I lay on the broad branch of the oak that spread its leaves over the camp, watching the people move below me. We had two newcomers, and as the moon rose and the forest outside our camp stilled I watched them talking. The girl was tired, restless, and soon Griever left her be. They both slept, the girl restlessly, Griever with his fists clenched. How quickly they adjusted to life in our camp.
As dawn broke through the trees I heard Jem climbing the tree to join me.
"You ate nothing last night."
"I was not hungry."
"Liar." She chuckled and I swivelled on the branch, wrapping my legs around it to support myself and staring at her. "Everyone is hungry."
"I am all too aware of that. I will go on a hunt today, get some deer for a venison stew. That should keep them happy for another week or so. But we have to do something for the villagers. They starve while the sheriff sits at banquet."
"We could take the deer to them."
"And if it were found they would be hanged for stealing from the King. No, we must feed them ourselves. We have the store from our last raid of the sheriff's supplies. I will take a cart to the village and pretend to sell them to the villagers. They will get food and I will be able to listen for any news."
"You cannot go alone."
"I cannot take more than one with me, it would be suspicious. It should be a man, they will be less likely to wonder why I am selling food on my own if I have a man there."
"Why not take the new recruit?"
"I want him watched, and the girl. They do not gain our trust until they have earnt it."
"He saved our lives."
"Yes, very fortuative that he appeared at the precise moment we needed help."
"I see your point."
"On second thoughts, I shall keep an eye on him. He shall come with me, and then I will know if he is willing to openly defy the sheriff. You talk to the child. I want to know how she came to be here; it would not surprise me if the sheriff were using children as spies."
"Do you trust anyone?" She asked, staring sadly at me.
"Yes and no. I love and respect all my friends here," I looked round at the camp, "and I sleep with a knife in my hand."
"We all do." She muttered.
"We will win Jem. I am sure of it."
"Yes, yes of course." She nodded.
"Come, I will eat before I hunt."
We slipped from the tree and I headed to where our oldest women cooked over the newly stoked fire. Elaine - a woman whose family had burned when the sheriff set fire to her home and had been carried here by her grandson Tom - passed a chunk of bread to me with her shaking hands. I took it and thanked her, securing some berries and a flask of water to take on my hunt with me. The camp was awake now, though it was not an hour after dawn. We wake early here.
The deer perked it's ears and looked with wide eyes around the trees. I crouched, unmoving, waiting for it to relax. My bow was drawn, arrow notched, and I awaited the perfect shot. The deer returned to feeding, and I loosed my arrow. It fell, eyes rolling. I leapt from my hiding place and made sure it had died.
"I am sorry. But you will feed a lot of hungry mouths today." I took the arrow out, hoisted the deer on to my shoulders, and headed back towards camp. I had checked the woods for guards and found them empty before I had begun my hunt, but I still hastened to be in safety. When I reached the camp the deer was taken to be prepared for the stew. "Jem!" I called, and she hurried over. "Take a group and find more deer. Send a group to find berries, herbs... we need to replenish our stock if I am to take most of it to the village. I will leave now and be back before night fall."
"Right." She disappeared, shouting orders to members of the group. I marched over to Griever.
"Busy life you lead." He commented, offering the seat next to him.
"You're coming with me on an errand."
"What errand may I ask?"
"We take food to the villagers of Hamish. You will need to change - we have clothes in that hut there. Find something so you will fit with the villagers. We pretend to sell that which they need, so you will need to look the part."
"Very well." He headed to the hut and I turned on my heel to enter my own. Changing in to a simple dress, like those the village women wore, I tied my hair up and went to meet Griever.
We carried the supplies to a cart hidden at the edge of the road that we used for just such occassions. As the others slipped back through the forest, Griever and I examined each other.
"You look the part." I muttered, heading to the edge of the cart and motioning him to join me,
"As do you." I glanced down at my dress and grimaced. Whenever I wore the outfit I felt as though someone had taken me from my body. I was not used to being without the support of trousers and a battle corset. It felt inefficient and ridiculous.
"Just push the cart. We have to make the most of the time we have. The sheriff may have already appointed a new Marshall, and he may have inforced new rules on the land. We need to gather information from the villagers, feed them and return without being viewed as suspicious. Are we clear?"
"Crystal." He replied and gave the cart an extra push. We reached the village within minutes and I saw the villagers regard us knowingly.
"They know who we are and what we do. The mark on the cart shows them." I pointed to the tree with an arrow in it that was carved in to the cart. "Come, they hold market here." I directed the cart around a house and we pushed it in to the open cobbled area where two carts were already positioned.
"I thought this was a market?" Griever asked, brow furrowed.
"It is." I replied sadly. "They are too poor to buy many things, and so people stopped bring their wares."
We wheeled the cart over and stopped at a little distance from the other carts. Already villagers were appearing, pretending to look at the other carts while heading carefully towards our own. The first villager reached us. His feeble arm reached towards me and I took his hand gently.
"Good lady, how can we thank you?"
"No need sir. What news? Does the sheriff keep to his castle? Does he have a new marshall?"
"He was furious after the death of his men last night lady, and the new marshall arrived while they were still taking the bodies from the ground. He is an evil man; he used Bradford's own blood to write a curfew for us all, and then pinned it to his arm with a quill."
"Bradford is dead? Who is this man?"
"Bradford is alive lady, the man only cut him. His name is Marshall Twynam, and he is a dark man."
"Twynam? Corin Twynam?" Griever asked from my side as he handed flour and potatoes to the hungry villagers.
"The same sir." The man replied, glancing at him.
"You know him?" I asked suspiciously.
"Only by reputation. The man rules with an iron fist."
"He's a cruel man. I would watch yourself lady, friend. I am sure he will be coming round here today to see what he owns now."
"Owns? But this is the sheriff's land."
"But he's been given Hamish Manor, and he intends to treat us all as his slaves I feel."
"If he does you can be sure we will rid you of him. You can count on us sir. Now take your food, the guards are watching."
"Bless you lady." He took the food and scuttled away.
"How do you know they're not spies?" Griever asked.
"I know them all by name. We protect them, bring them food, care for them, offer them shelter if they are turned away, and we have saved their families from death and worse. They love us and know that we will never leave them. They hate the sheriff for what he has done to them. They would never turn on us."
He nodded and we continued to give the villagers food and hear their news for an hour, undisturbed. The sound of hooves on the cobbles broke the chatter, and the villages began to visibly shy away from the oncoming noise. I took a glance behind me and saw a group of soldiers with one man in front. I did not recognise him, but I knew him to be the new Marshall. Only he could inspire such terror in the villagers. His face was hidden from view as his back was turned, but as they came in to the square they turned to face us. There he was.
His gaze swept the square, a green eyed stare that cut through everything in one judging glance. I turned away before his eyes reached me; if he caught me watching him he would know I was not like the other villagers. They all disappeared or kept their heads down when he was near, as they had with the previous Marshall. But this was different. Before they had given us glances of encouragement, now they dared not give us a look. I wondered if it was to keep us safe or because they were too terrified to look anywhere but at the cracked cobbles at their feet.
"That's him." Griever muttered as I discreetly covered the tree insignia with part of the cloth that lay under the wares.
"Must be." I replied in hushed tones. "They're terrifed of him." Griever glanced at the villagers and nodded his head.
The hooves began to sound on the cobbles behind us and I watched from the corner of my eye as the group patrolled past us. Twynam surveyed the area with a calculating stare, his eyes narrowed and his leather clad hands wrapped tightly round the reigns of his horse. He regarded the other stalls, spoke to their owners, and then turned to face ours. I stayed with my head down, pretending to be busy with the food. Griever hoisted a basket up on to the stall and then turned away from the Marshall.
"What do we do if he speaks to us?"
"You are my mute brother, I come with you to market to help. Let me speak." I replied deftly as the sound of hooves approached us. "I have dealt with scum like him before."
The hooves stopped in front of me and I kept my eyes low. I could feel his eyes boring in to my head and then switch to Griever who had turned around.
"Can I help you sir?" I asked, bobbing a curtsey, keeping my gaze low. I wanted to keep my face from his memory.
"Speak when spoken to woman!" One of the guards called. Twynam held up his hand.
"Why speak for your husband?"
I glanced at Griever. Husband?
"Sir this is my brother, and he is mute. I assist him where I can." I bowed my head, grimacing inwardly at having to bow to this schovanist pig.
"Then your brother should know there is a tax on those who have their market carts here. You are expected to pay one silver piece for the day." I narrowed my eyes but kept my head bowed.
I heard someone slide from the saddle and stride forward. As he reached the edge of the cart I stiffened; the gloves wereTwynam's - I recognised them from my study of him. He held one out, waiting for the silver piece. I reached for the purse at my hip and pulled out a silver piece, handing it to him, refusing to look up.
"Does the lady not desire to look upon the new Marshall of Hamish? Are his deeds too terrible to receive the look of a woman?" He leaned against the cart, his hands fisted upon the wood to support him.
"I was told that women should not look upon men unless they are their father, brother or husband sir." I whispered, the very picture of a contrite woman.
I heard him chuckle and then his hands disappeared and I heard him climb on to his horse. I let out a breath I wasn't aware I'd been holding.
"We may see you next week, with your silver piece ready." He called as the group trotted away. Once the hooves had disappeared, the villagers began to move about again, clustering around the cart.
"Lady, it may be dangerous for you to come here." One of them whispered.
"Aye, but we will not desert you. Do not worry, we will retrieve our silver piece along with your money on our next visit to the grand halls of the Sheriff."
They grinned and nodded, then began to collect the food from our cart once more.