It's midnight, or near enough, and the fire has burnt down to ashes, when Pat gestures at me to stop what I'm doing and join him for a game of cards. He's got a lantern, and one of the men from today's highway raid is with him. I put down the kettle I've just scrubbed clean with sand, and sigh.
"Needing a light, then?"
"Aye," says Pat. He grins, revealing the gap between his front teeth. "If you don't mind."
I touch the lantern with a fingertip and think on what Ma taught me. The filament inside begins to glow softly.
Pat's grin widens. "Thanks, Anne."
I pick up the kettle again. "I'll join you in a few hands. I need to finish this first."
He doesn't answer me, intent instead on watching the man across from him shuffle and deal, to be sure he isn't cheated. They play for money. When I join, in a few hands, it'll be because Pat has lost all he wishes to.
I wonder what Da would think, but quickly quash it. Best not to dwell on things.
My real name isn't Anne, just as Pat's name isn't Pat, and whatever the man bilking him of all his coin calls himself likely isn't his given name, either. None of us goes by our real names except the leader, Robin - - but even that's a nickname, a play off of Robert.
"Like the stories," Pat says, and it's true that Robin calls himself a champion of the poor, and refers to his lady as Marian, but the similarities end there.
Robin can name himself whatever he likes, but he's no more than a glorified highwayman. I fell for it for a while, and Pat still believes, but the truth is, beneath the veneer of "fairness" and "equality" that Robin so loves to wax on about, he robs the poor more often than not - - after all, they can scarcely afford guards.
I used to believe, or want to believe, that we were doing the right thing. Two raids on carts laden for the market convinced me otherwise. We have coin and food enough to share, but Robin insists on always gaining more.
"For lean times," he says, though there have never been any, in the five years since I joined his gang.
We hide in the woods and Robin buries the silver we steal in a place only he knows, and if I have doubts, I don't voice them - - I can't.
Pat loses all his coin quickly. He's no good at cards, and I've warned him off before, but he insists on playing against the men, to show that he's grown-up too.
Pat is all of fourteen at most. When I joined the gang, a few months after him, he was but a little scrap of a thing, all elbows and knees, with tousled blond hair and freckles that made him look even younger than he was. I was sixteen and had some idea what I was getting into, but Pat had been a tavern boy, and I don't think he knew. I took to watching over him - - not out of a sense of duty, but because I could hear Da's voice in the back of my mind: and how did one this young end up in such a terrible place, hmm?
I think he might have resented it, had I been an older boy, but as a girl, he saw me as a bossy older sister, and listened to what I had to say - - not without grumbling, mind, but with the sort of good-natured resignation that I recognized from my own younger siblings.
We grew close. I made sure he always had enough to eat, that he kept his face and hands clean and stayed as respectable as possible, given the circumstances.
"Someday," I told him, "you might want to leave, and you're young enough that you could. As long as you remember your manners, you won't have any trouble."
"Will you leave with me?" he asked, time and time again, and I always told him, no.
"There's a bounty on my head. There's none on yours. You can leave a free man - - not so I."
On bad nights, Pat tries to pry into why, but despite losing all his coin yet again, tonight isn't one. He waves me over and asks me if I'll play skipjack with him, and I tell him yes.
We sit in the lantern light and play a few hands, and once he's won the game, I say the word of power that will dim the light, and we both find our bedrolls and lie down to sleep.
I dream about Ma and Da and the incident again. It's rare that I don't nowadays. I want to go home, but I know all that awaits me there is a lot of pain - - a quick trial and a slow death in prison - - and so I don't leave, even as I grow to hate Robin. His gang represents a sort of protection. It's hard out there for young folk, harder still outside the city walls. Robin takes care of us and protects us from those few worse men out there, the highwaymen who don't merely steal but also kill their victims. I know the score.
Da would die if he knew what I was doing, what I had to do in order to survive. He’d been raised in the temple, and he’d always focused on truth and justice and doing what was right. He’d served as justicar for the town as a young man, the full five-year term and then the few months beyond that, while they tried to find a replacement for him. He was known for being fair and just, for furthering no agenda beyond that of simple equality for all under the protection of the law, and for being interested less in punishment than in understanding and leniency. Da was not the sort who would sentence a man to years in the prison for petty thievery. He listened, and believed in forgiveness and learning from mistakes.
He had no patience for highwaymen. He saw the theft that Robin and his ilk did as indefensible. What explanation could be given, he asked, for the behavior of those that had enough but chose to steal from those that did not?
Da raised me to believe in truth and justice and fairness. Ma reinforced those beliefs, and she taught me magic. The skill for transfiguration ran in our family. Ma was a mender, specializing in items made of cloth, wood and leather. There was nothing, it was said, that she couldn’t fix once it had been broken. She laid her hand upon it and spoke to the material, and that was enough.
She taught me gentle patience, understanding not just the how but the why.
I shared her talent for mending, but my greatest skill was with metal and glass. I could do anything, as long as there was metal involved somehow.
That was how I’d landed in trouble. Magic users of any great skill were required to be registered by order of the King. Ma registered me, and put down, truthfully, that I was capable of transfiguring metal.
The records were not simply for safety’s sake -- in times of war, mages of all skills were called upon to help the country. I knew this, and while I did not like it, I accepted it. We were at peace, and I thought that we would stay that way -- and anyway, the metal mending that I did was unlikely to be of use to anyone from the Court, especially in times of peace. I did not like that my skill might be used to hurt, not help, but I had no say in the registering -- there were fines and jail time associated with it, if Ma refused, and so I signed where it was required, and both of us prayed for peace.
When one of the king’s agents came to take me away -- to help develop a weapon, he said, that would help us “expand our eastern borders”, I refused.
“It’s not right,” I insisted, when he asked why. “We’re not at war -- you have no right to call on me.”
He smiled, an ugly smile, and held out a bag of coin. “Fair compensation,” he said, “for your skills. As written in the latest decree by the king and court…”
“Let me review the decree,” said Da -- standing in the yard with me, staring down the king’s agent with me. “I was justicar, I know something of the laws -- let me see under what rule you are taking my daughter.”
“Of course,” said the agent, and pulled out a small book. “If you look here, on page 11…”
Da read. “Stars,” he said. “They have changed it, and now you’re pressing mages into service. Why?”
“For the good of the kingdom,” said the agent. “There’s been a famine in the south -- we need more fertile land. If we can expand eastward…”
“There are other ways to overcome famine,” said Da. “That don’t involve starting unjust wars.”
The agent shrugged. “She comes willingly, or she comes in irons. You’ve read the decree; it’s your choice. Let her come freely, and be compensated for her service” -- and here he jangled the bag of coins again -- “or see her taken away in hobbles, and receive a bill for her room and board. You were a justicar, you know the laws.”
“The laws apply to prisoners,” said Da, his fists clenched. “My daughter is no prisoner.”
“Be that as it may.” The agent turned to me. “Will you come willingly, girl?”
He reached out to touch my hand, to hand me the pouch of gold that was promised as compensation, and something in me snapped. My vision went black, and I felt rather than heard myself say the words of power Ma had taught me.
There was a sound like cloth tearing, and I heard Da shouting.
When I looked down at my feet, there was a single gold coin, bearing the face of the king’s agent.
“Elyn,” said Da, his face stricken. “What have you done?”
I bent and picked up the coin. I said the words of power, what could turn him back, but he remained stubbornly cold metal. “I…”
“What have you done?” Da repeated.
Something inside me broke, and I ran. I found Robin a few weeks later. He took me in, and that was the end of it.
I dream about the incident and wake up clutching the small leather pouch that contains the coin with the face of the king’s agent. I never learned his name. I never learned anything about him, except that he meant me ill.
I wear the bag as a form of penance, a reminder of where I have come from and why I cannot go back.
Pat has asked about it, a few times, but I’ve never told him.
When he asks this morning, after I wake up from another nightmare yelling, no, no! in the gray dawn light, I still tell him:
“It’s no business of yours, Pat.”
Robin knows the story, or something of it. He guessed at it -- I matched the description of someone he was asked about, a few weeks after my disappearance.
I knew someone would come looking. I knew that someone would turn me over to the justicars -- if not Ma or Da, then someone else from the village, who would have seen the cart of the king’s agent and know what it was that they came for, seen me go running down the village road in my everyday dress, the leather apron I wore for metalworking over it, and sturdy boots on my feet. It would not have taken much to put two and two together and arrive at the conclusion that I’d done something unforgivable.
Robin lied to the justicars for me. “I haven’t seen any like her on the roads, no.”
He had his own reasons for lying, I expect -- if he turned me over, they would have searched the camp, and put the pieces together to realize that this traveler in a tavern was none other than the infamous highwayman, Robin Hurde. Still, it indebted me to him.
“You’re a murderer,” he said wonderingly. “You are one of us then. Don’t fret -- I won’t tell the rest of the rabble.”
He treated me with respect after that. He never asked me to hurt anyone, but he made it known that I was not someone to trifle with, and the other members of the band gave me a wide berth, treating me with the respect that they felt I deserved. Lady murderers, it was known, were particularly wicked -- and so I must be, even if my acts of wickedness within the gang were limited to cooking and laundry, occasionally helping Robin catalog what it was that they had brought back. I never gambled and stole only rarely -- women were a liability on the raids that Robin performed, or so he claimed -- but my reputation was sterling. I had killed a man before I became an adult, and so I was one to avoid.
I tried to make sure that no word of this ever reached Pat. I wanted to raise him the way I’d been raised, give him a chance to escape and make a better life. I was sixteen, and not prepared to raise anyone, but I did the best that I could, and I made sure that he knew right from wrong, even if the rest of the men tried to blur the lines.
“If it’s bad, why do you stay?” he asked me, and that was when I told him: I had committed a great wrong, albeit accidentally, and I could not leave. If I did, Robin would surely turn me over to the justicars, intent on saving his own skin lest I say something about his gang to them.
“I don’t have a choice, my bonny boy,” I said, every time. “But you do, and you can leave if you wish to.”
Of late, Robin has been insisting that I begin accompanying them on raids. “It would be useful to have a mage…” he starts, and I have to pretend not to hear him. He wants me to do things that I’m not capable of doing -- creating illusions of threatening things, getting peasants to abandon their wagons this way -- but I can’t, and I tell him as much.
“If it involves working metal -- actually working it -- I might be able to help,” I say. “You need a sword sharpened or a kettle patched, and I can do that. You wish to melt a golden chalice down into coins, I can do that -- but I cannot cast illusions, and I will not harm anyone.”
“No more harm than you’ve already done,” says Robin darkly, and I choose to pretend I don’t hear him.
I make porridge for everyone, boiling oats over the fire and adding some of the dried fruit that has come from one of the recent raids. As I dish it out, Robin says, casually, that Pat will be joining them today.
“Word has come that a pretty little pheasant, ripe for the plucking, is passing along the King’s Road today.”
My hands shake. I recognize the slang -- a pheasant is their way of referring to one of the king’s own carriages, those which are heavily guarded. Suicide missions, Robin always called attacking them directly, though perhaps not so today.
Pat perks up at the sound of his name -- he’s been wanting to go along on one of the bigger raids for a long time, to prove his worth to the gang. I’ve tried to caution him against it, but at fourteen, my influence over him is waning.
“Would you like to come with us, m’boy?”
I want to speak out, but I can’t, not that it matters much. I hand Robin a bowl of porridge, resisting the urge to dump its steaming contents into his lap, and say, in a low voice: “What are you playing at?”
“Word has it that the carriage is not very guarded,” Robin says, picking up a spoon. “It’s simply an opportunity, and the boy has been wanting to go on one of the adult raids. Why, if you’re worried, you might consider joining us. We could always use a mage.”
I take a deep breath, unclench my balled fists. “I should like nothing better.”
“Good,” says Robin mildly. “We set the trap at noon.”
I ride out, Pat behind me, Robin ahead of me, to the meeting place.
“There,” says Robin, satisfied. “Now then…”
He runs the men through the plan, and then turns to Pat and me.
“Take him,” he says to one of his men, nodding at Pat. “Bind his hands.”
Pat squeaks in surprise, and tries to fight back, but it’s not long before he’s subdued.
I jump off my horse and stride toward where Pat is tied. “What is the meaning of this?”
“Cooperate,” says Robin, “and we won’t hurt him -- and we won’t turn you over to the justicars, either.”
“We can’t stop the carriage without you,” says Robin. “We need you to do to the guards and driver what you did to that king’s agent.”
I stare at him blankly. “You -- I thought -- “
Robin grins unpleasantly. “Times are hard, girl. You knew the score. You knew what we do -- and yet here you are. What will it be? Your friend, or someone you don’t even know?”
“Anne,” says Pat, his voice fearful.
“What will it be?” Robin repeats.
My vision narrows to a single point. All I can see is Pat. All I can hear is the roar of blood in my ears.
I remember, without trying, the spell I once cast on a king’s agent.
I snap the leather thong that holds the pouch around my neck, my reminder. I tip the pouch into my hand, and just as Robin starts -- “hey, what are you doing now?” -- I clench my fingers around the coin and say the right words.
There is a sound as though the sky has cracked in two. The bindings around Pat’s wrists fall away, the coin in my hand disappears, and all in the clearing is silent for a moment, then --
I shake my head and look up. Where Robin was standing is a coin bearing his likeness. His men, similarly, are gone -- pieces of copper in their place, each bearing their faces.
My hands are empty. Where the coin once was now stands the king’s agent -- older, his face lined, but still the same.
“You,” I say.
“Me,” he agrees. “You didn’t kill me -- though I suppose you must have thought you did. I heard what you said. I…have heard everything you’ve said and done, over the last few years. I could not see, outside the prison of the coin, but I’ve learned quite a bit.”
I stare at him, unsure of what to ask -- what happened or am I going to be arrested or what.
“I wish only to return home,” he says, his voice light. “I suppose -- my family will have missed me, too. These things...happen.”
“What of me?” I manage, after a moment.
“You’re smart,” he says. “And resourceful. You’ll find your way home.”
“The bounty --”
He frowns. “It seems such a long time ago,” he admits. “I have learned so much. I...lady, I will clear your name with the king and minister. I understand that there is a new one, as it stands, and their rule of law is not so -- unjust.” He winces. “I am truly -- truly -- sorry for whatever hurt I have caused you. I…”
I take a deep breath. “Leave,” I manage. “Go. Clear my name and see your family. I’m going home.”
He nods once, sharply, and turns to walk away, through the trees and toward the King’s Road. I wonder just how much he knows of the world now, having been a coin for years, but I don’t care to find out. I’m afraid of what I might do next -- learning or none, I don’t trust him, and I don’t trust the magic that still sings in my blood.
“Anne,” says Pat, hesitantly. “You thought you killed someone? Did you kill Robin?”
I pick up the coin that bears his likeness. “It doesn’t seem so, if the king’s agent was still alive.” I drop the coin into the leather pouch on my neck, pick up the others and put them in as well. “Suppose I’m stuck with them until they learn their lesson -- or until I’m forced to turn someone else.”
I saddle my horse and consider my options. There’s always joining another gang -- though I would rather not. I could return to the woods and dig up all of Robin’s ill-gotten gains, and the magic in my blood sings that we could, like calls to like, and I could use the coins that once were Robin and his men to find it.
None of these options please me, though, not the way that going home does.
I climb onto my mount’s broad back, and look down at Pat. “Are you coming?”
He hesitates. “Where are you going?”
“Home,” I say. I add, carefully: “My home. Where I came from, before…”
“Am I welcome to come?”
I consider. “Da never turned anyone away before, and if I had a hand in raising you, he’ll want to meet you.”
Pat climbs back into his saddle, nudges his mount to face me. “Then…”
“Let’s go,” I say, and we ride toward home.