The weather turned; where warm days had contained a germ of autumn, now autumn wind and rain held just the faintest memory of summer heat. More than once the outlaws grumbled that this was the Sheriff’s revenge. It rained so hard and for so long that the trees gave little shelter and the forest soil, so rarely waterlogged, became swampy. They huddled under shelters but still the cold and the wind, baffled by the trees, snaked and looped around the camp.
Little John’s wound was washed and dressed every day with crushed oak leaves, and though it seemed not to be infected, he could hardly stand, far less walk. He shivered, unable to warm himself.
-Give me soldiers any day, he moaned. You can attack, you can hide. You can’t attack rain, and it always finds you.
-We can’t stay here, Robin, said Mowren.
-What do you propose?
-Thoresby Castle is bound to have a few rooms spare, Stutely quipped. No-one laughed, and Mowren glared at him.
-I met Emeline. Scathelocke and John huddled in the hollow of an ancient oak. John sat awkwardly to both stay dry and keep his leg straight.
-In Nottingham. She was there for the contest; Thomas, too.
-Was Elric there?
-I didn’t see him. Just as well for him.
-How was she?
Scathelocke was so quiet John thought he hadn’t heard, or was ignoring him.
-It hurt, he said after a while. Part of me always thought we’d be together again at some point. But we won’t, will we? We’ve been lucky: a dry summer. But what about tomorrow, and the day after? Next month, next year? What do we do in winter? We can’t turn into foxes and live in a den. I can’t go back to Blidworth: I’m a dead man. An actual dead man. And even if I could…I’ve done things, John. Stolen things, fought with people. Things I thought were right at the time. You, though, you’ve got Ollerton.
-No. I can drink there, and nobody says a word, but I can’t go back. Word would get out and people I didn’t want to know would find me. Not everyone wants to help us. I couldn’t go anywhere else: I’d be a stranger. You’ve seen what it’s like: people are scared, and it takes something huge for them to stand up and join us.
-Like the contest.
-Aye. For a moment, when the people surrounded us, I thought that was it, that the world was going to change.
-But what did it achieve? You said all along it was stupid, and you’re the one who got injured.
-That was almost worth it. We escaped alive, which we mightn’t have done. And people will remember it. Look!
He pointed into the branches: a flycatcher, black and white plumage striking among the drab autumn foliage, flitted upwards from its perch. It turned over in the air, snatched in its tumbling flight some insect and returned to the same spot on the branch.
-He’s alright: he’ll go off soon to where birds go in the winter. Where do we go?
-I know some caves, said John.
-I said we’re not foxes. I’m not living in a hole. Does Robin know what we’re going to do?
-I suspect he knows what happens in winter, said John. To him at least. I think he’s always known that.
-What do you mean?
-I’m not sure. Yet.
Scathelocke burst into camp, breathless.
-They’ve killed Roger! he gasped.
In the silence that answered, the fire, it’s wood damp, spat and popped.
-Who is Roger? asked Mowren.
–Roger stressed Scathelocke. He slumped to his knees on the damp ground. Much tossed him a fur to wrap around himself; beads of rain sprayed from it as it flew.
-He was one of us, said John. Just a boy…
-Who killed him? Stutely“` asked.
-The Sheriff’s men. They’ve been paying money for information on us. It only takes a few days’ hunger to loosen some people’s tongues. They came to Gunthorpe, and someone named him. They slit his throat and left him on the village green.
Much felt his insides turn cold.
-He should have stayed. John shook his head. He had a vision, just for a second, of Sherwood encircled by their enemies, all drawing closer like huntsmen around a fox’s den.
-Why did he leave? asked Mowren.
-The outlaw life wasn’t exciting enough for him. John laughed ruefully, and looked at Robin. Robin had his fur pulled tightly about his chest and was coughing. He said nothing. John turned to Stutely instead. If he’d stayed, he’d still be alive.
-Yes. Or he could have died without spilling whatever he told his captors before they killed him.
-If I’d let you kill him?
-He was a risk. Now you see I was right.
-Oh you, you’re always right, aren’t you? You’re infallible. Once a forester…
-Will! shouted Mowren.
-No, let him, lass. He tried to take me once, before his conversion, and I bloodied him and his mate then, and I’ll do it now.
Mowren looked to Robin in appeal, but he sat shivering and his eyes were closed. Stutely threw himself at John; John lent back to invite the assault, and clubbed the other man in the jaw. They began to wrestle. Much and Tuck scurried out of the way. Mowren shouted to Tuck to stop them. Scathelocke bunched his fists, unsure of whom to help. Nobody else moved, so Mowren waded into the fight. With one hand she grabbed John’s groin and squeezed, and with the other she smacked Stutely’s nose with her palm. John howled and shrank back, tripping over a log and landing on his back, cupping his balls. Stutely crawled, swearing, as blood dripped between the fingers he clamped over his nose.
-There. Are we going to do the Sheriff’s work for him and unravel amongst ourselves? Are we, boys?
-No, muttered Stutely.
He peered up at her, face a mixture of resentment and stunned respect.
-Whatever happened, happened. None of us are who we once were, and now we live by decisions we all make.
Robin led Tuck away from the comfort of the fire to where the trees clustered thickly around. The friar stumbled and fell.
-Can you not walk more quietly?
-If you walk slowly, Robin Hood, I’ll walk quietly. How about that?
-There will come a time when your life depends on silence.
-You talk to me of silence? If I could see, I could watch where I walk. Tuck sighed. I don’t know why we have to do this now. Night-time, Robin, is not auspicious. The light of the Lord has left the world; it’s the domain of darkness.
-Darkness needn’t mean evil. There are forces and energies which the sun’s light smothers. This is a quieter time, the better to apprehend them.
-Were you born a heretic, or did you strive to become one?
-Just a little further, now.
Tuck did as he was told, and sat down.
-What, exactly, am I waiting for?
Robin said nothing, but climbed stiffly into a fork in the trunk of the yew under which the friar sat, to keep a protective eye on the initiate. He shivered.
Tuck sat. Well beyond the time Robin would have some response to the visions, he sat, silent, as if proving his point to the outlaw.
The stars wheeled overhead, and the first birds began to sing. Robin woke with a start: something was prodding him. Tuck stood below, poking Robin’s leg with a twig. Robin swung himself out of the tree.
Tuck made for a fallen elm, and gestured for the outlaw to sit by him. He spoke softly, as if not to be overheard.
-You could burn at the stake for a hundred years. You’ve all undergone…this? Lady Budby also?
-And yet none of you seem possessed by demons, he mused. Mowren is different now, but I expect outlaw life changes one.
-The forest spoke to you?
-The forest? Robin, everything – every thing – is a manifestation of God. He creates and animates all things. For the forest to speak to me is as any other part of the Lord making himself understood.
-The forest is female.
-Yet the female comes from the Lord. He created Eve from Adam’s rib. Really, your visions showed me nothing I didn’t already suspect. But for doing so with such clarity, such brilliance, I must thank you. There have been times I doubted. To receive such…reassurance of one’s belief is a gift for which I cannot repay you.
-You are welcome, though I do not believe your God exists.
-He exists, whether you believe it or not.
-You were not persuaded otherwise?
-Is your plan to tempt me from the Lord?
-The Forest is our protector; she gives and takes.
-Of that I’m sure. And behind and above the forest is the hand of God.
-I can touch my divinity. Robin patted the thick moss on the fallen tree. Whatever I can demonstrate, you belittle with an assertion.
-No assertion; fact.
-We aren’t going to agree on this.
-No, but that needn’t be an evil. Argument is healthy. It can strengthen beliefs; or change them.
-But not yours?
-Today? No. Tuck grinned. Now can we eat? I’ve never been awake for so long without food.
-One last thing. What do your teachings say of death?
–My teachings? You mean the Bible? The word of the Lord? The document which underpins the entire civilised world? You speak as if you’d never sat in a church in your life.
-Let’s pretend I haven’t.
-In death, the righteous and the saved will ascend to heaven; sinners will be cast down to hell.
-And that’s it?
-Is that not enough? Tuck stood, shaking his head. It would seem sufficient to me.
-And what of the forest? Right here: death. Robin patted the moss-covered wood. Life springs from the dead tree. Scavengers devour carrion. As things rot, the soil grows fruitful. Every year; over and over. Is that not a marvel equal to heaven?
-There is a limit to how much heresy I can listen to on an empty stomach.
Mowren was disentangling a rabbit from a snare. She glanced at the two men, then snapped the rabbit’s neck with a single, neat twist of her hands. Tuck made a face.
-I never thought of you as squeamish, she grinned.
-I’ve never seen a lady wring an animal’s neck before.
She tucked the carcass into her belt. Two others hung there, a grim parody of jewellery.
-I was a lady. Now I’m just me.
The men followed her to camp. Ochre leaves brushed them as they fell. She stopped suddenly and motioned for them to crouch. In the distance, unaware of them as yet, a jay picked through the leaf litter. The flash of azure on its wing was dazzling in the morning sun.
-Burying acorns, Mowren whispered. In the hope it’ll still be alive to retrieve them in the spring.
Some unseen threat startled the jay, and it fled with a rasping alarm call.
-Little John has been talking of some caves that he knows of, she said as they continued on their way.
-Caves? Robin sounded puzzled.
-To shelter in wintertime. I doubt a badger’s sett would be big enough. Besides, you men all stink.
Stutely’s face brightened when Mowren dropped the rabbits by him. He dropped the pigeon he’d been doggedly plucking and took a knife to them instead.
-Where are these caves? Robin asked John.
-Oh, not the caves again, groaned Scathelocke.
-Whitewater way. Upstream from where Meden meets Maun. Not far from where I gave you a thumping.
-On the edge of the forest?
-The other side of the river. Sherwood ends at the riverbank. You can only get to them by crossing the river: they’re protected by cliffs that hang over them. Someone standing above wouldn’t be able to see down. I’ll show you.
-Yes! cried Much. I’ve never been in a cave.
-It’s like prison, said Scathelocke. But draughtier.
Gisburne watched the man on horseback pick his way up the escarpment between boulders and sprays of thick broom. He handled the beast with skill, and Guy was impressed. A military man like himself, perhaps: someone he could work with. Simple and direct, and less of a politician. Yes, Gisburne was optimistic.
Behind him, a score of his own men stood or sat on horseback, fidgeting. Much of the day had passed waiting for the force from the south to arrive. Gisburne stiffened. One by one his men noticed and snapped to attention.
The newcomer came the long way around, cresting the ridge and riding along it to greet Gisburne from a position of equality. Smart, thought Guy.
-Sir Guy of Gisburne?
-I am. Who are you?
-You know who I am and why I’m here. I am tired, and my men are hungry. How far is it to Nottingham?
-We can be there by nightfall.
-Nightfall! The man shook his head. I had no idea the provinces were so big; so…empty. What a dull country. He signalled to his men, who began moving forward in a column along the road below. The man turned his horse and began to descend the slope.
-These are…the King’s men, my lord? Gisburne signalled to his own men, and rode to catch up with the newcomer.
-Of course they’re the bloody King’s men. One hundred of his best. Enough to flush out this outlaw band you wrote of. How many strong is this Robin Hood? Sixty? Seventy?
-It’s not known. The trees themselves seem to number in his band.
-The King is not pleased.
-No. We would not have written unless-
-He does not like traitors.
-The Sheriff of Nottingham is the King’s hand in this country. This action of you and the Bishop of Leicester to undermine him therefore undermines the King. Things cannot go on as before. As Sheriff I will bring law and order back to Nottinghamshire. But first, I will improve the flow of revenue. The tax returns for these parts are of great concern to His Majesty.
-The outlaws are a convenient excuse for rather a lot, Sir Guy. The people can always take a little more squeezing.
-Of course taxes, man! How do you think you’re going to pay for this expedition?
The other man gave Gisburne a look of incredulity.
-You thought this was a gift? Largesse from the King, to help you with a local outlaw problem? Nottingham is an embarrassment, man. If you were Sheriff and I were King I’d have you quartered on the spot. He kicked his mount and sped off to the head of the column. Gisburne watched the army pass, rank after rank, and filed in at the back with his own troops, deep in thought.
-What do you mean, nobody was there?
-Just that, lord Sheriff. Sir Guy was not at home, nor would anyone there furnish me with an answer as to his whereabouts.
Nottingham stabbed the chicken before him with his knife and wrestled away a slice of breast meat. He dismissed the messenger and chewed angrily. Gisburne’s behaviour of late – his obstruction at the contest, and his counsel afterwards – had been most peculiar. Nottingham wondered if Gisburne, in his clumsy soldier’s way, was attempting to play politics. Maybe it was time to clip his wings.
A scuffle outside the Hall distracted him from his meat; the minstrels’ playing frayed like a worn tapestry. There was a shout. Nottingham was on his feet. Before he could reach the edge of the dais, soldiers rushed in. They weren’t his own, that was all he could distinguish in that moment. As his own guards were disarmed, a tall fair-haired man, evidently their leader, strode towards the Sheriff, with a scroll in his hand. He looked at the Sheriff, then back to the man behind him: Gisburne. Well, that answered that question.
-Geoffrey d’Anquetil, Sheriff of Nottingham. I am Simon de Grammont. You are, by the power invested in me by His Majesty, herewith divested of office. You will surrender by nightfall all trappings, monies, honorifics, cerements, possessions and residences associated with the position, and shall by dawn vacate Nottingham. You have three days to leave the Shire, or face imprisonment.
Nottingham trembled as slow-mounting rage built inside him. He fought to suppress it, and instead clapped his hands.
-Bravo, Gisburne. Bravo. I underestimated you. You’re like ivy, feeding off a more vibrant host as you climb.
-Your sword, d’Anquetil, the usurper barked.
-Yes, yes, sighed Nottingham, unbuckling the scabbard. How slow I’ve been. I really didn’t think you had it in you. But to go telling on me to the King befits an adolescent. What am I charged with?
-Withholding His Majesty’s revenue, said de Grammont. Misappropriation of funds, and failure to keep the peace with regard to the outlaws in the Sherwood.
-Ah! Robin Hood. My failure to apprehend the outlaws, he said, removing his chain of office from his neck, is largely down to the calibre of men working for me. The office-holder may change, but the household pet remains the same. Ask yourself how much success you’ll have in my position. Will you join me at my meal? We can at least hand over in a civilised fashion.
Before Nottingham could reach the table, de Grammont had leapt onto the dais. He restrained the deposed Sheriff with a hand on his chest and, taking up the other man’s knife speared a slice of meat from the platter.
-The chicken, de Grammont said with quiet authority, is now mine.
Metal rang on metal, loud beneath the thinning canopy. Through a deepening carpet of leaves Mowren and Tuck fought: thrust and parry. Tuck’s face was purple, hair thick with sweat.
-You fight better than I recall, my lady. Tuck raised a hand in surrender. He slumped to the ground, scattering leaves.
-Don’t call me that.
-It is your title. You know this is no life for someone like you.
Mowren thrust the swordpoint into the earth and sat next to the friar.
-Here I can help. Fight injustice.
-Fight your own people. I know there is injustice: I know where it comes from. But do you not think if you went back to Thoresby you could help from there?
-Who would have me? I’d be locked up; no knight will marry me. And Gisburne would, ultimately, be my lord. I was spat at, the first time I went to a village after I came to the forest. Because I was a noblewoman. Here, I’m no more important than anyone else, or any oak, ash or thorn, vixen or damselfly.
-We are made in God’s image and placed above all living things.
Mowren shook her head.
-Robin Hood, said Tuck. I spoke with him. These are good men, but their beliefs…he seems to worship the forest. And we know there is no God but God.
-You’ve seen how the forest provides. Like a mother.
Tuck squeezed Mowren’s hand.
-My lady, I know your mother was dear to you, but you are human, and above all this. He spread his arms wide.
-No, Tuck. I belong to it now, my body and soul, as I have belonged to no other thing in my life.
-And Robin Hood?
She spoke softly, as if to herself.
-We’ve grown together, entangled like roots. She cleaned the blade of her sword and sheathed it, thinking of the image. We’re like roots, grown and entwined together.
-I fear for you, Mowren.
-Don’t. She noted his use of her name, and kissed his forehead. The forest will provide. There, is that not faith?