A Tail of Sherwood, part seven: The Tourney
At long last, here it is, my friends: the latest installments in the adventures of Robin Hood and Maid Marian Fitzgerald. For those who haven't been keeping track, this chapter is from Marian's point of view.
The day of the tourney dawned bright and cheerful, with an infinitely blue sky that promised hazy heat by mid-afternoon and that sort of extra-colorful vibrancy one tends to associate with warm spring mornings.
Father and I arrived early at the square and took our seats near the Sheriff’s box.
“Will Sir Perivale joust today, I wonder?” Father asked as I arranged my skirts.
“Perhaps, Father, but I haven’t heard.” I didn’t bother to try telling him that this was an archery tournament, not a joust, and that Sir Perivale hadn’t jousted in five years at least. As long as he was happy to watch, I was content to let him believe whatever suited his fancy.
I spotted Rob as soon as he entered the square, and had to muffle an unladylike snort of laughter.
His clothes were tattered and mismatched: a pair of orange-ish leggings under a ragged, patched tunic that was mostly a rather lurid shade of purple. I say “mostly,” because the patches covered so much of the fabric that it took a moment to register that the thing was, indeed, purple, and not multi-colored. And his hood! The article was cut from fabric so yellow it was nearly offensive, and had been sewn together crookedly to boot. The overall effect of the collection was similar to that of a traveling jester or a small squirrelkin playing in his mother’s basket of rags. Had I not known to look for him, I never would have recognized this gaudy beggar for the noble outlaw of Sherwood Forest.
It helped, too, that he had affected a slow limp rather than his normal, bold tread. He entered the lists alongside a massive squirrel with a patch over one eye, a smaller squirrel who looked vaguely familiar and carried a lute across his back, and a fourth, whom I recognized instantly.
“William Scarlet,” I whispered to myself, grinning. That scallywag hadn’t changed a hair. He even still walked with that half-swagger she remembered from her childhood. Examining the other two archers more closely, I realized that the huge squirrel was none other than Little John—my fellow scone-thief as children—and Alan-a-Dale, who had always been a bit of a sap, but was alright in his own way. A fourth squirrel joined them. That must be Much, I thought, though it was nearly impossible to recognize him under the broad-brimmed farmer’s hat he wore.
Nerves chased away my joy at seeing these—my girlhood companions—after so long away. What if they were caught? I may have been gone a long time, but I had been back long enough to know that there were obscenely high prices on each of their heads.
“Oh, Rob…” I muttered, clutching the arms of my chair. “What are you up to?”
Then Duke Chantille entered the list.
In appearance, he couldn’t have been more Rob’s opposite. Decked out in his finest style, the Duke sauntered onto the green with a cocky hat on his head and a brilliant red plume bobbing above one ear. He glanced disdainfully down the row of archers as they arranged themselves in ranks at the shooting line.
Rob gave him a jaunty salute. I bit my lip.
It was going to be a long day.
I’ll be perfectly honest with you: As nerve-racked as I was that, at any moment, someone would discover the identities of Rob, Alan, Much and John, I paid very little attention to the actual goings-on of the tourney. I cheered for the good hits, of course, and I watched, impressed, as the targets were moved farther and farther from the shooting line. But the only times I really paid much attention were when Rob or one of his band were shooting. Or the Duke.
As different as the Duke and Rob may have looked—one old, one young; one dressed in the finest style and the other in ragged castoffs—when shooting, they might have been a matched pair.
Shot for shot, target for target, they matched each other, as the day grew hotter and the queue of waiting archers dwindled. The Duke, by merit of his rank, always shot last. But—though he matched him in several rounds—the Duke never managed to shoot better than Rob.
And I had the oddest feeling that Robin was holding back; toying with the Duke for some reason known only in that wild, outlawed head of his. As the sun grew warmer overhead and the back of my gown became damp with the sweat of heat and nerves, I found myself holding my breath every time Rob and the Duke were on the field at the same time. My paws tightened when they strained against their bowstrings, and I jumped a little, startled, every time an arrow hit the mark.
I trusted Rob…I just wished I knew what he was doing.
A bell sounded, signaling the beginning of another match. Again, it was Robin’s turn. As he stepped up to the firing line, I clenched my paws into fists so tight I could feel my claws digging into my palms.
“Come on, Rob…” I muttered, leaning forward.
He pulled an arrow from the quiver at his side and laid it on the string. Sighting with as much care as if the stationary hay-bale target were an easily-spooked jay in the forest, Robin drew his bow.
I didn’t even see the arrow leave the string. But, in an instant, it was gone, and Robin relaxed his stance. The crowd surged to its feet, cheering.
“Bull’s eye!” came the shout, and I relaxed slightly.
“You’re taking this terribly seriously,” my father suddenly said. I looked over at him, startled. He had slept through most of the match thus far, and I had no idea how long he’d been watching me. I felt myself flush.
“It’s…it’s very exciting, Father,” I said, sitting back in my chair and fanning myself with the little silk fan that hung from my wrist. I hoped he would fall back into his preoccupied state and pay no more attention, but in vain.
“It is that indeed, my dear,” he said. I carefully relaxed my paws and flicked my tail in what I hoped was a properly indolent manner. Father was lucid for the time being—and the last thing Rob or I needed was him asking questions. I could trust my father with any secret, when he was rational. But there was no telling what might slip out of his mouth when he became forgetful again. And with the Duke eating dinner at our house so often these last weeks…I shuddered to think.
“I think I will make it a bit more exciting for you,” Father said. I looked at him, but he was facing the green with a thoughtful look in his eye. “Hmm…I think so indeed.”
“What do you—” But I broke off the question as the Duke let fly his own arrow. I had missed seeing the other archers take their shots, and only just caught the Duke’s.
“Bull’s eye!” shouted the judge near the targets. “Directly beside the arrow of Flynn the Beggar!”
Flynn? Rob was calling himself Flynn? I grinned. We’d kept a baby bluebird in a makeshift next in the woods once, when we were very much younger and less wise. We’d called the creature Flynn, feeding it mangled worms and beetles, and keeping it our secret until the day that its fledgling wings burst through the thin walls of our crude nest and it flew—in a hopping, gliding way—away into the forest, never to be seen again. Doubtless, Robin hoped I would remember the name and recognize him, if I hadn’t already.
Five archers left, now. The Duke, Robin, Little John, Alan, and Much. I wasn’t surprised that my band of outlaw-squirrels had beat out the rest of the competition, but I really was surprised that the Duke had lasted against them. He was a fair shot—an excellent shot, even. But Rob and the others could outstrip him in a moment, should they so choose.
“…And that winner, of course, shall be Duke Chantille,” Father was saying. I hadn’t been paying attention to whatever it was he was rambling on about. “It makes things a bit more exciting, don’t you think? Of course, I won’t do anything you don’t agree to—”
“Yes, whatever you think is best, Father,” I replied absently. Anything to get him to stop talking. Mrs. Dudley, the Sheriff’s wife, was watching us out of the corner of her eye. I did not want that woman prying into our family business. Father was my responsibility.
He beamed at me. “Very good, my dear, very good. Excuse me!” He stood, and shouted down to the town crier that stood below our booth. “Pardon me, good sir. Might I borrow your trumpet?”
“Father!” I exclaimed, surprised. I grasped the back of his tunic and tugged. “Sit down, Father, you’ll fall!”
“Nonsense.” The crier, a bit bemused, but willing to do as the great Lord Fitzgerald asked, handed up the speaking trumpet. To my horror, Father put it to his lips and bellowed into it, in stentorian tones:
“Attention! Your attention please, my dear good ladies and gentle squirrels!”
A hush spread out from our booth, and I sat as stiff as a board, waiting to hear what my father would say, and praying that it would be too terrible.
“I have just obtained my daughter’s blessing to make an announcement,” he shouted into the trumpet, and I flinched. Oh no…what in the world had I just not heard?
“I have the privilege of offering a very special prize to the winner of the match,” Father bellowed, and here he winked broadly in the direction of the Duke, whose face was covered in a very smug, self-satisfied smile. “To the winner,” Father continued, “shall go the hand of my lovely daughter, Maid Marian Fitzgerald, in marriage!”
The green was silent for one, eternity-long instant. Then it erupted into cheers and applause. I felt as though my bones had been turned to porridge.