* * * *
It was now full summer, with lighter and longer days. Robin tried to make sure his men filled their days with activity and stayed sharp and fit. John, Tuck and Much, even Will, were becoming complacent. Nasir, however, was visibly restless and discontent.
The hunger month was close when Herne sent Robin visions of Sherwood and his voice called Robin home.
“I must leave now,” Robin told the others. “You may decide whether to return or to stay, if you wish. Take up de Mowbray’s offer to employ you as fighting men. Tuck, I’m sure Lady Isadora would have you as her chaplain.”
“And you, Robin?” Will asked.
“I must go. It’s too dangerous for me to stay any longer. I’ll be recognized sooner or later. I don’t want to deceive de Mowbray either. I have to return to Sherwood. I have sworn fealty to Herne. I have pledged my word to the people of Sherwood. I have taken an oath on Albion to help the poor and oppressed. To be foresworn would be disgrace and dishonor,” Robin answered.
Tuck sighed. “So have we all so sworn.” A life of relative ease beckoned to him, but he did not want to leave Robin, nor did he take his oaths lightly.
“I go with Robin,” Nasir said flatly. He had had enough of this inactive life, held to his oaths, and would also not leave Robin.
“Yeah, me too. I’m bored, anyway,” Will said.
“I’m not leaving you either, lad. It’s time to go home,” John said.
“I’ll stay with you, Robin, wherever you go,” Much said earnestly. Robin was his leader, his friend, his brother.
Meg sighed heavily. Her dream was to stay in Caerleon with John, perhaps work some land, and have children.
John took her aside, cupping her face in his hands.
“I know you want to stay, Meg, but I can’t. I’m an outlaw. I follow Robin to the death. But you can stay here and I can visit. I would like to have you safe.”
“No, John. I understand. I’ll stay with you and follow Robin Hood. My hopes are only dreams.” Meg lowered her head to hide her tears of disappointment.
The outlaws took their leave of Isadora with regret. For Robin and Isadora parting was hard. They did not expect to meet again.
Robin kissed Isadora softly on her forehead. “I wish you joy, my Lady Isadora.”
“I too wish you joy, Robin of Sherwood. May God and Herne and my Lord keep you safe.”
Robin held Isadora to him for the last time.
Isadora watched the outlaws walk down the valley track.
“May all the gods still on this earth watch over you, Robin,” she whispered when Robin turned to raise his hand in farewell before he walked out of sight.
Robin looked back at the castle. Isadora stood on the walls, slender and straight in a green gown, with the rising sun behind her. Her hair was gossamer, spun by the morning; her face was in shadow. Robin would miss Isadora. He would remember her with fondness, and their time together with happiness.
* * * *
Gisburne spent many weeks recovering in the comfort of St. Mary’s infirmary, attended by a physician as well as the competent infirmarer. Gisburne had deep wounds on his one arm and thigh, as well as numerous lesser cuts. He lay and healed and allowed his emotions to fester: disbelief, belief, anger, bitterness, and hatred like bile in his mouth. He hated his blood father who knew nothing of him. He hated his mother for never revealing the truth of his birth. He would have been better off as the acknowledged illegitimate son of the Earl of Huntingdon, than as the hated bastard in the household of his father-in-name-only.
Most of all, he hated his half-brother for who he was: Robin Hood. Who he had been: the legitimate and privileged son of the Earl of Huntingdon. But Gisburne hated Robin most intensely for the insult of his mercy.
While Gisburne lay in the infirmary, the Sheriff temporarily promoted his second steward to Gisburne’s position. Hugh of Burton-upon-Trent was good at household matters, but he was not a soldier. Nevertheless, he applied himself to the job. He strove to do his duty. Fortunately, for the people of Sherwood, Hugh had neither Gisburne’s vindictiveness nor his contempt of serfs. The steward made sure the Sheriff got his dues, but he did not try to squeeze blood out of stone.
Gisburne did not return to his duties immediately he was recovered. He got de Rainault’s reluctant permission to take a few days leave for personal affairs.
Gisburne rode to Huntingdon and asked audience of the Earl. The Earl was surprised and annoyed. What did Gisburne want of him? He despised the man. Gisburne was his outlaw son’s bitterest enemy. Gisburne had also been the one to arrest the Earl when King John had charged the Earl with treason.
The Earl had Gisburne shown in to the hall, but he remained standing and did not offer Gisburne a seat.
“Well, Gisburne, what is it you want?’ he asked.
“Robert and I nearly killed each other. He had the final advantage, but would not kill me. He said it was because I was his brother, your illegitimate son!”
“That’s not so,” the Earl said, hiding his shock behind a still façade.
“Robert said my mother told him so before she died.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“I am your son,” Gisburne said. “You must acknowledge me. Even as a bastard, I’ll have higher status and better prospects than I have now.”
Gisburne had not expected a welcome, but he had believed that Earl David would behave honourably. It would do the Earl no harm to acknowledge an illegitimate son. Gisburne would have a high-ranking father and a home.
Earl David was a hard and proud man. He had no compunction in rejecting Gisburne’s claim, whether or not there was any truth in it. To acknowledge a bastard son would not have shamed him, but to acknowledge Guy of Gisburne as that son was untenable. He loathed Gisburne because of the person he was and because he was Robert’s inexorable enemy.
Although the Earl had disinherited and disowned Robert, the Earl still loved his son and prayed for his safety. But there was no chance of a remit for Robert. The Earl intended to remarry soon and hoped to beget another son to inherit his title and estate.
“You are not my son. I could never have such a man as you as my son. That is final. I will order you refreshment and a fresh horse, and then you must leave.”
“My lord!” Gisburne was desperate. “I insist you believe me. Send for the wolfshead and he will tell you the truth.”
“No. You are no son of mine.”
Such implacable and painful rejection by his blood father stunned Gisburne. The shock struck him cold and left a stone weight in the emptiness of his belly. The pain was like a knife thrust to his heart. He stood rigid, but inside he was screaming, wailing, broken. He heard his own voice, supplicating, begging. “My lord, please! I am your son. Please believe me. I will make you proud …”
“No, I will have none of you. Leave me,” the Earl answered, feeling no pity.
Gisburne’s pain and humiliation twisted into vicious rage. “I’m going to hunt down your wolfshead son and hang him. His head will rot on Nottingham’s walls.”
“He will kill you first.” The Earl remained outwardly impassive, but he was cold with fear for Robert.
“He can’t kill me because I’m his brother. I will kill him because he is my brother … and your son.”
* * * *
The outlaws were sad to leave Caerleon, but they were happy to be on their way home. The journey back to Sherwood was easy and uneventful. Robin and his men slipped unobtrusively into the forest one morning. They went to Darkmere, the place in Sherwood most feared by other people, and set up camp there. They were occupied for days in gathering supplies and hunting.
The first night of camping again was difficult to adjust to. The outlaws heard each other shifting and quietly cursing as they tried to make themselves comfortable on the hard ground, after months of sleeping on mattresses indoors.
Will was the first to complain. “Either this ground is damn hard or I’ve gone soft!”
Much laughed. “You’ve got soft, Will.”
“We’ve all gone soft,” Robin said, groaning.
They complained and moaned, then laughed at themselves. With more cursing, they tried to settle down to sleep. They would have to get used to their old way of life quickly.
Meg lay curled up against John and wept quietly.
After a couple of days, Robin thought it was time to scout and to find out what had happened in their absence. They went cautiously to the outskirts of Wickham and Dexford, the two villages most loyal to the outlaws. They were alarmed to find red rags tied to several trees on the perimeter of the villages. Danger. Keep away.
Nasir scouted along the North and Newark roads. He found evidence of the presence of other outlaws. He saw a band attack and kill a carter before he could make a move. A single man had no chance against ten, even when that single man was Nasir. He fired a couple of arrows then disappeared into the forest as fast as he could.
“We’ll drive them out, of course,” was Robin’s reaction to Nasir’s report. “We also have to find out what’s wrong in the villages, what’s happened while we’ve been gone. I’ll go to Herne. He promised that our people would be safe until our return.”
When Robin arrived at Herne’s cave, he found the familiar figure of Herne, the man, standing at the altar. Herne raised his arms. “Welcome, my son.”
Robin bowed. “My lord Herne.”
Herne smiled slightly. “You have many questions.” He held out a cup to Robin. “Drink. See what the sacred fire reveals to you.”
Robin drank the bitter liquid and saw visions in the tawny haze of the fire. He saw he and his men leaving Sherwood. He saw Gisburne lying as if dead on the forest floor. Then Gisburne in an abbey, well attended. Robin saw the Sheriff’s second steward riding into a village. The villagers looked at peace. Robin could sense comfort and lack of fear.
The fire flames reared up and the peace was gone. Robin saw Huntingdon Castle. In the hall, Gisburne confronted Robin’s father. The tongues of flame swallowed that image.
Robin saw him and his men on the road back from Caerleon. He saw Gisburne riding into the villages with soldiers and the people running in fear. Men were flogged, and women and children thrown to the ground. Gisburne’s face was vicious and pitiless.
Robin shook off the trance, alarmed.
“My son, it was as I said. Your people were safe while you were away, but no longer. Welcome or betrayal.”
Before Robin could ask more questions, Herne lifted his arms in blessing, the sign for Robin to leave.
Robin mused on his visions. So Gisburne had been well looked after, probably at St. Mary’s. The Sheriff’s other steward seemed to have treated the villagers decently. But, now, Gisburne was back and treating the people worse than before.
Somehow, the villagers knew that Robin Hood and his men had returned. They were torn: did they want the outlaws back to help them, or would their presence drive Gisburne to further cruelty? If they betrayed the outlaws would Gisburne leave them alone? They felt that the outlaws had abandoned them for months, even though they had been fine during that time. Robin needed to find out what the villagers were feeling and thinking, but the warning signs meant that the outlaws were presently unwelcome.
But what had Robin’s father to do with all this? Gisburne must have had the audacity to go to the Earl with his claim to be the Earl’s illegitimate son. The meeting would have gone ill. Robin knew that his father would never acknowledge a man such as Gisburne.
Gisburne had turned his pain from the Earl’s rejection into rage and the determination to take his revenge on every person associated with Robin Hood. The serfs were presently on the receiving end of Gisburne’s hatred, particularly those of Wickham and Dexford, known supporters of the outlaws. Hatred was eating Gisburne alive and he was feeding it with violence and cruelty. The Sheriff was mildly alarmed at Gisburne’s excesses, but attributed it to his months of frustrated inaction.
If Gisburne had been able to think straight, he would have realised that to continue with Hugh the steward’s tactics would ensure that the villagers were no longer dependent on Robin Hood. The villagers might even turn against the outlaws, who had deserted them for months. In such a situation, the outlaws would become enemies when they started robbing people again and attacking soldiers, thus disrupting the peace.
The arrival of bands of outlaws prepared to attack and rob even the humblest person could have turned the tide against Robin and his men if Gisburne had employed his energies in ridding Sherwood of the incomers. Gisburne could have acted against the cutthroats and blamed Robin and his men for deserting the villagers.
As easy victims travelling by the roads grew fewer, some of the larger bands began attacking the villages. They would run yelling into the villages, early in the morning or at dusk, destroying anything in their way, and hitting or stabbing any person near them. These cutthroats would drive off livestock and grab any food or goods they could find in a hurry.
The cutthroats were in bands of ten or more, the largest about twenty. They had usually come together from different parts of neighbouring counties, so they tended to stick in such groups.
Will was all for attacking them head on.
“Will, we could defeat ten in a fight, but we’d get injured,” Robin said. “Twenty is too many, even for you. We have to use other tactics.”
Robin and his men began methodically getting rid of the other outlaws infesting Sherwood. One man would scout, find a band of cutthroats, and report back. Robin and his men, camouflaged with twigs of leaves in their clothes and soil on their faces, would creep up on the cutthroats through the trees. They would fire a barrage of arrows at the cutthroats from several directions and then quickly slip away.
Slowly, they reduced the number of cutthroats. Some of these outlaws were vagabonds and runaway serfs, who had little taste for their current way of life. These men quietly left Sherwood one by one. But other men from the smaller bands joined the largest one. This band was not easily intimidated or destroyed. It had a strong leader and was well organised. These outlaws kept guard day and night and moved their camp regularly.
Robin had set a roster for keeping watch on this band. Much came running into camp one morning. The band was making for Wickham.
“Nasir,” Robin said, “try to get to Wickham before the outlaws and warn Edward. We’ll follow as quickly was we can.” Robin guessed that Nasir would be allowed in the village most easily because he was held in awe by the villagers.
Robin thought that, with warning, the Wickham men would put up a better defence than the other villages had. They had fought for their families before.
Robin and his men arrived in Wickham to find Nasir and Edward rallying a group of the village men against the attacking cutthroats. They were holding their own, a few with longbows and the others with staves and knives. They were fighting about a quarter of the attackers. Fortunately, Nasir’s warning had come in time for the women, children and the elderly to run into the forest, in the opposite direction of the oncoming cutthroats.
The rest of the cutthroats were setting fire to the village huts and driving off the livestock. Two men were dragging a struggling young village woman. Because the cutthroats were distracted, Robin and his men took them by surprise. Robin and his companions ran forward out of the trees, fired a round of arrows, ran on further and fired again. Several of the cutthroats dropped, injured or dead, reducing the odds against the defenders. Robin and his men closed with the attackers, John and Tuck swinging staves, while Will, Much and Robin wielded their swords.
Robin felt Albion leap in his hand towards one man. That man was the leader, Rufus. He was a brutal man with a scarred face and sparse red hair. He was also a formidable swordsman. The runes on Albion’s blade sparked, catching the early morning sun to flare in the man’s eyes. For a moment he stepped back, disconcerted. Robin took the opportunity to attack, knowing his only advantage was in his speed. He managed to stab Rufus in the arm, before the man rallied and forced Robin back with brute strength. Robin played for time, circling the man on light feet. Robin suffered some cuts and scrapes before Rufus tired. Robin ran at the man, slipped under his guard and drove his blade into the man’s breast.
Robin’s men shot those cutthroats who ran for the forest. Will killed the two men who held the young woman. He and Nasir turned their attention to their fallen enemies. Will and Nasir mercilessly dispatched those who were not already dead.
The Wickham men had remained together under Edward’s leadership. Although afraid and inexperienced, they had conducted themselves bravely. But they were uncertain how to behave towards Robin and his men. They had felt abandoned by the outlaws, and, then, with Hugh as the Sheriff’s agent, had felt that they no longer needed Robin Hood.
Edward walked up to Robin.
“Robin.” Edward looked grim.
Edward gestured at their dead enemies. “These carrion killed two men. It’s thanks to you that many more didn’t die. You’ve reminded us why we need you. We’d forgotten what our lives were like without you.”
“Edward, I’m sorry we had to leave. It was what Herne commanded. He sent us away to save our lives, then to save a friend and her people. He meant us to be back when you had need of us.”
Edward held out his hand to Robin. “I welcome you back to Sherwood, Robin. We know how you have been driving out the cutthroats. But not all the villages will welcome you back yet, not for some time. Be careful.”
Several of the other men raised their hands to the outlaws in acknowledgment. As the outlaws walked back to the forest where Meg was waiting, the women, children and elders were returning from the opposite direction, and the men were driving their livestock back to the village. The young woman Will had saved grabbed his hand and kissed it.
* * * *
July was the month when starvation threatened the serfs. The grain from the previous harvest had been depleted and the new crops not ready to be harvested. Robin and his men usually helped with berries, nuts and some venison. This year, they did not take the food to the villagers, but left it on the outskirts of the villages after dark. But this food was not enough. The people needed grain. They ground mouldy grains, nuts, shriveled beans and peas to make bread.
Hugh, the steward, had promised the villagers flour from Nottingham Castle’s ample stores to help them through the hard month. The village leaders nervously reminded Gisburne of the promise, but he sneered at them. He would not honour a promise made by another man, a soft fool at that.
The village leaders decided to ask the outlaws for help. Edward of Wickham agreed to meet with Robin and his men, although Edward did not think the outlaws could do more than they already did: providing what they could from Sherwood.
Edward and his son, Matthew, tied blue cloth rags to the trees on the border of the forest from where Robin and his men usually came to Wickham. They went further into the forest until the cloth ran out. Blue was a signal for a meeting, but in the forest, not the village. Matthew kept watch as much as he could. After a week, when he was ready to give up, Nasir went scouting and spotted the boy waiting.
Edward and Matthew met Robin and his men the next evening, at a safe distance into the forest. The outlaws made a fuss of Matthew for saving their lives months before and promised to tell him of their adventures when they had a chance. Robin had brought a dagger from Caerleon for Matthew, plain but of good quality, with a silver-plated hilt. Matthew was delighted, though he knew he would have to keep it hidden.
Edward asked for Robin’s help. “This time of year is always hard, but now it’s worse than usual, Robin.”
“You’ll have to give us time to think of a way to help, Edward. In the meantime, we’ll provide what we can.”
Back at the camp, John asked, “Where are we going to get grain or flour from? The only place I can think of is Nottingham Castle.”
“Are you out of your mind? We’re not going in there,” Will said irritably.
Robin had been musing on the same lines as John. Who would have good stores of food at this time of year? Large monastic houses had land and wealth. They were bound to have plenty of provisions. St. Mary’s Abbey. Abbot Hugo would never go short of anything.
“We have to get into St Mary’s Abbey and steal from their stores,” Robin told the others.
Will laughed. “Good idea, Robin. How are we going to do it?”
“We’ll have to reconnoiter first, find out where the flour is stored and how we can get in and out,” John said. “Who’s going to do it? We can’t.”
“I’ll go,” Much offered.
“No. Thanks, Much. You may be recognized,” Robin said.
“I can go,” Meg said. “I’ll dress up as a widow and go to the abbey to pray.”
“That’s a good idea, Meg. Are you sure you want to do it?” Robin asked.
John interjected roughly. “It’s not safe.”
“John, Abbot Hugo won’t know me. The monks won’t be suspicious,” Meg said.
“Be careful when you look around the buildings,” Robin said.
Tuck laughed. “Don’t worry. The monks will look at the ground rather than at Meg.”
“Why?” Meg asked.
“The monks are forbidden to look at women. They may have impure thoughts if they do.”
Will started laughing as well.
* * * *
Edward supplied a widow’s wimple for Meg. The outlaws escorted her to St. Mary’s, as far as they could without being seen.
“Be careful, Meg,” Robin said.
John gave Meg a hug. “You’re a brave lass.”
Meg was greeted by the porter and shown the entrance to the church in time for Nones. She stood discreetly at the back and watched local parishioners come in through a side door.
That door would bear investigating. After the service, Meg left the church through the front door and watched some of the abbey guests returning to the guest hall. She wandered around as unobtrusively as possible until she located the refectory. Surely food would be stored nearby?
Meg sneaked into a nearby wooden building and immediately smelt the scent of stored apples. She found sacks of flour and bins of oatmeal. She was overwhelmed by the sheer amount of food. This building was their target, but how would they get to it past the porter?
Having left the storehouse, Meg was challenged by a senior-looking monk.
“What are you doing here, woman? You should have left after Nones.”
Meg thought quickly and bowed her head. “I’m so sorry, Father. I wanted to watch the guests.”
“Well, they have all gone now. You must leave.”
Meg curtsied. “Yes, Father.”
The monk obviously thought her one of the poor members of the flock, so she took the opportunity to go back into the church and leave by the postern door. She emerged from the door to find herself outside the abbey. A path led away to the nearby villages and a small town.
Tuck was pleased. “A postern door? They’re usually left open all the time for local people to come in and out of the church. We’ll need to find out if this is the case here.”
“We’ll wait until night time and see if it’s left open before Matins,” Robin said.
“You know about Matins? A heathen like you?” Tuck joked.
Robin grinned wryly. “I remember.”
Robin and Nasir were the only ones awake at the time Robin had set to check the postern door. They crept up to the abbey wall as the bell rang for Matins. The door was unlocked.
The outlaws made their plans and asked to borrow a horse and cart from Wickham. Edward was enthusiastic and he and a few young men volunteered to help.
Will was irritated and sceptical. “They’ll get scared and run. I don’t trust them.”
“I’m worried that they may betray us,” Robin said.
In the end, only Edward helped the outlaws. They arrived well before Matins and positioned the cart outside the postern door. They slipped one by one through the silent church. They made sure they were out of sight of the porter’s lodge. They formed a chain from the store and passed sacks of flour from one to the other as quickly as they could, until they heard the Matins’ bell ring. They raced through the church and out the postern door, hearing the patter of feet coming down the night stairs as they closed the door behind them.
In the morning, they examined their spoils. There was enough flour for the Sherwood villages if they were frugal. The outlaws would take one bag for themselves. They left the distribution up to Edward, knowing that he would tell the villagers that they had Robin Hood to thank for the provisions. Hopefully, this exploit would help the villagers trust the outlaws again.
Soon after the flour had been distributed, green cloth in the trees near Wickham indicated that the outlaws were wanted in Wickham. Robin was wary and sent Nasir to scout. Nasir found Edward, who had good news. The villagers knew that the outlaws had lost what they had in Hob’s Cave and had gathered some necessities to give to the outlaws. There were contributions from all the Sherwood villages: pottery mugs, a pot and a beaker, some coarse cloth, leather off-cuts for repairing boots, and a few pelts.
Meg insisted on visiting Hob’s Cave. She’d stored her spare dress and her wedding gown on a high ledge. She was delighted to find them still there.
To celebrate their reconciliation with the villagers, Meg wore her cherry red gown for the evening meal. They were camped by Darkmere.
“I reckon we’re really home now,” Will said.
Much played his pipes and the outlaws joined hands to dance. They spun faster and faster, the ground tilting up and down to meet their steps. The forest swirled around them in green light and grey shadow.
The ghosts of dead trees hung over the mere, and wild things skirled in the dusk. The moon shivered on the black water, but the warm darkness came to embrace place and people with comfort and peace.