The Middle Ages was once said to be a time when England was covered in an impenetrable forest, when a squirrel could cross from one end of the country to the other without once setting foot on the ground. This is now known to be untrue, though it may have been possible for squirrels that had mastered the art of hitchhiking or stowing away on carts.
For a squirrel to cross a shorter distance, say from one part of Sherwood Forest to another, was much simpler and would have been particularly easy deep in the heart of the forest where the upper branches of the trees grew so close as to blanket out the sun. Here all was suffused in a strange green light, filtering through the leaves to the ground below and this, so the peasants said, was where the spirits were said to walk and where the night came faster and deeper than in any other part of England. Here the common man feared to tread.
Guy of Gisburne was not a common man. He didn’t believe in phantoms and fairies and knew the only thing that went bump in the night was the door of the privy when the plague was in town. For him, Sherwood Forest held no ghostly fears – the only threats were outlaws. You had more chance of an arrow in your back than of having your soul stolen by whatever demons lurked in the ancient wood.
He rode quietly through the heart of the forest, or at least as close to it as he could get whilst wearing scale-mail armour and mounted on a horse. Despite his lack of supernaturally induced fear, his eyes betrayed a certain nervous tension and his feelings were somehow transmitted to his horse, which was behaving a little skittishly. A resounding clang on his helmet made him look up – above him in the trees he saw the small form of a creature scurrying away through the branches. Bloody squirrels. He hadn’t come into the woods to hunt squirrels, he’d come to hunt outlaws. Outlaws who were stealing the King’s deer and waylaying merchants whose taxes would fund his wars in the Holy Land.
The root of the problem was that Prince John was an unreasonable man: to him, being robbed didn’t constitute a tax deductible expense. Because it was much harder to extract money from a merchant when they’d already lost it, he had decided on a policy of punishing those who were insufficiently careful with their or rather, as the Prince saw it, his money. Such merchants were, in future, to be regarded as de facto thieves.
Unfortunately, this didn’t have the desired effect. Convictions for theft increased vastly, but most of the convicted were those who had been robbed. Since this provided little money for King Richard’s war chest, John was forced to think again.
His next brainwave was vastly more effective. Instead of blaming the victims of crime, he decided, instead, to blame those officials whose lands were havens for cutthroats and whose thoroughfares were most often used to waylay wealthy travellers.
Hunting outlaws was proving to be an infuriating past-time: even with the Sheriff, Gisburne himself and ten men-at-arms combing the forest, the demands of Prince John on behalf of his brother were proving intractable. The outlaws knew the forest well – too well – and seemed to be able to melt away into the trees at will. Gisburne was all for letting them stay in their damned forest, but he knew that, though his and the Sheriff’s heads would be of as little use to Richard as the merchant’s hands, that wouldn’t stop John from appropriating them if they were less than totally successful.
The knight steered his frightened horse with his knees and turned it southward down yet another leaf-covered pathway. A low branch hung across the path a few yards ahead and he had just ducked under this when the air was rent by an ear-splitting crash, something like a thunderclap. His horse, startled by the sound, bolted and the branch caught the top of his helmet and threw him from his saddle.
He landed on his back in the road. For a few moments, he just lay there, catching his breath. As the sound of his horse receded, the world seemed strangely peaceful: he could hear birdsong, scurrying animals in the undergrowth and the chattering of the squirrels in the trees. He could have lain, listening to the calming sounds for the rest of the day, but something, whether it was his sense of duty or a strong suspicion that the squirrels were laughing at him, prevented him. He sat up and looked around him for his helmet. As he did so he became aware of a much louder noise, the trampling of leaves and twigs by an animal that was larger and considerably less careful where it put its feet.
Worried there might be a wolf approaching, Gisburne pulled himself painfully to his feet, picked up his dented helmet and drew his sword from his scabbard. He looked around him, trying to work out from which direction the sound was coming. Presently he saw the undergrowth parting to reveal a man, dressed in brown-coloured peasant attire and carrying a bow. Gisburne’s fear dissipated, leaving a sense of embarrassment which then rapidly turned to rage. He threw down his helmet and charged at the man, roaring and with his sword upraised.
Erasmus, taking a single look at the red-faced, armoured man, turned and fled through the forest, stumbling back in the direction of his time machine. This obviously wasn’t the kind of pursuer who would take his time to stop and scrape off horse manure – he doubted that he would stop to wipe his entrails from his sword. As the teacher ran, he removed his keys from his pouch and glanced down to make sure the right one was to hand so he could open the time machine as soon as he arrived. This was beginning to become a habit, he mused. Perhaps he should code the keys with some kind of bump pattern.
Gisburne charged blindly after the man. He smashed through the thicket so loudly that he masked the sounds of his quarry, but the odd glimpse of russet guided him on. After a few minutes, he emerged into a clearing and was startled to find himself faced with some kind of wooden privy. He stopped and lowered his sword: it seemed a strange place for such an object and the naturally suspicious knight suspected some kind of trap. Tentatively, he extended his weapon and gave the privy an experimental prod. Nothing happened. No net fell from the trees and no arrow thudded into the forest floor next to his foot. Reassured, he decided it was safe to approach.
The moment he took a step, a storm of leaves whirled up from the floor. He put up an arm to shield his face, then staggered back under the onslaught and fell over a tree root, landing heavily in a pile of leaves. There was another thunderclap and then there was silence. Gisburne raised his head groggily from the floor. The privy was gone. For a moment he stared in amazement at the empty clearing, then a shower of acorns bounced off of his head and he blacked out.
The now-familiar whine of travelling inside the time machine faded away and Erasmus took a moment to catch his breath. So far, he reflected, life in the past seemed to comprise of running from people with swords. He checked the readout on his control board; he hadn’t come very far in time or space this time – probably only a couple of years forward and a few miles south. It was probably a good place to start: his pursuer had seemed to be of the right era, anyway.
Although he hadn’t had much chance to calibrate the machine, Erasmus was beginning to get an intuitive feel for the controls. It was, he considered, a reasonable assumption that he wasn’t that far from Nottingham. He was also beginning to get an intuitive feel for the nature of history, so he thought it prudent to check what was outside before he ventured out again. He swung the periscope around to give him a view of his surroundings. Everything seemed quiet enough: he was in an enclosed area with high, stone walls and a number of low, wooden buildings. At a guess, he figured it was probably the outer bailey of a castle or the inside of a fort. The low levels of activity led him to believe he had landed in peacetime, when most of the activity would be carrying on in whatever settlement lay outside of the walls.
There was nothing to tell him exactly where he was, but it was a fair chance that this was Nottingham Castle and the state of repair appeared to indicate it was during the castle’s heyday, so he was probably in the twelfth or thirteenth century. He turned the periscope through a slow circle, making sure that nobody was hiding behind the privy with a sword in hand, then, satisfied he was safe, he stowed the controls, unlocked the door and stepped out into Mediaeval England.
The time was probably somewhere after four in the afternoon by Erasmus’ reckoning as he locked the privy door and buried the key in his pouch. The sun was beginning to move towards the west and glinting off of the whitewashed stone of the surrounding walls. Erasmus stepped out into the centre of the yard so he could get a better look at his surroundings. Above him towered the castle keep, an imposing structure whose presence positively oppressed the low hovels below it.
Despite the warmth of the sun, several of the wooden outbuildings had smoke pouring through holes in their roofs, indicating that fires were blazing within them. Erasmus felt like the last tourist of the afternoon, just getting a chance to look around after the swarms of foreign students had left and before the custodian came to usher him out of the building.
He strolled casually around the bailey, describing a lazy circuit of the keep and drinking in the atmosphere which, as he had expected, contained a strong perfume of horse manure, given a musky edge by the drifting smoke. He passed the gatehouse, keeping a wary eye out for soldiers – his presence inside the castle might be somewhat hard to explain to the military mind – and continued on past the stables and the small, wooden chapel which butted up against the stone walls. Eventually, he found himself back more or less where he had started: there was his time machine and there, before it, was a familiar looking man.
Erasmus halted several feet away. The man’s face wasn’t as red as before and there was a new scar across his left cheek, but it was quite clearly the same man who had just pursued him to his time machine. It was somewhat disconcerting, especially when the man now stood between him and his only means of escape. Perhaps it would be all right – it must have been a couple of years in this man’s time and he may well have forgotten the previous encounter.
Erasmus backed away slightly to what he hoped was a safe distance, watching as the armoured man examined the privy. He seemed very cautious about what, to his eyes, must have seemed like a simple, wooden box and he prodded at it with his sword tentatively. The machine, naturally, did nothing and Gisburne was emboldened by this small victory. Passing his sword to his left hand, he tried to pull on the door. It didn’t open and he struck out at the machine with his fist in exasperation. Erasmus, unnerved by the sudden, violent action, took a further step backwards and his foot came into contact with a metal bucket, which resounded like a bell. Gisburne spun on his heel and his eyes bulged as he recognised the occupant of the mysterious privy.
‘You,’ he yelled, raising his sword and moving forward.
Erasmus tried to back away further, but he was now right up against the wall. In desperation, he took Atkinson’s bow from his shoulder and tried to wield it like a staff. Gisburne swung at the weapon with his sword and the bow was smashed in a single blow. Pausing only to reflect that Atkinson wouldn’t be pleased, Erasmus turned and fled around the bailey, accidentally charging through a chicken coop and sending squawking poultry flying in all directions.
Gisburne pursued him, kicking one of the chickens that crossed his path. At a steady run, Erasmus soon found himself passing the gatehouse and he realised there was no way he could get far enough ahead of Gisburne that he could unlock and enter his time machine before he was caught.
He looked around him, desperate for a direction in which he could escape. He briefly considered running out of the gate, but there could be an entire army camped outside for all he knew. He ran on. Gisburne, not far behind him, called out as he passed the gatehouse and two guards hurried over to join him in the pursuit.
Twenty seconds later, Erasmus rounded the bailey and found himself back at the privy, with Gisburne and the two guards hot on his heels. Unable to think of any alternative, he began another lap. Behind him, Gisburne instructed one of the guards to go around the other way and head him off.
Erasmus ran, the repetition of the scenery reminding him of the tiresome distance races on Sports Day when the boys just ran around a short circuit until they either finished the race or lost count of how many laps they had done. He tried to regulate his breathing, to pace himself and stop treating the run as a sprint, but he still found the exertion painful.
There had to be a way out. As he passed the gatehouse again, he glanced up and saw a guard running towards him in the other direction. He looked left, but there was another guard standing in the archway with sword in hand. He looked right – there was yet another wooden building. He ran in.
The first thought that struck Erasmus as he blinked in the darkened interior of the building was how inefficient the chimneys were: despite the sheer volume of smoke pouring out of the roof, the inside was still filled with an acrid vapour, most of which seemed to be pouring from a forge by the wall. The armourer, a solid-looking man whose bare arms appeared to be one hundred per cent muscle, looked up briefly from working a piece of metal on his anvil then, apparently uninterested, went back to his hammering. Erasmus looked around him for a place to hide – there didn’t seem to be one. Then his eyes fell on a rack of swords and he dived for the nearest weapon.
The armourer looked up. ‘Hey,’ he said. ‘What you doing with that?’
‘I’ll bring it back,’ said Erasmus.
‘You can’t take them, they’re not finished.’
Erasmus wanted to explain, but Gisburne chose that moment to run in and Erasmus, ignoring the armourer’s protests, lifted the sword from the rack and swung it in a wide arc. As he did so, the blade, not yet secured into the hilt, detached and hurled across the room like a steel missile. Gisburne flinched as the blade passed startlingly close to his cheek and embedded itself in the wall next to him, then he began to approach Erasmus slowly, keeping his sword arm extended.
Erasmus looked disbelievingly at the hilt in his hand, then threw it at Gisburne, who deflected it with his sword and kept coming. Erasmus grasped another sword from the rack. This time the hilt came off in his hand. He dropped the useless weapon to the floor and stepped back, groping his way along the wooden table to his right until his hands closed on something metal. Glancing down, he found he had discovered a small pile of horseshoes. He picked one up and threw it at the knight. Taken by surprise, Gisburne fended off the missile with his sword, the resounding clang echoing around the room, but he was forced to step back. The armourer, disturbed by the sound, looked over to where Erasmus stood, already holding another horseshoe. Annoyed with the disrespect being shown for his work, he shook his head before returning to his hammering with increased vigour.
Erasmus and Gisburne faced each other across the smoky room. Gisburne held his sword in both hands, like an upraised cricket-bat, and Erasmus hefted his horseshoe, turning it in his hands and trying to get a feel for its balance. Neither man spoke, each waiting to see what the other would do.
It was Erasmus who acted first: he threw the horseshoe to Gisburne’s right in an attempt to put him off-balance. Gisburne dealt the shoe a blow and it crashed into the forge in a shower of sparks, earning him a scowl from the armourer.
Erasmus’ second shot went wide of Gisburne’s left, bouncing off of one of the posts which held up the roof, and Gisburne was forced to parry the ricochet.
Now Erasmus tried two shots in rapid succession, but Gisburne had expected this and deflected both in a quick one-two action. Erasmus glanced down at the bench – he had two horseshoes left. Cautiously, he picked both up, passing one to his left hand. Gisburne, glancing quickly at Erasmus’ hands, put his left foot back to steady himself and held his sword in front of him. Erasmus turned the two shoes in his hands; they were quite heavy and his arms were beginning to tire. He banged one shoe against the bench, causing a vibration to resonate along it and Gisburne, distracted by the sound of vibrating nails on his left hand side, took his eyes off of Erasmus. Quickly, Erasmus hurled both shoes at the same time. The first came so close to hitting the knight that he was forced to duck, there being no time to parry; unfortunately, Erasmus was less capable with his left hand and the second shoe went hurtling across the room and nearly hit the armourer. Scowling at the teacher, the muscleman put down his hammer and backed away to a corner of the room where he proceeded to wipe the sweat from his hands and view the proceedings with a combination of annoyance and interest.
Erasmus used the momentary confusion to his advantage and backed quickly around the room until he stood next to the forge. As Gisburne circled around him, the teacher picked up a pair of tongs, extracted a piece of white-hot metal from the coals and brandished it at the knight. Gisburne tried to parry, but, even at arm’s length he could feel the heat of the metal. He took a step backwards.
‘Now come on,’ he said in what he hoped was a placating manner. ‘Put down the weapon and we’ll talk about this like civilized people.’
Erasmus wasn’t fooled. ‘You mean discuss it over some hot irons, do you?’ he said. He swung the makeshift weapon in a wide arc. Gisburne leaned back to avoid being scorched, then moved his right foot back to balance himself.
‘You’re only making it worse for yourself,’ said Gisburne.
Erasmus wondered briefly at how bad it had been to start with, but the advantage now seemed to be his and he took a step forward and waved his hot metal dangerously close to the knight’s face. Gisburne took another step backwards, tripped over the anvil and fell, catching his head on the edge of the bench. Erasmus knelt down and examined his foe – he appeared to be unconscious. Smiling, he rose and turned to the door, only to find the way blocked by two armed guards. He waved his hot iron in front of him and was just beginning to advance when the armourer, having returned to his forge whilst Erasmus’ back was turned, threw a bucket of water over him. Erasmus stood for a moment, blinking and watching the steam rising from his now-useless weapon then, knowing he was beaten, he let it drop to the floor.