He sat upon his horse in a little clearing, alone, as he said he would be. He was waiting for me to come, also alone, as I had promised.
I was hiding in the thick greenery of the forest. I had an arrow aside my ear, drawn tautly in my bow. It would be so easy. A loosening of my fingers and my arrow would speed straight for his heart and that problem would be at an end.
But he just waited patiently, surely knowing I was there.
And he had something draped over his horse, behind him. I greatly feared I knew what he had. I would need him alive for answers, and there would be plenty of time to kill him later.
I moved gently and slackened my bow; the arrow went back into the quiver and I slung the bow over my shoulder as I stepped out into the open to speak with the sheriff of Nottingham.
“Foxwell,” I greeted him.
“Locksley.” Perhaps he was just being polite, but he knew I no longer use that name. Now, I answer to what the peasants of Nottinghamshire call me: Robin Hood.
“You ask for a private meeting, and you bear a strange burden behind you,” I said.
“My burden is about to become yours.” His voice bore unusual sorrow. “And, for what they may be worth to you, my condolences accompany the burden.” He dismounted. I walked over and helped him with the body. We laid it gently on the ground and I uncovered the face.
“God, no,” I breathed. “Will Scarlet.” My grief nearly overcame me. Foxwell had taken a step back and waited quietly. I covered dear Will’s face again and hurled myself to my feet, my hand on my sword. As if in homage, all the world in my sight was colored in scarlet. “How did he die?” I demanded.
“I don’t know. This is the second time this week a body wrapped thus has been laid at the jail’s doorstep. The first was my deputy, Guy of Gisbourne.”
“I had not heard,” I told him. I was stunned. How had such news been kept quiet? Gisbourne’s was an old and well-established family, known to all. Further, Foxwell was related to them. I struggled to do the right thing. “My condolences to you, then.”
Foxwell nodded once, accepting.
“You will note … later … perhaps,” he began, stumbling a bit in trying not to be ghoulish, “there are no marks on Scarlet’s body. There were none on Gisbourne’s, either, and their necks are not broken. A poison is the likely answer. I have no suspects. I am casting about for information, but none has come.”
My vision began to clear, and my head with it. “Someone has struck at us both.”
“So it would appear. But who? The general pattern is that those who side with me are your foes and vice versa. Who hates us both to strike at us through these men?”
“A worthy question,” I said at length, “for which I have no ready answer.”
“Nor I myself. But this business is just beginning,” he said. “Another of my men, Randaulf, is missing.”
“As is my troubadour, Alan-a-Dale,” I said morosely.
“I fear I shall have to return him to you as I have done Scarlet.”
“For which I thank you.”
He dipped his head again in acknowledgment. His eyes showed only the briefest flash of surprise at my small courtesy.
He mounted his horse again and turned it to leave Sherwood Forest. “If I learn anything, I’ll send the same boy to you with the message. You know him well enough and he could bring a message from you to me. Or send the friar.” He paused. “I believe we have concerns larger than each other just now.”
“We do,” I agreed, and that forged a truce between us.
Foxwell rode back to town. I knelt and gathered my friend’s body into my arms and walked deeper into the forest.
* * *
Dear Will was not the first of us to die, and we had set a place apart in the forest as a burying ground. We took him there and laid him to rest. The good friar performed the sacred rites. Marian was unable to get away from town. I was grateful she was not there, for I feared her soft presence, both comforting and needing comfort, might well have unmanned me.
Another absence from the ceremony stabbed at us even through the curtain of grief. Alan would have played his lute and sung for his late friend. But Alan-a-Dale had not been seen in days, almost as long as Will had been missing, and as we bowed our heads at the grave of Will Scarlet we greatly feared a like gathering soon for Alan.
And so it came to pass that three days later a new grave was opened in Sherwood Forest, and Alan was buried – with his instrument – next to Will Scarlet. The lute had accompanied his lifeless body found on the stoop of Nottingham’s jail. Foxwell brought him to me, just as he had Will. Marian was present for Alan’s service, and I discovered that far from being distracting, our needs and strengths complimented one another’s. I suppose I should have known.
Gisbourne’s death had been made public, and a fine funeral was held for him in town; Tuck presided over that, as well. Word reached me that the sheriff’s man Randaulf had also been deposited for his master to find. News of all the murders spread throughout Nottinghamshire, and neighbor eyed neighbor with suspicion.
* * *
I gave orders that no one leave our deep forest stronghold unless absolutely necessary, and then only in the company of two others, all to be well armed. Thus, when I met with the sheriff early in the new week, Little John and Much, the miller’s son, came with me, though they remained at a distance and hidden as I spoke with Foxwell.
He was alone, and I openly admired his bravery.
“I can’t very well bring guards to a meeting with an outlaw whom I do not intend to arrest,” he said.
“Quite. Have your investigations been profitable?”
“No. I still do not know how these men died or why. But two apiece for each of us obviously intends to give us a message. You and I have both transgressed against someone powerful enough to make these men quietly disappear and die.”
I shrugged. “I am outlaw. I transgress each time I eat venison and each time I return coinage to its rightful owner. You, though, are Prince John’s own man. What grudge could he carry against you that he would nurse in such murderous fashion?”
“Grudges enough. We are not dear friends, the prince and I. Among other things, he occasionally accuses me of pocketing some of the tax collections.”
I couldn’t help myself. “And do you?”
“Of course. The shrievalty doesn’t pay as well as you might think. That’s no excuse for his accusations, though. Also, he may have discovered a deception I played on him.”
Foxwell sighed. “He had it coming, the fool. A mere two weeks after my men collected a new tax – allegedly to support the king in his crusade – John ordered me to go out to collect yet again. Unlike him, I know there is only so much blood one can squeeze from a turnip. The people simply did not have the money. One evening, a few days after his command, I picked the lock on his treasury and took two bags of coins. I later presented those very bags to him as proof of my good work.”
I laughed involuntarily. He smiled lazily and shrugged one shoulder in return. “Two guards now stand day and night outside the treasury door. It leads me to believe John has discovered a bookkeeping error of some sort. And then, of course, there is the little matter of you.”
“Me?” I asked, knowing full well what the problem with me was.
“Prince John seems to feel that I should have had your neck in a noose long ago. Or an arrow through you while fleeing. Anything to end your depredations and your mockery of him. He is especially irritated about the two times you were in the jail and ‘escaped’ mere hours before you were to be hanged.”
I didn’t understand his odd emphasis on the word escaped. “Nottingham Jail is not the most difficult place to leave, if one is of a mind to,” I boasted.
He stared at me for a long moment, and then his head tipped forward and he regarded me with slitted eyes. “Oh, dear God,” he said at last.
Foxwell lowered himself to the ground and crossed both his legs and arms. I could not imagine why he had placed himself in such a vulnerable position, even given our truce. “You cannot be serious.”
“Whatever do you mean?”
He continued to gaze at me as though I were something from beyond this world. Then he shook his head.
“Locksley, I must say it: You are awfully thick to be the leader of a band such as yours.”
“I beg your pardon, Foxwell?”
“Yes, Nottingham Jail is a ridiculously easy place from which to escape. Because lock-picking tools are always left lying around in abundance for the convenience of the incarcerated. Because I always turn my back on a prisoner so that he may steal my own dagger from my belt and take me hostage to effect escape. Honestly, I thought you were never going to reach for my dagger; I was running out of things to say in the victory speech I was giving.”
My vision began to swim a little.
“And there are never guards stationed outside the cell doors or along the route to the outside. Not in Nottingham Jail, there aren’t.”
I joined Foxwell on the ground. My face flushed with shame as I recalled the times I had regaled friends with my tales of clever and daring escape, evading the prince, the sheriff, and the noose. And deeper shame that I had not realized my exits had been arranged for me.
“Why?” was the only sound I could make.
Foxwell looked round at the treetops and stroked his beard for a time. He eventually leaned back on his elbows as if admiring the beautiful day.
“Locksley, if you were just an ordinary cutpurse or poacher, I would have had you on the gibbet and finished by now. You know that’s so, because you’ve seen me do it to other men. You’re different, though. Oh, you are a cutpurse and a poacher, true. But you were noble born. You don’t seem to keep much of what you take from the purses, and there are plenty of deer in Sherwood Forest.
“You … you bring a balance to our little world. Every time Prince John pushes in one errant direction, you push back. So long as King Richard continues his meanderings in some land he thinks is holier than England, spilling blood and treasure like water, Nottinghamshire needs you to balance the scales when John goes too far. For that, you have to stay alive. So on the occasions when I’ve managed to capture you, I have also been obliged to secure your safe release.”
I could scarcely grasp that my foe was also my redeemer. I tried to choke out an appropriate response, but Foxwell forestalled me.
“Now, for the love of God, don’t thank me,” he said, slicing a hand through the air. “I don’t merit it. I am a selfish man, and everything I do, I do it for me. I skim a share from the taxes. I use my office and authority to suggest that beautiful young women would enjoy spending an evening with me. I steal from John and return it as fresh taxes because I don’t want to see the peasantry in revolt. That would be as bad for my health as it would be for John’s.”
He sat upright. “And that latter point is why I ensure your freedom when you’re imprisoned. So long as the people have a champion fighting on their behalf, they aren’t taking up arms themselves. Your antics keep Nottinghamshire from being ankle deep in blood.”
Foxwell was right about how thick I was. Just how big a step up I was from being a common scofflaw had come up for hard questioning. I needed to get back on solid ground.
“So it must be John who is striking at us through our men. I see only one course.”
“Likewise, but it is impossible. Even for all he has done, I cannot countenance regicide. And do not bandy terms with me. For all intents and purposes John is king. Richard may forgive much when he returns and is given to understand all that has happened, but that act he could not and should not forgive. We cannot kill John.”
I didn’t know so much about that, but the look on the sheriff’s face told me that I would not again escape the jail and the noose if I went so far. Not that that would stop me.
“Besides,” he continued, “we do not know for certain that John is guilty.”
“Who else has the power and ability?” I demanded to know. “Who else have we both angered?
“Questions we must answer, for certain. John is the obvious culprit. It may be him, and I’m not saying it isn’t. But… it’s too involved for John. Our prince is not a man of great stratagems and delicate maneuverings.”
“Someone might have proposed the plan to him.”
“Yes, knowing that our losses would gnaw at us and drive us half mad. Yet it’s a long, drawn-out affair, and John hasn’t the patience. If he wanted to strike at us both, he would wait until I once again caught you and would then have us both strung up before another hour passed.”
Foxwell made fair points. Not conclusive, but fair. But who could that mean, if not Prince John?
The sheriff rose from the earth and brushed off his backside. “I must be on my way. These detours into the forest will not go unnoticed if I tarry too long. Kindly convey my greetings to John Little, over there. I don’t see anyone else who may have accompanied you, but he stands out.”
I smiled. “If Little John is seen, it is because he wishes to be seen.”
Foxwell looked down at me from his horse. “He might live longer if he remains hidden.”
* * *
I sat near a small fire with Little John, Friar Tuck, Much, and a few others and told them most of what Foxwell and I had said to each other. I left out the part about how the sheriff had more than once arranged for my freedom from his jail.
“If not Prince John, then whom?” Much pondered quietly. Foxwell’s reasoning about John had taken root in our thoughts.
“Someone of a noble house,” Tuck said. “Someone who stands to lose at the hands of both Robin and the sheriff.” He stared into the fire as if searching it for an answer. Tuck was the wisest of us, and we held our peace to give him time to think.
He spoke again after some time, his gaze still locked on the burning branches.
“Their bodies bore no marks of violence. They were not roughly abducted. They went of their own volition with whomever slew them. It must be someone known to us and to Foxwell’s men, someone all would trust without hesitation.”
“Who could that be?” John asked.
There was no answer from our little group, and we eventually took ourselves to bed. Friar Tuck returned in the dark to his church, assuring us that the Lord would protect him.
I lay on my pile of leaves under a great oak tree, wishing. Wishing two of my friends weren’t dead. Wishing Foxwell hadn’t so properly savaged my intellect. Wishing Friar Tuck could have come up with a likely suspect. Wishing King Richard had remained in England in the first damned place so that my men and I weren’t living like forest rats and that the peasantry weren’t being crushed under Prince John’s heel. Wishing sleep would overcome my whirling mind and give me peace for just a few hours.
“John,” I whispered. “Are you awake?”
“Yes,” my huge friend replied. His own pile of leaves was next to mine.
“John, have you ever thought of giving up on all this? Just leaving and finding some place that’s peaceful and starting over?”
“And where in the world would that be?”
“Well, there’s the rub, then, isn’t it? But you’re not actually thinking of leaving. So what’s really on your mind?”
“I don’t know that I’m the right man to lead our group anymore. I’ve lost two of our finest to an unknown assassin.” I hesitated for a moment. “And Foxwell told me an unpleasant truth earlier.” I briefly recounted my humiliating conversation with the sheriff.
John took all that in. “Well, I’ll be damned,” he said at length. “That’s…. Hm. Well, maybe not so surprising, after all.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“It’s late. We should try to get some sleep.”
I reached over and gave his shoulder a firm shove. “No. What did you mean by that?”
John sighed. “Robin, you’re my leader and my best friend. You’ve done a fine job with our merry little band. Think of all the money you’ve returned to people who desperately needed it. Think of the lives you’ve saved by hiding men here who are wanted on false charges. But…”
“For a person who was raised in the nobility –”
“Minor nobility, please.”
“As you will. For a person who was raised in the minor nobility, who had an actual book education, you…” He groaned. “Are you really going to make me say it?”
“I am.” Because I’m an idiot.
“Did I mention that you’re my best friend?”
“Out with it!”
He sighed once more. “For all the advantages you’ve had, you don’t really use them. You’re not a thinker, Robin. You don’t plan much for later. You do things on impulse, like most of us do, and usually it turns out just fine. But it occasionally lands you next to a noose, and the sheriff, of all people, has to save you.
“I know you’ve got a good brain, but you don’t use it. It’s just not your thing. Maybe because you’re trying to put the minor nobility and its benefits behind you. Maybe because you’re busy righting wrongs, and that takes up a lot of your time, so you don’t think in greater ways.”
Little John doesn’t talk a lot. Until he does.
He sat up and looked directly at me.
“You know, Robin? I’m glad we’re talking about this. I’ve wanted to say this for some weeks, now. You are a good leader. We’ve accomplished things no one else has. But you could be a better leader if you’d use that good learning you were given. We all treat Tuck like the smartest one around here just because he knows the scriptures. Because he treats our wounds and illnesses with his poultices and potions and leeches and such. But you could be the smarter man if you’d just do it. And frankly, Robin, we need you to use your brain as much as your bow.”
I pondered that for a bit. “Anything else?”
“Yes. You always wear your hat at that rakish angle. Marian might like it, but sometimes you could just put your damn hat on straight and be done with it.”
“Good. Now let’s go to sleep.” He lay down again, turned onto his side, away from me, and said no more that night. But his words, like Foxwell’s, echoed in my ears until exhaustion gave me release from the world’s cares.
* * *
In the morning, I went to breakfast, my hat squarely on my head. Little John said not a word about it, but there was laughter in his eyes. I gave him a dark look, and that brought forth a small chuckle from him. Best friends.
I later took myself away from the crowd. I needed peace. It sometimes amazed me just how many men – indeed, how many families – lived in the forest. All under my lordship of their own free will. Despite our losses, they trusted me.
This was far more than I could own. The varying condemnations I’d heard of myself the previous day had shaken my confidence. Little John, though, had been kind enough to show me the way back.
I wandered away, breaking my own order about not being alone. I would occasionally feel eyes on me, though, and I knew that some of my men were following me discreetly. So long as they remained out of sight, that was fine.
I walked until I came to the River Idle. I sat down at its bank and stared into it, watching the water flow by.
I had become a man of action because swift action had been needed to deal with Prince John and the sheriff and those associated with them. In my youth, though, I had been taught to read, and I read about men who thought their way through the thorny thickets of the mind, reaching insights that action would never have provided.
So I sat quietly by the river, letting the current lull me into a meditative state. I gently brought each part of my problem into my consciousness, thinking about each slain man at a time, thinking about Foxwell and Prince John and myself, and about how this web had been woven and what its shape might be.
The river flowed on its path to the sea. Thoughts flowed in my mind as I gradually rediscovered forgotten lessons and abilities. As the sun began to set behind the trees, I had my heartbreaking answer. I put my head in my hands and wept quietly for some moments.
Then I rose. My watchers continued to keep a respectful distance as I led them back to the main camp.
* * *
In the morning, I dispatched three men on a simple mission. They were to go to the home of the boy Foxwell had sent to summon me when he brought Will Scarlet’s body. Now I would summon Foxwell.
I ate but a small breakfast and nothing for the midday meal. A glutinous mixture of anger and dread filled my stomach, leaving no room for hunger.
Little John came to me, and the two of us set out, disguised as peasants. Much called to me: “Should I not come along? Your orders, Robin.”
“Have no fear, Much. The two of us will be sufficient for this task.” I turned from him a bit sharply and walked on. I think Little John may have shrugged at Much before coming apace with me, but I am not certain.
After a time, John asked, “So what task are the two of us sufficient for?”
“We’re going to confront the murderer and place him in the sheriff’s hands for justice.”
John pondered that, and doubtless much else, in blessed silence.
We strolled into and through Nottingham unrecognized. We soon found ourselves at the door of the church Friar Tuck served.
“We’re meeting the sheriff here?” John asked in a whisper. I only nodded in reply.
We entered and walked down the aisle. A handful of pews short of being in front of the altar, we stopped, crossed ourselves, and sat down. I went on my knees immediately and prayed more earnestly than ever I had. John knelt by my side; he finished his prayers far sooner than I and sat in the pew.
When I had done, I sat next to John, who nudged me. I looked across the aisle and saw Foxwell crossing himself as he finished praying. He raised an eyebrow at me, but I sat back in the pew and waited. This time, I know Little John shrugged at Foxwell because I could feel it.
The church was silent. The sounds of life in Nottingham outside could barely be discerned.
Minutes passed, and I heard a gentle clearing of a throat. I looked over at Foxwell, who raised both eyebrows at me in question. I held out a hand, palm down, gesturing him to be patient. John shrugged again. A great one for shrugging, is Little John. It saves him many words.
A door opened, and Friar Tuck entered the sanctuary. He seemed startled to see the three of us sitting peacefully there.
“Mass is not for a few hours yet, but you are certainly welcome here to pray,” he said.
Something clawed at my stomach from the inside, and I tried to ignore it.
“We are here to see you, Friar Tuck.”
“Oh. What can I do for you?”
“You can tell us why.” My voice was soft, but I could feel my eyes burning into his.
Tuck held my eyes for a moment, then he sagged.
“Guy of Gisbourne was the first. Why did you kill him, Tuck?”
Both Little John and Foxwell shot upward from the pews, but I remained seated.
“It… was an accident,” Tuck said.
“You?” Foxwell shouted.
“An accident,” I repeated. “And were the other three men also accidentally poisoned?”
“Gisbourne came to me in my study,” Tuck said. “He said he had a new plan for capturing you, Robin, and wanted information from me about your habits. He said we could talk here or in the torture room in the jail.
“I opted to talk here, and suggested we be civil about it. I poured us each some wine at a little table behind his back. He could not see that I put an additional liquid in his cup. I meant merely to sicken him, to give you time to prepare for his stratagem. But I had either used too much or he was particularly susceptible to it. He was dead within minutes.”
“And then?” Foxwell asked.
“I hid his body. I was frantic. I had just killed Guy of Gisbourne, a notable man in his own right and your deputy. I feared for Robin and the others in the forest. It might well look as though it was their fault. And were I discovered, my connection to Robin would arouse the same suspicion.”
Tuck drew an unsteady breath.
“I knew that balance had to be maintained. I had to remove Robin from your mind. Since your deputy had been murdered … to preserve the peace, one of Robin’s men had to die.”
Tuck continued his grisly tale, of how Will Scarlet came to him on an errand, and Tuck took that opportunity to balance the scales. But then Randaulf confronted Tuck, saying the church was the last place he knew Gisbourne to have been. Thus Randaulf was killed. That, in Tuck’s mind, meant another of my men had to be sacrificed, and that thought sealed Alan-a-Dale’s fate when he came looking for Will.
Tuck put his face in his hands and said no more. None of us said anything until Foxwell muttered, “Balance,” reminding me of our conversation in the forest. I was the balance to Prince John. Tuck had maintained that balance in his own fashion.
Foxwell walked up to Tuck and shackled his hands. “Friar Tuck, I arrest you for breaking the king’s peace by your murder of four men. You are condemned out of your own mouth. Come the morrow, you will be hanged by the neck until dead.” He turned to look at Little John and myself. “I do not believe you should expect to be rescued.”
“Robin, Little John,” Tuck said tearfully, “I’m so sorry. I was trying to protect you. I was – ”
“Shut up.” I turned my face from his and looked on him no more. I gazed on the likeness of the Blessed Mother and tried to draw strength from her. Foxwell led Tuck from the church.
Long moments later, I felt a gentle hand on my shoulder.
“Let’s go home, Robin.”
I dragged my unwilling bones upright. We reverenced the altar and began the weary walk back to Sherwood Forest. I would have to gather my people and tell them the sickening story. Tell them that the gentle friar we all loved had betrayed us to an unimaginable degree. Tell them that I had given that friar over to the sheriff of Nottingham for hanging.
And we would all have to learn to balance our memories of the good friar with our new knowledge of the calculating murderer.
* * *
The forest seemed restless that night, but it was we who were restless. When dawn trickled through the trees, we regarded each other with knowing looks that none of us had truly rested.
Our camp was as silent as that many people milling around can be. Conversations were quiet and brief. We all kept a watch on the sun’s progress, waiting for high noon to arrive. That hour would see Friar Tuck executed for his crimes.
The hour came and went, and we went on about the things that had to be done as a matter of course. Little John took an axe and went deeper into the forest where a tree had recently fallen. His stated goal was to make firewood of it, but he truly just wanted to transfer as much of his inner torment as he could to the dead tree. I sat and made arrows.
A shadow fell over me, and I looked up. Marian stood there. I hastened to stand and looked into her eyes. They showed the same hurt and anger and confusion as did everyone else’s. We took each other in our arms and stood a long time like that, saying nothing.
* * *
It was over, and we slept that night. Shortly after the midday meal, a notion occurred to me, and I went alone to the little clearing.
Indeed, Foxwell was there, sitting on the ground near his horse.
I huffed a little.
“Very well: ‘Robin Hood.’”
“Thank you, Sheriff.”
I sat near him.
“Now what?” I asked him.
“Now I need to send word to the bishop that Nottingham church needs a new friar. It will interest you to know that Prince John was shocked into silence when I told him of Tuck’s confession. I’d never seen that before.”
“A worthy sight,” I agreed.
“I was hoping you would come,” he said. “I wanted one more conversation before our truce ends.”
“What shall we discuss?”
“How you knew it was Tuck.”
“Tuck himself said it: it had to be someone all the men knew and would go to without fear. It had to be someone who could concoct an unusual poison. Tuck often treated our sick with potions of his own devising. And it had to be someone who could walk from one side of Nottinghamshire to the other and back without the slightest suspicion. Only one man fit those conditions. Also… he said it had to be someone from a noble house. What house is more noble than the house of the Lord?”
Foxwell pondered my analysis.
“That’s good thinking. Perhaps you aren’t as stupid as I have thought you to be. That could change things in our little game.”
I smiled weakly. “Mayhap. But in my thinking, I have considered one final task we could work on together.”
“Let us together write a letter to King Richard. Let us both tell him – sheriff and outlaw – how his brother abuses the power of the crown. How he abuses the good people of this land. Let us plead that he returns to his rightful and proper place here in England.”
Foxwell considered my words.
“Agreed. It may do no good; he is fairly wedded to the crusade. We should try, though. Our voices together may catch his attention and rekindle his interest in his kingdom.”
“You could see that it gets to him, could you not?”
“I can. Let us meet a week from today, but at night. I’ll find a place where we can work undisturbed and send the boy to tell you.”
We rose and he mounted his fine horse.
“So our truce is still on, then?”
“I, for one, would like to pass a quiet week. Let us get the letter written before we again go chasing one another about.”
Foxwell laughed. “I look forward to all those things.” He turned his horse and rode away.
I headed back to my people. And to distract myself from the recent misfortunes, I began to consider how to secret a lock pick on my person.
Just in case.