2:7: “Robin of Wonderland Wood”, by Tim Pratt

2:7: “Robin of Wonderland Wood”, by Tim Pratt

Robin laced his boots and tried to ignore the red sky and the clouds writhing over the forest like things in pain. The air smelled of runny bowels and, faintly, of cinnamon. I am ever caught between gagging and delight, he thought.

Robin stood and placed his hands behind his back, stretching. His spine rattled off a satisfying series of cracks and pops. Robin looked past the trees, over the vast plain, to the black castle. A single dark spire, the color of a bat’s wing, seeming to tower over the distant mountains.

Robin thought about his dream.

He walked to the nearest tree, a white pine with colorful glass spheres hanging in the high branches. He kicked the tree trunk, and the glass jingled. “Cheshire Cat,” Robin said. “Last night Maid Marion visited me in a dream. She told me to keep faith, for we can still rescue our companions and defeat the king.”

The Cheshire Cat lolled indolently on a low branch, just waking up. His voice contained equal parts laziness and self-satisfaction. “I had a dream as well, of the Duchess. Or was it the Queen of Hearts? She told me much the same.” He licked his paws contentedly. “So of course, I won’t do any such thing.”

Robin kicked dirt over the remains of the campfire, trying to forget the images he’d seen in the flames the night before. His friends, tortured by red-haired apes wielding straight razors. Babies with too-big heads and mouths full of needle teeth, crawling relentlessly forward. Yesterday Robin and the Cat had returned from a scouting expedition and found their campsite deserted, the Merry Men gone. Robin suspected ambush and abduction.

“Come, Cheshire Cat. We’re both Englishmen, and gentlemen besides.”

The cat’s tail faded and disappeared. “I am neither gentle nor man, and only my name is English.” The Cat hopped lightly to the ground, sending up a puff of dandelion fluff. “Since you mention it, do you see England anywhere?” He made a great show of lifting a leaf and peering underneath it.

Robin picked up his leather pouch and hung it from his belt, refusing to rise to the Cat’s bait. Once Robin restored Marion to her rightful place as queen, all would be well. The shifting forest would change into the Sherwood he remembered. His dreams assured him so.

Robin checked his bowstrings. The Cheshire Cat’s tree abruptly sprouted apples, which grew to pumpkin-size and fell, splitting rottenly. Robin wiped the splattered mush off his arm. “Cheshire Cat, we must free the Merry Men. We must defeat the king.”

The Cat sighed. “Must we? Well, if we must, then I suppose we must.”

———•———

They marched toward the black tower. The sky lightened to a sickly green, the clouds wispy and yellow. The air smelled sharp, and stung Robin’s nose. When Robin commented on the odor, the Cheshire Cat rolled his shoulders in a shrug. “Chlorine,” he said, a word Robin didn’t recognize. The trees thinned out, and Robin and the Cat walked over long, flattened grasses. White steam rose here and there from holes in the ground. The tower remained mockingly distant.

Robin sent the Cat ahead to scout, wanting time to contemplate, and to make plans if he could. First, he must save the Merry Men. They didn’t all come from the Sherwood he remembered, but each had proven himself brave and worthy. Next, he would storm King Torrance’s black castle and overthrow his tyranny. Robin shaded his eyes to look at the tower. It remained unchanged, though the lands behind it had shifted. The mountains were gone, replaced by towering green mushrooms covered in diseased-looking white spots. Far off, something like a gargantuan caterpillar raised its sinuous body, and Robin touched the arrows in the quiver on his back instinctively, a chill of revulsion and fear rushing through him. The monster lowered itself, and a moment later a few rings of gray smoke rose lazily into the air, spreading out and dissolving.

Torrance is a powerful wizard, Robin thought, not for the first time. The world changes at his whim.

The Cat reappeared, materializing in mid-air, floating before Robin’s face. Robin didn’t stop walking, and the Cat sailed along with him. “I found the others,” he said. A meadow of wheat sprang up in the distance, between them and the tower. A man in a black cloak appeared, wielding a scythe to mow down the waving stalks. He raised a hand in greeting, but disappeared before Robin could decide whether to wave back or loose an arrow.

Robin fixed his eyes on the Cat, trying to ignore the changing landscape. “You say you’ve found them?” Robin prompted. “And?”

“Oh, that’s all. Did you want to hear more?”

Robin kept his voice level. “You found all of them?”

“All, or part, or parts of all. Imprisoned, by the way.” The Cat turned lazily in the air, floating upside-down a foot from Robin’s face, his legs waving slowly.

Robin nodded, pleased despite the Cat’s less-than-straightforward reply. The Merry Men lived, and the fight would go on. “Did you try to free them?”

“I did not. I scouted. If you wanted me to do things you didn’t say, you should have said so.”

Robin sighed. “You did well, Cheshire Cat. Lead the way.”

They continued toward the castle. The grasses gave way to reddish dust. Pillars of rock rose from the ground with a great rumble, and Robin ducked, covering his ears against the thunderous noise. The Cat only hovered, a half-smile on his face, his whiskers twitching. The sky became a dusky pink, with great v-shaped birds gliding high on the thermals. When the pillars stopped rising and the noise subsided, Robin uncovered his ears. A ringing sound, like a thousand church bells tolling for the dead, filled his head.

The Cat drifted close and said “See exotic places, eat strange creatures, try not to die. But is there an ocean view?”

Robin stood, ignoring him, and walked on.

The sun, now a white disc hidden behind red dust, remained high in the sky. Robin did not tire or hunger, though it seemed he walked for days. The dry, hot air burned his lungs, and dust coated his tongue. He drank often from his canteen, clearing his mouth and spitting. The cracked earth sucked up the moisture eagerly. The tower grew closer, now looming in the middle distance.

They reached a rocky gash in the desert. A wide ravine, full of metal spikes and looped thorn-vines, stretched as far as they could see in both directions, surrounding the king’s castle like a dry moat. A curious domed enclosure, made of silvery metal, stood just across the chasm.

Robin pointed. “Is that where the Merry Men are being held?”

“Yes,” the Cat said. “Only the dome was crystal before, and I saw the men inside.” He gnawed at a rock, which turned into a frightened mouse and scurried away. The Cat snorted. “They had potatoes there, with pepper. I hate potatoes. With pepper.”

“How did you make it over the ravine?”

“I did not, because the ravine did not exist at the time.” The Cheshire Cat contemplated the pit, his stripes undulating like ripples in a pond. Robin looked away, dizzy. “Throw a rock over,” the Cat suggested.

Robin picked up a fist-sized stone and tossed it over the chasm. It turned into a dove as soon as it left his hand. Lightning streaked. The dove fell, blackened and fluttering, to land among the spikes.

“No sense crossing, then. We’ll wait for the gap to vanish,” said the Cat. “We might eat, in the meantime.”

Robin nodded and strung his bow, waiting. It never took long for something living to appear here. In a few moments a plump doe ran from behind a boulder, and Robin loosed an arrow, aiming for the neck. If he didn’t kill the deer cleanly, it would have time to change. He’d seen too many rabbits turn into shrubs, and cows to offal, as they died.

The deer fell. Robin never missed. His arrows sometimes behaved strangely, bursting into flame or trailing thin wires or exploding, but he always hit his target. He never ran out of arrows, either. Great magic, doubtless a gift of Maid Marion’s. He hurried toward the carcass, pulling a knife from his pouch.

“I hope it tastes like cherries,” the Cheshire Cat said. The last deer had been sickly sweet, a flavor the Cheshire Cat referred to as “white gumdrops.”

Robin drained the deer’s blood. The Cat gnawed the animal’s guts, and looked up, grinning with bloody chops. “Tastes like lobster, my good woodsman.”

Several twisted trees grew along the pit’s edge, leafless and dry to the point of crumbling. Robin stripped them of limbs to build a fire, and they roasted the meat as night fell. Robin did not look at the sky. The alien constellations unnerved him. What land was this, and how far from England? Even the Holy Land had familiar stars.

“Look,” the Cheshire cat said. Robin tilted his head back, and smiled despite himself. Shooting stars filled the sky, blue and red and yellow.

“It’s beautiful,” Robin said. “I think it’s an omen, heralding Torrance’s fall —”

The full moon, impossibly large on the horizon, cracked. Black lines zigzagged down its center, and a thick substance, red as arterial blood, dripped from the crevices. Robin swallowed and looked away, back to the ravine, which stubbornly refused to vanish. Robin threw a rock into it. The rock didn’t change, but lightning still flashed it to a cinder.

“Damn this pit,” Robin said. “Nothing ever stays unchanged so long.”

“We have remained unchanged much longer than the ravine,” the Cat said, stretching in the dust.

Robin looked moodily into the fire. “We’re not like everything else.”

“Really. I wonder what we’re like, then?”

Robin chose not to think about that. “We may as well sleep. Will you take first watch?”

“For what am I watching?” The cat’s tail bobbed about, detached from his body, doing a dance in the sand.

“For anything out of the ordinary.”

“Everything is out of the ordinary, and therefore ordinary. I may as well go to sleep.”

“Just wake me if we’re attacked or if the ravine disappears,” Robin snapped.

“Very well. Since dinner was lobster and not gumdrops, I agree.”

Robin rolled over, his face turned toward the ravine, and slept.

———•———

Robin dreamed the usual dream. He sat in the receiving room of a great castle. Dust and cobwebs filled the corners. Faded tapestries covered the walls, depicting great battles and cavalries clashing. Torrance’s black tower, huge and upthrusting, loomed in every tapestry’s background.

Marion sat beside him, her dark hair in braids, her hands restlessly smoothing her dress. “Robin,” she said, “You are the greatest bowman who ever lived.”

Robin nodded. She spoke simple truth.

“I have given you magic arrows, to better serve me.” Her dark eyes roved across his face, and she blinked often.

“Yes.”

“You will defeat King Torrance?”

Robin took her delicate white hand. “Lady, I will personally deliver him to your justice, and your pleasure will be my reward.”

She shook her head, and her face changed. Her eyes shifted from brown to cloudy blue and her hair lengthened, becoming blonde and oily. This strange sad woman spoke in Marion’s voice. “Just kill him, Robin. Use your magic arrows, and kill him. He murders my sleep.” Her face melted into a shapeless mass, and Robin pulled his hand away, revolted and afraid. Marion shouldn’t shift like the things in Torrance’s kingdom. Surely the king’s power couldn’t touch her? The woman’s features became Marion’s again, but he did not reach for her.

“It is murder you speak of, Lady,” he said at last.

“It is an execution.” Her voice refused argument, and Robin nodded, reassured by her confidence, though her orders disturbed him. Her face flickered, as if viewed by firelight. Robin remembered the Cheshire Cat’s dream of the Queen of Hearts. Who did the Merry Men dream of? Surely they saw Marion, as he did, and only the Cat’s madness made him see otherwise.

The sitting room vanished suddenly, and Robin gasped, startled. His dreams never went beyond the sitting room and Marion’s orders. Robin walked, against his will, through a dark city. Slick brick walls rose on all sides. He smelled rain, smoke, and garbage. Robin tried to breathe through his mouth, but couldn’t exercise any control over his body. Mist hung in the alleyways. His eyes moved down, and he saw a pale white dress and a woman’s bosom. I’ve become Marion, he realized, surprised, and that realization seemed to give him control of the body. He stumbled in the strange shoes, almost falling. He paused by a trash can, wiping sweat from his forehead. Only a dream, he thought. I’ll wake soon, and

Rough hands seized Robin and shoved him against the wall. His head bounced on the bricks, and black spots swarmed into his vision. A slug-white face appeared before him, bald and yellow-eyed. Robin struggled, but his head hurt, and his arms didn’t respond properly. The pale man pressed a silver knife to Robin’s throat. “Don’t scream. Terry’s going to have a little fun. You’ll have fun, too.” He fumbled at Robin’s dress, tearing it open. Robin tried to scream, but couldn’t draw breath with the man’s weight on his chest. As Terry snatched aside his clothes, Robin’s limbs lost all power, and he woke from the dream long after the grunting and tearing became unbearable.

Robin sat up, sweating in the cool air, his shirt and tights soaked. He felt like the victim of a killing fever. He wrapped his arms around his body, shivering. Only a dream, he thought. Of a strange place, and an evil man. It means nothing.

The first traceries of dawn lit the sky.

Robin stood suddenly, reeling on his heels. His head still throbbed. The Cheshire Cat lay in the dust, batting his detached tail back and forth. “Cat! I told you to wake me if the ravine vanished!” He couldn’t keep the fury out of his voice.

The cat replied, bored, “Look behind you.”

Robin turned. The ugly gap scarred the earth behind them now, cutting them off from retreat.

“It didn’t vanish,” said the Cat. “It only moved.”

Robin strung his bow, forgetting his dream in his eagerness to fight on. “Now, Cat, we free the Merry Men and bring King Torrance to justice!”

“I remember the Queen’s justice. It involved severed heads, as I recall.” The Cat licked his chops.

Robin flushed, reminded of Marion’s order. To kill Torrance, not just capture him. Surely such a tyrant deserves death, Robin thought uneasily.

He hurried toward the domed enclosure. The Cat trailed behind, still without his tail. Robin pounded on the dome’s wall, but heard no response from inside. He went to the heavy door, but it had no latch to turn or lock to pick. “Cat, can you open the door?”

“Most likely.” The Cat crouched before the door and stared.

Robin shifted impatiently from foot to foot. After some moments he said “What are you doing?”

“Waiting for the door to turn into a mouse,” the Cat said, “which it seems quite likely to do. Then I will eat it, and we will go inside.”

Robin resisted an urge to kick the Cat. He took a deep breath. “Can you materialize inside, and see how the men are doing?”

The Cat blinked. “I hadn’t thought of that.” He faded from sight, his stripes going last. A few seconds later the Cheshire Cat’s head appeared, bobbing like a tethered balloon.

“Are they all right?” Robin asked anxiously.

The Cat frowned. “One wonders. The door latches on the inside, you know.”

“That doesn’t make sense. Why don’t they free themselves?”

“I’m sure I don’t know,” the Cat said.

Robin gripped his bow. “Open it.”

The Cat vanished, and the door swung open. Robin ducked his head and stepped inside. The Cat hovered near the top of the dome. The Merry Men leaned against the wall or sprawled on the floor, unmoving.

Fear tightened Robin’s chest. “Little John!” he cried, approaching his longtime friend. “Are you all right?”

The big man shrugged, leaning against the wall with his staff across his legs. His blunt-featured face showed no expression.

Robin did a head count and frowned. John and Friar Tuck were there, and Mr. Holmes the detective, and Sinbad, but no others. “Where’s Will Scarlet? And Galahad? And Bruce, the bat-man?”

“All gone,” Tuck said, rubbing his bare head. “Faded like the Cheshire Cat, only they never came back.”

Robin glanced at the Cat, who still had no tail. “That is sad news indeed,” Robin said, thinking of Will Scarlet’s laughter, and Galahad’s bravery. Bruce of Wayne kept to himself, but he’d been a stalwart fighter. “We will storm the castle and defeat Torrance in their names.”

Little John shook his head. “We’re done in. Holmes sniffed too much of his white powder and he won’t speak anymore, and Sinbad can’t see. Something wrong with his eyes.” John wiped his hand across his mouth. “I think they disappeared.”

“Then you and Tuck,” Robin said, forcing himself to sound confident. Men needed a strong leader.

Tuck raised his hand. His fingers flickered, vanishing and reappearing. “We’re fading, Robin.”

“My feet are gone already,” said Little John. “These are just empty boots.”

Robin looked at the remaining men, Holmes lying on his back with blood crusted around his nostrils, Sinbad curled and whimpering on the floor. He could find no words to rally them.

“If they were mice, they’d be worth a farthing,” said the Cheshire Cat, not unkindly.

“I have to go,” Robin said, squatting next to Little John. “For Marion’s sake.”

Little John frowned. “I dream of my wife, Robin, and Tuck thinks God sent him. Bruce of Wayne said Torrance killed his parents. I don’t know who we’re fighting for.”

“Marion,” Robin said fiercely, grabbing John’s arm. John closed his eyes and rested his head against the wall.

“Let’s go,” the Cat said, unusually gentle.

Robin rose. “Wait,” Tuck said. “Bruce of Wayne’s strange belt didn’t vanish. It may help you.”

Robin examined the belt, with its unmarked canisters and odd weapons. He took the bat-shaped grappling hook with its coil of thin, strong rope. He clasped Little John’s hand. “Fare well, old friend.” John’s grip had no strength, and he didn’t open his eyes.

Robin and the Cheshire Cat ducked out the door and started for the castle.

———•———

“Robin,” the Cat said. “I’m sure it’s not important, but I can’t seem to get my tail back.”

Robin didn’t answer. He trudged on, watching his feet kick up clouds of red dust.

“I’ve been trying to find it for some time now,” the Cat said. A moment later he sighed. “There go my back legs.” Robin looked back. His companion’s entire rear half flickered, then vanished. The Cat rose into the air.

Robin stopped. “Cat. Not you, too.”

“It’s all the same to me,” the Cat said, his forepaws fading. “If I’m neither here nor there, then where?”

Robin watched the cat’s body gradually disappear. One of his ears went, and his nose. His whiskers popped off one at a time. Tears welled in the corners of Robin’s eyes. He resisted the impulse to blink them away, afraid the cat would vanish if he closed his eyes.

The Cat rolled over onto his back. “Good luck, Robin. When you go, leave with a grin, would you?”

Robin nodded as the Cat disappeared entirely. The smiling teeth lasted the longest, hanging like a scythe blade on an invisible string. When they vanished, Robin walked on.

The tower was very close now.

———•———

Robin circled the tower’s doorless, windowless base. He touched the stone and found it warm. It pulsed against his fingers like a living thing, and he withdrew his hand, disgusted. A narrow ledge spiraled up the tower, like the whorl of a unicorn’s horn. Robin threw the grappling hook. It caught on the spiraling ledge, and Robin climbed hand-over-hand. When he reached the ledge, he threw the hook and climbed again. He gave no thought to what he’d find at the top, only throwing and climbing, trying to ignore the warm tower’s pulses, as if a great heart beat somewhere within.

He finally reached the top, and hauled himself over the parapet. He flopped to the stones and lay panting for a moment. A man in a black coat leaned on the far wall, his back turned to Robin.

Robin stood, arms and legs quivering with fatigue. “Torrance.” He waited for the king to face him, unwilling to shoot anyone in the back, even Marion’s mortal enemy.

The king turned, and Robin’s weak legs threatened to give way. Torrance had the mushroom-white face of Robin’s dream-rapist.

Torrance looked amused. “Robin Hood. Complete with feathered cap. She always liked the old stories best.”

Remembering the humiliation and pain from the dream, Robin took aim and fired.

The arrow missed Torrance by two feet, sailing over the castle wall. Robin lowered his bow, stunned. He never missed.

“You can’t kill me.” Torrance’s forehead looked as moist and vulnerable as a soft-boiled egg. “I’m a stronger dream than you are.”

“What do you mean?” Robin readied another arrow, determined not to miss again.

“All this.” Torrance waved his hand. “It’s her dream, the one you call Marion. That’s not her real name. She’s not royalty. She isn’t even very pretty.” He smirked. “But she was good enough for an alley romp.”

Robin frowned, remembering Marion’s shifting face. “Liar,” he said, but without much heat.

“Look at her castle,” Torrance said, pointing. Robin looked, and the sight filled his heart with longing. Far off, a white castle gleamed in a pool of sunlight, yellow banners flying from the towers.

“It’s a little gaudy,” Torrance said. “She likes the old romances, which explains why you’re here. I’m surprised you’ve lasted this long. You are just a fiction.”

“I dreamed of you.” Robin could think of nothing else to say.

Torrance’s bland face betrayed a flicker of surprise. He growled. “Impossible. You might receive orders from the woman, but that’s all. Even I don’t dream, and I’m the king of her nightmares, the strongest dream here. All the lesser dreams fade, eventually. Only I remain, to marshal the nightmares, and storm her bright castle every night.” He shook his head. “Every single night.”

“Terry,” Robin said, wondering if a knife could hurt this man. He feared it wouldn’t. “I will kill you.”

“Don’t call me Terry. Terry was a man, probably a stupid man, a rapist. I am Torrance, the master of night terrors. Do not confuse us.”

“Whoever you are, your reign ends now.” He lifted his bow.

“Not that again. She didn’t dream you very smart, did she?”

Robin lowered the bow, at a loss. “I could shove you off the tower.”

Torrance shrugged. “It’s high enough, and empty. That’s about all it’s good for, shoving people off, though you wouldn’t manage it.” He gazed at Mary’s castle. “It’s tiresome, sometimes, living in a giant phallic symbol.” He glanced at Robin. “Still holding that bow? There’s a legend, you know, that just before you died you fired an arrow into the air and asked to be buried where it fell. There won’t be anything to bury, this time. Oh, there goes your ear.” He sounded pleased.

Robin felt a tingling on the side of his head and touched it. He found only smooth skin where his left ear had been. His throat closed with panic, then relaxed. It’s true, he thought. I’m fading.

I’m sorry, Marion.

On impulse, Robin pulled his bowstring back. The arrowhead gleamed, a purple crystal. He loosed, and the arrow arced high, then curved toward the ground far away. “I fire an arrow into the air, and where it lands —”

“I do not care,” Torrance said. “Vanish, bowman.”

“That arrow was for me,” Robin said. He didn’t know where the words came from. Perhaps God, or even the Queen of Hearts. He took another arrow from his quiver. This one shone silver. “This is for Galahad.” He fired, aiming a little to the left of the first arrow. Red lines streaked the next arrowhead. “For Will Scarlet.” Bone-white. “For Holmes.” Brown. “For Little John.” Iridescent. “For Tuck.” He turned in a slow circle, counterclockwise, speaking the names of his fallen companions. A black arrow for Bruce of Wayne, and a blue for Sinbad. “For the Cheshire Cat,” he said, firing an arrow with a single gleaming tooth for a head. He’d turned almost full circle, firing to all the points of the compass.

Robin drew a last arrow. “For Marion.” The arrowhead glowed like burnished gold, the same yellow as Marion’s banners. He loosed.

Torrance watched the last arrow fall, hands in his pockets. “Feel better? You’re a symbolic creature making symbolic gestures. It’s funny, in a way, but I don’t —”

A great sound rose from all sides, like fabric ripping, and Torrance dropped to his knees, looking around fearfully. A fiery pillar sprang from the ground where Robin’s last arrow had landed. Gouts of flame erupted around the tower, one after another, rising from the places where Robin’s arrows had landed.

Robin’s left arm disappeared up to the elbow, and his bow clattered to the stones. Torrance whirled as lines of fire arched and met over the tower. Fiery lace connected the lines, forming a spiderweb-dome of flame. The lines darkened to opacity, changing to wrought iron, a cage completely enclosing the tower.

“A prison,” Robin said, understanding now what he’d done. “Like the one you put my friends in. I can’t kill you, but I can seal you off. You’ll trouble Marion no more.”

Torrance clenched his fists and bared his teeth. “Do you really think repression is the answer?”

“It’s the only answer I can manage. It will have to do.” Robin’s feet vanished and he fell backward, his bones jarring on impact. The vision in his right eye went dark. Torrance beat at the cage with his fists, uselessly.

Robin rested his head on the stones. He tried to grin, feeling his body below the neck disappear. “It’s worth smiling for, Cheshire Cat,” he whispered, and then said no more.



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