The warning call failed to wake the sleeping friar, and even the hooves and clatter of armour only stirred him momentarily. Then he felt a kick, and looked up blinking. A soldier stood by him. Tuck rubbed his eyes, trying to place the livery as he came to. Behind him, a handful more of them all mounted, and in their midst – now he recognised the colours – Sir William Budby.
-My lord. Tuck heaved himself upright.
-I know you. The hermit friar. Tuck.
-Aye, my lord.
-There are outlaws in these woods, brother, with love of neither clergy nor nobility. As you can see, I take no chances. But perhaps I am in luck.
-Outlaws, yes. There are outlaws.
-I seek my daughter, friar. I believe her to be with this Robin Hood.
-Regrettably, my lord, I must report that there is no Lady Budby in Sherwood.
Budby’s shoulders drooped, and a look of such pain crossed his face that Tuck felt a stab of pity.
-Nonetheless, if you and your men wait in this spot, and do not move from it, then I will try to find your daughter.
She neither curtsied nor bowed; if he noticed the breach of etiquette he made no sign. The soldiers, startled at the sudden appearance of the young women where moments before had been only trees, assembled themselves in a jangling of harnesses and armour as if expecting an ambush to follow. But the girl in russet, bow in hand and sword at her hip was – or seemed to be – alone.
Sir William dismounted, his gaze not leaving his daughter, but seemed wary of approaching. This girl was changed. There was no denying it was her: she had her mother’s mouth, his own mother’s green eyes, and what was left of her long hair was the right colour. Something in her stance, though, or her expression, was so radically different from anything he knew of Mowren Budby that he was, in truth, a little fearful. She was an outlaw.
As if freed from a trap, he sprang forward, arms wide.
-My daughter! I-
-Why are you here?
He halted, bewildered.
-So wary! Mowren…
She spoke slowly, voice trembling.
-When noblemen and armed soldiers ride into the forest looking for outlaws, its seldom to negotiate.
-Why are you here, father? Her voice softened, and Budby gathered himself.
-To warn you. An army is on its way; the King’s own soldiers, sent from London.
-To hunt us?
-Guy Gisburne has had the Sheriff of Nottingham deposed. A new Sheriff sits there now and together they are massing a force to hunt Robin Hood.
-I don’t know. A matter of days, if that. Come back to Thoresby, Mowren. You are not safe.
-Who is safe?
-A lady in her home is as-
-Behind walls and locked doors. That’s the future you want for your child? That’s not the girl you raised, the girl you trained to hunt and fight.
Budby grew angry.
-Mowren, an army is coming that will give no quarter until you and your wolfshead companions are dead! Come home!
-I am home.
-Then I have no daughter, he sighed.
-I’m grateful for the warning. Mowren bit her lip and forced in deep, steadying breaths. Now leave, while I can guarantee your men’s safety.
Budby turned swiftly, his face a mess of emotion. He signalled his men and they rode off without a backward glance. Mowren dropped to her knees in the grass and wept.
A touch on her arm; Robin crouched by her.
-Come with me.
-It can wait. This way.
She followed him west, the ground rising slightly, through thinly-spaced birchwoods until they reached an area of breckland from which the bellowing of stags echoed.
-Downwind, Robin whispered, and they circled the clearing. Two stags trampled the heather underfoot as they engaged antlers with a crack like a splitting branch. Robin peered at them for a time, obsessed.
-Look at him. He pointed to the bigger one: bulkier and broader than its opponent. Mowren counted the points of its antlers. Fourteen, to the other’s ten. This was the lord of the forest; long-dominant, denizen of the true depths of the woods. His strength and guile had kept him alive through any number of battles, any number of royal hunting parties.
At first glance, Mowren would have favoured the incumbent. But as they watched, the nimble feet of the challenger and its greater stamina tired the chief. It was forced back, the two beasts’ heads locked together in an unending wrestle. Mowren wondered why he had brought her here.
-Robin, we’re in danger.
He watched the stags shake each other off; jets of steam puffed from their nostrils and blood oozed from wounds on both their flanks.
-We’re always in danger, my love.
In the late afternoon sun she saw wrinkles on his face like ruts in bark, and thought how he’d aged in the months she’d known him.
-Look at him.
The huge male was dominant no longer, but in his impending defeat, bloodied and half-blind, Mowren thought she’d never seen a sight more noble or pitiful.
There was something she was supposed to grasp, here. For as long as she’d known Robin he’d done nothing without reason. He contained depths unplumbed as the forest itself, yet covered them with a canopy as light as birch leaves. None of the ponderous aggression or heavy armour of knights and nobles, he was a tree, an otter, a stag.
The defeated animal backed off, and something in her mind connected with a force like locking antlers. Something she’d doubtless known for months but never acknowledged. It winded her, and she choked on her words.
-You’re going to die soon, aren’t you?
Robin flashed her a quick smile.
-That’s what you’ve been preparing us for. For weeks. She looked at the stag, slinking off beyond the heath. The death of the old.
-Do you remember the jay, storing acorns? Spring always comes, my love.
She grabbed his arm.
-We can hide. The caves Little John spoke of: we can go there. Gisburne’s leading an army into the forest; a huge army with soldiers from the King. More than we’ve ever faced before. But if we go to the caves-
-John’s right. Use the caves. They’re outside the forest; Gisburne will pass you before he’s even started.
-“You”? You’re not giving yourself up? Robin, no!
He grinned that mischievous grin she loved. She could have slapped him.
-How did you hear about this army?
-My father. He rode into the forest…to warn us. Me.
-He implored you to return?
-But you’re still here.
-And you ask if I’ll give myself up? The forest wants to take me back, Mowren. But it needs you to stay.