Everything in the Great Hall led the eye to one man sitting at the centre of the high table. There was a canopy above Richard’s head and his banners hung from the wall. The hall blazed with heraldry in a brazen display of pomp and glory. King Richard’s circus had come to town and he wanted everyone to know.
Sitting at his right hand was the Queen Mother, the formidable Eleanor of Aquitaine, a beady-eyed old lady with hard and watchful eyes. On the King’s left sat Hubert Walter who had recently been made Archbishop of Canterbury. It was largely through his efforts that the ransom had been paid. Richard had been quick to recognize, and reward, Hubert’s genius and had made him his chief adviser.
The earls of Leicester and Arundel were there, so was Ranalf of Chester and the grey old warrior, William the Marshal.
At one of the less important tables, very much out of favour and ill at ease, sat the former Sheriff with Abbot Hugo.
In the middle of the hall, dancers were entertaining the company. They were local men, dressed in crude fancy dress. A comic Nun danced with a Bishop, a Devil danced with a Queen and dancing with a parody of King Richard was Death himself.
Richard paid very little attention to the dancers. A messenger had brought him news that the whole of Normandy, east of the River Seine, had fallen into the hands of the King of France. He picked at his food and wondered moodily what other lands his brother John had let slip.
As the dance ended Gisburne made a dramatic entrance and bowed to the King. This was going to be a splendid moment and he meant to make the most of it.
‘Pardon me, my liege!’ he cried loudly to the king.
The hubbub of conversation died away as Richard looked down at the strutting figure.
‘What is it, man?’ he growled. He didn’t like Gisburne. He knew that he served the de Rainault brothers.
‘I bring a gift, my lord king,’ smirked Gisburne.
‘A gift, eh?’ said the King. Perhaps the young man was bringing him gold. ‘Let’s see it!’
The doors opened and Robin, Marion, and the rest of them were brought in.
‘This is the infamous wolfshead, Robin Hood, my liege,’ said Gisburne proudly. ‘And these are some of his followers. The woman was the lord Abbot Hugo’s ward until the villain dishonoured her.’
‘That’s a lie!’ said Marion looking angrily at him.
‘This renegade monk,’ Gisburne continued looking at Tuck, ‘was once the — er — the former Sheriff’s — chaplain. They were creeping towards the castle when I ambushed them.’
‘An ambush?’ smiled the King. ‘Excellent. Were they about to scale the walls and put us all to the sword? Or merely surround the castle and lay siege to us?’
The entire gathering looked at the little group of ragged figures and the hall erupted with laughter. Gisburne joined in but with some embarrassment.
‘Suppose I told you that I sent for them,’ said King Richard.
The silence that followed was absolute. The Sheriff and Hugo were stunned.
‘S-sent — sent for them, sire?’ stammered Gisburne weakly.
‘Yes,’ said the King, ‘sent for them. Demanded their presence here.’
Gisburne felt his world beginning to topple. ‘But — but —why should they come, my liege?’ he asked.
The King stood up and his voice thundered through the hall, ‘Because I am the King of England!’
Gisburne prayed hard for the earth to swallow him. He wondered if he would be executed immediately or if the King would have him tortured first.
‘Untie them, boy!’ growled the King.
Gisburne hurried to obey. ‘Thank you, “boy”,’ grinned Little John as the Steward cut his bonds.
‘Approach us!’ commanded King Richard.
The outlaws walked forward and knelt at the bottom of the steps.
Richard leant back in his chair. ‘My lords — unknown to you, I hunted today in Sherwood, not as the King but as the Chevalier Déguisé — the knight disguised.’ He looked at Robin. ‘This man was my quarry. But when my life was threatened, he proved himself my champion.’
His audience murmured with surprise.
‘I tell you,’ continued the King warmly, ‘with two hundred men like these, I could have taken Jerusalem!’
There was a roar of laughter. Richard gestured towards Robin. ‘Speak,’ he commanded.
‘We thank you for your mercy, lord King,’ he began. ‘It’s true that we hunt the deer, but we can’t live on grass.’
This time it was the King who led the laughter.
‘Those we robbed had money by the sackful. The poor had nothing, not even their freedom. They have become —’
‘Well said, well said,’ the King interrupted quickly. ‘A man of the people, my lords. Not afraid to speak out against injustice and treachery.’ This last remark was directed straight at the Sheriff and his brother.
But now the outlaws had become the entertainment, and food, the like of which they’d never seen before, was brought for them, and the wine flowed freely.
‘I’ll never get over this,’ said Little John taking a huge swig.
‘Nor will de Rainault by the look of him,’ laughed Robin refilling his goblet.
‘He shouldn’t have supported Count John,’ said Marion.
‘They’ll all be for Richard now, you’ll see,’ said Tuck.
‘Run with the hare and hunt with the hounds,’ said Robin.
Tuck nodded. ‘They’ll buy their way back into favour.’
The de Rainault brothers were seething with rage and frustration. Robert could hardly believe that his enemy, the man [p.146] he had tried so hard for so long to destroy, was now the guest of King Richard of England.
‘This is a deliberate humiliation,’ he hissed.
Hugo belched loudly and nodded.
‘If you told me a month ago that —’ said Robert.
‘A month ago Richard was still a prisoner in Germany,’ his brother reminded him. ‘And you were still Sheriff.’
The wine was beginning to have its effect on the outlaws and only Marion and Nasir, who never drank wine, were sober.
Hubert Walter watched them from the dais. ‘The wild men of the woods!’ he said to the King.
‘They may look odd, Hubert,’ Richard replied. ‘But what fighters! What fighters!’
‘I know the stories, sire,’ said Hubert drily. ‘And so, unfortunately, do the people of England.’
Hubert’s warning went unheeded. ‘I’ve pardoned them, Hubert,’ said the King. ‘That makes them mine.’
‘No wolf has ever served a lion, my liege,’ said Hubert.
‘This one will,’ said the King.
* * *
Nasir had been at his morning prayers and now the Saracen sat cross-legged and watchful in the store-room. Around him the outlaws sprawled asleep. Tuck snored loudly. He lay on his back with his mouth open, making a terrible racket. Much lay curled at Robin’s feet and James lay face down on a pile of sacking. Little John had somehow managed to fall asleep with his head in a cooking pot.
Marion appeared and threw a bucket of water over the King of Sherwood and he spluttered into consciousness.
‘The King is asking for you,’ she laughed.
Robin staggered to his feet with a groan. The wine had made his head throb painfully. He looked round at the sleeping outlaws and the silent figure of Nasir. ‘How did we get here?’ he asked.
‘You were carried here,’ smiled Marion.
* * *
The King was studying a map when Robin reached the [p.147] council chamber. There was a messenger with him, sweat-soaked and spotted with mud.
The King was grim faced. The French had taken Neubourg, and Vermeuil was threatened. He had to act swiftly or the whole of Normandy would be overrun.
He looked up and greeted Robin affably. ‘Will you fight at my side in Normandy, Robin of Sherwood?’ he asked.
The change in Robin’s fortunes had been so sudden that he found it almost impossible to believe. Yesterday he had been a wanted man living wild in Sherwood. Now he stood in Nottingham Castle with the King of England who was asking him to be his servant. Moreover, Richard promised him that Abbot Hugo would be made to give Marion back her lands together with Leaford Grange. And when the war in Normandy was won Robin and his companions would be made Wardens of Sherwood. It was like a dream. Robin knelt before Richard and swore fealty.
But when he went back to the others he was surprised when they weren’t more excited by his news.
‘Fighting in Normandy?’ muttered Little John.
‘Wardens in Sherwood!’ said Robin carried away with enthusiasm. ‘When we come back.’
‘If we come back,’ said Tuck.
Marion looked sadly at Robin but said nothing. Suddenly he remembered Will Scarlet.
‘Much,’ he said to the boy, ‘you must fetch Scarlet to Nottingham. Tell him we’re free! Tell him we’re fighting for the King!’
* * *
Scarlet sat moodily under a tree sharpening his sword with a whetstone and wondering if he’d ever see Robin and Marion and the rest of them again. He had passed the night remembering all the dangers they had been through together. He thought back to the escape from the pit and the battle at Castle Belleme. He remembered again the Templars charging up the hillside, and the time the others had played dead and tricked Guy of Gisburne.
An arrow whistled into the tree above Scarlet’s head.
It seemed to come from nowhere as it quivered into the tree. Scarlet dived to the ground and lay motionless, his eyes searching the trees ahead. He cursed the fact that his longbow was out of reach and began easing himself towards it on his elbows, keeping low to the ground. He listened: there was no sound but the birds.
He reached his bow and felt safer immediately. After waiting for several minutes, he got slowly to his feet, slowly looked around. There was no one to be seen. He walked over to the tree and pulled out the arrow. He was surprised to find that the feathers and shaft were white. What did it mean? He looked closer and saw along the shaft the ancient letters of the language of magic. And suddenly he knew that the arrow was from Herne.
A voice seemed to speak inside his head. ‘Beware the Lion spawned of the Devil’s Brood,’ it whispered.
* * *
The Great Council was beginning and Robin and Marion watched the long procession of the Lords of England as, one by one, they knelt before Richard and paid him homage. There was Waleran of Warwick and William de Albini of Arundel, old Ranalf of Chester and the tall, thin figure of William de Ferrers, Earl of Derby. Each came forward to declare that they were Richard’s vassal, and kiss his hand.
‘Look at ’em,’ whispered Little John. ‘I wouldn’t trust one of ’em further than I could spit.’
After the earls and barons came the bishops and after the bishops came the sheriffs but, of course, Robert de Rainault was not among them.
He stood with a group of his cronies watching the pageantry knowing that if he was to be reinstated the King would make him pay through the nose.
‘The sooner Richard’s out of England again the better!’ he muttered.
Hugo agreed with him. The new taxes were bound to be unpopular. The only time they ever saw the King, he was after more money.
‘We’ll all have to pay,’ he grumbled.
‘Perhaps Philip of France will win,’ mused the Sheriff. ‘Then we’d have John — we can deal with John.’
The King’s Herald called for silence and Richard began to speak.
‘Know that we have called you here to sit in judgement on our most perfidious brother John, Count of Mortain. Through his treachery, Philip of France ravages Normandy. Vaudreuil is lost. Vendôme is lost. Even the castles of the Touraine. As far south as Sens our vassals now give homage to France.’ Richard paused and a murmur of anger rumbled from the assembled lords.
‘Yet in England we have spared all who have opposed us,’ Richard continued. ‘Even here in Nottingham.’ He paused again. ‘But mercy must be paid for.’
Now there was a ripple of uneasy laughter.
‘So indeed must privilege. So indeed must power. At our crowning we bestowed many appointments, many positions of authority.’ Richard paused, knowing that everyone was hanging on his words. ‘They were on lease, my lords! Their term is up!’
There was a buzz of apprehension. The ex-Sheriff turned to his brother. ‘This isn’t a council — it’s an auction,’ he said.
It was true. Richard’s whole purpose in calling his subjects to Nottingham was to raise money. And he knew how to get it. He would need a hundred ships to take his army to Normandy. He wanted men and he wanted horses. It would be a long and bloody campaign but he meant to regain every fortress he had lost to France. And then he would drive Philip back into his kingdom. Perhaps even further.