|Roaming the English Coast, Robin and Marian search for a drowned sailor with a loaf of bread...
"Rouse, rouse!" Pounding at the door shook the cottage. Moaning on the sea wind came the doleful cry. "A boat's come back empty! Rouse!"
Robin and Marian were off their pallets instantly - sleepy outlaws didn't live long - with bows in hand. Their host, the fisherman Peter, unbarred the door. Sea wind, cold and salty, swirled in their faces and made the fire in the hearth gutter.
"What's happening?" asked Sidony. A barrel-shaped woman with a face like a dried apple, she was bundled in wool with a scarf over her head. Five sleepy-eyed children clustered around. "Whose boat?"
"Gunther's! Both him and Yorg are missing!"
"Oh, my!" The fishwife put a gnarled hand to her mouth. "And Lucy and Zerlina so young to be widows!"
Robin Hood shrugged on his quiver, an instinct when trouble portended. He and Marian were dressed alike, in tattered wool of Lincoln green, laced deerhide jerkins, and soft hats sporting spring feathers. The outlaw chieftain and his wife stepped outside the tiny cottage.
With food lean in the Greenwood and a long winter over, they'd taken a holiday of sorts, walked from Sherwood east and then north, followed a Roman road through Lincoln, across the Humber, to the high cliffs at Scarborough, which Marian had never seen. They'd dawdled on the way back, followed the coast dotted with black wrecks, out to buy dried herring for Lent and "to smell the salt air".
They had salt air aplenty, for the wind never quit. It pulsed and blustered and boomed and tickled, never still. Sea and wind and clouds were half the world for tiny Wigby, sixteen cottages almost overwhelmed by wide Humber Bay, roiling with waves driven from the turbulent North Sea, called the German Sea hereabouts. Behind the village lay sandy dunes with grass atop, and a forest, The Wolds, like a fog bank in the distance. A long way to haul firewood, the outlaw thought.
Against a cloudy red-streaked sunrise, villagers clustered at the high tide mark, an undulating wave of seaweed. Men and women were almost identical in salt- and scale-streaked smocks, shabby wool hose, and pitchy half-boots. Hats were tied under chins to confound the wind. Amidst the fisherfolk slumped two new widows, teary but resigned, as if they'd expected this day. Children clung to their skirts and stared at an empty dory.
As the fishing family and their guests straggled down the shingle, Sidony muttered. "It's their own fault. `If two relatives go out in a boat, one will drown.' And sneaking out in the middle of the night."
"Sneaking out?" Marian listened close, for the local accent was guttural and garbled. The last phrase resembled "sneegin' gout".
"Aye. Gettin' a jump on the herrin'. You're not supposed to go ahead of the rest, t'ain't fair. You wait, pass your boat through the rope circle, get the blessing of the deacon. It's custom goes back forever. And they sailed under a full moon, too!"
The party squeezed in to examine the dory, floated in on the tide and hauled up from the surf, but there was little to see. The boat was a dozen feet long with a tombstone stern and flat bottom, broad-beamed and high-walled to ride blue water. Around the mast was a lateen sail of coarse yellowed linen. Nets were folded in heaps across the waist. A large rock in the bow served as anchor. The oars were missing while a worn boot had been left behind. Many villagers echoed Sidony's admonitions about tempting fate and taking advantage.
Robin Hood's keen eyes were busy. Peering, he handed Marian his bow and clambered over the gunwale, careful to tread on ribs and not the bottom planks. Still someone warned, "Not supposed to step in a boat ashore. S'bad luck." Robin rubbed his hand along the ribs, swirled his hand in the bilge slopping in the bottom. It might have been tinged red, but his calloused hand came away clean.
A toothless elder sighed and let go the gunwale, then did the others, as if letting go the lost fishermen. "Enough grievin'. Tide's makin'. Time to get the fish in." Instinctively people scanned the wind and waves and sky, turned to breakfast and ready their own boats lined along the strand.
Robin and Marian lingered, as did their hosts. The outlaw scanned the dory from stem to stern as if he'd buy it. He used his Irish knife to poke the outer hull, felt the sea moss and barnacles. Then he stood back stroking his beard. Marian knew that sign: his curiousity was piqued.
They walked with Peter's family back to the cottage for chowder and ale. Sidony muttered, "Knew it would happen some day. I'm just surprised it took this long."
"What?" asked Robin and Marian together.
The fisherfolk looked at them, still unsure of their status. These were the famous outlaws of Sherwood Forest, they knew, and supposedly lords. They'd descended on Wigby unexpectedly, seeking lodging and paying in silver. Their hosts were unsure how to address them, but fishermen were a hard-headed lot who feared only God and storms. Husband and wife let the silence drag to underline their independence. Robin added, "Please. We're strangers hereabouts. Why are you not surprised?"
Peter remained silent, let his wife talk for both. "Well... The good Lord knows we lose enough men to plain accidents. There's more ways to die on the swan's road. Strike a rock, or a whale, a rogue wave, a sea serpent. But if anyone went hunting grief it was Gunther and Yorg. They were brothers and forever fighting. They even fought over who owned that boat when both helped build it. So squabbling's been the death of them, I'd say."
The outlaw nodded absently. "`Most of our troubles we bring on ourselves.'"
The family stamped up the shingle. Marian lagged behind. "You're pensive, Rob. What's your guess?"
Robin turned and scanned the sea. "I'm a simple man given to simple explanations. There's no sign the boat struck anything: no planks stove in, no barnacles scraped off, the moss intact all over. The boat might've pitched them overside, but the nets are still folded neat. And there's that boot."
"I don't know... It's rare that ghosts or selkies or serpents pluck a man into the sea. Men bear enough evil we needn't blame the fays for murder."
"Perhaps nothing." Robin shrugged. "I don't wish to speak ill of the dead, especially newly dead. I don't need ghosts wafting over the waves for me."
Marian stared at the gray roiling sea. The breeze blew dark hair around her face and she combed it back. "Yes, let's curb our tongues."
After a subdued Mass and blessing of the fleet and passing each boat through a rope circle, Wigby went fishing. And Robin Hood went with them.
He worked with Peter, who'd lost his eldest son in a storm the year before. Next eldest, too young to be married, was a squint-eyed serious-faced girl of fourteen named Madge.
Robin rowed, for he liked the feel of the waves under the wooden blades, while Peter manned the tiller and sheets for the triangular sail. Madge watched from the bow. Other boats from Wigby had put out, a dozen of them, and farther off bobbed boats from other villages and towns: Aldbrough, Patrington, Hedon, Grimsby. Peter occasionally sheared by another boat, yelled a welcome or a friendly insult, asked for news, passed on gossip. Yet no one from Wigby mentioned that two brothers were drowned and missing, that two families had been wiped out.
After a time, Madge reported this spot might do. Robin glanced over the side and gasped.
The boat floated on a sea of silver backs.
Herring jammed the water nose to tail, tight-packed as if already in the barrel. Alike as leaves on a tree, all were a foot long, mouths open and eyes like jet targets.
With no sign of elation, Peter donned an oilskin apron and unfolded the nets with an easy grace. Robin helped, so clumsy he almost pitched overside. Madge took the tiller and steered a lazy circle. In minutes Robin felt the boat slow as the nets dragged. Peter grunted to Madge, snapped at Robin, then tilted inwards a tiny corner of a net.
A silvery cascade washed the bottom of the boat. Fish boiled and roiled and flopped and flapped, some so hard they flipped over the gunwale back to their haven. In two hours of back-breaking, fingernail-ripping, clothes-soaking labor, the tiny crew made four more passes, hauling in nets until the gunwales were awash and Robin Hood was knee-deep in fish.
"S'enough," said Peter. He and Robin sat near the bow to keep the nose down and prevent the stern from foundering, while Madge turned her cheek to the wind and aimed for home.
Yet the fisherman took no ease, but honed a knife on a sea stone, handed it to Robin with a few terse instructions. Robin Hood knew better how to dress deer than clean fish, but managed to behead and gut, yet keep the fillet intact along the spine for hanging, all without losing fingers.
Always curious, Robin looked to expand his knowledge. "How many trips will you make today, Peter?"
Hands busy, the fisherman glanced instinctively at the sky. Gulls followed them, soaring and banking, crashing into the water after fish offal. "As many as God gives us. While the herring are here, we work, for they'll be gone soon enough."
"Oh? Why so?"
But the fisherman just shrugged and wouldn't answer.
Robin sought another topic. Examining the fish he cut, he found them not all the same. "Why are they different?" He tried to hide the chattering of his teeth. Though both were just as wet, the fishermen and his daughter gave no sign of being chilled. They ate slices of raw fish to keep their body heat up.
The man flipped a butterfly fillet into a wicker basket. "They ain't. They'll all herrin'." At the stern, Madge laughed quietly.
Robin held up a fish in either hand, solid writhing muscles coated with scales and slime. Both were the same length, but one was slim as a snake while the other was fat-bellied. "But they ain't the same. These are -"
Clearly galled by his free help, the fisherman stopped cleaning to point with his knife. "The skinny one's a pilchard. The fat one is an allice shad. The round ones is round herrin'. The snouty ones is anchovies. That's a mayfish, comes up the rivers in May. Here." He pinched a fish by its dorsal fin. "If't hangs straight, it's a herrin'. If't hangs tail down, it's a pilchard. Nose down is a sprat - little and spratty, see? Shads is different. But hell, man, if they come to shore in herrin' season, they're herrin'. Like women - they all taste the same in the dark."
Robin chuckled at his ignorance and flayed with slimy hands, one fish to every five of Peter's. He kept the man talking. "Why did you say the fish would be gone soon? I thought herring season lasted a full moon."
"Not now it won't. `Herrin' dislike a quarrel', they say. Now that blood's been spilt, they'll vanish." He nodded grimly over side where the wind ripped whitecaps and sent spume flying. "This be all we'll see this year. It's a hungry winter we'll've."
Robin didn't disagree, but the gray waves shone with fish deep as he could see. He failed to understand how they could disappear overnight. Shaking his head, he grabbed another fish. It squirted through numb hands and kissed him in the mouth.
While her husband toiled at sea, Marian helped on the strand. Women and girls rolled out barrels of salt dried in salt pans during the winter, broached them and crushed the white clumps with wooden mallets. Girls returned from the woods with brush hooks and saplings to repair the yards-long drying racks. Then the first boats arrived, and women toted the fillets and fish in wicker baskets, set to with sharp knives at long plank tables.
They worked and sang and joked and gossiped of wedding plans. It was common for betrothed to marry after the herring season, when hands were idle and dirty weather kept folk home. "Weddings bring stormy weather," Marian was told a dozen times. Brides chattered about plans for improving homes and husbands while the matrons shook their heads. Marian noted some needed little advice, for their bellies were swollen from wintertime assignations.
Unmarried girls took time to dig fat from under the backbone of a proper herring, a glob of gooey silver, and hurl it against a hut wall. If it stuck upright, they were teased, their husband would be upright and true, but if the fat clung crooked, so would their husbands prove false.
The only ones quiet were Lucy and Zerlina, the new widows. They grieved but worked, for no one stood idle while the herring ran.
Yet one did. As Marian returned from the privy, she noted a dark figure silhouetted against the gray sky. The woman walked the bushy cliffs and lumpy headlands north of the village, where the tide smashed to spray on rocks.
Marian stood by Sidony, grabbed a fish and a knife, set to slicing. She nodded south. "Who's that? Why doesn't she help?"
Sidony answered without looking. "That'd be Mornat. She don't associate."
"Mornat?" said Marian. "What a queer name. What does it mean?"
"S'a queer woman. The priest named her after cutting her from her dead mother. It means 'living from the dead' or somewhat. A posthumous child. So she has the second sight, and can heal with her touch."
Marian touched up a blade, sliced off the hundredth staring head of the day. Her calloused hands were pruney and blue. "Why doesn't she associate?"
"She's queer, is all. We go to her when we need potions and such. The rest of the time she's off wandering the cliffs and sea caves, or walking to Hull for her nostrums. We don't keep track of her comings and goings. She doesn't like us. She's touched. And today she'll be worse than ever."
Marian made silence her question.
"Mornat set her cap for -" she wouldn't say the name, so Marian knew it must be one of the drowned brothers - "one who's left us for a better place. When she turned thirteen, she washed her shift in south-running water, turned it wrong-side out and hung it before the fire, as girls will, you know. They say the likeness of - him who's not with us - came into her hut and turned the shift right-side out. Mornat followed him everywhere then, and let him take liberties up on the cliffs in the grass, and told everyone they were to marry in spring. But it didn't happen, for he married Lucy over there and never spoke to Mornat again."
So, thought Marian, it was the elder brother, Gunther, that Mornat had fancied. "The poor thing. It must have torn her heart from her bosom."
"If she has a heart," Sidony sniped. "Them touched with the sight don't live entirely in this world. And good enough, I say."
More boats plowed the surf and disgorged heaping baskets of fish. Men and boys took warmed watered cider and bread and chowder, then returned to the waves. Robin, his beard flecked with scales, gave Marian a quick kiss before driving his oars through the surf once more.
All day they worked. Drying racks, called "flakes", were hung with fillets that danced and dripped in the sea wind. More were packed in salt. When the group flagged, one woman began a song so old it was another tongue and no one knew the words, yet every woman sang along, timing the beat to the rhythm of their hands. As the sun set, old men built driftwood fires. Girls threaded fillets onto whittled sticks and propped the dripping bundles on the drying racks higher than a dog could jump. Boys lugged baskets of guts to wash out on the evening tide as gulls squawked at their feet.
When it was too dark to fish even by torchlight, the men beached the boats, helped clean and thread before snatching a few hours' sleep and setting out at dawn to fetch more fish.
Robin and Marian worked together, cutting themselves often now, salt stinging the gashes. At one point in the long night, Marian asked her husband, "Well, Rob? Are you ready to eschew outlawry and take up fishing instead?"
Robin sliced, cursed as he shaved fine bones. "Nay, never. Not in this life or any other. You'd have to be daft to go fishing, cracked as a coal miner. It's safer riding into battle against Saracens than going head-to-head with the North Sea in a cockleshell. It's no wonder these lot are so superstitious, putting their lives in the hands of God with every scull."
Marian agreed. "I never saw such a lot for queer beliefs."
"I thought we were bad in Sherwood, what with crossing streams with the right foot foremost and never venturing into caves without making the sign of the cross and making sure the light of a full moon never falls on your face: sensible things. But these fisherfolk! Not once today did anyone mention two brothers had drowned for fear of provoking their ghosts. And I was told more how not to fish than to fish. Never point at a boat with your finger, use your whole hand. Never call the salmon by its name, call it the 'red fish' instead. Never mention rats or mice while baiting hooks or laying the nets. By Saint Dunstan, what's rats and mice got to do with baiting?"
Marian only shook her head. Oddly, her thoughts flickered to the ostracized Mornat, alone and wind-blown as she walked the cliffs, like some widow that had never known a husband.
As the eternal night dragged and breath frosted, both outlaws grew sick of the bloody-salty-seaweedy smell of flayed fish. The villagers were exhausted yet worked with a will, glad the time of plenty had finally arrived after the long dark winter.
Three days they toiled thus, a blur of dying fish and chilled blood and raw chapped bleeding hands, snatching sleep and food. By late in the third day, no one sang or laughed. Work was a soul-numbing chore, and only future survival kept everyone hauling in nets and flaying fish.
As the sun peeked over the horizon on the fourth day, the women braced at their plank tables, knives sharp and ready, not talking. Only the sough of the constant wind and crackle of fires was heard.
It got quieter when the boats did not return for hour after hour. Women left tables to warm at the fires, or found other chores neglected over the past frenzied days.
Finally three boats came in, riding high, the fishermen's faces long, and the women guessed. The men splashed overside and beached the boats. They lifted out two or three baskets of odd fish and a few herring.
An old man ran his tongue over toothless gums, husked, "They're gone, ain't they? It's happened. The curse. Blood's been spilt and the herrin've vanished."
More boats beached. With empty hearts and idle hands, villagers stumbled for their cottages to sleep. There was no more work, no more herring to flay and dry, nothing extra to trade.
Come the depths of winter, they'd go hungry.
"It's the witch's done it. Witches are the bane of us. Do more harm than good."
Morning, Peter's family sat around a guttering fire in the tiny cottage. They ate meager rations of chowder, already rationing, and stared at the driftwood fire, winking blue and green from burning salt.
"Look out on Lewis there," said Sidony. "One time, starvin' times, a woman was 'bout to hurl herself into the sea. But a magic cow appeared, white she was, a beauty. Told her to fetch her milking pail. Everyone in Callinish could milk her every night long's they took but one pail. Then an old witch tried to milk her into a sieve. She roared once like a lion and disappeared. No more milk after that. And they say she become the Dun Cow of Dunchurch, tearing up the countryside until Guy of Warwick killed 'er. And you know 'hat's true, because one of her ribs is in a chapel dedicated to Guy in Warwickshire.
"Nothing's good for a witch but to hang her familiar, then cut crosses in her body to let the bad blood out. There was one village - I ain't saying which one, but it's near here - had its crops blighted. A witch bred big toads and hitched 'em to little plows, sent 'em across the fields and poisoned the soil. They had to move away and never came back.
"T'was probably Mornat done in - them that's missin'."
Marian disliked arguing with a host, but could not let this last comment pass. "How could one small woman harm two brawny seamen? I've seen the muscles on your menfolk. Any one could wrestle Little John Cumberland-style and take one bout out of three. And how could she get into their boat? You'll blame the poor woman for shooting stars next."
Sidony only looked at the fire. "There's ways o' working evil. There's ways."
Robin Hood rubbed his bow with a hunk of lard where the wind had streaked it with salt. "Is there some way to lift the blood curse? That would bring the herring back?"
Sidony and Marian both frowned in thought. Finally the fishwife said, "Might be possible. I've heard tell if you could raise the bodies and give 'em a Christian burial, lay their -" she skipped the word "ghosts" - "the herring might come back. But it's been three days now and they haven't come ashore."
Everyone knew what she meant. Lungs full of water, a drowned body sank at first. But after three days, gasses from corruption bloated the body and raised it. Yet neither brother had floated ashore, though the wind stayed in the northeast.
Marian pondered. "Perhaps we could float a loaf. But would anyone have quicksilver?"
The fishwife stared at the fire. "Aye, we might. T'would comfort the widows, too... Mornat would have quicksilver. She uses it in potions."
Without further ado, Sidony left the cottage, Marian following. They stopped at a house where Sidony borrowed a fresh loaf of dark rye bread. The goodwife guessed its intention, but said nothing. So little needed be said in this village, Marian noted, as if everyone's mind lay open.
Sidony plodded towards the farthest cottage, removed from the rest, and Marian nodded again. A wise woman, a witch, was shunned but tolerated because she was needed.
The young woman who answered the knock seemed in need of healing herself. Thin as the rail birds that piped along the shore, Mornat was tall with skin boiled red - far more red than chapped cheeks. Her mouth pouted, lips puffed out, and her breath stank like a cesspit. Taciturn and curt, Mornat declined to look in Marian's eyes. "Yes? What is it?" Her voice quavered, and she wiped away drool with a shaky hand. She salivated like a hungry dog, and Marian wondered why.
"Good Maid Mornat," Marian suppressed distaste at the sinister name, "we wondered if you might spare some quicksilver. I can pay in true silver."
Mornat's answer was a short nod to enter. She walked, Marian noted, gracelessly, straight up and down like a man.
The windowless cottage was tiny, and lacking a man's hand, drafty. The fire guttered and backblew, a sign the chimney was stacked wrong or clogged with soot. There was a table and single stool, a messy bed, jars and crocks for nostrums, and little else. Fresh seaweed lay on the hearth, a charm against house fires.
Mornat also did not question their begging quicksilver. She reached under the table and drew out a hollowed stump packed with chunky white clay. Calomel, Marian knew, fetched from Hamburg. She recalled Mornat often walked to Kingston Upon Hull down the coast. There'd be ships from the Continent there.
Mornat broke the white clay into an iron spider with a spoon, propped it in the fire to roast it. As she waited for the quicksilver to ooze from the clay, Mornat wafted her hand through the sweetish fumes and inhaled deeply. To Marian's curious glance, she supplied, "The breath of quicksilver is good for the lungs." Yet she coughed.
Marian nodded, but other thoughts flickered through her head. One Merry Man, Gilbert of the White Hand, had been a prisoner in the Holy Land and learned medicine from the Saracens. Greeks and Persians believed quicksilver touched by the god Mercury: an alchemist fathoming its secret might gain immortality. Yet Marian had doubts, for Mornat looked sick, for all she was strong and intelligent and composed. Pity welled in her breast, but she suspected any kindness would only be rebuffed.
Eventually, the witch lifted the pan away. Amidst the burned clay skittered globs of quicksilver. This fractious metal, Marian knew, over time hardened into true silver, also found in Germany.
With her Irish knife, Marian slit the top of the bread. Tipping the pan, Mornat dribbled in the quicksilver. Marian mashed the crust to seal in the metal.
Giving Mornat silver pennies, Marian said, "Our thanks. If this aids in locating the missing men -"
"T'will mean naught to me," Mornat interrupted. She stared from deep-sunk pouchy blue eyes. "Good day."
Peter and Robin dragged the dory to the surf as a crowd watched. A stout man named Vamond brought a proper anchor, the only one in the village, a four-pronged iron hook. Marian handed her husband the metal-laden loaf.
"Where shall we float it?" he asked.
Peter said, "I know."
Men helped launch the boat. Robin rowed, Vamond steered, and Peter in the bow shielded the precious loaf from spray.
Peter directed them north by east, marking a low-breasted hill. A quarter mile from the rocky shore, where the boom of surf was loud, he called, "Gunther and Yorg often fished off Turk's Head here. Thought it was lucky."
So saying, he leaned over the bow and laid the loaf on the waves. Robin shipped his oars, and all three men stood, sway-hipped, to see what the bread would do.
At first it only bobbed up and down. Peter ordered Robin to back water to reduce drag. Again they watched.
Vamond gasped. Robin felt hairs prickle along his arms.
As if towed by an underwater string, the bread moved towards shore. It bobbed up one side of a wave, crested, slid down, clearly moving towards land.
Not daring to speak, Peter signalled. Blades feathering the water, Robin rowed after the bread.
Row, pause, row, pause, row. They followed the waterlogged loaf for a furlong, close enough to shore to feel the boat tremble as green-gray waves exploded against seaweedy rocks. Robin noted dimples and cracks in the cliffs, the waves tortured them so. From the heights, gulls launched themselves at the boat, anticipating trash. Spooked already, Robin shuddered. The birds' cries were so mournful, like lost souls; the voices of the drowned, seafarers claimed...
"It's sinking!" Vamond yelped.
"It's sunk!" bawled Peter over the boom of surf. "Row up to it! Get the grapnel!"
Robin fought to keep the dory on the invisible sunken mark as the fishermen tangled rope and anchor in their excitement. Staring holes in the water, Peter finally lowered the grapnel straight down, Vamond feeding out. When the line bobbed slack, he'd hit bottom. Carefully, Peter swirled the rope, snapped it to make the anchor hop. Muttering, he told of thumping rocks, empty shells, a sand bar, more rocks. Still dredging, he ordered Robin to scull closer to shore.
Finally the anchor snagged and both fishermen groaned, for the drag on the rope told what it was. Robin steadied the oars and his stomach.
The men needn't pull hard, for corruption had done its work. With a bubble and hiss and belch, a missing fisherman bobbed to the surface for the last time.
It took three to haul the cold clammy corpse aboard. Each man prayed aloud.
"Saint Peter protect us," breathed Peter. "It's Yorg. He had blonde hair. Gunther was dark."
The hair was handy, for there was little else to identify the man. The body was naked, rough seas having stripped its clothes, and bloated twice normal size. Fish and crabs had chewed round its features.
Still, Robin Hood forced himself to squat and look. He'd seen worse, he affirmed, though not while pitching in a boat that reeked of dead fish and dead men. Grimly, he examined the remains as the fishermen set sail to veer from shore.
"You shouldn't defile the body," warned Peter.
"God values probity above propriety," Robin answered vaguely. Rolling Yorg over, he found the scalp cut cleanly, a flap of skin eaten away. The skull underneath was dented. The outlaw grunted. He'd seen enough open wounds to know living bone scratched easily.
"I don't understand," Vamond muttered. "How does the bread know where a body's sunk?"
"The quicksilver steers to the blood," Peter offered, "like an iron needle floated on water points north."
"More likely," suggested Robin as he poked, "the loaf is small enough to follow the strongest current. Weighted down, it floats like a body and stops in slack water, then just sinks on its own... Unless I'm daft, this man was struck from behind... But with what?.."
Immediately he knew, for the answer dug in his back: the shipped oars. He recalled both oars missing from Gunther's dory. And the bilge had been tinged red.
Peter shook his head as he took the tiller. "No surprise. They fought their lives long as only brothers can. And Gunther had a temper. So for him to cosh Yorg with an oar in a blind rage..."
Robin Hood cast about the gray roiling waves. "Where's Gunther then?"
"Where indeed?" asked Marian.
Robin shrugged. He walked the strand with Marian, glad to be off the water now he'd seen what it could do. Far behind, the village held a Mass for Yorg. The outlaws left them to it: rather than weep and pray, they wanted to talk and think.
"Perhaps," mused Robin, "Gunther did fly into a rage, killed his brother, then threw himself after? Men with tempers are often mad turn and turn about."
Marian touched her little finger to her mouth. "Could someone else have killed both?"
"Who?" asked Robin. "I couldn't kill two fishermen with a sword, they're so tough and strong..."
"He was struck from behind. A child could do that."
"... Yorg was ready to come up: one tug freed him. Gunther should have washed up by now."
"Unless he went out to sea."
"Not with this wind. It'd peel the bark off a tree." Robin had tied his hat cord under his chin. "Wait... What if Gunther's not a body?"
Robin froze in his tracks. "If we don't have his body, when by all rights we should, maybe he's not - Jesus, Mary, and Joseph! The gulls!"
Marian glanced overhead, saw only tiny black-tipped terns. "What gulls?"
"Come on!" Robin snatched her hand and dragged her stumbling down the strand.
"Are you sure you're not just showing off?" Marian asked.
Robin took Peter's dory without asking permission. He and Marian manhandled it to the surf, then Robin grabbed his wife by the waist and heaved her aboard, pushed off, hopped belly-down over the gunwale. Rowing would take too long, he claimed, so he raised the sail and set the sheets as best he could. The sail luffed, flapping, but they steered in the right direction, the sharp prow slicing the waves, the bluff beam riding comfortably up and down.
"Will you please tell me what we're hunting?"
Robin told her. Afterwards, she was silent, straining to hear over the wind.
Off Turk's Head, the boat pitched as waves steepened near the rocks. Robin dumped the sail in a heap and grabbed the oars. He rowed closer to shore than last time. Marian watched waves boom and spume explode. "Rob, are you sure -"
"Hush and listen!" He ceased the creaking of oars. They bobbed, the rocks coming closer, the booming louder, listening until their ears rang.
Impatient, Robin shipped oars, braced his back against the mast, cupped his hands and bellowed. "Hellooooooo!"
Listening. Slap of water under the prow. A warbling keen of disturbed gulls. The smash of surf.
Then, very faint, "Helllllll..."
"An echo!" bleated Marian.
"No! Hush! Hellooooooooooo!"
Robin scanned the cliffside, head wagging. "Whence came it, Marian?"
The Vixen of Sherwood marked the rocks. A shoulder of cliff jutted like an upright axe blade. "I think there!"
"Methinks also! Hang on!"
"Rob!" Marian scrooched her bottom in the tiny seat at the prow, clung to the gunwales with white knuckles. "What are you doing?"
"Hang on!" he roared. Craning his head around, hauling with mighty sinews, Robin rowed for a gap in the rocks no wider than the dory's ribs.
A steepening wave curled around their stern like a giant hand and hurled them towards shore. Kept arrow-straight by the outlaw's rowing, the dory lifted high, hung just under the breaking crest of the huge wave and -
Marian screamed and covered her eyes.
- crashed down into the gap and stuck fast.
Waves clawed and sucked at the boat's strakes, but couldn't dislodge it, so gushed over the gunwales instead. Marian yelped, but her husband hoicked her from her perch, hugged her around the waist, and jumped.
They plunged breast-high. The swirling salty chill made them gasp. Robin Hood fought for footing on shifting pebbles and slime. Straining against the undertow, he broke clear, trotted onto the narrow shingle, plunked his wife down with a grin.
Wet to her bosom, Marian could only gasp and nod at his brilliance. Robin jerked a shaking thumb towards the craggy cliff. "Wh-wh-wh-which?"
Marian couldn't talk, couldn't even point, so she led the way. The bright spring wind cut like the whips of Satan's imps.
Shuffling across rocks polished smooth by the pounding tide, they clung to the cliffside and crept towards the promontory like an upthrust knife blade. At half-tide, the surf swirled around their knees, sucked at their feet, tried to trip them again and again. Timing slack water, Marian, then Robin, zipped around the corner.
There, washed by waves, was a cave mouth not waist high. Marian, in front, saw daylight wink on swirling water inside. Watching the waves, with Robin bracing her waist, Marian scooched inside the cave. After the next wave burst around his legs, Robin slid after.
Inside was a chamber big as a cottage. Daylight spilled through a grass-edged hole at the top of the cave. A dirt slide angled down to a natural rock ledge just above their heads.
On the ledge lay a fisherman.
His face was pinched with hunger and cold, his clothes sopping. A huge scab marked the back of his head, and his right leg jutted at an odd angle.
But he was alive, staring with haunted eyes.
"Gunther," said Robin, "we've come to take you home."
The fisherman began to cry.
Robin offered Marian ten fingers up to the ledge. "You know more of healing than I. Tend him. I'll see if the boat's lifted loose on the tide. We'll need it to get him home, otherwise I'll have to carry him the long way 'round."
Marian took the boot up, knelt beside Gunther. The fishermen had expended the last of his strength shouting for help. As he swooned, Marian checked for damage, tried to figure how to splint his leg for transporting.
Robin Hood crouched at the cave mouth, timed the incoming waves - higher now - crabbed through the hole, quickly grabbed the cliff and inched back. He found the boat stuck fast, half-swamped. Foam churned along the port strakes: he'd stove them beaching. He wasn't sure he could have rowed the dory out against the tide anyway. Better he walked the bluffs with the wounded man on his back while Marian ran ahead for help.
Rising tide crashed about him. Fighting for footing, Robin would have been sucked away by the undertow if not for steely fingers on the cliff face. The cave mouth was almost drowned, and he had to hold his breath and half-submerge to claw inside. Icy water almost stopped his heart.
Inside, gasping, blinded by seawater, he looked up at his wife and the fisherman. Gunther had blacked out, and Marian tussled to bind his legs together with rags.
Above them stood a third figure.
Dark-clad, wind-whipped, the woman loomed over the unsuspecting Marian, a knife held high.
The Vixen of Sherwood looked down, saw her husband's expression, glanced behind -
- and jerked aside as the knife slashed down at her back.
Marian shrieked as Mornat's cold blade sheared her deerhide jerkin and wool shirt and kissed her ribs. The madwoman hurled the knife high again.
Robin had no bow to shoot, no rock to pitch, so he threw his big Irish knife. His famous aim held true. The weapon cartwheeled, spanked flat against Mornat's breast, hard enough to rock her.
Marian reared half-erect on the narrow ledge. Unable to turn, she slammed her elbow into the woman's brisket.
Arms flailing, the murderess toppled from the ledge backwards.
Marian and Mornat screamed together, until the madwoman's head struck the rock wall.
"She slid down that chimney hole, got behind me. I didn't hear her for surf noise." Marian hissed as Robin wrapped a crude bandage around her naked ribs.
"She must have seen us from shore. She was always walking the bluffs."
"Aye, alone," said Marian. "Gunther told me a little. Mornat was always pestering him. That night, while readying their boat for the herring, she startled them in the dark. Furious, they told her to bugger off. She struck both from behind with an oar. She killed Yorg and stunned Gunther, beat him and broke his leg, then tumbled them in the boat and pushed out. Yorg she tipped overboard. Gunther she hid in this sea cave. She fed him potions to make him love her."
"The strength of the mad," Robin muttered.
It took a while, but Robin eventually boosted Marian through the chimney hole, then Gunther. Marian helped hoist, gasping with pain from her burning ribs.
Dead Mornat they left to the sea for now.
Grunting, Robin shifted the fisherman across his brawny shoulders. From the top of Turk's Head they saw distant Wigby like a colony of hermit crabs. They started walking through the bent yellow grass.
"T'was some poison she mucked with, is my guess. It drove her mad," Robin huffed. When his wife didn't answer, he glanced over. "Marian, you're crying!"
"Yes, I'm crying!" Marian snapped. "You men! Quick to blame the moon and stars for your own faults! It wasn't quicksilver killed that poor woman! She was cursed before she was born! Cut from her dead mother, christened with that horrid name - `The living from the dead!' - so she's reminded of it every time someone speaks to her! And none would, for she was ostracized like a leper! Begged to heal all and sundry, then shunned for fear of ghosts or contamination or plain spite! Growing up without a mother, never learning a girl's graces and arts! Never to marry, never to know love! Suffering in silence while the girls chatter of wedding plans, knowing she'd never be a bride! It wasn't anything earthly killed that girl, it was lack of love!"
She sobbed now, chilled and wounded. Robin shifted his burden to catch her hand. "Don't cry, Marian. I hate to see you cry."
"Don't touch me! I need to cry! No one ever cried for that poor lonely love-starved creature, so it's time someone did, if only a stranger!"
Robin clucked his tongue, saved his breath for walking. Together they trudged along the bluff.
The sea wind pushed them along.