* * * *
The outlaws stood at the foot of the slope, looking up at Caerleon Castle. The castle was still in disrepair, but efforts were obviously being made to restore it. Stones had been re-laid in places and the main gate replaced.
As the most likely to inspire confidence, Tuck was sent up to ask for admittance. He pounded on the wooden front gate. After several minutes, a man hailed Tuck from the battlements. He looked like a servitor, but carried a bow.
“What do you want?” he called down.
“May we speak with the Lady Isadora?” Tuck asked.
“Who are you?” the man asked.
“Robin of Sherwood and his men,” Tuck answered.
The man left and reappeared with Isadora. The other outlaws came up to the gate. Isadora held up her hand in recognition and instructed the servant to let them in.
Isadora was inside the gate to greet them. The outlaws noticed that the inner gate had also been replaced and the bailey cleared of debris.
Their greetings were awkward. It had been a couple of years since the outlaws had been at Caerleon to help Isadora and her father. Now they had to ask her for several months’ shelter.
Much felt most at ease. He had travelled, albeit uninvited, with Isadora and Robin to Caerleon and had helped defend it before the others had arrived. In his open way, he simply said, “Isadora, we need to stay with you. Robin was badly hurt, and Herne told him to come here.”
Robin came forward to greet Isadora. His face was blanched with fatigue and pain.
“I don’t want to ask this of you, Isadora, but we have nowhere else safe to go.”
“Come in, all of you. You can explain everything later.”
Isadora looked around for Marion. She was about to ask where she was when John caught her eye and shook his head. He would tell her later. He introduced Meg and the two women exchanged curtsies. Meg was momentarily overwhelmed by meeting a lady, but Edward had taught her to appear humble when necessary, without feeling humbled.
The great hall looked considerably tidier, cleaner and less gloomy than on their previous visit. Robin was seated in one of the chairs, while the outlaws sat on the benches around the refectory table. The man servant and his wife brought food for the outlaws. They ate and drank while telling her their story. Robin told Isadora of his vision from Herne.
“Isadora, harbouring us will be a crime. We don’t want to place you in danger, but, according to Herne, this is where we have to be. You must decide whether you will let us stay or not,” Robin said.
“We’ll speak again in the morning. You need to have your wounds seen to and to rest, Robin. John, you help Robin upstairs. Meg, you come with me.”
Meg decided not to take offence at Isadora’s imperious tone and followed them up to the next level of the castle, where there were two bedchambers, one with an antechamber. Meg helped make up the bed in what had been Isadora’s father’s room. John undressed Robin and put him into a nightshirt, while the man servant made up the fire. Despite Robin’s appeal for male attendance, Isadora had the woman servant bring up the hot water Meg asked for and watched Meg while she cleaned and redressed Robin’s wounds. None of them were infected, but some were taking longer to heal than others. Isadora bit her lip in consternation at the number of Robin’s injuries.
Robin was left in peace to sleep. A pallet bed was set up for Meg in the antechamber of Robin’s bedroom. Meg washed, put on the clean shift Isadora gave her and settled down contentedly enough, though she would have preferred to be with John.
The rest of the outlaws were given an assortment of pallets and blankets and made themselves comfortable in the hall. The room was cold, but they lay together in front of the fire and kept it burning all night. They found it strange to be able to relax and not to keep watch.
The next day, Isadora told the outlaws what she had been doing since her father had died. There was little money, but she had granted land to peasants to clear and work. The peasants had begun paying her in kind as soon as they were able. They were improving the land and had pledged their loyalty to Isadora. When they were able, they would pay the rent with money. In the meantime, some of the peasants were helping Isadora and her male servant repair the castle.
Isadora had dutifully loved her father and had taken care of him. She had taken on responsibility at an early age. As a result, she was strong and independent. She had now contracted a marriage of convenience with a younger son of minor nobility. He had some money, but no land. He was pleased to become lord of Caerleon and use his money for its improvement. Isadora was content with the bargain for the sake of her inheritance and to have an heir. She expected to like and respect her husband. Her home, her people, her family and her fealty to her Lord of the Round Table, would fulfill her.
Isadora decided to let the outlaws stay. Her resources were small. Meals were frugal and plain. The men, except Robin, went out hunting whenever the weather let them, though game was scarce and pitiful now in February. They gathered quantities of firewood and helped with the rough chores. The men worked hard on the castle fortifications, repairing them as best they could with insufficient materials.
The outlaws also gave rudimentary training to any of Isadora’s tenants who came to the castle. Several came to ask for food, which Isadora gave out of her sparse stores. The surprised men then found themselves practising archery and staff fighting for a couple of hours. The outlaws might need Isadora’s tenants as reinforcements.
Snow fell for several days at a time, covering the land outside the castle and piling up on the walls and in the courtyard. The outlaws were frustrated by inactivity, so, with Isadora’s permission, began weapon practice in the hall: sword and staff fighting and wrestling.
In March the peasants sowed seed. The weather continued cold, but the snow stopped.
Robin’s arm was healed after two months and the splints removed. He was shocked at how thin and weak the arm was, the muscles wasted. Under Will’s surprisingly patient and knowledgeable supervision, Robin began slowly and methodically exercising to strengthen his arm. He worked at regaining his fighting skills: practising sword fighting with Will, knife fighting with Nasir and staff fighting with an unusually gentle John.
When the snow melted with milder weather, the outlaws were able to practice archery outdoors. Both Meg and Isadora joined in. Isadora was skilled with the bow, as she had proven when defending her home with Robin and Much against Raven and his men a couple of years ago. The two women also engaged in friendly bouts of staff fighting, in which Meg was the better opponent. They both practised sparring with short swords under Nasir’s tuition.
Although Isadora was sometimes patronising towards Meg, Meg was tolerant and the two women got on well despite their different social status. They would often sit watching the men practising, without joining in. They didn’t have the stamina to keep up. Meg mostly watched John. Isadora watched all the men, admiring their skill and strength. She noticed the play of muscles in their limbs and torsos, stirring suppressed feelings. She watched Robin the most, flushing at her reactions.
As Robin gained strength Isadora saw that, of the outlaws, he was the best archer. He acquitted himself well in swordplay against Will, and in staff fighting with John.
In the evenings, they sat around the fire, catching up on news of the last couple of years, idly telling stories or simply sitting in relaxed and easy companionship. Much usually played a few songs on his pipes. Meg sparkled, smiling and laughing.
Robin joined his men in the hall at night once he was no longer an invalid. John and Meg were embarrassed, as a married couple, to be allocated the vacated bedroom. Will, of course, teased John unmercifully.
“Going to your fancy chamber, your lordship? Too good for us now, ain’t you? When we go back to Sherwood, we’ll have to build you a castle, eh?”
Isadora was unused to so much company and, at first, she felt irritated, but, gradually, began to find it pleasant. She could always excuse herself and go to her own chamber when she wished. As she learnt more tolerance, she tried to be less imperious and sharp in her manner.
She talked mostly to Robin, who spoke only reluctantly of his and the outlaws’ hard lives and made little of the help they gave to others. Isadora spoke to him of her plans for her estate, and Robin would listen and approve, sometimes offering suggestions. They were of the same social rank. Isadora was better educated than most young women, and she and Robin found that they had much in common. They enjoyed each other’s company. Sometimes they argued, but Robin respected Isadora and argued on equal terms with her. He was neither patronising nor dismissive because she was a woman, as most men would be. Isadora respected Robin, in turn, for this attitude.
When they had first met, Isadora had pushed Robin into going alone with her to her father’s aid. She knew her manner towards Robin had been abrasive and imperious. She had had to prove herself to him as a fighter and an intelligent woman. Once he had taken her true measure, they had worked well together in their defence of Caerleon. The original spark of animosity had ignited mutual affection, and something warmer. Now, their physical attraction to each other grew with their friendship, but they did not acknowledge this.
Isadora’s betrothed, Alan de Mowbray, made a visit during some mild weather, thoughtfully bringing much needed provisions from his father’s manor. He visited for a few days, during which the outlaws stayed out of sight in the outbuildings.
Alan and Isadora were on terms of mutual liking and respect. Robin hoped that Alan had recognized Isadora’s strong and independent character. She would expect to retain some control of her estate and hold equal status as a companion to her husband.
When Alan left, the outlaws returned to the castle. They were sheltered, warm, and meals were regular. They enjoyed being able to relax and not be on guard all the time, although Nasir remained alert and was getting restless. Robin worried that Nasir might leave, but that the others wouldn’t want to leave when it was time to go. Nasir reassured Robin.
“There will be danger soon. I will wait to go back to Sherwood. I will not leave, Robin.”
So they all sat around the hearth at night after their meal, often teasing and bantering. One evening, Isadora sat further back from the fire and looked at Robin. He was sitting to one side of the fire, smiling at one of Will’s stories and John’s disbelieving comments. The ebb and flow of flame and shadow played over his face with lustre and dark light.
As Isadora watched Robin, her heart turned over with unexpected tenderness. Slowly, she felt all the liquid in her body gather into its warm secret core. Her face burned at her thoughts.
Robin became aware of Isadora’s fixed regard and looked at her. She was sitting withdrawn from the fire, so he could not make out her expression. He wanted to draw her into the light, and into his arms, and make her smile her rare bright smile.
Isadora was shaken when she saw Robin watching her in return. He smiled tentatively at her, and she managed to smile back. Her face was scorched with embarrassment. She got up and excused herself from her guests.
“I’d like some fresh air,” she said.
Isadora climbed up onto the battlements and looked out at the dark impenetrable landscape and the diamond cold stars: a net of light afloat in the universe. Her face cooled and then flushed with the chill. A wind came up and teased her hair around her face. She had left her cloak over the back of her chair. She hugged her arms around her, not ready to go back to the hall.
Isadora recognized his soft footsteps, but did not turn to look at Robin. He draped her cloak over her shoulders.
“I thought you might be cold, my lady,” he said.
“Thank you,” Isadora replied. She looked at him briefly.
“What do you look at, Isadora?” Robin asked.
Isadora answered in her mind:
I look at the deep sky in which I see you. You move my heart and melt my body.
She answered Robin. “At the far stars and into the darkness, which is kind.”
“Yes, the darkness may be kind, but not the cold,” Robin said, wanting to wrap his arms around Isadora.
“How do you survive the winters in Sherwood?” Isadora asked.
“We survive. There was a cave, which we can’t use anymore. There’s an old hut. Occasionally, one of the villages will shelter us for a night.” Robin shrugged. “We worry most about Meg.”
Robin leaned on the stone wall, staring out into the night, acutely aware of Isadora standing next to him. Isadora turned slightly, so that she could watch him. She was startled to find Robin watching her in return, smiling slightly.
“I’m sorry. I was thinking,” she said.
“Of what?” Robin asked. “You look so serious.”
“Oh, of practical matters,” Isadora replied hurriedly.
“We are helping you, remember. Work keeps us warm and occupied. Otherwise, we’d get bored and fight with each other.”
“Yes, I know. Thank you,” Isadora replied.
Robin decided to put his fate to the test and moved closer to Isadora. He gently brushed her hair from her face. He laid his hand for a moment against her cheek. Isadora did not move away, so Robin tilted her chin up and lightly touched his lips to hers. He felt her mouth curve into a smile beneath his as she kissed him softly in return. Robin felt tenderness, but also heady desire.
Isadora moved away. “I think I’ll go in now.”
“I’ll stay out a while longer,” Robin said, hiding his disappointment.
Robin felt Isadora’s hand touch his.
“Robin, will you come to my room tonight?” she asked quietly.
Astounded, Robin looked at Isadora.
“Please come. I need you,” she said.
Robin sensed her longing and desire, matching his own.
“I’ll come, my lady,” he answered, kissing her hand lightly.
Will noticed Isadora come back into the hall.
“You’ve been a long time, my lady. Aren’t you cold?”
“Robin brought me my cloak. It’s peaceful out there.”
“Meaning it’s not peaceful in here with us?”
“No, I didn’t mean that.” Isadora was flustered, not used to teasing.
Will grinned at her. “Where’s Robin, then?”
“He said he’ll stay out a while longer,” Isadora replied.
“Well, I’m ready for bed. Look at Meg. She’s already asleep.” Will stood up. “Let’s get the bedding out.”
Meg sat up sleepily, her cheeks creased from where she’d been lying against John’s chest. John pulled her to her feet, putting his arm around her. The two of them followed Isadora up the stairs to their bedchambers.
“Good night,” they called.
Robin slipped away later when the others were asleep. Much woke; he always knew instinctively when Robin was not there. He watched, puzzled, as Robin went up the stairs. Reassured that Robin wasn’t leaving the castle, Much settled down to sleep again.
Isadora opened the door to Robin. She was dressed in a white shift, her hair shining and her skin glowing in the firelight and candlelight. Robin felt dirty and clumsy, although he had washed and tidied himself as best he could.
“My lady, I’m not fit to be in your chamber,” he said.
Isadora took his hand and pulled Robin inside. “You’re welcome, Robin.”
Isadora lifted her hand to Robin’s face, tracing his cheeks, his jaw line and his throat, letting her fingers come to rest on his mouth. Robin’s lips parted at her touch. Isadora looked up to see his eyes as dark with desire as her own. Robin’s kiss was soft and tentative at first, then, as she responded, hungry and demanding.
Isadora took Robin into her bed and they lay together passionately. They explored each other’s bodies with hands, mouths and soft breath. The dancing flame light gilded Isadora’s soft warm curves and highlighted Robin’s strong and muscular body. Isadora tenderly traced the scars on Robin’s body.
Robin was a considerate lover, and Isadora responded with delight. He suppressed his own need until Isadora came. He tried to withdraw before his own climax, but Isadora held him tight within her.
“No,” she whispered. “Meg gave me a potion. Stay with me.”
Robin took his release, his cry of pleasure matching hers.
Isadora woke in the early morning and watched Robin sleeping, feeling affection and tenderness for this strong and gentle young man. She kissed his bare shoulder before pulling the furs back over him. She lightly brushed his hair off his face.
Robin woke, smiling sleepily. Isadora touched his lips with hers. Robin abruptly sat up, running his fingers through his hair. He looked dismayed.
“Isadora, what have I done? Forgive me.”
“For what?’ Isadora smiled. “I asked you to come to me, Robin.”
Robin put his hands on her shoulders, speaking earnestly.
“Isadora, we’ve sinned in the eyes of the Church.”
“I know,” Isadora said. “I’ll confess and do penance.”
“And what of de Mowbray?”
“I will be a faithful wife to Alan and do my duty to my family and my people, as you will do your duty to your friends and people. But I wanted you. I wanted some joy in my life. You’ve given it to me.”
“And you too have given me joy,” Robin answered, bending down to kiss her gently.
Gentleness turned to passion and the awakening morning went unheeded.
Although Isadora and Robin were discreet and did not spend every night together, Robin’s men soon realised that the two were lovers. They were happy for the couple, but worried about the inevitable separation and the pain it would cause Robin and Isadora. The couple could afford affection and attraction, but to fall in love, only to part, would hurt.
But was leaving inevitable? Couldn’t they stay? Robin would marry Isadora and the outlaws would become the castle guard. They would live in peace and comfort. That was Meg’s simple dream.
* * * *
In April, they all kept Lent, but had little for the Easter feast. In May, John helped Isadora’s people shear their small flock of sheep. Meg and Isadora helped the village women card and spin the wool. In June, the peasants pruned their few young apple and plum trees.
One evening, Herne sent Robin a vision of a brutal man with fair, cropped hair and a heavy build. He was mounted on a large brown horse, leading a company of several horsemen and about thirty footmen.
Feeling dizzy and sick, Robin saw a blurred picture of the castle’s main gate crashing in. He saw Isadora backed against a wall with a sword point at her throat.
Robin took Isadora aside and described the man to her.
“Do you know the man?” he asked her.
Isadora looked shocked. “I’d forgotten about him. His name’s Ralph FitzJohn. I hoped he’d forgotten about me,” she said. “He wants Caerleon and my estate. I think he’s also heard rumours of Caerleon’s treasure. He offered to buy the castle and lands. When I wouldn’t sell, he said he would marry me. I refused, of course. I’m afraid of him. When do you think he’ll come, Robin?”
Robin rubbed his forehead. “I have the impression that it’ll be soon. A week, perhaps. We’d better get ready. I think you should have all your people within the castle walls. They can drive their livestock into the bailey between the outer and inner walls.”
“Do you think that’s necessary, Robin?” Isadora asked.
“Yes. The man is malicious and violent. I can sense it. He will attack your people. I also think you should let de Mowbray know that you might need help soon, so he can be ready.”
“As you say. I’ll send a letter to him,” Isadora said.
The outlaws were used to Robin’s visions and accepted what he said. Over the next few days, they helped Isadora’s small number of tenants move into the stables and storerooms, with most of their belongings and all the food they could bring. They erected makeshift shelters for the animals in the courtyard.
They honed already razor-sharp swords and knives and fletched more arrows. Then they waited and watched.
The castle overlooked a narrow valley, with an imposing outcrop of rocks at the entrance. Robin placed his men there in pairs to keep watch for the coming of the enemy. The outlaws kept two horses with them, so they could ride back as fast as they could to give warning. Isadora’s tenants would serve as watchmen on the walls and raise the alarm. Much, as the best rider besides Robin, was ready to leave at any time to ride to Isadora’s betrothed, Alan de Mowbray, for aid.
Three days into the routine, the peasants were growing sceptical and wanted to go back to their homes. They were keeping watch in a desultory way. Fortunately, Nasir often patrolled the battlements, so, one morning, he saw Will riding hard up the hill to the castle. Nasir ran down to the courtyard, pushed his way through the animals and rang the bell in the small outside chapel.
Will hurtled in, to be met by the other outlaws. He reported that Much had already ridden away to de Mowbray’s home. Isadora had previously given Much directions and a large brooch of hers that Alan would recognize.
“There’re about three dozen of them, including horsemen,” Will told them.
Isadora and the outlaws mustered the peasants and servant men. Those proficient enough with the bow were sent up to the battlements. The rest were given pikes to defend the main gate. Carts, benches and other lumber were piled up against the gate.
From the walls, the defenders watched the enemy climb the hill to the castle and halt just out of bow range. FitzJohn’s men looked like seasoned soldiers. There were twelve mounted men and two dozen men-at-arms on foot.
On Isadora’s side were the six outlaws, counting Meg, seven inexperienced peasants with bows, ten more with pikes, waiting at the gates. Some of the peasant women were ready on the walls to throw stones down on the attackers. Caerleon’s forces were heavily outnumbered. The outlaws and Isadora were the only ones with fighting experience. But they had to defend the castle successfully until de Mowbray arrived with reinforcements. It would take Much several hours to get to de Mowbray, who would have to muster his men. If they were lucky, de Mowbray might arrive that evening.
FitzJohn rode up closer to the gate. Isadora and Robin stood together above the gate, with the other outlaws flanking them. They all had arrows trained on the attackers.
“Lady Isadora,” FitzJohn called in his hard voice, “Surrender immediately and I will be merciful. Defy me with your rabble of peasants and I will kill all your people.”
Isadora’s answer was an arrow in the ground directly in front of FitzJohn’s horse.
“So be it!” FitzJohn wheeled his horse round and rode back to his men. After several minutes’ consultation with his captains, several of the footmen were sent off to Isadora’s tenants’ small village. The barn had whole tree trunks as posts supporting the corners of the structure. FitzJohn’s men hacked and tore these from the building, which collapsed. FitzJohn’s forces now had battering rams to use on the none-too-sturdy gates of the castle.
FitzJohn formed his footmen into two columns, each bearing a ram. The men held their shields over their heads and charged the outer gate. The archers managed to pick off a few, despite the shields, but the majority of the attackers made it to the gate. The defenders on the battlements could hear the wood cracking under the pressure, so Robin ordered everyone to retreat to the inner walls. They piled as much debris as they could find behind the inner gate. This gate was sturdier than the outer, but not built to withstand battering.
Robin ordered the pike men to impede the breaking of this gate as much as they could, without endangering themselves, and then to escape up the only staircase to the battlements. Robin and his men would have to hold those tower stairs against the attackers.
While the foot soldiers were attacking the inner gate, FitzJohn and his horseman rode into the outer yard, into the chaos of panicked livestock. The defending archers wounded a few of the horsemen. The pike men injured some of the footmen as they broke through the gate, then they ran for the stairs. Tuck and John were waiting on guard there, while the outlaws and some of the peasant men kept up a barrage of arrows at the enemy. The horsemen followed the foot soldiers into the inner courtyard. Some of the peasant women now joined the fight, throwing down stones and any heavy objects they could find.
The first few soldiers who made it to the top of the stairs were sent tumbling down by John and Tuck with their staves. Then some of the well-armoured men put up a stronger fight. Tuck and John had to call for help. FitzJohn got past the two defenders before Will came to their aid. FitzJohn made straight for Isadora, who was concentrating on her shooting. He spun her round against the wall, with his sword at her throat, shoving Meg onto the ground at the same time. No-one dared attack FitzJohn. But FitzJohn took no notice of Meg right behind him. Now, Meg was both afraid and angry, and the two emotions combined enabled her to act instinctively. She grabbed FitzJohn’s cloak and pulled him backwards. Taken by surprise, he let his sword fall and he fell onto the stone walkway, stunning himself briefly. Isadora recovered quickly, grabbed her bow and aimed an arrow at FitzJohn’s throat.
Robin called to Isadora’s people to bring rope, which they used to tie FitzJohn’s arms tightly to his sides. Will then hauled FitzJohn onto his feet, in sight of the attackers. “Surrender, or I’ll slit this bastard’s throat,” Will shouted. FitzJohn’s men froze where they stood.
The two women were shaken, but triumphant.
FitzJohn shouted furiously at his men to attack, until Will drew blood with his sword to prove that he meant what he said. To reinforce Will’s demand for surrender, the defenders shot a round of arrows at the attackers, who retreated to the ruins of the inner gate.
“Throw your weapons down in front of you!” Robin shouted. “Get down from your horses,” he called to the mounted men. “All of you move clear of the gate, to the right!”
FitzJohn’s men reluctantly obeyed.
“Now, what do we do about them?” John asked. “There’re too many for us to take captive.”
Of the attackers, there were several wounded, but only two dead. There were still twenty-six men able to fight.
“All of us will have to go down, except Will. Form a half circle, using bows and pikes. Force them back as far as you can, then have the pike men pick up the weapons,” Robin instructed. “Be careful. Don’t get too close and watch for any move.”
Will stood on the battlements, with his sword across FitzJohn’s neck. Will had pulled the man’s head back to fully expose his throat. The rest of the defenders slowly and carefully drew up their half circle. Robin worried about Isadora’s inexperienced people, who were palpably nervous.
They moved forward to confront the enemy. Some of the pike men began hastily dragging the discarded weapons behind their own line. A couple of the attackers made a rush at the pike men, but they were shot down by the outlaws. Once all the weapons had been dragged up the stairs to the battlements, the defenders slowly fell back. One by one, they climbed the stairs and took up their places on the walls.
“We can’t risk bringing FitzJohn’s men into the castle. We can only watch them and shoot if they try to escape, but I fear they’ll be able to slip away as it gets dark,” Robin said. “I hope de Mowbray gets here before nightfall.”
The outlaws stayed on watch, arrows notched to their bowstrings. Twilight slipped down over the landscape and the sky. The watchers heard the welcome sound of a fast-moving company of lightly-armoured horsemen: horses’ hooves on the ground, the jingling of harness and quiet voices.
“I hope that’s de Mowbray,” Robin said. “They’ve got to come to this side, not ride straight through the gates. Isadora, can you get a banner for us to signal to them?”
Isadora sent her man servant running to get a banner. The defenders hoped that de Mowbray’s company could see it in the waning light. They heard the horsemen changing direction and saw them coming into view through the shadows.
Little John bellowed, “Much, are you there? Come over here!”
“I’m here!” Much trotted his horse closer to the wall. De Mowbray rode up next to Much. “This is Sir Alan de Mowbray,” Much called up, gesturing to his companion.
“My lord, you’re welcome!” Isadora called down. “The worst is over. We’ve got FitzJohn captive and his men are all disarmed. They’re in the inner yard, but both gates are broken.”
“We’ll round them up and lock them up somewhere. Then I’ll deal with FitzJohn,” de Mowbray said.
Young de Mowbray sounded assured and capable. Robin and his men, with Isadora and Meg, went down to the inner gate to meet him. De Mowbray’s company of horsemen herded FitzJohn’s men together and shut them up in a sturdy outbuilding. FitzJohn was unbound and locked in a cellar, with guards outside.
“What are you going to do with him?” Isadora asked de Mowbray.
“Inform him that you are my betrothed and then challenge him to single combat.”
“But, Alan, he’s a brute of a man, experienced and merciless.”
“Do you doubt me, my lady? I know what to expect and I also will have no mercy.”
De Mowbray turned his attention to the outlaws.
“These men aren’t peasants. They’re fighters. How came they to be here?”
Robin stepped forward. He had anticipated this question. He bowed to De Mowbray.
“My lord, we are here by a happy chance. I am Robert Marshall. I’m one of the younger sons of a knight, trying to find service in a noble household. These are a few of my father’s men, who chose to follow me. Lady Isadora kindly allowed us shelter here for a few nights.”
“Lady Isadora is fortunate in her guests,” De Mowbray said.
He turned to Isadora. “My lady, you may well have invited in a pack of rogues. You were lucky this time. Be more careful in future.”
Isadora visibly resented his tone. “I think I am a good judge of men, my lord.”
De Mowbray was taken aback, but, after a moment, bowed to Isadora in acknowledgement. Robin was surprised and pleased. De Mowbray seemed prepared to respect Isadora’s opinions. This man might well prove a worthy match for her.
“I’ve heard ill of this FitzJohn. He has taken neighbouring manors by force, murdering the families. He behaves with cruelty to his serfs and violates the women,” De Mowbray told the others.
Early the next morning, Alan de Mowbray and FitzJohn faced each other, swords in hand. This was to be a fight to the death. Alan looked slight and young beside the older, larger and confident FitzJohn.
Alan used his superior reach to advantage, and his speed to stay clear of FitzJohn, hoping to wear the older man down or provoke him into carelessness. FitzJohn, however, was experienced, fit and unexpectedly light on his feet. Alan couldn’t always avoid FitzJohn’s head-on assaults and soon had several bloody scratches on his arms and torso. Alan retaliated with quick dashes at FitzJohn, pricking him with his sword and falling back swiftly. FitzJohn was also soon bleeding from several minor injuries.
John, Tuck and Much watched the to and fro of the fight intently, calling encouragement and contradictory advice to Alan. Robin, Will and Nasir were itching to take Alan’s place. They loosened their swords in their scabbards in case of foul play on FitzJohn’s part.
The fight went on for nearly an hour, the two men growing tired and slower, and the soil slick underfoot from their bleeding. Alan slipped suddenly on the bloodied turf. FitzJohn took advantage to strike Alan’s sword right out of his hand. Alan reacted quickly, drawing his poniard to slash FitzJohn’s thigh before throwing himself clear, grabbing his sword, and springing to his feet again.
FitzJohn now began to fight foul, and the outlaws drew in closer to the combatants. FitzJohn kicked Alan in the stomach and legs, and then aimed for his head as Alan went down. Alan rolled out of reach and then surprised his supporters by retaliating competently in kind.
With a well-placed foot, Alan upended FitzJohn and kicked him in the side. FitzJohn struggled to his feet and lunged clumsily at Alan, who blocked FitzJohn’s sword thrust. Alan swept his own blade down across FitzJohn’s throat. The man fell heavily, blood gushing from the severed artery. Alan and the outlaws watched grimly as FitzJohn died. Meg turned away in horror. Isadora swallowed the bile in her throat and forced herself not to look away.
Alan stood leaning on his sword, sweat greasy on his face and blood clotting on his clothes.
“You took your time, my lord.” Will expressed his approbation in his usual idiosyncratic way.
Alan commanded that FitzJohn’s men be released, without their arms. Then he spoke to FitzJohn’s men themselves. “We will make your lord’s body decent, and then you may take him home.”
Tuck said the last rites over FitzJohn’s body. Isadora’s people came forward to take away the corpse. They would clean the dead man and wrap his body in linen.
Alan turned to Tuck. “Will you write a letter for me, Brother?”
While Meg cleaned and dressed Alan’s numerous cuts and shallow stab wounds, Alan dictated a letter to FitzJohn’s younger brother explaining what had led to FitzJohn’s death.
“I doubt if there will be repercussions,” Alan said. “FitzJohn died in a fair duel. I think his men will attest to that. There was no love lost between FitzJohn and his brother. His brother would much rather become the lord of the manor than, as a younger son, be forced into the cloister for advancement.”
FitzJohn’s men left, bearing FitzJohn’s body home. They took de Mowbray’s letter to their new lord.
Alan stayed a few days, so that his injuries could heal enough for him to ride with ease. Nothing was heard from FitzJohn’s brother. Alan and Isadora spent time comfortably together, not as lovers, but as friends. They were both concerned with Caerleon’s improvement. Alan promised to send carpenters with stout timber to replace the broken castle gates.
When he left, Isadora went to the gates to bid him farewell. Robin joined her as the young lord and his retinue rode down the valley.
“A good man, and a strong one,” Robin remarked.
“Like you.” Isadora smiled at Robin. “Alan said it was a pity that a man like you should want for a position. He said you would be welcome to join his household.”
Robin smiled. “Even if it were possible, I don’t think I could now be second to any man. Herne is my only master.”
Alan turned to wave as he and his men passed out of sight.
“It is well,” Isadora said. “Alan will protect my inheritance. I like and respect him, and he respects me. We should learn to love each other.”
“Yes, that is well,” Robin said, suppressing pangs of jealousy and regret.
Isadora turned and kissed Robin, hugging him to her side.
“I have to leave soon, Isadora. I wish I could stay, but I have nothing to give you. I am disinherited, my person proscribed. My life is forfeit. Even my name is not my own,” Robin said.
“You’ve given me yourself, Robin. I understand why you have to leave. You owe fealty as do I. We both have to do our duty towards our people. We can’t do otherwise,” Isadora replied.