I was shivering with excitement as Will Scarlett led us down the wide stone steps to the great hall of Nottingham Castle. This was history come alive, the past made present. People were living here in this castle: those men in chain mail standing guard over there would go home to the soldiers' barracks; the young scullions rushing back and forth with trays heaped with steaming chickens and loaves of bread would probably sleep among the dogs and goats tonight, and be thankful for the warmth of other bodies.
People lived like this. I had studied Earth history all my life, had participated in re-creations in virtual reality, and still I was unprepared for the realness, the nowness, of it -- the stench of humans and animals living together, of tons of burning wax illuminating the castle's crevices and nooks, of the food aromas that permeated the very stone. I let my fingers run along the rough walls as we descended, hoping that the feel of it would etch the memories more deeply into my brain.
The Doctor caught my glance and knew what I was thinking, and he smiled.
There was music in the great hall, and laughter, but our bootsteps on the stone drew all eyes to us nevertheless. "Will!" a man called -- he was at the long table on the dais at the other end of the room. "Where've you been?"
We followed Will, weaving through the tables arranged throughout the hall, until he stopped at the dais. "I was attacked by outlaws in Sherwood," he said with a snide grin. A chuckle rumbled through the room.
The man on the dais only smiled and put down his tankard. "And who have you brought with you? A knight in Arthur's colors? Can this be the high king come again?"
It was a joke, and the Doctor smiled and bowed gracefully. "I am the Duke of Gallifrey, renegade from the king of France and traveling through your fair country. This is... my wife, Erin of Yorkshire."
Wife? How quaint. I bit back a smile and bowed.
"I... met them on the road," Will said -- of course he wasn't going to tell the truth, however he saw it, "and if your lordship has no objection, I invited them to Nottingham for the night."
The man scowled at Will's "your lordship," but he smiled at the Doctor and me. "Of course, they must stay. Welcome to Nottingham, my lord, my lady. I'm Robin of Locksley, and this is my wife, Marian." He nodded at the woman seated next to him, then indicated the empty chairs at their table. "Please, join us."
Will was waiting before the dais -- waiting to be invited as well, I realized -- and when Robin ignored him, he stomped back through the hall, up the stairs, and out.
"You'll have to excuse my brother," Robin said as serving maids placed wooden plates before us and poured wine into silver mugs. "I'm afraid I was very much like him when I was that age." He was much older than I had imagined Robin Hood would be. I was expecting someone Will Scarlett's age -- no more than a boy, really -- but Robin looked near to forty. Physically, he was nothing like his little brother: Will was small and tough, his eyes and hair dark but his skin very pale -- almost elfen; Robin looked athletic, his long legs stretched under the table, and his hair was a fairer brown, his eyes green, his skin suntanned.
Good gods, Robin Hood. As we ate and drank and the Doctor told nonsense stories about our alleged travels through England and his adventures in Palestine with the Lionheart, I searched the hall with my eyes, trying to find other players in the legend. Marian was there, of course, but maiden no more -- her belly was swollen in pregnancy, and her chestnut curls framed a face glowing with motherhood. Will Scarlett we'd already met, and he'd confirmed the existence, once, of the evil sheriff of Nottingham and Guy of Gisbourne (I was relieved almost beyond belief that my "vision" had been imagination after all). Guzzling beer at one of the tables was a very large man in monk's saffron -- Friar Tuck? The tall, bearded man at the very other end of the table at which we sat could have been Little John.
The Doctor paused in his storytelling for a moment, and I nudged him and pointed at the minstrel drawing out a tender tune on a lute. "Alan-a-dale, do you think?"
Robin heard me and shook his head. "Bryan of Adamston, actually."
"Ah." No Bryan of Adamston in the legends I knew -- and no Marian-with-child, no family relation between Will Scarlett and Robin Hood. And certainly no alien artifacts. "Doctor," I whispered, "what are we going to do about the dagger?"
The Doctor -- eyes glassy and cheeks rosy -- leaned in very close to me. "This is much more complicated than it seems, Ayren," he replied, then looked to Robin. "My lord, do you mind if I ask you about the dagger you gave to Will?"
Robin's eyes were glazed with wine, too, so perhaps he answered a bit more freely than he might otherwise have. "Interesting that you should ask that," he said. "What a strange history it has. My father gave it to me when I was a boy; his father had given it to him.
"When I returned from the Holy Land last year, I found my home destroyed... my father murdered. In the ruins, I found the dagger -- just the dagger, not the sheath that was made for it. I'd forgotten about it until then, but I took it -- it was the only thing I had left of my father." There was a solemn pause while he drank from his mug.
"The temporal circuitry would have shielded it from the fire," the Doctor whispered to me.
"After we defeated the sheriff," Robin continued, "the king said we might stay in Nottingham until Locksley Castle was rebuilt. Of course, no Locksley business had been seen to in months and there were rents to be collected and tenant disputes to be resolved... and there's all the shire business to be taken care of until the king appoints a new sheriff."
Robin tried to sober himself. "The sheriff had a witch," he whispered, "who's dead now, too, and in the dungeon where she concocted her spells, I found the sheath to my dagger. I knew it was mine because I had carved my name in the leather when I was younger. Well, I only got as far as 'Ro,' but there it was."
"Why did you give the dagger to Will," I asked, "and not save it for your own child?"
Robin's eyebrows knit together and he frowned. "I wanted Will to know that I consider him part of my family, even though he can never really be a Locksley. He is my father's bastard child, you see, and he doesn't seem to understand that that means he cannot be my heir." He snorted. "The baby has made him even worse. He's probably back to calling himself 'William of Locksley.' I keep telling him he can't do that."
I looked out at Will -- he had slipped quietly back in and was sitting at the table farthest from the dais, a tankard in one hand and a girl on his lap. Whatever his problems with Robin, he still had life a lot easier than most people here and now.
"So tell me, my lord Gallifrey," Robin went on with a slightly drunken laugh, "what is your interest in the dagger?"
The Doctor glanced sidelong at me. "Oh, its... craftsmanship interested me."
With a wave for more wine, Robin nodded. "Yes, I see your interest in weapons in the excellent sword you carry."
"Are you a swordsman as well as a master archer, Lord Locksley?" I asked, hoping that bit about splitting the arrow was true.
"You flatter me, my lady," flashing a dazzling smile my way. "I did defeat the sheriff in combat by sword, and he was considered one of the finest swordsmen in England. But I'm sure Lord Gallifrey is much worthier with a blade than I."
The Doctor laughed. "Well, I did defeat Sir Giles Estram, one of the finest swordsmen in France. I had an excellent teacher, you see -- chap called Flynn," he slurred.
I looked down into my mug as the boy refilled it -- I could barely focus on the little burgundy whirlpool the wine made as it swirled around. My head felt filled with air. "Doctor..." I croaked, pulling at his sleeve. He couldn't have realized how strong this stuff was, if he was spouting nonsense like that.
" -- appear to be evenly matched," Robin was saying. "Perhaps a test of our skills would enliven the evening."
Before I could find my voice to make an objection, the Doctor had tossed away his surcoat and was on the floor with Robin in front of the dais. Each man drew his sword and pointed it, wavering, at the other -- the two of them were grinning. Tables were pulled back to make room for them, and a hush fell over the hall. I saw Will Scarlett elbow his way to the front of the crowd.
The Doctor and Robin stared at one another for a moment, giggling, barely able, it seemed, to keep to their feet... And then the Doctor jabbed his sword toward Robin, who staggered aside and parried. And they were off, their drunken dance taking them around the room, each sword clanging and clunking against tables, benches, tankards and occasionally against the other sword. The crowd surged in and out, drawing backward as the Doctor and Robin lurched toward them with swords swinging, then washing back in as the two men tottered away.
The Doctor seemed to know what he was doing, but that only made things worse -- it meant they both were capable of inflicting a well-placed, if accidental, wound. I wanted to close my eyes and not watch, but I was afraid that if I did, my wine-muddled brain would take that as a signal to shut down and take a nap. With a groan of helplessness, I glanced at Marian -- how was she coping with this? -- and was dismayed to see her smiling as she followed the action.
Bryan the minstrel began plucking out a lively jig for the Doctor and Robin to reel around to -- that made them laugh and quicken their steps. Robin found an opening when the Doctor lost his footing for a moment, and swung his sword horizontally across the Doctor's belly, slashing through his tunic -- a near miss. (I covered my face with my hand but spread my fingers so I could still see.) The Doctor responded by slitting through Robin's sleeve. Robin cried out, glancing to his arm, and the distraction was enough. The tip of the Doctor's blade, dripping with shredded cloth and spotted with blood, appeared under Robin's chin. The crowd caught its collective breath.
"I suppose it's terribly bad form to show up one's host like this," the Doctor said with a blurry smile.
Robin planted his hands on his hips and made a great show of being relaxed despite the sword pressing into his throat. "It is indeed, but one cannot truly expect a Norman to show good manners." He grinned.
The Doctor gave a playful sigh. "Oh dear, we seem to be at an impasse. You've insulted me, but I can hardly spill your blood on your own floor."
"There's only one thing for it, I'm afraid." Robin nodded, pleased with himself. "Bring more wine!" he called.
"I am not drunk!" the Doctor protested. "Good lord, who made these steps each fi' feet high?"
"Doctor," I grunted -- his arm around my shoulders weighed about a ton, "we've been drinking wine and mead all night. I think it's prolly pretty likely that we're both smashed."
He slipped on the damp stone then, and I tightened my grip around his waist, but he still ended up on his knees. The understeward who was guiding us to our guest chamber rushed to the Doctor's side -- the Doctor waved the boy away and looked up at me with an indignant glare in his unfocusing eyes.
There was a fire already crackling in the hearth when we stumbled into our room. I went to stand in front of it while the Doctor fell spreadeagled onto the bed.
"Is it terribly uncomfortable?" I asked, toasting my cold-numbed fingers.
"Come and try it."
I cooed at the seductive note in his voice. "Well, now," I whispered, climbing onto the bed and over him, "you better've been telling the truth 'bout not being drunk."
Golden firelight danced across his face, shone in his eyes as he gave me a woozy smile and laced his fingers through my hair. "Lessee."
We couldn't coordinate our noses at first -- which didn't bode well, I thought -- but when I finally reached his mouth, his kiss was eager and hungry. His fingers made long, languid strokes across my cheeks and my throat and the nape of my neck.
"Mmm," I murmured, in between kisses. "So far... so good." But how much farther was he capable of going tonight? Rocking back to sit on my knees, straddling his legs, I unbuckled the wide belt around his tunic, just under the rip Robin's sword had made --
Was there a stain on his tunic? I blinked once, twice, thinking my vision tricked by drink and the flickering firelight. But no, it was stained... and it was sticky.
"Oh, gods, Doctor!" I pulled up his tunic, and what its heavy, woolen, vermillion cloth had concealed was plain on the rip through his white muslin shirt -- a long crimson bloodstain across his belly, spots of it dried to brown. "Why didn't you say something?"
"Hmm?" He raised his head with great effort, his eyes fluttering from me to his middle and back again. "Oh... yes. I forgot."
"You forgot? You sat there bleeding all night, and you forgot?"
He propped himself up on his elbows. "I was not bleeding all night. The bleeding stopped hours ago."
I groaned and rubbed my face for a moment. The Doctor was nothing if not a purveyor of unique situations. Truly, I had never imagined having my lovemaking to a time-traveling alien interrupted by the discovery of a sword wound inflicted by a legendary twelfth-century nobleman.
"Don't move," I said, squeezing his leg gently. "I'm gonna find something to clean this up with."
The corridor outside was dark, but there were murmuring voices and the glow of candles from around a corner. Hugging a wall, I edged toward it.
"--and men can be very silly," I heard Lady Marian softly say, "so you must be strong, and certainly do not believe all they tell you."
With a loud cough, I rounded the corner. "Excuse me."
"My lady." Marian was clasping the hand of a young chambermaid with tear-stained cheeks -- in her other hand she held a wrought-metal candlestick. "I trust your room is satisfactory..."
"Oh, yes, my lady. But I wonder... could I get some warm water and bandages, and p'raps some soap?"
Marian's eyebrows shot up in alarm. "Bandages?"
I tried not to grin. "I'm afraid the Doc-- duke was hurt by Robin's sword rather more'n he let on."
Marian smiled her understanding. "Of course. Meghan will fetch them for you," and she nodded to the girl, who curtseyed and hurried away.
"Our Will Scarlett is something of a gallant," Marian confided as she hooked her hand into the crook of my arm and guided me back toward the guest chamber. "I'm afraid I've become a nursemaid to the broken hearts he leaves in his wake."
That made me think of the woman at the Renaissance festival, eight hundred years in the future -- how she had been nothing like the shrinking damsel the maid was. She probably would have eaten Will Scarlett for breakfast.
"The duke is not grievously injured, I hope," Marian went on.
"Oh, I don't think it's serious -- a shallow sword wound."
"Robin, too, revealed his hidden wounds and bruises in the privacy of our bedchamber." She laughed, a soft, warm, loving laugh. "They are such boys, aren't they? Well, here you are. Good night, my lady."
By the time I'd gotten the Doctor out of his tunic and shirt and boots -- and not without complaints -- Meghan had returned with yards of clean white cloth, a bucket of hot water, and a hunk of lye soap. The slash across the Doctor's belly was oozing blood, and despite his cries and protests, I managed to wash the wound and wrap a strip of cloth around his waist. Wet crimson started to seep through the cotton almost immediately -- I added a few more layers to the bandage.
"This prolly should be stitched," I said.
He groaned, his eyes rolling back. "Oh, good lord, no, not here! They'd use sheep gut and a needle made of bone -- or wood! And no anesthesia!"
"'S all right, I won't sic them on you." I smoothed his hair back from his forehead, and he settled into a sulk. "'Sides, I meant molecular stitching. You know, sprinkle some bio-nanos on you and let 'em go to work." I wriggled my fingers in his face -- crawly little robot bugs.
"Not much chance of that here." He dragged himself up to the head of the bed and collapsed into a feather pillow -- then checked to make sure the bandage was still in place. His eyes flickered up to mine. "Thanks," he whispered.
I curled up next to him, leaning up on one elbow, and smiled down at him. "Not necessary."
That made him happy -- his eyelids drooped and he shifted closer to me. "I'm sorry, Ayren," he said softly. "But how could I pass it up, the chance to fence with Robin Hood?"
"I understand. It hurts me to see you hurt, though."
After a short, silent while, I said, "Should you have let Will keep the dagger?"
"We know where it is if we need it." His voice was drowsy now, and his eyes didn't open. "But I don't think it's what we need. Will said it's been in the family for a hundred years. It couldn't've just been stolen from the museum."
I thought about this for a moment. "There's no one here even capable of stealing it... Maybe there's a Time Lord in disguise. Do you think the 'witch'--"
"I think the 'witch' was prolly like most women accused of witchcraft... had some psi ability... sensed the power in the sheath... Dunno why she didn't take the dagger, too. Maybe they were already separated..."
"So we're no closer to solving this thing?"
The Doctor yawned. "Dunno. Seems like the answer is around somewhere... It's on the tip of my mind... Shouldn't've drunk so much tonight..."
He lapsed into silence then, but he smiled a little when I began combing my fingers lazily through his hair. How beautiful he was, aglow in the firelight, how human he looked. Extraordinary, really, how my heart seemed to squeeze itself tight as I looked at him, caressed him. How alive I felt. I wanted to cry.
"Oh, Time Lord," I whispered. "I love you." I brushed his lips with mine.
He was fast asleep.