The village of Ollerton stood north of Birkencar, at the confluence of the Guise Bourne and the Maun. The inn by the market square was called the Blue Boar. In the square the roads from Worksop, Newark and Nottingham all met. Many stories were exchanged and songs sung in the ale-house, whose reputation was known for miles around out of all proportion to the size of either it or the village itself. The ale was good, the company always varied, and travellers – not always the case in village ale-houses – were welcomed.
Little John sat with Will Scathelocke in a corner from which they could survey the entire room. Though it was late August, a chill was in the air that warned of autumn. A fire blazed, and a minstrel sang a bawdy song to a table nearby, miming obscenely with his lute. John was known to the landlord and the regulars, but they kept quiet. No loose tongue named him or mentioned his friendship with Robin Hood, and no curious outsider asking about the giant ever received a thoroughly truthful answer. John made sure Ollerton was helped, and Ollerton covered for John. Here, he could mingle with the world beyond Sherwood, gather the news, and get hideously drunk.
Scathelocke took a long swig of ale.
-You could almost forget everything here, couldn’t you? Scathelocke’s words came with the slow care of the inebriated.
-I wouldn’t want to, said John. The people here have long memories, and that serves me well.
-Stutely ever come here with you?
-Stutely? Never. Like I say, long memories. To people here, he’s still a forester. They’d lynch him. I don’t know who they’d resent more, him or Mowren, outlaws or no. He tried to arrest me once.
-Aye. I knew his face from somewhere: it took me weeks to place it. I think I was drunk at the time – it seems likely – and him and his mates piled in. I can’t recall what it was about.
-Foresters don’t need much reason. Does he know?
-I doubt it: he’s not going to remember everyone whose path he’s come across, is he? Anyway, that’s all past. John took a drink. If he wavered, though, I’d kill him.
-You stopped him killing Roger. How would you be any better if you killed him?
-Roger was just a stupid boy, with a head full of mustard.
The minstrel received the raucous cheers and coins of the neighbouring table, and came to John and Will. His clothes hung loosely off a frail-looking body.
-Sing us a song of Robin Hood, John slurred. After a moment’s thought, Scathelocke nudged him, but the minstrel looked apologetic.
-Robin Hood, Robin Hood: all I hear in these parts is Robin Hood, but no man can tell me a plain tale about him. A soldier in Nottingham told me about his gang, though. He said-
The minstrel leaned in and whispered something into John’s ear. John’s eyes blazed, and he lunged across the table at the man; drinks cascaded onto the floor. Scathelocke rose too but was caught, unsure whether to aid his friend or rescue the singer whose throat John was clutching.
-That’s a lie! John roared.
-Here! The landlord shouted. Outside with that! I’m not having you wreck this place.
Scathelocke prised John’s fingers from the man’s windpipe.
-He can’t speak. Look, he’s going blue. Let go.
John released the choking minstrel, who dropped to the straw-covered floor. The minstrel shielded his throat with one hand, and retrieved his lute with the other. Scathelocke helped the man to his feet.
-Sit down, he said. I’ll get us all a drink.
-You’re not local, grunted John.
-Yorkshire. Near Wakefield, he said warily.
-I’m not going to kill you.
Scathelocke placed three beakers of ale on the table.
-I can see I’ve to learn more of this outlaw, said the minstrel. Without songs the people want, there’s no money.
-What’s your name, Yorkshireman?
-I’m John, and this is Will. You want to learn more of Robin Hood?
-It would seem to be in my interest, if all I know of him just now will get me killed.
The streets of Ollerton were quiet; the silence was only shattered by the singing of three men leaving the Blue Boar long after all others had staggered home. The crossed the bridge and vanished into the forest. Only one man, watching from the doorway of the inn, saw them go.
Through Sherwood they tramped, heavy-footed and light-headed. Allan followed, trusting to his new friends’ sense of direction, and after only a few wrong turns, and some bickering between the outlaws, they heard – and Scathelocke responded to – Much’s sentry call. The glow of a fire guided them to the camp.
Stutely and Much were suspicious of the newcomer, but it only took a few songs to welcome him. Allan, head spinning still from the ale, took a hunk of dried meat and some stale bread. If he missed a note here or there, no-one complained.
-Where’s Robin? John asked after a time.
-Away, said Much. With Mowren. There was some good-natured laughter but Allan, sobering up, wasn’t impressed.
-No Robin Hood? Then you could be any band of outlaws.
-That’s just what we are, said Scathelocke. This band just happens to have Robin Hood in it.
-So you say.
-So we say? Do you think we call ourselves his friends, like children playing at knights?
-You could have lured me into these woods to rob me.
-If we were going to rob you, we’d have done it in the ale-house.
Allan argued no further, but sat and ate quietly. He watched them, observing their quirks and mannerisms, and listened to their chatter. Whether they knew Robin Hood or not they could tell a good tale, and that never did a minstrel any harm.
-You can sleep here tonight, said Little John.
-Has he any money? asked Much.
-He’s entertained us; that’s payment enough. In the morning, Allan, you’ll be blindfold while we lead you away from here.
-I’ve no idea where I am.
-Good, and you’ll stay that way blindfold.
-Good sir, noble sir, will you help?
The merchant slowed his cart. The girl hobbling towards him looked desperate, her clothing ragged, eyes red with tears.
His horse shied from her, but he soothed it and they moved on. She tottered alongside, hands grasping for him and for a moment he feared for the safety of his goods, but then he stopped.
-What is it?
-An outlaw, sir! She looked around in panic. I was collecting firewood and he tried to take me. She gave a pleading look. The merchant shifted on the chest upon which he sat. In it was a small fortune from market-day in Lincoln. He feared traversing Sherwood for just this reason, but the route around the edge was a further day’s travel. He felt for the dagger at his belt. The girl – she was young – saw the movement and shrank back.
-No, child. Come, sit with me. You’ll be safe here.
With a lighter step than she’d shown so far the girl climbed onto the cart. The merchant flushed as she squeezed up to him. After two days’ journey, any sort of company was welcome, but female company, smelling sweeter than either he or his horse, was all the more.
-Where is your village, child?
-Yonder, she pointed vaguely. Oh, thank you, sir. She sank her head into her hands and sobbed.
The merchant placed a hand tentatively on her back.
-The outlaw won’t get you now. He began to revel in the role of guardian.
In a moment so quick he missed it, the girl raised her head, and in her hands was the dagger from his own belt. The first he knew was a warm trickle of blood on his throat, nicked by the sharp point. When she spoke, the terror-stricken girl had vanished.
-You misunderstand me, sir. I want him to find me.
The fire crackled and the merchant sat glumly before it, less comfortable on the soft grass than on his moneybox, while Robin cooked a fish.
-I’m not a rich man.
-But neither are you poor. Robin prised the box open with the tip of the merchant’s dagger. No, he said. There are wealthier merchants, you’re quite right. But – he lifted a hand, heavy with silver, and let the coins trickle back into the chest – you are not poor.
-I make no claim to be poor. The merchant stared into the cup Robin passed him. What I have, I made myself. I’ve robbed no-one, cheated no-one. Hijacked no-one. By my own hands and honest hard work I’ve made my living.
-All very admirable. What we ask is fair payment for your meal. He opened a small pouch and scooped a handful of silver into it, pulled tight the drawstring and tucked it into his clothing. Mowren handed the merchant a fish, wrapped in a dock leaf to protect her fingers. He grunted an acknowledgement.
-Fair? How is that fair?
-You can keep the rest, and we’re not bandits who would leave you dead by the roadside. Is it fair that there are people who don’t see as much as one of those coins in a month? These coins won’t lie and gather dust in a pile. You cannot, as a man of England, hold that some shall starve while others eat until they burst?
-It’s no concern of mine.
Mowren saw Robin rub his lips in irritation, bristling at the man’s self-interest.
-At the very least, a fairer distribution of wealth would provide you with more customers.
-I’ll not be lectured on my business by a thief!
-As you like. How is the fish?
-It is fine. The merchant ate, but would say no more.
Later, Mowren would often think back on that day as one of the happiest she had known. So many images that she held dear, and which came back to her with a strange intensity in later times, all came from that day spent with Robin: cooling their toes in the Guise Bourne as they sat fishing; noticing the sun move across the sky as they watched a heron stalk its prey with the sure, patient gait of an expert; picking wild blackberries by the path and feeding them to each other; the game they played – predator and prey – into which the merchant so fortuitously stumbled. And afterward, visiting the people of Gunthorpe to give away their takings. A kind word, a comforting arm, an anecdote: in this way, with the smallest gestures, their reputation grew. Roger had been there, in the background, sullen and withdrawn.
As shadows lengthened they weaved their way back to camp. Mowren led, eager to show him that she could find the men. Robin made no move to guide her. She glanced back now and then to make sure he was still there. One time, his gaze was off into the trees, and she had a sudden stab of fear: a presentiment of ill. She dismissed it as foolish: mere poignancy that a fine day alone with Robin was so close to an end. But the feeling remained. Robin seemed to sense it within her, and reached for her hand.
-What is it?
Mowren sought the words for the vague, unformed sensation she felt. She forced herself to smile.
-I’ll treasure this day. But…she removed her hand from Robin’s. It’s nearly over.
Robin laughed, but it didn’t reassure her.
-The sun will rise tomorrow, and it’ll be a new day.
-And we’ll be a day older, and this day gone.
-You said we have eyes in the front of our heads, to look forwards and not back.
-I don’t mean that.
She placed a palm on the bark of a slender birch, whose outermost leaves were turning yellow.
-How many days will we have like this? How long can it last? Robin, without you we’re nothing. Vagabonds in the wood. You’re a wanted man. The most dangerous in all England.
-No man will kill me, unless I let them.
-How can you say that?
-Mowren, how old are you?
-I’ve seen seventeen summers.
-I have seen one. I was born in the springtime, I live through my summer. In autumn I’ll fade like the leaves, and in winter I shall die.
-That tells me nothing of your age.
-I’m telling you this so you’ll be ready.
-Ready for what? She sought his hand once more.
-You’re right to treasure these days. In time, they’ll be a memory, and it’s the memory that must drive you.
-You’re scaring me, Robin. What are you trying to tell me? That you’re going to-
Robin laid a finger on her lips but she brushed it away and kissed him, long and deep, until the King’s army could have burned Sherwood and she’d have known nothing of it.
That evening, as John told them of the minstrel they’d brought drunkenly into camp the previous night, and how he’d woven their names and portraits into story, Mowren shivered. There was still the hint of autumn in the air, the first glimpse of death behind the sunlit façade. For the first time since she joined the men, Mowren felt not the nervous tension of an outlaw evading capture, but a very real sense of fear.