The Wild Huntsman and his Hellhounds ride the night, chasing down innocents and snatching their souls – and their heads.
Forced to act as Royal Forester, Robin Hood and Marian hunt for the truth behind kidnappings, arson, forgery, rape, and betrayal.
From a fear-choked forest to the lonely wastes of Stonehenge, from King Richard’s court to a sacred cloister, from a freewheeling forest eyre to a bloodstained temple, the legendary outlaws fight ghosts and greed, phantoms and fire, witches and wickedness –
– and uncover a secret grievance planning the ultimate sacrifice!
Robin Hood awoke to a drumming and shuddering in the earth under his rump. A thrumming like a hailstorm – or many clawed feet running fast.
“Rob!” Marian shot awake beside him. “Someone’s –”
“Get up!” The famous outlaw had been sleeping with his back against a tree, sitting crosslegged under a blanket, his long bow and an arrow across his lap. Marian had cuddled beside him wrapped in her blanket. Now both boiled to their feet, levelled their bows and nocked arrows. And tried to identify the danger.
“It’s dogs!” A lifetime of outlawry told Robin many things at once, for like a cat, his ears never slept. “A hunting pack! And a horse!”
“Horse?” Marian’s dark head cast about the dark forest. “Riding by moonlight?”
The bawl of a hunting horn split the night, a wild ragged note like a banshee’s wail.
“Mother of Mercy!” gasped Marian. “Who hunts by night but –” But phantoms.
“Hush! No names! Listen!” Robin Hood strained his ears until they buzzed, the same as his brain buzzed with curiosity. How could a pack of dogs venture so close but go unheard? Hunting hounds always belled, their cries ringing for a league. Yet Robin heard only their two horses whinny, break their light hobbles, and thunder away.
The hunting horn, a cow or ram’s, blatted again. Blown from astride a horse, the sound swept through the dark forest like a night wind, a nervewracking squawl that charged straight for the outlaws despite their lack of a campfire.
“Up! Get up!” With one hand Robin Hood mashed Marian against the king oak, a mountain of wood twelve feet thick with deep-hanging branches fully thirty feet long.
“Do we –”
“No, we don’t fight! Come!” Pursued a thousand times in the past, Robin neither panicked nor hurried, but moved smartly. Mistakes could be fatal. “Prop your bow and get up!”
In the full of a summer moon, the forest was stitched with silver shafts and black jags and shifting shadows. Holding his bow and arrow clear, the Fox of Sherwood boosted his wife’s slender bottom and braced his right leg. Clutching gnarled bark, Marian hopped onto his crooked knee, vaulted to his shoulder, then hurled herself high and scrabbled into branches a dozen feet up. Belly-flopping over a branch wide as a cart path, she caught her bow and quiver as Robin tossed them. “Jump! I’ll –”
But the thrumming through the forest floor reached a crescendo. The hunting pack boiled from the trees like a sea wave.
Robin Hood got one quick glance. From splintered darkness raced a dozen huge dogs. Half as big as horses, they were alants or mastiffs: boarhounds or wolfhounds brindled silver and black and gray in moonlight. Shining white fangs were streaked with foam from a hard run.
All silent as ghosts. The monsters panted and husked like human runners, but not one belled or howled. Their uncanny quiet prickled hair on Robin’s head and arms. Too, because they were quiet, he’d misjudged their distance.
In seconds he’d be overrun.
By instinct, Robin Hood straightened the bow tall as himself, spun his arrow to nock it, yanked string to his chin, hauled the hundred-pound wood into a U, squatted, and took aim. Giant dark dogs filled his vision. Then the string whanged as the clothyard shaft sizzled through the cool night air.
The foremost dog died when the arrow split its throat. True to the archer’s aim, the lightning shaft tore through the thick neck, then travelled on to slam into the next dog. Steel and wood smacked into its breast. Both brutes cartwheeled and banged the ground.
Fresh blood sent some dogs into a frenzy. The killed animal was beset by snapping biting comrades. The wounded dog, an arrow jutting from its breast, rolled upright and snarled attackers away. Dogs bit neighbors in hysteria.
Still, half a dozen monsters charged the archer.
With no time for another shot, Robin Hood flipped the great bow over his wrist and and jumped up the oak’s trunk. But the lowest branches were too high. Robin slapped Marian’s hand, failed to grab in the darkness, then thumped to earth amidst snarling furies. Marian screamed.
Surrounded, Robin landed astride one dog, rapping his crotch on a bony skull. His knee banged another dog’s snout. A black brute lunged and snapped at his thigh. The archer skipped and skittered to clear his feet, batted with the bow that trailed awkwardly from his wrist. A hound clamped Robin’s ham. Another slammed him with an iron hard flank. Yet this savage maelstrom churned with hardly a sound. Dogs husked and gasped but never growled or barked.
The archer hissed as the huge dog clamping his rump twisted its neck and yanked to pull Robin over. He snatched out his long knife and slashed backwards. The blade nicked flesh, yet the jaws only spasmed and grabbed a new and painful hold. Cursing, Robin ripped again and sliced furred flesh to the skull. More dogs bit. The man smacked his bow against hard heads and snapping jaws. Long curved teeth clashed on Robin’s steel blade. From his right a black bulk barreled in and lunged for Robin’s belly. Blindly he stabbed downward with a blade slick with blood. The dog flinched aside in surprise, but Robin’s slippery knife flipped from his hand.
Robin Hood was bitten many times, but he worried most about losing his footing. If he tumbled into this mob, he’d be shredded in seconds.
“Rob!” Marian’s holler from above. “Your bow!”
Yelling, kicking furiously, Robin whipped his longbow far above his head, felt it tunk on oak, felt Marian grab with two hands. He clung tight, was almost jerked loose as his young wife hauled him up like a pike on a line. A dog clamped his deerhide boot, but Robin kicked loose wildly. Rising, his toes dug for cracks in the rough oak bark. A leaping dog rapped his calf and almost spilled him.
Then Marian snagged his leather jerkin. Seams popped, Robin kissed oak bark, but he sprawled belly-down over a huge round branch. “Thank God for a stout bow and a strong wife!”
“Hang tight!” Marian shouted as if the hounds bayed and barked, not jumped in dead silence. “Wrap your leg – God’s love!”
Marian froze. Hanging by one hand, Robin squirmed around to see.
A half-bowshot away, at the edge of the glade, pranced a foam-streaked horse and rider.
The horse was big, a destrier or warhorse, its coat jet black with no blazes at forelock or hoof. Rearing in the saddle was a figure even blacker. No face or hands showed, just a tattered cape and hood that blurred the vision’s outline.
Silent as the hounds, the rider jinked the reins to prevent the sweating horse from venturing into the glade.
Hunkered like quail in a hawk’s shadow, Robin and Marian imagined the fiend’s dark eyes bored into their souls. The black horse stamped, a hoof tunking a root. The rider studied the scene: frantic dogs snapping around the tree, wounded animals tossing their heads or biting an arrow in its breast, at least one dog lying dead.
The outlaws in the oak waited, breathless.
The rider kicked his horse into life, spun, and disappeared into the darksome forest. The ram’s horn blatted, harsh and grating. Instantly the dogs gave up their quarry, panted and drooled and hammered out of the glade on long claws.
In half a minute, there was no trace of their visit except for one dog lying in gore.
Neither tree dweller moved. The Vixen of Sherwood gibbered, “Th-the W-Wild Huntsman! And his hellhounds! I thought he was just – a legend!”
“That’s what they say about us...”
Marian groped, Robin squirmed, and they clutched tight.
Far away north, the horn squawled. The hunt was on again, someone else pursued.
The outlaws stayed in the tree until the sun stood high and the morning mist burned off.
Stiff and sore, Robin Hood slithered from the tree, picked up his Irish knife, cleaned the blade and staghorn handle, honed the edge with a small whetstone, then sheathed the weapon. He inspected his bow and arrows minutely, smoothed down a ding, trimmed a feather square. He checked his wounds, which were deep red punctures and long ragged scrapes, but dismissed them.
Armed, he walked across the glade to study the ground. Tracks of an unshod horse and many hounds marred old fallen leaves and fresh summer weeds and ran away northeast. A little farther on, he found the broken hobbles of the horses he and Marian had ridden from London: he always tied horses lightly so they might escape danger. Finally he squatted over the dead dog on the trampled grass.
A short-haired rawboned bitch of a pale roan color with lop ears and wicked crescent teeth. An alant or mastiff to pull down the biggest game, wolves and stags and boars, dogs so ferocious huntsman kept them muzzled until their prey was in sight. The dog was a mess, its throat ripped to red flesh and white tendons, blood crusted on neck and breast and muzzle. Bluebottle flies and ants infested the wounds. Robin flipped the hound over, seeking a brand, but found none. Dropping the stiff legs, Robin Hood kicked the heavy body so hard flies bubbled up.
“It’s not the dog’s fault,” Marian chided softly.
Robin Hood wiggled mashed toes in his soft deerhide boot. The night’s fright fueled a morning’s anger. “It’s her master I would abuse. You could have been torn to flinders!”
Marian shook her head of shimmering hair, so dark it bore purple highlights like southern wine. She braided it down her back with rawhide thongs. “No, because you protected me, hoicked me up that tree in a trice. A gander shooing his gosling,” she smiled.
Robin Hood ground his teeth. “This dog is neither branded nor lawed.”
“No.” Marian nudged the front paws. Forest law required dogs have their four front toes chopped off so they couldn’t drag down deer. “I imagine he whom we saw last night doesn’t abide the king’s rules.” Marian didn’t name the Wild Huntsman lest she conjure him.
Robin Hood huffed and cast about the glade. “I thought him just a legend.”
“So they speak of Robin Hood,” his wife jested. “Will you slice breakfast?”
The husband finally smiled. “Eat we phantom dog?” But now Marian shivered in the summer sun and rubbed her upper arms.
At a tall narrow hornbeam, Robin untied a rope to drop the carcass of a yearling stag shot the day before and hung high to frustrate vermin. With strong fingers Robin ripped the hide from the underlayer of white fat and neatly excised a pair of steaks from the haunch. He let the rest lie. Already spoiling in the summer warmth, it would be scavenged before it grew putrid.
Marian threaded the steaks on forked sticks and propped them over a tiny crackling fire. Robin Hood fetched their leather bottles to a stream to rinse and refill. Flopping on his hams, he remembered too late the nicks on his rump and swore mildly. He laid bow and arrow close by his left hand and scanned the forest continuously as he waited.
Marian turned venison. Grease dripped into flames and puffed smoke. “How be those dogs silent? I’ve never heard such a thing.”
“Bewitched. Cursed to silence.”
“Black dogs bark and growl to warn you off something, but they’re seen alone, not in packs, and probably ghosts themselves.” Marian pouted in thought. “These creatures were real enough. They don’t turn into mice or mist at dawn.”
“Cursed by night, then.” Robin Hood dug in a satchel for dark bread and dried apples. Munching and sipping water, they ate absently. Neither wanted to discuss the fiend of the night before, yet they must.
Marian nodded at the carcass. “That dog is red. Roan, anyway.”
“Aye,” Robin tendered. “Our enemy last night is said to have only three dogs: one red, one white, one black. These were all colors, methinks, though t’was hard to tell in moonlight. No one e’er bespoke so many dogs.”
“None who sees him lives to tell the tale,” Marian countered.
“Another notch to our bow,” growled Robin. “What else do we know? Anything? His horse runs unshod like a Saxon’s, for Normans were the first farriers.”
“It takes a man’s hand to fit a horseshoe. Witches won’t touch one and fays can’t abide iron.”
Bit by bit they recalled the Wild Huntsman’s legend. Some said he was Dando, a priest who neglected his duties to hunt, and offered the devil his soul for a prize trophy. Some said he was Herne, a huntsman in the king’s employ who’d betrayed some trust and hanged himself from an oak; cursed as a suicide, he rode dark nights forever with three hellhounds, or hounds with human faces, culling souls for Hell. Others claimed the Huntsman was an ancient spirit that preceded even the Picts, a fiend that was part of the land like thunderstorms and plague.
“Yet Dando lived in Cornwall, and I’ve met Herne, the Green Man, in Sherwood,” Robin Hood concluded.
“You met a wizard called himself Herne,” Marian corrected. “The hanged Herne haunts Windsor Forest near London.”
“And this forest is neither Sherwood nor Windsor.”
Silent in thought, husband and wife packed their few belongings. As spring waned, Robin Hood wore a long tunic of faded green, a scuffed deerhide jerkin laced across his chest, shabby red hose, greased deerhide boots, a leather bracer on his left wrist, and a cap with jaunty pheasant feather. He was hung about the waist by a wide belt closed with a silver buckle, a silver hunting horn given by Marian’s own hand, a pouch of coins and trifles, and his long Irish knife with staghorn handle. Over his shoulder hung a quiver, a blanket rolled and tied with rope, and a satchel for rations. In his hand went his warbow, taller than himself, and one arrow always ready. Marian dressed like her husband, except she called her tunic a smock and her jerkin a bodice. A soft hat with a matching pheasant feather spilled over her hair. She too carried her bow and one arrow in her left hand, strung and ready.
Robin Hood prodded the saddles they’d hung over a tree branch. He cared little about the horses, plain nags bought cheap in London, but being afoot would slow them down. As for the saddles, “We’ll leave these. They’re good enough to sit but not good enough to tote. And a gentlemanly outlaw would steal his wife a comfortable seat at least.”
She patted her rump. “I’ve got a comfortable seat, my husband tells me. On to Ringwood?”
Robin Hood sauntered to the tracks marring the forest floor and stroked his beard. “We might see where our friend went.”
“I’m game. By day. His horn tolled north, last we heard.”
“Riding the high road.” They’d camped a half-mile south of the King’s Road. Robin Hood nodded absently. Fright, superstition, and fatigue clung like cobwebs, but curiosity overrode them all. Living as outlaws, they’d learned that stubbornness and inquisitiveness tempered with caution fostered survival. The outlaw scanned the trail in both directions. “See where he went or whence he came?”
“Most likely his start and end are the same.”
“Were he a man, true. A phantom might gallop up a moonbeam to the clouds.” Robin Hood scanned the sky, now occluded. Mosquitoes began to infiltrate the trees. “We’ll have rain before night... Why did he abandon the chase?”
“I don’t know.” Marian swung her bow idly in imitation of her husband. “Once he got a good look at us, he broke off. Yet legends say he scoops up any unwary souls.”
“We’re unwelcome even in Hell.” Robin shook his head again. “Let’s learn his destination if we can.”
With a fresh grip on their bows, the outlaws pushed off.
Robin and Marian found the New Forest much like Sherwood. And like Sherwood, this “forest” enclosed woods, villages, fields, mines, mills, ponds, roads, and more: the forest’s skirts were actually one-third heath with few trees. Its “royal” designation was a legal warning that only the king and his licensees could hunt within it. Robin and Marian risked arrest and punishment merely for carrying bows inside its bounds.
Yet a king’s representative was exactly what they sought.
The outlaws’ path meandered around oaks and beeches and walls of holly, which suited: they could study each terrain before entering. The New Forest peaked in the center, so they climbed slopes slanting at all angles.
In a short while they saw the bright band of road that ran northeast-southwest. Without speaking, Robin Hood went ahead while Marian stood guard. They listened for birds, who’d sing undisturbed but hush at intrusions. The outlaw studied the road, which was no wider than his bow was long. He only needed a second, for the dirt was churned by a hundred claws and hooves dimpled by rocks. He waved Marian on.
“Our ghost didn’t just fade away.” She pitched her voice low.
“He might’ve, but his horse, no.” Robin Hood whispered while scanning all around. “I could dress in dark rags and ride the night, you know.”
“You dress in rags the year round.” She fingered the new rents at his seams, but her joke fell flat. “Could you govern a pack of savage dogs? Silent dogs?”
Robin Hood pursed his lips. “If I hadn’t shaken so badly, I’d have essayed a shot at the rider. If I can kill a ghost dog, I can kill its master.”
“Hush! Talk of death is jinxy! And King David would have trembled.”
The trail trended northeast. Robin and Marian followed, not along the road, but parallel to it through the forest. They walked a league around tree trunks. Gold-ringed dragonflies droned past busily. Once Robin plucked an oak apple cluster, pink-green deformities that sprouted like acorns. “Right on time. This is Oak Apple Day, isn’t it?”
“Aye, June in three days.”
“Then we may be in luck. If nobles hunt young bucks, t’will be easier to find Richard.” Idly he broke open the gall with his thumbnail and surprised a tiny red spider.
“Now you’ve done it.” Marian clucked her tongue. “Released pestilence.”
“This whole quest is cursed,” Robin sighed. “It can’t fare worse ill.”
Once they whiffed smoke, so trekked wide to avoid charcoal mounds. Once a fox tripped across their path: Marian tilted her bow at the token of good luck. At times they passed elaborate blazes marking subdivisions within the royal forest. Twice they stepped over pales, thin fence rails fallen from neglect. Thrice they saw grazing cattle, twice pigs scombering out of season. Once they crossed sheep dung, though sheep were forbidden. Robin Hood shook his head. “The king’s forester shirks his duty.”
They crossed a side road that led to a manor house set far back, saw a trickle of chimney smoke, heard a rooster’s crow and a boy shrilling to a companion. Unseen except by crotchety red squirrels, they threaded on.
Soon the highway shone different, and Robin slid from cover to see why. The dirt was lighter, dry and undisturbed. Backtracking, they found where the Wild Huntsman had veered from the road into the forest. They wiped sweaty hands and followed.
A heap blotched a gloomy glade. Crows pecked and flapped. This time Robin urged Marian ahead while he stood guard with arrow nocked. The Queen of Sherwood advanced, shooed crows, looked, croaked chack-chack like a magpie: one call for Come ahead. Watching everywhere, listening till his ears rang, Robin padded softly to join her.
The heap was a dead man. His neck was hacked about. White beads of spine and stringy tendons jutted from red gore that swarmed with flies.
His head was gone.
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"When it comes to creating an authentic
atmosphere for the historical mystery, Clayton Emery ranks with
the best in the genre..."
Janet Hutchings, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine
"Few authors could do justice to the legend
of Robin Hood, but Robin and Marian are in good hands with Clayton
Emery. Emery blends the best of the classic mystery with all
the heroism and romance one would expect in Sherwood Forest.
What a pleasure it is to return to Merry Old England in Emery's