"Anything?" Etty had made the wet trudge from the rowan grove for the third time that day to the old hollow oak, praying all the while for good news. None had come.
"Nothing. I'm sorry." Robin Hood himself had come out from the fire. "I've got men on all the roads. I've sent Will down to check the Nottingham jail and ask a few questions. Much will head with a few others towards Barnsdale tomorrow if we hear nothing else by then. I'm sorry, lass, but that's the best I can do right now."
"But she went west. Beau went west, I know it. Towards Fountain Dale." The princess twisted the threadlike strand of silver around and around her finger, fretting at the solitary gimmel ring. "It's been five days, Robin! Rowan isn't going to wait any longer. Rook's offered to go; he's only still here because Rowan told him to be. And I don't know how much longer that'll last. Rowan's worried, Robin, and the forest knows it."
The coiled gold thatch of his head was bowed as he sighed. "Etty, lass, you know we're doing everything we can and more—"
"It's not enough!" Tears had leaped unbidden to her eyes and her fists clenched tight as Ettarde fought them back. "I can't keep hold of them. I'm just as worried as they are, but I'm not taking the chances Rowan would, that Rook is going to if…" She broke off, chewing her lip and shaking her head. "You know Ro. She takes things hard, as though everything's her fault, even when it's not... At least talk to her, please. She won't…get up."
"What do you mean—?"
"Robin!" The two conferring by the tree had paid no heed to the men down in the dale. But now the jeering laughter was all too apparent. Two men—Will and Byrd Smithson—came staggering into the clearing, lurching as if drunk, hampered by the black-clad figure held between them.
Some men hollered while others whistled, calling out slurs and hissing. "Devil's-get!", "Cradle-robber!", "Bloody ghoul!" Only one voice, louder than the rest—Little John's—had the gall to call out truth. "Filthy Wanderer!" The boy, for he could have been no more than eight- or nineteen, certainly was filthy: travel-stained, mud-spattered, his black clothing ripped on branches and thorns, his boots cracked as if newly dried from a river-dunking. And he certainly was a Wanderer. Though his fine black hair was caked with dirt, his pale skin likewise, there was no denying the tell-tale line of the profile that was meant to be carven in the ivory of an ancient Greek cameo, nor the darkling black pits of his eyes.
His captors threw him down upon the deer-skin throne, but unlike most who made the short trip from forest to fire, he did not struggle. He shuffled in the grip of the loose hobble tied round his ankles, and his wrists were bound in his lap. Also unlike the other patrons of the forest, his eyes remained unbound, roving round and round the oak dell.
"I plead audience with the forest-king!" he shouted out in defiance, but Etty scarcely heard over the din Robin's Merry Men were making. "Robin of the Hood!" He was screaming now, best as he could bound there and pressed beneath the laughing, shouting men. "Come forth and speak to me!"
Naturally, Robin moved forward to stand beside the youth. Etty shrank back. Her own limited dealings with Wanderers—or more specifically, Wanderer—had removed the ignorant hatred these men felt, but it was not enough to erase a lifetime of fear and inflicted prejudices.
"What brings you so deep into the oaks of Sherwood, lad?" Robin knelt beside the fire, earnest as always, ignoring the two bodyguards flanking the chair, careful to keep their distance, staggered so that the boy could not be called dead center of them.
"I've done nothing to you, nothing to your men. Please, let me go." He sat straight-backed, hands clenched to keep from fumbling already with the knots. "I've done nothing to draw your ire nor distrust. I want nothing from you, I've taken nothing from you, nor will I. Let me go my way."
"Methinks perhaps you'd disagree, Robin," Byrd offered, raising a hand.
"Oh?" Robin's fine gold brows had leaped to an expression of impassive disbelief. The youth's face went blank and stony as Etty watched; this was a topic he had wished not to be brought to light.
"Brat was nosing 'round side the crags," Will supplied when Byrd faltered. Robin did indeed disagree.
"Why?" He meant the demand as trivial and unimportant, but even Etty heard belie in the harsh tone of his voice, the muscles of his neck gone suddenly taut. The Wanderer looked away and did not answer. One of the guards clipped him behind the ear, Robin's hand raised too late to forestall the evocation.
"I—I seek a forest-witch," the Wanderer finally muttered, reluctant. "The one they sing of…" The raised hand behind was a clear hint to continue if Robin's open face, by no means allayed, was not. "I thought to comb the 'hollow hills.' The healer they sing of. Ælphin, they say. Your daughter, they say."
"Who says this?"
He shrugged. "Minstrels. Bards. We have ears. We listen." His eyes fell to his own lap. "But, sir… Please. I—my sister—I came to fetch a healer. I should not have come; I should not be here…But I couldn't just let her die!" His face was pressed into hard, twisted lines of guilt and indecision. Etty had been creeping forward to lay her hand on Robin's arm, but now she froze like a hare, crouched mid-stride, as the boy's black eyes lifted and pierced hers through the wood-smoke and heavy twilight.
"Please?" Robin whirled at the sound of her voice, startled. She did not give him time to do more than shake his head, though she could see his mouth, pressed in hard, grim lines, ready to declare refusals. She met the broken Wanderer's eyes, hoping her smile gave him some comfort, but she looked back at Robin as she rose to her feet. "I'll fetch Rowan." And then she was gone into the dark before anyone could stop her.