At every bump, the handcart threatened to collapse. Both wheels wobbled, and every jolt made Stutely’s hands ache. As he came down the slope to Gunthorpe the cart gathered pace and he battled to control it. He’d been spotted by the villagers. The hood sheltered him from the bitter April wind but he wished it covered his face. His was known, and foresters were not liked. Would an ex-forester be any more welcome? He felt exposed now he was out of the reaches of Sherwood. No doubt this was in Robin’s mind when he entrusted to Will the job of taking grain back to those who had sweated to harvest it in the first place.
Robin, this unfathomable man. His moods were as fleeting as the weather: now solemn, now mischievous. Stutely had warmed to him after the farce of their encounter with the merchant, and the visions he had seen that night had convinced him. They had shown him exactly what he was looking for: that this could be a place to live, that he could have a future.
And Much was beginning to overcome his fear. At any rate, the boy had stopped following Will now. He looked to Robin as his protector and guide. But didn’t they all?
John, though: “Little John”. Will had recognised him instantly: he and Edward had encountered him before. He was still waiting for the explosion, but perhaps the giant had no memory of it. He couldn’t remember the reason they’d tried to arrest him – possibly it was spurious, a challenge of Edward’s to bring down a man as big as John – but there had been a fight, blood had been spilled, and John had fled. But no mention had been made. Will wasn’t sure the man trusted him, but Robin’s trust of each of them satisfied the others.
-Friends. He brought the cart to a stop and greeted the villagers. He unloaded the bulging sacks. A gift, from Robin Hood.
The outlaw’s whispered name spread through the crowd. Someone called for a drink for Will, and he waited while it was fetched. A young man, blonde hair in curls about his face, thrust his way through and clapped Will on the back.
-No, not me.
He clasped Will’s hand.
-Will you take me? I’ll join you, fight beside you. I can hold a sword.
Will shook his head. Where was that drink? He couldn’t stand around for long.
-It’s no life for a boy, he said, though this lad was older and sturdier than Much. He looked crestfallen.
-I can help; you must need help.
-We need help in the villages: eyes and ears, people to trust. Harbouring outlaws is a risk.
-Roger! A woman’s voice pierced the chatter.
A party on horseback was approaching. Stutely cursed his inattention: he should have heard them long since, and been back under cover of trees. He stepped away from the cart, desperate to blend in. A troop of soldiers surrounded two noblemen on horseback. One he recognised: Sir William Budby; the other, younger man he didn’t, though he wore the livery of the Gisburnes. Will adjusted his hood, picked up some logs from a pile, and walked with purpose toward the nearest house.
The horsemen entered the village. The inhabitants lowered their heads in deference.
Stutely froze, but the shout was not aimed at him. The boy, Roger, his head unbowed and thrust proudly in the air, was being encircled by horses. Two soldiers dropped to the ground. They knocked his legs away and began to kick and punch him. The crowd watched fearfully, knowing that to intervene would bring them the same punishment. Stutely looked at the two nobles and his blood rose. Without the merest glance at the brutality beneath their feet, they chatted calmly. In the soldiers Stutely saw his old life: the casual viciousness and subservience to power. That he should feel such revulsion after so short a time: he was like a man reborn, or woken, at least, from a deep sleep.
The soldiers’ work done, they remounted and the party continued on its way. Roger’s family helped the bloodied boy to his feet. He spat, a thick gob of red phlegm. He saw Will and shrugged his family off to make for the outlaw.
-That was reckless, said Stutely.
-It was necessary, said the youth. He poked a finger into his mouth and pulled loose a tooth. He showed it to Stutely, then clenched it tight in his fist.
-You’re going to get killed, you know that?
-So let me come with you.
Robin cursed his inattention and moved as quickly as stiff legs would allow. Three of them: had they been soldiers, he could have faced them. Soldiers were local boys looking for a job, some weapons and the attention of girls. But foresters were a different, more dangerous breed. Will Stutely was testament to that: these men knew the forest as well as any human could.
Deeper into the wood. He stopped, sensing something in the cool morning air. Something stumbled through the undergrowth, with the clumsiness of man. Here, perhaps, was the foresters’ prey. Robin traced the sound and, keeping out of the route of the foresters, inched his way to the source.
The hunter was deaf to all the signals. Robin watched him from the refuge of a cleft branch. He was big and ungainly, his face red with exertion. The way he held his bow, the lack of glove or brace: this wasn’t a skilled archer.
A blackbird in the bracken clucked it’s warning; the call was taken up by a distant wren, bolts of noise firing from its tiny body.
The man barely moved quietly enough not to disturb his quarry. Robin crept after him in silence. Although a tiny part of him knew he should use the diversion to distance himself from the foresters, this man was stumbling into real danger.
Still the wren scolded. Still the blackbird called. Robin heard the clap of pigeon’s wings as they rose, and saw their ascent, fast and direct. The hunter pressed on. His arms shook as he raised the bow, and awkwardly nocked an arrow. He adjusted the set of his face to look along the shaft. Robin could see the tremor in his arms, broad though they were, and could sense the desperation that had driven him to hunt the king’s deer. If he was caught, those hands would tremble no more: at Eyre Court they’d be cut off when the Sheriff found him guilty. Or they’d take a knife to his eyes, gouge them out and let him find his way home.
The man hadn’t heard the wren, the blackbird, the pigeons.
Robin tucked an arrow into his bowstring and waited.
The man took a step, and another. His right arm shook like a bough in a storm. Then he fired.
The arrow struck the deer in the foreleg and as it fled, barely wounded, Robin let slip his own.
It pierced the animal’s breast. The deer slumped to its knees, and Robin’s arrow was driven further in. The other man’s was knocked out and fell, redundant, to the grass.
Bewildered, the hunter looked about. To alert his friends, Robin would use any number of bird calls, but nothing he’d seen suggested this man would notice them. He called out softly to him. Terror flared in the man’s face, then anger replaced it.
-Who are you to shoot my deer?
– Foresters are coming: you have to hurry. They’ll find the deer but if you’re quick they won’t find you. And if they do, I don’t fancy your chances of hitting them with that bow. Cut a leg off, and go. Now, hurry.
Scathelocke regarded the deer, and pulled out a hunting knife.
-Why should I listen to you? Who are you?
-I never thought it would be like this, said Roger. Hiding in the trees, keeping low and skulking about. Aren’t you bored, Much? I am.
-What did you expect? Much chewed a blade of grass as the two boys headed for Blidworth. They walked on either side of a muddy path to avoid gaping puddles.
-I wanted to fight! I want to get back at them.
Much shrugged. Roger had had a choice; none of the rest of them were so lucky.
-Can’t we do more? Roger continued.
-More? Much was puzzled. Finding food, staying warm, staying hidden, keeping wits and skills and strengths all honed: he’d never been bored. As far as he understood it, he believed in what they did, and in how they did it. He had faith in Robin
-Yeah. All of us; rush into some big manor house or something. Make trouble.
-We’re not an army, Roger.
-But we’re armed. We could go out and-
-We don’t go out. We stay in the forest.
Had this boy absorbed nothing? Much stopped, exasperated.
-What? Roger stared blankly at him. Come on, we’ve got money to give away.
Much glanced up the slope towards Blidworth. Two foresters were walking along the other path that led from the village. He gestured to Roger and dropped to the ground. Roger hesitated, as if deciding to run after them instead.
-Roger! That’s not why we’re here.
Roger glared at Much, realising he had no support.
-It’s why I’m here.
Blidworth was in confusion. A local man had gone missing. From what Much could gather, there had been an argument, and the man had stolen a bow and gone into the forest to hunt. Blidworth was a poor village, but the man’s neighbours had offered to share what they had to feed his wife and children – his wife had fallen ill and couldn’t work – but pride, despair and bloody-mindedness had brought him to blows with one of his neighbours and he’d stormed off. That was days ago, and he hadn’t returned.
Now the foresters had gleefully announced the man’s arrest and his detention at Birkencar. He was lucky, they’d joked: Eyre Court would be held at Clipstone in a few days; otherwise he might have had to wait years to be found guilty. An argument was underway as villagers debated whether or not to walk to Clipstone to plead for bail. The outlaws were ignored until Roger strode into their midst with a handful of the money they’d come to distribute.
-If money’s the problem, here’s your answer.
-Who are you? one man grunted.
-Keep out of this! spat another.
-We’re from Robin Hood, said Much. One of the villagers laughed, and Much saw colour rise to Roger’s face.
-Should’ve come on Tuesday, then the stupid bugger wouldn’t have had to go hunting, the first man said. Robin Hood, my eye.
Roger grabbed the man’s throat.
-You want proof? Those foresters: I’ll bring you their heads myself. He pulled out a knife, thrust the man away from him and stomped down the hill. Much stood, helpless, as the villagers muttered amongst themselves. Then, realising that Roger was probably serious, he ran after his colleague to the sound of mocking laughter.
Roger had picked up the weapons they’d cached earlier, and was moving swiftly through the wood when Much grabbed him. Roger lashed out with a fist.
-They were laughing at us, Much, but I’m going to show them. Foresters are the enemy: for all of us.
-They’re dangerous: look at Stutely, think what he’s told us about them.
-So? There are two of us. They won’t know what’s hit them.
-I’m not killing anyone, not unprovoked.
-Then you’re no better than a donkey, are you?
Much swung a punch at him, and they toppled to the undergrowth, locked in each other’s wrestling arms. They kicked and scratched; arrows snapped under them as they rolled on the ground. Bloodied, they backed off, panting.
-That’s more like it! Roger grinned. A cut above his eye bled heavily. Much examined his own injuries, gathered scattered weapons and walked away without saying a word.
Back at the Stone, Stutely handed out chunks of meat from the fire. Much and Roger sat as far apart as they could. Each had returned in a temper, calling the other names. Much protested to Robin, but he seemed uninterested.
-This Will Scathelocke, Robin said now.
-What about him?
-Do we rescue him, John? That’s what.
-Yes, said Roger. We do.
-We storm Birkencar? asked Stutely. From what the boys say, his own villagers couldn’t agree to bail him out. Is he worth it?
-He might join us, said John.
-We don’t need another hothead, Much said, staring at Roger.
-He’s a man, said Robin, suffering under an unjust law.
-No, Robin, said Stutely. You feel guilty because you couldn’t stop his arrest. What we do shouldn’t be about settling personal scores. He looked from Much to Roger. You gave him a chance and he still got caught.
-John? What do you think?
John chewed carefully on a rabbit leg, looking at no-one.
-He’s a man, yes, and a victim. We help, because that’s what we do.
-How? Stutely cried. How do five of us free him from Birkencar?
-Six, said Robin. Stutely looked puzzled. Robin pointed a finger to the treetops.
-We have the forest on our side.
Robin wandered, uncertain of what it was he sought. He trusted the forest to guide his steps. He found it when he came to a spot where an ash and a hazel tree grew close together, their upper branches entwined. He sat on the dusty earth among the hazel roots and took a short knife from his belt, and a small drawstring bag of leather which hung around his neck by a flaxen loop. He wrapped a tress of ivy about his wrist, rolled his left sleeve up, baring his forearm, and drew the knifeblade across it.
The blood came to the wound quickly, and Robin scraped the edge of the knife across it until the blade was a deep, glossy red. He tipped the knife and let the blood drip to the ground. There was a price for magic.
He wiped the knife clean on the sparse tufts of grass that grew close to the tree, and dipped it into the pouch. When he drew it out, a gritty ointment of dark purple gleamed there. Suddenly apprehensive, Robin’s hand trembled. Still using the blade, he smeared the ointment over the cut, smoothing it down so it covered the wound completely. The faintest of residues remained on the knife and, after a moment’s doubt, he licked it clean.
The dizziness started at once, and he began to sweat. Before the spasms began he tucked the knife back into his belt. His stomach was gripped by cramps, and he rolled onto his side to let the dark berries of the wood take their course. Racked with shooting pains, his body jerked and fitted, his teeth clamping so hard his mouth began to foam. The tree roots about him swelled until they enclosed him like huge arms. He squeezed his eyes shut, but the vision remained. He raised himself on an elbow and vomited. Still his stomach cramped, and he cried out.
Down, down, he plummeted, tumbling through the ash roots deep into the earth. Up into the canopy he soared. His senses merged and he saw, felt and tasted the spring sunshine on his face, the cold earth – rotted leaves, worms and beetles – around him.
Then he saw the trees. Trees by the hundred, and each one glowed, not with light, but with some essence normally invisible which the balm had now revealed. A glance was enough to distinguish one from another; each was as individual and recognisable as a human face. He dare not look at the grass: to see this sight multiplied a thousand thousand times would overwhelm him. No rain shower, no shout or slap, could return him to the ordinary world. Henbane and belladonna, the twin dark sisters, had him in an embrace deeper than sleep. Then the visions came.
When Robin awoke, it was daylight; by the strength and angle of the sun, late afternoon. He’d been gone only a few hours. He stood up, stinking of vomit and the musky reek of badger. He clutched the trunk of the ash, feeling it ground him, returning him to the confines of his own body and mind. He headed, still unsure of his bearings, for low ground and a stream to wash himself in and drink from.
He could smell pigeon cooking as he neared Stane Lea; at the same time, the yaffle of a woodpecker came from above. He recognised the call for what it was too late. Stutely stepped from behind a tree, bow raised and arrow nocked.
-Robin! I could have stuck you like a pig.
-Will; I’m hungry and weak and all mazzled. Help me.
Looking shocked, Stutely draped one of Robin’s arms about his shoulder and took his weight. Together they stumbled back to camp.
-Get me food and drink! Will called. The outlaws crowded around Robin but Will shoved them aside. Robin watched the men while he ate and drank, caught the furtive looks in his direction, looks of anticipation and concern.
-Will Scathelocke is a victim, he said at last. Whatever his failings, who would kill a deer but to feed their family? It’s not an act of treason, but desperation. He’s a poor man, like us, driven to take what he can from what the forest offers. But the law says even if he’s born here, and dies and works and toils here, he cannot partake of it. A law that sentences people to blindness, or mutilation for the killing of a single animal, so that a family might eat, is wrong. We stand outside that Law, because the Law is wrong: not just bad, but wrong. How can the crown own a beast? Who can own a tree, a river, a forest?
-You know that’s treason, John said softly.
-It’s only treason if I speak against my king, and but for the forest, I know no king. The forest has never schemed, never plotted, never stolen, taxed or murdered, never gone to war to claim more land. What monarch can say that? I know some of you have served the king and may find him a good man, and I won’t try to change your mind on this, but merely ask that you consider which has improved the lot of your life: crown or forest?
Robin looked at each of them, saw conflict within some, barely suppressed zeal in others.
-Scathelocke is a guest of Sir Guy Gisburne, though I doubt he’s been invited to dinner.
The men laughed.
-Eyre Court sits in the morning. Tomorrow he’ll be found guilty. So tonight we loose him from his prison, and we ask him to join us. I know, I know – he raised his hand to forestall the murmuring – but he’d have to take his chances with us, wouldn’t he? He can’t survive on his own – I’ve seen him trying to hunt – nor could he return, fugitive, to Blidworth and his family. We’re his only hope. Who is ready?
Like daisies opening to the sun, one after the other, hands rose into the air.