Barnsdale Forest, West Riding of Yorkshire, 1193
Rudd of Hampole was tired. The day had been long, and his work at the mill had been gruelling, toiling away in the summer's heat. The pole was heavy across his shoulders, the baskets at either end swinging weightily with the motion of his stride. Every few steps, a basket thwacked against his legs, and he knew he would have bruises come the morning.
He willed himself to continue walking, trying to ignore the pain. There wasn't far to go now, and his family would be happy with his offerings. There was enough fruit to keep their larder stocked up for weeks, procured in exchange for three bags of grain. Rudd's mouth began to water as he imagined biting into one of the succulent berries, but he pushed the thought aside and continued on his journey.
He focused on the toes of his boots, scuffed and coated in flour and dust from the road, and began to hum under his breath. The day had been another hot one, and the sun was still high in the sky, beaming down on him. Barnsdale Forest lay quiet and shaded beside the road, but Rudd studiously ignored it. He had heard the stories about the ghosts that haunted the greenwood, but he didn't have time to be afraid of a tale. Home lay ahead of him, and there wasn't a ghost in the world that could prevent him from getting there on that late afternoon.
Glancing up, his heart sank into his soles at the sight of the small convoy of guards approaching him ahead on the road. Briefly, he considered ducking into the forest, but they had already seen him, and he would only draw additional attention to himself by hiding.
Taking a deep breath, he lowered his head and continued on his way, hoping against hope that they would let him pass without incident. But it wasn't to be. The Sheriff's guards were a nasty bunch, encouraged by their leader to keep the villagers in line by creating fear and unrest. Taxes had recently been increased, meaning many families could not afford to pay, and the penalties were becoming progressively severe. The Sheriff was making a scapegoat of those who consistently failed to cough up the cash, and people were running scared. But Prince John, currently in Scarborough on royal business, was actively encouraging the punishments, claiming the higher taxes were to cover his brother's safe return from the Holy Land.
Rudd didn't know what to think; he didn't spend too much time thinking about it. He worked hard and he paid his taxes, and so kept his family safe.
"Well, look what we have 'ere, lads." The jovial tone barely concealed the spite in the guards voice as he pulled his horse to a halt in front of Rudd and gestured to his five pals. They all jeered and Rudd sighed to himself, deeply.
The lead guard dismounted, throwing his reins to the guard beside him, and swaggered over to Rudd, examining the contents of one of the baskets.
"What's this, peasant?"
"It's just fruit, milord," Rudd replied, dutifully, keeping his head lowered, respectfully.
"Just fruit, milord," the guard repeated to his friends in a sarcastic tone, and they all laughed.
The guard grabbed a handful of berries from the basket and crammed them into his mouth. He chewed for a moment before spitting them out onto the road, a glistening pile of purple mulch.
"I hate fruit," he declared, loudly, and kicked the basket, catching its base. It upended and the fruit spilled onto the road. The uneven weight caused Rudd to stagger round so he was facing the other way, and he shrugged the pole from his shoulders, lowering both baskets to the ground.
"What else have you got for us?" The guard said, stalking around Rudd so he could look him in the face. Over his shoulder, Rudd glimpsed a group of people on horseback approaching them along the road, and prayed that they weren't more guards. He'd be lucky to get out of this alive as it was, without adding more guards to the mix.
"I'm sorry, milord. I have nothing else," he implored, desperate to leave them behind and be on his way. "Please, take as much fruit as you like."
The guard moved closer to him, menacingly. "We don't want fruit. So, you will incur a penalty."
The other guards jeered again, and Rudd's shoulders drooped as any hope fled. The penalty would be bad; he could feel it in his bones. Absentmindedly, he noticed that the road beyond the guard's leering face was now empty, and the group he had spotted approaching had disappeared. He couldn't blame them; if he could disappear, he surely would.
Bracing his shoulders, he resigned himself to his fate, turning to face the guard full-on as he drew his sword and stepped towards Rudd. There was a strange zipping sound in the air, and the guards leer turned into an expression of shock as he paused and then began to topple towards Rudd, who backed away. The guard fell face first onto the dusty road, and that was when Rudd glimpsed the arrow protruding from his back.
There was a scuffle behind him, and Rudd swung round to find a group of hooded men attacking the rest of the guards. Looking on in shock, he watched as the guards drew their swords and began to fight, only to be quickly overpowered by the six assailants, and the arrows that continued to sing through the air. They turned tail and departed, galloping in the direction they had come.
"Are you alright?" The voice came from the forest behind him, and Rudd turned in alarm to regard another hooded figure approaching him, this one holding a bow.
"I— I think so," Rudd stammered, looking at the dead guard.
"Don't worry about him anymore. Here, let me help." The newcomer drew his hood back to reveal a boyishly handsome face, with dancing blue eyes and a sweep of nut-brown hair. He began to pick up the fruit from the road and return it to the basket. Rudd, still in shock, watched him, numbly.
"Much, Allan," the man spoke, and two of his companions approached, pushing their hoods back and taking either end of the pole. Rudd allowed them to lift it back onto his shoulders and steady him.
"You're alright now, mate." One of them, an attractive man with expressive blue eyes and tousled chestnut hair, gave him a grin and Rudd mustered a smile in return.
"Thank you so much for your help," he said, gratefully, looking at them all, surprised to notice two girls amongst the group.
"No problem." The man with the bow said. "And if you need any help in the future, you come and find me."
The rest of the group began to move back towards the forest, and Rudd looked at the archer, quickly.
"Bless you, my friend," he said with meaning. "My name is Rudd of Hampole. If I have to find you, who do I ask for?"
The man paused on the edge of the greenwood and looked back at him, a wide smile splitting his face. A sudden breeze blew up and rustled through the trees, making the branches sway, and Rudd had the sudden feeling that this moment was significant.
The man pointed his bow at Rudd and winked. "If you need me, Rudd, you ask for Robin Hood." And with that, he was gone, slipping back into the woodland as if he had never been there.