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?”
“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?”
“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.”
“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.
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.