Sherwood – Meagan Spooner

He wakes to the sounds of steel and fire, and the distant wailing of a Saracen woman. His sword is in his hand before he’s on his feet. He’d been dreaming of rain on leaves, of the sound and feel of a wet day in Sherwood. When he lurches out of his tent in the English-occupied part of the city, the heat hits him full in the face, dazzling him as he tries to escape the lingering memory of green and damp and earth. Sand stings his eyes as a riderless horse gallops past, panicked, a long red line across its flanks spilling a crimson curtain down its hide. Before he can begin to tell friend from foe, a blade swings out of the red-hot midnight toward his face. His sword hand lifts to deflect the blow automatically, his shoulder taking the brunt of the impact. It’s the battle that brings him back to himself, banishing the last hints of his dream of home—the frantic staccato of panting and grunting and steel scraping bone and arrows whistling past. A second or two more and his opponent falls, screaming and trying to hold himself together with both hands across his stomach. There’s no time to dispatch the Saracen. Robin is forced to leave the man there and fend of another blow from another assailant, knocking him back with an elbow to the stomach. He is surrounded by the enemy. There are far too few English blades around him. He catches sight of a familiar man, recognizable more for his style of battle than anything else. By now they are all so burned by the sun and rubbed raw by wind that at first glance they seem no dif erent from the infidels they’re fighting.

In the dark they might as well have been fighting amongst themselves. “Where is the King?” shouts Robin, his voice breaking. The other man screams a reply, but over the sounds of battle Robin cannot hear. The other man’s sword sticks in his opponent’s rib cage, and he’s forced to plant a boot against the man’s chest to pull it free. He gestures with his sword, then turns to reengage. Robin sees a crowd in the distance, at the edge of the safe part of the city. Or what has been the safe part—the enemy has penetrated their defenses in the night, bypassing the fortifications. They must have killed the sentries in silence. The distant commotion is a cluster of a dozen English soldiers using a narrow alley to hold of a horde of Saracens one hundred strong. They’re making for the edge of the city, guarding something.

The King. Something thuds into Robin’s shoulder, sending him of balance, and he whirls, searching for the blade he knows is coming. There is no one there. It’s then that he feels the fiery lance of pain racing down his biceps and he gasps, sword dangling uselessly at his side. He cranes his neck and sees the fletching sprouting from his shoulder. He reaches up, bracing himself as he curls his fingers around the long arrow shaft buried in the muscle there. He breathes in, out, and in again, and then snaps the shaft of with a deft twist. Robin sways to one side, dizzy, concentrating on the spots that swarm his vision for the space of a breath. Then he passes his sword to his left hand and slings his bow over his shoulder with the wounded arm and gets moving. He heads for a set of stone steps leading up to one of the roofs, hoping for a better vantage point.

It’s the route the women take in the mornings when they bring up their laundry to dry in the sun, and Robin clears the draped fabrics away with a swipe of his sword as he sprints up the steps. The city is lost. He can see it in the way the others are fighting, in the way most of the soldiers have gathered around to ensure the King’s safe retreat through the postern gate. But there is too much distance to travel to reach safety. Too many enemies, and not enough blades. He reaches the rooftop, but before he can scan the city, a shadow darts from a corner across his path. With a roar he raises his sword, momentum already bringing it down before his eyes focus on the figure running past. A child. A girl, which he knows only because of the way her head is covered. She cannot be more than twelve, and for a burning moment her huge black eyes meet his and she freezes.

His sword won’t stop. His left hand is too clumsy, too weak to divert it. He throws himself to the side with a cry, his sword striking stone. The tip shatters and the sword leaps from his hand, skidding away. He can hear the girl screaming, speaking too quickly for him to understand any of the few words of Arabic he’s learned. He looks up and sees her scrambling away from him to press her back against the half wall surrounding the rooftop. She’s unharmed. Robin pushes himself back up on his left hand, then staggers to the edge of the rooftop. He can still see the men defending the King. There are fewer attackers now, but there are fewer allies as well.

Robin reaches for his bow. Drawing it is an agony, and he can feel the wounded muscle tearing around the arrowhead still lodged in his shoulder. But his aim is true, and from this height he can reach the front line. An attacker goes down, replaced by another behind him. Robin looses another arrow and another man falls. He sucks in air through his nose, the hot dust scorching his lungs. He can feel the weakness coming, can feel blood pouring past his armpit, down his rib cage. His aim is faltering. But he can see the King now, his crowned helmet gleaming in the light of a blazing fire engulfing one of the gatehouses. They are on the edge of the city.

There are horses waiting—they need only to make it another few paces to the gates, which stand open. Robin draws his bow again. One of the King’s defenders goes down, and the firelight glints of a curved blade as its wielder races at the King. Robin draws in a long breath, willing his shaking arm to steady, begging his muscles to hold for one more shot, one last arrow. Out of the corner of his eye: movement. The glint of light on a blade, the whisper of a soft sole against the sandstone. Robin could turn, could loose his arrow into the man creeping up behind him. His muscles quiver, and with a snarl of pain and focus, Robin narrows his eyes and lets the arrow fly. It courses straight and true through the air, inscribing a gentle arc down, down onto the battlefield, and buries itself in the brain of the King’s attacker. Robin takes a breath—the King is away, galloping into the desert.

And then a blade crunches into Robin’s side and he’s knocked down against the stone with the force of the blow. He cannot move, cannot feel anything below his rib cage—there is no pain. Robin’s eyes move slowly, lazily, sweeping across the rooftop. He sees the girl, pressed back into the corner as far as she can, everything covered except her eyes. They fix on his, wide and black. She is silent now. “Marian,” Robin whispers to her. “Don’t be afraid.” There are voices above him, but he does not hear them. Instead he can hear rain, a gentle patter against broad green leaves.

The smell of wet earth rises all around him, and the world is wrapped in fog. From beneath the padded armor under his mail, he withdraws a chain; on the end of it is a small gold ring set with a bloodred stone. He curls his fist around it, enclosing the little ring in the shelter of his fingers to shield it from the world. “Marian, I’m sorry.” ONE “MY LADY.” THE VOICE was urgent. “My Lady, please—please wake up.” Marian swam up out of a dreamless sleep, her mind groggy and confused. It was dark, but as her eyes adjusted, the light of a candle came into view. Behind it she could see a familiar face, drawn and frightened.

“Elena,” she croaked, dragging herself upright. “What is it?” Her maid swallowed, the candlelight bobbing and swaying with the trembling of her hand. “It’s my brother, my Lady. They’ve got him—they’ve arrested him and they’re going to kill him at dawn. Please, my Lady, I don’t know what to do.” Marian was on her feet before she could think, reaching for yesterday’s dress hanging over her changing screen. She threw it on over her shift, ignoring the trailing laces at its back. “Where is my cloak?” she demanded, quick and curt. “Here, my Lady.” Elena was shaking, terrified, but still competent.

She thrust the cloak at Marian and then stepped back. “What are you going to do?” “I’m going to stop them.” She wasn’t thinking, just acting. She didn’t know what Elena’s brother had been accused of or who had arrested him. But Elena’s family was from Locksley—Robin was the one who’d suggested Elena for a lady’s maid and companion when Marian’s mother died. And I won’t let Robin come home to find his people being slaughtered on his own lands. Marian flew down the stairs and into the courtyard, where a few torches had lit the way for her. Midge had Jonquille ready and was holding her by the reins. No sign of her father awake yet, for which she was grateful—she didn’t have time to argue about whether she should or shouldn’t go. Several servants were standing around in their nightclothes, candles transforming their drawn faces into waxy masks.

A lad stood by the stables doubled over, red-faced and gasping. She recognized him as the son of one of the farmers from beyond Robin’s manor house—he must have run all the way from Locksley town to bring Elena the news. At a dead sprint it was an hour’s journey on foot. Marian ignored them all and bunched her skirts up around her thighs, mounting the dappled mare and taking the reins from Midge. Jonquille had picked up on her mistress’s urgency, and as soon as Marian let her grip on the reins loosen, the mare leaped into a run. The glow of the torches in her manor courtyard fell away behind her, and she was left to race through the darkness. Edwinstowe was quiet—her father’s lands were small, and the town at their center even smaller, and his people all farmers. They’d stir soon, to feed and water their animals and work the land, but they’d sleep until sunrise. Marian leaned to the side and cut through the finger of the forest that stretched across Edwinstowe lands, aiming for the King’s Road. Branches whipped past, and she dropped her head, burying her face in Jonquille’s mane.

Jonquille knew the way. Locksley was her home, too. The sound of Jonquille’s hooves striking the earth changed, and Marian lifted her head. They were on the road. Not long now. Marian raised her eyes to the glimpses of sky she could see overhead as the branches passed. A terrible lightness painted the sky to the east the color of bloody ink. “Hurry, love,” Marian whispered, leaning low across her horse’s neck, trying to lessen the resistance of her body in the wind. The road forked. The road to the right would take her into the heart of Sherwood, while the road to the left passed through a hedgerow and then on to Locksley town, and beyond it, Locksley Manor.

Jonquille knew which way to go without being told, and together they burst through the undergrowth bordering the fields with a gust of honeysuckle and heather on the wind. The landscape was awash in blue-gray light, the cold harbinger of the dawn. There were torches burning in the center of town. Marian aimed Jonquille at the light, not bothering to slow her down. Men in chain mail stood in a semicircle around the town center, and a figure in dark gray armor and a black tabard stood at the head of the crowd. The Sheriff’s men. Beyond them the townsfolk watched, pale faced and silent. In the center of the firelight was a young man on his knees in the stocks, a hood of rough-spun canvas over his head and tied around his neck. The soldier nearest him held an ax. Jonquille broke into the crowd, people scattering left and right and hens fleeing in a startled wave.

Marian threw herself off the horse before the mare came to a full halt—all the better for no one to have time to see her with her skirts hiked up above her knees. “I demand to know what’s going on,” she gasped, gripping Jonquille’s reins more to support her shaking legs than to control the horse. The man in the tabard was staring, and with a jolt, Marian recognized him. His eyes raked her over, from her wild hair to her muddy, day-old dress. “My Lady Marian,” he said quietly, inclining his torso. “Good morning. Are you all right? You seem . distressed.” “Good morning, Sir Guy.” Marian smoothed down her hair, abruptly aware that she wasn’t wearing the modest veil she ought to have donned.

“This man. What is his crime?” Guy of Gisborne pulled off his horsehair helmet and ran a gloved hand over his hair. He was older than Robin by a few years, but had none of his boyish good looks. Scars marked the right side of his face, ugly welts of purple that traveled down and vanished under his high collar. “He has been accused and convicted of highway robbery and poaching, my Lady. This is no place for you—allow my men to escort you back to Edwinstowe Manor and I will visit you when I have finished here.” He was already turning and gesturing to the two men on the end, and Marian stepped forward swiftly. “Sir Guy,” she said firmly, “I know this man. He is the brother of my own maid. There has been a mistake.

Who have you been sent to arrest?” Gisborne strode over to the young man in the stocks, his stiff-legged gait giving the sound of his steps an uneven quality. He ripped the hood away, ignoring the grunt of pain that emerged when the ties caught against his captive’s jaw. “You are William Scarlet, are you not?” Marian was unprepared for the shock of hearing his name. There’d been no mistake. Gisborne had been sent for Elena’s brother. Will lifted his head, and Marian’s heart sank. He’d been badly beaten, and his eyes were swollen shut. He turned his face toward her, but Marian couldn’t tell if he could actually see anything through the bloody ruin of his face. He didn’t answer Gisborne but spat a mouthful of blood and saliva into the dirt at his feet. Gisborne stepped back, glancing down in distaste.

“You see, my Lady,” said Gisborne, “he has no respect for the laws of this land.” Marian wanted to shout at Will—his disregard for Gisborne’s authority wasn’t going to make her job any easier. But she calmed her thoughts, imagining Robin standing there instead, imagining how he’d handle this situation. If he were here, this situation wouldn’t exist. She inhaled sharply. “And so you are to execute him? There is no room for leniency? What evidence do you have?” “My Lady,” Gisborne replied patiently, “please leave this to me. These matters are too upsetting for someone of your gentle upbringing.” “Sir Guy.” Marian took another step forward. If nothing else, they wouldn’t behead Will while she was standing near enough to be spattered by his blood.

“Please. I am begging you to spare this man’s life.” Gisborne gazed back at her, expressionless. The moment stretched, and then abruptly he turned away and signaled to the man with the ax. “Unlock him.” “Oh, Sir Guy—thank you. I will not forget your mercy.” Marian moved forward as the executioner dropped his ax and unlocked the stocks. Elena’s brother staggered to his feet. “We will only take his hand.

” With a cold, metallic scrape, Gisborne drew his sword. He still carried the sword he’d worn in the Holy Land, as a soldier in the King’s army, before he’d managed to get injured enough to be sent home to England.

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