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In the Greenwood
By Mari Ness, Allen Williams
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2013 Mari Ness
All rights reserved.
Afterwards, neither could agree on where they'd first met, or when. She thought she'd been six; he said four. Both agreed he'd been older than she, although how much older was something they never discussed, nor tried to figure out, quite deliberately. He'd been infuriating, she remembered. She'd been aggravating, he said. He'd once thrown rocks at her. No, they'd been sticks, and she'd thrown them at him. He stood right in front of her eating a sweet seedcake and never once offered her a crumb. She was always eating apples and plums and hiding them from him. They'd played together nearly every day, every summer. No, only on feast days and holidays, and not at all during some of the very long summers.
When he said that, she remembered long days trapped in the manor house learning to weave and sew and dance, learning to speak terribly accented French that almost no one could understand. Certainly not anyone from France.
But that they'd been friends, they remembered, and agreed on. Even if she sometimes thought they were remembering entirely different childhoods.
Her wool gown itches. They cannot afford the finer, softer wools, let alone the premade woolens and linens that she has seen other ladies wear, that might be purchased in the great city of the south. She has not traveled any farther than the nearest market towns, but she has met some women who have been to the great city, and even beyond, coming back with tales of France and Rome and the great pilgrimage sites of Spain and the Holy Land. Her feet itch, hearing the tales, although she knows that her chances of ever seeing any of these places are low indeed. She does not have the money or the skills to go on pilgrimage or crusade. Thinking of that makes the dress itch even more.
The sheriff is coming, with his knights. She wishes she did not feel so ill.
The boy had been the first one to lead her into the woods, seizing her hand and pulling her painfully right through the darkest knots of trees, the worst brambles. She'd been caught by terror, she remembered, her heart in her throat. Even then she knew that the woods were dreadful places filled with witches and wolves and bears, dark places where little girls might disappear and never be found again. She wanted, desperately, to be found again. She clutched his hand in tight desperation.
For him, the woods were altogether different.
The position the sheriff offers her — to be the keeper of his castle, with assistance from his other servants — is not so bad. It is also not precisely an offer: since her father's death, and in her unmarried state, she is, ipso facto, the sheriff's ward. In any case, if she remained at her father's manors, the lands would be seized, and she would be left homeless, unprotected. The sheriff does not need to tell her how few options she has: none of the villagers and crafters need her labor, and her father — though not improvident — left no cash and few belongings; only land, which the sheriff can hold in trust for her, as long as she goes to his castle. She will have her own room in the keep, if a small one; duties to keep her occupied; and the companionship of a few ladies of the castle and the town. Neither she nor the sheriff dwells on the fact that none of these ladies are anywhere near her age. She would even receive a small allowance of her own — separate from the value of her manor, the sheriff carefully explains — that she may use to buy her own clothing, and other trinkets she might desire ... a musical instrument, perhaps. The country has been at peace for some years now, and with increased travel to the Holy Lands and Byzantium has come an influx of luxury goods that she might wish to indulge in. It is, she is well aware, an almost generous offer. The sheriff's long nose twitches as he explains it.
It is farther away from the woods. From him.
But it is not a choice at all, truly.
As she rides off to the sheriff's castle, she can feel her friend's eyes burning into her.
When she was ten, she demanded that the boy teach her how to use the bow and the sword. He laughed, and she stomped her feet and screamed. He found a small bow, light enough for her to pull, and a long knife that was almost-but-not-quite as good as a proper sword. They practiced in the woods, and she sometimes thought she heard the trees laughing. Or sobbing.
When she enters her room at the castle a few days later, he is there, grinning at her.
For a moment, she wants to slap him — does he think this is all a joke? — but then she is hugging him. He is her best friend, no matter how long or often they might be separated. When she holds him, she feels something — something more — but he breaks away before she can think about it too much. It is disturbing.
He has come through the window, he explains.
She gasps, runs to the narrow window in horror, looks down. He could have been killed. She could have shot at him. Pointing that out, of course, would be useless. He has been reckless, fey, ever since —
"If they find you —"
He points to his rope, still hanging out the window. She must admit that no one would wish to follow him that way.
They sit on opposite ends of her narrow bed, facing each other.
"The keep will be opened soon. You could have waited."
He shakes his head, clenches and unclenches his fists. "I don't think — I don't think I can wait anymore."
She does not need to ask him for what. They have discussed it, time and time again.
"The villagers are starving," he whispers.
"The sheriff will order more soldiers."
"Not woods-trained soldiers."
"They only need torches."
"The greenwood is not so easily burned."
She doubts that, but it is of no use to argue the point. And it is not the greenwood she is worried about.
"I'll wear a hood, perhaps something over my face. They'll guess, of course, but they won't have proof. I'll have my men wear the same."
"No women?" She cannot help but ask.
"If you can find me another of your skill."
She keeps her hands folded in her lap.
"I doubt I'll even need to go to the greenwood for a while. It will simply be a last retreat, as long as I have the manor."
And how long will that be? But she does not ask this question. They both know.
He does not ask for her help. He doesn't need to. She will give it unquestioningly, unasked.
That begins it. The robberies. The skirmishes. The archery contests. The hoods: as he suggested, all of his men — and, as she soon learns, there are many men, some merry, some less so, who join him at his manor and at scattered places in the villages and woods — are soon wearing them, dark green or brown hoods that make them seem almost part of the trees. Practice fights with staves on narrow wooden bridges, then real ones against armed men with swords. Her heart leaps into her throat when she first hears this; are they trying to get themselves killed? But perhaps the sheer unexpectedness works in their favor.
He still comes to the castle occasionally, sometimes openly, sometimes through the window. The sheriff does not know who he is yet, although suspicions are growing. The window is still safe. He never stays very long.
When he is in the greenwood, he tells her, he can feel its heartbeat. It throbs, he says, although not quite like the human heart. Slower, deeper, moving the leaves and bark of every tree, holding firm against the wind and the rain and the journeys of the sun and stars. He has felt that heartbeat engulf him, felt his own heart slowing, settling into the steady rhythm of the trees, as the birds laugh above him.
He says it is not a place he can ever leave for long. He tries to pass it off as a joke, but she is not sure whether or not she believes him.
Sometimes she joins them. She brings her own small staff, which she uses only to help her walk over rough terrain — she prefers other weapons for sparring — and the bow that they have designed for her. She dresses in men's clothing for comfort, her face well-hooded. She cannot shoot quite as far as many of his men, but she is more accurate than most of them — more accurate than he is, truth be told, although this is a truth she is careful not to speak aloud. The legend must be maintained, after all. And he has become a legend. She has heard the songs in the inns below the castle, the refrains drifting up to her window. Sometimes he even sings them to her. She half suspects he wrote some of them himself.
In the winter, he brings her ivy leaves and bright green berries. She clutches them to her tightly, as if they will bring back the sun.
He and his men grow bolder. They seem kindly, and courteous enough, although she does not need his whispered warning to know that she must not travel anywhere alone with the red-bearded man; that the shortest man has killed, often and without concern; and that the singer is very willing to place his hands on more than just his musical instrument. She helps them when she can; hides them when she must; tells others to resist the sheriff when she is able.
He plans a grand attack upon chests of gold on their way to the prince's coffers, filled by unlawful taxes. He rescues fair maidens — none as fair as she, he hastily explains; steals gold from over-greedy abbots; eats the king's deer. He spends more and more time in the greenwood.
And finally, one moonlit evening, he steals her there.
When they were young, he kissed her in the greenwood. When she brushes her fingers across her lips, she still remembers.
She is wearing her men's clothing — no sense struggling through the woods in heavy skirts. When they reach his camp she is only slightly dismayed to find that the other women there — three of them, peasants — are all wearing skirts. No matter. He does not notice her clothing; he never has. She throws back her hood, revealing her long chestnut hair, brushed endlessly into rich smoothness. If he notices this, he makes no comment.
The camp, it must be admitted, is not very nice. In fact, the poorest, most desperate serf might take one look and decide to move on. He and the others are nearly always on the move. They travel lightly, and do not take time to clean their belongings as they go. They seldom sleep beneath more than their own cloaks and hoods, if that; and, at the moment, they have but one pot among them. And the camp's smell ... but she will not let herself think of that. No one has time to create a privy, much less ensure a sweet-smelling one. One of the outlaws simply squats in front of everyone — she has seen this before, of course, but it still makes her a bit ill. He'd warned her, of course, but it was one thing to hear the warnings, and another to be there, in the wild, in the trees.
And even now, on a mild spring day, it is cold; she wraps her cloak around her, and finds herself wishing she had brought another. She thinks of her own stone walls, of the fires in the castle's great halls, of the warming braziers, of the layers of furs and other coverings on her narrow bed. She knows that on the harshest nights of winter, he returns to the manor, and the rest of them go to various hiding places in the villages — the sheriff had neither the heart nor the strength to force searches through the snow. But now it is spring, and chilly or not, they are safer in the greenwood, no matter how much warmer thick stone walls might be.
He comes to her and kisses her lips, lightly, before she can think too much about it. Then they are merry and laughing and he is off to hunt beneath the trees — which, to her dazzled eyes, almost seem to be dancing.
When she follows him that night, through tangled trees, to a small hollow filled with soft mosses and smelling of lilies, she never once thinks of resisting. It is time, past time, for this, and she pulls him towards her with a cry of gladness.
She catches a distorted view of herself in her dagger the next morning and presses her hands to her cheeks in dismay. Her hair is tangled, wild, filled with dry leaves, and her skin — But then she realizes that it hardly matters. He looks almost wild himself this morning. Before she moved to the castle, when she could visit his manor freely, she could occasionally make him sit still while she combed and cut his hair and trimmed his beard so he would look "civilized." She laughs, reminds him that he comes from noble blood, though no one would know it now. He laughs back at her. He left nobility behind long ago, he tells her. She does not want to think about what that means.
The forest almost seems to press upon her. But she is not going to think of that either.
That afternoon, she finds herself standing by the largest of the men, the one that they both trust above all others, never mind that he is peasant-born and no friend to those of noble rank. He is honest, this giant man, and good-hearted. A man that aims at legs and arms, not hearts, and never misses. "Why do you follow him?" she finds herself asking, not knowing why.
He looks at her. He is about to give her some simple answer, some quote from one of the songs, but something in her face stops him. "Because he is the spirit of the trees. The green man. Wasn't born like that, but the wood has taken him, and now he is taking the wood. And a man — a spirit — like that, I must follow."
Her hands itch. She rubs them absently on her rough woolen hood.
She does not stay in the greenwood very long. She is of more use in the castle, everyone agrees, and after a few days, she returns with a vague tale of troubles with friends and delays on the road. The sheriff, who should be suspicious — by now he is suspicious of nearly everybody — is not, mostly because he does not have the time. He has criminals to pardon and sentence, and desperate explanations to make to an increasingly angry king, who has raised the tax rate on their shire — and their shire alone — as punishment for the late delivery of the last taxes. He has also threatened still more taxes, reminding the sheriff — and everyone underneath the sheriff — that the country has wars to fight and crusades to support. The very thought makes the sheriff sweat.
No one, it must be confessed, really likes the sheriff. Even his hangers-on, she sees, despise him. Part of the problem is that he has a slight crook in his shoulders. It is superstitious and unchristian to notice this, but everyone does. A second problem is his voice, high-pitched, squeaking like a squirrel, with an accent that clearly shouts elsewhere. It is one they all associate with city merchants and traders who cannot, everyone agrees, be trusted. His clothes, too, shriek of the city, cut following fashions that the majority of them will never see.
But even she must admit that the sheriff is trying, in his own way. She sits in on many of the disputes that he judges, and he often asks for an opinion, or advice, from her or other locals. In many — even most — cases, she must admit that his judgments are generally fair, even generous, to widows and to the poor. He is also working diligently to improve the sanitation systems in the villages and beneath the castle — not merely to help with any lingering smells, but also, as he explains earnestly, because many ancient scholars posited a connection between cleanliness and health. And she has seen him deny some of the requests made by the king's messengers, even if he quivers as he does so.
Over dinner one night, the sheriff tells them — she, the other ladies of the castle, the better-connected knights — of his origins. He is from the city, as they knew, with distant noble connections — rather distant, he admits, self-deprecatingly, although she suspects that he would not have been chosen by the king if they were all that distant. He had been a student of history and the law. It had been the prince's hope that he and other sheriffs spread throughout the land might restore law and order to this area. After all, a peaceful country would provide more food and coin to support the king's crusade. The sheriff's nose quivers as he tells the story.
She does not tell the sheriff her own tale. She throws the curtains in her tower window wide that night, and waits for a visit from the greenwood.
That night, another three chests of coin vanish from the castle. The sheriff almost cries as he announces that he will need to collect the vanished money from the villages, before the king arrives from the city with troops hardened by holy war to do his own collecting.
Excerpted from In the Greenwood by Mari Ness, Allen Williams. Copyright © 2013 Mari Ness. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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