Birkencar lay north-east of the Stone, off the road between Nottingham and York. To either side of the road the trees had been felled to prevent the risk of ambush. The outlaws avoided main tracks and small paths, and followed instead the winding route of the Guise Bourne, a stream of little consequence save that it filled the millpond at Birkencar, and had been named by the Norman ancestors of Sir Guy, now lord of the manor there.
Robin sent Roger ahead to scout Birkencar, and give vent to his suppressed energy. The bourne was narrow, and a thick fringe of reeds shrouded the bank. It was hard going, always keeping low to avoid being seen; rarely talking, rarely stretching aching backs.
Between millpond and manor house stood the mill and the church. The villagers’ houses, those who worked on Gisburne’s land, lived on the far side. The house itself, built by Sir Guy’s grandfather, was an imposing stone keep, built in the shape of a cross, a sign of the elder Gisburne’s faith. His son had not been as pious, Sir Guy still less so, and the asceticism of his grandfather’s day had given way to a home stuffed with lavish decorations, hung with fine tapestries from Normandy and Flanders. Rumour of this had caught John’s attention and he volunteered the information to Robin as they walked.
-You once said we must think on our feet. That we must make the best of any situation.
-What are you thinking, John? asked Robin.
-That stone doesn’t burn but pretty threads do.
-You’d raze Birkencar? And roast Gisburne like a fowl? Robin chuckled. But John saw a gleam in his friend’s eye. The people would sing your name for ever.
-I’ll not kill a man in cold blood.
The air was loud with birdsong as the men neared Birkencar. Robin raised a palm to halt them. The manor glowed roseate in the gloaming, just beyond arrow’s reach. A fox barked, startling the men after hours of hushed whispers and rustling grass. A nightjar roved, batlike in the twilight; it’s low rasping call taunted the waiting men. They squatted, nerves taut as a bowstring, waiting for Roger to find them.
Stawberries. Ralph could think of little else. From the house behind him, he could hear the business of the evening meal. From the kitchens, the sound of cooking and bellowed instruction; from the hall, the noise of the feast. The casements were open, and through them the pale glow of torchlight could be seen. The music and the drunken shouts disturbed the evening’s peace. Sir Guy was a man of appetites, and after a day’s riding those appetites needed satisfying. What little breeze there was brought the smell of roast meats through the narrow windows of the hall.
Becca had brought him strawberries. How long since? The sun had been higher, a lifetime ago it seemed; another one until it set. At nightfall was the change of the guard, Ralph would be off-duty, and they would be together.
He could taste them, still; the sweetness clung to his palate. She’d spent the afternoon fruit-picking with her sisters, and had stolen away to bring Ralph an illicit handful. Firm, they were, just ripe, and their flesh moist under the pressure of tooth and tongue. Pale, firm flesh, sweet to the taste, with the subtlest seasoning of salt from Becca’s cupped palm. He pictured her now, hair a fiery red, pale flesh glowing in the twilight. In the stables, a horse stamped its feet, and he woke from his reverie.
Somewhere to the south, a nightjar called.
Scathelocke flexed the fingers of his wounded hand. He winced, then flexed again. Blood scabbed the shredded knuckles where he’d punched the wall. The stench of it was thick in the clammy cell.
With each blow, he cursed the foresters who’d fought, bound and dragged him at sword-point from the wood. He pictured their faces as he punched the stone, imagined smashing each one to as bloody and ragged a pulp as his hand was now. His rage grew the more of his own blood he spilled. He cursed the stranger who’d warned him. Cursed his own powerlessness; a boar held at bay by dogs.
The pain would dull in time. The scabs would fall and the scars heal. Fury wouldn’t dull. Scathelocke had known fury a long time: nurtured and sustained, it never faded.
Somewhere – outside, free – a bird called. Its cry was low and rasping; not beautiful, nor melancholic, and Scathelocke was glad. He was in no mood for beauty, nor melancholy. Just fury.
The Steward of Birkencar was nervous. Like a bird, startled but not alarmed enough to fly, he seemed expectant, awaiting some event to give release to the tension in the household. Tomorrow was the Eyre Court, when all the wealth of the county – and the Sheriff himself – would be in attendance at nearby Clipstone. The Sheriff would be here, tomorrow night, sleeping in this house. His guard would be here tomorrow, outnumbering and outranking Birkencar’s small garrison. Of the banquet to be held, the Steward knew every detail and had overseen every expense. That, perhaps, would be the release the household needed. But maybe not for Sir Guy. Gisburne was wary of the Sheriff: he was a man of action, and the Sheriff was not, and the Steward knew that his master struggled to understand men he had not seen prove their mettle on a battlefield.
A shadow crept along the bank of the stream: Roger. He waited a moment to catch his breath.
-There’s a sentry outside the manor house. There are more in the guardhouse. I could hear them.
He described the layout of the buildings, the positions of windows and angles of sightlines. There had been movement into and out of the manor: provisions, chiefly; a feast was underway. He passed on the talk he’d overheard: that tomorrow night, the Sheriff himself would be there, and his own guard would take possession of the guardhouse, usurping Gisburne’s men. There was a murmur of excitement, but Robin quashed it.
-If we wait until tomorrow night, Scathelock will have been tried and punished. We came here for him, and we do this now. There will be soldiers just a shout away, so we do it without noise. The Sheriff can wait; Scathelock can’t. I’ve asked the forest for help.
-The forest! Roger was exasperated. The forest is a hundred yards away. How can it help?
A trick of the light, or else a trick of the devil: a shape of the bushes, which in the deepening gloom to Ralph’s weary eyes resembled Becca. Her face half in shadow, turned coyly away as if beckoning him to follow. His palm, slick with sweat, slid on the shaft of the pikestaff. This was temptation, this was what the priest cautioned men against. Beware: think of Eve. But no serpent in Eden looked like Becca. And still she stood: how long would she wait? Ralph took a step, then another. No. He readjusted his soldier’s garb: he was on duty.
His next step masked the sound of the arrow. Expertly aimed, it struck his helmet and fell to the ground, followed a moment later by Ralph.
Roger watched Robin loose the arrow, and sprang to catch the guard as he fell. He dragged him into the shadow of the house, stripped and disarmed him and left him to his dreamless sleep. Roger shuffled into the man’s clothes and scurried back to the guardpost, mimicking the man’s stance as best he could. Unshaven and fair-haired, he wouldn’t pass close inspection but would fool the passing glance.
-Will, look! Much’s whisper was hoarse. Stutely followed the line of the boy’s gaze. Where cropped grass had reached from roadside to manor house, an outthrust limb of forest now stood. Oak and beech and elm obscured the far end of the guardhouse.
-What’s happening? Much asked, his voice trembling.
A chorus of jeers rose around the table as the dice rattled to a halt next to the empty jug of ale. Richard’s shoulders slumped; he batted the grasping hands away and shoved the last of his coins onto the pile. He stood up and mimed a kick at his comrades.
-Do you think the Sheriff’s men play dice?
-They’re from Nottingham; likely they play for gold, or jewels.
-You don’t believe that, do you? Haven’t you ever been to Nottingham? You’re soft in the head.
Richard stepped into the hallway. Though the evening was mild and the fire warmed the guardroom, out here with no straw to cover the floor, he felt the advancing chill.
Something wasn’t right, though. A sound, from outside. He glanced through the narrow window, and into the depths of a sudden forest. He peered, disbelieving. Tree after tree; bracken carpeting the ground where before had been only grass. He hurried to the door and, hand on the hilt of his sword, pushed it open.
He saw the arrow aimed at his chest just in time to stop. A hood obscured the face of the man wielding it.
-Out you come, and don’t even think of calling for help.
How had this happened? Where was the alarm call? Where was Ralph? Richard sensed, rather than saw, the men slip by him into the guardhouse. The tip of the arrow wavered only a little as he was forced to kneel, and a rough grip bound his hands behind his back. From inside came the scuffle of resistance, then his fellows stumbled, bewildered, out the door. They, too, were bound. The clink of keys as the door was locked behind them. Richard saw the prisoner, Scathelocke, stumble after the outlaws as they retreated into the wood.
-We’ll take your pennies, gentlemen, but you can keep the dice. Now; a warning.
Richard glanced at his captors. Four of them in greens and browns, unkempt like an outgrowth of the forest itself. One of them, the youngest, thrust his neck out and screeched like an owl. Immediately, an arrow lodged itself in the dirt by Richard’s knee.
-We’re watching. Any movement, any noise, and the next arrow won’t miss. We are Robin Hood, and we bid you goodnight.
They plunged into the forest – real forest, thought Much, not whatever sorcery Robin had spread across Birkencar – and headed towards the Oak.
The prisoner, Scathelocke, had said nothing since his release. Powerfully built, he crashed through the woods, without a thought for the disturbance he caused. Much felt a smugness he was not used to, as he nimbly followed the big man. The sun had long since set, and what sky they could see was deepest blue; in a few weeks, come midsummer it would still be light at this hour. He thought back to the same time last year; the midsummer pageant in Rainworth, the feasting and the dancing until nightfall and the trysts between the village boys and girls. Now, under the stretching arms of Sherwood’s boughs, he was a man.
In the great circle about the Oak where no grass grew, a fire was kindled. Much rubbed at the stings and scratches on his arms and brushed spiderwebs from his brow. Stutely uncovered the cache of dried meat. The newcomer looked around, alert and wary, his face a mixture of wonder and suspicion. He accepted a chunk of meat and devoured it. His right hand lay useless in his lap.
-Let me see that, said Robin. He gestured and Scathelocke raised the bloody mess. Much winced.
-You! Scathelocke whipped the wounded arm away; Much winced again. You killed the deer!
-I saved your life. If that deer hadn’t died – silently – then and there, you’d have been shot. You made so much noise the foresters would have found you before you’d skinned it.
-I’d have been fine.
-No, you’d have been dead. Robin looked around. Whose eyes are best in the dark? Stutely; find me a willow and bring me some of its bark. You’re in pain, Will Scathelocke, but you’re safe. It’ll take some days but the wound will heal. You’ll miss your appointment at Eyre Court in the morning but at least you’ll retain the use of your hand. And your eyes. You can never go home, though; you know that. Can you use your left hand?
-Then you can’t handle a weapon until you’re healed. That’s fine, we can allow for that. There are other things you can-
Scathelocke held his good hand up.
-Stop. He looked scornfully from man to man. What makes you think I want to join with outlaws?
Their leader, this Robin, had mixed a brew once the fire was high, and given it to Scathelocke. The willow bark, he explained, would help the pain in his fist. The others avoided his eye. He didn’t care. Scathelocke could have each of them in a fight. Except maybe the man they called Little John, though a bigger man Scathelocke had never seen. He looked like he could be a match, or handy in a scuffle. But when their eyes met, there was suspicion, like each man was tugging a rope with his gaze and refusing to give. After they’d eaten – Scathelocke had almost made himself sick on dried meat after two days of pond water and mouldy bread – Robin vanished into the trees with an abruptness that had impressed him. Then, one by one, after climbing into the great thrusting branches of the Oak, the men had slept.
All except Scathelocke. On his guard, he’d listened until the breathing of the others was soft and steady, except for the boy, Much, who snored. The pain in his hand began to ebb, though whether it was through exhaustion or the willowbark concoction, there was a buzzing in his limbs, and even in his teeth, that prevented sleep. He’d rarely felt so alert.
He was not a man to feel despair. Anger, fury, rage and frustration, but never despair. In the cell at Birkencar he had been angry at being caught, and though he feared the consequences at least they were known. But now…what had he been freed into? The forest was strange to him. He was unused to its ways: he was a man of villages and towns, not thickets and bowers. He couldn’t swim, or climb a tree. Everything here was alien to him. But…he still had two hands, two eyes and a kind of freedom, didn’t he? Maybe he could leave Sherwood and go somewhere else, though God knew where he was. Could he, though? Could he leave Emeline and the boys? No: it was unthinkable. And yet how could he see them again? His name would be all over the county in the coming days. What choice did he have?
The tingling sensation grew stronger, and he stood up. The night was cool, and he warmed his hands above the embers of the fire. They seemed to pulse, almost to breathe, a bright orange that glowed and faded and glowed. The longer he stared, the more they appeared to move, to wriggle and writhe like beetles; the vision disgusted him. The clicks and pops of the smouldering wood were the sounds of their feet, their wing cases, their urgency. He reeled back from the fire, senses under assault. Each disoriented footfall he made triggered a shock of sound that echoed back to him from all across the glade. In the oak, now, no men slept: Scathelocke was alone. Each movement rang in his ears like a church bell. Away he wheeled, further from the crawling glow of the fire, noise following him like autumn wind through the trees. Into the bracken he ran, desperate to leave the sounds behind. He lay on moss, each tuft of which he felt press against his body, making itself known. He lay still, but his breath sounded like a waterfall, the blood a torrent in his ears. Slowly, he calmed his breathing until its noise no longer deafened him. By and by, he moved fingers, aware of how alert each sense was. He could sense every frond of moss, could differentiate between them. He rolled onto his back and opened his eyes.
Stars. Uncountable stars, like a nobleman’s diamonds scattered across soft velvet. Overwhelmed, he squeezed his eyes shut again.
Shapes, shards of glass or coloured beads behind his eyes; forming and changing and stretching. Better unmoving stars than this riot. He sat up, slowly, quietly.
The Oak. The men had spoken of it in reverent terms as a home, a refuge, a friend. He’d scoffed: a tree was a tree was a length of timber. But no more. By star and firelight the huge trunk, squat, broad and hugely powerful, thrust up in fantastic shapes. Each crust of bark was a puzzle to his eye. The parabola of its crown spread selflessly over the forest floor, ancient, peaceful, patient and protective. A scent filled the glade, pungent and sharp, that he knew but could not name. As he gazed at the Oak, a great calm came on him, as if the tree itself were soothing him. By daylight he’d have ridiculed the idea but there was no doubting it now. Everything had changed. He walked, with care and deliberation, toward the tree, his movements clumsy but quieter than before. Will Scathelocke came to the Oak, and he slept.
A gentle kick at his ankle, and Scathelocke awoke. Robin squatted by him; the other men to either side. The dawn light was pale, the air cold.
-I think you’ve been sleeping in fox shit, said Robin. The men laughed, but without malice.
Scathelocke eyed them all, in turn. An odour, bestial and unpleasant, rose to his nostrils.
-The smell…it meant something.
-It meant you were sleeping in fox shit. How’s your hand?
Scathelocke regarded the swollen, red fist as if it were a stranger.
-We can give you more willow-brew.
-I can live with the pain.
-Don’t worry, there’ll be no visions this time.
-Alas, no. A little plant knowledge, though, can be a powerful tool. You seemed to cope very well, in the end. When you quietened down.
-What did you do to me? None…none of you were here!
-We never left this glade. Each of us watched you, to be sure you came to no harm. No real harm. All of us have undergone the forest’s initiation. How do you feel?
-Hungry. You tricked me!
-What did the forest show you?
-I’m saying nothing more until I’ve eaten.
-We can only afford to feed members of our band. There’s no room for extended hospitality.
-Curse you, I’ll join your men. You leave me no choice.
-No: you left yourself no choice. As soon as you shot the deer – as soon as you decided to shoot the deer – your path was laid out like the North Road. We live by our wits and our skills and we take responsibility for our actions. Sherwood protects and guides us, but each action is our own. That’s the understanding you must have.
-I’m sure you’re wizards. May I eat? Please?
-Of course. Much will show you how to build a fire.
-Blow on it; just a little. See? You have to nurture the flame, like a child, said Much. A tiny wisp of orange struggled for life and Scathelocke fed it dried grass. It spread, greedy.
-You’re not much older than a child yourself, are you?
-I’m fifteen. Old enough: there’ve been younger kings, I’m told.
Scathelocke grunted, placed more kindling on the fire.
-Your initiation. Do you remember it?
-I’ll never forget it. The forest had always scared me. My father ran the mill at Rainworth and I helped him. I never entered the forest: it was so big, so dark, full of outlaws, and of course it was forbidden. I didn’t want to meet the Foresters; they don’t need proof to arrest you. Keep well clear, my Dad always told me. But that night, it’s hard to explain. I saw the Wood as more simple and more… I don’t know the word. Like it’s only trees but so much more than that at the same time. Like an animal that was made of everything in the forest. I felt safe in it, but also really scared. I respect it now but I never used to. And the same with Robin. He scares me more than any man I’ve ever met, even my father. But I trust him, I like him, I feel safe with him. I’d die for him.
-What kind of man is he?
-Well, you’ve seen for yourself. He’s like nobody I’ve ever met.
Scathelocke grinned, nudged the boy in the ribs.
-Your hero, is he?
Much rubbed the spot that Scathelocke’s elbow had thumped.
-No, that’s not what I mean at all. I mean, sometimes I’m not even sure he’s human.
Ralph was found first, stripped of arms and armour, lying unconscious in the lee of the manor wall. The relief sentry went to the guardhouse for help and discovered his comrades bound, too scared to speak. As he drew out a knife to cut the flaxen cords, a barn owl screeched and the men shrieked in terror. He ran to fetch his captain.
Once freed, they rubbed at raw wrists and blabbered like children. The forest had grown; it had swarmed over the guardhouse, and men had come from its cover to free the prisoner. Men called Robin Hood, who moved through the forest silent as birds.
That Scathelocke was missing the Captain could see. That the forest had spread and, seemingly, retreated exactly to the point where it had stood earlier in the evening? That was a lie to mask their fear and their embarrassment at being ambushed. Surely they’d had time to concoct a better excuse?
-If they trespass in the forest, they’ll be hunted and shot.
-Who’ll be hunted and shot?
The Captain froze. Word had evidently reached Sir Guy, who strode up, face flushed.
-The prisoner, sire. Robin Hood has taken him. He’s gone.
The Captain watched his master’s face take on the pallor of the moon.
-We can begin the search at once-
-No. Sir Guy dismissed the notion as if sweeping a table clear. You’ll not find them at night in the forest. The prisoner is due at Eyre Court in the morning. It reflects badly on this manor if he has escaped.
-We need someone to be there in his place. Fetch me one of the men from the village.
-Any man, sire?
-Of course any man: they’re all alike, aren’t they? Bring him to me.
-Yes, Sir Guy.
Gisburne sat alone in the Hall. The tables had been cleared, and the functionaries of the manor, accustomed to sleeping on bundles of straw on the floor, were made to wait elsewhere while he ruminated. A single torch on the wall behind Gisburne’s chair threw his shadow onto the floor, a shadow into which the pawn, plucked by the Captain from slumber, would have to walk, his lord’s form inscrutable above him.
Robin Hood. Robin Hood. Robin Hood.
Rumour spread faster than truth, and clung more tightly to the imagination. The policy of denial was doomed if the bastard cropped up all over the county. You couldn’t even slander him: that he was an outlaw was fact, and that was what the poor, stupid cattle liked about him.
A knock at the door.
-Show him in.
Gisburne watched the man nervously advance. The hall was long and he seemed unsure of whether to hurry, or if this would be disrespectful. Gisburne’s silence discomfited the man, who stood and bowed on the edge of the great shadow. Gisburne let the silence last a little longer.
Gisburne stood, and his shadow leapt across the floor.
-Can you lie?
-Lie, my lord?
-Lie. Tell an untruth. Give a false answer to a question.
-I have not told any-
-I don’t ask if you have; I ask if you can.
-Yes, Sir Guy, I…yes.
-Good. Tomorrow you’ll play the role of a prisoner in the Eyre Court at Clipstone. The man will be tried for crimes against the venison, and you will pretend to be him. When asked your name, you will answer “Will Scathelocke”. Repeat.
-Will Scathelocke, Sir Guy.
-Scathelocke may be found guilty and condemned. The judges do not care about the fate of a prisoner once he has been sentenced. What counts is that he is there to be sentenced at all. You’ll return here, and be paid five silver coins for your trouble.
The man stood a little taller.
-Ah, the task is more amenable now. Gisburne dismissed him, but the man took a step forward, arm outstretched. Gisburne stood, outraged.
-You’ll be paid after you have carried out your task!
-It’s not that, Sir Guy. Sorry, sire, but it’s customary to shake on a deal.
-Of course. Gisburne allowed the man to clasp his gloved hand. Be here at dawn.
Nottingham was bored. He shaded his eyes from the sunlight. The glare irritated him: no weather pleased him more than an overcast day. Only toothache kept him awake, a nagging in his upper jaw. The sun was high, and a breeze stirred the flags. The noose dangling from the gallows swung gently in the courtyard of Clipstone Palace. A charmless building, built by the king for his infrequent hunting trips, but Nottingham was grateful for it, otherwise the monarch and his ghastly retinue would invade Nottingham Castle and he, the Sheriff, would be relegated to his townhouse.
He’d lost count of the plaintiffs they’d seen that morning. Crimes against Forest Law: gathering too much wood, chopping branches, letting their beasts roam wild, possession of an axe or bow. Petty crimes, but the fines added up and went, after careful accountancy, to the royal exchequer. Minus Nottingham’s own expenses, of course: Eyre Court was not convened on the cheap.
Some of the plaintiffs had been held for months, a few for years, some no doubt in Nottingham’s own dungeons, and they all looked similarly broken. Dirty, degraded, little better than the beasts they once kept to feed themselves. The bishop, and the abbots to either side of him, would teach that God ordained that the poor be poor in order to preserve the divinely-ordained hierarchy. What was a king, or a Sheriff, with no peasants over which to rule? But Nottingham wondered – idly, with no real interest – if the poor were maybe just lazy and stupid, and that God had nothing to do with it. But maybe God had willed even that. He would have to query the bishop on that, if he remembered. Little puzzles to work the brain did a man good.
He waved his hand impatiently, letting the Deputy Justice pass sentence on the latest cur. Damn toothache. He needed some sport; something to take his mind off it.
Here was a one, though. A specimen almost human, and in better health than any of the others. Crime against the venison. The Deputy Justice was speaking.
-Can you confirm your name?
-Will Scathelocke, my lord.
-You are charged, Will Scathelocke, with bearing weapons in the King’s forest, killing the royal deer, and resisting arrest by the King’s foresters. How do you plead?
The defendant, confused, seemed to search for a face among those in the stand.
-How do you plead?
Nottingham followed the man’s gaze, and saw Gisburne nod discreetly to the prisoner. The Sheriff smiled. Sir Guy had no finesse. What was he up to, playing games? Nottingham was the King’s representative, this was the administration of Royal justice in the Crown’s Forest, and it was no place for games.
-Guilty. My Lord.
Murmuring among the benches. A rare plea.
-You will be taken into the custody of Sir Guy Gisburne, and transported to Birkencar, there to have your eyes put out under his supervision.
Nottingham stood up.
All faces turned. The Deputy Justice looked troubled.
-Sir, this is-
-Such an honest plea deserves a noble punishment, he said to the crowd. He turned to the Deputy Justice. And please remind yourself that I represent the King directly. Nottingham rubbed at his jaw, but absently now. The pain seemed to be easing.
-Hang him. Now.
Nottingham and Gisburne rode side by side the miles from Clipstone to Birkencar. The Sheriff’s retinue stretched before and behind them. Soldiers kept watch to either side, scanning the oaks of Sherwood with suspicion. In a cart at the rear of the procession was the corpse of the hanged villager. Nottingham talked, gossiping like a washer-woman, revealing casually the secrets of clergy and nobility alike: their peccadilloes, foibles, weaknesses and health problems.
-I’m the Crown in this county. Nobody has secrets from me.
Gisburne listened, carefully storing facts like a squirrel. Who knew when the information might be useful?
Nottingham, for his part, was fully aware of the aspirant Gisburne’s desperation to ascend the social hierarchy, and cast his way only those nuggets that were of least use, or were anyway open secrets. Nothing that could give Sir Guy a foothold.
-No secrets. Tell me, Sir Guy, what was your little game back there? I saw the way the poor fool looked at you. There was an arrangement, wasn’t there?
Gisburne said nothing.
-You sent him to his death but I doubt it troubles you. What was the game?
-There was no game.
-No secrets, Sir Guy.
-He took another man’s place.
-The real criminal had absconded? This, what was it, Spatchcock?
-Scathelocke. I did not wish it known.
-Did he escape? Don’t be coy, Gisburne. Between you and me.
-He was freed, by an armed gang claiming to be Robin Hood.
The Sheriff burst into laughter, and slapped the flank of his horse.
-Robin Hood; again. That’s wonderful.
-It’s an embarrassment.
-Oh, Sir Guy, no no no! You must take a longer view of things sometimes. Denying his existence would only ever work for so long, because every time he strikes, more people hear of him, or he distributes a few pennies to the common herd and they believe a blow has been struck. Or else he is killed, and we stick his head on Nottingham Castle. Sooner or later, you’re proved a liar. No, a touch of cunning is all that’s needed. He jerked a thumb over his shoulder. Somewhere back there is a man dead because of Robin Hood, a man who agreed of his own volition to stand in the place of a prisoner, but whom cruel fate struck down. Cruel fate, mark you, not Sir Guy of Gisburne. It was a risk the man understood: a tragedy, for sure. This is what you tell the people, words to this effect, I’m sure you can gild them further. Because of the outlaw Robin Hood’s liberation of a dangerous criminal, an innocent man lies dead having merely assisted his lord in the proper functioning of the Law. Is this the behaviour of a folk hero?
-The poor have strange heroes and strange fashions.
-Enrich the widow, if there is one. Compensate her, and it is unlikely Robin Hood will return; he’ll have no foothold in Birkencar, nor receive welcome. Now, I trust there is a room for me, Gisburne? A large one. I expect nothing less from you. And food. Your father was always most hospitable.
-Yes, my lord.
Gisburne’s steward greeted the train on their arrival. Nottingham watched the man make the mental calculations as more soldiers and horses continued to appear behind them.
-Sir Guy, My Lord Sheriff. We have prepared a small refreshment for you in your privy chamber. He snapped his fingers and a battalion of grooms and pages seemed to spring forward to minister to the new arrival.
-Small! I like your man’s humour, Gisburne. Small refreshment. Very droll! I’m so hungry I could eat that precious horse of yours. Are there wines, man?
-We have no wines, my lord Sheriff. But the ales are particularly fine.
-Gisburne, we must have wine. You should have wine. A sign of wealth and sophistication is a good French wine. Or a bad one, even. A true lord must have wines.
The Steward, anxious to escape his master’s expression of mingled anger and shame, retreated to the kitchens. Guy dismounted, and stroked the horse’s flank.
-Before my feet touch the ground, Sir Guy; the small matter of silver we discussed, to guarantee my stay at your…humble…abode.
-I’ll see to it presently, Gisburne said through clenched teeth.
Gisburne felt cornered. From the Hall came the sounds of Nottingham’s soldiers carousing: cheering, clattering, fistfights. How much would this night cost? It had better be worth it. And in here, the privy chamber where he slept alone, the scene was little better. He looked up in supplication. The dark oak lattice of the ceiling trapped him like a fowl in a cage. Platters by the dozen lay scattered; the Sheriff’s appetite was as inconstant as the weather. Every few minutes he shouted for a different plate – Mallard in roe, squirrel, whole roast quail – which he abandoned after a few mouthfuls. The household at Birkencar – not to mention half the village – would subsist for a day on what the Sheriff had left unconsumed. And despite what he’d said earlier, he was happy enough, it seemed, to partake of ale.
-A fine horse you have, Guy. Your father kept good stables. A fine man. He would have made this house, the name of Gisburne great, had he lived longer.
-I would hope to continue, my lord.
-So. Our mutual pest: Robin Hidey-Hood. Robin of the Green. Robin Wolfshead. The Hood. You’ll take my advice with the widow?
-If I have silver to spare, my lord.
-And why shouldn’t you? Ale! Bring me more ale! Footsteps came scurrying. It’s not bad, Gisburne, for peasant-swill. His popularity could be a danger. The better he looks, the worse we do.
Nottingham sat upright with difficulty, and laid a forefinger on the table. He dug about with his other hand in a few of the discarded plates, and picked up a chicken bone. He balanced it on the finger, and pressed down on one end. The other end rose.
-See? We look bad: down. Robin Hood looks good: up. But the nearer to the centre the weight is placed, the closer to a balance we have. We need to meet the threat halfway. Q.E.D.
-Meet him? Gisburne frowned.
-You misunderstand. No…he has the poor in the palm of his hand. Why he bothers, I don’t know: they’ll die of one thing or another soon enough. But he has them. What we need…he sliced a corner of cheese and impaled it on his knife. With a flick of his wrist, the cheese spun across the room, hitting the wall and vanishing into the straw that covered the floor. Something twitched nearby.
-What we need is a poor person of our very own.