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Into the band's midst comes a desperate young woman called Alice Johnstone. Alice has just escaped after dark years of confinement in the sinister Abbey of St. Mary's - an institution controlled by Robin's sworn enemies, the corrupt and depraved Bishop of Hereford and his henchwoman, the wicked and unholy Abbess. In an attempt to cheat her stepdaughter of her rightful inheritance, Alice's stepmother has enlisted the Bishop's aid in imprisoning Alice in a madhouse.
Although she asks for and accepts the sanctuary of Sherwood Forest and its brave defenders, the lovely young fugitive does so with a curious reluctance. Willful and spirited and with secret plans of her own in the making, Alice refuses to adhere to the camp's strict rules - rules made to ensure its survival.
It falls to Robin Hood's second-in-command, the handsome, (and exasperated) Will Fletcher, to tame the lady's tantrums and conceits, and within days of her arrival, Alice is rudely upended and soundly spanked twice. In her short but highly enlightening stay, the lady will become uncomfortably familiar with a number of the implements used to enforce the camp's security - the wooden paddle, leather strap, and even the humble, durable birch switch.
At the heart of her disobedience is Alice's determination to rejoin the mysterious man with whom she has fallen in love, French nobleman Geoffrey of Gascony. Her infatuation and stubbornness combine to draw her deeper into danger and to put Robin's men in peril as well. By the time the villainous plot against her is revealed and thwarted, and the Sheriff's dastardly attack on the camp beaten back, Alice and her new friends have faced death more than once, and a wiser, oft-chastened Alice has found a truer love.
In The King’s Forest of Sherwood, in Nottinghamshire. The First Day of March, In The Year of Our Lord 1193, and May God Preserve King Richard!
The bitter cold and the previous night’s rainstorm had left every branch in the forest encrusted with a sheer coat of silvery ice that glistened like ropes of diamonds overheard, but Alice and Arthur were both too cold and too travel�weary to pay notice to the beauty overhead. As they pressed deeper and deeper into the forest, leading their exhausted horses through the tangled undergrowth that slowed their every step, Alice pushed her way through the frozen brush with bare hands, her face smarting as yet another stray branch slashed across her cheek and tore at her wet clothing like shards of broken glass. It was difficult to believe that spring was but weeks away.
“It isn’t far, now,” Arthur promised, holding back the brambles with his arm as Alice struggled to free herself from the snarled, ice�covered vines that entrapped her skirts. “The camp must be but a short distance away, now. We’ll see their fires at any moment, Mistress.”�
Alice sighed, reaching to touch the boy’s cold cheek. “Aye, Arthur,” she said fondly, “but pray worry less about me and more for yourself. You’ve not slept since yesterday, and you’re near�frozen to the very bone after last night’s dunking. Besides, dear friend, I’m dressed a good deal more warmly than you. I fear it will be you who turns to a pillar of frost far sooner than I. Still, unless my eyes fail me, I believe I do see someone’s fire, just there! Do you see it?” She pointed ahead, to a spot between two large trees, where a thin wisp of gray smoke furled above a small fire pit cut into the hard ground.
Arthur broke into the first smile she had seen on his face since they fled the Abbey of St. Mary’s, a day and a half ago. “We’ve found them, Mistress! It’s Robin Hood’s camp, I’m certain of it! We will be safe, here. Come, hurry now!” He tightened his grip on the heavy bundle he’d insisted upon carrying since they’d made good her escape and dashed through the trees with a joyous cry.
Without warning, and in almost total silence, an arrow flashed between them and thudded deep into a tree trunk, directly next to Arthur’s ear.�
“Halt where ye stand, or die there!” a voice thundered, and Arthur stopped in his tracks, frozen now not only by his wet garments and the piercing cold, but by fear. “Who goes?” the voice roared again. “Your name, and purpose here, and make an answer quickly if ye’ve a mind to take another breath!”
“It’s all right, Lady!” Arthur whispered. “I know this man. He is called Bri’n the Blacksmith � of Robin’s camp!” He waved nervously in the direction of the unseen archer. “It is Arthur Postelwaite, of Wickham Village, here!” he called, his youthful voice sounding a bit strangled. “And with me is Mistress Alice Johnstone, escaped last night from the accursed Abbey at St. Mary’s, and in dire need of shelter! We come in peace, asking nothing more than a warm fire, and to aid noble Robin Hood in the struggle for�.”
“Shut yer damned silly mouth, Arthur,” the voice ordered, more softly now. “And come forward. Bring the girl, if ye must, but move yer blasted ass while you’re about it! We’ve all made enough noise here to wake the dead saints!”
“Yes, sir!” Arthur took Alice’s hand in his and moved silently into the clearing, while Alice watched warily as the man who’d accosted them so rudely stepped from behind a tree. He was perhaps the tallest man she had even seen, grizzled with age and heavy�set, but he strode toward them with surprising agility, his gait lithe and quick. As he came nearer, he slipped an arrow back into the leather quiver across his back and paused long enough to bend down and slide a horn�handled long�dirk into the top of his boot. The man’s gray�white beard was frosted with ice, and he wore a jerkin and hood of tattered leather, with only a flimsy gray blanket around his broad shoulders against the cold.
He cuffed Arthur’s arm in a bruising but obviously friendly manner. “Well, now, boy, so it’s a nun ye’ve stolen for yourself, is it?” He gave Alice a quick glance. “Aye, and comely one she is, at that!” He clapped the boy on the back, nearly knocking him over. “Ye’ surprise me, sprout! I’d a’ never thought ye’ had it in ye’! Here’s a wench to warm a man’s cockles, for sure!”
Arthur blushed so violently his embarrassment could be seen even in the dim light of the forest.
“Mistress Alice is not�,” he stammered. “She’s a fine lady, and�”
Bri’n the Blacksmith towered over them, glaring down at Alice with suspicion. “Fine lady, is it, now? Well, then, let us see if this fine lady is armed.” He threw back Alice’s cloak and thrust one large, sooty hand inside, patting her about the waist and hips through the thick layers of her clothing.
Alice drew back in revulsion and threw off her hood. Her hair was the color of amber, but damp and tangled, and her scratched cheeks were dirty, burned red with the cold. “Yes, sir, despite my present circumstances, I am a gentlewoman born, and do not appreciate being treated as a�.”
The burly blacksmith grinned. “And what was that, now, that ye’d like not to be treated as?” He winked, his every move mocking her arrogant tone. When he put both hands on her shoulders and whirled her around to complete a similar search of her rear quarters, Alice’s temper finally erupted.
“Take your filthy hands from me, you stinking oaf!” she cried, slapping his hands away. When the man continued to smile in the same annoying manner, Alice reached up and slapped his face as hard as her small hand would permit. Without a moment’s hesitation, the giant grabbed her around the waist and swept her off her feet.
Arthur dropped the horses’ reins and hurried forward to tug at the blacksmith’s sleeve. “I beg you!” he cried, “Mistress Alice is a friend!”
The blacksmith pushed the boy aside. “Yer friend has bad manners,” he said simply. “And ye’re in for a pack o’ trouble yerself, bringin’ this ‘un here without Robin’s leave! Will’s likely to have yer hide, and that’s a fact!” Then, with Alice tucked beneath his great, hairy arm like a sack of onions, he put one giant foot up on a fallen log and threw her across his sinewy thigh. Seconds later, while Alice was still looking desperately around the clearing for help and shrieking with outrage, the giant tossed her skirts up and searched beneath them thoroughly before planting a half�dozen rapid, painful smacks on her backside with his huge, callused palm.��
“Stop it!” she cried. She threw her hands back in defense, but the giant had apparently finished the lesson he had meant to impart and deposited her back on her feet on the deep cushion of icy leaves that covered the forest floor. Alice opened her mouth to shout a curse at him, but the blacksmith thrust one grimy finger in her face and shook his shaggy head.
“Arthur here claims ye’ as a friend, Mistress,” he growled, “or I’d a’ taken the flesh off yer ass for striking me like ye’ did. Ye’d best hold your tongue now, or it’ll go considerable worse for ye than a ‘lady’ like yourself will like!”
Alice touched her bottom, winced in pain at the touch, and wisely �� for once �� held her tongue.
The blacksmith knelt down and gently inspected the bruised fetlock area and hoof of the limping horse. “I’ll tend yer animals. This one’s in need of a poultice and a good rest. Come along, boy. Robin’s not in camp, but we’ll take yer friend here to Will Fletcher. He’ll decide what’s to be done with her � and with ye!”
Arthur pulled Alice away before she could bring any more trouble down upon their heads, and together, they followed the aging colossus as he strode before them through the woods and into a larger clearing. Alice glanced up into the highest branches of a towering oak tree, where a group of men(delete extra space between of & men were constructing a series of crude platforms among the great tree’s sturdier limbs. The blacksmith shouted up to a tall man who appeared to be in charge�the man called Will Fletcher, presumably.�
“’T is Arthur here, Will! Just come back through the wood with no notice. I nearly put an arrow in his bleedin’ fool chest! And he’s brung with ’im a female � a ‘lady’, says she, although she’s been no proper lady to me!”
The man in the tree shook his head, obviously annoyed at the interruption. “Aye, Bri’n! I’ll be there shortly,” Fletcher called down. “Deliver the girl in my hut and take Arthur with you. Arthur, my lad, it appears you’ll require a fresh reminder of Robin’s order, which I’m quite sure Bri’n will now see to � perhaps not cheerfully, but with his usual strength of purpose.”
Arthur’s thin shoulders slumped, but he followed obediently as the blacksmith took Alice’s arm and pulled her along behind him to a crude wooden dwelling at the far edge of the clearing. He parted a shabby burlap curtain and pointed to a small barrel in the far corner. “Sit yerself there, and stay put!” he ordered. “You, boy!” he growled at Arthur. “Come along with me. We’ve a hard matter to attend to, me and you, so we’d best get it done and over with.” Arthur gulped nervously at what had been said, but nodded a quick goodbye to Alice and followed the blacksmith outside, again, into the clearing.
Alone finally, Alice glanced around the freezing hut, noting that what furniture the dismal hovel contained had been fabricated from beer kegs like the one she was sitting on. Someone had hammered together two small barrels and a number of rough planks to make a long, narrow table, and there was a narrow bed built in a similar, makeshift manner. The bed’s lumpy straw mattress was covered in the same rough burlap as the curtain. If it was true, as the blacksmith had suggested, that Will Fletcher was one of the famed Robin Hood’s important lieutenants, the man was quite obviously not being made wealthy in his position.
She waited for nearly a half an hour before the torn curtain that formed a doorway was thrown back, and the man she had seen working in the trees entered. He was tall, with broad shoulders and muscled arms that spoke of hard work, but his strong hands were slender and well formed. His beard was short and neatly trimmed, and his sand�colored hair somewhat long, tied at the nape of his neck with a leather thong. In the dim light, Alice could see that Will Fletcher’s eyes were a smoky gray in color, and on either side of his neck, almost hidden beneath his collar, he bore two thin, parallel scars. He walked with a very slight limp, as if his right leg bothered him after a long ride, perhaps.
He sat down on the end of the long table and regarded her curiously. “I bid you good day, Mistress. May I inquire�”�
“I would beg to differ, sir,” Alice interrupted icily. “It has not been a good day thus far, but a most disagreeable one. As an innocent wanderer in need of shelter, I had expected a more congenial welcome to Robin Hood’s camp.”
Fletcher shook his head. “Yes, I heard of your... your unfortunate welcome. I’m sorry for that, but I must now ask your purpose here. I’ve talked with young Arthur, and he tells me you’ve fled the Abbey at St. Mary’s? While I can certainly understand why you would be eager to leave such a place, I’m curious as to what would bring a refined, well�bred lady as yourself into our rough and humble hideaway?”
Alice stood up and self�consciously brushed the stray bits of dead leaves from her cloak and skirt. “I detect a note of derision in your question, sir, or perhaps suspicion? In any case, I find your tone and your manner insolent. My reasons for coming here were explained to your boorish sentry upon our arrival, and have hardly changed in the last hour. I seek nothing more than the very poor hospitality offered by this encampment, and even that for a very short time � until I’m able to make arrangements to travel south to London. That is where Arthur and I are bound.”
“Arthur also tells me that you are in some way connected to Henry Burden.”
Alice paused, silently cursing Arthur’s wagging tongue. “Lord Burden is my uncle, older brother to my dead mother. His estate is in Lincolnshire, just beyond the river.” It had not escaped Alice’s notice that Fletcher’s manner had changed noticeably when Uncle Henry’s name was mentioned.�
“Yes,” Fletcher said quietly. “We know Burden well. He’s a good man. What was a niece of Henry Burden doing at a place like St. Mary’s?”
Alice scowled. “My sojourn there was not of my own choosing, I can assure you. Upon my father’s death, the hag he’d chosen as a second wife placed me in the adjoining convent school.� To rot, presumably.”
He chuckled and looked her over more carefully. “Aye, from the look of you, let alone the sound of you, I warrant you’d have made a rather poor nun. When did your mother die?”
“When I was twelve.”
“And you’ve been at St. Mary’s Abbey all this time?” he asked, obviously startled.��
She flushed. “Perhaps I am not the elderly crone your question suggests, Mister Fletcher. I am not quite twenty�six years old, and despite the wishes of my viper of a stepmother, I steadfastly refused to be coerced into taking my final vows. Over the years, I have made a number of escapes, during some of which I managed to remain at large for several months at a time � with Uncle Henry’s help. The first of my escapes was just four days after my arrival there,” she boasted. “It took them three weeks to find and return me.”
Will Fletcher threw his handsome head back and laughed. “I’ll wager your bottom paid a heavy price for leading them that merry chase! It’s rumored the Abbess at St. Mary’s wields a wicked birch rod, and enjoys the strenuous use of it the way many women enjoy a rowdy tumble in bed. It’s said she thinks nothing at all of flogging a disobedient novice ‘til the blood flows.”
Alice nodded in grim agreement. “I promise you, sir, that it is no idle rumor, although my own experience is that she is adept with a thick wooden paddle as well�.” She blushed. “Or so I have heard.” She pointed through the doorway. “And my encounter with that ill�kempt Goliath of yours has convinced me that beating persons smaller than one’s self is not an uncommon practice in this place, either.”
Fletcher smiled. “Ah, you’re speaking of Bri’n, our able blacksmith. Yes, I witnessed, from a distance, of course, your... uh... unfortunate misunderstanding. I’m confident he meant you no real harm, but our customarily gentle Bri’n tolerates no nonsense when protecting this camp, and in doing so, he sometimes acts a bit hastily � and roughly, I’m afraid. He’s a fine, honest old fellow, though, as strong and stout as Little John himself, and you’ll find no better man in a fight, anywhere in England. But he does know how to swat an uncooperative bottom when it’s required � as you have just learned. Among our own unwed young people, he’s regarded as the camp’s elder schoolmaster. There’s a good many impudent rumps in camp that have been warmed by his hand � and then not sat at supper for two nights or more. You’ll not want to cross the good blacksmith while you’re with us, unless you’ve a taste for hot coals on your backside. At the moment, poor Arthur is about to learn that lesson himself.”
�“Arthur!” she cried.
�“Yes. I’m afraid young Arthur is in Bri’n’s smithy as we speak, bent over an anvil, preparing to suffer what will no doubt be a considerably worse hiding than your own very brief paddling, Mistress.”
“But why?” she protested angrily, “He’s done nothing but�.”
“What he did,” Fletcher interrupted, “was to bring a stranger here without leave. The two of you might well have been followed from Nottingham, bringing the Sheriff’s men down upon us.”
“But we weren’t followed,” she insisted. “Please, don’t�.”
He shook his head firmly. “Arthur knew very well the risk he was taking, and the danger. He is not unaware of the penalty for such foolish bravado. He accepted the risk because of his tender feelings for you, no doubt. Bri’n tells me he follows you about like a lovesick puppy. In any case, he’ll take this thrashing because he’s earned it, and then be the wiser for it.”
Suddenly, the quiet of the glen was disturbed by a series of short, strangled yelps coming from a small hovel to their left. Fletcher cocked an ear in the direction of the shrieks, smiling a bit sadly. “I believe that would be young Arthur, now � attempting to spare you his howls of pain, I suspect.”
“This is unjust!” Alice cried “And cruel!”
“Perhaps, but it is the rule. Were I you, Mistress, I would take careful note of your foolhardy companion’s wails of anguish. We continue to stay alive only so long as we maintain our guard. We have few rules here, but those rules are meant to obeyed, even by those enjoying our ‘very poor hospitality,’ as you call it. Now, I must leave. I’ve things to do. I’ll send one of the women to find you a place to sleep for tonight. We’ll talk again tomorrow.” When he began to walk away, Alice stepped in his path, still enraged by Arthur’s mistreatment.
“Are all of the men here savages, like this brutish blacksmith of yours?” she demanded. “Savages you allow to abuse children and women?”
He turned back. “I have explained the reasons for Arthur’s plight, Mistress, and however he may seem to you, he is not a child. Nor, I ‘m sure, would he like to be regarded in that way, by you or any other. As to these women you accuse us of abusing? The men here are not a patient lot, I’ll give you that, particularly when they’re obliged to deal with the wealthy and spoiled. Many of these men have been grievously wronged, forced to watch helplessly while their families were put out of their homes to starve. Others have been imprisoned or tortured by the same arrogant bastards upon whom we now seek revenge � or justice, as we prefer to think of it.
“I offer you an example: Let us suppose that a poor man � one of our own, perhaps � snares a rabbit for his family’s supper. He is apprehended by the landowner, deemed a poacher, and summarily punished for his ‘crime’ by being branded on the cheek or forehead � disfigured for life, marked as a criminal. Avenging the injustice upon the landowner is rarely possible, since cowards of that sort are always well protected. It’s far simpler to seek redress from the landowner’s wife or mistress, by the simple act of relieving one or both of the dear ladies of their purses and their jewelry. By no means a fair exchange, of course. Jewelry can be replaced. Human flesh cannot. Still, it’s better than nothing. Our lives are lived in that way, Mistress Johnstone, by repeating to ourselves, ‘Better than nothing.’�� Unfortunately, not every lady is agreeable to contributing to our cause, and when they protest at too great a length, there are a few men here who would just as happily cut their lovely throats, were they given leave to do so. It was Robin himself who suggested a somewhat less dastardly approach. My suspicion is that the suggestion was originally made in jest, or under the influence of too many Brown October ales, but the idea has proven quite effective in satisfying the men’s need for some small measure of vengeance.
“Daniel � the man by the fire, there � with the black hair and dark visage to match? His widowed sister and her three children were evicted last year by the Sheriff’s henchmen. Since then, he claims to have bared and spanked the dimpled, overfed bottoms of at least two dozen women.”
Alice made a face. “And what crimes did these innocent women commit that they deserved to be humiliated in such an outrageous fashion?” she demanded. “Other than being wealthy?”
“Daniel is a most impatient man, I’m afraid. In their reluctance to part with their valuables, I believe they called him a disagreeable name or two. But the ladies’ real crime, as we see it, is that the velvet draperies behind which they sleep, and every morsel of rich food with which they stuff their faces, are all made possible by the misery of the poor and helpless. These women for whom you feel such outrage live have chosen to live in comfort on money stolen by the men with whom they consort � our sworn enemies.”
After Fletcher’s impassioned speech, Alice could find nothing useful to say in reply. She was beginning to feel foolish, and it wasn’t at all a comfortable feeling. But Will Fletcher’s mood� was still cheerful �even while he was obviously mocking her.
“Now, I will admit that it is altogether possible that Daniel exaggerates the number of women he’s paddled,” he went on, “but be that as it may, I would speak very politely to him, should he choose to divest you of those pearls you’re wearing.”�
“The pearls are paste,” she said haughtily, fingering the necklace around her throat �one of the few possessions of her dead mother’s she had been allowed to keep during her confinement. “The man must be a very poor thief not to recognize paste when he sees it.”
Fletcher smiled, and in his smile, she saw that her lie had been wasted. The pearls were real, and he knew it. “Perhaps, but knowing that he’d been hoodwinked might only serve to inflame Daniel’s temper even further, which could bring about the same result, from a spanked lady’s point of view. I shouldn’t chance it, were I in your place. My understanding is that he is exceptionally fond of birch.”�
Incensed by the personal nature of Fletcher’s remarks, Alice’s temper flared. “It is a normal impulse to attempt to protect your belongings from thieves,” she argued. “If you must steal, why must you humiliate your victims, as well? I have heard countless terrifying stories of Robin Hood’s mistreatment of those he robs.”
Fletcher laughed. “You heard this in the Abbey at St. Mary’s, of course. With an Abbess in residence as wicked as any brigand in England. I would be shocked if you’d heard anything other than lies from that nest of wasps. Perhaps you should try questioning those whom we help, and those we protect, rather than trust the words of those who divest innocent peasants of what little they have.� Our methods are sometimes coarse,” he conceded, sighing. “And too often, they are probably tainted with the lust for vengeance I mentioned earlier. But our policy as thieves is quite straightforward. We first ask our�well, let us call them, for the sake of argument � our visitors. We first inquire of a visitor if he or she is carrying any valuables on his or her person. When the visitor is honest and doesn’t try to hide those valuables, he or she is released unharmed, to go his way in peace � after being relieved of those valuables, of course. Should the visitor lie to us, however, and be found out � which he always is, by the way � then the punishment for his or her transgression is sometimes�.Ah, let us say, disagreeable?”
“How disagreeable?” she inquired sarcastically.
“Very disagreeable, I’m afraid. A common penalty is to be stripped naked and tied backwards upon one’s horse � assuming, of course, that the animal is not worth stealing. At which point, he, or she, is driven from camp, to be found in that embarrassing state by whomever she first meets on the same road.”
Alice gasped. “That is reprehensible! And for a well�born woman, intolerable.”
“Indeed,” he agreed. “And chilly, as well. A situation a wiser well�born woman could have avoided by simply offering up her jewels without attempting to conceal them from us. We have sometimes found precious items hidden in the most unlikely places you can imagine.” He heaved a sigh. “Perhaps I am growing irritable in my old age, but it gives one pause to realize just how greedy and immodest today’s well�born women can be.”
Fletcher continued, and though his tone was solemn, Alice saw an unmistakable twinkle in his eye. “Such improperly brought up ladies are obviously in need of firm correction, which our men sometimes feel duty�bound to provide. The imprudent lady is stripped naked, placed across a low�hanging limb or a convenient log, and paddled soundly. Perhaps I should say unusually soundly. On her bare buttocks, of course, since we’ve found that to be the most effective method. Afterward, a carrot or other appropriately shaped vegetable is occasionally lodged firmly in.... Well, in whichever immodest orifice the lady has chosen to employ as a hiding place.� At which point, she is tied astride a horse, backwards, with her welted bottom on fire, and sent safely but unhappily on her way.”
A horrified Alice blushed deeply, but confronted him with her eyes her flashing. “Such treatment is vile, in itself, but it is also said that your men feel equally free to rape the women they find on the roads, as well as robbing, beating, and humiliating them!”
He shook his head sadly. “Rare, but I will not deny that it has happened. The men here are but men, and rough ones, at that. When we learn of such behavior, the man in question is punished, and ordered to leave the camp. But even the women of our sworn enemies are at less risk with our men than with Prince John’s henchmen, or with the Sheriff’s, or with the powerful and corrupt robber barons that now terrorize England’s highways. Should the naked and well�spanked lady I spoke of be unfortunate enough to come upon one of John’s knights after she leaves our camp, she will find herself in worse hands by far than ours, I promise you. She may protest as loudly as she can that she is the treasured wife, or mistress, or daughter of some well�known rich or noble man, but her fate will be the same � to be raped and buggered, and� then abandoned by the roadside, to live or die.
“In addition, however strong our anger, we have never assaulted children, as the usurper Prince John’s hirelings do regularly.� When they’ve finished, they ride off and leave their young victims to die of cold in the forest. Like the lass, there, whom we recovered some weeks ago, near death.” He pointed to a frail, pale child carrying water in a bucket. “She was eleven at her last birthday. Her nine�year old sister was not as fortunate, and died before she could be rescued.�
“Now,” he said briskly. “Back to your own situation. Henry Burden is a good man, and for his sake, we will do what we can to make your stay here agreeable. Arthur was right to bring you here, despite the lack of proper caution in his methods. The roads are unsafe, especially for someone in your circumstances. With your history, you would suffer a very great price should you be caught again. We will try to get word to your uncle as soon as possible.”