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Hood out today!

Robin Hood was not a good guy. Got that? 

Toby Venables has explored the fullest extent of this idea in his Hunter of Sherwood series, in which Guy of Gisburne is the hero, hunting down the rogue insurrectionist that is Robin of the Hood.

The third and final instalment of the trilogy, Hood, is out today – and it will knock your socks off.

Read on to find out more about Hood and this awesome series…

By Toby Venables

The vendetta with Robin Hood has cost too much: blood shed, lives lost, friendships severed. Guy of Gisburne, knight and agent of Prince John, has had enough, and wishes to enjoy a little quiet on his own land.

But Hood grows ever more troublesome, and if the barons of the North will not convince Guy to resume the hunt – nor even the rightful King Richard, returned from long imprisonment – then perhaps the simple plea of a missing daughter’s father, and a promise to restore a good man’s name, will.

Hood has gathered an army – among them the insidious Took, the giant John Lyttel, the cutthroat Will the Scarlet, the brilliant but bitter Alan O’Doyle. Guy must now recruit an army of his own, calling upon some familiar old friends – and one all-too-familiar old enemy…
The stage is set: Sherwood, long a home to both men. The final confrontation begins…

Hood is out now!
Buy: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Google|iBooks|Kobo|Rebellion Store

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The Rebellion Advent Calendar Day Twenty: Guy of Gisburne: The Omnibus only 99p!

Only five days to go until Christmas and we’ve got another cracking Advent deal for you. 

Today you can grab the omnibus edition of the first two books in Toby Venables’ Hunter of Sherwood series, Knight of Shadows and The Red Hand, for only 99p from all eBook stores. Not bad, eh?

It’s especially handy as we’re releasing the concluding book of this trilogy, Hood, in January, so you can catch up on the series ahead of time. Nice!

This is first-class historical fantasy, pitting outcast and mercenary Guy of Gisburne against agent of chaos Robin Hood. Trust us when we say: these books rock. Hard. 

Get a-clickin’!

Hunter of Sherwood: Guy of Gisburne The Omnibus is 99p!
Buy: Amazon UK|Amazon US|iBooks|Google Play|Kobo

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Toby Venables on Historical Friction

Last September, at FantasyCon in York, I gave a reading of a chapter of (the then unfinished) Hunter of Sherwood: The Red Hand. The scene involved my protagonist, Guy of Gisburne, visiting his psychopathic nemesis Robin Hood in the Tower of London in the hope of extracting information about a new threat. Hood gladly offers his help – but in a rather more hands-on way than Gisburne has anticipated. He holds out his shackled wrists and suggests Gisburne frees him so they can track the villain together. “Come on, Guy!” says Hood, gleefully. “It’d be fun, wouldn’t it? You and me against this crazed killer. We’d be the talk of the town!”

As always when reading new work aloud, a few parts had leapt out as being in need of a tweak (the key reason I continually harangue my students to do it). Some rather unmusical combination of syllables here. Less than smooth syntax there. When I admitted to the audience (five people and a cat) that a couple of moments had jarred, one of my listeners nodded slowly in recognition. “Yes… talk of the town’… Did they even say that then?”

They did not say that then – at least, not in those words. The fact is, nearly all the words I had used in the novel were not authentic to late 12th century England.

Most of the population – the ordinary people – would have conversed in an early version of Middle English which was, as yet, not very far from the Anglo-Saxon (AKA Old English) spoken at the time of the Norman invasion. While this forms the basis of our modern English and provides us with most of the words we use every day, nearly all of these would sound foreign to modern ears. It also came in a variety of dialects – standard English was centuries away – coloured by interaction with Norse speakers in the east and Celts in the west.

The majority of the characters in the novel, however, would have been speaking a different language altogether: one we call “Anglo-Norman”. This was the first language of the knightly and ruling classes in England; a form of French brought from Normandy – itself Norse influenced. Gisburne, who grew up with an English mother and Norman father, speaks both languages – as, doubtless, would many members of England’s senior or middle management, through sheer necessity.

Then there were other forms of the langues d’oïl brought by more recent arrivals from France and Plantagenet territories (closer to the French we learned in school), and the Latin of monks and scribes, in which most documents would have been written. Had the novel been written in entirely authentic terms, it would not simply have been in archaic language – it would have been in several languages and dialects, none of which are now familiar – except, perhaps, to medievalists.

This is one of the dilemmas that faces any writer of historical fiction. Do you embrace literal authenticity and put up potential linguistic barriers between your characters and your readers? Or do you make your characters relatable and accessible by employing modern language – abandoning linguistic authenticity altogether, even though painstaking research may have gone into the (re)creation of the other physical details of your world?

One radical solution to this problem was demonstrated by Paul Kingsnorth, whose recent Booker Prize longlisted novel The Wake – describing Hereward the Wake’s rebellion against the invading Normans – was written entirely in a form of Anglo-Saxon. That this presents the reader with a challenge is an understatement. Kingsnorth’s aproach, however, is reminiscent of Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, which is written in the street slang of its hooligan protagonist: he provides just enough that is familiar, just enough context for us to work out what the unfamiliar means. In effect, he teaches us the language.

“To put 21st century sentences into the mouths of eleventh century characters,” explains Kingsnorth in his endnote, “would be the equivalent of giving them iPads and cappuccinos: just wrong.”

Kingsnorth’s novel is a masterpiece – a unique experiment which conveys a powerful sense of the times, with its linguistic textures intact. Yet, when it comes to his rationale, I couldn’t agree less.

Is this really the only valid approach to historical fiction? If so, then Wolf Hall is also “just wrong”. So are all works of historical fiction that do not use authentic language. In fact, in terms of fiction dealing with the medieval period, the only work I know of that fits Kingsnorth’s criteria is his own novel. Fair enough to settle on your own, original approach. Fine to experiment. I’m all for that. But to dismiss all other approaches as “just wrong”? That’s… well… just wrong.

But there’s a catch with The Wake. The language Kingsnorth is using is not authentic Anglo-Saxon at all. It is what he calls a “shadow tongue”; selected Anglo-Saxon mixed with modern vocabulary “mutated and hammered to the shape of OE words and word endings to suit my purpose”. It is, he confesses, “pseudo-OE” – not an actual ancient language, but a hybrid of his own creation, using modern syntax and drawing on a mish-mash of dialects (and “a smattering of Old Norse”) in a way only a modern mind with modern resources could (there may not be iPads, but there are certainly search engines and digital libraries in Kingsnorth’s crowdfunded novel).

In other words, these are 21st century sentences. They’ve just been dressed up (or down) more effectively than most. It would seem that this issue is not, after all, about hard and fast rules, but about where we draw the line. Me? I draw it in a rather different place. I’m not attempting to hide the fact that this is a modern construct. That’s just not what I choose to do. History itself – as a text, at least – is a modern construct. And, when it comes down to it, even Kinsgnorth confesses to one meta-rule in the writing of his book which had the potential to overrule all others: “do what the novel needs you to do”.

Amen, brother.

And so, back to “talk of the town”. I would defend this with my last breath. They had towns. They talked (no iPads). And, lacking as they did newsfeeds, twitter, TV and even print, things passed on by word of mouth – reputations, stories and legends – had far greater currency then than now (these are really what the Hunter of Sherwood books are about). While they didn’t have that precise idiom, the sense it conveyed – of becoming suddenly famous, and being the subject of intense, excited speculation in this one locale, if only briefly – was exactly right. It is the perfect expression of what is in Hood’s mind. It belongs. And we instantly know what he means. If it jars, tough – I’m not interested in the kind of fantasy world that promotes amnesia of the here and now anyway. I’m a writer, not a damned anaesthetist.

So, while I won’t yet give Gisburne an iPad, nor have Melisande de Champagne do tai chi in a cardigan (as Maid Marian was seen to do in the recent BBC series of Robin Hood), I will give them words that express their true thoughts most keenly. Because, for me, that’s what history is, not something dead and distant, but something vital, alive and relevant. And here, once again, is where I diverge from Kingsnorth.

In describing his reasons for using “pseudo-OE”, he says: “I wanted to be able to convey, not only in my descriptions of events and places but through the words of the characters, the sheer alien-ness of Old England”. What I strive to convey is the precise opposite: how like us these people are, how they love, hate, think, feel, plot and have ideas just as we do. They are not strange or alien. They are us – within us, and around us. In our blood, our buildings, our food, our language and our stories.

There are numerous clichés about learning from history – but they are clichés for a reason. History is our constant companion. Something we should learn to love and keep close, even though it may at times frighten us – and perhaps because of that. It is a looming presence upon which we all too often turn our backs, preferring ignorance, like a frightened child turning from a shadow, even though, from time to time, we know it will catch us up and tap us on the shoulder.

Read more from Toby by hitting the navigation tag at the top of this page!

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Deleted scene: An Unexpected Visit from ‘The Red Hand’

The final in our three part ‘deleted scenes’ from Hunter of Sherwood: The Red Hand by Toby Venables, which is out now worldwide.

An Unexpected Visit

Eastchepe – June, 1193

Gisburne sat on the bench, slumped over the table, staring into a mug of ale as the rain beat its relentless rhythm upon the roof. In his left hand sat his stubbly chin; with his right he pushed Llewellyn’s bodkin points about the pitted wooden surface. He felt paralysed, lost. Not that he was unable to see the road ahead – it stretched out before him as clear as day, clearer and straighter than the Great North Road. But he did not know how to take the next step.

He clasped his hands together. Almost as if they acted of their own volition, he felt his fingers interlock. His eyes closed. A yearning welled up in him.

It was not like Gisburne to resort to prayer. His relationship with God was not exactly close. In the past he had likened it to the relationship he had with his distant father whilst off fighting on campaign. The old man was undoubtedly out there, somewhere – or so he hoped – and he was glad of it. But there was little point trying to strike up a conversation with him.


Gisburne’s eyes snapped open. Sitting opposite, staring right at him with inquisitive eyes, was a familiar figure. An impossible figure. The face was drawn and skeletal, his eyes sunken, his grey flesh ragged and, here and there, showing signs of putrefaction. But Gisburne would have recognised him anywhere.

He had not seen Gilbert de Gaillon for ten years. The last time had been when Richard sent him to his death. Overnight, Gisburne’s life had fallen apart. And now, here he was, sharing a table with him.

“Aren’t you dead?” Gisburne said.

De Gaillon cocked his head to one side. “I don’t know. Am I?”

“Surely you must know if anyone does?”

De Gaillon shrugged. “I expect I’d be the last to know.”

“You were betrayed by the Lionheart. Killed in an ambush. I saw it. I carried your body away. Buried it myself.”

“Well, you must be right, then.”

“You look well. Considering.” He filled a second cup from the ale jug and slid it forward. De Gaillon’s thin fingers wrapped around it and lifted it to blackened lips.

Gisburne looked his friend up and down as he drank. He was much as he remembered him, if a little worse for wear. There were the gashes upon his head. The slash where his neck and shoulder met, and the broken collarbone. The gaping stab wound in side. As de Gaillon gulped, Gisburne found himself looking to see if anything leaked out.

Nothing did.

The cup came down upon the table top sharply, making Gisburne start.

“You say you buried me?” said de Gaillon.


“You were alone?”


“Are you a priest now?”


De Gaillon grunted and sighed heavily. “Well, that explains a lot.”

There had been no absolution. No burial service. Gisburne felt sudden guilt at the omission.

“Why are you here?” he said.

“I don’t know,” said de Gaillon. “I was hoping you might have some idea.”

“To help me?”

“Do you need my help?”

“More than ever,” said Gisburne. He would never have admitted as much to de Gaillon when he had been alive, but now, somehow, it came easily. “I’m lost. As lost as I have ever been. Galfrid thinks I waste my time searching for this Dickon. Perhaps he’s right. I know that Dickon hides some secret of Hood’s past. But…”


“I have realised, as I have been sitting here, that I have been dishonest – to Galfrid, to myself. That this, after all, was not why I pursued him…”


Gisburne bowed his head, ashamed of his own weakness – even before a dead man. “I did so to avoid the bigger task – the one I know I must face. The one to which I do not have an answer.”

“The Red Hand…” said de Gaillon. He nodded, a loose shred of flesh on his neck wobbling as he did so.

“How do you know that?” said Gisburne. “How can you know that, when you didn’t even know if you were dead?”

De Gaillon gave a kind of awkward, half shrug and leaned forward. “Listen… Don’t be so hard on yourself. I understand your frustration. You are a man used to expansive action who now feels himself imprisoned by inward thought.”

Gisburne nodded. Yes, that was it, exactly.

“But you are mistaken in your assumptions,” said de Gaillon.

“What assumptions?”

“All is thought. It always was. There is no action without it.”

“Some things are beyond thought. Physical things.”

“Such as?”


De Gaillon shrugged again. “Thought can overcome pain – and more besides. I’ve seen men who should already have been dead stand up and fight with their last breath.”

Gisburne had seen it too. Then there was the fact that he was currently conversing with a corpse. “Pleasure, then,” he said. “That is pure physical sensation, is it not?”

De Gaillon nodded. “Tell me,” he said. “Have you ever found yourself holding the hand of a woman whose company you did not relish?”


“And that physical contact did not give you pleasure?”


“What about a woman who you desired with all your being, when you touched her hand for the first time? Did that give pleasure?

Gisburne nodded. “Something beyond even that.”

“And yet the physical contact in each case is identical.” De Gaillon shrugged, his point made. “It is all thought, Guy. Whether we are aware of it or not, it is all dictated by what is in here.” He tapped his tattered, decomposing skull. “This is where the battle is fought, where it is won and lost. You know that. Soon, you will face him. Don’t let him defeat you before that day even arrives.”

Gisburne frowned. “I never heard you talk about such things before.”


Gisburne laughed. “Pleasure. Women.”

De Gaillon gave an approximation of a shrug, his shoulder clicking. “Death has a way of focusing the mind.”

“Are you a ghost?”

De Gaillon grunted. “What is a ghost, anyway?”

Gisburne gave a bemused shake of his head. “Something from the past. Something that should not be here – that persists after death.”

“Then I’d say we all have our ghosts, wouldn’t you?” He sat back and clucked his tongue. The sound was strange in his cold mouth. “Let’s not waste time debating what I am,” he said. “The question is, why am I here?”

“Because I have need of you?”

“An answer to a prayer?”

Gisburne shrugged. It was as good an explanation as any.

“But you don’t need me,” said de Gaillon, spreading his hands.

“How can you know that?”

“I know your thoughts. I am your thoughts. And all you have achieved, you have achieved without me.”

Gisburne stared back at him, mute, pleading in his eyes. It seemed to him quite the opposite – that somehow de Gaillon had been there all along.

His old mentor held his gaze for an age, then finally threw up his hands in defeat. “Fine,” he said. “Perhaps, under the circumstances, a little advice wouldn’t go amiss.” He gave a wheezy sigh, then sat forward again, interlocked his black-tipped fingers and rested his elbows upon the table.

“Be kinder to your squire.”

“That’s it? That’s the best you have?”

De Gaillon shrugged. “He may take an arrow for you one day. Or not. Better to keep on the right side of him.”

Gisburne gulped his ale and wiped his mouth. “All right, all right, I’ll be kinder to my squire.” He felt like a scolded boy. “Anything else?”

De Gaillon sat back. “This man you hunt, what is it he wants?”

At last, to business, thought Gisburne. “He means to kill John,” he said.

“That is what he threatens. But he could have killed John back in Nottingham. What is it he wants?”

Gisburne thought of the relentless campaign, of the deaths of men who perhaps, as individuals, meant little to the Red Hand – who were simply symbols of something else. A means to an end. He thought, too, of the messages he left in his wake, of the clues laid out for him like a breadcrumb trail.

“He wants me to pursue him,” said Gisburne.

De Gaillon nodded slowly. “And do you always do what your enemy wants?”

Gisburne stared into de Gaillon’s lifeless eyes. “Are you saying I should give it up?”

“No. I am saying you should put aside thoughts of whatever grudge he has for John, and think about why he wants this of you.”

“Of me?”

A rattle of a sigh passed through de Gaillon’s emaciated frame. “You see? You are so obsessed with others, you are forgetting the role you play in all this. You are not like me. Not a ghost. You exist – are flesh and blood. And I can’t tell you what to do.”

Gisburne suddenly felt he understood. “You’re in my mind.”

“Of course,” said de Gaillon.

“You can’t know more than I already know.”

De Gaillon’s face twisted into a strange, wrecked smile, as if finally the message had got through. “And that is precisely why you no longer need me. You carry me with you. I have become thought. Your thought.” He extended a ragged finger. “In here.” Gisburne felt the cold pressure of the fingertip upon his forehead. Involuntarily, he closed his eyes.

When he opened them, de Gaillon was gone. Just the second cup remained were he had sat, its contents half drunk.

Get the whole book, plus further deleted material in the extended eBook edition from our DRM-free eBook store today

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Deleted scene: Eleanor of Aquitaine from ‘The Red Hand’

Welcome to the second of out three part installment of the director’s cut from Toby Venables’ latest Hunter of Sherwood novel, The Red Hand.

Eleanor of Aquitaine

The Great North Road – 16 May, 1193


They say troubles come in threes. Gisburne had never heard a sound explanation as to why the universe should be so numerically organised, whether with regard to good fortune or bad, but when he mused upon it later, the sixteenth day of May in the Year of Our Lord 1193 – Whitsunday – did seem to offer some compelling evidence to support the popular view.

It was late that afternoon – with the morning’s ill-equipped outlaws already a distant memory – when the second of the day’s troubles bore down upon them, and it came upon a red horse.

Galfrid, lagging behind, had dismounted to examine Mare’s hooves, and Gisburne had dropped back to see what the problem was.

“This shoe’s giving her gip,” said the squire with a sigh, slapping her left shoulder. “A nail’s gone. Got a bit of a rattle to it.”

“Will she do until Walmesforde?”

“She doesn’t like it,” said Galfrid. “But yes, she’ll do.” He looked past Gisburne. John was still riding ahead, oblivious. “Stay with him. I’ll catch up.”

Gisburne nodded, and turned Nyght about.

Up ahead, the trees that had bordered the road for much of the journey began to fall away to their left, opening out into a broad strip of meadow upon that side. Gisburne breathed deeply, catching the scent of the wild flowers that now surrounded them.

John at last glanced back as Gisburne caught him up. “Is your squire quite all right?” he asked with a frown.

“Galfrid’s always all right. He just hardly ever admits it.”

John chuckled and turned back to the road.

“Where did you find him, anyway?” said Gisburne. It occasionally occurred to him that he knew almost nothing of Galfrid’s origins, beyond the fact that he had spent time in the east of England, and perhaps came from there.

But John never got to answer the question. Instead, Gisburne saw the Prince’s eyes widen. Then his jaw dropped. Following his gaze, Gisburne spied a caravan of horses and wagons approaching in a low haze of dust at some distance, at their head a large party of mounted men with red pennants flying from their lances. Someone of importance. He had no idea who, but when he looked back at John, his master’s face had grown ashen, and fallen into an expression Gisburne had never seen upon it before. As if he were suddenly confronted by a scene of utter horror. As if he had seen a ghost.

“Oh, my God…” muttered the Prince. With a sudden movement – before Gisburne even had time to utter – he turned his horse and rode like a madman at the curtain of dense forest upon their right side. Horse and hunched rider disappeared into the trees with a great crash of dry undergrowth and cracking of twigs.

Gisburne looked around in astonishment as Galfrid caught him up, an expression of bemusement upon the squire’s face. “What the Hell’s going on?”

“I have no idea,” said Gisburne, trying – and failing – to spot the Prince amongst the dense trees. A sudden sense of panic gripped him. He could barely even hear him now; John’s years of hunting had evidently taught him how to move quietly through greenwood and thicket. “We’d best get after him…” he said. But when he turned back to Galfrid, the squire’s eyes, too, had widened at the sight of the train ahead.

Gisburne looked. This time, he recognised the pennants: a single golden lion upon a red ground. It was Eleanor, Duchess of Aquitaine. Widow of King Henry II. Mother to King Richard the Lionheart. Queen of England.

Prince John had fled at the sight of his own mother.

The outriders had seen them now. Whether they had caught sight of John was not clear. Gisburne thought it unlikely. But whether they had or had not, it was too late for him and Galfrid to follow the Prince. If he were captain of Eleanor’s guard, he would take a hasty departure as a suspicious act – and would shoot first and ask questions later. They’d be dead before they even reached the trees.

“Dismount,” said Gisburne.

“You sure?” said Galfrid.

“Do it,” said Gisburne, swinging his leg hastily over the cantle of his saddle and dropping to the ground. Galfrid did likewise.

“Now kneel,” he said.


“Kneel and look at the ground. Stay that way until they’re gone.” He pushed Galfrid down. It had been so long since England had a King on its soil that he had almost forgotten the appropriate formalities.

Hooves approached and passed – perhaps the finest horses Gisburne had ever seen, if their hooves were anything to go by. He allowed his eyes to flick upwards. The eyes of the knights glared back, the pennants on their lances whipping in the breeze. In the main body of the train were a great many wagons, some ornate and gaily painted. Attached to one by an array of spidery red cords was a pack of sleek, grey hunting dogs. Before all these, surrounded by her guards and sitting tall in the saddle of a bayclere mare, was the Queen herself.

She was now seventy years of age. Her clothes were plain, like a nun’s. The gown was blue-grey, the barbette and fillet upon her head pure white; nothing about them suggested a person of royal blood. Yet her bearing said it all – and even somehow transformed such simple garments into something rich and luxurious. Framed by this white halo, the long face and elegant features were still possessed of the beauty that had once so fascinated half of Europe.

Everyone talked of her beauty. Some went far further. In his youth, Gisburne had heard songs about her physical attributes that would make a mercenary blush. It had all become a rather tired cliché over the years – mostly repeated by people who had never seen her in the flesh, and never would – but now, looking upon her, Gisburne understood what lay behind that universal fascination. It was not about some arrangement of features or the shape of her figure – although both still possessed a statuesque elegance. It was about that which animated them. While her physical charms had doubtless dimmed since her youth, the light within burned bright. Today, she wore an expression that was haughty and aloof, but behind those cool eyes, even in those fleeting seconds, Gisburne fancied he detected an intellect both fierce and defiant. Even, somehow – he did not know how – mischievous. These were all qualities he had seen in John, but here rendered infinitely more imposing.

Certainly she was possessed of an indefatigable spirit. While still in her twenties, she had embarked upon a Crusade in the Holy Land. She had married the king of France – then divorced him. She had then married King Henry of England, given him five sons and three daughters, orchestrated a rebellion against him and survived fifteen years imprisonment at his hand. After Henry’s death, she had re-emerged to become effective regent of England in the absence of her favourite son, Richard. Eleanor had been the only individual ever to rival Henry for sheer physical and mental energy, and even now – her vigour undiminished, her iron will only grown more formidable – she did not stop, campaigning tirelessly for her son’s release from captivity. She had never ruled in her own right. Yet, after a lifetime at the heart of European politics, she remained the most powerful woman in the world.

Gisburne snapped out of his reverie. Her eyes were now on him. He dropped his gaze to the ground and held it there. Silently he prayed to make no impression, to arouse no curiosity – to be invisible. As the parade of hooves passed, he dared to look up again. Between the glinting, bobbing helms of the accompanying knights, he glimpsed the back of her head slowly receding, and allowed himself a sigh of relief.

Then she raised her hand.

A shout went up from the captain of the guard, and the entire cortège rumbled and thudded and clanked to a halt. The Queen turned her horse and rode towards the two kneeling figures. Her guardsmen parted to let her pass, reconfiguring about her in close formation.

Gisburne kept his eyes fixed on a rut in the road as the russet hooves of her mare plodded into view. He fell into shadow – felt her presence looming over him.

“Gisburne…” she said. It was not a question. He stared back up at her, dumbfounded, as if the victim of some act of magic.

“Your father was Robert of Gisburne. I saw you with him when you were a boy,” she continued. Her voice was at once disarmingly youthful, and hard as stone. Then she cocked her head a little to one side and frowned. “You don’t remember…” Gisburne did not. Or did he? He wasn’t sure. He recalled meeting King Henry once. Had she been there too? “I remember Sir Robert well. A loyal servant to the King.” She peered closer. “You have his eyes.”

Gisburne felt his face redden, and bowed his head. “My lady… I am honoured that you… after all this time…” He wasn’t at all sure where his words were heading.

“I’ve an eye for such things,” she said, dismissively. “Please, rise. Your companion, too. And don’t look so petrified. I won’t bite.”

Gisburne arose. He wasn’t afraid of Eleanor. At least, he didn’t think so. But he was certainly disorientated to have encountered her riding her own horse upon the Great North Road – and to then have had her address him by name.

“My lady,” he said, feeling a need to give a better account of himself. “The forests into which you ride – through which we have just passed – have concealed dangers. Only this morning we encountered a band of brigands upon the road.” He glanced sideways at Galfrid. “Albeit rather ineffective ones…”

“Your vigilance and concern are noted, Sir…?”

“Guy,” offered Gisburne, with another bow.

“Sir Guy… Of course. I am poor with names, but I never forget a face.” Eleanor looked around in a manner of a lord surveying his land. “As you may know I am travelling England to raise the funds to secure the freedom – the life – of my son the King, only recently confirmed as being alive.” She glanced aloft. “Praise God. This is not something I would presume to entrust to another. Only a parent would understand this.” She fixed her look upon him again, and narrowed her eyes. “Do you think my guard inadequate for this task?”

Gisburne regarded the broad, mounted figures looming all around. The eyes of every one of them were on him. “Not at all,” he said, and bowed once again. “And I meant no disrespect. But you ride in the open. A single man with a bow could – could…” He suddenly realised he did not know how to complete the sentence in a fitting manner.

“I have been married to a King of France and a King of England and have outlived both,” she said. “Let them try.” Her features softened, and for a moment broke into a smile of beguiling warmth. “I am too old to worry, and too fortunate to ask more of the Almighty. What will be, will be.”

The warmth was banished. She sat up straight again, breathed the air and looked about her. “This is a pleasant spot,” she said. Then she turned her horse and announced in a strong, loud voice: “Here.”

Immediately, the guards spread out, the wagons were driven into a circle off the road, and a seemingly impossible number of servants scrambled out and set about preparing camp. Gisburne wondered at it, setting up camp in a meadow when the comforts of Stanford lay just a few miles behind. Perhaps she did not care for Stanford or its lord. But she was the Queen of England, after all. Gisburne supposed she could do what she liked, where she liked.

“You will stay and dine with us tonight,” called Eleanor, without looking back at Gisburne. He felt his jaw clench. He had hoped to reach Walmesforde before evening – but more important now was the small matter of the Prince, presently loose, alone and easy prey, God-only-knew-where. For a moment, Gisburne considered his options, then realised he had none. One did not argue with Queen Eleanor.

And so, with the fate of the Prince hanging in the balance, he resigned himself to an evening of pointless pleasantries in uncertain company.

Galfrid nudged him. “I think you’re in there,” he whispered.



Within minutes, Eleanor’s servants had the rudiments of a camp laid out. Within half an hour, they had created an entire village of gaily decorated oilcloth, with the Queen’s pavilion at its heart – surrounded now by the knights’ pennants. They clapped in the stiffening breeze like the applause of gloved hands.

The knights had established a secure perimeter – in which Gisburne and Galfrid were now contained – before the wagons had even ceased. As Eleanor had begun to dismount, which she had done without warning or the issue of any command, Gisburne saw a pair of pages spring from nowhere and rush a set of wooden steps to the side of her horse. She had stepped onto them without even pausing to look. Gisburne wondered if the pages had ever missed their cue.

Fires were lit. Food was prepared. Gisburne and Galfrid’s horses were taken and tended to. Over on the camp’s northern side, a small hunting party was forming up to gather more game for the pot. Among them, beneath a hat shaped like a small felt bucket, a steward strode about with a self-important air, as if all this frenzied activity depended entirely upon his presence. Perhaps it did.

Gisburne and Galfrid, meanwhile, simply stood about, bereft of purpose. With nothing to do but grow increasingly anxious about his missing charge, Gisburne’s mind raced.

An idea struck. He pulled off his dusty gloves and raised a hand, calling out to the steward.

“May I offer the services of my squire to aid with your hunt?” he said, and gestured to Galfrid with the clutched gauntlets. “Give him a bow and arrows and he’ll hit anything that moves. His abilities are legendary.” The steward gave a curt but respectful nod and called for a bow to be brought.

Galfrid grasped Gisburne’s arm and dragged him to one side. “Are you mad?” he hissed. “My skills with a bow are certainly not legendary…”

“You’re not going out there to hunt,” said Gisburne. “Not for game, anyway…” Galfrid frowned. Gisburne leaned in. “While they’re off stalking birds and beasts, you must find our wayward Prince. The camp is heavily guarded. It will be our one chance to get in or out before dark.”

“And if I find him, what then?” whispered Galfrid. “Do I bring him back? If there’s one person on earth who can’t fail to recognise him, it’s his own mother. Christ, she even recognised you…”

“You must stay with him,” said Gisburne. “Make sure he’s safe. If your absence is noted, I’ll make some excuse – say you got drunk or ran off. That may also provide an excuse for my early departure. Then we’ll meet on the road south between here and Stanford in the morning.”

“A night sleeping in the woods, protecting the Prince from an invincible, fire-breathing killer, my reputation in ruins…” said Galfrid. “I can’t wait.”

Before either could speak further, a page ran up, thrust a longbow into one of Galfrid’s hands, and a quiver of arrows – blunts, with wooden tips for felling small beasts and birds – into the other. Then he bowed, and hurried away.

“The hunting party is ready to depart,” called the steward.

Galfrid gave him a smile and a nod. “Spare me a thought when you’re dining on fine roasted meats and drinking good wine with the Queen,” he muttered to Gisburne, through clenched teeth.

“Just try not to kill any of the Queen’s hounds,” said Gisburne, and shoved him on his way.



Queen Eleanor scooped up some of the cold grey mush from the bowl set before her and regarded it with obvious distaste. “This is what my physician tells me I must eat for my continued good health,” she said.

Blancmanger – a dish Gisburne had rarely eaten since childhood. His mother would pound up chicken meat and mix it into a kind of porridge with sweetened almond milk. He had liked it back then, and even now the taste and smell of it gave him pangs of nostalgia. The humbler version, made with fish – popular because it was a suitable for Fridays and fast days – he detested. In her last weeks, before she gave up on food entirely, his sister had eaten little else. From the smell of it, Eleanor’s dish was evidently of the fishy variety.

She sighed deeply. “All this recent excitement, he says, has upset my humours. I have become choleric and fiery, and therefore must consume foods that are cold and wet, made from lowly creatures that share such dank properties.” She turned the spoon and let its contents plop back into the bowl. “But this… This robs me of humour altogether.”

Fortunately, the dish was not indicative of Eleanor’s hospitality. The long wooden bench – draped with a crimson cloth, decorated with rampant lions and edged with gold – was positively creaking under its burden of culinary delights. There were platters of roasted meats, steaming pots of rich game stew, several whole, poached fish, fragrant salads scattered with flowers foraged from the meadow and hedgerows, sweets and pastries in all manner of shapes, and sufficient fruits, nuts, pickles and cheeses to provide a fair feast all on their own. Thick, sweet-smelling beeswax candles were dotted about on candelabra of iron, while the insides of the tent had been painted so ingeniously that they appeared to be the panelled wooden walls and vaulted ceiling of some grand castle’s great hall – complete with tapestries. So complete was the illusion that it was only broken when the fabric shifted in the breeze.

Within this, servers wove ceaselessly, attending to Eleanor’s company of knights – far less forbidding, now, than they had seemed upon the road. All vessels were kept topped up with the drink of their choice, whether wine, ale or mead – the last of which was a heady brew of exceptional quality. Gisburne later learned it was made by monks who kept bees specifically for the purpose, and sent the greater part of their output to the Queen as a gesture of appreciation for the support she afforded them.

Gisburne had been seated next to the Queen at her own request. Feeling ill-equipped and certainly ill-dressed compared with those filling the tent about him, he had been prepared to loathe the whole experience. Instead, he had found himself steadily seduced by it. Old King Henry may have been a notoriously frugal man, but Eleanor’s well-known piety did not translate into a hatred of wealth or luxury. Once again, Gisburne fancied he saw traits that had passed directly to John.

As a young woman, Eleanor had been renowned throughout Europe for her love of fine things – and of other, more dangerous pleasures. That had brought her into conflict with her peers and superiors, and tales and songs of her youthful wantonness circulated still. A formidable figure even then, she had flatly refused to bend to convention. A few – envious, no doubt – still reviled her for it, but far more admired her, even if their position did not allow them to openly admit it.

Having persisted with the blancmanger for four or five spoonfuls, Eleanor finally pushed it away and took a draught of wine. “Such stuff may be adequate for infants and invalids – but I am neither.” With that she reached out and dragged a steaming dish of spiced, roast venison towards her. “I was born choleric and fiery,” she said, and spiked a morsel upon a silver knife. “I frankly doubt my nature will change now.” She ate, and gave a sigh of deep satisfaction as she did so. Her eyes sparkled, and she slid the dish towards Gisburne. “The first of the season,” she said.

He needed no persuading – he had not tasted English venison since winter, and was near drooling like a dog at its aroma. Its flavour was rich and smoky with the warmth of cinnamon. This was a rare treat. A royal dish. Eleanor smiled at his evident delight. “I like to see a man appreciating his food,” she said. “Too often I find myself among those who shun its pleasures or are blunted by overindulgence.” She turned to the assembled company lining the benches and rose from her seat. The entire assembled throng hurried to their feet in response. “Today is Whitsunday,” she announced. “The day the Holy Ghost, the Spirit of the Living God, descended to us. This is why we feast, to celebrate God’s greatest gift, and all his bounty.” She raised her cup as she spoke. “Veni Creator Spiritus!” As one, the knights raised theirs and responded with a rousing “Amen!”

She sat back down, as the contented hum of the company returned. “Now, tell me tales of your adventures, Sir Guy,” she said. She leaned forward, her former severity quite gone, and patted the back of his hand gently. “For you interest me, and I wish to be entertained.” She somehow made this sound the most reasonable and enticing of requests.

Gisburne shrugged, as if none of his actions were of any account. Eleanor smiled again; she seemed to like modesty. “We are on our way to London,” he said. “To join with your noble son, the Prince.”

Her face fell a little at that, and her nose wrinkled, as if at an unpleasant smell. “Hm,” she said. “Dear John…” The smile revived. “I have heard of your bold action at Clippestone. It was all anyone talked of for a while – though most seem to cast you as the villain of the piece…”

Gisburne smiled politely and tried to put thoughts of John out of his mind. But it was impossible. Two hours before, Galfrid had returned with the hunting party, a brace of birds slung over his shoulder. When Gisburne had caught his eye from across the camp, Galfrid had merely shaken his head – but the fact that he had returned at all told Gisburne all he needed to know. So what would posterity make of him now? The Man Who Lost The Prince.

Gisburne shifted in his seat. “We fool ourselves to think we can control our reputations, my lady,” he said. No sooner had he spoken the words than he saw the careless ambiguity in them. He hoped to God she wouldn’t think he was making sly reference to her own celebrity. “In the end,” he added, hastily, “we can only do what we think is right.”

Eleanor stared at him for some time. “Wise words, Sir Guy,” she said at length, nodding. “Honest words…” And it seemed to Gisburne that her expression – quite against expectation – softened further. She looked distant, as if thinking on things close to her heart, her defences momentarily dropped. “I know all about reputations. They are like children. It doesn’t help to worry how they will turn out. But still they must be nurtured. Taken care of. For, unfortunately, they can greatly affect one’s material existence.” Eleanor came out of her reverie, and sighed deeply. “Do you know the King, Sir Guy?” she said, and broke off a tiny piece of bread.

“I had the honour to serve with him in the French territories, some years ago,” said Gisburne. At mere mention of this, Eleanor’s eyes brightened. Nothing could make it plainer that she adored her eldest son, and wished to speak of him. But Gisburne’s words had been guarded – his tone flat. It was a plain statement of fact. He had no desire to imbue it with any hint of admiration, nor to invite further talk of Richard. His experience of the man was that he was a tyrant and a bully who cared nothing for others. Very much like a child. Too much. But at least Eleanor would know that he had seen her beloved Lionheart first-hand.

 “There are those who say his great reputation is undeserved,” she said, perhaps sensing his reticence, then looked away. “You will not be surprised to learn that I disagree. But the important thing is this: he has not done anything to contradict his reputation. He knows better than to do so.”

More by luck than judgement, thought Gisburne, but he held his tongue.

“John, on the other hand, is perhaps viewed too harshly by the common man. This I will admit. His heart is not bad. The trouble is, he will occasionally do something that confirms all their worst opinions of him.” She spread her hands in a gesture of exasperation. “Worst of all of these came last December, with his idiotic and ill-judged declaration that Richard was dead, and that he was to assume the crown…”

“I believe, in truth, he simply did not wish to see England fall into chaos without a King,” said Gisburne.

“England has a King,” snapped Eleanor. “And the truth does not matter. Reputation is not truth. It’s how one is perceived. Believe me, I know about such matters…” She calmed herself, and took a drink. “What was wrong was not that he did such a thing,” she said. “What was wrong was that he was unable to hide his eagerness. It made it appear that he wished Richard dead. Even when they agree with the cause, no Englishman relishes treason.”

Gisburne nodded in agreement. But what he was really thinking was that John would not have missed his brother one jot, and would scarcely have mourned him.

“John also keeps dangerous company,” continued Eleanor. “An alliance with the King of France may seem politic, but how do you think the common man sees it – the scheming Prince cosying up to this land’s most despised enemy? When he stood against that vile snake Longchamp… Then, people flocked to his banner. All London rose to his defence. He made a good choice that day. But when he attacks those the people love, and gets into bed with those they detest… What does he expect people to think?”

Gisburne did not know how to answer.

“Forgive me,” said Eleanor, and smiled again with sudden sweetness. “Politics…” Something in her manner was reminiscent of the way men change the subject when they remember they’re talking to women – creatures they believe should not be troubled by such lofty matters. Gisburne was glad of the shift, regardless of how it came.

“Did you know I encountered the Prince upon the road?” she said casually, eating an almond.

She had seen him? Gisburne felt his neck grow hot.

“Two days ago. Heading for London…” My God, thought Gisburne. Of course. John’s entourage. The decoy, with its fake Prince… “Do you know he wouldn’t even come out of his carriage?” She spoke with sudden bitterness. “Not even to greet his own mother. Well, I certainly wasn’t going to beg. So off he went, on his merry way.”

Gisburne thought of the poor man acting as John’s double, cowering in the back of that armoured wagon, in fear of his life, while the Queen and her guard had prowled past.

“Spineless boy,” she muttered. “He’s afraid of me. He was always his father’s favourite, you know.” Her expression suddenly turned hard as stone. “Which tells you all you need to know.” She sipped her wine again. “Tell me,” she said, “if John is your master and you have the same destination, why do you not travel together?”

“We were detained in Nottingham,” he said. “But we hope to catch up with the Prince tomorrow.” She could have no idea how ardently he hoped that.

“I understand he has business at the Tower.”

“Yes, my lady,” said Gisburne.

Eleanor nodded. “He should be careful,” she said. “He has offended a few too many people in recent months. I know he thinks he liberated London, but its people will not thank him forever. They have what they wanted from him. And if he offends the few friends he has left, well… Let’s just say he is lucky to have someone such as you, Sir Guy.”

“You are kind to say so, my lady.”

“I am not kind,” she said. “I simply state the case as I see it. You are honest, but have tact. He should have more men about him such as you. And he should listen to them. If he does so, make sure he understands this…” She leaned in towards him, her eyes blazing. “Richard will return as king, and John must accept his authority, no matter what. In my life I have seen brother fight against brother. Father against son. Husband against wife.” Her expression grew pinched as she uttered the words. Age fell about her, her long fingers clutched into a bony fist. “I will not permit it again.”

Gisburne held her gaze for what seemed an eternity, then nodded solemnly. Eleanor sighed, as if suddenly tired, and sat back in her seat, her fingers wrapped about her wine cup.

“Now,” she said with a smile, “regale me with tales of your battles, and of the ladies whose hearts you have won.”

The conversation thus far had been difficult – but if ever there was a task to which Gisburne was wildly unsuited, this was it.



That night, as he lay in his bed, foggy with drink, he thought back over the events of their first full day on the road.

They had run into outlaws.

They had lost Prince John.

He stared into darkness, trying to focus his mind – trying to fathom the significance of two seemingly random numbers. Fifty-four… fifty-nine… They meant something to the Red Hand. But what? They swirled around in his head, taunting him. Logic dissolved. Thoughts became ungraspable – turned to images. They span in circles, whizzing faster and faster, making less and less sense at each pass – until finally he fell into strange, disturbed dreams.

But the third and by far the most calamitous misfortune of this day, Gisburne was yet to discover.



Gisburne slept fitfully that night. At the first possible opportunity, he had gathered Galfrid, told him to prepare the horses and made his excuses to Eleanor’s steward. They needed to catch up with the Prince, he said. There’d be Hell to pay if they didn’t. The steward – who seemed never to sleep at all – eyed him with suspicion, and not a little contempt. Clearly he was not convinced by their reasons for rushing off when it was barely dawn. He could not have guessed that the excuses Gisburne had given him were, in fact, the absolute truth.

Gisburne was well aware that departing without thanking his host – without asking leave of his Queen – was the height of rudeness. But to do so could entail hours, and they could wait no longer. The steward studied Gisburne for a long time through narrowed eyes, then finally relented – perhaps simply glad to get this unkempt, ill-mannered knight and his odd, aged squire out of his hair.

“If Richard fails to return from captivity,” said Gisburne as they rode away, leaving Eleanor’s camp behind them, “then we are in something of a fix.”

“Oh, come on,” said Galfrid. “It’s not so bad, surely?” Evidently he had spent a better night than Gisburne. He had always been amazed by his squire’s capacity to remain detached from what was going on around him – although once or twice of late, he had begun to wonder if there were times when Galfrid was not so implacable as he thought.

“Not so bad?” repeated Gisburne. He was finding it hard to conceal his exasperation. “It would mean we had lost the next King of England…”

Galfrid gazed off into the distance, considering the implications. “John is lost forever. Richard perishes in prison. Neither has an heir. There is a crisis of succession. England is plunged into civil war. The King of France sees the opportunity to invade…”

“All right, stop, stop…”

Galfrid nodded. “Yes, that is quite bad.”

“Please…” begged Gisburne. And he rubbed his throbbing temple.

A rustle in the undergrowth broke the silence. A crack of wood. Both drew weapons. The rustling became a crashing. Harsh words were uttered. There were sounds of a horse protesting. Then, finally, a dishevelled, cursing figure emerged from the forest leading a very disgrunted mount.

The man’s hair was a tangle. His clothing askew. Both were stuck with twig and leaf, and there were bags under his eyes the size of grain sacks. But there was no doubting his identity. “So, did you have a pleasant evening with my mother?” said John, bitterly. He did not bother to greet them.

Gisburne was so relieved that he laughed aloud. “Thank God! Yes… Yes! I mean… It was delightful, but –”

“Good for you,” snapped John, his usual mischievous humour – his mother’s gift – now quite gone. “I spent the night in a hedge.”

Hunter of Sherwood: The Red Hand is out now, get more exclusive extra content in the DRM-free eBook from the Rebellion Store.

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Deleted scene: Ghost Stories at the Cross Roads from ‘The Red Hand’

With the The Hunter of Sherwood: The Red Hand by Toby Venables OUT NOW worldwide we thought we’d give you a sneak peek this week at some of our director’s cut:

Ghost stories at the crossroads

The road to Berughby – 15 May, 1193

It was strange to see the Prince outside of his normal confines. Evidently the Prince himself found it strange, too – but he wore it like liberation. Gisburne had feared John would feel vulnerable and exposed on the open road. Instead, he seemed filled with a child-like delight.

“This is the life,” he said with a sigh and a beaming smile. Gisburne and Galfrid exchanged a secret look, and Galfrid stifled a snigger. But, raising his eyes and looking about him, Gisburne felt the Prince was right. The afternoon sun was bright and warm, the breeze ruffling the trees cool and fragrant. The sky was blue and dotted with white scudding clouds. Bees buzzed. Birds sang. They were in no hurry and there was no one to pay them any heed, all troubles – for the moment – forgotten.

Yes, this was the life.

Gisburne began to realise that this was the longest time he had ever spent in Prince John’s company. So often, it was a matter of an hour or two, centred on intense discussions of the latest pressing matter. Now, free of the burdens of duty and status, Gisburne saw John as the young man he really was. Such were the responsibilities thrust upon a prince from the moment of birth, that youth – an entire phase of life – was bypassed. Gisburne had to remind himself that John was still only twenty-six.

John rode with ease – a natural. One could ride for hours that way and not tire – but Gisburne had never had any doubts about the Prince’s stamina for the journey. Whilst hardly the strapping physical specimen presented by his great brother – Richard had inherited the imposing height of his mother Eleanor, whilst John had got his father’s barrel-shaped body – John was far from the effete wastrel that his opponents painted him. Not only was he surprisingly robust, he also had his father Henry’s inexhaustible energy. Out on a dawn hunt, Gisburne knew, John would have left his critics standing – would, in fact, still be urging his horse on at sundown when they were fit to drop. John’s fault, if he had one, was that this energy so frequently went unchannelled. He had sometimes wondered what it was that so attracted John to the hunt. It wasn’t the thirst for blood or competition – the Prince enjoyed it just as much if his quarry effected a bold escape. Nor was it the company, nor the need to assert himself before others – he would just as well go alone. Today, Gisburne understood. It was the freedom.



At the crossroads near Berughby, the promised inn came into sight. It presented a very different aspect from the last – newly built, freshly whitewashed, a huge pile of logs at one end and curls of smoke drifting from the chimneys. It was backed by thick forest and set back from the road, and before it, on a large stretch of grass, were various barrels and benches, among which a few weary customers were already sitting. A little way from it, close to the place where the two roads crossed, was the blasted stump of what had once been a great tree.

They dismounted and led their horses to the long trough next to the log pile. The animals drank thirstily. As Galfrid went ahead to arrange lodgings and food and Gisburne hung feedbags about the horse’s heads, John wandered out to the stump and sat himself upon it. The blackened wood presented a perfect seat – almost flat on top, but with a large, wedge-shaped projection that had split off the main trunk, which now served as a backrest.

Gisburne did not take his eye off the Prince. As soon as he was done, he moved to join him, his eyes scanning the handful of guests as he passed. He’d rather leave their valuables with the horses than leave John unaccompanied. But none took any interest beyond the occasional nod or smile as he caught their eye. No one here was looking for any trouble – certainly not with the likes of him.

“Not exactly a throne,” said Gisburne as he stood alongside.

“One takes what one can get,” said John with a wry smile, and sat back, looking out across the road and fields beyond as if it were his new domain.

As he did so, Galfrid returned from the inn. “We’re in luck,” he said. “Plenty of room for the night, the food is wholesome and I can vouch for the ale.” He wiped his lips. “There’s a good smoked ham and some fine aged cheese. Unless…” he looked at the Prince, suddenly uncertain.

“Unless…?” said Gisburne.

“Unless we mean to observe the fast,” said Galfrid. “It is Whitsunday Eve.”

Gisburne looked at Galfrid, then at the Prince, then back again. “What’s the alternative?”

“Vegetable and bean pottage,” said Galfrid. They stood in silence for a moment.

“Well, if no one else is going to say it, I will,” said John. “I demand ham and cheese, even if it means eternal damnation.”

“And the landlord will serve it?” asked Gisburne.

“I caught him picking at the ham,” said Galfrid. “He’ll serve it.”

Gisburne nodded. “Ham and cheese it is, then.”

John clapped his hands, rubbed them together in satisfaction, then stretched out his legs with a contented sigh. “Let’s sit out a while. It’s still early, and the night is mild. Have the food brought out here.”

The last was issued as a command. Though spoken without any hint of harshness or disdain, it was a sudden reminder that John was unused to doing things for himself. Gisburne looked at Galfrid and gave a shrug, then, looking about, headed towards the log pile. He returned with two stout logs, each long enough and wide enough to sit upon, and set them down before John. Galfrid, meanwhile, tamped down the grass within the rough triangle formed by the three improvised seats, then headed off to fetch their bags as Gisburne dumped down another armful of logs in the space.

“What’s this?” said John, with a bemused smile.

“For the fire,” said Gisburne, heading off to fetch kindling.

“But it’s not even cold!” protested John.

“It will be,” called Gisburne.



An hour later, as the sun was dwindling to a thin slash of blood red across the horizon and the air was growing cool, they were sitting around the cheering blaze, eating bread, ham and cheese and drinking good ale. Galfrid had not been wrong about that. Gisburne had learned that the squire was never wrong where drink was concerned. Several of their fellow patrons that evening had looked askance at the ham and cheese as it passed by, then turned back gloomily to their meatless pottage. But Gisburne didn’t care. He didn’t really think God did, either. The fire popped, the flames bathing their faces with its warm light, the air fragrant with woodsmoke. Crows called distantly in the cooling air. From somewhere deep in the wood, an owl hooted.

These were the simplest of pleasures – but, right now, they seemed worth more than all the riches on earth. Gisburne withdrew his knife from the flames and ate the piece of smoked ham and melted cheese off its point. As the fragrant morsel hit his tongue – almost too hot for it – he felt a kind of rapture.

There had been only one curious thing to mar the idyll of the evening. They had been awaiting the arrival of their food. Galfrid had just struck a spark upon a tuft of wool from his flint and steel – a process that had much fascinated John – and the fire was beginning to crackle into life. They had suddenly been aware of a figure standing motionless, some fifteen yards from them – a scrawny looking man with long, lank hair. The sallow skin of his face was deeply pitted by a strange pattern of scarring – a relic of some childhood ailment, Gisburne supposed. From the recognition on Galfrid’s face, Gisburne surmised this was the innkeeper – though none of them had seen him approach.

“Begging your gentlemen’s pardon,” he began.

“No need to beg,” said John cheerfully. “Come closer and enjoy our fire.”

The man did not move. “I come only to say that since you are to be guests beneath my roof tonight, you should know that I shall be bolting the doors before turning in.”

“Bolting?” said John, with some surprise, and looked right and left along the length of the road. “Are there outlaws hereabouts?”

“Not outlaws,” said the innkeeper. For a moment, it seemed the man was to say nothing more, but after a lengthy pause he added: “There are things I would rather keep outside.”

John nodded as if all made perfect sense. The innkeeper returned the nod awkwardly, then turned and sloped away.

John raised his eyebrows. “Well, it appears we are to be kept secure tonight.”

Gisburne was not apt to criticise anyone for the way they wished to keep their house. If the man wished to lock his doors, or throw them wide open, or ride about naked on a pig, that was his own concern. What struck him, though, was the man’s expression as he had addressed them – inexplicably hovering between anger and fear.

While these thoughts had played in Gisburne’s head, a maidservant – the innkeeper’s daughter, Gisburne guessed – had brought the food out to them upon a board. It had apparently taken some persuasion on Galfrid’s part to secure this small service, and she had seemed nervous as she approached – something to do with it being a fast day, perhaps. In softened mood this night, had felt a pang of sympathy for the girl, and attempted a reassuring smile – then had caught sight of the innkeeper watching from the doorway, his face now creased into scowl, and reined it in. The girl, her face flushed, had, at any rate, not been encouraged by Gisburne’s effort – nor by John’s cheery exclamation of delight. Still looking unaccountably perplexed, she had stopped some ten yards from where they sat, and – as if afraid to break their circle, or even approach it – had set the board down where she stood.

John had frowned at that. With a laugh and a hand extended in paternalistic welcome, he had urged: “A little closer, if you please! We’ve only just got comfortable…” The girl looked panicked, lifted the board, advanced it all of one foot, and scurried away, her eyes fixed on the ground. The innkeeper scooped her into the open doorway, and slammed the door.

Galfrid had given a heavy sigh, then, and – heaving himself up on cracking knees – brought the food the rest of the way.

“Are we really so terrifying?” mused John

“You just can’t get the staff these days,” Galfrid muttered, then shot Gisburne a glance as if expecting some jibe at his expense. Gisburne suppressed a smile, and said not a word.



“So,” said John, tearing at a piece of bread, “things I would rather keep outside… What do you make of that?”

Gisburne shrugged. “It’s a busy highway. People passing through day after day. That makes you wary, even if he says there are no outlaws.”

“But things,” said John, pointing his knife to emphasise the word. “Not people. Things…”

An image of the Red Hand – or some mockery of it, all reptilian scales and plumes of fire – came unbidden into Gisburne’s mind. He realised only then, as the attendant anxieties gripped him, that the matter had been out of his thoughts for most of the day.

“The black dog,” piped up Galfrid, matter-of-factly, without looking up. Both companions turned and stared at him as the squire folded a slice of ham into his mouth.

“A dog?” said John with a bemused frown.

“Black dog,” said Galfrid.

John snorted dismissively. “It’d take more than some stray barker to have me quaking in my bed – black, white or green.”

Galfrid shook his head. “It is no ordinary dog, but the unearthly kind.”

Gisburne gave a spluttering laugh and slapped his knee, but Galfrid’s face did not crack.

“Surely you’ve heard of the gigantic black hound that prowls the roads at night? Hideous. Ghostly. Eyes like fire. Death following in his wake. Black Shuck they call him out east. Padfoot up north. Skryker. Barguest. He’s got many a name. But everywhere you go, you’ll hear tell of him, and the places to be watchful. Lonely thoroughfares. Near water. Where gibbets stand. By crossroads especially.” He glanced across at the place where the two roads met. Gisburne and John looked towards it, then at each other.

“A gigantic hound?” said John with an incredulous laugh.

“Big as a calf,” nodded Galfrid.

“And you think our innkeeper bolts his door against such a ravening beast?”

Galfrid shook his head. “He’s no ravening creature. Not this one. He’s no need. One has only to touch him to be struck dead. But there’s more than that to him, too. Shuck is a portent of doom. He knows who death will strike – or himself brings it upon them, I know not which. Sniffs them out, senses the stink of the grave on them. Even the traveller who survives an encounter is forever cursed with ill luck from that day on.” Galfrid leaned closer to the Prince, eyes wide, then turned towards the surrounding dark. “And he’s out there, somewhere, right now. You can bet your life on it…”

Gisburne glared at Galfrid across the fire. Considering John’s current predicament, this was not in the best of taste. Galfrid caught the look, and to Gisburne’s surprise, winked at him. John, meanwhile, sat forward, wildly amused.

“And you’ve seen this Padfoot, have you?” he asked.

“Not myself,” said Galfrid. “But I know plenty who have.”

“Well, there we have it,” said John. He sat back on his blackened throne and turned to Gisburne. “Have you ever noticed how you never meet the person who has actually seen such a ghostly terror themselves, only ever the one who heard it from someone else? They’re like a priest’s promises – always around the next corner.” Both he and Gisburne, their spirits warmed by the ale, chuckled at Galfrid’s expense. “Believe me, my mind is open to such things, Squire Galfrid. I’ve heard many a strange and wonderful tale. Yet never have I seen with my own eyes these ghouls and restless corpses that we forever hear about – far less some hellhound.”

“Nor I,” said Gisburne, and shot Galfrid a smile of perverse satisfaction.

Galfrid held Gisburne’s gaze, his face giving nothing away. “Well, there is one thing I did see,” he said. John’s ears pricked up again, and his eyes narrowed. “Did I ever tell of the time I met Wakeful Mary?”

“If she’s the one who kept you up all night in Soissons, I don’t want to hear it,” said Gisburne.

John cackled with laughter. Galfrid looked aggrieved. “Wakeful Mary has been dead these past hundred years and more,” he said in protest. “But if you don’t want to hear it…” And he sat back with a shrug.

“No, no!” said John. “We do want to hear it. In all its gory detail… It is Whitsun Eve, when we await the descent of the Holy Spirit, and this our vigil. What better entartainment tonight than a ghost story around the fire? Pray continue, Squire Galfrid.” And he rubbed his hands in delight.

“Well, then…” Galfrid leaned towards the fire, spat into it, and began. “It was back when I was a young squire – to a knight named Godbert. He was the pious sort. Fancied himself a potential Templar. In fact, it was whilst travelling to Dunwiche to visit an acquaintance at the Templar church there – one he thought might help further this ambition – that these events took place.”

John leaned in closer. Gisburne, in spite of himself, did the same. Galfrid paused to poke the fire with a stick, making sparks fly up, then brushed his hands together.

“Well, the road from Snape to Dunwiche is a lonely one, and it is not uncommon for parties who have to travel after dark to join together for company. So it was with us. At Snape bridge we were joined by two pilgrims, also heading for Dunwiche, fearful of what they might encounter upon the journey. Godbert was more than happy to offer protection for honest pilgrims against thieves or robbers – it was as if he were a Templar already. It was not until we were well on our way that they finally admitted what it was that really terrified them.

“Well, the old Snape road is a funny old road. Many will tell you they’ve seen things upon it. But the worst of these – the very worst – was the baleful creature known as Wakeful Mary. No one could say how it was she died. All anyone knew was that she would not lie in her grave, and that she had a vicious hatred of the living. If ever she heard a wayfarer upon that stretch of road at night – especially if he had the nerve to be singing a good Christian hymn – she would come screaming at him, her hair flying, her furious eyes wide as pot-lids. So terrible a sight was she that some dropped dead on the spot out of sheer fright.

“Our companions related how they themselves had witnessed such a thing when last they had travelled upon the road. On that occasion, they had been with a monk. All three had been warned at an inn to make no sound upon the road, and such was the innkeeper’s expression that for a long time they dutifully maintained their silence for fear of inciting Mary’s wrath. But then, just as they were about to pass from Mary’s realm and beginning to feel themselves safe, the monk found himself unable to resist humming an Alleluya under his breath…” Galfrid paused and looked into the eyes of the Prince, rapt by the story. His voice had lowered to little more than a husky murmur.

“Hurtling out of the dark she came, flying the length of the road, her scream so horrible it tore at their ears. Our companions threw themselves flat upon the ground in terror. As one looked up, the stink of decay in his nostrils, he saw the monk trying to grapple with the shrieking cadaver, crying out prayers as he did so. But his fingers sank helplessly into her flesh, and his words just enraged her the more. The pilgrim saw her bony talons wrap about the monk’s throat, stifling the sound, then covered his eyes in horror. He heard the monk thud to the ground between them, stone dead. They lay there huddled against his corpse for an hour or more after the terrible sound subsided, not once daring to look up. When finally they did, they hurried away in horrified silence, leaving the poor monk where he fell.

“Hearing this, Godbert was suddenly emboldened. Good Christian knight that he was, he resolved to rid the road of this unclean pest once and for all. He returned to Snape and roused a priest, and demanded to be taken to the tomb which was said to hold poor Mary’s bones. She was to be laid to rest, either by benediction or the sword.

“And so the five of us went in solemn silence, the priest leading, and at length left the road altogether onto a far older track, through clinging gorse and bracken. I wondered what kind of graveyard this must lead to, there being no church visible for miles around, but I did not dare utter. Finally we came to the spot – a bleak, lonely place – and I realised this was no Christian burial ground. All around were earthen mounds – ancient graves, from pagan times – and all amongst them a low mist swirled about. There was dark menace in every stone and stalk of that bleak moor. Even the air felt dead. Looking back the way we had come, I could no longer see the road – nor could I see any human light in the darkness. It was as if we had left the world behind. I turned again to see the priest’s shaking finger pointing at the largest of the mounds, within which was set a rough, stone door no higher than my chest – a work of unimaginable age.

“Immediately, without fear, Godbert went to the door, thinking to force it open. He had barely touched it when the stone sprang open of its own accord. There was no doubt now that the shrieking monster slumbered within.” Galfrid’s voice dropped further, to a barely audible whisper, as if still afraid to wake her. John leaned in closer from the edge of his throne, the flames casting strange shadows upon his face.

“As we stooped and entered the dark tomb, none dared even to breathe. We all stepped as though upon ice, knowing that the slightest sound would rouse her. Ahead of us, in the weird light of that heathen netherworld, lay a horrible sight – a great slab of grey stone, longer than a man, hewn by unknown hands into a grim vessel. And within it lay the corpse-pale body of the hag. We crept around her, the knight ready with his sword, the priest with his words of blessing, none knowing whether either had the power to subdue the fiend…

“And then, as we bent over the ghoul’s coffin, a single dead eye opened, and… WAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH!”

Galfrid lunged at the Prince, hands like claws and eyes bulging. John reeled backwards in shock, bowling off his stump, legs in the air, his cup flying from his hand in a trail of frothy liquid. Gisburne leapt up in alarm. Galfrid, meanwhile, sat back and resumed his supper. Gisburne prepared to give the wayward squire Hell – or at least plead his case – before the Prince had him hauled off and executed.

Then, from the overturned figure on the grass, he heard… laughter. It rose in volume and intensity. John slapped his knees and waved his feet in the air, then rolled over, hooting with delight. He sat up, grass in his hair, near helpless with mirth, climbed to his knees and clapped Galfrid upon the shoulder. Galfrid glanced up at his master, and grinned like the Devil. Gisburne simply stood, bereft of words.

“Squire Galfrid,” laughed John, “if ever this man should give up on you” – he gestured to Gisburne – “then you are assured a place at my court as its Fool. Swear, at least, that you will come and relate that story to the king of France next time I am to meet with him…”

“Does he have a fancy for that sort of thing?” asked Galfrid, deadpan.

“No!” roared John. “Not at all! And no sense of humour either. None!” He guffawed, bent double, then gave a girlish whoop, retrieved his cup and filled it from the jug.

Gisburne sat back down upon his log, his own heart still thumping. Galfrid was either a madman with extraordinary luck, or the shrewdest judge of character in the kingdom. The Plantagenet temper was legendary. Gisburne, who found John for the most part an urbane and sanguine sort – far more prone to cutting sarcasm than outbursts of anger – had witnessed it only once. It was in response to the news that the detested William Longchamp had plans to return to England. The transformation from the man he knew had been total, and terrifying. In the space of a few minutes, red-faced and roaring like a madman, he had strewn or destroyed everything within his grasp – tearing cushions with his bear hands until they burst open and reducing a stout wooden chair to kindling.

The Prince downed his ale, then, still laughing, patted the squire once again on the shoulder and went to relieve himself by the trees. Gisburne turned and squinted into the darkness, nervous at letting John out of sight. As if in response to his fears, John began whistling a cheery tune as his urine spattered against the foliage. Gisburne turned back to Galfrid and gave a heavy sigh. “Don’t try to get a rise out of the Prince,” he said in hushed tones. “It’s a long road to London, with the Tower at the end of it…”

Galfrid shrugged and raised his eyebrows, as if to say: Who? Me? Gisburne recalled only then that Galfrid had known the Prince longer than he had.

John joined them again, still grinning from ear to ear, and spread his hands before the fire.

“Your turn,” said Galfrid, gesturing towards him with the point of his knife.

“Turn?” said John with a frown.

“To tell a story.”

“Ah…” John rubbed his hands like a fly, his eyes glittering in the firelight. “Yes,” he said. “I think I know one…” And he sat back on his strange throne once more, interlocking his fingers. “There were once three noble princes, each of quite different temperament: one shrewd but without strength; one strong but without humanity, one humane but without shrewdness. One day, they were out hunting boar in the forest, when a thick mist descended. All at once they looked about them and realised they were lost, and separated from the party. They listened out for the yapping of the hounds, but nothing could be heard. Then, from out of the forest staggered three grim corpses, the flesh of each one –”

“Heard it,” interrupted Galfrid. Gisburne glared at him once again. “The three corpses are their fathers, returned to warn them of the weaknesses of the flesh.”

Irritation flashed in John’s eyes, but immediately dissipated. He threw up his hands. “Well, it’s down to you then, Sir Guy,” he said, turning to him.

“To me?”

“One more ghost story before we retire.”

Gisburne shook his head self-consciously and shifted on his seat.

“Come now,” pressed John, “you must have heard a hundred stories in your time. Surely there’s one you could relate.”

Gisburne sat in silence for a moment. “No,” he said. “No, there isn’t.”

A sound in the surrounding darkness – now ink-black, and made even more impenetrable by the brightness of the fire – made them start. Gisburne drew his knife, and Galfrid gripped his staff.

In the blackness, something shuffled again. John put his hand to his brow, as if squinting against the sun. “Who’s there?” he called. “Show yourself.”

A figure stepped into the glow of light – just barely – and stopped a dozen yards distant. All breathed a sigh of relief at the gaunt, but familiar features.

“I’m locking up now,” said the innkeeper, his manner civil, his tone as morose as ever.

“Come closer where we can see you properly,” urged John.

The man shuffled again, awkwardly. “I’ll not do so, if it’s all the same.”

Gisburne and Galfrid looked at each other, frowning.

“Tell us then,” said John, “for you have us wondering. What is so fearful upon this road that you lock your door at night?”

The innkeeper hesitated, looking John up and down with a peculiar expression. “Not the road,” he said. “There. Where you’re sitting.” John looked down at his makeshift throne in bemusement. “That stump was the hangin’ tree, before the lightning took it,” said the innkeeper. “That was God’s judgement upon it, some say. The blackest hearts in the land writhed and choked their last breath just where you sit, spilling their badness into the ground. And so it remains, and festers. And ventures abroad, too, when the evil that grows there is of a mind. There’s none hereabouts will go near that spot, not for love nor money…”

He stopped. All sat in silence, barely daring to move.

“Now, if you gentlemen would care to come inside…” he said. “The witching hour approaches.” And with that he turned and walked briskly back into the gloom.

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