And now I'm, like Ran and Blackie and Robert Hod, for my bed. G'night.
The night was dark, with a fingernail-paring moon visible intermittently at best, and the thin chill rain slashed at the rider's cheek as he pulled the unwilling head of his horse into the wind and drove his heels viciously into its flanks. It was all very well for the Magister to say that he should know the route, and could always ask for directions, but it was many long years since he'd been in this area, and his memory, like the rest of him, wasn't what it had been.
"Bloody Magister can do his own bloody business next time," he growled as his mount, wearied by the night's already long miles, missed its footing in a particularly muddy patch and threatened to unhorse him. "I'm too old to be sweet-Robin-go-hithered about the place any more, by him or by anyone else. And if he tries any of his damned unholy tricks on me, why, I'll..." He sighed and swept the rain from his face with a sodden sleeve. "I'll do what I always do, won't I? Sell my soul again for a glass of wine by his fireside and another decade of life, though why I should care to lengthen my days further is beyond my ken. Nobody knows me any more, and I don't know them, and I don't want to, for cheer and fellowship aren't what they used to be if the tales of what I once was can be trusted. Which they can't." He slid again in the saddle and cursed. Four hundred years hadn't made a competent horseman of Robert Hod, and he doubted that four hundred more would show any improvement.
Even in his fondest memories of the place, and they were not particularly fond, Lincolnshire had never been green. If there was a 'Lincoln colour' in his mind, it was that of the mud, the thick clinging black-brown mud of the marshes. Handsome Robin Hood in his green apparel, virtuous Maid Marian in snowy samite, and silver-tongued Will Scarlett, forsooth! Rob shook his head in disgust. He was never handsome even in his young days, Marian was a sharp-tongued drab who'd never been any better than she should have been, and the only thing scarlet about kennel-mouthed Will had been his face after too much ale... but nobody wanted the truth, did they? Harps and minstrelsy, courtly love and brave Sir Robin fighting for his long-absent king. There'd been none of those, and perhaps that's why they were all the more wanted. Perhaps in France, in bright Burgundy and noble Aquitaine, things like that might once have happened. Perhaps; but not in grey old England, tithed and taxed, sold furlong by furlong to anyone with ready money, plagued and poxed and shuddering toward a stinking grave. He'd seen it all happen, and he didn't like it one bit. He hawked up bitter phlegm and spat accurately between his horse's ears.
The horse stopped and curved its neck as far back as it could, showing yellow teeth as it bared its upper lip in disgust. "I wish you'd not do that," it whickered. "I'm no more pleased about this journey than you are, and there's no need to take your ill-humour out on me. If you'd spent a little more time observing where we we're going, and less indulging in maudlin reminiscence, we might have been there by now. And self-pity's most unattractive, you know."
Rob dug his heels in hard, but the horse regarded him scornfully and moved not an inch forward. "I pity the poor dumb animals you mistreat who can't answer you back," it snapped. "You've not an ounce of good breeding in your bones, and it shows, Robin, it shows. A little kindness, a little consideration might get you somewhere, but no, you kick me in the ribs and expect me to get on with it. You do realise that I begged Hugh not to let me be the one you took, but no, orders are orders it seems, and Blackie has to bear the brunt. With more good grace than you've so far shown, I may add."
"Lord preserve me from a nagging nag!" exclaimed Rob, though he refrained from showing any more temper. "Tell me, Blackie, why, since you know the way and could surely go faster without my bulk to slow you down, I should have to be troubled with this journey in the first place." Blackie snorted disdainfully and set off again at a slow trot, and Rob slumped down in the saddle and tried not to think about what he was going to have to do.
It wasn't actually so far as he'd feared; as they crested what passed for a hill around here, which was a raised hummock of sedge and reed that must have been perhaps ten feet higher than the surrounding land, he saw that the village that the Magister had described to him lay perhaps no more than a quarter of a mile away. He had memorised the instructions on how to find the woman's cottage once he could take his bearings from the church, but now he had a decision to make. "Blackie," he whispered. "Blackie, old girl... talk to me, Blackie. Please?"
Blackie stopped short, threatening to pitch Rob over her head and into the marsh. "Ah," she breathed, "sweet Robin has found his humility at last. Dies laetus, oh joyful day. And what, pray, may old Blackie do for her fine master?" Rob rolled his eyes. When Blackie was standing on her wounded dignity, you had to be prepared to bite back any retort, or you'd get nowhere.
"Advice, Blackie. Good thoughtful advice, such as you always give. You're the clever one here; I'm just the acceptable face, the one who's supposed to be able to talk."
"Acceptable? not with that muck plastered over you and your hair sticking out all ways around, you're not. If you're going to do anything other than beat the poor woman unconscious before riding off with the lad, you'd best make yourself presentable. Or at least as presentable as you ever are."
Good advice no doubt, but hardly practical, standing in the middle of a marsh. He swallowed his pride. "If you've any suggestions..."
Blackie tossed her head impatiently. "Of course. There'll be a horse trough by the church, and you can wash in that. Failing a trough, there's almost certainly a stoup of holy water in the church porch. Have a shave while you're there, too. And don't say that it would be blasphemous, Robin; the last time you took any care of your soul was getting the fat friar drunk enough to shrive you, if the stories are anything to go by."
Robin shrugged. There was no point in arguing; Blackie was cleverer than he, and he knew it. "And then?" he asked humbly. "Do we wait for daylight before knocking at her door, or do we go there straight away and be off while we still have the arse-end of night to cover us?"
"I'd not wait," Blackie answered, then bent her neck to pull up a hank of sedge, which she tried to chew before spitting it out with a great show of distaste. "The fewer who see us the better, whether commoner, clergy, or..." She shuddered delicately. "Anyone else. In quickly and out quicker, and then ride like the wind, that's my advice to you."
He followed her advice as best he might, having muffled her hoofs with sacking to deaden any noise she might make, glancing nervously about as he made himself as neat as he could at the horse trough and not finishing until she nodded grudging approval. He tethered her loosely to a tree behind the woman's cottage, able to free herself if necessary, then tapped cautiously at the cottage door.
It took a while before he heard the spyhole above the latch being pulled open, and a grumpy voice enquiring who in God's name he might be, and what business he had disturbing an honest widow in the dead of night.
"A friend," he whispered, using the words that the Magister had taught him, "with gold to redeem his master's pledge."
He thought he heard a sobbing indrawn breath, and then the woman spoke again. "Not tonight, please," she said softly. "A day, an hour or two, I pray you. Only a little time, good friend. Your master couldn't begrudge me that."
He shook his head, though he was uncertain that she could see him. "Tonight, and now, it must be. Wake him and dress him, and give him your blessing, and then he and I must away."
The latch lifted, and dim light spilled out around the doorframe. "Come in, friend," she said, sounding the last word bitterly. "Let us not rouse the neighbours." He pushed the door open only as little as would admit his bulk, then closed it quickly behind him.
The cottage was large enough, and well kept; the woman Meg was no slattern, as he could see. Whatever business she occupied herself with - weaving, he thought, as he caught sight of the loom in one corner of the room - it evidently supplemented the gold that the Magister had sent her from time to time into a decent prosperity. Nor was she unattractive; though no great beauty, her skin was clear and her dark straight hair only beginning to show winter's touch. "Sit down," she said. "There's ale and bread on the table, and I'd be ashamed to deny a guest his meat, no matter how cruel his purpose." He started to explain, but she turned from him, hiding her face.
"He's in the other room," she said matter-of-factly, though not looking at him, as though the sight of him sickened her, "with Alice and young John; that's the one born after the green sickness took his father. I don't sleep long of a night, and the sound of the loom keeps them from sleep if they're in here with me. I'll bring him to you."
He waited, scraping at the dirt under his nails with his knife, then startled as a soft boyish voice addressed him.
"Mother says I'm to go with you, sir. Is that so?" Rob took a long look at the lad, then nodded, both in confirmation of what he'd said, and matching the description that the Magister had given him: of middling height, not slender and not solid either, with clear blue eyes and plastered-down hair the colour of ripening grain. Comely enough, and clever, from the way those eyes probed at him.
"Aye, lad, it's true. Your 'prenticehood starts tonight. In Lincoln town, with Master Jonas the cordwainer." He winked at the woman who was regarding him stonily. "The neighbours will be right proud to hear of your great good fortune."
"Can we not wait until the morrow?" the boy asked. "I'm weary, sir, and I'd fain be in my bed with my brother and sister."
Rob shook his head. "No, lad, that we can't. We have a goodly distance to ride tonight, and we must be starting as soon as we can. Now, be a good lad and kiss your mother goodbye, for you shan't see her again for many a long day."
As the boy turned and buried his head against the woman's bosom, Rob discreetly removed the purse of gold from his belt and laid it on the table, screened from the boy's view, should he turn again, by the mug of ale that he'd drained gratefully. He stood, and clasped the boy by the shoulder. "And now we must go. Has he a cloak, or a blanket to put about his body? For it's a thin night and I don't want him to catch his death."
She nodded, and went back into the other room, where he could hear the sound of a coffer lid being raised and a faint girlish voice being soothed back to sleep by her mother's words. While she was gone, the boy fixed him with those cool blue eyes and smiled a little.
"I don't mind, sir. I'll be no trouble to you, I swear."
He believed him. Though Rob made no claim to being sensitive to things, even with all his mortal years, he couldn't mistake the feeling of determination mingled with... what was it? Relief? Gratitude? He nodded and patted the boy's head.
"How shall I call you?" he asked, though he knew the answer already.
"I am called Ranulf, sir," the boy replied. "Though if I had a friend, he would call me Ran, I think."
Rob smiled. "Then Ran you'll be to me. And none of that 'sir', Ran, it makes me itchy. I'm Robert, or Robin, or just plain Rob, depending on what people want from me. A friend would call me Rob."
The woman returned with a finely-woven blanket which she pulled around the boy's shoulders. "It's his. He helped me to weave it," she said, with the barest trace of maternal pride in her voice.
"It's fine, and more than fine," he said softly. "May his future work be so skilled. And now we must depart, for already it grows closer to dawn than I'd like. Kiss your mother, Ran, and we're away."
Ranulf kissed his mother's cheek dutifully, and though his eyes remained clear and bright, her dark ones flooded with bitter tears. "He'll come back to me one day," she said, and it was a statement, not a question.
They'd ridden a good five or six miles from the village, Ranulf seated firmly in front of Rob, when the rain stopped and the clouds thinned into rags and separated, letting through the wan light of the scrannel moon and the dim stars. "That's not so good," murmured Rob, thinking that the boy must be asleep again, and he was surprised that the fair head twisted round with a puzzled expression on its face.
"Whyso not, friend Rob?" Ranulf asked. "The clearer the night, the better our speed, surely?"
Rob snorted. "When we can see our way clearer, then we may also be ourselves the more clearly seen." He glanced around, but there was no obvious sign or sound of pursuit. Not that that might mean very much, he thought wryly.
"But they will think that we ride for Lincoln, as you said, but this road," Ranulf nodded sharply ahead, "why, it leads in quite the other way, though we set off as though Lincoln were indeed our destination..." He turned in the saddle again, and looked calmly into Rob's eyes. "You play someone false tonight, Rob, and I trust that it is not me."
"I swear on the Holy Rood and the Precious Blood that it's not," Rob answered, and for once, a rare once, he meant his oaths with all his heart.
"I believe you, friend Rob," Ranulf responded, crossing himself as devoutly as he might with his arms inside a blanket. "But then why the deception, why the false trail? Who is it that you fear, whose attentions do you wish to confound?"
Rob shuddered. "I fear neither man nor beast," he started, and it was not a great lie, for despite his air of indolence he was still better than competent with longbow and with quarterstaff, and he could deal with any ordinary threat they might encounter on the road. But some threats were not so ordinary, were they? Then he shook his head and let out a long sigh. "There's likely more than that abroad tonight, young Ran. I hope not, but the chance is that others than our Magister are interested in you, and they may send... things."
"Things like what?" Ranulf asked.
"I'd rather not talk about it, if you don't mind, friend Ran."
Ranulf nodded. "Very well." Silence enveloped them again, punctuated only by the impact of Blackie's hoofs. As the dawn slowly tinted the eastern sky, Rob had chance again to examine the weave of Ranulf's blanket. It really was very fine, too good to be used outside like this.
"Your mother's a fine weaver," he observed, and Ranulf nodded.
"Meg's a skilled woman, and with one growing mouth fewer to feed, and the money you left behind, she'll not lack for comfort," he said softly. "And I'm glad of that."
Rob startled a little. He'd have sworn that he wasn't observed when he concealed the gold, but it was the dispassion in the boy's voice, quite unsuited to his years, that unnerved him. "You are?" was all that he could think of to say.
"She treated me like her own, and I'd hate any harm to befall her or the little ones."
"So," Rob's mind raced, quite unprepared for this. "She told you that... she told you about our Magister's arrangement?"
Ranulf shrugged. "No. She kept her word," he said, and the slightest edge showed in his voice. "To me she was mother enough, and she couldn't have loved me more if she'd borne me, so I called her Mother. It pleased her, and did no harm."
"Then how..." Rob asked, and in the gap between his words and the boy's he knew with cold certainty that he didn't want to hear the answer.
"He told me," Ranulf said quite calmly. "Her husband. After he'd finished with using me, each time he'd say that it was no sin and no crime, for I was no child of his or hers, no more to them than a beast of the field, and that he'd as lief slit my throat on a whim if it wasn't for the money I brought in."
Rob felt bile lurch to the back of his throat. "He said... and did... that to you, Ran?" The Magister hadn't breathed a word of that to Rob, not one. He remembered the Magister's face as they'd discussed Ranulf's forthcoming redemption, and there'd been no trace of guile on the aged countenance when he'd said that Ranulf had been treated well over the years. Yet surely to know that he must have scryed Ran in his shewstone, and how could something so foul, so unnatural not have been revealed to him?
The boy nodded, and whispered "On my life I swear it, friend Rob. What reason should I have to lie?"
Freeing one arm up, Rob reached around the boy and hugged him close. At first stiff and unyielding, Ranulf slowly relaxed into the comfort of the man's warmth. "At least he's dead and gone to judgement now, lad. For once the green sickness seems to have been a blessing in disguise, though I shouldn't say it."
"No. No, Rob, it wasn't the sickness. I killed him." The voice was so calm, so serene, that Rob struggled to reconcile the words with the tone. "I willed him dead, I prayed for him to die, and then an angel came to me and showed me. Showed me how to reach inside a man and break him... just... like... that. And so I did, the next time that he came to me."
Rob was so glad that he couldn't see the face that uttered those dreadful words, because he knew it would be as gentle and calm as the voice through which he heard them. "You slew your foster-father?" he exclaimed in incredulity. Though he knew such things were possible, the idea that a boy - a mere, untrained boy - could do that threatened to unman him. What was this creature that he bore back to his Magister?
"I regret it," Ranulf said. "Of course I regret it. If he'd stopped, if he'd apologised, if ever he'd tried to make amends - I don't believe I should have had it happen thus. But it cannot have been wrong, friend Rob: if God in His infinite mercy sent forth His good angel to show me how I might be delivered, surely He would have stayed my hand if I'd essayed aught wrong with it?"
Rob swallowed bile again. Faced with such clarity of reasoning, such innocent simplicity, what could he do? Yet he couldn't abide to stay in the boy's company one moment longer than he was compelled to. "Surely," he said faintly. "But I shall pray for his immortal soul. Ran, lad, we're not so far from the inn to which I am to take you. Tomorrow you're to take the mail up to York, and there you'll be met by another of the Magister's men. There'll be another lad travelling with you, and he's going where you're going, so you'll have plenty to talk about, I'm sure. But... be discreet, won't you? there are things that shouldn't be noised abroad, and... well. Use your discretion."
"Shan't you be travelling with us?" Ranulf asked in surprise, and Rob shook his head.
"Blackie needs to rest," he said, "and I... I have other business." At that, Blackie stopped, and turned her head disdainfully round to face them.
"Don't lie, Robin," she breathed. "I can smell the stink of your cowardice from here. Doughty Robin, brave and bold? I think not, you craven. If you won't tell the the lad the truth, then I shall."
"You speak?" Ranulf exclaimed as he met the horse's eye.
"Indeed," she said. "When I wish, and when Master Braveheart here will allow me the space for words, I do. Good morrow, Ranulf."
"Good morrow," he responded. "Had I known you spoke, I should have tried to sit on you more gently."
She snorted. "Speech has precious little to do with it, young man. All horses feel, but only a few of us can voice our complaints in human words. But sit easy; your weight troubles me not at all, unlike that of yon puffing sack of suet behind you. A sack, I may add, who was about to desert you, his mission half-accomplished, simply because he couldn't bear the company of someone whose smallest word rings a thousandfold more truly than all the bombast and by-our-Ladys he has at his command."
Ranulf screwed round as far as he could, and the pity in his face and the scorn in his horse's fairly undid Rob. He sighed. "She speaks the truth, lad. I find you... and what you've told me... unsettling."
Blackie rolled her eyes. "Which, translated into honest speech, means that he nearly soiled his britches when you told him what you'd done to that... that monster. Because he knows full well that his soul's no damask napkin, not after all these years of disgrace, and if you knew but one scant tenth of his crimes..."
"Enough, enough!" Rob cried. "I yield. I am a sinner, a coward and a liar, and a bad servant of my Magister and an ill friend to you both. Blackie, Ran, sweet friends, forgive me my trespasses until we can gain the safety of the inn, and I swear that the morrow I shall perform all that I've given my word to do."
"You had better," Blackie snapped as Ranulf failed to restrain a giggle, which made Rob's cheeks flame. "Because if you don't, so help me I'll not only tell a true record of this to the Magister, but when you least expect it I shall make of you a gelding." She straightened her neck, then daintily nipped off the top of a sedge. "See, young Ranulf - I can bite very small things, so he knows better than to misbelieve me."
The sun had just begun to peek over the low banks of clouds, and Ranulf stifled a yawn. "Forgive me, my lady Blackie, but it seems that at least you and I are wearied. Is it yet far to the inn?"
"We should have already been there and I in my stall and you snug in your blanket had Robin's conscience not troubled him, as it will every few years or so. It lies but a little up there, where this track meets the greater road, and if all that's needful has been discussed, then I recommend that we make our way there speedily."
By the time that they reached the inn-yard, barely a few minutes later, Ranulf was fast asleep and drooping against Blackie's neck. She was busy coaxing the stable lad to offer a hot mash, and Rob engaged in carrying the sleeping boy in through the inn's door, so that none of them saw the long slender shadow, a drift of abandoned night, slip silently away from its latest place of concealment and flutter, like a miasmatic bird, northwards.