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It started, as most dreams of his beloved Sherwood inevitably did, with the stag.
Older now than it once was, it still had power; still had strength. It was not to be underestimated. And it moved through the undergrowth like it owned this place… which, really, it did. In fact, it was more accurate to call the stag its caretaker, though as much as the creature looked after the forest, Sherwood also looked after it… after him. For he had worked out long ago what the stag was. It was a representation of him, the Hooded Man—in turn a symbol of something else. Of justice, of truth and right, in a land that had none.
Or hadn’t, until he’d come along; now it was a very different story. He, the stag, could hold his head high, knowing he’d done all he could for the people. That he’d brought them safety and security, of a kind. Although in these perilous times you could never be sure that anything would last. Indeed, there was a battle coming that would change everything again. In spite of all he’d been through, there was still more to come.
That’s what the forest had told him.
Today the stag he’d become was standing in a clearing, flanked by foliage and trees. It was warm there, basking in a ray of sunlight. He closed his eyes, turned his face towards it: illuminated. Hopefully soon in more ways than one.
He felt—when he opened his eyes again—the heat shifting, coming from another source. Something that whipped over his head: an arrow, with a flaming tip, making its way through the forest. A guide of sorts, he realised, and as such he was compelled to follow it. Chase it, as fast as his ageing legs would carry him.
As he did so, he risked a look left and right, and saw visions: on one side was a big black snake curling itself around a golden throne, while a brutish bull-creature stood guard next to it like the mythical Minotaur. The snake showed its crooked and yellow fangs as it began hissing at him—the symbol of all evil since the Garden of Eden—and then shifted position to reveal a second snake. It looked exactly like the first one, only smaller; its child, perhaps? It hissed at the stag like its father. Somehow he had the feeling that, once fully grown, the smaller serpent would be infinitely more dangerous than the one who had sired it.
On the other side was a bear, which immediately reared up and stood on its back legs. Its fur was red, as if dyed, and its growl was loud when it finally came. As he continued to watch, the animal split into two, producing a perfect duplicate in every respect apart from one: it had a curved blade in place of one of its front paws. The new bear also growled, as its twin disappeared in the trees, and then began slashing with the blade, cutting through the air. Suddenly, the Minotaur was there, too, and the pair were fighting. Locked in combat, struggling against each other, the Minotaur holding the bear’s front legs as it gored its opponent with its own horns, staining the bear’s fur with blood.
Though he was still in motion, the stag somehow saw all of this and more. The forest was trying to tell him things, and he’d learned long ago to take notice. As well as healing him when he was wounded, it also showed him the past, the present… and the future. Sometimes it was hard to work out which was which, especially as time seemed to curl around in circles, some events apparently destined to happen again and again.
He looked back across at the throne and saw that the first snake was now gone, replaced by its successor—and he’d been right. As it grew, it spat its venom at the stag’s feet. The liquid hissed as it ate into the floor.
By the time he cast his gaze back to the fight, it was all over and the bear was standing, victorious, over the body of the Minotaur. But its celebrations didn’t last very long before it was struck in the back of the head by something metallic which the stag couldn’t quite make out. Something that went on ahead, racing in front of the arrow and disappearing out of sight. He felt sure he hadn’t seen the last of it, though.
On and on, and when the stag looked to the side once more there were bones in the woodland. The skeletal remains of something huge, which looked at first glance to be a bird—for it had wings—but which he saw now was dragon. On the opposite side, the stag saw a large cauldron that had been upturned, its contents spilling out onto the ground. More bones, human remains this time that had been boiling away inside the pot. Cards were scattered around the grass there as well, the kind used by fortune tellers to try and predict the future. Their owner wasn’t far behind, also skeletal but still moving, a giant spider which climbed over the cauldron and began to gather up the cards. It kicked one across, close enough for the stag to bend and see. Elaborately illustrated, the card portrayed a colourfully-dressed man dancing along a path, with a bindle over his shoulder. The man was casually dancing along towards the edge of a cliff, unaware of the mortal danger.
The card, and the man it depicted, was THE FOOL.
Was that what he was doing? Was he rushing headlong towards his doom without knowing it, chasing the arrow still burning so brightly ahead of him? Or was it what he was doing in that other place? The real world he’d come from, where there were no symbols or warnings, where things just happened and you had to deal with them.
The stag couldn’t really stop anyway, his legs propelling him forward whether he wanted to go or not. And he’d suddenly been joined by another animal that ran alongside him, light brown in colour with a mane: a majestic lion, roaring to announce its presence. To offer its company. That was a comforting thing at the moment, because the forest was darkening. He felt like he was the one being watched now. Studied.
Then he saw that he was being observed. By dozens… no, tens of dozens of eyes. That was all he could see, in the darkness between trees: things scrutinising him, because he was sure they weren’t people. Or not really people anyway, not the way their eyes glowed red like that. The stag looked around for the lion, but it was gone, leaving him wondering whether it had been friend or foe—or even something in-between. He was safe enough, though, here in the middle, his way lit by the flaming arrow ahead of him.
Leading him on, finally, to his destination.
Before he reached it, he caught sight of the metal thing from earlier, now flapping its wings. A large bird of what looked like iron, hanging in the air ahead of him, above another clearing. It opened its wings wide and then transformed into something else, a cross of sorts—though all of its four ‘arms’ were bent. The stag stared at it, wondering what it meant, lit up by the arrow it had overtaken.
When he looked back down again, he saw what had been waiting for him at the end of this journey.
Not his own, no precipices to walk over while he wasn’t looking. This was much, much worse. The people he cared about, the people he loved so much were laying there covered in blood. He wanted to go to them—especially his beloved wife, his child, his brothers—but realised that he could not. Here he was not a man at all, he was an animal. He was only what the dream forest would let him be; all he could do was take in those bodies, those faces. All he could do was mourn them. Then came the anger—and the questions. How had this happened? Who was responsible?
He really had been a fool, hadn’t he? While he’d been bounding along, his family was being slaughtered by unknown hands. But if he hadn’t been able to save them, he could at least avenge them. The stag, teeth gritted, looked up again at the strange iron cross in the sky, saw the flaming arrow strike its centre. Knew, in his heart, that he’d been the one who’d shot it.
Yet he felt a compulsion to look back, look behind him over his shoulder. It was only at this point that he saw the damage done by the arrow, a forest alight. Burning brightly one minute, burnt to the ground the next, leaving behind only blackened stumps.
More tears came then, because not only had he lost his kin, he had also lost his home.
This dream of Sherwood had become a nightmare.
The hooded man woke, sitting bolt upright, looking around, a hand automatically on his bow.
He had to make sure they were still safe. For a moment he panicked; they were all prone, laid out like they had been in the dreamscape. But they were far from dead. He picked up soft breathing, even snoring, as they slumbered. And now a couple of them stirred, though only long enough to roll over and continue sleeping. He let out the breath he’d been holding, looked down and across to see his wife beside him, her dark hair splayed out beneath her like some beauty from a painting. Reaching out, he placed his hand on the swell of her stomach then wished he hadn’t, because she was instantly awake.
“Robin?” she said, on seeing his face. “Robin, what is it? What is amiss?”
He shook his head. “It is nothing, Marian. A troubling dream.” Now she looked concerned as well. Marian knew as well as he that a dream in Sherwood, probably of Sherwood if she knew her Robin well, did not mean nothing. Moreover, his dreams—the warnings the forest spirits gave to him—had saved them all on more than one occasion.
“Tell me,” she insisted, and he did… or as much as he felt comfortable saying. Robin did not—could not—share the image of her and his men, murdered where they lay: Much, who was like a son to him; Little John, his brother; Friar Tuck, a brother in more ways than one; and Will, who he was forever clashing with but loved all the same. Once more, he cast his eyes around their camp to check they were all right. For one thing, any intruder on this night would have to get past Alan and the Saracen, on lookout in either direction.
“There is more, is there not?” Marian was far from stupid, Robin knew that.
“Aye,” he told her wearily. “This dream was different from the others I have had in the past. It did not feel as if I was dreaming about us, about our conflict… That is to say, the Sheriff was definitely there—in the form of a snake as before—but it was not him. For one thing, he remains childless, as far as I know. And those others… The red bears, the dragon, the spider-witch. Enemies yet to be encountered, perhaps, but I do not think they are ours. I did not even feel like I was truly myself. I was the stag again, yet…”
Marian’s brow creased and she shook her head. “I do not understand, my love.”
“Neither do I,” Robin admitted. “But I did get the sense that what we are doing here, today, will affect what happens after this. Maybe even long after we are gone ourselves, leaving the struggle to those who follow.” He patted her belly again, rearranged the moss and leaves around her to make her more comfortable. It was a balmy night, this one, so they’d chosen to bed down outside under the stars. “Now sleep, Marian. We will speak of this again tomorrow.”
Before she could say another word, Robin placed a finger on her lips, then took her head and rested it on his chest, leaning back with her. Though he knew it would be a long time before sleep visited him once more.
Thoughts and wonderings about what was to come flitted and whirled around inside his head. Wonderings that would bother him from that day forward, until he took his dying breath. About the possibility of another Hooded Man.
A man whose dreams he may have accidentally stolen upon.
Get A Dream of Sherwood and the next installment of The Hooded Man series now in The Flaming Arrow eBook available online from amazon in the UK and US NOW