I dismissed the gaolers below Nottingham Castle. I needed to speak to the little man alone.
It wasn’t a difficult task. As Sheriff of Nottingham I have that kind of power. And if you know the right look to give a man, he’ll piss his jerkin at the thought of disobeying you. Such tricks save both words and time.
The little man was crouched in the corner of his cell. He looked little more than a lump of dough, balled up and in irons. He stirred beneath his rags when he caught my lantern-light. “John,” I said. He didn’t look up. “John Little.”
He glared at me, two blue eyes through his shock of hair and beard. He stood, chains rattling, and waddled toward the door. “God mocked me with such a surname,” he groused, gesturing to his stunted legs. The dwarf wrapped his meaty hand around his cell bars and looked up at me. “You couldn’t have found me a more pleasant place to stay?”
John Little’s size has fooled many a man. Despite his stature, he’s as hard as they come. When I first saw him I thought he’d stepped out of a butchery. As it turns out, the bloodstains were that of the tax collector. It was my men-at-arms who caught him that first time.
“Pig’s blood,” he cried, waving them back with a wicked-looking axe. “It’s pig’s blood! You’re puttin’ me in irons for that? The butcher’s over there, if you want him to!”
“You killed a lawman,” one of my men had said. “A tax collector.” He couldn’t say who. There wasn’t much of a face to recognize.
“As I said—pig’s blood.”
His voice brought me back to the present. “Did you hear me, Sheriff?”
“You know I can’t do that.” I said.
“Robin Hood will free me, won’t he?” He turned away from the bars.
“Aye. Aye, I expect he will.”
He roared back toward the bars, rattling them, uselessly. “Have you come for naught but to taunt me?”
“There is a price on Robin Hood’s head.”
His eyebrows vanished beneath a tangle of hair. “How much?”
“Two hundred pounds and fourscore golden angels.”
“That has naught to do with me.” He scoffed.
“John,” I said, “Sir Guy grows restless. I cannot capture Robin Hood. He means to do it himself. He may try to supplant me.”
The lantern light cast a glow across his face. His glare gave me a pang of empathy for my gaolers. “Then you should go to the Prince. See if his men will aid you. You must seem truly committed, else he may do exactly that. You must exhaust your resources if you are to keep Gisborn at bay.”
“Must I?” I knew the truth of his words, but John knew what the Prince had done. How could he ask this of me?
“No,” he said. “But it is expected of you.” His answer came softer than I expected. Like I was a child who needed to be told there were no monsters under the bed.
But of course there aren’t. They were here all along. Occupying seats at London Town and other places of high nobility.
Even now, I’m not sure how fortunate I am that history will remember me as one of them.
At daybreak I took a company to London. We rode forth from Nottingham. And from there Fosse Way and henceforth to Watling Street; all in all it took two days, until at last I saw the great spires and towers of London. I hadn’t set foot there there in two years. Even the thought of seeing the Prince again put a burning pain in my stomach. Yet I mastered my resolve and turned my fear to anger. I gave the mount my boots and rode along the highways, a train of flashing armor and ridiculous plumes behind me.
I burst through the double doors of my Prince’s court with a small retainer at my heels. Sir Guy flanked my left shoulder―so close he nearly stepped on my heels. Ladies in silks and satins and velvets all stepped aside, their brave and noble knights grasping their waists as if to pull them to safety. Some grasped elsewhere after they had pulled their lady aside.
I spread my arms wide and gave the Prince my toothiest smile. “A boon, a boon,” said I. My voice thundered across the hall. I sketched a quick bow―no formality in it―as if I were approaching an old friend. “Your Highness, I would make a request.”
Prince John slouched on his throne. His mother, Eleanor, sat at his side. Even in her later years some beauty could still be seen in her. “This is plain,” the Prince said. Many of the present gentry sniggered at his remark. “What would be your desire?”
“Oh, my good Lord and Sovereign,” said I, “there lives in Sherwood Forest―in our own good shire of Nottingham―” Prince John fidgeted at that. In hindsight, it may have been unwise to treat him as though he did not know his own lands. “―a bold outlaw who goes by Robin Hood.”
“So I’ve heard,” said Prince John, “In truth, his doings have reached even our ears here in court. Nottingham seems a haunt for outlaws these days. Was this the same wolf’s head who took your wife and child from you?”
“It is, your Grace.” This was not, strictly speaking, true. Prince John was traveling through my shire two years ago when a band of outlaws sought to rob him. When they took to hiding amidst the townsfolk, it was the Prince’s own men-at-arms who slew Maria and Robert. They had gone door to door to find the outlaws. When they came to my home they cut down my family and put the blame on the outlaws. Prince John had called it a warning against insufficient service.
He should have killed only one of them. Now I have naught to lose.
The Prince went on. “He is a rebellious varlet, isn’t he? Such a shame that after two years you haven’t learned how to quell such outlawry.”
“He beat the messenger I sent with his warrant, he kills your deer, and robs your subjects upon your great highways.” I omitted calling him “Your Grace” or “Your Highness.” It was meant as an insult, and he knew it.
“And what would you have me do? Have you not come to me with a great array of men-at-arms and retainers? And yet you’re unable to take a single band of knaves without so much as a gorget? And in your own county!” He rose to his feet, then, and my retainers sank back like a wave. All but me. “Are you not my Sheriff? Are not my laws in force in Nottingham? Why can you not take your own course against those that break the laws or do any injury to you and yours?” He sank back, as if a great exhaustion had consumed him. “Leave me.” It was a flat denial that would allow no room for barter.
I obeyed and held my head high as I passed noblemen and women as they let out quiet bursts of laughter. I looked a fool, yet all the same I had to bite my lip to contain my smile.
The ride back to Nottingham was a long one. Full of rueful glares from Sir Guy. I did not speak to him without cause, and I know not if he caught onto my game. If he did, he said nothing. I was silent the whole way back, for I had to devise the next step in my plan before we returned.
I was on the King’s road through the greenwood when the idea struck me. Were I to proclaim a great shooting match and offer some grand prize, Sir Guy would be persuaded by his spirit to take charge of the event. For such a prize would doubtless bring with it the arrival of Robin Hood. And none wanted his capture more than him.
Once I’d returned safely to Nottingham I called forth messengers to my castle steps. “There will be a tournament in the coming weeks,” I boomed. It was only half for the messengers. I wanted all those in the courtyard to hear my proclamation. “I went men north and south, east and west―I want a proclamation through every town, hamlet and countryside, that this tournament is to be a shooting match. Every man who can draw a longbow is bidden to come! And of the prize―let it be an arrow of pure beaten gold.”
I went within my castle and was without delay met by Sir Guy of Gisborn. “Well met, Sir Guy.”
“And to you, Sheriff.”
For all of Gisborn’s faults, I can at least say he did not tarry with formalities. “You seek to take Robin Hood?”
“I seek to give the people of Nottingham a distraction from their worries.” I put my arm around his shoulder and steered him down the hall. “Is that what you wish? To take the outlaw?”
“If it would please the crown, then yes.”
I circled to face him. “Then I have just the task for you, my friend! As Sheriff, my duties are many, and I have little time for games and shooting matches.”
“And you would like me―”
“I would like you to what?” I seized him by the neck and pinned him against the stone wall. “What is it I would like you to do? You seem to know my intentions well. Please, enlighten me.”
“I didn’t mean―”
“Enlighten me!” I find it best to give in to fits of anger when the mood strikes. If a man knows not what words will earn him steel in his belly, he is more like to fall in line.
“My apologies, Sheriff,” he muttered. “I do not presume to know your mind.”
I relaxed my grip, and let my hand fall to my side. “You’re forgiven. As I was saying―walk with me, Gisborn―as I was saying, I would have you take my place at the shooting match, and to take charge of my retainers, that they may guard the golden arrow, should Robin Hood indeed arrive.”
It took a week to prepare. A week that passed with little incident.
The night before the event I retired to my chambers. While the castle slept, I donned threadbare yeoman-raiment over my gorget and vambraces, buckled my swordbelt, took up a quiver of arrows and slung a yew bow over my shoulder. Last of all I took up the weatherworn black cloak. I threw the hood over my head so that my face could not be seen beneath.
Within my rooms there lies a secret place behind bricks in the back of a closet. When I first found it by way of a single loosened brick, it was locked. It took a week of searching to find the key hidden between two stones. It takes more than a passing glance to discern it from the mortar.
Behind this door is a seemingly endless stair, going steeply downward into space, black and blacker still. Halfway down and lantern-light becomes useless. But there is a bottom. To this day it takes all my resolve to reach it. The key will open a door at the bottom, too, leading through a hall just as dark as before, and on the other end lies forgotten spaces beneath Nottingham Castle. A tomb lost to memory, and a stairway leading to an iron door beneath the stables.
This route I took, sure as ever to cover the iron door with dirt and dung before stealing away on a gelding, onward to the greenwood.
There are many rumors as to the identity of Robin Hood. Some say he is a yeoman who lives and in the greenwood. Others call him the rightful Earl of Loxley. Others say he was once Earl of Huntingdon. Some call him Norman, others a Saxon. They say he is noble or rich or poor. There are even rumors that Robin Hood is not his real name. Outlaws across England have claimed to be him up to the moment of their execution, yet they lose their heads and he comes again to Nottingham. Some believe not even his men know his true name.
I dismounted when I reached Trysting Tree at the heart of Sherwood Forest.
“Hearken to me!” I called to the greenwood, and the greenwood answered. David of Doncaster slipped out of the hedgerow, all gristle and bone. Alan a Dale stepped out of the greenwood a lute tied to one hip and a sword on the other. Will Scathelock dropped from the Trysting Tree, his raiment was stained scarlet with yet more bloodstains than when last I saw him. There were seven score in all, and even after they’d all arrived I stayed my tongue. I said nothing. I did nothing―until all were waiting with baited breath.
“I’ve brought news from Nottingham this night,” said I, pacing about the camp. “Our friend the Sheriff of Nottingham has proclaimed there be a shooting match. His messengers tell of it through all the countryside.” I paused to let my words sink in. “And the prize is to be a bright golden arrow. Now I would be happy to have one of us win it, both because of the fairness of the prize and because our sweet friend the Sheriff has offered it. What say you? Shall we will take up bows and shafts? Shall we make for Nottingham?”
I was glad for the hood, for not only did it conceal my identity, but hid the smile on my lips. “I know what you’re thinking. Surely such an event is a trap for our gang. Surely they expect us to come. But shall we let it be said that the Sheriff of Nottingham did cow bold Robin Hood and seven score as fair archers? Why, such a challenge only makes the prize sweeter. We must meet guile with guile.” My men nodded and murmured their agreement. “Some of you will clothe yourselves are friars, others as peasants, tinkers and beggars. I care not which disguise you choose to don, so long as you bring a good bow and longsword. Take to this task with all haste. We go to the shooting match tomorrow.”
“And you will stay with us til morning?” asked Will Scathelock. “That’s most unlike you, Robin.” He was right in this. I will not deny the risk I put myself in, but I trusted Sir Guy would remain dutiful, and that Nottingham be too distracted to call on its Sheriff.
“Will you be lowering your hood tonight?” Alan a Dale arched an eyebrow. He meant it in jest; more than could be said for Scathelock.
“No.” I said. “You mustn’t know my face. You mustn’t know my name. My name I must keep, and I call on you to trust me that I needs do this. I give what I give for your benefit. I keep what I keep for your benefit. Anyone who doubts this is free to leave.”
“So you’ve said,” said Scathelock, “So you’ve always said.”
I turned to face Scathelock. “And so it will always be.”
Scathelock sketched a curt nod. “Forgive me, Robin. My words are that of weariness. I would never doubt you.”
I put my hand on his shoulder. “It’s late. Get some rest before the match.”
Just as I placed my office at risk with my plan, I placed my life at risk with such secrets. Yet such a things needed to be done. There was only so much I could do as the Sheriff, and so much I could do as Robin Hood. It took the death of my family to see Prince John’s tyranny. The man took everything from me, and there is nothing more dangerous than a man with nothing to lose.
I entered the lists the next morning as the mystery archer. Crowds love mystery knights in a tourney. I decided an archer would be much the same.
All along upon the green meadow beneath the town wall stretched a row of benches, one above the other. They were reserved for those of rank: knights, ladies and rich burghers with their wives. I recognized a few faces from the Nottingham gentry.
The poorer folk sat or lay upon the green grass near a railing that kept them from off the range. Thereupon I saw Alan a Dale bedecked in friars’ rags and plucking a lute.
In a great tent beside the range the archers were gathering by twos and threes; some boasting of their best shots, others looking to their bows, drawing and checking for frays in the bowstring or inspecting their shafts. David of Doncaster was already there. He raised his eyebrows at the sight of me. I smiled my greeting in return.
At the end of the range, near the target, was a raised seat bedecked with ribbons and scarves and garlands of flowers. There were two seats that would have been mine and whomever I fancied. Instead Sir Guy sat alone, drumming his fingers on the pommel of his sword, staring intensely into the crowd while men-at-arms with hauberk and spear stood about, waiting for me to make my appearance. I made an effort not to reach for the longsword beneath my cloak.
Gisborn gestured to the herald, who blew three blasts on his horn, and we stepped into place.
Then the herald stood on a dias and loudly proclaimed the rules of the game.
“Each man will shoot for his mark. One arrow for the first shot, and the ten best shooters shall shoot again! Two arrows will be given to these ten, and the three best shooters shall shoot again….”
“Gisborn is looking for you.” It was Scathelock’s voice. He stood beside me, though he did not turn to face me.
“He knows. But my friend you’ve forgotten something.”
“I know he knows. And he knows that I know that he knows. He will be cautious. We know this.”
Beneath my cowl I gave him a grin as the outlaw tried to disassemble my words. “Wherever Robin Hood goes,” I explained, “his men follow. To disrupt the competition would be foolish even for Gisborn.”
“Be ready for it anyway.”
“Only if you are.”
He grinned. “Always.”
The horn sounded, and we nocked, drew and loosed. A black cloud arched across the sky. Two men missed the target and four others hit the outer rim.
I knew mine own aim to be true, and I advanced with the next ten. David of Doncaster was not so good a shooter. Scathelock and I were the only two among our band who advanced into the next ten.
After a time, the ten of us stepped forth to shoot again. Each of us shot two arrows, Not a word was spoken and the crowd waited with not a breath of sound. When we had finished. Coins exchanged hands as bets were won.
The second shot was much the same. After the volley I looked to Scathelock, who scowled at his second shot went foul. “God be with ye,” he said, as I moved on to the last three with Gill o’ the Red Cap, and Adam o’ the Dell. The crowd buzzed with new bets and shouts for their man. I heard a few scattered shouts of “Stranger!”
Adam shot first. He turned to address the crowd. “Truly, good people I will do my best,” Adam said. When he smiled, even I had doubts of my success. He fitted an arrow, and drew it to his cheek. His shaft whispered through the air and landed a barleycorn’s-breadth from the center.
Sir Guy sat back, obviously pleased, and as I stepped forward I felt my heartbeat in my neck. I made a show of fumbling to draw an arrow from my quiver and pretended to struggle with fitting it to the string. From the grass behind the railing, Alan a Dale laughed at my show as he strummed his lute.
By the time I drew back and loosed the laughter died down. My arrow struck a hair’s breadth from the center.
The Red Cap was a slow shooter, but not in the way I’d pretended to be. He was precise. Cautious. Every movement was purposeful; made to conserve energy and make his shot best as it could be. It was enough to set me on edge. I could feel my bow digging into my palm as he lined up his shot. And when he let fly his arrow it landed straight and above mine.
We all three shot again, and once more each arrow lodged close to the center, but this time Adam o’ the Dell’s was farthest from the center while mine was best. When we shot for the third time, a nervous twitch caused him to miss the target entirely. He threw down his bow and stormed off as the Red Cap came up, measuring everything as he lined up his shaft. His shot was the closest to the mark I’d seen the whole day.
“Never seen a better shot than that,” Sir Guy said from the dias.
It was only as I took my place that I realized the flaw in my plan. If I won I would needs approach Sir Guy. If he thought me Robin Hood, he may very well make an attempt to uncowl me. But if I didn’t approach Gisborn, he would have cause to suspect me all the more.
For a time all was hushed, and no one spoke or even seemed to breathe. I lined up my shot, measured the wind, sucked in a breath and loosed. So close was my shot that it shaved the feathers off of one of the Red Cap’s fletchings, and struck dead center.
No one spoke. No one even shouted. No coins were exchanged. I could feel all eyes on me.
Sir Guy spoke first. “What is your name?”
“Jack o’ Teviotdale,” I lied. “And I believe I’ve won.”
Gisborn came down from his dais and drew near, all silks and velvets. The air seemed as tense as my bowstring. Doncaster and Scathelock nocked an arrow to their strings while Alan a Dale reached for his steel. All about the tournament both yeomen and knights waited tight as coiled springs, ready to leap into action at the slightest misstep.
Sir Guy crooked a finger at me. “Come here, Jack.”
As I said, no formalities.
I did as I was bid, yet readied the longsword hidden beneath my cloak.
When I didn’t move, he caught my arm and, feeling the vambraces beneath the rags, pulled me toward him. “How much did you have to steal to buy such raiment?”
I turned to look at him, and so doing, shoved my free hand into his face and threw him back. He released my arm and I drew my sword.
“Take him!” Gisborn cried! “Take him! It’s Robin Hood!” He unsheathed his sword. It glinted in the sunlight as it fell toward my skull. I parried his strike and sidestepped him. I made to dart up the dias but Gisborn caught my cloak
“Uncowl yourself, outlaw!” Gisborn bellowed. There was a gray blur arcing down and I rolled to avoid it. His steel followed me and I came to one knee, bringing mine own into its path. I turned aside his cut and laid my own upon his inner thigh. He fell back as I leapt up, and my knee met his jaw. He sprawled headlong onto the grass and I turned to climb the dias, just in time to see an arrow pierce a guard’s hauberk. I knew not who sent it, but it put a plan in my head. “Scathelock!” I called over my shoulder. My throat burned at the exertion to be heard over the din. “To me!”
I vaulted into the raised seat and seized the golden arrow as real ones flew all about me.
In my hurry, my fall from the dias was less graceful than I would like to admit, and involved much more stumbling and a near-twisting of my ankle that I hadn’t anticipated.
Scathelock was already there, and I handed him the golden arrow, closing his fingers around the shaft. “Go!” I shrieked. “Run! Scatter! Take as many roads as there are men among you! Fly!”
Scathelock nodded. Breathless, he said, “God be with ye, Robin Hood.”
“And also with ye.”
And we departed. For my part, I stole away on the gelding I’d come in on. Two guards followed for a time. It took seven arrows and half the road back to Nottingham Castle before I could fell them both.
The race to the castle left me breathless, even on horseback. If I could return to my chambers unnoticed, both life and office would remain mine. I dismounted the gelding when I saw the castle on the horizon. I tore off my hood, tied it to the gelding and sent it down a side road.
I began my walk back to Nottingham Castle.
There were few men of note left, due to my shooting match. Even fewer due to my disruption. I made for the stables with my head held high and feigned I didn’t notice my heart galloping in my chest. Even with time against me, it took a moment to master my resolve before plunging into the darkness.
I returned to my rooms to hear a knock on my door. I didn’t answer. I let the knocker leave and come back thrice before I decided I had been silent for long enough
I threw the door wide, my face red. I gestured to my desk and shouted, “You interrupt my day’s work and for what? What is it? Speak!”
It was a servant. He shrank as I shrieked. “It’s―I’m sorry, sir. I just―”
“I’ve been trying for you all day and―”
I narrowed my eyes. “You were the one giving me that headache?”
He paled. If he were shaking any more I suspect he may have broken to bits. “There’s talk of Robin Hood at your tournament.”
I took him by the throat and pulled him close enough that I could feel his breath on my face. “Would you like to tell me something I’ve not anticipated? Or do you enjoy wasting my time?” I kept my voice level. That seemed to pale him all the more.
He shook his head, and I tossed him out the doorway. “Now―where is Sir Guy? I needs have words with him. I must hear of his encounter with Robin Hood. He’s such a dutiful man, doubtless he was successful in his capture.”
The servant gave me a look that told me Gisborn would be sufficiently dissuaded from any attempt on my office or my life. Robin Hood had staved off a rising threat. He was a hero.
That selfsame look told me that the same could not be said for the Sheriff of Nottingham.
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