The bailiffs were discovered before it was even known they’d been missing, the poor boys, John of the dell with his face smashed in, like a rotted pumpkin caved in on itself. Another had been speared through with arrows, also to the face, the precision of the arrow strikes and his position at the head of the column showing the care invested in the plot. The third had been dispatched with an axe and was missing an arm, which may have been buried in the mud as they most were, though whether an attempt to conceal this depravity or vagary of the rains is not clear. It was a quick and deft ambush, and the bandits made off with their horses and the king’s monies.

The point of attack was chosen masterfully, a hairpin turn soaked through with mud, and the bailiffs appear to have dismounted, trying to guide the horses along the thin ridges of firmery at the edges of the road. The infamy was in wait, and it struck at the bailiffs as they rounded the bend.

The sheriff was summoned, and he spoke with the boy who discovered the scene and his family. The boy witnessed the bandits flee. They were cloaked and hooded in green and grey, but not uniformed. But they spoke, even if in whispers, and they were able to be heard as the child concealed himself in the brambles, and their affects were of York.

These items were more or less the mirror of the events just before the last feast day, as two more of the king’s tax men were traveling with his receipts bound for France, before they were set upon, robbed, and hacked to bits.

The boy was asked whether he could recall with any precision what was said.

I hath heard one sayeth Robert, as if’t be true a name.

The deputies scoffed but the sheriff did not heed them, asking if another may have had a Moor’s appearance, and the boy assented, indeed another may.

It is he again, ever more bolder.

The earl, furious, ranting, demanded an audience with the sheriff and an explanation of these recurring and violent happenings. The sheriff supplied him of what was known, and it was of no avail; the madman wants an end to it, and revenges, and he insists the sheriff take Roger of Kemberly, often known as Roger the Bullhead, a headborough unliked by all who know him and with a reputation for anger and lust, to give new interrogations to this boy so keen of ear and sight. The sheriff laughs and the earl hurls a cup at his head, screaming.

Doth not dare me, sh’riff.  Not on this day.

The sheriff objects to the earl’s abuse, as he himself is a baron, and he objects to the headborough, and it is now the earl’s time to laugh. The sheriff is told, for the final time, to take the headborough, to introduce him to the boy, to find the answers the earl wants, whether the poor boys of these forests and towns have not suffered enough of pain and death in these last years, both at hearth and at Tripoli, or Antioch, or Cyprus, or not; it can always be worse. The earl has the ears and attentions of a king who needs him. The sheriff has little apart from his reputation for humility. They depart at once, Roger wiping the last of his lunch from his mouth with his sleeve, giggling, his favored eye stalking the sheriff, plunging into him, the unfavored languishing, perhaps aimed at the floor.

Roger directed the retainers and others out of the house and had the boy tied to a cruck in the parlor. The sheriff made his best to calm the boy’s parents and the others. Mumbling was heard outside the room, then the boy screaming, even outside the hall, carried on the scents of burnt wood and burnt cooking. The deputies struggled to hold back the retainers and others of the household. Word would spread.

And it has. A small number has formed. A rock is hurled among the insults.

The earl has dispatched more tax men on behalf of the king, and not to the liking of the people, who, it must be reminded to the earl, have in fact paid. Indifferent, they begin taking movable property when cash money is not at hand. A young, obstreperous girl is slapped. The small number will become larger. The earl is as indifferent as his tax agents.

But in this the sheriff spies opportunity to bring himself to close with this Robert and his bandits. He and his deputies loaf along the county’s roads as though collecting the king’s tax, disguised to contrary an ambush, and the days pass before they are met, but they are.

As soon as the poor soul at the point is run through with arrows, the sheriff and his men attack at counter, rushing the bramble in which the bandits hide; one highwayman is swiftly struck down, despite his massive size; he is recognized to be a disgraced former monk, John Naylor.

The sheriff sees one take alight toward the river and presumes him to be this one Robert. He storms him but stumbles and falls into the stream.

The man overtakes the sheriff with a quarterstaff but is chased off when the deputies reach him. They save his life, and only just.

They set to pursue and rejoin their horses, the rest of the bandits dead or on the winds. None had a Moor’s look.

Upstream, as they trail the footprint of the one who escaped, be he this one Robert or some other, they encounter a cotter’s widow, a Marian, draughting water from the river. She is asked whether she saw any figure this way come, and she denies so. Roger takes liberties around the manor cottage, looking and prodding in and there.

The sheriff asks her if she knows any Robert.

Doth thee knoweth of not the Earl of Huntingdon?

I knoweth not of.

Knoweth of perhaps not, but art, thou art on his land.

Roger returns from his skulkings and holds a sack with the king’s mark. He shakes it, the coin inside jingles. He demands to know how it landed on her garden.

She suggests asking the Earl of Huntingdon, and Roger is unamused. The sheriff is baffled he has never heard of such a man. Neither have the deputies. Roger will not offer a clear answer.

And does Roger treat Marian of the same manner he treated the boy, whereon she insists only of the earl Robert, and no other, and word again spreads, and swells to garish rumor. More than a single rock is hurled this time. The girl who was slapped is part of the mob hurling them. They are all obstreperous, hurling rocks and insults with equal vim.

The sheriff, ever of good instinct, as when he impersonated the tax men, is moved to call upon this earl Robert. But just as his last engagement, he is not too cautious, he is too enthusiastic, and caught unawares again, imprisoned in this earl’s root cellar, captured after a short battle at close range with clubs. He was foolish and went alone, leaving his deputies to return the county to good order. They have failed and the countryside is in open revolt. Fires kiss the clouds, carried on smoke like dragon’s breath. The other earl, the earl to whom the sheriff is beholden, sets to flee to holdings in France. The night comes, black, and the orange of the raging fires is reflected in its underbelly of massive black stratus.