“I don’t like this, Robin,” Tuck said. His eyes were on Gisburne, who had been stripped down to his shirt and hose and tied to a tree.
Robin didn’t even glance at their prisoner. “I told the others not to kill him if that’s what you’re concerned about.”
“It’s you I’m worried about, not him.”
Robin smiled. “Oh, you don’t have to worry about me, Tuck.” He finished adjusting the blue cloak and placed the nasal helmet on his head. He turned to Gisburne, spreading his arms and giving a quick whirl. “What do you think, Guy? Could I pass for you?”
Gisburne clenched his teeth and said nothing.
Robin grinned. “Any advice you’d like to share?”
Gisburne scowled. “None that will help you, Wolfshead.”
Robin shrugged. “Very well. I’ll give your regards to Cadoc of Clun.”
“Please do,” Gisburne muttered as Robin walked away. Tuck stared at Gisburne, unsure what to think. Then he hurried after Robin.
It was a daring plan – too daring in Tuck’s opinion. Joan, a servant at Nottingham Castle who sometimes acted as their spy, had learned that Gisburne would be travelling to Clun Castle. The King was still trying to raise support for his Welsh campaign, and the Marcher lords were more crucial than ever. Cadoc of Clun, Owen of Clun’s nephew and heir, had agreed to not only provide passage through his lands, but money and men as well. Gisburne was being sent to collect some of that wealth. The outlaws had laughed at King John’s choice of emissary, but Joan had explained that she’d overheard the Sheriff say that Cadoc of Clun was a soldier first and foremost and would respond more favourably to a knight than a diplomat. It was also a dangerous time to be journeying through the Marches, which was another reason why a soldier made sense, especially as that soldier would only have a few men acting as his escort. Apparently, the King had insisted that the mission be conducted in the utmost secrecy and wanted no attention to be drawn to Gisburne’s party.
Robin had asked Joan how she’d managed to learn such a highly guarded secret when he couldn’t imagine the Sheriff and Gisburne holding such a conversation in front of her. Joan had hesitated, blushed, and then confessed that she hadn’t actually overhead the Sheriff at all. The information had come from Gisburne. He’d been bragging about his mission after taking Joan to his bed. He had even, a little worse for drink, shared the password he was to supply to Cadoc of Clun to prove that he was the King’s emissary.
After the outlaws had recovered from their initial spell of disgust and disbelief, they had pounced on Joan demanding more details about the plan, coaxing her to reveal the password. Only Will and Tuck had been wary – Will because he was naturally suspicious and Tuck because there was something about the whole situation that didn’t seem right. Will’s reservations had faded when the outlaws began discussing how they might ambush Gisburne – preferably after he’d visited Cadoc of Clun and obtained the funds King John was seeking. Then Robin had come up with the idea of impersonating Gisburne.
Robin had argued that Cadoc of Clun had never met Gisburne and would never know the difference. Even if Clun had been provided with an adequate description, Robin would be able to match it. He had fair hair, blue eyes and was a similar height to Gisburne. All Robin would need to do to make the disguise complete was cut his hair and don Gisburne’s clothing, which was exactly what he’d done.
At first, Tuck had found it strange that Gisburne had chosen to wear his distinctive blue cloak, but then he’d reasoned that Gisburne hadn’t expected to encounter anyone who might recognize it. The guards accompanying Gisburne hadn’t been bearing the Sheriff’s arms on their surcoats or shields, so the party had obviously made some effort to remain incognito. Unfortunately, the change in uniform hadn’t resulted in a change of size, so John hadn’t been able to disguise himself as a soldier. That had left only Will, Nasir and Much to act as Robin’s escort. Robin hadn’t seemed concerned that John would be left behind, though John certainly hadn’t been happy. He was still frowning and rubbing his beard fretfully.
“It will be all right,” Robin said, clasping John by the shoulder. “I’ve got the password and I’ve had enough dealings with Gisburne to be able to imitate him.”
John smiled sheepishly. “I know, I know, but I’ve just got this feeling…Doesn’t it strike you that all of this has been a little…too easy?”
“What do you mean, John?”
Tuck answered instead. “Joan is not only able to furnish you with the exact details of this secret plan,” he said, “but the necessary password as well, as if…as if it had been fed to her.”
“It was fed to her. Gisburne needs to learn to be more discreet and, perhaps, drink a little less before bedtime.”
Tuck sighed. “That’s not what I meant.”
“I know it isn’t,” Robin said, “but I can’t afford to be overly cautious or look such a gift horse in the mouth. It’s been a hard winter, and, with a war brewing, the Sheriff will probably tax the people more than ever. The villages need that money.” He smiled gently and clapped Tuck on the back. “It will be fine, Tuck. You’ll see.”
* * * *
Robin sat tall and straight in the saddle, coolly eyeing the guards at the main gate. “I’m Sir Guy of Gisburne. I believe your master is expecting me.”
The one guard studied Robin for a moment then gave a curt nod. “Yes, my lord. Welcome to Clun Castle.”
Robin gave his own nod in return and waited for the portcullis to rise. They’d all employed disguises before – Loxley had even worn Gisburne’s armour once to gain entrance into Nottingham Castle – but there was always an element of risk involved. Robin winced inwardly as he and his friends passed under the portcullis that had been the tool of Owen of Clun’s demise. As they rode into the castle bailey, Robin noticed that it wasn’t deserted this time. He wondered if Cadoc of Clun embraced the blood game as fervently as his uncle had.
Cadoc of Clun received Robin in his solar. Although he shared his uncle’s dark hair and eyes, Cadoc of Clun seemed much more civilized and refined. His hair was neatly trimmed and he was clean-shaven. There was silk at his wrists rather than leather. He smiled at Robin pleasantly and poured him some wine.
“You’ve had a long journey, Sir Guy,” Clun said. “Please share a drink with me.”
Robin accepted the goblet with a quick twitch of his lips, knowing Gisburne wasn’t usually in the habit of smiling. “Thank you, my lord. It was a long journey, but I’m sure it was more than worth the effort.”
Clun inclined his head graciously and poured himself a drink. “I believe that we share a common goal, Sir Guy.”
Robin raised an eyebrow. “Yes, my lord, I believe my presence here proves as much.”
Clun gave an impatient wave of his hand. “No, not that, though, naturally, our responsibilities to the King are of vital importance. No, I was referring to a common enemy, that murderous cutthroat, Robin Hood.”
“Ah, yes,” Robin said. “That wolfshead has much to answer for.”
“Such as the death of my dear uncle.”
No, Robin thought, his own portcullis took care of that, but he nodded and bowed his head as if he were ashamed and appalled that there had been no retribution for Owen of Clun’s death. “I’m sorry for your loss, my lord. It grieves me deeply that Robin Hood has eluded justice for yet another heinous crime.”
“But you have made it your mission to kill this cutthroat, have you not?” Clun asked.
“That cutthroat and anyone who follows him,” Robin said.
“Good, good! I’m delighted to hear it!” Clun lifted his goblet in a silent toast and then took a long sip. “I hope you will forgive this precautionary measure on my part, Sir Guy, but I’m sure you understand the need for safeguards when conducting such important business. Could you please give me the password that was agreed upon?”
Robin smiled. “Of course. It’s Ulysses.”
Clun smiled as well, but there was a coldness to his eyes, and Robin could now see the family resemblance.
“Excellent,” Clun said. “I was hoping you would say that, Robin Hood.”
* * * *
John swept past Tuck again as he paced restlessly around the tight confines of their new camp. “Where are they? It’ll be dark soon. They should have been back by now.”
Gisburne sniggered from where he still sat, bound to the tree. “I would think Clun has thrown them into the dungeons by now, if he didn’t kill them outright.”
John spun around in alarm and rushed over to Gisburne. “What do you mean?”
Gisburne smirked. “That password you were given. It was ‘Ulysses,’ wasn’t it?”
John eyed Gisburne warily. “Yes.”
Gisburne’s smile grew even wider. “She remembered. I wasn’t sure if she would. You chose a good spy.”
Tuck felt his blood go cold. “You knew.”
“Oh, yes,” Gisburne said. “We’ve known for weeks.”
He had the same direct, unwavering look in his eyes as he’d had on that terrible day when he’d told them all that Robin of Loxley was dead. Tuck glanced at John, realizing that his friend also recognized that expression and knew Gisburne was speaking the truth.
John groaned, barely managing to bite back a curse. “You informed her of the Sheriff’s plan knowing she would tell us.”
“Well, I certainly wouldn’t have told her anything otherwise,” Gisburne snapped. “Do you really think I’d be stupid enough to reveal information to a woman who might be sympathetic to Robin Hood?”
He might have been that stupid when he first started working for the Sheriff, Tuck thought, but he’d learned a lot since then – and most of those lessons had been bitter ones. Tuck leaned against the tree Gisburne was tied to, feeling the sudden need for support. “Why did the Sheriff use such an elaborate ruse to catch Robin?”
“Aye, why go to so much trouble, and so far away from Nottingham as well?” John asked.
“But it wasn’t a ruse,” Gisburne said. “Cadoc of Clun is planning to support King John, but there’s a condition.”
Tuck sighed and closed his eyes. “He wants Robin Hood.”
“Yes.” Gisburne shifted slightly, as if trying to relieve a cramped muscle. “We knew that wolfshead wouldn’t be able to resist Clun’s money, not when his spy was handing him the key to obtain it.”
John glared at Gisburne. “The Sheriff knew there would be an ambush and that Robin would disguise himself as you.”
“It seemed likely, yes.”
“Is that why you wore your blue cloak?” Tuck asked. “So we’d be sure to recognize you?”
Gisburne’s lips twitched. “I knew you’d be disappointed if you missed me.”
John growled and punched the tree. “We should kill him right now!”
Tuck laid a hand on John’s arm. “We promised Robin we wouldn’t, remember?”
John took a step back from the tree, though his fists were still clenched in fury. “I say we take Gisburne to Clun and bargain with him.”
“You’d get nothing,” Gisburne said. “If it’s a choice between me and Robin Hood, he’ll choose Robin Hood. My life is worth nothing to him.”
“Even though you’re the King’s emissary?” Tuck asked.
Gisburne snorted. “The King would slit my throat himself if he thought there was a way to profit by it.” He gazed up at the darkening sky and shook his head in mock chagrin. “If you’re planning to rescue your heroic leader, you’d better hurry. You’re running out of time.”