The foresters moved on their prey like wolves. Working together by signal they closed around the figure sheltering in the sparse bracken. Stutely saw Ranulf’s gesture: you’re the closest, it said. His move. Another gesture, and Stutely nocked an arrow with reluctance. Ranulf’s thirst for blood was notorious. There were times when a forester could shoot on sight, and Stutely’s colleagues stretched those circumstances to cover almost any eventuality. Besides, those they caught were criminals by definition. For Stutely, the job was to police the forest; for them, it was sport. Their reputation was fearsome. The foresters of Sherwood were not closely supervised, and their brand of Forest Law enforcement had grown ever bloodier. Their thuggery was pervasive, and it was a brave man who stood up to them. Stutely was brave, but not stupid. Barbed remarks, blunted by humour, were as much restraint as he could apply. He was not at ease in their company, nor they in his. His silences they read as aloofness, but if he had nothing to say, he would say nothing. But jobs were scarce. If he didn’t like it, there were plenty others who would fill his boots.
A movement in the bracken. Stutely, the best tracker amongst them, moved in silence, edging around to cut off any escape route their quarry might make for.
They’d found the remains of a fire, and above it a half-cooked rabbit. Collecting firewood in the Royal Forest was crime enough; killing one of the King’s beasts a far graver offence. Neither merited the death penalty, but if the criminal then resisted arrest…
The pale light of early spring barred the undergrowth in a riot of light and shadow, and it was a moment before Stutely realised the fugitive was looking through the young bracken, fronds still curled tight, straight at him, eyes wide in terror.
It was a boy. Not some hardened outlaw or abject beggar: a boy. Stutely saw Ranulf’s frantic signals but feigned concentration. He moved around to shelter the boy from them and mouthed a silent command to the frightened child.
The boy fled. Stutely spun around, to distract for a moment the others’ attention. A moment was all he gained.
-Shoot, Will! Shoot! cried Ranulf.
-Stutely – there! shouted Edward.
The boy was clever, darting between trees to confound an arrow. Stutely gave chase; crashing behind him came the other two.
Much fled, and the forest conspired against him. The rabbit, a pathetic thing he’d struggled to catch, lay heavy on his gut. The further he ran, the more his belly swirled and swelled. Roots tripped him; bushes scratched, slapped and stung. Whichever way he turned came the clamour of pursuit.
Much was no stranger to fear. He’d lived with it since childhood, devised secret rituals and defences to lessen its impact or divert its blows. But this panic-stricken flight was new, and terrifying, and he had no protection from it. His life of drudgery and fear as a miller’s son seemed a dream now, and every bit as ungraspable.
His chest ached to bursting. The spit in his mouth was acrid and bitter. He skidded down a banking, losing his pursuers for a moment, and then faced a new fear.
It wasn’t a broad river: maybe four times his own length, but he couldn’t swim. The millpond at home had terrified him, and it was still as glass. This river flowed, and fast. He hesitated. There was certainty in what lay behind him: the foresters, capture, torture, imprisonment, maybe worse. But before him the uncertainties loomed as large: could he thrash his way across or would the current claim him? Were there beasts below the roiling surface, who would sense his desperation and rise to consume him? Or would the foresters find him anyway, and shoot as he flailed his way to the far bank?
He glanced behind. At the top of the banking, a figure appeared: the same forester who had spotted him and, for whatever sport of his own, had let him flee. One of his colleagues, further along the ridge, spotted Much and pointed. The uncertainties suddenly seemed less fearsome, and he plunged into the water.
The coldness shocked him, drew a hoarse gasp from his tightening chest. He kicked aimlessly, unable to feel the riverbed beneath. The far bank drew no nearer: riotous water assailed his eyes, nose, mouth, ears. Was this what it was like to drown? He felt the river rise about him and his thrashing grew more desperate. To no avail: he spluttered, choked, sank.
The foresters stood on the bank and regarded the boy’s struggle with amusement. The pursuit was over before it had begun: this was poor sport.
Stutely waded into the flow, the languid water lapping at his chest, and caught the boy’s flailing wrist. He hauled him up, slung him over his shoulder, and retreated to the bank. The boy lay like a fish, gasping, fingers twitching. Ranulf was doubled over, ruddy-faced and catching his breath.
Edward picked his nose, and idly inspected the harvest. He flicked it away.
-What did you do that for?
-You’d let him drown? Stutely squeezed water from his boots. It spattered the groaning boy.
-I’d let him drown.
Stutely nudged the boy with a toe. It gave him little pleasure to treat a child this way, but Law was Law. And besides, he’d already given the boy a chance. Maybe he wasn’t deserving of another one; maybe he was fated to be caught.
-Up, he said. Edward put a restraining hand on his arm, and shook his head.
-The boy drowned, escaping arrest. He spoke the words slowly, as if doing so would make them true.
-No. We take him in.
-He fled; he drowned, said Ranulf. Will looked between the two of them. Edward drew out a hunting knife, turned it in his hand. Now he’s ours.
-He’s not an animal.
Edward squatted by the boy’s inert form.
-No; animals are useful.
He prodded the boy with the tip of the blade.
-You can train animals. Another prod.
-Sell them. Prod.
-Ride them. Prod.
-Milk them. Prod.
-Eat them. He looked up with a smile that made Will shiver.
No appeal would change Edward’s mind. Will knew with despair that he would have his fun, and the boy would have been better drowned.
-You don’t have to watch, Will. You don’t have to know what happens. You can tell yourself the boy drowned.
-But he didn’t.
Edward gestured to Ranulf, who stepped forward and kicked the boy in the face. Will looked away. Again and again came the soft thud of blows. A flame of anger leaped in Will, hot and keen. If this was the Law, he no longer wanted any part of it. He turned back, as if to stoke the flame.
Ranulf held the boy tight. To intervene now would mean a line crossed and, one way or another, lose his job. To walk away though, that was to say: this is acceptable; this is the Law; this is right.
Edward punched the boy’s gut time after time, a knife in his other hand. The boy wheezed, and threw up. Vomit spattered Edward’s clothes, and with a growl he swung the knife. Will abandoned decisions and fell to instinct. He kicked at Edward, knocking the knife away. Ranulf, never the quickest, failed to sense the change and kept hold of the boy.
Will dived for the knife. His sweaty hands failed to grip it. Edward was on his feet, bewilderment turning to anger, and he came at Will. He was broader, and probably stronger, but Stutely was nimble and he dodged the attack. Edward wheeled about and charged him with a shoulder. Both men fell; Will smashed the knife-handle into Edward’s face. Edward rolled away with a cry, and kicked Will in the gut. Winded, he saw Ranulf drop the boy and, arms wide, fingers flexing, rush at him. Will raised the knife but Ranulf kept on. Will dodged to the side, ready to cut the big man and startle him a moment but Ranulf tripped, stumbled, and before Will could move his arm, Ranulf fell onto the knife. It drove up into his chest. He screamed and fell to the earth, knife-hilt sticking from his ribs. Edward stood dazed as Ranulf coughed, spraying blood, and lay still. His fingers spasmed. For a time no-one moved. Edward’s fury passed into shock. He stared at the corpse of one colleague, then pointed at the kneeling figure of the other. His voice was a hoarse whisper.
There was no point in speech. Nothing Will could say would change anything. Stutely had killed a man. He knew the Law. His life was forfeit, his wet skin worth less than that of a wolf. That he hadn’t meant to kill Ranulf was irrelevant. That he’d saved one life and taken another was a cruel twist. Edward backed away, fixing Stutely in his mind. He scrambled up the banking. As he reached the top, his voice returned and he roared to the forest.
Stutely knelt by Ranulf’s body, head in hands. How could this be? In less time than it took to skin a rabbit. Just hours ago they’d set off from Wellow. Such a short time ago the three had joked at each other’s expense, gossiped, swapped food and began to track the boy. How had things slipped so out of control? He looked at the knife and felt a sudden revulsion. He pulled it from the dead man’s breast and made to fling it into the river, but stopped. No. He wiped it on the grass instead, and tucked it into his belt. Let it remind him, every day, of what he’d done. Accident maybe, but he’d still killed a man.
He stood, his body heavy beyond measure, and crossed to the other inert form. There was breath there, and a pulse. Edward would return – with some of the others – for Ranulf’s body. If they found the boy they’d kill him. He lifted the boy onto his shoulder and put one foot before the other. What now?
Stutely carried the boy until the sun began to dip, leaving tracks wide and heavy enough that even Edward could follow. He was eager to cover enough distance to give them at least a night’s grace. He lay the boy down and began to gather branches to fashion a rough shelter for them. Each limb he snapped was a crime but, next to murder, what was damaging a tree? The sensation brought a sudden giddiness to him, that laws so strictly adhered to and enforced for so long could be broken so easily. The distance between him and his colleagues, even if it had only been imaged before, was an illusion no longer. If they found him, they would kill him, so better they didn’t find him. So thinking, he gathered more branches. This early in the year there was little foliage so the shelter, piled against an outcrop of red stone, leaked when it began to rain. Only then did he realise that they had no fire and now, wood damped by rain, no means of starting one. It would be a long night.
He sorted through pouches and pockets, but there were no crumbs of food, however meagre. The boy was awake, and eyed him warily.
-Is he dead?
The boy spoke so softly Stutely could barely hear him over the rain. He asked again. Stutely fixed him with a long, appraising look. He wasn’t as young as he’d thought. There was sharpness in his eyes, but caution, too. Timid and shrewd, like a mouse.
-Yes. Today I’ve killed a man I called a friend.
-Don’t be. Someone was going to die back there, one way or another.
-You can’t go back, can you?
Stutely shook his head. He used the tip of his knife to unpick the little oak-leaf emblem the foresters wore.
-And you? Can you go back?
-What have you done?
The boy said nothing.
-You’re a boy. It can’t be that bad. Surely.
-Do you keep thinking about it?
-Killing him. Do you keep seeing the moment, in your mind? Over and over and over? The look on his face?
-Yes, boy, I do. Every time I close my eyes. Tomorrow can’t come fast enough, because today I killed a man. But tomorrow I’ll still have killed him. And tomorrow, they’ll be after me. They’ll forget you: what’s a rabbit and some firewood next to killing one of your own?
-You can’t leave me here!
-Son, I don’t know you.
-The forest is full of outlaws-
-Yes! You and me among them. He snapped his fingers. Everything’s changed. How long have you been in the forest?
-Get used to it.
-But the spirits-
-No. Men are all there is to fear. Men are all there ever is to fear.
-Can I come with you?
Stutely rubbed his face; a wave of exhaustion washed over him.
-Ask me tomorrow, if we’re still alive. My name’s Will.
Stutely nodded. He burrowed his backside into a hollow of the rock and grimaced as it dug into his back. As he closed his eyes, he heard the boy whisper.
-If we survive the night, thank me then.
The forester had doubted sleep would come easily, but he was snoring in moments. Much was wide awake, senses sharp though his body was bruised and bloodied and sore to the touch whenever he moved. Now and then Will moaned in his sleep. There was something about the ease and certainty with which the forester had moved that had awed Much, but he was less afraid, now, than before. He’d spent most of his life in fear of his father’s sudden anger, but in awe also at the man’s strength and ability in the mill. Much knew the rumours: that all millers were the same, lackeys for the lord, diluting grain with dust and old sweepings. How much of this was true he didn’t know, but enough times he’d stood up for his father when the other boys taunted and bullied him. Much had lived his life in shadows, sneaking out now and then when safe. The forest should not seem like home to him: there was much he feared within it, whatever Will said. But there was no better place to hide. Yet it hadn’t been so simple: each aching breath was testament to that. And now he owed this man his life, three times over. Wherever he went, Much would go until the debt was paid. An owl hooted, and he flinched. Even if there was no debt, he’d follow the man to the other side of the forest. And on the other side of the forest, he’d be a man.
-But you can’t stay in the forest! The boy seemed aghast at the idea. Will’s stomach groaned: he was in no mood to argue. The rain had stopped: it was time to eat and move on.
-Where else can I go? Where do outlaws go? Where it’s harder to be found. I can stay hidden here for weeks, but step outside the bounds and I’ll be caught. I’ll have to keep one step ahead…change my clothing. There are men who’d fall over themselves to bring me in, or serve me their own form of justice. He smiled ruefully. No; I’m staying in Sherwood. You do what you like.
-I’m staying with you. I owe you my life.
-Much, my own life is burden enough. Your life is yours.
-How will I survive?
Stutely unpicked the ribcage of their shelter and stood tall, stretching his lithe form. He helped Much to his feet. The boy winced.
-No, you’re right. I’ll teach you what I can, fledgling, then you’re on your own. Do we have a deal?
The hooded man had walked to the outermost reaches of the wood. It was necessary, now, for him to cross the boundary stream, to let the teachings sort and settle in his mind. The closer to the edge of the forest he came, the warier he grew.
There were no surprises: he’d always known, somewhere within, the secret cycle of life and death, the spirit of bud and leaf and flower, of spider and fly, fox and hare. Every rise and dip of terrain, the lines of power that crossed and criss-crossed the land, what grew above and what lay beneath. The knowledge gathered in his mind like a harvest of berries.
He had come to a river, too wide to jump and too deep to wade. He could not swim, and mistrusted the fast water, so he walked aside it for a time, hoping that somewhere it narrowed and was forded or bridged. A fallen tree ahead spanned the current. It looked none too sturdy, and barely wide enough.
As he approached, a man stepped onto the far side. No, not a man, a giant. Shaggy hair and beard framed a wide face which, though not old, seemed to tell as many tales as the bark of a tree. He, too, held a staff in muscular arms.
The hooded man had met neither man nor woman on his journey, and was momentarily stunned. His tongue felt useless in his mouth. But what had it all been for, if not the preparation for rejoining the world of men? His path was not yet walked, though: this little remained, to cross the river and step outside the green world. But he saw no reason to defer to another. The forest had sent him, he was its conscience made flesh, and he would not be turned aside.
-Stand aside! The giant bellowed. Swinging his staff, he advanced onto the log. Have you no tongue? he taunted.
In a breath, the giant was upon him. But the hooded man was quick, and ducked before the staff could crash into his temple. Again the giant swung and was blocked; prodded and was dodged; thrust and was parried. Both men grew red, veins bulging, sweat dripping. Thrust, block, counter-thrust, feint. The giant used his weight to anchor himself, his opponent his own lightness to move nimbly between blows. Each used his own skill and neither could exploit a weakness, but as the battle continued and arms tired, attacks grew lazy, defences slow. And all the time, crack after crack of wood upon wood.
Finally, a breath too late, he saw the giant’s staff at the edge of vision and moved too slow. The next moment, his vision exploded into white, and he was falling.
The water disoriented him, sharpened the pain in his skull. He surfaced with difficulty, staff disappearing downstream. His soaking hood stuck to his head, and he heard laughter from above. The giant squatted on the log, staff across his thighs, a huge grin on his face.
-I win, he chuckled. But you fight well, silent one. Here – he offered the end of his staff. The hooded man grasped it and was hauled from the river. He scrambled for a grip on the log and clambered to safety. He looked up, spluttering, to see the giant extend a hand.
-You gave me sport, which I didn’t expect. For that, I’ll not rob you. What’s your name, hooded man?
He took the giant’s hand; again in his mind’s eye, the tiny orange-breasted bird. He felt his tongue loosen.
-Well, Robin-a-hood, I-
The giant got no further. The hooded man grabbed his staff and thrust it into the air. With the other end trapped against the log, he levered the giant over the edge and into the river. He landed flat on his back, sending up such a spray that the log wobbled.
Robin scurried to the water’s edge and offered the fallen giant a hand. Water sluiced off him in torrents from hair and beard. Outrage gave way to amusement, and he gave a laugh that startled birds from the trees.
-And you are? asked Robin.
The giant accepted the outstretched hand and to his surprise was pulled ashore. He stood panting on the bank, peering into the other man’s hood.
-There was a man once thought it witty to mock my height and call me “John the Little”. I smashed his face in with a mug of ale.
-You say this to intimidate me, “Little John”?
-You dare? John raised himself to his full height.
-Aye. You stand as wet as me; why should I fear you?
John narrowed his eyes.
-If you don’t fear me, lower your hood.
Robin hesitated. The forest had not yet finished its rebuilding. The sodden hood slapped, heavy and wet, to his back. He watched John’s expression: there was a moment of fear, quickly mastered.
-That’s no pox, John said softly, nor is it leprosy. What manner of man are you?
-Are you hungry?
-Build a fire; I’ll catch us food, and we can talk.
The giant scrutinised Robin a moment, wary of commitment. He looked at the scars that branched across the other man’s skin like creepers, then into his eyes. Something there must have satisfied him.
The kindling was damp, the fire smoky. But it was lit, and would do. John coughed. The shadows had lengthened. He picked up his staff; lighting a fire was provocation. John feared little, and in his time had made foresters think twice.
But this man, this Robin: something about him was unsettling. Not his appearance: one man in ten had some disfigurement, injury or disease. No, it wasn’t that. There had been something, despite his size, of substance: as if John had fought not a real man but part of the forest itself. Then he’d vanished, like a trick of the light. Maybe he was a spirit, and John had been sent a test. He dismissed the notion: in his experience, God didn’t concern himself with ordinary men and women. Boons and forgiveness were reserved for the rich. The poor got misery and poverty. If that was God’s way, he wanted none of it.
But there were other spirits, other powers: tales his grandmother told. Things that lived in the trees, sprits which God’s light had driven into the shadows. Just because the months he’d hidden in the forest had brought no encounter with them, did not mean they didn’t exist. After all, he’d never seen the King, but no-one denied he was real.
-You look like a man with an appetite. John started from his reverie, a cry on his lips. Robin stood before him, a rabbit in either hand. One each?
John tightened the grip on his staff.
-What are you?
Robin dropped the rabbits by the fire, and gestured for John to lower his staff. He sat down.
-Sit down. Please: food first, then talk.
John wiped his beard.
-I don’t care if you’re a demon come to steal my soul; that was a damn good rabbit.
-Why would you think I was a demon?
-You come and go without noise: here, not here, here.
-I’m no demon, John, Robin laughed. Do demons bruise? He raised a sleeve to show the evidence of their fight. I belong to the forest. It made me, and it taught me.
-To come and go without noise. Here, not here, here, Robin grinned.
-The forest has enemies. Those who claim it as their own, and keep the people away from the green.
-Forest Law, Robin nodded. The poor are beaten-down. Those who live from and give back to the forest, are treated worse than animals. The rich use the greenwood as they use the people: taking, always taking.
-You think I don’t know? I’ve been beaten for a sharp tongue, cuffed for a sour look, robbed and have it called rent. I’ve had a week’s earnings taken so the lord of the manor could pay his gambling debts; been whipped for stretching a stiff back while I worked in the fields. He leaned in close to Robin, eyes narrow with the pain of recollection. A friend of mine had his hand cut off for gathering firewood; for want of heat his newborn daughter died. You don’t have to tell me. The one time – the one time – I fought back, I lost everything. They burned my house in front of me while the lord – Budby, curse his name – had his men destroy everything I owned.
-I escaped; ran to the forest. My hands were shackled – he lifted scarred wrists – and it took two days’ pounding with stones to get them off. I spent the winter in a cave. He sighed heavily and sat back. People travel through Sherwood – most don’t want to, but it’s a long way around – and I help lessen their burden. He tapped a pouch on his waist. It jingled lightly.
-Will you help me?
-Be a thorn in the side of the rich and help those they grind down.
-Take what they have and give it to the poor? And not keep it?
-Why would we need it, other than to buy what the forest can’t provide? Everything else we need is here. Live with the forest, like the stag, the hawk, the fox.
John gazed into the flames.
-If I’d thought that there was someone – someone else – standing up, someone to give us some hope, to show that things could be different – I’d have fought back years ago.
They lay on rough piles of heather and bracken; low cloud hid the stars and the air was damp. Branches stretched like arms as John looked up. He regarded them with curiosity, as if seeing them for the first time.
-You talk about the forest like it’s alive.
-Of course it’s alive. The trees are alive, plants, insects-
-No, I mean like a thing that has sense. You talk about it like it’s a God.
-Mm-hm. It made me, it guides me, it feeds me and when I die, into its arms I’ll go.
-It’s just a place with trees.
-And a King’s just a man with a crown.
-No, he’s…John sat up. You said that earlier: what do you mean, it made you? You’re a man.
-Once. That part of me is past.
Through the flickering embers, Robin’s face seemed to take on the texture of bark, and become immeasurably old.
-You’re staring, Robin said.
John rubbed his eyes and frowned. I need to go to sleep: you’re beginning to look like a tree.
-I’m as much tree as man. His words were light, but the firmness of his gaze held John captive.
-I knew you were a devil.
-No; no devil. The man I was died, and the forest remade me. It grew me, and dropped me like a seed. Robin pulled out a little pouch, undid the drawstring and tipped the point of his knife into it. He passed the knife to John. A dark paste stuck to the blade.
-What do I do with this?
-Taste it, and you’ll see the forest as I do.
John shrank back.
-You needn’t be afraid. No harm will come unless you bring it with you.
-I’m not afraid. He scraped the paste onto his tongue and grimaced at the bitterness.
Visions came. John fought with the forest, and fell back on the comfort of his strength. Blow after blow they traded; he swung, kicked, knocked, spat and the forest fought back. Finally, defeated, he lay on his back and slowly the fear passed. The world reordered itself about him, in shards and splinters and parabolas of light and colour. They dizzied him, and his body revolted. He turned aside and vomited. Sweating and feverish, the sickness passed but still the world danced before his eyes and under his touch. In his ears whispered the night-time gods of the forest, strange energies the light of day forced into the whispering hollows. Through it all, Robin sat by the fire, watching over him.
The trees stood revealed: each one a world. Every leaf, twig and branch announced its presence. The forest was a thing alive, wild and deep and old. A new awareness filled him. The awe he felt bore him like flotsam, and threatened to overwhelm his senses. The noise of it hurt his eyes; the sight left him deaf. He gasped in astonishment, and crawled the miles to Robin.
-Why have I never seen this?
-How does one gain power? Gisburne’s voice echoed in the empty parlour. The Bishop looked troubled.
-One should not speak of such things in a church, Guy. Power resides in God alone: all earthly strength is but a shade of our Lord’s might, and merely allotted us by Him.
-How does one gain temporal power? The voice softer now, conspiratorial. Land?
-Land, yes. The more land, the greater revenue you can draw upon. But land is wealth, and wealth is not power. It is necessary for power: no serf can be powerful; nor freeman nor outlaw. Power is a flighty thing, difficult to grasp. A King may rule, but have no power. A certain kind of intelligence is needed. A cunningness. Ruthlessness, shrewdness. Courage, conviction. But these are nothing if you have no wealth.
-So I should seek to get more land?
-Heavens, Guy! You talk as if you would march an army into Leicestershire!
-One may marry into land, your Grace.
-Ah. You were thinking of Lady Budby?
Gisburne said nothing.
-The young lady’s mother has just died; now is perhaps not the best time to raise this.
-The Thoresby estate abuts my own. Sherwood, unfortunately, stands in the way.
The Bishop laid a hand on him. It is customary to express one’s sympathy upon the news of a death, Guy.
-I did not know the lady.
-I travel to Thoresby Castle the day after tomorrow for the funeral, the Bishop said, rising swiftly. Although not strictly necessary for the acquisition of power, a modicum of humanity does not go amiss from time to time, Guy. He raised a withered hand to the abbot peering around the door.
-Such thinking would leave me dead on a battlefield.
-Nottinghamshire’s not a battlefield.
-Everywhere is a battlefield, your Grace.
The Bishop’s horse reared, and the clergyman struggled to control it. Before and behind him, his escort drew their swords. A man stood in the path ahead. More than a man: a giant, quarterstaff blocking the route. An arrow gasped, and then another, and two of the Bishop’s guard dropped their weapons with a cry, blood running from pierced hands. The men screamed, their horses bolting. One fell to the ground and was still. The other moved in to better guard the Bishop.
Another arrow; this one rang off the raised sword and the soldier dropped it, shaking his rattled hand. The giant advanced now on the remaining soldier, raised the staff and prodded him. He toppled into the undergrowth, and at sight of his assailant bearing down on him once more fled back along the path.
-Well, your Grace. You seem a little exposed.
The giant had not spoken. The Bishop’s eyes bulged in terror. In the trees he saw the glint of an unwavering arrowhead. The Bishop crossed himself and stammered a prayer. He cursed his decision to cut through Sherwood. Had he not tarried so long at Thoresby, enjoying the victuals, he could have taken the main road. It was wider, and clear of these damned outlaw-sheltering trees. Curse his appetite! His fingers clenched the purse that hung from the saddle. Robbed! By a giant and a shadow.
The shadow moved, relaxing the bowstring and emerging from the trees. Beneath a hood, eyes gleamed mischievously. A knife flashed. The Bishop winced, and the purse dropped into the outlaw’s hand.
-You look shaken. Perhaps a meal will revive you?
-Don’t tell me a man of your build isn’t hungry. We take payment in advance.
In truth, he was stuffed from the feast at Thoresby; Lady Eleanor’s funeral was a prelude to a magnificent feast he’d hoped to digest in peace on the road. But the Bishop was a prudent man.
-Ravenous, he said, sweating all over.
The giant made a gesture, and the Bishop hurried to dismount.
-You’re our first guest. Make sure he keeps up, John.
In a moment, the hooded man was into the trees and out of sight. A prod from behind and the Bishop stumbled after him. Tripped by roots, slapped by twigs, he cursed the forest. As light faded, he began to smell cooking meat. In a small clearing a fire burned low, a haunch of venison above it.
-You’ll share our food, your Grace?
-That is the King’s deer. You’ll hang. None but the King may hunt it!
-Is that how you treat your hosts? Insults? Sit, please. Our forest is yours.
The Bishop moved to sit and then rose, spluttering.
-Yours! This forest belongs to the monarch. Hold your tongue, outlaw, lest you condemn yourself further.
-Hush. Robin carved a slice of meat and passed it on a platter of bark to the enraged Bishop. He brushed the embroidered robes the clergyman wore.
-Tell me: how many days would a man have to work to afford needlework as fine as this? A hundred? Maybe only fifty, if he wasn’t to eat?
-That is no concern of yours. These are my formal robes of office, as Bishop of Leicester.
-And the Church sanctions such extravagance?
-I need not answer to a common thief. Reluctantly, he began to gnaw at the venison.
-We are not thieves; thieves keep what they take. Thieves covet, they envy, they lust. This – he held up the purse – will go back to the people who pay for your robes by tilling soil all the hours your God sends.
The Bishop started, ignoring the heresy. You’d give away wealth?
-The forest provides.
-Then you live off your King. A parasite.
The giant laughed.
-The only parasites I know are fleas and noblemen. What about you, Robin?
-This forest will no longer be the King’s playground, while his people are beaten and starved.
The Bishop wiped his face with a dock leaf.
-Saying something doesn’t make it so.
-You’re quite right. Words alone are not enough. But tell your peers: your abbots and priests, cardinals and archbishops, sheriffs and barons, knights and earls. Sherwood is ours, in the name of the people of England, and in the name of a power older than your God.
-Stand up, your Grace. The contents of your purse don’t stretch to a bed for the night. If you find your way out of the forest, it’ll be because the forest allows it. Your God cannot help you here.
The outlaws rose at dawn, and headed east through the forest. John had watched the way Robin moved: stopping to read the wind like a deer. John’s own movements had become lighter, and beasts no longer fled at his approach. Some trees he recognised like old friends; others, ancient and twisted and stag-horned, were like gods best approached with reverence. Deep in the thickest reaches of the woods they found a yew, perfect for fashioning into a bow for John. They laid palms on the soft bark and whispered their thanks. They made their camp at Stane Lea. This mighty stone had been raised in the unknown past; one of dozens that reared like vertebrae across the land. It gave shelter from the gusts of spring, but in its presence John had felt a sense of calm he’d never known before, of silence. A deep silence, not like sleep or the simple quiet of a still day, but something mysterious that touched him to his core. He could never articulate the mystery and the feeling of stillness the stone gave him, but if others were touched in the same way, what need was there to speak of it? He had seen standing stones before, and thought them landmarks, or relics of a forgotten past. But this one, deep in the tangles of the forest, concealed in the vast, soft web of green, taught him that the old mysteries still lived.
Beyond the curtain of trees on the forest’s edge they reached a settlement John recognised as Fletton. People were at work ploughing their little parcels of land; a group of men were repairing a ditch, and at the sight of two strangers emerging from the forest at such an hour, they stopped and came together, curious and wary.
-Friends, said Robin, stepping among them, Don’t be afraid. We’ve come to tell you a story. Robin leaped onto a logpile, found his balance and began to speak. John was still taller than him.
-The Bishop of Leicester was travelling through Sherwood last night, friends. With an armed escort. Do any of you travel with an armed escort, provided by the Sheriff of Nottingham? No? Of course not. But the Bishop did. And a terrible thing happened last night, friends. A terrible thing indeed. He mislaid his purse!
Some of the villagers laughed, clapped their hands.
-Mislaid his purse, right into our hands!
With a flourish, the outlaws tossed coins into the air. John opened the purse and poured the rest onto the trampled mud. The villagers stood for a moment, like children before a conjuror, then dived to collect the plunder.
-Many others may travel through Sherwood, friends. Fat merchants. Greedy abbots, cruel knights. Maybe even the Sheriff himself. And we will do our best to help them. To help them mislay their fortunes!
There was clapping now and smiles, as people clasped the silver coins in calloused hands.
-And when they do, we will be there to make sure you, and people in other villages whose hard work fills the coffers of the rich, take a deserved share in the wealth of this land. Farewell, friends.
A handshake, a pat on the back, a joke shared, and into the woods they ran.
-Robbed, the Bishop of Leicester fumed. In your Shire!
His words echoed around the Great Hall of Nottingham Castle. The Sheriff was tolerant of the old man’s moods, and knew that like summer thunder they passed as soon as they had loosed their deluge. He stood his ground; it didn’t befit a politician to pander unnecessarily. The Bishop glared around the dimly-lit hall as if searching the shadows for his assailants. Nottingham used few lights, the better to unnerve his visitors.
-The Forest, your Grace, is not safe.
-You employ verderers, do you not? Foresters?
D’Anquetil poured a goblet of wine for the enraged clergyman, and a larger one for himself.
-There have been staffing problems lately. While this is most unfortunate-
-Unfortunate. He gulped his wine. Your soldiers were no use, he muttered.
-What can I say? D’Anquetil sniffed the wine. Burgundy.
-“Sorry” would be a start.
-Your Grace…outlaws are a risk anywhere in England. Evil, greed and dishonesty are rife among the poor. We are all in this together. Nottingham held his hands up in a gesture of powerlessness. I cannot be held responsible for every act of violence in the Shire. Far less Sherwood.
-Perhaps if you describe the men who robbed you, the bounty on them can be increased.
-A giant and a ghost. The Bishop held his goblet out for a refill.
-You were ambushed by a fairy tale?
-Don’t mock me, Nottingham! A giant, I tell you. Tall as a horse, broad as an ox. And his companion, or leader, hooded. Melted into and out of the forest like a shadow. Feasting on the venison as well, I might add.
-Robin. One of them was named Robin. The one with the hood. The ghost.