Songs in the Key of Life
It was a perfectly ordinary dead tree in a perfectly ordinary forest. If the birds and squirrels did not nest in it, well, why would they? It was not hospitable with nuts to eat and leaves behind which to hide. A bird might flitter through, perch on a limb for a moment, and give forth in song, but it would soon take flight again for greener pastures. There will always be such trees, leafless and cold, the life-cycle of a forest demands it. There is nothing wrong with a dead tree in the middle of a forest.
Parl Dro and Myal Lemyal walked along the road towards—well, they really didn’t know towards what. The silence was a companionable one, accentuated rather than disturbed by the bird song high in the tall trees that lined the way.
“You really ought to get that seen to, y’know,” Myal’s voice broke into the sounds of the day.
Parl Dro smiled briefly, for he knew exactly what Myal was referring to. His limp.
“Should I?” he asked gently. “By whom?”
The limp was the result of an injury sustained many, many years ago, back when the young ghost-killer had exorcised a maniacal life-hating ghoul haunting a bridge. Just as he’d bent to the task of destroying the bone that was the ghost’s anchor to this plane of existence, the gibbering specter had slammed him partway through the rotting planks of the bridge, then fastened tooth and claw to the calf of his left leg, savaging him. He had walked hand in hand with pain since that day.
“You know what I mean!” exclaimed Myal. “I mean... you shouldn’t have to put up with that! Can’t you just... wish it away?”
Dro smiled again at the plaintive voice. Myal was trying so hard to be tactful, trying not to refer to the fact that Dro was a ghost himself, made “real” only by the force of his own will.
“I doubt I could,” admitted Dro. “Part of what I am is the pain.” His smile became a bit evil and he glanced at Myal. “I suppose you could say the pain is what lets me know I’m alive.”
“Oh, very funny,” Myal pulled a face, refusing to be drawn into that rather scary topic. “I just thought it seems so unnecessary for you to have to suffer.” He walked alongside of Parl Dro, matching his stride in length, but not the curious half-twist step Dro used to get his lame leg to do the work of a well one. “Anyway, if pain is all just a part of life, one could say pleasure is as well, so why are we loping along here like we’re actually going somewhere when we’re not when we could just sit for a while and enjoy-this-lovely-DAY!” he finished with a rush and, out of breath, plunked himself down on the gnarled root of a dead tree. It curled up and around, a perfect seat for Myal’s narrow backside.
He looked up at Parl Dro, part pleading, part defiant, then pulled his musical instrument from the gunny sack he carried on his back. “If you ask prettily enough, I might even deign to play for you, commoner though you are,” he teased, then struck a note on his odd-looking possession.
The silvery note soared and leaped, rebounded in the clean air. The forest held its breath, waiting for another, then seemed to sigh as the note faded away. Parl Dro considered the picture before him. Myal, his head cocked to one side, eyes closed, listening. Listening to a music no one else could hear because it was inside him. His brownish-blond hair caught and held a golden note of sunlight that filtered through the trees the same way the forest had caught and held the silvery note of music moments ago. On his lap sat one of the strangest amalgams it had ever been Dro’s misfortune to view.
It was hard to believe such music could come from the treble-necked horror that sat in Myal’s lap. Two guitars and a second-hand reed pipe had given their lives to form it and only one man would ever play it. Dro had watched Myal give careful instructions as to its construction to the doubtful guitar-maker they’d hired to create the instrument. The man had obviously thought Myal insane, but had said nothing under Dre’s challenging stare. He’d wept, still disbelieving, when Myal had’ finally gotten what he’d wanted and been able to sit and play a sorrowful song of loss for the instrument it was patterned after. If a guitar could be said to have a noble nature and a fife a playful one, then the thing in Myal’s lap was a goblin, but one who danced beautifully at its master’s bidding.
Dro stood silent, then, with a grace surprising in one so handicapped, eased himself to the ground almost eagerly, his back against the dead tree’s trunk. Myal’s eyes sought those of his companion, looking for the approval he knew would be there, finding it. No words were needed, the unspoken word—play—hung between them.
He played and looked quite silly as he played, eyes nearly crossed and cheeks puffing on the reed pipe. Dro grinned at the sight, then closed his eyes. One could then imagine a small orchestra comprised of young geniuses sitting in the forest and making a music so exquisite that the birds seemed to join in the joyful noise. The rustling of the leaves, too, in fact, all of nature and life were part of Myal’s Ode to Joy. He started with spring, the delights of the young reaching up towards the light of the sun, growing, building complex harmonies.
It was then that Parl Dro became aware of the fact that he could not move.
With horror, he fought against the silvery notes of joy that wound around him. They’d twisted and woven themselves into a fine net that trapped him where he lay listening to the magical music.
Myal’s song turned then to summer, when the heavy, delicious heat could melt into men’s bones and the forest would drowse, the droning buzz of bees getting into the hearts and minds of whoever would listen and become a part of summer’s endless golden siesta. Dro found he could not struggle against the wonderful tiredness that invaded his limbs, remembering the rare times as a boy he’d thrown himself into the hammock strung up in his master’s hay barn, chewing on a long strand of grass and contemplating the motes of dust dancing in the shaft of light streaming in the open doorway. Only the barn swallows, cool in the dark upper reaches of the rafters, had moved with anything resembling liveliness and he’d contemplated them, too, swinging ever-so-gently. Dro gritted his teeth, trying to fight against the pleasurable memory that now threatened his existence.
Myal swung into the third movement of the masterpiece he was creating, but spared a breath and a moment to glance up at his one-man audience. He wanted to see his companion’s face, for once open and receptive, accepting the best gift he knew how to give. It was the one true influence he could exert over another human being’s soul, and he reveled in it. He looked up and was struck dumb, in mid-gasp, by what he saw.
The dead tree Dro leaned against had sprung into a weird sort of life, green shoots and more mature leaves growing from the roots and lower trunk, though the rest of the tree was still barren. As Myal watched, the leaves grew literally before his eyes, stretching and unfurling. In the center of all the uncanny foliage was the body of his companion. He dropped his musical instrument and stumbled the few steps to Dro’s side. His mouth grew dry and the bottom dropped out of his stomach as he saw that some leaves were not merely growing around Dro, but through his arms and even his torso, pinning him to the tree trunk like a moth pinned to velvet.
Dro’s hair, black-brown, was the same colour as the tree trunk and Myal could hardly see where it left off and the tree began. Myal steeled himself, then plucked some of the leaves growing through Dro’s hair, but dropped them in horror as they writhed in his hand. It reminded him of grubs exposed to the air when a large stone is overturned. New leaves quickly grew to take their place.
Dro’s right hand already lost beneath tiny green leaves, Myal took his left hand and peered hopefully into his face. “Dro... Dro!” he croaked, throat dry. Parl Dro did not move, his face smooth and lifeless, his body completely relaxed. “You’ve got to wake up,” Myal all but sobbed, “I don’t understand this supernatural stuff. What do I do?”
He saw that the leaves had stopped growing, but they continued to move gently, as though a breeze stirred them. The forest was still, no breeze stirred the surrounding trees. Myal shivered. With a peculiar clear-headedness that usually deserted him in times of extreme stress, he saw that the leaves had stopped growing when he’d stopped playing—the two must be related in some way! Perhaps he could play the song backwards as he’d done once before, to banish the unnatural growth back to whatever plane it’d come from? But unlike Ciddey’s song, this was not a simple tune, but a building variation on a theme with complex harmonies that even he would be hard-put to reverse successfully. This was too far out of his league to fool with and failure could mean the end of the person who mattered most in this world or the next to Myal Lemyal.
He hovered over the figure of Parl Dro protectively. “Just like you, having a nice lie-down, leaving me to deal with the tough problems,” Myal muttered, trying to stop the tears welling up in his eyes. Several trickled foolishly down his nose to splash on the cheek of the sleeping man below. “Parl Dro,” he whispered. “Father….”
The sleeping man’s face twisted, responding to the double stimulus of lost tears and dire need. “Myal,” Dro’s voice cracked with effort. Myal jumped three feet back in white-faced shock, scarcely able to believe his ears. Dro was alive! He threw himself to Dro’s side, clutching at this arm. “The tree’s got you! What do I do? Tell me, quick!”
“Play, Myal,” Dro struggled against the forces pulling at him.
“I can’t! The music... I think it caused this,” Myal said wretchedly. “I think it’s all my fault.”
“Just play,” Dro’s voice got weaker, “…continue what you were….”
Myal grabbed the sling of his instrument and pulled it towards himself almost savagely. Dro was dying and if he wanted to be ushered out of this world and into the next to the accompaniment of a symphony, Myal would make it his business to grant this last request. He would play as never before.
At first falteringly, then with a sureness that belied his distraction, Myal fingered the instrument, picking up partway through the autumn cycle where he’d left off. Autumn, harvest-time, ripe fruit a heavy weight the limbs of trees must bear. The golden fields of grain, the golden days—but short days. Warm, hazy nights, the moon a copper coin low in the sky; the night grows cool by morning. Myal played and closed his eyes because he could not bear to look upon the figure of his companion only a few feet away.
Winter song finished the suite. Expressing the bitterness of loss came easily to Myal, who had lost so much. Cold, qrey, iron skies stretched over expanses of icy granite sloping down into a forest muffled feet deep in snow, such was Myal’s genius that the music expressed all this and more. But such was his open and generous nature that he could not wallow in self-pity even as he lost his heart to sorrow, at least not where his music was concerned. In his song could be found notes that spoke of the life hiding beneath the snow. Whether it was tiny and quick and scavenged for its dinner or curled up, thick-furred and sleeping—life waited. Winter endures and teaches whoever will learn to endure, too.
Myal finished the symphony and hugged the sound box to his chest, listening to the last few notes fade away. Despite the fact that it was an early summer day, he felt cold, as if the winter song had caused the temperature to drop. He hunched over, shivering, trying to hold the guilt and tears in and not succeeding in either case.
When bird song started again in the forest, Myal did not notice. He did, however, notice when a hand lightly touched his shoulder, and he cried out, trying to pull away. “Strong beginning and ending, but I’m not at all certain I liked the middle.”
Through red-rimmed eyes, Myal saw a halo around Dro and thought for a moment he was a ghost, but dismissed that as stupid when he blinked away the tears and the halo disappeared. Then he remembered that Dro was a ghost and his confusion deepened.
“That tree—it was trying to absorb you or something, wasn’t it?”
“Life always subsists on death, that is the natural order of things,” said Dro, sitting on the gnarled root Myal had vacated. He stretched his lame leg out in front of him and sighed softly. “When the dead start feeding off the quick, they call in a ghost-killer, like me.”
“But that’s a dead tree—or it is now,” said Myal doubtfully. The tree was just as it had been before: lifeless. Not a trace of green remained. “What happened? Why’d it let you go?”
“It’s all to do with the natural order of things, Myal. Cycles of life and death. When the tree heard your magical music of spring, it believed itself to be alive and it started drawing on the nearest energy source. Me.” Dro pinned Myal with his dark-eyed gaze, but Myal stared back, still confused.
“Not a very bright tree,” he offered helpfully.
“No,” agreed Dro, grinning. “I wanted you to continue playing because I knew you’d eventually get to winter. Trees go dormant in the winter and I knew then I’d have my best chance of breaking its hold on me.”
“So, it’s for-real dead now,” said Myal. He touched the root he sat next to gingerly, as if it might bite him. “You destroyed it.” Oddly, he seemed almost disappointed.
“Yes and no,” admitted Dro. “It’s dead, but I didn’t have to kill it. With the completion of the song cycle, it... came to understand that its time had ended long ago. Actually, it’s rather brighter than a lot of human souls I’ve known.”
They sat in the cool of the shade of living trees. A breeze, a real one this time, ruffled Myal’s honey-coloured hair into his eyes and shifted the long, dark hair from Dro’s shoulders.
“Well...,” Myal said, then he repeated himself briskly, “Well! It’s time we were off, then. If you’re able, I mean.”
Dro nodded, then pulled himself to his feet, careful of his injured leg, while Myal packed his musical instrument in the gunnysack and slung it over his shoulder. Much to Dro’s amusement, Myal set off at a brisk pace without looking back. He followed.
“Why are we ‘loping along’ when we’re not actually going anyplace?” asked Dro, a teasing glint in his eye. “Not scared of a dead tree, are you?”
“Certainly not!” scoffed Myal. “Before, we hadn’t any place to go. Now, we do. Somewhere out there, ahead of us, is a beer hall or pub calling out to me. And when I get there, if I play and the tables and chairs start sprouting leaves, you can be sure I’ll have me beer stein in me hand as I go out the window!”
* * *
The road forked before them. To the right, the path was bonny and light came through the slender, young saplings just coming into leaf lining the road. The cool, wet snap of an early spring morning was in the air, the best time of the day to be a traveler on the country roads. Later, the sun would dry the dew and the day would be quite warm. By the bright red coat of a scarecrow in the distance, Dro knew there was farmland off in that direction. Civilization meant food for Myal who had been complaining about a breakfast consisting mainly of too-young wild strawberries. The other path, the left-hand or sinister side of the road, was... compelling. The trees were old and their dark green canopy blocked the sun effectively. Dro’s seventh sense as well as an odd perspective of diminishing tree trunks pulled him into the dark heart of the road. There was no question which way they were going to go.
“Which way we going to go?” asked Myal, noticing Dro’s intense study of their choices. “That way’s prettier,” he added hopefully, noting the distant farmhouse.
“No,” said Dro. “That way. We will go that way.” He pointed to the darkness of the left-hand road. His seventh sense had never led him wrongly before.
“But that way there’s a farm house...,” said Myal coaxingly, “and undoubtedly a pretty maid to milk the cows.”
“And a farmer who undoubtedly keeps hounds. Besides, even if we were welcome, you couldn’t pay for your bread with song. Those simple, honest country folk would be impressed by your music, then tell you to chop a cord of wood before lunch.” Dro set off with his lop-legged stride down into the dark cool.
“Don’t make excuses. We’re going down this road simply because you feel like it, admit it. There’s no other reason, I can tell,” Myal said, leaping in front of Dro and walking backwards, his musical instrument thumping on his back. His eyes strayed over Dro’s shoulder to the fading sunlight. “I’m already beginning to regret missing that pretty maid,” he muttered to himself.
Dro smiled, then helped Myal up when, still walking backwards, he tripped over a rut in the road and landed on his backside. They continued on and, slowly, a sense of dream-like urgency stole over them both.
As cool green and black shadow enfolded them, Myal dreamily fancied they were walking under a pool or a stream and congratulated himself on his unexpected cleverness of having learned to breath underwater.
Dro’s seventh sense sang along his nerves so that he could hardly think, but he kept walking. He realized he was no longer limping, that the pain in his lame leg was gone. His highly attuned senses reached out to where the power behind the supernatural occurrence lay. He suddenly felt a part of his soul go far away, even as he walked alongside Myal, to where a strong hand turned the pages of an enormous, old and dusty book, tracing out the spell. Dro somehow knew he’d always been part of the words on the pages, or that, in some way, his life was being written down and put into that book, he wasn’t sure which. Whichever it was, he knew if he ever found that ancient book, there would be a chapter on Parl Dro and Myal Lemyal in it, now and forever.
Myal pulled at his arm, urging him towards the light up ahead. A pressure impeded their progress, they waded through it towards an unimagined goal. The sensation was not unpleasant in a languid, floating sort of way, but it was with relief mixed with regret that they came out of the ‘tunnel’ and into the light.
They’d passed through into an almost prosaic clearing, but the sense of unreality persisted. A wide stream flowed beside them... and across it, an odd but striking figure, headdress of antlers, arms outstretched, greeted them. It was difficult to see more, the sun streamed from behind the figure, bending around it and blurring detail. The magnetism of the figure pulled at them, though Myal wished he were anywhere but there. “Is he real?”
Dro used his talent to reach across the short distance and sensed a surreal power in the figure, but a solidity, too.
“Real enough,” he spoke aloud, but he did not sound too certain of it. “There’s—I don’t know what....”
The sentence was never finished as a swift something passed between the two travelers and lodged in the oak behind them with a loud “thwock!” Dro, the synapses of the living still with him, flinched, but then held his ground. Myal let out a yelp and threw himself down behind a stump. “Get down,” he yelled, “it’s trying to kill us!”
“I’m not worried,” Dro said dryly. He examined the ‘something’ and saw it was a white arrow. Odd, he hadn’t noticed the creature across the stream use a bow. He felt waves of encouragement and paternal approval flowing over him as he bent to examine the arrow.
The words written on it where in an unfamiliar alphabet, but when Dro blinked, it was as if the letters had scrambled to form new shapes and take new positions, because the meaning had become clear: The panther and the wolf often seek the same goal.
“Interesting. A riddle.” Dro sounded singularly unimpressed. He turned to the figure, trying to discern its face through the blinding light, and raised his voice. “What exactly do you want us to do?”
“Go about your business!” the answering voice was deep and rumbled through and around them. Myal shivered and seemed to draw himself into an even smaller ball behind his protective tree stump. The power inherent in that voice was such that even Dro, who had little to fear from any living creature, quailed at it.
“1 am Herne, the Hunter. You were chosen. The power of light and dark will lead you. Use the power you were gifted with and follow your destiny.”
The blue-white light grew, became a blinding flash, then, like a curtain drawn over a window, the light was gone and the creature had vanished. With him went the curiously exhilarating atmosphere. The two men found themselves in a lovely, but quite ordinary, glade. Dro shifted his weight and found that the too-familiar nagging pain in his leg had returned.
“Wh-what was that all about?” quavered Myal, slowly coming to his feet.
“That... man? He sent for us. I feel it."
“What does that ‘man’ want us to do?”
“You were there. You heard. He wants us to do what we do best.”
“We’re going to an alehouse?”
Dro fixed Myal with a penetrating stare that mixed amusement with annoyance, then remembered he’d done just that countless times because there was no better place than a tavern to go to for information.
“Actually, yes. An alehouse would be a good place to start.” Catching sight of Myal’s hopeful look, he added, “Strictly in the interests of finding out why we’ve been brought here by that creature, of course.”
“Don’t start that, now. You’ll spoil my good mood,” Myal admonished and, with a jaunty air, he set out, crunching through a drift of brown and red leaves.
Dro, amazed at Myal’s ability to bounce back in any situation and trusting in his ability to find a public house under any circumstances, followed him closely. He was, after all, Dro’s son and could be expected to have inherited at least a few of his father’s supernatural powers.
“‘Go about your business,’” he thought to himself. “My business....”
He did not feel it necessary to point out to the oblivious Myal that, though they had been walking through a spring morning not ten minutes before, autumn now lay in the red and gold-touched trees around them.
* * *
The sign proclaimed Leo’s Tavern in a surprisingly fancy script, a lion rampant, or what some itinerant artist must have thought the king of beasts might look like, its tufted tail entwined with the first letter. It was just the sort of public house Myal liked best. Its patrons were many and boisterous, but not dangerously so, the landlord delivered the food and drink quickly, the sawdust on the floor was dry and clean—well, relatively bug-free, anyway. If a couple of chickens roosted in the rafters, the place was all the homier for it.
“Don’t do it,” said Dro, seemingly apropos of nothing.
“Do what?” said Myal, too quickly.
Dro smiled. “You are scanning the crowd in a most professional manner. You are deciding who will pay for our supper.”
“We’ve not go so much money we can afford to pass up this sort of opportunity. Besides, I have my professional reputation to uphold, you know. An artist should never be expected to pay for a meal.”
Myal looked as if he’d been stung by Dro’s criticism. “That was not the sort of ‘artistry’ I was referring to.”
Dro just shrugged and sat back to watch the amusement that would undoubtedly follow, pushing his empty cup away from him. Myal turned again to his assessment of the inn’s patrons.
All his life, Myal had been attracted to the theatrical gesture, to the dangerous move, however ill-suited to his personality this seems. Centuries later, he might have played chicken on a motorcycle, might have dived headfirst from a plane, a parachute of thin and fragile-seeming silk strapped to his back, or even sat back and watched countless hours of death, mayhem, and heroic deeds on a television set. Denied these activities, he got his jolts of adrenaline in a rather less wholesome, but potentially more lucrative manner.
The two locals seated at the front of the public house seemed to be together, though they did not perform the usual activities of two fellows-well-met enjoying a drink, namely back-slapping and tale-telling, capped off with loud bouts of laughter. The shaggy giant of a man was plenty raucous, yelling genially for the landlord to cap off his ale and flirting with the giggling barmaid; the man across the table was another story entirely. He sat silent and dark, brooding into an earthen cup, occasionally smiling quietly at something particularly amusing his companion said, but more often than not raising one disbelieving eyebrow at his antics. “A quiet drunk,” thought Myal, “and a pretty distraction. I like it. Yes, that’ll do.”
Across the room at the table of Myal’s preference, the atmosphere was a convivial one. “Now, Jesse, my lass, you know you and I make a perfect pair,” Little John said to the landlord’s daughter, “and I’ve already met your pa. He thinks the world of me! So what’s to stand in our way?”
“Me, for one,” giggled Jesse, cuffing the outlaw on the jaw none too gently, but affectionately for all that. “Maybe I like a quieter man—Nasir here, perhaps?”
Nasir was surprised to have been drawn into the tomfoolery, but he was pleased to see the dark curtain of despair that had weighted down his friend lift, even if only for a few minutes. He played his part and gave the girl a short, dignified nod of approval. “At your service, my lady,” he murmured, a slight accent evident in his dark tones.
Jesse turned back to John. “There, you see? What a gentleman!”
John snorted into his ale. “Oh, yes, lovely manners, that. Don’t you know it’s against his religion to even let a drop of alcohol pass his lips? Fine husband he’d make you!” Nasir smiled and stared down into his cup of well water as if to divine its dark secrets.
“He’d not drink up the profits, I’ll warrant,” she parried, “like some I could mention.” She patted John’s large, though not fat, stomach. He took the opportunity to grab her for a hug.
Myal, too far away to make out the particulars of the conversation, swallowed the last of his ale, carefully set the mug down, and stood with a bit of a drunken swagger. He fixed one seemingly bleary eye on the trestle that served as the bar and started off, the picture of a determined, slightly sozzled customer in search of another drink, and made his way across the floor. Halfway there, he tripped slightly, grabbing the back of the dark man’s chair with one hand to steady himself, “S’cuse me,” he murmured, hiccoughed slightly, then continued on his way.
Myal was completely surprised when the large man, who had been giving a particularly friendly squeeze to the barmaid moments before, stuck out a leg, tripped him, saving him from a complete sprawl on the floor by gripping his arm in a particularly unfriendly squeeze.
“He’s got your money pouch, Nasir,” grinned the large and suddenly frightening-looking man. “I’m the one who’s drinking and I save your coins. Goes to show you, don’t it?”
The fellow named “Nasir” suddenly came alert at this, patting his pocket in a manner familiar to pickpocket victims the world over, confirming his loss. He fixed Myal with dark eyes over which thundercloud-black eyebrows furrowed. Myal cursed his usual ill-luck and thought he’d never seen a man more terrifying, unless it was the giant who clutched his arm. Myal Lemyal was a man well used to living with the stupidity of his own decisions. The silent, dark man stood, one quick arm lashed out, gripping Myal’s upper arm and the large man let go, still grinning at him.
“Almost got away with it, little man. You’re either totally mad or a very daring thief.”
“A little of both, actually,” came a quiet voice from behind them.
Nasir glanced over his shoulder at the man who had appeared there soundlessly. Dark-dressed and handsome, Nasir quickly noted that his hands were empty and that he carried no obvious weapon on his person but for whatever it was he had on a strap around his shoulder. “Whisper quiet,” he thought, chilled for no reason.
“Don’t want no fighting in here,” said Jesse firmly, hands on hips.
Myal looked hopefully at her. “You heard the lady,” he said, laying the deerskin pouch, black with use and heavy with coins, on the table with his free hand. He grinned weakly at Little John. “Just trying to spread the wealth, friend.”
“Spread the—” Little John sputtered, “are you trying to be funny?”
“Do you know who we are?”
“No... should I?” he looked up at Nasir. “I mean, d’you want me to?”
“Don’t break his fingers,” said Dro in conversational tones. “That would permanently end his usefulness in this world.”
“To steal from me is not usefulness,” said Nasir, tightening his grip. Myal cried out, not yet in pain, but in fear.
Nasir suddenly found himself on his back, staring up at the dark clad man who had interceded for the thief. The sawdust that had been kicked up settled gently over him and he saw that somehow, the table had been knocked over. Such was his surprise that he lay there, stunned to immobility for a moment. Little John was going to be no help, he sat in his chair, weak-legged from laughing at the sight. The dark man made no move to take advantage of Nasir’s vulnerable position or run away, and held the strange object he’d had slung over his shoulder in his hands. Nasir supposed it could have been a weapon for all he knew of the odd customs of these Englanders, but it was not.
The thief cowered by the overturned table, unable to decide whether to cut and run or stay and help his friend.
“Do what you should have done in the first place. Play,” said the dark clad man, shoving the object at him.
Nasir watched, fascinated despite his anger, as the thief took the instrument and began to play. The musician’s hair fell forward and eyes crossed as his lips found the reed sticking up incongruously from between the two neckpieces; Nasir couldn’t figure out how the poor fool could see, let alone play. Nasir almost laughed to see him clutch the odd musical instrument like a lover, hands passing over the strings with misplaced gentleness, but suddenly noticed the music. It was... almost unimaginable. It reminded Nasir of things he’d never seen, only dreamed of, of things he’d once believed in. It reminded him of someone he missed. ·Someone he’d never see again. And when the song was finished, he found he could no longer be angry.
Glancing over at Little John, Nasir saw his friend, too, had been taken by the music and had tears streaming down his cheeks. The entire room full of revelers, so noisy moments before, was silent as the people considered what they had just heard, mulled over the memories the player had stirred to the surface. It was Nasir himself who broke the silence.
“I am glad to meet such a one who can create such music.”
The musician smiled and it was like sunlight breaking through the trees. He held out his right hand. “And I’m glad you aren’t tone deaf!”
* * *
“Why don’t you and your friend spend some time with us in Sherwood, Myal, there’s some folk I want to hear your music,” said Little John, righting the table while Jesse picked the mugs, unbroken, out of the soft bed of sawdust, “They could use a pleasant diversion, right enough. So how about it? First, let me get you a drink.” He included Dro in on the offer with a generous wave of his hand.
Myal cheerfully took the outlaw up on his offer of a drink, but was a little afraid to take him up on his offer of a place to rest for a night or two in the wilds of Sherwood. For one thing, Myal was not fond of sleeping in the great outdoors, for another, though Little John and even Nasir now seemed genuinely friendly, Myal still had visions of a sly revenge for his petty larceny taken in the privacy of the forest, away from the prying eyes of witnesses. He glanced over at Dro for guidance in the matter, but got nothing beyond a neutral stare from that quarter, so he accepted the offer, thinking that if there were any danger, Dro would have warned him of it.
“Unless you’re Sheriff’s men, you’ll not find better friends nor a better welcome than in the forests of Sherwood, even in these times,” said Jesse, squeezing Little John’s brawny shoulder. Then she got very quiet and had to turn away, scurrying off towards the backroom.
“There’s a fine lass,” murmured Little John to himself, then he seemed to shake off the solemn moment and poured Myal a drink from the jug. Both Nasir and Little John had caught Myal’s look to Dro for assurance and they examined the more enigmatic of their two guests.
Despite Nasir’s first impression, he was armed. There was a heavy blade with a beautiful ebony inlaid handle tucked in one black boot, in fact he was dressed entirely in black, which explained why the knife had gone unnoticed. The boots and tunic were of an odd cut, his entire costume spoke of someplace far away. If it were not for that, they might have thought he was one of the Sheriff’s men, for his unfriendly silence and his dark and brooding aspect, but they’d tangled with the Sheriff’s spies before and usually found them overly friendly, fawning wolves-in-sheep’s clothing.
Dro’s limp intrigued Nasir, he wondered how a man with such an obvious handicap had been able to steal up from behind without attracting his notice. Their fears were partly put to rest by Myal’s obvious regard for Dro, and they found themselves liking the thief more and more for his amiable chatter.
“So, where you from?” asked Little John. “You needn’t answer if you don’t want to,” he assured Myal, noting his reticence. “We all have secrets in our past we don’t want to share with strangers.”
“Oh, it’s not that,” said Myal. “It’s just that we’re sort of wanderers. We’ve been all over. The most famous place we’ve been recently was...,” he stopped dramatically, then continued with a flourish, “...Ghyste Mortua!” Myal sat back, waiting for the cries of ‘No! Not really!’ and nodded sagely.
“Never heard of it. You, Nasir?” Nasir shook his head.
Myal seemed crestfallen at this. “Never heard of Ghyste Mortua, that was Tulotef? Everyone’s heard of it! Guess you live too far north of it to have heard the tales. Or too far south? Where are we, anyway?” He looked over at Dro. “How far are we from there, eh?”
Dro sat quietly in his corner, his eyes fixed into the middle distance. The three men at the .table had to lean forward in their chairs to hear his answer. “I rather think we are further away from Tulotef now than we were this morning. Much, much further.”
“Oh, come on now, don’t be difficult,” admonished Myal, “Of course we’re further from it than this morning. We’ve walked miles since this morn—oh. Yes, I see what you mean.”
The outlaws exchanged curious looks. “What happened this morning?” asked Little John of Dro, but it was Myal who answered.
“There was this thing in the forest, with a voice like an echo in a canyon, only loud, very loud. It said it was Herne the Hunter, whoever that is.”
The two outlaws suddenly sat straight in their chairs, shocked. This was the reaction Myal had expected for his pronouncement of ‘Ghyste Mortua’ and he was rather badly frightened when Little John grabbed his shoulder, shaking him for emphasis.
“We can’t speak of this here,” Little John said with some force, “Now we’ve another reason for wanting to take you to our friends. You can tell your story to Marion and Brother Tuck. They have learning from books. I wouldn’t know what to make of your story, I can’t even think, the way I feel now. You will come with us, won’t you?” He was almost pleading.
Dro smiled. “I think we’d like to hear your story as well.”
* * *
“Which way did you come by?” asked Little John. He had regained his composure and was determined not to hear the two travelers’ story until that evening when the outlaw band would meet, but he couldn’t stop himself trying to winnow incidental information from them. They scrambled over boulders and through deer trails on the secret path to the outlaws’ hideout, Dro having amazingly little trouble for a man with such a handicapped limb.
“We came by way of the road from the east,” Dro said.
“Road from the east? There’s no road from that direction in Sherwood. You don’t mean an animal track, do you?”
“No, it was a proper road, paved and all. There was a farm with a red scarecrow on the path we didn’t take,” Myal sounded wistful.
“There are no farms at all east of Sherwood, let alone one with a red scarecrow.”
“It’s obvious we are not from this place,” said Dro.
“You are from a fable-place, perhaps,” said Nasir. He spoke so infrequently that when he did, it always commanded attention, but this pronouncement seemed to surprise even him. “Have you come to harm or help, I wonder.” He had not said it jokingly and would speak no more on that subject or any other, and a pall was cast on the group. They walked on in silence, until Little John let out a shrill whistle. An answering whistle came in the distance, and John laughed and began to run. The others followed.
The campsite was small and neat. A well-fed clergyman was cooking over a well-made campfire, and two men, or rather a man and a red-haired boy, sat under one tree, each sharpening a knife on a stone. The boy waved a friendly greeting. “Little John! Look what Will give me!” He held up the rather fine knife he’d been sharpening.
The man next to him looked up, squinting in their direction in the light of the sun riding low in the sky behind them. “Where the hell you been?” he asked in surly tones.” And who’re these two?” He looked over Dre and Myal with sharp and unfriendly eyes. “More trouble, I’ll warrant.”
“And you know a lot about trouble, eh?” sniped Little John.
“That’s enough, both of you,” came a soft voice, and a young woman they’d not noticed before came forward to welcome them.
When Myal saw her face, he felt cold and hot at the same time—she seemed both anchored firmly on the ground of reality and a magical creature of the wood. Her figure was strong and supple as the bow she carried, yet fragile and slender, too. He saw her youth was giving way most gracefully to womanhood. The lines only just starting around her eyes were from laughter and sadness, but not the brute toil that ruined so many promising young men and women before their prime. Her pale, white skin was ethereal, marred—if ‘marred’ was the right word to use—only by the tiny, loving freckles that hugged her cheeks and shoulders and matched precisely the radiant brownish-red of her hair. Myal was in love… again. He loved the crumbled bits of autumn leaves that clung to her curly mane and the way her green gown, both practical and alluring, contrasted with her hair. She was life and life is a thing of contrasts, light and dark, joy and sorrow. Myal knew he would compose some of his most beautiful music for her. He shivered in anticipation.
“I am Marion. This is Much and Will Scarlet, Brother Tuck is preparing our meal. Come, there’s more than enough for two more.”
“Heaven bless you, my children,” said Brother Tuck, and Myal glanced at his companion, half hoping he would contradict the holy man. Dre’s intimate knowledge of the afterlife was a sore point between them. Exquisitely fearful, Myal occasionally tried to wheedle details from the uncommunicative ghost slayer. His only comment on the subject, “There is no hell,” cheered Myal no end.
“This here’s Myal and the other’s Dro,” said Little John, “They saw Herne.” His bold comment stopped everyone in their tracks. It was as if the forest had stopped breathing, grown colder. Then Marion smiled and shook her head, breaking the spell.
“I... wish to hear of this. But let us make our quests comfortable first.”
“Herne,” and all the bitterness of a soul in pain could be found in that one syllable. Will clenched his fists in powerless anger. “What do we want with that one? He can’t even protect his own—”
Leaving the sentence unfinished, he threw himself down on the ground and sat uncomfortably, hunched over in misery. Myal thought Scarlet seemed ready to fly off the handle at any moment, he was a volcano due for eruption or an accident waiting for someplace to happen. Myal took a seat as far from the angry man as possible and was pleased to see Dro sit beside him. He gratefully accepted the bowl of venison stew and chunk of fine-milled brown bread handed to him, as did the rest of the group.
“It smells wonderful.”
“We’ll wait till you’ve finished, then you can tell your story, my friends,” said Marion, though it was obvious she wanted to hear it now.
“That’s all right,” said Myal. “Never let it be said I let food get between me and my audience,” and, between gulps, he told them of the occurrences of the day, starting with the fork in the road and the meeting with the forest god, and ending with what happened in the bar, talking about his attempted larceny with an openness and a complete lack of shame that endeared him to the outlaws. Even Will had to laugh at the temerity of the thief, trying to steal from Nasir of all people!
“But why would Herne call you when he has abandoned us, his followers?” questioned Little John. “Perhaps he wanted you, a thief, to join our group. I don’t see how it could be the music—Marion, you must hear his music, I’ve never heard the like! But it still doesn’t make sense.” He turned to Dro. “You’ve said nothing all evening, my friend.” Dro met his gaze over his bowl of untouched stew. “Who are you and what do you do?”
“My name is Parl Dro,” he said, his low, clear voice carrying like a cutting wire to everyone in the clearing, “and I kill ghosts. Was there a death recently?”
“No, no,” Marion denied, but it was obvious from her strained white face that the true answer was ‘yes.’
“Tell me,” said Dro, and as easily as that, he heard the story of Robin Hood and learned how she had become the Widow Marion of Sherwood not quite three months ago. When she was finished, Tuck held her cold hands as she sobbed into his shoulder.
“There, there, Little Flower,” he said softly into her hair, “There, there.”
Much clasped his workman’s hands together and looked at the worn toes of his boots. “He was my brother,” he said simply. Will was cold and silent.
“Lad,” spoke Little John to the wide-eyed Myal, “Play us something, please. We need it.”
Myal nodded numbly. Dro grabbed his wrist as he reached for his instrument.
“Play something for Robin Hood,” he said, and Myal was surprised at his sentimentality.
Nasir nodded. “Aye. For Robin.”
Myal played and the music was young and brave and only a little foolhardy. Nobody noticed Dro slipping away in the dark.
* * *
“So many things...,” mourned the sad, pale young man.
He was pale, not as in ‘drawn and tired,’ or pale in the way a man who’s been locked in the sunless dungeons of Nottingham for a few years is pale, but as pale as morning air or moonlight and as clear. Without thinking, he leaned his non-existent weight against a tree trunk, but if he had tried to climb it, or pluck a leaf from it, he would have been most chagrined to find that he could not do it. He sat high on the side of a hill and the great gold-and-brown sea of forest fell away from him to a red-lit horizon, treetops shivered with the rays of the setting sun, a cheese-yellow sliver of moon low in the velvet black sky to his right, but he had no attention to spare for the glories of nature. Instead, he stared down through the darkening trees into the clearing where the music played. He could barely make out Marion’s form, limned in the glow of the fire and the setting sun, and knew the rest of his friends were there. “So many things I wanted to say.”
“If you didn’t say them with the life you led,” came a quiet voice behind him, “perhaps you didn’t deserve to say them in the first place.”
Robin spun and saw a man in black several feet behind him, regarding him with calm, dark eyes. Shocked that he had not heard the tell-tale sounds of a man coming up the hill behind him, he examined the remarkable intruder closely. He saw a man with a decidedly Norman profile and disquietingly regal demeanor, but disregarded those ominous signals in the face of the wonder of actually having been seen.
“You—you can see me? Can it be so?”
“You seem surprised.”
“Surprised? I’m dead, man!”
This seemed to affect the dark man, but not the way Robin though it would. His eyebrows merely rose a notch. He said nothing. “It’s like trying to talk to Nasir,” thought Robin’s shade, then he said:
“You are taken aback, but, please don’t run away. I have spoken with no man these past... has it been days or weeks? It’s hard to keep track of time when days are nights and nights are days. A conversation would be a rare treat, now. I am… I was Robin of Sherwood.”
Unaccountably, this seemed to amuse the strange man, but while mirth crept into his dark eyes, the smile did not extend to his lips. “‘Run away’?” and a mild distaste at the phrase coloured his words. “Fear little that I shall do that. I am only surprised you know of your own morbidity. It is—unusual in a ghost.” The length of the pronouncement seemed to tire him—or perhaps something else weighted him down?
“Who are you? Are you a spirit, too?” the ghost of Robin asked gently.
“You’re stronger now than you’ve been since your death,” Dro said, ignoring the question, “She’s down there, thinking of you, the song is reminding her of you. The song has powers of its own.” Dro smiled, but the smile was not for Robin. “The musician has some talent in that regard, you see.”
“Yes, it’s very beautiful, but it’s more than that. It—calls to me.”
“Why don’t you go to her?” it was a seeming non-sequitur, but Robin knew exactly what he meant.
“I am afraid,” the young man admitted. “If she sees me, if they see me, I’ll terrify them.” Robin shook long bangs that hadn’t been trimmed in three months out of his eyes. “I may hurt her. I may be hurting her. Am I?”
“You’re feeding on her life,” said Dro brutally, and Robin flinched and cried out.
“Why have I been brought to this? What evil did I perform? Have I been cursed? Herne, help me!” Robin’s shade hid his face in evening shadow, fading into near invisibility.
“Your Herne is helping you. He brought me here. From very far away indeed.”
A sad, small voice came from the dark. “Are you Death?”
“I’m your death. You can help me. What is keeping you here?”
“Marion. The music?”
“No. There’s more to it. Where’s your body buried?”
“Not here. Far away.”
“Did you own something special, something identified with you? Quickly, the song is almost over!”
The ghost turned to Dro, its young and handsome face made horrible by a phosphorescent glow from within. The glow pulsed slowly as a heartbeat, the creature’s eyes were huge cadaverous dark holes. It spoke one word as the last notes of the song were played and it shredded into mist. “Albion.”
Alone, Dro soundlessly clambered down the hill, careful of his injured leg, back to the warm circle of light cast by the fire. Everyone sat in the same position he’d left them in, Tuck with a comforting arm around Marion, Will in the shadows apart from his friends, the others in various attitudes of thought, as if they’d been drugged by the music and hadn’t recovered from its effects yet.
Myal had watched Marion as he played. She had become younger before his eyes, luxuriating in her memories. She would be hurt by what was to come, he knew. He also knew she’d been a highborn lady from her speech and manner, but had never met anyone like her before. He remembered the Grey Duke’s daughter, beautiful as a blade and as deadly, her casual cruelties, the deviant behavior excused because of who she was and what her father owned. Not that he hadn’t enjoyed the Grey Duke’s daughter. If given a chance to experience her again, he might turn white and say ‘no!’ but he didn’t regret her.
But this woman, Marion, had looked after his comfort, handed him a rough bowl of stew, and wished him good health, and he’d felt as if he were a lord in a dining hall, a seven course meal before him. Was it for the love of a man or the love of a people that she had ruined her life, wrecked her chances of a castle filled with servants and finery?
“Did you find him?” Myal asked. Dro was pleased he’d been clever enough to figure out what was going on.
“Find who?” asked Marion and Little John, almost in unison.
“I’ve been chatting with an acquaintance of yours,” the ghost slayer said. “He told me his name was once ‘Robin Hood.’”
“No!” the denial of the group was total, the thought almost too horrible for them to contemplate.
“He’s lying!” grated Will, but he was thinking of the hooded man who’d saved them from the Sheriff’s men three months earlier.
“He spoke to me of ‘Albion,’ but didn’t tell me what that meant. Who is Albion?”
“There, you see? He’s the Abbess’ man. He just wants Albion!” Scarlet looked disbelieving as Marion stood, shaken but determined, and retrieved a burlap-wrapped bundle. “He’ll steal it from us! Don’t show him!”
Within the burlap was a blanket, within the blanket was a beautiful silk scarf, and, wrapped in the scarf, was a sword. Albion—Dro’s seventh sense prickled.
Light from the fire became a liquid thing and flowed over the sword, caught and dazzled on sharp edges. He couldn’t believe he hadn’t sensed it before. How could mere layers of cloth disguise such power from him? It had been owned by many men, each investing a bit of his own soul in it, contributing to its power. The sword called out to him with the voices of a hundred dead men—
take me up. complete me.
The living energy that fueled what was Parl Dro flickered and flared up, unbalanced him.
I am Albion.
It reached out, overwhelming, the pull of the sword was palpable, surely they could all see it?
We are Albion.
Of its own volition, his hand began to reach—
—and he sagged to his knees as a hand grasped his arm, feeding him the energy he needed to manifest himself. A voice spoke in his ear and it was louder than the voice of the sword.
“Dro? Parl Dro! Dro!”
“Get it away from me! Quickly!” Dro rasped out, scarcely able to believe he could speak. Myal clutched his arm. Of course, it had had to be Myal. Dro wondered if he had felt the sword, too, or just Dro’s pain.
Marion covered the sword with the scarf and expertly bundled it up in the blanket as she carried it away, to the other side of the fire. “Is that better? Are you all right now?”
“Yes, much better,” Dro gasped. “Thank you. “
“You saw! You all saw it! He’s evil!” cried Will. “Albion tried to kill him!”
“Nonsense,” Dro spat out, recovering quickly. “Al—the sword is neither good nor evil. It is merely a thing of power.” It left him shaken to realize that even the spoken name of the sword could affect him.
“We all know there’s power in Albion, but we don’t understand it,” Little John hooked an arm under Dro’s and he and Myal pulled him to his feet. “It was part of a set of seven powerful swords, y’see. We had to destroy all but Albion. I sometimes wish we’d spared one or another, besides her.”
“Your weapon’s quarterstaff,” grinned Much, who really hadn’t understood what was going on.
“Aye, lad, it is, so it is,” John grinned back at his young friend, then looked at Myal and Dro who seemed to be supporting each other on their feet. “So, now whatever are we going to do with you?”
Dro turned away quickly. He knew what he had to do. And it was going to be much more difficult than he’d thought it would be.
* * *
It was an exhausting night all around. No one had much felt like sleeping, for with sleep comes dreams. Dro didn’t really need sleep anyway, so he sat and thought, confused and afraid of what would happen if he destroyed the sword as he must do to release Robin. He went over the facts as he knew them again and again, almost obsessively. He must also be on guard against Robin’s eventual and inescapable return. Sooner or later, the ghost’s control would break and he would seek out what he needed and wanted most: the company of his victim.
When the watery yellow sun cracked the horizon, Myal looked up from his sleeping spot near the fire to see Dro sitting guard inches away. The horrors of the night before seemed so far away and as insubstantial as, well, a ghost. Of course it had helped that Myal himself had not actually seen the ghost, but the sight of Marion distracted and only half convinced, Little John vaguely threatening and Will Scarlet overtly so, had been enough. Only Nasir, who seemed to sense the oddness of both their guests better than the rest, had taken them at their word.
“They’re all so bitter and hurt,” Myal whispered to Dro. “Can’t we help them?”
“I’m not here to heal their wounds. That is not my talent.”
“You can say that again.” Dro ignored the sarcasm, but that didn’t stop Myal. “Leave the sad little ghost alone, why don’t you?”
Dro sighed in exasperation and thought how to explain. He realized that he’d never felt he had to justify his calling to anyone before. “It needs doing, Myal. Things will just get worse for all of them if I don’t do something about it, don’t you see?”
“Poor Marion. Can’t you at least let her talk to him? It’d do her good.”
Dro looked at Myal as if he’d just made the suggestion that Dro spare his leg by walking on his hands. “Expend energy to give solidity and life to a dead-alive so that he can have a chat with his widow? Are you insane?”
“Don’t go calling him ‘dead-alive!’ I hate that! They told me all about him. His name is Robin and he always helped poor people. He’s not a horrible thing! Marion loves him!”
“Do you see how pale and drawn she is? Do you think she could bear to say goodbye to him again? For all I can do, it may yet come to that. There’s cruelty for you!”
Myal had been rendered mute by Dro’s passionate refusal to back down, so he continued, “And the danger! I’m sure he was a remarkable young man, he’s certainly a remarkable ghost! His link to this plane of existence is, of all things, a supernatural sword of power. His effect on his victim isn’t normal, either. He’s had self-restraint enough to keep away from her for three months, even now he finds it difficult to manifest. She should be able to gain strength and comfort from the presence of her living friends but can’t... because… because they are the means by which the ghost feeds from her.”
Dro stopped, amazed at what he had just said. It had not occurred to him before. Of course, the band. Robin fed off of all of them, though most strongly from Marion. But it was the group dynamic that held him here, the sword merely a conduit. It had been owned countless times before; he wondered if it held any of its other masters in thrall after their death, helping fuel their spirit. But, most importantly, he knew wouldn’t have to destroy the sword to achieve his objective. It made sense.
Dro started over. “Myal. You must understand. We’ve been brought over by a very powerful being to perform a specific and necessary task. That’s why we’re here and a lot of astral energy has no doubt already been spent on our behalf. Haven’t you noticed? It was spring yesterday morning—here it’s autumn. Don’t you find that strange? It’s proof we’re in a totally different place from before. I don’t suppose we’ll be allowed to go home until we’ve performed our duty. Duties aren’t done for pleasure... that’s why they’re duties.” Dro realized uncomfortably that he was having a father and son talk with Myal and almost laughed, but Myal’s sorrowful face stopped him.
“What a day of revelations for me,” Dro thought to himself, “I can only hope it will be for both of us.”
“Myal, a healing time must pass if these people are ever to get on with their lives. Marion’s grief is as fresh as if he’d died yesterday, not three months ago. I’ve notice mourning follows a pattern when allowed to proceed naturally.”
“And I’m sure you’ve seen a lot of mourning, having caused so much of it,” came Myal’s cynical reply, but he was listening.
“Denial first. Then acceptance, but a cold, sometimes dazed acceptance. Next, true realization and sorrow, an emotional cleansing. Sometimes anger follows, but finally the mourner picks up the threads of his or her life. “
“Anger at being abandoned by the deceased.”
“But nobody wants to die! How could it be their fault? That doesn’t make sense.”
“People don’t make sense, or hadn’t you noticed?”
“Are you going to at least feel guilty?”
“I may let you know afterwards. Now, go eat some of the breakfast the priest has made for us.”
It seemed a fatherly note to end the conversation with. It had felt good to talk with someone about his thoughts and observations after a lifetime of virtual solitude.
* * *
Evil men rode through Sherwood Forest that morning, unafraid. Their evil was not an all-encompassing evil, but a petty, shallow thing. The men who rode so proudly on fine horses that morning were themselves shallow and foolish. Events they could not understand had been put into motion by their cruel acts, fearful things had happened to them, mighty forces had grabbed hold of them to teach them a lesson, then set them free to sin no more, but to no avail. They could not seem to learn from their experience.
The tall, blond man might have been handsome but for the permanent scowl that creased his features. He had committed sacrilege time and time again, until finally the forest gods had risen up, tossing him into a nightmare world of hissing spirits and looming trees, spinning him around and around until he crawled, whimpering gratefully, into his bed at the Castle of Nottingham. Yet now he rode through that same forest, head held high. His steps were not one whit lighter or more careful, his acts of harassment on the forest dwellers not one iota less harsh.
Of all of them, it was the shorter, dark man who approached true evil, but he didn’t have the knowledge or power to exert the sort of evil he was capable of. He had once opened up a magical book of knowledge stolen from a wise man and his own ignorance had flown back at him, knocking the doors of his mind wide open. Later, he had turned his back on such self-knowledge and returned to his petty revenges and paltry scheming.
The soldiers who accompanied the two were, at worst, venal and vicious, at best, merely stupid and thoughtless.
“A fine morning, Gisborne,” said the Sheriff of Nottingham.
“Yes, my Lord,” answered his much put-upon right hand man.
“What a clever turn of phrase you have, Gisbourne, you dazzle me with your much-vaunted wit,” baited the sheriff, but for once Sir Guy was in too good a mood to take the bait.
“It’s three months since the wolf’s head was last sighted,” he remarked.
“And it can count, too!” cried the sheriff gleefully. “I told you I killed him. You fool, you thought me a liar, admit it.”
“I hoped you were mistaken, my Lord,” Gisbourne neatly side-stepped from long practice.
“You hoped the wolf’s head was still alive?!”
“The alternative was a new wolf’s head to take the place of the old. We can suppose the outlaw has crawled away and died of his wounds after rallying to free his men in Wickham.”
“Rallying? My dear Gisbourne, when last I saw Robin Hood, he was the very picture of the martyr Saint Stephen. There was more wood to him than flesh and bone. Even I was impressed.”
“You simply missed one of his band, that is all,” flared the sheriff, “It was your stupidity, not my poor aim.”
“We won the battle.”
“And lost the war. Still, it is remarkably quiet and peaceful. I wonder, Gisbourne, do we tempt fate and stop for a few moments to rest?”
“S-so close to the castle, my Lord?”
“Not at all. I am merely anxious to return home and we are but two hours from Nottingham.”
“Anxious. Yes.” The sheriff smiled cruelly. “I think we will stop, Gisbourne, if only long enough to stretch my legs.”
“Yes, my Lord,” said Gisbourne, resigned to whatever horrors and inconveniences the day would bring.
Many eyes watched them dismount, squirrels, sparrows, even a fox; only one pair of eyes had a human intelligence behind them—though the watcher was no longer human. If a ghost were capable of human indignation, this one was, equaled only by its sense of impotency. He had no men, no arrows, not even a pair of hands, what could he do but watch? Yet he couldn’t let this pass unpunished.
Sir Guy idly whacked at the undergrowth with a stick, sulking like a small boy and trying to avoid the mocking eyes of his superior. He couldn’t shake the feeling that something in the forest was watching him. The horses stirred, nickering.
“My Lord,” began Sir Guy, “the horses seem uneasy, perhaps we should—”
“Nonsense, Gisbourne,” said the sheriff. “They merely sense your all-too-obvious fear. They can scent it, like dogs.” He grinned and the soldiers laughed, but it was uneasy laughter. “Remember, Gisbourne, without the wolf’s head to guide them, they were nothing but a pack of drunken ne’er-do-wells. They undoubtedly ran in terror, scattering to the four winds, when I hunted down their leader. The Saracen, back to the unholy sand dunes that birthed him; even as we speak, he is undoubtedly cutting out the heart of some crusader as an offering to his gods.”
“Aye, my Lord—and the half-wit boy, in an insane asylum somewhere, chained to a wall and barking like a dog,” said Sir Guy, catching the tone of the conversation.
“Now you’ve got it, Gisbourne—the Lady Marion, whoring on the streets of London... and I really must visit London again one day soon!”
The two men burst into gales of laughter, especially Gisbourne, unused as he was to sharing a joke with the sheriff, as opposed to being the joke. Neither noticed the chill breeze that had sprung up from nowhere, or the way the weak morning shadows seemed to gather themselves and darken. It was a few seconds before they realized that the soldiers who had been laughing along with them had suddenly gone quiet.
“It’s ‘im!” gasped one of the soldiers and the two looked up to see that it was indeed “‘im,” and he carried the sword Sir Guy had so thoughtfully left in its scabbard on his saddle.
“I’m pleased to see you haven’t lost your sense of humour, Sheriff,” said the handsome young man, apparently vigorous with health, sword held high in challenge. “You’ll need it once I’m through with you.”
“No!” cried the sheriff, pulling his sword free and brandishing it more like a holy relic to ward off evil than a weapon. “Witchcraft!”
“I wonder who you killed, my Lord,” said Gisbourne. If the outlaw were not standing in front of him, a sword almost at his throat, he might almost have been pleased.
“Get him, Gisbourne,” ordered the sheriff, “Dispatch him!”
“How can I, my Lord? He has my sword. You have a sword—you can dispatch him. Like you did the last time.”
“You’ll pay for this, Gisbourne,” warned the sheriff, tossing him the sword, “—men, get him! “
* * *
In the outlaw camp, Myal gently chaffed the wrists of the Lady Marion, who had fainted. He hadn’t the foggiest notion what that was supposed to do, but it had been the fashion at one of the courts he’d been minstrel to for the fine ladies to go into a faint, a delicately scented hand held to head as they fell on convenient couches, and he had seen their gentlemen gently chaff their wrists until they’d come around. He sighted his companion, the only one still standing in the clearing, confusedly surveying the band of outlaws lying on the ground, insensible to their surroundings, moaning of their sudden weakness.
“Dro, what the hell is going on, and don’t tell me there is no hell!”
“It would appear my theory is being proven out. The ghost is drawing power from all of its former followers, manifesting itself.” He looked around. “But where? Where is Robin Hood? He should be here, trying to convince us he’s alive.”
“You’ve poisoned us,” moaned Will.
“Oh, shut up!” cried Myal in a bravery born of panic, “We most certainly have not, you idiot! Dro, look at the sword!”
And in that corner of the camp where Albion lay swaddled in layers of cloth, a glow brighter than a campfire pulsed, striking terror in Dro’s heart. But he didn’t feel the pull, didn’t hear that awful call, its ‘attention’ was elsewhere.
“Albion,” Dro thought, concentrating on the sword. If he could use it without being drawn in, he could find Robin. Riding over the waves of life energy from the helpless outlaws, he found his direction and, closing his eyes, he was there.
He opened his eyes to the sound of clashing steel.
“Who the devil are this lot?!” Dro cried out, forgetting himself.
“A confederate of the wolf’s head!” cried the sheriff, “Get him, kill him!”
Fortunately, it was only soldiers who attacked Dro, for he was no swordsman, let alone equal to the skill of Sir Guy. It wouldn’t have hurt him to be ‘fatally’ wounded, but it was inconvenient to be revealed as a dead-alive, it might give Robin an edge over him. With his dagger he made short work of the ill-trained bully-boys, hitting one on the head with the hilt, stabbing another fatally, and wounding the last on the arm sufficiently to cause him to run away. In the meantime, the sheriff had plenty of time to run to his horse, mount up, and charge down the road to Nottingham Castle, leaving Gisbourne behind. Dro, never much mindful of chivalry, came up behind him as he traded blows of the sword with Robin and gave him a bash to the back of the skull that laid him out in the middle of the road next to the two soldiers Robin had killed. He was· sure to be unconscious for at least an hour.
“You!” said Robin. “I would have sworn you were a dream. I thought you were here to kill me, not save my life.”
“You have no life, how can I save it? I merely behaved in an expedient manner. You should stop drawing power from your men now that you have lost the impetus to manifest. You see? Or perhaps I should say, ‘you don’t see.’”
Robin was beginning to fade as he spoke, like a delicate silk exposed to too much light, curdling like a green leaf dropped onto a burning coal. Sir Guy’s sword fell to the ground as the hand holding it could no longer support its weight.
“No! This is a dream… just a dream...,” his protests could still be heard as he disappeared. “I’m alive... I must be.”
“Now it begins in earnest,” thought Dro, and he, too, disappeared, leaving behind four soldiers, three dead and one unconscious, and an unconscious Sir Guy of Gisbourne, a huge knot welling up behind one ear, his bloody sword lying in the dust beside him.
* * *
Time is an odd thing: anticipate it, and it passes so slowly as to drive you crazy; on the other hand, a holiday of feasting and joy passes so quick, you might as well play the first dance and the last at the same time. At least, that’s what Myal thought. Worst of all was marking time to an awful but inevitable occurrence, say, for instance, the night before a dawn execution. Slow in the wait, but fast when you looked back at the time you’d spent. And that is how Myal awaited the coming of the ghost of Robin Hood.
It was sunset before he knew it. He’d spent the day doing a hundred aimless little things, tuning his unique musical instrument; creating a tune or two for Marion; worrying at Dro, who ignored him; watching Nasir practice his longbow; watching Will Scarlet sharpen his knife long enough to be told to clear off; and entertaining the boy, Much, with some silly, improbable stories that he had actually lived through. And through it all, Myal was aware of the sun creeping across the sky; slowly, slowly; of both his and the outlaws’ expectations and tensions rising. But looking back at the day, he found that it had run like silver notes of song through this fingers.
Dro sat in the center of the almost palpable anticipation and fear like a spider in a web. He waited, his lame leg throbbing in time to his non-existent heartbeat, filled with nothing but certainty about what would come in the night, uncertain only of the outcome of its visit. Would it be a fly, easily dealt with? Or a wasp?
“You’re as jumpy as a cat,” grinned Little John when Myal glanced up to mark the position of the sun in the sky for the hundredth time. “You don’t really believe anything’s going to happen tonight?”
“You do, too. I can tell.”
“Dead is dead and gone, boy,” said Little John with false bravado. “I loved him and I’d follow him to hell, if I could. But I can’t and he’s gone. Forever. “
“But you felt what happened this morning!”
“Touch of food-poisoning once in a while... it happens. That’s life.” Little John scratched his beard meditatively.
“You trying to convince me everything’s all normal? Don’t bother. I’ve seen some strange things since… never mind since when. I’ve seen some strange things and if Dro says your Robin can’t find his rest and needs help and is coming tonight, he’s coming tonight and Dro’s going to help him.”
“There’s more than one way of looking at it, I suppose. Your friend doesn’t say he helps folks’ spirits rest—he says he’s a ghost killer.”
“Don’t listen to that,” insisted Myal, “That’s just his overdeveloped sense of the dramatic. Also, he feels guilty sometimes because they don’t want to go and sometimes the people they have to leave behind don’t want them to go, either. But they have to go, you know. You don’t understand.” The breeze that often springs up around sunset disarrayed Myal’s gold-brown hair. He felt odd defending Dro after that morning’s argument. He supposed he’d changed his views again and never noticed when it had happened. “I’m hungry.”
The evening meal was taken in silence and they sat in the darkening forest, unmindful of the taste of the food. It was the night of the new moon. Somewhere in the forest, a group of revelers celebrated the end of the harvest with mead and made rituals to guard against the coming of a harsh winter, but here, the forest was silent and empty. Much tossed pebbles at a knot in a tree until Little John touched his arm gently and shook his head.
Eight people sat round the fire, staring into its depths. “There isn’t a hell,” thought Myal, “but life’s tough all over.” He stole a look at Marion. She looked guarded, but she was waiting. When Robin showed up, she would smile and that would be a sight to see. Brother Tuck sat comfortably next to her, only the hand clutching the wooden “X” on a knotted string around his throat betrayed his nervousness. Little John, a huge man, furry tunic, unkempt beard, looked like a wild man, but for the civilized intelligence in the eyes that stared deep into the flames. Much leaned against him for comfort. He had probably worshipped his brother and was using Little John as a substitute hero. Nasir, dark as Dro, but more solid, sat motionless, the best of all of them at hiding his emotions. He looked up, caught Myal’s eye, and quirked an ironic eyebrow in salute. Even Will, who professed not to believe a bit of it, sat; part of the group in this. They wanted to believe. All of them.
The stage was set. When would the lead player of this little amateur theatrical Dro was directing show up? Myal suddenly knew what to do. He had the power, if only he’d use it. All he had to do was—play the overture. His musical instrument was at hand, he pulled it towards himself by its string, settled it in his lap, and began the tune he’d composed the day before—the Sunset Song for Robin Hood. It had almost composed itself, slipping down through his fingers onto the strings, through the reed, wise and wild and sad. A song of a day ended too early, a life cut off before its time.
A chill prickled up Myal’s spine like a cold-footed scuttling mouse, the temperature had suddenly dropped and he knew it wasn’t the setting of the sun at fault. He didn’t look up, he just played all the more intensely, as if the sounds could drown out the fast-beating cadence of his heart.
A figure slipped down the side of the hill, more sensed than seen. Marion stared into the darkness between the trees, wildly searching for what she did not know. The figure passed from shadow to shadow cast by the trunks of trees in the red glow of the fire. With a cry, Marion threw herself forward, only to be held back by the strong arm of Brother Tuck. “Robin! Robin!”
Myal stopped playing, ending in a tangle of discordant notes, and a flicker of pain marked the face of the beautiful young man who stood before them. Dro smiled and stood slowly.
“There you are,” said the young man in a conversational tone so normal it was horrible. “I’ve been searching so long.”
“Where—where you been, Robin?” said Will, voice shaking. “Come closer, by the fire.” He could barely make out the young man so close, but still in shadow. He felt he should be on his feet, running to his friend, clapping him on the back, but couldn’t do it.
“I’m fine here, Will. I... I seem to have escaped from the Sheriff. I’m not sure how. You!” Robin’s eyes narrowed, trying to make out Dro’s features as he stood with his back to the fire, outlined in its glow. “I remember you... you helped me escape from the Sheriff, didn’t you?”
“Not exactly. You remember me, remember when we first met? You told me you were dead.”
Robin smiled and Marion let out a small cry, so familiar was that cherished smile to her. “Is this a jest? I told you I was dead? Perhaps I was unwell at the time, I think I was sick for a while. But I’m fine now. Marion, John, Much! Come to me, little brother!”
Much whimpered, clutching Little John’s furry tunic and hiding his face. Somehow the boy sensed the horror of the moment as did the forest animals. Except for the pop and crackle of the fire and his companions’ wary conversation, the forest was silent, and it terrified him. Much would not, could not answer.
“What’s wrong with you all?! It’s Robin!” cried Little John, shaking off the cowering Much. “Robin! You saved us, remember? You cut the bonds that Gisbourne had knotted so·well. Why did you run away?”
“Did I?” the young man looked perplexed. “That was foolish of me—I don’t remember.” He put one hand to his forehead, looking lost and appealing. “I’ve been confused.”
“Stop that!” Dre’s voice and will cut across the needs and desires of the group whose souls reached across the clearing towards their friend, feeding him. “Your belief gives him substance! He is dead! Your living souls feel it, fear him!”
“Marion! How can you fear me? You are my life.”
“Yes,” Dro’s voice was warm, an odd counterpoint to his cold words.”...and you are her death.”
“Robin…,” she reached for the man she’d bid a final farewell to three months ago with a relief close to pain, but Dro would not let her pass out of the light to join her demon lover in the shadows.
“His hands, Marion!” he shook her, trying to will her back to sensibility, “look at his hands!”
She tore her eyes from her love’s face and looked down—and saw the nails that hadn’t been cut in three months, nails that continued to grow in the grave. She screamed in terror as those once gentle hands reached for her face.
Dro interposed a black-clad shoulder between them, pushing Marion out of the way with his elbow. She fell, twisting to keep herself from the flames, burning her hand on a cinder that had rolled out of the fire. Dro grabbed the young man’s too-solid shoulders. He was amazed at how real Robin had become in such a short time. Staring into the stricken face, the ghost-killer exerted his will on his prey, who pushed against him, trying to force him into the fire, trying to break his concentration. Deprived of Marion’s belief, its eyes sank and its skin thinned to parchment white, but the power in those ghostly hands seemed insurmountable as they groped for Dro’s throat, forcing him to step back. Feeling the heat, the ghostkiller focused all his energy and threw himself forward both mentally and physically, carrying the creature with him. He stumbled and fell, and the creature broke away.
What was once Robin Hood pulled back, hissing horribly at the ghostkiller, then it turned and headed for a corner of the camp that glowed oddly, rivalling the glow of the campfire. It was the sword, calling out to its master through layers of swaddling cloth. The pale creature fumbled for a second with the wrap, then drew forth Albion and turned, once again the strong and fit young man, Robin Hood.
“Your evil ends here and now, dark master,” said Robin dangerously, and the glowing sword swayed hypnotically before the ghostkiller. Robin feinted, then slashed at Dro who cried out in shock and surprise as the blow connected. He had actually been hurt—Dro looked down at the bleeding wound on his arm in disbelief.
“No! Fight him!” Myal grabbed the arm of the nearest outlaw, Little John, but all of the outlaws were collapsing on the dark ground in the flickering light, tossing and turning as if in the grip of a fever or a nightmare. Only Marion lay quite still where she’d fallen.
Dro had almost enough respite to begin seeing the irony of his situation before Robin was on him again, slashing. He ducked as best as he could, but caught the tip of the blade in his shoulder and cried out again, clutching at the wound.
“Kill an unarmed man, will you?! Is that the legend of Robin Hood!?” cried Myal, partly in anger, partly in hopes of distracting Robin long enough for Dro to gather his forces. “Is that what Robin Hood is made of?”
“A dark sorcerer is never unarmed, so long as he carries an evil spell in his heart,” said the young man softly to the cowering thief.
The distraction was enough for Dro. He gathered what little strength the sword had left him and launched himself at the ghost, wrapping an arm around it. Ignoring its struggles, he bent his psychic talents and will to the task of pushing it into the next stage of existence. The sword was even more of a problem than the mad creature in his grasp. Albion glowed brightly as it fed on Dro’s life-force, humming by his ear as Robin called on her to give him strength. Dro felt his grip weaken first, then his will, and found himself unable to prepare or defend himself from the concerted attack that drove him to one knee. He tried to get up, but the sword, lit with an almost nervous energy, called to him, and he fell to both knees. He realized that even the pain of his lame leg had left him alone and exposed and that was when Dro came to know true terror.
Robin stood above him—young, clear-eyed, and all too real. He raised the sword in a kind of salute for a noble enemy brought low. Albion hummed in his hands, alive. He took her hilt in a two-handed stance and raised her above his head, poised for the killing stroke. The blade arced, gold fire, slashing down to its target—but the blow did not connect.
Robin stared down at his own two hands clasped tight on the hilt of the sword. As if fascinated by their almost translucent whiteness, he seemed unable to tear his eyes away and look up to see what had stopped the blade’s descent. A thin, red trickle of blood flowed down the flat of the sword, pooled momentarily at the dimple in the hilt, then dropped to the ground; slowly, slowly dripping down. A drop fell on Dro’s hand with a hiss, and he gasped and recoiled. Robin’s eyes followed up the red trail to the tip of the sword where a hand gripped it tight, then up further still to meet the eyes of his father, Herne the Hunter.
A warm, dark voice filled the forest, reverberating through Parl Dro, who pulled himself to his feet. He felt—strange. He felt as if he were as old as nature, larger than life, and, even odder, he suddenly felt a great love for the sad creature who now shivered before him, though he had never known the man Robin had once been.
“Sleep, my son... time to let your cares fall away...”
“Albion, protect your master,” pleaded Robin, desperation in his voice.
“What was once yours, is no longer.” The forest god unhanded the blade and, as if in a dream, Dro reached for Albion’s hilt. She slipped easily from Robin’s nerveless grasp.
Dro struggled against this new power that gripped him much as Herne had gripped the blade of Albion moments before, and it, too, gently released him. He shook his head to clear it and as he came to himself, realized he’d been healed of his wounds. He also found that he stood with the bloodied Albion in his hands. He almost dropped it in horror, but it was silent. The ghostkiller did not have to look up to know that the odd but striking figure of yesterday morning had been his savior, but he looked anyway. The figure looked more human up close, almost merely a man, and a tired, old one at that. Looking about the camp, Dro noted the outlaws stirring and Myal helping Marion to her feet. Her eyes never left the figure of Robin Hood.
“How can you cast me aside this way?” Robin all but wept to the forest god, “I was your son.”
“And always will be... nothing is ever forgotten,” the soothing voice comforted.
“Nothing... is ever forgotten,” faltered Robin.
“I will protect your friends. Now is the time to rest, my son. Accept. Accept....”
And the young man who had lived his life in the grip of what he could never really understand finally accepted his death in like fashion, accepting what he could not know. But, greedy still for the life he once knew, his eyes roved the clearing, drinking in the sight of the white, tear-stained faces of those he loved best as they climbed to their feet. At last, his eyes found Marion. His lips formed words, but only Marion, whom he faced, could guess his message, for no sound came. Then he turned to Dro.
“Do what you were brought here to do, what my father could not….”
The ghostkiller understood what he meant, as well what was needed. He raised Albion over his head, much as Robin had, gripping her hilt in a two-handed stance, concentrating on the sword, not the ghost. The bloodied blade arced red this time, slashing down to its target but for the second time that night, the blow did not connect. Robin had already gone.
It was some moments before the band realized Herne had disappeared as well.
* * *
The next day was a fine autumn day, crisp and brisk. The horrors of the night before seemed almost a folktale they might once have heard, but in their hearts they knew it was true and, in their hearts, some small hope blossomed. They knew that one day they would continue in their fight against evil, in their departed comrade’s name. Dro picked up Albion. Marion looked at him, a question in her eyes.
“It’s all right. It’s… asleep, if that’s the right word,” Dro said, “It’s waiting for another. Good—let it torment someone else for a while!”
Marion took the sword from him. She knew he was right; someone, someday, would hold Albion and be held by her power, someone would wield her against evil men. But, secretly, she hoped no one would come for it until she was so old she was beyond pain.
“You must be surrounded by people you know, people who will care for you—not these people,” said Dro. “Have you any relatives?”
“My father, Sir Richard of Leaford. It is his dearest wish I live with him, away from all this.”
“No fool, your father,” muttered Myal, then became aware of all eyes on him. “Sorry,” he said, “it’s just I’m not partial to living winter through in a cold, wet forest.” He bent to pick up his hellharp and self-consciously brushed the dry, red leaves from its strings. It twanged softly.
Will’s voice broke through the soft chords. “Don’t you see? These two are trying to break us up? Trying to finish the job the Sheriff started!”
“Surely you see they cannot be the Sheriff’s spies! Herne was here. You saw with your own eyes what happened,” Marion tried to reason with Will, but she already knew there was no hope for it.
“We’ve got to stick together now!” he insisted, “or it’s all been for nothing!”
The group was silent. Little John reached out to comfort him, but Will just jarred the placating arm from his shoulder with a savage twist and stalked off. The forest swallowed him up.
Tuck made to follow. “Will’s hurt. We must follow him, talk to him and make him understand. “
“Leave him be!” commanded Dro. “He acts for the best. Must I explain again? There is still the danger that your hopes and needs as a group will call him back! Let Will Scarlet’s anger be the stroke that shatters this group.”
Nasir stared at each face as if to fix them all in his memory. Then he left them as silently as he had joined them so long ago.
Little John threw an arm about Much’s shoulders, dwarfing him. “Much’ll stay with me. There can’t be danger in that small thing, just the two of us.”
Surprisingly, the youth’s face clouded with anger. “I’m not no child,” he said, shrugging his shoulders almost as Will had done, trying to dislodge the friendly, brawny arm. “Surely I can take care of myself alone after all you’ve taught me.”
“Lad, did you ever think perhaps it’s me as don’t want to be alone? Please say you’ll come along with me.”
Much’s anger disappeared like mist in the morning. “‘Course I’ll come along with you, if you truly need my help, John.”
“And now we, too, must go,” said Dro.
“But I’ve not had me breakfast yet—I know, I know, it’s no good arguing with you. Well, we’re off,” said Myal regretfully. He turned to Marion with a courtly air. She was hard-put to cover her smile of amusement when he kissed her hand with a regal flourish and bowed to her.
“Always remember, someone’s playing a song somewhere and it’s just for you.”
“Thank you, my friend… my friends,” she turned to Dro and held out her hand, eyes alight with mischief. It was almost a dare.
Dro hesitated, then took her hand and bowed over it. He glanced up, meeting her eyes and bestowed upon her the most dazzling, charming smile it had ever been her good fortune to receive. “My compliments to the Lady Marion.” She felt her cheeks heat and frowned at him disapprovingly, but burst out laughing at her own pomposity when an anxious Myal glared at Dro, nudging him.
Tuck quickly handed a pouch to Myal and made the sign of a cross over him. “Our good wishes,” was all he said.
“Our good wishes,” echoed Little John and Much.
“Our good wishes, too,” returned Myal, “especially if this is what I think it is.” He hefted the pouch and sniffed the biscuits and cheese that would make a fine travelling breakfast.
They all left the clearing, two by two, each couple going in a different direction. Marion and Tuck went south. Little John and Much headed north. It didn’t really matter which way Dro and Myal went. They went west.
They knew whatever happened next was out of their hands and they tensely waited for that dreamy, unreal feeling to steal over them. They did not have to wait very long. The light changed around them, and they entered that strange state of being that exists between worlds.
They waded through crystal-clear, still air back towards the place that was their home. Myal found he could enjoy the sensation this time, now that he knew he was going home, and he slowly bounced ahead of his companion. Dro enjoyed a lame leg without pain. Waves of gratitude washed over them as they went along their way, until it all faded and they found themselves on that same road they’d left only two days ago. It felt as if they’d been away for weeks, but the same little scarecrow in his red coat stood in the distance in the same bright, early-morning sunshine.
“Well?” asked Myal.
“‘Well’, what?” returned Dro.
“Well, if you’ve had your fun, it’s my turn to choose. I choose that farmhouse up ahead.”
“But you’ve got your breakfast,” said Dro, gesturing to the pouch.
“Ah, but how fine it will taste with a touch of jam and perhaps a bit of home brew to wash it down....” Myal set off, not bothering to look back.
Shaking his head at Myal’s greed, Dro followed... just as Myal knew he would.