BOOK ONE OF THE WODE
The weanling deer tensed, twitched long, wide ears. Blinked. But greed soon overcame any start of panic, and the deer crept closer, switching its buff-coloured tail and chewing as if it could taste the goodies being offered. Its benefactor knelt 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 deer started and fled, tail flagged high. With a growl, the figure rose, revealing itself to be no woodland 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 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. Unimpressed by either considerable scowl or inflammatory accusation, she kept coming. Her cinnabar hair, tucked beneath a kerchief, twined 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, breath steaming into the morning’s chill; she’d run at least this far.
“Da wants you. He’s an errand for you.” Grey eyes took in Rob’s clenched palm, the suspiciously bulging bag tied at his waist. “And if he finds you’ve been feeding deer again, you’ll be in for it.”
“He wain’t 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. “Right, then. Pax. You keep quiet about Tom, and I say nowt ower your little assignation.”
“Little what? Are you calling me an ass?”
Marion rolled her eyes and grabbed him by one grass-stained woolsey sleeve. “As-sig-nation, y’fool. It means a meeting. Tryst.”
“Well, why didn’t you just say that?” Rob protested as she began to propel him, hand still on his arm, towards home.
“I did just say that. Can I help it if you’re a daft knob who wain’t be arsed t’ heed his learning?”
“Readin’s 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 parchments, I’ve my bow.”
“I’ve a bow, too. Sometimes I outshoot even you, lad. It doesn’t mean I’ve no need for my brain.”
“You’ll drive young Tom off, you will. Men en’t after fancyin’ clever women.”
Marion snorted. “Like you would know, boy.”
“I’m nearly a man!”
“Nearly only counts in quoits.”
“Da wed Mam when he were 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 en’t 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’d a fearful right cross. “I en’t knowin’ what you fancy 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 Wode; 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 be after tilting into her.”
“This is more than I really wanted to know about you, thanks awfully. I don’t fancy girls. Giggling, silly things, all sick-sweet flowers from their skirts to their empty heads.”
A snort. “You like me.”
“You en’t 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 deeper into the Royal Forest and edged by the thick trees of Loxley Chase. 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; a one-room cob cottage raised upon stone foundations, with a small loft set amidst wooden rafters. Rob liked to sleep on the little platform on wet nights, to hear the rain patter on the thatched roof.
Not a bad place to call home, as such things went.
Marion started for the garden, jerking her head towards the small barn. Rob turned to see their father walking from it, a sturdy bay jennet following on a loose rein. He was a brown man, from swart skin to curly hair and shaggy beard, with startling blue eyes. Rob often wondered if—hoped—he’d grow as strong and statuesque as Adam of Loxley.
“I need you to ride to Loxley, Rob.” His father’s voice, deep and rounded in the local-born dialect, clipped tight with impatience. “Take a message to Alfred about tomorrow’s patrols. I’d 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 chap: hard to bribe, fair to a fault. The common folk knew him as their own, and the one constant in a hard place. For them, Adam would overlook a kill amongst the king’s deer during starving times, mayhap even claim it beneath his own sparse 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, ’twould fall back upon you threefold.
“What have you there, boy?”
Rob found his father’s gaze fastened upon his clenched fist. Marion had hotfooted 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. “Da, I—”
“Weren’t thinkin’,” Adam growled. “Son. You’re of an age to understand such things. T’ harvest’s good so far, and one would think we’d eat for years, but it wain’t last forever. The only luxuries we can afford are our own beasts. You and your mother, you’d have the entire woodland in our laps.”
“I wain’t 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 be taking sommat for me?”
Rob turned to see his mother walking towards the barn, her tread mindful of the neat rows and beds of the east-facing garden. Marion was at her heels, 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 don’t have to, she mouthed back. Wank, that is.
“Did you say sommat?” his mother asked.
Rob shook his head. Eluned was clad for working, her grey overdress tied up at her waist for comfort, a wide, straw hat and kerchief over her braided hair, and a basket spilling greenery hooked over one arm. She wasn’t half as old as the wortwife who dwelt over to Sheffield’s keep and tended to the lord 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 amidst black locks. It seemed that just the touch of her hands could cure a fever, that the least of simples and remedies prepared by her could ease 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 settle her.”
“En’t 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’s people had lived away from Welsh borderlands for many a year, yet she’d still the singsong lilt to her voice—one both Marion and Rob seemed to fall into more often than not. Eluned 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 were 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 canny.
“Off with you, then.” Adam grabbed at his son, boosted him onto the jennet’s back. “No dawdling. Give Willow a good run, mind how you go, and be back before dark. And.” He caught Rob’s gaze, held it.
“Mind you take no shortcuts through th’ Wode. Go around.”
Rob deflated. This put a proper nick in his plans. “I were after catchin’ 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 as en’t biding in woodland 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 nobbut another challenge to take on. Be sensible, Rob.”
With a sigh, Rob put heels to his mount’s sides.
He rode a brisk trot, posting against Willow’s short-legged gait and casting a longing eye upon the thick tangle of Loxley Chase. Several miles via the ploughed roads took him to Loxley village, but it measured barely a mile through the Chase itself. Besides, Rob knew every deer trace there 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 woodlands. Though Loxley Chase was just the tip of what became the great Shire Wode to the south, most of the folk who lived in its shadow remained convinced that all manner of h’ants and boggarts bided there. They told tales to 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 tramped through as if the Chase were merely a woefully overgrown and weedy common, aiming their crossbows at anything that moved, peasant or game.
Crossbows. Rob’s lip curled. Cheating, that were. A simple shortbow—aye, that made a man’s weapon.
A quirk drawing between his dark brows, Rob considered that faint trail with no little longing. As if in distant answer, the click and smack of antlers tangling stayed Rob, reminded him of Adam’s cautions. 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 already seemed up in arms.
As Rob had heard it, a new clutch of noble-born tenants had moved into the keep sitting athwart the North Road and overlooking the borders of York- and Nottinghamshire, rehashing some perpetual dispute over who should own the rents from Loxley and several other villages from there to here. 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 drew ever nearer, bringing the rest of the harvest celebrations along. There was excitement in the air even Willow could feel. The year had been prosperous, and the feasting would be good. On the ploughed 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 trees and nigh ran atop them.
Willow shied and rolled sideways on her muscular haunches as if some fire-breathing dragon had come roaring from the forest edge, primed for horseflesh. Rob found himself first tossed onto Willow’s thick neck, then under her chest, clinging there for a half-breath before the inevitable happened and he smacked heavily to the dirt. He made an instinctive snatch at the rein, just missing as Willow swerved. 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 hide leggings. His gaze darted about, quickly found the “dragon” that had leapt upon them.
It was another horse. A grey 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, with 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, grunting and nickering.
Willow greeted this overture with an unearthly squeal, letting fly with a back hoof. She returned to grazing. Despite the pose of indifference, however, her tail lifted. The roll of her eye turned flirtatious.
Rob rolled his own eyes. “Bloody… You too?”
Still, he knew better than to get in the middle of the noble 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 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 woodland; 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, remained silent until he saw it, and then that, too, was a mere breath into the trees.
A leather boot, worn but well made, hung snagged in a gorse near Rob’s eye level. Just beyond that, a bundle of fabric lay crumpled against the gnarled roots of an old oak.
Rob moved closer, cautious.
The fabric revealed itself, just as he’d figured, to be clothing. Unfortunately, it wasn’t empty; but again, just as he’d figured, it wrapped up what had to be the stallion’s rider. The boot in Rob’s hand matched the one still worn; the other leg was bare, hose yanked half off. More freckles than Rob himself had ever possessed sprayed across that pale thigh.
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 woollen hose. 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.
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 grey 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.”
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