I’ve said already: I will not undergo this.
Mowren sat with Robin as they stitched together holes in their clothing.
-You can’t join us until you do.
-I could travel with you.
-But we couldn’t trust you. Not until you understand the mysteries of the forest. We all took this initiation. Even Much, and he came out of it no worse than any other. What do you fear?
Mowren pricked her forefinger, and sucked the bead of blood away.
-The herbs you talk of. These are devilish plants. Witches’ concoctions.
-Roots, leaves, toadstools and berries. They grow out of the earth, like parsnips or elms. Do you really believe they’re the devil’s plants?
-That’s what everyone believes.
-Because they’re kept in fear by the Church. Fear of nature, fear of the green. Of anything that might threaten the clergy’s hold on the way people think.
A bird called; Robin looked up.
All was still in the glade until a young man, red-faced with effort and dripping with sweat, staggered into their midst. With a start he seemed to see the outlaws all at once. He dropped to his knees to catch a breath.
-They’ve burned Budby village. Sir Guy Gisburne’s men. Flame and sword.
Mowren rushed forward.
-Gisburne’s men, or Lord Budby’s?
The messenger looked, bewildered, to Robin.
-This is Mowren, Reynold.
The man nodded.
-Armed men. Does it matter whose?
-To me it does.
-But not the people of Budby, said Robin. Much, make sure Reynold has food and drink before he returns to his village. I will go to Budby.
-I’m coming with you. They’re my father’s people.
-Spoken like a true noble.
-That’s not a compliment, is it?
Robin smiled flatly.
-I can’t be rid of you, can I?
-The forest is my home now.
-Is it? Is it indeed?
They travelled fast, Robin always ahead. Mowren marvelled at the speed and stealth with which he moved. Like a cat, sleek and silent. Bracken resisted her, rabbit-holes tripped her. It seemed that every few paces he had to pause to let her catch up. The journey seemed endless. On they ran, Mowren’s face slapped by branch and bramble, scratched and stung, a halo of flies around her head, drawn by the trickling sweat. Her thighs and calves ached. When finally Robin stopped, her legs were trembling.
-Forest still your home, is it?
-I kept up with you.
-But you’re in no condition to fight. You need to rest: that’s no good to us. Do you understand? We move – we live – with Sherwood, not in spite of it.
-I see what you’re doing. I will not take your potion.
-I’m not trying to poison you. A forest is full of more deep mysteries than either you or I know, and a simple awareness and openness to them is all I ask of my fellows.
-Are we come to Budby?
The river was narrower here than at Perlethorpe, the village smaller than its neighbour. The houses were tightly packed. The smell of burning was thick in Mowren’s throat before they came into the open. Three houses had been gutted, so consumed that only smoking piles of wood and ash remained. Stunned villagers stood in knots. A dog barked incessantly, and was kicked into silence. Heads turned as the outlaws approached. Robin was concealed by his hood, and though he attracted stares recognition dawned on many faces as they saw Mowren. She heard her name whispered, and hung back. Robin spoke to the villagers, and they led him to the charred remains of a house. The ground was wet underfoot from the effort to douse the fire, but the building was gone.
-What are you doing here? A woman, tiny and fair-haired, advanced on Mowren. Someone tried to restrain her and she turned on them.
-I will not hush. This is all because of her.
She thrust her face into Mowren’s. Mowren’s stomach turned in fear.
-The lady of the house is getting married, and we are treated like cattle. I hope your womb dries up and your marriage is hell. And I’ll not bow to you, either.
-I don’t want you to bow, but I can-
The woman spat; Mowren recoiled, and wiped her face. The woman stormed off but then stopped.
-I’d hang you all, she shouted. We work while you play. What have you ever done, Mowren Budby? She gestured at Robin. Take your servant and never come here again. You are not welcome.
Mowren glanced at Robin. The hint of a smirk creased his face. He seemed to be waiting for a reaction. Well, he wouldn’t get one. She held his gaze until he turned and went about the villagers. She watched as people realised who he was. Feeling among her clothes for her pouch of jewellery, she too approached the people of Budby, and began offering a ring here, a pearl there. Some refused, others simply ignored her. Some accepted with more or less grace than others. As she gave away the last of her treasures, she saw Robin watching her.
-Any more where that came from?
-In Thoresby Castle. But it no longer belongs to me.
-Have you no friends, no ladies-in-waiting that could be trusted to find such riches?
-Thoresby Castle isn’t the royal court. We’re not that rich.
-Tell that to these people.
-I’m sorry. There’s no-one I trust enough. I have friends, but they would be too fearful of Gisburne to retain their loyalty to me now. But…there is one man. He wouldn’t steal jewels from the castle, but he could be an ally. A holy man. Don’t sneer like that. He’s a good man: I trust him above all others, even my father. He does not suffer fools.
-That in itself is no recommendation. I doubt Gisburne does, either.
-But he is good. And he can fight.
-A fighting priest? Robin laughed. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or not. I would see this man, and get the measure of him. Where does he live?
-He lives a little further upstream, as a hermit. If we follow the river, and cross-
-You forget yourself. You’re not Lady Budby, to come and go as you please. You’re at large in a royal forest, among outlaws. We will approach him tomorrow: there isn’t enough of the day left now.
-Which brings us back to your witchcraft.
-As you like it.
-I don’t like it. Can you guarantee I will not be harmed?
-You would come to no physical harm; I keep watch over all initiates.
-And what of my soul? Will I be damned in the eye of God?
-If you meet a deity, you can ask them yourself.
Her skin had turned to bark, and flaked off as she rubbed it, exposing more bark, and still more: smooth and firm now, like ash. She knew that beneath the bark must lie her flesh, her own skin, if she could just rid herself of the bark. She touched her cheek, brow, throat: at every spot the texture of wood. But it was safer to concentrate on her skin, because to look away, to even glance into the trees was to see the faces. Faces in every crease of bark, every angle of intersecting branches, every shadow and pattern of leaves, the faces of men.
All men: no women. Her father’s face was there, of course, and Gisburne. Robin and the men, she seemed to see, winking in and out of being with each breeze. And Gilbert, the only boy she’d ever loved, killed out hunting when he fell from his horse.
And yet she had a sense that if she could just see a little further, past the faces, or above the canopy or under the ground on which she sat, somewhere was a presence that in her mind she knew was female. Her mother? She called, but no reply came back. No, her mother was gone. But something else, which her body had long known, was there if she could just reach far enough. And as she sensed it, the faces of men resolved into knots of bark and shadows; tricks of light and wood and mind.
She scratched, rubbed, picked; always the bark chipped away; and always it was renewed. Was this her true skin? Her true nature? She stretched out an arm: her fingernails shone in the moonlight, rounded and full like buds. She slipped her clothing off and her skin was grey as ash, her toes like roots plunging into the soil. She raised her arms to the sky, saw the leaves burst from her fingertips, from her open palms. She laughed at the sudden life growing from her body, and felt in that moment immensely powerful. Her laugh was birdsong, was wind in the leaves, was the sound of hooves. From toe-roots to finger-leaves, her body met the forest and she knew herself as part of it.
Mowren shivered, suddenly cold. The leaves blazed gold and vermillion, curled and died and fell. The vision, now it had been glimpsed, receded. Between the roots of the great oak, she slept.
Mowren woke suddenly. The first thing she saw was Robin, inspecting the fletching of his arrows. It took a moment to realise where she was. Something warm covered her: a blanket of furs, soft against bare skin. She sat up, clutching it to her body.
-Morning, said Robin.
-It was a cold night; the forest has veiled itself with mist this morning. It’s quite beautiful. You needed covering. How do you feel?
-You saw me-
-Did you all see me?
-I watched over you as I promised, on my own, to ensure no harm would come to you. And none did.
-But you saw me, at my most vulnerable.
-Did you feel vulnerable?
Mowren burrowed deeper into the soft fur, searching for warmth.
-Your clothes are beside you. Here. Robin slotted the arrow back into his quiver, handed Mowren her clothing, and retreated behind the tree to let her dress. She wriggled her way into them, watchful, and shook her head.
–No. I didn’t feel vulnerable. I’ve never felt less vulnerable. Do I pass the test?
-You tell me.
-You and the others are all men. What the forest showed me, would she show you?
-That’s not for me to know.
-How do I know it wasn’t all illusion?
-How do you know this isn’t illusion?
-I’m hungry, and that’s all too real.
-Come back to the camp and eat. Today we’ll go to your holy man.
They made their way slowly. Her mind still felt tired and she stumbled, following Robin through the mist. The mist collapsed all distance into itself; the forest felt more full of space than before.
-Who are you? Where did you come from?
Robin turned and smiled.
-Does a tree, grown from a seed, know anything of the tree from which the seed fell?
-That’s not an answer. You talk in riddles.
-Riddles are there to be solved, Mowren.
-You saw me as no man has ever seen me, Robin Hood. You hold an advantage over me.
Robin stopped; in the drapes of mist their words carried no echo.
-Will I see you, when you are at your most vulnerable?
He looked at her a long time, as if in the depths of her eyes was his own future. To her surprise, he reached for her hand. His grip was tight and warm.
-Yes. Yes, you will.
They walked back to camp, linked hands a nexus of warmth in the late summer cool.