So, ingloriously, they returned through the night to Locksley. None offered to stay them in the forest of Sherwood; indeed, Robin might well have disbelieved in the existence of Will o' th' Green and his outlaw band, had he not had such good reason to know otherwise. It was as if Will had silently yielded him that freedom of the forest which he boasted was his to give. Tired and footsore, yet filled with a strange elation, Robin came back to Locksley before dawn, with faithful Stuteley forlornly following him.
There were questions to be asked and answered when they arrived; and Warrenton was very indignant when he heard of the Prince's gross favoritism of his archer Hubert.
Robin seemed to show too little vexation in the matter, Warrenton thought. The man-at-arms was both perplexed and amazed by the semi-indifference displayed by the youth: here had he, by marvellous skill, won a fine prize, and had seen the same snatched most unfairly from him, and yet was not furiously enraged; but rather amused, as it were.
"Surely, surely, you will go back with me tomorrow and demand the purse from the Sheriff?" said Warrenton, in argumentative attitude. "Squire George o' th' Hall shall give us the best of Gamewell to enforce respect to you."
"Nay, it matters not so much as that, Warrenton. The money I would like to have had, I'll not deny it, for it would have made me more independent of Master Monceux. But it has not fallen to me, and there it ends."
"Well, 'tis well that you are so easy, lording,"--said Warrenton, scratching his head. "Now tell us whom you saw, and how you contrived to split the Norman's arrow."
He had already heard the story, but was very fain to listen to it again. "It is a trick that I taught him, Dame," he added, offhandedly, to Mistress Fitzooth. "One that did surprise the Norman too, I'll warrant me. You see, they are so concerned with their crossbows and other fal-lals in France that when good English yew--"
"I saw Master Will," said Robin, to check him. Once Warrenton was started on a dissertation on the virtues of the English longbow there was usually no staying him. "He told me that the Scarlet Knight had gone to France."
Warrenton looked wise. "That is not worthy of belief, Excellence," said he, cunningly. "Prince John is near; and one cannot imagine that Geoffrey of Montfichet--"
"Geoffrey of Montfichet?" asked the dame, wonderingly: and then Warrenton saw how he had blundered. "Why, I did not know that you had met your cousin, Robin. When was it, and why do you call him the Scarlet Knight?"
"Geoffrey is outlawed, Mother mine, and may not appear in Sherwood," answered Robin, temporizing with her. "And the story of our meeting is too long a one for the moment. We are rarely fatigued, and I would gladly get me to bed. Come, Will, rouse yourself. Mother, see that we do not sleep too long. I must go to Gamewell by the day after tomorrow at least; and there is much work between my going and now."
He had determined to ask the Squire to move again in the matter of the Rangership for him whilst John was here. Even if the Prince had unduly favored Hubert in the archery contest, it did not necessarily follow that he would be unjust in such a plain business as this. Robin kissed the dame, struggled with a yawn, and got him to rest. He slept uneasily, his dreams being strangely compounded of happiness and grief.
* * *
Within three days Robin started away for Gamewell, taking only Stuteley, as before. He intended to make his return to Locksley ere dusk of the next night.
When they were far advanced on their journey they heard sounds of a large company upon the road; and prudently Robin bade Stuteley hide with him in the undergrowth until they should see who these might be.
"Maybe 'tis the Sheriff, with Master Ford, coming to seize our home. By watching them unseen we may find a way to bring their schemes to naught. Keep near to me, Will; and scarcely breathe."
It was indeed a body of men from Nottingham; and, although the Sheriff was not with them, Master Carfax and a few of the Lincoln bowmen were amongst the company. So also was Ford, the forester.
In all, there were about two score of men, and most of them were Sherwood foresters. Robin espied Much the Miller in the tail of the procession, looking very dejected and ill, and decided to risk exposing himself. Standing up in the bracken, he called out boldly: "Hold there, Master Much. Here am I, ready to take your money."
"What sprite are you?" answered Much, reining in his steed sharply. "Why! 'tis the gipsy lad, as I live; with his face nicely washed . . . !" He had recognized Robin by his clothes. "Money, forsooth! Do you know that I have not so much as a groat in my pouch?"
"Then must one of the others lend it to you," replied Robin. "Pay me, friends, forthwith. A short reckoning is an easy reckoning. My arrow flew nearer the target than did any of yours."
"How do you know that?" said Much. "After you had gone we all did aim again, and very marvellous was my shooting. For sure, I should have had the prize, even as I told you, had not Hubert already made of with it."
"Is this so?" asked Robin, doubtfully, looking from one to the other of the Lincoln men. Those in front had now stopped also; and Master Carfax came ambling back to see what had occasioned the delay. So soon as he espied Robin his face took a joyful look. "Here, Master Ford," he called, clapping his hands. "Hither--come hither! Here is your quarry found for you. Now you can fight it out, fair and square, whilst we watch to see fair play!"
Ford turned about and glanced at Robin; but he did not like the notion of such a battle. So he affected not to recognize him. "Nay, this is but some vagrant fellow," said he, hesitatingly. "Let us push on,
[paragraph continues] Master Simeon; 'tis near the hour when we are to meet with him whom you know." He added these words in a low voice, and made a gesture indicating the Copmanhurst road.
Carfax's face took a diabolical expression. He had begun to answer Ford when the whole party were suddenly disturbed by the rush of a great herd of Royal deer.
These beasts, driven by someone from out of their pastures, came scattering blindly adown the track; and men and horses moved quickly to one side to avoid a devastating collision.
After they had passed, Carfax began again. "Form a ring, friends," cried he, coaxingly. "Let neither of these fellows escape. They shall yield us some sport, in any event, whether Ford be right or I."
A solitary stag at this instant appeared before them. He stood, as if carved from stone, in the centre of the road, at three hundred paces' distance. He was clearly uncertain whether to dash through these his usual enemies, in an attempt to rejoin the herd, or fly backward to that unknown danger which had first startled them all.
"'Tis a fine beast," hiccoughed Much. "Now had I a steady hand!"
Simeon Carfax interrupted him. "By the Lord Harry, here is the very thing," he said, in whispered excitement. "Now, fellow, you shall prove me right and this forester wrong. I say you are Robin of Locksley, who did split the Norman's arrow at the tourney. Fly a shaft now at yon mark; surely none but such a bowman as yourself might dare hope to reach it."
Robin fell into the very palpable trap set for him. Without answering Carfax, he fitted an arrow to his bow, and sent speeding death to the trembling stag. It fell, pierced cleanly to the heart. Robin eyed Ford triumphantly.
But Master Carfax now held up his hands in horror. "See what you have done, wicked youth," ejaculated he, as if quite overcome with dismay. "I bade you shoot at yon birch tree shimmering there to the left of the deer. Did I not say: 'Fly at yon mark'? And now you have killed one of the King's deer."
"I do hear that this fellow has slain others about Locksley," said Ford, meanly. "You are right, Master Simeon; he is, in sooth, Robin
of Locksley; your eyes are wiser than mine. Seize him, my men."
At once the foresters sprang upon Robin and Stuteley, and a fierce battle was commenced. Despite a valiant resistance, Robin and Will Stuteley were soon overcome and bound hard and fast.
"You villains," panted Stuteley. "And you, most treacherous," he called to Carfax, "I wish you joy of so contemptible a trick."
"All's fair in war, friend," answered Carfax. "Now, Master Ford, fulfil your duty. You know the law; that if one be found killing the King's deer in the Royal Forest of Sherwood, he or she may be summarily hanged when caught upon the nearest tree."
"It must be in flagrante delicto, Master Simeon," said Ford, uneasy again.
"Could there be a plainer case?" cried Carfax, rubbing his hands. "We all did see this fellow shoot the deer. 'Tis the clearest case; and I do counsel you to deal lawfully in it, Master Ford. Remember that he also is suspected of being an outlaw, in that you saw him once use a peacocked arrow. Although I am but a layman, as it were, friend," he added, meaningly, "yet I do know the law, and shall be forced to quit my conscience with the Prince when I return to Nottingham. Wherefore, seeing that your appointment to Locksley still lacks his confirmation--"
"I would rather bring the rogue to Master Monceux, as he did command me," argued Ford, who could not quite brace himself to this. "Besides, we have no leisure at this moment to carry out the law," he went on. "You know that your master the Prince did start us on this journey with two errands upon our shoulders."
"One was to deal with Robin of Locksley," said Carfax, snarlingly, and without yielding his point.
"To take him to Nottingham, Master, I say," put in Much. "I do not think that the Prince meant you to harm him."
"Be silent, knave!" snapped the lean-faced man, sharply. "Who gave you the right to question me? Shut your mouth, or I will have you accounted as accomplice with these fellows, and put a noose about your bull neck also!"
"Why, harkee, Master," said Much, very wrathful. "This is a game
where two can play or more. I do forthwith range myself with the gipsy; and you, Midge," he added, turning to one of his company, "surely you will follow?"
"Right instantly," answered the one called Midge, a little ferret of a man.
"And I also." "And I, Master Much"--so spoke the remaining Lincoln men.
"So are we six, then," said Much. He tumbled of his horse, and the other three of them did the like; and then strode over to where Robin stood. "Release him," said the miller, determinedly; and he promptly knocked two of the foresters sprawling.
This was the signal for a general encounter, and all threw themselves very heartily into the mêlée.
The miller and his men struggled to release Robin and Stuteley so that these might help in the fray; but the foresters were too many for them. Twice did Much get his hands upon Robin's bonds, only to be plucked violently backward. The men tumbled one upon the other in the fight, pummelling, clutching, and tearing at each other in a wild confusion. They made little noise, all being too desperately in earnest. Ford encouraged his foresters by word and gesture; and Carfax kept himself as far out of it as possible. Presently three of the foresters overpowered the good-natured, still half-tipsy miller, and held him down.
Then Master Carfax sprang from his horse and rushed in upon the prostrate miller. Seizing one of the foresters' pikes the lean-faced man foully swung it down upon Much's pate with a sounding thwack. The miller gave a groan and became limp in the hands of his assailants.
"Now, surely, that is the meanest of all the mean deeds which you have done!" cried Robin. He tore at his bonds fiercely and vainly--biting at the cord about his wrists with his teeth. Carfax ran to his horse. In an instant he had returned with a cord taken from under his saddle. "I had a notion that this might be useful to me when I set out this morn," he said. "Put it about his neck soon as a noose is fashioned. Now fling the end of it over this branch. Now draw it tight. Steadily, I pray you; be not over-quick. The prisoner has the right to speak a prayer ere he be hanged. Say it then, Robin of Locksley."
Robin caught sight at this instant of poor Stuteley's face. He had been knocked down in the fight, and, being bound, had lain where he had fallen. His eyes met Robin's in an anguished glance, and his lips trembled in attempt at speech.
Robin strove to smile at him; but his own soul was sick within his body. He felt the cord tighten again about his throat, but even as the world reeled black, Robin heard dully the sound of a horn. In familiar tones it came in upon his fainting brain. Next instant came a jerk at the rope, futile, if infuriated; then, suddenly, contact with a body falling heavily against his own.
As he fell he knew that something warm and horrid trickled upon his hands. Then followed a vast confusion of noise: and, in the midst of it, sweet peace.