Excerpt: Lord of the Forest

Robin wandered near the camp at dusk, drawn by the tang of burning applewood. Stealthy as the lengthening shadows, he edged closer, and the laughter echoing through the forest kindled memories both painful and sweet. He longed to stumble upon a gathering of like-minded and earth-blooded woodsmen to break bread and exchange tales with. One of them might share with a solitary traveller the comforts of his embrace.

As he trod between leaves and windfall fruit, Robin’s yearnings toward strangers tugged a wry smile onto his lips. The familiar scent of meat and ale mingled with the smoke, and he felt as old as he did lonely, though his body remained in fine fettle, and in age he recalled only forty summers.

He had no true friend left to go to.

The friar had died, succumbing to age and illness, coughing his last in a small, mean bed in the cottage Robin had built for him. John, Will, Fulk, and so many others had taken spouses, given up the outlaw’s life, or fallen before their time, and he dared not rest among those who remained. The price on his head was high, and stories of his death didn’t stop the king or barons from hunting him. Six months Robin had trekked from his home in Sherwood before drifting here to the Greenwood in England’s far south. Now the trees were turning, the darker nights pressing in, and the warrior they’d once called Robin Hood discovered he feared solitude more than the cut of any sword.

Crouching behind low, twisted boughs, he surveyed the scene…and froze.

On the far side of a little orchard, the clearing was crowded with grazing horses and finely dressed men. Two young knights muffled in quilted jackets stood drinking from horn mugs. Beyond, four stout pigs sizzled on spits over a blazing hearth, and Robin snarled with irritation. Traveling knights and their parties preyed like vermin on the local poor. This rabble proved no exception.

He would find no good company here.

A priest rested on an upturned barrel, silver thread girdling his broad middle, his fingers looped with bejewelled rings. “Your uncle promised us more meat,” he hollered to a barefoot young woman who hurried amid the revellers with a jug of ale. “Must I waste away?”

A lean countryman rushed over bearing a freshly killed hog, blood dripping from the platter and splashing to the loam. Besides the man of God, five other travellers sat by the fire, each clad in the jet-black livery of foresters. A bearded fellow among them pulled a girl onto his lap, then yanked her robe down to reveal her creamy breasts.

As he fondled her, she giggled and tossed her lank hair, appearing to enjoy herself. Most probably the forester had pressed a coin into her palm to cheer her. The bow and quiver slung on Robin’s back grew heavy, and he clenched his fists at his sides till his knuckles cracked.

Foresters.

Back with his men, Robin had taken many folk under his wing who’d fled the foresters’ wrath—boys unable to work following beatings and women who’d been violated. Hired to punish any soul who breached the strict laws of the royal hunting grounds, the brutish foresters were as unlikely as the knights to pay for what they’d plundered.

Using knives and grubby fingers, the foresters shredded the flesh from one of the pigs. They crammed their mouths till juices oozed down their chins and dripped from their beards. The need to act almost overwhelmed Robin.

But he was no fool.

He couldn’t ambush this party alone. While a surprise arrow might slay any one of them, the poor folk who dwelled near this meeting place, the start of the road through the Greenwood, would be held responsible and pay with blood. Robin’s best plan would be to make sure the villagers were recompensed by snatching a jewel from that fat priest as he slept or snipping the purses from those knights’ belts.

He verged on slipping away as unobtrusively as he’d approached, when a burst of laughter akin to the bray of a donkey seized his attention. Not yards from where he hid, a third knight sank down on a log. His surcoat was emblazoned with his coat of arms—four stars, a cross, and a horizontal strip. Redheaded and robust, he leaned so far back to tip his ale down his gullet he swayed and nearly toppled. A second man hurried over from where he’d been tending to a horse, his figure slender and his footfalls light. He plucked the knight’s velvet cap from where it had tumbled to the ground and handed it to him. Robin fixated on the latest arrival’s black tunic.

Another cursed forester.

The newcomer pulled down the hood of his cloak to reveal chin-length hair shimmering a dozen shades of gold and bronze in the low evening light. His profile was sharp and perfect, held with a flinty air that defied any hint of delicacy. Straddling the felled trunk, he displayed a shapely leg bound by cross-gartered hose.

Robin drew a swift breath.

As did the knight, who grinned, cast his empty tankard to the mossy ground, and raised his gauntlet to curl a finger in invitation. The golden-haired man batted away a fly that hovered between them, then cupped a hand about his mouth to whisper in the knight’s ear.

The knight answered loudly enough. “You offer that willingly?”

“I do.” The forester’s voice was smooth, melodic in its resonance. “I’m honoured to be in your company, Sir Randolf. With knights like you at their side, the barons will surely compose a just new body of hunting laws for the English forests.”

“Eh?” Randolf removed his gloves, then scratched his head. “What are you blathering about?”

The forester shrugged, nudging his knee between the knight’s sturdy legs. “You are a wiser man than any boy king. I want to know all your strengths, all your power.”

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