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The Unfamiliar Shore

Chapter Text

He’d wring that Will Scarlet’s scrawny neck when he found him. If he ever bloody found him. John glanced up at the sky again, and the irritation he’d tamped down all evening bubbled to the surface. It was going to rain, and if he had to wade through the mud of Nottingham, to find that boy, then—well, then Scarlet would find it hardly mattered he was half Locksley, because John would box his ears all the same.

A light was moving further down the street, its orange glow bobbing with the rhythm of a man’s step. The night watchman was coming up the way, his footsteps a muffled echo. He stopped at a corner, and his voice rang out. “One o’clock and all’s well!” The sound was faint and far away, and as if to spite his words, the heavens opened and the first few drops of rain began to fall. The watchman raised a fist to the sky—“All’s well, my arse”—and turned up his collar, trudging away into the night.

One o’clock? John felt himself flush, the blood pounding in his ears. The first hour in the new day without the Sheriff, but instead of ringing in the new age with Robin and Fanny and the others, he was wandering the sodden streets at this godforsaken hour. It had only been an offhand comment amidst the celebrations. Robin had frowned, suddenly aware of an absence among them. “Where’s Will?”

Not that Will’s presence had done much to brighten rooms before, surly little bugger that he was. But he meant something to Robin, which was why John had heard himself declare, “I’ll find him,” because who else would and surely Will couldn’t have gone that far. 

John sighed. Fool that he was for volunteering, leaving the comfort of the Thatchers inn, its bright fire and good ale for the cold, dark courtyard, which was regrettably empty of half-brothers. So also was the alley beyond it, where someone told John that ‘this ‘ere Will Scarlet’ might’ve passed by, or he might’ve not’. And that was why John would give that boy a good drubbing when he found him, one he’d not soon forget. Knock some sense back into that thick skull of his, because—Lord knows—Will didn’t have much to begin with. John had seen him bloodied more times than he could count on two hands, always from some fight he’d picked and couldn’t win. He’d had a lot of those—followed by a mad leap into the next fray, each time recklessly outmatched.

Fanny had taken pity on him whenever he came out the other side of a scrap. Long ago, Will had been young enough to bend to her rough care with little more than a toss of his arrogant head. He had tried to look unmoved as she cleaned him up, wincing under the talking-to he deserved. “What were you thinking, Will Scarlet?” she’d say, tutting him. “What would your mother say?”

Will had accepted all this in a kind of wilting disgrace, a wince of drooping shoulders, until the day he realized he’d rather spare himself the scolding, stalking off somewhere else to lick his wounds.

“A waste of your efforts, Fanny,” John had said, irritated by Will’s indifference to her charity. John hadn’t wanted her to take it to heart, but she had surprised him, shrugged off the petulant slight and gone outside to hang laundry, having better things to do than brood over the ungrateful injured. “Not to worry, my heart,” she’d said, giving John’s chin a meaningful tweak in the doorway, as if she’d known Will’s sulk would do more to her husband’s humour than hers.

And it had. Until then John had found Will Scarlet a lesser nuisance, an ache that made itself known now and again, like a bad knee in cold weather. The lad had come and gone over the years, a fleeting figure in the lanes, charming his way to hot meals and gifted apples and drifting from one village to the next for…what? Work? It was perhaps unkind to say, but John couldn’t imagine Will setting his mind to anything, much less his back to the burden of an honest day’s work. Granted he’d been a decent Man of the Woods under John’s charge—albeit young and brash and full of terrible ideas—but that had been a different kind of work. Thieving work. A trade John had buried with his fallen brothers in Sherwood. Now he dreamed only of Fanny and their house and the garden, the smell of summer and the curving fields of wheat and rye.

But at the moment, John was standing ankle-deep in mire, with the cold and the wet finding its way through his cloak, and the inn and the fire seemed miles away and years ago. He pulled his hood over his head to keep the rain from his eyes. Patience, he had to remind himself. Will had fought well, and though he was more hot blood than level head, it was half Robin’s blood, wasn’t it? And who else might better bleed Will of his piss and whinge than Robin Hood, and that was hope, wasn’t it? “I’ll allow it, Will Scarlet,” said John. “Just this once.”

There was a muffled shout from somewhere behind him, a burst of voices, a drunken chorus and a fit of clapping. The Hangings, more hovel than tavern, a leaky pit of moulding walls and a sour fire. Someone opened the door, hinges squealing, and a faint orange light spilled out into the street, the voices inside suddenly clear.

“I’ve always taken care of you.”

“Piss off, Munday,” was the answer, the voice slurred. “You’ve never—”

“Then what were all those years? And all those bits of bread? Communion, I thought they were. Alms for the poor boy out in the rain. Wouldn’t you call that friends?”

“No.”

A sneering laugh. “That’s gratitude for you. I should’ve known not to feed the dogs.” A raised voice, addressing the crowd. “This bitch bit my hand.”

There was a splintering crash, the door unhinged, and two figures came tumbling out into the dark. They went down in the mud, rolling over each other, scrabbling for a foothold on the slick cobbles. A confused tumult rose from the Hangings, the people lurched through the broken door, swearing. One of the brawlers swung hard, a dull thud of fist to bone—and the other man let out a hiss of pain. “Damn you, Will Scarlet!”

John stopped in disbelief, and there was a moment when the world went silent, and he thought surely he’d been mistaken, surely he’d misheard the name—and then the thin seam of John’s patience tore, like the skin over boiled milk. This was where the boy would rather spend his night? Knee-deep in the dirt of some ruined tavern?

John pushed through the cheering crowd. By the light of the tavern John could see a man, Munday presumably, tall and thin and red-haired, pick himself up, and Will, on the ground, far worse, his front muddied, his hands black from where he’d stopped his fall.

Munday laughed and wiped the blood from his split lip with the back of his hand. “Better a thief than a bastard, I always say, Will.” He leered. “But then…you’re both.”

Will staggered up, snarling, and would have lunged if John hadn’t grabbed him first. Will faltered in surprise, and Munday took one look at John and clasped his hands, as if in mocking penitence. “Saints preserve us!” he cried, his voice cracking. “God’s sent me giants to keep me from harm.”

John didn’t like the look of him. “Be on your way then.”

Munday laughed again. “Hear that, Will? I have the good Lord’s favour.” And to John. “You’ve done an honest man a kind deed.”

The people laughed, and John had the uneasy feeling that he’d contributed to some ill-gotten gain. Munday grinned and backed away, fading into the dark with a last flourish of his hand. The crowd let out a sigh, their excitement gone, and seemed to realise in their stupor that it was cold and the rain was coming down in buckets, and wasn’t it better inside by the fire? They muttered something about a ‘disappointing end’ and ducked back into the Hangings, and there was only John left, and Will, who was suddenly aware of him, the recognition working slowly through the mead. “John?”

“Is this the company you keep, boy?” said John. “Tosspots and fools? You’d rather fight with half-wits than drink with Robin?”

Will flinched and looked vaguely guilty, and John might have felt sorry for him then—the drowned rat, the miserable strop standing pale and cold before him—except that Will seemed to remember his defences in a fleeting moment of clarity. “I’m not your boy, John.”

“And thank God for that. I wouldn’t want such an ill-tempered whelp under my roof. Even Wulf has enough sense to pick a fight he can win.”

“Is that why Robin had to save him from Gisbourne?” Clearly the knocks to his head had done nothing to dull his sharp tongue.

“Say one more word against my boy…”

Will bit his lip. It seemed that whatever bravado had sustained him was fading, and John was the happier for it. Will couldn’t put up much of a fight when he’d already winded himself from the first. But it was a problem, John admitted, taking in the younger man’s wretched appearance. How could John show him to Robin like this? Will looked as if he had been dragged by horse through the streets of Nottingham.

“Your boy nearly ruined our plans in the square today,” said Will.

John couldn’t believe his ears. Where was Will’s usual stunning sense of self-preservation? “Because he thought you betrayed us. Because he believed you when you said you wanted Robin dead. Because you’d tried before.”

“I didn’t kill him.”

“You almost bloody did.” John seized him by the collar. “If Robin hadn’t put that arrow through your hand, where would you be? Could you have lived well knowing you’d stuck your brother in the back? You’ve been a liar and a coward all your life, because you couldn’t do better. I’ve seen your pinched fist and your high head—and I thought, forgive him, John—he knows not what he does.”

Will gritted his jaw. “I’ve never needed your forgiveness.”

“Damn you, Will Scarlet.” John shook him. “You take everything for an insult. For a moment today I thought you were more. I thought I saw…” Change? Hope? Is that what he’d seen? Had he been wrong? He couldn’t see any of that in the young man before him. John let go, giving him a hard shove in the direction of the door to the Hangings. “Go back then to your witless friends and keep their company, for you don’t deserve your brother’s.”

“I know.” Will was angry. “I’m not so blind that I can’t see that he—” He stopped abruptly, because even in the haze of his addled brain, he seemed to realise what’d he said. He glanced at John, an unclear panic in his eyes, and for a moment—before instinct pulled back over him—he lost all sharpness, and he wasn’t the churlish hellion who’d turn the best things sour, or even the angry young man who’d just yesterday confessed his soul to Robin. God help him, he looked like a boy, the fair innocent before the world had wounded him. Will swallowed. “I mean…”

John felt himself softening, despite his best intentions. “What do you know, Will Scarlet?” he asked. “That Robin would turn you away? You think that bleeding heart would turn a mouse from its hole?”

“A-and should I thank him for his mercy?” said Will. “Should I take a knee before His Grace?”

John’s lingering irritation stirred. He was tired of this—whatever lie Will was or wasn’t telling—and no one would think the less of John for leaving the sullen devil in the dark and going home. And he had just about made up his mind to. “I’ll not fetch you for Robin again.”

“Don’t tell him, John.”

“Tell him what? That you prefer your own company to his? I think he knows.”

Will frowned, eyebrows pulled down in a pleading expression. “Please.”

John studied him. This wasn’t like Will. Will never begged for anything, but now he looked so troubled John had to remind himself this was the same pig-headed little grub who scowled at open hands, who took no man’s pity and earned no man’s trust. Will was all those things now—mulish and sullen and woefully unprepared—but for some reason, John didn’t believe him. He sighed. “I’ll not tell him. You’ve had too much to drink. Can’t hold a man to things he won’t remember.” Where was this coming from, John? Is that what he did these days, tell gentle lies to beery-eyed sots to make them feel better? John held his people to their words, drunk or sober, and gave the men a good thrashing if they deserved it. And that’s probably what Will needed now. What he needed on most days.

“Well then, Will Scarlet,” said John and reached out, taking him by the shoulder. “Where will you sleep tonight? Or did you forget to think of that as well?”

Chapter Text

Will’s head exploded in noise, and he thought maybe one of Azeem’s magic powders had gone off by his ear or the world had ended or the Sheriff’s axe had dropped, and he—Will Scarlet—was dead—not nearly dead like the other times, not frozen stiff or bled dry or half-starved—but really dead-as-a-doornail dead—and not his knife or wit or sharp tongue had saved him. How could he have been so careless? He’d had a lifetime of running from the Sheriff, avoiding the guards, going hungry because anything was better than being skewered by an arrow or having his insides become his outsides, as the soldiers had threatened so many times. And Will had managed to avoid it all—and still the Sheriff had—h-had what?

Will faltered.

The Sheriff was dead. Dead-as-a-doornail dead. Sword-to-the-chest dead.

Yesterday came rushing back to Will so suddenly he winced. Of course. The market square. The hangings. He was alive. He reached up ever so slowly to touch his neck. He had his head. Of course he had his head, though he couldn’t deny that he ached all over. His chest throbbed and his knuckles stung, but at least he was alive to feel it. Better than lying headless in a ditch. Or with an arrow to his side.

But where was he?

The thought was worrying. He glanced around the room. It was small and empty, the fire in the fireplace had burned down, the embers glowing under the ash. A single candle burned on the table in the corner. This couldn’t be a dream. He’d only ever had one dream, and that was of a golden hall with a roaring fire and a feast of beef stew and roast duck, apple pie and fresh bread with butter and cheese and honey. And there was always a merry soul to welcome him in, a giant of a man with a great robe and a holly wreath about his head, ready to clap him heartily on the shoulder and tell him to take a seat by the fire.

Will was suddenly uneasy, the tightness stealing over his chest. He didn’t like this. It had happened on occasion that he’d woken in some strange corner of the world, having spent the night in some gully or dovecote, empty field or sheltered crook of a tree—but he’d never in all his days managed to achieve a warm bed in a stranger’s house. Not even when he was young enough and thin enough to make the driest eye water with pity for poor little Will Scarlet.

Will swung his legs over the side of the bed, and he had to bit his lip to keep from crying out. He clutched his ribs. His side flared, the pain like fiery needles in his chest. What fresh hell was this? He felt suddenly hot and dizzy, the horrible ache gnawing at his side like some animal in a trap. He must have banged his ribs. A token of appreciation from the Sheriff. Or maybe some other flesh out of sorts. Nothing a little time wouldn’t set right. He’d had worse before, hadn’t he? What about the time he’d been horsewhipped for stealing apples? The whipping hadn’t been so bad, but then Sir John had set the dogs on him, and Will had turned his ankle leaping the stone hedge. Hadn’t walked right for months after that. And then there was that time, not too long ago, with the arrow in his hand, and he’d managed that too. Azeem had helped—a little—easing the pain with his numbing paste and vile healing tea. Will shuddered. He’d barely been able to keep that green swill down the last time, but he’d drink a tub of it now if he thought it would help.

Will sat still on the edge of the bed, fighting the impulse to move. He’d need a plan. And boots. He couldn’t remember taking them off, but there they were, propped up on the hearth. They seemed terribly far away now. Surely miles by any honest measurement.

Will took a breath and braced himself, and this time he didn’t feel like he’d faint, and that was good. He stood up slowly, and it was probably an eternity before he was upright, and even then it was a kind of hunch. But still better than lying headless in a ditch. He realized he was clutching the bedpost and he let go, irritated. He’d never get anywhere if he kept stopping. The boots were a pace away, two at most. He’d outlived the Sheriff. Surely he could do such a little thing as to cross to the fireplace and take his boots and—

“Will Scarlet.”

Will’s heart leaped into his throat. He knew that voice. He turned. John was in the doorway, a hand on the doorknob. He hadn’t heard the door open. Why hadn’t he heard the door open? That was disconcerting. “John.” Will’s voice cracked. What was he supposed to say? How long have you been standing there? “I…I didn’t…”

John was frowning, his eyebrows drawing down over his blue eyes. “Didn’t what?”

Good question.

“You all right?” John gave him a strange look.

In a manner of speaking. “I’m fine.”

John snorted. “Of course you are. What else would I expect?”

Will bristled. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

John was shaking his head. “It means I don’t know whether you were born daft or make it your business to practice the art.” He paused, looking him over with an expression Will didn’t understand. “I’m just here to tell you it’ll be another farthing for the sheets.”

What sheets? 

“And a penny for the room,” said John.

“What room?” said Will.

“Have you gone soft in the head?” said John, not unkindly. “This room, you half-wit. Innkeep says he’s had a better offer: a guest who’ll do more than muddy the carpets.”

“Innkeep?” Will stared at him, the realization slowly sliding into place. “This—this is an inn?”

“The Briar Rose.”

Will’s heart began to sink. “And you brought me here?”

“Where else was I supposed to take you? Any man fool enough to drink himself senseless would be glad to wake up alive, let alone dry.” John looked him over again. “Well, damp anyway. A little gratitude wouldn’t be misplaced.”

“Misplaced? I’m supposed to thank you for this?” The words were out before he could stop them. What was he doing? What was he saying? Maybe his instincts really had buggered off.

John cupped his ear with his hand, as if he couldn’t possibly have heard him right. “Come again?”

Will swallowed, wondering why on earth he couldn’t leave it be. “We’re not friends, John. We never have been. But now I’m half-noble and suddenly you do me favours. Hoping for alms, are we? A little charity from Robin’s blood?” That didn’t even make any sense. Hadn’t John been the first to swear allegiance to Robin when he had nothing?

John took one step forward into the room and snagged Will by the shirt front. “You listen here, Will Scarlet. I half-carried you through what felt like every black and dreary alley in Nottingham because you couldn’t walk two paces without falling over, and I’ll be damned before I let anyone call me heartless for leaving a cockeyed little souse like you in the gutter.” He shook him once, not very hard. “And as for favours—I haven’t done you any. I’ll be calling for what’s mine, and you’ll pay—every last farthing.”

“Pay?” Will’s voice cracked, and he pushed him off. “For what?”

The room,” John exploded. “What’s the matter with you?”

“N-nothing.” Will could feel the blush creeping up past his collar. John had paid? Why couldn’t it have been Bull or Much or Allen? Any of them would’ve been better. When Will told them to mind their own bloody business and piss off, they did. But John had never really taken to being snarled at. “You didn’t need to pay,” Will heard his own voice. “I never asked for your help. Never have.”

“And when you came stumbling into camp two years ago, I suppose you didn’t need help then either?”

“That’s not…”

“Not what?” said John. 

Not fair? That he’d had no choice? Will didn’t have a good answer to give him. “I might have stayed away had I known you’d be there.” Will bit his tongue. Where had that come from?

John’s eyebrows shot up. “You spoiling for a fight, boy?”

Truthfully Will was beginning to feel a bit sick. “You just—you shouldn’t have paid.”

John gave him a long, hard look, and Will winced, half-expecting at the very least a cuff to knock him sideways—God knows he deserved it—but for some unknowable reason, John only shook his head, muttered something unintelligible and reached for the door. “I’ll be outside. Get your things.” He paused, perfectly serious. “Or I really will have your guts for a garter.”

Chapter Text

Will leaned against the wall to catch his breath, the simple act of following John to market suddenly infinitely more difficult than it should have been. John was already far ahead, stepping through the mud of the streets with the irritatingly brisk strides of a man who hadn’t drunk himself legless the night before. Will had tried, quite honestly, to keep up at first but finally it seemed inevitable he should be left behind, which wasn’t, truth be told, entirely unappealing.

The thought of owing John anything was…well, it wasn’t good. Will felt for his coin purse, and that was missing. He’d probably lost it sometime last evening, not that it mattered much. He might have something he could sell, some trinket he’d hidden away that might do for a few groats on the market. There was that ‘borrowed’ needlepoint he’d left behind in camp.

Will glanced down the street again. No sign of John. Almost as if the man had been sent on his merry way to let Will make his escape, a sort of divine providence really, and who was he to argue with God? He pushed himself off the wall and headed down the street, back towards the Briar Rose and onto the next street, ducking into an alley and hurrying off, following the little stream of water running along the trench in the cobbles. He came to the wall and the gates, and soon he was at the edge of Nottingham, where the land opened out into a field with a stone wall, and the road meandered down the hill into a copse of trees. Beyond that the moors spread out flat and grey as far as the eye could see. On the best of days, the heath was a carpet of rich browns and purples, speckled with yellow heather, but today, under the grey skies and the beating rain, it looked mournful and desolate, and Will turned away from it before the misery could settle in his bones.

He pulled his hood forward to keep the rain from his eyes. Despite the weather he was feeling better already. The cold air had cleared his head, and the tight hand that had clenched his stomach was loosening. He hurried down the muddy road. There were many paths to camp, secret routes carefully plotted over ground too trying for horses. The paths had been the first defence against the Sheriff, shadow trails through an impassable forest of imagined terrors. Wind chimes and ghost stories had saved Will’s life more than once.

Will came to the river and stopped. He’d meant to ford in the shallows, but the river was swollen from the rain, hurtling past him in brown rapids. Damn. Even the usually peaceful spots were torn with eddies. He was irritated with himself. Of course he couldn’t expect to cross. Even a child knew the rivers turned from lambs to lions in the spring. He should know that. It had rained. Why didn’t he know that? He blushed and felt inordinately stupid and was only glad there was no one there to see him.

Think, Will.

He stood watching the muddy waters roll past him for some time, trying to remember the next best place to cross the river, and it took him much too long to recall the crossing upriver, where the waters were wide and slow, even in spring, and there were enough rocks and handholds to get across mostly dry. He didn’t really relish the idea of getting his feet wet, but he wanted even less to go back, so upriver it was.

The rain stopped as he was moving along the riverbank, pushing half-heartedly through the undergrowth. It wasn’t difficult, though for a while the rocks were so steep they forced him back into the forest, into a little vale where he knew the wild onions grew in summer, the air filled with their pungent scene. All the other times he’d come through here he had filled his pockets with the small, white bulbs for later. There had been a summer—not a very good summer—when he’d lived on onions and the occasional rabbit, when he could catch one. He almost laughed at the memory. He’d been so terribly bad at catching rabbits.

He had come to the knotted grove of trees, and only a few paces after that was the river, the waters slow and brown. He found the usual footholds, but it was a bit more difficult than usual to cross when he couldn’t see his feet in the water. Finally he waded through the last part, pulling himself up on the other side where the brambles hung down over the bank. He struggled up the muddy slope and pushed through the thorny bushes as carefully as he could, coming out on the hill above camp.

He stopped.

There wasn’t anything to see. It was all brown and damp and dreary, hardly different from any other part of the woods. If he hadn’t lived here himself he might not have believed just days ago it had been a camp, even a village of sorts, alive with fathers and mother and children. But that was all over now. The huts had burned, and the woods were empty, and anyone who had any sense at all had gone back to the villages. Back to what had been before. Because what good was a home in the forest if there was better to be had elsewhere?

Will sighed and trudged down the hill, hoping to shake the gloom. Why did the forest look so desolate today? It should be empty. He should be glad there was no one left, because it meant the end of the Sheriff, the end of a life in Sherwood. And what life was it, always skirting soldiers and keeping out of sight, away from roads and bridges and towns and family? He should be pleased. And he was. He really was. He wouldn’t wish that life on anyone. Would he? No, of course not. He wasn’t that selfish to think that—no, he couldn’t.

Mustn’t think like that because…what would that mean?

His walk was getting slower.

There was nothing here to witness what had been, except for bits of charred wood and stumps of burned rope. He was alone in the forest, and it seemed to him that none of this had happened, and maybe it had all been a waking dream, and he was tucked away somewhere, warm enough and dry enough to imagine a life other than the one he had. In what world had the Sheriff been defeated? It sounded too much like Ol’ Jemma’s stories. Tales of golden geese and spinning wheels and beautiful maidens in towers. Stories where the youngest and weakest of seven contenders would win the princess and marry into a life of fruit orchards and servants.

The cold air that had kept his head clear now seemed like a knife in the back. He shivered. What was he doing here?

He had been meaning to avoid the far side of camp, but now he was standing in a clearing, the smell of wet earth like a incense in the air, and to his right, a row of crosses, a line of new graves.

Oh.

A pendant hung from one of the crossbeams. Without thinking, he reached out and picked it up. It was a small metal cross, so like the one Robin had worn, only simpler, without the blue stones. Will’s stomach knotted, and he felt a stab of guilt at the recollection. Duncan. It was his cross, an imitation of his master’s. Will remembered seeing the old man take it out, press it between his hands, running his thumb over the metal shape in a kind of quiet reverence.

Duncan was dead.

Like the others.

Will swallowed hard. Of course he was. Couldn’t expect an old, blind man to live through that. Will had barely come through it, and he’d had both his eyes to see him through. He cleared his throat. Couldn’t think about that now. Had to keep moving. Had to—to what? Why was he here? Why was that so hard to remember?

To…to find something to sell. Yes. That’s it.

But why?

Because…because John had paid. Couldn’t let that stand.

“Move that.” A voice broke the stillness.

Will froze. There was someone else in the forest.

don’t run. not yet. keep your head.

“Nothing?” A second voice.

“Nothing. I’ve already looked.”

The second man cleared his throat, spat. “Damn Gauls must’ve taken the lot of ‘em. I’m not making a new life for myself out of nothing.”

Will carefully dropped into a crouch, tense. He could see the two men through the trees, a little ways down the hill.

“Would you like to go back to Nottingham, try your hand at picking our late Sheriff’s lock?” The first man spoke again. “Hear he’s got a fortune within them walls.”

Our Sheriff? The uneasy feeling came back full force.

“Look.” The second man broke off, mumbling something. Will saw him overturn a board with his foot and squat down to pick something out of the dirt. “Finally. The first bit of good luck in this whole bloody mess.” He held it out to the other man, who took it, and Will could see it was a coin.

“I’ll be taking this as my quittance, Sheriff, for services rendered,” said the man, raising his voice and addressing the grey heavens, “May the Devil take you down below—I mean,” the man made a sign of the cross with the coin, “God rest your soul.”

The other man laughed, digging the through the wet leaves, finding more coins and stuffing them in his pockets, and Will felt a stab of jealousy he hadn’t thought of that himself. That would have been easier than—than—what was he saying? This wasn’t the time.

The man had stopped digging through the soil, satisfied he’d found the last of the coins, and he looked up, and by the slimmest of chances, he glanced up the hill to where Will was, and there was a moment when they didn’t move and their eyes met, when Will could see the man’s eyes widen in utter surprise before he shot up from his position. “Hey! You!”

Will jerked back, turning, slipped on the wet soil and came down hard, and it was like his chest shattered into a thousand pieces. He couldn’t breathe, couldn’t move, and he heard them, their footsteps, and something cold was pressed under his chin, and he’d had enough blades levelled at him to know it was a sword.

“You peepin’ where your eyes aren’t wanted, boy?” 

The sword edge pushed up into his throat, and Will looked up and saw the blade, and the thought came to him that it was new steel and the cross guard was pretty, with a floral vine over the hilt, and at least it was new and not old and maybe it wouldn’t hurt as much if they ran him through. “I-I didn’t see anything,” he stammered.

One of the men leaned into his view. He had an ugly cut along his temple, still healing, and his eyes were blue, bloodshot and all the bluer for it. “Is that so?” He didn’t believe him, and Will had to say something else, adjust the lie, keep talking because God knows it was the only thing he was good at.

“Well,” Will started, “I saw you find something.” He swallowed, trying to make his tongue work properly. “Silver?” he guessed, carefully not saying gold, even though he knew it was gold, gold from the mountainous piles of blood money Robin had so painstakingly acquired, stored, and guarded. Will said silver, not gold, because silver wasn’t worth killing him over, hopefully, not in daylight, maybe dusk, and that would give him time.

“We can’t let him live,” said the other man. A dagger was hanging loosely from his hand. “He’d go back to Nottingham and tell ‘em what he’d seen. And where would we be then?”

“Gone,” said the first man. “Far from here. I’m not killing a man in cold blood.”

“You’ve done it before.”

“I know I’ve done it before,” he snapped. “But not on my way to a new life without the Sheriff. You kill him and then what? You plan on stopping for a burial? Kill him and you’ll have the new law following you to the end of your days. I’m not risking my neck for your half-arsed plans.”

The second man snarled in irritation. “Then what do you suggest we do with him? We let him run and he’ll go straight back to Nottingham and tell ‘em anyways. Better stick the pig now and give us time enough to leave. There’s no one here to see. And if it’s God you’re worried about, then I doubt even the Lord himself would mind us ridding the world of bastards who lie in wait for their better man. Why do you think he’s out here? Noble intentions? Just look at him.”

Will tried again. “Please, let me go.”

“And you have that much to live for, do you?” The man grinned, a smile that pulled back slowly over his crooked teeth, and Will knew then he meant to kill him.

It was like a fist had clamped down on his stomach and squeezed. He wanted to vomit. “I won’t tell anyone. I swear. I don’t have anyone to tell. And even if I did, they wouldn’t believe me.” That, at least, was true, and maybe it would be worth something to tell the truth now. “Please.”

Silence.

“Well, you’re right,” the second man spoke at last, the hard set of his brow softening, and there was a sliver of hope in the gesture. “Kill him.”

There was a moment between the order and its execution that was perfectly clear and slow, and he thought no bows, no arrows and he’d have to take the hit and it would hurt, and he’d have to run and that would hurt too, it couldn’t be helped, but at least there were no bows, no arrows, and run, Will. Run.

Will didn’t know how he avoided the sword. He saw it come down, and he felt the nick under his chin, a brief, sharp bite of pain as he rolled to the side, and he was up on his feet, running down the hill, skidding on the muddy slope. He slid down into a gulch, where the marshy ground sucked at his ankles, and his foot caught and he stumbled, hands, knees, and his side hurt, and he couldn’t breathe. His lungs were burning, but he couldn’t stop.

Not yet.

Not yet.

He stumbled in the half-light, legs stiff and wooden, and he wondered when it had gotten so dark. He lost his footing, lurching forward in a painful sprawl, lay there gasping as the world spun, and he knew he should get up, go on, but his heart was hammering in his chest, and there was only pain, a white knife in his side, a terrible ache in his hand, and he couldn’t say.

Not yet.

Chapter Text

John groped for his boots in the dark. The windows were shuttered to the ungodly hour, and the room was dark. This was Will's fault. If the sullen little toad hadn't strayed, John wouldn't have been left wondering where he'd got to. And he'd be in Insham with Fanny, not tossing on a narrow cot at the Charing.

John found his boots by the door and pulled them on. He wasn't worried. Will had stormed off enough times for John to know his moods didn't last, and he'd come slinking back into camp late in the night, when only the nightwatch could witness his surrender. But—and here John hesitated—there was no camp. The Sheriff was gone and the roads were open. Will had always been restless, the kind of wariness that soured other's patience. He wouldn't leave, would he? John would have understood a bad temper—Will had drunk enough—but that couldn't be enough to keep him away.

John took his cloak from the peg and opened the door. It was raining. Of course it was raining. Why wouldn't it be? He'd neither slept nor eaten, so why should he have the privilege of a warm morning and good weather? The fog lay like cream over Nottingham, the streets wreathed in endless mists that swallowed sight and sound. Somewhere a hammer was ringing against an anvil, a strange bell in the still air, and voices, wordless murmurs, footsteps. A dog barked.

John wasn't worried. Will had always come back, even when John hadn't wanted him to, had come back even after Robin had put the arrow through his hand. It had happened so fast, the whistle of the arrow, the pulpy snap as the metal tip sank through the flesh, and Will had dropped, clutching his hand, surprised more than angry, running before anyone had said a word.

John had hoped then it'd be the last of him.

But Will had come back, and Robin had been blind to let him stay. Couldn't he see Will was only biding his time, waiting for another unguarded moment to strike? John had said as much to Robin that night by the fire. "You'll not sleep easy as long as he's here. Will Scarlet's a bloody fool to think he could go up against you. He deserved every bit of what he got."

"Probably," said Robin. "But I wouldn't want him to lose a hand on my account."

"There's no telling what he'll do now."

"He's been disarmed, John." Robin had gestured vaguely at the people gathered around the fire. "Everyone's seen him for what he is. I doubt he'd try again."

"I wouldn't leave an adder in the garden."

Robin had tossed a stick into the flames, not answering immediately. "How long have you known him?"

"Apparently not long enough." John had been purposely vague, suddenly loathe to admit he'd known Will longer than probably anyone else in camp. After all, John had been the one to dismiss Will's anger as nothing more than the usual surly resistance. "I mean, I've always known he's hated the nobles—any man in this camp could tell you that—but I didn't think he'd ever—he could have killed you, Robin."

"What would you have me do?" Robin had turned and looked at him. "Hunt him down? Take a knife to his throat?"

"No, of course not. I didn't mean…" John had been exasperated at not being able to make himself understood. "Just send him away."

"To what?"

"I don't know. Just away."

"Send him from something into nothing. Wouldn't that be the best way to make him turn traitor?"

"You and your bleeding heart. Mercy's not cured any traitor of his treason, nor any thief of his thieving."

"No," said Robin, "but a loaf of bread might still the hunger for stealing one."

"Full of proverbs, are we?" John had shaken his head. "My mother used to say there's no arguing with a mule. Just promise me one thing. Don't go wasting any more goodwill on that ruddy little piss-pot. And don't be forgetting it was your mercy that that put the arrow in his hand," John had paused, relenting, "not your anger. I'd have shot him in the heart."

Robin had laughed out loud at this. "Oh, really? I doubt even the great and powerful Little John would be so swift in judgement."

"Bah." John had stood up, shaking the stiffness out of his limbs, and walked away, back to his hut, away from Robin and his ideals, the bloody fool. Robin had only nicked the beast, not killed it, and there were few things more dangerous than a wounded animal. John hadn't felt sorry for Will then, not when he deserved every minute of disgrace that would follow, every suspicious glance in his direction. What else had he expected, pulling a knife on Robin?

John shut the door behind him, heading out into the rain. He wasn't worried.

Will always came back.

Chapter Text

There was mud, an endless watery bog that stretched out before him into the edging mists, and everything was grey and slow, a sodden push through the cold and marshy sumps of clinging grasses. He was sinking into the peat, the rank waters swallowing his ankles, his knees, and soon he'd be gone, the muck closing over him, the surface stilling again into the glassy unknown.

Will opened his eyes.

There was no marsh.

There was a black rain, a black tree, a damp hollow in the ground where he'd fallen, and he was wet and cold, the kind of bone-chilling damp that couldn't be wrung from clothes or driven out with fire. The cold was worse than the dark. Dark ended with the dawn, but the cold was endless, a miserable throbbing that spread and burned and made hands white and stiff and bloodless. Will had seen frostbite before, toes turned black in winter air, men hobbled, pitied, turned beggar for lack of fingers. Will stumbled up, the fear swelling a knot in his throat, a distant alarm in his skull tolling a bell, something about soldiers, something about camp that he couldn't remember.

He forced down a lungful of cold air, and the world was just trees and fog and earth and rain, and there was no reason to panic, not yet, not when it was spring, not winter; dawn, not dusk, and he couldn't die, not yet, not when he'd promised to see the summer and plant wild strawberries on her grave.

The bony fingers around his heart eased, and he could breathe again: he was alone in the forest, and it was cold but not so cold it'd take his fingers in the night. He'd had worse, winter nights when he'd walked to stay warm, the long, silent, desolate march to nowhere, to nothing, aching for the sun to rise and the day to begin because the cold wasn't nearly as terrible in the light.

He coughed.

Was that all he was now? One night in the woods and he'd gone to pieces? For what? His hands were fine. Or mostly, anyway, and he wasn't dead or frozen or bled dry. He touched the spot where the sword had nicked him, the blood crusted under his chin, and thank God he could run.

But in all honesty, he'd probably try walking for a bit. He was remarkably all right. No turned ankles, no broken bones. It hadn't helped that he'd slept in the damp, but there had been other mornings and other aches, and those had all been remedied.

But where was he? The air was dusky, the trees like black apparitions in the mist. He listened but there was no distant roll of the river, only the rain pattering on the canopy above him. Was he still in Sherwood? He lurched forward stiffly. Maybe he'd gone north and missed the edge of Sherwood without knowing it. If only he kept walking he'd come to somewhere eventually, wouldn't he? A house that could spare a bit of bread, a place by the fire, a corner in the stables. Or maybe he'd gone south and he was close to Woolwick and Ol' Jemma, and if this was years ago she'd have something for him to eat. He could almost see her now, hear the familiar rasp of her voice.

"I'll walk you home," she'd said, the last time he'd seen her. "You'll be a great deal safer with me by your side."

Will had almost laughed. "You'll walk me home?"

"Oh, hush, child," she'd tut-tutted him, as if he were still the little boy on her doorstep. "Respect your elders. And let them lean on you when they need it." She'd given him her basket of dyed wool and hooked her spindly arm into his, resting against him as they'd walked. "My legs," she'd said, by way of conversation and not because Will had asked. "They have their days. Not many, o'course, but every now and then they remember their old spirit." She'd been happy then, alight with the thought of brighter days. "Spring in the air and a handsome young man at my side. What more could an old woman want?"

"Better knees?"

He always could make her laugh, and she'd chuckled. "I've missed you, I have. Where've you been keepin' these days, Will-boy?"

"What do you mean?"

"Someone set the dog on you again?"

"No."

Ol' Jemma had stopped, looking him over. "Lor', those eyes. Too honest for this world. Your mother was the same way. Eyes as clear as a summer morning. And don't give me that look. If you weren't here, how else'd I remember her?" Ol' Jemma had cleared her throat, in the way that meant she hadn't any more patience for the subject. "You're coming with me today. You'll help fetch some herbs, and then you'll be staying for supper. You're thin enough to have me half-afraid the breeze'll blow you away."

"I've not blown away yet," Will had countered, "though maybe one of these days I'll go where the wind takes me."

"You have something up your sleeve?"

"Not really." Will hadn't met her gaze, only looked away, over the field, following the line of hills in the distance. "Just not sure there's much reason to stay." Truth be told, he'd probably filched one too many clean tunics off someone's line. Will had meant to go back to Woolwick again to visit, see how Ol' Jemma had fared when the Sheriff's men were like wolves in the forest.

But he hadn't.

Will slowed. The rain had stopped, the slow drip from the trees, and something rustled in the bushes.

He squatted slowly, ducking down to have a better look. There, just ahead—a rabbit caught in a snare, a loop of cord wrapped around its foot. It was wet from the rain, fur bunching in little tufts, and it had tried to run, the cord tangling in the stem of a slender sapling. Rabbits were all heart and no head, starting at the least noise, always running from danger that hadn't happened. Will edged forward, pushing aside the low branches and took hold of the snare, winding the leather cord around his hand. The rabbit started to life, thrashing against the snare, and Will waited until it grew limp, dropping back on the wet leaves, panting.

Slowly, Will.

He wound the cord one more time around his hand and grabbed the rabbit by the scruff of the neck, pulling it close to his chest, tight, tight, and he could feel it tremble, heart drumming wildly in its little chest. Will worked the snare free from its foot, picking at the knot until the loop came apart, and then—for no reason he could later recall—he let go.

The rabbit burst from his hands, a flash of white against the brown earth, and—

"Oy! Just what in the name of the good Lord's mother do you think you're doing?"

Will jerked at the voice, slipping so inelegantly on the wet moss he sat down hard, the pain slitting across his side and spidering up his chest, and someone was speaking far above him.

"That's my rabbit. When I set a trap, I'm not expecting to guard it from thieves. Now, I'll ask you again and you'll answer, plain as day—just what do you think you've done with my rabbit?"

John? thought Will in the confusion because it sounded like something he would say, and who was John to come here and find fault when he hadn't been the one to spend the night in a damp hole?

"Your rabbit?" Will snapped. "Are you king of the forest now to tell me what to do with rabbits?"

But of course, when Will looked up he found it wasn't John at all but someone else, a woodsman with an axe and a satchel, a stranger clearly as unhappy as John to be snubbed so early in the morning.

"What?" The man narrowed his eyes at him. "Sheriff got your tongue, boy?"

"No," said Will, hoping he'd find the words fast enough, "b-but he very nearly did."

"Well, he very nearly did mine too, but that's no excuse for stealing a man's rabbit right out of his trap."

"I wasn't stealing."

"Caught you red-handed and you have the cheek to tell me you're not nippin' off with my rabbit under your arm."

"I know how to steal a rabbit without letting it slip through my fingers."

"Then what were you doing? I have a wife and three daughters to feed. And what'll I say when I come home with nothing to show? 'I'm sorry, me loves. There'll be nothing for supper tonight because I came across the only thief in the world who stole from the poor and gave to the forest.'"

"I-I'll pay you back."

"With what?"

"I—" Yes, with what? "Robin Hood will pay you back."

The man laughed. "And why would the great Robin Hood pay for your transgression?"

"Because…" he's my brother. "I know him."

The man raised one eyebrow. "And I'm St. Edmund the Martyr. That's what I'll tell 'em back home—that everything is all right because I met one of the Merry Men, and Robin Hood himself owes us for the price of a rabbit pelt, and that he'll be coming around any day now with his arms full of gold coins."

Will flushed. Of course the man wouldn't believe him. Will didn't look the part. Not after a night in the woods. Maybe not ever. "But…I really do know him."

Something in the man's expression softened. "A boy like you ranging the woods and stealing what little there is to be had from those who should have it?" He reached down and grabbed Will by the collar and hauled him up. Will's legs had gone numb, and his side hurt, but he knew he had to run, had to try, because otherwise it meant the stocks again, or worse and—he didn't deserve this, did he? Other things maybe, but damned for a rabbit he didn't steal?

"There's the road," said the man and pointed at the trees at the bottom of the hill. "Go on then."

Will stared at him, not understanding. "What?"

"Back to Nottingham with you."

"Nottingham?"

The man sighed and took the leather snare from Will's hand, nudging him half a step down the slope. "Go down this hill. Keep right and stay on the road, and you'll come to Nottingham soon enough. You might find some solace in the church," he paused, regarding Will again with a mild pity, "while you wait for your…Robin Hood."

Will didn't have the chance to say anything before the man shook his head and walked away, and he was halfway across the clearing before Will understood what he'd meant: the man thought Will had lost his senses—another poor bugger who'd cracked under the Sheriff.

"Hey!" Will shouted after him. "I'm not a—" but the man was already out of earshot, and Will didn't suppose there was any use to trying to convince him he wasn't some wild man roaming the woods with no intentions at all of stealing another's man rabbit. At the moment, Will wasn't entirely sure he could explain it to himself, for who else would be drifting through the forests on a day like this, without pack or food or weapon?

Will sighed. Saved by pity. He supposed he should be happy with that. At least he wouldn't be cleaning rotten eggs out of his tunic or wrapping a bandage around a stump where his hand should be. Small mercies, Will. Remember that. Small, backhanded mercies.

He turned to where the man had pointed, the thinning line of trees at the bottom of the hill, and the fog in his head seemed to part. Will knew where he was: this was the road to Shropshire. If he went left there was Beckett, and beyond that Strindon and the mills. Woolwick. Shrewsbury, eventually. He'd been there before. No reason he couldn't go there again.

And Nottingham to the right. It seemed small now, when he stood here in the woods, alone and far from its walls and market and streets. What did it have that he couldn't find anywhere else? It wasn't like him to stay. Nothing good had ever come from staying. And the road was open again. No Sheriff, no soldiers, no dogs. Will could leave, go where he wanted.

His throat felt suddenly tight, and he hated himself for it. He'd gone soft. After all these months of having a bed and a fire—why hadn't he braced himself for the end? He hadn't been stupid enough to think things would last. But maybe he'd thought the end would be no different from the other days, simpler even: a quiet disbanding of the merry men when the Sheriff pulled too close. An easy goodbye.

Not this.

Not Robin Hood.

The knot in Will's throat hardened. There was no going back, not really, not when everything had changed. Not when Will had changed them.

Chapter Text

Will had made the right decision.

The skies were gauzy blue and ever brightening, the kind of hue that seemed to say there'd never been a rainy day in the history of the world. Nottingham was already a distant point now, drab and dreary, solid and perfectly ordinary, no longer a nest for the Sheriff's brood of vipers, but a town like any other, with markets and alleys and people Will might have known in another life.

John wasn't there. He'd have gone home by now, back to Fanny and her warm hearth and the small rabble of children he'd fathered. With Wulf somewhere thereabouts, sticking his nose where it didn't belong.

And Robin was…well, Will didn't actually care where Robin had cleared off to. The Lady's house, if he'd wanted to wager a guess and win. The Sheriff was dead. Robin had his lands back. Or would have when the orders came through from the nobles—a restoration of the ruins. The once and future lord of Locksley.

Fair play to you, Robin.

We'll all go back to what we were before.

Will felt the selfish, stabbing ache flare up in his stomach. He hadn't eaten since God knows when. He'd need something to plug the hole in his belly soon enough.

He'd been following the road to Shrewsbury. Not for any reason he could currently recall, except it seemed to be the direction people were heading. And he was, after all, a man of the world. Or had been once. A traveler setting out on a jaunty trek to the great unknown. 'Jaunty' was perhaps an overstatement. He’d stood still for too long at the bend in the road, contemplating the way, and all the aches had stiffened in his limbs like old blood. His side hurt. There was a moment—a brief flicker of temptation—when he'd almost turned back to find Azeem and let him peel back the bandages and see what he'd say, what salve he could magic out of his store of dried herbs. Will put a hand to his chin, picking at the knot of crusted blood again. Maybe Azeem could have passed a glance over this little parting gift from the soldier. Will couldn't be entirely forthcoming with the details, of course, but then Azeem wasn't the prying sort. He'd had the chance to ask his questions back at camp—it seemed a lifetime ago already—the time he'd found Will by the stream, trying to pull the arrow back through his hand. Or he could've easily wrung a few more answers out of him after that damned confession.

We are brothers, Robin of Locksley.

Will slowed, sodden boots sinking into the mud.

He had come to the house of God.

An abbey, a humble little thing in comparison to the black minster back at Nottingham, the dark tower silhouetted against the sky, riches guarded by an army of priests. But this—Will gazed at the stone abbey, noting the edifice of crumbling stone—this was an idea.

.
.

The garden wall was mossy and broken in one spot, a ruined corner overgrown with holly, the leaves spiny and sharp and probably the reason no one had been in a hurry to fetch the mortar. Will scratched himself getting through it, a second of panic when he caught on an edge, and he thought he might be stuck there forever, a figure in the abbey garden reminding the pious of what happened to those who trespassed in the house of God. But in the next moment, his tunic ripped and he was free, and he tipped neatly into an empty vegetable bed at the end of the small orchard.

Will stood up, brushing off his knees.

It was quiet here.

He breathed out, the lungful turning to frost in the morning air. It was the kind of quiet that came with early spring. A stillness, winter hanging about like a dream, the hush waiting for the signal to send out the first green tendrils into the earth. He could see it now, the way things would look, how the sun would come through the trees, the dappled shadows, the air warm with rosemary, thick with the steady hum of bees.

Will made his way down a path between the rows. Empty, of course, because he wasn't lucky enough to find carrots just waiting to be plucked. Or a fat little fist of garlic or a string of crisp onions with papery skin. Potatoes to thicken a stew. He plucked a few needles from the rosemary bush as he passed, rubbing them between his fingers. He knew his herbs well enough—Ol' Jemma used to ask him to pick through the weedy little patch she liked to call a garden.

He stopped.

There was a stool sitting by the vegetable bed, a set of shears across its top and a roll of twine, and a spade stuck into the ground. Someone had been here, and not too long ago, judging by the overturned earth, dark and wet.

He could hear voices now from somewhere deeper in the garden, muffled by so many unruly brambles.

"Honestly, Brother Victus—is this all you would have me do?"

"Are you not pleased I've asked you to come, brother?"

"For a garden?" the voice was clear, brisk but not unhappy. "A task you could easily do yourself. Or have one of your novices do for you, if you were so inclined."

"Yes, but I've heard good things about your abbey."

"Oh?"

"The divine qualities of your garden."

"I doubt anyone would make pilgrimages to Shrewsbury for our cabbage patch."

A coughing sort of laugh. "I did not mean to insult you, Brother Cadfael. I just meant—I didn't suppose it was terribly wrong of me to want to see an old friend."

"Then you should have said so from the beginning."

"I suppose it borders on small deception," a clearing of the throat, "but all done with good intentions." Another wheezing bark of laughter. "I suppose I'll be an old reprobate soon enough. Full of selfish desire."

"Old, yes, but reprobate? I've seen enough of the world to have my doubts of you measuring up to such a claim. And as for desire—I'm afraid we all share the same affliction."

"Suppose that's why we need the Lord's great mercies, Cadfael," the monk was clearly not put off by the gentle barb. "Suppose we can go about our soul's work if we have a bit of breakfast first."

"Haven't you had one already?"

"Yes, but you haven't. I saw you leaving for the garden at first light—"

"Only to marvel at the work you would have me do."

"—and it would only be Christian to sit with you as you partake in God's blessings. I could possibly even commit the great sacrifice of supping with you. A bit of bread and cheese, you see? To remember the fellowship of the apostles?"

A laugh, loud, without the careful reverence of any of the monks Will had had the misfortune to meet. "If that is your wish, old friend." The sound of someone being clapped on the back, quite hard. "Far be it from me to reject such a generous offer."

Their voices were already fading, and Will was alone again in the garden, the mists still curling about the edges. Bread and cheese. Best idea he'd had all day. Granted it hadn't strictly been his idea, but now that breakfast had come up, it wasn't something he could ignore. Especially when there was most likely a storehouse somewhere nearby stuffed to the brim with sharp cheeses and fresh loaves of rye, vats of milks and lakes of honey. Maybe even a tub of butter that could be…repurposed. To serve a worthier cause. Which wasn't too different from what he'd done before with John and the others, waylaying the Sheriff's hoards of gold. Redistributing the wealth, so to speak. The monks had enough to fill their stomachs twice over; surely a vanished loaf wouldn't raise any questions.

Yes, Will decided, heading down the flagstone path. That's it. Charity. It all came 'round in the end, didn't it? The monks—if they were the better sort—might come down to the villages anyway, fill the palms of any beggar on their knees—so, Will was just simplifying things for them, shortening the distance they'd have to walk. Bringing the beggar to their door.

Or window, as it were, because he'd come to the end of the garden, and there was a window in the wall, shutters thrown open to the air, and through it he could see a kitchen, empty and inviting.

He stood by the window for a long time, pressed up against the ragstone wall, listening. No voices. No sound of footsteps. There must be another kitchen the monks preferred to this one. He couldn't hear anything at all, save for the birds who'd begun to sing in the garden, a blackbird in the brambles, a pair of woodlarks chirping from between the glossy leaves.

Satisfied he was well and truly alone, he took hold of the broad window sill and pulled himself up, getting a leg over the edge. He was a bit rusty at this. The years in Sherwood hadn't fattened him up any, but they had softened his instincts for climbing through windows. And he wasn't twelve anymore.

He pulled himself through, dropping lightly onto the floor, half-crouching in anticipation of being discovered. But nothing happened and no one came. Almost as if he was meant to be here, a rare, divine sympathy for the lowly traveler.

The fire crackled, snapping. It was burning low, in need of stoking, embers glowing under a blanket of ash. No one had bothered to keep the fire burning.

There was a basket sitting on the table, a loaf of bread peeking out from inside its cloth wrappings. He lifted it gently, cradling it in his hands. The crust was round, snowy with flour, warm and yeasty, like a memory from long ago, another kitchen from another time.

He'd need a knife for the bread. He'd need a knife for anything, really, especially now that he'd lost his somewhere. The woods, presumably. He glanced around the kitchen, spying an empty bag hanging on the wall by the fire. He lifted it off the hook and stuffed the bread inside. There. Sorted. And now for the cheese. Because this was an abbey, and monks made good cheese, and it would be almost insult to injury if he didn't at least make an attempt to nick some.

Will spotted a door in the back.

The pantry.

He pulled back the latch.

The sweet smell of apples. Rows upon rows of clay pots: jams, maybe—a treasure of sweet preserves.  And there on the top shelf, a wheel of cheese. He could almost taste it already, the way it would crumble, sharp and peppery and—

A floorboard creaked behind him.