Here’s the opening of my new historical novel Villain. Do read and enjoy. There’s a link on the end if you want to go on reading. The paperback is already out and the Kindle book will be available on the last day of the month. Official publication day is June 30th. The price will go up then on all formats – so please do order today!
CHRONICLE THE THIRD
Summer 1203 – Sherwood Forest.
The soldier pointed a grubby finger across the heathland. His commander reined in his horse and looked across the rough ground. Along the line of trees on the far side of the open countryside, a man was running, half-crouched as though trying to stay out of sight. Running in desperation. Running for his life.
Sir Guy of Gisborne raised himself higher on his horse, shading his eyes with a hand.
‘It could be anyone,’ he said.
‘It’s a wolfshead,’ the soldier persisted. ‘I know him from the taverns of Nottingham. You know him too, my lord Gisborne. It’s one of Robin Hood’s men.’
Gisborne stared into the evening light.
‘It’s not possible,’ he said. ‘They left Sherwood years ago. Probably all dead by now…’
‘That one’s back, my lord.’
‘Who is he?’
‘The villain called Scathlock,’ said the soldier. ‘Will Scathlock. Scarlet, they call him. Hair as red as blood. Matches his bloody reputation.’
Gisborne took in a deep breath. He looked down at the soldier and gave him an appreciative nod. He turned to his captain, who rode alongside him.
‘What do you think?’
‘Looks like him,’ said the captain. ‘Whoever he is, he’s running away. That gives us good enough cause to detain him.’
‘Get on with it,’ said Gisborne.
The captain turned back towards his men. There were only a dozen of them. Sir Richard of the Legh, who now commanded the shire, was reluctant to allow a greater force of men to march into Sherwood Forest. The villagers offered little resistance these days, and the old knight was against being provocative.
Gisborne thought such soft tactics a strategic blunder. The peasants of Sherwood needed constant demonstrations of brute force. Gisborne would have felt happier with a small army.
Like the old days.
The troops were a ragbag bunch, the sweepings of Nottingham Castle. The best soldiers were stationed in the south, held in readiness for an attack on Normandy. Such was the desire of King John. Gisborne regretted not bringing some of his own men from his estate in Bowland.
One man, a fugitive running in fear, was probably all that this ill-assorted dozen could cope with.
They were poorly armed too. An old man carried a hunting crossbow. The rest had spears, and those had seen better days. They were probably new at the time that William the Bastard harried the shire after his victory on Senlac Hill. Gisborne thought that some of the soldiers looked about as old.
‘If he gets away, I’ll have you all lashed,’ Gisborne yelled.
A couple of the men gave him filthy looks as they stumbled past his horse. My God! What had it all come to? An insult to the commander who’d defeated in battle that treacherous old madman Lord Malvoisin, at the time John was crowned King of England.
Gisborne had got his old family lands back, but little else. Not the funds to maintain his estates, or the barony expected by a warrior who’d vanquished such a menacing enemy of the King. He still had to work for a living, and damned bloody awful work it was. Harrying poachers in the forest and keeping down those who still muttered rebellion in the taverns of Nottingham town. And then there was…
His complaint vanished from his mind as he looked up. The wolfshead had turned and was running back towards the trees. His own troop were barely halfway across the heath. They’d never catch him at this rate. Most of his soldiers seemed to be out of breath, their legs quivering beneath them.
Gisborne turned to his captain, drawing his sword even as he spoke.
‘Come on! We’ll head off that wolfshead. He might escape foot soldiers, if that’s what they call themselves. Let’s see the thieving bastard outrun two warriors on horseback.’
He dug in his spurs and screamed into the ears of his horse. A good mount, the finest horse he’d ever possessed. The one good thing to come out of his appointment as the Sheriff of Nottingham’s battle commander. There weren’t any others.
Gisborne looked up as his horse raced across the heath. The wolfshead had halted by a long line of forest oaks. Scathlock was no longer crouching. He was standing upright, looking across the heath at the attacking troops, a hand raised in the air.
‘Damn them!’ Gisborne cried aloud, reining in his horse and waving his sword down towards the ground, an indication to his men to halt their charge.
How could he be so stupid? These easy months in Sherwood had blunted his sense of danger. He would never have fallen into such an obvious trap in old times. In those days when he ruled the forest with brutality and terror.
He would never have charged towards an ambush with such carelessness.
‘My lord Gisborne?’
The captain was at his side.
‘It’s too easy,’ said Gisborne. ‘A lone wolfshead, one of Robin Hood’s men. Unarmed and just standing there in challenge. Get within range and we’ll have a flood of arrows come at us. Those trees are bristling with outlaws. I can sense it.’
‘We’re within range now, my lord.’
Gisborne could see the fear on the man’s face.
‘Then get the men back to the track,’ he said, turning his horse.
The foot soldiers were close by, stooping near to the ground, seeking protection from the ragged bushes scattered between the rough grass and the heather. No wonder they were all very old for soldiers, thought Gisborne. Their cowardice had preserved their miserable lives.
‘We’re falling back to the track,’ Gisborne shouted. ‘It’s an ambush.’
He glanced back towards the outlaw. Scathlock was armed now. A longbow in his hands and a quiver of arrows slung across his shoulders. But he made no attempt to let loose the arrow nocked on the bowstring. The wolfshead seemed content just to keep watching.
Gisborne turned back to his men. They were retreating, very swiftly, the way they had come. All but the captain and the soldier with the crossbow, an aged veteran of Lionheart’s wars in Normandy, called Alric. One brave man amongst a flock of craven sheep, at least, thought Gisborne.
Well, if he couldn’t take Scathlock in ropes back to Nottingham, he might yet be able to quash the arrogant villain.
He looked down at the remaining foot soldier. The man’s crossbow was wound back taut, a deadly bolt gleaming in the last of the sunlight.
‘Can you take him from here?’ asked Gisborne.
‘I can try, my lord,’ said the soldier. ‘But I could do with a proper weapon. This is just a toy for hunting. He’s barely within my range.’
‘Do your best, Alric,’ said Gisborne. ‘That’s all I ask.’
Alric stood between the two horsemen, levelling the crossbow at the distant outlaw.
It was an impossible shot, given the feeble weapon. Gisborne knew that only too well. The crossbow might once have served a castle child on his first expedition after deer. It was useless in combat, except at very close range.
It was an insult even to give it to a trained marksman like Alric. A greater insult for Sir Richard of the bloody Legh and the Sheriff of Nottingham to think it sufficient for a punitive raid into Sherwood Forest.
Gisborne looked at Scathlock. The wolfshead was still standing there, not seeming to sense the danger he might be in. Gisborne was wondering why when he heard the thud of the crossbow at his side.
There was a flash of light as the speeding quarrel caught a beam from the dying red sun. But in his heart Gisborne knew that the bolt would miss its target. The old soldier was a good shot. Gisborne knew him well. But it would have taken a miracle to hit Scathlock from that distance.
He watched as a cloud of bark dust spurted out of the oak tree, two feet to the right of the outlaw. A terrific shot, to get such accuracy with that toy. They saw Scathlock raise his arm and bow a salute at his opponent.
‘I’m sorry, my lord,’ said Alric.
‘Not your fault,’ said Gisborne. ‘Not your fault at all.’
As he turned to look down at the soldier, something like a gust of wind dashed past Gisborne’s horse. The arrow caught the little crossbow and sent it spinning backwards into a thorn bush.
Gisborne was relieved to see that Alric was unharmed. That was a blessing. The old man had fought beside him in the battle against Malvoisin. Very bravely too, considering his vintage. Courage was rare in Sherwood these days. He needed soldiers like Alric.
Scathlock had nocked another arrow to his bow, and the string was half drawn. The outlaw was stepping backwards into the trees. In the darkling of first night, the forest seemed to be changing from green to a long line of black, becoming more menacing than ever.
‘Let’s get out of here,’ said Gisborne.
Will Scathlock stood in the shade of the trees and watched Gisborne and his men scamper across the heath to the road which led south to Nottingham.
Almost too easy, he considered. He could have killed Alric, but spared him. They’d once drunk together in the tavern carved into the rocks below Nottingham Castle. A pleasant old man, Scathlock had thought. Worth a dozen of Gisborne. Now that was a regret. Rather than demonstrating his skill at archery by shooting the crossbow out of Alric’s hands, he should have put the arrowhead deep into Gisborne’s gizzard.
It had been his last arrow, his quiver was filled only with deceptive twigs. If there had been other outlaws this day, they could have slaughtered Gisborne and his little force. But as Scathlock melted into the trees, he walked alone.
Only the legend of Robin Hood and his outlaws haunted Sherwood Forest these days.
Tales told at firesides in miserable huts in the forest villages or in the old ballads, raucously sung in the taverns of Nottingham town.
The Shire of Westmorland
‘What’s that village?’
Alan a Dale followed Robin Hood’s pointing finger, looking down from the hillside to where a cluster of cottages surrounded a church. The little settlement stood on the edge of a broad vale, surrounded by rising sweeps of craggy moorland.
‘Sker-Overton,’ the minstrel replied, ‘though the villagers call it Orton in their dialect.’ He pointed to the long stretches of exposed limestone on the surrounding hillsides. ‘There are the scars of rock from which it takes its name.’
‘Would they be friendly to us?’ asked Robin.
‘Not friendly enough, though I knew a woman there when I was the minstrel at the castle of Brough. She’d be old and haggard by now. Their lord works them into the ground.’
‘Doubt she’d be pleased to see you,’ muttered Much. ‘How many of your bastards litter the place, Alan?’
‘Not enough to take our part in any struggle,’ Alan replied, ‘and all too young anyway. No, there’ll be no comfort for us there.’
‘Then it’s another night on these bloody moorlands,’ said Much. He shivered. ‘This is the coldest summer I’ve ever known. Better to be back in Sherwood. At least we’d have the shelter of the trees.’
‘Or even Inglewood,’ said Alan.
‘It’s too much of a risk to go back there,’ said Robin. ‘Too close to Carlisle. The Sheriff of the shire has a regular army scouring Inglewood Forest for us.’
‘I thought King John had stripped the shires of their soldiery,’ said Much. ‘Needed ‘em to fight in Normandy.’
‘Not these northern shires,’ said Alan. ‘King John daren’t leave his northern flank exposed. The Scots’d come marching into England at the least excuse.’
‘Well, if Nottingham’s empty of troops, let’s go back there. We could run wild through Sherwood, with no one to gainsay us,’ said Much.
Robin looked down at the village.
‘I made an agreement with Sir Richard of the Legh,’ he said. ‘He curbs the power of the Sheriff and treats the Sherwood villages with fairness. But only as long as I stay away. From what Tuck said when he came visiting, Sir Richard’s keeping his word as best he can.’
‘Well, we can’t stop here,’ said Alan. ‘They’ll hunt us down eventually. It’s not like Sherwood. We don’t have the cottagers on our side. With the great forest of Inglewood denied to us, there’s nowhere left to run. Unless we go and skulk up there…’
He pointed to the long and distant ridge of the Pennines. The highest peaks in the mountainous range still bore traces of snow from the harsh storms of the winter and spring.
‘We’d be dead in a week,’ said Much. ‘We’ll freeze tonight unless we get a roof over our heads or a fire started. Do you think the others have found something to eat?’
‘Let’s go and find out,’ said Robin, turning his horse away from the valley and the village. Alan a Dale and Much, sharing a horse, followed in his path.
The old track led first across the heather moorland and then into a deep groove in the hill that might hide them from any distant observers. Mercifully, it kept away the freezing breeze which swept down from the higher hills nearby.
‘D’you think they’re still after us?’ asked Much.
Robin nodded. ‘They won’t stop now. We ruffled too many feathers with our raid on Carlisle. It was madness.’
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