The City Beyond Play

An Excerpt from The City Beyond Play by Philip José Farmer & Danny Adams.

Chapter 4

Gore's first thought when he saw the arrow and heard running feet crashing through the brush from every direction was that federal agents had caught up with him. He would have made to run but for the fact that he didn't want to leave behind the valuable wine and get Sir Bobaunce mad at him right at the beginning of Gore's servanthood, possibly nipping in the bud any chance of his rising through Scadia's stratified society.

Of course Federal agents were highly unlikely to come looking for him here. They would respect Scadia's boundaries as they did any such alternative community. And they certainly wouldn't be shooting arrows.

But by the time Gore realized how stupid his thought was, he was surrounded.

He cursed himself for stupidity again, this time for not listening to the butler's warning about the Green Baron. It stood to reason that a society recreating lords and ladies, knights and chivalry, and happy peasants in their idyllic fields would also recreate forest-dwelling outlaws. They were even wearing Lincoln green. He wondered if any ballads had been written about them.

"Surrender, knave, or be run through!" a disembodied voice bellowed, soon to be attached to a man striding into Gore's vision. He was tall and lanky with dark curly hair topped by a green floppy hat hung rakishly to one side like the old-fashioned fedoras recently back in style. His face bore a mustache that curled at the end, and a goatee hung from his chin. Like his men, he wore green, only his garb added a gold sash with an elongated lion stretching out its front right paw, claw extended.

"Are you the Green Baron?" Gore asked.

The man slapped his hands to his hips and tilted back with laughter, the mirror image of an old movie Gore once saw starring the 20th century entertainer Errol Flynn.

"Who else should I be, knave?" the Green Baron answered. "Robert o' Hardtooth, if it pleases thou, or if it does not. These woods belong to me and my merry band of brothers. Everything in them belongs to us. Therefore, thou belong to us."

"Sir Bobaunce might have something to say about that," Gore told him.

"Hah! Then let Sir Wastrel of the Stubby Tower come and tell me himself. Though he'll need find me first!"

Gore's hands were tied and he was led even deeper into the woods, in a direction he knew was not toward the Black Tor. Another outlaw picked up the wicker basket, grinning approvingly at its contents, and followed at his master's heels.

At a place where Gore was certain the brush could not grow any thicker and the dim light could scarcely get any dimmer, the Green Baron called a halt. He immediately went for the 2069 bottle and tossed back a long swig. He dried his mouth with his arm theatrically, held up the bottle to the cheers of his men, then commanded them to empty the basket and have at the wine.

Gore caught himself shaking with anger and forced himself to calm down when he felt the narrow-eyed looks two of his captors, one on each side, gave him. Their short swords pointing in his direction looked not quite dull enough to be playthings. Gore wondered where Scadia's strange customs ended and reality began. If he tried to escape, would they actually kill him? Were they role-playing like everyone else here, or were they outlaws in fact as well as name, consigned-condemned?—to these woods because they wouldn't abide by Scadia's rules?

As the outlaws, including his two closest captors, quaffed more and more of the wine, Gore decided there was little point in remaining standing. He sat against the oak where they had left him and watched carefully. The thought of asking anything of the Green Baron, especially about the outlaws' true station in Scadia, was ludicrous. Even if Gore wanted to talk to him, the Baron would just continue playing his role, and might decide Gore was uppity enough that his life should be made extra miserable. He suspected he would get the same reaction from the other outlaws as well.

Amid the greens upon greens Gore noticed a flicker of color out of place. Someone in a far corner of the camp was trying to catch his eye. Not hard, because this was the only man among the outlaws not wearing green. Rather, he wore a bright blue velvet doublet with equally blue hose and light shoes resembling slippers, not a thing Gore would have preferred tromping in the woods with. His thin hat drooped behind him like a ponytail. He withdrew a lute from his back and strolled to the center of the camp.

So even the scalawags of the Greenwood had their Alan a' Dale, answering Gore's question to himself about ballads. With a single glance back at Gore, the bard then turned his back, facing the outlaw band, and strummed.

The songs were not about the outlaws themselves, but slow, sad tunes about wicked kings forcing innocent men out of their homes, brave men being sent to war and never seeing their wives and sweethearts again, and all manner of other kinds of cruelties the strong could inflict upon the weak.

Gore forced himself not to snicker. None of the outlaws seemed to recognize the irony of such songs in a place where nothing like what they described ever happened, could ever happen. But perhaps they were so deep into their roles they truly believed themselves victims of upper-class atrocities, forced to live like animals among the redwoods and mutant bushes. If nothing else, the music almost exponentially increased their drinking.

They drank so much, in fact, their green-garbed bodies melted languidly into the ground, occasionally releasing great and sundry belches. The two swords previously tipped at Gore acted as if they themselves were tipsy, and sank away. The music changed; the bard was heading toward him, still playing but with only one hand. The other held a slightly rusted but unnecessarily large dagger.

The bard's eyes were intensely blue as he stared at Gore for an instant, then he hacked apart the ropes binding Gore's hands, all still playing. "My performance here has verily reached its end, sir, and my final bow awaits. Does thou care to accompany me to my next performance?"

What Gore didn't care for was the florid language, even if the bard meant escape. Gore accompanied the bard without a sound of his own, or so he hoped, though he risked jinxing their luck by sliding a quick glance at Robert o' Hardtooth as they picked their way past him. One of the leader's eyes was open.

At once Robert o' Hardtooth was on his feet and lunging at Gore with a wicked grin that Gore fancied, in some calm if melodramatic section of his mind, gleamed more than the sword traveling a sure path toward Gore's sternum. Fortunately the rest of Gore's mind had shut down in obsequious deference to his reflexes. Gore sidestepped the attack easily and one other step brought him behind the Green Baron as if they were engaged in an odd waltz. The Green Baron came about for another thrust but whirled where he should have pivoted, allowing Gore to use the Baron's own weight and momentum against him as Gore wrapped one arm around his neck and plunged the Baron's skull into a mighty and unyielding oak...