Read Will in Scarlet Online

Authors: Matthew Cody

Will in Scarlet (10 page)

BOOK: Will in Scarlet
5.63Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

There were sprinkles of more laughter as the captain walked over and kicked the tent.

“Hey! Get your lazy arse up! We’ve got a surprise for you!”

From within came a long, low moan, like the sound a wounded animal might make as it dragged itself to a lonely spot to die.

Gilbert pulled back the tent flap to allow in the sun, but in doing so, he let the noxious air inside escape. Much and the rest of the Merry Men covered their noses. A few turned away.

And with a roar halfway between rage and pain, the occupant stumbled out into the camp. He was tall, though not nearly as tall as John, and his black beard was filthy and crusted. His clothes were soiled and threadbare, and he clutched at his head with one hand while clawing at the offending sunlight with the other.

“Wine,” he croaked. “I need some wine.”

“Christ, Rob,” said John. “It’s still morning!”

“Rob the Drunk,” said Gilbert with that same oily grin. “I
wanted to introduce you to your new tent mate. You’re both half dead anyway, so what’s the difference?”

Much glanced over at the boy’s face, so pale and so helpless, and nearly changed her mind. How could she consign him to such a fate?

As if in answer, Rob vomited all over his own boots.


I don’t care. John, Richard, or King Fart the Great, they’re all the same to us out here in the wild


“What’s your name?” the boy asked. Judging by his size, he was younger than Will by a few years. Small and slight of bone. Delicate features hidden beneath a constant scowl and a thick layer of grime.

“I’ve told you,” Will answered. “Will Scarlet.”

The boy snorted. “You’ll have to do better than that. No Scarlets hereabouts. No Scarlets anywhere, I’m thinking.”

The boy crouched with half his body outside the tent so that he could get the occasional sniff of fresh air. No such luck for Will. He was stuck inside with the stench and the stench’s source snoring away beside him. The stale, sour smell of wine and vomit reminded Will of his father’s hall after a wild feasting night, only there was no escaping this foul mix. And there was no getting used to it, either.

“You’ve got to eat if you want to get your strength back,” said the boy. He offered Will a bowl of lumpy porridge, but Will made no move to take it.

“Let me out of here and I’ll eat,” said Will. “I’m strong enough to walk.”

“That’s why I can’t let you out. Can’t have you walking off.”

Will’s fever had broken a day ago, and he’d emerged clearheaded, if still physically weak. Whoever his captors were, they weren’t any regular military force. These undisciplined men, with their shoddy weapons and patchwork armor, weren’t the sheriff’s soldiers or even Guy’s mercenaries. Bounty hunters perhaps. Or bandits. Either way, they’d saved Will’s life, but they’d also made him into a prisoner—just how valuable a prisoner, they were obviously trying to suss out.

“Since you don’t believe my name, how about telling me yours?” asked Will.

The boy hesitated for just a moment before answering. “Much,” he said. “My name’s Much.”

Will smiled. “Not many Muches around these parts, either, I’d suppose.”

The boy, Much, grew suddenly angry. “But I’m not the one supposed to be answering questions. You are. And your name matters, mine don’t. Yours could mean the difference between living or dying!”

“And why does it matter to you?”

Much looked away. When he next spoke, his voice was low, and he glanced worriedly over his shoulder. “I’m not one for useless killing, that’s all. Your clothes are poor, but you rode into Sherwood on a fine horse, carrying a sword worth more than every weapon in this camp. You claim a made-up name, but your accent is flowery. Schooled, like a priest’s.”

Much looked Will in the eye. “You’re not who you’re pretending to be, that’s obvious to everyone here. So be thinking about who you really are. Too important, and you’re too much
risk. Easier for you to just disappear. Not important enough, and you’re just another mouth to feed food we don’t have. Also easier for you to disappear. Make yourself just important enough to live, Will Scarlet. Just enough.”

Much set the porridge down next to Will and handed him a wineskin before backing out of the tent, holding his nose as he went.

“And sorry about Rob,” he said, looking at the snoring, stinking man on the other side of the tent. “Eat something, if you can.”

Much let the tent flap close, and Will was left with the drunk’s snores and his own troubled thoughts for company. The last couple of months had been a blur. After they’d escaped from Shackley Castle, Hugo had led Will to his mother, and together they went into hiding with Hugo’s kinfolk in the village of Derby. There they waited out the worst of the winter months until it was safe enough to make for the coast. They’d planned to escape to France, to Lady Katherine’s family.

It had been Hugo’s plan to split Will and his mother up—to take separate ships and regroup when they reached the mainland. That way, they doubled their chances that one member of the Shackley family would escape. After some arguing, Will’s mother finally relented, but she insisted that Hugo accompany Will.

When the spring thaw came, Will’s mother set out for the coast by traveling south out of Derby, while Hugo and Will took the forest road. The bandits had set upon the two of them soon thereafter. Not these people, at least not from the faces Will had gotten a look at, but other men. Crueler men who were not interested in taking prisoners. And now Hugo was dead. Will had seen his father’s loyal steward catch an arrow
in the throat. Bellwether bolted after that, outpacing the men on foot, and this time Will didn’t fight her. He simply held on until his own wounds overtook him. It seemed that the mare’s skittishness had saved his life.

Will wondered if his mother was waiting for him even now, across the Channel, waiting for a ship that would never come. The truth was, Will would never join her there, not even if he managed to escape from his captivity. His destiny lay back at Shackley Castle, and this time he wouldn’t run from it.

He was going to kill Sir Guy.

When he closed his eyes, he saw the faces of all his lost friends and family—Nan, Osbert, Jenny, Milo. He prayed that they’d gotten far away from that villain and his mercenaries, but he feared the worst. Life serving a man like Sir Guy would be nightmarish. But they hadn’t had a secret tunnel to escape through. They hadn’t even been given the choice of cowardice.

Geoff died protecting him. Hugo died protecting him. Even now, his shame burned hot in his chest. His mother hadn’t understood. She’d said that as the heir of Shackley House, he had a royal duty to live to fight again. She’d said that when his father returned with King Richard, all would be set right and they’d come back from their exile in France. Will had never recognized it before now, but his mother clung to false hope like it was a ship’s mast in a storm. But in that courtyard battle, Will had gotten a glimpse at the way the world truly worked. Bad men did what they liked if they were strong enough to get away with it, brothers stole their brothers’ crowns, and fathers did not come back from war.

Now Will was all that remained of the Shackley name.

That night he dreamed of dead wolves that turned to men. He awoke many times to strange sounds outside. Animal cries,
some familiar and some strangely alien, some distant and some frighteningly close. He remembered the stories about Sherwood Forest—how it was said that deep in the woods was a cave leading all the way to hell and that the devil walked the woods at night looking for souls to drag back down with him.

In the morning, Will’s throat was sore and raw. He was thirsty enough to try to stomach the watered wine, but the skin was empty. The porridge, too, had been eaten, and Will’s tent mate slept contentedly on his cot. Will was sure that if he examined the man, he’d find bits of porridge in his beard, but he dared not get that close.

As rusty dawn light crept into the tent, Will examined his wounds with his fingers, gently probing their outlines. The swelling over his eye had gone down as the nasty wound became an ugly scab. He’d end up with a scar there to match the one on his cheek. His face had changed so much in just a few short months.

Will waited for Much to come to him with breakfast, but though he heard commotion outside his tent, no one bothered to look in on him. It was several long hours before Much reappeared, and when he did, he was empty-handed.

“You can walk?” the boy asked as he poked his head inside the tent.

“Yes,” said Will. “But I’m thirsty if you have—”

“Then get moving. Gilbert wants to see you. Out here.”

Much tossed Will a waterskin and left without another word.

As Will gulped down the leathery-tasting water, he wondered at the boy who’d been so concerned about him yesterday and who seemed too busy to spare him more than a few words today.

Too busy, or too scared.
Gilbert wants to see you

Will sat up and waited for the dizziness to pass. His feet
were bare, but he didn’t see his boots anywhere. Will didn’t want to meet this Gilbert barefooted, but there was nothing to be done about it.

He’d just gotten his feet beneath him when he noticed the drunk, Rob, was awake and watching him. The man had startlingly blue eyes despite the red bloodshot.

“Careful out there, boy,” said Rob. “How you say a thing’s as important as what you say.”

The idea of this thieving drunk offering him advice irritated Will.

“It’d be easier if I had something in my belly,” answered Will. “It’d be easier if someone hadn’t eaten my food and drunk my wine while I slept.”

Rob chuckled. “You’re complaining about being stolen from to a camp full of thieves? Hope you can do better than that.”

Now he knew why Rob’s advice irritated him so—the man was smug about offering it. Even hungover and stinking from his own vomit, the man had an air about him like
he knew better

“I’ll be on my best behavior,” said Will, turning his back on Rob and making for the tent door, albeit somewhat unsteadily.

“I’m serious. Gilbert will kill you if you answer wrong—or more like he’ll make Much do it.”

Will stopped. “What are you talking about?”

“Gilbert wanted to cut your throat the first time he saw you, but Much stood for you. Gilbert gave in then, but he’s a perverse sort, and he’s ordered that if you’re to die, it’ll be by Much’s knife.”

“I didn’t think Much was the sort.”

“He’s not,” said Rob. “But if he doesn’t do it, Gilbert will kill him, too. Just for show.”

“I see.”

“So answer smart and don’t put him in that position. You’ve got two lives in your hands now.”

“This Gilbert of yours sounds like quite the leader.”

“He’s a bloody devil that should be buried to his neck in horse dung. The men hate him.”

“Then why follow him?”

“Scared. And they’re right to be. He’s the best fighter out there. Not a man among them who could take him in a fair fight. Not even John.”

Will had caught glimpses of a giant who’d often been at Much’s side while Will was still on the mend. That must have been John.

“And that’s the pecking order among thieves, is it? Gilbert’s the best fighter in the band, so he gets made leader.”

“Didn’t say he was the best fighter in the band,” said Rob. “I said he was the best fighter
out there

It took a moment before Will realized that Rob was referring to himself, but when he did, he nearly laughed in Rob’s face. The man could barely stand up straight. Still, if he wanted to boast a bit, Will would let him. He had no time to argue.

“Tell me something before I go,” said Will. “Why all this now? You haven’t mumbled a word the whole time I’ve been sharing your tent. Why talk to me now? Is it Much? You worried about him?”

“Gilbert cut my wine rations, but the boy gives me his,” he answered. “If you stay alive, I get to keep drinking yours, too. That’s twice the wine.”

Rob laid his head back down on his cot and closed his eyes. “Good luck to you.”

Will had seen outlaws before. Plenty of times. Because he was a lord of men, his father was charged with keeping the peace, and Will had had ample opportunity to see criminals assembled in the courtyard, awaiting their lord’s justice.

What had struck Will then, and what struck him now, was not how dangerous the men were (some were doubtless fierce enough) but how pathetic they looked. These were hard-scrapping peasants with knives instead of plows. Desperate men who’d given up on hope.

These bandits were no different. They might call themselves the Merry Men, but their eyes were every bit as hopeless as the blank stares of his father’s condemned prisoners. And if they’d taken to a life of crime to escape poverty, then they must be terribly disappointed with what they’d found.

They were pitiful to look at, all except Gilbert.

Gilbert stood facing him, a fine chain shirt across his chest and Will’s sword at his hip. He fondled it like it was a king’s jeweled scepter. He reminded Will of the black wolf he’d killed, the leader of the pack. Like the wolf, this one had earned an extra share of the spoils.

BOOK: Will in Scarlet
5.63Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Other books

Neighbor Dearest by Penelope Ward
Deep and Silent Waters by Charlotte Lamb
Curtain Up by Lisa Fiedler
The Past Through Tomorrow by Robert A Heinlein
Oslo Overtures by Marion Ueckermann
Homeworld: A Military Science Fiction Novel by Eric S. Brown, Tony Faville
The Executioness by Buckell, Tobias S., Drummond, J.K.
Lucky by von Ziegesar, Cecily
Happy People Read and Drink Coffee by Agnes Martin-Lugand