Robin wandered near the camp at dusk, drawn by the tang of burning apple wood. Stealthy as the lengthening shadows, he edged closer, and the laughter echoing through the forest kindled memories both painful and sweet. He longed to stumble upon a gathering of like-minded and earth-blooded woodsmen to break bread and exchange tales with. One of them might share with a solitary traveler the comforts of his embrace.
As he trod between leaves and windfall fruit, Robin’s yearnings toward strangers tugged a wry smile onto his lips. The familiar scent of meat and ale mingled with the smoke, and he felt as old as he did lonely, though his body remained in fine fettle, and in age he recalled far fewer than forty summers.
He’d no true friend left to go to.
The friar had died, succumbing to age and illness, coughing his last in a small, mean bed in the cottage Robin had built for him. John, Will, Fulk, and so many others had taken spouses, given up the outlaw’s life, or fallen before their time, and he dared not rest among those who remained. The price on his head was high, and stories of his death didn’t stop the king or barons from hunting him. Six months Robin had trekked from his home in Sherwood before drifting here to the Greenwood in England’s far south. Now the trees were turning, the darker nights pressing in, and the warrior they’d once called Robin Hood discovered he feared solitude more than the cut of any sword.
Crouching behind low, twisted boughs, he surveyed the scene—and froze.
On the far side of a little orchard, the clearing was crowded with grazing horses and finely dressed men. Two young knights muffled in quilted jackets stood drinking from horn mugs. Beyond, four stout pigs sizzled on spits over a blazing hearth, and Robin snarled with irritation. Traveling knights and their parties preyed like vermin on the local poor. This rabble proved no exception.
He would find no good company here.
A priest rested on an upturned barrel, silver thread girdling his broad middle, his fingers looped with bejeweled rings.
“Your uncle promised us more meat,” the churchman hollered to a barefoot young woman who hurried amid the revelers with a jug of ale. “Must I waste away?”
A lean countryman rushed over bearing a freshly killed hog, blood dripping from the platter and splashing to the loam. Besides the man of God, five other travelers sat by the fire, each clad in the jet-black livery of foresters. A bearded fellow among them pulled a girl onto his lap, then yanked her robe down to reveal her creamy breasts.
As he fondled her, she giggled and tossed her lank hair, appearing to enjoy herself. Most probably the forester had pressed a coin into her palm to cheer her. The bow and quiver slung on Robin’s back grew heavy, and he clenched his fists at his sides till his knuckles cracked.
Back with his men, Robin had taken many folk under his wing who’d fled the foresters’ wrath—boys unable to work following beatings, and women who’d been violated. Hired to punish any soul who breached the strict laws of the royal hunting grounds, the brutish foresters were as unlikely as the knights to pay for what they’d plundered.
Using knives and grubby fingers, the foresters shredded the flesh from one of the pigs. They crammed their mouths till juices oozed down their chins and dripped from their beards. The need to act almost overwhelmed Robin.
But he was no fool.
He couldn’t ambush this party alone. While a surprise arrow might slay any one of them, the poor folk who dwelled near this meeting place, the start of the road through the Greenwood, would be held responsible and pay with blood. Robin’s best plan would be to make sure the villagers were recompensed by snatching a jewel from that fat priest as he slept or snipping the purses from those knights’ belts.
He verged on slipping away as unobtrusively as he’d approached, when a burst of laughter akin to the bray of a donkey seized his attention. Not yards from where he hid, a third knight sank down on a log. His surcoat was emblazoned with his coat of arms—four stars, a cross, and a horizontal strip. Redheaded and robust, he leaned so far back to tip his ale down his gullet he swayed and nearly toppled. A second man hurried over from where he’d been tending to a horse, his figure slender and his footfalls light. He plucked the knight’s velvet cap from where it had tumbled to the ground and handed it to him. Robin fixated on the latest arrival’s black tunic.
Another cursed forester.
The newcomer pulled down the hood of his cloak to reveal chin-length hair shimmering a dozen shades of gold and bronze in the low evening light. His profile was sharp and perfect, held with a flinty air that defied any hint of delicacy. Straddling the felled trunk, he displayed a shapely leg bound by cross-gartered hose.
Robin drew a swift breath.
As did the knight, who grinned, cast his empty tankard to the mossy ground, and raised his gauntlet to curl a finger in invitation. The golden-haired man batted away a fly that hovered between them, then cupped a hand about his mouth to whisper in the knight’s ear.
The knight answered loudly enough. “You offer that willingly?”
“I do.” The forester’s voice was smooth, melodic in its resonance. “I’m honored to be in your company, Sir Randolf. With knights like you at their side, the barons will surely compose a just new body of hunting laws for the English forests.”
“Eh?” Randolf removed his gloves, then scratched his head. “What are you blathering about?”
The forester shrugged, nudging his knee between the knight’s sturdy legs. “You are a wiser man than any boy king. I want to know all your strengths, all your power.”
The knight brayed. Robin scrubbed his stubbly chin, wanting to spit. Gilded blonds had never been to his taste, let alone devilish foresters who played games with intoxicated knights. The lad’s words troubled him too. What was this new body of hunting laws? He’d spent his lifetime thieving from the rich to provide for the starving poor because the Norman kings had transformed the forests into their private demesne and stripped the commoners of every right of forage. Those folk who’d not been forced into the slavery of serfdom had been left with a choice between destitution and fleeing, and now the greedy barons wanted a share?
The forester dropped his voice to a mumble and stroked the bulge of Randolf’s cock. As the knight groaned with pleasure, it grew difficult for Robin to brood on Norman oppression. Too many seasons had flitted by since he’d known the caress of a lover, and the forester’s beauty couldn’t be denied. He gritted his teeth against cravings for intimacy that niggled like old wounds.
His loins hardened.
The forester rose and dashed into the orchard, his feet pattering on the mulch as he passed a stone’s throw from where Robin held his breath. The lad leaned back against a tree trunk not five yards off. Looking to the heavens, he muttered wearily before gasping loud enough to betray his location. Lured, the knight blundered toward him.
This performance ought to have quenched Robin’s unwonted desire, yet carnal hunger spread through him. He should save his vigilance for the half-naked village girl—though, peeping back, he saw she’d extracted herself from the older forester’s embrace. Her robe hitched back onto her shoulders, she scurried about, filling more tankards. None summoned her or made chase after.
The redheaded knight squelched so close Robin inhaled his stink of liquor. He waited till the man had lumbered by, and then quietly got up and edged away. This was no sacred meeting of souls entwined in loyalty before their bodies touched, a part of the outlaw’s life he’d relished like the clear water of the forest brooks. He’d no desire to witness an armed tyrant fumble with a forester whore.
But while he pushed deeper into the darkness, he couldn’t help glancing back to the light. The pink rays of the west filtered through the trees to where, concealed from the camp, the forester removed his cloak and stripped his tunic. Evening sunlight rippled across the shallow muscles of his torso and emphasized the determined set of his features and jaw. Robin swallowed hard, then cringed as the knight gripped the forester’s shoulders. The lad lifted his chin and quirked a corner of his mouth into the merest hint of a smile, though his gaze remained hard.
Randolf grabbed him and kissed him, hungry and brutal. Watching side-on, Robin discerned the lad tense before returning the onslaught and lifting the knight’s surcoat to grope beneath. When Randolf broke away, the forester lowered gleaming lashes and ran his tongue over swollen lips. Holding the knight’s member, he caressed the head with his thumb.
With a wrenching effort, Robin stalked away. He listened to the clamor from the camp, watched a bat flit between the trees, anything to distract from the stiffness between his legs. A rustling set him staring about. To his left, the brushwood shook, though he felt no breeze. He clasped the hilt of his knife.
Who stalked him? Someone as stealthy as he had to be a forest dweller.
The forester’s cry lashed into him, imbued with raw fear and followed by the grating laughter of the knight. The tug in Robin’s guts nearly felled him. His potential pursuer fleeing his mind, he whirled around and hastened back.
His disgust flashed to horror. The knight had turned the forester around, slammed him face-first against the trunk, and clamped his neck. The forester pawed at Randolf’s grip in vain. The knight slid his massive hand around to squeeze the front of the lad’s throat. He used the other to lift his victim’s short tunic before jabbing a finger between tightly clenched buttocks.
The forester’s face reddened. He choked fitfully, squirming to avoid the forceful intrusion of his passage, but his struggles weakened. Drunk and addled with violent lust, the knight could kill him with ease.
Robin couldn’t stand by and watch murder.
Not even of a forester. And—curse him—not of this forester, whose image had seared his wits.
He slipped his cloak from his shoulders, grasped his bow, and pulled an arrow from his quiver. Squinting through the gloaming, he identified a target—a plump apple dangling from a branch at the top of the tree, a good eight feet above the knight. He nocked the arrow, gripped the yew shaft, and drew the cord back till his knuckles brushed his chin.
The knight ground his cock between the curves of the forester’s arse. “Keep struggling, slut. I’m striking in.”
The lad fell limp. Robin forced his focus onto the apple stalk. All else vanished.
He unleashed the arrow, which sliced to its objective. The point severed the leafy twig above the fruit, which crashed down onto the knight’s head.
The apple’s red skin split, its white flesh shattering. The knight crumpled to his knees, head and shoulders swaying forward. The forester tumbled sideways, his legs catching beneath the slumping knight, whose forehead struck the tree. Robin squatted, gripping his bow in a fist of granite.
He doubted the apple would be enough to stun the knight for long, if at all. The collision with the trunk must have knocked him out, or combined with the drink to rob him of his faculties. For him, Robin cared nothing. He’d acted to save the lad, forester or not, and couldn’t leave without ensuring he was all right.
The young man remained motionless. Had the knight suffocated him or snapped his neck? Chill spreading through him, Robin launched forward—then stilled. The forester rubbed his throat and pushed up onto one elbow, gasping for air.
Robin ducked down, gulping breath as if he were the one who’d been strangled. His duty was done. He’d best leave the young forester to deal with the consequences, and already the man recovered better than expected. The lad raked his fingers through his hair, shaking his head in a weary fashion as if he’d suffered such trauma a dozen times before.
After untangling his legs and staggering to his feet, the forester steadied himself with his hand on the trunk. For a few fleeting heartbeats, beams of dying light danced on his hair. He parted his lips as he panted, setting frustration twisting Robin’s insides.
Robin had helped many a sorrowing young man in his time. Always his impulse had been to aid, mindless of whether their future relationship would become intimate, if they’d part as strangers or remain as brothers. He wished kindness alone could explain his current desire to hold this man.
The sun dipped beneath the trees, leaving the forester looking drawn and gray-faced, older, but beautiful still.
On noticing the arrow, which had come to rest near the knight, the lad looked around sharply. He picked it up, sniffed the tip, examined it, and then cast it back to the ground. Kneeling, he slid long fingers under the fallen knight’s cloak and retrieved a roll of vellum with the light, swift motion of a thief.
Robin snorted and turned away. He could confront the lad, but he’d seen enough. He quickened his pace, hesitating only when a twig snapped close behind. Turning, he saw nothing, just a thick oak trunk swathed in gently shaking holly.
—tracked him. His blood jumped as he started to wonder what.
He’d frequented the verges of the Greenwood for the past few weeks without being disturbed by the wayward fair folk or the vile spirits of the forest underworld of Niogaerst.
Though he prayed to the Mother Goddess, creator of all things, to protect him, he’d learned that with the native peoples driven from the forest, the fouler magic grew strong. A peddler woman in one of the village alehouses told tales of calm waters stirred to a tempest by beasts with teeth as long as her bandy legs, of pine trees sprouting extra limbs for the pleasure of gouging a passerby’s eyes out.
Robin had best flee from these parts while his vision remained. He cursed the part of him that wished to tarry for another glimpse of that handsome rogue and words of gratitude from those pretty lips.
There remained no doubt that Robin Hood had been starved of good fellowship too long.