Nasir parried a wild sword stroke from one of the Danes. The brute was not skilled, all clumsiness and aggression. There was clanging of steel and cries of pain a few yards ahead, where Robin and the others had ambushed Alain of Mons' men. Without warning, an arrow zipped past his ear and thudded into a tree trunk behind him.
Will brandished Albion – placed in his safekeeping – and felt invincible. Its balance was perfect and the hilt was strong. It was a warrior's weapon.
Not just a soldier's weapon, he thought. It's a sword fit for kings.
His opponent, a grim-looking Dane with matted long blond hair, checked one of Will's lunges and elbowed him in the abdomen. Will bowled over and when the Dane thrust his sword downward, he swung Albion and cut into the mercenary's forearm. Will plunged his concealed dagger into the Dane's chest.
"I don't like mercenaries," Will muttered as an oath, retrieving his dagger from the dead man. He turned to outflank Nasir's opponent, but the Saracen had already disarmed the Dane. The mercenary wisely raised his hands to yield.
"I should kill you now, but that is not my way," Nasir said in Arabic. "It is Allah's will."
"Kill him, Nasir," Will said.
Nasir shook his head. "He is unequal to me. He accepts his defeat." He pointed south to the road away from Nottingham. "Go now and you leave in peace. Never return." The Dane clasped both hands in gratitude and fled away from the forest.
"The assassin showin' mercy?" Will smirked. "Never thought I'd see the day." Nasir said nothing, but nodded towards the arrow embedded in the trunk above.
"The Welsh archers," Will said. "I hate them about as much as land pirates right now." They dashed up the dirt road to the main melee. There were several bodies already on the ground, among them the two Welsh archers, one still wailing in pain with an arrow shaft embedded in his forearm. When they arrived, Alain and half a dozen Flemish mercenaries were entangled in a fierce battle with Robin, Marion and the others.
"Nasir!" Tuck hollered above the clash of steel. "One of the Welshmen's gone to ground. Careful, he's the smart one." Nasir quickly sprinted into the undergrowth with daggers in hand.
"It seems we have reinforcements, Alain," Robin said. Alain growled and lunged at him again. His lieutenant, Jacques, faced both Much and Tuck and and kept them at bay.
"I've fought the cream of French chivalry, priest," Jacques said. "You should know your betters." Much tried to notch an arrow into his bow, but the Flemish had closed quarters between them. He tripped over the boot of one of the dead pirates and fell onto his back. He saw a rock by his head, grabbed it and flung it toward Jacques. It smacked into his temple and he toppled over. Tuck and Much turned towards the surviving pirates.
Little John whirled his quarterstaff wildly, forcing Alain's men to back away. He had hoped to give enough distance for Marion and the others to use their arrows. But the effort put added weight onto his injured leg and he groaned in pain. One of Alain's men noticed this and jabbed the hilt of his sword into the leg. This enraged John, who shoved the butt of his staff into the man's face. Including Alain, there were now only four opponents who could still fight.
There was a commotion in the woods. Nasir briskly walked towards the clearing, hauling the remaining Welsh archer by his collar. "He hid – I found him," he said.
Robin sensed that Alain's men were wavering. "Men of Flanders," Robin announced. It was a booming voice, one he would have used to address the guards of Huntingdon Castle. "We have you surrounded and outnumbered. Your so-called friends have fled or are dead in these woods. You need not suffer their fate." Marion and Much had already drawn their longbows, their targets picked.
"Robin! Let me finish them off," Will said, but upon noticing that he was brandishing Albion, he returned it to its scabbard and picked up one of the fallen pirates' swords. Robin looked at him oddly. "It's too fine a sword for their like," Will shrugged.
"I will not yield to peasants and cast-offs," Alain said. His men hesitated, but they remained with swords drawn – prepared to fight to the death beside their master. They were soldiers of Flanders. "I will not be carved piecemeal on English soil like some butcher's scrapings. You do not give commands to me, as you have been disowned by your own father for your crimes."
"You're right," Robin said. "I have been stripped of title and land for my offenses against King John. But I still have my honour. No prince, no king can disown me of that." Marion, in that moment, saw Robert of Huntingdon claim his rightful mantle as Robin of Sherwood. She would always remember her husband, but this forest was the kingdom of Herne's Son.
"You bear the crest of the Count of Flanders, Alain of Mons," Robin continued. "Friar Tuck is a man of God. Renew your oaths to the House of Flanders and swear fealty to your Count. Return to Flanders, never to return to this shire – and you will have safe passage through Sherwood."
"I may be excommunicated by now," Tuck said under his breath. Little John elbowed him in the belly to silence him.
Alain glanced at the rampant black lion on a golden yellow field and recalled a life of devotion and duty. As one of the Count's knights, he would never cower before men like the Sheriff.
"King John and King Philip will shed the blood of thousands to prove their claim to lands that do not belong to them," Marion said. "I know that you are an honourable man, Alain. The sheriff is not. He will betray you at the first opportunity. Will you fight for a man like that – or for Count Baldwin, your liege lord?"
"With our share of gold, we could still go to Flanders as wealthy men," one of the men added.
"You were wronged at court, Alain," Robin said. "Right that wrong and reclaim your honour."
Jacques, Alain's lieutenant, was still groggy and had to lean against one of the Flemish. "I never liked that little man De Rainault," he said. "We were doing his bidding, yet he treated us like lepers." He grimaced at the thought of being banned from Nottingham Castle. They still held a sizable treasure, with so few men left.
What they lacked was respect. To a land pirate, that meant nothing. But to a knight of Flanders – it was everything.
To die in these woods a criminal, Alain thought. Or die in Flanders, with a sword in hand and fighting with honour?
Alain took off his gauntlet with the embroidered crest of Flanders and kissed it. "I will squander no more lives, not for the sheriff – or King John." He turned to his men. "You may have your leave if you wish, I will think no less of you. If you take your oaths with me this night, by God, we shall march to Flanders with our heads held high. With our share of Nottingham gold!" The Flemish soldiers cheered in unison, shouting: "Hail Baldwin, Count of Flanders!"
"I see now why your master chose you to defend these woodlands, outlaw," Alain said. "You may have given up an earldom, but you've not forsaken your nobility."
With dusk fast approaching, Tuck escorted the Flemish soldiers to a quiet clearing in the woods. In Latin, he intoned a prayer as each man knelt before his upright sword and uttered his oath of fealty to the Count of Flanders. They were pirates no more, with God and Herne as their witnesses. They would avoid Nottingham and travel east, across to France and beyond.
"What about this scum?" Will said, gesturing to the captive Welsh archer. "He ain't Flemish." His murderous gaze caused the archer to shudder.
"What say you, archer," Little John said, "to a life as an adventurer in Flanders? Fine ales, women and plenty of fighting."
"I owe nothing to their count," the archer said. He was a gangly young man and still stood defiantly. "But I owe King John even less."
"Swear never to return to this forest – under pain of death – and I grant you leave," Robin said. The archer nodded. He liked living.
"Where will you go?" Much asked the Welshman.
"Well I ain't fightin' for England," he replied, "so I'm going to Wales and fight for Llywelyn." There was talk King John was already marshalling his marcher lords to prepare his invasion of the country. He took his quiver from Nasir, scooped up his share of the mercenary treasure and slung his bow over his shoulder. He began to walk westward.
"He's going over to the Welsh?" Will said. "Normandy would've been safer." As an afterthought, he quickly returned Albion to Robin. "It's in better keeping with its master."
"Hail Robin, King of Sherwood, lord of squirrels and duke of oaks," Little John jested. "I'd kneel, but my leg's a mess, milord." Nasir bowed before Robin with a flourish. Robin rolled his eyes at the taunts. He punched Much in the arm as the miller's son tried to bow.
Marion sauntered up beside him. "You did well there, Robin."
"You helped," Robin said. Marion could have disarmed the lot of these pirates on her own, he thought. "I might have needed to kill them if they refused my offer."
"You showed them mercy," Marion said. "You could have given the order to slaughter every last one of them – you didn't. That's what separates you from De Rainault, Gisburne, the Norman barons, all of them."
"I'm just like them," Robin said, with a twinge of guilt. He had to assume lordly airs to extract his friends from what could have been a bloody melee. It was a gamble, he thought. An arrogant gamble.
"No, Robin," Marion held his arm. "You're not like them. You hold no rank, but you are their better. Don't ever believe otherwise. You are Herne's Son. You defend the poor and oppressed, with no thought for glory or reward. This is why we follow you. We are yours to command."
"I don't think anyone can command Marion of Leaford," Robin said with a wink. She smiled, then caught up with Much and Tuck.
"Watch yourself, King of Sherwood," Will said. He had caught up with Robin, unseen. "That sword might protect your body, but not your heart …" Before Robin could protest, Will scurried ahead to join the others in their revelry.
I want to hunt deer tomorrow, Robin grinned. Because only kings can eat venison.
Two weeks had passed and still the English army hadn't encountered the armies of King Philip of France. Philip was in Paris, some said, cowering behind his castle walls. Others claimed that Philip had already taken the English stronghold built by Richard the Lionheart, Chateau-Gaillard, and the English cause was all but lost.
Gisburne shrugged, trotting his charger a few yards away from foot soldiers and mounted knights. The knights, bearing the green surcoats of Huntingdon, shared a joke and laughed. They were all comrades-in-arms – in theory – but few tried to befriend him. He had heard the rumours: Guy of Gisburne was a failed knight from Nottingham who had been unable to subdue a band of peasant misfits in Sherwood Forest. The outlandish tales of Robin Hood, Marion, the giant Little John and their outlaws filled the taverns and keeps of Normandy.
He became deaf to the whispers and glances. I will make a name for myself, he thought. Someday.
"Somehow," he muttered.
"Something amiss?" a voice said from behind him. Gisburne looked over his shoulder. It was the Earl of Huntingdon – the last person he had wanted to see now.
"It's nothing, milord," Gisburne said. "Any news from the scouting party?"
"They've yet to return," Huntingdon said, "but if the tavern gossip is to be believed, the King has rescued Eleanor of Aquitaine and captured Arthur the Pretender."
Gisburne said nothing and they remained silent for a few miles. Huntingdon had caught up and rode beside him.
"We should be upon our garrison at Lisieux within a day," Huntingdon said
"Good," Gisburne said. He was becoming irritated with the earl's attempts at small talk. The reality was that he was still ashamed that his commander saw him looting a dead French knight like a common soldier. Huntingdon's men – unlike those of the other barons and lords – were the most disciplined in King John's army. Gisburne saw it in their eyes. They would die for their king, if called upon. For their king – and for the Earl of Huntingdon. He envied the loyalty that such men inspired.
Gisburne was glad that his troop of pikemen was attached to Huntingdon's men. Despite this, he resented that his behaviour seemed to be always under scrutiny.
"Is something on your mind, milord?" Gisburne asked, with a hint of irritation in his voice.
"Why are you here?" Huntingdon said.
Gisburne stopped, reining in his horse. "I was given a summons in Nottingham. The king's army needed captains of skill and experience."
"Yes, yes, glory and honour in defense of the Angevin lands in France, etc.," Huntingdon said. "That's why we are all here, because the king commands it. But why are you here? There's talk of a new Crusade and an invasion of Wales. The king needs knights for other causes, too. Why here?"
"It was an opportunity," Gisburne said. "To better myself."
"And that sniveling sheriff of yours in Nottingham had nothing better to offer you?" Huntingdon said.
"No," Gisburne said. "Well, except this." He patted the hilt of his sword. Something about the way Gisburne referred to the sword caught the earl's attention. It never left the knight's side. Huntingdon had seen the sword before, when Gisburne was regaling his men with tales of past battles in France. The sword was well-crafted, balanced and with a razor's edge. It seemed to be a talisman to him, a good luck charm.
"And after Normandy?" Huntingdon continued. "What then?"
The question stumped Gisburne. He hadn't considered what he would do after the summer campaign. Stay in Normandy to captain a garrison? Join the king's forces in Poitou to defend His Majesty's ancestral rights?
Return to Nottingham? Certainly not, he mused. His ambition (and pride) would not allow that.
"I don't know, milord," Gisburne began, "but maybe I could –" The galloping of horses, approaching from the east, interrupted him. The riders ahead of them wore crimson surcoats; the scouting party had returned.
Huntingdon spurred his horse ahead and questioned one of the scouts. A few minutes later, he returned.
"Any news from Lisieux?" Gisburne said.
Huntingdon glanced around. The vanguard of the army was still far behind them. "Lisieux has fallen. It flies the banner of Philip of France. Lionheart's old fortress fell three weeks ago."
Gisburne's jaw dropped. "And the French army?"
"Damn those tavern rumour-mongers!" Huntingdon said. "The French aren't retreating; they are advancing. The whole of Philip's army – 15,000-strong – will be upon us within two days." The odds were grim, since the English army in Normandy was not even one-fourth its size.
Huntingdon beckoned Gisburne over, pulling out a weathered map of the Norman coastline. "If we're overrun, nothing will stop Philip's march to the coast. We'll be cut off from our supplies and reinforcements on the Channel and the king –"
"—will be cut off from Normandy!" Gisburne exclaimed. The dangers of their predicament were all too real. Their pitiful army was now King John's rearguard. They must protect the English beachhead. Should they fail, the king would be trapped in Poitou and all of Normandy would fall to France.
Once, they had been conquerors bent on glory and plunder. They were now a ragged band of men on a frantic race to the Norman coast. Sergeants barked orders, while aides-de-camp scurried between commanders relaying the scouts' dreadful news.
Gisburne would learn the full story later than night in some squalid village tavern. Lisieux, the linchpin of the English defense, held against the onslaught of Philip's army for three days. Trapped and with no hope of relief, the English castellan surrendered the fortress two days ago.
While the other men drank, caroused and cavorted with the tavern's barmaids, Gisburne frowned. He had earlier declined an offer to dine in the great tent with the army's nobles: it was to be their last feast. Glory, ha! It was a retreat, a scramble to the Channel. He was even oblivious to the buxom serving wench on his knee. This was what defeat tasted like and he despised it.
"Why, you're not runnin' away, Sir Guy," the dark-haired wench said. "You're livin' to fight 'nother day, s'all."
"What would you know about war, girl?" Gisburne said, taking another sip of ale from his tankard.
"I've seen English, French 'n Flemish 'round these parts," the girl said. "Some say the Germans could come here someday. They all have the same story. 'But the King told us we'd be rich, get lands, cover us-selves in glory!' I'll tell you a secret, Sir Guy, shh!" She bent her head over to his ear, her voice barely a squeak. "It's all a fool's errand."
Gisburne pulled back. "What did you say?"
"It don't matter whose king you obey," she continued, "they'll promise you the world if you fight for them. And bleed for them. Only fools would believe them. But you're no fool, right, Sir Guy?"
Gisburne pushed the girl off his knee and tossed a few coins onto the table. He was no longer in the mood for her jests. He could have stayed in the tavern tonight, but his mood had soured. This was indeed a war only a fool could believe in. He stalked away from the warmth and amber glow of the tavern door, into the cold night.
In the camp, he saw his men shivering by the woods. Some used horse blankets to cover themselves up. A few of them no longer had boots. He could do little for them. Gisburne found a quiet grove of trees and wrapped his cloak around him to ward off the chill.
He was hungry and his teeth chattered. Sleep would not come easily this night. The sword – the sheriff's gift – lay beside him.
"Maybe you were right," he grunted, "my lord sheriff."
NEXT: The concluding chapters ...