Each day dawned a little further east, and darkened a little further west. Things grew, budded, blossomed and flowered.
Robin and John immersed themselves in the ways of the forest. When they hunted, they left a portion behind in thanks, and used woodcraft to hide themselves from the forester patrols. In this way, of little offerings and attentions, they grew attuned to its senses, its rhythms, its rises and falls. They reached their minds deep into the earth to sense the bursting forth of new life as spring slowly advanced. On cold wet days, this communion gave them heart as they sheltered under bracken, or in the eaves of a yew, their damp clothes gathered tight about them.
They were not alone in the forest. Many outlaws took refuge there, or held areas as their fiefdoms. When paths crossed, sometimes food would be shared, sometimes blows exchanged or arrows fired. None they met cared to join them: robbing was all very well, but what point was there in giving it all away, when you could live for a time with the ease of a King?
Later, they’d find these other outlaws, their corpses hung from a tree by foresters, their claims to kingship just breath on the air, their eyes pecked out by crows.
Every day brought a new victim with a purse too heavy or goods too plentiful. The villages on the forest fringe grew to welcome fleeting visits which left a sack of grain or side of venison here, a bundle of coins there. Small victories.
Robin’s hood was never lowered. John asked him about this.
-I’m in the world of men. I keep myself hooded to remind myself of that. I’m not one of them, not quite.
-People will fear you. Ordinary folk, the ones we try to help: they’ll be wary.
-They’ll think me a demon? A demon is only anything the Church doesn’t understand. If that makes me one, then so be it. Robin shrugged. I know what I am.
John fidgeted, coming close to sleep but never quite falling. Robin sat by the fire, staring into its ever-changing depths. As John moved to turn over, Robin pulled down the hood. To John’s eye, there was no longer anything unusual: the weird dark scars, entwined like strands of ivy that he’d first seen, had long since healed over. Robin’s hair was long and dark and dirty, like that of any other man. Then Robin exhaled: a long, long breath, breath unending, and as he breathed, so came with it a transformation. Where once was hair John now saw leaves, creepers, flowers, moss and encrustations of lichen, growing all across his friend’s face. Robin’s head burst forth in verdance and he opened his eyes: twin points of white in a deep bed of green and brown. Then he seemed to merge with the outstretched limbs of the trees and John knew that he had surely, finally, fallen into sleep.
-My lord Sheriff, Sir Guy of Gisburne requests an audience. The page stood at the far end of the Hall. His words were swamped with echo.
Nottingham put down the quill and looked at the steward in bemusement.
-He said that? He “requests an audience”?
-Hm. Show him in.
D’Anquetil remembered the awkward young knight from the funeral. The man who strode across the Hall was not, surely, he. It wasn’t just the way he held himself, there was something else. What was it? Ah! The son was wearing the father’s clothes, but the son was a taller, sturdier man than the father. He looked as if he might burst the bounds of his clothes at any moment. Nottingham smiled to himself.
-Sir Guy. What’s the matter to bring you from Birkencar?
-Outlaws, sire, in Sherwood.
-Come, Sir Guy: that’s hardly news.
-There is a new band, causing problems for travellers. My lands abut the main road through the forest, and it is to me that the complaints come.
-The Bishop of Leicester mentioned some such. The county can afford no more foresters.
-I don’t want more foresters, sire. I want soldiers. Men-at-arms.
-You’d invade Sherwood? Is that not a little hasty?
-Word of these outlaws is spreading through the villages. These animals rob and give their takings away. To the people. Gisburne shook his head, incredulous.
-Give it away? But that makes no sense.
-I know, my Lord. This Robin Hood is becoming popular. He could be troublesome.
-Robin Hood…Nottingham mused. I’ve heard that name. Yes, the Bishop encountered him. A popular hero is all very well, but one who gives his wealth away is not only troublesome, but dangerous.
-We must find him before the problem grows, my lord. And until we do, have it put about that he is a story, a myth: that Robin Hood does not exist. Until we have more men.
-Soldiers cost money, Sir Guy. Birkencar is a wealthy manor, is it not? Your father was shrewd.
Gisburne bit his lip, and played with the hilt of his sword.
-Certain…revenues were stolen from my men…in Sherwood.
Nottingham barked a mirthless laugh.
-Then you must procure some more! He sat at his desk, the audience at an end.
-My Lord, I had a thought. An area of Sherwood might be…annexed to Birkencar. It could prove more profitable; and, when cleared would give the outlaws one less place in which to hide.
Nottingham stood up, chair clattering behind him, his chest thrust out.
-The Shire Wood is Crown property, the Sheriff roared. As much a part of the King’s possessions as crown and sceptre. You would nibble off a piece, like a morsel, for your own ends?
Gisburne looked shaken, but mastered himself quickly. Nottingham made a gesture, and dropped his voice to a whisper.
-Your ambition knows no end, does it? For such a transaction to occur, you would need to…make it worth the while of the Reeve of the County. He determines the boundary and extent of Sherwood on the King’s behalf. Needless to say, he would expect a portion of all subsequent revenues as well.
-And where would I find him?
-He’s standing in front of you, Sir Guy.
The creak of wheels and slow padding of hooves came nearer. Crouching by the road with Robin, John held his breath. Another sound, closer by, distracted him a moment. Then the cart came into view and the noise, whatever it was, flew from his mind.
The cart wobbled and swayed, pulled by a weary brown horse. The driver – whose girth alone must have tired the poor creature – glanced nervously to either side. From the corner of his eye John saw Robin draw out an arrow and loosely nock it. John gripped his staff. A few heartbeats more. They exchanged a look: now.
As John broke from cover, the roar died in his throat. Another man burst from the undergrowth, brandishing a sword. They both stopped; Robin hesitated, and another man – no, a boy – staggered into view.
The horse shied, and for a moment almost took the cart into the trees. The merchant, panic sweeping across his clammy face, fought to control it.
-Who are you? grunted John.
-Who are you? the other man snarled.
John made a threatening move toward him.
-The merchant’s ours.
The horse thundered past, and caught John a glancing blow. The merchant screamed at the animal and the cart careered along the track. Robin backed away as it passed, and a thought flitted through John’s mind – he’s scared of horses. Then Robin ran after the cart, and the boy followed him. Stunned, John and the other man looked at each other, then joined the pursuit.
Robin leaped onto the cart. Then, to John’s amazement, he reached out his hand. The boy grasped it and Robin pulled him up. They vanished into the covered interior, and as John and the other man caught up, the cart slowed to a halt.
-What are you doing? John cried. Robin had the merchant at knifepoint; the boy was straddling the horse, stroking its flank and whispering in its ear. The boy’s companion brandished his sword.
-This cart is ours, he said.
Robin looked at him intently.
-No; it’s his. He indicated the terrified merchant. But we can split his profits.
-Split? The man’s sword dropped a fraction, a puzzled look on his face.
-John, search the cart. We all think we found it first, but none of us want to die over it, do we?
-This had better not be a trick. The man re-sheathed his weapon.
John emerged from the cart holding a small, but plainly heavy, wooden chest.
-Excellent, said Robin. Pass it to our comrade.
-He wants to know he’s not being tricked.
John clambered down and handed the chest over. He stood beside the man, eyeing his skinny form warily, staff at the ready. The man prised it open with his sword, and coins spilled over the rutted earth. He called to the boy.
The boy set the horse on its way and joined his companion. Robin stepped nimbly from the cart and, with a gesture of his knife, waved the merchant on his way.
-Now, he said, who’s hungry?