The Lady of Shallot is free ... but if you want to tip me, check out The Cookie Jar on my site. I do plan to rewrite this book at some point, so suggestions and suchlike would be very welcome. Christopher Nuttall
The Lady of Shalott Blurb What is a Land without a King? Ever since the death of King Arthur, Merlin, the first-born son of Satan Himself, has ruled the world. For a thousand years, science and sorcery have co-existed, creating a world where railways run beside unicorns, while dragons fly through the sky and mermaids swim alongside steamships in the great oceans. Humanity lives beside the supernatural world, enjoying a peace that has endured ever since the Empire was created. But now Merlin’s time is running out…
When Merlin departs, anarchy threatens to destroy the Empire. The Great Lords see a chance to claim supreme power; Commoners fight for the right to be free, while dark sorcerers launch a brutal war to claim the Empire.
But all of those threats are only the beginning. Without Merlin, countless natural balances have been overturned. And the Human Race may be about to pay the price for his crimes…
Prologue If a man is the sum of his memories, what is a man who is over a thousand years old?
Merlin remembers everything, from the moment when he was ripped screaming from his mother’s womb to the moment his father manifested to him and told him of his destiny, to become the Antichrist. And he remembers the moment he told his father that he refused to accept his destiny, that he would serve neither Heaven nor Hell. He walked away, his father’s curses ringing in his ears, and wandered upon the land, with neither a cause or a purpose...until he learned about Arthur, the once and future king.
Arthur had dreamed a dream, a land of peace and harmony, a land that Merlin’s father could never threaten or destroy. Merlin, already old and ancient, had finally found something he could believe in, and a person he could follow. He strove to make Arthur’s dream real, providing magic and wisdom to the young man with the very old eyes, using his vast power to safeguard Arthur’s kingdom. Arthur’s promise could not be lost, or Merlin’s father would have won his final victory.
And yet, Merlin knew that his time on the human plane was coming to an end. Magic was slipping out of the world, leaving behind science and cool rationality. Striking a bargain with the Lady of the Lake, one of the oldest and most powerful forces in the Land, Merlin walked willingly into his enchanted tomb, leaving behind a land at peace, ruled by a King who was one with the Land. He should have slept for the rest of time.
But his father had had a plan of his own. Arthur had, unknowingly, slept with his own half-sister, the dread Morgan le Fay. Morgan, a powerful Enchantress with a heritage hidden even from Merlin, conceived a child, Mordred. With Arthur weakened after the betrayal of Sir Lancelot, Mordred led an army against his father, eventually slaying him on the field of battle. Arthur’s dream lay in ruins, until Merlin awoke. With the laughter of his father following his footsteps, Merlin strode out of his sleeping place and destroyed Mordred with his magic. The war was over, and yet the Land was without a King.
And he remembers how he made a bargain with his father; a thousand years of life, to use as he pleased. With Arthur and Mordred dead, Merlin declared himself King of the Land. His magic allowed him to defeat any challenger. The Pendragon Empire grew until it encompassed the entire world. Even the Old Gods and the Faerie acknowledged the Devil’s Son. The Land was at peace.
Back then, Merlin knew, a thousand years had seemed an eternity, even to one who should have known better. But now his time was running out. All he had left was the last few years he would have had naturally, and then he would belong to his father.
And if he died, he asked himself, what would happen to the empire he had built?
Tired and old, weary of the burden he had assumed, drawing on too much magic merely to keep himself alive, Merlin looked into the future and saw only darkness.
Chapter One “Ho, the Castle!”
Sir Robin of Loxley, Knight of the Round Table, reared in his horse as the drawbridge began to creak down to cross the moat. It had been a long ride from Mordred – and the great standing stones that an ancient power had raised over the battlefield – and he was tired, too tired to press onwards towards Camelot. Besides, the Knights of the Round Table had standing orders to call in at the Great Keeps along the way, if only to remind the Lords that Merlin’s servants were keeping an eye on them. The Duchy of Effrul hadn't seen a Knight for many years.
The drawbridge touched down and Robin spurred his horse onwards, cantering across the bridge. Effrul Castle was a massive misshapen block of stone, designed to defend against attacks both mundane and magical, yet it couldn't have hoped to stand against Merlin. Like all of the Knights, Robin could sense magic even if he couldn't wield it for himself and he could feel the wards surrounding the Castle, enough magic to keep out unwanted guests and supernatural vermin. Inside the walls, there was space for horses and even room for the local villagers, should a foreign army come on them unawares. That wasn't likely to happen, but the Lords were conservative, often quite alarmingly so.
“Welcome to Effrul,” a voice said. Robin turned to see a pair of guardsmen, flanking a man wearing the dull grey tunic of a Clark. The Clark’s voice was low, almost a whisper. Robin had never met a loud Clark. “His Grace is currently entertaining in the Great Hall and he would be honoured to see you there.”
“Thank you,” Robin said, as he swung himself off the horse and down to the ground. His armour, enchanted by the finest alchemists in the land, absorbed the impact with nary a jolt. He disliked meeting the senior nobility at the best of times, but protocol was protocol; if the Duke wished to meet with him, Robin had little choice. “Please see to my horse and I will be honoured to wait upon the Duke.”
The interior of Effrul Castle was, if anything, more warded than the exterior. Robin was uneasily aware of powerful spells crawling through the stone walls, watching for any sign of a threat. There were few luxuries on display, a reminder that Duke Rufus Valditch, Duke of Effrul, had no need to show off his wealth and power. Hundreds of servants moved through the stone corridors, carrying out the orders of their lord and master. A number of them wore glowing gems that marked them out as being enchanted for loyalty and unquestioning devotion. Robin felt a shiver running down his spine as he met the eyes of one of the spell-controlled servants. They had always made him feel uneasy, a reminder that even the strongest and most valiant warrior was often helpless against magic. Even the protections built into his armour wouldn't last forever.
They paused in front of a gold-edged mirror, a none-too-subtle suggestion that he should see to his appearance. Robin’s white-gold armour was stained with the signs of a long trip and his hair was a mess, no longer tied back inside his helmet. Tiredly, he ran his hands through his dark hair and murmured a charm to his armour. It seemed to shimmer around him, and then it was as clean and bright as the day it had been presented to him and bonded to his very soul. It was almost a second skin. He touched the tip of his sword, hanging in the scabbard, before turning back to the Clark. The drab man showed no sign of approval or disapproval; he just walked forward, threw open a large stone door, and announced Robin’s arrival to the court.
Robin wasn't unduly surprised, as he walked into the massive chamber, to see hundreds of men and women glancing at him, a handful turning quickly to conceal signs of guilt or wrongdoing. Many of them had good reasons to fear the Knights of the Round Table, Merlin’s personal enforcers and investigators, even if they were connected to the highest aristocrats in the land. Merlin had appointed their ancestors to the nobility, binding them to the Pendragon Empire, but nobility was no shield when certain crimes were involved. They might well wonder if Merlin had sent him to Duke Valditch with a ulterior motive.
He kept his eyes level, studying the crowd as the Clark led him forwards, towards the High Table. Many were noblemen of lesser ranks – the Dukes were the highest nobility in the Empire, second only to Merlin himself – who would count Duke Valditch as their patron. He would grant them his help and support in exchange for their absolute loyalty, in and out of the House of Lords. A handful would even have been raised to Knighthood by the Duke personally, the ultimate reward. Robin concealed a smile with the ease of long practice; in his experience, Knights who hadn’t been through the heaviest training program in the Empire were often worthless on the field of battle. They were more concerned with winning their place in High Society, rather than defending the population. That, as had been hammered into him from the day he’d reported for training, was the ultimate purpose of a Knight. Very few Knights of the Round Table lived long enough to collect their reward and honourable discharge. Even so, there was no shortage of volunteers.
A second group was composed of magicians. There were wizards, wearing the white robes of fully-trained magicians, each one wearing a golden badge that signified his College. Robin wasn't surprised to see that most of them had been trained in the nearest College, one largely under the Duke’s thumb. Only a handful had been trained outside the Dukedom. A second group of magicians wore no robes, indicating that they had little formal training. Robin watched them warily. In his experience, a magician who hadn’t been trained formally could be a more dangerous foe than one who had been through a College. It was often hard to predict what an untrained magician would do, or would be capable of doing, given half the chance.
There were no sorcerers, he noted, with a brief flicker of relief. Sorcerers, the most powerful and dangerous magicians in the Empire, tended to be unpredictable. They rarely found employment from the nobility, even though a sane sorcerer was often capable of defeating any number of wizards. They were just too unpredictable and dangerous, teetering permanently on the edge of madness.
A third group of guests proved to be composed of merchants, wearing the flashy outfits that signified that they’d made or inherited enough money that even the aristocrats had to take them seriously. Robin suspected that most of them only wore the outrageous outfits because they wanted to show that they’d arrived – which suggested a certain basic insecurity – but it wasn't something he held against them. Few nobles took commoners seriously, no matter how much money the commoner had earned in his life; High Society rarely sullied its hands making money. It just wasn’t done. Robin kept his face expressionless as two of the merchants – doubtless thinking that they were moving stealthily – tried to move away from him. They were probably wondering if he knew about some of the more…questionable deals they’d made in the past. Their very presence in the Dukedom suggested ties to the Duke.
The crowd parted around him as he finally reached the High Table. It was a raised dais, crafted out of marble and decorated by gold leaf, a symbol of power and might. The Duke himself sat on an iron throne – a near-copy of Merlin’s throne, in the Iron Palace of Camelot – watching as his guests comported themselves below him. He wouldn't be so gauche as to discuss business matters in public, not when he was holding a fancy ball. The important people – at least to the Duke – would meet with him later, while the other guests were sleeping off heavy doses of food and alcohol in their bedchambers.
Duke Rufus Valditch was tall and thin, wearing a long tunic that was just one shade lighter than sorcerer’s black. He had long white hair, tied back in a ponytail that seemed to move with a life of its own, and a pinched face that seemed to have forgotten how to smile. His cold grey eyes met Robin’s blue eyes and refused to quail. The chances were that he had some magical talent of his own – magic was strong in the aristocratic bloodlines – but he wore nothing to signal his powers. He would prefer, Robin suspected, to keep his enemies guessing. The wards his pet magicians had crafted to protect him would block any magician from studying his magical field, except – perhaps – Merlin himself. Robin had heard, when he’d been trained in less violent methods of fighting, that the Duke preferred to remain away from Camelot, so secure was he in his power and position. Or perhaps he just didn’t like the reminder that there was someone more powerful than himself. The castle might be crawling with defensive wards, designed to keep out unwanted guests, but they wouldn’t stand for long against Merlin. Merlin had destroyed entire counties in his time.
Robin bowed, knowing that it would irritate most of the aristocrats in the room. He came from commoner stock, plucked out of a village several hundred miles to the north and sent to study at the Garrison, and his nobility came from his Knighthood. He wasn't, and would never be, their social equal, but they’d never be able to put him in his place. An insult to a Knight of the Round Table was an insult to Merlin himself – and no one crossed the Emperor Merlin without making out their will first.
“Welcome to my Court,” Duke Valditch said. His voice was cold and precise, suggesting that he’d been using magical treatments to stretch out his life. “We are honoured by the presence of a Knight of the Round Table.”
“Thank you, Your Grace,” Robin said. “I am honoured to attend your Court.”
The Duke seemed unimpressed. Robin was suddenly aware that every eye was fixed on them, every ear straining to catch their every word. What happened between one of Merlin’s Knights and the Duke might determine their futures. He could almost hear minds calculating away behind inscrutable features. If Duke Valditch was about to take a fall, his friends and clients would have a chance to improve their own positions at the expense of their former master – if they switched sides in time. Even the musicians had stopped playing.
“Please, honour us with your presence and news from Camelot,” the Duke said. “We have not seen a Knight of the Round Table in my lands for a very long time.”
Too long, Robin thought, coldly. Something was definitely wrong. Just for a moment, he wished that Tiffany was with him. She would not only have been able to read the crowd, but to know what they were trying to conceal. But Tiffany was back at Camelot, serving the Emperor and awaiting their marriage. The thought of her reminded him just how much he missed Tiffany. Her acceptance of his proposal had been a dream come true.
“Certainly, Your Grace,” Robin said, resigning himself to a few hours of boredom. The guests would expect him to mingle, to play the socialite and tell them his news – all the while analysing his words in the hope that they might allow them to understand his true purpose for visiting the Duke. He smiled inwardly, knowing that none of them would believe the truth. He’d come merely for a rest before he resumed his ride back towards Camelot – and Tiffany. “I thank you for your hospitality.”
The Duke nodded, dismissing him – and the chamber began to hum with conversation, the tension slowly fading out of the air. Robin was aware of covert glances following him as he stepped back and started to mingle, but he ignored them, at least openly. It dawned on him that the evening could be fun, in a way. A handful of carefully-dropped remarks might frighten the guiltier among the guests into revealing themselves, or doing something careless. He accepted a drink from a serving maid and started to plan his campaign.
“Commoner,” a voice snapped. A hand fell on his shoulder, from behind. Robin spun around, one hand dropping to the hilt of his sword. The voice had sounded angry. “How dare you come to my castle?”
Robin saw a young man, wearing golden armour so brightly polished that Robin could see his own face reflected back in it. The young man had long blonde hair and a handsome face, although it was contorted by an unpleasant sneer. His voice was that of a person unused to not getting his way, in everything. Robin didn’t need to study the chin to know that he was looking at the Duke’s son and Heir, Lord Lucas. He had the air of entitlement that every young aristocrat seemed to share, apart from Tiffany. But then, Tiffany had had to grow up in a hurry after her father had died. This young man had never had to learn how the world actually worked, or the limits of aristocratic power. The mere fact that his hand was on the hilt of his sword – as if he was going to draw on a Knight of the Round Table – proved his ignorance.
“I came because I needed to rest,” Robin said, as patiently as he could. He took his hand away from his own sword, confident that he could draw it if Lucas actually produced his own sword. The young man would have been trained in swordplay – every young male aristocrat was, if only because they might be challenged to a duel by their social equals – but he wouldn't have much real experience. No one would risk challenging a Duke’s Heir, while Robin had had to fight for his life since he’d grown into maturity.
“And you took her from me, commoner,” Lucas thundered, angrily. He hadn’t taken his hand from his sword, even though he’d made no move to draw it. Robin realised, suddenly, that Lucas was drunk. “How dare you pollute our blood with your filthy mongrel ways?”
Robin winced inwardly as he realised – too late – what was actually going on. Tiffany was the Lady of Shalott, the mistress of a realm that might not have been a Dukedom, but was ruled by one of the oldest bloodlines in the land. She’d have been a prize catch for anyone, even the Heir of a Dukedom, yet her position at Camelot would have intimidated many potential suitors, or their parents. Lucas had to have been one of the few to try to court her – and, judging from his reaction to her successful suitor, she’d rejected him emphatically. No male would take that very calmly, particularly not one with such a spectacular sense of entitlement.
“Enough,” he said, quietly.
“Yes, enough,” Lucas shouted. He started to draw his sword. “I should whip you and…”
A hand caught Lucas’s wrist before he could pull the sword from its scabbard. “More than enough,” Duke Valditch said, firmly. Lucas purpled, but he had enough sense not to challenge his father publicly. He might have been the Duke’s only male son, yet there was precedent for passing a noble estate to a female if the male heirs were disinherited. “I apologise for my son’s outburst, Sir Robin, and I will see that the matter ends here.”
“Thank you, Your Grace,” Robin said, quietly relieved. Killing the Duke’s Heir would have had consequences – and if by some dark miracle Lucas had managed to kill him…he would have embroiled his family against Merlin, the near-omnipotent ruler of the empire. Merlin would not have been inclined to let such an insult pass unpunished. “I have taken no offence.”
“But there is a matter that requires the attention of a Knight,” Duke Valditch continued, almost meditatively. “Last week, an entire village was depopulated, the population stolen away by an unknown power. Your assistance in solving this mystery would be appreciated.”
Robin’s eyes narrowed. It was fairly common for ambitious or restless peasants to flee aristocratic lands and escape to the free cities – or to hide in the countryside and turn bandit – but an entire village disappearing was something rare, even close to the Greenwood. The Duke was Master of High, Middle and Low Justice in his Duchy – and besides, if he’d been mistreating his peasants, he wouldn't want a Knight of the Round Table investigating. And that raised the question of why the Duke wanted him involved. Did he think that Robin had been sent to investigate the disappearance, or was he trying to divert Robin from something else, something more incriminating? With Duke Blackrock locked up in the Tower of Camelot, perhaps the Duke was feeling a little concerned about his future.
“Lucas will show you the village tomorrow,” the Duke continued, taking Robin’s silence for assent. Robin knew that there was no real choice. If the village was close to the Greenwood – and the Duchy itself was far too close to Mordred – it was quite possible that the village population had been stolen away into Faerie. And that was an act of war.
Lucas looked as if he would like to object, but a sharp glance from his father froze his tongue before he could speak. Robin kept his own face expressionless. There was little to be gained from humiliating the younger man, even if he needed a sound thrashing. Duke Valditch might be cold and calculating, but at least he accepted his responsibilities. His son seemed utterly fixed on his entitlements and ignorant of the responsibilities that came with his title. If he hadn’t learned by the time his father died, the Duchy was in for hard times.
“Of course, Your Grace,” Robin said. He would have preferred to go alone, but the Duke seemed unwillingly to offer him the choice. Besides, perhaps Lucas would be better company once he was sober. “I will find out what happened and report to higher authority.”
The Duke looked unmoved, but his son seemed alarmed. There was only one higher authority in the land, Merlin himself.
And if Merlin took an interest in the Duchy, there was no way they could hide anything from the Devil’s only son.
Chapter Two Lucas was still fuming the following morning, when they rode away from the castle. How dare the Knight of the Round Table – the jumped-up commoner – treat him as if he was of no account? He was Lucas, Heir to the most powerful Duchy in England, with a bloodline that stretched all the way back to the time of Arthur. And to think that the commoner would be marrying one of the most eligible woman in the land! It was intolerable!
His father had made his position clear, however. They’d spoken – his father had talked at him, rather – the night after the gathering. “You are the Heir to my Duchy,” his father had said, in the cold dry voice that was somehow worse than shouting, or a beating. “You need to learn control and restraint. We depend upon Merlin for our power – even our lives – and the price for Merlin’s support is our...tolerance for Merlin’s messenger, whoever he happens to be!”
“But father,” Lucas had protested, “he’s a commoner, bedding a noblewoman...”
“You failed to convince Lady Tiffany to wed you,” his father had said, with deadly calm. Lucas still recalled the discussion they’d had after Lady Tiffany had rejected his suit. His father had had ambitions to unite Effrul with Shalott, something that would have given him an unmatched position in the House of Lords. “He convinced her to accept his suit. You will accept that, at least publically. Do you understand me?”
“Yes, father,” Lucas had said, reluctantly. “But...”
“You will be polite and aid Sir Robin in his quest to find out what happened to the villagers,” his father had ordered. “You will do nothing that might imperil our position here. Do you understand me?”
The memories burned through his head as he led Sir Robin along a forest path used only by the nobles and poachers. Long ago, Lucas had learned to ride in the duchy, but now he rarely had time just to put everything aside and spend time on horseback. These days, he worked for his father, even though his father seemed reluctant to share anything with his son and heir. There were times when Lucas considered assassinating – murdering – his father, but he knew that he didn't have the nerve. His father had terrified him from the day he’d been presented at Camelot as the Duke’s Heir. Lucas couldn't even bring himself to shout back at his father.
Sir Robin didn't seem inclined to talk, even though his father had hoped that they’d find a way to become friends and even allies. It wasn't going to happen, Lucas knew, not when bitter jealousy and rage burned through Lucas’s mind. The commoner had the woman Lucas had wanted – and he had everything that Lucas had wanted. His father had refused to allow him to try out for Knighthood, or even to raise him to Knighthood personally. Sir Robin, commoner and servant of the Enchanter King, had a freedom and confidence Lucas lacked, and feared that he would never have. They spent the long ride in silence.
The village itself was nearly an hour away from the castle, even on horseback. Lucas had visited it once as a younger child, back when he’d accompanied his father on one of his yearly tours of his domains. His memories of the village were hazy; like all commoner settlements, it was drab, dirty and populated by people who were loyal to their superiors, if only because they knew that a show of disloyalty would mean immediate execution. Lucas’s father’s justice was harsh, cold and utterly without scruple. The peasants knew that any rebellion against their Duke would be crushed, swiftly and mercilessly. He smiled as a memory flickered through his mind. The village’s headman – a man called Igor - had known just to scrape and bow in front of his superiors.
He reared in his horse as the forest path widened, allowing them to canter down towards the village. It wasn't an impressive sight, even though it was close enough to the Greenwood to make even Lucas uncomfortable. A handful of stone houses – barely more than hovels – a stone church and a couple of other buildings, surrounded by a handful of fields. The peasants would eke out an existence from the fields, passing on most of their crops and livestock to their masters, living on what little they were allowed to keep. Lucas had never questioned how they lived. As his father had once told him, in a rare genial mood, peasants existed to serve their superiors and they should be happy with their lot. If they weren't, there was always the hangman’s rope and dark magic to keep them in line.
But the village was completely deserted. Lucas might not have been allowed to fight, but he had hunted ever since he’d grown into his teens and he had a hunter’s instincts. There was no one in the village, or in the scraggly fields where the men should have been slaving away, while their womenfolk cooked, cleaned and made babies. Even the church, the strongest building in the village, had been abandoned. The priest, chosen by his father from a list submitted by Rome, was gone. The entire village was deserted.
Lucas watched as Sir Robin slipped off his horse and started to walk towards the village, leaving his horse waiting behind, watching with unnervingly intelligent eyes. The Knight seemed surrounded by a brilliant white light as the sunlight reflected off his armour, even though Lucas was sure that that would make him a target for anyone with bad intentions. He slipped off his own horse – a far less obedient animal, even though Lucas loved his stallion – and drew his sword. There was no visible threat, but he had the uneasy sense that something was watching him. Something that might not be human...
He looked up the forest, towards the boundary line and the Greenwood, and shivered. Every instinct he had was telling him to run, to leave the village to the wind and the rain, but he couldn't leave. His father had ordered him to stay, to keep an eye on the Knight, and he couldn't fail his father. He wanted to call out to Sir Robin, to tell him to leave the dirty smelly commoners to their fate, but he didn't quite dare.
Silently, lost in his own thoughts and fears, Lucas watched as Robin began to search the village.
Robin was aware of Lucas’s gaze boring into his back, but he ignored it. A Knight of the Round Table developed instincts very young – or he didn't survive his training, let alone his first year of service – and something was clearly very wrong. Robin had grown up in a small community, not too different from the unnamed village, and it should have been bustling with life. The farmers should have been in the fields, their wives and daughters should have been cooking and the children should have already been learning the tasks that they’d perform as they grew into adulthood. He missed very little about his former life, but one attitude he’d never been allowed to shun was that commoners were people too. The Knights of the Round Table existed to defend everyone, from the highest in the land to the lowest beggar in the streets of the free cities.
He glanced into the first house and scowled. There was no sign of a struggle; it looked as if the population had just walked away one day and never looked back. He looked up at the stone slab above the door and frowned as he saw the horseshoe hanging there, a charm that should have kept most supernatural vermin from entering the house. Robin had hardly any magical talent of his own, but he whispered a handful of words in the magical tongue, words that should have caused a bright flash of light. Nothing happened, proving that the horseshoe charm maintained its power, keeping the wild magic under restraint. A magician could have overcome its limited protections, but a supernatural force should have been unable to enter.
Shaking his head, he walked back outside, into the bright sunlight, and glanced over at Lucas. The Duke’s son was waiting on the outskirts of the tiny village, as if he was unable to cross the invisible line that separated the village from the fields outside. His bearing suggested that he would sooner be somewhere – anywhere – else, as if what had happened to the villagers hardly mattered. It probably didn't to him, Robin thought coldly; like all aristocrats, Lucas cared little for his social inferiors. Robin, who had been born a commoner, cared more about the poor than he did the wealthy and powerful. The latter could, in his experience, take care of themselves.
Ignoring Lucas’s constant gaze, he strode over to the church, recalling the smiling warmly dressed priest who’d greeted them every Sunday when the family had gone to church. Robin, as the youngest child, had carried the small bronze coin destined for the priest, even though it had taken his father and brothers a day’s hard labour to earn the coin. It had never seemed fair to him that the family had to give up so much of their wealth to a man who seemed to lack for nothing, but his father had whipped him when he’d raised the question. It had taken him years to understand that his father had been ashamed of his own weakness, his failure to break free of the church’s demands. Those who shunned the church were shunned by their community.
The church was fairly typical for a small village. There were wooden pews for the villagers – he recalled that they’d been hard on the bottom after a long and vigorous sermon – and a golden stand, draped with purple cloth, for the priest. A golden cross hung behind the stand, showing the moment when Jesus, the Son of God, had been crucified by the Romans. Robin stepped inside, but saw no one. The church had been completely abandoned. Even the feeling of stepping inside a holy place was absent. And that suggested dark magic.
He walked back outside and started to study the village, looking for clues. Tracking wasn’t a hard skill to master – Robin had learned by poaching from the local forest as a growing man – and it was clear that the villagers had done nothing to hide their departure. They’d simply come out of their houses and walked up, towards the boundary line and the Greenwood. And they’d never been seen again.
No wonder the Duke was worried, Robin thought, grimly. The Greenwood was one place where the Duke’s writ didn’t run. It was home to supernatural creatures, ones who lived according to their own rules – and cared nothing for humanity. Centuries ago, humanity had cowered in their hovels at night when the old creatures walked upon the land, knowing that anyone walking out after darkness was unlikely to be seen again. They had hidden themselves from the eyes of creatures more powerful than humanity, demanding respect from those they saw as inferiors. Those who spoke ill of the Fair Folk had often never spoken again.
It had been Merlin who had established the boundary lines, preventing the supernatural creatures from entering human lands. Even the Old Gods had been unable to face Merlin and they’d reluctantly agreed to respect the boundary lines, but anyone could cross them and enter the Greenwood – and they might never be seen again. Robin had walked into the Greenwood as a very young man – when he’d been desperately trying to escape a team of guardsmen intent on beating the poacher to death – and knew that he’d been lucky to escape. If the villagers had crossed the boundary line en masse, for whatever reason, they would never be seen again.
And yet...why had they crossed the boundary line?
Robin knew that he could just walk away and report back to Camelot, but that wasn't his style. He couldn't abandon the villagers, not while there was the merest chance they might still be alive – and capable of returning to human society. His hand touched the sigils engraved on his armour, sigils that represented Merlin himself. He could walk into the Greenwood and rely on their protection to gain an audience with the creatures that had stolen the villagers. Perhaps he could even convince them to allow the villagers to return, unharmed. It had to be tried.
He walked back up to where Lucas was waiting, trying not to show his fear and apprehension. Robin had been reading people ever since he’d started his long apprenticeship and Lucas, although he was trying to hide it, was an open book. The village was bothering him and all he wanted to do was get back to his castle and hide behind the battlements. Robin carefully refrained from showing his amusement openly. Perhaps the experience of confronting something far more powerful than himself would do Lucas good.
“They went into the Greenwood,” he confirmed, briefly. A handful of peasants might run off to the free cities, or become bandits, but an entire village...? No, it wouldn't happen. “I’m going in after them.”
He watched a complex series of emotions washing over Lucas’s face. Cruel amusement; Robin might well not come out of the Greenwood, leaving Lucas to renew his suit for Tiffany’s hand. Fear; Robin might expect him to come with him into the Greenwood – and his father would be angry if he refused to follow the Knight, even into certain death. Terror; he didn’t dare walk forwards or go back with his tail between his legs.
“You’re going to stay here,” Robin said, firmly. He’d never met a Faerie – or one of the lesser supernatural creatures – in his life, but he knew the basic rules for approaching them. They demanded respect from humanity – and Lucas, with his inflated sense of entitlement, would show them none. Bringing him along could jeopardize everything. “If I don’t come back out by sunset, go back to the castle and report to my superiors.”
“Yes,” Lucas managed. He didn't look any happier at the thought of remaining in the village until nightfall, but Robin was sure that he’d remain behind, if only because he was afraid of his father. Robin had no idea what they’d said to each other, after the gathering had come to an end, yet it had clearly forced Lucas into at least making an attempt to be civil. “I’ll remain here...”
Robin nodded, patted his horse on the forehead, and turned to walk towards the Greenwood. Even behind the boundary line, he could feel the wild magic crackling through the air, luring him onwards. Anyone with even the slightest touch of magic would be able to feel it; indeed, Robin knew that some magicians walked into the Greenwood in hopes of finding a magical hotspot they could use to power themselves. Only a very few returned alive, and most of them were monsters. It wasn't a reassuring thought.
The vegetation began to change as he approached the boundary line. He’d been told once that wild magic – uncontrolled by humanity – had an effect on anyone and anything unlucky enough to be touched by it. Plants and animals seemed to be warped by exposure to wild magic, creating new strains of wildlife, some of which were very dangerous. Back where he’d been born, a new species of toad had somehow developed the ability to mesmerise their prey – and humans. He still recalled rescuing a small girl who had been on the verge of drowning herself, influenced by a creature that couldn't form a coherent thought. And that was one of the more harmless creatures.
He paused outside the boundary line, feeling its invisible presence in the air, and stepped forward. The sensation of wild magic hit him instantly. Blue energy crackled through the air, flickering and flaring in and out of existence. Strange creatures seemed to appear at the edge of his vision, somehow never there when he looked at them directly. Robin knew himself to be brave – he’d proven it to himself hundreds of times over the last ten years – yet it was all he could do not to turn and flee for his life. He forced himself to think of the villagers and pressed onwards. Besides, a show of weakness in the Greenwood might prove fatal.
The temperature kept rising as he pressed onwards, grimly aware of unseen eyes watching his every move. He heard sounds in the distance that had come from no human throat, strange calls that attracted and repelled him in equal measure. Just for a long moment, the entire forest shook as an impossibly huge creature seemed to be stamping its way towards him. The vegetation pressed in around the path, cutting off his view. Anything could be coming towards him – or shadowing his lonely walk – and he wouldn’t know about it until it was right on top of him. The sensation of threat just kept growing stronger...he reached out with his senses, only to be nearly deafened by a cacophony of sound, so loud and powerful that he had to cover his ears...
...There was something shadowing him, right behind him. Robin reached down and took a firm grip on his sword, trying to draw what reassurance he could from its solid metalwork. It might not be any use against a supernatural creature, whatever charms the enchanters had worked into the metal. Some of the supernatural creatures could only be killed by cold iron – and he had none. He tensed as he heard deep heavy breathing, coming from a throat that was very definitely not human. Light footsteps – the kind made by someone who wanted to remain silent – echoed behind him. He had to turn...
“Please,” a voice said. It was low and gravelly. “Please don’t turn around.”
Robin half-drew his sword. “I mean you no harm,” it said. Robin’s instincts told him, oddly, that the creature was telling the truth. “I just don’t want to be seen. I was human once. And now I am a monster.”