As he revealed the punchline, the crowd around John roared with drunken laughter. He grinned, well-pleased, and took another mouthful of ale. He was in Beeston, further south than he was accustomed, and almost in sight of Nottingham. He had helped the people bring in the harvest. All the group were doing this, in the surrounding villages: aiding the people and gathering the news as they did so. Landowners were always keen to have extra hands at this busy time, and for the people, for whom this was hard work and precious time away from their own little plots, the sooner it was finished, the better. And if the hired help stood everyone a drink at night, better still.
He caught the eye of the widow beside whom he’d spent much of the afternoon, and winked at her. The more he drank the slower he responded to the name these people knew him by. When the ale-house door opened to admit a soaked minstrel, seeking shelter from a sudden downpour, he moved quicker than he had all day. The minstrel saw him and before he could utter a greeting saw the look on the giant’s face and clapped his mouth shut. There was violence in that look if Allan-a-Dale had spoken the name of Little John.
-Allan, John said in a low voice, keeping a stranger’s distance. My name is Geoffrey, and you’ve never seen me before. If you must sing, no Robin Hood songs, understand?
-I sing what the people want, the minstrel sneered. He brushed past John and approached the table. Who will hear a song?
A chorus of cheers arose, and space was made for him. John went to buy more ale. His head span, and he barely noticed the man who entered the ale-house and engaged the innkeeper in questions. They spoke furtively for a while before John was served.
Song after song Allan sang, tale after tale he told. He sang of Robin Hood, and John fancied the young widow’s glance lingered on him again.
Then one of the crowd remembered the parchment they’d found nailed to the tree on the village green. They called around the ale-house for someone who could read. The sheet was smoothed out on the table. Even if John had been able to read, he was by now too drunk. The writing cavorted obscenely on the sheet like girls around a maypole. He shook his head clear of the vision.
The newcomer from the bar approached.
-I can read, he said.
A hush fell among the harvesters as the notice was passed to the stranger. They sized him up, trying to guess his village, his occupation, his business in Beeston.
-It’s from the Sheriff of Nottingham, announcing a grand archery tournament. To be held on the butts by the city walls on the last day of the month. Open to all-comers. There’s to be a prize of an arrow crafted from the purest silver.
Talk around the table oozed with speculation.
-Arrow made from purest tin, more likely, someone muttered.
-Your Harry should enter, suggested another.
-What about Robin Hood? What if he were to turn up? They say he’s the best shot. What do you reckon, Geoffrey?
-If Robin Hood takes part, he’s an idiot, said John.
Talk moved onto other things, but John paid little heed. The contest sounded too good, too perfect, and he worried Robin would rise to the bait. He fell into a mood.
He nudged the minstrel, forgetting that he shouldn’t know him by name.
-Sing me a song, Allan. And make it miserable.
The stranger watched them for a while, then slipped away.
This late in summer, the sky was thoroughly dark. Allan waved a tipsy farewell to his audience and saw the widow guide a wobbling Little John towards her house. He staggered like a bear on its back legs. Allan took the stairs to the lodging room above and found the only free space on the floor amongst the other sleepers. It was cold and uncomfortable by the window, but he’d slept in worse, and no doubt would again.
Most of his fellows were already asleep, heads dulled by drink. They snored and grunted and shifted and farted. Allan drank little, and when he did it went to his head. A clear mind was needed to recall a story, and drunken fingers were not adept on the strings of a lute. He drifted close to sleep, but always something – a baby’s cry, the bark of a fox – caused him to stir. He got up to relieve himself in the pot in the corner.
In so doing, he might almost have escaped. The door creaked as the first man-at-arms pushed it open, and had he still been lying down Allan would likely have ignored it and turned over. Instead, he saw the man’s companions enter, all of them armed. Allan looked about, too weary to comprehend. They peered at him in the darkness, then one of them made the connection between the now-empty space on the floor, the lute by it, and the man in the corner. Allan followed the train of thought too slowly, but as they made for him, standing in their haste on slumbering bodies, he threw the pot he’d just pissed in and made a dash for the window. Behind him came groans from waking lodgers who found themselves doused by the contents of the pot, and shouts from the soldiers. Something beneath his foot – an arm, a leg? – rolled and spilled him over. He tumbled into the wall beneath the open window, cracked his forehead and slipped, finally, into darkness.
John ate greedily, ravenous after a full day’s walk. Scathelocke was cooking and on seeing the state of John had wordlessly handed him a greasy breast of pigeon. He entered into no conversation, would not gossip or give but the curtest of greetings to his companions until he’d eaten. His eyes darted about, gaze flitting but never settling, until his belly began to fill. Much was hanging up dripping clothing to dry. Mowren was restringing her bow. Stutely dozed, lodged in the hollow trunk of an oak.
-Where’s Robin? he asked again.
-Talking to the trees, I suppose. You know what he’s like.
John couldn’t settle. After eating, despite the weariness in his legs, he prowled the perimeter of the camp, watching, listening. Stutely woke and approached so quietly John started.
-Where’s Robin? Did he say where he was going? He raised his voice. Does anyone know where he is? Mowren? Much? None of you? Have you forgotten? People want to kill us. People are allowed to kill us. How long has he been gone?
Blank faces stared at him, each with creeping shame.
-Will, call to him.
Stutely cupped hands to his mouth and screeched like a barn owl. All listened, but for the faint patter of rain on the canopy and crackling of Scathelocke’s fire there was no sound.
-Can you find him?
-If he wants to be found, said Stutely.
-What if he needs to be found?
The companions gathered about the fireside while Stutely began to search for traces of Robin. John told them of the archery tournament.
-But that could be good, said Mowren. If he were to win it; if any of us were to win it, the silver could-
-Be melted down? By who? No smith would touch it. The whole thing smells of a trap.
-All that just to set a trap? It doesn’t seem worth the effort.
-Meaning we don’t seem worth the effort. They hate us, lass. Our existence pricks whatever conscience they have. And by all accounts we’re an embarrassment to the Sheriff. What better fix than some entertainment for the people, and to snare an outlaw at the same time? Everybody will be happy.
-If you’re right, and it is a trap, we wouldn’t have to fall into it. A fox can dodge a snare and still get the bait.
Stutely’s voice sounded from the bracken, soft but urgent.
Robin lay in the hollow of an oak root, his body racked with pain. The light blinded him and each movement brought agonies beyond bearing. How long he’d lain there he had no idea. Days, perhaps. His mind raced, looping the same images time after time. Images of growth, of unbearable ripeness and sweetness, tipping over into rottenness and death. Everywhere: the clouds above took form and were ripped to shreds by the wind. Everywhere: leaf mast and rot. No rebirth or creation, just an end. Death, everywhere. He groaned and pain throbbed across his body. He wept, but no tears came.
Although his eyes had long grown accustomed to darkness, in the gloom Stutely could see almost nothing. Night had fallen. More than once he worried that he had mistaken a landmark and lost his way. On he tunnelled through the forest, stopping at some sign or other, at the limits of his ability. Moths blinked across his vision, wings throbbing in his ears.
He almost stumbled over his quarry. As Stutely crouched by him he felt a stab of horror: Robin was utterly still. He turned him over and only when a rattle sounded at the back of his friend’s throat did Stutely breathe again. He wished John were with him. He hadn’t the strength to carry a man.
-Robin, its Will. Are you shot?
He ran his hands across Robin feeling for an arrow or for blood but there was none, just a tell-tale cut on his hand. He thought of the pouch.
-Are you poisoned?
So faint he almost took it for a breath, Robin said no.
Stutely pulled him upright and sat him against the oak. His brow was hot.
-I’m going to get you water.
It took longer than he hoped, but he filled a piece of cupped bark from a stream and carried it carefully back.
He pressed it to Robin’s mouth. After a few sips, Robin vomited a thick black sludge that seemed to have no end. Will recoiled.
-No. Robin spoke with an effort. The forest.
-No. The forest. Warning me.
Stutely was puzzled, and assumed his friend was delirious.
-Can you stand? We need to get back to camp.
-The leaves are falling.
-The leaves are falling from the trees. Aren’t they?
Will considered this a moment.
-Some. Not many. It’s still August, just.
-Soon they’ll all fall.
-Everything dies, Will.
Stutely put an arm under Robin’s shoulder and lifted him as gently as he could. Robin groaned.
-Everything dies. What of it?
-All I see is death.
-The vision? That’s what the forest showed? They took a few steps. Things are reborn. That’s what you always tell us. To give us hope. Seasons will come and go. Things die, decay and are reborn. After winter, spring. That sort of thing.
-Something is coming, Will. The forest was warning me.
John took Robin from Will, and laid him down. Mowren rushed to him. Stutely told her what had happened. He placed a hand on either shoulder; he hadn’t realised before how slight she was, yet so full of energy, like a bird.
-He needs you. You two have something; it can only help him.
For days she tended him. Stutely brought herbs and leaves which she ground and fed to Robin in what little food he took. All the while it rained, and the hide-covered screens they sheltered beneath leaked and dripped. No-one ventured far. Each of them caught a cold in turn, sneezing and coughing for days. The heat of early August was forgotten and they brooded and bickered. Robin slept much and spoke little, and John had forbidden all talk of the archery contest.
The Sheriff watched, expressionless, as the man was dragged before him. The guards dropped him in the centre of the Hall, bowed and retreated to the far end of the room. Nottingham shifted on the cushion, the better to ease his piles.
Four days in a dungeon had reduced him to a wheezing, shivering wreck, like most of the Sheriff’s prisoners. A rough beard couldn’t disguise the sunken cheeks or bruised eyes. Whatever garish clothes such men wore were matted and torn. Nottingham could smell him at a distance.
The man nodded.
-Yes, sir. The words were followed by a bout of hacking which made his thin frame shudder uncontrollably. Nottingham watched, aghast. He’d not long broken his fast, and didn’t want to lose it listening to, watching or smelling this specimen.
-You make me nauseous, so this will be quick. You are charged with consorting with outlaws: Robin Hood and his heathen band. Do you deny knowing them?
Nottingham leaned forward. Perhaps this would be easier than he’d thought.
-Good. For that, you may just keep your fingers. Do you know where in Sherwood they keep their camp?
The minstrel shook his head.
-They blindfolded me. If I knew I’d tell you.
-You would? How easy you are to break, and how fragile the bond between outlaw and masses. You will sit by me at the archery tournament.
For the first time, the prisoner looked directly at Nottingham. Hope and puzzlement mixed in his glance.
-Oh, not to sing for me or to recite. Lord above, no. Guards! He gestured to the men at the back of the Hall. Bring me my minstrel. He turned back to the prisoner. I’ve no need of your skills. You will appear beside me as a reminder to the people of my power, as a warning of what happens to those who befriend wolfsheads. And if you fulfil my demands, you’ll be released, as a demonstration of my mercy.
He gestured to his own minstrel, who regarded the prisoner with exaggerated distaste. He stepped onto the dais between the two men.
-You know this man?
-This man, sire? He peered at Allan. I don’t-
-He is a minstrel, though one who keeps less exalted company than you.
-He…we may have exchanged songs, once.
-Good. You may learn a new one soon. “How Allan-a-Dale Betrayed Robin Hood”. He signalled for the guards to take the prisoner back to his cell, and turned to his minstrel.
-Pick up your cistole, and sing me a song of crushed rebellion, and of the restoration of order.
-Wait there, friend. Much ducked out from beneath an alder to confront the lone traveller. The stranger stopped and looked anxiously about. He carried a bow; though wrapped in cloth, the shape was unmistakeable. Much’s bore no such wrapping and neither did Scathelocke’s.
-Where are you going to?
-Nottingham. I’ve no money, if you’re bandits. I won’t breathe a word, but let me go on my way.
-Nottingham with a bow? For the archery tournament?
-I was an archer in the King’s service when I was younger. But my village is poor: we had no harvest, Lincolnshire had so much rain. A silver arrow would make all the difference.
-Your master doesn’t provide for you?
-What do you think?
-We’ll not stop you, friend archer, said Scathelocke.
-You are Robin Hood, perhaps? I’ve heard he’s a fine archer, from the Sherwood. This is the Sherwood?
-It is. Fortune be with you in Nottingham.
Robin was sitting up when they returned.
-Will, Much. What news?
-Never mind that. How do you feel?
-Unsteady. And thinner. Like a reed.
-We could have used you as an arrow if it had gone on much longer, Mowren muttered. The others laughed.
-We met an archer, said Much. Going to the tournament.
-The one for the Silver-
-Much! John barked.
Robin looked to his companions and waited for one of them to speak.
-It’s the Sheriff’s doing. An archery tournament for all-comers. John frowned at the grass. And it’s a trap. To lure us in like wasps to jam.
John saw a twinkle in his friend’s eye.
-The butts is hardly the place for a trap: wide open, outside the city walls, Sherwood in running distance.
-He knows what you look like. Gisburne too. They know what we all look like.
-Then we go in disguise, said Scathelocke.
-If it’s open to all-comers, we could all enter, Scathelocke continued. The people will be hoping for Robin Hood.
-That’s even more stupid! John thundered.
-What if I choose to go? said Scathelocke. What if we all choose to go?
-Then I’ll have to go with you, you great idiot. John was exasperated. But I still say we don’t go.
-Are you well enough to shoot? asked Stutely. To travel?
-Bring me my bow, and we’ll see. Robin stood shakily.
-Mowren, John begged. Make them see sense.
-We shouldn’t go: that’s what I think. But if the majority are for going, I will go with them.
Stutely handed Robin his bow. He examined the string, felt the weight of the wood in his hand. He nocked an arrow and asked Stutely to designate a target. Stutely pointed to a patch of fungus on the underside of an elm bough. Robin pulled the string to his ear but then lowered the bow. After a moment he lifted it again, pulled taut and loosed the arrow. It soared into the trees but fell short of the mark. Robin stared for a long while, and in that time nobody spoke. He left the circle and walked slowly into the trees. Stutely saw the others look at each other blankly, then he followed.
Robin came to a clearing and laid a fallen branch against an oak. Stutely watched as Robin fired arrow after arrow at the dead wood. Every one missed. Ten, twenty arrows, until his quiver was empty. Stutely, compelled and appalled, couldn’t turn away. It was as if all the certainties of the world had been upset. Finally, Robin knelt and spread his hands wide, reaching into the forest floor in supplication. The intimacy was too much for Stutely and he turned away.