The caves were in a sandstone embankment of the Maun, a short distance from where it met the Meden. The river was studded with boulders, which the outlaws used to cross to the cavemouths. Sand martins had made their nests here in summer but were long gone. In the mornings a hoar-frost, delicate as lace, sat on the meadow which stretched from the western bank to the eaves of the forest. When they emerged from the caves in the pale light, the outlaws’ breath came in clouds.
Scathelocke grumbled; sleeping in the caves had not changed his opinion of them.
-Where else is there? Little John argued. If what Mowren has told us is true, this is the best place. No one knows about it; we can light a fire; it isn’t even in the forest.
-“If”? Mowren’s voice was sharp. She was cold and irritable. Are you calling me a liar, Little John?
-Not necessarily, lass. But the day I trust a nobleman’s words is the day I grow wings.
For days they huddled, trying to keep warm and bickering over the slightest thing. Only Much seemed unconcerned. He liked the caves, and climbed the embankment, testing foot- and handholds, exploring every inch of their new surroundings. He’d found a kingfisher’s burrow, and would sit on the opposite bank watching the flash of azure and orange darting into the shallow water, true as an arrow.
He remained alert, though, and it was he who first heard the sound of hooves.
-No, no chain mail, Gisburne commanded his dresser. Bring me a leather jerkin.
-But sire, the outlaws’ arrows…and they may have swords.
-If swordfight is needed, we will have failed. Leather was good enough for my father and for my grandfather. It will suffice for me.
Gisburne fidgeted in the jerkin as the man tightened it. He would feel more exposed, but nothing better prepared a man for battle than nerves. The fearless were stupid. One’s fear was part of your armoury, if you were skilful enough to harness it.
He watched the man struggle with the horse-hide. His men had returned to Perlethrope to retrieve the corpse of his favoured animal. Gisburne had buried it, according to a ceremony befitting the status of such a noble creature, but not before he’d had the hide removed and tanned, and the skin of the beast’s head transformed into the headdress he now donned. Outlaws had taken the animal from him: now he would take it back to them. He pulled the skull over his head, felt the weight of the mane down his back, the swing of the skin exaggerating every move. The dresser stood back, awed.
-How do I look? Speak, man!
-Like…like a demon.
Gisburne laughed. A horse was a finer animal than many who called themselves men. It symbolised the gulf between those born high and those low. To ride out in its skin was to bestow upon himself the nobility of all horses; a pure, regal essence. It did good to affirm one’s place above the common swine, and the outlaw vermin who ranked below even them.
Let Mowren Budby see him; let Robin Hood and his dogs see him. Adorned in the skin of nature’s most regal beast – bar none; deer were but feral cousins – Gisburne’s body quivered with anticipation. Beyond the window the first faint tinge of blue appeared in the pre-dawn sky.
A knock on the door of his privy chamber. His captain entered and halted, taken aback by the figure that towered above him. A look of terror flashed briefly across his face.
-Sir Guy, the men are ready.
-The other commanders?
-They have already left, sire, with orders to sweep through Sherwood to the northwest.
-And de Grammont?
-He has returned to Nottingham.
-Mmm. Have the men torches?
-Yes, my lord. Every man is ready to burn the forest to a cinder.
Gisburne looked out the window again. To see it aflame! The sight would be visible from Nottingham, from every outlaw-sheltering village hereabouts. No better signal to the people that the net was drawing around their rebel hero.
-Only if need be. This is a royal forest, after all.
-If need be, my lord. The captain bowed and departed.
If need be, thought Gisburne. If need be.
-Robin! Much’s feet were soaked; splashing through the river was quicker than tiptoeing along the bank. Breathless, he told them of the sound of hooves; the low rumbling of an army. He caught his breath and started up the sheer wall of the embankment, seeking the footholds he’d memorised. He hung, the height of three men above the cave mouth, waiting for one of them to follow.
-Stay here, said Mowren to the others. She set off after Much, grasping with her hands where his dripping feet had been moments before. At the top he reached out to haul her over the lip and they made their way under blackthorn thickets and through bracken the colour of flame. Mowren could feel the vibrations of the army as a growl in the earth, and wondered how many it took to make such a noise. Every few moments they stopped. They dragged themselves by their elbows, stopping every few moments. Soon they could hear the murmur of voices, the clinking of metal.
-I’m stuck, Much whispered. Mowren raised herself on an arm: a blackberry bush had snagged him. As she reached to pluck him free, the head of the column emerged from between the trees. She froze.
Ten, twenty, thirty horses she counted, adorned in livery she took a moment to recognise as the King’s. Her stomach turned. These men didn’t look around fearfully like the local boys, who’d been raised on tales of the forest and its demons. These were hardened fighters of many campaigns, tempered in harsher habitats than green English woodland.
Her muscles began to ache, poised over Much. Sweat pooled in the fold of her collarbone, ran down her body and trickled over her stomach. It was unbearable, but a movement now would be her last. She dare not stir.
Men on foot came now, with hounds. Huge mastiffs sniffed a route through the forest. It chilled her to think that they were searching for people, for her.
Suddenly, one of them veered from the path. Dragging its handler, the dog weaved through the undergrowth toward them.
Don’t bark, thought Mowren. She spread her consciousness through the trees, grass and bushes around her, and into the soil beneath. Let it not find her.
On it came. From the edge of vision she saw a clump of berries, long past ripe but still juicy. Slowly, so slowly, she reached a hand for it and, pushing against the branch to stop it springing back, squeezed them into her cupped palm. They burst in her nervous grip: purple juice spurted across her hand. With her thumb she flicked the mushed remains. They landed silently a few feet away.
Instantly, the dog targeted them. Mowren saw it look back to the man handling it. If ever a beast could look guilty, she thought, this one did. The man cuffed the dog’s flank and swore at it, then hauled it back into line. The troop passed by. Beneath her, she felt Much relax. She picked the thorn from his clothing, and dropped her aching arm to the ground.
-I thought that was us, he said.
Mowren laughed silently, shaking her head in disbelief.
Hours passed, and they speculated and argued about the soldiers’ tactics. They asked Scathelocke, as a former soldier, what he would do in their position.
-I don’t know, he said, irritably. We never fought a wood. His dislike of the caves had hardened; in truth, he didn’t like having to hide. Better to die in open warfare among the trees than sit like rabbits, awaiting the killing blow.
-Most of my life I’ve spent waiting to be hit, said Much. This is nothing new.
They thought they heard more horses, but no-one went to spy this time: what information could they gain?
Tuck seemed least concerned, and dozed on the riverbank. Much tried to lure a late dragonfly. Robin sat silent and withdrawn, speaking to no-one. Now and then he coughed loudly. Scathelocke paced the riverbank in front of the caves.
-Sit down, for God’s sake! John barked. What would you rather be doing; getting killed?
-Look! Mowren stood, pointing across the river. A stag, the old lord of the forest, stood with gored flanks and ragged antlers, regarding them. Robin was on his feet in a breath. A summons.
-I have to go, he said, his voice a croak. I can’t hear the forest from this place. I shouldn’t have left.
-What? This is all forest, said Scathelocke.
-Robin’s right, said Stutely. The boundary is the river.
-We’ll all go, said Scathelocke.
-I’m staying put, said Little John. There’s fighting, and there’s suicide. If Robin needs to go, fine: we don’t.
-I’ll be back by nightfall. Robin slung his bow across his back and tightened the belt from which his horn and sword hung.
-And if you’re not? asked Mowren.
Robin looked at them all in turn. Scathelocke kicked Tuck, who woke with a splutter.
-You all have to survive. He sprang across the river and into the meadow.
-I’m not sure he answered your question, lass, said Little John.
As soon as he stepped onto the far bank, visions assailed him. His head filled to bursting with noise and images of smoke and flame. With a thousand voices the forest cried out: there was fire in the wood. They meant to raze the forest, whole tracts of it, and lay it waste just to find a handful of outlaws.
What could he do? He was one man against an army; against fire that leapt faster and deadlier than any predator. But the forest had called him. He was its son, its weapon: better he perish in the struggle than fret uselessly from afar. It would find a use for him. On he ran, towards the Oak.
The sun had dropped behind the wall of trees, and Sherwood cast a long shadow across the caves. They could smell the smoke, and argued about from where it had blown.
-He’s not coming back, is he?
-Mowren, you and I know: he belongs to the forest. It called him. We can’t stop that.
-Rubbish. Scathelocke stood, but his stare was purposeful, not impatient. You lot saved my life when I should have swung at Clipstone. These months should never have happened. I never asked why you did it and I’ve never been able to repay it. Only I’ve learned you can’t just look after yourself. I’m not going to let Robin walk to his death. Who’ll come with me?
None of them spoke. Little John flexed his injured leg, but did not stand.
-This is different, Will, he said. Robin isn’t like us.
Scathelocke turned his back to them and looked at the darkening sky. Then, his balance less sure and his gait heavier than Robin’s, he crossed the river and headed for the trees, ignoring the soft, despairing calls of his friends.
He was no Will Stutely and never would be, so he ran vaguely west, following both the smoke in his nostrils and his own shaky geography. He guessed Robin might have made for the Oak. Time and again a sudden noise halted him and he hid, certain that the thinning undergrowth or his hammering heart must give him away. He heard distant voices and moved with caution, but he feared no ambush: he knew the forest better than a soldier, at least, and thirty horses were hard to conceal. Once, uncertain of which branching path to take, he whispered a silent question to the forest. The doubt in his mind cleared and the leftward track seemed the correct way. He brushed a trunk in gratitude as he passed. Wreaths of smoke threaded their slow way among the trees as he plunged to the heart of Sherwood.
Inferno. Gisburne’s eyes pricked with water, but inside he burned like the great misshapen oaks his men put torches to. He had not intended this conflagration, but the act was hypnotic, and to see wildlife flee before the advancing fire made him certain that the outlaws were being squeezed into a smaller and smaller area. These ancient trees, warped and ugly, were the hiding places of spirits and demons, ghosts and witches and sprites. Well, no more. By the flickering light of a thousand flames he shed light into their deepest nooks and in doing so incinerated them. A cleansing wind, with him as its breath and guide.
They’d killed outlaws already: men his soldiers hunted like foxes and, thirsty for blood, had slaughtered without mercy: countless killing strokes which left the wolfsheads almost unrecognisable. But no women: the men were under orders to take any woman alive, to Gisburne. Mowren Budby would suffer for her sins.
Sins! Gisburne was only as god-fearing as any knight who prayed before battle that the Lord would keep him safe. But here was a cleansing fire to make any Bishop proud: an exorcism of lawlessness and paganism and the presumptuous hopes of the common swine.
Oak trees: that was where they took refuge; in these hideous, gnarled old guardians of devilry. By firelight Gisburne saw faces in the shadows, faces soon to be smooth black charcoal and, later, ash. Such a cleansing.
He rode amongst his men like a king, like some warrior God, towering over them in horsehide. With every step he evoked the power of the horse, in knighthood and in wealth. His men looked on him anew, as if old clothing had been cast off to reveal the true man beneath. He had come into himself at last, and in fear they followed him; in fear they burned the oaks. He felt their fear, was nourished by it, and grew still taller.
-What do we do now, lass?
-Me? Nonetheless, Mowren stood. I’m not your leader.
-I know. None of us will consent to be led, but what’s Robin been to us if not a leader? And you’re the sensible one. He thought of his bruised groin.
-You’d let a noblewoman recommend your course of action.
-If you were a noblewoman, no. But you’re Mowren. And you’re not like the rest of us.
-A woman, yes, but you’re closer to the forest than we are. So what do we do? We left him to go to Nottingham, but will we let him walk into the burning forest alone?
-No. We’re together, or we’re nothing.
They tightened clothing, checked their weapons, kicked out the fire, and crossed the river.
Robin walked dazed through stretches of forest devastated by the conflagration. In the distance came shouts, the crackling of fire and spitting sap. The flames had died and brittle charred undergrowth crumbled underfoot. He placed his hand on trees still hot to the touch, and reached deep into himself to give them back some of the power the forest had filled him with. As fire flickered on branches, new growth spread into being, flames into leaves, but it was not enough, and it drained him. He stumbled past the corpses of ancient oaks which had provided shelter and knowledge, trees he knew as well as any human. He wept; there was an ache, a hollow at his core he’d never felt before. Always the forest’s strength had been there for him. Like soldiers left on a battlefield they were inert, unresponsive to the night-time breeze which should have lifted their boughs. Like dead soldiers. Like soldiers.
A band of outlaws were no match for Gisburne’s army, but the trees stood in their hundreds of thousands. He knelt and, spreading his consciousness like ivy, sank into the roots of the trees. So much death; so many roots still worked to feed trunks that were already ash. But still he sensed, inscrutable, huge silent presences surrounding him, uncountable, immeasurably old, with roots as deep as their branches were high. If people believed the forest was full of spirits, then let them see spirits. Majestic and ancient, he appealed to them in extremis to make visible their grandness, their splendour, their essence.
They were dead: the sap, their lifeblood, had been raised to boiling point by the fire and burned them to death from within. Those that hadn’t succumbed had closed themselves off to protect them until the threat had passed. They’d sustain damage above and below ground, but they would live again. For now, though, they sheltered, withdrawing from Robin’s touch. The age of the earth had passed in which gods of the forest could stand revealed.
What now? He was weakening. Did he have the strength for this? But wasn’t this what it had all been towards? He felt chilled: his body’s strength was ebbing. Girding himself, he pressed his mind deeper, imagining it like a rabbit, a mole, a worm.
The fire had not destroyed everything. Amid scorched tracts of woodland, there were still patches of green: trees and bushes the flames had, by a miracle, passed over and left untouched. Places where moths still thrummed and the undergrowth twitched. Mowren reached out with all her senses, searching for Robin, but found nothing. It was too dark to track him, and she was too anxious, to listen to whatever the forest might have to tell her. She stopped: the forest was always telling them things, and it was their fault if they did not listen. Even now, if she opened herself to it, it would speak to her.
-What is it? Little John asked.
-You go ahead. I’ll catch up.
He looked at her quizzically.
-I’ll find you, she said. I need to listen.
She spread her palms on the ground, digging her fingertips into the soft loam, but still her mind was awhirl. This wouldn’t do: she had to meet the forest halfway. She told her mind to settle, to forget the urgency and the fear. A gradual sluggishness overtook her and she was dragged to the ground. For a moment she struggled – she couldn’t sleep! Not now! – and then she knew only darkness.
Darkness, and deeper darkness. But there was life here. Far beneath the rage of flame and wind and rain and the tiny furies of man was a world untouched by surface noise. Amid the roots and stones was the source from which all things grew. It was a world where things moved slowly, and lasted longer than the flickering life of the animals which scurried above. The forest was ancient: it had lived a long time; a long time it would live. Mowren felt the awareness of this, the meaning of it, opening in her mind like petals to the sun.
The forest was not burning: only the trees were.
The forest was larger and deeper and older than the trees it wore. It pre-dated them and would outlast them. How many times had they talked of the cycle of life and death? Even now, the burning and the slaughter were nothing to the forest: it both encompassed and outweighed anything which occurred in its borders. The forest would live: scarred and weakened, a lesser thing, but it would live. And in a hundred years, it might regain its old strength. But like any animal, once it was weakened, it was prey. A scorched forest could be over-run, exploited, eaten into or built upon. To safeguard it, it needed to protect itself.
The forest had to rise.
Mowren crystallised the thought. She wrapped up these ideas and images and passed them through her hands into the fertile soil. That danger was here, that it must be resisted, however small a nuisance it might seem. The forest had to rise.
Grasping his way through thick webs of smoke, Scathelocke fell. As he stumbled, he realised that it was a body that he’d tripped over. Robin. He felt for wounds and finding none shook him. He listened for breath or heartbeat but heard only the crackling of flames. He tried to lift Robin but he seemed rooted to the ground. He found Robin’s horn and removed it from his belt. He glanced anxiously about – was that a shout? Were those hooves? – and raised it to his lips.
Gisburne wheeled about. He thrust out an arm and roared.
-That way! The horn still sounded. He reared his horse and set off in pursuit, dragging his men after him.
Scathelocke could see soldiers now, backlit by the flames they’d loosed on the forest. There was little time. Had he blown the horn too late? Had it all failed? It was all he could think of to do. If the outlaws did not come, then yes, they’d live. But it would be at the betrayal of their vaunted solidarity. If they came, they’d all die together. He moved away from Robin’s body, in the hope of delaying capture a few moments more. But the soldiers moved to the source of the horn, and that was where Robin lay. Now. He had to do this now, to pay back the release from Birkencar. He closed his eyes and called to the approaching riders.
Robin was at a loss. Something in him seemed to wither: that the forest itself could do nothing at its greatest crisis appalled him: was this what it had all been about? No rebirth, just an ending? He had asked the trees and they had ignored him. What else remained but his mortal strength? He was still a man, of sorts, wasn’t he? The forest was only part of him. Perhaps the part of him that was merely human could still help. He withdrew his consciousness from the tree roots, from the branches and the leaves, and woke to himself: older and more frail, but alive still, and with an anger whose flame rivalled that of his enemy.
-Bring him here! Gisburne commanded. But for the livery, Scathelocke would not have recognised him. Dressed in horse-hide he was transformed into some primal creature. Huge, majestic even, his shadow danced with manic energy on the trees. Scathelocke was entranced and repulsed.
-Which of them are you? Gisburne’s voice was a sneer of triumph.
-You’re not Robin Hood.
-We’re all Robin Hood.
-Spare me the solidarity of the common man. Your name?
-Will Scathelocke. You hanged a man in my place.
Gisburne’s men, it seemed to Will, were looking about in fear. Perhaps the flames had set free ghosts, come to exact bloody revenge.
-Then I’ll kill you a second time.
-Sire, let’s take him with us, one of Gisburne’s men pleaded. The ground…there’s something wrong with the ground.
-Silence! You are men; you are soldiers.
-There are demons.
-I’m the only demon you need fear.
-But sire…the man’s voice tipped into panic. Scathelocke felt the grip of the man holding him loosen, but he made no move. He felt that things were happening that were controlled from somewhere else, and that he would be moved when the time came.
Scathelocke’s answer came from beneath. The soldier had not been mistaken: there was something wrong with the ground. Tremors seemed to pass through it, criss-crossing the earth under their feet. For an instant Will was reminded of the sensation of standing on a cart as it traversed uneven ground. But no: there was method to this: some pattern was being described: a great subterranean weaving, as if all the beasts that tunnelled had begun to do so, as one. Then the ground burst open.
In the firelight the sight was awesome. Fountains of earth and stone exploded; gouts of turf and root and bone were thrust into the air all around them. Gisburne’s men screamed and ran shrieking in terror. Some were caught in the earth-bursts and felled by the force of the jettisoned soil; others were trampled by their own stampeding horses. The sound of eruptions rippled out from where Scathelocke stood, the ground beneath his own feet unblemished.
He was scared, but not for himself. This was a demonstration of power the like of which Robin had talked of but none of them, surely, had ever imagined. The forest as protector, rising up against those who would do it harm. He felt a sudden elation as the army vanished into the night. He dared not consider the scale of the power that had just been unleashed, dared not dwell on what other feats it could perform: to analyse it would drive a man mad, and Scathelocke was not a man for analysing. Still the ground he stood on trembled, its vibrations faster, more focussed.
In moments, only Gisburne remained. The horse-lord alone had kept his head as the ground had split, and his own mount, though alarmed, had not panicked. Warily, Gisburne eyed the craters which the earth’s convulsions had opened, suspicious of what further revolts they could yet wield.
-Witchcraft, he croaked. He waved his sword to fend off unseen assailants. This is witchcraft.
Scathelocke could not disagree. Sorcery, witchcraft, devilry: so what if it was? As Gisburne advanced on him, desperation in his eye, Scathelocke laughed. How foolish the man looked now with his horse-head high above him, singed hide flapping around his shoulders. How weak!
A sudden pain blistered in Scathelocke’s feet. He recoiled, but was rooted. He felt new energy flood him, and with the energy came understanding. The forest had him in his grip and now, at the end, he knew what it was to commune with the greenwood. If this was how he was to die, he did not mind. Sap coursed through his arteries, mingling with his blood. Roots entwined themselves about his sinews and as he was claimed by the volatile earth he laughed again, losing himself in the living web. This was no punishment; Sherwood had absorbed him into itself: who else could make such a claim?
Everything was falling away from Gisburne, slipping from his control. The laughter of the outlaw was the final insult, and he thrust his sword into the man’s throat. But whatever magic the forest had loosed had worked itself upon the man. Fresh growth sprouted from the man’s body, and in a heartbeat had wrapped itself about Gisburne’s sword. In another the young green shoots had hardened into solid wood, wrapping themselves about his body and encasing him in their tresses as his blood oozed between the growing boughs. They seized the sword and held it tight, their growth fast and strong enough to bend and snap the blade. Intrigued but deeply unsettled, he walked his horse closer and peered into the carapace within which Scathelocke was bound, seeking reassurance that the man was really dead. The outlaw was gone. His corpse was cocooned, fresh wood had taken on the contours of his body. Even in death he’d thwarted Gisburne.
Gisburne retreated, eyes wide in awe and terror. His men had gone. He’d anticipated any number of outlaws, but not this. Here was one of Hood’s men dead beside him, but that was the only thing he understood. He was still puzzling this when a voice spoke from the darkness.
-You die, Gisburne. Here and now.
Had he not remembered the voice, Gisburne wouldn’t have recognised the man who stepped into the clearing. The Robin Hood he remembered was younger, not this lined and aged man, who walked as if he’d seen forty summers and more. But he did not doubt that this was him.
-You would shoot me from a distance, or use your devilry upon me?
-And you’d run me down with your horse? Robin bent to pick up a sword. Let’s fight as if we were men.
Gisburne dismounted, his horse-head wavering high above Robin.
-You’d kill us all, you outlaws? For envy of our wealth and power?
-I want none of your wealth or power. Wealth and power should be in the hands of the people. As long as your kind live, we will be there, fighting you. We outnumber you, and always will. But you, Gisburne: you have burned the forest, and killed my friend. And for that, I want you dead.
Gisburne swung his weapon lazily to test the weight, but when Robin advanced his body snapped to; he stood firm, and the parrying of his blade jolted Robin’s arm. Neither man spoke; they hadn’t the energy, and both knew the time for bluff and bluster was past. The outlaw was the more nimble, but Gisburne had more power and anticipation, and each time Robin’s sword came at him it was brushed harmlessly aside. As they clashed again and again, the effort told on both men and their strokes became looser, wilder, less precise. Robin sensed the throb of his heart, the coolness of the air; he opened his senses to everything around him, letting them envelop him and inform his movements, split-second by split-second. But he was so tired: never had he felt so tired. There was, for once, no guiding hand behind him, no energy drawn from the forest: only him, and what strength his mortal body still contained. Gisburne seemed blinkered, stumbling blindly about, thinking only of this thrust, this parry, this stroke, an animal absorbed in itself. The more open Robin let himself become, the more fluid were his movements. He began to move without thought, on instinct as if being played, trusting that his human body knew the steps of this dance and the limits of its strength. Blow after blow they exchanged until Robin saw that the only way to make his opponent show weakness was to make him believe himself invulnerable.
Summoning the last of his resolve, letting his fear ebb into the night, Robin relaxed his guard and put himself utterly at Gisburne’s mercy. Gisburne showed none: he thrust his blade into Robin’s gut, a gleam of victory in his eye. But, in the instant of triumph, he was still too blind, wrapped in his own actions. Even as he felt the life gush from him, Robin swept his sword up and into his enemy’s heart.
Gisburne’s eye had no time to register the body’s defeat and he fell, impaled, to the forest floor.
Mowren burst into the clearing. Though she could hear the sound of running feet close by she paid no attention. She ran to Robin, heedless of danger, and pushed Gisburne’s body off him.
His eyes were closed, and her heart spasmed. Blood soaked his clothing and the grass underneath him was sticky with it. She called his name. He opened his eyes, pupils rolling as he tried to focus.
The footsteps came closer and Mowren shielded his body with her own. But it was only Stutely, with Much and John behind him.
-No! John shouted, dropping to his knees by Robin.
Stutely stood guard, bow at the ready. He looked at the holes in the ground, the scattered piles of earth all about them, the tree with a broken sword-blade thrusting from fresh bark.
-Where are they all? The army? he asked.
Robin spoke with a strength that surprised Mowren, but she didn’t doubt that this was the end.
-The forest. It rose.
Mowren’s heart pounded in her chest.
-You raised the forest? Stutely asked.
-No; I did. Mowren’s voice wavered, but there was steel in it.
Robin smiled weakly.
-I couldn’t see the forest…for the trees. He reached to touch her face but his strength failed. Mowren hugged him to her breast.
-Scathelocke, she remembered suddenly. He came to find you.
-The forest took him. Robin’s words were a bare whisper now. He died for me.
Much rose in silent fury and kicked Gisburne’s corpse. Stutely put an arm around him and steered him away.
Robin motioned for his bow. His hand, twisted like a claw, struggled to reach for an arrow. Mowren nocked it for him.
-Wherever this falls, lay my body. The forest is waiting and I must go to her. John helped Mowren hold him upright, and guided Robin’s hand to loose the arrow. It dropped to the ground at the edge of the clearing. Robin’s eyes fell closed before it landed, and the last strength ebbed from his body. He sank into Mowren’s arms. She brushed her tears from Robin’s face and whispered her love to him.
-Don’t cry, he said. Spring will come.
They carried his body to where the arrow had fallen. As soon as they set him down, a transformation took place. From every pore, verdancy burst forth, rooting him to the earth. John watched, remembering the evening they first met and the man seemingly new-born, still carrying the forest’s markings on him. Now that process, like the turning year, fell into reverse. Creepers spread and budded and exploded into blossom and leaf, wrapping themselves about the body which in moments was concealed deep within a sprouting carpet of flowers.
The outlaws watched agape, as if only now fully understanding. The forest consumed him, reclaiming him to its bosom as he had always said it would. Never had they imagined the process to be so literal, but here it was, making out of his body a monument in the deep and secret reaches of the forest; one that would grow and bud and flower and rot and die. And live again.