The months dragged on. Snow was fading, though the cold persisted. Yet there was still enough snow on the ground for Robyn to follow the wolf-tracks in the light of a half-moon.
He wore a wolfskin cloak as he hunted the beast. He thought it half a mockery. He carried a pack that made his movements awkward. The smell of its contents alone was enough to put him ill at ease.
Robyn went through Sherwood with the reflexes and attention of a deer. But he did not intend to become prey to this wolf.
The paw prints came to a sudden end on the verge of Nottingham, where the snow had all but melted.
It was here that his plan took shape. He unloaded his pack and sheep carcasses slapped to the ground. Bits of horse, too, and rabbit and deer. Tasty flesh for you, wolf man, he thought. Come and get it. Come here and get it!
He could not afford to wait any longer. As the Baron’s stay in Nottingham grew, so too did the menace of the Sheriff and the Baron grow. He had even ensured his granddaughter Marian safe passage into Nottingham, so that he could be sure she would not be harmed alone back in his shire of Little Dunmow.
He could hear the wolf panting behind him. It howled as Robyn turned, nocking an arrow as he did so. He felt hairs prickling on the back of his neck. He drew and loosed.
The arrow bit the wolf’s side, and it started for Robyn. Robyn sidestepped its pounce as he drew another arrow from his quiver. Don’t lose your footing, he reminded himself. Remember where you are. Remember where you’re going!
The wolf closed the distance between them and brought its claws down across Robyn’s chest. His clothes tore and blood seeped through his wounds as he stumbled back. The palpitations of his own heart were clear to him, now. His next shot and caught the wolf in the leg, but it forged on toward the outlaw.
Robyn backed toward a tree, and tried to visualize it in his mind’s eye—he saw it opening, like double doors, swinging back.
And then he was falling. He landed on the ground two feet below. Pain exploded into his back, driving his breath from him. It was daytime, now, the two were in some sort of rocky highland. The wolf shrank back as it realized this, and turned to go back, yet discovered too late its exit had vanished.
Robyn thought he saw fear in its eyes.
Fire whorled toward the wolf. Robyn saw it reflected in its yellow eyes and as it rocketed past him. The creature howled and the outlaw scrambled out of his path. Robyn looked over to the old one and his fire to see he had not moved nor turned to look at the beast.
“Stop!” Robyn called. “Stop! That’s my friend!”
“It is not,” the old one said. “I am burning the beast. Your friend remains safe.”
Robyn watched as its skin blackened and curled. Its howls turned to moans and then it was dying, skin flaking away. It seemed to melt into the fire itself, which did not dissipate, but rather sank back into the old one’s flames.
Robyn parted his gaze with the old one and where the wolf stood was the unburnt body of Little John.
* * *
Little John awoke to see Robyn Hood standing over him, moonlight pouring over his back. He raised a hand to shield his eyes. “Robyn?” he murmured, “What’s going on?”
“Do you remember what happened, John?” The goliath could detect no emotion in Robyn’s voice.
“I fell asleep at the Trysting Tree and now I’m…now I’m here.”
“John, does the word Shai’da mean anything to you?”
“What language is that?” Little John asked.
“No language you would know, I’m certain.”
Little John rose, and shook his head clearvof the cobwebs in his mind. “I know little and less of other languages. This Shai’da is much the same.”
Robyn Hood scowled at that, though John did not understand why. He laid a heavy hand on his companions shoulder. “What troubles you, lad?”
Robyn answered with a question of his own. “Why did you join my fight?”
“Because I believe the sheriff is committing a grave injustice upon the people of Nottingham. I believe Prince John is bleeding us to death, and I want to make a change—”
“That’s not what I meant,” Robyn interrupted. “Every outlaw under my command could answer me that, same as you. But everyone has their personal reasons. Robert Burgundy was going to be hanged. He fled the sheriff and saw strength in numbers. David of Doncaster joined my gang for the promise of riches.” Robyn shrugged, and as an afterthought, added, “He didn’t get any, but now that he’s one of my men, he sees no point in returning to his own outlawry. So tell me, Little John. Why do you join me?”
Little John sat slumped against a tree. “The short version? I’ve been a thief since I was old enough to walk,” he said. “My father taught me how to steal, and as I grew up, I helped him in his thievery. Everyone needs to eat, after all. The sheriff’s men shot down my father one day, and I swore vengeance. I have since realized my father was misguided. He stole from the poor, who in turn needed food, forcing them into thievery as well. So after the sheriff killed my father, I stole from his men. But they caught me one night as I walked in on one of the wolf attacks. It was enough to spread rumors.” John shook his head. “And now I’m here.”
Robyn was silent for a time, and then said, “You would do well not to dwell on rumors. It will lead you down paths you will not like and stir up false emotions.” He stumbled upon a wolf attack, Robyn thought Lycanthropy is a disease…so he caught it from someone else.
“John, I want you to tell me everyone you met in the week leading up to the attacks…”