They came fast.
Three horsemen, two swinging swords at their side, the third low in the saddle and bearing a lance.
Fast and deadly.
Fast and deadly from three different directions.
It had been an hour since Loxley had left the monk’s cell to continue his journey to Nottingham. He had left the horse in Tuck’s care. He was afoot and vulnerable, for there were no trees in this part of Sherwood in which a man could seek shelter from charging horsemen. He was halfway across a vast open stretch of heathland when he saw them approach. They had ridden together on the road out of Nottingham. But even as he watched they separated. Riding away from Loxley.
And for a moment he thought they might have no business with him. Then they had turned the heads of their mounts to face him. One in front and the others on either side. There was a pause as though they were simply enjoying the fresh morning air.
And then they had charged, yelling to spur on their horses. Loxley fancied he could feel the vibration of the hooves across the soft ground. They were so close he could see every detail of their faces and clothing. And the look of triumph in their eyes.
He swung the longbow off his shoulder and thanked God that he had not unbent it as he often did when making a long journey. He pulled three arrows from the quiver, jamming two into the soft earth in front of him. He put the third into the bow, raised the weapon very slightly and sent the arrow into flight towards the soldier in front.
He didn’t pause to see it thud into the man’s chest, though he was aware, out of the corner of his eye, of the lance flying through the air. But even as he noted the success of that first shot he had loaded and fired a second arrow at the soldier to his left.
The shot was too speedily done. He saw the arrow tear into the man’s right shoulder and heard the soldier give a great cry. A noise which brought the charging horse to a sudden halt.
Even as he turned Loxley knew there would be no time to swing round and fire a third arrow. Instinct made him throw himself to the ground, just as the man’s swinging sword, powered by the speed of the horse as well as the practised turn of the sword-arm, cut through the air where his throat had been a second before.
As the horse brushed against his side, Loxley rolled once on the ground and regained his feet. Before the horseman could bring his mount about he had fired the third arrow, square into the soldier’s back. The horse came to a halt, its rider dangling down on one side.
Loxley dropped the bow and drew out his sword, for the wounded man was still mounted, head bent forward, walking the horse very slowly towards him. At a glance he could see the other two soldiers dead on the ground.
The stricken soldier came to within a few yards before he dropped his sword and slid down the side of the horse. He tried to stand and made a couple of staggering steps towards Loxley. And then he fell back to the ground, head raised and grasping the arrow in his shoulder. There was a look of desperation on his face as Loxley approached, his eyes never wavering from the sword in the outlaw’s hand.