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!
Christina knew she had to leave and broached the topic with Robin. With the others listening and making comments, Christina and Robin talked through her options. As a nun, she could wait at a monastery to join suitable travellers. But she would be questioned. A young nun travelling on her own was unusual. If she had other garments, she could travel as a respectable, but indigent, young widow.
“You may go in company on the Shrewsbury Road, and on the way, fall in with wool merchants on their way home or planning to trade in Wales.” Robin said. ”You should be safe.”
Christina bit her lip, looking anxious. “I‘m unable to pay my way. I must first find my brother, Nicholas. I doubt if I’ll find company travelling that way.”
“We have a small amount of money we can spare,” Tuck said.
“Let’s think on it more, “Robin told Christina. “I’m sure we can work something out, Christina. Stay another few days.”
Christina had a heavy heart at the thought of leaving the outlaws, so she was glad to fall in with Robin’s suggestion. They would talk over her situation. She felt assured that they would think of the best way for her. That evening around the fire was poignant, as Christina knew she would be leaving soon.
The night sky wound skeins of star-studded cloth around the moon. Her friends sat in the dark with the fire glow on their faces. For a few moments, Christina saw the camp as a time-frozen tableau. Will was caught with a grin on his face. Little John had his head back as he laughed. Meg, Tuck and Much were smiling. Robin was musing. His hair was coiled with flame, his eyes deep in shadows, and his face still. He looked up at Christina and smiled. She felt her heart turn over. She was in love with Robin Hood.
Will stopped grinning and watched Christina. He spoke quietly to Nasir. “We don’t need another woman.”
Nasir looked enquiringly at Will.
Will gestured to Christina. “See how she watches Robin,” he said.
“I have seen,” Nasir said.
Christina was in love with Robin’s gentle smile, his infrequent laughter, and his unaggressive strength. She was moved by his life story. She was in love with his grey-blue eyes, alight with intelligence, and with his humour. His face was strong and taut, his skin honey-hued by the flames. His hair shone red-gold in the firelight and milk-white under the moon. She was aware of the column of his neck, the velvet dark hollow of his throat, and his warm bare skin in the open neck of his shirt and tunic. Christina flushed and turned away. She would leave soon and she would not see Robin again.
Robin liked Christina. She was cheerful company, informed and intelligent. Although her life had taken a tragic turn, she was courageous. He wanted her for a friend. Robin admired the sheen of Christina’s hair, the line of her white throat, the swell of her breasts under the drab habit, her warm grey eyes and the mischievous curve of her mouth. His breath caught in his throat. He wanted her for his lover. But she would leave soon.
Robin consulted the other outlaws about Christina’s journey. She had to travel to Stafford to collect her brother and then cross into Powys to her kin near Langollen. What was the best and safest means to achieve this? In the end, they agreed that some of them should accompany Christina and see her safely to her family. John reluctantly admitted that he was unable to make the journey because of his injury. Robin decided that Meg, Tuck and Much would stay behind with John. With only two men able to fight, they would have to lie low and move camp often. As it was, three men to escort Christina and Nicholas were few enough.
Robin suggested to Christina that she travel in the guise of a young man, to be less conspicuous. A young woman, dressed in a nun’s habit and traveling with three armed men, not knights or men-at-arms, would bring unwelcome attention. Christina was willing, but was sad to cut her splendid long hair. The outlaws gave one of the Wickham men coins to buy suitable clothes in the Nottingham market. The villager came back with second-hand garments of coarse cloth: hose, a shirt, a tunic and a cotte. They were all too big for Christina, but, with her breasts bound tight, she looked convincingly like a young lad in his elder brother’s hand-me-downs.
The outlaws decided that Robin would pose as an impoverished younger son of a knight, and the others would be his followers. To this end, Meg went to Wickham to collect the tunic and cloak Robin had worn when he first came to Sherwood. The garments had been bundled up and hidden under a bed. They were musty and bitten by insects. Meg washed them and darned the holes. The tunic was tight on Robin’s shoulders. They felt like the clothes of a half-forgotten man, once well-known.
Before starting the journey, Robin went to Herne for guidance. He found Herne in his cave: Herne the Hunter in all his majesty, Robin’s spiritual father. Herne raised his arms in the burnt smoke of the sacred fire.
“The Horn for the Hunter, Life for the Hunted, and Death for the Hounds!”
Herne lowered his arms; the flames of the fire shivered and shrank. Herne removed the horns of the Hunter and became the man. He looked weary and old: a man about to send his son into danger again.
“My son, you must take the woman to her people. You will meet a clan who yet follow the Horned God, a once great people, now diminished. You will fight for them. They will send you to the grave hill of a warrior, who will give you the call of battle. Bring it back to Sherwood.”
“But you are the Horned One, my lord,” Robin said.
“I am Herne the Hunter when the spirit of the Horned One possesses me,” Herne replied.
That was all the answer Robin would get: a riddle and prophecy to send them on their way to who knew where.
With a bold yellow moon in the sky, Robin, Nasir, Will and Christina left the camp. They went as far as they could through the forest. On the western outskirts of Sherwood, Nasir, on rearguard as usual, heard someone following them.
“Someone follows,” Nasir told Robin. The four of them quickly left the path and concealed themselves in the undergrowth.
One man came quietly along the path. Nasir leaped out and pinioned his arms. Will went to help. “Much!” he exclaimed.
Nasir let Much go. Will ranted at the unrepentant Much.
“I’m not going back,” Much said obstinately.
“He follows you, Robin,” Nasir said quietly at Robin’s shoulder.
Will gave up, throwing his arms up in the air in exasperation. “It’s too far for him to go back on his own now,” he said.
Robin sighed. “Come along then, Much.” He put his arm around Much’s shoulders.
“Good,” Much said, his mood immediately sunny.
They took the direct road towards Shrewsbury. The men were well-armed, and Christina had a long knife in her belt. Most of the travellers they met avoided them. Nasir’s sharp hearing picked up the occasional group of armed horsemen coming up behind them. As soon as the outlaws heard his warning, they were off the road and into cover as fast as possible. The first time, Robin had to drag Christina with them, but after that she was alert and moved as fast as the others. Whenever they could, Robin’s company would fall in behind a small cavalcade of merchants’ wagons, where they looked as if they were guarding the merchants.
When they turned off on to the road towards Stafford, near where Christina’s family manor was, they found a merchant and his young manservant repairing the wheel of their wagon. The two looked alarmed at the outlaws, but Robin smiled at them. “May we help you?” he asked.
“No, no, thank you,” the merchant responded. “We’re about done, but I fear I won’t make in time to meet my friends. We were to journey together. “
“We’ll accompany you,” Robin said.
The merchant was scared rather than pleased. On the one hand, he would welcome an armed escort. On the other hand, these men could be rogues.
Robin tried to calm the man’s apprehensions. “We’re traveling rough, for we’re poor, but I assure you we are respectable men like yourself. We would do you a favour. In return, would you let my young kinsman ride in the wagon with you? “Robin gestured to a surprised Christina. “He’s been ill.”
The merchant was relieved. “Yes, certainly. Come here, young lad. Up you get.” He gave Christina a boost on to the wagon.
Christina was grateful to Robin. He had noticed how weary she was. She had kept up with the men uncomplainingly, but was finding it harder to do so with every mile.
The outlaws parted on good terms with the merchant only a few miles from Lapley. They camped for the night, uncomfortably. They were unable to light a fire in case they attracted attention. Early in the morning, they went down into the valley to the cottage where the couple who were hiding Nicholas lived. The elderly man was already about. He approached them with his long fork held defensively.
Christina called to him. “Simon!” She ran to embrace him. “It’s I, Christina,” she told him when he looked flabbergasted.
“My lady? Why, I didn’t recognize you!”
“Is Nicholas safe, Simon?” Christina asked.
The man hung his head. “My lady, the new lord’s men came for him. He threatened Margery. I let them take him.” Simon said. He was unable to meet Christina’s eyes, afraid and ashamed.
Christina stared at Simon in shock.
“When?” Robin asked sternly.
“A month past.” Simon replied. “They hold him at the manor. “ He looked up at Christina reluctantly. “I’m so sorry, my lady. We failed you.”
Christina was frightened. “They may have killed him!”
“We’ll get him out of there, Christina,” Robin said, taking her arm to lead her away. She was trying to stop tears from falling.
As they all turned to leave, Will held his sword to Simon’s throat. The man was shaking with fear. “So, you were afraid of the new lord of the manor? You had better be more afraid of me. If you warn anyone, I’ll be back to slit your throat!”
“Leave him, Will, please,” Christina called back to Will. “He’s an old man.”
She led the outlaws uphill towards the manor. It was a solid house of stone and wood, with an undercroft and a solar. The house and its outbuildings were surrounded by a wooden palisade, about the height of three men. There was a ditch outside the palisade, and a solid gate with one guard. The new lord felt secure. The only member of the previous lord’s family was his prisoner. The people of the manor were too afraid to help Nicholas.
“Where do you think your brother is held?” Robin asked Christina.
“Probably in the loft above the solar,” she said.
“So, how do we get in?” Will asked.
‘We’ll have to get over the palisade,” Robin answered.
“It might be easier than that,” Christina said. “I might know the guard.”
“We can’t risk that, Christina,” Robin said. “If you don’t know him, he’ll raise the alarm.”
“If we wait till dark, I’ll get closer and look at his face in the torchlight. I’ll stick close to the fence.”
Robin measured with his eye the distance from where they stood, in the cover of trees, to the gate. He would have to get closer in order to hit a target at the gate, uphill and in the darkness.
“If you’re willing to try, Christina, then so am I. We wait for night.”
The outlaws waited in the woods for nightfall. They nibbled hard bread and slept lightly, two men on constant watch.
Before the dark set in, Christina walked in a wide circle to the palisade and crept alongside the fence until she could peer at the guard on the gate. Robin crawled on his belly to a bush halfway up the hill. He knelt in the shadow of the plant with an arrow trained on the guard. The other outlaws spread out to take up whatever cover they could find close to the holding. They watched Christina’s small dark shape. A sliver moon sliced the black night.
Christina stood with her back to the fence, twisting her neck towards the gate. If she didn’t know the guard, he might attack her before he realised she was a woman. For what seemed like long minutes, but were only seconds, she couldn’t move for fear. She slowly turned her head to look at the guard’s face, distorted by the flickering light of the torch. Holding her breath, she peered at him. Owen!
Christina took deep breaths to calm herself. She raised an arm for the outlaws to see. She called softly to the guard until he heard his name and turned towards her, with his spear held out.
“Owen, I’m Lady Christina.”
“My lady?” the man exclaimed in surprise.
“Quietly!” Christina said, coming forward, but keeping out of the light. “Will you let me speak or will you give me up to Lord Gifford?
“Is my brother here?” Christina asked.
“He’s here, my lady. He’s kept locked up above the solar.”
“Will you help me get him out, Owen?” Christina asked.
“The two of you won’t get far on your own, and the lord will kill me,” Owen answered.
“I’ve got friends with me. They’ll get us away safely.” Christina beckoned to Robin, who came out of cover, his arrow levelled at the guard.
“I don’t want to stop you, but I can’t help you either,” Owen said.
“We’ll knock you out and tie you up. Then your lord can’t blame you,” Robin told him.
“Please, Owen,” Christina said.
Owen stood, thinking. He’d respected his former lord and liked the family, but he disliked the new lord. Gifford would expect him to die rather than be captured.
Stalling, he asked Christina, “Where will you and your brother go, my lady?”
“We’re going to Wales, to our kin in Powys, “Christina replied.
“Powys? I wonder … I’ve some family there too. Never met them, mind you. “
“The Welsh set great store by kin,” Robin said.
“Aye,” Owen said to Robin. “Maybe I can see the way to helping you, if you take me with you.” Owen had friends, but no family, in England.
“That we can do.” Robin signalled to the other outlaws to join them. “Christina, lead the way. Much, have you got that rope?”
Robin motioned Christina, Much and Will in the gate ahead of him. He indicated to Nasir that he should stay with Owen. Robin didn’t think the man would betray them, but he was taking no chances.
It was quiet and dark within the palisade. The outlaws and Christina held close to the walls of the manor house until they were by the solar on the south side.
“No one sleeps here,” Christina told them.
The wooden shutters of the single window high in the wall were open to the night.
“Much, go ahead,” Robin said.
Much had tied a heavy stick to the one end of the rope. He took several throws before the stick scraped the windowsill. As he readied to try again, a face appeared at the window.
“Nicholas!” Christina called softly. “We’re going to get you out of there.”
Nicholas nodded, his face pale against the open window.
Much threw up the rope again. This time Nicholas grabbed it to make it fast inside the room. He stepped back to hastily put on his clothes and boots. He climbed carefully onto the windowsill, hauled himself onto the rope, and slid down it, hands and feet grasping tight, to land quickly at the end. His hands had rope burns, but he didn’t care. He was free. He quickly hugged Christina, before remembering his twelve-year-old dignity. He looked at the men enquiringly.
Will was restless. “Let’s get out of here,” he said. “ Names can wait till later.”
They ran quietly towards the gate where Nasir and Owen waited for them. Within a few yards of the gate, they heard growls and barking: the household dogs had heard them. The large beasts were on their heels as they reached the gate. They could hear men shouting.
Robin shouted to Nasir, “The torch, Nasir!”
Nasir threw the torch in front of the hounds. They drew back, howling, before the torch spluttered out in the sand, and the dogs resumed their pursuit . The diversion gave the fugitives enough time to slam the gate behind them and run as quickly down the slope as they could.
Several men issued from the gate, having grabbed whatever weapons were to hand. “The boy,” one shouted. “He’s got away!”
“Much, Owen, get Christina and Nicholas away,” Robin ordered.
“But, Robin …”
The four breasted the hill-top and ran down into the narrow valley below.
Robin, Nasir and Will turned to face their pursuers. The three men stuck four arrows each into the ground in front of them, notched another to their bows, and waited until Lord Gifford’s men were in bowshot range.
“Now!” Robin said.
The outlaws fired five arrows each, in quick succession. They hit a few of the men; the others took cover. Robin, Will and Nasir raced downhill and over the next hill-top after their four companions. Once in the valley, they turned to fire another volley of arrows at the men following them, who were silhouetted on the skyline for a few minutes.
The pack of hounds came pouring down the slope, teeth bared. They were large, fierce dogs who outran the men. The three outlaws fired arrows at them desperately and hit a few before the hounds were on them. They drew swords and knives to fight the beasts. Will was knocked down by one. With the dog’s teeth going for his neck, Will hit out desperately and punched the dog on the jaw. The dog yelped and fell backwards. Will kicked out at him and got back on his feet. Nasir spun his twin swords, while Robin and Will wielded swords in their right hands and their long knives in their left hands. The dogs managed to rake their claws on the outlaws’ arms and shoulders. The three men stood back to back as the dogs circled them; the beasts lunged at the men, but were beaten back by their blades. Stalemate. But six of the lord’s men were running down the slope now, sure of defeating the outlaws.
That was when Much and Owen came charging out of cover with freshly cut staves, hitting out wildly at hound and man alike. Behind them came Nicholas and Christina, waving burning brands.
Boys carry all sorts of odds and ends about them. Nicholas was no exception. His crammed
pouch had yielded a piece of flint. Dry brush had fortunately caught alight quickly. Nicholas and Christina had lit branches, stamped out the small fire, and run to help the others. They thrust the burning sticks at the dogs, yelling and calling at the same time. The dogs recognized some of the commands and the two familiar voices. At the same time, the lord’s men were shouting, and the outlaws were hitting out at them. The dogs were understandably confused and frightened. They withdrew, growling and yelping.
The fugitives took advantage of the confusion to make their escape along the valley and up the far slope. Owen took the lead because he knew the area. He took them a roundabout way until they came to the road by which they had come.
Robin paused. “Let’s put some distance between us and the manor, “he said. “Then we can wait till morning, when we can see our way.”
Much, Christina, Nicholas and Owen dozed in an overgrown coppice, several miles from the manor. Robin, Will and Nasir stayed awake, waiting for the dawn. They roused the sleepers, drank some water and ate some hard bread and hazel nuts.
Nicholas was tall for his age; he had raven-black hair like Christina and similar features. Christina introduced him to the men.
“Robin Hood!” Nicholas stared at Robin. “I thought you were only a story, not real. Shouldn’t you be bigger, and fiercer?”
Robin and Much laughed.
“He gets very fierce sometimes, does Robin.” Will joked. “Even I’m afraid of him.”
Robin smiled at the boy. “Never mind him, Nicholas. I can be fierce if I need to be, and Will is fierce all the time.” Robin reassured Nicholas. “We’re going to see you and your sister safely to your kin in Wales.”
The company started back to the Shrewsbury road. Christina and Nicholas walked side by side. They were sad and feeling lost. For both of them, this departure finally marked the end of their former secure lives. They were going to a new land, to family they didn’t know. For Nicholas this was the end of his childhood.
Christina told him about their mother. “She’s staying in the convent, Nicholas. She’s too grieved to fight any longer. She asked me to get you away. I’ll let her know somehow that we’re safe.”
Robin and his men were fortunate to fall in with a group of pilgrims who were glad to have armed company on the road. The pilgrims were humble people, walking to St. Winifred’s shrine in Shrewsbury. They were attacked once by brigands, but Robin and his men saw them off easily with a volley of arrows. They parted from the pilgrims to take the roads to Whitchurch, Ellesmere, Whittington and, so, to Oswestry. These roads were less frequented than the main road to Shrewsbury, but the outlaws fell in with small groups of merchants and farmers herding sheep to markets.
From Oswestry, they took the track across the border into Wales. There were the hills of Powys: green, with wooded slopes, wild and defiant. A short walk over Offa’s Dyke would take them into a foreign country.
Robin turned to Christina. “You’ll be welcome, Christina. You’re kin. The Welsh set great store by kinship. You also look Welsh enough. We English will be unwelcome. I hope we’re allowed passage.”
Much didn’t understand. “Why, Robin?” he asked.
“Because we are at war with the Welsh,” Robin told him. “The king and the barons won’t rest until they’ve conquered Wales.”
“You’re not English. You’re Norman,” Will said to Robin, only half-jokingly.
“There’s no difference to the Welsh,” Robin said, refusing to take Will’s bait.
The outlaws sought out a local man to guide them to their destination: Tregeiriog. Half English, half Welsh, as so many border men were, he agreed to set them on their way, some distance into Wales. For remuneration, of course. Tuck examined the contents of his thin purse.
“We can give you three pennies," Tuck said. "We also need food. Can you sell us some for another penny?”
The man, whose name was Cerdic, fetched food from his croft cottage: bread, dried fruit and dried meat. He brought a mule in from his paddock.
“Another pence and he’ll carry your baggage for you,” Cerdic said.
“He’ll also carry you home again, you rogue!” Will said.
Robin agreed to take the mule because Christina and Nicholas could take turns riding him.
Cerdic guided them halfway to their destination, which took them two days. They walked on paths that took them through valleys between craggy and wooded hills. The tree leaves were turning colour and the heather on the hills was brown. Farmsteads were widely scattered in the valleys.
Cerdic gave the outlaws further directions as far as he could. He turned back home, content with his earnings.
The going now became difficult for the outlaws. The paths were hard to follow and led through wooded valleys and enclosing hills, ideal for ambush. When they came to farm holdings, Christina and Nicholas asked for directions. The directions were often vague and grudgingly given to strangers. The outlaws spent days trudging along overgrown paths.
They were almost relieved when they realised they were being tracked. Men, hidden in the woods, kept pace with them on either side of the path. The outlaws notched arrows to their bowstrings, facing in four directions, with Christina and Nicholas in the middle. Abruptly, an arrow struck the ground at Robin’s feet. The outlaws couldn’t see targets to aim at in return. A man called out in Welsh ahead of them.
“Gorau! Pwy dych chi?”*
“Now’s the time to speak Welsh,” Will said to Christina.
Christina cleared her throat nervously and ran her tongue over her dry lips. Her voice came out in a whisper at first, but then strengthened with her determination. She spoke a greeting in Welsh, hoping that she had it right.
There was silence for a moment. Then the man called out again.
“I’m not sure, “ Christina said. “I think he’s asking who we are.”
Will shrugged. “Well, he would, wouldn’t he?”
Christina glared at Will.
“Can you answer, Christina?” Robin asked.
“I’ll try,” Christina said. “Help me, Nicholas.”
The two siblings called out, as best they could, who they were and where they were going, giving the name of their kinsfolk.
Their unseen interrogator asked another question about the outlaws. Christina and Nicholas together answered that the outlaws were travelling companions escorting them safely to their kin. Christina knew they were speaking Welsh poorly, but hoped that the man understood.
Evidently he did because he called out a command that the outlaws lay down their bows. They did so reluctantly.
There was rustling in the undergrowth and the Welsh stepped out of the woods on to the path. There were ten of them, armed with longbows, knives and spears. The leader had a sword instead of a spear. Their clothes were plain woolen tunics and hose. They looked interested in the company, but not hostile. They gestured at the outlaws’ bows, surprised to see Englishmen carrying Welsh weapons.
The leader looked at Christina closely, having realised from her voice that she was a woman. He gestured for her and Nicholas to come to him. When the outlaws walked forward behind the pair, the Welshmen surrounded the outlaws, with spears pointed at Robin and his men.
“Stand still,” Robin commanded. The outlaws were disarmed and herded forward by the Welshmen.
The leader explained to Christina that the outlaws were their prisoners, but that Christina and Nicholas were their guests. He spoke a few words of English, which he used with disdain.
“We could have killed the bastards!” Will said.
“No, Will,” Robin said. “I don’t think they’ll harm us.”