Authors: Angus Donald
Tags: #Fiction, #Action & Adventure
Angus Donald was born in 1965 and educated at Marlborough College and Edinburgh University. He has worked as a fruit-picker
in Greece, a waiter in New York and as an anthropologist studying magic and witchcraft in Indonesia. For twenty years, he
was a journalist in Hong Kong, India, Afghanistan and London. He is married to Mary, with whom he has two children, and he
now writes full time from home in Tonbridge, Kent.
Published by Hachette Digital
All characters and events in this publication, other than those clearly in the public domain, are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
Copyright © Angus Donald 2013
The moral right of the author has been asserted.
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, without the prior permission in writing of the publisher.
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Spears of early morning sunshine drove through the lichen-green branches of a lush and sprightly oak tree and down on to
the gold-flecked brown hair of a young man crouched at its base. The tree, one of many hundreds of thousands like it in that
ancient forest, formed part of a wall of dense greenery on the western side of a leaf-strewn track. The forest road, while
undoubtedly one of Henry Plantagenet’s royal highways, might easily have been mistaken for a subterranean tunnel, for the
oaks reached up from either side and joined above, their leaves and limbs mingling promiscuously into a thick canopy and allowing
only the odd parcel of daylight to gleam through.
This thoroughfare, the main and indeed only direct route from Derby to Sheffield, was in poor condition that summer – one
thousand one hundred and eighty years after the Incarnation of Our Lord – for there stood no sizeable manor or village nearby
with responsibility for its upkeep, and its royal lord was far away, tending to his vexatious affairs across the Channel.
And so in stretches it had become mired and muddy, with deep patches of near-bog, and the surface made treacherously uneven,
on the drier parts, by roots and ruts, half-submerged boulders and fallen branches.
And it must be admitted that the young man at the bottom of the tree – a rake-thin stripling of perhaps fifteen or so summers,
with curious silvery-grey eyes – was not in the best of condition either. He looked hungry and unkempt, and was as poorly
garbed as a beggar. The sagging, scuffed leather boots, roughly patched grey hose and dark-green tunic that he wore were all
smeared with leaf-mould and earth, and torn in places. He had clearly been sleeping under the summer skies for a month or
more, and his disordered hair had not felt the tug of a comb for a fortnight at least. But the scabbarded sword – strapped
to his lean waist by a leather belt, and surprisingly clean and well-kept – indicated that this was no ordinary discontented
young villein or unruly apprentice seeking sanctuary in the woods from a cruel master.
‘We need to cut here and here, John,’ said the youngster to his companion, indicating invisible intersecting lines on the
tree’s trunk with his none-too-clean index finger, ‘and dig out a handle in the living wood, here, to attach the rope. We
do the same to each of the trees that I’ve marked. And I think I have found a bough, up ahead, that will serve as my station.
But it does seem a pity to fell so much prime timber without a very good reason.’
His friend, a vast, muscular man with a rosy sun-baked face and yellow hair, was kneeling a yard or two away, searching for
a roaming louse in his thick blond beard. As poorly dressed as the younger fellow, he carried about twice his bulk. A yard-long
double-handed woodsman’s saw was balanced against the giant’s brawny knee, its teeth bright with fresh sharpening; a long
keen-edged spear lay in the leafy-litter by his right hand, and two fat coils of rope hung from his shoulders, one on each
‘No shortage of trees in Sherwood,’ the big man said. Then he chuckled, a bubbling rumble of mirth. ‘And we do have a good
reason, Robin. Nearly five thousand round, bright, silvery reasons, if what your blacksmith friend in Derby said is true.’
‘I suppose so,’ said Robin, ignoring the jest. ‘I just wish there was some other way to do it without bringing down so many
old oaks.’ He sighed. ‘Well, come on, John, hand me the end of that saw, will you? They’ll reach this spot by noon, if not
before. We need to spend a little of our sweat.’
The constant jolting of the cart was making the skinny woman ill. It was not the fear, she told herself firmly, it was
not the dread of what was to come the next day, or the next, or perhaps the day after that: the hungry red flames, the spiteful
jeers of the crowd, the searing agony of scorched flesh, and lungs filled with tarry, suffocating smoke. No, it was not her
forthcoming trial and execution that had caused her to cough a thin brown gruel down the front of her already filthy sackcloth
dress. It was the wild stirring of the cage, the twisting and hopping of the airy wooden cube that held her, as it jounced
over the rough forest track drawn on the cart’s two solid creaking wheels by a patient donkey. She clutched at the Y-shaped
amulet that hung on a thin cord over her puke-soaked dress and bounced between her small breasts. She would not allow herself
to fear. She was in the hands of the old gods, the true gods of these Blessed Isles: indeed, even now, in her moment of shame
and weakness, she had a sense that Cernunnos, the horned spirit of the woodland, the age-old trickster, was close at hand;
and the Great Mother, the ever-loving matriarch of the world, would surely keep her strong throughout the coming ordeal and,
when it was over and the killing fire of the Christians had consumed her tortured flesh, her spirit would be taken directly
into the Mother’s loving bosom. For a blissful eternity.
The woman fixed her eyes on the glossy brown haunches of the horse that walked beside her cage and a little in front, watching
the play of the equine muscles under the skin, her thin right hand grasping at a solid ash-wood bar as the cart under her
feet wobbled and bucked. The big stallion bore on its back a man-at-arms in a mail hauberk and chausses, helmeted, spurred
and carrying a twelve-foot steel-tipped lance. A kite-shaped shield slung on his back showed by its bold crosses of scarlet
and white that the man served the Bishop of Lichfield, as did the blazons of the other eleven men who made up the
So, too, did the leader of this well-armed party of travellers – Archdeacon Richard, the Bishop’s trusted servant, who rode
on a beautiful white palfrey at the head of the column and who had not once condescended to look into the wretched woman’s
eyes during the three days they had been on the road.
The escort of men-at-arms was not to prevent her escape, the woman knew – a couple of sturdy serving men could have fulfilled
that purpose; the dozen soldiers were there to protect the wagon. It was four-wheeled and heavy, drawn by a single pair of
lumbering oxen, and carried a precious cargo. The kind that would be attractive to the packs of masterless men and starving
bandits said to infest these dank woodlands.
They were taking it and its cargo north to York. And her, too, for her trial. The Bishop had decreed a hearing before a
panel of solemn churchmen for the foul crime of heresy. There could be only one outcome – the soul-cleansing fire. As the donkey
cart lurched wildly over a tree root, her stomach clenched like a fist and her mouth filled once again with the sour taste
of her own belly juices. But she was not afraid; she could not allow herself to be afraid.
Archdeacon Richard reined in his horse, barely able to check his growing fury. Another damn delay. They had already wasted
a day in Derby while they waited for two of the horses to be re-shod. And, of course, once released from duty, the men-at-arms
had taken the opportunity to drink themselves to near-insensibility in a common alehouse. The whole God-given day had been
forfeit, the men almost all too drunk to ride after the noonday meal. It was only with threats, kicks and curses that they
had been mustered from their sodden slumbers to their duty at cock-crow today. And now this: a vast, bushy tree had evidently
been felled by a recent storm and was lying directly across the road in front of them, like a round, impenetrable hedge. The
horsemen might have picked their way round the obstruction; the heavy wagon and the donkey cart, never. The Archdeacon called
angrily behind him to the leader of the men-at-arms, a grey-faced, hang-dog fellow who sat his horse a half dozen yards away,
waving the man forward to his side.
‘Get your drunken good-for-nothings to start clearing this blockage immediately, Sergeant. I want it done within the hour.
We are already late.’
His words were interrupted by a light, musical voice, calling out in good French from high on his left, somewhere in the canopy
of trees: ‘Good day to you, kind sirs! May I bid you a friendly welcome to Sherwood Forest.’
Both the prelate and the unwell-looking sergeant whipped their heads around searching for the speaker, but it took a few moments
for them to make out the form of a cheerful young man in ragged clothes, his face shrouded by a deep hood, seated on the limb
of a tree, a dozen feet above the road’s western verge.
‘What do you want?’ The Archdeacon’s words rapped out, more a command than an enquiry.
‘I regret to inform you that I must levy a soul tax on all the travellers who use this fine road – it is a shilling a man,
I’m afraid, to pass this point. My deepest apologies. But for a gentleman of your quality, I’m sure that will not present
‘Who the Devil are you to demand payment of me?’ said the priest. ‘I ride on the Bishop of Lichfield’s business; I ride on
God’s business. Get you gone, you contumelious cur, or I will have the hide ripped from your back for your impudence.’
‘You refuse to pay?’ said Robin happily. ‘Very well. How about a prayer for my soul? I’m sure that a saintly fellow such as
you must have the ear of the Almighty.’
The young man stood up on the branch. He balanced easily, lightly supporting himself with his left hand on what appeared to
be a taut rope, disguised with mud and leaves, that rose up at a forward angle and disappeared into the canopy.
‘A blasphemer, too! Sergeant, take up that man immediately. Bind him; throw him in the cart with the witch. I want him flogged
raw, hanged and quartered the instant we get to York.’
‘So, you will not even pray for me? Ah, well . . .’ Robin lifted his right hand, waved it in the air, twice, as if hailing
And, it seemed, the entire wall of trees at the western side of the road began to move.
A few feet behind the last man-at-arms in the
, a rope jerked up from where it had lain unseen in the mud of the track,
springing iron-taut for several moments under enormous strain, until a wedge-shaped chunk of timber the size of a small pig
squealed and popped out from the base of a tall tree. And the big oak, unsupported now except for the couple of inches of
trunk remaining, started to lean into the road, and, slowly, to fall, shrieking with protest, and finally landing with an
earth-shaking thudding bounce directly across the highway. The travelling party erupted into chaos; horses screaming, men-at-arms
shouting foul oaths. A couple of unfortunate men at the rear of the column were smashed from their saddles, their bodies crushed
by the falling wood; even those quick enough to spur out of the toppling tree’s path were clawed by its outermost branches
as they tried to make their escape. And, worse, there was no clear direction to run: the travellers were hemmed in before
and behind by an impenetrable leafy barrier.
In the centre of the column, another rope leapt up horizontally from under the legs of the men-at-arms’s skittering horses,
another fat wedge was tugged free and another giant trunk began its leisurely but lethal fall on the Bishop’s now wildly panicking
band of trapped men. Yet another tree, nearer the front of what had been the column, was jerked from its semblance of rectitude,
and it toppled and crashed on to the track, catching a man-at-arms attempting to flee, a thin branch spearing his mailed chest,
smashing through ribs, lungs and heart, and nailing him to the muddy forest floor. It seemed as if all Sherwood were collapsing
like a row of skittles tumbling to an expertly lobbed bowling ball, trees going down one after the next, each apparently knocked
into the road by an invisible, God-like hand.