Authors: Matthew Cody
He spotted Osbert’s white head among the fighting—he and a small group of guards had formed a tight unit and were fighting back to back against the undisciplined soldiers. The old warrior was grinning madly as he bashed helmeted heads together. Will had just started to pick his way there when he saw one of Guy’s men, the one who’d been ready to put Will in chains, break away from the fighting. Holding a brutal-looking cudgel in his fist, the man stalked toward Will.
The soldier’s bloodlust was up, and he swung wildly at first as Will ducked beneath his blows. Will was fast—faster than this armored thug at least. But he couldn’t dodge forever, and
the soldier pressed his advantage now, cutting off Will’s escape and pinning him against the courtyard wall. There was nowhere left to run.
The soldier saw this and smiled. Worse, he took his time and aimed his next blow. He’d crack the boy’s skull wide open. This time he couldn’t miss.
Or at least he
have missed had he not at that moment been hit on the head with a large clay chamber pot. And a stone water jug. And then a basket of laundry and some eggs.
It had suddenly started raining crockery and kitchen slop. Will looked up to see Milo and several other servants leaning out of the topmost windows. They had joined the fight, throwing whatever they could find onto the heads of the enemy below. Milo waved at Will and grinned. He was loving this.
As was Osbert. Will could hear the old man’s shouted curses even above the din, and he only cursed that much when he was really having fun. Will, on the other hand, was simply trying not to get his head bashed in.
He was easing along the wall, ducking and weaving out of the way of fighting men, when Geoff appeared at his side. He had a nasty cut over one eye, but he, too, was grinning. Were they all mad? He knocked one of the sheriff’s men out of his path with the flat of his blade, then grabbed Will by the shoulder and pulled him away from the courtyard and the fighting. Opening one of the side doors into the main keep, Geoff shoved Will inside.
“Get back in where it’s safe, Will,” he said. “Leave it to us to send these mercenaries out of here on their heads and the almighty sheriff back to Nottingham with his tail between his legs!”
Then Geoff turned and started back toward the courtyard, but he didn’t see the figure stepping up behind him. Only Will
saw, from his hiding spot in the doorway, as Sir Guy of Gisborne emerged from the shadows.
Before Will could shout a warning, Guy wrapped an arm around Geoff’s neck, grabbing him from behind.
“You wanted to see the knife that killed my man?” he said into Geoff’s ear. “Here it is!”
Geoff stiffened, his eyes going suddenly wide. A spot of blood bubbled at the corner of his mouth as he started to say something, and then he slumped forward. He landed face-first in the dirt, a knife handle sticking out of his back. He didn’t get up.
Will froze as Sir Guy turned and disappeared into the brawling crowd. A moment passed before Will could even understand what he’d just seen, what he
had witnessed—before he could throw open the door and scream Geoff’s name in a cry loud enough that it pierced the clatter of battle. Men stopped their fighting and looked around to see what could have made such an anguished sound.
One of them spied Geoff’s body on the ground and cried out in turn. Then another.
A strong arm wrapped itself around Will’s waist, and he fought against it, hitting and kicking at his captor until he saw Hugo’s face.
“We go now!”
He didn’t wait for Will to agree. Hugo half carried, half dragged the boy away as the sounds of the battle began to change. This was no longer just a soldiers’ street brawl.
Lord Geoffrey was dead, and more blood was about to be spilled.
Hey, you alive or dead?
Much got her nickname from something her father used to say. When the neighbors asked what use a daughter was to a poor miller who needed strong hands to work his grindstone, he’d frown and shake his head.
What use is a daughter to a poor miller?
But when they were alone together, when he’d tucked her in at night and brushed the hair from her eyes with his cracked, callused hands, she’d ask him her own secret question:
Is there anything that would make you happier than me?
, came his reply.
That wasn’t the whole truth. Much saw how lonely he was, how on certain gray days he’d sit in his chair and stare at her mother’s dusty lockbox. She’d seen him fingering the fine dress he kept stashed within. She’d noticed the way he blinked and wiped at his eyes when he spoke of his wife, dead these five years.
Much’s Christian name was Marianna, same as her mother’s. And that, perhaps more than anything, was why her father had refused to use it. It was just too much.
Some griefs are too strong to face head-on. She understood that now. She’d learned it the minute her father coughed his last tired breath and she found herself alone—an orphaned daughter of marrying age with nothing but debt for a dowry. Some memories were too painful to live with, and some reminders best forgotten. So she’d cut her hair and buried it along with her father’s body and her mother’s dress. She’d traded her sewing needle for a walking stick and a pair of breeches. Marianna the miller’s daughter was buried in that small plot of earth with her parents. Much the miller’s
set out to carve a new life far away.
“Much! What are you doing up there, you daft boy? We’re supposed to be setting up the trip line down here
on the ground
Stout called up at her in what he clearly thought was a clever whisper. Truth was, Stout was hard of hearing, and his whispers were loud enough to stir the pope from his bed in Rome.
Behind Stout, Much could see John Little shaking his head. The big man also knew that anyone within a quarter mile of the South Road had just learned that outlaws were setting about to ambush them.
Scowling, Much climbed a few branches higher to get a better view down the road and see if Stout had scared off any potential customers. From her high vantage point, she could see an empty stretch of road, made of well-used dirt and rotted leaves. Deep grooves cut by heavy wagon wheels were etched into the newly thawed earth, but they were old tracks. No one had come this way in quite a while.
“It’s clear,” she called down, not bothering to whisper.
“Why don’t you just announce it to the whole bloody forest?” Stout whisper-shouted again. John sighed at the stupidity of their thick companion.
“He’s just said that the road’s empty,” said John. “There’s no one to hear. Lucky for us.”
“But that cart entered south Sherwood at daybreak,” argued Stout. “Surely they’d have made it this far by now.”
“Maybe the lookouts were wrong,” answered John.
“Or maybe Crooked’s Men got to them first,” said Much, peeking through the branches.
“South Road’s our territory,” said Stout. “They wouldn’t dare hunt on Merry Men’s ground.”
“Crooked would dare just about anything,” said Much. “He’s mad.”
“And what does a pip-sized boy know about it, hey?” asked Stout.
“He knows that Tom Crooked didn’t get his name from his bad posture,” answered John. “I wouldn’t put it past him to go poaching on our territory.”
John hefted his quarterstaff over his shoulders and gave his back a twist. Even halfway up the tree, Much could hear the cracking and popping of the big man’s joints. In his winter furs, he didn’t look quite human. She’d heard tales of the bearbaiting in London and of the size of those terrible beasts brought over from the Continent. John in his furs matched the picture in her mind. Much’s own clothes were thinner—wool and a bit of banded leather. The days were getting warmer now that the long, brutal winter had finally given way to spring, but the mornings were still chilly with the wet spring thaw. Much had less protection from the cold, because she couldn’t afford to be slowed down by cumbersome furs. John didn’t rely on speed,
not with his size, while Much needed every advantage her small frame could give her. The Merry Men said that it was easier to snatch up a mouse than lay a hand on Much the Miller’s Son.
On the ground below her, John and Stout double-checked their homemade weapons and bits of stolen armor. It was a poor showing. John’s staff was well used and half again as long as a man, but Stout’s mace was little more than a club hammered through with nails. Stout had stuffed his round belly into a greasy leather jerkin made for a thinner man and thrown a fur cape atop that. Much hadn’t seen the suit of armor big enough for John.
Stout scratched at a piece of flabby belly poking out between the leather seams. “Well, if Tom did make a grab for that cart, he’ll end up with a gut full of arrows.”
John made a low noise in his throat but said nothing.
Much counted her knives. Staffs and clubs were for grown men with the muscle to make them count. For a “boy” like Much, survival meant staying out of sight and out of reach. But if it came to a scrape, she had pretty good aim with the knives.
“We sure it’s not one of the sheriff’s carts?” asked Stout. “Have to let ’em pass if he’s got an escort from the sheriff.”
The Sheriff of Nottingham was the law in Nottinghamshire, and that included Sherwood Forest. But the good sheriff had a special “arrangement” with the forest bandits—for a bit of monthly bribe money, he left them alone, just as long as the bandits left his own people alone in turn. This meant that he could escort Prince John’s taxes safely through, as well as any fat merchants willing to pay for the sheriff’s escort. It was always a sad sight to see a well-furnished carriage come rolling along with a couple of the sheriff’s guards attached. But every bandit in Sherwood felt it was worth it to keep his neck free of the hangman’s noose.
“The cart may arrive yet,” said John. “You and me can set up the trip lines, Stout. Much will stay up his tree and keep watch.”
Stout grumbled something about everyone doing his fair share as he set about burying a thick rope across the road. When he looked up, Much smiled down at him and made a show of stretching out on a tree limb. Truth was, it was awfully uncomfortable balanced between two uneven branches, but for Stout’s benefit Much did her best to look like she was relaxing on a lord’s soft featherbed.
As the two men hid the ropes and tied them off, Much watched the road and listened for the sound of hooves or the creak of a cart. If Tom Crooked hadn’t already taken the cart, then it should be coming this way within the hour at the latest. That was assuming they didn’t stop, and people didn’t stop in Sherwood Forest unless they had no other choice. The devil walked this forest at night, folks said, and brigands and cutthroats hunted it by day.
Brigands like Much. And Stout, John Little, Rob, Wat, and all the rest of the Merry Men, as they laughingly called themselves. A troop of bandits that had laid claim to the southern road through Sherwood Forest. A troop of bandits led by the deadliest bowman in all of England. A man without pity or compromise—Gilbert the White Hand.
He could split an arrow in mid-flight, it was said. Stout idolized and feared him. John tolerated him, and Much knew well enough to stay out of his way. Gilbert had taken the “boy” in because they needed someone sneaky. Someone who could scout the town and the woods without raising an alarm. After all, who feared a poor, starved beggar boy?
Much had a place in their band as long as she was useful and for as long as she kept her secret safe. She was another
mouth to feed and another split of the loot (although her share was pathetically small). If she displeased Gilbert or became lax or lazy, he’d give her a head start before cutting her down with an arrow in the back. And he didn’t look kindly on bandits who came back empty-handed.
John and Stout set the trap and then set about waiting. If a cart came this way, Much would whistle a signal and the two men would hoist up their ropes, both in front of and behind the cart. The rope nets wouldn’t stop a horse at full gallop, but they would box in a slow-moving cart well enough. Once the customers saw that they were trapped, they would reach for their weapons. One look at John, and they would drop them again. Then they’d do business with the Merry Men (the Merry Men’s business being the robbing-you-of-all-your-coin-and-most-likely-your-boots kind).
The minutes crept by and there was still no sign of the cart, so they sat and passed the time, each in his own fashion. Stout picked the lint from his hairy belly button; John cut a sapling into useless strips of green wood, tied them into knots, and then started in on another. And up in the tree, away from the prying eyes of her companions, Much carved pictures into the bark. She’d never learned her letters, but she’d gotten good at carving the sun and the moon, for father and daughter. She’d marked countless trees throughout Sherwood Forest this way, a hidden tribute to a dead girl named Marianna and her father.
It was another hour before she saw the horse. It came into sight at a slow trot, its rider slumped over the saddle. The creature was breathing heavily, foaming at the mouth and lathered in sweat. The rider must’ve ridden the poor beast hard before collapsing himself. The pair seemed alone, rider and horse.
Much gave the warning signal, two quick birdcalls in succession, to her companions below.
“Is it the cart?” answered a harsh whisper from the trees. Much held her breath, but the rider did not stir. He was most likely unconscious or dead.
The horse kept coming. Much slowly eased herself down from the branches until she could see John standing there with his huge hand over Stout’s mouth. The fat bandit’s eyes were indignant.
Much used hand signals to communicate with John.
A single rider
, she signed.
Wounded or dead