This story is set post-series three. It is an adventure with supernatural and magical elements and hints of romance.
Disclaimer: the characters are the creation of Richard Carpenter.
A HUGE thank you to my awesome beta, herne24!
Meg was picking wild mint, close to the Lichfield road, when the soldiers caught her. She managed to hit one man with her staff before another pinned her arms to her side. He pulled her on to the road. Meg screamed loudly once, before the third soldier stifled her with a hand over her mouth.
The soldiers laughed at Meg’s struggles. One took her staff. Now he pulled her long knife from its sheath.
“A knife and a staff. You’re well-armed for a woman.”
“I reckon she’s a wolfshead,” the second man said.
“Do you belong to one of the wolfsheads?”
The third soldier forced Meg’s head back. He took his hand off her mouth long enough for her to reply: “No!”
“You’re lying, slut!” the man said, tightening his hold on Meg.
“What do we do with her?” one of the others asked, “Take her back to Nottingham?”
This was when Will Scarlet fortuitously came on the scene. He had chased a deer and lost her nearby. He had turned to go back to camp when he heard Meg’s scream. He sprinted towards her and burst through the trees on to the road. He saw Meg held captive and ran, yelling, against the soldiers. He attacked the man holding Meg, slashing his arm viciously. Meg quickly got out of the way. Will charged the second soldier; he parried the man’s thrust and sent his sword tumbling to the ground. The man bolted. The first soldier stumbled after. The third soldier advanced on Will from behind, but a vigorous blow on the back from Meg’s staff unbalanced him and pushed him, staggering, forward. Will hit the man on the head with the hilt of his sword and he collapsed, stunned.
Will called to Meg, “Well done, Meg.”
Meg clutched Will’s arm, shaking and crying. “Will, thank you.”
Will put his arm around Meg’s shoulders for a moment. “Come on, let’s get away from here.”
As Will’s relief wore off, he became angry. “What were you doing there, anyway? So close to the road on your own?”
“I’m sorry, Will. I went to pick herbs. There’s a big patch of mint close by the road. I didn’t think --”
Will interrupted. “No, you didn’t think! If I hadn’t come that way --”
“I know, Will. Please --” Meg cried as she struggled to keep up with Will.
Will muttered all the way back to camp. Once there, Meg went straight to John, who comforted her without asking questions.
“What happened, Will?” Robin asked.
“Meg got caught by soldiers. She was too damn near the Lichfield road. Who let her go off on her own?”
Meg stared down at the ground miserably. “I didn’t mean to go so far. I’m sorry.”
John held Meg closer. “Will, hold on.”
“No!” Will’s hands curled into fists. “You know what they would have done to her.”
“They didn’t, Will.” Robin spoke quietly, trying to calm Will down. “You saved her.”
Will was still worked up. “If I hadn’t been there? Bastards! This is why we shouldn’t have women with us. They get caught and we have to rescue them. They’re a danger to us all.”
“Will, that’s not right,”. Robin said.” Meg’s never endangered us.” He shook his head at John to stop him interfering.
“If there had been more soldiers, I couldn’t have saved her,” Will said.
Robin went over to Will. He knew why Will was so distressed. Will’s wife, Elana, had been raped and killed by soldiers. Will had been unable to stop them.
Robin touched Will’s arm gently. “But you did save her, Will. You saved Meg.”
Without looking at Robin, Will lightly punched Robin’s arm. He then walked off into the forest. He needed to walk off his distress.
“Will, where’re you going?” Much called.
“Leave him, Much,” Robin said. “He’s remembering.”
“What’s he remembering?” Much asked.
“His wife,” John answered.
“He couldn’t save his wife,” Tuck said.
Will came back at dusk, quiet and sombre. Tuck gave him supper. Will sat by the fire, eating in silence. When he was finished, he rolled himself up in his furs to sleep, with a muttered “Good night” to the others.
The next day Will was his usual self. No-one mentioned the previous day’s events. Robin thought that Meg had been scared enough not to wander off on her own again, so he didn’t say anything further to her.
Soon after, Will stalked a wild pig that led him close to the Newark Road. Will was unconcerned. He reckoned he could get away fast enough if anyone came along the road. So, when the pig ran across the road, Will ran after him. Will was so intent on catching the animal that he didn’t see a root in his path. He tripped and fell headlong down the bank on to the road, briefly stunning himself.
Will was still on the ground when a group of armed men, led by a young knight and his squire, came towards him. The foot soldiers surrounded him, holding their swords to his throat. The knight rode up on his horse. “He looks like a wolfshead to me. Tie him up and bring him along; the sheriff will likely pay us something for him.”
When Will was hauled to his feet he started fighting. He couldn’t draw his sword or dagger, but he used his fists and body to good effect. But he couldn’t win against six armed men. His arms were bound. The soldiers pulled him along with them.
Will heard a scream, then another, and another: women’s frightened screams. His captors dragged Will forward. Two wagons were stopped on the road. Men pulled women from the wagons and flung them down to the ground. The women were nuns. Two man servants lay dead. The attackers were mercenaries, with pikes and kettle helmets. Several were crossbowmen. Will heard them calling to each other in Flemish. The mercenaries climbed on to the wagons, passing down chests and bundles. A few of the bundles came undone, revealing silver plate and candlesticks. Some of the mercenaries took the horses from the wagons and loaded them with the stolen goods. Others held the younger nuns and beat the elder nuns away.
The knight and his men were badly outnumbered: eight to about eighteen mercenaries. The knight ordered his men to ready and fire their crossbows, before the mercenaries were aware of their arrival. Several shafts hit home. The soldiers reloaded and fired again. The mercenaries who were not loading the packhorses with goods, nor abusing the nuns, charged the knight and his men.
Will’s bellowing as he fought, and the nuns’s screams had been heard by someone else: Meg. She had seen Will set off hunting and had followed him. She hoped he would go in the direction of the herb patch she had sown in one of their temporary camp-sites. If Will was ahead of her, she wouldn’t be alone and she would feel safe.
Meg saw Will leave the path to follow the pig’s tracks. She went off the path to her herbs. Having picked what she wanted, Meg went back to the path, waiting for the sounds of Will returning. After some minutes, she heard shouts from the road. Will was in trouble. Meg was sure it was him shouting.
At the camp, Robin had stopped what he was doing, frowning. “Something’s wrong,” he said to the others. “I have a feeling that Will’s in trouble. Which way did he go?”
Nasir pointed out the path Will had taken.
“Get your weapons,” Robin commanded, slinging his bow and quiver over his shoulders. “Nasir, lead the way.”
The outlaws met Meg running back to the camp, heedless of noise and branches lashing her. “John, Robin! Will’s in trouble.”
“We know,” Robin said. “Show us the way, Meg,”
The outlaws ran as fast as they could to the place where Meg had heard the shouts. They moved forward cautiously through the trees and bushes to the source of the voices. They saw the mercenaries attacking the knight and his men, who were getting the worst of it. A group of the mercenaries were loading their crossbows. The nuns were screaming and sobbing.
Robin commanded his men to fire on the mercenaries, retreat into the trees, and then send another volley of arrows at the mercenaries. From there they joined the knight and his men. One of the soldiers was dead; two others, and the squire, were wounded. The young knight didn’t question who the reinforcements were; he was too relieved to see them. Robin took charge, ordering the combined force to fire arrows and crossbow bolts at the mercenaries. Robin’s men then retreated into the trees before the mercenaries could fire back. After that, they moved to another place and fired from there.
Meanwhile, Meg looked for Will. She found him on the side of the road where his captors had shoved him down. Meg cut the ropes around his arms. Will was cramped and stiff, so Meg helped him off the road. He was irascible, wanting to join his friends immediately. He directed Meg to find his bow and arrows where he’d dropped them before being caught.
One of the young nuns sensed that her captor’s attention was distracted because his hold had loosened. She twisted free and ran for the trees. The mercenary caught her before she got there, but Will came roaring from cover to fight the man. The mercenary had no chance against an infuriated Scarlet.
“Here!” Meg called to the nun, who ran to her through the trees.
Meg sent the nun further back into the trees and told her to wait there. Meg, with her bow, joined the outlaws. She couldn’t shoot as far as the others because of her shorter bow and her lesser strength. Meg was scared, as always, and she didn’t like injuring people. But she did her duty. A couple of the mercenaries retreated before the arrows she fired at them.
The mercenaries had lost eight men: two dead and six injured. Their captain decided that they were paying too dearly for what had looked like easy pickings. They were not being paid for this fight. He called a retreat. The mercenaries abandoned the nuns, grabbed small portable items from the packhorses and retreated in good order, supporting their injured comrades.
“Let them go,” Robin commanded. He wouldn’t risk his men. The mercenaries were disciplined and far from defeated. Besides the knight’s three injured men, John had a bolt in his leg and Much’s shoulder had been grazed by an arrow.
Meg and Nasir got to work on the injured men. Robin and Will held John while Nasir pulled the arrow from John’s leg. Nasir lit a small fire to heat up his knife. He used it to cauterize John’s wound. Robin remembered the pain from his own similar injury, a couple of years ago. The bolt had cut into a vein in John’s leg, fortunately not the main artery, but he bled profusely. Meg bound bandages tightly above and below the wound. Nasir had taught her this and other ways of dealing with such injuries. Meg fastened a thick pad of bandage on the wound and prayed to Herne that John would stop bleeding soon. She bit her lip against her tears. She cleaned the other men’s wounds with water and spread salve on the raw flesh.
Meanwhile, the young knight went over to the nuns, identified the prioress, and assured her that they were now safe. The prioress explained that their priory had been damaged by fire, so they were on their way to a sister house near St. Mary’s Abbey. The knight and his uninjured men helped the nuns replace their goods on the wagons, calmed the horses, and put them back into the wagon shafts. The knight sent one of his men on the squire’s horse to request an escort from the Sheriff.
The knight, whose name was John de Lacy, now had time to take stock of his allies. He thanked the young fair man who seemed to be the leader. It was obvious to de Lacy that these men who had come to his rescue were unusual. They looked like peasants, but fought like warriors.
“Sir John de Lacy, at your service, my lord.” Sir John bowed to Robin.
Robin bowed in turn. “Robin of Sherwood, at your service, Sir John,” he responded, with a slight smile.
“Robin of Sherwood? Robin Hood?” Sir John asked, his hand going to his sword.
“Aye, “Will said, coming to stand next to Robin, having drawn his sword. “And I’m Will Scarlet, not at your service!”
Nasir stood behind Robin, his twin swords crossed before him. Tuck walked to Robin’s other side, holding his staff menacingly.
“You’re outlaws!” de Lacy exclaimed. “Why did you help us?”
“We hate mercenaries,” Will replied.
“To save the nuns,” Robin said. “Neither of us could have done it on our own.”
De Lacy looked at Robin. Robin had determination on his face, but a hint of amusement as well. He was roughly dressed and could have been cleaner, but he had an air of authority and commanded respect. “I remember now,” de Lacy said. “You’re noble, the Earl of Huntingdon’s son.”
“I was,” Robin said.
De Lacy realised he shouldn’t probe further. “Now what?” he asked Robin.
“You wait for the Sheriff’s escort,” Robin replied, “though I wouldn’t count on it if I were you.”
“We’ll go with the nuns until we meet the Sheriff,” de Lacy said. “We may have to stay in Nottingham because I doubt we’ll make our destination tonight.”
“We’re leaving now,” Robin said. “Farewell, Sir John.”
De Lacy wasn’t sure what to do. He couldn’t stop the outlaws, even though it was his duty to do so. Besides, if they hadn’t come to his aid, he and his men would all have died.
“Farewell, Robin of Sherwood,” Sir John said, bowing slightly. He had the one dead soldier and his injured men lifted into one of the wagons. The nuns climbed in and the small cavalcade moved slowly down the road towards St. Mary’s Abbey.
“I doubt they’ll get a welcome reception from Abbot Hugo,” Tuck said.
Robin and the others joined Meg, Much and Little John. John was in a bad way. He had stopped bleeding for the moment, but he was in pain and couldn’t walk. Will and Robin supported John up the bank and into the trees.
Robin looked over his shoulders at the others. “Tuck, Nasir, go back to camp for a litter.”
Will looked around. “Meg, where’s that young nun? Did she join the others?”
“I’m here.” The young woman stepped through the trees. She had taken off her novice’s wimple, so her dark hair flowed down her back. She had clear gray eyes. Her face was too strong to be called pretty, but she was comely.
“My lady,” Robin addressed her. “Your sisters are on their way to St. Mary’s Abbey under Sir John de Lacy’s escort. We’ll take you to join them.”
“No!” the woman exclaimed. “I don’t want to catch up with them. I escaped from them. Hide me, please.”
“Escaped? “Will asked. “What do you mean, ‘escaped’? “
“My lady, why did you have to escape from your sisters?” Robin asked.
“I was their prisoner,” the woman said.
Meg frowned in confusion. “I don’t understand.”
“Were you a political prisoner?” Robin asked the young woman.
“Yes,” she replied, relieved that Robin understood.
“What?” Will said.
Robin turned to him. “It’s possible. The King sometimes imprisons the wives and daughters of his enemies in convents, where they are forced to become nuns.”
“Who are you and why were you imprisoned?” Robin asked the woman.
She lifted her chin proudly. “I am Christina Warin. My father was the Lord of West Grange. He refused to join King John’s campaign against the Welsh because --”
She was interrupted by the arrival of Tuck and Nasir with a litter made of branches.
“Come with us to the camp,” Robin said to Christina. “You can explain everything there.”
The outlaws lifted John onto the litter as gently as they could. Robin, Will, Nasir and Tuck carried the litter through the forest to their camp. By the time they arrived there the daylight was fading.
The outlaws took care of Much and Little John. Meg made poultices of stale bread and cobwebs to place on the two men’s wounds. She knew that these should draw out the poison. When that was done, she would stitch the wounds closed and bind them. Once they started healing, she would apply comfrey salve. In the meantime, Meg gave Much and John an infusion of sage and feverfew to fight fever. She knelt by John and bathed his forehead with lavender water.
Nasir kindled a fire. Tuck prepared a scratch meal. John sat propped up against a tree trunk with Meg in attendance. The other outlaws sat around the fire. Christina sat on a log the outlaws had provided for her. Robin raised their ceremonial bowl. “Herne protect us,” he said. “Herne protect us,” the outlaws responded. Robin drank and passed the bowl around the circle. Christina drank in her turn. Who was Herne? The evening ritual seemed pagan to her.
Tuck served the meal. He sorted through their oddments of cracked and chipped pottery plates and selected the best for Christina. She noticed the attention and was touched. Tuck gave her a heaped plate of stew with a piece of hard bread. Christina ate hungrily, dipping her bread in the stew as the others were doing. When everyone had eaten, Robin asked Christina for her story.
“My father refused to take men to fight the Welsh. My grandmother is Welsh. We have kin in Powys. Our overlord sent men to arrest my father. He and my brother resisted, but they were defeated. They were both hanged.” Christina‘s voice wavered and she shivered. She paused to regain control. “My mother and I were sent to convents to become nuns, whether we willed it or not. “
“What else, my lady? Robin asked. “What of your mother? Was she with you?”
“No,” Christina said. “She’s in another convent. She’s resigned herself to the life. All she needs to know is that we’re safe.”
Robin’s eyebrows rose.“We?”
“I have a younger brother, Nicholas. He’s hiding with a couple, my father’s tenants, near our manor. He’s only twelve. I don’t know what will happen to him if he’s caught.”
Robin thought. “I doubt if he’d be killed. He might be imprisoned or forced into the church as you were.”
Will had been watching Christina. “You’re Norman, ain’t you?” he asked.
“I said my grandmother was Welsh,” Christina answered defensively, sensing hostility.
“That’s not so bad then, is it, Will?” Much said.
“She’s still Norman, ain’t she?”
“So’s Robin,” Much answered.
“Yeah, well, he’s not too bad for a Norman.”
Robin interceded. “Will, leave it,” he said. “Any enemy of King John is welcome.” He turned to Christina. “What do you want to do, my lady?”
“Please let me stay a few days, until they’ve stopped hunting me. I’ll go find my brother. We’ll go to our kin in Wales.”
“Very well. Stay with us for the moment. We’ll talk about your plans later.”
The outlaws sat around the fire for a while, chatting idly, until they were sleepy. They laid out the pelts they slept on, with furs for blankets. Christina was given a sleeping place next to Meg. Robin spoke to Tuck , who put down his bedding on Christina’s other side, so that she’d feel safe, sleeping between a woman and a monk.
Christina fell asleep easily enough because the day had been fraught and exhausting. During the night, she woke up with the ground unyielding and cold under her. She couldn’t get comfortable again, so she sat up and saw Robin on guard, standing on the outskirts of the camp. Christina got up stiffly and went over to him. Robin motioned her further away from their sleeping companions.
“I can’t sleep,” Christina said. “The ground is so hard,”
“You get used to it,” Robin replied.
They stood together quietly for a while.
“The night seems still, but it’s busy. What do I hear?” Christina asked.
“Mice, shrews, hedgehogs, badgers, owls, foxes,” Robin said. “The hunted and the hunters. Perhaps, also, the earth turning, the moon and stars gliding in the heavens.” He laughed softly at his flight of fancy.
Christina smiled. “Who is Herne?” she asked.
“Lord of the Trees and the Hunter,” Robin explained. “The spirit of Sherwood,”
They were pagans, Christina thought. What of Tuck? Did he believe in this spirit as well as God?
“Herne is my father,” Robin said. “I do his bidding.”
Christina was shocked. “That’s blasphemy!”
“If you wish it so,” Robin said.
Christina shook her head. “I don’t wish it so, it is. What of Christ? Don’t you believe?”
“Yes, but here in the forest and in the villages, Herne is close. God is in the churches and castles.”
Robin interrupted Christina. “No more now. I’m on watch. Try to sleep.”
Christina realised she had been impertinent, although Robin had been patient and polite. “I’m sorry, Robin. I was ill-mannered. ‘
Christina crept quietly back to her sleeping place without disturbing the others. She was now wide awake and too uncomfortable to sleep. She folded her bedding into a bundle and sat on it, staring into the night. Robin’s blond hair gleamed ghostly where he stood in the trees. A while later, Robin woke Will to take his turn on watch. Will shook his head to clear it, clambered awkwardly to his feet and went to his post, yawning widely. Robin slipped into his own sleeping place.
Christina grew sleepy again and dozed uncomfortably on her seat. Soon she slipped down and curled up on the ground. She woke to find the others awake and sat up, aching all over. She got stiffly to her feet.
Meg was cleaning and binding John’s wound. She gave him a little of the poppy juice Sister Brigit had given her, to dull the pain, and bathed his forehead with a feverfew infusion. Robin sat on his haunches, watching and talking to the couple. When he was satisfied that John was doing as well as could be expected, he got on with his own morning routine. He and the other men went to a nearby stream to wash themselves.
“Meg, where can I …?” Christina asked, embarrassed.
Meg smiled. “Come with me.”
Meg got a worn towel and led Christiana to a small pool some way down the stream. It was screened by bushes. “This place is for us. The men don’t come here,” she told Christina. “I bathe here. When it’s too cold to bathe in rivers, we boil water for washing.”
Meg gave her a hazel twig to clean her teeth and lavender leaves to crush and rub on her skin for scent. The two women returned to the camp; Christina felt cleaner and fresher, although still tired and sore.
Robin, Much and Tuck sat cross-legged on the ground, scrubbing at their overnight beard growth with pieces of pumice stone. Will had made a half-hearted job and was now tending the fire. Having finished, Tuck went to cook barley cakes on a flat stone in the coals. There were also apples and thin ale. After the meal, Meg and Tuck washed the dishes. The men then checked their weapons, sharpened their swords and knives on a whetstone and burnished them with rags. They rolled up their bedding and put out the fire, keeping some of the hot coals in a small firepot.
“We’ll move south and west, well away from the roads, Robin said.”Nasir, you scout ahead. Will and Tuck, you take the first turn carrying John”
Will and Tuck gently lifted John on to the litter. They picked him up, groaning good-humouredly at John’s weight. Christina found herself carrying a share of the rolls of bedding and other stores, with Robin, Much and Meg. She walked in Meg’s footsteps, trying to tread as quietly as her companions. She dared not look about her in case she stumbled, but she was aware of the summer green around her. In some places, the sun shone down between the trees in sheer curtains of light.
Christina stayed with the outlaws for two weeks, during which they moved camp three times. John, although on the mend, still had to be carried. In the camp, Christina settled to the routine of their days: carrying water, collecting firewood, and mending clothes with thread and clumsy needles. Christina was willing, but unable, to cook. Her efforts at making oatcakes one morning resulted in a sloppy mixture bubbling and hissing to nothing on the hot cooking stone.
“Lucky I kept some of the meal from you,” Tuck said, laughing. “We can thicken it. Let me take over now.”
Robin smiled at Christina. “Do you know you have batter on your cheek and in your hair? Here, let me clean it off.”
Christina lifted her face to Robin, who wiped her cheek with his thumb and gently rubbed the batter out of her hair.
Tuck cooked the oatcakes. He piled them on a cracked wooden platter. While Christina ate from a pottery plate, the others held theirs in their hands.
Will took a sip from his cup. He sniffed at it, and then made a face. “This is water! What’s happened to the ale?”
“You drank it all last night, Will,” Much said.
“Damn!” Will exclaimed.
Once she was used to the men and trusted them, Christina enjoyed their company. Sitting around the fire in the evening, Christina was lulled into a sense of comfort and security. She felt suspended in time, free from having to make decisions. She was aware, however, that the outlaws never completely relaxed. One or two were always on watch. During the day, the men scouted as well as hunted. They practiced with their weapons and wrestled.
Christina, Robin and Tuck talked together of the wider world: of the King and the barons, their quarrels, and their wars against the French and Welsh. Christina spoke of her former life with grief but without self-pity. Robin said nothing of his old life.
Christina could speak French and some Latin.
“Who taught you Latin and French, Christina?” Robin asked.
“My mother taught me,” Christina answered. “The priest would teach only my brothers. Were you taught by a priest, Robin?”
“Yes. Norman French is my native tongue, of course. I have a smattering of Latin and was taught too much of the Romans and the Greeks.”
“And you were taught knightly pursuits?”
“Yes, but I never became a knight,” Robin said, with regret, though it was an ambition he had long given up.
“But you weren’t taught staff-fighting, archery and wrestling as part of your training in arms?”
“No, those I was taught by common men, and then I practised. I can also match Will in a fist fight, if he’s not quite sober.”
Christina laughed. “You’re bragging, Robin!”
Robin grinned. “I am.”
Robin liked Christina; he enjoyed her company and found her attractive. He appreciated her intelligence, bright in her eyes, and her warm smile. He was wary, however, of becoming too fond of her. She would go to her family and he would not see her again.
Christina, finding Robin sitting apart from the others, sharpening his sword, sat down beside him.
“May I ask you something serious, Robin?”
Robin looked at Christina quizzically and saw that she was earnest. “Maybe.”
“How did you come to this life?” Christina asked.
“I was called,” Robin replied.
“Who called you? What do you mean?”
“You won’t understand, Christina. I was called to become Robin Hood by Herne.”
“A spirit!” Christina exclaimed.
“And a man,” Robin said.
“It sounds fantastic.”
“You may see him, then you may believe me.”
“He comes to you?” Christina asked.
“Sometimes,” Robin said. “More often he calls me, in my mind, and I go to him. He reads me riddles and I see visions.”
“Do they help you?”
“They are often a warning. I don’t always understand what they mean at first.”
“I see,” Christina said, but she didn’t. She thought about what Robin had said and waited for another opportunity to speak to him alone.
“Who are you, Robin?” Christina asked.
Robin smiled. “Robin Hood.”
Christina nudged him familiarly. “No, you know what I mean.”
Robin became serious. “I was Robert of Huntingdon,” he said.
“You’re the Earl’s son!”
“I was.” Robin felt bleak, but then looked at his men, who were caring for their weapons and joking. He would not regret his old life. It was long over.
Christina followed his glance to the other outlaws.
“How did they come to be with you?”
“I found them and asked them to come back to Sherwood.”
“They had to come back? “Christina asked. “What do you mean?”
“They were outlaws before, with Robin of Loxley. They left Sherwood when he died.”
“Who was Robin of Loxley?”
“He was their leader. He was called by Herne before me. He was the first Robin Hood.”
Christina wondered if there was suppressed bitterness in Robin’s tone, but didn’t pursue the thought.
“What about Much? He seems to think of you as his brother, but you can’t be.”
“Loxley was his brother,” Robin explained. “He has, I suppose, adopted me as a substitute because I’m also Robin Hood.”