-I’m a poor abbot; you wouldn’t rob me?
The little priest, hand on ample belly, stared up at the bowmen. Perched on branches, their arrows were nocked and trained on the clergyman’s heart.
-Much, one of them called.
From out of the trees came a boy, dressed like the others in dull-hued greens and browns. He pulled out a knife and began slicing through the bags that hung off the abbot’s donkey. The beast, more phlegmatic than its master, nibbled at the undergrowth, unconcerned.
-If you were poor, no we wouldn’t, said the boy. A jingling bag made him cry out. He held it up for his companions in the trees to hear.
-You were right, Robin.
-Robin? Robin Hood? The abbot crossed himself and staggered back a pace into the donkey. It butted him with a sideways swipe of its head. You’re Robin Hood?
-We are all Robin Hood, came a voice from above.
The abbot glanced about in terror, as if every such tree held an archer, every fern hid an outlaw: wolfsheads as far as a scream would carry. The boy’s expression was grim, but he seemed to swell with pride.
-You’ve paid your toll; you can pass now, he said.
-The forest is not yours to levy a toll on!
-And that money wasn’t yours, one of the archers grunted. Amazing how fat another man’s sweat can make you, isn’t it? Now get out of here.
Here, at last, was stillness. The fish hung in the water, holding its place like a kestrel in the air as the clear brown water tugged and buffeted. Mowren stood, bare feet embedded in the mud of the riverbed, lethal tip of the sharpened stick inching through the flow. Like a heron she waited, and waited, until she saw a line connecting spear to fish: the action crystallised and a bare moment away. Under her control. In her power. She let the inevitability establish itself and only then, with all the time she needed, she struck.
The fish thrashed, impaled on the spike, and she lifted it clear of the water, sprayed as it squirmed in the suffocating air. She grabbed the tail and pulled the stake out. The shock stilled the fish, but she whipped its head against the riverbank to make sure.
In the stillness and concentration was an invulnerable peace. Now, released from the moment, the world crept back in.
Her mother was dead; still. The fact hit her anew each time, bearing the same shock. It caught her unawares, hourly: the world was changed and had moved on; was now a world without her mother. Only Mowren had not changed. And, hard on that, as sure as winter follows autumn, came the dread of impending marriage.
Less so than the fact of her mother’s death, she couldn’t believe her father had agreed to it: oh, of course marriages were arranged all the time: at seventeen Mowren was four years older than the age her cousins had been married. But that all he had taught her of independence of opinion and strength and certainty of mind: none of this ultimately mattered because, as a girl, she was just a commodity to be traded. It had taken his wife’s death, it seemed, for Sir William to realise his only child was not a boy after all.
But to Sir Guy Gisburne! A man she had, in their brief meetings, felt little but revulsion for, and whose reputation had spread like an illness through the county. She knew the shame that running away – her childish, petulant act – would cause her father, but was it worse than the shame she would feel to be Lady Gisburne? No. And so into Sherwood she had plunged, to what end she knew not other than to distance her from herself. But, as the memory of her mother draped itself about her mind once more, it seemed she brought herself with her at every turn. How long could she live here, hiding from the sound of outlaws? God-forsaken, her father called it, but Mowren wondered.
A knife at her waist, stolen bow at her back and money in her purse: what more did she need? She slit the fish from gills to tail, letting her feet dry on the bank, warmed by the sun. She spread the fish like a prayer book and speared it.
Yes, she decided: she was a lady no longer. Lady Mowren Budby of Thoresby had entered the forest, but only Mowren would leave it. No lady could remain in Sherwood, but had she not forfeited her position as a lady? She regarded the fish, pleased with her handiwork. Maybe she need not leave at all.
Much let the coins slip through his fingers to the sandy earth.
-I don’t know: it’s more money than I can count to, Robin.
-Then it must be plenty. Robin wiped his mouth as he chewed. Who’ll take it to Wellbeck to give to the people there?
Scathelocke raised a hand from which dangled a duck’s leg. Robin nodded an acknowledgement.
-You can read though, Much, he continued. That’s more than some of us can do. We all have different strengths; different weaknesses. We rely on each other.
-What’s your weakness then, Robin?
Robin smiled, and inspected the bone in his hands for scraps of meat.
-I can’t swim.
-Can’t swim? Little John roared. I could have let you drown! That first day we met, I could have let you flow down the Maun! He slapped his forehead and the men laughed.
-My other weakness is also my strength: I’m tied to the forest.
-Tied to it?
-Mm. I couldn’t go to London even if I wanted. I’m bound to this place.
-I don’t understand. You’ve got legs, you’re as fit as any one of us.
-I have roots, Much. Not legs.
He raised a finger to his lips, but all the men were alert. Much had slipped the short sword from his belt and stood. Movement: footfall. A fox darted into the circle of outlaws. Much, startled, toppled into the grass. The fox trotted up to Robin, who offered it the bone he held. The fox took it delicately, and moved off a few paces. It stopped and turned. Robin followed it.
He followed the fox through the wood along snickets so faint they were little more than a memory of trampled grass. The afternoon sun was high, the air full of insects. The casual eye would have assumed the fox’s direction arbitrary but Robin knew that, whatever loops and digressions they took, they were headed to the oak at the centre of the forest. The beast curled up in the roots of the great tree. Robin sat a respectful distance away, nicked his thumb with his knife, and pressed the paste onto the wound. He met the fox’s unblinking gaze, and waited for the forest to speak.
On his eyelids endless patterns emerged, in numberless hues of brown and grey: the bark of a tree, seen up close. Each flake and crease, wrinkle and nook was so detailed he pulled his head back, but the vision remained, locked in place on his closed eyes. His gaze travelled over the textures: unusually, the play of light and shadow suggested no other shapes than those he could see. There was a message in this, but what? Don’t look too hard: sometimes things are just as they seem?
A flickering in one corner, and in a heartbeat a flurry of texture resolved itself into the folded wings of a moth, perfectly mimicking the surface to which it clung. With a twitch the moth flew off, leaving the bark as seemingly bare of illusion as before. But he knew, now, not to trust to appearances. The message was just the opposite: some things are not always as they seem.
Night had fallen; the fox had gone, and his mind felt tired and unfocussed. He climbed the huge trunk and tucking himself into the crook of a branch, slept.
A sound woke him in the late afternoon: unfamiliar footsteps. Light, but neither Much nor Stutely. He felt for his bow, quiver and staff. The footsteps halted.
Silently, Robin slung the quiver onto his back. He listened, felt with all his senses, seeking out disturbance among plant, beast and bird that would locate the stranger. They were nearby: too close. The forest around him was silent.
Then, the creak of wood under strain, a glint of low sun on metal.
By the time the arrow struck the tree Robin was halfway to the ground, the trunk between him and his assailant. His heart thudded; a tiny part of him was thrilled, loved the feeling of being hunted. It kept a body and mind sharp to be alone and under threat.
Still, the other bowman made no move.
-I can stay here all day, Robin shouted. Maybe you can, too, but what say we fight in the open? I’m putting my arrows away. Will you do the same? Look, my bow is in the air. Have you a staff so we can fight like men?
Slowly, a bow was raised above the undergrowth. Robin set his down, and saw the other do likewise. Still he could see nothing but a slender arm. He moved into the open beneath the tree, trusting to its protection, staff tight in his hands. Cautiously, a slightly-built figure, face hooded, emerged from the bracken. For a moment he thought it was Much.
The boy was slight but agile, and what he lacked in strength he made up for in cunning, spinning away from Robin’s attacks and sidestepping him with ease. Time and again their staffs clashed, cracking beneath the huge dome of the oak canopy. Once, his opponent let out a gasp so high Robin thought it was a girl he was fighting. A good defensive fighter, this boy, but their defence was tiring and sure enough, the hooded youth’s concentration slipped and Robin caught him in the midriff. On hands and knees, he raised a submissive hand.
-No more, he gasped, voice a whisper.
-You fight well. Robin wiped his brow and hauled in lungfuls of air. I enjoyed that.
A trail of saliva dripped to the ground.
-What will you do to me? I can pay.
-Pay? I’ve a better idea. Will you join my men? We could use a good fighter: strong and agile. I’ve never known a boy fight as well as you.
The kneeling figure rose and pulled back the hood.
-And you still haven’t, she said. Robin laughed
-I’m sorry! Why shouldn’t a woman fight as well as a man? Your name, sister?
-Mowren. And you are?
-Of course you are, Mowren shrugged. Every bandit in Sherwood calls themselves Robin nowadays.
-Why are you in the forest, asked Robin, dressed like an outlaw yourself?
-It’s a long story: later.
-I’ll repeat my offer: will you join us?
-A girl with a band of men?
-All honourable men, any one of whom you could take in a fight.
-Show me them, and I’ll decide.
Robin laughed and went to gather his bow and quiver.
-But I must blindfold you first. A battle with staffs can be easily won, but not trust. He ripped a length of cloth from his sleeve. He looked at the line of her neck, the curl of her hair as he tied it around her head. The vision of the moth flitted across his mind’s eye. Some things are not what they seem. Well, that had been the case, hadn’t it?
-Take my hand.
So quietly even Robin started, Will Stutely stepped from behind a lightning-scarred elm.
-Who’s your hostage?
Robin felt the girl’s grip tighten.
-No hostage. He told Will of their meeting. You can take the blindfold off now. This is Will Stutely.
-Mowren, the girl offered her hand.
-Lift your foot for me, Mowren.
-Your foot. Show me the shape of your feet. Stutely squatted, and traced a finger along the edge of the girl’s leather shoes.
-Do you do this to every woman you meet?
-You’ve found Scathelocke’s mystery girl, Robin.
-Robin? You are Robin Hood?
Stutely chuckled. She didn’t believe you?
-I’ll believe it once I’ve seen Little John, if he is as big as they say.
Stutely shrugged, suddenly diffident. He’s big, if that’s something to be impressed by. You’ll see him later. He’s taking advantage of the locals’ gratitude in the Blue Boar at Ollerton. He’ll be back later, drunk, grumpy and smelling of chickens. Where are you from?
-Budby, said Mowren.
Robin led them toward camp, amused by Stutely’s flirting. He plucked a gooseberry from a bush and winced at the sharpness of its taste.
-That makes you a local. Ever had venison?
-You’re in for a treat.
-Is it not dangerous to leave the forest?
-Little John going to Ollerton.
-It isn’t far. I could fire an arrow to Ollerton from the edge of the forest.
-You’d still miss, Robin called over his shoulder.
No introduction at court or castle had prepared Mowren for walking into the circle of outlaws. Never had she entered an environment so alien, so male, yet never had she begun to feel so quickly that it was a place in which she could belong. Sewing and prattling among fellow ladies, feeling obliged to contribute to their vacuous chatter, was a kind of slow death. She had been raised almost as a boy, and was exiled from the society in which she’d been born, but here was an unlikely future. In the camp of Robin Hood, amongst men. Men whose names were cursed by her father, but spoken of in hopeful whispers by the people in the villages, and whose tales her handmaidens brought her. That here she could belong: was that not a wonder?
Their awkwardness, their deference toward women she brushed aside as she struggled to affix face to name. She ate and drank, growing more nervous all the while as the time came for her to share her story. She rehearsed it over and over in her mind, masking her desperate thoughts as shyness. The meat sat on her stomach, unmoving, and the wine went to her head. Too soon, it seemed, Robin called for silence, and she felt all eyes settle on her.
-My name is Mowren. I have no brothers or sisters, and my mother died in giving birth to me. My father was a soldier in his youth, and he taught me to shoot and to fight, as if I was a boy. Lately, he caught the Influence and died. He was my world, and I his. He’d always been there, and I thought he always would be. I still…the world doesn’t seem right without him. It’s like a mistake has been made and nobody but me has noticed. On the day we were to bury him, the bailiffs came. The rent had just been raised, and we had little money before. But now…there was nothing, and me alone. Still the men demanded money; pay us, they said, or else they would…
She broke off. The men regarded her uneasily.
-My father kept a sword. I wielded it and struck one of the men. They chased me, and I ran into the forest. For days I have lived, remembering what my father told me in my childhood: how to hunt, how to survive.
She sensed Robin scrutinising her.
-You miss your father?
-Sometimes. But God put eyes in the front of our heads, not the back.
-You’re from Budby? So the lord would be Sir William, of Thoresby Castle. He’s a bad one, said Stutely.
-They’re all bad ones, grunted Scathelocke.
-There are worse than him.
Mowren looked from man to man. Tears pricked her eyes at their words. These men were outlaws, after all, their values different from hers.
-Do you want revenge? Stutely asked. On this Sir William, or his men.
-Not revenge. Not even justice. Just shelter.
Robin looked at her thoughtfully.
-But you must be angry.
-Anger…I was scared. If they’d caught me I know what they would have done. A man would just have been killed, but there are worse things than death. She glanced at Stutely, who suddenly seemed alert, like a dog sniffing the wind.
-There’s shelter to be had, but we are not a refuge, said Robin. We fight: you must know that.
-My father mentioned Robin Hood and his men from time to time. No lie there, she thought.
From the darkness beyond the fire came a voice.
-I’ll bet he did. Whatever she said, it’s all lies.
A man, taller and broader than anyone Mowren had seen, trudged into the light. He glowered at her; sweat glistened on his face.
-She’s lying to you, Robin. Lying to you all.
-Mowren- Robin began.
John cut him off.
-Mowren, yes. Mowren Budby of Thoresby Castle. Daughter of Sir William Budby.
In the gloom, Mowren could hear the shifting of the men; a weapon drawn. Her body turned to ice.
-We don’t welcome the rich, said the giant.
-We don’t welcome those who aren’t what they seem.
-Ransom her! shouted the boy.
-Comrades! Robin held up his hand. We lay no hand on woman or child. Mowren, I’ve been unwise to trust you this far. Forgive me, brothers. You are as Little John says, Lady Budby of Thoresby Castle?
-Yes, though I renounce that title.
-As was once pointed out to me, saying a thing does not necessarily make it so. That is still who you are. Why, then, are you in the forest? No more lies or excuses. We will not ill-treat you, but neither will you be welcome. And don’t tell us what you think we want to hear.
Mowren closed her eyes to still her butterfly heart, then looked into the eyes of each outlaw in turn.
-My name is Mowren Budby. My father is Sir William, and though some of you may have cause to hate him, do not think the worse of me for loving him as any daughter would a father. My mother, the Lady Eleanor, died months ago but to me it feels like a heartbeat. My father has not, and I believe will not, recovered fully from her death. He has made a deal with Sir Guy Gisburne, the new lord of Birkencar, to hand over ownership of the villages on his land; villages whose names he taught me like a song when I was a child: Carburton, Perlethorpe, Haughton and Budby; Walesby and Borneshil. Thoresby Castle he will keep, at least until his death: for I am his only heir, and part of the deal – for Sir Guy does not wish or is not able to pay – takes the form of a dowry. Gisburne pressed this on my father at his most vulnerable.
-You’re to marry Gisburne? Stutely gaped.
-It’s all arranged, signed and agreed. The banns have been read.
-You ran away, said Robin.
-I knew it. I knew you didn’t have the anger that someone who’d suffered like that would have.
-I am angry, Robin Hood. Don’t doubt that.
-No, you’re peeved. You’ve thrown a tantrum.
-What other course of action is open to a woman? I will not marry Sir Guy, but if I stay at Thoresby, I’ll be dragged to the altar.
-Gisburne knows you are missing?
-Oh yes, said John. Along with everyone in the Blue Boar, who’ve been laughing into their ale about it these past few days. He’s angry. But that’s not all. The villages the girl mentioned: he’s going to raise the tax on them. Starting tomorrow.
A clamour of voices rose in disbelief and outrage.
-At first light. He craves more space for his precious horses, for hunting, they say, and if people can’t pay up, their houses will be torched. It’s a ruse to get money and if he can’t get money he gets more land clear for riding. He stared at Mowren. I know what that feels like, girl. Your father did it to me.
Mowren bowed her head.
-He has his men at Thoresby Castle, where by all accounts they’re not welcome, added John.
-Do the people know?
-Some of them must: word will travel.
-We can’t let this pass can we, brothers? asked Robin. We’ll meet Gisburne’s men.
-Us against all of them? Much looked worried.
-Though they have horse and armour, we have stealth, arrows and the cover of the forest.
-Perlethorpe is closest to tree cover, mused John. Closest to here as well. The others are beyond the forest. He gave Robin a meaningful look. Robin held up his hand and conceded: his power ebbed the further from the forest he travelled.
-Gisburne’s men would ride along the north bank of the Meden. They’d have to cross the bridge at Perlethorpe.
-Let me go with you.
Little John laughed.
-You? You think we’d take the enemy with us?
-I am not your enemy. Thoresby is no longer my home.
-You talk like my enemy, you walk like my enemy. If I picked you up and shook you, I bet you’d jingle like my enemy.
Robin made a gesture to quell the men’s laughter.
-I know the people, she said. I won’t see Perlethorpe threatened. It’s because of me Gisburne is doing this.
-Maybe we should just give you to him.
-No! The tales I heard of Robin Hood-
-From “your father”?
-My father thinks you’re vermin. No; the villagers in Perlethorpe and Carburton tell tales that you are just, that you’ve helped them. But you’re as petty as any nobleman. My life is my own. I will not be bought, sold, swapped, traded, lent, ransomed or gifted. I renounce my life up to this point. Why can you not understand that?
-Well spoken, said Stutely.
-Just words, though. Words are easy, grunted John.
-Then let me prove it. Take me with you in the morning.
Robin shook his head.
-No. You may be sincere, but your presence would be too risky, for all of us. We’ll give you your liberty, but you cannot come with us. As you say, your life is your own. Not everyone in Sherwood are as tolerant as we.
-I see no tolerance here.
-Stutely, give her back her weapons and lead her from here. I hope you fare well, Mowren.
She stared at Robin, holding his gaze so long neither became willing to break it. The longer he stared, the more he became certain that deep within her green eyes, kindled more with every moment, a fire now burned.