A few hour’s walk north of Birkencar, in the neighbouring parish of Budby, stood Thoresby Castle. The original builder would not now recognise it, so much had it been altered and fortified since it was built. The descendants of the founder, Baron Illiers de Quincampoix, had taken the name of the parish to better assimilate with the local people. But a nobleman is still a nobleman, whatever language his name belongs to. Two men stood on the watchtower. The present owner, Sir William Budby, leaned on the balustrade, deep in thought. Below him in the forest rose wisps of smoke from charcoal-makers’ ovens. The land about was his, and it weighed heavily on his mind. His wife, Lady Eleanor, was not long in her grave and their daughter, Mowren, was missing. Behind Sir William the other man stood with arms folded in a sign of strained patience.
-I can’t do this anymore, Guy. I can’t. I’m too old now. Ten years ago, five maybe.
-There’s no shame, Sir William, said Gisburne. You aren’t the first man for whom the loss of a loved one proved too great a strain.
Budby turned and fixed Gisburne with a piercing look, as if trying to discern the sincerity of the young man’s platitude.
-And what would you know of that? He turned back to face the endless forest below. I didn’t say I was ashamed.
-Mowren will be biddable. I promise you that, for all she’s strong-willed.
Gisburne opened his mouth and shut it again.
-She’ll be a good wife to you. It’s funny, though: I always wanted a boy. Sometimes I as good as pretended she was one. She can hunt, you know. I used to take her hunting. And she can fight, with staff or sword; and shoot a bow also. Ad Vitam Paror, that was the motto I tried to instil in her: I am preparing for life. He smiled to himself. If she’d been a boy, we wouldn’t be here now, though, would we?
-No. My men will find her. I’ve asked them to talk to…there’s an itinerant friar, lives by the Meden. A hermit. She confides in him. Doesn’t confide in me any more, not since her mother died. Tuck’s his name. I don’t like him, but…if anyone can talk her around, persuade her back, it’s him.
-And your dowry, Guy. The villages from Wellbeck to Ollerton. Yours, in lieu of the King, to do with as you see fit, I suppose.
-Indeed, said Gisburne, tracing with a fingertip the pommel of his sword.
Budby rubbed at the film of lichen on the stones, scratched through it and rubbed the dust on his hands.
-Do you think of death, Sir Guy?
-Not my own, certainly. It doesn’t befit a knight to dwell on mortality.
-I know, but life isn’t all battle. What, you disagree?
-There is little life has taught me that battle hasn’t. I would venture that life is a lesser thing than battle. But I don’t think about death. And if I did…I know of no death that hasn’t enriched me in some way. My foes in wartime. My father’s…he made a gesture. I inhabit his name and his house: if he were still alive I would not.
-You don’t grieve him?
-People die, the rest live.
-You’re a cold character, Gisburne. There is room for love within you?
-Heavens, you’re to marry my daughter! My sole relation on this earth; the end of the house of Budby. I am not naïve, but I would not wish that she was made unhappy by the match.
-You’re in no position, Sir William, to make conditions.
-If your father was here to listen to you! He was a noble man in all he did, not one merely content with the title of nobleman.
-So I ever hear. But he is dead, and I await news of your daughter. There are papers to be signed?
-Indeed; come below.
-There is food enough for my men?
-Your men? I thought you came alone? The castle remains mine.
-There is business, locally, to attend to once we are done. My men should arrive soon. Get used to the sight of them, Sir William.
Michael Tuck grew up in Nottingham, the son and grandson of men in the lace trade. His stubbornness brought him into conflict with his peers, and, when he elected to become a monk, with his family. Unfortunately for a man who suffered no fools, he found many of his fellow monks to be fools, and when the inevitable happened he was expelled from the Abbey at Leaford. He travelled north, to the outskirts of Sherwood, until he reached the bank of the Meden. Finding a spot by the river, he built himself a hut, and dug a moat around it. He would give blessings to travellers or locals who sought him in confidence. For a fee he would bear travellers across the Meden, those who were wary of the proximity of the bridge at Perlethorpe to the looming forest. Living alone, his stubbornness grew, but alongside it a reputation for honesty, which was rare among the clergy. The locals knew him to be a good man, though none would call him a friend.
Lady Mowren Budby was the exception. Here was a girl only just seventeen who knew her own mind as well as any elder. Tuck had rescued her years before when, startled by a heron launching itself, silent and huge, from its post, she had toppled into the river. He had thought her a boy at first, such were her clothes, and had been about to clout her for her stupidity. He checked himself, and then clouted her anyway. Stupidity was stupidity, whatever your sex. Thereafter, Mowren visited often, bringing food: not kitchen scraps, but the best Thoresby Castle could afford.
Whole-roast orioles; beavers’ tongues and mushroom tart; goldfinch breasts; hare livers; honey and seedcakes dipped in mead; ale; venison pasties with Kentish wine; pickled trout-
The monk awoke to shouts. Startled, he flapped about and was upright before both eyes had opened. He swayed, steadied himself on the wall of his hut. Slapped himself in the face.
On the far bank of the Meden, half a dozen men-at-arms. He didn’t recognise the livery, but he wasn’t a man for such details.
-What is it? I was at prayer!
A chorus of sceptical laughter.
-We wish to question you. Come over!
-You come over!
-We are sent from Sir Guy of Gisburne and have need to talk to you.
-You try my patience, brother.
-I’m not getting my feet wet. You want me, come and get me. The monk settled back down.
-You leave me no choice.
-God’s wounds! Are you so simple? You can come across the weir or you can be gone. That sounds like a choice to me.
-If you were not a man of God, I’d have stopped your mouth by now.
-If I were not a man of God, neither of us would be here, so stop talking nonsense. I await your arrival. He leaned back and closed his eyes. When he next opened them, armed men surrounded him with drawn swords. Their captain squatted in front of him. All looked impatient; all were dripping wet.
-I hope your armour rusts, grunted Tuck. What do you want?
-Lady Mowren of Budby.
Tuck watched the men’s leader, this Guy of Gisburne, guide his horse across the river. Behind him waded the poor man-at-arms who’d been despatched to inform him that the monk wouldn’t talk. Tuck hid his glee, and to the knight’s evident impatience, remained seated while Gisburne dismounted. About him, the other soldiers stiffened and tried to look less ineffective.
-My lord, said their captain. He won’t speak.
Gisburne waved the man away.
-Brother Tuck. Let me appeal to you as a holy man. You would offer assistance to those in need?
-In true need, aye.
-Then help me. I am a man whose bride-to-be is missing. I fear for her. He struck his armoured chest. Does such a plight not stir your heart?
-It would stir my heart if I believed the lady to share your concern. I do not believe she seeks this marriage, Sir Guy.
-That’s neither here nor there. What matters is that the girl is missing. Do you know where she is?
-Then please tell me.
-Where she has ever been: within the bounds of the body God gave to her, and which no man shall intrude upon but by the will of both God and herself.
Gisburne clenched a fist. His voice was low, trembling with suppressed rage.
-I will not be spoken to like this.
-Then clear off, boy, Tuck shrugged. And take your jesters with you.
Gisburne drew his sword. Tuck remained impassive, even as the blade nicked his jowls.
-Sir Guy! the captain gasped.
-Quiet! Man of God or no, I’ll cut you a third chin if you don’t tell me where the girl is.
-You’d bear arms against a defenceless monk?
-Against a man who hides behind his God so he can throw insults at his betters. Gisburne looked down at Tuck’s clothing. A man of the cloth without the cloth is just a man. I could slice the robes from your back and have no compunction about slaughtering you.
Tuck stood up slowly, drawing himself to his full height, from which he looked down on Gisburne by a full hand’s span.
-I shall pray for your soul, Sir Guy. But may God strike your body before the year is out. Mowren is in Sherwood. Yes, you heard me: Sherwood. If you want her, go in there and find her.