Make Them Remember
It was late on a spring day, and the sun was beginning to dip into the depths of the evening. The last of the winter chill was still in the air, though the birds were just starting to emerge, the brooks gurgle, the first few purple flowers poke out from between tree roots, assurances that the earth was warming and life moving on to another phase.
And Robin of Locksley was fresh from the thatched huts on his father's estates, having heard that Old Jacob had been missing since the night before. Robin had grown up under the loyal bondsman's tutelage often enough, learning much about fishing and hunting from him in his youth, and he figured that most likely he'd been out in the forest again, found himself trailed by the law for poaching, and spent the night hiding in the brush.
Jacob was wise at such things, knew well how to give the sheriff's men the slip…but all the same, Robin intended to go looking for him, to quell the fears among the tenant farmers. Every man among them had been taking their risks through the colder months to keep the estate fed, with Robin usually taking the most risks by hunting the larger game, especially the stags. He'd told the other men to leave the big kills to him, that it was his responsibility to keep them fed, but he knew Jacob…and he knew that if he'd spotted a buck or doe within shooting range, he'd not have been able to help himself…
And then Robin heard what confirmed his worst fears…the sound of the beating rod, and muffled groans. He shot off in their direction, and saw Jacob tied up against a tree, receiving his lashes by an all-too-eager forester. Then, the man drew out a knife, and pressed hit close to the serf's ear…
"Hold, forester!" Robin hailed him, and the forester paused and looked up from his work.
"Ah, be it the young sea dog from the Lincoln tourney, with nary a beard to show for himself? Come to challenge royal justice? This lout was caught blood-red-handed, dragging off the carcass of one of the king's deer, and I'll have an ear and a tongue for it! If ya get in the way, a pretty pair ya'll both make in shackles! We're wise to ya and yer poaching ways. If ya defend this man, condemned ya'll be as his confederate!"
"This is no justice, nor has it ever been," he growled. "It's butchery, as if a man were a beast, nay…less than the beast, marked off for the royal pleasure, who you so zealously defend! But this is my father's land, and that my father's bondsman and you shall commit no harm here!"
"And what will compel me to heed your rough tongue, son of the marsh-bred fenswoman? Your people's power has past, worth as little as the dirt upon the land which ya'll lose soon enough, which I intend to christen with a poacher's blood, and a fine and fitting baptism it'll be before we hand the babe to new parents! Tell me, what will you do about it, eh?"
And in that instant, Robin whipped out an arrow, and drew back his bow.
The forester cackled. "But you've too much cheek for your own good, noble Locksley fool…"
"Would you care to test this fool at arms? I have my own bow now, and cannot be cheated as at the tourneys…do you dare face up to it when the odds be fair, as a freeborn man to freeborn man? I'll not stand upon the ceremony of my father's name…"
"No, Master Robin…" Jacob panted through the pain. "It's not worth it. Think of your lordship…he's ill, he needs ya…we all need ya, need ya to lead, more than ten such serfs of my like…"
"Now then, my man," Robin addressed his friend with a calm resolve, "you let your master make the call of what's worth it, hear? You're good wife's been worried sick, and I promised to return you to her in one piece, ears and tongue accounted for…"
"Mother of God, but you're playing the hanging game!" the forester sneered. "High swinging meat be ya!"
"The crows needn't wait that long for a feast, if you dare to sharpen your knife on my bondsman. I'll provide it for them, compliments to their work of cleaning up what's rotten…"
"I myself have an arrow for your heart, Saxon cur!"
"No." Robin drew back the bow further, and gritted his teeth, his eyes gleaming with deadly earnest. "Do not draw upon me, forester, for your own sake. I warn you in all truth, upon God's tomb for which the king does battle, your life will be forfeit!"
The years had taken their toll on the young man, bearing up against one hardship after another. They had pressed his father in every way they could with their back-room legalism, they had forced him to give up swathes of land to Norman lords, to pay a double tithe with his own funds rather than tax his people to death, to make him , his son, and his people bear up with daily insults to his name and his blood, and to try and push them into striking back.
And this was the crux, the crossing point of one life and another. Robin would not back away from another fight…he had been made to back away from too many already for the sake of his father, his future…but if he did not break his restraint now, he knew his own soul would die…
The forester's mouth twisted into a grim sneer. "Alright, then…play your little game, young pup, and I'll checkmate you with the sheriff's gavel, if you'd have it be so. You're haughty head will be made to bow to justice yet…"
"If you threaten me with justice, true justice instead of the cheap tapestries of power spun by grasping men, then I am not threatened."
"Take it any way it's dealt to ya," the forester spat, cutting Jacob free and starting to walk away from them, toward the main road. Robin exhaled the tense breath he had been holding, lowered his bow and turned towards his serf, who was struggling to keep himself upright against the tree after the beating he'd received.
Then Jacob's expression darkened in dread. "Lad, bow's up!" he cried out in warning.
Robin turned in one motion, glimpsed the forester's crossbow staring him in the face, and then the arrow from his longbow flew in the same motion, cutting the air swift and clean and shockingly fast, like the arrow of destiny. And it found the heart of the forester, and he fell forward, face down on the Locksley land.
For a long moment, Robin just stared at the body, his palms growing as cold as if death were claiming him too. He saw everything flashing before him in an instant…what had been, what was, and what now had to be…
Home. He had to get home. And after that…never go home again…
Jacob's voice roused the young man, and he rasped in response, "You…alright then? Did they hurt you bad?"
"I'm in better stake than you are now, lad," he responded hoarsely, limping forward in spite of the bruises and lacerations on his back.
Robin fixed his eyes on the body once more. "I'm bound for home…I must tell my father what's been done…"
"No, you mustn't go back…"
"I've no choice!" The young man bunched his fists.
He didn't want to be another hero like this…for suddenly the whole world rests on your back with a life-crushing weight…and being made to bear it is like seeing one's own death determined…and it's the trick of time, and its outside of time, and they say it's a blessing, and it feels like a curse…and he was afraid, in the pit of his stomach…and he wanted to go home…
"We could…hide him…"
"There's no hiding now," Robin retorted. "There are foresters all about…we must split, and run…"
"They'll be looking for ya by nightfall, and it's an hour's trek back to the hall…the sun's already low…"
"Head thee for the west side, now, before they close it off…" Robin bit his lip. "I'll…be there soon enough…"
"Lad…" Jacob started, guilt tingeing his tone. "It's…upon me, the blood that will come…"
"Now enough of that, friend," Robin shushed him. "Think not that it was always meant to be so? We've always been part of the chase…the hunter, and the hunted, as the old stories tell us…the antlered one, the spirit of the wood, haunts us ever…and blows the horn to gather souls when the end is near…" He swallowed, and then finished, "Now off with ya, go on, and I'll catch you up!"
And so Robin of Locksley made his way back to his father's hall, for the last time, beneath the descent of twilight, as the last sun of his youth sank into the shadows. When he entered and hurried his ailing father's room, Lord Locksley had seen through him at once, even before the fateful words were out of his mouth:
"I killed a man."
Yes, the lord had known it, for he knew that only such a thing would drain the color from the bold young man's face, would put a spark of fear, like fleeing prey, in his eyes. Oh, it was beginning…the beginning of the end for them…
"Who?" was all the old man could ask, not so much in accusation as in quest of a clearer vision. He knew full well his son had never been one to start fights to show off his prowess with the bow, even though everyone knew it surpassed all others in the surrounding shires. Even when challenged multiple times in the past by jealous hot-heads, he had somehow managed to defuse things with good humor and the willingness to walk away.
Locksley knew his son was no killer, nor would he consider proving a point about his abilities worth taking a life. He might be too daring, too brash for his own good at times, but he always tried to use his wits to see himself through the worst cases. For all his skill with the shafts of death, the taking of human life had always been anathema to him…unless the occasion had left him no alternative, lest he abandon the holding of honor, the holding of the right…
"'Twas a royal forester," Robin answered. "He caught Old Jacob with a fresh killed stag. They were going to pillory him, on our land, father. I…I had to do something…"
"So you slew the king's man, like Moses did the Pharaoh's overseer?" the lord compared, knowing all too well the cost of the crime.
"He had a crossbow, pulled and cocked, beyond the edge of the forest, upon our own soil! He dared spill our people's blood on it, and I bade him come after mine first, if he had stomach enough for it! He had no right…"
"Try to make that hold up in a royal court!"
Robin turned his face down. "I'm sorry it came to this, but I'm not ashamed. I'd let no man butcher-cut Old Jacob, or any other serf on our land, not while there's any bit of man's blood left in me. What I did, I stand by. As holy Mary is my witness, I'm no murderer." He looked at his father again. "You knew it had to come, though. We both knew it did."
The elder man swallowed hard. "Get thee to the forest, to the deepest part, where you have yet to tread. Use all your skill and cunning, and by the grace of heaven, stay alive! Do whatever you have to…but stay alive! It's a tangled wilderness in the heart of the woods, but your own heart is made of oak. You have a better chance than many, for your blood is made from the land, and runs through the very veins of the trees. You've stalked the deer many a year, since you could pull back a bowstring; now you will be stalked, and they will see you as dead meat hung up from a hook, and aim at you for a prize. Keep your eye keen like the hawk and your ears pricked like the fox. So now, take your bow and quiver and hunting horn, and be gone from my sight, as one who is dead goes from the roof of his family!"
Something in his father's tone made Robin feel as if he'd been stabbed in the chest, and all his ribs broken. "My lord," he gasped. "Don't send me off as one dead to you…I beg of you, do not…"
"But you are as one dead," the old man choked, bitterly, "dead to me, dead to the world…there is nothing but death on us and a curse to our name…"
"Father…" The young man voice cracked, and his eyes glistened.
"But you…you are mine…and you will make them pay…you exact the toll, my lad, pillaged coin for pillaged coin, until justice is paid out to those beaten down…that is what you were born to do…I see it now…"
Robin pressed a hand to his face to hide himself within himself. "I can't…can't leave you like this…to their mercy…" he whispered. "They'll make use of it…you know they will…I can't leave…"
"You must leave everything! Nothing remains of what you knew, except what is inside you…and even that must grow and change…yes, grow…and when you are grown there, in the wild, you will rule…" He forced himself to sit up in his bed. "My time has passed, lad…it's your turn of the wheel now, as every season has its turn in the story of Man. Make it count, my boy…make them all remember."
Robin stepped forward to the edge of the bed, went down on his shaking knees, and buried his face in his father's chest to shield the tears streaming down his face.
And he felt Lord Locksley's trembling hand touch on his head for a moment, in a final unspoken blessing.
And then that familiar, familial hand was off.
And then Robin forced himself up, not daring to look back lest his resolve crumble altogether, and he too was off.
He passed by the servants who had gathered on the stairs, meeting their eyes each in turn, for the last time, and he knew they knew it was the end, that all hell was about to break loose.
"Good folk of the estate, you're not condemned to share in this," he told them. "I relieve you of all of your obligation to this hall. Shift as you will, in whatever way best serves you."
One of the men stepped forward. "We'll not leave our lord, young master," he stated firmly. "He's stood by us through the worst of times, and never sold us cheap. We'll not do so now."
A servant girl approached as well. "I'll stay with him, Master Robin, and won't leave his side. He'll be nursed, whether in hall or hut, you can depend on it." She blushed, looked down. "Remember the day I was out in the woods, with an apron full up with mushrooms and hazelnuts? One of the forester's took to chasing me for robbing the grove of its fruits, and he said that he'd charge me my virtue if he caught me…then you showed up, and paid him off with your own bag of gold. I never did forget that…" She drew a little closer, and whispered, "Nor when I put my lips on yours, but for a moment, mind…and 'twas free of any charge, though I thought I might swoon before my legs carried me home. I'd never forget that either."
"Nor would I, lest I forget how honey tastes..." He smiled sadly at the thought of fonder times, and brushed a hand across her face. "Bless you, child."
"There's a horse tied outside the stable, newly bought, a bit on the frisky side," another one of the men added. "No saddle has been put on him yet, but if you can reach him first…"
"I can manage bare-back," he assured. "My thanks…"
And so he hurried out the back passage and made his way to the stable, where he found the horse as promised. There was a fearsome fire in the eyes of that mount, and a snow-white star on its forehead distinguishing the rest of its coat, black as the night. It whinnied warily.
"Now there, young stallion, we have too much in common to get off on bad footing," he quieted the animal. "And we need each other."
Yes, yes, they both had eyes alike, and they understood each other all at once, and Robin swung up astride him bareback, and though the stallion fought it first, he grew used to the firm yet knowledgeable hands of the young man against him, dug into his mane and running along the side of his neck. It was almost like a natural process, in which the two understood each other intuitively and become one entity, like the stars connected into constellations, bound up in an ageless destiny.
This was their moment, as the sound of the sheriff's men, mounted on their own saddled steeds, kicked up dust in the distance, and caused the ground to rumble.
The hour had come.
It was time to ride.
Ride, ride hard, ride and burn the past away, burn it away…
And it was only an hour later, on the high hill beyond the town, at the far side of the forest, that Robin dared to pause, dared to look over his shoulder, and saw the smoke curling, and the redness bloodying the ebony sky, hovering like the angel of death over the specter of his father's hall…of his hall…
And he dismounted from his horse, dumbstruck, and stared and stared, and then looked into that animal's knowing eyes again, alight with the reflecting gleam, turning orange, turning gold, against the black…
"Run, my untamed friend, run far away from here," Robin choked, "for you have borne me to the border, and Robin of Locksley is no more…"
Then he slapped the horse on the side and sent it racing away from the forest, away like the last vestige of his noble rank.
And Robin the outlaw adjusted his bow upon his shoulder, clutched his hunting horn at his side till he thought it might crack, and fought back the fierce tears stinging his ocean blue eyes…yes, they might have melted into the ocean, they were so flooded with saltwater…
"They'll remember, my lord," he choked. "They'll remember…"
Then he turned away from the shire, and become one with the forest forever.