Little John woke up that morning with a head ache.
He often got head aches, these days – and not always as a result of the copious amounts of alcohol that he had consumed the night before. He could drink Allan and Robin and Will and Much under the table and still get up the next morning with little more than a mild sledge-hammer-type feeling happening under his skull (where the rest of them would be unconscious until about midday and very ill thereafter). Djaq liked to sit up and laugh at them all whilst loudly clanging pots and pans about the camp. Apparently, hangovers were Allah’s way of punishing the stupid.
But still – it was not that kind of head ache. And it had not been that kind of head ache for some days.
It was the sort of head ache he had learned to associate with damp. Not rain, but slow, insipient, creeping, all-pervading damp. It was how the forest got in those grey months that spanned late winter and early spring. As the earth thawed, winter slowly evaporated and spring sluggishly followed, not yet hot enough to dry the place out, not quite cold enough to freeze it again, everything got damp.
Mounds of leaves mouldered on perpetually muddy ground; pools of dew collected and never quite dissipated around rocks, under shrubs and in the clefts of trees and leaves. The air filled with a near constant haze of mist – thousands of tiny droplets of water which never quite fell but still managed to saturate every piece of clothing a man could wear.
And Little John developed morning head-aches. He never got them in winter, when it was so cold that water actually became difficult to come by if it didn’t snow, as everything, including rivers and streams, froze up so utterly that liquid became impossible to retrieve. And he rarely got them in summer, either, even when it rained, for the sun would dry the place again within hours and he would be quite content. No – the headaches only came in these few months that bridged the seasons – winter to spring; autumn to winter.
He suspected the headaches had something to do with sleeping on the wet ground, surrounded by constantly shifting, tossing, stirring, kicking, snoring, muttering outlaws. Sometimes he suspect the damp of getting inside his head, somehow – perhaps through an ear – and of collecting there, putting pressure on his brain.
They were thin, sickly headaches, wriggling up just beneath the base of his skull and behind his eyes. They would claw and scratch away there for a few hours or so, and then gradually dissipate after a meal, or a run, or whatever bit of excitement that day offered them.
That morning, they had decided to move their camp again. It was currently at the base of a small cliff, which had given them shelter from the driving winds a few nights ago, but which also, they had discovered too late the night before, had an unfortunate habit of metamorphosing into a small waterfall after more than a few minutes of rain. They had woken up to find themselves sleeping in a muddy sink-hole of brackenish water – so movement wasn’t so much expected as it was absolutely necessary.
They liked to move every few days or so anyway, to keep the sheriff off their tale. But still, damp and muddy and suffering the usual headache, Little John was finding the whole thing an increasingly frustrating exercise.
As the biggest and strongest of them, he had been landed – as always – with the worst of the heavy lifting, and was transporting several packs of food and clean water, as well as two sodden woollen blankets on his back.
Allan and Will had gone up ahead to find somewhere suitable. The gang knew loosely where they were heading, wanting somewhere uphill and preferably with some decent foliage about that might provide shelter from sudden rain storms. But that was still extremely vague and Little John knew full well that the rest of them were liable to be trudging in this manner for several hours yet, until one of the lads stumbled cross a good spot.
He had fallen behind Robin, Much and Djaq as they were moving. What Robin always seemed to forget was that, while Little John was certainly the strongest of them, he was also the oldest and had been living in the forest for much longer. It had made him hardy, yes, but it had also taken its toll upon him. The head aches were just one of a steadily lengthening list of complaints his body was putting up about the damp, the food, the lack of sleep and the constant need for movement. When speed wasn’t essential, he always, inevitably, found himself falling behind the rest, going at his own, steady pace through the mud and the leaves and the undergrowth, squaring his shoulders beneath his burdens and marching on determinedly. He could not move with the darting quickness of the others – had never been particularly adept at such movement in the first place. These days, when, quietly and reluctantly, he had to admit to himself that he simply wasn’t as young as he had once been, such movement was entirely out of the question.
It was at times like this when he found himself feeling the loss of Roy acutely. The man had not been particularly skilled or well-mannered or quick witted or good humoured, but he had always kept pace with Little John. Even when they fell behind so far as to lose sight of everyone else, stolid and silent and determined, Roy would march alongside Little John, never prodding, never ushering, just making his way beside the great, lumbering giant because that was what he liked to do. He hadn’t been much of a talker, but that suited Little John well enough, because he wasn’t much of one either, and, despite the silence, it had been good to have that other, loyal, familiar presence by his side.
These days, though, it tended to be just him and the trees – although occasionally Will (not much of talker either, that lad) would fall into step beside him, usually with a distant, far away look in his eye. He walked with Little John when he wanted to think. Little John was never quite sure where the young carpenter was when he had that look in his eye (which was, it had to be said, a fair amount of the time), but it wasn’t beside him in Sherwood forest. Djaq sometimes walked with him too, but she liked to talk, and he always felt hopelessly out-brained when she talked.
By the time Little John had been walking for an hour, he had lost sight of the others completely. This was not unusual and he was not alarmed. He was a skilled woodsman, these days – a professional vagabond. He knew how to track people through the forest as well as he knew how to breathe. He could see quite clearly where the others had walked and guess precisely where they were going. He stepped in their footprints and followed the trenches they had made in the undergrowth, leaving surprisingly little trace of himself as he went, considering his size and bulk.
And then he heard someone shriek.
The sound froze him in his tracks and he promptly dropped what he was carrying to lower himself into a more defensive stance. The reaction was reflexive these days – he knew too well how full the forest was of dangers, and what became of the unwary.
The shriek had definitely been human, though it was not a voice he recognised – not one of his particular gang, certainly. It had either been a child or a woman and it had come from a few hundred meters to his left, where the ground dropped sharply away down to a through-path cut halfway up a hill, popular with travellers. The path was not wide enough to take a carriage but would easily take someone on a horse, and it followed the outskirts of the forest fairly closely, making it reasonably safe. The more dangerous animals that inhabited the area tended to stay much further in, and those outlaws that were liable to murder people for their money didn’t target it because they were happier ambushing carriages, whose passengers were more likely to be carrying wealth with them.
Still, it was not unknown for outlaws and wild-men to target that path. For fun, for sport or for the pleasure of a woman unwary enough to be travelling it alone. If an outlaw was on his own and desperate enough, they’d sit by it for hours in the bushes waiting for someone with a purse to come by and then take them down for the silver. Little John knew – he’d done it.
There was scuffling now, coming from the path – the sound of a fight that someone was on the verge of losing. Little John knew he had two options: he could ignore it and move on, saving himself from becoming entangled with something that was both none of his business and potentially very dangerous, or he could go and help whichever hapless wretch had been ambushed.
Robin would go and help the hapless wretch.
In his younger days, Little John would not have bothered… but he was not as young as he once had been, and these days, he tried to think of things in terms of what he could tell his son about. And he would not have been able to tell his son about leaving someone to get mugged or raped or murdered on a footpath because he was too apathetic to want to do something about it.
With an inward sigh at his own morals, Little John took hold of his staff, squared his shoulders and hurled himself unceremoniously through the undergrowth, down the steep little drop that led to the path and between the two parties in combat upon it.
This was not, in retrospect, the most level-headed thing to have done. But it was the best way of making an entrance, and making an entrance was occasionally the only way of (at least momentarily) bringing a struggle to a stand still, in order for him to gain some baring on what was actually going on.
What appeared to be going on was the ambush of one young lady by two somewhat crazed looking outlawed men – and it took Little John only a moment to recognise the young lady in question as Robin’s Marian.
She was on his left, staggering from a wound to her head, wearing vaguely masculine travelling clothes – a dark pink tunic, brown breaches and a brown under shirt, all made of heavy wool. Said clothes now had mud all down one side of them and it was clear that she had been knocked violently from her horse into the embankment. Her horse – the white mare she most commonly rode – was lying prone across the path, apparently still alive and uninjured save for a shallow slash across its chest, but stunned and too terrified to get back to its feet. Marian had a short blade, of the kind that could be concealed in belts, stockings and up sleeves, in one hand that she must have used to defend herself – one of the outlaws had a fresh, bleeding wound to one arm, which he was clutching.
Both the outlaws were young, dirty and feral looking. Little John knew well what kind of men they were – their numbers had been steadily increasing since the arrival of the new sheriff and he had encountered such creatures many times in the past few years. The problem with the way in which outlaws took to the woods under the new system was the indiscriminatory nature of the punishment that forced them to flee. Sherwood was now home to village boys running because they had stolen a loaf of bread with which to feed their starving siblings, alongside rapists and murderers running because they had finally been caught in the act.
And those who were not rapists and murders when they first came into the woods often became rapists and murders after prolonged stays there. It was what happened when you fell into certain gangs; you learned a way of living and surviving. You became part of a pack.
Little John had seen it. Little John had very nearly lived it.
The men he was facing now were such boys. Perhaps they had once merely been desperate, petty thieves. Perhaps they had been murderers, rapists, and the like. Perhaps one had been the first kind of criminal and perhaps one had been the other – the point was that now they were equally as base and brutal and inhuman as each other, and the forest had gotten into their blood, made them wild, hungry, monstrous.
Fortunately, when a person loses their humanity, they lose their reason and their wits as well. These men would think like wild animals – if they saw him as able to harm them, then they would run.
All this, Little John saw and evaluated inside a matter of seconds – Marian, her injuries, the horse, the men, the look in their eyes – the situation sunk in within the space it takes most men to catch their breath after such an entrance as he had made.
And inside those few seconds, he had already worked out what to do – like breathing, like instinct, like simple correct behaviour. He turned to the two men, planted his feet firmly upon the path, drew himself up to his full height, squared his shoulders, and bellowed like a great, wounded bear.
The two men flinched, visibly. One, with an explosion of orange hair and a face that melted into an equally orange beard, hissed and crouched; the other, dark haired and skinnier one, backed away a few steps. They were both armed. The red head had what looked like the handle end of an axe, which he was wielding like a club, while the dark haired one was holding something that John took a moment to see – then he caught the tell-tale spark of a blade catching the light, and knew which of his opponents was going to be the biggest threat.
Little John was also horribly aware of the horse, lying prone behind him. If it panicked, things were liable to get much more difficult to control – a panicking horse tended to be the sort of thing that could send already dangerous situations spiralling down into total mayhem. And the last thing he needed was for this to get any more out of hand than it already was.
Marian had already been hurt – winded, staggering and probably still recovering from the blow that had knocked her off her horse in the first place. She might be handy with a sword, but she was still reeling and bleeding from that head wound, with only a short knife to defend herself. If the two men could get past Little John to her, then they would probably kill her – of that he had been convinced just by getting a good look at their eyes. They were not out for her money but for what pleasure they could get from her body, and in that situation they might well murder her without even meaning to – without even pausing to think about it.
He needed, then, to stay between Marian and the two men. He needed her horse to stay down and he absolutely could not let either of the men get past the horse where it lay.
He could hear Marian struggling to breathe behind him. He hoped she had merely been winded, and not stabbed anywhere vital, but he had no time to think about such things because the red head looked about ready to run at him.
A short, sharp jab from the end of his staff knocked his attacker back and sent him sprawling – Little John hoped that that action alone would be enough to drive both men off, but, of course, no such luck. The red head was up on his feet again faster that Little John had thought humanly possible, and lunged forward again, yelling a wordless battle cry, axe-less handle up-raised.
Little John flipped his staff over and caught the man under the chin with the end of it. There was a sickening crack as the outlaw’s teethe collided; his head snapped back and he sailed almost effortlessly through the air to land off the path, several feet down the slope away from them. There he collapsed like a rag doll, tossed away by a careless child, and was still.
What happened next, Little John would curse himself for, ever afterwards.
What he should, he knew, have been doing, was watching the man armed with the knife. It was absolutely the first thing he had learned living in the forest – when taking on multiple opponents, always watch the man with the knife.
But he had been distracted by the red head’s apparent desire to get himself completely pulverised. And while he was dispensing the red head, watching him sail through the air and crash down the path, hearing the c-clack of the man’s teeth and seeing the way his eyes rolled and his head snapped back – the man with the knife had apparently been assessing his options.
Before Little John could take a few steps back, intending to order Marian to run, now and don’t look back, the dark haired outlaw had thrown himself head long at Little John. The knife flashed and slashed in the air, and Little John ducked, knocked the man sideways and was nearly thrown off balance himself as he tried to compensate.
He felt cool metal slice the skin upon his left forearm, bellowed more in outrage than in pain and managed to toss the man away from him using his staff as leverage. But he was wrong-footed now, staggering, breathless and did not know how badly he was bleeding. The outlaw seemed utterly impervious to pain or any damage Little John could inflict on him, lithe and bitterly quick. He was upon Little John’s arm – his shoulder – his back – kicking and hissing and spitting and screeching and waving his weapon like a flag.
Little John knew, then, that the man had long ago had his wits knocked out of him – mad, and dangerously so. Demon-possessed; evil. Robin could sneer at his superstitions all he liked, but Robin had not seen what got into the woodsmen of Sherwood sometimes – how the forest got into the blood and turned a man savage. No reason, no feeling, no hope – just evil, darkness, fear and rage.
And somehow, he could not throw the outlaw. He could get no grip on him, could not knock him away, could feel the knife slicing at his shoulders, (though the pain had not yet reached him), but could not force him away.
So it was Marian who ended it.
At the time, Little John knew only that suddenly the outlaw froze, as he was clutching at the bigger man’s shoulders, still bearing the knife. His mouth dropped open and his eyes suddenly popped wide as poppies in the summer. An odd, gurgling, gasping growl escaped his throat – his hands shook violently – and a sudden spray of red rushed fourth past his chipped, yellow teethe, running down his chin.
There was a sharp, sickening crunch. The man jerked, once, and fell away from him to the ground. And Little John saw Marian standing before him, yanking her bloody knife from the man’s back, her face spattered scarlet, her brow creased with disgust.
She straightened, and spat hard onto the muddy ground, wiping her mouth, now a brilliant, bloody red.
She had stabbed the attacker twice, Little John could see – once about the neck, where she had not gotten deep enough to inflict more than a flesh wound, though the blood was prolific, and once fatally, in the middle of his back, just beneath the shoulder blades. She must have had to sink the knife in to its hilt and then twist it, to be able to freeze him like that (Little John had seen such a manoeuvre once or twice before). It was the sort of attack that took both guts and a considerable dose of sheer, brutish strength.
He made a mental note never to doubt Marian’s capabilities in a fight, ever again.
The forest was suddenly deathly still. No alarm calls from frightened birds; no chattering and scrabbling as the little creatures of the undergrowth fled away. Only the breeze rattling the leaves on their branches, and Marian gasping with exertion, her hands trembling only slightly as she dropped the knife.
She looked up at him, pushing short tendrils of dark hair away from her eyes, unconsciously smearing the blood that was staining one cheek, “alright?”
Little John blinked – she was concerned for his wellbeing?
“I am – I am fine,” he nodded, dumbly. Marian stumbled over to her horse, still prone upon the ground, and sat down heavily by its side. Little John watched her, cautiously, “are you alright?”
“I…” Marian licked her lips, “I will be – I… give me a moment…”
“I can give you that,” Little John murmured.
He went to the body of the outlaw, and nudged it with his foot, then turned him onto his back. A slow, seeping, muddy pool of blood began to collect beneath his head – a dark, terrible kind of halo – from the wound inflicted upon his neck. He was young, Little John could see, clearly – not much more than a lad. Will’s age, maybe even younger.
Behind him, Marian was slumped against her horse’s flank, laying her bloody cheek against its white fur. She was stroking its neck distractedly, murmuring soft, soothing words, though whether they were for the horse or for her own benefit, Little John couldn’t tell.
He was not sure whether he wanted to pity the girl or fear her. He could not tell if she was in shock from what had very nearly happened to her, or what she had done to the boy. But he did know that they could not afford to linger. This was a well-travelled road, and, whether the dead was an outlaw or not, this was going to get very complicated if somebody saw them standing next to a freshly stabbed corpse.
“Marian,” he called, firmly, “we need to go.”
Marian looked up, then nodded, mutely, and clambered to her feet. She came to his side, and looked down at the man she had just killed, her expression seeming more puzzled than angry or relieved – as if she could not quite grasp what she had done.
“You ever killed a man before?” He asked her, bluntly.
To his surprise, Marian nodded, her expression hardening, “once. A guard – while I was out, delivering food – he came after me so I had to – but I never saw his face. I didn’t stop.”
“Then how do you know you killed him?” Little John asked.
Marian smiled at him, the look grim and curiously menacing – though the blood all down one side of her face did not help make it any more appealing, “I rammed a knife beneath his visor. It was the only bit of him I could get at, at the time – and a man does not live through such injuries.”
“No,” Little John agreed, raising his eyebrows but not allowing his shock at her detachment to colour his voice.
Marian was still staring at the body of the boy. She knelt down, wordlessly, and put a hand on his forehead. His eyes were still open, glassy and empty, fixed upon the sky over head. They were still wide with shock, as if the sudden absence of life from them had not quite sunken in. Marian carefully pulled the boy’s papery eyelids down, and smoothed his hair away from his face. Very young, Little John thought, very young indeed.
“Is this what we’ve come to?” Marian’s question seemed to be directed to the air in general, the enquiry softly bitter. “Little boys running mad to rape and pillage as they please until somebody is forced to cut them down?”
Little John could think of nothing to say to her, except, simply, “we should get the body off the road.”
Marian nodded, and helped Little John drag the boy off the path and down the hill a way. They left him under a bush, and Marian bit her lip, uncomfortable and uneasy.
“A man should have a proper burial,” she said, unhappily, but she walked away all the same, “and what about the other? Is he dead too?”
Little John looked toward where the red head was still motionless down the hill, and shook his head. He did not know – he did not want to know.
Marian grimaced, wiping her hands on her tunic, absently smearing indigo across the dark pink. She picked up her knife from where she had dropped it, and wiped the blood off on a clump of grass, before sheathing it again.
“Should get you cleaned up,” Little John told her, and Marian raised her eyebrows at him. “Your face,” he pointed.
Marian put her fingers to her bloody cheek, and seemed surprised when they came away wet and sticky. She shook her head. “Father will never let me ride alone again.”
Little John did not voice his, perhaps he should not, but silently led the way down the path. Marian, whose horse was back on its feet again, snorting and snuffling uneasily as Marian led it after him, followed silently behind.
(Next part is here).