In the Deeps of the Shire Wode
“WIND and water, stone and tree….”
Firelight flickered against rock, as if in time to the low melody. Both light and song wavered as they traveled into the depths. Not that the voice was not strong or the fire not warm—the caverns were that deep.
An old man, lean and crystal-eyed, stared into the fire. Every now and then the fire would jerk and start, as if some giant had spat upon it, but the cause was natural enough. Thunder rumbled in the forest above, sending puffs of wind through unknown entrances into the caverns. The old man could hear the stones embedded in the earth above him creak, almost in reply; he tuned his low voice as if in reverent time. Those rocks that formed the circle above him might be a tiny imitation of the ring stones on the plain of Salisbury far to the south, but no less eternal in their observance of the powers that he, too, had served for….
How long had it been? Stubble had scarce grown on his now leathern cheeks when he’d first taken up the mantle of the god. He had put aside his real name when, on a midsummer night not long after King Stephen had taken up another, more politic authority, a peasant gathering had crowned a young man with antlers and cried the god’s name:
Cernunnos. Horned One. Green-Father. Hunter.
Stephen had relinquished his crown to his nephew Henry even as Cernun had groomed his own successor, moving from Hunter to Hermit’s guise. It was the way of things. Shaking a twisted lock of silver from his eyes, Cernun grumbled to himself again, stirring at the fire with a long stick. He was old, but not infirm. The Sight was still strong in him, his body still hale and sound of limb; the forces of nature had rewarded him well for his service. Most men who had seen over fifty winters were bent and aged, senile from hard, miserable lives. The blood of the Barrow-lines ran strong. And he had been lucky.
He could only wish his successor such fortune.
The fire sparked. Cernun leaned closer, scrutinizing the writhing embers, watched them swell then flare white, reaching for the low limestone overhead. Yes? he asked, silent beneath the swell of power. You speak, Lord?
Images assaulted him. He saw what had been: the midsummer madness of dancing and singing, the rejoicing in rites, which, for a short, sweet time, took his people from the harsh reality of toil and hunger. Saw Horned Lord take Lady, clothed in Hunter and Maiden, horns and moon-crown.
Saw children born, Beltain-gotten, and the sweet green Wode prosper. As above, so below.
The fire damped, the vision strayed. Cernun spoke a low, guttural word, grabbed a handful of herbs from the cauldron at his side, and threw them onto the fire. The past was a given—to what future led this vision?
Scented smoke rose. It blossomed, damp cavern mists and heat writhing, tearing into wisps then coalescing.
A scream. The Mother’s face reflecting flames and terror, the woods aflame, and the Horned One on the Hunt. Downed in snow, horns broken, wolves with blooded jaws snapping and snarling….
“No!” Cernun hissed. He caught his breath as more shapes danced in the smoke, dissolving then coalescing….
A cowled figure draws a freakishly long bow, the arrow’s flight swift and sure, to split another arrow already in the black… a sister of the White Christ bends over a kneeling soldier… clad in the red and white of the Temple, he raises his fair head to let her make the sign of the Horns upon his brow… a booted foot stomps the long bow, shattering it….
Cernun blinked, shook his head. It made no sense, none of it. Smoke hissed, twisted into a pair of cowled figures locked in struggle….
One slams the other up against a tree, yanks his head back, and brings a drawn sword against the exposed artery, only to have the sword fall from his hands, to stagger back as if he has seen some demon… or ghost….
Another twist of smoke, and abruptly the flames flared high, gusting char against the old man’s face. He didn’t move, in fact bent forward.
A figure, crouching naked in the fire, a silhouette amidst burning ruins. The fire rises again, a spiral of sound and wind, and the figure rises with it, backlit, stepping barefoot over the coals and extending pale arms as if clothing itself in fire.
And, suddenly, it is. Flames whip, clad and cowl the figure in brilliant scarlet that ebbs to black… then gray-ash rags. Winter blows through, snow hissing in the coals and covering the figure. It walks back and forth, and in its footsteps ice crystals form. Green, sharp-edged leaves unfurl amidst the winter ice, revealing blood-red berries in their depths. The figure turns to him, eyes glowing within its cowl, still pacing, like to a wild animal caged.
Wolf, it says, but does not speak. Witch. Hawk.
Wind gusted through the cavern in a bank of noise and cold. The fire pitched down from copper into indigo, sparks flying, smoke rising.
Cernun did not bother to stir it. Instead he closed his eyes, tried to make sense of what he had seen.
Wolf. The most skilled of hunters, yet hunted throughout the land by another, even more treacherous predator. Or… outlaws were known as wolfshead. Perhaps? But not likely. Cernun would tolerate no outlaw within his covenant.
Witch. What the White Christ’s followers called those who followed the old ways of the heath and Barrow-lines, a calling turned to hatred by outside forces, even as the Romans had done with another naming: Pagani.
Hawk. Proud birds, another hunter/predator forced to perform beneath nobleman’s rule, barely tamed and kept from free flight, jessed, hooded.
“Hooded.” It came out in a soft rush of breath. Not only the hawk but wolf and witch—predators cornered—the struggling figures, the flame-gotten one… all cowled. By fire, by ash, by blood. “Great Lord who lies incarnate in us. Has it come to this?”
He stared at the dying embers, not wanting to believe. But the image persisted.
The one to walk all worlds, to breathe the fates of dark and light and dusk between, male and female; the Arrow of the goddess and the Horns of the god. The champion of the old ways—and the beginning of their ending.
The Hooded One.
Near Loxley Village, Yorkshire
The weanling tensed, twitched long, wide ears. Blinked. Then greed overcame any start of panic. The deer crept closer, switching its buff-colored tail and chewing as if it could taste the goodies being offered. Its benefactor was kneeling in the fern and bracken, quiet as the mists hanging in the thick trees. It almost seemed he wasn’t wholly there, a ghostly, hooded figure holding too still for mortal folk, offering a small measure of corn.
“Rob!” Then the sound, coming closer, of running feet.
This did penetrate. The fawn started and fled, tail flagged high. With a growl, the figure rose, revealing itself to be no forest sprite but a mere lad, lanky and unfinished as the weanling deer.
He’d almost fed the creature, almost felt whiskers and soft lips tickling against his palm. Almost touched the wild. Throwing back his hood from black hair and an even blacker expression, the lad rounded on the one who had broken his enchanted moment.
“Marion! You’re noisy as a browsing cow!” She had slowed, picking her way through the copse, skirts tucked up to reveal sensible hose and worn leather boots.
She was not impressed, either by the considerable scowl or the inflammatory accusation. Her cinnabar hair was tucked beneath a kerchief, twining down her back with bits of bark clinging to it. The sopping edges of her skirts and boots slapped and squeaked as she walked. Her cheeks were pink, her breath steaming into the morning’s chill; she’d run at least this far.
“Da wants you. He’s an errand for you.” Gray eyes took in Rob’s clenched palm, the suspiciously bulging bag tied to his waist. “And if he finds you’ve been feeding deer again, you’ll be in for it.”
“He’ll not find out unless you tell.”
“And why shouldn’t I?”
Rob grinned, crossed his arms, and leaned against a young oak. “We-elll, mayhap if I let slip—out of fear of punishment, mind—that I saw you in the fodder bin with Tom, the carter’s son?”
“You treacherous little sod,” Marion replied, but there was admiration in it. “All right, then. Pax. You waint tell about Tom, and I say nowt to your little assignation.”
“Little what? Are you calling me an ass?”
Marion rolled her eyes, leaned forward, and grabbed him by one grass-stained woolsey sleeve. “As-sig-nation, y’fool. It means a meeting. Tryst.”
“Well, why didna you just say that?” Rob protested as she began to propel him, hand still on his arm, toward home.
“I did just say that. Can I help it if you’re a daft knob who canna be arsed to pay attention to his learning?”
“Parchments are a waste of time—ow!” He tried to pull from her grip; she just grabbed tighter and kept him on the march. “G’off me, I’m going, I’m going! And I’ve no need for smelly old tomes, I’ve my bow.”
“I’ve a bow too. Sometimes I outshoot even you, lad. It doesna mean I’ve no need for my brain.”
“You’ll drive young Tom off, you will. Men dinna fancy clever women.”
Marion snorted. “Like you would know, boy.”
“I’m nearly a man!”
“Nearly only counts in quoits.”
“Da married Mam when he was fifteen!”
“You’re not even looking fifteen in the eye yet; I know ’cause I saw you born. How about we wait at least ’til your voice breaks to speak of it again?”
Rob tried to answer this, found “fuming” to be a word he did know.
“Anyway, you’re assuming I ent clever enough to hide my cleverness. Not that I’m planning on marrying Tom.”
“You keep on with what I saw you two about in the hay ricks and you might have to—Ow!” Bloody hell, but she had a fearful left cross. “I dinna know what you see in Tom.”
“He’s got nice eyes. And golden hair—”
“What’s so special about that? He looks like corn that’s been in the ground too long. He’d never have a chance in the forest; anyone would see him coming for miles.” Rob shrugged free of Marion’s grip only to have her grab him again. “’Tennyrate, the only reason Tom’s so fair-haired is that he uses lime paste.”
Marion shot him a look—clearly this was news to her. Unfortunately, it didn’t stop her from continuing to propel him forward. “You’ll understand soon enough. You’ll see some girl that tilts your braies and then you’ll want to be tilting into her.”
“This is more than I really wanted to know about you, thanks awfully. I dinna like girls. Giggling, silly things, all sick-sweet flowers from their skirts to their empty heads.”
A snort. “You like me.”
“You ent a girl, then, are you? You’re me sister.”
THE house was off to itself, really; close enough for convenience to Loxley village but set apart, right on the forest’s edge, a proper location for land and chattels let to a king’s forester. It was also sturdier than the wattle-and-daub siding of most dwellings near the forest’s edge, a one-room cob cottage with a small loft. Rob liked to sleep on the little platform on wet nights, up next to the rafters and thatch, to hear the rain patter.
Not a bad place to call home, as such things went.
Marion started for the garden, but jerked her head toward the small barn; Rob turned to see their father walking from it. He was a brown man, from swart skin to curly hair and shaggy beard, with startling blue eyes. Rob often wondered if—hoped—he would ever grow to be as strong and statuesque as Adam of Loxley. In one hand Adam gripped a small folded parchment; the other held the reins to a sturdy little bay jennet.
“I need you to ride to Loxley, Rob.” His father’s speech, a deep, rounded dialect of the local-born, was clipped with impatience. “I would go, but there’s still the nor’west section to cover before night. That poacher wants catching.”
Rob nodded. Adam was known to the sheriff’s guardsmen as an aloof and steady customer: hard to bribe, fair to a fault. The common folk knew him as their own: the one constant in a hard place. For them, Adam would overlook a kill amongst the king’s deer during starving times, claim it beneath his own sparse yeoman’s rights. Abandoned or senseless butchery, however, he would not tolerate. This latest transgressor had slain four deer already, taken their hearts and horns, and left the rest to rot. An outlaw, no doubt. Such waste infuriated Adam, and Rob himself was sickened by it. Everyone knew that if you held such disregard, it would fall back upon you threefold.
“What have you there, boy?”
Rob found his father’s gaze fastened upon his clenched fist. Marion had hot-footed him so smartly home that Rob had forgotten what he held. With a grimace, he opened it, displaying the handful of grain.
Adam pressed his lips tight and shook his head. “Feeding animals again, when food’s short enough for the village.”
Rob looked down. “Sir, I—”
“Weren’t thinkin’,” Adam growled. “Son. You’re getting to be of an age to understand such things. This harvest has been good so far, and one would think we’d eat for years, but it won’t last forever. The only luxuries we can afford are our own beasts. You and your mother, you’d have the entire forest in our laps.”
“I waint forget again,” Rob murmured. As Adam held out his hand, Rob traded the grain sack for the jennet’s rein.
“Rob?” another voice called. “Would you also take something for me?”
Rob turned to see his mother walking toward the barn, her tread mindful of the neat rows and beds of the east-facing garden. Marion was following, carrying a wood-and-hide pail—probably going to milk. Marion shrugged as she saw Adam holding the grain sack, but her lips betrayed a slight smirk.
Wanker, Rob mouthed at her.
I dinna have to, she mouthed back. Wank, that is.
“Did you say something?” his mother asked.
Rob shook his head. Eluned was clad for working, her gray overdress tied up at her waist for comfort, a wide, straw hat over her braided hair, and a basket spilling greenery hooked over one arm. She wasn’t half as old as the wortwife who dwelt in Nottingham’s fortress and tended to the sheriff and his retinue, but she was twice as skilled—and thrice as beautiful, Rob amended, thinking of Ness’s craggy face. Surely the old white-bearded Christian god was not so ancient or scrawny as Ness. Not to mention that unlike Ness, Eluned still smiled with all her teeth, was small-boned and plump, with only a few silvered streaks in her black hair. It seemed that just the touch of her hands could cure a fever, that the least of simples and remedies prepared by her could cease any pain. Some of the villagers called her “The Maiden”—despite that she’d already had two healthy children and buried two—in tones of awe and respect. It was even said she had the Old Blood of the northern Barrows.
Looking at her, Rob could believe it.
She handed him a cloth packet. “Anna, the carter’s wife, is sickening from her pregnancy. Tell her this should ease her.”
“Ent that Tom’s mam?” he asked easily.
From behind their parents, Marion shot him a look that, had it been an arrow from her bow, would have slain him instantly. Marion really was a fine shot.
“I do believe Tom is one of her children, aye.” Eluned had been away from the Welsh borderlands for many a year, yet still had the singsong lilt to her voice—one both Marion and Rob seemed to fall into more often than not. She raised an eyebrow. “Why?”
He opened his mouth and watched with no little amusement as Marion’s glare moved from well-aimed death arrow to lop your bloody head off with a very shiny axe. Rob grinned, merely said, “I was just asking.”
Eluned peered at him, then slid her eyes to take in Marion, who suddenly found it imperative that she milk that cow, and the sooner the better. She started off for the barn, swinging her bucket with no little nonchalance.
His mother’s eyes narrowed. Aye, Eluned of the March was as canny as her rumored people.
“Off with you, then.” Adam grabbed at his son, boosted him onto the jennet’s back. “No dawdling. Give Willow a good run, mind your business and be back before dark. And.” He caught Rob’s gaze, held it. “Mind you take no shortcuts through th’ Wode. Go around.”
Rob visibly deflated. This put a proper nick in his plans. “I was going to catch some fish. I thought you said outlaws only have the stomach to attack at night.”
“This poacher’s no reasonable outlaw. There’s plenty fish to be had that dinna bide in forest pools.” His father patted the furry bay neck, with the final justification, “You know good ’n’ well mating season’s to hand. Think of Willow’s welfare—to a buck blind with rut, she might be no’ but another challenge to take on. Be sensible, Rob.”
The boy sighed and put heels to his mount’s sides.
ROB rode at a brisk trot, posting against Willow’s short-legged gait, casting a longing eye upon the thick tangle of Loxley Chase. It was several miles via the plowed roads to Loxley village; it was barely a mile through the forest, and Rob knew every deer trace as well as the map of freckles on his narrow, sunburnt nose.
Even now, he saw a trail; faint, but unmistakably there if one knew how to look. Too many people didn’t. The villagers were scared of the forest. Though Loxley Chase was just the tip of what became the great Shire Wode to the south, most of the farmers that lived in its shadow were convinced that all manner of h’ants and boggarts bided there. They told tales that put even the real dangers of wolves or boars to shame. Or the lord’s men. For it was a fact that those men given leave to hunt—the few not scared of deep forest—tramped through it as if it were merely a woefully overgrown and tangled common, aiming their crossbows at anything that moved, peasant or game.
Crossbows. Rob’s lip curled. Cheating, that was. A simple shortbow—aye, that was a man’s weapon.
A quirk drawing between his dark brows, Rob considered that faint trail with no little longing. As if in answer, more distant than it sounded, the click and smack of antlers tangling stayed and reminded Rob of Adam’s caution. He patted Willow’s neck. She was too nice to get gored by some hey-go-mad buck thinking more with his balls than what little brain he had. Even better not to chance his father’s ire two times in one day. Adam was already up in arms about something. As Rob had heard it, there was a new clutch of noble-born tenants in the castle sitting athwart the shire borders of York and Nottingham, rehashing some perpetual dispute over who should own the rents from Loxley and several other villages. Rob didn’t understand half of it. The lords never came around, only sent others to do their dirty work, soldiers to threaten or sheriffs to bully. The villagers should just look to Adam as they always did; he was more thane of Loxley, it seemed, than the headman there who bore the title.
At least, that was the only explanation that Rob could come up with when the people of Loxley and its surroundings called his father “Lord.”
He rode on, keeping to the road, quite chuffed with his own virtue. The air was nippy, pleasant and cool; Rob smiled as the little mare toyed with the bit. Mabon was drawing ever nearer, the equinox and harvest celebrations. There was excitement in the air even Willow could feel. The year had been prosperous, and the feasting would be good… and on the plowed road, they could make up time with speed. With a small yip, he dug his leather-clad feet into Willow’s brown ribs.
The little bay leapt forward, eager, as if she had been waiting for Rob to ken that well-cleared roads equaled a good—and easy—run. Rob laughed and leaned forward; her black mane rose to slap his face, commingling with his own hair as he urged her on.
Over and down one hillock, then another, and as they came over the third and around a long curve, something exploded from the forest edge almost atop them.
Willow shied and rolled sideways on her muscular haunches as if some fire-breathing dragon had come roaring from the forest, primed for horseflesh. Rob was first tossed onto Willow’s thick neck, then slid under her chest, then smacked heavily to the dirt. He made an instinctive snatch at the rein, but missed as Willow swerved at the last moment. She trotted off a few paces then halted with a jolt, head seemingly sucked against the earth as she set to a thick patch of grass.
Rob used a word for which his mother had once washed out his mouth with lye soap. Fingers full of dirt, he stood up, brushing at his tunic and leather breeks. His gaze darted about, quickly found the “dragon” that had leapt from the forest at them.
It was another horse. A gray stallion, pale as a thick-stacked thunderhead; tall and long-limbed, blowing and wide-eyed and ready to take to the hills if necessary. He was tacked with a saddle and bridle that together would have paid several years’ worth of Loxley’s taxes. One of the fancy, inlaid stirrups was flung over the seat and the saddle itself kinked to the left. A scabbard pointed skyward, its sword clinging only by the grace of being well laced in.
No commoner’s mount, this. Rob smirked, considering that the stallion seemed quite the overbred noble set adrift, peering down his nose at having his day interrupted by some grubby peasant lad and his hairy jennet.
He also bore several telltale gashes along one ivory flank.
“Easy, lad.” Rob held out a hand, soothing. “Did that buck get the better of you, then?”
The stallion stretched his neck and deigned to let Rob approach. Then, nostrils flaring, he promptly dropped his aloof pose, stuck out his knob, and pranced past Rob over to Willow, arching his neck and grunting and nickering.
Willow greeted this overture with an unearthly grunt, letting fly with a back hoof. She returned to grazing. Despite the pose of indifference, however, her black tail lifted; the roll of her eye was flirtatious.
Rob rolled his own eyes. “Bloody…. You too?”
He knew better than to get in the middle of the poncy stallion and his common paramour—at least, not until the mare had definitely said “aye” or “nay.” Not to mention the possible spoils come eleven moons from now: a fine, if late-gotten, colt from a stallion whose fee they’d never otherwise approach. Rob shrugged and left them to it, once again scanning the terrain.
There had to have been a rider with that horse.
The trail was easily discerned, leading into the dusky canopy of green and fawn. The horse had been panicked, not terribly choosy about where he’d fled, leaving crushed bracken and rent branches and torn-up earth in his wake. He was just as noisy outside the confines of the forest; his loud dalliance with Willow could still be heard. Rob ignored it, ducking beneath branches and sidestepping thick bracken, treading the damp ground light as down and watchful as a priest on tithing day. His father and mother both had taught him well. He made no moves other than ones he intended, left no trace that couldn’t be mistaken for animal spoor, was silent until he saw it, and then that, too, was a mere breath into the forest.
A leather boot, worn but well made, was snagged against a gorse near Rob’s eye level. Just beyond that was a bundle of fabric crumpled against the gnarled roots of an old oak.
Rob moved closer, cautious.
The bundle of fabric revealed itself, just as he’d figured, to be clothing. Unfortunately it was not empty, but again, just as he’d figured, was wrapped around what had to be the stallion’s rider. The boot in his hand matched the one still worn; of course the other leg was bare, stocking yanked half off. More freckles than Rob himself had ever possessed sprayed across that pale calf.
Tale was as easily discerned as trail. Whoever this was had been riding, run across a buck deer looking for a scrap, the poncy stallion might have challenged the deer—probably not, those gashes were on his butt end, after all—and the likely as poncy rider had been thrown and then dragged a short ways before he met the oak.
Rob knelt, fingered the cape bunched and flung sideways. Fine stuff, all right, soft woven and well oiled to keep out the damp. Finer than the boots, even. Contrarily, the dark-blue tunic beneath it had seen better days, as had the woolen braies. What kind of lad—and it must be a lad, with that garb—wore such rich clothes until they wore out?
Grabbing the limp figure by his tunic, Rob gave a heave, turned him over. A pale shock of gingery hair spilled from the confines of the cape’s hood. A lad, sure enough, and about Rob’s own age. Rob grimaced as he saw the gash on the high freckled forehead.
Pure trouble, this was.
Tempting to just leave it all to lie, let this trouble find another target. Rob did, after all, have important business in the village. He could tell the headman there what he’d found….
Nay, he really couldn’t. Because sure as crows flew with ill news, that gray stud would follow Willow home, and then wouldn’t Rob have some explaining to do as to why he’d not gone looking for its owner.
Rob sighed, then reached out and tapped his fingers at the lad’s shoulder. “Hoy. You, there. Wake up.”