A Song of Steel #4

Previously

READ ME:

You came to surrounded by blackness and bubbles. You tried to take a breath and swallowed a lungful of salt. By the time you figured out that you were underwater, you were scrambling to unbuckle your armor.

Your chest burned with the need to breathe. Your head felt light, weighing less and less as you struggled underwater. But you tore off what buckles you could reach. You saw your breastplate cutting a path into the depths, and soon your greaves. Water spilled into your nose and ears as yo thrashed. You reached for a sword belt that was not there. Did you ever have a sword? Who knows?

When you had cast off enough weight, you swam up. Your heart rattled your ribcage.

You broke the surface of the water and gulped in precious air. You doubted you’d ever taken a longer breath in your life. Your chest ached and felt frozen from the sheer amount of cold air you sucked in. You swam to the cliffside and clung to it. You decided that the Nailed God must have some use for you yet.

It hurt to breathe and your rib cage felt bruised. You learned to time your breaths against the waves that insistently shoved you further against the rocks.

You managed to crawl, shivering, onto a ridge of stone as long as you were, scattered with seashells. You were lucky to be alive.

Not that you felt that way.

Your throat was raw and stinging. A piece of you wanted to stop breathing from the sheer pain of it. You hunched, shivering, and hugged the rock that had saved your life. You felt a fool, hugging a scrap of stone. Your eyes burned with a need to cry, but you could couldn’t. It felt like the salt water had dried them up. Your skin was nearly bright pink.

Then you heard voices above you.

“See anything?” one of them asked. Your heart was throbbing in your neck. You pushed yourself as close to the rock as you dared to go without scraping the shells about. You didn’t dare to make a noise. You even stopped breathing.

“Got to be dead.” it was another voice. “Probably bashed her brains on the rocks. The Devils have taken her, no doubt.”

“The Queen wants a body.”

“Then let the Queen fish for it. Or Uthrik. He’s the one who let the crazed bastard fall.”

There was a third voice, then. “And which one will you be telling to take a dive first? Ava or the Queen?”

The other two chuckled. “The giant is making his way here. Thinks he can demolish our army while we yet linger.”

“Then what time do we have to combe for corpses?”

You heard them marching off. They spoke of rumors they heard. Different men on the march to this place. Someone said that this man named Uthrik told him some great king was coming.

“He did not! You’ve never said a word to him…” another said. Their voices faded as they make their way back to their warships.

You let out a shuddering breath. You hugged the rock again. It was all you had. How lonely is the man who hugs a slab of stone and says, “Oh, rock. You understand me.”

The warship would be leaving and a giant would be coming soon. You had two options: wait for the tide or find a way south.

You remembered earlier that night. How the woman had kicked your brother’s head as he lay on the ground, staring into empty space without blinking. How her brute had cut his throat. Were you two messengers for this giant? You couldn’t remember.

You curled your fist around the rock and climbed, promising to take revenge on the woman and her brute that you could hardly remember. And all other enemies besides. How exactly you were going to take that vengeance was not yet fully formed in your head. You had not even a club. What would you do when you found your enemies? Bleed on them? Did you think that they’d slip on your blood and dash their brains on the floor? I’d love to know.

You would avenge your brother. You swore it again as you climbed. The waves were lapping at you like a too-insistent lover; making the rocks wet and slippery.

Shivering and aching you climbed. Maybe you finally managed to cry, but your cheeks were so numb that you couldn’t quite tell. You climbed, climbed, climbed.

Then you hauled yourself onto dry land for a moment and rolled onto your back to catch your breath.

You had no knowledge of Kings or armies, but the way the men had spoken of it, hardened tough-sounding men–you assumed they were something to be feared. You wanted no part in it, so you wandered north into the Kingdom of Cayyor. You walked for hours with no idea where you were headed or where you would end up.

You told yourself that you did not mind the white-heats across the valley you travelled. You would be molded by it, you told yourself, as a sword is molded by the forge-fires.

Of course, leave a sword in the forge fires too long and it snaps. But to be fair, I’m sure you didn’t know that at the time. Forgetting is your best talent.

You followed the smell of brine, staggering under the beating the sea had dealt you. Like the waves were a procurer and you owed them money.  Mayhaps that beating are the source of your empty, empty head. How can you be sure when you started writing this? Are you missing pages?

You could not see more than an arm’s reach ahead of yourself due to the dark creeping in all about you. You reached out to steady yourself and caught your balance, steadying your breaths in tandem with the waves lapping the shoreline.

You closed your hand around a nearby pole and saw that there was a village nearby. A coastal town with a floor made entirely of wooden floorboards. You saw a downed ship out in the harbor, with pieces of it raised above water like many small islands, and masts raised like an obscene gesture.

That ship had been raided, you guessed, to form the floor of this place.

The planks that covered the village were slightly soft with thick clefts of seaweed sprouting between the cracks. It mushed under your feet, waterlogged. You stumbled across the threshold and then came to your feet, laughing out of the luck you had to find civilization so soon, and set off to explore the territory.

You found first a bald woman, bare breasted with a floral-patterned dress that reached her ankles. She wore a delicate scrap of linen over her head. A spear rested beside the tavern she leaned on like a comrade beside her. “Welcome, traveler,” she said, “to Plankytown. Have you any business hereabout?”

“Not business,” You huffed, “Just a drink. Please.” You wanted to forget about the brother whose name was already slipping from your mind. About the raven-haired woman and her brute. About everything.

“A drinker with a sword at her hip,” the woman said. The spear was resting beside her, and then in her hand between blinks. It was now pointed so close to your throat that you were afraid to gulp. “You’ll hurt yourself, little girl.”

“Wary of strangers, I see.” You raised your hands as you approached. “Call me Carth.” You extended it for the woman.

“Khalee,” she said, shaking your hand.

“Is there anyone else here in Plankytown?”

“They’re dead or fled,” said Khalee. “We don’t chance strangers around here. Not since the Great Interregnum began. The giant Crom-cil-Orm has forced many who once lived here to serve the House of Orm. Though Orm’s parent House of Maugrim, plus the Houses of Em and Ath come through to kill us every once in a while. I’m the only one left to protect the old and the elderly who still live here.”

“The Lord of the House of Orm–he owns an army of Housemen, yes? He’s the one who took your people?”

“Not just any Lord. A giant. And his Housemen have stolen the craven’s clothes of the pale southrons. He’s adopted their tactics. They come raiding here from time to time when they need supplies. Most old folks who still live here saw you coming and they assumed you were a scout. A stranger. They won’t come out for you. They won’t come out for anyone they don’t know.”

You bit back a smirk. “It’s a good thing, then, that I’ve given you my name. Can’t say we’re strangers, can we?” You gestured to your hip, displaying the lack of any apparent weapons. “Do I look threatening? Truly?”

Khalee looked away, almost bashful.

“Now, about that drink…”

* * *

The beer was a froth of corn and malt and yeast and water. You savored the drink, your throat working as you finished it without pausing for breath; beads of foam slicking down your gullet.

You set the wooden cup down on the small round table. Khalee was watching you from across the tavern. You inspected the walls and found barnacles clustered onto them, grouped in sizes like white turtle shells, patching the wooden frame like quiltwork.

You looked to Khalee, a question etched onto your face. But before you could noise it, Khalee spoke.

“Two years ago, when the death of King Lamorak Maugrim was looming and the Interregnum War was on the horizon, a scout belonging to the House of Maugrim came here and angered the Restless Dead through some vile sorceries. The King’s Ser drowned a man on the docks in a drunken scuffle, elsewise, and then tried to flee on a trading galley. The Restless Dead sank it off the coast before they returned to their Never.

You wiped your mouth with the back of your hand. You did not understand what she spoke of. “The Restless Dead?”

“Gray Spirits. Giants once belonged to the Never, before folk took them out and bred them. I hear there’s a gray sludge that some use that comes from a river in the Never. Look out for gray folk. They’ll mean you ill.”

“And what of this?” You gestured to the ship’s hulls that now walled you two in. “Is this the same ship?”

“One year later a new traveler came, wearing a cloak with a single eye sewn onto the back. She claimed to be a patron of the Restless Dead. She had gray eyes.”

“What happened? Did they use some magic?”

“She opened her third eye. The one on the cloak.”

“Did she now?”

“She did,” Khalee grinned. “She summoned the Restless Dead to scavenge the sea-floor for sunken vessels, and they built Plankytown as it is known today. I remember the sight of that murderer’s corpse being dragged into the Never when they came for him that second time.” Khalee sat herself across from you. She’d brought a pitcher of beer with her and refilled your cup. “The woman–the one one with the third eye on her cloak. She didn’t stay long…will you?”

“I’ve no eye on my cloak.”

“No…” she cupped her hand along your cheek. “But you’ve got some Never inside you. You should see your reflection. You look like you shouldn’t be alive. Someone must  be looking out for you. If it’s not the Restless Dead that keep you alive, then who?”

You smiled gently. “No,” you said. “I have no part in the games of these Restless Dead. I’m sorry.”

“Do not be sorry. My offer still stands if you’d like to stay. I could use some help with the elderly,” Khalee muttered.

“I’m not adventurer looking for trouble. I’m a refugee, chased by it. I cannot abide friends or shelter. Not anymore.” You would not let this Khalee have her throat torn open and her corpse kicked.

Khalee turned the cup in her hands, and then spat into it, a long, thin line of saliva falling into the froth with a plop. She handed the cup to you. “I’ll be your friend,” she said.

“Khalee—”

“You have an ill look about you. You’ve seen something, haven’t you, girl? I would amend that. I would like to help.”

You nodded your assent and spat into the drink. You swallowed a mouthful and handed it back to Khalee, and she drank a gulp herself.

“We are kin now, Carth. Go as you will, and know you will have one friend with you, always. Send my regards to the Restless Dead, should you ever meet them.”

* * *

You left Plankytown that night. The wind chafed your flesh as your returned to the wild. Even a bastard like you who could stumble her way across the land will sometimes take a true tumble as you did then.

You did not—perhaps could not—get up, at first. Instead you wept. You wept for a long while, tears streaming, and the wind drying them on your cheeks.

Next

 

A Song of Steel #3

 

Previously

READ ME

This next entry is less ceremonial as the first entry. Something has happened to your journal and you must describe months of events into a new journal. This means that you must do some summarizing. Your time with Lord Gormund played out thusly:

You would go on to receive extensive training, like every Houseman serving a noble Lord. You learned horsemanship and how it use your grandfather’s sword. The next few days were filled with practice at spear and sword.

In the morning, every­one, down to the lower-ranking Housemen in the kitchen and the men and women who pulled sentry duty, gave their all and came away from the field with faces bright red from exertion. That you had been taken on as a servant was soon common knowledge throughout the mansion. The stable attendants treat you as a rank beginner and ordered you about. You’re like a rat, always scurrying.

And do keep in mind, this all comes from other sources.

“Hey, bastard! Every morning from now on, after we take the horses out to graze, clean out the stables. Bury the horse manure in that bamboo thicket.” Ser Uthrik told you one day.

After you had fin­ished cleaning up the horse manure, one of the older Housemen told you, “Fill the big water jars.” And so it went on: “Split the firewood.” While you were splitting the firewood, you would be told to do something else. In short, he were the servants’ servant.

You were popular at first. People said, “Nothing makes her mad, does it? Her good point is that no matter what you tell ber to do, she doesn’t get angry.” The young Housemen liked you, but in the way that children like a new toy, and sometimes they gave you pres­ents. But it was not long before people started to complain about you.

“She’s always arguing.”

“She flatters the master.”

“She takes people for fools.”

Since the younger samurai made a lot of noise over small faults, there were times when the complaints about you reached Lord Gormund’s ears.

“Let’s see how she does,” he told his Housemen, and let the matter drop.

That Lord Gormund’s wife and children always asked for you made the other young men of the household even angrier. Puzzled, you decided that it was difficult to live among people who did not want to devote themselves to work, as you yourself preferred to do.

King Amr, Gormund’s brother, had made one of their own Houseman the castellan of Mary’s Peak, and put him in charge of administering the provinces and collecting taxes. You hoped never to be on their bad side.

But the clan that Gormund watched most closely was naturally the House of Ath. Although their Lord had been gone for almost eight years, there were still letters and Housemen who came from his castle. Rumors abounded that Lord Ath’s baby was possessed, and that they had had to kill it. Whole towns were swept up by Lord Ath’s Housemen, not a single person left when their attacks were done. He, like Amr and Musa and Crom-cil-Orm, had proclaimed himself King.

The House of Ath was bringing in more troops, reports saying that they were possessed by some dark magic. Wild and frenzied.

And lately:

“Bastard!” Morwan was looking for you in the garden.

“Up here.”

Morwan looked up to the roof. “What are you doing up there?”

“Lord Gormund was complaining about a leak. I decided I would try to fix it for him before the rains.”

Morwan blanched at you. “It’s the middle of summer. Why do you work yourself as if you’re going to be whipped?”

You shrugged. “The weather has been fine so far, but it’ll soon be time for the fall rains. Calling the roofers after the rains start will be too late, so I’m finding split planks and repairing them.”

“That’s why you’re unpopular around here. By now all the Housemen are lying in the shade while you work hard to gain Lord Gormund’s favor. Or mayhaps Ser Uthrik’s?”

“I work for no one’s favor, ser. Just my own. Elsewise, I don’t wish to disturb others. Working up here keeps me from disturbing their naps.”

“Don’t talk like that. If the others see you doing this, they’ll be angry. Get down from there!”

“Sure. Do you have any work for me?”

“There are guests coming this evening.”

“Again?”

“What do you mean, ‘again’?”

“Who’s coming?”

“Lord Gormund’s sister, Clarissant.”

“How many in the group?” You climbed down from the roof. Morwan took out a parchment. “We’re just expecting Lord Gormund’s sister, Queen Clarissant. With a small host of twelve to safeguard her. They are meeting to discuss matters of great import.

“That’s a fair-sized group.”

“These men who protect her have dedicated their lives to the study of martial arts. There’ll be a lot of baggage and horses, so clear out the storehouse workers’ quarters, and we’ll put them up there for the time being. Have the place swept clean by evening, before they get here.”

“Yes, sir. Will they be staying long?”

“About six months,” Morwan said. Looking tired, he wiped the sweat off his face.

In the evening Queen Clarissant and her men brought their horses to a halt in front of the gate and brushed the dust off their clothes. Senior and junior Housemen came out to meet them, and gave them an elaborate ceremonial welcome. There were lengthy words of greeting from the hosts, and no less respectful and eloquent a reply from Queen Clarissant, a younger woman with eyelashes like butterflies. Ser Uthrik was in attendance and they exchanged more than a few glances in each other’s direction. Once the formalities were over, servants took charge of the packhorses and baggage, and the guests, led by Uthrik’s Uncle, entered the mansion compound.

You had enjoyed watching the elaborate show. Its formality made you realize how much the prestige of warriors had risen with the growing importance of military matters.

The number of Queen Clarissant’s party did not surprise you. But since they were going to be there for six months, you suspected rightly that you were going to be ordered around until his head spun. No more than four or five days had passed before he was being worked as hard as one of their own servants.

“Hey, bastard! My underwear is dirty. Wash it.”

“Lord Gormund’s bastard! Go to town and buy me some soap.”

The summer nights were short, and the extra work cut into your sleeping time, so at noon one day you was fast asleep in the shade of a maple tree. He was leaning against the trunk, your head dangling to one side and your arms folded. On the parched earth, the only thing that moved was a procession of ants. You could hear the waves lapping near the cliff of Mary’s Peak, for which it had been named.

Ser Uthrik walked past, arm in arm with Queen Clarissant, who had been coming to visit.

“Well, look here. It’s the bastard.” Ser Uthrik said.

You jumped, startled into wakefulness. There were a dozen Housemen in armor crowding you, led by Ser Uthrik and Queen Clarissant. You were crowded away, toward the peak.

“Stop this!” you said. “What are you doing?”

“You’ve taken the spot my lover once held in my Lord-brother’s favor. He’s told me all about you, girl.”

You unsheathed your grandfather’s sword from the Never that the giants had come from. “Face me, if you have the nerve!” You would die a hero’s death, you decided. And all would turn to folly.

Clarissant was silent. Her butterfly-eyes were spread wide. But the crack in her composure was quickly sealed. Her grin was a dagger; her lips the blood on the blade. “Bring him out.”

“Bring who–?” you protested, but Housemen were shoved aside as Clarissant’s Housemen who threw a man in a blue tunic into the room. Like Clarissant, he wore smothering furs even in the summer heat. He had a sack over his head and his grunts of protests were muffled. You recognized him. He seemed familiar. Would that you could have recognized him. Would that you even had a memory.

He was bound, and thrown onto the ground, near the cliffside, like you. “What is the meaning of this?” Ser Morwan said, pushing past other Housemen. But the Ser Uthrik seized his arm.

“Do you know the tragedy of the Days of the Drowned?” Clarissant asked, ignoring the man’s murmuring.

“This man will not be drowned!” you said.

Clarissant laughed. “I don’t plan to drown him. He’s nothing to do with the Day of the Drowned. The tragedy has to do with my father, King Lamorak. It was during the Year of Glory. Did you know he took me on campaign during that year?”

“Why are you telling me this?” you asked. The bound man’s scream was muffled by his gag. A Ser kicked him and he whimpered into silence. You sheathed your sword, against your better judgement.

“I watched my father’s bloody victories. I watched him give his soldiers permission to loot and pillage and rape. He partook in such activities himself from time to time. He had me watch. He wanted to temper me.” She circled the bound man. “And during that year there was a small rebellion.” She shrugged. “Of little note, really, save for one thing: the rebels lived in a small city where my father was born. He sacked that city. What ensued was more of the same that I had seen that year. He played his part in the pillaging and raping. But do you know what his advisor told him after he’d returned from squashing the rebellion?”

The bound man squirmed and earned a Ser’s boot thrice-over. He was rolling on the floor, one ear leaking blood. Clarissant looked at the man, then at you, and then she smiled.

“His mentor had his eyes dipped in the river that flows through the Never. He could see all, past present and future. And he told my father that he fucked his own Mother. And in nine months’ time, she would deliver a child into this world. So my father searched for any child born in that month and had every last one thrown into the sea. I’d love to follow his example. I’ve learned to hate bastards. When anyone can be your parent, many bastards stake a claim to the nobility. I hear that’s how the House of Em came to power.”

“A cute story.” you rolled your eyes. “But that doesn’t answer my question. Who is this man? He doesn’t look like a red eyed albino.”

“This is my brother. Lord Gormund of the House of Maugrim.” She unveiled him to reveal desperate, pleading eyes. You turned your gaze on Clarissant. Those butterfly eyes looked down at him, and then up at you. “He’s the man who killed you.”

You blinked your surprise. “What?”

She took the same pride in her speech as the assassin takes in his dagger. “I tried to stop it, but the coward had hidden a knife.” Clarissant produces a curved blade and a damp cold overtook you. “It shall be my greatest regret that I failed to save my brother’s greatest servant. But my lover must rise in station if we are to marry.”

“And what about me?”

“You—you’re merely the pawn. The excuse. You’re nothing. And I’m sorry I couldn’t save you. She thrust the knife through Lord Gormund’s throat and kicked him on to his face, blood welling across the floor.

“What do you mean?” The words cracked as they left your mouth. You were suddenly aware of all Clarissant’s men crowding about you.

Clarissant walked calmly, so calmly towards you. You stepped back on shaky knees to nowhere but the low rampart and the high drop beyond.

“I heard stories about how much you did around the caslte. How you advanced in studying the sword. Gormund might’ve made you castellan, forgetting your bastardry and the black union that made you.”

“More of a dark gray, really,” you laughed, nervously.

Clarissant smiled; lowered her knife an inch. “You’re no castellan, but you’d make a fine jester. But to make a jester a castellan as my brother planned, well,” she raised the knife once more, “That’s just foolhardy.”

Ser Morwan snatched your arm and dragged you back, drawing his sword in the same motion. “Get behind me, my—”

Blood spattered into your face, nearly blinding you. “Morwan!” You shrieked.

Your friend fell to his knees, gurgling and clutching uselessly at his throat as the blood slithered between his fingers.

You followed the path of the knife that had drawn your brother’s blood and saw the man who had ruffled your hair all those years ago, Ser Uthrik, his dagger dribbling red. Frozen in shock, you watched as Uthrik sauntered over to Clarissant and placed a deep and passionate kiss full on her lips. He gasped when they parted and turned to you, his arm around your attacker’s waist.

“A bastard and a lunatic who thinks she’s can rule,” he said.

“But I didn’t—”

“You are no castellan,” he said. “You should have died that night I first found you.”

Clarissant spoke. “Do you think there’s anybody in this room who was not aware of this arrangement? Save this fool?” She kicked Morwan’s skull. The movement sent more blood leaking from his throat. “Even your own Lord sent you to your death. And his own.” You were not sure if she was lying about this. “Let us waste no more time. Ser Uthrik. Kill him.”

The Ser leaped for you, and you stumbled away so that Uthrik caught you by your swordbelt. You glanced at your grandfather’s sword, a pain in your chest as a man who is about to lose his lover.

A patch of mud took your feet out from under you and sent you stumbling back toward the sheer drop. Then your swordbelt broke loose and you reeled back. There was a whoop in your throat, and you tumbled over the castle.

Rock and water and sky revolved around you, and you plummeted down. Disposed of, just another piece of waste, you realized. You smiled, then. It seemed fitting.

You crashed into the water and felt some pity for the anvil that receives the blacksmith’s hammer. You knew how it felt.

The waves dragged you down, down, down…

 

Next

A Song of Steel #2

Previously

READ ME

It has been years since your father gave you that sword. I start a new journal to mark this new chapter in your life.

I will write this down in case you ever meet him again: Lord Gormund of the House of Maugrim is the second eldest heir to the now-dead King.

The Great Houses of Orm, Em, Ath, and Maugrim are now in revolt. Maugrim was already on the throne, so their claim is the strongest. But every House with control of the Never has stakes a claim.

The eldest son and daughters, Amr and Clarissant, were ruling at the capital, which left Gormund in charge of the farther reaches of their holdings. Including this town, which you had wandered into after one of your nightly forgettings. You had grown up seventeen years and could be lost like a dog for weeks on end before your mother or father found you.

Of late, you had wandered into Maugrim-controlled village of Mary’s Peak, named for when the Lordess Mary Maugrim took a dive off the cliff outside her holdfast.

You still wished to be a Houseman for the House of Orm.

That same day Lord Gormund was returning from a neighboring castle for talks of an alliance against the House of Orm, where he had been conferring with a fellow Maugrim Houseman. The officials of the province met regularly to tighten their control over the people and to guard against invasion from neighboring Houses: Orm, Em, and Ath. Ath, especially, had been the cause of the disappearance of whole towns. And Lord Ath himself had not been seen in decades.

Lord Gormund rode through the market. He turned in his saddle and called one of his three attendants: “Morwan!”

The man who answered was bearded and carried a long sword at his hip. Ser Morwan ran up to his master’s horse. They were traveling along the road back to their holdfast. Trees belted either side, and there was a pleasant view of fields of grain and wheat.

Lord Gormund pointed at you. “He’s not a farmer, and he doesn’t look like a pilgrim,” he mumbled.

Ser Morwan followed Gormund’s line of sight. He took in the mustard yellow of peasant banners, the green of the barley, but did not anyone special.

“Do you suspect an attack, my Lord?”

“Over there, on the path next to that barley field, there’s a woman. Carries herself like an eagle. What do you suppose he’s up to?”

Morwan took another look and saw that, sure enough, there you were. You were stooped over on the path by the barley field, trying to remember the memories you lost the night before.

“Find out what he’s doing.”

Morwan ran off along a narrow path to meet you.

You pretended you couldn’t see him as he inspected you from a distance, then you heard him speak. “Who are you?”

“Carth,” you said. You knew your name the same way you knew you could read or write. “My name is Carth.”

“What are you doing here?”

“Trying to remember myself.”

He blanched. “I’m sorry?”

“I have difficulty remembering who I am at times. I’m trying to remember which way my home is. Are you one of the King’s collectors? My notes—” you withdrew your index and read from it. “It says that it is an unspoken rule that anything suspicious should be immediately investigated. The King sometimes sent out collectors to vouchsafe the state of each Lord’s holdings. Am I suspicious? I apologize. I don’t mean to be.”

Morwan made his excuses, and came back to Gormund. I suspect he told him that you were insane. You may have told him you were a bastard, too. For they seemed to know that.

“A bastard, eh?” you heard Gormund say.

“And a talkative one, too. Likes to spit out big words. “While I was questioning him, he tried to turn things around. He asked me if I was a collector.”

“What was she doing, stooping over like that?”

“She told me she was trying to remember who he is. She seems insane, my Lord. Driven mad with her moon blood.”

Lord Gormund saw that you had gone up onto the road and was walking on ahead of him and Morwan.

He asked the Ser, “There was nothing suspicious about her, was there?”

“Nothing I could see.”

Lord Gormund took a fresh grip on the reins. “Word of advice, ser: do not blame the smaller folk for their manners. They weren’t raised like us.” With a nod of his head, he motioned Morwan forward. “This one interests me. Follow.”

It did not take them long to catch up with you. Just as they passed you, Gormund looked around casually. You, of course, had moved off the road and protracted yourself in front of the Lord. You peaked up and met your gaze with the Ser.

“Just a minute.” Gormund reined in his horse and, turning to his Housemen, said, “Bring the woman over here.” And, to no one in particular, he added with a note of wonder in his voice, “You’re an unusual fellow… yes, there’s something different about you

Morwan roughly dragged you to your feet. “Girl! Listen to me, girl. Get up! My Lord wishes to speak to you. Rise.” He half dragged you the three steps to Lord Gormund.

Gormund looked down at you. I can’t say what it was about you that intrigued him. Mayhaps your unkempt hair and soiled clothes? Mayhaps it was the fact that you are a bastard. He looked at you longer than you deemed comfortable. He seemed to stare through you. Through your eyes. “You have laughter in those eyes,” he remarked. “A strange laughter. Drive. Charisma.”

“I do?”

Gormund laughed at that. Apparently you amuse him, Carth.

You later overheard someone saying they heard him say you have magnetism. Can you untangle a sentence like that, Carth?, He decided he liked you; this strange-looking girl.

Unable to rid himself of the feeling but without saying a word to you, he turned to Morwan and said, “Bring him along.” He tightened his reins and galloped off.

The front gate to Gorm’s Rock—the House of Maugrim’s northernmost holding, was facing the river and swung wide open, with several Housemen guarding. A tethered horse was grazing near the gate. Apparently, a visitor had arrived during his absence.

“Who is it?” he asked as he dismounted.

“A Houseman from the House of Em.”

Gormund acknowledged the information and went in. The House of Em always wanted to limit access to the Never, and may have pledged their support to the House of Maugrim if they would absolve themselves of their heathen magics. Housemen visitors were not uncommon, but Gormund was preoccupied with you, it would seem. “This one is with me,” he told the gatekeepers.

“A prisoner?”

“A Houseman, possibly.”

The gatekeeper and the other servants burst out laughing. “What is she, anyway? A scrawny little girl with a sword at her hip. Can she even use it? You’ll cut yourself on that, dear.”

You checked the scars on your fingers. Dozens and dozens of lessons.

The boisterous voices rang in your ears, but during your seventeen years of your life you have had ample opportunity to hear the taunts of others. Even with your memory being stolen away every night, you seem to be doing quite well for yourself. It doesn’t seem to bother you. You remember them the same way you remember your name. You hear it so often it becomes a part of you. Perhaps too much so. You were too calm. You walked past as if you hadn’t understood them. As if the gatekeepers had insulted a horse.

“Girl, there’s an empty stable over there. You can wait there, where the sight of you won’t offend anyone,” said Morwan, who then went about his business.

When evening came, the smell of cooking drifted from the kitchen window. The moon rose over the peach trees. The formal interview with the messenger from the House of Em being finished, more lamps were lit, and a banquet was prepared to send him on his way the following day. The sound of the hand drum and a flute drifted over from the mansion, where a play was being performed.

You watched the play about some knight out to slay some treacherous beast upon icy slopes. You lay stretched out on a bed of straw you had spread on the floor in the back of the hall. You like music, believe it or not. It lets you forget everything. Or rather, forget your forgetting. But you were distracted by your empty stomach. You wondered if you could borrow a pot and a fire.

So you bunched up your dirty straw bundle and made your way to the kitchens. You found a scullery maid with a knife and asked her, “Excuse me, but I wonder if you couldn’t lend me a pot and a small cooking stove. I was thinking of eating my meal.”

The kitchen helpers stared blankly back at you. “Where in the world did you come from?”

“Lord Gormund brought me back with him today!” you said with a smile. “I’d like to boil some salted chicken I gamed a few days ago.”

“Salted chicken, eh?”                                                   

“I’ve been told they’re good for the stomach, so I eat some as often as I can.”

“You eat them with potatoes. Do you have any?”

“Yes.”

“Bread?”

“I have bread, thank you.”

“Well, there’s a pot and a fire in the stove in the servants’ quarters. Do it over there.”

Just as you did every night in cheap lodging houses, you cooked up a small portion of bread, boiled your chicken, and ate your evening meal. You were about to go to sleep—servants quarters being preferable to a stable, but soon enough someone came by to check on things.

“You—bitch! Who told you that you could sleep here?”

They kicked you, and you curled up. They took you by the scruff of the neck and hauled you outside.

“I’m going to have fun with you, bitch—”

“Uthrik,” it was Lord Gormund’s voice. “That’s enough.”

Ser Uthrik dropped his grip on his sword and stormed off, muttering curses under his breath.

“Oh, it’s you, my Lord.” You said.

Lord Gormund seemed only slightly tipsy. Almost sober. But not quite. “Has the dawn risen?” he asked. “Are we close?”

“It will be some time before dawn, my Lord. I apologize.”

“What are you doing out here in the middle of the night?”

“You told me to wait.”

“You should sleep.”

“I tried.” You thumbed back to the Ser. “He doesn’t seem fond of the idea. With all respect, my Lord. But now I’m fresh, my heart beating fast. I cannot be so still.”

“Such drive,” he said. “And to think—I forgot all about you during the play. And you’ll serve me now, yes?”

You laughed but made no move to reply. So when Lord Gormund asked how long you had been wandering, you told him it had been years of wandering with your grandfather’s sword allegedly forged from the Never before he took you in.

“You’ve been walking about for years waiting to serve a Lord?”

“Yes.”

“Looking two years—either you’re the dumbest woman I’ve ever met, or the smartest. I can’t quite decide what’s wrong with you.”

“I’ve many wrongs, the same as anyone else. I wanted at first to serve the House of Orm—” you caught his glare and knew you had said too much. “—but I soon discovered that I could not settle for just any House. I needed yours.”

“And why is that?”

“There are good generals and bad ones. Good Lords and bad Lords. I think the most important thing I can do is choose the right mentor—the right master. I decided I would go on wandering, selling what I could, when I could. And then I guess two years passed.” You shrugged.

Lord Gormund must have thought you were clever. I happen to think you’re more than a little foolish, personally. And that’s not even touching how pretentious you sounded. But I can’t deny you’re not ordinary woman.

“Serve me,” he said. It did not sound like a request.

You fell to one knee. “Thank you, my Lord. I will do everything in my power for you, my Lord.”

It did not seem to occur to him that hiring a girl in rags and a traveler’s cloak who had been wandering for two years and could never quite remember who she was might have meant that he was lacking in some form of thinking. That’s the only reason I can see why somebody would hire you.

 

Next

 

A Song of Steel #1

READ ME

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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