The ambush hadn't exactly gone wrong, but the guards had fought with more enthusiasm than was usual and Will had not been surprised when Robin gave the signal for retreat. The first autumn storm had already been and gone. The last thing any of them needed was someone injured in Sherwood in the wind and the rain. There would be other merchants and other opportunities. The retreat was as orderly as anything the outlaws ever did, but that still meant that they had become separated.
Will could hear pursuit behind him, thrashing around in the undergrowth. He paused behind a clump of trees that grew close together and risked a look. He couldn't see anyone, and the guards had been wearing a bright shade of red that would be very visible if anyone was close. Will was pretty certain that if he moved quietly, the green of his clothing would render him invisible. He took his bearings. Off the forest trails it was often difficult to figure out where you were, but he knew he was in the stretch of forest between the Lichfield Road and one of the tributaries of the Trent that flowed through the forest. If he headed west he'd meet the river and then be able to follow it downstream until he hit one of the forest trails used by the outlaws.
He started to move. The sounds of pursuit faded as the guard gave up the game as both dangerous and fruitless and went back to his charges. Will forced his way through a couple of bushes and then slipped down a shallow slope that ended at the river. Just here it was more like a large stream and he'd stumbled into a clearing where it widened out into a shadowed pool. Although the leaves on the trees were tinged with brown, few had yet fallen and they provided deep shade with only the odd ray of Autumn sunshine breaking through to illuminate the water. Will knelt at the edge of the pool to have a drink and dunk his head, clearing away some of the sweat from his run.
When he looked up there was a woman standing in the water in front of him. No, he realised, she wasn't standing in the water she was formed out of the water. Long pale coloured hair hung loose about her shoulders, sparkling in one of the lone rays of sunshine, merging into the water at her waist. His heart quickened and he thought he should back away, but instead he found himself sliding into the water. She held out her arms, whispering something to him and he moved forwards. Her arms pulled him into an embrace.
Suddenly someone grabbed him from behind. Will thrashed to fight them off and then, all of a sudden the cold of the water hit him like a blow and he gasped. Water filled his mouth and he started to panic. The arms that were holding him dragged him upwards and he broke the surface of the pool spluttering up water and pond weed.
"Hurry!" It was Marion's voice.
Will opened his eyes. Robin was pulling him through the water, dark hair plastered flat to his head. When Will twisted he could see Marion standing knee deep at the edge of the pool holding her arms out for him. Will reached forward and grabbed her hand and let her pull him out.
Will collapsed on the bank, still gasping and choking up water.
"What did you think you were doing?" Robin demanded angrily.
"There was a girl!"
Will coughed again and tried to pull his thoughts together. "Yeah, a girl. There was a girl in the pool. I saw her. She... she... I think she must have bewitched me. She looked like a spirt or something. I think she was made out of water."
"You were just floating face down when we got here," Marion said.
"I can't remember. I think I had to go to her."
Will sat up. The pool lay dark and still in the dappled sunlight. It looked entirely innocent.
"I didn't dream it," he said defensively.
"No, I don't think you did." Robin gazed thoughtfully at the pool.
"Did you have a warning from Herne?"
"No, but I have a feeling, like there's a presence here."
Marion stood up. She began to ring out the bottom of her skirt, all the while glancing around the clearing.
"The earth has been disturbed here," she said thoughtfully moving a little to one side.
Will watched as Robin walked over to her. Then he summoned up the energy to get up off the ground and go to see what they were looking at. It was a low bare mound of earth, roughly the size of a person. Wilted late summer flowers rested on it.
"Someone was buried here," Marion said.
Will looked back at the pool. "Do you think it has anything to do with the spirit in the water?"
"I don't know. But someone walks downstream to this point regularly." Robin was looking at the ground.
"You're not seriously going to follow the trail are you? We're both soaking wet!" Will objected.
"We'll take a quick look. If we don't find anything we'll head back to camp to dry off."
The three of them began to walk through the ancient forest, up what did indeed turn out to be a small path worn along the side of the stream. They had only gone a short way when Will spotted a small hut in among the trees. There weren't many people who chose to live in the forest and fewer who remained in one place long enough to build a dwelling, but it wasn't unheard of. This hut had walls made from mud crudely plastered over a framework of wood and a roof that had once been thatched but was now a riot of ivy and moss. Smoke wreathed out of a hole, betraying the fact that there was someone home.
Robin knocked on the rough wooden door. For a moment Will thought nothing would happen but then it opened a crack and an elderly woman looked out at them. She had a tall frame and handsome features and Will guessed she might have been a great beauty in her youth. Even now she looked like someone to be reckoned with.
"Who are you?" she asked.
"Passers-by, we were wondering if we could borrow your fire to dry off?" Robin said.
She eyed them suspiciously but then grudgingly held the door open.
"I don't suppose as I can do much to stop you, whatever you want," she said.
"Thank you. We mean you no harm," Marion told her.
Will kept his peace. Robin was generally better with people than he was, so Will was prepared to let him attempt to discover the whys and wherefores of what was happening in his own way, at least for a while. Still that didn't mean he was going to play nice until he knew who this woman was and what was going on.
The inside of the hut was dark but warm. Smoke filled the air before finding its way out through the hole in the centre of the roof. Will shuffled gratefully close to the fire. His clothes began to steam.
"All three of you carrying bows in the forest and one of you a woman. I reckon you're Robin i'the Hood," said the woman.
"You have the advantage of us then. Who are you?" Robin said pleasantly.
"Aethelfrith of Beeston or I was a time ago. Now I'm just Mother Aethel to most people as know me."
Robin nodded. "We passed a grave back down the path."
Aethelfrith sucked in a breath of air noisily. "Happen as you did. People dig graves all over, these days."
"But it was someone close to you I think. It had been visited not so long ago."
Aethelfrith made a despairing gesture and sat down on a chair. "I suppose there's no real reason to hide the fact, not from Herne's son. It was my daughter. She died not a month gone by."
"How did she die?" Marion asked.
"Threw herself in the stream if you must know. That's why the priest wouldn't have her in the churchyard after I'd taken so much care that she know nothing of the old ways. I brought her up so she'd fit in and at the end of it all she still wasn't good enough for them." Aethelfrith spat on the floor. "It was the Normans drove her to it. If it weren't for them she'd still be alive and innocent."
There was a catch in her voice and an undercurrent of hatred that Will could identify with.
"What did the Normans do?" he asked.
"What do you think? Some fancy soldier fills her head with lies, gets her with child and then abandons her. Much will he suffer for it."
"What do you mean, suffer for it?" Marion asked.
Aethelfrith looked up and her expression was closed and wary. "I may have not have told my sweet Ann of the old ways, but they've not been forgotten. Her spirit isn't at rest you know, not buried unwanted in the forest like she is and a restless spirit may do anything if it has some power."
"Where would it get power from?" Marion asked.
Aethelfrith muttered quietly to herself and her hands writhed around each other in her lap. Will felt a frightened dread creep over him.
"You're a witch!" he said.
"Will," Robin said with a note of warning in his voice.
"Well she is. She's a witch and she's raised up her daughter's spirit to trap men in that pool down there. That's what happened to me and I'm no Norman and had nothing to do with her daughter's death."
"You saw her?" Aethelfrith rose to her feet with a gleam of excitement in her eyes.
"Yeah, I saw her. Why do you think I'm soaking wet?"
"You need to stop giving her power," Robin said gently, pushing Will back.
"Do I now?"
"She will kill innocents."
"Every man is guilty of something."
There was a moment as Aethelfrith and Robin glared at each other and then Robin turned away and looked at Will and Marion.
"We'll be going now. Thanks for your hospitality mother."
"What!" Will started to object.
"Not now Will," Robin said.
Marion caught his eye and shook her head slightly. Will simmered but allowed himself to be lead out of the cottage.
Nasir sat slightly apart from the other outlaws watching them. They had lit a fire deep in the woods and the wet clothes were draped over large logs drying out. The group were debating what to do about the spirit in the pool and the witch nearby.
"We could just avoid the spot," Marion said.
Robin shook his head. "People may not go that way often, but there is a path by the stream, so it is used. Besides, one of us could need to escape that way sometime in the future, like Will did. I don't want anyone trapped between Gisburne's men and that creature."
"So we think the woman in the cottage has managed to gift the restless spirit of her daughter with the power to gain a form and enchant men into the water," Tuck said.
"I think so," Robin agreed.
"Could Herne help?" Marion asked.
"I don't know. He hasn't called to me, though that doesn't necessarily mean anything."
John shook his head. "I don't like it. I don't want to tangle with that sort of magic."
"Me neither," said Much.
"The spirit is restless because it was denied a proper burial. Tuck, do you think it might rest easy if you performed the service?" Marion asked.
"I don't know, little flower. If it was a suicide, that's a mortal sin. They can't be buried in consecrated ground."
"Which does get over-looked in many circumstances," Marion said.
"Aye, that's true enough and I have sympathy for the poor child. But it would be a lot of work to dig up the body and move it to a churchyard. We'd also have to work out how to do it without alerting anyone who might interfere."
"Which may include the girl's mother," Robin said.
"Can you bless the grave, would that work?" Marion asked.
"I don't know. This isn't the sort of thing the Church teaches about."
"Or.. we could find the Norman who got her pregnant and bring him to the pool," Will said.
Will had been pacing, restless and silent since he got back to camp. Nasir had been able tell he was grappling with the situation, some direct action to take. Given Will's history, the sadness inside, his likely conclusion had been obvious. Nasir had wondered what would happen when he reached it.
"Maybe once she's got her revenge she'll be satisfied," Will said.
"Maybe, but I don't hold out much hope. Not after she went for you. We have no way of finding him without the witch's help either," Robin said.
"Bet she'd give it!"
"Enough, Will. We'll try Marion's way first. If that doesn't work we can try yours."
The outlaws joined the stream where it crossed one of the main the forest paths. Robin and John took the lead as they headed upstream. Marion hung back with Tuck who was clutching a chalice of holy water that had been hastily liberated from a nearby church. As they walked, she spotted movement up ahead. It was a flash of brightly coloured clothing that might have been livery of some kind. Straw blonde hair fluttered in the breeze. Robin and John jogged up the path as a man became visible through the trees. They intercepted him a few yards below the pool and its ghost.
"Who are you?" John asked.
Taking in his livery, Marion guessed him to be a servant in the De Coligny family that held lands nearby. He was possibly a minor household knight or possibly one of the senior servants. He had a classically handsome face and a slightly vacant expression.
"What?" he said vaguely.
Robin gave his shoulder a shake. "Who are you and what are you doing so deep into Sherwood?"
The man blinked a moment and stared around at the outlaws in confusion. "I'm Hugh Montgomery. I had a dream."
"A dream?" Robin asked.
"Yes, a dream, of Ann. She was calling to me."
"Ann was the daughter's name," Marion said, thinking of the ghost in the pool up the path.
Will grabbed hold of Hugh's tunic. "Were you the man who got her with child?" he demanded roughly.
"She's only a Saxon," Hugh said, still sounding perplexed.
Will sniffed and threw him to the ground. "Only a Saxon! I say we just let him go on up the path alone. See if that solves the problem."
Hugh climbed to his feet. He seemed dazed and uncertain. He smiled at them all as if nothing had happened. "Good day to you," he said and continued on his way.
"Enchanted," Tuck said with certainty.
"We can't just let him get drowned," Marion protested.
"Why not?" Will demanded.
"It's one thing to face a Norman in a fair fight. It's another to just let him walk to his death," Robin said.
"Why? I don't get it. I really don't. They're our enemies. I don't suppose he'd lift a hand to help us if we were in trouble. Just let him go!" Will said.
"No, we need to at least attempt to rescue him."
Hugh was already vanishing into the distance.
"We need to hurry," Marion said.
The outlaws hurried up the path, Will straggling along in the rear muttering angrily to himself.
When they reached the pool, Hugh was standing at the edge, the water washing at the soles of his shoes.
"Tuck, get started with the blessing," Robin instructed. He took hold of Hugh's arm.
Tuck stood at the head of the makeshift grave and began to sing a blessing in Latin. Marion stood next to him holding the chalice of holy water to allow him to sprinkle it on the grave, but she watched events at the pool's edge with anxiety. Hugh had thrown off Robin's hand and was now walking into the water. Will hung back looking rebellious. The other outlaws gathered about him. John and Much were visibly nervous while Nasir, as usual, concealed any anxiety beneath an air of calm and focused interest. Robin began to climb down into the water after Hugh. Marion, who could read his movements easily, spotted the moment when his intent wavered away from Hugh to something else in the water.
"She's enchanting Robin too!" she cried out to the others.
Robin and Hugh were now both waist deep in the water. Nasir, who could swim, Marion recalled, threw off his swords and began to run towards the pool.
"Much, come here! Hold the chalice for Tuck," Marion cried, thinking that they might need a woman to pull people from the water.
With a look of relief on his face, Much hurried over. Tuck caught her eye but carried on with his work moving from a blessing to the last rites, even though it was theoretically far too late for those. Marion rushed to the water's edge. Will was still hanging back, but Nasir had dived into the pool and was swimming out towards Robin and Hugh. John had waded in up to his knees and was prodding the ground in front of him with his staff. Marion realised he had his eyes tight shut, no doubt in the hopes that would protect him from the water spirit. Marion waded in, rapidly overtaking John as Hugh's head vanished beneath the water. She reached forward and managed to catch hold of the Norman's surcoat. She pulled but it was as if something was holding him down. She grabbed John's hands and guided them to the tunic.
"Pull on that!" she ordered and was pleased to see John, eyes still tightly shut grab hold of Hugh and begin to heave.
Marion waded further forward. Just as she reached him, Robin vanished under the water. Nasir dived. Marion closed her eyes and ducked. She felt out through the weeds for some sign of her husband. After a desperate moment she thought she had caught hold of something leather but then her lungs threatened to burst open and she had to stand up and gasp in the air. The leather slipped from her grasp.
John was pulling Hugh up on the shore. Will, it seemed, had got over his anger at least sufficiently to help the large man drag his burden across the muddy grass. Something curled around Marion's ankle and pulled sharply. She found herself dragged down into the cold depths. Her hand went to the dagger at her belt and she felt downwards. Some kind of plant was wrapped around her foot. She slashed at it with her dagger and felt it release its hold. Someone grabbed her arms and pulled her upwards until she was above water again. It was Nasir.
"Robin!" she called desperately.
"He's here, but I can't lift him alone," Nasir said.
Marion nodded her understanding and took a deep breath. Nasir clasped her hand and she let him pull her down into the water. Moments later she felt the soft sensation of floating hair. She felt down Robin's head to his shoulder and grasped hold and then began to struggle upright. With agonising slowness he began to move. Marion dug her heels into the mud at the bottom of the pool and fought to straighten her back. A moment later her head was above water. Nasir was next to her and together they managed to pull Robin to the surface. Marion struggled as her dress impeded her movements but slowly the three of them began to move towards the shore, Robin hanging like a dead weight between Marion and Nasir. Then suddenly Robin fell against her, almost knocking her over in the water. To her horror, Marion saw that Nasir had let go of Robin and was now swimming out into the centre of the pool.
"Nasir!" she gasped.
"Give Robin to me! You go after Nasir!" Will said.
He was standing near her, up to his waist in the water.
"What if she enchants you again?"
"Then John can whack me with his stick. But I don't think she can control too many of us at once. Go!"
Will slipped his arms around Robin and began to move away. Marion struggled forwards again, trying to pull through the water with her hands and wishing she could swim the way Nasir could. He was lying face down in the centre of the pool, but at least he hadn't vanished underwater. Marion managed to grab hold of his foot and pull him towards her, rolling him onto his back. At that moment Tuck's incantation stopped. There was a moment of silence and then Nasir suddenly shuddered and started thrashing. Marion caught hold of him as his head came up and he began to splutter and suck in deep gasps of air.
"It's worked, has it? Has it worked?" Much asked.
"You know lad, I do believe it has."
Marion started laughing helplessly as she struggled towards the shore, where strong arms waited to pull her out onto dry land.
Hugh was sitting up and looking around him with a startled and anxious expression.
"Where am I? What is going on?"
"You are bloody lucky. If I had my way, you'd be deep down under the water of that pool and good riddance," Will told him.
"You certainly did badly by that poor girl," Tuck said. He stood over Hugh with a serious expression and pulled him, none to gently, to his feet. "You and I are going to have a discussion about penance."
Hugh gulped. Marion knew well what it was like to be told off by Friar Tuck when he chose to invoke the authority of the Church. Tuck pushed the man down the path in front of him.
"The rest of you had better get back to camp and get dry," he said.
Later that evening, they sat round the fire, drinking an excellent wine that Tuck had somehow exacted from Hugh as part of his penance. Even Will was moved to laugh as Tuck described putting the fear of God, not to mention witcherly mothers, into the hapless Norman.
"Should we do anything about the mother?" John asked. "I don't like to think of a witch in the forest."
Robin shook his head. "She was grieving and I've never heard any harm of her before. Leave her be. She's one of Herne's children."
Marion leaned her head against his shoulder. She felt bone tired after her exertions at the pool and it gave her a pleasant sense of sleepy comfort now she was sitting in dry clothes before the warmth of the fire.
"It's just as well we had a woman with us," John said, nodding at her. "That Ann clearly had a grudge against all men."
Robin squeezed Marion's hand. "It's always just as well Marion is with us."
"It's just as well we were all there," Marion said quietly. Together we.