Terrouge E-zine Archives
Robin Hood II: The Prince of Sherwood - Chapter 38
The reunion between Skippy and his family was a tearful one, but along with the tears of anger and sadness over the loss of their longtime homestead were also tears of relief that everyone was safe and reunited again. Mother, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters took turns hugging one another in the glade, wringing from the moment whatever joy was to be found in these dire circumstances.
For their part, Tuck and Bettina could see the wisdom in Will not telling Skippy his family was among the refugees; something like that was best left between loved ones. The badger and otter were also taken aback by the number of displaced townsfolk now crowding the camp. When Will had reported that he'd encountered a group of travelers seeking help, they hadn't imagined he meant nearly a score and a half, or that they'd been burned out of their homes and had nowhere else to go. Tuck knew most of them by name, having seen them in his church or delivered aid to them during troubled times of need. To see them in this plight tore at his heart.
"That blackhearted madbeast!" the former friar exploded, unable to contain his umbrage any longer. "Who does he think he is?! Not even King John would resort to burning down part of a town! Gisbourne is no knight, or I'm the Archbishop!"
Bettina sought to calm her friend with a flipper on Tuck's shoulder. "Easy now. These folks have been through a lot, and what they need now is comfort and reassuring, not more grief, however well-intentioned."
"And what Gisbourne needs is a good tail-kicking," Will put in. "I'm sorry, Tina, but Tuck's got every reason to be outraged over this. We all do. I can't imagine how Rob's gonna take it when he gets back."
"Where're Alan and Kluck?" the otter laundress asked.
"Doing a little road repair. If they do a thorough job of it, I doubt we'll see them much before dusk – and I doubt we'll see Gisbourne and his goons anywhere within a mile of this place, even with his best trackers."
"Well, I should certainly hope not," said Tuck. "I'd hate to think of him despoiling this fair wood with his presence – not to mention that seeing that smug, arrogant face of his outside our camp would be our worst nightmare made real."
"Hey, enough of that kind of talk!" Will cautioned. "These folks have been through enough without you bringing up any more nightmares. But I will stake my claim on Gisbourne now. If he comes within shooting range of this camp, I'll be the one to part his scalp with an arrow. Robin and Little John will just have to settle for the leftovers!"
This display of bravado was just what the exiles from Nottingham needed to hear. Everyone within earshot of Will cheered and applauded the gray fox's boast, glad to have found such a champion and protector.
It was then that their true champion and protector strode into camp through the waterfall cave. "Throwing a party without me?" Robin asked, then did a double take as he realized there were several times as many people in the glade as there should have been, including many children. "Hullo, what's all this?"
"Must be tourist season," Little John quipped from over the fox's shoulder. "Didn't know we'd become such a popular destination."
Robin looked to Will. "We didn't see a blasted soul out on the forest paths all day, and here you've rounded up a whole season's worth! I assume there's a story behind all of this … "
"Indeed there is," Will replied, and quickly filled Robin in on recent events. The archer fox's face grew both aggrieved and dark at the news of Gisbourne's latest atrocity.
"Now he's gone too far! We've got to stop him before he hurts anyone else!"
"We'd need an army to go up against his army," said Little John, looking around the crowded clearing, "and all I see here is a bunch of vanquished, goodhearted folks who've got nowhere else to go and need our help."
"We don't need an army," Will Scarlet scoffed. "All we need is one arrow right in the middle of his fuzzy black forehead – and we've got just the archer to put it there!" he added, patting Robin on the shoulder.
The green-clad outlaw gently removed his cousin's paw from his shoulder, his face somber. "I tried assassination once already, Will, and found it's not my style. I'll not do any such thing unless it's in the heat of battle, or to save the life of someone Gisbourne's threatening."
"With all due respect, he's done more than threaten us already." The hound in the floppy hat came forward. "An' what yer big friend said is true 'nuff, Robin Hood sir. We're not soldiers or fighters, just simple family types. Our homes're all gone, along with most of our clothes, food, furnishings, our children's toys, keepsakes an' mementos, an' all our other worldly possessions. When that fire swept through our neighborhood, we hadta run fer our lives, an' didn't have time t' save much t'all. Gisbourne coulda had his guards help, but he was just sitting back enjoying th' whole thing. We need a place t' stay, an' if it ain't gonna be here, I don't know where it'll be."
Skippy stepped up to the hound's side. "You've gotta let 'em stay, Mr. Robin! My Mum and brothers and sisters have nowhere else to go!"
"Of course you're more than welcome to stay, all of you, for as long as you like," Robin said. "I can't promise you all the comforts of home. We're not really set up for families here. And we're certainly not set up for so many new arrivals at once. But we can make the room, and if you're willing to put up with our simple amenities, you'll not want for fellowship and good cheer, because that we can offer you, and in abundance!"
New cheers arose, and it was clear at once that nobody there had any reservations at all about accepting Robin's conditions. He glanced up at the big bear. "Looks like things just got a lot more crowded around here!"
"Yeah," Little John agreed. "But at least it'll be a happy kind of crowding!"
Gisbourne's patience was fading along with the daylight.
Picking up the tracks of such a large group heading out from Nottingham into Sherwood Forest proved to be child's play, and it was obvious that these unskilled peasants had made no effort whatsoever to hide the traces of their passage. Sir Guy found himself struggling to keep a smile from his face as he headed his twoscore troops along the winding forest paths; these fools were going to lead him straight to Robin Hood without even realizing it!
That all changed around sundown, when the tracks of the refugees suddenly disappeared, right in the middle of the woodlands. Signs of brushstrokes showed that the tracks had been deliberately and methodically obliterated, but by whom? That was the question.
Gisbourne led his squad of executioners another half mile along the trail to see if the tracks might resume, but they never did. Along the way they passed numerous branch-offs from the main path, some quite obvious and others little more than the faintest hints of footpaths, mostly overgrown with grass and underbrush, but none showed any sign that the refugees had fled that way. The central path also passed through several glades and clearings and one rocky grotto where it all but disappeared for many yards before reemerging from the other side.
"Pah!" Gisbourne snorted. "They could have gone anywhere from here!"
His soldiers had nothing to add to this observation; without Gisbourne as their guide, they would have been lost already.
The panther stood in the day's dying light, mulling over the situation. Why had the townsfolk waited until they were so far into the forest before wiping their tracks? The possibility could not be dismissed that right from the start they'd counted on being followed, and had knowingly led their pursuers astray – in which case the outlaw encampment could lie many miles from this spot, in an altogether different part of Sherwood Forest. Then there was the possibility that they'd encountered some of Robin Hood's band during their travels, and that the bandit fox and his helpers had been the ones who'd wiped out the tracks. If that were true, then the outlaw hideout might have been a mere stone's throw from where the tracks first disappeared … or it might not be.
This could even have been a diversion to draw Gisbourne away from Nottingham so that Robin Hood could embark upon some other mischief there. Sir Guy had gone from street to street to round up enough troops for this expedition, and that had left the town and castle severely underguarded these past few hours. If the outlaw had snuck in while Gisbourne was sneaking out, he could have robbed half of Nottinghamshire by now, right under the Sheriff's nose.
Another possibility was that this was all a ploy to lead him into an ambush. As much as Gisbourne prided himself on his tracking skills, the simple truth was that these were Robin Hood's woods, and the fox knew every tree and trail better than Sir Guy ever would. An archer of such skill, especially with other decent shooters helping him, could snipe at Gisbourne's column from the safety of the greenery, picking off the soldiers one or two at a time and then fading back into the forest.
Tempted as he was to set up camp here and resume the search come morning, scouring the forest and beating the bushes for a mile in every direction, Gisbourne decided that in this case at least, discretion was the better part of valor. If Robin Hood's band was already involved in this – a good bet, considering how completely the tracks had been erased – then Sir Guy's detachment could very well come under attack during the night, over and over again, with or without watches posted. Even with his superb feline night vision, Gisbourne did not relish a nighttime guerrilla engagement in unfamiliar terrain where the enemy held every advantage except numbers. He'd seen enough of such action during the Crusades, and he knew how badly such engagements usually ended for the visiting force.
"We will not find them now," the panther announced to his soldiers. "We are heading back to Nottingham."
Any disgruntlement the troops might have felt about facing yet another long march after being on their feet for so long was outweighed by their relief at hearing the retreat ordered. Some had tangled with Robin Hood in his earlier outlaw days, and like Gisbourne, they did not relish the prospect of remaining in Sherwood Forest after dark.
Gisbourne stared into the deepening forest shadows around them. "Not today, Robin Hood," he muttered to himself. "Not today, but soon."
It was full night when Alan-a-Dale and Kluck returned to the camp. They'd worked at their task of rubbing out the refugees' tracks until the dusk had so deepened that they could no longer see what they were doing, then headed through the dense woods to their current forest home.
"We brushed the path clean for about a mile out from the main branch, all the way past that and halfway to Egg Rock," the minstrel reported. "We can finish doing the rest tomorrow, soon as it's light enough."
"Aye, 'twas hard on the back muscles, an' my wings feel like I used 'em to fly all the way here from London," the hen added, "but I'll wager dinner 'n' breakfast both that no villain'll be able to follow these good folks to us now."
"There's a lot more at stake than a couple of meals here, Klucky," Little John reminded her.
"Did you see any signs of Gisbourne or his troops at all?" Robin asked the two birds.
"Nay," Kluck answered. "If that scoundrel tried any pursuit 'tall, he got too late a start. Our dear woods were clean of his foul presence!" Alan nodded in agreement.
"And I trust Klucky here didn't bother you with too many amorous advances while you were out there together?" Robin asked of Alan with a knowing smile.
"Auch, we were all business," Kluck maintained. "No time fer such foolishness when matters are serious. O' course, now that we're back where we're safe an' sound … " She fluttered her eyelashes Alan's way.
"Uh, is that cinnamon acorn bread I smell?" Alan-a-Dale asked of no one in particular, rushing off toward the camp's oven.
For the rest of that night, things were quiet at their hideaway. The displaced families were all tired from their long walk, their relief at finding sanctuary here tempered by the losses they'd suffered. Not even the young ones, most of whom were excited by the prospect of living with the famed outlaw, needed any extra encouragement to settle in for a long night's rest after dinner. Robin wanted to keep talk and activity to a minimum until Alan and Kluck could finish clearing all the tracks from the path, and the nearer forest could be fully scouted to make sure Gisbourne hadn't ventured close to this spot.
The refugees found soft grassy tussocks or mossy patches to bed down for the night, clustering into tight-knit family groupings. Skippy seemed happy to be back with his mother and his thirteen siblings, snuggling together with them on the ground in a slight hollow near the thorn hedge barrier, while his turtle friend Toby nestled with his parents alongside the stone oven to bask in its radiating warmth.
Robin and Little John stood surveying the scene before turning in themselves. "Look at all those sleeping beauties," the big bear mused. "Gotta say, it's not as crowded as I though it'd be."
"But still crowded enough," said Robin. "After what they've been through, they deserve better than we'll be able to give them. How will we feed them all, and keep them clothed? And not every night will be as clear and mild as this one. We'll need a lot more tenting material for shelters – we might even have to build log-covered burrows for them, especially if they're still here come winter. I'm certainly not going to turn them away in their moment of need, but this might be more than we can cope with."
"Tsk tsk tsk!" Little John shook his head. "Rob, I'm surprised at you, forgetting our most important guiding principle!"
"You mean … "
"Steal from the rich and give to the poor. If ever there was a time for that, this is it! And having so many of the poor living right here with us will make the job of spreading around the nobles' wealth all the easier! No more house calls!"
"Well, that's certainly the sunny side of looking at it. I suppose we've no choice now but to go back to our old ways. At least Will will be happy – he's been spoiling for some good old fashioned robbery ever since he got here!"
"It'll be good having him with us again," Little John said. "He was always nearly as audacious as you were, and every bit as crafty too. Working together, the three of us should be able to pull off some capers that'll go down in legend!"
"Yes, I'm sure we will. And I know just where to start!"