Lady Thief Page 56

His eyes met mine and his smile were quick and sly, a slip of the old Rob I knew before the nightmares had begun. The Rob that were every inch the hero of the people. My blood ran hot and I smiled back at him.

It would stand. Whatever strange and awful tricks Gisbourne and Prince John had devised, whatever the outcome, I felt it in my heart that the world would be right again. Even if it weren’t Rob, a lawful sheriff would take the seat and the people would eat, and live, and be free from such tyranny as they had known. Good would stand, and evil wouldn’t win out this day.

Their names were called, and Prince John welcomed them. He explained the game—four rounds with a target that would be more removed with each round, and anyone that missed the inner circle were eliminated. Best shot would win the game, the prize of the golden arrow, and the seat of sheriff. Him what won were to take his oath as soon as the game were done.

There were five targets; the first distance were twenty paces from the mark. It were a shot a child could make, but it were meant to be easy. The men took several minutes to practice, testing the spine of the foreign arrows, testing their bend. How supple the spine of an arrow were changed everything in the way it flew, and it weren’t something you could know without flying them first.

The horn blew for the start of the first round. Fifteen men were competing, and the first five stepped up. Gisbourne were in them.

Edward Marshal were overseeing the competition, and he stood to the side, half between the target and the archers. He raised his arm, and they pulled arrows from the quivers staked into the ground, and five creaks sounded as the archers drew the strings back, fixing their bows with that lovely tension that set an itch in my hands.

I looked at Gisbourne. His stance were perfect, balanced, easy, and sure, his arms filled with strength and power that the bow didn’t bother with. All a bow cared for were the beat of your heart, that tiny space between beats, between breaths, when your mind were clear and clean and the arrow could slice right down the center of it.

Marshal’s hand dropped, and four arrows flew. Gisbourne’s took a moment to fly, and I could feel it, him waiting for that perfect half-breath.

His were the only one to hit the center ring, and as the others gaped at him, he turned around and smiled at me, wide and brash. I nodded to him. It weren’t within me to try and say he weren’t an epic marksman.

Five more stepped up, and Robin were in that wave. He rolled his shoulders and smiled at the crowd, and they cheered for him. He could make this shot blind, and they all knew it.

His arrow hit center. Of the other four, three more hit the inner ring.

Robin turned to me and winked as they left the marks. The last five moved to the marks, notched, drew, and let fly. Three more arrows hit the inner ring.

It were a fair paltry showing, to be true. Even with a broke hand I could have made that shot.

Eight archers moved to the next round, and the herald sounded the horn, causing four small pages and one overtall page to run hell for leather over the snow, churning up flakes behind them and even kicking snow onto their own backs. They grabbed the targets and hefted them up.

“One!” Edward Marshal bellowed to them. They all took a pace. “Two!” he cried, and they moved again. He did it eighteen more times till they had moved twenty paces.

Isabel were the first to titter. The lanky lad’s target were the full length of a man farther than the other four, and Marshal yelled and waved his hands till the red-faced boy brought it back in line. The whole court and stands laughed at the show, but I were silent.

Five men stepped up to the marks, Gisbourne and Robin at opposite ends of the line. This time their brash and boastful looks weren’t for me. They looked down the row to each other, and I watched as Gisbourne grinned and nodded, and Robin just inclined his head with a touch of a smile.

Marshal’s arm fell, and only two arrows flew; the third, a smaller man, waited a breath, same as Gisbourne and Robin. I watched as Rob’s eyes drifted shut right before he let the tail of the arrow go.

Rob, Gisbourne, and the short one advanced.

In the next wave, two more advanced to the next round. It seemed silly, really; already, their lack of skill were showing and their arrows were just in the bounds of the inner circle, where Gisbourne and Robin’s were true and hard to the center.

The horn blew again, and this time the sweeping pages set to the fields and the players withdrew. Eleanor and Isabel stood, handed off the dais by Winchester and the prince. I stood too, swaying toward Eleanor like I were naturally drawn to her, but Isabel stepped quick to me. “Come, Lady Leaford. My legs want for walking.” She hooked her arm through my good one like a man might, and drew me off with a wave to her ladies to leave us.

“I don’t care if you tell anyone, you know.”

I looked to her. She raised her chin, and her pale skin against the snow seemed bright like oyster shells. “Your Highness?” I asked.

“That Lady Essex was attending my husband so late. Gisbourne was quite upset about it, but if you think I will waste breath trying to convince you not to tell the court, you are mistaken.”

There weren’t much like getting fingers hacked off to make you forget an adultery or two. “It’s not my place to say such or judge,” I told her honestly. “But I don’t hold no thoughts of your husband being a great man.”

Her head whipped to me in such a way what sent her dark curls flying, lush like suede and making me miss my hair, my only bit of vain. “He is a great man. All great men cannot be held accountable to the standards of peasant marriages.”

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