Northern England, 1192 A.D.
“Run, girl!” Mother Eleanor said. “Run like you stole something!”
Clutching the bag of wheat in her apron, Robyn ran like a rabbit with a slathering dog on her heels. Faster, faster, her feet pounded the ground. Her chest strained. Her legs burned. Wheat seeds flew out with every thumped landing.
On she ran, away from the tax collectors who’d suddenly appeared on their outlying fields only a few minutes ago, on she ran towards the heart of her village. To the familiar buildings that would give her cover so she could hide this precious bag of grain.
Surprise shocked her into stillness. Whose carriage was that, sitting in the village green? Its panels gleamed in the autumn sunlight, its coat of arms on the door polished to a neat shine; golden stags on a sash of blue.
Hang on, she’d just seen that same insignia on the carriage that pulled up next to the field they’d been ploughing and sowing. The one she’d run from. Where tax collectors were storming about demanding seventeen marks of wheat, when every villager knew they barely had ten.
And now a matching carriage sat in the middle of Loxley village, which had to mean there were more tax collectors all around her, raiding every cottage.
Very, very, very not good.
Darting away, she raced for the safety of the barn. She slumped against the outside wall, taking huge gulps of air while trying desperately to keep quiet. Had she made too much noise?
Had anyone seen her dash to the shed?
Panic swirled crazy ideas through her. She should hide inside the building. A loose section of wall was almost big enough to lift aside to crawl through. Curse her growth spurt, she’d never get in there.
It took an age for her heart to stop whacking against her ribs. With willpower and several prayers, she brought her breath half way back to normal. Throat parched, she looked ravenously towards the well for a drink. Not a chance. She’d be spotted for sure if she drew up a pail of water.
The bag of wheat was mostly safe, though. As long as nobody followed the trail of seeds to her hiding place.
Screaming and shouting filled Robyn’s ears. Peering around the side of the barn, she saw armoured men helping themselves to rolls of fabric from the Miller’s cottage. Men in armour? Since when did tax collectors need that level of protection?
“Oi! Put that back! You’ve no right!” Grannyma Miller screamed, then swatted at them with an embroidery hoop in one arm. Her wailing grandson, Tuppence, swung in her other. The hoop broke into splinters on the tax collector’s helmets, but to Robyn’s relief, Grannyma did not hit them with Tuppence. With another yell of defiance, Grannyma ripped the fully-loaded swaddling off the babby and flung it at them. The stinky bomb missed its target and splattered on the ground. The smell carried all the way to the barn where Robyn had to breathe through her already desiccated mouth so she didn’t retch. Fearing nobody, the men turned their backs on Grannyma and her screaming babby, then sauntered into the blacksmith’s hut like they owned it. Most likely to help themselves to whatever was in there.
An ache Robyn couldn’t name welled in her chest. If only her father were here, he’d know what to do. How to handle this. But her father wasn’t here to protect Loxley. Neither were the rest of the men in the village. Not since they’d marched off under the king’s banner of three golden lions on a red field, to join something called a crusade. Leaving Loxley defenseless.
Anger overrode Robyn’s instinct to hide, as she watched these men take whatever they wanted. The dirty, filthy thieves! How dare they! Red mist clouded her vision. They were acting like thieves, not taxmen. Maybe they’d stolen those shiny carriages and were only pretending to be tax collectors?
She had to do something. Anything. To save her village.
Making sure the strangers were well inside the smithy, Robyn crept in the other direction towards the carriage and made friends with the two horses attached to it. “Easy there, easy.”
Such fine horseflesh, their coats fair gleamed. They were shod and everything. These horses were used to taking the high road, not the low dales. A plan formed in Robyn’s mind, but it meant parting with some of the precious grain. If she had time to think of anything else, she would, but time was in desperately short supply. She plunged her hand into the bag of grain in her apron and offered half a palm full to one horse, then the other. They’d need a quick burst of energy in a moment.
Sneaking between the beasts, Robyn found the belts connecting the harness to the carriage and wiggled them free. Now the tax collectors could load as much as they wanted, but the carriage would go nowhere.
Somebody had left a hooded travelling cloak on the driver’s seat. Robyn slipped it over her shoulders and tied the fastener. Now the men wouldn’t see her face if they spotted her.
With a quick shake of her hands to steady the nerves, Robyn set to untying the rest of the harness buckles and belts, setting the horses free.
“Now scram!” she said.
They didn’t budge.
Any other horse or cow-even pig-would have leapt at the chance of freedom. These animals were so placid, so tame . . . so stupid, they went on munching and standing so stupidly still. Panic made Robyn desperate. These horses had to move, and quickly. Maybe a shove from behind would help?
She climbed onto the front of the carriage, to the driver’s seat.
“You there!” One of the men said.
Uh-oh, they were out of the smithy, ready to load up their stolen stuff. Terrified, Robyn put the bag of wheat safely on the driver’s seat for now, then threw herself onto the back of one horse, her long dark hair flinging over her eyes, making it hard to see. She grabbed onto the mane and clamped her knees in tightly.
Not even a wobble from the animal below her. An animal that smelled of soap and little work. Not like the cows in the field that filled the air with dung, sweat and dust.
“Get down lad!” The man dropped his bounty and charged for Robyn.
Running hot and cold from worry and excitement, Robyn yelled, “Giddyup!”
A man’s hard hand grabbed her by the boot. She kicked out in defence; her boot flew off but so did his hand. Her foot sprang back onto the horse’s flank. Startled, the beast shot off like an loosed arrow and charged. The other horse made a whinny and cantered after them. Robyn kept her body low, fists clenched in the mane, knees pressed in hard to keep balance. Only now did she remember she had absolutely no idea how to control a horse.
Left a bit.
Right a bit.
Bad wobble. Hang on!
Don’t fall off! Quick correction.
Onwards the horse galloped, Robyn twisted her grip into its mane. Thump thump, tha-thump, thump. The hooves hitting the ground matched Robyn’s pulse. On the animal raced, up into the wooded hills and further into the Shire Wood.
After her initial panic wore off, and she’d not fallen off, Robyn began to notice something of a pattern in the horse’s gait and she could anticipate the rhythm of bumps and thumps. Growing more confident as they reached the crest of a hill, she shifted her weight to look back. The hood of her cloak flipped onto her head, blocking the edges of her vision, but she saw enough of Loxley down below.
Free from its harness, the other horse had bolted away, towards the village wheat field. Relief sagged her body. Maybe the men would catch the other stray horse before they came after her? At least she had a great head start on them.
They did have the bag of grain though; the bag Robyn had left behind in her panic. She could have smacked herself. She had one job, to protect that bag, and she’d failed. Now, through the gap in the trees, she saw what her actions cost. Curse it! A man upended the bag and tipped the seeds all over the ground.
Of all the disrespectful, wasteful things to do! Robyn gritted her teeth in anger and failure. She was in charge of protecting that grain, it might have been all the winter wheat the village had left to plant. She should have hidden it in the shed, but no, she’d left it out in the open.
“You are such an idiot!” she said through gritted teeth.
The horse made a weird sound.
“Not you, horse. Me. I’m the idiot.”
She couldn’t look at the village any more, didn’t want to see the wanton destruction. Also, her foot was cold from losing her boot, but that was the least of her issues right now.
Robyn urged the horse farther into the wood. As the animal slowed to a trot, then walked at an even pace, Robyn’s blank, adrenalin-filled head let some proper thoughts through.
Useful thoughts. Constructive, practical thoughts.
There was no way those men in the village were real tax collectors. Not with the way they were being so wasteful. After all, would tax collectors demand seventeen marks of wheat, then tip half a mark into the ground? Not likely. Maybe they’d stolen the carriages, then gone on a raiding spree? They were only pretending to represent the Sheriff, so they could take advantage of unprotected villages like hers.
For a moment, smug satisfaction filled Robyn with righteous indignation. Then a new thought crashed hard on the previous one. What if they really had been tax collectors after all? Just a little brutal and stupid about it?
That would mean Robyn had stolen a crown horse.
She’d hang for theft if they caught her.
OK, she had to make sure she wasn’t caught. Which meant getting off the horse right now. After all, it would be pretty hard to claim you weren’t a horse thief if you were caught riding it at the time.
Any stranger would know by her roughly woven clothes and boots–OK, one boot now–that she was a peasant; the magnificent animal she rode could not possibly belong to her.
Therefore, if she and the horse parted ways, she could wait it out amongst the birch trees and fallen leaves of the Shire Wood, then sneak back to Loxley under cover of darkness. Nobody would be any the wiser.
Unless the thieving men . . . who might very well be legitimate tax collectors . . . had seen her face and recognized her?
Wait! Hadn’t they called her “lad” at some point?
Maybe they’d be looking for a boy, not a girl?
That could work!
Robyn took her chance and slid off. She landed hard on her bottom and winced with pain. The horse stopped and turned its head, its nostrils flaring as it sniffed the air.
“You’re free now, off you trot.”
The horse lifted its top lip and kept sniffing. Then she pushed her lips onto Robyn’s head and nibbled at her hair. From her position sitting on the ground, Robyn could clearly see the horse was lacking the necessary equine equipment to be called a boy.
“Get off!” Robyn said, pulling away and smoothing her hair down. Ewwww, horse spit! Her hair clumped into dark ribbons as she tried to clean it. Meanwhile, the beast took a step sideways, but didn’t walk off.
“Fine then, I’ll go.” Robyn rose and had a good look around. In the distance, she heard the splash of a stream over rocks. Water! She was gasping for a drink. The river would be at the bottom of the hill. Walking hurt her one-unshod-foot as mud and sticks jabbed at her sole, but she had tough skin and she could wash her foot in the stream.
Memories of rabbit hunting with her father assailed her. They’d drank where the rabbits drank, knowing the water would be fresh and life-giving. As she neared the river, Robyn’s ears pricked up. Hers were not the only footsteps in the woods.
“No way!” she looked back to see the horse following her, like a shadow. “Shoo, shoo!” She waved her arms.
The horse whickered and lifted her head, but didn’t go.
“This day gets worse!” Robyn turned her back on the animal and made for the stream. All the exertion had made her thirsty. Maybe the horse was thirsty too? Of course! That must be why it was following her. It had been pulling a carriage all day and had just carried her off into the thickets at a fast clip.
The stream flowed slowly when they reached the banks. Yes, it trickled over rocks but otherwise looked brown and oozy, not at all refreshing. Robyn (with the horse-shadow behind her) kept walking until the water flowed swiftly over rocks. Two startled rabbits darted off. Here the stream looked clear and bright. Refreshing.
Robyn crouched at the bank and began scooping the water into her mouth with her palms, as her father had taught her. It soothed her throat and filled her belly. The horse waded into the water and slurped with contentment.
Taking a moment, Robyn sat on the banks of the river in a pile of dried fallen leaves. Checking her foot, it was dirty but the sticks and stones of the Shire Wood hadn’t broken the skin. The horse would find its way home. Didn’t they always? Or was that merely one of Grannyma Miller’s old sayings? In any case, Robyn had to keep moving. It was too dangerous to risk being found with the animal.
“Thank you for the ride, Horse, but I have to be going. Alone.” She followed the riverbank downstream, biding her time until dusk.
Splash, splash, splash-splash.
There were hooves in the water, following her.
“Take a hint, Horse.” Robyn waved her arms in the air, trying to shoo her away again. The horse only stepped closer, nodded her head and then rubbed her cheek against Robyn’s arm.
So friendly. Robyn rubbed the horse’s nose with affection. “You are a sweet thing, but you’re going to land me into trouble.”
A big hand landed hard on her shoulder, anchoring her to the ground.
With a gulp, Robyn turned to face her captor.
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