—I—

Deep in the Shire Wode

Waning of Alban Eilir,

(Vernal Equinox) 1194 ACE

 

“I can’t.”

“You mean, you waint.”

“I mean exactly what I said.”

Stubborn git. Robyn whirled on Gamelyn, angry-quick, and Gamelyn rocked back, almost tripping on a gorse. “You mean, you waint!” Only a step more and Robyn was on him, nose to nose. Gamelyn’s expression had an instant of shock—slight, to be sure, but there.

Good. It meant Robyn was getting to him.

“You’re the one who won’t. You’re not even trying to understand.” Aye, the mild control to Gamelyn’s voice had a scratch around the edges, and his eyes more the giveaway, witching from soft juniper to a gilt-rimmed verdigris.

If only it were witchcraft. The beginnings of admission, or agreement, or capitulation to… well… everything. If only it weren’t threatening to rain. Again. If only the sun would make some sort of appearance and dry the slippery ground beneath their booted feet. If only the bloody game weren’t wily as hares—again—and they’d not tracked that hart halfway to Nottingham, then lost it. If only Robyn, brassed off at losing their first fresh meal in a brace of fortnights, hadn’t brought all this up just to ram his head against another type of brass and stone.

Again.

“I’m trying to understand! You’re the one’s makin’ precious little sense!”

Enough of this squabbling, the Horned Lord rumbled behind Robin’s eyes, his shade a resolute track upon their heels. You and the Maid are too lenient. Put the Oak on his knees and keep him there.

Gamelyn scowled—he’d heard—and twitched akin to a horse shuddering a biting fly from his withers. “I’m not making any sense? Is it my fault you seem incapable of using what brains you have?”

Aye, Robyn was definitely getting to him. Gamelyn only tossed the bloody stupid peasant die when he was that angry. Not to mention all those freckles were disappearing beneath a flush of color vying for a match with his hair. Unbound, strands of the latter snagged in his beard… all of it bronzed against those eyes. All of it akin to metal left in winter rains—held frozen by his own runneled-on rust of pride and protection… yet canny-deadly for all that.

And just like that, Robyn’s own fury melted from brassed off to sexed up. He stepped closer, head cocked, eyebrows lifted, and lips curling in a smirk. An appreciative one—yet Gamelyn didn’t appreciate it. His nostrils flared white, stark contrast to all that ginger-and-scarlet… he was furious. Nor could Robyn stop himself from saying, “Sweet Lady, but do you know how bloody gorgeous you are when you’re all roiled up?”

“God grant me patience!” It escaped—not without an accompanying eye roll—and one hard hand slapped against Robyn’s chest, gave a shove that sent him sprawling.

Right, then. Mayhap a good rut wasn’t in order, even though sometimes ’twas a bloody fine way to quit an argument….

The Horned Lord growled louder.

Not that you’re helping! Robyn growled back, and started after.

Gamelyn stampeded across the small clearing before he lurched to a stop—and then Robyn wasn’t sure but that sodden curtain of willow hadn’t been the true reason.

Its own giveaway, that.

Gamelyn made a snatch at the lithe green branches before him, and they sent a shower over his boots. Indeed, the forest hung heavy about them, scented and thick and nigh dripping—plumped not only with rain, but the beginnings of spring. With waiting. No longer time to hold back, or yearn after oaths gone conflicted and awry. It was long past any expectations that Summer should keep dragging his feet like he wished the frost would cover him… again.

Gamelyn half turned, opened his mouth, closed it again. Finally said, “You know the only reason they let me go.”

They didn’t let you go. They made you. That still lay between them, a hot brand neither would touch.

But Gamelyn wasn’t the only one who could bite back words until his teeth bled. Revision was proper unnatural to Robyn, but he did it—several times over in his head—and settled for “Marion wants it. The Horned Lord, the Lady. It… it must be done.”

“And you? What do you want? And me—what about what I want? Am I allowed an opinion in this?”

Bloody damn, what is he on about? Robyn sent the darting, inward query to god or goddess or forest spirits all woven with them into skeins of tynged. But there was nowt to be found in the foretelling or the fate. Merely ice and rust, a cairn carven deep and bound about with iron.

Aye, but his lovely Oakbrother had barriers like to none Robyn had ever known. Such times he wished Marion were here, to untangle the secret weave of metal and stone when Robyn himself couldn’t broach it with fire. Maybe that was the problem. Robyn had always been the throwback, too much of his mother’s Barrow blood rushing his veins.

Iron was murder to the fae, after all.

“Gamelyn.” Robyn pitched it soft—light as his footfalls, coming after. “You’re here, ent you? I even think most-times you want to be here—”

“I do want—!”

“Then come with me. To the caverns.”

“Aren’t you afraid of what I’ll witness?” It was flat.

“How can you betray what’s yours?”

Ah, and that went home, somehow. A bone-deep shudder along that rigid spine—and more, quivering its way through heart and mind. Robyn scented it, marked it. Stole after. “’Twill be all the more yours after I take you below. Me and John’ll see to it, see you to rights. See you prepared for what comes of it.”

The words were gentle, reasonable. But Gamelyn was no less a predator; he sensed the stalk beneath.

“You’re willing to take me into the caverns and do this—”

“Initiation. Aye.”

“And you’re not worried about what I’ll witness.”

“It’s what you’ll See that matters. And that, you’ll take nowhere.”

“And you’re sure of that.”

“Never sure with you, pet, there’s too much as you keep close when you needn’t. But this I do know. You’ll not be able t’ speak of what comes, save to those as have rights to hear.” Robyn put a hand to Gamelyn’s face. More, Gamelyn let him. Robyn leaned closer. “You’ll have no choice.”

“I’ve little enough of that already.” A grumble against Robyn’s fingertips.

“Aye, He’ll heel us ’til we drop,” Robyn murmured back. “And if you wait for the drop, you’ll have precious nowt to fight with. Nowt to keep yourself… whole.”

He was going for blood with that; sure enough, Gamelyn’s cheek twitched beneath Robyn’s palm. His eyes met Robyn’s. “Is it you, being such a bastard? Or the Horned Lord merely assuming his favorite role?”

Robyn started to speak; instead, the Horned Lord steamed through both their minds. You say that as if you think there’s a difference.

“Robyn.” Gamelyn’s gaze didn’t drop, and his next words were slow, weighted. “You don’t understand. Mayhap your god is keeping things close as well.”

Not half so much as you are. “I want to,” Robyn insisted, his fingers softening to stroke the line, from temple to jaw, of fox-tinged beard. “And I want you to understand. I want you with me. I want to offer you what’s yours. Your right. All of it. ’Tis… empty for me otherwise.”

The stony eyes wavered and dropped, gilt veiling a sudden darkling spark, shadowing damp cheeks.

Robyn stole the moment and tipped his chin, kissed him hard and long. Then closed his own eyes, tilted his forehead to rest against Gamelyn’s, and said, silent, See?

No words, now, merely visions: blurring thisnow, and into then….

 

 

A young man flung naked and senseless upon an altar stone, black hair spidering over a blank face and breath misting upward into a cavern deep and warmed with fire, lit with torches. The young man lies upon furs, horns placed reverently at the head of his stone couch, runes scrawled dark over pale skin. There is a cord, shimmering and pulsing as if alive, an umbilical knotted around narrow hips. His eyes are black and thick with falling skies… and see nothing. Drugged.

To open the senses, Robyn whispers. I endured it. Blooding and binding, quickening and going within… all who are dryw must endure. Aye, there’s fear, and madness lurking… but I’ll be there. I would watch over, as mine own did for me….

An ancient All-Father hovers over the lad, twining the ends of the blood-cord through his fingers. Watching. And the lad’s earthly sire bears the Horns as if a great weight, a sentinel sifting dreams so as to guard the vulnerable dreamer.

Sifting dreams…. It echoes between them, back and forth and… sinks, somehow, between them. The reverberations linger, and in Gamelyn’s spirit quivers a sudden, sick dread.

Robyn fights it, tangling his fingers in flax-fine hair, in strands of thought and will. Please. Waint you trust me, Brother? He combs those strands smooth between them, breathes across fear and sets it shimmering into possibilities: tynged quivering into the black. Summerlord, wilt tha take tha’s crown?

A flutter of thoughts into darkling shadows, brilliance bursting through high carven windows, setting in relief the dark places. Birds erupting upward, winging desperate toward light and freedom. One hesitates, stalling overhead. A hawk, eyes gleaming bright. Robyn mutters a charm into the still air and reaches out, as if luring it to the fist.

Instead the hawk stoops, dives for the prey….

 

 

With a small groan, Gamelyn shoved away. Thought-strands frayed, burst, and scattered, instinctive sword-thrust across tynged’s unfinished loom, then a severance of emotion to rival it. It punched the breath from Robyn, flung him back.

As swift as he’d retreated, Gamelyn lurched forward and caught Robyn. Held him there, close but not, at arm’s length with arms that nevertheless shook, wanting to pull away—or even closer.

“It isn’t you I don’t trust.” It choked tight, but those eyes gave the lie: verdigris, swimming with rust and rain.

Then he loosed Robyn, and vanished behind the wet willow curtain.

 

 

“See? Up this arm and ’crost th’ shoulder.”

“Bloody hell! And ’twere poisoned, you said?”

“Aye, stung like stoke from t’ smith’s forge,” Much answered Will, flexing his scarred right arm, bared where he’d half shrugged aside his tunic.

Not that Marion minded that last. Around them, the rain pattered, off and on, but they were dry beneath a makeshift roof of laced-together tarpaulins. Food might be down to the barest of necessities in the back caves, but they were eating. The wood stocks had held through a brutal winter, even now fueling the fire warming her toes. Better still, her hands were busy. John had carved her a small spindle, and her fingers had swiftly remembered their old skills—pull and drop, twirl and twist.

It left her eyes free to appreciate the fine bicep Much was displaying. She’d been a bit scornful when this game had started—really, scar comparison?—but it was proving to have some proper benefits.

One being that Will had taken quite a shine to Much. Which was inexplicable in too many ways, bearing in mind… well, how Marion had made it plain whose bed she preferred sharing, and how Will hadn’t even sulked about it.

Maybe her mam had been wrong and men could change.

“Made me sick as a poisoned hound. Milor…. Gamelyn,” Much corrected with obvious effort, “eh, he’d to suck out the poison.”

“Aye, well, milord’s likely good at that, ent he?” Will spun it out with a grin and a drawl.

Marion sighed and gave an unnecessary tweak to the wool-wound distaff stuck in the ground at her side. Mayhap “change” was overly optimistic.

Much wasn’t amused. Arthur, however, barked a laugh, and David also chuckled, amidst sharpening a lot of knives against a whetstone. Ferret Tess opened one sleepy eye, then resumed her nap, curling tighter at David’s nape. John and Gilbert paid no heed, each in his own world. The latter sat, cross-legged on several furs, humming under his breath and surrounded with the tools of fletching: wooden shafts, a glue pot, sinew, and a basket filled with not only gray goose quills, but peacock tail feathers. The former huddled, intent upon a small hunk of wood, another spindle taking shape beneath knife and nimble fingers. John wasn’t half-satisfied with the one Marion was using now.

Will, mayhap sensing that the quivering of Much’s bared bicep was less tension and more an eagerness to answer the jab at his master, bent down and pulled up one legging. A jagged, shiny set of scars displayed across his calf. “Got these two years ago, nigh to Wakefield.”

As diversion, it was reasonable enough. Much frowned, peered closer. “Nasty, those are. What did—?”

“Teeth marks!” Will boasted. “Bloody big hound, too.”

“Aye, a bloody big hound belonging to a pretty lass’s bloody big, brassed-off husband!” Eyeing down the length of a half-fletched arrow, Gilbert proved he was paying some attention by further adding, “Great sod of a mastiff, actually, and treed Will over the river! If that branch hadn’t broken and sent him swimming, we might be one member less in our band today.”

“As I recall, Black Tom was th’ jealous type.” David was still chuckling.

“And Wakefield’s smith,” Arthur put in with an eager wave of both arms—one minus a hand, the other with palm spreading to emphasize his next words. “Big, hammer-handed feller as made two of our Charming William—and that ent easy.”

Will smirked and stood taller, tossing his mane of fair hair.

“Mayhap you should show the scar ’crost your arse, then,” Gilbert suggested, flashing a brilliant smile as Will puffed up—in affront, this time.

“Aye,” David agreed. “Where t’ love of Gilly’s life nailed you?”

“How can a woman I’ve not seen in months be the love of my life?” was Gilbert’s plaint.

“By being absent?” David flipped one of the daggers and threw. It sank point-first and unerring beside Gilbert, who snatched it up for inspection. He grinned thanks for the knife; for the comment, made a threat with his glue brush in the direction of David’s nose.

“I’ve heard nowt of this.” Marion’s hands never ceased their slide and spin upon the skein. The wool was a gift from the Master of Temple Hirst to the Lady of the Shire Wode—dyed a gray to match her eyes, or so Gamelyn claimed when he’d brought it. He’d had little else to say of that brief trip a fortnight previous, with Robyn pacing a furrow until Gamelyn returned….

“The Saracen lass as helped Robyn escape Nottingham.” David threw another dagger toward Marion. She didn’t stop her spinning, merely nodded thanks as the sharpened blade sank into the earth about an inch from her booted toes. “The archer whose arrow Robyn split at the archery contest. Siham.”

“I remember her. I wish I’d gotten to know her. But I didn’t realize she darted Will’s bum.”

“Lucky shot!” Will protested.

“Lucky for you,” Arthur pointed out, “she weren’t aiming elsewhere.”

Will grinned, diverted as Much started to shrug back into his tunic. “And that one?”

Much peered at him, the mildness returning to his face. Marion was beginning to realize Much was true Saxon: at his most placid when most annoyed. “Aye, what one?”

Is it wrong—her query was silent, for the Lady’s ears alone—to have a wee private wager on which arses are likely to be kicked come t’ Maying?

Your hopes make all challengers strong. Whoever is fit to wear the crown, will was the Lady’s implacable reply.

“T’ one down yer back, lad. Did sommun—?”

Much’s eyes went even more flat-mild. He shrugged and angled about, showing what Marion already knew to be there—as painful to contemplate as the old whip scars on Robyn’s back.

Only these were the marks of hot iron.

Will’s eyes popped and he gave an admiring whistle. “Sweet Lady, but those must’ve proper hurt!”

Marion smirked to herself, kept working at the spindle. Boys.

“You fetched those over t’ desert, then?” Will moved closer, looking them over.

Much nodded and started to speak.

“He’s back.” Rare as warm sun in November was speech from John; everyone turned, found his carving stilled and his earth-brown eyes searching the forest.

A soft, hooting whistle confirmed it a few breaths later, and further, John was right in that only one “he” came walking into camp. Robyn’s long legs ate up the distance, but not because of any eagerness. Black hair tumbled from the pulled-up hood to nigh cover his narrow, downcast face, longbow slung careless—listless—over broad, bony shoulders.

No Gamelyn. In fact, no game.

“No luck, then?” David’s query might be superfluous—but the concern was real. Despite winter’s retreat, any meals on the hoof—or paw—had been less than cooperative. They were all proper tired of salted fish and bendy carrots.

It was never on to forget more starved this time of year than any.

But the look on Robyn’s face worried Marion more.

“Out allockin’ about ’stead of working, I’m thinking!” Will gave no chance for his jibe to twist cruel; he went over, snagged an arm in Robyn’s. “There’s hunting partners and playing partners, and how’re ye t’ do the first when you’re all over the second? Silly sod.”

A tiny quirk tried its luck with Robyn’s mouth. At that moment, Marion wanted to snog Will stupid.

“You’ve a face like a soppy girl—and only one cure for that. Success.”

Soppy… girl? Marion could have said a lot of things just then, but the return of a spark to Robyn’s eyes made her hold her tongue, keep to her spinning.

And her mind set equally to spinning, wondering: what had happened with Gamelyn?

She wouldn’t know soon. Will, arm still locked with Robyn’s, was leading him in the opposite direction.

“We’ll be back!” With the heedless abandon of younger days, Will caught midair the bow Arthur pitched. “This time, wi’ sommat for our larder.”

 

 

Breathtaking. Not only the forest humming with beginnings, wet and verdant, but all the past brace of fortnights. Literally taking his breath with days that had run together, one into the next—a lovely, uninterrupted peace. No more nightmares to plague slumber. Only waking dreams. Time. Healing. Content.

Bitter winter had finally melted into early spring, complete with birds singing in the chill morn and a lover’s kisses upon his nape. His reappearance amongst the outlaw band had been rather anticlimactic. Thankfully. Gamelyn wouldn’t say he’d been welcomed with open arms. But things had… changed.

Even, it seemed, Will Scathelock.

Arthur, of course, blew the way Scathelock’s wind carried him, acknowledging the inevitability of Gamelyn’s return with a rough, sardonic resignation. John had always sided with Gamelyn, sharing heart and body—and Robyn—in a gift of devotion and faith that still had the power to weaken Gamelyn’s knees. And David and Gilbert had been willing to camaraderie, once their original—and warranted, considering—misgivings had been broached.

Gilbert—once a minor lord’s son and weaned on the sword—had even gone so far as to ask Gamelyn’s instruction in the finer arts of swordplay.

Then Scathelock asked Much the same.

Gamelyn wasn’t sure what to make of that. Scathelock had a peasant’s knack with steel—mainly, none—but had taken to Much’s lessons. And Much, too, despite the fact that he shared Marion’s bed furs. Respect for a mutual crofter’s heritage had seemingly inured Scathelock to Much being That Templar’s Lackey.

Not that it had changed Scathelock’s mind about the Templar himself. And no matter pleasantries, Gamelyn didn’t trust the man any farther than he could fling him and knew that mistrust reciprocated. Nay, Scathelock was waiting. For what, Gamelyn wasn’t sure.

He disliked ambiguity, particularly regarding this. There was too much at stake.

Putain du merde, mayhap Robyn was right and Gamelyn was too set on rending things nigh nonexistent with his insistence upon some understanding, however tiny. But one thing had been made quite clear: the outlaws loved Robyn, and since Robyn remained adamant as to keeping a vicious lion and claiming it a house cat? They’d shrug, smile indulgence—and all the while keep knife to hand, just in case.

Gamelyn appreciated that last in particular. Grasp this small bit of Eden as he might, he knew it was under sufferance. His Templar masters would call the debt eventually.

As will I, the Lady’s voice rippled through him, a wave setting every nerve on edge. For, fair one, with Us you have an accounting well in arrears.

And that swerved his thoughts to Marion.

If Robyn’s stubborn insistence demanded Gamelyn’s presence, Marion’s open affection was a slap and reminder to the outlaws: they were, one and all, deadly wolves. And if Robyn’s fierce and dangerous passion netted Gamelyn skillfully as any fish, Marion’s insistent trust whetted a boning knife, rendering useless any attempts at pride or detachment. It had done from the time a lord’s son had come off his horse and been brought to a forester’s cottage in Loxley, to fall in unlikely friendship with commoners.

And now, despite any discomfiting truths lurking in dark corners, Marion remained so at ease with their affection, as whole in her own skin as… well, as Robyn. Gamelyn couldn’t parse that, either. His own feelings were altogether too complicated.

All the way around and back again, perceptions spinning a skein of possibilities in a matter of breaths….

For that lovely taken/held breath had to be exhaled and another drawn. Reality had to be acknowledged. Robyn became every sunrise more persistent—nay, insistent—as Marion had after the waning of winter’s solstice.

Waint you trust me, Brother? As if Robyn still lingered beside him. Beseeching him with that purling baritone of maddening-beautiful rhythm, oft as not swallowing consonants as wasteful yet unfolding vowels into sounds like troos and brootha.

Gamelyn closed his eyes. It isn’t you I don’t trust.

Summerlord, wilt tha take tha’s crown?

I can’t. Don’t you see?

A root tripped him, body then mind, and after a small wheel of arms and balance, Gamelyn halted. Looked around. Realized he had come into the old Saxon place, a hillock due west of their new camp. Thynghowe was plied a wide and fearful berth by peasant and noble alike—the first from ha’nts, the latter from a certain outlaw and his followers. It was secure enough to satisfy any hardened soldier; moreover, Robyn insisted it was safe from… other things.

There was nothing here to resemble any fae or elder gods, no primordial otherworld banished or reburgeoning. The mound that had, in Saxon times, been cleared was now bounded by a thick grove of oak, the remaining spaces overtaken by birch and alder. Runners rooted at his feet; muted silvers and new greens sprang upward beneath the gray sky. It was but another reminder: spring had stolen in between those lovely, taken breaths. Beltain was approaching.

Beltain. The same rite into which he had, a handful of years ago—a lifetime ago—blindly brought about the destruction of everything that had mattered.

The rite toward which Robyn so wanted to prepare him, with an initiation meant to bring them all together….

Nay. More likely ’twould free the magic trammeled in his soul like an untrustworthy beast.

Such consideration. Such tangled and fearful webs you spin, merely to trap yourself.

Aye, and wherever he would go, the Lady would not be far away. Only this was not the winter-gentled Madonna whispering words of calm and healing in his ear. She walked the Wode, dark and lovely, Her black hair scented with desert roses, clad in all the hues of spring.

She had Marion’s curious, clever smile. She had Marion’s eyes….

And—another oath, shattered at his feet—Gamelyn wanted Her more than he’d ever thought himself capable of desiring any woman.

The Rite winnows all hearts, my Oak. All truths. So, consider this. You pride yourself in your detachment, all those cool assessments and judgments… what if, in not acting, you bring about the very thing you fear?

What if I bring it about by acting?

What if, by all this fighting and denial and refusal of what you are meant to be, you snarl the threads of tynged past repair?

Tynged!” He growled it into the dense foliage like a curse. “It’s a lie, a dream… a way to convince ourselves of our own importance! Nothing’s meant!”

So certain. Heavy with irony. Yet here you are, speaking to Me as one with a destiny, a fate.

Fate. Meaning. Tynged. A magical, parasitical mistletoe, its loving climb along oak bark to be snipped with a druid’s ancient sickle and used: as Magician, as pawn, as Fool, as instrument, as… as… the Destroyer of Worlds… and a chuckle into the stillness, salt and rue. The only world he had ever truly desired, and Gamelyn could not look to any soft future without also seeing its destruction, with blood on his hands and the fires of every Hell he had ever known.

Never again. If he was to be a pawn for these… powers, he would not take a step without scrutinizing it, testing it.

Yet nothing is meant. A deeper Voice this time; the Horned Lord taking irony and unfurling it into derision. You cannot have it both ways, Oakbrother. Symbols do not have such luxuries.

“Symbols!” Gamelyn twisted to lean against a birch; the swath of damp along his spine, lent chill reality with which to fight dreams. “Of what?”

Of something greater. Of powers that refuse to die.

“Don’t you mean that we die for you? That he—” It broke, and he gritted his teeth, finished it, silent. —dies for you.

Everyone dies. Robyn’s voice, soft and deep and weakening every resistance Gamelyn possessed. We’re born dying. It went harsh, deeper. Less human. Yet you refuse to See, to submit—

“To your Immortal Will?” he snarled and shoved from the tree, started walking.

Not that distancing himself from the Voices could be so easily done.

To your own Sight. A tsk. You need Me. You hate Me. Small wonder you fight Robyn so, for he is, in truth, Me.

“He isn’t. You aren’t—”

I am given life by him. And you. Has all the guilt, the sin—the last a cold, derisive hiss—instilled in you by the empty stones of your Christ’s followers… has it resurfaced, Oakbrother? And here I thought you had slaughtered it. Like you and your fellow monks slaughtered all those innocents in Acre.

Gamelyn’s hand went to the dagger at his hip.

Quite a tally. And all in the name of a supposed god of love and a king who pretends to the sacring, asserting himself the choice and biddance of his god.

“One day”—a vicious snarl—“you will push too far.”

I merely remind you of the services you did your desert god. No doubt you would do Me much less, having become an ineffective craven fearing shadows in the night.

Gamelyn swiped at a branch, felt leaves sting his palm, shallow cuts cooled with rain and new growth. Kept walking.

Kept his hand upon his dagger.

And now, when contentment seeks to warm that cold heart of yours, anger and regret can no longer hold those shadows at bay. A pause, almost musing. I think, mayhap, you hate and fear yourself most of all. For you know the predator lying within. You know what you are capable of—

He whirled, dagger in hand—as if he could kill a god!—but even before the futility of the strike, the Lady spoke again.

Enough. It was as close to a growl as Gamelyn had ever imagined. There was the unearthly, discomfiting feel of fingers riffling through his thoughts, of tangled threads being smoothed, combed. Gamelyn had the strange and no doubt irreverent image of Marion grabbing the Horned Lord by one tine and smacking his nose. Hard.

Take that, he thought, and laughed out loud.

You cannot hide behind Her skirts forever, Summerlord….

A bare echo, it mingled with the sound of Gamelyn’s mirth and lingered in the air, teasing him until it wisped into blessed silence.

Gamelyn took in air, released it, and watched the exhaust rise, contemplating what a relief it was to hear nothing but his own breath. However did Robyn stand it, having this… this tug-of-war battering within his skull?

He turned, started back for the camp.

Halted as another sound infringed upon the peace. Something altogether familiar, yet seldom encountered in the past cache of fortnights.

Hoofbeats.

Not a leisurely rate, and not just a few. A great company of horse traveled the road a mile distant, pace reverberating through the treetops like thunder.