MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
ARABLE DE BUREL
THE SHERWOOD ROADSUNDAY, 12TH DAY OF JANUARY
ARABLE WAS STARING AT nothing.
“I see nothing.”
“Good,” Arthur whispered, next to her. “Let me know if that changes.”
Crouching in earth still stained from the black snow, the three of them squinted uselessly into the distance. Despite Arthur’s warnings that there was something-they-had-to-see ahead, the Sherwood Forest looked the same in every direction—an endless expanse of barren spires, its once lush canopy shorn both by winter and by flame. If Arable was expected to see anything other than desolation, she doubted she’d find it.
Arthur a Bland, too, bore the signs of their winter’s famine. His frame was somewhat leaner, his red mane and beard somewhat mangier. Where he once looked like the type of thug who might beat you to death for frivolous joy, he now looked like the type to stab you to death for the coins in your pocket. Perhaps that is not so large a distinction, after all, Arable thought. She was still comparably new to trusting men such as he.
As Arthur eased to his feet and crept forward, David followed. They were two sides of the same coin. Where Arthur was gruff, David was supernaturally kind—so much so that Arable often wondered if she’d become an object of flirtation for him. A smile always lingered within the long features of David’s face, and he kept his thin horse-mane hair tied back into a long blond tail. One would never fear being beaten or stabbed to death by him … but simply because David of Doncaster preferred the longbow over the knife.
These were Arable’s friends now, and the worst part was that she sort of liked it.
“It’s up a bit more.” Arthur lowered his voice even further. “Best we stay silent until we’re on it, just in case.”
“Yes, but what is it?” she asked.
“Wha’d I just say now?” he replied in shock, his frozen grimace signaling the very serious start of their silence. Arable threw her hands up in frustration, causing David to smile, but not speak.
The boys moved with caution, searching for silent spots with each footfall, pausing behind whichever tree trunks seemed thick enough to hide their bodies. David held his spindly fingers aloft—the middle two encased in his lambskin archer’s glove—to signal Arable for a safe moment to follow. She couldn’t decide if they were being exceptionally diligent, or honestly afraid that every tree concealed an enemy.
It didn’t matter. They were hiding from nothing.
Arable de Burel had been many things in her life. A handmaiden, a servant, a thief. A lady, a fugitive, a traitor. She’d been both a lover and a mourner—recently, and to the same person. She’d been as close to the top of society as she was now to its bottom, and she’d been to both extremes more than once. She’d lost her family, she’d fled more homes than she could count, and was intimately familiar with the terror of each day’s hopes extending no further than the morrow.
But she had never, not even once, been afraid of trees.
“There’s nothing there!” she proclaimed, and both Arthur and David dove for cover.
Ignoring their attempts to quiet her, she trudged forward with no care at all toward the noise she made. A plume of soot billowed in her wake, weeks of ash stirred into eddies as she kicked through the forest’s debris. The deep smell of smoke permeated everything, and most of the Sherwood’s naked trunks bore weeping black lines where they’d been discolored by rainfall. But up ahead was the only meaningful marker in the Sherwood—an area where first the trunks were scorched black, then into cracked and broken shards, and then finally to ruin.
They were at the edge of the Sherwood Road, and Arable’s breath halted in her chest. She suddenly regretted her flippancy—if she’d known they were coming here, or anywhere she might be seen, then she might not have joined them. She’d been so thankful for Arthur’s invitation, and a slight adventure in the forest had sounded like a perfect distraction. But seeing it now, and the wide road that might bring any traveler upon them, was too harsh a reminder of why they were hiding in the forest in the first place.
Beneath her feet was the story of the last six weeks, broken into char and ash. After Sheriff Roger de Lacy’s funeral, fire brigades from the castle traveled the Sherwood Road daily, setting ablaze the trees on either side of it. Arable had worked with the remnants of Robin of Locksley’s men, sending every Guardsman they found limping back to Nottingham. Will Scarlet had claimed the mantle of Robin Hood—and though nobody within the group had yet taken to calling him that, the Nottingham Guard would never forget the name.
But for every brigade they stopped, there were three more they never even knew about. Mile upon mile met the torch. The brigades only ceased when the weather turned too terrible to bear, but ash rained for a month. Smaller streams became poisoned, killing much of the wildlife they needed to survive, and what little natural food could be found was rendered withered and deadly.
Still they fought on—even if sometimes that meant no more than spreading the truth of what the Sheriff was doing. The Guard could take resources, but in doing so they made themselves more enemies. Once winter was over, Will Scarlet promised they would regroup, regrow their numbers from sympathetic villages, and flourish again. Until then, the momentum was well against them, and they tried to keep their encounters with the Guard short and safe. They did their best to turn scouting Guardsmen back to the castle by being just nuisance enough to be more hindrance than worth.
As the earth beneath Arable’s boots turned from snow to slush to burnt bark, the Sherwood Road revealed itself through gaps in the trees, extending off to the north and south. Though it made a serpentine path through the Sherwood, the fires had extended the margins of the road tenfold on either side, where at last she saw the subject of Arthur’s worry.
A large square patch of dark soil.
Ten paces long on each side, the area had been leveled and cleared of any offending refuse. At its center were the remains of a makeshift campfire.
“Keep your eyes open,” Arthur commanded, emerging slowly from the trees, wary of the open space. “Might be gords nearby.”
If there was indeed some regiment of the Nottingham Guard lying in wait for them—which there wasn’t—she would be in far more danger than Arthur or David. Theirs were just a couple of unknown, bearded faces, and it was no crime for commonfolk to walk the Sherwood Road. But many in the Guard would recognize Arable on sight. Even those that didn’t know her personally could identify her by the two straight scars defining her cheeks.
In Nottingham, she was famous for stabbing Captain Gisbourne in the back.
In Nottingham, she was known as the traitor who freed Will Scarlet from prison.
Thankfully—she exhaled in relief—there were no Guardsmen here to point any fingers.
“I don’t see any tracks.” David’s voice was singsong. He craned his lean neck about to investigate the area. “Rained some, last night. If anyone’s been here since, it’d be obvious.”
“Well you can still keep your eyes open,” Arthur growled. “I didn’t say get ready for a fight, I just said keep your eyes open.”
“Were you worried I was going to wander around with my eyes closed?” David returned. “Good thing you told me to keep my eyes open, that was a strategy I had not considered.”
“For fuck’s sake!” Arthur spread his hands out wide, but there was a smile behind his scowl.
“So why do we care about this campsite?” Arable asked.
Arthur had clearly been dying to answer the question. He raised a finger and outlined its square perimeter. “I don’t think it’s a campsite.”
“There’s a campfire.” She pointed, rather certain she’d perfectly solved the mystery.
“True, but nothing else makes sense. It’s too large an area, and why bother flattening it all down like this? Why a square? And who would make camp in the middle of ash, when they could take a few fucking steps into the woods?”
“Because it’s flatter here.”
“Nobody camps right next to the road,” Arthur said with finality.
“And yet…” She splayed her fingers out at the campsite, which was, quite obviously, right next to the road.
David laughed, but he seemed to understand Arthur’s point. The two of them reminded her sometimes of Reginold and Bolt, two Guardsmen she’d befriended in Nottingham before that life fell apart. It was curious how life worked sometimes, when the same patterns and relationships appeared in completely unconnected people. Their banter, the way they’d both tease her and include her, she’d known it before.
“I think it’s an outpost.” Arthur’s eyebrows bounced. “The size of this footprint, right next to the road? I think they’re planning to build something, maybe a little tower.”
“A little tower?” David snorted. “So they can see the trees a little better?”
“I said maybe a tower. Something, is what it is.”
“It is certainly something,” Arable confirmed.
“There were people here when I saw it yesterday,” Arthur defended himself.
“Guardsmen?” she asked.
His mouth twisted. “Couldn’t tell. They weren’t in uniform, but could still be workers from the castle.”
Arable raised her most skeptical eyebrow.
“Don’t act like this was a complete waste of time! There were tents, horses, too. Thought they might’ve left some food behind.”
“Admittedly, that happens a lot.” David shared his grin with Arable. “Oh we’ve got too much food, why don’t we just leave it here in the dirt? Better than putting it back in the pack, innit?”
“Fuck you both.”
“The Nottingham Guard has never stationed anyone in the Sherwood before,” David said, then turned to Arable for validation. “Right?”
“Well I’ve never kicked your teeth in before,” Arthur cocked his head, “but that doesn’t mean I couldn’t.”
“Oh, I am very tall,” David proved it, “and you are not so flexible.”
“I could bring your head to the ground first—” Arthur moved to tackle his friend, and the two of them slapped at each other and vied for leverage. But Arable was drawn toward the campfire’s pit, and the tiny flecks of trash lingering at its edges. She crouched down to look closer.
“You might be right,” she said, ceasing the boys’ bickering.
“Could be coincidence…” She picked through the ash at the side of the fire ring. There was an unnotable piece of twine charred at both sides, barely a finger long. “But string just like this … it’s what we’d use to tie up bundles of food for Guardsmen going out on patrol.”
David made a face. “A piece of string, that’s proof?”
“No.” She brushed her hands off. “But it’s plausible.”
Arthur snapped his fingers. “Which is exactly why I asked her to come.”
She hated to say that. She shouldn’t have to thank them for considering her expertise valuable. Her history within Nottingham Castle was an asset, not a scandal, and taking advantage of her knowledge should have been an obvious strategy, not a clever one.
“So they’re building outposts…” David squinted down the road. “What does that mean?”
Arthur inhaled heavily. “It means Will was right. Gords are moving into the Sherwood, hoping for a permanent presence. We’ve got to make sure they don’t.”
“But Will thought we had another month at least,” David said, his focus far away. “Didn’t think they’d move until winter was over.”
“Sneaky little shits.” Arthur crossed his arms. “But we’ll be ready for them.”
No, they wouldn’t be. It was a death sentence, Arable knew it. They weren’t ready for this. They’d been able to turn most prying Guardsmen away with little acts—stealing their food, loosing their horses, anything that forced them to return to the castle for supplies. But if the Guard fortified an area inside the Sherwood, that was a new set of rules. Scarlet’s group couldn’t stop them—not now, at least.
They had barely survived thus far. Some of them hadn’t. There were elderly in the group who had passed. Most of their time was spent scavenging to survive, and they were failing at that, too. They simply didn’t have the resources to go on the offensive. Arable had cast her lot in with the group at their worst hour, at the cost of burning every other bridge she had. She did not want to die with them, but she had nowhere else to conveniently do so.
“Aw, fack,” David said suddenly, his eyes narrowing. Then, just as quickly, “Keep talking, don’t act anything strange now.”
This proved there was no more certain way to make Arable act like an imbecile than to order her to act normally. She had no idea what to do with her hands, her body somehow made five different poses at once, all while she struggled to understand why it was doing anything at all.
During her unintelligible display, David knelt down and unslung his longbow, quietly readying an arrow. He raised its tip directly to Arable’s navel, then he drew the string back forcefully and pushed the bow forward, ready to spear a hole right through her stomach.
Arable’s mouth waggled open, probably trying to escape the rest of her imminently doomed body. She prepared a masterful argument as to why she should not be murdered like this, which escaped her lips in the form of a discreet squeak. She had apparently forgotten how to breathe, too.
“And … move,” David ordered, so she did.
The arrow sprang from the bow with sickening strength, missing her by a hairswidth. Her attention snapped to its flight, down the Sherwood Road a good distance to then vanish unimportantly into dense black thicket.
For more than a few seconds nothing happened, which seemed like such a good idea that nothing went ahead and kept on happening for a good while more. Still David didn’t move, his eyes sharp and piercing down the road. Eventually he relaxed, but only for a breath—a heartbeat later, he nocked another arrow and sent it screaming after the first.
And as it flew, the tiny distant silhouette of a man’s body rose from the thicket in question and retreated south down the Sherwood Road.
“Fack indeed.” Arthur shook his head.
Somebody had been watching.
David started chasing the intruder, but Arable snatched his arm and turned him around. “Let him go,” she urged. “We need to get away. Now.”
David allowed himself to be drawn back into the woods from where they’d come, while Arthur let an impressive slurry of expletives fly. If it was a Guardsman, then more were nearby after all. And if not, they would come soon anyway, to start building their outpost.
This instinct, again, was something of Arable’s expertise.
She’d spent her life on the run. Ever since Lord Beneger de Wendenal had decimated her father’s home and chased every last Burel from England, Arable had been fleeing. It was ingrained in her soul—only half of her ever able to focus on the present, the rest of her always looking for escape paths, calculating the things that could go wrong.
So when she said it was time to run, it bloody well was.
Copyright © 2020 by Nathan Makaryk