After supper Robin signalled to his men to bend their bows. The knight was startled, for he thought they intended to choose him for their target.
He was quickly undeceived, however, for two arrows were set up as butts for these archers. The knight marvelled indeed to see so small a mark given in this; waning light. A garland of leaves was balanced on the top of each arrow, and Robin laid down the rules. Whoever failed to speed his shaft through this garland--and it was to be done without knocking it of the arrow--was to yield up his own shaft to Robin, and receive also a buffet from the hand of Friar Tuck.
"Master," said Stuteley, "that may not be, for the good friar is not yet come to confess us this day." He winked his eyes at Robin, well knowing that the friar sat near to the other monks.
"Doubtless he will be here ere the game be ended," replied Robin, smiling. "I prithee commence soon as I clap my hands."
Little John, limping, Stuteley and old Warrenton each flew their arrows truly through the garlands, as did many of the rest. Poor Midge and Arthur-à-Bland were not so fortunate, for though both came near to doing it, the garlands unkindly fell of an instant after their shafts had flown through them.
"Where is the friar?" cried Robin, affecting to peer into the distance, already blue-grey with twilight. "Surely he is late tonight."
Then Tuck could bear it no longer, but stood up in his place. "Come near to me, thou villainous archers," he roared, "and I will buffet you right well."
"Ah, Brother, what are you saying?" cried the knight, anxiously. Surely you forget our vows and our cloth."
"I forget neither the one nor the other," returned Tuck. "But I would be no true man did I submit to watch quietly such bungling as these fellows have done. Come hither, Midge."
"You know them--you are of this company?" continued the knight, as if in alarm.
"I am very proud to be of it, Brother," said the friar.
"I crave a boon," the knight then said, turning to Robin. "This is a little man who will receive the buffets; and though I seem a priest, yet am I willing to take the blow instead."
"If you would care to have a buffet from me," the friar cried, "you are most welcome. For though my arm is sore still from our play of this morn, I warrant me there is still some strength left in it"; and he rolled up his sleeve.
"Take, then, the first blow," said the knight, "and I promise you I will return it you with interest."
A smile lit up the face of the jolly friar. He turned up the sleeve of his cassock still further, and smote the false abbot such a blow as would have felled an ox.
"Thou hittest well, Brother," the knight remarked, coolly.
The friar was amazed to see him withstand such a blow, and so was Robin. "Now, 'tis my turn," the knight said; and, baring his arm, he dealt Tuck such a blow as to send him flat upon his back.
There was a general laugh at this; but the exertion had caused the abbot's cowl to slip away from his head. The strong face and light beard of the Black Knight showed plainly to them all. "Alas, Your Majesty," cried Sir Richard of the Lee, springing up; "you have betrayed yourself."
"It is the King!" cried Scarlett, in sheer surprise; and reverently he knelt before the Black Knight. Robin glanced questioningly towards the greenwood men; then knelt himself beside Scarlett. At once the whole company fell upon their knees also.
"My lord King," said Robin, in hushed voice, "I crave mercy for my men and for myself. We have not chosen this life from any wickedness, but rather have come to it perforce."
The King towered amongst them. "Swear," cried he, in clear, loud voice. "Swear that you will forsake your wild ways, Robin Fitzooth, and will come with your men into my Court, and be good and faithful subjects from this night, and I will give you all the pardon that you crave."
"We will come into your Court and into your service, Sire," answered Robin, gratefully, "nor ask anything better in this world than that."
The King bade them rise and continue their sports. "Night is come and I must ask a lodging of you--even as your chaplain gave me of his hospitality yester e'en," he said, comfortably. "And tell me, Robin, where is your Marian? What laggard in love are you to be here without her?"
"Nay, Sire," said the little page, coming forward, "Robin is no laggard, nor am I far to seek. He is a very valiant, honorable man, and should indeed be a knight of this realm, if all men had their deserts."
Richard smiled then, and bent his haughty head to kiss the little hand she had extended to him. "Thou speakest truth, lady," he answered. "And I had not forgotten how the fair lands of Broadweald once were in Hugh Fitzooth's honest keeping. It may be that they will return to his son one day, for folks tell me that Guy of Gisborne is no more."
He turned to Scarlett. "And you are Master Geoffrey of Montfichet," said he, fixing his keen eyes on the other's face, "son of my father's friend, George Montfichet of Gamewell? And prithee, Master Geoffrey, what have you done with my little cousin, Aimée of Aragon?"
Scarlett confusedly explained that she was safe in his father's hall at Gamewell. "It seemeth, then, that you also have stolen from our Sheriff at Nottingham, Master Scarlett?" Richard observed, quizzing him. "Surely all men's hands are against Monceux!"
"Even as all men's hands are against venomous reptiles and the like," observed the friar, nodding his head. He had recovered from the buffet which Richard's hand had dealt, and had seated himself conveniently to watch the scene. He was truly the one least put about by it.
The King eyed him, and smiled to note his quiet self-possession. "What can I find for you, Brother?" he asked, indulgently. "Some fat living, where there are no wicked to chastise, and where the work is easy and well endowed?"
"I only wish for peace in this life," replied the friar. "Mine is a simple nature, and I care not for the gewgaws and shams of Court. Give me a good meal and a cup of the right brew, health, and enough for the day, and I ask no more either of my God or of my King."
Richard sighed. "You ask the greatest thing in the world, Brother--contentment. It is not mine to give or to deny. Yet if I can help you to find that wondrous jewel, I will do it right heartily." He glanced curiously from one to the other of the greenwood men. "Which of you is called Allan-a-Dale?" he asked; and when Allan had come forward, "So," said Richard, half-sternly, "you are the man who stole a bride from her man at my church doors of Plympton. What have you to say in excuse of this wickedness?"
"Only that I loved her, Sire, and that she loved me," said Allan. "Your Norman baron would have forced her to wed with him, desiring her lands."
"Which since hath been forfeited by my lord of Hereford," said Richard, quickly. "I know your story, Allan. Take back your lands and hers from me this night, and live in peace and loyalty upon them with your dame. Fennel, she is called, is't not so? 'Tis a pretty name."
"I thank you humbly, Sire," said Allan-a-Dale, joyfully. "And Fennel shall thank you for herself. She will do it far better than I, be sure of it."
"Where is your dame?" said the King, looking about and half-expecting to find her clad like Marian in boy's attire.
"She also is at Gamewell," said Sir Richard, hastily. "We left her there this morning when on our way to Copmanhurst. The Princess will take her into her train, and protect both Mistress Fennel and her lord."
"Our Princess will need a protector for her own self, I am thinking," said the King, thoughtfully. "Come hither, Scarlett, and kneel before me!"
Geoffrey wonderingly did so. "Arise, Geoffrey Earl of Nottingham," cried Richard, striking his shoulder with the flat of his sword; "take back your freedom from my hands, and be no more ashamed to attend our Court disguised and in false pretence. From this moment you have the overlordship of this forest for your father's sake and mine,
and you are worthy to ask the hand of any woman in this realm."
It was impossible not to perceive the King's gracious meaning, although Geoffrey could scarce believe in his good fortune. He thanked his King in a voice full of gratitude and affection. "You did say that the Princess of Aragon might need a protector, Sire," he added, trembling at his own audacity. "Will you grant me permission to be her champion and defy the world?"
"'Tis what I had promised for you, my lord of Nottingham," said Richard, quietly, "and best reason for your knighthood! Watch well over her, and guard her from herself--if need be."
For Much the Miller, for Middle the Tinker, for Little John, Stuteley and old Warrenton the King had kindly words. He knew them all, it seemed; and they marvelled more and more amongst themselves to hear how he was aware of all their histories. There was no adventurer, no man of them whom he did not know by name and fame, at least; and this King proved so gracious and royal a man that all of them loved him forthwith and dubbed him in their hearts a right worthy monarch.
They built a great fire, having now no more fear of Monceux or Hereford, or any one of them. The Sheriff would hold his office from Will Scarlett's hands from now!
The archers from Nottingham who had been held as prisoners were at once released, and the King signalled for Sir Richard's followers to appear. This they did with a rush, and Robin saw then how the King had held them all truly in his hand, for these fellows, and even Sir Richard of the Lee, their master, would have had to obey him had he ordered them to engage the greenwood men in sudden combat.
As it was, all were merry and boon companions. Laughter and song floated upward as the jumping flames of the campfire they had built. The friar sang them the song which Robin had heard so often, and Robin himself played upon the harp. Night came and they slept--King of England and his subjects together, in all joy and happiness. The fire burned low, and deep Sherwood watched over them--forest mother of them all.
* * *
Next morning the King asked if they had any spare liveries of the scarlet and white. "For," said he, "'tis only fair that I should lead you
into the city of Nottingham clad as you are yourselves, since now you are my bodyguard."
So Nottingham awoke to find a great company of men approaching It Foremost came a number of archers dressed all in bright liveries and carrying their bows unslung in token of peace. Behind them marched a motley host--the servitors of Sir Richard and of old George of Gamewell, and last of all the Sheriff's own archers.
Monceux came out to meet them with Master Simeon, whilst my lord of Hereford watched furtively from the city walls. The chief of the approaching host rode forward, and his stern, dark face was plain to see.
"'Tis the King!" cried Carfax, who knew Richard well. "Now may our tongues be politic and say the right words."
"Go to meet him, Simeon," whispered the Sheriff, all in a flutter of fear and hope. "'Tis like that he hath encountered Sir Richard of the Lee, and so will know his story of things. Be prudent, be humble."
But Richard waved Carfax haughtily aside. "I will speak with your master, fellow," he said, harshly. Carfax shrank cringingly to one side, and Monceux dismounted from his milk-white horse to meet his King.
"Greetings and welcome, Sire, from this your faithful city," began Monceux, very hurriedly. "The joyful tidings of your return were brought to me two days agone, and at once I did prepare for your coming."
"With a hanging to wit, and murderous attack upon the castle of this faithful knight," said Richard. "A welcome not much to our mind, Sheriff."
"Sire, when the hanging was going forward I did not then know you were so near," explained Monceux, making matters worse. "And, for the matter of that, 'twas for foul murder that I would have hanged the villain, who did escape through your knight's evil practises. Thereby I do accuse Sir Richard of offending against the laws."
"Enough, Master Monceux," interrupted the King, contemptuously. "The murder was not done by the man whose life you did seek so earnestly to end. The killing of Fitzwalter, my warden of these gates, was due to the foul hands of your own cook, Roger de Burgh. As you have stomach for a hanging, see to it that this fellow be brought to book. Know you this writing?"
And Richard showed him the parchment which Will Scarlett had found in the hearth of the hall at Nottingham Castle.
Monceux turned green and white, and gasped for air. "I had no hand in this dreadful business, Sire, I swear it," he gurgled. "We did conspire between us to entice the maid Fitzwalter into Nottingham, I confess, hoping that Robin Hood, the outlaw, would come to visit her, and we might so trap him. He hath been the author of this mischief, I promise you, and is a villainous wretch. If Roger killed Master Fitzwalter, 'twas done in the belief that he was engaged with Hood."
"As I thought," muttered the new Earl of Nottingham, under his breath.
"Therefore," said Richard, slowly, "you, Monceux, knew all along that Little John was not guilty, and yet did seek to hang him."
"Sire, he stole my plate also, and had been excommunicated by my lord of Hereford."
"Take Roger and hang him speedily," cried the King, to end it. "And bring me to the Bishop. Stay!" he called to the quickly retreating Sheriff; "ere you go, Monceux, learn that from henceforward you must look for patronage from this my lord of Nottingham," he added, with a gesture. "He will be your master, and you will hold the feof of Nottingham Castle at his hands."
"Will Scarlett--Master Geoffrey of Montfichet--you?" gasped Monceux.
"Even I, Master Sheriff," replied the man of many names.
"Know also, Monceux," added Richard, indicating Robin and his men, "these are my archers and especial guards. From now the ban of excommunication must be removed."
The Bishop had come down from the walls and had drawn nigh. "Fetch me book and candle, Carfax," said he, "and I will remove the ban."
"You will be wise to do so, my lord," the King said, significantly. The Bishop deemed it prudent to give no particular heed to his sire's tone. At once he proceeded to take off the ban of excommunication he had so hastily pronounced upon Robin Hood and the rest of his merry men.
"Now, Robin, take payment for your entertainment of me in the
woods," the King said, in a voice that would brook no denial. Robin drew near and kneeled before him, doubtfully. "Rise, Robin of Huntingdon, first Earl of the shire!" cried Richard, tapping him with the point of his blade. "Take rank amongst my knights, and learn that thy King recognizeth above the other neither Saxon nor Norman of his subjects--all to me are English; and I love the man who is brave and who dealeth fairly as he may with his fellowmen. You have kept the spirit of liberty alive in this my land, and I hold no anger against you because you have been impatient under wrong."
His proud voice was silent; while Robin Earl of Huntingdon seized his King's hand to his lips and kissed it in a wonderment of gratitude.