Edwyn was tired. And it was a deep exhaustion. To lift his feet was a labor. To raise his head was a chore. Every fiber of his being demanded rest, but rest was the one thing he could not stop to do.
“You are a pain in the arse,” he muttered. The words were weak, half from the energy necessary to flap his lips, the other the shame of the words said.
The child did not seem to hear him, though that was not at all true. She heard him. Edwyn knew she heard him. The wolf had called her Robin, but Edwyn thought of her as Pain. Robins were, after all, red. And what else was red? Blood! And what a painful thing it was to bleed.
Edwyn fell still. His breath caught in his throat, and his eyes flew wide. The forest around him was without movement. The trees which cast shade from overhead were narrow things with little branch. Leaf was constant in its cover of the earth, a carpet of faded brown and bothersome crunches. It all seemed to stretch on ad infinitum.
Ad infinitum: a fancy way of saying forever, and Edwyn was one to speak in such fancy ways. He was, after all, a fancy man. Perhaps his manner did not reflect so. Perhaps his coarse mien betrayed such. But Edwyn was a gentleman. And as a gentleman, alone in the forest but for a Robin he thought Pain, his mind struggled to remember…
“Are robins red?”
Kaspar was exhausted. His breath came in great laborious gulps that left him dizzy. As he padded across the forest floor, his once rich coat of white marked red and black with corruption, he thought of Robin.
But he shook his head, snapped at the air in-front of him. He could not dwell on her. The scent of his child still choked his nostrils, but he could not return to her side. It had been for the best. She would be safest with the butcher.
And Kaspar left forth a howl of frustration, of unabashed loneliness and regret. He did not trust the butcher. Kaspar trusted few of the manfolk, but he trusted the butchers least of all. But had there been any other choice? Even now his breast was leaden with guilt. Even with so much blood lost, with the trees before him swaying to and fro as though in dance, his teeth ached. Would it not have been better to rip her throat out instead?
“Shaggy mutt! Mutt!”
Kaspar stiffened, threw his head this way and that. He had lost too much blood. The crow’s stench had followed him as he had fled, but he could not divine its direction in his muddled state.
“Shaggy mutt! Mutt! What a shame! A shame!” Odo cried, flapping his wide wings of black. Kaspar found him resting atop nearby tree, far beyond reach.
“What fame?” Kaspar rasped with a snarl. “Come down here, crow. I cannot hear you from so far away.”
Odo flapped his wings once more, his head bobbing left and right in what Kaspar thought to be frustration.
“Shaggy mutt! Mutt! Think me dumb? Me dumb?” Odo squawked, and he launched from the tree, a mass of black feathers and death.
Kaspar’s teeth began to ache as the crow made a small descent. The bird weaved between the labyrinth of tree without effort.
“Black and blue! And blue!” Odo cackled. “Mighty Kaspar! Kaspar! What a shame! A shame!”
“Fame?” Kaspar said, letting forth a howl of laughter. Slowly he padded forward towards where the earth rose some. “What fame do you see, crow? My coat is more red than white.”
“Shame, not fame! Not fame!” Odo sounded furiously, dipping even lower. “Perk your ears! Your ears! You shaggy mutt! Shaggy mutt!”
And Kaspar launched himself at the bird. Odo let forth a terrified squawk and made to rise, but not fast enough. Kaspar’s fangs sunk into the crow’s left wing, and he tore.
Odo made an erratic and vain attempt to return to the protection of treetop, but the loss of his wing left him slamming into one of the narrow poles of wood that made up the forest.
Kaspar found energy in his frustration. He rushed forward towards where Odo lay unmoving, and he brought one of his mighty paws down on the bastard’s breast. He winced at the sight of his foot’s missing toe and the red that marked its absence.
Lowering his muzzle to Odo’s throat, he growled, “Why has Yarwood done this? What madness consumes him?”
Edwyn slapped Robin. Not hard. He was a gentleman. But hard enough to hurt her. Hard enough to let her know he wanted answers.
“I asked you a question,” he said, his hand raised in threat.
The child did not seem to even make note of it, though that was not altogether true. She saw. She understood. Edwyn knew as much. He could not be fooled. He did not like this child. He did not like how straight her hair was, so deep within the forest. He did not like how long her hair was, so deep within the forest. He did not like how pale her skin was, so deep within the forest. And he did not like her being here, so deep within the forest.
“I am going to ask you one more time,” Edwyn hissed, and he pressed his forehead against the girl’s own. He could not see where her eyes made stare, but he imagined it was off to the side. Robin refused to look at him.
“Why is your name Robin?”
He had realized with a start that it was not robins but cardinals who were red-coated. With the fuzzy heads. He knew it not an apt description, fuzzy heads, but it was all his mind could conjure. He could not even begin to paint a robin’s form. It was frustrating. It was utter nonsense. The child had been named after the wrong bird. But Edwyn knew the wolves were not so fool to do so. There had to be a reason her name was Robin. While all sense would point towards Cardinal…
And there was a crunch of leaf to Edwyn’s left. He pushed the child’s head down, removed knife from belt, and launched the steel forward. The air before him filled with red as his knife sunk into a black-bodied breast. The crow let forth a pitiful squawk, and Edwyn dropped the knife. He made his knees weak, and he fell on his back. The leaves cushioned his fall, and over him a mass of fur cut through the air. A mist of spittle masked Edwyn’s unconcealed face.
Rolling to the right, the earth and leaves were he had made fall were disturbed by a massive crash of flesh. Rising, Edwyn removed short sword from sheathe and frowned at the wolf before him.
“What is this?” Edwyn asked of the wolf. Its coat was white, the same as the one who had saddled him with Robin. Though this one was without the red of blood and the black of corruption.
Robin remained with face pressed against the earth. She had not moved an inch, it seemed, and made not even the slightest tremor. Edwyn felt a faint creep of heat about his face as he noted her uncovered bottom. Her gown of brown was hitched about her hips.
“Wright!” the wolf howled, its eyes darting towards the crow. Had the two been jarmen? Edwyn whined inwardly at the thought. “Do you live?”
“He is dead,” Edwyn made in answer. He liked to think it a considerate tone. The severity of the wolf’s snarl made him think otherwise. “Sorry?”
The wolf snapped at the air, which made Edwyn whine.
“This does not concern you, butcher…” the wolf snarled. He made a small circle around Edwyn, his eyes occasionally flickering towards where Robin bent forward. “That crow… he was White Toe Wright, mine brother of bond. Thank the master of these woods I am on mission. You can still live.”
Edwyn’s stare flashed in Robin’s direction, and his frown deepened. He did not know who this child was. He did not know who the wolf who saddled him with her was. He did not even know what manner of importance lay in either her capture or destruction.
But he knew the depths of a jarmen’s bond. The moment Edwyn’s knife had sunk into this White Toe Wright’s breast either this wolf’s life or his own had become forfeit.
“Enough talk,” Edwyn hissed, his forehead wet with sweat. “Come.”
“A mistake! Mistake!” Ahlf cawed. He was perched on Kaspar’s back and would mark his words with a peck to the neck. “And to a butcher? A butcher?”
Kaspar’s relief had been unimaginable when he had learned his brother of bond had survived. In the mania of flight, he had assumed the worst. Such elation had vanished, however, after a dozen sharp pecks to the neck.
“There are mistakes,” Kaspar began, pressing through the slowly thickening cover of tree, “and then there are-”
“Quiet, Kas! Kas!” Ahlf cried, stabbing at Kaspar’s neck none too pleasantly. “The two are the same! The same! A mistake is a mistake! A mistake!”
Kaspar grimaced, great beads of saliva and blood wetting his mouth.
“Yes, yes,” Kaspar said soothingly. “Whatever you say.”
“Whatever I say! I say!” Ahlf cackled in a manic sort of way, and Kaspar whined. He needed his brother of bond to remain whole of mind. Now was not the time for Ahlf Two Face to reveal the second.
“Yarwood will follow,” Kaspar said, casting a sideway glance at the crow. His feathers twitched, his head bobbed.
“Yarwood will die! Will die!” Ahlf shouted, and he lifted his head and let forth a stream of caws. The forest’s lull shattered.
Kaspar snarled at the sudden eruption of sound, even made to snap at his brother of bond. But Ahlf’s second face had surfaced. The bird launched itself from Kaspar’s back, ever rancorous in his call.
Higher and higher he rose until the canopy of tree swallowed him, and he was beyond the forest’s realm, beyond sight and Kaspar’s reach.
“The mad bastard,” Kaspar whined, and he forced himself faster.
Blood oozed out from a dozen different cuts and holes. It was a miracle he could still put one paw before the other. But he had to. In killing Odo, Yarwood was honor-bound to seek him, to ignore Robin and the butcher with whom she now dwelt.
A howl escaped him at the thought. How he envied this butcher! How cold Kaspar’s breast had become without her! Did Robin realize how much he loved her? Could she understand? Or did she think herself betrayed, abandoned once more?
“I’m done!” Edwyn rasped. His arm hung limp, blood trickling down its length and forming great droplets about his fingertips. His gambeson had been torn open revealing a mass of red that oozed out from the links of his chainmail.
The wolf lay dead before him. Edwyn’s short sword poked out from its muzzle. Its coat was slashed with red in such profusion that little of its white color remained. It had named itself as Eilert near death, as though Edwyn had given a damn.
He took in a few more greedy gulps of air before rising from where he sat. Robin watched him from none too far. The first, he realized. Until now, she had made a noble effort at avoiding his sight.
“I’m done,” Edwyn said once more, the words a hiss in the child’s direction. Her face showed no sign of hearing. It was a sharp mien, one without the typical plumpness of cheek that child held. It was a mature look, one that was oft to surface later in one’s life.
Edwyn liked it not.
He spat on the forest floor, its cover of leaf and choked shrub a mess from the flailing of wolf and man. The trees around him were of blood-marked bark, much the wolf’s.
Robin continued her stare, her lip raised almost in pout. But Edwyn could not be sure. The child was a mystery. And a mystery he did not care to unravel. Wild wolves were one thing, but wild children?
Edwyn turned from her and began away. It would be another hour before the forest fell and the comfort of road met his watch. He had, after all, been on his way out when that damnable wolf had burdened him with the child. Had he not been a gentleman…
There was a crunch of leaf from behind, and Edwyn twirled about.
“No, no, no!” he exclaimed, shooing the child away. “I said I am done. Do you understand? I know you understand. Goodbye. Yes? Goodbye.”
But Robin made no move. She continued to stare. Her eyes were blue, Edwyn realized. He liked blue eyes, but he did not like children. Perhaps if she had been older. Perhaps if she had not been of the forest. Perhaps if blood did not leak from his body like piss!
He turned from her and once more resumed his march. His breath was ragged, and he found the world somewhat slanted. He had lost too much blood. He needed rest, but rest had to wait until he was on the road. The wolves…
Edwyn made a pitiful sound as he spun around. He almost fell, but managed to right himself. Tears threatened to spill from his lids. How frustrating!
Robin still made follow. Motionless, she held her pout.
“I told you!” Edwyn cried, and he drew back his hand, brought it high over the child.
And he made frown.
But she said no more.
“Did you say please?” Edwyn asked, lowering his hand. He had seen her lips part, the words flow forth, but still his brow remained raised. Was she not a wild child?
Robin made no answer.
Edwyn breathed in deep, looking over the child. Her hair was brown. The same brown as those in Corsham. And she was a reedy thing. The same as those in Corsham. And her eyes were blue. The same as those in Corsham! How had he not seen the resemblance before? How had he ever suspected her of being a wild child?
“Were you born in these woods?” Edwyn asked, and when she did not speak, he brought a hand across her face.
“Robin,” he said, as the child massaged the blossom of red about her cheek. “Were you brought to these woods or were you born here?”
Still she made no answer, so once more a mailed fist met her blank mien. His frown deepened at the trickle of red which marked her lip.
“Fine!” Edwyn hissed, and he turned from her. It would be another hour until the road appeared. All would be made known then. “Do as you wish.”