William put his head in hands, momentarily overcome by despair. He sighed deeply and looked up out of the small shack that used to be their barn at the grassy meadows and the dusty road beyond. He hadn’t let Anne or the twins, James and Philip know, but they had just eaten the last of their meager food supply for breakfast. Times were hard under Prince John’s rule, many peasants refused to call him king, and the few coins they had had gone to pay the taxes two weeks ago.
Things have just gone from bad to worse since Prince John took over the throne, the boy thought as he moodily watched other peasants, Saxons like himself, hard at work. There wouldn’t be taxes like this if King Richard were here where he belongs. But he is not, and we have no way of paying the taxes. Our fields have been confiscated, so I cannot farm, and no one can give me work to do, or have any money to pay me if they did. William rose quickly and began busily polishing a harness as his younger sister Anne walked in. She watched him silently.
"You can stop doing that Will,” she said quietly. “You know as well as I do we have no fields to plow, nor animals to wear that harness. You are tiring yourself out for nothing.”
He stopped and looked at her, “I know, but if I do not use up this energy,” he smiled half-heartedly, “I might use it to knock off the tax collector’s head the next time he comes to pay us a visit, which I am sure he is just dying to do.”
Anne giggled, “Oh Will, I can just picture that fat Sir Lancerot’s head just rolling off down the road with a bewildered expression on his plump face.” The two laughed heartily together. “Well, I am off,” she said merrily. “I shall go ‘scavenging’ for our dinner, and the boys are coming along to scare off the pears they say, though I think they mean bears.”
He watched the three skip off down the lane together and disappear into the forest. What a help Anne was. Though only twelve, she never complained as she watched the two little ones, kept house and prepared the food. She was a lot like their mother, William reflected returning to his work, or at least a lot like what he could remember of her. Their mother had died four years ago when he had been fifteen. She had become very weak from the hard life they lived, no money and very little food, nothing but work all day. His mother had been come from a well to do household, before deciding to marry their father, nobleman fallen upon difficult times and now living as a peasant. In the end, it all had been too much for her.
“If Father had been here, instead of running off somewhere,” he muttered bitterly, “it might have been different, we might not be where we are now.” The clatter of hooves on the pathway outside interrupted his thoughts. “Who can that be?” he wondered, straightening and moving towards the door. Before he could reach the door, the form of his boyhood friend John Miller appeared inside.
“John!” he exclaimed joyfully, springing forward to shake his hand. “I have not seen you in ages. How have you been?”
“Oh, all right I suppose,” John replied, shaking William’s hand lamely.
“Is something wrong?” William queried anxiously.
John kept his eyes on the ground. “Will, I- I had to, I could not find any one else to work for, I…”
“What are you talking about?” asked William confusedly.
He sighed, “Will, I am Sir Lancerot’s squire.”
“Oh,” said Will quietly, “did he send you?”
John nodded miserably. “The king has ordered more taxes, I have been sent to collect them.” He looked up with sadness in his eyes. “I am ordered to arrest anyone who does not pay the taxes.”
Will’s heart sank. He turned away to stare out the window. Watching Anna, Phillip and James come out of the forest and run down the road to a patch of wildflowers he wondered what would happen to them. Trying to speak lightly, he turned back to his friend. “Well John,” he said with forced cheerfulness, “let us not keep the jail guards waiting. Doubtless they will be eager to have another tenant.”
“Will, I cannot arrest you,” protested John, “what will happen to your brothers and Anne?”
“I thought you just said you were under orders to arrest anyone who could not pay their taxes,” reminded Will.
“Yes, but you are my friend. You are old enough, you could take Anne and the boys and run away and join Robin Hood…”
“Do to think a group of outlaws would want a couple of children to look after? And besides, if we did and I were ever captured, I would be hung, and then what would happen to them?”
John thought for a moment. “The least I can do is see if I can get you to the Sheriff of Nottingham. I doubt he would listen or give you more time, but it is worth a try.”
Will nodded his head. “Thank you John. I would try anything to make sure Anne, James and Philip were properly cared for, even if I had to sell myself as a slave.”
“Well,” laughed John, “let us hope it never comes to that. Well, call the trio and we will go pay a visit to the honorable Sheriff of Nottingham.”
Within the hour, the little family, led by John who had agreed to announce them, walked into the great hall of the Sheriff of Nottingham’s palace. Stepping towards the chair where the Sheriff was seated, John bowed and announced, “William Locksley and his family, come to beg a favor of his lordship.”
The Sheriff leaned forwards and peered at the four. “William Locksley, eh? Well come forward lad, I cannot hear ye at the other end of the hall.”
“Sir,” said William, bowing low. “I have come to ask that we be given more time to pay the taxes. We do not have the money at the present, but I assure you that I will give you the money as soon as I have it.”
“Ye want more time, do ye? Do ye not know that it is imprisonment if ye does not pay the taxes on time?”
“I know that sir,” replied William, “but I am prepared to work, in your very house if you wish, until I can pay the taxes. Surely the prince-regent will not mind extending mercy to honest subjects.”
“The prince-regent is it?” said the Sheriff, his eyes glittering. “Not the king?”
William stood erect, knowing that he was taking a dreadful chance. “Aye sir, the prince-regent. The good King Richard is off in the crusades.”
“Ah, I see,” nodded the Sheriff. “Are ye related in any way to a certain man named Sir Robin of Locksley?” he asked suddenly.
“No sir,” said Will with a puzzled expression on his face. “Not that I know of.”
The Sheriff shot him a glance than shrugged his shoulders, “Ah, tis of no importance. Now about your request,” he leaned back in his chair, “My apologies, but I am disinclined to acquiesce to ye request.” He turned away, then on second thought turned back and added, “In other words no.” He nodded to his guards, “Take him away gentlemen.”
Allowing himself to be grabbed roughly by the arms, William glanced at Anne and winked reassuringly at her. They had nearly reached the large hall doors when he suddenly dropped to the floor, pulling his arms free. “Get them out of here!” he yelled to John as he grabbed one of the guard’s swords. “Go on,” he urged when John didn’t move. “I’ll be alright.”
Recovering from his shock, John ushered Anne and the boys out the door, then ran back to assist his friend. Side by side the two fought off the onslaught of soldiers that rushed into the room as the Sheriff yelled the men on from under a table.
To be continued.....