Robin Goodfellow and the Ring of Doom

Robin Goodfellow awoke to a thunderous pounding on his door. The drowsy hobgoblin staggered from his sleeping mat, and peered through the slit in the door. A brown-bearded dwarf stood in the entry to his hole, a scroll in his large left fist; one of King Alfric’s messengers, most likely.  

Robin unlocked the multiple locks that secured the door, and opened it. 

“What does he want?” asked Robin, impertinently.

“King Alfric is wanting to see you, hobgoblin.” He uttered “hobgoblin” as if it were a dirty word. 

Robin opened the scroll. 

“All it says is ‘come at once!’” read Robin.

“Aye, and you’re to come at once,” mumbled the dwarf courier. 

A summons from the king of the dwarves was no idle matter; Alfric was not kind to those who refused him. It would also mean an enormous payday for Robin when it was all over. 

He dressed hurriedly, ate a bit of bread and hit the road. 

The throneroom of Zwergstadt echoed with the angry bellowling of King Alfric. 

“Where the Pit is that slagging hobgoblin?!” The dwarf king sat on his massive throne drinking mead from a large horn. His beetle-brow furrowed into its usual expression of impatience. Or rage. Or one of the other of the few expressions Alfric was capable of. 

“Here.”

Robin sat in a niche in the wall. Alfric’s walls were lined with niches displaying the images of his ancestors; the previous kings of dwarf-kind go back as far as anyone could remember. 

“Why did you not announce that you’d arrived?!” growled the dwarf.

“I think we’re beyond that, now, aren’t we, your highness?” said Robin, jumping from the niche to the floor. 

“Some dignity would be appropriate,” said Alfric in a guttural rumble. “This is a royal court, after all, not some brothel!”

“Forgive the impertinence, my lord,” said Robin, bowing before the fat dwarf. “How may I serve his majesty, greatest and most powerful of all dwarf-kind?”

“Stop your false obeisance, for one,” began Alfric. The dwarf rose from his throne and descended the pedestal to meet the hobgoblin and stared down at him, his expression softening somewhat.

“What I am about to ask will be the most dangerous mission of your life. Everything, every mission I’ve sent you on has prepared you for this moment. I think you are finally ready for what I’m about to ask you to do.” Alfric spoke in a tone almost like that of a father; this was remarkably unusual for him.  “I need you to go to Annwyn and get my ring back for me.”

Robin chuckled, then he realized the dwarf king was not joking. He never joked.

“Annwyn,” he said in disbelief. The name sent a chill down his spine. 

“Yes,” answered the king.

“You want me to get your magic ring from one of the most heavily guarded places in the universe?”

“Yes, as a matter of fact, I do.”

The task was a daunting one. Annwyn was a place of powerful, wicked gods, and hideous monsters. It was a place of terror beyond all comprehension.

Long ago, Alfric forged a magic ring. Every week, the ring would multiply, making nine more golden rings, which Alfric would then give in exchange for favors. He was at one point the richest dwarf in all the realm, in addition to being king. Then one of the gods of Annwyn stole his magic ring from him. Alfric tried all he could to persuade the gods to return it. He had even contemplated declaring war, but he would have to convince the heads of the other six dwarf houses to support him; an unlikely occurrence. His last hope of getting his ring back was Robin Goodfellow, Prince of Thieves.

“How much will this job pay?” asked Bobert.

The dwarf snapped his thick, stubby fingers. “Consider this a down payment.”

A retainer delivered a chest full of gold. Robin practically salivated.

“There’s more where that came from!” said the dwarf king.

“And if I fail,” began Robin, “will I be obligated to return this?”

“If you fail, you’ll most likely be dead, and a chest of gold will do you no good.”

Robin considered what lay before him; he became a master thief for the adventure, after all, and he’d never been to Annwyn. The fortune gained from such an exercise would be enormous. On the other hand, he might die painfully. 

“I’ll take it,” said Robin.

“Good!” replied Alfric, slapping the hobgoblin on the back so hard Robin almost fell over. 

The Iron Forest was dark, dank, and foggy that day, as it was every day. The sun rarely showed his golden face there. A hidden evil enshrouded the place. Night was falling as Robin entered the Iron Forest. He had left his home in the Dwarf Realm early that morning, taking food, cookware, weapons, and other accoutrements of a master thief.

 The darkness was almost palpable as he made camp that evening. He felt the overwhelming sensation that something in that dankness was hunting him.

Fierce howls and moans broke the silence of the ancient forest. Robin had heard stories of beasts so odious that existence itself was torturous to them. Their cries echoed through the stygian blackness, mourning for a death that would not come. It is said that in the days of old, Tegid, the god of sorcery, and his consort Ceridwen had conjured such beings as to drive a normal man to madness. Luckily for Robin, he was already at the brink of madness. 

It became evident that the howling was growing louder, closer. The things, whatever they were, hunted him. Robin put out the campfire immediately and retreated into a crevice in the rock that surrounded him. The howling became so intense that he clasped his hands over his large, pointed ears, hoping it would end. The nameless horrors eventually ceased their crying. Robin felt first relief, and then terror, wondering if they had stopped only because they drew near to their helpless prey.

He uncovered his ears. He could hear the faint rustling of soft feet through the pine and spruce needles that lined the forest floor. He peered out of the crevice, but he never quite saw what they were. After long ages living underground, hobgoblin vision is far keener than a human’s in the dark, but this was a darkness so thick that he could only barely see the movement of shaggy forms lurking in gloom. Their eyes glowed with a faint greenish light. 

Robin had heard that the elves and many hobgoblins worshipped an Almighty Spirit. He was said to have created everything, and He protected those who called on Him. Robin, unsure of what else he could possibly do to protect himself from these foul beasts, whispered a prayer to this unknown deity.

“Almighty Spirit,” he whispered, barely audibly, “assuming for the moment that you exist, please save me!” 

Another terrible cry broke the silence that gripped the wood, and the creatures moved off. Robin breathed a sigh of relief and whispered his thanks.

Robin didn’t know what time it was when he finally awoke; Days and nights were hardly distinguishable in the Iron Forest. He trudged on and on toward the city center of Annwyn, passing by ancient trees and even older cyclopean ruins. He could only assume that these were abandoned areas of the city, or possibly they’d been left behind by the ancient giants who once lived there. 

Robin was almost to the walls of the city when he heard it. Not the cry of another beast, nor the call of a bird; this was music. Music such as Robin had never heard before. His morbid curiosity got the better of him, and he followed the sound; perhaps a civilized soul who would give him aid in his travels. This was doubtful; the music, while definitely having all the appearances of order and intelligence, was not the music of civilization. Drums pounded like the heart of a hunted animal. Flutes and pipes wailed wild and shrill, like a bird caught in a trap. Their tones joined in demonic chords and melodies. 

Robert peered through the bracken at a clearing in the wood. The sight chilled him to the bone. Ugly forms danced with wild abandon about a roaring fire to the sound of the drums and flutes: boggards. Boggards, they say, are hobgoblins who have lost their reason, and live in wild places like beasts. 

Robin watched, transfixed as the devilish figures danced around the flame. Suddenly the music stopped, as did the dancers. The drums pounded in a slow marching rhythm. The boggards hummed in a single, unified tone, as a dark figure emerged from the gloom. He wore a long, ragged, black robe. His face was like the skull of an animal, picked clean and bleached by the sun. Stag-like horns surmounted his horrible head. Robin dared not even breathe at this sight; it was the Hunter. 

The Hunter was a creature of myth and nightmare, half-remembered among men. It is said that he rides through the night, gathering up those foolish enough to be out in the twilight hours and taking them to Annwyn. These are then sacrificed in the grizzly ritual. To Robin’s knowledge, he had no interest in hobgoblins, other than as a morsel for his hellish hounds. He had nothing to fear; so why did he feel so unsettled? 

The stag-horned demon raised his arms before the flame. The boggards erupted in abominable mirth and resumed their diabolical dance around the fire. Robin withdrew from the unholy spectacle, and recommenced his journey. Suddenly, the music paused again. Robin froze. He slowly looked over his shoulder to discover the Hunter pointing directly at him. Instantly the boggards attacked. Robin bolted. 

Hampered by the weight of his backpack, the boggards were quickly gaining on Robin. He drew his cutlass and turned to face the approaching horde of odious figures. On they came, some with crude weapons, others relying on their bestial teeth and claws. Robin slew the foremost of them with a single blow. They soon surrounded him, clawing and biting and striking with their sticks. But their raw ferocity was no match for Robin’s skill with a dagger and cutlass. He cut an opening in the demonic skirmish, and again took flight.

Robin ran blindly into the gloom, boggards hot on his scent. He ran and ran until he came to a large fissure in the earth. It was too broad to leap; trying to go around it would have just wasted valuable time and given the boggards an advantage. The bottom was invisible in the darkness. What lay down there was anyone’s guess. Trolls, more boggards, serpents, or perhaps one of those nameless abominations that had hunted him the night before. Robin could not be certain.

An arrow whizzed by Robin’s ear. Spinning around, he saw the Hunter fixing another to his bowstring. He had a choice now; face certain death up here, or descend into the dark. He slid down the fissure wall, into the unknown.  

The hobgoblin’s soft-shod feet ran almost noiselessly over the gravel lining the fissure’s floor. The only light came from the dim, clouded sky above. As the crack narrowed, that light disappeared entirely. Robin found himself in a cave. 

He hoped that this was not simply a dead-end passage, or that there was not something horrible lurking down the tunnel. Robin was not much of a magician, but he was familiar enough with the art to know a few tricks. He took a small stone from his belt bag and held it close to his lips.

“Star of light, shining bright, show the way to me tonight!”

The stone glowed with a pale light, enough to see a few yards ahead. Robin pressed on, holding the glowing stone in front of him. Despite the attack of the boggards, his pack was mostly intact and he had few injuries. All things considered, he considered the encounter a success. Now all he needed was to find an opening so he could get back on the road to the forbidden city.

The only sound there was in those stygian depths was the sound of Robin’s own breathing, his furtive footsteps, and the rhythm of his heart. Hours he groped in the dark, but it might have been days, for all he knew. His rests were few, and he barely slept at all, for fear that something was hunting in the dark. He found nothing, however. Yawning emptiness was all there was down there, or so it seemed. He would have given every penny Alfric had ever paid him to see another soul. The tunnels went on and on and never seemed to have another end or opening. He wondered if it would be better to turn around and go back the way he came, but he pressed on.

Robin was taking another of his all too brief and barely satisfying rests when the faintest shuffling of soft feet on rough rocks aroused him. Somewhere in that, cold, silent blackness was another creature. Or perhaps he was simply losing his sanity. He drew the glowing rock from its hiding place, and looked around the cavern for any movement. Suddenly, he felt cold steel touch his throat.

“One more move and I’ll use this,” said a soft voice from the dark. 

A slender arm held a dagger to Robin’s throat. At the other end of the arm was a young hobgoblin woman clothed in rags. Her face, while still shapely, was etched with scars. Atop her head was a short-cropped, unkempt, dirty-blonde mop.

“What the Pit are you doing here?” asked Robin. 

“I should ask you the same question,” answered the maid. 

“Looking for the pub. I could do for an ale.” 

“I could cut your throat right now.”

“If you had any intention of doing that, you’d have done it by now, so either put that blade away and parley, or allow me to draw mine and we shall have a fair fight.”

The hobgoblin maid placed her dagger in her belt, crossed her arms and glared at Robin.

“Now, what are you really doing here?” she asked. 

“Just passing through.”

“To where? You seem to be just wandering around aimlessly.”

“Annwyn, if you must know.”

“You’re mad.”

“As a hatter. What is your name?”

“Tell me your name, and I’ll give you mine.”

“I am Robin Goodfellow.”

“No, really, who are you?”

“Robin Goodfellow.”

“Prince of Thieves?!”

“The same.”

The maid stared at Robin in disbelief. “Why are you going to Annwyn?!”

“Business.”

“I hope they’re paying you well.”

“Handsomely. Now, how about that name?”

“I am Wren.”

“Pleased to make your acquaintance. How came you to be in this place, Wren?”

The maid sat down on a stone and crossed her legs. “The Hunter took me to make me into one of his horrid minions, but I escaped, at great cost, I might add,” she said, raising her right arm. It ended at the wrist. “I’ve been in this hole ever since, trying to survive.”

“A lesser soul would’ve given up.”

“I am not a lesser soul. If you’re going to Annwyn, you’re headed in the wrong direction.”

“Then where should I be going?” 

“I’ll show you.”

The hobgoblin maid stood up and led Robin back down the tunnel he had just come from.

The cave widened as they approached the cursed city. Perhaps they were already beneath it. Robin couldn’t tell. 

“How much further to Annwyn?” he asked.

“We’re under it.”

Robin swallowed hard. He was almost there. All he had to do was pinch the ring and get it back to Alfric. He was beginning to wonder if it was all worth it. What was a chest of gold in comparison with all he’d suffered?

They passed through a narrow aperture and came to a much wider passage. It was lined with columns and sculptures of the old gods. There was something odious about them, though Robin could not put his finger on it.

“This is an older part of the city,” said Wren, in anticipation of Robin’s question. “After the wars, the gods simply forgot about it. There are lots of places like this.”

“Cheery,” said Robin, ironically. “It’d be a great place to set up housekeeping.”

“You’d be surprised,” said Wren. 

Furtive feet scuffled in the darkness. Shining his light-stone around the chamber, Robin caught a glimpse of something hairy hurrying into the dark. 

“Careful,” said Wren. “Those monsters that Tegid and Ceridwen bred in days of old frequent these places.”

“Marvellous,” huffed Robin. 

“You have the one weapon that can defeat them. They detest light.”

“Wish I’d known that two nights ago.”

“There are an awful lot of things you don’t know, Robin.”

They cross to the other end of the long hall to a staircase that seemed to rise up into infinity. The stairs, of course, were made for people of much taller stature than hobgoblins, and were challenging to climb. 

“How high do these go?” asked the winded thief. 

“Quit your belly-aching!” retorted Wren. “We’re almost there!”

“You said that fifty steps ago.”

“You’ve been counting?!”

“What else is there to do in this accursed darkness?”

“You could talk to me, for one. I haven’t had company in a long time. How did you become a thief?”

“My father was a corsair, but he abandoned my mother. I became a pickpocket to keep us fed and clothed and here we are.”

“You’re lying.”

Robin was taken aback by this. Very few could tell when Robin was lying; sometimes even Robin fooled himself.

“How could you tell?” 

“I could hear it in your voice. So what’s the true story?”

“I like to keep a bit of mystery about myself. What about you? How did you end up here?”

“My parents were mushroom hunters. I got lost on a hunt, and then the Hunter found me, and the rest you already know. We’re here, by the way.”

They stood before a massive ironwood door, elaborately carved with dragons and other beasts. 

“How the Crom are we to get through that?” scoffed Robin.

“Easily.”

Wren disappeared through a crack in the wall on the left side of the door. Robin followed, with a little difficulty, as his frame was not as lithe as his guide’s. They found themselves in another long hallway. This one, however, did not appear to be abandoned. The floors were neatly swept, and there were no cobwebs to be seen. Robin reluctantly emerged from the crack, looking and listening for any activity.

“Relax, they almost never use this hall,” said Wren.

“Just being careful.” 

They crept noiselessly down the hallway, staying close to the walls, not daring to whisper. Booted feet marched down the hall somewhere ahead. Robin and Wren hid themselves behind a pillar as the soldiers of Annwyn passed by. At their head was a woman of terrible aspect. She was clothed in a long, black gown, and a silver crown adorned her haughty brow. Her face was cold as ice and stern as rock. Robin knew instinctively that this was Morgause, queen of Annwyn. 

Gold glinted from the finger of the queen’s right hand; the ring! At last Robin’s quest was nearly over. He had only to take it from her finger. He crept quietly after Morgause and her retinue.

“What are you doing?!” hissed Wren.

“Getting what I came for.”

“Are you mad?!”

“As a hatter.”

Robin continued after his quarry. Wren shook her head and watched him disappear down the hall after the queen. Hobgoblins have the ability to remain unseen when they desire, thus Robin remained undetected. He followed Morgause into the throne room. She sat down on her massive stone throne as courtiers gathered around her to give the latest news of the goings on in the empire. 

Robin waited for an opportunity, hidden away from their sight, though he still felt he was being watched. Hours passed, it seemed; still the evil queen remained on her throne. Robin began to wonder if she was rooted to the spot, when finally she stood. 

She said something in the infernal tongue of Annwyn, but Robin didn’t speak that language. 

Her attendants accompanied her out of the throne room. 

Robin followed the train of attendants into a spacious room. At the center of the room was a large, perfectly round pool; Robin presumed this was the bathhouse. Morgause removed her royal garments and jewelry, including the magic ring. She placed the ring in the hand of an attendant, who then laid the ring on a stone table at one end of the room. Morgause then descended into the circular poo.

Now was his chance. Robin crept to the stone table, cautiously snatched the ring and deposited it in his purse. The hobgoblin had no time to congratulate himself however. He snuck from the bathhouse as quickly as he could, and down the winding corridors back to where he thought he came in. There was just one problem; Robin could not remember where he’d come in. All the hallways looked virtually the same to him. He had no idea which direction to turn. Robin cursed himself for not leaving some sort of trail. 

For the next hour or more, Robin wandered the passages, trying to remember his way back, to no avail. He recognised nothing and everything at the same time. He wondered if this fortress had some sort of curse on it, so that thieves could never find their way out. This could not be however, since Wren could leave and enter freely. 

Then the alarm sounded. The hounds of Annwyn bayed and howled down the passageway. He decided then that any direction that went away from the hounds would be good enough, and he ran as fast as his legs could carry him.

As Robin raced down the endless corridors, he heard his name. Robin stopped dead and turned to the sound. Wren stood by a pillar.

“Come on, idiot! Do you want to die?!”

Wren led the way back to the crack in the wall where they had entered the accursed palace of the damned, and they squeezed through. The hobgoblins then descended the stairs back down into the forgotten chambers of Annwyn. 

“Did you get the ring?” asked the maid. 

Robin halted. 

“How did you know I was looking for a ring?”

Wren paused and looked at Robin. A change came over her; she seemed to grow taller, darker. Her face was filled with malice. Soon, Robin realized that this was no hobgoblin maid; this was Ceridwen, the goddess of sorcery.

“You will return the ring immediately if you value your life,” said the hateful goddess.

“What happened to Wren?”

“The hobgoblin wench has been disposed of.”

Robin had not felt such rage in many years. 

“May Death feed upon your blackened heart, witch!”

“Fool! I AM Death!”

Robin felt cold creeping through his limbs, freezing him to the very bone. He could barely move. Scarcely could he speak. He was dying. He gasped the words: “Almighty Spirit! Save me!” 

The dark shape of Ceridwen crouched over him. With the last ounce of strength he had, he reached for his cutlass. He felt the blade strike flesh. Ceridwen’s spell broke. She backed away from him, holding her bloody hand. Robin gasped for breath, rose to his feet, and ran down the winding steps into the gloom of the forgotten chambers of Annwyn. He ran blindly through the lost tunnels beneath the cursed city. Finally, he took out his light-stone to figure out where he was. That did no good; one hole in the earth looks very much the same as another. 

Sweat dripped from his clammy skin. Though he’d been running for quite some time, he still felt cold from his brush with death. He felt as though he would never be warm again, but at least he had the ring. Or did he? He put his hand in his belt pouch, but felt nothing. The ring was gone. That foul witch must’ve taken it. Robin cursed himself for ever taking on this fool’s errand. He was miserable; he’d come so far, Wren was dead, and he had nothing to show for it. In all likelihood, he’d die down in that hole and be eaten by one of those demonic abominations. He sat down on the hard rock and wept. Robin couldn’t remember the last time he’d wept. His weeping was suddenly interrupted by a sound- a voice in fact.

“I seem to have discovered a pity-party.”

Robin looked up. To his astonishment it was none other than Wren. He was bewildered. 

“I thought you were dead,” he said.

“So did they. It takes more than that to kill me.”

Robin drew his cutlass. 

“You’d better not be another one of Ceridwen’s tricks.”

“That old bat wouldn’t use the same trick twice.”

Robin was still wary. 

“Look, Robin, whether I’m Ceridwen or not, you’ve got very little chance of surviving. If I’m Ceridwen, I’ll just kill you right here and now; save you some time getting eaten or starving to death in this hole.”

Robin sheathed his cutlass.

“There’s only one way to know for sure.”

Robin leaned in and kissed the maid on the lips. Wren slapped him.

“What the Crom, Robin!?” she spat.

“Ceridwen would’ve struck me dead without another word. Come then, show us the way out.”

“Kiss me like that again and I’ll make this hole your grave!” 

“Understood.”

It was a whole day of creeping in the tunnels when they emerged from the blackness into the lesser gloom of the Iron Forest.

“I don’t recognize this place,” remarked Robin. “Then again, the whole forest tends to look about the same after a while. Do you know where we’re going?”

“The gateway to the Dwarf Realm is that way,” said Wren, pointing. “The problem is the whole region is crawling with boggards, werewolves, trolls, serpents, and nameless abominations.”

“Oh, how quaint.”

Robin strode in the direction Wren pointed. Having survived two brushes with death on this trip, he felt less timid than he had days prior. In the course of time, they came to a broad bog. Above the waterline stood large stones that provided a path to the other side. The two hobgoblins paused at the edge of the bog. 

“Crom,” cursed Robin. “A bog.” 

The dangers of bogs were not unknown to Robin. Serpents and trolls frequently lurked in bogs and fens. Wise folk typically walked around rather than through bogs. 

“This is the only safe way,” said Wren.

Robin looked at her like she’d lost her mind.

“‘Safe’ being a relative term, of course.” She shrugged. “It’s either the bog or the Hunter. Take your pick.”

“Fine,” said Robin, stepping onto one of the stones. 

Together, they hopped from one stone to the next, crossing the bog with care. Something stirred in the water. Robin paused, slowly drawing his cutlass. He heard a splash of something rising from the bog behind him. Robin whirled around as an odious, reptilian head emerged from murky water. Robin stuck out, slicing the serpent’s head before it could bite him. The serpent sank back into the bog. Wren drew her dagger as more serpents emerged from the murk. The monsters attacked, snapping their odious jaws at the hobgoblins. Robin and Wren fought back with their blades, whirling and slicing whildly at the creatures. A whip-like tail coiled around Wren’s leg and dragged her into the murk.

“Wren!” cried Robin. The master thief leapt into the dark water, cutlass drawn. Wren and the serpent thrashed and struggled in the bog. Robin found the creature’s head and lopped it off with a single blow. After wrestling Wren from the dead monster’s coils, he dragged her to shore. She coughed and gasped for air.

“Are you alright?” asked Robin.

“What does it look like?” sputtered Wren. 

Robin gave a small chuckle. Wren giggled in response. Soon the two were laughing like fools. 

They eventually found a sheltered alcove in the rock and built a small fire to dry their soaking clothes. They sat by the fire, wrapped in blankets, waiting for their clothes to dry. A pot of stew cooked just above the flame. They conversed in hushed tones, so as not to attract unwanted attention.

“So you never knew your father?” asked Wren.

“No. My mother told me he was a corsair, and he sailed off into the sunset before I was born.” 

“That’s very sad,” replied Wren. “I don’t know what I’d have done without my father.”

“If I ever find mine, I’ll cut his throat for what he put my mother through.”

Wren nodded. “I can understand that. But I’ve found it’s better to forgive.”

“I’m not doing any favors for him,” grumbled Robin, sinking deeper into his blanket.

“Not for him- for you. You need to let go of your anger before you can begin to heal.”

Robin hadn’t thought about it that way before. Wren was a woman of keen insight. 

“I’ll consider it, once we get out of this accursed place.”  

It rained the next day. Robin offered Wren his cloak, which she accepted gladly. This meant, of course, that Robin was wet. He’d been in worse conditions, but not in the Iron Forest. A cloud of despair hung over them, making Robin’s already miserable position worse.

“We’re almost there,” said Wren in a voice that was barely above a whisper. 

They treaded carefully among the tall ferns, barely making a sound. A muffled squeal arrested Robin’s attention. He spun around to find that Wren had stabbed a boggard in the neck. The creature sank to the ground, lifeless. 

“Well… that’s not good,” said Robin, stating the obvious. 

Soon the forest echoed with the screams of wild boggards as they threw rocks or whatever other projectiles they could find upon the beleaguered hobgoblins. Robin took his bow in hand and shot forth arrows into the wood. Long black shafts flew through the foliage, landing inches from the two hobgoblins. The Hunter stood on a tall rock overlooking them. 

“Run!” cried Robin.

The hobgoblins bolted through the bushes and trees. Suddenly, Wren vanished into the earth. 

“Wren!”

“I’m alright!” answered the maid from the bottom of a pit.

“I’ll get you out!”

Suddenly, Robin was accosted by boggards. He decapitated one in a single blow. His blade flashed like bolts of lightning, cutting through the foe. Finally the last of them staggered away, blood flowing from multiple wounds.

Robin took the rope from his pack and lowered it to Wren. The maid took it, and Robin helped her out of the pit. 

“Come on, then,” said Wren, “The gateway is that way.”

Wren gave a small yelp, and staggered. 

“What’s the matter?” asked Robin, concerned.

“My ankle! I must’ve twisted it in the fall. Blast it!”

“Drat! Well, come then, let’s get out of here.”

Robin took her arm and placed it around his neck.

“It’s no use, Robin, I’ll only slow you down!” 

“I’ve elected to ignore that!”

The Hunter’s horn droned over the wastes and the wolves answered. Robin cursed. He lifted Wren onto his shoulder and ran as fast as he could. He could finally see the gateway; they were almost free! The wolves closed in, Robin took a deep breath and prepared himself for one final dash to the finish line. 

Once across the threshold. Robin cried out in ecstasy and set Wren on her feet. She grunted with pain. He thought at first it was the ankle, but it wasn’t. A black shaft protruded from her back.

Wren staggered. Robin caught her and gently lowered her down.

“Don’t worry, Wren I’ll do… something,” said Robin, his unshakeable confidence wavering. 

“It’s alright, Robin. It isn’t your fault.”

“You can’t die, Wren! You’ve barely had a chance to live!”

“I’ve lived enough. You need to live, now. Go. Live your life, Robin. Do it for both of us.”

Robin leaned down and kissed her gently as she breathed her last. Then his agonized cries penetrated the forest: his heart was broken.

The chest of gold thumped on the stone floor of Alfric’s throne room.

“I failed,” said Robin. He turned to leave the room.

“Wait just a minute!” bellowed the dwarf king. “What do you mean you failed?!”

“I did not obtain the ring,” answered Robin in a monotone voice.

“I thought you were the prince of thieves?!”

“I was. I don’t know what I am now.” 

“What the devil happened?” inquired the dwarf.

“I was smart. I did everything right. The gods were smarter. I’ve been through hell, and I don’t want to do it again. Keep your gold.”

“You got as far as Annwyn?”

“Further. I had the ring in my hands, but they took it from me. Nearly killed me, and killed someone I’d come to care for!”

The king looked puzzled. A long silence passed.

“To say that I’m not impressed would be a lie,” said Alfric. “For your pains, I insist that you keep the gold.”

Robin stared at him. For a solid minute, he considered just leaving the gold and walking away. No gold could possibly repay him for what he’d gone through. But he picked up the chest anyhow and turned to leave.

“You have my deepest sympathy, Robin.” said Alric as he was departing. 

Robin paused. It was uncharacteristic for Alfric to express sympathy. Perhaps he was growing senile. 

“Thank you, my liege.”

With that, Robin went down to the tavern to spend some of his newfound riches drowning his sorrows.  

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