Aziraphale's latest assignment from Heaven was to go to Durham to perform a blessing on the Prince Bishop. He had, therefore, bought himself a mule. A horse would have been better to go all that way, but it would have been seen as too worldly for a member of a monastic order, and he didn't want to draw attention to himself.
He had been spending some time at Canterbury, which had a particularly good library as part of the Benedictine monastery of Christ Church, attached to the Cathedral. As far as the Benedictine brothers were concerned, he was a visiting Carmelite (or White) Friar called Ezra.
He called the mule Bertha, for no particular reason other than she reminded him of a long dead Queen of Kent of that name. Possibly it was the long nose that did it.
He hadn't been so far north for a century or more, and those memories were not exactly pleasant. He had witnessed the aftermath of the Harrying of the North by King William the Conqueror , and given assistance to peasants who had been burned out of their villages where he could. At least he could be fairly certain that there would be no burned villages or starving peasants on this trip.
The journey was uneventful until he got close to Leicester, where he stayed at Breedon Priory . It was a foundation of Augustinian Canons now, though he remembered when the Saxon monks had lived there. There had been an abbot there he'd had some fascinating conversations with – what had his name been? He'd been chosen as Archbishop of Canterbury.... Tatwine! That was it! Lovely chap – he'd liked telling riddles, and Aziraphale had given a helping hand to make sure he was considered a saint.
All traces of the Saxon foundation were gone now – it was all Romanesque round arches built since the Norman Conquest, but it was still a pleasant place to break his journey, Prior Ralph seemed to be a nice chap, if not as entertaining a conversationalist as Tatwine had been, and Bertha appreciated the rest.
He arrived with plenty of time to make sure Bertha was stabled well, with a rub down and a manger full of hay, and to take possession of the cell that he had been assigned. If the canon who led him there noticed that he had no luggage, he didn't mention it.
Then the bell rang for Vespers and he joined the canons in choir, one solitary white-robed figure among all the black habits. He didn't need to be reminded of the psalms they were singing that evening – after so many centuries the words to all one hundred and fifty of them came automatically, in Latin and the original Hebrew, though he liked the new plainchant arrangements that were coming into fashion in modern monasteries. It was very relaxing, and almost like being back in a Heavenly choir for a little while.
It was at dinner in the refectory after the service that he got the first inkling that his journey north wouldn't be as straightforward as he had anticipated.
“You're not planning to go through Sherwood Forest are you?” Prior Ralph asked, slightly anxiously.
“It's the most direct route to Nottingham,” Aziraphale said. “In fact, I think it's the only route to Nottingham. Any other road would take me too far out of my way. Why? Is there any reason to avoid it?”
Prior Ralph's eyes went wide. “You mean you haven't heard?” he asked. “If you go that way you will surely fall amongst outlaws of the worst sort!”
Aziraphale smiled quietly. “I don't think I have anything to fear from outlaws,” he said.
“They robbed the Abbot of St. Mary's in York,” Prior Ralph said. “They have no fear – and no respect for the clergy!”
“They won't be able to rob me,” Aziraphale said mildly. “In accordance with the rules of my Order, I don't carry large amounts of money with me, and I doubt they'd want Bertha.”
Prior Ralph shook his head. “You may be making light of it now – it will be a different matter when you're surrounded by rogues in the middle of the greenwood!”
Lord Crowleigh rode up to the gates of Nottingham Castle on a black stallion caparisoned in black and red, with a couple of servants in black and red livery riding geldings, and a pack horse carrying all the luggage appropriate to a gentleman of his rank. He had been in Scotland, encouraging a small clan war, and had heard on his ride south that the Sheriff of Nottingham was a man with problems. A man with problems could easily be tempted into doing something he might later regret, so Crowley thought he'd stop off for a visit.
Crowley was vague about where the demesne of Crowleigh actually was in England, when asked, but he had made sure he looked wealthy enough to be invited to the top table at Nottingham Castle for dinner. He very much liked the new fabrics that were coming into fashion. Black silk looked really good with his red hair, and that new velvet stuff had possibilities.
He hadn't worn dark glasses since the end of the Roman Empire. The practice of wearing glasses of any kind had been lost in the barbarian upheavals which had led to the Dark Ages, just as he was getting used to them (at least in Arthur's time he had been able to pull down the visor of his helmet). Now he found that humans stared at dark glasses more than they stared at his yellow eyes. It was second nature to him to blur human perceptions, so that they saw only what they expected to see. Still, he was hopeful that human glass and lens making technology would once again progress to the point where he could hide behind dark glasses. Then he'd look really cool.
He had also learned to give the impression of eating more than he actually did, mainly by stabbing a morsel on the tip of his eating knife and waving it around as he talked. The first thing he needed to do during this dinner was to find out what the Sheriff's problems were, so he could work out a good temptation strategy.
As it turned out, the Sheriff's frustrations were easy to discover.
“I've been hearing rumours,” said Crowley, twirling a piece of beef around on the end of his knife, “that you may not have everything completely under control here.”
“What makes you say that?” The Sheriff sounded unworried, but there was a tell-tale flicker of anxiety in his eyes. He leaned towards Crowley with a hint of suspicion. “You're not just passing through Nottingham by chance, are you, Lord Crowleigh?” A sudden thought struck him. “Prince John sent you, didn't he?”
Crowley smiled. He loved it when the person he was about to tempt leapt to conclusions like that. It made his job so much easier. “As I said,” Crowley drawled, “there have been rumours....”
“It's that damned outlaw, isn't it?” The Sheriff scowled, and picked up his goblet of wine moodily. “Well, I can assure you that I do have everything under control here – after all, every greenwood in the country has a few disaffected men, fugitives from justice. Other Sheriffs have similar problems to mine.”
“I'm sure Prince John will be very pleased to hear that,” Crowley said, picking up his own goblet. “Don't you think it's time you - dealt with – your little problem, though?”
“It isn't as easy as you seem to think,” the Sheriff snapped, peevishly. “But Prince John needn't worry. We've just been holding a Forest Law Court, and the fines we imposed have been substantial. They should add to his coffers quite satisfactorily.”
Aziraphale didn't notice that he had entered Sherwood Forest immediately. The farmland he had been riding through had small areas of woodland interspersed with the fields at first, with the woodland gradually becoming more prevalent until he couldn't remember when he last saw a field or a farmhouse. The road was shaded with dappled sunlight, through young leaves that were the particularly bright shade of green of early summer. Birds sang, butterflies flew through the sunbeams – it really was rather lovely.
The road came to a ford across a small river. On the journey so far, Aziraphale had learned that Bertha really did not like it when he tried to ride her across a ford, so he slipped down from the saddle and prepared to lead her across. He was just gathering the reins in his hands when he heard someone singing a psalm, in the sort of voice a person might use if they thought they were completely alone.
“... laudate eum in sono tubae....”
Aziraphale joined in automatically. “Laudate eum in psalterio et cithara.”
There was a rustling in the bushes just above the ford, as of someone scrambling to his feet and looking around. “What's that? Who's there?”
A plump friar in a brown habit emerged from the bushes, a quarterstaff in his hand.
“Good day to you,” Aziraphale said.
“Oh, I'm sorry brother – friar. I didn't expect anyone to be passing by.” Suddenly, the strange friar was all smiles. “I'm Tuck – I was fishing just there.”
“Friar Ezra,” Aziraphale said.
“Come and join me,” Friar Tuck invited. “I've got some venison pasties, if you'd like to share them.”
Aziraphale tied Bertha's reins to a nearby branch, and followed Friar Tuck along the river bank. “It's against the Rule of my Order to eat meat,” he said mildly. “And venison? That's a Royal feast you're inviting me to, isn't it?”
The Friar sat down heavily on the riverbank and delved into a little basket beside his fishing rod. “Ah, I'm afraid you have me there,” he said. “This was, indeed, once one of the King's deer.”
Aziraphale looked at the proffered pasty, now well aware that it was the fruits of sin. If this was made from meat from the King's deer, then someone had been guilty of poaching. He doubted that the poacher had been Tuck – he looked more suited to fishing than stalking deer – but certainly someone of his acquaintance had shot the deer. He remembered Prior Ralph's warnings about outlaws.
He also remembered his manners – it would be terribly rude not to take a pasty when it was offered to him. “I dare say I could get a dispensation for this,” he said, “since I'm travelling.” He bit into the pasty; the pastry was exactly the right flaky texture, and the venison inside was tender and... “Mmmh! This is delicious!” Aziraphale said.
They were disturbed by the sound of whistling from the road. Friar Tuck beamed. “I know that voice,” he said, and stepped through the bushes towards the road.
Aziraphale emerged from the bushes behind Tuck to see a man wearing a tunic of Lincoln green, with a bow slung over one shoulder and a sword at his side. “Oh, hello, Tuck,” he said. “I didn't know you were here. I thought someone must have carelessly left their mule unattended. I didn't realise it belonged to your friend.”
“Not exactly a friend, Robin – we've only just met,” Tuck said. “This is Friar Ezra.”
Aziraphale, his mouth still full of pasty, gave a little wave. Here, undoubtedly, was the poacher of the King's deer.
“I was fishing,” Tuck went on, “but I was just thinking of packing up anyway. The fish aren't biting today. And then I met Friar Ezra here.”
“In that case,” the outlaw said, taking the reins of the mule, “I'm afraid I'll have to insist that you join us for dinner.”
And so Aziraphale stumbled into the encampment of the outlaws, blindfolded and led along by the Friar, while the outlaw led his mule.
“Sorry about that,” said the outlaw, as the blindfold came off, “but we can't have any of our guests knowing where our secret encampment is.” He held out his hand. “Welcome to Sherwood! My name is Robin Hood.”
Aziraphale took his hand tentatively, and shook it. “Guest?” he asked, “or prisoner?”
“Well, we'll expect you to pay for dinner,” Robin said. “After that, we'll take you back to the road. Blindfolded, of course.”
“Oh, dear,” Aziraphale said. “I'm afraid I don't carry any money....”
“Then we'll have to find another way for you to pay for our hospitality,” Robin said. He was distracted by the approach of a tall, bearded man carrying a quarterstaff. “What is it, John?”
“We've got some other guests you need to see, Robin,” John said. “I found them wandering near the village of Wickham.”
Four children were sitting huddled together near the camp fire. Robin squatted down beside them. “And what brings you into Sherwood?” he asked gently.
“Are you Robin Hood, sir?” the oldest boy asked. As he nodded, the boy went on: “We were looking for you, sir. We didn't know what else to do. The King's foresters came and took father to Nottingham, because he'd been cutting wood in the forest.”
Robin looked serious. “They've been holding a Forest Law Court,” he said. “What happened to your father?”
“He was fined. The foresters came to our cottage, and they took everything – the pig, and the chickens, and the sack of flour that was meant to last us till next harvest, and the donkey, and they said it still wasn't enough.”
“I know these children, Robin,” Tuck said. “Your father's Edward the wood turner, isn't he? And you're Edward, and Edith, and Margaret and Roger.”
The boy – Edward - nodded. “We're only supposed to take fallen wood, but that isn't enough, and father needs bigger pieces to make his bowls – they took all the bowls he hadn't sold yet, too.”
“And where's your father now?” Robin asked.
“He's still at Nottingham Castle, sir. He said he was going to ask the Sheriff for more time to pay the fine. When he didn't come back, we decided to look for you.”
“I doubt he'll have any luck with that,” John said. “The Sheriff being such a grasping, greedy.... Norman,” he finished lamely as Robin gave him a sharp glance.
Aziraphale came closer. “Where's your mother?” he asked.
The oldest girl, Edith, shrugged. “She ran off with a pedlar last year. I do all the mothering now.” Aziraphale sighed - the girl couldn't be any older than twelve – and he came to a decision. He unhitched his mule from where Robin had tied her up, and placed the reins firmly into the boy's hands. “Here – take her. Her name's Bertha, after a Queen of Kent.”
“Kent hasn't got a Queen,” said Edward.
“Yes, well, it did once,” Aziraphale said.
“Eleanor's our Queen,” said the little girl, Margaret.
“She's not the Queen, silly – she's the Queen Mother,” said Edith. “King Richard's wife is the Queen, and she's called Berengaria.”
“Edith was a Queen's name, too,” Aziraphale said softly.
“Come on,” said Robin. “Dinner's nearly ready. We've got some good venison stew. Little John here will look after the mule for you, and then we'll think about what we can do to help.”
Long tables were set up in the clearing, and the outlaws were already filling their bowls from the great cauldron over the cooking fire. Robin handed Aziraphale a wooden bowl and a spoon. “You didn't have to do that, Friar Ezra,” he said. “We would have left you the mule.”
“Nonsense – the children need it. I can get another mule, and I'm quite capable of walking.”
As dusk fell, some of the outlaws sat talking by the fires, while the rest bedded down wherever they happened to be lying. Aziraphale noticed that guards were positioned in trees around the camp. He wondered where the outlaws slept when it rained, or in the winter when snow was on the ground.
He could have just walked out, but then he would have been lost in the greenwood – and besides, he wanted to know what would happen to the children. They had eaten as if they hadn't seen decent food for days, and were now curled up in a pile under a nearby tree, fast asleep.
Aziraphale sat with his back to a tree trunk, watching the camp through half-closed eyes. He had a copy of Bede's De Tempiborus in his belt pouch, since he would be visiting the monk-historian's shrine soon. He had some interesting ideas about the date of the beginning of the world - but it was too dark to read and, since Aziraphale didn't need to sleep, it promised to be a long night.
It had been made very clear to him, in the briefings he'd had from Heaven, that angels should be firmly on the side of Law and Order. There had to be Order in human society, as there was in Heaven. So Heaven had a hierarchy with God at the top, followed by the Archangels, with the ranks of seraphim, cherubim, thrones, dominions, virtues, powers, principalities, and the lesser archangels and angels, all with their duties and responsibilities. Likewise human society, in Europe at least, had a hierarchy with the Pope at the top, followed by Kings and nobles and bishops and knights and so on, with peasants at the bottom. If society didn't have that structure, there would be chaos, and that was just what the powers of Hell were trying to bring about.
Yet here he was, sympathising with the outlaws, and with the innocent children who were suffering because of the Law. He had seen at once that Friar Tuck was a good person, even though he did enjoy venison from the King's deer, and Robin and Little John had been kind to the children, even though John had grumbled a bit about taking care of the mule. It seemed to him that kindness was more important than Law and Order, whatever Gabriel might say.
Dawn arrived with a deafening dawn chorus from birds singing all around the outlaw camp. It would have been impossible to sleep through it, even if Aziraphale had been sleeping. Over by the cooking fire, outlaws were starting to organise breakfast. There was porridge cooking in the big cauldron, and bread and cheese laid out on one of the long tables. Everyone seemed to know what they were supposed to be doing, and they just did it, willingly. There seemed to be nobody in command shouting orders, as there would be in a military camp or even a castle's kitchen. Aziraphale was impressed, and his estimation of Robin's leadership qualities went up considerably.
He took some bread and cheese, just for the look of the thing, and wandered over to where Friar Tuck was breaking his fast with a bowl of porridge. Robin came to sit on the bench beside Tuck – he had gone for a hunk of bread and cheese too. “We'll be getting you on the road to Nottingham soon, Friar Ezra,” he said cheerfully.
“Thank you,” said Aziraphale. He looked across to where the four children were shovelling porridge into their mouths enthusiastically. “What's going to happen to them?” he asked.
Robin chuckled. “I can't tell you that,” he said. “You'd go straight to the Sheriff, and then where would we be?”
“I wouldn't!” Aziraphale said, “but I see your point.”
Robin looked at him thoughtfully. “No, I don't think you would. It's a pity you're only passing through. We need all the allies we can muster in these dark times while King Richard is out of the country.”
“He's doing the Lord's work, as a Crusader,” Aziraphale murmured. It was what he'd be expected to say, though he wasn't entirely convinced of it. He was glad he was no longer assigned to the Holy Land – he wasn't sure he'd like what was happening there up close.
“I was a Crusader too, Friar,” Robin said tersely. “And when I came back from 'doing the Lord's work' I ended up as an outlaw in the greenwood, my house and lands taken from me. No, Richard has been away too long, and his absence has enabled unjust men to come to power – like the Sheriff, in Nottingham. Like his brother John. They don't care about the common people. They just care about themselves, and getting as much wealth as they can before Richard returns.”
“And you're – redressing the balance?” Aziraphale asked. “Re-distributing some of that wealth?”
“Somebody has to,” Robin said grimly. “I mean, look around you at the men here. All of them have fallen foul of unjust laws. None of them chose the life of a criminal....”
“I have heard Alan-a-dale commit crimes against music,” Tuck said, with a twinkle in his eye.
Robin smiled, and relaxed. “You don't want to hear a speech about justice over breakfast,” he said. “If you're ready, I'll take you to the high road.”
“I have errands to do in Nottingham, too,” said Friar Tuck. “I'll just collect my fishing rod.”
As Aziraphale was led along, blindfolded, it occurred to him that this would probably be the only chance he would get to find out more about Robin Hood and the outlaws.
“You said, back at the camp, that King Richard had been gone too long,” he began.
He heard Robin chuckle. “Do you want to hear that speech about justice now?” he asked.
“I think we can take that as read,” Aziraphale said. “I was more interested in what you think should happen when King Richard returns.”
Robin was silent for a moment. “I suppose I'm hoping that the return of Richard will mean the return of a just rule for England. He's the only one who can control his brother, and when he did take an interest in England, we had fair Sheriffs who weren't just interested in lining their own pockets. All I can do is stay loyal to the true King, and act on that faith to the best of my ability, here in Sherwood.”
“And what about you – what do you want for yourself?”
Robin laughed. “I was Robert of Loxley before I was Robin Hood, so the return of my lands at Loxley would be a good thing! But – I knew the King in the Holy Land. If I could just get close to him and tell him what's been going on behind his back, as one Crusader to another....”
“Do you think he'll believe you?” Aziraphale asked.
“He should,” Robin said. “There's enough evidence of wrong-doing to show him.”
“And, do you believe he'll pardon you?” Aziraphale asked.
“I'm sure of it, if only I'm given the chance to plead my case before him.”
“May it come to pass.” The words had passed Aziraphale's lips almost before he had realised, with the full force of a formal blessing. Robin would get his chance to plead his case to the King, and the King would grant his pardon.
Aziraphale hoped he had done the right thing.
Robin stopped, and untied the blindfold. “Here we are, Friar, a little closer to Nottingham than where I found you. I wish you a safe journey from here.”
“Thank you,” Aziraphale said, lifting his hand in the gesture of blessing, “and may God bless you.” It was only the smallest of blessings, this time, such as a human friar might give. Robin Hood grinned at him, and disappeared back into the greenwood, whistling.
Aziraphale looked at Friar Tuck uncertainly. “Is it safe for you to go into Nottingham?” he asked.
Friar Tuck chuckled. “Just because I come and go freely at the outlaw's camp, don't assume I am one of them,” he said. “As far as the world is aware, I am a law-abiding friar and if anyone, such as the Sheriff, for instance, thinks that I am fraternising with thieves and robbers, they can do nothing about it. The Sheriff is responsible for secular law. I have the benefit of clergy – I am subject only to canon law, as you should well know.”
Aziraphale strolled along beside Friar Tuck for a while, enjoying the early summer morning.
“I've been wondering,” the Friar said at last. “Where do you originally come from, Friar Ezra?”
Aziraphale wasn't really paying attention. He was watching a bumble bee crawl across a frothy pancake of elderflower on a bush by the road. “Originally? Well, that would be the Garden....”
“I knew it – I thought you had to be from Kent, or why would you have named your mule after Queen Bertha?”
Aziraphale smiled. Of course, Kent was known as the Garden of England. It was as good a place as any to claim to come from, and he had set out from Canterbury on this journey.
“You're a long way from home, then,” Tuck continued.
“Someone had to go to visit the Prince Bishop of Durham,” Aziraphale said. “I happened to be chosen.”
“Are you planning to visit St Cuthbert's shrine?” Tuck asked.
“I shall certainly make time for that,” Aziraphale said. “And the Venerable Bede is buried there, too.” He had liked both men. He had visited Cuthbert at Lindisfarne, before he went off to his hermitage on the Farne Islands, and had popped in to Monkwearmouth and Jarrow from time to time to visit Bede. “I also understand they have an excellent library at Durham.”
“Ah, you're a scholar, then!” Tuck nodded to himself, as if he had thought as much.
“I like libraries,” Aziraphale said modestly. “I wouldn't compare myself with someone like Bede.”
“I always enjoy it when Bede's homilies come up in the Monastic Office,” Tuck said. “When I'm back at the monastery, of course. I spend a good deal of my time away from it these days.” He sighed. “I don't get as much time in the library as I would like. The next time I go back, I want to get my hands on the new copy of Geoffrey of Monmouth that they've acquired.”
“The History?” Aziraphale asked. “He took quite a bit from Bede's Ecclesiastical History, you know. And his stories about King Arthur are very entertaining!” Aziraphale had some happy memories of Camelot, in that brief golden time before everything went so horribly wrong.
“I shall look forward to that enormously,” Tuck said. “Tell me, what do you think of St Augustine's City of God?”
“Ah, we're back to justice again, I see,” Aziraphale smiled. “It was all quite clear in his day, wasn't it? Secular justice was an expansion of divine justice, and it all made perfect sense. Things seem to be far more complicated these days.”
“St. Thomas a Becket found that out, to his cost,” Tuck said. “Things changed a lot under Old King Henry, not all of them for the better.”
“But the King is anointed by God as the supreme secular authority,” Aziraphale said, because he felt he had to put forward Heaven's official views.
Tuck sighed again. “And there's our problem in England, as Robin said. The King isn't here to take charge, and wicked men use the law for their own ends.”
Aziraphale couldn't disagree. It was a knotty problem, and he needed to think about the implications of it. They walked for a little while in silence.
“What are your thoughts on William of Malmesbury?” Tuck asked after a while.
“The Deeds of the Kings of England?” Aziraphale asked. “We do seem to be thinking about Kings a lot this morning.”
“It does have a certain relevance at the moment,” Tuck said, “and it's not often I can talk to someone who appreciates the wider picture. There aren't many scholars among the outlaws, alas.”
“Robin seems very knowledgeable,” Aziraphale said.
“Yes, well, he had an education. But I know what he thinks about these matters. It's good to get another perspective.”
“I always think it's best to go back to Scripture,” Aziraphale said thoughtfully, “rather than relying on more recent authors. 'It is an abomination for kings to commit wicked acts, for a throne is established in righteousness',” he quoted. “And a little further on in Proverbs, it says 'The king gives stability to the land by justice, but a man who takes bribes overthrows it'.”
Friar Tuck chuckled. “Ah, I can cap that one! 'If a king judges the poor with truth, his throne will be established forever'. It does seem that we have very similar views on the subject,” he went on. “I'm very glad I met you, Friar Ezra.”
They were coming out of the woodland now, and into farmland, so Aziraphale assumed that Nottingham could not be far away. “I don't suppose you know where the nearest Carmelite monastery is?” he asked. “I need to get another mule from somewhere, and I only have a few pennies in my purse.”
“You're in luck – the Whitefriars have a monastery right there on the edge of Nottingham,” Friar Tuck said. “I can show you the way.”
They crossed the bridge over the River Trent. Ahead of them, across the river meadows, were the walls of Nottingham. Tuck waved a hand across the meadows. “The Whitefriars monastery is over there, outside the town walls,” he said.
“I'll be able to make my own way from here then,” Aziraphale said. “Thank you for an enlightening conversation.” He raised his hand and gave Tuck a small blessing – something to keep the Sheriff from becoming suspicious about his activities.
“It's been most stimulating,” Tuck said. “I always enjoy a good theological debate, and it's a pleasure to talk to someone so knowledgeable for a change. Well,” he sighed. “I suppose I won't see you again – but if you do happen to have some free time later on, I have business at St Mary's in the English quarter of town.”
He stumped off towards the town gates, leaving Aziraphale to cross the river meadows.
A little way off, someone was putting a fine black stallion through its paces. The rider was wearing black and red, and was trailed by two men in black and red livery, riding more ordinary horses. The rider had flowing dark red hair, and looked suspiciously familiar.
As he watched, the rider looked round towards him, and guided his horse in Aziraphale's direction.
“I thought it was you,” Aziraphale said, as Crowley brought his horse to a standstill beside him, “riding a flashy horse like that.”
Crowley leaned on his pommel and looked down at the angel. “Of course I've got a flashy black stallion. I've got a reputation to uphold. Don't tell me you walked all the way from London?”
“Canterbury,” Aziraphale corrected him, “and I did have a mule.” He looked away, embarrassed. “I – gave it away,” he muttered quickly.
He glanced back at Crowley to see a huge grin on his face. “You did what, angel?”
“Gave it away. The children needed it more than I did.”
“Same old angel,” Crowley said, still grinning. “What are you doing in this neck of the woods anyway?”
“If you must know, I'm on my way to Durham to bless the Prince Bishop. What are you doing here?”
“Thought I'd call in on the Sheriff on my way back from Scotland,” he said. “Do a bit of fomenting.”
“I would have thought you'd be avoiding the forces of law and order,” Aziraphale said. “Wouldn't you be more comfortable tempting the local outlaws into some more illegal activities?”
“Why go for the outlaws when the serious illegal activities are being done by the so-called forces of law and order, angel? The Sheriff's as corrupt as they come, and you should know by now that Hell just loves corrupt and tyrannical officials – and rulers. I mean, Prince John is well on the way to being one of ours. He's so easy to tempt there's hardly any fun in it, but he's got the power to make a lot of people's lives miserable, and that's pretty much my job description in a nutshell. The Sheriff just wants to keep Prince John happy – and line his own pockets, of course. This time I just had to make him think that Prince John was checking up on him, and his own guilty conscience did the rest.”
“And now you can send a report telling Hell how clever you are,” Aziraphale said drily.
“Of course. So far as the Sheriff's concerned, the only fly in the ointment is this Robin Hood character. Once he and his men are dealt with, nobody will be able to stand against the Sheriff, and he can do what he likes – maybe even get promoted.”
“And by 'dealt with' I presume you mean killed?”
Crowley shrugged. “Not my department. The means are up to him – but he does fantasise about a nice public hanging.”
“You do realise that, without Robin Hood to help them, there are peasants who will starve? You don't want starving children on your conscience, do you?”
“Haven't got a conscience, angel. I'm a demon, remember?”
Still, he looked concerned.
“Starving kids?” he asked. “The ones you gave your mule to, you mean?”
Aziraphale nodded. “And Robin Hood is helping them. I'm glad I've seen you, as a matter of fact,” he went on. “I was worried at first that Heaven would disapprove if I took the side of the outlaws – Gabriel's very keen on Law and Order, you know. But since you're on the Sheriff's side, he couldn't possibly object if I gave the outlaws a helping hand. It would thwart your evil plan....”
“The Sheriff's evil plan....”
“The Sheriff's evil plan, then.”
“And balance things out?” Crowley asked.
“I suppose so, yes,” Aziraphale said. “Are you trying to tempt me into some sort of Arrangement again, Crowley?”
The demon shrugged. “Worth a try. We've done it before, after all.” He stroked his chin thoughtfully. “So, entirely in the spirit of co-operation – and you didn't hear it from me....”
“Of course,” Aziraphale said.
“The Sheriff is sending the fines from the Forest Law Court to Newark tomorrow, through the greenwood.”
“And – he'll have extra troops hidden, following the official party, so that when Robin Hood ambushes them, they can be ambushed in turn. And here's the clever bit – the money won't be on the cart. It'll be loaded on a pedlar's mule and sent by a back way through the greenwood, so even if the outlaws do capture the cart with the money chest, there'll be no money in it.”
“So if I happened to mention this to someone who could pass on the information to the outlaws....” Aziraphale said, in the same thoughtful tones as Crowley,
“...he'd be able to slip out of the trap, and balance would be maintained,” Crowley said.
Aziraphale did not mention that he had already given the blessing that would ensure that Robin would escape the trap, but that hardly mattered. It was the co-operation that was the point. Dangerous as it was, he was becoming accustomed to co-operating with Crowley.
Crowley moved his hands on the reins, just a little, and the black stallion turned his head towards the town gates. “Right, then. I'll be getting back to the Castle,” he said. “See you sometime, angel.”
Aziraphale stood back to let the horse turn round, then Crowley touched his spurs to the horse's side and cantered away, his servants trailing behind him.
The Whitefriars' monastery was not far away, but Aziraphale did not go there at once. First, he walked up into Nottingham.
It took him a little time to find St Mary's, but Friar Tuck was still there. It was obviously a day for giving out a dole to the poor, because he was helping to bring trays of bread to the church porch where the priest was giving it out to a small crowd of ragged people. Aziraphale slipped round the back of the crowd and into the church.
“I didn't expect to see you so soon, Friar Ezra,” Tuck said.
Aziraphale took up another tray of bread and followed Tuck to the porch with it. “Yes, well – I happened to meet a – an acquaintance – who's staying at the Castle, and he gave me some disturbing news.”
Tuck looked at him quizzically. “That's enough bread for the moment,” he said. “Come here to the side chapel where we can pray together.”
They knelt together before the altar in the Lady Chapel. “Now, what have you discovered?” Tuck asked, over his prayerfully folded hands.
Aziraphale had his hands together in prayer, too, and he took a second to send a hurried prayer on High that he was doing the right thing. “The Sheriff is sending the fines from the Forest Law Court to Newark tomorrow,” he murmured, in Latin so that anyone listening would think they were praying together. “But it's a trap for Robin – he will have extra troops hidden to fall on the outlaws when they ambush the Sheriff. Also, the money will not be on the cart they are escorting. It is being taken by another road disguised as the load on a pedlar's mule. I thought you ought to know.”
“Amen,” Tuck said, and crossed himself. “I'll make sure the information gets to the one who needs to hear it,” he said, “and may I say you speak most elegant Latin?” he continued. “Where did you learn it?”
Aziraphale smiled slightly. “Rome,” he said.
He arrived at the Whitefriars' monastery in plenty of time for Nones, and had very little difficulty in persuading the Prior to lend him his own mule, which Aziraphale would of course return when he got back from Durham. He chanted the psalms that evening with a little extra prayer that all would go well for Robin Hood and his outlaws on the morrow.
He could do no more. The following morning after Lauds, he set off north on the Prior's mule.
Lord Crowleigh had decided it was time for him to continue his journey south, so he and his servants attached themselves to the Sheriff's party the next day. Truthfully, Crowley just wanted to see what would happen when the outlaws ambushed the party. He was rather looking forward to seeing the Sheriff humiliated.
The fines in goods that the King's foresters had collected filled a good sized cart – sacks of flour, a cage full of chickens, a few sacks and barrels with indeterminate contents. There was even a pig, and a miserable looking pair of hunting dogs. Tied to the back of the cart was a donkey. As far as Crowley could see, these were all goods of low value, hardly worth the effort of collecting them, except to make the peasants they had been taken from even poorer and more miserable than they had been before.
The nearer they got to Newark, the twitchier the Sheriff got – until they were out of the greenwood and there was no chance that Robin Hood would ambush them at all.
Crowley waited until they could actually see the walls of Newark before he came to ride beside the Sheriff, his black stallion keeping pace with the Sheriff's grey. “Outlaws, eh?” he said, with a big cheesy grin. “Just can't rely on them to follow the plan.”
The Sheriff scowled at him. “They may not have attacked us today,” he said, “but my plan is still a good one. Just wait until the money arrives.”
They arrived at Newark.
They had dinner at the Castle there.
They sat up late, drinking wine - until it was obvious that the mule with the money was not going to arrive. It was vastly amusing to Crowley, to see the Sheriff getting more and more irritable as the evening went on.
Crowley could have carried on drinking all night, but there came a point when the Sheriff was looking moodily into the depths of his goblet and the Seneschal of the castle was failing to conceal his yawns. Crowley stood, and stretched, and turned towards the spiral stairs that led to the tower where he had been given a room.
His parting shot, before he retired for the night, was: “I wouldn't like to be in your shoes when Prince John finds out about this.”
The Sheriff flung his goblet at the wall, still half full of wine, and Crowley could still hear him swearing when he got to the door of his room.