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Robin Hood: Sherwood Forest 16

Marian was loading supplies onto a cart that afternoon, wondering to herself that Tuck seemed to keep eking out enough to make through another week, despite the money the sheriff had taken. That Tuck was a wonder. Surely there were angels helping him. She checked to straps one more time to make sure that Abraham, the donkey, would not pull free from the cart as he had in the past. She had just finished this task when a thunder came from the north road. It was rare indeed to see a group of horses come racing into town this way. Led by the sheriff, she saw Roland, who had been gone since the beginning of Lent and his mates, as well as some unfamiliar faces. Each one rougher than the last, these new men struck Marian as fearsome indeed. She coaxed Abraham to get started, and led him away towards St. Anne’s.
The sheriff, having proof at last of foul play near Sherwood forest, came to the new and inexplicable conclusion that the outlaws hiding in the forest had become too bold in their incursions. How they had switched chests in the second delivery was still a mystery, but at last he had a culprit in sight and a plan of action at hand. These outlaws were at his mercy. He would begin his hunt of them immediately. It mattered not whether the ones he found were responsible for the crime, they would make a fine example to any thinking they could make a fool of the sheriff.
They had rode hard for the remainder of the trip and came into Nottingham with the horses foaming and the men tired but reinvigorated. It was a bit late in the day to begin a forest hunt, but the sheriff would not be put off. The men collected extra supplies and set off immediately for Sherwood. They came across Friar Tuck coming from St. Anne’s. He had his usual cart of wine and a cage of pigeons presumably for correspondence with nearby monasteries. As usual, the fat friar was taking up the whole road causing the hunting party to slow and go around. Ignoring the sheriff, he called to Mace, a rogue who had befriended Tuck over many a cup of wine.
“Where are you lot off to so late in the day?” He said amiably.
“To hunt the outlaws in Sherwood Forest!” said Mace, excited.
“They’ve attacked a delivery of donations to a monastery in the south.” said the sheriff hoping to add legitimacy and sympathy to his cause. In his mind, this is exactly what had happened.
“Donations for a monastery!” said Tuck addressing the sheriff for the first time. “That’s deplorable! Though it is odd. What were donations to a monastery in the south doing in the midlands? Where were they bound from?”
“We haven’t time for your blathering questions!” said the sheriff, no longer concerned with garnering sympathy. “There’s precious little daylight left, and I’ll have some heads to put on spikes before the day is out!” with that, the sheriff’s men muscled past the friar’s cart and rode off to the forest.
Right then and there, Friar Tuck went to his cage of pigeons, wrote a hasty note, rolled it tightly, and deftly attached it to one of the bird’s delicate legs. The dusty cousin to the dove flew off on his own mission of peace, overtaking the sheriff and arriving in the heart of Sherwood village, well ahead of William Brewer.
It was dark by the time the sheriff and his men reached the heart of the forest. A mist had crept from all around and lay writhing on ground; ephemeral and gossamer. They had not seen any sign of outlaws, but no one knew how many lived in the forest, or where they were. Some rumors said that they fought each other ferociously, and as a result, only a few truly brutal and evil murderers remained. Whatever the truth was, the sheriff had expected to find some cook fires or tracks, or if not actual outlaws, some clue as to their whereabouts.

They had lit torches to see by, but didn’t seem to realize that this left them exposed. The search party was grimly quiet as landmarks became hard to distinguish in the dim light cast by the torches. They listened intently, but heard little, save for the crackle of the torches. There was the occasional call of the owl. In the distance, from time to time a wolf would howl, and from somewhere else came an answering call. Was it the wolf that had dug up the corpse? They seemed to be surrounding the men, who were becoming aware that their light was a beacon sending all manor of evil directly to them. The horses had become skittish, and Roland complained of the feeling of going in circles. There was no moon, and the trees were still mostly bare from winter. The torchlight cast skeletal shadows from the branches of the dormant trees.
“Did you hear that?” Mace said.
“What?” said Roland.
“Quiet!” said the sheriff.
They all listened, and sure enough, an eerie, spectral, ribbon of sound came fluttering from somewhere nearby. It was followed a moment later by a higher pitched, sharp howl; this time much closer. Instinctively, the boys huddled their horses close together.
“Up there!” said one of the new men. The sheriff looked up, and to his horror, he saw a white, astral shapeless form, billowing ghostlike in a tree directly above them. Roland’s horse reared up onto its hind legs either from fright or Roland pulling on the reins tightly in his own fright. The horse let out its own haunting whinny.
“Calm down!” demanded the sheriff. He had never seen a ghost before and was not sure of what he had just witnessed, but his heart was pounding in his chest and it was hard to think. Then, there was an inhuman deafening shriek directly in their midst, and as the horses fought the reins to get clear of the cursed ground upon which they found themselves, torchlight revealed a black cat directly in the center of the party. Its back arched and each hair on the back of the demonic creature standing straight up. It was if it had just leapt from the trees and landed right in their midst!

Upon sighting the devil’s familiar, the search party needed no further encouragement, but bolted away recklessly disregarding the danger of unseen trees or undergrowth in the dark. They didn’t stop until they saw the lights of Nottingham.
The castle, as it was known, housed the sheriff’s office downstairs, and the men had stayed there through out the night. Mrs. Brewer had not been pleased to be awoken in the night, as it had been quite late by the time the men had returned. Yet she had seen that each man had a blanket and then she attended a kettle. After this, she returned to sleep, and in the morning, suspected that she had dreamt the whole ordeal. All the men were chagrined in the light of day, none more than the sheriff, though he held that the men had panicked his horse and he would have stayed through the night and caught the murderers in their forest beds.

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