Summer in Sherwood Forest faded only slightly in the last week of August. The air was still warm, the trees still as green as the first of May, and the first fruits of the fields were finally ready for harvesting. Everyone was busy getting the crops in. Most of the harvest was destined for Prince John's cellars or the tables of his nobles, but Robin and his band were helping the villagers save enough to keep their own families through the cold winter.
The first week of September the weather began to change. One might have expected nothing more than a slight chill in the air, but the changes came fast and furious and drastic. In one day the temperature dropped near to freezing and rose to sweltering heights no more than three times, leaving some of the unripened harvest destroyed. Harsh winds ripped through the woods in intervals stripping leaves and branches from the trees and damaging houses. Brush fires sparked in the dry underbrush, threatening whole villages. Earthquakes opened dangerous cracks in the ground. Rain came unexpectedly, pelting the fields and turning once fertile soil into ankle-deep mud. No one could find an explanation for the unseasonable weather but kept on with their work as best they could.
A change began to come over the people as well. The men were restless in the fields, and they fought with their wives when they came home. Many boys left their families and took to the road looking for manor lords who needed pages or squires. Women were left to till the fields while their husbands insisted on fortifying the villages with weapons and practicing combat techniques. Families squabbled over the least little things and nothing was getting done. Robin and the Outlaws didn't know what to do until Olwyn came to see them.
"There is a war going on and Sherwood Forest is stuck in the middle of it." Olwyn declared, as usual two seconds before he actually appeared.
"Tell us something we don't know." Marion commented as she hefted a sack of grain onto the wagon they were loading.
"A different war, Marion. Four forces fighting against each other with no regard for how their rivalry affects anyone else." Olwyn's forehead was creased with concern.
"Sherwood isn't under attack. I don't understand what you mean, Olwyn." Robin flung his head back and rubbed absently at his aching back. Fighting Prince John's men was one thing, but Robin wasn't exactly conditioned to field work.
"There are four sisters living in Sherwood, all witches. They are fighting amongst themselves, but the weapons they use are affecting Sherwood in the oddest ways."
"You mean the weather!" John cried. "I've never seen Summer heat and Winter cold in the same day like we've had this past week, but I bet Witches could be responsible for it."
"So what can we do about it?" Robin asked.
Olwyn held out a map which Friar Tuck took and studied. "I need for you to find the four sisters and bring them here. I have no power to call them. You will have to bring them together so we may work out a truce. If we do not I fear the damage they might inflict may be irreparable." Olwyn disappeared as quickly as he had appeared.
"According to this map they live as far from each other as possible, on the furthest corners of the forest. We'll have to split up." Tuck led the others to a table where they sat and studied the map together.
"Seems easy enough." Robin shrugged. "Tuck, you head South; John, you take the West; Marion, North; and I'll head East. We'll meet back here as soon as we can."
"Are you sure that's safe?" John asked. His big blue eyes were wide with concern. "Witches aren't known to be pleasant people. What happens if she turns me into a frog?"
"That's ridiculous Little John. Not all witches are bad." Robin knew John was remembering the witches at the Abbey who had held him under a spell and made him their slave. "Olwyn does magic just like they do and he would never turn you into a frog."
"Don't be so sure." Marion muttered under her breath. She'd never liked anything to do with magic since the day Brand had forced her to ask Kragemmon for his magic whip.
"One good thing about most Witches is they know a lot about herbs and plants. They know so much more about healing than most barber-surgeons do." Tuck said matter-of-factly.
"Do their potions taste any better than yours?" Robin joked.
Shortly the four Outlaws had their saddlebags packed and their horses saddled. They left the camp and headed in their four different directions, each hoping to bring the strange tumult in Sherwood to an end.
Zaranin, Mother Witch of the North
Marion tugged at the neckline of her bodice as she headed North. The heat seemed to get worse the closer she got to the witch's home. The wind whipped up and tangled her hair with leaves while a short rain shower drenched her. Marion dismounted and led her horse through the woods, using the animal as a windbreak. Shortly she came to a house set into the side of a hill, round windows glowing with firelight, smoke puffing merrily from the chimney. Chickens and sheep grazed in the door yard, while nearby pens held goats and pigs. A clothes line held drying laundry that flapped in the strong wind. Marion stepped up to the door which was decorated with a wreath of flowers and herbs. The door opened just as Marion raised her hand to knock.
"Well come in, I haven't got all day you know!" said the woman who waved a thick towel at Marion. "I must stir the soup, and the bread should be done by now. Come in and sit down by the fire, girl, for Goddess' Sake!" Marion came in and did as she was told, sitting at the huge table. Bowls of fruits and vegetables scattered on the table amongst sacks of grains and bottles of herbs and spices. A wonderful smell came from the fireplace where a large kettle held soup and a steaming lidded pot tucked in a nook over the fire promised freshly baked bread. A joint of venison lay on a wooden board at the end of the table.
The woman bustled about some, rearranging things on the table and making room for another large board and rolling pin. She was a middle aged woman with rosy cheeks and red hair that was beginning to escape the tidy knot it had been gathered in. She wore a simple dark green dress with a brown bibbed apron protecting the front of it. Her bright green eyes flashed as she went back and forth from the table to the fire, tending the soup and removing the bread pan to the windowsill to cool.
"Now that you're here you can help. I need you to mix up the pastry dough so when I'm done trimming this joint we'll have a nice venison pie." The woman took out a large knife and began to trim the meat from the bone. "Uh....." Marion had no idea how to make pastry for a pie; she was reluctant to admit it but she couldn't deny that her cooking skills suffered in direct proportion to her excellent fighting skills. "I don't know how."
"What do you mean you don't know how? How do you expect to keep house for a husband if you can't cook?" The woman put down her knife with a clatter and poured flour in a pile on her board. Marion took up the knife and began to trim the venison. The woman did not hesitate to notice. "At least you're not completely useless." she grumbled. "If you didn't come here for cooking lessons what did you come for? Looking to cure an upset stomach from bad cooking, or a potion to make your lover forget that you can't cook?"
"Olwyn sent me."
The woman simply stared at her.
"He wants me to ask you to come and talk to your sisters because your fighting is causing trouble in the forest. We can't get the harvest in because the weather makes it so difficult."
"Why doesn't this Olwyn come for me himself? Why does he send you?" The woman went to work adding butter to the flour and rubbing it in so it made a dough. Marion watched, fascinated with the process.
"He said something about being powerless to call you." Marion went back to trimming meat from the joint of venison.
"Aha!" She said. "This Olwyn I take it is a Sorcerer, and a man at that? He'd have to send someone else. Too scared to come for old Zaranin on his own!" the woman chortled happily as she kneaded the dough on the board.
Taking the rolling pin she spread the dough out into a large flat circle, then laid the circle into a dish, pressing it into the corners. "When you're done with that joint you can put it into the soup pot and come hull these blackberries." Marion did as she was told and started on the berries.
"Men in general have long stayed away from the Sisters of Sherwood. Once we were married, all four of us. Then my sister Zindara plotted to murder my dear husband and now I am once again alone. It's Zindara I am trying to punish." Zaranin placed the pieces of venison in the pan of dough, sprinkling with flour and putting chunks of fatty bacon in to keep it moist.
When Marion had finished with the berries Zara poured them in with the meat and scattered a handful of crushed herbs over the contents of the pie. Finally she folded the edges of the pastry over the pie leaving a hole in the center, put a heavy lid over it and placed it close to the fire. Zara stirred the soup again and settled herself in a rocking chair by the fire. "Zindara would have every man fighting a war until the sun ceased to shine. That is simply her way, but she will not see that I need them to till the fields and support their families. How will England survive if her families cannot survive? We cannot have everyone fighting, how would we eat? Who would feed and educate our children? For that matter, who would bear them?
Zin would have the women up in arms as well had she her own way. Women were meant to wield pots and pans, not swords and armor." Zara rocked a minute more before she noticed the angry spark in Marion's eyes. "I wasn't raised to cook and clean. When my parents died Queen Eleanor took me in and educated me. I was raised to think and plan and fight just like a man. If I'd been raised to be a good wife and mother I would now be shackled to some heartless Norman lord and beaten into servitude, with no thought or concern of my own. And Sherwood might be under Prince John's thumb if I hadn't been here to fight him. Is it so terrible that a woman learns something other than housekeeping?" Marion was slightly breathless when she finished, and slightly stunned at what she'd said.
Zara regarded her a long moment. Taking a careful breath she answered, "Not at all, my dear Marion. I can see now that that kind of life would never have suited you. And that's not such a bad thing after all." She smiled kindly at Marion. "You might not have turned out to be so uniquely yourself."
Marion digested that thought. Her head bowed, she stared absently into the fire. Then she felt Zara's gentle hand smoothing her unruly hair. Marion looked up into Zaranin's grass green eyes.
"Don't worry, Marion. You'll see everything will work out in the end."
Shortly Marion's head dropped to the table; she'd fallen asleep.
Marion woke to darkness outside the round glass windows and a blazing warm fire in the hearth. All evidence of cooking had been removed from the table; crockery and eating utensils were laid out on a homespun cloth along with dishes containing all the good food Zaranin had cooked that afternoon. Marion got up from the bench where she'd been resting and stretched.
Zaranin came into the cabin with a pitcher of cool stream water. "Good, you're awake and we can eat!" Zaranin's smile emphasized her round face and the healthy glow in her cheeks. She wasn't a large woman, but robust in her figure. A substantial woman with a sizable spirit. Marion sat down to sample the bowl of soup placed before her. It was rich with the flavor of the venison bone she'd put in the pot earlier and thick with vegetables. She ate with vigor and sopped up the broth with a slice of fresh bread. After that came the venison pie, savory and a little sweet from the blackberries. There was lettuce with apple vinegar, carrots and parsnips with maple sugar, and peas with mint. They both ate in happy satisfied silence. Finally they both sat back, too stuffed to jump.
"That was wonderful, Zaranin." Marion sighed. "Not even Friar Tuck could complain about your cooking. If I told him about this meal he'd be green with envy."
Zaranin chuckled. "And amazed at your hand in it too, I'd imagine."
Marion sat up straight, eyes wide. "What do you mean?"
"You helped cook this meal Marion, or had you forgotten?" Zara rocked contentedly by the fire.
"I did!" Marion shouted elatedly. "I cooked something that actually tasted good!"
Zelkinane, Inspired Witch of the East
Robin rode to the edge of the forest where it met the open moor. Wind roared wildly across the moor, driving the rain away. Riding across the moor Robin found it necessary to draw a scarf across his mouth and nose to keep from breathing all the dust the wind whipped up around him. Finally he came to a large tor, a tall rocky hill upon which rested the home of the Witch of the East. Leaving his horse tethered to a bush, Robin tackled the rocky hill, climbing to the top and to the witch's doorstep.
Her house was made of light wood and fine glass the like of which Robin had never seen before. He was afraid to knock on the glass door in case the fragile panes might shatter beneath his hand. He didn't have to knock after all, as the door opened just as he raised his hand.
"Hello?" Robin ventured into the airy home. Inside it was much larger than he'd thought. Every wall was a bookcase that held hundreds of volumes.
Large tables held more books and piles of papers.
"Come in, come in,..." Robin heard a voice from another room call to him.
He entered what was the heart of the house and marveled at the sight.
Books flew from shelf to table to shelf, quills floated above piles of parchment writing all by themselves, and at a desk perched high above all of this business sat Zelkinane, the Inspired Witch of the East. Her long white blonde hair was pulled back, feathered quills securing most of it away from her face, leaving a few whisper tendrils to float in the breeze. Her pale gold eyes hardly looked up from her work as she snatched a book floating by.
"I haven't all day now. The longer you stand there gawking the longer you keep me from my work. Speak up!" Her voice floated down to Robin on the same air that carried the melody of the wind chimes that hung high above his head.
"Olwyn sent me to find you, to ask you to come to Sherwood and resolve this argument between you and your sisters." Robin dodged a folio of loose paper that flew past his nose.
The witch sighed. "My sisters.... such a distraction. Don't they know I have work to do? I have histories to write, futures to create, myths to perpetuate. I have no time to argue with them. I simply sent windstorms to keep their fight out of my way so I can keep up with my work. Really, how do they expect bards and troubadours to make a living unless I provide them with songs and poems?"
Robin was completely overwhelmed by the wonders he saw around him. He'd never seen so many books in all his life. "What is all this?" he asked. Zelkinane rose on a drift of warm air and floated feather-like down to where Robin stood. Her toes and gauzy white dress barely grazed the floor as she hovered. "This is where inspiration comes from. Here I keep the histories of all the world, all the knowledge ever collected, every thought that has ever been born. Anything you have ever wanted to know is here in my library. Ask a question, it has an answer here." She smiled gently at him.
The idea that the answers to everything rested in these walls stunned Robin into silence. His eyes widened, taking in the towering bookcases, imagining all the knowledge held there. He wandered to a shelf, running his hand over the spines of the huge tomes. The books beckoned to him, begging him to read, to learn, to open his mind to everything they had to teach him. It was astounding to imagine. A book fell into his open hand and the history of England enveloped him; the world around him ceased to exist.
Robin lost all track of time as he read about history long gone, people he'd only heard of in legend were accounted for an described in amazing detail. He was lost in the tapestry of time as he read about the Picts, the Celts, the Romans. Eventually he came to the present, and was amazed to read about himself as the Saxons struggled against Prince John and the Normans. The book told of great disturbances in the weather that beat down upon Nottingham and Sherwood, that destroyed villages and farms and starved hundreds to death. Then the words simply ended, and the rest of the book's pages were blank. Robin shut the book and slammed it down onto the shelf angrily.
"How does it end? The book just stops. Tell me how it ends?"
A voice like bird song stopped singing above him. Zelkinane drifted down from the dark expanse of the vaulted crystal ceiling, her misty white dress glowing with star shine. "You will have to tell me how it ends. You have yet to live it. As history passes the book continues and will not go on until you do."
Robin shook his head. He'd been so entranced by the book that he'd lost all track of time. He had no idea how long he'd been reading, and he'd forgotten his mission. He could spend eternity here among the books, learning everything his brain could hold. The idea that he'd have to leave it and return to his work in Sherwood was a physical pain.
"You came with a purpose, and it wasn't to plunder my library. You mentioned Olwyn, student of Merlin, and my sisters. What do they want with me?"
It took a few moments for Robin's mind to calm down and recall the message he'd brought. "Your sisters are arguing. The magic you are using is causing destruction in Sherwood and we need to stop it. Olwyn would like for you to come to Sherwood to settle your arguments peaceably."
"And what exactly is it they are arguing about, do you know?" Robin was about to open his mouth and speak, but Zelkinane stopped him. "Likely they are still arguing over the deaths of their husbands. Never mind their arguing killed my own love. Never mind that they are disturbing me in one of my most fertile moments of inspiration! The world would stop spinning so they could beat each other into submission. It would never occur to them to debate with words and ideas rather than with elemental magic."
Zelkinane sighed and waved a hand to illuminate the room with dancing lantern light. "Sleep here tonight, Robin Hood, and tomorrow we shall go to fabled Sherwood and see what treaties we might make."
No sooner had she spoken than Robin found himself in a feathered bed high up in the star lit atrium. Zelkinane's silvery voice sung a sweet song that lulled him to sleep. Robin immediately fell into grand sweeping dreams full of color and light.
End of Chapter One
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