Read Outlaw Online

Authors: Michael Morpurgo

Outlaw

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Contents

Chapter 1
The Longest Night

Chapter 2
The King’s Deer

Chapter 3
Outlaw

Chapter 4
A Blow for Freedom

Chapter 5
Dead or Alive

Chapter 6
Tuck and Much and Little John

Chapter 7
The Silver Arrow

Chapter 8
The Sheriff’s Revenge

Chapter 9
Richard and the Lionheart

Chapter 10
Revenge is Sweet

Chapter 11
Deadly Nightshade

There had never been a storm like it. The wind roared in from the west one evening in early October. No one was expecting it, least of all the forecasters. The ground, already saturated by a week of continuous rain, could not hold the trees in place. They too had been caught unawares. I watched all evening long, face pressed up against my bedroom window. Still top heavy in leaf, the trees were like clippers in full sail caught in a hurricane. They keeled over and could not right themselves. Great branches were torn off like twigs. Roots were wrenched from the earth, and towering oaks and beeches sent crashing to the ground. Gran called me from downstairs again and again, but I did not want to leave my window. The trees I loved were being massacred before my eyes, but perversely I could not bear to drag myself away. In the end Gran came up to my room to fetch me.

The safest place, she said, was under the stairs. That was where they had always hidden during the war, when the bombs were falling. Now, as then, the electricity was cut. The telephone was cut too. We were on our own and no one could help us. The stair cupboard was a clutter of brooms and hoovers and old tennis rackets, all interlaced with cobwebs. We huddled together, covered ourselves in a musty blanket and watched the guttering candle.

“We have plenty of candles,” she told me, “and
plenty of hot tea.” She patted a thermos beside her. “We’ll be all right. Try and get some sleep now.”

But it was to be a sleepless night, and the longest night of my life. The storm lashed the house, rattling doors and shattering windows, shaking the place to its foundations. Both of us very soon gave up any pretence of not being frightened. We clung together as the beast outside roared and raged, doing his worst to destroy the house and us with it. At least, I thought, at least my tree would be safe. It was the biggest in the forest. It took five grown-up people, hands touching, to encircle its massive trunk. No storm in the world could blow it down, not even this one. That thought gave me some comfort through the long night.

When morning came, and the beast had gone, we at last dared to venture out. From the kitchen window, most of which had been blown into the
sink, we looked out on a scene of utter devastation. The lawn was littered with roof tile and branches, and the garden shed had been lifted up bodily and smashed against the wall. Gran sat down slowly at the table and put her hands over her face for a few moments. As she took them away again, I could see she was trying to smile through her tears.

“How about some breakfast?” she said.

“My tree,” I told her. “First, I’ve got to see my tree.”

She was not happy for me to go, but I would not be put off. “If you must then,” she said, “but don’t be long, and take care of falling branches. It’s still blowing out there.”

So I went off, picking my way across the lawn, through the smashed gate and out into the woods at the back of the house. Most of my twelve years had been spent in this place. Hardly anyone else
ever came here – they preferred the flat grass and the football posts of the Rec. And besides, I liked being on my own. This was my refuge and my private paradise. But as I walked, I saw about me a landscape laid waste. The trees lay like fallen soldiers, mown down in serried ranks. There were a few left upright, but some of those were still standing only because they were propped up by others.

A roe deer was drinking at the stream. He should have sprung away, startled at my approach. Instead he glanced almost casually towards me, considered me for a moment and wandered off in a daze of bewilderment. A squirrel sat not more than a few feet from me, soaked and trembling. I leapt the swollen stream at its narrowest and began to climb the hill the other side, hoping against hope that when I reached the top I would look down and find
my tree still standing, that by some miracle it had survived the holocaust. But as I looked around me now, I knew that neither its size nor its age nor its great strength would have helped it through the night. For the most part it was the young whippy trees that seemed to have outlasted their elders. And when at last I made it up that blasted hillside and stood there on the ridge, I saw my tree stretched out on its side like a slain giant, its massive roots ripped from the ground.

“No! No!” I cried, and a flock of crows lifted off its crippled branches and were blown away by the wind.

A tree just dead feels the same as a live one. I put my arms around it and laid my cheek on its wrinkled bark. I ran my hands along its trunk and climbed in amongst the branches where I had hidden so often, from where I had watched badgers
play in the gathering dusk or foxes pouncing on early worms; where I had been able to sit and look out over the whole forest and feel I was a bird amongst birds.

I clambered down into the vast crater and looked up. I felt the sun on the back of my head and shivered. At that moment a clod of earth parted from the roots above me and came crashing down at my feet where it shattered into pieces. There was something in the debris too solid and too shaped to be just earth. I bent down and picked it up. I was right. I knocked off the earth still clinging to it and rubbed it on my coat. It was sharpened to a point like an arrowhead and appeared to be made of a metal of some kind, silver perhaps. I turned it over in my hand and examined it more closely. It
was
an arrowhead.

I went and sat down on a rock halfway up the
side of the crater. I had to study it, to be quite sure that it was what it seemed to be. I decided it could be nothing else. I sneezed suddenly, violently, and dropped it. When I bent to pick it up, I saw something protruding from the earth, like a torn root, yet too smooth to be a root. I pulled at it and it came away easily. It was a horn, a cow’s horn perhaps, blackened by age, and huge. I knocked the earth out of it and found that it was hollow all the way up. I looked around me for more, not knowing at all what to expect, only that I expected to find something. It was then that I noticed, only a few feet away from me, the shape of a head in the earth, a raised ribcage below it, and then an unmistakable foot. I hesitated, fearful of what I would find. If it was what I suspected it to be, then perhaps it should not be disturbed. But I had to know. I brushed away the earth. There were two
feet now, and something else that looked like a long curved stick. I drew it out, wiped it, and laid it on the ground alongside the cow’s horn. I dug deeper now, my fingers scooping away at the earth. The skull, if that was what it was, was looking away from me down into the crater. I did not want to pick it up, but I had to be sure. If there were holes for eyes, then I would know for certain. I reached down and lifted it. As I did so the earth fell away and the eyes stared back at me, empty.

I shuddered and dropped it at once. It rolled away from me and came to rest at the bottom of the crater, the eyes still staring, accusing. My legs felt suddenly weak. I went to sit down on the rock from where I considered the grave I had disturbed. I knew then that I had defiled it, that I should have left it alone.

I had fainted in the past, and each time before
breakfast. I felt it coming over me and gripped the arrowhead in my hand as tightly as I could, making it hurt me, anything to keep my head from spinning. I tried to think only of the pain, but then I could not feel it any more. I saw the crows wheeling overhead, buffeted by the wind, and I hoped they would not take me for a dead sheep and peck my eyes out. The rushing clouds rained leaves on me, black leaves that flapped and cawed and covered the sun, so that the world of darkness closed in on me and swirled me away.

It was the same dream, always the same dream. Knowing it was a dream – and Robin always seemed to know it, even when he was in it – made it no less terrifying for him. And this time Robin promised himself he would dream his dream right to the bitter end, and remember it. He would force himself to remember it. Somehow he knew that this dream foretold his own death, a death he might still avoid if only he could remember it this time.

The boy in his dream moved through the stricken forest as if in a daze. He was weeping
silent tears as he walked. He seemed to be looking for something in particular amongst the debris of the forest. Then he saw it, cried out and ran down the hill. The biggest tree in the forest lay dead, its great branches crushed and twisted and torn. The boy put his arms around its trunk and laid his cheek on it. He clung to it as if he would never let go. The boy was dressed like no one Robin had ever seen before. He wore a hooded green coat trimmed with fur and pale blue trousers now covered in mud. And his hair was white, snow white. He was whispering to the tree, and then he was clambering down into the crater left by the roots. A clod of earth landed at his feet. He bent down and picked something up. He cleaned off the earth and rubbed it on his coat. He turned it over in his hand and then went to sit down on a rock. When the boy rubbed it on his coat a
second time he saw clearly that he had found an arrowhead – Robin seemed to know it before the boy did. The arrowhead was a dull silver in the pale morning sun.

Still Robin dreamed on, dreading how his dream might end. He knew what would happen though. The boy found the hunting horn first and then the bow, which was as big as Robin’s father’s. Then he saw the bones. The boy crouched down, digging away the earth with his hands, his eyes wide with fear. Then the boy was reaching out, reaching down towards him. He was taking him by the back of his head and lifting him. Someone was lifting him, his father perhaps. Robin would wake now and stop it, before it went any further. Enough was enough. He did not want to have to go on. Robin tried not to look at the skull. He looked instead at the boy holding the skull, and saw himself, as he always
did. He had always thought the boy in the dream was himself; but now he was not quite so sure. He was older than this boy, a lot older, and he did not have white hair. His hair was black, black as charcoal. He had dreamt this far before and no further. This time he would not wake up in spite of his father calling him and shaking him. This time he would finish, finish and remember and exorcise. The boy dropped the skull back into the earth. It rolled into the bottom of the crater, rolling over and over, until it was still at last, gazing up at the sky and then at him. Now, at last, Robin knew. Those empty staring eyes were his eyes. He was the skull, but he was the boy too. He was both. He was the boy sitting on the rock, the arrowhead in his hand, and he was the skull lying in the earth. He would remember everything now, everything so that he could save himself. He promised himself
all that before he woke; and at once he forgot every single thing he had dreamed.

Robin’s father was bending over him, shaking him by the shoulder. “Are you awake, Robin?”

“I was dreaming.” Robin sat up, still struggling to remember.

“You can’t eat dreams,” said his father. “Up you get.” And he pulled back the blankets letting the cold air in. This was the time of day Robin most missed his mother, remembered her most clearly. There was no warmth of his cheek on his, no whispered welcome to the new day. The last winter had taken her from them. As the autumn leaves fell in the first frost, the sheriff’s men had paid them a visit, Sir Guy of Gisbourne at their head. They had driven off all their pigs, killed the milk cow before their eyes, taken their winter’s store of corn and burnt down the barn, just for good
measure. “Tax collecting,” Sir Guy of Gisbourne had called it, and said if the family did not pay up on time next year then they would be back again. With that, they had ridden off, the forest ringing with their whooping laughter.

The snows had fallen all December shrouding the forest. Hunting was difficult. Those creatures that could, stayed underground. Those that had to come out to feed moved warily. You cannot tread without being heard in the deep silence of snow, both hunter and prey know as much. There were the deer, of course, but take a deer and you were a dead man. “You bring home a deer, and I’m telling you, I won’t touch it,” Robin’s mother had warned them, and she meant it. His mother fed them with what little there was and denied herself. They were the hunters, they had to have food – so she reasoned. By the new year she was so weak she
was unable to get out of bed in the mornings, too ill even to know or care any more what her food was. When they brought home a small roe deer, skinned it and cooked it, they hoped it would revive her. But she was too near death by then even to swallow. Robin and his father ate it together after they had buried her.

His father had spoken little about her dying. But, standing over her grave, he had made a promise, a promise that echoed now in Robin’s head as he sat sleepy-headed and pulled on his boots: “From this moment I swear I will hunt nothing but the king’s deer, and I will feed every hungry soul that lives in the forest. That is my vow. Let them catch me if they can.” So for a year now and more, father and son had spent their dawns and dusks hunting through the forest, killing the king’s deer whenever they found them. Always in the dead of night, and
always alone, Robin’s father would carry the venison far and wide through the forest, distributing the meat amongst the starving and the poor. Today would be another such day, and Robin savoured the thought of it as he picked up his bow and followed his father out into the cold of the dawn, his breath like smoke in the air.

They never took the same track twice, never moved without listening to the forest. If there were strangers about, it was the birds that told them, their chorus shrill and agitated. It was too early for the birds, but they knew they were safe enough until first light. The sheriff’s men never dared venture into the forest in the dark, even in numbers. Outlaws killed silently. No one ever saw the Outlaws, but everyone knew they were there, or thought they were. They would cut your throat as soon as look at you, or so it was said. Robin thought he had
glimpsed them just once, white hair and red eyes behind a shiver of leaves, but he had not stayed to find out to whom they belonged.

Robin’s thoughts were elsewhere now. With his father he always felt safe against anything or anyone, sheriff’s men or Outlaws. He strode ahead of him now, his great bow slung over his shoulder, the bow Robin could scarcely bend despite his sixteen years. He might not be able to bend the great bow and he might still have to run to keep up with his father’s walk, for he was slight in body and short in the leg; but with his own bow he could shoot just as straight as his father, though not as far perhaps. Before he ever tried for his first deer, his father had taught him how to split a wand of willow at fifty paces. “Thumb knuckle to the tip of the nose. A deep breath and hold, but not for too long. Draw a line through the air, arrowhead to
target, arch the line for range. Think of the wind. Then will it away.”

His father left the first deer that morning to Robin. The young stag was close enough and down wind, barely thirty paces away, grazing in the morning mists, his antlered head watching, scenting. Robin let loose, and the arrow followed his line in the air straight to its mark. The stag’s legs collapsed under him. He rolled over on his side and lay still. Without thinking, Robin sprinted out of the trees and into the open. He had gone only a few paces when he was grabbed from behind and hurled to the ground. His father lay beside him breathing hard, his eyes blazing. “What’s the matter with you, Robin? Haven’t I told you? Run in the forest and you can be heard for miles. Do you want to bring the sheriff’s men down on us? Do you? And when you’ve killed, what have I always taught you?”

“Watch and wait,” Robin whispered, and his father’s grip slackened.

“You’ll be the death of me yet, Robin Hood,” he said ruffling his hair and then hauling him to his feet. “That was a fine shot. He died on his feet. By tonight, there’ll be a dozen or more people less hungry, and that’s something.” He took his knife from his belt and handed it to Robin, hilt first. “We’ll leave the head for the sheriff’s men as usual; but we have to be quick, it’s getting light already.”

They had just dropped to their knees beside the dead stag when they heard the snorting. It seemed to come from behind them. There was the sound of leather on leather, the jangle of harness and hushed urgent voices. After that it all happened so fast. One moment they were alone in the clearing with the stag, the next the ground shook with the thunder of hooves. The sheriff’s men were all around
them, and his father was laying about him on all sides with his sword, and roaring in his rage.

“Go, Robin! Go while you can!”

Robin looked around him. They were coming out of the trees on every side, dozens of them, on horseback, on foot. His father was entirely surrounded. There was no reaching him, no helping him.

“Robin, in your mother’s name, will you go!”

He ran. He ran like a hare runs, as his father had taught him, weaving, dodging, swerving, and he was fast too, but not fast enough. He felt a horse pounding behind him, and another was charging directly towards him. He threw the knife because it was all he could think of. It took the rider coming at him in the throat. He swerved away, not even looking back to see him fall, and made for the trees. One glance back now, and Robin saw
his father pinioned by his arms, spitting defiance in the face of his captors, the blood running down his face. Then two riders were coming after him, swords drawn. He had no more knives left to throw. There was nothing to do but run. He plunged into the forest where it was thickest, where he knew horse would have to slow to a walk. He scrambled up gullies, forded streams and found at long last the safety of a cave, one of the secret hideaways known only to his father and himself.

He lay back against the rock in the dark dank of the cave and tried to regain his breath and collect his thoughts. It was only now that he cried, for it was only now that he understood that he was an orphan and quite alone in the world. Worse, he had run away and abandoned his own father.

A voice spoke to him from the mouth of the cave. “They did not kill him.” It was a girl’s voice.
She stood silhouetted against the light, a willowy figure, a bow in her hand, a quiver of arrows on her back. “They did not kill him,” she repeated. “We saw them. They took him away.”

Filled with sudden hope, Robin started to his feet. “Are you sure?” He came towards her, and then stopped dead.

“I am Marion.” She was a young woman and not a girl at all. “And I wish you would not stare at me like that.”

Her hair was white, not silver like an old person’s, not fair as his mother’s had been, but white, pure white. Her eyes seemed to glow red in the early morning sun. “You’re an Outlaw, aren’t you?” he breathed.

“We all are,” said Marion quietly, and she turned and ran off. Robin followed. As he emerged from the cold of the cave, he saw that the valley below
him was filled with people, all of them gazing up at him and silent. Some had long white hair to their shoulders like the young woman. Some looked like children first, but they were not. They were dwarfs. Every one of them was dressed in the green of the forest. There were hunchbacks in amongst them, and it was one of these, the tallest, a hunting horn in one hand, that stepped forward and spoke up. “Your father was a good man. He fed the hungry. He fed the poor. We saw him. We watched him. We know everything and everyone that moves in the forest. We have to. Now he is gone and you are one of us. Like us, you are an Outlaw.”

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