Judy felt uncomfortable outside of the Greenwood. A feeling that she would never voice to her mentor whom insisted that today's excursion was vital to her education as a Guardian of the Greenwood. Casually, the young doe-bunny cast a sidelong look at her mentor.
Thumper had been a Guardian of the Greenwood for as long as the doe bunny could remember and was a personal friend of the Great Prince of the Forest. He chose to conceal himself in the dark brown and rough woven habit of an Xtian friar, the hood drawn up to hide his long bunny ears and conceal his face. Judy stuck close to him, hopping to keep pace with his wider stride.
She was clad in similar robes of rough weave, but her's were the black of a novice. If any residents of Loxley noticed them, they would have though the pair had come from the monastery to witness the succession of the new Earl.
It had been ten years since Robert Wilde of Loxley, Earl of Huntington left with the King on his mad Crusade. Ten years, with no return. Now his son -Nickolas- was finally old enough to claim his father's title and lands. This was nothing new or special. Plenty of lords outside of the Greenwood went off to join the Lionheart on his crusade and never came home. Plenty of son's succeeded fathers they only had vague memories of. But the Earl of Huntington, the Lord of Loxley -Robert Wilde had been known to the Greenwood. Robert had been the Robin of the Wood, the Robin under the Hood.
An ally to the Great Prince of the Forest and -though he was also a noble sworn to the King of the predator class that ruled the Country- also a protector of the prey that sought asylum in the Greenwood.
That was why the Great Prince insisted on sending a representative to his son's succession. To have an ally among the predator nobility -that was a valuable thing indeed. They lost that ally when Robert -Robin, when the Robin left. But perhaps that ally could be regained in the form of Nickolas.
That is, assuming the young fox also held with the Olde Ways as his father did and hadn't been taken in and assimilated by the Xtian influence that was so widespread over the Country and seduced the King into leaving on a fool's Crusade.
Judy and Thumper blended into the crowd that was passing the gates of Loxleytwon, the seat of the Huntington earldom. It was early evening, the sun not even fully set as they passed the town gates. But a celebration was already begun. That meant the young heir's petition to the Prince had gone well and John -in his brother's absence- had granted the young Earl his birthright.
Thumper weaved them through the crowd of revelry until they found the young Earl. He was not sitting in his hall surveying the celebrations before him, but rather out among his people. Celebrating with them. That was a good sign.
Nickolas Wilde of Loxley, Earl of Huntington sat at a table in a tavern. The fox was dressed in plain clothes of green and brown. Drinking and playing tavern games with everyone else. Both predator and prey. A cheetah and a sloth. The only indication that he might be more than just a simple and humble resident of Loxleytown was the chain around his neck. An heirloom of the Huntington earldom.
Both chain and pendant were made of purest silver, signifying that the wearer was a friend of the fair folk -the fae. Aside from that detail, the chain was unremarkable. It was the pendant that was special. An arrow and a bow. The same symbol on the Huntington banner. The crest of the family Wilde. But the arrow and the bow had a much older meaning among the Mammals of the Greenwood. The arrow and the bow was a symbol of defense and protection. The arrow -facing forward- meant that one must always keep moving. Advancing to the future and never looking back to dwell in the past.
Thumper had seen the Robin wearing it often enough before he left to recognize the pendant when he saw it handing from the neck of another. He was glad the Robin's heir wore it.
Judy, always keeping close to her mentor in the crowded and unfamiliar space, moved to Thumper's other side to get a better look at the new lord. For reason's her young mind couldn't fully explain, her breath caught in her throat.
She had seen foxes before. That was nothing special. Judy actually proudly sported three scars on her left cheek from an altercation with a fox just three years ago.
But while that fox had been thick built and heavy, with dull-witted brown eyes, the new Earl of Huntington was slender and lean. He looked like one well suited to running through the Greenwood, weaving between trees and reveling in the Green Mammal's domain. His fur was well cared for and well groomed. Of a red so vibrant it almost shined in the light of the tavern's lanterns, and his eyes... a green so deep and vibrant. A shade of emerald that couldn't only be matched by the Greenwood itself.
Judy's nineteen-year-old mind couldn't understand why, but the only word she could call up to describe him was 'handsome'. But that was ridiculous! He was a fox and she was a bunny. Bunnies did not find foxes 'handsome'.
Then the fox's nose twitched, sniffing the air, and his head turned to them.
Those emerald green eyes looking all the more intense -brilliant- when they were trained on her. Without realizing that her body had stopped moving, Judy found herself frozen in place. Her feet rooted to the floor and unwilling to move.
Thumper, however, did not seem so dramatically affected. He approached the young Earl's table, grabbing Judy by the paw and dragging her after him as they closed the space.
“Evening, Friar.” The young Earl raised his draft, smiling a completely open and friendly smile. Devoid of pretense or double meanings. He was either an honest and well meaning fox -or else he was already drunk out of his mind. If Judy's parents were here, they would insist it was the latter, but for some reason, she thought both could be equally likely. Especially when he immediately followed up his greeting with, “Come drink with us!”
Chairs were dragged from other tables at the young lord's request and a draft of whatever it was the Earl was drinking was placed in front of Thumper.
The old bunny took an experimental sip of the frothy liquid, quickly decided that he did not like predator's spirits and set the over-sized mug back down. He focused his attention on the new master of Loxley -the fief in which Sherwood was located. “I've come to give you the Lord's Blessing.”
To that announcement, the fox snorted with amusement. “Another one! I've already received the Lord's Blessing from every friar, priest, and cardinal between here and Londontown! Not to mention the Prince's own Bishop.” He set his own mug down. This time sighing with exasperation. “But alright, let's get this over with. I, Nickolas Wilde, titles, titles, titles, do solemnly swear in the name of the son, the father, and the holy spirit-”
“Not that Lord.” Thrumper cut him off, shaking his head. From out of the folds of his borrowed habit, the old rabbit with drew a small parcel. Wrapped in oak leaves and tied with raffia made from the stems of summer wheat. He slid the parcel across the table to the young Earl. “The Lord of the Greenwood expects great things from you, Nickolas Wilde, son of the Robin under the Hood.”
At that announcement, the table went uncomfortably quiet.
Everyone stared at the fox.
Gone was his cheerful and jovial mood and open and carefree smiles. He glared across the table at Thumper. Expression guarded. Closed off and suspicious. Looking for double meanings in everything that was said from this point forward.
'Now he looks like a real fox.' Judy found herself thinking, and she found him significantly less handsome.
There was a beat of silence in which no one spoke. In fact, once others in the tavern noticed that their lord had stopped drinking and laughing, other conversations at other tables slowed to a stop. The bard strumming the background halted his ballad. Barmaids failed to replenish the rounds. Eventually, every eye in the bar -prey and predator alike- was looking at the young Earl of Huntington.
Nickolas waited one... two... three beats before he spoke in a voice that was calm and controlled, almost casual in its conversation. “I don't know what you're talking about.”
Thumper didn't say anything to argue the point, just gave a knowing smile from under his hood.
The fox continued to glare for a moment longer before he began to fidget under the rabbit's calm and knowing smile. “My father is a knight in the service of the Lionheart. I don't know where you heard such a nasty rumor, but my father is a good Xtian soldier.”
To this also, Thumper didn't bother to deny. He just continued to hold the fox's eyes, collected and unassuming. Although, he was sympathetic enough to drop the knowing smile.
Uncomfortable under the rabbit's stare, the fox rose to his feet. “I think you should leave.”
Thumper was silent another one... two... three beats. He noted that when the young Earl tried to menacingly rise to his feet, he also -oh so casually- slid the oak-wrapped parcel off the table where it disappeared into a trouser pocket. Finally, Thumper also stood. “I think you're right, Your Grace. We'll leave.”
Once again, Thumper was grabbing Judy by the arm and dragging her across the tavern -this time, to the door.
They didn't speak again until they were out of Loxleytown, following the road in the evening dark until the path veered away to detour around the Greenwood. That was when Judy and her mentor struck out from the road, heading straight for the treeline.
“Well, that went terribly.” Judy commented.
Thumper stripped off his fake friar's habit, discarding it before they reached the treeline and continued on in his simple tunic and trousers. The was no way he was going to bring anything Xtian into the Greenwood. “It went exactly the way I expected it to go.”
“He called the Robin a ' good Xtian'.” The young doe reminded him. Truth be told, Judy had never met the Robin under the Hood, she was only nine when he left on the mad Crusade with the Lionheart. But she was fairly certain the old trickster fox was decidedly not an Xtian. If her mentor and the Great Prince were to be believed, he held with the Olde Ways. He belonged to the Lord of the Greenwood. That was why he was allowed to carry the name of Goodfellow.
He gave her a very patient look before turning away and continuing though the dense trees of Sherwood. If Judy didn't know any better, she'd have thought her mentor was disappointed in her. “Tell me, what would you have expected him to say in a room full of other Xtian predators?”
“But he's their lord.” She argued back.
“And as their lord, they have to trust him to have their interests at heart.” Thumper explained. “One of those interests happens to be their magical sky father-son-disembodied ghost thing.” A pause. He changed his tactic to make her better understand. “What would we do if the Great Prince one day announced he was converting to Xtianity? If Bambi said he was leaving the Olde Ways -our ways.”
“We'd kick him out of the Greenwo- Oh, I see!”
“We're not so different, the Xtians and those who keep the Olde. The only significant divider is that we're right and they're wrong.” Thumper smiled with approval, gave her a nod, then his expression returned to a serious one. “Did you notice that in the space between when he stood and when he told us to get the feck out, our message disappeared from the table?”
Judy had not noticed that. She was to focussed on his eyes. Those intense, emerald green eyes that offered her a glimpse of swirling emotions he was keeping locked behind iron bars of guarded self-control. “When a predator tries to intimidate me, Mentor, a non-lethal package is not what my attention is on.”
“You should give some attention to his paws, not just those teeth you were staring at the whole time.” Teeth... eyes... they were around the same general area -whatever. “Remember, the paws are where his claws are.”
“Yes, sir.” Judy nodded, adequately humbled. Then she asked, “What should we expect from him now?”
At that question, Thumper gave a snort of derision. “He belongs to the Goodfellow. We don't 'expect' anything from those that belong to the Trickster. He might show up in the Wood tomorrow, clad in green and hooded, Goodfellow's badge displayed boldly. Or, we might not see him again for many years.”
Judy huffed. “Tricksters are so unreliable. I'm glad I belong to a proper god like Brigid.”
To that, Thumper did not say anything. The reason he agreed to train her as a guardian of the Greenwood -aside from the fact that she refused to take 'no' for an answer and didn't know when to give up- was because when Judy as born, she was claimed by one of the Olde Gods. Because she was a bunny, Judy just assumed that it was Brigid that claimed her. Neither Thumper nor the Great Prince Bambi ever told her that it was not Brigid -or any of the Tuatha Dé Danann for that matter. It was Goodfellow. The Puck. The goblin Hob. The Trickster.
She and young Earl belonged to the same god.
But Thumper wasn't about to tell her that.
After the spectacle at the tavern, Nick found that he was no longer in the mood for celebrating. He made his excuses to Clawhauser and Flash, laid a few coins on the table -to spite the tavern owners protests that the young lord could drink there any time on the house- and he tossed another coin to Allan whom had resumed strumming his lute -although, Nick was none to pleased with the medley the bard had chosen. 'The Hooded Fox's Song', no doubt inspired by the bunny friar's accusations.
The parcel in his pocket seemed to almost burn him with every step as the newly ascended Earl made his way to the manor. He wove through the corridors and up the stairs until he reached his suit. Nick barricaded himself in his room.
Leaning against the closed door, he listened for any steps in the hall that might indicate someone had seen him and was coming to congratulate him on his succession. When he was sure no one was coming to disturb him, Nick pushed off the door and crossed the room.
He didn't bother with the lighting of a candle. He had excellent night vision already and didn't want the light of a flame giving away his position if someone like his mother or Uncle John decided to barge in unannounced and offer unsolicited advice on his new title and responsibility.
Paws shaking, Nick reached into his pocket and pulled out the parcel. He sank to the floor as he examined it. Wrapped in oak leaved and tied with raffia of summer wheat. His mind called up a memory of his father, vague and indistinct -as most of his memories of his father were. Standing in a wood that Nick was pretty sure was the haunted forest of Sherwood. Standing under an old oak tree.
'This tree is Duir, our door to the Lord of the Greenwood.' An affectionate smile and the older tod knelt to be on eye-level with a young Nickolas. 'Oak trees represent strength, wisdom, and nobility. They are also a symbol of the Lord of the Greenwood.'
Nick looked down at the parcel in his paws.
Wrapped in oak leaves.
A blessing from the Lord -but not the Xtian Lord.
And wrapped in wheat stems. Wheat which signified the turning of the seasons. Rebirth and renewal. The old giving way to the new.
Taking a deep breath to settle his nerves, Nick pulled the wheat stems loose and gently unfolded the oak leaves. Inside the parcel was an innocuous and innocent looking feather. A red feather. A robin's feather. The badge of Robin Goodfellow, the Puck, the goblin Hob, the Green Mammal, the Trickster. It was the symbol of a Robin under the Hood.
Nick dropped the bundle, his paws were shaking so bad.
Oak leaves and red feather fluttering to the floor in a heap. If any of the household staff were to walk in at that moment, they'd think the piled of leaves and feather nothing more than rubbish to be swept up and thrown away.
Slowly -hesitatingly- Nick gathered everything back up. The feather, the oak leaves, even the wheat-stem raffia. He clutched them in his paws for a few moments, not quite sure what to do. Completely oblivious to the fact that he was clutching them against his heart. Nick glanced around the room wildly for a place to hide them and his eyes fell on a book. The only book he owned.
Translated and transcribed by the monks at the monastery. Hand painted with illuminated illustration and decorated with gold lief. Nick had never actually read it. He pulled down the Xtian bible and shoved the Olde gods' totems between its pages and replaced the book on its shelf.
Nick stood there, staring at the tome and breathing hard as if he'd just run a mile in full chainmail carrying sword and quiver.
A blessing from the Lord of the Greenwood, the old rabbit said.
Lord of the Greenwood... his father talked of the Lord of the Wood a lot -Nick thought he remembered. No that he remembered much about his father. It had been ten years since he's last seen the old fox.
He remembered taking walks along the road out of Loxleytown. As the road would curve away from the treeline, detouring around the haunted forest, his father would keep their course. Straight as an arrow into the haunted wood. Sherwood. The Greenwood.
Nick remembered protesting. Not wanting to go in for fear of the unnatural.
But his father just ruffled the fur between his ears and told him, 'Leave the haints and the fae alone and they'll leave you alone. Remember, we are welcomed by the Lord of these woods and -so long as we behave ourselves- that invitation will always remain open. The spirits that dwell here won't go out of their way to trouble us.'
His father lead him on a winding path that Nick's young mind would never remember. It lead them to the ancient oak tree, the Duir. They sat under the Duir with another Mammal, a stag. His father called him the Great Prince and Nick asked if he was the Lord of the Greenwood his father talked about so much. But the stag just shook his head, the many prongs of his antlers rustling the lowest hanging leaves of the Duir. 'No, little kit, I'm just another who's found favor with the Green Mammal.'
Nick laid down on his bed and curled into a ball. He let the fragments of memories of his father and dark imaginings of green forest ghosts lull him into an uneasy sleep.
Yup! Another “Nick is Robin Hood” fic from me. Are you at all surprised? I told you in 'Under a Green Hood' that its a head-canon of mine that Nick IS Robin Hood. This shouldn't be all that surprising. Although... I'm actually not sure if I'll continue this one. This fic crosses over Zootopia with Robin Hood and Bambi and -as many of you may have noticed already- crossovers don't seem all that popular. I'll try this for a few chapters and if people aren't liking it I'll put this to the side in favor of my other stories. Either way, please tell me what you think. Reader in-put is always very important to me.
Chapter 2: Popularity is Dangerous
The city of Tell el-Fukhar -more commonly called Acre by the Mammals of the Company- was a small city just north of Jerusalem. That meant it was in the Lionheart's way.
It was supposed to be quite beautiful. Sandstone buildings covered in plaster and decorated with blue and gold tiles. Murals and mosaics of Abrahamic myth. But all the Company saw was the wall. Tall and plain. Made of large bricks of stone as tall as a full grown wolf and was wide as two tigers standing shoulder to shoulder. The Lionheart's Company had been camped outside it for three days and two nights already. The lionic king was impatient -he never had been known for his patience- and was ready to take the city by force.
“If there is to be bloodshed, Your Majesty, then at least let me go in first.” Robert Wilde suggested. Though, to the larger predators attending council in the king's tent, it sounded more like a plea.
Wolves, tigers, and bears exchanged glances. The fox lord was the smallest among them, yet the old Lord of Loxley was always the first to charge into any fight. Not because he was bold or foolhardy with something to prove, but because he was an idealist who thought that he could somehow reduce the loss of life on the battle field by throwing away his own. Except the fox -and that impossible band of prey he lead- never did seem to get themselves killed. It was very frustrating for the larger predator lords.
But the most frustrating thing was that the little fox lord was usually right. Their Company did suffer significantly fewer losses when Loxley and his soldiers lead the charge.
A fact that made him uncomfortably popular with the soldiers, and decidedly unpopular with his fellow commanders.
Guy of Gisborne shot to his feet. He was a black wolf of a similar age with Loxley. He claimed a kinship with one of the Lionheart's retainers that remained in the Country -Wolford of Nottingham- but Gisborne was actually Norman by birth. Fox and wolf instantly disliked each other the moment they met and that relationship hadn't improved much, even over ten years of travel between Europe and the Holy Land and campaigning in the God (or gods) forsaken desert.
“Your Majesty, let another take the honor of leading the attack.” Gisborne requested. He bowed respectfully to the lion king before shooting the fox a dirty look. “Loxley has already proved himself capable beyond his size. Give someone else the chance to win glory in your name under the eyes of God.”
Robert didn't propel himself to his feet or attempt to bate the other predator into a confrontation. He remained seated by the fire, staring down the shaft of an arrow. He did not make eye-contact when he reminded everyone present, “I can make sure we loose as few troops as possible. Something I'm sure His Majesty and God would both appreciate.”
That was another thing that bothered the other lords. Whenever the fox said 'God' it always felt like he was mocking the Lord and creator. No one said it out loud. No one confronted the fox about it. There was an old rumor from before the Lionheart started his Crusade, that Robert Wilde of Loxley was a heathen and a devil worshipper. That he danced on Sabbats and Esbats, and did not attend Mass on Sundays.
But none would confronted the fox lord about it. He was to popular with the soldiers for any one commander to challenge him openly.
Loxley was just a little too popular. It was to the point now where even the Lionheart didn't like it.
“Do not presume to know the mind of God, Robert.” Said the king. “And do not presume to know my mind either for that matter.”
“Apologies, Majesty.” The fox put the arrow he was honing aside and stood, only to give a proper bow of humility. Humbling himself before the king.
The Lionheart nodded, accepting Loxley's apology. “I don't think a single Mammal here could deny your skill and prowess on the field. The soldiers you lead are deceptively effective.”
“The soldiers Loxley leads are nothing more than a mad rabble of ignorant country prey who don't know their place!” Gisborne snarled.
Holding up a paw, the Lionheart silence the wolf with a glare. “As I said, deceptively effective. But you have been holding a monopoly on our victories of late, my friend. Its time to let someone else have their turn, Robert. Guy and his wolves will lead the charge on the main gate. Robert and his prey will hang back to guard the flank.”
For half a moment, it looked like the fox lord was about to protest. That he was going to presume to tell the king that he was wrong and that he was making a bad decision. But then Loxley lowered his eyes, submitting to his king's command. “As you wish, Majesty.” The fox stood. “By your leave, I think I'll go tell my troops the good news. That I won't be parading them in the front lines this time.”
“You have my leave.” The Lionheart nodded back.
Robert gathered up his arrows, offered a respectful bow to the king, nodded to the rest of the commanders, and left the tent. He struck out across the camp in search of his lieutenant.
Skippy Much started out as Robert's squire as a small youth.
At the time, everyone thought it was insane. A fox taking a bunny for a squire? What could a bunny possibly learn about war? All they knew how to do was fuck, and farm, and fuck, and make more bunnies. Admittedly, Skippy did leave a wife behind when they left on the Lionheart's Crusade, and that wife already had a small herd of kits and was pregnant with another litter when Skippy left. But that was irrelevant. Lots of Mammals had lots of litters. Robert and Marian wanted a dozen children of their own. But a large family just wasn't in the cards for them.
Now Skippy was a knight in his own right with full honors. Literally the first prey-knight anyone had ever heard of. Unfortunately, that didn't make him very popular with anyone besides other prey.
The only prey with them on this Crusade -aside from servants native to the area they had picked up along the way- were warriors Robert had brought with him from Huntington. Bunnies, hares, skunks, and hedgehogs. Not just prey but small Mammals too. The largest soldier that came with him was a deer.
Robert found Skippy surrounded by a group of Huntington soldiers, showing off his skills. In addition to be almost as skilled as Robert himself with a bow, the bunny knight was also an awe inspiring acrobat. Running, jumping, climbing, and swinging. Robert didn't know if it was because he was a bunny and just naturally gifted, or because he had carefully cultivated his skills while simultaneously mastering the bow and becoming the first prey-knight ever.
Tucking his bundle of arrows under one arm, Robert crossed his arms over his chest to watch his friend's performance.
Skippy ran up one of the support pillars holding up Robert's tent. He got about twice his own height up the poll before gravity took hold of him again and the bunny had to do a backflip to avoid falling. He landed on his feet with an audible thump, throwing his arms up to accept his audience's adulation.
Robert clapped as he crossed the small crowd to the bunny.
The moment they noticed that it was their lord, done with the Lionheart's war council and back among them, everyone went down to one knee.
“The Robin.” Some muttered.
“Master Hood.” Others whispered.
Nobody called him Earl of Huntington or Lord of Loxleytown.
“Oh, stand up, all of you.” The arm that was not holding a bundle of arrows rested a paw on his hip. “Save the show of humility for someone who cares.”
There was a soft rumble of laughter from the crowd.
Skippy crossed the remaining distance between him and the fox lord and stared up at him from their significant height difference. “And so how does the Lionheart plan on having us die for him tonight?”
“He doesn't.” Robert announced. “Tonight Gisborne and his wolves get to die for him. We get to play babysitter and make sure no ambitious Saracen gets them from the side.”
There was a mixed reaction to this announcement. Some were genuinely relived to take the easier and less dangerous deployment. While others seemed to resent being denied the chance show-up the predators and prove that prey warriors were just as capable on the battlefield.
Skippy gave Robert an appraising look. “But the Robin under the Hood has different plans...”
Robert returned the bunny's appraising look with a smirk of his own. “Robin Hood always has different plans.”
Tell el-Fukhar was surrounded on all sides by a massive wall. Made of large bricks of stone as tall as a full grown wolf and was wide as two tigers standing shoulder to shoulder. It was broken only by a small service door off the east side, and a massive gate at the main entrance of the city. Wrought iron bars lowered in front of double doors carved from solid wood.
Gisborne was confident he could get through the gate with a battering ram, and maybe he could. Ya know, if you ignored the fact that the city's defenses would be raining down arrows, heavy rocks, and hot oil down on them the whole time. Even if the wolf did manage to get through the gate, how many troops would he have left to actually march through the gate afterwards?
Robert had a different plan.
The service door off the eastern side wasn't large. It was meant for smaller Mammals -the kind that would be servants in rich homes. Not the larger Mammals that would be actually running the city. But it was the perfect size for the majority of Robert's troops. Skunks, and bunnies, and hedgehogs. Pretty much all but the deer could get through.
But first they had to get it open.
That was where Skippy's impressive acrobatics came into play. That combined with Roberts master level archery skills.
They waited until after Gisborne began his attack so that the city's guard would be preoccupied by the rout at the main gate. Skippy got a running start and propelled himself up the wall. Right when he got to twice his own hight and was about to stat falling back to the dry dusty ground, an arrow stuck in the wall, shot from Robert's bow. Skippy grabbed the arrow, hanging from it just as Robert shot another bolt a little bit above the first and off to the side.
Robert shot another. Then another. Skippy used Robert's arrows like a ladder, climbing up to the top of the wall. The bunny swung between the turrets and over the wall.
Skippy dashed down the walkway until he found the stairs. There was a guardhouse at ground level by the door. But with the main battle taking place at the gate, it was vacant save for one token guard. An old badger, the crescent moon and star embroidered on the tabard he wore over his chainmail. The badger blinked, startled by the bunny bursting into the guardhouse. Skippy took advantage of his hesitation to deliver a two footed kick to the small predator's chest and the badger was propelled backwards. His head hit the wall and he was knocked unconscious.
Wasting no time, the bunny began unlatching the service door.
As soon as it was open, small prey started pouring in. Wearing the arrow and bow crest of Huntington their weapons in hand.
Outside still, Robert turned to those of his company who were just a tad to large to fit through the door. The deer, oryx, and kudu. “Bucky, be a dear-” no pun intended “-and run and tell Gisborne to regroup for a moment. We'll need time to get to the other side of the city and open the gate for them.”
“The wolf won't be happy.” The kudu informed him.
“The wolf knows a smart move when he hears one.” The fox shot back.
Bucky only sighed. “If he eats me, Robin, I swear by all the Olde Gods I'll come back as a haint just to haunt you.”
“Looking forward to it.” Robert would have clapped the other Mammal on the shoulder, but all he could reach was a little above the other male's waist. It ended up being a sportsman's pat on the rear. “Now off with you.”
The fox watched the division of his hoofed cavalry trot away -in no hurry at all to rush off and inform the Wolf of Gisborne that he need not waste the lives of his pack. When he was sure his message would get to the front -eventually- Robert followed the rest of his company through the door and into the city.
The rumors were true. The city was beautiful. Robert didn't even need the dim light cast by the city's oil lamps to see the vibrant shades of blue, white and gold that adorned the buildings or the latticework windows with hangings of linen dyed bright colors. He followed his troops for a ways until he saw a place to climb up above the rooftops where he got a proper view of the eastern splendor.
Most of the residents were holed up in their homes.
Most of the soldiers were concentrated at the main gate.
Hopping from rooftop to rooftop, Robert made his way to the battle -and the fox applied that word loosely. A 'battle' implied that both sides were fighting equally. A more accurate term would have been rout. Gisborne's troops were being routed by the city's defenses.
There was no love lost between the Fox of Loxley and the Wolf of Gisborne. But the Robert did want to reduce the loss of life. If for no other reason that, the more of everyone else's troops that were present when they finally got to Jerusalem, the better chances he and his own troops had of surviving and eventually making their way back home alive. Robert never wanted to come with the king on this stupid Crusade and now that he was on it, all he wanted to do was go home. He'd been away from the Greenwood, away from the vixen he loved, and away from their son for far to long already.
But, when there are already rumors flying around that you're a heathen and a devil worshiper, you're already under the king's scrutiny, and the Lionheart offers you an ultimatum to prove your loyalty and your 'faith to God', you take it. Not because you actually have any faith in his God, but because you don't want your lands and property taken away from you before your son and heir has the chance to inherit.
Robert skidded to a halt on the roof just across from the wall -and the gate. He ducked behind a line of linens that someone had forgotten to take in for the night to avoid being seen.
Pulling an arrow from his quiver, the fox notched his bow and pulled back the string. Peering out from his hiding place, Robert lead the target before letting the arrow fly.
The bolt caught the Ceresin soldier in the neck -in the space between the collar of his chainmail and helmet. A near impossible shot.
On the street below him, Robert's troops swarmed the gate. Attacking the city's guard from their unprotected back. The fox continued to lay down cover fire from his flimsy cover. Now it was the Ceresin troops that were being routed, being caught unawares and unprepared by the sneak attack. The battled was over in a matter of minutes -not hours- and Robert climbed down from his rooftop to stand next to Skippy when they opened the gate for the Lionheart and the rest of his Company.
Robert couldn't help the smirk that pulled at his lips when Gisborne saw him standing there as the gates opened. In the middle of the road, bow thrown casually over one shoulder, paw on his hip. The wolf might have snarled some rather unkind words at the fox had the Lionheart not rode by at that exact moment, claiming Robert's victory as his own -as was his privilege as king.
“...In the arms of my love I made a promise,
“Sinking deeper into danger every day...”
Pronk wasn't bad. He was no where as skilled with his insistent as Allan-a-Dale, but his voice was clear, his tones even, and the melody pleasant. But then, Robert was only half listening -as were most of the Mamma's of his company. They were all to busy drinking, and eating, and celebrating their victory.
The fox was celebrating his victory with a book. Something he'd picked up shortly after the Lionheart's Company took the city. During a phase of conquest Robert had to uncomfortably admit was 'looting' -there was no other word for it and dancing around the uncomfortable truth was just plain insulting to the Mammals they had conquered.
“Cut through all their shit with brazen wit,
“Until Richard returns home from Campaign.”
The song was an altered version of 'the Hooded Fox's Song'. A ballad from Loxley about the Robin under the Hood. There had been several Robins before Robert and there would be several after him. The song itself was not about Robert Wilde, Lord of Loxley, Earl of Huntington. But -at least to those who knew he was the Robin under the Hood- it might as well be his song. Pronk was singing it not only to celebrate, but also to remind everyone within earchot that it was Robert's victory, not Gisborne's or the Lionheart's.
“I'm no Mammal of honor. Myself is my true king.
“But somewhere deep within me, the bells of conscience ring.
“Beware, beware, of the words I twist.
“I am small but arrows fly long.
“And the robins red against winter's white
“Are whispering the Hooded Fox's song.”
Skippy sat down next to the hooded fox, offering the older Mammal a drink. Robert took the offered tumbler, took a sip, and set it back down to go back to his book.
“What are you reading?” Asked the bunny. He stood up to try and lean over the fox's arm to see the page. It looked like an illuminated text, like a bible. But the writing was all wrong. Curving and swooping letters all blending together into squiggle lines that ran the width of the page. Skippy never did get around to learning to read, but even if he had, the bunny knight was pretty sure he would not have been able to read that. “That's not our language.”
“No. Its not.” Robert nodded. “Its the language of the land we're in. I've been trying to teach myself to read it since we got here.” He lowered the book so the bunny could see it better. “This is their Qur'an.”
“Why are you reading that book?” Asked the bunny.
“To know what it is we're fighting over.” Answered the fox as if this should have been obvious.
“So, what are we fighting over?” Skippy leaned back and took a long draft from his tumbler, draining it. He eyed Robert's barely touched drink.
Without any words being exchanged, the fox passed his tumbler to the bunny to drank it with appreciation.
“As far as I can tell so far: nothing.” Robert announced. “As far as I've read, this is the exact same book just in a different language. Avraham goes to Egypt, tells his wife to say she's his sister so she can get raped by the Pharaoh without anyone trying to kill him. Later, God tells Avraham to murder his son, and he agrees. Same old, same old.”
“God's love at work.” Muttered the bunny.
Guy of Gisborne paced the entrance hall of the building the king had claimed for himself during their stay in Tell el-Fukhar. Through the open window, the sounds of the troops celebration drifted to the wolf's ears.
“Beware, beware, of the words I twist.
“I am small but arrows fly long.
“And the robins red against winter's white
“Are whispering the Hooded Fox's song.”
The wolf bristled. He did not like how popular Loxley was with the troops. The heretic fox had even gained a fair share of admiration from Gisborne's own pack. There was nothing more dangerous than a popular Mammal.
“The king will see you now.”
Guy was lead up a flight of stairs and into the Lionheart's chamber. The noise from the celebration was less up here, but that damn song still -somehow- managed to rise above the rest. Climbing and reaching to force its way in through the open window.
“Cut through all their shit with brazen wit,
“Until Richard returns home from Campaign.
“I'm no Mammal of honor. Myself is my true king.”
It seemed the song bothered the Lionheart as well. The king made a face of disapproval at that line. He poured two glasses of wine, offering one to the wolf. Guy took the lion-sized glass and waited for the king to speak.
“You're from Normandy originally, right, Gisborne.” Said the Lionheart. “You don't know about the Hooded Fox.”
“Are they not singing about Loxley?” Asked the wolf.
The king gave a humorless chuckle. “He does insist on wearing that stupid green hood all the time, doesn't he. Even in this God forsaken desert! But, no. The Hooded Fox is a pagan folk hero. A forester who sold his soul to the heathen gods of the Greenwood. He's called the 'Robin' because that is the name of the one that holds his soul.”
“I've heard some of Loxley's troops call him 'Robin'.” Gisborne said slowly.
The Lionheart nodded. “The old pagan legend -for the most part- have been stamped out. But every now and again, one with claw its way back out of the darkness to take hold of otherwise good Xtian Mammals and lead them astray. Robert of Loxley is eccentric. He's a predator, but doesn't eat meat. He appointed a bunny -his otherwise natural prey- as his lieutenant, and fills the ranks of his army with yet more prey. The Mammals of Loxley believe he is the Robin under the Hood returned -and sometimes I wonder if he himself believe it.”
“Majesty?” Asked the wolf, unsure of what, exactly, he was supposed to be taking away from this influx of information on a lord he didn't even like.
Crossing the room, the king leaned out the window. Spying Loxley.
Sitting a bit of a ways apart from the crowd. Leaning against a wall. Using the light of an oil lamp to read by.
The lion pointed, making sure the wolf could see the fox clearly when he asked, “What is he reading?”
Gisborne didn't have to squint to see its dry pages with wiggling script. He already knew what it was the little fox lord read. He'd overheard Loxley telling his bunny lieutenant about it on his way to see the king. “Its the infidel bible, Your Majesty. The Qur'an, I believe they call it.”
“Why is he... Never mind.” The Lionheart shook his head. That was not why he called Gisborne to this meeting. “You've already noticed that Loxley is a bit of a glory hound. Tonight alone he stole the victory right out from under you.”
Gisborne bit the inside of his cheek to keep from saying something inappropriate in front of the king. But if the wolf was going to be completely honest, he wanted to tie the little fox lord down and carve out his liver with a rusty spoon.
“He also deliberately and willfully disobeyed my orders.” Continued the king. “That cannot go unchecked. However, he did deliver me this city and so I can't punish him openly or severely. Not only would it appear unkingly, but the rest of the Company wouldn't stand for it. The fox is to popular.”
“There's nothing more dangerous than a popular Mammal, Your Majesty.” The wolf agreed.
“So, if Loxley is to be put in his place, it would have to be done quietly.” Explained the Lionheart. “He may be a predator, but he's small and accidents sometimes happen to small Mammals.”
Guy of Gisborne nodded. “I understand, Your Majesty. Say no more.”
Robert flipped the dark green hood of his tunic up over his head, keeping the harsh sun off the back of his neck and out of his eyes. He took a sip of water from his canteen, and shaded his sensitive eyes as he looked up at the infinite blue sky devoid of anything even resembling a cloud. Back home it rained almost every other day. Here, they were lucky if it rained once in three months.
They were on the march again. Having rested and resupplied at Tell el-Fukhar. Their reprieve from the Lionheart's Crusade lasting a little under a week. Then the king had marched them out again just after Sunday mass. So much for not working on the sabbath day.
Robert trudge in full chainmail, carrying sword, quiver, bow, and canteen. The rest of his gear was stowed on a cart at the back of the column, four horses taking turns pulling it two at a time. He walked with his company, separate from the rest of the lords and commanders whom didn't walk but rode on the backs of horse or other Mammals large enough to carry them at the head of the column. That was another thing that divided him from the rest of the lords. Robert refused to burden another Mammal with his weight.
A horse from his own company, Dek Oates trotted up beside the fox lord. “Your Grace, I would be more than willing to carry you if you wish to ride beside the king.”
The fox looked up at him from under his green hood and offered the horse a sardonic smile. “And who will carry your weapons and gear while you're carrying me and mine?”
“I can carry both, Your Grace.” The horse assured him.
That sardonic smile was still on Robert's face when he answered, “And be to exhausted to help should we be attacked on the road.” The fox shook his head. “No. I thank you. But your energy is better spent in tending to your own needs. Besides,” he thumped his chest proudly with a fist, “I'm not yet so old and feeble that I have to be carried. Let an old tod have his pride.”
He offered the horse a self-deprecating smile. Grinning up at the larger Mammal until Oates began to feel uncomfortable and bowed away, falling back into his place in line. Robert Wilde of Loxley, Earl of Huntington was a kind and empathetic Mammal. But when the Robin under the Hood fixed you with the Trickster God's grin, a Mammal couldn't help but feel uncomfortable.
It wasn't until after the steady rhythm of the march had returned that Skippy hopped up beside the fox next.
Robert huffed at the smaller Mammal. “If you're gonna offer to carry me too, I might start to think you all are afraid I'm to old for this.”
Skippy waited a beat before nodding to the head of the column where the king rode on the back of his servant along with all the other lords and commanders. “You have consistently insisted on dividing yourself from your equals.”
“They are not my equals.” The fox announced -with perhaps a touch more passion than was warranted.
The bunny just shook his head. He was much younger than the fox and -in fact- had been mentored by the older Mammal. But while Robert had grown up in a manor surrounded by servants and tutors, Skippy had grown up a peasant's son. In a hovel shared by over a hundred siblings. One of the lowest positions society could offer. Looking up from that low gave a Mammal a different perspective than one who only ever had a view of close to the top.
“Perhaps not.” The bunny-knight decided to agree. “But you are a lord who holds both lands and a title. That makes you one of them by default. The fact that you don't ride with them insults their delicate aristo sensibilities. They don't like you, Robin.”
“They never liked me.” The fox scoffed. The feeling was mutual.
“Maybe not.” Skippy agreed. “But its been ten years since we sailed from home and in that time the divide between you and them has only gotten wider. Because you're Noble, they have certain expectations on you, and you have spat on those expectations time and again. I don't know how much longer we're going to be out here, Robin. Those Mammals are supposed to be your allies. You should at least try to get along with them.”
Robert swallowed the snarl that rumbled in his throat. It came out more as a muted growl when he reminded the bunny, “The only reason we're out here is because 'Good King Lionheart' blackmailed me. Or do you not recall? Come with Lionheart on this insane Crusade to take back the Lord and Lady forsaken wasteland the Xtians insist is Holy Land, or else forfeit all of my own lands, property and title -my son's inheritance- and be tried as a heretic and Devil worshipper. That's why I'm here, Skippy. I'm not about to try and get along with them. They didn't want to get along with me first!”
The bunny opted not to point out how petty that was. It was said that the Goodfellow was also a petty god by nature. It was only fitting that his chosen Robins were also petty.
Heaving a sigh, the bunny fixed the fox with a pointed stare. “Look, your troops love you, Robin. None of us would have chosen to follow you here to this -as you say- 'Lord and Lady forsaken wasteland the Xtians insist is Holy'. But you have to remember that we're also almost all prey. You, and your status among the commanders, is the only thing keeping the rest of the soldiers in the Lionheart's Company from eating us. Please keep that in mind the next time you snub your peers, disobey an order from the king, or steal a victory from that Norman wolf. Its only by the grace of your status as the Earl of Huntington that we're still alive and haven't become rations yet.”
Robert looked down at the sand. Considering the bunny's words. He looked back up at his friend. “How did you become so much wiser than me?”
Skippy only shrugged. “Maybe I've taken a lesson from Finegas.” Now it was the bunny's turn to cast a sardonic smile. “Or maybe you should just eat more fish.”
“Har, har.” The fox rolled his eyes. But all joking aside, he decided to take Skippy's words to heart. Robert whistled over his shoulder. “Hey, Oates! You still wanna give me a ride? Throw your gear on the cart and c'mere.”
It didn't take the horse long to comply. He stowed his own stave and bedroll on the cart with the tents, wine and other luxuries that Nobles insisted were necessities and trotted back to the fox and bunny. Oats helped the smaller Mammal up onto his back and galloped -on all fours- up to the head of the column.
“Thank you for reconsidering, Your Grace.” The horse muttered softly. “Some of use did not like the way the wolves from Normandy have been eyeing the company.”
As Skippy said, if it wasn't for Robert's status as Earl of Huntington -one of the Lionheart's court- the Mammals of Robert's company would have been eaten by the Lionheart's Company ages ago. It was a fear the fox didn't think about because it wasn't something that affected him on a daily basis. He might be a small Mammal, but he was still a predator. He didn't experience prey problems. But for prey, it was a constant question in the back of their minds. 'Will I be eaten today?' Just another example of how different his perspective of the world was compared to his troops -compared to Skippy's.
Every fox should have a bunny companion.
Gisborne gave Robert a dirty look when he joined the party at the head of the column. But he covered it up quickly under a complaint about the heat. Greeting the fox afterwards as if only just noticing the smaller predator had joined them.
“Oh! Loxley! When did you get here?” Said the wolf. “You're so small I didn't even see you.”
The fox might have been small, but the horse he was riding on was around the same size as Gisborne's own, and when sitting the two canids were not all that different in height.
Oates said nothing, but chanced a glance at the prey Gisborne was riding and saw that his equine brother had no love for the predator that rode him. No words were exchanged -it was not their place to speak in a party of predator lords- but a current of understanding passed between them.
“My troops from Huntington get nervous without me.” Robert explained smoothly. As if he hadn't just spent the better part of a decade of travel and war ignoring and snubbing every predator lord present. “But sometimes I just have to get away. You know what a frightful bore prey can be.”
Gisborne's horse shot a questioning look at Oates whom shook his head under the pretext of scratching an itch and snorted. The king's mount -a large and thick built cape buffalo- snorted at them both, the jet of hot air accompanied by a bovine growl. A warning to the both of them to behave themselves in the presence of so many predators and Nobles.
“Too true.” The king agreed. “I'm glad you're finally starting to realize it. Looks like this little quest has been good for you, Robert.”
The fox only lowered his head and muttered, “I'm just honored you invited me, Your Majesty. It is an honor accompanying you.”
“Take your hood off, let me see your face.” Commanded the Lionheart.
Robert did as he was told, lowering the green hood of his tunic and offering an apologetic smile to the lion. “Apologies. The bright desert sun hurts my eyes.”
The lion gave a good hearted laugh at that. “It is a bit harsh, isn't it.” He agreed. “Not at all like back home. What I wouldn't give for a nice blanket of clouds to come and shade us...”
This time Robert's smile was in agreement. “If only God would be so kind.”
The fox lifted his paws to pull the hood back up. But the king stopped him.
“Leave it down, Robert. Keep your eyes closed if you must, your horse knows the way.” The Lionheart ordered. “I want to talk.”
“Of course, Your Majesty.”
The king said he wanted to talk, but he was quiet a moment to long after that. The lion waiting one... two... three beats before actually striking the conversation back up again. “Robert, you've been a cunning warrior and effective commander since setting sail with me.”
Again, the fox bowed his head. “Your Majesty is to kind. I'm just a humble servant of the crown.”
At that Gisborne snorted with derision. The Norman wolf looking like he was about to cut in with a scathing remark about Loxley being nothing more than a hooded glory hound with no regard for gentlemen's honor or the rules of conventional warfair. But he was silenced by a look from the king.
“But, you also have several bad habits, Robert.” Continued the Lionheart. “One of them will get you killed one of these days. You willfully disobey orders, and snub your fellow commanders.”
Robert opened his eyes, squinting through the harsh sunlight to look at the king. “I apologize, Your Majesty, but I'm only trying to do what I think would be best for the Company and protect as many lives as I can. After all, the more troops that can make it to Jerusalem, the better equipped you are to serve God.” A pause. Then the fox pressed on with no regard for wether or not the next thing he was going to say was wise or not. “Or am I wrong? Are we fighting to take back the Holy City for God, or are we just fighting for worldly gains like wealth, land, and glory?”
An uncomfortable tension settled over the commanders. An invisible electricity of undisplayed hostility ran between the Lionheart and Robert. How dare the little fox try and imply hypocrisy on the part of the king!?
The silence stretched on for far to long. It lasted one... two... three beats.
Finally it was Guy of Gisborne who diffused the tension. He forced a laugh and clapped Robert on the shoulder as if they were friends. The wolf's large paw almost pitching the smaller canid forward against his mount's neck.
“Listen to you, Loxley!” He said. “Talking about God and wealth as if they were mutually exclusive. Why can we not have both?”
There was a rumbling of agreement from the rest of the commanders.
“Of course, Gisborne.” Robert begrudgingly nodded.
Above the small fox's head, Gisborne and the king exchanged a look. Loxley's insubordination and disrespect was becoming bolder and more intolerable by the day. Something had to be done about him.
They rested for water -and for the night- at a way-station a day's march out from Tell el-Fukhar. It was little more than a well and a small sand-blasted stone structure big enough for maybe only ten or so Mammals -depending on their size and needs.
The king claimed it for himself. The commanders would sleep outside with their own companies tonight.
Another caravan was sharing the way-station that night. A group of traders heading north to Tell el-Fukhar. Their leader was distraught to learn that the city had been taken, the air spiking with fear when the camel realized that the army he was sharing camp with must be the very same army that pillaged the city.
They offered spices for the king's table and silks for his tent and bedding. They were called 'gifts' but everyone knew what they actually were. Bribes. Bribes in the hope that the predator army wouldn't just kill them and take all they had anyway.
Truth be told, the only thing that really stayed their collective paw was practical necessity. If they killed the caravan camels, then how would they carry everything they took? If they didn't kill the caravan camels and instead conscripted them as servants and pack animals -as they had many others over the course of their journey- then what would they do with the silks, china, spices, and other goods they stole? Not much use for china and silk in war. And finally, if they threw out the goods and just took the camel merchants themselves that would just be that many more mouths to feed and water on the road.
So the Lionheart accepted a silk robe for when he retired in the evenings, and enough spice to dress the rations served at the commanders' table for the night.
Robert sat across from Gisborne. The wolf watched him critically as the fox nibbled on sweet dates, baklava, and hummus on pita.
“Something wrong, Lord Gisborne?” Asked the fox. “Do I have something on my face?”
He wiped his muzzle just to be sure he didn't have any hummus dripping from it or nuts from the baklava stuck in his fur. Why were sweet things always so sticky?
“Are you really a canid?” Asked the wolf as he took a large bite out of a leg that had been roasted over the camp fire, sprinkled with cumin and ginger. The leg previously belonged to an addax, one of the prey that previously inhabited Tell el-Fukhar. “You haven't touched the meat all night.”
He did not answer immediately. Robert made the wolf wait for him to finish the bite he'd just taken -chewing extra slowly- before he swallowed then took a sip of water from his tumbler. Then he answered Gisborne's question. “Since you obviously don't know, I'll tell you: foxes are omnivorous. We can survive just fine eating things other than meat. Care for a date? They're quite good.”
Gisborne just blinked at the fox, as if the most ridiculous thing ever the wolf had ever heard just tumbled out of the little lord's mouth.
“No?” Robert withdrew his offer to pass the dates and popped another one in his mouth. “I admit, I was a little skeptical of them at first too. I mean, they're no blueberries -or grapes, I love grapes!- but as far as desert fruits go, these are probably the best I've had.”
“I don't eat fruit.” No proper predator ate fruit. Gisborne took another bite of the leg he was eating. Making a show of sinking his teeth into it and ripping the still juicy meat from the bone. He also chewed slowly. Taking his time before swallowing. He glared across the table, daring the fox to say more and volunteer further evidence to deny his claim of being a proper predator lord.
But Loxley didn't take the bate. The fox merely shrugged, taking another sip of water. “To each their own, I suppose.”
Gisborn could only glare at him.
After dinner, the wolf sought out the leader of the traders' caravan. The majority of the group were camels with a few small Arabian horses. But their leader was an Iberian lynx -a predator.
Gisborne offered the cat a bottle of wine -the same wine the lynx had gifted to the king's Company in exchange for not eating the Mammals under his employ.
The lynx gave the bottle a skeptical glare, recognizing it as one of his own. Then he glanced back up at the wolf. “To what do I own this hospitality, my lord?”
Sitting by the lynx's fire, directly across from the cat, Gisborne uncorked the bottle and took a sip, passing it to the other predator. “I have a proposition for you. If you're still heading to Acre -uh, Tell el-Whatever.”
Raising one skeptical eyebrow, the lynx refused the offered wine. Instead asking, “What proposition?”
Gisborne took another sip from the bottle before putting the wine to the side for the time being. “You gifted most of what you had to trade to my king the Lionheart and the Mammals of Tell el- the Mammals of Acre are angry and will want blood.”
“Are you suggesting I don't go to Tell el-Fukhar?” Asked the lynx.
“Oh, no.” The wolf assured him. “Not at all. In fact, I want you to continue on to Acre -and to sooth the hostile welcome you'll recive there, I'm suggesting you bring them a gift.”
Again, the lynx's glare was skeptical, this time his eyebrows coming down with a healthy dollop of suspicious on top. “And what gift would you suggest I bring them? As you yourself admitted, most of my tradable good have already gone to your Lion King.”
Here the wolf smiled. Gisborne leaned forward so that the fire illuminated his face. “You could bring them the one responsible for their city being conquered and pillaged.”
The lynx laughed. “Are you volunteering, Wolf of Gisborne?”
Guy laughed along with him. “No. I'm volunteering the one who opened the gate and let my pack into the city. The hooded fox, Robert Wilde of Loxley, Earl of Huntington.”
That skeptical look was back as the lynx regarded the wolf. “A fox is responsible for the fall of Tell el-Fukhar.”
“And the Mammals of Acre would love to have a few words with him.” Gisborne nodded. He held the wine bottle out to the lynx one more time. “Do we understand one another?”
This time, the cat took the offered bottle, drinking a large sip from it. It was rare that he got to enjoy his own wares. “Yes, Wolf of Gisborne. We understand each other.”
Robert knew he must be dreaming because he was happy. Laying content in Marian's arms, surrounded by a field of heather, the sun veiled by a soft sheet of clouds. The light was cool and gentle and didn't hurt his eyes. Marian stroked his ear while off in the distance he heard the distinct twang of a bow, the swish of an arrow, and the thunk as it connected with a target. Nick practicing his archery no doubt.
Any minute now, the little kit would come bounding up to his parents and insist that his father come watch him show off how much he'd improved since yesterday. Robert buried his face deeper in his wife's lap. He should really go and keep an eye on the kit. Training arrows were blunted, but that didn't make them 'child-safe' and as both Robert and Marian learned very early on as new parents, kits had a certain knack for causing accidents and getting themselves hurt.
But Robert was so comfortable laying in his wife's arms that he did not want to move.
“I should be with him...” The fox muttered into Marian's dress.
“He's been without you for a long time already.” The vixen whispered back. “At this point, I don't think he needs you anymore...”
“What?” Robert sat up, staring at his wife.
Marian likewise sat up, pressing a paw over his mouth to silence whatever protest he was about to utter next. “You've been gone to long, my darling, he doesn't need you anymore.”
Blinking at her in confusion, Robert reached a paw up to try and pull her paw away from his face and allow him to argue. But Marian just applied more pressure, shifting her grip from just covering his snout to wrapping her paw around it, holding his mouth shut. Robert struggled, but her hold only tightened.
Other paws reached around him. Pulling him out of the dream and forcing him back into the waking world.
The fox opened his eyes, blinking the sleep out of them.
The paw around his muzzle was real, not a construct of the dream. A wolf lager than himself held his mouth shut while another came up with a cord to tie his snout closed. Two more wolves bound his paws and feet.
Robert struggled against the bonds, twisting his paws and wriggling his feet. Raising his hackles to bare his teeth and try and cut the cord that way. He didn't understand what was happening. Why wolves were attacking him in his own tent.
Wolves... The foxes eyes swept over his pack of attackers one more time. They didn't wear any badge or crest identifying them as sworn to any lord. But Robert did recognize a few of their faces. They were betas of Gisborne's pack. Guy of Gisborne had ordered him attacked in his own bed? It was true that there was no love lost between the two canids, but Robert never would have imagined the wolf hated him enough to go behind the king's back and attack him in his sleep.
The fox kept wriggling while on the shoulder of the one carrying him, growling and mumbling through the cord around his muzzle.
Robert was thrown over the back of a camel. Lifting his head, he saw two other camels come up and begin strapping him down, securing him so that he didn't shift during travel or fall off. He thrashed his head, snarling at the Mammals tying him like saddle bags. The camels flinched back in alarm, the prey instinct to be wary around predators overriding the logic that would tell them the small fox was no threat while tied up.
One of the wolves came up, presumably to put the camels at ease. But all he did was strike Robert hard across the face. The fox was so stunned that he just stared as the camels finished securing him to the one carrying him.
He had no idea what was going on, or why.
Holding a glass of wine, the Lionheart let the curtain of silk covering the way-station window fall back into place. He watched the caravan gallop away from camp at the break of dawn, carrying the little fox lord with them. The Lionheart was satisfied that the thorn in his paw the fox represented was gone. He turned to Gisborne.
The wolf was enjoying a rib from the king's breakfast, washing it down with water, not wine -it was going to be another hot day.
“That was very well done.” The lion commented, choosing not to be incensed that the wolf was helping himself to some of the king's meat. “Robert is gone and it can't be traced back to me.”
Gisborne swallowed the bite he'd been chewing and grinned at the larger predator. “You might even say that I out foxed the fox.”
The Lionheart gave into the slight smile that pulled at his lips at the little quip. Then his expression returned to the seriousness to the business at hand. “But Robert's disappearance might be traced back to you. Its no secret in the Company that you and the fox were not fond of each other.”
“Are you gonna hang me out to dry, Your Majesty?” Asked the wolf. His tone was calm, relaxed, almost as if the question was a joke not to be taken seriously. But Gisborne body language betrayed him. His back straightening, his paws going to his sides, ready to spring back to his feet should he need to defend himself. “I do your dirty work for you and you turn around and execute me for it?”
“Not at all.” The lion assured him. “But Mammals talk. I was thinking your services might be better suited in other areas.”
The Lionheart sat down opposite the wolf and picked a rib from his breakfast, gnawing on it with appreciation before answering. “We're almost at Jerusalem.” He said. “Our quest is nearing its final stretch and now -so close to the end- I find that we're running low on funds. Money, supplies... all those little things that keep an army marching.” The lion pulled a ring off the little finger of his right paw and passed it to the wolf. “This is my seal. It will prove that I was the one that sent you on your new errand.”
“And what is my new errand?” Gisborne hesitated to take the signet ring.
“Sail back to my Country and get my brother to send more money for the war effort.” The Lionheart informed him.
“Be your tax collector.” The wolf smiled. He was imagining something far different when the king first took off his ring. But travel back to where the weather made sense, water was plentiful, and it wasn't so unbearably hot? Sure. That sounded great. Gisborne accepted the ring. “Maybe I'll even stop by and see my cousin.”
“Do that.” Nodded the king. “Let it never be said that Richard the Lionheart doesn't value the bonds of family.”
The lion selected another rib from the plate and resumed munching.
The wolf watched the other predator eat. Another thought occurring to him.
“Loxley's company -the prey- they will wonder where their lord has gone.” Gisborne informed the king cautiously.
“I imagine they will.” Agreed the lion. “Did you have a point, Gisborne?”
The wolf nodded. “They are prey, Your Majesty. If the Company really is running low on supplies... well, it would be fewer mouths drinking our water and more meat in our bellies.”
As a bunny, Skippy was generally an early riser.
Most of the other Mammals in the Lionheart's Company, however, were not. Skippy didn't mind, though. He took the opportunity to relax and take his time munching on a breakfast of pita and date rations, and there was no line at the well. The bunny could both drink his fill and refill his canteen without being rushed or molested.
That is, until something strange caught his eyes.
The caravan they were sharing their camp with was already heading out. That in and of itself was not unusual. It was a full days march from the way-station to Tell el-Fukhar, best to get as far as they could before the day got to hot. What was strange was the fact that they were still heading to Tell el-Fukhar to spite knowing that the Lionheart's Company had just pillaged the city and they would be less inclined towards outsiders. That, and most of their tradable wines and spices had already been given to the commanders of the Lionheart's army. What, then, did they intend to trade to the angry and hostile city?
Skippy took another sip from his canteen and scrutinized the camels that walked on all fours carrying the caravan's gear and goods.
One of the camels near the head of the procession was being lead by the band's leader, an Iberian lynx -Skippy didn't know his name- and on that camels back was a strange kind of bundle. It didn't even really look like a bundle, it looked almost...
The strange bundle Skippy was staring at gave a kind of shake, like a living thing thrashing and struggling as if it were tied up. Lifting its head. Flicking its tail wildly back and forth as if doing so could magically free him. The bunny's eyes went wide with recognition and his canteen slipped from his paw, spilling all over the sand.
He knew that shaggy bottle-brush tail! There was only one Mammal in the Company of that size with that kind of tail. Robin! It was Robin they had tied up on that camel. They were taking Robin back to Tell el-Fukhar!
Skippy didn't pause to wonder why the fox lord might have been tied up and on his way back to the city they'd just come from. He didn't take the time to ask himself how the camels -which were so much larger than him- could have snuck into his tent and overpowered the predator without anyone noticing. Nor did he stop to reflect on the possibility of someone from their own Company selling him out to the foreign traders. All he saw was his friend being kidnapped.
Abandoning his canteen in the now wet sand, Skippy dashed back to his tent. He scooped up his bow and quiver of arrows. Then -only because it was right next to the other weapons and took no extra time- he also grabbed his dagger. A bunny sized blade that for larger Mammals was not much bigger than a butterknife at best or a toothpick at worse. But Skippy was a prey and was not born with sharp claws or teeth. He kept his dagger very sharp, even as small as it was, it got the job done.
He was about to rush back out after the caravan and rescue Robin when his keen bunny hearing picked up a sound that pushed the fox from his mind entirely.
Coming from the next tent over. The unmistakable swsh of a blade through air then a wet and stomach churning squish as the blade connected with something. Turning an ear in the direction of the sound, Skippy listened, trying to figure out what exactly it was he was hearing.
“Huh, wha's goin' on...” Someone just waking up and groggy from sleep asked. “What-!”
There was another swsh of metal through air then another pulpy squish.
Then the flap of the bunny's tent was pulled back and two wolves leered into the small space. It didn't take Skippy long to realize what was happening. Prey were gifted with keen senses of danger and strong instincts to survive. He didn't wait for one of the wolves to go for him, the little bunny went on the offensive first.
Tiny knife in hand, Skippy jumped at one of the wolves, stabbing the larger Mammal in the eye with the short blade. It was short, but it was long enough to get the job done. The wolf snarled in pain and fell back, bleeding from his now empty eye-socket. The second wolf was so stunned by the tiny prey's sudden attack that he didn't notice the bunny had jumped off his companion until Skippy was sinking his blade into the back of the wolf's knee.
The predator went down, kneeling in front of the bunny. A much easier hight for the small prey to manage. Skippy slit the wolf's throat before he could even snarl a curse.
Looking around himself, Skippy realized just how bad things really were.
All around him, the Mammals of the Huntington company were being slaughtered in their sleep, or else fleeing their tents only to be kill by ambush outside. It seemed the bunny's fears came true. Without Robert to shield them from his fellow lords and commanders, the soldiers of their company became nothing more than what the rest of the Lionheart's Company saw them as -prey.
Whether the Robin under the Hood was kidnapped or sold it didn't matter. At the moment simple and base survival was the dominant thought in Skippy's mind. His own survival, and the survival of his comrades.
Slipping his dagger in his belt, the bunny notched an arrow to his bow and shot the closest wolf to him. A black and gray beta that was about to sink a knife into the back of a kudu -Bucky, Skippy thought his name was, not that it was important at the moment. The kudu looked in the direction the arrow had come and saw the bunny.
Sir Skippy. Earl Robert's second-in-command. In the Robin's absence, command of their company defaulted to the bunny.
Skippy notched another arrow and let it fly. This time hitting one of the cougar of the king's banner. The bunny closed the distance between himself and the kudu. “Are you hurt?”
“No.” Bucky assured the smaller Mammal.
“Then get off your ass and get a weapon in your hoves!” The bunny commanded. “They're trying to kill us in case you haven't noticed!”
Skippy didn't wait to see if his command was followed. He was to busy notching another arrow and picking his next target. Two more wolves and a puma were pulling an oryx by the limbs. They would break his back if they didn't rip his limbs off completely. The bunny shot the puma first. Then a wolf. The second wolf dropped the oryx and advanced towards the bunny instead.
With a running start, Skippy tried the same running up a wall trick he used to get over the wall of Tell el-Fukhar, only this time it was up the body of the wolf looming over him. The dumb beast was so stunned that a tiny little prey would not only run up to him but climb on him that he didn't know what was happening until it was to late. At the point where gravity took control of the bunny again, Skippy redrew his dagger and jammed the blade into the predator's neck, pulling it out again as he kicked off the now falling body with a backflip.
Thick red blood spurted from the wound, staining the bunny's otherwise snow-white fur.
The oryx he just saved stared at him as if only just now seeing the bunny for the first time. Then again, there was a reason the Robin under the Hood named the diminutive Mammal as his second-in-command.
Bucky appeared by the oryx's side, sword now in hand. “Pronk! Are you okay?”
“Save as many of our company as you can!” Skippy ordered the both of them, notching another arrow. “If you can't save anyone then just get the hell outta here!” He let the arrow fly. “I don't know why the king's Company turned on us, but without Robin we don't have a prayer.”
“Where's Robin?” Both antelope asked in unison.
“Gone!” Skippy didn't have time to explain. He was to busy notching and shooting another arrow. “Taken!”
The two antelope exchanged a look or alarm.
“Go!” Snarled the bunny.
He had just run out of arrows. Skippy swung his bow around, smacking a bobcat in the face and earning himself a moment to redraw his dagger. Bucky raised his sword and sliced the feline across the back, saving the bunny the trouble of dispatching him while Pronk pulled arrows from the bodies of the predators Skippy had shot. He handed them back to the company's acting commander.
Skippy took them gladly, notching one immediately and shooting another on-coming predator. “We can't keep this up for very long. We need to get out of here.”
“The desert's a days march or more in any direction.” Pronk informed him.
Skippy shot the second arrow. He was once again empty and relying solely on his dagger. “Then pick a direction and start marching!”
If he was just a bit taller, the little bunny would have given one or both of the antelopes a firm kick in the ass to get them moving. Instead, all he did was rap their ankles with his bow.
Bucky grabbed Pronk and pulled him away from the line of tents, and away from the way-station. They did not look back for their acting commander, assuming Skippy was right behind them.
Skippy was behind them, but not following. He was moving from tent to tent, ducking and dodging predators. Checking each tent for any other survivors. What he saw in each one made his stomach churn. His prey instincts screaming for him to run, run away, far away. But he was also Robin's second-in-command and had a responsibility to his company in the fox's absence. He had to make sure before he made his own escape. He couldn't leave any of his soldiers behind.
That was his fatal mistake.
As he peering into the final tent, his attention elsewhere, Skippy felt a sharp pain lance through his leg. The bunny looked down to see an arrow sticking out through his shin. The sight not fully registering in his mind until he found himself on his back in the sand. Two wolves loomed over him, glaring down at him with a strange mingling of fury, hunger, and begrudging respect. He had faught admirably.
That was the last thing Skippy saw before the sword sliced through his neck, severing his head from his shoulder's.
When I next update, Skippy's name will be removed from character tags.
Chapter 4: Little Fox Lord
Flash, a miller and a prey was not the sort of Mammal one would expect a predator Earl to associate with. But he and Nick were of an age and had grown up together. So it was not strange at all when the miller sloth saw the red fox -accompanied by his cheetah retainer, Clawhouser- crossing through the field to the main house. Flash gave a slow wave to which the fox returned with a smile. Flash was still in mid-wave by the time they arrived.
He met them at the 'gate', it was really little more than a gap on the small picket fence Flash had constructed around his mill. The sloth began a bow to the fox lord but Nick waved him off.
“Oh, none of that.” He scoffed at the display of humility. “Just because I have a title now doesn't make me any different than before. I'm still the same fox you went streaking through Loxleytown with because we lost that bet against Matthias.”
The sloth was still in mid-bow, just beginning his upward ascent when a slow smile broke over his face at the memory. Flash never got all the way up from his bow -but only because he was instead in the process of doubling over in laughter. “Ah... ha... ha... ha...”
Nick waited for his friend to finish.
Clawhouser leaned down to whisper a question at the fox lord. “Did you really run through town naked?”
The cheetah was not originally from Huntington, and in fact, had only come to the Country recently. Benjamin Clawhouser was originally from Þēodiscland and only came to live in Huntington a few years before Nick ascended the Earldom. It was the fox lord's mother, the Countess Marian Dubois-Wilde, Lady of Loxley, that gave the cheetah a position in the household. She thought the always cheerful and friendly foreigner might give her son some perspective. Nick had become so cynical in the years after his father left.
“That was the agreement.” Nodded the fox. “And everyone knows, bad things happen to Mammals who break their word.”
Nick paused, wondering if that statement was true or if he was just misremembering something his father had told him. Was it Mammals that couldn't go back on their word, or was it fae? Was it fae that had to keep their word and Mammals could do whatever? Or was it that Mammals always had to keep their word to fae? The fox lord couldn't remember. It wasn't like such things were openly discussed in Loxleytown.
The cheetah's round belly shook with laughter at the mental image of the always serious and stoic fox running naked through the streets of town. He'd seen Nick drunk before, but he'd never seen him cut loose and allow himself to have fun sober. “Oh... M... Goodness! I would have paid to see that!”
Finally, the sloth finished his laughter and his spine completed its journey back to fully erect. “I... remember... Friar... Tuck... was so... mad... at... all of... us! He... confined... Matthias... to the... Abbey... for... a... year.”
Both fox and cheetah waited to hear if there was more.
When they were sure the sloth had stopped speaking, Nick's lips stretched into a smile. “Yeah, that sure taught him to win a bet against me.”
Nick neglected to mention that being confined to an abby was a vacation compared to the punishment his mother visited upon him for that little stunt. If the young fox even -at any time- thought he could get away with things because his father was away, those ideas were quickly squished under the heel of his mother's authority. It was only after Robert left that Nick came to realize just how gentle and relaxed an authority the older tod had been.
Maybe that was why Huntington was in financial crisis now.
Nick didn't say anything to Clawhouser before they came out here. But the young Earl's real motivation in coming to visit his old friend wasn't to reminisce over the follies of their youth, but to -casually and subtly- assess the miller's stores of grain (if he had any left over from last year) and get some version of a projection of what Flash expected from this summer's harvest.
Taxes didn't have to be paid in gold or jewels. But they did have to be paid. If money and precious gems weren't available, then foodstuffs and tradable goods would have to fill the difference.
“So... what... brings... you... all... the way... out... here...”
The fox opened his mouth to answer.
“...today?” Finished the sloth.
Nick had to smile at himself. He'd known Flash for years and still sometimes got tripped up when talking to him. Usually conversations followed a general rhythm and -even speaking slowly- the fox could tell when the sloth was finished and it was his turn. But every now and again, Flash would change up his speech patterns or throw in extra words that just prolonged things.
The fox let an easygoing and friendly smile play across his face. “I didn't know I needed a reason to come by and see one of my oldest friends.”
“I... guess... not.” Agreed the sloth. He began a slow turn back to the house adjacent to the mill. “Come... inside. Priscilla... was... just... finishing... breakfast.”
Clawhouser looked up at the cloudy sky. The sun was veiled behind a layer of overcast, but the cheetah was pretty sure it was almost noon by now. Flash and his wife were the third stop he and the young Earl had made so far. If the sloths were still just having breakfast, did that mean they got a late start to the day? Or were they really just that slow in all aspects of their lives? How did they live?
At about half way between the gate and the door, Nick gave Clawhouser a gentle elbow in the side. “Hang in there, buddy.”
It took them another five minutes to cross the space, keeping to the sloth's pace. They hadn't even gotten inside the house yet and Clawhouser was ready to cry. How did the Earl manage to look so calm? No, for get that, how did Nick manage to consider this slow moving and frustratingly lagging prey his friend? It was maddening!
Finally, the door was held open for them and both lord and retainer entered the building they'd been walking towards for the past thousand years.
Inside was another sloth. Female this time. Wearing a simple dress of rough woven wool in shades of pink. Nick flashed a flirtatious smile knowing full well that she was not only a married female, but also prey. “Hello, Pricilla. You still wasting your time with this lummox?”
Pricilla raised her head just as unbearably slowly as Flash had tried to bow. Upon seeing the Earl of Huntington standing in her home, the female sloth began a polite curtsy. “Nick... how... nice... to... see... you.”
Clawhouser smacked himself in the face with the palm of his paw, lightly dragging his claws down the front of his face. The fox lord hadn't even started asking them any of the things they came here to find out and they'd already spent twice as much time with Flash and his wife then they had anyone else they'd seen today. Well, at least the cheetah knew why the Earl insisted on leaving his friend for the last Mammal they visited.
Pricilla was on her way back up from her curtsey. “What... brings... you... here... today?”
“Oh, ya know...” Shrugged the fox. “Just relaxing from my Earl duties by chilling with an old friend. Mind if I steal your husband for a bit? I wanna take a walk around the mill?”
“Sure...” She said pleasantly. “Just... don't... keep... him... out all... night... like... last... time.”
Out all night? The last time the fox Earl had hung out with the sloth, the evening ended early and abruptly when some crazy bunny barged in making absurd accusations about Nick's father being some kind of heretic and hooded vigilante. Which was absurd of course! But it bothered the Earl to the point that he left his own party and retired early. Flash went home soon after that. He couldn't have been out all night. Did it really take him all night to get home?
Dear Lord! These were the Mammals in charge of grinding their grain into flour.
“Alright, Flash, you heard the missus! No more staying out all night, you naughty boy.” The fox hooked an arm around the sloth's and pulled him towards the door.
Clawhouser sighed and followed them back out. Even with the fox pulling him, the pace was nerve clenchingly slow.
Nick did not ask Flash one question about his stores, or what he imagined the harvest numbers might be, or even when he expected to begin the harvest. Instead, they talked about Mammals they used to know but had fallen out of touch with, stupid things they did as a sloth pup and fox kit, and any vixen the young Earl might be courting -Nick was not currently courting anyone. His mother was courting on his behalf since he -apparently- had no interest in marriage or heirs.
They did not discuss the main reason the Earl came to call. But as they walked, the fox's eyes took in everything. The number of quern-stones they had, and the general condition of them. The number of sealed baskets of grain, and whether or not any of them had mouse holes chewed in them. He also noted the overall wear of the buildings and whether or not any serious maintenance was needed on them. The kind of maintenance that a sloth couldn't do on his own, the kind that the fief lord might need to provide help with. All these things were factors in the mill's production.
When Nick was finally done visiting with his friend, when the sloth's slow gait and halted speech began to wear down even the fox lord's patience, the Earl announced that it was time for he and Clawhouser to go. They still had a lot of work to do and it was a bit of a walk back to the manor.
They had arrived at the mill at noon.
It was night when they left.
“Your friend is so nice.” Began the friendly and determinedly cheerful cheetah. “But that took forever! What did you gain from that?”
Besides six hours of wasting time with his childhood buddy.
“I have a better handle on the reality of my fief.” Answered the fox, slightly distracted.
They were following the road that curved around the Greenwood and a movement out the corner of his eye caught the little lord's attention. A small streak of gray through the underbrush, rustling the leaves. He sniffed the air and caught the scent of bunny. It reminded him of the old buck that crashed his ascension celebration, but it wasn't the same buck. This scent was younger and female. But that was about all Nick could tell about it. The scent -much like the creature it belonged to- was there and gone in a moment. Besides, if she was from the haunted Wood, then Nick didn't want to have anything to do with her.
Clawhouser noticed him sniffing the air and looking towards the woods. He'd been living in the Country for several years now, and was still getting used to some of the local superstitions. But Black Forests and haunted woods were one thing that seemed universal and the cheetah shivered. “Can you smell geist?”
Nick offered his companion an amused smile. “No. I can't smell geist, or haints, or ghosts. But I wouldn't worry about them anyway. The haints and the fae want as little to do with us as we do with them.” He said, a memory of his father rising unbidden to the forefront of his memory, and the fox dragged a claw over the silver chain around his neck, feeling the weight of the arrow and bow pendant that hung there. “But the supernatural isn't what I would worry about coming out of Sherwood. Normal mortal Mammals are far more dangerous.”
Was Judy obsessed with the new Earl? No. No, she was not.
She only followed him during her free time when she was not busy with training from Thumper, or lessons from Flower, or helping her parents with the farm. She did not spend every waking moment tracking his movements outside the Greenwood, therefore, she could not be obsessed.
Even when she was spending her time tacking his movements outside the Greenwood, it was only when he was also outside his own home, or outside Loxleytown. Judy would not leave the Wood. So she really only even followed him when he was walking along the road that wound around the Greenwood. Starting down from Loxleytown, detouring away from the treeline, and curving around the forest all the way to Nottingham on the other side.
Thumper said not to expect anything from the fox. He belonged to the Trickster and one could never predict either the Trickster god or those that belonged to him. Nickolas could show up at Duir tomorrow, already hooded with bow and quiver ready. Or they could not see him actually within the Wood for many years yet. He could not be predicted. But he was owned by one of the Olde Gods and he would come. By one way or another, Nickolas Wilde would find his way to the great oak tree like his father before him. Of that, at least, they could be sure.
Judy was usually a very patient Mammal. One needed patience to tolerate Thumper long enough to be mentored by him.
But for some reason, in regards to the fox, Judy was finding herself irrationally impatient. She didn't know why. He was not only a predator but a fox, her natural enemy. Yet, she felt an irrational desire to meet him in the Wood. Perhaps it was because of all the stories she'd heard of his father. The previous Robin under the Hood. A predator that was a friend to prey. Guardian of the Greenwood where the Olde Gods gave asylum to prey that fled from an outside world ruled by predators. Or maybe it was because his stupid eyes made an impression on her.
By the gods! She hated his eyes. Those stupid, perfect, vibrant green emeralds he had shoved in his face holes, that glittered with mischief, and intelligence, and compassion. Judy remembered how jovial he was at his ascension celebration. His eyes sparkling with good humor, and friendly cheer. How he didn't even know who she and Thumper were, but invited them over to his table anyway. How his eyes were so bright, and open, and friendly, and, yeah, maybe all that was because he'd been slightly drunk at the time, but Judy wanted to see his eyes like that again.
Since that night, she'd only ever seen the eyes of every other fox under the sun in his face. Cynical, suspicious, tense, wary. Still a brilliant shade of green, but... less bright somehow.
She watched him scan the treeline, and she mentally kicked herself. He knew she was out there -watching him. She got careless and allowed herself to be heard, and the moment he knew there was another Mammal besides himself and the cheetah around, he would look for her scent on the air. Judy crouched down behind a shrub of wild thyme, hoping the powerful herb would mask her scent from the predator.
Would he enter the Wood to find her?
Since Thumper had given the fox Goodfellow's badge, the young Earl had avoided the Greenwood just like every other Mammal in Huntington and Nottingham did. Keeping to the road that skirted around it, casting suspicious glances whenever the wind rustled the trees, never lingering to long in its shadow. If Judy didn't know why better, she would have thought the fox lord was afraid of the Greenwood. But that was absurd. The son of Robin Hood, afraid of Sherwood Forest? Ridiculous.
Being more cautious than she had been earlier, the bunny followed the Earl and his cheetah companion until they reached the manor. That was where Judy finally stopped following him. She would not leave the Wood.
Dinner was not a formal affair.
Neither was it really much of a social affair either.
Nick sat at the head of the table, picking at his meal and ignored everyone else present, his main focus on the ledgers he'd brought down with him from his study. He made notes of what he'd learned on his casual survey today and did a few calculations. If his math was correct, even if Nick called in all the tithes Huntington would still fall just short of the amount Prince John was demanding as his tax.
The fox set his documents down and massaged his temples, wondering what it was he was going to do.
Next to him, his mother tutted about his doing work at the table. He needed to eat more, the young Earl was far to skinny. Besides, if he was going to insist on working at the dinner table, then he could at least hear about the vixen she was negotiating as a wife for him.
To that, Nick only scoffed. He hadn't been Earl of Huntington for a season and already his mother was trying to barter him off as some vixen's husband. No... that was unfair. She wasn't bartering him off -she was trying to buy a wife for him. While it was true that predators were the ruling class in the Country, foxes were small and barely considered predators by the rest and there weren't many vixen from families of a status comparable to the Wildes of Loxley. Marian was having to negotiate, not only with the vixen's family, but also the crown for approval of any match she might make.
He supposed finding a mate was important. After all, he might be young now, but eventually, Nick would need an heir. But he also thought that it was more important to make sure Huntington survived his first year as Earl before he flung his thoughts so far into the future as to require an heir.
On his other side, Nick's Uncle John -that is, his father's friend, a brown bear named John Little whom Nick had grown up with as an uncle- merely chuckled at the argument between mother and son. Nick shot him a dark look before turning back to his numbers and figured.
A bit of a ways down the table, Allan strummed on his lute. Adding a little light music to the mis-matched family dinner. Allan-a-Dale was another one of his father's friends. One of the three the former Earl of Huntington left behind to help guide and council his son should the older fox not return before Nick grew old enough to ascend the seat. An excellent bit of forethought on his father's part since Nick actually had come of age and claimed the seat without Robert around. He was glad the old tod left Allan, Uncle John, and Friar Tuck behind to give him their own unique brands of wisdom and council.
Allan switched his melody to the tune of the Hooded Fox's Song, and Nick instantly began rethinking his assessment of the bard's wisdom. Nick hated the Hooded Fox's Song.
'...And the robins red against the winter's white
'Are whispering the hooded fox song.'
It reminded Nick to much the strange bunny's inflammatory accusation that his father was the heathen folk hero, the Robin of the Wood, the Robin under the Hood. The 'hooded fox' to which the song refers. It was true. But that didn't mean Nick wanted it openly announced in a public forum. He -and by extension Huntington- had enough problems as it was. He did not need to add blasphemy and heresy to his list of worries.
It didn't help that every bard, minstrel, or idiot who thought he could carry a tune would change the lyrics to suit his views, or make the song more relevant to contemporary issues.
'The land is held in a Lion's paw,
'So tight the trees do weep.
'With a clink of a coin in the Lion's purse,
'Play a tune with the hooded fox's bow.'
“Enough!” Nick snapped his ledger shut and slammed the book down on the table. He glared down the table at the bard, green eyes smoldering with frustration. “If you insist on playing at the dinner table, then play something- something less dark! Or else don't play anything at all!”
There was a beat of silence in which Allan held the strings of his lute from fading out the last notes he played. Then he thought of a song that was decidedly not dark and nodded to the young Ear. “Alright.”
'Its a world of laughter, its a world of tears.
'It's a world of hope and a world of fears.'
Nick dragged his paws down his face, claws digging into his fur. “Urgh! Anything but that!”
Clawhouser giggled happily, clapping his paws and bouncing in his seat as he began to sing along with the bard.
'There's so much that we share,
'That it's time we're aware.'
Nick banged his head on the table. He refused to believe this was happening.
'Its a small world after all!'
“That's it!” The Earl stood from the table, gathering up his notes, figures and ledger. As an after thought he also grabbed his plate of food. “Since you're all determined to frustrate me to no end, I'll continue this upstairs. If anyone needs me for anything important, you know where to find me. Otherwise, don't bother me.”
The fox lord stomped up to his room.
He slammed the ledgers down on his desk and sat down with the intension of continuing his work. But the stupid hood song kept playing in his head. The Hooded Fox Song.
'Beware, beware of the words I twist.
'I am small but arrows fly long.
'And the robins red against winter's white
'Are whispering the hooded fox song...'
If Nick were to write his own verse -like everyone else in the Country seemed to- he would mention how stupid the superstition was and that Mammals needed to keep themselves firmly rooted in the reality of their situations. No hooded fox was going to come sneaking out of the Greenwood to quietly fix all their problems for them. Red against winter's white, indeed. If he didn't get a handle on his fife come fall, the winter really would be red. Red with the blood of all the Mammals that would succumb to the cold, or lack of food stores, or any number of other things that had nothing to do with haints, or fae, or the Olde Gods, or hooded foxes.
'A hood hangs low over ones eyes,
'they fail at what's plain to see.
'Give a coin to the Lion's purse,
'To next year Huntington will see.'
That would be the lyric Nick would want Allan -or any bard and mistral who plays the song- to sing.
But Mammals didn't want reminders of how things really were. They didn't want to be told how bleak things were. They wanted ephemeral and indistinct hope, delivered to them by ambiguous lyrics in a dark and archaic song that had no place being sung in a lord's hall.
'...and sly is this littlest lord...'
Frustrated with himself, Nick pushed away from his desk, pacing the room in an attempt to clear his head.
His eyes fell on his bookshelf by the bed, holding its one, lone book. The only book the fox lord owned. He pulled the bible down and opened to the page he'd stuck the bunny's 'blessing' in. A blessing from the Lord of the Greenwood. Wrapped in oak leaves -that were now turning dry and brittle- was a single red robin's feather. The badge of a Robin under the Hood.
Nick remembered his father having one identical to it. He wore it stuck in his hood, asymmetrically off to one side like a plume in a cap. His father was Robin Hood. Nick was not.
The Earl crossed the room to glare out his window at the treeline of Sherwood. The haunted wood. The Greenwood. Somewhere in that sea of dense trees was the great oak tree Duir, older than Mammal memory, and a stag that presumed to call himself the Great Prince, as if any Mammal could just decide to give themselves titles -never mind a prey Mammal.
Still holding the robin feather, Nick's paws balled into fists. He fixed a glare at the Greenwood and whispered through the dark. “I am not my father.”
Silence followed this announcement.
He was, essentially, standing by a window talking to himself. Nick didn't know what he was expecting to happen. Perhaps he was just giving into some of the superstition of his youth. When he was younger and his father would take him on walked through the haunted wood, the little fox kit fully believed in ghosts and faerie, haints and fae, the Olde Gods and the new One. Now that he was older, more cynical and slightly jaded, he decided that if such things were real, gods of various denominations and fairies and ghosts of different shades, they would have much better things to do with their infinite time and semi-omnipotent powers than scrutinize of meddle in the affairs of mortal Mammals.
Ruffling the fur around his ears and reprimanding his own fanciful stupidity, Nick shoved the feather back in the book. He didn't know why he didn't just throw the robin feather away. Maybe it was some small superstition he still clung to. Honors from the Lord of the Greenwood were not to be taken lightly. It was said that a blessing spurned turned into a curse instead.
Not that Nick was sure he actually believed any of that.
As he sat back down at his desk to try and force himself back to work, the wind rustled through the trees outside. Nick knew better, but it almost sounded like the Greenwood was laughing at him.
“And where are you off to today?” Marian asked her son as Nick was heading out without Clawhouser.
“I'm going to confession.” The younger fox informed her.
Marian crossed her arms over her chest, raising one dark red brow at him. As if the idea of going to confession was the most absurd thing she'd ever heard. “What for?”
“To confess.” Nick supplied, keeping a completely straight face. He didn't even give his mother the benefit of his characteristic smirk.
It wasn't even a lie. Nick was going to see Tuck with a few questions about his father, the red robin's feather the bunny had given him after his ascension tucked into a trouser pocket. But he also had his ledger from the previous night tucked under one arm. The old friar might also have some insightful things to contribute on the subject to paying the Prince's tax and still managing to get his fief through the winter.
Then something entirely different occurred to the young Earl. A question he never even would have thought to ask until a bunny he didn't know showed up out of nowhere and gave him the blessing of a heathen god. “Mother, how come you never come with me to mass on Sundays?”
She only scoffed. “Oh, I have better things to do with my time than sit and listen to latin for three hours and eat stale bread and drink bad wine.”
Nick opened his mouth to ask a different question, the feather in his pocket feeling like it was burning a hole in his again. But then the young Earl realized that he didn't actually want to hear the answer. Having one parent being guilty of blasphemy and heresy was enough for him right now. At least his father wasn't around to rub anyone's nose in it. Some things were better left unsaid. Closing his mouth again, Nick just gave his mother a nod of understanding. After all, the wine was truly terrible. Then he left.
The monastery was an ancient fortress built of red stone. Because of the bricks' red coloring some residents of Huntington had taken to calling it 'Redwall'. Nick wasn't sure how he felt about that. To him it had always just been 'the monastery', but even he had to admit, 'Redwall' was for more catchy.
It was -technically- outside of Loxleytown. The road that usually passed between anywhere anyone could possibly want to go and Sherwood instead passed between Loxley and the monastery. The monastery itself was shoved right up against the treeline. So close to the Greenwood that some of the taller trees reached over the red stone wall to hang into the courtyard on one side.
Nick found Tuck in said courtyard.
Towards the back where they kept the bee hives. Tuck had a special gift for turning the honey into mead. A drink the good friar indulged in perhaps a touch more than a man of the cloth should. The balding badger wore a wide-brimmed hat with a shroud of tight netting hanging from it to keep the bees out of his face, and thick gloves to keep from being stung as he pulled panels of honeycomb from the hive. Nick, however, had no such protection and so held back from the colony swarming around their hive and the friar.
He cleared his throat to get Tuck's attention.
The badger looked up, smiling when he recognized the young Earl.
“Well, I was wondering when you'd show up and start making trouble in my Abby again.” The friar stepped away from his bees, lifting the netting veil of his had and pulling off the heavy gloves. He picked up his basket of honeycombs and crossed the space to the fox. “The rules I set down still apply to you even if you are Earl of Huntington now. I trust you still remember thim.”
Nick sighed, finding hard to suppress the nostalgic smile that pulled at his lips. “Yes, sir. Matthias and I are not to be in the same room together unsupervised and I'm not allowed to tease him about his fixation on the Martin the Warrior legend.”
“And...?” Tuck scrutinized him.
“And-” the fox lord hesitated. “And if either one of us baits the other or disturbs the peace we'll both be cleaning out the privies for a week.” He glared up at the badger. “Surely you're not gonna make the lord of your fife scrub toilets!”
“The lord of my fife? Oh, no.” The friar assured him, smiling with warm affection. “The attention starved, disrespectful, and spoiled little fox kit I helped raise...? Without hesitation!”
“I'm not a kit anymore.” Nick muttered, and it sounded far to indignant for his liking.
The friar laughed, his whole belly shaking and he put his free paw over his mid-section to steady the ripples. “Oh, Nicky, you'll always be a kit to me. Remember, I was there when you slipped wet and screaming from your mother's womb.”
“Charming.” The fox clipped dryly. “And gross.”
Tuck's warm smile did not waver. “And something tells me its that very quality which brought you here today.”
“What would give you that idea?” Nick blinked at him.
Brushing past the smaller predator with his basket of honeycombs, the badger rolled his eyes at the sky, this time his smile was in mock consideration. “Oh, I donno... its not Sunday, its the middle of the day, you didn't even bother to taunt Matthias even though I know Abbot Mordalfus had him scrubbing floors in the entrance hall. So, since you're not here for mass, or to torment poor mice novices, you must be here to see your old Uncle Tuck.”
Nick felt the feather burning a hole in his pocket again.
He followed the friar inside, trailing the badger through the halls as he carried his basket of honeycombs down to the kitchens.
“How did my father do it?” The fox asked finally.
Tuck did not look at him. He was busy portioning out honey for the dinner table from the rest that he would use to make his famous mead. “You'll have to be more specific in the question if you expect an answer.”
Nick looked around the kitchen, notting how many Mammals surrounded them. Considering the size and type of their audience, Nick chose the lesser of the two evils that was weighing on his mind. “I have been Earl of Huntington for three weeks. It hasn't even been a month yet and- don't repeat this to anyone- but the fife is completely bankrupt.”
A stoat novice with a missing tooth looked up at that statement. Then lowered his eyes quickly at a glare from Tuck.
“I've been going over the accounts.” The fox continued. “I've been over the accounts all the way back to before my father left with the king, when he was still here running things, and the math doesn't add up. Every year, the fife seems to have come up short. About two-hundred short. Two-hundred a year, every year. Huntington should be drowning in debt! But... there's nothing in the books about owing back-taxes to the crown either. As far as I can tell, Huntington's taxes have always been paid in full every year. But there's no way we could have. How did my father do it?”
Tuck looked sideways at the young lord, as if appraising him. The badger covered the rest of his basket with a linen cloth and set it on a shelf to high for the mice and shrews to get at. “Your father didn't impart this knowledge to you before he left?”
“My father did lots of things before he left.” Nick informed the older Mammal. “Every few of them were helpful.”
“Perhaps he felt you weren't ready.” The friar guessed.
“Ready or not, its something I need to know if I'm going to keep Huntington afloat.” The young Earl pressed.
The badger was still watching him with that appraising stare. As if measuring him against some gauge the fox was unfamiliar with. “Lets take a walk, Nicky.”
Tuck lead him back outside to the courtyard. But instead of following the path back to his bee hives, the friar turned them to the edge. Following the wall all the way down to the far end where the red bricks were pressed right up against the woods. Nick eyed the overhanging branches suspiciously, as if at any moment the tree might spring to life, reach down, and try to grab him.
That appraising look was back on the badger's face. “Are the trees bothering you now?”
“I've lived next to Sherwood all my life.” Nick reminded the friar. But the robin feather was burning him through his pocket again.
“And it's trees have never bothered you before.” Tuck reminded him.
Nick put a paw in his pocket, gripping the feather. Did the Xtian friar know? Was he going to reprimand him for keeping the pagan totem and tell him to throw it away. Did he know it had been burning a hole in Nick's pocket from the moment he stepped through the abby doors? It wasn't actually hot. That burning sensation must only have been because he knew it was there and it did make him nervous. “Why'd you bring me all the way out here, Uncle Tuck?”
“You need to talk about how your father ran Huntington, but you don't want anyone to know the fife is... having financial trouble.” The badger shrugged. “I figured this was the best place. No one comes this close to the back wall. The trees make them nervous also.”
The fox looked up at the branches. Old, and dark, and gnarled. They gave the impression of long, thin, and bird-like talons gripping the wall. Reaching over the red stones to try and snatch and spirit away an unsuspecting Mammal. There were reasons why the Mammals of both Huntington and Nottingham -both prey and predator alike- thought Sherwood was haunted. It might be a silly local superstition, but it was not a baseless silly local superstition.
Nick tried to push the idea from him mind. “Was my father altering the books? Writing in whatever figures suited him? If so, how come none of the king's Exchequer never caught it?” The fox ran a claw over the silver chain of his arrow and bow pendant. “Money doesn't grow on trees. It had to come from somewhere.”
“No. It doesn't grow on trees.” Tuck smiled at some secret joke the young lord was not privy to. Then the badger cleared his throat. “Nicky, have you considered the possibility that your father was getting help?”
“Help?” Echoed the fox lord, staring at the badger, not understanding. “There's no mention of my father taking loans from another fife lord. Where would he have been getting help from?”
“Our neighbors, of course.” Tuck smiled at him. “Your father and I might have disagreed on a few matters of faith, but one thing that I think held true for both of us is that Mammals whom live beside one another should always be willing to help one another. Galatians 6:2 'Carry each others burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Xist'.”
“I really need to read that book some time.” Nick shook his head.
Tuck laughed at that admission. “I'd encourage you to, but sometimes I wonder if that was one of the reason's your father was so willing to embrace something different. Its not all uplifting and inspiring quotes about love and charity you know.”
But Nick ignored that last comment. He was, instead, thinking of Huntington's closets neighbors. The closest one was on the other side of Sherwood, the forest being a natural border between them. Nottinghamshire. It wasn't ruled by a lord, but rather presided over by a Sheriff working directly under the king's Exchequers.
Nick decided to try and meet with the Sheriff of Nottingham.
Chapter 5: The Sheriff of Nottingham
It was raining when Nick and Clawhouser arrived at the Sheriff's house. Wolford of Notingham was appointed Sheriff of Nottinghamshire by the king's Exchequer and it looked like the position was doing well for him. His manor house was nicer than the young Earl's Loxley estate and Nick couldn't help a small pang of envy as Clawhouser banged on the large wooden door for him.
The main door, as well as the stairs leading up to it, were sized for a wolf. Just a little to big for Nick to step up comfortably and he just barely managed to climb the stairs with all the grace and dignity of a kit still learning to walk on two legs. Already the fox lord was rethinking this plan of his.
But then, if he didn't borrow a little from his neighbor, how was he going to make end's meet for the fife? Nick did not want his first year as Earl to end with the fife being repossessed, he and his mother turned out of the manor his family had lived in for generations, and the Mammals of Huntington left wondering what was going to happen to them now. He was young and inexperienced, he was not irresponsible and uncaring.
That was what motivated Nick to make the long trek round the haunted forest to Huntington's closest neighbor.
The door was opened by a ram with a full fleece. He saw Clawhouser first -as they were on a closer eye level- and only noticed Nick after he sneezed from the cold. The ram paused at the sight of the fox in a traveler's cloak, the hood drawn up over his head, obscuring his face. Even if the practical reason for it was clear and obvious, the sight of a hooded fox was still something that made Mammals uneasy. As the lyric of the Hooded Fox's Song said, 'Beware, beware...'
Clawhouser cleared his throat. “You may tell your master that Nickolas Wilde, Earl of Huntington and Lord of Loxley is here to see him.”
The ram cast one more suspicious glance at the little fox lord, but he still nodded his understanding. “Come in and dry off. I'll inform the Sheriff you're here.”
He held the door open for the pair whom wasted no time in coming in out of the rain. Nick lowered his hood, taking the wet cloak off and hanging it on a peg by the door. It seemed that simple action alone put the ram more at ease with them. The fox was just a normal predator lord. Predator lords were their own breed of intimidating, but the ram had been serving the Sheriff for some time now and was accustomed to the type of intimidation that came from predators. But the Hooded Fox, the phantom outlaw that consorted with fae and danced with the Olde Gods, that was a creature none wanted to tangle with.
Bowing respectfully, the ram backed out of the entrance hall to inform his master that he had guests.
Nick shook himself in an attempt to dry off faster and work some heat back into his body. He knew rain was a good thing -because rain made hops, and hops made beer- but that didn't mean he had to like traveling in it.
Clawhouser shared a similar feeling. The cheetah likewise took off his own cloak and shook as Nick had. Unlike the fox, however, he smiled at his surroundings. Taking in the stone walls hung with tapestries to ward off the Country chill. The images they depicted were all starkly different from those that hung in Loxley Manor. Not having been changed since his father ruled the house, most of the Loxley tapestries paid homage to prominent figures of the Seelie and Unseelie Courts. The Sheriff of Nottingham, however, appeared to prefer more contemporary heroes and villains.
“Oh! What's this one?” Clawhouser asked, examining a particularly vivid depiction of a red lion being pierced through the lung with an arrow.
Coming up beside the cheetah, Nick examined the tapestry for a moment. “I think its supposed to be the death of Rufus the Red. He was a wicked king that ruled this Country -oh... about a hundred years ago by now, I think, give or take. He was supposedly shot by a member of his own party -Walter Tirel.” The Earl paused to examine the embroidery more closely. “That's him right there.”
He pointed to a corner of the tapestry. So near the edge, he was almost out of the frame, crouched in the branches of a tree, was a corsac fox, his cream coat embroidered with a thread so vibrant the color almost looked gold. Bow forward, paw empty as if he'd just let loose an arrow -and he was wearing a green hood with a red feather stuck in it on one side. Nick realized, uncomfortably late, that the artist meant to imply that Tirel had been a Robin of the Wood, a Robin under the Hood, and he looked away. The young Earl had a feather of his own almost identical to it back home. Shoved between the pages of an Xtian book he kept telling himself he would read one day.
Nick fidgeted. Then, hoping to distract his companion from the fact that the fox was hooded, he added, “Ya know, they wrote a song about it.”
“Oh, really?” Clawhouser smiled. There were two things in this world the cheetah loved more than anything else. Sweet foods -cakes, pastries, and pies- and music. He did not play an instrument, nor did he have any particular gift for song, but the larger predator loved the musical craft all the same. “Sing it for me.”
The fox paused. Nick had no particular gift for music or song either. His voice was nothing special and Allan often told him he could never carry a tune -not even if his life might depend on it. But Clawhouser looked at him pleadingly, and the Earl didn't like disappointing the jolly fat predator. The cheetah's almost constant positivity and cheer was something Nick had come to rely on since he ascended his father's seat. He cleared his throat.
'And who are you, the proud lord said,
'That I must bow so low.
'Only a pred of a different coat, that's all the truth I know.
'A coat of gold, or a coat of red, a predator still has claws.
'And mine are long, and sharp, my lord.
'As long and sharp as yours.'
'The proud lord's curse, called out and Walt Tirel fired low
'The arrow struck Rufus with a sickening blow
'And he fell from his horse to the ground below
'And the wood took him for it's own.'
“Oh, is that what that song's about?” Said a voice behind them. Both fox and cheetah wheeled around to see a gray timber wolf coming down the stairs. “Good eye, by the way. The hanging came with the house. It took me months before I saw that little hooded fox in the corner.”
Nick tried not to flinch when the wolf said 'hooded fox', he was determined not to let anyone see that the Hooded Fox legends got to him. Instead, he put on a smug smile. “I'm good at spotting things in the dark.”
“A useful talent, I'm sure.” Nodded the wolf. The two predators shook wrist to wrist. Nick having to reach up -the wolf was so much taller than him. Wolford having to stoop slightly -the fox was so much shorter than him. “I'm Wolford, Sheriff of Nottingham. To what do I own the honor of a visit from the new Earl of Huntington?”
Nick considered being coy. Claiming that he was just making a social call. Getting to know his neighbors. But the fox thought better of it. If he really wanted to borrow money from the Sheriff, then he should try and be as honest and upfront as he could -without making it seem like Huntington was easy picking for an ambitious social climber to make a grab for. Wolford of Nottingham was appointed to his position of Sheriff, he did not come by it through right of blood as Nick had come by his position and title.
“Is there somewhere we can talk?” Asked the young Earl.
“Straight to the intrigue, I see. You certainly don't waste time.” The wolf nodded, as if some assumption about the new lord had just been confirmed. “Come to my study. Your servant can wait for you down here.”
The Sheriff lead Nick up the same flight of stairs the wolf had just descended.
Like the ones outside, these stairs were also sized for a wolf and Nick had to hop from step to step in order to keep up with the larger predator. Not only was it awkward and embarrassing, but the young Earl was also just a little short of breath by the time they reached the third floor landing.
Perhaps out of some small measure of sympathy for the smaller canid, the Sheriff paused when they reached the landing under the pretext of relighting a wall scone that had gone out. He took his time removing the candle from its neighbor and holding the burning wick to the lifeless one -even after it caught. The wolf watched the fox out the corner of his eyes and when the young Earl seemed to have recovered. No words were exchanged, but Nick was grateful for the break.
“This way.” Wolford lead him down a corridor and held the door open for him.
Nick stepped into a wide office with desk backed by a window, the shutter closed against the rain. The cold and empty hearth and lack of fresh candles told the fox that the Sheriff had not been at work when he arrived and Nick had to wonder what other activity it was that his sudden appearance at the wolf's doorstep had pulled him from. He hoped it wasn't something the Sheriff felt was important. That wasn't a good way to start a business transaction -especially not a business transaction that was basically just him asking for money.
“I hope I'm not keeping you from anything.” The Earl said, hoping it sounded polite and not condescending.
He sat down in front of the desk while the wolf lit a lamp for them. Intrigue was all well and good, but contrary to popular fiction, not a deals had to be made in the dark.
Wolford took his seat behind the desk and steepled his paws. “Its raining. That means my wife won't let my girls out to play. Do you have pups, Your Grace? Or, I supposed, you'd call them 'kits', right?”
“I understood what you meant.” Nick informed him. “And, no, I'm unmarried.”
“I have three.” The wolf informed him. “Little terrors, all of them. Do you know what pups do when you tell them they can't play outside?”
Nick had a feeling he was going to find out regardless of whether he answered or not.
“They play inside. That's what.” The Sheriff growled, as if this were a great and terrible offense to all that was good in the world. “Although, 'play' is to gentle a word. What my girls do is wreak havoc and rain destruction down on the household, and since our au pair is an omega and at least one of the girls is an alpha, it takes all of us to stem the rising tide.”
There was a beat in which Nick had no idea what he was supposed to say to that.
“That's very... vivid, Sir.” The Earl decided that was diplomatic enough. ...And his mother wanted him to get married and make a litter of terrors of his own to tear up Loxley manor. No thank you.
“Which is why you better make this interruption worth my wile, Your Grace.” -Somehow the wolf managed to make the form of address sound less like a title of respect and more like 'you impertinent bastard'. “I have a household to run and accounts to manage.”
Nick hastily composed a pitch. He forced a charming smile on his face. “Accounts are exactly what I came here to talk about, Sir.”
The gray wolf only raised a patient brow, waiting for the fox to explain.
“As you know, Huntington is Nottingham's closest neighbor.” He began. “You also know that I just recently succeeded as Earl there. Well, the fife my father left behind isn't exactly the perfect territory I imagined and after taking stock of the land and what can be reaped from it, I find that its a little wanting -if I plan to both pay the king's tax and keep my people fed over the winter, that is.” A pause and a friendly smile, not cunning or pleading, just friendly. “So I thought I'd come over and ask my neighbor for help. Like asking to borrow a cup of flour or an egg. Only instead of baking ingredients-”
“You want money.” The Sheriff finished for him.
The Earl cringed inwardly as the suspicious, almost accusatory tone the wolf used. He decided to play the inexperienced and naive youth. “I've never had to ask for money before. How am I doing?”
The Sheriff ignored the question, staying of the point of business. “What do you have to offer as collateral?”
“Collateral?” Nick asked.
“In case you can't pay back the loan.” Wolford explained. “You didn't come here expecting to get money without offering anything in return, did you? That's not how this works, Your Grace.” This time, when he said 'Your Grace' is sounded like 'you dumb kit'.
“You can have my half of Sherwood.” The Earl offered without hesitation.
The wolf shook his head. “Useless land. Everyone thinks its haunted, no one would be willing to cut down or develop it. You'll have to do better than that.”
It was not said out loud, but as far as the natives of both Huntington and Nottingham were concerned, Sherwood Forest was a kingdom unto itself. That was why it served as such an effective boarder between between the two fifes. No one was willing cross it, cut it, develop it, or work it. The Wood was haunted and the land cursed.
Nick leaned back in his seat, thinking. “The amount I need is just a little over two percent of the overall tax that's owed to the crown. What would you consider to be fair collateral?”
Wolford likewise leaned back in his seat. “What's your main industry?”
“Pardon?” The fox blinked.
“Your industry.” The wolf repeated. “What kind of goods do you produce in Huntington? Nottingham has sheep -lots and lots of sheep. We produce wool, and all the things that come from it. Yarn, fabric, lace. We also have excellent mutton. What does Huntington make?”
Nick thought. They had the Greenwood on one side, the river on the other, Loxleytown in the northwest, small villages and hamlets dotted here and there, and filling the space between were seas of sprawling farmland. “We grow wheat.” The Earl said at last. “And barley. And we produce what can be made from wheat and barley. Bread, beer, and ale.”
“There ya go.” Nodded the Sheriff. “Now was that so hard. For two percent of what is owed to the crown, I think I'll take a year's supply of the best ale you can brew as my collateral.”
Well, that wasn't nearly as bad as Nick was imagining. He thought the wolf was going to demand the land not the product. But, then again, for just two percent the Earl would have flat out refused if the Sheriff really had asked for a portion of Huntington property. Nick wasn't about to cut a chunk out of the fife. The fox nodded. “Alright. If I can't pay you back, then Nottingham will drink for free.”
“It won't be free, I'll have already paid for it.” Wolford snorted. “Don't misrepresent the agreement.”
“We have an agreement then?” Nick asked.
The Sheriff reached a paw across the desk for the Earl to shake. “Yes, Your Grace, we have an agreement.”
The fox had to stand up in his chair to shake the wolf's arm -wrist to wrist again- and afterwards Nick felt like a weight was lifted from his shoulders. He didn't realize just how tense he was over Huntington's finances. Asking his neighbor for help was really the best move he could have made. The fox was really glad he took Friar Tuck's advice. The Sheriff of Nottingham wasn't so bad for a wolf.
“Well, that went better than you were expecting, didn't it?” Clawhouser smiled once they were back out in the rain. He cast his eyes up at the dreary gray sky that seemed determined to drown them. “But I don't think we'll get to the travelers' rest before it gets dark.”
Nick also cast an assessing glance skyward, holding the hood of his traveler's cloak so that it didn't fall back as he lifted his head. The sun was dipping low in the sly. They couldn't see it, but there was a clear orange and pink glow to the clouds near the horizon. The fox didn't mind traveling in the dark, it was the wet and the cold that he took issue with. But there was nothing to be done about it. Unless they wanted to turn back to the Sheriff and ask if the wolf would be so kind enough as to put up the beggar-lord he'd just landed money to for the night. Somehow, Nick didn't imagine that going to well.
“Then we best get a move on.” The fox pulled his cloak tighter around his small body and struck out on the road -which had turned muddy during their time in the Sheriff's house.
The cheetah found himself having to jog slightly to keep pace with the smaller predator. “Wait up, will you. Gosh, you've got a long stride for someone so small. Anyone ever called you Nickolas Longstride?”
“Clawhouser, we've got a lot of ground to cover before true-dark.” Nick reminded him. “I wanna get a move on. The sooner we get to the travelers' rest, the sooner we can get out of the rain.”
For a moment, the larger predator's happy smile and cheerful disposition wavered. Then an idea occurred to him and he brightened once more. As the road left Nottingham and curved around Sherwood, the forest that was the natural border between the two fifes. “Hey, what if we took a short cut through the woods?”
Nick froze in his tracks. Go into the God forsaken Wood?
A soft wind blew the rain around them and moaned through the trees, making sound like the voices of countless fell dark creatures becoming travelers to their doom. It was haints and fae that were supposed to haunt Sherwood forest, not wights and wraiths, but that was the image that rose to the fox's mind as the wind groaned through the trees after the cheetah's suggestion.
“Are you insane?” Asked the Earl.
A shrug was Clawhouser's response. “You said the ghosts and the faerie wouldn't bother us. I just figured, if it would get us home quicker...”
Nick shook his head, not believing what he was hearing. “I said the haints and the fae don't wanna have anything to do with us. That's not the same as leaving us alone. And I don't care even if they would leave us alone. I'm not going into that Wood!”
The fox resumed walking, his long stride moving even quicker now.
“Why not? Its a short cut.” The cheetah panted next to him. Clawhouser could be very fast, but only in short bursts. Stamina was not something he had in abundance. “Is it... is it because of the things they say about your father?”
For a second time, the Earl stopped dead in his tracks, his feet sinking into the mud up to the ankle. The cheetah had never met Robert Wilde. The old tod left before Clawhouser came to Huntington. All he would know about the former Earl would be whatever he was told -either by members of the household like Allan-a-Dale and Uncle John, or by other Mammals who live in Huntington. Nick slowly, almost cautiously turned to face his companion, glaring up at him with an appraising stare. “What do they say about my father?”
Clawhouser realized just a little late that he'd touched on a sore subject with the fox. The usually animated and talkative cheetah hesitated. “Well, its just, you never say much about him. So, when that bunny showed up after your ascension and called him Robin Wood, I started asking around.”
“Its Robin Hood.” Nick corrected before thinking. Then switched his focus back to his original question. “And what do they say about him?”
Again, the cheetah hesitated. The rain pattered against their hoods, sliding off their cloaks in wide streams. The sun was so low now that it's light diffused through the clouds cast odd shadows across the road. Clawhouser shifted uncomfortably under the fox's intense emerald stare. “There's... not everyone holds the same opinion, mind, but there's a general tale that the old Earl was not a normal fox.”
That was not the answer Nick had been expecting. Sure he expected the cheetah to be gentle and diplomatic about whatever he said. But 'not a normal fox' was still so much tamer than anything Nick was imagining. He laughed. Shaking his head, water cascading off his hood. The young Earl laughed a low dark rumble -and somewhere in the back of his head he thought the woods paused to listen to the hooded fox's laugh.
“'Not a normal fox', is that all? And here I thought it was something serious. My father was many things -many things- not one of them was normal.”
“So, its true then?” Clawhouser asked. “Your father really was an askefrue?”
Nick paused, looking back up at the unfamiliar wood. “A what now?”
“Sorry, that's what we call them back in Þēodiscland.” The cheetah's ears flushed under his hood in embarrassment. “From all the descriptions everyone kept giving, that's the only word I could think of that fit. He protected the woods that everyone swears up and down are haunted, never ate another Mammal, spent a lot of free time in the forest, always dressed in green, some even said he had magical powers-”
“My father never had magical powers.” Nick cut in.
“He just sounded like an askefrue. I guess the closest word in your language would be a 'tree faerie'.” Clawhouser shrugged. “I assumed that was why you were so sure that the ghosts and faerie of the woods wouldn't hurt us. Because your father was one of them.” A pause. “Hey, wouldn't that also make you half-faerie?”
Still laughing at the sheer absurdity of his companion's conclusion, Nick resumed walking.
“I'm not a fae, Ben. Neither was my father either.” Even though they were alone on the wet road, the fox still looked around them before continuing. “Since you were there when the bunny gave me the feather, I guess I should give you some kind of explanation.” He took a breath. “My father... my father kept the Olde Ways. As a result of this, he made certain friends in the haunted woods, and through those friendships gained a title and reputation some might call 'morally ambiguous'. I'm sure you've heard Allan singing the Hooded Fox's Song more than enough times by now.”
The cheetah fell into step next to him, now that the Earl was walking at a sane pace. “Its not my favorite song in the world, but there's a certain dark charm to it.”
Nick rolled his eyes. Of course Clawhouser would have something positive to say about the song -even if he didn't actually like it all that much. The cheetah had a love of music that was wasted on one not musically gifted. “Its not about my father -I'm pretty sure. But my father is -was- the Hooded Fox. Its an old folktale, once in a generation, the Green Mammal, Robin Goodfellow, will choose a mortal Mammal -almost always a fox- to be his champion. His duties as champion can include anything from lighting bonfires on a specific night, all the way up to assassinating wicked kings, but its always something that will benefit the Country. For, while Goodfellow is a pagan god, he is still a god of this land and he cares for the land.”
He paused to sneeze and realized just how absurd he sounded. Nick cast a sideways look up at his companion, but Clawhouser didn't seem to find it absurd at all. On the contrary, he looked enraptured.
“And so what's with the feather?” Asked the cheetah. “Is that what was wrapped up in those leaves?”
The fox sighed. He'd forgotten that he didn't open the parcel until he was alone in his room. If he hadn't said anything, Clawhouser never would have known it was a feather he got. “Yes, it was a feather. As Goodfellow's champion, the Hooded Fox is allowed to carry the name of the Goodfellow. Robin. The Robin of the Wood. The Robin under the Hood. Robin Hood. A red robin's feather is the badge that shows everyone else that the Hooded Fox is using the name with the Trickster god's permission.”
“So, wait...” The cheetah blinked down at him. “Nick, that means that you're Robin Hood!”
“No is doesn't.” The fox snapped, with perhaps a bit more venom than was necessary. He hugged his cloak tighter around himself and picked up his speed again. The sun was completely set now. It was full dark and the cold was seeping up from his bare feet into the rest of his body. He wanted to get to the travelers' rest and get out of the rain. But more than that, he wanted to end this conversation about Olde Gods and Hooded Foxes.
“But you have the feather.” Clawhouser was jogging to keep up with him again. “That old bunny gave you a red robin feather. He said you were blessed by the Lord of the Greenwood. Doesn't that make you Robin Hood?”
“No it doesn't!” Nick repeated. He stopped for a third time, spinning around to glare up at the larger predator. “And that is the last time you will ever call me that. Do you understand? My father didn't leave on Crusade because he wanted to. He was taken -dragged away from our home because he was the Robin under the Hood, the Hooded Fox, the pagan hero! The king didn't trust him because he was the Hood and as a test of loyalty he demanded my father accompany him to a war on the other side of the world! My father was taken from me because of that stupid feather. So, no. I'll not be Robin Hood, and I won't be stepping foot in that God forsaken Wood!”
There was a beat of silence.
Nick resumed walking again. 'Now lets go. I wanna get out of the rain and warm up.”
Chapter 6: Lion of the Levant
The cell didn't have a pot or bucket to speak of, so Robert had to go in the corner.
Not that he had to go much. Since they barely fed him. Just barely enough to keep him alive. Stale -sometimes moldy- breads. But what the fox really wanted was more water. That, too, they only gave him what they needed to keep him alive.
After being traded to the Mammals of Tell el-Fukhar, Robert was sure they were going to kill him. Right then and there, while he was still tied up and gagged, unable to speak and plead his case -never mind try and defend himself. But then some opportunistic ram whom had assumed power in the vacuum left behind in the wake of the Lionheart's Company reminded the city that the fox was a predator lord and could be ransomed instead.
Yeah... that wasn't gonna happen. Robert already knew that Huntington didn't have the money or the resources to put together an offering that would appease his captors. Maybe back in his father's day. When the fife did more than just farm, and Reynard Wilde wasn't at all shy about slaughtering the prey that lived in his domain, butchering the meat, and counting it as income of the fife. But then, as Robert well knew, his father was an irredeemable villain and he put a stop to that the moment he succeeded Reynard's seat.
As it was now -or rather, as it was when he left- Huntington could only just barely manage to get buy every year (and that was already with a little help from his friends in the Greenwood and a little semi-divine intervention from the Trickster).
Robert wondered how the fife was getting on without him. Had Nick ascended the seat yet? Or was it still being held in trust? No, Nick had to have taken over by now. He would have to be about in his mid-twenties by now. Well beyond a suitable age to take over his father's fife.
But whether Nick was the one running things or not, it didn't change the fact that no ransom would come. It might take them a while, but -eventually- Robert's captors would realize that there was no value in keeping him alive. Lifting the hood of his tunic over his head, the fox slumped against the wall of the cleaner side of his cell and tried to come to terms with that realization.
Unless his captors -or more accurately, his captors' superiors- decided he had other values beyond the material.
Robert might come from a comparatively poor fife and not be worth keeping for ransom, but he was a commander within the Lionheart's company. He worked closely with the lion king, and in a war, information was just as valuable as gold -perhaps sometimes more so.
He didn't know that was what was happening, however. When the bull and rhino that had been his guards for the past... however long he'd been locked up, tried to drag him out of his cell, the fox thought it was for his -long overdue- public and humiliating execution. Robert fought back.
They'd been denying him food, and so he didn't have much strength. But his claws and teeth were still just as sharp. When the rhino grabbed him by his dingy hood that had once been green, the fox twisted around to bite the wrist holding him. His teeth were sharp, his canines long. But rhinos were also thick skinned and durable by nature. The bite that would have sunk deep and bled freely on another prey seemed to only pinch and annoy the guard. He smacked Robert hard on the snout to get him to let go.
The bull pulled the fox off his comrade, twisting his arms behind his back then Robert tried to scratch him.
“Damn, pred.” The bull muttered in Arabic, probably not aware that Robert knew the language. “Lets just kill him now and say it was an accident.”
“Khatun wants him.” The rhino reminded his companion. “Unless you want to explain why our orders couldn't be carried out.”
Robert paused, confused. It was true he'd only been studying the language for a few years and he was self taught so some things were going to be wrong. But the fox was pretty sure that 'khatun' was a title or honorific given to a noblewoman, a female. What would a mohammedian Lady want with him?
The bull holding him hoisted the small fox lord over his shoulder and carried Robert out of his cell.
He expected them to bind his paws and drag him outside and throw him at the feet of whoever this Khatun was that was so interested in him and powerful enough to have him pulled from his cell in leu of a public execution. Not that, that meant he wasn't still gonna get that execution after said Khatun was done with him.
But he was not dragged outside and thrown in the dirt. Instead, they Mammal-handled him into a tub of room temperature water -still fully clothed. Dunking him under so that he was completely submerged to the ears. Robert's first thought was that they were trying to drown him. But then the bull was pulling him back up by the scruff of his neck. Restraining his struggled while the rhino pulled him out of his sopping wet -but moderately less soiled- tunic and trousers.
Robert struggled harder, reaching for his tunic. The sopping wet clothes were dropped on the floor next to the tub and kicked aside like garbage -the red feather of his hood just barely poking out of the heap. Wriggling desperatly, the twisted and pushed until his slippery body finally popped out of the arms of the Mammal holding him. He threw himself on the pile of wet clothes, not to try and put them back on, he was not shy about his nakedness. He wanted the feather. Robert didn't know what they were doing with him or where he was going to be taken from here, but he wasn't going to go anywhere without the badge of his patron.
He was once again grabbed by the scruff of his neck and lifted off the dirty floor. Then he was back to being dunked up to his ears, the water soaking all the way into his fur. Goodfellow's red feather clutched firmly in his paw.
This time when he was yanked out of the water, they scrubbed him down with aleppo soap. Their blunt hooves scrapping through his fur down to the skin. Robert was sure that even without claws they were leaving bright red scratches on him, they were so rough.
One final dunk to rinse the soap off and Robert was pulled from the tub.
They rubbed him down with a rough cloth to soak up the worst of the water dripping from his thick fur. Then one of them was holding him again while the other forced him into clean clothes -and by 'clean cloths' they forced him into a shapeless brown shift, made of course woven linen. It hung from his shoulders just a little past his knees, making the fox look as if he were wearing a sack with holes cut in it for his head and arms. There wasn't even a space for his tail. If he were to lift it even slightly, he would end up flashing his ass at all of Tell el-Fukhar.
Once again the bull was throwing Robert over his shoulder and the fox had to choose between holding onto larger Mammal for balance or holding the hem of his shift to keep from revealing himself to anyone they might pass. Robert chose balance. He hoped the bull enjoyed how his still wet tail slapped against his chest with every step. One of them, at least, should enjoy this experience.
A door was opened and Robert's sensitive eyes were momentarily blinded by a flash of sunlight and he thought that now was when he was going to be dragged outside and thrown in the dirt at his captor's feet. But they detoured away from either the courtyard or any door that lead outside into the city public. Instead, the fox was carried up several flights of stairs, down a corridor, up more stairs. Finally, they stopped and Robert was thrown down. On to the floor. Getting a face full of intricately woven Persian carpet. Pushing himself back up to his knees, the fox got his first look at the Khatun that had him pulled from his cell and bathed.
The first thing his eyes landed on were the sharp but well cared for claws protruding from the paws of golden-brown feet. Eyes continuing their upward journey he saw ankles covered in white cotton trousers, under a jewel blue knee length dress, a wide leather belt decorated with metal discs, a sword hanging from it. Finally, Robert's eyes finished their climb and settled on the face of a lioness.
The moment his head was raised enough to look up at his captor's eyes, however, he was smacked -hard- in the back of the head by the bull guard. The fox's face slammed back into the carpet.
“Lower your eyes, Worm!” He growled. “Show the proper respect. You are in the presence of Ismat ad-Din Khatun!”
Robert did not keep his eyes low for long. He pushed himself back up and glared, not at the guard who had smacked him, but at the lioness -Ismat ad-Din Khatun. “Is that name supposed to mean something to me?”
His question was rewarded with another hard blow from the larger Mammal behind him. As the fox found himself once again face flat in the carpet he had to quest the wisdom of taunting his captors. But then, Robert always had been a glutton for punishment. “Oh, come on! Is that the best you can do? My father hit harder than that and he was a tiny little fox like me.”
The bull exhaled through his nose, sending a jet of hot air to ruffle Robert's still damp fur. He took one menacing step towards the tiny fox and he wondered if the bull was going to kick him instead.
But the lioness held up a paw.
The bull froze. Bowing low, he returned to his guard position.
“I must say, I'm surprised.” She said in heavily accented English. “I expected the Wolf of el-Fukhar to be, well, a wolf!”
“You speak English.” The fox blinked in surprise. Then added, “I'm not the wolf who sacked Tell el-Fukhar. That distinction belongs to the Norman, Guy of Gisborne -whom is a wolf. All I did was open a door.”
Ismat nodded, smiling ironically. “And there's that classic refusal to admit guilt I hear is so common among you Xtians.”
“I'm not Xtian.” The fox growled, sounding bitter, indignant, and resentful -vehement- even to his own ears. He squeezed the old and ruffled feather in his paw more tightly.
The lioness raised an eyebrow. “Really? But you march with an Xtian army. You are a commander within an Xtian Company. And yet you claim that you are not Xtian?” A pause. “Or is my information mistaken? Are you not Robert Wilde, Earl of Hunting and Lord of Lackey?”
“Well, two of those three things are wrong.” Snorted the fox. “I am Robert Wilde, but I've never heard of a place called 'Hunting' and I'm nobody's lackey, hardly the lord of them.”
“What?” Ismat blinked at him.
“But English isn't your first language.” Robert admitted in his own stilted Arabic. “So, I'll give you the benefit of the doubt. I am Earl of Huntington and Lord of Loxley.”
Ismat placed an irritated paw on her hip. “Do you think you're funny, fox?”
“Oh, I know I'm hilarious.” He assured grinned up at her with his trickster's grin. Drawing strength from the feather in his paw. Green eyes shining. It had less of an affect without his hood. Never mind that he was trying it on one who had probably never even heard of the Greenwood, let alone the Trickster or his Hooded Fox.
The lioness did not seem impressed. She glared down at him. Not quite with irritation. It was something more akin to scrutiny, an assessing stare that started at his eyes, before moving to his toothy grin, over his narrow shoulders, straight back, red knees poking out from under the hem of his brown shift, then back up to his emerald eyes. “Pick him up.”
Hooves reached under Robert's arms, lifting the fox -not to his feet- but up off the floor. He was held at eye-level with the lioness Ismat ad-Din Khatun.
She closed the space between them. Coming so close that she was almost nose-to-nose with the fox when she said, “You were a commander in your Lionheart's Company. The same Company that is marching on my husband in Jerusalem. You will come with me, and when we get to the Holy City, you will tell my husband everything he needs to know about your king.”
That trickster's grin -that had completely failed at unnerving the lioness- shifted into a smug smirk instead. “And my motivation for doing this is...?”
“You mean besides continuing your insignificant little life?” Ismat relaxed back to a reasonable distance. “I was told when I got here that you weren't captured in battle, you were sold. By your own Company. If sparing your life isn't adequate compensation, how about some satisfying and cathartic revenge?” A pause, then a well practiced sigh. “Of course, I also have other -less civil- ways of making Mammals talk, and you don't have to be willing at all for them. But its your decision, after all.”
Robert considered. Threats of torture aside, he didn't like the Lionheart. He blackmailed the fox lord into leaving his family, his fife, and his forest to come on this hot, insane, and thirst-ridden Crusade. But he didn't resent the king enough to betray him to these desert dwelling Mecca bowers. Gisborne, on the other hand... The Wolf of Gisborne was with the Lionheart, on their way to Jerusalem. If this lioness was also on her way to Jerusalem, then maybe it wouldn't hurt to play along just a little bit. At least until the Trickster provided him with the opportunity to escape. The Robin could take his revenge on Gisborne and Robert could rejoin the Lionheart's Company. Skippy would sure be happy to see him.
“Lady, you are a surprisingly good broker.” The fox nodded. “Alright. I'll take your deal. Take me to your Holy City. I'll meet your husband. Maybe I'll even tell him something he'd like to hear.” Then, as an afterthought, he added, “Who is your husband, by the way?”
He might as well learn what House within the city he was headed to.
Ismat ad-Din Khatun smirked. A very smug, fox-like smirk that Robert quickly decided did not look right on a feline face. “My husband,” she said slowly, “is An-Nasir Salah ad-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub.”
The fox's eyes went wide with recognition. He didn't recognize her name but that name he certainly did. “Saladin? Saladin is your husband?”
“That's right, Robert Wilde.” Ismat nodded. “You're going to meet the Lion of the Levant.”
After escaping the massacre of Robin's company, Bucky and Pronk -thirsty and exhausted- finally managed to reach the coast. They bartered a few trinkets they had on them for water. Pronk's belt buckle and a ring Bucky had worn through a hole in one ear.
When they had drunk their fill and it was clear that they were going to live to spite all odds, they then turned thoughts to the even more daunting question of 'what next?'
Robin was gone. 'Taken' Skippy had said. The company from Huntington was similarly gone -killed. Killed by their own comrades within the Lionheart's Company. Skippy hadn't managed to escape with them, so it was safe to assume he was killed as well. They were leaderless and alone. They couldn't go back to the Lionheart's Company. But they weren't sure where else to go.
“Do you think we can make it home?” Pronk suggested.
“How the fuck would we do that?” Bucky shot back. He was about to tell his companion to shut up and not make stupid, pipe-dream suggestions. But Pronk only lifted his chin, indicating for Bucky to turn around. The kudu turned his head to see the harbor full of ships. At least one of them would have to be heading west, right? Maybe not all the way west to their island Country. But at least far enough west to get them closer to home than they currently were. “Oh.”
They finished the last of the water they bought, and made their way down to the harbor.
They found a ship bound for Toulouse. Toulouse was just south of Normandy. Landing on the southern coast, they could travel north to Normandy and find a ferry across the channel to their own Country and home. Both Bucky and Pronk were confrontational by nature, but Pronk was the less hostile of the two, and so he negotiated for them. Trading work for passage. Soon, they both had a means home -part way home.
It was only after the deal was struck, both kudu and oryx shaking hoof and paw with the captain that Bucky thought to ask what their cargo was that was taking them so far west away from the war.
At that question, the captain only snorted with contempt. “Some fat predator lord is crawling home to beg for more money.”
Pronk and Bucky exchanged a look. They weren't aware of any predator lords that had come from Toulouse. The only one they knew of from anywhere even close to Toulouse was the Norman wolf, Guy of Gisborne. Something dropped out of the bottom of their stomachs. It was the Gisborne pack that had done most of the slaughtering of their company. What were they going to do with Gisborne or one of his betas recognized them?
“Don't worry.” Pronk placed a supportive hoof on his companion's shoulder. “It's probably not Gisborne.”
It was Guy of Gisborne.
Bucky saw him first, as the wolf was just coming up the gangplank, thick ebony fur being tossed about in the sea breeze. The kudu didn't recognize him at first. Then his eyes caught the livery of the two wolves accompanying him and there was no doubt in his mind that the predator lord they were ferrying across the Mediterranean was Guy of Gisborne. Bucky kept his head low as the wolf past him, focusing all his attention on his task of stacking and securing crates (of good or provisions, he didn't actually know) before the ship pulled out of the harbor. He hoped Gisborne didn't happen to look his way and recognize him as a member of the Robin's company which his troops massacred.
Luckily for him -for both of them- the wolf never paid enough attention to Loxley's company of prey to be able to tell one from the other. Like many predator lords, all prey looked the same to him. Gisborne passed the kudu by without giving him a second thought, and Bucky found himself heaving a sigh of relief. Now, if that same luck could just hole up until they made landfall at Toulouse, that would be great.
Traveling with the lioness Ismat ad-Din Khatun was an interesting contrast from traveling with the Company of the Lionheart.
That was discounting the obvious difference that the party stopped five times a day to kneel in the sand and pray.
For one, Ismat's Company was mixed both predators and prey, their uniforms being the single uniting feature about them. The Lionheart always turned his nose up at Robert's troops whom were almost exclusively prey. The lion king's own soldiers were all predator. Tigers, wolves, lynx, puma, panther, and bear. While the Lionheart preferred to ride on the back of a prey beast large enough to carry him -a buffalo or rhino- Ismat ad-Din Khatun did not burden her troops in that way. She walked beside them, one of the Company, not above it.
The only Mammal who rode was Robert.
They had bound his paws and feet so that he couldn't walk on his own -or run away in an ill conceived escape attempt that would be more likely to get him killed in the desert- and three different members of the Company took turns carrying him. At the moment, he was atop the back of an Arabian stallion named Al-hetal. Before that he was the burden of a disgruntled rhino by the name of Mamed. None of them seemed to like the foreign invading lord and made no secret that they resented having to carry the little fox that had become known as the Wolf of el-Fukhar.
As Robert understood it Ismat and her Company were from Damascus, farther north above Tell el-Fukhar. They were already on their way south to Jerusalem when the Lionheart and his Company was laying siege (if you could call it 'siege') to the city and arrive just a little to late to save the city from the invading lion's army. But she did help refortify the walls before her Company was once again marching out -now with Robert in tow. Dragging the fox off to meet An-Nasir Salah ad-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub. Saladin. The Lion of the Levant.
Stroking Goodfellow's red feather between his bound paws for comfort and strength, Robert wondered what kind of Mammal was Saladin. He had only ever heard stories about the infidel general known as the Lion of the Levant. Tall tales really. Told third and fourth hand by Bedouin nomads, or traders on the silk road. As Robert thought about it, he came to realize that he actually knew next to nothing about An-Nasir Salah ad-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub.
The party stopped for the evening at an oasis -not a traveler's way-station- and it occurred to Robert then that Ismat and her company were not taking the same rout to the Holy City as the Lionheart's Company had taken. Of course, being native to the area, the lioness and her troops would know the desert and its roads better than an invading army from the west. The fox didn't know why he was surprised.
Al-hetal straightened and stood, Robert -with paws and feet still tied- slid from his back and landed in a head on the sand with a disgruntled “Oof!”
The stallion did not seem the least bit bothered by his prisoner's apparent discomfort. He cracked his back and stretched, it couldn't have been comfortable walking on all fours for the past four hours. It was probably about as comfortable as being tied up and forced to sit in the hot sun all day without even the meager shade of a hood to protect ones eyes from the harsh glare.
“Hey, how about some water?” The fox asked.
The stallion snorted at him and for a moment Robert thought his request was going to be ignored. “Just thought I should remind you, your Khatun wants me to arrive in Jerusalem alive. You'll need to give me water at some point.”
Reaching down with one hoof, Al-hetal picked the fox up by the back of his brown shift and carried him over to the spring -and threw him in.
“Much obliged.” Robert smiled up at the horse. He stuck his robin feather in the wide weave of his shift and leaned down in the shallow water. His bound paws sink into the mud slightly but the fox was able to drink freely.
That is, until another Mammal came up to them. A large cape buffalo grabbed Robert by the scruff of the neck and hoisted him out of the spring.
“What do you think you're doing?” Snarled the cape buffalo. Not at Robert, but at the stallion whom was supposed to be minding him. “He'll foul up the water!”
“Sorry, Commander Bogo.” Al-hetal was quick to apologize. “I was just-”
“Save it for someone who cares.” The irate buffalo cut him off.
Bogo turned from the horse and carried Robert off towards where another group was busy erecting a tent for their Khatun. The fox fumbled with the feather he'd stuck in his shift, afraid his swaying might dislodge it from the fabric and he'd lose it. It was the last thing he had left from his home Country. But more than that, it was his only connection to the Trickster. He might be on the other side of the world, far from Duir and the Greenwood -or any wood for that matter- but so long as he had Goodfellow's badge, he still had a lifeline to his patron.
Robert was plopped down on a rug that was laid out on the sand facing the still under construction tent.
“Sit down and stay quiet and we won't have any problems.” The cape buffalo informed him.
“Aw, but making noise is about all I can do when you got me tied up like this.” The fox raised his paws so that Bogo could clearly see the uncomfortably tight rope bindings holding his wrists together. The cape buffalo only rolled his eyes in irritation, so Robert continued. “Not that I mind a little light bondage play. But your Khatun could have at least taken me out to dinner and a show at the local players' stage first.”
The cape buffalo exhaled sharply, sending a jet of hot air down at the fox. I silent warning to watch his mouth. Disrespect of Ismat ad-Din Khatun or her honor would not be tolerated.
“My wife loves the players.” Continued the fox, refusing to be intimidated by his captor. “Every year when they'd pass through Huntington she'd put them up at the local in -on my credit, by the way- and have them stay and preform for a solid fortnight. Have you ever been made to watch the same play fourteen nights in a row? Let me tell you, Oberon and Titania's lover's quarrel is far less amusing the fourth time in a row. You got a wife, Commander?”
Robert glanced sideways and up at the larger Mammal. “I told you to shut up, fox.”
“I like the sound of my own voice.” The small predator informed him. Then continued, undaunted. “Of course, I'm just as bad. I keep a bard on retainer. Allan-a-Dale, strolling minstrel and Truthsayer. And that is literally all he's good for. Playing cute little tunes and telling it like it is. He's utterly useless in a fight. That's about the only reason I left him back home.” Another sideways glance up at the buffalo. “You like music, Commander?”
For half a moment, it looked like Robert had finally cracked that stoic expression. The cape buffalo had an opinion about music. His captor was about to start empathizing with him. Score one for the Hooded Fox!
But then Bogo's attention was drawn off to the side, momentarily distracted when his Lady approached. Ismat walked right up to them having -apparently- just finished making a round of the came seeing to it that each solider had rations and a place to sleep. That was another thing that set her apart from the Lionheart. He never cared. It was each soldiers responsibility to make sure they had all they needed. A king had better things to do with his time.
“They bathed him again for you.” Bogo informed her.
Ismat looked down at the wet fox sitting on the carpet so that the sand didn't stick to his shift or his fur. “Are you sure they didn't try and drown him?”
“The differences are subtle.” The fox informed her, remembering the rough bath his jailers had given him back at Tell el-Fukhar.
“I'm sure.” Ismat humored him with a grin. Then she turned to the freshly erected tent, beckoning for them to follow. “Bring our guest, Commander. He'll eat with us.”
“But-” The cape buffalo began a protest. After all, Robert wasn't one of them. He didn't hold rank within the infidel army. He didn't even serve as a soldier. He was the exact opposite. A predator lord of the Lionheart's Company. One of the invaders. Their enemy! You do not dine with your enemies. All these protests, however, were silenced before they could even be given voice. Ismat looked over her shoulder, fixing Bogo with a stern glare that left no room for argument or insubordination. “As you wish.”
The fox was once again picked up by the scruff of his neck and carried into the tent. He was dumped back down on the floor -which had been covered in yet more carpets to keep the sand out- beside a short table already laid with food.
Falafel, hummus with pita, grilled vegetables, and stuffed grape leaves. It all smelled so appetizing and Robert quickly realized that, not only was all he'd eaten that day the crust off of someone else's bread, but that all he'd had to eat at all for the past several days (weeks?) was stale crusts of bread. But it was all prey food. Not that Robert minded, that was pretty much all he ate anyway. But Ismat was a lioness. What was she going to eat?
This question was answered no more than a few second after it occurred to the fox. Two plates of grilled locust were placed on the table. One in front of Ismat, the other in front of Robert.
Ismat made a hand gesture at one of her attendants setting the table and the goat picked up a knife from the table and cut the ropes binding the fox's paws. Robert rubbed his blissfully free wrists. His fur offered some protection from rope burn, but as their as they'd been and wearing them all day, his skin still managed to be irritated. Beneath the fur it was red and puffy. He glanced curiously up at the lioness.
“You can try and escape and die in the desert.” She explained, guessing at unasked question. “Or you can sit and share my table. Of course, the choice is yours to make.”
He stared at the steaming plate of insects as if unsure of which option he wanted to take.
Bogo sat down next to the fox. He cast a suspicious eye at the small predator then promptly ignored him in favor of turning his attention to the food.
“Bismillah.” The buffalo muttered a quick prayer in the name of his God before reaching for the stuffed grape leaves and falafel.
Ismat echoed the same ritual word before she too dug into her locusts.
Everything was so informal. Casual. Robert suddenly found that he didn't know how to behave. These Mammals were technically his enemies. They were holding him captive and taking him to be interrogated by the general, the Lion of the Levant. Yet, here they were treating him like a guest. Offering him real food and a place at their table. For the first time in many years, Robert felt like a dumb little kit again. With no idea of what was expected of him or if he could trust the paw that was being held out to him not to turn around and strike him instead.
“As you can clearly see, its not poisoned. If that's what you were wondering.” The lioness assured him as she took another bite of her grilled insects, spreading a bit of hummus on one before popping the morsel into her mouth.
“I'm sure its not poisoned.” Robert muttered back. “You need me alive when you present me to Saladin.”
That right there was his situation. They were his enemies and his captors. He was their prisoner. But the fox could trust Ismat enough not to kill him before be was delivered to her husband, the Infidel General, the Lion of the Levant, An-Nasir Salah ad-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub.
Keeping that in mind, Robert stuck his feather back in the weave of his shift so that it wouldn't get lost, and reached for the grilled vegetables and pita. Then he did something he hadn't done since leaving Huntington. He prayed to his own gods in front of other Mammals without caring what they might think. “Slainte mhor agus a h-uile beannachd duibh.”
The following day was much the same.
Wake early. Have his paws and feet retied with course rope that dug through his fur to bite at the skin beneath. Be handed off to a member of the Company to carry. At first rest, be traded to another member to be carried -and so on.
At least this time he had a full belly, having shared breakfast with the Khatun as well as dinner the previous night. She certainly fed him better than his jailers back at Tell el-Fukhar. Of course, the trade off of that was that in Tell el-Fukhar, he was kept in a dark dungeon which was relatively cool compared to the ambient temperature outside and the sun didn't beat down on him and peirce his eyes with blinding pain.
So, all things considered, his situation had changed but not really improved.
The party reached another way-station a little past mid-day and Ismat called a stop to rest and refill their canteens.
Robert was not untied this time. But he was carried to the edge of the well. The Mammal who'd been carrying him, a rhino by the name of Mamed, held the water bucket for him so the fox could drink.
Once everyone was watered, and their canteens filled, Ismat called an end to the rest and the party pressed on.
They reached the city just in time for the evening prayer.
Robert sat tied up in the sand, which was still hot from the days sun beating down on it, feeling out of place among the Company of mixed prey and predators. All laying out small rugs on the sand and kneeling in the same direction. This was probably the tenth time since leaving with Ismat and her party that the fox had witness their secession of devotion, but for some reason, now, with the city of Jerusalem within view, the setting sun shining off the gold-painted domes of the buildings' west sides and casting the east sides into darkness and shadow... Robert felt very set apart. Uprooted and out of place. Like a tree in the wrong soil.
Luckily for him, the prayers did not last long. Of course, doing them five times a day, how long could they actually last -in a practical sense.
It was well past dark when they actually passed through the gates of the city, and Robert noted with some curiosity that there didn't seem to be any sign yet of the Lionheart's Company having arrived. Of course, he'd already noted that Ismat's Company took a different road. Being native to the land and knowing the deserts better than an invader from the west, it wasn't all that much of a stretch of the imagination that she would also know a faster rout to the city that would not only bypass the Lionheart's army, but also put them at the city ahead of it.
Because of the late hour, Robert wasn't expecting to be thrown in front of Saladin immediately upon his arrival. The fox was quite sure the Lion of the Levant had better things to do than see one lone prisoner, that was captured in a small fife, and only brought to Jerusalem on the whim of a wife whom was probably one of many (if Robert knew anything about lions).
Instead, Ismat's commander, the cape buffalo Bogo, grabbed him -none to gently- off the back of his latest mount. Both buffalo and lioness, still dirty and caked in dust from their journey, made their way through the palace halls to the more private sections of the complex. The more intimate residential corridors, with arched doors that lead into rooms that were no doubt wide and luxurious, perfectly comfortable for Saladin's family and honored guests.
Ismat lead them to one such room. Pressing in without the formality of a knock, Bogo following after her with Robert under his arm.
As he expected, the room was wide and luxuriously furnished. Couches with cushions of silk, and throw pillows in brocade, intricately woven hangings over the windows for privacy, a large area rug over the floor, and a small drink service off to one side that held an already open bottle of wine and three glasses.
But that Mammal that stood next to this drink service was not a lion.
Robin would have just assumed the oryx that was currently pouring the wine was a servant. But he was not dressed like a servant. He wore no uniform, and in fact, was clothed in a nothing more than a casual house robe. The kind of thing a Mammal might wear to bed, and it was far to finely woven to belong to any servant. It looked to rich.
The fox was confused further when Ismat crossed the space between them, ignoring his offered glass of wine, and the lioness kissed the oryx. Right on the mouth. Right in front of one of her officers. The fact that she was married to the Lion of the Levant aside, the fact that she was a predator and the oryx was a prey aside, Robert was pretty sure the mohammedians had some pretty specific things to say about females giving open displays of affection.
When the kiss dragged on uncomfortably long, the cape buffalo cleared his throat.
“Oh, sorry, did you wanna kiss him too?” Ismat teased playfully. It was the first time Robert had seen a 'playful' side of the lioness.
“Your gift.” Bogo chose to ignore her teasing remark. He held Robert out by the scruff of his neck for both Ismat and the oryx to plainly see.
The oryx gave the lioness a curious glance, one eyebrow quirked as she finally took the offered wine glass. Bogo dropped Robert on the floor when the oryx extended the second glass to him.
“You brought me a fox?” He spoke with the measured tones of one who had to address or motivate manny Mammals. Clearly a leader of some kind. But Robert thought he was being brought to Saladin, to the Lion of the Levant, not one of his lieutenants.
“I brought you a commander of the Lionheart's army.” Ismat informed him. “My love, this is Robert Wilde, the Wolf of el-Fukhar.” She smiled as she cast her eyes down on Robert, already knowing the next thing she said would shock him and finding that fact greatly amusing. “Robert, this is my husband, An-Nasir Salah ad-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub, the Lion of the Levant.”
That did shock him. Paws and feet still bound it was all the fox could do to stare up at the oryx. The prey. He blinked in disbelief. Then in an effort to cover up just how hard the deception had thrown him, Robert slipped on the mast of the Hooded Fox. He might not actually have a hood at the moment, but a Robin was always a Robin. From the moment he receives Goodfellow's feather, to the moment he dies.
The oryx gave an amused laugh. “Huh. I would have expected the Wolf of el-Fukhar to be, well, a wolf.”
“I'm not the wolf who sacked Tell el-Fukhar. That was Guy of Gisborne. All I did was open a door.” Robert insisted. Then the Robin cracked an amused smile of his own. “I would have expected the Lion of the Levant to be a lion.”
Saladin smiled back. “I guess we are both more than what we appear.”
The accommodations were far better than what Robert endured in Tell el-Fukhar.
He wasn't thrown in the bowels of a dungeon for one. Made to shit in the corner, breath stagnant air that reeked of his own filth as well as that of the other unfortunate souls who shared the oubliette with him. No.
Saladin had Robert put in a suit in the residential wing of the complex. Something small by comparison -which probably had more to do with the fact that he was not family than the fact that he was a small Mammal- but still comfortably carpeted and furnished. He was even provided with new clothes. Still rough woven linen, still not as nice as his host's, but worlds better than the sackcloth shift he'd been forced to wear during his journey to the Holy City. And, best of all, it had a space for his tail and covered his foxhood, because -in Saladin's own words- “I don't wanna have to be looking at another male's junk all the time.”
There was just one adjustment Robert made himself to his new wardrobe.
Ripping some extra fabric from one of the sheets of his bedding, the fox added a hood to the new tunic they provided for him.
If Marian saw his work she would tut and fret and tell him he should leave the sewing to those whom actually knew what they were doing. She certainly would never let him leave the manor wearing something that looked like it had been tacked on by a toddler with a twitch. Roberts stitches were wide and uneven, his seems were full of loose threads and fraying. If the vixen ever saw it, she'd rip the makeshift hooded tunic from his head and banish him from the room until she had fixed the disaster he created -probably give him a kick in the tail too.
Lord and Lady! He missed her.
Over a decade was far too long for a tod to go without his mate.
He wondered how she was doing. If she was helping Nick manage Huntington in his absence, or if their son was driving her utterly batty without him there to mediate. How was Nick doing for that matter? Was the young kit doing an admirable job of overseeing the fife, ensuring the Huntington remained an enlightened domain where prey and predator coexisted -moderately- peacefully? Or, without Robert there to show him the path, had Nick fallen back on his grandfather's methods for keeping the fife prosperous? Culling the prey who lived there, harvesting their meat, and counting it as income.
Robert liked to think he did a good enough job of instilling the right kinds of values in his son before he left. Values that would mean that even the suggestion of harvesting the peasantry would make the younger fox's skin crawl. But after ten years, Robert just couldn't be sure. He honestly didn't know what kind of Mammal his son had grown up to be.
All because of this stupid Crusade.
The door to his suit opening started the fox out of his thoughts.
There was no knock. Bogo, accompanied by two guards, just barged in without the curtesy of a knock, or the pretense of requesting entry. What if Robert had been changing? Hm? Or using the pot? The fox almost wished he had been sitting down on the chamber pot when they entered, if for not other reason than to make his captors uncomfortable.
“General Salah ad-Din requests your presence.” Bogo announced.
The two guards he brought with him moved to flanking positions on either of Robert's sides, ready to grab the small fox should he refuse or try to make a break for the open door.
Robert raised a skeptical eyebrow. “'Requests', or 'demands'?”
“Don't be cheeky, fox.” Snapped the cape buffalo impatiently. “Either come with me on your own two feet or be carried.”
For a moment, he did toy with the idea of making his captors carry him. After all, what legitimate motivation did he have for cooperating with these Mammals? He barely even cooperated with his king and countrymammals. Robert supposed, maybe, he could save a bit of dignity by going quietly. But then, how much dignity did he have left, really, after how he came to Jerusalem, and was it even worth saving? Probably not. Besides, he was the Hooded Fox. Chosen by the Trickster of the Greenwood. The Robin under the Hood.
“How 'bout neither.”
The fox flipped his makeshift hood up over his head and dove forward. He rolled between the cape buffalo's legs, startling both Bogo and the guards he'd brought with him. Once he was out in the hall, the fox sprang back to his feet with a grin and a wave.
“Merry part.” And dashed off down the corridor.
Bogo pinched the bridge of his snout. “I hate that fox.” Then to his guards. “Well, after him!”
They charged out after the small predator.
Robert sprinted down the hall, laughing as he went. It felt good to be the Hooded Fox again -to be the Robin under the Hood. Robin made the first turn he came to, realized it was a dead-end, climbed out a window instead. Robin found himself perched on a narrow ledge in the hot sun. He made the mistake of looking down and saw a wide open courtyard with tiled walkways and a very lovely fountain as center piece. It was just a little to high for him to jump down.
The Hooded Fox slunk along the narrow ledge, following the side of the building until he came to a corner, turned it, and found a large chunk of his path. He paused. Debating his options. Try and jump the gap in the narrow ledge? Hope he doesn't go too wide and plummet to -if not his death- then at least broken bones and ruptured entrails. Hope he didn't take it to narrow, bounce off the wall and plummet to -if not his death- then the same possibilities of broken bones and ruptured entrails (in addition to the humiliation of bouncing off a wall).
Robin supposed he could pry open the nearest window and slip back inside the building. Fine a different means of escape.
Or try and climb down the building.
“There he is!”
Bogo's two guards poked their snouts out of the nearest window.
Well, that option was out. Robin made a jump across the gap in the ledge. He made the jump. Didn't go to wide, or to narrow. But he was a little out of practice. His limbs a little stiff. His body not as nimble as it used to be ten years ago -or even just two months ago. Being kept in a small dark cell for who knew how long, being denied water, dragged across the desert, and tied up all the time, tended to do that to a body.
Robin's balance was wrong. He made the jump, but fell anyway. Teetering off the narrow ledge.
He grabbed for the ledge with his paws. Desperate. He did manage to grab hold of the crumbled edge of the gap -only to have more of it flake away under his paws. The Hooded Fox once again found himself falling. The hood was thrown back from his face as Robert looked up, desperately clawing at the smooth sandstone wall with its decorative tile facade. He might have slowed his fall a bit, but the little red fox had no hope of stopping.
Until he hit the ground.
Robert heard the blood curdling snap before he registered the pain.
A crippling pain lancing through his right leg. The fox had landed -more or less- on his feet, but the force from his landing caused his legs to buckle -his right leg broken.
Robert lay on the ground in the courtyard, his makeshift hood thrown free of his head, green eyes staring up at the blinding sun. The harsh light just adding another layer to the blinding pain. Robin Hood had never fallen before -Robert had never fallen before. He didn't know which was worse, the injury, the pain, or the realization that he really was getting to old for this shit.
A shadow fell across him, giving the fox's sensitive eyes a reprieve from the sharp light, and the pain subsided enough to register the silhouette of a cape buffalo leaning over him.
Bogo gave a soft sigh, more of a huff really. “So, I guess you'll be carried, then.”
The physician was a camel, three times Robert's size. He had Bogo's guards hold the fox down while he reset the bones in his leg.
Robert promised himself he wouldn't give his captors the satisfaction of hearing him scream.
That was a promise quickly broken the moment the camel wrenched his leg hard enough to pop the bones into place. Snarling wordlessly and impotently into the air. Eyes squeezed shut against the pain. Saliva spraying from his open mouth. Robert didn't try struggling after that. He just lay there -panting- while Saladin's physician bound his leg to a splint.
When the camel was done, Bogo was once again looming over the fox. Robert couldn't understand why the cape buffalo was so blurry until he blinked tears he hadn't even known he shed out of his eyes.
“You were much more cooperative during the march from Tell el-Fukhar.” It took a moment for Bogo's low grumble to register in the fox's adrenaline addled brain.
When the foreign syllables finally did managed to arrange themselves into something resembling comprehendable words, Robert forced a snort. He refused to show weakness or -more accurately given his current situation- admit to his very real and apparent vulnerability. “Oh, yeah. Trying to escape in the middle of the desert would have been so much smarter.”
That forced snort of laughter turned into a wince of pain.
And then something happened that Robert did not expect. The cape buffalo's expression softened into something resembling sympathy. He reached for something off the physician's work table and offered it to the fox. “Here. For the pain.”
Robert stared at the offering suspiciously. Were he back home, he would expect it to be something made from the leaves or bark of the white willow. It was a common enough potion for pain back home. But willows didn't grow out here and so the fox didn't know what it was his captor was offering him. He was not about to take a potion he knew nothing about.
“Its the Sleep Bringing Poppy.” Bogo supplied, noting his hesitation. “I believe in Latin its called somniferum.”
“That's addictive.” The fox growled, recognizing the name. “Is that your new plan to deter future escape attempts? Make me dependent on you for a steady supply.”
“No.” The cape buffalo replied simply. “You look like shit. And I don't want you passing out from pain when you're with Salah ad-Din.”
Robert forced another snort. This one of derision. “Still taking me to see Saladin, I see.”
“The General has made time in his busy schedule to see you. You should feel honored, fox.” Bogo growled. He shoved the bottle of Poppy into the smaller Mammal's paws, then hoisted him up onto one shoulder. This time the buffalo refused to be moved by the fox's groan of pain. It was really his own fault he was injured anyway. “You've delayed your meeting long enough.”
Robert was carried through the corridors. The cape buffalo's stride causing his bandaged and splinted leg to bounce against Bogo's chest. Each little step brought to a new layer of pain to the journey. So much so that the fox couldn't even pay attention to the path they took. If the opportunity ever presented itself again, Robert knew he wouldn't know which way to go to try and escape. When he was flopped down in a chair -that was actually appropriately sized for him- Robert pulled the cork out of the bottle of Poppy and took a sip, not knowing how much he was actually taking but not really caring all that much either.
Someone gave a snort of amusement and the fox looked up to see the chair he'd been plunked in was pulled up to a table spread for lunch, and across from said table sat the oryx -the prey- that was the mohamedian general, the one called the 'Lion of the Levant', An-Nasir Salah ad-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub, Saladin.
“Something funny about this?” Robert growled.
“Yes.” The oryx answered. He did not deign to elaborate.
The fox glared at him.
Saladin indulged him for one... two... three beats. Then he was done with the fox's silent tantrum. He leaned back on his cushions. “Now, you will tell me about your king.” The sultan announced. “How many Mammals follow him? How many archers? How many infantry? Any cavalry? Are their mounts willing or enslaved? How much water do they carry with them?”
Robert thought about the questions. Doing a quick mental count based off the last time he was actually with the Lionheart's Company. Then he reminded himself that while he bore no great love for his Country's king, neither did he have any compelling motivation to betray him or sabotage his campaign. The Lionheart was a ripe bastard, but he was the ripe bastard that Robert knew. This Saladin he knew next to nothing about -he didn't even know he was a prey until a few days ago!- he had no reason to help the mohamedian general by betraying his own commander.
Besides, it was really Guy of Gisborne Robert wanted to see get his. Now, if the oryx wanted information on him... the fox would have been more than happy to give up information on the Norman wolf.
“Bite me.” Robert snarled.
“Is that predator humor?” Saladin only quirked an eyebrow. “I find it strange that you're still so loyal to your king when he sold you into the vengeful hooves of Mammals who hated you.”
“It was Gisborne than did that!” The fox snapped back. “And when I see that back-stabbing wolf again, I'll show him what happens to those who cross the Hooded Fox!”
The sultan had no idea what the significance of the fox wearing a hood had, even so, the prisoner's meaning was clear. He held the bannermammal responsible for his bond and current 'hostage' status. But it was Saladin's experience that bannermammals very rarely carried out double-crosses of that kind without their lord's approval -or, more accurately, very rarely got away with it without their lord's approval. The oryx leaned forward, bending over the table to be closer to eye-level with the smaller Mammal.
“Do you think, Robert Wilde of Loxley, that your wolf would have so irreparably betrayed a fellow Commander of his Company without your king's approval?”
In all honesty, the fox's vengeful thoughts had been so focused on Gisborne that he hadn't even considered the possibility. “You're suggesting the Lionheart had some foreknowledge of what was done to me and allowed it to happen anyway.”
“I am.” Saladin agreed. “I don't know much about the Lionheart's Commanders, but by grace of the fact that they're Commanders I hope I can at least assume they're not idiots. No one would stage a betrayal of the kind that was done to you without the guarantee that there would be no negative consequences. Your king might or might not have given the order himself, but he didn't exactly try and stop it either.”
Robert lapsed into a brooding silence -chewing on that thought.
He never did like the Lionheart -and the feeling was mutual, the Lionheart never really liked him.
Robert was already Earl of Huntington when the prince began his revolt against his father -Henry II- and, without knowing anything of the lion personally before that, the fox's thoughts were pretty much along the lines of 'Good for him'. Plotting against a bastard father was something Robert could empathize with. His own father was no saint and brought his untimely end down on himself. (As the song said, 'Beware. Beware. Of the words I twist, I am small but arrows fly long. And the robin's red against winter's white are whispering the Hooded Fox's song.') Robert did not actually see the Lionheart until he was summoned to Westminster Abby for the king's coronation.
That was when the fox decided that he really -really- did not like the new king.
The Lionheart bared all females from attending and so Marian couldn't accompany the Earl inside the church for the new king's coronation. That was irritating, the ceremony was long and boring and Robert would have appreciated her company -if for no other reason than to trade sarcastic remarks and snarky comments about the Bishop, other members of the court, or even the new king himself. That was irritating, but that wasn't the worst thing that happened at the coronation that solidified the fox's dislike of him.
A group of shrewish leaders showed up to present gifts to the new king. Robert didn't know until that moment that the Lionheart was anti-soridic. The king had his courtiers strip the shrews naked and flog them. Then flung them out of the court. That was when Robert decided the Lionheart was just as much of a bastard as the late Reynard Wilde had been.
The king was a speciesist, believing that predators were superior to prey. But paradoxically, he also hated smaller predators like ferrets, mongooses, and shrews -predators that were so small and defenseless they could easily become prey for larger predators (foxes could also be counted on that list and that was another source of tension between the Earl and his king). The Lionheart had no shortage of faults to fuel Robert's dislike of him.
Raising his eyes, the fox glared across the table at the oryx. But were the Lionheart's long list of faults reason enough to betray him? Was it worth it for Robert to give up the devil he knew for the devil he was with? And -even more importantly to the fox- how would either decision effect the possibility of his getting home. Naive thought it was -and he knew very well how naive it was- Robert still held onto a think shred of home that he might still get home.
“This is all just your theory.” The Hooded Fox reminded him. “What proof do you have of any of that?”
“None. Of course.” Saladin admitted, but admitted it in such a way that made the very fact that Robert had to ask was absurd. “But I hope that you're clever enough to recognize the situation you're in and that giving up your king whom has already given you up is in your better interest. I may be bold, Your Grace, but I'm not reckless. If I can't have you as an ally, then I'd at least not have you as an enemy while you're living within my walls.”
The fox looked down at his bandaged leg. The pain had subsided nicely after taking the Poppy, but even just trying to stand on it would be a bad idea. “And how much of a threat can I be to you when I'm lame like this.”
“An injury you caused to yourself.” The oryx reminded him. He gave a sardonic smirk that told Robert that Saladin didn't really believe his own next words. “For all I know, you did it intentionally as part of some convoluted plot. Foxes are said to be conniving little schemers.”
That last bit rubbed Robert the wrong way. He glared at the oryx. “And prey are supposed to be meek and submissive, waiting to just roll over and be eaten.”
Now Saladin smirked. “Lets both defy what's expected of us, shall we? Tell me about your king, and I'll make sure neither myself or my army roll over and allow themselves to be eaten.”
The fox continued to glare challengingly at the oryx. He was not one to give into enemy demands easily. But the Poppy he drank was making his head a little fuzzy, his judgment wobbly. I kinda reminded Roberts of when he was still a kit and his father would beat him until he was giddy -only this feeling was not accompanied by the maddening throb of pain all over his body on the contrary, he felt light and fuzzy, invincible almost. He could do anything. Nothing could hurt him! So the fox gave something up, just for the shit of it. Because that seemed like a good idea.
“The campaign is expensive.” Robert said slowly. “The Lionheart had trouble raising enough money to even leave in the first place, and the travel hasn't been cheap. If you can hold him at bay until his funds dry up, he'll have to choice but to return home and take his army with him. He'll leave and no significant blood need be spilled.”
“Ha! That's a rather optimistic assessment.” Saladin snorted through his nose.
“You'll have to pardon me, Sal, I'm a little high.” Giggled the fox.
The oryx glanced to the bottle of Poppy in his paw. “Bogo, take that away from him.” Saladin commanded. “From now on, if something to dull the pain in his leg is needed, have it administered by a properly trained surgeon.”
As Bogo carried the injured -and stoned- fox away, Saladin considered what he'd said. It was true, war was expensive, and the Lionheart was waging his war in a foreign land far, far from his home. That would undoubtedly double his expense. Not to mention the moral of his soldiers would be low, and water was less readily available outside the city than it was inside. The fox's assessment might have been skewed by his Poppy addled brain, and maybe it was just a little naive. But that didn't mean that he made a good point.
With any luck, the Lionheart would clear out quickly and no significant amount of blood need be shed.
The ship made landfall at Perpignan, which was technically in Barcelona. Toulouse was actually a landlocked country between Barcelona and Normandy. Gisborne had left the majority of his company behind with Lionheart's host, only bringing with him two of his most trusted yeomen and strong prey mounts to ride the rest of the journey north.
Bucky and Pronk disembarked at Perpignam, but unlike the Wolf of Gisborne, they did not take the main roads. The oryx and kudu instead struck out across the wild countryside. The road might be safer and dotted with travelers' rests, inns, and towns. But it was also longer. Winding around wide rivers, dark woods, or difficult hill-country. All things the average traveler would want to avoid. Pronk and Bucky, on the other hoof, were raised in the shadow of Sherwood, the haunted wood, and were soldiers under the Robin of the Hood, Goodfellow's chosen agent among mortal Mammals. They had no feat of dark woods, and could navigate wild and undeveloped hill lands.
Using the sun to keep their course north, they made it to Calais before Guy of Gisborne, and were already on the ferry to Dover by the time the wolf and his retainers arrived at Calais. The kudu and the oryx would arrive in the Country a full day before their king's Norman emissary. After that, they wouldn't have to worry anymore. Gisborne would go from Canterbury directly to London to the prince, while Bucky and Pronk would continue farther north to Huntington.
With any luck, neither antelope would be bothered by the wolf or the gods forsaken Crusades ever again.
Thank you for your patience everyone and I'm sorry this chapter took so long! I'd really like to blame it on the fact that work was super-busy and I was to exhausted to write after coming home. Or, the fact that I had a big Halloween party to plan, throw, and then deal with the hangover from. But those are all just excuses. The real reason this chapter took so long was because... I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT I'M DOING!
Or, more accurately, I deviated from my original outline in order to please a particular reader that has been -not only a loyal reader- but also a HUGE help in writing other aspects of this story that I wanted to do something special to please them.
The original outline had Robin/Robert being stuck in prison for a chapter, escaping in the following chapter, and making his way back to England. As you can clearly see, that is not what happened. Instead, he's taken by the local leadership straight to Jerusalem and is now the "guest" of Saladin. My dedicated reader really wanted Saladin to make an appearance in this story and so I changed things in a way that would allow him to interact with Robin. Then I ran into my problem: I HAVE NO IDEA HOW TO WRITE SALADIN!
Anyway, I hope you all enjoyed this chapter regardless. Maybe Robin will finally get back to England one day. Who knows...
Meanwhile, Nick's arc marches on in the next chapter.
“You're not required to accompany the tax all the way to Londontown, you know.” Marian huffed at her son, crossing her arms over her chest as she watched him climb onto the horse-sized cart and find a place to sit between a barrel of grain and a crate of vegetables. “One of the Prince's Exchequers can collect it for us. There's no need for you to leave Huntington.”
Robert certainly never left the fife unless he absolutely needed to.
Nick popped a single blueberry from the cart into his mouth, decided one wasn't enough and swiped two more before reminding himself that he shouldn't be cutting into what he owed the crown -especially not when money was so tight. Instead, he directed his attention towards his mother and tried not to cower like a little kit under her stern gaze. He wasn't a little kit anymore, Nick was Earl of Huntington now, he was lord.
“This is my first payment to the crown since becoming Earl, mother.” He reminded her. “I wanna make sure it gets there safely. Besides, it wouldn't hurt to spend a little bit more time at court.” A carful pause. Nick stroked the silver chain of his arrow and bow pendant as he said his next words. “Father's unpopularity at court and refusal to mingle with the other predator lords is probably one of the reasons the king insisted he prove his loyalty in the Holy Land.”
Marian pursed her lips at that statement, and Nick tried not to wince at his mother's clear displeasure at the reminder that her mate didn't leave willingly but was taken from them by force of an ultimatum. “And you think currying favor with the Prince will... what? Suddenly bring your father back to us?”
“No.” The younger fox shook his head, letting the silver chain drop back into place. Nick was a realest. In all likelihood, his father was probably already dead. Nothing short of an act of God -or gods- could bring him back. Nick had already resigned himself to the fact that he'd never see his father again. “But it might dissuade anymore unfriendly eyes from looking to closely at Huntington anymore-” a pause, then in a whisper “-or the haunted wood.”
She raised an eyebrow at that. So now he was interested in the Wood. Since ascending to his seat, Nick had been avoiding Sherwood and was skittish near its shadow. Now, all of a sudden, he worried about the crown paying the forest to much attention.
“Sherwood borers the fief and separates us from our neighbors.” The younger fox reminded her, guessing at his mother's thoughts. “Of all the others that border the wood, we're the one is surrounds the most. That means that whatever happens under the shadow of those trees reflects on us -whether it actually has anything to do with us or not. I'm going to Londontown in order to convince the Prince that we have nothing to do with the outlaws and heretics that take refuge in the haunted wood.”
Marian huffed, placing her paws on her hips. She was not impressed.
But Nick was done with the conversation. “Anyway, I've gotta get going.” He turned from his mother, leaning over his shoulder to the horse and stag that would take turns pulling the cart during their journey to London. “Lets move it.”
The cart lurched forward a bit, but Marian stopped them.
“At least take someone with you. A lord never travels alone.” She reminded her son. “John, or Allan -or Clawhouser if you don't want to bring one of your father's entourage.”
Nick growled because he knew she was right. As a fife lord, he couldn't just tag along with his shipment. He actually had to make a production of it. Bring a group of retainers, pack suitable clothes for court... it would be like his ascension to the Earl seat all over again. The growl fizzled out into a sigh. “Alright.”
It didn't take Nick or Clawhouser long to get ready. Properly ready. At least, not after Marian gave directions to the household staff to put together travel trunks for the both of them with the appropriate clothing and accessories. She planned for one informal receiving meal, a formal parting meal, at least three formal dinners, and one banquet. He scoffed at all the fancy fabrics. Nick never dressed as nice here at home. For half a moment, he considered taking the feather. The red feather the mysterious bunny had given him -a blessing from the Lord. A robin's feather -the badge of a Robin under the Hood. But quickly thought better of it. The whole point of going to London with his tax payment in the first place was to distance himself from his father's past associations.
When Nick and Clawhouser made their way back down to the cart, they found that his mother had also ordered the carriage brought out -because a lord never rode in a vegetable cart- and sitting atop the carriage with the baggage trunks was Allan, strumming on his lute.
“I didn't invite you.” Nick reminded the minstrel.
The troubadour only grinned at the young Earl. “And yet, here I am. Come now, Nicky, every lord needs the company of a player and Truthsayer during his travels.”
Nick groaned. He grew up with Allan-a-dale and knew that once the minstrel set his mind to something, there was very little one could do to dissuade him. If Nick didn't bring Allan with him, then he'd just show up in London on his own. Perhaps a few days later since he would be walking or trading rides with other travelers for songs and entertainment. But Nick was sure that he'd be walking the streets of town one morning and just happen to pass the minstrel on a corner. That would be an entirely different kind of headache.
To save himself that headache, Nick resigned himself to a lesser one. Bringing the minstrel with them. Besides, the bard's music would certainly keep Clawhouser entertained while on the road. The cat loved music.
Massaging the fur just below his ears, Nick groaned. “Alright. You can come. But I don't want to hear the Hooded Fox song even once during the journey. Understood?”
“I understand, Your Grace.” And the minstrel gave a theatric bow, taking off his cap with a dramatic swish and bending low so that his forehead was almost touching the ground. “In fact, I have just the alternative for you. A ballad that can trace it roots all the way back to fair Albion and the court of King Arthur himself.”
“Fine. Whatever. Lets just go.” Nick climbed into the carriage with Clawhouser following after him.
Allan hopped onto the larger Mammal's lap as soon as the cheetah was seated and began strumming the tune.
“Bravely bold, Sir Robin, rode forth from Camelot...”
Heaving another groan, Nick's face fell into the palm of his paws. Allan-a-dale seemed determined to torment him.
From her concealment in the shadows of Sherwood, Judy watched the young Earl's carriage lumber along the road, pulled by two stags that looked equal parts labored and amused. She wondered what it was they found so amusing. But then the voice of the former Robin's bard drifted to her ears -a song about a brave knight, Sir Robin, whom was not afraid to be killed in nasty ways. Ways the song went into great detail about. Yes, that was very amusing indeed.
The cart carrying the Huntington tax payment rolled behind them, pulled by a horse, another deer walking beside him. Apparently the two would take turns pulling the cart on their way to the capitol so that neither became to tired on the journey.
Judy followed their path for as log as the road skirted around the woods. The forest of Sherwood stretched fro days, but eventually the woods would stop and the bunny would have to either give up on following the fox lord, or else leave the safety of the wood. Aside from the night of Nickolas' ascension, Judy had only ever left the safety of Sherwood once. When she was still just a kit, she ventured out exploring on the Nottingham side of the forest. That was her first mistake.
In Nottingham she met the son of a local baker -a fox. Apparently, they were famed for making the best meat pies in the whole country. But Judy didn't know that at the time. All she saw was a fox kit taunting a sheep lamb about the roles of predators and prey. Well, she wasn't going to stand for that! She grew up in the haunted wood, the domain of the Lord of the Greenwood, where prey were protected and predators and prey lived peacefully or else were kicked out -or worse. (It was never really explained -clearly- what the Green Mammal did to those that violated the laws of his wood.)
Jumping in without thinking first, Judy intervened on the sheep's behalf. She kicked the fox in the face -breaking his jaw- and the fox slashed her across the cheek with his claws. Judy still carried the scars to this day. Three deep gashes of jagged skin where the fur simply refused to grow back. Of course, the fox didn't walk away fully whole either. His jaw never did heal properly, his lower mandible no longer lightning up with his upper teeth. -And Judy and Sharla had been best friends ever since.
But because of that experience, the bunny-doe was wary of leaving the safety of the woods.
So, for three days, she followed the young Earl's carriage as it rolled along the road that curved around the edges of Sherwood until the morning of the fourth day.
The Earl's party had camped in the shadow of the wood, using the dense trees as a natural barrier against the harsh autumn winds. It was the list time they would stop within sight of Sherwood until they made the journey back home to Huntington.
The cheetah was roasting something over over the fire for his breakfast. The wind was all wrong for Judy to be able to smell it, but if the wrinkled noses and slightly ill-looking expressions on the faces of the deer and horse that pulled the carriage and cart were anything to go off of, it was not vegetables the large predator was cooking. Allan-a-dale strummed on his lute, completely unbothered by the sight of a predator cooking what was formerly another living creature right in front of him. But then, it was said that the Truthsayer was bothered by very little.
Unlike the young Earl, whom seemed to be bothered by everything.
Nickolas came out of the carriage yawning. Bare chested, the cream colored fur of his torso completely exposed for all the world to see. Slightly matted from sleep and uneven because his winter coat was just coming in. Judy couldn't even begin to imagine why, but the sight of so much exposed fur made her breath catch in her throat and her heart quicken. It was absurd. Getting excited over a fox. A fox! Never mind the fact that he was a predator lord, he was her species natural predator. She should not find that matted and bed-tousled mess of thick cream fur as attractive as she did. It wasn't right! Never mind the fact that she had every reason to be wary and distrustful of foxes. It was a fox, after all, that scared her face.
The young Earl marched right up to the bard, an irritated snarl on his muzzle, and he yanked the lute right out of the minstrel's grip.
Apparently, the fox took issue with Allan singing the Hooded Fox song. Judy couldn't understand why. Nickolas was chosen by the Goodfellow to be the next Robin. The Hooded Fox was basically his theme song!
There was a great deal of growling and huffing, and fox and cheetah retreated back into the carriage while Allan climbed into the vegetable cart to play his music for the Mammals pulling it. Apparently, he'd lost the privilege to ride in the carriage with the Earl and his retainer. They set off, back on the road south to Londontown, and Judy retreated back into the woods to wait until they passed this way again on their way back.
But she was stopped no more than three paces back into the trees by her mentor.
“Follow them.” Thumper commanded.
“W-what?” Judy blinked at him, not fully understanding the command. “But, I can't. The wood ends here.”
Thumper only raised a single brow, not impressed with her answer.
Judy lowered her eyes.
“The Lord of the Greenwood has plans for that fox.” Thumper reminded her. “Watch him. He's new to his title and doesn't yet understand the duality of the position he's in.”
“You want me to keep him on the straight and narrow path, mentor?” The doe asked, not sure how she would even get close to a predator lord in the predator capitol -at least, get close to predator without becoming said predator's lunch. Never mind how she was supposed to influence him and the paths he took in life.
“Oh, no.” Thumper shook his head. “Straight and narrow isn't the Lord's style and is ill-suited for those that belong to him. Little Nicky needs to keep it wide and twisted. That's how he'll find his way to Duir and the Green Mammal.”
Yay, metaphors! They made Thumper sound seasoned and wise, full of old secrets and ancient knowledge. But they did little to help Judy understand what she was actually supposed to do while following the young Earl all the way to London. “And so what should I do, mentor.”
Here Thumper gave her a sympathetic -almost fatherly- smile. “You are both Mammals that belong to the Olde Gods -whether he knows it or not- I'm sure you could find some way of connecting with him.” With that, Thumper turned to leave. Paused. Turned back to Judy. “You still here? Well, get going!”
Thumper didn't look back to see if Judy followed his orders. He didn't hear the doe trailing after him as he made his way back through the woods, so he decided to give his young protege the benefit of the doubt and assumed she was following he your Earl instead. He made his way back to Zoohold.
A network of rope bridges, wood plank caltwalks, and small houses built in and around the living trees. Supported by natural branches or Mammal made suspension ropes. It was a village that hung above the ground, made by the residents of Sherwood and those seeking asylum under its canopy. Deep within the haunted wood, the Mammals of Zoohold lived peacefully with each other -both prey and predator alike- and with the haints and ghosts that lingered within the wood. All subject to the laws set down by the Lord of the Greenwood, the Green Mammal, the Puck, the goblin Hob -Robin Goodfellow.
There was a commotion in the village center when Thumper got back.
Mammals all huddled in a circle, crowding whatever or whoever was in the center. Thumper -be small and quick- wove his way between legs, hooves, and paws to get to the middle and see what the fuss was all about.
A pair of antelope -an oryx and a kudu- sat on the ground looking exhausted and drinking greedily from flagons of water that were sized for rhinos. Thumper thought he recognized them. Their exact names escaped him at the moment, but he was pretty sure they were two of the contingent of Mammals from Huntington and the Wood that accompanied Skippy and the Robin on the Crusade with the Lionheart. If they were back then did that mean Robin and Skippy were back? Thumper looked around for the younger bunny.
“Where's Skippy?” He asked.
The other two paused, lowering their flagons, water dripping from their muzzles. The pair of them were uneasily quiet, their expressions sober and stoney. It filled Thumper with a feeling of dread.
“Where's Skippy?” He asked again. “Where's my son?”
Both oryx and kudu exchanged a look. But before either of them could open their mouths to answer, another voice cut them off before any other words could be spoken.
“Where is Robin?”
All eyes turned to the sound of the voice and the crowd parted to allow the Great Prince access to the newly returned pair. Bambi stood next to Thumper, gazing down at the oryx and kudu with an appraising stare.
“Pronk, Bucky.” The stag nodded to each in turn. “Ten years ago you left with the Robin under the Hood. Now I see you've returned but Goodfellow's chosen has not. What happened to him in that far away and foreign land?”
Bucky and Pronk exchanged a glance, looked down at their water, neither one met the Great Prince's eyes when they explained.
“We were woken up in the early morning.” Pronk began. “Before dawn even. I didn't know what was going on. It seemed like the Normans that came with us had betrayed the company. They were killing us. All of Robin's soldiers. I would have died if it weren't for-” an apologetic glance at Thumper “-Sir Skippy saved my life. Mine and Bucky's. We're alive because of him.”
Thumper released a breath he wasn't aware he was holding in. It came out as a sigh, but he was far from relived. While it was wonderful to hear how the younger buck was a hero and saved the lives to two larger Mammals, they hadn't yet said anything as to why the bunny didn't return home with them. Thumper was to old to be naive and to experienced a warrior not to recognize that that meant and what the antelope weren't saying. His vision blurred and Thumper reached a paw up to rub his eyes. The fur of his paw came away wet.
If their heights were closer, Bambi would have placed a supportive hoof on his old friend's shoulder. But at the moment the Great Prince had to appear strong and firm. An unmovable pillar of security and safety. “And the Robin. What happened to the Robin?”
“We- we don't know.” Bucky admitted. “Skippy said he was gone -taken. I- uh -I don't know where he was taken or why. He's probably dead now too.”
There was sussurus of air as the rings of Mammals surrounding them gasped or moaned upon hearing the news that the Robin of the Wood, the Robin under the Hood was dead. Goodfellow's chose, the guardian of the Greenwood was gone, and every year the Prince that was left behind by the Lionheart to rule the country in his stead squeezed the land tighter. Each winter more and more Mammals appeared in the Wood seeking asylum. Without the Robin, without Goodfellow's Champion, how would they continue to keep themselves safe? What made Sherwood and Zoohold within it any safer than anywhere else in the Country?
Bambi looked around, addressing the crowd this time. “Calm down, everyone. The Lord have already chosen a new Robin. Thumper, presented him with the badge himself.”
There was a beat of silence as every eye present turned to the old gray rabbit.
“Thumper.” Bambi pressed.
The bunny blinked, remembering where he was and who was speaking to him. He cleared his throat. There would be time to grieve for Skippy later. “Y-yes. I gave him the Lord's blessing a month ago, around summer's end.”
“So you see?” Bambi smiled at the Mammals of Zoohold. “There's nothing to worry about. The Lord won't leave us alone and unprotected. There will always be a Robin under the Hood. For the moment thought, lets make sure our brothers whom have returned home are cared for. They look a little thin and travel worn. Lets get them fed and clothed.”
He left, leaving the pair of antelope to be tended to by others.
Thumper sort of followed after him in a bit of a daze. Bambi lead him to his own private residence within Zoohold. Bambi did not live in a house up in the trees like most of the residents. Instead he built his home in the same thicket his mother raised him in. A dense grouping of bushes and shrubs, the living branches woven together to form a canopy roof. Faline, Bambi's wife, was inside just setting breakfast out for their children. Two fawns from the same litter. Faline looked up from the table, took one look at her husband and his bunny companion and sighed.
“I'll fix you some drinks.” She left the children to make a mess of their breakfasts at the table. Crossing the small kitchen that tripled as dining room, family room, and hearth, she pulled down a deer sized tumbler for her husband and a bunny sized tumbler for their guest. Each she filled with ale and passed to pair. “Can you wait to talk about it until the children have finished with breakfast? I'll take them out as soon as their done so you can talk undisturbed.”
“Of course.” Bambi nodded.
He understood his wife's desire to shelter their children from the harsher realities of the world. When he was barely older than they were -still had his spots- he witnessed his own mother's murder. Killed by a predator hunting in the haunted wood during winter. Now that Bambi was older and understood a little more about the world he supposed the predator that shot his mother might have had a family of his own to feed. But that thought was more of an explanation than an excuse. But because of that experience, Bambi more than understood the desire to shelter his children from the harsher realities of the world. At least as long as he and Faline could.
The stag glanced to the side at his bunny companion. Noted the grim expression on his face and slightly clenched jaw and traded tumblers with him. Giving the smaller Mammal the deer-sized serving of ale and taking the tiny bunny-size cup for himself. No words were exchanged between them, but the bunny gulped the larger portion of alcohol with appreciation.
The adults watched the toddler fawns make a mess of the table for a while, the twins getting more food on their hooves and cheeks than in their actual mouths.
Finally, Faline decided they'd eaten as much as she would get them to each this morning. So she herded them over to the basin to wash up before ushering them out of the thicket to start the day. Bambi waited to the count of ten after his family left before speaking.
“I haven't seen or heard anything about Robin's son since you gave him Goodfellow's badge.” The stag began.
The bunny made a non-committal noise and took another sip from the over-sized deep tumbler.
Bambi sighed and placed an arm around the bunny's shoulders, pulling the small Mammal against him. Thumper -like most bunnies- had dozens of children. But Skippy was special. Skippy was his eldest son, the only male from his first litter that survived past infancy, and a member of the inner circle of the Robin of the Wood. The deer gave the bunny's shoulder a reassuring squeeze. “Skippy died a good death. He saved the lives of Mammals much larger than himself and went down fighting. You should be proud.”
“I am proud of him.” Croaked the bunny. He would never admit it out loud and Bambi knew better than to press the issue, but Thumper was fighting to hold back tears. His voice cracked. He cleared his throat. Then he began again. “I have Judy following him.”
“Huh?” Bambi blinked at the non-sequitur, not fully understanding.
“Nickolas.” Thumper explained. “Robin's son. He's traveling right now. I have Judy following him. He... He's very indoctrinated into Xtian values. Robin's absence has affected more than just the Wood. But he belongs to the Trickster -and so does Judy.”
“And neither of them know it.” Bambi filled in.
Thumper gave a humorless snort. “I don't know why the Trickster chose a bunny. He usually prefers foxes. But Judy belongs to the Trickster in the same way that Nickolas belongs to the Trickster. If anyone can turn back to the Olde Ways it would be her.”
“And how would she do that?” Asked Bambi.
“I have no fecking clue.” Thumper drained the last of the ale from the deer tumbler and stood. “But, if you'll excuse me, I have to see my wife. Missy needs to know- I should- She'll want to hear it from me. Skippy was our oldest.”
Disney is really bad at naming their minor female characters. Skippy's mother from Robin Hood is named 'Mother Rabbit' and Thumper's mate in Bambi was named 'Miss Bunny'. Neither of those would pass as actual names in this story, so I just up and decided to call her 'Missy'. Ultimately it probably won't matter because this will probably end up being one of two times I mention her in this fic.