Terrouge E-zine Archives
Robin Hood II: The Prince of Sherwood - Chapter 49
Once again, Gisbourne was only partially correct in his assessment of the situation. His suspicions did not extend far enough to consider that the fox he’d trapped might not be Robin Hood but a disguised double; the guards’ eyewitness testimony had persuaded him that they had cornered the genuine article. And while it was true that most of the outlaw band remained at large, they were hardly about to stage a rescue of the decoy team whose entire purpose was to tie up Gisbourne’s forces at the farmhouse.
Receiving word from Skippy’s Runners that the heart of Nottingham was now clear of troops, Robin led the main band straight to Otto’s blacksmith shop. This foray consisted not of the usual small number of prowlers depending on stealth but nearly twoscore members of the outlaw community, all armed and at the ready. Gisbourne was right that his enemy was finally ready and willing to bring the fight to him; he was simply mistaken about where that enemy was.
Within minutes, an invisible ring of rabbit sentries encircled the smithy in all directions, senses alert to the approach of any troops or mercenaries. Archers climbed to the roof of Otto’s shop, ready to trade arrows with any soldiers who intruded upon their mission, while other fighters bearing blade and staff stood watch at the corners of the building. With these security precautions in place, Robin and his helpers set to work.
Two sturdy carts had been procured ahead of time, and these were now moved into position in the street just outside the smithy. One was quickly loaded with all the smaller tools from Otto’s workspace. As for the other …
Robin and the hound blacksmith stood over the forge oven, regarding the massive fixture. "Time now t’ see whether we can pull this off," Otto mused.
"We didn’t go to all this trouble to turn back now." Robin looked to Little John and Midge, who would provide the brawn of this expedition. "Whenever you’re ready, my good movers!"
Bear and ox each took firm hold of either side of the forge and, straining mightily even by their own oversized standards of strength, tilted the heavy forge up off the floor at a forty–five degree angle. They only needed to hold it there for a few moments as other ready assistants ducked in to place solid wooden dowels beneath the upended oven. The forge was then set back down atop these crude rollers while additional rods were laid out in front of the oven. In no time at all the forge was being inched forward toward the shop’s door, and soon it stood out in the street waiting to be loaded aboard its waiting cart.
Here, there was no way to get around the need for sheer brute muscle power. Little John and Midge were joined by half a dozen of the band’s other brawnier members, and between all of them they were able to lift the forge oven up onto the bed of the cart. The vehicle groaned and creaked under the strain, but otherwise held its weighty burden admirably.
Robin slapped Otto on the back. "See? Never doubt what can be achieved by folk of good heart when they set their minds to helping out their fellows!"
"I owe ye a greater debt of thanks than I’ll ever be able t’ repay, Robin sir!"
"Thank us once we’ve got this installed at our camp," Little John said to the hound, striding forward to take up the pull handles. "We won’t be out of the woods until we’re back in the woods, if you catch my meaning."
"He’s right," echoed Robin. "We must be away from here with all speed. Sir Guy’s troops could come upon us at any time, and I much prefer to win my battles by not having to fight them in the first place!"
With Little John pulling and the equally mighty Midge pushing at the forge–bearing cart, the procession was off, crawling its way toward Sherwood Forest under the cover of night. The fighters previously positioned outside the blacksmith’s shop now formed a flanking guard ahead and to the sides of the two carts. Robin called the archers down from the rooftops, then sent out the call for Skippy’s Runners to fall back to the retreating robbery caravan. These elements together formed the rearguard of their larcenous parade, ready to engage any enemy who tried to harass them.
Walking backwards to keep an eye behind them, Robin set a paw on Skippy’s shoulder. "All your brothers present and accounted for, Skip?"
"Yessir, Robin sir. We did everything just like you said!"
"So you did, since we seem to be getting away with this so far. It’s getting to the point where I really don’t know what I’d do without you!"
Skippy beamed in the darkness, secretly glowing at this praise. "What about Mister Will, Robin sir? Is he gonna be able to get away all right too?"
"I certainly hope so, Skippy. We tried to plan everything so that we’d all come out of this okay. Will’s always been good in tight spots, and it was his idea to use the beaver farmhouse to stage a false siege. I’m sure he’ll know what to do when the time comes."
"How many arrows have they shot at us so far?"
"I dunno. A few dozen, maybe more," the Sheriff replied to Gisbourne’s inquiry. "Mostly those two times we tried to get close enough t’ set fire to the roof. But at least they haven’t hit anyone."
"Exactly. This suggests two things to me: They’re not worried about wasting arrows, which means they must have a large supply with them, and they’re missing our troops intentionally. Robin Hood would never keep archers with such poor aim in his company, and it takes skill to loose so many shafts and only come close to the target without hitting it. They seek to hold us at bay, but no more than that."
"That bandit always was a softy," said the Sheriff. "He couldn’t even slay King John when he had him at his mercy, an’ he held His Highness responsible for Lady Marian’s death. He’ll not take a life unless he’s absolutely forced to it."
"How honorable. He would have been an utter failure on the Crusades. But even such a reluctant warrior will be driven to violence through desperation when trapped without chance of escape." Sir Guy glanced about as he had many times in the last hour since this siege had begun, straining to see through the night’s darkness. "And yet no help comes to his rescue. Does he still harbor some hope of eluding me, in spite of his impossible position?"
"Don’t see how that can be. We know he’s still in there, from the potshots he keeps aiming our way, an he ain’t gettin’ out any way I can see."
The panther began muttering to himself. "The weapon shop had to be his main target – it simply had to be. Nothing else makes sense. And yet … " Without warning, Gisbourne broke from the cover of the shed and strode off into the night.
"Wh–where’re ya goin’?" the Sheriff stammered in surprise.
"To follow a hunch. I may be gone awhile, Sheriff. Keep that farmhouse surrounded, and make sure nobody goes in or out. If my suspicions are correct, this will all be over by dawn – one way or another."
Sure enough, the coming dawn found Will Scarlet and his two companions getting ready to make their move.
"Okay," the disguised fox announced with undisguised satisfaction, "I’d hazard that we’ve given Rob all the time he needs and then some."
"I’ll say," the lynx readily agreed with a hint of worry as he peered out one window past an upended table. "It’s getting pretty light out there – sun should be up anytime now. Are you sure we didn’t wait too long? This would have been easier under cover of darkness … "
"Nonsense. Those guards out there are so worn out from keeping watch over us all night that they’ll be bleary–eyed and dull–witted. More dull–witted than usual, I mean. We’ll be gone before they realize what’s going on!"
"I hope you’re right."
Abandoning all but their most essential belongings, the three outlaws descended the short flight of steps into the farmhouse’s root cellar. The place could scarcely be called a basement, since it only occupied a fraction of the structure’s floor space; indeed, the trio barely had room to fit standing side by side as Will implemented their escape plan.
Knowing two days in advance what their overall strategy would be for liberating the contents of Otto’s blacksmith’s shop, Robin had dispatched Trammler the mole to dig a crude escape tunnel from the root cellar clear out under the fields and halfway to the forest’s edge – which would, in the present circumstances, deliver Will’s team right past the circle of their would–be captors. Even if they were spotted emerging from the hidden entrance at the other end of the tunnel, they would be close enough to the forest fringes that safety lay only a short dash away.
Prying loose the large wall stone that hid the tunnel opening, Will crawled his way headfirst into the narrow passage, followed by his two companions. The lynx, bringing up the rear, made sure to pull the stone back into place behind him as best he could, even though that meant he would have to proceed backwards through the dark earthen shaft; in the event that the soldiers burst into the farmhouse during the few minutes it would take them to traverse the length of the tunnel, they did not wish to make their avenue of escape obvious. If all went smoothly, the Sheriff and Gisbourne might never figure out how their captives had slipped through their clutches this day.
Will was the first to reach the tunnel end. Ascending its abrupt incline toward the surface, he pushed aside the sod plug and broke out into the fresh air of a clear English summer morning. Further planning by Trammler had positioned a small haystack right alongside the tunnel entrance so that Will’s emergence would not be immediately apparent to anyone at the farmhouse who might be looking this way. Will scuttled aside, belly to the ground as he extended a paw to help his two followers up out of the hole. The lynx was a bit of a challenge, since Will had to grab him by the ankles instead of the wrist, but soon all three sat crouched behind the haystack in their muddied clothes, Will replacing the sod hatchway.
"Should we risk a look to see if it’s clear?" the lynx whispered.
Will shook his head. "Don’t know what we’d do about it if it’s not, and we don’t want to chance tipping them off even one moment before we have to." He pointed toward the nearest trees. "The forest’s that way, boys! Let’s get going!"
Keeping to a low crouch, they broke into a sprint for the treeline. No shouts or alarmed voices came from behind them, and soon they were within the woods, where they slowed their sprint to a more leisurely jog. Will glanced around them.
"Thought Rob might have some of the band waiting for us here for a nice little escort back to Sherwood, but I guess they had their paws full with getting Otto’s stuff moved. Oh well – good thing we know the way back ourselves!"
No sooner had they covered another dozen paces than there came a rustle from the branches above, and a heavy thump sounded on the forest path behind them. Glancing over their shoulders, the three outlaws froze in terror at the last sight they either expected or wanted to behold: Sir Guy of Gisbourne standing mere paces away, sword drawn and teeth bared.
"Just as I thought," the panther snarled. "Hunting on my own has finally gained me what force of arms has not. Prepare to taste my steel, Hood!" And with that – not realizing the fox before him was someone other than the most wanted bandit in all of England – Gisbourne lunged.
Having been forced to leave all their weapons behind in the farmhouse so they could squeeze through the tunnel, the outlaws realized at once that they were in no position to make an unarmed stand, not even three to one, against so skilled a killer as Gisbourne. They had been chosen for their mission for their swiftness, in order to lead the soldiers to the farmhouse, and for their small stature so that they could escape through the narrow tunnel; they were no warriors to match the formidable feline knight. So instead, they did the only thing they could: turned tail and ran for all they were worth.
Gisbourne spared not a glance for the two lesser criminals; he had eyes only for the green–clad fox. Heart in his mouth, Will dodged and ducked between trees, somehow staying just beyond the slashing blade of his maniacal pursuer. After a minute’s frantic chase that felt more like an hour to the desperate fox, Will found his path barred by a narrow stream. Seeing no other alternative, he plunged in and made for the opposite bank, pushing through the waist–deep brook and praying that Gisbourne hated water as much as all cats were reputed to.
His hopes were doubly dashed; even as he heard the splash from behind him that left no doubt the panther would press this pursuit, Will found himself facing a high opposite bank that was far too steep to climb. He was trapped.
Gisbourne stood in the flowing water, swordtip pressed against Will’s throat as he gloated over his triumph. "I have waited far too long for this moment. Do you have any last … " But at that his voice trailed off as he studied his prey more closely. Will’s frantic splashing through the stream had left him thoroughly drenched, and now the berry dye was draining out of his pelt, leaving patches of his natural gray showing through his adopted reddish–purple hue.
Gisbourne’s allowed his sword to drop, incredulous. "You … you’re not Robin Hood!"
Will forced a cocky grin onto his face. "Nope! Not at all! Case of mistaken identity, I’m afraid. All just one big misunderstanding! Now, I’ll just be on my way, to spare you any further embarrassment." Feigning nonchalance, he made to step around the fearsome creature.
In one instant Gisbourne’s face darkened from befuddlement to raw fury, and he dealt Will a vicious smack across the back of the head with the flat of his blade that sent the fox sprawling stunned into the water, where he floated face down and unmoving.
Gisbourne stood scanning the forest around him for several moments, searching for the other two outlaws, but the woodlands immediately around this scene seemed empty of any such threat. Snorting in disgust, he reached down to retrieve his sodden prize.
The Sheriff wasn’t sure what to do. No volleys of arrows had come from the farmhouse windows in some time, leading him to suspect that the outlaws within were growing every bit as weary as his own soldiers, most of whom were dead on their feet. He contemplated issuing shifts, so that half his force could rest while the other half maintained their vigil, and also debated ordering a massed charge that might get them inside the barricaded structure before the trapped criminals could rally an effective defense. Unfortunately, he hadn’t thought to send for a battering ram before now, and he doubted his troops would be able to force their way through the doors without the help of such a weapon. Or battle axes, at the very least.
If the law–wolf was reluctant to commit to any specific course of action, it was partly because Sir Guy had yet to reappear. The Sheriff couldn’t imagine where the panther had got to, or what Gisbourne might consider more important than the siege that might finally deliver Robin Hood into their paws, but the Sheriff suspected no matter what course of action he chose, Sir Guy would find fault with it. Much safer just to do nothing – and besides, hadn’t Gisbourne’s parting orders been to keep watch on the farmhouse to make sure no one got in or out? Well, that’s exactly what the Sheriff was doing, and what he intended to keep doing.
The sun peeked its brilliant orange orb over the horizon just as a shout went up from some of the guards around on the field side of the farmhouse. Stirring himself to modest action, the Sheriff ambled over to them to see what the fuss was about. Looking toward the forest’s edge, he saw Sir Guy stalking their way, dragging a limp burden behind him with one paw. As the panther grew closer, the Sheriff’s breath caught in his throat; Gisbourne was hauling nothing less than the infamous green–clad fox, pulling the outlaw roughly along the ground by his bushy tail.
"Sir Guy! You caught Robin Hood!"
"It’s not Robin Hood," Gisbourne grumbled as he dropped his prisoner at the feet of the Sheriff and the guards. Will lay groggily on the ground, still stunned from the blow to his head. "It’s that gray fox from his band, with his fur dyed to look like his leader, and wearing a look–alike disguise. Not a bad strategic approach, and it explains how Hood has so often been able to be in two places at once lately."
The Sheriff glanced toward the farmhouse. "So we still got the real Robin Hood cooped up in there?"
"No, Sheriff, we do not. Hood was never in there – only this impostor and two of his cronies."
"But … but … how did they get out? We never took our eyes off the place!"
"I knew something wasn’t right about this entire situation," Gisbourne explained. "Robin Hood would never allow himself to get trapped like this, which meant he had something up his sleeve. And since it appeared no one from his band was coming forward to rescue him, I could only conclude that he was confident of his ability to extract himself from this predicament. If there was a secret way out of the farmhouse, it would have to open out toward the woods, so I went there and set up an ambush, and waited. As you can see, our outlaw friends are not the only ones with a winning strategy."
"What happened to the other two?"
"They were all unarmed, and as muddy as this one. They must have escaped through a tunnel. The other two fled, but they are unimportant; this is the one that matters. He may even be a relation to Hood, and that makes him almost as valuable as the chief bandit himself."
The Sheriff’s face lit up as he bent down to inspect the bedraggled fox with new respect. "A relative, huh? That means when we send this one to the gallows, Robin Hood is sure t’ show up to try ’n’ save him!"
Gisbourne shook his head. "No, Sheriff. This one is not for the hangman’s noose. I have other plans for him."
"Isn’t it obvious? Such a high–ranking member of Hood’s band must be brimming with interesting things he can tell us. The location of their camp, the number, how well armed they are, how they watch their approaches … "
The wolf was skeptical. "He’ll never tell you any of that!"
"You seem to forget, my good Sheriff, that I have known the hospitality of the Turks’ prisons. I know a thousand and one ways to interrogate a prisoner for information – and I can assure you at least nine hundred of them are unpleasant in the extreme. He’ll talk!"
Lying with his snout to the ground, Will came fully awake just in time to catch Sir Guy’s last statement … although after hearing the malicious venom dripping from the panther’s voice, he wished he was still unconscious.