DOWSING THE DEMON
by Clayton Emery
© 1994 by Clayton Emery
[Clayton Emery is an American novelist and short story writer. Some of his non-Robin Hood books include Card Master and some novels in the Magic: The Gathering series.
His forays into the Robin Hood legend include the 1988 novel, Tales of Robin Hood, and a series of "Robin and Marian" mysteries that are published in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. Among those mysteries are "Shriving the Scarecrow", published in the September/October 1997 issue and "Flushing Scarlett" in the March 1998 issue. His Tales of Robin Hood novel has been reissued under the title Beasts of Sherwood.
He was writing a "Robin & Marian" mystery novel, Royal Hunt. Also, he is working on another Robin Hood novel, The Bells of London and a screenplay of Beasts of Sherwood.]
You can visit Clayton's web site at claytonemery.com.
Click here to read an interview with Clayton Emery.
"Murder! Help, for God's mercy! It's murder and witchcraft! Help!"
Hammering on a door rang on and on. Robin scrambled off his pallet, fumbled for his bow and sword, found neither, settled for his hat. Marian scuffed on her shoes and combed fingers through her dark hair. The outlaw wrenched the bar from the inn door and they dashed outside.
The morning sun slanted long shadows down the sleepy streets of Lincoln. The faces and shuttered windows of one- and two-story houses were etched in darkness. April was already warm. Dew spiralled from the trashy street. Four doors down from the inn, a young man pounded on the door of a small house.
His cries of "Murder and witchcraft!" had people congregating from all sides. His wails were infectious. One man shouted, "Open the door then, by the rood!" Another yelled, "It's barred tight!"
Robin shoved through the crowd and jiggled the wooden latch, thumped the door with his shoulder. It bent at top and bottom but not the middle. Barred. As he smacked the door, smells spurted around the edges. Brimstone. And blood.
He whirled on the shrieking lad. "Hush! All of you! Whose house is this?"
The youth plucked his thin beard with both hands. He wore a smock of rich blue with an embroidered collar, a belt with a silver-hilted dagger, yellow hose, good shoes of oxhide, a brimmed black hat. "It's the house of Jabin, my father, but something's plaguey wrong! The house stinks of blasphemy!"
Robin had to agree. The smell that wafted from inside was enough to knock a man flat. "Is there a back door?"
"No, only the window, and it shuttered! And the chimney!"
Though still befuddled by sleep, Robin felt hairs prickle along his neck. What devil's work had the occupants gotten up to?
"The door it is, then. You and you and you, come with me!" From the crowd of workmen, wives, and idle children, Robin picked out a porter with a tump line and a pair of masons in stone-dusty aprons. While Marian minded the door, the four men hopped down the street to a house under construction, hoisted a square beam, and trotted back. Three lusty blows at the middle right cracked the door and bashed loose the inside bar.
The reek of brimstone made their eyes water, the smell of blood gagged them. Holding his breath, Robin slipped inside and fumbled open the shutters to the one window on the street.
Dawn's light filtered through a yellow haze. Revealed was a scene from some pardoner's chapbook of Hell.
The house was only one room. Four whitewashed walls, a worn wooden floor, smoke-stained rafters, a stone chimney, a saggy rope bed, a red chest against the wall, a table and two stools, a cabinet for a larder, pegs on the walls where hung clothing. Spare, dingy, but tidy. A short broom of rushes stood propped against the fireplace.
On the floor lay an old man stringy and naked as a plucked chicken, and white as one. His throat had been hacked away, his belly from ribs to crotch torn open, as if he'd been rooted to death by boars. His eyes were wide open, filmy and white as boiled eggs. By the bed, tangled in blankets, lay a goodwife in a pool of tacky blood, she stabbed so many times her skin and organs hung in shreds. The gore looked all the more offensive for having violated the woman's clean floorboards.
Marian bit a knuckle. Robin blocked the door with one brawny arm as the crowd pushed for a look. Yet the young merchant, the son who'd raised the alarm, squeezed between him and Marian with the strength of the hysterical.
He flopped to his knees alongside the dead man. "Oh, father, father! Who's done this? Who?" Old Jabin didn't answer, only stared wide-eyed at his son as if in accusation. Unmindful of blood, the lad touched his father's face.
"Sir, wait!" piped Marian. "We needs look in his eyes!"
But the son clawed closed the thin eyelids. "I can't stand his gaze. As if it were my fault. Had I gotten here only an hour earlier --" He broke into tears, sobbing.
Robin rubbed his beard as he surveyed the room. Shocking though this macabre spectacle was, he'd seen worse, though not usually this early in the morning. And his famous curiousity, an itch he could never scratch, prodded him like an ox goad. His wife, too.
Marian lit a stick of candlewood at the smoldering hearth. Gingerly, she picked across the room, leaned over the dead mother. She peered deep into the woman's eyes.
"Anything?" Robin asked.
"No," Marian sighed. "Nothing. She must have closed her eyes when the knife struck."
Robin grunted. Something by the fireplace had caught his eye. He stooped, swirled his fingers through white grit, the only dirt in the room. Streaks of it pointed to the chimney. Feeling around, Robin tugged loose a stone big as a loaf. Behind it was a cool darkness. Squatting, he mumbled to Marian, "There's a hole here big enough for my head. Nothing in it, though."
"The hole or the head?" Her lame jest was just something to break the silence. Marian left the dead mother, put her hand on the red chest against the wall, tried to lift the lid. It clinked and stayed put. "This chest is locked. My thumbs are pricking, Rob... And look here."
Robin's wife knelt at the fireplace, leaned low and sniffed, picked out some charred scraps of leather that stained her fingers yellow-brown. "What think you of that?"
"It's not something they had for supper. Let me see this door..."
Waving the crowd back, Robin shoved the battered door shut. It groaned in protest. Twin iron brackets had held the bar solidly across the posts. One bracket was broken, the fracture gray against blackened iron. Behind the door, the other bracket was twisted out of shape. The stout bar trailed from it to the floor. The door itself was oak, thick, and battened so neither wind nor knife blade could infiltrate. It was dark behind the door but, bending, Robin found jots of yellow gunk smeared on the battens. He scraped them like old cheese with his fingernails. He sniffed, held his fingers to Marian.
"Why, it's sweet! It's --"
The door slammed Robin in the face as it was kicked open. The outlaw hit the wall. A splinter nicked his nose and it bled.
"Stand fast, you thieving blackguard! Don't you move!"
Filling the splintered doorway was a sheriff of Lincoln in a red smock and gray hose, with a sword at his belt as badge of office. He hefted a long club with the head drilled and filled with lead, hoisted it to keep Robin on the defensive.
At his other hand, Marian shifted. The sheriff whirled on her, then froze when he spotted the bodies on the floor. "God's teeth and fish!"
Behind the sheriff came a younger version of himself, a deputy, obviously his son. But the lad whirled and dashed into the street to puke. The crowd parted for him.
Still on bloody knees, the young merchant keened. "Witches and demons have descended, murdered my parents!" He waved his hands around the room. "Smell the brimstone from their passing? Satan's minions have savaged them and drunk their blood!"
The sheriff commanded the room with his presence, his club, and his broad belly, though his son's retching spoiled the effect somewhat. He studied the bodies calmly. "If that's so, they didn't drink much. You're Peter, ain't you, the wool merchant? This couple's son? Well, I'm sorry, lad."
He stretched his club and thumped Robin's breastbone. "And who are you, standing knee-deep in crime and picking lice out of your beard? I never saw you before. Think you to rob the dead?"
Robin's temper sparked. His hands clenched for the sword he didn't have. He squelched his ire. He and Marian were in town to buy cloth, both Lincoln green and red, for spring clothes for the Sherwood band. Too, it was a holiday after a winter cooped up in the Greenwood. They wore disguises plucked from the common chests in their cave, red woolen smocks and hose and soft round hats, the garb of minor merchants. Robin felt naked without his sword and longbow, only a long Irish knife.
Robin showed the sheriff the top of his head, hang-dog and humble. "I'm Robert of Farnesfield, sir sheriff, near Ealden Byrgen. This is my wife, Matilda. She knows some herbalism. We thought we might help if someone was hurt."
The sheriff glared, still suspicious. Behind him, in the doorway, the porter raised his voice. "He speaks true, Martin. He came out of the inn and we all broke down the door. He couldn't have murdered no one, and he was just looking around while she there checked them dead folk."
Watching Robin with one eye, Martin the Sheriff asked the porter, "What mean you, broke down the door? How could the door be barred if all within were murdered?"
"That's what I was wondering," Robin supplied. He wiped blood from the sting on his nose. The outlaw usually took every man as he met them, without prejudging, but this sheriff had two counts against him already. "On the backside of this door --"
"You belt up," the sheriff told him. "Keep out of the way and keep still."
Robin leaned back against the wall. Marian, calm as a cloud, seated herself on the red chest.
The sheriff squatted over the dead man, prodded the wounds with his club. The young merchant, face stained with tears, raised bloody hands. "Sheriff, who could have done this? My father was a good, honest man! He had no truck with necromancers! Yet he's been struck down by sorcery! It was no man born of woman could have done this!"
The sheriff expelled a gust flavored with rye bread and beer. "I don't know, Peter. Wights and phantasms can't touch iron, but I'd say this ungodly mess was from a steel knife, or I'm a bugger for a Jew. Still..." He pointed his beard at the shattered door.
"Hoy!" called a voice from down the street. "Hoy! Come to save the day, I have!"
The crowd perked up. By now a hundred or more people crowded the street, all gawking at the sensation through the doorway and one window. Most had been quiet, as if at a funeral, but now giggles and whispers broke out. Robin peeked out the door over heads. Jogging and puffing their way was something the outlaw had seen only at fairs.
Skipping like a milk-fat puppy bounded a man burly and jowly as Friar Tuck. Wild red hair fluttered. A parti-colored smock, red on one side, blue on the other, circled the man with a broad yellow girdle, and one hose was green and one black. Behind him scampered a dog brindled and golden as a butterfly, but incomplete, being three-legged and one-eyed. This fat man -- or tournament marshal or mummer -- waved a dowsing stick like a giant wishbone.
Robin caught comments from the crowd. "Oh, Lord, look who's coming." "He'll know what to do." "Aye, collect his fee and run." "He cured my mother of the boils." "Boils go away on their own, fool." "He'll make us laugh, if nothing else."
"Make way, make way!" The fat man puffed amidst them. "Denis the Dowser's on the job! Let me through! I needs see -- Saint Benno's keys and fishes!"
His pop eyes bugged even farther at the sight of the ravaged bodies. Robin noted the man had soft skin, a weak chin, and little beard. He wondered if the dowser were a eunuch, and if that contributed to his power -- if any. The crippled dog stuck his head between the dowser's knees and drooled.
"Denis, you big bag of wind." The sheriff stood over the body, club hanging. His sheepish son had crept in behind him. "What are you doing here with your infernal stick? I know you can find water with that thing, but there's no way you can track --"
"Ah, but I can, Martin! I can! By the tongue of Saint Genevieve I can! I needs only wave my stick around the room and I'll track your murderers -- demonic or no -- to the ends of the earth! Shall I try? Dare you I try?"
The sheriff slapped his heavy stick against his thigh. "And you'll collect a fee from the city if you're successful, I suppose."
The fat man smirked and spread his hands. "If you catch your murderer, what care you? Have you any clues to proceed from now?"
The sheriff blew through his mustache, surveyed the hearth, the window, the door. Then he swept his club towards the corpses. The crowd buzzed.
Gimpy dog at his heels, Denis the Dowser minced inside, skirted pools of blood, positioned himself between the dead husband and wife. Striking a pose, the dowser dropped his head as if in prayer. He grasped the dowsing stick tight, thumbs pointed towards his chest. Robin noticed a red thread tied around the fork as a charm against witches. He imagined the stick was rowan wood, mountain ash, probably cut under a full moon with a blade of copper or brass. Robin wasn't certain whether he believed in dowsing or not. Certainly this clown --
Denis moaned. The rod's tip began to vibrate. People at door and window gasped. The dowser's body vibrated along with the stick. He crowed, "By the stones of Saint Stephen, by the arrows of Saint Sebastian, by the flames of Saint Lawrence, show me the way, oh Lord, lead me to the traitors who've committed this dastardly act and spilled these innocents' blood!"
Robin stared as the dowser howled, jerking his head back and forth as if struck by invisible blows, writhing as if trying to free his feet of mud. Meanwhile, the mangy dog limped around the room, sniffed at the bodies, lapped at blood, lifted his leg against the bed post. Evidently the mutt had seen it before.
Denis shivered, calling on every saint Robin knew and many he didn't. "By the cross of Saint Helen! By the visions of Saint Hildegard! By the monster of Saint Cuthbert! --" Louder he yelled, until people outside moaned in ecstacy with him. Even the dog barked, sharply, twice.
Denis snapped open his pop eyes, grimaced with horror and haunting. Then the dowsing stick lunged for the doorway like a spear and Denis was towed behind it. People squealed and shrilled and dodged. Denis, his dog hot behind him, cantered off down the street, barely able to keep up with his own dowsing rod. "Saint Thomas `a Canterbury, send me grace! Saint Gregory, send me wisdom! Saint Ambrose, --"
Sheriff Martin hollered to his son to guard the house, and took off after Denis. Marian hiked her skirts and followed. Robin grabbed his knife hilt and ran along, with the young merchant right behind.
People stared as the dowser plunged by, head down and stumbling, stick outright as if it were an arrow and Denis tied to it. The crazy dog skipped along in its queer gait, first at one heel, then the other, until Robin wondered how the man didn't step on the poor creature. The crowd would have followed, but the sheriff waved them back with his club. When Marian drew alongside, skirts dancing and cheeks flushed, Sheriff Martin waved his club at her. But she flashed him a winning smile, lighting up the street, and he let her be. Robin trotted behind the sheriff, out of sight.
Magician he might be, but fat Denis was no marathon runner, and he spent what breath he had calling on saints, so it wasn't long before he fell to a trot, then a brisk walk. They neared the end of the street, where the houses were all two stories, homes of more properous merchants, then struck the marketplace. Dotted around the big square were stalls of winter vegetables, sheaves of salt hay, paddocks with skinny horses and oxen, blacksmiths whanging on anvils, and tables and tables of bolts of cloth, including the fabled Lincoln green and red. Everyone interrupted business as the dowser entered the square.
Denis waggled the stick in a half-circle before him. He gabbled, "Saint Hugh, protect your people! Saint Wolfgang, heal our sorrow!" Between his heels, the dog sniffed the ground and drooled, began to cock his missing leg against his master's ankle and then recanted, jigged sideways, sat down.
"They make a good pair," Robin hissed to Marian, "both being afflicted with Saint Vitus's Dance."
His wife puffed her red cheeks. "Hush!"
Slowly, eeriely, Denis waved the stick around. The rod stopped as if arrested by an invisible hand. "Thanks be to Saint Norbert, and Gregory the Seventh! Thy wills be done!"
They were off. On the far side of the marketplace were the mills, all kinds, grinding, sawing, and many fulling mills, for here the River Witham took a right angle in the middle of town. Across a stone bridge they clattered, four people watching the dowser and the dowser watching the stick before him. With the dog skipping under his feet, Denis stumbled off the bridge and down the embankment, to stop where the mucky bank dropped into the brown river. Rotten hulls and scraps of rope and trash dotted the mud.
"By Jonah!" he cried. "The dastards entered a boat!"
"Boat?" echoed the sheriff. He banged his club on an overturned hull in frustration. "Then we've lost them!"
"Not if," Denis panted, "we can get a boat too!"
"You can't follow them across water, can you?" asked Robin. He still wasn't sure if he believed in Denis's dowsing ability or not. Things were happening too fast.
"By the eyes of Samson, I can follow anywhere if we get a boat!"
The five of them looked down the river. Two men in a low skiff heaped with saplings were building a fish weir. Robin cupped his hands and hollered, "Fishermen! A crown for your trouble!" Digging in his purse inside his shirt, he held aloft a coin.
"What's a beggar like you," puffed the sheriff, "doing handing out crowns like they was groats? What'd you say your name was?"
"Robert." The outlaw looked him in the eye. "Of Barnesdale."
The sheriff's eyes narrowed. "You said Farnesfield before."
Marian put in, "I hail from Farnesfield, good sheriff. My family lives there. We're occupying their loft until we can buy a house. But I fear my scalawag husband is too free with our coins. Would he were a sensible man like yourself, wise in the ways of the world and blessed with an exceptional memory." Her smile warmed the space under the bridge.
The sheriff shook his head in exasperation.
The boatmen had drawn close enough to catch the coin. Five passengers and one dog clambered aboard and perched on the sweet-cut saplings. The boatmen pushed back their hoods and poled into midstream.
Denis aimed his stick along the west bank, for the east was too steep to land a boat. Beside him, the dog teetered on his one back leg and drooled overboard. The animal sniffed at the wind, bubbles in the water, glooping fish, flecks of drifting grass. As the trail grew colder, Denis hollered so his saints might better hear. "Saint Giles, be our friend! Saint Wenceslaus, the betrayed, guide us to the perpetrators of --"
Denis prattled on as the bank slid by. Robin realized he was hungry. He'd missed his porridge and beer. He heard Marian's stomach rumble and smiled at her. "Once this foolishness has run its course, we can --"
The dog barked, twice, sharp, interrupting his master's reverie. Denis shook his head, stood upright in the boat, almost tipping them all into the Witham. The stick quivered like a hunting dog's nose. "That way, by Saint Paul! The heathens await!"
The boatmen stroked, bumped the muddy shore. Denis leapt out and splashed them all. His dog dove like a seal, shed water from matted fur, scampered up the bank leaving three muddy footprints. Robin hopped out, wetting his boots, caught a giggling Marian by her waist, and landed her dryshod. Peter and Sheriff Martin slopped along behind.
Here the streets were narrower, the houses more tumbledown. Denis dilly-dallied like a drunkard, his muddy dog at his heels. Priests and fishwives and masons, shabby and ragged, turned to watch the parade. Around corners and down alleys they went, till they threaded a twisted shambles. The entourage had to weave around garbage, ash heaps, bones, and the emptying of chamberpots. Robin noted people here lurked in doorways and peeked from windows to satisfy their curiousity.
All along the dowser wailed his litany of saints until he was hoarse. Robin figured he'd run out of breath soon, and they could drop this nonsense. It was obvious the sheriff's temper was fraying. He'd raised his club for a halt when Denis stopped.
The house had once been large, with a solid stone lower floor, but a fire had gutted it and collapsed the roof. A rotten door leaned in a warped frame.
Denis puffed, rested a hand on his dog's wet head, waved to indicate they'd arrived. The sheriff hoisted his heavy club and rapped the crooked door. Nothing happened, though Robin thought he heard a rustle inside. He realized they might suddenly come face-to-face with vicious murderers, and loosened his staghorn knife in its sheath.
The sheriff raised a big shoe and kicked the door flat.
The interior stayed dark. The fallen door raised dust at the foot of -- a pale maiden in a ragged gown. Barefoot, she crept closer to the light as if it pained her. Under her stringy hair, her face was lined and strained.
The sheriff barked. "Mary? Ach! Where's your good-for-nothing brother --"
A roar like a lion's drowned him out. Flashing from the dark came a larger dark. A huge form shaggy as a werewolf bowled the pale girl aside and leaped full in the sheriff's face. The official's club was slapped aside. Steel flashed and the sheriff dropped with a howl, stabbed and spraying blood. The monster raised his bloodied knife to stab overhand.
Robin stiff-armed Marian so hard she bounced in the road a dozen feet away. Lacking time to draw his own knife, Robin simply jumped at the attacker. The blooded steel scythed down at him, but he ducked under the blow. The monster's arm slammed on his shoulder hard enough to break the elbow. The knife clattered into the street.
Hampered by the stinking body, half-tripping over the prostrate sheriff, Robin could only ram a fist into the monster's belly. The mighty frame shook, but then a shoulder smashed his jaw. He slammed on his back, the monster atop him. Two mighty hands found his windpipe.
With a shock the outlaw realized this wasn't a monster. It was a man -- dirty, hairy, with a wild beard and tangled dark hair, in clothes so filthy they looked black. But the biggest shock came with another roar, a windy gabble. Staring down the man's throat, Robin saw his tongue was gone, cut out, leaving a waggling stump. He kicked to get free, swung at the man's ears, in vain. His vision tinged with blackness...
A shadow above blacked out more light. The monster gasped, gargled blood that splashed on Robin's face. The outlaw pushed free of the collapsing form and struggled up, rubbing his throat.
The monster, the man, was dead, pierced through the heart by a silver-hilted dagger. Peter stood above him, pale as if he'd been strangled himself. His sheath was empty, his hands slack.
Marian bent over the dark man, looked to her husband, then tended the sheriff. His forearm had been skinned to the bone.
"I should have known it'd be Nicholas, our town wastral," the official growled. Marian cut strips off his smock for bandages. "He's served enough time in the stocks and at the wheel for robbing and beating folks. It was a circuit judge ordered his tongue cut out when the swine cursed him to his face. I'll probably get blood poisoning! Christ!"
He barked at the slim girl cowering in the doorway. "Mary, you damned slut! You're as guilty as him! You'll pay for this!"
"Hush," Marian tied off a rude bandage and made the man wince. "The poor thing's scared witless. A beast like that would terrify Saint Columba. You know this girl and her travails, you're wise enough to see her sorrows, aren't you?"
She addressed the trembling girl. "Pray, fetch what your brother brought home and we'll depart. We shan't harm you. I give my word."
The girl disappeared, like a ghost in the sunlight, and reappeared lugging an iron strongbox. She set it on the threshold and prised open the lid. Inside was a handful of silver coins and several dozen copper. "I didn't know," the girl squeaked. "I didn't know what he'd done. I -- I didn't -- know." Marian laid a hand on her arm to shush her.
Leaning against the doorframe, the sheriff groused, "That stinking changeling bastard butchered those old folks for this paltry sum? Damned little for two lives."
"Three," said Marian. "How's your throat, Rob?"
Robin massaged his Adam's apple and waved. Every swallow burned, but he could breathe better than the monster Nicholas. He moved to pick up the strongbox.
"I thought your name was Robert," the sheriff grunted.
The outlaw rasped. "I go by many names. Sometimes I get confused myself."
The sheriff sniffed. "You saved my life, too. I won't forget that."
Robin nodded. "And Peter saved mine." The boy didn't look up. He stood facing up the alleyway, eager to be off.
Through all this, Denis the Doswer had stood to one side, his fat frame like a haystack, his lopsided dog panting between his feet. To him, Robin said, "You've shown your skill, dowser. Your --" he gestured, "-- stick led us true. No doubt you'll fetch a reward from the town elders."
Somber for the first time, the magician mumbled, "Would the saints could raise up the dead and erase this day. Then would we all be paid."
Marian caught Robin's eye, nodded towards his middle. Without letting the sheriff see, the outlaw tossed some silver pennies into the depths of the ruined house.
Limping, grumbling, cradling their wounds, the party and the dog tottered towards the river. They left the dead murderer where he lay, and his sister weeping over him.
Rather than hunt up a boat, they threaded the mucky streets and crossed the bridge, filtered through the marketplace. Robin caught his wife's elbow and spoke low. "There's much left unexplained. I can guess how he closed the door and barred it, but how did he open it?"
"He didn't, but it opened," Marian whispered. "I've figured that out. But how he closed it --"
"Well, I can -- he didn't open it but it opened?"
"Hush. You'll see."
The house came in view, with the sheriff's son deputy and curious crowd before it. With them was an exasperated priest eager to deliver a prayer for the dead, but the boy obviously feared the wrath of his father more than the wrath of God. The boy looked relieved to see his father, then dismayed at his bandaged arm and cross expression.
As they stopped before the house, Robin said. "My curiousity may kill me yet, but I can vouchsafe some answers. I know how the door was barred."
The sheriff raised his hand to rub his chin and winced. "Get on with it, then. I needs get drunk soon. This wound burns like the pit."
Robin shoved the door open. The bodies remained undisturbed. Flies buzzed around their dead faces. The outlaw plucked the bar from behind the door and brought it out into the sunlight. He pointed to yellowish smears dotted down one side. "Beeswax. Someone kneaded lumps of it, pressed them against the battens, stuck the bar to them. When the door was banged shut, the shock dropped the bar into the iron brackets. So the murderer left the house locked behind him."
The sheriff frowned and thumped his club in the street. "P'raps. May be. I don't think Nicholas were clever enough to think on it, and I can't see why he'd bother. And how'd he open the door in the first place?"
"He didn't," Marian said. "I can explain that. Rob, step inside and bar the door, please."
"The brackets are broken."
Marian smiled sweetly at her husband. "Pretend to bar it, then. Dear."
Shrugging, Robin stepped into the charnel house and closed the door. He was alone with corpses and flies. Shuddering, he propped the bar against the cracked door and called, "Right! It's barred! Now what?"
Marian's voice came through the window. "Oh, Rob. I forgot something. Come out again, please."
Mentally scratching his head, Robin took down the bar and opened the door. "What is it now, Marian?"
The sheriff scowled. "Not Matilda?"
The wife only smiled. "Notice I got the door open. All I did was ask."
"But..." said most of the men. The sheriff grumbled, "Jabin wouldn't open the door for a stranger. And Nicholas couldn't talk anyway. He had no tongue."
"Exactly," said Marian. "Somebody else --"
"Catch him!" shouted Robin. He jumped but was too late.
Peter pelted down the street and careened around a corner.
"Them alleys are all twisty!" shouted the sheriff. "He can go a hundred different ways! Get after him, Berthold! Use your legs!"
Robin snagged the piebald sleeve of Denis the Dowser. "Come on, man! You needs track like you never tracked before!" Surprised by the sudden turn of events, gulping for air, Denis was tugged along, his dog treading under his feet. The sheriff's son tromped ahead of them.
Robin took the corner Peter had passed, stumbled up a short alley towing Denis like a barge, and came to a crossing. Peter would know these alleys, he realized, but he didn't have a clue. The trashy floor was impossible to read. The deputy Berthold took off down one alley, but Robin wouldn't risk running blind. "Denis! Find his trail!"
Manfully, Denis hoisted his dowsing stick before him. "By Saint Germain, the hunter, find this felon --"
Robin slapped the dowsing stick out of his hands. "Balls to that, you fat fraud! Get moving!" And he half-flung Denis before him.
Denis sighed and then whistled. "Come, Turk, track him, boy!"
The dog barked twice and took off skittering down an alley as if shot from a catapult. Robin was hard put to keep up with him, crippled or not. They tore down a short alley and then around a corner, down another straightaway where the houses almost touched, and on. Robin let his legs stretch and ran full out. He splashed in puddles, slipped in garbage and manure, ducked jutting beams and drying laundry.
They rounded a corner. Ahead he glimpsed the fleeing Peter.
"Halloo, the fox!" The outlaw put on a burst of speed. Within five heartbeats he caught up to the winded boy, and five paces beyond that, crashed full into him. The two tumbled headlong down the filthy alley. Robin scrambled up first, shedding dirt and debris, and smashed both knees onto the lad's back. With a sob, Peter crumbled. The dog cocked his head, happy and confused.
As Robin jerked him upright, the boy began to cry. Robin only shoved him down the alley. He panted, "It's about time -- you cried. I've no doubt -- your parents -- cried over you -- many a time."
Back in the main street, the first thing he saw was Marian, her eyes shining.
It wasn't long before the sobbing boy was trussed and guarded. The deputy strapped the door bar across his shoulders and tied his hands to it -- an appropriate punishment, Robin thought. He asked, "What will happen to him?"
The sheriff hiccuped. He'd been plying himself with brandy from the inn for his wound. "He'll needs tell us where he's hid the rest of Jabin's money, for one. What Nicholas had in the strongbox probably wasn't a tenth of the old man's wealth. Then... usually we hang murderers. But this one's killed his own parents like some cold-blooded viper. Probably he'll burn." The boy, pale and pained, gave a moan and fainted.
"But there are still some things I don't understand," the sheriff added. The others agreed, but together they figured it out.
The sheriff offered, "Peter must'a gotten tired of working for his skiving father, who wouldn't give a groat to the Pope. He lived in this hovel next to a strongbox bursting with silver. He must'a decided to collect his inheritance early and hired Nicholas to do the killin'. In the dead of night, he called his father to unbar the door. Nicholas hacked the parents to pieces."
Marian took over. "Peter went straight to the chimney and extracted the strongbox. Robin found grit on the floor. The thief had to know its hiding place, for the red chest was locked. A stranger would have breached it first. And I suspicioned Peter when he rushed into the room and closed his dead father's eyes. Everyone knows the image of the murderer lingers in the victim's eyes. Peter feared his own image would be etched there, rather than Nicholas's."
Robin added, "He chucked a leather bag full of brimstone on the fire to release the stench of witchcraft. Then he affixed the beeswax so the bar would fall when he closed the door. Thus only a supernal being could have exited. But the wax was stickier than he thought. When Peter returned in the morning, he found the door open -- the wax still held the bar. So he banged the door to crack the wax and drop the bar. He woke the street with his pounding and shouting."
The sheriff commented, "He was quick to backstab Nicholas too, once he was cornered."
"But," Robin finished, "we never would have found him without the aid of Denis the Dowser. Sir Fraud of Lincoln."
The fat magician aped a pained expression. Without his dowsing stick to play with, he fiddled with his fingers. "Not so much a fraud. Half a fraud, perhaps. I did take you straight to Nicholas's door."
"You did no such thing!" Robin retorted, but he smiled to draw the sting. He patted the dog on his scruffy head. "T'was your hound did all the work! Your foolish howling to the saints and dancing like a March hare was nothing but a blind to keep people watching you and not that animal! It's true, you've trained your dog to track a scent from behind you rather than in front, and you watch him between your feet, but still -- what's the point of all that foolishness?"
Denis gave him a pitying look, then shook his head of wild hair. "I see you know nothing of magic, Sir Robin of Wherever You Hie From. A man with a trained dog is just a clever man. Or a clever dog. But a dowser -- ah!"
ROBIN HOOD AND THE BEASTS OF SHERWOOD by Clayton
Emery (formerly published as The Tales of Robin Hood). New adventures
of Robin Hood, with much use of magic and English folklore.
Introductory text copyright, © Allen W. Wright, 1997 - 2004.
Story copyright, © Clayton Emery, used with permission.