Terrouge E-zine Archives
"Robin Hood II: The Prince of Sherwood" - Chapter 17
Robin made straight for the spot directly under King John's window. In addition to his weapons, he also carried with him a coil of slender rope looped over his shoulder, discreetly borrowed earlier that day from the same storeroom where Sir Hiss now lay imprisoned by canvas and wicker. He crept along stealthily, sticking to the shadows whenever he could to keep himself hidden from any waking eyes.
The tower keep's sole window overlooked an expanse of green lawn and shrubbery that provided plenty of cover. Robin passed two sentries who lay unconscious upon the soft grass; his zigzagging path also took him near the tree upon which, many years before, he and Marian had carved their initials, sealing their devotion as childhood sweethearts. He unconsciously fingered his wedding band, reminded anew of the reason behind his mission here.
Reaching his desired spot, he quickly uncoiled the thin rope and tied one end around an arrow. The king's bedchamber lacked a balcony, but the wooden roof cone provided a slight overhang that stuck out past the sheer tower walls. Robin set the arrow to his bowstring, pulled back, and aimed straight up as he released the shaft. It thunked solidly into the eaves just above the bedroom window. He gave the trailing tether a soft, testing tug. It would never support his full weight, but if he wanted to have any hope at all of living past this night, he would need a guaranteed escape route, and this would give him exactly that.
Robin went to the nearest clump of bushes, taking off his quiver and stashing it within the greenery, along with his bow. He unbuckled his sword belt and slung it over his shoulder where he would normally wear his quiver. Lastly, he grabbed up a small fistful of the dry topsoil and rubbed it between his paws, then scuffed his unshod soles against the ground several times like an athlete digging in to run a marathon. Feeling as ready as he would ever be, he returned to the tower wall and commenced a feat of daring that would be talked about for generations to come, in spite of the fact that there was not a soul to witness it.
It was good that he was shoeless, because Robin needed every available finger and every available toe to seek out gaps and crevices in the stonework and maintain his precarious grip. For the next several minutes he defied gravity like a huge red-furred fly, hauling himself right up the vertical tower face one tenuous arm's reach at a time. He'd engaged in similar - and perhaps even more dangerous - stunts in his younger days, but never had the stakes been so high.
His arms were trembling from nervous exhaustion by the time he gained the open window, six stories above the lawns. Robin pulled himself up onto the wide sill, then crouched there taking in the chamber before him while he waited for his shaking to subside.
A single lamp lit the room with a wan yellow glow, throwing deep shadows all around. Robin's gaze went first to the wide canopied bed, but it was empty, with no figure huddled under the covers. Scanning the chamber, he located King John around on the other side of the bed, snoozing in a deep wingback chair with his feet up on a cushioned ottoman before him. He wore his royal blue robe and his crown as well, and an unsheathed sword lay across the lion's lap. A quick glance toward the door showed that it was indeed bolted and braced, and probably locked too, with a key that could be anywhere. Robin cracked a mirthless smile at the arrangement; he hadn't planned on using that exit anyway. Overall, he could not have asked for a better scenario.
Leaning back out over the six-story drop while he steadied himself on the window frame with one paw, he snatched at his dangling lifeline and gave it several sharp jerks until the arrow came free. Moving with the silent grace of a practiced thief who was only slightly out of practice, Robin lowered himself onto the floor and padded over to the big bed, tying the rope around one post with a complex knot that could not be easily undone. Satisfied that he was now fully prepared to meet his fate, he came around the end of the bed to stand before the unaware monarch and murderer of his wife.
A large silver serving platter sat upon a side table along one wall - the very same platter that Robin had seen Bannister using earlier that evening to deliver King John's meal. Acting with calm nonchalance, Robin drew his sword from over his shoulder and reached out with the blade, spilling the tray from its resting place onto the stone floor with an unearthly crashing clatter.
King John came instantly awake in the expected manner, jerking upright in his chair and casting about like a startled child. For several moments he seemed oblivious to the presence of his mortal enemy standing directly in front of him; then his eyes widened in a mix of surprise, fear and hatred. "You!" he spat.
Robin kept his voice lethally level. "I'm glad you've got a sword, Your Majesty. You're going to be needing it."
Without stopping to think about the situation, the king yelled out, "Guards! Guards! He's in here! Robin Hood is in here!"
"No one will be coming to save you this time. It's just you and me. Now take up your blade and face me like you've got an ounce of spine in your back. When I kill you, I want it to be in a fair fight."
King John stood, his sword held out before him in uncertain and quavering paws as he realized the door to his chamber remained bolted and barred. The only way his guards would be able to get in would be by smashing the door to splinters with an axe. His enemy must have come in through the window; once again, Robin Hood had achieved the impossible. Nevertheless, his shouts of alarm must surely have been heard. All he had to do was keep the fox from slaying him until the door could be breached, and then...
But the vengeful outlaw gave him no chance to delay. Before John knew what was happening he found his enemy's blade seeking out his own, steel striking steel, and the monarch was left no choice but to battle back as best he could. John was not the most skilled of bladesbeasts, and had absolutely embarrassed himself the last time he crossed swords with this particular foe; however, two years in the royal penal quarry had hardened his muscles as well as his heart, and he found himself holding off his would-be assassin better than either of them could have foreseen.
He could also not have known how tired Robin was, between his death-defying climb to reach this chamber and not having slept in over a day. The fox truly was running on nervous energy.
In spite of all this, a few dozen sword strikes into the contest John found his blade flying from his grasp to land on the bed alongside him. Backing away, he clasped his paws before him. "Mercy! Have mercy!"
To his surprise, Robin did not charge to strike the killing blow or fatal thrust, but merely stood his ground, glowering at the lion with his hard, cold glare. "Pick it up," he commanded.
Uncertainly, John did as ordered. The moment the weapon was back in his grasp, Robin renewed his attack, leaving the besieged king little time to collect himself. Determined not to waste this second chance or be humiliated yet again, John fought back with all the savagery he could muster, slashing and thrusting for all he was worth and compensating for his lack of skill with pure brutish bluster. Not only did he succeed in keeping the fox's blade from drawing any of his blood, but several of his own swings nearly connected.
Realizing his adversary was actually putting up some semblance of a real fight, Robin dodged a thrust and leapt up onto the bed without missing a beat, his assault on the monarch continuing unabated. This elevated position left his legs and belly more vulnerable, but in spite of his tired state, Robin was too much an expert with the sword to let John land a blow. Before long, the lion's weapon was forced from his grasp a second time. Robin stepped down from the mattress to stand before the quaking ruler.
"Are you ready to receive justice now?" the fox demanded.
"You... you can't kill me!" John declared in a half-snarl, half-whimper. "I'm king! You can't kill royalty!"
"That didn't stop you from having Marian murdered."
"She wasn't supposed to die!" John wailed. "It was a mistake! That arrow was meant for you, not her! I... I cared about her! And you can't say I didn't! She was my niece before she was your wife!"
This was exactly the wrong thing to say to Robin in his present mood. "Don't you say that! Don't you dare say that! I... I loved her! And you don't even know what love is!" Robin stepped forward, sword raised for a killing blow.
John sank to his knees, arms raised over his head. "Spare me! A boon, spare me!"
Robin stood there over his mortal enemy, his blade held high to deliver the lethal strike. Frozen in that pose for several long seconds, his arm began to tremble. He lowered it for a moment, then recollected himself with a deep breath and lifted his sword a second time in a more determined fashion, jaw clenched and eyes hard. Still, no death blow came.
John risked a glance up at the threatening fox. "You - you can't do it, can you?" he ventured, hope tempering his fear and intimidation. "You can't strike down an unarmed opponent in cold blood - not even the one you hold responsible for your wife's death!"
Robin lowered the sword, backing away from the king, his hate-filled gaze fixed on the lion. "I'm not you... "
Emboldened, John climbed back to his feet, relief and scorn competing for dominance on his features. "Heh heh," he laughed nervously. "Here I was, holed up in this tower, fearing for my life over what revenge you might seek. And all this time, I was hiding from NOTHING!" The venom he spat into that last word was hurled at his adversary like the ultimate dismissive insult.
Robin looked down at his sword, running his paw along the blade's keen edge. "You're forgetting one thing, Your Majesty."
"Oh?" John chuckled, the realization that he was going to live making him more his old self again. "And just what, pray tell, is that?"
"Swords have flat sides to their blades as well."
For many long moments, John simply stared at Robin in puzzlement as if the fox had spoken to him in a foreign language. His mystification turned to alarm as the outlaw lunged at him again, sword raised to strike... and this time Robin did not belay his blows. Using the flat of his sword as a whiplike paddle, he laid into the king with a literal vengeance, unleashing a furious torrent of blows without break or cease. Paws, ears, muzzle, arms, legs, head, tail, back, rump and ribs all took stinging, bruising punishment, the smack of steel against flesh and bone coming at an almost impossible rate. John's yowls, at first merely surprised and indignant, quickly turned to yelps of pain, mixed with the blubbering of a naughty child being punished. In no time at all he was back on the floor and reduced to tears, trying in vain to fend off the blows before giving up and simply shielding his head with his abused arms.
It seemed to last forever, and twice that long from John's viewpoint. It also seemed unthinkable that his anguished cries would not wake up all of Nottingham. The monarch did not in fact suffer any serious injury during this assault, but it would have been impossible to convince him of that during those endless moments.
At last, Robin broke off his abuse, stepping back and breathing heavily. "That's for Marian," he murmured, feeling a satisfaction he'd not felt since his wife's death. Sheathing his sword as he regarded the cowering lion before him with disdain, he started for the window. "I'm finished here."
His expression twisting from pained fear to snarling hate, John rose up onto his knees to glare at the departing fox with bared teeth. "Yes, you're finished!" he shouted, flecks of foam spraying from his quivering lips. "You are utterly, completely finished! I've taken away everything that means anything to you! Once you were nobility, but now you're nothing but an outlaw! A common outlaw! And as long as I'm on the throne of England, you'll never be anything else!"
Robin hopped up onto the windowsill, taking hold of the rope he would use to make his escape. Looking the furious monarch in the eye with a level gaze, he merely replied, "As long as you're on the throne of England, there's nothing else I'd rather be." Almost calmly, he backed out of the window, lowering himself by his improvised lifeline.
Gnashing his teeth, King John leapt up and rushed to the window, sparing a glance at the rope tied to his bedpost. By the time he got there and leaned out over the sill, Robin was already two stories below in the course of his rapid descent. Filled with hate and frustration, John grabbed the rope with both paws and began shaking it as hard as he could. Robin found himself being tossed about like a rag doll on puppet strings, and had to use every ounce of his remaining strength just to keep from being thrown free for an unwanted four-story drop. Somehow, he managed to hang on.
"Why... won't... you... just... DIE?!!?" Seeing that this tactic wasn't working, John began hauling the rope up into his bedchamber, a malicious sneer on his face. If he could pull it up faster than Robin could descend, the fox would be left high and dry with no rope to reach the ground. Of course, it didn't occur to him that Robin might simply cling onto the rope until he was back in the bedchamber, or what he was going to do with the outlaw if such a thing came to pass; the enraged king wasn't thinking that far ahead.
Robin tried to increase the rate of his descent, but there was only so much speed he could achieve with a paw-under-paw climb. Acutely aware that the length of rope below him was growing shorter and shorter even while he remained stalled at four stories above the ground, he finally decided to abandon the rope altogether and go back down the way he went up. Fastening onto the stonework with first one paw and then the other, and then with both feet as well, he let the rope fly up past him.
At first John couldn't understand why the rope suddenly had no weight on it. There had been no scream from a falling creature, and he could still see Robin below him. When the lower end of the rope came into his paws, he simply stared at it, mystified. Looking down once more, he saw Robin clinging onto the outside of the tower, working his incremental way back to earth.
"How is he DOING that?" John muttered to himself in consternation. Then, turning away from the window, he rushed to his bedchamber door, kicking aside the bar and sliding back the bolt and unlocking the lock with the key fished out of his robe pocket. If this was to be a race to see who could reach the ground first, he'd give that traitorous Robin Hood a run for the gold - and he'd make sure he had his guards with him.
Unfortunately, the scene that greeted him when he entered the corridor beyond - a tableau of two soldiers fast asleep and dead to the world, who could not be roused even by literal kicking and screaming - made him realize that maybe he was more alone than he'd imagined.