The Robin of the forest—so the stories say—cannot resist a challenge to archery.
That is why the Sheriff printed so many flyers for the archery tournament. That is why he burned two of them in the firepit to send their smoke to Heaven and to Hell. That is why he freed five of them in the wind near Sherwood Forest and hung the rest around the villages of the poor.
It was to make sure the Robin knew.
The day of the tournament approached. The guards of Nottingham stood in their shining mail around the tournament grounds.
First came the long-nosed ogre Little John, obscured beneath his heavy cloak. He marched up onto the walls overlooking the practice field. He stood there, grim and tall.
Then came the yin-yang masters of Prince John. They mingled with the crowds. They took up the eight auspicious positions and two less auspicious ones.
The fox-girls Miriam and Sandy snuck in and hid amidst the spectators, tails concealed beneath their skirts.
And of Marian?
Of Friar Tuck?
More will be said at a later time.
The archers arrived. They began to practice.
Behind the stands on which the spectators sat, a line of drifting spiderweb floated down. It touched the ground. Another drifted past at an angle. They touched together. A third line came; a fourth; and many more. They formed a web. They formed a net. They took on volume and shape. Over the course of an hour the webs wrapped together into the shape of a man—a dashing young man, lifeless, colorless, and lean.
A line of spiderweb attached at the top of him. It pumped color into the man: the color of bark for his hair, of peach blossoms for his skin, of horn for his bow, of darkest shade-green for his eyes.
The web man smiled. TING.
The web man began to move. He unlimbered his bow. He ran his fingers over the fletching in his quiver. He walked out to join the archers at their practice.
The tournament began.
For the first shot, the targets were just ten yards away. This eliminated only four men from the archers’ throng.
The targets moved further out. Fifteen yards. Twenty. Thirty.
Each time the targets shifted a few more archers missed their mark.
When the targets were two hundred yards away only one archer remained. He was the web-made man.
“Astonishing!” said the judges.
The web man laughed.
“That’s not anything,” he said.
He drew back his bowstring. He notched another arrow. He fired and split the arrow he’d shot before. Again and again he fired; and three more arrows he split, right down the center of them.
Down came the Sheriff from the stands.
Said the Sheriff: “This is a work of legend.”
The web man turned to him. He grinned. He laughed. “I’ll have your gold,” he said. “And later, more.”
The Sheriff had a bag of gold.
He unlimbered it from his belt.
He gave it to the web-made man.
“Sir,” said the Sheriff. “You are incredible. May I ask your name?”
The peals of the web man’s laughter were like the crowing of a bird. He said: “Who am I? I’m the Robin!”
He reached for the strand of web atop his head.
From the seated crowd, with one motion, rose the yin-yang masters of Prince John. There was a noise like thunder as eight of them cast aside their cloaks to reveal burning prayer strips at their belts. Four of them dropped into a kneeling position, their hands extended in a prayer form to trap the web man in his place. Four of them drew forth a prayer strip and held it before them, chanting words both ominous and deep.
The last two simply watched.
The web man looked this way. He looked that way. His face had drained of its color again, and he sighed, not to anyone in particular, “Oh, Prince.”
The Sheriff smirked.
There was a commotion in the stands. The fox-girls had risen, casting their glamour around two of the yin-yang masters. High on the wall, the wings of Little John spread wide. Darkness drowned another two. No longer did prayer forms bind the web man in his place.
The web man smirked.
“Up!” he said.
He tugged on the strand of web that remained fastened, still, to the top of his head.
The web pulled on his hair, but the web man did not rise.
The chant of the four chanting yin-yang masters ended in a shout. The prayer strips flew from their hands towards the web-made man. They burned with holy fire as they flew.
“Up!” cried the web man again.
The web pulled on his hair, but the web man did not rise.
The prayer strips struck the web man and he began to burn.
Suddenly he understood.
The web man cursed, a foul blasphemy we shall not repeat here. He tore open the bag of gold. He fumbled inside it and ripped free a small piece of jade carved into the form of a tiger.
This, and not the prayer forms, was the tool of his entrapment.
He flung it aside.
The fox-girls had transformed and were darting away towards the forest. Little John had jumped down outside the wall. The web man was alone.
“Up!” cried the web man, a third and final time.
The web-strand that clung to him grew taut. It yanked him up into the air. But still there clung to him the burning prayers, and the flesh of him smoked hot.
A lick of flame chased up past his head and burned its way down the thread. It raced towards the lair of the Robin like fire on a fuse.
“After him!” cried the Sheriff.
The yin-yang masters looked around. An unspoken consensus formed. The two yin-yang masters who had yet to act stepped forward.
“Up!” they cried. They leapt into the air. One had a high clear voice like a woman or a child. The other’s voice was deep. Their robes billowed around them.
To the shock of the web-made man, they landed on the thread.
They began to run, ahead of him, along the thread towards the Robin’s lair.
The web-made man tried to shriek at them but flames consumed his tongue.
In Sherwood Forest there hung an abomination, great and bloated and black: the Robin. Six great long hairy arms gripped the trees. Two reeled the thread back in.
The fire raced towards him.
The Robin’s bulbous eyes caught the reflection of that flame. He cursed. He stretched forward his head and bit the thread free so that it fell onto the loam.
Tumbling down amidst the trees of Sherwood Forest came the two yin-yang masters, the burning corpse of the web-made man, and the Sheriff’s bag of gold. The yin-yang masters landed kneeling, each one with one hand stretched out to the side. A holy pattern formed around them as they landed, sheltering them from harm.
The web-made man struck the ground hard. He was dead. The fire was blackening the thread of his skin, making him peeling, popping, and black.
Their robes of the yin-yang masters settled and grew still.
Demons in the trees nocked arrows simultaneously and pointed them at the yin-yang masters. They did not fire.
The Robin scuttled higher in the branches. His fangs drooled venom.
The yin-yang masters laughed.
One cast back her hood: she was Marian.
The other did the same: he stood there, Friar Tuck.
“My friends, my friends,” cried the Robin.
Webs whirled in the air around him. They drew tight like a corset to compress his bulbous shape. They bound four of his arms back in “the lump of Robin’s back.” They hid his spider’s face behind a face human, handsome, and kind.
The Robin dropped gently to the ground.
His expression fresh and bright and clean he said, “You have succeeded beyond my dreams. Thank God. Thank God that you are well.”
Marian beamed at him.
“The Sheriff,” she said, “didn’t suspect a thing. We said, ‘we are extra yin-yang specialists sent you by Prince John.’ He said, ‘That’s good! I can use all the yin-yang I can get!'”
“Ho ho,” laughed Friar Tuck. “His yin-yang was too weak.”
The Robin took Marian’s hand. He held it in his own. He squeezed it and his face was open and bright.
“I love you,” he said, and two of his spider’s arms came out.
The glade grew still, for he had said a thing the Robin must not say. Marian’s face grew tight and cold. She stepped back, pulling her hand away.
“Oh, Robin,” she said.
Her eyes, the Robin thought. Is that horror in them?
“Oh, Robin, no.”
The words were heavy and dull and silence followed them.
One by one the Merry Men left that place. They went back to their places in the camp.
In his web in the deepness of Sherwood the Robin counted all his gold and considered how best to share it with the poor.
In her tent Maid Marian wept.
She could love the Robin. She could hold him dear
were it not for the spider’s fangs.