I can hear the sound of singing floating across the courtyard from the big barn, thin and faint yet warmly comforting, like the last wisps of a happy dream to a man waking from deep slumber. I have left the remnants of the wedding party to their pleasures, leaving the bride, Marie, and her new husband, Osric, and dozens of their friends and neighbors to carouse long into the dark night. I have provided ale and wine, more than they could ever drink at half a dozen nuptials, and I slaughtered two of my sheep and a great sow, and all three carcasses spent the afternoon roasting over slow fires in the courtyard so that there might be plenty of meat for the newly joined couple and all their boozy well-wishers. But I slipped away from the throng when the serious drinking began and the wine-flushed carollers began to loosen their belts; I did not wish to be asked to perform alongside them. My voice is a little weaker, as is natural, now that I have reached almost sixty years of age, but I am still proud of my talent as a trouvère, a maker of fine music, and I husband my delicate throat-cords and do not choose to bellow like a cow in calf for the amusement of country-wedding drunks—I who have traded verses with a king, and held noble lords and prelates across Christendom spellbound with my skill.
But, in truth, there is another quiet reason why I have withdrawn here to my private chamber at the end of the great hall of Westbury, where, with a freshly sharpened quill and new-made oak gall ink, I am committing these words to parchment—I do not like Osric, the bridegroom.
There: I have admitted it. It is difficult to say exactly why I do not like him: he is a plain, ordinary man, round in the belly and with a pointed, peering, mole-like face and short chubby arms, and he will, I believe, make my widowed daughter-in-law Marie a good husband. He came here to Westbury a year ago as my bailiff, and he has rendered me good service in that office, ensuring that the manor—the only one I now hold—is well ordered and shows a little silver in profit every year. But I do not trust him; there is a slyness about him that repels me. His manner is furtive. I believe, in my secret heart, that he covets my position as lord of this manor, and sometimes I see him looking at me, as we eat together as a family at the long table in the hall, and I detect a glint of hatred in his tiny underground eye. It may be nothing but the foolish fancies of an old man, but I do not think so—I believe that despite my kindness to him, and the fact that I have allowed him to marry my son Rob’s widow, Osric would like to see me hurried into my grave and himself sitting at the head of this long table, fawned on by my servants and addressed in this hall as “my lord.”
I will go further: I believe that he means to kill me.
Pshaw! What nonsense, you will say to yourself. The old gray-beard’s wits are plainly as addled as a year-old goose egg. And it is true that I am well furnished with years, and that I sometimes forget the names of these dullards around me today, and dwell too much on the bright days of the past. But I know about betrayal: in my time, I have betrayed those who placed their trust in me. And I see the look of a traitor, a God-damned Judas, in Osric’s face. To strike a telling blow, one must be close to the man you are to play false; and Osric is now as close to me as ever he can be.
My death would not, of course, immediately make him the lord of this manor; if I were to die, the manor would pass to my heir, my nine-year-old grandson and namesake, Alan, who is away now in Yorkshire learning the skills of a knight—learning how to fight on horseback and on foot, and how to dance and sing and make verses, how to speak and write in Latin, to play chess and serve elegantly at table and innumerable other gentlemanly skills.
But a child lord is weak, and easy to control: his mother Marie would have legal authority over him, just as Osric, now her husband, would have authority over her. Who is to say what Osric might do then? The boy might have a fatal “accident” or be imprisoned for years in some dark place while Osric makes free with the bounty of the manor. Who can say?
I have read over the words that I have just written and it might seem to a reader that I am afraid of Osric, like a coward—but I am not craven and I have shown my courage on more occasions than I care to remember. But I have decided not to strike the words out but to let the sentiments above stand, for I have made a promise that in this record of my life, this record that I now scratch out with an aging hand, I will tell the truth, and always the truth. I do perhaps fear Osric a little; at least, I am distrustful of his intentions, and wary. And I cannot sleep at night for thinking about him and what he might do to me and those whom I love. But I can do nothing; I cannot kill him out of hand on a mere suspicion, and I cannot drive the husband of my daughter-in-law away from this manor; Marie would never allow it—and who would oversee the smooth running of Westbury? No, I must endure, and watch, and be always on my guard.
And I must get along with my story now, while the hall is empty and quiet, for this tale is not about Osric’s darkling ambitions, nor about Marie—nor even about little Alan, the delight of my remaining years—it is about myself, and the adventures that I had in the time of good King Richard, whom we called the Lionheart, when I was a young man, full of green sap, strong in body and mind, fearful of almost nothing save the wrath of my lord, Robert Odo, the Earl of Locksley—who was better known to the common people of England as Robin Hood—a savage warrior, a lawless thief, a Church-condemned heretic and, may Almighty God forgive me, for many long years, my good and true friend.
* * *
The sentry was young, a boy of no more than sixteen or seventeen summers, but he was quite old enough to die. I watched him as he walked up and down the dark rutted track that led north from my position, up to the brow of the hill; and I noted that his air in these, his last precious moments on this Earth, was one of resentful boredom. He had been on duty for perhaps an hour, I reckoned, judging by the position of the moon: I had seen him slouch up from the camp about midnight, yawning and stretching, and grudgingly take over from an older man, a squat warrior who clapped him hard on the shoulder with joy at his relief and hurried off to his warm blankets in one of the scores of tents that littered the field below the muddy track and made up the enemy encampment before Kirkton.
The young sentry was not due to be relieved for another two hours but by then, God willing, he would be dead. I could make out his young face in the faint moonlight, a pale patch in the darkness, as he trudged toward me down the track; as he came closer I could see that he was ill-favored, with a thin, well-pimpled visage: he looked like a sulky boy making his reluctant way to church when he would rather be at play.
Moodily he booted a stone out of his path and it skittered alarmingly near to where I was lying, in total darkness and black-clad from head to toe, face thickly smeared with greasy mud, in the lee of an old stone wall that ran at right angles to the track. For a panicky moment, I thought he would follow the stone’s path straight toward me, coming off the track for another kick at the pebble that had landed only a few feet from my hiding place. If he had done that, he would have seen me for sure, or sensed me somehow, and I’d have had to launch myself at him, from the front, in full view, and try to drop him before he could make a sound. That would have been difficult. To be truthful, it would have been nigh on impossible, as I was tethered by a rope around my waist to a large, heavy, oozing sack. I tried not to think about its grisly contents.
As I pressed my shoulder against the rough stone of the wall, my hands by my sides, barely breathing, my fingertips brushed the handle of the dagger in my boot. It was my only weapon: a long, very thin, stabbing blade, triangular in section, with a strong steel crosspiece and a black wooden handle; the kind of weapon known as a misericorde, for it was used to grant the mercy of death to knights badly wounded in battle, the coup de grâce. The impoverished Italian knight who sold it to me called it a stiletto, a little stake, and though he took my silver needfully, he looked at me somewhat warily, too. For this was no weapon for honorable battle; this was a weapon for black murder in the dark of night, a tool for silent killing.
The sentry boy mooched on past my wall without even glancing into the darkness at its base where I was concealed and I suppressed a shiver while I fumbled with the knotted rope at my waist, finally freeing myself of my gruesome burden. My black clothes were soaking wet—after a brisk shower of rain around midnight, my tunic and hose had sucked up moisture from the damp ground like a sponge as I had crawled inch by inch through the wet grass to my ambush spot, dragging the heavy sack behind me. It had taken me nearly two hours to work myself into this position, propelling myself forward on toes and fingertips, staying low in the darkest folds of this sheep pasture, down over the brow of the hill, across a hundred yards of naked field and up to the relative concealment of the drystone wall. I had moved, most of the time, when the sentries, first the squat older man, and now this boy, were facing the other way, as they marched up to the top of the lane, took a cursory glance around and marched back down again. It was like some lethal game of Grandmother’s Footsteps, although I could take no enjoyment in it. When the sentry was looking toward me, I buried my face in the wet turf and stayed absolutely still, trusting my ears to tell me if I was discovered. It was important, I had been told, never to stare directly at his face—men have an instinct for when they are being watched and some are more gifted than others at spotting a face in the darkness.
But I could certainly feel the heat of someone’s gaze upon me—I was being watched myself just then, but not by this stripling soldier tramping the road before me. My friend Hanno, formerly a celebrated hunter from the inky forests of Bavaria, and now the chief scout for our small band of warrior-pilgrims, was lodged in a tree just below the skyline some two hundred yards away, his body wrapped cunningly around the trunk and branches like a serpent so as to appear part of the wood in the darkness. I knew he was watching me and I hoped that my approach had met with his approval. He had taught me everything he knew about stealthy movement on the long journey home from the Holy Land—in daylight and darkness, in forest, mountain and desert—and what he knew was considerable. He’d also personally tutored me, painstakingly, over many months, in the art of the silent kill. And he had suggested that I take on this deadly task as a test of my new skills. Everyone in our ragged band seemed to think it was a good idea, except me. So here I was: wet, cold, lying in a sheepshit-dotted pasture in the middle of the night, face blackened with mud, waiting for the right moment to slaughter an unsuspecting child.
I heard the boy reach the end of his tramp at the bottom of the track, cough, spit, and turn to begin his journey slowly back up the hill. He was out of my line of sight but audibly coming ever closer to the wall. He passed me and then suddenly stopped a few yards further up the track. Had he seen me? Surely he must hear my heart banging like a great drum in my chest? But no, he had merely paused to stare dully at the fingernail of moon that adorned the sky, trying to guess the hour. He did look so very young, I thought, although a part of me knew he was only perhaps a year or two junior to me. He switched the long spear he held from one shoulder to the other and with his free right hand he scratched at the inflamed spots on his cheek. He was close enough now, no more than two long paces away; close enough for me to strike, now that I was free of the drag of the sodden sack. And when he turned away to resume his march I told myself I would rise up and strike him down. I tensed my body, flexed my toes, hand on the dagger handle, waiting for him to move. I searched the surrounding area, eyes narrowed and roving slowly lest the slightest flash of white eyeball should attract attention; no one was stirring, the camp was silent as a stone at that hour. It was all clear. The moment he turned away, I’d be up and on him like a creeping farmyard cat on a sun-dulled dove.
But the boy remained still, half-turned toward me, and he continued to gaze like a simpleton at the moon, now picking at something stubborn inside his nose. Turn away, turn away, you dolt, I shrieked inside my head. Turn away and let this deed be done. But he stood like one of the marble statues I had seen on my Mediterranean travels, and continued to stare upward at the star-sprinkled sky and to mine away inside his nostril.
My body was beginning to shake, not just from the cold and the wet: my pent-up muscles were demanding violent action. I wanted to move while I still had the courage to commit this murder—for foul murder it was; although the black surcoat he wore, with its blood-red chevrons across the chest, marked him as my enemy. Nevertheless, I knew in my heart that this cold killing was no better than a shameful piece of butchery, an execution—and I did not relish its accomplishment. He would not be the first man or boy that I had killed, no, not by a long summer’s day. I had killed before many times in my young life, in battle and out of it—but this felt different. And wrong. It was not only my friend Hanno who was watching me from on high; I felt that God Himself was looking down on my actions. And the Lord of Hosts was telling my conscience loud and clear that this was a mortal sin.
I knew that Robin would laugh if he could read my thoughts before this kill: he would think me soft, womanish. He would shrug and half-smile, if I were to voice my doubts about murdering this boy. And I knew exactly what he would say if he were by my side: “It is necessary, Alan,” he would whisper, and then he would take the misericorde from my hand and do the deed himself—quickly, efficiently, without a moment’s pause. And never lose a wink of sleep afterward.
Finally the boy stopped gawping at the moon, turned his back to me and took a first reluctant step up the path. I swallowed, blinked, and forced myself to rise as silently as I could from my dark corner, leaving the heavy sack in the shadows, but pulling the dagger from my boot as I did so. I kept my mind almost blank, thinking only, Now I will do this, now I will do that. And I took the first unsteady step, my foot squelching loudly in a patch of mud. I checked myself and stumbled slightly on wobbly legs, but my victim heard nothing. Suddenly my courage rose in me like a pot of water boiling over: I took three fast running steps and threw myself at his back; my left hand snaking around his head to clamp over mouth and nose and prevent him from making a sound as my chest thumped into his spine. He fell forward, slamming into the turf bank at the side of the muddy track with jolting force, with me on top of him, the impact of our landing nearly causing me to drop the dagger. Nearly—but drop it I did not. He squirmed wildly under me but I got the blade of the misericorde into the right position on the back of his neck, in the hollow at the base of his skull, the thin point resting between the mail links of his coif, and shoved once, upward, very hard, sending the eight-inch triangular blade up through the mail rings, splitting them apart, through skin, muscle, spinal cord and deep into his soft brain. I twisted the misericorde left and right, like a man scrambling a pot of buttered eggs with a spoon. His body gave one more frightful spasm under mine, as every muscle in his body twitched and then relaxed, and I felt him soiling himself in a loud farting rush of fluid, but then, God and all His holy saints be praised, he moved no more.
My panting breath was sawing in my throat, my hand was crushed between his face and the turf; my heart was beating as if it would burst out of my chest—and I wanted desperately to vomit, to piss, to void my own bowels. I could feel tears burning the backs of my eyelids, and it was only by using a great deal of force on myself that I fought back these unmanly urges. I turned my head and looked over my shoulder at the sleeping camp. All was quiet. So far, it seemed, no one had noticed anything. But for the limp, shit-drizzled corpse lying under me, it might never have happened.
I tugged my jelly-slick blade from his lolling head, plunged it into the turf to clean it, wiped it on my sleeve and shoved it back into the leather sheath in my left boot. I saw that in his death spasm he had bitten into the meat of the middle finger on my left hand, but I could feel no pain in that moment as I bound the finger tightly, quickly, with a scrap of linen torn from my undershirt. Then I pulled his corpse off the road and, with some difficulty, stripped the black-and-red surcoat from his dead weight and pulled it over my own sodden black clothes. I took off his helmet and gathered up his spear and sword and set them to one side. Then I recovered the bag from the lee of the stone wall and, peeling back the moist sacking, I pulled out a massive sticky lozenge of meat and bone, about a foot and a half long, complete with pointed ears and white, still eyeballs; it was the severed head of a wild moorland pony, cut from the neck below the animal’s square jawline, and very nearly drained of blood. I looked round anxiously at the sleeping camp; there was still nothing stirring.
Using the boy’s own sword, I hacked off his young head as neatly as I could, a difficult job in the dark with a long unwieldy blade, sawing and slicing through spine, windpipe and the muscles and tendons of his neck as quietly as possible. The sword was a cheap one, blunt, notched and with the wooden handle loose and rattling on the tang. It was not neatly done, and I was terrified that the wet sounds of my cack-handed butchery could be heard in the camp, but finally I finished my grisly work and, trying my best to avoid bloodying my clothes, I propped the headless corpse in a sitting position in the ditch by the side of the track and balanced the wild horse’s head on the trunk, between the shoulders, where the boy’s would have been. I secured the beast’s head in place with the thin muddy rope that had been attached to the sack, tied it over the equine crown in front of the ears and round under the boy’s armpits, then sat back and surveyed my handiwork with a shiver of satisfaction. It looked truly gruesome; eerie and unnatural—a man’s body with a long horse’s head atop. The boy’s own sightless poll I grasped by its lank hair and hurled as far as I could, away into the darkness. It might be recovered, eventually, but the terrifying animal-headed corpse would still do its work on the men who discovered it.
I made the sign of the cross over my gory confection to keep his spirit quiet, mumbled an apologetic prayer to St. Michael, the sword-wielding archangel and patron saint of battle, and gathered up my victim’s helmet, sword-belt and spear. Then I began to trudge up the muddy track. My whole body was shaking, every step I took was unsteady, and suddenly the pain in my bitten hand came roaring out of nowhere like an angry bear. I switched the spear to my other hand and fought the reeling giddiness in my head. My victim had been slightly shorter than me, even before I hacked off his pimply head, and a shade thinner, but I calculated that on that dark night, from a distance of a hundred yards or so, if I walked in his tracks, I could pass as his double before an unsuspicious eye. I finally won control of my body and mind and banished the thoughts of the infernal deed I had just done; I slumped my shoulders a little and tried to emulate his resentful slack-kneed slouching as I walked away from his mutilated cadaver.
As I reached the brow of the hill, and paused, pretending to scour the area with my eyes like a dutiful sentry, I heard the mournful call of a barn owl hooting three times from the tree on the ridge away to my right. And for the first time in hours, I cracked a smile.
It was the signal, a message as warming to my heart as a hug from a loving mother.
If I had heard the sour barking screech of a mating vixen, the message would have been: Run for your life, the kill has been discovered. Run.
But Hanno’s skillful imitation of a hunting owl was telling me that, for the moment, I was safe. And in that moment, I loved him for it.
I could imagine his ugly round face, his stubbled, badly shaven head and wide grin, and hear his harsh foreign-accented words of praise at my completion of an unpleasant, difficult, bloody task, and I turned toward the tree where I knew he was concealed, a mere hundred and fifty yards away now that I was at the top of the track, and had to resist the urge to raise my hand to him in salute. Instead, I turned on my heel and, walking boldly, even jauntily, surcoat swishing around my shins, spear casually on my left shoulder, I made my way downhill, away from the muddy road, away from my friend Hanno, and plunged into the heart of the enemy encampment.
* * *
I walked with purpose, quietly but never stealthily, through the sleeping tents of my enemies, with what I hoped was a nonchalant grin fixed to my face—though it was, of course, too dark to see my expression. A few campfires were still smoldering between the tents, and a handful of men-at-arms dozed beside them wrapped in blankets, or sat slumped over jugs of ale. The September night still retained a little of the warmth of summer, but most of the men had retired to the large, low, saggy woolen tents that were dotted over almost all the surface of the open field.
Somewhere in the sleeping camp, I knew, was a friend and comrade, a strange middle-aged Norman woman named Elise. She had attached herself to our company on the way to the Holy Land, and had become the leader of the women who had joined our marching column. A healer of no little skill, she had undoubtedly saved many a life on the long journey to Outremer and back, tending the hurts of battle. Some whispered that she had other, darker skills and could read the future, but while I had found that her prophecies for the most part seemed to come true, they were always vague enough to be interpreted in several ways.
My master had sent Elise into the camp two days previously, to read the soldiers’ palms, tell wondrous and bone-chilling fireside tales—and to deliberately sow a particular fear among the enemy’s ranks. I hoped that she was safe: had she been captured and found to be a spy, she would have faced a slow and painful death.
I had half-overheard Robin give her orders the day before she left us to wander in the guise of a traveling seller of trinkets into the camp—to be honest, I had been hanging around him hoping to persuade him that I was not the right man for the task of dealing with the sentry; but I had the impression he knew this and was avoiding a conversation with me.
“Elise, you are sure that you can do this; that you wish to do this?” Robin said, fixing her with his strange silver eyes, his handsome face concerned and kindly. They were equals in height, but she was as thin as a straw, clad in a long shapeless dark dress that had once been green, her lined face topped with a mass of white fluffy hair. She looked like nothing so much as a giant seeding dandelion.
“Oh yes, Master Robin, I can do this. It is but a small thing to spin a few tales at a campfire.”
“And you know which tales you are to spin?” asked my master.
“Yes, yes, I know,” she said impatiently, “the spirits of dead men are trapped inside the wild ponies hereabouts, and horse-headed monsters patrol the night stealing men’s souls for the Devil … Wooooooah! Hooooagh!” She made a series of loud eerie noises in the back of her throat and waggled her fingers in the air like a madwoman. It should have been ridiculous, comical even, but on that warm September afternoon I felt my blood chill a little. “Don’t you worry, master, they will all have nightmares,” this odd woman continued. “And don’t you concern yourself about me, sir; no harm will come to me. I have seen the shape of the future in a bubbling cauldron of blood soup, and all will be well; you shall have your victory, sir. Mark my words. A great victory after a night of fire and mortal fear.”
Robin embraced her, and promised that she would be well rewarded for the risks she was taking. “Serving you, my lord, is reward enough,” said this strange creature calmly in her French-accented tones. “Your fame will last for more than a thousand years,” Elise continued; her eyes seemed to have glazed over, and she clearly had at least one foot sunk in the swamp of madness. “And those who serve you, they too will be remembered: John, Tuck, Alan, even my poor dead husband Will—they shall not be forgotten. So, I say again: the reward of serving you is enough: it is a path to immortality.” And she gave a short, high-pitched laugh that was uncomfortably close to a cackle.
He had that wondrous ability, did Robin, of commanding love in the people around him, no matter what he did. And I was not immune myself—I had witnessed Robin committing the most appalling crimes, yet I was still his faithful hound. Hearing her half-crazed declaration of loyalty nipped at my conscience and I slunk away from Robin without raising the subject of the sentry’s death. I could not bear to be seen to be less courageous, or less loyal to Robin, than a bone-skinny, half-crazed wise woman.
I avoided the firelight as I walked through the enemy camp that dark night, circling around behind the tents whenever possible, and kept on sauntering downhill, roughly southwest, heading toward the dark, looming bulk of Kirkton Castle, Robin’s high seat overlooking the Locksley Valley. Although my master was lord of Sheffield, Ecclesfield, Grimesthorpe and Greasbrough, and dozens of smaller manors scattered all over the north of England, Kirkton Castle was his home. It was also the home of Robin’s wife, Marie-Anne, the Countess of Locksley, and she was even now inside its walls, besieged by the very men whose sleeping forms I was passing, whose snores and farts I could now hear. However, with God’s help, and Robin’s cunning, the castle would not be under siege for much longer.
The camp of the besieger, Sir Ralph Murdac, erstwhile High Sheriff of Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire and the Royal Forests, was laid out in the shape of a crescent moon, well out of bow shot, about three hundred and fifty yards to the northeast of Kirkton. Some of Robin’s men, including myself, had watched it from concealment up on the high hills for four days and nights: we knew that it contained more than three hundred armed men in total—mostly spearmen, but with a handful of crossbowmen and about eighty cavalry—and that its strength easily overmatched our small force.
Robin had left England two and a half years ago to take part in the Great Pilgrimage to the Holy Land with a small, well-trained army of archers, spearmen and cavalry, but battle, disease and the fleshpots of the Levant had thinned our ranks so that when we landed at Dover ten days ago, seasick, sore and wet through from a rough Channel crossing, we had only thirty men-at-arms capable of straddling a horse, and a score or so of Robin’s surviving archers. But though we were a ragged lot, battered by much hard travel and the loss of many comrades, the fires of war in the Holy Land and the brutal journey home had tempered us like the finest steel, so that we believed ourselves to be the equal of any company twice our strength. Yet for all that we were hardened by battle, and confident in our abilities, we could not face a force such as the one Sir Ralph Murdac had mustered here—six times the size of ours—in honest, open battle and expect to be victorious.
Murdac was a loathsome man, a short, dark Norman lordling with the Christian kindness of an angry adder and the trustworthiness of a rabid rat. While he had been High Sheriff—before King Richard came to the throne—my master had been a very successful thief and outlaw, the famous Robin Hood of song and tale, no less, and he had humiliated this sheriff in many ways, robbing and killing his servants without the least compunction. They had long hated each other but had clashed in full battle only once before, more than three years ago at the manor of Linden Lea, north of Nottingham. On that occasion, after two days of the most appalling carnage, Robin had emerged the victor—but only by the skin of his teeth. Murdac had fled the country, avoiding the righteous wrath of King Richard, who wished to interview his sheriff about a vast quantity of missing tax silver, and the little shit-weasel had then taken refuge in Scotland, staying with powerful relatives. But when Richard departed his realm to undertake the Great Pilgrimage across the seas, Murdac had emerged from his Scottish bolthole and taken service with Prince John, King Richard’s treacherous younger brother. Now protected by John, Sir Ralph Murdac had offered a huge bounty in silver for Robin’s head, and at least one man to my knowledge had died trying to claim it.
Apart from his bitter enmity with my master, I, too, had cause to hate Ralph Murdac: when I was nine years of age, his men-at-arms had burst into our peasant cottage before dawn, ripped my father from his bed and, after falsely accusing him of theft, had hanged him from an oak tree in the center of the village. Four years later, the same Ralph Murdac had threatened to cut off my right hand when I was caught stealing a pie in Nottingham market; and later still he had had me cruelly tortured in a dungeon at Winchester in an attempt to get information about Robin. If I ever had the chance, I would kill him in a heartbeat, with a great deal of pleasure: he was less than a clump of rotting duckweed in my eyes, and the world would be a better place with his filthy presence expunged from it.
By the grace of God, and the kindness of Robin, I had risen in rank since the days when I was a poor fatherless village boy, forced to thieve to fill my belly. I was now Alan of Westbury, lord of a small manor in Nottinghamshire that had been granted to me by the Earl of Locksley. This gift was something for which I would be forever grateful. I had been a nobody, a starving cutpurse, but now I had a place among men of honor, among noble warriors, not only as a holy pilgrim newly returned from Outremer, but as the holder of half a knight’s fee of land. I had made the impossible, almost unthinkable leap from humble peasant to horse-borne lord of the manor; and I had Robin to thank for it.
I tried my best to repay my debt to Robin by loyal service in war and in peace, and by giving him the gift of my music. For now, as well as being one of his captains, a leader of his ragtag troops, I was Robin’s trouvère, his personal musician. I hummed a snatch of music softly under my breath as I walked through the camp of my mortal enemy, striding as confidently as I could manage and trying not to trip over the guy ropes in the darkness.
My eye was drawn to a large tent in the center of the field; in the rare splashes of firelight I could just make out that it was a gaudy, striped affair, black and blood-red. My footsteps seemed to take me toward it of their own volition, and as I drew closer I saw a short figure dressed in dark clothes standing outside the entrance to the pavilion by the remains of a large campfire. By the dying flickers of the campfire’s flames I could see that it was Murdac himself, apparently standing alone, and examining a jewel-encrusted box; turning the object over and over in his hands so that the precious stones shot out gorgeous bright gleams of reflected firelight.
My feet took me closer and closer to his hateful shape. Surely this was an opportunity sent by God: Murdac alone, in the darkness, facing away from me. I paused, just a dozen yards from the little man, and the spear seemed to leap off my shoulder and level itself. I can do this, I told myself; if I can kill an innocent sentry-boy, I can scrub this shit-stain from the world. I would have no qualms at all about sending his stinking soul to the Devil.
I clutched the spear more tightly and was just about to sprint forward and slam the sharp point deep into Murdac’s kidneys, when the little bastard bent down and gathered a handful of dry twigs from a wood pile at his feet and threw them on the fire. And, as the kindling caught, the flames licked higher and revealed the presence of two other figures on the far side of the fire. I stopped dead and stood as still as a rock, spear extended in front of me, silently uttering a prayer of thanks to St. Michael that I was still cloaked by the night, invisible to those who stood in the widening pool of firelight.
I could not see them clearly in the dancing flames, but I could make out their distinctive shapes in the gloom: a tall man on the left, taller than me by half a head, and I am six foot high in my bare feet; but, while I am broad in the shoulder, deep in the chest and well muscled in the arms from long hours practicing with a heavy sword, he was thin, painfully thin, like a man who has survived a long famine or a terrible disease.
His height and thinness were accentuated by his shadowy companion’s extraordinary shape: he was a huge bald man, and I swear on Our Lord Jesus Christ that he was as broad as he was high; a round mass, neckless, squat and lumped with muscle, like an ogre from a children’s tale. They looked like a stick and a ball standing side by side.
Then Ralph Murdac spoke, and his familiar high-pitched French whine set my teeth on edge: “Thank my lord prince for his noble gift,” he said, and he slightly raised the jeweled box, “and tell him that I will attend his royal court in less than a month; the moment that I have concluded matters here.”
“My lord,” the squat ogre rumbled in French, and his voice sounded like the grinding together of two enormous rocks, “His Highness has requested your presence on the morrow; he has had bad news from abroad and desires your counsel. He was most insistent that you should attend him.”
“I will attend him as soon as I am able,” snapped Murdac crossly. “But I must have my son. I must reclaim my son from this nest of bandits. Surely His Royal Highness will understand…”
The two men said nothing, but the ogre gave a mountainous shrug, and they both turned away at the same time and disappeared into the great tent.
I wanted to be gone; the knowledge that I had very nearly thrown my life away in an ill-considered, suicidal attack raised goose bumps on my whole body. I had missed certain death by a heartbeat. Those two grotesque men would have shouted a warning to Murdac before I could even get within spear-range, and I would then have likely missed my mark and been hunted through the camp like a lone rat in a pit full of blood-crazed terriers. I was Daniel in the lion’s den, I told myself, and only by remembering this and putting aside any thoughts of revenge against Murdac would I live to see another dawn.
I walked quickly away from the great tent without being seen—regretfully leaving the silhouette of my enemy unharmed by the fire—and once again bent my steps toward the dark mass of castle on the southern skyline. There was a sentry on the far side of the camp, alert and patrolling his section of the perimeter with an unnatural keenness for the late hour. Leaving the encampment behind and walking the bare twenty yards of open turf toward him, I notched up my courage for a final pantomime. I marched straight up to the man, my right hand casually behind my back, and called to him abruptly, in my most officer-like tones: “Hey you! What’s the password? Come on, come on; don’t tell me you’ve forgotten it.”
He looked at me strangely, noting the mud- and blood-smeared black surcoat, and the odd combination of my youth and my arrogance. Then, perhaps reassured by the direction I had come from, he said: “I haven’t forgotten it, sir: it’s Magdalene. But I might well ask, sir, who are you?”
“I’ve been told to relieve you. That’s all you need to know,” I said rudely. “Sir Ralph’s orders.”
He nodded, but still seemed a little uncertain. The hand behind my back gripped the handle of the misericorde tightly; in a couple of moments he was going to feel its point in his heart if he didn’t accept my explanation. I stared at him challengingly, straight in the eye. But finally he seemed to be convinced by my high-handedness and he shrugged and pushed past me, heading back toward the encampment. I watched him until he disappeared into the crowd of dark tents and finally relaxed, breathed out a huge lungful of air, and slid the slim blade back into my boot.
I had used up a lot of my nerves in this one night, and I noticed that my hands were trembling slightly, but I still had one obstacle to overcome: the walls of Kirkton Castle itself.
In the event, getting into the castle was simpler than I had expected. I merely walked away from the mass of tents, through a wide empty expanse of silent sheep pasture and toward the looming black bulk of Kirkton. When I was fifty yards away, a torch sprang to light on the battlements and, in response to it, I shouted: “Hello, Kirkton! I’m a friend. Hello! Don’t shoot. I come from Robin. I come from Lord Locksley.”
An arrow slashed past my ear and buried itself in the ground a dozen yards behind me, and I lifted both arms in the air and shouted again: “Hello, Kirkton. I come from the Earl of Locksley; let me in for the love of God.”
Another arrow hissed past and I heard a deep, Welsh-accented voice, a voice I knew well but had not heard for more than two years, shouting, “Stop shooting, you ynfytyn, stop wasting arrows.” And then, much louder: “Who is out there? Come forward and name yourself.”
“Tuck, it’s me—Alan. Get that idiot to stop trying to spit me like a bloody capon. Don’t you recognize me, you great tub of pork dripping? It’s Alan Dale. It’s me.”
“God bless my soul!” said the Welsh voice. “Alan Dale, back from the Holy Land, back from the dead. Miracles and wonders will never cease.” And a rich, golden-brown belly laugh rolled out toward me through the darkness.
Copyright © 2012 by Angus Donald