There was green upon the air once again. All over Sherwood, the great oaks and elms had taken on the barest hint of a light green brush, the earliest signs of the growth to come. It was spring at last – or near enough. Marion stood at the edge of her favourite clearing, and breathed in the scent of the newly awaking season. The air still carried a chill, but the ferocity of it was gone. Soon she might even be able to walk abroad without her cloak.
"I thought I'd find you here." It was Robin of course, his words no longer bringing forth gusts of cloudy, grey steam. She smiled at him, and they settled into a comfortable embrace as they stared out across the quiet clearing. Their thoughts were the same; of new life, coming warmth, and an end to a long, hard winter. They were young and strong, but even so it had been a hard season. How much more so for all the poor and work-worn peasants that it was their Herne-given duty to protect?
"The forest will awaken soon, in more ways than one," said Robin, a hint of satisfaction in his voice. "The snow is gone, and the merchants will soon be back though this way. Nottingham will be open for business once again."
"Yes." If the prospect of switching the dangers of deep winter for the perils of life as an active outlaw bothered Marion, she gave no sign of it. In point of fact, the prospect of a return to action was a welcome one. Winter in Sherwood was hard and uncomfortable, but it could also be extremely dull. There was only so much telling of tales and singing of songs that a band of outlaws could indulge in before they were at risk of breaking each others heads. Her imperturbability, if not outright relish, made Robin smile, and he hugged her a little tighter. He tried so hard to keep her out of harm's way, and yet she tried just as hard to foil him. She was his partner, in all things.
They wandered on together through the clearing, marking the small flashes of colour where early flowers were bursting forth, and listening to the sounds of the birds that had never left the treetops. Soon there would be other voices to join them; the songs of the seasonal visitors, coming back from wherever they spent the colder months. The familiar certainty of it made Robin smile, secure in his knowledge of the turning of the great wheel of time; of the cycle of life in the forest, and of his position within it all. A part of the forest, as much as were the birds, high in the branches; as much as were the embryonic leaves; and the great, deep-seated roots that spread so surely beneath them all.
"Marion, when spring is truly here..." he began, but whatever his thoughts, he got no further with them, for at that moment a scream burst powerfully across the clearing, shattering the early morning stillness, and sending the birds leaping into the skies. Robin and Marion looked at one another for a moment, then turned together and ran. The longer grasses caught at their ankles, and as the forest closed about them again, the lower branches snatched at their shoulders and hair. It didn't slow them. Minutes later they were breaking out of the trees once again, into another, smaller clearing. A deep green one, coloured by the light that reflected from the surface of a great, green pool. It was fed by several streams, but their waters were slowed in a natural hollow, their freshness stolen by gathered silt, and lurking fronds of green weed. It spread across the surface in great, grasping fingers, making the water unpleasant to humans. The occasional rotting carcasses of animals that had tried to swim, but had been ensnared by those grasping weeds, further helped to ensure that the little green clearing was usually left to its peace. Not so today.
There was a girl beside the pool, her red-brown hair ragged, and daubed with green weed; her hands and arms stained to the elbows with the same dragging, snagging stuff. The scent of the green water, newly disturbed, hung over the clearing, cousin to the rotting smell of the recently dead.
"Robin!" The girl started as he appeared, but she did not pull away from the water's edge. Such was the tangle of greenery, it was not at all clear if she could. "Robin!"
"Did you scream?" asked Marion. The girl shook her head, and weed and water sprayed around her.
"Annie. My sister." Her blue-green eyes opened as wide as the pool itself, reflecting green water, green grass, a world of somehow unnatural green. "Please. She—"
"The pool?" asked Robin, not needing an answer. His dark gaze raced across the water, in time to catch a burst of bubbles that might have signified anything. The girl nodded unnecessarily, and Marion went to her, kneeling beside her on the bank. From somewhere within the water, she was sure that she heard a noise. It sounded very like a low, cruel laugh.
"Robin," she said, and he nodded, without looking her way.
"I know. This place is evil. Jenny Greenteeth is said to live here."
"But she's a tale, told to frighten children." Even as she spoke the words, Marion knew how foolish they sounded. What had Herne been to her once but a tale? What of all that she had seen this past year? Magic come real. Devils that walked the land, and fought for the hearts of men.
"Annie," said the ragged girl, her voice soft and pathetic. Marion pulled her back, away from the pool, and weeds fell away from her arms, to lie twitching on the bank as though trying still to catch hold of her.
"Hush, Daisy." Marion scanned the pool's surface, frightened at the complete absence of life. How long could a young girl stay submerged without all hope being lost? It could not be long. Daisy gave a desperate sob, then sagged against Marion, cold and damp, the stinking water colder still where it soaked through to Marion's skin.
"Keep her here. Further away from the water if you can move her." Robin was stripping off his quiver and belt, depositing them on the ground. Marion gave a start.
"You're not going in there?"
"How can I not?" It was no claim of heroism; no brave statement of intent. It was merely a question, and one that Marion could not easily answer. She nodded once, and jerkily. He was right of course. How could he do nothing? And yet...
"Perhaps the others...?" she began, but she didn't finish the thought. How could there be time to fetch the others? Young Annie had scant minutes left, if she even had that long. Robin threw his scabbard to the ground, and strode into the shallows, Albion held ready.
"If I don't come back, get the others then. Burn the weed. Get Tuck to..." He trailed away, having reached the limits of his experience. "Get Tuck to do something holy," he suggested in the end, and she nodded to his turned back, as he strode further out. Green sucked at his ankles and his knees, and Marion again heard that cruel, watery laugh. Ahead, the pond's surface began to bubble and churn – and then, in the very centre, a pillar of water began to rise up, churning and foaming as it coalesced into the shape of a woman. A tall, beautiful woman, or so she seemed at first. Her hair and skin were green, but the alien tint was no impediment to her allure – until her lips parted in a smile, revealing pointed and twisted green teeth. She laughed then, and her beauty flickered and ebbed like ripples washing across a riverbank. One moment beautiful, the next a looming hag; one moment holding out a hand in welcome, and the next raising a fist as though to strike.
"Robin of Loxley." Her voice was throaty and deep, given colour by a bubbling laugh that she seemed barely able to contain. It was a cruel laugh, and Marion knew it for the one that she had heard coming from beneath the surface a short time before.
"Jenny Greenteeth, I assume." He showed no reaction to her magic of course; there was no sign that he was alarmed by the prospect of fighting a creature of the unknown. She laughed louder, and raised impossibly long arms out of the water. From one of them, lifeless and still, dangled the body of a young girl. Wrapped about as she was in green weeds, it was impossible to identify her, but it was not hard to guess who she was. Marion gripped Daisy's wrist to keep her from trying anything, but the girl seemed to have fallen into a stupor, and made no move.
"That's what they call me, son of Herne. A fitting enough name, perhaps. What say you, Loxley? A man of green forests, and a woman of green water? We should join together." Her smile turned lascivious, its effect ruined by the magical contortions of her features, beauty and hideousness still competing for supremacy on her face. Her jagged and lop-sided green teeth clickered as she laughed once more. "Come to me, Loxley. Join me in my domain."
"I don't think so. I never did like getting my feet wet." It was an absurd argument coming from a man standing up to his knees in water, but as a riposte it was at least a start. He emphasised it with a brief swing of his sword, enough to suggest at a threat without being actively belligerent. "Give that girl back to us and leave this place."
"Girl?" Weed-green eyes regarded the lifeless, ensnared form with disinterest. "Why?"
"Because I asked you nicely?" Marion could not see his face now, but she knew from his voice that he was smiling. That youthful, slightly cocky smile, guaranteed to irritate the Sheriff to perfection. The smile of a man ready to face anything, at any time, when his heart told him that it was the right thing to do. It made her yearn, powerfully, irresistibly, to stand beside him, in the way that she had always been meant to do. Daisy didn't need her – the girl was still stupefied, shocked to immobility by a child's story come to life. Robin, on the other hand, might well need a soldier at his back. Marion rose to her feet, and carefully put an arrow to her bow.
"You cannot defeat me, son of Herne." The water hag seemed to grow as she spoke, water raining down in a stinking cascade as she rose up, towering over the human before her. Robin, typically, seemed little dismayed. He merely hefted Albion, as though to be sure of his grip, and then took another step forward. Sticky green weed wound about his waist, but he ignored it.
"I've met people before who made that claim," he said. "I beat them. All of them. Now let the girl go."
"People! You've beaten people. Do you begin to understand who I am? What I am? You'll not leave here alive, Robin of Loxley. I have haunted the waters of Yorkshire for hundreds of years. My legend was spreading through this land long before the Normans were here. Long before the Norsemen, before the Romans. Before your pitiful ancesters had any concept of what land it was. I am older than England."
"So is Herne," said Robin, with all the simple faith of the acolyte. Jenny Greenteeth sneered at him, and with a wave of her arm, she sent tendrils of weed snaking across the surface of the pool. Robin hacked at them with his sword, but powerful and sharp though it was, its fierce cutting edge had never been intended for slicing through half-submerged pond weed. In seconds his sword arm was tangled, and he struggled to free it, at the same time trying to advance upon his enemy. Seeing an opening – or hoping that she did – Marion raised her bow, and took careful aim. As Robin fought gamely on, progressively more entangled in weed, she drew a short, steadying breath, and let her arrow fly.
She had aimed for the hag's head. There was no way of knowing if the creature even had a heart, let alone any other organ that a human might recognise, and from her position Marion could not be sure of striking such a target anyway. No novice she, she was none the less no expert archer, and she bit her lip as she fired, hoping to strike home. It was not likely that there would be much opportunity for a second shot, but she seized a second arrow even as the first left the bow, hurrying to fit it, hurrying to raise the bow again. Perhaps it was this haste, this sudden flurry of movement, that attracted Jenny's attention, for at that moment the creature turned to look towards her, weed-green eyes narrowed in distaste – and the arrow, its white feathers spattered green, struck her full in her twisted, eponymous teeth.
And she howled. At a volume to threaten the ears, and a pitch to threaten every glass goblet for miles around, she screamed out her fury and pain. Her tentacles of weed retracted somewhat, and Robin, his sword arm suddenly freed, went instantly on the offensive, slashing at the weed that dangled Annie's still unmoving body in its weedy fringes. Jenny bellowed again, this time more in fury than in pain, but her strength no longer seemed quite so great, and the weeds hung in the water, an impediment just like any weeds, but robbed of their occult powers.
"I'll drag you down yet, Loxley." The hag's voice was a slurred mumble, as though she were speaking with a mouth filled with broken teeth – which she may very well have been. Robin ignored her, freeing Annie at last, and tucking her beneath his left arm. It would make a proper fight well nigh impossible, but she was clearly incapable of moving on her own. Robbed of her victim, Jenny bellowed once again, and the weeds around her began to churn, as the water began to bubble and foam.
"Robin!" Horrified, Marion fired her second arrow – and a third, and a fourth, and a fifth – but none had the success of the first. Nonetheless, Jenny was forced to bat them aside, all the while screaming words that might have been magical spells or obscenities for all that the humans knew. The language was an ancient one, that neither of them had heard before. Robin took advantage of her distraction, and ran as fast as he could, with mud beneath his feet, and weed around his legs, and water pressing all around him. Jenny struck out at him, and he turned just far enough to hack once at her hand as it passed near, Albion's keen, enchanted edge slicing off two gnarled, green fingers. The water hissed as they struck its surface, turning to vapour that rushed skyward in narrow columns of stinking, green steam.
"You'll pay for this!" Jenny took a step forward, and another, but Robin was close to the water's edge now, and struggled up the bank in an ungainly, mud-slathered stumble. Marion was there to meet him, helping him with Annie, running back towards Daisy in her relative safety. Jenny's rage made the waters tremble, but she had no power on the land. Just as in the stories they had heard as children, it seemed that she could not leave her water. Her powers counted only against those who came within her reach.
"Are you alright, Robin?" Marion hugged Annie close, searching for any signs of life, but her foremost thoughts were for Robin. He nodded, breathless but triumphant.
"Thanks to you. How is she?"
"Breathing. I can feel her heart. She's lucky. We're all lucky."
"Fortune favours the bold." He smiled. "Although the bold would do well to stop and think a little first, occasionally."
"There was hardly time for a council of war."
"No." He took her hand, his own a block of ice. "Thank you, Marion. But for you I might be at the bottom of that pond."
"Maybe." She smiled, relief coming in a rush. "It doesn't matter now."
"No. Perhaps not." He sighed, deeply and loudly, as though excising his fatigue – then stood up, and hefted Annie into his arms. "Come on. Let's get these two back home."
"Where hopefully there'll be a warm fire, and perhaps a hot tisane."
"Precisely." He smiled kindly at Daisy. "Come on. Time to go."
"Is... is all well again?" the girl asked him, her eyes still somewhat glazed. His smile warmed, and he nodded at her.
"All is well again. Just see that you never come to this clearing again. And spread the word to all who will listen. None must come near this water, and above all, none must touch it. Is that understood?"
"Yes." Her voice was very small, and her eyes brimmed with tears. "Thank you. Thank you both."
"We were sent by Herne, to do his work." Robin turned towards the nearest likely path, all too glad to put the clearing behind him. "It's him you should thank." He smiled. "Him and Marion, anyway."
"Yes sir." If she was aware of the levity, she showed no sign of it, stumbling along beside them as though in a daze. She was clearly very tired, and after a moment, Robin handed Annie to Marion, and hoisted Daisy onto his back. Soon enough, her head drooped onto his shoulder, and sleep carried her away in search of peace. Robin smiled at Marion. Soon there would be a warm fire, and the grateful arms of loving parents to receive their young charges. A merry welcome, and plenty of good cheer. Soon enough, the memory of cold and grasping weeds would fade into shadow, the proper place for all monsters to stay. They had won again, and Herne's forest, and its people, were safe from harm once more.