It was hardly dawn when a strong guard of soldiers was drawn up without Nottingham Castle, and the prisoner was dragged forth from his cell. Monceux had wisely come to the conclusion that Sir Guy of Gisborne had also failed, and he saw no reason to delay Little John's execution.
Early as was the hour, yet both the Sheriff and the Bishop of Hereford were present. The space before the castle was thronged with people. Beside the prisoner walked the castle chaplain.
The crowd swayed and roared, and a small disturbance broke out on the right of the Sheriff. At once the soldiers hurried to quell it.
As the prisoner neared the gallows, the crowd so bore upon the cart in which he stood upright that progress for a few minutes was out of all question.
Another disturbance broke out in the rear of the procession. Next instant the prisoner was seen to have free hands. He stooped and sliced the cords about his feet, and, releasing himself, all at once he sprang out of the cart.
Then was an uproar indeed. The soldiers had strict orders that the episode of Stuteley's escape was not to be repeated. But whilst they exerted themselves desperately a sudden hail of arrows fell upon them from the sky, as it were. Robin Hood's horn was heard blowing merrily, and the Sheriff saw the huge mob of people break up into billows of contending portions under his very eyes.
"Lock the gates of the city," screamed Carfax, at this juncture. "We have them trapped at last."
Little John was free and had seized an axe. Much and Middle had brought bags of meal with them, and both repeated the miller's old trick of flinging the white meal into the eyes of the enemy.
Robin had broken up his band into small parties, and all were engaged simultaneously.
In less time than it takes to tell, the space without the castle was turned to pandemonium.
Again and again Robin's horn sounded, calling them together, and slowly but surely his small parties formed up into a whole, beating their way through the crowd with their swords and axes. So soon as they were together, with Little John safely in the middle of them, they fell to their bows and sped a cloud of arrows amongst the Sheriff's men.
Then they turned to retreat, and fell back so suddenly that they had made good start ere Monceux had divined their intent. They sped towards the north gate, that one being nearest to Barnesdale.
Crafty Carfax had forestalled them, however. The north gate was closed hard and fast, and the bridge drawn.
The outlaws doubled on their track and charged at their pursuers with lowered pikes and waving axes. The crowd before them yielded sullenly and allowed them passage.
"To the west gate, Robin, hasten," cried a shrill voice. "'Tis more easily opened than the rest, and the bridge is down--someone hath smashed the winch."
Robin's heart leaped in his body--'twas the voice of Gilbert of Blois! "Marian," breathed he, overcome with terror for her, "oh, my dearest!"
"Follow, follow!" she cried, with flashing eyes; "there is not a moment to be lost."
Robin saw that it was a matter of life or death now in any case. "To the west gate!" he called, "Locksley! A Locksley!"
It was the old battle cry, and only a few of them remembered it. Yet it served and served well. The greenwood men formed up into close ranks, and all followed the little page, shouting lustily, "Locksley! A Locksley!"
In the rush and hurry Robin saw that Scarlett was there, and Warrenton
and Allan-a-Dale. And with the little page ran another, a fair-haired boy, with strangely familiar face.
"'Tis Fennel," whispered Allan, at Robin's side. "She would not be left."
He spoke as they ran, with the enemy now in full pursuit of them. Every now and again the outlaws turned and sped a hail of arrows into the mob behind them.
The west bridge was gained, and Scarlett had dispossessed the warder of his keys in a moment. He unlocked the gates and flung them wide open.
The two boys--for so they seemed--raced through and over the broken bridge, and Allan followed next. The outlaws were soon free of the town, and once more in their own element, but Little John must needs go back to cover the retreat with Stuteley.
Carfax and the Sheriff were close at hand with their men, furious and determined. Even as the last of Robin's men gained and fell over the bridge, Little John was wounded seriously by a shaft from Simeon Carfax's bow.
His cry brought Robin back to his side. In a moment Robin's arms were about him. "Lean on my shoulder, dear heart," cried Robin, and sure 'twas a ludicrous sight to see this stripling seeking to hold up the great form of Little John.
They ran along in this way, and the outlaws formed a bodyguard about them. Allan and those in front had fired the dry furze and grasses, and the smoke began to roll heavily against the faces of the soldiers.
This gave the greenwood men a small advantage, and they gained the open country; but not for long did the honors of this day rest on one side or the other. The Sheriff and his fellows broke through the fire; and then it was seen that some of them were mounted on fleet horses.
Little John begged to be left behind; and again did Robin try to rally him. Onward they ran; and presently found themselves approaching a hill, thickly wooded about the base.
They gained cover of these trees, and turned at bay. Hidden behind tree trunks they sent forth a death volume of peacock shafts to the Sheriff.
[paragraph continues] Master Carfax was seen to fall, and with him six of the horsemen.
The soldiers halted and prepared their crossbows. A volley of their arrows crashed and splintered the trees, whilst Carfax rose up stiffly to give fresh orders. A duello commenced of longbow against crossbow; and as the freebooters could deliver near a dozen shafts to each bolt, they more than held their own.
When a bolt did strike, however, death was instant. A man was shot near to Marian, and fell with his head shattered and ghastly. She gave a little scream, and put her hands over her eyes.
Robin bade her keep near to him--"Behind me, sweetheart," cried he, feverishly, "that naught may hurt you save through me."
So they fought for near an hour; and then the greenwood men saw that reinforcements were coming to their enemies. Robin's horn gave once more the order for retreat.
Slowly they fell back through the woods and up the rising ground. "Alas, alas!" cried poor Mistress Fennel, wringing her hands in utter forgetfulness that now she was dressed as a man. "We are undone! Here come others to meet us, with pikes and many men!"
Robin saw that upon the hilltop there was a grey castle. From its open gate there poured out a motley crowd of men armed rudely with pikes and with staves. They rushed downward to intercept the outlaws as it seemed, and Robin thought that, in truth, he and his merry men were trapped at last.
But--oh, joyful sight!--foremost among those coming from the castle was the once mournful knight Sir Richard of the Lee. He was smiling now and very excited. "A Hood! A Hood!" he cried. "To the rescue. A Hood!"
Never was there more welcome sight and hearing than this. Without a word the outlaws raced up to meet their timely friends, and gained shelter of the castle, whilst Sir Richard kept the Sheriff and his fellows at bay. Then, when all were safely across the little drawbridge, the knight gave the word, and fell back upon his stronghold also. The bridge was drawn and the gates clashed together, almost in the frantic, hideous face of Master Simeon, upon whose features showed streaks of blood from his wound and rage commingled.
The knight stationed his men about the walls. Soon appeared Monceux beneath them alone, and demanding speech. He commanded the knight to deliver up Robin and his men upon pain of assault and burning of the castle with fire.
Sir Richard replied briefly. "Show me your warrant, Sir Malapert, and I will consider it," he said, from within the gates. And Master Monceux had no warrant with him.
"My word is enough for you, Richard of the Lee," roared he, furiously. "Am I not Sheriff of Nottingham?"
"You cannot be the Sheriff of Nottingham, good man," answered the knight, getting ready to close the wicket, "for he is Master Monceux, and is busy escorting the Princess of Aragon towards York. Go to and mend your manners, rascal, and call away these ruffians with you."
Then Sir Richard snapped to the wicket gate, and returned to Robin. "Well met, bold Robin," he cried, taking him by both hands. "Well met, indeed. I had intended to ride forth this very day to your home in the woods, to pay you your moneys with my thanks added thereto; but you have happily saved me and mine the journey. Welcome to my castle, recovered to me by your generosity."
Sir Richard presented his wife to Robin, and his son, who had but just returned from the Holy Land. The knight told him how the last few months had been most prosperous with him, instead of going so badly as he had feared; and explained that now, from one source and another, he was as rich as of yore. "So when we have feasted I will take you to my treasury, and there count you out thy money and its interest faithfully. Yet in ridding myself of this debt I do not free my life of the obligation."
"You need say no more, Sir Richard," interposed Robin. "'Tis we who owe all to you. As for your debt, why, it hath been repaid me already by my lord of Hereford. Is it not so, Stuteley?"
The little esquire protested solemnly that the Bishop had paid it to them as conscience money. "Then I will pay it again," cried the knight, cheerfully, "sooner than be outdone by a Bishop in the matter of honesty; and I have a few presents for you, but these I will show you later."
Robin thanked him gratefully, and, taking him on one side, told how boy's clothes were covering Mistress Marian and Dame Fennel at this
instant. Would the knight's wife take charge of them, and find them some apparel as would ease one of them at least from most uneasy feelings?
That evening, whilst Monceux raged and stormed without, they all sat to a great feast. Little John was already so much recovered of his wound as to sing them a song, whilst Robin made sweet accompaniment upon a harp.
The knight showed Robin presently his treasury, and again implored him to take the four hundred pieces of gold, if he would take no interest. But his guest was; firm: "Keep the money, for it is your own. I have but made the Bishop return to you that which he had first stolen from your hands."
Sir Richard again expressed his thanks, and now led them to his armory. Therein Robin saw, placed apart, a hundred strong bows with fine waxen silk strings, and a hundred sheaves of arrows. Every shaft was an ell long, and dressed with peacock's feathers and notched with silver. Beside them were a hundred suits of red and white livery, finely made and stitched. "These are the poor presents we have made for you, Robin," said Sir- Richard. "Take them from us, with ten thousand times their weight in gratitude."
One of the knight's own men came forward to give a sheaf of the arrows into Robin's hand, and, behold, it was Arthur-à-Bland!
Click to enlarge
Little John was already so much recovered of his wound as to sing them a song, whilst Robin made sweet accompaniment upon a harp