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Excerpt: Lionhearts by Nathan Makaryk

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History and myth collide in Nathan Makaryk’s Lionhearts, a riveting story of vengeance, redemption and war, perfect for fans of Game of Thrones.

All will be well when King Richard returns . . . but King Richard has been captured.

To raise the money for his ransom, every lord in England is raising taxes, the French are eyeing the empty throne, and the man they called, “Robin Hood,” the man the Sherriff claims is dead, is everywhere and nowhere at once.

He’s with a band of outlaws in Sherwood Forest, raiding guard outposts. He’s with Nottingham’s largest gang, committing crimes to protest the taxes. He’s in the lowest slums of the city, conducting a reign of terror against the city’s most vulnerable. A hero to some, a monster to others, and an idea that can’t simply be killed.

But who’s really under the hood?

Lionhearts will be available on September 15th, 2020. Please enjoy the following excerpt.


PROLOGUE

Sarra Billinsgate

The French Ward

 

“God’s teeth!” Little Hugh tried—and failed—to wink. “I’m fucking Robin Hood!”

“Mind your tongue!” Sarra snatched his earlobe with a mother’s precision and twisted it. Her son’s joy vanished as he writhed between her fingertips. “I don’t ever want to hear such language from you again, understand? Now go find your father, he’s waiting on you!”

She slapped his bottom—always too hard but never hard enough—and his legs flik-flacked away down the alley slop. Sarra’s shoulders slumped. I don’t remember ever having that much energy. She was exhausted just watching him, and jealous of the simplicity that came with being a child.

Mindful of her bruises, Sarra tugged her roughspun shawl closer at the neck and winced. Above, the sky spat in little pockets and rolled grey behind the silhouette of Nottingham Castle, looming furiously over them. Thin waves of black coursed over its frame as the wind and water fought across the battlements. It gave the illusion of a castle with hair—long, uncontrollable wisps whipping out, vanishing, then lashing out again elsewhere.

We’re going to starve either way,” her husband, Rog, had explained, “but it will be better in the city. You’ll see.”

You’ll see.

It sounded like wisdom then, as hope always does to the desperate. And Rog had always held a clever sort of patience, knowing when to ignore an easy lure. It broke Sarra’s heart to remember how Rog once kept their spirits high, singing at night for Hugh when they had nothing to eat, even just a few months ago. She’d always loved that toothy smile of his, especially when she could see it in their son. But now, Sarra’s husband could hardly bear to look her in the eyes. There was no predicting each day if it would be rage or humiliation that kept his distance.

“Gack,” some noise snapped for attention at her right—a dirty, bony thing reaching out from a hole in the alley’s stone wall, a too-skinny old man covered in dried mud or excrement. Eyeballs shining but shrouded in dark. Panic froze her for only a moment, but long enough for him to grin black gums. “I’ll trade you a dry place for a wet one.” Clacking his few remaining teeth, he uncurled one finger out toward Sarra’s legs. She busied herself away, to outrun her disgust.

Sarra wondered, again, if anyone else from Thorney had survived. Most fled after the fields had burnt, but some stayed behind. Rog’s only brother, Hanry, swore he’d join them in Nottingham, but winter was halfway through with no sign of him.

She pushed away from the alley, and through the unwelcome clamor of the French Ward.

This place was an infected sore in the city’s armpit. The French Ward had grown out of sheer spite to the north of the castle’s hill, wedged between the foot of its craggy cliffs and the slope of the western Derby Road. The finest parts of the French Ward were an overrun lot of ramshackle wooden buildings and filth. The worst parts were appropriately worse.

It’s the only place we can go,” Rog had explained, “but it’s better than nothing. You’ll see.

You’ll see.

What she didn’t see was him, not anymore. A year ago she would’ve gladly left Thorney for any place he suggested, so long as they were all together. But here in the city, he was always working—or hoping to work by waiting in lines, which rarely paid off—and they merely traded Hugh off between them, sometimes with barely a word. That wasn’t together.

At the makeshift stairs up to Park Row, a commotion seized her attention. Splashing carelessly off the uneven cobbles and into another muddy alley, a pack of young street boys—just barely older than Hugh—chased at each other. Their faces were smiles and they laughed the way Hugh laughed, until one turned and swung the heft of his knapsack into the face of the boy behind him, who spun and fell into the muck. The rest pummeled the fallen boy with their sacks and fists and feet, then turned heel and sprinted right past Sarra. The last one barked in her face and laughed as she startled.

Ten paces away, the poor boy in the mud didn’t move, his face down.

Get up, she thought at him, because she didn’t want to know what she’d do if he didn’t. At the very edge of her mind, her guilt replaced this boy with Hugh. Sarra tilted her face up to the rain and refused to think on her son being beaten so. Or worse, it came before she could stop it, what if he becomes one of the boys who delivers the beating?

The image of the barking boy’s greasy, pock-ridden cheeks burnt in her mind.

Get up.

She suddenly regretted letting Hugh run to Rog on his own when she could’ve easily accompanied him. It didn’t matter that Rog and his shovel were waiting with the other hopeful dayhands only a few buildings away. She could’ve held Hugh’s hand and told him something important and true about making good choices. Something about character. Something that would stay with him. Next time, she promised herself. Again.

Get up.

The street boy didn’t move.

She couldn’t be late, she had a gentleman waiting. Well, they were rarely gentle, but she had no other word for them. They have a word for you, though. She hadn’t said that word to herself yet, nor had Rog. At least, not out loud. His eyes screamed it, but they both knew their marriage would only last until its first utterance. So he stayed his pride and didn’t ask how she came about the occasional coin that kept the three of them alive. When they spoke, it was only of Hugh, and of how to protect him from the city’s grime.

Get up.

With a gasp, the fallen boy jerked and pushed up to his hands and knees. Sarra exhaled, hot tears mixing with the rain down her cheeks. She lingered to watch the boy shake himself off and limp away, when something smashed into her side.

She yelped as she turned, but the little familiar something wrapped its arms around her legs, and Sarra tugged her son’s hair.

“You gave me a start!” she said—reminding herself of her own mother—and wrapped her fingers into his sopping mop. “Where’s your cap, now?”

“He’s here, Mum, you have to come!”

“Where’s your cap, young sir?” she repeated, twisting him to see his face, cheeks pinpricked red from running. He pulled the thing from a pocket and tugged it over his head, along with a grumble of protest. Sarra grumbled right back at him and readjusted the cap over the tips of his ears. “Who is this, now? Who’s here?”

Hugh pulled at her. “Come on then, and hurry!”

Who’s here?”

“I can’t say.”

“Well you’ll have to,” she chided him, glancing down the alley where the imprint of the street boy’s body had already turned into a puddle of dirty rainwater.

Hugh’s entire face squirmed. “I can’t. You told me to never use such language again.”

An anxious crowd gathered outside the Pity Stables—which, despite its name, hadn’t housed any horses for years. The Pities had only a few upright wooden walls, but provided relative shelter for those with the greatest need. Today its open frame was packed shoulder to shoulder with soggy onlookers, but Hugh weaseled himself forward and dragged Sarra along until they were under its roof.

She’d heard over and again that Robin Hood had been making appearances inside the city of late, though she’d tried not to let that build up her hope. If this really was Robin Hood, and if he was giving coin out as he had last year, there was no knowing how many warm meals that might put in Hugh’s stomach. Or boots! Or more realistically, to grease the right palm that might pick Rog’s name for day work. Robin Hood’s presence was a lucky turn, for certain . . . but it came with a price. Hugh was at an impressionable age, and it might not do for him to see how easily a thief could bring in coin when his father’s honest work could not.

Inside, the musk of wet men was palpable. A few hands pawed at her as she squeezed in, grunting their objections to her slipping by, but Hugh found handholds in the exposed beams of the back wall and climbed until his head was above the crowd. Sarra found a foothold beside him and eased herself up for a better view.

“Quietly, all!” An unfamiliar man hushed them from the center of the Pities, and silence rippled outward. “I have a story I think you’ll find most interesting.” He pulled back a slick hood from his head and raked his fingers through blond hair, matted dark from the rain. One finger flicked water off his pointed nose as he sized up his audience. Young for a man, and dangerously handsome, but there seemed to be an age about his eyes. Not Robin Hood, Sarra knew, but probably one of his closest men. Here to rile everyone’s spirits before the real man arrived.

Sarra spotted Rog’s head bobbing up and down near the front of the crowd, but was quickly tisked when she called his name. So she wrapped an arm around Hugh’s waist to watch with the others.

“I found some men on the road to the north,” the handsome man drawled out, stretching the tips of his mouth wide and squinting his eyes, smiling with both. Behind them, the light rain turned heavier, as if to veil them from the outside world. “Well, not really men, I suppose. That’s not what they’d call themselves, at the least. They’d prefer the word looords.” He treated the title like an insult, and received a collective groan of agreement. “These looords had everything a man could want. Why, I’d never seen finer clothing. Excepting yours, of course, love.” A wink at a young woman whose dress was the definition of threadbare. Still, she blushed and patted herself down as a few others whistled. “These looords had not a speck of dirt on their breeches, white as their asses!”

That made Hugh snort, which Sarra hated. The last thing she needed was for Hugh to idolize a rebellious man with a thirst for danger.

“Found more than a bit of gold on them, too, didn’t we?” the man asked, and at his side two larger men gave a hurrah. One stout and bald, the other with the long careful face of a greyhound, they both positioned themselves to create a respectful distance between the speaker and the crowd.

“So I reach out with my hand,” he continued, “this one right here, and I pluck the ring from his finger and whisper, ‘Is there anyone who might need this more than you?’”

“Aye!” answered one timid voice in the throng, then another.

“Aye, sir!” was Rog’s intellectual contribution, craning his skinny neck and grinning stupidly. Sarra was at once relieved to see his smile, and pained that it had been so long since he’d shown it.

“I wonder, friar, is there anyone else who needs any gold?”

The bald man shrugged theatrically, while the crowd called out once again, louder.

“I said, is there anyone here who could use a shilling or two?”

And the answer bellowed back, packing the room with noise and anticipation. The showman backed up in affected shock, as if their voices had thrown him off his feet.

“Not so loud, friends!” he laughed. “We wouldn’t want our voices to travel all the way up to the Sheriff, now would we?” Laughter, now, all around.

“I thought you killed the Sheriff!” shouted a young girl not much older than Hugh.

“I did, my lady,” he responded. “And the Sheriff before him, too.”

“Then what’s taking you so long with this one?” came a deep man’s voice, and the crowd erupted in agreement.

“All in good time, friends,” and his smirk was all charm. “For you are my friends, are you not? Who here considers themself a friend of Robin Hood?”

Every hand in the building went up, every man and woman and child shouted out their love for the man, even as Hugh turned to Sarra and whispered, “That’s not Robin Hood.”

I know,” she whispered back, surprised he remembered.

They’d met the real Robin Hood once, when he visited Thorney. Back when he was only a rumor, back when Thorney was a place to call home and not a patch of ash. Before the winter, before the raids and the fire brigades, before hunger and the French Ward. But that Robin Hood had a soft face and a curious sort of humility. It was hard to believe the stories that he killed the Sheriff, and had been hanged for it.

But Robin Hood or not, this new fellow had the people’s love. They stretched their hands to the air and called out, “Friends, friends!” Even Rog seemed happy to call this stranger Robin Hood, so long as there was a promise of coin.

“Then never let it be said,” the-man-who-was-definitely-not-Robin-Hood knelt down to the floor, whipping a wet cloak up to reveal a small wooden chest, “that Robin Hood has ever neglected his friends!”

His toe kicked the lid open, one hand reached in and then flicked a few coins out, one by one by one, each touching the air gently before falling into the crowd. Sarra instinctively pushed herself against the wall as the room churned inside out, grasping and pushing and tumbling over itself. Despite her best effort to hold him, Hugh slipped right out of her arms and dropped to the ground to disappear into the mash of arms and legs.

Sarra steadied herself on a post, frantic for any sign of her son. The boy in the mud invaded her thoughts again, freezing her with the same empty sense of indecision. But the crowd calmed as winners claimed their prizes, and Sarra pushed the image of a trampled Hugh to the back of her mind. He knows to come back.

“Don’t worry, there’s more for all of you,” Robin called out, quieting the room. “But I have to ask for a little help first. Do you suppose you can help me out?”

“Aye, we can!” came the reply. Expectant faces and open palms waited upon Robin’s every movement.

“Those of you who received a coin, could you come forward, please? Let them through, make way now!”

He gestured them closer, and a few lucky bodies held their coins up proudly and formed a row before him. Five in total, though Sarra only recognized one—a curly headed friend of Rog’s by the name of Dane, a dockworker who’d shown them rare kindness.

Robin smiled at the winners. “My friends, I am happy to help you. After all, who else out there is going to help you out?”

“No one!” Dane answered, instantly earning Robin’s attention.

“No one!” Robin snapped his fingers. “Why not the King, why doesn’t he help?”

“He’s in Austria!” came one answer.

“He’s in prison!” came another. Both were true. Somewhere on the other side of the world, King Richard the Lionheart had been captured. But those still at home were the ones suffering for it.

“Why not the Sheriff, then?” Robin continued. “Why doesn’t he help?”

“He’s too busy taking our money!” was a gruff answer, followed by laughter.

“You have the right of it, friend.” Robin smiled. “One quarter of everything, to pay for Richard’s ransom! You have to be careful these days. I have two hands and two feet, and the Sheriff’s like to take one as my payment!” The grumble that followed had only an empty mirth. The collections for the king’s ransom was no mere tax. For many, surrendering a quarter of all their worth was the brutal snap of a branch long bent to its breaking point.

“Well I wish I could give these coins to you and ask for nothing in return,” Robin continued, “but even Robin Hood needs help sometimes. You understand that, don’t you?”

“Whatever you need,” Dane answered for them. “Just name it.”

“It’s very simple, it’s nothing really.” Robin paused. “I need that coin back.”

Dane chuckled, as did the crowd, but Robin held his hand out as the laughter faded into embarrassment.

“This coin?” Dane asked cautiously. “The ones you just gave us?”

“The very one.”

His next laugh was smaller, dumber. “Is this a trick?”

“A trick, no. Call it a curiosity!” Robin clicked his tongue. “Right now that shilling is yours, and you may do with it anything you like.”

“It’s a crown, sir.”

“A crown?” Robin’s eyes widened in disbelief. “My, but I’m more generous than I thought! But it’s yours, I won’t take it from you. You’ve had it all of a minute but I’m sure you’ve already thought well on how you’ll spend it, no? What will you do with it?”

Dane looked to the other four coin-bearers, but the question was clearly for him alone. When he spoke, there was doubt in his voice. “Food. Boots, maybe.”

“Boots, maybe, that’s good. That’s good,” Robin looked down, kicking his own dark leather boots against the chest. “Would you like my boots?”

“No, sir.”

“Don’t call me sir, I’m not a knight.”

“No, sir. Er, no . . . m’lord.”

“Even worse.”

“Sorry . . . sorry.”

“Hm.”

Sarra wished very much that Hugh would find his way back to her.

Robin leveled his eyes on Dane, who buried his attention into the ground. “Food, you say? Nottingham has a Common Hall, does it not? Why aren’t you there?”

Someone in the crowd answered angrily, “You have to be on the lists!”

“And they won’t put certain types of people on those lists, will they?” Robin prompted them. “Deserters, gang members, . . . tax evaders, yes?”

An unsettling murmur rumbled in ascent, while a few other titles were called out—other types of people who could be refused the charity of the Common Hall. Sarra hated that she flinched when the word whore was shouted.

“And with this damned ransom, everyone’s a tax evader, aren’t we?” Robin Hood smiled. “A crown’s a fine amount, I’ll bet you could pay your way onto that list for a crown. Is that what you meant when you said you’d spend it on food?”

“I hadn’t thought about it.”

“I’m aware of that.” Robin suddenly raced through his words with precision. “So think about it now. You have a choice! You can give that coin to Nottingham, and to the Sheriff, and pay your way and feed yourself and be considered a lawful man. Or you can give it to me, as I ask for it, and show that you can be as generous as I am. If you are my friend, as you claim to be, why would you refuse to do for me that which I gladly did for you?”

Dane opened his mouth to answer, but Robin silenced him with one finger.

“But if you do give it back to me, know that you’re choosing my side. Know that you would be considered an outlaw, as I am. An enemy of Nottingham. I will not take the coin from you, friend, it is yours. I simply want to know what you’ll do with it, when I ask for it back.”

Robin’s hand extended again, just as before, and the room was ever silent. Even the steady patter of rain outside had somehow faded beyond Sarra’s ability to hear it.

Dane resolved himself, the muscles at his jawline flexed. “I don’t think I will, no.”

“You don’t think you will, what?”

“I don’t think I’ll give it back to you.”

Robin Hood’s smile. “And why not?”

“Because when you gave it to me, it was a gift.” Dane swallowed, trying his best to look tall and proud. “I didn’t ask for it. It was your choice to give it. But if you ask it of me, that’s dif­ferent. You always say that nobody should be able to take anything from us.”

“Is that what I always say?”

Dane pursed his lips.

The greyhound man’s fist smashed bloody across Dane’s face and brought him to the floor.

Sarra lost her footing, her heart pounded furiously, and she gasped for air as the crowd reeled in horror. They had all gone blurry—no, there were tears in her eyes—and she blinked them away. Looking twice, she realized the attacker had not used his fist. He was holding a short bludgeon. He flipped the tiny club about in his hand as he heaved Dane back to his knees and pried the gold crown from his fingers.

“Who else received a coin?” Robin barked out, and the other four cowered. “I ask for it back. Do you give it to me?”

In unison they dropped and held out their hands, desperate to be rid of their incriminating prize. The man with the bludgeon gently reclaimed the crowns from two more coin-bearers, then turned with horrifying speed to crash his weapon onto the tops of both their skulls. Sarra screamed, but threw her hand over her mouth to keep from drawing any undue attention her way.

Hugh. She searched desperately for him, but couldn’t avoid watching what was next.

One man and one woman remained, quivering, on their knees. The others cradled their heads, rolling in pain.

“I ask for that coin,” Robin’s ferocity was naked now, “will you give it to me?”

“I don’t . . . I don’t know,” the next man whimpered. He pounded the coin onto the ground and turned to scramble away, but the greyhound man bounded over him and twirled the bludgeon by a short rope at its handle, slinging it upward into the man’s chin. His teeth cracked loud enough to silence the room. Robin seemed startled by something, then wiped the fine spray of blood from his face.

There was still no sign of Hugh.

“I ask for that coin,” Robin growled at his final victim, a thin woman with ratted black hair. “Will you give it to me?” By now, the friar had brandished a thick knife that kept anyone in the crowd from pretending to be a hero.

The woman stayed at her knees but straightened upright and bore herself into Robin’s eyes. “Don’t pretend to give me a choice!” she bellowed back at him, her volume masking her fear. “You’ll hit me either way. You’ll hit me if I give it to you. You’ll hit me if I don’t. You’ll hit me if I do nothing. So hit me. Because you’re going to. You’re going to hit me because you’re a bully.” She clenched her neck. “You’re going to hit me because you’re a coward.”

“No.” Robin held his hand up, staying the greyhound. He crouched down on the balls of his feet to bring his face next to hers. “You’ve got it all wrong, love. You did have a choice. But you already made it.”

He stood.

“I’m going to hit you because you took my money in the first place.”

The bludgeon came up but Sarra closed her eyes before it fell, the sound was enough. The crowd panicked at long last—they’d been frozen in disbelief but now fell prey to hysteria. A few fled into the rain, but the rest were halted by Robin’s voice.

“Quiet!” he shouted. “We are not done here! Nobody leaves.”

Eventually the entire room buckled down, curling into balls, to be as small and unnoticeable as possible.

Sarra slipped down from her post and hid as well, then burst with relief when Hugh splashed out of the crowd and flung himself around her. His face was white, and she engulfed him in her arms that he might see nothing more. She closed her eyes as the tears ran hot down her cheeks and into her son’s hair. But she could not close her ears.

“These five of you took coin from me, and have been punished.” A moment or two of silence. “But I threw six coins.”

The room shifted, Sarra peeked out. Robin picked his way with care through the huddled bodies, a wolf stalking in the bushes. The greyhound signaled— just a nod of his head, really—but it led Robin Hood to stop directly in front of Sarra’s husband.

“Show me your hands.”

“I didn’t get one, none.”

Robin turned back for confirmation. “He does,” the greyhound stated. “I watched him pick it up.”

Back to Rog, Robin’s face was all smiles. “Are you calling my friend a liar? We know you have it.”

Sarra didn’t have enough hands to stop Hugh from watching and also to muffle the whine that rose in her throat.

Rog kept his face stubbornly down, away, his fists behind his back, his mouth tight. He didn’t respond when Robin Hood repeated the demand. Nor when the friar grabbed his shoulders and wrestled him to the ground. Rog simply stayed where he landed, unmoving, as if he could ignore himself out of the room.

“It’ll be better here, you’ll see.”

You’ll see.

The friar handed his knife to the greyhound, then revealed an iron hatchet from beneath his cloak.

“I’m not going to pry your fingers open like a child,” Robin said. “You either give me the coin, or we’ll take a king’s ransom from you. One in four. You hear me, friend? We’ll take your hand.”

Rog made noises, they weren’t quite words.

“Try that again, friend. Use a language this time.”

“I-don’t-have-anything.”

“It’s either in your fucking hand or you gave it to someone else, and I don’t think it’s the latter. Open your fist, then.”

“I don’t . . . I didn’t . . .”

“God’s cock, man. Give me the coin.”

Someone braver than Sarra shouted, “He doesn’t have it!”

Robin looked sideways at the greyhound a third time, who nodded again. Small, but with an absolute and grim certainty. Sarra wasn’t the only one who knew Rog was lying.

Robin hesitated, but his voice was strong. “Alright, Tuck. Do it.”

White funneled in from all sides as Sarra’s vision closed tight on her husband. She felt somehow twenty feet tall, her hands impossibly large and numb, her stomach churned as her balance span, but somehow she kept watching, noiselessly, breathlessly, as they held Rog’s arm across the wooden chest, a strap of leather went around his wrist, the greyhound pulled it tight and stepped on it, Rog’s mouth was open, in pain, maybe, but his hand still a fist, and the friar knelt on him, one knee on his chest, and nobody helped and nobody helped andnobodyhelped and the hatchet split flesh and bone but it didn’t cut the hand off, no, it was left dangling by a strip of slick bloody meat and the friar nearly toppled as Rog screamed, the greyhound went down and kicked Rog in the ribs, they fought and kicked him again until his arm was braced back across the chest a second time and the hatchet chopped down once more, just missing the wrist as he squirmed, gouging deep in his forearm, a well of dark red pouring out, it wasn’t until the third try that the hand came off and Sarra stared at her husband’s blood, it was so much blood, and nobody helped and he didn’t even have a coin and it was so very much blood and Hugh was choking.

Her son was gagging at her breast, struggling to be free, she’d been holding him too tight. She let him loose but held onto his cheeks—always too hard and never hard enough—preventing him from seeing his father’s mutilated arm. Hugh coughed a mouthful of spit into his hands and gasped for air, then buried himself into her chest again.

Friar Tuck was hammering an iron spike through the palm of Rog’s severed hand, nailing it high on the back wall of the Pity Stables.

Robin Hood, his face white, thrust a finger at it. “That’s mine now! And it stays there. I’m starting a collection. If anyone tries to take it down . . .” He may have picked anyone at random to focus on, but it was Sarra’s eyes he found. “Well, you’ve seen how I deal with people who take what’s mine.”

She could only barely feel its tiny uneven ridge through the shawl at her neck, slimy but firmly held in her son’s little hands, but Sarra knew well enough that Hugh had coughed out a gold crown.

Copyright © Nathan Makaryk

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