The world pulsated around him. No, within him. Maybe both. Each beat squeezed his head a little tighter until he half-expected his brains to come spilling out of his ears at any moment.
He thought the world must be spinning too--which was just brilliant, who didn’t want everything to careen about them in a swirling, frenzied tumult?--but it was impossible to know for certain if it was still at it with his face buried in the crook of his elbow. This ‘sleeping it off’ notion wasn’t going so well. If anything, he felt worse. His entire body throbbed in time with his pulse; he had to be one massive bruise by now.
Distantly, he wondered how long he had been lying here. He’d told himself he would get up just as soon as everything wasn’t quite so...wobbly, but at this rate, who knew when that would be? He should find Guy, make sure he hadn’t already left to return to Locksley for the night, make sure he hadn’t missed supper. The creature comforts ought to be savored, considering what he had done to secure them. Or sacrificed for them, more like. He thought bitterly.
“Trust me, Robin!”
“Trust you? I don’t think so!”
He was beginning to wallow, and that meant it was well past time to get up. He shoved himself to his feet in one quick movement, meaning to go splash some water on his face when he found out the world was, in fact, spinning. He pitched sharply to the side, landing hard on his left knee, which then promptly buckled underneath him. After that he decided the agony coursing through him would be more than sufficient a distraction from his thoughts.
Nottingham Castle was silent save for the faint slip-swish of footfalls on smooth stone, the hushed sounds of a lone figure flitting from the shelter of one shadowy recess to another. Although an intruder within these walls, and despite her unease at the almost preternatural absence of encountered occupants, Djaq moved swiftly and with clear intent as she searched from room to room for what—rather, whom—she sought: Allan.
Djaq knew the others would think her a fool for coming here tonight. Allan had betrayed them and then taken up with the sheriff and Gisborne soon after. But they had not heard all of what Allan had told her, both what he had said and what she had seen in his eyes, and she could not believe he had deceived them with a cold heart. They had been dealt a heavy blow today, losing Edward. Djaq understood well the grief Marian—and Robin and Much as well—staggered under. She had seen the tormented look on Will’s face as the resurfacing memories of his own father’s recent murder assailed him once again, and she had tried to offer what reassurance she could. Yet, she seemed to be the only one who realized—or perhaps, could acknowledge—the other loss they might have suffered this day. Although it could be argued Allan had been lost when Robin had cast him away or even the first time he had sold one of their secrets, Djaq did not think so. If Allan did not yet live, she would ensure at least one person would mourn his death.
Djaq approached the last door in this passageway, noticing as she neared that it was partially ajar. Straining her ears for any noise, she pressed flat against the cool stone wall on the opposite side of the opening and peered inside. On first glance the chamber appeared vacant, unadorned apart from an undisturbed bed and a table with a washbasin and a single, stubby candle. But as she turned to leave, she caught sight of a huddled form sprawled on the floor at the base of the bed. For a moment, Djaq stood frozen, unable to move forward and confirm or allay the dread spreading through her at recognizing Allan’s still body. Then she swung the door wider to allow more torchlight to spill into the chamber from the hall and crept across the room to kneel beside her friend. No, I will not shrink from what is. I must know.
Despite her resolve, she could not help but sag with relief in the next moment as she caught the sound of shallow inhalations, though each breath was little more than a feeble, whistling moan. Djaq stretched forth a hand, laying it lightly on his arm. “Allan?”
Allan startled wildly, flinching away and attempting to curl further into himself simultaneously, but this was immediately followed by a sharp gasp and a tentative return to his previous position. Djaq withdrew her touch to assess the injured man with a critical eye, instinctively falling into the composed, somewhat detached frame of mind she had learned under her father’s tutelage. From the stiff manner in which Allan held himself in conjunction with his carefully controlled breathing, she surmised his ribs were badly bruised, if not cracked. However, Allan’s head appeared to be what ailed him most severely; he cradled it in both arms, and if he had not forgotten her presence straight away, he made no sign to indicate otherwise, as though it took his full attention to maintain the complete quiescence required to keep the pain at bay. Or perhaps more accurately, as much as was possible. Djaq had with her the supplies she would need to bind his ribcage, supposing she could maneuver him into an upright position without too much difficulty, but she did not want to cause him any undue discomfort before she had gauged everything she could visually.
“Allan, I’m not here to hurt you, only to help. But I need to examine your head to do so. Will you let me see?” This time the hand she placed on his shoulder was steadying as she softly entreated him, and hesitantly Allan’s right arm dropped to his side.
“Dj-Djaq?” he asked blearily.
“Yes,” she assured him, already closely inspecting his face. Both eyes squinting back at her were surrounded by swollen, bruised circles; but that damage was almost lost amidst the mix of discolored and blood-encrusted skin which spanned the greater part of the right half of his face. Djaq pursed her lips. The blood mostly came from two crescent-shaped cuts, one above the eyebrow and the other high on his cheek, but the extensive bruising could suggest underlying injury that would need to be uncovered and specially tended to. She needed more detail on how Robin had inflicted these wounds to better know what to look for.
“Allan, can you tell me how your head was injured?”
“What? ‘Urts…,” he said, voice slurred.
“I know,” she acknowledged. Then gently, she pressed, “Do you remember how you were hurt?”
A cleft formed between his eyebrows as he struggled to search his memory. “Robin…?” He shook his head in defeat by reflex. In the next instant his face crumpled in acute distress and his eyes snapped shut once again. An inkling grew in Djaq’s mind at this; with one hand she gingerly tilted Allan’s chin more fully towards the dim light, and with the other she lifted up his eyelids. A sharp hiss escaped between Allan’s teeth and a weak hand clutched at her cloak. Djaq forced herself to ignore him for the few seconds she peered into eyes that were glassy and unfocused. Most alarmingly, the right pupil appeared far larger than the one in the left. A swell of irritation aimed inwardly gripped her for failing to notice this right away, even as her heart sank at the discovery.
At last she pulled back and let Allan seek a reprieve from the weak torchlight by burying his face against her bent knees. She caught hold of the hand tangled in her cloak, stroking slowly back and forth with her thumb to extend what little comfort the simple action could convey. Her free fingers lightly pressed against the base of Allan’s throat and felt the odd combination of a sluggish heartbeat and a tense pulse. Djaq closed her eyes and tried not to give in to the despair endeavoring to overwhelm her. If she was correct, Allan’s condition was life-threatening, but not inevitably fatal. She would not let it be so. Not when he had already evaded death once today.
And still the helplessness lapped at her, corroding her determination by degrees. If it came to the point where she would need to intercede on Allan’s behalf, it would not be safe to do so here even if she had had the necessary instruments with her. Neither could she in good conscience leave him in his current state, nor could there be any question of Allan’s capability in making it outside the castle with or without her assistance while managing to avoid detection. Each new notion more untenable than the last. Djaq shook her head and reprimanded herself for so quickly falling back into pessimistic thoughts, whether they were true or not. For now, she must focus on what she could do.
She squeezed Allan’s hand to get his attention. Tentatively, he rolled his head to the side and slowly blinked up at her. “Djaq, what’re—? ‘M not feelin’ s’good.”
“I know. I’m going to help you to sit up now. It might help you feel a little better and I can see to your ribs. A few of them may be broken.”
Allan winced as though she had yelled in his ear. “I don’—’s not s’ch a good idea. Dizzy.”
“Djaq?” A new, lower voice called from behind her.
Djaq snapped her head around to face the silhouetted figure standing in the doorway. But already her mind had recognized the concerned but admonitory tones of the man she had last seen intently repairing the alarm trap. “Will?”
“Djaq, what are you doing here?” Will asked in a vehement whisper as he came to crouch down beside her.
Djaq bristled. “I could ask you the same thing.”
An irritated huff escaped between his lips. “Both you and your medicine satchel were gone. It didn’t take many guesses to figure out where else you’d go, tonight, without telling anyone and when no one in the villages has needed your care recently.” Will fought to keep his voice pitched low, but it was a near thing. What had she been thinking? Coming here on her own, and just to help a traitor. Will kept his eyes on Djaq, steadfastly refusing to look at his former friend.
Djaq’s chin lifted a fraction. “I came because it was the right thing to do. Allan has been left here without assistance or concern from anyone. He might have died, all alone. Do you really believe he deserves that, Will Scarlett?”
“You still shouldn’t be here. He’s not worth risking your safety—”
He was interrupted by a whimper from below so desperate that his gaze snapped downward before he could think to maintain his indifference. Allan appeared unaware of his presence, however; his breath was coming in shallow frantic puffs and his eyes raked the air above him with small erratic movements. Djaq immediately bent over him, inquiring whether he could hear her, but Allan gave no discernible response and only grew more agitated. Suddenly, his entire body tensed and his limbs strained outward to the point of what must have been intense discomfort, as if invisible ropes were secured at his wrists and ankles and were now set on rending him apart. At the same time, Allan released a hoarse, drawn out cry which would have normally worried Will about attracting unwanted attention, but any such fears were eclipsed by the mute horror rushing over him. He could merely stare powerlessly as the tension drained just enough from Allan’s muscles to allow him to begin shaking violently. Djaq said something to him, but the words were unintelligible through the rushing whine filling his ears. His sight had compacted to the frenzied spasming of Allan’s face. In the next moment, firm hands guided his own to rest between Allan’s head and the stone floor, cushioning any particularly sharp jerks. Will finally managed to tear his eyes away to look over at Djaq where she held Allan with only enough restraint to prevent him from turning onto his back. Her eyes met his briefly, but for long enough for Will to see the same bleak helplessness sweeping through him echoed in her brown depths. That only frightened him further. He had never known Djaq to lack a solution to any injury the outlaws had sustained. Make it stop, Djaq. Please.
It didn’t stop.
Until it did. Will couldn’t have said how long the convulsions lasted before they petered out and Allan slumped motionless. He knew it could have not been more than a few minutes, but it had seemed like an unremitting eternity, waiting for it to end. A part of him felt aged several years.
“What—what was that?” His voice sounded small and plaintive even to his own ears. He swallowed hard. Did it again.
Djaq’s head bowed for a moment before she turned to face him squarely. Her voice was heavy under the weight of her words, but it held steady. “I believe he is bleeding inside his head. That was his body rebelling against the compression the blood is exerting on his brain. Here—help me lift him up. We need to keep his head elevated; it may relieve some of the pressure.” Together they carefully propped Allan against the bed-frame. Then Djaq turned back to him, her face written in lines of challenge. “Will, Allan will die unless I operate to stop the bleeding. I had hoped—sometimes it ceases on its own, but I fear that is no longer a possibility. We must take him to the camp.”
“Yes.” The word spilled from his lips without thought. It was the only thing he could say; for although the fury which had consumed him whenever his thoughts turned to Allan for the past week still snarled within him, it now sprung away from his grasp, leaving him defenseless against the stinging sorrow and confusion. Against how much he already missed Allan. Against how he didn’t want to see Allan hurt, no matter how he had hurt them.
Djaq accepted his agreement with a nod and a request to hold Allan upright while she removed his vest and shirt in order to wrap up his chest. As if sensing he desired further distraction from his thoughts, she swiftly explained the injuries her hands inspected for as they probed cautiously against Allan’s torso. Her voice abruptly cut off when her fingers’ progress halted a few inches below his collarbone, changing direction to slowly trace along a long ridge of puckered skin that had gone unnoticed until now in the semi-darkness. Upon further examination, they found another matching scar low on his right side.
“Those don’t look very old,” Will murmured faintly, mind racing to derive what could inflict such a wound.
“No. They were not tended to properly, either,” said Djaq. Then, with dawning comprehension and mild reproach, she added, “Allan.”
“What is it?”
“The night he came back beaten from the tavern…”
“You don’t think he got these from a punter,” Will finished for her, immediately following her train of thought. “But—why hide them?”
Each of the outlaws had at one time or another been on the receiving end of at least one of Djaq’s lectures about vigilantly cleaning wounds in order to prevent infection. Why would Allan have had his minor—and undoubtedly less painful—injuries from that night cared for and neglect these?
Djaq shook her head, but said, “Maybe that is when all of the hiding began.”
Soberly, she returned to preparing Allan to be spirited away with minimal discomfort. Will knew he should be thinking of how they were going to slip out of the castle, but his mind kept wandering to Allan, whose face looked deceptively peaceful where it rested against Will’s shoulder. Even unconscious, he still managed to conceal what was actually going on within him. Had he ever truly understood him? They had been friends, best mates even. How could Allan have turned away from that so totally? In the time since the betrayal had been exposed, Will hadn’t allowed himself the opportunity to try to comprehend something that seemed so unfathomable, let alone reprehensible, but now he was afraid he might never know. Suddenly it mattered.
With a start, he realized Allan’s eyes had drifted open halfway. Not knowing what else to do, he placed a hand on Djaq’s shoulder to alert her to the change. She cinched the last knot tight and then shifted to settle at Allan’s right shoulder. Will’s ears strained, but failed, to discern the low, gentle stream of words she spoke to Allan, both reassuring and coaxing, while she clasped his hand in both of hers. After several long moments, he saw Allan’s eyes slide over to alight on Djaq’s. He released a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding at this minor reaction. The small sound attracted Allan’s attention, and Will felt himself stiffen under a look unlike any he had ever encountered on Allan’s face. The fear and bewilderment could only be expected, but what he hadn’t anticipated was how that would be nearly obscured by the stark surrender that defined every feature. Dull eyes awash in pain stared up at Will, imploring for relief, but unable to summon any fight in and of himself.
“You’re going to be alright,” Will heard himself say. He winced at the trite sentiment. There wasn’t a single thing alright about any of this.
Allan’s only response to the statement was to lower his head to Will’s shoulder once more. With his slumped posture and his arms hanging loosely at his sides, he resembled nothing so much as a marionette whose strings had been clipped and then unceremoniously discarded in a heap on the ground.
His mind balked at this image, shoving it away into a distant, dusty corner. He spun his head back to Djaq. “Can we move him yet?’
“Yes,” she confirmed. Already she had started stuffing her implements back into their pack and motioned for him to help her slip Allan’s shirt back on. “I will cover you if you think you can carry him until we are outside the castle.”
Will nodded. Their options were limited, after all. Easing his around Allan’s shoulders and under his knees, Will hefted the other man into his arms and haltingly levered himself to his feet. Immediately, Allan let out a low moan, the knuckles of his right hand standing out white around a hurriedly cleanched fist full of Will's shirt. Will exchanged troubled glances with Djaq. The journey ahead was only going to get worse.
Djaq tenderly cupped Allan’s less-battered cheek in her hand. “Allan, I am sorry. I wish nothing more than for you to be able to rest peacefully, but I must ask you to try to stay awake. We will be as quick as we can, but you need to stay awake as long as you are able, much as it hurts. Do you understand?”
After a long pause, Will felt more than saw Allan’s assent by means of the smallest of rustlings against his tunic. Djaq brushed a kind hand through light brown curls as she lifted her head to lock eyes with Will. There was trust there in her gaze, but also something that was both question and challenge. Maybe because now, with their departure imminent, he found himself weighing the same question did he understand; is Allan’s life still worth risking your own? Will gave her a silent nod of his own. Then she turned for the door and they fled.
The tension tying knots in Will’s shoulders eased marginally when they at last reached the cover of the forest. The gloom enveloping the trees slowed their progress considerably, but it also meant safety from the probing eyes of the sheriff’s men. Will made an awkward adjustment to his grip on the makeshift litter—hastily fashioned in an alleyway with wooden poles, rope, and cloth from a market stall—to rap insistent fingers against Allan’s upper arm. He frowned at the same lack of response he had received the past three attempts while testing for alertness. Allan’s tenuous hold on consciousness seemed to be deteriorating fast; though twice before, while they had still been in the castle, Allan’s returning nudges or blinks had trailed off only for the injured man to swat at Will faintly, but in clear annoyance, when Will’s concern had driven him to start tapping constantly. The second time had been accompanied by an irritated half-huff half-groan emitted just as a pair of guards tromped through a bisecting corridor not five feet from the alcove Will had been sheltered in. The relief was so palpable when the patrol had passed none the wiser that he had nearly lost his grip on Allan.
“Come on, Allan,” he muttered now. Leaning forward, he struggled to pick up any indication of awareness, but other than the bouncing and swaying of the litter, Allan was perfectly still.
“What is it, Will?” Djaq called from up ahead. She had insisted on taking the end nearest Allan’s feet, pointing out it was the only way to keep Allan’s head elevated as they traveled, and yet her inability to monitor Allan’s condition clearly perturbed her.
“It’s just, I think he’s fully unconscious now.” His insides suddenly flipped over uneasily. He didn’t entirely understand why Djaq had wanted Allan to stay awake. He licked his lips. “Is he—? Will you—?”
The darkness somehow managed to obscure both his view of Djaq and the timbre of her voice. “We are nearly back. Are there any other changes to his condition?”
The ground sloped steeply upward under his feet, letting him know they were coming over the rise right in front of the gully where he had constructed the camp. A little more of the tightness in his shoulders loosened. Will opened his mouth to answer Djaq in the negative, and then he hesitated. “Hang on, I’m not sure he’s breathing properly—he’s wheezing a bit. And it’s speeding up.”
As they crested the hill, Djaq motioned for them to lower the litter to the ground. A moment later she crouched at his shoulder with her fingers searching for Allan’s heartbeat, head lowered to listen to what was swiftly becoming labored, gulping breaths.
“There is nothing obstructing his breathing,” she pronounced. Her head shook in growing confusion and alarm. “Let’s get him inside.”
Deep shadows masked the descent to the camp and would make maneuvering the litter precarious at best, so Will once again lifted Allan’s weight on his own, taking a few extra seconds to secure his footing on the uneven ground. As he started down the sharp decline into the ravine, Djaq fell into step beside and just ahead of him. Her movements were jerky, revealing her anxiousness to be working now that they were so close. Softly, he beckoned her to go on ahead and begin preparations for—whatever she was going to do. She wavered briefly, but then bade him with gravity to be careful and darted away into the dark.
Left alone, he concentrated on safely navigating every loose rock and unexpected furrow in the dirt, but his mind never strayed far from the flagging health of his burden. The only form of communication left between him and Allan was the lethargic thrum of his heart in jarring disharmony to the rapid expanding and contracting of his chest. It was infinitely strange, and Will could think of no reasoning behind it. It was as if Allan was running from pursuit while deeply asleep.
One more desperate gasp shuddered inside Allan’s chest, and then his breathing abruptly died out altogether.