In the Company of Outlaws

I

The outlaw awoke, heard the twitter of birds in the air, felt the breeze on his face, and saw the old the Sheriff’s guard lying next to him, dead, on the forest floor.

Robin of Locksley grunted to his feet, his movements brought back the pain and memories of the night before.

This was the first of them to seek him out—part of him hoped it wasn’t the last. There was a new price on his head; one of two hundred pounds and fourscore golden angels.

This mercenary had ambushed him in the night. Robin Hood had thought it a different sort of night-terror. It took him too long to realize this foe was an ordinary man.

It was only the far-off cry of “Sir Richard!” That had drawn the mercenary’s attention. Robin Hood steeled himself toward his cause and shot an arrow through the man’s heart before he could turn back to him.

Presently, Robin buckled his swordbelt, threw his bow over his shoulder and set off.

The highroads crawled up steep hills and then dipped over crests that were sharp-cut with hedgerow and shaggy grass. Soon, a company of his yeoman had come upon the outlaw. “What news?” Robin called.

“Little John has gone to Sherwood in search of someone to pay our fare. It’s said the Bishop of Hereford rides coming through Sherwood this day!” said Will Stutely, approaching Robin. “It has been decided that we go west to find another, that way may increase our earnings.”

Robin’s smile came easily, but did not touch his eyes. “Give Little John my thanks!” Robin shouted back. “Let us away!” And he gestured for his yeomen to follow. They wound down the highroad until they came behind the hedge, and there they waited. Robin knew for a surety that someone would come soon. It was a sunny spring day, and men of riches were never rare in such weather.

As if prophesied, a man came riding over the hill and down the stony road toward hedge where Robin lay hidden. As he came closer, Robin saw he had a horse and armor. He smelled of rose petals mixed with the sweat and dirt of the highroad.

He was a nobleman. This could not be mistaken.

II

Robin called from the hedgerow, He loosened his sword in his scabbard, arose and crossed the road. “You there!”

The knight reined back at the sight of Robin. His hand leapt for the pommel of his sword.

“Hold, sir!” Robin spoke, “Might I convince you to tarry for a time? Mayhaps I could treat with you?”

“What man are you to stops a traveler on the king’s road?” the knight fumed.

“None other than Robin of Locksley.” The outlaw bowed. “And what man are you that travels on the king’s road?”

The knight bit back a smile, “You have great pride, Locksley. And if the rumors of you in Nottingham are true, you are a good man. My name is Sir Richard of Lea. What is it you wish of me?”

Robin laughed and called his men from the hedgerow. “Come!” he cried. “This man means no harm. Truly, he knows what favor good words may bring. Pray, come with me to Sherwood Forest, and we will give you a feast better than any you’ve ever tasted. Though since you seem a favorable man, I must tell you that guests are few and far between. And for one of such high status, I would needs impose a dining fee.”

The knight seemed to consider this, and a moment later he shook his head. “If I go, you would find me a sorrowful guest. Please, let me pass on my way in peace.”

“A sorrowful guest?” Robin laughed, “You hardly seem the sort. Why do you say such a thing?”

“Because I have only ten schillings in my purse. Because of this, I am being hunted.”  He tossed his purse at Robin’s feet, staining it with road-dust. “Take it, if you are so keen to rob me.”

Robin snatched the purse and tossed it back to Sir Richard. “Far be it from me to doubt the word of a knight. You have my apologies. Please allow me and my men to assist you—if you come with us to the greenwood, I will forsake any fees I would impose on another man.”

The knight considered this for a span of three heartbeats, and then booted his horse forward, its hooves like drumbeats on the road.

As they traveled, Robin spoke. “Sir Richard, I do not seek to trouble you—”

“—Then do not trouble me.”

“—but God willing, would you share your sorrows with me?”

“Why would you care?”

Robin’s throat tightened. “I told you—I seek to aid you. I would have you share your story with me, that I may be of further use.”

“If you truly seek to aid me, then know this: my castle and lands are in pawn for a debt that I owe. Three days hence the money must be paid or else my estate is lost forever, for then it falls into the hands of the Bishop of Hereford.”

Robin grimaced, but bade the knight go on.

“Last year I went off to a clergyman to appeal that my debt be forgiven. I cited my service under the King in Palestine. But in a fortnight I was approached by the Bishop, who told me that I had impure thoughts, and he had sent my son to Palestine to cleanse him of any influence I may have had on him.” The knight laughed mirthlessly. “Such is the way of the priory.”

“You have my sincerest apologies,” Robin said. “How much do you owe them?”

“Four hundred pounds.”

Robin’s knuckles went white, and through a clenched jaw he muttered, “The bloodsuckers! They’re slowly bleeding us to death!”

The sun was setting when they arrived at a clearing in the greenwood. And in the distance Robin descried Little John, who had returned with a guest of his own who was hauling his packhorse behind him. “This ought to be fun,” said Stutely.

“Indeed,” Robin agreed, he started forward to meet the new arrival.

III

Little John pushed his guest forward with a callused hand, and he stumbled into the clearing and fell on his knees. Robin towered over him. “Lord Bishop of Hereford,” Robin said. “We were just talking about you.”

The Bishop stood to face Robin and made a start for the yeoman. But the Little John thrust quarterstaff in front, so that his lordship was fain to stand back.

“Stay, Lord Bishop,” Robin japed. “You are as much a welcome guest as our dear Sir Richard.” Robin extended his arm toward the knight.

“Is this the way that you treat one so high in the church? I was simply following the road to meet that knight—” He thrust a sausage of a finger at Sir Richard, “To collect the debt he owes me, and you hold me prisoner? I could have you all excommunicated!” His face was bright red, and a vein on his neck throbbed. “I have been both beaten and threatened by your giant! ‘Fat priest,’ he called me! ‘Money-gorging usurer!’”

“We yeoman are rough fellows,” said Robin, “But not so ill as you think. There is not a man here who would harm you. We’re equal in the greenwood. There are no Bishops, Barons nor Earls among us.” Robin paused for a moment to savor the Bishop’s fuming. For half a moment, his eyes seemed black and beady. “Only men.”

The Bishop growled at that. Breath-mist passed his lips. A moment later, he had composed himself. The two stared at each other for some time, as if unspoken secrets or threats were passed between them.

Without taking his gaze off of the Bishop, Robin called for his band to spread soft moss upon the ground and lay deerskins thereon. Then he bade his guests be seated, and the trio sat down, as others of Robin’s company lounged about. Then after a time, Robin’s men brought great smoking dishes filled with savory smells of roasting meat and honey.

When all was done, Robin turned to the Bishop. “Now, my Lord,” said he, “do you think you have done ill in service of the priory?”

To this the Bishop answered not a word but took an interest in his boots.

“You are one of the wealthiest Bishops in England and you cannot help this poor man? A man who served in Palestine under our good King?”

Still the Bishop spoke not a word.

“Have it your way,” Robin said with a shrug. “Little John!” He called, “What did our good Bishop bring with him?”

“No—that’s mine!” He started forward, yet recoiled when Robin drew his dagger so that he might drive it through his neck. The Bishop muttered alien words, and again Robin saw black, beady eyes for half a moment.

Robin did not part his gaze with the Bishop as his men assembled his belongings. He did not seem to notice Sir Richard trying to distance himself. Instead, he spoke in the same garbled tongue as the Bishop. A sound full of harsh consonants from the back of his throat.

The Bishop stared, wide eyed and open mouthed.

“Do you take me for a fool, Lord Bishop?” Robin muttered, low enough that others wouldn’t hear. “Yours is not the only people that can speak words from before time began. I advise you stay your tongue.”

Thereafter, Robin instructed his gang to sift through the Bishops goods.  As the sun sank below the sky all the ground lay covered in torchlight. Through the orange glow Robin could discern silks, velvets and cloths chased with gold and cases of rich wines. This, they divvied up three ways. A third for themselves, a third for charity and a third for Sir Richard.

When the matter was settled, Little John approached Robin, Sir Richard and the Bishop and laid a shiny ebony box between the three of them. “Property of the Lord Bishop of Hereford.” Little John explained.

Robin eyed the Bishop as he addressed Little John. “Locked?”

“Aye, Robin.”

“Do you have the key, Lord Bishop?”

The Bishop shook his head.

“Will Stutely!” Robin called, “Fetch your sword! Cut this box open, if you can.”

Stutely bolted upright and left them.

The Bishop went red in the face. “You can’t—”

“He can!” Sir Richard spoke. “And he will.”

“Sir Richard is right,” Robin said. “We are equal in the greenwood, and I will do as I please.” He loosened his sword in his scabbard.

The Bishop paled at the sight of his sidearm. “That sword…Damascus steel.”

“A gift,” Robin said. His smile was thin enough to cut glass. “From King Richard sent from the Holy Land in thanks for my service.”

“That is no ordinary blade you carry.”

“An unordinary blade for an unordinary man.”

“You threaten—?” The Bishop started forward, then, catching the glint of Robin’s steel against his fellows’ torchlight, withdrew.

“I threaten.”

“Forgive me, Robin,” said Sir Richard, “But what sword is this? I’m afraid I know not what you two speak of.”

“It’s of little consequence,” said Robin. “Pray, let it trouble you no further, for here comes Will Stutely.” And at these words, Robin’s man came forward, bearing a great two-handed sword. Thrice he struck the iron-bound box, and at the third blow it burst open and a great heap of gold came rolling forth, gleaming red in the light of the torches.

At this sight a murmur went all around among the band, like the sound of the wind in distant trees; but no man came forward nor touched the money.

“Count it over,” Robin said, and many of his band knelt to do so. After a time, when it had been duly scored, Will Stutely called that there were fifteen hundred golden pounds in all. And among the gold they found a paper, which was given to Robin Hood, who was literate. He read it aloud, and all heard that this money was the rental fines and forfeits from the estates belonging to the Bishop of Hereford.

Robin folded the paper in half and handed it to Sir Richard. “Take this to a trusted lawman. It shall settle not only your debts, but all others who have been wronged by this man. But you must go now.”

Sir Richard rose. “I thank you, Robin, for all that you have done for me. I will carry out this task without delay.” He bowed. “I take my leave.”

“God be with you, Sir Richard.”

Then the Bishop of Hereford spoke. “I’m afraid I too, must be going, for the night waxes late—”

But Robin laid his hand upon the Bishop’s arm and stayed him. “Be not so hasty, Lord Bishop,” His knuckles went white around his arm, and he hauled the Bishop to his feet. He turned to his men. “Stay here. I must have words with our Bishop!”

IV

Robin shoved the Bishop into the dark woods, all but prodding him along. The further into the dark they went, the more Robin’s jolly demeanor vanished, in favor of a grim mien. He drove the Bishop further into the woods, away from all trails. Away from all men.

But then the Bishop lashed out, attempting to strike Robin. The outlaw caught him by the wrist and tripped him by the ankles. The ground rose up to meet him. Robin unsheathed his sword and laid it on his neck. “Is it chance that brought you to me, or fate?”

“I will kill you, Locksley,” the Bishop said. His voice sounded only half-human, as though holding at bay the hiss of a serpent.

“Are there more of you, then? How many?”

The Bishop kicked the outlaw’s legs from under him and hurled himself on top of Robin. The Bishop’s flesh sloughed off his face and arms, revealing the scales beneath. Leathery wings sprouted and unfolded off his back as his bones restructured. His teeth turned to dust as his snout grew, and in his mouth rose jagged daggers. Smoke misted on his every breath and sparks fell off of his tongue.

“A Wyvern,” Robin muttered. “The two legged dragon. I should’ve guessed. That explains the hoarding.” Robin struck his palm against the Bishop’s chin, momentarily incapacitating him. He hauled the Wyvern off of him and cut at the creature, who danced away from the strike. Fire burst from his lungs.

Robin lunged to the side and thrust his blade for the monster’s neck. Yet at the last, he held his blade back from a killing stroke. The tip of his sword lay poised at this neck.

The two stood, locked in the other’s gaze. Their shoulders heaved with every heavy breath. “I will give you only this one chance. Leave.”

“Your kind has given us a choice, Christian. We are to accept your God or face extermination. We have done so. Why now do you still hunt us?”

“You do not follow our God. You are using Him.”

“He is our vehicle, not our master.”

“Your kind received your powers from gods, before time. They used you. I must admit I did not think you would do the same.”

“That was then,” the Wyvern said. Its smiles displayed rows of sharp teeth. “This is now.”

“Enough!” Robin hissed. “Men will not be used for your benefit. Use any God you wish, but men will not be toyed with as your former masters did to you, else you will meet the same fate.”

“And how do you propose to stop us?”

“Leave this land, or I will spread word of you.”

The Wyvern’s laugh sounded like pebbles rattling. “Mankind has never handled a grim truth well. You think it wise to tell the world that their nightmares have a face?”

“It may take time. No one will believe me at first. But soon enough people will whisper this secret. They will grow suspicious. Yours is a dying kind. And if men turn on you, how long do you expect to survive?”

“We are more powerful!” The Wyvern protested, flaring its wings as if in demonstration. “We have been on this earth from before time began. This is our land. You cannot take it from us. Robin did not flinch.

“Your kind ruined your chances at this land in your own quarrels. This is our time. You say your power is greater, and in this, you are right. But there are too many men in the world. You cannot raze all of us. So tell me, are you willing to take this risk?”

The Wyvern’s smile died on its lips, and smoke trailed between its teeth. “You are wise, Locksley. Be glad no blood has been spilt this night, for such a peace may not have been so easily reached.”

“If I discover you are meddling in the affairs of men once more, I will end you.”

“How will you know?”

“I’ll know.”

The Wyvern nodded, and then backed away; and with two flaps of its wings it took to the sky.

Robin watched it leave. He could not say how long he stared at the sky. He waited until sunrise for its return.

It never came.

V

In the days to come, Sir Richard of Lea came back to Sherwood with a procession trail following him. He swung down from his horse to embrace Robin, and told him of how his usurer fled, and that his debts had been forgiven. “I must pay thanks to you!” Richard said. And the knight called upon his men to bring the pack horses forward.

Sir Richard had the packs laid on the ground and opened, whereupon a great shout went up that made the forest ring again. For the knight had delivered ten-score bows of finest Spanish yew, all burnished till they shone, and each bow inlaid with fanciful figures in silver. Beside these were ten-score quivers of leather embroidered with golden thread, and in each quiver were a score of shafts with burnished heads that shone like silver; each shaft was feathered with peacock’s plumes.

Sir Richard gave to each yeoman a bow and a quiver of arrows.

But for Robin, the knight took him aside. “I have heard word from my son in Palestine. He has sent me a gift to give to you.”

“A gift?” Robin lifted an eyebrow.

“On behalf of our King. I am ashamed to say that I do not know the purpose of such a reward, but questioning the King is not my place.” He unrolled the last pack to reveal ten-sore goose-feathered stakes.

“I’m not sure what it means,” Richard said.

Robin stared at the pile, stakes clattering as they rolled over each other. “It means I’ve got work to do.”