First appearances can often have a profound influence on your perception of a person. Erasmus’ first experiences of the legendary Robin Hood had been of a less than legendary cutthroat who just happened to bear a name associated with a great historical tradition. After his encounter with the Sheriff, however, he’d been given cause to re-evaluate the man, to shrug off this mental image and replace it with one of a youth who was skilled at arms, had a strong sense of injustice, but was a little too malleable for Erasmus’ liking. True, it spoke of someone who was intensely loyal, probably explaining the allegiance to King Richard in the legends, but it also illustrated how tenuous the balance of history truly was and how it depended utterly on the characters of the key people who lived within it.
If, for example, King Henry VIII had never met Anne Boleyn, England might still be a largely Catholic country; if Cromwell hadn’t been such a disciplined man, the New Model Army would never have been created and Britain would still be a monarchy and if George III hadn’t been both pompous and insane, who knows what shape the modern world might have taken.
As a historian, Erasmus liked to think in terms of inevitabilities: the Catholic Church had been reformed in many countries without the assistance of a sex-crazed elephant on the throne; military techniques had advanced by necessity in countries without a Cromwell and empires had collapsed and been reborn without the need for a straitjacket. The fine details though, were what made people what they were: an Englishman who had lived in a country that had been invaded by Spain in the sixteenth century, or by France in the nineteenth, could hardly have the same island-centred mentality as one that hadn’t seen a significant invasion since the eleventh century, and freedom wouldn’t be such a prized commodity without heroes such as Robin Hood or William Wallace to personify the spirits of their native lands.
If Robin survived as a legend whilst being duped by the Sheriff of Nottingham, then it was likely the Sheriff would be cast as a hero of the upper classes, serving their interests in the same way the fictional Scarlet Pimpernel had served those in the nineteenth century. The idea just didn’t bear thinking of.
The way to Marion’s camp wasn’t hard to follow. Maude had deliberately led Erasmus along the prettiest route on the outward journey and it was easy to remember the patches of wild flowers that marked the various twists and turns. As he came nearer to the camp, there were also the telltale piles of stones and neatly tidied leaves that marked the influence of Ethel on the scenery.
Eventually, he reached the densely-packed copse of trees itself. He called out for Marion and Maude, preferring to announce himself than to be jumped by Alice, but there was no answer.
He looked up at the sky: it was getting late, so he would have expected them to be at their camp. Quietly, he walked into the clearing, his hand on his sword. The wooden cathedral was empty. The fire pit had been dug over and scuffed so that only someone who knew would see the signs; the kindling had been taken or burned, leaving only the neatly-piled stones as evidence the camp had ever existed.
Erasmus frowned – the camp must have been deliberately abandoned. If there had been soldiers then they wouldn’t have bothered to mask the signs of habitation. Erasmus could only assume Marion had been worried that someone, perhaps himself, would have revealed the location of their camp to the Sheriff’s men and that they had moved to a new location. With Robin not wanting to hear a word said against the Sheriff, finding Marion was Erasmus’ only hope of putting history right. Unfortunately, he didn’t know where to start.
Deciding things would look better after a good night’s sleep, he set about creating a camp for the night. He found himself some kindling and built a fire in the centre of the clearing, using some of Ethel’s stones as a fireguard, then went off to find himself something to eat.
History often bypasses the nitty-gritty of day-to-day life: there are many details that are either guessed at or based on the distortions and refinements of oral tradition. As a historian, Erasmus was well versed in the social graces and culinary habits of generations of his ancestors - he knew the basics of how meat was prepared and even had some ideas of how game was hunted. In all his experience, however, he had never encountered any information on people hunting for rabbits with a sword.
That’s not to say it didn’t happen, of course: it was safe to assume that before the days when supply logistics became as important as military tactics, when soldiers had to fend for themselves between battles, a warrior might find himself in a forest with nothing but a sword and an appetite for meat, but soldiers on their return from the Crusades were more interested in recounting their victories over the heathen foes than they were in giving a blow by blow account of how they had taken on a small rabbit in combat and won. Soldiers whose greatest victories were against small furry animals didn’t tend to survive many battles where the opponents were encased in steel and waving dangerous implements around.
As a result, Erasmus had absolutely no idea how one went about it and he eventually resorted to cutting himself a cudgel from a convenient tree. After several unsuccessful bouts, he managed to brain a small specimen – the rabbit equivalent to a poussin by his estimation – and he skinned it with the sword before cooking it over his fire. Despite the hardships of hunting, life in the open air was beginning to agree with him, particularly since he wasn’t forced to end each day with a chorus of ging gang goolie.
After a pleasant, if rather plain meal – his knowledge of herb lore wasn’t so good he’d risk adding unidentified leaves as condiments – he made himself comfortable and lay, watching the tiny particles of flame as they rose above the body of the fire, then faded and drifted away as ash. The real shame of it all was, even if he managed to get back to his own time and found it as he left it, he’d never be able to tell the boys about his first hand experience of the past. Telling a group of teenage boys you had a time machine would be much like handing out live grenades for the end of term festivities – the safety of all those living in the present could hardly be guaranteed. That said, he probably wouldn’t be safe mentioning the matter to other teachers, either: some people had very strong views about the rights and wrongs of history, with none of Erasmus’ strong beliefs on the sanctity of being historically accurate. You couldn’t trust a strong republican like the head of political studies not to assassinate Charles II at the Battle of Worcester or a man with strong provincial views, such as the economics master, not to head off the Darien scheme that had sunk Scotland’s finances and its independence.
Whatever your beliefs, political or spiritual, you had to respect the fact that, had history not happened the way it undoubtedly had, you probably wouldn’t be free to have those beliefs, assuming you existed at all.
It was while Erasmus was wondering on the philosophical matter of whether you could be the same person in two different versions of history that the exertions of the day took their toll and he drifted into sleep. His sleep was dominated by a strange dream about returning to the twenty-first century only to find he was already there. The strangest part was that his alternative self seemed to have entirely the wrong idea about the best way to prepare rabbit.
Erasmus awoke when the fingers of sunlight penetrated the green canopy of the camp and played on his face. He rose, stretched, then made his way to the stream, where he washed his face and cleaned his lenses. As he wiped around his mouth, he felt the prickling of stubble against his palm and smiled. He still wasn’t comfortable with the idea of scraping his face with a blade and, since Maude wasn’t hanging around and keeping an eye on a man whom she must have assumed had returned home, he felt he’d have to put up with the unshaven look for the time being. He tried to get a glimpse of his reflection, but the stream ran too quickly and his face appeared distorted by the currents within it. The overall effect was like staring at something Dali would have painted when he had a hangover and Erasmus quickly found this uncomfortable.
After his ablutions, Erasmus cleared up his camp and mused on his strategy. Clearly he had to find Marion, but he couldn’t scour a forest the size of Sherwood and expect to find her that way. What he needed was information, someone who might know where the outlaws were. There was always the inn, of course, but it was highly unlikely he’d be able to simply walk in and demand information, unless that information was about expert advice on getting your throat slit. That meant he needed something to trade with, preferably money. He considered returning to Robin’s camp and asking for some, but there was always the chance of running into Deloial and, besides, Robin was unlikely to provide him with money for the purposes of proving him wrong. There was nobody else who was likely to help either – which left Erasmus with only one option.
The Mansfield road ran through some of the most heavily wooded land in the forest. An unbroken tree line ran along both sides of the road for miles, filtering the sunlight and making the road seem like the path to a grotto. A bank led down from one side of the road and it was here that Erasmus lay, watching and waiting for a rich merchant to pass. There was no point in waylaying a group: Erasmus didn’t cut an impressive enough figure to scare more than one person into giving up their money and he certainly wasn’t under any illusions about being able to ‘handle’ them. Not only that, he had to avoid killing anyone: the historical implications of killing someone had to be kept uppermost in his mind. The aim was simply to threaten.
The sun was high in the sky when Erasmus saw his first potential target. The merchant was obviously nervous, looking from side to side with a haunted look. Erasmus felt a pang of guilt as he drew his sword, but it was one man’s nerves against the whole of history and he knew which side he valued most.
‘Hold,’ said Erasmus, stepping out in front of the man’s horse with his sword outstretched. The merchant reigned in his horse and looked at Erasmus nervously, his face as white as a sheet.
There was a silence as Erasmus realised he didn’t know the standard jargon of twelfth century highwaymen. ‘Stand and deliver,’ he said.
‘What?’ said the merchant, speaking in a heavy accent.
‘Give me all your money.’
‘Your money,’ said Erasmus. ‘Don’t you understand plain English?’
‘I understand English, yes,’ said the merchant. ‘I just don’t understand why I should give you my money. Is there a toll?’
For a moment, Erasmus considered saying yes, but a toll would be unlikely to constitute enough for information in the inn. ‘You’re not from around here, are you?’ he said.
‘No. I’m from Alnwick,’ said the man.
‘Don’t you have brigands in Northumbria?’
‘Well yes, but they don’t tend to demand money, they just kill you and take it.’
‘Had a lot of experience with highway robbery, have we?’
‘Well not personally, no.’
‘So you haven’t ever been robbed before?’
‘No.’ The man seemed confused.
‘Well round here, we tend to farm merchants,’ said Erasmus. ‘You see, if you just kill a merchant and take all his money then he doesn’t tend to earn any more, whereas if you rob him each time he passes you can earn more over time.’
‘And merchants come back all the time?’
‘Oh yes. We’ve got quite a few regular customers.’
‘Well, if you don’t mind I’m not really interested in joining them, so I’ll be on my way.’ With that the merchant wheeled his horse around Erasmus and galloped down the road. Erasmus watched him go – obviously people weren’t as scared of being robbed as he thought.
The encounter made Erasmus study travellers more carefully as they passed. Obviously nervousness wasn’t in itself an indicator of how likely someone was to capitulate. Perhaps it also came down to the amount of confidence he himself exhibited and Erasmus practised threatening gestures as he waited for the next candidate to come along.
Eventually, he spotted a priest riding along the road, his face a picture of pious dignity as he sat astride his horse in his traveller’s robes and rich ornaments. Erasmus couldn’t believe his luck: all the clergy he had seen so far seemed to ride with at least two guards behind them and to find one riding unaccompanied seemed like a godsend, if that was the appropriate term. He stepped out on to the road, brandishing his sword, causing the priest’s horse to shy nervously and stop just out of Erasmus’ reach. To the teacher’s pleasure, the priest reached inside his robe without prompting and Erasmus watched the priest’s impassive face as he waited for the riches to be handed over.
Thinking back on the event later on, Erasmus wasn’t sure what made him move his attention to the priest’s hand - he had no particular interest in how much money the priest was carrying, as long as it was sufficient for his purposes. Perhaps it was something in the man’s eyes – they were the colour of ice and betrayed no sense of fear or anxiety. Whatever it was, it almost certainly saved Erasmus’ life. When he glanced down from the priest’s face to his hand, he realised it wasn’t a pouch of gold that the man was drawing from his robe, but a primitive pistol crossbow.
Reacting with a speed born of self-preservation, Erasmus ran off the road and dived down the embankment, a crossbow bolt whistling frightening close overhead. He landed heavily, but before the priest had a chance to reload, he rose and ran into the undergrowth until he was sure he was out of range, then leaned against a tree and caught his breath. His sword was gone - he’d had to throw it aside to prevent himself being impaled during his tumble – and he was no richer now than he had been when he’d started so many hours ago. How the average outlaw survived long enough to become competent escaped him – perhaps the secret was in using a bow, or in being part of a band. Either way, Erasmus didn’t have the option and he’d have to think of another way to part travellers with the money.
Once he was certain he wasn’t being pursued, he returned to the scene of his failure. As expected, the priest had taken his sword – possibly expecting to use it to identify his assailant. He considered fashioning a bolas, but he wasn’t convinced he could aim one quickly or accurately enough to be effective. A trip wire was a possibility, but he knew it was likely to kill the rider’s horse and Erasmus didn’t want to kill man or beast if he could avoid it. No, what was needed was some way of unhorsing his intended victim in a non-fatal manner.
The sun was setting by the time Erasmus was ready to try again. He stood on a branch and watched the road below him, tugging experimentally on his length of creeper to make sure it was strong enough for its purpose. There hadn’t been that much traffic through the afternoon and Erasmus was just beginning to consider packing up for the night when the sound of hoof beats drifted down the road from the North.
The rider was travelling at a leisurely pace but, even so, Erasmus had very little time to make sure he was only dealing with one man before he grasped his creeper and launched himself from his branch and across the road. Fighting the urge to perform a Tarzan impression as he leapt, he swung his legs forward and braced himself for impact. His boots made solid contact with the body of the rider and threw him from his saddle and into the road, where he landed heavily and lay, groaning on the floor. Erasmus landed on a branch on the other side of the road then hopped down and made his way over to his victim. The horse had bolted and left the man lying facedown in the dirt.
Erasmus drew the man’s dagger and used it to cut his belt, then took his pouch and checked its contents. There seemed to be three dozen or so coins, all of which were solid gold and, although he wasn’t quite sure what the cost of living was, Erasmus had to assume this was enough wealth to loosen a few tongues at the inn. He was about to stand up and take his leave, when it occurred to him that his victim was lying prone on a darkened stretch of road. If he left him he might be trampled by a horse during the night. Carefully, Erasmus turned the man over and dragged him to the side of the road, laying him under a shady tree. In the half-light, he didn’t pay much attention to the man’s features until a chance ray of moonlight illuminated his pale face.
‘Deloial!’ Erasmus hissed.
At the sound of his name, the man’s eyes snapped open and he looked up into the face of his mortal enemy. ‘You!’ he gasped and made to sit up. Unfortunately, Erasmus hadn’t chosen a very safe place for Deloial to lie and the man’s head connected solidly with a low branch as he tried to rise. Knocked unconscious, he fell on his back – his arm, with the finger still stretched out accusingly, falling limply by his side. Erasmus sighed: he seemed to be fated to make this man’s life a living hell – he just hoped none of his colleagues were descended from the man, otherwise things might get uncomfortable once he got home.
After checking Deloial’s breathing was regular, Erasmus placed the day’s takings in his pouch and rose to his feet. As an afterthought, he also took the man’s dagger and strapped it into his belt before strolling down the road in the direction of the inn. On reflection, he didn’t feel as guilty about robbing a man like Deloial as he would have felt if he had succeeded with his earlier attempts. Men of the cloth may well have made their wealth by exploiting the oppressed mass of the peasantry, but at least you knew where you stood with them. Deloial was such an unpleasant character that Erasmus wouldn’t have been surprised to find he’d murdered his whole family to make his way in the world. The thought didn’t absolve him of guilt entirely, but it perked him up enough to put some of the spring back into his step. Hopefully, a tankard of ale would return the rest.