Authors: Matthew Cody
Much shrugged. How was she to know?
John let Stout free and hefted his long staff. Stout spit and mumbled something about John’s hands tasting like vinegar as he readied his club and took his position. The two men pulled up the rope lines, trapping the horse and rider between them.
If the horse was at all spooked by the sudden appearance of tall John in its path, it was too tired to do anything about it. It just kept on coming. The rider didn’t stir.
Stout stepped out onto the road behind it, mace in hand.
“Ho there,” John called to the rider. “Are you in need of aid, my friend?”
“We’ll happily aid you in lessening your purse!” said Stout, grinning.
“Shut up,” answered John. He called back to the rider, “Are you hurt?”
Still there was no answer.
John motioned to Much, and she stepped out of the trees and cautiously took the horse’s reins in one hand, her knife in the other. The beast didn’t resist. The rider’s face was hidden by a cloak, but there was an ugly wet spot visible on the hood where blood had soaked through.
John came around the other side and gave the rider a poke with his staff. He slid a bit in the saddle but didn’t react.
“Hey, you alive or dead?” John asked as he poked again. This time John put his arm into it, and the rider rolled off the saddle and onto Much.
Much could’ve dodged out of the way, but she’d hesitated a second too long, afraid to release the horse’s reins, and the rider tumbled on top of her, knocking her to the ground beneath him.
She panicked at first and tried to wiggle her hand free to fetch her fallen knife. But she soon realized that this was no ploy, no clever trap. The rider was deadweight.
Her alarm quickly turned to embarrassment. He wasn’t a big man; in fact, he was slightly built and not very tall, but he was still far too heavy for Much to budge. She was pinned, helpless beneath a dead body in the middle of the road.
Stout was already snickering. “Wait, Much. Leave a little fight for us! You don’t need to hog all the glory for yourself!”
“Go stuff … your head … up your backside, Stout,” gasped Much as she struggled to free herself from the corpse.
“Stout, look in the saddlebags,” said John. “Much, while you’re down there, why don’t you see if our fallen friend has any coin in his pockets? The horse is nice, but I’d like some silver to brighten my day.”
“Where’s the blasted cart?” asked Stout as he began rummaging through the horse’s pack.
John shook his head. “That’s too fine a horse to be riding alongside a merchant’s cart. Even as protection.”
After some struggle, Much managed to roll the rider’s body off her and onto his back. John was watching her with a bemused smile, his hands resting on his staff.
“You know you could’ve asked for help, lad,” he said.
“Didn’t need it,” she answered, wiping a smear of something wet off her cheek. The dead man had bled on her.
The cloak had fallen back, and his face was visible now—a young man about her age, his sandy-brown hair plastered to his forehead with dried blood. He had soft features, maybe even handsome if not for the look of death on his pale face and his cold blue lips.
“Enough, Stout!” she snapped.
“What?” the fat man said. “I didn’t say anything!”
Much looked back at John, but he was shaking his head.
They both looked down at the dead man. His lips were moving.
“Lord,” said John. “He’s alive!”
John was right. The boy was the very shade of the grave. Eyes closed, but his lips were moving.
Much found her knife in the dirt and then leaned closer, putting her ear next to the boy’s lips.
John knelt next to her. “What’s he saying?”
“Wolves,” she answered. “He said …
What bandit worth his salt won’t take a risk now and again?
On the way back to camp, they talked about one thing only—whether they should try to save the boy’s life or let him die and take his horse. Arguing
the boy was John, who pointed out that though the lad’s clothes were plain enough, he carried a fine sword of rich craftsmanship and his horse was superior, not a bug-bitten nag like the ones they had stabled back at the camp. Perhaps the boy had some connection to a rich house. Perhaps he was a servant, or even a person of importance riding under the disguise of poverty. Such a person would be worth a great deal in ransom, but only if he was alive. You just couldn’t get a good price for a corpse.
saving the boy was Stout, who acknowledged that while he rode a fine horse, he probably did so because he’d robbed and killed the rightful owner. The boy had a sneaky, cutthroat look about him, Stout said, a look that reminded him of himself in his younger days. It would be a waste to nurse the little thief back to health only to have to kill him again once they discovered the truth of his awful character.
No one asked Much her opinion, and she didn’t offer it. She didn’t know what to make of this strange young rider who’d appeared. He was mysterious, and mysteries, on the whole, annoyed her. For instance, the boy kept mumbling feverish things about wolves, and yet it was obvious enough that his wounds were man-made. She wanted to shake him awake, if only to tell him to stop going on about wolves that weren’t there. If he quieted down like a sensible person, then he could live if he liked.
Nevertheless, as irritating as she found him, she didn’t like the idea of just letting him die. Not when there was a chance he could recover. She believed in that, in a fighting chance. She’d had to these past few years.
Perhaps that was why, as they led the boy toward camp, his limp frame slumped sideways over his horse, she found herself cooling his feverish forehead and neck with a rag soaked in her own drinking water. She wanted him to have that fighting chance.
The Merry Men’s camp was hidden safely away among the tangles of Sherwood Forest, at the junction of a pair of long-forgotten hunting trails. As the little team of bandits traveled the secret paths, they heard the telltale whistles and animal calls of hidden lookouts placed along the way.
, the calls said.
With a prisoner in tow
After they’d passed the lookouts, it was several minutes before they could smell the camp’s cookfires. At first the Merry Men’s defenses had seemed overly complex to Much—the forest was protection enough. But that was before she’d learned about Crooked’s Men, the rival bandit gang that hunted the northern woods. There was a truce of sorts these days between the Merry Men and Crooked’s Men, but there’d been violence
in the past, and any peace was fragile. Each eyed the other’s territory greedily.
The South Road wasn’t well traveled, and the most Much and her companions could hope for was passing farmers and tradesmen. The sheriff’s tax men used the road as they pleased, but no one would dare rob them. The Merry Men were a sad sight, even by outlaw standards, and there was barely enough to go around, and nothing to spare for an ailing stranger.
Wat Crabstaff greeted them at the camp’s gate, which was little more than a few sturdy logs strung together with twine. Wat was missing his two front teeth, and his distinctive smile could be seen through the gaps in the gate.
“Well, the mighty have returned! How was business today, sirs?”
“No cart,” grumbled Stout.
“We’ve a wounded man,” said John. “Single rider on horseback, but I think he may be worth something to someone.”
Stout snorted at this, but John ignored him.
“At the very least we’ve a well-bred horse and some gear,” added Much, trying to sound more pleased with the day’s work than she really was. “Horse good enough for a king, I’ll wager.”
“Oh, well, won’t his lordship be pleased?” said Wat as he swung the log gate open wide. “And if your poor wounded prisoner’s ransom doesn’t get paid, perhaps Gilbert can use him for target practice?”
The Merry Men’s camp wasn’t impressive to look at, but it served its purpose. There was space enough for every man in the band to have a bit of privacy. Being the newest member, Much was given a leaky construction that was half moth-eaten tent and half drafty lean-to. But she endured the cold as best she could, and John had lent her a set of thick, if smelly, animal
hides to bury herself under during the worst hours of the night. She slept like a burrowing animal under all those covers, and in the morning she’d have to crack the frost off the furs.
It was a typical camp belonging to a typical band of half-starved outlaws, but one thing separated the Merry Men’s camp from any other in all of England—the statue of the Horned and Hooded God. One of the many tales told about Sherwood was that of Herne the Hunter, a pagan god of the Celts who was said to roam the woods on the night of the full moon. It had been Wat’s idea to build their own Herne, as a kind of scarecrow to frighten away unwanted spirits and, more important, to scare travelers into giving up their coin without a fight.
But Wat turned out to be a poor engineer as well as a blasphemous and superstitious idiot. And in the end, they were left with a mammoth statue of wood and fur so heavy that not even John Little could move it more than a few inches, never mind carry it with them on ambush.
Despite its practical uselessness, Wat wouldn’t allow them to take it down, lest they offend the real Herne. The Horned and Hooded God (so named because of his giant potato-sack head and broken buck’s rack of antlers) now stood watch over them all, day and night, and made an excellent home for mice.
In time, the Merry Men had come to think of the statue as a kind of grotesque good-luck charm, their good luck being that they’d survived the worst winter in memory and hadn’t been forced to eat Wat for his stupidity. But spring was upon them, and there was a new sense of cheer in the air, or at least there had been up until the moment Much and John had dragged a half-dead prisoner into their midst.
“We sent you after a cart loaded with goods, and you bring
us back another mouth to feed?” said Gilbert. He stood next to the fire, arms crossed over his broad chest, scowling. His bow was leaning, thankfully unstrung, against his tent. On his left hand began a patchwork of burn scars that ran all the way up his forearm, the pale shade of which earned him his name. But those scars didn’t hinder his ability with sword or bow.
“We waited for the cart, but it never showed,” said John. “So when he wandered along, we made the best of it.”
Stout stared at his shoes, but John met Gilbert’s stare head-on. John never looked away, and maybe that was an inevitable by-product of literally looking down on everyone you met, but Much didn’t think so. John Little was simply a proud man, thief or no.
The big man gestured to their prisoner, still slung on his horse’s back. The boy had stopped calling out in his delirium, and his color had taken on an even paler shade of white, if such a thing were possible. He needed attention, and soon, if he was going to have a chance of living.
“The horse is fine,” offered Much. “And John and I thought he might be worth some coin. A ransom’s better than a cart of cheap rugs, surely!”
Gilbert turned his hard stare on Much. He had a craggy, pockmarked face, and Much had never been able to stare him down the way John could.
“A ransom could bring us wealth, to be sure,” said Gilbert. “Could also bring us a whole legion of king’s men. Could lead their spears right up our backsides, too, depending on just who this fellow really is. Might be the wayward son of a nice plump merchant, or he might be the bloody secret son of the archbishop himself,
but we don’t know, do we
“Eh, that’s what I told them,” said Stout.
“Shut up, Stout,” said Gilbert.
John had a look about him that said he’d rather be hitting something than talking. And by calling him out in front of all the other men, Gilbert seemed to be daring him to say or do something foolish.
“But, Gilbert,” said Much. She needed to talk fast. “We won’t know anything if he’s dead. What bandit worth his salt won’t take a risk now and again?”
Gilbert smiled at Much. That smile unnerved her more than any amount of shouting or cursing. He drew a small knife from his belt and approached her. Much’s hand went reflexively to her own blades, and she felt John stiffen by her side.
“Well said, little thief,” said Gilbert. “So he’s your problem now.”
Much started to protest, but Gilbert cut her off.
“And,” he said, “when all’s said and done, if he lives and turns out to be worth a nice ransom without bother, then you’ll get your fair share. But if he turns out to be something more, if there are people out there looking for him that could cause us trouble … well, in that case, you’ll be the one to slit his throat.”
John put a hand on her arm. “There’s no need for that, Gilbert. We all agreed to bring him in, and he’s our responsibility.”
Much shook off John’s hand. He didn’t see what was happening here, but she did. The rest of the men had gathered around and were watching the show. Gilbert was putting Much to the test to see if their youngest member really had the mettle to be an outlaw. If she let John fight this fight for her, she’d lose respect in the eyes of the group, respect she’d been fighting for months to earn.
She spat at the knife in Gilbert’s hand.
“I don’t need it,” she said. “I’ll use my own if it comes to that.”
Gilbert let out a barking laugh. “We’ll see, little thief. We’ll see.”
“But I won’t have him in my tent,” she said. “He talks in his sleep.”
Gilbert started to yell, but she pointed at a dingy little tent set off from the others. Downwind.
“He can sleep there,” she said.
Someone snickered. John shook his head. Much knew that she’d just condemned the poor boy to a fate possibly worse than death, but she couldn’t—wouldn’t—have him in her tent. Not even to nurse him back to health.
“Well,” said Gilbert, eyeing the secluded tent. “Maybe the vapors in there will purify the bad blood.”