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The Earl's Son

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Nasir studied Robin closely in the days following the Earl of Huntingdon’s death. He was shrewd about it, careful not to be caught gazing at Robin openly, restricting his attention to quick, darting glances. At night, he could be less cautious, observing Robin through the flickering light of the campfire on the pretense of watching the flames dance. John had seen through Nasir’s charade one night, but had said nothing, his sad smile conveying more than words could express. Nasir shouldn’t have been surprised that John was also keeping an eye on Robin. It was just that after everything that had happened since the battle at the Preceptory, Nasir would have understood if John hadn’t noticed that Robin was quiet and withdrawn – or had assumed that this change in their leader’s demeanour was only due to the concern they all shared for Will.

After the Barnwell skirmish, the wound that Will had received from Much’s arrow had not only torn open, but had become infected. Marion and Tuck had worked tirelessly to bring down Will’s fever, but they had all feared the worse when Will had come dangerously close to death. Even after the fever had subsided, Will had been too weak to move and had to be borne in the same cart that had brought the Earl’s body to Huntingdon Castle.

Nasir had hoped that Robin’s spirits would be restored when they returned to Sherwood, but Robin had paced restlessly around the camp, seemingly unable to relax or settle down to a task. Shortly after snapping at Much, Robin had informed everyone that he was going to see Edward. As none of the outlaws had visited Wickham in over a fortnight, it was only natural that Robin might want to check on the villagers. However, Robin was moody and distracted. He might be easy prey to a forester or one of the Sheriff’s men if he wasn’t completely alert. John shot Nasir a knowing look, and Nasir gave a quick, almost imperceptible, nod.

“I’m coming with you,” Nasir said, his tone brooking no argument.

Robin opened his mouth as if he fully intended to argue, but he must have seen something in Nasir’s unflinching gaze that convinced him that such an attempt would be fruitless. He sighed. “Very well. As you wish.”

He seemed more resigned than angry, as if he realized that he could put himself and everyone else in danger if he went off alone. At least Robin could be assured of a companion that wouldn’t pry or prattle endlessly. Nasir was prepared to listen if Robin wanted to share what was troubling him. If Robin sought his advice, he would certainly give it, though he barely spoke most days.

As they walked through the forest, barely conscious of ducking beneath branches and avoiding twigs that might crack loudly under their feet, Nasir wondered if Robin was feeling more than just sadness over the death of his father. It would be only natural for Robin to feel guilty for returning the Earl’s ring, even though he knew that refusing the title was the right thing to do, the only course his conscience would allow. He’d been willing to lie to make a dying man happy, but he wouldn’t have been able to carry on the act, even if he’d wanted to. He was an outlaw. That part of his life was over.

When they had reached Huntingdon, Robin hadn’t stepped foot inside the castle that might have been his because he was no longer the Earl’s son in anyone’s eyes. He had pressed a kiss to his father’s cold, grey forehead and had shot an arrow up at the battlements to catch the attention of the guards. Robin had been willing to take that risk to ensure that his father’s body wasn’t left exposed and unprotected for too long.

“I should apologize to Much,” Robin said, startling Nasir from his thoughts.

“It has been a difficult time for you. He understands.”

Robin grimaced. “It has been a difficult time for all of us, but I haven’t seen any of you snarling at each other.”

Nasir chose his next words carefully. “You have a bigger burden to bear.”

“That’s no excuse,” Robin said.

Nasir shook his head. “You were the Earl’s son before you were Herne’s son.”

Robin swatted at a fly irritably. “That’s the past.”

“And you must face it. When Sarak challenged me, you said I had to fight him, to face my own past.”

“That was different.”

Nasir stopped walking and turned to face Robin. “I had to kill the man who was like a brother, and your father is dead. It is not so different.”

The rest of their journey was silent – silent until they reached Wickham itself. They had barely crossed the threshold of the village when they heard the shouting. Nasir tensed, thinking for an instant that it might be one of the Sheriff’s men, but there were no horses or any other sign of soldiers in Wickham.

Robin had tilted his head to listen and his eyes widened in astonishment. “I think it’s Edward.”

 

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“What happened?” Robin asked Alison, who had rushed out of the hut as soon as she had spotted the outlaws. Edward had been too busy yelling at his son to notice his visitors.

Alison sighed, sounding as weary as she looked. “Matthew shot a soldier.”

What?

“In the arm,” Alison said quickly. “Matthew said it was barely more than a scratch. The soldier was on his way again once the arrow was removed and his arm had been bound.”

“Did any of the soldiers see Matthew’s face? Would they know him if they saw him again?”

Alison shook her head. “No, Matthew hid in some bushes. The soldiers seemed to think it was you or one of the other outlaws. They cried out that it was ‘Robin Hood’ and wanted to get out of Sherwood as fast as they could.”

Robin closed his eyes, breathing deeply through his nostrils. “Why, Alison? Why did he do it?”

“Was it because of that?” Nasir asked, pointing to the faint bruise that lay just beneath Alison’s right cheekbone.

Robin’s eyes flew open and he seemed to notice the bruise for the first time. “Who hit you? The soldier Matthew shot with his arrow?”

Alison blushed and nodded grimly. “I didn’t know he’d take it so much to heart. It’s hardly the first time I’ve been slapped by one of the Sheriff’s men. You know what I’m like. Speaking out when I shouldn’t, meeting their eyes when I’m supposed to bow my head.”

“Yes, but Matthew isn’t a little boy anymore,” Robin said. “It’s going to be hard for him not to lash out when he sees someone hurting his mother.”

“It’s an urge he’ll need to bury if he’s going to continue living in this village.” Edward had emerged from his hut and was standing with his arms crossed, emanating waves of fury. “You told me you would keep the bow and only let Matthew use it to learn archery.”

Robin’s voice and manner were calm as he faced Edward. “I wasn’t lying. None of us gave Matthew the bow and we would never allow him to use it outside the camp.”

“They were away when I went to visit them.” Matthew had followed Edward out of the hut, eyes downcast and cheeks flushed. “I found the bow and was only going to practice, so Will could see how much I’d improved when he returned.”

“Oh, I’m sure he’ll be impressed,” Edward muttered.

“I only meant to practice, honest I did, but then I saw the soldier,” Matthew said. “I wasn’t trying to kill him. I only wanted to teach him a lesson.”

“What would have happened if they’d seen you or you’d killed that soldier?” Edward asked. “Do you want a noose around your neck?”

Matthew pushed a pebble along the ground with the toe of his boot. “I would have been all right. I would have hidden in the forest.”

“And how long do you think you would have lasted without your friends to protect you? What if they had been away for more than a day? What would you have done then? Slept up in a tree? Eaten berries?”

Matthew raised his eyes up for the first time. “I could have shot a deer.”

Edward laughed. “And would you have been able to carry it too? It’s not easy to run with a deer across your shoulders. You certainly wouldn’t be shooting a bow anymore after a forester caught you and chopped off one of your hands.” Edward turned to Robin. “He’s a serf, not an outlaw. He can’t just disappear into the forest when he’s in trouble.”

Now, it was Robin’s turn to be sheepish. “I know that, Edward, and I’m sorry. We should have hidden the bow better or taken it with us.”

“It’s not his fault,” Matthew said. “I’m the one who took the bow.”

“Which you wouldn’t have had in the first place if it hadn’t been for us.” Robin rested his hand on the hilt of his sword and gazed out across the village. “It might be best if Will stopped teaching Matthew how to use the bow.”

“No!” Matthew cried.

“I’m sorry, Matthew, but I think we should have listened to your mother from the beginning. It’s too dangerous for you to be in Sherwood.”

“Well, I don’t know if I’d go that far,” Edward said.

Robin stared at Edward in surprise. “But you said – ”

“I said Matthew shouldn’t have been alone in Sherwood with a bow. I didn’t say he couldn’t see you anymore or continue with his lessons.” Edward scratched his beard, studying Robin thoughtfully. “But there would need to be rules. It’s something we’d have to talk about.”

Robin smiled. “We could return in a few days and discuss it then.”

Matthew looked at Robin hopefully. “Couldn’t we discuss it today?”

“I’d like Will to be here and I think it will be at least a few days before he’s well enough to leave Sherwood,” Robin said.

“Why?” Alison asked. “What’s wrong with him?”

Robin rubbed the back of his neck, looking uncomfortable. “Well, he was shot too, actually.”

Matthew’s eyes lit up in excitement. “By a soldier?”

“No, it was…well…”

“It is a long story,” Nasir said.

Edward’s lips twitched. “Sounds like it might be an interesting story too.”

 

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Robin was pensive again as they made their way back to the camp. Nasir only had to see the frequent frowns and creases etched on Robin’s brow to track the thoughts that were churning in his head. Although Nasir was tempted to ask Robin what was preoccupying him so deeply, he decided it would be better to wait until Robin spoke. Nasir didn’t have to wait long.

“I’m confused,” Robin said.

Nasir raised an eyebrow in surprise. “About what happened in Wickham?”

“No, about my father. He used to yell at me the way Edward yelled at Matthew. I thought it was because he was angry that I’d disappointed him and hadn’t acted as he would have done.” Robin brushed aside a leaf that nearly hit him in the face. “I thought my father was trying to control me, mold me in his image – and maybe he was – but I think he was trying to protect me too.”

“He did what he thought was best – as a father should,” Nasir said.

Robin nodded. “I think I may have misjudged him. He wasn’t an easy man to understand…or love.”

Nasir didn’t miss the note of bitterness in Robin’s tone. “You said he gave you his blessings after your uncle was killed.”

“And then took them back.” Robin scowled. “I thought he understood why I chose to be Herne’s son, but he couldn’t have understood if he gave me his ring when he died.”

“What if that is not what he was giving you?” Nasir asked. “Maybe he was showing you that he loved and forgave you. Maybe he did not know how else to tell you.”

Robin staggered and reached out for a tree, leaning on the trunk for support. “If that’s true then I never understood him at all.”

Nasir gripped Robin’s shoulder in concern. “Robin…”

Robin quickly wiped the tears from his eyes. “I’m all right. I just wish I hadn’t been forced to refuse his gift.”

Nasir’s grip on Robin’s shoulder tightened. “You did not refuse his gift. We would not be speaking of your father now if you had.”

“Then I wish I could have shown him my love and found some way to honour his memory,” Robin said.

Nasir took Robin’s arm and guided him away from the tree. “It is not too late.”

 

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They reached the lake just as the sun was setting. Other than some gentle ripples on the water, the only sign of the wind’s presence was the quiet rustling of the reeds. As Robin had been unable to attend his father’s funeral, Tuck said a prayer before lighting his arrow and sending it soaring into the lake. His arrow was followed by John’s and then Much’s.

Robin had invited Matthew to attend, so Will lit an arrow that they both shot from his bow. Matthew still didn’t possess the strength to use a full-sized bow, though Nasir suspected that Will, who was still recovering his own strength, had been relying on Matthew to help him fire the arrow. The arrow flew true and landed in the middle of the lake. Matthew beamed brightly before remembering that it was meant to be a solemn occasion, but Robin laughed and patted him on the back.

As Nasir drew back the string of his bow, he remembered the Earl’s courage and stoicism as he lay mortally wounded, more concerned about duty than death. It was something Nasir could understand and respect. Orkod fe salam **, he thought as he shot his arrow.

As Marion lit her arrow, Nasir wondered what she was thinking. Besides Robin, Marion was the only one of them who had actually known the Earl. Her father had been friends with him, and she had been attending a feast at Huntingdon Castle when she had met Robin. The Earl had been unable to lend any assistance to Sir Richard when Marion had been kidnapped by Owen of Clun because the King had ordered him to appease the Marcher Lord. If Marion had conflicted feelings about the Earl, or harboured any lingering resentment, it didn’t show. She displayed her usual dignity and poise as she loosed her arrow. She then turned and embraced Robin before stepping back to stand beside Tuck.

Robin stood staring at the lake for a long time before he lit his arrow and fired it into the water.

“Nothing’s forgotten,” he said.

 

 

 

 

** Rest in peace.