The Sovereign Forest: Chapter 1

Read as PDF

-Your father was a good man, Sir Guy. The Bishop of Leicester laid a sympathetic hand on the young knight’s shoulder.

-Yes.

The Bishop kept his hand in place. Sir Perceval of Gisburne had been a friend, but the son was a stranger. Newly returned from war overseas, the Bishop found Sir Guy a puzzling, awkward fellow who spoke little, and gave the clergyman little on which to fix. His reputation as a soldier and horseman were second to none, but his manner, it seemed, inspired no affection in those who knew him. He had few friends, and indeed it seemed Sir Guy was happier in the stables than in the company of his own species.

During the service which laid Sir Percival to rest, just now drawing to a close, the Bishop had glanced at the son. His gaze darted about the chapel, assessing the congregation with a steeliness that was unsettling. Perhaps this was his way of dealing with grief. He was a difficult one to read, for certain.

-How did he become so? Gisburne asked suddenly. They stood by the chapel door, as the mourners paid their final respects and emerged into the chill of a late Nottinghamshire winter. Beyond the chapel stood the bulk of Birkencar manor, the Gisburne family seat. My father had seen no battle for years.

-There is more to greatness than deeds accomplished in one’s field. Much depends on one’s role in society, the people one knows. You are ambitious?

-I have ambitions.

-Let me introduce you, then, to Geoffrey d’Anquetil, the Sheriff of Nottingham. He indicated a slight, grey-haired man amongst those gathered. He moved at ease through the chapel, as if it were his own home, genuflecting here, whispering there.

-A politician?

-A politician; he may look unimpressive, but is the most important in these parts. Come-

Gisburne stayed him with a hand.

-One thing more. The family yonder.

The Bishop peered through the crowd at a man, tall but stooped with age, once-golden hair turning white. Leaning heavily on him was a lady, surely younger than her haggard appearance suggested.

-The Budbys of Thoresby Castle. Yes, Sir William was a soldier like you. The Lady Eleanor is not keeping well, I fear.

Supporting her mother on the other side was a girl, no longer a child but not yet a woman. Long hair fell in gentle curls around a face with wide, greenish eyes. Gisburne’s gaze lingered on her.

-I was not thinking of the cripples, said Gisburne.

 

***

Gisburne was exhausted, but sleep would not come. He’d travelled without rest since arriving from Flanders, ridden three horses to death to reach his father’s deathbed. Too late. Whatever worldly wisdom a father could pass to a son in such circumstances was lost. Gisburne returned, an only child, to a house he barely remembered, staff he did not know, and a local nobility he did not like. The funeral had been a greater test of his endurance than the journey from Dover.

In the Great Hall of Birkencar, empty now he had dismissed the staff from his presence, he threw another log on the fire and, though master of the house, prowled like a caged beast.

He swept through the buttery and the cellar as if testing out the limits of his territory. He prodded and sniffed and tasted. He called for more ale to be procured: he’d had enough of wine on the continent and it turned his stomach. His steward, a quiet, somewhat fretful, balding man he dimly recalled treating harshly as a youth, scurried after him, noting his every decision: replace that, change this, buy some of these, burn that.

Finally, Guy withdrew to his solar. The little rush tapers gave feeble illumination, and flickered each time he passed them. Oh, for the sun-bleached open plains! He strode the width of the little room, always returning to the window to gaze impotently over Sherwood. From here he could sweep his view over his demesne in the time it took to unsheathe a sword.

What had he inherited, in returning home, that he could grasp? A name – a name too much his father’s – and little enough land to ride on. This island seemed so small after the great open spaces of northern France: there was no room to move. He spread his hands against the windows as though he might push back and thus expand the parcel of land over which he had command. It wasn’t enough.