- Published: 15 September 2020
- ISBN: 9781760899264
- Imprint: Bantam Australia
- Format: Trade Paperback
- Pages: 560
- RRP: $32.99
ONCE UPON A TIME
Robin Hood is dead, long live Robin Hood.
If you’re starting this book without reading its predecessor, Nottingham (or if it’s simply been a while since you read that book), you might need a quick recap of its events. After all, there are a handful of significant events you should know about—and the only characters who know the truth are dead.
In 1191, King Richard took all of England’s men and coin away and named his mission a “Holy Crusade” because “A Really Wretched Idea” was just a hair too accurate. When critical supplies from home failed to arrive, he sent his two personal body doubles—Robin of Locksley and William de Wendenal—back to England to investigate. Their search led them to “Marion’s Men,” a group of outlaws and destitute peasants organized by Lady Marion Fitzwalter, who were living in the Sherwood and stealing supplies to survive.
Robin and William split up to effect a peace: Robin stayed with Marion’s outlaws and tempered their outright stealing toward more gentlemanly thievery, gaining them the love of nobles and peasants alike, while William went to Nottingham to pacify the High Sheriff of Nottingham, Roger de Lacy, and the captain of the Nottingham Guard, Guy of Gisbourne. For a short but unsustainable time, things were slightly less terrible.
In that time, William was reunited with an old flame: Arable de Burel. The Burel family had once been prominent in Derby, until the Kings’ War of 1174—in which the Burels followed the Earl de Ferrers to war, while the Wendenals refused. As punishment, William’s brothers were kept as hostages in the Burel estate, where they were accidentally killed trying to escape. William’s father, Beneger de Wendenal, blamed the Burels and destroyed their household—which obviously ended William and Arable’s youthful romance, and sent her into exile. Now, seventeen years later, they could rekindle that relationship.
Violence ignited when Marion and Robin’s crew tried to raid the Nottingham Guard’s supplies in Bernesdale. Two Guardsmen were killed, and Captain Gisbourne unintentionally killed a young boy named Much. In revenge, two of the outlaws—Will Scarlet and Elena Gamwell—went rogue, snuck into Nottingham Castle, and assassinated Sheriff de Lacy. They were captured and sentenced to death.
In the aftermath of this, Robin embraced the persona of “Robin Hood,” while William managed to claim the vacant Sheriffcy. When traditional methods of capturing Robin Hood failed, Captain Gisbourne devised a devious plan: he assaulted Arable and tricked her into releasing Will Scarlet and Elena Gamwell from prison, and then trailed them back to Robin’s camp. He also convinced Elena to poison Robin, but she mistakenly killed her friend Alan instead, and then drank her own poison in remorse for the betrayal. A brutal fight ensued, ending with the deaths of Gisbourne and most of his Guardsmen.
A few other notable names include: Lady Margery d’Oily and her husband Waleran de Beaumont, Earl of Warwick, who befriended Arable but eventually turned on her; Gilbert with the White Hand, a violent killer who left Marion’s Men to join the Nottingham Guard; and a Guardsman named Bolt who abandoned Nottingham after his best friend Reginold was killed.
In the end, Arable guided Robin back to Nottingham Castle to confront William and save Marion, who he believed had been captured against her will. In reality, Marion had arranged her own wedding to William to increase both their power, in the hopes of creating a lasting peace. In the Sheriff’s office, Robin and William confronted each other. Seeing no alternative, William killed Robin, but was immediately poisoned by the young new Earl of Derby: William de Ferrers. Ferrers seized the Sheriff’s seat as his own, and publicly claimed that “Robin Hood” had killed Sheriff William de Wendenal.
In the Sherwood, Will Scarlet took on the mantle of Robin Hood, vowing to continue the fight against the new Sheriff alongside Marion, even as winter begins.
THE FRENCH WARD
“God’s teeth!” Little Hugh tried—and failed—to wink. “I’m fucking Robin Hood!”
“Mind your tongue!” Sarra snatched his earlobe with a mother’s precision and twisted it. Her son’s joy vanished as he writhed between her fingertips. “I don’t ever want to hear such language from you again, understand? Now go find your father, he’s waiting on you!”
She slapped his bottom—always too hard but never hard enough—and his legs flik-flacked away down the alley slop. Sarra’s shoulders slumped. I don’t remember ever having that much energy. She was exhausted just watching him, and jealous of the simplicity that came with being a child.
Mindful of her bruises, Sarra tugged her roughspun shawl closer at the neck and winced. Above, the sky spat in little pockets and rolled grey behind the silhouette of Nottingham Castle, looming furiously over them. Thin waves of black coursed over its frame as the wind and water fought across the battlements. It gave the illusion of a castle with hair—long, uncontrollable wisps whipping out, vanishing, then lashing out again elsewhere.
“We’re going to starve either way,” her husband, Rog, had explained, “but it will be better in the city. You’ll see.”
It sounded like wisdom then, as hope always does to the desperate. And Rog had always held a clever sort of patience, knowing when to ignore an easy lure. It broke Sarra’s heart to remember how Rog once kept their spirits high, singing at night for Hugh when they had nothing to eat, even just a few months ago. She’d always loved that toothy smile of his, especially when she could see it in their son. But now, Sarra’s husband could hardly bear to look her in the eyes. There was no predicting each day if it would be rage or humiliation that made him keep his distance.
“Gack,” some noise snapped for attention at her right—a dirty, bony thing reaching out from a hole in the alley’s stone wall, a too-skinny old man covered in dried mud or excrement. Eyeballs shining but shrouded in dark. Panic froze her for only a moment, but long enough for him to grin black gums. “I’ll trade you a dry place for a wet one.” Clacking his few remaining teeth, he uncurled one finger out toward Sarra’s legs. She busied herself away, to outrun her disgust.
Sarra wondered, again, if anyone else from Thorney had survived. Most fled after the fields had burnt, but some stayed behind. Rog’s only brother, Hanry, swore he’d join them in Nottingham, but winter was halfway through with no sign of him.
She pushed away from the alley, and through the unwelcome clamor of the French Ward.
This place was an infected sore in the city’s armpit. The French Ward had grown out of sheer spite to the north of the castle’s hill, wedged between the foot of its craggy cliffs and the slope of the western Derby Road. The finest parts of the French Ward were an overrun lot of ramshackle wooden buildings and filth. The worst parts were appropriately worse.
“It’s the only place we can go,” Rog had explained, “but it’s better than nothing. You’ll see.”
What she didn’t see was him, not anymore. A year ago she would’ve gladly left Thorney for any place he suggested, so long as they were all together. But here in the city, he was always working—or hoping to work by waiting in lines, which rarely paid off—and they merely traded Hugh off between them, sometimes with barely a word. That wasn’t together.
At the makeshift stairs up to Park Row, a commotion seized her attention. Splashing carelessly off the uneven cobbles and into another muddy alley, a pack of young street boys—just barely older than Hugh—chased at each other. Their faces were smiles and they laughed the way Hugh laughed, until one turned and swung the heft of his knapsack into the face of the boy behind him, who spun and fell into the muck. The rest pummeled the fallen boy with their sacks and fists and feet, then turned heel and sprinted right past Sarra. The last one barked in her face and laughed as she startled.
Ten paces away, the poor boy in the mud didn’t move, his face down.
Get up, she thought at him, because she didn’t want to know what she’d do if he didn’t. At the very edge of her mind, her guilt replaced this boy with Hugh. Sarra tilted her face up to the rain and refused to think on her son being beaten so. Or worse, it came before she could stop it, what if he becomes one of the boys who delivers the beating?
The image of the barking boy’s greasy, pock-ridden cheeks burnt in her mind.
She suddenly regretted letting Hugh run to Rog on his own when she could’ve easily accompanied him. It didn’t matter that Rog and his shovel were waiting with the other hopeful dayhands only a few buildings away. She could’ve held Hugh’s hand and told him something important and true about making good choices. Something about character. Something that would stay with him. Next time, she promised herself. Again.
The street boy didn’t move.
She couldn’t be late, she had a gentleman waiting. Well, they were rarely gentle, but she had no other word for them. They have a word for you, though. She hadn’t said that word to herself yet, nor had Rog. At least, not out loud. His eyes screamed it, but they both knew their marriage would only last until its first utterance. So he stayed his pride and didn’t ask how she came about the occasional coin that kept the three of them alive. When they spoke, it was only of Hugh, and of how to protect him from the city’s grime.
With a gasp, the fallen boy jerked and pushed up to his hands and knees. Sarra exhaled, hot tears mixing with the rain down her cheeks. She lingered to watch the boy shake himself off and limp away, when something smashed into her side.
She yelped as she turned, but the little familiar something wrapped its arms around her legs, and Sarra tugged her son’s hair.
“You gave me a start!” she said—reminding herself of her own mother—and wrapped her fingers into his sopping mop. “Where’s your cap, now?”
“He’s here, Mum, you have to come!”
“Where’s your cap, young sir?” she repeated, twisting him to see his face, cheeks pinpricked red from running. He pulled the thing from a pocket and tugged it over his head, along with a grumble of protest. Sarra grumbled right back at him and readjusted the cap over the tips of his ears. “Who is this, now? Who’s here?”
Hugh pulled at her. “Come on then, and hurry!”
“I can’t say.”
“Well you’ll have to,” she chided him, glancing down the alley where the imprint of the street boy’s body had already turned into a puddle of dirty rainwater. Hugh’s entire face squirmed.
“I can’t. You told me to never use such language again.”