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Chapter I: How Robin Hood Became an Outlaw (Cont'd)
The target was not so far but that twelve out of the twenty contestants reached its inner circle. Rob shot sixth in the line and landed fairly, being rewarded by an approving grunt from the man with the green blinder, who shot seventh, and with apparent carelessness, yet true to the bull's-eye.
The mob cheered and yelled themselves hoarse at this even marksmanship. The trumpet sounded again, and a new target was set up at forty ells.
The first three archers again struck true, amid the loud applause of the onlookers; for they were general favorites and expected to win. Indeed 'twas whispered that each was backed by one of the three dignitaries of the day. The fourth and fifth archers barely grazed the center. Rob fitted his arrow quietly and with some confidence sped it unerringly toward the shining circle.
"The beggar! the beggar!" yelled the crowd; "another bull for the beggar!" In truth his shaft was nearer the center than any of the others. But it was not so near that "Blinder," as the mob had promptly christened his neighbor, did not place his shaft just within the mark. Again the crowd cheered wildly. Such shooting as this was not seen every day in Nottingham town.
The other archers in this round were disconcerted by the preceding shots, or unable to keep the pace. They missed one after another and dropped moodily back, while the trumpet sounded for the third round, and the target was set up fifty ells distant.
"By my halidom you draw a good bow, young master," said Rob's queer comrade to him in the interval allowed for rest. "Do you wish me to shoot first on this trial?"
"Nay," said Rob, "but you are a good fellow by this token, and if I win not, I hope you may keep the prize from yon strutters." And he nodded scornfully to the three other archers who were surrounded by their admirers, and were being made much of by retainers of the Sheriff, the Bishop, and the Earl. From them his eye wandered toward Maid Marian's booth. She had been watching him, it seemed, for their eyes met; then hers were hastily averted.
"Blinder's" quick eye followed those of Rob. "A fair maid, that," he said smilingly, "and one more worthy the golden arrow than the Sheriff's haughty miss."
Rob looked at him swiftly, and saw naught but kindliness in his glance.
"You are a shrewd fellow and I like you well," was his only comment.
Now the archers prepared to shoot again, each with some little care. The target seemed hardly larger than the inner ring had looked, at the first trial. The first three sped their shafts, and while they were fair shots they did not more than graze the inner circle.
Rob took his stand with some misgiving. Some flecking clouds overhead made the light uncertain, and a handful of wind frolicked across the range in a way quite disturbing to a bowman's nerves. His eyes wandered for a brief moment to the box wherein sat the dark-eyed girl. His heart leaped! she met his glance and smiled at him reassuringly. And in that moment he felt that she knew him despite his disguise and looked to him to keep the honor of old Sherwood. He drew his bow firmly and, taking advantage of a momentary lull in the breeze, launched the arrow straight and true-singing across the range to the center of the target.
"The beggar! the beggar! a bull! a bull!" yelled the fickle mob, who from jeering him were now his warm friends. "Can you beat that, Blinder?"
The last archer smiled scornfully and made ready. He drew his bow with ease and grace and, without seeming to study the course, released the winged arrow. Forward it leaped toward the target, and all eyes followed its flight. A loud uproar broke forth when it alighted, just without the center and grazing the shaft sent by Rob. The stranger made a gesture of surprise when his own eyes announced the result to him, but saw his error. He had not allowed for the fickle gust of wind which seized the arrow and carried it to one side. But for all that he was the first to congratulate the victor.
"I hope we may shoot again," quoth he. "In truth I care not for the golden bauble and wished to win it in despite of the Sheriff for whom I have no love. Now crown the lady of your choice." And turning suddenly he was lost in the crowd, before Rob could utter what it was upon his lips to say, that he would shoot again with him.
And now the herald summoned Rob to the Sheriff's box to receive the prize.
"You are a curious fellow enough," said the Sheriff, biting his lip coldly; "yet you shoot well. What name go you by?"
Marian sat near and was listening intently.
"I am called Rob the Stroller, my Lord Sheriff," said the archer.
Marian leaned back and smiled.
"Well, Rob the Stroller, with a little attention to your skin and clothes you would not be so bad a man," said the Sheriff. "How like you the idea of entering my service.
"Rob the Stroller has ever been a free man, my Lord, and desires no service."
The Sheriff's brow darkened, yet for the sake of his daughter and the golden arrow, he dissembled.
"Rob the Stroller," said he, "here is the golden arrow which has been offered to the best of archers this day. You are awarded the prize. See that you bestow it worthily."
At this point the herald nudged Rob and half inclined his head toward the Sheriff's daughter, who sat with a thin smile upon her lips. But Rob heeded him not. He took the arrow and strode to the next box where sat Maid Marian.
"Lady," he said, "pray accept this little pledge from a poor stroller who would devote the best shafts in his quiver to serve you."
"My thanks to you, Rob in the Hood," replied she with a roguish twinkle in her eye; and she placed the gleaming arrow in her hair, while the people shouted, "The Queen! the Queen!"
The Sheriff glowered furiously upon this ragged archer who had refused his service, taken his prize without a word of thanks, and snubbed his daughter. He would have spoken, but his proud daughter restrained him. He called to his guard and bade them watch the beggar. But Rob had already turned swiftly, lost himself in the throng, and headed straight for the town gate.