Excerpt: Heart of Sherwood

Brown leather boots trod softly on the dirt path beneath a canopy of oaks and birches, skirted by verdant shrubs and lush ferns that overlaid the forest floor. A covey of quail were disturbed and scurried off cooing nervously to each other.

Dusky gray woolen trousers brushed the boots of the figure draped in a dark green cloak. The hood was pulled up around the sojourner’s face while a bow and full quiver hung across the back and a short sword dangled in its sheath from a leather belt fastened around a rust-brown doublet. The cream sleeves of a linen tunic were also visible, but the tall, lean traveler’s face remained hidden.

Sherwood Forest itself was timeless, a mix of primeval vegetation and fresh, new growth, inhabited by a myriad of animal life. It was a place of wonder, adventure, and danger. Rumors abounded of bandits that hid out in the woods as well as mystical tales of spirits and sprites. As with all the great forests of England, Sherwood was technically owned by the crown which with King Richard away meant his younger brother, Prince John Lackland. Those caught poaching in the forest faced severe penalties at the hands of Godfrey Giffard, the current Sheriff of Nottingham who, having found favor with the Prince, had power over the shire. However, the magnificence of nature that wove the forest together, leaf and vine, hart and fowl, had no inkling that their existence was merely for royal pleasure. They continued to thrive as if kings and princes were of no more consequence than a dung beetle.

The new human interloper was no stranger to Sherwood. Each step took Robyn farther from the home of her birth and further into the unknown. Her emotions churned like the North Sea in a violent storm, flowing into anger, then ebbing into grief. Nothing was as it should be and, for the first time in her life, she felt totally powerless. She did not care for that feeling. She was so immersed in her own thoughts she did not notice the mountain of a man who stood in the middle of the narrow bridge until she was almost atop him. She halted abruptly and stared up at him with curious chestnut eyes, careful that the hood concealed her face.

“Ah, a hearty traveler,” he greeted jovially in a booming baritone voice, gripping a staff the breadth of a small tree in his left hand. Standing erect, he towered over her–despite her being a tall woman–with a frowzy tree-bark beard, tousled shoulder length dusky hair, deep-set hazel eyes, shoulders as broad as a door frame, and arms as thick as Yule logs. “I must ask that you pay the toll.”

Robyn narrowed her eyes, contemplating the colossal older fellow. “What toll do you mean, sir?” Her voice was naturally deep and somewhat ambiguous to gender, but she altered her accent to sound more common and less high-bred. She knew he could not make out her features beyond the lack of a beard on her jaw because of the hood she wore. That and the men’s clothing she donned would give the first impression of her being a young man. “Last I heard, this was a public road.”

“Ah, well, yes, you see,” he began, relaxing his stance, a glint of humor in his broad face. “It seems Prince John is taxing everyone nowadays. And, while I admit the tax I charge will not be adding to His Highness’s coffers, it will help me and mine to have a better meal or two. So, out with it, lad. Let me see your coin.”

Under different circumstances, Robyn may have been amused or felt compelled to donate to the unfortunate bandit, but he had caught her in a foul mood and quite lacking in resources. “I am sorry to disappoint, oh mighty man of the bridge, but I have nothing to donate to your supper. So if you will kindly step aside, I have places to be.”

He bellowed a roaring laugh and declared, “What an impudent little insect! I must teach you a lesson. Have you a staff?”

Robyn held out her arms, dropping a bag filled with belongings she had hurriedly packed. “You can see I do not. While I do have bow and sword, I prefer not to kill anyone today.”

The bridge master, clearly feeling not the least bit threatened, replied. “I see you are a man of honor who deserves a fair fight.” He stepped away to pick up a more averaged size staff from the other side of the stream. Robyn removed her bow and quiver to achieve a better range of motion, but kept her hood up. “Here you go!” He tossed the wooden rod in Robyn’s direction and she caught it. “First one in the drink loses.”

She let her hands become accustomed to the feel of the staff, balanced it, spun it a few times, and then settled on a grip style. She gave him a satisfied nod, putting her shoulders back confidently.

“You have grit, lad–I like that.” He held his staff in a relaxed stance and motioned for the traveler to attack first. Robyn opened with a standard thrust that her father had taught her to test the giant’s mettle. He moved with remarkable speed for someone his size, handily blocking the move and taking a swing of his own.

She blocked his blow, but its power sent shock waves through her hands and arms. She had spared with her brother before, but he had struck with far less force than this Herculean adversary. Robyn took a step back to re-evaluate. Why hadn’t she chosen a different approach to this problem? She could have given him the money, or simply shot him with her bow. She could have lowered her hood and revealed her identity, believing he may let a lady pass. But no. She’d thought she could play his game. Now she wasn’t so certain.

Robyn adjusted her stance, feet shoulder width apart with her weight on her back foot. She feigned high and struck low giving him a good rap on the shin.

“Oi!” the burly man exclaimed in surprise. “The insect can bite.”

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