A Practical Guide to Monsters #5

In Sight of Ravens (2)

Previously

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 did.”

“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.”

“I’ll stand.”

“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!”

“Your ancestors.”

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.”

“You must.”

“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.”

“Blood?”

“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?”

“Yes.”

“Help me weaponize words?”

“Yes.”

I knelt to be at eye level with him. “Then you will teach me how to kill these things.”

Next

A Practical Guide to Monsters #4

In Sight of Ravens (2)

Previously

Fire knitted its way through logs and tinder. Robyn Hode kept his journal close to the flames so that he could see what he was writing. But not too close—he didn’t want to burn the book.

Not until he filled its pages, at least.

He sat on a tree stump. He’d a wooden bowl filled with crushed berries at his side. The outlaw dipped a thin stick into the juice and scratched his story into his journal.

It occurs to me that I should write about the origins as to how I came to know about things like wyverns and other nighttime terrors that have made their way into the waking world. What follows is an account of my first encounter with such creatures, recalling my original journal entries and all.

* * *

I thank God that most of my men are illiterate, for if they knew what demons fill these pages my cause would surely be abandoned. My men are superstitious—and it would not do to tell them what lurks in the shadows.

Robyn paused, his stick poised to strike the parchment. He took a breath and forced himself to write the words that would seal the fact of his belief.

Last night I learned that monsters are real.

 

*           *           *

I journeyed to Nottingham by the light of a full moon. I donned a hooded cloak—small purses, or trinkets, stuffed within its manifold pouches. The Sheriff had collected their coin unduly and it was intent to return it to them.

I had instructed the townsfolk to leave a mark on their door–a scrap of wool, or paint–anything subtle to indicate that they wanted to chance a meeting with me. I resolved to return the coin to those it truly belonged to. If they did not wish to risk being seen with me, their coin would be put forward to King Richard’s ransom from the Roman Emperor in the East.

I had almost completed my cycle through the town, most doors shut tight as a promise when I came to a home with strange markings. It belonged to a local miller on the edge of town.

ENTER, the door said, the words by what looks to be an unsteady hand. Rivulets ran down each letter.

I knew I could be walking into a trap. None save the Sheriff and his lackeys would make such an obvious bid to capture me. All the same, the miller in that home was innocent. in that home and I could not leave their lives in jeopardy.

Fool that I am, I entered.

*           *           *

 

Robyn felt his heartbeat in his fingertips. His hands shook with such ferocity that for a fraction of a second he worried he might drop his journal into the flames.

The outlaw took a breath and mastered his resolve. He steadied his thoughts and scratched them into the pages.

*           *           *

 

Trepidation laced my hand as I reached for the door. I threw it ajar, moonlight streaming through the doorway and windows.

The walls were splattered with blood. This was no home, I thought. This was a butchery. All possessions were gone, save for something near the back corner.

I crept closer to inspect it, and soon realized it it not as a thing, but a man. Fat black flies settles on his eyes and his face, and rose up in a cloud as I approached.

His throat had been turned inside out and dried blood had wept down his chest and turned brown. But his chest, too, had been rent. The cuts were to jagged to have come from a sword, so what could have done this?

My answer came in the form of an inhuman voice, like that of a man gargling saltwater.

“Welcome, welcome, Locksley man, he who fights for a greater good. Welcome, welcome to this land. Welcome, welcome, Robyn Hode.”

Upon hearing these words, I unsheathed my dirk and spun to face the speaker. I was prepared for an enemy like Sir Guy or the Sheriff Yet what awaited me was nothing human in the slightest.

Its skin was graying as if it were on the verge of decay. Veins spiderwebbed across its body. The creature was covered in a latticework of scars. Mangled hair rested matted like a carpet atop its head.

When it smiled, I saw fangs.

“So you know my name,” said I, brandishing my blade. This was some trick, I knew. Some strange illusion that the Sheriff had conjured to trick me.

But I would not fall prey to its trap. “Yet I know not who you are. Be a gentleman and enlighten me.”

“You would like that, wouldn’t you, outlaw?” the creature said. “To know my name and all the secrets that come with it. But names are powerful things. And power is not freely given.”

I made no move to retort, rather I lunged for the thing’s heart with such surety I knew my aim to be as true as an arrow’s flight.

Yet my dirk pierced only air.

When I recovered, the beast stood behind me. It snarled and lashed at me with taloned fingers. And yet it missed. How could this be—for this creature to miss such a sure strike?

Then a bite of pain sank into my cheek. Warm blood trickled down my face.

It hadn’t missed.

The monster moved almost lazily, the way a man swats a fly. It was toying with me, I realized. Like the cat that lets the mouse run away with its injuries.

“You thought you could fight me, Robyn Hode?” the creature asked. “You are only human. Your kind knows nothing of the Old Ways.”

I did not remember him hitting me, and I had lost all sense of where I was. Perhaps on the floor, drooling red saliva down my chin, or perhaps resting against a wall, blood weeping down my chest and face.

I only recovered from my confusion when I felt the taloned hand on the back of my head, pressing me into the floorboards. Its breath misted on my cheek like cobwebs. It smelled of dust and bones. “They said you would make good sport for me. No…perhaps not. Better to end this now, wouldn’t you agree?”

I said nothing. For something strange had begun. It was as if my foot had fallen asleep, and the feeling reached up to my ears. The world around me melted like metal in a forge-fire. I felt suddenly hot and heard a crackling like a fire inside my head. My eyes and ears burned. And I suspected every breath might bring smoke, though none came.

For a fleeting moment I wondered if I was dying.

The monster’s cry assured me I was not. “Damn you, old one! Leave him to me! This is not your battle! Stay out of it!” The beast spat and cursed, it tried to strike me, but as its talons descended, I closed my eyes, heard a crunch and scrape of wood. A damp cold overtook me, and the monster and the home were both gone.

I struggled with consciousness, unable to open my eyes. Darkness took me, and I strayed out of thought and time.

Next

 

A Practical Guide to Monsters #3

In Sight of Ravens (2)

Previously

Robyn shoved the Bishop into the dark woods, all but prodding him along. The further into the dark they went, the more Robyn’s jolly demeanor vanished, in favor of a grim mien. He drove the Bishop further into the woods, away from all trails. Away from all men.

But then the Bishop lashed out, attempting to strike Robyn. The outlaw caught him by the wrist and tripped him by the ankles. The ground rose up to meet him. Robyn unsheathed his sword and laid it on his neck. “Is it chance that brought you to me, or fate?”

“I will kill you, Locksley,” the Bishop said. His voice sounded only half-human, as though holding at bay the hiss of a serpent.

“Are there more of you, then? How many?”

The Bishop kicked the outlaw’s legs from under him and hurled himself on top of Robyn. The Bishop’s flesh sloughed off his face and arms, revealing the scales beneath. Leathery wings sprouted and unfolded off his back as his bones restructured. His teeth turned to dust as his snout grew, and in his mouth rose jagged daggers. Smoke misted on his every breath and sparks fell off of his tongue.

“A Wyvern,” Robyn muttered. “The two legged dragon. I should’ve guessed. That explains the hoarding.” Robyn struck his palm against the Bishop’s chin, momentarily incapacitating him. He hauled the Wyvern off of him and cut at the creature, who danced away from the strike. Fire burst from his lungs.

Robyn lunged to the side and thrust his blade for the monster’s neck. Yet at the last, he held his blade back from a killing stroke. The tip of his sword lay poised at this neck.

The two stood, locked in the other’s gaze. Their shoulders heaved with every heavy breath. “I will give you only this one chance. Leave.”

“Your kind has given us a choice, Christian. We are to accept your God or face extermination. We have done so. Why now do you still hunt us?”

“You do not follow our God. You are using Him.”

“He is our vehicle, not our master.”

“Your kind received your powers from gods, before time. They used you. I must admit I did not think you would do the same.”

“That was then,” the Wyvern said. Its smiles displayed rows of sharp teeth. “This is now.”

“Enough!” Robyn hissed. “Men will not be used for your benefit. Use any God you wish, but men will not be toyed with as your former masters did to you, else you will meet the same fate.”

“And how do you propose to stop us?”

“Leave this land, or I will spread word of you.”

The Wyvern’s laugh sounded like pebbles rattling. “Mankind has never handled a grim truth well. You think it wise to tell the world that their nightmares have a face?”

“It may take time. No one will believe me at first. But soon enough people will whisper this secret. They will grow suspicious. Yours is a dying kind. And if men turn on you, how long do you expect to survive?”

“We are more powerful!” The Wyvern protested, flaring its wings as if in demonstration. “We have been on this earth from before time began. This is our land. You cannot take it from us. Robyn did not flinch.

“Your kind ruined your chances at this land in your own quarrels. This is our time. You say your power is greater, and in this, you are right. But there are too many men in the world. You cannot raze all of us. So tell me, are you willing to take this risk?”

The Wyvern’s smile died on its lips, and smoke trailed between its teeth. “You are wise, Locksley. Be glad no blood has been spilt this night, for such a peace may not have been so easily reached.”

“If I discover you are meddling in the affairs of men once more, I will end you.”

“How will you know?”

“I’ll know.”

The Wyvern nodded, and then backed away; and with two flaps of its wings it took to the sky.

Robyn watched it leave. He could not say how long he stared at the sky. He waited until sunrise for its return.

It never came.

* * *

 

In the days to come, Sir Richard of Lea came back to Sherwood with a procession trail following him. He swung down from his horse to embrace Robyn, and told him of how his usurer fled, and that his debts had been forgiven. “I must pay thanks to you!” Richard said. And the knight called upon his men to bring the pack horses forward.

Sir Richard had the packs laid on the ground and opened, whereupon a great shout went up that made the forest ring again. For the knight had delivered ten-score bows of finest Spanish yew, all burnished till they shone, and each bow inlaid with fanciful figures in silver. Beside these were ten-score quivers of leather embroidered with golden thread, and in each quiver were a score of shafts with burnished heads that shone like silver; each shaft was feathered with peacock’s plumes.

Sir Richard gave to each yeoman a bow and a quiver of arrows.

But for Robyn, the knight took him aside. “I have heard word from my son in Palestine. He has sent me a gift to give to you.”

“A gift?” Robyn lifted an eyebrow.

“On behalf of our King. I am ashamed to say that I do not know the purpose of such a reward, but questioning the King is not my place.” He unrolled the last pack to reveal ten-sore goose-feathered stakes.

“I’m not sure what it means,” Richard said.

Robyn stared at the pile, stakes clattering as they rolled over each other. “It means I’ve got work to do.”

Next

A Practical Guide to Monsters #2

In Sight of Ravens (2)

Previously

Little John pushed his guest forward with a callused hand, and he stumbled into the clearing and fell on his knees. Robyn towered over him. “Lord Bishop of Hereford,” Robyn said. “We were just talking about you.”

The Bishop stood to face Robyn and made a start for the yeoman. But the Little John thrust quarterstaff in front, so that his lordship was fain to stand back.

“Stay, Lord Bishop,” Robyn japed. “You are as much a welcome guest as our dear Sir Richard.” Robyn extended his arm toward the knight.

“Is this the way that you treat one so high in the church? I was simply following the road to meet that knight—” He thrust a sausage of a finger at Sir Richard, “To collect the debt he owes me, and you hold me prisoner? I could have you all excommunicated!” His face was bright red, and a vein on his neck throbbed. “I have been both beaten and threatened by your giant! ‘Fat priest,’ he called me! ‘Money-gorging usurer!’”

“We yeoman are rough fellows,” said Robyn, “But not so ill as you think. There is not a man here who would harm you. We’re equal in the greenwood. There are no Bishops, Barons nor Earls among us.” Robyn paused for a moment to savor the Bishop’s fuming. For half a moment, his eyes seemed black and beady. “Only men.”

The Bishop growled at that. Breath-mist passed his lips. A moment later, he had composed himself. The two stared at each other for some time, as if unspoken secrets or threats were passed between them.

Without taking his gaze off of the Bishop, Robyn called for his band to spread soft moss upon the ground and lay deerskins thereon. Then he bade his guests be seated, and the trio sat down, as others of Robyn’s company lounged about. Then after a time, Robyn’s men brought great smoking dishes filled with savory smells of roasting meat and honey.

When all was done, Robyn turned to the Bishop. “Now, my Lord,” said he, “do you think you have done ill in service of the priory?”

To this the Bishop answered not a word but took an interest in his boots.

“You are one of the wealthiest Bishops in England and you cannot help this poor man? A man who served in Palestine under our good King?”

Still the Bishop spoke not a word.

“Have it your way,” Robyn said with a shrug. “Little John!” He called, “What did our good Bishop bring with him?”

“No—that’s mine!” He started forward, yet recoiled when Robyn drew his dagger so that he might drive it through his neck. The Bishop muttered alien words, and again Robyn saw black, beady eyes for half a moment.

Robyn did not part his gaze with the Bishop as his men assembled his belongings. He did not seem to notice Sir Richard trying to distance himself. Instead, he spoke in the same garbled tongue as the Bishop. A sound full of harsh consonants from the back of his throat.

The Bishop stared, wide eyed and open mouthed.

“Do you take me for a fool, Lord Bishop?” Robyn muttered, low enough that others wouldn’t hear. “Yours is not the only people that can speak words from before time began. I advise you stay your tongue.”

Thereafter, Robyn instructed his gang to sift through the Bishops goods.  As the sun sank below the sky all the ground lay covered in torchlight. Through the orange glow Robyn could discern silks, velvets and cloths chased with gold and cases of rich wines. This, they divvied up three ways. A third for themselves, a third for charity and a third for Sir Richard.

When the matter was settled, Little John approached Robyn, Sir Richard and the Bishop and laid a shiny ebony box between the three of them. “Property of the Lord Bishop of Hereford.” Little John explained.

Robyn eyed the Bishop as he addressed Little John. “Locked?”

“Aye, Robyn.”

“Do you have the key, Lord Bishop?”

The Bishop shook his head.

“Will Stutely!” Robyn called, “Fetch your sword! Cut this box open, if you can.”

Stutely bolted upright and left them.

The Bishop went red in the face. “You can’t—”

“He can!” Sir Richard spoke. “And he will.”

“Sir Richard is right,” Robyn said. “We are equal in the greenwood, and I will do as I please.” He loosened his sword in his scabbard.

The Bishop paled at the sight of his sidearm. “That sword…Damascus steel.”

“A gift,” Robyn said. His smile was thin enough to cut glass. “From King Richard sent from the Holy Land in thanks for my service.”

“That is no ordinary blade you carry.”

“An strange blade for use on strange men.”

“You threaten—?” The Bishop started forward, then, catching the glint of Robyn’s steel against his fellows’ torchlight, withdrew.

“I threaten.”

“Forgive me, Robyn,” said Sir Richard, “But what sword is this? I’m afraid I know not what you two speak of.”

“It’s of little consequence,” said Robyn. “Pray, let it trouble you no further, for here comes Will Stutely.” And at these words, Robyn’s man came forward, bearing a great two-handed sword. Thrice he struck the iron-bound box, and at the third blow it burst open and a great heap of gold came rolling forth, gleaming red in the light of the torches.

At this sight a murmur went all around among the band, like the sound of the wind in distant trees; but no man came forward nor touched the money.

“Count it over,” Robyn said, and many of his band knelt to do so. After a time, when it had been duly scored, Will Stutely called that there were fifteen hundred golden pounds in all. And among the gold they found a paper, which was given to Robyn Hode, who was literate. He read it aloud, and all heard that this money was the rental fines and forfeits from the estates belonging to the Bishop of Hereford.

Robyn folded the paper in half and handed it to Sir Richard. “Take this to a trusted lawman. It shall settle not only your debts, but all others who have been wronged by this man. But you must go now.”

Sir Richard rose. “I thank you, Robyn, for all that you have done for me. I will carry out this task without delay.” He bowed. “I take my leave.”

“God be with you, Sir Richard.”

Then the Bishop of Hereford spoke. “I’m afraid I too, must be going, for the night waxes late—”

But Robyn laid his hand upon the Bishop’s arm and stayed him. “Be not so hasty, Lord Bishop,” His knuckles went white around his arm, and he hauled the Bishop to his feet. He turned to his men. “Stay here. I must have words with our Bishop!”

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