Ian and the Archery Contest

by Anta Baku

Part 17 of The Cell Phone Towers of Elfland (Read Part 1)

The Cell Phone Towers of Elfland is also available in paperback, Kindle and Kindle Unlimited from Amazon.com.  


I walked to work on Monday morning, because I was still furious with Angie, and I hoped I could walk it off before having to concentrate on my job. It’s only about fifteen blocks to the office from my apartment, and I was worried that wouldn’t be enough. 

She said it was the Pig Merchants’ Guild who hired her to kidnap a villain in the first place, and she’d had a hard enough time convincing them to pay her when she brought the wrong villain back in her bag. That she couldn’t possibly have predicted they’d choose to ally with the villain, give him power over them, even. And it wasn’t her problem what her clients did after she had finished a job anyway. 

I hadn’t thought I would have to convince her that Richard III leading an army of pigs to conquest in Fairyland was a bad thing. It seemed pretty obvious to me. Of course, I had seen him personally, in a kingdom they had just conquered. Maybe that made a difference. But Angie didn’t seem to think that who conquered what kingdom in Fairyland made any difference, at least if she didn’t have a contract. She said for all we knew their governments shift around all the time. 

Meanwhile there was an aspiring dictator gobbling up territory in Fairyland, taking advantage of a strong international mercantile infrastructure, even if it was made up of pigs. When he told Beth she wasn’t welcome there anymore, he said that all of Fairyland was his kingdom. And it didn’t look to me like he was very far from making that true.

Angie said it didn’t matter, that Richard had managed to get himself killed after only two years as King of England, that all this would pass. I felt like the timeline had maybe been changed, just a little bit. That we couldn’t count on Lancastrians to solve our problems for us.

Angie didn’t think we had problems at all. Sure, Beth had been kicked out of Fairyland, but Angie was still getting contracts, still finding shady jobs to do. She always lived on the edge of the law, so the more chaos, the better it was for her. 

None of my arguments made any difference. So I was walking to work, and steaming over it, and hoping that maybe I would have an easy Monday for once. Maybe I could find a nice centaur who just wanted to learn our languages, and trade him a Duolingo subscription for the right to put a cellular node on top of his cave. That sort of thing does happen occasionally.

So it was a really bad time to get to the office and discover that my boss was back. I supposed she had finished her shape-changing apprenticeship with Proteus, though she didn’t look any different today. Booker was there, too, and she wanted to have a surprise meeting.

Have I mentioned that I hate meetings? Well, I really hated this one. I thought we’d been doing OK on our own, figuring out how to make the Fairyland people happy, getting into and out of scrapes occasionally, but generally expanding the coverage map pretty darned fast if you ask me, even if making an accurate coverage map of Fairyland was still a problem. Miss Change wanted to do things differently. 

She had this idea that, since there were two of us now, we could line up on opposite sides of any mythical conflict, and guarantee success for the company. Booker tried to explain to her about narrative inevitability, which I have to admit I don’t really understand, myself. I tried to explain to her that a lot of Fairyland conflicts are truly good vs. evil, and it would be better for us in the long term if we didn’t get our towers by helping the evil side win.

But she didn’t listen, and she was the boss. That’s how Booker and I ended up together on a road through Sherwood Forest, him headed for Nottingham, me ready to look up Robin Hood and his Merry Men. If that was how she wanted us to play it, that was how we were going to have to play it. We split up just before we reached the area where Robin Hood’s outlaws were active, and wished each other luck.

Finding the Merry Men is supposed to be hard. After all, the Sheriff of Nottingham can never seem to manage it, or Guy of Gisborne, or Prince John, or whoever else happens to be on the side of local government in any particular story. They’re always easy to find if your heart is pure, and completely hidden if you happen to be an authority figure. 

My heart must not have been pure, because it took me all day. I might never have found them if they weren’t loud when they drink. As evening was falling a loud baritone made its way through the forest, and all I had to do was follow it. The closer I came the more harmonies it picked up, until by the time I entered the camp I could hear a tenor, a bass, and an alto singing counterpoint. 

They welcomed me as if my heart were pure enough to have found them immediately, with beer and good cheer and an invitation to sing along that I hastily declined. I nearly managed to fail out of the lowest-level college choir, the one no one’s supposed to be able to fail out of. Since then I’ve admitted that singing isn’t going to be for me. Instead I sat back, sipped my beer, and listened to their little quartet. 

The identities of the baritone and the alto were easy to figure out. He was Little John, a great bear of a man with vocal projection to match, and he held the lead because no one else would have been able to make themselves heard over his harmonies. She was Maid Marian, as who else could a beautiful woman be in this particular setting? She seemed content to sing the counterpoint, and let Little John have the glory.

Before long I gathered the names of the other two, young men who looked a great deal alike. They were both wiry and extremely athletic, the kind of men you don’t want to go up against if you can help it, if not as obvious about it as their giant friend. The tenor was Will Scarlet, and the bass was Much, the Miller’s Son. 

I felt that we had quickly become friends through their singing and their beer. They were certainly much more welcoming, and less suspicious, than I had expected. Or maybe I’m very much less threatening. Such men as these would certainly not find me physically worrisome on any level. I’d have to have a machine gun to go up against any one of them. 

Still, I was surprised when they gave me a weapon, after the singing was over and they moved on to planning the next day’s raid. I didn’t have to do any work at all to insinuate myself into their counsel. I was there, so they included me. 

“The Sheriff has called all the greatest archers of the land to a contest,” said Little John. “It starts tomorrow, with the first two rounds. Guy of Gisborne is favored.”

“Only because Robin can’t enter openly,” said Maid Marian.

“Robin is confident he can win, even in disguise,” said Will Scarlet.

“And I’m sure he can,” said Little John. “I have no doubt he could beat Guy of Gisborne in a fair fight, and the Sheriff might even give him one. But we can’t afford to.” 

“What do you mean?” I asked. 

“We have this one opportunity to get rid of Sir Guy,” said Little John. “And we’re going to take it.” 

“Robin won’t like it,” said Much.

“He’ll understand afterward,” said Marian. “I’ll make sure of that.”

“If we let Guy of Gisborne get to the final, he’ll be guarded afterward, no matter who wins,” said Will Scarlet. “But tomorrow things will be more loose.”

“So how do we do this?” I said.

“After each round there will be drinking and reveling,” said Little John. “Maid Marian will convince Sir Guy to leave the other revelers and come away with her alone.”

“Scandalous,” said Will Scarlet.

“Shut up,” said Little John. “When he’s out of sight of everyone else, the four of us will set upon him and take him captive. Then Much will take him down the river.”

“They’re building an abbey at the mouth of the river,” said Much. “They can use more laborers. If we strip him and dirty him, no one will believe that he’s Sir Guy of Gisborne. He could be gone for months before the Sheriff’s men find him and straighten it out.”

“Years,” said Will Scarlet.

“We’d be very lucky to get years, but maybe,” said Little John. “In any case he’ll be gone for a while.”

“Why do you want my help capturing him?” I asked. “I’m not very strong, especially compared to the three of you.”

“That’s why you’ll have this,” said Will Scarlet, and handed me a mace. It wasn’t a huge thing, a wood handle about three feet long with a metal head the size of a baseball. But the head was heavy, and when I swung it a couple of times to get the feel of it, I felt like it would hit pretty hard. Much harder than my fists, anyway.

“We three should be able to overcome Sir Guy,” said Little John. “But he is a very strong man, and it never hurts to have more help than you need.”

“Just don’t hit any of us with the mace,” said Will Scarlet. I agreed that didn’t seem like a very good idea.

I didn’t get to meet Robin Hood that night. Marian went off to see him, and I certainly wasn’t going to be the third wheel in that. Instead I bunked in with the fellows. Little John, surprisingly, slept like a baby. It was Will Scarlet’s snoring that kept me up long after I would have liked to be asleep. That and all the beer I had drunk on an empty stomach. But eventually I nodded off, and fortunately these weren’t the sort of people to stint on breakfast.

After we ate, we all went out together to the archery field at Nottingham. I looked around and couldn’t spot Robin Hood among the group of Merry Men, then remembered that he would already be in disguise. Either it was a very good disguise or he had gone on ahead of the group. 

Little John was taking part under his own name, and we all cheered him on while he won his heat. The next one was Guy of Gisborne’s, and it wasn’t even close. Sir Guy hit the bullseye three times in three shots, and the whole rest of the heat only found it once. There wasn’t much cheering, as I think all of his supporters had taken his victory for granted. He certainly didn’t show his competitors much respect with the way he just walked off the field like it had been nothing.

We followed him, but it was no use. He went right into the Sheriff’s tent, which was heavily guarded, and didn’t come out again. We waited for a little while, then broke off for lunch. All the losers of the heats were getting gleefully drunk in the middle of the day, and it looked like some of the winners were doing it with them, making it easier on Sir Guy and Little John in their quarterfinal. We stuck to food and tried not to look too conspicuous as we abstained. 

Eventually the crowd moved back to the field for the start of the quarterfinals. These looked to be more competitive, and money started changing hands on the sidelines. Sir Guy was in the first quarterfinal, and so was Little John. 

The rest of the field was more competitive than the heats, but only those two managed three bullseyes and went to the playoff. Each man would get one shot per round, and at the end of every round, if there was no clear winner, they would move back ten yards and try it again. 

The two archers matched bullseyes for five rounds, but when Little John led off the sixth, his arrow flew out into the blue ring. Sir Guy put his right in the gold, and the round was over. We just hoped he had worked hard enough to want a beer. 

Sure enough, he headed for the beer tent. Much, John, and I followed him long enough to see that he got his beer, served by Will Scarlet who was determined to make them extra-strong. I don’t know what he spiked it with, but before long Sir Guy was completely gone, flirting with every woman in the tent and even a few of the men. When Maid Marian entered, he had no chance of resisting her. All eyes went to her as the most beautiful woman in the tent, and when she didn’t resist Sir Guy’s advances, even encouraged them, the eyebrows above them went all the way to the ceiling. But no one moved to stop the two of them leaving together.

John and Much and I had to run to get to the ambush clearing before them. It didn’t seem like Will would be able to get away, but somehow he was there before us. We hid behind trees, not making much effort at real concealment. Sir Guy was too drunk to notice much, and all his attention would be on Marian. 

He was still a real pain to capture. Marian got away easy enough, and we came at him from four directions, but his fighting reflexes didn’t seem to be dulled by drink. If the alcohol did anything, it made him less willing to recognize he was beaten and stay down. 

I tried to stay out of it at first, but it quickly became clear that the three trained fighters weren’t going to have an easy win. Little John got some particularly large bruises trying to subdue the knight, and Will and Much couldn’t seem to find a hold on him. Eventually, keeping in mind the warning not to hit the wrong person, I waded in swinging my mace. Somehow I connected, bringing Sir Guy to his knees, and at the urging of the others I swung again to hit him over the head as hard as I could. 

We tied him up with a rope, and the four of us carried him down to the river. Much had secreted a small barge just far enough downstream that it was out of sight of the archery grounds, and from it he pulled a set of well-used peasant’s clothes, not quite in Sir Guy’s size. We undressed him from his finery and replaced it with the ill-fitting clothes, then gave him a rough haircut and splashed him with some river mud. Within a few minutes he looked extremely disreputable, if still very muscular.

“You’d hire that man to carry stones,” said Much.

“Are you sure you can handle him yourself when he wakes up?” said Little John.

“He’s tied up, he shouldn’t be a problem,” said Much. “And I’m sure the monks will help me if they have to.” He asked for my mace anyway, and I let him have it.

We shoved the two of them off from the bank, and they began to drift downriver. When they were out of sight we celebrated, just the three of us. Then we went back to Robin Hood’s encampment to wait for Maid Marian.

And we waited, and waited. After dark the rest of the Merry Men came back, loud and rowdy. I assumed Robin Hood was among them, but I still couldn’t see through his disguise. But though we waited well into the night, there was no sign of Marian. The rest of the Merry Men went to sleep, but the three of us stayed awake, wondering what had become of her.

Around midnight we heard a noise, and someone coming into the clearing. But it quickly became clear that it wasn’t Marian. This fellow was bald, and wearing the robes of a monk. 

“Friar Tuck!” said Little John, much too loudly for anyone trying to sleep nearby. “What news of the castle?”

The Friar tried to quiet him, though there were already restless noises coming from the tents of the Merry Men. “The Sheriff has arrested Maid Marian,” he said. “Sir Guy is missing, and he was seen to leave the archery grounds with her.” 

“The fiend!” said Little John.

“Quiet,” said Will Scarlet. “You’ll wake everyone.”

“Robin will have to be awakened anyway,” said the Friar.

“Of course,” said Will. He left to go poke around the tents. Little John just steamed. 

Friar Tuck turned to me. “And who are you?” he asked.

“I’m Ian,” I said.

“Ian the what? Ian the bold, Ian the brave?”

“Just Ian Rogers,” I said. “But don’t call me, you know. Ian is fine.”

“I know what?” said Friar Tuck.

“Oh, I guess you wouldn’t know,” I said. “Don’t worry about it. Just call me Ian.”

“Ian of the mace,” said Will Scarlet, coming back with an old man in tow. “He hit Sir Guy good and hard with it.” 

“So you did ambush Sir Guy,” said the Friar.

“Of course we did,” said Will. “Who else would have?”

“You should have let me beat him in the archery contest,” said the old man. “I could have, you know.”

“We know, Robin,” said Little John. “But we wanted to get rid of him for good.”

“Well, we’re in it now,” said the old man, who must be Robin Hood in disguise. “We’ll have to look for an opportunity to resume Marian tomorrow.”

“It won’t be easy,” said Will. “She’ll be at the Sheriff’s left hand. You know how he loves to keep her there whenever he has an excuse. She’ll be well-guarded.”

“At least there won’t be anyone at the Sheriff’s right hand,” said Little John. “Not now that Sir Guy is gone.” 

“I think there will,” said Friar Tuck. “There’s a new man, come just yesterday, who has already gained the Sheriff’s confidence. A Moorish fellow, I think.”

“To replace Sir Guy?” said Will Scarlet. 

“The young Moor has qualities Sir Guy lacks,” said the Friar. “He’s not as strong, perhaps, not as much of a fighter. But he has intelligence and charm unmatched in the Sheriff’s service. Perhaps even as much as yours, Robin.” 

“I bet he dresses really well, too,” I said. 

“Indeed he does,” said Friar Tuck. “How did you know?”

“Oh, just a guess,” I said. “So what are we going to do to get Marian back?”

“Good attitude, new man!” said Robin. “But I don’t know yet. We will go on with the archery contest, and look for our opportunity.”

“You shouldn’t have any trouble winning it now,” said Will.

“I wouldn’t have had any trouble winning it before,” said Robin. “You should have left defeating Sir Guy to me.”

“Well, look at it this way,” I said. “Now you’ll get a chance to defeat the Sheriff instead. In front of all the best archers in the country.”

“I like that idea,” said Robin.

Though we were keyed up, we all went to our tents and tried to sleep. We knew we would need our rest for whatever came the next day, but I don’t know that anyone got very much of it. I never even heard Will Scarlet snore.

At the archery grounds the next day, I got my first good look at the Sheriff of Nottingham. He’d clearly dressed in his finest clothes, trying to look good sitting between Booker and Maid Marian, but he still seemed kind of shabby next to them. He had a sort of permanently-dazed look, and his salt-and-pepper beard might have been attractive if it had been on someone else’s face. His nose had been broken too many times, and male pattern baldness was revealing a particularly lumpy head. This was not a man who looked like a winner in the game of life, no matter how much power he might have.

Booker looked great, of course. I was wearing three-day-old clothes by this point, but Booker somehow looked sharp. Maybe the Sheriff was letting him go home at night, something that didn’t seem right when living with the Merry Men. Or maybe I just liked not going to sleep knowing Beth was in the next room. I don’t know if Will Scarlet’s snoring was better than that, but it was certainly different. Less frustrating. 

Will had been right the night before. The Sheriff wasn’t letting Marian move from his left hand, and there were three guards next to her at all times. It stayed that way all through the semifinals, which Robin won with ease. And when the competition broke off for mid-day feasting, they had food brought to them where they were. John, Will, and I gathered where we wouldn’t be overheard, and despaired of getting a chance.

“We have to try for her during the final,” I said. “It doesn’t look good, but we’ll never get a better chance.”

“We’d have Robin to help us later,” said Little John. 

“Or us to help him,” said Will. “We got ourselves into this, and we have to get ourselves out. Robin would help us, but he’d never respect us again.” 

“So we grab Marian back during the final, whatever it takes,” I said. 

“Do you have a plan?” said Little John.

“I do.” 

I set them up as best I could before the final started. Little John was behind the Sheriff’s pavilion, waiting to knock the guards’ heads together. Will was guarding our escape route. I was in the front row of the crowd, ready to dash across to the Sheriff’s box and make a false attack from the front, distracting them so Little John could free Marian and hightail it out of there. 

It was a good plan, if I do say so myself. Simple, but I think it would have been effective. It’s too bad I never had any intention of carrying it out. 

The archers in the final were the best in the land, and it didn’t surprise anyone in the crowd when four out of nine of them turned in three bullseyes and qualified for the playoff. One of them was Robin, of course, still in his old man disguise. They lost one competitor on the third playoff shot, and another one on the seventh, but after that Robin and the last man traded bullseyes all the way down the field, until the crowd had to start moving back to accommodate their distance.

The shots got slower as the archers had to take time to ensure their footing. The crowd had been dropping things throughout the day, and it wouldn’t have been good to lose the competition because you slipped on the greasy remains of someone’s chicken leg. But still they traded bullseyes, and those of us in the crowd kept shoving each other backwards.

Finally, at nearly a hundred and fifty yards, the opposing archer gave out. His shot missed the target entirely. Robin calmly put an arrow in the bullseye, but he never saw it get there. He was too busy being tackled by me.

Look, I know I’m supposed to be the good guy in these stories, or at least make myself look like it. But throughout my days in Sherwood Forest I couldn’t get past one inconvenient fact: the Sheriff was the one with a castle. You couldn’t put a cell node in Robin’s camp; either it wouldn’t be high enough to provide any service, or it would stick out above the trees and tell everyone where the outlaws were hiding. 

So as much as I was supposed to be making friends with Robin, it seemed like it made a lot more sense to betray him. That was what Miss Change really wanted, for me to not be so dedicated to fulfilling the narrative. For me to be willing to take action to guard the company’s interests above all.

I still couldn’t have done it if I hadn’t gotten Little John out of the way beforehand. I couldn’t even wrestle Robin to the ground by myself, but I could get his mask off, and once the Sheriff’s guards saw what was happening they rushed to help me subdue him. I saw Will Scarlet start onto the field from the other side of the crowd, where he wasn’t supposed to be, but before he got ten paces into the open the fight was over, and he faded back into obscurity without ever getting within a hundred yards of us, and without the guards noticing him. 

The Sheriff was pleased, which made an even greater contrast between him and the people beside him. Marian of course was furious, but Booker didn’t look happy either. They chained Robin right there and tied him to a pole. Nobody cared that he had won the archery contest. Whatever ceremony that had planned to hand out the prizes was left behind in the Sheriff’s hurry to have his guards carry Robin Hood to his deepest dungeon.

I followed along behind them. The guards kept the rest of the crowd at bay, and we made our way safely into the castle.

Until then I had just been tagging along, but once we were inside, two of the guards started paying close attention to me. I think I saw Booker suggesting it to the Sheriff. Robin Hood was hauled off, presumably to the castle’s deepest dungeon. I was treated better, given a small room with a big feather bed, and brought a loaf of bread and some cheese. But the guards were always there. The farthest away they ever got was right outside my door. It was clear that I was also under arrest, even if it was more comfortable than whatever Robin was enduring.

Eventually I slept, and woke again. I was disappointed to find that breakfast in Nottingham didn’t hold a candle to the same meal in Sherwood Forest. But I’d made my play and chosen my side. Now all that remained was to get the Sheriff to agree to host a cell tower. I sent a message with one of my guards, and before too long he came to my room.

“I don’t have very much time,” he said. “I’d like to get the hanging done this morning. Before everyone leaves the archery tournament, let them see the death of Robin Hood, and carry the word throughout the land that Nottingham is victorious.” 

“Of course,” I said. “And I don’t mean to keep you. I’d just like to know why I’m under arrest, when I turned Robin over to you.”

“You’re not under arrest,” said the Sheriff. “You’re merely being held until the hanging is complete. Robin Hood has arranged his own capture before, to infiltrate my castle. I don’t say you are his agent, but I’ve learned that I can’t be too careful when it comes to that man.”

“Of course,” I said.

“When he hangs, I will know that your actions were true, and you will be rewarded,” he said. “Until then, the guards. I apologise for the inconvenience.” 

“May I attend the hanging, then?”

“Of course,” said the Sheriff. “It may yet even be a double hanging. I have men out now searching for Guy of Gisborne. When we discover what has become of him, the lovely Marian may hang beside her friend. But I won’t wait. If the evidence cannot be found this morning, we’ll hang Robin alone, and save her for later. Perhaps when he is dead she will become more cooperative.”

He said the last with a leer, and did what I think must have been an attempt to sweep out of the room dramatically. But whatever the opposite of panache is, the Sheriff had plenty of it. I had a hard time keeping a straight face, and once the door was closed behind him I couldn’t resist a fit of giggles. I know I should have been more serious, given the occasion, but he was just so ludicrous I couldn’t manage it. At least there wasn’t anyone else there to see. 

I’m not sure what men the Sheriff had out looking for Sir Guy, because they couldn’t possibly have been his guards. The castle courtyard was stuffed with them for the hanging. I watched them from my window, and there was barely room for the carpenters to construct the gallows. The Sheriff wasn’t taking any unnecessary chances, and when the gallows finally went up, there was room for two nooses, just in case. 

I didn’t think it was likely they would find Gisborne, or Much the Miller’s Son, who would certainly be far downriver by now. But that second noose gave me pause. It wouldn’t do to have Marian hanged today. The Sheriff probably only wanted it as a threat, anyway, a means to make Marian more receptive to his advances. He didn’t want her to hang any more than I did.

Booker was the first of the principal actors to enter the courtyard. It was hard to miss a sharply-dressed Black man in that crowd. He seemed to be there to check the security arrangements. While checking the positions of the guards and the solidity of the gallows, he occasionally looked up at my window, but each time I drew back, and I don’t think he ever saw me watching. 

Before he was finished the guards came to bring me down to the courtyard. I met up with the Sheriff just inside the gates of the keep. He had Maid Marian with him.

“A shame, that your Robin must hang alone today,” he said to her. “But in time we will discover the fate of Sir Guy, and you will have your own turn at the gallows. Unless you wish to earn a certain amount of leniency, before it’s too late.” 

“You might as well hang me today, Sheriff,” said Marian. “You will never have what you want from me.”

“We shall see,” he said. “You may change your mind when Robin Hood is but a rotting corpse, and his rebellion ended.” 

“The people will continue to fight,” said Marian. “You will never be secure, no matter who you kill.”

“Have it your way,” said the Sheriff. “Tomorrow you will sing a different tune.” 

Marian’s guards fell in with mine, and the two of us were escorted to a secure box, well away from the gallows. The Sheriff was making sure neither of us had a chance to act on behalf of the condemned, and from what I could see he was doing a good job of it. There was nothing for the two of us to do but watch. 

The Sheriff had his own box, front and center, where he could lead the proceedings and look into Robin’s eyes as he hanged, just to make absolutely sure. Booker was there to greet him, and when the Sheriff was settled in, he signaled to the guards at a side door. 

They brought Robin out, still chained, but now walking under his own power. He held his head high as he climbed the stairs to the gallows platform, and stood tall in front of the Sheriff. 

“Robin Hood,” said the Sheriff, “you are accused of crimes against the kingdom of England. You have stolen from the King, from the Church, and from the people. You have assaulted and ridiculed the officers of the Law. You have encouraged banditry and rebellion among the populace. It is the judgement of this court that for these crimes, and others, on this day you shall hang.”

“I will gladly hang before I submit to your authority,” said Robin. 

“So be it, then,” said the Sheriff. 

And then Booker hit him in the back of the head with a two-by-four left over from the construction of the gallows. He got a really good swing on it. I’m going to remember that moment for a long time.

The Sheriff was out like a light, and the guards had no idea what to do. Most of them were watching Robin on his way to the noose. Others were watching us. A whole platoon were watching the spectators, making sure the Merry Men didn’t attempt a last minute rescue. But nobody had been watching Booker, and that meant nobody knew whose job it was to go after Booker.

I realized there was a bit of a power gap in the Nottingham Guard just now. The Sheriff wasn’t in any condition to give orders, Guy of Gisborne was missing, and the new right-hand man had just turned to the other side. There were a lot of guards in the courtyard, but sheer numbers weren’t much good with no one in charge. Some started towards Booker, others started towards Robin, and soon there was no one looking after me and Marian. There was fighting at the main gate, where Little John and Will Scarlet were leading the Merry Men in a frontal attack, while Robin, somehow free of his chains, was working to open the portcullis from the inside. 

We walked casually back into the castle, through the halls and into the kitchens. No one was paying any attention to us, although things got a little more interesting when Booker met us there. He was being chased by about two dozen guards, but he was still a little distance ahead of them, and we were able to stack tables and barrels against the door to keep them at bay. 

There was a servant’s door at the back of the kitchen, and Will Scarlet was there to meet us.

“Will Robin be all right without you? I asked.

“Oh, sure,” he said. “Don’t worry, we’ve all done this part before. Afterward we meet back in Sherwood and have a party.” 

And he was right. We got back first, and Booker and I had time to arrange with Marian how she would be smuggling our node equipment into the castle at the first opportunity. Then the others came triumphant, Robin Hood and Little John and Will Scarlet shouting cheers and calling for beers. The fires burned high that night as we celebrated our victory over the Sheriff. Friar Tuck led them all in song, as much as anyone could lead with Little John around. Then they got down to the traditional recapitulation of what they had all done to make the victory happen. 

Will Scarlet was telling a story about how he had almost been discovered watching the castle late on the night Marian had been arrested. 

“You mean last night,” I said. 

“No, I mean two nights ago,” said Will. “Friar Tuck had to come tell you that Marian had been arrested, and I was on castle watch all night long. It wasn’t comfortable, let me tell you. I remember.” 

“But you were sleeping here that night,” I said. “It must have been yesterday.” 

“That was me,” said Will Scarlet, stepping into the light of the fire. The other Will Scarlet stared at him. This was the one who had brought me out of the castle, with Booker and Marian. The other one had returned with Robin and John.

They looked completely identical. “Two Will Scarlets!” said Little John. “How do we tell which is the real one?”

“He is,” said the Will Scarlet who had just entered. He seemed to shimmer in the firelight, and then it wasn’t Will Scarlet anymore, it was Miss Change.

It was hard explaining to the Merry Men that she was our boss. Little John was the most confused. Will Scarlet wasn’t as upset as I thought he would be. Friar Tuck wanted her to stick around and join the band. We got them as straightened out as we were likely to, and then she insisted on taking me and Booker away with her. 

“That was a ridiculous plan,” she said.

“What?” I said. “We won. We got our node. The good guys won the day. Everything turned out great.” 

“I told you two specifically to look out for the company’s interests, to make sure we had connections on both sides. If you had lost we would have alienated the Sheriff forever.”

“We couldn’t lose,” said Booker. “We were on the side of the story.” 

“That doesn’t even make sense,” said Miss Change. “And you’re not to do anything like that again. The company has to come first.”

“We’ve been doing well on our own, with the way we do things,” I said. “I don’t think you understand how it works in Fairyland.”

“I understand how it works to have a job,” she said. “It works like you do things the way your boss tells you to. Or you’re out on the street. Do you understand? Letting you two work together is too dangerous. From now on each of you is on his own.”

“All right,” I said.

“We were headed that direction anyway,” said Booker.

“I don’t think it’s enough,” said Miss Change. “I can’t stay here and watch over you forever. I have things to do at headquarters. If this is going to be a Fairyland unit, somebody’s going to have to be in charge of it, and right now all I’ve got is you two.”

“So here’s the deal,” she said. “You’ve got two weeks to show me you’re capable of managing this unit. Instead of working together you’re going to be competing. Whoever impresses me the most over the next two weeks gets the job. And then he’ll be in charge of keeping the other one in line.” 

That didn’t sound like it was going to be enjoyable, but it was only two weeks. Surely we could get through two weeks without throwing each other under the bus. 

Booker couldn’t go two minutes without throwing me under the bus. “This whole thing was Ian’s idea,” he said. “I wanted to play it the way you said.”

That was an absolute lie, and I’m pretty sure Miss Change knew it, but she still looked like she approved of his sucking up. This competition wasn’t five minutes old and I was already behind. If I wanted to get that promotion I was going to have a lot of work to do.

Part 18 of The Cell Phone Towers of Elfland is Ian and the Missing Spindle.

For news and new story notifications sign up for my newsletter

  or follow me on Twitter or Facebook