The Outlaws of Sherwood
By Robin McKinley
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA Copyright © 1988 Robin McKinley
All rights reserved.
A small vagrant breeze came from nowhere and barely flicked the feather tips as the arrow sped on its way. It shivered in its flight, and fell, a little off course—just enough that the arrow missed the slender tree it was aimed at, and struck tiredly and low into the bole of another tree, twenty paces beyond the mark.
Robin sighed and dropped his bow. There were some people, he thought, who not only could shoot accurately—if the breeze hadn't disturbed it, that last arrow would have flown true—but seemed to know when and where to expect small vagrant breezes, and to allow for them. He was not a bad archer, but his father had been a splendid one, and he was his father's only child.
His father had taught him to shoot; he had also taught him to make and fletch his own arrows. Robin stopped to pull the treacherous arrow out of the ash it had chosen to fly at, and ran his fingers gently over the shaft. It was undamaged, he was relieved to see; he had a living to earn, and little time to spend making his own arrows. Mostly he sold the ones he found time to make; he had some slight local fame as a fletcher. He would rather have had any local fame, however slight, as an archer. But the money was useful; as one of the youngest sub-apprentice foresters in the King's Forest of Nottingham, he barely earned coin enough to feed himself—in fact he didn't earn even that, and he was struggling as well to keep title to his father's small holding. Every quarter saw him in rising panic as the time for the rents grew near.
Fortunately for his peace of mind, Robin was usually too busy, and too short on sleep and food, to have time and energy for thinking. And he was young and strong and still hopeful; this Chief Forester, who sent him on all the most disagreeable tasks, was old, and might be expected to die or at least to retire some day soon. With some luck the new Chief Forester, although inevitably another sheriff's man, might not hate young Robin for the sake of his mother, who had had the excellent sense to marry another man.
Today Robin had the great fortune to be free to go to the Nottingham Fair, and perhaps his holiday meant his luck was looking up at last. It was old Nobble, who had worked with his father as a friend, who had had the duty to decide which of the younger men might have the day to go to the fair. He had had the wisdom not to choose Robin first, for Bill Sharp, who was the Chief Forester's spy among the young men, was watching eagerly; but Robin knew as soon as Nobble's eye fell on him that he was to be permitted to go. He had to stop the smile that wanted to spread across his face from appearing till his name was called—a cautious third. Bill Sharp's name was not called at all, and that made Robin's happiness even greater.
Robin was to meet Marian and Much at the fair, and they would see the sights together: the jugglers and the players, the wrestlers and the knife-throwers. There would be no knights' contests. The best knights did not care to display themselves at so mercantile an event as the Nottingham Fair, much to the sheriff's chagrin, for the sheriff was vain of his town and his place in it. But his love of gold invariably won over even his love of pomp and ceremony; and while the sheriff said aloud that he was not willing to lay on a tourney that the best would not attend—for petty, illogical reasons that Nottingham need not concern itself with—the truth of it was that he was not willing to lay on a tourney that would end up costing him a great deal of money. He did consider, twice a year, as fair time approached, the noble—possibly even royal—favour he might curry by a fine tournament. But—as he told himself—royal favour was a notoriously chancy (and expensive) thing and at best a long-term one; and the sheriff of Nottingham had a short-term mind.
But the three friends did not care for such things, although Marian often heard gossip about them, and had many times made Much and Robin laugh till their sides hurt with her deadly imitations of the sheriff and his society. Once Robin said to her, "But your stories are second-and third-hand. How do you know?"
"I don't," said Marian cheerfully. "But I'm a good guesser—and a good actor, am I not?"
Robin said teasingly, "I will tell you what you already know only if you promise that you will not run off with a band of wandering players."
"I will not have to," replied Marian, "so long as evading my father's questions when I wish to spend a day with you continues to exercise my talents so usefully. Come; Much will think we have fallen in a hole," and she ran off ahead of him before he could speak again.
There had been little enough time for the three of them to be together in the last months; but the fair was going to make up for all that. They would look in the stalls and admire the trinkets for sale, the bright cloth, the raw wool and flax, the charms and toys, the spices and wines; and everything would please them.
Robin had contrived to finish off another couple dozen arrows since Nobble had called out his name a fortnight ago, working late into the evenings at great expense of sleep and strength—and of eyesight, crouched over one flickering candle till his head ached so badly that he saw twenty fingers and forty arrows. But he knew he would be able to sell them to Sir Richard of the Lea, his best customer—and the kindest, though Robin tried not to think about that too much in the fear that he might realise he should not accept the kindness. Sir Richard was unusual in that he permitted himself, a knight, to be interested in this commoner's sport. He had first bought arrows from Robin's father, and had not only organised his own levies to practise with their bows, but he even learnt to shoot himself, and had caused something of a ripple in local aristocratic society by claiming that he quite enjoyed it. But, he said, it was only sense to wish to send archers to the Lionheart in Palestine since the news of the Saracens' at-the-gallop harassment of properly armed knights had come home to England.
It was a great pity, as everyone said, that such a good man (and forward-looking, said those who approved of his archery; if misguided, said those who did not) should have such a worthless son. There was a good deal of local consternation, among both the high and low, at the prospect of the son's eventual inheritance of the father's estates. The sanguine held that, barring an unlucky pox or dropsy, the son would kill himself at one of his headlong games before such a fate came to be. And there was no point in speculating—which everyone then immediately did—whom the king might in such a case assign the estates to.
Robin himself was keeping an eye out for the son as he walked toward Mapperley Castle; he bore a small but slow to fade scar on the back of his neck where young Richard had laid his hunting-whip when Robin had not gotten out of what Richard perceived as his way quickly enough to suit. The son might have had more trouble if his father were less loved; as it was, yeoman farmers got both their flocks and their daughters under cover when young Richard was heard of, and elegant dinner parties in several counties were enlivened by tales of his exploits.
Sir Richard, who had not ordered any new arrows, still let his man show Robin at once into the room where he sat. He said, with the smallest trace of amusement in his gentle voice, "Have you an especial need for ready money, perhaps? Have you permission to go to the fair?"
Robin acknowledged, somewhat guiltily, that this was true. But Sir Richard willingly examined the arrows, as carefully as if he had long awaited them. "You have more than earned your fee with these," he said. "They are very fine." A blessing on that wandering goose, Robin thought, whose feathers he had ransacked before returning it, only a little the worse for wear, to its coop. Sir Richard stood up from behind his great desk and fumbled for his purse; and he pressed coins into Robin's hand and curled the young man's fingers around them as he turned him toward the door to the long hall that led down stairs and at last to the kitchens.
The smell of cooking made Robin's head swim. He knew he was accepting charity, but he was also relentlessly hungry and almost never ate meat; and Sir Richard had enough money to support not only his lands but his wastrel son. The odd extra meal for a craftsman worth his salt (Robin told himself) was no ignominy, on either side. It was not until his mouth was already full of beef and gravy and bread that he thought to look at the coins Sir Richard had given him; and found that he had been paid half again his usual price.
So Robin had enough money in his pouch to throw to a juggler who might particularly take his fancy (although he should be saving it for next quarter day); and enough to buy the hot fried bread there would be at the goodwives' booths for Marian and Much as well as for himself. He wondered for a moment, as he settled his bow and quiver over his shoulders, if perhaps he should throw the coin he would need to enter the fair's archery contest to that hypothetical juggler, and leave his arrows at home. He hesitated, looking at the tree his last arrow had missed.
He did not hate the fact that he was a second-rate archer; and Much and Marian knew him and were his friends. But there would be friends of the Chief Forester shooting too, and nothing would please them more than to taunt him when he stood up—and to take the story home of how young Robin had missed the mark with his very first arrow. Robin had learnt that it did no good to answer the taunting, and so he could hold his tongue; but he had yet to learn to ignore it, and as the anger—compounded of his helplessness and inability simply not to listen—beat inside him, it would throw his shooting out. The Chief Forester himself might be there to laugh his great, rolling, harsh laugh, though usually at such events he disappeared into the tent set out for the refreshment of the sheriff and his men, and was little seen.
Robin knew that any story of his own indifferent marksmanship would lose nothing in the telling. Bill Sharp would be telling it far and wide at least by the next day—and Robin thought it likely that he would have gone whining to the Chief Forester to be given permission to go to the fair after all, despite Nobble's decision, and would therefore be able to see for himself. There were those who said that Bill Sharp's real father was the Chief Forester, and not the farmer who had bred him up—and sent him off to be an apprentice forester at the earliest possible opportunity. Robin could readily believe it; it seemed to him that Bill was the Chief Forester all over again in small, for Bill was a skinny, weedy boy, and the Chief Forester was fat from many years of living off other people's labour, and eating at the sheriff's table. Robin particularly did not want to miss his first mark, with Bill Sharp watching.
But Much and Marian would be bringing their bows and would think it odd if he did not, for they were all to enter the contest. Privately Robin felt that Marian had a good chance of winning; she was one of those who always allowed for the breeze that would kick up from nowhere after the arrow had left the string. They might not like it when she proved to be a girl, but no one would notice in the crowd when the three of them signed up together, for she would be wearing boy's clothes, with her hair up under a hat; and after she won, Robin didn't think they'd deny her the prize. If he didn't enter, Marian and Much might decide they wouldn't either—he could hear Marian saying, "Oh, Robin, don't be tiresome. It doesn't matter. What is the prize—a lamb? I don't particularly want a lamb. Do you? I only came so we could spend the day together."
Robin had not told her or Much what his life had been like since his father died; and this was only too easy a decision to keep, as he had so little time to meet with them. They knew that his father had been a forester, and a man much admired and respected by the folk who lived roundabout. Too much respected, in the eyes of the sheriff, for there were those who felt that Robert Longbow should have had the Chief Forester's post; but he had been a quiet man who never took advantage of his popularity against the sheriff. And so the sheriff and his choice of Chief Forester had let him alone—in case his popularity might prove inconvenient if anything untoward happened to him. It had been their great good luck that he had died so suddenly of the winter catarrh; but he had driven himself very hard since his wife died, and was not so strong as he had been. No one thought anything of Robert Longbow's death but sorrow to see a good man gone; and Robin had known better than to mention the unnecessary call that came one stormy midnight after his father was already sickening. When Robert came back late the next morning, he was wet through, and he took to his bed, and did not leave it again alive.
His friends knew that the Chief Forester was hardly Robin's favourite person, but they knew little more than that. Let them think the unpleasantness was minor, left over from the old romantic story of how his father and the Chief Forester had courted the same woman, and his father had won her, despite the Chief Forester's better standing—and private income. He'd bring his bow to the fair, and enter the archery contest, and try not to miss at least his first shot. Even if Bill Sharp was not there, he was always at his worst with a lot of people watching him. But he really wanted to see Marian win.
He resettled his bow on his shoulder and gave another shake to his quiver, that it would hang straight, and not tease the back of his neck; he spent far too much of his daily life walking to be comfortable with an arrow-sack looped around his belt and banging against one leg in the common manner. That done, he set off solemnly through the trees—trying to feel that his decision was not only final but a good one, and that he was pleased with it besides. It was a long way to the town of Nottingham; it was probably foolish of him to have taken the time for target practice, particularly when practice wasn't going to tell him anything he didn't already know. He tried to whistle, but gave it up as a bad job.
He knew no other life than forestry, and if he left Nottingham he would have no choice but to give up his father's holding. His father's pride in England had extended to include his pride in tenant ownership of a cottage and small bit of land—land for a garden, and the cottage large enough to have separate rooms for eating and sleeping. There was even a separate coop for his wife's chickens, built against one outside wall of the cottage, where the birds were not only out from underfoot in the house, with their dirt and their feathers, but safe from foxes and other marauders as well. It was not only Robin's mother's family who was conscious that she'd married beneath her.
There was another reason Robin would not leave Nottingham, nor voluntarily give up his loosening hold on his father's land: Marian. And he could not help it that he often recalled that his gentry-bred mother had chosen to marry a mere forester with no prospects. But while the present Chief Forester remained, there was no chance of marriage for Robin, neither to a member of the gentry nor to the humblest village girl, who would never contemplate sleeping apart from her chickens were she so fortunate as to own any.
Robin knew the Nottingham woods hereabouts so well he did not need to think about where he was going, and his feet carried him responsibly forward while his mind was elsewhere. But he was not in the mood for any meeting with his fellows, and he was snapped out of his reverie by the sound of voices: one of them Tom Moody's, the Chief Forester's great friend and crony, and another Bill Sharp's.
Robin stopped, but it was too late, for they had seen him. There were half a dozen of them together, and they sat and watched him so expectantly that he wondered if they had been waiting for him, and what they intended to do. (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Outlaws of Sherwood by Robin McKinley. Copyright © 1988 Robin McKinley. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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