The Stolen Crown
A DEAD CHICKEN HUNG INCHES from Ellie’s face, its feet trussed, its body plucked, its blank eye pinning hers. She ducked clear of its gaze, breathing in the pantry smells of blood and dust. Her bow was on her shoulder, an arrow nocked and ready to fly, but she prayed she wouldn’t have to use it.
What on earth would Sister Bethan say, she thought, if I shot a man in the middle of the abbey kitchen?
Through the crack in the pantry doors she saw Mother Mary Ursula sweeping past, narrow shoulders thrown back in pride. Behind her stood a man whose very presence made Ellie’s jaw lock tight and her fists clench: Lord de Lays. The man who had ejected the
abbey’s beloved mother abbess—after exposing her former life as Maid Marian, companion to Robin Hood and the Merry Men—and framed Ellie for the murder of Robin himself.
The baron had watchful blue eyes set in dark hollows nearly as black as his hair. His round, well-fed face was shaved smooth but for a small, pointed beard he’d grown since Ellie saw him last. She wrinkled her nose at it.
“As you can see, sire,” Mother Mary Ursula crooned, “I run the abbey not just on the godly tenets of devotion and service, but on the virtues of cleanliness and discipline.” Her voice lingered over the words.
Ellie peered at her through the crack. Mary Ursula’s cheeks looked pink and fresh-pinched—or else the presence of the oily-haired baron was actually making her blush.
“And what do you think, Sister Bethan?” the baron asked, his manner as dangerous as a snake in the grass. “Is the abbey much improved since the departure of Maid Marian, traitor that she was?”
Sister Bethan moved in front of the pantry, her back partially blocking Ellie’s view. “We have no complaints, sire,” she said. Her words sounded like they came through gritted teeth.
“If there’s anything else we can do for you, I trust you’ll
ask us,” Mother Mary Ursula gushed. “We serve at your leave and are always willing to make ourselves useful.”
“Thank you, Reverend Mother,” he replied. “If you would grant me one thing: your blessing for my journey to Nottingham tomorrow. There I will meet with the other barons of the north—and King John himself.”
He paused expectantly, and Mother Mary Ursula rushed to do as he asked.
“May the Lord guide you on the road to Nottingham!” she simpered, with eyes downcast. “May he make your path straight, though it be winding, and may the king be as honored by your illustrious presence as we are.” She looked up at him. “How could the king not be pleased? When I was but a girl, my father—a nobleman himself, have I mentioned that?—had occasion more than once to visit the royal court—”
“Yes, yes,” the baron said hurriedly. “Thank you for your blessing. I must return to the Castle de Lays before nightfall if I’m to prepare for my journey—but I leave knowing that, through you, God has returned to the abbey at last.”
In the darkness of the pantry Ellie bit her lip against a tide of fury. Her own years living at the abbey had revealed Mary Ursula to be gossipy, ill humored, and vain. She was far from godly.
Mother Mary Ursula followed the baron out of the kitchen. With a sigh of relief Ellie let the bow fall from her shoulder, and she was returning her arrow to its quiver as Sister Bethan yanked open the pantry doors. Her face was thunderous.
“Elinor Dray, you had better make sure that’s the last attack of the vapors you give me this year!”
Ellie tried to look sheepish as she stepped out into the kitchen. The room was bathed in the golden light of autumn, spilling in over the fire crackling in the hearth, the barrels of grain, and the long wooden table dusted with flour. Through the open window was the green patchwork of the kitchen garden, the air fragrant with thyme and rosemary, then a long stretch of open ground leading to the abbey wall. Beyond that lay Sherwood Forest.
The old nun continued to rage. “Have you forgotten you were made an outlaw on the baron’s orders? Ellie, he’d just as soon hang you as look at you—I see you hiding a smile, child, but you won’t get one out of me! It’s far too risky for you to keep visiting like this—”
“My dear Sister Bethan,” Ellie said, her voice tight and prim. “Would you like me better if my father were a nobleman?”
Sister Bethan’s lip twitched. “It is unbefitting of a novice nun to tease our new mother abbess.”
“Just as well I’m no longer a novice nun, isn’t it?”
Sister Bethan gave her a look of great forbearance, then swept her into a hug. “I am happy to see your face, though, child—and grateful for these.” She took out a brace of freshly killed rabbits Ellie had handed her when she arrived, secreted from the baron’s notice under the wooden table. She put them on the work surface, then cut a slice of bread from a loaf on a wooden board.
“Sit down,” Sister Bethan said, ushering Ellie to the table. “And eat this. You’re no bigger than a rabbit yourself. You saw the chicken in the pantry, I’m sure—killed this morning for the supper table of the mother abbess and her favorites. Meanwhile, the patients in the hospital live on watery porridge. And any sister faithful to the memory of Marian hardly fares better.”
Ellie chewed on the bread, her good humor giving way to frustration. Sister Bethan’s words were a reminder that no matter how much she did, it was never enough. Never enough to cancel out the greed of powerful people like Lord de Lays and Mother Mary Ursula.
“I’ll come back,” she said. Then, seeing the warning flare in Sister Bethan’s eyes, “You know I can sneak in unseen. I came in and out a thousand times when I was a novice here.”
“And most of those right under my nose,” Sister
Bethan said dryly. She took Ellie’s chin in her fingers. “I see some mischief cooking behind those eyes, Ellie. As grateful as I always am for your game—and your company—I want you to promise me you’ll use the wisdom God gave you to keep yourself safe.”
“I promise,” Ellie said.
She almost meant it too—but the baron’s words about his journey to Nottingham were running through her mind. As she kissed Sister Bethan good-bye and raced across the abbey grounds to the forest, she was already forming a plan.
Nottingham was big, loud, and overwhelming. And it stunk. The town’s muddy streets were filled with carts bouncing along cobblestones, packs of soldiers, peasants in everything from rags to their Sunday best, and everywhere animals—skinny dogs looking for scraps, horses lifting their tails to add to the stink, cows plodding stolidly through puddles. Merchants sold food and trinkets from stalls, and the whole town had a holiday air.
Ellie stood at the head of her League of Archers: Ralf, her oldest and best friend; his sister Alice; Jacob, who had learned his father’s skill of fletching arrows; and Margery, the youngest, whose family owned a butcher’s shop and who could skin and gut a rabbit inside a
minute. All five of them, outlaws by the baron’s decree, were dressed to escape notice. The girls hid their jerkins and leggings—never worn by women, so sure to be remarked upon—with ill-fitting dresses, and all of them concealed weapons under their cloaks. The dust of the road had done the rest, settling onto their hair and skin as they’d made their way from the forest to the town. Now they looked like most of the crowd—country peasants come to Nottingham in the hope of seeing the king.
Ellie yanked at the neck of her dress, which was made for a smaller girl. She’d borrowed it from a villager named Tamsin, who had fled with her family to Sherwood Forest just after midsummer. Ellie’s long brown hair was tied in a braid and stuffed under a frilly cap, the kind of thing she never wore.
“Keep your faces hidden,” Ellie murmured, “and look out for anyone carrying a heavy purse. You know how badly we need money. And watch you don’t get caught! We’ve got too many people depending on us for that. Margery, Alice, remember: If you do get collared, cry. Make them think you’re just helpless little girls.”
Margery nodded, tucking her red hair inside her cloak. Alice scowled—she hated anyone thinking her less than she was.
Jacob, lanky and blond, raised his eyebrows. “What
about me? You don’t think they’d feel sorry for me if I cried?”
“You’re about the tallest person in Nottingham,” Ralf grumbled. “You’re drawing enough attention as it is, without bursting into tears.”
“Cry, run, whatever you need to do,” said Ellie, “but no weapons if we can help it.”
During her fight to clear her name of Robin Hood’s murder, Ellie had shed enough blood for a lifetime. It was part of the outlaw’s life, and she had killed only to defend herself and her friends. Most days she tried not to dwell on it. But sometimes, at night, the ghosts of those she’d wronged would come to her uninvited.
“Cut their purses off their belts,” she said, “then let the crowd get between you before anyone’s noticed their money’s gone—or seen your face. Let’s try to keep in one another’s sights.”
Ralf pulled up his hood, casting his freckled face in shadow. “What if we get split up?”
“Let’s meet back at the Greenwood Tree,” suggested Jacob.
Ellie and the others agreed. The Greenwood Tree was deep in the heart of Sherwood Forest and had once been where Robin Hood and his Merry Men made their camp. Sherwood itself had become a camp in recent weeks as
villagers fleeing Lord de Lays sought refuge there. Ever since Ellie and her friends outsmarted the baron, freeing Maid Marian from his dungeons just an hour before her execution, he’d been punishing his people for the League’s crimes. He’d raised their taxes until they risked starvation if they paid, and imprisonment if they didn’t. Ellie and her friends—fine archers, though they were—couldn’t hope to feed so many. So Ellie had come up with a new plan. It was one that sang with the promise of true freedom; she was certain Robin Hood would have loved it. She wanted to clear a stretch of land right in the heart of Sherwood Forest, beyond the baron’s grasp, and build a farm. If they could set traps around it, making it as protected as the Greenwood Tree, she was sure they could defend it against anyone who managed to stumble upon them—or who sought them out. There they could live as a village of outlaws among the leaves, beyond the reach of Lord de Lays.
All it would take was as many strong backs and willing hands as they could muster. And money—lots of it. It was why the League was in Nottingham.
Ellie dodged elbows and slid between carts, her friends following. Many in the crowd were peasants, but there was a good number of wealthy men and women, too, drunk on ale and excitement, their pockets and purses stuffed
full of coins. Ellie and her friends planned to relieve a few of them of those burdens. King John was said to be already inside the castle, and the crowd was thronging toward the road by which he’d leave. And when he did, it was clear what kind of send-off the people of Nottingham had in mind for him.
The League passed a man jabbing his finger at a sack of slimy potatoes his friend was dragging along. “You won’t find a buyer for those rotten things.”
“A buyer?” his friend scoffed. “These are for King John. I’m going to knock the crown off his head.”
The first man snorted. “And get yourself put in the stocks? Besides, your aim isn’t that good.”
“It’ll do him good to get splattered in a bit of potato rot. No more than he deserves. And it’d be worth a whole month in the stocks to see it!”
Ralf nudged Ellie. “And I thought the baron was unpopular,” he muttered. “He’s got nothing on King John.”
Many more were clutching moldy potatoes or wormy apples, ready to fling them at the king. Ellie wasn’t surprised. King John was famed for his cruelty.
The League wove through the crowd, eyes peeled for rich pickings. Ellie’s eyes were trained on a large man striding beside her, a bag of coins hanging from his
belt. She slid closer, until he was almost within reach—then he turned abruptly and was lost among a group of tradespeople.
The League was close to the castle walls, which were almost as tall as an oak tree, with battlements running along the top. At their foot was a strip of grass, and lined up on this were several carriages. Their wooden panels were carved with various coats of arms and polished to a high shine. The horses that had been harnessed to them were munching bales of hay. A group of soldiers stood guard.
Ellie tugged Ralf’s sleeve. “De Lays said the barons of the north would be here. Those must belong to them.”
Ralf glanced at the carriages, then at Ellie. He raised an eyebrow, and she knew he was thinking the same as her: There must be something worth stealing inside them. . . .
The nearest carriage bore a carved unicorn on its side. The soldier responsible for it was fussing over one of the horses, his back turned to the League of Archers. Ellie began sidling up to the carriage.
“Ellie!” whispered Ralf.
She froze. A door in the castle wall swung open just a few paces from where she was standing, and a harried-looking man in a dirty blue jerkin stepped out.
“Right, then,” the man called, clapping his hands.
“I’m Master Crump. All those who’ve been hired to work at the banquet, come with me immediately!”
A steady stream of people emerged from the crowd. They jostled Ellie and her friends as they made their way to the door. Some wore aprons, others carried loads of firewood. One man, clearly a butcher, had a selection of knives rattling in a bag.
A thought struck her.
“The banquet,” she said when she’d made her way back to the League. “That’s where all the really heavy purses will be.”
She could almost feel the weight of a bag of coins in her hands, see the farm they could build with them.
Jacob was gaping at her. “What, you think we should break into the castle? Are you mad?”
“He’s right,” said Ralf. “There’ll be five soldiers to every baron in there.”
Alice elbowed her brother sharply. “Oh, we can take them on! If we can each manage to steal from a baron or two—”
“No,” Ellie said firmly. “We can’t all go. Five new servants hiding their faces? Even a baron can’t be stupid enough not to notice that. I’ll go in alone.”
Alice’s face fell. Ellie peeled off her cloak and handed her bow and arrows to Ralf.
“Mad,” Jacob said again, shaking his head.
“How many servants carry weapons?” Ellie pointed out. “If this is going to work, I’ve got to look the part.” She smoothed down the shabby dress. “Take good care of that,” she said to Ralf, nodding at her bow.
“Take care you don’t need it.” His freckled forehead was creased with worry.
But excitement was bubbling inside Ellie. She turned toward the castle. This was her chance to get all the money they would need for the farm, and more.
“Wish me luck,” she said, grinning at her friends. Then she joined the line of people streaming through the door and into Nottingham Castle.