Authors: Angus Donald
Tags: #Fiction, #Action & Adventure
And, later, I recall Robin bandaging the wound himself, sweat-grimed, his own wounded face bleeding, and grinning at me as I winced in pain. He said, and I will remember his words until my death: ‘It seems that God really wants this hand, Alan. But I have denied it to him three times - and He shall never take it while I have strength.’
It was my right hand, my quill hand that he saved, and with this hand I plan to repay my debt to him. With this instrument, the Lord willing, I will write his story, and my story, and set before the world the truth about the vicious outlaw and master thief, the murderer, the mutilator and tender lover, the victorious Earl and commander of an army, and, ultimately, the great magnate who brought a King of England to a table at Runnymede and made him submit to the will of the people of the land; the story of a man I knew simply as Robin Hood.
Everyone in our village knew Robin was coming. Since the lord of the manor’s death last winter, the village had an almost perpetual holiday atmosphere: there was no authority to force them to work on the lord’s demesne and, after tending their own strips of land, the villagers had time on their hands. The alewife’s house was full all day and buzzing with talk of Robin’s exploits, adventures and atrocities. But very little truth was spoken and news was scant: merely that he would be arriving at dusk and he would see anyone who had business with him at the church that night, where he would hold his court.
I was above all this noise and nuisance, quite literally, as I was hiding in the hayloft above the stable at the back of my mother’s crumbling cottage in a den I’d built in the hay. I was thirteen summers old, I had a throbbing knot the size of a walnut on my forehead, a bloody nose, a bad cut on my cheek, and I was treating the terror that I felt with a large dose of absolute boredom. I’d been there since mid-afternoon when I had stumbled into our home, breathless, cut and bruised, having escaped the rough hands of the law and run the dozen miles from Nottingham across the fields all the way home.
We were poor, almost destitute and, after seeing my mother weeping with exhaustion one too many times after a day scratching a meagre living gathering and selling firewood to her neighbours, I had decided to become a thief, more precisely a cut-purse: I cut the leather straps that secured men’s purses to their belts with a small knife that I kept as keen as a razor. Nine times out of ten, they never noticed until I was twenty yards away and lost in the thick crowds of Nottingham’s market place. When I returned home with a handful of silver pennies and placed them before my mother, she never asked where they had come from, but smiled and kissed me and hurried out to buy food. Though it had been necessity that drove me to take my daily bread from others, I found, God forgive me, that I was good at it, and liked it. In fact, I loved the thrill of the hunt; following a fat merchant as he waded through the market-day crowds, silent as his shadow, then the rough jostle, as if by accident, a quick slice and away before the man knew his purse was gone.
That day, however, I’d been stupid and I’d tried to steal a pie - a rich, golden-crusted beef pie, as big as my two fists - from a stall. I was hungry, as always, but overconfident too.
It was a ruse I had used before: I stood behind a blowsy alewife who was poking the wares on the stall and grumbling about their price; surreptitiously lobbed a small stone at the next stallholder along - a cheesemonger, if I remember rightly - hitting him full on the ear; and in the ensuing recriminations between stallholders, I swept the pie off the board and into my open satchel and sauntered away.
But the pieman’s apprentice, who’d been taking a piss behind their cart, came out just as I was scooping up my dinner and shouted: ‘Hi!’ And everybody turned. So then it was ‘Stop thief!’ and ‘Catch him, somebody!’ as I squirmed like a maddened eel through the press of townsfolk until - crack! - I was knocked down by a cudgel to the forehead from some yokel and then grabbed round the neck by a passing man-at-arms. He punched me twice full in the face with his great mailed fist and my legs went limp.
When I came round, moments later, I was lying on the ground at the centre of a jabbering crowd. Standing over me was the soldier, who wore the black surcoat with red chevrons of Sir Ralph Murdac, by the wrath of God, High Sheriff of Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire and the Royal Forests. And suddenly I was seized rigid with terror.
The soldier hauled me to my feet by my hair and I stood dazed and trembling while the scarlet-faced apprentice yammered out the tale of the stolen pie. My satchel was torn open and the circle of onlookers craned to see the incriminating object steaming gently, deliciously, at my waist. I still get jets of saliva in my mouth when I remember its glorious aroma.
Then, a wave of jostling and shouting, and the crowd parted, swept aside by the spears of a dozen men-at-arms, and into the space stepped a nobleman, dressed entirely in black, who seemed to move in his own personal circle of awe.
Though I had never seen him before, I knew immediately that this was Sir Ralph Murdac himself: the magnate who held Nottingham castle for the King and who also held the power of life and death over all the people in a huge swathe of central England. The crowd fell silent and I gawped at him, terrified, as he gazed calmly up and down my thin body, taking in my dirty blond hair, muddy face and ragged clothes. He was a slight man, not tall but handsome, with an athletic body clad in black silk tunic and hose, and a pitch-dark cloak, fixed with a golden clasp at his throat. In his right hand he held a riding whip; a yard-long black leather-covered rod tapering from an inch thick at the butt to the width of a bootlace. At his left side hung a silver-handled sword in a black leather scabbard. His face was clean-shaven, finely carved and framed with pure black hair, cut and curled neatly into a bowl shape. I caught a whiff of his perfume: lavender, and something musky. The palest blue eyes I had ever seen, cold and inhuman, seemed to glitter like frost beneath dark eyebrows. He pursed his red lips as he considered me. And suddenly all my fear receded, like a wave pulling back from the shingle of the beach . . . and I discovered that I hated him. I was filled with a cold stony loathing: I hated what he and his kind had done to me and my family. I hated his wealth, I hated his expensive clothes, his good looks, his perfumed perfection, and the arrogance that he was born to. I hated his power over me, his assumption of superiority, the truth of his superiority. I focused my hate in my stare. And I think he must have recognised my animosity. For an instant our eyes locked and then, with a jerk of his perfectly square chin, he looked away. At that moment, I sneezed, a colossal nasal bark so loud and sudden that it shocked everyone. Sir Ralph started, and glared at me in astonishment. I could feel snot and blood mingling in my battered nose. It began to run down the side of my mouth and on to my chin. I resisted the urge to lick at it. Murdac was silent, staring at me with utter contempt. Then he spoke very quietly: ‘Take this . . . filth . . . to the castle,’ he said in English, but in a lisping French-accented whisper. And then, almost as an afterthought, he said directly to me: ‘Tomorrow, you disgusting fellow, we shall slice off that thieving hand.’
I sneezed again and a plump gobbet of bloody phlegm shot out and splattered on to his immaculate black cloak. He looked down in horror at the red-yellow mess, then, quick as a striking adder, he lashed me full in the face with his riding whip. The blow knocked me to my knees, and blood started to pour from a two-inch cut on my cheek. Through eyes misty with rage and pain, I looked up at Sir Ralph Murdac. He stared back at me for a second, his blue eyes strangely blank, then he dropped the riding whip in the mud, as if it had been contaminated with plague, turned smoothly away, hitched his cloak to a more comfortable position and swept through the surrounding rabble of townsfolk, who parted before him like the Red Sea before Moses.
As the man-at-arms started to drag me away by my wrist, I heard a woman cry: ‘That’s Alan, the widow Dale’s son. Have pity on him, he’s only a fatherless boy!’ And the man paused, turning to speak to her, with my arm gripped in only one of his fists. And, as he turned, I focused my hatred, my anger, and I twisted my wrist against his grip, ripped it free, squirmed through a pair of legs and took to my heels. A fury of bellowing erupted behind me: men-at-arms shoving and cursing the people obstructing their path. I jinked right and left, sliding through the crowd, shoving past stout yeomen, dodging around the goodwives and their baskets. I created a tornado of confusion as the people reacted angrily to my passing. Men and women turned fast, furious at being shoved so roughly. Carts were knocked flying; pottery crashed to the ground; the hurdles containing a herd of sheep were smashed and the animals let loose to add their bleating to the tumult; and I was away and racing down a side alley, bursting through a blacksmith’s forge and out the other side, up a narrow street, squeezing between two big townhouses, and turning left down another street until the noise subsided behind me. I stopped in the doorway of a church by the town wall and recovered my wind. There appeared to be no pursuit. Then, fighting to calm my hammering heart, I walked as coolly as I could, my hood pulled forward, a hand held casually over my cut and bruised face, out of the town gate, past the dozing watchman, and on to the winding road that led into the thick woodland. Once out of sight, I ran. I ran like the wind, despite my pounding head, and a sick feeling churning my guts. I gave it my all till our village came into sight around a bend in the road. As I paused to catch my breath, I found I was clutching my right wrist tightly. I still had my arm, praise God, I still had my light fingers. I still had the pie, too.
As I lay in the hayloft, nursing my cut and bruised face, I ran images of the day again in my head. There had been no pursuit on the road out of Nottingham, as far as I could tell, but the woman in the market had known me and so it wouldn’t be long, I realised - probably the next morning - before the sheriff’s men came for me at my mother’s cottage.
So that night, my mother took me to see Robin.
The village was dark, except for a ring of torches around the old church at the northern end of the village. Our church was not grand - it was not much bigger than a village house, but built of thick stone with a thatched roof. We had no priest as the village was too poor to support his living - it was scarcely more than a hamlet, truth be told. But on holy festivals, Easter, Michaelmas, Christmas and the like, a junior cleric would come from Nottingham and hold a Mass. And, sure as man is born to die, after the harvest, the Bishop’s man would come to collect our tithes.
As it was the largest, most solid building in the village, we also used it for meetings and, in the recent Anarchy between King Stephen and the Empress Maud, it had sheltered the villagers from roving bands of warriors intent on slaughter and pillage. In those dark days, a wise man, the saying went, kept his coin buried, his dress plain and his daughters inside.
Since King Henry came to the throne, thirty-four years ago, England had known a kind of peace. We no longer had to contend with marauding bands of rebel soldiers, but we did have to bow our heads to Sir Ralph Murdac’s men-at-arms. And they could be just as rapacious, especially now that the King was abroad, fighting against his son Duke Richard of Aquitaine and Philip Augustus, the King of France. Our Henry had appointed Ranulf de Glanville to rule as Justiciar and England, many a villager muttered, was no longer well governed. Ranulf, it was said, loved silver and gold and would appoint anyone - even the Devil himself - to the post of sheriff if he could pay, and continue paying handsomely for the office. He had been a sheriff himself and he knew exactly how much tax silver could be squeezed from a county. And so we were squeezed until the pips squeaked. Certainly Ralph Murdac, who had been appointed by Glanville, was said to be making a goodly fortune for the Justiciar, and for himself.
On that spring night, a throng of villagers had gathered outside the church and a few at a time were going inside as others came out. My mother pushed through the crowd, dragging me in her wake. And as we approached the great door of the church, I saw that it was guarded by a giant. He didn’t speak but held out one vast hand, palm facing us. And we stopped as if we had run into an invisible wall.
The doorkeeper was a truly enormous man, yellow-haired, with a quarterstaff in one great paw and a long dagger, almost a sword, at his belt. He looked down on us, nodded and, with a half-smile, said: ‘Mistress, what brings you here - what business have you with him?’
My mother answered: ‘It’s my son, Alan.’ She gestured at me. ‘They are coming for him, John.’
The giant nodded again: ‘Wait over there,’ he rumbled, and indicated a group of twenty or so, men and women, some children too, waiting by the side of the church.
We stood with the others and my mother spat on to a scrap of cloth and began to dab at my face trying to clean off some of the dirt and caked blood. I lived pretty wild then - rarely returning home unless I had a little silver or food to bring my mother, sleeping rough in ill-lit corners of Nottingham town or in country hayricks and barns. Since my father Harry died, four years ago, hanged by Murdac’s soldiers, I had rarely bothered with ablutions and, to be honest, I was filthy. My father had been an odd man, learned and musical, wise and courteous, and strangely fastidious about having clean nails and hair. But when I was nine years old, they had hanged him as a common thief.
The soldiers had burst through the door of our cottage just before dawn and grabbed my father, ripping him from the big straw mattress on which the whole family slept, and bundling him out on to the street. Without the slightest formality, they tied his hands behind his back and strung him up by the neck on the big spreading oak tree in the centre of the village, next to the ale house, as an example to the rest of us. He took many minutes to die and he soiled himself - piss dripping from his kicking bare heels - as he swung twitching from the rope in the half-light. My father tried to keep eye contact with me as he died, but, God forgive me, I turned away from his hideous swollen face and bulging eyes and hid my face in my hands. May the Lord have mercy on his soul. And mine.