Robyn’s arrow soared cleanly through the air and embedded itself in the trunk of the old oak with a satisfying thud.
“Curses,” Marian hissed.
Robyn laughed. “You were very close, too, Mare.” She grinned and headed over to pluck her arrow from the besieged tree. “Just not close enough.”
The two young women had set up camp for the morning on the slope of a large pasture just where it met the very edge of the King’s forest of Sherwood. From their vantage point over the valley they had an excellent view of the busy and sprawling manor of Loxley to the west, and to the east was the road leading down the hill to the Leaford estate of Marian’s father. The day was glorious. A warm sun and a light breeze allowed the women to discard their cloaks and remain only in their hunting garb, leather boots and light dresses, and their long hair neatly plaited atop their heads while they perfected their skill with a bow. Marian always plaited her gentle, dark blonde curls in neat rows of circlets that made Robyn think she bore the manner of a wood nymph or a fae Queen. No matter how hard she tried to maintain her own thick, red locks, somehow, as the day wore on, strands would fall loose and the plaits would come undone either through sheer carelessness or an absent-minded loosening of the too-tight plaits.
Marian tutted. “The knot in that trunk is barely larger than a farthing, Robyn. I’m certain there is devilry at work with your skill.”
“Aye, there was devilry alright.” Robyn laughed as she walked back to her, and bowed, mimicking a gentleman knight and his maiden, as she offered the smart, little hunting bow to Marian. “’Tis not fair game to whisper, sneeze, and generally distract your opponent.”
“I have a cold.”
“’Tis a summer cold.” Marian snatched the proffered bow with a smirk. “Best of three?”
Robyn shook her head and grinned. “I’ve been best out of a dozen already.”
“I think perhaps you need a lesson in humility, my dear.”
“I do not think you are the one to teach me, at least not with a bow.”
As Marian lined up her shot, aiming steadily at the knot in the old, twisted oak, Robyn reached around Marian’s waist, snaking her arm dangerously close to her body, then tapped the bottom of the bow. The arrow soared into the air and disappeared into the thick canopy of forest.
Marian rounded on her. “You scoundrel!”
“I do believe you deserved that.”
“You’ll never win the tournament with that behaviour. The new Sheriff will have you carted off to the stocks afore you can say ‘best of three’.”
Robyn sighed and sat on an old fallen log. “Aye, but ’tis nothing more than a merry fancy. They should never let a woman enter even if she is the best shot within a hundred miles.”
Marian shrugged. “There is no rule against it.”
“So, you think I should attempt it?”
Marian screwed up her face in that familiar way that said ‘no’ without her having to utter a word. “Well… what would your father think?”
It was the wrong thing to say. Robyn’s stomach lurched and any note of happiness was drained from her in an instant. She looked away, trying to imagine his words, the sound of his voice… but she couldn’t shake the overwhelming dread that she would never see or hear from him again.
“I’m sorry,” Marian said quickly, “I shouldn’t have–”
Robyn waved her hand to dismiss Marian’s concerns but her ability to speak was absent. She thought of the last time she had seen him; all the fine horses and pageantry and the excitement of a visit from the King, watching them all march off for the crusade… It had been such a delight and such a distraction. Like a waking dream; not real at all. The true loss of his departure wasn’t felt until the next day. The quietness of the house, his hunting garb still hanging on the wall, his favourite horse still in the stable… it was only then that she had really felt his absence. Truly understood what it meant for him to be gone.
“Have you yet heard?” Marian asked softly.
Robyn slowly shook her head and Marian reached out to take her hand. Her touch was warm and it seeped through Robyn; her skin tingled, the hair along her arms stood on end and she looked up at her dearest friend, whose eyes were of the kindest, deepest, blue. “Marian… I…”
A sudden squealing roar interrupted them. Robyn stood and held Marian as a great shadow rushed from the darkness of the forest. “Quickly!” she yelled, pulling Marian behind her, as if her own fragile body would be enough to protect her friend.
A beast emerged.
Robyn couldn’t hold in a scream of fright as she saw the wild creature hurtle from the wood. A boar. With huge tusks and a wide open jaw, dark eyes, hunched shoulders, black fur that was coarse and wild, stained with blood where several crude arrows had pierced its thick hide. It was running scared, ferocious in its flight, and the two women were right in its path.
Marian pulled Robyn out of the way so hard and fast they both tumbled onto the dry grass.
The boar shot past still squealing and roaring. Robyn’s horse, Jasper, reared up on his hind legs as the creature darted out into the pasture where the sheep scattered as the creature tore at the earth with its frantic cloven-hooves.
“Robyn, hurry!” Marian was already on her feet and tugging at her. Robyn tore her gaze from the wild creature and looked to Marian who was pale and wide-eyed. “The castle.”
Robyn immediately understood.
They both darted towards the old, twisted oak. Its huge, thick branches overhung the glen just as they had done since the days when Roman centurions marched across the land. Gnarled and weather-beaten, the tree not only had a monstrous beauty, but also hid a secret that two young girls had discovered many summers before.
Hurriedly, Robyn gave Marian a leg-up, hoisting her friend into the tree. Nearly ten feet above them lay the safety of the oak branch and Marian grabbed hold of it to haul herself up. The boar screeched and made for their direction, no doubt mistaking them for the hunters who had aimed to take the creature’s life. Pulling her body onto the branch, Marian leaned down and offered a hand to Robyn.
Robyn had to leap to grasp hold of her just as the boar went to strike. She swung her legs out of the boar’s reach and gripped the twisted bark of the trunk with only the leather soles of her boots.
With Marian’s aid she heaved her body up onto the branch, and they breathed heavily. Safe.
“It won’t leave if it can still see us,” Marian said as she clambered through the hidden gap and into the trunk of the oak tree itself.
It was a narrow crack where the trunk had been split by lightning or ice many years ago, and beyond it lay a hollow big enough for two little girls to play at castle. Now, more than ten years later, it was still a large enough space in which the two young women could hide.
Together, they slid down inside, crouching out of sight in the soft mulch of the dry, musty leaves gathered in the trunk. Robyn’s heart pounded in her chest. Pressed close to her body, she could hear the heavy, frightened breathing of Marian beside her and reached out to clasp her warm, comforting hand as they listened in rapt silence to the creature pawing at the trunk outside.
The boar roared and screeched. But its prey was gone and Robyn hoped it would calm and move away.
What fools were they that had failed to kill their prize? Three clean shots into the strong haunches of the wild boar and not one to the throat. The hunters were cow-handed and green, no doubt. She shook her head in fury. How many times had she been on a hunt and seen a beast larger than this fall with just one well-placed shot? A poor shot is not just tiresome for the hunt who must then chase down a wounded beast, but it was beyond cruel for the creature itself.
When the hunt arrived, she decided she would have words with whatever foolish young lordling had made this mistake.
Her horse screeched.
All angry thoughts disappeared in an instant and she stood to peer out of the hollow. Her horse, Jasper, with flailing bridle, flared nostrils, and wide eyes, had reared on his hind legs, pawing at the creature with his hooves. He was fending off the attack but the boar had strong, sharp tusks and it was wild and desperate. Any second now it would gore at Jasper’s side. It would wound the horse if not kill him outright.
“Poor beast!” Marian whispered.
“They will kill each other.” Robyn could see her bow. It lay abandoned on the grass not more than a few feet from the base of the tree. If she could just reach it… She went to haul herself back out onto the branch.
“What are you doing?” Marian pulled at her dress.
“I cannot stand by and watch.”
“It’s… It’s just a horse.”
Robyn threw her off, affronted. “He is my horse and he is about to be killed.”
But it was too late, Robyn was no longer listening, she had pulled herself out onto the branch and dropped onto the grass with a soft thud of her leather boots.
She crouched low as the animals fought one another. There was blood on Jasper’s leg; he might be hurt, but he had landed some good strikes against the poor wounded boar. There was no helping that creature now, it would be wild until it succumbed to its wounds. If it saw her, if it sensed she was just a few feet behind, then she wasn’t sure she could make it back to the tree in time. But she couldn’t hide away and watch it tear Jasper to shreds. He was just an animal, a loyal and gentle beast that nuzzled her shoulder and delighted at apple treats. Who else could save him if she decided to run? She edged forward, reaching out to grasp the end of the bow and pulling an arrow from the quiver at her side. Silently, she nocked the arrow and took aim.
As her horse reared again, wild in fear, Robyn breathed out slowly and released.
Straight into the thick shoulder of the wild beast.
She had missed its throat by not more than an inch. The creature let out a blood-thickening roar and turned on her.
Her stomach dropped.
The boar was ten times stronger than her, and wilder by a hundredfold. It would tear her to pieces in a matter of seconds. Marian screamed at her to run.
But she stood her ground.
There was only one way to save them all now.
The beast tore towards her.
Robyn took aim as the boar closed in. Ten feet… eight feet… six… four…
In an instant, the creature buckled.
Its speed and weight made it hurtle forward, careening into Robyn and sweeping her legs from under her.
She tumbled to the ground and hit the earth hard. With no time to think she spun around, scrambling to ready her bow and take another shot.
But the boar was still.
Her arrow had struck its eye. It had been dead in an instant. Its suffering was over.
Trembling and breathing hard, she lowered her arrow, barely able to believe she had survived.
“You fool!” Marian was upon her, swatting her with both hands. “You fool, you fool, you fool!”
“What?” Robyn pulled away, shocked and guilty to see tears at Marian’s eyes.
“You could have died!”
Marian slapped her again and Robyn hesitated, not knowing whether to apologise or defend her actions, but then her eye was caught by the figure of a young man running from the wood.
The boy looked to her, to the boar, and then turned to run back into the forest. But Robyn was not about to let him get away so easily.
“You!” she shouted after him and he hesitated as she gave chase. “Don’t you run, boy,” she called, and he turned to her sheepishly. He was a young lad, perhaps a tall twelve or a small fourteen. Narrow, gaunt, and barefoot, the boy looked up at her with huge, sheepish brown eyes. He was a pauper; his clothes were cut from old, frayed sackcloth and animal skins, and all he carried was a simple hunting bow. Robyn could be little more than six years his elder at best, but he would recognise her station from the deep burgundy and finery of her dress, and every serf knew better than to defy the order of a noble.
“Was that poor creature your hunt?” she demanded.
He swallowed and his eyes glistened. “Please, milady,” he looked to the ground and shuffled his feet, “I’ll be strung up if thou turns me in.”
She opened her mouth to scold him further for his insolence but stopped short. He was a poacher. She glanced back at the huge boar that the boy had tried to take down on his own with nothing more than a self-made bow. She shook her head and looked back at him. “You have broken the law.”
“I know, milady, I know,” he shook his head, barely taking his eyes from his filthy bare feet, “but if I’m dead then me ma will croak for sure and the little ’uns won’t have nothin’.”
She hesitated but the cold fear was still pumping through her veins. “You could have killed us.” Her anger was fading but she knew he was still a fool. “You could have killed all of us.”
“I know… I never meant–there was an arrow, came outta nowhere, I panicked–I never meant–” Suddenly his voice broke and the young lad in front of her was blubbing; tears spilled down his cheeks. “Please don’t tell no one, milady, I’ll not do it again, please don’t have me killed.”
“I’ll not,” she said, unable to say anything else, and realising she, too, had been foolish to let an arrow off into the forest for a jest. “I’ll not say a word, just… just be careful next time.”
His countenance changed in an instant. “Bless you,” he said, a grin forming on his pale face, “bless you, milady, you’ll not regret this kindness, I swear it.” He turned and ran back into the woods, celebrating his newly granted freedom, and Robyn prayed that he was right.