Robin Hood and the Caliph’s Gold – an extract

This is an extract from my new adventure novel Robin Hood and the Caliph’s Gold, which I thought I would post to whet any appetites of those who have not yet bought copy of my book. (Which you can do here!)

This is the modern site of the Red Fort, in the Cretan village of Kokkinos Pirgos

There were three of them, sitting on upturned barrels beside a small crackling campfire, drinking wine and laughing. I did not know if they were actually sentries, for they paid no attention whatsoever to the surrounding night. Perhaps they had just decided to take their little party a little distance from the main gate of their enclosure. I could not tell. If they were supposed to be on guard, they were making the worst job of it that I had ever seen. By staring into the fire they destroyed any hope they might have of seeing beyond their circle of light. Yet, whatever they were, criminally incompetent sentries or just carefree partygoers, they were already doomed to die. 

I was lying with my shoulder pressed against Hanno’s, in a patch of long dry grass, a dozen paces from the three men and their jolly gathering. It had taken us a full two hours to approach the spot in which we now lay, crawling painfully on elbows and knees through the night over hard, rocky ground. A yard behind my boots lay the huge form of Little John, still as death; behind him – fifty yards back – was Robin and the rest of our force.

When we had set off that morning from Matala, we mustered sixteen well-mounted, well-armoured men-at-arms, six of them scale-clad dazzling Cretan knights, including my new friend Kavallarious Nikos Phokas. Our ten Sherwood riders had all been provided with swords and shields, and even twelve-foot, ash-shafted, needle-tipped lances – the Archon had proved to be as good as his word in this respect, at least. We also had thirty handsomely equipped Locksley men-at-arms on foot and a company of twenty archers – each with a long bow and each now with six or seven good straight arrows.

When the meagre supply of shafts had initially been shared out between the sixty-odd bowmen who had survived the wreck of the Tarrada, the archers had begun to grumble and moan about going into battle with so few missiles, only one or two shafts per man. Robin had gathered them together and told them bluntly that there was nothing to be done about the situation. 

Owain, who was the long-time captain of the Sherwood men, a mature and sensible Welshman of middle years, had then come up with a solution. The sixty bowmen were divided into three equal-sized groups, according to their skills. All the serviceable shafts we had – one hundred and thirty-five arrows, if I recall correctly – were collected up and given to the twenty best shots in the company, men Owain had picked out personally. Another score of archers, the least skilled and least intelligent men, were told to put away their bows for now and were given arming swords and shields, daggers and spears and were designated – with a few accompanying good-natured jeers – as temporary men-at-arms. These men were ordered to remain in at Matala beach with Aziz and his Arab sailors to safeguard the camp, the women and children, our remaining food stores and our few possessions.

The last group of twenty bowmen – those who were the tallest and strongest in body, and perhaps the toughest minded – were issued with stout clubs hewed from pinewood and bundles of rope cut into one-yard lengths.

Their task was to take the prisoners. 

This squad of twenty were to come in behind the main assault. They were ordered not to attempt to take part in the fighting but, instead, to knock down and subdue the wounded enemy with their heavy clubs, being careful not to slay them or smash their skulls, and to bind the prisoners, so they could be subsequently delivered up to the Archon for his “Caesar’s justice”.

I wanted nothing to do with this club squad, which was commanded by the vintenar Gareth. I had not made a “silly fuss” – as Robin had so unfairly described it. I didn’t go “soft” on him at all. I just kept my mouth firmly shut while the anger boiled in my belly. I resented the cold-bloodedness of our plan to pick out enemies, fellow warriors, albeit of different faith, club them, capture them and turn them over to a tyrant for unspeakable torture and a cruelly slow death. If we had not been desperate to get the Archon’s help in finding a ship, I believe I’d have refused my lord, and stayed away from this dirty, dishonourable fight. But, to my shame, I did not. I struggled into my rusty hauberk that morning, slung sword and shield, slid the misericorde into my boot, saddled up Ghost and joined my comrades mustering on the beach. 

Robin gave us a brief address: “We have an unpleasant task at hand, gentlemen; dangerous, too, but necessary to get us off this island. So may we all do it with brave and willing hearts. Now, men of Locksley, let us march.”

And we were off, heading north towards the Red Fort – and battle.

Taming the wolves of the sea

The three sentries, or whatever they were, were still sitting around their cosy fire about thirty paces west from the main gate in the high pinewood fence that surrounded the castle courtyard to the north of the Red Fort. The gate to the courtyard, astonishingly, was wide open and earlier that evening, in the last blaze of the setting sun, Hanno and I had observed the comings and goings of the bedraggled men who held the red tower. 

They were mariners, for sure, identified as such by their comic rolling seaman’s gait, and well armed with scimitars and knives, a few with short-hafted axes. These dangerous “wolves of the sea” were also mostly dirty, bearded, slovenly, and many of them were apparently extremely drunk. 

The whole settlement had the appearance of a sleepy sun-drenched market in the Holy Land. As true night fell, and the moon began to rise, stalls were set up both inside and outside the courtyard fence offering fruit and grilled meats and fish, griddled flatbreads, and drinks of different kinds, and scores of men – there were no women that we could see – wandered between the stalls, chatting and sampling the various wares.  

The Red Fort itself – a square, two-storey tower constructed of blocks of a blood-coloured stone thinly veined with white – was situated at the base of a short rocky peninsula, only a hundred paces long, that jutted out south into the dark Mediterranean, and curled round a little to the east to make a natural harbour. In the shelter of this shallow bay, anchored fore and aft, was large round-bellied trading cog, not too dissimilar to the Tarrada, although a little smaller and leaner, which looked as if it might well have been captured from Christian merchants. There was also a medium-sized Arab ship, of the type known as a dhow, moored beside the cog, and several smaller craft. Beyond the little harbour, to the right of the Red Fort and some miles out to sea, I could just make out in the moonlight, the grey shape of an island, which resembled a giant beast with a long snout slumbering in the water.

The fort had crenulations on the flat roof, which also supported a sentry – at least it had had one by day – a sleepy fellow in a dirty white robe and straw sunhat leaning on his spear and drinking from a large yellow gourd. The sentry disappeared with the sun – and he had not been replaced. Another indication that discipline in this shambolic lair was disgracefully relaxed. 

To cap it all, the big double door to the Red Fort itself was also left wide open; probably, we surmised, to allow a cool breeze into the interior.

As far as we knew, the enemy had no inkling of our presence, which I was glad of because our plan rested dangerously on the element of surprise.

Hanno whispered, “Go!” in my ear and I jumped to my feet and began to sprint towards the open gate. I pelted straight past the three sentries at their cheery fire, running like a hare despite the weight of my weapons and mail, and was peripherally aware of them all leaping up with wild cries of alarm. 

I could hear Hanno pounding along behind me, and further behind him, John keening softly as he thundered on like a charging elephant in our dust. 

Now, behind me, arrows were flying out of the darkness, pfft, pfft, pfft, and could easily imagine the trio of sentries skewered, writhing on the sand. 

We ran straight through the courtyard gate. A tall, oily fellow, bare-chested with baggy silk trews, shouted something and put out both his hands as if to try and restrain me. I hit him with my left shoulder, low and hard, thumping him in the upper belly, knocking him down in a tangle of limbs. 

I didn’t even break my stride. I was halfway across the courtyard already – I was very swift on my young legs in those far off days – market stalls and boozy browsers all around me, Arab men, frozen, mouths open in the act of eating, or surprise, or just pouring out a jug of cool drink. 

There ahead of me was the big, iron-bound double door of the Red Fort. Still open. There was a pair of large, semi-alert guards, mailed and armed with fat, wickedly curved swords; they instantly saw me and Hanno and John, charging straight at them. And did exactly the right thing. 

They began to haul at the doors of the fortress; pushing them closed. 

But their slovenliness was again their undoing. The heavy double doors were not well oiled, hardly cared for at all for some months, perhaps even for years; the big slabs of wood screeched and stuck, and despite the yelled oaths and straining muscles of the two strong door-keepers, by the time I was within striking distance, they were still a quarter-way open. I yanked my slim misericorde from my left boot top, mid-stride, and leapt on the left-hand man. We both went tumbling to the ground, his curved sword flying, and me ending up crouched on top of him, snarling like a leopard. He was terrified, screaming for help, batting at me with his bare hands; I was struggling to get the point of my blade under his chin. I pinned his shield to his chest with my left knee, swiped aside a flailing fist and shoved the sharp point once, hard up under his jaw-line, punching through the bottom of the tongue, up higher and feeling it crunching through the palate and lower skull and right up into his brain. He went suddenly limp. I breathed out a lungful.

Hanno was savaging the other door guard with a pair of hand-hatchets, cutting him apart like a butcher at a carcass, and Little John had burst past us, roaring, and was dealing with two men-at-arms inside the Red Fort itself. 

I wrenched my misericorde free of the dead man’s lolling head, wiped it clean on his long grey robe and returned it to my boot-sheath. I took off the fellow’s shield, slipped my left arm through the loops, stood up and drew my arming sword. Hanno tucked away one of his pair of blood-smeared hatchets, and drew his own long blade. John was growling and panting over the two bodies inside the fort and we prepared to defend its part-open portal. 

The first element of our task was done. We had taken the doorway to the Red Fort. All we had to do now was hold it till Robin could come up.

“One at a time, or all at once, I care not”

They came at us then, their slack ways and drunken casualness all gone; blasted away by the brutal shock of our intrusion. They took a moment or two to organise themselves, and then a pack of them – maybe half a dozen men, although it was impossible to count, charged yelling towards us. 

Behind me I could hear the clang of steel on steel, and the occasional scream, as Little John protected our backs against a slew of pirates who had come clattering down the stairs inside the fort. I heard John say clearly in plain English, “Come on, then, you arse-munchers! Come on, I haven’t got all night. One at a time, or come all at once: I care not! Let’s get this done!”

I was too busy to turn and watch. A scimitar lashed down from out of nowhere towards my head, and almost simultaneously another dark-faced man lunged from below with a three-pronged spear. I got the shield up to take the sword blow, just in time, and ducked in the same movement and felt one of the spear tines screech over the steel dome of my helmet. An inch lower and it would have punched through the centre of my forehead. 

My own sword licked out an instant later in response and I felt the long blade sink into his unarmoured belly, and a jolt as the steel tip hit his spine. 

The man was screaming then, anger and pain, right into my face, his big red mouth wide; his breath reeked of greasy meat with too much garlic.

I shoved him away, and he staggered and fell to his knees. Another man in a snowy white turban tried to grapple me, pecking at my mailed chest with a long dagger; I fended him off with my shield, but too weakly, and he came bouncing back, slicing at the mail on my shoulder. I smashed my forehead out, the steel helmet cracking into the bridge of his nose like a hammer, and he stepped back dazed, on jelly legs. I whipped my sword across and slashed half-through his neck. 

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Hanno split the skull of a balding fellow and an instant later lop the forearm clean off a semi-naked pirate who was lunging at him with a long jewel-encrusted dagger. 

Behind me Little John was roaring like a lion; I felt his broad back knock lightly into mine. I stood panting: the crush had gone; there were still three or four men now squared up to us, but they had seen the carnage we could inflict and flinched from our wet blades.

I looked over their heads and saw, with vast joy and relief, that the courtyard gate was still wide open, four of our Sherwood men guarding it with shield and spear. Somewhere a brass trumpet was sounding, and sounding again; sharp calls, brash as morning sunlight, out in the inky night. 

Then they arrived, at the gallop: sixteen men on huge horses, two by two, lances high, the front ranks in dazzling scale armour, dyed yellow and red by the flickering torchlight in the courtyard. Kavallarious Nikos Phokas was in the vanguard – at least I assumed it was him from his golden bull insignia, I could not see his face with his visor down – and he and another knight burst straight through the open gate in the fence, followed by four other Cretan knights, then a raggedy pack of green-cloaked Locksley horsemen. The cavalry exploded into the courtyard, splitting up into shards of dazzling steel and flapping green as each rider sought and found a target. 

Nikos – the bull knight – slammed his lance deep into the back of a running man in a long violet robe. I saw the bloody point burst out of the front of his chest like a red flower. The other Byzantine knights were doing equal damage, skewering the foe, puncturing frail bodies, blades licking out again and again until lances jammed in ribs, spines or sucking flesh. Then the horsemen drew swords, found new targets and the butchery continued. 

There had been perhaps forty or fifty men in the courtyard when I ran through it with Hanno and Little John, but when the cavalry column erupted among the crowd they were like a sack full of rats released to the terriers in the pit. They ran everywhere, scattering in all directions, the cleverer ones running for the harbour or the little grey rocky beach on the western side of the little peninsula, splashing into the dark sea and swimming for safety. 

The dull ones who remained too long in the courtyard were doomed. The horsemen were in and among them now, ranging all over the space, slashing and skewering, cutting up and charging down the frail bodies of the men on foot; killing joyously, shouting with zeal, hunting them like vermin.

But the battle was not all one way: I saw a Byzantine knight dragged from his horse by five enraged pirates, and their curved blades rose and fell and came back up again bloody to the hilts. Another scale-clad knight was shot in the belly with a crossbow at very close range, close enough that the black quarrel penetrated his shiny armour. The knight tumbled right over the back of his saddle, and lay stunned in his spreading blood on the torn earth.  

Now there was a mass of pirates mobbing the entrance to the Red Fort too, seeking its safety. I was stabbing, shoving and cursing the impossible crush of men around me, hacking about wildly with my red-dripping sword; Hanno beside me slicing and slaying like a fiend from Hell. Little John – seemingly having vanquished all his foes inside the fort – turned about and joined us with a wild excited roar, his huge double-headed axe arcing over the top of our helmets to sink deep into the crowd of snarling, scar-faced, blood-splashed pirates, again and again, his broad steel falling on them, his blade splitting skulls, slicing flesh and severing heads from grimy necks. 

I was sprayed with hot gore time and again. My arms were leaden now, I could barely lift the sword, my strokes were slower, clumsier, poorly aimed, my eyes blinded by other men’s spit, blood and brains. I cursed and cuffed at my sticky face with my hard mailed sleeve, and just blocked a blow with my shield, as a mace crashed down. I smashed my cross-guard into a man’s face; and took a crunching blow to my ribs. I was lifted off my feet by the press of men. Something bashed into my helm from the side, the world tilted and swam. I could feel all strength draining from my legs . . .

 Then Robin of Locksley himself and a squad of dozen howling foot men crashed into the back of the heaving scrum around the door of the Red Fort, cutting unwary men down from behind, crunching them with swung steel, hauling our enemies bodily away from the portal. I saw my lord cut down a huge red-faced pirate with one elegant flick of his shining sword; stab another man straight through the eye-socket immediately afterwards. 

The archers had come in to the courtyard now, too, and their arrows were making their weird hissing music . . . and then it was done. The last of the unmarked foes fled into the darkness; melting away like frost in the sun. 

I could see the bow-less archers, too, Gareth’s grim squad, clubbing the wounded pirates to the earth, knocking them senseless, bending down to lash their limp arms together. Collecting the dread harvest for “Caesar’s justice”.

The terrible work of the clubmen

I was done in. I sat on the ground with my bloody sword across my knees, my poor aching back against the stone wall of the Red Fort and watched the squad of clubmen at their terrible work. 

Robin had led a party of ten fresh Locksley men-at-arms into the Red Fort, for there were still half a dozen or so Saracens hiding upstairs in the darkness, hoping to escape our notice and somehow creep away. I could hear the occasional horrible scream and clash of steel emanating from inside the walls behind me. But in essence the battle was now over. Hanno came to sit beside me. He had found a large full skin of wine somewhere and having sucked down several huge draughts, he passed it over to me. It was good. Very good. I found my mouth was horribly parched from the exertions of the battle. I gave silent thanks to God and St Michael for my survival. It had been touch and go: if Robin and his men had not attacked the crush round the door, Hanno and I, probably Little John too, would have been corpses.

“Perfect,” said Hanno, belching softly, and reaching over to take the wine skin from my hand. 

“What do you mean, perfect?” I said crossly. “Look at the carnage out there,” I said indicating the scores of bodies, wounded and dead, lying in their blood and filth on the courtyard floor – some of them our men. As usual after battle, I felt a crushing black weight of sadness on my shoulders.

“We make a plan. We execute the plan. It is successful.” He took another long greedy swallow of drink. “Now we have wine. It is perfect.”

A little time passed and we sat there in companionable silence, Hanno and I, too tired to talk; we cleaned our weapons, then rested, sipping our wine, eating grilled meat on flatbreads scavenged from an overturned market stall and watching the courtyard, and our men dealing with their wounded comrades. Robin emerged from the Red Fort with John and a few men-at-arms. Their blades were sticky with blood and they brought out no prisoners. 

Was that better? I wondered. What would I prefer? To be killed in battle, even hunted down inside a fort from which I could not escape; surely that was preferable to the slow, painful death by crucifixion that awaited the poor Saracens pirates who had already been captured. It was better. It was infinitely preferable to crucifixion. Yes. But it still did not feel right to me. 

The prisoners from the courtyard, about twenty men, had been gathered together by the side of the fence. They were sitting on the ground, most of them battered and still bleeding, some still unconscious. On the far side of the courtyard, the three surviving Cretan knights – my new friend Nikos among them – were praying over the bodies of two of their fallen comrades. The sixth knight was badly wounded, lying propped up against the wooden fence, his surcoat drenched with blood, his pain-filled eyes were wide open.

I saw Nikos kneel beside him and give him a drink from a cup. 

I looked round at Hanno, who had fallen asleep, his head tilted back against the wall of the fort. He was snoring gently. I got slowly, very stiffly to my feet, and plucked up the half-empty wine skin from his loose hands.

I picked my way through the dead and wounded, stopping from time to time when I saw a stricken Sherwood friend, and giving him a good draught from the skin; our casualties had been light, thank merciful God, only half a dozen dead and a dozen wounded in varying degrees of severity.

Unwounded men naturally gathered round their wounded friends, making them as comfortable as they could in their pain; praising their acts of valour. A few of the worst injured, those with untreatable belly wounds, for example, would be given the option of the knife; a swift end, if they chose it.

“Hey, Blondie, give us a drink,” said a harsh, scratchy voice. “For the love of all that is holy, give me a little sip from your wine skin.”

I looked quickly all around me but the nearest Sherwood man was twenty paces away. “Here, mate,” said the voice, “sling us over the skin; don’t be a tight bastard. I’m as dry as a Mother Superior’s private parts.”

I looked at the speaker. He was gathered with the rest of the prisoners against the courtyard fence. His dirty hands were tightly bound. Large round eyes glittered in a hairy monkey-like face, which was burnt the colour of old oak by the Mediterranean sun; his head was wrapped, Arab-style, in a large grubby white turban, and he wore a long black robe that covered his small, skinny body all the way to his ankles. But the words coming from his cheekily grinning mouth were English; and not the stilted English of a foreigner; the unmistakable tones of a man born on the banks of the Thames.

End of extract.

You can buy a copy of Robin Hood and the Caliph’s Gold here.

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