Authors: Angus Donald
Tags: #Fiction, #Action & Adventure
When the soldiers had gone, we cut him down and buried him and I don’t believe I ever saw my mother happy again after that day. She told me many stories about him, an effort, I think, to keep his memory alive in his children. He had travelled the world, my mother said, and been well educated; at one time he had been a cleric in France, a singer in the great new cathedral of Notre Dame that they are building in Paris. Before he died, my father had made efforts to teach me to read and write in English, French and Latin. He had beaten me on many occasions, though never hard, to get the words to take root in my head but, at the end of many, many hours I was still more interested in running free in the countryside than slaving over a slate. I will always remember his music, though, even as his face grows hazy after so many years, and how his singing filled the house with joy. I remember how we would sing, the whole family, by the fire of an evening; my mother and father so happy together.
As she pawed at my dirty face with her spit-dampened cloth, I saw that the tears were once again running down my mother’s face. I was the last of her family: my father dead; my younger sisters Aelfgifu and Coelwyn both died within weeks of each other two summers ago after a short, agonising illness in which they had vomited blood and voided a black stinking liquid. And now I, her only surviving child, might be taken by the law tomorrow and have my hand hacked off. Or worse: hanged like my father as a thief.
I must confess that, at that moment, outside the church with my weeping mother, I felt not fear of the sheriff’s men, nor sorrow at the deaths of my father and sisters - the uppermost emotion in my heart was excitement. Robert, Lord of Sherwood, was here; Robin Hood: that great and terrible man, feared by Norman lords and English villagers alike. He was a man who preyed on the rich, stealing their silver and killing their servants as they passed through his realm; a man who, scorning Sir Ralph Murdac, did as he pleased in the great Royal Forest of Nottingham, who was, in fact, its true ruler. And in a short while, I would be before him.
As I looked up at the church door, I noticed something amiss. A dark lump had been affixed above the lintel. In the flickering light of the torches, I could just make out what it was. It was the severed head of a young wolf, eyes still open and glittering madly in the torchlight. A huge nail had been hammered through its forehead, transfixing it to the wood. Either side of the head and on the doorposts, black blood had been smeared. I felt a sense of almost unbearable excitement, a euphoria soaring up through my lungs and into my head. He had dared to desecrate the church with the body of an animal, to make it, for one night, his own. He dared to risk his immortal soul with a pagan symbol in the sacred precincts of our Mother Church. This was a fearless man indeed.
At last, after what seemed several hours, the giant beckoned us and pushed open the doors of the church. My excitement had reached a fever pitch and, although my bruised head was throbbing, I held it high as we walked inside.
Scores of thick tallow candles had been lit and, after the darkness outside, it was surprisingly bright in the church, which was half-filled with villagers and a sprinkling of grim-looking strangers, with hoods pulled forward over their faces, some standing, some seated on wooden benches around the walls. A clerk, a middle-aged man of thirty or so, sat at a small table to one side of the church, scribbling on a roll of parchment. And a great wooden chair had been set immediately below the altar.
In the chair sat an ordinary-looking young man, slim, in his early twenties, with nondescript brown hair, and dressed in a badly dyed, patched dark green tunic and hose and partially wrapped in a grey cloak. His clothes were no different to any man in our village - they were, perhaps, even more drab. It was a shock. Where was the great man? Where was the Lord of the Wood? He wore no sword, no gold, no rings, no signs at all of his status and power, except that behind him stood two tall, hooded men each with a long-sword and six-foot bow. I was deeply unimpressed; this was no outlaw lord; he looked like a villein, like me. An image of Sir Ralph Murdac leapt into my mind: his costly black silks, his lavender scent, his air of superiority. And then I looked again at the ordinary man in front of me.
He was leaning forward, eyes closed, elbow on the arm of the chair, his chin cupped in his hand, fingers wrapped around his cheek, listening to a short, very broad man with reddish brown hair, in the coarse robes of a monk, who was speaking quietly and earnestly into his ear. The monk finished speaking and came over to us. Robin sat back, sighed, and opened his eyes. He looked directly at me and I saw that his eyes were as grey as his cloak, almost silver in the candlelight. Then he closed his eyes again and fell back into contemplation.
‘My name is Tuck,’ said the monk in a strange, sing-song accent, which I took to be Welsh. ‘How can I be of service to you?’
My mother held out her hand to the monk: in it was a single hen’s egg. ‘It’s my son,’ she said, all in a rush. ‘The sheriff’s men are coming for him; and they’ll cut his hand off or hang him for sure. Take him with you, Brother. Keep him safe under the protection of the Lord of the Wood. Sanctuary, Brother. For the love of God, give him sanctuary in the forest.’
I looked into the Welsh monk’s eyes: they were mellow, light brown, the colour of hazelnuts, sad and kind. He took the egg and slipped it into an open pouch on his belt, not bothering to buckle it shut.
‘Why are they coming for you?’ he asked me.
My mother began gabbling: ‘It’s all a misunderstanding; a mistake; he’s a good boy, naughty sometimes, yes . . .’
Brother Tuck ignored her. He asked again: ‘Why are they coming for you, boy?’
I looked him straight in the eye: ‘I stole a pie, sir,’ I said as calmly as I could, my heart beating like a Moorish drum.
‘Do you know that stealing is a sin?’ he asked.
‘And yet you stole anyway - why?’
‘I was hungry and, and . . . it’s what I do - thieving. It’s what I do best. Better than almost anyone.’
Tuck snorted, amused. ‘Better than almost anyone, eh? I very much doubt that. You were caught, weren’t you? Well, there must be penance. All sins must be paid for.’
Tuck took me by the arm, not unkindly, and led me forward to Robin’s chair. The Lord of the Wood opened his eyes and looked at me again. And I completely forgot his drab exterior, his homespun villein’s garb. His eyes were extraordinarily bright: it was like staring at the full moon, two silver full moons. The rest of the world dissolved, time stood still, and it was just me and Robin in a dark universe lit only by his eyes; he seemed to be drinking me in through his stare, discovering me, understanding my sins and my strengths.
When he spoke it was in a musical voice, light but strong: ‘They tell me you chanced your arm for a pie?’
I nodded. He said: ‘And you wish to serve me? You wish me to take you under my protection?’ I was mute; I made the barest tilt of my head.
I was taken aback by his question: he must know that I needed to escape the law, that I needed sanctuary, and yet I sensed that he wanted a less obvious answer. I looked into his silver eyes and decided to tell the truth, as I had to Tuck. ‘I am a thief, sir,’ I said, ‘and I would serve under the greatest thief of all, the better to learn my trade.’
There was a sharp intake of breath, all around the church. It occurred to me belatedly that perhaps Robin did not care to regard himself as a common felon. One of the hooded men behind Robin half-drew his sword but stopped when Robin raised a pacifying hand.
‘You flatter me,’ said the Lord of the Wood. His voice had grown cold, his extraordinary eyes now blazed like naked steel. ‘But that was not what I meant by my question. I did not mean why would
wish to serve
. I meant why should
on; why should I burden myself with another hungry mouth?’
I could think of no reason. So I hung my head and said nothing. He continued, his voice as chill as a grave: ‘Can you fight like a knight, clad in hard steel, dealing death to my enemies from the back of a great horse?’
I remained silent.
‘Can you draw a war bow to full stretch, and kill a man with one arrow at two hundred paces?’
He knew that I could not; few grown men could achieve such a feat, and I was then a slight boy.
‘So what can you offer me, little thief?’ The mockery dripped from his voice.
I lifted my chin and stared back at him, little spots of anger on my cheeks. ‘I will give you my skill as a cut-purse, my willingness to fight for you as best I may, and my absolute loyalty until death,’ I said, far too loudly for the confines of the small church.
‘Loyalty until death?’ said Robin. ‘That truly is a rare and valuable thing.’ His voice seemed to have lost its scorn. He considered me for a few heartbeats. ‘That was a good answer, thief. What is your name?’
‘I am Alan Dale, sir,’ I said.
He looked surprised. ‘Is your father’s name Henry?’ he said. ‘The singer?’ I nodded. I couldn’t bring myself to tell Robin that my father was dead. He was silent for a while, regarding me with those great silver eyes. Then he said: ‘He’s a good man. You have his resemblance.’ Suddenly, he smiled - as shocking as a blast of a trumpet - white teeth gleaming in the dim church. His coldness slid away like the shedding of a cloak, and he was transformed. I knew by his sudden warmth that he would take me and I felt my heart bound with joy.
‘And by the way, young Alan, I am not a thief,’ said Robin, still smiling. ‘I merely take what is my rightful due.’ There was a murmur of gentle laughter around the church.
Tuck lightly touched my elbow, guiding me away from the great chair: ‘Say God-be-with-you to your mother, boy, you’re with us now.’
As we walked back to my mother by the church door, I found my legs had become weak and shaky beneath me and I stumbled against Tuck’s side before he caught me and held me upright. Then I kissed my mother, hugged her, muttered goodbye, and watched as she walked outside into the dark and out of my life for ever.
As the church door closed behind her, Tuck said: ‘Not bad, little thief. But I’ll have that egg back now, boy, if you please.’ And, as he held out his open palm, he was smiling.
I waited at the side of the church on a bench next to the clerk and his table of parchments. On the far side of the table was a heap of produce from local farms, tribute offered to Robin: several cheeses; loaves of bread; a basket of eggs; two barrels of ale; a honeycomb in a wooden bowl; two chickens, tied together at the legs; numerous sacks of fruit and even a purse of silver pennies; a kid was tied to the table leg and it kept trying to nibble the parchment - at which the clerk would slap at its muzzle without raising his head. He was a thin man, balding, and his long fingers were covered in ink spots. Then he looked up from his scribbling: ‘I’m Hugh Odo,’ he said, smiling kindly at me. ‘Robert’s brother. Wait quietly here until our business is concluded.’
I looked to my right and noticed a human form on the floor in the corner of the church and a tall hooded man next to him, armed with long sword and a great bow, standing guard. The man on the floor was bound tightly, hands and legs. I noticed that he was actually shaking with fear. He was moaning inaudibly through a cloth gag. His wild staring gaze caught mine for a few moments and I looked away, embarrassed and a little frightened by his naked terror.
The rest of the night, I waited, sitting there in silence at the side of the church, watching Robin hold his court. A steady stream of villagers came in, spoke respectfully to Robin, received his judgement and paid their fines to Hugh. It was a shadowy night-time version of the manorial court in which, before his death, our local lord had dispensed justice. One woman’s herd of pigs had damaged a neighbour’s crops; she was ordered to pay a fine to the neighbour, four piglets, and to pay Robin a piglet for his justice. She agreed to pay without question. The man who had seduced his best friend’s wife had to pay him a milk cow in compensation, and a fresh cheese to Robin. Again there was no argument.
As Robin dispensed petty justice all that long night, the mound of produce became larger: some, as poor as my mother, paid only an egg or two; one man, who had accidentally killed another in an ale house fight, led a bull calf over to the table and tied it next to the goat. I eyed the purse of silver; it was lying on the table near to where I was sitting. Hugh the clerk was busy in his parchment roll and I could have had it easily. But some instinct stayed my arm. Finally there were no more supplicants and Robin rose from his chair and came over to the table to look down on the bound man.
‘Take him outside; do it there in front of everyone,’ he said to the hooded man-at-arms, his voice flat. And then he turned aside to talk to Hugh, who began showing him the parchment roll. The bound man was lifted on to his feet by two men; at first he was docile and then he began struggling wildly, writhing, twisting his body like a man possessed, as he realised he was about to meet his fate. One of the hooded men punched him in the stomach, a blow that knocked him breathless to the floor, and then he was dragged outside.
Tuck came over and took me by the arm; he led me out of the door and round the corner of the church. There, as I looked on, Robin’s men forced the bound wretch to his knees. He was sobbing and choking on the cloth that had been shoved into his mouth and tied there with a long strip of leather.
‘You must watch this,’ said Brother Tuck. ‘This is your penance.’ A small crowd had formed to observe. The man’s eyes, huge with terror, rolled in his head. John the giant came over to the man. He pulled the sodden gag out of his mouth and wedged a thin iron bar, crossways, at the back of his mouth, over his tongue, hard up against the hinge of his teeth. One of the men-at-arms strapped the bar in place, with the leather strip that had been used to gag him. The victim was moaning loudly, half-choking and writhing his body, eyes closed, mouth grotesquely forced open by the iron bar. He might have been laughing. The two men behind the wretch steadied his head, and held it still with the iron bar. John produced a pair of iron tongs from his pouch and seized the man’s tongue by the tip. In his other hand he held a short knife, razor sharp.