It was late evening as Erasmus made camp in the outskirts of Sherwood. Buoyed by the confidence his escape had lent him, he managed to fashion a crude sling from his handkerchief and killed himself a rabbit for dinner. Remembering that his knife had last been seen embedded in Deloial’s leg, he hunted around for a flint and then keened its edge in a stream before using it to prepare his prize.
All in all the day had been somewhat of a mixed bag: on the upside he’d found out what was really going on in Sherwood and he’d lived, if not to tell the tale, then at least to muse on it; on the downside, his time machine was in the great hall of the castle and he’d found the fundamental problem with Robin Hood was that he, as a time traveller, had managed to mangle history.
Chewing on a rabbit drumstick, Erasmus considered the options open to him. Just how flexible was history? He couldn’t prevent the mistake from having been made, but when would he need to act to repair the damage? Could he try to bring Robin round to the fact the Sheriff was duping him? Would that do it? Or perhaps he’d have to break into Nottingham Castle, travel back to a few minutes after his impromptu meeting with Gisburne and arrange a meeting with Robin. All in all, he wasn’t too keen on trying a solution that involved more time travel – not in the first instance, anyway. Until he had the time to work out all the possibilities, he wasn’t going to take the chance of doing even more damage. He could end up with Robin killing the Sheriff and usurping his power or he might kill Gisburne by landing on him Wizard of Oz style, and then what would happen?
The idea of telling Robin the truth, or at least enough that he would stop acting as an unwitting cat’s paw, definitely seemed like the best option. With that thought, Erasmus put a few more twigs on the fire and settled down for a good night’s sleep. He felt he’d earned it.
The morning sun was still fresh when Erasmus awoke the next day. His back ached from crawling through caves and his mouth felt so furry he wondered whether he’d remembered to skin the rabbit the previous night. He washed his contact lenses in the stream then cleaned up his camp, trying to make it look as natural as possible. To make doubly sure, he piled some stones neatly around the edge so that anyone who suspected the clearing had been used would think Marion’s band had been there.
Before he left, he took his bearings from the sun, then made his way roughly north by north west through the forest, carefully compensating whenever he had to take a detour around a large tree or an impenetrable clump of bushes. After a few hours, he caught sight of a road running through the trees to his left and he took this to be the Mansfield road, a clear sign he was heading in the right direction. He stopped briefly to lunch on some berries that were ripening early on hedges by the roadside but otherwise he kept a steady pace. By mid-afternoon he had reached the log where he had fought his quarterstaff fight with the giant.
He approached the log nervously, not because he was still uncomfortable with the challenge of crossing it – his physical courage was definitely improving – but because he wasn’t sure if there was a family of giants who monitored the bridge, or whether it was a prime spot for ambush dating back to a dispute between three goats and a particularly ugly troll. When nobody challenged him at the bank, he stepped on to the log and began to cross with long, confident strides. After nearly pitching into the raging torrent below, he moderated this and took what he hoped were short, confident strides in order to reach the opposite bank without falling off.
The autumn sun beat down on his back and created glistening rainbows in the haze above the river. If he hadn’t felt like a man with a mission, he probably would have stopped to drink in the beauty of the scene but, as it was, he didn’t feel he had the time, although that, when he considered it, was probably the daftest thought he’d ever had. Was there some magical deadline he had to meet, some point in time beyond which history would become so stretched that its elastic would snap, sending the events he’d learnt as a boy hurtling over the horizon? Should he expect to see King Richard, ransomed early by the Sheriff’s slush fund, tearing over the hills of his native England to strangle his brother John and force him to sign the Magna Carta? Perhaps he would see a squirrel, driven over the edge by Erasmus making a meal from one of his relatives, mastering the principle of the bolas he’d left stuck up a tree, and would return to his own time to find man was the slave of a race of six-foot, gun-slinging rodents with bushy tails and an irritating habit of springing out of dustbins every time someone was insolent enough to eat a cereal bar.
No, Erasmus told himself, get a grip – he knew from experience that squirrels would eat more or less anything. He’d seen them eat pork pies with the same enthusiasm as peanuts. He hopped off of the end of the log and scratched the back of his neck thoughtfully. Whether there was a deadline or not, whether he’d already passed it or whether it was yet to come, he had to cast his dice now. If it didn’t work, then he’d think again and try something else – it was all he could do.
Erasmus tried his best to make no noise as he approached Robin’s camp. He had no particular desire to meet Deloial again at present, so he thought it would be prudent to find a place to observe the camp and get the lay of the land. A group of bushes afforded him good cover and a view of the path that led into the clearing, so he buried himself within them and watched patiently. He didn’t have long to wait: barely five minutes had passed when Deloial and Robin left the camp together, Deloial hobbling painfully on his two wounded legs. Their voices drifted over to Erasmus and he listened with interest.
Robin seemed somewhat agitated. ‘I’m telling you it’s too dangerous,’ he said.
‘You’re not afraid of a group of women, surely?’
‘It’s not that. How would you propose I explain it to the men? Robbing the rich they can cope with, killing the odd political dissident, OK, but slaughtering women?’
Deloial seemed annoyed at Robin’s attitude. ‘Those women,’ he said the word with obvious distaste, ‘have taken a vitally important tax shipment from under the Sheriff’s nose.’
‘He was expecting it to be taken.’
‘Yes, by us. Not by them.’
‘What does it matter? They’re only going to give it back to the poor. It’s not as if they’re funding their own monarch, is it?’
Deloial didn’t answer immediately: Erasmus imagined he was considering telling Robin a blatant lie and weighing up the consequences. Eventually fear of discovery must have won out and he shook his head.
‘Of course not,’ he said. ‘But you know what’ll happen if there are too many robberies. Prince John won’t wait forever before he clamps down.’
‘So we wait a little longer,’ said Robin. ‘That’s hardly a problem.’
‘And if they take the money again next time?’
‘How can you be sure?’
‘We’ll be ready next time.’
‘Will you indeed?’ Deloial almost sneered at that point – obviously his faith in Robin and his men wasn’t absolute.
‘Look. If you want to try and retrieve the money, that’s your lookout,’ said Robin, ‘but I don’t want them killed. Do you understand?’
‘Why ever not? Have you got a soft spot for them, just because they’re women?’
Robin seemed uncomfortable with the question, but he responded quickly. ‘Of course not!’ he snapped. ‘I just don’t believe in arbitrary executions.’
Deloial grunted and hobbled away from the camp. Robin stared angrily at the back of his head, one hand fingering his longbow, as if tempted to shoot the man in the back. After a few moments of gloomy reflection, he turned and stormed back into his camp.
Erasmus scratched his forehead. It sounded like the politics of duplicity didn’t agree with Robin. A rabbit scampered past him, making him jump and causing his heart to beat a little faster. He closed his eyes and took a few deep breaths to calm himself. When he opened them, he found himself looking at a dagger, lightly pressed to his throat.
‘Look who’s hiding in the bleedin’ bushes, then,’ came an unmistakeable voice from just behind his left ear.
Erasmus hadn’t really given much thought to his relations with the other outlaws: his fear of Deloial and his worry about Robin had put them from his mind and he’d almost forgotten about the circumstances under which he’d last seen them. It was a somewhat unpleasant wake-up call to be marched into a ring of sombre faces with a dagger pressed against the small of his back. Erasmus gave a smile he hoped was winsome, but he imagined probably looked more pained.
‘So you’ve come back,’ said Robin, somewhat unnecessarily. ‘Where did you find him, Will?’
‘Skulking in the bushes by the path,’ said Will.
‘Had you been there long?’ said Robin.
‘Long enough,’ said Erasmus. Robin caught his eye and Erasmus could see a trace of worry in them.
‘Ask him why he abandoned us at Fountains,’ Will snapped, pushing slightly harder with the dagger. Erasmus tried to bend forward slightly so the dagger didn’t actually cut him.
‘Why don’t you ask him yourself, Will?’ said Robin, a certain weariness creeping into his voice.
‘I’d want to see his bleedin’ face.’
‘Well if you put the dagger down and stood in front of me, you’d be able to,’ said Erasmus, with more confidence than he felt.
‘He’s right,’ said John. ‘He’s not going anywhere. Not yet, leastminds.’
Reluctantly, Will put his dagger away and Erasmus relaxed. The outlaw made a big show of walking round the teacher then brought his face so close Erasmus had to fight not to retch at the odour of stale ale.
‘Why’d you run off like that?’ he snapped.
‘Do you mind?’ said Erasmus. ‘Your breath isn’t very pleasant and I’d find it easier to answer if I could breathe.’
Will stepped back and put his hand on the hilt of his dagger. ‘Are you trying to be funny? Only, I can be funny too. I can cut you in ways that'll make you laugh ‘til you die.’
Erasmus may not have taught biology, but his knowledge of the subject put Will’s threat in some doubt. He decided not to say so, however, for whilst being cut wouldn’t make him laugh, it wouldn’t do much for his life expectancy either.
‘I left you because I felt it was the right time,’ said Erasmus. ‘I thought I knew what I needed to know.’
‘And now?’ said Robin.
Erasmus purposefully caught Robin’s eye. ‘Now I know a lot more,’ he said. ‘The Sheriff can be a very enlightening man.’
‘You been colluding with that bleedin’ scumbag?’ Will snapped. ‘I want to slit his throat.’
Erasmus was caught off guard by this remark. It wasn’t so much the incongruity of Will wanting to kill the man for whom Robin was working, but the fact the man was capable of using a word like colluding, particularly in a sentence with flawed grammar. Before Will could attempt to extract the information with a dagger, however, Robin put a hand on his arm.
‘I don’t think Erasmus would be stupid enough to come back here unarmed if he was working for the Sheriff,’ he said calmly.
‘No,’ said Erasmus, maintaining his eye contact with Robin, who looked distinctly uncomfortable. ‘I think we probably ought to have a little chat.’
Robin nodded and motioned towards the edge of the clearing. The two men walked quietly away from the other outlaws, who looked after them with curiosity. Robin maintained his silence until he was sure they were out of earshot.
‘You’ve spoken with the Sheriff?’ he said.
‘We’ve exchanged a few words.’
‘And he told you-’
‘About you and Deloial, yes.’
‘And he let you go?’
‘Not exactly let, no.’ Erasmus felt somewhat uncomfortable raising that point: Robin could easily be under orders to kill anyone who escaped from the castle. The outlaw made no move to draw a weapon, however, so Erasmus allowed himself to breathe regularly.
‘Why have you come back here?’ said Robin.
‘To warn you.’
‘Yes. You can’t trust the Sheriff.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘I mean he’s playing you for a fool. He’s not interested in regime change – that’s just something he’s using as an excuse to keep you onside.’
Robin looked perplexed. ‘Who told you that?’
‘He did, of course.’
‘And he let you escape?’
Erasmus was beginning to find this point of view annoying: he had, to his mind, made a very daring and ingenious escape from Nottingham, with only the slightest help and that from a madman. Having it re-classified as someone ‘letting’ him go made it sound a great deal less impressive.
‘Look,’ he said. ‘The Sheriff has no interest in changing the pecking order. He’s as close to the top of the pile as he can actually get without being the King or one of his lackeys. All he wants is money for retirement.’
‘Yes. Stopping work, settling down to grow begonias. You know the kind of thing.’
Robin had a completely blank expression on his face and Erasmus realised the concept of someone retiring from public life or spending part of their life at leisure was an almost alien concept. It might be difficult to earn enough to retire at the age of forty in the twenty-first century, but it wasn’t impossible and it was an aim that many people aspired to – although schoolteachers didn’t tend to be that optimistic unless they entered the lottery every week. In this age, however, even kings tended to go on until they died, which made the Sheriff something of an innovator in employment terms.
‘What would you do if you didn’t go around robbing people?’ said Erasmus, trying to distil things down to simple terms like he had for Maude. It was amazing how simplifying matters for mediaeval minds bore so much similarity to educating twelve year olds.
Robin considered the question. ‘I don’t know,’ he said. ‘Probably work my land like I used to.’
Erasmus raised his eyes to the trees in exasperation. Above him, a squirrel looked at him sympathetically as if it too bemoaned the stupidity of mankind. ‘What if you didn’t have to work the land?’ he said. ‘If you could pay someone else to do that for you?’
Robin shrugged. ‘I don’t understand.’
Erasmus gave up. ‘Look,’ he said. ‘The Sheriff is using you to get money for him. It doesn’t really matter what he wants with the money, the fact is he’s not going to risk his neck getting rid of Prince John when he leads a pretty good life already. It wouldn’t be sensible.’
‘Then why would he want the money?’
This was, Erasmus realised, going to be an uphill struggle. In a land where luxuries were almost unheard of, certainly by the peasantry, the concept of wanting money seemed to be as alien as wanting a third leg. At least this proved the legend of Robin’s descent from nobility was either a fabrication designed to make the nobles themselves feel like heroes or there had been rather too much inbreeding for Robin’s brain to develop normally. He decided to try a different tack.
‘The Sheriff is planning to kill Marion,’ he said.
‘You heard Deloial: too many outlaws mean the King’s attentions are liable to turn this way. If John starts poking his nose around here, he’s likely to find out what you and the Sheriff have been up to.’
‘But he wouldn’t kill Marion,’ said Robin. Erasmus noticed a strange balance in the outlaw’s voice – it wasn’t uncertainty, but he definitely didn’t like the idea of Marion being murdered.
‘What if he felt he had to?’
‘I’m sure he’d just take Marion into his confidence – make her part of the plan.’
‘And if Marion objected?’
Robin shrugged. Erasmus looked at the young, careworn face. How old could he be? No older than his mid twenties, certainly. He must have been outlawed before he was eighteen – forced to take total control of his life at a stage when most modern boys struggled to decide which university to attend. That kind of experience might harden a man, make him able to keep himself alive and fend for himself, but it didn’t strip away all of the naiveté of youth. Only bitter experience could do that and that took time Erasmus simply didn’t have. There was only one thing for it: he’d have to speak to Marion and try to make her open Robin’s eyes, although he had no idea how that would work.
‘Look,’ he said to Robin. ‘Just be careful. Don’t tell Deloial about anything I’ve said to you and don’t take everything he says as being true.’
‘I never do,’ said Robin.
Erasmus smiled – obviously Robin wasn’t as poor a judge of character as all that. The Sheriff was a charming man, but there was something about the way he smiled that Erasmus could never have trusted. He’d seen that smile before – usually when he’d turned up late for a sixth-form physics class at the end of their final term. Fortunately for Robin, the Sheriff didn’t have access to a Van de Graff generator, three feet of cable and a rubber mat.
‘I’ve got to go,’ said Erasmus. ‘I’ll be back when I’ve got proof.’
‘Won’t you stay for a meal?’ said Robin. ‘We’d be interested to hear how you escaped from Nottingham.’
‘Will Deloial be back soon?’
‘I’m not sure.’
‘Then it’s best I don’t. He’s not particularly happy with me at the moment and I left my dagger with him last time we met.’
Robin reached a hand into the bush beside him and withdrew a sword. ‘Take this with you,’ he said.
Erasmus took the sword gingerly. ‘Thanks,’ he said. ‘I’m not sure I’ll be able to do much with it, but thanks.’
‘Just think of it as a very long dagger,’ said Robin, then he turned and made his way back into the camp.
Erasmus adjusted his grip on the sword and took a practice swing. The momentum of the heavy blade carried it out of his hand and embedded it in a nearby tree root. Shrugging, Erasmus reached into the bush and pulled out another blade. This one was considerably lighter and came in a scabbard. He fastened it to his belt and made his way back to the log bridge. Marion’s camp wasn’t too far away – with any luck he’d reach it before nightfall.