The Dark Strikers
Much later that same morning a very weary Cerian sat in a high-backed oak chair in front of a blazing fire. She was half-asleep when a gentle hand on her shoulder jerked her awake, she looked up to see Sir Galahad regarding her, contrition stamped on his features, “Forgive me, Madam,” he walked around the chair to stand in front of her, “I did not mean to frighten you. I thought a goblet of mulled wine might help to warm you on such a cold night.”
Cerian looked up at the young man thoughtfully and then smiled, “Thank you, Sir Knight,” she replied, “What an evening, eh?”
Galahad bit his lip and when he had regained some of his composure he responded, “I do not understand, Madam, surely this was all you had worked towards?”
Ceri raised an eyebrow and said, “You think? How would you feel if I told you I had no knowledge of who or what I was and I’m still not happy.”
“But-but-but-” Galahad spluttered, finally he managed to find his voice, “You did everything perfectly – no-one could fault you for anything!”
“I didn’t know how to do it,” Ceri replied somewhat sarcastically, “I just did what I thought was right. Which probably means I’m wrong. Hell! Everyone seems to know more than I do and I’m suffering from mushroom syndrome.”
“Mushroom syndrome, Madam?” Galahad looked totally nonplussed, “Is this some disease which affects adventurers? Pray tell me and then I may avoid it.”
Ceri stared at him and felt the edges of a laugh building up in her throat, she swallowed it back down and said, “It’s not a disease, Gal, it means that people don’t tell you what’s really important and now and then you get a bucket of dross thrown over you because people blame you if something goes wrong.”
“People throw that over you which they dispose of in the middens?” Galahad looked disgusted, “But when have you had this thrown over you? I would fight anyone who would assault you in such a way.”
Ceri sighed, “Think metaphorically – or rather don’t. I mean that I have had things happen to me – which weren’t particularly nice and no-one has explained why and that annoys me.”
“I know that,” Herne said softly, “but perhaps we do not mean to hide things from you like that. We seek to protect you until you can hold your own. What you do not know cannot hurt you.”
“What I do not know, Lord Herne,” Ceri bit her lip, “Could get me killed, and I don’t even know why I’ll be dying. Now isn’t that nice!”
“Sarcasm does not become you,” Herne replied, “Drink your wine. For tonight I shall tell you this. You are a Princess of a noble lineage and you have enemies that seek your head. You have not the skills to fight them yet – and I do not know where your powers lie. Do you feel better?”
Ceri swallowed and looked up at him suddenly feeling small and sheepish, “Not really,” she muttered.
“Drink your wine,” Herne ordered, “We will talk later.”
She nodded glumly feeling as though she had failed some sort of test, perhaps there were lots of candidates for this position and she’d just failed Test Number One, oh well at least she could go home to a normal life.
Tentatively Cerian sipped the wine and found that it tasted of cloves and cinnamon and something else that lingered on the tongue but to which she could not put a name. She set the drink down on the small table next to the chair.
“Lord Herne, did you begin the Test as soon as I entered the Abbey?” Ceri asked, needing to know the answer more than anything else.
Herne flung back his antlered head and laughed, turning to Galahad he said, “This one is sharp and her I should be glad to serve, Madam,” he turned back to Cerian, “I began the Test – as you call it – the moment I awoke you in your room. But you must understand, the Grail you saw this night is merely a symbol, the true test comes when all the threads of your Quest come together. The Grail is held by The Fisher King, Nacien. One day Light and Dark will battle and then if the Light is triumphant the Ancient Ones will gather here and depart for Avalon. However I believe that our time here is already past and we should leave. But tonight for you there were three tests and three is important to us, for there are three stages of time, Past, Present and Future. You have dealt in the past tonight, but you also have a part to play in the present and in the future. I am afraid that I have misled you somewhat in my desire to gain your help.”
“I was beginning to realise that, Lord.” Ceri remarked dryly, “is there anything else you haven’t told me that I should know about?”
Herne smiled tautly, “There are many things,” he began, “some I may tell you about; some you shall find out for yourself and others, others you would not wish to know about in your darkest nightmares.”
Cerian looked up into his face and smiled, “Then I shall just have to be content with that answer. Now - what next, Lord Herne?”
Herne raised his goblet to his lips and drank deeply before answering, “We have a riddle to decipher you and I. We have little time to waste.”
“You’ve said that before too,” Cerian told him, “but how much time is little time.”
“A day, maybe a little longer,” Herne nodded at Cerian’s shocked face, “as soon as the forces of the Dark discover that a new member of Light has been added to our ranks then they’ll begin to amass their armies.”
“Can’t we fight them - raise an army ourselves - I’ll lead them!”
Herne rested a hand on her shoulder and crouched that his eyes were level with hers, “That time may come, Princess and yes, you will lead them but it is not that time yet. At the moment we must work in stealth, and we win allies by trust and friendship and not through betrayal, or blackmail or promise of riches. Now to lighter subjects - Sir Knight!”
“Lord!” Galahad turned swiftly.
“I suggest a little light relief – a dance.”
“A dance!” Ceri squeaked, “I can’t dance, I have two left feet!”
Galahad looked down at her feet in their kid shoes, “They look perfectly normal to me, Madam.”
Ceri rolled her eyes, “Gods! No, I mean I can’t do it!”
“Do your best.” Herne growled.
Galahad bowed and extended a hand to Cerian who took it graciously, meanwhile from somewhere the music of instruments began. Galahad took her right hand and put his arm around her supporting her back, Cerian’s left hand lay along his arm; slowly they began to waltz. Or rather, Galahad waltzed and Ceri valiantly tried to keep up, after a minute both Herne and Galahad realized it was hopeless. Eventually Galahad held her away from him and said, “May I speak bluntly, Madam?”
Ceri nodded, gasping, “Please, Gal.”
“Madam, you’re hopeless!” he sighed, “Here. Stand on my feet.” Despite her misgivings, Ceri did as he asked and as gently as possible they tried again, this time at least managing to keep in time. Eventually, they stopped and Ceri stepped off, “Thank you, Gal.”
“I think your work’s cut out for you,” she remarked, turning to Herne.
“I think you may be right,” Herne replied, “I could make up a list of all the things you need to learn, but I’m not sure it would be any use. You do indeed have two left feet.”
Ceri caught Galahad looking at her feet again and laughed, “It means I have no co-ordination, Gal.”
Herne scratched his chin, “You must have some skill that outweighs this – clumsiness, I mean Madam, in this world to not be able to dance, do needlework, play chess or sew will be a serious handicap. I could try to remedy this, but I think it may already be too late.”
“You know something, Lord,” Ceri replied, “You may be right, and I do not know where we go from here.”
“Thank you for the waltz, Madam.” Gal interjected, “although I would confine that particular type to your private chambers.”
“It was a pleasure, mon chevalier,” Cerian replied. She sipped the wine again, it was just cool enough to drink. Galahad smiled down at her, “Tired, Madam?”
“Exhausted,” Cerian replied bluntly, “but I’ll be all right in the morning.”
“Would you excuse me one moment,” Galahad said, “I must needs speak with someone.”
“Certainly, Chevalier,” Cerian yawned suddenly, just managing to cover her mouth with her hand, “See you later, Gal.”
Galahad laughed and suddenly knelt before her so that she was looking down at him, “Madam, you have a tongue in your head that would charm the very birds of the air, I am proud to serve you.” He gently kissed the hand resting on the arm of the chair. “Goodnight.”
“Goodnight,” Cerian said softly and then when his footsteps no longer sounded in the corridors she murmured, “my beloved knight.”
She finished the remainder of her wine, and then curled up as much as possible and gazed into the fire. The dancing flames made the shadows leap and shapes appear in the glowing logs. Cerian yawned again, then her eyes drooped even further, and suddenly she was asleep, her lashes making dark semi-circles on her cheeks.
Two figures walked into the room, Herne bent over Cerian’s quiet form and he said, “She’s sleeping.”
“Did you?” the other figure’s hand went to the hilt of the sword hanging at his waist.
“Put it away Galahad. Of course I didn’t, but it is well for us that she has fallen asleep for we have much to discuss.”
“Such as?” Galahad’s tone was sharp.
“Who she is. What I suspect that she is and the part you both must play in all three times.”
“Begin then,” Galahad demanded.
Suddenly a trumpet sounded and Galahad turned drawing his sword in one swift motion, “Intruders!”
Three black shapes rushed into the room, two seemed shadowy figures trapped between the worlds of fantasy and reality, who could harm but with no real or lasting effect, but between them stood a figure that seemed to ooze darkness itself, a stench of death rose from him and when he spoke it was a voice that was little more than a hiss, “O purest knight,” the sneer was unmistakable, “this is not your quarrel, my desire is the Princess.”
Galahad swallowed hard, “And my desire is that you should not have her!”
“So be it,” the creature laughed and fear began to congeal in Galahad’s gut, “but think that ye can stand against this?”
From a point of darkness near its leg the monster drew a long, pale lance with a bloody tip.
Galahad blanched, “Where did you get that?” he demanded.
“You of the Light never take the trouble to destroy that which could destroy you, this was the lance that killed your Artus, you never made sure that it was destroyed. This weapon will kill any who have Royal blood in their veins.”
“Not while I have life and breath!” Galahad’s voice rang true and clear, “for I too drew a sword from a stone and I discovered the Grail.”
“Then we are evenly matched,” the voice replied, “let us begin.”
Out of the corner of his eye Galahad caught sight of Herne, the true Herne, tall and proud blazing light from every pore bombarding the shadows with all his might.
“Aye, let us begin!”
Slowly they began to circle the room, Thrust. Feint. Parry. Thrust. Parry. Galahad crouched like a leopard about to spring, while the other creature shuffled and squelched making the bile rise in Galahad’s throat, it hissed and lunged for him, raising his sword Galahad parried the blow; sparks of blue fire hissed as the two weapons met each other and ran down the sword and into Galahad’s arm, he cried out in pain and pulled his weapon free.
The creature snarled and raised the lance for an attack, Galahad tried to parry, but his sword arm was still numb from contact with such a deadly weapon, the lance pierced his shoulder.
A deathly cold seemed to fill his body, he could feel his legs beginning to give way beneath him and he sank to the floor. Everything seemed to be happening in slow motion, his sight was fading and he could feel the bottomless abyss of darkness sucking him into its depths.
The being leant over him and raised the lance to make a final thrust and suddenly every fibre of Galahad’s being rebelled, summoning up his last ounce of energy, he gasped, “I may succumb to the Dark, but you shall not have my Princess!” and thrust upwards with his sword, it pierced the entity’s rags and light suddenly burst along the blade. it screamed in agony and a noxious smell filled Galahad’s nostrils, he retched and tasted vomit in his mouth, the creature screamed again and Galahad half-raised himself and with the last of his strength gave a final thrust with his sword. The being fell backwards and Galahad slumped to the floor as consciousness left him.
At the first scream of the thing Galahad was fighting the two shadowy figures seemed to shrink slightly and as the creature fell backwards they shrivelled and died. Herne turned to see Cerian sitting bolt upright in the chair her blue eyes wide and frightened.
“Madam-” Herne began, but she was already on her feet and without thinking, or knowing about it had torn away the protective barrier Herne had erected around her. She knelt beside Galahad and began patting her way up his body. His right hand was ice-cold and his shoulder where the lance had entered even colder.
Herne moved to kneel on the other side of Galahad’s figure as Ceri removed the cloak she wore and threw it over Galahad. His face was grey and a thin layer of perspiration was already beginning to bead his forehead.
“Cernunnos,” she said sharply, “fetch attendants immediately, I want this man moved to private quarters where I may have the best physicians to tend him immediately!”
“At once, Highness,” Herne nodded and rising to his feet Cerian noticed that he no longer wore his antlers and coat of fur but seemed to be a middle-aged man.
“Where are the theatrics?” she enquired.
Herne smiled wryly, “This is who I was many times ago, the Hunter has not always appeared as a corporeal form but sometimes as a voice or a vision. Sometimes I wonder if this was how it started - but I shall fetch the attendants.”
“We must talk later.” Cerian said softly and Herne knew it was not a question.
Eventually Galahad lay on a bed in a large room, heated bricks had been wrapped in cloths and set round him in an effort to warm him. Once his eyes opened but they lacked cognizance and Cerian began to weep.
“Come,” Herne said, raising her to her feet, “you must sleep, we will speak in the morning.”
Ceri was too tired to protest, she felt him lift her and lie her down on the bed, his voice seemed miles above her and the words seemed to set up a resonance in her head, “Go to sleep,” she felt him cover her with a blanket, “you’ll feel much better later.” Then darkness claimed her.
Herne looked down at her, he regretted using the sleep-charm but Cerian was his responsibility as much as Galahad. Galahad, he sighed, There was little that could be done except to give him drugs to ease the pain. I fear for his soul, Herne thought, I blame myself - as soon as the ceremony was completed, I should have thrown a barrier around the place. At least I should have checked that the portals were guarded. How could they get in!
Someone was shaking Cerian hard, she opened her eyes and turned her head, a small serving girl was kneeling beside the bed.
“Ma’am,” she whispered, “the Knight, he is much worse and like to die. Please will you come?”
Cerian nodded her mouth suddenly dry. The girl, barely more than a child herself led her along the corridors and into the large room Galahad had been placed in the night before. Carefully Ceri pushed through the people gathered at the bedside and leant over him. He was even greyer than the night before and his wound was oozing a green pus. A tumescent odour assailed her nostrils and made her gag. Steeling herself she removed the dressings and was almost sick.
“Get me cloths and warm water,” she ordered, “and clean dressings. Have the bricks been changed?”
“Yes Ma’am,” the girl bobbed a curtsy, “but they seem to make no difference. Lord Herne says he is like to die.” Tears began to fill her eyes and Ceri felt her own begin to water in sympathy, “Go and fetch the water and cloths,” she said kindly.
When they arrived she gently cleaned the wound, and placed new dressings upon it.
“But Ma’am, Lord Herne said no-one was to leave the Knight.”
“We are staying with him are we not?” something blazed in Cerian’s eyes and the attendants decided to leave. When they were alone, Ceri bent over Galahad’s still form and gently sponged his face, “I am a failure,” she whispered softly, although she knew that he could not hear her, “You’re dying and there is nothing I can do about it.” She gently took his left hand and laid her right on his wound, “Oh Galahad!”
Suddenly her world fragmented, she was standing alone on a plain beneath a panorama of stars. She began to shiver, it was as if she was being examined beneath a microscope. Then the man who knelt beside Bedwyr was standing before her, he took her hands, “Every door may be unlocked if you have the key.”
“But I do not have a key,” Cerian stared at him hopelessly.
His smile became broader, “You do. You dared the wrath of the ages to free a Knight bound in chains of sorrow and guilt, you risked not being able to free that Knight, to save the life of a man you never knew when he was wounded on the old thorns, you made the Midwinter Thorn bloom at Glastonbury, you hold the Key within yourself, no-one but you could do this and you know what power you have if you will only allow yourself to feel it.”
“But what must I do?”
“Do? Oh Princess, you already know, you proved it in the gardens when you risked all. You have a courage of the heart and more than that, in you the Power rises and flourishes unlike any that I have seen and I too commanded the Old Magic once. You know me of course.”
“Artus.” Cerian replied.
Look deep inside yourself, Daughter, then you will find what it is that you seek and having found that you may find yourself.”
With those words he was gone and Cerian was back in the Abbey, she stared down at Galahad and thought, Courage, courage to do what? What must I dare?
Suddenly it hit her, I have within me a love of humanity, for despite its tragedy and bitterness and misery; humanity has great potential and all humanity are worthy of love.
She stared down at Galahad and said delightedly, “I love you, Sir Knight!” The results were almost immediate, a soft glow began to illuminate Ceri’s hands and run up Galahad’s body enveloping him in a cocoon of glowing light, the hand on his wound began to pulsate with a regular rhythm and all at once the glow faded.
Ceri’s head fell and a weak voice whispered, “Princess?”
She looked up, Galahad’s eyes were open and there was the light of reason in them. Slowly she removed the dressings from his shoulder and stared, the great rotting hole in his shoulder had disappeared, there was only a pale, pink scar from a newly healed wound.
“Princess?” Galahad’s voice roused her from her astonishment and she dredged a smile from the depths of her being, “Feeling better, Sir Knight?”
“Have you tended me all this time, Madam?” Galahad’s tone was sharp.
“Not all the time,” Cerian admitted, “just for the past hour or two. How do you feel?”
“Tired,” a weary smile touched the corners of Galahad’s mouth, “will I see you later?”
“Most assuredly,” Cerian replied and watched while his eyes drooped and he fell asleep.
She felt a hand on her shoulder and heard the pride in Herne’s voice as he said, “That was well done. I did not believe that anyone could save him.”
Ceri smiled and raised a hand to lay it on Herne’s, “I did not think I could save him either, My Lord. How long have you known I was here?”
“Half an hour or so,” Herne replied.
Ceri nodded slowly her head feeling as though it was about to come off her shoulders. Dimly she heard Herne’s exclamation and then she was scooped up in his arms.
“We’ll get you to bed,” Herne said quickly.
“No sleep charms,” Ceri ordered drowsily, as Herne laid her down on the bed she was asleep. A maid undressed Cerian and slipped a woollen nightgown over her body. Herne gently laid a hand on Ceri’s forehead before covering her with a blanket and dimming the lamps.
She slept dreamlessly for a while and then suddenly passed from sleep into wakefulness, she lay blinking up at the window watching the dust dancing in the rays of sunlight passing through the narrow window.
The door opened and Herne entered bearing a tray, Cerian sat up in bed as he placed it on her knees, “What time is it?”
“Early afternoon,” Herne replied, “have you slept well?”
“What about Galahad?” Ceri asked quickly, “Is he all right - I-I mean he’s not-”
“Galahad’s still fast asleep, snoring his head off in the room above this one, in fact I’m surprised that the floorboards aren’t vibrating. Now eat some breakfast. the kitchen provided oatcakes with goat’s cheese or honey if you prefer and milk.”
Ceri ate hungrily even to the extent of licking her fingers and dabbing up the oat crumbs.
When she had finished, Herne handed her a small basin of water and a towel. She washed the stickiness off her fingers, dried her hands and handed the bowl back to him, “Sit down, we need to talk.”
“Yes.” Herne nodded, “When you were with Galahad, before you knew you could save him, what did you see?”
“I was alone on a grassy plain, stars I didn’t know wheeled above me and there was a man there. The same man who forgave Bedwyr, Artus. What happened, Lord Herne.”
“You found your power, Madam. Your gift comes from your heritage as one of the Ancient Ones and it appears to be a power to heal. You have an ability to see the good in humanity which most of us cannot. Artus also had a gift but his was something you call charisma.”
“An ability to lead people.”
“Yes.” Herne smiled, “sometimes the gift is so powerful it eclipses everything else which is why all other pursuits hold no interest for you, although I think it will be to your advantage if we can teach you to ride a little.” He paused, “but now everyone, Dark and Light will know who and what you are. You are in more danger now than ever. Before you were a nuisance, now you’re a threat.” Herne eased himself onto the bed and said, “As soon as you were recognised in the Great Hall the Dark would’ve known about you. I should have realised that, I did not put the defences up, they must have slipped in after the celebration. You are in less danger now, but the danger is still great even though much of it has passed.”
“Two questions, My Lord,” Ceri responded softly, a slight frown puckering her forehead, “How could creatures from the Dark enter here? And how do we combat them?”
“This place is Sacred to the Light, the Dark could not enter here unless they either came to parley on Sacred ground, or-” Herne paused, as if the thought was unthinkable, “or someone of the Light gave them entry.”
“So I may have a traitor to contend with,” Ceri nodded, “fortunately I come from a world where people are generally nasty. I think I can deal with a traitor. What were you going to suggest I do about their attempt to murder me?”
“I was coming to that,” Herne replied, “And I do have a plan, they will expect you to remain in relative safety here and not to have to search elsewhere for you so my suggestion is that I send you back in time and you may continue the search for the solution to my salvation. That way if the Dark seek you here you will be long gone.”
“I hope I can help you,” Cerian replied slowly, “riddles were never my strong point.”
“I will come with you part of the way, but this is your quest and as such you must do this on your own, so the riddle you must decipher alone too.”
“You’re not making this very easy Cernunnos.”
“I never said that it would be easy,” the Lord of the Trees replied, “but you have proved yourself beyond a shadow of a doubt that you are the one chosen to free me. Will you at least try?”
Ceri sighed, “I owe you that much at least. Yes, I shall try. First I shall visit Galahad and then we may depart. Tell me this riddle.”
“Very well. You must trust someone you have only just met; and you must heal someone who doubts you.”
“Full of the joys of spring aren’t we?” Ceri remarked.
“I don’t understand it either,” Herne replied.
“Would you leave us, Lord,” Cerian said, “and I shall dress.”
Herne nodded and vacated the room closing the door behind him. Cerian dressed quickly in a shirt, hose and jerkin. She pulled a pair of soft doeskin boots on her feet.
Slipping out of the room she crept through the corridor and up the stairs. Gently she turned the ring on the door and pushed it open. A bright fire burnt in the grate and the sunlight fell through the narrow slit that formed the window. Galahad lay sleeping and for a moment Cerian watched him her eyes tender, then she kissed the tips of her fingers and touched them to his lips, “Farewell, mon chevalier,” she whispered, “I have to go now. See you later.”
Herne was waiting for her downstairs, he gave her a cursory glance, “Not quite what I was hoping for but it’ll do. Come, as soon as night falls the Dark will be upon us and you are still vulnerable.” He led her across the courtyard and again the scene shimmered, they stood at the edge of a forest. Herne gazed around and murmured, “These were the days, when forests covered half your country, it was an evil time, but it was also a great time and some men blazed their names across the sky in fiery letters so that England and history has never forgotten them.”
“Why didn’t you stay in this time?” Ceri stared at him curiously.
“Because I cannot die, so I must watch the times of triumph and the times of shame, when you came I finally thought that I might find some vestige of peace.”
“Oh,” Cerian looked around her, “where are we?”
“On the outskirts of Sherwood Forest,” came the reply, “less than five miles from Nottingham,”
The track was dry and fairly clear of weeds and brambles, it soon opened up onto a clear straight road.
“Lady,” Ceri turned to see Herne proffering a small dagger, “there are brigands in these woods, I should like you to have something to defend yourself with should some of them attack us.”
“Thank you,” Ceri said taking the weapon. As they entered another part of the forest the atmosphere seemed to darken, suddenly Ceri felt the hairs on the back of her neck begin to prickle, she turned to see something that looked only half-human charging toward her, she drew her dagger and without thinking almost casually stroked it across his eyes, he screamed and reeled backwards clutching his face, blood oozing between his fingers. The others came in ones and twos and although she thrust and parried, inflicting wounds, eventually one of them knocked her weapon from her hand with a branch and their leader caught her arms roughly and pushed her against the rough bark of a tree.
“Now, my pretty, what’s someone like you doing all alone the forest?”
“I-” she began and then looked around, Herne was nowhere to be seen. “I did not think I would be set upon by thieves,” she sneered.
“I am sure that there is a ransom for you, my pretty,” the man cackled and shivers of fear ran up Ceri’s spine.
“Not to my knowledge,” she replied as coolly as she dared. The man stared at her as if he could not believe his ears and then he laughed, “This one has fire - I shall keep her as my captive and she shall bear me fine sons!”
Cerian kicked him hard in the groin, he yelped in pain and lurched backwards, she dropped to the ground and scrabbled around finally locating her dagger. Another of the men came towards her and she plunged her dagger to the hilt in his midriff, she twisted it and pulled, it came free with a squelching sound and blood poured from the wound.
Cerian turned and ran, ran for her life through the dark forest, from the crashing behind her she could tell that they were gaining and that they would not be slow to take their revenge on her for injuring their leader. She tripped suddenly and fell headlong and the world turned black.
She was being jolted along rather roughly, it was a most uncomfortable feeling, she struggled to get free. “Hang on,” a voice said, “I think she’s coming round, put her down John.”
The bouncing stopped, she was lifted down from someone’s shoulders, she stared up into a gentle face, roughened by anger and pain. “Sit down,” the same voice said.
Then she saw him, a young man, no more than twenty-five or six, his hair was coal black and his eyes dark as pools of still water. He crouched down and gently pushed the hair back from a cut on her forehead, “Does it hurt?” he enquired gently.
She nodded and then suddenly said thickly, “I think I’m going to be sick-” she retched uncontrollably for some minutes after her stomach had expelled its contents, she was aware of the big man’s hand gently holding the hair away from her face during her retching bout, and then his arm was around her shoulders as she struggled to rise, steadying her, through her still fuzzy vision she saw him proffer a bottle, “It’s only water,” he said quietly, “just to rinse your mouth out.”
She accepted it gratefully and was glad of the cool freshness of the liquid on her sore mucous membranes. She rose to her feet and the dark-haired one came forward again, “Let me put this on the cut,” he said, ”it’ll help it to heal.”
Her vision was starting to clear, although her legs still threatened to give way beneath her. The big man, what was he called, John? Yes, that was it, John, guided her to a place where she could sit with her back against a tree while the dark-haired man gently applied something cool and soothing to the pain in her temple.
Then she was lifted again, only this time with her head on John’s shoulder and they began moving, with time with a more purposeful air. She remembered that journey only in terms of waking and sleeping, sometimes she could see open sky above them, while at other times she remembered looking upwards at the leafy green canopy and wondering how the trees had moved so fast. Afterwards all she could clearly remember was the darkness surrounding her punctuated by little flashes of light, like fires, arms holding her securely, a woman’s voice asking her something and then having to watch a finger moving without turning her head. Then the woman again and something was held to her lips, she drank gratefully, gradually the merciless pounding in her head began to ease and as it did so she fell asleep.
She awoke in the early morning, the breeze stirred the tops of the trees, she sat up and looked around her. The camp was quiet, from the embers of the fire a thin trickle of blue smoke floated slowly upwards. A hand gently touched her shoulder, she looked up to see John looking down at her, “Good morning,” he said softly.
“Good morning,” Cerian replied, “what time is it?”
“About two hours after sunrise, I’m on guard duty today, the others are scouting the London road, I promised I’d look after you. So what’s your name?”
“Cerian,” Ceri said, “Cerian Prichard. I’m very grateful, you must have moved fast in order to stop those bandits from cutting me into small pieces.”
The man sat down and said, “Much spotted them first, he alerted Robin and me and when we moved into position they were gathered around you. A few carefully placed arrows soon made them move.”
“What about the leader?”
“I rather suspect that you took care of him with a swift kick,” the man replied, “My name’s Little John, I came from Hathersage. You’ll meet the others tonight, there’s Much, myself, Will Scarlet, Friar Tuck and of course Marian and Robin.”
Cerian regarded him strangely at the mention of Robin’s name, “Robin. Do you mean Robin of Locksley?”
“I believe that was his title before he was made wolfshead.” Cerian stood up, “I think we ought to go and catch breakfast,” she said quickly.
“There’s no need for that,” John said, he took her hand and led her over to the fire, “I’m afraid its only cold Coney but you don’t mind that do you?”
“I don’t mind anything as long as its food,” Cerian said taking a piece of the rabbit and sinking her teeth into it.
Later they went down to the river and John showed her how to tickle trout, they caught thirteen big ones and as the shadows were beginning to fall John called a halt. “The others will be back by now, come on, I think you should explain yourself to them.”
The camp was alive with people when John and Cerian entered it. Taking the fish she carried John excused himself, “I think Robin will wish to speak to you.”
Cerian was only left for a couple of moments when someone tapped her on the shoulder, she turned to see a young ginger haired youth standing behind her, “Hello,” he said, “I’m Much. I found you yesterday.”
“I’m very glad that you did,” Ceri replied, she smiled again, “I must go, Much, I think Locksley wants a word.”
Robin touched her arm, “Do you remember me?”
“Vaguely,” she said, “you put something on my head I think.”
“That’s right,” Robin smiled tightly, “now I need some answers. You said that your name was Cerian, I can tell from your accent that you’re not from around here.”
“I’m from the future,” Cerian said softly, “I have to speak with Herne.”
Robin’s gaze became sharp, “From the future - prove it!”
“How?” Ceri stared at him, “there’s no way I can prove I’m from the future, the only way I could would be to tell you of your fate, and I think you already know.”
“Tell me of Richard? What happens to him?”
“He dies in France and England passes to John.” Ceri replied slowly, “I need to speak to Herne.”
“What do you know of Herne the Hunter?”
“More than you think,” Ceri replied, “I serve him in the future. May I speak to him?”
“No!” the voice was Scarlet’s. Both Robin and Cerian jumped, Will jumped out in front of them, “Get rid of her Locksley, she’ll bring Gisborne down on top of us.”
“I have no intention of bringing Guy of Gisborne here - like you I have no love for the man, whatever you think, Scarlet.”
“Do they still talk of me in your future?” Robin asked.
“In my future and the futures to come - you are remembered as a man who stood for Justice and Honour. You are remembered when Richard Coeur De Lion is dust.”
“Then I am satisfied,” Robin replied. “You shall be given all courtesy, Lady, and escorted as far as Kirklees Abbey. From thence I trust you will find your own way. My spies tell me that there is a shipment of gold on its way to Nottingham for the Sheriff’s coffers, the poor could use that money better than the Sheriff.”
Cerian said nothing and Robin smiled tightly and bowing departed, Ceri watched as the darkness swallowed him up. Cerian curled up beneath one of the great oaks and pulled the blanket up around her, sleep came eventually and with it, no dreams.
She awoke early, the sun was still low on the horizon, Robin and the others were talking in low voices around the fire. Cerian pushed through the group until she stood before Robin, “I must needs ask you again,” she said softly, “may I have an audience with the Lord of the Trees.”
Robin looked down at her, the earnestness of her face, the white knuckles, heard the tight plea in her voice, “No. If you will not tell me why you need to speak to him-”
“I can’t,” Cerian replied, “I would trust you to lead me into Hell and out again safely and I have known you little less than a day. Can you not trust me the same?”
“Regrettably not, Madam, I have been misled by a pretty face before, I cannot take the risk again. As I have said before, you shall be escorted to Kirklees tonight. Now Lady, if I may be allowed to continue with my previous conversation.”
Her hopes dashed, Cerian turned away, John touched her shoulder, “Is it so desperately important that you see Herne?”
Cerian looked up into Little John’s face and nodded not trusting herself to speak, she swallowed hard and said, “It would help someone in my future if I could speak to him for even a few moments, perhaps I cannot get back home without his help.”
“Then I pity you,” John replied, “because if Robin refuses to take you, you’ll never get to see him.”
She turned and John saw the shine of tears in her eyes, “Thank you for your candour,” she said softly.
All that day Cerian waited in the camp in the hope that she might be able to speak to Robin or any of the other outlaws when they returned to the camp. Thus it was that she saw the other outlaws bearing the body of Scarlet back into the camp. It was impossible to see how badly he was injured as the other men carrying him obscured her view, but through their upright forms she suddenly caught sight of feathers at the end of a shaft and suddenly felt sick.
They carried him into one of the huts and Marian went in some little time afterwards carrying some implements wrapped in a blanket. Suddenly Cerian made her decision, she pushed open the door and saw Marian poised to try and cut the arrow out.
“No!” She yelled at the top of her voice, Much made a grab for her but she evaded him easily and dropped to her knees beside Scarlet’s shaking form.
“Get some alcohol,” she ordered. Marian nodded to someone behind her and Cerian heard the door open and close. “Help me sit him up,” she said. Together they eased him into a sitting position and Cerian took Scarlet’s hand, “Will? Will, don’t try to talk, I want you to listen to me, we’re going to have to remove the arrow, I’m going to shorten it and its going to hurt. Can you hear me, Will?”
Scarlet nodded, his face was white as milk and a thin film of perspiration covered his cheeks and his forehead. Slowly and carefully Ceri took the knife and began to cut a deep groove around the arrow, Will moaned and Ceri looked across him at Marian, “Hold his shoulders.”
Marian pushed his shoulders back and looked across at Ceri, “Ready,” she said quickly.
Taking the arrow Ceri pressed both thumbs upwards either side of the groove, the arrow snapped and Scarlet’s scream of agony rent the darkness. She sat back on her heels and wiped the back of her hand across her forehead, it was wet with perspiration.
She took the knife and a heavy, flat stone, “Be ready to pull the arrow out,” she said quickly. Marian nodded, Ceri placed the knife flat against the end of the arrow and picked up the rock. One clean blow she told herself, One, two, three! On three she hit the knife, the arrow slid through Will’s shoulder the point and shaft emerging the other side. He groaned in agony and slumped against Ceri.
“The dressings,” she snapped. Padding the wound, she gently laid her hand upon it and the now familiar tingle began again. Oh Will, you brave irascible idiot! The glow spread all over his body and then just as suddenly dissipated. Marian looked down at Will. He was sleeping and his face was peaceful. She lifted the dressing and saw only a new scar.
Ceri got to her feet and went outside into the cool night air. She leant against an oak and closed her eyes, she felt a familiar hand on her shoulder, “Thank you.”
She opened her eyes to see Robin gazing at her, “It was nothing,” she said.
“It was to me and it will be to Scarlet. Remember he suspected that you were working for Gisborne-” he broke off as Ceri started to laugh, “what is it?”
“Nothing,” Ceri assured him, “I was just thinking about something someone said.”
“Do you still wish to speak to Herne?” Robin enquired, “if so I shall take you to him.”
Cerian could only stare, speechless with gratitude, then she found her voice, “Thank you, Robin Hood.”
The mist of twilight lay thickly in the hollows and curled around the roots of the trees when Robin shook her awake, “Come, Madam, we must depart.”
Ceri followed him down to the river where a small bark lay moored to the bank. Robin helped her board and then began to quant them upriver. Eventually they arrived at a dark cave, Robin bent and said, “Will you close your eyes and keep them closed until I tell you to open them.”
Ceri nodded, she felt the bark glide through the darkness and suddenly was tempted to open her eyes and it was as if she heard Herne’s voice in her mind, You must trust someone you have only just met, and she squeezed her eyes even more tightly shut.
Robin touched her shoulder again, “You may open your eyes now.”
Cerian did so and was amazed, the boat was gliding towards a tiny lit ledge in a subterranean lake. Robin helped her onto the bank and then a figure appeared garbed in fur and wearing a deer’s head on his own. “Who is this stranger you have brought here?” the creature demanded.
“One who asked to come here and even when I refused did me a service by restoring one of my men to health.” Robin replied, “she put herself at risk so I chose to bring her here.”
“I bear a message from the future,” Cerian said, “I was told I am the Hunter’s Salvation. I come to you in the hope that you have the knowledge to save him.”
Herne took her shoulders and regarded her for a long moment, “So you have come at last. I have waited long for you. I do not have the knowledge for my salvation; but I do have another riddle that will lead you part of the way towards it. The line runs thus; You must right him that was wronged; and rescue him who spilt the Crochan.”
“I do not understand it, Lord, but I shall consider it .”
“I know.” A smile lit the features of the Hunter and he said, “It is time for you to go home.” He placed an arm around her shoulders and escorted her towards the altar. “Walk forwards and you shall be where you were.”
“One moment,” Ceri said, she walked over to where Robin was standing and took both his hands in her own, “Remember me?”
“Oh - always,” Robin assured her, “Scarlet will be sorry that you’ve gone. I know he would have wanted to say goodbye.”
“Quick good-byes are always better,” Cerian said, “until we meet again, Robin i’th’Hood.”
“Until we meet again, Lady Cerian.”
Herne led her back to the altar and she hugged him before closing her eyes and stepping forward, “Your Gift goes with you, Princess.”
Ceri opened her mouth to thank him but his voice was growing fainter, she hit a grass tussock and dropped to the ground. She opened her eyes, she stood in the orchard, on her right the Abbey loomed over her casting a comforting shadow.