Walnut-Hued

The Walnut-Hued Man of Sutton Passey

by Jean Rabe

            His dreams rode on the exquisite blade that shimmered in the light of the full moon. He put all of his strength and skill behind the weapon, his years of careful study. He imagined the point crying out for blood, aimed straight at the heart of his most-hated enemy. The keen edge sparkled, like his eyes sparkled in morbid anticipation. He lunged so fast that he was certain he heard the weapon whistling as it drove faultlessly through the air, forward and true and . . . 

            . . . missed.

            “Not this night, my Lord Sheriff!” his enemy taunted, grinning mischievously and springing back a heartbeat before the blade would have connected.

            Another leap and the outlaw was beyond his second swing, and his third–which was clearly awkward in his desperation. The fourth was worse, so clumsy now that he caught his own cloak, slicing through a voluminous fold and drawing the hissing snickers of the townsfolk who’d come out of their cozy homes to watch.

            “Damn you Robin of Locksley!” the sheriff hollered, rushing forward and slashing furiously again and again, missing his agile foe each time by inches. “To the pit with you, I say!” The sheriff knew he needed to compose himself, needed to drown the ire that made him woefully inept in the presence of Sherwood’s famous outlaw. He silently shouted at himself to relax and focus–but the doing of it was not within his capabilities. At least not this night.

            Despite the ungainly way he wielded the weapon, the sheriff was an accomplished swordsman, riding with the King a few years past on one of his all-important crusades. In his reasonably short life he’d cut down dozens of skilled warriors, perhaps hundreds. But he could not put more than a scratch on this one despicable foe–no matter the weapon he chose to use. This night, it was a heavy Mascaron sword, embossed with gold on the crosspiece, an expensive gift from a visiting Spanish noble.

            His collection of bladed weapons included the finest–Damascan steel, one with a basket hilt layered with silver and bronze; folded blades from unpronounceable far-eastern villages; an elegant Italian malchus; a singular French rapier said to have belonged to a prince; a silver-edged Moorish three-point; an ancient parazonium–that he flaunted on his hip, but never used for fear it would break; a broadsword taken from a Saracen chief; and more. He practiced daily, save during tax weeks, and no man in the castle could last more than a few minutes with him in a sparring session.

            But this man . . . this one very arrogant and insolent man. This man was truly beyond him.

            Why had Robin Hood come to Nottinghamshire this evening? Supplies for his Merry Men most likely, as the sheriff’s guards spotted him skirting a wall in the merchants’ quarter. The guards were assembling a force to take him, but the sheriff bid them to keep their place, intending to take Robin Hood alone and claim all the glory and notoriety for himself. It was not the first time the sheriff had tried this stunt, and the way the duel was going now he was certain it would not be the last. Clearly if he had gathered enough guards and soldiers, Robin would be captured and on his way to the dungeon at this very moment. But the victory that he so profoundly craved . . . no, the victory he so desperately needed . . . would not be his. He must take the man alone.

            Robin said something, but the sheriff didn’t catch it, too deeply lost in his musings. The daring outlaw was several feet away, clearly illuminated in the moonlight, dressed in greens the color of wet fern leaves. His long brown hair fluttered about his shoulders in the slight breeze, and his mustache curled up on the edges as his smile grew wider. Robin was a handsome man, only a year or two younger than the sheriff, and the sheriff yearned intensely to deeply scar that pretty, unblemished face.

            The sheriff spat–this, too, missing the outlaw. Through clenched teeth he cursed his foe again. “Damn you Robin Hood!”

            “It is not your place to damn me, my good sheriff. Only God can do that.” Robin feinted to his left, the sheriff following him, sword leading and jabbing and missing wide when the outlaw unexpectedly pivoted to the right. “And I’d like to think God is on my side, Philip Mark. The good friar prays for me every night–right after dinner, you know.”

            The sheriff tried a feint, too, a move that did not catch the outlaw off guard. It only made Robin laugh louder. The outlaw was quick, spinning to the left again, darting right, his own blade flicking out like a striking serpent. It caught the sheriff’s tunic, slicing through the laces and causing the growing crowd to cheer. Another deft flick and he’d cut through the cord that held the sheriff’s cloak. For a moment the black velvet hung suspended like a giant bat, then it fluttered to rest around his ankles.

            “In need of a new tailor, my Lord Sheriff?” Robin’s mocking voice was musical and light. “I could recommend one.” The outlaw danced forward then, suddenly slashing with a speed that made his inferior blade sing.

            Startled, the sheriff stepped back, his feet becoming tangled in his cloak. His sword flew from his fingers as he fell to his rump, and Robin thrust forward, skewering the sheriff’s hat. Then the outlaw continued on his way, flicking the hat to one of the onlookers, grabbing up the sheriff’s lost sword. He bowed and twirled in front of a comely young woman as if he were at a dance, then he effortlessly hurdled a horse trough.

            By the time the sheriff had picked himself up, Robin had melted into the shadows and was no doubt out the gate or over the wall. Heading back to the refuge of his blessed Sherwood Forest.

            The townsfolk were murmuring, casting amused glances at the sheriff as they returned to their homes.

            “Aye, not this night,” the sheriff whispered, recalling the outlaw’s words. “But soon, Robin Hood. I shall have you very soon.”

            He grabbed up his cloak, tossing it over his shoulder, not wanting to leave it on the street as physical evidence of tonight’s debacle. The sheriff drew his tunic together, lamented the loss of an expensive, unique blade, and strode purposefully toward the castle.

            “Eustace!” the sheriff stormed into the great hall, brushing by a pair of guards and dismissing them with an angry wave. He slammed the door shut behind him and glanced up the staircase. “Eustace!”

            It was late, only a few candles flickered in the room and caused ghostly shadows to cavort along the walls. Did even the specters of Nottinghamshire mock him? he wondered.

            “Eustace!” he bellowed once more. “Come down here at once!”

            Heart hammering wildly in wrathful indignation, the sheriff dropped his ruined cloak on the table and tugged free the tunic. He turned to stare up into the mirror that hung above the mantle. “Why can’t I beat him?” he moaned. The image that looked back had no answers. The sheriff’s ropy muscles gleamed with sweat, his chest rose and fell rapidly. He ran his fingers over his taut stomach and up to his face, which was angular and darkened by a hint of stubble. There was a thick scar leading from his jaw to just above his ear, the end disappearing in his jet-black hair–Robin Hood had given him that memento early last year.

            “Eustace!”

            There were hurried footfalls in the stairwell beyond, accompanied by the soft swish of fabric.

            “Yes, my Lord Sheriff.”

            “Eustace of Lowdham, if you manage to get any slower I will. . . .”

            “I was sound asleep, Philip. One of your guards just roused me . . .”

            Philip Mark glared at his deputy.

            “ . . . and told me what happened near the merchant district. Robin Hood again. Pity.”

            Philip’s eyes narrowed.

            “You can’t beat him, Philip. Not alone. You should have called the guards. They would have caught his sorry carcass.” Eustace glided farther into the room, the hem of his robe dragging on the floor behind him. He was quite a bit smaller than the sheriff, and the overlarge garment made him look frail. “All you need is the element of surprise and enough men,” he continued. “In fact, Philip, if you had. . . .”

            The sheriff moved quickly, reaching Eustace in two steps and bringing his hand up to the man’s throat, pushing him back until he hit the wall. The smaller man’s skin blanched and his eyes grew wide like a frightened doe’s.

            “You    will    not    talk    to    me    that    way!” The sheriff spat each word for emphasis. “You are my deputy, Eustace of Lowdham, serving at my behest, and I’ll warrant that if your tongue wags with such insolence again you’ll be on the first ship headed toward. . . .”

            “I’m sorry, Philip,” Eustace gasped. “Truly sorry.” The smaller man’s eyes successfully pleaded with the sheriff to relax his grip. Eustace sagged against the wall and rubbed at his throat. “Forgive me. I wasn’t thinking.”

            Philip Mark paced in front of him. “A favor to your family. That’s why I selected you. That and your knowledge of all the villages that litter this land. You’re an expert in intrigue, my good little Eustace. And you’ve a remarkable memory. People don’t consider you a threat, and so they aren’t very careful with their secrets when you move about them.”

            Some of the color was returning to Eustace’s face. “Secrets? What secrets do you concern yourself with so late this evening?”

            The sheriff seemed not to have heard him. “A favor to your family. And now you’ll do a favor for me.” He stopped in front of his deputy, noting that the smaller man seemed more than a bit nervous by the closeness. It brought a faint smile to Philip’s lips that he could so intimidate Eustace of Lowdham.

            “You have a Yorkshire connection.”

            Eustace nodded.

            “And you’re well known in the Barnsdale area. And throughout Derbyshire for that matter.”

            Another nod.

            “You know of the swordsmen there.”

            “You are an excellent swordsman, My Lord Sheriff. Certainly one of the best in . . .”

            “The swordsmen there,” Phillip repeated through clenched teeth.

            “There are several my Lord. . . .”

            “The very best swordsmen. Someone better than me, far better than the men in my service. Someone even better than that damnable Robin Hood.”

            Eustace studied the sheriff, trying to figure out precisely what he was up to. The shadows continued to dance around the room for several silent moments, occasionally teasing the sheriff’s sweat-slick face. Finally, Eustace took a deep breath and spoke. “There are a few legendary swordsmen in Nottinghamshire, men who rode with the king a long time ago, and some of whom you know. Local heroes, I suppose you could call them.”

            “I don’t want a local hero! I want someone relatively obscure. A very private man. Not one of the wizened old fools who can’t even lift a weapon anymore. And not one of those braggarts whom every night wraps his hands around a tankard of mead instead of the pommel of a sword. I want the very best, Eustace. Do you understand?”

            Eustace cleared his throat and gestured to the table. Phillip nodded, and the two of them selected seats opposite each other. They lowered their voices, talking in hushed whispers more because whispers were the stuff of conspiracies rather than because they did not want any passing guards to overhear them.

            Eustace suggested swordsman after swordsman, Phillip rejecting them all as either too celebrated or not good enough. “Someone who is not known to any of the nobility of Nottinghamshire. Someone whom I have not heard of. Someone who keeps to his little village and keeps to himself. Surely there must be such a swordsman. Someone who has fallen out of memory,” Phillip hissed. “This is a very private thing.”

            The deputy sheriff sat back in the chair, running his fingers through his hair as if he were trying to stir up some recondite recollection. The sheriff drummed his fingers on the table and waited.

            “There is a man in Sutton Passeys,” Eustace began. “I believe he is still alive.” He leaned forward until he was practically forehead to forehead with the sheriff. “He is an old man, but not so ancient as to be infirm. Keeps to himself–now. But two decades or so past he was with the King on one of those years-long crusades. I believe his name is Aruze.”

            “An unusual name. What one might call a cat or a dog.”

            Eustace steepled his fingers. “It is what the villagers call him, in any event. But those outside the village refer to him as the Walnut-Hued Man. And those in Nottingham proper know nothing of him.”

            Phillip cocked his head. “This Walnut-Hued Man. Is he a Moor? In Sutton Passeys?”

            Eustace shrugged. “I’ve never met him, only seen him once or twice as I passed through collecting taxes. He looked a little exotic. Definitely a foreigner.”

            The sheriff crooked his finger, indicating he wanted more information.

            “I’ve heard tales about the man, from the more talkative folks in Sutton Passeys. Seems they all welcomed this stranger into their midst several years ago, even though he lives in a shack alone. And if half the tales are true, he was indeed a formidable swordsman years back. Tends livestock now with the rest of them, sheep and. . . .”

            “Take me to him in the morning.”

            Eustace let out a deep breath, the sound of leaves rustling across the ground. “My Lord Sheriff, tomorrow the Courtneys . . . ”

            “ . . . will be coming to Nottinghamshire,” Phillip finished. “Yes, I know.” His voice was so soft now that Eustace had to strain to hear him. “There are plenty of people in this castle to entertain the old man and his sons and that hawk-nosed daughter of his. Enough people to keep up appearances. And we should be back well before nightfall, in plenty of time for the feast. Besides, we will be made more important to the Courtneys by our tardiness.”

            Eustace yawned and pushed himself away from the table, stood and brushed at a wrinkle in his robe. “At first light then, my Lord Sheriff.” He waited for Philip to wave his hand, officially dismissing him. But the sheriff’s gaze was locked on a whorl in the tabletop, concentrating on something far from this room. “My Lord Sheriff?” Louder: “Philip?”

            The sheriff waggled his fingers. “All right, go. But be ready at first light.”

            Eustace glided toward the stairs and caught up the hem of his robe. “Phillip?”

            The sheriff almost reluctantly raised his head.

            “This trip will be for folly, you must realize. The Walnut-Hued Man will not fight Robin Hood for you. No matter that he rode with the King. Or that he might have been noble in whatever country he’s originally from. He’s one of the common people now, who we tax to death. His sympathies most assuredly will be on the side of the outlaw. If you want a swordsman who will face Robin alone, I can. . . .”

            Philip Mark smiled. It was a wicked-looking expression that held all manner of maliciousness within it and sent shivers down Eustace’s back. “I don’t want him to fight Robin Hood, my dear Eustace of Lowdham. I want him to teach me. And I don’t care what side his sympathies are on. He will teach me. Of that you can be confident. I can buy his sympathies. Every man has a price.”

            “Teach you? The likes o’ you? Teach the Sheriff of Nottinghamshire how to use a sword?”

            “I know how to use a sword,” Phillip Mark returned tersely. From the back of his horse, he looked down at the old man and thumped his fingers on the basket hilt of a long sword that had been specially made for him. “I can use any blade quite well. I merely wish to improve on the skills I already possess.”

            “Me. Teach the Lord Sheriff.”

            The man was dark-skinned, though not near so dark as to be considered a Moor. His skin was more the shade of walnut shells, free of wrinkles despite his years. Perhaps he was from Italy or lands to the east of it, Philip mused. His head was shaved, like a man from the Orient or from a reclusive order of monks. The sheriff looked closer and shuddered, discovering no hair on the back of the man’s hands or forearms or on his face, as if a horrible disease rather than a religious sect had robbed him of it. Age had certainly robbed the man of his posture. He walked stooped over, one shoulder slightly below the other, and one foot turned in. His clothes were in tatters, though reasonably clean and a shade or two darker than his skin. He looked up at the sheriff, squinting into the sun.

            “Me? Teach you?” He let out a clipped laugh. “I haven’t heard somethin’ so silly in all o’ my days.” His voice sounded like gravel bumping around in a bucket. He looked over his shoulder. A few villagers milled about, kept far enough back by Eustace and the guards that they couldn’t hear all of what was being said, but desperate to at least see what was transpiring. Whispers of “more taxes” passed from one man to the next. The old man nodded to them, offering them some measure of reassurance that he wasn’t going to be carted off to the dungeon for some silly offense.

            “I guess I was mistaken that you could teach me anything,” Philip Mark stated evenly, turning his horse so his back was to the rabble, yet so that he could still watch the old man. “I had heard that at one time you were an expert swordsman.”

            But the shriveled wreck before him was far from a swordsman, the sheriff could see that. The dark-skinned old man would be hard-pressed to even make a worthy peasant. And Eustace would find himself entertaining the Courtney woman this evening for mentioning this walnut-hued lout and dragging him out here so early in the day.

            “It would seem that I am looking for someone else. Someone named Aruze. Someone who once rode with the King.”

            The dark-skinned man returned his attention to the sheriff, his eyes needlelike slits.

            “I am Aruze,” he said, after a fashion opening his eyes wider. “But I’m a shepherd, not a warrior.”

            The sheriff would have left then, thankfully abandoned this quaint village that smelled strongly of sheep dung and poverty. Indeed, he was looking forward to watching Eustace squirm before that ghastly Courtney woman. But there was something about the old man’s eyes that held him like a vise. A cunning intelligence flickered in them, something that the years and the harsh conditions of this life couldn’t chase away and that the sheriff found fascinating and hypnotizing. Philip’s hands tightened on the reins. He should leave now, but. . . .

            “I used to be a swordsman,” the man finally acknowledged. “It was a long time ago. And many miles from here.”

            “And so you’ve forgotten those skills,” the sheriff baited, his eyes still captured by the old man’s. A small part of Philip’s mind again told him to leave, screamed that he should not waste another minute of his precious time chatting with a dirty commoner who did not even address him as ‘sir’ or ‘my Lord Sheriff.’ Why, if Philip were home in the castle right now, he would have servants trimming his hair and measuring him for new clothes. And the hawk-nosed Courtney daughter would be fawning over Eustace, throwing herself at the smaller man and making everyone quite nauseous. Did she still marinade herself in sickeningly sweet perfume? “What was I possibly thinking . . . Aruze . . . that one such as you might . . . “

            ”I’ve forgotten nothin’.” The man made an effort of straightening himself.

            Philip Mark slid from his horse’s back, his eyes still not leaving the peasant’s. Closer to the old man, he could smell him. There was a sharp, musky fragrance to him, no doubt from spending his days and nights with sheep. “Forgotten nothing? Then teach me what you know.”

            “Why?”

            “Does it matter?”

            Aruze dug the ball of his good foot into the ground and slowly shook his head. “I’ve schooled many a man in the blade. Here, and in my homeland. But I’ll not teach the likes o’ you.” Then the old man dropped his gaze to the toes of his worn boots, releasing Philip’s eyes.

            The sheriff blinked to clear his head. He should have the man whipped for refusing. No. Not enough. He should have him hung or drawn and quartered. Then he should find a swordsman not as old or as crippled, but every bit as obscure. He should get back on his horse right now and. . . .

            “Teach me,” Philip found himself saying. “I will make it worth your while old man.”

            Aruze spat at the sheriff’s feet. “I don’t like you. I don’t like your kind. Nothin’ you could do would make it worth my while to help you. Nothin’.”

            The sheriff spun, looking across the rundown village to the men and women kept back by the guards. They were a pitiful lot, all poor and broken and dirty.

            “I’ll not tax Sutton Passeys for two months.”

            Aruze raised his head, again meeting the sheriff’s gaze. He drew his lips into a thin line, as if considering the offer. “No.”

            “Three.”

            “Five months.”

            “Done.”

            “Not quite.” The old man smiled thinly and his dark eyes sparkled. “Five months worth o’ tax money you will return to this village before we begin.”

            Philip clenched his fists. It was his turn to refuse.

            “And you’ll not tell a single soul that it’s for swordplay lessons. You’ll say all o’ that taxin’ was a mistake. You simply took too much. The people here were over-burdened. And you’ll say you’re sorry for it.”

            Philip vehemently shook his head.

            “I don’t like you, Sheriff o’ Nottinghamshire. And I don’t trust you. If I teach you for a month, you might well turn around and start taxin’ us again.”

            The sheriff forced himself to relax and offered the man a slight nod in appreciation. Taxing them again was indeed what he would have done.

            “So, you’ll return five months’ worth o’ tax money. If you want me to teach you.”

            Words flitted through the sheriff’s mind. He should call this man an impudent cur, should throw him in the dungeon, increase Sutton Passeys taxes for spite–though he was certain from the looks of these indigent folks he wasn’t likely to get more than another coin or two.

            “Very well,” Philip said softly. “We shall start tomorrow. I shall bring the tax money with me.”

            “And. . . .”

            The sheriff cocked his head, anger glimmering in his eyes.

            “You’ll bring me a sword. A fine one, as good as what you’re totin’ on your hip.”

            “That I won’t agree to.”

            “Then we don’t have a deal.”

            Philip balled his fists and set them on his waist. “I am being more than generous as it is, old man.”

            “Swordplay lessons are expensive. And the time of even someone like me has value.” Aruze smiled, showing a row of yellow-brown teeth. “Besides, I don’t have a sword, my Lord Sheriff. And I’ll need one to teach you . . . sir.” The words showed contempt, not respect. “I was forced to sell my favorite sword last year to pay your taxes.”

            “A sword, then.”

            “As fine o’ one as that.” He pointed to the sheriff’s long sword.

            “Tomorrow morning.”

            Aruze shook his head and dropped his voice to a harsh whisper. “Tomorrow night. There is an old stable a few miles south, down this road. It has no roof and is barely standin’. But it will do. Come there. Bad enough that I will teach you my craft. I cannot let my fellows here know what I am doin’. It wouldn’t do at all to let them know I’ve sold my soul for tax money and a fine blade.”

            The sheriff clenched his jaw tight to keep from smiling. No tales of this endeavor would be spread! The foreigner was ashamed at this bargain. “Tomorrow night, Mister Aruze.” Then he was quick on his horse and riding hard from Sutton Passeys. Eustace and the guards hurried to catch up.

            Philip was tired, the ordeal with the Courtney nobles lasting well into the early morning hours, and a noon meeting with the Merchants’ Guild prevented him from sleeping late. He had considered sending Eustace to find the barn and tell the old man he would meet him in a few days. He should have, he told himself.

            But here he was, alone and yawning and traveling south from Sutton Passeys. The horse’s saddle bags chinked with coins, and he halfway worried that Robin Hood and his men might rob him. They might have, had he been dressed properly. But he was wearing commoner’s clothes that Eustace had fetched for him, drab garb that kept the people of Nottinghamshire from recognizing him as he rode out the gates on a sway-backed aging mare.

            The barn loomed ahead, and he pulled on the reins, stopping well short of it. “What am I doing?” he whispered. “All of this skullduggery because I wish to best one man.”

            Perhaps Eustace of Lowdham was right, this was for folly and he should simply summon plenty of guards and soldiers when he caught sight of the outlaw. “But for pride and my obsession,” he said, as he slid from the horse’s back and led the animal to the barn.

            He had expected it to be dark inside, but with no roof the moon shone in. There were gaps in the walls, and Philip wondered if a strong breeze would topple the thing. The old man was there, standing crookedly in the center, carefully regarding him. “I didn’t expect you’d show,” he said, the gravelly voice still sounding unpleasant to the sheriff’s ears.

            “Neither did I.” Philip dropped the reins and fumbled about on the saddle, tugging free the tax money and tossing it to the ground. “Your fee.”

            “And. . . .”

            He retrieved a rolled blanket, and from it he pulled a sword. It was a unusually thick-bladed rapier with a steel hilt, one embossed with brass designs. Near the half-basket the sword was scalloped, and the indentations were edged in silver and bronze. The moon caught the sword and made it gleam, as the old man’s eyes were gleaming.

            “A very fine blade,” Aruze said, a hint of awe in his rough voice. “A most superb weapon.”

            “Worth more than the five months of taxes collected from your village,” the sheriff added, as he tossed it to him. Worth far more than your sorry hide, he added to himself. The old man caught the sack of coins and continued to admire the sword, which was one of the lesser pieces in the sheriff’s collection. “I trust, Mister Aruze, that this sword will. . . .”

            “More than suffice, my Lord Sheriff.” Respect in the voice this time. “My thanks to you. And I trust you will not be disappointed with my tutelage.”

            “Let us hope not,” the sheriff swore under his breath.

            As the night wore on, the sheriff discovered that the bent and crippled man still possessed a considerable measure of grace, and that he moved with a speed belaying his years. There was an awkwardness about him because of his crooked foot and dropped shoulder, but it was evident that the man had adapted to his deteriorating condition and had compensated with other moves. Philip suspected that Aruze had been a masterful warrior in his youth, one the King was proud to have with him–no matter from what foreign land he came from.

            The sheriff found himself struggling to keep pace with Aruze, finding that it took all of his effort just to parry the old man’s blows. There was little strength behind Aruze’s swings, but they were accurate, aimed at vital organs and stopping short just in time. The sheriff inwardly beamed when as the evening grew older the peasant praised his techniques. And he surprised himself when he did not get angry when the old man in turn said he had a long way to go to match him.

            Eventually the old man tired, announcing an end to the first lesson. He carefully placed the rapier on the ground, then he sat next to it, this move taking a bit of work because of his misshapen foot. He let out a great sigh and looked up at Philip, who’d led his horse to the door. Then he dropped his gaze to the sword and reached a finger out to caress the crosspiece.

            “My Lord Sheriff, you are a passable swordsman.”

            Philip nodded.

            “So, I am curious why you have a need to be better. And why you came to me.”

            No answer.

            “I am no one, my Lord Sheriff. No songs are sung of my deeds. Few know of my talent with a sword.”

            “There are a few tales,” Philip said.

            “So I am still curious. Why do you need to be better? Do you fear someone from within the castle? The King did and so became more skilled.”

            “You taught him, Aruze?”

            No answer. Instead, another question. “Is it your deputy? The young fancy man from Lowdham. Does he want your position? Some lesser noble scrabblin’ up the Nottinghamshire ladder? There is always intrigue among your kind. Plottin’ and schemin’ and. . . .”

            “I want Robin Hood.”

            Aruze wiped at something on his tattered pants. “The outlaw?”

            A nod.

            “He’s good. Very good with a sword and very good for the common folk.”

            Philip instantly cursed himself for telling the old peasant the truth. He could have easily fabricated something, went along with the notion that Eustace of Lowdham was out to get his title.

            “But I don’t like him,” the old man continued. “Good that I know who you plan to face, my Lord Sheriff.”

            Philip cocked his head in a question.

            “Makes the lessons different.” There was still a question on the sheriff’s face, and so the old man went on. “Saw Robin Hood once, fightin’ some o’ your soldiers on the road near Sutton Passeys. He fights from his heart, doesn’t use any techniques taught by any masters. Taught anywhere for that matter. He’s unpredictable. And he taunts those he fights, his words workin’ as a second sword that pricks at their hearts.”

            Philip found himself agreeing.

            “So we will have to make you unpredictable, too. And, o’ course, we will teach you to close your ears to his babble.”

            The sheriff gave the old man a genuine smile. “You say Robin Hood is good for the commoners, yet you’ll help me best him. Why?”

            Aruze looked at his beautiful sword. “It is wrong, all this stealin’ he does. I’ll make you better than him.”

            “How long shall that take?”

            The old man shrugged, the motion exaggerated because of his bent body. “Depends on you, my Lord Sheriff. How quick o’ a learner are you?”

            “Tomorrow night, then?”

            Aruze nodded. “And can you bring some wine?”

            The nights blurred, and in them Philip learned to improvise and to anticipate the unexpected. He discovered that by studying an opponent’s eyes he could judge where the man’s sword would lead. He forced himself to shut out his opponent’s words, be they hurtful or filled with pleas for mercy. And all those steps and thrusts he studied from his youth, he hid away in the back of his mind and instead relied on what the Walnut-Hued Man taught him.

            When nearly three months had passed, the old man announced there was no more he could pass on to Philip Mark–though he could always learn more by finding an even better instructor. There existed a hint of friendship between the student and teacher, one that was guarded by the difference in their stations. Still, they had closed each session with fellowship by drinking wine and feasting on whatever the sheriff brought; this last night he offered up the very finest from his cellar. Aruze would recount a battle or two from the crusades or from a duel he fought in his faraway home, and Philip would tell of some of the goings-on in Nottingham Castle, though he never spoke of the more nefarious activities. This last night the sheriff even told Aruze of his many losses to Robin Hood.

            “I don’t like the man,” Aruze admitted again. “But I like life. A part o’ me regrets givin’ you the skills to kill him.”

            “Everyone dies,” Philip said evenly, his tongue thick from the alcohol they’d been sharing. “I only intend to hurry his death along.” He noticed a sadness in the old man’s eyes, and he cursed himself for feeling compassion for a mere peasant. “But I will make it quick,” he added for consolation.

            Aruze offered his hand.

            And the sheriff almost took it.

            Four nights later, Philip Mark found his green-clad foe at the edge of the merchants’ quarter. Robin had been skulking, hood pulled tight over his head and keeping close to the shadows. His bags were filled with goods he’d either stolen or purchased with ill-gotten gold, and he barely had time to drop them and pull his sword before the sheriff was on him.

            Philip was using the Saracen chief’s blade this night, finding the balance perfect now that he had more strength in his arm. This night when he lunged, Robin wasn’t able to so easily dance away. Indeed, the outlaw struggled to keep pace with the sheriff, and the merchants who climbed out of their cozy beds and opened the shutters were quiet as the men traded blows.

            The sheriff tried a feint, one the old man taught him early in their sessions. It caught Robin off guard, and Philip spun to his right, slashing and cutting Robin’s cloak. He could have run him through, but he needed to prolong this fight, he needed to relish his victory, and he needed more witnesses.

            “It is you, perhaps, who is in need of the tailor now, Robin Hood!” The sheriff swung again, and a thin line of red appeared across Robin’s arm.

            Robin didn’t offer a reply, putting his effort instead into parrying the sheriff’s expert swings. The duel took them past the merchants’ businesses and into a courtyard near the front gates, where the moon shone down unobstructed. The guards turned from their posts to watch the display. People were coming out onto the street, some wrapped in blankets, others struggling into cloaks. There were no giggles this time, and no words against the sheriff, only wide-eyed stares of disbelief and gasps of surprise as he forced the outlaw to defend himself.

            As the fight continued, there were murmured speculations that the sheriff for once in his life would indeed defeat Sherwood’s favorite son. Robin’s leggings were slashed, the moon showing that the sheriff had drawn more blood.

            “No,” the sheriff told him. “On second thought, you won’t be needing a tailor this night. You’ll be needing a priest. To pray over your grave.”

            Philip’s swings grew bolder and wilder, the moonlight flashing along the edge of the blade as it clashed against Robin Hood’s sword. Then the moonlight caught the outlaw’s weapon, just as Robin began to vary his thrusts.

            It was a fine and unusually thick-bladed rapier the outlaw was wielding, one with a steel hilt embossed with bronze. There were scallops near the half-basket, edged in silver and brass that sparkled like the stars.

            “It can’t be!” Philip hollered, as with that realization he now found himself working to parry Robin Hood’s blows. “It is not possible!”

            The moonlight showed no hair on the back of Robin’s hand, and when the outlaw lunged, his hood flew back, showing a shaved head.

            “By all that’s holy, no!”

            “By all that’s holy, yes,” Robin returned.

            There was no stoop in the posture, no dropped shoulder or crooked foot. But the eyes were the same, glimmering with a cunning intelligence. Robin rained a series of blows against the sheriff’s heavier weapon. Then he darted in and jabbed at his thigh.

            “Why?” Philip gasped. “Why the game? Why teach me?”

            “I needed a better sparring partner,” the outlaw continued. “One worthy of my efforts. And I thank you for providing me with one.”

            “How?” But in the back of Philip’s mind, he began to answer that question. Robin had stooped his posture and turned in his foot, shaved himself. But darkening the skin?

            Philip’s musings stopped when Robin further increased the tempo of his swings, the tip of his rapier catching the basket of the sheriff’s sword and sending it flying from his grasp. Robin darted forward again, slashing at the laces on the sheriff’s tunic, again cutting the cord that held his cape. The garment fluttered to the ground. “We must do this again sometime, eh, my Lord Sheriff?”

            Then the outlaw was scampering toward the gate, catching the pulley rope and hauling himself up it. Before the sheriff and the guards could react, he was over the wall and on his way to Sherwood.

            Philip turned and retrieved his cloak. Then he headed toward the castle.

            “Eustace!”

            The sheriff slammed the door shut behind him, dismissed the guards with a wave and tromped into the great hall.

            “Eustace of Lowdham if you . . .”

            The deputy sheriff was scrambling down the stairs, the hem of his robe gathered in trembling fingers.

            “My Lord Sheriff?”

            Philip glared, clenching and unclenching his fists, taking a step toward Eustace, then stopping himself.

            “Robin Hood?” Eustace risked.

            The sheriff nodded. “Indeed. Robin Hood.”

            Several moments of silence passed between the two, the flickering candles sending shadows dancing across the walls, specters to mock the Sheriff of Nottinghamshire.

            “I will have him, Eustace. I will have him twitching on the end of my sword. There will be no force of guards to take him. I won’t use soldiers. I will take him. Alone!”

            “Philip, I . . .”

            “To my last breath, I will work. Do you understand? He can’t kill me, Eustace. He wouldn’t dare kill the Sheriff of Nottinghamshire. And so I am safe. But not him. I will have him!”

            “Philip, perhaps I . . .”

            “Swordsmen, Eustace, you will find me the very best. I don’t care if they’re known. I don’t care where you get them. Tomorrow at first light, you will . . .”

            “Philip, I . . .”

            “But this time you will make sure that they are indeed who they claim to be. No imposters, or I will find myself a new deputy sheriff and I will send you on the first ship to . . . .” The sheriff glanced up into the mirror that hung over the mantle. His face was red from ire and exertion, his chest rose and fell rapidly, and he could feel his heart hammering in his chest. Through the gap in his tunic, his broad chest gleamed, and the outline of the muscles in his sword arm rippled. He had to admit he was better and stronger. But he was not yet good enough.

            “The Walnut-Hued Man, Philip . . .”

            “Was Robin Hood,” the sheriff spat, returning his attention to his deputy. “In disguise. Aruze, Eustace. Aruze! He was in deed a ruse. And I–with your eager help–played right into his hands. But I will have him. You will find me a better teacher. And I will have him very soon.”

            The sheriff strode from the great hall, brushing by Eustace and nearly knocking the slighter man over.

            “My Lord Sheriff . . .” Eustace began. “The Walnut-Hued Man is real. I saw him in Sutton Passeys. He can’t have been Robin Hood. The tales . . . .” But the deputy sheriff’s words were lost in the shadows. Philip Mark was on his way to his armory to practice with his swords.

            An old man walked south on the road past Sutton Passeys. His skin was dark, branding him a Moor, not painted on from the juice of crushed walnuts–as Robin Hood’s complexion had been. His gait was slow, his foot being turned in and his shoulder dropped from age and injury. Still, it was a determined pace he kept up. The old man knew not to stay in these parts, as the sheriff would be angry at the ruse he and his student Robin Hood had concocted. It had been his idea, in truth, wanting to give the outlaw a more formidable opponent. And when Robin embraced the idea, the old man had volunteered to do the teaching. But Robin wouldn’t have it, not wanting to risk the old man’s life–and not wanting to risk the possibility that the sheriff might become too skilled. And might possibly defeat him.

            And so the old man was headed . . . somewhere. His purse was heavy with gold coins, payment from Sherwood’s beloved outlaw. And on his hip hung a fine Mascaron sword, a singular weapon that a Spanish noble had once gifted to Philip Mark. And a blade that the old man knew how to use very well.

Author’s notes: Historians differ on who they believe was the “Sheriff of Nottingham” of Robin Hood fame. One candidate is Philip Mark, who acted as the sheriff of Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire from 1209 to 1224. Another possible candidate is Eustace of Lowdham, who served as Philip’s deputy from 1217 to 1224. Eustace, himself, served as the sheriff from 1232 to 1233.

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