After the events of Outlaw, Robin of Locksley—and his sidekick and narrator, Alan Dale—finds himself in a very different England and a very changed world. In 1190 A.D. Richard the Lionheart, the new King of England, has launched his epic crusade to seize Jerusalem from the Saracens. Marching with the vast royal army is Britain’s most famous, most feared, most ferocious warrior: the Outlaw of Nottingham, the Earl of Locksley—Robin Hood himself. With his band of loyal men at his side, Robin cuts a bloody swath on the brutal journey east. Daring and dangerous, he can outwit and outlast any foe—but the battlefields of the Holy Land are the ultimate proving ground. And within Robin’s camp lurks a traitor—a hidden enemy determined to assassinate England’s most dangerous rogue.Richly imagined and furiously paced, featuring a cast of unforgettable characters, Holy Warrior is adventure, history and legend at its finest.
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ANGUS DONALD is a longtime journalist, now novelist, and lives in England. He is at work on his next book in the Outlaw series.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
I hesitated long before beginning this labor, and had resolutely made up my mind never to set down on parchment this part of my early life, until I heard a man in an alehouse in Nottingham the other day, a professional storyweaver, and a good one, extol the virtues of lionhearted King Richard and his brave warriors who made the Great Pilgrimage to the Holy Land more than forty years ago. The man described the magnificent killing skills of the steel-wrapped Christian knights, and the deathless glory that they won against the Saracens at Acre and Arsuf; he spoke of the certain rewards in Heaven for those who fell in such a noble cause, and the rich rewards on Earth, in plunder and booty, for those who returned ...
But this eloquent tale-spinner never mentioned the true sights, smells and sounds of a battlefield after a great victory—the ones that stay with you and plague your dreams. He did not speak of the corpses, thousands of them, chalk-faced and staring, stiffened by death and heaped like cut logs one on top of the other; nor the belly-slashed horses, stepping in their own entrails, eyes rolling, trembling and whinnying with fear; nor the iron-meat stench of fresh blood and spattered shit, an odor that coats the back of your throat and will not easily be washed away; nor the drone of a hundred thousand gore-glutted flies; nor the ceaseless, hopeless shrieking of the badly wounded that makes you yearn to stuff your ears against their pain.
He did not speak of the horror of killing a man close to; the wild kick of his death-writhe against your body, the stench of his onion breath on your cheek; the hot blood washing over your hand as you work the blade deeper into his flesh. And the sick dizziness and relief you feel when the deed is done and the man lies by your boots, suddenly no more than a loose bag of bones and meat.
The storyteller did not lie—and yet he did not tell the truth. And when I saw the eyes of the young men in that tavern shining in the firelight as they listened to his stories of bold Christian heroes carving their way through the ranks of cowardly unbelievers, I knew that I must set down the true events of that great endeavor four decades past, the true courses of those far-off battles, as I saw them with my own youthful eyes.
This is not a tale of bold heroes and everlasting glory, it is a tale of useless slaughter and lakes of innocent blood; a tale of greed, cruelty and hatred—and of love; it is also a tale of loyalty and friendship and forgiveness. Most of all it is the tale of my master Robert Odo, the great Earl of Locksley, the man once known throughout the land as Robin Hood—a cunning thief, an ice-hearted murderer and, God forgive me, for many years my good friend.
As I inscribe this story of my long-ago journeying at a writing stand in the great hall at the manor of Westbury, I feel the crushing weight of my years. My legs ache from standing at my sloped lectern for so long. My hands, which grip penknife and quill, are cramped from hours of work. But our merciful Lord has spared me these past fifty-eight years, through much danger, battle and bloodshed, and I have faith that he will give me the strength to complete this task.
Through the wide-open hall door, a light breeze steals in and stirs the rushes on the floor, wafting the warm scents of early autumn to where I scratch away at this parchment: the sun-baked dust of the courtyard outside, cut grass in my drying barns and a tint of sweetness from the fruit that hangs heavy in my orchard.
It has been a fat year for us here at Westbury: a hot summer ripened the crops, and now they are all gathered in, and the granaries are filled to the rafters with sacks of wheat, oats and barley; daily the cows give up their sweet milk, the pigs are gorging on beech mast in the woods, and Marie, my daughter-in-law, who runs this manor for me, is a contented woman. God be praised for His mercy.
In the spring, her cousin Osric, a portly widower of middle years, came here to occupy the position of bailiff, and he brought with him his two strong sons Edmund and Alfred to toil in my fields as waged farmhands. I cannot say that I like Osric: he may be the most upright, honest, hardworking fellow in Christendom, but he is as dull as unsalted spelt bread. Officious, too, when it comes to his dealings with my villeins. And yet, since his arrival at the manor, he has immeasurably transformed my life for the better. What was once a forlorn, untended estate of weed-choked fields and tumbledown buildings is now a bustling place of industry and plenty. He has collected those rents from my tenants that were long overdue; at harvest time he rose before dawn and chivvied into the fields the villeins of Westbury who owed me week-work, and arranged a modest daily payment for the franklins of the village who did not, but who were prepared to labor on my demesne. He has brought order and prosperity and happiness to the manor—and yet I still cannot like him.
It may be that I do not care for him because he is such an ugly man—round in the middle like a ball, with short arms and stubby fingers, and his face, under a nearly bald scalp, is pinched like a mole’s; his nose is too large, his mouth too small, and an expression of worry permanently haunts his tiny eyes—but I prefer to think it is because he has no music in his soul, no wild untamed joy in his heart.
Nevertheless, Osric’s coming has been a good thing. Last year, a melancholy air had pervaded the manor. Marie and I were both struggling to find a reason to carry on living after the death from a sickness of my son, her husband Rob. God be praised we have a living memory of him in my grandson and namesake Alan, who will be eight years old this Christmas—a healthy, raucous little boy.
Alan is in thrall to Osric’s younger son Alfred. He looks on the young man as a hero, a kind of demigod, and he copies everything the tall farmhand does. Alfred had taken to wearing a band of linen around his brow, to catch the sweat before it dripped into his eyes as he worked his sickle on the standing wheat. And so, of course, little Alan must fashion a similar cloth headband for himself, too. When Alfred let slip that he was fond of buttermilk, Alan began following him around with a pitcher of the liquor in case he might be thirsty. Harmless boyish foolishness, you will say. Possibly, but I have decided that I will soon send Alan away to be educated in accordance with his rank at another manor far away. There, he will learn to ride and fight like a knight, and dance and sing, and write Latin and French: I do not want him growing up to be a field hand. This infatuation with Alfred may well be harmless but I know that blind admiration of an older man by a younger fellow can cause great anger and hurt when the boy discovers that his idol is not the hero that he seems. I had that very experience myself with Robin of Locksley.
My master first appeared to me as a heroic figure: brave, strong and noble—just as Alfred might appear to young Alan—but I remember well the sickening lurch in my belly when I learned that Robin was not so, that he was as grasping and cruel and selfish as any other mortal man.
I know that I am not being just to Robin when I castigate him for being selfish, cruel and greedy: it was I who misunderstood him, not he who deliberately tricked me. But I still feel rancor, and shame, when I remember the good and noble men who died so that Robin might gain riches. But those who read these parchments shall judge for themselves, and in these pages I shall write as truly as I am able about Robin’s adventures beyond the sea, and mine, in that hate-ridden land where men butcher each other by the thousands in the name of God, that country of crushing heat and choking dust, of demon scorpions and giant hairy spiders—the place that men call Outremer.
* * *
Ghost, my gray gelding, was exhausted and I, too, was weary beyond belief. We had traveled many hundreds of miles together in the past few weeks—to London, Winchester, Nottingham and back—and, as we rode up the steep slope from the valley of the Locksley River in the county of Yorkshire toward the castle high on the hill, I patted his marbled gray neck and murmured a few words of encouragement. “Nearly home, boy, nearly home, and there’s a dish of hot oat mash waiting for you.” Ghost pricked up his ears at my words, and even seemed to increase his pace a fraction. As we plodded up the endless grassy hill, scattering ewes and their gawky lambs out of our path, I could make out the square shape of the church of St. Nicholas above me and behind it, on the skyline, the high wooden tower and stoutly palisaded courtyard of Kirkton Castle, the fortress of my master, which overlooks the Vale of Locksley. I wallowed in a great sense of homecoming and the warm glow of a task well done. My head was full of good, fresh intelligence; important, dangerous news, and in my saddlebags, wrapped and well-hidden, was a costly gift. I felt like a hunter, returning after a day in the wild with a fine catch: a satisfying blend of fatigue and joy.
It was early spring, in the year of Our Lord 1190, and, it seemed to me on that beautiful day, all was right in the world: noble King Richard, that most Christian warrior, was on the throne of England, the officials he had placed in positions of power were said to be governing wisely, and he himself would soon be setting off on a great and holy adventure to recover Jerusalem, the navel of the world, from the grip of the Saracen hordes, perhaps bringing about the Second Coming of Our Lord Jesus Christ by his actions. All England prayed that he might be successful. Best of all, I had successfully completed one of my first assignments for my master, Robert Odo, the newly created Earl of Locksley, and Lord of Kirkton, Sheffield, Ecclesfield, Hallam, Grimesthorpe and Greasbrough, and dozens of smaller manors across Yorkshire, Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire.
I was Robin’s trouvère, or personal musician to his court. Trouvères were so called because we “found” or composed songs ourselves, not merely repeating other men’s verses like a lowly jongleur. But, for Robin, I also acted as his messenger, envoy and, occasionally, spy. And I was glad to do it. I owed everything I had to him. I was a gutter-born peasant with no family, or even a village or town to call my own, and very young then, only fifteen years old—and Robin had granted me the lordship of the small manor of Westbury. I was Alan of Westbury! I was the lord of a manor; this same manor, where, more than forty years later, I now write these words. After the savage battle at Linden Lea the previous year, in which we had defeated the forces of Sir Ralph Murdac, the corrupt High Sheriff of Nottinghamshire, Robin, a notorious fugitive from the law, had been pardoned by King Richard, married his lovely Marie-Anne and been made Earl of Locksley. All those who had followed him during the dark years of his outlawry had received a reward for their loyalty—a handful of silver, a sturdy ox, or a fine horse—and, in truth, I had expected a gift of some sort too, but I had not expected to be granted a sizeable piece of land.
I was almost speechless with gratitude when Robin showed me the charter, adorned with the great, heavy red disk of his seal, that made me the custodian of this big old hall and its many outbuildings, five hundred acres of prime farmland, a village of twenty-four cottages occupied by a hundred souls, mostly villeins but with a handful of free men, a water mill, a warren, two pair of oxen, a plow and a fine stone church.
“It’s a small manor, Alan, not much more than a big farmstead, really; only half a knight’s fee. And it’s a bit run-down, I’m afraid, but it is good land, I’m told,” Robin said.
“But how will I manage the place?” I asked. “I know nothing of making a living from tilling the earth.”
“I don’t expect you to be a farm worker, Alan,” said Robin laughing. “You must find a good man, a steward or bailiff, to do that for you. All you do is receive the rents, and make sure that nobody cheats you. I require you to serve me. But you need an income and some standing in society if you are to represent me, deliver my messages and what-have-you.” He smiled, his strange silver eyes flashing at me: “And I am convinced that England has a great and pressing need for more songs about the bold exploits of handsome Robin Hood and his merry men.”
He was teasing me, of course. I had composed a few ditties about our days together beyond the law and they had spread like wildfire across the country, being sung in alehouses from Cockermouth to Canterbury—growing farther from the truth with each drunken rendition. Robin did not mind that he was being turned into a legend; he said it amused him—in fact, I believe he relished it. And he was not in the slightest worried about his past crimes being brought to light. He was a great magnate now, untouchable by any mere sheriff and, to boot, he enjoyed the favor and friendship of King Richard. He had won all this in two days of terrible slaughter last year, but there had been a price—above that paid for in the blood of his loyal men. In order to win that battle, Robin had made an unbreakable pact with the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon, the famous Templar Knights: in exchange for their support at a crucial moment in the battle, Robin had sworn that he would lead a force of mercenaries, archers and cavalry to the Holy Land, as part of King Richard’s pilgrim army. As Robin’s trouvère, I would be accompanying the Christian force, and I could not wait to set off on what then seemed to me to be the most noble adventure that it was possible to conceive.
I had a message for Robin from King Richard in my saddlebag and I believed that it contained the date for our departure—it was only by using a great deal of force upon myself that I had refrained from tearing open the sealed parchment and reading this private missive between the King and my lord. But refrain, I did. I wanted more than anything to be his faithful, reliable vassal, utterly trustworthy, utterly loyal: for Robin had done so much more for me than grant me land. In a sense, he had made me what I was. When we first met I had been just a grubby young thief from Nottingham, and he had saved me from mutilation and possibly death at the hands of the law. Then, believing that I had some talent, he had arranged for me to be educated in music, in the Norman-French language, in Latin—the tongue of monks and scholars—and in the art of combat, and I was now as accomplished with a sword and dagger as I was with the vielle, the five-stringed polished apple-wood instrument with which I accompanied my singing.
And so I had spent many hard days and nights in the saddle wearing down the muddy roads of England in the service of my master—and now, laboring up that endless emerald slope, it felt as if I were coming home.
I glanced over to my left, as Ghost put one weary hoof in front of another up that steep hill, to check the height of the sun—it was midafternoon—and noticed to my complete surprise a mass of horsemen not two hundred yards away. At a rough count they numbered about a hundred men, ordered in two lines, helmeted, green-cloaked and clad in mail, a...
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