A Tapestry In Time by Ness Ayton
This story first appeared in the zine "The Chronicles of Sherwood" and then in an American general mythology zine a couple of years later.
It had been a long hard chase across the rolling grasslands and through the forests of England. One by one his companions had been left by the wayside, but he had been drawn inexorably on by the stag's liquid eyes and its air of unhurried composure, always just out of reach of even the most powerful of bows. Now he found himself below the towering earthworks of Uffington Castle having swept up the Vale of the White Horse at a speed that would have left many a man gasping for breath. In front of him another hill rose into the sky and it was towards this that he bent his now weary steps. Vaguely he wondered how his friends were faring, but it was only briefly as his whole being turned its concentration onto the fine creature before him. Why he had followed it so far he could not have said, but it had seemed to him that he had had no choice - where it led, he had to follow, bound to it by inexplicable bonds, and, mercifully, it had run as true as an arrow in flight.
Abruptly the stag halted, silhouetted against the clear blue of the sky. It sniffed the air and pawed the ground waiting patiently for the hunter to start ascending the slope before turning and looking at him. The man stopped, the look seeming to penetrate right to his soul and holding him motionless. Then, with a shake of its gracefully antlered head, the stag sped off, at a speed that it had not used throughout the whole chase, and, by the time the man had reached the spot where the animal had stood, it had disappeared. Cursing, he seated himself on the crest of the knoll, exhaustion showing at last, and looked around.
In the dell below him a stream wandered freely between myrtle and hawthorn bushes. The banks were strewn with primroses and violets, petals floating on the clear water. From amongst a small clump of trees a thin wisp of blue smoke curled skywards. The man watched, bewitched by the tranquillity, the like of which he had never known. Suddenly he felt the pangs of hunger gnawing at his belly, and he started off down the slope towards the source of the smoke.
The ground near the stream was covered with moss which soothed his aching feet, and his senses were assailed by the smells from the flowers and the smoke mingling and rising into the air - a natural offering to the gods. Nestled amongst the trees, and surrounded by all this harmony, was a small ramshackle stone building. Outside stood an anvil and hammer, denoting that this was a forge. Even as the hunter approached the building a man came out.
The blacksmith was a strongly built man with red hair and clear-cut features, yet with a pronounced limp. Taking a pair of bellows from their resting place against the wall he proceeded to wield them vigorously in the direction of a fire built into the wall. As the fire blazed into life he turned to look at his visitor, whose approach had been nearly silent, and smiled,
"Robin-in-the-Hood! Right glad am I to see you."
The hunter looked at him quizzically.
"Who are you?" he demanded, "and how do you know my name?"
"I'm Wayland," the blacksmith replied, "and I've been waiting for you to come. Herne told me to expect you."
"I should have known," he acknowledged with a grin. They shook hands warmly as if they had always been friends, and then stood back, eyeing each other up and down. Finally Wayland clapped Robin cheerfully on the shoulder.
"Come," he said. "I have something to show you, and there is much work to be done."
Obediently Robin followed the older man into the stone dwelling. Thick oaken beams held up the thatched roof through which a gentle breeze blew. It was a sparse place. A bed, table and chair were the only apparent items of furniture, but the whole place was brightly lit by a south facing window through which the sun poured. Wayland indicated that Robin should sit, and then bustled round dishing stew out into a bowl, and tearing off a lump of oatcake for the outlaw to eat.
Robin fell to hungrily, and soon demolished the food in front of him. The smith then poured out a goblet of mead and, raising it above his head, intoned a familiar prayer.
"May Herne protect us."
With a merry twinkle in his eye he passed the goblet to Robin, and then wiped his mouth with his sleeve.
"May Herne protect us," Robin responded, and then downed the sweet drink. From the other side of the room Wayland tossed him an apple, and, as Robin crunched his way through it, the smith began to pull boxes towards him. Eventually eight boxes stood before the seated man, and, one by one, the smith threw back their lids with pride.
The first box contained dark, rich, loamy earth with smatterings of chalk, clay and sand mixed in with it. It smelt faintly of dampness and growth reminding Robin of Sherwood after the rain.
The second was filled to the brim with flowers, leaves and herbs - the pot pourri creating a strong heady scent which blotted out all other smells and which was so potent that it made the senses reel.
The third box was made entirely of clay, whereas the previous two had been carved wood, and it contained water which lay still and calm. As he looked into its depths Robin felt the same sense of awe as he did when he looked into the mysterious lake in Herne's cave.
The fourth held fruits of the harvest- crops from forest and field - root vegetables - all manner of things that the countryside provided for its inhabitants to eat. Robin's mouth watered at the abundant sight of the unseasonal mix.
Feathers filled the fifth box - feathers from many different birds. As the lid lifted those on top swirled slightly in a small eddy of air and then floated back to rest with a gentle sigh. Carefully, so as not to disturb them, Robin picked out a robin's feather - small and dusky red - and rubbed it against his cheek, marvelling at its softness. With a smile he dropped it back amongst the others.
The sixth box contained a gruesome sight for it held the scales, teeth, claws and bones of divers animals and fish. All the flesh had long since rotted away, and they had been washed clean and bleached white by many centuries of rain and sun, but yet a slight smell of decay still hung over them. Robin shivered at the thought of so much death and Wayland quickly opened the next box.
Robin gasped at the sight which met his eyes for the seventh box was full to over-flowing with precious stones worth a king's ransom and more. Bright colours danced in the sunlight making his eyes hurt, and he shut them against the brilliance, wondering what de Rainault would have made of the box. Wayland picked up a handful of the jewels and let them pour through his fingers, smiling secretly as they twisted and turned shining a kaleidoscope of colours on the walls.
At last the eighth box was opened and Robin peered in eagerly, expecting some other rich display after those of the other boxes. He was to be denied this, however, for the box was completely empty and he experienced nothing but a pang of disappointment. Understanding his feelings Wayland closed the lid of the box and then turned to him.
"This is to be the most precious thing of all," he told the puzzled outlaw, "but we must wait until nightfall to see this box filled. Now come, there are preparations to be made, for this day is to be one that will be remembered for centuries to come."
The rest of the day was spent in felling trees, chopping up logs and melting down a great pile of metal objects that had been stacked round the back of the forge. The molten metal was then stored in large earthenware pots beside the anvil. At last Wayland allowed them to stop and they went down to the stream to wash. Stripping off his hot sweaty clothes Robin slid into the pool that had formed opposite the forge. The water was icy cold and he gasped as it touched his hot body, but then, with clenched teeth, he resolutely ducked his head under the water and came up shaking his lank locks like a dog.
Wayland contented himself with a quick wash from the bank, watching the younger man swim strongly across the pool. He noticed the slender yet supple body with the muscles rippling just under the skin, and the smith knew that, despite the lad's calm, almost fey expression, he knew what hard work was all about. Dropping his eyes from the sight that reminded him so much of his own carefree youth he returned to the house to prepare an evening meal for them, grateful that, as yet, his visitor had asked no questions.
As for Robin, questions were far from his thoughts as he made his way back up to the forge refreshed by his dip. He was revelling in the unexpected tranquillity of the place and enjoying the respite from outlaw life, as he realised rather guiltily. Later, seated at the table, the young outlaw attacked the meal with an appetite that underlined the name of Wolfshead. Having quietly accepted the role of apprentice to the smith Robin took the bowls down to the pool after the meal and rinsed them. He stood on the bank for some moments listening to the birds flying home to roost.
On returning to the house Robin saw Wayland standing in the doorway with one of the carved boxes in his hands.
"Come," the smith commanded him.
Putting the bowls on the ground the outlaw followed unquestioningly, knowing instinctively that something wonderful was going to happen that night. They toiled up the sides of the dell, Wayland's lameness making it slow going. At last they reached a small glade near the top where Wayland stopped. After the smith had got his breath back he took the box and placed it in the middle of the glade under a small gap in the leafy canopy. Robin stood, half hidden in the trees, waiting. Wayland glanced up to the turquoise sky above and gave a low whistle. He repeated the whistle three times and then joined Robin under the trees.
Dusk fell on the world as the two men waited in silence, but under the trees it was pitch black. Unable to see his hand in front of his face Robin found his sense of hearing heightened and he listened to the sounds of the woodland creatures going to sleep or waking up. Smells too were more powerful in the dark and he spent some time identifying then to himself. Suddenly from overhead an owl hooted. At once Robin's thoughts flew to Much and the other outlaws and he wondered what they were doing, and what they had made of his non-return. He wished Marion were there sharing this with him. She needed some peace he realised, for almost the first time since she had joined them - a rest from the worries of outlaw life.
He had just begun to feel really sorry that his lover wasn't at his side when a strange tingling sensation ran through his body driving all such thoughts from his mind. He blinked and peered hard through the darkness. At first he could see nothing, but then gradually he began to make out a glow of light in the middle of the glade. In this glow stood a small figure with the box at its feet. At the newcomer's appearance Wayland took hold of Robin's hand and led him towards the stranger. As they approached it seemed to Robin that the figure was standing in its very own ray of sunlight, yet that wasn't possible, he knew, for the sun had disappeared from the sky some time before. Yet he found that he could see the person quite clearly.
The stranger wore a hat the colour of the sky on a hot summer's day; his jerkin was woven in rainbow hue; his leggings were as green as leaves that have been freshly washed by rain, and on his feet he wore boots of dark brown which reminded Robin of the earth in Wayland's box. Over his shoulder this person carried a yew bow and a quiver of arrows fletched with white feathers. In his hat a single white feather bobbed up and down as he moved his head. He was no taller than Robin's waist, but it was the face that held the outlaw's attention for it was both as young and innocent as a new born babe's, and older than time itself.
Realising that Wayland and Robin were now very close to him the stranger doffed his hat and bowed with an elaborate flourish. Then, replacing his cap, he addressed Wayland in a voice that was like the wind soughing through the trees.
"Greetings Wayland. We meet again, and in happier times. I see you have found yourself an assistant. Too much wine and good living has done for you old friend." He reached forward and poked the smith in the stomach. Wayland laughed good-naturedly.
"Think what you will, old friend. I will, however, ignore your cruel taunt, and introduce you, though it goes against the grain, to be civil towards you. Robin Goodfellow, sometimes known as Puck, meet Robin-in-the-Hood."
Puck made another elaborate bow towards Robin who was standing with his mouth open, and then turned back to the smith with a twinkle in his eye.
"Now I fully understand," he said. "But Wayland, yon fellow seems to have caught some of your incivility."
Wayland laid a hand on Robin's arm.
"Close your mouth lad. You must show some respect, for Puck is one of the People of the Hills - very old and wise - and you were named for him."
With a struggle Robin came back to life and closed his mouth. He looked from one to the other in amazement.
"How do you...?" he began, but Puck waved him quiet.
"I see you've brought the box," Goodfellow said, suddenly serious. "Well, it is time, and, Woden knows, I've waited long enough for this night." He threw the lid of the box open and then, wrapping his hitherto invisible cloak around him, he gave a twirl and was gone.
"Watch," Wayland told Robin, nodding heavenwards.
Through the canopy above them a single star shone cold and clear like one of the diamonds in Wayland's box. They watched it twinkling high above them for a long time and then, just as Robin was about to turn away with a stiff neck, strands of silver started shooting out from it in all directions, until the star had visibly grown. Several of these strands wavered out across the inky blackness - fingers stretching towards the other stars. As the two men continued to watch, all but one of the strands petered out. The sole thin gossamer thread continued to lengthen slowly, drawn inexorably towards the earth, until, after another eternity of waiting, it crept through the leaves and down towards the box. Finally it stopped and hovered there, drifting slightly in the gentle movement of air under the trees.
An owl's hoot brought two pairs of eyes back to the tree-tops, and Puck slid down the beam of starlight. Leaping off the end he landed lightly on the ground before them and grinned.
"Cold enough?" he laughed.
"Yes thanks," Wayland growled. "So just get on with it!"
Puck turned back to the starlight.
"Fill the box," he commanded.
At once the starlight began to drift into the box. Wave after wave of pure incandescent light poured into the dark embrace of the wood, until at last the box was full, and Puck slammed the lid shut.
"Now all is ready," he told Wayland. "The rest of the work is yours. Goodbye young Robin-in-the-Hood. Goodbye smith. Maybe we'll meet again in another hundred years or so." And so saying, he caught hold of the beam of starlight and was lifted up and away until he was lost from their sight. Shouldering the box on his broad back Wayland led the way down to the forge.
The next day brought an almost autumnal mist curling round the trees in the dell. Wayland stepped outside the door and sniffed the air. Pleased with what he found he turned back to the house.
"Robin!" he called. The young outlaw emerged into the fresh morning air yawning hugely.
"Today is the day," Wayland told him enigmatically.
"Oh good," Robin enthused, then continued, as he realised that he had no idea what the smith was talking about. "The day for what?"
"Forging the swords, young Robin of Loxley, forging the swords," the smith replied gravely.
"What swords?" Robin asked, his curiosity aroused at last.
"You'll find out in time," Wayland told him curtly. "Now no more questions, there's work to be done."
That day revealed many wonders to Robin, not least of which was the process by which swords were made. The pots of cold molten metal were re-heated to their liquid form and then the outlaw was sent to fetch out the boxes. As he brought the last one from the house Robin turned to Wayland.
"The boxes are beautiful," he commented. "And they're so light. What are they made of?"
Wayland smiled at him.
"Bran caused them to be carved before the dawn of time, from oak trees felled in Lyonesse."
"Lyonesse? But isn't that...?"
"A drowned land you would say. And you would be right. It lay to the west of Dumnonia before the sea claimed it. Some say that on a still night you can hear the cattle lowing and the people singing. I remember when it was a flourishing country, and... but you don't want to hear all that now. Look out!"
Entranced by the smith's words Robin had been oblivious to all around him. At the warning shout he spun round, dropped the box, which mercifully stayed closed, and ran to lift the pot of bubbling metal, which was in danger of overflowing, off the fire.
"Fill those moulds over there half full with the metal," the smith ordered the outlaw. Trying hard not to spill a drop Robin did as he had been told. As each mould was filled Wayland tipped the contents of a box into it. The earth, water, plants, harvest, feathers, skeletons and jewels all went into a mould until only the starlight was left. With infinite care Wayland lifted the eighth box and poured the shimmering light into the last mould. Careful as he was, however, a bubble of light escaped and bounced across the grass to Robin's feet. Unthinkingly Loxley bent and scooped it up in his hands, tossing it lightly into the nearest mould where bits of earth floated on top of the metal.
"What now?" asked the outlaw, turning to Wayland who appeared not to have seen what Robin had done.
"Now we mix, temper and cool until they are the most finely honed blades in the whole of Christendom," came the reply.
Robin had very little to do with the actual forging of the blades other than keeping the fire hot and making sure that there was a constant supply of water for the smith. Wayland was engrossed in his work, making sure that each sword was as perfect as possible, and displaying the qualities that had earned him the title of Smith to the Gods. While he worked, however, he talked in bursts and Robin listened hard, knowing that it was pointless to question whilst a craftsman was at work.
"Eight swords," Wayland said. "One for each of the stars in Arthur's Wain and the north guiding star. Made from the four elements – earth, air, fire and water - and each containing all those things that go to make up Logres. They will be the most beautiful and durable yet deadly swords ever known. They will fight battles against all manner of men and spirits for each is made of a substance integral to this country. Magic they are not. I have not the power to create them thus, and even if I had I would not, but they will be the greatest earthly weapons ever."
When all eight blades were ready, Wayland took eight beautifully worked hilts from their resting place amongst a pile of leaves and melded them to the blades. He wielded each complete sword above his head and then placed it on a bench in the sun. Then the smith washed his hands, ran his fingers through his unruly curls and smiled at Robin.
"Nearly done, " he said. "But before the final tempering comes the naming ceremony. I always name my swords." The last statement was almost apologetic. "I name them because then I will know them again in another time. Now sit there, and listen well."
Obediently the outlaw hunkered down and watched whilst Wayland picked up each sword in turn and intoned over them.
"I name thee ORIAS for all things honourable. Of the harvest are ye made, for honour will bear fruit.
"I name thee FLAURES for the power of prophecy. Of plants and herbs are ye made, for without them who would see past, present and future mysteries.
"I name thee BELETH for love. Of feathers are ye made, for they are as soft as a woman's love for man.
"I name thee SOLAS for knowledge. Of the bones of all living creatures are ye made, for in them is stored all the knowledge of the world.
"I name thee MORAX for knowledge. Of water are ye made - drop by silent drop – for the seas wash the shores and soak up all that there is to know.
"I name thee ELIDOR for he who went to Faery. Of jewels and precious stones are ye made, the like of which even the old folk have never seen.
"I name thee ALBION for this land of ours. Of earth are ye made. Basest of all elements, yet succour to all, and so from henceforth ye are the father of these.
"I name thee CALIBURNUS. Of starlight are ye made and there will be no other sword like you, for you are of the heavens, not of the earth."
Bewitched by the smith's gentle simplicity Robin could do nothing but watch. Despite a desire to confess to adding starlight to Albion's mould he found his voice would not come and so stood helplessly while Wayland finished the naming.
At last Wayland turned back to Robin.
"It is done," he said, with a sigh. "They are named." He looked up to where the sun was beginning to sink behind the trees, and then back to the outlaw. "Wrap the swords carefully, and follow me."
Robin hurried to obey, wrapping each sword in soft moss and then placing it on a piece of sacking. As he finished wrapping up the precious burden he looked up at the smith.
"Where are we going?" he asked.
"To the Beltane fires," Wayland answered.
"Beltane?!" In his surprise Robin nearly dropped the swords. "But surely it's autumn?"
The smith gave him a strange sideways glance.
"Time means nothing here," he told the young outlaw. "Ripe fruits hang in clusters from the trees even as buds burst into bloom. Leaves fall as new ones unfurl. Eggs hatch at the same time as animals hibernate and birds fly south. Here it is impossible to say what time of year it is, but for now the Beltane fires await these blades. Come, young Robin-in-the-Hood. Tonight you shall meet your destiny."
The smith led the way out of the dell and up the hill. At the top they emerged from under the trees onto a bare outcrop of rock. From the crest they looked down onto a great plain which stretched to the horizon - greys deepening to dark blues as it rolled ever onwards. In the middle of this dark sea stood a circle of stones, lying and standing in a haphazard fashion.
"Rhiannon's Wheel!" Robin gasped in surprise.
"Nay lad," Wayland corrected him. "This is Stonehenge - the Giant's Dance as many call it. Merlin built it of stones that floated here from across the sea. At the same time Bran caused the boxes to be made. Everything works together for one end."
Feeling very confused, and unsure of what time he was in, Robin followed Wayland down onto the plain, the burden of swords getting heavier with each step. Just as they reached the stone circle and were walking up the avenue of stones a stag ran out in front of them. It turned and looked at the two men, and, with a jolt, Robin recognised it as the one he'd followed all those days ago. The stag trotted up the grassy path in front of them for a way and then, almost as if he were satisfied that everything was going according to plan, he turned off the path and disappeared into the night which now enveloped the plain.
Wayland continued almost as if he hadn't seen the stag, and on reflection Robin felt that he probably hadn't. The stag was for him alone, as it always had been - his guide and mentor. He felt strangely at one with the creature he had hunted across so much of England, and, with a sudden clarity of vision, he knew that he would die like a stag. When his time came. Pushing the thought from his mind he followed the smith into the circle, passing between two of the great standing stones. As he set foot on the grass inside the circle fires burst into flame on each side of him. Even as the outlaw turned to wonder two more sprang to life on the opposite side of the stone circle; and again, two more flared up – one on each of the mounds to either side of them, and just outside the ring. Unseen hands fed them with dry wood, keeping them bright and warm, though they cast no shadows on the stones.
"The Beltane fires," Wayland observed happily.
"But there's no one there," Robin pointed out. "How do they...?"
"No questions, just accept," Wayland told the outlaw. "Now we must heat the swords in each of the fires before they are truly finished." An almost maniacal gleam came into the smith's eye as he moved towards the nearest fire. Robin made to follow him, but was brought to a halt by the sound of galloping hooves approaching the place where he stood. A white horse appeared suddenly out of the night, and Robin threw himself aside to avoid being trampled by its thundering hooves, his hair ruffled by the wind of its passing. As the outlaw scrambled to his feet the horse's rider, clothed all in white, reined his mount to a stop.
"I have come," the rider announced, "as I must on Beltane. Come forth and show yourself."
"What's happening?" Robin whispered in Wayland's ear, as the smith bent to pull the swords from their wrappings. Wayland cast a disinterested look over his shoulder.
"Not much," he replied back. "Every year at Beltane the white rider of Summer must challenge and defeat the black rider of Winter in order for the year to take its course. At Samhain the challenge is reversed. Watch and you'll see."
"What happens if he doesn't defeat him?" Robin asked. The smith looked up in surprise.
"It's never happened," he replied at last. "It can't happen, it's not in the nature of things."
Even as Wayland spoke the white rider was circling.
"I challenge you. Come forth," he cried. The horse stopped circling and pawedﾐ the ground impatiently as silence once more descended amongst the stones. Suddenly the rider stood up in his stirrups and drew his sword. "Again I say, come forth," he called, "or the year is mine and you forfeit your life."
Hardly had the words died on the breeze when, from between the opposite fires, came a black horse with a rider clothed all in black upon its back.
"I answer your challenge," he cried, as he rode forward. "To the death."
"To the death," the white rider agreed, and rode towards him at full tilt. At the centre of the circle their swords clashed and they fell to with a savage intensity, sparks flying from the ringing blades. From a far distance it must look as if two thunderstorms were fighting, Robin thought, so much like lightning were those sparks.
As the outlaw stood quietly watching the battle he felt a gentle tug on his sleeve and turned to find Wayland beckoning him to follow.
"While they fight, we'll temper," the smith said.
Together they moved round the stone circle, visiting each fire in turn, heating the blades in the flames and cooling them in the dew that had begun to form on the grass, while the combatants twisted and turned in their fight. As they went Robin grew more and more uneasy at the wildness that was appearing in Wayland's eyes, seemingly transforming him from a kind-hearted, if rather gruff, smith to something akin to a wild animal at bay.
Eventually they reached the last fire. Robin laid the sacking on the ground, opening it up for the final time and Wayland bent to pick up the swords. Suddenly the smith straightened and angrily grabbed Robin's hands. Inspecting them closely he soon found what he was looking for - a thin streak of red showed a long gash where the outlaw had cut himself whilst carrying the swords.
"You young fool!" Wayland hissed. "You've covered the swords with blood. Woden knows what damage you've done!"
Surprised by the smith's fury, Robin's attempt to answer was interrupted by a loud cry from the centre of the circle, and he turned just in time to see the black rider topple from his horse. The white rider wielded his blood-red sword round his head in triumph and then turned to look straight at the outlaw. A flash of recognition crossed the rider's face.
"Come, brother, I need your help." The voice in Robin's head was so like his own that for a moment the outlaw thought he was going mad, but no one could resist that summons and he started to move towards the white horse. Behind him Wayland was muttering in disgust, putting the blades in the last fire for their final tempering, and, after the smith's angry outburst Robin felt disinclined to help so he quickened his steps, drawn to this man who called him `brother'.
On reaching the middle of the stone circle Robin stopped, unsure what to do next. He glanced around seeing the stones, the fires, the black rider at his feet and then he turned to look at the white rider. As he caught sight of the man's face his heart missed a beat. He hadn't seen that face since Loxley had been burned all those years ago. The man smiled down at him.
"Everything comes round full circle in the end, young Robin," he said gently. "Look down, look closer." Robin did as he was bidden, and the same face stared lifelessly up at him from the damp grass. The white rider dismounted and put a hand on Loxley's shaking shoulder.
"Help me carry him over to the fires."
Unquestioningly Robin dragged the black rider up and, with the white rider, carried him across to where Wayland was still bent over the fire. They propped the rider up against one of the stones and turned to watch the smith at work. Robin moved closer to the white rider, not wanting to miss any of the short time they could have together, but as he did so he brushed against the black rider who slowly crumpled forward almost into the fire, with blood seeping from his wounds on to the flame coloured blades. Robin bent to try and drag the rider away even as Wayland leapt to his feet with a snarl.
"You're ruining my work!" the smith screamed at the young outlaw, drawing his knife. The blade flashed down and, in his haste to get out of the way, Robin slipped and fell. He threw up an arm to shield himself form the blow but it never came. A white gauntleted hand caught the moving blade, and another felled the smith with a swift blow to the jaw.
"Not yet, Wayland. His time is yet to come," the rider whispered, then turned to help Robin to his feet. "Are you all right?" he asked anxiously.
"I think so," the outlaw replied. "But why did he turn on me like that?"
"Time is confused for Wayland at Beltane. He neither knows nor cares what age it is at this time. He did not know you, and saw only that you were spoiling his work, that is why he attacked you."
"I think I understand," Robin said. "Have I spoilt his work?"
"It was meant to be," the white rider assured him. "Even the starlight mixed with earth was meant, for ALBION will be more powerful than the other swords, excepting CALIBURNUS, for in it heaven and earth meet. And now, we must finish Wayland's work." He lifted his hand and Robin saw blood welling from the gash the rider had received when stopping the knife. Slowly and deliberately the rider held his hand over the swords.
"Hold ALBION," he commanded. Without thinking Robin grabbed one of the sword hilts and clasped it tightly. The rider lowered his hand into the fire and smeared his blood along each sword. As he did so the names that Wayland had given them appeared near the hilts, followed by words etched down their lengths.
"Herne's son is my master. I cannot slay him," Robin whispered, reading the words on the sword he held; and though he could also read the words on the other blades they made no sense to him.
"Place the swords in the grass for Wayland," the rider told him. Carefully Robin picked up the swords - ALBION, FLAURES, SOLAS, ELIDOR, BELETH, MORAX, ORIAS, CALIBURNUS - all with their names burnished on their blades, all with crypticriddles emblazoned on them - and laid them in the damp grass.
"What now?" the outlaw asked.
"Wait for dawn," the white rider replied as he slung the black rider over the black horse's back. He was about to mount his own horse when he turned and strode back to the young outlaw standing forlornly amongst the stones. Quickly the rider folded him in an embrace.
"Everything comes round full circle, and so I am always with you," he told Robin, running his hand across the young man's hair.
"I know," Loxley replied. The white rider stepped away.
"You turned out well," he said before he turned back to his horse. Mounting his great white charger and taking the reins of the black horse he moved towards the gap between the fires. As he reached the edge of the stones he turned in his stirrups and gave Robin a cheery wave before being swallowed up by the night. Robin curled up in the warmth of the fires to wait for dawn.
How long he waited he couldn't have said, but eventually long pale streaks began appearing in the sky and he realised that despite the fires he was cold. The fires flared once, briefly, and then went out as the sun peeped over the horizon. Shivering, Robin stood up, and then began to pace up and down watching the sun's pale disc rising into the sky until it seemed as if it were sitting on the land. With a slight shimmer it became loosened from its anchor and began to float up the sky turning from paleness to orange. Then, silhouetted against the sun, Robin saw the figure of a man striding across the plain, accompanied by a great stag. At first the stag overshadowed the man, but as they grew nearer to the circle the man became larger than the creature at his side. Just as they were about to enter the circle the stag peeled off, galloping away across the wakening grasslands leaving the man to enter on his own.
As the newcomer passed between two of the stones the outlaw saw that he was unusually tall and clothed all in furs with a great sword hanging from his belt. Across his back was slung a great horn which he raised to his lips and blew as soon as he'd reached the centre of the circle.
At Robin's feet Wayland stirred and then sat up.
"Robin? How long have I slept?"
"Half the night," the outlaw replied warily.
"The swords are finished then?"
"Yes, they're finished." Robin was relieved to see that the smith was his normal self.
"Wayland!" The giant's voice brought the smith to his feet.
"My lord Woden," he muttered as the giant strode across to them.
"Wayland do you know what you've created?"
"Yes, my lord, I do." The smith's manner was almost churlish.
"The powers of light and dark are with these swords. They must never again be together. They must be separated by time and distance."
"I know," Wayland snapped. "You may be a god, but you cannot teach me my job. These swords will be well and truly hidden, of that you may be sure."
"I hope so," the giant replied before turning his attention to Robin.
"So you are Herne's son," he mused, scrutinising the outlaw closely. "He chose well."
"Thank you," Robin replied, not knowing what else to say.
"Give me the swords," Woden ordered. Despite Wayland's scowl Robin obediently bent and gathered up the swords. Carefully he handed them to the god. Woden looked at them closely.
"They are good swords Wayland," he commented.
"What did you expect?" the smith muttered.
"Nothing less from the Smith of the Gods," Woden replied with a gentle smile on his face. He looked down at the blades again. "Their destiny is etched into them. Each is a sword of power. It is there to be seen if one looks hard enough. Beware if they should ever come together again, young Robin-in-the-Hood."
"They have, and they're all destroyed, save ALBION," Robin murmured.
"Destroyed?!" Wayland repeated. "Yes I suppose it's the only way in the end; yet so soon. A waste of good craftsmanship but the only way."
"I am sorry," Robin assured him, relieved that the smith had taken the news so well.
"These swords will demand great sacrifices in the future, bound together, as they are, by the blood of the Sacred Kings," Woden said suddenly, half to himself. Then aloud he proclaimed, "Stand back." Even as Robin and Wayland did as they were bidden there was a blinding flash of light and the words on the blades dissolved into runes.
"Only chosen people may read these; but now, take the swords, Wayland, and do with them as you must." There was a regretful note to Woden's voice as he spoke. The smith, however, ignored the god as best he could, whilst at the same time retrieving the swords from him. He wrapped them once again in the sacking and, without a backward glance, stalked out of the circle. With a rueful half smile, which the god returned, Robin followed him.
"Farewell young Robin-in-the-Hood. I'm glad we've met. May Herne protect you always." Woden's voice made the outlaw turn back. Woden saluted the young Wolfshead and then, as Robin watched, the god grew larger and larger against the background of the blue sky. With a smile and wave of the hand the figure dissipated, blown across the plain by the winds.
When Robin turned back to Wayland he had to run to catch up with the smith.
"Interfering old busybody," Wayland was muttering under his breath as Robin caught up. "Just because he's a god, he thinks he can order everyone around. Well he can't order me around! How did I ever get involved with gods?!" The last was almost a groan, but assuming the question to be rhetorical, Robin didn't attempt a reply. Trotting along behind the smith's glowering back he was aware of the winds laughing and glancing back at the stone circle he saw the stag once again standing atop one of the stones that had fallen. As if aware of his gaze the stag turned slowly in his direction and then lay down on the stone, stretching its slender neck along the cold greyness.
On returning to the forge Robin fully expected Wayland to give him his marchingﾐ orders, but nothing was said about his leaving so he continued to act as the smith's apprentice. Still appreciating the peace of the dell and the respite from his battle with the sheriff, only occasionally did he think of his friends, and then it was to wish that they were there with him, experiencing the same peace and quiet that he was.
After a few days Robin felt a strange rippling in the air around him and turned to find Wayland leading a large roan charger into the clearing.
"They leave them at the forge for me to shoe," the smith explained. "I do the work, they collect them in the morning."
"Don't they see you?" Robin asked in surprise.
"No. We live in a fold of time where few can enter unless I want. This one I will let in though. I like the feel of this horse. His owner shall have one of the swords. Do you want to shoe this one?"
"Please," Robin answered.
Under Wayland's expert tutelage the outlaw shoed the horse and earned himself the smith's praise. The roan was then tied to a nearby tree.
"Whose is it?" Robin wanted to know.
"It's a centurion's horse," Wayland told him.
"A Roman's. Oh never mind, you'll see soon enough."
It wasn't long before a tall, dark-haired man strode into the clearing. Robin eyed him curiously, taking note of his strange apparel. A short sword was strapped to the man's belt, and as he walked towards them he kept eying Robin curiously as well. Wayland stepped forward.
"Welcome. Your horse is ready."
"Many thanks. Are you Wayland?"
"I am; and I have something else for you. A sword sent to you by Mithras." Heﾐ produced the sword seemingly from the air, and for a moment Robin again saw the words emblazoned on the blade: SOLAS - with the ninth I will go, with the ninth I will stay. The centurion took the sword reverently and whirled it round his head several times. Then he threw back his head and laughed.
"It's a fine blade, Wayland. Beautifully balanced. My thanks to you, and a sacrifice to Mithras." With a swing of his shoulder length black hair he untied his horse and leapt on to its back. Turning in the saddle he waved to the smith, and Robin caught sight of a small crescent moon on the man's brow.
"Vale, Wayland," the centurion cried as he rode from the dell.
Hardly had the Roman departed than a tall woman entered the dell.
"Where's Arthur's sword, Wayland? We have waited too long."
"Who gave you leave to enter here?" the smith snarled.
Unabashed she crossed over to him, her water-blue gown rustling gently round her feet.
"Don't give me that Wayland, you know I can handle time like you. Now where is it?" She held out her hand and glared at him. "Now, Wayland, I want CALIBURNUS now."
Turning away from her the smith brushed past Robin, and the outlaw could hear him muttering under his breath. He was gone for a while, during which time the lady paced back and forth impatiently, casting occasional glances at Robin. In his turn the outlaw admired her looks and thought the colour of the robe suited her beautifully. He could almost see Marian clothed in it as well. Eventually the smith returned bearing one of the swords.
"CALIBURNUS." he said pointedly.
"At last," the lady said, snatching it from him. Carefully she examined the blade and hilt. "It's a fine weapon," she acknowledged grudgingly.
"Of course," Wayland snapped, as she tilted the blade to catch the sunlight. Robin shielded his eyes against the blinding flash of light that shot from the sword. The lady laughed suddenly.
"A sword fit for a king, Wayland. Arthur will be pleased."
"I'm so glad," the smith sneered. Ignoring him totally the lady turned to Robin.
"The Once-and-Future King salutes you young Robin-in-the-Hood."
Unsure of how to reply Robin could only stare open-mouthed as she spun on her heel and swept from the clearing.
"That's an infuriating habit of yours," Wayland snapped.
"What is?" Robin asked, bewildered.
"Oh forget it lad. Manners never made the man."
Loxley shrugged in confusion, and returned to his work.
Two or three days later Robin was carrying a bucket through the trees and down to the stream when he was startled to see a small cart standing there. It was heavily laden with pots, pans, bales of cloth, sacks of corn and flagons of wine. A short distance away a small shaggy pony grazed at leisure. There was no sign of an owner anywhere.
"Wayland!" the outlaw called out. The smith lumbered down the slight slope and came to a halt beside his young apprentice. Robin pointed to the cart.
"Look," he said unnecessarily.
"Bloody Greek traders," Wayland muttered. "Just like their cheek to leave a loaded cart for mending."
"New shaft?" queried Robin.
"Yes," Wayland replied shortly.
"Suppose we'd better unload it then," Robin observed, moving right up to the cart. With an efficiency born of unloading stolen goods the outlaw soon had the cart empty; then both he and the smith mended the broken shaft. As Robin re-loaded the cart Wayland watched. Suddenly he held out his hand and one of the swords appeared in it.
"I think we'll leave him a small gift," the smith murmured. "Hide it amongst the cloth Robin." The outlaw took the sword, and for a moment runes flared: ORIAS - I will travel far and wide. Quickly he pushed the shining blade in amongst the bales, and then he and Wayland melted back amongst the trees as the trader wandered into view. He was a short swarthy man who whistled tunelessly as he hitched the pony to the cart. Robin glanced across at the smith and raised an eyebrow. Wayland shrugged and continued on his way back to the forge.
"Can't win 'em all," Wayland growled as Robin caught up with him. The outlaw decided to keep his thoughts to himself even as a faint 'Thank you, Wayland' floated back to them through the trees. The smith raised an eyebrow at Robin who grinned back - the humour of the situation striking him suddenly.
When they arrived back at the forge another shaggy little pony stood there. It stood on three hooves whilst the fourth rested lightly on the ground. Robin could see at once that there was something wrong with it.
"I'm also expected to heal their horses," Wayland muttered gruffly, but his gentleness in handling the hoof belied his tone. Deftly the smith removed the sharp stone wedged in the hoof, and stuffed it full of herbs to draw out the infection.
Another couple of days saw the pony restored to health and Robin re-saddled it, putting the owner's spears back in place.
"Here put this with them," Wayland said suddenly. Robin took the sword that was held out to him.
FLAURES - the ancient earth will hide me: the runes read as he pushed the blade in amongst the spears. Robin and Wayland paused in the shadow of the forge to watch the pony's rider walk across the clearing. He was almost as shaggy as the pony itself; wearing only leggings and a fur jacket. On reaching the small shaggy beast the man stopped and almost sniffed the air. He growled something under his breath and led the horse from the clearing.
"And that," commented Wayland, "is all the thanks we'll get from the Picts." Robin smiled to himself, thinking that the two men were well matched in churlishness. The smith and outlaw made their way back into the forge where Wayland crossed over to the bench on which the other four swords lay. He picked one up gently and looked down its length.
"Ah BELETH, where will you be hidden?" The smith swung the sword to and fro in front of him. "All the others have their destinies, but yours I cannot see."
"Why don't you read the runes?" Robin suggested quietly.
"Read the runes?" Wayland turned and stared at the young outlaw. "But only the swords' owners can read the runes."
"I can read them," Robin whispered, almost apologetically.
"You've read the runes on the other swords?"
"So you know their fates."
"Not really. They were just riddles, like Herne's riddles."
"The ways of the gods are beyond the understanding of man," Wayland laughed.
"I know what you mean," Robin chuckled. "But let me try with BELETH."
"Here you are." The smith handed Robin the sword. As soon as the outlaw's fingers touched the blade the runes flared illuminating the smith's startled face. BELETH- the dark will envelop me. Robin shrugged.
"Any the wiser?" he asked, carefully laying the sword down again.
"Not really," Wayland admitted.
"It's as good as the others," Robin said.
"Well I don't know," the smith repeated. "BELETH's future is still clouded. Let's sleep, and perhaps tomorrow something will turn up."
In the middle of the night Robin awoke to a soft swishing sound. Silently he sat up and peered through the dark to try and see what had awoken him. From the direction of the sword bench came the sound of gentle breathing. Even as the outlaw tried to focus his eyes a pale blue light appeared and hovered over the swords' resting place. Faintly he could make out the silhouette of a cloaked figure reaching out to the blades. A small flash of lightning crackled between the arm and one of the swords as the figure grasped its hilt. Lifting it almost tenderly, the outlaw thought, the figure slid the sword into a scabbard under the cloak. Then it turned and regarded him solemnly.
A feeling of familiarity ran down Robin's spine and a tingling, not unlike the one he had experienced in the crypt at Ravenscar, assaulted his whole body. As the figure approached his bed he found himself unable to move, a stench of death assailing him. At the very last moment the figure turned away with a swirl of cloaks and left the hut. With a quiet moan, and for the first time in his life, Robin fainted.
The next day the outlaw woke with an acrid taste in his mouth, vague memories of the night before and a dim roaring in his ears. Shaking his head to try and clear the sound, which reminded him of the sea washing up on the shore, he stumbled from the forge. The sight that met his eyes made him forget all that happened during the night. Instead of the clearing and the gurgling stream, a mighty ocean now lapped around a small outcrop of rocks on which the forge stood. Seagulls wheeled and cried overhead, whilst salt spray leapt through the air. Robin sat and listened to the sea sounds on the wind, tasting the salt on his lips. Gradually he became aware that Wayland was standing behind him. The smith breathed in the salt air deeply.
"My home," he observed happily. "I come here sometimes. It refreshes the spirit when I am tired of my exile, but I cannot stay long in case Nidud finds me."
"Nidud?" queried Robin.
"A long story, young Robin, and a sad one. You do not wish to know."
Accepting the smith's assurance the outlaw heard, through the roar of the surf, rough voices singing; and a long ship, with a high carved prow, hove into view. Its sail billowing in the breeze, it slid gently between the rocks and came to rest. Several large swarthy men clambered out and made their way over the rocks to the forge.
"Wayland!" one of them cried out as he approached the smith.
"Bjorn!" the smith shouted, as they clasped each other to their chests. "Bjorn, what brings you here?"
"I need a sword, my friend, a fine sword. Have you got one?"
"What? Do you think I have swords just lying around here?" Wayland sounded mortally offended, but Bjorn laughed.
"Of course, for an old friend. I can keep it safe you know."
"Who sent you?" the smith asked, his eyes narrowing suspiciously.
"Woden," the other replied, with a twinkle in his eye.
"Well, in that case..." Wayland appeared to think for a moment, then he turned to the outlaw.
"Robin fetch MORAX." Unquestioningly the young man went into the forge and brought out the sixth sword. Lovingly the smith took it from him and wiped the blade against his trousers before walking across to the boat followed by the others. Gently Wayland placed the sword along the wooden prow. Holding it lightly he turned to face the other men with a smile on his face.
"The invocation, Bjorn," he commanded. The other moved forward and placed his hand lightly beside the smith's.
"Scames arimathia," the man growled.
A blinding flash of light lit up the runes: MORAX - a wooden charm from over the sea whom only one can grasp; and then, as it faded, Robin saw that the sword had become a carving amongst the boat's ornamentation. He shook his head, Morgwyn's enchantment still fresh in his mind.
"Once tasted, never forgotten," Wayland murmured sympathetically. "You have felt the power of the awakening spell. I am sorry you had to feel it again." Robin managed a watery smile in response even as the boat slipped from its resting place and once more entered the swirl of the sea. The singing started up again as the boat made its slow way through the pounding waves. As the outlaw stood and watched the sea slowly receded from his feet until he was left standing on the bank of the stream, surrounded by the lush green of the clearing.
The rest of the day passed uneventfully and Robin's rest that night was untroubled. However, the next evening a wild wind blew through the glade swirling leaves in its path. On its tail rode a group of wild horsemen, their hair long and flowing, eyes flashing with an inner fire, mouths grim, swords drawn and laid across the backs of their mounts. They swerved to a halt in front of the forge, and their leader threw a shattered sword onto the ground in front of his horse's pawing hooves.
"Wayland!" the man cried in a deep voice. "Wayland!"
The smith left the warmth of the forge with Robin following closely on his shoulder.
"What is it?" Wayland growled.
"My sword is broken."
"So I see."
"I need a new one." The leader of the hunt bent down and glared at the smith. At that moment the fire in the forge flared, casting its light through the half open door and throwing the man's face into high relief.
"Herne," Robin gasped, taking a step forward.
"Not yet," Wayland whispered, grasping the outlaw's shoulder and holding him firm. "Leave him be. He is not the Herne you know as yet. Go and fetch ALBION."
Quietly Robin turned and went back into the forge. As he stretched out his hand to the sword he felt the familiar tingle which he always got from ALBION. Grasping the hilt the runes flashed clearly - Herne's son is my master; I cannot slay him. Strange, he thought to himself, that I never knew it said that. Silently he returned to Wayland and handed the sword to Herne. The leader of the hunt laughed wildly when he saw it.
"Magnificent!" he boomed and raised the sword above his head. "Starlight and earth mixed. A fine combination of power." Without any warning he brought the blade flashing down towards Robin's head. Stunned, the outlaw stood motionless as it juddered to a halt inches from his face. Herne smiled at him.
"I like you boy. What's your name?"
"Robin," the outlaw gulped.
"Well young Robin, until the next time." He whirled the sword round in his hand and placed it across his knee. Instantly the horses behind him broke into a gallop and flew from the glade on the back of the wind.
"Until the next time," Robin murmured after them, hand raised in a half salute to Herne.
"Starlight and earth mixed?" Wayland said turning to the outlaw. Robin shuffled uncomfortably from foot to foot under the smith's gaze.
"I meant to tell you," he assured the man. "But something stopped me."
"Oh well, what's done's done," Wayland said with a sigh.
"I suppose it was according to somebody's plan, though it wasn't exactly mine."
"I'm sorry," Robin murmured, glad that the smith wasn't very angry.
"And where's BELETH?" Wayland continued.
"I..." Robin stopped, knowing that something had happened to the sword but unable to remember what, although deep in his mind he felt fear at the mention of the sword's name. "I don't know," he finished lamely.
"Oh well never mind that either," Wayland said. "Something is at work here that neither of us understands. We must just accept it, I suppose."
"I suppose so," the outlaw agreed.
"Only one sword left," Robin observed to Wayland a few mornings later. The smith seemed pre-occupied with his own thoughts, however, and suddenly the outlaw was struck by the sure knowledge that his time at the forge was ending. Saddened, Robin wandered down to the stream and sat on its bank throwing stones idly into the still waters. As he sat alone with his thoughts he gradually became aware of eyes watching him from amongst the bushes. He stood slowly and made his way back to the forge, the sounds of pattering feet and whispered voices coming from all around him as he walked. One by one little men came creeping out from the branches until, by the time he reached the forge, Robin was surrounded by a large group of these little men, all dressed in leaf green with long dark hair flowing free.
"They have come for ELIDOR," Wayland said, joining the group.
"Who are they?" Robin asked.
"The svart-alfar, my people," the smith told him.
"El-ee-dor," the dark elves whispered, sounding like the wind soughing through the trees.
"Give it to them," Wayland instructed Robin quietly.
Fetching the sword from its resting place, Robin read the runes: ELIDOR - in faerie I will dwell; aye, for ever. He took the sword out to the elves who received it with gasps of admiration. They milled around until the sword seemed to melt from sight, and then the elves too drifted away until only one remained.
"When?" the elf hissed at the smith.
"Soon," Wayland assured it. "When I have finished here."
"Good. We will wait, but not for ever."
"I know," Wayland replied quietly. The elf nodded once, abruptly, and then it too drifted away. The smith turned to Robin.
"This is it," he said gently. "The time has come for you to leave."
"It's been good, young Robin, very good; but your guide is here, and you must go." The outlaw turned and saw, standing amongst the trees, the great stag that had brought him there. Impulsively he swung back to the smith.
"Farewell Wayland," he choked. The smith swept him into a great bear hug.
"Farewell Robin-in-the-Hood," he said gruffly, eyes suspiciously bright.
The stag quietly turned and picked its way over the forest floor. Sadly Robin followed the magnificent creature through the trees and out onto the bare hillside. As he passed under the eaves of the wood the outlaw paused, glancing back towards the forge. As he looked, the small stone building, which had been his home for so many weeks, shimmered in the sun and dissolved away leaving the stream weaving its lonely way through the glade. With a feeling of indescribable sorrow Robin scrambled over the stony outcrops of rock to the crest of the hill. At the top he stopped to regain his breath while the stag waited patiently some paces away.
Lifting his head, the outlaw looked back down the way he had come into a small stone gully; the glade and stream had vanished. Turning to look at the distant horizon he was amazed to see the dark shadow of Sherwood stretching across his path. With a startled gaze he looked up at the stag to find the animal bending over him. Green eyes surveyed him soulfully, and a gentle breeze blew through his hair.
"Forget," a voice breathed in his ear, and he found himself enveloped by a strange drowsiness.
Some while later Robin roused and found himself leaning against a rock beside the Newark road. Scrambling to his feet he shook his head to dispel the muzziness there. Quickly he set off down the road towards the forest where, he knew, the others were waiting for him. As he neared the vanguard of trees he could make out figures in the shadows. Recognising Marion he started to run across the grass until they met and he swept her into his arms.
"Where have you been since morning?" she murmured.
"I don't know," Robin whispered into her curls. "I don't remember a thing."
"Well you're home now," she said, taking his hand and leading him into the forest.
"Yes, home," he reflected, glancing back down the road to where a giant stag stood. Behind the creature he seemed to see the figure of a man standing feet astride, hands on hips.
"Farewell Robin-in-the-Hood." The words drifted across the meadow towards him, and echoes of memories tugged at his mind. Shaking his head in bemusement Robin turned and plunged resolutely deeper into the cool green of the forest.