Updated: Oct 20
The forest canopy was alive with the crashing cacophony of rain. The leaves were pounded as if by an army of drummers.
Through this emerald green orchestra, Robin stalked his prey-- a band of the Sheriff’s men.
From the top of an old oak, he had watched as they had shot a poacher and killed two of his hunting hounds. He hadn’t been able to intervene until he had ascertained their numbers. They now pursued the last of the poacher’s pack. With a crossbow bolt in his hip, the dog wouldn’t get far. Robin loped after them in a mile eating run.
The hoots and roars of triumph indicated that the prey had been cornered. Slowing as he came into view, Robin lifted his cap and pulled a waxed bowstring from behind his ear, then strung his longbow. Lifting the leather hood off his quiver, he pulled three arrows clear and stuck them point first into the mud.
As the soldiers cat-called the hound, they surrounded it, shields up. Blades licking out to leave ruby red wounds. The dog yelped and snarled as the blades tore flesh. They were toying with their prey.
Plucking the first arrow, Robin nocked and drew. The muscles across his back tightened in a familiar strain.
Laughter filled the forest as the sergeant mocked the wounded hound. Laughter turned to burbling as blood gushed from his throat. He collapsed to the floor, trying to staunch the wound with his mailed gauntlets. His last sight was being eye to eye with the vengeful dog before it pounced.
As the others turned, a second arrow took one of the hunters in the heart. Robin loosed his final arrow as the third hunter wisely decided to run. Even as the arrow left the bow, he knew it was a killing blow.
Walking forward, Robin saw the confused dog back away, snarling. He was in a bad way, bleeding from several wounds. Divesting the soldiers of their coin, Robin tossed down some hardtack and even a precious strip of dried venison. ‘Come on then.’ He slapped his thigh to summon the animal, who responded by growling even louder. ‘Alright then, if you insist.’ Robin bowed solemnly, then walked back to his cave.
* * * * *
That evening, as he sat back by the fire consuming birch wine, he saw a familiar face. The dog had returned. It growled at him even as it swayed, looking dead on its feet.
‘Come on then.’ Robin tossed another strip of venison next to the fire. The dog made it halfway before collapsing. Sighing, Robin pulled out a needle and thread. Looking at the dying dog, he got to work.
In the middle of the night, he woke to find the dog had crawled closer to him and smiled.
At sunrise, he got up to go hunting. As he approached the dog, it growled again, but this time wagged its tail. ‘I think we are beyond that—’ he paused to think ‘—Herne.’ Tossing down some more hardtack, he turned to go hunting. The dog lumbered up to join him, its stitches bulging. Robin realised that Herne would kill himself if he followed him, as it undoubtedly was determined to.
He spent the day fletching arrows and then sorting his feather collection into piles based on size and shape. Three days, that was how long he could give Herne to heal. Then Robin would need to hunt. After that, Herne would just have to do his best to go easy on the stitches.
It was on the third day that he heard them. They must have found his scent. He had stayed too long in one place. Stringing his bow, he crept out of his cave. Herne pushed himself up and staggered towards him, licking his palm.
Sorrow filled him. If he let Herne come with him, he would be a liability. If he tied him up and didn’t return. He would die.
There was only one option. Picking up a stone, Robin hefted it before hurling it at Herne. ‘Get out of here, go on.’ Herne yelped, his eyes wide. Then he growled. Robin walked away, then tossed another stone as Herne followed. ‘Go! Get gone.’ It took three stones in total before the dog whined and left through the trees, his tail low.
As he banked up the fire into a roaring blaze, no amount of reasoning could make Robin feel good about what he had done. Instead, he locked away his feelings and focused on the matter at hand.
* * * * *
The hunters knew their work. They spread out in a large fan as they surrounded the cave.
Unlike them, their leader, Guy of Gisbourne, was not looking at the cave. He knew a trap when he saw one and had harried this particular quarry for a long time. As he scanned the treetops, he licked his lips with anticipation.
Summoning two of his soldiers, he pointed at the cave. ‘Let’s end this farce.’ They looked at him dubiously. ‘A gold sovereign for the man who brings me his head.’ That did it. As they advanced slowly, he kept one eye on them and another scanned the area around them. Come on, where is your trap you fox? As they approached the fire, they paused, but then with a bellowed warcry, they disappeared around the sides of the fire and into the cave.
A long, pregnant pause followed and despite his best intentions, he watched the cave enthralled, his hand clasping his hilt nervously. Then the two soldiers emerged, shrugging.
Sighing, he looked around. ‘Hunters, search for tracks. He is nearby. I can sense it.’ Silence. He shouted again, and a feathered shaft lodged in the throat of one of his soldiers. Sir Guy saw the bodies of his men, some with arrows sprouting from them, others with throats slit. The sole remaining survivor of his band charged with him in the direction of the shafts. His shield slammed with an all-mighty impact. He swore as an arrowhead penetrated it by a full inch, directly at eye level. To his left, he heard a scream. Sweat ran down his back, the iron of his mail shirt reeked like blood. He was alone.
Bursting into a clearing, he found the cursed wolfshead Robin of Sherwood. The Forest Baron, the Outlaw, the Pagan. As he saw the empty quiver, a grim smile crossed his face. ‘No more tricks from you, Rebel.’ He blew a horn from his belt and threw it to the ground.
Robin had his sword out and was standing patiently by a giant oak.
‘You’ve nowhere to run to, Robin. More of my men will be coming. You can’t escape.’ He drew his sword, a long sword of Damascus steel. His opponent looked at him with weary resignation. He started to circle him as he tossed his damaged shield to one side freeing both hands to wield his blade.
Sir Guy’s sword swished in the air as he ran through a pattern to loosen his muscles. ‘Your stance is too narrow. You’ll overbalance. I thought they trained you better in the Holy Land.’ Moving slowly closer, Robin suddenly leapt forwards, his blade licking out. Sir Guy blocked and riposted, drawing blood from Robin’s forearm. ‘Sloppy footwork. Were you taught by anyone, or did you learn in the barracks? I, of course, was taught by Raven D’Onston. Father summoned him from the Kingdom of Arles.’
Robin leapt forwards, a series of swift strikes were easily parried. Sir Guy was enjoying himself. His blade licked out and caught Robin just above the eye. He took a step back, waiting for the cut to leak blood into Robin’s eyes. On cue, Robin started to blink rapidly as the thick fluid blinded him in one eye.
It is time to end this farce.
A battering ram of fur launched from the bushes into the back of his leg, causing him to drop down onto one knee as his hamstring was torn open by its ravening jaws. He drew a knife and stabbed behind him with his spare hand at the mangy mutt. It was trying to jump onto his back, where its jaws tried to snap around his neck. He heard it whimper as his blade struck true, not once, but twice.
With horror, he spun to see Robin’s sword glitter in the morning sun as it swung down towards him.
* * * * *
Robin watched the corpse of Sir Guy collapse to the floor. He hacked two more times at his neck until he was decapitated, the head rolling gently across the forest floor.
Herne lay on the floor, whining softly. His tail went thud, thud, thud, throwing up leaves from the soft loam.
‘You idiot, I told you to go away.’ Kneeling down next to Herne, Robin’s hand received a lick. ‘Why did I bother with all those stitches, eh?’ All of Herne’s stitches had burst from the fighting and now bled openly. A weaker thud from Herne’s tail led Robin to scratch behind his ear.
‘I don’t know where you’ll go after this, but I hope there are plenty of rabbits for you.’
Robin gently stroked Herne’s fur until his breathing stopped.
‘Thank you, friend, you are and always will be, a good dog.’
In beloved memory of Duke Webb, Aug 2009 – September 2021
Rest in Peace. You are the best of doggos.