I’ve often wondered how legends get started. Like the Robin Hood story. How did itbegin? Where there heroes with similar names that gave birth to the legend? Could this be the one?
Leofric rode his pony through the English forest. After leaving the Highlands, the air became warmer and he traveled without his cloak revealing a broad chest and heavy shoulders. The journey appealed to his curiosity; he had always wondered about life outside Scotland and now he was experiencing it. Were other people the same? Or did they act differently?
In his late thirties, he wore a green vest and a woolen kilt with the green, red and black colors of his clan. A single-edged battle ax rested in holster on his backpack. Both his dark brown hair and beard without a mustache had traces of silver.
Because of the narrowness of the path, Leofric’s nephew followed him on his gray and brown war charger that dwarfed Leofric’s pony. Duncan, tall and lean, had light brown hair, blue eyes and large ears. He wore a kilt with the same clan colors, but with a tan shirt and black boots. He was a more than a decade younger than his uncle, Leofric, and two feet taller.
Both men belonged to the MacNut clan, a small, obscure tribe who lived in the extreme northern Highlands.
The trees blocked most of the sunlight and they rode in perpetual gloom through still air filled with the smell of decaying leaves and the occasional sounds of a small animal. Leofric turned to Duncan. “I see a sign up ahead. Maybe it’ll tell us where we are.” He lifted the scrap of green cloth over his right eye and knuckled the empty socket
“Maybe it’ll tell us how to get to London,” Duncan replied. Both men spoke with a Scottish brogue.
Leofric rode up to the sign, a wood plank with letters carved into it. It read, “Sherwood Forest. Normans ain’t welcome.”
“I wonder who Norman is?” Leofric asked aloud.
“The Normans conquered England back a generation or so,” Duncan said. “The sign reads like some Saxons are still holding out against the new masters. At least we know the name of where we are. Perhaps someone can give us more detail.”
Leofric urged his horse down the road. Not far past the sign, he noticed that the tree branches looked pruned, as if someone had deliberately opened up the space over the road. Why would someone go to all that work, he wondered.
An otherworldly scream punctured the forest stillness. Leofric looked ahead where the hideous noise came from and saw a pig flying through the air. Backwards! The pig passed over his head by a few inches. He couldn’t tell if it squealed in terror or joy.
He whirled around to see the pig slam into Duncan’s chest, knocking him off his horse. He landed on his back with a thud.
Leofric watched as the pig flew back. This time he noticed the stout rope harness holding up the animal. It flew about thirty feet down the road then reversed course and came toward them again. From the absence of cursing, he assumed Duncan had been knocked out.
“The bloody pig doesn’t miss the front rider very often,” a snarling voice said.
Leofric whirled to his left and stared at an arrow nocked in a long bow pointing at his head. A surge of fear spread upward from his groin. Six other archers emerged from the trees. Each wore a forest green jerkin and hose. The one who spoke had a hood on his jerkin. Pulled forward, it hid his face in shadows.
Leofric froze and almost stopped breathing. He wondered who the archers were and what they intended to do.
“Ach!” Duncan groaned. “What happened?”
“Lie still or yer a dead man,” a voice behind Leofric said.
“Now then,” the first archer said. “Let’s begin the trial. Me name is Robbin’ ‘Oody and this is me patch of land. Trespass at your peril. Are you Norman scum?”
The pig continued to swing back and forth.
“I . . . . never met a Norman,” Leofric said. He turned his head slightly so he could see all the archers with his peripheral vision. He couldn’t see a way to get out this mess without both of them getting killed. At this short range, the arrows couldn’t miss.
“Can I stand up?” Duncan asked.
“No. Stay down.”
“You Welsh raiders?”
“No,” Leofric replied.
“Murderers onna run?” Robbin’ ‘Oody lessened the tension in the bow string slightly.
“Priests or monks?”
Leofric shook his head.
Robbin’ shifted his feet and sighed. Leofric had a hunch they might get out of the situation alive.
“Where are ya from, then. And what are you?” The tension in his bow relaxed a bit and the point of the arrows lowered. The other archers did the same.
“Scotland,” Duncan replied from the ground. “I’m a knight-accountant and this is my uncle and companion.”
Leofric responded to the lowered arrows by gulping air.
“What’re you doin’ in me forest?” Robbin’ ‘Oody asked.
“We’re seeking adventure and eventually hope to make our way to London,” Duncan replied
Robbin’ pointed his arrow at the ground and let the tension out of the bowstring. “Well, if you ain’t any of those things I asked, you can use me forest.” He stuck the arrow in a quiver on his back. His men also unloaded their bows.
Leofric relaxed his taut muscles.
“Let’s go to the Blue Boar Inn and get a mug of ale. You can tell me the news from outside the forest.” He whistled and another man brought a horse from deeper in the woods. He mounted and jerked his head. “This way. I have need of a few bold adventurers.”
Leofric had a feeling they were headed for an unlikely adventure.
“Aren’t your men coming with us?” Duncan asked.
“Naw. Four of them guard the road against the sheriff’s men and other Normans. The rest have to take care of the damned pig. If it doesn’t get two or three more full swings, it’ll be inna testy mood when it gets loose.”
Robbin’ ‘Oody led them down the road a mile or more before the forest gave way to a small clearing and the Blue Boar Inn, a wattle and daub hut with a thatched roof. Inside, the small tap room stank of stale ale and peat smoke. Robbin’ waved to the old man behind a bar and ordered three mugs of ale before walking out a door in the rear where three trestle tables stood under the shade of immense oak trees. Two men sat at one table and greeted Robbin’.
Robbin’ sat down at their table and jerked his head for Leofric and Duncan to join him. He pushed back his hood, revealing his features for the first time. He had dark hair and eyes, large, white teeth and a thin mustache. Leofric thought he looked like a handsome rogue.
The bartender placed leather mugs on the table and retreated.
Leofric picked one up. The leather looked ancient and felt greasy to his hand.
“This here big fellow is called Little John,” Robbin’ said. “And the other is named Friar Tuck. Both of them are wanted by the sheriff in Nottingham, as I am. They are feared almost as much me. Now then, lads, these two strangers are passin’ through the forest lookin’ to find an adventure. If they’re willin’ to tell me their tale, I’m willin’ to listen.”
“You’re outlaws then.” Duncan said in a challenging voice.
Leofric heard the tone, winced and placed a hand on Duncan’s arm hoping to prevent him from saying more. Duncan’s training often showed through; much knowledge, not so much smarts. “I’d say they’re just trying to get by.”
“Aye,” Robbin’ replied. “The sheriff would like nothin’ better than to hang us all.”
Leofric examined the other two over the lip of the leather mug. Little John was tall and burly with stringy brown hair that reached his shoulders. He wore a green cloak with a hood and had a large, stripped tree branch by his side. Friar Tuck was medium height and stout. His huge gut threatened to burst the material in the coarse brown robe he wore and his blonde hair was tonsured. Both men appeared to be around thirty.
“So, let’s hear it.” Robbin’ gave Duncan a look of expectancy.
“I graduated from the Institute for Knight-Accountacy in Edinburgh a year ago,” Duncan said. “Leofric and I seek adventures and quests that will increase my fame and enrich our purses. We’ve been on the road for weeks with nothing to show for it.”
“Never heard of a knight-counter or whatever it was ya said,” Little John said. “What do they do?”
“Knight-Accountants protect the weak and balance the ledgers.” He pointed to the shield hanging from the pommel of his horse. “That’s the insignia of a Knight-Accountant.” The shield showed a naked sword blade interwoven through the wires of an abacus.
Little John sniffed. “Looks like lyre made by someone who didn’t know what he was doin’.”
“What do you do out here in the forest?”Leofric asked.
“Me and my lads steal from the rich and give to the poor.” Robbin’ winked at this two friends.
“You do?” Duncan’s mouth dropped open. “I’ll report this to the Academy. I’ll wager none of the instructors have heard of such a project. Hmm.” He tapped a finger on the table. “As long as I’m here, I can balance your ledgers, if you wish.”
Robbin’ and his friends looked at each other with puzzlement on their faces. “Ledgers?” Robbin’ replied.
“Suppose you obtain some coins.” Duncan assumed a scholarly air. “I’m sure you record it as income in a ledger. Then when you spend some of it, that gets recorded in the expense side of the ledger.” He looked at Robbin’ expectantly. “Right?”
Robbin’ shook his head. “Money never lasts long enough to worry about writin’ down what happened to it.”
“I like the idea,” Friar Tuck said. “The Lord loves orderly men, even if they are thieves.”
“It’s tough makin’ a livin’ out of stealin’ from the Normans,” Robbin’ said. “You wouldn’t believe what it costs to feed the mob I have livin’ here.” Robbin’ swept a hand to indicate the forest. “Archers, fighters, their womenfolk and their young ones. We even have some mother-in-laws livin’ out here.”
“Aye.” Tuck cackled. “In-laws living with the outlaws.”
Little John pulled a face as if he had heard the joke too many times.
“And the times are tough.” Little John banged his mug on the table. “It’s harder and harder to find folks worth robbin’.” He pointed to the battle tattoos and scars on Leofric’s arms. “You got the look of a warrior.”
“I’ve been in a couple of clan feuds,” Leofric replied. “Lost my eye in one of those brawls.”
“But,” Robbin’ said, “let’s talk business.” He drained his mug and yelled for the old man to bring five refills. “Now then, you said before you looked for adventures. I’m in need of a few sturdy fellows. Can I interest you inna enterprise that’ll strike a blow against tyrants and free an innocent lass cruelly captured by the no-good sheriff in Nottingham?”
“A damsel in distress!” Duncan grinned. “The very thing I hoped to be doing.”
“See, me lady love is held inna dungeon inna sheriff’s castle. He caught me Marian whilst she shopped inna Nottingham markets. He holds her to try to force me to give meself up.”
Little John and Friar Tuck chuckled.
“So, here’s me plan. Tomorrow, when the church bells peal midday, I’ll attack the castle from the river side with all me men. Whilst I have everyone’s attention, you two go in the front, fetch Marian from the dungeon and get her out of there.”
“You expect us to just walk into the castle?” Duncan said. “That’ll never work.”
“I’ve haven’t finished tellin’ you the whole plan.” Robbin’ took a swig from the refilled mug. “Any guards at the front will let you in. You see, tomorrow’s a market day and the market’s opposite the castle’s front. We’ll make an offer to one of the merchants to be sick tomorrow and Leofric here will take his place in the stall. We’ll dress him up as a woman — “
“I’m not shaving my beard.” Leofric crossed his arms and glared at Robbin’.
“No need. The merchant is from some far away land so we can put a veil on your face to cover the beard. Everyone’ll think you’re a woman.”
Little John chuckled. “Ya won’t have to worry about the soldiers botherin’ ya at the market. They’ll take one look at ya and run away.”
Little John ignored Leofric’s angry look.
“You’ll dress like a castle soldier.” Robbin pointed to Duncan. “We have plenty of uniforms. You’ll approach the booth and accuse him — or her — of sellin’ stolen goods, a crime accordin’ to the sheriff and the bishop. You’ll arrest him — or her — and take him to the castle. When the guards hear about the arrest, they’ll open the gate and show you to the dungeon.”
“It’s been too long since we had some fun with the sheriff and his men,” Little John said.
“I don’t know if I like this plan,” Leofric said, “and not just because of my disguise.”
“It’s awfully complicated,” Duncan said. “Complicated plans always seem to go awry.”
“Aye, ’tis complicated, I’ll grant you that,” Robbin’ said. “All me plans are complicated. I love it when a plan falls apart. It’s much more fun improvisin’.”
“Verily,” Friar Tuck said. “The Lord loves he who can improvise.”
“Oh, if you run across the sheriff, try not to kill him. He’s rather stupid and his replacement may be a lot smarter.”
Early on the following morning, Leofric opened the leather bag Robbin’ had given him and pulled out a handful of trinkets. Mostly brass and colored glass, he placed the merchandise on the counter that faced the main street in Nottingham’s market square. Robbin’ said the trinkets came from various robberies and were so unappealing that none of the forest women would wear them. He checked to make sure his veil and scarf remained in place. Between the two, only his eyes and part of his forehead showed. Wearing the long, drab, brown kirtle made him uncomfortable, as did not having his battle ax. The dress, altered by Little John’s wife, had long sleeves to cover his tattoos and scars.
He examined the area around the stall. A block away and to his left rose the hulking castle. Its towering walls loomed over the town. Beyond the castle, a river flowed past and he could see cargo barges traveling in both directions. His stall was the third from the end and another dozen crowded together to his right. Across the street, a second row of stalls held a variety of merchandise and food. Further away from the castle, the street had a blacksmith, two taverns and a few bawdy houses. Even this early in the day, people strolled in the dirt street and examined the goods on display. Duncan had stationed himself behind the houses in the next street. He would show up after the attack began.
More people crowded the market and he felt increasingly self-conscious so he watched from the shadows at the back of the stall. He shuddered at the thought of his father and mother seeing him dressed this way. He had already threatened Duncan with bodily harm if he ever mentioned this back in Scotland.
Two women approached, their eyes on the trinkets. From the quality of their kirtles, he knew they were rich. Leofric stepped forward. The women looked up and one audibly gasped; the other put a hand in front of her mouth and shuddered.
“Helpin’ ya?” Leofric inquired in a squeaky voice. At Robbin’s insistence, he talked with an accent to give the impression he came from an exotic foreign land.
The women jerked their eyes off him and went back to examining the chains, necklaces and earrings. “These are quite unusual. Where are they from?” one woman asked.
“Hmm. Where is that?”
“Far away. Yez, very far.” He tapped the counter. “Made by natives.”
The woman held up a brooch. “How much?”
“For youse.” Leofric held up one finger. “Shillin’. I loze money but youse look like nice vomen so I cut mine throat to make good deal.”
“Ridiculous. A shilling indeed.”
“Better deal.” Leofric pushed three pieces of jewelry together. “All dese,” he held up two fingers, “shillin’.”
“Hmm.” The women exchanged glances. One pushed a necklace over with the other three pieces. “All four for two shillings.”
Leofric put a hand over his heart and sobbed out loud. “Mine children vill starve.” He pulled a face and the women stepped back in alarm. “Is deal.” He held out his hand for payment. The women handed over two coins. Leofric made a show of examining the coins before nodding. “Is good coins.” He scooped up the jewelry and handed them to the women. As they left, he overheard one of them say, “Filthy foreigners. They ought to stay home instead of coming here.” The second replied, “Did you ever see such an ugly woman?”
By mid-day he had become furious at the number of people who discussed his ugliness. He wanted to get on with the action and fidgeted while waiting for the attack to begin.
A sergeant and two soldiers swaggered down the street from the castle. They wore tan hose, black trews, red tunics and black capes, the livery of the Sheriff of Nottingham. All carried a sword on their hip. The sergeant saw him and frowned. He walked over to the stall. “Where’s whats-his-name?”
“Zick. Bad fever.” Leofric coughed theatrically and snuffed his nose. The sergeant paled and stepped back just as the church bells rang out. The soldiers and everyone in the square crossed themselves except Leofric.
“Ugh. These foreign women sure are bad lookin’,” a soldier said.
“What’s that?” The sergeant stood with an ear cocked in the direction of the castle. Sounds of alarm came from the walls. “Bloody ‘ell. We’re gonna get a recall signal.”
“But it’s our day off,” a soldier whined.
Leofric thought fast. He had to keep the soldiers from going back to the castle and joining the defense. The fewer soldiers inside the castle, the easier the rescue would be. “Vot? Ya crazy inna head? Vaitin’ for to get recalled inta battle on day off? Get to tavern vere ya can’t hear ze recall.”
The sergeant looked confused. “She’s right, Sarge,” a soldier said. “Let’s get outta here. Quick.” He pulled the sergeant by the arm and they fled down the street just as Duncan made his appearance wearing the same uniform as the sergeant and his men. He walked toward the booth.
A women looked over Leofric’s display, ignoring the noise of fighting. She picked up a necklace. “This was stolen from me by forest robbers. Where did you get this? Do you work with that gang? I’m going to call the sheriff’s men.”
“I’ll take care of this, my lady,” Duncan said. “I’ll bring her to the castle. They have ways of making her talk.”
The woman gave Duncan a wary look. “What about my necklace?”
“Take it.” Duncan reached across the counter. “Get out here, you ugly wench.”
Leofric gave him a furious look. Duncan responded with a huge grin.
While he marched toward the castle, the sounds of rioting came from his stall where folks fought to snatch a piece of the jewelry.
“Do you have my ax?” Leofric asked.
“It’s under my cape.”
Duncan held Leofric’s arm with one hand and carried his sword in the other hand while they approached the castle gates. After the alarm had sounded, the portcullis had dropped and Leofric wondered how they would get into the courtyard beyond the gate. A tense-looking corporal appeared behind the portcullis and said, “What’s this, then? Why are ya messin’ around out there when there’s a battle goin’ on?”
“I’ve just been assigned to the castle, corporal,” Duncan replied. “On my way here, I picked this one up for selling stolen goods. I’ll just pop her in the dungeon and join the fight. Let us in.”
The corporal jerked a thumb to Leofric’s right. “There’s a postern gate down the path. I’ll meet ya there.”
A hundred feet down a dirt path, they found an open door. As soon as they entered, the corporal slammed it shut and bolted it. They now stood in a courtyard. The castle consisted of a stone keep. Rising five stories, it gave a guard on top a view of the entire countryside.
“The dungeon’s through that door.” The soldier indicated the closest door. “You’ll be inna corridor. Go down the stairs at the end. The gaoler should be down there. The man’s a coward, so he’s probably hidin’ inna cell.” The man stared at Leofric. “Once she’s inna dungeon, she’ll scare all the rats away.”
Leofric uttered a low growl into his beard. Duncan shoved him toward the door. “Thanks corporal,” he called over his shoulder. “I’ll be back in a few minutes.”
When they reached the dungeons, a voice called out, “Wh . . . who’s there?”
“A guard. I have a prisoner,” Duncan replied. “Where are you?”
An old man peeked out of a cell with an open door. “Is the battle over yet?”
“No, and I have to defend the castle after you take the prisoner off my hands,” Duncan said. “Get out here and help me.”
The man came out of the cell rattling a bunch of keys.
“Where’s the other woman?” Duncan asked. “The one the sheriff caught in town?”
“Robbin’ ‘Oody’s girlfriend? The sheriff is keen on ‘er. She’s locked up onna top floor.” He cackled. “Next door to the sheriff’s rooms.”
Duncan gave the old man a tap on the head with the hilt of his sword and dragged him into a cell. He locked the door and dropped the keys on the floor.
“Give me my ax and let’s get to the top floor,” Leofric said. His veil had slipped down and he pulled it back in place. “We’ll have to do something with the corporal. He can see the stairs from where he’s guarding.” Leofric took the ax from Duncan and held it behind his back. “He’ll never let the two of us go up there without sounding an alarm.”
“Hmm. I think I have a way to get us close to him,” Duncan said, “then you surprise him.”
Returning to the courtyard, the corporal greeted them with a frown and dropped a hand onto his sword hilt. “Now what?”
“Mistaken identity,” Duncan said. “It turns out she’s the sheriff’s sister. I have to escort her home.”
“Are ye daft? The ugly git can’t be the sheriff’s sister.”
“Well, she is.”
“I think you’re tryin’ to weasel outta fighin’.” He had his sword half-way out of its scabbard when the back of Leofric’s ax hit him in the side of his head.
“Let’s go!” Leofric held up the edge of his kirtle in one hand and the ax in the other as he led the way up the keep’s stairs. On the second floor, they stood on a level with the fighting on the walls ten feet away. Leofric waved to Robbin’ who fought with three soldiers armed with pikes. He dodged pike thrusts and skewered the soldiers. With no one facing him at the moment, he called out “Where’s Marian?”
“She isn’t in the dungeons,” Leofric yelled back. “She’s up there.” He pointed to the top of the keep.
“Ahh. Finally, me plan falls apart.” Robbin’ yelled to his men, “Change of plan, mates. We’ll have to keep fightin’ a bit more.” He placed the sword between his teeth and grabbed a rope dangling from a hoist used to unload river barges. He swung outward then flew back to the walls, ramming a soldier with his feet. The soldier tumbled over the wall. His scream was followed by a splash. Robbin’ swung outward again and landed on his feet. “Hope the bugger can swim,” he said after taking the sword from his teeth. He looked around at the carnage and chaos. “What fun! Be good lads and give the cry of a male spotted owl when you free Marian. Three times.” He went back to fighting soldiers who had climbed a nearby ladder.
“We don’t know what that owl sounds like,” Leofric said.
“Not to worry,” Robbin’ replied in between thrusts and parries. “Just let me know somehow.”
Leofric ran up a few steps, but had to stop to get his feet untangled from his kirtle. Duncan charged past him. When they reached the last flight of stairs, he saw a face at the top looking down the stairs. The man had a neatly trimmed beard and a look of alarm. The man cursed and backed away from the landing. A moment later, a woman screeched. Duncan reached the landing and stopped. Leofric joined him and looked around. Through an open door, he saw the man standing behind a tall, lithe, dark-haired woman. The man held a knife to her throat. Lefric decided to take advantage of his disguise and checked to make sure his veil and scarf were in place. Holding his ax behind his back, he rushed into the room, screaming in a falsetto voice, “Safe me. Safe me, please.” He ran to the man and stopped partially behind him. “This monster vants to hafe his vay vith me. Oh, please safe me.”
“What?” The sheriff glanced down at Leofric then at Duncan. “Are you insane?”
Marian stamped her foot. “Are you ‘ere to rescue me or to ‘ave sport with this wretched woman?” She glared at Duncan.
“No one is rescuing you, my dear. If I can’t have you, Robbin’ certainly won’t. I’ll make sure of that.”
“Fie on you, sir,” Marian snarled.
Leofric swung the back of his ax into the sheriff’s groin.
The man exhaled loudly while groaning. He dropped the knife and fell to the floor doubled up in pain. Leofric tapped him in the head and the groaning stopped.
Marian kicked the sheriff in the ribs, twice. She looked at Leofric. “You poor brave thing. I’ll take care of you and protect you, but I don’t think I’ll be able to find a ‘usband for you.”
Leofric ripped off his veil and scarf and threw them to the floor. “Let’s get out of here so Robbin’ can stop fighting.”
Back on the second floor, Duncan yelled to get Robbin’ ‘Oody’s attention. “We got her.”
Marian waved a hand and blew a kiss. “‘Urry ‘ome,” she called out.
“Fun’s over, lads,” Robbin’ roared to his men. “Time to take our leave.”
Leofric, followed by Marian and Duncan, ran down the rest of the steps and reached the courtyard. The corporal sat with his back to the wall, his bloody head in his hands. He gave them a baleful look as they trotted past.
They used the postern gate to leave the castle and rushed towards the market square where a short, obese man in a black cassock with purple buttons saw them. His face turned red as he stared at Marian.
“Bloody ‘Ell,” she said. “It’s the bishop.”
The man stood in their path, spread his arms and said, “That woman is a prisoner. In the name of the Lord, I order you to return her to the castle, lest Almighty God smite you down.”
Duncan lowered a shoulder and crashed into the bishop, knocking him backward and into a wheel barrel filled with horse manure.
“Ooww,” Marian said. “The bishop’ll be needin’ a bath after that one. Well done.”
Back in the forest, Robbin’ ordered a feast to celebrate the rescue of Marian and the tweaking of the sheriff’s nose. The preparations took the entire afternoon. Leofric helped the woodsmen collect deadfall for the fires while Duncan showed Friar Tuck how to set up ledgers to track Robbin’s cash flow and expenses.
In late-afternoon, the women lit a half-dozen cook fires and, towards evening, a bonfire in the middle of the clearing. Little John broached three barrels of ale liberated from Nottingham on the way back from the castle raid. With full darkness, the music started as did the dancing. Three fiddles, a drum and two pipes played folk melodies. That ended when the food was ready.
Robbin’ insisted his new friends eat with him and Marian. Little John and Friar Tuck joined the group. They sat on the ground in a circle. In the firelight, Leofric thought Marian looked beautiful. She wore her dark brown tresses in two braids that dangled below her shoulders. Her blue eyes sparkled in the light and her cheeks were flushed from dancing with Robbin’.
The other men and women sat in small or large groups around the central fire. Everyone ate, drank, swapped jokes and lies and laughed.
Leofric couldn’t recall ever seeing a merrier group. “So you all live out here because of the sheriff?” he asked.
“Aye, and because of him, we steal from the rich and give to the poor,” Robbin’ winked at Marian who drank from a mug of ale. She snorted ale all over the two of them. “Of course, the poor we give to is us,” Robbin’ continued, “and the rich are all Normans.”
“That makes the stealing almost not a sin,” Friar Tuck said.
“We’re all outlaws for various reasons. If we try to live or work in Nottingham, every one of us will be thrown in gaol and many of us executed.” Robbin’ paused to drink his ale.
“Little John,” Marian said, “is wanted for beatin’ up a Norman knight who attacked a young mother. Friar Tuck preached sermons against the Normans’ seizure of Saxon land and goods. Only Saxons who swear allegiance to the Norman overlords can find work. The rest ‘ave to steal to survive. Many ‘ere are wanted for stealin’ food to feed their families when they didn’t ‘ave any money to buy it.”
The knowledge depressed Leofric. Scotland and England were little different. There was so much misery in the world and so many people tried to add to it. Robbin’s gang reacted exactly like folks in the Highlands would, given the same situation. Obviously, most differences between people didn’t matter. Race, education, social groups were nits. The rich here acted the same as the lairds back home. And the poor in both places suffered the same.
“Now, we must discuss some bad news,” Robbin’ said. “Whilst helpin’ me and Marian, you beat up the sheriff and assaulted the bishop. For which we both thank you. However, both men are powerful and have soldiers. They will want revenge on you two. They’ll have their troops watch all the roads leadin’ outta the Forest hopin’ to find you. They’ll also send messages to all the other shires. So England is closed to you.”
“How can we get to London, then?” Duncan asked.
“Forget London,” Robbin’ said. “Both the sheriff and the bishop go there a few times a year. You’ll surely be noticed and arrested if you go there.”
“So we’re trapped in the forest with you?” Leofric asked.
“Nay, on the morrow,” Robbin’ said, “I’ll get you on your way back to your own lands.”
Leofric raised an eyebrow. “How will you do that?”
“Why, I’ll introduce you to the Green Man.”
The next morning’s sun stood high in the sky before the inhabitants of the clearing began to move about. Robbin’ ‘Oody, his face hidden in the shadows of his hood, walked gingerly, as if trying not to move his head too much.
He wandered over to them. “Are you ready?” He pulled back his hood revealing eyes circled by dark rings and a forehead filled with frown lines. Marian, and Friar Tuck followed Robbin’.
“You’ll have to lead your horses. Can’t ride them on the paths we’ll be takin’.”
Tuck made a sign of the cross over their heads. “For an uneventful trip. Always the best kind.”
Marian gave each of them a kiss on the lips. “My ‘eroes. May good luck be with you always.”
Little John came up carrying two jugs. He handed one to each of them.
“That’s homemade beer,” Robbin’ said. “It’s your gift to the Green Man, to thank him for helpin’ you.” He hugged Marian and kissed her. “Right. Let’s get movin’. We have a way to go.”
“Just where are we going?” Leofric asked.
“Into the depths of the forest. The Green Man lives far away and will only talk to a few men. Fortunately, I’m one of them because he knows I love the forest and that I protect it from the Normans who like to cut down trees.” He nodded to Little John. “He’ll bring up the rear. Mind, no talkin’. We don’t want to scare away the Green Man with our tongues.”
They walked along animal trails for more than an hour while the forest grew increasingly foreboding. Huge oak trees blocked the sunlight and they walked in gloomy shade. Vines climbed the trees and dangled from the branches. Spider webs filled the spaces and brushed their faces. Leofric had never such dense growth back in Scotland. It almost seemed eldritch.
Finally, Robbin’ entered a small clearing. A spring gurgled in the center and lush green grass surrounded it. “Don’t drink the water,” Robbin’ whispered. “If you do, you’ll never leave this glade.” He pointed to a wall of greenery. “Put the wine over there and come back here. Don’t talk.”
Leofric and Duncan walked to the wall and placed the wine on the ground. The wall consisted of tightly woven vines and branches. It didn’t look natural; someone or something had made it. The area near the wall had a strange smell, rich in organic waste. It resembled the smell of successful farms back home.
Back with Robbin’, they stood silently for a while.
Leofric noticed a slight movement in the wall, as if a breeze had disturbed a vine.
“We greet you, God of the Forest,” Robbin’ called out. “I bring two visitors. They are strangers to this land. They seek a boon from you. They wish to return to their own homes which are far away. While they are strangers to you, they are friends to me and they have done me a great service. I, too, add my request to theirs. Please send them home.”
Leofric saw movement. The hair on the back of his neck stood on edge. In the middle of the wall a face looked out at them. It had a nose, ears and hair made of leaves and twigs. The eyes looked merry. Despite the strangeness, it was a kindly face.
A breeze blew in their faces and, on the wind, they heard a faint, thin voice. “Where do they want to go?”
“Tell him,” Robbin’ said.
“Up north,” Duncan replied. “By the northern tip of the long lake or loch as we call it.”
The face winked at Robbin’ and disappeared.
“Mount up and hold on. The animals will be afraid.”
A gale-force wind sprang up and whipped around the glade. It buffeted Leofric and Duncan, but didn’t touch Robbin’ or Little John. Leofric felt his pony leave the ground. It whinnied in terror while he yelped in fear. Duncan and his horse lifted off the ground also, both of them screaming. They flew towards a line of sturdy oaks.
Before he slammed into the trees, Leofric passed out.
Leofric and his pony landed on soft turf in much cooler air. Duncan appeared an instant later. Both their animals bucked and whinnied. Gradually, Leofric gained control over the pony and had time to look around at the small valley they had landed in. His mouth dropped open. “Uh-oh.”
“By the fates!” Duncan exclaimed. “We should have stayed in the forest with Robbin’. We’re about to get slaughtered.”
On both sides of the small valley stood armies of kilt-wearing warriors advanced toward them. The Campbells were on their right and the Stuarts on the left, both armed with claymores. On thehilltops, bagpipes and drums made a deafening din.
Several hundred strong each, the warriors stood frozen in mid-stride, gawking at the riders. Slowly, the pipes and drums fell silent.
“‘Tis the divil, I’m sure,” someone cried out.
Both armies turned and fled.
“Looks like we prevented a battle,” Duncan said.
“I doubt it,” Leofric replied. “They’ll be back tomorrow. No one, not even the devil, will prevent them from having fun.” He looked at Duncan. “What’re we going to do now that we can’t travel in England?”
“Maybe we should go west.” Duncan rubbed the stubble on his chin. “To the coast. We could get a ship and go to Ireland. I heard they don’t know what ledgers are over there.”
“Sounds like a plan.”