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The Griffin

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Will couldn’t be certain what had roused him from his sleep. After returning from his watch, he had fallen, exhausted, into slumber. In his dream, he’d been drinking in a tavern with all his friends. The women serving them had been comely and generous with both the ale and their favours. A lass with dimples in both cheeks and honey blond hair had been leaning over Will, about to whisper some secret in his ear, when a different voice, a male voice, had said, “Wake up.” Will had obeyed, jerking out of sleep in a panic, casting his eyes around the camp in every direction. It was then that he noticed the pile of blankets where Robin had been.

Robin couldn’t be on watch because he’d already taken his turn. Besides, Much was absent from the camp, so he was still at his post. Will knew that Herne sometimes summoned Robin in the middle of the night, but Will didn’t think that was where Robin had gone. He remembered the voice from his dream, a voice he’d heard before. He had been the one Herne called, not Robin.

A twig snapped. Will shoved off his blankets and stood, moving quickly, but silently, through the camp to pinpoint the source of the sound. If it had been a waxing moon instead of a full one, he might not have caught sight of that flash of pale gold as Robin faded into a clump of trees. Curious, Will crept after him.

It wasn’t long before Will realized that Robin was heading for the road. Had Robin heard something? Was he meeting someone? Will was so distracted by his thoughts that he almost didn’t notice when Robin stopped just short of the road’s edge. Will froze and ducked behind a tree to see what Robin would do next. Robin did nothing, only stood motionless, staring at the road. Losing patience, Will was about to step out from behind the tree and confront Robin, when a hand clamped over his mouth and an arm was wrapped around his chest. He felt a breath against his face and then a voice was whispering in his ear. “Leave him.”

Nasir?

“He walks in his sleep. We should not wake him.” Nasir lowered his hand from Will’s mouth and released him. Will spun around, pinning Nasir against the tree trunk.

“What do you mean?” Will said. “’Ow do you know ’e’s asleep?”

Nasir regarded him calmly. “Look at his face, his eyes. But don’t touch him.”

Will studied Nasir for an instant in suspicion before striding towards Robin. He stood quite close to him, but he didn’t touch him. He took in Robin’s slack face and blank gaze. “Robin? Are you asleep? What are you seeing?”

Robin was silent for so long that Will thought he wouldn’t receive an answer. Then Robin spoke in a quiet murmur, as if he really was asleep. “I see an eagle, an eagle being pursued by a lion. No…not pursued. Consumed. The lion has swallowed the eagle, and both animals have become one: a lion with the head and wings of an eagle.”

Will looked at Nasir, who had stepped out from behind the tree and was standing next to him. “’E’s gone mad.”

“It could be a vision,” Nasir said.

“A vision that ’e’s gone mad, maybe,” Will muttered. He glanced at Robin again and shook his head. “What do we do now? We can’t just leave ’im ’ere.”

“No,” Nasir said. He took Robin by the arm and turned him away from the road. “Come, Robin. We should return to the camp.”

Will watched in amazement as Robin allowed himself to be led away. “’E’s never walked in his sleep before, ’as ’e?”

“No, I don’t think so – not before last night.”

Will stopped walking abruptly. “Last night?” He glanced over his shoulder at the road. “’E did the same thing last night?”

“Yes.”

“And ’e walked to the same place?”

“Yes.”

“At the same time?”

“Yes.”

Will sighed and scrubbed a hand across his face. “What the ’ell does it mean?”

Nasir shook his head. “I don’t know.”

They began walking again, but didn’t make it far before Will stopped a second time.

“I think I ’eard ’Erne’s voice in a dream.”

Nasir cocked his head and stared at Will curiously. “What did he say?”

“’E told me to wake up.”

“And that is when you saw Robin leave the camp?”

“Yeah.”

Nasir frowned. “It must mean something.”

When they reached the camp, Robin lay back down on the ground, and Will pulled Robin’s blankets up to his shoulders.

“We’re talking to the others about this in the morning,” Will said.

Nasir nodded. “Agreed.”

 

->->->->->->

 

The next morning, John and Much travelled to Wickham with Robin, so only Tuck was available for counsel. His chin resting on one chubby fist, Tuck listened carefully to what Will and Nasir had to say.

“A beast with the head and wings of an eagle and the body of a lion?” Tuck said when the tale had concluded. “Sounds like a griffin.”

“What the ’ell’s a griffin?” Will asked.

“It’s a mythical creature thought to be quite powerful.”

“If it’s a mythical creature then ’ow come Robin’s seeing it?”

Tuck shrugged. “Maybe it’s an omen.”

“Or one of ’Erne’s riddles,” Will grumbled.

Tuck sat deep in thought for a moment, his forehead furrowed in concentration. “The griffin appears on some coats of arms. Maybe the griffin represents a man.”

Will grimaced. “You mean a Norman.”

“That could mean trouble,” Nasir said.

Will snorted. “Is there ever a time when a Norman doesn’t mean trouble?”

Tuck sighed. “We need to tell Robin.”

 

->->->->->->

 

When Robin, John and Much returned to the camp, they were flushed and breathless, but laughing all the same. They had encountered a group of soldiers just after they’d left Wickham and had led them on a merry chase, deep inside the forest.

John flopped down on the ground beside Will and drank deeply from the waterskin. “They’ll be lost for hours.”

“Were they Gisburne’s men?” Will asked.

“No, though I’m certain I’ve seen their colours before – and that red griffin on their shields,” Robin said.

Will’s head swivelled around, while Nasir and Tuck exchanged a quick, but meaningful, glance. Robin missed none of it.

“What is it?” Robin eyed each man in turn. Neither Will nor Nasir was giving anything away, but Tuck squirmed uncomfortably. Robin raised an eyebrow. “Tuck?”

Tuck gazed at Will and Nasir helplessly then said, “Robin, have you ever walked in your sleep before?”

Robin’s eyes widened slightly in surprise. “No, never.”

“Not ever? Not even as a child?”

Robin smiled. “Tuck, I grew up in a castle. If I’d walked in my sleep, someone would have reported it to my father.” His eyes narrowed. “Why are you asking me this? Have I started sleepwalking?”

Tuck hesitated then bit his lip and nodded.

Stunned, Robin stared at Tuck. “For how long?”

“Two nights,” Will said. “Nasir followed you on the first night, and then we both caught you at it last night.”

Robin shot a puzzled look at Nasir. “Why didn’t you say anything?”

Nasir shrugged. “I thought it might happen only once. I did not wish to alarm you if it did not happen again.”

“But it did.” Robin looked at Will. “What did I do?”

“You walked to the road and then just stood there. When I asked you if you could see anything, you spouted all this hogwash about an eagle being eaten by a lion that then turned into that griffin beast you and Tuck were talking about.”

Robin frowned thoughtfully. “It sounds like a vision. Was there anything else?”

Will shifted a bit, looking sheepish. “You didn’t say nothing, but I thought I ’eard ’Erne’s voice in a dream telling me to wake up. When I did, I saw that you’d walked out of the camp.”

Robin crouched down in front of Nasir. “Did I walk to the same place both nights?”

“Yes, and I think it was at the same time,” Nasir said.

“None of this can be a coincidence. It must mean something.”

“But what?” Much asked.

Robin shook his head. “I don’t know but there has to be a reason why I’ve started sleepwalking at a particular time and to a particular place. Then there’s the griffin. It must have some meaning as well.”

“Maybe it was a warning about those soldiers,” John said.

“Perhaps…though it does seem strange that I would start sleepwalking because of it.” Robin rose from his haunches and started walking across the camp. “I’m going to see Herne. Maybe he can provide me with some answers.”

“Not bloody likely,” Will grumbled. “’E’ll probably just wake me again.”

“I hope he does, Will,” Robin said.

Will’s brow creased. “Why? So I can wake you?”

Robin grinned. “Oh, no, I don’t want you to wake me. I want you to follow me again. I want all of you to follow me. There’s a reason why I’m being guided to the same spot night after night. I think something’s going to happen, and we’re meant to be there when it does.”

 

->->->->->->

 

It wasn’t Herne who woke Will but Much. Will stared up at him blearily, not even sure who had roused him, before he made out Much’s curly head in the darkness and the young man whispered, “It’s happening again.”

Will sighed, nodded sleepily and stumbled out of his bedding. He had only taken a few steps when he heard the sound of snoring. He looked down and saw a large lump covered in furs by his feet.

“I didn’t want to disturb him,” Much said. “He looks so peaceful.”

“If I ’ave to be awake then so does ’e.” Will nudged the lump with his boot, and Tuck snorted awake.

“’E’s off again.”

Tuck yawned and rubbed his eyes. “Robin?”

“Who else?”

Tuck stretched out his arms, and both Will and Much hauled him to his feet. “Do you think this is the night?”

“Who can say? Even ’Erne ’asn’t got a bloody clue what’s going on.”

When Robin had gone to seek advice from Herne, he had received a riddle that was as cryptic as usual:

The griffin seeks the treasure that was lost, the treasure that should have been protected, but was stolen instead.

The thought of treasure had thrilled everyone. Was this lord with the griffin on his coat of arms riding through Sherwood with his ill-gotten riches? Had he hoped to avoid cutthroats by travelling at night, and was that the reason why Robin kept being led to the road in his sleep? Both Robin and Tuck had been quick to point out that Herne’s riddle could mean anything, and that they shouldn’t expect caskets bursting with gold. However, despite their cautious attitude, Robin and Tuck couldn’t hide their enthusiasm. Herne’s riddles might not make sense, but they always led to adventure if nothing else.

As Will headed wearily after Robin, with Much and Tuck in tow, he wondered if any treasure was worth sacrificing more sleep. They had all followed Robin the previous night and had remained with him as he stood on watch, staring sightlessly at the road. Then, when the first rays of sunlight began to filter through the trees, Robin woke, gazed around in confusion for a moment, and walked wordlessly back to the camp. Will wondered if tonight would just be more of the same.

“Wild goose chase,” Will muttered.

“What was that, Will?” Much asked.

“Nothing.”

When they reached the road, Will was surprised to see an air of excitement in the group when he had assumed everyone would be bored and restless. What was even more startling was when Robin turned at their approach and walked towards them.

“You’re awake,” Tuck said.

Robin smiled, his teeth gleaming in the moonlight. “No one could sleep with all that noise.”

“Noise?” Much asked. He sounded confused, and Will couldn’t blame him.

Robin tugged on Much’s arm, and they all moved nearer to the road. Will concentrated, tilting his head slightly to hear this mysterious sound that had apparently woken Robin. Then, he found it took no effort at all, for it was a sound he knew only too well: the rattle of wheels on the road. However, there was something odd about them. Although the wagon they were attached to was not yet in sight, it sounded much closer.

“That’s the loudest wagon I’ve ever ’eard.”

“I think one of the wheels is loose,” Nasir said.

Will snorted. “Sounds like the whole axle is about to go.” He turned to Robin. “Are these the people from your vision?”

“I don’t know, Will,” Robin said. “All I do know is that this party must be travelling in secret. Why else would they risk Sherwood at night?”

John chuckled. “I’m surprised they haven’t attracted every cutthroat for miles with the noise they’re making.”

“Frightened them more like,” Will grumbled.

“Why are they travelling in secret, Robin?” Much asked. “Are they running away from somewhere?”

“Yes,” Robin said. “I think they must be. Running from somewhere…or someone.”

It wasn’t long before they were able to discern the wagon, though they needed to squint in the darkness to do so. They split up to cover both sides of the road, hiding in the undergrowth. As they wagon came closer, Will was able to hear the sound of one, maybe two, horses over the noise of the wagon, but that was all. A small party, then, with no armed guard or entourage, not that Will had been expecting any. Still, he lay tensely on the road until Robin gave the signal, and they all burst out on to the road.

Will’s first glimpse of the party consisted of the flailing hooves of the horses as they reared up and neighed in fright. Unfortunately, that was enough to send that loose wheel off its axle and cause the wagon to tilt. There was a high-pitched scream, and Will saw a small body slide from the driver’s seat. He felt his breath catch in horror, knowing he was too far to reach the child in time. Then Robin was tossing Albion aside and swooping in to catch the child before it hit the ground. An instant later, to everyone’s surprise, a baby started crying.

“It’s all right,” Robin said to the child in his arms. “I’ve got you and…your sister? Brother?”

The voice that answered Robin was thin, quiet and difficult to hear over the baby. “Brother. His name is Henry.”

“And what’s your name?”

“Martha.”

Robin smiled. “Martha, you were a very brave girl to keep hold of your brother. You might have dropped him if you’d grabbed on to the wagon.” He set Martha on the ground and looked up as the driver rushed towards them. Robin held out his empty hands to indicate that he wasn’t a threat, but the man was too busy clutching Martha to notice.

“I don’t know whether to thank you for saving my children or curse you for causing the accident in the first place,” the man said. “I would have grabbed them myself if both hands hadn’t been on the reins. I only had the children with me because Henry wouldn’t settle down in the back.”

Robin lowered his hands sheepishly. “I’m sorry. We only meant to stop the wagon, nothing more.”

“Oh, I think it was a good deal more than that. You mean to rob us, even kill us, maybe.” The man took the wailing baby from his daughter and began rocking him.

“We don’t kill children – or make them fatherless, if we can help it,” Robin said. “Why are you travelling on such a dangerous road at night?”

The man glanced up from the baby in his arms. “It’s not by choice.”

“Then why?”

“Because I asked him.” A young woman had stepped out from the back of the wagon. “I came here looking for you, Robert. I need your help.”

Robin was staring at the woman as if she was familiar, but he just couldn’t place her. As the woman drew closer, Will could see, though only just, that she was dressed in fine clothing and had the poise of a noblewoman. Then, when she was standing directly in front of Robin, he gasped. “Constance? My God, is it really you?” He pulled the young woman into his arms and kissed the top of her head. In response, the young woman broke down and wept against Robin’s shoulder.

 

->->->->->->

 

“Thomas, you’re exhausted,” Constance said. “You and Martha should get some sleep. I can look after the baby.”

“My lady, I…” Thomas seemed torn between the need to obey his mistress and his desire to protect her. He was continually shooting suspicious glances at the outlaws and kept his children close to him.

“Robert is my cousin. His mother and mine were sisters. We’re family. I trust him. I know he won’t hurt me.” Constance stood patiently, her hands extended, and Thomas, sighing, placed his son in her care.

“You can have my bed,” Robin said. “There should be room for both you and your daughter under the blankets. He laid a hand on Thomas’ shoulder and led him to the spot in question. Thomas was obviously still uncomfortable with the situation, but he was playing along for now. Will suspected that Thomas was doing it for Martha’s sake more than anyone – Martha who was already half asleep and stumbling across the camp, despite her father’s grip on her hand. She would fall into slumber easily enough, but Thomas would probably lie awake, fighting sleep for as long as he could. Will wondered, once again, why there were no other servants. Had they left for their journey so quickly that Constance hadn’t even had time to fetch her maid? Will knew Robin would be wondering the same thing. He could see it in the way he was studying Constance, trying to work it all out.

As Constance sat down beside Robin, her features were lit by the flames of the fire, and Will was startled by how young she looked. She couldn’t have been more than sixteen, but she had seemed older. It wasn’t surprising that Robin hadn’t instantly recognized his cousin as she had likely been a child the last time he’d seen her.

“How did you get that bruise?” Robin had two fingers under Constance’s chin and was tilting her head towards him. What Will had thought was shadow thrown by the fire was the mark from a blow.

Constance pulled away, bowing her head. “It was my guardian…my-my husband.”

Constance was close to tears, and Will, with a sense of dread, thought he could predict what she was going to say next. He’d seen enough women like Constance to know what had happened. He glanced at Robin, expecting to see shocked realization on his face, but Robin only looked confused.

“Husband?” he said. “You’re-you’re married? But your guardian – Lambert de Cormeilles? – he’s married, isn’t he? I thought he was married.”

Constance’s hands began to clench before she remembered the baby sleeping in her lap. “He was. Agnes died…quite suddenly.”

Robin looked even more confused and visibly upset, as if he were starting to comprehend his cousin’s meaning, but really wished he didn’t. “Constance, it sounds as if you’re saying, as if you’re implying that your guardian…”

“Killed his wife and forced me to marry him? Yes, that's what I’m telling you, Robert.” Constance had raised her head again and was gazing directly at Robin, who was now the one who seemed to have trouble making eye contact.

“Oh, my poor child,” Tuck said, his expression full of sympathy and compassion.

“I’m not a child, Brother. Not anymore.” Constance’s eyes returned to the baby, and the camp descended into silence. The only sound that could be heard for a long time was the crackling of the fire. Then, Robin finally spoke, though he looked stunned and seemed to be struggling with his emotions.

“My father must know of this. De Cormeilles must be brought to justice. He-he must be punished.”

“No!” Constance cried. “I never want to see him again! I’d rather die first!”

The baby woke and started crying. Constance rocked him, desperately trying to calm him down. She was almost blinded by the tears that had welled up in her eyes, so she didn’t notice Much until he was almost right in front of her.

“I can look after the baby,” Much said. He lifted Henry from Constance’s unresisting arms and cradled him close to his chest. Will knew that Much liked children, and they, in turn, responded to him warmly, so he wasn’t surprised when the baby’s sobs faded to whimpers before he grew quiet again. Will was only surprised that John, who was also fond of children, hadn’t reached Constance first as he was sitting closer. Then Will saw that John was focused on Robin, that he had planted a large hand on Robin’s back. When Robin raised his head, Will could see the sorrow in his eyes. He was so distraught that he had to clear his throat before he could speak.

“Running away won’t solve anything. De Cormeilles will hunt you down.”

“’E’s already ’unting ’er down,” Will said before he could stop himself.

“What?” Constance leapt to her feet and looked wildly around the camp.

Robin took Constance’s wrist and pulled her back down. “We ran across de Cormeilles’ men a couple of days ago.”

Constance placed her head in her hands. “God help me.”

Robin wrapped an arm around Constance’s shoulders. “I’ll help you. You know I’ll help you.”

We’ll help you,” Tuck said.

Robin flashed a quick smile at Tuck. “We’ll help you, but you have to tell us everything, Constance.” He glanced at the chest that had been removed from the wagon. “You took the dowry. That’s what’s in there, isn’t it?”

“Constance bit her lip and nodded. “I don’t want him to have a single penny.”

“It’s too dangerous to carry, lass,” John said. “You’ll be the target of every cutthroat in Sherwood.”

Constance gazed up at Robin earnestly. “I thought you could keep most of it, Robert – for the poor. I’ll need some of it for Thomas, so he can become a freeman. I think he’d like that.”

“And what about you?” Robin asked. “What are you going to do?”

“I wish to enter a nunnery. It’s what I always wanted, even before…It’s what I want, Robert. I want to be a nun.”

“If you live long enough to do so,” Will said.

Robin glared at him. “Will…”

“She won’t be safe until that bastard is dead.”

Robin sighed. “Killing isn’t always the answer, Will.”

“Maybe, but sometimes it has to be.” Will rose to his feet. “It’s my turn on watch.”

Much glanced up from the baby he was bouncing on his knees. “But Naz isn’t back yet.”

Will scowled. “Then I’ll just ’ave to go relieve ’im, won’t I?”

“I’ll walk with you,” Tuck said. “I wouldn’t mind stretching my legs.”

Will stared at Tuck in disbelief for an instant and then shrugged. “Suit yourself.” Will didn’t care whether Tuck accompanied him or not. He just needed to get out of the camp and away from the big sad eyes he kept seeing in the flickering firelight – eyes, if he were being completely honest with himself, that reminded him of Elena.

“Are you all right?” Tuck asked once they were out of earshot of the camp.

Will viciously kicked a stone from his path. “Yeah, ’course I am. Why wouldn’t I be?”

Tuck didn’t say anything, but Will was sure he didn’t believe a word of it. Tuck knew him too well. They all did.

“I’m not trying to be cruel,” Will said. “I’m just saying what’s true. That girl won’t be safe until this de Cormeilles is dead, especially if there’s a dowry involved.”

Tuck placed a hand on Will’s arm. “I know, Will. It’s as you said back at the camp: sometimes killing is the only answer.”

Will’s head turned sharply and he squinted at Tuck in the darkness, trying to read his face. Had Tuck hit his head earlier? Was he bewitched? Had he gone mad?

“I know I don’t usually condone killing, but, like you, I don’t think we have any other choice,” Tuck said. “De Cormeilles forced that poor girl to marry him, so she really won’t be free of him until she’s a widow.”

Will laughed softly. “I thought you’d say that the Church could, um – what’s that word? – annul the marriage.”

Tuck shook his head. “That might have worked if the marriage hadn’t been consummated, but you just have to take one look at that wretched child to see that it was.”

Will’s hands curled into fists, and it was a challenge not to lash out and strike the nearest tree. “If she was my cousin, I’d ’unt the bastard down and kill ’im.”

Tuck squeezed Will’s shoulder. “If it makes you feel any better, I reckon that’s exactly what Robin’s going to have to do,” he said. “De Cormeilles is a powerful man with powerful friends, chief among them, King John. If he was ever brought to justice, he’d probably buy his way out. It would certainly be his word against hers, in any case.”

Will grimaced. “The word of a girl with a wolfshead for a cousin.”

Tuck nodded. “And not just any wolfshead, but the wolfshead, the notorious Robin Hood.”

“Then why isn’t Robin willing to kill ’im? ’E’s not stupid. ’E must know that – ”

“I doubt Robin knows what to think,” Tuck said. “This has really shaken him, Will. You must have seen that.”

Will rubbed the back of his neck and his eyes shifted away from Tuck. “Yeah, I know.”

“Just give him some time to-to take it all in. You need to stop pressuring him, Will, even though what you’re saying is true.”

Will’s eyes returned Tuck. “It’s not me ’e ’as to worry about. I’ll wait till bloody Christmas if that’s what ’e wants, but de Cormeilles won’t. ’E could be ’ere any day now, so Robin ’ad better get ’is ’ead together or we’ll all be in trouble.”


->->->->->->

 

Will’s words turned out to be more prophetic than even he was expecting, only it wasn’t days before de Cormeilles appeared but hours.

The sun had barely risen when Will, perched on his tree branch, heard the thunder of hundreds of hooves in the distance. He frantically made his signal and then scrambled out of the tree, practically leaping to the ground in his haste to reach the camp.

“It’s de Cormeilles,” Will said, gasping for breath, “and ’e’s brought a whole army with ’im.”

Constance’s face fell and she clutched Robin’s sleeve anxiously. “So soon? How could they have found us so quickly?”

Robin looked down at Constance, his expression grim. “They must have followed the wagon’s tracks.”

Constance’s eyebrows rose incredulously. “In the dark?”

“They must have had torches. It wouldn’t have been difficult.” Robin glanced over Constance’s head to seek out Thomas. “I need you to stay here with Constance and the children. If we run into trouble, you’ll hear a bird call, like the one Will just made. Forget the dowry and whatever is in the wagon and just run. Get as deep inside the forest as you can and hide. We’ll come looking for you afterwards, if we can.”

Constance’s grip on Robin’s sleeve tightened. “You can’t face a whole army! There’s only six of you!”

“We won’t be facing a whole army,” Robin said. “The only man I’ll face is de Cormeilles – and I’ll be facing him alone.”

“Robert – ”

Robin pressed a kiss to Constance’s forehead. “Stay here. I’ll be back before you know it.” Then, before Constance could say another word, Robin was grabbing his bow and quiver and striding out of the camp. The other outlaws hurried to catch up, but Will rushed past them, grabbing Robin’s arm.

“You’re mad,” Will said.

Robin pulled his arm free. “I thought you’d be happy. You’re the one who wanted him dead.”

“’Im not you. This is suicide, Robin.”

“No, it’s trial by combat.”

“Trial by combat?” Much asked. The others had reached them and were gathered around Robin.

“We face each other in single combat,” Robin said. “It’s the only way justice will ever be served.”

John was shaking his head. “De Cormeilles will never agree to that.”

Robin smiled, but the gesture held none of its usual warmth. “Oh, he’ll agree. He won’t have any choice.” Robin turned and began walking once more, unwilling to answer any more questions. He didn’t speak again until they had almost reached the road. By then, they could hear another voice, probably de Cormeilles’, shouting for Constance. Robin grit his teeth, but didn’t comment. “I want all of you to stay hidden, but close. Don’t shoot de Cormeilles. He’s mine.”

“Be careful, lad,” John said.

“I’ll try.” Robin waited until the other outlaws had positioned themselves in the trees and undergrowth before he drew an arrow from his quiver, notched his bow, and stepped out on to the road. Although the soldiers were several feet away, Robin caught the sudden movement of one man lifting a crossbow and let loose an arrow. The man screamed and fell out of his saddle, the crossbow still loaded. Robin withdrew another arrow and slid it on his bow. “I wouldn’t try that again if I were you. My friends are also good shots and they’re hidden all around you.”

“We’re not looking for a fight.” Another man on horseback made his way to the front of the soldiers. He wore chainmail and a helmet, but he had a fine cloak and spoke with the sort of authority that came from a knight and not just the captain of the guard. “We just want the girl and the dowry she’s stolen.”

“The girl stays where she is – and so does the dowry.”

The knight stared down at Robin with a rather supercilious expression. “I can understand why you’d wish to keep the money, but what possible interest could you have in protecting a girl who has proven to be little better than a thief.”

“That girl happens to be my cousin,” Robin said, “and she’s only taken what was rightfully hers in the first place.”

The knight laughed. “Perhaps you don’t understand how marriage works. The bride gives her dowry freely to her husband.”

There was a pause and when Robin spoke again, his voice was colder, angrier. “It would seem that your lord doesn’t understand how marriage works either as nothing was freely given: he simply took what he wanted.”

The knight’s horse neighed and tossed its head, and the knight ran a gloved hand down its neck. “A serious accusation, wolfshead.”

“It’s a serious crime,” Robin said, “and, as Constance’s cousin, I demand reparation.”

The knight’s hand stilled on the horse’s neck. “Money?”

“No, I have that. What I want now is justice. What I want is to face de Cormeilles.”

“If it’s a fight you want, you’ll have to face me,” the knight said. “I fight for de Cormeilles.” The knight began to dismount, but Robin shook his head.

“No, I expect de Cormeilles to answer for his crimes, not you, unless he’s too much of a coward to face me.”

There was a murmur among the soldiers, and some of the horses shifted nervously and pawed the ground as if they could feel the tension in the air. Then these same horses were parting as a man pushed his way through. He was about average height with clear blue eyes and dark hair. He might have been considered handsome if he hadn’t been sneering. “It’s all right, Toilliere. Although this cutthroat’s charges are false and this fight is beneath me, I will meet his challenge.”

“But, my lord – ”

“This boy has brought my honour into question and such an insult cannot be ignored.”

The knight nodded reluctantly. “Yes, my lord.”

Robin lowered his bow, and, once again, a crossbow was levelled at him. This time, the arrow that was loosed flew from the trees.

“Enough!” de Cormeilles shouted as another soldier tumbled to the ground. “You men do cost money, you know.” He reached for his sword and pulled it from its scabbard. Robin was already wielding Albion.

As the fight began, it was obvious that de Cormeilles had skill but was out of practice. Compared to Robin, his strokes seemed slow, almost clumsy. He had technique, but he lacked imagination. Robin seemed to easily anticipate his moves and parried each thrust almost effortlessly. When de Cormeilles tripped and fell after putting too much effort into one lunge, Toilliere rushed forward, sword in hand. An arrow embedded itself in Toilliere’s shoulder and he dropped his sword. When asked about it later, Will would claim that he’d meant to kill the knight, but the wind had sent his arrow off course.

Robin grasped de Cormeilles’ hand and hauled him back to his feet, but either his stumble or Toilliere's injury had unnerved him. Any skill that he had possessed seemed to disappear completely as his thrusts became increasingly desperate. He grew so exhausted that his breath came out in pants and his sword arm was shaking. It was then that Robin finally ended it, driving Albion through de Cormeilles’ chest.

As de Cormeilles fell to his knees, Constance appeared on the road. She stood in front of de Cormeilles and watched dispassionately as he slumped forward on the ground. She continued to stand there as the blood flowed from de Cormeilles, not even moving when it had almost reached the hem of her gown. Robin grabbed her arm and pulled her back.

“No. Step away, Constance.”

“I want to watch him die.”

“He is dead. There’s nothing left to see.” Robin tried to pull Constance away again, but she resisted.

“No, there’s something I must do first.” Constance looked at Toilliere, who was clutching his shoulder with one hand and holding his horse’s reins with the other. “Your lord is dead and you’ll obey my orders now.”

There was fury in Toilliere’s eyes, but he bowed his head respectfully all the same. “Yes, my lady.”

“Leave Sherwood and never return.”

“But, my lady – ”

“Leave now before more of your men are killed, Toilliere.”

Toilliere clenched his jaw then nodded. “Yes, my lady.” It was an effort, but Toilliere managed to mount his horse and lead the soldiers back the way they had come. Robin wrapped his arm around Constance’s shoulders and finally convinced her to return to the camp.


->->->->->->

 

Once the repairs to the wagon were complete, Will helped load it with supplies. Nasir was carrying Constance’s dowry, which was lighter now that some of the money had been donated to the poor. Will glanced at it just as a shaft of sunlight fell on the intricate carving. As Nasir set the chest down, Will found himself staring at the design.

“It looks like an eagle,” Nasir said.

“It is an eagle.” Robin had appeared behind them and was studying the chest as well. “It’s Constance’s family crest.” He slapped Will on the back and walked across the camp to speak to John, who was accompanying him and their guests on the journey.

Will’s wide eyes flew from the chest to Nasir. “An eagle being pursued by a lion…” he said, remembering what Robin had said when he’d been sleepwalking.

Nasir nodded soberly, but then smiled. “The eagle is free now.”