I

 

 

Near Wentbridge, Yorkshire

Waxing of March, 1192 ACE

 

HE SCENTED into the wind, and waited.

A lean figure crouched on an oak limb twice as broad as himself, he was clad in a faded mix of leather and woolen that all but blended with the burgeoning, lush foliage. There was a graceful curve of elm balanced on his knees and several arrows, fashioned for the length of his drawing arm, stuck in a thick knot of unruly black hair hanging over one shoulder. Another handful of arrows waited in a quiver hung upon a smaller limb, within reach.

The bow was strung. Ready.

Robyn shifted, snuffed the air again. His booted feet made careful purchase on the slick wood; it was raining, had been raining for two days straight in a light patter, and what the rain hadn’t managed to soak, the mists hanging in the river bottoms had. The road, a wet ribbon threading past his perch and southward, was slick as sheep dung, slow.

Aye, a good day for hunting.

“He just knows things, Robyn does.”

“I’ve never doubted that. What the old dryw doesn’t tell ’im, th’ dreams do. You’ve known Rob only these past few seasons; I’ve known him since we was bairns, Arthur. I know when he’s maddened on some hot scent.”

“You’re allus pushing it, Will. One of these days he’ll answer yer challenge with more’n a clout upside that thick head of your’n.”

The voices were soft, barely carrying past where they resided—another aged oak a stone’s throw southward of the one Robyn occupied. Will Scathelock was less than happy with their intended quarry.

But then, Will had spent too much time hiding and keeping his head down. What spirit had moved him to hunt his mother’s murderer had borne fat fruit, then withered for lack of light and direction.

“This is different, Arthur. ’Tis pure trouble, and you—”

“I can hear y’ both, you know.” Robyn pitched his voice just enough to carry to their tree.

Silence. Robyn could feel their eyes on him, but didn’t take his own off the waterlogged road. A spray of water dappled the hood half covering his skull: tree-rain, always quixotic, building with the wet until weight or the wind unloaded a branch-full, usually when you were least expecting it.

And bloody damn but it had been a sodding long, wet and bitter winter. All of them were about as pleasant company as boar bears after hibernation; just as lean and hungry, trammeled too close for too long and just bloody brassed off.

They had begun these sorts of forays last spring. Obedient to Cernun’s edict that they might be outlaws but they were not criminals, they had, until now, drawn the line at openly accosting travelers. There were other ways of warning intruders off their territory. Games and no more, well-timed and covert: an arrow through a cap here, traps laid there, delicate, drug-tipped bodkins shot merely to crease the skin and send the senses woozy, eerie sounds and balls of light and acrid smoke to foil the curious. Those games had been underlain with a grave purpose: Cernun’s health was failing, had been since he began calling the rites and Robyn had made his first, faltering appearance at Summer Solstice. Everything had its price. The Horned Lord’s avatar, Hob-Robyn dead at the hands of his rival; yet here he was, a dryw who had walked the otherworld paths and come back to life with death-magic humming all crazed in his veins. The dark-cowled Green Man once more roamed the Wode.

And it was truth, all of it: the youth once known as Rob of Loxley had died. More than once he had hung, bound with bloody and tattered ropes to the Tree connecting the worlds, with the Horned Lord holding to him by the sheer, tensile fetter of his name and His Lady offering release….

If only. Robyn’s lip curled into a half smile. You truly didna want me to take Her fine offer, eh?

When have you ever sought release by a woman’s touch?

Touché, as the Motherless Franks would say. Robyn’s smile broadened. Anyways, you ent finished with me yet.

And neither are you, Hob-Robyn. Finished. This—a silent breath of approval, almost as if the Horned Lord was inspecting the terrain and their doings within it—is more like it. No more hanging in the shadows like kicked dogs.

Robyn snuffled a nigh-silent chuckle, considered the patter of rain on the leaves, then rotated his left shoulder in its socket. If he wasn’t careful, it would stiffen up.

Games. The outlaws had moved farther north, none of them comfortable near the ruins of Loxley. Their relationship with the people here had begun cautiously, with trade. Game for crafted niceties such as bread and ale, a packet of beautifully fletched arrows for a measure of cloth to replace thin-worn tunics, furs and hides for grain and vegetables.

Then word had come, trickling along the byways and through the villages: things had changed. A king who had never truly held to his own kingdom now had even less reason to return: Richard, called Lionheart, was held prisoner in some far-off land, and a ransom demanded for his return.

One king was like to another as far as Robyn was concerned; hang him from some foreign gallows and let the crows pick his bones for all it mattered to a people winnowed of their homes and families.

But this had mattered, and brought hard change. The nobles were up in arms, jockeying for place and traveling the roads, flexing their muscles and making everyone’s life miserable—including a motley group of outlaws who had fled fire and rapine to claim part of Barnsdale as their own.

On the wings of such change came the dreams: not in mists and possibilities, but realities razor-edged as any flail, merciless as any conqueror. Robyn had found his uncanny talents healing as his body had healed; scarred and not quite whole, powerful beneath the pain. And the wildness behind his eyes grew daily more unchancy, as if in dangerous tandem with a world that kept passing them by.

I did not keep you in thisworld to hide like a fawn in the thicket.

Aye, long past time the game should turn.

Several clicks and three dove calls came from upwind. Robyn alerted without thinking, plucking at his waxed bowstring. A lovely sound, the heavy strum and shudder, and the moisture shed with a spray of cool drops flung against his face. Almost as lovely as the sound of approaching hoofbeats. Eight horses, it sounded, and according to John’s signal, only a quintet of guardsmen.

Even better. Lips curling again, decided and ruthless, Robyn pulled his hood forward to shadow his face.

Kept waiting.

He could see them, now, pushing through the mist. Wet, weary, and grim, even to the guards. The fore guards seemed somewhat alert, crossbows primed and shields slung ready. But the flank held their crossbows with little conviction; one even had it slung over his back. In their midst were four riders: the lord and his lady set apart by their well-bred palfreys and their tight-woven, expensive capes all trimmed with fur; their body servants, one an elder man and the other a girl, trailing on their own mounts.

Hopefully it was the retinue they sought. Robyn raised cupped hands to his mouth, blew a soft call: be ready.

The party drew abreast of their hiding place. As they did, a voice, seemingly from nowhere, ordered a halt.

The guardsmen leapt into action, surrounding their charges—but the hindmost ones were just that much too slow. Easy pickings; the rear guardsmen were flanked and fell to three gray-fletched arrows. The left front ended up with two arrows embedded in his shield, tried to return the favor and found he had no discernable targets.

“Show yourselves, villeins!” he bellowed.

“Whyever should we do that?” Another call wafted from the trees, and the remaining guards kept looking back and forth, trying to find its source. Robyn smiled; he knew exactly where Gilbert was; could see him, in fact, right next to the gorse bush across the way, behind a nocked and held arrow. Gilbert was almost as canny with a longbow as Robyn himself; it had been Gilbert and John who’d leveled the odds by dispatching those extra guards.

“Drop your weapons,” Arthur ordered. He had shinnied down to the gnarled, exposed roots of the tree he’d been perched in, nigh invisible; he could no longer shoot a bow, but his one remaining arm was murder with stave or axe. “You’ve no chance.”

The guards kept trying to find targets. They were having little success; the heavy mists caught sound and held it, spitting it out far from its origins.

The head nobleman yanked back his cowl, spurred his horse forward and unsheathed his sword. It was not quite the shock Robyn had thought it might be; the man had changed but little.

It would be sweet, to see this one crawl.

“I am Sir Johan, mesne lord of Blyth and Tickhill by grant of the king!” the nobleman barked. “Whoever you are, I demand you let us go on unhampered!”

“You’re in our forest, lordling,” Robyn growled from his tree perch. “Are we supposed to be impressed—other than with your stupidity?”

The mesne lord of Blyth puffed up like a threatened goose. Robyn could feel Will’s eyes on him, uncertain.

Robyn didn’t let him founder in it. “Stupid,” he confirmed to their quarry, throwing a grin to Will. “How is it other than daft t’ tell me how important you are? I might fancy a ransom from your sainted hide.”

“You wouldn’t dare—!” This protest, from the lead soldier, squeaked into silence as Robyn loosed his arrow and it imbedded, quivering, into the curve of the crossbow. The guard’s hand jerked and the crossbow disengaged, the bolt flying wild into the mists. One of the women gave a small shriek.

“You’ve no idea, lordling,” Robyn drawled, nocking a second arrow, “what I will and waint do.”

Neither did Johan back down. “Un chien Anglais. You’d think to lay claim to what is not yours, like all your kind.”

“I’d say Franks are more the dogs!” Gilbert called. “Pissing on our territory!”

“We have women with us!” The fore guard protested. “None but a coward would threaten women!”

Robyn smiled and yanked the hood farther over his face, relaxed the push on his bow.

Leapt down.

Rob!” Will never liked it when Robyn went off-plan—unfathomable, that, for Will should bloody well be used to it by now.

Robyn didn’t answer. Instead, he sauntered onto the road. There was a rustle and shuffle, then a thud—only one of their own could have heard it—as Will hastened down to cover his leader’s unprotected flank. And all about them, the sounds of damp strings creaking into full nock.

“Damn it, Rob!” Will’s hissed rebuke was muffled by the scarf he’d pulled up to cover half his face. Their adversaries were as surprised as Robyn’s own men by what had occurred. Outlaws did not waltz into the middle of a wide-open road. They did not.

“I ent the least interested in your womenfolk, man.” Robyn hid the snarl he knew was on his lips by pitching his voice mild, almost chiding. “I’m wanting information.”

“Information.” Johan was still flummoxed, but had recovered enough to attempt to see his adversary. Between the mists and the shadowed dark of Robyn’s cowl, he seemed to be having little luck.

One of the women wasn’t so brave; she took one look at the lethal figures and crossed herself. The other woman—obviously her mistress—stayed still and shocked, much as the other two guards. The elder body servant had drawn up next to his lord, hand on dagger, more bravado than any real threat.

“Blyth, you say.” Again, Robyn gave a soft, careless drawl to the words, though every sensation he possessed was humming and whirling. The Horned Lord’s hot breath on his nape. The magic, waiting.

Take him. I have brought you to him, as I promised. Now, take him down.

Robyn bade it wait. “How fare your brothers, milord of Blyth?”

“My… brothers?” Johan’s face twisted from anger to puzzlement. “I have a brother who is seneschal to my lands… and will see I am avenged, should I not return,” he added.

Robyn raised his bow, pointed the bodkin at Johan’s ribs. “I was of the understanding, milord, that you had two brothers. And two powerful cousins—one as sheriff to our fair shire, and another who bides as abbess to Worksop Abbey.”

Will let out a nigh-silent hiss; the emotion of the breath merely fed into the magics humming in Robyn’s skull.

“What would you want of Abbess Elisabeth?” the noblewoman demanded.

Johan shot her a quieting look; her mouth tightened and she looked away. “You’ve indeed been too long in the forest, Anglais, growing mold in your brain, to ask such things. Old news matters little, yet why should I tell you a damned thing?”

“Nay, stand down,” Will uttered by Robyn’s right shoulder. “I wouldn’t, was I you.” This to the lead guard who was inching his crossbow toward Robyn.

“Take his advice, man. And as for you, Frank.” Robyn stretched his bow tighter, smiling as it spoke to him with a soft groan. “I’d advise t’ answer m’ questions.”

Those eyes widened, and Johan paled.

“I can shoot your horse out from under you quicker than you can spit. In fact,” Robyn raised his aim, slow and sure, directly between Johan’s eyes, “I could shoot you, easy as that. And the beauty of it all? You’d never know why.”

Aye, kill him. Is it not why we’re here?

“Robyn….” Will’s voice was a warning, the only sound drifting through the tension. Robyn’s faulty shoulder gave a stab and tremble, as if in response, but he didn’t take his eyes off Johan, a bloody haze drifting through his mind.

“Answer me, Frankish dog. What news of the Sheriff? Or of the third brother and the cousin?”

Johan looked set to not answer, his offence at being held in the sights of a wolfshead trumping any sense, it seemed. Part of Robyn frankly hoped he wouldn’t see sense, just for the excuse of watching his expression when Robyn did drop him off that fine palfrey.

The Horned Lord, also, was eager for excuses. Would his pain not bid the night mare gallop softer through your mind? Is it not what you want? The blood of those who betrayed you?

Again, his shoulder gave a quiver. Johan paled, obviously taking it for further threat.

“Oh, God!” the maidservant blurted. “Save us, he’s mad!”

“Shut up, Winifred!” the noblewoman hissed.

“We have money!” Winifred was little more than a girl. “Milady, if you’d jus’ give ’im the money, mebbe he’d let us go!”

Listen to the child. This one is not yours, Hob-Robyn.

This presence, lighter yet of feminine steel which held none of the mercy it evoked, was one he had not heard in….

The scythe that shall reap him must wait for another’s hand, another’s right—and when the blood-heat has cooled, My Consort will know the truth of it. Revenge is sweet, but Mercy can give its own pain, collect its own rewards, after all.

Robyn hesitated. As if waiting for just that fragment of uncertainty, his shoulder stabbed and sent a painful spasm down his arm. Robyn gave a filthy curse as the arrow loosed and sang; its passing merely whiffled and snatched at the fur collar of Johan’s cape, took out a patch of leaves, and disappeared into the dense growth on the far side of the road.

Bloody fucking damn.

Johan tottered sideways in his saddle, caught himself in belated realization; he had not, after all, been hit.

“Milady” turned and swung her riding crop at Winifred; the maidservant shrieked as it impacted with a crack.

A second’s distraction—but enough for the left fore guard to swing his crossbow about to aim at Robyn. Instead he jerked and fell forward, one of Gilbert’s arrows through his throat. The remaining guard was cursing at his crossbow, still fouled by Robyn’s first arrow. The body servant gave protest as Johan spurred his horse forward; as one, Robyn and Will split to let him pass. Arthur came running up, axe in hand, forcing Johan to haul on the reins and bounce to a halt.

“Come then, ‘milord’. I’m a good Saxon,” Arthur growled, wielding his axe. “And we love horsemeat.”

“Enough!” Robyn had taken another arrow from his hair, nocked it lightly. His gaze was still fixed on Johan, but the heat of it had been broken.

Broken by Her voice, one he’d thought never to hear again.

The Lady had always been Marion’s possession….

It stabbed him, worse than his brittle shoulder tendons, unclean and raw as a dagger left in a maggoty wound. He sunk his teeth into his tongue, bidding grief and Voice both begone, just for the little while.

“Mayhap,” Robyn’s words were slow, considering. “Mayhap all we’re needing is our own tax, after all.”

“A tax—!” Johan began, choking it off as Arthur threatened with the axe once more.

“Aye, and wouldn’t your like tax us t’ death,” Arthur growled.

“You… poacher!” the noblewoman spat.

“Shut your face, bitch,” Arthur warned her.

Enough!” Robyn turned to Johan. “So, milord? The information?”

“Not that it matters,” Johan spat, “but Sheriff de Lisle has been granted reeveship of Derby and Nottingham as well as York. As to the youngest of my brothers, he went on Crusade and I have not heard of him since! And the Reverend Lady is away far south, traveling on God’s business, no doubt, and out of your foul reach, villein! Now, release us.”

Mercy, for a traitor? A murderer? The Horned Lord again, hot with bloodlust. The Lady was silent, gone. There is none in him, give him none. Kill him.

Instead, Robyn relaxed his nock. Cocking his head, he ambled closer to the noblewoman. “So. This money. It’s your dowry, is it?”

She started as if he’d pulled bedchamber secrets from her brain and stared down at him. The maidservant was still whimpering. The remaining soldier was fuming as helplessly as Johan.

“The question is, milady,” Robyn continued, soft, “do you value yon coin more than your husband-to-be?”

“You’ll regret this, I promise you.” This from Johan, despite the proximity of Arthur’s axe to his horse’s neck.

Aye, you will. This will not end today unless you end it….

Will murmured something that sounded closer to Johan’s agreement than the Horned Lord’s.

“Oh, I regret,” Robyn murmured, an abrupt sing-song to still the magic dancing mad along his nerves. “But not as you will. You’re the one who’ll truly regret. You’re the one who’ll lie awake nights, wondering why. You’ll find no solace, wine or woman, and your dam’s blood will be the death of you.”

Silence fell as the last echoed, breath grounding into promise, one Robyn could feel settling around them. The maidservant began praying again, throttling it with a whimper as her mistress threatened her again. Johan’s momentary unease at the words was reverting back to humiliated fury.

“I refuse to give ground to a prattling, hooded bastard of an Anglais,” he retorted. “At least have the stomach to show your face.”

“I’ve the stomach,” Robyn snarled, and tossed his hood back. “Have you?”

Johan frowned. It was plain he recognized something about Robyn, but he just as obviously couldn’t place it—even though he wanted to.

“Let me guess, we all look alike t’ you?” Robyn had to laugh, even if it stung a bit. “Well, I’ll confess the like, man, since you all smell of money t’ me. John, find the marks for us, aye?”

As John seemed to appear out of thin air—though he’d merely been crouched all the while behind a bush with bow at nock—the maidservant’s praying grew louder.

“You ent told me how much you value this man of yours, milady.” As the noblewoman started to reply, Robyn shrugged and turned to Johan. “I’ll not stoop to such tactics as your like, t’ have a woman watch her man killed before her. ’Tis a dog’s tactic, indeed.”

On the other side of the two women, John was rummaging through packs. He shot a huge-eyed glance at Robyn. Robyn smirked in pure triumph.

“My lord!” the noblewoman burst out to Johan. “Do something!”

Not that His Lordship could do anything other than utter a string of curses, with Arthur’s axe on one side and Will’s longbow on the other.

“Marry the sod quick, lass,” Robyn said, sibilant and sweet, to the noblewoman. “I think you’re surely deservin’ each other.”