When the Hunter Becomes the Hunted
Chapter 1

Copyright© 2009 by Stultus

The snow had quit falling overnight so now with the very first light of dawn, Robert only took one quick fast look outside of his small wooden hut deep in the forest before grabbing his bow and quiver of arrows. He had not eaten for the last two days and with the snow having ceased for now, he knew this would be a good time to catch an early morning deer grazing unaware. They would be hungry as well and digging into the snow for their Christmas Eve morning meal of cold grass. Robert hoped that one of them might make his own holiday meal, and a much better feast than frozen autumn grass. At least now he had only himself to provide for himself, he thought sadly as he left his sheltered and quite hidden campsite.

Being an excellent woodsman and knowing every inch of his sheltering forest, Robert knew where to likely find his prey at this early hour. Travelling upwind to catch them grazing unawares, he was certain that he'd have no difficulty making a kill long before the sun rose more than a hand or two into the sky. He wanted to move fast, but he also had other concerns than the unsuspecting deer catching his scent. A brief patrol around the edges of the wood yesterday morning had cautioned him that some activity was still occurring near the fitzHenry estates and the Earl's castle.

For nearly a week there had been unusual activity in these quiet and seldomly hunted or travelled woods. He had seen traces of the passage of numerous horsemen and sometimes he had even heard their hunting horns blowing off in the distance. This was very extraordinary activity and the poacher had quickly decided that perhaps these hunters were looking for rather different game than deer. Perhaps hunting a fugitive? Or unfortunately, even hunting for him.

Robert had decided then that he would take no chances and he stayed put within his sheltered camp to wait out this disturbing atypical activity. Now, nearly a week later he was completely out of stored food. With strangers in the woods, the poacher hadn't even dared to set his usual rabbit snares, which provided him with much of his food stock. Smoking and preserving a large quantity of meat for the winter was much too dangerous an undertaking and except for a small carefully controlled cook fire inside of his ramshackle hut, the poacher couldn't ever dare to set any larger fires. This unfortunately meant that if he couldn't rely upon his rabbit snares, that he'd have to hunt for some larger game.

The poacher also had no coins saved that he could use to travel to a nearby village and buy provisions or even that rarest of treats, a hot meal served at an inn. He was alone in the world and nearly destitute, possessing only a few treasured mementos of his old, pre-poaching life, and a sturdy bow with good arrows to strike down his prey with, but that was enough to just barely get by in life with.

The old Earl rarely ever hunted himself, nor did he have a son to take up his reins. This ordinarily meant that the poacher's favorite parts of the woods were rarely entered by hunters and even the Earl's own forester hardly ever entered the woods during the winter, and truth be told was nearly equally lax with his duties during the kinder seasons. On the other hand, the old Earl was a favorite of the King, who kept a hunting lodge not far away from the Earl's castle. This made these woods a Royal Woods, and the deer that Robert occasionally poached, the King's Deer.

Surely, the King himself would not be visiting these parts this day, so very close to Christmas! Didn't the King hold court in his palace in London on Christmas Day?

Still the idea of strangers, guests of the Earl, possibly entering the forest again on this day made Robert uncomfortable. In his light sleep yesterday evening, he had even woke up suddenly and imagined that he had heard the sound of a horse quite near his little hidden timber shack! His firewood had been wet and his small fire had smoked a little. His bad dream though had helped to keep him cautious and he banked his small fire even further.

If he had but saved some extra scraps of food or even a few bent or worn coins, he would have resisted the dangerous impulse to hunt today or even tomorrow, until he was absolutely certain that the riders had left and the quiet status quo returned to these normally hushed woods.

But he had no such saved food or coins, and so he resolved to hunt ... quietly and with as little bustle as possible. He'd keep to the cover and try to remain hidden from any and all unfriendly eyes. He'd glide quietly through the snow and cover his passing tracks with a leafy branch, leaving virtually no trace of his passage. Cautiously, he'd try for a smaller deer; one he could easily dispatch with a single arrow without great alarm to the herd and small enough to be carried across his wiry but strong back, to be dressed back in the safety of his hidden forest hut.

As he moved cautiously through the snow covered forest, he stopped often to cautiously wait and listen keenly to the sounds around him. The wind was brisk enough to muffle the smaller sounds, but twice Robert thought he had heard the sounds of horses somewhere up ahead, but he couldn't be certain. His senses delivered no firm warning to him but his unease grew.

Now Robert was hesitant and nearly decided upon returning now in haste back to his camp to fast for yet another day or such, until acute hunger forced him to the hunt once more. The idea of early morning riders in the woods ahead of him so soon after sunrise disturbed him. If only he had been able to safely set his snares he might have captured a fine coney or two and already been safely back in his hut! The idea of this early morning hunt suddenly seemed much less appealing. The danger was simply not worth the benefits of a full stomach this morning! It is never quite entirely safe being a poacher living in one of the King's Forests, but certain obvious risks should never be taken, his head reasoned ... but his empty stomach complained otherwise.

After hiding in some thick brush, sitting and listening to the wind for a good ten minutes and hearing nothing, the poacher's courage began to return, just a little. He still didn't feel that it was safe to continue upwind anymore, but perhaps if he moved sideways off to his left, further west away from the Earl's castle and the King's hunting lodge, he could perhaps keep the danger to his right, giving him time and space to flee deeper into the woods for safety, if needs be.

Now traveling crosswind to his prey, Robert risked a faster pace. This was a good hunting area and with luck he'd soon find some game and then he could be quickly on his way back home. There would be a small clearing near a hollow at the foot of a small hill that often served as a favorite shelter in poor weather for the smaller younger Fallow deer. If luck was with him, he'd soon spy a small herd now grazing in that clearing, and as he peaked around a bush near its edge, his hopes were realized. Perhaps fifteen deer in total, all quite hungry and paying slightly less attention to their surroundings than they ordinarily would have been.

It would be a long shot from here, but if he moved around to the right of the clearing, to be closer to the herd, he risked passing into the wind such that his scent might be carried to his prey. It would have to be a long shot, well-over a hundred yards to the small deer that he had selected, but he knew he could make that shot ... even sideways into a gusty wind.

The idea that he might accidentally miss never even occurred to him. Pausing but a moment to select his target, a young buck yearling, he quickly gauged the angle and judged the crosswind and let his arrowshaft fly, catching the deer deep into the middle of its chest and pierced its heart instantly. It fell dead before it even knew what had struck it.

Wasting little time, Robert rushed into the clearing to claim his prize and pausing only pull his arrow from the deer's chest he at once hoisted up the deer onto his shoulders and began to shuffle towards the nearest cover of brush to then scamper on towards his home as fast as he could manage. The small deer was heavy, easily over a hundred pounds, and carrying it would make his footprints heavier and deeper into the snow. He wouldn't be able to brush these prints into obscurity, he'd have to take an oblique non-direct approach towards his hut and stop periodically to backtrack and cover up his boot prints. There was no snow likely to fall today to conceal them and the dangers of the horsemen in the forest couldn't be eliminated and it was far too risky to process the venison here.

On the other hand, quickly taking just a haunch now and burying the rest of the carcass in the snow for retrieval later might be a safer compromise and he paused for a moment to readjust his heavy load and consider this option just as he and his prize reentered the woods. Here once again under relative cover, he could quickly accomplish this task but he paused for a long moment before dropping his load to draw his belt knife, concerned that for an instant yet again he had heard the sounds of shifting brush on the other side of the clearing, very near where he had taken his desperate bowshot. Probably just one of the other startled Fallow deer returning to their feeding place, he assumed, but a return of the huntsmen couldn't be ruled out either.

In fact, Robert was just thinking about these phantom horsemen who were heard but never seen when heard the loud 'Hrmph' of a horse on the other side of the small clearing. He dropped the deer onto the snow fast and spun behind a tree to risk a look behind him. This time he saw the horseman, a hard-looking man still on his horse trying to bring a small short curved horse-bow into position. A moment later he fired off an arrow that hit square into a tree about twenty feet from where the poacher had been hiding, but Robert was no longer there. Then the hunter's horn sounded, close and nearby and was immediately answered by the sound of several other horns, some nearer and some further away. At least four groups of men were in the hunt for him and it would now take all of the poacher's hard learned skills to escape their gathering net!

His meal abandoned and already forgotten, Robert had to use every measure of his skill to move silently and unseen into the heavy early morning winter shadows of the woods. It was still just barely past dawn and the sun would not be above the trees for another hour or so yet. Once more with a leafy branch to cover his tracks in hand, Robert substituted stealth for speed.

The chase, if you could call it that, lasted for much of the day. The pursuers were talented and they had at least two most skilled and excellent woodsmen with them that could eventually trace even the most carefully obscured traces of his hidden tracks. Once in fact, Robert had to bury himself into the snow to hide from a group of three horsemen who searched the bushes and trees all around him for nearly half an hour before moving on.

This was not a simple hunting party, but an organized manhunt selected specifically to capture him, he decided. The poacher reckoned that his predications in this particular forest had been noted, and a select team of trained woodsman had then been assembled to dispose of him accordingly. There was only one penalty for poaching, and it was death. Robert wasn't especially afraid of death; it had already taken from him everything that he had loved in life, but he wasn't quite yet willing to be a lamb ready and eager to accept his fate to be slaughtered either.

By mid-afternoon, Robert felt certain that he had evaded every one of his would-be captors. He knew for certain that his life in this forest was now finished. It would be foolhardy, let alone quite unsafe to remain here any further, but he resisted the increasingly compelling urge to leave this forest forever ... now! One last little act of sentiment bound him here firmly, and he would be unable break his bounds to this land until he performed one last final act. For this he must return to his pitiful timber hut only for a moment so that he could reclaim the one last remaining tie that held him fast to the companionship of the human race.

The locket. The small tiny pewter locket that he had had made for his wife as his wedding day gift to her. It was under his bedroll in his hut. Maybe his hut had been found and or maybe it would be safe for a few more hours or days more, but that didn't matter at all to him. For life to be at all worth living, he needed to reclaim that locket. Then, perhaps he could start some new life in some hidden hole, safe and secure somewhere else ... far from here.

He had taken the long, extremely indirect and cautious route back to his hidden camp, taking great care and pains to cover his tracks as he passed. Nothing he knew could be perfect, but he'd still try to do the very best that he could. For her ... and her locket. Occasionally he heard horses or the sound of horns off in the distance, but never quite close enough to be worrisome. Soon he'd have his treasure and then he could run away to safety, deeper in the wild forests of Essex where even the most dangerous of wanted men could live in relative safety.

When he saw the shabby timbers of his small hut, hidden in the brush in one of the thickest parts of the forest, he was fairly certain that he was safe. The undergrowth of the forest here was too thick for horsemen and it would take an extremely keen eye to find his hut, even at a close distance. His nerves were still a bit highly tuned but becoming duller with the pains of relief, hunger and exhaustion. Things looked safe enough inside of his camp, but he wasn't quite sure and he waited, uncertain as how to proceed. He needed to hastily grab the necklace and make his escape but his instincts were warning him about something amiss.

The sound of another horn sounding not quite as far away as before helped the poacher make up his mind. Safe or not, he must enter the camp now and grab his wife's locket. Everything else after that was unimportant to him.

Without even trying for stealth, Robert trusted his luck to boldness, and in fact when he did wrench open the door he was less than surprised to find that someone was already waiting for him inside of his hut. In fact, the intruder, a hard faced huntsman had made himself a bit too comfortable while waiting and had been caught himself by surprise. With his sword resting bare upon a small roughly hewn table just out of convenient reach, the ambusher was quite ill-prepared to give the suddenly returning poacher a rather sharp unwelcoming to his own home.

With just a second to react, Robert sprang forward and grabbed the small iron cook pot he kept in the center fire pit of his hut. Swinging it quickly and sharply, the heavy pot struck the side of the huntsman's head before he could grab his weapon and the sword begin its deadly strike. The huntsman went down silent into a heap, knocked out but otherwise hale, and the poacher leapt over him to reclaim his precious locket from his bedroll, already carefully wrapped in her favorite linen handkerchief and kept for safety in a small skin pouch.

He debated taking the woodsman's sword but it was large and heavy and Robert had no particular skill or even any experience wielding a blade. True it was worth more gold than he would likely earn in his lifetime, but it was heavy and would also slow him down, and selling this item might create unwelcome inquiries later on.

Robert might be a skilled poacher but he certainly wasn't a thief. The sword remained on the ground inside the hut. Besides, the three hard men that were now standing outside of his hut waiting for him looked like they would have no compunction about immediately running him through, if he had been carrying an open blade.

He was cornered and he knew it.

"Come outside now and face the King's Justice with bare hands held open and held away from you now!"

It wasn't really a request. From the sound of things another horseman or two was arriving and someone just outside of his camp was having a merry time tooting on his hunting horn. The wild beast has been cornered and it was time to hurry to the kill!

The poacher briefly considered kicking out the back wall of his hut and making a run for it but decided that he didn't like the odds. From the smell of it, one under-bathed woodsman or soldier was already covering that escape route. Maybe he could evade that first axe or sword stroke, maybe not. In any case it all now just seemed futile.

He could still run ... but he'd just die tired with an arrow or crossbow bolt in his back. If he was going to die, it might as well be here ... and maybe he could be buried here as well, right next to Lana and their infant son.

"Come out in the name of the King!" The loud stern voice repeated.

"And who might I ask speaks for the King in this matter, so that I might request their word of protection for my safety should I deliver myself unreservedly into their hands?"

"I shall speak for him!" Another new voice bellowed. "But only briefly until his own word shall be heard. Deliver yourself to me now, and you shall suffer no hardship until you face his own direct justice from his royal personage. Shall you yield to me?"

His 'Royal Personage'? The almighty goddamned King himself was here? Now? In or near these woods? God fucking almighty but he was screwed! Robert thought, and not without reasonable cause. The local Earl would just string a rope around his neck and be done with it, but what would the King himself do to a poacher caught nearly red-handed in a Royal Forest? Was this treason? Were his limbs and entrails doomed to a one-way tour of the Welsh and Scottish lands while his head would be tarred and mounted upon Tower Bridge?

The poacher carefully tied his precious small sack with his wife's amulet inside of his trousers and let out a deep sigh.

"Yea, I shall surrender myself into your good and trustworthy hands without struggle and but ask that I can have your goodwill, so that at the time of my sentencing it can be said that I did cause little or no harm or inconvenience to his servants. Out I come now!"

Robert held his hands out from his body as he left his hut to show that he was weaponless and intended no breach of the peace. Two men, hard and lean ... skilled and trained veteran fighting men, came forward to take his arms and they expertly bound them tightly behind his back. Another came forward to assist the groaning huntsman that Robert had clubbed with his cook pot inside the hut. Several other hunting men soon also arrived each carrying drawn bows and they moved into something of a circle around the poacher with arrows notched, ready to cut him down in a moment if he fled.

Then the small man still on horseback spoke. It was an educated and cultured voice. The voice of an Earl or even a Duke; it was a voice that was used to issuing commands ... and having them instantly obeyed. Unfortunately the face it belonged to was that of the King, his Royal Majesty King John of England.

The miserable poacher fell on his own accord onto his knees and deeply bowed before the presence of his monarch. His neck was certain to be forfeit in some ghastly and unpleasant method of execution, but if he showed proper deference perhaps he could still plead for his life, or at least a quick death.

"Your Majesty, this humble servant and sinner craves your Peace ... or failing that he begs that he might be spared any elaborate sorts of entertainments for his just punishment and be instead just quickly and simply hanged here, near this very spot. If my King should feel disposed, this miserable captive would greatly desire that his grave be placed to join the other two mounds just over to his Majesties right side, where my wife and my infant son lay buried. I would, should it please your Highness, that my sins are not too mighty that I should be kept apart from them in death, after my life has been spent. This humble request completed, your prisoner will serve his Majesties justice without anger or regret."

This answer rather pleased but yet confused the King, because in truth he had not yet decided what sort of punishment should be met upon this poacher. True, when he first learned of this 'uncatchable' mysterious poacher from his old friend the Earl fitzHenry, he thought it would be simple sport for his trained Royal woodsmen and the miscreant would swing from a suitable tree within a matter of hours. Instead, the hunt had kept the King and his men busy for an entire week! Their prey indeed did move like a ghost and only the luckiest circumstance lead to the poacher's hut being found the previous evening, discovered quite entirely by happy chance. When their skilled quarry eluded the twenty men sent to hunt him down the King himself had ordered this ambush set for the poacher's hut that afternoon.

The end result was successful, but extremely anti-climactic. The King's sense of drama and excitement had hoped for a different sort of outcome. Now he had his prisoner ... but what to do with him?

"Is it true my fine young poacher that you made a direct strike on one of my deer, a perfect shot into the heart, at a distance of at least one hundred and fifty feet, and into the teeth of a strong wind in the gloom of the first light of dawn?"

"Quite untrue your Majesty. The shot was merely at a distance of perhaps a hundred feet and the wind was blowing from the side, not into my face and the morning light upon the fresh snow in the clearing was quite good."

"A lucky shot then? Perhaps not. Tell me young man, how many years have you hunted this forest?"

"About a full five years, your Highness, as of this coming spring. I had lost my apprenticeship due to the tragic demise of my Master, and my young wife was just with child at this unhappy moment. Upon her death in childbirth, my future goals for life became, unfortunately, less certain. I apologize for infringing upon your lands and privileges for such an extended time."

"Could you not have received another apprenticeship?" The King asked, already rather intrigued by the young poacher's story.

"Alas no, largely as it was my accusation that our town guild master himself had in fact murdered my master. Unfortunately, although I knew this truth to be a certainty, it could not be proven as such, and the shire coroner was paid to mark the death into the rolls as 'misadventure'. As I had been about to receive my full journeyman papers, I had just also engaged my wife into marriage believing that my future was secure. My loss of position thus endangered the two of us, rather than only myself."

"And what exactly was your former guild profession?"

"A scrivener, your Majesty."

"A lawyer's clerk formerly used to wielding a pen instead becomes the most skilled scout and archer in this Shire? An outrageous adjustment in fortune indeed!" The King laughed.

"Not entirely outrageous, Sire. My father was quite a skilled fletcher and provided a great many of the arrows that your late brother, King Richard, had taken with him on crusade. It is a poor fletcher that cannot make his arrows strike the center of the target butts with most of his attempts, but it true that desperation and hunger are both excellent teachers."

"Fetch me the Earl's huntsman, Reginald, if he is quite steady upon his feet once again. Hurry, while we still have light for a bit of a contest. I would desire to see an example of your skill young poacher!"

The Earl's huntsman, during his week near and about the King, hadn't made many friends and had even fewer admirers. He was quite prone to boasting and rather extreme over-confidence. His other personal habits (such as his general laziness and over-fondness for ale and wine) were also quite unsuited to the camp of a King, or even an elderly Earl. Disliked by all, he was still nevertheless the best archer to be found in the area, when sober, and he did have some slight knowledge of this forest. It was considerably to his misfortune that Reginald had been of very little actual usefulness during this manhunt and he had been in much danger of being banned from the King's company entirely ... and likely now to lose his position with the Earl as well.

Reginald's own mood wasn't particularly good either. Alright, his boasts of catching the elusive poacher had amounted to less than nothing. He never liked hunting in the winter and he didn't like being out every day in the ice and snow. He'd drunk rather a lot of mulled wine at breakfast this morning and he'd been unable to track the slippery poacher to anyone's satisfaction. His vigil inside of the hut hadn't gone was as expected either and he'd become a bit more drowsy than he had realized. That this miserable former clerk and bested him twice in the same day was unpardonable! He perhaps ought to have mentioned that due to the blow of the cook pot upon his skull, his vision wasn't quite as sharp as normal, and the half of a skin of wine that he had drunk while waiting weren't making his hands any steadier either.

The two skilled archers balefully glanced at each other but listened intently to the instructions that their King was now giving them. A short distance away there was enough of a clearing that two bits of red colored cloth had been fastened to a pair of trees at about a distance of a hundred yards away. The two archers were given three arrows for the contest. Reginald used his own large and massive bow and Robert requested, and was granted the use of his own less powerful but very familiar bow and arrows that he had fletched himself.

A pair of guards with drawn swords stood at the ready just in case the poacher decided to aim at a more kingly target, but Robert kept his gaze and his arrows pointed at their intended mark. The range was no challenge for him and there was next to no wind at this moment to compensate for. He trusted to his new found fortune and with a quiet smile he held his aim steady.

The contest was quite a mismatch. The poacher put all three of his arrows into the small section of cloth. The surly, injured and quite a bit less than sober huntsman only barely managed a single near miss that struck his tree a full foot below his target.

The King was as delighted as the huntsman was livid with rage. He declared that the poacher now enjoyed the King's Peace and even tossed him his own personal wineskin so that he might drink in celebration. The poacher accepted with gratitude, but drank sparingly. It had been a long time since he had tasted wine, not to mention one of an excellent vintage, and he was still quite exhausted from the chase and nearly faint with acute hunger.

"So, your Majesty, I am not to be hung today?"

"Not today. That would be a crime in-itself ... there are too few good master archers in this kingdom and it is a foolish King that wastes such a precious resource. You shall earn your penance, never fear, but your fate shall be discussed in other more suitable and warmer surroundings."

"In that case, my Lord, might I have a few moments at parole so that I might visit my wife and sons grave one last time? It may happen to be that I might soon be far absent from them, except in my thoughts and prayers."

The King nodded and the former poacher knelt one final time in prayer by the gravesides of his absent, but still beloved family.

It was then and there, that Reginald decided to enact a sterner and more permanent judgment against his rival, and quite against the wishes of the King. With a howl of fury he drew his sword and took a wild at the pardoned poacher, eager to see his rival struck down in retribution.

Having lived the life of a hunted rabbit for these last five years, Robert wasn't fooled and taken off his guard in the slightest and he had time to roll away from the huntsman's surprise assault. While he was unarmed, he was faster and much more nimble than his half drunken and outraged opponent, and with the help of a nearby long piece of split firewood he kept his increasingly enraged opponent off-balance and his own hide quite unharmed until the King's men soon arrived to rescue him.

When Reginald did not drop his long Welsh dagger upon the King's instant command, one of his trusted royal guards armed with a crossbow put a steel quarrel into the belligerent huntsman's left shoulder. Treason it was called, bearing a naked blade in the presence of the King and not obeying his order to drop it.

Accordingly, in a perverse reversal of fortune, it was the former poacher that enjoyed the evening walk back to the Earl's castle, as a nominally free man, while his would-be captor and attempted killer was firmly bound with heavy rope and made to run behind a horse under close guard for the hour long journey.

How the wheel of fate turns!

As his worn, dirty and ragged clothes were unworthy to be seen at a Royal Feast, one of the Earl's chamberlains took Robert aside and saw that he was given a small but clean room where he could make himself a bit more suitably attired. A used but well-cleaned set of clothes was waiting on his bed as well as a shaving knife, a pair or hair trimming shears, a cake of soap and a bowl of fairly hot water along with a linen towel on a small table against the wall. Above the table was a small polished silver mirror mounted to the wall so that he might either shave or trim his beard.

The overly long beard of five years growth was the first to go. He trimmed it down to a small but crisp goatee; enough to look the part of a valued young woodsman and not a lad, but not long enough either to be mistaken for a peasant laborer. It took awhile to make himself clean and groomed enough to even start to inspect his replacement clothes, but they were quite suitable. The clothing was in fact quite better than anything Robert had ever owned in his life. The wool hose was of excellent quality and without holes and both the tunic and doublet were also clean and relatively unworn. A pair of soft slippers finished his dinner attire just in time so that he could be taken downstairs to join the others in the Earl's feasting hall.

What a very strange and odd reversal of fortune, Robert thought once again as he was taken into the main hall of the castle and given a seat at dinner at one of the lower tables with the rest of the King's men. Hardly any of his tablemates, the men who had been hunting him for a week, now recognized the former poacher and his new appearance and polite bearing soon earned the approval and respect of his new companions. A larger group of the King's clerks across the table from him never paid him a seconds notice, so apparently he now fit right in.

He soon discovered that the former huntsman had been already stricken from the employment rolls of the old Earl and was enjoying a different sort of dinner downstairs in the lower dungeons. While Robert wasn't a man to hold most grudges, he had to admit that the surly archer had been disfavored entirely due to his own actions. Still, it was highly unfortunate, and an extreme embarrassment to his former master, the Earl fitzHenry, that reflected poorly on his hospitality to his friend and his honored guest, the King.

Robert noticed the King and the Earl remained quite deeply engaged in conversation at the high table but they did occasionally look over his way, but if anyone else paid the former poacher any mind during dinner, he didn't notice it.

After some light entertainment and the main courses of the dinner were finished, the former huntsman was summoned for judgment against the charge of treason against the personage of the King. The sentence was lenient; Reginald would be banished and stripped of his rank. All of the lands that had been bestowed upon him previously by the Earl would be returned into his hands. The treacherous huntsman would be given a cross tomorrow morning at dawn and would be escorted to a local village church where he could commence his long walk holding his cross at all times to Dover, to take the first ship that would have him, and forever abjure the realm and leave England. According to the law, if he left the roadway for any reason during his trek, he was 'fair game' and could be killed by anyone without penalty.

This judgment was not considered harsh, and several of the King's clerks sitting nearby muttered that this was a lenient but very just sentence. The King was still fairly new to the throne, having succeeded his brother King Richard just over a year ago. The King was smart and said to be well-read, and worked well with his chancellors and clerks, and often enjoyed sitting in the role of judge whenever he could. From what I heard whispered, he was thought to be a clever King, but with such intelligence came distrust ... especially with his reputation for scheming against his father King Henry, his mother Queen Eleanor, and his late brother. King John was too smart to ever be trusted, in the opinion of many of his Lords, the wise clerks at my table whispered.

Robert listened hard and carefully. While he dined heartily, he drank his wine sparingly and spoke even less.

Soon the real entertainment started. There were jongleurs, gleemen, acrobats and other performers and a bevy of musicians. They played and entertained for several hours until the Earl declared his readiness for bed. When the Earl departed for his rest a good many of the other men did as well. The more serious drinkers now began to indulge their favorite vice and Robert found these men an increasingly excellent source of information and gossip about the Royal household and of the Earl's own minions.

The Earl's wife seemed to enjoy a few late night goblets of wine herself and she and King seemed to be enjoying a few jokes of their own, and each soon left for their own beds, together. One of the Earl's men started to make a loud vulgar joke but his friends soon hushed him. Behind him, a softer feminine voice near his head made a similar but gentler snort sound of amusement, and Robert turned to greet a new and rather sudden (and attractive) admirer.

She was young, about the age of his late wife, maybe still just in her second decade of life and she was of a similar shape and bearing. Her long blond hair was carefully styled and her clothes were of excellent cut. It was her eyes that instantly captivated him even more than her trim waist or her firm rounded breasts. He had seen her briefly during the feast seated up at the top of the second table, and with the Earl's men. She was apparently not quite family, but neither was she a domestic of the castle.

She held out her arm and asked Robert to escort her to the kitchens. She obviously knew the way herself and after a few fast quick turns the young couple found their way into a private steward's pantry where some of the better wine and spirits were kept under lock and key.

She smiled and held a finger up to her mouth as she gathered up a lighted candlestick and then quietly but firmly shut and locked the door behind them, leaving them in secure privacy.

"We are safe here if we don't talk too loudly. The walls here often have ears, but this room is safe. Yes, the King and my father's wife like to share bed sheets often during his visits. I think that is one reason why King John visits us so often. Born plotters and deceivers, the both of them, my father and the King. Both used to raise schemes together against the old King Henry, and then King Richard. Now that John is King there is no one left to plot against ... I think it saddens them both."

"Does your father know? I didn't know the Earl had a daughter? Especially one as lovely as you."

"Of course my father knows!" She laughed. "He pretends not to of course, but he let John help pick her out after his first wife died. There's even a rumor that he got to sample her first on their wedding night while the Earl watched. The Earl, and even his old dead father, were said to prefer 'watching' to doing. The old Earl built this castle with little spy holes into nearly every room of this castle so that he could wank off while watching everyone fucking inside their rooms. The fruit didn't fall far from the tree. He's mostly too old now to skulk about the secret corridors now, but I'll wager you all of the silver you've got that right now my father is watching the King do his wife through a peephole at this very moment!"

"I've only known you a moment, but already I know enough to never bet against you! I take it you cruise the secret hidden labyrinths yourself late at night from time to time?"

"What an outrageous suggestion to make to a respectable lady, the only daughter of an Earl!"

Her smile suggested that she wasn't actually all that outraged, but Robert began to apologize anyway until she quite cut his pleadings off.

"Respectable? Ha! My position in the family lineage is a bit irregular. My mother was the head cook at his castle in Poitou and he took enough of a liking to her to bring her home here, and sampled her favors fairly extensively for many years. I'm sort of acknowledged, enough so anyway that everyone of any importance around here knows about it. I won't get the castle or anything really nice upon his death, but I think I'll get a few small pieces of unimportant property in Poitou, Aquitaine or Gascony as a wedding dowry. Just enough for some unimportant knight to take me off of his hands someday. Do you have any other names other than Robert the Poacher?"

"As a youth, I was Robert Fletcher, son of a skilled and well-to-do Fletcher. He died of some illness while on crusade with King Richard. Is your mother still here at this castle?"

"My name is Clare ... just Clare. She died of the cough flux two winters ago. It was sad but it was really her time to go ... her health had been bad for several years and she didn't suffer much leaving this world."

"I'm sorry to hear of your pain. My wife ... and our child died a few winters back. A bad childbirth, stillborn. It was over fast and she never knew that our son had never taken a single breath in this world."

"I had heard something of that story, but not the details. I'm sure that it was very hard on you."

"Much more than I had realized at the time. I think my life stopped then, like I was a leaf blown into a quiet millpond to rest for a very long time."

"And now the mill wheels are starting spin fast and your leaf is now rushing down the millstream just trying to stay afloat." That was a statement, not a question. The young woman was wise beyond her years.

"The wheel certainly has turned, and rapidly. Last night I slept on a deerskin on a bed of moss in the forest with a dirty torn cloth over me to slightly shield against the cold. Tonight I have a room inside a stone castle with a soft bed and a good wool blanket to cover me."

"And you have hope ... for the first time in many years." She muttered, quietly close to his left ear, as her left hand gently touched his right shoulder, and he could feel her warm breath just inches from his ear.

"I have hope, but I fear it's going to be an extremely uncertain future for me. I fear that I have been lifted from one small fire into a much larger and hotter conflagration. What have your keen ears heard? You seem to show a peculiar interest in my future."

"Ah, you do have the sense to be suspicious of me! That's good and very healthy if we're going to have any sort of relationship together. I'm very much my father's girl; if I'd been born a boy he would have acknowledged me as his heir years ago. First, I need to thank you for finding a way to remove Reginald from our midst, hopefully permanently. He had a quite unsuitable interest in me, and most of the other young ladies of the castle and didn't always give proper respect. Off hand, I can think of at least three such young ladies that will undoubtedly have various thoughts about how they ought to repay you. I'm not saying that you should reject their advances, but let them do all the pursuing for a change."

"I can presume then that when I honor their offers that there might be at least one extra pair of eyes hidden and watching?" She shrugged and smiled slightly.

Well I am my father's girl! It's also frankly an unusual pleasure to find a man that is capable of keeping his favorite personal parts inside of his hose, unless the situation is appropriate for both lovers. Men and women have various 'appetites', but you seem like a man who can control and channel his in a more useful manner. This will make you nearly unique in both the Earl's and the King's service and it will make you both enemies and friends. With help, your friends will hopefully be the stronger."

"I'm not sure at all where I stand in the King's favor." Richard replied quite truthfully.

"Unusually high already, if you would believe it." She whispered, giving the top of his long unruly hair a bit of a casual caress.

"You both delight and appall him! You're transparently an honest man of good principle who indulged himself in a desperate life of stealth and secrecy. My father has been sending men like Reginald to hunt you down for nearly two years and no one could find a trace of you. The King couldn't resist the challenge and he postponed Christmas Court in London so that he could bring ten of his own best woodsmen and trackers to find you. They nearly failed and succeed only by happenstance. Every account I heard said that you were invisible in the woods, even in the snow, and can put an arrow into a pence at extreme range. This makes you a dangerous man. The Baron or Lord who controls you could have an unstoppable and uncatchable assassin, and our young inexperienced King is smart enough to know that he needs you either dead or 100% on his side."

"So there are plans for me then..."

"Plans within plans, from what I've overheard and can safely guess. Tomorrow, Christmas morning the King is going to make you the priceless gift of your own life and you'll take a knee to him and bow in fealty to him. There will be lots of promises but take most of them with a grain of salt. For now, you're going to be 'loaned' to my father to handle a few special problems around here and to give the local bowmen a bit of expert training. There is going to be trouble soon with France and the King will need bowmen, and if there is trouble you're going to be there one way or the other. If you succeed here, from what I've heard whispered, the King will send you off to dangerous places to solve the King's problems ... either with your clever mind or with your two skilled bowstring fingers. In short, do a good job and you'll end up as the King's most trusted spy and assassin."

"I'm not quite sure that's what I want in life." Robert mused, not altogether unhappily. He did owe his life to the King's mercy, and there was supposedly no greater calling in life than to serve the King's Justice. The idea of being an 'assassin' was slightly discomforting however.

"You will have to serve the King and it may be safer being the edge of his sword point rather than being a mundane woodsman for a minor, but albeit very trusted and favored Earl. Besides, I'm not at all sure my father will let me marry his woodsman ... but one of the right arms of the King would certainly be a different matter."

She softly kissed Roberts right ear and several of the minor objections that he was about to raise dissolved unspoken in his head.

"I think we well understand each other now." She said, now standing in front of him and taking both of his hands. "Serve your master well, be clever and more cunning than his growing host of enemies, and love and cherish me. I can ask little more from any man. Now kiss me, and properly ... I assume you remember well how to treat a women held in your arms!"

Robert certainly did.

They separated for the night after a few minutes clutched together and they then departed to their separate beds. On his, Robert found a fairly heavy leather purse filled with good new silver coins bearing the mark and portrait of his new master, King John. On the small dresser by his bed were several brand new sets of clothing. A good set of working leathers and boots suitable for a highly placed huntsman, more casual clothes suitable for service to a Lord and even a good set of clothes quite suitable for appearing at the King's Court.

In the morning he would take that oath and begin his first step in the service of these great lords. First under the watchful gaze of the Earl fitzHenry and later, hopefully, in the more secretive service of the King himself. He could become respectable, perhaps even a man of some immediate importance. He would now become Robert Hunter, the King's own huntsman and tracker of men.

There was much here that worried and concerned the former-poacher, but it was the memory of Clare's burning kisses that kept him warm and happy that first night in a strange bed as he began his new and very strange life.

He had indeed found hope ... and maybe now once again love.

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