But not this oak. He had survived to send roots into the earth and over the years had grown tall and strong. He had battled for his space in the wood and had won against others who had tried to grow in his shadow. After two centuries his trunk was thick and his branches strong. They spread out far and wide and nothing could compete against his strength.
The centuries drifted slowly past. Battles were fought and lost; battles were fought and won; there were even those where no-one came out as real victors, but still the oak stood firm, his roots descending ever deeper and spreading ever wider in the ground beneath him forming a grip that was unshakable. He would live to witness many an event unfold beneath his branches, some dramatic some less so, but allow me to recount some below.
It was only ninety-nine years later, in 1100, that the patch of ground that was fast becoming the oak’s domain when fully grown, became sodden with the blood of an English monarch. Had the blood of this ruthless king surged through the oak’s roots, making it strong and tenacious in living in the centuries to follow? The body of William II had lain where it had fallen for a few hours after the fatal arrow had struck, which could, of course, explain the patch of red that oozes from the soil every 2nd August, and the sudden slight growth spurt from the oak on that day every year since the fateful hunting trip, its branches shuddering and leaves rustling as it does so. William had been the Conqueror’s favourite son, his ruddy complexion earning him the nickname ‘Rufus’. But favourite or not, there he lay in August 1100, the arrow protruding from his chest, his different coloured eyes staring lifelessly at the earth, his hunting companions having fled, this way and that, leaving him out of sheer panic for their life and property now that the king was dead.
But times moves on. Tempus fugit. And apart from the occasional appearance of men hunting - whether legally or illegally - peace once more descended upon the wood and its occupants. For the next two hundred odd years the oak widened its reach around itself and had become truly and irrevocably established.
It was one October that the oak became the scene of quite a different scenario than had ever occurred before. There were still leaves upon the branches, but the majority had already succumbed to gravity and had floated to the ground where the rotting process had begun. Soon they would be mere skeletons of their former selves; a delicate lacework of veins. It was upon the piles of discarded leaves beneath the oak’s canopy that the footsteps came crunching, kicking up the leaves as they went. They were not the steps of someone who came in secret, but of one who came with purpose; they were decisive steps that flattened and destroyed the delicate frames of the fallen beneath the heavy weight of their stride.
The figure stopped and leant against the oak’s thick, gnarled trunk, his left foot raised up behind him so that the sole of his foot rested against the bark. He fiddled with the belt bag that hung from his waist and pulled forth a pouch; a pouch clearly containing something heavy. Tossing it upwards he caught it deftly in his right palm and the coins inside jingled dully as they knocked against each other. He idly scratched at his arm and bounced the bulging pouch up and down in his hand. After a short while, impatience seemed to get the better of him and he pushed off the trunk with his left foot and paced up and down. Then, hearing something, he dashed into the shadowy undergrowth. From the opposite direction came the sound of footfalls in the crisp autumn carpet and soon another figure game into view. Satisfied that it were he that he had been expecting, the waiting man revealed his existence from the cover of the wood’s shadows.
There was a slight bow of the head from each of the men in a silent civil greeting as the pouch changed hands with the promise of a further delivery once the task had been completed to the satisfaction of he who supplied the coin. A flock of raucous rooks disturbed the quietness of the secretive tryst as they took flight into the autumnal air in a mass of black feather and beak. This raised the silent question by each man to himself of whether they had been followed to their assignation. Had their accord been discovered? Had the birds been disturbed by the arrival of the noble’s men, men in the pay of the man whose demise was being paid for in the quietness of the wood?
Both men looked around nervously and eyed each other suspiciously. Either one could have welched on the delicate accord. Had one laid an elaborate trap on the other? There was no sound of approaching feet, nor clank of chain mail, nor snort of horse. It was, of course, more than likely that it was just a result of their over-active imaginations, or maybe even their feelings of guilt, that had caused their fear of the sudden ascending swirl of the birds.
But there was more than the pouch that moved from one person to another under the oak tree that day. And if either man had known this, then their fear would have definitely been very real. The flea that had caused the man to scratch his arm had momentarily landed on the money pouch just as it had been received into the other man’s hand, whilst several others had already jumped from their old host to their new victim. They worked their way up his arms, and down his legs and bit him to suck out the warm blood that raced with the adrenalin caused by the secret assignation. And whilst one man returned to take the road back to the coast, the other made his way to Winchester. The year was 1398 and the people of Winchester would soon fall under the unrelenting power of the deathly Great Pestilence. Burial pits would fill with the rotting carcasses of its victims, young and old, as the harbingers of destruction that travelled to Winchester on that last day of October spread their doom.
Time and again the oak had to endure being a silent witness of death. His size meant he was well-known throughout the nearby towns and villages, as well as the city of Winchester. His branches became the site of many a hanging of poor unfortunates such as poachers and witches throughout the ages, and in the Civil War witnessed the deaths of seven cavaliers and three of Cromwell’s men after the former had sought safety in the wood and the latter had sought them out.
And now 1,000 years later it still stands, old and haggard, its lower branches bowed and almost touching the ground as it struggles with their weight. This is the Old Man of the Greenwood with the blood of a fallen king rushing through its heart and the screams of many a victim echoing throughout its frame. And once a year a bold traveller may see the faces of those whose death it witnessed etched in the bark of its bole. Or the long parade of plague victims that gather once a year under its branches as they join hands and form circles around the two men whose criminal assignation were the cause of their deaths. That is, of course, if that traveller is brave enough to venture into the wood, in the dead of night on the 31st day of October.