Chapter 1 |
A small vagrant breeze came from nowhere and barely flicked the feather tips as the arrow sped on its way. It shivered in its flight, and fell, a little off course – just enough that the arrow missed the slender tree it was aimed at, and struck tiredly and low into the bole of another tree, twenty paces beyond the mark.
Robin sighed and dropped his bow. There were some people, he thought, who not only could shoot accurately – if the breeze hadn’t disturbed it, that last arrow would have flown true – but seemed to know when and where to expect small vagrant breezes, and to allow for them. He was not a bad archer, but his father had been a splendid one, and he was his father’s only child.
His father had taught him to shoot; he had also taught him to make and fletch his own arrows. Robin stopped to pull the treacherous arrow out of the ash it had chosen to fly at, and ran his fingers gently over the shaft. It was undamaged, he was relieved to see; he had a living to earn, and little time to spend making his own arrows. Mostly he sold the ones he found time to make; he had some slight local fame as a fletcher. He would rather have had any local fame, however slight, as an archer. But the money was useful; as one of the youngest sub-apprentice foresters in the King’s Forest of Nottingham, he barely earned coin enough to feed himself – in fact he didn’t earn even that, and he was struggling as well to keep title to his father’s small holding. Every quarter saw him in rising panic as the time for the rents grew near.
Fortunately for his peace of mind, Robin was usually too busy, and too short on sleep and food, to have time and energy for thinking. And he was young and strong and still hopeful; this Chief Forester, who sent him on all the most disagreeable tasks, was old, and might be expected to die or at least to retire some day soon. With some luck the new Chief Forester, though inevitably another sheriff’s man, might not hate young Robin for the sake of his mother, who had had the excellent sense to marry another man.
Today Robin had the great fortune to be free to go to the Nottingham Fair, and perhaps his holiday meant his luck was looking up at last. It was old Nobble, who had worked with his father as a friend, who had had the duty to decide which of the younger men might have the day to go to the fair. He had had the wisdom not to choose Robin first, for Bill Sharp, who was the Chief Forester’s spy among the young men, was watching eagerly; but Robin knew as soon as Nobble’s eye fell on him that he was to be permitted to go. He had to stop the smile that wanted to spread across his face from appearing till his name was called – a cautious third. Bill Sharp’s name was not called at all, and that made Robin’s happiness even greater.
Robin was to meet Marian and Much at the fair, and they would see the sights together: the jugglers and the players, the wrestlers and the knife-throwers. There would be no knights’ contests. The best knights did not care to display themselves at so mercantile an event as the Nottingham Fair, much to the sheriff’s chagrin, for the sheriff was vain of his town and his place in it. But his love of gold invariably won over even his love of pomp and ceremony; and while the sheriff said aloud that he was not willing to lay on a tourney that the best would not attend – for petty, illogical reasons that Nottingham need not concern itself with – the truth of it was that he was not willing to lay on a tourney that would end up costing him a great deal of money. He did consider, twice a year, as fair time approached, the noble – possibly even royal – favour he might curry by a fine tournament. But – as he told himself – royal favour was a notoriously chancy (and expensive) thing and at best a long term one; and the sheriff of Nottingham had a short-term mind.
But the three friends did not care for such things, although Marian often heard gossip about them, and had many times made Much and Robin laugh till their sides hurt with her deadly imitations of the sheriff and his society. Once Robin said to her, “But your stories are second- and third-hand. How do you know?”
“I don’t,” said Marian cheerfully. “But I’m a good guesser – and a good actor, am I not?” Robin said teasingly, “I will tell you what you already know only if you promise that you will not run off with a band of wandering players.”
“I will not have to,” replied Marian, “so long as evading my father’s questions when I wish to spend a day with you continues to excuse my talents so usefully. Come; Much will think we have fallen in a hole,” and she ran off ahead of him before he could speak again.
There had been little enough time for the three of them to be together in the last months; but the fair was going to make up for all that. They would look in the stalls and admire the trinkets for sale, the bright cloth, the raw wool and flax, the charms and toys, the spices and wines; and everything would please them.
Robin had contrived to finish off another couple dozen arrows since Nobble had called out his name a fortnight ago, working late into the evenings at great expense of sleep and strength – and of eyesight, crouched over one flickering candle till his head ached so badly that he saw twenty fingers and forty arrows. But he knew he would be able to sell them to Sir Richard of the Lea, his best customer – and the kindest, though Robin tried not to think about that too much in the fear that he might realize he should not accept the kindness. Sir Richard was unusual in that he permitted himself, a knight, to be interested in this commoner’s sport. He had first bought arrows from Robin’s father, and had not only organised his own levies to practise with their bows, but he even learnt to shoot himself, and had caused something of a ripple in local aristocratic society by claiming that he quite enjoyed it. But, he said, it was only sense to wish to send archers to the Lionheart in Palestine since the news of the Saracens’ at-the-gallop harassment of properly armed knights had come home to England.
It was a great pity, as everyone said, that such a good man (and forward-looking, said those who approved of his archery; if misguided said those who did not) should have such a worthless son. There was a good deal of local consternation, among both the high and low, at the prospect of the son’s eventual inheritance of the father’s estates. The sanguine held that, barring an unlucky pox or dropsy, the soon would kill himself at one of his headlong games before such a fate came to be. And there was no point in speculating – which everyone then immediately did – whom the king might in such a case assign the estates to.
Robin himself was keeping an eye out for the son as he walked toward Mapperley Castle; he bore a small but slow to fade scar on the back of his neck where young Richard had laid his hunting-whip when Robin had not gotten out of what Richard perceived as his way quickly enough to suit. The son might have had more trouble if his father were less loved; as it was, yeoman farmers got both their flocks and their daughters under cover when young Richard was heard of, and elegant dinner parties in several counties were enlivened by tales of his exploits.
Sir Richard, who had not ordered any new arrows, still let his man show Robin at once into the room where he sat. He said, with the smallest trace of amusement in his gentle voice, “Have you an especial need for ready money, perhaps? Have you permission to go to the fair?”
Robin acknowledged, somewhat guiltily, that this was true. But Sir Richard willingly examined the arrows, as carefully as if he had long awaited them. “You have more than earned your fee with these,” he said. “They are very fine.” A blessing on that wandering goose,” Robin thought, whose feathers he had ransacked before returning it, only a little the worse for wear, to its coop. Sir Richard stood up from behind his great desk and fumbled for his purse; and he pressed coins into Robin’s hand and curled the young man’s fingers around them as he turned him toward the door to the long hall that led down stairs and at last to the kitchens.
The smell of cooking made Robin’s head swim. He knew he was accepting charity, but he was also relentlessly hungry and almost never ate meat; and Sir Richard had enough money to support not only his lands but his wastrel son. The odd extra meal for a craftsman worth his salt (Robin told himself) was no ignominy, on either side. It was not until his mouth was already full of beef and gravy and bread that he thought to look at the coins Sir Richard had given him; and found that he had been paid half again his usual price.
So Robin had enough money in his pouch to throw to a juggler who might particularly take his fancy (although he should be saving it for next quarter day); and enough to buy the hot fried bread there would be at the goodwives’ booths for Marian and Much as well as for himself. He wondered for a moment, as he settled his bow and quiver over his shoulders; if perhaps he should throw the coin he would need to enter the fair’s archery contest to that hypothetical juggler, and leave the arrows at home. He hesitated, looking at the tree his last arrow had missed.
He did not hate the fact that he was a second-rate archer; and Much and Marian knew him and were his friends. But there would be friends of the Chief Forester shooting too, and nothing would please them more than to taunt him when he stood up – and to take the story home of how young Robin had missed the mark with his very first arrow. Robin had learnt that it did no good to answer the taunting, and so he could hold his tongue; but he had yet to learn to ignore it, and as the anger – compounded of his helplessness and inability simply not to listen – beat inside him, it would throw his shooting out. The Chief Forester himself might be there to laugh his great, rolling, harsh laugh, though usually at such events he disappeared into the tent set out for the refreshment of the sheriff and his men, and was little seen.
Robin knew that any story of his indifferent marksmanship would lose nothing in the telling. Bill Sharp would be telling it far and wide at least by the next day – and Robin thought it likely that he would have gone whining to the Chief Forester to be given permission to go the fair after all, despite Nobble’s decision, and would therefore be able to see for himself. There were those who said that Bill Sharp’s real father was the Chief Forester, and not the farmer who had bred him up – and sent him off to be an apprentice forester at the earliest possible opportunity. Robin could readily believe it; it seemed to him that Bill was the Chief Forester all over again in small, for Bill was a skinny, weedy boy, and the Chief Forester was fat from many years of living off other people’s labour, and eating at the sheriff’s table. Robin particularly did not want to miss the first mark, with Bill Sharp watching.
But Much and Marian would be bringing their bows and would think it odd if he did not, for they were all to enter the contest. Privately, Robin felt that Marian had a good chance of winning; she was one of those who always allowed for the breeze that would kick up from nowhere after the arrow had left the string. They might not like it when she proved to be a girl, but no one would notice in the crowd when the three of them signed up together, for she would be wearing boy’s clothes, with her hair tied up under a hat; and after she won, Robin didn’t think they’d deny her the prize. If he didn’t enter, Marian and Much might decide they wouldn’t either – he could hear Marian saying, “Oh, Robin, don’t be tiresome. It doesn’t matter. What is the prize – a lamb? I don’t particularly want a lamb. Do you? I only came so we could spend the day together.”
Robin had not told her or Much what his life had been like since his father died; and that was only too easy a decision to keep, as he had so little time to meet with them. They knew that his father had been a forester, and a man much admired and respected by the folk who lived roundabout. Too much respected, in the eyes of the sheriff, for there were those who felt that Robert Longbow should have had the Chief Forester’s post; but he had been a quiet man who never took advantage of his popularity against the sheriff. And so the sheriff and his choice of Chief Forester had let him alone – in case his popularity might prove inconvenient if anything untoward happened to him. It had been their great good luck that he had died so suddenly of the winter catarrh; but he had driven himself very hard since his wife died, and was not so strong as he had been. No one thought anything of Robert Longbow’s death but sorrow to see a good man gone, and Robin had known better than to mention the unnecessary call that came one stormy midnight after his father was already sickening. When Robert came back late the next morning, he was wet through, and he took to his bed, and did not leave it again alive.
His friends knew that the Chief Forester was hardly Robin’s favourite person, but they knew little more than that. Let them think the unpleasantness was minor, left over from the old romantic story of how his father and the Chief Forester had courted the same woman, and his father had won her, despite the Chief Forester’s better standing – and private income. He’d bring his bow to the fair, and enter the archer contest, and try not to miss at least his first shot. Even if Bill Sharp was not there, he was always at his worst with a lot of people watching him. But he really wanted to see Marian win.
He resettled his bow on his shoulder and gave another shake to his quiver, that it would hang straight, and not tease the back of his neck; he spent far too much of his daily life walking to be comfortable with an arrow-sack looped around his belt and banging against one leg in the common manner. That done, he set off solemnly through the trees – trying to feel that his decision was not only final but a good one, and that he was pleased with it besides. It was a long way to the town of Nottingham; it was probably foolish of him to have taken the time for target practice, particularly when practice wasn’t going to tell him anything he didn’t already know. He tried to whistle, but gave it up as a bad job.
He knew no other life than forestry, and if he left Nottingham he would have no choice but to give up his father’s holding. His father’s pride in England had extended to include his pride in tenant ownership of a cottage and small bit of land – land for a garden, and the cottage large enough to have separate rooms for eating and sleeping. There was even a separate coop for his wife’s chickens, built against one outside wall of the cottage, where the birds were not only out from underfoot in the house, with their dirt and their feathers, but safe from foxes and other marauders as well. It was not only Robin’s mother’s family who was conscious that she’d married beneath her.
There was another reason Robin would not leave Nottingham, nor voluntarily give up his loosening hold on his father’s land: Marian. And he could not help it that he often recalled that his gentry-bred mother had chosen to marry a mere forester with no prospects. But while the present Chief Forester remained, there was no chance of marriage for Robin, neither to a member of the gentry nor to the humblest village girl, who would never contemplate sleeping apart from her chickens were she so fortunate to own any.
Robin knew the Nottingham woods hereabouts so well he did not need to think about where he was going, and his feet carried him responsibly forward while his mind was elsewhere. But he was not in the mood for any meeting with his fellows, and he was snapped out of his reverie by the sound of voices; one of them Tom Moody’s, the Chief Forester’s great friend and crony, and another Bill Sharp’s.
Robin stopped, but it was too late, for they had seen him. There were half a dozen of them together, and they sat and watched him so expectantly that he wondered if they had been waiting for him, and what they intended to do.
Bill stood up to his full if insignificant height, and leaned casually against a tree by the narrow, tree-crowded path. Robin, if he continued, would have to pass so near him their sleeves might brush; and there was no graceful nor inconspicuous way to leave the path altogether. The others sat where they were; Tom had a very large grin on his face. There was what appeared to be the remains of a meal spread out around them; one or two were still chewing, and Robin could smell the sharp tang of the ale in the open cask that lounged on the greensward among them.
“A very good day to you, Master Robin,” said Bill, his arms folded across his negligible chest, sole of one foot cocked nonchalantly against his tree. “I’m afraid I can’t suggest that you join our feed – I fear there is little left but crumbs.”
Tom stood up, and Robin recalled that Tom was the only forester his father, who could see goodness in almost anybody, had called bad. Tom was still grinning; there were small strings of meat caught between his teeth. He shot the king’s deer for his own belly whenever he chose, and the Chief Forester looked the other way – so long as he got a haunch of it. “Perhaps young Robin would like the crumbs – he’s a little too thin, don’ you think, lads?” He reached out as Robin stood hesitating a few paces from where Bill leaned against the tree, and seized his arm.
Robin could not stop the spasm of disgust that crossed his face as the man’s fingers touched him, and he jerked himself free with an unnecessary violence – a violence that he knew at once had cost him any chance he might have had in escaping this meeting without some kind of skirmish.
Tom laughed, for he knew it too, and it was what he wanted; and he was pleased that his prey had proved so easy to bait. He pawed at Robin again, circling the young man’s upper arm with his thick fingers. “Too thin, eh, lads? Too thin to do a man’s work as a forester?”
Robin flushed but stood stiffly and said nothing, hoping against his better judgment that Tom might yet let him pass.
But Tom only stretched out his other hand, and pulled one of Robin’s arrows half out of the quiver – by the feathers, Robin knew, and he gritted his teeth, for he could not afford damage to even one of his arrows – and then let it drop again, and Robin heard the protest of another stiff pinion as the dropped shaft forced its way downward. “And certainly too thin and weak to draw a man’s bow like a man.”
He laughed again, and the hot foul wash of his ale-smelling breath over Robin’s face brought all the young man’s frustrations to a boil. Tom knew as well as he himself did that he could not easily draw his father’s bow, which was a hand’s-length longer and better than a stone heaver to pull than the plainer, lighter bow he carried. He kept his father’s bow in what had been his father’s room, carefully wrapped and stored against damp and rodent teeth; and occasionally he took it out and practiced with it, when no one was near. But he could not bear it that this man should gibe at him so, now, and just before anger stopped thought altogether, he said to himself: They are here to trap me – well, let them do their worst. And then anger overcame him, and he snarled at his tormentor: “I can draw a bow as well as you, or any other fat forester who can barely sight down his arrow for fear of stinging his paunch with the released string.”
Now Tom let go of Robin and his own face began to flush up with anger, and Bill dropped his crossed arms and stood warily, and the other four men stopped chewing and got to their feet. What they thought of doing or might have done Robin did not know; but anger still darkened his mind and while it did he felt no fear. “If you choose to doubt me then I will happily meet you at the Nottingham Fair later today, for I go now to that place that I may see how I fare at the archery contest. And I will say that I will shoot far more handsomely than you, whose greasy hands will let his bow slip, and mayhap his arrow shall pierce the sheriff’s hat where he sits watching the performance, and then you shall win a prize specially for you, and yet like not what you might have chosen.”
The seven men stood for a moment like a tableau in a Christmas pageant, and then Tom said thickly, “We shall not wait for the fair; we shall have our shooting match here. And by my faith, if you do not shoot as you choose to boast you can, be sure that I shall take great pleasure in basting your ribs till your sides are as red as any flayed deer’s.”
“Come,” said he, turning on his heel. “What shall we use as mark?” He spoke, not to Robin, but to his friends; yet even they quailed before the fierceness of his gaze. Bill backed cautiously away from him, as If Tom might order him strung up kicking for a more challenging target. “There,” he said, and Robin’s heart sank in him as Tom pointed. “See the gnarled oak tree, two score rods distant, I judge, or thereabouts? And see the crotch halfway up that tree, and the small black burl beneath the crotch? At that we shall aim.” He strode over to where his bow and quiver lay, next to the small open cask on the ground, and he snatched them up, tumbling the quiver through the loop on his belt, his knuckles white where they held the bow.
“As the challenged, I go first,” he said; but Robin was too sick to protest that it was not this test he had offered as challenge, nor, he knew, would a protest have done him any good. At such a range he would be lucky if his arrows did not bounce – if they struck the correct tree at all. The anger that had borne him up drained away as suddenly as it had risen, and he was cold and weary, and knew he had been a fool. He wondered if Tom meant to kill him after. There was no doubt that Tom was the better archer, any more than it was uncommon knowledge that Robin was not the archer his father had been; Bill himself made his ears burn often enough on this subject – for all that Bill himself could barely hit the broad side of a barn at six paces. Robin thought sadly that he had not known the old wound could hurt so sorely.
Robin turned heavy eyes to Tom as the bigger man took his stance and pulled his arrow powerfully back – but he noticed that the man’s hands were not quite steady. With anger? Robin thought. Or with ale? Either way he will take joy in beating me senseless.
“Three arrows each we may try,” Tom said between his teeth, and let go his first shaft. It flew straight, but a little awry, for it buried itself at the left edge of the burl, not the center. The second struck so near to the first that their feathers vibrated together, and this second one was nearer the burl’s center. But the third, which should have struck nearest of all, went wild, and sank in the trunk a finger’s-breadth from the burl. Tom threw his bow down savagely and turned to Robin. “Let us see you shoot yet half so well,” he said threateningly.
Robin slowly moved forward to take his place, slowly unslung his bow, bent it to slip the string into its notch and pulled an arrow from his quiver. But his hands were steady as he drew the bowstring back and sighted down the arrow.
His first arrow struck the far right side of the treetrunk, a good hand’s-breadth from the burl. There was a snicker behind him. It might be Bill; he doubted it was Tom. And yet his arrow was, for him and indeed for most archers, good shooting. It was not for his archery that Robin’s father had called Tom Moody bad. He notched and drew his second arrow, and it flew beautifully, to strike at the veriest right-hand edge of the burl; and yet it was nearer the mark than only one of Tom’s, and Robin had already shot two.
He fitted his last arrow to the string, staring at his hands, which went fairly about their familiar work without acknowledging the trouble that they and the rest of Robin were in. The arrow was his best; from the same fine-grained bit of pine he had made a half-dozen arrows Sir Richard had paid handsomely for, so handsomely that Robin had let himself keep the last, the odd seventh, in the wistful hope that so excellent an arrow might have an effect on his marksmanship. When he raised the bow, for a moment his eyes clouded over, and he could not see the tree he was aiming for; and he wondered, as his arrow quivered against the string, if he would ever shoot another after Tom and his lads got through with him.
He murmured a few words under his breath – a prayer, perhaps, or a farewell to Marian; or an apology to his father – and loosed his last arrow.
Another vagrant breeze arose from nowhere, and kissed his arrow in its flight; Robin felt it brush his cheek as well. And the arrow, perhaps, wavered.
And struck true, dead center, in the burl.
A barely audible gasp rose behind him: a hissing of breath through shut teeth. Robin stared at his arrow, its shaft still vibrating, and for a second time his vision briefly clouded. He blinked, and heard footsteps behind him, and stiffened to prevent himself from cringing away from what he felt sure would be a heavy hand on his shoulder, preliminary to the beating he would receive, from many hands, despite his lucky shooting.
But Tom strode straight by him, toward the tree, and after a moment Robin followed him without looking around.
There was no doubt that Robin’s arrow was beautifully centered, and that neither of Tom’s better shots came near it. Tom growled something, jerked the perfect arrow out of the tree, and trod on it. Robin heard the shaft break, but said nothing, thinking of his ribs, and the sound of approaching soft footsteps behind him. But Tom still made no move toward him. He pulled his arrows out of the tree and then stepped aside, glaring; and Robin, in a daze, stepped forward, retrieved his two remaining arrows, and restored them carefully to his quiver. He would check them later. After a moment he also stopped and hastily picked up the splintered halves of the broken arrow; and these he thrust under his belt.
Still no one said anything, and he moved cautiously away, toward the path, toward his day at Nottingham Fair, his day with Marian. He had to turn his back on Tom to do this, and he walked jerkily, as a man passes a growling mastiff which he knows would be happy to tear his arm off if he makes a false move; and he had regained the path and turned down it, carefully not looking back, when there was a strangled shout behind him.
“And do you think then, that you shall go unhindered to Nottingham Fair, and boast to your friends in the dirt that you did best Tom Moody at archery?”
Robin, too conscious of what was happening off to one side, was not conscious enough of what lay under his feet on this rough woods path; and he stumbled, ever so slightly, and his head nodded forward to save his balance. And an arrow whistled past his ear.
It whistled so nearly that it creased the nape of his neck, gently, and the narrow place where it rubbed was red and painful for many days. Fear jumped back into Robin’s throat and stopped his breathing, and his bowels turned to water: He means to kill me, he thought, and he turned like a creature at bay, crouching against the possibility of a further shaft from his enemy, groping over his shoulder for his bow, which he had providentially not unstrung. He notched an arrow and let fly back at the little group around the gnarled oak tree.
He aimed for Tom Moody’s right leg. He had aimed neither well nor carefully, and he took no thought for the consequences, should he succeed at so tricky a shot – or should he fail. But he was nonetheless appalled as he saw the feathered shaft appear as if by magic in Tom’s broad chest, as he heard the man’s hoarse cry of pain and terror. Tom looked down a moment, and clutched at the great spreading red stain around the thing that grew now so abruptly from his breast; and then his knees buckled, and he fell forward on his face and lay still. The snap of the shaft as Tom’s weight crushed it was very loud in the stillness; and then, like a long echo of that sharp, final sound, a squirrel appeared on a branch of the oak tree, and shrilly protested the invasion of his peace.