League of Archers
ELLIE PRESSED HER BACK AGAINST the abbey wall, feeling the cool of the stone through her habit. The air was stifling, thick with boiling water and hot herbs, as it always was in the hospital wing. Today the scent of garlic and butter mixed unpleasantly with the stench of unwashed bodies and disease. It made Ellie so nauseated she thought she would never eat garlic again.
There were eight beds in the hospital, each filled with a figure huddled beneath the blankets. Ellie was beside the table where they kept the medicines—sprigs of nettle and thyme, honey and candle wax, a stack of fresh linen cloths, and a knife resting in a bowl of water, ready for bloodletting. Sister Joan was carefully spooning
powders and pastes from various pots and jars into a white ceramic bowl.
“Now you add just a pinch of arsenic to the poultice, girls, but just a pinch. Do you see?”
“Yes, Sister Joan,” said Novice Agnes sweetly. She was hovering attentively beside the older nun. “You’re a very good teacher.”
I won’t roll my eyes, Ellie thought. It’s not befitting of a novice nun.
It wasn’t that she didn’t like Novice Agnes. Or that she didn’t want to help the people in the hospital. It was just that Agnes was so perfect. Her long yellow hair was always hidden neatly beneath her wimple, while strands of Ellie’s had straggled out of hers and now lay sweaty on her cheeks.
As out of place as a duck in a flight of swans. The image made her smile. She pictured the breeze off the duck pond that lay a mile from the abbey, on the edge of Sherwood Forest, lifting from the water and ruffling her hair. She’d been a novice at Kirklees for four years, but she never went a quarter of a day without longing for the freedom of Sherwood.
Her smile widened. The shadows were lengthening against the bare hospital walls, and it wasn’t long now until the forest would be hers—at least for a few hours.
Sister Joan was looking at her. Ellie snapped to attention.
“Elinor, I hope that grin on your face means you know the answer to my question.” The tall nun frowned down at her, lines crinkling her doughy face.
“Oh!” Ellie bit her lip. What had Sister Joan been talking about? “I . . . I . . .”
Her search for an answer was interrupted by a painful barking sound. In the nearest bed a little boy sat up, coughing into his hands. With a final, racking burst, he choked up a mouthful of blood.
Agnes gasped, her face pale.
“The good Lord save him,” whispered Sister Joan, clutching the edge of the table.
But Ellie was already moving, seizing one of the cloths and rushing toward the boy’s bed.
He had fallen back onto his pillows, shivering weakly. His eyes locked on hers, dark and fearful. “It’s all right,” Ellie said soothingly, dabbing the blood from his mouth.
Sister Joan hurried over, her composure recovered, bringing a pitcher of steaming water. Ellie dipped the cloth in it, washing the blood from the child’s face and hands.
“Bring him something to drink,” said Sister Joan. With shaking hands Agnes offered a cup of weakened wine, which Sister Joan tipped into the boy’s mouth.
little more we can do for him, poor soul,” she murmured.
A familiar, desperate sadness settled in Ellie’s chest. There was little they could ever do. No matter their patients’ symptoms, Ellie knew what was really wrong with them, what made them so weak and susceptible to sickness in the first place: hunger. Thanks to Lord de Lays, the baron who ruled the land on which the abbey and the nearby village sat, people lived and died in poverty, most of them never knowing what it felt like to have a full stomach.
But thanks to Ellie, at the abbey they were fed plentifully. Tomorrow she would make sure the boy had as much to eat as he wanted.
“What’s your name?” she asked gently.
“Gregory Carpenter. My mum’s Mary and my dad’s John. But he’s dead.”
When Ellie heard the names, she could picture their house, from her life before she came to Kirklees. Not even a cottage, it was more of a hovel, one dark room full of hungry children and their desperate mother.
“My dad’s dead too,” she told him. The boy’s eyes flickered with interest, but Ellie shied away from the memory—her
tale would do nothing to raise the boy’s spirits. “How would you like to hear a story?” she said instead. “A proper adventure?”
He nodded and settled back, his hands unfisting from the sheets. Ellie thought for a moment, settling on the edge of the boy’s bed, and began. “Many, many years ago the Sheriff of Nottingham decided to hold a contest.”
“You forgot to say ‘once upon a time,’ ” the boy whispered, his eyes bright. “That’s how all stories start.”
“Not the real ones. This story really happened.” Ellie began again: “The Sheriff of Nottingham thought he was the most powerful man in the land, after the king, but he was wrong. Do you know why?”
The little boy shook his head.
“Because no matter what he did, or how many armies he commanded, he could always be outsmarted by one man. Robin Hood.” Just saying the name gave her a warm feeling in her stomach, like she’d eaten a bowl of hot stew. “The sheriff had declared Robin an outlaw, for the crime of stealing from the rich to help the poor. He put a price on Robin’s head so big, every coward in the county wanted a piece of it. You could see the sheriff’s notices nailed to every other tree: ‘Wanted: Robin Hood, dead or alive’!”
Behind her, Sister Joan tutted her tongue. Ellie
lowered her voice. “Anyway, he didn’t have a bit of luck catching Robin, because Robin was too fast and too smart, and he had Maid Marian and the Merry Men to help him.”
“The Merry Men?”
“That’s right. They were brave outlaws just like Robin, and they made their camp in the heart of the forest, at the Greenwood Tree. So one day the sheriff wakes up and says to himself”—Ellie screwed up her brow and made her voice go low—“ ‘I know how to catch Robin. I’ll hold an archery contest, and I’ll make the reward one no outlaw could resist: a silver arrow.’ Because it was known that Robin could shoot a sparrow through the heart at a hundred paces, and would never resist the chance to win silver he could use to help the hungry.
“And the sheriff was right. But Robin, of course, was far cleverer than him. He entered the contest, but he did it in disguise. He dressed as an old, old man, with ashes in his beard and a hunch. On the day of the contest he leaned on a stick and watched the other men shoot. Then, when it was his turn, he walked forward under the eyes of the sheriff and all his fiercest men.”
There was movement from the doorway. Ellie glanced up to see the mother abbess, head of their order at Kirklees, enter the room. She moved from bed to bed,
settling blankets or saying a soft word to each patient. She looked at them with the same love she’d shown when she gathered Ellie from the village, just after she’d been made an orphan. Her kindness was the steady light that led Ellie out of her grief, and kept her hoping that one day life at the convent would feel natural to her.
“Then what?” the boy muttered sleepily. “What happened next?”
Ellie moved her attention back to his drowsy face. “He shot bravely and hit the center of the target—but that was just the contest’s first round. For every round the target was moved back, until only three men remained: Robin in his disguise, and two hooded men who didn’t give their names. The Sheriff of Nottingham gave an evil grin because he was certain one of the three men was Robin Hood.”
Across the room the abbess lifted her head sharply. Ellie wondered why, then realized the boy’s ragged breath had gone even. He was asleep.
“Well,” said Sister Joan quietly. “Your storytelling is a bit bloody for my taste, but our patient seemed to like it.” She bestowed on Ellie a smile of approval usually reserved for Agnes. “Now hurry, or you’ll be late for compline prayer.”
“I’m just coming,” Ellie said.
As soon as Sister Joan and Novice Agnes were out of
sight, Ellie ran to the laundry room at the mouth of the hospital wing. From beneath a stack of coarse linens, boiled clean and scented with lavender, she pulled out her yew-wood bow and a quiver full of arrows. She let herself enjoy the familiar weight of them in her hands for a moment. Then she tucked them under her habit and sped toward the kitchen. She couldn’t wait to be out hunting tonight.