And much I thank thee of your comfort,
And of your courtesy,
And of your great kindness,
Under the green wood tree.
-Translated from A Lytell Geste of Robyn Hode
Guy of Gisborne—Sir Guy of Gisborne now—had not visited Locksley in years. Not since Alys and Hob Fletcher were children. Now their cousin had returned on the eve of Hob and Robin of Locksley leaving for the Holy War to reclaim Jerusalem. Guy was there to talk to Alys’ parents about her future. Hob and Alys craned their necks to listen under the sill, their foreheads aglow from the glimmering hearth light. She’d been booted from the kitchen to let the adults speak, and only the fact that her older brother had been sent from the house as well calmed her indignation. Behind them stretched a carpet of green grasses leading up to acres of shorn sheaves of wheat, streaked with highlights from the silver moon.
The cool grass pressed against her ankles in the waning glow of dusk. Alys plucked a few strands and strung them between her thumb and forefinger: one side raspy, the other smooth.
When she was a young girl, Da had snatched two verdant blades and positioned them between his hands before raising them to his lips. He’d blown and made a buzzing noise. Alys and Hob had rolled back, laughing. Da had called it playing the reeds. Though he had to tend the wheat, manage the other villagers who farmed the Fletcher fields, and craft arrows, he always found time for Alys and Hob.
Now sixteen, Alys endured the sting of being barred from a conversation that concerned her fate. The rough side of the grass blade chafed her palm, and she grimaced.
“But without Alys,” Da’s voice, warm as the hearthstone on a winter’s day, drifted outside, “we won’t have enough hands for the fields, with Robert leaving on the morrow.”
Her parents, grandda, and Guy sat around the table in the middle of the kitchen. Their four shadows danced on the mud-brick wall opposite the hearth; they looked ghoulish, darting with the flutter of the white-orange flames.
“I can talk with the sheriff,” Guy said. “Perhaps he will send her back to help with the harvest.”
Alys mouthed: I don’t want to leave, Hob. She knew Ma hated that she still called her brother that. When Alys was little though, she never called him Robert, and she didn’t plan to start now.
Hob shook his head and pressed a calloused finger to his mouth.
Alys rolled her eyes. She hadn’t made a sound.
“It’s not a job for Alys we need,” Da said.
“She needs a husband,” Ma said. Normally, her voice made Alys think of the stream that cut between their land and the rest of Locksley village: cool, crisp, and refreshing. Tonight, however, her words sounded clipped and harsh, like ice floes cracking as winter gave way to spring.
Neither Da nor Grandda argued in Alys’ favor. Not this time.
“She’ll have a better chance,” Guy said with authority, “in the castle than in Locksley. My parents will not aid you if matters become difficult. My father would—” Guy’s voice dipped to a murmur, and Alys was unable to hear the end of his sentence. He picked up again, “—if he learned I’d even come here. The castle is her best chance for a future. Serving Maid Marian will place her before worthy suitors.”
Alys didn’t want to live in Nottingham Town; it was filthy and noisy, and there was no way she’d be able to continue practicing archery, playing soldier, and running through the fields of Locksley. How could Guy do this to her? He was the one who had trained her to fire a bow. He showed her and Hob how to ride a horse.
The day after Guy’s father had bought him his own pony, he’d ridden out to Locksley to visit. Guy called the pony Merlin, though Hob had suggested Barnaby. Merlin was brown with a white starburst on his face, and a white-gold mane and tail. When Alys asked if she could ride, Guy made a cradle with his hands, his fingers threaded together, and she’d put her foot in his palms to be hoisted onto the pony’s bare back. Her heart had almost ceased at the thrill. Never had she been so tall! Guy showed her how to weave her hands into the withers and promised next time there’d be a saddle, but Alys preferred the pony’s bare back. She had felt the soft, yet tickling, itching hair of the creature. Merlin’s breaths expanded his rib cage between her knees. The pony wore a rope for a bridle, and Guy walked ahead, leading the animal with Alys atop it. Hob tagged along, awaiting his turn and trying to convince Alys to dismount. It hadn’t taken many more visits before Alys rode on her own.
How could Guy try to rip her from freedom after he’d been the one to teach her what it was? How could he expect her to enclose herself in stone walls, courtly customs, and a maidservant’s life?
“We’re eternally grateful for you and your kindness, Sir Guy,” Ma said.
“I’ll come for Alys the day after tomorrow.” A chair scraped against the wooden floor. The other chairs echoed Guy’s.
Alys reached for her brother’s hand and squeezed hard. She glanced around at the cleared wheat fields that abutted her family’s three-room farmhouse and drew in a slow, deep breath. The Locksley air smelled sweet, and Alys needed to trap the aroma of a sunbaked harvest forever.
A tug on her arm. Hob was on his feet. “Move away from the window,” he hissed.
Alys stood and followed. They ran to the middle of the field where they wouldn’t be overheard or have to meet Guy again that night.
I don’t want to see Guy again, ever. Alys sat next to Hob and crisscrossed her legs, creating a valley with her skirt. She plucked a few fallen wheat stalks and dropped them in. “Can I march with you tomorrow?”
Hob scoffed. “Alys, you’re a decent shot, but I don’t think Robin or the king would welcome me bringing my sister to war.”
Alys gave Hob a playful shove. “I could follow the army to help cook and clean.”
Hob scowled and rubbed his shoulder. “You’re a dreadful cook. Wouldn’t do to poison Robin.”
“I am not a dreadful cook. I’m… a fair cook who has never poisoned anyone on purpose or by accident. And what would Ma say if she heard you refer to him as Robin instead of his lordship?”
“Robin says to call him Robin.”
“That doesn’t mean you should. He acts like your friend, and you follow him to take up arms. Do you… do you even believe in it? That you need to crush the infidel Turks?”
Hob picked at a broken stalk. “No. Do you?” He tossed the stalk in with the ones Alys had gathered. “But I don’t want to be a peasant, either.”
“I don’t get to go to war, so it doesn’t matter whether I believe in it. But why don’t you want to be a farmer? Few wheat stalks have ever stabbed a man.”
Hob shook his head. “Hunger will kill a man. If I go to the Holy Land, to battle for God and country in Jerusalem, Alys, I can come back distinguished. Honored. You’ve seen me with a bow. You’ve watched me with a sword. A spear.”
“Take care, brother. You sound prideful, and that’s a sin.” She shoved his shoulder again, lighter this time, and he rolled back onto the broken stalks, chuckling. “I loathe that you can leave for war and find your honor, and I must marry a man to get mine. And even then, mine would be mostly reliant on a husband’s.”
“We cannot play heroes together forever. Life isn’t like that.”
Alys looked back at the house. The door opened and Guy stepped out like he owned not merely the farmhouse, but the entire village. Soon he would. The new sheriff had already appointed Guy to run Locksley in Robin’s absence. Alys watched him stride over to his stallion, ease the reins from a tree, and mount the horse. He was taller than the last time she’d seen him, but it’d been years. His shoulders were broader, too, and Alys wondered if she could still out-shoot him with a bow and arrow.
Guy is only trying to help. Alys pushed aside the thought, along with the knowledge that her cousin was a decent sort of man. At least if Hob had to go to the Holy Land, and Alys had to go to Nottingham Town, their parents and Grandda would be alright. Guy would look after them.
At least she hoped Guy would watch after her family. Trying to help or not, she didn’t think he was doing a great job of looking after her, taking her away from home like this. But if both Alys’ parents and Grandda wanted to send her away to the castle, Alys knew there was little she might do to protest.
Hob and Alys stretched out on their backs and stared at the stars as they peeked out.
I wonder if they’ll look the same in the Holy Land. It would take Hob almost six months to get there. Alys looked over at her brother; he had the Fletcher nose: long, pointed, and too large for his head. His eyes were close together, like hers, and both of them had slim, long faces. When they were little, sometimes they would go with Grandda to the market in Town. People who didn’t know them mistook Alys for a lad because she looked so much like Hob. Once, Ma had shorn her hair short because Alys kept getting it tangled and refused to let Ma comb out the knots—at first glimpse, even the villagers in Locksley confused her for her brother.
“Maybe I should disguise myself,” Alys said.
“No,” Hob said right away. “That’s a worse plan than coming with me as you are. You’d be arrested. You know what falls upon girls who dress as youths.”
“It’d be worth it.”
“Why? At least if you’re in Town, you can return for each harvest. Besides, it’s war, not a game.”
“You know I can shoot as well as—or better—than you.” Alys turned and braced herself up on one elbow.
“And what happens if the line breaks? And the Saracens run at you brandishing swords? It’s not enough, Alys. Besides, if the king’s men discovered you, you’d be hanged… if you were lucky.”
Alys dropped back onto the ground with a groan. “That’s the worst law ever. Who cares what I wear?”
Hob sighed. “I don’t. You know I’d let you do whatever you choose. But I’m not in charge.”
They observed the skies in silence until the late summer night chilled their faces. When they were certain Guy had left, they rose and made their way back home. Alys kicked stubborn wheat stalks, so they broke and buckled to the earth, like subjects bowing before their liege lord.