Terrouge E-zine Archives
Robin Hood II: The Prince of Sherwood - Chapter 44
It took three days to complete the moving of the thorn hedge around the outlaw camp’s north and east borders. Now, with the job finished after a far greater expenditure of blood and sweat than anyone among them had anticipated, Robin stood on a slight hillock within the glade, surveying the results in the slanting rays of the afternoon sun.
"Looks rather … patchy."
"That it does," Little John agreed from alongside him. "Looks like there wasn’t quite as much of it to go around around as we thought."
Robin nodded. "We went from having a single opening in the hedge two years ago to having none this spring when it was all overgrown, to now having - what, half a dozen?"
"At least," Friar Tuck observed from Robin’s other side. "We’ve got gaps in there wide enough for Little John and I to walk through side-by-side … and with our arms outstretched, too!"
"We’re going to have to fill some of those in," said Robin. "There’s nothing else for it. We can’t have multiple places along our perimeter where uninvited guests can simply walk right in unannounced, and even with all our new recruits, we still don’t have enough volunteers to constantly guard those news entrances and patrol the nearby forest as well. Any ideas?"
"That’s simple enough," Little John replied. "This is hardly the only place in Sherwood Forest where thorn bushes grow. We’ll just have to find us some others, dig ’em up and replant ’em here to fill in the empty spaces."
"Easier said than done, my friend. Especially since, even with Klucky’s padded protective gloves and smocks, our industrious workers here have already incurred more pricks and scratches than most townsfolk see in a lifetime. I can’t imagine they’ll be all too thrilled about the prospects of handling even more thorn bushes." Robin scanned the camp until he spied the figure he sought. "So I think it’s only fair we give that chore to the one who came up with this idea in the first place. Hey, Will!"
Fox, bear and badger descended from the hillock to confront Will Scarlet, who staggered in through one of the new gaps in the thorn hedge struggling under the burden of the most heavily overloaded berry bushel any of them had ever seen. Bettina accompanied him, guiding the gray fox, who could barely see over the high pile of red fruit.
"What’s this, Will?" Robin asked, stopping before his cousin with paws on his hips. "Going to bake us a season’s worth of raspberry pies?"
"Or open your own distillery?" Little John put in hopefully. "I could go for some raspberry brandy. Takes a few years to age properly, though."
Will peered over the top of his haul. "Neither, for your information. I’ve got other plans for all these!"
"Do tell," Friar Tuck prompted.
"Nope! It’s a surprise!" And with that, Will made to step around them, Bettina still at his side. Mischief gleamed in the eyes of both, making it clear that he’d let Tina in on his plans, and she was just as amused by the prospect of this mysterious endeavor as he was.
"Aw, not even a hint?" Little John lamented, but before the matter could be pursued further, their attention was caught by shouts from the lookouts up in the trees outside the camp. While Will and Bettina ambled off to engage in whatever shenanigans they were cooking up between them, Robin and his companions strode to the intermittent thorn wall to investigate the latest comings and goings in this stretch of Sherwood.
Florence and Alan-a-Dale came strolling up the forest path leading past the thorn hedge, accompanied by Stephold the boar innkeeper. The three of them had departed two days earlier on a shopping trip to nearby Sutton-in-Ashfield to spend the first of the Archbishop’s gold on goods needed by the outlaw camp. But it was the immense ox bringing up their rear - and carrying what appeared to be the bulk of their purchases - who raised the most eyebrows.
"And who do we have here?" Robin asked, taking in the strapping stranger; the peasant ox was even larger than Little John, if such a thing was possible, more the size of a rhino or elephant than any ordinary resident of Nottinghamshire.
"Now that’s a story worthy of a ballad!" Alan answered cryptically, although for better or for worse, he made no move for the lute slung over his shoulder.
"After the way we’ve all been working," said Little John, "we can all use a good tale! Come on inside, and we’ll gather all the residents of Robintown around for the telling!"
The outlaw leader shot a glance at his oldest friend. "’Robintown?’ Did you only just come up with that?"
Little John shrugged. "Hey, it beats Hoodville!"
As they all passed through one of the numerous gaps in the hedge wall, Alan took stock of the relocated thorn barrier. "Hey, looks good, guys! Maybe a little … patchy, though."
Robin simply rolled his eyes without saying a word.
Taking a central seat upon the elevated mossy log Robin used for his informal councils, Alan-a-Dale set about telling the tale of the ox in a rather round-about manner. This proved entirely necessary, since he had to start with some news that caused no small consternation among his listeners, who sat gathered about him in the glade in a huge semi-circle.
"Gisbourne’s looking to recruit mercenaries from the surrounding towns, an’ no two ways about it," the rooster troubadour announced. "We saw his goons in Sutton, an’ more along the road too. And word is, he’s using the rest of the Archbishop’s gold to do it."
"That must have His Holiness in a tizzy," said Robin. "First we relieve him of most of his gold, then Sir Guy empties his coffers the rest of the way. Unless the two of them have hatched this plot together?"
Florence shook her head. "Everything we heard pointed to Gisbourne taking the Archbishop’s gold by force, and His Eminence heading south to London with empty chests. This is Gisbourne’s game, and our friend of the Church was none too happy about it."
"Wonder what’ll happen when King John hear about this," Little John said. "Our crybaby on the throne needs the support of the Church, and you can bet the Archbishop will raise an unholy fuss over this."
"Unless King John immediately recalls Gisbourne - and sends an army to enforce that decree - I suspect we’re stuck with that panther for awhile yet. The question is, will he be able to markedly bolster his troops this way?" Robin turned to Alan, Florence and Stephold. "Could you tell whether he was meeting with much success in this endeavor?"
It was the former tavern keeper who shrugged and replied, "Hard t’ say. No able-bodied yeoman of the class who’d join our band would be much enticed by such a deal. Mostly it’s crude rabble who fall to a mercenary’s life, too unskilled with bow or blade to enter the service of the crown an’ without th’ honor t’ fill a thimble. But then, when gold gets flashed in yer eyes, who can say what’ll happen?"
"We do know that at least a few mercenaries seem to be taking Sir Guy up on his offer," Florence added, "based on what we saw just before we left the road to return here. But I’ll let Alan tell that part of the story, since it’s what everyone here’s been waiting for!"
The balladeer took over. "Yup, there we were, the three of us, struggling along under all our purchases, when what should we spy but this good fellow here - " Alan gave a nod toward the ox, seated at a place of honor alongside Robin, " - bein’ hampered ’n’ harassed by four of Sir Guy’s soldiers and a rather unsavory pair besides, no doubt mercenaries who’d decided to throw in their lot with Gisbourne.
"Now, we weren’t lookin’ for trouble, an’ normally, six ugly mugs like that would’ve been more trouble than we could handle, what with us being laden with so many goods an’ not having a free paw nor wing to wield so much as a butter knife. As it turned out, I don’t think they even noticed us. We just sat back and enjoyed the show."
"And what show was that?" Robin prompted.
"Why, the Drubbing of the Foes!" Alan replied, a wide smile on his beak. "Best one these eyes have seen all season! You see, apparently our oversized traveler here was on his way to Nottingham to visit some old acquaintances there who’ve fallen on hard times under Gisbourne and the Sheriff. Those troops happened upon him entirely by chance, and I bet they’re still ruing this day. They demanded he turn over the hundred-pound sack of flour he was carrying on his shoulders, and when he refused, they declared him an ally of the notorious Robin Hood and drew their blades!"
Every member of Alan’s rapt audience leaned forward, eyes wide and ears pricked.
"Now, we didn’t learn about all of this until some time later, because the fight was already underway by the time we came upon it. What those soldiers and mercenaries forgot was that the very flour they thought to steal can also be a weapon itself, and they soon found it being thrown into their eyes, blinding them and leaving them helpless - maybe only for a few moments, but that was all the time their victim needed to turn his walking stick into the most punishing cudgel this bird has ever seen. There he was, laying into all six of them at once! As soon as one got up to challenge him, he’d put the bully back on the ground again! When it was all over, there was only one beast standing, and it wasn’t one of Gisbourne’s cronies!"
Robin turned to regard the ox with a look of admiration and healthy respect. "Well, well, well! Anyone who can take on six armed enemies and triumph without any help at all is someone I’d truly value as an ally! What’s your name, friend?"
"Midge the Miller’s son," the ox replied in little more than a grunt.
"Mightiest midge I’ve ever seen," Little John quipped.
"Pleased to meet you, Midge!" Robin warmly shook the ox’s hoof. "And how is your father the miller doing these days?"
"Oh, dad’s been dead these past seven years. I’ve run the mill ever since."
"Um, but then wouldn’t that make you Midge the Miller, rather than Midge the Miller’s son?"
A look of befuddlement crossed Midge’s face. "Never thought of it that way before."
"Well, Midge, I’d be glad to have you as a member of my band. At the very least, we owe you a hearty meal and the best hospitality we have to offer you as thanks for helping my friends carry their goods back here. Stay with us tonight for a feast you’ll not soon forget, and if in the morning you wish to move on, we’ll escort you to the forest’s edge with full honor!"
Midge mulled this over for about three seconds. "Well, I reckon the mill can let lie for a spell. I’d heard things was bad in Nottingham, but I guess they’re worse’n I thought. Sure, I’ll join yer band, sirrah. An’ if’n I ever see this Guy of Gisbourne standin’ afore me, I’ll treat ’im as kindly as I did his henchmen who thought to rob me this day!"
A loud cheer went up from the glade as the displaced families and others who’d joined Robin’s band welcomed their newest member. The fox outlaw turned to Little John. "Well, this calls for a toast! How’s our supply of ale holding up?"
"Plenty to go around for this occasion!"
In very short order, most of the adults in the camp had their cups filled with hearty ale, and were drinking to Midge and to each other for the good fortune of this day. Robin clinked his tankard against Midge’s. "Welcome to Sherwood Forest, my good Midge, and may your stay with us be a merry one!"
"I’ll drink to that," said Midge. And he did.
For several moments, a happy lull fell over the glade as everyone became too busy imbibing to chatter and laugh. The calm interlude was not to last for long, however.
"Hey, everybody! Look at me! I’m Robin Hood!"
Robin, in mid-sip, turned to look in the direction from which this yell had come … and promptly sprayed out his mouthful of ale in an impressive geyser.
There, perched upon a sturdy low branch overhanging the northwest corner of the glade, stood Robin’s own doppleganger, a red-hued fox dressed in green. The resemblance between the two struck many of the amazed onlookers as uncanny.
"Oo de lally! Tallyho! Tickety-boo!" The fox on the limb went into a carefree cartwheel upon the branch, spinning head over heels for three complete rotations before coming up against the trunk and spilling awkwardly to the grassy ground below.
Robin’s look of astonishment turned to one of infinite bemusement, and then to momentary self-consciousness. Turning to Little John, he asked, "Uh, I don’t really act like that, do I?"
The big bear shrugged. "We all have our off-moments, Rob."
Smiling, Robin arose from his log and strolled over to his cousin, who was still trying to right himself after his tumble. "So, Will, we were wondering why you weren’t around to greet our newest recruit and hear his story. Now we know what was keeping you so busy … and what you were doing with all those dark red berries. But what ever possessed you to do such a thing?"
Will finally flung himself up to his feet. "Well, if this Gisbourne’s really such bad news, I figured we’d give him two Robin Hoods to go chasing after, split his forces, and maybe he won’t be able to catch either one of us! Um, hope you don’t mind me borrowing one of your spare outfits … "
Robin strode forward until he and Will stood a mere pace apart, while the others looked on in amazement. "Auch!" declared Kluck, "’tis like I’m seein’ double!"
"Oh, nonsense, Klucky!" Robin countered, walking around the formerly gray fox to take in the disguise from all sides. "Will here’s half a head shorter than I am." He held one arm up alongside Will’s. "And my fur’s red, not … well, purple!"
"A very subtle purple," Will protested.
Robin leaned in to sniff his cousin’s fur. "I must say, you do smell delicious. Better not let Little John get too close - he might mistake you for a big furry berry and gobble you up!"
Everyone shared a chuckle at this, Little John even joining in at his own expense. "I gotta tell ya, Rob, if Gisbourne’s troops didn’t see the two of you standing side-by-side, it’d be very easy for them to mistake Will for you."
"You really think so?" Robin regarded the masquerade with new respect. "Well, maybe they would at that. So tell us, Will, what pray tell are you going to do with this now?"
"You’re the brains of this outfit, Cuz. I’ll leave that up to you."
"In that case, I’m sure I’ll think of something." Robin rubbed his paws together, suddenly feeling like he was back in the footloose outlaw days of his youth. "This’ll be fun!"
Sir Guy stalked the rear grounds of Castle Nottingham in the closest thing he ever came to a leisurely stroll, ignoring the beautiful summer day in favor of inspecting the state of his garrison whilst ruminating on the latest additions to his forces for capturing Robin Hood.
The Sheriff ambled alongside Gisbourne, trying to at least savor the bright sun and blue skies himself, but he always found his enjoyment of such simple pleasures diminished by the panther’s glowering presence. Not that he was about to call attention to the fact.
"Eve’rything’s lookin’ shipshape back here," the Sheriff remarked with forced joviality. "Finally got enough guards ’round the place to set me at ease. I gotta tell ya, Sir Guy, at first I wasn’t all that keen on yer strategy of only havin’ a skeleton staff here t’ protect the castle while most of our soldiers were out searchin’ for that fox, but now that we got some help from those mercenaries you’re hirin’, things are back the way the should be!"
"Except that we are no closer to putting Hood’s neck in a noose, or under my blade. And as much as I found fault with the training of your guards when I first arrived here, Sheriff, I am forced to admit that even the worst of them were still professional soldiers compared to the mercenaries we’ve been able to hire so far. I am beginning to fear that our expenditure of the Archbishop’s gold will avail us little in this matter."
The Sheriff’s fur bristled slightly at the mention of that incident; it was not a complication upon which he liked to dwell, and he fervently hoped that when the crows came home to roost on Gisbourne’s treatment of the Archbishop, no pointing paws of blame would be directed the Sheriff’s way. "Yeah, but every extra pair of ears ’n’ eyes could help us. Those mercenaries may not be the best trained, but they’ll be as loyal as the gold that bought ’em, an’ won’t miss a chance to collect the reward neither. You can be sure that if any of ’em catches wind of Robin Hood, we’ll hear about it - which is more than can be said fer most of the villagers."
"That same reward might spur them to take foolish chances, or turn on each other, which won’t do us any good. I had really hoped to find a better calibre of hired bounty hunters when I set out upon this course, but, ah well. As long as they don’t hamper our own efforts, I suppose no harm’s been done." Their inspection tour had brought them around to the gardened area beneath the tower where King John had formerly dwelt. Gisbourne stopped and gazed up at the highest window. "Did Robin Hood really climb up that sheer wall the night he assaulted the King?"
"We found a rope tied to th’ King’s bedpost," the Sheriff said, repeating the story Sir Guy had already heard from several other sources, including the King himself, "but we never could figger out how that knave got up there in th’ first place to tie it. Eve’ryone’s sayin’ he scaled th’ wall, an’ unless he was shot through the window with a catapult, I reckon they’re right."
"Hmm. Quite a feat. I’d almost conclude he must be part panther, but that would be giving him more credit than he deserves." Gisbourne resumed his stride, but halted again a few paces later at the trunk of a tree. "And what’s this here?"
"Oh, ain’tcha seen that before?" the Sheriff asked, regarding the heart-shaped carving in the bark, within which was inscribed "R.H. + M.M."
"Indeed I have, and I can very well divine the story behind it. It has always amused me before, but the time for amusements is over." Gisbourne studied the tree’s higher branches, then shifted his gaze to the castle wall nearest the spreading limbs. "As I see it, Sheriff, this tree is too close to the wall. Outlaws could use it to breach our security. Don’t you agree?"
"Um, yeah, sure." The Sheriff sensed this was the answer his dark companion wished to hear, ignoring the fact that several other trees in the courtyard clearly stood even closer to the wall than this one.
"So glad we agree. See to it that it’s chopped down before evening, Sheriff." Gisbourne started off toward the castle once more. "The wood will burn well in our ovens and fireplaces."