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.
Robyn 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. Robyn Hode 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. Robyn Hode steeled himself toward his cause and shot an arrow through the man’s heart before he could turn back to him.
Presently, Robyn 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?” Robyn 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 Robyn. “It has been decided that we go west to find another, that way may increase our earnings.”
Robyn’s smile came easily, but did not touch his eyes. “Give Little John my thanks!” Robyn 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. Robyn 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 Robyn lay hidden. As he came closer, Robyn 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.
Robyn 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 Robyn. His hand leapt for the pommel of his sword.
“Hold, sir!” Robyn 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 Robyn 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?”
Robyn 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?” Robyn 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 Robyn’s feet, staining it with road-dust. “Take it, if you are so keen to rob me.”
Robyn 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, Robyn 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?”
Robyn’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.”
Robyn 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,” Robyn said. “How much do you owe them?”
“Four hundred pounds.”
Robyn’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 Robyn 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,” Robyn agreed, he started forward to meet the new arrival.