The watery sun cast weak shadows through the forest. Bare trees showed the structures which summer verdure concealed. Every kink and crook of growth stood exposed. Neither shadows nor stillness set at ease the men who rode in escort of the Sheriff of Nottingham. They knew the stories of Sherwood. Most were afraid, and those that weren’t were uneasy.
De Grammont was not afraid. Three months had passed of a short, brutal winter since Gisburne’s horse had returned to Birkencar burdened with the corpse of its master. Terrified soldiers – dozens of them – had fled the forest, telling of how the ground had risen up against them; the unruly earth had pursued them beyond the trees and the fires they lit – Gisburne’s grand gesture – had died out behind them.
De Grammont was a practical man. Whatever had driven the men from the forest was ultimately of no account: nothing had been heard of Robin Hood since the end of October. Gisburne’s death – and with it, the deal to annex him a corner of Sherwood which d’Anquetil had sanctioned – had not distressed the new Sheriff. There were always men like Gisburne: cruel and ambitious, but not as clever as they thought.
Things had changed, and de Grammont’s process through the forest was proof. No longer would the wealthy travel to Nottingham with a pittance of tax, and claim an outlaw ambush en route. Gisburne’s men had massacred dozens of outlaws on that night of fire and blood. Besides, de Grammont’s new policy was to journey in person, and inspect coffers himself, while availing himself of hospitality. Thus the King’s presence in the Shire was more evident, and thus better respected. He did not doubt that this was an unpopular move with the elite: well, let them squeeze more from the poor. There were always more common folk to exploit: England was a bounteous land, despite the wastes of these midland shires.
Despite the food and board, the visits were rarely enjoyable. De Grammont found the provincial mindset bewilderingly small-minded and backward-looking. The abbot from whom they were returning now had babbled at length on matters in which, he assured de Grammont, the previous Sheriff had shown an interest. Questions of mortality and theology. De Grammont rolled his eyes and drunk the man’s wine. On he went, detailing folk beliefs that people had clung to since pagan times. Take this very day, he had said: St. Brigid’s day. A day sacred to women. To women! The locals needed the Lord’s word to show them the folly of such thinking. To celebrate womanhood was to venerate wantonness, uncleanliness and sin. A day of fertility, he had smiled patronisingly. Nowadays, we know better. There is no fertility without God, and God is no woman.
De Grammont wondered. Wintertime shared with womanhood an icy stubbornness. And, in his experience, a barrenness. He looked at the frost-crusted undergrowth: all last year’s dead leaves and bare boughs. The sooner they were out of this dead place, the better. He told his men to raise their pace.
Suddenly, the dead forest bloomed. All around, figures sprang from the undergrowth he’d just dismissed as dead. Armed figures, with bows and swords. One stood on the road before them, a giant, wrapped in furs against the cold.
-Stand! he roared.
The horses shied and the men struggled to control them. Some were thrown; others hauled off by the outlaw gang. Arrows flew, swords clashed and soldiers fell, stunned, to the frozen ground. In moments, de Grammont was surrounded. A bare half dozen had reduced his escort to nothing.
One of them – their leader, if dogs like these were capable of leadership – drew a knife and cut the purse from de Grammont’s saddle. The man – young, to judge by his build; too young, surely, to lead – tested the weight and nodded as if satisfied. Then he met de Grammont’s gaze and the Sheriff realised his error. The abbot, he thought ruefully, would be in an ecstasy of condemnation.
-Look, Sheriff, said the green-eyed girl, scattering the gold like petals onto the frozen ground. Spring has come.