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The Thirteenth Summer

The Thirteenth Summer

By

Artemis Greenleaf

 

Shakespir EDITION

PUBLISHED BY:

Black Mare Books

Houston, Texas

www.blackmarebooks.com

 

 

ISBN: 978-1-941502-72-3

 

The Thirteenth Summer

Copyright © 2014 by Artemis Greenleaf

 

All rights reserved. Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise) without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.

 

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to Shakespir.com and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

 

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, brands, media, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. The author acknowledges the trademarked status and trademark owners of various products referenced in this work of fiction, which have been used without permission. The publication/use of these trademarks is not authorized, associated with, or sponsored by the trademark owners.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Thirteenth Summer

By

Artemis Greenleaf

 

 

 

A Blackthorne Universe Short

 

 

“I told your father you were too young for this,” Kel said as he unbuttoned his leather doublet.

Fria held her tongue. She huddled in her bridal gown, shivering in the shadows of Kel’s large canopied bed.

“Come here,” he said.

Swallowing hard, Fria complied. She did not see a well-developed, potent man shedding his clothes, but a towering male who outweighed her by at least two fold and was orders of magnitude stronger than her. A threat.

“You’re hardly more than a child.” He lifted her chin and studied her face, his meaty hand warm against her throat. “Sit over there,” he told her, gesturing to an overstuffed chair by a fireplace large enough for four tall men to easily stand abreast.

Again, she did as she was bidden. Vicious beatings at her father’s hand had trained her to be compliant.

Kel peeled back the brocaded silk bedspread and pulled the top sheet off the bed. Then he rolled up his sleeve, drew a dagger from his boot, and slid the blade across the back of his wrist. He blotted the blood with the sheet, and held it against the wound until the bleeding stopped. After he rolled his sleeve back down, he took a large red apple from the bowl of fruit on a table by the door. The apple crunched as he bit into it, and he artistically mussed his hair in the mirror as he chewed.

“Hadlea will be up later with some food for you, and she’ll show you to your apartments. Pray, do not think ill of me for rejoining the wedding banquet. It is my duty as its host.” His hazel brown eyes were warm, and the left corner of his mouth lifted into a half-smile.

Fria nodded.

Kel tossed the apple core into the chamber pot and scooped up the bloodied sheet.

“In the morning then,” he bowed slightly to her as he left.

The echo of boots on stone faded. A cheer went up from the wedding guests, and Fria shuddered. She could only guess that he had held up the bloody sheet, and they’d applauded what they thought was her blood. She was glad that her mother and her younger sister, Marian, had left immediately after the ceremony.

Fria sat back in the chair and scowled at the fire. “Well, this complicates things,” she said, running her index finger around the edges of the emerald and sapphire ring that glinted in the firelight.

Fria’s father and Kel juggled an uneasy truce between their neighboring fiefdoms, which were separated by a stretch of old forest peasants called the Witches’ Wood. Elder daughter Fria had been promised to Kel at birth. Twelve summers had come and gone, and the raw spring was tearing its way out of the belly of the cruel winter. She’d hidden the evidence that she had crossed from childhood to womanhood as long as she could, but the chambermaid had found her bloodstained petticoat and betrayed her to her mother. Her father sent a herald to Kel, and the wedding was announced.

She had been taught her entire life that Kel was a brutal tyrant, and yet her father eagerly served her up as a blood sacrifice for the sake of a political union. She was disappointed, but not surprised, when she had been summoned to her father’s chambers in the dead of night. He and his spymaster waited for her there.

“Open it,” her father had said, handing her an intricately carved wood box that covered the palm of her hand.

The spymaster shared a look with her father, “It is said to be of dwarvish make.”

Fria had lifted the lid and discovered the sparkling green and blue ring that now graced her right hand. The spymaster had shown her the trick to opening the concealed compartment underneath the emerald. It contained a noxious potion that, once the marriage had been consummated and Fria was with child, she was to pour into her sleeping husband’s ear. She was practically a crusader, on a mission to rid the world of a wicked and violent man. The thought of being a crusader had appealed to her, as her cousin had just returned, full of tales of valor and exotic places, from battling the infidels in the Holy Lands.

However, Kel had not brutalized her, as her mother warned he would. Not only did he not demand her wifely duty in his bed, he was sending her to her own apartments. Could it be that he was not the ogre she had always been told he was, or did he suspect treachery from his young bride? Either way, she would have to be constantly on her guard. If she found herself liking her new husband and not following through with his murder, her father would likely have her assassinated. If Kel was merely suspicious, rather than kind, any whiff of treason would almost certainly mean her death.

The bedroom door opened, and a dour matron in a grey frock stepped in. “Come with me, Miss,” she said.

“Who are you?” Fria asked, her heart fluttering under her ribs like a terrified bird. The woman couldn’t possibly have heard her thoughts, yet Fria felt she’d been caught in the act of murder.

The woman’s stony face was unreadable. “I’m Hadlea, Miss. Here to show you to your apartments.”

“I see,” Fria replied. She glanced around the bedchamber, forgetting for a moment she had no belongings there, and followed Hadlea down the corridor.

A young man, scarcely older than Fria, passed them. She recognized John from the wedding. His mother had died in childbirth, and her new stepson was clearly a stripling version of his father.

“It is late for you to be about, sir,” Hadlea said.

“Rolf sent for me. Shadow is foaling!” He glanced at Fria. “Would you like to come see?”

Tsch. “You know that would be unseemly,” Hadlea scolded. “Do not shame your father with such rash behavior.”

John forced a smile at Fria. “Goodnight, then.” He hurried down the hall.

Fria would have loved to have seen the birth of the foal, but she knew that going to the stables with her husband’s virile son would require more than one chaperone. Besides, she was meant to be recovering in her apartments from her deflowering. How would it look if she were traipsing about the estate as if nothing had happened?

 



 

The days passed, not unpleasantly. The daylight lengthened and the darkness shrank. Fria only saw Kel at supper, and not always then. John kept busy with his studies, both of literature and weaponry, but especially with the staff. When she saw him, he was friendly, but their paths rarely crossed, save for meal times. Even as the household teemed with servants, bustling with the estate’s upkeep, she was alone in the rambling manor, with only a small dog of uncertain parentage for company. She had a lady-in-waiting named Blodwyn who was always at her side, but she never spoke unless spoken to, and then only answered with a “Yes, milady” or a “No, milady.”

At least Kel had an extensive library and a stable full of excellent horses.

On Midsummer’s Day, Kel came to her bedchamber early in the morning, before her servants had arrived to dress her. Pip, her little dog, made a terrible racket when Kel had knocked on the door, and she was hard-pressed to quiet him.

“Come riding with me, milady. You have not surveyed your domain.”

“So early? It is still dark,” Fria replied, trying to put him off.

“Rolf has already saddled the horses. It is a long ride around my lands.”

She had no recourse but to do as she was asked. “Yes, milord. Shall I meet you downstairs when I am dressed?”

“I’ll wait for you up here,” he said.

Fria’s jaw opened and closed. It was his right, as her husband, to see her undressed.

“…in the corridor,” he finished, and closed the door softly behind him.

She chose a linen gown that was closest to what the common folk wore, although it wasn’t especially close. She pulled on her travel-stained cloak, the one she had arrived from her father’s house wearing, and fastened it. Night’s chill would still be lingering at this early hour.

“Come, Pip,” she said to the dog, and the two of them joined Kel in the hallway.

At the stables, Rolf waited in the yard with two horses – Kel’s black stallion, and a dapple grey mare for Fria. She wished that she was riding astride, instead of to the left. She was an excellent rider, when she was allowed to ride properly. But today, Kel would be leading her horse around, as if she were nothing but luggage. Pip danced around the horses and yapped. Fria’s grey stamped her feet.

“That one’ll never keep up, milady,” Rolf said, nodding toward the dog.

“Would you hand him up to me?”

Rolf glanced at Kel, who nodded. The stableman picked Pip up gingerly and handed him to Fria. The mare flicked her ears backward, but made no effort to dislodge the dog.

Fria nearly came to disaster when she caught one of her long bell sleeves between her knee and the lumpy pack saddle she was riding sideways on. As they rode, Kel pointed out various landmarks and points of interest, but he said little else. The sun was nearly overhead when they came the stretch of ancient forest that separated Kel’s lands and Fria’s father’s. She had seen it many times before, and she didn’t like it. The trees were huge and dark, and seemed to be outside of time itself, older than the very bones of the earth. Kel turned his horse to a path through the forest.

“The Witches’ Wood! Why are we going in there?” Fria asked.

“Part of the tour, milady,” Kel answered.

He slipped off of his horse, tied him to a tree, then tied up Fria’s mare before rummaging in his pack. When he turned around, he had a length of rope in his hands.

“What is that for, milord?”

“A unicorn trap.”

Kel helped her slide off the big grey horse. “And pray tell, why do you require a unicorn of all things?” she asked, fearing she would not like the answer.

“I have it on good authority that someone is planning to poison me.”

“Milord!” Fria exclaimed, glad she’d left her ring at the manor. “Have you any idea who or why?”

“Perhaps,” he said.

Reluctantly, Fria followed Kel into the forest. Even the squirrels were dark and mysterious here. A few dozen yards in, Kel stopped.

“This tree will suffice,” he said.

“For what purpose?” Fria asked.

“My unicorn trap,” he replied. “How could I possibly catch one without a virgin?”

Realization broke over Fria like a sudden downpour. She wouldn’t be able to run down the path, leap on the mare and gallop away, dressed as she was. And even if she could, where would she go? She had no money, nothing of any value, and she would be unwelcome, at best, in her father’s house, having failed to either become pregnant or murder her husband.

Fria backed away from Kel until her way was blocked by one of the ancient trees.

“You might want to sit down,” he said, uncoiling the rope.

Pip barked fiercely, but Kel lunged at him, and he fled into the bushes, yelping. Fria hit Kel, beating his broad chest as hard as she could, but he only smiled at her. She slid down the tree trunk, and Kel tied her to it, not so tightly as to be painful, but not loosely enough for her to escape without help.

“The alchemists say,” he told her, “that unicorn’s horn is proof against any poison.”

“But, milord, unicorns do not exist.”

Kel frowned with mock sympathy. “Then you may be here a while.” He started down the path. “I’ll send my gamekeeper around later to see if you’ve caught my unicorn,” he said over his shoulder.

Fria watched Kel mount his own horse and trot away, taking the grey mare with him. Tears rolled down her cheeks, and wracking sobs scuffed her tender throat against the rough hemp rope. She couldn’t believe he would just leave her to die in the forest. Pip whimpered and skulked out of the shrubbery, shivering and licking her hands.

The shadows lengthened, and Fria had stopped crying. Her hands were raw and bloody from struggling against the obstinate ropes. Pip sat with his head in her lap. She had had neither food nor drink all day, and was feeling faint. She closed her eyes, just to rest them for a bit – after all, they were sore and swollen from crying, and her head throbbed. The next thing she knew, something was crawling on her face. Her eyes flew open, and she found herself looking into the sapphire eyes of a unicorn, his whiskers gently grazing her cheek.

It startled when she moved, but didn’t go far. This one looked to be a baby. It was perhaps as tall as a yard, with an impeccable white coat that practically glowed in the dense twilight, and it danced around her on cloven hooves. Its wispy mane stood on end, and the creature’s spiral horn was only a hand’s breadth long.

Fria wondered if hunger had caused her to have peculiar visions. But the colt left tracks in the soft dirt of the path as it galloped off in answer to a vaguely horse-like call some distance behind Fria. She closed her eyes and took in a deep breath. Rain was in the air. At least she might get a drink soon. When she opened her eyes again, the tracks were still there in the dirt. Surely they were the tracks of a deer, or perhaps a wild boar, and her famished brain had concocted a unicorn, based on her conversation with Kel.

A familiar sound caught her attention. Hoofbeats. A horse was galloping in her direction. Fria shrank against the tree, not knowing if the oncoming rider was a friend or foe. Night was falling fast, and she would be at the mercy of the wolves soon. Still, they might treat her more kindly than the wrong sort of traveler. She tried to silence her breathing by taking shallow breaths, grateful that Kel had left her far enough off the path as not to be easily seen in the gloom.

The sound of hoofbeats changed as the approaching horse broke into a trot and turned down the forest path, muted by fallen leaves. If the rider stayed on the path he would pass her by, unless he looked very carefully into the darkening forest.

“Fria?” the rider called. “Fria!”

“John?” she answered, perplexed. Pip barked a friendly hello, his tail thumping against Fria’s leg.

The rider leapt off his horse as soon as he reached her and drew his sword. With one stroke, he severed the ropes that bound her to the trunk. He helped her to stand up, but her legs were wobbly – they’d fallen half asleep from being pressed against the hard roots of the tree.

“How did –” Fria started.

“There’s no time.” John pressed a fabric packet into her left hand. “The gamekeeper’s boy is coming for you. With some of his drunken friends. It will go badly for you if they find you.” He drew a silver and black dagger from his belt and gave it to her. “Go. I’ll try to throw them off the scent.”

In two strides, he had pulled himself onto his horse. Fria stood in the middle of the path, dumbfounded by this turn of events.

“Go!” he shouted at her before he wheeled his horse around and galloped off.

Fria and Pip fled into the trees. She stumbled over tree roots in the dark, feet numb and clumsy, hampered by the unpleasant pins-and-needles sensation in her legs as the blood flow returned. Her long dress caught on every bush and thorn. It was slow going, but at last she heard the sound of flowing water. She knew a creek ran through the middle of the forest.

Water! She ran down into the ravine, set down the packet and the dagger, and flung herself into the stream, guzzling like an animal. Pip was more restrained, crouching on the bank and lapping noisily.

When her thirst was finally sated, she waded out of the creek, her dress heavy and water-logged. She groped around the area where she’d left John’s gifts until she found them. The fabric packet smelled of Hadlea’s glorious bread. She shared the bounty with Pip, but they were both still hungry when it was gone.

“I suppose we’d best tighten our belts and carry on,” she told the little dog. “At least we’re not in my father’s oubliette.”

Fria tore off the ragged remains of her impractical sleeves and used the dagger to split her long skirt so she could move more easily. Just as she was about to leave, the glare of a lantern caught her eye.

“Wot makes you think she came this way?” grumbled a male voice.

“It’s a little scrap of linen caught in the bush here, innit? Linen don’t grow on trees.”

Leaves crunched under their feet as they got closer. Fria crouched under the edge of the ravine. Pip started to growl, but she circled her fingers around his muzzle and blew in his ear.

“Wot’s that, then?” asked the second voice.

“It’s a fox, I reckon,” answered the first. “Look over there. That’s a lantern for sure. Bet it’s her.”

The footsteps receded into the distance.

“Are you hurt?”

Fria whipped her head around. A shadowy figure stood before her in the gloom. The voice, however, sounded female.

“Not too badly, ma’am,” she replied.

“You can call me Ash, not ma’am. Not to worry – they’ll be following that Will-o-the-Wisp for miles.”

“Good riddance to them,” Fria replied.

“What brings you to the forest this time of night?” Ash asked.

“I’ve been here since midday. Tied to a tree. My…husband said he was trying to catch a unicorn, but I’m sure he meant to leave me for the wolves. Although I hadn’t thought it would be the two-legged kind.”

“None worse. I can show you to the edge of the forest, if you’d like.”

“Your offer is very kind, but I’ve nowhere to go. I think I might be better off staying here.”

“Do you know how to hunt?”

“No.”

“Fish?”

Fria shook her head. “But what else am I going to do?” Pent-up tears burst their dams and streamed down her face. A sob escaped her throat. “I have nowhere to turn.”

“Are you asking for my help, then?”

“I would beg of you any help that you could provide.”

“Come with me, then,” Ash said putting her hand on Fria’s shoulder. “I don’t live far from here.”

The walk through the impenetrable dark of the forest seemed longer than it was, and eventually, they arrived at a small cabin in the woods. Thick vines embraced the walls and roof, and Fria could have believed the house had sprouted from a seed at the dawn of the forest. The cottage wasn’t large, but light spilled cheerily out of the windows. Ash opened the front door and they went inside. Some trick of light made it seem much bigger inside than out.

“Ashleigh Rowan! When will you stop trying to rescue every livin’ thing you find in the woods. I’ve told you those don’t make good pets,” exclaimed a woman in an apron, who waved a wooden spoon.

“She’s not a pet, Mother. She asked for my help.”

“Did she now?” Her eyes rolled skyward.

“I suppose you’ll be wanting some dinner, then? What’s your name, child?”

“Fria,” she replied.

“Fria,” she repeated. “You can call me Mrs. Rowan. And wash up in the basin over there.”

Pip barked.

“And who is this wee thing?” Mrs. Rowan asked.

“That’s Pip. He’s been my only friend and companion since the wedding.”

“A wedding, you say! Bit young for a bride, aren’t you?”

“Yes,” Fria said, staring down at the worn oak floor.

“Go on with ya, clean yourself up.”

The meal – crusty bread, vegetable stew, roasted potatoes, and berries – wasn’t the rich fare that Fria was used to, but it was the most satisfying one she ever remembered having. While they ate, she told them of her wedding and how she came to be in the forest. She left out the part of the story that contained the poison ring, as she feared they would think badly of her and cast her back out into the forest.

“Can you not simply return to your father’s house?” Ash asked.

“The wedding was nothing but an alliance strategy. Kel has rejected me, and thus the alliance. My father is certain to blame me. And the worst of it is that the marriage was never consummated, even though false evidence was presented that it was. That makes me useless to him. I would be afraid for my life, should I return to his house.”

Mrs. Rowan frowned. “Ash, you’re leaving in three days’ time. Why don’t you take this one, and her pup, with ya?”

“They’d not accept a human for training, would they?”

“They might do. She’d be no worse off there than here.”

 



 

It had been seven years and a day since Ash and Fria had left together, bound for the strange land of Faery, not found on any map. They’d spent their time learning woodcraft, weapons, and demon lore. Fria had grown from a near-helpless girl to a strong and fierce woman who was deadly with a sword, but even deadlier with a bow. So deadly, in fact, that she was the leader of a team whose sole purpose was to hunt and capture demons. They sat at the wooden table in Ashleigh Rowan’s mother’s house, drinking cold well water and eating bread and butter. Two others shared their meal, Tuck – the Abbey Lubber, and Alan – the gancanagh. Ash herself was a descendant of the Tuatha de Danann, the folk who had lived in Ireland for centuries before humans had arrived there.

Demons had recently established a trade route through what Fria had once known as the Witches’ Wood. Her team was here to stop them.

“Does your mum not have any ale, then Scarlet?” Tuck asked. He had nicknamed Ash ‘Scarlet’ because she had recently taken to wearing a red cloak.

“Not a drop. Now stop asking about it,” she replied. “You know,” she looked at Fria, “should anyone ask who you are, you can’t tell them your given name. Too many people know of you here. It wouldn’t be good to set tongues wagging.”

“What do you suggest, then?” Fria asked. She adjusted a strap on her leather armor.

“Good Lady Fria

Out to hunt the goblin

Locals can’t know

Who’s doing the robbin’,” sang Alan.

“That does not even rhyme,” Ash said.

Fria shrugged. “Robbin’ the goblin? Still,” she tilted her head to one side. “Robin’s a common enough name.”

“You’re forgetting one thing,” Tuck said. “We’re short a team member. Don’t know why Bran left us in the lurch.”

“I think he didn’t want to be parted from his sweetheart. We may be only four, but we can at least get the lay of the land until we get a replacement.” Fria pulled on her green cloak.

“You mean now, I suppose,” Tuck said, almost sullen.

 

The team followed the banks of the creek through the wood. After a while, Ash’s sharp ears detected the noise of an approaching group. The voices were gruff, possibly demon. Fria and company hid themselves, and became invisible to mortal eyes. The company of men passed single-file over the narrow bridge just in front of Fria, and while they may have been outlaws, they were not demons. After they had passed, Fria rose and dusted herself off. Her hood, which had helped to conceal her in the tall grass, was still pulled up, obscuring her face in shadow.

“I think we should cross here,” she said, and stepped onto the makeshift bridge, facing her team and taking a few steps backward.

“In a moment, perhaps,” said Alan. He looked past her to the opposite bank.

Fria glanced over her shoulder. A large man, carrying a heavy staff, had started across the bridge from the other side. An imposing figure, he had matured a great deal in the last seven years, but Fria knew him in an instant. John.

It was too late to hide, and she feared he might recognize her. She nocked an arrow and drew her bowstring. Lowering her voice as deeply as she could, she called out, “Sir, I was on this bridge first. Kindly remove yourself so that I may pass.”

“I am already halfway over. You move. And do put down your bow. I mean you no harm.” John continued across the bridge.

Fria found herself in an untenable position. She could not shoot John in cold blood, but he was so much bigger than her that she wasn’t sure she was strong enough to win in a fair fight. Why hadn’t she just said nothing and let him pass, hiding her identity under the hood of her green cloak? She did not want to appear weak in front of her team, either. If she backed down to a mere man, how could she stand up to demons?

Alan was nearest to her. She seized his magic-infused staff and strode out onto the bridge. Each step caused it to creak and shudder. When she reached John, she stopped, planting the staff in front of her.

“Go back, or I shall knock you off this bridge,” Fria said in her deepest, gruffest voice.

“Go back yourself,” he replied, flipping the bottom of his staff up into his other hand so that it was parallel to the ground.

“A challenge, then. The winner crosses the bridge, and the loser takes a bath.”

“As you wish,” he said, and pushed forward with the staff.

Fria stopped his advance with her staff held at his chest. John dropped his staff’s tip to push her block to the side.

Back and forth they went, feinting, parrying and swinging. Fria did not wish to injure him, just knock him into the creek. She saw her opportunity, and attacked, but his staff whizzed past her face and caught the edge of her hood, pushing it back from her face. For a full second, John gazed at her, dumbstruck.

Snap! One of the boards gave way, and she toppled into the water.

“Fria!” John bellowed, and jumped in after her.

The water was not deep, but the current was strong, and the rocks were slippery. It was perhaps a hundred yards before they could extract themselves from the stream.

“I feared you were dead,” John said, helping Fria to her feet.

“Some forest folk took me in. You mustn’t tell your father that I’m alive, I beg of you.”

John closed his eyes. “My father is dead.”

Fria squeezed his hand. “That is ill news.”

“He would not have left you to perish. Father told the gamekeeper to fetch you, but he was not well, so he told his boy to go. Unfortunately, he and his companions had been at the ale house, and their thoughts were befuddled by drink. It was pure chance I heard them as I was returning to the stables. My father just wanted you to know that he knew about the poisoner’s ring, and warn you against using it.”

“My father’s spymaster gave it to me the night before the wedding. I was told to pour the contents in Kel’s ear while he slept, once I was with child.”

“Would you have murdered my father?”

“No. Your father was kind to me, and he never touched me. Even had he been otherwise, I could not have completed my task, although I expect my own father would have killed me for sparing him. I never wished to be his wife, much less his executioner.” Fria paused. “I have often wondered why you didn’t just take me with you instead of setting me loose in the forest.”

“I have wondered that myself. I had been strictly forbidden from being with you without a chaperone. I believed that you would simply follow the path through the wood and return to your father. I did not know you feared him so. When you did not arrive safely at his home, I searched for you for weeks.”

“Robin! Are you hurt?” shouted Ash, from the far side of the creek.

“Robin?” asked John.

“My nom de geurre, as it were,” Fria replied. “Yes, I am unharmed,” she called out to Ash, Alan, and Tuck. “Just renewing my acquaintance with an old friend.”

“There is a sturdier bridge further downstream,” Ash yelled. “Let us make our way there.”

“Agreed,” Fria shouted back.

The fae folk moved quickly and soundlessly through the trees, and were soon out of sight. John moved quietly, for such a large man, but to Fria’s well-trained ears, he was as loud as a herd of cattle.

“I suppose you will be headed back to your estate. Pray keep my secret – it is best that none know I am here,” Fria said.

“As my stepmother, you are part of my household.”

“As I told you, the marriage was never consummated.”

“It is just as well, then. When my father was falsely imprisoned and then executed, I lost all claim to his holdings. I have been living here in the forest for the past three years. Strange I have not seen you in the wood.”

“I have been away, with the kin of my companions. Pray, tell me how you came to such misfortune.” She squeezed his hand again, but this time he held onto hers. Fria did not resist.

“The peace between our fathers’ houses was ever unsettled, and became much worse after your disappearance. The old Sheriff passed away, and the king appointed your father in his place. My father and I attended the banquet held in the new sheriff’s honor. My father suddenly fell faint – I suspect his wine was drugged – and he was carried to a bedchamber. The next morning when he awoke, the chambermaid lay dead on the floor, and blood was smeared on his sword and hands. No one doubted that the scene was fabricated, but as your father was the sheriff, there was nothing that could be done to save him.”

“I deeply regret that this has happened. My father has much to answer for.” Fria had no doubt that a man who could send his thirteen year old daughter as a bride-assassin was capable of executing his rival under fictitious charges, not to mention taking the life of the unfortunate chambermaid. “Do you know,” she asked, “what has become of my sister, Marian?”

“She is betrothed to the pernicious Guy of Gisbourne, who has usurped my father’s estate.”

“Do you know when the wedding will take place?”

“A fortnight, if the proclamations in the village are to be believed.”

“Not if I can help it.” An idea both absurd and genius popped into Fria’s head. “If there was a way to avenge your father’s wrongful death and possibly regain your holdings, would you pursue it?”

“Wholeheartedly.”

The three fae approached them. They had already crossed the bridge and come around the opposite path.

“We thought you’d never arrive,” grumbled Tuck.

“I think,” said Fria, reaching up to grip John’s shoulder, “that we have found our fifth member.”

 



 

It had taken some convincing on Fria’s part, but John (Tuck had ironically nicknamed him “Little John,” because of his size), had proven himself invaluable. Because he’d been living in the forest for the past three years, he knew all about the routines of those who travelled the wood regularly. Fria had decided that the best way to bring the demons out was to start intercepting their merchant caravans through the forest. To add insult to injury, they would freely distribute among the local villagers any of the demons’ gold that they should acquire.

Now Tuck had an inordinate fondness for good ale, and insisted on acquiring some, and by some, he meant an entire wagonload of casks. Fria had decided to put this acquisition to good use. Ash had discovered that one of the merchant demons was a silk trader. John knew that a silk trader passed through the forest just after midday every Tuesday. Most likely, they were one and the same – silk was uncommon in this part of the world.

They parked the wagonload of ale across the path where it narrowed, so there was no way around, and removed one wheel. Tuck, wearing the brown robe of a monk, sat in the driver’s seat. The other four waited in ambush. Before long, the purveyor of silks and his company of two walked down the path, with a donkey pulling a covered wain. The largest of the three was dressed as a fighter, with leather armor, a sword on his left thigh, and a dagger on his right. The other two were cloaked and hooded, one in grey, the other in tan. Demons could disguise themselves as men, and easily fool actual humans, but their artifices were no match for the fae’s keen discernment. Ash whistled once like a kestrel, and twice in the voice of a common redstart. Fria knew that one of the party was a demon and two were human.

“A pox on that crooked sheriff and his bloody taxes,” grumbled the man in grey.

“The price of business,” shrugged the tan-clad one.

“Hey! Get out of our way, you!” growled the fighter.

“I should very much like to,” responded Tuck with a smile, “but as you can see, my wagon is broken. I’ve sent my squire off to the village for a wheelwright, but he has yet to return.”

“MacDonald! Help the friar move his cart,” said the figure cloaked in brown.

Fria caught a yellow flash of eye in the dark under his hood, and knew he was the demon. Once the grumbling fighter had his shoulder under the wagon, Fria rose, bowstring drawn, and let fly an arrow that pinned the grey-clad human to a tree. It passed through his shirt and cloak, but not his flesh, and drove deep into the trunk. Little John stepped out of the shrubbery, sword drawn, and held the fighter at bay.

Alan had the most unusual weapon. In his hands, he held a clear crystal pyramid. The top third of it twisted to one side, revealing a vacant chamber. Alan crept up behind the demon and touched him with the device. Instantly, he was converted to a fluid and pulled into the pyramid, as his compatriots watched with morbid fascination. With a flick of his wrist, Alan snapped it closed and the essence of the demon swirled red and orange inside his prison. John also stood flabbergasted, for he had never seen such a thing.

That gave MacDonald the advantage he needed to slip out from under the beer wagon and draw his sword. Fria quickly hobbled him with an arrow to the calf, and Ash relieved the grey-clad man of his gold-filled purse.

Fria, whose face was hidden by her green hood, took the pyramid from Alan and lowered her voice, saying, “The wicked are not welcome here. Robin of the Wood and company will see to it that they are brought to justice.”

“Robin of the Hood, more like,” snarled the man in grey. “Show your face, coward.”

Fria nocked an arrow and sent it flying. It struck the tree, between the edge of the man’s hood and his ear. “It is only by my good graces that you yet live. Pray, mind your tongue, lest it be silenced.”

Ash used her dagger to cut a strip from the demon’s cast off cloak. Little John snapped the fletching end off the arrow’s shaft, pulled it out of the fighter’s leg, and Ash wrapped the wound in the strip of cloak to stop the bleeding.

“We have no quarrel with you, only your masters,” she said.

John used one of the casks as a fulcrum and a heavy staff as a lever so he and Alan could lift the edge of the wagon while Tuck put the wheel back on. When it was done, Alan climbed up on the seat next to Tuck, Ash perched on the casks behind them, and Fria and John sat on the back end of the wagon. Tuck clucked to the horses, and the wagon rolled toward the village, leaving the fighter and the man in grey to make their own way back to town.

“You have learned a lot in seven years’ time. The king’s own archers could not best you,” John said. He shook his head. “And all this time, I thought alchemists and priests were the only ones who had dealings with demons, nor did I know they could pass as men. They have a much different visage than I suspected.”

“Their true faces are like those of serpents; yet, they are good at fooling the eye. It is similar to what the fae call ‘glamour.’ And I would say that you have improved yourself as well, since last we met.”

His lips hinted at a smile. “We have caught the silk trader. What next?” he asked.

“Rare it is to find a solitary demon, for they often travel in packs. Still, time grows short to save my sister from an ignoble fate. Perhaps we can restore your lands in the same adventure.”

“I have lately grown fond of living in the forest,” he replied.

 



 

In one week, Fria and her team had captured five more demons and liberated a small fortune in gold and silver. They kept little for themselves, just enough to cover their needs when they went amongst the townsfolk. The poorest villagers benefitted the most from the demons’ misfortune and news of Robin of the Wood’s largesse spread on nimble feet throughout the village and local farms.

The sheriff, however, disliked this tax revenue reduction, and vowed to capture Robin. He decreed that, in honor of his daughter’s coming nuptials, he would sponsor an archery contest. The prize would be a golden arrow.

“A most blatant trap,” Ash said when Fria handed her one of the proclamations.

“Of course it is. But I have a stratagem.”

John scowled. “Just because you know it’s a trap does not mean you cannot get caught in it.”

“I have heard more and more about Guy of Gisbourne, and I like him less and less. He wears malice as a doublet and cruelty as a cloak. I will not have my sister fall into his clutches.”

“You haven’t spoken to her in more than seven years. You cannot know her mind. She may fear her father’s wrath more than she values her salvation, and thus betray you,” John said.

“That may be so, but we have a secret weapon.” Fria smiled at Alan.

John crossed his arms. “He is certain fair, but likely not enough of a temptation to lure your sister from her groom.”

“I beg to differ with you,” said Ash. “Our fair Alan is a gancanagh, a love-talker. No female can resist him, if he desires her. That is his magic, and it is perilous strong.”

John shifted his weight and his eyes darted between Fria and Alan.

 

The day of the tournament, one day before Marian’s wedding to Guy of Gisbourne, arrived. Fria slung her bow over her green cloak. Tuck, in his usual brown frock, Ash in her red cloak, and Alan dressed in blue, accompanied her. She had asked John to wear a helm, and over it a cloak, so that he was not recognized. The contest was being held at the estate that had been stolen from John, and, although he was still opposed to Fria’s plan, he agreed to participate. The team staggered their entrance, and merged into the throng one at a time. They kept an eye on the sheriff, even as he and his spies sifted through the crowd. Fria handily won each competition, and soon the archer in the green cloak was marked as Robin of the Wood. The final contest was between the top archer and Guy of Gisbourne. A prudent combatant would have made sure to miss the mark, but Fria was not so politically minded.

Gisbourne shot first, and the arrow struck dead center of the target.

“Do you concede?” he asked. “You cannot hope to have a better shot.”

Fria said nothing, but smiled as, over Gisbourne’s shoulder, Alan took Marian’s hand and led her from the spectator’s box and toward the edge of the wood. The whistle of a kestrel caused Fria to look up, but she saw no birds in the sky.

She stepped forward and pulled an arrow from her quiver. She nocked it, and the crowd fell silent.

She felt her own heartbeat as she pulled back the bowstring.

She breathed deeply, willing her heartbeat to slow. Then she found its rhythm.

In between pulses, she let the arrow fly.

Fletching scattered and wood splintered as her pale arrow drove straight down the black shaft of Gisbourne’s.

Another heartbeat, then the crowd roared.

Fria reckoned that while her father, the sheriff, was evil through and through, he was not stupid. He would not risk the wrath of the crowd by making a spectacle of seizing Robin of the Wood. It would be subtle and unobtrusive, a knife in the ribs, or poisoned drink. She was prepared.

The sheriff raised Fria’s right hand in victory. She did not pull back her hood, and her father failed to recognize his own daughter. “We have a champion!”

Fria inclined her head.

The sheriff presented the golden arrow, but whispered next to Fria’s cloaked ear. “Robin of the Wood, you are a marked man. I will see you in shackles before nightfall.”

Fria put the golden arrow into her quiver, as she would any common arrow, bowed again, and turned to leave. She passed behind John, and a green-cloaked figure emerged from his shadow, but it wasn’t Fria. Fae folk are most excellent shape shifters, and Tuck imitated her perfectly. The sheriff’s spies would follow him for a while, until Ash, John and Fria were safely free of the compound, then he would shift into his usual appearance. In the meantime, Fria, hidden between John’s massive form and a small alcove, slipped the golden arrow into his belt, and turned her cloak inside out so that now it showed blue. She let it cover the bow and quiver altogether.

John left the compound first. Then Ash, followed by Fria. When she arrived at the rendezvous point, she looked at her sister. She had grown into a pretty young woman with porcelain skin and haunted eyes.

“I hope you do not pine overmuch for your groom,” she said to Marian.

Marian looked longingly at Alan. He smiled back. “This misadventure may yet save me from the poisoned chalice I had prepared myself.”

Fria threw back her hood, “Marian, my sister! Never, ever entertain such ideas again. You are safe now.”

“Fria!”

The two sisters embraced each other, and tears glistened on both their cheeks.

“Where is John?” Tuck asked as he lumbered up to the group.

“John?” Fria released her sister and looked around. How had she failed to notice he was not there? “We must find him! Alan, stay here with Marian and keep her safe.”

Fria ran back down the path towards the archery competition. A noise to her left caused her to change her course and follow a barely discernable trail. She proceeded through the thicket, following the sound she had heard earlier, for perhaps a furlong, before she came to a clearing.

John was on his knees, face swollen and bloodied. Guy of Gisbourne stood behind him, the edge a sword pressed under John’s jaw. Blood trickled down his throat.

“Did you really think I wouldn’t recognize this spawn of dogs?” Gisbourne said. He let his human disguise drop, and his long forked tongue flicked over his hard, scaly lips. The pupils of his tawny eyes contracted to vertical slits in the afternoon sun.

Fria took a step forward. “Release him. It is me you want,” she said, realizing too late that the kestrel’s whistle she’d heard earlier had been Ash’s warning that there was a demon about.

“Very noble. But I intend to kill both of you. Or perhaps all four of you.” His mouth gaped in a gruesome parody of a smile.

Tuck and Ash had caught up with Fria, and stood behind her. There was a nearly imperceptible click from her right. She watched out of her peripheral vision as John’s hand inched toward Gisbourne’s boot. Guessing that he was trying to give her a chance to escape by yanking his captor off his feet, and almost certainly cutting his own throat in the process, she whirled to her right and took the open demon trap from Ash’s hand.

She hurled it as hard as she could, aiming for the bridge of Gisbourne’s nose. He dodged out of the way.

But not quite enough.

The tip of the open pyramid brushed against his cheek. His sword clattered to the ground as he was sucked into the crystal. Ash reached John first, and clicked the top of the pyramid into place. Fria fell to her knees in front of him and held his bloody face in both her hands.

“Such a touching reunion,” the sheriff’s voice sounded behind her, freezing her heart.

Steel sang across leather – a sword being drawn from its scabbard. Fria’s lips brushed John’s as she pulled the golden arrow out of his belt. Then she threw off her cloak and turned to face her father, bow in hand.

He stopped in his tracks. “Fria?” Then he laughed. “Luck is with me today. I have regained my claim to Kel’s holdings and unmasked Robin of the Wood.”

Fria nocked the golden arrow and drew her bow.

The sheriff snorted. “You will not shoot me in cold blood. You are much too fond of goodness and –”

The golden arrow pierced his heart, and he fell back into the forest litter with a thud.

 

John recovered from his wounds and reclaimed his family holdings. He and Fria were soon wed. And though she bore him four robust children, the pair of them often disguised themselves and made their way to the forest, along with Ash, Tuck, Alan, and Marian to keep the demons from establishing a foothold there. Alan took Marian to wife, and he lived with her on her ancestral estate. Many generations of their children claimed their fae ancestry with pride.

Age did not trouble Ash, Tuck, nor Alan, but Fria and John were mortal. After a time, they both found their heroic exploits in the forest too taxing. It was time to lay the legendary Robin of the Wood, also known as Robin Hood, to rest. The local prioress, whose convent had benefitted greatly from the outlaws’ spoils, agreed to assist in the ruse. Fria and Little John donned their outlaw garb and made it known that Robin of the Wood was ill and was going to the abbey to be bled. They had cached clothes there, for even after all these years, no one suspected that Robin Hood was a woman. Once they entered the abbey, the prioress caused a grave to be dug, and ruefully reported that Robin had been more ill than she suspected, and she accidentally over-bled him.

Thus ended the life of Robin Hood, but so thoroughly had Fria’s team routed the demons that none ever set foot in that wood again. Their eldest daughter saw to that.

If you enjoyed reading this short story, please consider leaving a review at your favorite books haring site. You can also sign up for my newsletter at my website!

About the Author

Artemis Greenleaf has always been fascinated by the mysterious, and she devoured fairy tales, folk tales and ghost stories since before she could read. In 1995, she had a near-death experience which turned her perception of the world upside down. She lived to tell the tale (and often does, in one form or another), and went on to marry an alien. She lives in the suburban wilds of Houston, Texas with her husband, two children and assorted pets. She writes novels, short stories, and non-fiction, and her work has appeared in magazines and anthologies. For more information, please visit artemisgreenleaf.com.

Other Books by Artemis Greenleaf

For Younger Readers

Brain’s Vacation

Carl the Vegetarian Vampire

Team Smash

For Teens and Tweens

Earthbound

Cheval Bayard

Confessions of a Troll

Exit Point

For Adults

The Hanged Man’s Wife

The Magician’s Children

The Devil’s Advocate

Color Me Blackthorne

As Coda Sterling

Dragon by Knight

Dragon Killer

Dragon Fire

Anthologies

Space City 6

Tides of Impossibility

First Last Forever


The Thirteenth Summer

  • ISBN: 9781941502723
  • Author: Black Mare Books
  • Published: 2016-05-02 08:05:14
  • Words: 8491
The Thirteenth Summer The Thirteenth Summer