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Book Two of the Wode

Shirewode

Near Wentbridge, Yorkshire
Waxing of March, 1192

He scented into the wind, and waited.

A lean figure crouched on an oak limb twice as broad as himself, clad in a faded mix of leather and woollen that all but blended with the burgeoning, lush foliage. He’d 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 wet 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, wound 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, t’ dreams do. You’ve known Rob only these past few seasons; I’ve known him since we were 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, trammelled 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 travellers. 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 chosen avatar, dead at the hands of his rival. Yet still, Hob-Robyn remained, 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 didn’t 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 en’t finished with me yet.

And neither are you, Hob-Robyn. Finished. This—a soundless breath of approval, almost as if the Horned Lord scrutinised 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 were like to another as far as Robyn were 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 travelling 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, trailed 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 grey-fletched arrows. The left front ended up with two arrows embedded in his shield, tried to return the favour and found he had no discernible 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 hid; 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 levelled 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 wain’t 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 en’t the least interested in your womenfolk, man.” Robyn hid the snarl that wanted to curl his lips by pitching his voice mild, almost chiding. “I’m wanting information.”

“Information.” Johan, still flummoxed, 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 hummed and whirled. The Horned Lord’s hot breath on his nape. The magic, waiting.
Take him. I have brought you to him, as I promised. 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, aimed the bodkin at Johan’s ribs. “I were understanding, milord, that you’d 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.

“You’ve indeed been too long in the forest, Anglais, growing mould 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’d inched 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.”

Johan stiffened.

“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.”

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