An except from Chapters Two and Three of I.A. Watson’s novel
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Our story so far: Lady Matilda Fitzwarren and her family have been audaciously rescued from confinement in Nottingham Castle by Robin Hood and his band. As the outlaws seek to escape with their liberated captives, the Sheriff of Nottingham looses his minions to hunt them down.
obin Hood, Little John, Much the Miller’s Son and David of Doncaster rode hard down the road to the West Bridge Ford - and Maid Marion rode with them.
It was a strange ride for the young woman, galloping beside the laughing bandit-king of Sherwood. Lady Matilda Fitzwarren had been changed by her brief encounter with Robin Hood weeks before. The outlaw had fanned the rebellion within her, awoken the rogue, taught her sense of natural justice that it could fight and win. With Robin she’d robbed the corrupt to feed the innocent. Apart from him she’d yearned for his smile. For him she had become Marion of the Greenwood.
Now she was beside him again and her feelings were complex and confused.
Robin had won a kiss. They’d wagered it in the dark fugitive hours after the young outlaw had stolen her from bandit camp captivity: a bet that Robin of Loxley was the best shot in England. He’d proved his claim at the Sheriff’s archery butts. But more, the Sheriff had forced Sir Richard at the Lee to offer Matilda’s hand as prize in that contest– and Robin had triumphed over all comers.
Marion wondered if that made her Robin’s wife, his winnings, his Queen of May, or just some poor moth caught in the dazzle of his flame.
As she galloped down the road she didn’t care.
“Is somebody going to tell me the plan now?” she shouted across at Robin. “I know that there were good reasons to keep me in the dark while the Sheriff could threaten my family but I’d really like to share the joke.”
“Tell her, Rob,” Little John advised. “She’s one of us now.”
Robin smirked. “It’s not enough to get your folks out of the castle, Marion. The Sheriff’s got plenty of men to chase after them and they can’t melt away into the forest like my outlaws. So the escape’s not over yet.”
The horses clattered on the forest road then emerged from the treescape for a moment to track the river’s course. The opposite shore was edged with smallholdings, the perimeter of the city of Nottingham, but the water was too deep to ford.
“My mother and Constanza couldn’t bear a long journey without a carriage or cart,” Matilda recognised.
“Right. So we’re going to deter the Sheriff’s men from chasing them.”
“By asking nicely?”
“Yes. Well that and having thirty archers lined up at the crossroads ahead where the Constable will be bringing his hunters.”
Marion frowned. “You’re going to kill lots of people?”
Robin shook his head. “I’m going to scare lots of people, and then they’re going to chase us.”
Marion looked at Robin and Little John.
“Us? Us us?”
“You wanted to ride with him,” John reminded her.
hunter’s track took the main band of fugitives as far as the estate of Ruddington, a mere half-hour’s hard ride from Nottingham Castle but enough to leave the injured Constanza gasping in pain and clinging to her pony. Loren de Weynold, Sir Richard’s guard captain, was about to demand a halt before the old nurse fell off her horse when Will Stutely raised a fist and signalled for the party to pull off the road.
The grizzled old outlaw led them single-file through a thicket of ash and alder to a small clearing by a springhead. More of Robin’s grubby band waited there with four fast carts. Three of the vehicles were already part-laden with heavy tree-trunks.
“What’s this?” demanded Sir Richard at the Lee, anxious for his family’s safety and unsure how to balance the pressing need for speed against the obvious problems of pushing his wife and servant too hard on horseback.
Friar Tuck dropped down from his own pony with a relieved wheeze. Perhaps the poor animal made a happy noise too as the fat friar’s bulk lifted from her back. The tonsured monk gestured for Lady Mary Fitzwarren and her ladies to shift into the unladen wagon.
“The other carts will all head in other directions,” Tuck advised them, “so any tracker will have to decide which of four sets of cart-ruts to follow. The horses will be ridden away cross-country. Our pursuers will have lots of choices.”
Lady Mary walked stiffly to the indicated wagon. “What has this carried?” she sniffed.
“Best not ask, milady” chuckled Gilbert of the White Hand. “But we gave you the cleanest of the selection.”
Young Aliss dropped off from her pillion position behind Captain de Weynold (although she’d been well content there clutching him around his chest and would have vivid dreams tonight) and hurried to attend her mistress. “Whatever worse things did the others carry?” she shuddered, not wanting to know.
Arthur a Bland told her anyway. “Best smells’ll go in the other directions, o’ course,” the old poacher declared. “Trust a hunting dog to go after an offal wagon and a knacker’s cart! ”
Will Scathlock pulled his own horse up to travel escort beside de Weynold, and the three remaining soldiers of the old knight’s guard. The mercenary was ashen pale and clutched the reins. The bandage on his calf was already crimson.
Sir Richard’s youngest son, Adam, had been captive for many weeks in Nottingham castle. The gyves were still around his wrists. Gilbert had the young squire stretch the links across a log and severed them with an axe. Pale Adam managed not to flinch as the outlaw swung the blade.
Sir Richard wheeled his own horse round beside the cart carrying his lady. “Seems like young Hood planned well,” he admitted.
“Oh, that’s our Robin,” agreed Tuck. “Always scheming. Sometimes his plots even work.”
“Sometimes?” worried Lady Mary. Her youngest daughter had just ridden off with the madcap outlaw.
“More than you’d think,” Tuck owned. “Anyway, here’s where our company makes its first parting. What are we to do, lads?”
Gilbert leaped back onto his stolen mare with an easy panache befitting a former steward in an Earl’s household. “We’re taking the horses away over the fields, fast and furious, each in a different direction. When we’re sure we’re clear and free we make our way back to gather at the Major Oak.”
Arthur a Bland twitched his tattered hood over his head. His washed-out rags blended well with the summer forest. “I’m back down the main road and scattering these caltrops,” he rehearsed. He clasped a leather bag containing the wicked four-pronged foot-spikes that could lame a horse. Fast riders chasing outlaws would have to moderate their pace and watch their road if they wanted to avoid harming their mounts. “Maybe I’ll stretch a rope or two across the path as well if I find places as suit. Then it’s home to the Oak and a warm supper of coney or boar if I can find ‘un.”
“And we’re to flee with the carts,” chipped in Riccon of Flintshire. “As far and fast as we can with the weight we’re carrying to pretend we’re loaded with folks. Then when soldiers draw close we’re to desert the wagons and take to the woods, and so home by our own ways.”
“Don’t worry,” Will Stutely comforted Sir Richard with a brown-toothed grin, “They’re not our carts.”
“What of us?” asked Alan a Dale. He and his new-won lady still rode a single mount and were staring at the preparation like new-borns with no idea of what to do next.
“You’ll come with us,” Adam urged. He and Alan had spent long nights in the darkness of the Sheriff’s oubliette confiding their fears and hopes. Adam did not want to lose the friend he’d made in such desperate adversity. “We are comrades to the end.”
“You’re with Sir Richard and with me,” Friar Tuck assented. “Stutely too. And Scarlet, I’ll want you in the wagon for a while, so I can sew up that wound of yours. Never pretend it’s not bleeding you dry. Don’t make me knock you down to save your leg.”
Will Scathlock was in enough pain that he didn’t object.
“Move yourselves then,” Stutely yelled at the outlaws. “And mind your woodcraft. Rob wants you all safe home and there’s none of you I wouldn’t mind seeing again to get my dice winnings, so take some care!”
“And thank you for your pains,” added Sir Richard Fitzwarren, doffing his cap. “You have saved the lives of my family and have struck a blow against tyranny. It shall not be forgotten.”
“That’s going to be the problem,” muttered Friar Tuck as they hurried on their escape.
ir Guy of Gisbourne rode with Shankshard and the first pursuers. He’d dispatched his man Kinstain on a fast post horse to the Prince at Leicester. Now the vengeful black knight was at the forefront of the hunters who sought out Robin in the Hood.
“Slow down,” the Constable warned him. “There’ll be ambushes.”
“We’ve six score men, and dogs as well,” Gisbourne snarled. “What are you afraid of?”
“Of walking into a prepared trap like you did with the Prince’s men last time you chased Robin Hood,” snapped Shankshard. He didn’t like the half-Moor knight. He didn’t like his black horsehair hunting armour. He didn’t like his full-face helm with the black mane attached to it. He didn’t like the royal envoy’s arrogance or prejudice or anything about him.
“At least I fought Hood,” replied Sir Guy. “I hear that you were robbed blind by him of five hundred pounds of silver without even noticing it.”
“The silver that was meant for your ransom after you were captured by the outlaw?”
“I escaped from the wolfsheads without need for ransom.”
“Word is you did it by threatening the life of a goose-girl whom you swore not to harm, but afterwards left defiled and dead.”
“She was a nobody.” The black knight’s tone was dangerous.
The Constable held his tongue and kept his peace. Sir Guy had the Prince’s ear. It was further rumoured that Gisbourne had foresworn an oath to the Virgin Mary not to harm the goose-girl; Guy of Gisbourne was a black knight indeed.
The front-riders of the hunting party clattered over the wooden bridge at West Ford and chased along to the fork where the road branched to Radford and Edwalton. Shankshard gestured for a dozen men to peel off westward in case the escapees had moved faster than was likely. The Constable wheeled his main force to the right hoping to trap the slower refugees on the road.
Shankshard pictured the lay of the land and Robin’s likely routes. Nottingham Castle sat on a ridge north of the Rivers Leen and Trent. The fugitives had made their escape across the Leen southwest of the castle. There were few crossing places back and they were guarded. That limited the outlaws to the woodland tracks south of the water.
The outlaws’ known haunts were all north and east of Nottingham. Sir Richard’s estates at Verysdale or Leaford also lay on the wrong side of the river. For Robin to reach the relative security of his forest hideouts he’d need to find a way round to them.
The ground was steeper beyond the castle westwards with fewer routes that a large party could take. The Constable had already sent men to cut off those roads. Shankshard and Gisbourne had swept east hoping to find the outlaws seeking an unguarded river crossing.
They were five minutes ride from Gamston when a hunting horn sounded from the woods. A flight of arrows sliced into the road. The lead riders reined their horses so quickly that the columns behind almost careened into them.
“Outlaws!” Gisbourne shouted, unnecessarily. Shankshard began to understand why Hood had nicknamed the black knight ‘Brickhead’.
“Ready the dogs!” called Shankshard. “Men with long shields to the fore a-foot.”
“Constable!” The call came from somewhere in the trees. “I heard you were looking for me!”
“Robin i’ the Hood?” shouted back Shankshard. He could barely believe the wolfshead’s audacity.
“That’s him!” cried Gisbourne. “I recognise that arrogant peasant tone! Charge him now!”
“Hello, Brickhead!” called the outlaw. “How’s the leg? Next time I’ll shoot a couple of inches higher and hit your balls. Even the smallest target’s no problem for me.”
A few of the Sheriff’s men exchanged little smirks. The black knight wasn’t popular and that jibe was going to be common tavern fodder by tomorrow night.
“Give yourself up, Robin Hood!” called Shankshard. He didn’t expect the outlaw to surrender but it gave his men time to lock shields and prepare to charge archers.
“That’s what I was going to say to you, Constable. You know how many men I command in Sherwood. You’re outnumbered and surrounded. Ask Brickhead how that worked out for him last time.”
“He’s bluffing,” snapped Sir Guy.
The soldiers around him didn’t look so sure. The archers had set their ambush where the forest pressed close to the road. At least thirty bowmen had loosed their shafts in unison to halt the hunters.
“I’m going to hang you, Robin Hood!”
“Doesn’t that mean you’ve got to catch me first?” answered the young outlaw. “And doesn’t that mean you’ve got to not be shot from your saddle? I’ve got an arrow pointed right at the eyeslit of your helmet. Want to bet I can’t get it straight through there? Remember Harold at Hastings?”
Shankshard kept his nerve. “I’ve brought enough men to take down your archers. Your men have to be close in forest this dense. Each might get a shot off, true, but once my men are at close quarters your bowmen have no chance.”
“Don’t talk with the wolfshead!” snarled Gisbourne. “Kill him!”
“You’re confident of your troops, then?” Robin called. “William de Vendenal must pay pretty good wages that a man will throw his life away for his Sheriff. And of course there’ll be generous de Vendenal pensions to the widows and orphans of any man who dies today, won’t there? I mean, why else would your men be willing to charge unknown numbers of outlaws on our own prepared territory?”
A nervous mutter ran through the ranks.
Sir Guy of Gisbourne’s patience was exhausted “Enough of this!” he screamed. “Loose the hunting dogs! Sound the charge! With me!” He reared his horse and spurred it forward down the road.
Shankshard wanted to throttle the black knight, but Guy was the prince’s envoy and had to be supported. He gestured to his lieutenants to bring their men in after Gisbourne and begin the shield charge.
Robin’s broad-headed red-fletched arrow punched right through Gisbourne’s shield and stopped an inch away from his breastplate.
The soldiers beat into the forest in good discipline.
There were no outlaws. Robin’s merry men had all melted away as soon as they’d fired their first volley, while their leader kept the Sheriff’s men talking.
Everybody heard the outlaw king’s laughter. Robin and a small mounted party broke from cover and raced away up the road then across ploughed fields beyond.
“After them!” roared Gisbourne; and the chase began.
ady Mary’s wagon and its escort had progressed as far as the tiny hamlet of Wysall by the time the sun dipped below the horizon. That was signal for the last of the decoy carts to peel off and head west, setting its course for Radcliffe and Bingham.
Will Stutely bade the lads with him to light torches. The caravan continued moving through the night.
Scarlet’s colour was better now that his wound had been properly treated. He’d insisted on taking the reins of the Fitzwilliam party’s wagon. “Someone’s bound to report where we are to the Sheriff,” he warned the bandits.
“Oh, there’s plenty of reports as to where we are,” Tuck promised him. “By now we’re all over the shire. Robin’s seen to that.”
“Plenty of good descriptions, too,” Alan a Dale promised. The minstrel had helped to brief the various grateful peasants and villeins that would bear tales of Robin Hood sightings. The outlaw would be robbing a butcher in Kneesall and wrestling an Ilkston potter, cheating at dice in Nutall, saving an infant at Foxhill, and a hundred other offences before tomorrow was done.
Sir Richard grumphed in appreciation of the tactic. “Seems that young Robin has thought of everything.”
His son Adam edged his horse nearer to have private speech with the Knight at the Lee. “Father, I know we’re indebted to these outlaws, but do you really think it right for Matilda to be off with their leader? I mean, she’s a maiden without chaperone and…”
Sir Richard clapped Adam’s shoulder. “I pledged Matilda’s hand to the winner of that archery bout. The Sheriff forced me, yes, my word was given. If Hood comes and asks me for my daughter then I’ll keep my oath and bestow her.”
Adam glanced around at the outlaws moving through the night. “But he’s a bandit. I mean, I don’t want to be ungrateful. He got me out of a death cell. But Matilda…”
“Lad, I don’t know what to think,” the old knight cut him short. “Except that Matilda’s grown to a woman these last few weeks. You saw her when she stole to your cell. How did she seem to you then?”
“Like a damsel inspired,” admitted Adam, reluctant to praise his closest sister. “Or mad.”
“Yes. That’s what I saw too. And I’ve only seen its like elsewhere once.”
“When I saw Robin of Loxley at work.”
Father and son kept pace quietly for a time.
“Your sister’s on a hard road,” Sir Richard admitted at last, “Yet I fear for her less tonight than I did when Prince John was our guest or when de Vendenal held her at Nottingham.” He stroked his whiskers and mused. “I wonder why?”
The quiet talk was disturbed as Tuck called to the travellers. The wagon rumbled to a halt by a tiny smallholding. An earnest peasant waited with fresh horses for the wagon.
“Here’s our next parting,” Tuck instructed the party. “Stutely will take Sir Richard and Lady Mary back to their own estates by a roundabout route. Scarlet will go with you in the wagon. Robin’s seen to it that word of what’s happened runs ahead of you.”
“And eventually I’ll get paid,” grouched Scathlock. His leg still hurt.
The fat friar went on. “I’ll take Alan and Elaine with me. We’ve got business elsewhere. Young Master Fitzwarren can join us if he’s for an adventure.”
Adam and Alan exchanged surprised glances. “I’ll go with Alan,” the young squire agreed.
Elaine nodded mutely, still overwhelmed by the things that had happened on her wedding day.
“See you take care,” Sir Richard told his son. “I’ll expect you at Verysdale. It can be fortified better than Leaford if de Vendenal dares send men that far.” The old knight didn’t mention how his daughter would soon be in defiance of a royal summons commanding her to attend Prince John; that would bring more trouble down on the beleaguered Fitzwarren clan.
Father and son clasped hands. Lady Mary gave her rescued boy a kiss. “Don’t be an idiot any more,” she instructed him with motherly force. “I’m proud of how you stood your torment. Now be a man from it.”
Even old Constanza had a few words of parting, but they were for Elaine of Loughborough. And private. “Now see here, Lady Elaine. I know the world’s become a strange uncertain place for you, and you’re clinging to that young troubadour because he’s all there’s left for you to cling to. But there’s other choices still for you to make and no need to give yourself if you don’t wish it. There are houses of God where you can be a bride of Christ rather than a bride of man. And I’m sure there’d be welcome and refuge for you with my Lady Mary at Verysdale.”
Elaine bit her bottom lip. “My life has become unexpected and terrifying,” the runaway bride admitted, “but I choose Alan. He’s not only my final refuge, he’s my first choice.”
“Well then…” nodded Constanza, and bent her head close to impart certain practical advice which the young lady might find helpful on the nights to come. Elaine blushed bright red – and listened.
The cart moved on and the flaring torches of its outlaw attendants vanished into the darkness. Tuck led Elaine, Alan and Adam into the cramped warmth of the peasant hut. For one night at least Elaine would have no opportunity to try out Constanza’s instructions.
t about the same time, Robin, Marion, John, David, and Much ended their long chase over field and forest at the water’s edge. The wide expanse of the Trent rolled before them, dark and turbulent in the twilight.
“The horses have about had it,” Little John warned. “And Brickhead’s still coming.”
“But his men are thinned out over half of the shire,” said Robin Hood with a wink, “and just as tired as we are. Imagine how hard it’ll be for them to swim their mounts across the river.”
“Imagine how hard it’ll be for us,” objected Marion. “Robin…”
“No need,” promised the laughing outlaw. He slid from his saddle and grabbed his ride’s bridle. “Lead your horses this way.”
The outlaws followed him single file along the thin towpath that ribboned beside the river. At a bend where the waters boiled a plank pontoon was suspended on two ropes across the river’s course.
Robin covered his horse’s eyes with a scarf. “Walk them over.”
“Can John go last?” asked Much anxiously, eyeing the giant’s bulk. Little John rode the largest of the horses too.
“Can I just hurl Much over there?” responded Little John.
Sounds of pursuit halted the jocularity. Robin pulled his steed across the groaning pontoon. It creaked alarmingly as the ropes stretched but it held.
“This is turning into a very unusual day,” Maid Marion owned as she followed his lead. “A festival, a wedding, an archery contest, jumping off a castle, a hunt, and now drowning. You give me interesting times, Robin i’ the Hood.”
“I know you’re easily bored, milady.”
David of Doncaster crossed over without much difficulty. Little John had to push Much onto the temporary bridge.
“I can’t swim!” panicked the miller’s son.
“You grew up in a watermill,” Robin’s lieutenant argued.
“The water was three feet deep!”
“Well then, my advice is don’t fall in.”
Sounds of the hunters were closer. There was a crashing of undergrowth. A fierce hairy setter jumped from cover, snarling.
John knocked it away with his staff, but not too hard. He liked animals. The handler behind the hound backed away when he saw the grizzled giant. John didn’t offer the same mercy to men.
“Cross over now,” Robin called to the big man. The outlaw leader held his bow in his hands. The next pursuer stopped short as an arrow passed beneath his legs.
John dragged his mount across the logs that Robin’s outlaws had set there only an hour before. The Trent was navigable so anything done earlier would have been spotted by river traffic.
The main force of the Sheriff’s hunters arrived. Gisbourne spotted Robin Hood across the water and spurred towards the bridge.
As Little John made it to the other bank David and Much cut the ropes holding the pontoon in place. The current took the logs and the whole bridge disintegrated and was carried away downstream.
Robin placed another arrow in Gisbourne’s shield, exactly where the last one had been.
“Across the river!” shouted Black Guy. “Swim your horses!” He couldn’t follow immediately, because unlike most of the Sheriff’s men’s mounts his warhorse was fully barded and would need freeing from is heavy plate before it could follow.
The first man into the water toppled from his horse with Robin’s arrow in his arm.
“In the time it takes for a man to cross I can kill him ten times over,” the outlaw archer called. “Save your men.”
Sir Guy was livid “Across, damn it! God’s wounds, I’ll gut any man who shirks!”
Another pair of the Sheriff’s guards fell with flesh wounds from arrows.
“Go!” shouted the black knight of Gisbourne. “How many shafts do you imagine he has?”
“We knew this was where we’d cross,” Robin pointed out. “My men left me a couple of spare quivers.”
The soldiers halted again, disconcerted by the bandit’s happy tone.
“All together!” roared Gisbourne. “Any man who doesn’t want to be impaled on a spear by the morning will cross that river now!”
Even then it took ten or fifteen minutes to convince the soldiers to brave Robin’s bow. By that time the fugitives had slipped away without farewells.
Much was elated as he trotted his blown mount along the track towards the hamlet of Colwick. “We did it! We got away from that horrible castle and that horrible sheriff and we’re free!” He couldn’t believe it.
“Don’t jinx it!” snapped Little John. “You never say things like that till…”
The sound of racing horses echoed up the road from behind them.
“That’ll be Shankshard,” frowned Robin. “Sneaky. He anticipated us crossing the water and brought some men round by the Carlton road. Brickhead was just the diversion, though I doubt Black Guy knew it.”
“Their horses sound fresher than ours,” Marion pointed out.
“Good job we’ve very clever then,” Robin replied. “Run!”
The former heiress of Loughborough was still awake in the fusty darkness, reflecting that this was not what she’d expected on the night of her wedding to the Sheriff of Nottingham. Lying on a straw mattress in a peasant hut was a pleasant relief.
“Alan?” she replied to the low whisper. She felt the minstrel’s hand reach out and clasp hers.
“Are you alright?” Alan a Dale asked her, quietly enough not to wake the snoring Tuck or the exhausted Adam Fitzwarren.
“I think so. Better than I thought.”
“This must be very strange for you.”
“Yes. My whole life has become one of those ballads you used to sing to me.”
Alan squeezed her hand. “We deserve a ballad, you and I. A song that everyone can sing and be happy for us.” He paused a moment, then added in still quieter, more sober undertones, “That is, if you want to be with me. I’d understand if you didn’t. Lady Mary said…”
“I don’t want to be anywhere without you, Alan. I know that now.”
“I talked with Adam,” confessed the minstrel. “He’s a good man, and noble. He promised me that if he could he’d offer you marriage. He’s a younger son, but he’s a fair…”
“Adam, if I wanted titles, wealth and power I’d be Lady de Vendenal tonight. I’m not. I’m Elaine of Nowhere, running for my life, hiding in a peasant cot. And I’m with you.”
Alan stroked his lady’s palm. Her skin was smooth and soft. “You’ve never experienced poverty, Elaine. You’ve never had to work, except for spinning and weaving and other noble pastimes. You’ve never been cold and hungry.”
The lady caught her breath. “Alan, are you trying to get rid of me?”
“No! No, nothing like that. But I don’t want to destroy you either. I love you. I’d die for you – I hope I proved that. I want you to be mine always and forever, just like in the songs. I want to write that song, and sing it full voice knowing every word is true. And I want to compose another one that tells how much I love you after fifty years together. But I don’t want to lead you to tears.”
Elaine closed her hand around his. “I think now that everyone comes to tears, whatever path they travel. When I come to mine, you are the man I want to wipe them away.” She squeezed his hand. “Alan, when I saw you’d come for me today, at my wedding to that horrible Sheriff, it was the best moment of my life!”
“I’d like to give you better moments than that, Elaine, if you’ll marry me. Will you? Be my wife, my love, my heart?”
“I will, Alan. That’s all I want. I’ve given up everything else to have it. To have you.”
Their whispers grew quieter and more private still, as they talked long into the night.
But when he was satisfied that the two young people had a proper understanding of each other, Friar Tuck stopped pretending to snore and allowed himself to snore in earnest.
ot to nag you, Robin Hood, but those horsemen are closing very fast,” Marion pointed out. “How far to Holme?”
Robin jerked his horse sharply left down a thin dirt track towards a ragged cluster of wooden buildings. “This is it,” he said. “Holme rope ferry.”
It was almost full dark now. Marion could barely make out the flat barge that bobbed at the water’s edge. During the day the long ropes that traversed the Trent were harnessed to oxen to guide the platform from shore to shore. At night there was no sign of the animals nor the ferry handlers.
Little John led the way down to the tethered barge. The shallow boat rocked as he climbed aboard and examined the ropes.
Robin loosed an arrow in the darkness. The first of Shankshard’s chase guards screamed and fell from his horse. The tumble hurt him worse than the shaft.
“Help me cut these cords!” John called to Much and David. The three men set to work on the mooring ropes and on the thick hawsers that guided the barge. Marion soothed the horses across the wide plank and picketed them on the ferry. It was a tight fit.
Robin fired again, three shots in rapid succession, then pelted down to the boat. “Time to go!” he suggested.
Constable Shankshard raced into view, flanked by link riders bearing torches. Another pair of Robin’s well-aimed shafts sliced the brands out of their hands.
More men were behind the Constable, too many to hold off. One tried to make a shortbow shot from horseback but his arrow went far from the mark.
“Get them!” shouted Shankshard, spurring down towards the ferry.
Robin shot the Constable’s horse out from under him then leaped onto the raft.
Little John heaved off with one of the punts, his massive strength sending the barge spinning away from the embankment. Without the guide-ropes the current quickly caught the flatbed vessel and pushed it downstream.
“Fend off the banks, lads!” John called to David and Much. “Try and keep us midstream. Marion, look ahead for sudden turns or hazards.”
Robin stood at the stern, still loosing arrows to keep the pursuers in disarray. One or two tried to force their horses into the water, but the river caught the barge and speeded its passage. The soldiers were left behind.
Marion stood beside the outlaw leader. “We’re not dead yet. Are you sure this is one of your plans?”
Little John snorted. “We’re on a rickety barge meant for quiet hauls from bank to bank, speeding downriver in pitch blackness, trying to guess if we’ll be wrecked before we sink. It’s absolutely a Robin Hood plan.”
“We’re away and clear now,” Robin told them. “We can leave the river anywhere we choose. Shankshard and Gisbourne will have to check every possible place. We’ll set the horses loose a few miles into Sherwood and go on foot after that, and then nobody will find us. We’ll be at the Major Oak by tomorrow night.”
“Isn’t that jinxing it as well?” worried Much.
Robin splashed water at him. “When I say it, it’s a done deal,” he replied.