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.”

Next

 

A Practical Guide to Monsters #5

In Sight of Ravens (2)

Previously

The hiss of breaking foliage brought Robyn back to reality. His hand went for his sword as a shadowed figure broke through the brambles. “Robyn,” the figure’s voice cracked. “Robyn, we have men headed our way!”

Robyn relaxed his grip on his hilt and manufactured a smile. “Who comes down the bend?”

“The Earl of Lincoln, one of his men at arms and a monk.”

“The Earl of Lincoln?” This was where he and his gang had donned the greens they wore in the forest. There were no better dyers than in Lincolnshire. “William de Roumare?”

“The very same.”

“What he does in Sherwood at this time of night is anyone’s guess,” Robyn said with a merry laugh. “How soon before we can intercept them?”

“Soon enough,” said the young outlaw. “They were spotted just before sundown.”

“Gather what men you can and bring them to me—alone. And prepare a feast. I have heard rumors in town of the infamous dinner with Robyn Hode. I should like to see how these men regard rumors.”

The boy nodded, a smile creeping across his face. He dashed back into the foliage.

Robyn waited until the boy was far off before he returned to his journal.

* * *

I awoke to find myself wreathed in darkness and flat on a floor that was as comfortable as a bed of knuckles. There was a fire growing dimly, distantly through the black. The place smelled of clay. The only sound was the fire’s spitting and the drip-drip-drip of stalactites.

I was in a cave.

I recalled my encounter with the monster. It could not have been a trick. The Sheriff was not a sorcerer. He could not conjure things into being that could move like that thing had moved.

But there was no such thing as monsters.

As my senses expanded, I spotted the silhouette of what I presumed to be my summoner. He wore a wolf-skin cloak, the head of which bobbed atop his scalp as he rocked heel to toe beside the flames. I worried he might fall in.

“This place is cold, is it not, Christian?” My summoner made no move to look at me. He laughed to himself. “Heh…but it is still my place.”

I moved to stand, but the old one’s shouted some alien language. Or so I thought at the time. “Nrygdulu!” was the word, and it halted me. I couldn’t tell if I was too weary to move, or if this old one had done something to me.

“Do not move, Christian. My spell must have time to settle.”

“My name is not Christian.”

“It is your faith, is it not?” The old one turned to glance at me. His pupils winked in the firelight.

“You mentioned spells,” said I.

“I did.”

“I know nothing of them.”

“This is not news to me.”

“Then tell me,” I said, “Tell me of what you speak!”

“Spells,” the old one reiterated. “The fading echoes of a language long dead. I have spoken to you the words of healing. But they need time to settle into your bones. That cannot happen if you’re moving about.”

“I do not understand.”

“Have I asked you to?” The fire’s crackling filled the gap in our conversation. “You have questions, Christian. Ask them.”

“Where am I?”

“Nowhere. This place is not bound by such petty shackles as time. I have pulled you into a new frame of mind. One where we are everywhere at once. And so, nowhere.” Belatedly, he added, “You may stand now.”

I wandered over to the fire and circled the flames to look at my summoner.

He was a pitiful creature—somewhere between an old man and a toad. Thick webbed feet rocked back and forth. His limbs were so frail I thought a passing breeze might snap them.

He knitted his brow. “Yes, I am one of them. You may stop staring now,”

“One of whom?”

“I come from the same stock that injured you. The one that forced my hand to bring you here. You took their land long ago and now they want it back.” His voice groaned like an old door. “I am the same breed as the monster that nearly killed you.”

“Then why are you here in this place? Why are you not trying to kill me?”

“Sit down Christian.”

“I’ll stand.”

“Sit. Down. Mi storn sij!”

My limbs were not of my own, for a moment. It was as if I watched sit from outside my own body.

“You are weak of will,” he said. “You succumb too easily old words. We will fix that.” He prodded the fire with a staff laid beside him that I hadn’t noticed. “Look into the flames, Christian. Tell me what you see.”

“I see nothing.”

“Then you are not truly seeing. Keep looking until you see something.”

The flames danced, forming carnal shapes embracing each other. “Such power,” I said. “I see power, ancient beyond measure.”

“The are called the Shai. The Ones Who Wait Between the Stars.”

“They–they lived here. Long ago. Before even Eden first flowered. Things approached them. All of them. I see gifts, and deals. These things worship the Shai…”

“They were our gods.” He prodded the fire. “What do you see now?”

“These things, the patron of the Shai…they fight against each other. Whole species are wiped out in one battle.”

“Their patrons…they are called Shai’da.”

“They drove themselves near to extinction,” I said. The fire flared up, braying sizzling light. It almost sounded like it was speaking. “The Shai flee to the dark places between the stars. They are afraid. Another power has come. A stronger power. It builds a garden to safeguard its patrons from the Shai’da!”

“Your ancestors.”

I was not fully aware of what I was saying. My eyes burned, staring at the flames. The burn seemed to seep behind my eyes, into my skull and down my throat. I felt the heat in my belly stronger and more painful. “The creatures went underground. They hid from the garden.” The fire coiled around my innards. I expected every breath to mist smoke and spark. “But the garden was infiltrated. They were expelled. They named the Shai’da. Vampires and trolls and lycanthropes and kelpies.”

“All the same creature at heart, making a deal with a different Shai.”

I felt as if someone had twisted a red hot blade in my gut. “I cannot. No more. Please!”

Every instinct within the me said that I must look away, yet I could not find the mental faculties to do so. My neck seemed to resist the pull of her head with such force that I wondered if I were successful in freeing my gaze that I might wring my neck as a result. “What is that?” I cried. “Old one! What is that thing?”

“That thing is one of the Shai. That thing is the master of fell beasts you saw tonight. He is the Conjurer, but I shall not speak his name. He is a dark thing. And I yet ascertain that he is hardly a he anymore…if he ever was.

“He is waiting, Christian. Always he is waiting and watching…and listening. The Conjurer is patient. He waits in a place beyond time, in the deep places between the stars, where there is no light that can touch him. The nothing between all worlds is his home. And he waits for one who would speak his name in the right moment, as stars align and the black curtain of his world is drawn back for only a moment—but a moment is all he needs. And in that moment, he would return, and find his way back to the altar where he first wrought such fell beasts and brought nightmares into the waking world. See it as it was then, when all things vile and black and base danced about the altar to make ready. Such things would come again, if he heard his name at the right time.”

“I can’t…I cannot watch.”

“You must.”

“I cannot!”

Watch!

My breath cinched someplace deep within me, such that I could not breathe no matter how much I wanted to. A great wrongness spread through my veins, and then I possessed not even the faculties to form a coherent thought. I could only watch as a bead of sweat, glistening against the glow of the fire, fell from my forehead and sizzled into the fire below.

The Conjurer seemed to sense this, and his form twisted, serpentine, and rose from the fire, rising and stretching like a candle caught in a breeze. I saw no face beneath his hood only a dark and terrible power, formless, trapped in gray robes. The crescent moon was his smile, curved and sharp as a blade.

I craned my neck to look upon the Conjurer, and saw the ratty leathered hand holding a stone dagger. Yet this was not so. I could sense the old one watching, relaxed. The only thing in the fire was flames, yet within the flames was this great hand holding a knife, raised high and glowing with the light of forge-fires, and then bearing down on me.

Yet as he prepared to bring it down, the old one spoke thusly:

Komai cu, eldur!”  The fire shivered, though there was no wind. The Conjurer’s hood itself itself seemed to stretch, as if forming some voiceless scream. The old one spoke again, “You’re doing well, Christian. Only has come this far in the first meeting.

From the hood came something new. It was a black thing, glowing red as if fresh from the forge fires deep in Nottingham Castle. It was wrapped within a cloak made of bats’ wings. It floated over the fire taking shallow breaths.

“What is it?” I gasped.

“It,” the old one said, “Has heard us.” He raised his staff and smacked the thing. It’s batwing cloak unfolded, screeching a thousand screeches. “Back!” He cried, “Begone, foul wraith! Under the moon and in sight of ravens I compel you, begone!”

The thing hissed as the flames engulfed it. Its screeches died one by one, and the fire whirled down and fell back into the logs and tinder, embers glowing and sizzling. The old one rocked back and forth over it.

I was in a cold sweat, heaving. There was ice behind my eyes and in my stomach now. Rivers of sweat ran down my back and face.

“You endured longer than most, Christian. Only Scheherazade  came close in our first meeting.”

“The thing that attacked me,” I said. “It’s one of them? That creature—it killed a man. An——an innocent who had nothing to do with my cause.”

“It cares not for your cause. It only wanted the blood it felt it was due.”

“Blood?”

“It’s what keeps them alive.” He laughed to himself. “The blood of Christ, shed for them, it would seem.”

My thoughts wrung their hands around my neck. “You’re lying. This isn’t real. Such creatures cannot exist!”

“And why not? You’ve seen them in my flames.”

“Because a loving God would not permit it!”

The old one’s laugh reverberated off the cave walls, as if there were others mocking me from the shadows. “My dear boy…Whoever said that God had anything to do with it?”

I felt I might retch at the visage of this decrepit old thing. The knowledge of what he was shook me down to my core. My teeth were chattering. My head was pounding like I’d be struck by a crabstaff. “You’re lying,” I’d meant to scream it, but it was barely even a whimper. “You’re lying!”

“No,” the old one said levelly. “I am not. They’ve been here all along. Your kind has never cared enough to look. I will not say that your ancestors did not try to warn you. They are your fairy tales and bedtime stories. Your myths and legends. They are real. And they are Shai’da.”

His words dug into my head, massaged the icy cold lurking there and in my stomach. My temples pounded. I wanted to reply. Retort. Be as cavalier as if I was facing Sir Guy or the sheriff.

Yet my mind blocked all response. I ruminated on his words. The monsters I once thought fiction haunt the world. How could anyone permit this to happen?

“I know this is hard to take in, Christian. And I would like to tell you more—to tell you all. But you must believe me when I say such knowledge would tear you asunder. I have given you the slightest fraction of what I know, and look what it has done to you.” He hugged his wolf-skin close and spat in the fire. “Sitting there, babbling.”

Sweat brewed and felt boiling on my forehead. I hugged my knees to my chest and tried to scream, but managed only whimpers.

The old one looked at me as if he were a master scolding his dog. “Pathetic,” the head of his wolfskin cloak bobbed about as he shook his head. “Infantile.”

Words leapt unbidden into my head. I knew not what I meant, only that I must say them. “Fir Phirginencu !” I shouted.

The old one’s eyes went wide. He tried to speak, yet not a sound passed his lips. Webbed hands leapt to his mouth in an effort to tear open his jaw. Panic besieged his countenance as his hands ripped furiously at his mouth. He tumbled back and caught himself in mid-fall. A smile touched his lips, and his mouth opened again.

“Good,” he cooed. “Very good. You’re learning.”

I made an attempt to stand. My limbs felt rusted. The sweat had cooled—as if these alien words had released the pent up panic that had plagued my mind. “What did I say?”

“In a rough translation? Be silent.” He answered my next question before I could ask it. “Do you know the gibberish that builds in your mind in moments of great stress—or in great calm? Your thoughts move too fast to be collected so you may as well be thinking nothing. This is your body trying to perform a spell. Aching to remember words your human minds were taught in a time before time.”

He padded over to where I stood, moving on all fours like a frog. “The trick is to catch what you want to say when you want to say it. Then you can weaponize it. There are others ways to guard yourself when facing these things. There are herbs for your mind, and silver and steels. I will gift you some of the former when we part.”

I focused on my breaths and told myself I would accept this new reality one fact at a time. “And can you gift me this speech?”

“Yes.”

“Help me weaponize words?”

“Yes.”

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

Next

A Practical Guide to Monsters #4

In Sight of Ravens (2)

Previously

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

Not until he filled its pages, at least.

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

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

* * *

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

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

Last night I learned that monsters are real.

 

*           *           *

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

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

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

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

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

Fool that I am, I entered.

*           *           *

 

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

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

*           *           *

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When it smiled, I saw fangs.

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

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

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

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

Yet my dirk pierced only air.

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

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

It hadn’t missed.

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

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

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

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

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

For a fleeting moment I wondered if I was dying.

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

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

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A Practical Guide to Monsters #3

In Sight of Ravens (2)

Previously

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“He is our vehicle, not our master.”

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

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

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

“And how do you propose to stop us?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How will you know?”

“I’ll know.”

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

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

It never came.

* * *

 

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

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

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

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

“A gift?” Robyn lifted an eyebrow.

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

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

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

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A Practical Guide to Monsters #2

In Sight of Ravens (2)

Previously

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Still the Bishop spoke not a word.

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

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

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

The Bishop stared, wide eyed and open mouthed.

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

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

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

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

“Aye, Robyn.”

“Do you have the key, Lord Bishop?”

The Bishop shook his head.

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

Stutely bolted upright and left them.

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

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

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

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

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

“That is no ordinary blade you carry.”

“An strange blade for use on strange men.”

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

“I threaten.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“God be with you, Sir Richard.”

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

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

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A Practical Guide to Monsters #1

In Sight of Ravens (2)

The outlaw awoke, heard the twitter of birds in the air, felt the breeze on his face, and saw the old the Sheriff’s guard lying next to him, dead, on the forest floor.

Robyn of Locksley grunted to his feet, his movements brought back the pain and memories of the night before.

This was the first of them to seek him out—part of him hoped it wasn’t the last. There was a new price on his head; one of two hundred pounds and fourscore golden angels.

This mercenary had ambushed him in the night. Robyn Hode had thought it a different sort of night-terror. It took him too long to realize this foe was an ordinary man.

It was only the far-off cry of “Sir Richard!” That had drawn the mercenary’s attention. Robyn Hode steeled himself toward his cause and shot an arrow through the man’s heart before he could turn back to him.

Presently, Robyn buckled his swordbelt, threw his bow over his shoulder and set off.

The highroads crawled up steep hills and then dipped over crests that were sharp-cut with hedgerow and shaggy grass. Soon, a company of his yeoman had come upon the outlaw. “What news?” Robyn called.

“Little John has gone to Sherwood in search of someone to pay our fare. It’s said the Bishop of Hereford rides coming through Sherwood this day!” said Will Stutely, approaching Robyn. “It has been decided that we go west to find another, that way may increase our earnings.”

Robyn’s smile came easily, but did not touch his eyes. “Give Little John my thanks!” Robyn shouted back. “Let us away!” And he gestured for his yeomen to follow. They wound down the highroad until they came behind the hedge, and there they waited. Robyn knew for a surety that someone would come soon. It was a sunny spring day, and men of riches were never rare in such weather.

As if prophesied, a man came riding over the hill and down the stony road toward hedge where Robyn lay hidden. As he came closer, Robyn saw he had a horse and armor. He smelled of rose petals mixed with the sweat and dirt of the highroad.

He was a nobleman. This could not be mistaken.

Robyn called from the hedgerow, He loosened his sword in his scabbard, arose and crossed the road. “You there!”

The knight reined back at the sight of Robyn. His hand leapt for the pommel of his sword.

“Hold, sir!” Robyn spoke, “Might I convince you to tarry for a time? Mayhaps I could treat with you?”

“What man are you to stops a traveler on the king’s road?” the knight fumed.

“None other than Robyn of Locksley.” The outlaw bowed. “And what man are you that travels on the king’s road?”

The knight bit back a smile, “You have great pride, Locksley. And if the rumors of you in Nottingham are true, you are a good man. My name is Sir Richard of Lea. What is it you wish of me?”

Robyn laughed and called his men from the hedgerow. “Come!” he cried. “This man means no harm. Truly, he knows what favor good words may bring. Pray, come with me to Sherwood Forest, and we will give you a feast better than any you’ve ever tasted. Though since you seem a favorable man, I must tell you that guests are few and far between. And for one of such high status, I would needs impose a dining fee.”

The knight seemed to consider this, and a moment later he shook his head. “If I go, you would find me a sorrowful guest. Please, let me pass on my way in peace.”

“A sorrowful guest?” Robyn laughed, “You hardly seem the sort. Why do you say such a thing?”

“Because I have only ten schillings in my purse. Because of this, I am being hunted.”  He tossed his purse at Robyn’s feet, staining it with road-dust. “Take it, if you are so keen to rob me.”

Robyn snatched the purse and tossed it back to Sir Richard. “Far be it from me to doubt the word of a knight. You have my apologies. Please allow me and my men to assist you—if you come with us to the greenwood, I will forsake any fees I would impose on another man.”

The knight considered this for a span of three heartbeats, and then booted his horse forward, its hooves like drumbeats on the road.

As they traveled, Robyn spoke. “Sir Richard, I do not seek to trouble you—”

“—Then do not trouble me.”

“—but God willing, would you share your sorrows with me?”

“Why would you care?”

Robyn’s throat tightened. “I told you—I seek to aid you. I would have you share your story with me, that I may be of further use.”

“If you truly seek to aid me, then know this: my castle and lands are in pawn for a debt that I owe. Three days hence the money must be paid or else my estate is lost forever, for then it falls into the hands of the Bishop of Hereford.”

Robyn grimaced, but bade the knight go on.

“Last year I went off to a clergyman to appeal that my debt be forgiven. I cited my service under the King in Palestine. But in a fortnight I was approached by the Bishop, who told me that I had impure thoughts, and he had sent my son to Palestine to cleanse him of any influence I may have had on him.” The knight laughed mirthlessly. “Such is the way of the priory.”

“You have my sincerest apologies,” Robyn said. “How much do you owe them?”

“Four hundred pounds.”

Robyn’s knuckles went white, and through a clenched jaw he muttered, “The bloodsuckers! They’re slowly bleeding us to death!”

The sun was setting when they arrived at a clearing in the greenwood. And in the distance Robyn descried Little John, who had returned with a guest of his own who was hauling his packhorse behind him. “This ought to be fun,” said Stutely.

“Indeed,” Robyn agreed, he started forward to meet the new arrival.

 

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