* * * *
Gisburne did not leave the outlaws in peace. He was determined to fight the outlaws on their own terms and in their own way. He chose soldiers for a select troop that would go into Sherwood.
Gisburne trained a score of soldiers, with the help of the foresters, to move quietly, quickly and secretively in the forest. The troop began their forays into Sherwood. They started from the North and Newark Roads into the forest, hoping to catch the outlaws in an ambush, while the outlaws were holding up travelers. However, Robin and his men were lying low until they were sure of support from the villagers.
As they grew in experience and confidence, Gisburne’s troop ventured deeper into Sherwood, penetrating further into the forest with each incursion. One day, Much was on watch in a tree and saw the soldiers creeping up on their camp. The outlaws only had enough time to grab their weapons and hide themselves in the surrounding undergrowth. Gisburne’s soldiers concealed themselves in the bushes opposite the outlaws, not blundering into the camp, as expected.
Robin sent word from one man to another. “Fire a couple of rounds of arrows into the trees on the other side of the camp then pull back. They have crossbows. We’ll try to draw them into the open. If that doesn’t work, we’ll get behind them. Then we retreat.”
“Retreat from Gisburne’s stupid soldiers?” Will hissed.
“Don’t be a fool, Will. These aren’t the usual soldiers and they outnumber us. Do what I say.”
The first volleys of arrows did not bring the soldiers out into the open, though the outlaws heard a couple of men cry out as they were hit. The soldiers fired crossbow bolts in return, and Much just escaped being pinned to a tree by an arrow.
The outlaws crept around, and behind, the soldiers and fired more arrows at Gisburne’s men. The soldiers were well-hidden in the undergrowth and difficult to hit. The soldiers immediately turned round, firing their crossbows and coming after the outlaws. The outlaws retreated. They all got away safely because their woodcraft was still superior to Gisburne’s men.
The outlaws went back to their camp in the late afternoon, with the dusk shadowing the day. They found that Gisburne’s soldiers had thrown all the outlaws’ belongings on the fire: sleeping furs, blankets, dishes, and drinking cups. Their food was gone.
“We have some spare furs and things at Darkmere,” Tuck said, “but we can’t afford any further losses.”
Robin hunkered on the ground, throwing his dagger into the soil.
“They’re fighting us with our own tactics. They outnumber us. Gisburne can train more soldiers to replace the ones he loses. We’ll have to take the initiative: spy on them, follow them, fire arrows at them and withdraw fast. We’ll continue to do so until they give up. We’ll move camp constantly, but stay in the densest part of the forest. Gisburne’s soldiers are well-disciplined, but I’m sure they’re still superstitious. There’re places in Sherwood, like Darkmere, that they won’t dare come to.”
The outlaws had to be constantly alert, guarding the camp, keeping watch, scouting, signaling to each other. They had to be more mobile than their enemies. Knowing the forest so well was an advantage for the outlaws, although Gisburne used foresters as guides. The outlaws’ attack and retreat tactics began to have an affect: Gisburne lost men and had difficulty replacing them. Those that remained were losing confidence.
Thanks to excellent scouting and fast reactions, the outlaws caught Gisburne’s soldiers in an ambush on the Newark Road. The outlaws were on either side of the road, amongst the trees, hidden in the undergrowth. They fired volleys of arrows into the flanks of the troop. Although Robin had a clear line to Gisburne, he shot wide, his arrow whizzing past Gisburne’s horse. Fury bolted down the road. Gisburne’s troop broke, running after him.
Will seethed all the way back to camp, where he grabbed Robin’s arm.
“What is it with you and Gisburne? You could have killed him easily. You missed him on purpose.”
Tuck looked at Robin. “I think it’s time to tell them, Robin.”
“Tell us what? Out with it, Robin,” Will said, standing face to face with Robin.
Robin looked at his friends and flinched inwardly. His disclosure might end his leadership and friendship with his men. It might result in the dispersal of the band.
There was no help for it.
Robin was surprised when his voice came out sounding normal and steady. “At Croxden Abbey, Lady Gisburne told me before she died that Gisburne was my half-brother, my father’s illegitimate son.”
The outlaws stood in confounded silence for seconds, which seemed to drag on for minutes. Then a furor of questions and expletives erupted.
Robin raised his voice. “Do you want to know how? Lady Gisbourne believed that her husband had died in the crusades. She and my father married in good faith. Then her husband came home. Lady Gisburne was already carrying my father’s child. That child was Guy of Gisburne.”
The torrent roared around Robin. A torrent of shock, of denial, of disbelief.
of harsh words, of accusations, and of anger.
“Bloody Gisburne, your bastard brother!” Will exclaimed then he turned on Tuck. “You knew about this, Tuck. Didn’t you?”
“I did, under the oath of the confessional,” Tuck answered calmly. “I respect Robin for his reticence and his mercy towards Gisburne. He’s Robin. How could he do otherwise?”
Will kicked a tree trunk, scowling and muttering. “Gisburne’s hunted us. He hates us. How can we follow his brother?”
Will stormed off. He walked a long time into the darkness and then he turned back. The night wind cooled his anger. He remembered desolation and loneliness. If Robin left, or he left, those emotions would drown him. Nah! Be honest, Will. You’d try to drown yourself in ale again.
But how can we follow Gisburne’s brother? Who else can lead us? Not I, nor John.
After their initial shock and outrage, the outlaws went about their evening tasks in a daze. They tried to sleep, the evening’s revelation spinning in their minds. Will came back late in the night, stumbling over recumbent forms to find a place to sleep.
The outlaws went about their daily lives for several days in an atmosphere of tension and distrust. They wrestled with anger and reason.
Robin was determined to see the situation out. He would not apologise nor would he beg. He would not leave. The outlaws, his friends, would have to decide for themselves. Would they condemn him and leave? Would they absolve him of blame and continue to follow him?
Tuck understood Robin’s reluctance to kill Gisburne because Tuck had been a party to Robin’s secret. Therefore, he was aligned with Robin.
John was torn between his love for Robin and his hatred of Gisburne. He thought over all his encounters with Gisburne, back to the first. Gisburne had killed Much’s father, Robin of Loxley’s foster father. The outlaws had routed Gisburne’s soldiers in retaliation. They had captured Gisburne. That was the first of several instances in which Robin of Loxley had let Gisburne go.
Now Robin had not killed Gisburne because Gisburne was his brother. What would I do in his place? John wondered. What would we do if Robin left because of this? Robin kept them together. He saved them from purposeless and alien lives. John remembered what he had said to Robin the first day they met: I tried to go back to what I was. A shepherd. But you can’t go back, not in your heart.
Much thought slowly, but rationally, about Robin’s disclosure. I remember. Gisburne killed my father. One stroke, then there was so much blood in the water. I remember my brother, Robin. He never killed Gisburne, although he could have. I hate Gisburne. I should hate Robin now, but he’s a brother to me. I can’t hate him.
Gisburne had harassed and ill-treated the people of Wickham, Meg’s village. I’m scared of Gisburne. I hate him. How can Robin be his brother? But it’s not Robin’s fault. We won’t stay together if Robin leaves.
Nasir made up his mind easily. So this was Robin’s secret. I know how hard it is to kill your brother. I killed my brother-in-arms.
“I stay with Robin,” Nasir said to the others.
“We have to stay with Robin. What will happen to us all if he goes?” Meg said.
“You’re right, lass. We won’t hold together without Robin,” John agreed.
Will made up his mind. He went over to Robin.
“So, Robin, what happens if Gisburne’s going to kill one of us? Will you let him because he’s your brother? “
“Of course not, Will. I’ll do my best to kill him,” Robin said.
“If he’s going to kill you, what then?”
“Don’t be a damn fool, Robin. It’s either him or you. You’ve got to swear, Robin, on Albion and by Herne, that you’ll kill Gisburne before he kills you,” Will demanded.
The others came over.
“Yes, swear, Robin,” John said.
“Swear, Robin, please?” Much asked.
Tuck and Nasir nodded.
Robin thrust Albion’s blade into the ground. He grasped the hilt with both hands.
“I swear on Albion and by Herne that if Gisburne threatens the lives of any of us, I will kill Gisburne, or die trying.”
The outlaws laid their hands, one after another, over Robin’s hands.
“So say we all.”
* * * *
Several days later, Will came back from scouting with news of a small party traveling on the North Road. They looked like wealthy merchants and had a laden packhorse with them.
“Easy pickings. Let’s go,” Will said.
Robin was uneasy, but decided to at least take a look at the travelers.
It was as Will had reported. There was a group of four men riding at a leisurely pace on the road. They looked prosperous.
“Like I said, they’re ripe for the picking,” Will said.
“Too easy, Will,” Robin said. “They must know the reputation of the roads near Sherwood. I think this is a trap.”
“You scared, Robin? Come on,” Will said to the men.
“No, Will, wait!” Robin called out, too late.
Will led the others out from the trees. They ran in front of the merchants then stood with their bows drawn. The merchants reacted with cries and curses. Will, exasperated, yelled at them to shut up, and ordered Much to get the packhorse.
The noise the group made covered the sound of a fast-moving troop of soldiers, who came at speed around a bend in the road. They were Gisburne’s men, disciplined and well-trained. The outlaws found themselves fighting against the odds.
Robin came out of cover and fired arrows at the soldiers. Meg came out of hiding with her bow to help Robin. The two of them broke the troop’s tight formation.
“Get out of there!” Robin shouted at his men.
The outlaws fought desperately to disengage themselves, then dived for cover into the trees on either side of the road. The soldiers plunged into the trees after the outlaws, a couple of them attacking Robin and Meg. Robin ordered Meg to go back into hiding. She went reluctantly.
Gisburne led the troop. He dismounted his horse and made straight for Robin, who had dropped his bow to fight off the soldiers. The two men engaged each other. Gisburne fought in a disciplined and controlled way, his anger and hatred under control. Robin was hard-pressed.
The two men matched each other stroke for stroke, moving warily. They inflicted slight wounds upon each other. Luck turned against Robin. He mis-parried a thrust from Gisburne. Gisburne’s blade slashed his knuckles. The searing pain made Robin drop Albion. In a moment, Gisburne’s sword point was at Robin’s throat. It’s my time to die, Robin thought.
Gisburne lifted his sword to kill Robin. He paused to savour his moment of triumph. Those seconds were enough for Robin. He threw himself recklessly backwards and down, at the expense of a nick on his throat. He rolled, and was up in a crouch, with his dagger in his hand.
Gisburne hadn’t moved. He stood, clutching his head, dizzy and unsteady on his feet. The sky hung low over him, the forest closed in on him, and the earth shifted under his feet. A voice possessed his mind. A voice of wood, of water, and of earth. A voice that beat a drum, that throbbed with the heart of the forest. A life for a life. The words came from all around: the sound of drumming on a hollow tree, the sound of water falling, the sound of a strong wind scouring the trees. A life for a life. A life for a life.
Terrified and thrown off balance, Gisburne let his sword slip to the ground. A life for a life. A life for a life. Gisburne realised what he had to do to silence the terrible voice.
Gisburne faced Robin. “I owed you my life. I honour my debts. A life for a life.”
Gisburne plucked his sword from the ground. He stumbled towards his confused soldiers, now regrouped in the road. The outlaws had escaped, with a few wounds. They had made their way unseen through the trees, came together, and now were at Robin’s back, weapons drawn.
“Form up. Back to Nottingham,” Gisburne commanded his men. He dragged himself clumsily into his saddle. The troop rode off, several nursing injuries, and leaving a couple of dead men behind.
“What the devil? Why didn’t Gisburne kill you?” Will asked.
“Herne,” Robin answered. He gestured towards the trees on the opposite side of the road. Herne, Lord of the Trees, stood there with a cloud of dawn red at his back and a web of white mist before him.
Herne raised his arms. Robin and his men knelt, with bowed heads.