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WINTER was gone, the weak spring sunlight struck its rays deep through the bare brown trees of Sherwood, the soft wind dangled the catkins on the hazel, the willow, and the poplar; and the thrush, who had lived in the glade for five winters, sat high on the top of the tallest elm, and shouted to all who chose to listen that he could not see snow anywhere, that the buds on all the trees were growing as fast as they could, that the worms were beginning to peep through the mould, and, indeed, that food and life and love were come again into a world which for long weeks had seemed to be dead, and wrapped in its winding-sheet for evermore.

A wide glade, strangely clear of all bushes, lay far down before him, and on one side of it were two great green hillocks, nearly side by side. One rose well out in the glade, but the shadows from the fringe of the forest lay on the heaving swell of the other.

There seemed no sign of human life anywhere in the vast glade. Certainly a faint path seemed to start from a particular spot on the green side of the further mound and lead toward the forest; but that might easily be the track of a couple of hares who had made their home in the hill, and who, as is well known, always race along one beaten track to their feeding-ground.

Suddenly from the forest on the wider side of the glade the figure of a small man ran out into the open. As swiftly as a hare he raced over the grass, breasted the nearest mound, and reaching the top, seemed suddenly to sink into the ground. It was Hob o' the Hill. A few moments later, and on that side of the mound which faced the nearer forest, a portion of the green turf seemed suddenly to fall in, and the two small forms of Hob o' the Hill and Ket his brother came out. They looked keenly round, the turf behind them closed again, and with swift steps they ran along the little path, Every now and then they glanced behind to see that they kept the bulk of the mound between them and prying eyes in the forest at the point whence Hob had issued.

In a little while they gained the nearer verge of the forest, and ran forward through its shady aisles under the bare brown trees. For a space of time wherein a man might count twenty there was no movement in the glade. But then, at that part of the forest whence Hob had first run, came the sound of hoofs, the flash of arms, and along a narrow path there came eight riders who, issuing from the trees into the glade, stopped and gazed forward.

The foremost of these was a man of fine, almost courtly, bearing, with handsome features. On his head was a steel cap, his broad breast was covered with a hauberk, and in his right hand was a lance. Beside him on a palfrey rode a man of mild and gentle countenance, who looked like a chaplain, for he was clothed in the semi-monkish robe of a clerk. Behind them rode six men, each with lance, hauberk and steel cap, quivers at their back, and bows slung within easy reach at their saddle-bows. They had the frank, open look of freemen, and were evidently a bodyguard of freeholding tenants.

"Well, Master Gaminell," said the clerk, looking this way and that, "which is the way now? In this wilderness of trees and glades and downs it passes me to know where thou canst hope to find this runagate kinsman of thine."

"'Tis as clear as noonday," said Master Gaminell, with a laugh. "'Beyond the two howes,' was the word of the good churl at Outwoods, 'through the wood for a mile till you come to the lithe. Then search the scar of Clumber cliffs beyond the stream, and'" — Master Gammell laughed good-humoredly — "'belike an arrow in your ribs from Lord knows where will tell you that your man has seen you, even though you have not seen a sign of him.' The way is clear, therefore, good Simon," he ended, "to the place where Robin has wintered, so let us push forward."

Putting spurs to his horse, the leader, Alfred of Gammell, or Gamwell, pushed forward into the glade, followed by the clerk and six archers.

"Let us not pass too close to those green hills," said Simon. "Men say that fiends dwell within them, and may work wizardry upon us if we pass within the circuit of their power."

"Thou art no countryman," laughed Master Gaminell. "There be many such mounds scattered up and down the country hereabouts, and no man ever got hurt from them that I know of. Indeed, one was upon my waste land at Locksley, and though I remember my villeins came and begged me not to dig it up, I said I could not let it cumber land that could be brought into good ploughland, and therefore I had it digged up, and naught ill was found in it but a hollow in the midst and an old jar with a few burned bones therein, and some elf-bolts and bits of stone. Such things are but ancient graves."

"Yet have I read," went on the clerk, "that it is within such high mounds in lonely places that one enters into entrancing lands of green twilight, where lovely fiends do dwell, and dreadful wizards work their soul-snatching wiles and enchantment."

"I fear me," said Gammell, "that such tales are of no greater truth than the songs and stories of lying jongleurs, which serve but to pass an empty hour or two, but are not worth the credence of wise men."

Nevertheless, the clerk kept a keen eye on the green hills as they rode beside them, as if every moment he expected something of mysterious evil to issue from them and 'whelm them in the chains of some strange enchantment. When they entered the forest beyond, he still kept his glance continually moving through the dim ways. Simon, indeed, loved not the dark woods. He was a man who had lived much in towns, and thought that there was no sweeter sound than the shouts of men and women chaffering in the marketplace, nor more pleasant sight than the street with its narrow sky blocked out by high pent roofs.

They had ridden about half a mile through the wood, when suddenly a shrill call resounded above their heads. 'Twas like the cry of a bird in the talons of a hawk, and almost without knowing it, all lifted their eyes to see the kill. As they did so a great voice shouted: "Stand, travelers, and stir not!"

At these words their eyes were swiftly brought down, and looking round, they saw that where they had seen only the dark trunks of trees were now some twenty men in dark brown tunic, hose and hood, each with a great bow stretched taut, and his hand upon the feather of an arrow drawn to his very ear.

One or two of the men-at-arms riding behind their master cursed in their beards and glared fiercely about, as if to seek for a way of escape. But looking closely they perceived that the bowmen surrounded them on all sides. Their dark tunics and hose, being of the color of the trees, made them so like the very trunks themselves that some had thought for a moment that they looked at a gnarled thorn or a young oak, until the glint of light on the keen arrow point had shown them their error.

Alfred of Gammell bit his lip, and his eyes flashed in anger; but his good-humor conquering his chagrin, he said: "Well, good fellows, what want ye of me?"

"Throw down thy weapons," came the answer from a tall and powerful man standing beside the trunk of an oak just before them.

Very glumly the six archers did as the robber bade them, and when all their weapons were lying on the ground, came the command:

"Ride forward ten paces!" When this had been done, the speaker gave orders to three of his men to pick up the weapons.

"Now," said he to Master Gammell, "thou shalt come away and see our master who rules in these shaws."

"Who may your master be, tall man?" asked Gammell angrily, as the man seized his horse's bridle and drew him forward.

"That's for him to say," said the robber. "But 'tis to be hoped thy purse is well lined, for though he will dine thee and thy company well, thou wilt have to pay thy shot."

Master Gammell was prevented from replying by a shout which came from among the trees before them. Looking in that direction, they were aware of a tall man coming toward them, with two little men walking beside him. The tall man was dressed in green, with a cloak or capote which reached to his knees, while his head was covered and his face concealed by a hood.

The robber who held the bridle checked Gammell's horse as the man in green approached, and said:

"Master, here be a party of foolish armed men blundering through thy woods as if they had the word of peace from thee that the king himself hath not got. Wilt thou dine them, or shall we take toll of their purses and let them gang their way lighter and wiser than they came?"

For a moment the man in green stood in silence looking up at the face of the first horseman. Then, with a frank laugh he approached with outstretched hand, and throwing off the hood so that his face was seen, he said:

"Thy hand, cousin, and thy forgiveness for my men's rough ways."

With a start, Gammell looked keenly at the face of Robin Hood, for he was the man in green; then, clasping the outstretched hand of the outlaw, he laughingly said:

"Robin, Robin, thou rascal! I should have known that these were thy faithful fellows. Thou art the man of all men I came hither to see."

Gammell leaped from his horse, and the two men embraced, kissing each other on both cheeks. Then Gammell held Robin at arm's length and looked at him, scanning with half-laughing, half-admiring eyes the tanned face with the fearless bright eyes, the head of dark brown hair, and the length and strength of limb.

"By the shrine of Walsingham!" said Gammell, "I should hardly have known thee, so large of limb thou hast grown since we parted five years ago at Locksley. Robin, sorry was I to hear thou hadst been forced to flee to the greenwood — pity 'tis thou wert ever so free of speech and quick of action!"

"Now, lad," replied Robin soberly, "naught of that. We could never agree on it. Thou hast found it pay thee best to court the strong lord whose lands lie by thine, and to shut thy eyes to many things which I must speak and fight against. Now, tell me, coz, why camest thou here?"

"To see thee, Robin, and to thank thee," was the reply, "and also to warn thee!"

"To thank me?"

"Ay, for that noble deed of thine at Havelond!" said Gammell. "'Twas but justice that thou didst give to those traitors and robbers of our poor cousin, after she had in vain besought justice of the king's court — indeed, at his very seat!"

This indeed had been an act which, almost as much as his first flight after slaying the lord abbot's men-at-arms, had made Robin's fame spread wide through the lands of Yorkshire, Derby, and Nottingham which lay beside the great rolling forests. It had happened in the late autumn, just before winter with its iron hand had locked the land in ice and snow. Robin had a cousin, a lady named Alice of Havelond, who had married Bennett, a well-to-do yeoman who dwelled in Scaurdale in Yorkshire. Two years before the plundering Scots and fiendish Galloway men, wild and fierce and cruel as mountain cats, had come from the north ravaging and burning. A Scottish knight had taken Bennett and held him to ransom, and shut him in prison until his ransom should be paid. In his absence, Thomas of Patherley and Robert of Prestbury, neighbors of his wife's, had seized on his fields at Havelond, divided them between themselves, and pulled down the houses, even throwing Alice his wife out of the house in which she dwelled.

No justice had the poor lady been able to get, neither from the king's justices, nor from the steward of the lord from whom the land was held. Then, when he had lain a year in prison, she was able to pay her husband's ransom. He returned, and full of anger on hearing of the robbery of his lands, had entered on the same lands as the rightful owner. His enemies lay in wait, and beat him so greatly that barely was he left alive. His wife went to the king's court, and after long and weary waiting was told that Bennett must make his appeal in person — though the poor man was so ill from his beating that he would be sick and maimed for life. It seemed, therefore, that Thomas of Patherley and Robert of Prestbury, having shown themselves to be strong and unscrupulous, would be left in undisturbed possession of the lands which they had robbed.

Then Alice had bethought herself of her kinsmen. She had gone to Alfred of Gammell, and he had promised to take the case again to the king's court, but the lady despaired of justice in that way. Then she had taken horse, and, with one serving-girl and a villein, had sought the greenwood where her bold kinsman, Robin Hood, was said to lurk, and after many toils had found him and told him all her trouble, and begged his help.

Robin had sent her away comforted, but she had kept word of her visit to him very secret. A few days had passed, and then one night men in Scaurdale had seen two houses burning far away on the wolds, and knew that somehow vengeance had fallen on the two robbers. Next day ail knew and rejoiced in the bold deed — that Robin o' the Hood had come and slain both Thomas of Patherley and Robert of Prestbury, and thus had given back to Bennett of Havelond the fields which the evil men had wrested from him.

"I tell thee," said Alfred of Gammell, his admiration breaking through his well-bred dislike of violent deeds, "that deed of thine made all high-handed men dwelling beside the forests bethink themselves that if they oppressed too cruelly their turn might come next."

"I hope they think thus," said Robin, and his face was grim. "If men let such a wrong go unpunished and unrighted as was suffered by Bennett and our cousin, to whom can those who are oppressed look to for succor? Not to thy soft priests, cousin, who squeeze poor men as evilly as any robber baron, and who fill their purses with money wrung from poor yeomen. But tell me, against whom wouldst thou warn me?"

"Against Sir Guy of Gisborne and his evil plots," replied Gammell. "I was yesterday at Outwoods, which now the king's bailiff holds, until a year and a day from when thou weft made outlaw. There I sought out Cripps, the old reeve, whom I knew was thy friend, and he told me that Sir Guy hath his discomfiture by thee and thy fellows keenly at heart. A bitter man he was before thou didst burn him from his house, but now he is still more evil-minded and harsh. And he hath sworn by dreadful oaths to have thee taken or slain."

"What plots did old Cripps speak of?"

"He hath become hand in glove with Ralp Murdach, the sheriff of Nottinghamshire, and the villeins say that wandering men have told them that, together, Sir Guy and Master Murdach are bribing evil men to dress as beggars, palmers, and hucksters to wander through the forests to find thy secret places, so that one day they may gather their men-at-arms and fall upon thee."

"I thank thee for thy counsel," said Robin, appearing not to treat it, however, as of any special importance; "but now thou and thy men shall dine with me this day."

They had by this time reached a secret place in some tree-clad hills which rose steeply up beside a river in the forest, and in a cave a feast was already spread, at which all now sat down to do full justice.

Robin and his men inquired of Gammell whether Sir Guy now treated the villeins of the manor more harshly than before.

"Men say that he does not," was the reply; "and for a good reason. It is said that when Abbot Robert of St. Mary's heard of thy slaying the men-at-arms and of the flight of thy fellows, he was exceeding wroth with Sir Guy, and told him that he had overdriven the people of his manor, and must look to his conduct, or he would not suffer him to rule the manor. So that the folk are not so harshly overborne as formerly, yet that Sir Guy is the more hateful of them."

"A miracle!" said Scarlet scornfully, when he heard this, "a word of mercy from the thick-jowled, proud-lipped Abbot of St. Mary's!"

"Maybe, uncle," said little Gilbert of the White Hand, who had ever wanted to be a priest and to learn to read, "maybe the abbot never told Sir Guy to oppress the manor folk, but that Sir Guy did it from his own heart as a tyrant."

And this, indeed, was what many of the outlaws deemed in their hearts, and thought not so harshly of the abbot thereafter.

Soon after this Master Gammell and his men took their departure, and Robin Hood and some of the outlaws went with him to the edge of the forest, and put him on his way toward Locksley village, which lay southwest beyond the little town of Sheffield.

Now it happened one afternoon some three days afterward that Robin was walking along beside the broad highway which led from Pontefract through the forest to Ollerton and Nottingham. He was thinking of what his cousin had said concerning Sir Guy of Gisborne's plots to capture him, dead or alive, and as he walked beneath the trees he heard the shuffle of footsteps, and looking up, saw a beggar coming down the road.

Robin, from among the trees, could see the man, while he himself was unobserved, and as he saw the beggar stamping along with a great pikestaff in his hand he wondered whether indeed this man was a genuine beggar, or one of the spies whom Guy of Gisborne had set to watch for him.

The man's cloak was patched in fifty places, so that it seemed more like a collection of many cloaks than one; his legs were encased in ragged hose, and great tanned boots were on his feet. Round his body, slung from his neck by a great wide thong, was his bag of meal, and in a girdle about him was stuck a long knife in a leathern sheath. On his head was a wide low hat which was so thick and unwieldy that it looked as if three hats had been stitched together to make it.

Robin's suspicions were aroused, for the man seemed to be dressed for the part, and not to be a real beggar. Moreover, his eyes continually glanced from side to side in the wood as he walked along the uneven track.

By this time the beggar had gone past the place where Robin stood, and the outlaw shouted to him:

"Stand, beggar! why in such haste to get on?"

The beggar answered nothing, but hurried his steps. Robin ran up to him, and the man turned angrily and flourished his staff. He was a man of an evil countenance, with a scar from brow to cheek on one side.

"What want you with me, woodman?" he cried. "Cannot a man fare peacefully along the king's highway without every loose wastrel crying out upon him?"

"Thou'rt surly, beggar," said Robin. "I'll tell thee why I bade thee stop. Thou must pay toll ere thou goest further through the forest."

"Toll!" cried the other, with a great laugh; "if you wait till I pay you toll, thou landloper, thou'It not stir from that spot for a year."

"Come, come," said Robin; "unloose thy cloak, man, and show what thy purse holds. By thy clothes thou'rt a rich beggar — if such thou truly art, and not a rogue in the guise of an honest beggar."

The man scowled and glanced suspiciously at Robin, and gripped his staff.

"Nay, lad," said Robin, good-naturedly, "grip not thy staff so fiercely. Surely thou hast a broad penny in thy purse which thou canst pay a poor woodman for toll."

"Get thy own money, thou reiving rascal," growled the beggar. "Thou gettest none from me. I fear not thy arrow sticks, and I would be blithe to see thee hanging from the gallows-tree — as, indeed, I hope to see thee ere long."

"And doubtless," said Robin, "if thou couldst earn dirty coin by treachery thou wouldst not stop at any evil work. I thought thou lookest like an honest beggar! Rogue and traitor are written all over thy evil face. Now, listen to me! I know thee for a traitor in the pay of an evil man, but I'll not be balked of my toll. Throw thy purse on the ground, or I will drive a broad arrow through thee!"

Even as he spoke, Robin prepared to notch an arrow to the string of his bow. His fingers missed the string, and he bent his eyes down to see what he was doing. That moment was fatal. With a bound like that of a wild cat the beggar leapt forward, and at the same instant he swung his pikestaff round and dashed the bow and arrow from Robin's hand.

The outlaw leaped back and drew his sword, but quick as thought the beggar beat upon him and caught him a great swinging blow beside the head. Robin fell to the ground in a swoon, just as shouts were heard among the trees beside the way. The beggar looked this way and that, his hand went to the haft of the keen knife in his belt, and for a moment he crouched as if he would leap upon the prostrate outlaw and slay him outright.

A man in brown jumped from some bushes a few yards away and then two others. They looked at the beggar, who had instantly assumed an air of unconcern, and began to walk forward, and a bend in the narrow track among the trees soon hid him from their sight.

Two of the men were young recruits of the outlaw band, and the other was Dodd, the man-at-arms who had yielded to Robin when the latter had slain Hugo of Lynn. As they began walking along the road, suddenly Dodd espied the bow and arrow which had been dashed from Robin's hand, and he stopped.

"Ay, ay," he said; "what's been doing here? 'Tis our master's bow. I know it by its size, for no other hath the hand to draw it."

"Look! look!" cried one of the others, pushing behind a bush where Robin had fallen; "here is a wounded man-by the Virgin, 'tis our master! Now, by St. Peter, who hath done this evil deed!"

Swiftly Dodd knelt beside his leader and pushed his hand into his doublet to feel whether his heart still moved. Then he cried:

"Lads, thanks be to the Saints; he's alive. Run to the brook beside the white thorn there and bring water in thy cap."

The water being thrown upon the outlaw's face, he quickly revived. He sighed heavily, his hand went up to his aching head, and he opened his eyes.

"O master," said Dodd, "tell us who hath treated thee so evily. Surely 'twas done by treachery. How many were they who set upon thee?"

Robin smiled wanly upon the three eager faces bending above him, and in a little while was sufficiently recovered to sit up.

"There was no more than one who set upon me," said Robin, "and he was a sturdy rogue dressed like a beggar. With his great pikestaff he dashed upon me as I fitted an arrow to my string, and ere I could defend myself he knocked me down in a swoon."

"Now, by my faith," said Dodd, "'twas that rascal beggar whom we saw as we came to the road — so innocent he looked! Go you, lads," he said, turning to the other two men, "show yourselves keen lads, and capture him and bring him back, so that our master may slay him if he will."

"But," said Robin, "use stealth in the way you approach the rogue. 'Twas my foolishness to get too near his long staff that was my undoing. If ye let him use his great beam, he'll maim ye."

The two young fellows promised to creep upon the beggar warily, and set off eagerly, while Dodd stayed by Robin until the latter felt strong enough to stand up and be assisted toward the camp of the outlaws.

Meanwhile, the two young outlaws, knowing the beggar must keep to the only road through the forest, swiftly ran to catch him up. But presently one of them, Bat or Bart by name, suggested that they should go by a nearer way through the trees which would enable them to lie in ambush for the beggar at a narrow part of the road. The other agreed, and accordingly they pushed through the forest. Strong of limb they were, and if their wits had only been as keen as were their senses, all would have gone well with them. But they were only three weeks from the plow, and from the hard and exhausting labor in the fields of their lord, and they were not as sharp as they would soon become when the dangers of the greenwood had been about them a little longer.

On they ran between the trees, through the glades and the boggy bottoms, flinching at neither mire nor pool, and balking at neither hillock nor howe. At length they reached the highway through the forest again at a place where the road ran through a dell. At the bottom was a thick piece of wood through which the road narrowed, and here they took up their place, each hiding behind a tree on opposite sides of the way.

Soon, as they crouched waiting, they heard the shuffle and tramp of footsteps coming down the hill, and peering forth, they saw it was the beggar man whom they had seen near where their master lay in a swoon.

As he came to the part of the road between them they both dashed out upon him, and before he could think of fleeing, one had snatched the pikestaff from his hand, and the other had caught his dagger froTh his girdle and was holding it at his breast.

"Traitor churl!" said the outlaw, "struggle not, or I'll be thy priest and send thee out of life."

The beggar's evil face went dark with rage as he glared from one to the other, and then looked about for a way of escape. But there was no chance of escape that he could see, and therefore he determined on craftiness to get him out of this trouble.

"Kind sirs," he said humbly, "grant me my life! Hold away that keen and ugly knife or I shall surely die for fright of it. What have I done to thee that thou shouldst seek to slay me? And what profit will thou get from my rags if thou killest and robbest a poor old beggar?"

"Thou liest, false knave!" cried Bat fiercely. "I think 'twould be better if I thrust this knife at once between thy evil ribs. Thou hast near slain the gentlest man and the bravest in all Sherwood and Barnisdale. And back again thou shalt be taken, fast bound and trussed, and he will judge whether thou shalt be slain, as a mark for our arrows, or be hung from a tree as not worthy to have good arrows stuck in thy evil carcass."

"Kind sirs," said the beggar whiningly, "is it that woodman whom I struck but now that I have nearly slain? Oh, by the rood, but 'twas only in defence of myself that I struck him. Sorry I am that my awkward stroke hath near slain him."

"Out upon thee, thou hast not slain him!" cried Bat. "Think you his good life is to be put out by thy dirty staff. He'll live to do thee skaith [harm] within the next hour, as thou shalt see. Now, Michael," Bat said to his comrade, "let us truss this rogue up with his own rope girdle and push him along to our master. Thou art ugly enough now, rogue," Bat went on, "but thou'It look uglier still when thou art swinging and grinning through a noose."

The beggar saw that Bat was a determined man, and that if he thought not speedily of some wile wherewith to escape from their hands, it would fare ill with him.

"O brave gentlemen," he said in a shaking voice, "be kind, and spare a poor old beggar. Sorry I am if I have done any ill to the brave nobleman, your leader. But I am very willing to make a good recompense for any ill I have done him. Set me free, and I will give thee twenty marks which I have in my poke [bag] here, as well as odd bits of silver which I have hidden among my rags."

At these words the eyes of both Bat and Michael glistened. They had never had money in their lives before, and the chance of getting ten marks each — a fabulous sum to them — was too much for their loyalty to their master.

"Show us thy money, old rogue," said Bat. "I believe thou liest. But show it to us!"

They let the beggar loose, and he untied his cloak and laid it on the ground. The wind was blowing gustily now as the twilight was descending, and he stood with his back toward it. Then he took off two big bags which they supposed contained meal and meat and bread, and placed them on the ground before him.

Finally he took the great belt from his neck which supported another bag by his side.

"In this," he said, "I hide my money for greater safety. 'Tis full of old clouts with which to stuff my clothes against the bitter wind, and my shoon to keep my feet warm."

As he was lifting the belt over his head Bat saw that immediately under his left arm was a little pouch slung by a thin strap. This seemed so artfully hidden that the outlaw thought that it must contain something of great value, and he almost suspected that the beggar, with all the clumsy preparations he was making, must be intending to keep the richest pelf from them.

He leaned forward, gripped the thin strap, and with a quick turn of his knife cut it, and the purse came away in his hand. The beggar tried to snatch it, but he was encumbered by the great bag he had in his hands. He struggled to seize it, but both outlaws held their knives against his breast.

"Cease, ugly knave!" cried Bat, "or we'll let out thy life and have thy booty as well. And see thou playest no tricks, or 'twill go ill with thee."

The beggar saw that Bat was becoming suspicious, and stayed his attempts to snatch at the purse which the outlaw had now crammed into the breast of his tunic. With black looks and glowering eyes the beggar rested his big bag on the ground, and bent to undo it, the outlaws also stooping to see that he played no tricks.

He pushed his hands into the bag, and then suddenly dashed in their faces a great cloud of meal. The two outlaws were blinded at once and retreated, howling imprecations and threats upon the beggar, though they could not see a whit where he was.

Next moment, however, they felt the weight of his pikestaff upon their heads, for he had quickly seized his stick, and with fierce blows attacked them. Bat, his eyes still smarting with the meal in them, felt the beggar's hand tear at his tunic, but he slashed it with his dagger, which he still held, and dimly he saw the beggar retreat for a moment with a gory hand and make ready to bring his pole down on Bat's head with a deadly blow.

The outlaw knew then that the purse held something of value. He dashed away just as the staff fell with a blow that, had it alighted on his head, at which it was aimed, would have cracked his skull. Bat looked no more behind, but ran as fast as he could go, followed by his comrade. For some time the beggar followed them, but he was burdened by his heavy clothes, and soon gave up the chase.

It was now almost dark, and very ruefully the two outlaws made their way back to the camp.

"We are two great fools," said Bat, "and I will give my back willingly to Master Robin's scourge."

"My bones ache so sorely," said Michael, "from the brute beast's cudgel that I crave no more basting for a time. I think I will hide me till I be a little less sore and master's anger hath cooled."

"Flee then, ass," said Bat, angry with himself and his companion, "and starve in the woods as thou surely wouldst, or run back to thy manor, thou run serf, and be basted by thy lord's steward."

But Michael was too fearful both of the lonely woods and of the strong arm of his lord's scourging man, and chose after all to go with Bat and take what punishment Robin chose to mete out to them.

They reached the camp just as the outlaws were about to sit to their supper, and Bat told everything with a frankness which showed how ashamed he was of himself. Robin heard them patiently, and then said:

"Hast thou still the purse which thou didst take from the rogue?"

Bat had thought no more of the purse, but feeling in his tunic found it was still there, and, drawing it forth, gave it to Robin. The outlaw bade Bat bring a torch to light him while he examined the contents of the purse.

First he drew out three rose nobles wrapped in a piece of rag, then a ring with a design engraved upon it, and lastly, from the bottom of the purse, he drew out a piece of parchment folded small. This he opened and smoothed out upon his knee, and read, slowly, 'tis true, since Robin, though he had been taught to read his Latin when a lad in his uncle's house at Lockseley, had had little use for reading since he had reached man's estate.

Slowly he read the Latin words, and as he grasped their meaning his face became grim and hard. The words, translated, were these:

"To the worshipful Master Ralph Murdach, Sheriff of the Shires of Nottingham and Derby, these with greeting. Know ye that the Bearer of these, Richard Malbęte, is he of whom I spoke to thee, who hath been commended to me by my friend, Sir Nigel le Grym. He is a man of a bold and crafty mind, stinting no labor for good pay, and blinking not at any desperate deed: of a cunning mind, ready in wit and wile and ambuscades. But keep him from the wine, or he is of no avail. This is he who will aid thee to lay such plans and plots as will gain us that savage wolf's-head, Robin, and root out that growing brood of robbers who go with him. I hope to hear much good done in a little while."

The letter was not signed, for in those days men did not sign their letters with their names, but with their seals, and this was sealed on a piece of blue wax with the signet of Sir Guy of Gisborne, which was a wild man's head, below which was a sword.

Robin looked at Bat and Michael, who, with heads bent, seemed filled with shame, and as if expecting some punishment.

"Ye are not fit to be outlaws," he said sternly. "Ye are but common reivers and cutters [cutpurses], and shouldst run to the town and lurk by taverns and rob men when they are full of wine and cannot help themselves. When I send ye to do a thing, that thing thou shalt do, whatever temptation is placed before ye. But as ye are but fresh from the plow, I will overlook it this time. Go," he ended in gentler tones, "get your supper, and remember that I shall expect ye to be keen and good lads henceforth."

Bat had never before known a kind word from a superior, and his heart was greatly moved at Robin's words.

"Master," he said, bending on one knee, "I have been a fool and I deserve the scourge. But if you will not give me that give me some hard task to do, so that I may wipe the thought of my doltishness from my memory."

"And let me go with him, good master," said Michael, "for I would serve you manfully."

Robin looked at them for a moment, and smiled at their eagerness.

"Go get your suppers now, lads," he said at length. "It may be I will set thee a task ere long."

When the meal was ended, Robin called Little John to his side and said:

"John, hath the proud potter of Wentbridge set out on his journey yet?"

"Ay, master," replied John, "he went through but yesterday, with horse and cart laden with his pots and pans. A brisk man is he, and as soon as the snows are gone he is not one to play Lob-lie-by-the-fire."

Robin asked where the potter would be lodging that night, and John told him. Then Robin called Bat and Michael to him.

"Thou didst ask for a task," he said, "and I will give thee one. It may be a hard one, but 'tis one thou must do by hook or by crook. Thou knowest well the ways of the forest from here to Mansfield, for thou hast both fled from thy lord at Warsop. Now I will that ye go to Mansfield for me this night and seek the proud potter of Wentbridge. Tell him that I crave a fellowship of him. I wish him to let me have his clothes, his pots, his cart and his horse, for I will go to Nottingham market disguised."

"This will we do right gladly, master," said Bat. "We will take our staves and our swords and bucklers and start on our way forthwith."

Little John began to laugh heartily.

"Ye speak as if thou thinkest it will be no more than to say 'bo!' to a goose," he said. "But if thou knowest not the proud potter of Wentbridge, that lacking he will soon make up in thee by the aid of his good quarterstaff."

"I know, Little John," said Bat with a laugh, "that he hath given thee that lesson."

"Ye say truly," said honest John; "evil befell me when I bade him pay toll to the outlaws last harvest-time, for he gave me three strokes that I shall never forget."

"All Sherwood heard of them," said Bat; "but the proud potter is a full courteous man, as I have heard tell. Nevertheless, whether he liketh it or not, he shall yield Master Robin his wish."

"Then I will meet thee at the Forest Herne where the roads fork beyond Mansfield," said Robin, "an hour after dawn tomorrow."

"We will fail not to be there with all that thou wishest," replied Bat, and together he and Michael set out under the starlight on the way to Mansfield.

Next day, into the market-place of Nottingham, drove a well-fed little brown pony, drawing a potter's cart, filled with pots and pans of good Wentbridge ware. The potter, a man stout of limb, plump of body and red of face, wore a rusty brown tunic and cloak, patched in several places, and his hair seemed to have rare acquaintance with a comb. Robin indeed was well disguised.

Farmers, hucksters, merchants and butchers were crowded in the market-place, some having already set up their booths or stalls, while others were busy unloading their carts or the panniers on their stout nags. The potter set his crocks beside his cart, after having given his horse oats and hay, and then began to cry his wares.

He had taken up a place not five steps from the door of the sheriff's house, which, built of wood and adorned with quaint designs, occupied a prominent place on one side of the market-place; and the potter's eyes were constantly turned on the door of the house, which now was open, and people having business with the sheriff rode or walked up and entered.

"Good pots for sale!" cried the potter. "Buy of my pots! Pots and pans! Cheap and good today. Come wives and maidens! Set up your kitchens with my good ware!"

So lustily did he call that soon a crowd of country people who had come to the market to buy stood about him and began to chaffer with him. But he did not stay to bargain; he let each have the pot or pan at the price they offered. The noise of the cheapness of the pots soon got abroad, and very soon there were but half a dozen pots left.

"He is an ass," said one woman, "and not a potter. He may make good pots, but he knoweth naught of bargaining. He'll never thrive in his trade."

Robin called a serving-maid who came just then from the sheriff's house, and begged her to go to the sheriff's wife, with the best respects of the potter of Wentbridge, and ask whether the dame would accept his remaining pots as a gift. In a few minutes Dame Margaret herself · came out.

"Gramercy for thy pots, good chapman," she said, and she had a merry eye, and spoke in a very friendly manner. "I am full fain to have them, for they be good pots and sound. When thou comest to this town again, good potter, let me know of it and I will buy of thy wares."

"Madam," said Robin, doffing his hat and bowing in a yeomanly manner, "thou shalt have of the best in my cart. I'll give thee no cracked wares, nor any with flaws in them, by the Mass, but every one shall ring with a true honest note when thou knockest it."

The sheriff's wife thought the potter was a full courteous and bowerly man, and began to talk with him. Then a great bell rang throughout the house, and the dame said:

"Come into the house if thou wilt, good chapman. Come sit with me and the sheriff at the market table."

This was what Robin desired. He thanked the dame, and was led by her into the bower where her maidens sat at their sewing. Just then the door opened and the sheriff came in. Robin looked keenly at the man whom he had only seen once before. He knew that the sheriff, Ralph Murdach, was a rich cordwainer who had bought his office from the grasping Bishop of Ely for a great price, and to repay himself he squeezed all he could out of the people.

"Look what this master potter hath given us," said Dame Margaret, showing the pots on a stool beside her. "Six pots of excellent ware, as good as any made in the Low Countries."

The sheriff, a tall spare man of a sour and surly look, glanced at Robin, who bowed to him.

"May the good chapman dine with us, sheriff?" asked the dame.

"He is welcome," said the sheriff crossly, for he was hungry and had just been outwitted, moreover, in a piece of business in the market-place. "Let us wash and go to meat."

They went into the hall of the house where some twenty men were waiting for the sheriff and his lady. Some were officers and men of the sheriff, others were rich chapmen from the market.

When the sheriff and his wife took their seats at the high table, all the company sat down, Robin being shown a seat midway down the lower table. A spoon of horn was placed on the table where each sat and a huge slice of bread, called a trencher, but for drinking purposes there was only one pewter cup between each two neighbors. Then the scullions from the sheriff's kitchen brought in roasted meat on silver skewers, and these being handed to the various guests, each would take his knife from his girdle, rub it on his leg to clean it a little, and then cut what he wanted from the skewer, laying his portion on the thick slice of bread. Then, using his fingers as a fork, the guest would eat his dinner, cutting off and eating pieces of his trencher with his meat, or saving it till all the meat was eaten.

On the rush-covered floor of the hall dogs and cats fought for the meat or bones thrown to them, and at the door beggars looked in, crying out for alms or broken meat. Sometimes a guest at the lower end of the table would throw a bone at a beggar, intending to hit him hard, but the beggar would deftly catch it and begin gnawing it. When, as sometimes happened, the beggars became too bold and ventured almost up to the table, a serving-man would dart among them with his staff and thump and kick them pell-mell out through the door.

Suddenly, a sturdy beggar came forthright into the hall and walked up among the sprawling dogs toward the high seat. Instantly a serving-man dashed at him and caught hold of him to throw him out.

"I crave to speak with the sheriff," cried the beggar, struggling with the man. "I come with a message from a knight."

But the serving-man would not listen, and began to drag the beggar to the door. The noise of their struggle drew the attention of all the guests, and Robin, looking up, recognized the beggar. It was Sir Guy's spy, whom he had met but yesterday, and who had outwitted the two outlaws whom Robin had sent to take him — Richard Malbęte, or, as the English would call him, Illbeast.

The beggar fought fiercely to free himself, but the serving-man was a powerful fellow, and Malbęte's struggles were in vain. Suddenly he cried:

"A boon, Sir Sheriff! I have a message from Sir Guy of Gisborne!"

The sheriff looked up and saw the struggling pair.

"Let the rogue speak," he cried. The servitor ceased the struggle, but still held the beggar, and both men stood panting, while Richard Illbeast glared murderously at the man beside him.

"Speak, rogue, as his worship commands," said the servitor, "and cut not my throat with thy evil looks, thou scarecrow."

"I come from Sir Guy of Gisborne," said the beggar, turning to the high table, "and I have a message for thy private ear, Sir Sheriff."

The sheriff looked at him suspiciously.

"Tell me thy message, rogue," said the sheriff harshly. The beggar looked desperately round at the faces of the guests, all of which were turned to him. Some laughed at his hesitation, others sneered.

"He hath a private message for thy ear, sheriff," cried one burly farmer with a laugh, "and light fingers for thy jewels."

"Or," added another amid the laughter, "a snickersnee [small dagger] for thyself."

"Give some proof that you bear word from him you prate of," commanded the sheriff angrily, "or I will have thee beaten from the town."

"A dozen cutpurses set upon me in the forest," said Richard Illbeast, "and robbed me of the purse in which was Sir Guy's letter to thee!"

A roar of laughter arose from all the guests. This was a likely tale, they thought, and japes and jokes were bandied about between them.

"What sent he thee to me for, knave?" shouted the sheriff. "A likely tale thou tellest."

"He sent me to aid thee in seizing that thieving outlaw, Robin Hood!" cried Richard Illbeast, beside himself with rage at the laughter and sneers of the guests, and losing his head in his anger.

Men roared and rocked with laughter as they heard him. "Ha! ha! ha!" they cried. "This is too good! The thief-taker spoiled by thieves! The fox mobbed by the hare he would catch!"

"Thrust him forth," shouted the sheriff, red with rage. "Beat the lying knave out of the town!"

"I am no knave!" cried Richard. "I have fought in the crusade! I have  —"

But he was not suffered to say further what he had done; a dozen menservants hurled themselves upon him. Next moment he was out in the market-place, his cloak was torn from his back and his bags ripped from him. Staves and sticks seemed to spring up on all sides, and amidst a hail of blows the wretch, whose heart was as cruel as any in that cruel time, and whose hands had been dyed by many a dreadful deed, was beaten mercilessly from the town along the road to the forest.

For a little time the guests at the sheriff's table continued to laugh over the beggar's joke, and then the talk turned on a contest which was to be held after dinner at the butts outside the town between the men who formed the officers of the sheriff, for a prize of forty shillings given by their master.

When the meal was ended, therefore, most of the guests betook themselves to the shooting, where the sheriff's men shot each in his turn. Robin, of course, was an eager onlooker at the sport; and he saw that not one of the sheriff's men could shoot nearer to the mark than by the length of half a long arrow.

"By the rood!" he said, "though I be but a potter now I was a good bowman once, and e'en now I love the twang of my string and the flight of my arrow. Will you let a stranger try a shot or two, Sir Sheriff?"

"Ay, thou mayst try," said the sheriff, "for thou seemest a stalwart and strong fellow, though by thy red face thou seemest too fond of raising thy own pots to thy lips with good liquor in them."

Robin laughed with the crowd at the joke thus made against him, and the sheriff commanded a yeoman to bring three bows. Robin chose one of these, the strongest and largest, and tried it with his hands.

"Thou'rt but poor wood, I fear," he said, as he pushed the bow from him and pulled the string to his ear. "It whineth with the strain already," he went on, "so weak is the gear."

He picked out an arrow from the quiver of one of the sheriff's men and set it on the string. Then, pulling the string to its fullest extent, he let the bolt fly. Men looked keenly forward, and a shout from the chapmen went up when they saw that his bolt was within a foot of the mark, and nearer by six inches than any of the others.

"Shoot another round," said the sheriff to his men, "and let the potter shoot with thee."

Another round was accordingly shot, and each man strove to better his previous record. But none got nearer than the potter had done, and when the last of them had shot his bolt they stood aside with glum faces, looking at the chapman as he stepped forward and notched his arrow upon the string.

He seemed to take less pains this time than before. The bolt snored away, and in the stillness with which the onlookers gazed, the thud, as it struck the broad target, two hundred yards away, was distinctly heard. For a moment men could not believe what their keen eyes told them. It had hit the center of the bull's eye, or very close thereto.

The target-man, who stood near by the butt to report exactly on each shot, was seen to approach the target and then to start running excitedly toward the archers.

"It hath cleft the peg in three!" he shouted.

The peg was the piece of wood which stood in the very center of the bull's eye. A great shout from all the bystanders rose up and shook the tassels on the tall poplars ' above their heads, and many of the chapmen gripped Robin by the hand or clapped him on the back.

"By the rood!" one said: thou'rt a fool of a chapman, but as a bowman thou'rt as good as any forester."

"Or as Robin o' th' Hood himself, that king of archers, wolf's-head though he be," said another, a jolly miller of the town.

The sheriff's men had black looks as they realized that they had been worsted by a plump potter, but the sheriff laughed at them, and coming to Robin, said:

"Potter, thou'rt a man indeed. Thou'rt worthy to bear a bow wherever thou mayest choose to go."

"I ha' loved the bow from my toddling days," said the potter, "when I would shoot at small birds, ay, and bring them down. I ha' shot with many a good bowman, and in my cart I have a bow which I got from that rogue Robin Hood, with whom I ha' shot many a turn."

"What," said the sheriff, and his face was hard and his eyes full of suspicion. "Thou hast shot with that false rascal? Knowest thou the place in the forest where he lurketh now, potter?"

"I think 'tis at Witch Wood," said the potter easily. "He hath wintered there, I ha' heard tell as I came down the road. But he stopped me last autumn and demanded toll of me. I told him I gave no toll on the king's highway except to the king, and I said I would e'en fight him with quarterstaff or shoot a round of twenty bolts with him to see if I were not a truer archer than he. And the rogue shot four rounds with me, and said that for my courtesy I should be free of the forest so long as my wheels went round."

This was indeed the fact, and it was this friendship between Robin and the proud potter which had made Bat's task of obtaining the potter's clothes and gear for Robin an easy one.

"I would give a hundred pounds, potter," said the sheriff gloomily, "that the false outlaw stood by me!"

"Well," said the potter, "if thou wilt do after my rede [advice], Sir Sheriff, and go with me in the morning, thee and thy men, I will lead thee to a place where, as I ha' heard, the rascal hath dwelled through the winter."

"By my faith," said the sheriff, "I will pay thee well if thou wilt do that. Thou art a brave man and a stalwart."

"But I must e'en tell thee, sheriff," said the potter, "that thy pay must be good, for if Robin knows I ha' led the dogs to his hole, the wolf will rend me, and it would not be with a whole skin that I should go through the forest again."

"Thou shalt be well paid," said the sheriff, "on my word as the king's officer."

But he knew, and the potter knew also, that the sheriff's promise was of little worth, for the sheriff loved his money too well. But the potter made as if he was satisfied. When the sheriff offered him the forty shillings which was the prize for winning at the shooting, the potter refused it, and so won all the hearts of the sheriff's men.

"Nay, nay," said the potter; "let him that shot the best bolt among your men have it. It may be that 'twas by a flaw of wind that my arrow struck the peg."

The potter had supper with the sheriff and his men, all of whom drank to the potter as a worthy comrade and a good Fellow. A merry evening was passed, and then Robin was given a bed in a warm comer of the hall, and all retired to rest.

Next morning, before it was light, all were afoot again. A jug of ale was quaffed by each, and a manchet of rye bread eaten. Then the horses were brought round, together with the potter's pony and cart, and with the sheriff and ten of his men the potter led the way into the forest.

Deep into the heart of the greenwood the potter went, by lonely glades and narrow deer-drives by which not one of the sheriff's men had gone before. In many places where an ambuscade could easily be laid the sheriff and his men looked fearfully around them, and wondered whether they would win through that day with whole skins.

"Thou art sure thou knowest the way, potter?" said the sheriff more than once.

"Know the road, forsooth!" laughed the potter. "I ha' not wended my way up and down Sherwood these twenty years without knowing my way. Belike you think I lead you into fearsome lonely places. But do you think a rascally wolf's-head will make his lair by the highway where every lurching dog can smell him out?"

"How dost thou know that the false outlaw hath wintered in the place you named?" asked the sheriff, with suspicion in his eyes.

"So the peasants tell me in the villages I have passed on my way from Wentbridge," replied the potter. "I will take thee to within half a mile of the Witch Wood, and then thou must make thy own plans for taking the rogue."

"What manner of place is Witch Wood?" asked the sheriff.

"'Tis a fearsome place, as I ha' heard tell," said the potter. "'Tis the haunt of a dreadful witch, and is filled with dead men's bones. Outside 'tis fresh and fair with trees, but there are caves and cliffs within, where the witch and her evil spirits dwell among the grisly bones, and the churls say that Robin o' th' Hood is close kin to her, and that while he is in the greenwood he is within her protection and naught can harm him."

"How so?" asked the sheriff, and the ten men glanced fearfully around and closed up together.

"They say that she is the spirit of the forest, and that by her secret power she can slay any man who comes beneath the trees, or lock him up alive in a living trunk of a tree, or cast him into a wizard's sleep."

"What be those things there?" asked the sheriff, pointing in front of him. They had now come to an opening in the forest, where the trees gave way to a piece of open rising ground covered with low bushes. On a ridge in its midst was a great oak, its broad limbs covering a great space of ground, and beneath its shade were three tall upright stones, leaning toward each other as if they whispered.

"'Tis the Three Stane Rigg," said the potter. "Men say that they be great gray stones as thou seest by daylight, but when owls hoot and the night wind stirs in the bushes, they turn into witch hags which ride about like the wind, doing the bidding of the great witch of the forest — bringing murrain or plague, cursing the standing corn, or doing other ill to men."

Men looked in each other's eyes, and then turned their heads swiftly away, for they were half ashamed to see the fear in them, and to know that dread was in their own. All men in those days believed in wizards and witches, even the king and his wisest statesmen.

"I think," said the sheriff gruffly, "thou shouldst have told us these things ere we set out, and I would have brought a priest with us. As it is  —"

Shrieks of eldritch laughter rang out in the dark trees beside them. So sudden and so fearful were the cries, that the horses stopped and trembled as they stood, while their riders crossed themselves and looked peeringly into the gloom of the forest. "Let us ride back!" cried some, while one or two turned their horses in the narrow path and began to retreat.

Again the mad laughter rang out. It seemed to come from all parts of the dark earthy wood about them. More of the men put spurs to their horses, and in spite of the cries of the sheriff bidding them to stay, all were soon riding helter-skelter away from the spot.

The potter, standing up in his cart, and the sheriff, dark of look, listened as the sound of the thudding hoofs became fainter and fainter in the distance.

"The craven dolts!" cried the sheriff, grinding his teeth. Yet, for all his bravery, he himself was afraid, and kept looking this way and that into the trees.

Suddenly the potter cracked his whip. Instantly the clear notes of a horn sounded away in the open glade, and next moment there came some twenty men in brown, who seemed to rise from the ground and to issue from the trunks of the trees. Some even dropped to the ground from boughs just above where the sheriff stood.

"How now, master potter," said one tall fellow, bearded and bare-headed. "How have you fared in Nottingham? Have you sold your ware?"

"Ay, by my troth," said the potter. "I have sold all, and got a great price for it. Look you, Little John, I have brought the sheriff himself for it all."

"By my faith, master, he is welcome," cried Little John, and gave a great hearty laugh, which was echoed by all the outlaws standing around when they saw the angry wonder on the sheriff's face.

"Thou false rogue!" cried he, and his face beneath his steel cap went red with shame and chagrin. "If I had but known who thou wert!"

"I thank good Mary thou didst not," said Robin, taking off the potter's cloak and then the tunic, which had been stuffed with rags to make him look the stouter. "But now that thou art here, sheriff, thou shalt dine with us off the king's fat deer. And then, to pay thy toll, thou shalt leave thy horse and thy armor and other gear with me." And thus was it done. The sheriff, willy-nilly, had to dine off a steak cut from a prime buck, and washed down his meal with good sack, and having been hungry, he felt the better for it.

Then, when he had left his horse and all his arms with Robin Hood, and was preparing to return home on foot, the outlaw ordered a palfrey to be led forward, and bade the sheriff mount it.

"Wend thy way home, sheriff," he said, "and greet thy wife from me. Thy dame is as courteous and kind as thou art sour and gruff. That palfrey is a present from me to thy lady wife, and I trust that she will think kindly of the potter, though I cannot hope that thou thyself wilt think well of me."

Without a word the sheriff departed. He waited till it was dark ere he rode up to the gate of Nottingham and demanded to be let in. The gateman wondered at the sheriff's strange return, riding on a lady's palfrey without so much as a weapon in his belt or a steel cap on his head. The tale of the shamefaced men who had returned earlier had been wormed out of them by the wondering citizens, and the sheriff, hoping to creep home unobserved, was disagreeably surprised to find the streets full of gaping people. To all their questions he returned cross answers, but as he alighted at his own door he heard a laugh begin to arise, in cackling bursts among the crowd before his house, and when he was inside he heard the full roar of laughter rise from a thousand throats.

Next day there was never a man so full of anger as Sheriff Murdach. The whole town was agrin, from the proud constable of the castle with his hundred knights, to the little horseboys in the stables — all smiled to think how the sheriff had gone with his posse to capture the outlaw Robin, led by a false potter who was the rogue Robin himself, and had been captured and spoiled.

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