Geoffrey Montfichet's reason for wishing to be known as the Scarlet Knight was no idle whimsey, as the other had guessed.
To John's rebellion against his father, Henry of England, the younger Montfichet had given himself body and soul. The Prince had shown him kindness, and now that the rebellion had failed, Geoffrey felt it incumbent upon him to remain with the beaten side, and endeavor to recover the advantage lost to them. To this end he now journeyed through the Midlands in many disguises, trying to stir up the outlaws and robbers of the forests to take up arms with John, under a promise that the Prince (if successful) would grant them amnesty and a goodly share of the spoils sure to fall to them.
A spy was to attend at Nottingham Fair to know how matters had progressed with the outlaws of Sherwood; but, since it was too dangerous to attempt an open meeting, Geoffrey had arranged a simple code of signalling by color.
Did he appear as a knight unknown and disinherited, bound on his arms and steed with red trappings, the spy, eyeing him from beside the Sheriff of Nottingham, would know that Will o' th' Green was to be trusted, and would promptly bear the joyful news to his Royal Master. Had sad black been the note, John's man would have guessed that friends were still to seek about Nottingham.
Thus we know that Master Will had more reasons than one for appearing as a wizard at Nottingham Fair. He had gone here chiefly to bear a scroll to the Prince's emissary, and to declare fealty to John; but
the affair of the tumblers and Robin's discovery of him had warned Master Will not to stay overlong in the town, so Geoffrey had to depend upon his plan of appearing as the Scarlet Knight.
The morning broke dull and threateningly over Gamewell. Robin and his esquire slept late; but no one offered to disturb their slumbers. The monk knew full well that there was good cause for his pupil's fatigue; and had set himself to discover the true meaning of it. "Boy," said he to Robin, "I pray that you do not think upon Nottingham today. There will be a storm and much rain. The mud in the meadows of Nottingham will surely spoil the bravery of the Fair, and show us too plainly how trumpery and vain a matter it is."
"For that cause alone will we go, dear friend," retorted Robin. "It will be a lesson to us. With you beside us to point the moral, much benefit shall accrue, for sure. Father," Robin added, "come with us now to the pleasance. There Warrenton is to show me how to notch arrows and pick a courtly bow."
"I have no great wisdom in the game, boy; yet readily will I go with you."
The three of them went in search of Warrenton; and found him with the captain of the foresters.
Dame Fitzooth and the Squire followed later to the pleasance, and there one and all tried conclusions. Robin soon found that Warrenton could teach him much; and he was too anxious to excel in the conduct of the bow to neglect this chance of learning the many secrets of it. "Men shall talk of you"--Fitzooth's own words to him--always rang in his heart whenever he drew the cord and fitted ash across yew.
Warrenton took great pleasure in showing Robin some of the tricks in which he was so perfect; and explained them so well that ere an hour had gone the lad had learned and mastered them.
"Lording," said the old servant, watching him as he essayed successfully an exercise shown him but a few minutes before. "Lording, I do not doubt that you will carry away with you today the Sheriff's prize from the older bowmen of Nottingham! You have a keen eye for it, and your fingers seem comfortable upon the yew--which is the sign and mark of a good archer. Now, bear in mind this golden rule: that the feet are to be placed at true angles, with the line of the mark running, as it
were, fairly through the heels: thus," and he took the position, fitted an arrow to his bow, and, scarce looking towards the target, flew his shaft so straightly as to pierce the very centre of the bull. "Try now to notch the arrow," said Warrenton, with pardonable pride.
Robin shook his head and laughed.
"Ay, but you shall make far better than that, lording, an I have the handling of you!" cried Warrenton. "Now take this bow and these arrows which I have chosen; and we will set forth for Nottingham. We have an hour's journey."
On the way to Nottingham, Robin's mind was so full of all that had lately happened that he lagged behind the others and at last found himself quite alone.
This was where the road curved through the last of the forest about Nottingham. Warrenton and Master Ford of the foresters were at a renewed discussion on longbow against crossbow; and Will Stuteley had become so interested in the matter as to have poked his little horse between the others. Robin trotted his steed to come up with them; then, suddenly spying a brooklet among the trees upon his left hand, found himself mightily athirst. He slipped from off the back of his grey jennet and tethered the beast by the roadside.
The brook was fouled near the highroad from the passing of heavy carts and wagons, so Robin pushed down it into the thicker wood.
Finding that now the stream ran pure and limpid, Robin flung himself flat among the bracken and rushes, and dipped his face in the cool water. He drank heartily, and lay there for a while in lazy content, hid by the undergrowth and bracken.
A whinnying from his jennet warned him at length that he must push on with speed if he intended to rejoin the others ere Nottingham gate was reached. Robin turned himself about, preparatory to rising, then hastily shrank back into the shelter afforded by the forms.
Two men approached noiselessly through the forest. They carried bows and were clad in russet brown. Robin, in that brief glimpse, recognized two of Master Will's freebooting band.
The outlaws walked side by side in earnest conversation. Their mutterings were at first unintelligible to Robin; but, by hazard, they paused close to where he lay hid. Young Fitzooth knew that he would
have small chance with these fellows should they espy him.
Said one, an evil-looking man, with a dirty grizzled beard: "Our Will seems to me, friend Roger, to be of open heart towards this youngling. He has given him the key of the forest at first word, as if the place were free to all. Had you the knowledge of it so soon, Roger? Tell me, lad."
He spoke sneeringly and with meaning. Robin strained his ears to distinguish the other's reply. "Friend," said Number Two, at last, and speaking in a smooth, milky sort of way, "friend, I would rather counsel you to adopt a persuasive argument with the Scarlet Knight, should we chance on him. I would have no violence done, an it may be avoided, being a man opposed to lawlessness in heart, as you know. It is my eternal misfortune which has brought me to this life."
"Tush! 'tis for murder of an old man at York! I know your story, Roger; seek not to impose upon me."
"He was a Jew, dear friend, and did grievously provoke me. But we have a matter in hand. This man has doubtless been sent in to spy upon us. I have no belief in the faith of these Norman nobles. Further, he has upon his head a goodly sum of money, as I well know. Wherefore, if chance should yield him to our hands, it would seem right and proper that we should bind him."
"Ay, hard and fast, Roger. You have it."
"Bind him with a vow, Micah, but not with ropes and wickedness. Yet should your dagger inadvertently prick him--"
"Be sure that it will, Roger. Some inward voice warns me that it will."
The other made a sign to the last speaker to speak more quietly. Robin cocked his ears in vain, but he had heard enough to show him that the shadow of a great evil was stalking behind his cousin, and without further thought decided that he must save him.
The two villains stood together a plaguey time perfecting their plans, and Robin dared scarcely breathe. Once, when he attempted to wriggle his way through the bracken, at the first sound of movement both men had become utterly silent, showing that they had heard and waited to hear again.
"A squirrel, friend," said the one called Roger at last, and Robin took heart again.
However, knowing that presently they must espy his jennet tethered by the road, Robin became desperate. He writhed his body snake-like through the ferns until he came to the edge of the brook; then, covered by the noise of the falling water, essayed to creep up the course of the stream.
The distance from the road could scarcely have been two hundred ells, but it seemed to Robin more like to a league. He got his feet and legs wet and bemired, and cut his hands over the rocks about the brook. Yet he came nearer and nearer still to the roadway without having given alarm.
Robin saw at length the close turf which bordered the road, and spied his little grey horse. Forthwith he rose to his feet and made a bold dash for it.
The jennet was untethered and Robin upon its back in a flash; then the lad heard the whizz of an arrow past him. He bent his head down close to the neck of his jennet and whispered a word into its ear. The little mare, shaking herself suddenly to a gallop, understood; and now began a race between bow and beast.
These outlaws were no common archers, for sure. Twice did their shafts skim narrow by Robin and his flying steed; the third time a sudden pricking told the youth that he was struck in the back.
He had no time for thought of pain. Everything depended on the beast under him. He pressed his legs softly but firmly against her streaming sides.
She was more swift in the end than the cruel arrows. Robin saw the countryside flashing by him through a cloud of dust; saw that Nottingham gate was reached; that a party with surprised faces watched his furious approach. The little mare swayed and rolled as she went, and Robin came to the ground, with the outlaw's arrow still in him. He was conscious that someone ran to him and lifted him tenderly: he perceived dimly, through circling blackness, the anxious face of Stuteley.
"Are you hurt, dear Master?" he seemed to see, rather than hear, him say.
Then Stuteley, Nottingham, and reason fled swiftly together, and the day became as night.