Authors: Matthew Cody
“Asking payment for charity is not really charity, now is it?” said Will.
“Fine!” barked Gilbert. “Then I’m just plain stealing it! And your horse, too!”
Will, to his credit, didn’t back down. He didn’t look away. He was a brave boy, Much had to give him that. Brave and bloody foolish.
“Can I have another sword, then?” asked Will finally. “If I’m to be of any help, I’ll need a blade.”
“Much is the lookout,” said Gilbert. “Rob, John, and Stout will do the fighting.
job is to show them the secret passage and where the treasure is. Nothing more. Don’t need a sword to point.”
Gilbert laughed. “You can have your boots back, though. No one can fit in them.”
Then he turned and marched over to the gate, where he had words with John. Rob was leaning over his saddle, his head resting on his horse’s neck. He might even have been passed out.
The beginning of another grand adventure
, thought Much.
Prince John was well known to be an avid hunter, and in his time as regent he had acquired, or stolen, a number of residences closest to his favorite forests. Some were true castles in their own right, while others, like this one, were little more than watchtowers. When not in use by the prince, these converted hunting lodges were usually manned by caretakers. Gilbert had recently learned of a particular tower, an ancient structure overlooking the road out of Nottingham, that was
being cared for by Sir Guy of Gisborne. This was commonly known. What wasn’t common knowledge was that Guy kept a number of his men there with swift horses so that they might keep an eye on the comings and goings between Nottingham and London, and there had been many as of late. In short, Sir Guy used the prince’s hunting lodge to spy on the Sheriff of Nottingham, whom he trusted not a whit.
A useful bit of intelligence, to be sure, and one that Gilbert had stored away with no particular plan for exploiting it—until now.
It was shortly after dusk when Sir Guy’s watchtower spies heard a commotion coming from the stables. A fresh stable and a new set of kennels had been built by the prince to house his horses and hounds for the hunt, but the rest of the tower was ancient. Thick stone walls sunk deep into the soil, strong enough to defend against anything less than a real siege; it was obvious why the prince felt safe there. But while wolves weren’t a bother to men within those stone walls, their horses out in the new stables were more vulnerable.
Three of the four men stationed there had just gotten a game of dice going, and the fire was roaring nicely and hot enough to drive away the damp. So they sent the youngest of them down to check on the horses. The young guard took his crossbow and his short sword. He would’ve strapped on his helmet, but he knew the other men would laugh at him.
In the dark it was hard to see anything truly amiss. They’d been lazy and allowed the courtyard and surrounding field to become overgrown. There were too many places for a wolf—or a man, for that matter—to hide out here. Too many long shadows in the moonlight.
He heard something moving near the stable. Something that was spooking the horses.
The guard stood in the gloomy courtyard, alone. A light burned in the window above, and the sounds of laughter and cursing echoed from within. After a few minutes, he sighed and stepped cautiously toward the stable, crossbow at the ready.
The horses had settled a bit after their initial outburst, but there was still a lot of nervous shuffling and stomping from within their stalls. Whatever had spooked them in the first place could still be nearby. If it was a wolf, he’d run it off. If it was a horse thief, he’d take care of that, too.
The young guard found the rear door of the stable swinging wide open, the latch unhooked. No wolf, then. He had turned to call up to the lighted window and his fellow guards when one of the dark clumps of shadow near him moved. It swung something at his head, and then stars exploded before his eyes.
He awoke with a hard knot of pain on his forehead. Someone was talking.
“You think we should skin ’em, Crooked?”
“You daft idiot! I told you not to go using my name!”
“What’s it matter if we’re going to skin ’em anyway?”
The young guard’s stomach turned at that name. He knew the bandit called Tom Crooked by reputation, and skinning was one of the more merciful ends he could hope for. As his vision cleared, he saw that he’d been stripped down to his underclothes and tied to a table leg inside the watchtower. His companions were tied up and in their underclothes as well.
Standing over them was a powerfully built man with a gray beard. It was twisted up in strange braids that were burnt off at the ends. He wore a black studded-leather jerkin and a dirty white scarf. Tom Crooked.
One of his henchmen stood nearby. Another came into the
room, a man so tall he had to stoop to fit through the doorway. Both had covered their faces with white scarves—the mark of Crooked’s gang.
“We aren’t skinning them yet,” said Crooked. “Unless they try to escape.”
Crooked looked them over. “Thanks to your alert guardsman here, we have let ourselves in.” He held up the young guard’s key ring.
“You got us all captured!” one of the young guard’s companions said to him.
The man was answered with a boot to his gut as the fat one kicked him. Hard. He looked ready to do it again, but the tall one stepped in the way.
“At least he was taken while tryin’ to do his duty,” said Crooked. “You lot lost your pants in the middle of a game of dice!”
The men looked sheepishly around the room, anywhere but at each other.
“Now, here’s what we’re going to do,” said Crooked. “I’m makin’ use of those pants a’ yours for a day or so. While I’m gone, you’ll stay tied up. I’m not killin’ you yet, but I’ll most likely do so when I return, so’s if you have any prayin’ or such you need doin’, you’d best get to it!”
Hours later and a few leagues away from the watchtower keep, John and Stout measured the cut of newly stolen trousers against each other as Rob brushed wood ash out of his singed beard, returning it to its original black. Then Much used her knife to help him trim away the burnt braids. Stout, Will, and Rob would fit in the stolen uniforms well enough. John could
wear the tabard and helm, but no pants fit his long legs, so he had to hope no one examined him too closely. Much gave up on trying to disguise herself in the soldiers’ gear. She looked like a boy playing soldier in his father’s clothes.
They’d made camp safely out of view of the watchtower and the road, beneath an outcropping of craggy rocks surrounded by tall poplar trees. From there, they could keep an eye on anyone coming and going.
“It was a good plan,” Stout was saying. “When those men tell Sir Guy it was Crooked’s Men that robbed them, old Crooked’s going to be up to his neck in trouble!”
“You didn’t need to go kicking them,” said Much. “They were already tied up and helpless, if you didn’t notice.”
“We’re supposed to be Crooked’s Men, right? Crooked’s Men don’t care whether you’re tied up or sleeping! I still say we should’ve killed three and left one to tell the tale. Crooked wouldn’t leave all four tied up and still breathing.”
“Knock it off,” said Rob. “If Gilbert’s information is right and they keep to schedule, then a rider with provisions will arrive at the watchtower tomorrow. They’ll stay tied up till then, which means we’ve got until dawn to make it to Shackley Castle and Master Will’s secret passage. So get those uniforms on and let’s get moving!”
Stout and Will did as they were told, and soon four of them were dressed in the armor of Sir Guy’s mercenaries, the black and silver stallion insignia across their tunics. Much would pass herself off as a servant if need be.
As they packed up for the ride to Shackley, Will leaned close to Much’s ear.
“What’s with Rob?” he asked. “He’s giving orders and …”
“What?” she said.
“He just sounds … different.”
“He’s sober,” Much answered, and she steered her horse out onto the road. They had a long night ahead of them, and the most dangerous part was still to come. Bloody Will Scarlet was to lead them all to fortune and glory. God help them.
All right, where’s the treasure?
Will thought he’d prepared himself to see Shackley Castle again, but even in the dark, the familiar silhouette brought back too many memories, too fast. There was his home, and inside those wooden walls were the yards where he had played and practiced swordsmanship and the herb garden where he’d stolen mint leaves. Beyond that was the main tower window, where Nan had kept an eye on him. It was a clear night, and even at a distance he could see the glow of a fire within. But it wasn’t Nan keeping watch up there anymore.
In the months they’d spent in hiding, Will and his mother had heard rumors that many of the old family servants had been let go or fled from Guy’s service. The Horse Knight was suspicious of any who’d been loyal to the Shackley family, and with good reason. The latest tale was that when Guy asked the family surgeon for a headache remedy, he’d been given a constipation cure instead. The surgeon delivered the medicine, then snuck away during the night before the cure had a chance to work. It was said that Guy’s shouts of rage could be heard coming from the privy for days afterward.
If Nan was lucky, she’d have been dismissed from Guy’s service without having to flee in the night. After all, what use did the Horse Knight have for a nurse? This castle, Will’s family home for so many generations, was now by royal decree the property of Sir Guy of Gisborne, and he wasn’t one to have children running about the halls.
Sir Guy, who would be dead by morning.
Much had been quiet during the ride from the watchtower to Shackley House, but more than once Will caught the boy staring at him. Perhaps he meant it when he said that he’d no plans to kill him. The boy didn’t seem a cold-blooded killer, but there was a hardness in him—something that he was protecting and something he would fight for. Maybe kill for, if pressed.
Will resolved not to let himself get too comfortable with these men. Rob was a drunk, Stout was stupid and cruel, and John might seem a man of honor but in the end was just a bandit like the rest of them. They were using Will because he promised to make them rich, but what they didn’t know was that Will was using them, too. He could get them into the castle, but no treasure was waiting there. What was there was Sir Guy of Gisborne, and Will would need these men and their swords if he was going to get close enough to the Horse Knight to kill him.
Much was his only concern. Try as he might, Will was unable to justify leading the boy into danger under false pretenses. True, he was only a few years younger than Will, but Will’s childhood was over and it’d died a quick death. Starting with the wolves, and ending with Geoff’s murder. Will Scarlet was left with a need for vengeance as red as his name.
If he could, he’d spare the boy. If he couldn’t … well, revenge was a bloody business, old Osbert used to say.
The towering presence of Shackley House brought up
thoughts of his parents. What would his father think of his only son turned assassin? But he hadn’t been there when Geoff died. He hadn’t seen the look in his brother’s eyes as the life left them. And if Will’s father was truly alive out there somewhere with King Richard, and if they were coming back to England, then Will would be counted among the loyal patriots who’d stood up to Prince Lackland and his cronies.
Guy would die, and by Will’s hand. Others could judge him as they might.
He found the entrance to the secret passage easily. The copse of trees that disguised it was far enough away from the castle that they could tie their horses there and not be noticed from the walls. Much watched with a strange look on his face as Will rolled away the brush that revealed the hidden grate and dark hole beneath. Was Much surprised that he’d told the truth about the passage? Suspicious? The boy’s face was hard to read.
Stout’s, on the other hand, wasn’t. The fat man was already drooling.
“That there the tunnel to the treasure?”
Will ignored him and turned to John.
“I don’t have a key.”
Wordlessly, John reached down and put both hands on the grate. It was rusted, and the metal cried out in protest as the big man strained, the veins in his neck bulging with the effort. Then it came loose with a sudden wrenching sound, and the way was open. A short ladder descended into a passage beneath, disappearing into darkness.
“One at a time,” said Will. “And, John, I’m sorry, but you might have to squeeze a bit.”
John grunted in annoyance. “I’m used to it. The whole world’s too blasted small.”
“Since we’re wearing the uniforms, we three’ll go first,” said Rob. “It’ll be easier to explain ourselves if we’re disguised as Guy’s hired swords. Will in front, me next—”
“I’ll go,” said Stout suddenly. “I’ll follow the boy.”
Everyone looked at Stout. Even with the little Will knew of him, he hadn’t guessed Stout the sort to volunteer to march out front—or even second—into danger. Judging by the looks on their faces, Will didn’t think the others had guessed it, either.
“Fine,” said Rob. “Stout goes second. I’ll be third. John, you and Much bring up the rear.”
“Much should stay here,” said Will.
“What?” said Much. “Why?”
“The boy’s sneaky as a shadow, Will,” said John. “He’ll be useful.”
“And if questioned, I can pass as a servant or kitchen boy easily enough,” said Much.
Will shook his head. He couldn’t let the boy risk his life, not even to get his chance at revenge. “There are patrols,” Will lied. “We need you here in case they come this way.”
“You never mentioned any patrols,” said Rob. “Why wait until now?”
Will took a deep breath. When Rob wasn’t drowning in his cups, he had an unnerving stare. Will was starting to prefer the drunk version.
“I … I was afraid you wouldn’t come with me,” lied Will. “I was afraid you’d say no.”
“Well, you were bloody right, weren’t you?” said Stout. “What if they find our horses?”