The Sovereign Forest: Chapter 6

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As May passed into June, the men retreated from the hideouts near the edge of the forest, and moved into the deeper areas. South of Mansfield was Thieves Wood, whose name was enough to deter most travellers. Here the trees were thickest, and the peace of the forest unbroken.

Scathelocke struggled in those weeks. His closest companion, to his surprise, was the boy, Much. He reminded Scathelocke of his eldest son, Tom, and at these times he missed his family. They wouldn’t even know that he was still alive. He longed to see them, just for a moment: to say goodbye, if nothing else. As midsummer neared, and the hinds in the forest began to give birth, forester patrols had increased to protect the young deer. Even here, the outlaws’ movement was restricted. The foresters could shoot anyone on sight at this time. So there was little for Scathelocke and the rest of them to do but learn forest craft and weaponry. They shot no deer and lived on what birds and rabbits they could snare.

Robin taught them archery. He had a sense for it the others lacked: some instinct, an awareness of how the slightest breeze would affect an arrow’s flight, and at what part in its trajectory. It was uncanny, and Scathelocke recalled Much’s words. At times Robin seemed like art of the forest come to life rather than a dweller within it.

For days, they practised. Little John had carved bows for them. A bowyer might pick fault, likewise a stringer, but they more than sufficed. Robin taught them how to stand, how to nock, draw, and loose an arrow; how best to wear it to allow maximum movement in the dense forest. For what seemed like forever, they stood in pose, teaching their bodies to remember the position so it became natural, and their movements smooth and not wasteful. Once, Scathelocke felt his arms tire and was about to relax them, the arrow unloosed when, of all birds, a robin alighted briefly on the shaft, bobbed up and down and flew off. He read this as a sign, and kept up the stance.

 

John watched Roger struggle to restring his bow. Time and again either sinew or bow slipped from his control and the boy cursed. He grew more and more impatient and fixed John with a glower, knowing he was on his own: some tasks you had to do yourself because someday your life would depend on it. Finally the string snapped, taking his temper with it.

-I can’t stand this! He threw the bow to the ground; it bounced and cracked Much on the back of his head. Much was on his feet in a moment, fists clenched.

John motioned for calm, his eyes bulging in anger.

-I can’t live like this! Maybe you all can, but not me. How long do we-

He got no further. John took two strides towards him and laid him flat with a punch to the face. Before Roger could get to his feet or defend himself, John knelt on his chest with his hand across the boy’s mouth. He gestured at Much, who sat meekly down. He leaned close to Roger’s face, a finger before his lips.

-Shh.

 

Scathelocke and Much sat above a narrow brook, fishing rods in hand. Much was sick of rabbit, and was eager for the taste of fish. More than that, he was glad to be away from the camp, and from Roger. Two perch lay, still feebly twitching on the earth beside him. Scathelocke had caught nothing.

-Do you miss your family?

-I do, lad. I try not to think about them; it’s easier that way. Living here…you just think about right now, making sure there’s food, or that we’re not discovered. I can’t imagine five years here, or ten. To think I might always have to live here, and never see them again. I just wish they knew I was still alive.

-You could flee Nottinghamshire, and they could follow.

Scathelocke shrugged.

-It’s my home, though; it’s their home, too. And what welcome do strangers get? Sometimes living here feels like a hundred miles from them; other times I’m glad I’m so close. As long as they’re well. If I thought about them all the time, I couldn’t do…this. He indicated the forest with a sweep of his hand. His fishing rod jerked in his other hand and he clutched it, but the perch darted away. So I don’t, and I give all I have to living here.

-Even if you’re not very good at it.

-Watch it, cub! Scathelocke laughed. I don’t have to take that kind of talk from a boy.

They sat a while in silence.

-And what of you?

-What of me?

-Miller’s son, of Rainworth, do you miss your family?

-No. He thought of his old life: it seemed distant and insubstantial, like a shed snakeskin. It had once been part of him but no longer fitted the person he now was.

-You don’t? Thankless child.

Carefully, Much lifted his rod and set it on the bank beside him. He turned to Scathelocke, rolled up his right sleeve and hauled up his upper garments. The skin was marbled, patterned with swirling indentations, like something boiling in a pan, or the texture of skinned rabbit. Scald marks.

-Lord…

-Would you thank someone for this, Will Scathelocke?

-Your father?

Much nodded, covered himself up and resumed fishing.

-Nobody likes a miller. You know people have to use the local one. Your lord can punish you for taking grain somewhere else. And if that miller takes a cut for himself, or makes the weight up with dust…no-one likes a miller. And a miller feels that dislike, and has to take it out somewhere, doesn’t he?

-I’m sorry, lad. You ran away?

-I hit him back. He turned to look at Scathelocke. Just once.

 

Will Stutely crept to within an arm’s length of the pair without either of them sensing his presence. He barked like a pheasant and Much leapt in the air, rod tumbling into the water. Scathelocke, his face red, clenched and unclenched his fists in powerless humiliation. Stutely chuckled.

-Leave the fish by the fire and come with me. I’ll show you how to track real beasts.

-Not deer, surely? Much was aghast.

-I’m an outlaw, but I’m not stupid. No, not deer: man.

-Man?

-Man. After I’ve shown you, you can track me. And if either of you find me, I will buy you an ale, next time we’re near an ale-house.

-I’ll have died of thirst before we next see an ale-house, Scathelocke muttered.

-And I’ll have died of boredom before you find me. This way.

 

He showed them the subtlest of signs, clues the casual glance would miss: a bent frond of bracken, bird droppings under a certain branch, leaves nibbled a particular way, an abandoned carcass.

-You have to think like the animal you’re tracking. Food, water, shelter: the three things any beast needs. And no animal will climb a hill or cover awkward ground unless they have to. Think at your quarry’s eye-level: look at the world from three feet, not six. He looked at Much. Or even five.

-If it’s man you’re stalking, your job is easier. Animals exist as part of the forest: people don’t, they go through it, and leave a wake as sure as a duck on a millpond. Foresters are more skilful at moving through the wood, but even they leave traces.

-Footprints, said Scathelocke.

-You’ll be lucky, but they might. Now, a rich traveller on horseback will leave footprints, but they’ll be in gaudy clothes, on a bloody great horse and probably in a train of five or six others, so if you need to rely on hoofprints, you’re not looking in front of your face. Now, close your eyes, count to thirty and see if you can find me.

When they opened their eyes, Stutely had vanished. Sherwood, moments ago just a backdrop, was now an entire world. Where to start?

-He went that way…Much began.

-He’ll double back and end up behind us. I’m going this way. Scathelocke jerked a thumb to his right.

Much shrugged, but didn’t follow. It made sense to apply what Stutely had taught them. Surely the point wasn’t just finding him, but the process of doing so?

He took two confident steps in the direction he’d last heard him, and then his memory became shaky. All routes looked equally likely, equally unlikely. So he knelt, examined the pattern of leaf litter, and began to track his friend.

 

Scathelocke was lost. He had no memory of having come this way, nor could he now see the point from which he’d begun his search. He cursed his impulsiveness. For all he knew, the boy had found Stutely, and together they were stalking him.

 

Scuffed lichen on a tree at knee-height; the faintest of treads in a patch of moss, below a branch low enough to pull or swing up to. The bark on this branch: had it been disturbed? Had someone stood here? Eagerly, Much lifted himself into the tree.

 

Movement. Scathelocke stilled himself. Slowly remembering what he’d been taught, he kept himself relaxed, the easier to flee. Careful to move slowly, he searched, looking at the extremities of vision. Too often in the forest – at night especially – things you looked at head-on became less clear, or vanished altogether. If something was there, it would move again…

A human, short enough to be Much; too short for Roger. He turned, about to wave, and as he did so the figure fled. It had moved like a woman. He fixed in memory the position she’d occupied last and, admitting he was lost, waited for the others to find him.

 

Much peered up through the thinner branches toward the crown of the tree. He was twenty feet from the forest floor, and though he guessed the slender Stutely was probably his own weight, there wasn’t enough tree left to conceal a man. Where had he gone? He looked desperately about. Damn! To have come this far.

Nearby, a fieldfare called. Much began to retrace his steps, keen to create no further traces himself. The fieldfare called again, and realisation dawned. He followed the sound of its call – a fieldfare in June? – and saw Stutely’s grinning face, a little lower down, and in the next tree.

-Are you a squirrel? Can you leap from branches?

-No, said Stutely, but I can leave a branch once I’ve stood on it to set a false trail. If you’d looked at the ground on the other side of that lowest branch, you’d have seen two footprints big and clear enough even for Will Scathelocke to spot. A good effort though, Much. Where is Scathelocke?

-No idea.

-I don’t think he’ll be too hard to find, do you?

 

Much led and Stutely steered him here and there. A fine drizzle had started. They soon found Scathelocke holding a roof of bracken fronds over his head. He told them what he’d seen.

-A woman? Stutely was sceptical. There are other outlaws but I’ve never seen a female one.

-Woman, girl. It was the way she moved. You can tell a woman’s movements. He looked at Much. If you’ve known women at all.

-No foresters are women, Stutely mused.

-She could have been lost, suggested Much.

-She moved too stealthily.

-Or hunting.

-At midsummer? Stutely scoffed. She takes her life in her hands. Can you track her, Will?

-Probably not. But I can show you where she was, and you can demonstrate your arts, and I can learn.

-Your ability to flatter won’t bag you food, Scathelocke.

-Your wit won’t stop me wanting to punch you, Stutely.

-Excellent. Lay on.

Stutely picked up the faintest of trails, which petered out after a hundred yards. He shook his head.

-I said I’d show you how to track man; I never said anything about women.

 

They hid from the rain, ducking under makeshift shelters they’d built from a pair of crossed boughs and stretched animal hide. Stutely could see Scathelocke and Little John laughing quietly as they shared a joke, too low for Stutely to hear. Much, repairing his shoes, was straining to hear them, a half-smile on his face as he caught a phrase now and again. Roger seemed to bristle with suppressed energy: he stared, unblinking, at a point beyond the undergrowth. Stutely watched him: some debate was going on in the boy’s head. John and Scathelocke laughed together as the punchline was reached, and Roger shot them a piercing look. He closed his eyes a moment then stood up, throwing off his shelter.

-That’s it. He picked up what few belongings he had and wrapped them in his cloak. He bundled it under his arm and stuck a knife in his belt. I’m leaving, he announced.

Only now did John and Scathelocke take notice.

-Where to? The ghost of a grin hung on Little John’s face.

-Back to Gunthorpe. I’m not doing this any more.

-Wait. John stood up. You can’t just leave.

-Tell me why not.

-Let him go, John, said Much.

Stutely stood now, too, picking up his bow and loosely nocking an arrow.

-No, Much. John’s right. He can’t leave.

Roger looked at the bow and gave a sour laugh.

-Are you going to shoot me, Will?

-If you leave, yes.

John slapped his forehead.

-What madness is this? Will, don’t be ridiculous. He’s one of us.

Stutely trained the bow on Roger’s chest.

-If he leaves, we’re compromised. He knows us, our habits, and our haunts.

-He’s not our enemy! Are you, lad?

-No. I just want to leave.

-If word gets around, said Stutely, of where he’s been…if he’s caught, and tortured: you think he won’t tell?

-I’d die rather than be captured.

Stutely made a bitter grin.

-Keep walking, then.

-Let him go, Will. Robin’s voice came from between the trees.

-No, Robin.

-We can’t keep him here. He’s not a prisoner: none of us are. He’s a friend.

The bow stayed level. The taut string creaked.

-Please, Will. Let him go. If we have to move, so be it. The forest is large.

-I’ll say nothing. I promise. And if I can help-

-That means nothing, said Stutely, lowering the bow.

Roger looked around the men, as if expecting something more.

-Go.

They watched him until he was out of sight. He looked back once, and waved. Scathelocke raised an arm in farewell.

-He was only acting as his nature dictated, said Robin. He picked up Roger’s discarded shelter, and huddled on the ground.

-You knew he wouldn’t stay? Stutely still held the bow.

-I had my doubts.

-So why did you let him join us?

-He wanted to help, and he did. We couldn’t have freed Scathelocke without him.

-Maybe we should be more wary of those wanting to join us in future, then, said John.

-None of us are going to be here forever, said Robin.

 

 

 

Stutely led Scathelocke and Much through the trees. Much felt a lightness in his step in the days since Roger had left. They filled their water skins in a brook. The rain grew heavier, and they left the earthen bank before it grew soft enough to take their footprints. Stutely held up a hand in alarm, indicated his ear, then a spot over to their right. He and Much crept to a thick beech tree, Scathelocke to a neighbouring oak. Much felt his heart, so loud in his chest it must surely give him away. Then, his ears less acute than Stutely’s, he heard the unmistakeable sound of a man’s whistling. Stutely clambered into the tree, and made a signal that Much failed to understand, then vanished. Much clung to the tree-trunk, unsure of what to do.

 

When the man limped past Scathelocke’s tree still whistling, the tune came to him. He recognised it, an old army song. The beggar was a soldier, maybe crippled. With encouragement and food, he could be a useful fighter. And he was poor: what was this band for, if not to help the poor? All this flashed through his mind in a heartbeat, and he stepped into the beggar’s path.

 

The whistler came into view. To judge by his clothes, a beggar. He wore a simple dress of dirty hessian, the sight of which made Stutely’s skin bristle. His face was covered: a leper? He limped, and bore his weight on a staff, a bag slung over one shoulder. The whistling bothered Stutely. Only an idiot drew attention to themselves in Sherwood in June. And what beggar risked Thieves Wood at any time? Silently, Stutely climbed back down the tree, signalled to a bewildered-looking Much to stay where he was, and set off through the undergrowth. He found the man’s trail, and as swiftly and quietly as he could, followed it backwards through the wood. Something wasn’t right.

 

Much gripped the beech trunk, tree dust clotting on his sweaty palms. What should he do? He strained to listen, paralysed by indecision.

-Nottingham? Scathelocke was saying. You’re lost, friend. You’ll hit Mansfield going this way.

The beggar coughed, hacked, spat, and slumped to the ground.

-I won’t reach anywhere without something to eat. You haven’t any food on you?

-If you can walk a bit, yes. I heard you whistling: military man. Where did you fight?

The beggar coughed and spat again. He peered at it, scratched his armpit.

-France. Low Countries.

-I fought there myself. Come on, I’ll help you up.

Much saw Scathelocke haul the man to his feet. In that movement, the beggar didn’t look either exhausted or crippled. Much left the cover of the tree and began to circle through the bracken.

-I’ll just get my friends. Much? Will? Scathelocke called softly to the trees. The beggar looked about, wary.

-What friends are these? Are you outlaws? I want no truck with outlaws.

-Companions. We live in the forest. Much! No matter. This way; I’ll take you to our camp.

-I thought only outlaws lived in Sherwood.

Scathelocke laughed.

-You’re right: so we are. But you’ve nothing to fear. You’ve heard of Robin Hood?

-I heard many a song at Ollerton, in the alehouse.

-And?

-They say he’s a friend to the poor. But I thought it was just a song.

-I’ll take you to him, Scathelocke laughed, and you can judge. He peered through the trees. The lie of the land was familiar, and the shape of a fallen tree. To his delight, Scathelocke knew himself – for a change – not lost.

-This way, he said, confident. Not far at all.

-Will! Much’s voice in the undergrowth.

-My friend, explained Scathelocke as he greeted the boy. Come, Much: this poor man needs food and shelter. This way, he said to the beggar.

-Why that way?

Scathelocke looked at Much in puzzlement. Because it’s the way to camp.

Much shook his head.

-That way, he pointed.

-I know I’m no tracker, but when I know something I know it, and I recognise this way.

-The way to Mansfield and little else.

-Much, I tell you-

-And I tell you, Will Scathelocke- Much spoke through clenched teeth, ignoring the beggar and trying by force of his stare to alert Scathelocke to his suspicion – our camp is that way. He turned to the beggar. My companion is new to the forest; though I’m young I know the way. Young brain, you see? Still fresh. Will you follow me?

 

Good lad, thought Stutely. You’re a shrewd one, Much Miller. He, too, evidently had his suspicions.

Will had tracked, easily, the beggar’s route through the forest. In the minutes since he’d left the tree, he’d picked up the trail and examined it with growing amusement and concern. Concern, because this beggar was plainly not what he seemed, and amusement, because he played the role so badly.

The sandy soil of Sherwood had retained enough of the man’s prints for Will to note the extra weight placed on the right leg – suggesting a wound to the left. Then, some paces on, the indentations had changed as the wound had switched to the right leg. On a bed of flattened bracken he’d found the remains of the man’s last meal: that there were remains at all suggested he was either not too hungry – and what poor man was ever full? – or so rich he could afford to leave scraps. The sight of the discarded bread made Stutely’s stomach moan. He slipped through the beeches to where Scathelocke – curse his lack of caution! – had engaged the beggar.

He watched as the beggar let Much lead him on; Scathelocke followed with a face like a summer storm. It was lucky that the beggar had believed Much, and that Scathelocke hadn’t pressed his point. Stutely grinned to himself: the first time Scathelocke’s forest-sense was correct, his own comrade tricks him out of it.

 

-Is it far, my lad? The beggar asked, over and over.

-Just a little further, Much would reply. Scathelocke, fuming, kept silent.

The further they walked, though, the more concerned Much became. The diversion had worked, but what now? If he could get Scathelocke alone, to conspire…

-Come, young master; my wound aches and my stomach echoes its pleas.

To lead the man out of the forest would risk leaving the safety of the woods, and encountering a patrol of foresters. Besides, the man’s suspicions would grow if they walked even a little further.

-My war-wounds, young sir. I need rest.

A fieldfare called, somewhere nearby. Much halted, so suddenly the beggar toppled into him. In a glance he saw how the man’s legs adjusted to the momentary loss of balance. If the beggar was war-wounded, Much was a Duke.

-Apologies, sir. The trees around here all look alike and made me think us closer to camp than we were. But I see now where we are. And your leg: I’ve been so thoughtless, for I have a little skill with herbs and healing, and can aid you. Which leg pains you?

-The left. The man gestured as if seeking admiration of a beautiful daughter he intended to marry off.

-Show me, and I will see what I can do to make the last of the journey easier.

-Oh no, lad. It’s a sight not for tender eyes. Gangrene, and rotten black it is. Maggotty, slime-infected, pus-filled. Horrible.

-A wonder you can stand at all!

-It pains me. He looked sadly at the cloth which concealed the troublesome limb. Much caught Scathelocke’s eye and winked.

-I’ve a strong stomach, and have seen worse. Living in the forest, we see dead things all the time; don’t we, Will? Corpses. Rotten, festering things of all sizes. Let me see it.

-No lad. Away! The beggar’s arms flapped.

-You need urgent tending.

-It isn’t for your eyes, boy!

-I insist! Hold him, Will.

Much grabbed for the man’s legs and whether under pressure from Scathelocke or his own desperation to flee, the beggar fell to the ground. The three men struggled a moment. Then, a ripping of weeds, an incoming blow-

Much fell back, blinded. Pain flared across his face. He screamed. Sightless, he felt the captive break free, and footsteps pounded through the bracken. Scathelocke, too, moaned in pain.

-My eyes!

 

Stutely came to them moments later. They rolled on the grass clutching their faces. He saw the stinging nettles the beggar had grabbed, and squatted by his companions, chuckling.

-You handled that well, both of you. A rousing success.

Scathelocke groaned.

-Shut up, Stutely, and get me aid.

-Oh, but I thought Much was a healer: he has “some skill with herbs”, I believe.

-I had to try something, the boy gasped. A welter of angry white spots dotted his face. We had to teach him a lesson.

-I’m sure you have, at that. Here are some dock leaves: fight over them between yourselves. I’ll go and tidy this matter up.

-Will Stutely? The boy grabbed blindly at his leg. You won’t tell Robin, will you?

-Tell him? No, of course I won’t tell him.

-Thank you.

-No, we’re going to re-enact it for him. You two will play yourselves. I’ll be the beggar. A perfect Midsummer’s entertainment.

He departed; Scathelocke’s curses drowned out his own laughter.

 

Stutely grew wary, the further he tracked the beggar. His disguise uncovered, the man had made swift progress through the forest on legs neither wounded nor diseased. He was no forester, either: his tracks were plain for a child to follow, a lost man concerned only with speed and not concealment.

And concealment was more awkward, here on the edge of Thieves Wood. The beech and oak woods were interrupted more and more by areas of scrub and heathland and thin birch copses. These were areas he’d patrolled as a forester, and he moved with more caution. He could be shot on sight at any moment.

A noise ahead. He stopped by a tree, rueing the young beech’s narrow trunk. He squatted, and inched toward the sound of voices.

On the edge of a clearing, the beggar talked with two men. As Stutely crawled closer, he recognised one of them: Edward. His stomach flipped like a landed fish. Edward’s companion was a younger man Stutely didn’t know. Edward said something to him, and passed the beggar a piece of parchment as if having inspected it. Stutely inched closer.

-Pass then, friend. Be on your way.

Friend? Who is friend to a forester? This was no ordinary beggar, thought Will. The parchment was the key to this particular mystery. If he could avoid the foresters, and head the man off…

As if on cue, Edward started along the path the beggar had taken, his companion following. In a matter of heartbeats they’d stumble across Stutely. His head swam, like the first time he’d climbed a tree. Even Edward could track the beggar back to Much and Scathelocke, and from then…?

Stutely was alone: there could be no call for help. He peered at the foresters: their progress was steady and watchful; not yet suspicious. He nocked an arrow, fingers fumbling with the bowstring. He should have guessed that his path and Edward’s would cross again. He didn’t want to kill Edward, but the feeling would not be mutual. But who was the hunter here, and who the prey?

He took a gulping breath and stood, directly in their path. Before he could give himself a moment to doubt, he loosed the arrow at his former colleague. Recognition flared in Edward’s eyes as the arrow lodged deep in his throat. He fell, choking blood, to the forest floor. Stutely re-nocked and turned on the younger man.

-Drop your weapons.

The terrified forester shrugged his bow from his back and fumbled to loosen his quiver. Stutely aimed at the man’s hip, and the short sword hanging from it. Suddenly remembering, the forester undid the belt and let it slip off.

-The man, the beggar. Who was he?

-I…I don’t know.

-He had a letter.

-I can’t read. Edward read it. He had leave of passage from Sir Guy of Gisburne. On the Sheriff’s business. I don’t know who he was, though. You shot the wrong man. He laughed weakly, and started to cry.

 

-Where had the beggar come from? Robin asked.

-North-west, said Stutely. Birkencar I suppose, if Gisburne gave him passage.

-Sent to find us? asked Little John.

-We have to assume so. Make ready to move camp. We can’t assume Thieves Wood is secure. I have the forest’s work to do before our beggar leaves us. It’s time the forest revoked it’s hospitality towards him.

-Robin, Edward needs buried. I can’t leave him like that.

-We don’t have time. The forest will take him.

-He’s a man and deserves burial. It could have been me, or any one of my old colleagues. Foresters are not beasts, Robin. They are men like you or I.

-Like you, maybe, said John.

Stutely bristled.

-What do you mean? My forester days are past. I’m an outlaw, like all of you.

-Peace, Will, said Robin, but he looked sternly at John. A body is food for all the forest’s life. Life and death, Will. A turning circle.

 

Edward still unburied, Stutely retreated a distance to a little knoll where, within the compass of a hawthorn bush, he crouched to watch Robin. He could hear the noises of the forest: the birdcalls, the rustlings in the branches, the hum of insects exploring foxgloves, and the shufflings of thrush and rabbit and vole.

John’s words had shaken him. Since that first meeting, he was certain the attitude of the men toward him had mellowed. His own uncertainty of their feeling toward him he masked with cutting humour, as if daring them to challenge him. His relationship with the forest, too, was more complex than the others’. It had been a place of work, where he defended its status as a royal playground. Now, he knew it as a thing in itself, older, mightier and greater than anything a man could call his own. You might as well claim ownership of the sea. But Robin’s connection to the forest was a thing not even Will understood. He watched Robin now, a mixture of emotions turning over like autumn leaves in his mind.

Robin always asked for privacy to do what he called “the forest’s work”. Work, the nature of which was a mystery to the others, and which inevitably left Robin exhausted and dazed. Yet he returned to the group with secret knowledge no forest-craft Will knew of could provide. Magic? Despite the visions he had seen, Stutely had no reason to either believe or disbelieve in magic, but what else could you call it?

Robin knelt by a huge elm, gripping its trunk. A hush descended on the wood: the rustlings above and below were stilled. Stutely twitched as if bitten. A tremor rippled through the forest like something huge had stirred. Despite the bow slung across his back and the knife at his side he felt suddenly powerless, and knew that whatever power Robin was invoking could not be harmed by bow and arrow. Robin gave a start. Without hesitation his gaze found Stutely. In the instant their eyes locked, Will felt the onrush of a sparrowhawk, long legs stretched out for the kill, talons a steely-grey death homing in on his eyes. He covered his face and ducked, but there was no sparrowhawk.

Warily, he opened his eyes. Still Robin looked at him but his expression had softened. In his head, as if right beside him, he heard Robin’s voice.

-Go, Will Stutely. Leave me.

His breath short, body soaked in a sudden sweat, Stutely stumbled his way back to the others.

 

Which way? A thousand oaks, and no path between them. He was, he realised with alarm, lost. He had been this way before, hadn’t he? Circling, like a buzzard seeking prey. No, not like the buzzard: more like the prey.

The thought disturbed him. Often he had faced death in battle, but never had he felt as helpless as he did now. The same trees, the same unbroken undergrowth, same birdsong, and still no closer to the edge of this god-forsaken forest. He should be clear of it by now. Flies buzzed at him, made brazen by the tang of sweat, bothering his cheek, his brow. He flapped at them; dancing out of the way, they returned immediately. He stumbled over a root; another, crawled on hands and knees, beneath the level of the circling flies. Circling, circling. The forest encircled him, like a web. Where was the spider? Whichever way he staggered, no closer to its borders: the forest an endlessly moving net, with him at its heart.

Another fall; fear clutched at him now; gripped his throat, seeking only an outlet in order to overwhelm him.

But here was a man, hooded and dressed like the forest itself, picking his way along paths that hadn’t existed a moment before, and which ceased to be as his feet passed.

The lost man let out a cry, scrambling to his feet but legs and arms mutinied. The hooded man stood over him, a longbow on his back.

-You’re lost. I can find your way.

-Yes…

-Or I can leave you here. To the forest.

-No!

The hooded man’s index finger twirled in the air.

-…circling, he said. I would know who you are, stranger. No? Spider got your tongue?

The trembling man controlled his breath, willed his muscles to move.

-You’ve come from Birkencar, been given pass by verderers, masqueraded as a wounded beggar. You head south-west, though you’ve lost your way now. To Nottingham perhaps? In fear and shame. Did you come to find Robin Hood? To infiltrate his band and report back his number, his men, his locations? Well, be fearful no longer. Here is Robin Hood.

The man’s strength gave way and he toppled onto his back.

-Please…

-You have a paper. I would see who you are.

-Yes, yes of course. The man tore through his pack, offered Robin the square of parchment, the wax seal broken. Robin read it and slipped it into his clothes.

-Sir Richard Malbete.

-That is mine. Without it, I-

-With or without it, Sir Richard, Sherwood will not let you go but on my say-so. Stand up.

Malbete stood, clutching his pack.

-Set foot here again at your peril.

As if sprung from a snare, Malbete fled.

 

At dawn the next day, Stutely and John set out for Blidworth dressed as beggars. They spoke little, alert to every sound. Here and there Stutely would stop to examine some signal, invisible to John – footprints, a bent frond of bracken – and read its message.

As they approached the village, the trees thinned. Pigs and chickens wandered the scrublands. The two men left the forest by the main road, limping like the beggars they came disguised as. They made themselves known to the villagers, and received a cautious welcome. These were people too oppressed to be sparked into rage against their rulers. Perhaps, if they could be given hope, they would be more co-operative.

Perhaps not. Scathelocke had not been popular, and as they were directed to the little home in which his family were being sheltered, the young woman showing them the way muttered a curse.

-She’s better off without him now.

By the time the outlaws found the house, word had overtaken them and they were welcomed in by the owner, who introduced himself as Elric. He clasped Will and John’s hands, explaining that he’d only done what any man would have done, and taken in the poor family. His own wife was bedridden, so Emeline did all the cooking to pay for her keep. It was dark inside the house, and stank of tallow-smoke. Candles were stuck to an uneven table by their own wax. Of the eldest Scathelocke boy there was no sign, but the other two – twins of maybe five or six years – played on the floor with a puppy.

-Who are you?

Little John handed Emeline a small pouch.

-Friends, said Stutely. Of your husband. Seeing the quizzical look on her face, he added. He’s alive, Emeline. In the forest. He lives with us.

-But he hung: they say a man was hung at Clipstone. Emeline’s eyes were wide in bewilderment.

-Some other poor wretch, but not Will Scathelocke. We left him a few hours ago.

-Who are you?

-Friends of Robin Hood.

Emeline gasped, and a spark kindled in her eyes. Elric spoke up, suddenly unsure of what the news heralded.

-Would that be silver in the pouch?

-It’s hers, is what it is. John loomed over the man. You said yourself she’s cooking to pay her way.

-Ah, but there’s children to feed as well, sir…

-Look after her, and we can forget all about you. You don’t want a band of outlaws to have you in their thoughts if you try to part her from this charity.

-I wouldn’t dare, sir. Thank you, that is, I mean. Of course…

 

 

The dishevelled traveller had wandered the streets of Nottingham uncertainly, asking townsfolk for directions. At the Sheriff’s townhouse, he was kept waiting at the door for an age after stating his name and purpose, while the guards double-checked with their master. He was shown to a seat near the top of the table, attracting glances from the wealthy merchants of the town, none of whom merited a seat so close to the Sheriff. A space was found next to a finely-dressed woman who appraised him without expression.

-Sir Richard Malbete, my lady. Honoured to make your acquaintance.

-Sir Richard. Your name is known to me, though I can’t think how. Will you sit by me at table? I would rather have wit than worth. The talk of old men bores me, but do not tell. The woman was no longer young, but middle-age had not yet told on her.

-Your secret is mine, my lady…?

-Sylvie.

-A more beautiful name I cannot imagine. Sylvie: sylvan, a lady of the woods?

Her laughter turned nearby grey-bearded heads.

-If only it were possible. Nottingham is fine, but I wonder: would a life in the trees, amid bird and beast, not be more noble?

-My sentiments entirely. The traveller looked at the colourful tapestries adorning the walls, lit by dozens of torches. A trencher was placed before him by a serving-man who regarded him with distaste.

-You attempt to flatter me, Sir Richard?

-I flatter neither man nor woman, bird or beast. All are what they are, and no words will change it. You tire of Nottingham, madam? He inspected the food before him with curiosity.

A diplomatic smile, flat and without mirth. She stroked her goblet with a fingertip.

-My husband is Sheriff. Nottingham is my life.

-Ah! The Sheriff of Nottingham is your man?

-My man? Am I not rather his lady?

Malbete lifted a piece of spiced partridge from the trencher before him.

-Can man own a bird in a tree? A deer in the forest? Another person?

-You do not talk like other knights, Sir Richard.

-Forgive me.

-No, no! It is most pleasant.

-I have been some time in Sherwood; my manners are roughened, perhaps.

-Ah! That was it. Sir Richard Malbete. I knew the name was familiar. You have news for my husband.

The traveller nodded.

-You are party to the Sheriff’s affairs? he asked.

-We talk; sometimes. When something is on his mind. Tell me, what is Sherwood like? To me it seems an ocean of green, and rumour says hardly less treacherous. It can hardly be a sylvan paradise: surely those are just fantasies.

-There are such pockets, madam, where you can hear a nightingale sing before dawn, or drink pure water.

-Pure water!

-Running freely like – he held up his goblet – well, like wine. Why the interest in Sherwood?

-My husband has an itch he cannot rid himself of, scratch as he might.

-He has seen a surgeon, perhaps?

Again, the laughter. Again, disparaging looks from the men around them. This time the Sheriff himself glanced at the couple. His eyes narrowed, sizing up the stranger, then his attention was called elsewhere.

-No, Sir Richard, grinned Sylvie. I mean the outlaw Robin Hood.

-Robin Hood.

-You also know of him?

-He is the reason behind my employment. I was sent to find what I could of him by Sir Guy of Gisburne.

-Mm.

-Sir Guy is not to your liking?

The diplomatic smile once more.

-Tell me of Robin Hood.

At the outlaw’s name, the Sheriff turned to listen.

-My report is for your husband alone, madam.

-No, no, not that. You must know the songs, the stories the common people tell of him.

-A little…

-Well? I would know more of the man who vexes my husband.

-Indeed. I fear he vexes your husband even as we speak. The tales must surely flatter him: he’s no greater a man than me, I do believe. The songs, though: they catch the imagination. He has spirit, they say. The people like spirit. They believe he stands for them, and fights for them in their stead.

-You admire him, it seems to me?

-Admire? No. But I recognise something of myself in him. He has the interests of the poor in his heart, in a way noblemen do not.

-My husband says the poor are necessary, that they fulfil a vital role in the natural hierarchy. That they must always be with us. Why do you look about so?

-For the poor. They must always be with us, yet I see none.

-Not here, of course! she laughed. Not among gentle folk. But on earth. Your name does not become you, Sir Richard.

-In what way, my lady?

-Malbete is a French name: the English for it would be ill-beast. You are neither ill nor beastly.

-You speak French?

-My mother was French. It does the Sheriff no harm, either, in this town to have a wife who is part-English, part-French.

-You speak of yourself as a mere asset.

-I know how politics work, and cities also.

-You could be Sheriff yourself.

The laughter once more, dying away as a commotion erupted at the door. A man dressed in rags, his face wild, was struggling with the guards. His movements were wild and he burst through before they could throw him out.

-I must speak to the Sheriff!

He was hauled back to the door. A dog sneaked in as the door was shoved open, and began to feed on scraps beneath the table.

-You speak to no-one, serf, least of all the Sheriff. The Sheriff’s steward motioned for the guards to expel him.

-I’m no serf! He looked about, and the man beside lady Sylvie turned away his face.

-You know this man? she asked.

The beggar burst from his captors and found the Sheriff. He opened his arms wide in appeal. Nottingham, bored of the commotion, exchanged whispers with the man nearest him.

-My name is Richard Malbete! I am a knight of the realm! The man’s voice was muffled, as guards dragged him out the door, and few listened to his protests.

Sylvie leaned in close to her neighbour.

-Sir Richard, that man claims to be you.

-He is not me.

-Maybe not. But are you he?

-My lady?

-I believe I know your secret, “Sir Richard”.

-Few men know my secret.

-I am no man, she said softly. Now, let us imagine that the poor wretch they have just ejected is Sir Richard Malbete; a man sent to discover what he could of Robin Hood. And here is someone in his place. Like Daniel in the lion’s den, I know not who else you could be.

-Why do you not stand and declare me to your husband?

-I wouldn’t do that to my worst enemy.

-I am not your worst enemy?

The smile this time is fleeting, but conspiratorial.

-You are, I believe, my husband’s malady. When he suffers so, he has greater need of my attention. Laying all other considerations aside, you are worth more to me at liberty, Robin Hood. These last words were spoken in a whisper.

-Other considerations?

-You may not be aware that the Sheriff has an archery shoot organised following this meal.

-No.

-For his men: a morale boost. Silver is at stake for the best shot. If you are who I believe you to be, I would see you shoot.

A shadow fell across the table between them. The Sheriff cleared his throat, and nodded to his wife’s companion.

-My dear. Will you introduce me?

-With pleasure: this is Sir Richard Malbete. Sir Richard, the Sheriff.

-Ah, Gisburne’s man.

-I am my own man, Sheriff.

-Of course. Had I known, I would have spoken to you before. I am sorry.

-Not at all: your lady’s company has been enchanting. He rose, beckoned by the Sheriff. Farewell, my lady of the forest.

Seeing the Sheriff’s frown, he added:

-Sylvie: that is the meaning of the name.

-Ah. You have news from Sherwood, I hope.

-I do. First, though: there is an archery tournament?

-You shoot?

-I’ve been known to.

The Sheriff clapped him on the back.

-Wonderful! An extra spur for the men to raise their game. Come, then.

 

The company made slow passage, bellies swollen, through the streets toward the northern gate. As they walked Robin saw children playing in the mud, scratching at lice, their clothes filthy and torn. The stench of the streets overwhelmed him and he longed for the shelter and the shade of the forest. Beyond the gate they came to the butts, where targets had been erected on the grass in the shadow of the town walls.

Robin watched the Sheriff’s men, all dressed in his livery, inspect their bows and choose arrows. He scrutinised the way they handled the weaponry to judge who would be a good shot, and who a poor one.

-Your bow, Sir Richard. The Sheriff handed Robin a longbow and he appraised it carefully. Made from a yew branch, like his own, it was a fine bow. The bowstring was better than his own.

-As guest of honour, you will shoot first.

The archers bristled with nervous energy in a semi-circle around their lord. Robin shook his head.

-This tournament is for your men, Sheriff. One of them should have the honour.

The Sheriff acquiesced, to the delight of the men who took their positions. One after another they took their shots: as Robin had expected, some shot better than others. Some missed the target entirely, to the amusement of their fellows. Robin joined in the laughter. When it came to his turn, he shot well enough to progress, but not so well as to raise hackles or draw undue attention to himself. Lady Sylvie touched his upper arm and whispered to him.

-I expected better. I confess myself disappointed.

-You would not reveal me, Robin replied softly. I would not reveal me either.

Archers were eliminated round after round until three men remained. Robin was among them. Though he had given a good account of Sir Richard Malbete, the temptation of the final arrow proved irresistible. The targets had been moved almost to the furthest point possible: beyond them the ground sloped steeply out of sight. The Sheriff offered him the first shot once more, and this time he accepted. His arrow hit the target dead centre.

There were a few cheers, but his fellow competitors looked winded. Hands trembling, the next man fired badly. He turned away and swore, glowering at Robin. The final archer hit the centre a little to the side of Robin’s, but close enough to force the marshal to declare a single arrow shoot-off. As the target was moved the short distance to the very edge of the slope, and the archers themselves retreated a few yards, Robin saw a man run from the town gate, making for the Sheriff. No move was made to stop him, as if he were known and trusted. He relayed his message but at distance Robin could hear nothing. He looked to Sylvie, but she was being talked to by a clergyman and he couldn’t catch her eyes. He let his opponent shoot first. They shook hands, and the man, plainly the Sheriff’s finest, nocked with easy confidence. His arrow hit the centre. A chorus of cheers arose like a sudden wind. His comrades pounded him on the back and embraced him.

-Can you do better, Sir Richard? asked the Sheriff. The messenger stood a distance back, red in the face and catching his breath.

-Only one man could better that shot, and Sir Richard Malbete is not Robin Hood. I concede.

A cry went up from the Sheriff’s men as they acclaimed their champion. Robin was clapped on the back, his hand grasped and shaken warmly, but the Sheriff did not join in the celebration.

-Robin Hood. You remind me now of your mission, Sir Richard. You speak as though you are familiar with the wolfshead.

-I happened upon him in Sherwood; we shot arrows together.

-You would have done better to kill him and claim the bounty.

-I was unarmed. Sire.

-What can you tell me of him?

-He shoots well; he robs the wealthy, redistributing the takings to the poor folk in the villages around the forest.

-Redistribution! Theft, plain and simple. He is a vagabond, a cur, a cut-purse.

-He fights well, and has a number of loyal men. He is an adversary to beware of.

-Adversary? He is no adversary. A knight or a nobleman may be an adversary: Robin Hood is neither. He is a nuisance; a flea on the hide of England.

-I imagine he would say much the same of you.

The Sheriff’s eyes bulged. His voice was strained, face purple.

-Money which should flow to and from this town never gets through that forest. That base-born thief “redistributes” it, as you will. He will bring the nobility to its knees if unchecked.

-He would.

-How many men does he have?

-A small army.

-And you have information on their whereabouts?

-I can lead you to them. I marked well where their summer camp lies.

-Good! I shall assemble a company and you will show us.

The Sheriff gave orders to his men-at-arms. A horse was provided for Robin, who did his best to hide his unease. The party numbered two dozen, and they moved rapidly north on Robin’s directions.

They passed into Sherwood, and Robin led them by broad paths where the horses could walk, over gorse-covered heathland and clearings which buzzed in the heat with insect life. Robin was glad of the forest around him: the leaves brushing his cheek, the smell of greenery and the sweet scent of gorse.

-Do you believe the people’s tales of forest spirits, Sheriff? The forest as a place of fear?

-I fear nothing surrounded by twenty armed men.

-Look! Robin pointed. A goshawk. Do you see it? Beyond Robin’s finger a large grey bird swooped between the oaks, dappled in broken sunlight, and was gone: grey lightning.

-I don’t care for bird or beast unless it’s on my table. And all these trees are but timber uncut. Uncultivated wealth.

Robin cupped his hands about his mouth and screeched like a goshawk. The call was returned from the near distance.

-You mimic, Sir Richard, well.

-It’s a useful skill.

-I see now why Sir Guy picked you for such a job. Tell me, what’s the news from Birkencar?

-Of Sir Guy?

-Of course. How go his efforts to increase his land? What has transpired of his dealings with Lord Budby?

-All we talked of was Robin Hood.

-You must have exchanged pleasantries. I know Sir Guy is not the most loquacious, but more useful information is cast aside in small talk than most people realise. Last I heard, he also had his eye on a piece of land at…Wellow, was it?

-Wellow, yes: I think so.

-No: Eakring. That was it. Good profitable land, and the sitting tenants will be removed in time. Like pulling a thorn from one’s flesh: so very satisfying. You are very quiet, Sir Richard. Does something trouble you? Your thoughts are elsewhere, perhaps? Some matter in Buxton?

-Buxton?

-Your home, “Sir Richard”.

-So long have I spent in these parts, Sheriff, that home is-

The Sheriff made a gesture; in a moment, the guards altered their formation, and Robin’s horse was encircled. They drew swords, and those among them with bows nocked arrows; their handlers were men he had shot with earlier.

-Home is right here isn’t it, Robin Hood?

Robin smiled grimly as two men hauled him from the horse. They tied his hands tight behind him.

-Yes, Sheriff. Sherwood is my home.

-Liar! Robin ducked too late: the Sheriff’s foot caught his jaw and he fell back. The guards dragged him upright. He spat blood.

-Sherwood belongs to the King, in whose stead I rule here!

-I extend my hospitality to you both.

-Dog! Another kick. The Sheriff dismounted, waited until the outlaw had been pulled upright, and punched him in the face. Robin’s vision blurred red. He blinked the blood away, and spat again. A gobbet of scarlet stained the Sheriff’s boot.

-Vermin! The Sheriff grabbed Robin’s throat. You will hang here, Robin Hood. He turned to the guards. Set him on the horse with a noose about his neck. He rubbed at his gloves as if disgusted by their contact with the outlaw. Robin was manoeuvred back onto the horse, which was then steered beneath a tree. A rope was slung over a low branch, and the loose end tied around the trunk. The horse shifted uneasily, and the rope bit into Robin’s neck.

-Scum you are alive, and scum you’ll remain, dead. The Sheriff, composed once more, straightened his clothing. Your head on a spike above the gates of Nottingham will warn all who would rise against those above them. What have you to say to that, wolfshead?

Nearby, the keening of a buzzard. In the sudden hush as birdlife cowered in fear, Robin spoke quietly. His gaze was locked with Nottingham’s, but his voice was loud enough for all the men to hear.

-My bones are the bedrock of this forest, my skin the leaves on the trees. The sap of the oak tree flows in my blood. I am Robin Hood, and you cannot kill me.

 

Bound by their gaze, neither man moved. A flicker ran across the Sheriff’s expression, as if the condemned man’s warning had disturbed his equilibrium. He blinked and turned away.

-Hang him, he grunted, hand to his forehead.

The soldier nearest Robin pricked the horse’s rump with his sword. It reared with a cry, throwing off its burden. It bolted, scattering men-at-arms who, in the next instant, spun in confusion as the air whispered with arrows. Arrows from places concealed, high and low. Three men fell; a fourth and fifth and more before any could find target to aim at. Crouching in their midst, untouched, the Sheriff snarled and drawing his sword in a rage, advanced on the swinging outlaw.

Two arrows: one sliced clean through the rope that suspended Robin and he fell, choking, to the grass. The other struck Nottingham’s sword and it, too, fell. The soldiers still standing dropped their weapons and raised hands in surrender.

From bracken and branch the outlaws emerged as if the trees had given them life.

 

-Robin! John darted to the still form of his comrade, then drew his knife and advanced on the Sheriff. As he did so Robin’s voice, clear as if in his ear, shouted

Stop!

John spun. Robin lay, bonds now cut, clutching his scarred throat. His gaze met John’s and John knew that no cry had been loosed.

Stutely held the Sheriff as the rest of his men scattered. Nottingham squinted at his captor.

-I know your face.

Stutely shook his head.

-Maybe once you knew a man with my face, but he’s dead and gone.

-The better for him, the Sheriff growled. You have me, Robin Hood. What will you now? Curse me, depose me: do the worst you can.

-Blindfold him, Much, said Robin. Tonight he dines with us.

-Dines? The outlaws gasped. Little John dropped to the ground by Robin. We should feed his eyes to the crows and make bowstrings of his guts!

Robin coughed, and John helped him up. Much tied a strip of cloth around the captive’s head and pulled it tight. Stutely shoved him aside and pulled it tighter.

-I extended the hospitality of Sherwood to him. We know that we aren’t savages, and now he will, too.

-So? It won’t change what he says about us. He’ll still try to have us killed.

-Would you kill him now, John? In cold blood? You told me once you wouldn’t kill Gisburne so.

-We didn’t have the opportunity then. The Sheriff of Nottingham stands for everything we fight against.

-Kill him and another will be appointed in his place.

-So what’s the point, Robin? What’s the point? John fumed.

-Is that what we do? Appoint ourselves judges? Cut a swathe through the nobility? John, the point is to resist; to struggle; to ensure people like him don’t sleep easy at night. That the people might not always be in thrall. To give them hope: you said so yourself.

-Yet you kill my men-at-arms, wolfshead. They are “people” too, the Sheriff spat.

-They made their choice, said Stutely, fingering the knife at his belt. They knew the risks.