Roland was the smallish one who Cymen sent to fetch sticks for a fire. Bernard was the sort of man to trade places with Roland, because Roland’s leg looked sore. Arth wordlessly took tough bread and what turned out to be a rabbit he fetched earlier from the saddlebags. Clandestine was a nickname for the one who kept making jokes, and then the men complicated that still further, calling him Clay and refusing to share what Clay’s birth name was. Skun whistled a tune while he handed out bedrolls, and Foxheart took Eve by the tips of her fingers and started to dance.
They all got to clapping. Cymen turned his back and put his hands on his horse. Eve turned circles, watching Fox and then the Captain. An exaggerated, “Oh, how fine your steps,” a gasping, “My, aren’t you swift, and your hold so confident, yet… soft.” At last, “I believe I know exactly why all the ladies call you Foxheart—”
Cymen cut in right then, over her laughing.
“Tonight, I… the Knights of the Harmonic Gold Order are going to teach you a new dance. I shall be their representative. Welcome back, Bernard, and nevermind the kindling. Get your violin.”
“The first and last composition of Vischte could never be noise. Now then, I put my arm around your waist thus, and you, My Lady, rest against me…”
Eve did more than her share of complaining that normal people danced closer together, and that there were manly dips of the woman involved, sweeping her off of her feet, and throwing her into the air to be caught by the hips. Cymen restrained himself from going quite that far, however, though he blushed.
Dinner was something Arth cut the head off of, at the Lady’s request. Before she was served, Eve also inquired into the supper’s gender.
“I have a vow as well, you see. I have sworn off of men, male creatures, vegetables and minerals—I only eat other women.”
Cymen dusted dirt off what he dropped to the ground, after hearing that. “The darkness… veal always tastes better by starlight—”
Arth and the others went cat-eyed and watched sideways as their leader departed, to eat as far away from the woman as possible.
“Oh, you’re a darling.” Arth offered her a morsel more than her share of the food. “We’ve not been this entertained since…” the others watched Arth roll his eyes, in that vain effort to remember. “Well, Captain Ruecross never lets us stop to amuse ourselves.”
“Don’t worry. I have one more trick up my sleeve before moonrise.”
When that natural event did come about, Cymen was nowhere to be found. He went off imbetween the trees to guard the camp, he said. But with what? His bare hands? His uncovered head? Or perhaps his dull, aimless charm. He’d call a flock of eagles out of the sky—did eagles flock?—and they’d soar about screeching and shitting upon anything that disturbed him. Such was the power of the Lord, most highest! Eve wondered these things about Cymen in bursts of waking impulse as she lay in a bedroll Clay tricked Skun into trading the leftover horse-blanket for. Eve smiled at the odd thoughts that came and drifted away. She reached, it felt like she was reaching, for something. A tired breath, and it was too far to grasp, this clear thought. This obvious observation. Something on the brink of instinct—or was it just the fear of being near and fast to so many men? Were they good men? And what of Cymen? No, her feet were too sore from a day’s worth of sloughing forward to even consider having to defend herself eventually. It always went this way when she joined up, and so tiresome too. When this was no longer fun, she would have to stand up to someone, of course… oh, how she wanted to stand, and move the damned blanket! Were there rocks everywhere on the ground? Though, it was better than sleeping tied to a stake-and-pyre. Yes, true. But before then, rest had been in a bed made by a King of Thieves. Royal goosedown filched from someone with unbroken thumbs, headboard carved from sweet cherry wood—what in the world was that? Cherries were made from red-flesh, weren’t they? How did a body get a plank of wood out of that? Well, Eve supposed carpenters had many secrets, and Robin, still more. Ugh, no more thoughts of Robin the Hood. The delicious scoundrel… fucking someone else right now, wasn’t he? Burn him. Burn him! And Tucker, and the rest. Eve woke up, when the realization hit her, that she was once again surrounded by a camp of men in the dark woods.
She swallowed, reminded herself which was the dream, and watched the campfire die down. The flickering, primal thing went well with that final observation. No, her first observation. Eve licked her dry lips and recalled it fully now. Six men lay in a ring around her, each with his back modestly turned. Not a whistle from the bunch, not a false stretching of arms or a head turned just so to where she lay so illuminated, a woman bathed on all sides by bright heat. Oh fun! Oh, naughty… She giggled at how perfectly accurate it just had to be. Blessed, dirty, dirty mind!
“Lady Eve, you seem restless.” This was Cymen, also sneaky. When had he come to stand so close to her in the darkness, or for how long? He went on, “Would you like a tent? I know that the night is fair, but if you’d rather have privacy…”
“A tent? For myself, really and truly? Or for you, or for what we are about to do?” Cymen’s reaction was unreadable when her eyes were still adjusting to firelight, so Eve pressed it further, “When was the last time you all saw a free woman? I only see one arm on each of your darlings, and it isn’t natural for every single man to sleep on his side, facing out into the woods, refraining from breath or any quick elbow motion…”
She smiled sweetly up at Cymen, whose face the layers of shadow revealed, had indeed been flustered.
“You aren’t—honestly—along on this pilgrimage to tempt my men and I?”
“Oh no, I have sworn off male creatures, remember? No, I am content to watch things fall apart from a distance… or through indirect design. Not even monks save themselves anymore, you’re all so curious. It’s almost adorable when, I know for a fact, virginity is only for poor girls with nothing else to hope for but a husband and his legitimate spawns. You’re beginning to stand very close to me, aren’t you?”
Now Cymen had nothing to say. He sat down beside Eve and rested his chin in palm. To her he seemed… wistful, romantic.
“And what about you, Cymen Ruecross?” Eve yawned, despite the effort she was putting up. “Don’t pretend to be above such things… Surely, before you made this promise to the Divine, or your king or whomever, you enjoyed something. Haven’t you even kissed a girl?”
“Such pretty teeth you have.”
Eve curled fingers over the edge of her blanket and pulled it up against her chin. “That… that’s not a compliment I’ve ever heard before.”
“I apologize. You’re right to recoil, I suppose. Long ago, where I’m from,” a yawn, delayed, but in kind, “It’s horribly indecent if you think about it long enough. But back to the polite conversation… the closest I’ve ever been to a woman, if it makes you feel safer to know,” now he yawned, final, and big. Eve saw all his teeth, leaned up to see even further into his mouth, wondered what it would be like to try, or for him to—oh now she got it! Cymen finished, leaning back on both elbows. “…well, I remember that each kiss is different, whether stolen or given. And, also, every woman is unique.”
“Then you’re a tomcat deep down, I knew it!”
“Oh never that. Do you need anything else tonight, Eve? Before I…” But he lay down rather than finish. Eve moved in with a purpose, after she caught herself moving away.
Man and woman looked at one another, curious, senses dulled and urges poised before the final temptation of sleep and stealing off into the safety of sated dreams. Suppose it was in fact, dark enough with no moon? What if gentleman and lady could determine when they hibernated, and then indulge in secret indecency, rather than wait for spring and convention, and ceremony? If it is the sacred one is after, truly pleasing the Divine, then shouldn’t man seek out the pristine in every facet of creation, especially in the woman? Go there, inside of her, worship the beauty again and again. Head bowed, low, perpendicular. Perfect architecture. A holy Chapel within every human heart, isn’t that what the Scripture said? Cymen tried, but couldn’t remember the very number of the verse. But, if men and women could find a sanctuary within one another, then it could also be found on the epidermis. Touched on her warm skin, or retreat another layer, for decency, the clothing. No, go back! You fool, go back… when the thought has already trespassed so far, indulge. In the dark of naked, pressed bodies and twined limbs, perhaps one could, in fact, and in inspired spiritual literature, approach the inner sanctuary that everyone read about but no one saw. As with the Divine in heaven, a man could only ever dare believe… What if lust, pursued with a good purpose, and in faith, could be truly right?
After such patient ruminating that could likely kill a woman, Cymen whispered to Eve that she was beautiful and tasted her lips.
White after. Blind white pain.
Cymen yelled, clambered to his feet, and ran away. His six men came after—some took longer to fasten pants than others—all to which Eve cackled, made fistfuls of gray earth and strained a vein in her neck, squealed at and snorted about like a stuck pig.
“I told you it would wear off in a few hours, you ninny! Oh, get him some water, let him drink, drag your dear Captain away from the fire, mind you—now get back to your evening entertainment. He’ll sweat out the rest of the spell like a day-fever and be back to himself by morning. Ha! Oh, and I’m good, for indulging you, aren’t I Cymen? For once in my life, I behaved, and what a reward it was!”
By daybreak, the Knight-Captain of the Harmonic Gold Order was still laying on his back, with a rag on his head and in his full armor, while the men readied breakfast and horses. Eve, with her bedroll swathed criss-cross about her chest to stave off the cold night, stood over her protector.
“You don’t want to kiss me again?” a sucked, bit-lipped smile, fingers twirling a tangled strand of black curl.
Cymen grunted and covered his face with an arm. “Never… ever again, in my life. You nor any other woman, female creature, mineral, vegetable…”
“Yes, thank you, Eve.”
“I’ll let you break your other promise now that I’ve had my fun, and you’re clearly a willingly-gelded man. If you want me to.”
“Oh no, never that either, Eve.” A tight grin. “You are still coming along. As I explained earlier, on my honor, there is a greater purpose… Aaagh!”
“You need rum.”
“But I can’t drink either.”
“Oh, then you’re damned twice. Poor knight in shining armor.”
They walked the horses, while Cymen got his bearings. The Forest was a vast, moss-covered everything. Now that they’d wandered deeper in, sunlight paled in open places between big trees with their roots all tangled together. Eve waltzed between these, nearly always balanced, inhumanly so, or perhaps she was very unafraid of falling that caused her to hike so unlike a reasonable human. A little fall here and two bendy branches grabbed there. The woman’s arms opened wide to a fork of sapling boughs and they swayed together as Eve went down, they danced, and she let slip until tiny baby leaves stretched at the ends and Eve tore them off between her fingertips. By then she was on her bottom and laughing, right on the way up again.
“She’s mad.” Cymen heard one of his men whisper.
“Or, are we mad for being led by her?”
More loudly, when Cymen was seen leaning in, “And what of our Captain Ruecross, for finally loosening his chastity belt? She’s clearly the Harbringer. It’s the End of Days, I tell you!”
Cymen was stopped from speaking, as his horse took that moment to snort gleefully. “Duty, gentlemen, duty… And I assure you that the throb of my temple is a sign the woman’s spell has worn off. You’ll do well to tell the King we’ve been properly sworn to our worthy guest, when we arrive, believe you me. Dearest Eve?”
She was curling a chapped lip up at a squirrel in the canopy. “A moment…”
“We haven’t got one, now that I’m finally lucid. You say you’re being chased?”
“I didn’t but you’re smarter than I thought, to have noticed.”
“And so that would be the most logical reason why you’ve decided to come with us, because you cannot fend them off yourself?”
“Thank you, again, for keeping away from the villages, without my having to ask.”
“Then we also have to move faster. Come on up here.”
Woman glared at amber horse. Cymen swung a leg over and dismounted. “On foot, we are moving far too slowly. I don’t mind a good fight, but if the Knights of GAFE can avoid infamy in the Lower Kingdoms, it would be best.”
“That’s not what you said yesterday? What’s a GAFE?”
Not a one of them answered.
“Ha! Oh, I will find out in time, trust. And no, I will not ride.”
Cymen picked Eve up, she froze with terror, as they approached the animal, and he forced her astride. Cymen was up in the saddle again with a strong arm around her waist before she could try and scramble down the other side… or even the long, wrong end.
“Let me go! I hate this…”
But the whole group began to ride and Eve would hurt herself by escaping. She leaned forward to hold the animal, then backward, to steady herself against the man—whom she remembered after only a while, was driving the creature. She screamed then scowled, and finally whispered,
“It’s like this, you know—and you’re desperately curious aren’t you, Cymen Ruecross? Save, that you would be deep inside of me and your loins thundering!”
Cymen let slip the reins and swore.
Eve furrowed her brow. “Now you understand perfectly how I suffer, to be so close to a stallion again.”
“Please, for the love of… be quiet. Just be quiet, Eve, and don’t say anymore.”
“Bump-be-bump-be-bump da dump!”
The trees passed by in a cool blur, and after a long while, they began to see them clearly coming as well as going. One of the men up front announced they were nearing the edge of the Forest and coming to the Valley.
He said again, “And there are down beds and no venison whatever at the Harbringer’s Folly! Hurrah!”
“Hrm? Prostitutes, finally? And to Hell, as well, I assume.”
“No, Eve. A bath, and a rest without one man always on sleepless watch… and an inn. Your mind is like a chimney.”
“And sadly, no one here is going to shimmy up and…”
“Silence is a virtue.”
“… and I swear I’d be more manageable afterward. What? A woman can’t be as honest about her hunger as can a man?”
“In my day, people waited properly for the marriage sacrament, instead of rutting like heated animals in back-alleys. Though, somehow, I sense you are just showing off. Tell me, have you got children, or rather, a litter stashed someplace, Eve?”
She blushed and snapped her mouth shut.
“And nobody believes that Cymen Ruecross knows how these things work.”
They all crested a hill, Eve laughed when the redhead up front had his steed rear up, kick with all feet as if flying. He lifted up out of the saddle with one arm, balanced, upside down, spread legs which made Eve gasp. He pumped that arm, lifted off to grab the pommel in a dramatic united descent. Then, the young man’s head flew back, a red burst of blood, the tattered feathery butt of an arrow caught the blue light, Eve dug her nails into her protector’s horse, began screaming.
“To arms!” went Cymen.
Eve cried that their friend was trampled, wasn’t he? The horse kept going and dragged its brain-pierced rider. Men in green leapt from trees while another cover of arrows forced Cymen’s riders out, alone and scattered. Their animals were brave, and came willing when forced back into the thick of it. One knight crouched under a shield, another drew his own shining crossbow and they ran like that, one covering, the other aiming. Three of the green rogues raised swords, but they lured out one of Cymen’s braver knights, who was caught by a lancer on a dusky brown thing who let forth a victorious war-cry:
“For Robin, the Hood!”
But which was he?
Eve pushed off the horse—which was deadly in itself—tumbled, then ran for her life. Cymen gave chase, but the woman was promptly snatched up.
“You killed one of my men!”
This was not Cymen talking. Cymen was the one who said, “He who would dare go against the King Over Kings, steal the hallowed Grail that was not his own? Your man’s life became forefeit in that moment…” that was when Cymen reached over his shoulder and found no sword there. He snatched a dagger from his boot instead, and tried not to look silly about it. “And your fate will be no different, Robin. How dare you tie up one of the Divine’s creatures over a pile of kindling and leave her?”
“You attacked Robin? Slew one of his men, in broad daylight!”
“Are you suddenly loyal to him, Eve?”
“No… it’s just… well no one attacks Robin the Hood, and over what-did-you-say? A tin for punch?”
“Ceasefire!” Robin took off his hood and signaled to the archers. Well, one fell dead out of a tree behind them, stabbed by a crossbow bolt, but Robin’s power over the situation was still evident enough. Cymen nodded, and his men reigned in.
“The Grail belongs to the rightful king of the Forest. King Richard and all those before him have been hunting it for generations, as all good men well know. And whom do you serve, that would impassion you to yank a witch down from her lawful pyre?”
A monk with fat jowls took his hood down next. Cymen was sure to give that one a good look.
“King Micco teaches that there is no such thing as witches, only people, that the Grail is the property of Heaven, and that breaking a beggar man’s thumbs for gold in a ruler’s absence makes him a thug only, and by usurping the law, a King of Thieves, not the King of the Forest. Robin the Hood, do not pretend to be any servant of King Richard.”
“Hand over the sacred Grail, and you can have your precious witch back.”
“For the last time, damn you Rob, I am not a witch!”
Robin grabbed Eve by her tangled mess of hair, dragged a dagger up the length of her bodice, cutting it open. He snarled against her ear. “You would run around and tell the Hood’s plans, blather on about my archery contest? Oh, tell me what you aren’t by now, Miss Evil.” Silence, while Cymen looked to his men and thought quickly, and the last living archers aimed anew in thick boughs all around.
“Cymen, you idiot, I told you not to save me, I begged you…”
“I have made a promise both to my King and to this woman. In the eyes of the Master of Heaven, both are equally important.”
“Well then I’ll slaughter her like a swine…”
That was when Skun came back, round mark in the middle of his head, a few horse-shoe prints dented across his gold plate, but leading the horse.
“Captain, you dropped this a few days back, when you were saving Eve.” Skun took his time untying a large, swathed blanket from his saddle while more arrows soared and stuck in his neck and arms. One went right between the plate of Cymen’s helmet and shouldergaurd, stabbed him, certainly, but he only grimaced and pulled that free.
A great, big golden zeiwhander that had a dying dragon being stabbed through the mouth for a hilt.
“I just made money, by the way. They said it’d only take you a few hours to notice. And it’s been a night and a day already.”
Eve was so startled, she looked to Robin briefly.
Cymen placed both hands on the long pommel, spread his feet and readied. “We too, are the property of Heaven, as you can see. I shall not break either of my promises today or any other day. Now, hand the Lady over.”
Robin took Eve and ran.
“Execute all of them, in the name of GAFE!” Cymen charged forth.
A man with a pike came at Cymen and he dodged the point aimed for his face, stepped forward, raised up with both hands, then smashed down to break the spear in two. Now, a clean swing around with the edge flat, behind the full force of his upper body, the impact of which nearly cut the enemy in two, if not for the sharp blade. Another who ran in was caught in the violence and his head went off as Cymen pulled up and out of it.
More. Cymen grabbed beneath the flanged ricasse and moved the large blade fast to catch the galloping lancer. Someone stabbed at his gold plate from behind at that moment. Cymen turned, rent his cape in the missed-move, and threw the lancer free then ended low on a knee to parry. Arrows knocked off the crown of his helmet and flitted away, useless. The enemy saw, raised hands of surrender, but Cymen tore up and cut an arm. Then a merciful slash down to cut the head.
“Eve? Where are you, call out!”
The archers threw ropes and clambered from tree to tree. The knights climbed after them or shot down what they could. Cymen saw the fat Monk snatch the horse, mount up, and so he trudged after. “Eve? Stay alive at any cost, do you hear me?”
Cymen hardly reached the horse, but severed a ligament in the hind legs and the creature went down screaming. The Monk knelt before the gold knight, and fumbled with prayer beads, but Cymen came down hard, snapped those in many flying popped pieces and flayed the man between his meeting hands.
She called when her perpetrator died. Robin the Hood was too smart to run far. He backed up against a lone tree with his pitiful archers isolated above. All of Cymen’s men closed in below. The knife in the Thief King’s easy hands quivered, flashed all angles of light. He smiled fiendishly at Cymen. The handsome, cheating grin of a man with one last prize in his clutches. For, a life could be stolen forever…
“Eve, stay alive…” Cymen warned and ran. “Do it now! What have you ever waited for?”
Cymen saw her panic. He saw the red slash across her neck, the very quiver of her pupils as she gave up her life. The tree erupted in a column of flame. Men above and below cried, flesh roasted, Cymen felt the searing heat in even his own nostrils, when it claimed him too.
A pure element could never be so angry. But a woman turned to fire, she could indulge that very fury.
“Cymen…” crackling, white-hot hiss, “Love, I’m so sssorry…”