A Song of Steel #1

The Cure (1)

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As part of tradition, I will record your first memory put down in your first journal, now in this new one. I’ve condensed your life, Carth. So you can learn about yourself in an easier way. Here is what you have written:

You saw the black cloud before the soldiers.

You had, before the cloud emerged, been playing on a field, swinging sticks about with the other children and pretending to be a hero. The grass bowed, weighted with wind, at your progression. “Fool!” you cried to the boy. “You’re mine!” and you roughly smacked the boy on the shoulder with your stick. He backed away, checking three blows until he tripped over a root.

“Bastard!” he called, bringing up the shame of your birth. “Bastard!” The boys joined in.

“Stupid woman!”

“Bitch!”

“Bastard bastard bastard!” they chorused.

“I still won,” you proclaimed. “I still beat you all, I—”

That was when you saw the cloud. Black dust rising at the far end of the field, and a rumble off in the distance that you could feel in your stomach.

“An army!” your brother, Sagrimor, shouted. “There’s an army! Over there!” You and the boys shifted your attention away from your games.

„They’ve come back from battle.“ You children waved and cheered.

The House of Maugrim was the King’s House. But that King had been sick, of late. And the usual factions staked their claims. There was The House of Orm, who brought giants from the Never, the House of Em, who opposed all magic that comes from the Never, the House of Ath, whose lord had his baby stolen, and the House of Maugrim, who forged a sword from the Never.

You lived in the House of Orm’s territory. The House Orm and the House of Maugrim, were bitter enemies, which led to constant skirmishing along their common border. One year, Lord Ysbaden Orm’s troops crossed the border, set fire to the villages, and trampled the crops. Legends said his son Crom put peasants to the sword. But King Maugrim’s Housemen rushed to Orm’s undefended castle and seized it, while a group of Housemen loyal to their King routed the enemy and cut them down to the last man.

This was the first battle that the House of Maugrim and the House of Orm had fought in years. Tensions were high but with King Maugrim’s ailing health, who was to say who could lead the Kingdom? And the House of Orm had let their hostility fester.

You had seen and heard as much since the time you were born, and when you saw the Lords and Housemen of your land, you felt as if you were seeing yourself. A warrior, I suppose, is in your blood. Nothing excited you more than the sight of men-at-arms.

“Let’s go see!”

You and boys headed toward the soldiers, breaking into a run. Only you and Sagrimor paused. “I’m sorry I called you a bastard,” he said. He put a hand on your shoulder but you angrily jerked away. But with your brother on the brink of tears, you softened. “It’s just that you join in with the others when they say bad things about me. Have I ever made fun of you?”

“I guess not…”

“Even a bastard could become one of you guys, isn’t that what you said. Even a woman, too!”

“That is so.” Sagrimor said. His tears cleaned the mud from his face in clean streaks. “I’m sorry. Come on. Let’s go see the Housemen. If we don’t hurry they’ll be gone!”  

War-horses and banners loomed out of the dust. There were some mounted Housemen and three hundred walking soldiers. Some were standard-bearers, carrying the wolf-sigil of The House of Orm. Others carries pikes or speaks or bows. They cut across the plain to the King’s Road, toward the rushing river foaming at the foot of the hill you were playing on.

You children scrambled up the embankment, picking flowers and throwing them in the air, yelling for the sound of your own echo, “God of Nails, Lord of Iron! God of Nails! Lord of Iron!” The chant of the followers of the Nailed God when folk went to war. “Victory for the valiant Housemen!” You were always quick to yell this whenever you saw warriors.

The general, a mounted Ser, and common soldiers dragging their feet through the mud were all silent. As the dust settled and you saw them clearly, so did you. You went wide eyed and your mouth dropped. They gave you not even a grin and you understood why. It was clear that the battle against the House of Maugrim was bitterly fought. The horses were heaving as much as the men. Blood-smeared soldiers leaned heavily on their fellow Housemen. Dried blood glistened blackly on their face like a lacquer mask. It gleamed on their shining armor and spears and swords. Their eyes shone through faces masked with dust. You weren’t entirely sure that those were not masks they were wearing.

An officer spoke. “Water for the horses,” he said. The Ser passed the order along, in loud voices, and another Ser ordered the others to take a rest. Some men collapsed then and there, falling like sacks of flour.

Men bound up arm and leg wounds. From the pallor of their faces it was clear they had suffered a great defeat. This did not matter to the you. When you and your friends saw blood, you yourselves became heroes bathed in blood; when you saw the glitter of spears and pikes, you were convinced that the enemy had been annihilated, and they were filled with pride and excitement.

„God of Nails, Lord of Iron! Victory!“

When the horses had drunk their fill of water, you children threw flowers at them, too, cheering them on.

A Ser standing beside his horse spotted you and called, „You’re Desmon’s daughter! How is your mother?“

„Who, me?“ you asked.

You walked up to the man and looked straight up at him with his grimy face. With a nod, the man put his hand on your sweaty head. The Ser was no more than twenty years old. You felt the weight of the mailed gauntlet on your head. And having seen that he had just come from battle, you were overwhelmed with glory. You wondered if your family truly knew such a Ser. You saw your friends out of the corner of your eye, watching you.

„You’re Carth, aren’t you?“

„Yes.“

„A good name. Yes, a good name.“

The young Ser gave your head a final pat, then struck the waistband of his leather armor and straightened up a bit, studying your face all the while. Something lade him laugh.

You were always quick to make friends, even with adults. Perhaps because you could never remember them. To have your head touched by a stranger—a Ser covered in mail and leather with a sword at his hip—it made your eyes shine with pride. You began to speak.

“Some people don’t call me Carth, you know,” he said.

“Why would that be? What do they call you?”

“Most people think my name is bastard. It’s not, but they think it is!” You grinned, though understanding seemed to dawn on the Ser’s face, and he shook his head. „Well, it’s good that you know it.“

„That’s what everyone calls me.“

„Ha, ha!“ The Ser had a laugh as loud as his voice. And other men joined you.

„How old are you?“

„Six.“

„Is that so?“

„Ser, where are you from?“

„I know your mother well.“

„Huh?“

„Your mother’s younger sister often comes to my house. When you go home, give my regards to your mother. Tell her Ser Uthrik wishes her good health.“

When the rest break was over, the soldiers and horses got back in line and crossed the shallows of the river below. With a backward glance, the Ser re-mounted his horse, clad in shining mail. He radiated nobility. A nobility you wished to join. He called out to you one last time: “Tell your mother that when the fighting is over, I will be stopping at Desmon’s house.” He booted his horse in the ribs and the horse beat its way through the shallows, sending up sheets of water with every step.

* * *

You were bounding back to the house, straw cracking under your bare feet, wisped away by the wind.

“Mother.” You called. She was in the storeroom fetching vegetables. She turned at the sight of you and laughed softly. “Mother, where are you.”

“Over here, Carth!”

You ran toward your Mother’s voice, and then took the basket from her arms.

“What a strong little girl you’re becoming,” your Mother beamed. “You’ll be a warrior in no time.”

„Today, at the riverbank, I met someone who knows you.“

„Who?“

„A Ser! He called himself Uthrik! He said he knew you and wanted to let you know that, or something like that. He ruffled my hair and talked to me, Mother.”

Her face paled, though you did not seem to notice this.

“He was with a bunch of Housemen coming back from a battle. His destrier looked mighty too. Who is he?”

“He lives near the Temple of the Nailed God.”

“Does he?” You asked, and then: “Mother, there’s a sword about this big in the storage shed, isn’t there?“

“There is. What do you want with it?“

“Will you let me have it? It’s all beat up, and Father doesn’t use it anymore.“

“Playing war games again, Carth?“

“Is there something wrong with that?“

“Absolutely not!“

“Why not?“

“A farmer’s son has no business wearing a sword.“

“Well, one day I’m going to be a Ser! A Houseman for Lord Ysbaden and the House of Orm!” You stomped your foot like a spoiled child, thinking the matter was closed. But you saw your mother’s eyes welling with tears.

“You are only a child,” she told you. “Yet how can you be so foolish?” She wiped them away with the back of her hand. “Go help your brother draw some water by the well!” She clutched your forearm and dragged you back into the house.

“No!” you shouted, mashing your heels into the dirt. “No! Stop it! I’ll be a Houseman! You’re stupid! No!”

Your Mother just dragged you along, disregarding your remarks. You could smell the smoke from the hearth and hear your father coughing. You heard your Father’s voice and you seemed to shrivel up and fall silent. He was only forty, and with a lamed leg he was of little service as a Houseman or a Ser. But that raspy voice chilled you to the bone

“Carth—be a good daughter and let your mother be! Do not go giving her such trouble,“ your father said, loosening her grip. You covered your face with his hands and wiped your eyes as you cried softly.

He then addressed your Mother. “Mai, what are you doing shouting at Carth again! You know she cannot remember your lessons! We’ve given her lessons in letters for a reason! Give the child her journal and let that be the end of it. What business do you two have fighting and making each other cry like that?”

“Well why don’t you scold him?” your Mother insisted.

Your father laughed. “Why? Because she wants to play with my old sword?”

“Of course!“

“That’s what children do, Mai!”

“She shouldn’t. It is improper.”

“Improper is a word to be used by adults for foolish things that are arbitrarily decided Is it really so bad? Give her the sword!”

“What if she cuts herself?”

“Mayhaps that will be an important lesson and she’ll give up her dreams of being a Houseman to Orm. Then you’ll finally get your way.”

Your mother’s only recourse was to grunt and bite back a scream. You were elated, enjoying your victory that was soon swept away by the sight of your mother in tears. The sword had hollowed out your victory.

“I, uh, changed my mind,” you insisted. “I don’t want the sword anymore. I can go help Sagrimor—” He was bent over the hearth. It was more smoke than heat, and he was trying to blow it back up into a roaring fire.

You scurried into the room. “Can I help?”

“No thank you,” he said.

“Well, what can I do?”

“Go cut yourself on Father’s swor—” he paused, seeing the look on your face. “I didn’t mean that. I’m sorry.” He leapt up and hugged you tightly. “I told you I’d stop doing this. I’m sorry, Carth.”

Your father called from the other side of the room. “Carth! Come here right now!”

You swallowed hard and prepared for what was to come. Your mother came in and stood by the entrance, dismayed at what was happening.

It is my firm belief that you have the most frightening father in the world. Frightening—yet still the softest. You sat up straight and looked at your father, sitting in front of the hearth.

He drummed his fingers on the staff he needed to walk—even to use the chamber pot. His grip on it tightened, knuckles white. His frown was stiff—every part of him was stiff and unmovable.

„Carth!“

„Yes, father.”

„Don’t be a nuisance to your mother.“

„Yes.“

„And don’t argue with your brother. Think of the impression you make. What should your conduct as a woman be, and how should you behave toward others?“

„I-I didn’t mean—“

“Silence! I have ears. I may be a cripple, but I can still hear you. I know what you are doing, Carth.”

Your father could not suppress his affection for you, however. At least you assumed he was affectionate toward you. He was the best judge of your character. Or so he seemed to deem. But he could do little to foresee how you, the little brat that you were, would rise above the family name and finally give your house a noble history. Then when he looked at you again, and his mood changed. “The sword in the storage shed—do you want it, Carth?”

You thought of your Mother, and turned to look at her, but your father would not let you.

“Make this decision on your own, my daughter.”

“I…um…”

“Would you forsake it?”

“I wouldn’t. I want to have it, but I mean—”

“Then why do you say no?”

“Because Mother forbids me.”

“Your Mother is wise to say this. I agree with her.” He paused, and your stomach sank with your head. After a pause, your father continued. “But…you should be allowed to make your own mistakes. Wait here.”

“Father,” you said. “Tell me what you want. I can get it.”

“I’ll not have my duty done by a child,” he scoffed. He took his staff and limped into the other room, where your grandparents had bedded before they died years before. You felt uneasy waiting, but when your father returned with an arming sword tucked under his armpit.

„Carth, this is yours. Wear it whenever you like.“

„Mine? Really?“

„I’d rather you do not wear it in public. Someone of your station seen wearing this sword would only gain mockery. Grow old enough to wear it without dragging it on the ground, and it may be otherwise. Your grandfather had this sword made when he thought he had something to gain by joining the House of Orm. He thought he could be a Houseman to the giants. He told me that he traveled to the Never itself to cleave the materials for this sort from a mountain there. It was a wonderful tale, though I doubt it was real. I used it in service to the giants of Orm’s house, too. Neither of us did great deeds. Mayhaps you will be different. I do not profess to know our lineage. We are of a low birthed stock. Especially you.”

The words rang in your head. Bastard, bastard! Bastard, bastard!

“But I’m sure some in our family were great men. Mayhaps some were Housemen. If the blood of such ancestry flows through you, perhaps you may use this sword to make our family proud. I don’t know who our ancestors were before your grandfather’s time, but I’m sure that some of them were great men. The blood of such men continues to flow, and it’s been transmitted from me to you.“

„Yes.“ you nodded again.

„However, I’m of no great stock. I am crippled. I am nothing. It is up to you to be a great woman.”

“What of Sagrimor?”

“He will get this same talk when he is old enough.”

“But how do I do it?” you asked. “How do I become a great woman?”

“If you are courageous, and face every task with as much energy and determination as you can afford, I will have lived a life of no regrets.”

 

Next

A Practical Guide to Monsters #7

In Sight of Ravens (2)

Previously

The outlaw sat on the same tree stump, scratching notes in his journal by firelight. The smoke wafting up smelled strange, like sap or honey burning. It was, in fact, the herbs that the old one had given him. He had been instructed to him to toss them onto the fire when he want to go out in search of the creature.

Robyn smelled the fumes and he found his senses expanding, such that if he wished it, he could hear the blood pumping through his ears. Or, as he heard presently, an outlaw shambling toward him.

Will Scarlet would approach Robyn while he tried to write.

Scarlet was knew to Robyn’s gang and only days before his incident with the Shai’da was did he flee for Sherwood. He was still a boy, and one with many questions.

„You write, Robyn?“

“Yes.”

“Then you are literate? That is an uncommon gift for an outlaw.”

“I learned as a boy. My father was the Earl of Locksley.”

Will’s eyes widened. “Robert of Locksley was your father?” He went to one knee. „My Lord–“

Robyn shot him a pointed glance. „Don’t do that.“

Will blustered his way through an apology. „I’m sorry. I just–I didn’t know.

Robyn did not look up from his scribbling. “Who is he to you?”

“I have heard of him.”

“Did you ever meet him?”

“No.”

“Then what did you hear?”

“A great many tales—he was a fine man. Someone of repute. Honorable and—”

“No,” Robyn said, “We can’t begin this way. Tales are farces. Falsehoods. Think nothing of them.”

“Then what would you have me think of him?”

Robyn looked up. “He was a great man, Will,” Robyn said, “He taught me the injustices imposed by the wealthy. He taught me how to string a bow and shoot an arrow. How to wield a sword.” Robyn’s eyes turned downcast. “If it were not for him, I would be in a castle with servants tending to my every whim.”

„He outlawed you?“

„No. He taught me the injustices that I tried to correct. But in correcting them, the Sheriff made me into a wolf’s head.“

“You wouldn’t prefer living in a castle?”

Robyn looked up. “Would you? We take vows in our own ways, like the friars and bishops in Nottingham.”

Robyn buried himself in his journal. Will inched closer. “What are you writing?”

“It doesn’t matter.“ Robyn seized  a fistful of goose-feathered stakes that lay at his side and put them rattling into his quiver. „Not anymore.

Without another word, Robyn Hode strung his bow, snatched his journal and tossed it into the fire. He’d filled its pages. It had served its purpose. And now he had a monster to kill.

 * * *

Robyn stalked through Sherwood Forest. The herbs made him acutely aware of a rabbit scurrying off the path, despite the dark. He could see well, even in full dark. Fallen branches made themselves known to him in time enough to overstep them. Time did not seem to exist while these drugs were pumping through his vein.

His smelled defecation. It belonged to a man. There was something rotting just off the path.

Robyn sniffed audibly, and notched a stake to his bowstring. It was not one, but three things rotting, he realized. And the foliage had only just begun its hissing.

He loosed the arrow as three objects sailed through the foliage. He heard a growl from the darkness, and for a moment, chanced a glance at what had been tossed at him.

Three heads rolled toward him. Maggots crawled across their graying flesh. Their eyes were locked in a silent scream—William de Roumare, the Bishop and his man at arms.

“They brought back ill tidings,” a voice growled from the shadows. “I hate ill tidings.”

The monster climbed out of the darkness. Robyn loosed another goose-feathered stake—a sure hit. Yet in the blink of an eye the creature had sidestepped his volley.

“No arrows, outlaw?” the creature asked. “The old one told you to use stakes, eh? Perhaps you do not understand: you are nothing to me. You are food—nourishment. You serve no further purpose.”

Robyn let another stake fly, then another, but even his increased sensed did little to improve his speed.

Before he could see if it hit its mark a sting exploded in his chest. The impact lifted him into the air. He landed on his back, struggling to breathe. The herbs had only made that more painful. He was too aware of how little oxygen he was getting.

The monster towered over where he had stood, palm outstretched. It tilted its head like a like a curious cat. “Are you afraid, Robyn Hode? You’d best be. It makes the blood taste better.”

Robyn struggled to his feet, using a tree trunk as support. He made no move to pick up his bow. He simply reached for the nearest tree branch and hurled himself up. He climbed with ease, each finger meeting each crevice. He needed only to run his hands along the bark to know where to place them. He could find the smallest crevices, and wedge his hand into them to ease his climb.

When he was halfway up the tree he stopped and perched.

He scanned the forest floor—most of his stakes had been knocked loose. He could feel at least two rattling around in quiver.

The monster circled the tree. “I can hear your heartbeat. It’s not like the others’. The Earl, the man at arms, the bishop…all those peasants. Theirs were staccato. But yours…your heart is slow. Why are you so calm, friend?”

Robyn reached for a branch above him. He grasped it and spared glanced at the forest floor for the mosnter. But all he saw were dead leaves and stakes.

He felt the blood dribbling down his back before he the pain settled in. Robyn whirled around, met by the smell of decayed flesh that nearly choked him.  The monster was crawling down the trunk from above like a spider. It buried a blood-soaked talon into the tree trunk.

“Is Nottingham’s greatest outlaw afraid?” Its breath was like spiderweb on Robyn’s lips. It put a bloody talon to its tongue. “Yes. I taste fear.”

Robyn summoned all his might and broke free of the fear that rooted him to the spot. He twisted on his overhead branch and pinwheeled onto it. His boot met the monster’s jaw in mid swing.

The creature lost lost its grip momentarily. That was all Robyn needed.

Blood frothed from the monster’s mouth as it fell, limbs flailing. The thing seized the trunk before it could hit the ground. It had murder in its eyes as it scaled again back up the tree.

„Luck!“ It roared. „Twisted, blasted luck! You will not dare touch me again with your filthy human hands!“

Robyn withdrew one of his stakes, sucked in a breath and jumped.

The branches lashed him on his way down. His elevated awareness to the world around it made it so the fall seemed to happen slowly, so slowly. He’d time enough to align the monster’s neck to the crook of his arm. Upon impact, he tightened his grip, and they both tumbled to the ground.

 

After that it was a blur. He did not remember staking the thing, yet next thing he knew he was on the ground, on top of the monster. Sharpened wood protruded from its chest. The creature’s skin flaked off layer by layer, until all that was left was a skeleton. Then this too crumbled in a sudden wind Robyn was lying on a mound of char and dust dust.

The outlaw could already feel his consciousness slipping. He sifted his hands through the dust. “I did it. Did you see it, old one? I did it.”

He did not remember falling asleep, but when he awoke he was in the cave again, the wretched thing still rocking in front of the fire.

Robyn lay opposite the old one. He raised an eyebrow when Robyn awoke. “You were lucky.”

“How?”

“It could have killed you in seconds if it chose to,” the old one said. “Instead the Shai’da let its pride take hold. You will not be so lucky in the future.”

Robyn stood. “You know my future?”

“Oh, yes. And what a future you have, Christian.” The old one stared into his fires, his eyes glossed over with things yet to come. “You’ll have A little giant, a miller’s son, a Maiden and a man a Friar and more. You will entrust only a chosen few with your secret. But they will help you along your way.”

The old one looked to Robyn. There was something like a smile on his face. “We must part, Christian. It is time for you to awaken. But we will meet again.”

“Thank you,” Robyn said.

“I do only my duty. Enjoy what promises your future holds. Now go.”

Robyn’s eyes snapped open. The morning light split his head in two. The first thing he saw was Friar Tuck kneeling over him. “Robyn! Are you okay?”

“Are we still alive?” Robyn groaned.

“Yes.”

Robyn sifted his fingers through what remained of the monster. “Then yes.”

“But your wounds,” Will said said, “What do we tell the others? How do we explain them?”

Robyn smiled, though it did not reach his eyes. “I will tell them a tale. Something for them to believe in.”

“Why not the truth?” the Will suggested. „What happened?“

„A quarrel with some of the Sheriff’s men. Do not trouble yourself over it. It is the nightmare of my gang to find men so close to our Trysting Tree. How many would wish to face their nightmares? No, our cause would be abandoned. They need someone to rally behind.”

“Someone like you?”

“Yes. I suppose so.”

“And what of these happenings? Will no one know of this?”

“This is a tale that will go unsung,” Robyn said. “Now come, we have a farce to think up.”

The two headed back to camp, tossing back and forth ideas about Prince John and a tournament for a silver arrow.

Next

A Practical Guide to Monsters #6

In Sight of Ravens (2)

Previously

Robyn heard leaves whispering from across the clearing and clapped his journal shut. Five of his men burst through the underbrush, ushering in William de Roumare, one of his men-at-arms and a Bishop.

Others scurried to ready a small feast. The gang laid out a tablecloth and decorated it with cheeses and hams stolen from the finest overpricing merchants. Robyn’s men jested and laughed like fey folk who had brought unwitting mortals to the Otherworld, half dancing as they prepared the meal and jesting at the Lord’s predicament.

They were closer to the Otherworld than any of them knew.

“Bind them,” Robyn commanded. And so they did. “Leave us,” he said, and with a wave of his hand Robyn’s men left.

„Such power,“ said the Bishop.

Robyn looked the him in the eye. “The Bishop of Hereford. Am I correct?”

The man nodded, jowls wobbling.

„What brings you to Sherwood?“

The Bishop made no move to answer.

He turned to the man-at-arms. “What about you? Surely you have some reason to be wandering the forest this late. Is your cause the same as the reputed Earl of Lincoln who stands before me?”

The man stared back, implacable.

“And you, Lord de Roumare? What cause have you to be wandering through my forest at such an hour? And in such fine attire, no less. Is that silk?”

The Earl knitted his brow.

“It’s dark out,” Robyn continued. “Bandits and highwaymen traffic these roads at this hour. But never fear. I’ll keep you safe from them. For a token payment of course.“ Robyn thrust into a piece of ham with his dagger and brought it to his lips, red juice dribbling down the dagger, and his chin.

He gestured to the food in front of him. “You’ve traveled far, have you not? You must be weary. You must be hungry.”

No one attempted to take any food.

“Surely you know how this works,” Robyn Hode said, flashing a smile. He placed the meat on the tablecloth and wiped his mouth with his sleeve. He leaned forward, elbows resting on his knees. “I am a man of honor, my friends. If you are honest with me, you shall receive no punishment, no matter how severe your crime. Lie to me, and…well, I presume you can infer my meaning.” He went grim-faced. “They say Sherwood is haunted, you know.”

“Lies,” the Bishop spat, crossing himself. “Nothing but lies and rumors to keep you and your men safe. There are no monsters here.”

Robyn’s raised his eyebrows, as taut as bowstrings. “What did I tell you about lying to me?”

William de Roumare made a move to interject, but Robyn outstretched his hand and words fell silent on his tongue. “I’m talking to the Bishop of Hereford, here. Now Father, you haven’t answered my question: what did I tell you about lying to me?

“Where have I lied, outlaw?”

“There are no monsters here, is that correct? No—don’t look to your friends for help. Look at me. Is it true, to the extent of your knowledge, that there are no monsters here in Sherwood Forest?”

The Bishop bobbed his head, flaccid skin wobbling on his neck.

Taal isti nead mi cuno.” Robyn muttered. He shook his head and took another bite of ham.

It seemed there were uses to living in a place unbound by time. He’d learned much with the old one and hadn’t aged a day.

The man-at-arms was the first to speak. “What is this gibberish? Some sort of Saracen tongue? What are you saying—?”

“He knows what I said. Don’t you, Father?”

The Bishop did not look at Robyn Hode. “I know what it means, damn you.”

“Then tell me.”

“No.”

Robyn’s words tiptoed on each other. “You test my patience, Father. Would you like to know what happens when it wears thin?“ The Bishop flinched at the thought. Robyn leaned forward. „What have I said to you?

I know you are false. That’s what you said.”

“Good.” Robyn looked at William de Roumare and his man-at-arms. “But you two knew that, didn’t you?”

“How would we—?” the Earl began.

“Because you wouldn’t be traveling with this man if you did not. Because I have been forewarned of your presence. Because I know you have helped Shai’da get into Lincolnshire, and so, Nottingham.“

„What do you mean?“ William interrupted. „What are–“

Oh, you know Shai’da. Don’t bother to interject. I saw those looks. What is your relation to them? Do you shelter them?”

The man-at-arms turned red in the face. “Indeed.”

The Earl’s jaw dropped. „Jon!“

„We cannot lie to this man!“ Sir Jon replied.

“Why do you shelter them?“ Robyn asked.

“My man-at-arms knows not what he says,” the Earl of Lincoln began. “He is tired—confused—”

Why?” Robyn leapt to his feet. “Why have you done this?”

“Because they are the future!” the Bishop of Hereford shouted. He still had not looked up. “It would have killed us if we did not. His kind will kill us all in time anyway.”

Robyn’s countenance softened. He had not expected this. “You help them out of futility?”

“I thought it best to delay my demise.” He looked up. “Would you have done differently?”

The outlaw drew his dagger. “You suggest that I would help creatures here to destroy all of our Lord’s creations? Our King fights the same battle in his Crusade. To defy these creatures is a duty—any other response is treason.”

The monk stood and stared Robyn down. “You are young and foolish, Robyn Hode. You know not the ways of grown men.”

Robyn leapt over the makeshift table and seized the Bishop by his collar. His knife pricked under his chin. “I can taste the wine on your breath, Hereford. How would you like to avert your demise this time?”

“I will do what’s necessary to survive. No more, no less. What would you have me do?”

“Tell me what I need to know. How many there are. Where they are—”

“There is only one,” Hereford said. “And he rarely stays in Lincolnshire.”

Robyn backed away and lowered his dagger. „My men and I will escort you from these woods,“ he said. “I hope it will not inconvenience you if we collect a price for our troubles.”

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