A hulking bear of a man stood at the center of a barrel thick log crossing the river. It was the only crossing point that Robin had seen for over a mile. He stepped onto the log, beckoning for Will to stay where he was. The huge, dark haired man lifted a quarterstaff threateningly, calling, “This be my bridge. To pass will cost you.”
Robin cocked his head and sighed wearily, “My friend and I are tired and hungry. We must cross this river before we can rest.”
The big man stood straighter, puffing his thick chest out and repeated, “To pass my bridge will cost you.”
Robin shrugged tugging the insides of his pockets out to show nothing but lint, “As you can see, I haven’t any money. I’m just a common outlaw without a penny to my name.”
The man scratched at his thick black beard and declared, “I am John. John Little, and if you cannot pay then you cannot pass.”
Robin beckoned to Will who tossed him a long wooden staff. It was not as thick as the staff held by John. Robin lifted the staff. He pointed it at the burly man on the log, “My friend and I are intent on passing. Step aside or we will go through you.” His back had straightened, and his voice had taken on an edge of steel.
John’s thick dark eyebrow lifted, “You think you can defeat me, little man? I’ll have you taking a cold bath in no time.” He chuckled, glancing suggestively at the river, and then settled back into his ready stance. The sounds of the forest seemed to quiet down as if even the animals were anticipating Robin’s reaction.
Robin smirked, “I think that on this slippery log, my slight size and nimble feet will be to an advantage.” He raised his staff, twirling it in the air like an extra-large baton, and advanced. John was quick for such a giant of a man. Robin soon found that he had more difficulty dodging his powerful blows than he had expected. Robin darted forward jabbing John in the gut with the rounded end of the staff. He was rewarded by harsh blow to the back. He fell forward and rolled along the log, bounding to his feet at the end of his impromptu somersault. He spun around just in time to ward off another blow.
They continued to exchange blows, dodging and ducking and blocking blows with their own staves to avoid serious injury. After what seemed like an hour with relatively no progress, the intensive clashing of weapons began to slow as both men finally began to tire. They started aiming for the legs to try knocking each other off of the log. Robin’s staff slipped behind John’s leg and tripped him just as a solid blow to the shoulder knocked Robin backwards at just the right angle to throw him off balance. With two mighty splashes both men hit the water simultaneously.
John’s face instantly flared red with anger as he wiped the water from his face and beard. He sputtered to spit out what had gotten into his mouth, but Robin only laughed. “It looks like we’ve both gotten our baths for the day.” He wiped the icy water from his eyes and then with a grin he shook his head like a wet dog.
Will, who had stood leaning against a tree on the bank watching the duel, started laughing at his friend’s antics. The two men’s humor was contagious. John finally swallowed his pride, and with a harrumph he began laughing along with them. Soon he climbed up onto the grassy bank, holding out his hand to help Robin from the water on the far side of the river.
Will made his way tentatively along the slippery, wet log to join the others on the far side. He stared at John incredulously then turned to Robin, “He bested you!” He cried.
Robin laughed, “It happens, but look at him. He is a bear of a man. He is a worthy opponent to be sure.” He rubbed one of the many bruises that he knew he would be feeling tomorrow. He held out his hand to his burly opponent. “I am called Robin and this is Will. Would you join us for a meal and a chance to dry off by the fire?”
John hesitated only a moment before the string of fish that Will held along with the growling of his own stomach swayed him to agree. Once they sat around a fire, with the fish sizzling merrily over the flames, they began talking and soon John found that he was comfortable with these men. After they had dished up the food, John began to tell Robin and Will his story between bites of fish.
“I was out hunting, sneaking up on a huge buck, when I heard a growl behind me. I whirled and came face to face with a mighty silver wolf. He stood as tall as my shoulder and his eyes were yellow, intense. He must have been hunting the same buck, but he apparently did not like me being near his prey. He lunged before I could react and bit me on the shoulder.” Pulling back the collar of his shirt he showed them the massive bite scars. To have a jaw large enough to leave those marks, Will imagined the wolf must have been every bit as huge as John described it.
“The buck bolted right then, and for some reason, the beast released me to give chase. If he hadn’t, wouldn’t be alive today. I was injured and bleeding, but eventually I stumbled through the woods to my home and my lovely wife. Alice patched me up good.”
A terribly sad and lonely look overcame him at the mention of his wife, “Over the next few weeks I grew to be awfully bad tempered, getting angry about anything and everything. One day, I lost my temper over a fruitless fishing trip. Alice said something about me having better luck the next day and…” he seemed to wilt at his memories. His next words came as a bare whisper, “I snapped. I gave in to my anger and started to see red. When I woke I was…different. I was standing over my wife’s torn and bloody dress. Somehow, I had changed into a wolf. I ran into the forest. Eventually I shifted back. I had to steal clothing because I had none, and I…I couldn’t go back home. I am not certain what happened that day, but I know that I hurt my lovely Alice, maybe even killed her, and I can never forgive myself for that.”
He hung his head as massive tears dripped into the dirt at his feet. Robin set his hand on John’s arm, “You’ve had a hard turn, friend. I’m sorry for the loss of your home and wife.” He studied the large man for a moment. After a nod from Will he asked, “Why don’t you continue with us, John? You’ve nowhere better to be and we could always use someone so talented with a quarterstaff.”
Tired of his loneliness, John agreed to join them and they began to fill him in on their plot to put the greedy Sheriff of Nottingham out of business.
* * *
The friar’s wagon seemed to make it a point to bounce over every single rut in the road just to aggravate his massive headache. With each jostling bump, a bolt of lightning threatened to split his skull. He wanted so badly to get out of these woods, but now that his church knew his deep dark secret, he had to take refuge where he could find it. He planned to make camp in the woods for a few days, just until the witch hunters from his village stopped looking for him; then he would continue on to London.
He was just about to berate the horse for not trotting more smoothly when he spotted what looked like a fallen log in the middle of the path. He pulled the reins to stop the horse and climbed down with a grunt. Waddling over to the log, he bent over it to see if perhaps it was rotted enough for his wagon to be able to roll over it without damaging his few remaining possessions (his wagon and the ale it carried). As the friar bent to inspect the log, one of the branches reached up and grabbed his arm. Right before his eyes a blond haired blue eyed man appeared in front of the log from out of nowhere.
“Hello, Friar.” The sneaky man greeted him, “How kind of you to deliver your goods to us simple outlaws.”
The friar heard a shout from behind. He turned to see two men raiding his wagon. “That’s my ale!” He shouted.
One of the men by the wagon, a huge bear of a man with a massive black beard and matching hair, yelled back, “Aye, and a fine batch of ale it is!”
The friar turned back to the man on the ground, “It’s all I have left in the world.”
The man let go of his arm and hopped to his feet, “Well then, it’s only fair that you join us in our indulgence and share in our meal. Perhaps you will honor us with the story of what brought you to our humble woods. We have little but wouldn’t want to deprive a good man of the only possessions he has left. Perhaps we can come to an amicable agreement as to the value of your ale and your company.”
In spite of his reservations, the friar hadn’t had a drink all day, and he felt that he certainly deserved it after such a long day of riding. Though they were rough, these men seemed to be jovial and good. They sat around a campfire and drank his fine ale. After several rounds the friar began to feel much more relaxed and he decided to share his tale of why he had been chased from his church and home.
“I was presiding over the funeral of one of my parishioners and was saying some very well thought out words about him passing on to a better place, when that inconsiderate corpse sat up and started walking around attacking people.
His own family had to hack him to pieces before he finally stopped moving. It was a terrible, horrific tragedy. I tried to comfort the family, telling them that this has happened before and the families have always moved on with their lives with only a few emotional scars.”
He shook his head sadly, “Well, they told their friends what I had said and done and soon it was decided that I was a dark witch, practicing black magic, of all the silly things. It’s not as if I tell the corpses to rise, they just do it.”
Robin shook his head in awe, “Well that is a fine tale, Friar. I am sorry for the troubles you have had to endure. Will you consider joining my band of outlaws? We don’t run into many corpses here in the woods, and if we do, well we’re not the type to judge. Besides, anyone who can brew such fine ale is always welcome.” The friar laughed with relief and the fervent hope that his life would now turn around as he agreed to join them.
* * *
Alan ran for his life, shedding fresh tears for the loss of his love, Kaylen. He could still see the fire burning the pieces of her exquisite body as the villagers destroyed the monster in their midst. He had used their mob wide distraction to run, though every part of him longed to get revenge on the intolerant villagers for what they had done to his darling.
Three days later, he was still running. He could hear the sound of the dogs they had loosed, tracking him, baying every time they found his scent anew. When the baying finally faded into the distance, he held out a small hope that the men had called off their search and he would now have time to mourn in peace.
Alan ran for another day without stopping; when a full day had passed since he had last heard the dogs, he finally slowed to a walk. He took in his surroundings, wondering if this dark wood was to be his new home. Hearing shouting he almost started running again, but he realized that there were no dogs baying amidst the shouts, so these couldn’t be the men that were after him. He crept to the edge of a clearing where it looked like a small group of bandits had laid a trap for a passing tax wagon.
Alan grinned, expecting to see a good show. It seemed that with swords the bandits and the guards were equally matched, but a fourth bandit stood on the branch of a tree, shooting guards with a bow and arrows. Alan watched in amazement as one guard fell without fail for every arrow the blond man shot. The man seemed to blend in with the tree on which he stood. Aside from his minute movements as he replaced the arrow and drew the string taut, the man was nearly invisible. However, when he stepped out of the shadow of the trunk for better aim and pulled the last arrow from his quiver, one of the guards took aim with a crossbow bolt and shot him in the chest.
The blond man paused and then set his arrow, drew the bowstring back, though it must have caused him a terrible agony, and loosed the arrow. It went through the throat of one man and into the chest of a second. Then, quiver empty and crossbow bolt protruding from his chest, the blond man fell from his branch to land hard on the packed earth below.
Alan found himself running to the fallen archer. The other bandits were busy disposing of the remaining guards, so when Alan knelt beside the man he was alone. Although he was so very thirsty, and the smell of the archer’s blood was nearly too much for him to bear, he denied his instinct to finish the man off. Pulling the bolt from the bandit’s chest he then used his sharp teeth to slice his own wrist. Pressing his wrist to the man’s wound he watched as the gaping hole began to knit together. When the hole was closed, he pulled his wrist away. The archer reached up and grabbed his arm. He held it and watched as Alan’s own wound closed up. Then he looked up at Alan and smiled, “You saved my life, vampire.”
Alan nodded and moved to stand. He helped the man to his feet. “I’m Robin,” the archer introduced himself, “and those are my band of outlaws.” He said, gesturing to the bandits who had finished off the last of the guards and, after a quick glance to verify that Robin was okay, they began digging through the loot.
Once again that night, the growing band of thieves sat around a campfire and listened in awe as yet another unbelievable tale was spun.
“I am a born vampire.” Alan paused as Will cringed away. “I feed on humans only as often as I must, and I never kill,” he assured the boy. “Born vampires age at the same rate of humans until we reach maturity, and then we stop aging, usually around the age of twenty-five or so. I for one am a very spry ninety-three year old. We live our entire lives with the need for blood, so we learn very early how to control ourselves.”
“It is not a born vampire that you must fear, but a changed vampire. These are frozen as they were when they were changed and, since they spent their lives as humans, they have no self control. When the blood lust hits them they go feral. They destroy everyone in their path.” Will shuddered at the image and shifted a bit farther away from the vampire.
“I loved a mortal named Kaylen. She was sick with the wasting disease that is killing so many people lately. I couldn’t bear to watch her die and so I changed her, certain that I could help her to control herself. But then, only a week after she changed, she wandered out of our cave while I slept and went home to visit her family. I imagine that she thought she could control herself, but as soon as she smelled the blood pumping through their veins, she went mad with the blood lust and killed them all.”
“A neighbor must have seen her fleeing all covered in blood, because a mob chased her from the village back to our cave. She had just stepped inside when she was pulled back out. The mob tore her to pieces and burned her body.” He had spoken with the dispassionate voice of a story teller, but his voice cracked at this and he had to wipe a red tinged tear from his eye. “I have been running ever since.” He finished with a weary sigh. To his surprise, Will lay his hand on his arm and offered him a sympathetic look.
Robin reached out his hand and patted Alan’s other arm, “We could always use the assistance of a man who is stronger and faster than all others, not to mention one that carries an elixir for healing within his very blood. Will you join us?”
Alan looked thoughtful, “You would welcome a vampire?”
Will grinned, “Well as you said, it’s the changed ones we have to worry about, right? Besides,” he swept his hand to indicate the group, “Robin is a shape shifter, which we all know are notorious thieves.” Robin winked at that and Will continued with a grin, “John over there is a werewolf with a temper and apparently Friar Tuck can raise the dead, though we’re not keen on testing that theory.” He shrugged offering his hand in friendship, “and you’re a vampire. I’m the only boringly normal man in this merry band.”
Alan stared at the group, incredulous. “I think that such a band as we are is bound to make history.” He shook Will’s hand and then proceeded to shake hands with Robin, John and finally the friar who had seemed to fight an inner battle over accepting a vampire.
He must have convinced himself though, because he reached out his hand and shook vigorously. The friar shrugged at the curious look Alan gave him, “On one hand, you might drink my blood and kill me in my sleep. On the other hand, I’m happy to welcome any man who will be drinking something other than my fine ale.” Alan laughed a hearty laugh and soon they were all laughing at the friar’s simple logic.
Alan then pulled a well worn lute from his pack, remembering with a pang of loss how Kaylen had loved to hear him play, but he pushed the memory aside and played one jaunty tune after another. They all sang along until their eyes began to droop. As with every night, Robin stood to take first watch. Putting a hand on his shoulder to stop him, Alan said, “You were injured today. You nearly died. You should rest.” Robin opened his mouth to protest but Alan held up a hand, “I am a vampire, I can see in the dark and I don’t need much sleep, so I am the ideal sentry for our small camp.”
Finally, Robin gave in to his exhaustion and accepted Alan’s offer, “I am grateful, my new friend.” Alan was surprised at the trust this group showed, allowing a vampire that they didn’t even know to watch over them while they slept. He swore then to do everything in his power to keep his new friends safe.