A Castellan of the English Greenwood
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The road through Stonehurst was a winding one, given to gentle curves through the surrounding forest. On a summer’s day, the golden light would stream through the leaf canopy and pick out the vibrant yellows and greens of the roadside hedges. Come winter, shorn of their seasonal load, the trees would instead cast brittle shadows across their own blackened structures. And, on those rare days of snow, the landscape would shift into a gleaming white cloak, hiding the woodland beneath a soft, cold layer.

Sam Thorogood knew this road and its seasons very well. He had lived his whole life in Stonehurst and never ventured beyond the village limits. As a boy, he had attended the local school until his 16th birthday, whereupon he had conferred his regular attendance to the nearest inn. The Bold Forester was a warm country pub with low ceilings and lower prices, where Sam’s under-age drinking met no more than a raised eyebrow and then only on his few days of excess. All his shopping needs were met by the small store next to the pub and, ever since that last day of school, he worked exclusively for Mr Thackray, the owner of the sawmill that lay just off Wood Lane. His job ranged from felling trees, to sawing timber to finer carpentry. As the years passed he came to know the wood and trees in the area possibly better than any man alive. Four months ago that knowledge had triggered a dramatic change in his life. Not that anyone in Stonehurst knew. To them he was ever the sawyer, the logger, the woodsman. At the pub, they used to joke that if you cut Sam Thorogood, he would bleed sap.

Despite his secret, he was a happy man and had never much wondered about life beyond Stonehurst. Not, that is, until Mary Shaftesbury appeared.

Mary was a journalist: a reporter for the paper in the nearest city. She had come to Stonehurst to interview Mr Thackray about his vast success as a local businessman and about the huge empire of wood trading he was building throughout the area. That is how he told it to Sam, at least. Sam may have been naive in the ways of the world but he knew a braggart from a branch. His opinion of Mr Thackray’s airs and graces remained closely guarded, however.

On the day that Mary Shaftesbury arrived, Sam watched through the open door of the cutting shed as Mr Thackray showed her around the mill. It was a beautiful summer’s day. He could hear the older man tidying up the rural aspects of his accent while ratcheting up the volume of his voice a notch or two. He was in his element: primping over the machines, the log piles and the pallets of planks. That is, up until she asked to see the trees.

Watching, Sam smiled to himself. As far as he was concerned, Mr Thackray hardly knew which end of the tree to cut. He certainly would not venture out into the inclosure while wearing his best three-piece suit and moleskin shoes. Sam wandered towards the pair, wiping his hands clean on the tail of his heavy cotton shirt.

Of course Mr Thackray passed the trip into the forest off on to him. Unlike, the owner of the sawmill, Mary had come prepared for a walk in the countryside, Sam noted. She wore a stout pair of hiking shoes, robust cargo trousers and a small rucksack.

Sam may not have known much about life beyond Stonehurst but his enthusiasm for the woodland carried Mary and him along as they wandered companionably down a path between a patch of pines, deep in conversation about the trees around them and the wider forest beyond.

Planted in strict rows, the trees of the inclosure were under pressure to appear uniform and, yet, nature had found a way to stamp its authority. Trees twisted towards the light, some grew high, others canted sideways. One had fallen and, refusing to die, had diverted its energies into growing an entire line of branches that now pointed upwards.

Mary, for her part, was deeply content. She had come to interview a local businessman: to fill a formulaic column in the newspaper as part of her junior reporting years. She had plans for her career and they did not include listening to ridiculous bores inflating their own importance for much longer. She had visions of truth and justice in her future. However, she could not deny the effect that the beauty of the wood, even a heavily curated one like Thackray’s Copse, was having upon her. She felt at home: not in Stonehurst but right here, out in the trees.

And that was when Sam suggested he take her to see the Castle Tree. She had never heard of that species and said so. Sam shook his head, and told her it was an oak, but a very special one. Mary nodded and suggested it might be something like the Knightwood Oak. Sam shook his head again. It was older even that that, he said.

Mary frowned. She was a local woman and knew her lore. The Knightwood Oak was the oldest tree in the forest, more than 500 years old. She remarked on this fact.

Sam smiled, not cruelly. He reminded her that the Knightwood was also known as The Queen of the Forest. She nodded in recollection of this bit of trivia. Sam explained that the Castle Tree was the King.

At this, Mary removed from her pocket the device she had earlier used to interview Mr Thackray. Sam eyed it mistrustfully. Quite unexpectedly, even by him, he reached out and gently closed his fingers over Mary’s hand, pressing it down. Without a word passing between them, she understood and put the recorder away once more.

The physicality ended without awkwardness and the woodsman stepped away. In the next few moments, he outlined the relative proximity of the tree and how they might make their way there at a leisurely speed. Mary agreed.

The Castle Tree was titanic, not crippled by overheavy lower boughs as afflicted many ancient oaks, propped up by machined planks and supporting joists. Instead it swooped high, its canopy full, lustrous and straining towards the clouds. It stood at the centre of a wide, yet sheltered glade. A perimeter of smaller, younger oaks lined the clearing like the pages at a royal court.

Sam led Mary up to the giant oak and stood before it, gazing upwards. At that moment, the sun dipped below the tree line and a rosy hue took upon the sky. The air turned a degree or two cooler but not cold. Mary commented to Sam that the occasion of the sunset was a peculiar one, given that it had been barely past lunch when she had set off into the woods with him.

Sam turned to face her, whereupon Mary noticed a small change had overcome him but quite what she could not say. Sam spoke and, thus, initiated the most curious sequence of Mary’s life up to that moment.

‘Time runs differently in the Greenwood,’ he said.

Behind him, the oak seemed to swell and yet Mary did not feel menaced at all. Sam himself took on a more arboreal countenance as the bright colour of his clothing faded to a green-threaded dark brown, limned with black. His skin darkened to match and within a minute he had completely transformed to a wooden man, a living treeform.

Mary, a woman of words by profession, found herself briefly unable to draw upon any.

Sam extended an arm towards her. ‘Will you join us among the Jacks, Mary of Shaftesbury? Take the folk of the querca as your own?’ He paused for emphasis, ‘Will you stand as Castellan to the English Greenwood?’

Mary was surprised to note that she was not afraid: astounded, yes, but not afraid. Her words returned to her, ‘Who are you?’

The tree continued to soar above his head and a low yellow light spilled from its core as the pollarded joints opened like natural apertures. Twiglike shadows danced in the pools of light as other figures clambered from the heart of the oak and out on to the sweeping branches. The sky turned the colour of autumnal fire.

‘I am Sam Thorogood, Jack King of the English Greenwood, and I seek an ally to walk the ways and to stand guardian to our folk and our places.’

‘But why me? Why anyone?’

‘Because I am truly of the Greenwood now. The village yonder is the last of the human lands open to me. But, more importantly, it must be you because the woodland chooses it to be you. And I think you choose it, too.’

Mary looked into her heart and saw what he meant. Her yearning ambition to seek truth and cleave justice was still there but no longer pointed at her own people. In the seconds, minutes and hours she had been among the woodland, she had realised her love for it. And these extraordinary creatures with their extraordinary offer, known to her for mere moments and yet speaking to the echoing core of her soul, suddenly meant more to her than anything ever had. Or ever would.

‘Yes,’ said Mary. ‘I shall be your Castellan.’

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