Authors: Angus Donald
Tags: #Fiction, #Action & Adventure
It all happened in fewer than a dozen heartbeats – the
shattered by this arboreal assault. A few brave souls had hauled
out swords and were desperately seeking an enemy to battle. Others urged their mounts off the tree-strewn road and into the
forest. One limb from a falling tree fell directly on top of the ash-wood cage that held the young woman. The cage bulged
under the weight of the branch, split with a crash, and burst open like a sun-welcoming flower around its unscathed occupant.
The woman slowly stood, emerging from the wreckage of her wooden prison. For a heartbeat, she looked about at the chaos of
careering horses and shouting men-at-arms, of toppling trees and springing mud-caked ropes. She looked at Archdeacon Richard,
still astride his madly skittering horse at the head of his disordered company, his mouth open in a perfect ‘O’ of surprise.
She looked beyond him and up at the hooded young man standing on a tree limb calmly surveying the chaos he had caused.
Then she ran like a hare into the trees and disappeared in the gloom of the greenwood.
A moment later, the young man pulled sharply on a hidden rope behind him; he bounced once, hard, on the limb on which he was
standing, and the whole branch severed at the trunk, but was still attached to the higher branches. It gave a loud creak, a crack,
dropped a foot, and began to loop down across the road straight towards the Archdeacon, like a gigantic child’s swing.
The sawn branch – a couple of hundredweight of solid wood, with the young man still perched atop its green bark and hanging
on to the ropes that reached up into the leaves – swung down like a pendulum into the shock-frozen Archdeacon, hitting his
left arm and chest and his palfrey’s neck all at once, and hurling both the venerable priest and the poor beast across the
track to the ground. The thinner end of this unusual weapon, the lighter leafy branches, slashed across the
sickly face, swatting him from the saddle as well and sending his horse crashing through the thick undergrowth, neighing in
terror. The log, still bearing the laughing young man, reached the maximum extent of its arc on the far side of the road and
began to make the return journey. When it reached the lowest part of its trajectory, Robin leapt from his perch and landed
as softly as a cat on the forest floor.
He pulled his long sword from its scabbard – the hungover sergeant was running at him, yelling madly, his face badly ripped
and bleeding, hacking down at Robin’s head, a killing blow. But Robin’s sword was up, and he caught the swinging blade against
the cross-guard, twisted his wrist and shook the other man’s weapon away and to the right, unbalancing the fellow. Robin’s
left fist shot straight out, the power coming from shoulder and hip, and he caught the man a stunning blow on the jaw. The
sergeant stumbled away on jelly legs, arms loose by his sides, and Robin ran him through the hollow of the throat with a step
and lunge. The man dropped, blood fountaining from his neck.
As Robin jumped back to allow a panicked riderless horse to gallop safely past him, he spotted the Archdeacon on his hands
and knees in the mire, trying to crawl into the forest. The young man ran to the priest, lifted his sword, swung, and hacked
the sharp edge into the prelate’s neck. The blade sliced through his thick gold-embroidered woollen cloak, the hand-stitched
silk vestments beneath, through the collar of his fine linen chemise, on down into the muscles that supported his skull, carving
through vein, sinew, fat and cartilage, crunching the bones of his spine, and coming clear through the other side, freeing
the tonsured head to roll in the mud of the forest floor.
One of the Bishop’s men-at-arms, a rare fellow still in control of his horse in the carnival of frightened men and their hysterical
mounts, kneed it towards the hooded man who had just dispatched his master. The soldier spurred back and set his mount thundering
at Robin, his long lance couched, a shout of rage on his lips. Robin turned to face him, gripped his sword in both hands,
A long blur, a dark object, slashed through the air and sank into the charging horse’s neck. It was a thrown spear, and for
a few instants it waggled almost comically from the thick muscle before the horse’s legs failed it and the animal tumbled,
somersaulting over its own forelegs in death, crushing its bold rider between the high back of the wooden saddle and the ground,
snapping his spine like a twig. Robin was forced to dodge the hurtling mass of dying man and mount as it came towards him,
a spray of horse blood soaking the front of his tunic as he scrambled out of its path, and the spear shaft slashing just over
his bare head.
A huge blond figure came sprinting out of the greenery on the eastern side of the road, following the flight of the spear.
‘The wagon, John. We must take the wagon,’ shouted Robin. And, sword in hand, he ran down the track, hurdled a fallen branch,
ducked under another limb, towards a knot of men around the wagon and the oxen yoked to it.
‘God’s fat cock! Did you honestly think I’d forget that?’ muttered the giant, tugging his spear free from the meaty suck of
the dead horse.
Several of the Lichfield men-at-arms had been crippled or killed by the barrage of falling trees, some had been carried away
by their fear-maddened horses, some, their courage sapped by a surfeit of ale and the general confusion, had fled when it
seemed that the forest itself was attacking them – but three remained at their duty by the wagon, one still a-horse and two
standing on the bed of the vehicle.
As Robin sprinted towards them, the last surviving Lichfield horseman plucked a long axe from behind his saddle and kicked
his mount forward, swinging the heavy weapon down at his enemy, a vicious blow that would have caved in Robin’s skull had
it landed. But the young man dodged under the horse’s neck, narrowly avoiding a savage bite from the animal. The horseman
turned his mount with his knees and carved the axe down again. Robin desperately blocked with his sword, before jumping to
his right and rolling between the agitated hooves of the two huge oxen – a painful mistake! He emerged a few moments later,
kicked, scraped, stepped on and bruised, but not seriously harmed, on the other side of the wagon.
Robin popped up, grinning ruefully, and, as fast as thought, he reached up his right hand to lance his long sword over the
top of the wagon into the groin of one of the surprised men-at-arms standing on it. The poor man screamed out the Virgin’s
name and dropped to his knees, blood pouring from between his fingers as they clutched at his torn parts below the frayed
cloth hem of his hauberk.
Behind them, the blond giant was fast approaching, his joyful battle shouts echoing through the trees. The horseman turned
to this new assailant, kicked his horse towards the charging giant, his long axe swinging . . . and received the hurled spear
directly in the centre of his chest. The weapon smacked home, the man plunged backwards in the saddle, both hands holding
the spear shaft as if attempting to pull it from his torso, blood pouring from his gaping mouth, the axe dangling impotently
from a little leather thong that attached it to his wrist.
Meanwhile, in one easy movement, Robin swung himself up and over the low side of the wagon, and on to its plank bed. He warded
off a hacking sword blow from the second man-at-arms, lunged, was blocked, stepped in and lunged again, his sword tip finding
a gap between coif and helmet and scoring a bloody line up his enemy’s cheek. The man-at-arms, now terrified, swung wildly,
a round-house flail aimed at the head. Robin parried, struck at his opponent’s blade, knocked it aside – and took out his
left knee with a swift downward-diagonal chop. The Lichfield man fell screaming; and Robin split his skull with a hard vertical
All was suddenly quiet. John was still breathing heavily from his encounter with the mounted man-at-arms; a few of the enemy,
wounded and lying in pain on the tree-obstructed track, were moaning pitifully; and somewhere in the woods a riderless horse
gave an anxious neigh. Otherwise the wood was as silent as a graveyard. Even the birds had ceased their song-making.
The young man grinned at his friend. ‘Our first battle, John; our first victory,’ he said. ‘Shall we look to the spoils of
An hour or so later, Robin plunged his hands into the barrel and scooped out a double handful of bright silver pennies.
He let them trickle slowly through his fingers back into the small wooden container. He looked up at his big friend. ‘How
much d’you think is here, John?’
By now, the two euphoric outlaws were a good three miles from the scene of the ambush, squatting on their haunches in the
open curve of a vast old hollow oak tree, in a small clearing far from any of the larger forest trackways. They had carried
two heavy barrels apiece on their shoulders, as fast as possible, by little-known deer paths, to the clearing of the hollow
That ancient tree had been their refuge during a pummelling rainstorm three days ago and, since then, it had stood duty as,
if not a home, then a semi-permanent shelter against the elements. A small fire blazed inside the body of the oak, which could
comfortably accommodate the two men lying wrapped in their cloaks on the leaf-padded floor. John was kneeling over it, feeding
sticks under a three-legged iron pot containing spring water, wild garlic and marjoram. When the fire was burning merrily,
he began cutting slivers of dried mutton from a square wood-like block of salt-preserved meat into the bubbling liquor to
make a thin broth.
‘Difficult to say, lad, without counting every penny. But I’d say five pounds of silver in each barrel – four barrels all
together – about twenty pounds. A handsome sum, by any road.’
Robin rocked back on his heels, gawping at the older man. ‘It’s a bloody fortune. I’ve never seen so much money in my life.
My father would be pleased if all his Edwinstowe lands brought in this much silver in a whole year – and his demesne is reckoned
a fat one. Yet we took this in less time than it takes to mumble ten Paternosters.’
‘Plus a few hours of sweat-work with the saw,’ said John reproachfully. ‘Not to mention a good deal of muscle-use hauling
those damned wedges out. Not that I’m complaining . . . And we mustn’t forget that we took the lives of half a dozen of the
Bishop’s men or more in that affair. There will be consequences, you know.’
‘Damn the consequences. The Bishop will not find us here. We are quite safe – and quite rich. Just like that!’ Robin snapped
his fingers. ‘Who would choose to trudge behind a plough all his life, or fetch and carry for a plump, idle lord, when there
is all this wealth just for the taking?’
The two men ate the broth, dipping a little two-day-old bread in the steaming bowls and, when they had each had their fill,
Robin sat with his back against the rough bark of the tree and began to clean his sword with a rag and a lump of mutton fat.
John spread a large green cloak on the floor of the clearing and poured the contents of the barrels on to it in a chinking,
glittering, glorious pile. He bent his head over the hoard and, mumbling happily to himself, started to count the little silver
pennies into mounds of twenty, each mound a shilling. With his tongue protruding from a corner of his mouth, he looked like
nothing more than a massive child at some absorbing private game.
After a short while, Robin sheathed his sword and laid it down beside him, pulled his hood forward over his eyes, crossed
his long legs and fell into a deep sleep.
When Robin awoke, the little clearing by the big hollow oak was filled with the sound of the roaring of beasts.
No, not beasts. Men. Indeed, one man.
John was at the centre of a scrum of desperately struggling men, eight or nine ragged fellows, all strangers and seemingly
unarmed, or at least with their knives sheathed, who were attempting to subdue him with muscle power alone. The blond giant
roared and fought like a great bear besieged by the dogs of the pit, his huge arms lashing out and felling anyone within range,
while a few brave souls clung for their lives to his body and legs. John threw his attackers around like dolls, sometimes
dislodging a fellow and hurling him several yards away. Whereupon another bold man would dart in and seize hold of an elbow
or knee, ankle or wrist, and cling on grimly like a terrier until he too was violently dislodged. But when dogs are set to
bait a bear, more often than not, the bear loses. And the thrashing of John’s powerful limbs was visibly growing ever weaker.
Robin took in all this in half a heartbeat and began to struggle to his feet, groping for his sword with his left hand.
‘You’ll stay just where you are, boyo,’ said a voice. And Robin shook off the last shreds of unconsciousness to observe a
squat man standing directly in front of him. He was immensely thick in the chest, his arms writhed with muscle, and his words,
although in good English, had a foreign-sounding sing-song quality that Robin could not immediately place. In his strong,
stubby hands was a bow, a tall weapon some six feet in length, with a yard-long arrow nocked, the goose fletching pulled back
to the cheek, its bright barbed triangular point aimed at Robin’s chest.
‘From here I could nail you permanently to that tree, boyo,’ said the bowman. ‘And I’ll happily do so if you stir so much
as a hair.’ Robin recognised him by his accent as coming from the half-civilized mountains of the West, where the men were
dark, short and oak-tough, and lived only to eat meat and drink enormous quantities of ale, and to fight and fuck and sing
with a strange and haunting beauty.
He was a Welshman.
‘You’ll ruin that bow if you keep it pulled back like that for too long,’ said Robin. ‘The stave will follow the cord and
lose its shape.’
‘Know all about bows, do you?’ said the Welshman scornfully. But he relaxed the bowstring until the arrow was only half drawn.
The point, however, he kept aimed unwaveringly at Robin’s chest.