The man is coming at me. His arm has metamorphosed into the frigid steel blade of a sword that pulses a blood light like an excited heart beat. I cannot see the face, but the evil radiates, pulsing and crackling, with raw energy. The man is all shadowed, save for the pulsating red of his arm and two glowing embers for eyes. The figure is hideous, oozing inky fumes and vile fluids that converge around him like a ghostly mist, doubling his size with their vaporous fingers. The shadow laughs maniacally, raises his arm and charges through the void.
I ready myself, alertly poising for battle, and go for my sword.
I grasp only air.
In terror, I reach for my daggers. They disappear in my clutch.
Fear seizes me, clears my facade of adroitness. I can’t move–can’t even scream out, release myself from this spell. All I can do is cry. I’m helpless, a mewling infant, and behave accordingly.
The man halts mere feet away from where I’m frozen and crouches like a wild cat, growling with the ferocity of all God’s creatures. The chimera begins swaying from side to side, his growling begins to oscillate, now loud, now soft. The ogre’s movements hypnotize as he searches for the best avenue of slaughter, waits for the window of opportunity. After eternity passes, the devil slowly stops and smiles, flashing bloodied teeth.
The leap is a flash of lightning.
Terrified, I close my eyes in anticipation.
Then there is the scream.
My eyes snap open.
The woman lies at my feet, a dagger between her breasts in a pool of blood. The demon has disappeared into the darkness from whence he came. I look down but don’t recognize her face. However, I know the love in her brown eyes as they smile at me. The love is strong, bright, encouraging. She could be my mother–I think they told me she looks this way… but I don’t remember; I never knew Mother….
Her chest arduously rises and falls. Each breath rattles deep in her body, her soul. I kneel down besides her. My hands flutter uselessly above the dagger, my mind of two parts over how to save her. Hot tears stream out as I scolds myself for my uncertainty, my uselessness.
She touches my hands and looks at me, her eyes filled with love, compassion, bloody tears. She smiles at me, and I smile back. Her body arches slightly. Her touch becomes ice. I tighten in terror, but she smiles again, comforting me with her last breath. She mouths my name, then goes limp with one last rattling breath.
I close my eyes, balling my fists over her body.
The cackling begins from the depths of the encompassing void.
My eyes snap open. She has metamorphosed. She is younger, nearer my age. Her auburn hair is cut like a man’s, and she wears soiled men’s clothing and a perfectly polished long sword is clenched in her right hand. Her face is chiseled with the tribulations of a harsh life but she wears a grin that dulls the hard edge, gives her back her womanhood. She looks as constant as a tree brought to life.
The laugh grows louder, rushing forward like a spring tempest.
Anger boils deep in me.
The laughter swells all around, coming from nowhere and everywhere at once.
I grab the sword from the fallen nymph. A lightning bolt, embedded in the hilt, flashes blue, surrounds me, rejuvenates me. Replenishes my courage, bravado, adroitness.
I finds my voice as I rise to my feet, wielding the weapon at the cackling void.
“Face me, demon!” I bellow into the air. Lightning bolts flash off helter-skelter into the void.
The laughter wanes and waxes, in and out, coming and going, all the time infuriating.
“Face me as a man if you claim to be one! Or are you a coward who slays a woman then retreats to the darkness for protection? No darkness shall hide you from me!”
The laughter becomes a thundering cackle. The world shakes, trembles, under its intensity.
“You think you can control my life by terrifying me in my dreams!” I bring the lightning sword up, my muscles tighten into cords. The sword flashes out more lightning until they strike everywhere at once. The world becomes blinding with blue light.
The laughter becomes deafening.
“You are nothing!”
The sword explodes.
The world explodes.
Then there is silence.
Except for soft laughter.
I lie next to her, feeling, seeing, aware of nothing.
Nothing but the persistent laughter.
And I begin to scream………………………………………….
Will Gamwell awoke with a start in a pool of his own sweat, shaking from head to foot. The woman lying next to him snorted and rolled over, dragging with her the thin bedcover, leaving him bare in the air. The hut was silent. Even the usually noisy forest just outside the deer hide walls was quiet, waiting for the next storm already amassing on the horizon.
Will lay there a moment, bare in the air, vaguely aware of the still around him. He frantically recalled who he was, what time it was, where he was. The confusion of awakening absorbed him for a moment, capturing him with uncertainty. He had to remember what was reality, and what was fantasy. Then, slowing his rapid breathing, he sat up.
That same dream. For twenty years it was his only dream. Hardly ever did he remember his dreams, but when he did, it was this nightmare. And it never changed. Always two dead women, and then he ended up dead. He only knew the identity of one of the characters, and that was himself. The first time he dreamt it was as a baby. He remembered the first occurrence, even if he didn’t remember anything else. He’d only been a few months old. Yet he knew when it first happened. His uncle said it corresponded with the death of his mother.
And in his dream, he felt certain it was his mother being killed….
Will rubbed his eyes. He hated the dream. No one understood it–not even their priest. In fact, the priest felt certain Will was being possessed by the devil. The priest was eighty years old, and also believed he danced with fairies out in the morning dew. Will didn’t take his words too seriously.
And it was only a dream. It wasn’t real life. A dream can’t kill you.
Casting off any lingering bad feelings, Will patted his bedmate’s bare rump and swung out of the cot. The woman snorted again and sagged into the middle, still sound asleep. Will stretched and stepped away, popping all the kinks out. His conscience pressing down, he turned and gazed at her thoughtfully. She wasn’t that beautiful. More like a broken down mare, already ridden past her limit. She might be comely, if given half the opportunity. Right now she was nothing but a strumpet from a tavern. Funny, she’d been beautiful last night.
“Last night I was also drunk,” he muttered, turning away and scratching himself. Last night a lot of things had been beautiful, even the bees in the mead. But that had been last night.
He threw back the furs that the door consisted of. He stood there in the doorway, gazing out into the fingers of the fog, letting the cool morning breeze refresh his naked body. The forest was always beautiful. It did not need a keg of mead to make it such. The forest was real beauty.
He turned back to the interior of the hut. It was dark, all shadowed from the splendors of the outside world. But it was better, this darkness. It hid the ugliness. The dead fire, still smoldering, filled the air with ash and soot. The air, besides the acrid odor of the smoke, stunk of the fragrances of the poor. Urine, feces and filth. There was only the bed, which was only two wooden slabs with straw and a worn carpet of furs on top. This morning, from last night, most of the straw now lay scattered around the bed. This was the hut’s only furnishings.
It was a whorehut, distinguished only by its ugliness.
“Rather like the accompanying woman,” Will muttered, too tired to smile at his wittiness. He brushed off his body, feeling dirty even though he had just bathed a week ago. He gave up, consenting to the need of a good, long bath. That, and sleep on a real bed. Squinting, he searched the shadows for his clothing. He would have to explain their present soiled condition to Robert, but that shouldn’t be too hard. Dirt did lie everywhere in the country.
Groping through the murkiness, he managed to find his flannels, pullover, ebony tunic with scarlet designs of mythical creatures, and cloak–thankfully all in one area. His sword and daggers stood near the doorway. His uncle would kill him if he lost any of his fineries. Robert didn’t like lost money. Half smiling, he wondered what his uncle would do if he found out about the woman. Probably condone him, call him disgraceful to the “family” name. Then call out the big one, asking him what his mother would think.
“Well, cousin, Mother is dead,” he addressed the air, mocking a bow to his uncle. “And she probably only worries about the worms eating her.” He swept his hand down and pretended to kiss his uncle’s feet.
Will loved his uncle dearly, but he could be such a spoil sport. Life was meant for living, for playing, for having fun. Day in and day out, Robert Locksley would sit in his manor, counting his money, tending to the serfs, throwing banquets for barons, caring for his mother. Will would run off into the woods, leaving the old man to his taxes. Let him ruin his own life. Will wanted to live. Wanted to know what was really out there in the world, in every part of the world, to encounter all the people that inhabited it. To simply have fun doing everything he could.
Sweeping up, he capered to the door and crouched near the sword. His smile fell as his eyes fell on the weapon of his deceased great-grandfather. The power of the decades old blade sobered him immediately. Even in the hut’s scant light, the clean steel of the hilt and long blade shone like a beacon, a vestige of goodness in his carefree life. The silver cross of Locksley, his family’s seal, spoke to him in silent tongues. Perhaps his mother’s tongue, condemning him for his harlot ways. Always his image of her was with him, sitting on his shoulder, shouting in his ear over the temptations of life. She tried so hard to make him be good…
He blinked. The cross had disappeared. The lightning bolt was blazing brightly on the hilt. The heat of the bolt sizzled his exposed skin. Shocked, he heard the laughter cackling from the walls, all around him, closing him in. Closer and closer and closer. The world shook as the beast lumbered through the forest, in search of the hut.
He cursed and reflexively grabbed the hilt. He shook the sword, believing he could wring the demon out of it. The heat scalded his flesh. The bolt spread under his fists, farther and farther along the blade, extending off into the air, all around him. The thundering footfalls threatened to topple the flimsy hut.
All became blinding with the light and the thunder.
His head cried in pain as it split with the energy.
“Begone, demon from hell!” he shouted, his body melting, inside out.
Will snapped his eyes open, his forehead throbbing in pain, his knuckles white from clenching the hilt. He was standing in the hut. The sword he held was only the Locksley sword. It’s comforting weight became an anchor, steadying him. It was a moment before he could slow down his breathing and his racing heart. The fear, that took longer to recover from.
He held tight to the sword. This was reality. He looked around, observing the darkness of the hut. For the first time, it was beautiful.
Still shaking, he lowered the sword and wiped sweat out of his eyes.
It had been the dream, brought on by a drunken stupor. Nothing else. Nothing to worry about.
“My lord, do ya feel well?”
He looked down at her. Secure in reality, he remembered his current situation, and remembered the true ugliness of it all. The woman was in fact filthy. Her brown hair was intertwined with twigs and leaves. Her skin was splotchy with patches of dirt, disease and disabuse. Her teeth were yellow and rotting. She looked so miserable it was comical.
Comical, yes, because he went into her arms and her bed. But it wasn’t she who was laughable. If anyone deserved scorn, it was only himself.
“I’m beginning to understand, Mother,” he muttered. He let go of the sword and rubbed his face. “Help me, please.”
“What do ya need help with, my lord?” the woman inquired, sounding cheery with an underlying seductive note.
He turned his back on her and began dressing. He did not wish to see her naked body again. He’d had enough of everything at this point. Maybe this was one part of the world that didn’t need too much exploring.
“My lord, did I do something wrong?” Her voice was already becoming raspy, like that of a hag’s. He wondered vaguely how old she truly was as he continued dressing.
There was movement, the sound of straw falling to the ground. Dear God, she comes to me. Will stiffened as her arms wrapped around his chest. She stunk of mead, sweat, and of himself.
“My lord, the sun has not yet risen. There is still time–for us.” Her breath was onions and turnips. Will gagged, then held his breath. He turned in her embrace and held her out at arm’s length. She stood there, coy, demure, waiting like a vixen. Her insides were as spoiled as her exterior appearance.
As he gazed at her, he wondered what in her life had made this abomination. Was it a horrible family life lived in the slums? Did someone mistreat her in her past? Or was it that never had anyone shown her any love? Was this the reason she did not know how to give it? Had the one thing that makes life livable in her poor conditions been stripped from her by an uncaring family, or even the world?
Will shuddered at the idea of a society robbing women of the one thing worth having. He wondered if there was a woman left in the land who knew how to love, and whom he could love in return. Someone who could show him what it meant to be needed and wanted. Someone he could feel–clean with.
Or was he forced to be with strumpets the rest of his life?
He pushed her away in disgust. She stumbled backwards and tripped unto the bed. She lay still, groaning in pain. Will winced, angry at himself for pushing hard, but forced himself to fasten on his cloak and his sheaths. He didn’t know what to say; if he said anything nice, she’d probably want to–again. Will wanted yesternight to be the last time he did that, ever. After awhile the groaning stopped and the hut fell silent.
Will sighed and dusted off his tunic. “I’m really sorry.” His tone was quieter. “I didn’t mean to injure you. I–”
She gurgled behind him, as if being strangled.
He whirled, sword immediately in hand. She was staring at the wide open door, off to their side.
A man was there, silhouetted by the light. He was a giant of a man, holding at ready a quarterstaff the size of Will’s upper arm.
Overwhelmed, Will stumbled backwards, landing next to her.
The man stepped forward, his one step covering half the distance. He was some twenty years older than Will, a man built from the salt and dirt of the earth while clothed in the uniform of a Nottingham soldier. He reminded Will of an old dog who refused to stop hunting.
Will was unsure what to do. Either the soldier had come for him, or for the woman. He didn’t look like a man who would be kind to a harlot. And while her life wasn’t respectful, she was still a woman, and Will was honor bound to protect her.
Or die trying.
He rose to his feet, his sword alone between him and the soldier. Until that time, the man had been staring at the woman, apparently searching for the right things to say or do. Now, with an opponent challenging him, he had a way to vent his anger. And he did.
“Outta my way, lad!” he bellowed in Will’s face, shoving him aside with a blow from the quarterstaff.
Will flew into the wall. It felt like a battering ram had mistaken him for a castle door. Coughing, he heard the screams of the woman over the bellowing curses of the man.
“Trollop! Jade! Cow!”
“Let m’go! I told ya ‘twas over!”
“You are mine, now and forever! I own your body!”
Will, catching his breath and forcing away the stars, watched her spit in his face. He silently applauded her as he groped up the wall, rising slowly, gripping the sword loosely. It was stupid, but brave. Enraged, the man wiped the spittle off, coldly stared in her face, and savagely backhanded her.
Her head whipped back, and she toppled off the bed. On the ground, her sobs came in erratic gulps. The man moved around the bed, raising his quarterstaff high.
“You are mine. And you must be taught.”
The quarterstaff arched down.
The woman gulped in fear, too terrified to scream.
Will leapt forward, half numb, and lashed out with his sword.
The staff, slashed in half, slammed all the way down and hit the man in the shin.
He dropped to one knee, clamping his leg like a vice. Will, shaking, gulped. It had all happened so fast that he didn’t realize what he was doing until it was already done. Now, smiling at the groans of the man, he was glad he did it. He kneeled down by the woman. She had a terrible bruise on her face, but she was taking it like a man, probably accustomed to such things.
“Are you well?” he asked, sheathing his sword and taking her head in his hands, examining the wound closely. It should be hurting dearly, yet she doesn’t even whimper. Will smiled at her and patted her head. She cringed under his touch and glared at him. “Don’t worry, I won’t hurt you. You’re a brave Saxon.”
She got to her knees and pulled the sheet off the bed around her.
“Have t’be, my lord,” she muttered, glaring at him. Yet in her eyes he didn’t see anger at him. This was anger directed at the man kneeling in pain. Will had a suspicion, deep down, that it wasn’t only anger at him, but at something deeper. Something he didn’t quite understand. She looked back at him and her glare melted. “Go, now, before the rest come.”
Will stood up, sheathing his sword. He looked down at her, confused.
“What do you speak of?”
She stood tentatively, only high enough to fall again unto the bed. Sighing, she looked up at him. “They ne’er travel alone, not wit’the outlaws in the forest. An’ injurin’ o’killin’ a soldier o’Nottingham is punishable by death.”
Will’s heart skipped a beat. He looked down at the kneeling guard. He still didn’t move, but he had stopped groaning. His face was growing red. Scarlet red, which only meant one thing.
Will ran for the door. He didn’t understand what was happening anymore. What had started off as a quiet morning had suddenly turned into something far more deadly. Something unexplainable was going on in Nottingham; never before had hurting a soldier meant death. Killing one, yes, of course, but hurting one in self-defense–simply unheard of. Something odd was going on, but he had no time to discover what. If he waited around for this man’s friends to show up, they’d kill him. That would really put a crimp on his social life.
Of course, running from any kind of law wasn’t very good either. Now he was an outlaw. But running was far more favorable to dying.
Will didn’t stop. He was almost at the door when the soldier caught him by the shoulder. Apparently his leg wasn’t hurting him as much as he let on. Will was yanked off his feet, all his forward momentum resulted in painful whiplash. Still recovering from his other bout with this giant, Will again lost his breath and was painfully gasping for air as the man held him up by his shirt.
“There’ll be no runnin’ for you, kid,” he mumbled in Will’s face as he brought him inches from his own face. His breath stunk worse than the woman’s, and was more terrifying. This man wanted to kill him. Will, seeing stars, vainly grabbed the wrists and tried pulling them. But he simply had no strength left. The soldier laughed and flung him to the ground.
Will wanted to sleep. He wanted to shut himself off from the world. It was only bringing pain. He couldn’t breathe. All he saw were stars. All he heard was laughter. Tiredly, he thought he was dreaming again and he told himself he would wake up soon, then it would all be over. He settled down to wait.
A faraway voice, he guessed the one that was laughing, whispered: “I’ll see you hang, along with me trollop.” He felt himself being picked up. It was quite a weird feeling, being lifted up by nothing into a void. Then there was a woman’s piercing scream. Will found he was quite amused by the events.
Then there was a louder, closer yell and the laughter stopped.
And he fell again.
This time he was jolted awake. Someone was lifting his shoulders up, trying to get him to stand and to drag him out at the same time. He knew the person was saying something, but he was only concentrating on breathing and watching the world around him.
The woman pressed against the wall by the bed. She was screaming herself hoarse, staring at the soldier.
Will found himself smiling when he saw the soldier. He’d collapsed forward onto the ground, his fingers clutched his face in a death grip. Will noticed that protruding from his fingers on the right side of his face was the quill of an arrow.
“Funny,” he muttered, grinning lopsidedly, “he’s got an arrow in his eye. That must hurt.”
The person, straining to lift him, muttered in his ear to move.
Will nodded, still smiling. “All right. I think it’s time.”
Will, with the person’s help, got to his feet, but found he needed his savior as a walking cane. He blew a kiss to the screaming woman then let the person half carry, half lead him out.
The world began spinning around him. He legs went limp. His dead weight pulled the person on him as they toppled in a heap to the ground. The person scrambled off and pulled him up again.
“Move your ass, or I’ll leave it for the guards!”
Will heard this clearly, although his eyesight was still playing tricks with him. He was staring at the man, clearly in the face, and he fancied he saw the woman from his dream there. Then it passed and he was on his feet, being pulled through the forest. He stumbled about like a drunken beggar, but the man kept a firm hold on his arm and kept him from falling again.
He knew they were running, but the forest danced in front of his eyes like an elusive elf, never wanting to be identified yet causing mischief because it was there. He did not see where they were headed. At the beginning, he once and a while caught the sound of pursuers, but as they ran farther and farther into the woods, the sounds became fainter and fainter until all he could hear was the normal forest.
It seemed like they ran for hours, yet it was only a few minutes until they lost the guards. His guide was apparently skilled at eluding capture. Then his guide slowed their flight and finally stopped them along the sheltered bank of a stream. He lead Will to the water, then collapsed unto the ground, panting.
Will tumbled to his knees and dipped his head in the clear and cold water. Instantly he was wide awake and his sight returned.
He crawled over to where his guide sat resting with his eyes closed.
He was a lad of about twenty years, younger than Will. His clothes were green and black, yet so covered by dirt and grime that it was hard to distinguish this. His weapons were created by a crude and possibly homemade smithy. His complexion was highly tanned and the somewhat oval face was set in firm line from the rough life of living out doors. He was bareheaded with slightly curly auburn hair cut short. He looked like the earth had spat him out to live underneath the sun, and he was rebelling against it.
The lad snapped his eyes open when Will was studying his face. Eyes as green as the leaves around them glared at him. The light caused them to crackle like lightning, and Will instantly drew back.
“Aren’t you going to thank me?” the lad growled, getting up and going to the water. His stride was powerful and confident, yet there was something else. When he stooped down and cupped water into his hand, they shook. He was scared of something, terribly afraid. Not even his gruff exterior could hide it.
Will got up, dusted himself off, stood by the lad, and extended his hand. The lad stopped drinking, looked at the hand and then glared at Will. Will smiled in return.
“I owe you my life, and I have a huge debt to you,” Will said calmly. “The name’s Will Gamwell of Locksley.”
The lad rose slowly to his feet but still did not take the offered hand. His eyes flicked down to Will’s sword. When he saw the cross, they lit up and he smiled.
“Will Gamwell of Locksley, I require your family’s help.”
Will’s hand dropped and his brow furrowed in question.
“What do you need with my family, Saxon?”
The lad balled his fists and his frame stiffened.
“I need your help to destroy Nottingham.”