It was not a particularly warm day, yet Martin of Aylesbury was perspiring profusely. Good God! If his driver didn't hurrry and get him out of this wretched forest soon, he'd likely ruin his new doublet! And he looked so splendid in it, too, and it had cost so much more than he could afford! Worth every half penny, of course... that is, if his nervous sweat didn't ruin it!
He called to his driver from inside his coach. "Please please please hurry along! Can't you go any faster? Why oh why did you have take this route anyway? Everyone knows the forest is full of outlaws!"
"My lord, the bridge on the main road is down. Everyone travelling to Nottingham this day must take this route."
Aylesbury pouted. "All the same, I urge you to hurry!"
It didn't matter to him that his coach was surrounded by men-at-arms. Ten hired guards did little to alleviate his nervousness.
And what awaited him at the end of his journey? Would that be any better? The Sheriff of Nottingham, vicious and unpredictable, had so far spared him, but Aylesbury quaked in his boots, wondering how much longer he might be spared. True, he said as little as possible at the Council of Nobles, escaping the Sheriff's notice, and he always showed unwavering support for his plans. His neck was safe...for now. At least in Nottingham. This ghastly forest might be a different matter!
"Hurry up!" he repeated, through gritted teeth.
Suddenly, the sound of cries invaded Martin's ears, and he nearly wet his pants in fright when his coach ground to a halt.
"What is happening?" he thought, too frightened to speak. He dropped to his knees to plead with his Lord for protection. "Please let me be safe!" he prayed. "Please, please save me!"
His ears were offended by a familiar voice. "This is an ambush!" it declared. Those proud, smug tones could only belong to one person...Robin of Locksley, now outlawed and styled "Robin Hood."
Martin wondered whether he ought to be more, or less frightened. On the one hand, he knew Locksley. Although never friends, he believed Locksley would be civil...perhaps. On the other hand, Locksley had returned from war a mad killer...the Sheriff had said so! War had warped his sense of justice, and he had allied himself with vicious outlaws and committed horrible acts upon the nobles of the shire.
And what would Locksley...no, Hood, do if he knew that he, Martin of Aylesbury, had been one of Lady Marian's suitors? Martin liked to brag far and wide how she had kissed him, how they had been betrothed, and how he had finally dumped her. At least, that was the version he liked to spread around. Now that he was about to meet Locksley again, face to face, he wished he had kept his mouth shut!
"This is how this goes," came another familiar voice, that of Locksley's faithful servant, whatever his name was...Lots, or Plenty, or Much...something like that.
"Be honest with us, and we take a tenth," came a rough male voice he did not recognize.
"So the poor can eat." Another male voice, younger and softer, but angry.
"Lie, or resist," a vicious voice, deep and frightening.
"And we take it all, gents." Another unknown voice, common, but affable and charming, with a smile behind it.
"So, what's it going to be?" Locksley's voice again, demanding, smug, and charming all at once.
"My lord?" The sergeant of the men-at-arms was visibly nervous. "They have bows. They're pointing arrows at us. I suggest we meet their demands."
"All of them?" Martin squeaked. He knew Locksley never missed a shot.
"All carrying bows or meeting all their demands?"
"Carrying bows! Carrying bows!" Martin screamed.
"All but the big man, who's carrying a staff, and the bold leader," the sergeant answered. "He stands unarmed."
Martin heard Robin's voice, clothed in amusement saying, "Well, well, well! Cover me, lads." Aylesbury shivered when he heard the sound of running footsteps approach his carriage. Lots or Plenty was crying, "Master? What are you doing?"
"My lord!" the sergeant shouted. "What are your orders, sir? What do you want us to do?"
Martin was too frightened to think of a command. Still on his knees in his coach, he compresssed his body into a tight ball, and covered his ducked head with his arms.
Fresh air and dappled sunlight streamed into the carriage as Robin pulled open its doors.
"I thought I detected your voice screaming, Aylesbury!" Stepping jauntily inside, he laughed. "What brings you to Sherwood? You really shouldn't be travelling through the forest, you know. You might be ambushed by outlaws."
Now that they were indeed face to face, Martin wasn't so frightened. Locksley was being kind...smug and self satisfied, but kind. Martin stood and took a good look at the former Earl of Huntington. His handsome face was dirty, and his hair looked as if it hadn't seen a comb in weeks.
"Funny, Locksley...very funny."
"Call off your men," Robin commanded.
"You first," Martin countered.
"Ah! But this is my forest! You are here as my guest. You go first."
"Promise you won't hurt me?"
Robin lifted amused eyebrows and smiled wryly. "Give us what we want, and no one gets hurt," he promised.
That was not what Martin wanted to hear, but he realized he had no choice. "Very well, Locksley," he agreed. "What do you want?"
"Like we said...one tenth. No more, no less."
"You're actually robbing me? You have sunk low! I've heard the stories of course, but I never thought I'd see the day!"
"Speaking of stories, I've heard a few myself." Robin stepped deeper inside the coach. Closing the door behind him, he moved slowly toward Aylesbury, his movements graceful and menacing as a cat stalking its prey.
(To be continued)