On the road to Portsmouth, Oxfordshire
Guy of Gisborne couldn't concentrate. The Sheriff's incessant chattering washed over him, yet he had no idea what Vaisey was saying as his mind was immersed in thoughts of Alice. To be so close to her yet so far away was killing him, one moment at a time, and he wasn't sure how much longer he could stay away. But he had to, for Alice's sake and his own.
Guy passed a weary hand over his face and stared out of the carriage at the passing countryside. It was true: he often lost his mind as well as his heart when it came to love, but Alice was the first woman who understood that, and who met him halfway. She felt the same way about him - of this, he was certain. But he felt like he had let her down. It was his fault that the Sheriff had locked her away. If only he had never become so embroiled in Vaisey and Prince John's plans. But he had been blinded by greed.
Gisborne hated himself for the way he had acted over the past few years. The things he had done; the people he had hurt. He had allowed himself to be controlled and manipulated by the Sheriff for far too long, and it was time to break away for good. But how could he extricate himself without causing anybody any harm? Alice's life hung in the balance, unless Guy did as the Sheriff requested and killed King Richard. But he didn't want to kill King Richard. Yes, there had been a time, in the past, when he had made an attempt on Lionheart's life, but he was a different person back then. He had changed. He wanted to change. But Vaisey stood resolutely in his way.
Gisborne couldn't prevent a sigh escaping his lips, and Vaisey, Bridlington, and Bridlington's little lapdog, Auden, looked at him.
"Are we boring you, Gisborne, hmm?" the Sheriff said, tartly.
"He probably wishes he was in the carriage behind, riding his little woman," Bridlington mocked, and Auden laughed.
"At least I don't have to force her, Bridlington," Gisborne snapped, glaring at the blond man.
Vaisey grinned. "Good one, Gisborne. You do have a perverted obsession with taking women against their consent, don't you, Bridlington?"
His tone held scorn, and Gisborne couldn't help but feel a touch of respect. Despite his numerous shortcomings, the Sheriff was oddly unforthcoming when it came to matters of a sexual disposition, and made no secret of his distaste for those who chose to rape. In fact, he often carried an almost sexless aura about him, as if he had no feelings of that nature, or they were so deeply deviant or traumatic that he kept them well-hidden. Yet his sense of humour could be misleading.
Gisborne had never seen or heard of Vaisey with a woman in the five years he had known him, which had struck him as odd on a number of occasions. Yet he wasn't reticent in talking about women, even objectifying them at times. But, when it came to the sexual act, he either had immense self-control, or no desire whatsoever.
At least Guy knew that Alice was safe with the Sheriff in that respect. He wouldn't think twice about hanging her, though.
Bridlington shrugged, unconcerned about his growing reputation as a beast. "What can I say? I like it when they fight."
Vaisey caught Guy's eye and curled his lip in disgust, casting his eyes at Bridlington. Gisborne had to remind himself of his current circumstances. It would do him no good to be dragged back into Vaisey's treasonous schemes. But it would do him no harm to at least get the man onside.
"Delightful, Bridlington," he said, spitefully. "No wonder Lady Roana chose an outlaw over you."
Vaisey chuckled. "Very true. But she was part of the plan to steal the black knight's silver, so maybe we won't mention that too much."
The carriage began to slow down and the Sheriff craned his neck to glance out.
"Looks like we've reached our overnight stay," he commented, idly, his eyes turning to Guy. "What do you think, Gisborne? We stay here, or we continue on our way?"
Gisborne was struck speechless. Of course they needed to stay the night to allow Robin and the gang to catch up. But he couldn't very well tell the Sheriff that.
"Don't we have rooms booked, my lord?" He tried to keep his tone neutral, while inside he was panicking.
The Sheriff shrugged, nonchalantly, as the carriage came to a stop and a guard opened the door. "Too bad. I'll throw some coins their way to appease the disgruntled locals. Ah, Caldwell," he addressed the guard. "Inform the landlord that we won't be staying after all. We will stop here for a break and then continue to Portsmouth. Understood?"
"Yes, my lord." The young guard nodded obediently and disappeared.
Gisborne stared at Vaisey in alarm. The Sheriff caught his eye.
Gisborne shook his head, quickly, and lowered his eyes. The Sheriff suspected something. Guy had sensed it back at the castle, but this cemented the fact.
"No, my lord. Not at all," he replied, his voice distant as his mind raced, attempting to find a solution.
His only hope lay with Robin, and the strength of his determination to rescue Marian and Roana.
The road to Portsmouth, Leicestershire
Will Scarlett had woken that morning with a vague feeling of dread in the pit of his stomach. Putting it down to a bout of nervous tension in the face of their impending journey to Oxford, and their rescue of Marian, Roana, and Alice, he had pushed it to the side and concentrated on preparing to leave, throwing himself into the activities with dedication and determination. But, the closer they drew to Portsmouth, the worse he felt.
It didn't help that, on arriving at The Traveller's Rest inn, the alleged overnight stay for the Sheriff's convoy, and the planned scene of the outlaw's rescue, the gang found it empty but for the barkeep and two local patrons.
Robin pushed back his hood as he left the inn, shaking his head at the assembled outlaws, a grim expression on his face.
"The Sheriff decided not to stay after all," he told them, swinging back into his saddle. "They've continued on to Portsmouth."
"Does he suspect something?" Little John looked concerned.
"I hope not," Robin said, fervently.
"Robin," Will spoke up hesitantly. He knew that talk of unformed and inexplicable feelings had the potential to make him look foolish, but he didn't care. The last time he had felt such a sense of forboding, he had been captured by Gisborne and thrown into the dungeons at Nottingham Castle. He couldn't disregard his intuition. He had to say something. After all, Robin appreciated honesty above anything else. "Something isn't right."
The outlaws looked at him. Will was a reliable and diligent member of the gang who wore his quiet sensitivity openly, and only spoke when he had something meaningful to say. The youngest of the group, he teetered on the line between innocence and adulthood in many ways, and his sincere and uncomplicated nature made him a popular and trustworthy member of the gang. As a result, Robin respected his opinion.
"What is it, Will?" he asked, seriously.
"I don't know." Will shrugged, candidly. "I've just got a feeling."
"Well, what kind of feeling?" Allan said. "A this-is-a-trap kind of feeling? Or an I-need-to-use-the-privy kind of feeling?"
Much, Eve, and Tuck laughed, but Robin was looking at Will, pensively.
He nodded. "Alright, Will. Thanks for sharing." He glanced around at the gang, his blue eyes earnest. "We will proceed with caution from here on in."
Roana sighed and leaned back against the fur pelts that lined the inside of the carriage, effectively sealing the three women in and closing out the world.
They had been travelling since the very early hours, after a brief overnight stay in an undisclosed location, of which Roana, Marian, and Alice had seen very little of. As a result, they were restless and eager to leave the confines of the carriage. The atmosphere was thick with fearful anticipation as they listened to the noise and chatter outside, alert for a familiar voice, a familiar sound. But everything was so different.
"I take it this is Portsmouth?" Alice asked, her voice hushed, sat opposite Roana, her face pale.
Marian nodded. She was the only one of the three who had any energy, and had been worrying at a corner of fur pelt for a while with her nails, sporadically attempting to pull it away from the wood it was attached to. "I think so," she replied, absentmindedly, before letting out a subdued whoop as, with a slight tearing noise, the corner came away.
A breeze found its way into the carriage, bringing with it the salty tang of the sea and the aroma fresh fish.
Roana was instantly reminded of home in Filey, and a wave of nostalgia overwhelmed her. Suddenly, she missed the farm, missed riding Pilgrim on the beach, missed Robert and Eleanor. A simpler life. She wouldn't be here now, a prisoner of the Sheriff of Nottingham, if she had stayed in Filey. But how different would her life have been?
If she had to choose between her life back in Filey and her life now, there was simply no contest. She would choose Allan, her brother, the gang, over anything else. Yet she couldn't help but feel a degree of regret. If only she had stayed with Allan at the old manor house. If only she hadn't been so reckless and indifferent to William's capacity for revenge. If only she had never met him in the first place.
Pushing self-pity aside and allowing determination to take over, she joined Marian, who was sneaking a look out of the carriage window through her pelt corner.
"What can you see?" Roana hissed.
"The sea, a boat, men." She hurriedly put the pelt back into place and turned to Roana, eyes wide. "Bridlington."
The three women fell silent, listening as William spoke loudly to a member of the crew about boarding the ship. His tone was pompous and privileged, but the sailer was clearly not impressed. After a moment, the conversation faded away as they walked towards the sea front, and Marian looked at Roana and Alice.
"Robin is cutting it fine," she declared, mildly, although her tone held a thread of fear.
"Let me have a look," Roana said, taking the corner of the fur pelt from her. Marian moved to sit beside Alice as Roana folded the corner back, tentatively, peering out.
It was a beautiful day, and the sky above the harbour was a wide expanse of unbroken azure that merged almost indistinguishably with the glistening blue of the sea. Gulls wheeled in the air, riding the wind easily, their mournfully piercing cries ringing out across the busy port.
The area outside the carriage was a bustle of activity. Luggage waited to be loaded onto their ship, and guards stood nearby, chatting in small groups. Beyond them, fishermen unloaded their haul from small boats, moored on the harbour side, shouting to each other as they passed bundles from man to man.
Shuffling to her left, Roana craned her neck slightly to see behind the carriage, and that was when she spotted furtive movement behind a horse and cart that waited further along the track that lead away from the harbour.
Focusing intently for a moment with excitedly bated breath, she glimpsed a flash of chestnut hair, the curve of a shoulder wearing the colours of the forest, a nocked bow.
"Allan," she whispered.
They moved with military precision, fanning out across the harbour entrance in pairs: Robin and Allan, Much and Djaq, Will and Carter, Little John and Tuck. Eve hung back, watching their backs.
The Sheriff's convoy was beside the sea edge, where the crew of a huge ship were busy transferring luggage and horses onboard. Bridlington stood nearby, supervising, while guards and black knights loitered, talking in groups. Of the Sheriff and Gisborne, there was no sign.
The Sheriff's carriage stood empty, doors wide open, but it was the carriage behind that the outlaws focused their attention on.
It was almost identical to Vaisey's. However, there appeared to be drapes covering the interior, blocking the view in and out. Guards surrounded it, although in a relaxed manner.
"The girls will be in there," Robin said in hushed tones. "Allan and I will make our way over. Cover us."
"Be careful," Will said. His feeling of dread had abated after the outlaws had successfully avoided an ambush set up by the Sheriff as they passed through Reading. A group of six brigands, burly and ruthless, had accepted money to accost and kill Robin Hood, but Vaisey had reckoned without the additional members of the outlaw gang. The brigands were easily taken down, four of them killed and one mortally wounded. The sixth had escaped, but not before Robin had relieved him of the blood money the Sheriff had paid them.
The outlaws had triumphed over the Sheriff on that occasion. But was it enough? Worry washed over the young carpenter yet again.
"Robin! Be careful!" he repeated, emphatically, his eyes wide.
Robin placed a placating hand on his arm. "It will be fine, Will. Stick to the plan and we'll be home and dry in no time, with the girls."
Will nodded and Allan interrupted, his eyes on the carriage. "What are we waiting for? Come on!"
Hoods up, they ducked behind a cart and began to edge closer to the carriage. As they drew nearer, Allan could see something different about the draping that covered the window on one side. It had been drawn back from within, and he could see a pale face looking straight at him, blue eyes wide.
"Ro!" he said, almost leaping to his feet, but Robin stayed him with a hand on his wrist.
"Allan, wait!" he ordered, then crept forward slightly to peer around the corner of the cart. There were a number of people bustling about, hard at work, yet the Sheriff's group were barely paying attention. Turning, he waved Djaq and Much on, before he and Allan made for the carriage, keeping low to avoid detection.
Allan made it first, reaching his hand through the gap to curl it around Roana's neck and pull her into a kiss. She was laughing, tears in her eyes, yet she kissed him back, firmly and with passion.
"Are you hurt?" he asked, quickly, drawing back.
"We're fine," she whispered in reply. "Please get us out of here."
There was excited chatter behind her and she drew back to allow Marian to come forward.
"At last," she said, then smiled warmly at Robin to soften her words.
"Behaving yourself, my love?" Robin asked with a laugh, before he slung his bow over his shoulder and took her face between his hands to kiss her. Allan began to work on the carriage door, which was stuck fast.
"Robin, it won't open," he said in frustration.
Letting go of Marian, Robin joined Allan, raising the handle of the door and pulling hard. It was stuck fast.
Robin cursed, thinking swiftly. He whipped a dagger from his boot and was about to wedge the blade between the door and the body of the carriage when a guard walked around the front of the carriage, almost colliding with them.
Robin and Allan froze, and Allan's hand went to the hilt of his sword, but Robin held out a hand to still him. It was Burne, who stopped short with a muted gasp at the sight of them, and then made to turn back. But he was followed too closely by another guard, who saw them and immediately drew his sword, shouting, "Outlaws!"
His shout ended abruptly as Carter's arrow lodged itself in his throat, but it was too late. All hell broke loose as guards and black knights appeared as if from nowhere. The outlaws emerged from their positions at Robin's signal and ran into the ensuing melée, swords clashing and arrows flying as they attempted to cover Robin and Allan.
"It won't open," Allan said, desperately, ducking as an arrow flew past his head.
"You need to leave," Marian told them, urgently, and, behind her, Roana agreed.
Allan shook his head, angrily. "I'm not leaving you, Ro."
Marian's eyes suddenly widened and she was jerked backwards away from the gap with a yelp. Robin darted forward, reaching into the carriage to push the fur pelt back, shouting her name.
"Robin!" Little John yelled, and pointed to the other side of the carriage, where Bridlington, Auden, and a guard had opened the door and were dragging Roana, Marian, and Alice out. The Sheriff appeared on the deck of the ship, flanked by Gisborne and another black knight, his expression furious.
"GET THEM ON THE SHIP," Vaisey screamed. "GUARDS! KILL THE OUTLAWS! KILL THE OUTLAWS!"
Guards and black knights surged forwards as the girls were pulled towards the ship. With a warcry, Djaq and Much ran forward, intercepting two guards and engaging them in vigorous battle as Will and John followed, dispatching another two easily with axe and staff.
As Allan and Robin sprinted around the carriage, making for Bridlington and the girls, Robin spotted Gisborne, still onboard the ship, looking towards them with a torn expression on his face. Catching Robin's eye, he seemed to make up his mind and drew his sword, starting towards Alice. Vaisey, however, read his mind. Pulling a small, jewelled dagger from the folds of his cloak, he grabbed Alice's arm, pulling her away from Auden and onto the deck of the ship, pressing the short blade to her throat.
Nocking an arrow, Robin aimed at Vaisey.
"Let them go," he shouted.
Vaisey grinned, evilly. "Not a chance." He gestured to a group of four black knights, who took aim with longbows at his signal. "Kill as many of them as you can before we set sail," he told them, conversationally.
Roana caught Allan's eye, her expression stricken as she was forcefully manhandled towards the ship, and he roared and ran towards her. Behind him, Robin released his arrow and nocked another, taking down two black knights one after the other, before running after Allan.
Behind them, there came a muffled thud followed by an agonised yelp, and suddenly, Eve screamed, long and loud.
Robin paused, looking back, and his stomach plummeted. "Much! No!"
He glanced longingly at the ship and Marian, who was struggling in vain against the guard's restraining grip, and then back towards his oldest friend. Much was on the ground, his sword and shield discarded beside him, a puddle of red growing steadily beneath his prone body. Eve was crouched by his side, tears running down her face.
With a gasp, Djaq dropped her sword and ran to him, and Robin followed, sending a desperate plea for forgiveness to Marian, who was looking from Robin to Much in obvious distress. Vaisey yelled an instruction and his men drew back, running for the ship, which was preparing to set sail. Left alone, the outlaws looked towards Much, shocked and bewildered.
Allan felt sick. He looked from his friend's fallen body to the ship, where Roana stared back at him from the deck, distraught, her hands clutching the side rail, her face awash with tears. She glanced towards Much and then back at Allan, and, even as Bridlington roughly pulled her away, she blinked at him, communicating to him imperceptibly.
"I'll find you," he mouthed, and she nodded.
"I love you," she mouthed in return, before she disappeared from sight behind the roiling mass of men.
He watched as the ship slowly began to pull away from the harbour before he turned and hurried to join the outlaws beside Much's body, noting with dismay the arrow that protruded with grotesque pride from his friend's chest.
Coming soon - the last book in the trilogy, Lady Warrior.