Authors: Angus Donald
Tags: #Fiction, #Action & Adventure
‘A little; they interest me a good deal – but I would learn more. I would become a true master of the bow.’ Robin smiled at
the Welsh archer; his grey eyes twinkled. ‘Perhaps you are the very man to instruct me in this noble art.’
‘Hnnnf,’ said the bowman. ‘Teach an Englishman archery? They kill us well enough as it is, I think. I’ll wager that those
lessons would not bode so well for me and my countrymen.’
John’s struggles had now ceased, and he lay on the grass of the clearing with two men holding down each limb; he was looking
behind and to his right, his head twisted round uncomfortably. And for the first time, Robin noticed three figures standing
just behind his supine friend, gazing at him silently. Of the trio, two were tall, tough-looking men-at-arms of middling years
in rusty, ripped mail, steel caps, and bearing old-fashioned round shields. They had long swords at the hip and daggers in
their belts, too. But while these two looked formidable, it was the one inbetween them who drew Robin’s eye: a round and
very, very fat fellow, not tall – indeed almost as broad as he was high – and bearing more than a passing resemblance to a
trapped wild animal. Which impression was enhanced greatly by his choice of clothing. He had swathed his nearly spherical
body in a suit of thick furs and pelts – deer and wolf and rabbit, all crudely stitched together and greasy with age and wear.
But this was a man, clearly, for in one big grubby paw he cradled an axe, a war axe from an ancient saga, a truly beautiful
weapon, its two shining semi-circular blades attached to a long, thick, leather-wrapped blackthorn staff. John, his head oddly
twisted, was staring at the axe. He seemed utterly enchanted by it.
The fur-swathed man regarded Robin in silence. He was more heavily bearded than any fellow Robin had ever seen. Indeed, very
little of his face was visible beneath the tangled grey-black hair that covered his scalp, cheeks and chin. A pair of reddish-brown
eyes peered out from under bushy eyebrows that spilled over and joined the dense thatch on his cheekbones. His beard and moustache
were long, matted with filth and extended down over his deep chest and huge belly almost to his groin.
Then he stepped forward, waddling slightly, and stopped before the spread cloak and the scattered piles of silver coins winking
prettily against the green cloth. Behind him and his two tall attendants were a few dozen or so other men, and even a woman
or two, all dressed in raggedy, very dirty clothes, and armed with a strange assortment of rusty blades, woodsman’s axes and
even pitchforks. The small clearing seemed to be crowded with them – perhaps thirty or forty souls. But they kept a respectful
distance from the fur-covered man.
, Robin realised – not of him or John but the vast round man. Only one of them, a thin woman in a sackcloth dress with a Y-shaped
amulet hanging from her neck, did not seem afraid. Indeed, she was smiling at Robin and, when she caught his eye, she appeared
to nod a friendly greeting.
Robin jerked his attention back to the fat fur-swathed fellow, who was now addressing him.
‘You had a good take today, I see. Much silver, eh? You got some good fortune,’ the man rumbled. He spoke in English but rather
oddly, and Robin had the weird feeling that he was not quite comfortable with human speech. It was as if a giant overfed badger
or some other powerful earth-dwelling creature were trying to speak the language of men. Robin was also conscious of a rich
smell emanating from the man, a dank, moist, mushroomy odour with the sharp tang of weeks’ old urine.
The fur-clad man fell silent again, clearly waiting for Robin to say something. So the young man cocked his head to one side
and said, cheerily, ‘I don’t believe we have met before. I am Robert Odo, originally from lands around Edwinstowe, now a denizen
of these charming and hospitable woods.’
The fat man said nothing, but he seemed to be scowling. He looked at the silver lying on the dark green cloak. Robin whispered,
but in a tone not much quieter than his normal speaking voice, ‘This is the part of the conversation where you tell me your
name. That is . . . if you can recall it.’
The man-animal jerked. ‘You want my name? I am Hussa; I am the Lord of Sherwood. This is my demesne, eh? All this. Everything
in these woods belongs to me. You belong to me.’
‘I think you will find – Master Hussa, is it? – that Sherwood is a royal forest; these lands are in the keeping of King Henry—’
The fur-clad man leapt forward, moving faster than Robin would have thought possible for a fellow of such great bulk. His
right hand lashed out and an open palm the size of a trencher crashed into Robin’s cheek, knocking his head back against the
trunk of the tree with reckless, stunning force.
Robin was dazed momentarily; he tasted coppery blood in his mouth. And anger – dark, midnight anger. Something seemed to click
in his head. To John, looking up at him from on the ground, his eyes appeared to change colour, the soft grey hardening into
a bright steely silver. Robin was on his feet instantly and within a heartbeat of throwing himself at the fat fur-covered
man, when he heard the Welshman speak: ‘One more step, boyo, I’ll skewer you. I don’t like to see a man struck without he
is given a chance to return the blow, but Hussa truly is lord of these woods. His word is as good as law in Sherwood and you’d
best remember that. Move again and I’ll kill you. I swear it by the Blood of Christ.’
Robin relaxed; he leaned back against the trunk of the hollow oak and pushed his rage down into a tight, black corner of his
soul. He tore his eyes from the ugly man in his foul-smelling furs and looked at the bowman, who had once more drawn his string
back to his ear, a hair away from loosing.
‘What is your name, Welshman?’ Robin said. ‘And what brings you to this fair part of the world?’
‘My name is Owain, lad, and you’d do well to pay less mind to me and more to Lord Hussa – if you know what’s good for you.’
‘Thank you, Owain – I believe I’ll take your advice.’ Robin looked again at the gross man-animal before him.
‘So, my lord, how may I serve you? What is your pleasure this fine evening?’
‘You talk funny, eh? And far too much for a rabbit-skinny boy-thief,’ rumbled Hussa. ‘You should listen more. It is good manners.
It is polite, eh? Else I will have to put you over my knee – eh? – and teach you the proper way to speak to me.’
Robin said nothing, but his eyes glinted like a pair of drawn daggers glimpsed by moonlight.
Hussa continued: ‘These are my woods, eh? You thieve and rob and steal here by my leave – and you make your living under my
protection. When the sheriff’s men come, we go into hiding – a secret place, a place of secret caves, eh? – a place they will
never find us. We feast and drink ale until they grow tired of the game and go home to their castles with only their foolishness
and their shame for company. This is my protection, eh? And I offer it to all the masterless men of these woods. In return,
you offer me tribute – a share of everything that you take in this forest. A two-thirds share of every purse of silver lifted,
every hart or hind poached, every loaf of bread or hot meat pie snatched from a sill. All you take must be shared with me,
eh? And I will know if you cheat me. In return, I give you protection. That is my law.’
‘And what if I do not choose to accept your protection?’
The furry man moved, again as fast as summer lightning, his broad right hand smashing open-palmed into Robin’s cheek, and
rocking his head back, banging it painfully against the tree behind. This time Robin did not respond. He kept his eyes on
the Welsh bowman, who was nodding his head slowly in appreciation of the young man’s self-control. Someone in the crowd of
raggedy followers behind Hussa snickered and muttered to a friend, who laughed a little too wildly in his turn.
‘I think maybe that you are a bit stupid. A little slow, eh?’
Robin said nothing. A trickle of blood flowed from a cut inside his lip. His eyes were locked on Hussa’s hairy face, seemingly
drinking the gross features in. Then he smiled widely at the fat man – it was not a very friendly expression.
Hussa shook his head. ‘I think maybe I’d better take all of this; maybe if I take all this, it will teach you a lesson in
manners, eh? Teach you to be a good boy next time.’ He beckoned to one of his men-at-arms to gather up the cloak on which
the silver hoard lay.
Robin held his tongue as his worldly wealth was parcelled up and carried away, but John indulged himself in a useless writhe
under the carpet of bodies that pinned him to the earth.
‘I leave you your sword – and your life, eh? But know this, boy, you bring me tribute at the full moon. Go steal, rob and
kill the sheriff’s men, if you will. But I must have my share at the full moon – in five days. Bring it to the caves, eh?
Owain here will tell you where to go. And you’d best come to me unarmed. Fetch me something nice, boy. Otherwise I won’t be
so friendly next time, eh?’
And with those words the huge fur-covered lump shouldered his fine war axe and waddled across the clearing; the two men-at-arms,
evidently his bodyguards, fell into step behind him, and the raggedy crowd parted before his passage, then flowed like a sea
of misery after his shuffling form. The eight men on the ground released John all at the same time, sprang to their feet and
hurried after their departing comrades. Only Owain remained, his bow again only half drawn, but the arrow still nocked.
John sat up scowling, rubbing his right shoulder and cursing.
‘Is your master always as pleasant as that?’ Robin asked the bowman. ‘Or was this a particularly good day to make his acquaintance?’
Owain shrugged. ‘He’s a turd-stuffed pig’s bladder. But he’s the big man around here, the king shit, and if you give him what
he wants, he’ll mostly leave you alone. So find him something – a purse of silver, a brace of hares, or whatever you can get
– and take it to the caves before the week is up. Be respectful, for your own sakes.’
‘May I see your bow now?’ Robin was holding out a hand to the Welshman. Owain looked wary suddenly. He took a step back, and
lifted the point of the arrow.
‘I mean you no harm,’ said Robin. ‘I would only admire that handsome weapon. Is that yew? May I have your leave to hold it?
I swear I will harm neither it nor you.’
‘I think not. You just listen carefully if you want to know how to get to the caves, and then I’ll go and rejoin my friends
. . .’
‘How about this,’ said Robin. ‘If you will kindly lend me your bow, a spare string and half a dozen arrows, I will make you
the captain of my bowmen when I come into my own. I shall rise to be a lord of men one day, do not doubt it, perhaps an earl
with an army of my own to command, and if you will but lend me your bow, you shall have a hundred men under you.’
Slowly, Owain’s face turned a deep, dark, beetroot red; his eyes closed, screwed up tight as rosebuds, and his helpless laughter
echoed around the dusky clearing, frightening half a dozen roosting birds into rocketing flight.
Robin smiled indulgently at the roaring Welshman, who was now clutching at his belly, almost unable to stand for mirth.
‘What do you have to lose?’ the young man said. ‘I might be a deluded fool who will be dead before Christmastide – in which
case your circumstances are quite unchanged – or I might be a man destined for greatness and, if so, one day you will be a
captain of archers, a powerful man in my household. Either way, I’ll return the bow and shafts when I bring Hussa’s tribute
at full moon. You cannot lose.’
The young fallow deer was a fine animal in its second year of life, lithe, bright-eyed, with a handsome brown and grey
dappled coat and two slim, sharp horns about eight inches long that had the potential to grow into a fine set of proud antlers.
Robin watched the pricket from behind the solid bulk of a mature beech tree, Owain’s yew bow in his right hand. The deer was
unaware of his presence, he was fairly sure, and he had taken great care and more than an hour to move into his current position
downwind of his prey and no more than fifty yards distant from it.
It was four days after the visit from Hussa, and Robin and John had spent most of that time in practising with the bow. After
four days of drawing the powerful weapon and loosing arrows at a mark set up on the far side of the clearing by the hollow
oak, Robin’s back and shoulders ached as much as if he had been beaten black and blue, and the first three fingers of his
right hand were red-raw from plucking the hempen string. But he found that now he could hit a man-sized mark nine times out
of ten from a hundred paces. He was very far from proficient – indeed Owain, who had briefly demonstrated the use of the bow
with huge good humour, had told him that to make a true archer took a dozen years of training. He himself had drawn his first
light bow as a seven-year-old and the massive development of his chest and arms was proof that he had continued his training
ever since and that he was able now to wield one of the man-killing war bows of the Welsh mountains.
The bow that Robin held – only a loan, Owain had firmly reminded him – was a lighter hunting bow with a draw weight of no
more than fifty pounds. But Robin still found it took all of his strength to haul back the string and loose the shaft.
And he did so then, sending one of Owain’s yard-long arrows with a triangular barbed hunting point across fifty yards of woodland
to bury itself deep into a spot just behind the pricket’s shoulder. The animal staggered under the punch of the shaft, then
leapt in the air, its instinct to run unquenchable. But it was mortally wounded, the arrow point had sliced through
skin and muscle and lung and lodged deep in its beating heart. The pricket’s two elastic bounds after the strike caused the
wildly thumping heart to lacerate itself against the razor-like edge of the arrow head. Within twenty yards the deer had foundered
and collapsed, folding its body almost gracefully on the green grass and, just as Robin and John sprinted up to the still
animal, the last spark of life went out of its eyes.