Authors: Angus Donald
Tags: #Fiction, #Action & Adventure
‘A fine kill,’ John said approvingly. ‘It would make very fine eating, I have no doubt, after it has hung for a week or so.’
‘You know as well as I do, John, that this venison is not for our pot,’ said Robin, frowning at his friend. ‘This animal is
to be given in tribute to that Hussa person, as we both agreed. We have an urgent debt of honour to settle with him.’
John grunted. ‘Yes, there is an unpaid debt between us, that’s for sure.’
The next morning, a little before noon, Robin and John walked into the encampment of the Lord of Sherwood. It was a strange
settlement based around a number of caves of varying sizes set in a limestone cliff and with the addition of a scatter of
crude huts fashioned from tree limbs and turfs, some thatched with coppery bracken.
It was a difficult place to find, despite Owain’s detailed instructions, and they had taken several wrong turns before finding
themselves standing at the edge of a wide, empty circular space in front of the dozen or so caves. The area was filthy, and
littered with refuse: old bones and rags and discarded broken clay ale pots, even little piles of faeces – animal and human
– in plain sight. The place stank. It seemed Hussa had not bothered to mark out any area as the camp midden.
The incoming pair were unarmed, as Hussa had decreed, and the gralloched pricket was laid across John’s broad shoulders, while
Robin carried nothing more than a long, thin bundle wrapped in an old piece of cloth. Nevertheless, their advance was halted
by one of the tall, bodyguarding men-at-arms, who held up a flat palm and then insisted on checking that they carried no weapons.
Robin called out cheerfully to Owain, who was standing a dozen yards away, but when the Welshman approached to
take the cloth bundle, and receive a few profuse words of thanks from Robin, the young outlaw got no more than a restrained
nod of recognition in return. The man-at-arms ordered Owain away and quite roughly patted both Robin and John all over their
tunics and hose, looking inside belts, hoods and boot tops, to ensure that neither carried so much as a fruit knife.
When the man-at-arms had finished his labours, he nodded across the open space at the Lord of Sherwood, who was sat at a throne-like
chair before a broad table, sipping from a vast drinking horn. In front of Hussa, on the table and only inches from his hand,
lay the double-headed axe.
‘Best look inside the deer, eh?’ came the deep, gruff voice from behind the table. ‘Not sure these thieves are trustworthy
The bodyguard motioned for John to put down the carcass, and briefly rummaged inside its body cavity before pulling out his
hand, red to the wrist, and giving his lord a brisk shake of his helmeted head.
At last, Robin and John were allowed to approach the Lord of the Wood. Robin smiled cheerfully, even engagingly, at the man
who had slapped his face twice and stolen all his worldly wealth. But John had a face like chiselled granite, and when he
slipped the pricket from his shoulders, he allowed it to drop on to the table before Hussa with a jarring thump.
At this small act of defiance, the two bodyguards took a step closer, but said nothing. Robin noticed a crowd of Hussa’s followers
forming around the clearing, like courtiers, watching their meeting with dull eyes.
‘You’re a big, strapping fellow, eh?’ said Hussa, looking up at John with his cunning red eyes. ‘What name do you go by?’
John didn’t answer for such a long time that Robin had to do it for him: ‘He’s called John, my lord – and he sometimes can
be a little shy in exalted company.’
Hussa beamed: ‘Like a child, eh? I think I shall call him Little John!’ and the fat man broke into a thundering laugh, his whole
body given over to the shakes of merriment. The men-at-arms on either side of Robin and John chuckled dutifully. And all the
watching folk also set up a raucous cackle in appreciation of their lord’s astounding wit.
John looked down at the axe on the table, expressionless.
Robin smiled even more broadly.
When the hilarity had finally died away, Hussa jerked his chin at the pricket lying before him. ‘What’s this, eh?’
‘Tribute,’ said Robin. ‘This is to be your reward.’
‘Good boy,’ rumbled Hussa.
‘Yes, I am, aren’t I. I try hard to give people their due. It is a fine beast, isn’t it.’
His hand casually stroked the furry skin between the animal’s long, straight horns. A more discerning eye than Hussa’s would
have noticed something about the pricket’s right horn: a very faint black marking, just a fine line, around the base, where
the sharp antler met the deer’s skull. If a man looked closely, he would notice that the horn had been sawn almost all the
way though by a careful hand, and was attached by only a leaf-thin bridge of bone.
Hussa did not notice.
Robin’s hand closed around the base of the antler, and with a jerk, he snapped the long spike from the deer’s head, swung
his arm in a short vicious loop and jammed the point straight into the right eye of the bodyguard next to him.
The man screamed and clapped both hands to his face. But Robin was moving faster than a cut adder. He had a hand on the man’s
sword hilt and a boot in his belly and, as the man sank to the ground, the jelly and gore spurting from his punctured eye-socket,
Robin tore the sword free of its scabbard, whirled and struck the head clean off the second man-at-arms.
But Hussa did not merely sit idle while his men died. His hand dived for the leather-wrapped handle of the axe, and he had
lifted it an inch from the table when John’s wide left palm slapped down very hard, flat, on the shiny double-head, trapping
Hussa’s fat fingers painfully against the wood of the table.
Then John hit Hussa full in the face with his bunched right hand, a superb blow, perfectly timed and with his full strength
behind it. Two hundred and fifty pounds of muscle and bone, concentrated into four big knuckles and fuelled by five days of
rage and frustration, connected with Hussa’s doughy face, crushing flesh, cartilage and bone and sending him backwards in
his chair and over the high back of it; the Lord of Sherwood tumbling away towards the cave behind him like a kicked ball.
When Hussa finally came to a halt, he lay deadly still.
John picked up the axe and made a tiny noise, mewing like a mother over her baby. Then he and Robin turned to face the crowd
of raggedy men and woman surging towards them across the clearing, with cries of rage and fear issuing from every mouth. It
was a wall of righteous anger, a furious mob, some forty souls strong, armed and ready to kill. These two incomers had entered
their home and done bloody violence to their comrades.
They must be slaughtered.
Robin adjusted his stance and took a two-handed grip on his stolen sword; John hefted the double-headed axe . . .
‘Stand fast,’ said a lilting voice, a voice from the mountains in the West. ‘Stand fast, Robin, and do not hurt these poor
people or I will loose! I swear it.’
Owain, standing a dozen yards away, a little apart from the advancing crowd of poorly armed Sherwood folk, had a bow in his
hands once again, and once again a nocked arrow poised to pierce Robin’s breast.
‘Wait, wait, all of you,’ another voice cried, a woman this time. ‘Do not harm these two strangers.’ And a skinny figure in
a filthy sackcloth dress with a Y-shaped amulet dangling from her neck emerged from the crowd and stood between Robin and
John and the ill-looking mob that sought to tear them limb from limb.
‘This man here is the spirit of the woods – he has the wild spirit of Cernunnos, the Woodland God, within him!’ The woman
jabbed a grubby finger at Robin. ‘See! He kills with the very horn of Cernunnos, plucked from the sacred animal’s brow. He
commands the trees of the forest to do his bidding – and they obey. He orders them to fall, and they fall. I have seen this.
You must not harm him. I forbid it! I put a curse on any man or woman who harms a hair of his head. He is sacred to me. He
is sacred to these woods. He is sacred to Cernunnos. My curse protects him. Touch him and your private parts will shrivel
and dry up, your bowels will be infested with seething black worms, your children will sicken and waste away; your animals
will all die.’
Although the witch-woman’s words made no sense at all to Robin, he was relieved to see that the crowd had stopped in its tracks,
and the people were muttering in a confused manner, many looking plainly terrified by her dire threats.
‘Stand aside, Brigid,’ said Owain. ‘There is no need for your curses. We must have justice. These men have come here and done
bloody violence to our friends and to our lord. We have all witnessed this. They cannot be allowed to walk free.’
‘If it is justice that you want,’ said Robin, in a loud clear voice, ‘I am the man who can give it to you.’
The space grew suddenly quiet. Robin fixed the murmuring crowd with his silvery eyes and spoke directly into the silence.
‘I know about injustice. I know about desperation and hunger; I know about cruel masters and callous lords. I know what drives
a man or a woman from their own hearth and home, to take up the life of an outlaw grubbing a meagre living in the wilderness.
Hungry most of the time; chilled to the bone in winter, your children always sick. I know how you have suffered. And I can
change all that.’
Robin paused, took a breath and smiled at the shabby crowd of Sherwood folk. He saw that they were all listening intently,
almost greedily, to his words.
‘I can make you strong and well-fed; healthy and happy. And keep you that way. I can make sure that your children grow up
with food on the table, and a warm hearth to eat it by . . . I can make you free from hunger and poverty, I can make you free
from the oppression of sheriffs and lords, and I can do it here. In this wilderness. In this very place. These very caves.
All I ask is that you allow me to lead you. If you will only follow my guidance, we can all live together in this place .
. . and make it a paradise on Earth, as long as God grants us breath. We will steal from the rich, from bloated churchmen
and cruel lords, we will take freely from those who have oppressed us, kill them when we must. And we shall be hidden here
and safe from their reprisals. We will take their silver and it shall be shared out among us all. Under my leadership, every
man will be the equal of his fellow; every woman and child will be under the care and protection of us all. There will discipline,
yes, and I will take a small share of the spoils. But there will be justice for all—’
‘Kill them, kill them now,’ a rough, clogged voice broke into Robin’s words.
Robin looked to his left and saw the round bulk of Hussa standing and swaying slightly on the edge of the space. His face
was a mass of blood, his beard clotted with his own gore, but he had a sword in one hand and a mace in the other, and he gestured
with them to the crowd, urging them forward.
‘Kill these incomers, all of you, go on, take them. Kill them now, eh? Or I promise it will be the worse for all of you.’
Robin could see several of the crowd looking at Hussa, then back at himself and John. Their lives hung by a thread.
A bowstring thrummed. A shaft sped, a swift black line across the clearing, and thumped into Hussa. The engorged beast-man
looked down at the arrow protruding from his chest. He blinked, fell to his knees, and looked over at Owain. A hole appeared
in his blood-matted beard, and he seemed to be trying to ask the bowman a question. But his lungs were pierced, through and
through. All that emerged was a shallow whisper that might have been the single word: ‘Why?’
Owain spoke: ‘It’s simple, really, boyo, I like this young fellow’s ideas a whole lot better than yours.’
A thin, sour rain is falling on the orchard outside my window, but I thank God for it. In these lean times, it is enough to warrant a fire in my chamber, a small blaze to warm my bones as I scratch out these lines in the grey light of a chill November day. My daughter-in-law Marie, who governs this household, is mean with firewood. The manor is mine, and there would be a decent, if not lavish living to be had for us on these lands if there were a young man or two to work them. But since my son Rob died last year of the bloody flux, a kind of weariness has settled upon me, robbing me of purpose. Though I am still hale and strong, thank the Lord, each morning it is a struggle to rise from my bed and begin the daily tasks. And since Rob’s death, Marie has become bitter, silent and thrifty. So, she has decreed, no chamber fires in daylight, unless it rains; meat but once a week; and daily prayers for his soul, morning and night. In my melancholy state, I cannot find the will to oppose her.
On Sundays, Marie doesn’t speak at all, just sits praying and contemplating the sufferings of Our Lord in the big, cold hall all day and then I rouse myself and take my grandson, my namesake Alan, out to the woods on the far edge of my land where he plays at being an outlaw and I sit and sing to him and tell him the stories of my youth: of my own carefree days outside the law, when I feared no King’s man, no sheriff nor forester, when I did as I pleased, took what I wanted, and followed the rule of none but my outlaw master: Robert Odo, the Lord of Sherwood.
I feel the cold now, at nearly three score years, more than I ever did as that young man, and the damp; and now my old wounds ache for most of the winter. As I watch the grey rain drifting down on to my fruit trees, I clutch my fur-lined robe tighter against the chill air and my left hand drifts up the sleeve, over the corded swordsman’s muscles and finds its way to a long, deep scar high on my right forearm. And stroking the tough, smooth furrow, I remember the terrible battle where I earned that mark.
I was on my back in a morass of blood and churned earth, half-blinded by sweat and my helmet, which had been knocked forward, my sword held pointing up at the sky in a hopeless gesture of defence as I gasped breathless on the ground. Above me, the huge, grey-mailed swordsman was slashing at my right arm. Time slowed to a crawl, I could see the slow sweep of his blade, I could see the bitter rage on his face, I could feel the bite of the metal through the padding of my sleeve into the flesh of my right arm, and then, out of nowhere, came Robin’s blocking sword-stroke, almost too late, but stopping the blade from slicing too deeply.