"Robert of Barnsdale?" William repeated, shocked into a rare moment of unprofessional incredulity.
"Yes, sir," repeated the constable. Stolid Dick Fitzwilliam, who helped see to the northern bounds of Nottinghamshire. He had neither the imagination nor the whimsy to play a prank on his sheriff; nor the imagination to nurse a grudge without telling half of town about it over each pot of ale, if it came to that. "I had it from the chief Forester himself. Tom Moody dead with an arrow in his throat, and Robert o' Barnsdale named as the bowman."
William should have had brisk and businesslike words here: what's the charge, then, or accident, surely, for they're good and godly men all, or something of the sort. He couldn't quite find any.
Dick carried on unprompted, thankfully. He knew his side of this business, and looked no further. "They're charging murder, sir. They say there were hard and prideful words said, but more by Robert, and no hand lifted until Robert drew his bow. That's what they swore, and say they'll swear in court. This morning it was."
"Well," said William, after a long moment, in which he pretended to study the record on his desk. The clean ink seemed muzzy and far-off, in this sudden strange unreality in which Robin o' Barnsdale might be a murderer. But there was only one response possible, under the law and the duty of his position, and the king's justice held in his trust. "Well, he's a good man by all I know, so there must be some mistake. But he'll have his chance to tell us what it was, same as any, and be acquitted if acquittal is warranted. John Forester is a man who knows the law, to be sure. Very well. Make a writ for the judge, Ned. Set the trial a week from Thursday next, unless the judge would have it later, to give time for all to be called to attend. Next matter?"
But the days passed, and Robert did not attend his trial on the appointed Thursday. Only John Forester was there, with a pious self-satisfaction that made William dislike him intensely, though normally Forester was a man he was glad to drink and dine with and had called friend more than once. The trial had to be postponed another fortnight, and William accepted the judge's second writ with cold hands and numb courtesy, but in a fortnight there was still no Robert. No constable had seen so much as a hair of his golden head, though William had sent them searching high and low. The judge pursed his lips and raised his brows meaningfully. Once might be honest error, delay, or confusion; twice, with no word, looked very like outlawry.
"Ah well," said the judge afterwards, with a crabbed little smile, as his horse was led out with its fine soft saddle and fine full saddlebags. (And how many arguments had William had with Robin about that – the dignity and privilege of a judge's position, the excesses it might or might not justify, the rule of law and the rule of gold – and here was Robin gone like a wolfshead shadow, and William could not think of him now, not and keep his composure in front of other men as he must.) "His lands will be worth some coin. That's often better use than these fellows put lands to in their own hands. Good day to you, my lord Sheriff."
William, by the duty and dignity of his position and the knowledge that it would do no one any good, did not break the nose of a judge appointed by the crown. Instead, grimly, he bit his tongue and bowed in silence, and went home to double the number of constables appointed to cry news where Robert of Barnsdale might hear, or friends might carry word to him.
Other friends, that is, than William de Langtoft Nottingham's sheriff, though he would have sworn only weeks before that Robert loved him well.
William who accounted Robert – Robin, to those he called friends, and thus Robin to Will de Langtoft – not only a worthy yeoman and tradesman, not only a gay and charming companion to enliven any day or evening, but a friend dear to his heart. William, who had heard never a word from Robin and hardly a word of him either, since Robert's arrow had somehow lodged in Tom Moody's throat.
He would never have befriended a murderous sort. But then he had not thought Robin a man to vanish into the sullen silence of outlawry, either. At first he had fretted that Robert was wounded, or ill, or even dead himself, but none of those things would have left such an utter silence and absence. A manhunt such as he had raised would have found even a corpse drowned in the river or millpond, and none had been found.
Bright-eyed, laughing, golden Robin seemed to have vanished.
His father's lands stood idle, the court's seal on the door and a constable William could, in truth, ill spare patrolling the area often to keep watch for him. Tom Moody was three weeks in his grave. William felt often as if he were four weeks into a bad dream, and an unconvincing one at that; he expected any minute to wake to sunlight and a servant pulling back the bed-curtains, or to see Robin stride into the room with his laugh ringing off the plastered walls, and an explanation on his lips that would set all to rights.
He went to bed each night with a heavy heart, and woke to this same world, where a writ of exigent for Robert of Barnsdale sat like a grinning imp. Five county court sessions stood between merry Robin o' Barnsdale and the outlaw's wolf's head. Five sessions where the sheriff would have to proclaim him an accused murderer, served with multiple writs, and bid him stand trial. After that, there would be nothing to be done but wait for the courts to set the price on his shining head.
For lack of – what was the lack? Trust in his friend and patron the sheriff? Moral rigor to hold a murderous temper in check? – Robert of Barnsdale would hang from a gallows tree, and the whole world would be dimmer for it.
He fisted his hands on the window's sill. It was too finely sanded for his mood; there were no splinters to press against, no rough edges to catch at his ink-splotched knuckles. The shutters were open, and outside everything was gay summer and birdsong, even here in the heart of Nottingham town. Robin's favorite season. Poacher's season, too.
Steps came behind him, down the hall and then into his chamber. His wife, and not a servant or clerk; he knew her steps. He did not turn.
"Art brooding, husband." Alyse's voice was quiet, without its usual teasing laughter. Laughter would have roused him to sparks of fury, but for sympathy he could muster nothing but a dull, distant irritation that was only half for her, and half for vanished Robin.
"Should I not?" William scrubbed his hair back roughly, without turning from the window. The sun glinted honey-gold across Nottingham's roofs, and the bulk of wild Sherwood Forest just visible beyond. Was Robin there, lost amidst the greenwood, beset by brigands or laying snares for the king's rabbits? Were birds singing to him, wherever he was, and did he find any more comfort in the birdsong and sunlight than William did now?
"I can't see that it helps thee overmuch."
"Canst see that aught else might?" William regretted his waspish tone immediately, but not enough to apologize for it.
Alyse, behind him, was quiet a moment. Then her plump warmth came hesitantly to rest against his side, and her head in its snowy linen kerchief against his shoulder. William put his arm around her, sagging on a long sigh.
There had never been anything of the flesh between them. Alyse had made that clear, blushing fiercely, well before the banns were declared: she had a great terror of childbirth and its bloody agonies, and no wish for a man's touch. They had come to an accord long ago. But she was a good helpmeet, an efficient household administrator, and William had nephews who could be Sheriff after him if they were suited to it. He would not have traded her for any chance at children, with the risk of losing her to their birth.
"I know thou didst love him well," she said to the horizon. "So did I. So do I."
"I don't understand," he said softly into her kerchief. "Was I so wrong about him, Alyse? I thought him a good and proud yeoman, honest to a fault. God's teeth, I'd have sworn to't. Was I a fool? Charmed by a murderer's handsome smile, when all the while he --"
The words choked him then, and he fell silent. To speak of a charming heartless murderer and Robin o' Barnsdale in the same sentence was a wrongness in the world; it seemed nearly a sin to think it, and he could not make himself feel anything but sickness at his own words. Where did loyalty and duty lie, in such an evil tangle?
"Nay," Alyse said, and the fierceness in her voice soothed his sore heart. "Nay, husband. Perhaps thou wert overloving, perhaps he's overproud. Perhaps panic took him, or there's a story we know little of yet."
"Aye, and that's the purpose of the court, that a forthright freeman can tell his story --"
"But thou'rt never a fool for loving him, or call me fool beside you," she continued, as if he hadn't interrupted. "Thou knowest what love he has for courts and judges. All the household does – why, half of Nottingham, with all you brangled over it."
"The king's justice is sacred," William snapped, as he had said a hundred times to Robin, "and a sacred trust for all his people! If he's overproud for the king's court, then what justice will he have instead? None, and no defense, and every man's hand against him. Little enough he shall like that, for all his fine words of judges' rings and beef! If some of them skim a little more than they should off the taxes they collect, why, that's a sin and a shame, but it never put an arrow in a man's throat either, and it's the king's justice and the king's laws alone that can call any man to account for it until God in his heaven does. Tom Moody is dead, and a beringed judge will call Robin an unrepentant murder between bites of beef, and what has Robin done to tell him aught else?"
Alyse was silent. Then, slowly, she said, "I called this morning at widow Marian's house. She told me something."
Having begun, she seemed disinclined to go on. William waited until impatience got the better of him. "Well, wife?"
"'Tis rumor alone. I know not. But she told me, 'tis said among the markets – 'tis said, that's all – that the Bishop of Hereford was robbed on the high road nigh to Sherwood."
"Aye, so I know," said William, impatience little stifled. "He has sent complaints, and my constables are on the lookout for the brigands, though thou knowest they're a stubborn plague."
"'Tis said too that the next sennight saw coins laid in the byres and huts of the poorest tenant farmers of the Bishop's lands. And those farmers are giving thanks to a deliverer they call Robin. Robin Hood."
The wren's song outside the window seemed suddenly far off, as if William had been plunged into deep and icy water. The sunlight's golden glow seemed a mockery, its warmth turned to ash.
"So," he said, a low growl, hearing his own voice come from as far off as that chirping wren. Little twittering mockery; why had some cat not killed it already? "So, he's overproud for the courts, overhonest for a judge our sweet king saw fit to appoint, but never too proud nor too honest to turn brigand in Sherwood. His own law over the king's, is that the way of it?"
"'Tis rumor only," Alyse murmured, tense against his side. "And Robin's not so uncommon a name."
William clenched his jaw on more words, and didn't answer. All seemed now horribly clear. It was Robin's sort of error, the flaw that had always ruined his arguments: this idea that the king's justice was not sufficient, that the abuses of clergy and nobility could not be met by the king's deputies, that the common folk were somehow better equipped to know their own needs than those God had appointed to steward them, those hints that God and Jesus and Mary might even look more kindly on violence than overtaxation. What had Tom Moody done, that Robin had decided an arrow was the godly response?
And if that was so – why, gallows or not, the Robert of Barnsdale he had loved was indeed dead, killed by the brigand Robin Hood.
* * * * *
The months passed. Summer became autumn, and then winter. William thought, angry and unwilling, of snow and ice weighing down Sherwood's boughs and choking its laughing brooks, and of the chilly misery of an outlaw's roofless life there. Why would any man choose such a thing over a little patience and a little trust in the king's laws? But Robin Hood and his merry men, whatever shift they might have made, seemed untroubled. Rich men took to skirting miles out of their way to bring themselves and their saddlebags – including the king's tax! A sacred charge for the crown, treated like thieves' goods! – by Sherwood safe from harm. Even those tricks failed at times, for Robin and his fellow scofflaws seemed everywhere. Poor folk, however, loved him. They cheered for his short-sighted outlawry as if their sheriff had not spent years working to keep faith with the people without shorting the crown and the Church's holy men. Robin Hood's name was everywhere in the markets, whispered in the streets, praised like a saint in the sheepfolds. And yet William never saw him, though by February he had scarcely a deputy who had not been robbed at least once. He knew better than to venture into the deep forest, or so he told himself; at any rate, his business kept him busy in town and farmland, where Robin Hood never ventured, and none stopped him on the road.
And so silver spears of ice melted into leaping rivulets, and snowbanks subsided into green hillsides, and spring came to Nottingham.
It was on a fine May afternoon when Alyse came to William's study with laughter in her eyes and a rosy flush of pleasure in her dimpled cheeks. "Husband," she said, "we'll have another guest to dine tonight."
William was more than willing to be distracted from the unpleasantness of trying to do the taxation accounts. They seemed harder every year, as King Richard raised taxes for his holy Crusade and Prince John raised them still further for his brother's ransom and his own government's needs. (Worthy, Will told himself; worthy by royal wisdom, worthy by divine right.) This year Robin Hood's depredations had made it worse than ever, for it seemed taxes were no sooner collected than they were gone again. It made William sweat to think of it, and he lay awake more nights than he slept. The crown would not look kindly on a sheriff who couldn't fulfill his duty, and saying there's a bold outlaw I and my men cannot catch would win neither mercy nor favor.
He set that matter gratefully aside, to smile back at Alyse. "Thou'rt pleased. Art so bored by the butchers without this addition? They're a merry set."
"Oh, merry enough, but well known! Their jokes are stale. But there's a new butcher come to the kitchen, a charming fellow, who sold his meat for a song and threw in more besides. They say in the market he was giving fine chops for a kiss to pretty girls, the rogue! A lovely fellow."
William, amused, wondered if he had been cheeky enough to try to steal a kiss from the sheriff's wife too. "And this lad thinks he'll keep his trade at such rates?"
"Not so young a lad," said Alyse, "full bearded and all – but nay, I wot he's spending an inheritance in merriment. Foolish, but so wholeheartedly foolish that he must know it, and who am I to deny a man the right to do with his own as he sees fit? Soon he'll sober up, no doubt, whether it's to sensible business or to seek his fortune in the Holy Land or aught else. But until then, I find him good company and a fine addition to our table, my dear. Whether he finds some sense to talk or merely gladdens thy heart, I will set him to thy right hand."
"I would not dare gainsay thee," said William. "By all means, give me thy lusty young butcher-for-the-nonce."
That night the great hall's table was gay indeed. The butchers were wise enough to see no threat in the golden-bearded merry madcap who undercut them only by selling his wares for a song, and indeed seemed hardly to know what price mutton or beef ought to carry. Instead they toasted his success, laughing into their beards, and Adam (for so he called himself) laughed at the same joke as he toasted in reply.
In his golden hair and his handsome blue eyes and his roaring laughter, indeed, William more than once saw reminders of Robin, and they smote his heart.
He wondered briefly, and wildly, if this was indeed Robin o' Barnsdale, covered over with a year's growth of beard and a mad daring. For it was William's secret shame, most unbefitting to a sheriff, that he had never been able to trace a man's features like others seemed able to. Adam, like Robin, had golden hair, two blue eyes, a nose, a mouth, light skin freckled and weathered by the sun -- but then, so did many men. William had never been able to map whatever delicate topography of nose and jaw and eyes made others so certain that this blond man and that man swathed in a cowl were one and the same. Even his own wife's face, seen daily for years, was to him two eyes, a nose, a mouth, a kerchief over nut-brown braids now greying. Adam's hair was shorter than Robin's and a wilder tumble of curls, his face a darker brown, his voice rougher as if with a recent chest cold. William could not have told if their faces were alike, but there was nothing of love or recognition in how Adam looked at his new-met host.
Besides, Robert of Barnsdale's life was forfeit for his outlawry, and Robin Hood came never into town, and Robin o' Barnsdale would surely not have come to an old friend's doorstep with never a glint of fear or shame or greeting. No; laughing prodigal Adam was only similar enough to hurt William's heart.
Perhaps it was his exasperation at the man Adam wasn't, though, that made him readier than usual to take advantage of another's foolishness. When Adam bragged, laughing, of his sweet wide lands and his herds, William thought of the shortfalls he had totted up in his taxation accounts and of the money such lands could bring in when well tenanted, and he thought of Adam's merrily profligate ways.
"Will you sell such land and these horned beasts, or do you plan to turn your own hand to its management?"
"Oh, no," returned Adam with a laugh. "I've managed it well enough, my good lord Sheriff, but I have no plans to turn farmer. I love my freedom too well for that. I'd gladly sell, for the right price to the right buyer."
His laugh was so very nearly Robin's that for an instant William hated him a little, though that was none of Adam's fault. And so the deal was fixed: the lands and horned beasts for a price that would have been nearly criminally low, save that Adam had agreed enthusiastically to the offer. Adam would stay the night in a chamber, and in the morning they would go together to view these lands and beasts and, if all was as promised, make the sale final.
They set out in the bright dawn, with half a dozen well-armed men, for Adam's lands lay hard by the greenwood. The larks and wrens sang across hill and dale, and the sun poured its heady gold onto primrose and cowslip. Adam had refused a horse, and he strode gaily out before them all.
He led them down the high road, and northwards out of town, with a stop after some while for the company to wet their throats with good ale and malmsey, and then onwards over the lea. But where he led them after that was off the road onto a narrow trail that led into Sherwood's green shadows.
"Here, man," William demanded, over the mutterings of his men. "What are you about, taking us into the king's greenwood?"
"O," answered Adam lightly, "be easy. I come by here often, and have never come to harm by it. 'Tis the shortest and best way to come at my lands and herds, my lord Sheriff."
And he said it with so little worry, and such certainty, that there was nothing to do but press on after him.
William knew the bounds of the king's forest well by the map, but not the trick of orienting himself within it. He darted wary glances from side to side as they rode along. He saw no sign of outlaws, only sweet hillsides, laughing little brooks, ancient sturdy trees spreading green boughs overhead, thick soft moss spangled with wildflowers, tangles of hawthorn and bramble, here and there a rabbit darting away or a skylark pouring forth liquid song. All seemed to exude joy and ease for the man who let himself settle into it.
Robin Hood's men were famed for their clothes of Lincoln green – just the color to blend into those green and leafy shadows. (And where, he wondered for the hundredth time, had they found so much good cloth and tailored it for so many men, and from whom, and with whose stolen goods had they bought it?)
William could not settle into ease in a domain of poachers, foresters, and outlaws. He was none of the three. Still, the May morning was beautiful.
It was a little while later that Adam halted at the top of a low rise. William rode up behind, and saw spread before them a clearing sloping down into a valley, and browsing on the bracken there a huge herd of the king's deer.
Adam unslung the horn at his shoulder and blew thrice. The brassy call resounded from tree to tree, echoing through the glen. He gave them all a cocky grin that made William's heart clench in his chest.
"Behold, my lord," said Robin Hood. "My horned beasts. Are they not fine and strong? And for thy kind offer to a merry butcher, thou and all thy men shall dine in my hall tonight, and beasts be roasted in your honor."
And before William could decide what, exactly, he wanted to roar first, the first score of men in Lincoln green stepped from the bushes.
* * * * *
He spent the ride to Robin's so-called hall stewing in a silent fury, while around him green-clad burly men laughed and joked. How dare Robin come into his hall and make a mockery of him so? How dare Robin do any of what he had done, this last tenmonth and more? Had he fooled Alyse as well, or had she seen fit to join in this mockery, this masquerade of humiliation and lawlessness? His good mare pranced uneasily beneath him at the tension in his seat, and the one called Little John took hold of her bridle with a coarse jest that amused them all mightily. William's teeth hurt from clenching.
They came at last to a broad clearing, framed by spreading oaks and strewn with large rocks. Two men leaped forward to lift cunningly disguised planks off of what proved to be a huge firepit filled with banked coals and barred with sturdy spits. "Come, men!" roared Robin. How had he ever thought that that voice might belong to another, even with most of a year since last he'd heard it? "Bread, venison, ale! We dine tonight with the Sheriff himself, and our table must do justice to our noble guests. Much, Will Scarlett, see that my lord's men are seated comfortably and suffer no further thirst. Little John, stable our guests' horses securely. My lord Sheriff, thou and I will talk a little away, for I'm sure thou hast much to say to me."
The men laughed appreciatively, and then, sobering, turned themselves to their work speedily and with a will. William had for an instant the traitorous thought that he could wish all of his men answered his word with such prompt competence. But there was a sort of overly solemn solicitude to their gestures to man and beast that he could only see as mocking. Jaw tight, he dismounted, consigned his loyal mare to Little John's huge hands, and followed Robin Hood.
The ground was soft and springy underfoot. It seemed to take hours for them to walk, step by steady step, out of range of the others' ears and eyes. William thought of a hundred things to snap, to hiss, perhaps even to plead, but he held his tongue. When Robin turned at last, he found that he had no words after all.
"Well?" said Robin softly, at length. And this was Robin, his Robin, not of the Hood but of Barnsdale and yeomanry and good fellowship, and his gaze was soft and melancholy.
Will swallowed. "Why didst never show at trial to speak thy defense?"
It wasn't at all what he'd meant to say.
Robin laughed, low and bitter. "Defense? Before that judge?"
"All would have been correct, I'd have seen to it –"
"Oh, aye, correct! John Forester to say whatever he liked of me, correctly, with none but the accused to gainsay. Robert o' Barnsdale to be allowed to speak to deaf ears all he liked, correctly. The judge to have claimed my lands, correctly. Myself thrown in jail for murder, all with proper procedure, no doubt! Thou – thou wouldst have done thy best for me under the law, I know it. But thou'rt one man, Sheriff or no. Besides, if I only escaped by virtue of a friend on high, and not for justice, I'd be no better than that judge, or the criminal they claimed me. Here, I do good."
"Thou dost break the king's law, spite the crown and Him who gave it, steal honest coin!"
"Thy precious bishops and judges steal honest coin, and thou knowest it well, if thou'rt the William I knew."
"There are abuses, aye. Thou knowest – thou knowest -- I have fought them. But outlawry wins no one a thing but a price on his head, and the rightful anger of the king! Thinkest thou the king asks less tax because a brigand tells him so?"
"The king is in the Holy Land, and his greedy regent—"
"Robin, hold thy tongue when thou speakest of royalty!"
"—is in his court, and neither heeds a sheriff any more than a brigand! Tell me, Will, hast ever dared ask for lower taxes? Hast ever dreamed to be heeded if thou didst ask it?"
"I ask it every year!" William snapped. "If the taxes stay high, it's because the king knows England's needs more than a town sheriff!"
"And a sheriff knows his town's needs more than the king," Robin snapped in reply. "If the king will not heed his people, then what good are deputies and lawmen?" And this was an argument they'd had before, a dozen times, but never with anger and betrayal so hot beneath. And never before had Robin followed with, "What good law, if it serves only the high? All the low see of the law is its boot, however thou strivest to serve two masters! I tell thee, Will, I never wished Tom Moody dead, but I turned outlaw glad of the excuse to do it. If the king will heed only the worst of his deputies, let an outlaw speak instead. He can make himself heard, or he can act whether he's heeded or not. Thou'rt jessed as a hawk, and the worst of it is, hast convinced thyself it's an honor."
"All thou hast done," Will said, nearly choking on these words that had brewed inside him for months, "is made me responsible for bringing in thy head. Hast changed nothing else –"
But then the words were stopped on his tongue, because Robin took two sharp strides forward, and kissed him fiercely on the mouth.
William's body did not ask for his input in this matter any more than Robin had in his political treason. His hands clenched on golden hair and on linen, as they hadn't in months, and his mouth opened to Robin's. All his anger and grief and betrayal and hurt and hunger had muddled themselves into a heat of furious wanting that left him pressed desperately to Robin's hot strength. In return he was held just as hard, kissed just as desperately.
"Will," Robin murmured at last, a rough murmur. "My heart."
William swallowed, and pressed fingertips to Robin's mouth to stop the words. It was strange beyond measure to feel rough beard there, where Robin o' Barnsdale had always been shaven clean, but the light press of lips against his skin was the same as always, even here in Sherwood. "That," he said, "I am not."
Under Sherwood's lawless boughs, Robin kissed his fingers again, and did not argue it. "Couldst be again," he said instead, low. "Will, thy battle's valiant, but it's doomed. The king heeds thee not, the prince heeds thee not, the Exchequer heeds thee not. The bishops and abbots grind the farmers beneath their jeweled heels, and tell themselves the Sheriff is bound by law to support them, and what canst thou do against their privilege? The people see only thy tax collectors and thy prisons. No matter how heavy thy heart, thou'rt bound as Sheriff to fill the pockets of the high and the prisons of the low. Come to Sherwood, Will. There's cloth of Lincoln green for thee and all thy men, and a merry band would welcome thee as brothers."
William shook his head, feeling his heart heavier than it had ever been. "I am no outlaw," he said, knowing it for the only answer he could give, and the words were ashes on his tongue. "My father was Sheriff before me, and his father before him. The king himself set seal upon the letter that confirmed me. I guard the king's laws and the kingdom's coin, Robin. I cannot lift a sword against that. If all did what you ask, it would turn from a band of outlaws to a nation of anarchy. Not while I see any hope of guarding the people and the law together will I wear Lincoln green in Sherwood."
"Dost see that hope?" Robin asked softly.
Robin's next kiss was gentle, and Will tried not to feel it as a farewell.
"Then come to dine, Sheriff," he said, with a caress that closed William's throat with yet another memory of happier days. "Know that thou'lt pay for thy supper, as do all rich men at Robin Hood's table. But I'll send thee home safe, and with a gift for thy merry wife, for the love I bear her and that we both bear thee. And know too that that suit of Lincoln green will await thee. Thou hast ever only to claim it. And if thou comest again beneath Sherwood's green roof, thou'lt find at least one friend awaiting thee. If Robin Hood and the Sheriff can be only ever at odds, still Robin and Will shall know each other's hearts, and love them."
"I will remember," William whispered, "and thou knowest that I do."