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IT was high noon in summertime, and the forest seemed to sleep. Hardly a breeze stirred the broad fans of the oak leaves, and the only sound was the low hum of insects which flew to and fro unceasingly in the cool twilight under the wide-spreading boughs.

So quiet did it seem and so lonely, that almost one might think that nothing but the wild red deer, or his fierce enemy the slinking wolf, had ever walked this way since the beginning of the world. There was a little path worn among the thick bushes of hazel, dogberry, and traveler's joy, but so narrow was it and so faint that it could well have been worn by the slender, fleeting feet of the doe, or even by the hares and rabbits which had their home in a great bank among the roots of a beech near by.

Few, indeed, were the folks that ever came this way, for it was in the loneliest part of Barnisdale Forest. Besides, who had any right to come here save it was the king's foresters keeping strict watch and ward over the king's deer? Nevertheless, the rabbits which should have been feeding before their holes, or playing their mad pranks, seemed to have bolted into their burrows as if scared by something which had passed that way. Only now, indeed, were one or two peeping out to see that things were quiet again. Then a venturesome bunny suddenly scampered out, and in a moment others trooped forth.

A little way beyond the bank where the rabbits were now nibbling or darting off in little mad rushes, the path made a bend, and then the giant trunks of the trees were fewer, and more light came through from the sky. Suddenly the trees ceased, and the little sly path ran into a wide glade where grass grew, and bushes of holly and hazel stood here and there.

A man stood close by the path, behind a tree, and looked out into the glade. He was dressed in a tunic made of a rough green cloth, open at the top, and showing a bronzed neck. Round his waist was a broad leathern girdle in which were stuck at one place a dagger, and at the other side three long arrows. Short breeches of soft leather covered his thighs, below which he wore hosen of green wool, which reached to his feet. The latter were encased in shoes of stout pig's leather.

His head of dark brown curls was covered by a velvet cap, at the side of which was stuck a short feather, pulled from the wing of a plover. His face, bronzed to a ruddy tan by wind and weather, was open and frank, his eye shone like a wild bird's, and was as fearless and as noble. Great of limb was he, and seemingly of a strength beyond his age, which was about twenty-five years. In one hand he carried a long-bow, while the other rested on the smooth bole of the beech before him.

He looked intently at some bushes which stood a little distance before him in the glade, and moved not a muscle while he watched. Sometimes he looked beyond far to the side of the glade where, on the edge of the shaw or wood, two or three deer were feeding under the trees, advancing toward where he stood.

Suddenly he saw the bushes move stealthily; an unkempt head issued between the leaves, and the haggard face of a man looked warily this way and that. Next moment, out of the bush where the hidden man lay an arrow sped. Straight to the feeding deer it flew, and sank in the breast of the nearest doe. She ran a few feet and then fell; while the others, scared, ran off into the trees.

Not at once did the hidden man issue from his hiding-place to take up the animal he had slain. He waited patiently while one might count fifty, for he knew that, should there be a forester skulking near who should meet the scampering deer whose companion had been struck down, he would know from their frightened air that something wrongful had been done, and he would search for the doer.

The moments went slowly by and nothing moved; neither did the hidden man, nor he who watched him. Nor did a forester show himself on the edge of the shaw where the deer had fled. Feeling himself secure, therefore, the man came from the bush, but there was no bow and arrows in his hand, for these he had left secure in his hiding-place to be brought away another day.

He was dressed in the rough and ragged homespun of a villein, a rope round his brown tunic, and his lower limbs half covered with loose trousers of the same material as his tunic, but more holed and patched. Looking this way and that, he walked half-bent across to where the doe lay, and leaning over it, he snatched his knife from his belt and began almost feverishly to cut portions of the tenderest parts from the carcass.

As the man behind the tree saw him, he seemed to recognize him, and muttered, "Poor lad!" The villein wrapped the deer's flesh in a rough piece of cloth, and then rose and disappeared between the trees. Then with swift and noiseless footsteps the watcher went back through the path and into the depths of the forest. A few moments later the villein, with wary eyes looking this way and that, was passing swiftly between the boles of the trees. Every now and then he stopped and rubbed his red hands in the long, moist grass, to remove the tell-tale stains of blood.

Suddenly, as he came from behind the giant trunk of an oak, the tall form of the man who had watched him stood in his pathway. Instantly his hand went to his knife, and he seemed about to spring upon the other.

"Man," said he in the green tunic, "what madness drives you to this?"

The villein recognized the speaker at once, and gave a fierce laugh.

"Madness!" he said. "'Tis not for myself this time, Master Robin. But my little lad is dying of hunger, and while there's deer in the greenwood he shall not starve."

"Your little lad, Scarlet?" said Robin. "Is your sister's son living with you now?"

"Ay," replied Scarlet. "You've been away these three weeks and cannot have heard." He spoke in a hard voice, while the two continued their walk down a path so narrow that while Robin walked before, Scarlet was compelled to walk just behind.

"A sennight since," Scarlet went on, "my sister's husband, John a' Green, was taken ill and died. What did our lord's steward do? Said 'Out ye go, baggage, and fend for yourself. The holding is for a man who'll do due services for it.'"

"'Twas like Guy of Gisborne to do thus," said Robin; "the evil-hearted traitor!"

"Out she went, with no more than the rags which covered herself and the bairns," said Scarlet fiercely. "If I had been by I could not have kept my knife from his throat. She came to me; dazed she was and ill. She had the hunger-plague in truth, and sickened and died last week. The two little ones were taken in by neighbors, but I kept little Gilbert myself. I am a lonely man, and I love the lad, and if harm should happen to him I shall put my mark upon Guy of Gisborne for it."

As Robin had listened to the short and tragic story of the wreck of a poor villein's home, his heart burned in rage against the steward, Sir Guy of Gisborne, who ruled the manor of Birkencar for the White Monks of St. Mary's Abbey with so harsh a hand. But he knew that the steward did no more than the abbot and monks permitted him, and he cursed the whole brood of them, rich and proud as they were, given over to hunting and high living on the services and rents which they wrung from the poor villeins, who were looked upon merely as part of the soil of the manors which they tilled.

Robin, or Robert of Locksley, as he was known to the steward and the monks, was a freeman, or socman, as it was termed, and was a young man of wealth as things went then. He had his own house and land, a farm of some hundred and sixty acres of the richest land on the verge of the manor, and he knew full well that the monks had long cast covetous eyes upon his little holding. It lay beside the forest, and was called the Outwoods. He and his ancestors had held this land for generations, first from the lords to whom the manor of Birkencar had been given by King William, and for the last generation or so from the Abbey of St. Mary, to which the last owner, the Lord Guy de Wrothsley, had left it in his will.

Robin held his land at a rent, and so long as he paid this to the monks they could not legally oust him from his farm, much as they would have liked to do this. Robin was looked upon by the abbot as a discontented and malicious man. He had often bearded the abbot in his own monastery, and told him to his face how wickedly he and his stewards treated the villeins and poorer tenants of their manors. Such defiance in those days was reckoned to be almost unheard of, and the monks and Guy of Gisborne, their steward at Birkencar, hated Robin and his free speech as much as Robin hated them for their tyranny and oppression.

"Pity it is I was away," said Robin in reply to Scarlet's last words. "But you could have gone to Outwoods, and Scadlock would have given you food."

"Ay, Master Robin," said Scarlet, "you have ever been the good and true friend of us all. But I, too, have been a freeman, and I cannot beg my bread. You have made enemies enough on our behalf as it is, and I would not live upon you to boot. No, while there is deer in the greenwood, I and the little lad shall not starve. Besides, Master Robin, you should look to yourself. If your unfriends had known how long you would be away they would — it hath been whispered — have proclaimed you an outlaw, and taken your land in your absence, and killed you when you returned."

Robin laughed. "Ay, I have heard of it while I was away."

Scarlet looked at him in wonder. He thought he had been telling his friend a great and surprising secret.

"You have heard of it?" he replied; "now that is passing strange."

Robin made no answer. He knew well that his enemies were only looking out for an opportunity of thrusting him to ruin. Many a man going on a long journey had come back to find that in his absence his enemy had made oath to a justice that he had fled on account of some wrongdoing, and thus had caused him to be proclaimed an outlaw, whose head any one could cut off.

Scarlet was silent, thinking of many strange tales which the villeins, when they sat together at ale after work, had spoken concerning their great friend Robin.

Suddenly, from a little way before them, came the sound as if a squirrel was scolding. Then there was silence for a space; and then the cry, a lonely sad cry it was, as of a wolf. Instantly Robin stopped, laid the long-bow he had in his hand at the root of a great oak, together with the arrows from his girdle. Then, turning to Scarlet, he said in a low stern voice:

"Place the deer's meat you have in your tunic beside these. Quick, man, ere the foresters see your bulging breast. You shall have it safely anon."

Almost mechanically, at the commanding tones Scarlet took the rough piece of hempen cloth in which he had wrapped the flesh of the doe from the breast of his tunic and laid it beside the bow and arrows. Next moment Robin resumed his walk. When they had gone a few steps, Scarlet looked round at the place where they had placed the things. They were gone!

A cold chill seemed to grip his heart, and he almost stopped, but Robin's stern voice said: "Step out, man, close behind? Poor Scarlet, sure that he was in the presence of witchcraft, did as he was bidden; but crossed himself to fend off evil.

Next moment the narrow path before them was blocked by the forms of two burly foresters, with bows at their backs and long staves in their hands. Their hard eyes looked keenly at Robin and Scarlet, and for a moment it seemed that they meditated barring their way. But Robin's bold look as he advanced made them change their minds, and they let them pass.

"When freeman and villein are found together," scoffed one, "there's ill brewing for their lord." "And when two foresters are found together," said Robin, with a short laugh, "some poor man's life will be sworn away ere long."

"I know ye, Robert of Locksley," said the one who had first spoken, "as your betters know ye, for a man whose tongue wags too fast."

"And I know thee, Black Hugo," replied Robin, "for a man who swore his best friend to ruin to join his few poor acres to thine."

The man's face darkened with rage, while the other forester laughed at his discomfiture. Black Hugo looked at Robin as if he would have thrown himself upon him; but Robin's fearless eyes overawed him, and he sullenly turned away without another word.

Robin and Scarlet resumed their walk, and in a little while had issued from the forest, and were tramping through the bush and thick undergrowth of the waste lands which divided the farms of the manor on this side from the forest.

At last they came to the top of an incline, and before them the land sloped down to the cultivated fields and the pasture which surrounded the little village of villeins' huts, with the manor-house at a distance beyond the village half-way up another slope. Scarlet looked keenly about him, to see if any one in the fields had seen him coming from the forest; for he had run from his work of dyke building to shoot the deer, and wondered whether his absence had been discovered. If it had, he didn't care for the scourging-post and the whip on his bare back, which might be his portion tomorrow when the steward's men came round to find his work only half done. At any rate, his little lad, Gilbert of the White Hand, would have a king's supper that night.

Would he? He suddenly remembered, and again fear shook him. Where had Robin's bow and arrows and his venison disappeared? Had some goblin or elf snatched them up, or had he really looked in the wrong place, and had the foresters found them by now? He clenched his jaw and looked back, his hand upon his knife, almost expecting to see the two foresters coming after him.

"Hallo," said Robin carelessly, "there are my bow and arrows and your venison, lad."

Turning, Scarlet saw the things lying beside a tussock of grass at a little distance, where he was certain he had looked a moment before and seen nothing!

"Master," he said, in an awed voice, "this is sheer wizardry. I — I — fear for you if unfriends learn you are helped by the evil spirits that dwell in the woods."

"Scarlet," said Robin, "I thought thou wert a wiser man, but, like the rest, thou seemest to be no more than a fool. Have no fear for me. My friends of the woods are quite harmless, and are no worse than thou or I."

"Master," said Scarlet, sorry for his hasty speech, "I crave pardon for my fool's words. My tongue ran before my thoughts, for the sight of those things where nothing had been a moment before affrighted me. But I know there cannot be worse things in the woods than there are in strong castles and abbots' palaces whose masters oppress and maim poor villeins. Say, master, is that which has helped us but now — is it a brownie, as men call it — a troll?"

Robin looked quietly into Scarlet's face for a moment or two without speaking.

"Scarlet," he said, "I think I see a time before us when thou and I will be much together in the greenwood. Then I will show thee my friends there. But until then, Scarlet, not a word of what has passed today. Thou swearest it?"

"By the gentle Virgin!" said Scarlet, throwing up his hand as he took the oath. "Amen!" replied Robin, doffing his cap and bending his head at the name. "Now," he went on, "take thy meat and hand me my bow and arrows. For I must back to the greenwood. And tell thy little man, Gilbert, that Robin wishes him to get well quickly, for I would go shooting with him again on the uplands at the plovers."

"Ay," said Scarlet, and his haggard, hungry face shone with a gentle look as he spoke, "the little lad hath ever loved to speak of you since you took such note of him. Your words will hearten him bravely."

When the two men had parted, Robin turned and plunged into the thick undergrowth, but in a different direction from that in which he had come with Scarlet. He looked up at the sun and quickened his pace, for he saw it was two hours past noon. Soon he had reached the trees, and threading his way unerringly among them, he struck southward toward the road that ran for many a mile through the forest from Barnisdale into Nottinghamshire.

With a quick and eager step did Robin pass through the glades, for he was going to see the lady he loved best in all the world. Fair Marian was she called, the daughter of Richard FitzWalter of Malaset. Ever since when, as a boy, Robin had shot and sported in Locksley Chase, near where he had been born, Marian had been his playmate, and though she was an earl's daughter, and Robin was but a yeoman and not rich, they had loved each other dearly, and sworn that neither would marry anyone else.

This day she was to journey from her father's castle at Malaset to Linden Leam, nearby Nottingham, to stay a while at the castle of her uncle, Sir Richard at Lee, and Robin had promised to guard her through the forest.

Soon he reached a broad trackway, carpeted with thick grass and with deep wheel-holes here and there in the boggy hollows. He walked rapidly along this, and did not rest till he had covered some five miles. Then, coming to where another road crossed it, he paused, looked about him keenly, and then disappeared among some hazel bushes that crowned a bank beside the four ways.

Proceeding for some distance, he at length gained a hollow where the ground was clear of bushes. On one side was a bare place where the sand showed, and to this Robin walked straightway. On the bare ground were a few broken twigs which to the ordinary eye would have seemed to have been blown there by the wind; but with hands on knees Robin bent and scanned them keenly.

"One bent at the head and eight straight twigs," he said under his breath; "a knight on horseback, that will mean, with eight knaves afoot. They are halted on the western road not far from here. Now what means that?"

He stood up, and turning away, quickly crossed the road by which he had come, and dived into the forest which skirted the right-hand road. Very cautiously he made his way between the trees, taking care not to step on a twig as he walked rapidly over the grass, his quick eyes meanwhile bent in every direction, trying to pierce the twilight of the thick forest round about.

Suddenly he dropped on his knees, and began working away further into the trees. He had heard the tiniest noise of a jingling bridle before him. In a little while, peering from between the branches of a young yew-tree, he saw, drawn up into the deepest shadow of the trees, a band of armed men with a knight in chain mail on horseback in their midst.

Eagerly he scanned each, in the endeavor to learn to what lord they belonged; but the men on foot were dressed in plain jerkins, and the knight bore a blank shield, kite-shaped. For some moments he was baffled in his attempt to learn who these men were, and why they lay hid in the wood as if about to set on some travelers whom they expected to pass by. Then the knight swept his glance round the forest, and with a gesture of impatience and an oath quieted his restive horse.

At the sound of his voice Robin recognized him, and his face went stern, and a fierce light came into his eyes.

"So, Roger de Longchamp," he said to himself, "you would seize by force my lady whose favor you cannot get by fair means!"

For this Sir Roger was a proud and tyrannical knight, who had asked for the hand of Fair Marian, but her father had refused him. FitzWalter loved his daughter, and though he laughed at her for her love of Robin, he would not give her to a man with so evil a fame as Roger de Longchamp, brother of that proud prelate, the Bishop of Fécamp, and favorite of Duke Richard.

Often, when Robin had thought how Sir Roger de Longchamp or any other man, however evil he was, could visit Sir Richard FitzWalter and speak openly with Marian, he became moody, and wondered whether indeed there was any truth in the tales which old Stephen of Gamwell, his uncle, had told him concerning his noble lineage. He had said that, three generations before, Robin's ancestors had owned broad lands and many manors, and had been lords of Huntingdon town. But that, for having taken part in some revolt of the English against the Norman conqueror, their lands had been seized by the king, the earl slain, and his kinsmen hunted this way and that into obscurity.

Every one knew now that the earldom and lands of Huntingdon were in the hands of the king himself, and that the title had been given to David, brother of the Scottish king. But Robin had often wondered whether he could regain something of the former honors and rank of his family. If so, then he would go and claim Marian boldly, and take no denial.

A movement among the lurking men before him caused him to cease his thinking. A man came running through the trees toward them, and going up to the knight, said in a low voice:

"They are coming! The lady and one varlet are on horseback, the others are walking. There are nine in all, and they are mere house-churls."

"Good!" said the knight. "When they come near I will ride against them and seize the lady's bridle. Should the churl who is riding seek to follow me, do you knock him down."

Robin smiled grimly as he listened and slipped an arrow from its fastening at his belt. Almost immediately the voices of men were heard coming along the grassy road, with the beat of horses' hoofs, and in a little while Robin's heart warmed as he saw through the leaves the gentle womanly figure of Marian on a horse, with her hood thrown back from her face. She was conversing with Walter, the steward of her father's house, who rode beside her.

Next moment the knight had burst through the trees, followed by his men. The brave Walter instantly pushed his horse before that of his mistress, and with a stout staff which he carried prepared to defend her, while the others of her guards also ran before her. Sir Roger struck at the steward with his sword, which sliced a huge splinter from the staff which the other held. With a quick turn of the staff, however, Walter beat on the knight's sword hand, and so shrewd was the blow that the weapon fell from the knight's fingers. It was hung by a strap at his wrist, however, and with a furious cry he regained the haft again.

In a second more the sword would have pierced the body of the brave steward, but suddenly he was jerked from his horse by one of Sir Roger's men and fell senseless on the ground. The struggle between Marian's men and those of the knight was now becoming hot, but the poor villeins with their staffs or short spears had little chance against the swords of the robbers.

Already the hand of Sir Roger was on the reins in Marian's fingers, and with flashing eyes she was trying to back her horse away, when suddenly there came a sound like a great bee, and as she looked at the bars of the knight's vizor she was aware that something flew into them, and next moment she saw the long yellow shaft of an arrow quivering before them.

The knight gave a deep groan, swayed, and then fell from his horse. Instantly his men ceased fighting; one, the chief among them, ran to the dead knight, drew the ruddily tipped arrow from his master's eye, and then all looked swiftly up and down the broad track and at the dense green forest at their sides.

"'Tis but one man!" said one of them. "It came from the left side here."

"Ay, but I know the bolt! It is "began he that still held the arrow, but he never ended his words. Again came a swift sound through the air, but this time like the low whistling of a forest bird, and he sank to the ground with a small black arrow-shaft jutting from his breast. The bolt had been shot from the right side, showing that more than one bowman observed them.

Instantly the others scattered and ran into the forest, but ere the last could reach its shade an arrow, no larger than a birding bolt, issued from the trees on the right and sank into the shoulder of the last fugitive, who shrieked, but still ran on.

Next moment Marian saw Robin, with cap in hand, issue from the wood beside her. He came to her side, and with flushing cheeks she bent to him and said:

"Sweet Robin, I knew thou wouldst not fail me. That was a brave shot of thine which struck down that felon knight. But, dear heart of mine, if he be he whom I think he is, his death will work thee much harm."

She gave him her hand, and fondly Robin kissed it. "He is Roger de Longchamp, sweetheart," replied Robin; "but if it had been King Henry himself lurking thus to do you harm, I would not have saved my bolt."

"But, Robin dear," went on Marian, and her eyes were soft yet proud, "the bishop his brother will pursue thee and outlaw thee for this. And thou wilt lose lands and name for my sake! O Robin! Robin! But I will take counsel of Sir Richard at Lee, who loves thee dearly, how best to get thee pardon from the bishop."

"Sweet Marian," said Robin, and very stem was his look and voice, "I will have no pardon from any proud prelate for any ill I do the evil brood of priests. Come soon, come late, I knew that ere long I should do some deed against the doers of evil who sit in strong castles or loll in soft abbeys and oppress and wrong poor or weaker folk. It is done at last, and I am content. Trouble not for me, dear heart. But now, let us get thee to a safe place ere those runaway rogues raise the hue and cry after me. Walter," said Robin to the poor steward, who, dazed and faint, was now sitting up in the road, "gather thy wits together, brave man, and see to thy mistress. Lads," he said to the villeins, most of whom were wounded, "think no more of thy wounds till thy lady be safe. The knight that is slain hath friends as evil as he, and they may be down upon us ere long, and then you may not escape so lightly. And now trot forward to where the roads fork, and I will join thee anon."

Robin helped Walter on his horse, and Fair Marian and her faithful villeins went forward. When they had passed, Robin pulled the dead knight out of the track and far into the forest, then raised the vizor of the helm, placed the dead man's sword-hilt on his breast, and folded the limp arms over it, so that it seemed as if the dead were kissing the cross of the sword. Then, with bared head, kneeling, he said a short prayer for the repose of the knight's soul. He did the same with the dead body of the marauder who had been slain by the second arrow, and then, picking up both his own bolt and the smaller arrow, he slashed the knight's horse across the loins and saw it go flying down a forest drive that would lead it quite away from the spot. All this he did so as to put pursuers off the track as long as possible.

Then, going a few steps into the forest in the direction in which the knight's men had fled, he put a horn to his lips and blew a long shrill blast with strange broken notes at the end. Afterward he hastened to rejoin Fair Marian, and with his hand upon the bridle of her horse he led the way from the beaten track, and passing by secret ways and tiny paths only half visible, he rapidly pushed on, and very soon they were in the deeps of the forest where none who were with him had ever passed before.

Fair Marian, content to know that Robin was with her, saw nothing to fear in the silence and sombre shadows about them; but many of the villeins, as they walked in single file along the narrow way made by the hoofs of the horses, often crossed themselves as they passed along some gloomy grove of trees, or wound across the solitary glades where everything was so silent and gray that it seemed as if no life had stirred there since the beginning of the world.

To their simple minds they were risking the loss not only of their lives, but of their immortal souls, by venturing into these wild places, the haunts of wood-demons, trolls, and witches. They kept close together, the last man in the line looking ever behind him in dread; while all glanced furtively this way and that between the close trunks of the mossy trees, expecting every moment to see the evil eyes of elves gleaming out at them, or dreading that warlocks or witches, with red grinning mouths, would dart from behind some great screen of ivy or dodder which hung from some of the old trees.

The only sounds to be heard was the soft padding of their own footsteps over the thick grass, or the snap of a twig here and there. Sometimes far up through the dense leaves above their heads they could hear the cry of a bird, or from a thicket here and there would come strange uncanny cheep! cheep! but nothing could be seen. Once or twice they heard the murmur of water, and they would come upon a little lonely brooklet half hidden beneath the undergrowth.

Once they passed through a wide glade, and in the middle thereof were two green mounds close to each other, and at the sight of them the poor churls were exceeding afraid.

"Trolls' houses!" they whispered to each other, and pointed and hurried on.

"I doubt we 'scape with our souls this day," said one in a half whisper.

"Why doth he that leads us bring us by those places of dread?" growled another. "The trolls will spy us as we pass, and work some wizardry upon us, and the bones of all of us will be left to whiten in this unholy forest till the crack of doom."

So closely, in their terror, did they press upon the haunches of Waiter's horse that he had to warn them. "Keep back, thou fellows," he said. "Thou knowest my horse is mettlesome, and if he lash out at thee, thy heads, though thick, will not be thick enough to withstand his hoof."

By this time the light from the sky showed that the afternoon was drawing to even. Little had Robin spoken since he began the swift flight through the forest, but now he turned to Marian, and with a smile said:

"Forgive me, sweet lady, for my seeming churlishness. But Roger de Longchamp's friends at his castle of Evil Hold are men not to be despised. Their cruel deeds are not fit for thy ears, and I have hastened to escape them speedily. Have I taxed thee beyond thy strength?"

"Nay, nay, Robin dear," said Marian, with a sweet look. "I knew what was in thy heart, and therefore I troubled thee not with talk. But what mean you by the Evil Hold? I knew not Roger de Longchamp's castle of Wrangby was so named."

"That is how it is named by the poor folk who own him lord," replied Robin, "because of the nameless deeds that are committed there by him and his boon comrades, Isenbart de Belame, Niger le Grym, Hamo de Mortain, Ivo de Raby, and others."

Marian shuddered and paled at the names.

"I have heard of them" she said in a low voice. "Let us push on," she continued. "I am not tired, Robin, and I would fain see thee safe in Sir Richard's castle."

"Have no fear for me," laughed Robin. "While I have my good bow, and the greenwood stands to shelter me, I can laugh at all who wish me ill. In a little while now you shall be greeting your uncle, and safe within his strong walls."

Suddenly from somewhere in the twilight forest before them came a scream as of some animal or bird in the talons of a hawk. Robin stopped and peered forward. Then there came the lonely cry of a wolf, causing the villeins behind to shudder as they, too, strained their eyes into the murky depths of the trees.

Robin stepped forward, and as he did so he gave a cry as if a black-cock called his mate; then he led Marian's horse forward at a slow pace. In a little while they came to rising ground, and approaching the top they saw the sinking sun gleaming redly through the trees. At the summit they found the trees gave place to a gentle slope of green sward, and before them, beyond some meadows, lay a castle, and on a trackway not far from the forest were two riders passing toward the castle.

"I think," said Robin, "that yonder horsemen are Sir Richard and his kinsman, Sir Huon de Bulwell."

"It is in truth they," replied Marian; "I think they have been to meet me by the highway, and are no doubt wondering what hath befallen me. Give them a call, dear Robin, and do you, Walter, ride forward and tell them that, thanks to my friend, Robert of Locksley, I am safe and well."

Robin blew a blast on his horn. The horsemen turned their heads at the sound, and Marian, pushing her horse away from the trees, waved a kerchief at them. Instantly they recognized her, and waving their hands in greeting, began to ride toward the party.

"Tell me, Robin," said Marian, as having dismounted to rest her stiffened limbs, she walked beside her lover, "what meant those cries we heard but now? It was as if some one signaled and you answered them."

"It meant, sweetheart," replied Robin, "that a friend of mine in the greenwood there saw these horsemen and thought they might be our enemies. But I guessed they could not have reached this spot so quickly as we, and that they whom he saw were some of Sir Richard's meinie [followers] come to look for thee. Then I warned him that I thought all was well, and so came on."

"Who are these friends who guard you thus when you pass through the forest?" she asked. "Is it the same who shot those smaller arrows at Sir Roger's men?"

"I will tell thee, sweeting," replied Robin. "They are dwellers in the forest whom once I rescued from a fearful death at the hands of evil and cruel men. And ever since they have been my dear friends, to guard and watch for me when I am in the greenwood."

"I am glad thou hast such friends, dear Robin," said Marian. "It lightens my heart to think thou hast such faithful watchers. For I fear me that thou wilt have need of such ere long."

But now Sir Richard at Lee and his kinsman had come up, and great was their joy to find Fair Marian was safe, for they had been much troubled to find no sign of her upon the road by which she usually came; and were riding back to the castle to collect a body of retainers to search the forest roads for her.

When Sir Richard and Sir Huon were told of Sir Roger's attempt to kidnap Marian, and of how Robin had slain him, they looked grave, and Sir Huon shook his head. But Sir Richard, a gray-haired man with a noble countenance, turned to Robin and shook him by the hand heartily.

"Thou hast rid the earth of a vile oppressor and a felon knight," he cried, "and I for one thank thee heartily. The evil that he hath done to poor folks, the robbery of orphans, the cruelties to women — all his crimes have cried long to heaven for vengeance. And I rejoice that your good bolt hath pierced his evil brain."

"Ye say truth," said Sir Huon gravely, "but I think me of what Robin may suffer. The bishop will not let his brother go unavenged, nor will the comrades of Roger rest in their efforts to capture Robin and take him to their crucet-house [torture-house], which men rightly call the Evil Hold."

"Fear not for me," said Robin, with a quiet yet firm voice. "I doubt not I shall escape all their traps and snares. But do you and the father of my dear lady take care that, in despite, those evil knights do not capture Fair Marian and wreak their vengeance upon her. As for me, I will do all I may to shield her."

"Ye say truth," said Sir Richard. "I had not thought on that, but of a surety Isenbart de Belame and Niger le Grym will wish to seize our fair niece as a prize. God and Our Lady forfend us all from their evil wiles."

"Amen," said Robin; "and meanwhile I will keep a watch upon Castle Wrangby and its villainous lords."

For the next three days Robin and Marian, with Sir Richard and the Lady Alice, his wife, spent the time merrily together, hunting with hawks along the leas, or hunting the wild boar in the woods. At night in hall they played hoodman blind, or danced to the viols, or sat at draughts or chess, or heard minstrels sing to them or tell them tales of Arthur's knights, of Roland, and of Oliver his dear friend, or of Ogler the Dane, or Graelent, and how they had all vanished away into the realms of the Fairy Queen.

But on the fourth day Robin went into the forest to shoot small birds, and as he sat on a bank he heard the tapping as of a woodpecker. Looking up into the limbs of the wych-elm above him, he saw a little man's face peeping out through the leaves.

"Come down, Ket the Trow," said Robin, "and tell me thy news, lad."

Next moment the little man had dropped from the tree and stood before Robin. Ket was no taller than a medium-sized lad of fourteen, but he was a man full grown, with great breadth of chest, long, hairy arms and legs, the muscles on which stood up like iron bands. His hair was black, thick, and curly; he had no shoes on his feet, and the only covering he wore was a stout leather jacket laced in front, and close-fitting breeches of doe-skin that reached to his knees. His face, broad and good-natured, was lit up with a smile as he returned Robin's kindly gaze, and his eyes, bright and keen, yet gentle as those of a fawn, rested on Robin's face with a look of respect that was almost reverence.

"You followed the men that fled. Where went they?" asked Robin.

"Through the forest north by west went they, till they came to the burn," answered Ket. "They forded it at the Stakes and crossed the moor to the Ridgeway. Through Hag's Wood they wended and through Thicket Hollow, and then I knew where they would go; by the Hoar Tree and the Cwelm stone, over Gallows Hill and by the Mark Oak, till they came to the Dead Man's Hill, and so by the lane of the Red Stones to the Evil Hold. All night I watched in the Mark Oak, and at dawn I saw three knights ride from the castle. One went south by east, and with him on horses were two of the knaves I had followed. Two went east, and these I followed. They had ten horsed knaves with them. They went through Barnisdale Wood, and I left them on the wide road which leads to Doncaster."

"You did well, Ket," replied Robin. "And then?"

"I went to thy house, Outwoods, by Barnisdale Wood," replied Ket, "and Scadlock thy man I met in Old Nick's Piece, and sad was he, for he said that he saw Guy of Gisborne and two monks riding by thy land the day before, and they spoke together, and stopped and pointed at thy fields. And he thinks the curse of that Judas, Sir Guy, is on thy land, and that ruin cometh quickly to thee, and full was he of woe, and much he longed to see thy face."

The little man had dropped from the tree and stood before
Robin. Ket was no taller than a medium-sized lad of fourteen.

Robin was silent for a while, and he was sunk in thought.

"Heard you aught else? What of Scarlet and the little lad?"

"I saw them not, but at night I crept down to the village and stole beside the cot with the bush before the door [the village alehouse], and leaned my ear against a crack and listened. And much woe and anger was in the mouths of the villeins so that they drank little."

"What said they?" asked Robin. "How many think you were there?"

Ket lifted up both hands and showed ten, then he dropped one hand and showed five fingers and then two more.

"Were they the young men or the older?"

"Most were full of fiery words, and therefore young I guess," went on Ket. "They that had the sorest backs spoke most bitterly. Cruel had been the beatings at the post that day, it seems; one was yet in the pit, too sore to move; one had been burned that day with the branding-iron because the steward swore he was a thief — and he was most fierce of all; and many said their lives were too bitter to be borne. The work they must do on the lord's land was more than was due from them, and their own fields were left untilled, and therefore they starved. Some said they would run away to the town, where, if they could hide for a year and a day, they would be free men; others said the plague and pestilence could be got in a village cot as easily as in a town hovel, and they would prefer to live on the king's deer in the greenwood."

"Ay!" said Robin, in a bitter voice, "poor folks have no friends in these days. The king's own sons rebel and war upon their father, the lords and monks fight for power and wider lands, and grind the faces of their villeins to the soil which they delve and dig, and squeeze from them rents and services against all rightful custom. Ket!" he said, rising, "I will go home this day. Find Hob, your brother, and when I have said farewell to my friends I will come anon."

Saying these words, Robin picked up the birds he had shot and went back to the castle of Sir Richard, to say farewell to Marian. Ket the Trow or Troll glided among the trees and disappeared.

That day, when the shadows of the trees cast by the sinking sun lay far over the fields, and in the warmth and quiet of the departing day there seemed no room in the peaceful world except for happy thoughts, Robin with quick soft steps came to the edge of Barnisdale Forest where it marched with his own land.

The forest side was on high ground, which then sank gently away to his fields. Long and earnestly he looked at his house, and beyond to the cots of the five villeins who were part of his land. His own house and the garth or yard in the low quickset hedge about it seemed quite peaceful, as indeed it should be at that time. Perhaps Scadlock, his bailiff, was inside, but the villeins must still be at work in the fields. Then it struck him that perhaps it was too quiet. There were no children tumbling and playing about in the dusty space before the villeins' cottages, but every door was fast closed, and no life stirred.

He was about to continue his walk under the trees to gain the footpath which led to the front of his house, when he saw a woman, a serf's wife, steal from the door of her hovel and creep along to the end of the hedge· There she stood, and seemed to watch for some one coming across the fields on the other side of the house. Suddenly he saw her with both hands gesticulating, as if signing to some one to keep away. For a long time she stood thus, but from where Robin stood he could not see who it was to whom she made her signal.

At length the woman, having apparently succeeded in giving her warning, stole cautiously back into her house and quietly closed the door.

Something was wrong. Of that Robin was certain now. Glancing warily this way and that, he went further among the trees, and approached the head of the footpath with every care. Suddenly as he looked from behind a tree he dodged down again. A man-at-arms stood beneath the next tree, which threw its broad branches over the footpath.

From behind the beech trunk Robin keenly observed the man, whose back was toward him. He had evidently been put there to guard the approach from the forest. From where he stood the soldier could see the front of the house, and something that was happening there seemed to hold his attention. Sometimes he gave a laugh or a grunt of satisfaction.

Robin's eyes went hard of look. He knew the man by his tunic of red cloth and his helm to be one of the guard of armed retainers which the abbot of St. Mary's, lord of the manor, had formed for his own dignity and to add to his retinue of lazy and oppressive menials. Very cautiously Robin crept along between the two trees, keeping himself hidden by the trunk against which the man leaned.

With the stealthiness and quietness of a wild cat, Robin covered the space, until only the trunk of the tree separated him from the unsuspecting soldier. He rose to his full height, but as he did so his leg snapped a twig jutting from the tree. The man half swung round at the noise, but next moment Robin's fingers were about his throat, and in that grip of iron he was powerless.

The man swooned, and then, laying him down, Robin quickly bound his hands and feet and placed a rough gag in his mouth, so that when he revived, as he would shortly, he would be unable to do any harm.

When Robin turned to see what had drawn the man's attention so much, a groan burst from his lips. Tied to posts in front of the house were Scadlock and three of the poor villeins. Their backs were bare, and before each stood a burly soldier with a long knotted strap in his hand.

A little way from them stood others of the men-at-arms and their chief, Hubert of Lynn, a man whom for his brutal insolence and cruelty Robin had long hated. In the still air of the afternoon Robin's keen ears could catch the laughter which came from Hubert and his men. At length, when all seemed ready, the voice of the leader rang out:

"A hundred lashes first for these dogs that would resist the servants of their lord, and then an arrow for each. Now — go!"

Almost as if one man moved the four whips, they rose in the air and came down upon the bare backs which, since Robin had been their lord, had never been wealed by the cruel whip.

Robin, under the beechen boughs, picked up his longbow and the long deer-bolts or arrows, which he had lain down when he had prepared to creep upon the man at the top of the path. He twanged his bow-string, saw that it was well set to the bow, and laid each arrow apart before him.

Then kneeling on one knee, he whispered a prayer to Our Lady.

"The light is bad, fair and sweet Mother of Christ," he said, "but do thou guide my arrows to the evil hearts of these men. Six bolts have I, and out of the pity I have for my poor folk, I would slay first him with the bitterest heart, Hubert of Lynn, and then those four with whips. Hear me, O our sweet Lady, for the sake of thy Son who was so stern against wrong, and pitiful for weak folk. Amen."

Then he notched the first shaft, and aimed it at the breast of Hubert. Singing its deep song as if in exultation, the great arrow leaped through the air upon its way. When it was but half-way across the field, another, with as triumphant a song, was humming behind it.

With a cry, Hubert sank on one knee to the ground, the shaft jutting from his breast. Feebly he tried to pluck it forth, but his life was already gone. He fell over on his side, dead. At the same time the place seemed full of great bees. First one man dropped his whip, spun round with his hands upon a bolt in his side, and then fell. Another sank to the ground without a murmur; a second leaped in the air like a shot rabbit; and the other, with one arm pinned to his side by an arrow, ran across the field swaying this way and that, until he dropped in a furrow and lay still.

There were four who remained untouched, but filled with such consternation were they, that they broke and fled in all directions. So dazed was one that he came flying up the field path at the head of which Robin still kneeled, terrible in his wrath, with his last bolt notched upon his string. The fellow ran with open arms, terror in his eyes, thinking not at all of whither he was going.

He pulled up when he came within a few yards of Robin, and yelled:

"O master, be you fiend or man, shoot not! Thy witch bolts spoke as they came through the air. I yield me! I yield me!"

The man fell before Robin, crying: "I will be your man, lord. I was an honest man two days ago, and the son of an honest man, and my heart rose against the evil work I was in."

Robin rose to his feet, and the man clutched his hands and placed his head between in token of fealty.

"See to it," said Robin sternly, "that you forget not your plighted word. How long have you been with Hubert and his men?"

"But two days, lord," said the man, whose simple and honest eyes were now less wide with terror. "I am Dudda or Dodd, son of Alstan, a good villein at Blythe, and forasmuch as my lord beat me without justice I fled to the woods. But I starved, and for need of food I crept out and lay at the abbey door and begged for bread. And they fed me, and seeing I was strong of my limbs said I should bear arms. And I rejoiced for a time till the cruel deeds they boasted of as done upon poor villeins like myself made me hate them."

"Get up, Dodd," said Robin. "Remember thy villein blood henceforth, and do no wrong to thy kind. Come with me."

Robin went down to the garth of his farm, released poor Scadlock and his other men, then entered the house and found salves wherewith he anointed their wealed and broken backs.

"'Twas but yesterday, master," said Scadlock, in reply to Robin's question as to what had happened, "that they proclaimed you an outlaw from the steps of the cross at Ponrefract, and this morning Hubert of Lynn came to possess your lands for the lord abbot. We here — Ward, Godard, Dunn and John — could not abear to see this wrong done, and so, like poor fools, with sticks and forks we tried to beat them back."

"Ay, poor lads, foolish and faithful, ye had like to have paid with your lives for it," said Robin. "But now, come in and feed, and I will take counsel what must needs be done."

By this time it was dark. One of the women was called in from the serfs' cottages, a fire was lit in the center of the one large room which formed Robin's manor-house, and soon bowls of good hot food were being emptied, and spirits were reviving. Even the captured man-at-arms was not forgotten; he was brought in and fed, and then lodged securely in a strong outhouse for the night.

"Master," said Scadlock, as he and Robin were returning to the house from this task, "what is in your mind to do? Must it be the woods and the houseless life of an outlaw for you?"

"There is no other way," said Robin with a hard laugh. "And glad I shall be, for in the greenwood I may try to do what I may to give the rich and the proud some taste of what they give to the poor men whom they rule."

"And I will go with you, master, with a very glad heart," said Scadlock. "And so will the others, for after this day they can expect no mercy from Guy of Gisborne."

Suddenly they heard across the fields toward the village the sound of many voices, and listening intently, they could hear the tramp of feet.

"It is Guy of Gisborne and his men-at-arms!" said Scadlock. "Master, we must fly to the woods at once."

"Nay, nay," said Robin, "think you Guy of Gisborne would come cackling like so many geese to warn me of his approach? They are the villeins of the manor, though what they do abroad so late is more than I may say. They will smart for it tomorrow, I ween, when the steward learns of it."

"Nay, master," came a voice for the darkness at their elbow; "there'Il be no morrow for them in bondage if you will but lead us."

It was the voice of one of the older villeins, who had stolen up before the crowd. It was Will of the Stuteley, generally called Will the Bowman — a quiet, thoughtful man, whom Robin had always liked. He had been reeve or head villein in his time.

"What, Will," said Robin, "what would they with me? Where should I lead them?"

"Give them a hearing, Master Robert," said Will. "Their hearts are overfull, but their stomachs are nigh empty, so driven and stressed beyond fair duty have they been this winter and summer. First the failure of harvest, then a hard winter, a hungry summer, and a grasping lord who skins us. I tell thee I can bear no more, old as I am."

"Well, well, Will, here they are," replied Robin, as a crowd of dark forms came into the yard. "Now, lads, what is it you want of me?" he cried.

"We would run to the greenwood, master," some cried. "Sick and sore are we of our hard lot, and we can bear no more," cried others.

Unused to much speaking, they could not explain their feelings any more, and so waited, hoping that he who was so much wiser, yet so kind, would be able to understand all the bitterness that was in their hearts.

"Well," said Robin earnestly, "and if you run to the woods, what of your wives and children?"

"No harm can come to them," was the reply. "Our going will give them more worth in the eyes of the lord and his steward. We do not own them. They are the chattels of the lord, body and soul. There will be more food for them if we go."

There was some truth in this, as Robin knew. The lord and his steward would not visit their vengeance upon the women and children of those villeins who ran away. The work on the manor lands must go on, and the women and children helped in this. Some of the older women held plots of land, which were tilled by their sons or by poorer men in the hamlet who held no land, and who for their day's food were happy to work for anyone who would feed and shelter them.

"How many of ye are there?" asked Robin. "Are there any old men among ye?"

"There are thirty of us. Most of us are young and wiser than our fathers," growled one man. "Or we will put up with less these days," added another.

"So you will let the work of the manor and the due services ye owe to the lord fall on the shoulders of the old men, the women, and the youngsters?" said Robin, who was resolved that if these men broke from their lord they should know all the consequences. "Come, lads, is it manly to save our own skins and let the moil and toil and swinking labor light on the backs of those less able to bear the heat of the noonday sun, the beat of the winter rain?"

Many had come hot from the fierce talk of the wilder men among them as they sat in the alehouse, and now in the darkness and the chill air of the night their courage was oozing, and they glanced this way and that, as if looking how to get back to their huts, where wife and children were sleeping.

But others, of sterner stuff, who had suffered more or felt more keenly, were not to be put off. Some said they were not married, others that they would bear no more the harsh rule of Guy of Gisborne.

Suddenly flying steps were heard coming toward them, and all listened, holding their breath. The fainter hearted, even at the sound, edged out of the crowd and crept away.

A little man crashed through the hedge and lit almost at the feet of Robin.

"'Tis time ye ceased your talking," he said, his voice panting and a strange catch in it.

"'Tis Much, the Miller's son!" said they all, and waited. They felt that something of dread had happened, for he was a fearless little man, and not easily moved.

"'Tis time ye ceased plotting, lads," he said, with a curious break in his voice. "Ye are but serfs, of no more worth than the cattle ye clean or the gray swine ye feed-written down on the lawyers' parchments with the ploughs, the mattocks, the carts, and the hovels ye lie in, and to be sold at the lord's will as freely!"

Tears were in his voice, so great was his passion, so deeply did his knowledge move him.

"I tell thee thou shouldst creep back to the sties in which ye live," he went on, "and not pretend that ye have voice or wish in what shall befall ye. For the lord is sick of his unruly serfs, and tomorrow — tomorrow he will sell thee off his land!"

A great breath of surprise and rage rose from the men before him.

"Sell us?" they cried. "He will sell us?"

"Ay, he will sell some ten of thee. The parchment is already written which shall pass thee to Lord Arnald of Shotley Hawe."

"That fiend in the flesh!" said Robin, "and enemy of God — that flayer of poor peasants' skins! But, lads, to sell thee! Oh, vile!"

A great roar, like the roar of maddened oxen, rose from the throats of the villeins. Oh, it was true that, in strict law, the poor villeins could be sold like cattle, but on this manor never had it been known to be done. They held their little roods of land by due services rendered, and custom ruled that son should inherit after father, and all things should be done according to what the older men said was the custom of the manor.

But now to be rooted out of the place they and their folk had known for generations, and sold like cattle in a market-place! Oh, it was not to be borne!

"Man," said one, "where got you this evil news?"

"From Rare, man to Lord Arnald's steward," replied Much. "I met him at the alehouse in Blythe, and he told it me with a laugh, saying that Guy of Gisborne had told the steward we were an unruly and saucy lot of knaves whom he knew it would be a pleasure for his lordship to tame."

"Ye say there are ten of us to be sold?" asked a timid voice in the rear. "Do ye know who these be?"

"What matter?" roared one man. "It touches us all. For me, by the holy rood, I will run to the woods, but I will put my mark on the steward ere I go."

"Rare knew not the names of any," said Much. "What matter, as Hugh of the Forde says. There are ten of ye. They are those who have given the hardest words to Guy of Gisborne, and have felt the whip most often across their backs at the post."

"How many of us are here, lads?" said Will the Bowman in a hard voice.

"We were thirty a while ago," said one with a harsh laugh. "But now we are but fourteen, counting Much."

"Where is Scarlet and his little lad?" asked Robin. He had suddenly remembered that his friend was not among others — yet Scarlet had been the boldest in opposing the unjust demands and oppressive exactions of the steward.

"Will Scarlet lies in the pit!" said Much, "nigh dead with a hundred lashes. Tomorrow he will be taken to Doncaster, where the king's justice sits, to lose his right hand for shooting the king's deer."

"By the Virgin!" cried Robin, "that shall not be. For I will take him from the pit this night." He started off, but many hands held him back.

"Master, we will go with thee!" cried the others.

"See here, Master Robin," said Will the Bowman, speaking quietly, but with a hard ring in his voice. "We be fourteen men who are wearied of the ill we suffer daily. If we do naught now against the evil lord who grinds us beneath his power we shall be for ever slaves. I for one will rather starve in the greenwood than suffer toil and wrongful ruling any more. What say you, lads all?"

"Yea, yea! We will go to the greenwood!" they cried.

"Whether Master Robin leads us or not, we will go!" Robin's resolution was quickly taken.

"Lads," he cried, "I will be one with you. Already have I done a deed which I knew would be done ere long, and I am doubly outlaw and wolf's-head. The abbot's men-at-arms came hither while! was away and claimed my lands. Scadlock and my good lads resisted them, and were like to suffer death for doing so. With my good bow I shot five of the lord's men, and their bodies lie in a row beneath that wall."

"I saw them as I entered," said Will the Bowman, "and a goodly sight it was. Had you not slain Hubert of Lynn, I had an arrow blessed by a goodly hermit for his evil heart, for the ill he caused my dear dead lad Christopher. Now, lads, hold up each your hand and swear to be true and faithful till your death day to our brave leader, Robert of Locksley."

All held up their hands, and in solemn tones took the oath.

"Now, lads, quickly follow," said Robin.

In a few moments the garth was empty, and the dark forms of Robin and his men were to be seen passing over the fields under the starlit sky.

There was not one backward look as the men passed through Fangthief Wood and came out on the wold behind the village. From here they could dimly see the little group of hovels lying huddled beside the church, the dull water of the river gleaming further still, and the burble and roar of the stream as it flowed through the millrace came faintly up to their ears.

In those days, whenever the villein raised his bended back from the furrows, and his eyes, sore with the sunglare or the driving rain, sought the hut he called home with thoughts of warmth and food, he was also reminded that for any offence which he might commit, his lord or the steward had speedy means of punishment. For, raised on a hill as near as possible to the huts of the serfs, was the gaunt gallows, and, near by, lay the pit. Gallows or Galley Hill is still the name which clings to a green hill beside many a pretty village, though the dreadful tree which bore such evil fruit has long since rotted or been hewn down. In the village street itself were the stocks, so that he who was fastened therein should escape none of the scorn, laughter, or abuse of his familiars.

It was thus with the village of Birkencar. On the wold to the north were the gallows and the pit, only a few yards from the manor-house, in the parlor of which Guy of Gisborne dealt forth what he was pleased to term "justice." The manor-house was now dark and silent; doubtless Guy was sleeping on the good stroke of business he had done in getting rid of his most unruly, stiff-necked serfs.

Over the thick grass of the grazing fields the steps of Robin and his men made no noise, and, having arrived at a little distance from where the gallows stood, Robin bade the others wait until he should give them a sign. Then, passing on as quietly as a ghost, Robin approached the prison built under ground, in which serfs were confined when they awaited even sterner justice than that which the lord of the manor could give.

The prison was entered by a door at the foot of a flight of steps dug out of the soil. Robin crept to the top of the steps and looked down. He did not expect to find any guard at the door, since the steward would not dream that anyone would have so much hardihood as to attempt a rescue from the lord's prison.

As Robin scanned keenly the dark hole below him, down which the starlight filtered faintly, he was surprised to see a small figure crouching at the door. He heard a groan come from within the prison, and the form beneath him seemed to start and cling closer to the door.

"O uncle," said a soft voice, which he knew was that of little Gilbert of the White Hand, "I thought thou didst sleep awhile, and that thy wounds did not grieve thee so much. Therefore I kept quiet and did not cry. Oh, if Master Robin were but here!"

"Laddie, thou must go home," came the weak tones of Scarlet from within the prison. "If Guy or his men catch thee here they will beat thee. That I could not bear. Laddie, dear laddie, go and hide thee somewhere."

"O Uncle Will, I can't," wailed the little lad. "It would break my heart to leave thee here — to think thou wert lying here in the dark with thy poor back all broken and hurt, and no one near to say a kind word. Uncle, I have prayed so much this night for thee — I am sure help must come soon. Surely the dear sweet Virgin and good Saint Christopher will not turn deaf ears to a poor lad's prayers." "But, laddie mine, thou art sick thyself," came Scarlet's voice. "To stay there all night will cause thee great ill, and — "

"Oh, what will it matter if thou art taken from me," cried the little boy, all his fortitude breaking down. He wept bitterly, and pressed with his hands at the unyielding door. "If they slay thee, I will make them slay me too, for my life will be all forlorn without thee, dear, dear Uncle Will!"

"Hallo, laddie, what's all this coil about?" cried Robin in a hearty voice, as he rose and began to descend the steps.

Little Gilbert started up half in terror; then, as he realized who it was, he rushed toward Robin, and seizing his hands covered them with kisses. Then, darting back to the door, he put his lips to a crack and cried delightedly:

"I said so! I said so! God and His dear Saints and the Virgin have heard me. Here is Robin come to take you out."

"Have they scored thee badly, Will?" asked Robin.

"Ay, Robin, dear man," came the answer with a faint laugh; "worse than a housewife scores her sucking pig."

"Bide quiet a bit, lad," replied Robin, "and I'll see if what axe has done axe can't undo."

With keen eyes he examined the staples through which the ring-bolt passed. Then with two deft blows with his axe and a wrench with his dagger he had broken the bolt and pulled open the door. The little lad rushed in at once, and with a knife began carefully to cut his uncle's bonds.

Robin gave the cry of a plover, and Scadlock with two of his own villeins hurried up.

"Quick, lads," he said. "Bring out Will Scarlet; we must take him to Outwoods and bathe and salve his wounds."

In a few moments, as gently as was possible, they brought poor Scarlet forth and laid him on the grass. A hearty but silent handgrip passed between him and Robin, while little Gilbert, his eyes bright, but his lips dumb with a great gratitude, kissed Robin's hand again and again.

"Where are the others?" asked Robin of Scadlock, when two of the men had raised Scarlet on their shoulders and were tramping down hill.

"I know not," said Scadlock. "They were whispering much among themselves when you had gone, and suddenly I looked round and they were not there. I thought some wizard had spirited them away for the moment, but soon I saw some of them against the stars as they ran bending over the hill."

"Whither went they?" asked Robin, a suspicion in his mind.

"Toward the manor-house," was the reply.

"Go ye to Outwoods," Robin commanded. "Do all that is needed for Scarlet, and await me there."

With rapid strides Robin mounted the down, while the others with their burden wended their way toward Fangthief Wood. When Robin reached the top of the down the manor-house stood up before him all black against the stars. He ran forward to the high bank which surrounded it, but met no one. Then he found the great gate, which was open, and he went into the garth and a few steps along the broad way leading up to the door.

Suddenly a form sprang up before him — that of Much, the Miller's son.

"Ay, 'tis Master Robin," he said in a low voice, as if to others, and from behind a tree came Will Stuteley and Kit the Smith.

"What's toward, lads?" asked Robin. "Think ye to break in and slay Guy? I tell ye the manor-house can withstand a siege from an armed troop, and ye have no weapons but staves and your knives."

"Master Robin," said Will the Bowman, "I would that ye stood by and did naught in this matter. 'Tis a villein deed for villein fowk to do. 'Tis our right and our deed; in the morn when we're in the greenwood we'll do thy biddin' and look to no one else."

A flame suddenly shot up from a heap of dried brush laid against a post of the house before them, then another near it, and still another. The sun had been shining fiercely the past two weeks, and everything was as dry as tinder. Built mainly of wood the manor-house would fall an easy prey to the flames.

"But at least ye must call out the women," urged Robin. "There is the old dame, Makin, and the serving-wench-would ye burn innocent women as well?"

Already the inmates were aware of their danger. A face appeared at a window shutter. It was that of Guy. A stone hit the frame as he looked out and just missed him as he dodged back.

Huge piles of brushwood had been heaped round the house, and these were burning furiously in many places, and the planks of the walls had caught fire, and were crackling and burning fiercely.

"Guy of Gisborne!" came the strong voice of Will the Bowman, "thy days are ended. We have thee set, like a tod [fox] in his hole. But we've no call to burn the women folk. Send 'em out, then, but none o' thy tricks."

They heard screams, and soon the front door was flung open and two women stood in the blazing entrance. One of the men with a long pole raked the blazing brushwood away to give them space to come out. They ran forward and the door closed. Next moment it had opened again, and a spear came from it. It struck the villein with the pole full in the throat, and without a groan he fell.

A yell of fury rose from the others who were standing by, and some were for rushing forward to beat down the door.

"Ha' done and keep back!" came the stern level tones of Will the Bowman. "There's nobbut the steward in the house and he'll burn. Heap up the wood, and keep a keen watch on the back door and the windows."

An arrow came from an upper window and stuck in a tree near which Will was standing. Will plucked out the quivering shaft and looked at it coolly.

"Say, Makin," he said to the old woman who had come from the house, "are there any of the abbot's archers in th' house?"

"Noa," replied the old housekeeper; "nobbut the maistet."

"I thought 'twas so," replied Will. "Yet he should shoot a bolt better than that."

"You're no doomed to die by an arrow," said the old dame, and laughed, showing her yellow toothless gums.

"No, maybe so," replied Will, "and maybe not. I lay no store by thy silly' talk, Makin."

"Nor will the maistet die by the fire ye've kindled so fine for un," went on the old woman, and laughed again.

Will the Bowman looked at the fiercely burning walls of the house and made no answer. But he smiled grimly. Who could escape alive from this mass of twisting and whirling flames?

Suddenly from the rear of the house came cries of terror. Robin, followed by Will, quickly ran round, and in the light of the burning house they saw the villeins on that side with scared faces looking and pointing to a distance. They turned in the direction indicated, and saw what seemed to be a brown horse running away over the croft.

Glancing back they saw that the door of a storehouse which adjoined the manor-house was open, though its wood and flame were burning. With a cry of rage Will the Bowman suddenly started running toward the horse.

"Come back! come back!" cried the villeins in terrified voices. "'Tis the Spectre Beast! 'Twill tear thee to pieces!"

But he still ran on, and as he ran they could see him trying to notch an arrow to the bow he held in his hand.

"Whence did it come?" asked Robin of the villeins.

"It burst on a sudden from the house, with a mane all of fire and its eyes flashing red and its terrible mouth open," was the reply. "It ran at Bat the Coalman there, and I thought he was doomed to be torn to pieces, but the Bargast turned and dashed away over the croft."

"I think Guy has escaped you," said Robin, who suspected what had happened.

"How meanst tha?" asked Bat the Charcoal-burner.

"I doubt not that Guy of Gisborne has wrapped himself in some disguise and frightened you, and has now got clear away," replied Robin.

"But 'twas the Spectre Mare!" the villeins asserted. "We saw its mane all afire, and its red flashing eyes and its terrible jaws all agape."

Robin did not answer. He knew it was in vain to fight against the superstition of the poor villeins. Instead, he went back to where he had left Makin, the old woman.

"Makin," he said, "did thy master flay a brown horse but lately?"

"Ay, but two days agone."

"And where was the hide?"

"In th' store beyond the house."

"Thou saidst thy master should not die by fire, Makin?"

"Ay," replied the old woman, and her small black eyes in a weazened yellow face looked narrowly into Robin's.

"Will the Bowman hath gone to shoot thy master," went on Robin; "but I think he will not catch him. I think thou shouldst not bide here till Will comes back, Makin. He will be hot and angry, and will strike blindly if he guesses."

The old woman smiled, and gave a little soft laugh. Then, with a sudden anger and her eyes flashing, she turned upon Robin, and in a low voice said:

"And could I do aught else? A hard man he's been and a hard man he'll be to his last day — as hard to me as to a stranger. But these arms nursed him when he was but a wee poor bairn. 'Twas I told him what to do wi' the hide of the old mare. Could I do aught else?"

"Ay," said Robin, "I know thou'st been mother to a man who has but a wolf's heart. But now, get thee gone ere Will of Stuteley comes."

Without another word, the old woman turned and hurried away in the darkness.

A little while later Will the Bowman returned, and full of rage was he.

"The dolterheads!" he cried. "Had ye no more sense in thy silly heads as not to know that so wily a man would be full of tricks? Spectre in truth and in deed! Old women ye are, and only fitten to tend cows and be sold like cows! Could ye not see his legs beneath the hide of the horse which he'd thrown over himself? — wolf in horse's skin that he is. Go back to thy villein chores; ye're no worthy to go to the greenwood to be free men."

He went off in great anger, and would say no word to anyone.

It was only later that he told Robin that he had run after the horse-like figure, and had distinctly seen the human legs beneath the hide. He had tried a shot at it, but had missed, and the figure ran forward to the horse pasture on the moor. There his suspicions had been proved to be true, for he had seen Guy of Gisborne pull the hide off himself, and jump on one of the horses in the field and ride away, taking the hide with him.

"Now, lads," said Robin to the villeins, "'tis no use wasting time here. The wolf hath stolen away, and soon will rouse the country against us. You must to the greenwood, for you have done such a deed this night as never hath been done by villeins against their lord's steward as far back as the memory of man goeth."

"Thou'rt right, maister," they said. "'Tis for our necks now we must run. But great doltheads we be, as Will said truly, to let the evil man slip out of our hands by a trick!"

No more, however, was said. All made haste to leave the burning manor-house, most of which was now a blackening or smouldering ruin. Rapidly they ran downhill, and having picked up Scadlock and the other villeins with Scarlet and the little lad, Robin led the way under the waning stars to the deep dark line of forest which rose beside his fields.

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