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Chapter XVI: How Robin Hood Met Sir Richard of the Lea (Cont'd)
"For the love of God, dear lady!" cried Robin; and then the words died in his throat.
With a savage snort of rage, the beast rushed at this new and inviting target—rushed so swiftly and from so short a distance that she could not defend herself. She sprang to one side as it charged down upon her, but a side blow from its antlers stretched her upon the ground. The stag stopped, turned, and lowered its head preparing to gore her to death.
Already its cruel horns were coming straight for her, while she, white of face and bewildered by the sudden attack, was struggling to rise and draw her sword. A moment more and the end would come. But the sharp voice of Robin and already spoken.
"Down, Marian!" he cried, and the girl instinctively obeyed, just as the shaft from Robin's bow went whizzing close above her head and struck with terrific force full in the center of the stag's forehead.
The beast stumbled in its charge and fell dead, across the body of the fainting maid.
Robin was quickly by her side, and dragged the beast from off the girl.
Picking her up in his strong arms, he bore her swiftly to the side of one of the many brooks which watered the vale.
He dashed cool water upon her face, roughly almost, in his agony of fear that the she was already dead, and he could have shed tears of joy to see those poor, closed eyelids tremble. He redoubled his efforts; and presently she gave a little gasp.
"Where am I? What is't?"
"You are in Sherwood, dear maid, tho', i' faith, we gave you a rude reception!"
She opened her eyes and sat up. "Methinks you have rescued me from sudden danger, sir," she said.
Then she recognized Robin for the first time, and a radiant smile came over her face, together with the rare blush of returned vitality, and her head sank upon his shoulder with a little tremble and sigh of relief.
"Oh, Robin, it is you!" she murmured.
"Aye, 'tis I. Thank heaven, I was at hand to do you service!" Robin's tones were deep and full of feeling. "I swear, dear Marian, that I will not let you from my care henceforth."
Not another word was spoken for some moments, while her head still rested confidingly upon his breast. Then recollecting, he suddenly cried:
"Gramercy, I make but a poor nurse! I have not even asked if any of your bones were broken."
"No, not any," she answered springing lightly to her feet to show him.
"That foolish dizziness o'ercame me for the nonce, but we can now proceed on our way."
"Nay, I meant not that," he protested; "why should we haste? First tell me of the news in London town, and of yourself."
So she told him how that the Prince had seized upon her father's lands, and had promised to restore them to her if she would listen to his suit; and how that she knew he meant her no good, for he was even then suing for a Princess's hand.
"That is all, Robin," she ended simply; "and that is why I donned again my page's costume and came to you in the greenwood."
Robin's brow had grown fiercely black at the recital of her wrong; and he had laid stern hand upon the hilt of his sword. "By this sword which Queen Eleanor gave me!" he said impetuously; "and which was devoted to the service of all womankind, I take oath that Prince John and all his armies shall not harm you!"
So that is how Maid Marian came to take up her abode in the greenwood, where the whole band of yeomen welcomed her gladly and swore fealty; and where the sweet lady of Allan-a-Dale made her fully at home.
But this was a day of deeds in Sherwood Forest, and we 'gan to tell you another happening which led to later events.
While Robin and Marian were having their encounter with the stag, Little John, Much the miller's son, and Will Scarlet had sallied forth to watch the highroad leading to Barnesdale, if perchance they might find some haughty knight or fat priest whose wallet needed lightening.
They had scarcely watched the great road known as Watling Street which runs from Dover in Kent to Chester town—for many minutes, when they espied a knight riding by in a very forlorn and careless manner.
All dreary was his semblance, And little was his pride, His one foot in the stirrup stood, His other waved beside.
His visor hung down o'er his eyes, He rode in single array, A sorrier man than he was one Rode never in summer's day.
Little John came up to the knight and bade him stay; for who can judge of a man's wealth by his looks? The outlaw bent his knee in all courtesy, and prayed him to accept the hospitality of the forest.
"My master expects you to dine with him, to-day," quoth he, "and indeed has been fasting while awaiting your coming, these three hours."
"Who is your master?" asked the knight.
"None other than Robin Hood," replied Little John, laying his hand upon the knight's bridle.
Seeing the other two outlaws approaching, the knight shrugged his shoulders, and replied indifferently.
"'Tis clear that your invitation is too urgent to admit of refusal," quoth he, "and I go with you right willingly, my friends. My purpose was to have dined to-day at Blyth or Doncaster; but nothing matters greatly."
So in the same lackadaisical fashion which had marked all his actions that day, the knight suffered his horse to be led to the rendezvous of the band in the greenwood.