Daniel heard the branch snap before he saw movement and froze.
Caught away from the group, he would have to deal with this on his own.
He ducked down behind a clump of foliage, trying to reach his bow without being seen. Another branch broke, the sound travelling clear across the glade to where Daniel had concealed himself. Steadying his nerves, Daniel raised the bow, his arrow aimed directly for the heart, and took the shot.
The arrow flew straight, striking its target precisely, and the stag dropped, killed outright and Daniel felt a little thrill of pride. Although trained as a soldier, made to practise archery since childhood, hunting the King's deer had, naturally, been forbidden and it gave him immense satisfaction to be able to prove his skill in such a way. And a stag such as this one would feed the group for days, especially now Isabelle was living with them. Her numerous skills would ensure the meat went further, although he knew it angered her to be seen as the cook of the outlaw group. They had argued about it, Isabelle refusing to skivvy for a group of unwashed men who didn't appreciate her, but in the end there could only be one answer, at least until they made the effort to learn how to look after themselves.
The twins especially delighted in irritating her by talking of 'women's work', but no-one who'd ever come across Isabelle arm-deep in a freshly slaughtered beast, blood-smeared and armed with a skinning knife, would have referred to her then as the weaker sex. Not unless they wanted to end up like the poor creature.
Daniel stood, smiling as he lowered his bow, thinking of how he would make his lover proud when he brought the stag back to camp. Maybe he would even assist her with the butchery.
But as he crossed over the clearing to his kill, something sharp stung his neck and he stumbled, landing on one knee. He raised his hand to the spot and stared in astonishment at the dart he plucked out; a tiny sharpened twig, shorn of bark and coated in a sticky colourless fluid, now mingling with his own blood.
He tried to rise, but found his muscles wouldn't obey him and instead he pitched forward, his vision blurring and rolling. The stag, his prize, flickered and vanished, like a dream on wakening, and Daniel became aware of someone emerging from their hiding place behind a tree and standing over him, but the drug was too swift, and before he could make anything out, he drowned in the dark.
Awakening was sharp and painful, like a torrent of cold water hitting his face, bringing his senses back into focus, which he quickly wished they hadn't.
He was sitting bound at the base of a tree, his wrists raised above his head, his ankles tied to a wooden stake in front of him so that he could barely move. Around him were the trappings of a camp much like that of his group – a fire, blankets, waterskins - but as he looked around, trying to make sense of what was happening, he saw things that had no place in any sane person's dwelling.
A worn down tree stump, covered in a cloth, acted as a makeshift table, on which lay the blowpipe and dart that had allowed his capture. Alongside was a leather roll containing more knives than anyone needed, some small and wickedly sharp, curved and inscribed with lettering Daniel didn't recognise, others worrying large. A wooden chest lay open beside these, filled with glass phials such as those carried by the castle physician when Daniel had resided in Nottingham. But as far as Daniel remembered, the physician never had call to keep so much blood, and as to the rest of the contents, Daniel was happy to have his curiosity unsatisfied. Dangling from a branch above this altar were a number of silver charms strung on leather thongs. None of these were crosses, or even pilgrim tokens.
A shiver of fear ran through Daniel at the unnaturalness of his surroundings, combined with the realisation that he had, somehow, walked into a trap. But by who? And to what end? He couldn't imagine the Sheriff paying someone to drug him and drag him off to this sorcerer's bazaar, not when they could just kill him.
Closing his eyes, Daniel began to clear his mind to call to Herne. If anyone could make sense of this, it was his master, the forest god.
A stinging slap across his face brought him out of the near-trance he found himself in whenever communicating with Herne, and he opened his eyes to find a shadowy figure standing over him. He shook his head to clear his vision, and the figure transformed into that of a girl a little older than himself, in a red dress with black embroidery, long dark hair hanging down her back to her waist.
"Don't try calling for help."
Her voice, low, oddly accented, was calm rather than threatening.
"He won't be able to hear you. I made sure of that."
She indicated a symbol scored in black on the tree next to the one he was bound to and Daniel realised there were more symbols scattered around, even hidden within the embroidery on her dress.
The girl gave him a pitying look.
"Herne, of course. Who else would I mean?"
"What do you-"
She cut him off with another blow across the face.
"Quiet, boy. I don't need you for your voice."
Daniel acquiesced long enough for her to step back, then risked another question.
"What do you need me for, then? Why me?"
The smile that rose on his captor's face was not reassuring.
Turning to her altar on the tree stump, she picked up one of the slender, curved knives, running her fingertip along its edge.
"I need your blood, boy. And you, because, well, there's only one son of Herne the Hunter. Do you know how long I had to wait for you to come along?"
Daniel didn't reply, his mind spinning. How did she know who he was? And – his blood? What ungodly mess had he landed in?
"Perhaps you do. After all, there hasn't been a Chosen Son since Loxley. He was your father, wasn't he? And he's been dead longer than you've been alive."
"How do you know all this about me?" Daniel stuttered, too stunned to think of anything else to ask. But she ignored his question, instead straddling his bound legs to kneel over him, the knife at his throat.
"Don't worry, I'm not going to kill you. Not unless you give me a reason to. I need you alive for the moment."
Fear and confusion turning to anger, Daniel began to struggle, uselessly, against the ropes that held him, earning him a vicious cuff alongside his head from her other hand.
"Keep still while I bleed you, little pig. Otherwise I might stick you deeper than I meant to. Or follow the example of my namesake and cut off your head."
Left with no other choice, Daniel was forced to do nothing while she made a small incision in his throat, catching the blood that spilled in one of her glass phials, then stemming the flow with a clump of grasses when it was filled.
Rising to her feet, the girl stowed her precious phial away with the others, licking away the drops of his blood that stained her white fingers in a way that made Daniel's stomach turn.
"Who are you?" He demanded. "What – what would anyone want with my blood?"
She smiled, and in any other circumstances, he would have thought her beautiful.
"My name is Judith, Daniel. And I need your blood because my master is a demanding one. Such an ingredient is rare and hard to find."
"You're a witch."
Daniel had heard the word thrown at people before, seen lives ruined by accusations, but never met anyone he thought truly might be one.
"If you like. I've been called many names in my life. Jew, to begin with. Whore. Filth. None of which I particularly cared for."
"A Jewess? So those stories they tell us about you drinking Christian blood are true?"
"Don't be ridiculous. Does this look like a Temple? I no longer bow down before a god that would allow my family, my kin to be massacred by a drunken mob because of their faith. I choose my own path, my own master."
"A Jew who's broken their faith and a witch? There's a lot to be proud of."
Daniel steeled himself to meet her gaze as he insulted her, but her face was calm, although her eyes were cold.
"Let them burn me twice, then."
"They don't burn Jews."
"No? Never been to York? They burned hundreds of my people there, and those who escaped the flames were butchered like animals. And it's happened many a time elsewhere."
"So you chose to worship the Devil instead?"
Judith laughed, a seemingly genuine laugh of amusement and for a moment, she seemed like any other girl.
"I never expected such closed-mindedness from you, Daniel. Doesn't your church teach you that worshipping forest gods is heresy? And call you a heathen for claiming you walk alongside a deity other than your Christ? I don't worship the Devil. There is always another choice."
"And what choice have you made?"
"The right one."
The cold tone was back, along with the look in her eyes that said he was right to be afraid of her. Daniel was no coward, would face anyone in battle, risk his life to save another, to defend the weak and helpless; that was what he had pledged his life to. But this girl… was something unnatural. He couldn't fight her; even if he were unbound, he didn't think he could defeat her with a sword.
"The only way to survive in this world, Daniel, is to have power. Rich men have power, but all it takes for them to lose it is for another man to have more money, more power. Or to fear them so much they kill them to evade their debts."
"And if you should come across another witch, with more power than you?"
"That, that is why I need your blood. The Son of Herne the Hunter is different from other men, and that runs in your veins. The spells I can make with this will make me far more powerful than any hovel-dwelling charm peddler. Will make me safe."
"Herne keeps me safe. Does your demon protect you?"
"I'm still alive, aren't I? And I don't see your forest god here, do you?"
Daniel tried to ignore her words, but they worried him. Could her charms and spells really keep Herne from him? Best not to think of that, concentrate on escaping the madwoman with the knife.
"But to worship a demon… What can he offer you?"
Judith smiled, and Daniel had to fight back a shudder.
"Let me show you."
She reached into the wooden chest and drew out a screw of parchment, flinging its contents into his face before he could see what it was. The bitter powder stung his eyes and throat, making him retch and cough and then the world turned over.
It wasn't like when Herne sent him a vision – those were often confusing but they felt real, no matter how unnatural. This was like one of those dreams where nothing was right, felt as if he were teetering on the brink of a precipice, waiting for something to push him over the edge.
Mist swirled around his feet, rising up to engulf him, and when it cleared, his father was standing waiting for him.
Even though the man had been killed months before Daniel had been born, he knew it was his father from the visions Herne had granted him. People said he looked like his father, the mythical Robin of Loxley, Robin i'the hood, the Hooded Man, and maybe he did. They had the same shoulder length brown hair, the same dark eyes, but more than that, Daniel could see the stamp of ownership standing out on him that called him Herne's Son, as he had on Earl Robert of Huntingdon, faded but still lingering.
The man raised his hand to touch Daniel's shoulder, as if unsure who was real, then suddenly clasped him in a fierce embrace.
A flood of emotions washed over Daniel as he allowed himself to believe that this was his father, here, now, with him, telling him he was proud of him.
"I loved your mother so much. I would have died for her from the moment we first met, and I don't regret dying to keep her alive, not for a second. And if I'd known she was carrying you… our son."
"I'm Herne's Son too," Daniel said, wanting to please this man he had never known but always dreamed of knowing,, to prove he was worthy of this pride.
"I heard the call, took up the mantle."
"I know. I've been gone a long time, but in some ways I never left. He kept me close, waiting for this moment when we could meet. You feel it too, don't you? The path of what must be done stands out so clearly."
"I do. Sometimes I'm not sure which way to go, but I can see what's right. What it is that Herne wants me to achieve. And even if my men can't see it… I can lead them, Father. I know I can."
Loxley grasped his shoulder again, a gesture of passing on the responsibility in the same way Daniel had felt when he first picked up Albion.
"I killed Gisburne."
Why did that feel like a confession? Shouldn't he be proud to tell his father that, that he had taken revenge on the man who had killed Loxley's wife, Daniel's mother? But the trace of guilt that remained at turning on his former master, no matter how repulsive a man he had been, itched in his mind.
"You did the right thing, my son. Loyalty must be earned, not expected. Never forced. A lesson to remember as a leader."
"There are so many things I could say to you. But you must find your path for yourself, not try to follow mine. You are my son, but England needs you to be your own man."
"I will be, Father. I… I used to wish that I had known you, that you could have raised me. But I think perhaps the way I grew up, living among the enemy, showed me what I needed to do just as well."
"And you will do it, I know you will. Wait here, my son. There is another coming."
Loxley stepped back, fading into the fog that sprang up again before Daniel could speak, but he barely had time to take this in before another hand touched his shoulder from behind. A gentler hand, pale and ladylike.
Daniel turned and there stood his mother. It was strange to see her so young and lovely, and know that she'd been gone for seventeen years. What would she have been like, had she lived?
"Daniel. So grown up. My little boy."
She opened her arms and he stepped into her embrace, holding close the second parent he hadn't ever had the chance to know. He was taller than her, and found himself a little embarrassed to tower over his own mother. And, well, she was a lady. A real Lady, daughter of a Crusading knight. Despite laying a claim to Leaford Grange, Daniel had always tried to deny that he was in part nobility, finding more comradeship with the common folk, but that now seemed like an insult to her memory.
Marion stroked the hair back from his face in a gesture it seemed he remembered from infancy, but that was impossible. She had died when he was but a few days old. Any memory of a mother would have been Nurse Joan, or another of the castle women. But nonetheless, it seemed that he did remember her, and not just from the visions Herne had granted him.
"How I missed you. I missed all of your growing up. I never wanted to leave you, my son."
"I missed you too, Mother."
"You will be careful, won't you? I understand what you have to do, I felt the same way once, but… it isn't just you anymore. I know what it feels like when someone you love is torn away. My heart was broken when your father died, and while you went some way to mending it… a broken heart never truly heals."
The thought hadn't truly occurred to Daniel. Isabelle had chosen to leave her old life and fight by his side, as had his men, but his mother was right. Should he be killed, it wasn't just that the battle would require a new leader, but that she would be left alone, with nothing to go back to. She had given everything up for love, and would need protection, no matter how much she would deny it. Her independence was part of what made him love her, but he must think of the future as well as the present.
"I saw him, Mother. I saw Father."
"I know. I waited for him, as I tried to watch over you. I'll see him soon. You make me so proud, my son."
"I try. If it takes everything I have, I will try."
"Herne protect you, Daniel. I love you."
Then the cloud swirled up again, and she was gone. Perhaps had never been. Were they both just dreams, like the stag that had led him into this trap, or somehow real? Had the spirits of his parents lingered, hoping to one day see him, and each other again? He hoped that they were together somewhere, that they were free. But the haze that circled around him made his head spin and for a moment he couldn't tell where he was -
But as the mist faded away and the forest swam back into focus, Daniel made out the form of Judith packing away more phials, recently filled, it seemed, with his blood. Clearly she had not been idle while he was dreamwalking.
"And what was that supposed to prove?" Daniel managed, his voice hoarse from the drug.
"Your master sends you visions, doesn't he?" Judith replied, her eyes glittering wildly. "I know he does. As does mine. The things he shows me. And I can choose my dreams too. No longer do I wake up screaming at ghosts from my past."
No doubt Judith could have talked at length about what her demon master could do, but she was cut off brutally by the arrow that sped out from the trees to bury itself in her shoulder, knocking her off her feet.
Still confused, unsure if what he was seeing was real or not, Daniel watched as Isabelle came out of hiding, another arrow already in her bow, aimed at the fallen Judith.
"Stay where you are," she told the witch, her voice soft but her intent clear.
If Daniel had thought about it, he would have expected Isabelle to be blazing with anger, to throw insults and threats but instead she was completely calm, and that made her seem more dangerous. Not for the first time, Daniel realised he had underestimated his lover.
"Now I didn't kill you – I could have, but I didn't. I want you to remember that," Isabelle continued. "So you're going to do what I tell you, aren't you?"
Judith, clutching her shoulder, her face pale, nodded.
"Cut him free. And know that if you so much as graze him, the next arrow goes through your throat."
Picking up her discarded knife, Judith crawled over to Daniel, slashing through the ropes that held his wrists. She drove the point of the knife into the earth in a gesture of frustration, getting to her feet and backing off a little, unsteady on her feet from the arrow wound.
Daniel picked up the knife, wiped clean now but just knowing what it has been used for was enough to make him uncomfortable, and freed his ankles. The blood sang in his veins as it rushed back in and he felt lightheaded as he rose. How much of his blood had she taken?
"Now I'm making you a trade here," Isabelle was saying. "Your life for his. I'm going to let you go, and I'll even let you keep all your… accoutrements." Here she cast an eye over Judith's assorted equipment with a note of distaste in her voice.
"But if I so much as see your face again, I will kill you. Do you understand?"
Judith nodded, keeping her eyes on Isabelle's face, making no effort to fight back, to cast a spell or a trick. Perhaps if Isabelle had come in on the attack, all rage and violence, she would have done, but the calm behind Isabelle's words made her realise that she meant them, and Judith believed her. Whereas Daniel had been someone to trap and lord it over, Isabelle was an adversary. Her hands were as steady on the bow as her eyes were on the witch before her, the woman who had tried to take Isabelle's man away from her, so she had come to rescue him, not just to get him back, but to regain her own power.
Maybe it was the arrow wound, but to Daniel, Judith seemed smaller, more vulnerable. Despite a good five years on Isabelle, she was skinnier than the other girl's womanly curves, her embroidered dress hanging from her and with one of the flashes of insight he had begun to become used to since becoming Herne's Son, Daniel suddenly saw Judith as the girl she had once been, before too much suffering and pain had twisted her into the shape she now held.
Saw her sitting in the forest, maybe twelve or thirteen years old, crying as if her heart was breaking. A man approaching her, his face always in shadow, sitting beside her, offering her the chance to make her own life, a opportunity for power and safety, if only she would give herself to him. Daniel, not unaware of the parallels between this scene and his first meeting with Herne, wondered what Judith would have become had she chosen a different path. Perhaps once, he could have saved her, but it was too late now; she had made her choice, and in doing so made an enemy of him and, more importantly, of Isabelle. She would not forgive the transgression, even though the offence was against her man, not herself.
"Are you alright?" Isabelle asked him finally, not taking her eyes away from Judith.
"Yes, thank you."
Casting his gaze around, Daniel spied Albion lying on the ground beside him, with his bow and quiver. Had Judith not recognised its power, or had she been afraid of it? She had mocked Herne's power, denied it, yet she had cast spells to keep the forest god away, to hide Daniel from his master.
"Come on then."
Isabelle began to back away from the witch's camp.
"Remember what I said," she called.
Judith made no reply, just stood, holding onto her wound and watched them go.
"How do you know the arrow won't kill her?" Daniel asked, when they were safely out of range.
"If she has any skill as a witch," Isabelle replied shortly. "It won't."
"So why didn't you kill her when you had the chance?"
Isabelle gave him an odd look.
"You really don't know, do you?"
Daniel gave up.
"Thank you. For coming after me."
"Of course. You did the same for me."
Isabelle kept her eyes on the road ahead, purposefully avoiding her lover's gaze and Daniel knew what she was referring to. A few days after Isabelle had left the Grange and come to the forest, she'd gone on an errand and not come back.
Only Thomas on sentry duty, hearing her screams and raising the alarm, had allowed them to get to her in time. A group of foresters, king's men on horseback, had run her into a corner and Daniel overheard them plan to "rape the outlaw bitch, then strangle her and dump her body in a river."
They had gotten no further in that plan before Daniel and his men took them down, denying them even so much as a Christian burial afterwards.
Isabelle wouldn't speak of it afterwards, but Daniel knew she had bad dreams, and was more careful about leaving the camp alone, and never unarmed. Not all of her screams had been in terror, but without so much as a weapon, no matter how furious she was, how could one girl defend herself against four armed men? The incident had made Daniel more determined to protect her, and they had argued about it frequently. While Isabelle could no longer say she didn't need his protection, she was just as determined to prove herself an equal to any man in the group. And now she had rescued him, repaid the debt only she felt existed. If it had been one of the others, they would have killed Judith outright, without so much as a word, as they had the foresters. But Isabelle had felt differently, and let the other girl live.
For all his insights, Daniel knew he would never understand women.
"How did you know where to find me? And that I needed help at all?"
Daniel didn't know what to make of that. If his master had known that Daniel was in trouble, why hadn't he warned him? Had Judith's spells really worked?
"He called me. Told me that someone was trying to break the bond between you and that I had to stop them. I knew you were out hunting so I tracked you. "
Clearly Isabelle had taken her lessons with William, a former gamekeeper who'd been living in Sherwood most of his life, seriously.
"Did he tell you not to kill her?"
"No. He told me nothing about who it was."
Daniel remembered the first time he'd introduced Isabelle to Herne, bringing her with him when his master called for him. The Lord of the Trees had made her wait outside the cave while he spoke to Daniel, but he asked to see her alone after. Daniel had no idea what he had said to Isabelle, but she'd emerged pale and shaking, clearly deeply shocked by her encounter with the forest god. He remembered holding onto her while she wept in his arms for some time afterwards, only for her to get up, dry her eyes, and refuse to say anything about it again.
Maybe Daniel's choice of lover had been more important to Herne than he'd thought it would be. Clearly, Herne thought that he had chosen well, if he'd sent her to rescue him over any of his men. Some of his followers seemed uncomfortable with Daniel claiming a relationship with a forest deity, even doubting that it was for real, and Herne had not shown himself to them.
There was, it appeared, more going on around Isabelle than should be expected for a peasant girl, the daughter of a house maid and a soldier killed fighting in France, who'd grown up wholly unremarkable in every way. Until, that is, she'd met Daniel. Isabelle had proven herself over and over, in ways that no-one had ever asked or expected her to, but she seemed to feel that she must. Perhaps because she was the only woman in the group, perhaps because she had never expected her life to take another path than the one that had lain in front of her since childhood, whereas the others had begun to choose their own destinies, in one form or another, from a young age. Whatever it was, Daniel knew he was glad, more than glad, to have her at his side, and not just as a lover.
Daniel reached out and took Isabelle's hand as together, they walked back to camp.
Even if the visions Judith had shown him were tricks rather than truth, they had come from somewhere inside himself, some desire to know his parents, and he felt sure that, if they were the people he thought they were, then they would be proud. And not just of him; his lover and his men were all worthy of their pride, and he would do everything he could to lead them, whatever the outcome. Herne would guide him, and Daniel would lead them, and together… well, time would tell.