Terrouge E-zine Archives
Robin Hood II: The Prince of Sherwood - Chapter Forty-One
"Oh, Hiss, this is rich. Too rich by half!"
King John stood in his private audience chamber with his favorite reptilian advisor, perusing the dispatch from Nottingham his messenger had just delivered to him. Sir Hiss slithered forward, raising himself up and straining to read the parchment that his lion master held in his paws. "What is it, Your Highnessss?"
"It's that maniac Gisbourne. No sooner do I waste my entire morning having to endlessly placate Lady Grantham and Duke Mowbray, who were demanding reparations from the royal treasury for being banished from Castle Nottingham in such a brutish manner without any chance to so much as gather their possessions, than that panther sends me a request for an additional fivescore soldiers to help him hunt down Robin Hood… "
"Fivesscore?" Hiss echoed. "Whatever for, Your Majessty? Does he ssay?"
"He wants to march on Sherwood Forest itself, to find Hood's secret lair and mount an assault on it. That brute thinks he's still on the Crusades!"
"Will you honor his requesst, Ssire?"
"Of course not. Don't be ridiculous! With that pipsqueak Arthur of Brittany challenging me for rule of our French territories, war is nearly at our doorstep, and I'll need every available soldier for that campaign if it really does come to blows. Curse that King Philip, thinking he can just give away my lands like that! I'll show him! But, as for Gisbourne, no, he is not getting a single soldier more. I gave him an additional score on top of what the Sheriff and the Earl already had on site, and if he can't manage a simple outlaw with such forces, then I've obviously sent the wrong warrior to do that job. I'm almost tempted to recall him in case I need him for France, but I'll let him stew in Nottingham for now. It's the least he deserves after stirring up all that trouble with the nobles there."
"Well," Hiss ventured, "perhapss that incsident with the Duke of Bassingstoke should have warned uss that Ssir Guy might have ssome problems getting along with nobles." Catching the dark glance John cast his way, the serpent quickly went on, "And what of the Earl? Does Gisbourne confirm in this letter that he has the Earl in chains, as the other nobles told uss?"
John scanned down the message a second time. "Yes, he does. Sir Guy seems quite certain that the Earl was aiding Robin Hood, and helped one of his band escape from imprisonment. I'm hardly surprised; I'd always suspected that felonious feline harbored secret sympathies toward the peasants and even Robin Hood himself. He allowed himself to grow too close to that outlaw while Richard had the run of England - one more problem my brother left for me. I will leave it to Gisbourne to decide what to do with the Earl. I did, after all, give Sir Guy authority in such matters."
"Perhaps you should not have granted him quite sso much latitude in this area, Your Highnessss. Now that he's imprisoned the Earl and sslain the guard you assigned to watch over him, there's no one elsse to rein him in."
"Oh, pah! I only sent that guard as a precaution in case Gisbourne turned out to be an ally of Robin Hood's, and that's clearly not the case. And our dear ineffectual Sheriff wouldn't be able to runs things there on his own. No, Gisbourne is right where I want him. He's a ruthless, cold-hearted, maniacal killer, and if he can't catch Robin Hood, I trust he can at the very least make the good peasants of Nottingham regret ever embracing such an impudent, disrespectful thief as their hero. Yes… I trust he will make them regret it very, very much."
"From the ssound of things, I'd ssay he already has. Sso, how shall we reply to our appointed enforcser?"
"Hmm. I'm tempted not to reply at all, and just leave him hanging. But then, why pass up a golden opportunity to express my displeasure at his lack of progress? By all means, Hiss, write up a response flatly denying him any extra soldiers, making it clear that I expect him to succeed with the generous resources I've already bestowed upon him. If he can't… well, just let him know he will have disappointed his king."
"I'll get right on it, Ssire!"
"And don't be the least bit diplomatic in your wording, Hiss. I know how you like to sugarcoat things in your correspondences, and that's fine for sensitive matters of the court, but Gisbourne requires a more direct approach. Don't be subtle."
Hiss nodded. "Yess, Ssire! No ssubtlety or diplomatic phrasings… "
"Very good, then." King John tore up the parchment with undisguised satisfaction, casting the fragments onto a nearby tray for later disposal by the castle staff. "Now let us move on to more important matters. Nottingham - and Sir Guy of Gisbourne - will just have to take care of themselves."
The Archbishop of Canterbury's caravan wound its way south along the King's Highway through Sherwood Forest toward Nottingham. If they were aware that the legendary outlaw dwelt in these woodlands once more, they did not allow this fact to alter their travel route. Any bandit so foolish as to waylay this procession would quickly find himself engaged by trained church guards, and either repelled or slain. The Archbishop had just completed an extensive tour of his northern dioceses, collecting a huge amount of local tithes and pledges, and now sought to deliver them to his main church treasury on England's south coast with utmost speed.
The two rhino guards pulling the lead carriage paid no attention to the woods around them, all their concentration on the road in front of them and the burden with which they struggled. In spite of this focus upon the path their heavy footsteps trod, they failed to take any special heed of a patch of differently colored and textured earth before them in the middle of the uncobbled road. It wasn't until the unlucky pair found themselves crashing through the dirt-covered thatch into an unsuspected pit that they realized perhaps they should have been more wary.
Those following behind the lead carriage could see only that the first vehicle had come to a sudden unexplained stop. However, they were given no time to look into the nature of this unexpected delay, for at that moment the forest greenery around them erupted, spewing out hidden watchers. The bandits had indeed fallen upon the Archbishop's caravan, but not in the way any of the travelers would have predicted. This was not just the renegade fox with one or two of his accomplices, but a veritable army of outlaws. Before the remaining guards could react, they found themselves in the sights of over a dozen archers, arrows nocked and strings drawn taut, while another dozen or more converged on the halted caravan with swords and staffs.
Robin, content to leave the bow and arrow hijinks to his followers for the moment, sauntered over to the pit and peered down at the trapped rinos. "Hello down there, boys! Don't try to climb out of there on my account! Just make yourselves comfortable where you are, and you'll get to keep those magnificent horns of yours."
Realizing that the famous bandit would not be making so light of the situation or casting out such blithe threats unless he was entirely in control here, the two rhinos ceased their struggles to escape and stayed where they were, biding their time at the bottom of the pit until this was all over.
The window curtains parted in the lead coach and a pig's head topped by a fine black velvet hat poked out into the dappled sunlight. "I say, what's the hold up? I have to be in Nottingham by… " And at that his voice broke off with a porcine squeal, as he realized the huge, green-clad bear who stood brandishing a quarterstaff right outside his carriage door was but one of a score of armed bandits encircling his caravan. Sputtering like a stranded fish, the pig fumbled with the lock to his coach door, but he was not quick enough.
"Well, look who we have here!" Little John wrenched open the door and levered the Archbishop out onto the road by one fat arm. The flustered cleric nearly stumbled, but the bear made sure to keep the pig upright while maintaining his friendly demeanor. "Why, if it isn't the Archbishop of Canterbury himself!"
Robin and his immediate companions, having seen to it that the rhino carriage-pullers in the road pit would cause no trouble, now strode up and down the lines of the deflated guards, relieving them one by one of their weapons. "Don't want any unfortunate accidents, do we?" the fox said in his most helpful and courteous manner. "We can't risk anything that might tarnish your enjoyment of all the hospitality Sherwood Forest has to offer!"
In very short order the entire company of the Archbishop's guards stood disarmed, none summoning the courage to challenge their ambushers. Robin strolled over to the bishop, who by now had overcome his initial fear and allowed indignation to replace it. "This is a procession of the holy church!" he protested. "How dare you treat us in such a manner!"
"But, Your Eminence," Robin said, performing a mock bow, "we seek only to lighten your burden and help you on your way! It's the neighborly thing to do!"
"If you commit violence or thievery against me, it will be on your immortal soul!"
"Oh, don't you worry your big pink head over that, Bish," Little John told the blustering pig. "We've already got someone better than you to look after our immortal souls. Hey, Tuck, get over here 'n' check out the fish we've netted!"
The badger friar ambled over from the forest edge to join them in the road, eyeing the his old enemy with something less than holy piety. "Well, well, well," Tuck said. "The high and mighty Archbishop himself! And now at last I get to meet you face to face - which is more courtesy than you showed me when you sent one of your lackeys to inform me I'd been excommunicated."
"Tsk, tsk, tsk," Robin tsked, shaking his head in false lament. "To imagine one of my oldest and dearest friends, treated so shabbily! We shall certainly show you greater kindness than you showed Tuck here, Your Eminence. In fact, we can remind Your Lordliness of the true meaning of charity! We're only too happy to help. Let this be the day you turn over a new leaf, and never again disparage another kind soul through word or deed!"
The fox bandit's mention of charity gave the Archbishop an idea. Like most of England, he knew only too well Robin Hood's penchant for giving aid to the poor, and the greedy cleric now saw an opportunity to escape from this predicament with his purse none the lighter.
"Why, charity is the very reason for my being here!" the Archbishop proclaimed. "I was just on my way to Nottingham to dispense the aid of the Church to those poor and downtrodden souls most in need of such beneficence in these hard times! Now, if you truly care for the suffering peasantry as much as your reputation claims, you'll allow me on my way at once. The sooner I arrive, the sooner I can distribute these alms to the unfortunate!"
"Well, if that ain't a crock," Little John remarked almost admirably, leaning on his staff. "And he said it all with a straight face too."
Friar Tuck was less charitable toward the Archbishop's false claims of charity. "Have you no shame, you lying, dishonest, corrupt excuse for a servant of God? We all know where your gold is going, and the good folk of Nottingham won't see a farthing of it!"
The Archbishop actually drew back at Tuck's outburst, which was accompanied by balled fists waving wildly over the badger's head in outrage. To the threatened cleric's surprise, it was Robin Hood himself who interceded - although he quickly learned it was not to be on his behalf.
"Now now, Tuck," Robin soothed, gently urging his friar friend in a slow retreat several steps back from the carriage. "What kind of manners are those, so baldly accusing His Eminence of such unwholesome motives? That's hardly our way, now, is it? We must take this good pig at his word, and his word is that of charity. We both want the same thing, it appears, so surely we must work together!"
The Archbishop's cold heart sank as Robin turned to him; the fox's face held the same pleasant smile, but the eyes said this was all a game that could turn far more sinister any moment. "It is fortunate in the extreme that you chanced upon us as we were out for our morning stroll, Your Holiness. It just so happens that I am friends with a great many of Nottingham's peasantry, and I am in a much better position than you to know which families need your offer of charity the most. So, in the spirit of helpful cooperation and generosity, we could do no less than to relieve you of this chore and burden. It is a heavy task we take upon ourselves, but with you as our inspiration, we shall perform it gladly and without complaint!"
"You mean… ?"
"We shall take your heavy gold off your hooves for you, and see that it reaches those most deserving of it. It will be our honor to assist you so."
The Archbishop stammered and sputtered at the verbal alacrity with which his words had been turned against him. "You… you can't be serious!"
Robin leaned on his bow nonchalantly. "Oh, but I insist."
"Better listen to my friend here, friend," Little John warned amiably. "I've never known him to take no for an answer in situations like these."
The Archbishop said no more, realizing his cause was lost. With his caravan surrounded and his guards stripped of blade and lance, he was at the mercy of the famous outlaw.
Moments later, Robin and a few of his most trusted companions stood around the small chest secured to the platform at the back of the lead coach. Sturdy padlocks and chains hinted at the value of its contents. "Don't suppose anyone here has the key?" Robin wondered rhetorically.
"Aw, we don't need any key," Little John said, hefting a battle axe he'd taken from one of the larger guards. With two swings he reduced the padlocks to twisted scrap metal, freeing the other outlaws to strip away the chains with loud and careless rattling. Lifting the lid with nary a squeak from the well-oiled hinges, Robin peered within. Gasps went up from the gathered onlookers.
Will Scarlett whistled. "Who'da thunk you could fit so much gold into a single trunk?"
"Looks like we'll all be eating well for awhile," Little John surmised.
"And this is just the first coach in the caravan," Robin added. "Time to see what's in the other carriages."
Their search turned up a second chest of gold far bigger than the first, so heavy with its weight of the yellow coins that it warranted a separate carriage all its own, along with a bevy of jewels and enough fine linens and silks to outfit a small castle. Robin made sure to take all of the latter, for cloth was especially needed at his increasingly crowded camp. As for the gold, he divvied that up into smaller sacks that could be more easily carried by his yeomen. When the last sack had been filled, Robin strode to the glowering Archbishop, who sat forlornly on the side step of his lead coach.
"Bad news, I'm afraid. You've far too much gold for us to bear it all, so you'll have to keep some of it for now. Maybe if I left behind the silks and linens, we could relieve you of all your gold, but the good poor folk of these lands need what they need, so that's that. But I'm sure we can trust you to finish distributing the rest of this gold to the peasants once you reach Nottingham, can't we?"
The Archbishop drilled Robin with a glare that could have bored through solid gold.
"I'll take that as a yes then," Robin said cheerily. "This has been a pleasant little encounter, if I do say so myself. Perhaps we can do it again sometime. A good day to you, Archbishop, and may God speed you on your journey's way!"
And then the most amazing thing happened. The Sherwood bandits departed from the scene - but they didn't merely walk or run away like ordinary people did, nor did they struggle off under their heavy burdens as might have been expected. They simply melted into the woods, quietly and effortlessly, as if they were one with the forest. One moment they stood ranked along the roadside by the caravan, and the next they were gone, almost in the blink of an eye. It was unnerving, and after witnessing such stealth, not one of the guards would have risked pursuit of the army of thieves.
But the Archbishop issued no such orders. His troops helped the captive rhinos out of their pit in the road, and then the caravan was underway again, steering wide of the now-obvious hole. The Archbishop swore he would never travel the King's Road through Sherwood Forest again, not even if he lived to be a hundred.