Holy Warrior

( 11 )

Overview

After the events of Outlaw, Robin of Locksley—and his sidekick and narrator, Alan Dale—finds himself in a very different England and a very changed world.

 

In 1190 A.D. Richard the Lionheart, the new King of England, has launched his epic crusade to seize Jerusalem from the Saracens. Marching with the vast royal army is Britain’s most famous, most feared, most ferocious warrior: the Outlaw of Nottingham, the Earl of Locksley—Robin Hood himself. With his band of loyal men ...

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Holy Warrior: A Novel of Robin Hood

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Overview

After the events of Outlaw, Robin of Locksley—and his sidekick and narrator, Alan Dale—finds himself in a very different England and a very changed world.

 

In 1190 A.D. Richard the Lionheart, the new King of England, has launched his epic crusade to seize Jerusalem from the Saracens. Marching with the vast royal army is Britain’s most famous, most feared, most ferocious warrior: the Outlaw of Nottingham, the Earl of Locksley—Robin Hood himself. With his band of loyal men at his side, Robin cuts a bloody swath on the brutal journey east. Daring and dangerous, he can outwit and outlast any foe—but the battlefields of the Holy Land are the ultimate proving ground. And within Robin’s camp lurks a traitor—a hidden enemy determined to assassinate England’s most dangerous rogue.

Richly imagined and furiously paced, featuring a cast of unforgettable characters, Holy Warrior is adventure, history and legend at its finest.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Following Outlaw, this second volume in Donald's unconventional Robin Hood series continues the bloody legend of a folk hero portrayed as the merciless, sadistic leader of murderous forest brigands in an England of 1190 that is anything but jolly. Fifteen-year-old Alan Dale, Robin's personal musician and spy, tells this gritty tale of treachery and medieval warfare. Coerced by Templar Knights, Robin reluctantly agrees to lead a force of mercenaries to the Holy Land as part of King Richard's Third Crusade quest to recapture Jerusalem. Robin, however, is driven not by faith, but by personal, sinister motives, and his methods shock even the loyal Alan. The journey is perilous and rife with betrayals, as an assassin makes repeated attempts to slay Robin and Alan tries desperately to identify the would-be killer. Robin and Alan witness the massacre of Jews at York, the execution of Muslim prisoners at Acre, and participate in the slaughter of Sicilians and Cypriots before finally meeting Saladin and his Saracen army in battle. Donald offers vividly gruesome medieval history, complete with intrigue, royal discord, torture, rape, disease, wholesale slaughter, and the brutal savagery of 13th-century warfare, where no quarter is expected and none is given. This is grim entertainment, indeed.
(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
From the Publisher
"A lively and enjoyable book."

—The Daily Mail

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780312678371
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press
  • Publication date: 8/2/2011
  • Pages: 400
  • Sales rank: 260,946
  • Product dimensions: 8.04 (w) x 5.58 (h) x 1.05 (d)

Meet the Author

ANGUS DONALD is a longtime journalist, now novelist, and lives in England. He is at work on his next book in the Outlaw series.

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Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER ONE

 

I hesitated long before beginning this labor, and had resolutely made up my mind never to set down on parchment this part of my early life, until I heard a man in an alehouse in Nottingham the other day, a professional storyweaver, and a good one, extol the virtues of lionhearted King Richard and his brave warriors who made the Great Pilgrimage to the Holy Land more than forty years ago. The man described the magnificent killing skills of the steel-wrapped Christian knights, and the deathless glory that they won against the Saracens at Acre and Arsuf; he spoke of the certain rewards in Heaven for those who fell in such a noble cause, and the rich rewards on Earth, in plunder and booty, for those who returned …

But this eloquent tale-spinner never mentioned the true sights, smells and sounds of a battlefield after a great victory—the ones that stay with you and plague your dreams. He did not speak of the corpses, thousands of them, chalk-faced and staring, stiffened by death and heaped like cut logs one on top of the other; nor the belly-slashed horses, stepping in their own entrails, eyes rolling, trembling and whinnying with fear; nor the iron-meat stench of fresh blood and spattered shit, an odor that coats the back of your throat and will not easily be washed away; nor the drone of a hundred thousand gore-glutted flies; nor the ceaseless, hopeless shrieking of the badly wounded that makes you yearn to stuff your ears against their pain.

He did not speak of the horror of killing a man close to; the wild kick of his death-writhe against your body, the stench of his onion breath on your cheek; the hot blood washing over your hand as you work the blade deeper into his flesh. And the sick dizziness and relief you feel when the deed is done and the man lies by your boots, suddenly no more than a loose bag of bones and meat.

The storyteller did not lie—and yet he did not tell the truth. And when I saw the eyes of the young men in that tavern shining in the firelight as they listened to his stories of bold Christian heroes carving their way through the ranks of cowardly unbelievers, I knew that I must set down the true events of that great endeavor four decades past, the true courses of those far-off battles, as I saw them with my own youthful eyes.

This is not a tale of bold heroes and everlasting glory, it is a tale of useless slaughter and lakes of innocent blood; a tale of greed, cruelty and hatred—and of love; it is also a tale of loyalty and friendship and forgiveness. Most of all it is the tale of my master Robert Odo, the great Earl of Locksley, the man once known throughout the land as Robin Hood—a cunning thief, an ice-hearted murderer and, God forgive me, for many years my good friend.

As I inscribe this story of my long-ago journeying at a writing stand in the great hall at the manor of Westbury, I feel the crushing weight of my years. My legs ache from standing at my sloped lectern for so long. My hands, which grip penknife and quill, are cramped from hours of work. But our merciful Lord has spared me these past fifty-eight years, through much danger, battle and bloodshed, and I have faith that he will give me the strength to complete this task.

Through the wide-open hall door, a light breeze steals in and stirs the rushes on the floor, wafting the warm scents of early autumn to where I scratch away at this parchment: the sun-baked dust of the courtyard outside, cut grass in my drying barns and a tint of sweetness from the fruit that hangs heavy in my orchard.

It has been a fat year for us here at Westbury: a hot summer ripened the crops, and now they are all gathered in, and the granaries are filled to the rafters with sacks of wheat, oats and barley; daily the cows give up their sweet milk, the pigs are gorging on beech mast in the woods, and Marie, my daughter-in-law, who runs this manor for me, is a contented woman. God be praised for His mercy.

In the spring, her cousin Osric, a portly widower of middle years, came here to occupy the position of bailiff, and he brought with him his two strong sons Edmund and Alfred to toil in my fields as waged farmhands. I cannot say that I like Osric: he may be the most upright, honest, hardworking fellow in Christendom, but he is as dull as unsalted spelt bread. Officious, too, when it comes to his dealings with my villeins. And yet, since his arrival at the manor, he has immeasurably transformed my life for the better. What was once a forlorn, untended estate of weed-choked fields and tumbledown buildings is now a bustling place of industry and plenty. He has collected those rents from my tenants that were long overdue; at harvest time he rose before dawn and chivvied into the fields the villeins of Westbury who owed me week-work, and arranged a modest daily payment for the franklins of the village who did not, but who were prepared to labor on my demesne. He has brought order and prosperity and happiness to the manor—and yet I still cannot like him.

It may be that I do not care for him because he is such an ugly man—round in the middle like a ball, with short arms and stubby fingers, and his face, under a nearly bald scalp, is pinched like a mole’s; his nose is too large, his mouth too small, and an expression of worry permanently haunts his tiny eyes—but I prefer to think it is because he has no music in his soul, no wild untamed joy in his heart.

Nevertheless, Osric’s coming has been a good thing. Last year, a melancholy air had pervaded the manor. Marie and I were both struggling to find a reason to carry on living after the death from a sickness of my son, her husband Rob. God be praised we have a living memory of him in my grandson and namesake Alan, who will be eight years old this Christmas—a healthy, raucous little boy.

Alan is in thrall to Osric’s younger son Alfred. He looks on the young man as a hero, a kind of demigod, and he copies everything the tall farmhand does. Alfred had taken to wearing a band of linen around his brow, to catch the sweat before it dripped into his eyes as he worked his sickle on the standing wheat. And so, of course, little Alan must fashion a similar cloth headband for himself, too. When Alfred let slip that he was fond of buttermilk, Alan began following him around with a pitcher of the liquor in case he might be thirsty. Harmless boyish foolishness, you will say. Possibly, but I have decided that I will soon send Alan away to be educated in accordance with his rank at another manor far away. There, he will learn to ride and fight like a knight, and dance and sing, and write Latin and French: I do not want him growing up to be a field hand. This infatuation with Alfred may well be harmless but I know that blind admiration of an older man by a younger fellow can cause great anger and hurt when the boy discovers that his idol is not the hero that he seems. I had that very experience myself with Robin of Locksley.

My master first appeared to me as a heroic figure: brave, strong and noble—just as Alfred might appear to young Alan—but I remember well the sickening lurch in my belly when I learned that Robin was not so, that he was as grasping and cruel and selfish as any other mortal man.

I know that I am not being just to Robin when I castigate him for being selfish, cruel and greedy: it was I who misunderstood him, not he who deliberately tricked me. But I still feel rancor, and shame, when I remember the good and noble men who died so that Robin might gain riches. But those who read these parchments shall judge for themselves, and in these pages I shall write as truly as I am able about Robin’s adventures beyond the sea, and mine, in that hate-ridden land where men butcher each other by the thousands in the name of God, that country of crushing heat and choking dust, of demon scorpions and giant hairy spiders—the place that men call Outremer.

*   *   *

Ghost, my gray gelding, was exhausted and I, too, was weary beyond belief. We had traveled many hundreds of miles together in the past few weeks—to London, Winchester, Nottingham and back—and, as we rode up the steep slope from the valley of the Locksley River in the county of Yorkshire toward the castle high on the hill, I patted his marbled gray neck and murmured a few words of encouragement. “Nearly home, boy, nearly home, and there’s a dish of hot oat mash waiting for you.” Ghost pricked up his ears at my words, and even seemed to increase his pace a fraction. As we plodded up the endless grassy hill, scattering ewes and their gawky lambs out of our path, I could make out the square shape of the church of St. Nicholas above me and behind it, on the skyline, the high wooden tower and stoutly palisaded courtyard of Kirkton Castle, the fortress of my master, which overlooks the Vale of Locksley. I wallowed in a great sense of homecoming and the warm glow of a task well done. My head was full of good, fresh intelligence; important, dangerous news, and in my saddlebags, wrapped and well-hidden, was a costly gift. I felt like a hunter, returning after a day in the wild with a fine catch: a satisfying blend of fatigue and joy.

It was early spring, in the year of Our Lord 1190, and, it seemed to me on that beautiful day, all was right in the world: noble King Richard, that most Christian warrior, was on the throne of England, the officials he had placed in positions of power were said to be governing wisely, and he himself would soon be setting off on a great and holy adventure to recover Jerusalem, the navel of the world, from the grip of the Saracen hordes, perhaps bringing about the Second Coming of Our Lord Jesus Christ by his actions. All England prayed that he might be successful. Best of all, I had successfully completed one of my first assignments for my master, Robert Odo, the newly created Earl of Locksley, and Lord of Kirkton, Sheffield, Ecclesfield, Hallam, Grimesthorpe and Greasbrough, and dozens of smaller manors across Yorkshire, Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire.

I was Robin’s trouvère, or personal musician to his court. Trouvères were so called because we “found” or composed songs ourselves, not merely repeating other men’s verses like a lowly jongleur. But, for Robin, I also acted as his messenger, envoy and, occasionally, spy. And I was glad to do it. I owed everything I had to him. I was a gutter-born peasant with no family, or even a village or town to call my own, and very young then, only fifteen years old—and Robin had granted me the lordship of the small manor of Westbury. I was Alan of Westbury! I was the lord of a manor; this same manor, where, more than forty years later, I now write these words. After the savage battle at Linden Lea the previous year, in which we had defeated the forces of Sir Ralph Murdac, the corrupt High Sheriff of Nottinghamshire, Robin, a notorious fugitive from the law, had been pardoned by King Richard, married his lovely Marie-Anne and been made Earl of Locksley. All those who had followed him during the dark years of his outlawry had received a reward for their loyalty—a handful of silver, a sturdy ox, or a fine horse—and, in truth, I had expected a gift of some sort too, but I had not expected to be granted a sizeable piece of land.

I was almost speechless with gratitude when Robin showed me the charter, adorned with the great, heavy red disk of his seal, that made me the custodian of this big old hall and its many outbuildings, five hundred acres of prime farmland, a village of twenty-four cottages occupied by a hundred souls, mostly villeins but with a handful of free men, a water mill, a warren, two pair of oxen, a plow and a fine stone church.

“It’s a small manor, Alan, not much more than a big farmstead, really; only half a knight’s fee. And it’s a bit run-down, I’m afraid, but it is good land, I’m told,” Robin said.

“But how will I manage the place?” I asked. “I know nothing of making a living from tilling the earth.”

“I don’t expect you to be a farm worker, Alan,” said Robin laughing. “You must find a good man, a steward or bailiff, to do that for you. All you do is receive the rents, and make sure that nobody cheats you. I require you to serve me. But you need an income and some standing in society if you are to represent me, deliver my messages and what-have-you.” He smiled, his strange silver eyes flashing at me: “And I am convinced that England has a great and pressing need for more songs about the bold exploits of handsome Robin Hood and his merry men.”

He was teasing me, of course. I had composed a few ditties about our days together beyond the law and they had spread like wildfire across the country, being sung in alehouses from Cockermouth to Canterbury—growing farther from the truth with each drunken rendition. Robin did not mind that he was being turned into a legend; he said it amused him—in fact, I believe he relished it. And he was not in the slightest worried about his past crimes being brought to light. He was a great magnate now, untouchable by any mere sheriff and, to boot, he enjoyed the favor and friendship of King Richard. He had won all this in two days of terrible slaughter last year, but there had been a price—above that paid for in the blood of his loyal men. In order to win that battle, Robin had made an unbreakable pact with the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon, the famous Templar Knights: in exchange for their support at a crucial moment in the battle, Robin had sworn that he would lead a force of mercenaries, archers and cavalry to the Holy Land, as part of King Richard’s pilgrim army. As Robin’s trouvère, I would be accompanying the Christian force, and I could not wait to set off on what then seemed to me to be the most noble adventure that it was possible to conceive.

I had a message for Robin from King Richard in my saddlebag and I believed that it contained the date for our departure—it was only by using a great deal of force upon myself that I had refrained from tearing open the sealed parchment and reading this private missive between the King and my lord. But refrain, I did. I wanted more than anything to be his faithful, reliable vassal, utterly trustworthy, utterly loyal: for Robin had done so much more for me than grant me land. In a sense, he had made me what I was. When we first met I had been just a grubby young thief from Nottingham, and he had saved me from mutilation and possibly death at the hands of the law. Then, believing that I had some talent, he had arranged for me to be educated in music, in the Norman-French language, in Latin—the tongue of monks and scholars—and in the art of combat, and I was now as accomplished with a sword and dagger as I was with the vielle, the five-stringed polished apple-wood instrument with which I accompanied my singing.

And so I had spent many hard days and nights in the saddle wearing down the muddy roads of England in the service of my master—and now, laboring up that endless emerald slope, it felt as if I were coming home.

I glanced over to my left, as Ghost put one weary hoof in front of another up that steep hill, to check the height of the sun—it was midafternoon—and noticed to my complete surprise a mass of horsemen not two hundred yards away. At a rough count they numbered about a hundred men, ordered in two lines, helmeted, green-cloaked and clad in mail, all armed with twelve-foot spears, held vertically, and tipped with steel that glinted evilly in the sunlight. My first reaction was fear: they were approaching at a trot and on my exhausted mount there was no way I could outrun them. I must have been daydreaming to let them come up on me without my seeing them. As they approached, the leader, a bareheaded man who was a horse’s length ahead of the front line, ripped a long sword from his scabbard and, shouting something over his shoulder, pointed it straight at me in an obvious order to attack. All along the first line of cavalry, the spears were levelled, the ash-wood shafts coming down from their upright positions in a white wave of wood and sparkling metal, the butts couched beneath the riders’ armpits, the spearheads pointed directly at me. And then they charged.

From the trot, they moved swiftly to the canter and then, a moment later, they were at full gallop. Behind them the second line followed suit. The thunder of hooves seemed to vibrate the very turf. I could not run; there was no time, and Ghost would not bear me more than a quarter of a mile at a gallop, so I tugged my plain old sword from its battered scabbard, and with a loud cry of “Westbury!” I turned my mount toward them and charged straight at the fast-approaching line of pounding warhorses and implacable mail-clad men.

In no more than three heartbeats they were upon me. The bareheaded leader, a tall youngish man with light brown hair and a mocking grin on his handsome face, raced toward me, sword held high and to his right. As our horses met he cut hard at my head with his long blade. If it had connected with my skull it would have killed me on the spot but I blocked the blow easily with my own sword, and the clash of metal rang out like a church bell. Then, as he swept past me, I twisted my wrist and swung my sword at his mailed back with all my strength. But the leading rider had anticipated this and spurred to his left, away from me, causing my blade to slice through empty air.

Then the second line of horsemen was upon me. I snarled at an onrushing rider, gripping Ghost tight with my knees, and smashed my sword into his kite-shaped shield, kicking out a long splinter of wood; I caught a glimpse of red hair under a badly fitting helmet, a gap-toothed open mouth and a terrified expression on his face as he thundered past me—and then I was through the lines, untouched, and there was empty green grass ahead of me and the diminishing sound of hoof beats behind.

I pulled up Ghost, and wheeled him round to face my opponents. They were half a hundred yards away, still going at the gallop, the two lines of horses merging into one long pack, bulging in the center around the bareheaded leader. Then a trumpet rang out: two notes, bright and clear, a beautiful sound on that perfect sunny afternoon. The riders reined in, sawing at their bits, the horses’ forelegs clawing the air and, turning their sweat-streaked mounts, swiftly re-formed the two ranks. It was impressive—or it would have been if all the horses and riders had responded to the trumpet. A handful of men, perhaps a dozen, had lost control of their animals and they were still thundering away from the main body in the opposite direction, heading over the shoulder of a hill and disappearing south down the slope toward the River Locksley. It looked as if nothing would stop them before they were in Nottinghamshire. But there were still eighty or so riders in control of their mounts, re-formed, in line, spears leveled once again. The bareheaded leader’s sword came down and, once more, they thundered toward me. I remained still, this time, silently applauding this display of horsemanship, sword resting casually on one shoulder, as the ranks of the enemy cavalry hurled themselves at me. At a distance of fifty paces, the trumpet rang out again one long note, repeated three times, and, miraculously, the reins were hauled back once again, the lances rose to pierce the sky, and with much snorting from the protesting horses, tearing of the turf, and swearing from the riders, the whole huge mass of sweaty horse and armored man-flesh came sliding to a halt about a spear’s length from Ghost’s soft nose. I stared at the heaving ranks of cavalry, saluted them with my sword and slid the blade back into its battered scabbard.

“Did we give you a good scare then, Alan?” said the bareheaded rider, only slightly out of breath, and grinning at me like a drunken apprentice celebrating a holy day.

“Of course, my lord,” I said gravely. “I was so terrified by your fearsome maneuvers that I believe I may have soiled myself.” There were a few guffaws from the ranks, which I had intended. Then I grinned back at Robin and said with mock humility: “It was, truly, a very impressive display. But one suggestion, sir,” I paused. “I’m no expert on horsemanship, of course, but would it not be even more effective if all the horses charged together … in the same direction … at the same time?”

There was more merriment from the horse soldiers as I pointed behind Robin to the other side of the dale, where a dozen of the Earl of Locksley’s newly formed cavalry could be seen tiredly forging up the far slope, the horses lathered in white and still wildly out of control. Robin turned, looked and smiled ruefully.

“We’re working on it, Alan,” said Robin. “We’re working hard on it. And they’ve still got a little time to learn before we get them to Outremer.”

“They are a damned indisciplined rabble, that’s what they are. You ought to have the hides off the lot of them!” snapped a man seated on a magnificent bay stallion next to Robin. I looked at him curiously. The ranks of heavily blowing cavalry were filled with familiar faces and I had nodded cheery greetings to half a dozen former outlaws by now, but he was a stranger to me. A tall man of late-middle years, clearly a knight from his dress, weaponry and the quality of his horse, with sandy blonde hair and a battered, much-creased face, the result, I assumed, of a permanent frown.

Robin said: “May I introduce Sir James de Brus, my new captain of horse, the man responsible for knocking these rascals into shape. Sir James, this is Alan Dale, an old comrade, a good friend and my very talented trouvère.”

“Pleased to know you,” said Sir James. I noticed that he had a slight Scottish accent. “Dale, Dale…” he said in a puzzled tone. “I don’t think I know the name. Where are your family’s lands?”

I bridled instinctively. I was ashamed of my humble origins and I hated to be asked about my family, particularly by members of the knightly class, who loved to talk about their Norman lineage as a way of demonstrating their superiority. I glared at the man and said nothing.

Robin spoke for me. “Alan’s father came here from France,” he said smoothly. “And he was the son of the Seigneur D’Alle, of whom I am sure you will have heard. Alan is the Lord of Westbury in Nottinghamshire.”

What Robin said about my father was true. He had been the second son of an obscure French knight, but Robin had not mentioned that he had been a penniless wandering musician, a trouvère like me, but without a master. He had made his living, for a time, singing in the halls of the nobility, where he had met Robin, before falling in love with my mother and settling down to raise crops and three children in a small village outside Nottingham. When I was nine, soldiers had burst into our cottage before dawn, ripped my father from his bed and, after falsely accusing him of theft, had hanged him summarily on an oak tree in the center of the village. I have never forgotten the sight of his swollen face as he choked out his life on that makeshift gibbet. And I have never forgiven Sir Ralph Murdac, the Sheriff of Nottinghamshire, who ordered his execution.

Sir James grunted something to me that might have been: “At your service, sir,” and I inclined my head at him with the barest civility. Robin said: “Well, that’s enough fun for today; shall we adjourn to the castle? I think it is time for a bite of supper.”

“I have urgent private news for you, sir,” I said to Robin.

“Can it wait till after supper?” he asked. I thought for a moment and then nodded reluctantly. “Come to my chamber after the meal, we’ll talk then.” He smiled at me. “Good to have you back, Alan,” he said, “Kirkton has been dull without your wit and dour without your music.” And then: “When you are fully rested, perhaps you’ll sing for us. Tomorrow?”

“Of course, sir.”

And we turned our horses and began to make our way up the hill to the castle.

*   *   *

The smell of hot soup from the kitchens filled my mouth with water. It is one of the most pleasant experiences that I know: to be physically tired, but washed and clean, and to be hungry, but with the knowledge that good food is just around the corner. I was seated to the left of Robin’s place, which was empty, not immediately next to where he would be sitting, but not far away—a position that reflected my standing in Robin’s court at Kirkton. In a few moments, Robin would join us and the food would be brought in, and for me it couldn’t come soon enough. I gazed around the hall as I waited for the meal to begin. The wooden walls were hung with rich, brightly colored tapestries, and the banners of the notable diners: Robin’s device of a snarling black wolf’s head on a white background being most prominent, his wife Marie-Anne’s badge of a white hawk on a blue field hung beside it, and next to that a strange device, a blue lion on a red and gold background, which I guessed must be Sir James’s emblem.

About three dozen of us were waiting to be fed: Robin’s familia—his closest friends and advisers, top lieutenants and the senior members of his armed troops. Some of the faces about the long table I knew very well—the giant man seated next to Robin’s empty place with a thatch of straw-colored hair was my friend and sword teacher John Nailor, who was Robin’s right-hand man, and the iron enforcer of his master’s will; farther along was a squat muscular shape clad in a raggedy brown robe: Brother Tuck, a Welsh master bowman turned monk, who men said jokingly acted as Robin’s conscience; across the table were the gap-toothed grin and red curls of Will Scarlet, a friend of my own age and the nervous horseman I had clashed with that afternoon—but Robin had been recruiting busily in the weeks that I’d been away and at least half the members of the happy throng were unknown to me. Sir James de Brus, I noted with satisfaction, was seated further away from Robin’s place than me, his bulldog face creased in to its habitual scowl. He did not seem to fit in that cheery, easy company, where little distinction of rank was made and, saving Robin’s superiority over us all, every man believed himself to be equal in worth to his fellow.

But, I noticed as I looked round the hall, things at the castle had changed in my absence. Not just new faces, but a new atmosphere: it was more formal, less like our carefree days as an outlaw band. Of course, that was right: we were no longer a pack of murderers and thieves, with every man’s hand against us—we were a company of the soldiers of Christ, blessed by the Church, and sworn to undertake the perilous journey to Outremer to save the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem for the True Faith.

Many of the changes to Kirkton were physical, too: indeed, the bailey courtyard had been almost unrecognizable to me when we had cantered in through the high wooden gates that afternoon. It was filled with people, teeming—soldiers, craftsmen, servants, traders, washerwomen, whores—all hurrying about their tasks, and it seemed crammed with new buildings, too, wooden structures thrown up to house the bustling multitudes. The castle courtyard was designed as a vast circle, about a hundred paces across, surrounded by a high oaken palisade, with a wide empty space in the center. Before I had left, there had been a handful of buildings around the edge of the circle: the high hall where we now sat, with Robin and Marie-Anne’s solar, or private sleeping chamber, attached to one end; the kitchen, the stables, the stoutly-built counting house that was Robin’s treasury, a few storehouses and that was all. Now, the courtyard almost resembled a small town: a new low building had been constructed to house the men-at-arms, a large two-roomed blacksmith’s forge had been set up against the palisade, and a burly man and his two assistants were hammering endlessly at bright strips of metal, manufacturing the swords, shields, helmets and spearheads necessary for the troops. A fletcher was at work outside a small half-built hovel, watched closely by his apprentice, painstakingly binding a linen thread around the goose feather flights of an arrow to hold them in place, with a stack of finished missiles beside him.

They would both have plenty of work in the weeks ahead. A good archer could fire twelve arrows a minute in battle and Robin was planning to take nearly two hundred bowmen with him to the Holy Land. If they had to fight only one battle, which lasted for an hour, that would still mean expending a hundred and forty-four thousand shafts. Even if the fletcher was busy for months he could not hope to provide enough arrows for the expedition and so, on the march, the men would make their own arrows, and Robin had been buying finished shafts by the thousand from Wales. Many of Robin’s hired archers came from that land: tough men, often not particularly tall but thick in the chest and often short in the arms, and with the immense strength necessary to draw the huge deadly war bow that was their weapon of choice. It was easy to tell the archers in the throngs of people about the castle by their low, powerful shapes. The bow, six-foot long and made from yew wood, could sink a steel-tipped ash shaft through a knight’s chain mail at two hundred paces. In the time it took a knight to charge an archer, from two hundred yards away, the bowman could sink three or four arrows into the mounted man’s chest.

The stables had been extended, too, to almost treble their length, to house the mounts of the hundred or so mounted men-at-arms that Robin planned to take with him on the Great Pilgrimage. And, though the horses would be expected to feed themselves along the way whenever possible, vast amounts of grain must still be carried with us to feed the animals when the grazing was poor, or in the dust-dry deserts of the Levant. As well as fodder, the horses needed blankets, brushes, buckets, feed bags and a dozen other accoutrements, along with saddles, girths, bridles, bits and a host of other straps, buckles and leather gear. Then there was the weaponry: each mounted man would be armed with a shield and a twelve-foot spear as his primary weapons, but each would also carry a sword, and many horsemen preferred to bring with them a mace or axe for close-quarter work in the melee.

So, as we entered the courtyard, which echoed with the shouts of men, the whinnying of horses, the ringing of hammers and the bleating of livestock, I was mildly shocked. I marveled at the castle’s transformation from sleepy family home to hive of warlike activity. Even the strong high tower, the motte, which stood on its own hill behind and above the bailey courtyard, was buzzing with activity as a stream of men carrying heavy burdens struggled up the steep earthen ramp to the small iron-bound oak door. The tower was the castle’s last line of defense: when an enemy threatened to breach the palisade of the bailey, the occupants of the castle would retreat to the tower. It was always well provisioned and kept stocked with a vast supply of fresh water and ale in giant barrels. Now it was being used as a storehouse for the baggage necessary for the great adventure and it was packed with sheaves of arrows, bundles of swords and bow staves, sacks of grain, barrels of wine, boxes of boots, bales of blankets … everything that would be needed to feed, clothe and arm four hundred soldiers on a two thousand-mile journey to the Holy Land.

The food, whose smell had been tantalizing me, finally arrived. Robin was still absent, which concerned me as I was bursting to deliver my news to him and I hoped he had not been called away on some errand before I had the chance to speak to him. However, despite his high-backed chair being empty, the meal was carried in by a train of servants and placed on the long table with little ceremony, and we all fell to eating with a will. The evening repast consisted of vast tureens of hot thick vegetable soup, or pottage, and platters of bread, cheese, butter and fruit—but no meat. It was Lent, and while we at Kirkton ignored the usual religious strictures on cheese and eggs, we did normally forgo meat for form’s sake. Robin cared nothing for these matters and always ate whatever he wished.

I filled a wooden bowl with the thick, wonderful smelling soup and with a horn spoon in one hand and a chunk of fresh bread in the other I began to fill my growling belly.

“God’s hairy backside,” roared a deep familiar voice, “our wandering minstrel has returned!” I looked up to see that Little John was saluting me with a huge, old-fashioned horn of ale. “And you’re sucking up that soup like you haven’t eaten for a week! What news, Alan?”

I raised my own cup in reply. “Bad news, I’m afraid, John. Very bad news. The world is about to end, if you believe the learned monks of Canterbury.” I took a mouthful of soup. “The Antichrist is loose and is filling the Earth with fire and blood.” I paused for dramatic effect. “And I hear the Evil One particularly wants to have a word with you.” I tried to look grave but kept breaking into a grin. It was an old joke between John and me, to pretend that the end of the world was nigh. But several people around the table glanced at me in fear and crossed themselves.

“Well, if your Antichrist shows his face here in Hallamshire, I’ll cut his cock and bollocks off and send him pissing blood all the way back to Hell,” said John carelessly, cutting a vast wedge from a round cheese and cramming it into his mouth. “Are you singing tonight?” he added, through a spray of yellow crumbs.

I shook my head. “Too tired. Tomorrow, I promise.”

“You mustn’t joke about things like that,” said Will Scarlet, his nervous face staring at me from across a steaming tureen. “The Antichrist, and all that. Your jests only serve to give the Devil more power.”

Will had become noticeably more religious since we had discovered that we were going on this great and holy adventure. “Quite right, Will,” said a kind voice with a faint Welsh accent. “Quite right. But young Alan’s not afraid of the Devil, are you?” It was Brother Tuck, smiling at me from the far end of the table. “These days, with a sharp blade in each hand, young Alan’s not afraid of anything … but a couple of years ago, mind, when I first met him, the boy would jump when he caught sight of his own shadow, why he regularly used to burst into tears over a spilled milk pail…”

Tuck broke off his teasing abruptly as a hurled bread roll crashed into his bulbous red nose, caromed off and skittered away on the hall floor. I was pleased with my accuracy. I had always been a good shot with a rock or stone as a boy, hunting rats in the granary barns with the other children of the village, and I was gratified to see that I had lost none of my skill, even if the missile this time was merely a piece of bread. Tuck roared with outrage, and flung a half-eaten pear back at me, missing and striking a thin man-at-arms next to me on the ear. As if by magic, the whole table suddenly erupted in a hailstorm of thrown food as each diner immediately began to pelt the man opposite with bread, fruit, pieces of cheese rind … For a dozen heartbeats it was sheer, joyful chaos, a big lump of cheese whizzed past my cheek, someone flicked a spoonful of soup down the front of my tunic. I prepared to retaliate … and then checked myself.

“Enough, enough, by God,” Little John was shouting, giving a very good imitation of fury. A thick slice of barley bread, thrown by an unseen hand bounced off the back of his big blond head. “Enough, I say,” he bellowed. “The next bastard who throws something, I swear I will batter him into bloody meat.”

“For shame, Alan,” said Tuck, trying to look solemn, “for shame. Have we not taught you any manners in your time with us? Are you still the uncouth lout we first met two years ago? Just because Robin is away from the table…”

I had an apple snug in the palm of my hand and my fist was cocked back and ready to throw; but I managed to still myself; I knew that Little John did not make idle threats.

“Where is Robin, anyway?” I asked. I had caught a glimpse of Sir James’s face, his expression was one of total disgust, and I wanted to change the subject. Despite the joyous, silly anarchy of a food battle, my ill news was still looming at the back of my mind like a dark cloud. “Why is he not with us for this fine gathering of noble gentlemen?”

“He’s gone to collect the Countess from Locksley village; she’s been consulting a wise woman there,” said Tuck. “He told me he would be back later this evening, God willing.”

Marie-Anne, Countess of Locksley, was heavily pregnant and very near her due time, but the pregnancy had not been an easy one. She had felt sick and out of sorts for much of the early period of her term, and then restless and unhappy more recently as she became very large indeed. Marie-Anne was a beautiful woman, perhaps the most beautiful I had ever seen, with a slim figure, chestnut hair and glorious bright blue eyes, and she hated becoming so fat and lumpy as the baby grew inside her—like a great lumbering sow, as she put it—but there was something else too that was troubling her about the pregnancy. I knew not what, but it was something between her and Robin. I had once come into their solar unannounced to find them shouting at each other. This was very unusual—Robin almost never lost his temper. And Marie-Anne had always appeared to have an almost angelically serene outlook on life. I put the incident down to the trials of pregnancy and forgot about it.

Locksley village was only three miles away and even transporting Marie-Anne in a donkey-cart—she was now too big to ride a horse—it would only take Robin a couple of hours to go there and pick her up and return to Kirkton. I was sure he would return within the hour, and felt a sense of relief. The brief meal was coming to its conclusion and, one by one, the men rose from the long table. Some gathered around the fire in the center of the hall, squatting by its heat, gossiping, throwing dice, and finishing off their cups of wine or ale; a few wandered outside the hall to the farthest building which contained our latrine—a mere plank-covered trench in the earth; some began to make up their beds against the walls on the rush-strewn floor, laying out their blankets and furs and curling up for the night. Robin had still not returned, but he had told me to wait in his chamber, and so after a quick visit to the stables to check that Ghost was comfortable, I collected two goblets of wine, a plate with a large piece of cheese, a loaf of bread, two apples and a small fruit knife and took them on a tray into Robin’s and Marie-Anne’s solar, which was at the end of the hall. I reasoned that Robin and his lady might be hungry when they returned. Then I settled down to wait in their chamber.

*   *   *

The solar was lit by a single good-quality beeswax candle, in a silver candlestick on a small table of the far side of the big four-poster bed. I came around the bed and placed the food on the night table; then I sat gingerly on the embroidered silk bedcover, and looked around the room as I awaited Robin’s return. It was a good-sized chamber, perhaps ten paces long by six paces wide, the walls paneled with dark wood and hung with one or two small tapestries depicting the hunt. It had a polished wooden floor that creaked slightly in the center under a person’s weight and was partially covered by a large wolfskin rug. The great oak bed was at one end of the room against the wall, perhaps three paces in from the door. Beside the bed was a large window with a stout wooden shutter, bolted from the inside, which opened out on to the castle courtyard. At the far end of the room were two clothes chests, one each for Robin and Marie-Anne, and a washbasin on a thin iron stand with a jug of water beside it. A large dresser, on the wall opposite the door, held feminine items such as jewelry, hairpins, face powder, perfume and a large silver mirror. From my seat on the bed, I could just see my reflection in the mirror: a big lad looked back at me, taller than average, and with the broad shoulders and thick arms of a swordsman. My oval face and regular features seemed entirely unremarkable to me, save for the mop of bright blond hair on top. The merest fluff of a beard showed on my cheeks and I remembered that I had not shaved for several days. I ran a hand over my face, and looked away at the rest of the room, noting an antler rack that held cloaks and hats, a crucifix hanging on the wall—which must belong to Marie-Anne—and a large thronelike oak chair.

Considering the power that Robin now wielded in England, his private chamber was rather austere, but then he had never been a man overly concerned with comfort. Years of living wild as an outlaw had given him the ability to travel light, and apparently Marie-Anne was content with only the bare necessities of feminine life.

As I sat on the silk bedcover, I could feel the effects of the long day’s travel. I was exhausted; for weeks I had been galloping about England delivering messages for Robin and paying for my board and lodging by entertaining unfamiliar nobles in strange castles with my music and now, warm, well-fed and safe, I could feel my eyelids turning to lead. Surely Robin could not be long. It was perhaps two hours after sunset and he would not like to have Marie-Anne out late at night in her condition. My head was nodding, and I had an overwhelming urge to lie down. I was sure that my master would not mind if I slept for a few minutes, just to be fresh for our discussion. So I kicked off my soft leather shoes and stretched out full length on the comfortable bed. I just managed to lift my head from the soft goose-feather pillow and blow out the candle before I was drowned in sleep.

*   *   *

I came from deep sleep to fully awake very swiftly, like a man rising up fast from a deep pool and breaking the surface to gulp down clean air. But some devious instinct made me remain absolutely still and silent. There was someone coming into the room. I caught a glimpse of his shape, silhouetted by the doorway, back-lit by the dull glow of the banked hall fire. He was short, shorter than Robin, and much broader in the shoulder, too. And in his hand, just glimpsed, was a sword.

The man closed the door behind him, the wooden latch closing with a click, and the room was once again pitch dark. All the hair on my neck stood to attention, goose bumps rose on my forearms. I lay still for one more moment and then, the knowledge hitting me like a bucket of icy water in the face, I rolled. And only just in time. There was a whist of sharp metal passing swiftly through the air, and then a thump as the edge of the man’s sword plunged into the bed where I had been lying just a heartbeat before.

I scrambled to my feet, knocking over the night table with a deafening clatter of wood, silver and steel. Like a fool, I bent down to pick up the scattered food and utensils, heard a patter of soft-shod feet running toward me and a hiss above my head as the sword swept over my stooping form in the black of the room. I found the fruit knife in my hand and dived under the bed and squirmed through the dust and cobwebs and out of the other side. But the swordsman anticipated my move, leaping round from the far side of the bed in the same time it took me to crawl under it. As I began cautiously to poke out my nose there was a splintering noise as the intruder’s sword hacked down inches from my head and buried itself in the floorboards. As the man wrestled with his stuck blade, I recoiled under the bed and, turning to my right, fast-crawled out of the end of the four-poster, working forward as silently and swiftly as I could on elbows and knees, scuttling like a crab over to the far wall, and when I reached it I crouched, back to the wooden panels, knees round my ears, trying not to pant, with the little fruit knife held out in front of my body.

The room was silent. The darkness was impenetrable. But my fear was subsiding and, in its place, a cold, hard anger bloomed. I was locked in a room with a sword-wielding maniac who was trying to kill me, and who had almost succeeded three times. I tested the edge of the fruit knife. It was very sharp, although the blade was only two inches long. It would serve. After two years of mixing with Robin’s outlaws, some of the most efficient cut-throats in England, I knew exactly how to kill a man quickly with a small blade. My heart began to slow, and I remained perfectly still as I waited for my enemy to reveal himself.

Then the man spoke, softly: “My lord earl, why do you not call upon your liegemen to help you?” It was a Welsh voice; I should have guessed by the short powerful body shape that it was an archer—and that was good news. By and large, our archers were not overly proficient as swordsmen, I knew because it was my duty to train them. It was a crumb of comfort, and I felt my courage swelling with the thought. It was also clear that this man thought he had Robin trapped in the room. There was no question of my calling out. It would have brought me help, yes, but if I made the slightest sound, he would be on me with his sword in a heartbeat and, even in that total darkness, I could be cut to pieces. I would be dead or mutilated before any of Robin’s men, now snoring in the hall, could come to my rescue, and he would be out of the window and lost in the courtyard. So I remained dumb. And smiled into the blackness. He had revealed his position to me. By the sound of his voice, I knew he was standing by the end of the bed. I heard the swish of his sword as he sliced the air experimentally around his body, trying for a lucky strike. But I was three paces away and crouched low. If I stayed still he was unlikely to catch me with his sword. And, if he was to find me, he must move.

After a long silence, in which all I heard was an indistinct whisper of cloth, the floorboards gave a harsh creak, very loud in the silence, echoing like the cry of a gull. The board creaked once again and then stopped, and I knew he was in the middle of the room, standing still to make no further noise. I could see his position exactly in my mind. But I needed him to come nearer to me, without discovering my own location. Groping around in the dark, my hand alighted on the cool earthenware of the water jug. I put my hand inside to discover that it was half full. Lifting it silently with both hands, knife between my teeth, I hurled the jug away from me and into the corner of the room. It smashed with an unbelievably soul-wringing noise and I heard the floorboards creak again as the man rushed toward the corner and began to flog the air with his sword. On hands and knees I crawled forward to where I believed he stood and, knife in my right hand, grabbed him with my left around the thigh. I was only slightly off the mark and, as I seized his knee, he let out a shriek of surprise and fear. A moment later and I had plunged the knife into the soft inside of his thigh, then ripped the blade out of the flesh in a scooping motion. He screamed horribly in pain and terror and I felt him batter at my shoulders with the hilt of his sword. But I had been rewarded for my strike by a great gush of his blood into my face, a hot fountain that immediately drenched my upper body, and I knew then that he was a dead man.

Dropping the knife, I scrambled out of reach of his flailing sword and scuttled back under the bed. The man’s howls filled to room, shrill and heart-rending, and I knew that the alarm had been satisfactorily raised. Scream upon scream echoed about me as his life jetted out of his slashed thigh. Then I heard him slump to the floor like a dropped sack of grain, weak and whimpering now, as he tried to staunch the torrent of spurting lifeblood. I could smell its sour iron odor. Even in the pitch dark I could clearly imagine what was happening as I had seen it once before: as I had intended, I had cut through the great pulsing artery that ran down his inner thigh, and unless he could find a tourniquet to stop the blood flow, in less than thirty heartbeats he would be as dead as last night’s dinner.

The door of the solar burst open and a crowd of men-at-arms rushed in bringing torches and rush lights and an excited clamor to the room. The man was seated, legs widespread, in the middle of a lake of blood, his agonized face drained and white. I poked my bloody head out from under the bed and stared at him.

He managed four words before he collapsed, lifeless into the crimson pool: “Not my boy, please…” he whispered and then he died.

 

Copyright © 2010 by Angus Donald

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Sort by: Showing all of 11 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted December 5, 2013

    An appaling and horrific mockery of the legend of robin hood.

    This book is not for fans of Robin Hood. It's for those who want to besmirch the name of many a boy and girl's childhood hero. How dare you!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 26, 2013

    What a terrible and exciting book!

    The horror of War during the Crusades told as so well I didn't want it to end. Angus Donald knows how to capture and hold your attention. A great read!

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  • Posted August 15, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    Robin's gone respectable?

    Holy Warrior is the second book in Angus Donald's saga of Robin Hood. Robin's gone respectable? Well that is debatable. But this time he is on the right side of the newly crowned King, Richard I. The first third of the book encompasses preparation for the crusade that, Robin was forced to swear to undertake. As well as the shameful event perpetrated against the Jews of York. For those who know nothing about this period it will give you an idea what things were like for those not of the Christian faith in England and Europe in the late 12th century. It is not surprising that our narrator Alan Dale and Robin are caught up in the atrocities.

    The second part of the book we find Robin and his army on their way to meet up with King Richard and King Phillip of France, in Sicily. A failed assassination attempt in England isn't a onetime event on the journey south Robin's life is in danger, our narrator Alan is asked to find out who is behind it. It is Alan's story that I love, his growth as a warrior, musician and man again take center stage. I also am glad that Mr. Donald didn't bring up Richards sexuality, but he does bring up that Richard was a serious A-type personality. Had RIchard I been alive today he would be racing cars or B.A.S.E. jumping. His courage bordered on a reckless madness and complete disregard for his safety. But his men love him for it and would and did follow him into hell.

    Part three The Holy Land. Alan's in love and he has made enemies. But still who is trying to kill Robin, but at this point does Alan really care? The Battle scenes are brilliant, and bloody. Mr. Donald captures the adrenaline soaked battle madness the high and then the inevitable low that follows.

    The things I find I admire most in Mr. Donald's work is the honesty, his ability to convey real human emotions, serving up fully fleshed out characters. The humor is there so is the angst. When reading this you feel if you are sitting in the hall at Westbury listening to Alan as an old man reminiscing. If you are on the fence about these books don't be take the plunge you won't be disappointed.

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  • Posted July 20, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    The second tale of Angus Donald's rendition of Robin Hood portrays the epic heroic Holy Warrior in a negative light

    In 1190 newly crowned King Richard II of England announces plans to liberate Jerusalem from the Saracens. Amongst those marching in the Third Crusades is the most feared warrior in the land, the Outlaw of Nottingham, the Earl of Locksley. Robin Hood's loyal men are on the trek too as the Templars gave him and them little choice in the matter.

    The trek is dangerous without having an assassin try killing you. Robin and his personal troubadour teen age Alan Dale try to uncover the identity of the stalker but so far fail. At the same tome Robin shows no mercy as he and his band of mercenary murderers kill anyone in their path. However, the real test will be in combat with Saladin and his Saracen horde.

    The second tale of Angus Donald's rendition of Robin Hood (see Outlaw) continues to portray the epic heroic Holy Warrior in a negative light (that is looking back from twenty-first century sensitivities even with recent holocausts). Robin is abusive and mean spirited while he leads a merry band of raping, murdering marauders. They fit their times as teenage Alan Dale relates what they have seen and done during the Crusades to include ethnic cleansing of Jews in England, the slaughter of Muslim prisoners of war at Acre, and the massacre of other ethnic groups. This all occurs even before the bloody battle against Saladin and enhanced by deadly disease. Dark, gory and bloody but grimly realistic as medieval life especially on the front means take no prisoners except in the case of rape.

    Harriet Klausner

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    Posted October 4, 2011

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