The faintest breeze stirred the leaves on the edge of the forest; a cold wind that still belonged to the night. The sky above the houses of Perlethorpe was indigo, the houses themselves indistinct in the twilight.
-It’s the waiting, John. Always bloody waiting. I get so twitchy.
-You’re not a patient man are you, Will Scathelocke?
-No. And it’s bloody freezing. In August!
-Things will heat up soon enough.
Slowly, details accumulated. Forms vague in the dark became recognisable things with shape and colour and volume. Threads of smoke rose from the rooves and birdsong heralded the gathering light. In and around the village animals stirred; geese called softly and a baby cried, it’s sleep unsettled.
On the south side of the village, hard against the trees, John and Scathelocke waited. Robin was on the east side where the only cover was the rough scrub that skirted the forest. Over the Meden was Stutely, watching the road to Thoresby Castle. Much patrolled the road to the west. A signal from either would alert the others.
-D’you miss sleeping in a house, John?
-A bed of heather’s the most restful thing I’ve ever slept on. But sometimes, yes, I wish the forest had a roof.
Scathelocke grunted a laugh.
-But I miss people. These little villages, there aren’t enough people for me.
-That goes without saying. What did you make of the girl? Lady high-and-mighty?
-Just that: she was a girl. I’ve a son not much younger. I don’t know what she was thinking. The nobles have their world, the rest of us have ours. It’s not right that those worlds should mix. What about you?
-She might be gentry but she was easy on the eye: not like the rest of you ugly bastards.
Scathelocke laughed again.
-Where do you think she is just now?
-Tucked up in a warm bed, wearing silk, said John.
-Maybe wearing nothing at all.
-A man can dream.
Stretches of pink bled into the cold blue of dawn. Scathelocke rubbed his hands together, puffed warm breath into them.
-I am so cold. Can you see Robin?
-He’d be in trouble if I could.
-You know we could be waiting here while those other villages are burning. Borneshil and wherever else.
-We’d hear it, wouldn’t we? The noise.
-Waiting while nothing happens is bad enough, but it’d make my blood boil to hear that and do nothing.
-We’re not an army, Will. We aren’t even a troop. We’re a gang.
To the north, across the Meden a kestrel screeched two, three times. Stutely.
They came on horseback; five men in Gisburne’s livery. Their horses were strong, sleek and well cared-for. Scathelocke and John waited; Stutely would be moving behind these men now to cover the bridge.
Two of the riders held torches. The rest dismounted. Their captain indicated a house, seemingly at random, and the other two made for it, weapons drawn. The outlaws nocked arrows, drawing back until the bow creaked, held the position and waited, and waited. Robin’s instructions had been to suffer no flame to the thatch of a working man’s house, nor blow to his person.
A clattering as the door was kicked in. Screams and shouts of protest: a woman and man were dragged into the cool morning air; the man raised an arm to his assailant and was beaten back. Two young girls, blonde hair ghostly in the twilight followed them, crying. As other doors opened and villagers peered cautiously from houses, the mounted soldiers walked their steeds slowly, threateningly in a circle around the village. The torches cast twitching shadows.
-People of Perlethorpe, the captain shouted. As of midnight, this village now lies within the fiefdom of Sir Guy Gisburne of Birkencar. A review of taxation within the parish of Perlethorpe-cum-Budby has been held and a supplement of seven marks per household is due in coin or in kind at this time. Non-payment will be treated as a forfeit of tenure and will result in eviction.
He turned to the family dragged from their home, twins clinging to their mother’s skirts.
-You. What’s your name?
The man stroked the hair of his daughters and fixed the soldier with a stare.
-Robin Hood, he spat.
On the edge of the scrub, John chuckled and whispered to his friend.
-If only every Englishman was like that, what a country it would be!
A shout came up from one of the other villagers.
-Simon! His name’s Simon!
-And that’s the reason it isn’t, muttered Scathelocke.
An argument erupted among the villagers; the soldiers restrained Simon. He struggled against them.
-He can’t do that! someone shouted. We pay enough as it is, up at dawn just to make enough to live!
The captain remounted, and walked his horse over to the man, who shied away from the animal. The soldier kicked the man in the side of the head. The villagers cried out in protest.
-He can, said the captain, and has.
There was a sound like sharply drawn breaths, and the captain toppled from his horse, pierced by four arrows.
Chaos: his horse bolted, scattering the villagers like starlings. As they raised their swords, the two soldiers on foot spun and fell, shafts like new limbs jutting from their bodies. One of the mounted men fled. The other, seeing no sense in resisting an unseen force, raised his hands in surrender.
The outlaws broke cover. First Robin, then John and Scathelocke advanced across the scrub toward the huts. The people knotted together again, wary of their deliverers.
-Who are you? one of the women called.
-We’re friends, Robin called to them. John dragged the remaining soldier from his horse and held him.
-They’ll come back, said Simon, mopping at his bloodied brow with his sleeve. There’ll be a price for this.
-We’ll stay here.
-But after that? If this Gisburne is our new lord, he’ll not forget.
-I’m hoping not.
-This has always been a quiet place.
-Those days are gone, said Little John. He had the soldier on his knees, arm twisted behind his back. This is the future, under men like Gisburne.
-You’ll be bled dry, said Robin softly. Until your children starve and you can’t work so they throw you off the land. Unless you take a stand now. Show Gisburne you’ll not take this lying down.
-But after this?
Robin cut him off.
-What’s worse? The risk of dying tomorrow, or the certainty of dying today? The rich need you to work the land: without it they have no income. You are the most important link in the chain. Never forget that.
-Robin! Much came pelting across the open ground.
-Robin? A clamour arose among the villagers. Robin Hood? In a moment, their attitude shifted, and a new strength seemed to take hold of them.
-Robin, I’m sorry: he got past me. He crossed the weir back to Thoresby.
-Gone for reinforcements, muttered John.
-No matter, Much, said Robin. People of Perlethorpe! More soldiers will be on their way. Will you stand with us? With your rakes and shovels and hoes, will you confront your masters? Enough to say: this much, and no more. They may sleep in soft beds, but tonight let’s make sure you sleep the soundest. Will you join us? Then arm yourselves: man, woman and child.
A kestrel screeched north of the village.
-Quickly! They’re coming.
The villagers fled to their homes to find implements; tools used yesterday to till the land that today would save their lives, or take another man’s.
-Robin. John looked concerned. Can we ask them this? That children arm themselves? Against horsemen? It’s dangerous.
Anger flashed in Robin’s eyes.
-Of course it’s dangerous! Nothing was ever won without risk. The children are involved: it’s their world, their village, too.
-You think we can win?
-Small victories count large in memory and song, you know that. Look at them. He indicated the people, some with crude armour and a few with swords and helmets. Plus I’m hoping Gisburne will turn up.
-Look! Much shouted, pointing to the bridge over the Meden. From the shelter of the trees on the far side, Will Stutely ran, and behind him, a troop of mounted men. Their livery was that of Budby, but at their head rode a man Robin didn’t recognise. Stutely, panting heavily, named him as Gisburne.
-I couldn’t stay in hiding while they all came. If we fight, I’m with you. To the end.
-End? Robin squatted by Stutely and clapped him on the back. This is just the beginning.
A dozen men-at-arms on horse, and six archers before them, entered the circle of houses. Robin strode forward, as if to check their advance alone.
If Gisburne was outraged by the outlaw’s tone, he kept it reined in, and walked his horse to within feet of the outlaw. He surveyed the assembled village, with their motley collection of weaponry, before acknowledging Robin’s presence.
-Who are you to speak to me like that?
Robin made a broad gesture.
-Perlethorpe. Then, indicating the other outlaws, he added: Little John, Will Stutely, Much Miller, Will Scathelocke.
Gisburne’s eyes narrowed at this last name, as if searching for a particular memory.
-And I’m Robin.
–You are Robin Hood?
-Your tax increase has not been ratified by the people.
-Three of my men are dead.
-They struck the people. The people struck back.
-Then the people shall pay.
-You’re not listening.
-And you, wolfshead: you can hide behind the trees, but you can’t be everywhere at once.
-Maybe not. But I’m here, now, and I’m – we – are telling you to leave.
-I could crush this revolt in five minutes. You’re surrounded and I doubt your infantry is particularly well-drilled. If you flee I’ll net you like finches.
-You’d spill the blood of children? And when the Sheriff collects his revenues, and your figures are down you’ll have to admit to a massacre because you couldn’t impose your will any other way? These people are worth more to you alive.
-People? What people? All I see are outlaw-loving vermin.
Simon, white knuckles clutching a broom, ran at Gisburne.
-Bastard! The broom rose in a parabola which the fall of his body, pierced by arrows, continued to the ground. His wife screamed. Gisburne’s archers re-nocked; horsemen moved in closer.
-Oh, Robin, this is the end, Stutely groaned.
As Gisburne advanced on Robin, his horse reared up, emitting a wild shriek. Robin skipped aside as the horse crumpled like parchment in a fire. Gisburne nimbly dismounted in time to avoid being crushed. The beast lay on its side, an arrow shaft deep in its breast, heaving uneven breaths. It shuddered, eyes white in terror and confusion, and was still. Gisburne looked far beyond the assembled crowd. Heads turned to look.
A lone archer, face hooded, crossed the scrubland. Robin saw John scan the heads of the outlaws as if trying to figure out who was missing.
-You killed my horse! You! You killed my horse!
The archer swept back her hood. As she entered the ring of huts, Mowren nocked another arrow.
-Yes, Guy. I killed your horse. And unless you go back home, by which I mean Birkencar, I’ll kill you as well.
Gisburne laughed, incredulous.
-You’ve been in Sherwood. With these animals. The fat priest was right after all.
-They would not have me in their band. I face you a free woman.
-There are no free-born women in England.
-Nevertheless, I am one. And I repeat my threat.
-Lady Mowren, Gisburne waved his hand about, do you think these men-at-arms would suffer you shooting me?
-I do. Because although you have taken the fiefdom of my father’s villages, you have not yet usurped leadership of his troops. These men – men whose faces and names I know – are my father’s, and under the rule of the house of Budby. As the representative of that house, I command you men to return to Thoresby. Sir Guy has no authority over you. Go back, men, and tell my father what has passed. You owe your loyalty to him. And remember that it may be your father, your mother, your sister or brother’s house, that Gisburne visits in this manner tomorrow.
The men-at-arms looked among themselves and muttered; Mowren’s seed of doubt grew.
Gisburne stood immobile by the corpse of his horse as the soldiers, singly and then in groups, retreated from the village green. John released the captured soldier, who pelted after them. In a moment, the lord of Birkencar stood alone.
-I shall not marry you, said Mowren.
-No. Gisburne turned to face Robin. This is not finished. You’ll swing, outlaw, and when you’re dead, I’ll hang your skin in my hall like a tapestry.
-As you will.
Gisburne removed bridle and saddle from the dead beast while the outlaws and villagers looked on. There was a peculiar dignity to the act, and Gisburne, leather slung over his shoulder, walked from the green without a word.
Mowren sought Robin, but he was kneeling by Simon’s body with those who comforted his widow so she hung back, feeling out of place. The eyes of others were on her, but none spoke. She watched the widow’s body racked by sobs and felt the elation drain from her. What was her little victory next to a man’s life?
She sensed someone over her shoulder. Little John’s voice was hushed.
-I thought you’d renounced your titles, “Lady Budby”?
Mowren inclined her head, just enough to bring the big man’s face into view.
-They went, didn’t they?
A hand – huge and heavy – landed on her shoulder.
-I’d never have thought to shoot Gisburne’s horse. That was one for the songs, Little John chuckled.
Robin came toward them before she could answer.
-That was too big a risk, John said, but Robin shrugged lightly.
-I knew she was there the whole time.
Mowren felt her hackles rise and she struggled to control her voice.
-You! How dare you? How could you know?
-A little bird told me.