure he was under to spill whatever he knew. His blood boiled: no man should hang for displeasing those in power. But the outlaws were powerless: to cast off their disguise and defend what they stood for would end only in their slaughter. A nice trap the Sheriff had set for them, indeed.
The crowd surged with a wave of noise, part encouragement, part outrage and John saw scuffles break out. Hands bound, Allan-a-Dale writhed, shrieking in terror as a noose was slung about his neck. The hangman drew it tight and kicked open the trapdoor. The minstrel’s legs buckled and his body swung; the rope bit deep into his throat. Again he jerked, and more feebly now, again. John stumbled to the edge of the butts and threw up, spattering the grass with undigested pie. As he returned to his place, his eye met Gisburne’s. The knight wore a look of triumph, and raised his drink a fraction. John struggled to control his rage.
Caught tight among the bodies that gathered about the scaffold, the little man was unable to flee when Scathelocke passed barely a yard away. The outlaw didn’t see him, but at any moment he might.
He turned, took an elbow in the ribs and kicked someone else in the shins. Where was a soldier when you needed one? He had to tell someone, someone in authority. He squeezed, pushed and bit to force a passage through but progress was blocked by the ample form of a friar. In lieu of a soldier, mightn’t a man of God do? He tugged at the man’s robes.
The priest peered down at him with furrowed brow.
-One of Robin Hood’s men: right over there. He pointed, and immediately a ripple of whispers spread outward through the crowd. Robinhoodrobinhoodrobinhood.
The friar looked to where the little man was gesturing.
-Really? How interesting.
Tight against the rope, soldiers patrolling the line with suspicious eyes, Mowren and Much heard the rumour spread. They tightened their grip on each other. Beyond them, the final six archers readied themselves. The targets were now in the shadow of the keep. Perhaps the execution had affected their nerves, because none of the first arrows struck any closer than the outer ring.
-Have they not finished yet? a voice grunted. Much was shoved aside. He swung to face the newcomer, and recognised Scathelocke just in time to avoid punching him in the gut.
-They say Robin Hood’s here, Much ventured.
-Is he indeed? Why doesn’t he bloody show himself? Scathelocke spat loudly and there were nods and chatter in response. A proper contest, that’s what we want, isn’t it? Robin Hood against the Sheriff.
More murmurs of agreement and barely-stifled laughs. Scathelocke winked at Much.
-I’d fight on Robin Hood’s side. Much glanced at those about him.
-Me too, lad, said an old man, but Much didn’t hear him: next to the man was Roger. He hadn’t seen Much, or if he had, didn’t recognise him. Much spoke up.
-What about you?
Roger blinked – that familiar expression of indignation Much had hated – and Much knew his disguise had been pierced. Roger gathered his wits and made to speak, but whatever his answer, Much never found out.
-Look! Mowren elbowed Much in the ribs; her other arm was thrust skywards.
A single arrow, high above the Sheriff’s covered stand. It fell inexorably towards the targets. Some in the crowd saw it and followed its path; others looked around for the source of this new commotion. Some looked to where the shot must have come from. A cheer rose as the arrow lodged itself deep in the centre of one of the targets, and people realised what distance this one was fired from, and what that signified. The Sheriff was on his feet in seconds.
Stutely saw the arrow strike home and knew in an instant who had fired it. He made a wry grin at the mockery made of himself and his fellows. Behind him, the Sheriff was haranguing the master of ceremonies.
-I don’t care if he’s not entered in the contest! That’s our man!
Stutely glanced at John. The contest was over, but something else had begun. A lone archer moved deftly ahead of the guards who would seize him, who had searched all day for him, but who were now held off by their chief.
-Let him approach. Nottingham had mastered himself and stood immobile. Gisburne, seated nearby, had his hand on his sword and looked, to Stutely, utterly at a loss: a man on the cusp of a decision but unable to make it.
Robin passed between the archers and the stand; made no acknowledgement of his friends.
-Idiot, muttered John.
Stutely waited for the soldiers to move in, but they didn’t. He peered at the crowd for sight of the others but, disguised, wouldn’t have recognised them anyway. As if the contest was not yet over, he idly nocked an arrow. Something was going to happen: he doubted it would be a wasted effort.
Nottingham stood, expressionless, as those around him whispered and gawped at the newcomer. The outlaw stood at ease, neither cowed nor awed. To the outrage of those he faced, he showed no respect for the wealth and title which looked down on him.
-I said, Robin Hood.
-Am I on trial, that I need confirm my name?
A gasp seemed to echo about the stand. The wind took Robin’s words but the crowd saw the effect of them and pushed forward, straining at the ropes. Nottingham spread his hands, dissembling.
-Your disregard for the law has removed from you the need for a trial. He made a gesture towards his wife. But Lady Sylvie needs to know to whom she will present the prize.
-I don’t recognise your law, nor the authority that creates it. My sovereign is the forest alone.
The crowd began to surge forward, enveloping the soldiers who restrained them. Mowren had seen enough.
-Right. She slipped a knife from her clothes and cut the rope. The crowd spilled forward, swarming over the guards who patrolled the line. Caught in the flood, she grabbed Much’s hand as they were swept toward the stand. Much looked around for Roger.
-This is it! he cried, forgetting himself. Roger; now!
He reached for the older boy and for a moment Roger seemed about to grasp his outstretched arm, but the crowd swept Much away and Roger, alone, seemed to stay rooted to his place, left behind, the look on his face unreadable, and then too far distant, and then gone.
-Gentlemen, said Sylvie. She held up the wooden box, hinged lid open.
-There is but one gentleman here, her husband snarled.
The arrow lay across the pale, slender hands of the Sheriff’s wife. As Robin reached for it, she kissed him on either cheek as one equal to another, and he responded. A cry of horror rose from the stand. The Sheriff stood, paralysed by the obscenity of such a gesture. He struggled, and waved to the men-at-arms. Swords were drawn, but the crowd swept through the guards like a tide, overpowering and unmanning them. There were screams from the gallery, drowned out by the noise of the crowd. In a moment Robin was surrounded: dozens of bodies stood between him and any sword point or arrowhead. Clutching the prize, Robin let the people bring their champion away from the stand. Someone thumped him on the back. John looked furious.
-You do something like that again, I’ll kill you myself. Then he kissed him.
Soldiers moved in from all sides. An arrow flew and an old woman fell. Stutely fired from within the crowd, but he had little ammunition left. The people began to scatter, spilling across the butts like grain. Mowren threw stones. Soldiers came; some fell, but always more came. Still, some of the crowd moved with the outlaws, fists clenched in pitiful resistance.
John stumbled and fell, an arrow lodged in his knee. Instinctively, Stutely ducked to help him but was buffeted aside. A figure in brown, as large as John, was hoisting the giant onto his shoulders.
-Run! Tuck shouted, face purple with effort.
With him ran Much and Scathelocke, and Mowren; then came a handful of the crowd, with Robin covering their backs at the rear, his fleeting moment of triumph now a desperate retreat. Just in view through the fringe of trees, horses poured from the north gate.
-Split up! Stutely shouted to the others. Separate!
Tuck lumbered past. Others took their chances with winding paths and holloways where mounted soldiers could not follow. But however fast they ran, the drumbeat of hooves followed.
Gisburne surveyed the carnage within the Great Hall. Tables lay overturned, tapestries and hangings had been ripped from the walls, a fire smouldered where Nottingham had hurled a torch to the floor in the middle of his tempest.
-I had him! d’Anquetil roared, his voice cracking into a scream. I had him! His eyes bulged, a look on his face like a charging boar. I had him!
A messenger stepped lightly across the devastation, his gaze flitting onto everything but his master.
-Lady Sylvie is in her quarters and will see no-one, sire. She is unwell.
-Unwell! That traitor! That whore! My own wife, declaring her egality with a wolfshead! She’ll be unwell indeed once I’m through with her. With a wordless roar, he kicked an empty flagon which caught the messenger on the temple. The man cried out and retreated, clutching his head. Gisburne saw blood issue from between his fingers.
Nottingham slumped against the far wall, body heaving with breaths. Gisburne stood, patient and silent.
-I had him, Guy. The Sheriff spoke softly. Was he sobbing? Gisburne wondered.
-Sire: the people…are unpredictable. Perhaps they need taught a lesson.
-Why did you not act, Gisburne?
-You. You as easily as anyone could have run him through.
-It was not my moment, sire. No-one could have foreseen the behaviour of the people.
–The people, the people! I’m sick of the people. They love him like a fool, a jester who pokes fun at a king. But a fool is a fool, and a king still a king.
-Don’t bait me, Gisburne; it was a figure of speech. I’m not pretending to monarchy. I am, though, the King’s arm in these lawless parts. If he were to understand that the insult were personal: treasonous, even, then-
-I would not counsel acting in such haste, sire.
-Oh? Nottingham stalked across the floor, kicking straw underfoot as he advanced. You would not counsel it? When have ever you given counsel, you grasping horse-lover? You are no son to your father. What know you of politics?
Gisburne swallowed the insults: the very last time, he swore, that he would.
-All the same, sire. Leave me a day or two to raise men myself, and-
-And what? You’ll invade Sherwood? Nottingham sneered.
The Sheriff frowned.
-You aren’t joking, are you, Sir Guy?
Little John moaned as the arrowshaft caught against a bush.
-Break it off! the friar shouted. The arrow: someone break it off!
-Stop then, and let me, Much panted.
-If I stop…I’ll not start again.
-Sorry John, Much braced himself, and snapped the shaft a finger’s length above the wound. John howled.
They ran for what seemed an endless time. They gathered briefly at camp to collect what belongings they could carry, then headed further north, abandoning that site for good. Shafts of evening sun shot through the canopy, now blinding, now lighting the way ahead. The outlaws’ flight was too desperate, their number too many to conceal their traces, but hopefully they were heading far enough into the forest that pursuit would eventually peter out.
Finally they came to a hollow Much dimly recognised from months before.
-We rest here, said Robin.
Tuck fell to his knees, and John toppled onto a bed of old leaves. He roared in pain. The exhausted outlaws, and the townsfolk who’d fled with them, coughed and hacked as they caught their breath.
-Someone has to pull it out.
-I’m not touching it, said Much. Once was enough. I hate the way it wiggled.
-I’m…not…too keen on the feeling…either, gasped John.
-Let me, said Mowren. If one of you men do it, he’ll punch you. The arrowhead was buried almost to its end. Mowren pinched it, pressing hard against John’s knee to gain some leverage, heedless of the giant’s screams. She curled flaps of dead white flesh out of the way so she could get a proper grip. Her fingers were sticky with blood. With her other hand, she pulled out her knife.
-What’s…that for? John peered at the knife, face slick with sweat.
-Here: bite it. She offered him the knife and he clasped his teeth on it. As soon as he did so she yanked the arrowhead out. John seethed, face purple, flecks of snot and spit flying from mouth and nose. Mowren tossed the arrow to Much. Ignoring the stares of her companions, she prised the knife from John and took it to her clothing. Much gaped at the expanse of bare skin her handiwork had exposed, then bashfully scrutinised the arrowhead. Mowren wrapped the cloth tight around the wound. John’s head thumped against the ground as his body relaxed.
-Thanks, lass, he whispered.
The outlaws ate and drank that night as if they’d scored a mighty victory. Those who had fled with them, scared and bewildered now at finding themselves in the forest with people they knew only from song and story, were fed and sheltered. Some looked around with new eyes at the world of green; others ate and drank nervously, desperate to be on their way as soon as it was light.
-I’m staying, announced Tuck. There was no hint of request: the decision was made and it was up to the outlaws to fit themselves around him.
-The forest isn’t safe, friar. Not for a man of God, Stutely mocked.
-I’ll take my chances with devils. My hut is no longer safe, and I’ve more to fear from enemies I can see than from those I can’t.
Word of the archery contest and its riotous climax spread out from Nottingham along many paths. People had travelled far to attend, and took with them tales of outlaw resistance, of supernatural archers, of how the people of Nottingham had risen in defiance of authority. An uneasy calm lay on the town in the days that followed. Too many townsfolk, of all ages and backgrounds, had swarmed to surround the outlaws for reprisals to be made. The Sheriff would have had to fell half of Sherwood to build gallows enough for those who had robbed him of his prize. Men-at-arms patrolled in large numbers, suppressing any hint of rebellion: a look, a comment behind their back: the soldier stood for none of it. But the people did not forget.
Much saw, over and over, Roger’s face as the boys were swept apart, and tried to read the expression on his face. For all his bluster, at the one moment when action was not in doubt, when he could have done something, he couldn’t bring himself to it. He kept it to himself; although Mowren had been beside him, she had neither seen him nor would she have known who he was. Had Roger had a glimpse? A portent of what lay in store afterward, what the price of such a victory may have been? Or was he still resentful of his treatment on leaving the forest? It nagged at Much, like a wasp sting. Maybe Roger had been right, and maybe now was the time for action: the stakes had been raised, hadn’t they? Maybe they should – maybe he should – visit Gunthorpe and try to persuade Roger to return, to further swell their ranks at this late hour. Something was going to happen, Much felt sure, though exactly what was beyond his reckoning.
A lone archer trudged east through the forest, Lincolnshire-bound. It was the last of the warm autumn days, and leaves were on the turn. Flecks of yellow dotted the canopy, and the hours of daylight shrank day by day. The path led through a clearing; tangles of gorse and broom stood to either side, and a skylark rose as if pulled, it’s song startling the traveller from his thoughts. On the road before him stood a man, sturdy and rough-looking, and carrying a bow; an outlaw, surely. The archer felt for his purse, then remembered the bow wrapped in cloth on his back, but the outlaw raised a hand.
-Peace, friend. I’m not here to rob you. We met the other day.
From the quiver on his back he pulled an arrow which glinted in the noonday sun, dazzling the young traveller. Afterimages of azure and red flashed on his eyelids. On spread palms the outlaw offered the arrow to him. The archer gaped.
-Me? No, I’m just Will. The outlaw seemed abashed. Take it. Think of it as booty: spoils of war.
The archer laughed, incredulous, and took the arrow. It was heavy, and felt more brittle than a wooden arrow, but its brightness in the sun made it seem less dense, less real.
-Thank you. On behalf of my village.