The hiss of breaking foliage brought Robyn back to reality. His hand went for his sword as a shadowed figure broke through the brambles. “Robyn,” the figure’s voice cracked. “Robyn, we have men headed our way!”
Robyn relaxed his grip on his hilt and manufactured a smile. “Who comes down the bend?”
“The Earl of Lincoln, one of his men at arms and a monk.”
“The Earl of Lincoln?” This was where he and his gang had donned the greens they wore in the forest. There were no better dyers than in Lincolnshire. “William de Roumare?”
“The very same.”
“What he does in Sherwood at this time of night is anyone’s guess,” Robyn said with a merry laugh. “How soon before we can intercept them?”
“Soon enough,” said the young outlaw. “They were spotted just before sundown.”
“Gather what men you can and bring them to me—alone. And prepare a feast. I have heard rumors in town of the infamous dinner with Robyn Hode. I should like to see how these men regard rumors.”
The boy nodded, a smile creeping across his face. He dashed back into the foliage.
Robyn waited until the boy was far off before he returned to his journal.
* * *
I awoke to find myself wreathed in darkness and flat on a floor that was as comfortable as a bed of knuckles. There was a fire growing dimly, distantly through the black. The place smelled of clay. The only sound was the fire’s spitting and the drip-drip-drip of stalactites.
I was in a cave.
I recalled my encounter with the monster. It could not have been a trick. The Sheriff was not a sorcerer. He could not conjure things into being that could move like that thing had moved.
But there was no such thing as monsters.
As my senses expanded, I spotted the silhouette of what I presumed to be my summoner. He wore a wolf-skin cloak, the head of which bobbed atop his scalp as he rocked heel to toe beside the flames. I worried he might fall in.
“This place is cold, is it not, Christian?” My summoner made no move to look at me. He laughed to himself. “Heh…but it is still my place.”
I moved to stand, but the old one’s shouted some alien language. Or so I thought at the time. “Nrygdulu!” was the word, and it halted me. I couldn’t tell if I was too weary to move, or if this old one had done something to me.
“Do not move, Christian. My spell must have time to settle.”
“My name is not Christian.”
“It is your faith, is it not?” The old one turned to glance at me. His pupils winked in the firelight.
“You mentioned spells,” said I.
“I know nothing of them.”
“This is not news to me.”
“Then tell me,” I said, “Tell me of what you speak!”
“Spells,” the old one reiterated. “The fading echoes of a language long dead. I have spoken to you the words of healing. But they need time to settle into your bones. That cannot happen if you’re moving about.”
“I do not understand.”
“Have I asked you to?” The fire’s crackling filled the gap in our conversation. “You have questions, Christian. Ask them.”
“Where am I?”
“Nowhere. This place is not bound by such petty shackles as time. I have pulled you into a new frame of mind. One where we are everywhere at once. And so, nowhere.” Belatedly, he added, “You may stand now.”
I wandered over to the fire and circled the flames to look at my summoner.
He was a pitiful creature—somewhere between an old man and a toad. Thick webbed feet rocked back and forth. His limbs were so frail I thought a passing breeze might snap them.
He knitted his brow. “Yes, I am one of them. You may stop staring now,”
“One of whom?”
“I come from the same stock that injured you. The one that forced my hand to bring you here. You took their land long ago and now they want it back.” His voice groaned like an old door. “I am the same breed as the monster that nearly killed you.”
“Then why are you here in this place? Why are you not trying to kill me?”
“Sit down Christian.”
“Sit. Down. Mi storn sij!”
My limbs were not of my own, for a moment. It was as if I watched sit from outside my own body.
“You are weak of will,” he said. “You succumb too easily old words. We will fix that.” He prodded the fire with a staff laid beside him that I hadn’t noticed. “Look into the flames, Christian. Tell me what you see.”
“I see nothing.”
“Then you are not truly seeing. Keep looking until you see something.”
The flames danced, forming carnal shapes embracing each other. “Such power,” I said. “I see power, ancient beyond measure.”
“The are called the Shai. The Ones Who Wait Between the Stars.”
“They–they lived here. Long ago. Before even Eden first flowered. Things approached them. All of them. I see gifts, and deals. These things worship the Shai…”
“They were our gods.” He prodded the fire. “What do you see now?”
“These things, the patron of the Shai…they fight against each other. Whole species are wiped out in one battle.”
“Their patrons…they are called Shai’da.”
“They drove themselves near to extinction,” I said. The fire flared up, braying sizzling light. It almost sounded like it was speaking. “The Shai flee to the dark places between the stars. They are afraid. Another power has come. A stronger power. It builds a garden to safeguard its patrons from the Shai’da!”
I was not fully aware of what I was saying. My eyes burned, staring at the flames. The burn seemed to seep behind my eyes, into my skull and down my throat. I felt the heat in my belly stronger and more painful. “The creatures went underground. They hid from the garden.” The fire coiled around my innards. I expected every breath to mist smoke and spark. “But the garden was infiltrated. They were expelled. They named the Shai’da. Vampires and trolls and lycanthropes and kelpies.”
“All the same creature at heart, making a deal with a different Shai.”
I felt as if someone had twisted a red hot blade in my gut. “I cannot. No more. Please!”
Every instinct within the me said that I must look away, yet I could not find the mental faculties to do so. My neck seemed to resist the pull of her head with such force that I wondered if I were successful in freeing my gaze that I might wring my neck as a result. “What is that?” I cried. “Old one! What is that thing?”
“That thing is one of the Shai. That thing is the master of fell beasts you saw tonight. He is the Conjurer, but I shall not speak his name. He is a dark thing. And I yet ascertain that he is hardly a he anymore…if he ever was.
“He is waiting, Christian. Always he is waiting and watching…and listening. The Conjurer is patient. He waits in a place beyond time, in the deep places between the stars, where there is no light that can touch him. The nothing between all worlds is his home. And he waits for one who would speak his name in the right moment, as stars align and the black curtain of his world is drawn back for only a moment—but a moment is all he needs. And in that moment, he would return, and find his way back to the altar where he first wrought such fell beasts and brought nightmares into the waking world. See it as it was then, when all things vile and black and base danced about the altar to make ready. Such things would come again, if he heard his name at the right time.”
“I can’t…I cannot watch.”
My breath cinched someplace deep within me, such that I could not breathe no matter how much I wanted to. A great wrongness spread through my veins, and then I possessed not even the faculties to form a coherent thought. I could only watch as a bead of sweat, glistening against the glow of the fire, fell from my forehead and sizzled into the fire below.
The Conjurer seemed to sense this, and his form twisted, serpentine, and rose from the fire, rising and stretching like a candle caught in a breeze. I saw no face beneath his hood only a dark and terrible power, formless, trapped in gray robes. The crescent moon was his smile, curved and sharp as a blade.
I craned my neck to look upon the Conjurer, and saw the ratty leathered hand holding a stone dagger. Yet this was not so. I could sense the old one watching, relaxed. The only thing in the fire was flames, yet within the flames was this great hand holding a knife, raised high and glowing with the light of forge-fires, and then bearing down on me.
Yet as he prepared to bring it down, the old one spoke thusly:
“Komai cu, eldur!” The fire shivered, though there was no wind. The Conjurer’s hood itself itself seemed to stretch, as if forming some voiceless scream. The old one spoke again, “You’re doing well, Christian. Only has come this far in the first meeting.
From the hood came something new. It was a black thing, glowing red as if fresh from the forge fires deep in Nottingham Castle. It was wrapped within a cloak made of bats’ wings. It floated over the fire taking shallow breaths.
“What is it?” I gasped.
“It,” the old one said, “Has heard us.” He raised his staff and smacked the thing. It’s batwing cloak unfolded, screeching a thousand screeches. “Back!” He cried, “Begone, foul wraith! Under the moon and in sight of ravens I compel you, begone!”
The thing hissed as the flames engulfed it. Its screeches died one by one, and the fire whirled down and fell back into the logs and tinder, embers glowing and sizzling. The old one rocked back and forth over it.
I was in a cold sweat, heaving. There was ice behind my eyes and in my stomach now. Rivers of sweat ran down my back and face.
“You endured longer than most, Christian. Only Scheherazade came close in our first meeting.”
“The thing that attacked me,” I said. “It’s one of them? That creature—it killed a man. An——an innocent who had nothing to do with my cause.”
“It cares not for your cause. It only wanted the blood it felt it was due.”
“It’s what keeps them alive.” He laughed to himself. “The blood of Christ, shed for them, it would seem.”
My thoughts wrung their hands around my neck. “You’re lying. This isn’t real. Such creatures cannot exist!”
“And why not? You’ve seen them in my flames.”
“Because a loving God would not permit it!”
The old one’s laugh reverberated off the cave walls, as if there were others mocking me from the shadows. “My dear boy…Whoever said that God had anything to do with it?”
I felt I might retch at the visage of this decrepit old thing. The knowledge of what he was shook me down to my core. My teeth were chattering. My head was pounding like I’d be struck by a crabstaff. “You’re lying,” I’d meant to scream it, but it was barely even a whimper. “You’re lying!”
“No,” the old one said levelly. “I am not. They’ve been here all along. Your kind has never cared enough to look. I will not say that your ancestors did not try to warn you. They are your fairy tales and bedtime stories. Your myths and legends. They are real. And they are Shai’da.”
His words dug into my head, massaged the icy cold lurking there and in my stomach. My temples pounded. I wanted to reply. Retort. Be as cavalier as if I was facing Sir Guy or the sheriff.
Yet my mind blocked all response. I ruminated on his words. The monsters I once thought fiction haunt the world. How could anyone permit this to happen?
“I know this is hard to take in, Christian. And I would like to tell you more—to tell you all. But you must believe me when I say such knowledge would tear you asunder. I have given you the slightest fraction of what I know, and look what it has done to you.” He hugged his wolf-skin close and spat in the fire. “Sitting there, babbling.”
Sweat brewed and felt boiling on my forehead. I hugged my knees to my chest and tried to scream, but managed only whimpers.
The old one looked at me as if he were a master scolding his dog. “Pathetic,” the head of his wolfskin cloak bobbed about as he shook his head. “Infantile.”
Words leapt unbidden into my head. I knew not what I meant, only that I must say them. “Fir Phirginencu !” I shouted.
The old one’s eyes went wide. He tried to speak, yet not a sound passed his lips. Webbed hands leapt to his mouth in an effort to tear open his jaw. Panic besieged his countenance as his hands ripped furiously at his mouth. He tumbled back and caught himself in mid-fall. A smile touched his lips, and his mouth opened again.
“Good,” he cooed. “Very good. You’re learning.”
I made an attempt to stand. My limbs felt rusted. The sweat had cooled—as if these alien words had released the pent up panic that had plagued my mind. “What did I say?”
“In a rough translation? Be silent.” He answered my next question before I could ask it. “Do you know the gibberish that builds in your mind in moments of great stress—or in great calm? Your thoughts move too fast to be collected so you may as well be thinking nothing. This is your body trying to perform a spell. Aching to remember words your human minds were taught in a time before time.”
He padded over to where I stood, moving on all fours like a frog. “The trick is to catch what you want to say when you want to say it. Then you can weaponize it. There are others ways to guard yourself when facing these things. There are herbs for your mind, and silver and steels. I will gift you some of the former when we part.”
I focused on my breaths and told myself I would accept this new reality one fact at a time. “And can you gift me this speech?”
“Help me weaponize words?”
I knelt to be at eye level with him. “Then you will teach me how to kill these things.”