Seeing his friends disappear into the forest, Robin clucked at the reins but the horse was just as stubborn as it had been with the friar. Blood continued to drip from his limp left arm and Robin was forced to wait several precious seconds for the dizziness to pass before trying to get the blasted nag to move. Even the wind didn’t seem to affect the old relic.
Robin was truthful enough to admit he wasn’t in any shape to ride with two children. But now he barely had enough strength left to handle the wagon! With a deep breath, he snapped the reins again. A deafening crack of thunder suddenly split the air and the horse, despite its advanced years, took off like an arrow from a taught bowstring, snapping Robin back as if for the sheer spite of it.
To keep the horse moving away from his friends, Robin needed both hands to control the reins. His blowing hair was blinding him. Burning agony lanced up his arm and shot through every part of his body, but he held on. He had to—the lives of those who were now his family and the children depended on him.
After several miles, the heavens finally opened up and the deluge began, soaking Robin to the skin within a matter of seconds. His suede pants molded to his muscular thighs. His long sleeve leather jerkin stuck to him like a second skin, outlining his shoulder and back muscles as they bunched under the strain of controlling the wagon. His sable hair flattened against his head, appearing even longer than its customary shoulder length.
Robin looked up through the trees and shook his head. A ghost of his crooked grin flickered across his face. As if things weren’t dire enough, the rain was changing into stinging sleet. Perfect, Robin thought. He was soon shivering uncontrollably.
The raging storm blocked all other sounds but one so Robin was unable to hear if the soldiers were gaining on him. All he could hear over the storm’s fury were his own teeth chattering. His strength was failing quickly and he desperately tried to devise a plan. But, he simply could no longer think clearly.
Suddenly, a wheel hit something hard and bucked the wagon into the air, throwing Robin and hay up and away from the wagon’s path. He hit the sodden ground like a sack of turnips, screaming in agony as he landed on his injured arm. The breath exploded out of him, leaving him deathly still in the mud, his left arm pinned under him. The sleet pounded down without mercy and Robin’s ringing ears barely registered the sound of splintering wood and a horse’s terrified scream. Gratefully, he surrendered to the beckoning darkness.
Marion gently pulled on the reins, bringing the heaving mare to a gradual stop so as not to unseat the two children hanging on for dear life. She murmured encouragement to the youngsters and patted the horse on its lathered neck while she waited for Little John and Tuck to catch up to her.
"The horses aren’t going to make it if we keep up this pace. Not in this weather."
"I agree," Tuck replied. "And we still have a lot of ground to cover if we want to get home by eventide."
"And the children need a rest, Marion. They’re cold and exhausted," Little John was quick to add, the gentle side of his nature always evident where children were concerned.
John was correct. The children were shivering from fear and the damp chill. Their eyes were owl-like, big and unblinking, their lips blue from the cold, the knuckles on their small hands white under the death grip they had on their rescuers.
Tuck took one look at their pitiful condition and agreed. "Perhaps we should rest for a short while," Tuck suggested handing both children down to Little John. "Maybe we can find a dry spot somewhere." As Marion and Little John nodded their consent, the children voiced a different opinion.
"No" they shouted as one, causing a flock of startled sparrows to take flight.
Tuck struggled off his horse and faced the determined children. "No? Why on earth not? You must be tired."
Tom, the oldest boy in the group at the age of ten, stepped forward.
"R-Robin asked us to do what you say. B-but, he also wants us to be brave." Tom gulped for air and chanced a look at his bedraggled friends who all nodded their encouragement. "We want to obey you but we think we should be brave first," Tom let out in a rush. "We don’t want to stop. Robin would keep going so we want to, too."
Marion, Tuck and Little John looked from the children to one another and back to the children, amazement and pride on their stunned faces. With a barely perceptible nod, they wordlessly agreed to honor the children’s valiant request.
"All right, children, we won’t stop here. You are all very brave. Robin will be as proud of you as we are." Tuck walked up to young Tom and laid a hand on his bony shoulder. "Especially you, Tom. It was very brave of you to speak up as you did."
Tom’s freckled, dirt-smudged face bloomed a dull red yet radiated with pride and gratitude. He thrust out his narrow chest and seemed to grow an inch or two in stature.
When the children were once again mounted, Gwyneth, Eleanor’s younger sister, voiced the fear on everyone’s mind. "Robin will be all right, won’t he?"
Tuck studied the faces of his friends as all three of them battled to hide their mutual fear from the children. "I’m sure he’ll be just fine, Gwyneth. Try not to wor—"
"But he was hurt, Friar," Tom interrupted. "I saw the blood on his arm."
"I don’t want Wobin to die like my daddy," Beatrice wailed.
"There, there, now," Tuck soothed the upset little girl. "Robin will meet us in the village before we know it. The sooner we get home the sooner we’ll see him."
The party resumed their grueling journey homeward, each member lost in their own thoughts.
"There’s the wagon. They can’t be far. Find them!"
The soldiers leaped off their mounts to scower the woods. None of them wanted to risk the wrath of their captain. Not after the carnage and brutality they witnessed—and were under orders to participate in—back in that village.
"I’ve found someone, Captain. Over here."
The captain, a grizzled veteran whose own hatred for all that was Saxon not only rivaled Prince John’s but surpassed it, walked over to the body lying in the mud. "Turn him over."
Murmurs were heard when the man landed on his back and his face was revealed. "By God! It’s Robert of Locksley himself. Robin Hood."
The captain prodded the unconscious figure with his boot, disappointed by the lack of response. He kicked harder. Still nothing.
"Wake him up. I want him to know who has finally captured him."
A soldier leaned forward and slapped Robin’s face hard once, then again until Robin regained consciousness. Robin jerked to a sitting position only to immediately fall back into the mud, clearly weak and disoriented.
The captain pushed his minion out of the way and towered over the fallen hero.
"You don’t know who I am, Robin Hood, but soon everyone in England will know the name of Captain Josiah Planter, the man who captured Robin Hood and delivered him to his well-deserved death."
He bent down and grabbed a fistful of wet, muddy hair in his gloved hand, forcing Robin to look at him. "You are doomed now, you damned Saxon bastard."
Robin simply stared at the man, his brown eyes glassy, still too groggy to fully comprehend the words spewing from the cruel mouth.
Enraged at the lack of response—he should be cowering in fear!—the captain backhanded Robin with a heavy blow, his cruel grip never weakening. A red welt appeared immediately, covering the whole left side of Robin’s face.
Robin struggled as best he could with his good arm to free himself from the punishing hold that threatened to pull his hair out by the roots. The captain, furious at this show of defiance, backhanded him repeatedly, the mail glove abrading his skin and splitting Robin’s left brow and lips.
Summoning the last of his will power, Robin laughed in the captain’s face. "Your only claim to fame will be your ugly face when I’m finished with you."
The captain’s eyes bulged at the mocking insult. His jowly face flushed a deep crimson. His burly body shook with fury. He looked ready to explode.
The soldiers who were watching the exchange with avid interest began to back away from the two men. They knew first-hand about the unleashed fury of Josiah Planter and wanted to be as far away from him as possible. More than one man actually felt sorry for the outlaw at that moment.
Still gripping his prisoner’s hair, Planter shook Robin as if he were nothing but a pesky rodent. A cry was wrenched from Robin’s bloody lips. Blackness teased at the periphery of his vision.
Planter screamed in Robin’s face, his spittle mixing with the rain and blood streaming down Robin’s mottled cheek. "Defy me, will you?"
"I’ve spit on better men than you, Captain. You can go to hell with your precious Prince John."
Planter’s temper finally exploded. He pushed Robin back into the mud.
"You think you are better than me, outlaw? We’ll see about that. Guards, string him up! Let’s teach him some humility with Norman discipline."
End Chapter Two