Authors: Debbie Viguie
Locksley paled. There wasn’t a man alive who had the will to challenge Robert Longstride, favorite agent of the king and deadliest sword in the land.
“Little brother, do you have anything to add?” Robert asked.
“Only this,” Robin said, fixing his eyes on Locksley. “From this day forth, the Millers are under my protection.
harm occurs to them and
will answer for it tenfold.”
Locksley turned red. He was angry and embarrassed, but he wasn’t stupid. He turned and, without another word or a backward glance, he strode into the castle. His men scurried behind him.
“Why did you say that?” Will asked.
“Because Locksley is a fool, and a proud one,” Robin said. “He cannot touch me, but I can see him harming the boy or his family in some sort of childish retaliation.”
At that moment Robert stepped up. A giant of a man, he stood nearly half a foot taller than his younger brother, and there was no one in the land with a more regal bearing—save King Richard himself. Like the rest of their family, save Robin, Robert was fair-haired.
“I thought your threat was a nice touch,” he said, his voice jovial as he put a hand on Robin’s shoulder.
“I’m surprised Father hasn’t already informed the king of Locksley’s activities,” Robin said. “If he had, perhaps the boy wouldn’t have needed saving.”
“Nor you tonight, eh?” Robert added with a grin.
Robin sighed, but said nothing. He exchanged a glance with Will. At least his cousin understood—Robin hadn’t been the one in need of saving. He didn’t have to guess what his father would believe, though. He felt his spirits darken.
“Come now, it’s time to join the others,” Robert turned toward the gate.
“I am no longer in the mood,” Robin said.
Robert looked from him to Will, who shrugged. Robert sighed deeply then turned and walked away.
Will leaned toward Robin. “Come now, be grateful, cousin. At least you didn’t have to kill anyone.” He put his hand on Robin’s arm. “Can you imagine what the splatter of blood would do to my wonderful clothes?” He smiled, attempting to liven things.
Robin did not even try to conjure a smile.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I think it would have added a nice roguish touch. The ladies would likely have found you twice as fascinating.”
“Well, tonight, there’s only one lady I’m thinking about, and not for my own sake. I refuse to leave this castle until I have seen you dance with the Lady Marian.”
“Then for your sake,” Robin replied, “I hope she says yes. Otherwise you will have to spend the rest of your miserable life in this godforsaken place.”
* * *
A hand touched her elbow. Marian turned to find Chastity beside her.
“What was that commotion?” she asked.
“I don’t know, but I will find out for you.” The girl’s eyebrow twitched up at the thought of gathering information. “For now, though, it’s time.”
“The king was clear that the feast would commence at the beginning of the third watch,” Chastity replied. “That time is now.”
“Very well. Help me with this dress.”
Chastity moved behind her, gathering the skirt into a bustle that drew the hem from the floor so that Marian would be able to walk. As she waited, however, she watched the castle doors.
Through the entrance strode Robin Longstride.
Her heart caught in her chest.
He was like a storm off the ocean, dark and full of violent potential. Fire flashed in his eyes. She was drawn to the play of muscle in his forearms as his hands clenched and unclenched. Something had happened to anger him and she could tell that he was controlling himself, but just barely.
His eyes met hers, and he stopped.
They stared. Unblinking. Unmoving.
Then he took a deep breath. He held it, chest swollen, keeping the precious air caged inside for a long moment. Her own breathing locked, waiting for his. Her heart beat, hollow and rattling inside her like dice in a cup.
With a parting of lips, he let his breath free.
She let hers go, as well. Then, unsure, she gave a smile so barely there it might be mistaken for a trick of the light.
Robin touched his fingers to his brow in salute to her.
“Oi, princess. There you go.” Chastity gave a push against her now fastened bustle, forcing her to break eye contact. It was just as well. At that moment Will Scarlet—small, dark,
Will Scarlet—hurried to Robin’s side.
Shaking herself, she walked to the center of the room. Robin and Will moved to the side, and, even though he spoke to his cousin, his eyes were still on her.
It bothered her not at all.
Projecting assurance and confidence, she raised her arms and clapped her hands three times above her head. The room snapped to silence, all eyes turned to her.
“My lords and ladies, gentle folk one and all,” she said, her voice loud, firm, and crisp, “it is time for the king’s feast to begin.”
A cheer went up, hale and hearty and many-voiced. She turned and moved toward the doors of the main hall as they swung open.
* * *
The moment all were seated, servants entered from the left, where the kitchen was located. They carried platters laden with all manner of roasted meats, placing them on the tables. Fresh fruit, a particular delicacy, was present in abundance.
Will watched as Robin reached for a leg attached to a roast pheasant, ripped it off with a twist, and pulled it onto his platter.
His father frowned from his place down the table.
“Wait until the entire feast has been served,” he said sternly. “It is the proper way.” His mother gave him a dark look, her mouth turned down in the way it always did when he drew her attention.
Without listening, Robin continued to pull food onto his platter. Down the line of the table others, inspired by his brazenness, also began reaching in, plucking delicacies and putting them on platters of their own. By the time the cup bearers arrived with wine and mead, everyone had begun to eat. For the occasion the king had provided only the best, right down to drink. As people ate, they began to talk.
“Do you know what country this is from?”
“Why are we here?”
“I’ll try that, I’ve never even seen it before.”
“When will the king arrive?”
“I’ll start with mead and end with wine.”
“Is there trouble in the land?”
“Perhaps he has found a wife to replace the queen, God rest her soul.”
Will became less concerned with the reason for the feast as he heartily enjoyed all that was set before him. After several minutes—and several cups of light, dry wine from Germania—Alan-a-Dale rose from his seat next to Friar Tuck and the band of his brother monks who were responsible for providing both the ale and the mead to the feast.
He didn’t say anything, simply walked languorously to the center of the room. A hush fell, every eye turning his way. His checkered cloak hung off one shoulder, meticulously pinned in the old Celtic way with folds and creases that made the pattern seem to swirl and shimmer as he moved. It hypnotized, charming the eye and capturing the mind.
Will suffered a momentary pang of jealousy at the bard’s audacious style.
Looking into the middle distance, eyes unfocused, Alan-a-Dale reached up and began unbuckling the harp that rode in its case on his left shoulder. He undid the last tiny silver buckle, and the crowd gasped as the ancient harp rolled down his chest, tumbling toward the floor.
He caught it at the last moment and gave a deep bow, coupled with a small chuckle. The warm sound broke the tension and the gathered audience followed it with laughter of their own.
The minstrel let them have their mirth. As Will laughed with his family, even Robin was smiling. Will studied how the bard played the crowd, taking notes in his head for anything he might use to garner attention and curry favor. As much as he strove to insert himself into court, he hated arse-kissers and refused to be one, instead relying on the art of genuine charm.
If Will were an artist, then Alan-a-Dale was a master.
Laughter continued to roll and pulse in the room, slowly dying down until the bard reached up and strummed slender fingers across metallic strings.
“I recently found myself in Ireland,” he announced, “and here is a song of the Emerald Isle.”
With that he was off, entertaining them all with songs and news of the north. Will had never met the man’s match when it came to singing or spinning a good yarn. Around the room the women—including Robin’s sisters Rebecca and Ruth—gazed at the singer in adoration. Will chuckled softly to himself. His young cousins were growing up fast, faster than he imagined their parents wanted to admit.
Change comes whether you seek it or not.
ovement drew their attention. Into the torchlit circle came the gray man. He dragged a burlap sack behind him. One side of his face hung, the wrinkled skin flayed open along his cheek. The thin skin swung from his jaw, brushing against his chest with each shuffling step. The meat that lay underneath was the same pallid gray as the rest of him. In the flickering light it shimmered and moved, covered with crawling maggots.
The gray man stopped three paces away. He lifted the sack, grabbed the end of it, and turned it upside down. One sharp shake and something fell out, landing at their feet with a thump and clank.
Both men looked down. There lay a creature the size of a child, bound in shackles. Its skin was smooth and blemish free except where the iron manacles clamped cruelly against its wrists. There the skin blistered and smoked, thin curls wisping up with each brush against the metal. Its face was fine-boned and smooth, its nose a button between plump lips and liquid eyes four times the size they should have been. Silky hair of the palest sapphire parted around a pair of feral, pointed ears. The eyes flashed with hatred and the plump lips were pulled wide to show rows of needle-thin teeth locked into a grimace.
The smaller man crouched, staring at the creature. “What is that thing?”
“One of the trow,” the tall man answered.
The smaller man reached out his finger to touch the creature. He barely pulled it back in time as the trow lunged, teeth snapping where the finger had been.
“Vicious little shite.”
“The iron causes it pain.”
The smaller man stood. “That why you had me bring this?” His hand disappeared under his cloak, coming out with a long, slender dagger. The metal was a dull gray that nearly disappeared in the dim light. The blade was wafer thin, both edges ground to razor sharpness. The taller man’s voice came out dry and sardonic. “I chose you for your ability to quickly grasp a situation.”
The tall man’s thin lips twitched in what could be mistaken for a smile.
Drawing their attention, the gray man knelt beside the struggling creature.
The tall man nodded. “Near perfect.” He passed his hand over the gray man’s head and his voice took on a cadence of power. “You may return to your barrow, return to your hole, return to the loam that covers you, return to the effluvium and decay. Lie in wait until root becomes branch and branch becomes root and the worm that dieth not walks free among the tombstones.”
The gray man raised his wide, shovel-like hands to his face, covering it completely. He spoke three words in a language that had not been uttered by humans since the Tower of Babel. His hands lifted to the sky and his face turned with them. He stood in supplication for a long moment and everything paused—both men, the creature in its bonds, even the torches ceased their sputtering and burned with steady, still flame.
Finally, the gray man dropped his hands and turned away, shuffling off into the dark without a glance back.
The creature on the ground began to howl, a long, plaintive drawl of noise full of sorrow and threaded through with fear.
The tall man kicked it lightly with a booted foot.
The creature’s mouth shut, cutting off the noise.
“What is your name?”
“So you can use it in your working?” The creature’s voice was smooth and melodious, the sound of rain on a leafy bough, of a sparrow’s flight. “Not in this world or the next.”
The tall man chuckled. “I don’t need your name to do what I plan to do.” He turned to the smaller man, who still held the iron blade. “Gut him.”
“You heard me. Stick that knife in his gullet and split him open.”
The smaller man held out the knife.
The tall man shook his head. “It is to be by your hand, princeling.”
The smaller man looked at the creature on the ground, then at the knife in his hand, then back.
“This is necessary?”
The tall man said nothing.
The smaller man knelt beside the creature, who watched him with impossible eyes. He took a deep breath and put his hand on the creature’s chest.
“Wait!” the creature cried. “You don’t have to do this. Not this. I can give you what you seek without it.”
“You don’t know what we seek.”
“Two men in a dead field by the witch stone, consorting with a principality… I’d wager that you want power.”
The tall man touched the creature’s shoulder and spoke. “What power can you give us? You are our captive.”
“I am the land here. Me and mine are the guardians. I can give you the strength of the earth, if you take off these blasted chains.”
“You would give us your dominion, in return for your life?”
“Dominion’s no good if I’m not alive to exercise it.”
“Stay true to your nature,” the tall man said. “You were asked a question, speak the truth.”
“I would trade my power for my life.”
The tall man nodded. “The gray man chose well.” He lifted his hand and nodded. “Do it.”
Leaning his weight on the arm that held the creature flat to the ground, the smaller man pushed the blade into its stomach. The knife slid in with a hiss, and he pushed it around the bottom of the creature’s stomach, twisting his wrist to keep it moving until it had carved a great furrow from the creature’s ribcage on one side, down and around the stomach, and back up again to slide out when it struck the creature’s breastbone.