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GORES FIRST THOUGHT WHEN HE SAW THE ARROW AND HEARD running feet crashing through the brush from every direction was that Federal agents had caught up with him. He would have made to run but for the fact that he didnt want to leave behind the valuable wine and get Sir Bobaunce mad at him right at the beginning of his servanthood, possibly nipping in the bud any chance of his rising through Scadias stratified society.

Of course Federal agents were highly unlikely to come looking for him here. They would respect Scadias boundaries as they did any such alter native community. And they certainly wouldnt be shooting arrows.

But by the time Gore realized how stupid his thought was, he was surrounded.

It stood to reason that a society recreating lords and ladies, knights and chivalry, and happy peasants in their idyllic fields would also recreate forest-dwelling outlaws. They were even wearing Lincoln green. He wondered if any ballads had been written about them.

Surrender, knave, or be run through! a disembodied voice bellowed from the woods, soon to be attached to a man striding into Gores vision. He was tall and lanky with dark curly hair topped by a green floppy hat hung rakishly to one side like the old-fashioned fedoras recently back in style. His face bore a mustache that curled at the end, and a goatee hung from his chin. Like his men, he wore green, only his garb added a gold sash with an elongated lion stretching out its front right paw, claws extended.

Are you the Green Baron? Gore asked.

The man slapped his hands to his hips and tilted back with laughter, the mirror image of an old movie Gore once saw starring the 20th century entertainer Errol Flynn.

Who else should I be, knave? the Green Baron answered. Robert o Hardtooth, if it pleases thee, or if it does not. These woods belong to me and my merry band of brothers. Everything in them belongs to us. There fore, thou belong to us.

Sir Bobaunce might have something to say about that, Gore told him.

Hah! Then let Sir Wastrel of the Stubby Tower come and tell me himself. Though hell need find me first!

Gores hands were tied and he was led even deeper into the woods. Another outlaw picked up the wicker basket, grinning approvingly at its contents, and followed at his masters heels.

At a place where Gore was certain the brush could not grow any thicker and the dim light could scarcely get any dimmer, the Green Baron called a halt. He immediately went for the 2069 bottle and tossed back a long swig. He dried his mouth with his arm theatrically, held up the bottle to the cheers of his men, then commanded them to have at the wine.

Gore caught himself shaking with anger and forced himself to calm down when he felt the narrow-eyed looks two of his captors, one on each side, gave him. Their short swords pointing in his direction looked not quite dull enough to be playthings. Gore wondered where Scadias strange customs ended and reality began. If he tried to escape, would they actually kill him? Were they role-playing like everyone else here, or were they outlaws in fact as well as name, consignedcondemned?to these woods because they wouldnt abide by Scadias rules?

As the outlaws, including his two closest captors, quaffed more and more of the wine, Gore decided there was little point in remaining standing. He sat against the oak where they had left him and watched carefully. The thought of asking anything of the Green Baron, especially about the outlaws true station in Scadia, was ludicrous. Even if Gore wanted to talk to him, the Baron would just continue playing his role, and might decide Gore was uppity enough that his life should be made extra miserable. He suspected he would get the same reaction from the other outlaws as well.

Amid the greens upon greens Gore noticed a flicker of color out of place. Someone in a far corner of the camp was trying to catch his eye. Not hard, because this man wore a bright blue velvet doublet with equally blue hose and light shoes resembling slippers, not a thing Gore would have preferred for tromping in the woods. Covering his mop of straight brown hair was a thin blue hat drooping behind him like a ponytail. He withdrew a lute from his back and strolled to the center of the camp.

So even the scalawags of the Greenwood had their Alan a Dale, answering Gores question to himself about ballads. With a single glance back at Gore, the bard turned his back, facing the outlaw band, and strummed.

The songs were not about the outlaws themselves, but slow, sad tunes about wicked kings forcing innocent men out of their homes, brave men being sent to war and never seeing their wives and sweethearts again, and all manner of other kinds of cruelties the strong could inflict upon the weak.

Gore forced himself not to snicker. None of the outlaws seemed to recognize the irony of such songs in a place where nothing like what they described ever happened, could ever happen. Perhaps they were so deep into their roles they truly believed themselves victims of upper-class atrocities, forced to live like animals among the redwoods and mutant bushes. If nothing else, the music almost exponentially increased their drinking.

They drank so much, in fact, their green-garbed bodies melted languidly into the ground, occasionally releasing great and sundry belches. The two swords previously tipped at Gore acted as if they them selves were tipsy, and sank away. The music changed; the bard was heading toward him, still playing but with only one hand. The other held a slightly rusted but unnecessarily large dagger.

The bards eyes were intensely blue as he stared at Gore for an instant, then he hacked apart the ropes binding Gores hands, all while still playing. My performance here has verily reached its end, sir, and my final bow awaits. Does thou care to accompany me to my next performance?

What Gore didnt care for was the florid language, even if the bard meant escape. Gore accompanied the bard without a sound of his own, or so he hoped, though he risked jinxing their luck by sliding a quick glance at Robert o Hardtooth.

One of the leaders eyes was open.

At once Robert o Hardtooth was on his feet and lunging at Gore with a wicked grin that Gore fancied, in some calm if melodramatic section of his mind, gleamed more than the sword traveling a sure path toward Gores sternum. Fortunately the rest of Gores mind had shut down in obsequious deference to his reflexes. He sidestepped the attack easily and one other step brought him behind the Green Baron as if they were engaged in an odd waltz.

The Baron came about for another thrust but whirled where he should have pivoted, allowing Gore to use the Barons own momentum against him as Gore wrapped one arm around his neck and plunged the Barons skull into a mighty and unyielding oak.

Thou should not be late to your next performance, Gore said to the minstrel, his voice steady but the linguistic jumble betraying how shaken he felt. But I must needs keep an appointment at the Black Tor.

Tis as fine a place as any in the Barony, the bard said. They ran. Now and again the blue-wrapped minstrel flashed Gore a look that was all at once admiring and something else. The something else made him edgy.

Does thou have something to ask me? Gore asked, an unnamed fear creeping into his craw.

Nay, good sir, only that thou confirmed my foremost thought that thou were the man to assist and vouchsafe my escape, the bard told him. For in sooth I was the captive of those scamps for many days, waylaid for their entertainment. I knew such stuff as brave escapes are born of is not found within me alone. Jack o Japes is my name, friend, and I remain thy servant.

Will Son of Gore. He instantly regretted revealing the information, though he wasnt certain why.

I should not care overmuch to make of thou an enemy.

Gore looked deep into the woodswere they heading in the right direction? He wasnt sure. But why would he think the bard might mislead him?

The woods parted as if answering his fears and within moments the Black Tor appeared regally if not loftily above them, a dark, arched sentinel that, if it would mock the gaudy party below it, kept its own counsel.

Sir Bobaunce, still waiting, was looking mightily wroth. He was accompanied by the lustrous Lady Melisounde, who looked sorely befuddled. Alain was nearby with numerous kicks buried within his smug smile. The rest of the hunting party, lords and ladies alike, were as ill -tempered as a drought, not likely far off the mark with the wine pilfered. Where have you been, knave? Sir Bobaunce shouted. Where have you been at? he shouted louder, perhaps testing to see if he could shake the Black Tor. He failed.

He failed also to shake Jack o Japes, whose hand spiraled madly down before him as the vanguard of a deep bow. My Lord Bobaunce, my eyes feast upon thou with great relief and joy! These past wretched days was I the prisoner of the Green Baron, at the mercy of his rogues whims. Forced was I to play tunes of most shoddy construction, of tin-eared composition, which would set my lords melodious heart to vexed palpitating. Verily had I all but given up hope of escape when they likewise brought into their camp good Will Son of Gore, and together did we break free of our savage shackles. But alas, my lord, the wine did not survive the captivity.

The wine? Now Sir Bobaunce was indeed wroth, his face such a shade of crimson that Gore wondered with passing fascination if this so -called knight might suffer a stroke, or at least burst his nose. The Green Baron did abscond with my best vintages?

Gore forced himself to bow, though he couldnt manage to keep his eyes off the Lady Melisounde. All he says is true, my good lord.

To horse! the swaggering lord shouted, and at once the men were in their saddles, with the master of the hunt blowing a few more peels of his horn that Gore assumed were meant to turn the Green Baron into a fox.

To horse with you, knave, Bobaunce said to Gore, and lead us to the scoundrels!

A servant brought Gore a horse, which he mounted with no small bit of trepidation. Fortunately this animal was a far gentler beast than the one he attempted to ride out of the village, though he knew it would be useless in the woods. He tried to point this out.

Odsbodkins! Sir Bobaunce bellowed, which Gore vaguely remembered was some bizarre medieval curse. If you be a cowardly scab, a scurrilous mongrel, begone with you! I shall hunt down the Green Baron myself! Drink my wine, will he?

And with that Sir Bobaunce was awaybut not into the woods. He took off at a gentle trot down the road, which might as well have led in the direction opposite of the outlaw camp. The hunting party, then the women in sidesaddle, followed at what must have been a suitably deferential distance.

Jack o Japes caught Gores sigh. Aye, isnt it, though? the bard said with a nearly invisible smirk. But why hunt outlaws for certes when thou may prolong the merriment with a swell long chase? Better still when the quarry leads thee straight along the highway to the Wicked Duke.

Arent they all? Gore grumbled.

This be the Wicked Duke of the Castle Dolorous, friend Will, and both, I say in sooth, have earned their monikers. He spurred his horse. Coming? Thou should not be late for another appointment. His lord ship might be most put out.

Gore wanted little more at that moment than to put Sir Bobaunce out a high window. Then he swelled with a longing to put certain things about to MLady Melisounde too, and his anger cooled, just a bit. He reminded himself that he could deal with the noxious presence of his knightship when it meant the optical comfort of the lady as recompense.

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