The boar charges and Geoffrey, the sheriff of Nottingham, stands tall with an iron spear gripped in his hands, waiting for the moment to strike. Just before the beast is upon him, Geoffrey stabs, catching it right between the eyes. After a bloody struggle, the animal’s life drains out. The sheriff has mastered the hunt.
For his entire life, Geoffrey has served the king. He has worked for him, tortured others on his behalf, and killed at his orders—and now he will be called to do so again. There is a bandit in Sherwood Forest, a marksman the townspeople call Robin Hood, and the king demands the sheriff bring him to justice. But the outlaw will not be captured easily, and tracking him down will force Geoffrey to commit unimaginable sins—all in the name of the king.
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About the Author
Michael Cadnum lives in Albany, California, with a view of the Golden Gate Bridge.
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In A Dark Wood
By Michael Cadnum
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1998 Michael Cadnum
All rights reserved.
The forest was quiet. Everything that was about to happen was far away, through the trees.
Geoffrey stood still, staring straight ahead, although he could see nothing but trembling patches of sunlight on the fallen leaves. A forest was like night. It was a different world, and everything a man was afraid of lived there, afraid of nothing.
The boar spear was a long, heavy weapon, and this particular spear had never been used before. Its head was slender and very sharp, and the cross-piece midway down the shaft was gleaming black. Geoffrey found a new grip on the spear, the iron cold where he had not touched it, and the horns of the beaters, and their cries, filtered through the trees, bright curls of sounds, like shavings on a goldsmith's bench.
Between them and where he stood was the most dangerous kind of beast. It could feel no pain. Its eyes were fire pricks. It weighed more than three men.
And it was coming his way. Hugh, the squire beside him, shivered. His crossbow was loaded and cocked and aimed at the empty place before them. The youth's lips were tight, and he would not meet Geoffrey's eye. Geoffrey tried to utter reassurance. His tongue was so dry he merely croaked, and he pretended to cough.
No hounds today, he had laughed. No, let the dogs stay penned. Today he would take one man to man. Approving laughter. The chief huntsman leaping into his saddle with a fart. An excellent day for it. Geoffrey would provide them with enough proof of his own courage to last a year. Unless the spear slipped, as he had seen it slip in the past.
Horns on three sides now. Birds struggled through the air, magpies flashing black and crisp white, and a crow like fresh iron falling from one branch to another, not even calling, working itself north.
He would not have said this to Hugh, but he could admit it to himself. Sometimes, in the full feast of a day's events, he experienced a twinge of cowardice.
The forest was too quiet. Even the sparrows hushed. A tree ahead of them shook itself, like a man just come in from great cold. A bush swayed, and a twig snapped, one of those common twigs, bare of leaves, that crook like a finger of dancing death as he leaps into the road before the traveler.
Geoffrey wanted to protect Hugh from any harm. At times it was hard to know what words to use with the fourteen-year-old. Sometimes Geoffrey felt that Hugh was like a son, but he couldn't think of a way to put the feeling into speech.
The hunt fences, hidden barriers in the woods, would prevent the beast from any course but this. Geoffrey gazed upwards at the cross-span, then planted the spear at his instep and placed his left foot forwards. He crouched, his fingers finding dry places on the cold iron. A horn again, a smear of sound, like snot on wool, and then it happened.
Too quickly. Two huge nostrils, black and snorting. Eyes too small — how could they be so small? One tusk curved out more than the other, like moustaches knocked awry. A leap, and four legs that were too slender for such a huge head were in midair, the small eyes growing not larger as they approached, but smaller, recognizing who he was and what was wrong with him.
The animal didn't even see the spear. It met him between the tusks, and the jolt bent the iron shaft just perceptibly, and then the spear straightened as the boar fought his way up the shaft, snarling like a demon struggling against flood. A spume of pink flung itself from one nostril, and then both nostrils closed like eyes and opened again as the monster reached the cross-beam and wrenched the spear out of Geoffrey's hands.
Geoffrey fought for the iron, but the spear knocked him off his feet, whipped and knocked him again, and this time he held it, but too close to the cross-bar, and the bristles seared him, and twin spouts of pink foam blinded him as he struggled to have enough breath to call, "Now!" The crossbow quarrel kicked the beast off its front feet, and the spear shaft wrestled with Geoffrey as he found a span that was not hot with blood and fat and stood to put his weight into it. At that moment, as he stood, too weak to do more than he was doing, hanging on to a length of iron like a drowning man to a rope, the two tiny eyes of the monster pulled themselves back, leaving empty black holes, and the creature was dead.
The dead beast was on Geoffrey in an instant, the hard wires of its belly stinging his cheek, just as the chief huntsman called, "Hoy!" A hard foreleg crushed out all the air he had ever breathed, hooves grinding him into the earth. The monster ran the butt of the spear into a tree and fell sideways, shuddering.
The chief huntsman held his sword into the sunlight that streaked down through the trees and knelt to his work. "He's dead enough now," he said, pronouncing the word "deed," the way everyone here pronounced it, in the dialect that seemed invented to be used by hunters, crisp, with gutturals and short, rough words, like the crackling of leaves.
The head stared from its stake and then looked up at the sky as men forced the stake into the ground. The tusks were whiter now, and the eyes had regained their glint. Death was only a pause.
"Good work, my lord," said the chief huntsman, and Geoffrey knew Ralf well enough to know that compliments were not wasted. Ralf split the carcass along the spine and emptied the gray bowels on the mulch. "Pity to waste the parts the hounds love best," said the huntsman, thinking always of his dogs or his horses, of any animal at all, rather than waste thoughts on humans. "Mixed with bread, as always, they love it. Makes them feel God's strength." He would have built a fire and braised the innards on coals to the hounds' great pleasure.
For the men it was a rich moment. Their chief, their master, their employer and purpose, had done well. He had shown strength, and now a rich bounty was theirs. Pride, and a feast. They were true men to serve as the arms and legs of such a man. They, who were at home here in the night-dark woods, hoisted the halves of the carcass and carried it quickly in the wake of the head.CHAPTER 2
Hugh followed the sheriff on a palfrey, a horse bred for ease and beauty, not for war. I didn't disgrace myself, thought Hugh. The forest shadows, the coughing boar, the flying blood — it was the stuff of a nightmare. But the sheriff did not notice how I trembled.
Hugh lived for a word of praise from the sheriff, and while such praise was very rare, Hugh believed that if he learned to be strong, someday he would be the sheriff's sword arm, a better fighter than Henry. And someday — Hugh let himself think such a high thought — someday he would sit at the sheriff's side at the council table and the sheriff would turn to him and say, "Hugh, what do you think?" Or, "Hugh, what shall we do?"
The boar's head gaped across the field, rising and falling with the steady pace of the huntsmen. It turned on its stick to survey the field and turned back again to look up the road towards Geoffrey.
"A fine sight," breathed Hugh.
And then he silenced himself. It was not likely that the sheriff was interested in Hugh's opinion or how proud Hugh himself felt at being present at such a hunt.
Why, thought Geoffrey, can't I tell Hugh how bravely he behaved, despite his obvious — understandable — alarm at the sight of the boar? Some awkwardness, a clumsy silence, fell upon the sheriff whenever he began to express affection.
The field was cluttered with birds. A scarecrow on a stick held a bow and arrow, like half a man miraculously endowed with the power to fight or at least kill magpies. A horse dragged a wooden frame weighted with a stone, the comblike teeth of the frame breaking the earth into perfect lines. The borders of the field were ragged with green. Trees with thick, stumpy trunks raised branches in shocks. A peasant with a white cap stretched down over his ears sat astride the horse, flourishing a small whip. The horse was stocky and shaggy. It shat, and the teeth of the wooden frame combed the golden manure into the field.
Geoffrey knew that at night, in May, when the full moon rose like a petal on black water, such a man led his wife into the plow-ridged fields. He laid her down on the dirt, lifted her smock, and grunted like a bull under the glittering sky so that the earth would rouse from her sleep and remember her duty. The farm folk often recalled such ancient rites.
"Lady Eleanor goes fowling this afternoon," said Hugh. This was not conversation. This was a report, and Geoffrey turned in his saddle to see a gown cascade from the side of a horse and wings flutter from wrists.
Geoffrey looked back towards the forest. The grinning head approached, bobbing at the end of its stick.
He wrapped the reins round his hand so tightly it hurt, and ground his teeth. He was trapped between the devil's face in one direction and the devil's work in the other. He glanced at Hugh and forced a smile. "It will be our good fortune to wish them success."
"It's already proven a perfect afternoon for the kill," said Hugh, and if he understood anything at all, his expression did not show it.
"Only the stars are perfect," said Geoffrey.
A quick contradiction was the signal that his lord wanted silence, and Hugh looked away, studying a flock of blackbirds.
The falconer dragged a long stick, a graceful arc of wood, and two falcons gripped his gloved hand. He wore one red stocking and one black, and his sleeves were rolled up, baring two brown arms. Two small wire-haired dogs danced and sniffed the dirt. Lady Eleanor's reins were decorated with red fringes and gleaming buttons, and the horse fought the bit with its tongue.
She rode side-saddle, her head protected by a white wimple, its shadow falling over her shoulders. Her black dress flowed with the prancing of the horse, but her red silk sleeves were tight. Her gloves were tight, too, so close-fitting she had struggled to force each finger into each even more slender sheath. A falcon turned its head at the sound of her voice, the gray cloth of its hood like the cowl of a monk.
"I knew we'd see you," she said.
"I thought you were sick," said Geoffrey with a smile.
"It passed," said his wife, the drape of her wimple hiding her face as she said to one of the dogs, "and I decided to amuse myself."
Geoffrey balled his fist so tightly a knuckle cracked. "I'm glad you're feeling better," he said, and pulled his horse into the ragged border of the field.
At that moment the huntsmen arrived with the huge head dripping black, its fine black eye pricks taking him in and knowing him, comprehending him entirely and not with contempt. With understanding, fellowship even.
"It was quick work," said Hugh, eager to tell it. Geoffrey flushed with pleasure at the tale of a flying beast, a spear in a sure hand, dust, blood. All in a young man's chatter.
"I know all about what goes on in the forest," she said, and long after her skitterish horse and nervous dogs had slipped by the carcass, her words hung round him like a necklace of thorns.CHAPTER 3
The clop of hoof among walls soothed Geoffrey. Straw on stone. Baskets of green apples. Barrels of ale lifted into carts by groaning men. And everywhere a glance of respect.
This was where he belonged, in the shadow of walls. The drawbridge resounded beneath him, and the stone-paved courtyard was so pleasing to him that he leaped unaided and strode across it to the chapel, where he gave thanks for his courage and for his fortitude in the face of his wife. His wife — that thought snapped his gratitude for a moment, and he turned aside from prayer, aware only of the forest round the city.
He was filthy with dust and blood. His palms were sore where he had gripped the iron. He hated iron. He loved the grain of wood, flowing in one direction like barley after a wind. He loved the crackle of vellum in his hands, the muster of black numbers. He loved the shieldlike shapes of light on stone, as in the chapel now, the late afternoon spilling through the high windows.
The candle shadows of the Virgin's gown shifted as the door opened and a cheese-breathed deputy creaked at his side. The man's wait was as insistent as a cat at a door. Geoffrey lifted an eyebrow.
"The king's steward, my lord."
"What!" Geoffrey stood. "Where?"
"He's waiting in the —"
Candlelight on chain mail. A frightened eye. "Waiting in the Meeting Chamber, my lord —"
Why? Geoffrey nearly said aloud, but he strode across the alternating shafts of sunlight and darkness and blinked in the courtyard as he began to run.
A surprise visit. A dove clattered through the air above the dovecot. Eyes acknowledging that yes, the king's man was here, and yes, this was very unusual and something must be wrong. Even the smith's rear end and his grunt as he lifted the hoof of a gelding seemed to indicate that word was everywhere.
"If you hadn't been in such a hurry to —" The deputy who met him could not say "to pray," because it was only proper a victorious hunter should offer thanks. Geoffrey threw a chair out of his way. "Find Hugh," he began, but Hugh was at his side.
Water sang into a bowl. Hugh's white hands released a clasp. The pig stink, a stink like urine, was sharp. He splashed water onto stone. "He's never sent a steward unannounced. Never!"
He stood with dripping hands while Hugh toweled him. "I'll wear my gown with the lilies — no, that would be stupid. Too sumptuous. And he'll be all mud-freckled. Tell me, is he mud-freckled?"
"Somewhat, my lord. Tired, but insisting on seeing you."
"Of course. Has he fed?"
"He wants to see you first."
"Of course," Geoffrey said again, although a new kind of fear made him gaze upwards, into the tapestry of the knights crossing lances, one of them pierced through his eye slits, and slumping forwards, forever leaning, like a man looking for a coin on the ground.
"Perhaps this one, my lord," suggested Hugh, offering the green tunic with the gold trim.
"Yes, and the ornamental spurs. Good. And that sword, with the jet insets. We want to seem comfortable, but manly."
The mirror had a flaw, a rill, like a stone shelf under smoothly flowing water. The fold in the glass bent his reflection, and Geoffrey knew that this was how he must look to the Virgin, who saw him not as he looked but as he was.
The sword swung comfortably at its chain, and Geoffrey withdrew it to test its gleam. "We want to seem capable of war but disdainful of rough play."
Hugh's touch adjusted the cloth round him and tugged a wrinkle out of his stocking. "It's a good thing I was out on a hunt. If I had been here, I would seem a clerk, a do-nothing. To make him wait makes him realize that I am a man going forth into the shire, breathing its air and surveying its cattle." The deep hope that this was, in fact, what he would realize gave Geoffrey sudden confidence.
He struck the hilt of his sword with his palm and glanced in the mirror one last time. He turned smartly. "So."
He hesitated in the corridor, adjusting the sword chain, and was aware of a shadow behind him. He turned, and the shape slipped back behind an arch.
Geoffrey stifled a curse, marched down the corridor to the head of the stairs, and spun.
A figure marched stiffly, threw itself back on its heels, and gawked up the hall just as Geoffrey knew he must be gawking, and Geoffrey drew his sword in fury.
The figure leaped into the air at the hiss of the sword and cowered in a caricature of terror.
Eleanor had insisted. She had said that all the noble families in France had a Fool. She said it would make the castle merrier. For six months the Fool had caricatured Geoffrey, always Geoffrey, no one else. It was apparently his avowed duty to ridicule his employer. Furthermore, he never spoke. Dressed in stockings and a motley tunic, he pranced — never walked — and initiated raucous laughter wherever he went, frowning and thrusting his head forwards.
Geoffrey sheathed his sword. Immediately the Fool was on his feet, at mock attention, eyes screwed shut in an effort of obedience. "You're not funny!" spit Geoffrey.
The Fool nodded in eager agreement.
"You're not good at what you do! You fail to be an effective Fool!"
More eager nods, body quivering with attention.
Growling, Geoffrey turned and suffered the Fool to follow him with God knew what exaggerated gestures and twitches down the spiral stairs.
A jangle of mail and squeak of leather. A youthful messenger began to speak, squeaked, and cleared his throat. "The abbess to see you, my lord."
Excerpted from In A Dark Wood by Michael Cadnum. Copyright © 1998 Michael Cadnum. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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