HEART OF MAN, by David Pilling:
“Such was the murder of Evesham, for battle it was none.”
The Chronicle of Robert of Gloucester, August 1265 AD
I, Roger Godberd, a humble farmer of no account, survived the murder of Evesham by hiding under a corpse in a ditch until the killing was done. When night came, drawing its velvet curtain over the shattered bodies and whimpering wounded, the tattered banners and hacked mail and slashed shields and broken helms, I crept out to find my lord’s remains.
My beloved lord Simon de Montfort, late Earl of Leicester and Lord Protector of Albion. His dreams of a land ruled by law and justice instead of the whims of monarchs lay dead along with him, his eldest son, thirty of his noble supporters and hundreds of his common soldiers. King Henry had triumphed, thanks to the leadership of his hard-nosed son Edward Longshanks, and the old tyranny was restored.
Grey wolves and sharp-beaked hawks prowled the battlefield, drawn by the stench of blood and meat. Lesser men they could devour, but they could not have my lord. I, along with another who loved him too well to abandon him, was drawn by an odour of sanctity to his headless bleeding trunk.
We could not carry away the body without being seen, so my companion did a great and terrible thing. Before my horrified gaze, he delved into my lord’s breast with his dagger and cut out the still-warm heart. His bloody hands wrapped the precious morsel in a cloth, and then we stole away into the woods.
“Let our lord become part of us forever,” he whispered as we knelt in the wet grass.
The man’s name was Hode. He was quiet and self-assured, a former forester, lean as a stick and with long white scars down his flanks where a boar had slashed him.
“What do you mean?” I demanded, the colour draining from my face as I contemplated the ghastly package lying on the grass.
Hode drew his long Irish knife, unfolded the soaking cloth and sawed the heart into two. Then he scooped up one portion and offered it to me.
“Let us practice old magic,” he murmured in his quiet voice. “Long ago, before the Christ came, warriors ate the essential parts of their dead chiefs. Lungs, heart, liver. Thus, so they thought, they would be granted unearthly powers.”
His luminescent green eyes looked into mine, and I was seized by a sudden recklessness. I took the bleeding morsel and stuffed it into my mouth. Demonic voices seemed to sing in my ears as I chewed, dark blood trickling down my beard, and swallowed.
I could feel a burning in my cheeks. The taste of my lord’s blood was thick in my throat and my veins tingled.
* * *
My lord Simon had the mind of a philosopher, the soul of a saint and the heart of a lion. Those of his followers who still lived became as ravening lions, for the months following Evesham saw no peace restored to Albion. Rather, the country was plunged into chaos as brigands and lawless men roamed free, villages and towns went up in flames and the highways became choked with refugees fleeing from one smoke-filled horizon to the next.
I made my way home to the quiet farm nestling among the green acres of Swannington in Leicestershire that I had left when my lord called me to war. There my old life waited for me, wife and children, pasture and livestock and the steady heartbeat of country life.
“This shall hang over the hearth,” said my wife Ella as she took my sword, “and be used for no more warlike purpose than poking the fire.”
“Amen to that,” I said fondly, kissing her, and for a few days believed it.
Peace and happiness were mine for a short time, but my lord’s spirit would not let me rest. I had eaten of his flesh and taken of his essence, and the essence of my lord was a turbulent spirit that must be continually seeking wrongs and righting them. Slumped in my chair in front of the fire at night, I fell to brooding on my own wrongs, both real and half-imagined.
Ella tried to bring me out of the darkness. “What troubles you, love?” she asked one night, wrapped in a shawl against the chill, her eyes tired and red-rimmed from lack of sleep.
“Debts must be repaid,” I murmured, not looking at her, “many debts, in cash and in blood.”
“Give over, and come to bed.”
I shook my head and cast my eyes up at the sword where it rested in iron brackets above the hearth. Firelight glinted dimly off the blade, reflecting an orange glow deep within its steel heart.
“They must be settled,” I said, “one by one, if need be. The church will answer first.”
* * *
I reckoned that the monks of Garendon Abbey owed me money, for I had made cash bonds over to them before the war for the surety of my soul. Legally the money was theirs, but such niceties were far from my mind as I rode through the night with six hired thugs at my back.
The blood was pounding in my veins as the gaunt bulk of the abbey came into view. It lay inside the wild country of Charnwood Forest, dense haunted woodland that I had roamed since boyhood. I knew the Cistercian brothers would be abed, snoring off their wine and whores and in no condition to resist a gang of armed men.
So it proved. The abbey had a stout door, cross-grained and barred and latched on the inside, but the timid sheep within could not endure my bellowed threats.
“Open up, you sodomites!” I roared, hammering on the timber. “Me and my boys have confessions to make!”
I heard the jangle of keys, a mutter of frightened voices inside, and the heavy door scraped open an inch or two. Before the long-nosed monk who had opened it could utter a word I was through, shoving his spindly form aside with my gang at my heels.
Inside the porch stood Abbot Hugo, a pale pudgy man in a stained nightshift. Behind him clustered his flock. Men who lived comfortable well-ordered lives, I thought contemptuously, with regular meals and scheduled prayer in the service of God. But now the wolves had come down into their fold.
“Godberd . . . Godberd, what are you doing here?” demanded the abbot in his shrill voice.
“I have come for my money,” I snarled, “and I will not be denied or put off. Give me the keys to your treasury.”
“What!” His mouth dropped open. “Have you turned robber now? Back to your farm, else you put your soul in peril!”
I drew my sword and strode toward him. I was a big man, swelling with rage, and he was short and had never been so threatened. He gave back, spluttering, and I grabbed a handful of his shift. His monks squealed with indignation and pawed at me, but quickly retreated as my boys cheerfully waded into them with boots and fists.
“The keys, Hugo,” I growled, shaking him like a doll, “and then you will escort us to your treasury. Do as I say or I will roast you over your own fire.”
He stared up at me, terrified, and must have seen the flames dancing in my eyes for he gave a little moan and yelled for his cellarer. He, another whey-faced dolt, came fumbling with the bunch of keys hanging from his belt. I snatched the set that he offered and shouted at my boys to leave off battering the monks.
“Now lead on, fat man,” I hissed into Hugo’s ear, and he waddled away into the depths of the abbey with the tip of my sword pricking his buttocks. I followed, gloriously free of the guilt and fear that should have assailed anyone who so abused a man of God.
Sibilant voices again whispered inside my head as Hugo led us down long corridors and winding stairs. I thought I heard my lord laughing and uttering words of encouragement as we went down, down into the abbey’s heart.
At last we reached a door at the bottom of a flight of steps. Trembling, Hugo unlocked the door to his pride and joy, the treasure house.
My followers pushed past me to gaze upon the riches of the church. They were not disappointed, for the vaulted chamber was crammed with iron-bound chests and leather sacks, heavy with the gold and silver of three counties.
“Take what you want, and be gone,” stammered Hugo. He was perspiring and his little eyes flickered nervously in their sunken sockets, like a couple of flies trapped in a jar.
I was not so easily satisfied. The whispering in my ears was louder now, a buzzing, droning noise, as if a hundred voices were trying to speak to me all at once. The whispering grew ever louder as I walked into the middle of the vault, where I noticed a locked trapdoor set into the floor.
“What’s down there?” I demanded, pointing my sword at the trapdoor. Hugo swallowed and shook his head. I had never seen a man look so frightened, and realized that not all of his fear stemmed from me.
“You’re hiding something,” I snarled. “Show me what you’ve got down there. Or . . .”
I had no need to elaborate. Snuffling like a distressed pig, Hugo reluctantly waddled toward the trapdoor. I stood over him, my sword pressed against his thick neck as he knelt and fumbled with the keys to the padlock.
My men ignored us, being too busy delving into the treasure chests. More money than the poor fools had ever seen in their short brutish lives, and ever would again.
The trapdoor creaked open, Hugo puffing and panting as he heaved on the iron ring-pull, and I peered inside. It was pitch dark, but as the door opened the buzzing in my head became a shrill roar.
“Fetch me a light!” I shouted. One of my men, Alan, left off his plundering and hurried over with a torch. I snatched it from him and thrust it through the hole in the floor.
The flickering light reflected off the yellow sheen of hundreds of thousands of gold coins, a vast sea of glinting metal that dwarfed the treasures kept in the vault.
I glanced up at Hugo, who was crouching against the wall with his hands over his face. For a moment I thought he had lost his wits, but then Alan caught hold of my arm.
“Master, look!” he cried, and his voice shook with terror as he pointed at the cellar. I looked down and the breath caught in my throat.
In a far corner, squatting on a pile of coins and slowly sifting them through its bony dead-white fingers, was a hunched figure wrapped in a tattered red shift. Its oversized head nodded on the end of a skinny arched neck, like a bulb on a stalk, and its eyes were covered by a filthy bandage. The creature’s long spindly limbs were a ghastly pale colour, as though it had been raised in the cellar and never seen sunlight.
The thing must have sensed our presence, for it turned its head upward and grinned in our direction, exposing rows of splintered yellow teeth and rotting purple gums. A hissing noise, like escaping steam, issued from its throat.
“Name of Christ, what is it?” whispered Alan, making the sign of the cross. The rest of my followers had also abandoned their pillaging and stood gazing in mute horror at the contents of the cellar.
“The sin of Greed made flesh,” I replied without thinking. The voices in my head had quietened now, and were whispering information instead of meaningless babble. “The monks of Garendon have devoted their lives to extracting money from the people, rich and poor, and the power of their avarice has caused this devil to come into being.”
My men glanced doubtfully at each other, clearly thinking that their master had taken leave of his senses. Yet the evidence of my words was squatting in the cellar, giggling as it snatched up coins and licked at them with its long grey tongue.
Abbot Hugo found his voice. “You must leave,” he stammered. “Ride away and forget what you saw here. I will close up the cellar — lock it and throw away the key.”
I shook my head, and turned to my men. “Bring more torches,” I ordered them.
Dignity long-forgotten, Hugo shuffled toward me on his knees. “What . . . what are you going to do?”
It gave me a deal of pleasure to kick him in his swollen belly. “We’re going to take as much of your money as we can carry, but we won’t touch the stuff in the cellar. It is polluted. Instead we’ll cleanse your abbey with fire and burn your monster in the bargain.”
The abbot squealed in horror, while the sin he had helped to bring to life opened its jaws and uttered a horrid creaking sound.
It was laughing.
* * *
Garendon Abbey made a fine bonfire, and we rode away from its blackened shell a great deal richer than when we came to it. Our saddlebags bulged with pilfered coin, and even now it makes me smile to remember the monks hitching up their skirts and fleeing as their abbey burned. Of the sin made flesh, I saw and heard nothing more after we flung a dozen burning brands into the cellar and slammed the trapdoor.
In the following weeks I rode up and down the country, using the abbey’s gold to recruit men wherever I found them. Hardy foresters from the High Peak in Derbyshire, yeomen and farm boys from the flat pastures of my own county, robbers and thieves in abundance from the woods and wild places.
My lord’s essence filled me with a demonic energy that lifted my dull mind to new heights, prevented my body from tiring and lent me a new eloquence and capacity for leadership. Men hung on my words as I exhorted them to take up arms and follow my banner. Riches I promised them, good lordship and a means to end the poverty and squalor of their lives.
Then we were given a cause to fight for. Consumed with revenge and spite against the memory of my lord, whom the common people were already worshipping as a saint, old King Henry committed a terrible blunder. He announced that anyone who had supported the late Simon de Montfort would be dispossessed of their lands. Thus my farm, all my chattels and livestock, fell into the grasping hands of the king’s bailiffs and my family taken into custody.
The ‘Disinherited’, as we were known, snatched up weapons to fight for our rights. Beneath the monstrous shadow of Duffield Castle, greatest stronghold in the North, a host of angry dispossessed fighting men gathered. I led my following there, to fight in a war that would avenge my lord and reclaim my property.
Robert Ferrars, the young Earl of Derby, was in command at Duffield. I thought him a great fool who owed his position to his wealth, but my opinion was of little account. His first mistake was to let the king’s army get round him. His second was to abandon his castle and lead us off in hopeless pursuit of the royalists.
The hell of a forced march, trudging through wind and rain in the depths of a miserable May. I rode near the head of our straggling column, trying to make myself inconspicuous among the lords and knights.
The royal army had circled our position and driven a wedge between us and our allies, who were led by the fierce Yorkshire knight Sir John Deyville. He and his wild Northerners had rampaged south and left a trail of fire and destruction behind them, burning every fortified town and castle in their path.
On the second day of our march we struggled across the swollen River Amber, losing several men to the swirling current, and as evening came on our scouts came hurtling back with the news that battle was already joined before the nearby town of Chesterfield.
Desperate to intervene, the earl ordered us forward, and I found myself part of a scattered charge as we urged our tired and dispirited mounts into a gallop through the woods. The mass of our infantry lumbered in our wake, whipped and bullied into life by Derby’s sergeants.
I recall seeing the battle, a swirling mass of fighting men, screaming horses and waving banners that filled the plain before the walled town. And I have vivid memories of the unseen ditch that my horse plunged into as she galloped downhill, breaking her leg and flinging me out of the saddle.
The fall knocked the wind out of me, and as I lay half-stunned the rest of our cavalry surged out of the woods into the fray. Alas, amid the mist and rain and bloody confusion they mistook Deyville’s banners for the enemy’s and charged straight into the rear of his troops. Already hard-pressed, the Yorkshireman’s ranks were smashed all to pieces and the battle disintegrated into a rout.
I struggled to my feet, wincing, just in time to see a horde of fugitives fleeing in my direction. Behind them thundered the king’s knights hacking down the terrified wretches with swords and iron-shod maces. I turned to run, but no man can outrun a galloping horse and within seconds the tide of steel and horseflesh would have washed over me.
The sky darkened and for a moment I thought my lord’s spirit was overhanging the field. There was a sound like the plucking of a thousand harp-strings and a wave of shafts flew over my head. I turned to follow their arc and witnessed the royal cavalry tumble into chaos as grey-feathered arrows sprouted from limbs and visors.
A thin line of archers stood between me and the safety of the woods. They were dressed like foresters in ragged greens and browns, and shot volleys into the air with deadly six-foot longbows. I stumbled and the tallest among them stepped forward to help me. I accepted his hand, gasping my thanks, and looked up to see a familiar face beneath his hood.
“Well met,” said Hode, his leathery face as lean and sardonic as ever, “though it seems I come too late.”
“Bring your archers forward,” I urged him. “Your arrows have stopped them — the tide can yet be turned.”
Hode shook his head. “I have but fifty men at my back with a dozen shafts apiece. What should we do when the missiles run out? No, we are for the forest. Come with us.”
I looked into his eyes and saw little comfort there. But I had nowhere else to go. Reluctantly, I agreed and fled the battlefield with Hode and his men.
* * *
Our army was smashed at Chesterfield, though many escaped and took to the wild places of Albion as outlaws. Sir John Deyville survived and became a king of brigands in the North, riding forth to burn and plunder from his strongholds deep inside the watery isles and impenetrable forests.
For myself, I endured six months of life in the merry greenwood with Hode and his band of cutthroats. Six months of hiding in hedgerows and sleeping in ditches, of huddling for warmth around sputtering fires in forest clearings that stank of piss and unwashed bodies.
At first we prowled Charnwood Forest and then went north into Nottinghamshire, keeping one step ahead of the royal sheriffs and constables. Our numbers swelled as survivors from Chesterfield and disaffected local men came to us, drawn like bees to honey by the reputations that Hode and I had acquired.
Between Hode and myself there was little affection. I didn’t trust him, though I respected his skills as an archer and forester, and he saw me as a rival.
“A gang can only have one leader,” he informed me one morning.
He had caught me alone, sitting with my back to a tree and half-heartedly sharpening my sword. I was thinking with longing of my wife and children, and his voice startled me.
“Agreed,” I replied, “so when are you leaving?”
He smiled his crooked smile and scratched his long jaw. “As a matter of fact I was going to suggest that you do just that.”
This was new. Hode had given me many black looks in the past six months but he had never openly confronted me. I stood up. Tall as he was, I was a head taller and a good deal broader.
“Do you threaten me?” I hissed. I had my sword and he was unarmed save for the long Irish knife at his belt, though I knew how quick he could be with that.
His smile was infuriating. “I don’t make threats, but I take it that you refuse.”
The crooked smile remained, but now there was a bitter twist to it. “We are in the deep forest,” he murmured. “You dare to defy me here, on my own turf?”
The trees in the clearing began to rustle, though there was no wind, and their branches creaked and bent inwards, curling at the ends like talons. Something whipped at the back of my neck, breaking the skin, and I instinctively whirled around and cut blindly with my sword.
I thought one of Hode’s followers had tried to catch me unawares, but the blade sheared through nothing more harmful than a thorny bough.
Wild thoughts of sorcery and black magic entered my head, and I turned back to look at Hode, half-expecting a nimbus of unearthly power to be glowing around his head. I wondered if his eating of our dead lord’s heart might have gained Hode an arcane knowledge — the old magic he claimed to call up through the very act — that I experienced as nothing more than maddening and unintelligible voices in my head.
But he remained just a man, though he studied me with a strange half-knowing expression on his leathery features.
The stamping of his foot had summoned no dire spirits but rather his lieutenant, a mountainous black-bearded mute named John of Hathersage. He was slavishly devoted to his master, and had murdered with his bare hands several outlaws who dared to challenge Hode’s leadership.
The appearance of John, who carried a massive iron-bound stave, convinced me that Hode meant to have me killed there and then. I stood little chance against the two of them, but placed my back against the tree, determined to spill as much of their blood as possible.
Hode smiled at my defiance. “Do you think I would have you done to death, in broad daylight?” he said in a light bantering tone. “Do not take me for such a fool. You are a popular fellow, Godberd, and the men like you. I will not risk splitting the band just for the pleasure of seeing you dead.”
“You are all kindness,” I replied, keeping a wary eye on John, whose piggy eyes were glaring at me with murderous hatred.
“No one has called me that before,” Hode said and laughed. “But if you cross me, expect to find my well of kindness run dry.”
He turned his back on me. I tensed, weighing up the distance between us. If I made a sudden lunge, perhaps . . . but his tame giant was still watching me, fingers curling hungrily round his stave.
Clever, but Hode wasn’t going to provoke me so easily. If I made an attempt on his life, he could justify my killing to his followers.
Instead I sheathed my sword, nodded at John as if we were old friends, and walked away into the forest.
* * *
Meantime the civil war did not abate, despite the best efforts of King Henry and Prince Edward. Every time they stamped on the embers of rebellion others flickered into life. My lord Simon’s surviving sons, his lion cubs, slunk back from exile to pump fresh blood into the faltering heart of resistance, and new rebel garrisons sprang up in strongholds such as Kenilworth Castle and the Isle of Ely.
Deyville was still loose in the North, and as winter thawed into spring he sent a messenger to us in Sherwood. The messenger, a rough Lancashire knight, was discovered by our lookouts and brought before Hode and me.
“Sir John plans to come south again,” said the knight, “with a new army of vengeance at his back. There will be no mistakes this time. We will burn a path to London and toss the king from his throne.”
“What does he require of us?” I asked.
“He wishes you to lure out the royal garrison at Nottingham and destroy them in the forest. That will remove an obstacle on our path to London.”
“Easier said than done,” remarked Hode. “The High Sheriff of Nottingham is no fool and will not be easily lured.”
The knight drew a folded sheet of vellum from his belt. “Read that,” he said, tossing it to me.
I unfolded the vellum. It was a royal proclamation, copies of which would have been sent to every baron and high official in the land. It read:
“To the barons, lords and justiciars of this realm, the king sends greetings. Know that we have provided by my council 1000 marks to be received as a loan from Florentine merchants to the use of Reynold de Grey, High Sheriff of Nottinghamshire, who has pledged before the king to take the malefactors that currently plague the king’s forest of Sherwood. Signed and witnessed before us at Westminster in the fifty-sixth year of our reign.”
I smiled grimly at Hode. “King Henry has put himself in debt to the Italians,” I said, “and will want to see a return very quickly. The sheriff cannot sit inside Nottingham’s walls. We can bait and trap him.”
Hode drew his Irish knife and tested the edge against his thumb. “Then let the sport begin.”
* * *
Hode and I devised a simple plan. I was to lead one half of our gang and carry out raids and robberies on the eastern fringes of Sherwood, while he did the same in the west. The Sheriff would be obliged to lead his garrison out of Nottingham to deal with us and split his forces in the process.
Shooting a man is easier than shooting a deer and weighs even lighter on my conscience. Unlike Hode and his yeomen archers I was no hand with a longbow, but any fool can learn to use the crossbow and it was with one of these that I sighted on a mounted knight as he trotted past my hiding place.
“Shoot!” I cried as I squeezed the trigger. The bolt darted forth to join a score of others aimed at the column of footmen and mounted men-at-arms marching unwarily through the narrow ravine below our hiding place.
My bolt took the knight in the shoulder, piercing his mail and making him cry out in pain. Not a bad shot, but I had no time to congratulate myself as I dropped the crossbow and snatched up an axe.
“Kill them all!” I bellowed, and thought I heard my lord chuckle approvingly as I scrambled down the rocky slope. My men burst from cover and poured down toward the shocked royalists.
I felt alive, gloriously alive, strong and quick as though two hearts pumped in my chest, and I smashed my axe down onto an upraised shield. The iron-bound timber split as though rotten and the weight of the blow broke my opponent’s shield-arm. He fell to one knee, greenish teeth clenched in agony, and I stepped in and drove the axe into his face.
Spattered with his brains, I stood astride the man’s convulsing body and roared my men on. The fight was confusing and vicious, a bloody brawl in the woods, but we had the advantage of surprise and numbers.
It was over quickly. Horns blasted the retreat and those of our enemies lucky enough to be mounted scattered and rode for their lives. The last to flee was my wounded knight, who by his arms I knew to be Sir Roger Leyburn, Constable of Nottingham and a valiant man.
Valiant or not, he left his hapless footmen to be run down and slaughtered. When the killing was over I walked the field and counted twenty dead royalists in exchange for seven of our own, not to mention a rich haul in captured equipment and horses.
I had done my part, ambushing and scattering the troops under Leyburn, and now I waited to hear if Hode had enjoyed any success against those led by the Sheriff.
A messenger arrived two days after my little victory, his horse lathered in sweat and his right eye obscured by a bloody bandage.
“Well, man?” I demanded impatiently as he chugged from a waterskin, “what news? You have obviously seen some action.”
He nodded, wiping his lips. “More than I care to see,” he said, gasping, “we fell upon the Sheriff’s troops as they entered Sherwood, but all went wrong. They had mercenaries with them, Gascon crossbowmen, and we were badly cut up. There was a running battle in the forest, a great slaughter, but some of us managed to hole up in the Northgrange.”
I knew the Northgrange, a grange owned by Rufford Abbey, deep inside Sherwood. It had long since been abandoned by the monks and was little more than a few tumbledown stone barns and outbuildings. I supposed that it might serve as a scratch fortress, though not one that could withstand a determined enemy, and so decided to go to Hode’s rescue.
We marched through a bright spring day, a rare gift after such a hard and lingering winter, but the crumbling pile of the Northgrange cast a long shadow. Wisps of smoke rose from inside the grange and the doors of its ramshackle gatehouse were hacked and splintered.
I dismounted, motioning the men behind me to do the same, and cautiously approached the doors. They creaked open and Hode limped out. He was in a sad way, his arm in a gory sling and clumsy bandages wrapped tight about his leg.
“Thank God you’ve come,” he croaked, his voice reduced to a husky whisper.
“What happened?” I demanded. “Where is the Sheriff? Did you fight him off?”
Hode shook his head, wiping his face on his filthy sleeve, and smiled his crooked smile. Some unseen signal was given and the forest erupted. Knights, men-at-arms, crossbowmen and green-clad archers boiled out of the trees and surrounded my little band. My men instinctively looked to their weapons, but thought better of it when they realized the odds.
Hode stepped back from me, surprisingly quickly for a man with an injured leg, and another man came out of the gloom of the gatehouse. I had no need to study his patrician features and arrogant gaze to recognize Reynold de Grey, High Sheriff of Nottinghamshire.
“You betrayed me,” I said, looking at Hode. I didn’t say it with any anger, just a flat weariness.
Hode smiled, and the Sheriff cleared his throat to speak.
“So he did,” he drawled, “a proper Judas, who bought a royal pardon for his crimes by promising to deliver you into my hands. Order your men to lay down their arms.”
For a moment I heard my lord’s voice urging me to make a fight of it, to make carrion of men, even if they were my own, but for once I didn’t listen.
Heartsick and weary, I threw down my sword and told my men to surrender.
* * *
Last night my lord Simon came to me in a dream. He appeared as a colossus with the scales of justice balanced in his hands, luminous galaxies swirling above his head and Albion stretched out below his feet. Behind him loomed even greater figures: Arthur, Caesar and Constantine and other less distinct shapes whose glory I dared not look upon.
“Be comforted, little man,” said my lord in the calm assured voice I remembered so well, “for the tyranny of kings will die and a new age will dawn, when men put their faith in law and reason.”
“Shall I live to see it?” I cried.
“Your bones and the bones of your children and grandchildren shall long be hidden in the earth before this comes to pass. You and I are but cogs in the wheel that spins through eternity.”
“And you, lord, shall I see you again?”
There was no reply as all flickered out of existence and I woke up alone and shivering in my cell. My voice echoed around the bare stone walls and down the empty corridor beyond, but no one responded. The gaolers had long since written me off as a madman and ignored my cries.
Though they think me mad, I am not denied all the comforts of life. The remnant of the gold I stole from Garendon Abbey has paid for a cell with decent beds, regular meals and writing materials. With nothing else to occupy my days, I have become something of a scholar and write this memoir with a practiced hand. My voices have fallen silent, their ancient fairy magic crushed by the suffocating weight of the iron bars I am kept behind.
In the two years since my capture I have been shunted about between prisons at Chester, Hereford and Newgate. They will not hang me, for the old king, mindful of his soul’s salvation, is wary of sending any more men to their deaths.
The Disinherited are scattered to the four winds. Some fought to the death and their bodies rot on forgotten battlefields or swing on gibbets. Others, like me, were caught or laid down their arms and thrown into prison.
Of us all, only Hode remains free. As soon as I was safely incarcerated he gleefully tore up his pardon and returned to the forest. From there he plunders the rich and scatters largesse among the poor. It has pleased him to adopt the name Robyn, after Brown Robyn, the ancient wood sprite.
I remember thinking that my lord had the heart of a lion, and that by consuming a portion of his heart I would acquire the traits of that proud beast. Perhaps I should have been content with the heart of a man.
* * *
“And then arose the famous murderer Robyn Hode, along with Little John and their companions, whom the foolish multitude celebrate in ballad and song.”
Walter Bower, The Scotichronicon, 1266-72 AD
David Pilling is 31-years-old and currently works in the Library and Archive at the Tate Gallery in London. Previous jobs included stints at The Royal Opera House and The School of Oriental and African Studies. He has been writing fiction and non-fiction on a freelance basis for the past three years, and many of his non-fictional articles have appeared in various regional and national UK publications. David’s fiction is inspired by his love of historical and science fiction and authors such as George McDonald Fraser, George R.R.Martin and Bernard Cornwell.