We could never agree on where we’d first met, nor when. I thought we were eight—he said we were four. But we both agreed that I’d been older then him.
He’d been an impish, fey little boy in the beginning, safe in the knowledge of his parents’ protection. He knew he could throw rocks at me without reprisal—or did he throw sticks, as he’d insisted years later?
I remembered playing with him every day, every summer, though he insisted it was only on holidays and feast days.
I do remember long periods of time spent trapped in his manor while my parents doted on his. It was my duty to learn to weave and sew and dance and speak horribly-accented French.
But we were friends—that much I remember. And we agreed on that. Our friendship began the day he first to lead me into the greenwood. He dragged me by my hand, painfully pulling through dark, knotted trees. He was resolute, dragging me through as the thorns and brambles scratched at my legs.
The woods was supposed to be a terrible place.
I remembered the stories my parents would tell of witches and werewolves and dark, evil things. They hid in the forest waiting for children like us. They would snatch us up and nobody would find us again.
I wanted someone to find us.
He led me into the woods that day, my clinging desperately to his. If there were truly some evil thing out there waiting to consume us, it would have to take us both.
I wasn’t going to be gobbled up without him.
Years passed, and the boy’s parents died when he turned fifteen—or was he nineteen? I can’t quite remember.
But within months of his new Lordship, my own parents died, and I was taken away within the week.
The sheriff, I learned, had offered me a position in his castle. His offer, to me, didn’t seem so bad. Though it was not, strictly speaking, an offer.
Since my parents’ death and my unmarried state, I was a ward to the shire. A ward to him, the sheriff, he had explained.
The sheriff—was a pinch-faced little man with a high-pitched voice and a thick accent. An accent that reeked of a foreigner.
So he took me away from my childhood home, the manor where my parents had worked. He took me away from the friends and the servants. And the one boy I came to know quite well.
Too well, maybe.
Months passed, a year passed, and the boy sent me letters upon letters. The first half-year he wrote boring drabble about the management of his estate. But soon his letters came less and less and his handwriting had changed, the words marred hastily onto parchment as though time was of the essence. He told me that with the King gone off to reclaim the Holy Land, he had lost many powerful allies. I would wait for months to hear what had become of him, and the letters grew shorter and shorter. He had lost his lands and titles, he said. And then: I have become Lord of the greenwood of late.
To hear the sheriff tell it, this Lord of the greenwood was a cunning rogue with no love of the prince of the crown
And then, one night, I retired to my chambers to find him standing there with a grin on his face—the same one he’d wore that day he led me into the greenwood.
And I see in his eyes, though his titles were revoked he was truly the Lord of the greenwood; with dust on his face and twigs in his hair. He scoured the forest with the sun on his back.
But in his absence I had become the ward of the shire, with dresses that itch and a dagger hidden beneath them. I walked through halls of cold stone and colder drafts.
I wanted to slap the boy, but instead I was kissing him. We’d been so long away from each other that I couldn’t bring myself to bandy words no matter how badly I wanted to.
Except: “You have to leave. If they find you—” I said.
But he had a plan, same as always. “I came through the window. I’ll leave the same way. It’s no trouble at all, I promise.” He drank in my shock, my fear and my dread as I rushed to the window to see.
I gasped, exclaimed: “You shouldn’t have done this,” and then cursed myself for uttering the obvious.
He was by my side, then, showing me the rope. He gave it a tug, two then three. “Who would follow me down such a climb? Who could even see?”
He had the right of it, so I didn’t argue. But I knew there must have been a reason for his visit, so I asked.
“I’m billeted out in the greenwood,” he said—as if I didn’t already know—“but I’ll need your help in these times to come.”
“What times?” I asked. I didn’t want to give him the satisfaction of an answer. But he grinned and smiled. He knew what I’d say.
“The King is gone. The Prince has the throne but he cannot enforce with the proper strength. Someone needs to keep order—at least in these parts.”
“And what would be you?” I asked, biting my lip. I shouldn’t have needed to ask. I knew what he’d say.
“The people are starving and thieves run rampant, unchecked.” Under his breath, he added, “Most thieves are the ones who should see the King’s law enforced.”
“If you do this, the sheriff will order more soldiers,” I protested.
“His soldiers are not trained for the greenwood.”
“But they need only torches—”
He clamped his hand clamped around my wrist. “Do you think it so easily burned?”
“It isn’t the greenwood I worry about.”
“I wear a hood, you know. To hide my face.”
“Of course they suspect!” He snapped, “But they’ve no proof—they’re powerless.”
“Why have you come, my Lord?” I asked. I meant it to tease but it didn’t. His face darkened with memories of stripped titles and possessions. His ancient house now held by somebody else.
And anything unneeded, burned.
He didn’t answer; he didn’t need to. I knew what he sought and I would give it unasked. For I was a fool in those days.
He took me into the forest one day—showed me who to make merry with and who to avoid. He warned me against the friar with meaty hands and the large belly. His singer had fingers that were nimble on more than his lute. These were hard men, I realized. And outlawed for a reason. Yet this was the company he chose to keep.
He was Lord of the greenwood. I didn’t dare to question him.
They built a fire that night to dance around and make merry. I joined them in their jovial songs, watching those who were watching me. By my gaze was only for their greenwood Lord. The others meant little and less.
At length, he pulled me aside and asked, “Do you feel safe here?”
“I do,” I shrugged. “Aside from those who would see me undressed.”
So he put a dagger in my hand, its blade orange against the firelight. He closed my fist around it.
And try as I might, I could not contain my laughter.
The concern dropped from his face and it the fire’s glow emphasized its coloring red. “What is it?” He asked, “What’s so funny?”
And in that moment the greenwood lost its’ Lord—for I remembered how young he was. We were.
I stoop to one knee and retrieve my own dagger from beneath my itchy dress—and then I pressed it to his hand and closed his fist around it.
It was his turn to laugh. And then all the others were looking. Their leader was a grim man—a hard man, not a merrymaker. But his defenses were all but gone and for the moment, he enjoyed that.
He seized my hand and pulled me toward the fire while his singer played his songs.
We danced, made way for his friends, made merry, made love.
And when I awoke I was Lady of the greenwood with dirt on my face and twigs in my hair. But this was far from my home where the cold stone walls called me.
I was careful to dress—I didn’t want to wake him. The Lord of the greenwood, purring in his sleep.
But he awoke anyway, despite my intentions, and smiled as I cleaned myself up. He said not a word, merely admired me from afar.
He understood I must go. For just as a castle confined him with small spaces and close heavy air, the greenwood was always too vast for me. I was like to lose myself if I tarried too long.
The winters were harsh and one season he came wearing wolf-pelts. “To match the wolf’s head the prince has titled me,” he explains.
“Wolf’s head?” I asked.
“That’s how much my life is worth now. I am outside the law, and my head can be sold for the same price as a wolf’s.”
“How warm are you?” I asked, “Out there?”
“Warm enough,” he said, but he his gaze wandered when he said it.
“You little brat!” I shouted, seizing him by the collar. “You have to find someplace safe to stay!” I threw my arms around him and dragged him toward the fire.
“The villagers are all too eager to help,” he protested.
“They can’t hide you forever.”
“Nor would I want them to.” He pulled his wolf-skin cloak close as he sat. I rested my head on his shoulder. “I belong in the greenwood, not some peasant’s home. I’ve enough wolf’s heads to me without others added to my ranks for aiding us.”
“And how many are sworn to you?” I asked, leaning close. “How many wolf’s heads hide out in the greenwood?”
“Seven-score,” he said. He shrugged, jolting my head. “Maybe more, maybe less. I can’t quite say.”
“And why is that?”
“Because I’d need quite the tall tree to count all of them.”
“And how do they keep warm on such nights?”
“They bed down with beautiful ladies in itchy silks,” he grins.
“I would never!”
“Such things you say! How would you know if my dresses get itchy?”
He turned red, then. Redder than I could’ve imagined. “I’ve needed disguises in the past and without coin to pay, I may have taken one or two out the window.”
“And I don’t understand how you wear them so long! Truly you are made of sterner stuff than I, to last so long in such garments.”
“And what of your men who have no ladies to bed?”
“Can we not discuss men? Not right now, not right here.”
“But what of their fate? They’re your subjects, are they not?”
He said nothing. Again, he avoided looking at me. Without warning he stood and went to the window. His cloak was a crescent behind him. “There are no Kings in the greenwood.”
“But they talk of your title—?”
“They take orders from you—” I began.
“That’s their choice,” he said, “More or less.”
He paused on the sill, turned around and held his hand out to me.
I took it, wanting to pull him back in. Give him a respite from his misery. But when smiled those urges faltered and I found I could not. “You don’t have to go,” I tell him.
“There is much I must do and much to be done. The Prince is arriving on the morrow.”
“And he’ll find the Lord of the greenwood is in Nottingham that day. And watch as he steals all his coffers.” He began his descent, hesitating only once more as he shouted my name.
I came to the sill, shouted “What?”
“I almost came down by the chimney today. I thought you’d like to know.”
“And what stopped you?”
“Last minute change of hearth, I guess,” he said and descended with half-muted chuckles.