The whistle from the tree sounded a little hoarse, like a woodcock trying to swallow a mouthful of worms. So it had to be Thomas.
Matthew sent an enquiring whistle back. A chuckle like a squirrel answered him.
Another whistle from across the road marked Margaret having them in range. Paul was quieter, but there was a hiss like a snake, or a wind's whisper, from the bushes he was hiding in.
Matthew's arrow caught a soldier's crossbow hand, and a sharp familiar cry announced that Margaret had found her mark too.
Thomas had a knife to the mounted soldier's throat. The soldier, a scar down one cheek, looked familiar. The anger in his eyes matched every other soldier the Sheriff sent after them. Matthew grinned.
Paul took the money bags that the soldiers gave up. They were allowed to leave with their wounded comrades.
"There's enough for Rufford and Wickham and Croxden," Paul announced, lightly kicking one of the bags.
"And a donation for the abbey," added Margaret. "We promised."
"They don't need the money; it's a waste," retorted Thomas, his throat straining. There were still some words he found difficult after all this time.
"No, it's not," Matthew leant on his bow. "The money'll go to the poor and they'll feed us."
He nudged Thomas in the ribs and Thomas shoved him back, his shoulders twitching in a shrug. He didn't argue the point again as they headed back into the tree line.
"Elderford and Hathersage can't pay the tithes," Margaret commented quietly.
"Aye, but there's a bishop coming for the mass the Sheriff's ordered," Matthew reminded her. "And he won't travel light."
A glint up ahead made Matthew pause. He spread an arm in warning. The others stopped in his wake.
"What is it?" hissed Thomas, unable to keep quiet for too long.
"There," Matthew pointed.
A moment later, soldiers appeared from behind trees and bushes, crossbows aimed and swords flashing in the light. There were too many of them.
The group scattered. Like leaves on the wind.
Matthew caught sight of the familiar maroon cloak of Simon of Kent, steward to the Sheriff, as he hared down the bank. He didn't dare look back. The others would be fine, he told himself as his heart raced to match his feet.
Stay alive. Stay alive. Stay alive. Stay alive. Stay alive.
He tried hard to ignore the tight ball forming in his stomach. A crossbow bolt hammered into the tree trunk beside his head.
He zigzagged and weaved to lose the soldiers. He shot off an arrow of his own, catching one of them in the arm, and then took off again before another could come within sword's reach. The band couldn't make a stand or go to their usual hide-outs; Simon was likely to have filled the forest with the Sheriff's men.
It was a clever trap. Matthew made for the road.
A hut came into view, right on the outskirts of Elderford. Jane was feeding the chickens, her husband was just coming outside into the sunshine, little Samuel was playing in the dirt.
He might have lost the soldiers at the river bend.
"Much!" Matthew gasped as he reached the wooden fence. "Soldiers! Can I……?"
Much cast a glance over Matthew's shoulder, his eyes widening.
"Get inside, quick!" he told Matthew, then gestured to his wife. "I'll take Sam. He'll be all right."
Chicken feed scattering, Jane bustled him inside and opened the trapdoor. The hole was empty. It looked as though it had gotten bigger.
"Get down there and don't light the candle," Jane ordered fiercely. "We'll take care of it."
Matthew did as he was told, thanking her quietly and endlessly with shuddering breaths as she shut the door. He could hear her pulling the straw matting back into place and pouring water. Then Sam chattering as Much brought him inside, footsteps overhead.
Only several spare moments later, there was the familiar sound of soldiers and Simon's quiet commanding voice. Matthew's fist clenched at the sound, a frown hardening his face. The man was a monster.
Jane answered the door. Much would be invisible; he'd learnt how to do that outside of the forest. Matthew found his hand was over the wooden charm hung around his neck. A single leaf by Thomas' hand.
Herne protect us.
There was a pause and Simon's voice again and then footsteps. The soldiers were leaving. Matthew began tapping out time quietly on the earth wall. It'd be a while before it was safe for him to get out.
Much opened the trapdoor, only his teeth visible with his back to the sunlight. It was the same grin Matthew remembered from his childhood. Comforting, like his father's stories, an old feeling. Much and Jane pulled him and the money bags out of the hole.
"They're not watching," Much said, sounding serious and worried "Least, I don't think they are. You be careful, Matthew. You promise?"
"I promise," Matthew smiled. "Herne'll protect me."
"Course he will," agreed Much with a nod. "But you've still got to be careful, right? Where are the others?"
"I don't know. Simon and the soldiers ambushed us on the road," explained Matthew, hooking his bow over one shoulder and his quiver of arrows over the other. "We scattered, to be safe."
Jane gave him some squares of bread and Matthew promised that their village would get the money they needed for the tithes.
"Don't you worry about us," Much told him, grinning. All the wrinkles in his face disappeared and the person Matthew remembered as a boy was there again. "We'll be all right."
But Matthew did worry.
He moved quietly and carefully, even though the forest seemed deserted now. Simon had become dangerously good. Life was becoming a lot trickier. Matthew closed his eyes.
Herne, guide me.
He reached the trees by the lake when there was a bird call, like a song. He answered immediately and then Margaret scrambled down the tree to his left. She had a bloody bandage wrapped tightly around her forearm.
"Is it safe?" she asked quickly, her eyes trying to look everywhere at once.
"I can't see anyone. What happened?"
"One got to me before I killed him," she pulled one of her blades from the other side of the tree. "The other ran away. You?"
"Much hid me. Simon didn't find anything."
He watched as she made two more trips up the tree to retrieve her weapons and the money bags.
Paul appeared as they walked towards the camp, one money bag over his shoulder and the other clutched in his hand. A soldier had slit the bag. Paul had hidden in the stables of a nearby village. There'd been room by Daisy and the villagers had been glad to help. Paul's talents with horses, calming and healing them, always seeming to know what they needed, made him welcome most places in Nottinghamshire.
"He's getting too close," Paul announced gravely.
"I know," Matthew felt like his head hurt from thinking, trying to work out what to do. But he didn't stop going over it. There had to be a way.
A call came from the camp up ahead. Thomas had something boiling over a fire when they arrived. His money bags were piled neatly beside him. The only sign of trouble was a deep scratch on his face. Matthew let out a breath.
"There weren't no rabbits in the traps," Thomas said, greeting them. "And we're on the last bit of venison."
Margaret smiled. "It's a good thing we're going to Croxden then, isn't it?"
There was enough bread for all of them and several helpings of Thomas' nettle soup. Matthew actually felt full when he slept that night, though his mind was full of images of soldiers and of his friends, hurt and screaming for his help. He couldn't reach everyone.
He opened his eyes briefly, searching out the three figures. Margaret and Thomas were huddled on the ground and Paul was on first watch. They were alive.
As he closed his eyes, cool familiar fingers touched his forehead. Herne's presence steadied his breathing and Matthew dreamt of the blessings he'd seen as a child.
Matthew almost ran straight into the village, but Edgar and his pitchfork rose to stand in the way.
"It's me," Matthew hissed, revealing the hilt of his sword. It gleamed in the torchlight. "See?"
Edgar nodded and whispered something to someone behind him. Matilda appeared out of the darkness as a reply. Her face was drawn and Matthew's heart began to thump loudly.
"How is he?" he asked, afraid of the answer.
"In pain," Matilda replied solemnly. "But strong. It'll take more than this to end Edward of Wickham. Don't you fret."
She patted his arm as they came to Edward's hut but didn't go inside. She might have stayed outside the hut or gone back to the village boundary; Matthew didn't notice. He dropped his bow and arrows at the door.
"Matthew." Edward tried to sit up, but a grimace of pain creased his face and Alison helped him lie back down. "You shouldn't be here."
"I waited till dark," Matthew replied, at his father's side immediately. "No one was out there. Are you all right?"
Edward managed a smile, Alison's hand in his. "He hurt an old wound. I'll be fine."
His father had a lot of old wounds. Scars from Gisburne and soldiers and bits stitched up that still looked ugly. But everyone had those, especially people who stood up to the Sheriff. Matthew was proud of his father.
"It's his leg," Alison told her son. "Simon was asking questions."
Anger pulsed through Matthew. That was all Matthew needed to know. Simon's reputation as a torturer had only grown after his arrival in Nottinghamshire. There was a sore spot on Matthew's right hip as a constant reminder of it.
"I'll find Herne."
"If it was right, he'd be here," Edward said, managing to sit up this time. "Listen, the harvest needs bringing in tomorrow and I can't………"
"You can still organise it all," Alison interrupted. "And teach James what you do. We won't miss the market."
Edward gave a nod and the slight smile he directed at his wife made Matthew smile too. Matilda was right. It would take more than this to get rid of his father.
"You shouldn't stay here," Edward told him. "It's too dangerous. Likely Simon will come here again tomorrow, knowing what he does."
Matthew nodded, he couldn't be seen in Wickham. But he kept hold of his father's arm. Edward was old now. If Simon kept coming back to ask questions…….
Edward smiled. "Don't you worry, lad. Your secrets are still safe. No one here'll give them away."
"If it's a choice between you and my secrets, Father…….."
"Then it's my choice to make," Edward reached out and squeezed Matthew's wrist. "I made it long before Simon of Kent arrived here, and long before I was thane."
Matthew nodded, but there was pain in his smile. He had to protect everyone, but he couldn't.
They reached Huntingdon as the evening was turning the sky gold. Peter, Robert's steward, was waiting at the gates.
"My lord and lady are still hunting," he informed them. "But they asked that you begin your meal without them."
There was a lot of food waiting in the great hall and the outlaws quickly obeyed the request. There was goose and chicken and sweet breads and a great deal that the outlaws hadn't eaten for too long a time. Robert and Marion had been generous. Matthew put some aside for his family.
He sat where he could see the particular banner he liked best amongst the number that decorated the hall. The green one that depicted trees and sunlight and deer. It had letters on that Matthew had been told spelled out 'Sherwood.'
Nothing was forgotten.
"It's good to see you all," Robert's voice called from the doorway.
Margaret was on her feet immediately to greet her foster parents, her chicken grease-covered hands probably getting marks on their fine clothes. Marion laughed and held her close.
"Matthew," Robert held out his hand, which Matthew shook. "You had no trouble getting here?"
"No one stopped us," Matthew replied. "But it's likely we were seen on the open fields."
"You're safe here," Robert assured them all.
He regaled them with stories of the hunt, an activity that involved him and Marion taking food to the serfs on their own lands and those just beyond. They were both dressed for hunting, however, should anyone notice them.
Robert put his longbow on the floor as he sat down, but kept it close to him, and his sword by his side. Marion, looking beautiful in colours like spring flowers, wore a dagger on her belt.
Robert had once said that you never truly left Sherwood. Matthew believed him.
"We're grateful for your help," Robert told them. "We haven't enough men to work the fields."
"The sickness?" guessed Paul, around a mouthful of goose.
"The sickness," agreed Robert gravely. "It's left too many of them weak."
"But the taxes still have to be paid," said Marion with an expression and tone that said exactly what she thought about that. "And the families will need the food once winter comes."
She and Robert had news of their friends. Nasir had been in Nottinghamshire recently. Meg was expecting John's second child. Tuck was currently presiding over a small burial at Newark, and Richard, Robert and Marion's son, was with him, wanting to help even on leave from his training as a priest.
Here was the only place to get the truth; rumours were always spreading about where the outlaws were. It was one of the ways to keep them safe.
"How's your father?" Robert asked Matthew quietly.
"Sick, but strong," Matthew replied, a knot forming in his stomach. "The infection is getting worse."
"We'll be there within the next month," Robert told him. "Marion will do all she can."
The Hooded Man will come to the forest, there to meet with Herne the Hunter, to be his Son and do his bidding.
His father had told him that a long time ago, when Robin had died. A prophecy, he'd said, telling of what was to come.
Herne's riddles were harder to work out, but they did speak of the future. Matthew wished that he understood them. He held onto them tight.
"A different path," Edward said, his eyes glassy. "You're not to be thane."
"No, Father," Matthew agreed, his fingers clenching tighter around his father's grip. "I won't be."
"Do you still hear his voice?" Edward continued.
Matthew nodded. Edward was remembering a boy now. Alison's eyes were full of tears, but she smiled at her son and her husband and held onto Matthew's other hand.
"Robin'll be here soon." Edward's gaze fixed on the hut's doorway and Matthew could see the visions he'd seen in Herne's smoke that morning. Loxley, dark and quick, standing at the door, coming for something.
"A gift from the Hooded Man," Abbot Martin, wiry and strong with greying hair, remarked. "It is welcome."
"Thank you for your help," Paul replied, rubbing his leg where the jagged scar was.
"It is our duty to help the just man," answered the Abbot. "As he helps those around him."
Thomas got the meal he was promised, though Margaret wasn't there to tease him as she was on a hunt with Robert and Marion. Matthew passed on their greetings, which caused the Abbot to get closer to a smile. They helped all those gathered in the abbey courtyard inside for the blessing and a glimpse of the cross.
Matthew wondered, hope gripping his heart hard suddenly, if his father could be brought here to touch the cross. But the holy relic passed by, taking the idea with it.
Matthew's hand trembled as he dipped his arrowhead into the flames. Everyone else was silent. He was the last to fire.
The arrow arched, like a shooting star, and plunged with a distant hiss beneath the water.
Tears covered Matthew's face. Everything seemed hazy now. How could he survive this if his father couldn't?
Margaret pressed her shoulder briefly against his. Thomas had his arms crossed, his anger a scar like the ones on his throat, and Paul was still like a statue. They formed a barrier around Matthew. They were alive.
Nasir was a shadow under the trees. Much and Little John were keeping watch. Robert and Marion clasped hands and stood together, looking like a fine embroidery. Matthew thought that maybe they were thinking about Will and Robin.
Matthew could see Herne's antlers not so far away.
Why did he have to die? His thought was despair and anger and fright.
The wheel turns.
But where are we going? What's it turning to?
Towards the same target. To help the helpless, feed the hungry, protect those in danger. To be Herne's Son.
Matthew closed his eyes, just for a second.
He remembered breathless crying as he ran through the forest, Marion's sad face with Robin's sword in her lap. It felt the same. Panic bubbled up inside of him.
He couldn't protect them all. Not like his father had protected Wickham. He couldn't.
You were chosen, and so your friends live.
Herne's words resonated. Thomas had been a carpenter in Rufford. Then he was burned and strung up for speaking out. Matthew and Margaret had killed his captors and cut him down. His voice was never right again. And Paul had been a baron's stablehand, gifted and quiet, till the baron had been killed in the most recent Crusades and the Sheriff took what was left. Paul had run away to Sherwood, where the outlaw stories had come from. Matthew had been the one to find Margaret.
She looked as sad and wild as she had then, refusing to come down from the tree's branches. Herne's tree, where she'd hid after her parents were slaughtered before her by cut-throats. Robert and Marion had taken her in, called her their own, and then she'd chosen their path.
You were chosen.
Herne was like a whisper in his mind now. The antlered figure was gone. Matthew remembered Robert worrying that he wouldn't be able to do all that Robin had done. But he did it. They all did.
If he didn't, then who would?
He could remember life without Herne's Son. Brutal and hard and helpless and so cold. He shivered.
"He's free now," Marion murmured.
Matthew's hand reached for Albion, clenched the hilt, and thought about his father's stories. Of Herne the Hunter, and his Son and all that Edward of Wickham had done for them.
He stayed until Much gave a hoot like an owl and Robert and Marion melted away rapidly. The soldiers would never know they were there. Nasir was already drawing his swords, Margaret was taking up a similar pose with her throwing knives. Thomas grabbed a handful of Matthew's shirt when he didn't move by himself.
"Come on! Would Edward want you dead?"