Now you didn't think there was only one set of outlaws in that forest, did you??
Shannon replied, "So what was all that back there at Mary's house?"
"What was all what back there?" Rory countered peevishly. He was mixed up enough in his own mind, without being interrogated.
Shannon just smiled a slightly sardonic grin for a moment. "All that, 'I may ne'er see ye again but..'" He said the last in a mock dramatic voice."
Rory thought, "I can be after doin' without this particular Shannon O'Neill.. the unsmiling and sarcastic." To Shannon he said, in a soft voice, "Shan, me friend, I dinnae know… I just dinnae know."
Shannon gazed at him a while longer, then turned his eyes to face the direction they were walking and kept silent.
Rory was becoming accustomed to this silence, so out of character for the normally buoyant friend of his childhood. So he was startled when Shannon quipped, "D'ye know why they call it Sherwood Forest?"
Rory looked over, "Och, nay, I dinnae know that."
Shannon gave him an impish grin. "For the reason that if ye ask a forester if he'd like a drink, he always says, 'Sure and I would.'"
Rory stopped and looked after his friend. Then he laughed, one single guffaw. "Does me heart good to hear ye jest, even if 'tis a terrible jest," he said, and started to walk again.
Shannon's face was already sour again. "Well, dinnae get used to it.. ye heard what Mary said, I be not out o' the woods yet.." He looked around at Rory. "And that was NOT a jest."
Just as the two started into the forest, which would someday be the most famous one in England in spite of the fact its most famous resident had never existed, Rory happened to see a small girl sitting on the stone at the place where two different paths converged into the one leading into the forest. He was struck by her look. She was maybe six years old, had straight flaxen hair, and was dressed in a pale blue dress. Blue was a hard color to come by for dyes in that time.. in fact in Ireland, only the High King of Tara was even allowed to wear it. He also noticed how clean she was. This was no trivial matter. Small children in the countryside were never clean since they played int eh dust all day and probably never got a bathing.
As they approached she smiled brightly at Rory and Shannon. Rory bowed graciously and took off his hat to her. Shannon just nodded. The girl giggled but said nothing and did not move. "Pretty wee thing, "Rory commented after they had passed. Shannon grunted assent inn reply.
Rory had a great deal of time to think about anything he wanted as they took the winding road through the forest. Even the Romans, with their road building skill, could not straighten out a path through the ancient oaks and other trees in this old forest. He thought about Shannon and the depths to which he had sunk in Nottingham. Rory had seen him drunk to the point of stupor, but never distraught as he had been.
He took his heart in his hands and asked, "Shan, what happened that night?"
Shannon shot him a look that said, "Watch ye'rself!" He glared at Rory for a minute, then his shoulders sagged.
"I cannae remember all o' it." He continued walking, his head bowed except for brief glances up along the road they were traveling. "I gave ye the slip, I remember, and found another tavern. As soon as the innkeeper saw me lute, he was all smiles and tankards of ale and urgin' me t' sing. The same happened at the next inn, and the next."
He sighed and his face took a pained look. "Then I met this colleen, pretty thing, shapely. I was very drunk by then, it seemed almost more than I usually get when I've had that much. She plied me with drink, then said we should go out into the street for some lovin'. I dinnae know if I could have followed through with the lovin' part, but I was game t' try. Me Heather was the furthest thing from me mind."
Shannon reached up and touched his broken nose. His eyes were both blackened. He walked with a slight limp from being kicked in the kneecap. He moved his jaw painfully. Mary had not been sure if it was broken too, like his nose. Rory winced just looking at his friend's swollen and bruised face.
"Sure and as soon as we got outside and I was after startin' to kiss her, I was grabbed from behind. There were two thugs a-standin' there, grinnin'. They told me they wanted me money.. I told them I dinnae have any. They dinnae believe me. One o' them held me while th'other searched, all the while the wench stood and smiled. O' course, they dinnae find any. "
He walked along in silence for a while. "The bigger one flew into a rage and snatched me lute. I cried out to leave it, but that just made the blackguard grin and he threw it into a puddle. When I tried to get it, th'other one tripped me. I felt them both kickin' me, and one kick found me knee." He leaned down to rub it. "Then one o' them pulled me up and they took turns punchin' me in the face. I dinnae know if I stayed conscious. I barely recall ye comin' t' find me. All I know is I wanted to crawl under somethin' and die."
Rory nodded, "Ye were that bad hurt."
Shannon shook his head. "'Twas not that. I felt like that big an ass. All me brave words and promises. I dinnae know how I got here, Rory. How did I become this besotted man?"
Rory knew there was no comfort, no answer for that. Perhaps it took that to make his friend find a way out. "Ye reached the bottom, Shan, I think. I don't think ye can fall any further. It will be all uphill from here."
Shannon looked at him, considering. "I hope so," he said, then fell back into silence.
Robin Hood's Merry men were not the only outlaws, real or imaginary, to people the many haunts of the Forest. Many rather less romantic brigands lived there and kept close watch on travelers, robbing from everyone to give to themselves. The two types of travelers that generally went unmolested were poor friars.. and minstrels. Musicians and players were known to bring more joy than gold into the huge track of woodland. Rory knew that at some point they would be waylaid, but all that would be stolen from them is some time and music.
He and Shannon were well along their way to Sheffield in the north of the forest when at last they came to a small band of outlaws standing casually in the road. Rory bowed elaborately and Shannon, looking wary, nodded his head. The man who seemed to be in charge of the small party stepped forward.
"Well met, good fellows. I see ye are musicians by this fellow's lute. Come and entertain us at our camp." Both of the minstrels knew this was not an invitation and Rory, acting as spokesperson, accepted the command graciously. He and Shannon followed the men deeper into the forest away from the road.
Rory tried to come next to Shannon to warn him to be careful not to anger their "hosts". He feared Shannon would refuse to sing as he had done at their inn. He would look over at his friend and see him staring warily at the outlaws, and never could get a moment to speak with him. So instead he went up to the leader and explained, "Please, me good sir, me friend is terrible sick. He cannot sing or play. I shall entertain ye."
The man laughed. "He be not sick, man. He be thrashed. If he keeps himself calm, we will not bother him."
"Let me be after tellin' him, then," Rory requested.
The leader eyed him suspiciously. "Nay, I will not. He is on his own."
They were taken to a clearing with numerous campfires and makeshift cottages, with men, women and children all about. The minstrels' appearance drew the attention of all, and they crowded around. A path was made among them for what was obviously the leader of all these people, a man with no nose and one missing ear and a long throw from the handsome Robin Hood. He eyed them and spoke, "Where are ye from, minstrels?"
Rory answered, "Me friend Shannon here and I are from Ireland, in the north counties. But we be employed in the court of Lawrence in Christenlande."
The man looked pleased. "Ah, aye, many years ago I was an outlaw in Christenlande, and that same King gave me a chance to come out of outlawry. Had it not been that outlawry was my nature I should still be there in Lawrencium. Welcome, Shannon and.." He paused for his name.
"Rory. Rory McGuinness."
Rory found himself suddenly staring at a half dozen daggers pointing in his and Shannon's direction. They lifted their hands and the dagger Rory wore was taken from him.
The outlaw leader said, "Ye cannot be Rory McGuinness. Rory McGuinness is dead. He was hanged. Everyone knows that.'
Rory tried to laugh, "Och, ye mean that song. Here be the man who wrote that song, Shannon O'Neill. He will tell ye that it was a mistake. He thought I was hanged, but sure and I was rescued."
The leader stared at Shannon. "Be this true?"
Shannon croaked out a weak, "Aye, 'tis true. I am O'Neill and this is McGuinness and we are both livin'."
The leader watched them both from under glowering eyebrows. "How do I know ye are speakin' the truth? "
Rory and Shannon exchanged looks. Shannon ventured, "What if I sing the ballad, will ye believe me?"
"Everyone knows the ballad. Everyone can sing it. What would make your singin' it prove who ye are?" The daggers were still pointing in their direction along with some cocked arrows and a sword or two.
Shannon actually smiled, one of his old grins, and asked in a cheerful voice, "But can everyone sing so the women faint all about?"
The leader considered this. He nodded and signaled his men to step back. "Let's see what ye can do."
Rory and Shannon were ushered to a stump in the middle of the camp and quickly surrounded by all manner of outlaws and their families. His lute had been taken from him on the march to the camp, and now it was handed back to Shannon. He began to tune it, worried that the soaking it had taken would have ruined the sound. While he did this, Rory leaned to him and whispered, "I hope ye can do this. Ye are not exactly a handsome man at the moment."
Shannon's irritable retort was cut off by a warning from the leader of the outlaws. "No plottin' an escape or nothin'."
Shannon gave Rory a resigned look and said, "Sure, and here goes." He geld his lute and began to sing the song. Rory as usual joined in a higher voice on the chorus.
The outlaws were clearly enchanted. Shannon's voice was not its usual fine self but it was a far piece finer than any these people had heard. Rory worriedly watched the younger women, who unfortunately did not seem particularly moved. The outlaw leader occasionally dragged his attention from the singers too, to look at the listeners, and frowned.
"Sing a tooralay tooralay farewell me son, For Finnegan O'Donnell his evil has done."
Shannon and Rory finished and, their hearts in their throats, waited. An old crone made her way to where the outlaw leader stood and whispered something in his ear as he leaned low for her to reach him. Rory saw the woman shake her head.
"Och, sweet Jesus," he heard Shannon breathe. "Looks like I may get my wish after all.. and today I dinnae want it so much." They waited to learn the verdict.
The leader came over to the two of them and gave each a grim look. He reached and put one hand on each man's shoulder. He looked sharply at them and said, "My old mother said she does not belief this is O'Neill." The minstrels' hearts sank. Shannon started muttering a Pater Noster. The man continued. "She has seen both men some years back. She tells me this may be an older O'Neill. But she knows ye, McGuinness. So ye must live, as this other man claims." He smiled broadly and clapped them both hard on the shoulders. "So c'mon, give us another song!"
Shannon found that if he kept singing, while he had been given a tankard of ale, if he just did not drink it, tempting though it was, and he kept on singing, it was not refilled. He and Rory entertained the outlaws for almost three hours, with no intermission. They shared songs of all kinds, funny tales and inspiring tales, and were a complete and unarhuable success.
In the morning they were taken back to the road and deposited there, with claps on the back and much thanking and farewells. As the outlaws left them, the leader leaned to Rory and said, "Ye should get this poor man a drink. He'd be the better for it." Rory smiled and nodded.
When they were alone, he turned to Shannon. The leader said ye need a drink."
"Perceptive man," Shannon replied. Then he smiled wanly. "D'ye still have that drinkin' skin of water?"
Next: A Murder Mystery in Three parts
Before there was the novel, there were the stories...
by Nan Hawthorne, who also writes under Christopher Hawthorne Moss, Books and Stories b ChristopherHawthorne Moss at http://authorchristophermoss.vlogspot.com