High in the branches of the Great Oak, the hooded man silently draws an arrow from the quiver strapped across his back and notches it to the string of his bow. Hours have passed since he climbed into the arms of the tree before daybreak and, were it not for the thick blanket of fog that swirls around the trees, the sun would be shining down from high in the sky. But a thick covering of mist is exactly what the hooded man wants as he waits, silently, patiently, high on his perch.
He slowly brings the bow level with his face. In other trees around the clearing, four other men – John, Alan, Much and Will - are doing exactly the same. For they have heard hooves on the forest track, have caught the sound of cartwheels slowly lumbering and of voices, as the approaching party call out to each other. They emerge from the white mist like ghostly figures. The hooded man closes one eye, pulls back on the bowstring and stares along the strong, straight shaft of the arrow.
He waits, barely breathing, remembering, a day like this, same weather, same place in this forest. It was two, perhaps three years ago, when it all began, when the people started their fight back against injustice.
That day had found this same man, Robert of Locksley, strolling along the edge of the woodland. He was not long back from foreign lands, fighting the crusades with the blessed King Richard, and he needed to take stock of his lands, the Outwoods.
True, they were not really his lands, for he had to pay rent to the Abbey of St Mary who had ownership of these fertile pastures, after being granted them in the will of the last Lord of the Manor.
For generations Locksley’s family (like so many others) had paid their rent to the Lord and received good service in return.
Then the abbey took over the lands and everything changed. Rents increased, repairs were not done, and those who could not keep up the new payments were cast from their homes, usually in a violent manner. Whether they were young or old, it did not matter.
The Abbot and his friends in Nottingham Castle thought nothing of dragging a young mother and her terrified children from their home; stealing their possessions and then burning it to the ground.
Robert had already had dealings with the Abbot over these matters. Witnessing the eviction of a young couple and their two small children, he was so enraged that he had run straight to confront the Abbot.
“You call yourself a man of God,” he had yelled at the portly priest, “and yet you treat the poor no better than would the devil himself. Your men wreak misery throughout these lands in your name and that of your partner in despair, the Sheriff of Nottingham."
As he had trudged along the forest edge, making a mental note of where walls needed repairing, he saw a movement in the forest and stopped behind a large ash tree to watch. There was a shabbily-clothed man, bow in hand, string pulled taut with an arrow ready to fly. Robin’s eye followed the line of the shot and could see it pointed at a large red deer, one of the Abbot’s own animals.
Robin was about to shout a warning to the man, when there was a loud twang as the bowstring snapped back into place, and the animal fell onto its side, an arrow protruding from its neck.
The man rushed out from the cover of the trees, dropping his weapons as he went.
If the Abbot’s wardens were patrolling the forest and they had heard the deer fall, they would seize him and, before the end of the day, he would be swinging from a noose in the square outside the castle. As he ran, the man turned to look toward the forest edge and Locksley recognised him.
“Will, Will Scarlet, stop, for the Lord’s sake, stop,” he spoke in as loud a whisper as he dare. The man paused for a moment. “If they catch you they’ll string you up before that deer is cold.”
“Locksley … keep out of this. I hear what you say but when my children face death from hunger and they threaten to take my home from me, like so many others, what would you have me do?”
There was a desperate look in the man’s eyes, a look of hunger, a look of suffering, of complete despair. He knew the danger he was in but he had no choice.
“This is how we have to live now. Things have changed while you’ve been away. If we want to put food in our children’s mouths this is the only way we can do it. Either we live in fear of the Abbot’s men or in fear of our children dying before they have barely lived.”
He stared at Robert for another moment then his eyes shifted back to the woodland clearing. “That deer is mine now,” he said and continued his run towards the fallen animal.
From the shelter of the tree behind which he stood, Locksley saw three wardens appear out of the shadows not far behind the running man. They were so silent on their feet that Will had no idea they were closing on him.
In the time it took the three men to halve the distance between themselves and the poacher, Robert had moved to where he had seen Will drop his bow. He had already taken the decision which would shape the rest of his life.
He knew what would happen to this man if caught and he knew what would happen to the children too, if their father ended the day on the end of a rope gasping for breath.
In the time it took him to make the 10 strides to the bow he knew what he must do.
In a flash he had the bow in his hand, an arrow notched to the bowstring and two arrows ready on the ground next to him. He looked up to find that two of the men had seized Will by the arms and were holding him as he struggled to break free.
Robert took aim at the man on the left, pulled back the string and let go. The arrow flew straight, silent and true, thudding into the back of the man.
By the time the other wardens realised what was happening, the second arrow was already winging its way towards the man on the right and, less than three seconds after the first man fell, the second was clutching at his neck as an arrow pierced his body just below the shoulder.
But the third man was behind Will and Robert did not dare to shoot at him.
“Will, get down, get down, let me see him,” shouted Robert. But the third man was already scampering away through the trees to safety and the office of the Abbot.
By the time Robert joined Will, the other two wardens had breathed their last. Will seemed rooted to the ground with fear, unable to move or speak.
“Will, come on, we have to get away from here! There are more of them in this forest for sure. Take out your knife, cut from the animal what you can carry and let’s be gone.”
Their luck was in as they moved silently towards Will’s home. Once they felt they were on safer ground they began to talk.
“You are a fool to risk your life alone like this Will Scarlet, Robert began.
"If you had been caught today.."
“So what do we do then? You have no idea. Your land is safe, you are a freeman and respected for your brave deeds in the King’s army. Who am I? Nobody. Nothing. They think nowt of me and hundreds like me. They feed their hounds better and care more for horses than they do their tenants and servants. They use the law of the land against us however they wish and ignore it whenever it don’t suit them.”
They walked on in silence, then Robert spoke. “You're wrong Will Scarlet. I have just thrown away all I had by saving you from the Sheriff’s rope. The alarm has been raised by now and before sunset they'll be looking for me … and for you too.”
Robert stopped by the edge of the wood at the point where the path to his home broke off from the main track. He stood still, gazing into the distance.
“If they treat the law with such little respect and treat those who try to live by the law with so little care, then perhaps it’s time for lesser folk to do likewise. Bad laws are worse than no laws at all. It’s time we took back what belongs to us, what is rightfully ours.”
Locksley turned his eyes away from the path home, looked along the other track and began to walk.
“I believe my path lies in this direction now,” he said firmly. “Are you with me Will? Can you bring others to our cause?
We don’t have to live in the dirt or under the boot of those who would do us harm. We are many, they are few.
We have cunning, guile, knowledge of this land and these woods.
And these woods can support us. They are rich with food, enough for many to live on and, when times become harder, there will be some who pass by that have more than they need.”
Robert paused to see what his companion had to say but, when there was no response, he continued, his enthusiasm growing with every stride along the path.
“We will never take more than we need to live, not like those who rule us. Fairness and equality will be our watchwords not greed and injustice. We will help our people find a new way to live.
They'll come after us but we will use the woodlands to shelter us, to hide us, to protect us as well as any armour. If they want us, then they will have to brave the forest to find us. And we will be waiting.”
And Robert of Locksley was true to his word.
And that is why this day finds him perched in a tree, waiting with others, as officials from Nottingham make their way through the woods with caskets filled with the taxes they have taken from the poor people of the county.
On one side of the heavy cart sits a soldier, his head lolling, almost asleep.
As they rumble slowly into the clearing, Robert prepares an arrow for a warning shot, aimed just wide enough of the soldier to let him know where the next one might land.
He pulls back the string as far as his bow will allow him, looks along the length of the arrow, chooses a spot a few inches to the left of the guard and holds his breath, waiting, waiting, waiting.
Suddenly the arrow flies straight, silent and true.
As it thuds into its target, the startled guard looks up at the trees and sees a hooded man, bow in hand, an arrow loaded with its tip pointing straight at his head.