The Monk of St Mary’s
Sherwood, Nottinghamshire; 1st of June 1308
Shafts of hazel light gently pierced the dense overhead canopy, splitting through the bright green leaves and dark brown branch sporadically, which lit the foliage of the forest floor at lengthy intervals, creating majestic rays that resembled the very fingers of god poking through into the greenwood.
These glowing pools of light were warm in contrast to the diminishing day, trapped just for a moment in Sherwood, before they too faded and merged together with twilight.
For a short time at dusk, brambles and fern that littered the forest floor flickered with elegant radiance, the sandy heath gently moved to the sounds of the warm breeze, the summer air caressed the leaves and let them dance; whirling between oak and birch, gliding around oak and hawthorn and rustling the bracken filled glades.
It was beautiful and quiet. The only noise came from redstart or sparrow flipping from tree to tree, a tawny owl waking early or the rare and distant howl of some wild dog deeper in the forest.
It was beautiful and quiet. It was dangerous. As it was dangerous for anyone walking the forest alone, it was far more dangerous for a monk. They were the targets for society’s dregs, the outlaws and bandits, criminals of the forest. Monks hardly ever carried weapons and almost always carried money, they travelled in small groups or alone and seldom had chaperones or escorts. They were easy pickings.
One such monk was skulking through Sherwood now, alone and unnerved by the grim stories his brethren brought out of the forest. This monk, Albert of the Benedictine order was not so easily deterred, not this close to Nottingham town, his home; not this close to St Mary’s, his church. Albert waded onto the edge of the bandit’s territory in the forest but indeed, he never did venture too far into Sherwood despite how brave he believed himself to be. He was undeterred but not reckless.
His robe was long and black and bound at the waist by a rope, a baggy hood covered his head shrouding his face in shadow and mischievous eyes leered shadily. A hidden pocket inside his clothing concealed a blunt knife, for if any such bandit tried to rob him this man of god was not shy to stick them and let them bleed; an eye for an eye as he did often quote.
He relished walking under the June canopy of Sherwood, as the light of day faded and the amber light lingered briefly to show the subtle golden glimmers of summer, in their secret beauty before darkness slowly descended. It all came with a clear, pure and relaxing air, which delighted Albert, it was a good night, a perfect night, Albert rubbed his hands with glee.
For this monks devotion to the divine was somewhat lacking compared to his devotion to the things he fancied, some of which he could arrange within Sherwood, if done properly and more importantly discreetly. There was a great silver birch ahead of him, about it scattered lesser birch and hawthorn, it was well known in the greenwood on the borders of Nottingham town; close enough to find without much difficulty, deep enough so it was likely he wouldn’t be disturbed. Ellis the pageboy was a clever young lad, he would already be there waiting.
Albert rejoiced in himself, he had been having a good week, making over one hundred pounds during his various daily collections at the town, and at the weekly market he had made an extra fifty pounds in just a single afternoon. Albert had taken a healthy slice before the money found its way back to St Mary’s, he was good with calculations and even better at deceit, keeping the extra income in a pouch tied to his thigh.
All the hard work had wound the monk up into a fluster and he needed release, this calming walk through the forest had been planned all day, it was close now and Albert’s stomach knotted in anticipation, his libido stirring wildly.
In front now, a mossy mound rose up from the river of ferns and curved off to Albert’s left, to his right side the ground dipped into a shrubby ditch, which curled away behind the mound, within the ditch beyond the mound a wall of young hawthorn guarded the great silver birch within a secretive little den. The old tree stood out, tall, at least twenty five meters and stooped with gnarled and thick branches, twisting up and down, its trunk slender and white with black fissures running down its pale bark. The monk smiled to himself and strode on gleefully, towards the apex of his day, not rushing but rather relishing the gentle breeze that caressed his face, and the anticipating thoughts of what he would do to the pageboy.
Then Albert stopped suddenly. His pulse leapt uncontrollably, the exciting rush and expectant thrill growing in his heart drained in an instant, his bare feet clawed into the soft earth beneath, his entire body shuddered violently with a forceful fear. Atop the mossy mound of earth, a giant figure of a man had appeared with a quickness that had deceived Albert’s eye, his lewd mind had been on other things and now it had been torn back. This figure was looming, frightening and menacing; tall and shrouded and ominous.
Albert felt exposed. Not just his body but his mind too. This figure blocking his path was big and broad, towering at least seven foot surely and had seemingly materialised out of the forest itself. All manner of thoughts now passed through the monks mind, all at once and jammed together making Albert flush; he thought all the pleasurable thoughts swimming around inside his head were on display for this gigantic stranger to view. His heart thumped against his chest, blood pumped around his body ferociously, his mind raced. He had a thought to flee but his feet simply refused to move, they were securely rooted to the earth with a binding fear; he strained his eyes but twilight had passed plunging the forest into a dark blue shroud, against the darkening greenwood Albert could not make out his assailants features, all he could discern was that he was tall and hooded.
No more than a moment had passed when Albert’s heart leapt again, when the figures powerful voice broke out, it sounded Scottish, deep and commanding but without anger or menace, instead a hint of friendship and welcome;
“How goes the night fella?” the voice travelled well in the close air of the forest, Albert swallowed and heard his throat click, it was as loud as thunder to the monks ears, “the summer air is good to breathe under the roof of the shire forest, makes for pleasant walking do yer not say so?”
Albert nodded his head benignly, unknowing if this giant of a man had even seen him do so. The monk nervously fingered his robes secret layers, touching the hidden knife, attempting to ease his anxiety, which did little to help.
Now Albert’s heart leapt a third time with a jarring jolt, which almost floored him; as this first man had appeared seemingly out of thin air, there came a second, this one much closer. He rose up out of the fern littered ditch, so quick that Albert momentarily thought he had sprouted out of the very earth beneath his feet, the man crashed through the brambles and fern and darted towards Albert, keeping low to the ground, skirting around the monk and stopping at his side. How long he had been laying down there, amongst the thickets, Albert could not know, his poor heart now thudded like a thousand mounted knights charging into battle, his incredulous face stared dauntingly into this new comers eyes, this one he could see quite well, which offered little reassurance; much shorter than the giant who had materialised over on the mound he seemed a little more keen, a fierce passion burnt in his eyes exemplified by pale skin, his face was fair and proud to match, his head crowned with thick scraggy hair coloured in a deep red. He wore a green cloak over a leather cuirass, though the hood was down on this one, on his belt a short sword was sheathed on his left hip, a long dagger tucked in on the right.
“Forgive my friend yonder” he said cracking a smile and seemingly genuinely pleased to happen upon the monk; “he often forgets how brutish he sounds, but don’t be afraid to answer him back, he has nothing but respect for good men of the cloth and I’m sure he will treat you with kindness, while your company he keeps”. Albert doubted that, the shock on his face was frozen there and an ice cold chill shot up his spine, as the big man approached, dismounting the mossy mound in a single stride and taking long wide steps, proceeding towards the monk, crushing the foliage of the forest floor as he came.
As he closed in, the man with red hair next to Albert touched his shoulder, which made the monk flinch uncontrollably, and pointed down towards the ditch from where he had emerged, “I must apologies for them also; Gilbert is keen to keep them sharp”.
Albert looked to where the man was pointing, for a moment nothing, then his heart deflated altogether when he saw, amongst the dark shapes of the forest figures shifting, men dressed in hoods, several of them hiding under the foliage, all clad in dark green, all armed with longbow and shaft, all trained in Albert’s direction. Then he saw, standing adjacently to their left another man, hooded also, leaning visibly out of the ditch and leaning one arm against his bent knee, the other seemingly posed to give an order to fire. Albert’s face went white, it resembled a small moon lurking through the forest; had these men been here before? Beads of sweat formed on his brow as he began to curse himself for being caught like this. How could I have been so careless!?
“Stand down” the big man commanded, making Albert’s heart kick again, the men lining the ditch lowered their weapons at once. He stood next to the redhead and directly faced Albert, towering above him, his high head hooded with a green cloak that hung off his back to his heels, tied over his shoulder the hilt of a great sword could be seen, the long wide blade almost as big as the man who wielded it. His face was shrouded but his heavy set jaw struck out menacingly, his dark beard short, scruffy and peppered with grey. “At this late hour a man of god should not walk in such a forest alone, bandits roam, and they would soon render a holy man into death and spoil him of his goods”.
“I carry nothing of worth!” snapped Albert, much more fiercely than he had actually intended, though the big man did not recoil.
“Nevertheless” he continued, ignoring the monks little outburst, “they may spoil your face for a mock and a laugh, if they find nothing of value. My friend is in the forest, just a little further ahead, taking a rest and eating a small meal, I shall offer my invitation to you, for you to come and dine with him. He is a very pious man, being amongst the faithful yourself I’m sure you will share his devotion to the faith, and make a fine guest for him”.
Albert stepped back once, feeling numerous eyes crawling all over him, like the bugs under the forests carpet. A seconds silence bore the weight of a mountain upon Albert’s mind, they were impatiently awaiting an answer. He had a fleeting thought of running, which went just as swiftly as it came, when he realised he wouldn’t get ten yards before five arrow bolts struck him down. “…I am in a rush” he gasped, “I…er…have to be back at the abbey before midnight” he mumbled “I cannot hinder, you must let me on my way” he croaked, as his attempt to inject authority into his words broke half way through. He stepped back once more.
There was a blurry movement from the ditch, then two men were behind him, fidgeting with their bows; they seemed keen to shoot. Who are these men? And what do they know?
The big man stepped forward once and was directly in front of Albert again, he spoke, his voice still strong, but still hinting at friendship and welcome also. “Nay father of the church, I am concerned for your safety” Albert doubted that, “come with me and find good company within this place, while you are with us you will be well guarded”.
Albert attempted to take another step back, but the two men behind him had closed in. He opened his mouth to protest, then decided against it. The red head then reminded the monk he was still present by seizing his arm, with a forcibly tight grip, and grinned un-charmingly at the monk’s reproachful look. For now there was little choice but to go with them, he kept silent and meekly allowed them to lead him on. Albert was good at calculations and even better at deceit, he was a wily little monk, and while he played this one out, surely he would find a way to escape.
Things had gone awry, Albert was always very meticulous with his planning and was infuriated when things didn’t go his way, someone back in town was responsible for this, someone was going to pay; this sly man of god was prone to vengeance, he never forgot a bad turn. Ellis the pageboy would be gone by now, he wouldn’t wait forever, he had been rumbled and spoiled of his pleasure, he had been confronted by menacing men in the dark forest, he had been abducted; Albert of St Mary’s was not a happy monk.
Through the greenwood they went, the big man leading, the red head skulking irritatingly at his heel, the man from the ditch and his small group of steadfast bowmen in tow, making sure the Benedictine monk didn’t stray from sight.
Deeper and deeper they led him, into territory unknown to the monk of St Mary’s, his fear rising with each passing step, the darkness swallowed the twilight above which descended upon the forest. Black-blue shapes arose in front of Albert’s eyes, the trees and ferns playing tricks on him and in league with the scant light, to create monsters on all his sides, silent monsters that pointed at him with long crooked accusing fingers, stared through him with ominous dark eyes and clawed unkindly, at his weary, bare feet.
Albert’s suspicion was aroused as much as his fear, as he passed through the staring greenwood; was I being watched? The monk was beginning to think so. He felt as though this had some planning behind it, as though his actions had been under some intense scrutiny, how long have I been stalked unknowingly? These men must’ve known my intentions to come into Sherwood tonight! Who is behind this? A brother from St Mary‘s? The Vicar? The Archdeacon…?
He turned these paranoid thoughts over in his head and almost crashed into the big man in front, when he abruptly stopped and turned to him, “We’re here” he said and pointed to an open glade, wide, with a wall of oaks stretching around halfway amongst the long wild grass, the ground covered in sandy heath, illuminated by a gentle glow of moon light, which filtered through the opening in the forests roof. A short way into the glade a camp fire burnt, a small group of men sat around it. “C’mon” the big man commanded, and Albert followed immediately.
The others had not however, Albert noticed after a moments walking; the redhead had stopped annoyingly skulking at his side, he, along with the man from the ditch, and his group of bowmen, had melted away back into the forest. The monk felt no better; these men were like ghosts within this environment, for all he knew there was a score more blended into the trees close at hand, invisible to his eyes, ready to kill him from a dozen different angles. Albert shuddered and strained not to think of what lay in the darkness beyond the glade, if he got back to St Mary’s alive, it would be a long time before he ever entered Sherwood again.
Albert nervously approached the pit fire, from behind the big man leading he counted four men seated on the ground, eating meat of the bone. A wooden spittle had been fixed over the flames, a small hare was crackling and hissing, the meat a tender dark brown, one of the men tended the spittle, the others seemed to be transfixed in eating. The smell was good, it wafted up from the fire and teased Albert’s nostrils, it made the monk hungry, but he didn’t want these men to know. He should be back at St Mary’s by now, eating his own ration of food and drinking his own sweet wine, not here in the grim forest, with these grim men.
One of them sat close to the fire, stripped meat from the bone savagely with his teeth, scraping tender chunks of meat off the bone, smacking his lips noisily, as juice dripped down his mouth and ran off his chin. The other sat opposite him, crammed a slab of meat into his mouth and then drank it down hurriedly, with a gulp of some black ale, drunk out of a crude tin cup. The one cooking turned the spittle gently. There were weapons lying next to the men, close at hand; a long sword, a spear, a hunting knife stuck in the ground, even the cook was armed, with an unpleasant looking double headed axe at his side. They all wore tattered leather armor, hooded and covered in dark green cloaks.
The fourth man sat solemnly, eating slowly; he too was hooded, his legs crossed before him, a long sword at his side. He had a look about him, as though he was not just taking a rest from a long journey; he looked to be patiently waiting for someone. Albert felt a nascent foreboding fear envelop his little heart, as he realised that someone was him.
The two men eating looked up as the big man approached, with the monk in tow, then dropped their gazes’ back to their food. The cook continued to turn the spittle, uninterested in anything else around him. However one in particular, the solemn man with his legs crossed, rose to his feet as he eyed the monks approach. His cloth was poor, his trousers ripped and tatty, a worn belted tunic covered a beaten leather cuirass, across his shoulders was draped a dark green cape, which also covered his head with a large hood, hiding his features but upon seeing the monk, he pulled this shroud from his face and smiled warmly, welcomingly:
“Hail man of god” he greeted, his dark and matted hair matching his weather ravaged face and sullen grey eyes, eyes that loved to look upon the fair green fertile land of England, but had also seen the infinite horizons of the Asian deserts, witnessed the relentless storms of the oceans, stared down with the formidable and dauntingly fierce Mamluk warriors, and had evaded the corrupt kings of Christianity, across the European continent.
Albert muttered a greeting back that wasn’t audible. “I’m sorry to disturb your wanderings at such a late hour” the solemn man continued to talk, “but as my friend may have told you, it’s dangerous walking in the forest alone at this time, and I mean no offence when I say that holy men can often be naïve enough to believe that gods protection follows them, even unto the darkest and loneliest of dwellings, and though it may, god only acts for those who act for him. The devil has eyes in this greenwood and they prey on vulnerable good men such as yourself, for the tool you serve god with is your mind, and to these devil servants that is a weakness. I serve god with my hands, and these agents of Satan fall foul of me, it is through us that god will grant you protection, he will not intervene on your behalf and you would put my mind at ease, if you would sit with me a while. Come father of the cloth, you are in good company here, sit with me and be content”.
Albert didn’t have time to even draw breath to answer, before a gigantic hand, with long, thick and hairy fingers came crashing down on his shoulder, crushing the bone and muscle excruciatingly beneath his flesh, forcing Albert down into a squat, despite his huge effort to force against it, his strained thighs broke down with ease, against the big brutes one powerful arm. The solemn, hooded man had asked him to sit, the giant behind had apparently made the decision for him.
The solemn man sat back down next to Albert and crossed his legs, the big man remained standing just behind the Benedictine monk, glaring down at him, watching intently, never taking his eyes away, eyes that shrunk and diminished the monk, eyes that Albert felt burning into his back.
The monk rubbed his numbing shoulder as he looked about himself; all the men present now had removed their hoods, one man picked food from his mouth with a small bone, the other was still nibbling and drinking it down, the cook was fidgeting around with something, he was short and stout, with work thickened arms, his greasy hair was tied back, his nose flattened from years of fighting, his jaw prominent and chiseled, his shoulders broad and strong. He turned to Albert and offered a battered goblet, with a drop of red wine in, and half a loaf of stale and crusty bread, then returned to the spittle.
The solemn man caught Albert’s eye and smiled warmly again, the monk looked lost. “I have taken away my hood” he said kindly, his face smiling but his grey eyes scrutinising, “in the presence of god we eat without hiding. For men may be outlawed for the deeds they commit, but even the foulest prisoners are allowed to eat unmolested, for a while at least”.
Were these men outlaws? Albert listened but the words were all dressed up, and he was frightened, he was frustrated and very angry, he snatched down his hood. “There!” he retorted, “I have done your bidding, and this brutish giants as well. I have come on the promise that I am to dine with you, but in truth I have been abducted, and forced against my will to come here while I have gods work to do. Will the abductor reveal to me his name as well as his face? For that I recognise not”.
The solemn man laughed softly, “Who I am isn’t really important, but you can call me Robin Hood. I doubt you will recognise that either, unless you assume me to be a thief. I am not from these parts, I hail from Wakefield, and I have lived beyond the borders of fair England for many years past, and though this country is my home, here I am forced to live outside the law of the land”.
“I know it not” snapped Albert, “and if you go about snatching holy men on holy business, then are you surprised to find yourself outlawed!? I do not have to suffer such scrutiny from dregs! Let us dine then quickly, and let me on my way”.
“We pray to god before we eat” said Robin, as the stout cook skewered the roasting hare before him. He cut off a chunk of meat from the hare’s leg, placing it on Albert’s plate next to his stale loaf. He cut more meat from the bone and passed it amongst the men, before discarding the carcass into the glade. They ate off crude broken plates, worn earthen bowls and drank from dirty tin cups. Robin waited for the food to be passed around, “So my friend” he said at last, the monk eyeing him warily, “lead us in work, peace and prayer and show us, how the ordo sancti Benedicti give gratitude to the almighty”.
Albert shook his head, “Nay Robin Hood outlaw of the forest” he complained in defiance, “I look at your men here and suspect they were already eating, prior to my arrival. Yes I spied them, smacking their lips and wiping their mouths upon their sleeves. Their crude behaviour sickens me”.
Robin simply smiled again “Men eat as they will, and these men are hungry. Living outside of the community is hard even in the summer, come winter many of these men will starve; god is simply giving them their fill now, he will not begrudge them that, nor should you. We eat when god grants us the chance, we must give thanks to him for that, whether our bellies are full or not. Thrice on this day have me and my men heard mass, though none save the true servant of god, ordained into his good grace and privy to a great part of his knowledge, can deliver to us his word.”
“You wish to take the host into your body without fasting!? Are you mocking me!? You have already heard mass, three times, yet you invite me to thank god’s grace on your behalf, do you think to attest my faith!? Or would you tell me what power grants you to abduct the most sincere servant of god, the father who is everywhere!?”
At that Robin laughed heartily, as did several of his men, “No power is granted to me, any more than power is granted to you. We are simple men who are devoted to god much like you, through us you can be kept safe from the real terrors of this forest, terror sent forth by the devil. Through you we can show our worship of god, by giving us his body and his blood, so we can know we are merely flesh, subject to die by gods will, but to return again by his glory at the end of all days. For all this my devotion goes to the worship of god the father, and to that of the holy ghost who is also everywhere-but above all our lady do I serve; she who gave birth to god on earth, she who mothered and raised the child most holy. I beseech you good monk we mock you not, nor are we seeking to test your faith; make mass for my men so that they may be thankful, and do this in memory of the virgin”.
Albert muttered something inaudible before he sulkily picking up his stale loaf, he blessed the bread in the name of god, then broke it into smaller pieces and divided it out amongst the four men. He proffered a small piece to the big man behind him, who looked back down with heavy dark eyes and didn’t stir at all. This one wasn’t in the mood for another mass perhaps Albert thought, none of these men are, there is no thanks and praise being offered anywhere here.
Albert then raised the battered tin cup with the wine in, blessing it, transforming it into Christ’s blood, making a weak show of dedicating the mass to the Virgin Mary, he took a sip and passed it on, everyone drank from the cup, Robin last, the big man still made no move to join in.
“Eat” said Robin, as he put down the cup, “the food was prepared with you in mind”.
Albert ate, for lack of not knowing what else to do. He ate in silence, and took note of his surroundings from the corners of his eyes. The meat was good, the stout cook was experienced it seemed, the flesh soft and tender, breaking apart in his mouth and releasing succulent juices, which rolled across Albert’s tongue and made his glands water. He enjoyed the food, though he tried not to let his face tell it.
The monk finished his meal and was surprised to find his nerves had quelled slightly, even though he was still anxious to be away. These men had not just simply befriended a wandering monk, so they could feed him and protect him, there was an ulterior motive here, a vindictive one, a vengeful one…he shuddered as he patiently awaited the right moment and reluctantly, almost despairingly asked for leave:-
“If it please you now Robin Hood, give me leave to return to St Mary’s. I have sat and dined with you and brought no trouble of my own, I even humbled myself before you, and delivered mass at your behest. I have served you before god, who is my witness to the good will I showed to you. Now you must let me on my way”.
Robin was quiet for a moment, legs still crossed before him, silently contemplating. “Of course” he said at last “I do not wish to hinder a holy man any more than is necessary, you no doubt are tired and in need of rest. You may be on your way”.
Albert rose to his feet, relief filling his face; Robin rose with him and smiled kindly once more at the monk. Albert was eager to be away, that smile was horrible, its true meaning hidden with deceit, he began moving his feet, not knowing if he was even heading towards St Mary’s, perhaps he was hoping to catch sight of the walls surrounding Nottingham town, to help guide his way. As his anxious legs moved into motion, Robin placed a hand upon the monks shoulder and stayed him, “Though I must insist good monk, and I’m sure you understand, when I ask that you must pay for the meal yourself”.
Albert was incredulous, his jaw dropped and froze in an ugly, frightened, angry grin. “You are wrong Robin Hood!” he snapped after a moment, “I do not understand! To waylay a poor monk whilst he travels through the shire forest, on gods business no less; to invite him to come and dine, only to demand payment for a meal he did not even ask of you; this is farcical nonsense! You are a madman Robin Hood! You and all your brethren are utterly mad!”
“What business belonging to god have you travelled thus for?” asked Robin, that kind smile gone instantly, the warm and welcome face drained away, immediately replaced with contempt. He indicated the big man standing behind Albert, “I would have you know that before he picked you up, my friend here found a young page boy cowering close to an old silver birch. As shaken and frightened as he was, he was not forthcoming with his explanation of his actions in this wood, at such a late hour, though he did mumble something about someone from St Mary’s, who would be meeting him soon. Since you are a holy man, I thought this might be you, I cannot think of anyone else who would come from the town church, indeed we have seen no one else in Sherwood tonight, be they of the cloth or a common thief”.
“Common thieves stand all around me! Runaway page boys that make up mocking tales of clergymen are no concern of mine, yet you thrust this into my face! Quell your suspicion peasant, I am a man of god!” Albert was furious, yet in that same moment he was falling, falling into his own little pit of despair. The Benedictine monk was sure he was going to be killed.
“I thrust only good tidings to you, man of god, so that you might know me as no common thief, but a decent man, who seeks to serve those loyal to all mankind and gods will. I tell you I sent the boy back to St Mary’s, with bread to feed him, a guide to protect him and seven gold marks for the collection plates. If such a dreadful thought may have passed your mind, you needn’t worry about the savages of this forest mugging or murdering this youth, or worse, some vile follower of devils sodomising him”.
Albert flushed but responded quickly, “I would leave it to peasants who live in filthy forests, to make such foul comments. Your twisted words have no effect on me, save them for the snakes you keep as your company! I know nothing of what you speak, you are a liar Robin Hood and a manipulator of truth; now do as I command and release me, lest the wrath of god touch your soul!”
‘Aye, I do release you” responded Robin, “but I still insist that you pay me for the meal”.
“I am penniless I tell you!” hissed Albert, but Robin had gestured the big man.
“Then let us help you” mocked Robin, as the giant who had first apprehended him appeared once again at his side.
Albert looked up into that menacing face for the second time that night, and it was no less fierce; his heavy set and chiseled jaw hung high above the monks head, dark piercing eyes leered keenly from the shroud of his dark green hood, the frame of his shoulders was huge, diminishing the monk in stature and shrinking him further still, when he grabbed Albert’s cassock un-gently. “Let’s see what you might be hiding fella” he grumbled, the accent still thick, deep and heavy but like Robin, all the warm welcoming kindness had gone.
The big man frisked the monk, finding first the hidden fold, on the inside breast of his cassock, where he had sewn his blunt knife. Disarming him the big man continued, he seized both the monks wrists with one gigantic hand, yanked them high above his head, so the monk could not resist him, then used his free hand to pat down Albert’s waist, finding a pouch tied to his inner thigh, but nothing more. The big man took it from the monk, then shook it next to his ear and heard the coins jingling inside, “Poor monks are not so poor it seems, I would like to see how a wealthier monk fairs” he mocked, gathering several laughs from the men. He released the monk, then tossed the pouch to Robin.
Robin opened the pouch and explored its contents, finding many silver marks and some scattered gold coins, “The poor monk carries with him over one hundred pound! Does the vicar back at St Mary’s know of this deceit, oh humble man of god? Or is this trifle yours for the keeping?” Albert didn’t respond, he didn’t know how to. Many responses rose to his mind, none came out of his mouth. A small fire of hope, hope of escaping this unscathed, with his hard earned money still with him, had just quelled and died. Robin tied the pouch back up again, studied it a moment, then smiled his true smile, a slight curl of the lip, a shiny glint in his steely grey eye, cunning and deceit and maliciousness shone bright on his face, within the dull glow of the glade; “This we will keep as payment for your meal and compensation for your lies”.
Albert’s frame slumped “Take it” he gasped, his shoulders sagged as he looked about himself; the other men were on their feet, one had his sword belt in hand, another fingered the dagger tucked into his belt, the short stout cook was leaning on that devastating double bladed axe, perhaps thinking of leaving the monks head roasting on his spittle, after taking great delight in cleaving it from Albert’s shoulders.
The monk closed his eyes and waited, expecting to be felled at any moment but the death blow never came, he opened his eyes and saw the five men staring back, contempt filled the air like a poisonous gas, then the monk realised, they were not going to allow him a quick death, no; they are going to torture me! Here in the forest, where no one will hear, they will cut off my fingers one by one, they will cut out my tongue, they will castrate me…
The solemn man now stepped forward, Robin Hood as he called himself, but Albert knew this man was far from solemn, Albert knew that behind those grey eyes was cold metal, Albert saw a deceptive cunning, Albert saw a chilly lust for blood. Robin Hood held out his hand, sweat poured profusely from the monks brow, as for one single moment the Benedictine monk thought he was about to die, until he realised that Robin was attempting to pass him something.
“Take that back to the vicar at St Mary’s” said Robin. “And be sure to show the proud High Sheriff as well, when you decide you are brave enough to do so”.
Albert looked down into his palm, as Robin passed him a small round seal, bearing the image of a lamb passant, crowned with a halo, clutching a crossed staff with the pennon of St George within its raised hoof. Albert recognised the symbol, he turned the seal over in his hand to confirm his suspicion and saw an oval counter, beaded along the border, with the cupped bust of a bearded man, facing right and wearing a cap, and along the bottom the legend-TESTIS SUM AGNI-I am witness to the lamb.
Albert felt a chill creep up his spine, if this man’s claims were true then he was not just an outlaw of the forest, he had powerful enemies and not just in England but across the continent, and perhaps even as far as the holy land. He was a prisoner in his own country, and even there he was wanted dead. His was not a prison enclosed by rock and iron, he was locked in by the sea, the coasts, the hills; he was guarded by the king of France and the pope in Rome, by the Mamluks of Islam and even the doctrine he apparently revered, Christianity had him in its sights.
The Benedictine monk squeezed the seal with his palm, the sweat there making the surface feel slimy, as though it might melt through his fingers at any moment. His head was still bowed in shame, though realising that they were not going to kill him, a few brave parting words came to his mouth; “I will inform the vicar and the high sheriff” he croaked but his words became braver as he spoke “and it will not be long before you are hunted out of this woodland, like the dogs you are, and you shall lie in the dirt of the filth you whence came, with your belly sliced open and your guts spilling out of your body! So foul a stench you will create along with your black soul, that legions of maggots shall pour forth from the depths of hell to devour your rotting carcass!”
Robin, nor any of his men made any kind of movement after this outburst, only that sly smile curled up on Robins lip, which quickly disappeared before he responded; “Be sure that you do” he said, leaning in so close to Albert, that the Benedictine monk could feel the outlaws bad breath on his cold pale face, “be sure also that me and my men are prepared for death. Be sure that for years uncounted, my brethren have spent every waking hour expecting to die, by some foul means far greater than any vile fantasy your sinister mind can seek to conjure.” Robin leant away from the monk, then waved his arm in an arc, indicating his men, “Remember this Christian man, and remember well these men you have met here tonight, for if they should spy you in this forest at any hour of day again, then be sure that they will assume your intentions, be you guilty of sin or not, and know that they will slay you where you stand like common murderers, and steal all your possessions like common thieves, for you are no man of god, but a man belonging to the devil himself. We see through your web of lies, as clearly as a bird can see the earth beneath its wings. Yours is the soul that will reap the sufferings in eternal damnation, for serving your grotesque desires. Now be gone from my presence, your face sickens me”.
Albert’s head slumped, his shoulders sagged, his arms close to dragging on the floor. Feeling no return insult come to his lips he turned to skulk away, the small seal Robin had gave him still clutched tight in his hand. His face was pale, he felt sick to his stomach, his heart was being crushed by a mountain it seemed to him, he was choking on his fear and a dreadful sense of foreboding hung around his neck, Albert simply didn’t know what was coming next. Would they allow the monk to think they’d let him on his way, simply so he would get lost in the forest and then come after him to finish the job? Would they leave him be and spread rumours around Nottingham town, about his late night exploits into Sherwood, then let the common folk be left to deal their informal justice unto him? Or was this just a chance meeting? Had he just been robbed for venturing too far into the wrong part of the forest?
These thoughts swam around inside his head, when someone, he never knew who, prodded him into motion, and encouraged his wary feet to move. He could feel eyes watching his every movement; eyes that didn’t seem to blink or break rank, eyes that would gladly see Albert’s blood.
The monk didn’t even know where he was, they had pushed him on his way, but was it the right way? They want me to get lost, so they can come and hunt me. This is sport to them, and they are loving it very much. And if this was the right way, Albert was so un-edged and disorientated he had no hopes of keeping his feet on a steady path. He walked as straight as he could manage, with every step a wince crossed his face, expecting to be pierced with an arrow, cleaved with an axe or hewn with a sword.
After a short while of walking Albert risked a glance over his shoulder, with strained eyes he could see the faint flicker of the pit fire still, and against this dim light he could see the shapes of men, shadows that shimmered, danced and whirled; between oak and birch, glided around rowan and hawthorn and stalked ominously, the bracken filled glades. Albert’s heart stirred and he quickly pressed on, his mind flaring with paranoid thoughts.
Trees passed the monk on either side, it all looked the same and nothing was familiar. Am I getting anywhere? Albert felt as though they had set him upon an endless road, one that never changed and went on forever. The Benedictine monk could feel the shadows of the men on this endless road as well, they reached out for him, and every step the monk would take, the shadows would take two.
Albert whipped his head around and thought he could still see the glow of the fire, and shadows still shifting.
The thought stung his mind sharply and instantly, his unsteady walk turned into a run, a panic run.
They’re coming! They’re coming!
He was utterly convinced, his legs turned to jelly as he ran with heavy fear weighing him down, seizing control of his senses, plunging all into chaotic darkness before him. He ran blind, though he ran with all the might that was left to him, he ran for his very life.
He could hear them, or so his mind told him that he could, running within the greenwood next to him, stalking him like wild dogs, playing with him before they killed him, teasing him with freedom before snatching it away, along with his life.
The trees became monsters, jumping out to trip him up, lashing out at him with long bent and twisted arms, laughing at him with silent voices, voices that were as loud as thunder inside the monks mind; and where they also conspired against him, whispering with the forest and the outlaws, taunting him, harassing him, driving him into the darkness.
His foot caught in a ditch and he stumbled, hitting the soft floor with a dull thud. Panic ridden he clawed the earth and scrambled to his feet, immediately bolting back into a blind run. The darkness of the forest swallowed him whole, it opened up before him like a huge gaping jaw and Albert went tumbling in, and was engulfed with the sensation he was falling, falling deep into an endless pit, with the devils fiery hand seizing his ankle, pulling him in further still, away from earth, down to the gates of hell.
This is my judgment. Albert could feel the despair covering his soul; god has sent his agents against me, and they in turn have sent me to hell. It was utter darkness as Albert fell, that beautiful twilight and the brief still of perfect summer, that Albert had witnessed upon entering Sherwood, was now no longer a memory to be recalled. The only accessible thoughts to the Benedictine monk, were humiliation and despair.
The branches above no longer danced against the summer breeze, they pointed instead, they pointed and cackled, they mocked him. The summer air stopped caressing his face and began to pull on it instead, the forest wanted to strip away his false features, and reveal to the world the vile creature that lay beneath. The glowing golden aura had fled Sherwood, now darkness like a black cloud enveloped him, darkness that touched him, bound him, darkness which pulsed and moved and suffocated.
It was no longer beautiful, it was no longer quiet. The noise inside Albert’s head was tremendous, as though a circle of knights with flaming swords were taking turns to hue his brains. His thoughts were shattered inside his head, everything nullified to shame.
It was no longer beautiful, it was no longer quiet. The danger had already claimed him. Albert began to spin as he fell, faster and faster until all was a blur. He spun through an endless dark tunnel, up and down, like he was being violently dragged. He felt sick, he felt he was about to cough up blood, his muscles were bearing the weight of an anvil, they had the sensation they were about to tear into pieces, his legs flagged and flared, pushed to their very limit.
The moment was approaching when Albert would be able to go on no more, his body would not allow it, but before it came a bright spark blazed like a vision inside his head. It came with a mighty pain across his face, as if he had been struck with a heavy blow, and then Albert was on the floor. He slowly opened his eyes, amidst the pain, despair and darkness, the monk thought he was dead. He could see a stone wall before him, newly erected it seemed to Albert, and somewhat faintly familiar, like a distant memory, coming back from a very long time ago.
He could hear voices, mumbled together, several of them. Albert strained his ears to hear, but he could not discern the words. Where am I? His mind could not tell, Am I still alive? He didn’t remember turning his head, but he must’ve as he saw fire dancing in the grim dark; Albert no longer had the strength in him to resist any fear, he simply stared and watched the bouncing flames come towards him, accepting whatever fate they brought.
After a moment however, Albert realised the fire belonged to the torches carried by several figures, coming towards him, calling to him. Angels? No, no, I have been cast into hell. Albert drew a deep breath, “Who goes there?” he heard but did not see who called. The sound of crunched grass on soil came into his ear, they were close, the voice spoke again “Albert?” the monk looked up, there was a face there, bald on his crown with stands of hair thinning on his brow, a brown beard well-trimmed, dressed in a cassock like Albert’s own, “Is that you?”.
“Willard?” a group of monks gathered around Albert, “I truly did see angels”. Albert closed his eyes, “Oh brother Willard, you are a sight for my sore eyes”.
“Well brother, we had a confused page boy come back several hours ago, saying you had run into trouble upon the forest path.” Willard responded “A few of us came looking for you, after sending word to the undersheriff, though you seem to have found your way back. You took a mighty wallop there Albert, colliding with that wall, are you alright?”
Albert opened his eyes and looked up, as two of the other monks helped him to his feet, “Where am I?”
“Near St Mary’s gate, the south side of town” answered Willard. “However you got away, you were lucky with the direction you ran. Come brother, let’s get you back to the church, you can speak to the sheriffs agents when you have recovered”.
“Let me tell you Brother Willard, it was an utterly dreadful affair.” Albert was still shaken, but now the euphoria of realising he was no longer in any danger began to settle in. And as tired and as weary and as bruised as he was, Albert began to recall the night’s events, and each face he remembered, a growing hatred grew stronger in his heart, a hatred awoken with fire kindled by the devil. His mind was already planting the roots of revenge, and the monk of St Mary’s was meticulous in vengeance.
I have escaped you, you surely meant for me to die but here I am, I live you fiend of the forest, you ghost, you dreadful horror…you bold outlaw, to cross your sword with mine. I will live to see you dead.
“And yes, the sooner I think you send for the sheriffs agents, the better. I am durable brother Willard, I can rest after this has been reported to the proper officials, in fact I will rest better I daresay.”
“As you wish brother.”
And so your downfall shall begin. Albert skulked away with his brothers from St Mary’s, leaning on Willards shoulder for support, battered, broken and humiliated by some thief in the forest, the one who had dared to challenge him, the one who was the enemy of all the free-folk of England, and of Christendom itself, that bold outlaw, the one who called himself Robin Hood.