Chapter 1: Prologue
The king was coming home.
This time, there was no doubt that it was happening. He told Robin and the others that he would follow them back after getting a few things sorted in the Holy Land. After all, his brother was not about to punish Vaizey and Gisborne for their assassination attempt; besides, that was something Richard wanted to personally oversee. And, he could hardly allow subjects loyal enough to journey thousands of miles for him, who risked their lives to save his-- and, whom he had nearly executed,-- to remain outlawed and living in the forest.
With the end to their hardships in sight, the return trip to England was a jovial one. Over the voyage, the gang made plans for what they would do when they were no longer running from the crooked law. They even had a new friend, Tuck, a soldier-monk who had performed clandestine work for King Richard, and who was now charged with checking up on the sheriff and his lieutenant until Richard arrived (and seeing to it that some of these couples wed; "Honestly, Robin; you're outlaws, not heathens," the king chided his friend). Carter also joined them, recovering from his wound on the voyage back, and intending to await the king's return with them.
But, when they got into in port, the news awaiting them was mostly bad. The one good word to reach them was that the king had struck a truce with Saladin; the fighting was over, at least for now. On his way home, however, Richard had been intercepted and taken prisoner, and was now being held in an unknown location, a steep ransom being demanded for his release. Meanwhile, it was rumored that Prince John, together with King Philip of France, was offering his brother's abductor money to hold him indefinitely.
Vaizey was still sheriff, Gisborne was still at Locksley, and there was no help in sight for the outlaws.
Some of the gang mourned the loss of their dreams more than others, but they all knew what had to be done, and went back to Sherwood. Recovering the loot that they had hidden before leaving, they distributed it to grateful villagers, who had been hard-pressed whilst the gang was away. It was yet winter, although spring was in sight, and most of the peasantry needed some degree of aid. One high point of their early days back was a double wedding, initially planned as two separate affairs in Locksley, which Tuck performed on the first Saturday after returning to the forest. Fortunately, the day was crisp and clear, and gave them all something to smile about again. The ceremony and subsequent celebration was a small event, with only the gang and a handful of friends from the villages in attendance, but it was a good way to finish setting aside disappointments from their adventure. Within a couple of weeks, it was almost as if they had never left.
They did realize soon enough that their camp, well-suited to a group of single people, was not going to work as comfortably with two married couples. And, when Djaq started becoming ill nearly every morning, it was also clear that they would soon need better protection from the elements. Scouting around, they eventually settled on a network of caves slightly nearer to the Great North Road, with a handful of easily-hidden entrances and exits. In the middle was a large area open to the sky, which would make a lovely great room. Will planned out some designs, and construction began on the new camp, keeping in mind that it could prove to be their permanent home.
More taxes were levied on the people, ostensibly to raise the ransom for King Richard. Most felt that none of the funds collected were truly marked for that purpose, and more likely would be used by Prince John to sweeten the bribe that would prevent his brother from ever returning.
The gang gathered intelligence from servants in the castle, managing to pull off heists with as much ease as before. They attempted to gain information from Locksley, but there was none to be had; Gisborne had returned to England a subdued man. Servants from both places reported that he appeared distant, and one even remarked that his heart no longer seemed to be in enforcing the Sheriff's dictates or schemes. He spent his nights staring at the fire in the great room at Locksley Manor, drinking until he passed out. He had even begun going through his days drunk, accomplishing little, if anything. The sheriff was said to be losing patience with him.
Marian felt that he had been shaken by nearly killing her. His sword had pierced her skin before Robin's arrow jerked his arm back, and had Robin been a moment later, or his aim less true, the blade would have continued straight through her body. She had realized the true depth of her love for Robin as she made her declaration to Guy, and knowing that he would have ended her life and her future because of those feelings, effectively ended any affection she may have felt for him. Still, she found herself pitying him, even worried for him, remembering the potential she had glimpsed and the kindnesses he had shown her.
Robin suspected that Gisborne knew he was a marked man, should the king ever be released, and that the knowledge was the source of his breakdown.
The truth lay somewhere in the middle. Rather than become concerned by the fouled assassination, Vaizey was seeing their continued freedom as a success, proof that power was still within their grasp. Guy, however, was well aware how tenuous his position was, how it all hinged on the king's freedom, or lack thereof. And, Marian was forever lost to him; the betrayal in her eyes as he lunged at her haunted his dreams. His own ardor had begun to cool when he discovered her identity as the Night Watchman, but it had not chilled completely; and he would have been satisfied with a continued friendship... at least, for awhile. But, any anger he felt toward her, both from her dishonesty and her declaration of love toward his adversary, had dissipated as he saw the blood staining the front of her gown. He thanked God daily that her wound was superficial, but shock and guilt erased his fury, and he had eventually come to find relief in the knowledge that she was out of his grasp, even if that meant that she was married to Hood.
Despite everything, he did not hate Robin anymore, not even when the scar from the bandit's arrow caused his arm to ache. The man was fighting to end Vaizey's reign over Nottinghamshire, and Guy found himself considering the possibility of assisting his enemy's mission, by personally taking out the sheriff. But, these thoughts were so foreign to him, such a complete shift from what he had worked toward for the last ten years, that he could not entirely face them. So, when they nagged at him the most-- in the evenings, into the nights,-- he drowned them in wine. The headache when he awoke was worth the temporary escape, and was easily cured by more wine. It was only a matter of time before he would not wake up at all some morning, and he actually found the knowledge comforting. Better that than the hangman's noose if King Richard were ever freed. Somehow, Guy was certain he would be.
Two months after their return, everyone was settled into routines-- some old, some new; some welcome, some not. As summer drew near, things started to change.
Robin and Marian have a nighttime conversation.
Robin jerked awake, his heart pounding. Beside him, Marian stirred, disturbed by his movement.
Lifting her head from where it had been resting on his shoulder, she peered blearily down at him, a frown marring her brow. "What's wrong?" she asked in a voice still slurred by sleep. "Another nightmare?"
Not long ago, the question would have had an entirely different connotation for him, one of war; but, what it meant now was worse in many ways. The dream's images would not disperse, and the panic and desperation they wrought yet held him in their grip. "Tell me that you're safe," he demanded more harshly than he intended, grasping her shoulders with the fear that if he let go, she would fade like a memory. "Tell me that I stopped Gisborne from killing you."
His fingers were digging into her arms just short of being painful, but the terror in his eyes hurt her more. It was not the first time he had awoken so desperately, but this was the worst occasion yet. Masking her discomfort and concern since he clearly needed to be calmed, she smiled, gently placing a hand on his cheek. "I am safe, Robin. You stopped him from killing me."
He stared at her a moment longer, before suddenly relaxing back with a long, troubled sigh. Marian cuddled against him again, her fingers tracing a light pattern on his chest. "Do you want to tell me about it?"
"No." He hesitated, and then added, "But, you want me to."
It was an uphill battle, one Marian had been fighting since before she came to live in the forest for good. Robin was too quick to hide his feelings, burying them so deeply that they attacked him when his guard was down, like this. While she was also guilty of that sort of behavior, she had been making a concerted effort to open up to him more, and she was set on receiving that same consideration.
The one good thing that had come from their awful journey east was deciding to marry without waiting for everything to be resolved. They had already exchanged vows in front of their friends when they thought they would bake to death in the desert; and the terror on Robin's face in the instant before he knew whether or not he had halted Guy's sword in time was an image Marian could not erase, breaking her heart a little more every time her mind replayed it. So, when he had taken her aside that evening and quietly asked if she would consider having an official ceremony upon their return home, something to give them a better memory than what they had, she agreed immediately.
The king's admonition was merely a footnote after that. He had offered to perform their wedding before they left, but Robin turned him down, wanting to be married at Locksley. On one hand, Marian thought being married by the king was not an opportunity to pass up; however, Locksley Chapel was where Robin's family had married for the last few generations, and that meant more. Even though, in the end, the ceremony had been held in Sherwood, it had been too perfect a day to have cause for any regret.
However it had come to pass, the point was that she was his wife now, the ring firmly on her finger, and her husband was not going to keep important things to himself any longer, such as the dream that kept plaguing him. If it came to it, she would tie him to a tree and not free him until he related the entire tale; hopefully, though, she would be able to simply talk him into it. "Yes, I want you to tell me."
So far, they did not appear to have woken anyone else, but Robin wanted to ensure that the others not hear him recount some of the deep-seated fears that continued to disturb him. "Come for a walk with me," he murmured.
They rose in silence, donning cloaks against the cool air. The days were getting warmer, but the nights had not yet caught on to the idea. Quickly scanning the placid faces of the sleeping gang, Robin's eyes stopped briefly on Allan. His friend's betrayal still hurt, even despite the time that had passed since their reconciliation. He had come close to killing the man on more than one occasion; but seeing his friend die in the dream, a half-dozen arrows in his body, was nearly as bad as the recollections of their fights. Never, Robin vowed silently. I will never freely doubt your loyalty.
He then peered over at Carter, dozing silently in his bunk. The Crusader had had such a close call that Djaq was barely able to save him, and even now, six months later, his healed wound pained him. In the nightmare, everyone was so caught up in Marian's suffering that they had not even noticed the soldier's absence, leaving him to bleed out in that alley.
Marian touched his arm. "Are we going?" she asked quietly. Robin nodded, and hand-in-hand, they crept out of the camp and into the forest.
When they were far enough away that they would not be heard, Robin sank down beneath a large, elderly yew tree and tugged Marian across his lap. Once she was there, he wrapped the edges of his cloak around her, holding her close. She rested against him and waited for him to begin.
After a few moments of silence, in which he fruitlessly hoped she would relent, he told her everything. Well, almost everything; she did not need to know that he had been romancing two other women in the otherworld-- especially since one of them was the Locksley potter's daughter, Kate, whom Allan seemed to be starting to fancy. Marian might actually be somewhat curious to hear that the other was Gisborne's sister. He and Isabella had been playmates when they were small, but grew apart as they got a bit older. She clearly had not been with Guy when he returned to Nottinghamshire, and he had told everyone that he had no family, even if they knew better; Robin still was not certain what had happened to her, or why she had been in his mind.
There had been a part of the dream in which he fed Isabella of Gisborne strawberries so plump, they made him hungry to remember. He made a mental note to collect some real ones soon, for the amazing woman snuggled against him. Now, that would be a good use of a handful of strawberries and a warm afternoon...
"Robin?" Marian prompted.
"You stopped. That was not the end, was it?"
He blinked. "Oh. No. No, it was not." Clearing his throat and dragging his thoughts back to the matter at hand, he continued. Some of it sounded so ridiculous under the light of the moon; Bibles in English, lions in the forest, figures of the king crafted of wax realistically enough to fool everyone.
Some of it was understandable, in a dream sense. Several of the people wandering through the tale existed, such as Kate, the potter's daughter. And Marian's cousin Meg, whom he had not seen since they were teenagers (and who had thus been quite young in his mind's eye, although in actuality, she had a few years on himself). It was not too surprising that she had made an appearance, since Marian had recently told him about Meg's last visit to Knighton, whilst he was on Crusade. Apparently, the Lady Margaret had been fascinated by Guy of Gisborne, and could not understand her cousin's reticence in accepting his suit. Privately, Robin wondered if her influence had been behind Marian's inability to see Gisborne's wickedness, but did not dare suggest it; the two had been very close as girls.
The captain from the ship which had brought them back to England, a man who refused to give his name and answered only to "Archer," had been his half-brother in the dream, of all things. And not only his-- he had shared a mother with Gisborne. Robin remembered his father speaking well of Ghislaine of Gisborne, but never in a glowing enough sense to indicate a passion for her. No, Malcolm had died loving but one woman, Clorinda of Locksley, Robin's mother.
He could sympathize. Parts of the dream were not remotely ridiculous or understandable. Granted, the worst of it was obviously a combination of Marian's two brushes with death, the two times he nearly lost his heart. But, he could not speak that aloud. Superstitious, he was not, but there were some things even the most logical person would not gamble on. He could still feel his wife in his arms, her blood spilling out of her belly and drenching the sand around his knees, her body going lax as the last drop of life abandoned her. Without speaking of it, he trembled at the memory, unable to suppress the instinctive reaction to the images in his head.
Feeling the movement, Marian snuggled in closer, wrapping an arm around his neck and running her fingers through his hair. She meant for it to be a soothing gesture, but Robin read it differently, and he leaned down, capturing her lips with his own. He had calmed considerably since first awaking, but there was still an edge of desperation in his kiss, and she responded with a quiet desperation of her own.
The thing was, he was not the only one who had nightmares, who saw the death of his beloved, although her visions varied more than his did. Some drew from actual memory, from instances of guards aiming arrows at his heart, to seeing him ringed in by swords, or dangling over a pit filled with poisonous snakes. Others were more creative, though only rarely outside the realm of possibility. Strangely, the death they had nearly shared with the rest of the gang, all strung out to be cooked in the eastern sun, never came back to haunt her. It was always Robin, alone, breathing his last without her or anyone else to comfort him.
But, they were awake now and this was life, and there was a sweet combination of frenzy and celebration as they made love under the sympathetic branches of the yew tree.
Afterward, as she rested against him, Marian murmured, "Are you yet convinced of my well-being?"
He chuckled. "I think most of Nottingham is convinced of your well-being."
She made a disgusted noise and shoved him lightly, but could not resist laughing. He kissed her again, this one far more contented than earlier. "Truly, though, are you feeling better?" she pressed, her arm wrapped around him, her fingers playing with the curls at his nape.
He grinned and gave her a squeeze. "How could I not be?"
Her hand stilled. "Robin."
With a sigh, he sobered. "Vaguely. But, until the king returns and sets things right, you will be in danger. And while you're in danger, I cannot rest easily."
"You are in far more danger than I," she pointed out quietly.
Robin's first impulse was to shrug that off with a joke, but he knew she would be upset with him if he did. Reluctantly, he replied, "I know. But..."
He leaned his head back against the tree trunk. "Honestly? After being surrounded by countless highly-trained enemies on the battlefield, a few incompetent guards do not worry me much."
She had a chill at that thought, and had to push it away for the moment. Even as she wished he had not said it, she had to note that it was a step for him toward that openness she sought. "The guards have gotten the better of you on occasion. And you are not always up against them."
"Marian, this is my life. This is our life."
"You take too many risks," she said.
He frowned. "Most of them are for a reason."
"And others are for show."
Frustrated, he burst out, "What do you want me to say? That I'll stop? I cannot do that. Too many people depend on me to give it all up. And the rest of it... it's who I am."
Moving off of him, she demanded, "And what happens to all of those people who depend on you if you're killed?" What happens to me?
Robin bit his lip, staring at her. "You are not the first person to ask me that," he muttered.
"I am the first person to ask that who depends on you as your wife," she shot back. "To everyone else, you are a friend, a leader, a brother. Robin, I am your future. And you are mine. What happens when we have a child? I cannot tell your son that his father was shot down trying to best thirty armed guards because it amused him to challenge them."
Blue eyes flashed in the moonlight. "So, we are to have a son?"
Marian growled. "Perhaps. Someday. Now, stop ignoring my point."
He grabbed her by the waist, pulling her back across his lap. "I am not ignoring it. I merely have better things on my mind."
"You are intolerable," she informed him, but there was little heat in her words. He had started nibbling her neck, and what he was doing with his hands was making her irritation evaporate. For now. "Do not think you are getting out of it that easily," she muttered.
"I do not," he admitted, his words muffled by her skin. He did not know how she did it, being that she lived like the rest of them, but she still managed to smell like heaven. "But, how about a temporary truce, eh?"
She gasped. "Very well, a temporary one."
Whatever he tried to say to that turned into a wordless mumble, and then neither of them said much for awhile.
Later, as they ambled back toward camp, Robin's arm slung around Marian's shoulders and her arm around his waist, he said, "So, what shall we name this son of ours?"
She smiled up at him in the moonlight, and his heart flipped over. "I suppose you wish a son to be named for you."
He laughed. "That would be something. Might he be called 'Robin of Sherwood,' then, to differentiate between us?"
"Heaven forbid there would be two 'Robin Hoods,'" Marian teased.
He grinned down at her, and then looked up to the stars. "Edward."
She would have suggested it if they actually had a son, but it warmed her to hear him think of it now. "I would like that," she said softly. "Edward Malcolm."
"What, not 'Edward Robin'?" He let out a small "oomph" as she dug her elbow into his ribs.
"Our second son could be called Robin," she suggested.
"And what of our third, fourth and fifth sons?" he asked.
She let out an incredulous laugh. "How many sons are you hoping to have?"
"Oh, at least six," he declared grandly. "Not to mention an equal number of daughters."
Marian shook her head in amusement. The moment was so incredibly lighthearted, a rarity in their lives, and she loved both it and the man with whom she was sharing it. "What names would we give daughters?"
"That's easy. Chastity, Prudence--"
"Why not add 'Obedience' to the list?" she exclaimed, making him laugh.
"Not a bad idea."
"It is a terrible idea!" But his laughter was contagious.
"No," he said, humor still in his voice. "We shall name our first daughter after our mothers. Then, we will cite the behaviors they should follow."
"Agreed to the first. We will discuss the second, should the situation present itself."
He stopped walking, causing her to fumble a step; however, since their arms were still around one another, she did not trip. "Will you be happy when it does?"
She stared at him, momentarily speechless. "Why would I be otherwise?"
Robin did not make eye contact, staring beyond her at the forest floor, nearly invisible in the darkness. "You like to jump in with the ambushes..." He trailed off, not wanting to say the rest of what he was thinking.
But he did not have to. "And you would not want me to do that then." He winced slightly, and she realized he expected her to get angry with him, which irritated her. She pulled away from him and planted her hands on her hips. "How selfish do you think I am?"
From his expression, this was not the argument he had braced himself for. "I do not think you are selfish. Quite the opposite."
"Well, I would have to be, to throw myself into a fight if I was expecting. And clearly, you think I would want to do that."
"That is not what I meant."
"Really? Because it sounded that way to me."
He tried to count to ten in his head and got to four before replying, "I was trying not to tell you what to do, or order you around. I just wanted to make sure you would not feel trapped."
She blinked. "Trapped? If I was carrying your child? Robin, that's absurd." Throwing her hands into the air, she began moving back toward camp again.
"Marian, wait." He caught her arm as she passed, halting her. She turned to face him, and he said, "I do not want you to have any regrets."
At the earnestness on his face, she sighed. "I would not."
"You say that now, but are you sure? We might never get to live in a house again, and I already know Will and Djaq are worried about that--"
"We would figure something out. We will." Her voice had softened with her eyes, and she took his hand. "That is what I want. It is what I have wanted all along. For us to be together as a family, starting a family. I could never regret that."
He studied her doubtfully, but finally accepted that she meant it. "I'm glad." Sliding a hand around the back of her neck, he bent down and kissed her thoroughly. As he moved back, he added, "Believe it or not, it is all I ever wanted, either."
"Liar," she teased, her lips curving up. "You also wanted recognition and love."
He could not argue the point, although he tried to come up with a way of rewording it. Chuckling as he realized the futility of his efforts, he gave in. "All right, so maybe a little recognition is nice. But, mostly it comes down to doing what I can to take care of people who cannot do it themselves."
Marian understood that that was not an excuse, as she felt the same way. "And we will continue to do so, no matter where we end up living or how many children we have. And I will be helping in that when we have children, just not as actively before they are born."
She saw the mischievous grin that spread across his face. "Then, I will just have to see to it that--"
"Do not even say it," she threatened, but with a smile. She pulled him down for another kiss, and then said, "We should go get some sleep."
"Yes, we probably should," he agreed reluctantly. "Or, we could go back to the tree..."
She laughed. "Come on, Husband Dear. Back to camp with you."
"Where's the fun in that?" he argued teasingly.
"It might not be fun, but it is necessary, if you want me awake enough to visit the tree tomorrow."
With one more quick kiss, he acquiesced. "I suppose it's worth it, then."
Becoming suddenly serious, Marian said, "I do love you. You know that, right?"
Robin nodded. "Of course, I know that. And you do know that I love you, too?"
"I have never doubted it," she whispered.
He grinned. "Good. Now, let's go get some of that sleep you seem to want so much."
Allan and Kate have a brush with the sheriff's latest man-- and with each other-- in Locksley.
As the gang approached Locksley for the deliveries the next afternoon, Marian laid a hand on Robin’s arm. “No unnecessary risks today.”
He gave her a half-amused, half-affronted look. “We’re handing out food and coin; what risks could I possibly take?”
“I am sure you could find a few,” she answered lightly.
Shaking his head, Robin handed Much the package for the potter's family. Much eyed it in dismay.
"Do I have to? Can't John take it?" he asked a bit desperately.
The corners of Robin's mouth tugged upward. "Why, Much! Do not tell me you're afraid of a poor widow."
Much huffed. "I'm not afraid of her. I just don't like her going on at me all the time about how we put them in danger by helping them, and we'll bring the sheriff down on the town, and can't we bathe every now and then? She'd never go on like that to John. Or Marian! She'd be nice to Marian, I bet."
As Robin grinned, Allan stepped up and clapped Much on the shoulder. "I'll get this one," he said, taking the package and strolling toward the cottage without waiting for a reply.
When he was out of earshot, Much turned to Robin, looking quite pleased with himself. "I think it worked."
"You did well, my friend," Robin agreed with a laugh, handing him a basket for the thatcher's family.
Unaware of any part of that exchange, Kate carefully set three finished pots on a shelf in the workshop. Behind her, Matthew shut the door to the kiln and looked over to her, his eyebrows rising as his gaze went past her shoulder. "Hey, Kate, your boyfriend's back," he teased.
She glanced up and saw Allan A Dale loping in the direction of their house. Turning to shoot her brother a glare, she snapped, "He's not my boyfriend." But, thinking of the blue-eyed outlaw who had been verbally sparring with her lately, she could not hold back a small smile. Glancing down at the clay on the table in the middle of the room, she added in a softer tone, "He'd be all right if he'd bathe once in awhile."
"If you don't get moving, you'll miss him," Matthew pointed out.
"Like I care," she retorted, but stepped out onto the path anyway.
Allan had just turned toward the door of the cottage, but smoothly veered to the right to meet Rebecca's daughter in front of their workshop. He had not really paid much attention to her in the past, mostly dealing with her mother when he was the one to make the delivery to their family. The woman had a sharp tongue, but she was nothing compared to his own mother, and she did not terrify him like she did the others. However, since he had first had a chance to speak with Kate a couple of months back, when Rebecca was ill, he had started really looking forward to the gang's trips to Locksley. Kate was easy to rile, but she gave as good as she got, and it had been awhile since he had a chance to match jibes with so worthy an opponent. Not to mention that she was nice to look at-- not that he would give her the satisfaction of saying so.
"You again?" she called as he walked up to her. "Don't you have anything better to do than annoy me every week?"
"What can I say? I drew the short straw."
She sniffed. "Seems to me Locksley drew the short straw the day you lot walked in."
"Oh, so now you're the voice of Locksley? You've lived here, what, a year?"
"That's a year longer than you," she pointed out haughtily. “And it’s not like I’m exactly from very far away; Farthing’s just down the road a piece-- not that they're any better off when you stop there.”
He started to reply, when the sound of hoofbeats echoed between the cottages. Both of them turned toward the sound, in time to see sheriff's men ride into the village, their current commander in the middle. Pieter, he was called; ever since Guy became useless, the sheriff seemed to go through a new henchman every week or so. This one was particularly ugly; short and thin to the point of being angular and hollow-looking, with pinched, cruel features and greasy, dark hair. His voice was high-pitched and nasally, with an accent that Allan could not place. Nor did he find it particularly important to figure out, since there was sure to be a new man in Pieter’s position soon.
Allan noted some of the gang hurrying to hide as he moved to do the same, but he could not have said where everyone wound up.
"Quick, in here," Kate hissed, pulling Allan into the workshop. Matthew was already shoving aside crates from underneath a table, and gestured for Allan, still clutching their parcel, to duck into the hiding place. As Kate hastened to rearrange the crates to conceal him, the boy went outside to divert attention from the movement within.
Pieter brought his horse to a halt in the center of the village, and surveyed the stoic faces of the peasantry around him. "The sheriff requires a woman," he announced. With a twist of his thin lips, he explained, "He needs a pretty young girl to entertain a guest. I assured him that I could find a volunteer in Locksley."
His words made their way into the workshop, where Kate was just about to slide the last crate in front of Allan. Their eyes met as they heard what Pieter was after. "You should get in here," Allan said quietly.
Kate shook her head. "There's no room."
"Then I'll get out."
"And hang when he sees you," she muttered, shoving the crate into place. "Just stay there and shut up. I can take care of myself."
She was just about to stand when Pieter said from the doorway, "Well, well. What have we here?" Kate froze, still hunched over, as he walked deliberately up behind her. "Thinking of hiding, were you?" he murmured dangerously into her ear.
From behind the crates, Allan tensed, preparing to jump out and distract Pieter. But before he could, a voice only marginally recognizable as Kate's rasped, "O' course not, sir." Bemused, Allan held still, waiting to hear what happened next.
Rising only a little and keeping her back crooked, Kate turned awkwardly and squinted up at the man as if she were nearsighted. "I were just tidyin' up me shop." She leaned a little closer to his face, peering even more. "Did I hear y'say y'need a pretty girl?"
He moved back slightly, unable to keep all of the uncertainty off his face. "Yes..." he answered slowly.
She bestowed a twisted, toothy grin on him. "I'd love t'volunteer," she ground out, somehow managing to flutter her eyelashes through the squint.
"You?" Pieter asked in disbelief.
Wrinkling her forehead, Kate leant back as if offended. "Wha'? M'brother says I'm a right looker!"
Pieter glanced at the boy hovering in equal parts terror and indignation from his hemmed-in position between two of the guards, and rolled his eyes. "Right." With a shake of his head, he stalked out of the workshop, gesturing for his men to fall in. Nobody within the structure moved, afraid they would return.
A few minutes later, Pieter and his company exited the village with the carpenter's daughter, Elaine, in tow. As soon as they were out of sight, Matthew grabbed Kate in a bear hug as Allan pushed the crates aside and clambered out from beneath the table.
"You were brilliant!" Matthew enthused. "How did you think to do that?"
Allan eyed her curiously. "What was that?"
Dropping back into her guise, Kate squinted at him. "What was wha’?" she rasped, shuffling crookedly toward him.
He burst out laughing. "Not being funny, but that is terrifying."
"I'm going to go make sure Mum and Maggie are all right," Matthew cut in, and then left to do so.
Realizing he was still holding their care package, Allan handed it to Kate. "Here. And thanks for helping me out there, though you shouldn’t have."
Setting the package down on a throwing wheel, she scowled at him. "I don't need you telling me what to do. I did just fine."
He held up his hands. "Hey, I'm not arguing. Just, anybody involved with the sheriff is not someone you want to mess with. If he finds out you lied--"
"He won't," she declared.
Allan stared at her, frustrated at her insistence. "Fine. Forget I said anything."
"Fine. I will."
“You know, you’d be almost tolerable if you’d learn to say ‘thanks’ once in awhile,” he snapped.
She made a wordless sound of outrage. “Oh? Well, there’s nothing that could make you even remotely tolerable.”
“Is that a fact?”
“It’s a fact.”
Before he knew what he was doing, Allan had grabbed her shoulders and was kissing her. He was even more surprised to realize that she was kissing him back.
He had only just realized it when she shoved him away.
She went to slap him, but he caught her wrist before the blow could connect.
His hand was sending tingles up her arm, and Kate could not help herself; she bounced up on her tiptoes, wrapped her other arm around his neck, and pressed her lips to his.
He had just let go of her wrist in order to hold her properly, when someone pointedly cleared their throat from the doorway. Horrified, Kate pushed back from Allan, nearly toppling a shelf of pots that she bumped into as she flew away from him. Allan grabbed her arm to steady her, as Robin rescued the pottery, trying-- with little success-- not to laugh.
Once all was in order, Robin nodded to her. “Kate.” He then focused on Allan. “We need to make a plan. Pieter’s taken Elaine, and we’re getting her back. C’mon.”
“Sure, I’ll be right there.”
“We’re meeting behind the church,” Robin told him, and jogged out.
Once they were alone again, they stood there awkwardly, not making eye contact. “I’ve gotta go,” Allan said, rather unnecessarily.
Neither of them moved.
“I should check on my mum,” said Kate.
Finally, they looked at each other and burst out laughing, erasing the tension in the air.
“So, am I remotely tolerable, then?” he asked.
Raising an eyebrow, she admitted, “Remotely. Barely remotely, but remotely.”
He chuckled, and then moved closer to her. A strand of pale hair had fallen in front of her ear, and he tucked it back into place. “You should send me along,” he murmured. “It’s risky to be linked to us.”
“It’s risky to live under Nottingham,” she pointed out dryly. “But you’re right; I should send you along.”
He blinked, trying to turn the disappointment suddenly riling his stomach into resignation, which was easier to digest.
“But,” she continued, leaning in toward him, “I don’t think I will.”
“No?” His word mixed with her breath, she was so near to him then.
“Uh-uh.” This time, their kiss was slower, more curious.
It was with extreme reluctance that Allan finally broke it off. “I’ve really gotta go.”
“Yeah, you’ve got to rescue Elaine. Matthew’s sweet on her, you know.”
“I didn’t know.”
“Now you do. Go on, then.” She stepped back, nudging him toward the door.
He turned to leave, and had just ducked out of the workshop when something made him stop. Leaning back in, he asked, “Hey, you wanna have a picnic tomorrow?”
The question was completely out of nowhere, and she stared at him in surprise before blurting, “With you?”
His euphoria dimmed. “That’s kind of what I was thinking, yeah.”
She shook her head quickly. “No, that’s not what I meant. Sorry. Of course, I’d like to go on a picnic.”
“You’re not just saying that, are you?”
Giving him a pointed look, she retorted, “Do I seem like a person who just says things?”
Confidence restored, he grinned. “True enough. Meet me in the meadow at lunchtime, then.”
“Okay.” She gave him a warm smile, and he went over for one last, quick kiss before heading out to join the lads.
A few minutes later, Rebecca came in, but Kate hardly noticed, as she hummed to herself and painted a simple flower design on a pot.
Rebecca waited for her daughter to say something, but when she did not, finally announced, “I saw you kissing that outlaw.”
Kate’s head shot up, her good mood shattered by her mother’s accusatory tone. “So?”
“‘So?’ What do you mean, ‘So?’ Kate, he’s dangerous. They all are! And I’m not the only one who saw you. What if someone tells Sir Guy?”
“Then they tell Sir Guy,” Kate said irritably. “It’s not like he’s been doing much other than drinking, anyway.”
Rebecca stared at her in shock. “You’d be arrested and hung for associating with Robin and his gang!”
Kate gave a toss of her head. “Doubful. And anyway, they’d save me.”
“What if they’re gallivanting off to the Holy Land, like they did before? Then who’d save you?”
Kate looked levelly at her mother. “I trust them, Mum. I trust Allan. And besides, the sheriff’s lackey waltzed in here today. It could’ve been me he took to Nottingham, instead of Elaine. How is that any safer?”
“I could forbid you to see him.”
“You could. I’d still see him.”
“Kate, you’re too old to be acting this way,” Rebecca frowned.
“I’m too old to be treated this way.”
They stared at each other in frustration, at a stalemate.
“Please, don’t talk to that boy anymore,” Rebecca whispered.
“He’s not a boy,” said Kate softly. “And I’m not a girl. I’m a woman, and I’m going on a picnic with a man I fancy tomorrow.”
Without another word, Rebecca whirled around, storming back to the house.
Kate looked down at the pot in her hand. She had smudged the flower design. But rather than tossing it aside, she turned the smudge into a highlight, and then added the effect around the rest of the piece.
Her mother would come around. She had to.
The outlaws stage a rescue.
Allan was almost embarrassed by the stupidity of some people.
The gang had gone into Nottingham to see what they could find out about the sheriff’s guest, for whose enjoyment Elaine had been abducted. What they had learned indicated that this could be the simplest rescue ever.
The guest was a personal friend of Prince John, a wealthy French nobleman whose entourage was cutting loose in Nottingham Town, clad in distinct cloaks for the specific purpose of being identified and retrieved, should they drink themselves into a stupor.
A couple of well-placed punches in dark alleys, and the gang set themselves up to be retrieved, carried to the castle “to sleep it off.”
Thank God the sheriff goes through guards faster than Guy goes through wine lately, Allan mused, as he was hauled to a waiting cart by a pair of castle guards, new since his tenure had ended. The men were muttering to each other about the failings of the prince’s friends, and Allan was screaming in his head for them to shut up before they got themselves hung or thrown off a castle wall or something. But, to say anything would be to give himself away, and better them than him. He was tossed none too lightly into the cart, landing half on Little John and half on the crude planks making up the bed of the vehicle, barely managing to bite back a reaction. As the guards went to move the cart along, he exchanged a pained glance with the big man, and slid himself over as best he could without making it seem like he had moved much.
Speaking of Much, he was soon flung in such a way that he landed on both of them with a muffled “oomph,” which fortunately the guards did not seem to hear.
It was then that Allan realized that he was going to wind up underneath most of the gang, and steeled himself for an incredibly unpleasant trip.
In fact, it was not all that bad; Will was tossed square on his back and Marian on him, whereas Tuck, Robin and Carter were apparently all heaped on John’s side. So, it could have been worse.
Then, it got worse. He had not considered the actual friends of the nobleman. By the time the cart pulled up to a side entrance of the castle (the sheriff not wishing a load of drunken hangers-on to be sitting around the courtyard), there were at least six men piled on top of the outlaws, most of them on Will and Allan’s side. And they were not exactly lightweights, with two of their favorite pastimes being drinking and eating.
Once the cart was nearly against the castle wall, the guards unhooked the mule from the front and led it away, leaving their charges to fend for themselves. The outlaws on the opposite side of the cart were able to quickly untangle themselves, but Allan and Will were stuck fast.
“Hey, how about a hand?” Allan called, his words muffled by the time they reached his friends’ ears.
“Please?” Will put in desperately.
Soon, the gang was through the side door, and standing in a narrow corridor. “If this one’s a friend of the prince, the sheriff will’ve given him the best quarters. And if Elaine’s a present for him, she’ll probably be in the room next to his,” Allan murmured.
“Which way is that?” asked Robin quietly.
Allan turned to the right. “This way.”
The group crept down the passageway, peering down intersecting corridors to make sure they would not be seen, and pausing now and then when they heard footsteps. “Nobody comes along here,” Allan told the others over his shoulder, although he kept his voice at barely over a whisper. “I bet that’s why they left that lot where they did, so they wouldn’t run into anybody.”
He had just finished speaking and faced forward when a pretty, young maidservant, apparently wearing such soft-soled shoes that she had not made a sound whilst approaching down one of the intersecting hallways, appeared in front of them.
For a moment, everyone froze, staring at one another in shock. Then, she broke into a huge grin.
“Allan A Dale! Didn’t think we’d be seeing you round here again; it’s been boring as sin since you left. And who’s this with you?” She looked to the outlaws, and her wide green eyes grew huge. “Is that-- You’re Robin Hood!” At least she had the sense to lower her voice when she said it.
Allan’s heart had stopped when he had nearly run into someone, but he was able to breathe again when he realized who it was. “Hey, Florrie. Yeah, this is Robin Hood, and most of the rest of the gang.”
“Lady Marian?” she exclaimed. “We’d heard rumors, but I didn't know if they were true. You’re with Robin Hood now, too?”
Marian looked to Allan in consternation, as everyone else was also doing. “Florrie’s all right,” he assured them. “You saved her father last year in Clun--”
He broke off suddenly, remembering that it was Carter who had set the whole thing up with the sheriff. Fortunately, she seemed not to be aware of who Carter was. “And that’s after helping me keep him fed these last few years,” she told Robin. “Thank you.”
Robin smiled at her.
“Listen, we’re here for a girl who was taken from Locksley,” Allan told Florrie.
“Oh, that poor dove.” Florrie leaned in toward them. “The comte, he’s a bad one. If I didn’t already know that the sheriff’s the Devil, I’d think the comte was.”
“Careful,” Allan warned her, worried that someone could be lurking to overhear.
Sharply, Marian said, “Has he hurt her?”
Florrie shook her head. “Not yet, but he will if you don’t get her out soon.”
“Then, let’s go get her,” Robin put in decisively. “Can you tell us where to find her?”
“I’ll do one better-- I’ll take you there.”
“You don’t have to do that,” protested Allan. “You could get caught with us.”
She shot him a disapproving look. “Now, see here. I owe you all for saving my Da, and I want to help. So, shut it, and stay a few steps behind me.”
Robin clapped a hand on Allan’s shoulder. “Thanks, Florrie. Lead on.”
They had gone a few feet down the corridor when she looked back at Allan. With a wink, she added, “Besides, I seem to recall that I still owe you, as well.”
He actually felt himself blush as Much asked, “What do you owe Allan for?”
“Nothing,” Allan answered quickly, cutting off whatever reply Florrie was about to give. A good thing, too, judging from her mischievous expression. She jokingly blew him a kiss.
He ignored the muffled chuckles that came from behind him.
Swiftly, they followed the maid through a series of passageways, up a few flights of stairs, and eventually to the floor on which Elaine was being held. Somehow, they had managed to avoid anyone else the entire time, but their luck ran out then. Florrie peeked around a corner and quickly pulled her head back. “Guards,” she whispered so softly, they barely heard her, and then she continued, “Two. I’ll take care of them.”
Before anyone could react, she flipped the brown curls that had slid over her shoulder behind her and sauntered around the corner. “Hello, boys,” she called jovially.
“Florrie,” one of them greeted her.
“We can’t let her do this,” Allan hissed to Robin. “She’ll get herself arrested.”
Robin nodded. “Right. Let’s move.”
Florrie was just starting to chat up the guards when the outlaws came tearing around the corner, weapons in hand. She did not have to pretend to be startled; she had not been expecting that. The guards started to draw their swords, but did not have a prayer. Instead, they dropped them on the ground and held up their hands.
Will, Marian, and Carter backed them up against the wall and held them there at swordpoint. Meanwhile, Robin barked at Florrie, “You, open the door.”
Catching onto the ploy, she stammered as if afraid, “Y-yes, sir,” and turned the key that had been left in the lock.
Sloppy, Allan thought, shooting the guards a disgusted look.
One of the guard’s eyebrows disappeared up into his helmet as he caught the look. “Hey! You’re--”
“Shut it,” Carter ordered. The guard, whom Allan recognized as a man called Arthur, obeyed.
Florrie flung the door open, for all the world like a terrified hostage. There was a startled shriek from within.
“You first,” Little John ordered the guards, gesturing with his staff for them to go into the chamber. Again, they did as they were told, and continued to do so as they were bound and gagged.
Elaine, tearstained and bedraggled from her struggle as she was dragged away from Locksley, had flown at Robin when he walked in, crying and laughing and thanking the gang all at the same time. He passed her off to Little John so as to help bind the guards, but seemed to have forgotten about Florrie. She would not seem as innocent as she did now if they just set her loose.
“What about this one?” Allan called to Robin.
Hesitating a split second, Robin answered, “We cannot let her alert anyone.”
“Right,” Allan replied. “But we can’t leave her in Elaine’s place.”
“You won’t kill me, will you?” she spoke up fearfully.
She glanced uncertainly between the outlaws. She should tread the boards, thought Allan admiringly. “Well... the comte said he’d kill me if I so much as thought about trying to weasel my way into his bed, being a servant and all.”
“A villager is better?” Will muttered.
Then, Elaine spoke. “I was told to say I was a merchant’s daughter, from Nottingham Town.”
The gang exchanged disgusted looks.
“We should go,” Little John pointed out.
Robin chewed on his lip. “All right; if the comte’s does not like maids, this one should be safe enough.” His unspoken “I hope” was heard by everyone in the room. “Allan, tie her up.”
“This brings back memories,” she murmured teasingly, in a low tone, as she walked by Allan to get in place. She did not sound at all worried, which reassured him regarding her safety. He was glad the guards did not hear her; he wished that Marian had not, because now he could not make eye contact with her, and she was staring at him in amused surprise.
He was surprised, too, but for a different reason. While he and Florrie had had some entertaining interludes while he was at the castle, he was suddenly thinking of Kate.
“Time to disappear,” Robin called quietly, and the outlaws, with Elaine in tow, hurried from the room, shutting and locking the door behind them.
They silently rushed back the way they had come, managing to avoid any confrontations along the way. When they got outside, however, they were unsure how to get through the castle gates.
Just as the omission from the plan was occurring to them, a cry went up from inside the castle. Instinctively, the guards at the gate rushed toward the building. Allan could not believe their luck, but did not wait around to question it. They all ran as fast as they could toward the portal, managing to get through it seconds before the guards realized their mistake. But by then, it was too late; the gang was already approaching the city gate.
The guards here were not distracted by anything, and saw the group rushing at them. Drawing their swords to stop the escapees, they stood at the ready.
“Carter, get Elaine out of the way, but be nearby and ready to run,” Robin called over his shoulder, as he drew his Saracen sword from its scabbard.
The others drew their weapons, as well, just as the guards rushed at them. Carter quickly ushered Elaine aside; with the sword in his left hand, Allan blocked the blade that was aimed for Carter’s back. With the one in his right, he countered the attack, not managing to wound the armored man, but hitting him hard enough to throw him back and probably knock some of the wind out of him.
The guard ended up nearly bumping into Much, who noticed the movement and quickly turned, bringing the hilt of his sword down on the man’s head. Helmet notwithstanding, the blow knocked him unconscious.
One down, three to go.
John took the second down without a fuss, an easy matter of the end of his staff to the guard’s chin, the move elegant in its simplicity. The other two went after Robin and Marian, making the mistake of ignoring Will as they did so. He smashed his larger axe into one’s back, flinging the man forward onto his face, and following that with a kick to the head that put him out of commission. Meanwhile, Robin rushed forward to meet the final guard, who was running toward him, sword held high for a downward strike.
Robin brought his own weapon up to block what would have been a death blow to his head, and kicked his attacker in the stomach, driving the man’s armor into his solar plexus. The guard automatically doubled over, and Marian shot her foot up to the guard’s face, stunning him.
Looking around to confirm that they were now unchallenged, Robin called, “My gang, let’s go!” They all hightailed it out of the west gate and into Sherwood before the castle guards could catch up to them. Allan peered over his shoulder a couple of times to make sure Elaine was keeping up, and was glad to see that she had no trouble doing so.
When they were out of danger, they slowed to a normal pace, making their way to the meeting point they had set up along the North Road, where Tuck and Djaq would be waiting with Elaine’s family. From there, the family would find a new place to settle, far from the reach of the Sheriff of Nottingham.
They were waiting as planned, and after many heartfelt thanks and farewells, the family set out, and the outlaws headed back toward camp.
“So, Allan, it seemed like Florrie was a rather good ‘friend’ of yours,” Marian remarked lightly.
Surprised at her bold tease, he nevertheless laughed. “Yeah, she was.”
“It seemed as though she would still like to be,” Robin said, in far too casual a manner, and then grinned at him.
Allan grinned back, but thoughts of Kate’s kisses that afternoon in Locksley drifted through his mind, rather than memories of late nights in the castle with Florrie.
“Friends are good to have,” he responded vaguely. He met Robin’s considering gaze, and suspected that his leader knew what was going on in his head. The small wink from Robin proved it. Normally, Allan would have preferred to keep his thoughts to himself, but found that he really did not mind sharing his happiness over Kate.
Uh-oh, a voice in his head murmured.
He decided to ignore it.
Allan and Kate's picnic is interrupted.
The next day, Kate was waiting in the meadow when Allan emerged from the woods, basket of food in hand. It was not until he got closer that he noticed that she had already set out a meal for them.
Her eyes fell on the basket at the same time that he saw what she had brought, and they exchanged a grin. “I didn’t know who was supposed to bring lunch,” she explained.
“I invited you, so I thought I should be in charge of it, shouldn’t I?” Allan pointed out, settling himself beside her. “Anyway, yours is a lot better than what I’ve got.”
She gave the basket a curious glance. “What’s in it?”
Ruefully, he replied, “Much said rabbit, but I have other suspicions.”
Suddenly, the curious glance was on him. “Such as...?”
He leaned over conspiratorially. “Not being funny, but I haven’t seen many squirrels scampering around camp lately.”
Kate burst out laughing. “Oh, you’re terrible. What else is in there?”
“Some bread, some ale, and some biscuits Marian cooked.”
Her eyes sparkled. “Biscuits? What kind?”
“Uh, current, I think.”
She leaned across him to get a better look at the basket, and he did his best not to be pleased with her proximity. It did not really work, but it gave him something to concentrate on other than the long ties on her bodice brushing against his thigh.
Before leaning back, she looked up at him, just then realizing that their faces were mere inches apart. Her cheeks colored and her lips parted in surprise, and he could not help but lean over and kiss her, delighted when she returned it with exuberance.
Eventually pulling back a bit, Kate said, “The food’ll get cold.”
“It’s already cold,” Allan told her, without bothering to check it.
Neither did she. “Good point.”
Things were just starting to get interesting when hoofbeats pounded through the ground. Kate went to jump to her feet, but Allan held her arm in place, thinking that they were better hidden by the tall grasses than they would be standing up.
But, when he looked in the direction of the sounds, he found that the precaution was too late. Pieter and four of his men had already ridden out of the trees and were staring right at them, the guards dismounting so as to subdue them on foot.
Muttering a curse under his breath, Allan said, “I’ll distract them; you run with everything you’ve got into the forest. And hide as soon as you can.”
Pieter was already barking orders to his men, but spotted Kate then. “You!” he cried, his face going red with anger as he recognized her. “You lying little minx!” To his men, he ordered, “Throw him in the dungeons, but take her to my quarters to be... dealt with.”
They were out of time. “Now!” Allan hissed at her, jumping up with his arms out. “C’mon, gents; let’s be civilized about this, yeah?” He prodded Kate with his foot before walking slowly toward the guards.
Torn between the need to help Allan and the knowledge that there was not much that she could do, Kate hesitated before getting up. Worse, when she did, she paused again, glancing between the treeline and the advancing guards.
“She’s going to run-- get her!” Pieter barked, spurring the men to move faster.
“Go, Kate!” Allan yelled as he whipped out his swords, flying at the nearest guard. There was no way that he could best all four of them and their commander, but at least it should provide the distraction Kate needed to get away.
They might have succeeded if Pieter had not remained on horseback, but he rode around the fray in the middle of the meadow. Kate was nearly to the trees when he bent over and grabbed her by the hair, dragging her several painful steps before drawing to a halt.
“That’s enough!” he called to Allan, who had already knocked two of the guards out of commission and was holding off the other two. Seeing Kate’s predicament, Allan instantly dropped his weapons, hoping it would be enough to keep her captor from harming her further. Glad for the end to the skirmish, his opponents did not hesitate to roughly seize and begin binding his arms behind him.
“Look, I’m the outlaw; she’s got nothing to do with this,” said Allan.
Wrapping the fistful of hair around his hand, Pieter tugged, jerking Kate’s head back. “The last time I checked, fraternizing with an outlaw was an offense punishable by death. And that’s not to mention that yesterday, she deliberately misled a servant of the law.” A cruel smile flitted across his harsh features. “No, she has quite a lot to do with this, and I intend to see that she pays for her crimes.”
Allan’s heart sank into his boots as it became clear that he might not be able to save her, and the terrified expression in her eyes told him that she knew they were both sunk. Just then, three arrows flew from the forest in quick succession. One sliced through Kate’s hair right beneath Pieter’s fist, freeing her from his grasp. The second knocked the sword that was against Allan’s neck out of the hand of the guard who held it, and the final arrow knocked into the helmet of the other guard, startling him enough that he dropped his grip on Allan’s arm. Rather accustomed to rescues of the sort, Allan instantly took advantage of it, kicking the sword-wielding guard in the stomach and driving his shoulder into the other’s chest, knocking him down, before sprinting toward Kate.
She was as startled as their opponents, and froze on the spot until Allan yelled her name. That spurred her into action, and she even managed to duck away from Pieter’s hand when he rode toward her, swooping down for another grab. An arrow burying itself in the pommel of his saddle brought him up short, and gave Allan a chance to grasp her hand despite having his still bound behind him, and pull her toward the forest, where Robin was poised with another arrow ready to fly. He winked at them as they ran past, and then fired off a succession of shots to warn off a pursuit.
Somehow, it worked. He caught up with the other two as they weaved through the trees, Allan taking an indirect route toward the camp, praying as he jumped over fallen branches that he would not trip, as he would be unable to catch himself. They could hear the sheriff’s new lieutenant crashing through the brush behind them, on foot now, but he was far enough away that they had a chance to lose him. Veering around a bend where a wall of earth and stone ran alongside the path, Robin ducked into a crevice that was hidden by overhanging greenery. Allan had been thinking of the same place, and pushed Kate into it before following and making sure the vines and roots were still masking them.
There they waited, catching their breath as silently as possible. Soon, Pieter went thumping past; Kate started to move once the sounds had faded, but the others stayed her. Robin took the opportunity to cut Allan’s bonds, and Allan gratefully nodded, and then rubbed his wrists and shook out his hands to get the blood flowing through them again. A few minutes later, they heard Pieter coming back up the path, and Robin pushed past the others, drawing his sword as he went.
Just as Pieter had moved beyond their hiding place, Robin materialized on the path behind him. “Looking for someone?” he called tauntingly.
The sheriff’s man spun around, infuriated. “You,” he hissed. “I will have your head, Hood, and I will have it now!” He jerked his sword from its sheath, preparing to fight.
“Try saying that ten times, fast,” Robin laughed.
Allan was weaponless, but came out onto the path beside his leader anyway; numbers counted for something. “I don’t think you’ll be taking any heads today, mate.”
Then, his plan backfired. Kate joined them, rather than remaining hidden where it was safe. Allan wanted to grab her and shove her back into the crevice, but knew that to even react would be a mistake. “I might take yours, though,” she snarled at him, standing tall next to Allan. “You owe me some hair.”
Pieter scoffed. “And with what shall you take it, your hands?”
“You’d best watch yourself, or I’ll use my teeth,” she shot back so ferociously, Allan half believed her.
“Enough ridiculousness,” Pieter said, lunging for Robin, who easily parried the move. Allan stepped aside, moving Kate with him, and had just spotted a branch which would make a decent club, when Kate ran toward the sparring men and launched herself at Pieter’s back.
She wrapped one arm around his neck and the other around the upper part of his face, blocking his eyes. Robin took the opportunity to disarm him, and Kate jumped down before Pieter could slam her back against a tree. Allan moved up, hooking the branch behind Pieter’s ankles and knocking him backwards, and Robin held his sword to the man’s throat as he landed.
“Listen carefully, because I will only tell you this once. You will stop harassing peasants, and find some other way to do your job. If you cannot, then find another job. Either way, if you so much as look sideways at one more innocent person, it will be the last thing you ever do. Are we clear?”
Pieter stared sullenly up at him before muttering, “We are clear.” Robin stepped back to let him stand, although he and Allan-- who had retrieved Pieter’s fallen weapon-- kept their swords trained on him. He began stomping back up the path, turning when he was just out of reach.
“Do not think this is over, Hood. I will personally see to it that you die a slow, painful death.”
Robin laughed. “You’ll have to get in line.”
“And you.” Pieter pointed at Kate. “I hope that you like the forest, because it’s your new home.”
Kate started, not having had a chance to think through all that had just occurred. Pieter grinned meanly.
“Your family will be watched. If I so much as suspect that they are in contact with you, or are trying to help you, I will hang them for associating with an outlaw. I’m rather inclined to do so, anyway, as you’ve clearly been friendly with these criminals, and it is likely that your family has, as well.”
“No!” cried Kate, shaken. Robin put a hand on her arm to prevent her from rushing their foe, who would surely hurt her. Remaining where she was, she said miserably, “Leave them out of this; they’re innocent!”
“We will see, won’t we?” With that parting statement, he strode off.
When he was out of earshot, Robin murmured, “We’ll find a way for you to see your family.”
“It’ll be all right,” Allan added.
“Sure,” she said dully, and allowed them to lead her toward camp.
A few feet down the path, Allan asked Robin, “How'd you happen to the rescue, anyway? That was pretty convenient timing."
“You took Much's knife in the basket," Robin responded with a small laugh. "He was raising such a fuss about it, that we all agreed interrupting your picnic was better than listening to a couple more hours of complaints. I managed to talk him into letting me retrieve it; he wanted to do it, himself."
"I'll count myself lucky, then," Allan chuckled.
Robin was able to have a message delivered to Rebecca, instructing her to go to Nottingham Town, where it would be easier to finagle a meeting. About half the gang went along, spreading out to keep an eye on the main road. When Rebecca came into town, it was not difficult to pick out the man trailing her; nor was it difficult to pick him off-- or at least, distract him long enough for her to get lost in the crowd, made easier when Djaq found her and led her through a few alleyways.
When they reached the spot where Robin and Allan were waiting with Kate, Rebecca rushed over to her daughter. “Where have you been?” she exclaimed. Glancing uncertainly around at the outlaws, she asked, “What’s going on?”
“Mum... something’s happened.” Kate hesitantly recounted the story-- or, at least, most of it.
Allan inwardly breathed a sigh of relief when she skipped right over everything but the food at the picnic.
“You’re telling me you’re an outlaw?” Rebecca cried, when Kate had finished.
Fighting back tears, Kate nodded.
“I knew this would happen; didn’t I tell you?” She turned toward Allan with the coldest glare he had ever seen. “This is all your fault. Why couldn’t you leave my daughter alone?”
“It’ll be all right,” Kate tried weakly, knowing as it left her mouth that it was a useless argument.
“It’ll never be all right again,” Rebecca burst out. She wheeled around and began to march off, halting when she was a few feet away. Over her shoulder, she said, “I can’t let the rest of the family suffer because of your selfish mistake, Katherine. Don’t contact me again.” Half-turning, she looked to Robin. “Any of you. We’ll find our own way to survive, without the help of outlaws.”
With that, she disappeared into the crowd.
Unable to hold in a sob, Kate pressed her hand to her mouth. She had gone completely pale, and Allan moved to comfort her, but she stopped him.
“No. Don’t touch me.”
He glanced to Robin, who raised his eyebrows and backed off, leaving them alone. Baffled, he looked back to Kate. “I was just trying to be nice.”
“Well, that’d be a first, wouldn’t it?” she snapped.
“And it’ll be a last, if this is how you’re gonna react.”
She sighed, too bereft to argue. “Look, I just... I need some time, all right?”
“Well, I wasn’t exactly asking you to marry me, or anything,” he pointed out, but not with any heat.
“That’s good,” she said quietly. “’Cause I’d say no. I couldn’t have a wedding without my mother.” Realizing she was off on a tangent, she straightened. “But, I mean it. I need some time, and I need some space. I’ve got to figure out how to get her to forgive me, and she won’t if I’m still carrying on with you.”
Allan stared at her, clueless as to what he should say. They had had a couple of great moments, sure; but that was all. He had had a longer association with Florrie. So why did he feel like Kate had punched him in the gut?
“Sure,” he finally managed to say.
“We’re still friends, though, right?” She seemed to know that she was pressing her luck, but he got where she was coming from. Even if he did not like it.
“Yeah, we’re friends.”
He returned the strained smile she gave him, but it vanished the moment she looked away from him.
Much sets himself a task.
The four guards cantering around the coach were right to look nervous. Much met Robin’s eye where his former master was hiding, in a tree on the opposite side of the North Road, and returned the nod to signal that he was ready. Little John, Allan and Marian did the same, and when the caravan was in the right spot, the outlaws moved.
Everyone but Robin unseated a guard, while he swung out of his perch and knocked the coachman off his bench. He reined in the horses and then jumped down, drawing his sword before opening the coach door.
Two startled, young women stared at him from within, a richly-clad noble and her well-clad maidservant.
“Good afternoon, ladies! Sorry to hold you up on your journey--”
Marian made a disgusted noise at his bad pun, which Robin promptly ignored.
“--but we can get you back on your way soon, if you will be so good as to co-operate with us.” He made a gallant gesture indicating that they should disembark, which they hesitatingly did.
From where Much was holding his sword to a guard’s throat, he could see the travelers out of the corner of his eye; and suddenly, his heart lurched.
He saw Eve.
His gaze darted to the maidservant, and his excitement instantly turned to disappointment. The girl was approximately of Eve’s height and build, with thick, golden hair hanging to her waist, but despite a lovely face to go with her other attributes, she could not hold a candle to the vibrancy of the woman with whom he had found so brief a moment of happiness.
The guard noticed his distraction and tensed to move, just as Much’s attention returned to the matter at hand. The sadness in Much’s blue eyes froze over, and he shook his head slightly at the man. “I wouldn’t,” he advised shortly.
Meanwhile, the noblewoman had wisely decided to declare the true amount she carried; it was such a staggering number that even the ten percent which Robin collected would go a long way. “Thank you for your ‘donation.’” He gave them a charming smile. “A lot of hungry families appreciate your generosity.”
The ladies glanced at each other; the noble appeared put out, and the maidservant rolled her eyes. They were clearly not sympathetic to anyone other than themselves, and Much felt a little guilty for having thought the one could be Eve.
As the caravan began rolling once more, the five outlaws moved swiftly back into the forest. All except Much were laughing about their easy success, and it was not until they were nearing the camp that Robin noticed his friend’s unusual silence.
“Everything all right?”
Much was so deep in his reverie that it took him a minute to respond. When he did, rather than answer the question, he asked, “Can I talk to you?”
Concerned now, Robin nodded. His arm had been around Marian as they walked, and he gave her a quick kiss on the head before murmuring something to her.
The action solidified the resolve that Much had come to. As Marian, Allan, and John continued on to camp, he stared blindly at the ground, rather terrified by what he was about to say, but lacking the doubt that had plagued him for over a year.
When they were alone, Robin swung his bow down off of his back and leaned on the strong wood. “What is it?”
Much looked at the man to whom he had dedicated nearly his entire life. He never understood what drew the young master of Locksley to the miller's son who had been hauling out a pigsty when they first met; but at the beginning, he had appreciated the attention, and soon he had come to care greatly for his unexpected friend. They had been two of a pair ever since; when Robin had proposed to Marian years earlier, she even teased, “Should I ask for Much’s permission to accept?”
Since their return from the Crusades, Robin had grown distant; it still hurt, but Much had begun to understand why. And, for the first time, he was grateful for that distance. He did not know if he would be able to do this if things were still the way they used to be between them.
“I’m going to find Eve,” he said.
Robin’s expression turned sympathetic. “We cannot leave the villagers on their own again so soon, Much. Maybe in a few months.”
“No. I’m going to find Eve. Alone.”
Robin blinked. “What?”
“I keep thinking about her. When I lie awake at night, I think of her. When I thought we were going to die in the desert, I was thinking of her. She’s probably found someone else by now, but maybe she hasn’t. And you’ve got Marian. I mean, you’ve had Marian for awhile, but now you’re married. And Allan and Kate are probably going that way, if they ever get things sorted out, and Will and Djaq-- they’ve got a baby coming. And... I should never have left her. I should’ve brought her with me that day. I bet she has found someone else.”
Robin smiled at that, but was unable to resist teasing his friend. “Probably. She is quite clever, and lovely.”
Having worked himself into a worry, Much agreed, “Right. She’s too lovely not to have found someone.”
If they had been talking over any other subject, Robin would have strung him along more. But having almost lost Marian so recently made him hesitant to make light of anyone’s love life. “She did find someone. You.”
“She’s found someone better.”
Leaning forward, Robin caught the other man’s eye. “Much. She could not find someone better. There isn’t anyone better.”
Startled by the compliment, Much tried to think of something to say. For the first time in his life, he came up empty. “Right. Well. ...Right.” He gave a heavy sigh. “I was trying to wait until things improved. I wanted to give her Bonchurch. But things aren’t going to improve, are they?”
Robin hesitated, and then finally said, “They will. They have to.”
“They might not.”
The friends stared at each other.
“You’re really going to do this,” murmured Robin. “Alone.”
Much hesitated, and then nodded decisively. “Yes. Today.”
“Are you sure you can handle it?”
No, he was not, but he had to. “Of course.”
Robin studied him, finally nodding as he straightened. “Okay. Go get her.”
“There’s also her mother,” Much reminded him.
Grandly, Robin said, “We’ve got a huge, new camp underway. There will be plenty of room.”
Gaining confidence in his plan, Much slowly grinned. “You mean that.”
“I do. If we are in this for the long haul, we might as well settle in and make ourselves at home.” Robin winked.
His confidence was brewing over into full-blown excitement, and Much laughed. “Well, all right, then.”
Robin came over and slung an arm across his friend’s shoulders, guiding him back toward camp. “Come on, let’s go tell the others.”
If Robin had been startled, the rest of the gang was gobsmacked.
“Do you even know where to look?” Allan asked doubtfully. “Not being funny, but if I was her, I’d’ve left the country.”
Much’s smile dimmed. “I’ve got some ideas. And I’ll find her, even if she did leave.”
“I’m not certain you should go alone,” Tuck said gently.
“Hey,” Robin finally put in, glancing around at the whole gang. “He’ll be fine.”
Much was not sure which surprised him more: Robin sticking up for him, or that it really sounded like his former master had faith in him.
While Much packed his things, everyone else put together a care package for him. This mostly consisted of food, but Marian had an extra gift for him: his jumper, which he had stopped wearing when Will inadvertently unraveled a sleeve whilst picking at a loose thread. Not knowing how to repair it, Much had tucked it away in his pack, where it had resided, one-sleeved, ever since. Marian had apparently retrieved it and fixed it for him.
Not expecting such a gesture, he was touched. “Thank you,” he nearly stammered.
“It was going to be your Christmas gift,” she said. “But now, it is a token to remind you of us.”
He pulled it on, smoothing down the familiar stitches-- and a few new ones. “It’s perfect; I love it.”
Djaq was next in line. She would have been fine under normal circumstances, but the pregnancy was currently making her incredibly emotional. She managed to give him a squeeze and say, “You will be missed,” before bursting into tears, then spinning around and storming off in frustration at the outburst, while still crying.
Will had been beside her, and the look on his face as he watched her walk off was a combination of love, pity and amusement, as he had grown used to moments like that. Much, meanwhile, was totally at a loss as to how to deal with a sobbing Djaq, and was relieved when her husband gave him a nod, said, “Take care,” and went to see to her.
Then, came Little John. Much flinched when John slapped him manfully on the back. “This place won’t be the same without you.” He suddenly pulled Much into a bear hug. “You, I like. Be careful.”
When John released him, Much moved back a step and fixed his cap. “I will.”
Allan was holding the care package, and stuck it in Much’s pack. “Don’t wanna forget that; you can’t be sure there’ll be squirrels to hunt where you wind up.” Much gave him an exasperated look, and Allan grinned before patting him on the arm and sobering. “Keep an eye out, eh? The Sheriff would love to get his hands on her, and on you.”
Robin was standing by the doorway. Much was anticipating this farewell the least. The two exchanged a heartfelt hug, and when they moved back, Robin kept his hands on Much’s shoulders. “You look after yourself, all right? This could turn into quite a journey, and I want you back safely.”
“You, too,” replied Much. “If you get yourself killed while I’m away, I’ll never forgive you.”
Robin chuckled. “I shall keep it in mind.”
The gang walked him to the road, and waved as he set off. Just as he was about to turn the corner that would take him out of sight and truly begin his adventure, Much turned around and waved back.
A few more steps, and he was on his own.
He had never been on his own before.
That was to say, he had been out by himself before, sometimes for nearly a day; but it was always with the knowledge that he would be back with the others soon. This time, though, he was not sure when he would have a chance to chat with his friends again.
He fought down the wave of uncertainty and kept walking.
Robin said that Much was two years older than himself, which he then said made his friend twenty-nine this year. Numbers had always rather escaped Much, but never in any of those years had he only had himself to rely upon. First, there were his parents; then, when they were taken by consumption, Robin had brought him on. And he had been with Robin ever since. Life in the forest, as well as the time with King Richard, had ensured that he could look after himself just fine. But, there was nobody to talk to.
He had not been walking long when the sense of aloneness truly started to get to him. He hummed a bit, tempted to try out a song-- after all, there was no one to stop him or complain. However, there was always the danger that he might run into sheriff’s men, and there was no sense in alerting them to his presence if they happened to be along.
Considering that, he realized that wandering the road might not be his best bet, so he moved off into the trees alongside it and picked his way through the underbrush.
It was funny, he mused. When they first came to Sherwood, he thought there was nothing worse than having to run through the woods, trying not to trip over a fallen branch or exposed tree root. And the bugs; he hated the bugs. But he had grown so accustomed to it all by now that he moved along the forest floor with nearly as much ease as he did the road. He still hated the bugs, though; as he thought it, he swatted at a gnat that decided to nibble on his neck.
He wondered what the gang would be having for dinner. They would probably have Marian cook; the rest of them were passable at best, but despite her protests, she had a knack for it. Maybe rabbit, if they had caught a couple of them. He would not mind some rabbit. Or deer; deer would be lovely. And that boar John caught last week had been quite tasty.
Much hoped that wherever Eve turned out to be, that she would be eating well. Not because he hoped there would be food waiting... well, not entirely. But because he was worried about her.
He should not have just left her like that. What if she was hungry, or cold, or sick? What if something had happened to her?
He was starting to panic, and knew he needed to calm down. That would never happen if he kept letting his thoughts wander, though.
Listening closely to make sure he did not hear anybody coming, Much started singing.
“Westron wind, when wilt thou blow?
That the small rain down can rain.
Christ, that my love were in my arms,
And I in my bed again...”
Much finds out whether he, too, is good with nuns.
Much was still singing when he reached the outskirts of Bonchurch, but he stopped when he neared the village. He surveyed the area from a hill within the forest before leaving the cover of the trees, but nothing seemed out of place. Some women were hanging out wash, he could see figures in the fields behind the lodge, and a stout shepherdess was tending her flock not far from where he stood. He recognized her... Bess; that was her name. She was married to the weaver, Frederick, and they had two? Three? small children. And talk about luck; her mother was Eve’s mother’s closest friend.
Hoping not to startle her too badly, he stepped into the pasture. She still jumped when she noticed someone emerging from the woods, but broke into a smile when she saw who it was. “Lord Much! Are you back? Please say you’re back.”
His own smile was a bit sad. “I wish I could. Someday, I hope.”
Disappointment etched itself across her features. “That’s a right shame.”
“You were so good to us; lately, we've been left to rot. Once in awhile, whoever the sheriff's trying to woo takes residence, but none of them care about the village. You are missed.”
Much was slightly aware of the situation, as Bonchurch was on the gang’s delivery route. But he had not personally been back, since it had seemed risky, with sheriff’s men occasionally floating about. There was not much he could do today, either. “If there’s any way I, or the rest of Robin’s gang, can help more, just say the word.”
With a shrug, she said, “You all do what you can, and we know that. We appreciate it.”
“Bess, may I ask you to help me with something?”
Squaring her shoulders, she gave him another smile. “Name it.”
“Do you have any idea which way Eve and Hannah went when we left? I’m trying to find them, and if I could just get a direction, I can ask along the way.”
Bess laughed. “Oh, dearie, I can do better than that. They’re at Barnsdale Convent.”
It could not be that simple. He blinked at her in surprise. “The one by Barnsdale Church?”
“That’s the one. The sheriff can’t touch them there, and it wasn’t too far off.”
That was just an hour’s walk or so from here, which was just a few hours from camp. She had really been that close the whole time? Why had she not sent word? Then, he had a thought. “She... she hasn’t taken vows, has she?”
With another hearty laugh, Bess answered, “I assume you mean Eve; but no, neither of them has.”
Much breathed out a sigh of relief. “Oh, good.”
“Would you come back to my house for supper before you go on? You look a bit peaked.”
His attention was suddenly all hers. “That would be wonderful, thank you.”
Suppertime at Bess and Frederick’s house was a rowdy affair, with their two young boys running around and a baby girl just big enough to want to toddle after them, but Much quite enjoyed himself. Part of that was the company, as the couple were friendly, funny and good conversationalists, and their children were sweet; part of it was the modest, yet satisfying repast Bess had prepared.
Part of it was knowing that he was not going to be wandering for days or weeks in the hopes of finding Eve.
When he was back on the road-- well, beside it, rather,-- his song was decidedly more optimistic.
He quieted by the time he neared Barnsdale Convent, having run out of cheerful song lyrics. He had never really thought, before his time with Eve, about how many songs were sad, and he wondered why that was. To be sure, there was a lot of sadness and disappointment in life; but there was a lot of joy, too, which should be memorialized just as much as the bad things. Perhaps, he could write a song. About the outlaws? That would be delightful! But what would he sing about? What did they do that was pleasant?
Well, they told stories. Djaq told excellent stories, although Little John was better for spooky ones on fall nights. But that was kind of complicated. Maybe something simpler? About a couple of them walking through the forest, having a chat. Robin, definitely, and himself? Did that work, or was his own name too short? Maybe a longer name; Marian, or Little John, or something. This would be easier if he knew anything about music. Allan had once let slip that he knew how to play the lute; maybe he could teach him. First, he would need a lute...
Lost in thought, Much walked out of the forest without looking first-- and nearly bumped into a member of the sheriff’s guards. He stopped himself in time, undetected, since the guard’s back was to him. Wide-eyed, Much backtracked into the foliage as softly as possible.
Once he was safely under cover of the trees and brush again, he peered out. In addition to this guard, there were two more that he could make out, positioned about even with corners of the building, which made him suspect that there would be a fourth on the other side of the convent. Fortunately, this man was quite near the forest; if he had been further out in the fields, as his comrades were, one of the others surely would have spotted Much.
Creeping back a bit further into the woods, he found a good hiding spot where he could still keep an eye on things, and settled in to think the situation over. It was possible that there was another fugitive hiding out at the convent, but it was doubtful; there were many larger abbeys around which would be more likely for someone running from the sheriff to go to. Barnsdale was so small, even Much had forgotten it was there, and he had lived nearby his whole life. It was a good bet that those guards were there for Eve, but why now?
Unless they had been there all along. But that was unlikely; it had been awhile since they had fled Bonchurch. It could be that they only recently discovered her whereabouts, like himself.
Either way, he needed a plan to get into the convent. Strategy was not his forte, but he had to think of something. He settled against a tree to ponder.
Two hours later, he still did not have a plan. Not even half a plan. Every so often, he would reassess the guards, to see if he would have a window of opportunity, but when there had been a shift change shortly after he arrived, the new guards had gone straight over to the old ones, effectively doubling their numbers for a short while.
Worse, he had already eaten a third of the provisions the gang had packed for him. If he had to sit this out much longer, he was going to run out of food.
The gang! He could go get the gang to help with the guards. But, he had said he was doing this on his own. He told Eve that he would find her. She had given up everything for him-- not for Robin, for him,-- and now, he would get her out of there. Somehow.
Fortune smiled on him about half an hour after that, when a small group of nuns walked out of the front door, talking quietly amongst themselves. One of them glanced less than charitably at the guard nearest Much, but the others ignored the black-clad intruders.
Much hurried back up the road a ways, and then stepped out into the path so that he would not seem to be lurking. The group regarded him with suspicion as they came to a halt.
He held his hands out to the sides to demonstrate that he was not planning to use his weapons, and gave them a friendly smile. “Excuse me, sisters, but may I have a word?”
The nun who had glared at the guard stepped forward, scrutinizing him. “Who are you, and what do you want?” Her eyes dropped to his chest, and widened. “Are you one of Robin Hood’s men?”
Confused, he looked down, and realized that his tag was out. Amused, he replied, “It would be pointless to deny it, so I hope you are not a friend of the sheriff.”
“The sheriff is the spawn of the Devil,” she spat.
“Sister Mary Clement!” one of her companions gasped.
“Well, it’s true,” Sister Mary Clement snapped. “Put your arms down. Now, you still haven’t said what you want.”
Hesitant because of her confrontational demeanor, Much slowly lowered his arms. “I understand that you have two lay women staying with you, from Bonchurch.”
A young novice, near the back of the group, spoke up. “What’s your name?”
Figuring that he should not lie to brides of Christ, he answered truthfully. “Much.”
The smile she gave him transformed a plain face into a pretty one. “We’ve heard all about you, Lord Much. Eve speaks of you fondly.”
He suddenly felt lighter than he had in a long time. With a grin, he asked, “She does?”
“She’s been waiting for you,” Sister Mary Clement said sharply. “Though she didn't say you were a rapscallion. We expected you awhile ago.”
His light mood plummeted. “I... I didn’t know--”
“It’s all right,” the novice cut him off kindly. “You’re here now.”
“Yes,” he quickly responded. “I came for her and Hannah.”
“It’s going to be hard to get them out with the vultures standing watch,” muttered Sister Mary Clement.
They all looked at one another for a moment, until the obvious hit Much in the face. “Then, what we need is for them not to be standing watch.”
Eying him, Sister Mary Clement said the first non-hostile thing he had heard from her so far. “What are you thinking?”
A couple of minutes later, all of the nuns except one, Sister Joan, and the novice, Sister Lillian, went shrieking down the road, back toward the convent.
The guard nearest the road intercepted them. “’ere now, what’s the fuss?”
“Don’t just stand there!” Sister Mary Clement barked, clutching her chest as if in fright. “Three of Robin Hood’s men just accosted us not ten yards from here!”
“Oi!” he yelled, gesturing for the other guards to follow, and they all took off down the road. They soon came upon Sister Joan, clinging to a tree as if she hoped she could become part of the bark.
“Oh, saints preserve us!” she cried as she heard them coming.
“Where’d they go?” one of the guards demanded. “Robin Hood’s men?”
When they reached her, she let go of the tree and dropped to her knees. “Sweet mercy, we’re saved!”
“Lady, where’d they go?”
“Up the road. They ran up the road. Oh, blessed be, we’re saved!”
From where he waited in the trees, Much cringed at the performance, but the guards bought it. Taking that as his cue, he darted out of the trees, pretending to just notice them. As they shouted, he sprinted up the road and around a bend, grinning when Sister Lillian winked at him from where she was half-sprawled in the dirt. He took a sharp turn off of the path, ducking under leafy shrubbery that was half-hidden by a large oak tree. As he got into place, Sister Lillian let out an ear-splitting scream and threw herself all the way back.
She started to sit back up when the guards arrived. As they started to slow, she called, “Don’t stop; I’m fine. They’re not far ahead of you!”
One of them looked at her as if she were mad to suggest that they were concerned for her welfare, but they all kept running. As soon as they were around the corner, Much took off through the brush, back toward the convent.
When he reached the treeline, he slowed. As arranged, Sister Mary Clement was waiting there, and she was not alone. Eve was with her, and she was even more beautiful than Much remembered. He was briefly concerned that she would be disappointed with him, that he wouldn’t live up to her memories at all, or that she would be angry with him for making her wait so long.
But then she spotted him and her face lit up, and that light feeling was back.
Much and Eve start back to camp.
He had thought of her, dreamed of her, all this time; but now that Eve was walking over to him, Much had no idea what to do. It seemd that she did not, either, as they just stood and faced one another for a beat. Then, she moved forward and slipped her arms around him, and his arms went around her, his eyes closing as he simply enjoyed the perfect sensation of holding her.
He could have stayed like that forever, but Sister Mary Clement cleared her throat pointedly. “I’m not being funny, but those guards will be back soon.”
Much gave her a startled look. He had thought the middle-aged nun looked vaguely familiar, with her wide blue eyes and long neck, but he could not place her... until now. He opened his mouth to speak, but she cut him off.
“Don't ask questions you do not want an answer to, young man.”
Eve stepped back and glanced between them. “Is everything all right?”
“Of course,” the nun replied. “Now, off with you.”
“What about Hannah?” asked Much.
“Mother’s decided to stay for now,” Eve said. “I think she might end up taking vows.”
“Now, with that settled, go.” Sister Mary Clement shooed them.
“Thank you, Sister. Please thank everyone for me.” Eve took her hands and kissed her on the cheek.
“Pish. We were only doing our Christian duty.” But, she snagged Much’s sleeve as they were about to start off. “Tell Allan A Dale that the sisters are praying for his soul. And Tom’s.” Her eyes welled as she mentioned Allan's brother, and he nodded in understanding.
Eve slipped her hand into his and followed as he set out into the deeper forest. He did not run, not wanting to overtax her, and not being particularly fond of running through the woods, anyway. However, they did hurry, not wishing to run into any guards.
He glanced back to check on her, and realized that she was carrying a satchel he had not noticed earlier. Halting, he held out his free hand. “Here, let me take that.”
She shook her head. “It’s fine.”
Giving him a smile, she relented, passing the bag over. “Thank you.”
As he slung it over his shoulder, he took a good look around. “We should move back toward the road; I don’t know this section of forest well.”
“Won’t that put us in danger?”
“We'll be in greater danger if we get lost,” he pointed out. “But it is not far from here to camp; we can move away from the road again once I know where we are.”
She smiled again. “Very well; you’re the expert. Lead the way.”
"You’re the expert”? Nobody had ever called him an expert before. Much puffed up a bit. “Yes. Right. This way.”
They had just spotted the road when voices drifted through the leaves. Much tugged Eve’s hand, and they dropped down, out of sight.
“Like ghosts, they are,” one guard was grumbling to the others.
Another scoffed. “Nah, they’re men, all right. And one bird.”
“She’s a pretty one, ain’t she?” yet another put in. “Feisty.”
“Never seen her,” the first guard said. “But I don’t like ‘feisty’ women. More trouble than they’re worth.”
“That’s true,” the second agreed.
The conversation faded out as the men went around a bend, and after waiting a minute to ensure that they were not doubling back, Much nodded to Eve, and they resumed their trek.
Once he felt it was safe to speak, he remarked, “Djaq would rip out their tongues if she heard that.”
“I take it she’s the ‘feisty bird’?”
“That she is. And Will, her husband, would destroy whatever was left of them when she was through.”
Eve laughed. “I am looking forward to meeting your friends.”
“They’re looking forward to meeting you. Well, the ones you have not met yet. You already met Marian.”
“I’d heard rumors that Lady Marian was with Robin Hood.”
“She’s more than 'with' him; she is married to him.”
Eve’s steps faltered. “Is that why you’ve come for me now?”
Baffled, he stared at her. “What?”
She studied his face. “Did you come for me now because Robin has married?”
“No!” Then, he really thought about her question. “Not exactly.”
Dropping his hand, she crossed her arms warily over her stomach. “What do you mean by that?”
Upset because he had upset her, Much searched for the right way to explain. “I tried to wait, I did. I wanted everything to be in place first, so I could give you a home, and safety. But I kept thinking about you. I couldn’t help it. And then Robin and Marian, and Will and Djaq got married... I couldn’t wait anymore.”
By the time he finished, she was smiling again. Placing her hand back in his, she said, “All right. I just wanted to make certain I was not your Robin replacement.”
Much had no idea how to respond to that, so instead, he said, “We should keep moving. I am not sure we can get back to camp before dark; we’ll stop for supper soon, and decide then what to do.”
“Lead the way.”
About an hour later, Much found a good place to stop. “We can rest here. Are you hungry?”
Taking a seat on a large rock, Eve nodded. “I’m more thirsty, but food would be nice.”
He grabbed the flask from his pack and passed it to her. “You should have said something.”
She drank deeply, and then replied, “I didn’t want us to stop if it was not safe.”
“We’re safe enough here. Though we will be safest back at camp.”
With a glance around, she asked, “We cannot make it there by dark, can we?”
“No, but I know the way well enough, and there should be plenty of moonlight tonight.”
Eve watched as Much pulled a pan, wooden spoon, and the parcel of food from his pack. “Would you mind if we did not go back right away?”
Startled, he met her gaze. “Why?”
She gave a little shrug. “Last time, we only had one night that was real, when there were no lies between us. That night was wonderful; it was worth it to be so tired the next day, getting to stay up talking with you like that. I thought it might be nice if we could have at least one more, before going someplace where we’re surrounded by people. Unless they are expecting us?”
Memories of that night were drifting back to him, of stories shared, and laughter and heartfelt confessions, of not even realizing how much time had passed until the first rays of sun peeked through the window. “They are not expecting us,” he told her. “And that sounds lovely.”
Smiling, she said, “Good.”
While they did stay up late talking, they ended up going to bed this time, having had a long day, with the promise of another ahead. Much expected Eve to spread out her blanket on the other side of the fire from him, but was pleasantly surprised when she put it right next to his. He was trying very hard not to expect too much, too fast, and apparently she was doing the same. She cuddled up beside him, and he slipped an arm around her. They laid like that for awhile, and he thought she was asleep, but he was too aware of her to sleep, himself.
So, she was awake, too. “Yes?”
“I can’t sleep.”
“Neither can I.”
He sucked in a breath when her fingers toyed with the lacing on his shirt, and then drifted down to his stomach. “I have an idea,” she murmured against his neck.
Quite awhile later, they finally slept.
Little John has an unexpected visitor.
The wagon slowed when it neared Locksley, its driver warily scanning the trees on either side of the North Road. After a tense mile or so, the driver turned around.
“You’d better be telling me the truth,” he muttered to the boy riding in the back. “If they take anything of mine, it’ll come out of your hide.”
Unfazed by the threat, John Little-- the littler John Little-- calmly assured him, “They won’t.” Though I’d like to see you try to tan me with my father there, he mentally added, a grin flitting across his elfin features at the thought of this smallish man going up against the elder John.
He swung his feet over the back of the wagon, half-wishing he knew where Robin Hood’s band was camped at the moment, as he would much rather go straight there than hope they stopped this cart. It was the third he had ridden in along the North Road since he reached Nottingham earlier in the week, and he was getting impatient. His mother would be along soon, no doubt, and things would just be so much simpler if he had already found his father by the time she showed up. But, he had no idea where to look for them, and Mother would be even madder than she was already set to be if he went haring off through Sherwood on his own.
He had thought about going to Locksley and seeing if anyone there knew where the gang was-- not to mention it would be nice to see some of his friends there again,-- but it was dangerous, with Sir Guy in residence. If he was still in residence; that might have changed, but it did not seem worth the risk of finding out. John had gotten nearly as quick as any other boy over the years despite his injured foot, but knew he probably could not outrun the Sheriff’s lieutenant or one of his men.
So, hitchhiking along the Great North Road, it was.
They had just passed Locksley and were nearing the road to Bonchurch, when three arrows embedded themselves in the dirt in front of the wagon. The horse whinnied, the driver cursed, and John let out a whoop as he jumped down.
“Good day, my good man!” Robin called cheerfully, and other members of the gang were getting into place around them when the elder John, who was single-handedly blocking the road, caught sight of the boy.
“John?” the outlaw exclaimed, disbelieving, but immediately rushing over to embrace his son, regardless.
“Here now!” the driver spoke up. “The lad said you’d leave me alone, seeing as how I gave him a ride.”
The outlaws glanced at the younger Little John, who nodded. Robin stepped away from where he had taken up position beside the horse. “Then leave you alone, we shall.”
With an uncertain glance around, as if not trusting that they would not ambush him from behind, the driver gave the reigns a snap. Once he was out of sight, all attention was back on the boy.
“What are you doing here?” asked his father. “Where’s your mother?” As soon as the question left his mouth, a horrified expression crossed his face.
“She’s fine,” Little Little John said quickly. “I expect that she’ll be along any time now.”
Robin leaned his forearms on his bow. “She sent you, then?”
John’s cheeks heated. “Not exactly...”
“But, she does know you’re here?” his father checked.
Biting his lip, the boy hesitated before replying, “She’ll know.”
The larger John began to look upset, so Robin quickly said, “Let’s go back to camp, sit down, and figure out what’s going on.”
“What if Alice comes along while we’re there?” John the elder pointed out.
Will gestured to himself, Much, Allan, and Marian. “We could stay. Even if Alice doesn’t happen along, somebody else might.” The others murmured their agreement.
Robin stood and slung his bow across his back. “That’s fine. One of you, come back and let us know if anything happens.”
Marian nodded. “Right.” She and Robin exchanged a smile, but Little Little John regarded her warily. He remembered her sitting beside the Sheriff when he and his family were about to be burnt over hot coals, and wondered what had changed. Maybe he could ask his father later, when Robin was not around.
As the three set off into the forest, the outlaw John looked at his son. “If this is too difficult, I can carry you on my back.”
“I’m fine. But thank you for the offer.”
He did not see his father’s sudden smile at the polite reply, manners not being quite that common amongst the gang.
They soon reached camp, where Djaq was brewing medicines.
“Where are the others?” Robin asked.
“Eve and Kate have gone to find berries. Carter is hunting.” She glanced up, her eyebrows rising in surprise. “I see we have a visitor.”
“Djaq, you remember my son? Little Little John,” Little John said, grinning at the boy.
She smiled. “Of course. I thought you were just watching the road?”
“We were,” Robin replied. “Little Little John happened to be on it.”
Meanwhile, Little Little John was looking around in awe. “This is where you live? It’s amazing!”
“It certainly is,” Robin agreed. He gestured toward some seats in the living area. “Now, why don’t we sit down, and you can tell us what’s going on.”
Taking a stool next to his father and across from Robin, he told them. “We’ve been in Gloucester, and doing much better than here. Luke...” He trailed off, peeking uncertainly at his father.
“It’s all right,” Little John said softly. “Go on.”
“Well, Luke’s been asking Mother to marry him. But she keeps telling him no, she can’t, ‘cause she’s already married.”
Robin’s eyes flew to the man sitting near him, who appeared unsure if he should be pleased or concerned. “But, I’m an outlaw; she’s not legally married anymore.”
“That’s what Luke said, once. She told him never to say that again, and wouldn’t speak to him for the rest of the day.”
Concern was quickly losing out to satisfaction on Little John's features.
“So then, this baker who lives nearby, Sarah? Well, she kept making little cakes and things for him. And she told Mother that she was a fool for not saying yes to him. But, she doesn’t know why Mother won’t. Then, the other day, Sarah was talking to a friend of hers, and she said Luke was such a wonderful man, and she would give anything to be in Mother’s shoes, and Mother heard her. So, Mother went to Luke, and told him he should marry Sarah.”
Little John frowned. “He promised to take care of the two of you.”
“Yes, and that’s sort of what he said. But, Mother said it wasn’t fair to him, that she’d never say yes; and finally, he agreed. So, we moved over by a friend of Mother’s, and Luke married Sarah. Mother keeps telling everyone she’s fine, and acts happy, but she’s not. And then, her friend was over for supper the other night, and they were talking about it, and then Mother started crying and saying how she wished she 'could just be with John again.' I asked her about it the next day, but she scolded me for eavesdropping and told me not to think about that, because we were in Gloucester now.”
“So, you thought that if you came back to Nottingham, you could fix things?” Robin asked gently.
“Right.” Now that he was explaining things with his father right there, Little Little John seemed far less confident in his decision.
Little John gave him a sad smile. “John... It was a nice thought. But I lost my chance with your mother years ago.”
Little Little John jumped to his feet, frustrated by his father's pessimism. “Maybe you didn’t! Why would she say she wished she were with you if you’d lost your chance?”
“John.” Djaq’s word was quiet, but sharp, and even Robin turned to her. “The small John,” she specified. “Sometimes, things are not that simple, especially with adults.”
He harrumphed. “I don’t see why not. She wants to be with him, and you want to be with her, don’t you, Father?”
With a heavy sigh, Little John answered, “Djaq’s right. I’d love for it to be that simple, but it's not.”
Not getting the response he had wanted from any of them, Little Little John crossed his arms over his chest. “Fine. Don’t be with Mother. But I’m not leaving ‘till she gets here.”
The corner of Little John’s mouth curved up. “Well, there’s one thing you’ve got right. You’ll stay with me until your mother arrives.”
Alice arrives to retrieve Little Little John.
The next day, Alice arrived.
The gang had decided to keep a round-the-clock watch on the Great North Road, to make sure they did not miss Alice, should she pass by. The Johns would stay on as long as they could, with one or two of the other outlaws accompanying them, rotating those shifts. Shortly after lunch, a familiar voice reached their ears, hints of panic and desperation in it audible even from a distance.
Little John frowned severely at Little Little John, who was instantly ashamed. He had explained that he instructed one of his playmates to tell her where he went, but once he was talking about it, he started worrying that his friend had forgotten. And even then, he should have realized that she would be beside herself, as his father pointed out.
They moved out of the forest and started down the road to meet her, Robin alongside them, as he was currently on watch with the Johns.
As soon as Alice caught sight of the group, her boy among them, she gave a cry of relief and ran forward, grabbing him without even noticing whom he was with.
Clinging tightly to him, her tears dampening his hair, she murmured, “Oh, thank God. My baby... Don’t you ever do that to me again!” Once she finally convinced herself that he was unharmed, she glanced at his companions. When her eyes met Little John’s, she quickly looked away.
“John has something to say to you,” he said gruffly, nudging their son.
“I’m sorry for upsetting you,” Little Little John mumbled.
She gazed at him sternly. “We will discuss this later.”
To the others, she said, “I’m sorry for this; I hope he wasn’t too much trouble.”
“Alice, he was fine,” Little John said quietly.
Robin added, “He even helped fletch some arrows, and he is very good at it. In fact, there are still some that need done; why don’t you come back to camp with me and finish those, John?”
Little Little John was the only one who saw Robin’s wink, as the outlaw had intended, and asked Alice, “May I?”
“I suppose,” she sighed, realizing what Robin was so transparently up to.
Normally, Little John would have been upset with the meddling into his personal affairs, but actually appreciated it this once. He gave his leader a slight smile as Robin and Little Little John started back to camp.
The tension that had been present since he and Alice came into view of each other grew with the distance between them and the departing figures. When they were alone, the air was so heavy with discomfort that John almost felt itchy.
Her arms were crossed in such a way that she was nearly hugging herself, and he wished he could do it for her. “I suppose he told you what’s happened,” she said, breaking the silence.
John nodded. “Are you faring all right?”
She finally looked at him. “Yes. I found work with a seamstress, so I am not just going it on my own.”
He paused. “I didn’t only mean with that. How are you?”
A frown marred her brow and her arms tightened. “I... I’d really rather not...”
Holding up a hand for her to stop, he said, “It’s fine.”
Letting out another sigh, she shook her head. “No, it’s not. Truthfully, John? I’m not doing well, at all.”
“How can I help?”
She considered his words, finally letting out a little laugh. “Go back a decade and stop Roy White before he tried to rob that baron?”
His smile now was decidedly melancholic. “You’d be amazed how often I’ve done that in my mind.”
“I wouldn’t be amazed, you know. I have done it, too.”
John took a good look at her, scrutinizing her more thoroughly than he had let himself do the last time they were facing one another. It was eleven years since they had actually been alone together; she had been so young then. Not that she was not young now; but her face had lost the smooth glow of youth, and he noticed a few grey strands here and there in her hair.
He found her even more beautiful like this than he had before.
“Will you go back, then?” he reluctantly asked.
While he had been studying Alice, she had been studying him. He wondered if she found him lacking, after so many years living in the wild.
“I guess so,” she replied.
There were many things he wanted to say, and what came out of his mouth was not really one of them. “Why do you not come back to camp first, rest up a bit? We’ll be eating soon.”
She started to speak, but nodded instead. “That would be nice.”
He held out an arm to gesture the direction they should go, and fell into step beside her once she started walking. They strolled in silence for a few minutes, until he said, “I think you’ll like our camp. It’s a permanent one, that Will Scarlett made. Though it’s getting too small, and we’ve started on a new one.”
“Dan’s boy? He’s very skilled,” she commented. “He used to make toys for the children of Locksley. For Little John’s fifth birthday, Will made him some toy soldiers; he loved those so much.”
“He doesn’t have them anymore?”
“No. Right before Robin’s return, the sheriff’s men raided the village, looking for poached meat. They destroyed things as they searched, and stepped on the soldiers until they broke. Will had promised to make new ones, but...”
“But, he got outlawed before he could,” John finished.
They went a few more steps in silence. John glanced sideways at Alice, as she carefully picked her way over the forest floor, unused to doing so.
“I’m sorry,” he murmured. She glanced at him in surprise. “About Luke,” he clarified.
Not looking where she was going, she caught her foot on a tree root. John caught her, steadying her before she could fall. The motion brought them facing one another, and he found that he could not let go of her just yet. She did not pull away, either, so that was something.
“I’m not only sorry about Luke.” The words spilled out before he could stop them. “And really, I’m not that sorry about it, only that it hurt you.”
“Wait. Please.” Now that he had begun, he needed to finish. “I’m sorry that I didn’t listen to you that day, when you told me not to go after Roy. I’m sorry that I didn’t come back and tell you the truth. I’m sorry... I’m sorry that I failed you, and John.”
“We’ve already been over this,” she said softly. “I told you, I forgive you. I meant that.”
“I know. But I have not forgiven myself.”
“I wish you would. I want you to be happy.”
His hand dropped to his side. “Happy. Right.”
She frowned, but did not get a chance to say anything, because he heard footsteps stomping through the forest toward them. Taking her arm, he hid her behind his large frame, readying his staff as he faced the intruders.
As the group came into sight, he relaxed. It was only the gang, returning from working on the new camp; they spotted him and called out greetings. Guessing that there was no danger, Alice stepped out to see who was coming.
The others were not that surprised to see her, unlike with Little Little John the day before, and soon everyone was spread around the camp, while Much cooked kebabs and Marian assembled a salad. Little John had noticed Alice stiffen up when Marian greeted her, and recalled what Little Little John had said to him when the two of them had gone for a walk in the forest the night before, about his last memory of her. The boy had gotten to chat with Marian later, and was now relaxed with her; John hoped Alice would get a chance to do the same.
She did, and by the next morning, when Alice and Little Little John were climbing in the cart Robin had hired to take them back to Gloucester, the women were all friendly. Little Little John, on the other hand, was quiet, bordering on sullen. The gang made their farewells, and stood back while Little John said goodbye to his family yet again.
“I don’t want to go,” his son sulked.
Little John sighed inwardly, wanting to agree. “Behave. Listen to your mother. And take care of yourself.” As he hugged the boy, he muttered in his ear, “Take care of her, too.”
He did not mean to touch Alice, but she took his hands. “Be careful, John.”
She looked at their hands, and squeezed his as she said, “Please, be happy.”
There was nothing he could say to that, so he simply let go and stepped back, and the driver clicked the horses onward.
John watched as his wife and child once more went out of his life, amazed that his heart could break all over again; he would not have thought the remaining pieces were big enough to shatter any further.
Suddenly, it was too much. He took a step, then two, and then broke into a run.
“John?” Much called, but got no reply.
“Stop! Stop the cart!” John yelled, and the driver was quick to obey, not wanting to upset the big man.
“What is it? What’s wrong?” asked Alice when he caught up to them.
“This! This is all wrong.” He took her hands, as she had done to him. “Don’t go. I cannot lose you again, you or John.”
She stared at him. “Are you asking us to live in the forest with you and your friends?”
Realizing the shabbiness of the request, he released her. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have--”
“Of course we will.” She shared a smile with Little Little John.
He was afraid to hope. “Are you sure? It’s not easy.”
“Nothing’s been easy in our lives; we’ll work it out.”
So elated he was almost dizzy, he laughed and swung her down off of the cart, and then lifted Little Little John down, who exclaimed, “Do you mean it? We can really stay?”
“Really. Why don’t you go tell Will that we’ll need an extra room in the new camp?” Little John suggested, and his son rushed to do so, quick and steady despite his limp. The driver was waiting, uncertain as to what he should do. “Go on,” John told him, and soon he and Alice were alone.
“Are you sure about this?”
She smiled warmly at him. “I am.”
He hesitated, not knowing where they stood. “So... are we to be friends?”
“Oh, John,” she sighed, and then grabbed his collar and pulled him down for a kiss. When she moved her head back, she added, “We were never just friends, not even when you tried to keep it that way.”
“I really did,” he chuckled. “When I promised your father I’d look after you, I did not mean as a husband.”
She grinned at him. “When you told me you’d promised to look after me, I hoped you did.”
He sobered. “We have a lot to work through.”
Nodding, she said, “And we will, now that we have the time.”
He had thought his time with her had passed, but as he kissed her again, he knew there was plenty more.
Djaq and Will's quiet walk is interrupted.
Djaq sighed as she smoothed down the wood the way Will had taught her to do. He was in another room in the new camp, hanging one of the doors that she had finished; Carter was also about, putting up shelves. It was important work, and the place was coming along nicely. Thanks to their efforts, the rough cave was being transformed into a home, with doors, shelving, and a hearth; and would be much more comfortable in the cooler months than the open-air camp was. But, the truth was that she was bored. She wanted to be out with the others, raiding nobles’ carriages or besting Sheriff’s men. What she would not give to feel the reverberation of an enemy’s sword clanging against her own as she blocked an attack, to hear the whoosh of air out of their lungs as she hit them in the chest...
“Are you okay?” Will asked from right in front of her, startling her out of her reverie.
She blinked. “Yes, I am fine.” She could tell him about her frustration, but it would serve no purpose; she was not going to endanger their child for a bit of excitement, and he would only get upset on her behalf without any way to help.
“You’re not getting tired?”
“No. Actually, I would like to take a walk.”
He crouched down, running his fingers over the door and nodding to himself. Djaq was taken aback at how pleased she felt that he approved of her work, and when he asked, “Do you mind if I join you?” she was cheerful enough that she agreed, despite having planned to take some time to herself.
Before leaving, Will ducked into the room Carter where was working and told him they were going out, so he would not be surprised to find himself alone. Then, the couple set off into the forest, strolling along in companionable silence.
That was one of the many things Djaq loved about her husband: he did not feel the need to make unnecessary conversation. Anyone else would be making small talk, something to fill up what they saw as empty verbal space. But Will recognized the same thing that she did, that that space was not empty at all. It was full of the presence of the other person, and so often, simply paying attention to that told one so much more than desultory remarks could.
After awhile, Will gave her hand a squeeze and said, “I have to duck aside. I’ll catch up with you in a minute.”
“All right.” She continued along the path they had started following a few yards back, enjoying the lovely weather and the fact that she had energy again; she had been easily exhausted for the last few months, but it seemed that phase was finally passing.
She turned a corner in the path, which went around a tall, moss-covered boulder-- and froze when she came face-to-face with Pieter, the sheriff's former substitute lieutenant.
“Well, well, well, what have we here?” he murmured silkily. She turned to run, but he grabbed her wrist and whirled her around, holding a knife to her throat as he clutched her in front of him. “I do not think so, sweeting,” he hissed into her ear, his rancid breath turning her stomach over.
Djaq mentally assessed the situation, and realized she had no way of freeing herself. The knife was right against her skin, dull enough that it was not making her bleed yet, but sharp enough that it would cut her if any pressure were applied. Her arms were pinned at her sides, so that she was unable to elbow his midsection. She might stand a chance if she could kick him in the shin or stomp on his foot, but his feet were positioned wider than her own, which would cause such an action to be awkward and mostly ineffective.
“What are you going to do?” she asked, her voice strained as his arm clamped tighter around her ribs.
His chuckle tickled the skin behind her ear, making her skin crawl. “That is a question, is it not? Perhaps I will take you to the sheriff, see if he’ll not hire me back since I have captured one of Robin Hood’s outlaws. Perhaps...” He trailed off, scraping the knife against her neck just enough to make it raw. “Perhaps, I will just take the sheriff your scalp.”
Will came around the corner in time to hear the last remark, halting in his tracks and going deathly pale when he took in the situation.
“If it isn’t my lucky day,” Pieter remarked cheerfully. “I wonder, if I stay here long enough, will Hood himself happen along?”
“No; this is not one of our regular paths,” Djaq replied, wincing when the blade was pressed into her skin, breaking the surface.
Will held out his hands. “If you don’t harm her, I’m sure Robin will work something out with you.”
“The only ‘something’ I am willing to accept from Hood is to have him kneeling at my feet so that I may chop off his cursed head!” Pieter screamed. Djaq tensed as the knife cut a little deeper, swallowing a cry, and Will took an involuntary step toward them. “Stop!” commanded Pieter. “If you so much as think about trying anything, I will end her life.”
Intense green eyes, panicked now, met Djaq’s, but Will did as he was told. She tried to give him a little smile, something to settle him, but did not think was very successful.
However, it did calm him enough to speak again. “You want Robin, right? We can get him for you. But he won’t be coming this way; it’s as she said.”
For a beat, Pieter said nothing. Then, he shook his head. “I have a better notion. You will take me to him.”
They only had the roughest of ideas as to where the gang was at the moment, but Will nodded quickly. “Of course. It’s this way.” With another worried glance at his wife, he set out toward the new camp. Djaq suspected that he hoped Carter would provide enough of a distraction to free her, and acknowledged that it was probably her best bet.
The manner in which Pieter was holding her proved difficult when it came to walking, so he kept the arm around her ribs, but dropped the knife to her back, the point pressing against her vest. “I suggest you behave.”
Pieter turned out to be one of those people who did not appreciate the value of silence, getting chatty as they left the path and began tromping through the forest. “I will also require the blonde whore and her beaky lover, as they are as responsible for my disgrace as your leader.”
“Because they escaped you?” asked Djaq, wondering what had set the man off so much-- and what made him think Allan and Kate were lovers. He had been far too tense lately, and Kate far too moody, for that to be true.
He grunted. “The sheriff does not look kindly on failure, as I am sure you know. Because they freed the Locksley girl and then eluded me, I was let go. No one lets Pieter go.”
“Isn’t the sheriff more responsible for your disgrace, then?” Will’s voice was carefully neutral, wary of offending the other man.
“Oh, make no mistake; the sheriff will die, as well. But only after he has given me the recognition I deserve.”
It was a good try, Djaq thought.
“They will laud me, you know,” the madman continued. “The prince, or the king, or whoever decides to rule this godforsaken country. I will rid them of their biggest pest and their most dangerous leech, all at once.”
He continued talking along those lines until the cave entrance was in view, and Will said, “We’re here.”
Pieter eyed the opening, clearly distrustful. “Then, go retrieve the three I seek. The lady and I will wait here.”
Will looked to Djaq, and she knew he did not want to leave her, but they did not have much of a choice. “Go,” she told him. Reluctance plain on his face, he went inside.
“Your friend had better hurry; I grow impatient,” Pieter growled, tightening his grip on her as he moved the knife back up to her throat.
“No one will co-operate with you if you kill me,” Djaq pointed out.
“Now that I know where you all live, I could come back another time, hiding and picking off your friends one at a time,” he said consideringly.
Will came back out of the cave then, seeming more worried than before. “He’s not here; nobody’s here.”
Pieter snorted. “You left here not long ago, yes?”
“Yes, and they were here when we did,” said Will, a frantic edge to his voice.
Djaq was wondering what he and Carter had planned, when suddenly Pieter cried out and arched back. Even though she was unprepared, Djaq seized onto the opportunity, grabbing the forearm that was by her throat and flinging him over her shoulder, stomping on his stomach when he landed before Will caught her arm and tugged her away from the fallen man.
“Are you all right?” He gazed right into her eyes, not wanting her to be able to dissemble at all.
She nodded. “I’m fine.”
She turned and looked at Pieter, who had stopped writhing and was now staring blankly toward the treetops. An arrowhead protruded from his chest.
“Carter,” Will murmured. “He went out one of the back entrances, and up behind you two. I distracted Pieter, so that Carter could shoot him.”
“But I killed him,” Djaq said flatly. “When I threw him, the arrow went through.” Will appeared as though he wanted to argue, but before he could, she shrugged and added, “Good. He threatened my life, and with it, our child’s. I did not set out to kill him, but I cannot say I regret doing so.”
He pulled her against himself, and as she embraced him, she closed her eyes.
She meant what she said. But she would rather not repeat that experience anytime soon.
He would rather not repeat it, either. Djaq did not like it when people got clingy, and Will was not truly a clingy man, anyway; but the urge to never let her go was hard to push aside. The image of the knife pressing into her throat was going to haunt him for a very long time. Possibly forever.
He pulled back, running his thumb under the line that had been scored into her skin, wiping some of the blood away and smearing the rest. “You’re sure you’re all right.”
Knowing what her answer would be, it was a statement rather than a question, and she replied as he expected. With a nod to Carter, who joined them then, he said, “Why don’t you two go back to camp and get that cut cleaned up, and I’ll... take care of him.” He gestured to the body.
Djaq gave him a close look, and he did his best to hide the rage that was quickly building up within him. He must have succeeded, at least enough to pass her inspection, because she agreed.
Soon, Will was alone with the dead man.
The stench of death was never pleasant, but there were times in his life that a small, dark piece of him liked it. This was one of them.
He circled Pieter’s prone corpse, slipping the large axe out of his belt as he moved. This man would have slit Djaq’s throat. This... animal had considered mutilating her. He had terrorized her, terrified her, held her closer than anyone but Will himself did, all the while promising an agonizing end to her life and the life of the child she carried.
As each of these reflections drifted through his head, Will’s blood boiled hotter. He could barely see straight anymore, except for a pinpoint of clarity that was Pieter’s waxen face.
Pieter had thought to scalp Djaq. He deserved no less.
A red calmness descended over Will, and he gave the axe a small twirl in his hand before aiming it at Pieter’s forehead.
Suddenly, a firm hand clamped around his wrist, and Tuck said, “He was an ugly man who did ugly things. With his death, is a chance for beauty. This would destroy it.”
Will lost the narrow focus, his vision completely blurred now. Nostrils flaring as he sucked in air, he growled, “He planned to kill her. He wasn’t going to let her go.”
“I know. But he’s dead, at the hands of the woman he threatened. I cannot think of a more fitting justice; can you?”
“I don’t want justice!” Will roared, surging to his feet and wheeling on the monk. “I want an end to this! I want peace for my wife and for my child! I want to raise my family in a house, not in some glorified tree fort! I want the sheriff to burn in hell, suffering an eternity of retribution for the suffering he’s caused everyone around him!” Hot tears rolled down his cheeks, but he did not notice them against his fevered skin. “I want-- I want...” The fire within him extinguished itself, and he sank to the ground, burying his head in his hands. “I want never to see that fear in her eyes again.”
Tuck eased down beside him, lacing his fingers and propping his elbows on his knees. He was thoughtful for a moment, and then said, “You might, you know. There is no easy end to this life you’ve found yourselves in.”
Will had managed to reign in the tears, and was slowly regaining control of himself. “Before, it was fine. We’re doing something vital. But now...” He shook his head. “It’s not worth this.”
Tuck shrugged. “Perhaps not. One or two villagers who don’t receive Djaq’s medical treatment, another ten who don’t receive their handouts because the gang doesn’t have time to get to them; I’m sure they would understand why you quit, if you chose to do so.” The statement could have been sarcastic, but it was not. “But the children they might have had, the generations to follow-- would they be so understanding?”
Giving him an incredulous look, Will said, “That doesn’t even make sense.”
“Yes, it does.” Both men turned, to see Djaq standing behind them. She knelt beside her husband, resting a hand on his shoulder. “He is right. What we are doing is very important. It is worth it.”
“I could’ve lost you.”
“But, you did not.”
“You could’ve hurt the baby when you threw him.”
Her sigh told him more clearly than words that she had thought of that, too.
Neither of them really noticed when Tuck got to his feet and left, a satisfied air about him.
“I don’t know what I would’ve done if anything had happened to you,” Will whispered.
“You would have grieved, and moved on, and married some blonde Christian woman who would have no idea how to hold a sword, much less use one.” Her light tone was intended to pull him out of his funk, and it mostly worked. But, while she might have been teasing, he wondered if she really thought that.
It would never happen. After a woman this vibrant, this brilliant, there could be no other. But he could not say so, and she would not appreciate it if he did. Instead, his lips pulled up into a half-smile. “Some tall, docile woman who would cook my dinners, you mean? Who wears dresses and has a girl’s name?”
“Do not get carried away,” she warned, but the sparkle in her eyes bespoke her amusement.
Angling himself a bit better, he laid his hand against her cheek. “All right. Maybe not so docile.”
“And she had better be called Jo, or something like that.” She grinned, and then leaned over to kiss him.
“Maybe not so tall, either,” he murmured. “I like how little you are.”
She pulled back in mock outrage. “I am not little! I am simply surrounded by freakishly tall people.”
“‘Freakishly?’ You think I’m freakish?”
She pretended to consider it. “Kiss me again, and I will tell you what I decide.”
He laughed and obliged.
Standing and starting off toward their current camp, she called over her shoulder, “Yes, definitely freakish.”
He grinned as he watched her stride away, but the expression faded as he glanced back down at the corpse. His blinding rage was gone, but he could not bring himself to give the creature a proper burial.
Maybe Tuck could.
Guy's days as a drunkard are numbered.
Guy fell into the castle wall as he weaved his way down the corridor, wine from the bottle that was clenched in his fist sloshing over his glove and onto his boot. A nearby guard snorted, but Guy could not find the energy to care that much, merely snarling at the man as he staggered away from the rough stone. Six months ago, he would have beaten the guard to within an inch of his life, and probably an inch more than that. Now, who cared?
Queen Eleanor was studiously collecting tax money for her son’s ransom, and while word had reached Nottingham Castle that Prince John and King Philip were trying to bribe the Holy Roman Emperor to keep Richard imprisoned, Guy was certain that wouldn not last. Soon, England's king would return, and he would see to it that all traitors paid. And, you could not be much more of a traitor than trying to kill a monarch with your own hands.
He halted, taking a deep swig of the expensive burgundy without even tasting it. Its flavor had been forever lost to him somewhere within his tenth cask, or thereabouts. The rich liquid dribbled out the side of his mouth, and he swiped at it with his sleeve, but the leather did not do much to sop it up.
There was a flight of stairs ahead, which would take him down to the outer corridor along the castle courtyard. It was a steep flight; perhaps he would fall and break his neck. He was likely facing a broken neck, anyway, or at least a throttled one; it only remained to be seen if Vaizey did the deed before the king had it taken care of.
As he somehow reached the bottom of the steps unscathed, he looked back up in disgust. He could not even properly kill himself by accident. Bloody hell.
He could, however, trip over absolutely nothing, sprawling on his face in front of one of the unused chambers along the path, the bottle flying out of his hand and shattering on the slate floor ahead of him. The door to the room was cracked open, and when he lifted his head, he realized he was looking at the very spot where Marian had kissed him, the day Hood made his escape with Vaizey’s lauded assassin, Carter.
Dear God, she had been helping them, hadn’t she? Creating a diversion. She could not have picked a better one, but how was it that he had never before figured this out?
He waited for the anger to rise, the hurt, but all that was left was humiliation. And not even at being fooled by her, but that it had never crossed his mind to wonder. All that time, he thought that she was merely reluctant, playing the coy maiden... but the whole while, it was Robin Hood who possessed her heart.
It was Robin Hood who had saved her life, who had stopped Guy from running her through.
The wound from the outlaw’s arrow had long ago healed, and Guy actually cherished the scar it left behind. It was a reminder that his life was over, even if he was still breathing for now. He had nothing left; not the woman he loved, not security in his position... nothing. It was also a reminder that he owed Hood a debt, for preventing him from killing her. That knowledge was nearly as painful as the memory of the tip of his sword cutting into her belly, in the second before his arm was jerked back; it almost hurt as badly as the sight of her stepping away from him, shock and betrayal on her face.
Betrayal. What a joke, from a woman who had done nothing but jerk him about with empty promises and false embraces.
He thought about getting up, but there was no one about, so it did not really matter if he laid here another minute. Everything was spinning again, anyway, including his stomach. But, he could control that.
He was still swallowing against the bile in his throat when a coach rolled into the courtyard. Pulling himself to his hands and knees, he crawled over to the stairway that led to the edge of the courtyard, dragging himself up along the wall at the top of the stairs. When the vehicle stopped, a lovely woman in her mid-thirties, with hair somewhere between brown and flame-hued, stepped down. Guy blinked blearily at her, trying to figure out where he had seen her before. She was obviously a noble, but he still could not quite place her.
A guard hurried down from the castle entrance to assist her, and she said, “Please inform the sheriff that Lady Margaret of Leicester has arrived, and needs to speak with him.”
Margaret of Leicester... Margaret... Marg--
Oh, damn. Marian’s cousin. Only, she had gone by Meg when she spent that summer with Marian and Edward, shortly after Guy had begun seriously pursuing Marian, and just before Hood got back from the Holy Land and ruined everything.
But, wait. There was something bad here... what was it, again?
Right-- the sheriff would throw her in the dungeons if he got a hold of her, as a weapon against Marian. And, Marian might have lied to Guy, manipulated him, and basically made a complete ass of him, but he still found that he wanted to help her. Old habits, and all that.
“Wait!” he called to the guard. “Don’t bother the sheriff; I’ll see to her.” He pushed off from the wall with the intention of making his way down the corridor, but lost his footing and felt himself falling sideways.
He barely felt his tumble down the stairs; one moment he was tipping, and the next he was crumpled at the bottom, disoriented and with nearly every part of his body throbbing. The bile was back, and he barely had time to roll over before his stomach heaved out its meager contents.
The first few times this had happened since they left Acre, he had been even more pained than he normally would be, by the fire of primarily alcoholic contents ripping their way up through his system. Now, he had forgotten what a throat not burnt raw felt like. His voice, normally smooth as velvet, had become what could only be described as gravelly. That suited him fine, since it did even more to intimidate or repulse than he was able to accomplish before.
Suddenly, gentle hands were on his shoulders, barely discernable through his sturdy doublet, and a feminine voice asked, “Are you injured?” She must have only then noticed why he was crouched over, because she yelled toward the entrance, “This man needs help; he’s taken ill!”
The sounds of snickering hit his ears, and a soon-to-be-unemployed guard hollered back, “Nah, that’s just Sir Guy. He’ll be fine after he has a doze, or another bottle.”
By this time, the spasms had ceased, and he spit a few times to clear his mouth. Lady Margaret gave him room as he forced himself to his feet, turning to face her.
“Sir Guy of Gisborne,” she murmured. “The dark man on his dark horse. What has happened to you?”
“Lady Margaret. What brings you to Nottingham?” That sounded vaguely coherent. He would have patted himself on the back, if he was not likely to fall over upon doing so.
She eyed him warily, as if distrusting that he had his feet, or concerned that he might vomit on her gown. “I am looking for my uncle and cousin. I went to call on them, and found Knighton Hall in ashes, with nobody willing to tell me what happened.”
At the reminder of one of the greater wrongs he had done Marian, Guy’s stomach threatened to empty itself again, but he was able to fight down the wave of nausea. Distracted by that and still far from sober, he did not think to soften his words. “Edward is dead. Marian is outlawed, married to Robin Hood.”
She gasped. “What? What happened to Uncle Edward?”
“Stabbed.” Good God, there was nothing left to come up, so why was his stomach bothering to try?
Staring at him until she realized he was not going to elaborate, she finally demanded, “By whom? When?”
His legs were starting to feel wobbly. He had told her what she came to learn; why would the infernal woman not leave him be? And what was the question again? “Dunno. Last year. Some canon... Berkeley.”
“Are you going to be unwell?” she asked suspiciously.
He burped, causing her nose to wrinkle when the stench reached her. “Maybe.” His muscles decided that they needed to rest immediately, and he collapsed into a sitting position. “Have ‘em ta'e me t’Lo'sley,” he slurred, before slipping into slumber.
Guy was vaguely conscious of being hauled up and set somewhere that shook him around; the next thing he knew, he was blinking through eyes that felt like sandpaper, peering against the evening sunlight which burnished his bedchamber in amber light.
His tongue felt like it was stuck to the roof of his mouth, his head was pounding, and the taste in his mouth was better left without description. He automatically reached for the bottle that was always beside the bed, only to find it missing.
Easing up onto his elbows, he turned in confusion to look at the small table, but it was, indeed, empty. What the devil was this, then? Thornton knew to always have a full bottle at his bedside.
He made a growling sound in the back of his throat, which was met by a voice from the corner of the room. “Awake, are you?”
With a glare in the general direction of the voice, he grumbled, “Who’s there?”
Rather than answer, a woman stood up. “What if I were an assassin? Someone sent to kill you? You would be in no position to defend yourself.”
He smirked. “Who says I would want to defend myself?”
She walked over to the bed and leant down, nearly nose-to-nose with him. “I do.”
Her face was so familiar... and yet different from what his memory said it should be. Older, nearly his own age. “Why do I know you?”
“My name is Meg, and once, I thought you were the handsomest man alive. I hoped you would save me from a betrothal I did not want. But it looks like I’m going to be saving you, instead.”
His head dropped back to the pillow. “Oh, God help me.”
"God will have nothing to do with you, if what I have been hearing today is true,” she commented evenly, moving to perch on the end of the bed.
She was likely right about his being forsaken, but he did not like hearing it. As to the gossip... he would deal with that later. Maybe. “You’re Marian’s cousin. You arrived at the castle...” He realized he had no idea how much time had passed. He had stopped paying attention to that long ago.
“So, you haven’t completely destroyed your memory; good. I arrived this afternoon,” she supplied. “It’s past supper.”
“People still eat that?”
Meg was not amused. “Yes, people still eat supper. People eat. It’s what we do to live.” She eyed him. “You, however, look to be near death.”
Finally, some good news. He flung his arm across his eyes, blocking out the light. “Why are you even here? I haven’t seen you in, what, five years?”
“Closer to six. And I’m here because I apparently haven’t grown any wiser over that time.”
He moved his arm to peer at her. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
She sighed, looking away. “Never mind.”
Having no use for dramatics, he said meanly, "A little old to be saved from a betrothal, were you not?"
She stiffened, perhaps unconsciously twisting even further away from him. "I kept my independence as long as I could. By the time I could not sustain it any further, my options were limited."
Something occurred to him. “You said you were from Leicester, when you got to the castle.”
Cautiously turning back to him, she said, “I did. What of it?”
“You weren’t from Leicester. You were from some godforsaken little village like this.”
A half-smile quirked her lips. “You remember that?”
Well, if she was going to be difficult about it... “I remember things about important people.” Or, at least, he used to. He could have met the bloody pope recently and had no recollection of it an hour later.
“And flattery, too?” But she did not tease him further. “My husband was from Leicester.”
“You say ‘was’.”
With a small nod, she explained, “He died two weeks ago. I came to see if I could stay with Uncle Edward until I get things sorted out.”
She did not appear devastated by the loss, which was no surprise after what she had just said, but her eyes were sad. Guy did not know why he cared, but found himself saying, “I’m sorry.” Even more surprising, he found he meant it.
Meg gave a little shrug, picking at a loose thread in the coverlet. “He treated me well enough, but there was no great affection between us.”
“What was his name?”
There was that half-smile again, dancing over her lips. “Lester.”
She had to be kidding. “Lester of Leicester?”
A giggle escaped her, and she clapped a hand over her mouth, mortified. Glancing at him in chagrin, she seemed to realize that he, of all people, was not about to judge her. Leaning toward him slightly, she said quietly, “Isn’t that an awful name? His whole family has no concept of what is appropriate, and are greatly lacking in intelligence.”
The discussion of her in-laws reminded him of something. “What did you mean, you wished I would save you from your betrothal? And for the love of God, get me something to drink.”
She had blushed at his question, but the color receded from her face as she raised an eyebrow at his command. “I beg your pardon?”
“I take it you removed my wine bottle.”
“I did. You’ve apparently had enough wine to last a dozen lifetimes.”
“Wrong. This lifetime is still dragging on, which means I have not even had enough to last one. Since you took it upon yourself to remove it, you can find its replacement for me.”
With a huff, she got to her feet. He heard her pouring liquid into a cup, and then she marched back, sticking it practically in his face. Glaring at her, he grabbed it and slugged back several gulps before he noticed it was not what he expected. “This is-- this is water!” he exclaimed, outraged.
“Congratulations, you’ve identified it,” she replied dryly.
He flung the cup on the floor, scattering the contents across the boards. Even as he did, the action struck him as petulant-- and her reaction mirrored the thought,-- but Locksley was still his for the time being, and he was not going to be reduced to drinking water while he was master. “Devil woman, are you trying to poison me?” he spat.
“You would like that, wouldn’t you?” she shot back.
“If you’re going to do it, at least, do it right,” he grumbled. “I’m sure there’s arsenic in the kitchens or outbuildings somewhere.”
She stared at him, and he stared back, daring her to deny that he was serious. “Why are you like this?” she finally whispered.
Instead of giving her a direct reply, he muttered, “Run, Meg. Run, before the king hears you have associated with me, or before you say something I do not wish to hear.”
"Melodramatic one, aren't you?" Clearly, she had no idea what he was talking about, but merely lifted her chin and said, “And leave you to your drinking, you mean. Well, Sir Guy, no such luck. You see, I am currently without a place to live, thanks to you (yes, I did discover that it was you who burnt Knighton Hall); and you have nobody to look after you. So, until you can think of a better solution-- one which will satisfy me,-- you are stuck with me.”
Guy narrowed his eyes. “I could have you thrown out, or tossed in the castle dungeons.”
Her answering smirk was almost on a level with his own such expression. “Frankly, I think the guards would be more likely to listen to me than to you at the moment.”
She was probably right. “Infernal woman,” he growled.
He gave her a sneer. Let’s see her match that.
A triumphant grin was her response, instead.
“I’ll see that a plate is brought up for you,” she said, as if it had been his idea, and flounced out before he could argue.
He wondered if tripping and falling out the window not-so-accidentally would count as suicide. Damn it, it probably would.
With a sigh of resignation, he closed his eyes.
Meg's mother-in-law does not get the result she sought.
The next several days were a blur of misery, of praying for death with a renewed fervor.
Meg had forbidden anyone from providing Guy with a drop of alcohol, and the traitorous servants of Locksley obeyed her. Not that he was in a particular state to upbraid them; he was hardly aware of what was going on around him, only of his own suffering. In one of his lucid moments, he asked Meg if she was aware that in supposedly trying to save his life, she was actually killing him.
“That could happen,” she acknowledged. “If I had never done this before. But I’ll see to it that you survive, whether you want to, or not.”
Somehow, she was right. By the next week, he was seated beside her at supper, his hand not shaking much anymore as he lifted the spoonful of soup to his mouth. He was weak as a kitten, but feeling better by the day. If he let himself admit it, even his soul felt partially renewed; Lady Margaret of Leicester was a force of nature, but one containing great amounts of sunshine amongst the whirlwinds.
Bah. What rubbish. Vaizey would never let him live it down if he knew Guy was having thoughts like that.
But, in fact, it appeared that even the sheriff was impressed by her-- at least, as impressed as he could be with any woman. He had stopped in two days earlier, and appeared glad to witness Guy’s recovery. Then, he had dashed away any pleasant feelings Guy had about that when he complained, “All of your replacements keep failing and scuttling away like the rodents they are. At least you stick around, even when you’ve bollocksed everything up.”
Despite that, the nasty little man had nodded at Meg before leaving, giving her as sincere a “Thank you” as he could produce.
Now, with her sitting beside him at table, smiling as she recounted a memory from her last visit to Knighton, Guy found himself reluctant to return to the castle, and Vaizey’s cruelty. His days on this earth might be numbered, but they would be far more pleasantly spent sharing stories with Meg, than plotting and executing evil deeds with the Sheriff of Nottingham.
Something of his musings must have reflected on his face, because she paused, mid-sentence, and asked, “What are you thinking?”
He glanced down at his bowl. “Nothing of consequence.”
She opened her mouth to question him further, when there was the sound of horses approaching, followed by a knock at the door. Thornton appeared from the back and quickly answered it.
“Lady Margaret is here, I assume?” a female voice demanded imperiously.
Meg’s face drained of color, and she got slowly to her feet as a rotund, middle-aged woman, draped in furs despite the warmth of the day, barged in. “There you are. Thought you could run away, did you?” She looked down her nose at Guy. “And this must be your weasel of a lover. Of course, he wouldn’t think to rise in the presence of a lady, would he? You never did have any taste.”
Guy stood unsteadily, resisting the urge to lean on the table for support. He looked to Meg, who softly said, “Sir Guy, this is my mother-in-law, Lady Francine of Leicester. Lady Francine, Sir Guy of Gisborne. Sir Guy did not stand immediately because he has been ill, which is also why he will take his seat now.” This last was said more to him, but he ignored it.
Lady Francine harrumphed as she strode over to the table, examining their simple meal with distaste. “He may not be able to stand, but he could offer me a repast. A glass of wine, at the least.”
Meg looked ready to spit, gone from shock to fury, and Guy quickly spoke up. “My apologies; my mind is still recovering, as well. Please, join us.” He gestured at an empty chair, which the woman took with as much enthusiasm as she would if sitting on a pile of refuse.
“That’s better,” she declared, as the other two resumed their seats. “Now, as to your flight, Margaret--”
“I did not run away,” Meg said, through clenched teeth.
Lady Francine raised both eyebrows at her. “I offered you a place in my home, but no sooner was my son cold and in the ground as you were off for... wherever we are.”
Nostrils flared, Meg replied, “We are in Locksley, near Nottingham, as you well know. And the only reason you invited me to live with you was so that you could do away with me and steal the money Lester left me with.”
Francine's upset was too feigned, Guy reflected, instantly believing Meg’s claim based on the other woman’s theatrical reaction. “How dare you! To even suggest--”
“How many husbands have you gone through now? Three? Four?” Meg was a bit calmer in the face of the forced denial.
Puffing up for another defense, Lady Francine suddenly switched tactics. Clearing her throat and sipping from the goblet Thornton had set beside her, she said, “Well, it hardly matters. Once I have presented the evidence of your betrayal of my dear, departed son to the authorities, you’ll be stripped of any gains gotten from him.”
Meg’s jaw dropped. “What on earth are you about?”
Goblet in hand, the lady motioned to Guy. “Your lover, of course. An unfaithful wife does not deserve her husband’s charity, be he alive or dead.”
“How dare you? For one thing, I have never--”
Seeing that she was about to fly into a rage, likely saying things that could only harm her case, Guy decided to intervene. “You misunderstand Lady Margaret’s presence here.”
“I do nothing of the kind. By all accounts, she has been closeted with you in your bedchamber for a week. That is hardly the action of an unprecedented relationship.”
“Obviously, you have never had an affair,” he muttered, unable to stop himself. Catching a fuming glare from Meg, he immediately became serious again. “But, as it happens, that is not the case. Lady Margaret stopped by in search of her cousin, to whom I was once engaged, thinking to find her as my wife. Instead, she discovered that I was ill, and has been nursing me to health.”
Lady Francine snorted. “A likely tale. And one you cannot substantiate.”
“You cannot substantiate yours, either,” Meg ground out.
“People will always believe the more sordid possible truth,” her mother-in-law remarked.
She was right; Meg was sunk. “You did not let me finish,” said Guy. “As we realized that the situation would not reflect well upon her ladyship, that wicked people with nothing better to do would gossip” --he did not know if the barb hit its mark, but Meg caught it and smiled at him,-- “we agreed that the best course of action was to become engaged.” Meg's smile vanished as her jaw dropped.
“What?” both women exclaimed.
He hoped he was doing the right thing; it was difficult to tell by Meg’s expression whether she appreciated his help, or was going to calmly strangle him once they were alone again. “We are both adults, of a similar station, who find ourselves in need of a helpmeet. It was an obvious conclusion.”
An engagement would set things aright; no authority would look down upon a young lady tending to her ill fiancé. There might be raised eyebrows at the speed with which she gained a new husband, but it was hardly unprecedented.
“This... this is preposterous!” Lady Francine cried.
Still gaping at Guy, Meg murmured, “No congratulations?”
Sputtering, the matron shoved her chair back so quickly it toppled over, and she marched for the door, screaming, “Order my coach!” to no one in particular. At the door, she whirled about. “Do not think you’ve heard the last of me, missy.”
Guy stood, more steadily than he had expected. “Do not threaten my bride.”
“I beg your pardon? Are you threatening me?”
“If you wish to see it that way, yes. You will have no further contact with Lady Margaret. You will leave her-- us-- in peace, or you will have the full weight of Nottingham to deal with.” Vaizey probably would back him, if need be, if only to protect his own interest. “Are we understood?”
With a wordless noise of outrage, Lady Francine spun to leave once more.
Quietly, Guy repeated, “I asked, are we understood?” His voice was nearly back to normal now, and the silky danger he had had no use for recently found its way easily to the fore.
“Understood,” she snapped, before flinging the door open and marching outside.
Guy and Meg remained where they were until they heard the horses drawing the coach clatter away. And then, they remained there a moment longer; he was waiting for the coming explosion, but did not wish to detonate it a minute sooner than necessary.
When she had not said anything and the silence grew interminable, he turned to her, finding her still staring at him. “I’m sorry; I should not have done that. You can tell her I lied.”
Finally, she blinked. “Are you joking? I only wish you did that five years ago.”
They had conversed a bit over the last week, in his better moments, but he had not remembered to ask what she meant by that. He did so now, as he sat back down.
Her cheeks flushed becomingly, and she toyed with her spoon. “I suppose there’s no harm now. You’d recently begun calling on Marian when I came to stay with her, and she was quite distressed. Angry as she was at Robin for leaving and calling off their betrothal, a part of her still loved him, and she did not know what to make of your attentions.”
He had known that Marian was less than enthusiastic about his courtship early on, but hearing it from one of her confidantes was not pleasant, nor was the reminder that she had always been thinking of Robin. Dragging his mind back to the present, he remarked, “So, you thought to steal me from her?”
“No! Well, not at first. Not really.”
“That’s a clear answer.”
She laughed. “Well, from what she first told me, I expected some gross, old man.”
Realizing her words had come out quite offensively, she waved her hands to backtrack. “No, no, no! She never said that; it was my interpretation of what she told me.”
He chewed on his lip while she spoke, then asked curiously, “What did she say?”
Squinting at him to judge whether or not he was going to get angry, she replied, “That you were older, and wore a lot of black leather.”
Well, that was not too bad. “How did you get ‘gross’ out of ‘black leather’?”
With a shrug, she said, “Have you ever smelt anybody who ran around in dark leather in the summer sun?”
He had smelled himself, and never thought it a problem, unless he had been riding or fighting-- and in that case, he bathed. “You have, I take it?”
Wrinkling her nose in a manner which would have been irritating on most women, but which he somehow found flattering on her, she nodded. “One of my mother’s suitors wore the same leather trousers and jacket every day, and almost never washed. Also, he was a pig. In the winter, he didn’t stink too badly, but once summer rolled round...” She shuddered.
“So, you assumed I would be a...” He searched for the right words to sum it up.
“Smelly, gross, old pig.”
That summed it up. “What changed your mind?”
Her smile came out again, and he was suddenly very aware of the curve of her lips. “I saw you ride up to the house.”
That triggered a vague memory, of something she had said awhile ago. “A dark horse?”
Meg started. “You recall that?”
“But that was not it.”
“'The dark man on his dark horse.’ Those were the words that came to mind when I saw you. And then, when I found out you were Marian’s Sir Guy, and spoke with you... well, that night, I told her she was ridiculous for giving Robin a second thought, when she had you ready to step up. I listed off all of your qualities that I had noted that evening. I thought she would listen to the advice of an older girl. And after she was asleep, I stared at the ceiling and wished you would ride up for me, and save me from marrying a man named Lester of Leicester.”
Guy watched her face as she recounted her fantasies, musing over what he could remember of this past week. This woman had been nearly a stranger, but had shut herself up with a mess of a man because she fancied him once. She had been patient and caring when he needed her, and had not hesitated to tell him off when necessary. She had challenged him and supported him, and he never had the sense she was being anything but honest with him.
He spoke his thought without considering it first. “I should have.”
Surprise lit her face yet again. “What?”
“I should have looked to you; it would have saved us both years of frustration. Or boredom, in your case.”
“So, you really want to go through with this? I’m only going to give you so much time to take it back.” She made it sound like she was teasing, but he could easily envision her making his life a living hell if he backed out too much later on.
Somehow, he suspected that he would not want to. “Yes, let’s go through with it.”
She gave him a mock-haughty look. “Don’t I get a proposal?”
Normally, he would never let someone get away with manipulating him, even just in a teasing fashion, but the irritation he expected did not surface. Instead, he chuckled. “I will consider it.”
“Then, I’ll consider saying yes.”
She stood and strutted toward the stairs, pausing when she was halfway up and looking back over her shoulder at him. “Coming?”
His brain went blank. Surely, she could not mean... “What?”
“If everyone’s saying we are enjoying ourselves, we may as well.” There was that smile again. It was going to drive him insane, and he was glad for it.
Meg has a solution for Guy.
Hope had been pleasant, while it lasted. And a few days of happiness was really more than a man with his past could expect.
Still, a week would have been nice, Guy reflected.
But, as Vaizey finished outlining his new scheme to put Prince John in power, Guy could all but see the future Meg offered evaporating before his eyes. He presumed that he succeeded in disguising his nausea as a sneer, especially since the sheriff did not seem to notice anything amiss.
The ride back to Locksley seemed to take years. When he spotted Meg chatting with a few of the village women, he felt even more ill. She looked so cheerful, and beamed at him when he rode up to where they were standing.
“I need to speak with you,” he growled, causing her eyebrows to rise and her companions, who had been offering him tentative nods, to flee.
However, she merely made her way to the manor while he went ahead and stabled his horse. When he stepped into the house, she was standing in front of the unlit hearth, staring at the ashes. “Care to explain what that was all about?” she murmured, without turning.
He sighed heavily. “Sorry. I just came from a meeting with the sheriff.”
She did face him then. “I thought he was pleased to have you back?”
His smile was decidedly lacking in humor. “He is. He is so pleased, that he has already charged me with collecting a new tax, to be used in order to ensure that King Richard is never released from captivity.”
Meg processed that, and then asked, “I thought that you were a supporter of the prince?”
“I have no love for Richard, but John has done nothing to earn my loyalty, either. Now… I do not know what to do anymore.” He wandered over to the sideboard and poured himself a cup of the berry drink Meg had taught the servants to make. It was not at all what he wanted at the moment, but it was better than water.
“You go with the sheriff, do you not?”
“I have done so for years, yes.” Swigging the tart beverage, he admitted to the fear he had been ignoring lately. “While that served me well at first, I have damned myself because of it.”
He waited for her agreement, but instead got a frustrated noise from the back of her throat. “Oh, for heaven's sake! ‘I’m a dead man, I'm damned.’ If you are that concerned, do something about it!”
Clearly, he had annoyed her, but he was unsure as to why. “What do you suggest I do?” he demanded. “The things I have done… No amount of penance can erase them.” He once believed that Marian would cleanse his soul, but had done so much more harm since that time, nothing would suffice now.
“So, you’ll just give up and continue to do as you have been?” She shook her head in disgust and marched toward the door, stopping to glare at him when she reached it. “I thought you were better than that. I thought that the man I have spent these days with was the real you. But it’s not, is it? The real Sir Guy just throws his hands up and does as he is told, because he feels so sorry for himself. Well, it’s good that you do, because I am done feeling sorry for you.”
As she flung the door open, Guy said, “I never wanted you to feel sorry for me. I do not deserve pity.”
“You’re right. You deserve contempt, if you are so unwilling to change.”
Guy threw out a hand. “I ask again: What would you suggest I do? If I go against the sheriff, I will likely wind up dead. When the king comes home, I will surely wind up dead. I could try to send him a warning about the plot, but I doubt he would believe someone who has tried to kill him twice in three years. My options are nonexistent.”
Closing the door again, Meg leant against it, crossing her arms. “If you are such a dead man, why were you so glad to be marrying me? I thought you had decided to find a way past that, but it appears you were just set on making me a widow once again.”
His stomach sank as shame overwhelmed him. “I had not looked at it that way,” he admitted.
She stared at him as if wondering if he were lying. Concluding that he was being honest, she said, “So, you really think there is no way out of this situation you have put yourself in.”
With a snort, he replied, “You have an idea?”
“I would think it was obvious.”
“Would you just get to the point?” He did not want to acknowledge that he hoped she really did have a plan, and decided irritation was the better course of emotion.
Meg closed her eyes for a minute, but when she opened them, gave him the answer she had found. “My cousin is married to a friend of the king. And they are just down the Great North Road a ways.”
Surely, she was jesting. “You’re not suggesting that I ask Robin Hood for help.”
“I am not suggesting that at all,” she ground out. “I’m telling you it is your only solution.”
He jutted his jaw out. “There has to be another way.”
The North Road alarm sounded, calling the outlaws to attention. They had been about to leave for work on the new camp, but stopped and looked to Robin.
“Marian, Much, Allan; come with me. Everybody else, go on ahead and we’ll catch you up.”
He and the other three made their way quietly to a point overlooking the road, peering over at the passersby.
“Gisborne,” Much hissed. “What is he doing here?”
“And holding his seat all right, too,” Allan noted.
Robin studied the other figure. “Who’s that with him?
“If I did not know better,” Marian said slowly, “I would think that was my cousin.”
“Meg?” asked Robin, instantly seeing what she meant.
Just then, the woman turned in her saddle to adjust her skirt, and Marian gasped. “That is Meg!”
“What’s your cousin doing with Giz?” Allan wondered.
Robin chewed his lip. “Let’s find out.”
A couple of minutes later, the outlaws ran into the road, surrounding the pair, weapons at the ready. Meg startled, causing her horse to dance until she got it under control, but Guy merely rolled his eyes.
“Well, well, Gisborne. If I did not know better, I would think you were sober,” Robin said lightly, though his eyes flashed.
Marian looked to her cousin. “Meg, what are you doing here?”
“What I told you to do years ago: I am marrying Sir Guy.”
“You are already married.”
Meg shook her head. “Lester passed away.”
“I’m sorry,” murmured Marian. Meg nodded her thanks.
“And you think Gisborne is an acceptable replacement?” Robin queried. “You like to live dangerously, don’t you?”
“There’s the pot calling the kettle black,” Meg snapped irritably. “You really think the forest is a safe place to keep a wife?”
Marian appeared about ready to attack, when Guy said calmly, “Does it not strike you as odd that we would come this way without guards, knowing that you patrol this part of the road?”
“What is that supposed to mean?” Much demanded.
Robin raised an eyebrow at his nemesis. “I believe it means they were looking for us, Much.”
“Very good,” Guy praised mockingly. Then, in a serious tone, he asked, “Is there somewhere more private we might speak?”
Allan started walking down the road the way Guy and Meg had come.
“What are you doing?” Much called.
Allan glanced up at him. “Seeing if they’ve left a handy trail for his men to follow.”
“Anything?” Robin asked after Allan had gone a few more feet. The other man shook his head.
“It is not a trap,” Guy muttered.
Robin gave him a sarcastic grin. “And we are just supposed to believe you.”
Instead of replying, Guy turned to Meg. “I told you this would not work.”
Meg’s face was flushed with annoyance. “Look, we haven’t brought anybody, we are not leaving a trail. Will you just listen to what Guy has to say? What you do with the information is up to you, but I guarantee you will want to hear it.”
The others waited for Robin's verdict, and he finally nodded. “There is a clearing through here.” He indicated the forest on the side of the road away from camp. “After you,” he added grandly.
Guy dismounted and handed Meg down. Robin noticed that he had yet to look at Marian, and was more than fine with that. Having the two precede them into the woods, leading their horses, everyone was quiet until they reached the clearing. There, the other three outlaws kept their weapons at hand while Robin faced their visitors.
“Now, what’s this information I will want to hear?”
Visibly biting back a retort, Guy said only, “The sheriff is planning to impose a new tax.”
“That ain’t news. The sheriff’s always imposing new taxes,” Allan grumbled.
Guy shot him an impatient look, but Meg caught his eye. “Go on,” she encouraged.
“This will serve one of two purposes, both designed to work against the king.”
“What do you care about the king?” Much demanded.
“Let him finish,” Marian admonished. Guy’s face registered surprise, but he merely dipped his chin in acknowledgement.
“First, the money will be offered to Henry to keep him in captivity.”
“A bribe,” Robin clarified.
“And the second use?”
“In the event that Henry will not accept the bribe, it will be used to hire another ruler or group to kidnap King Richard, should he be released.”
Robin chewed on his thumbnail. “Covering both eventualities.”
Everyone was silent, waiting to see what Robin would say.
He narrowed his eyes at Guy. “Why are you telling us this?”
“I should think that would be obvious: so that you might stop it.”
With a humorless laugh, Robin gestured to Much. “As my friend asked, what do you care about the king? You have been set to kill him all this time.” Even the unamused smile dropped from his face. “You were set to kill Marian for standing in your way.”
Guy’s temper rose. “That is not what happened, and you know it.”
“Do I?” Robin challenged, angry himself.
“Robin,” Marian said warningly.
Meg frowned. “Look, Guy has risked a lot by coming here today. The sheriff still believes him to be loyal, and you should know as well as anyone that there are spies and traitors everywhere willing to sell him out should they find that he is aiding you. Either use the information, or don’t. We should leave, before we are missed.”
The outlaws exchanged looks as the two turned to go. They were nearly out of the clearing and back into the trees when Robin said, “When are you supposed to collect the money?”
Guy stopped, half-turning to reply. “Two days. The sheriff will announce it tomorrow, and I am to visit the villages the day after.” Facing forward and starting to walk away again, he added over his shoulder, “I begin in Nettlestone and end in Farthing.”
Two evenings later, Guy and his men had just finished collecting the last of the new tax and were on their way back to Nottingham. They had gotten a couple of miles down the road, when a series of large nets dropped from the sky, catching the guards and narrowly missing Guy. Instantly, they were all surrounded by outlaws.
“Hood,” Guy growled, drawing his sword as he was confronted by Robin. His men, occupied with trying not to get thrown and thus trampled by their startled horses, did not see the relief that flashed across his face.
“I wouldn’t, if I were you,” Robin said, gesturing at Guy’s sword. Will and Carter flanked their leader, arrows trained on Guy. He glanced around at the group who had subdued his entourage, sneering when his men could see him. Facing Robin again, he flung his sword on the ground.
“Do not think you will get away with this,” he hissed, as Tuck and Kate retrieved the money chests from amongst the guards.
Robin grinned cheekily. “Of course, we’ll get away with it. We already have.” He nodded toward the trees, and suddenly, several small objects were flung into the road before and behind Guy’s men. Smoke spewed from the things, quickly creating a dense cloud. “My gang, time to disappear!” yelled Robin.
Guy shouted the usual threats at his guards as they worked harder to untangle themselves from the nets, but he could not completely hide his smile. This whole plan was a long shot, but a long shot was better than none at all.
Robin and Guy are forced to come to an understanding.
Guy apparently had done as requested when they worked out the plan, arranging his guards in such a way that massive gaps were left in the coverage of Locksley Manor. Either he really was on their side now, or this was a colossal mistake on Robin's behalf. Although years of enmity was pressing him to believe that Gisborne was merely carrying out yet another scheme to entrap them, Robin's gut was telling him to trust his nemesis. If that instinct had not guided him well so far, he would think it was just last night's rabbit dinner sitting badly; but they would soon find out, one way or another.
He was especially nervous because Marian had insisted on accompanying him. He knew she could take care of herself normally, but if this was a trap... Time was, he would have relied on the knowledge that Guy would not hurt her, but that had flown out the window in the Holy Land. While it was not just the two of them-- Allan and Tuck had come along, as well,-- he would not breathe easily until they were all back in the forest.
However, the four of them sneaked into the manor easily enough, finding Guy and Meg awaiting them in the main room. Meg offered them seats and goblets of wine, and once everyone was settled, Guy asked, "Do you believe me now?"
Lounging in a chair that he used to keep in the study, Robin raised an eyebrow. "I believe that you did something today which will benefit the poor. It remains to be seen if you actually intend to become our ally."
Clearly put off, Guy snarled, "Well, believe this: If there were some way to save the king and still kill you, I would do it in a heartbeat."
Robin's eyes flashed, and though he maintained the appearance of his pose being casual, he had gone completely tense. "Tell you what-- I'll work out that plan, and we will see who winds up dead."
"Why do we not just skip the plan, and find out now?" Guy jumped to his feet, causing Robin to do the same.
"Would the two of you stop this?" exclaimed Marian, exasperated, as Tuck and Allan moved forward to prevent an all-out brawl.
Tuck pinned Guy with a look. "A man who has reached your position should know better than to antagonize somebody he is trying to align himself with."
Behind him, Allan snorted, making himself the center of attention. "You've gotta be kidding. He's been aligned with the sheriff for years, and antagonizes him daily." Shrugging when Guy glared at him, he added, "And Robin, I'm not being funny, but can you really see Giz pulling off a plan like what you're thinking?"
"Good to know you hold me in some esteem," muttered Guy, dropping back into his chair.
Marian had pulled Meg off to the side of the room, and was speaking quietly to her; that was probably a good thing, since Robin doubted that Meg knew how to handle a situation like this.
Slouched in his seat once more, Robin steepled his fingers and ran his forefingers over his chin as he thought. Looking to Allan, he finally nodded. "You have a point."
Guy threw his hands in the air. "So, you have finally decided to trust me because I amm not clever enough to trick you. Wonderful."
"Who said I decided to trust you? I simply said he had a point."
Just then, Meg leaned over by Guy's ear. "There is a messenger. He awaits you in the study."
From where she had taken a place beside Robin, Marian said coldly, "Would that be a messenger from the sheriff, asking if you have subdued us yet?"
"What? No!" Guy stared at her, stunned.
Robin glanced up at her, and then studied his rival, uncertain what to think and surprisingly disappointed at the possibility. "Is that the idea, then, Gisborne? Lull us into a sense of comfort before your men try to overtake us? I'm surprised you did not just spring that in the forest when we ambushed you. Or did the sheriff think that was too simple?"
"If the messenger is from the sheriff, it has nothing to do with you," Meg snapped. "Unless it is to punish Guy further for failing to stop your robbery."
"'Further'?" repeated Marian. "He has punished you?"
Guy's gaze was trained on a vague point on the floor. "It's nothing."
Hostility aside, Robin understood why Guy would not want to discuss that subject, so he turned conversation back to the preceding one before Marian could inquire further. "If there is nothing suspicious about this messenger, you will not mind if I listen in."
Standing, Guy merely said, "No."
Robin rose to follow, but stopped when Guy held up a hand.
"I mean, no, you cannot listen in."
"You do not get messengers from anyone other than the sheriff," Robin stated, wondering as he said it if Guy figured the outlaws kept tabs on him, or if that had been a revelation. "So, do not try to convince me that this could be anything else."
"Oh, for goodness sake, just let him listen. That is, if the messenger has not gotten bored and left," Marian said.
Meg crossed her arms, giving her younger cousin a superior look. "Had you listened all those years ago when I told you to marry him, you'd have a right to tell him what to do. However, you did not, so watch yourself."
"Had I listened to you all those years ago," Marian enunciated angrily, "you would not be standing there right now."
Closing his eyes briefly, Guy said, "Fine. I will save you the trouble of bribing the messenger later."
With a humorless smile of acknowledgement, Robin followed him toward the study. He was standing beside the door, so that Guy could open it and go in without revealing the eavesdropper, when Tuck walked boldly up to them as Guy turned around, confused.
"There's no one her--" he got out, before Tuck grabbed Robin and shoved him into the room, where Robin narrowly avoided knocking himself and Guy to the ground. The door slammed shut and they could hear it being barricaded.
"Sorry," Tuck called without remorse.
Exchanging a bemused glance with Guy, Robin yelled, "What's this?"
"It's an opportunity for the two of you to get some things worked out," Marian replied from the other side of the door. Guy groaned.
Robin indicated the window. "We could probably knock out the slats with a chair," he suggested.
"There are two guards stationed outside of the manor within sight of the window," Meg informed them. "If you try to go out that way, there will be no way to prevent them from seeing you."
They probably should not have been surprised that the others had thought of it, too, but Robin was less than pleased. From Guy's face, he was no happier about it.
"What, exactly, are we supposed to be working out?" Guy demanded.
"You need to figure out whether or not you are actually going to work together, or if you are going to continually waste everyone's time with your bickering," Marian replied.
"We should leave soon," Robin reminded her. "The longer we are here, the greater our chances of getting caught."
"Then, figure it out quickly."
"They are not letting us out for awhile, are they?" Guy muttered.
Resigned, Robin went over and leaned against the front of the desk. "No, I don't think so."
"We could just sit here until they open the door."
Nodding slowly, Robin said, "We could."
Guy eased into one of the seats in front of the desk. They sat in silence for awhile, each lost in their own thoughts, until Guy said, "I am not trying to trick you."
"Well, now that you have said that, welcome to the gang."
"I'm not asking to be part of your gang."
Dropping the sarcasm, Robin asked, "What is this all about, then?" He had some theories, but wanted to hear what Guy had to say.
With a frown, Guy responded slowly, as if thinking as he spoke. "A new start." He raised his eyes to Robin, and the outlaw was startled to see realization written across his features, as though it had only truly now occurred to him.
"You have done terrible things," Robin said. When Guy began to reply, Robin raised a hand, indicating that he wait. "I have, as well." Images from the Holy Land flitted through his memory, each more saturated with blood than the last. Shaking them off, he continued quietly, "You are going to have to learn to control the part of you that enjoys it."
He suspected that Guy would have been less startled if he started dancing around the room. "I know."
"It won't be easy, not with the way you have lived."
"I do not expect it to be. But I have not always revelled in cruelty, you know; and I am looking forward to leaving it behind."
Robin drummed his fingers along the edge of the desk on either side of him. "You are going to have to prove yourself. One ambush, even one as significant as this was, is not enough. And if you kill or maim one villager, hurt one innocent person, all bets are off."
"Understood, although I will need to maintain my cover with the sheriff."
"Stick to intimidation, then. Also, the king still might order your death when he returns. You did actively seek to assassinate him."
Guy raised his chin. "I am ready to face such a punishment, should that be the outcome."
Straightening, Robin told him, "If you keep your word and help us, I will speak to him on your behalf."
"I would appreciate that."
After a moment's hesitation, Robin held out his hand, which Guy shook after a moment's hesitation of his own.
"If you follow through, and if the king pardons you, where will you go?" Robin inquired.
Guy's eyebrows flew up. "Because you will regain Locksley."
The half-grin Guy gave him was spontaneous and, while not wholly unguarded, unlike any expression Robin had seen on him before. "I had not thought of that," Guy admitted.
Just then, the door opened and they were let out.
"We need to go," Tuck said. They had set a time for the others to come looking for them, which was fast approaching.
Marian was studying them both. "Well?"
"Well, let's go before the others start attacking guards," Robin replied, knowing she would hate the reply, but feeling she deserved a little payback for shutting him in a room with Gisborne.
Guy nodded before she could retort. "Right. I will get word to you when I know of something else."
"You know how to find us," said Robin, heading for the entrance.
"Not really," Guy replied wryly.
Robin chuckled. "I am not giving you the location of the camp."
"Vaizey was there."
"Still not giving it to you."
The others exchanged a bewildered glance. "Hey, not bein' funny, but are they joking around?"
"I think they are," Meg said slowly.
Soon thereafter, the outlaws sneaked back to the forest. Once they were safely away from the guards, Marian took her husband's hand. "What was that all about?"
He smiled down at her. "A new start."
Two newcomers arrive from the Holy Land.
Thornton was relieved that Sir Guy was not in residence when the Saracen woman and child came to Locksley Manor. He had been meeting with Master Robin lately, but Thornton remained unconvinced that it was not a trick of some sort. The two visitors did not attract as much suspicion as they once might have done, as the villagers were now accustomed to the outlaw Djaq, but they hardly passed unnoticed. The woman was clearly aware of the attention they received, but did not let it bother her, holding her chin up as she walked up the street.
The little girl, who could not have been more than three, was no more concerned by the people staring at them. however, instead of ignoring them, she stared back, her light blue eyes a startling contrast against her skin.
Word had already reached the big house by the time the woman knocked at the door. When Thornton opened it, she said in heavily-accented, yet flawless English, “I need to speak with Robin of Locksley.”
The butler blinked. “I am sorry, but he’s no longer in residence.”
Her collected manner disappeared, to be replaced with a hint of panic. “Do you know where I can find him?”
Glancing around to ensure they would not be overheard by any of Gisborne’s men, Thornton said, “Take the Great North Road toward Nottingham, and make some noise as you go. He or his gang will find you.”
The woman gave him a confused look, but nodded. “Very well. Thank you.”
“Thank you!” the little girl repeated, and rewarded him with a smile that stirred something in his memory. But before he could put his finger on just what that was, the two had turned and begun walking out of Locksley again.
At the site of the outlaws’ new camp, Carter grunted as he passed Will a large beam. The weight of it pulled at the scarred muscles in his belly, and he did his best to ignore the ache that shot through his abdomen and down his leg. He cursed the sound and the cause behind it; he should be fine by now. He had been injured before and still taken down a dozen men as his blood ran. Once, he had an arrow bury itself so deeply in the front of his leg that it nearly came out the back, had fought off one wave of enemies, pulled the arrow out, and fought off another group before even looking at the wound. But, one little dagger to the gut, and he was relegated to this; grunting against the pain as he lifted a hunk of wood.
Will caught his eye, wordlessly asking if he was all right, and Carter responded with a brusque nod. He appreciated the younger man’s tact, which was part of the reason he was so glad to help here instead of going off on missions with the majority of the gang. Much, especially, had a habit of asking how he was faring if they had to do something particularly physical. While he appreciated that the group all looked out for each other, and was pleased to be included, the frequent reminders of his brush with death were unwelcome.
And, he admitted to himself, that was the real reason he became so frustrated every time he felt that pain; it was a reminder that he had come so close to death, just as he had truly come to appreciate life again. It happened so quickly, he hardly realized what the sheriff had done. He was going to stop the little troll, and the next thing he knew, he was laying in a warm, sticky pool, paralyzed by shock.
“I think I have the main alarm working,” Djaq said, breaking into his reverie. She finished tying the metal plate in place on the mechanism that was much like the one at the old camp.
“Why don’t you and Eve go test it?” suggested Will, giving his wife a warm smile that sparked a note of loneliness within Carter.
Just as the women moved to go, the alarm clanged. Everyone started in surprise, then grabbed their weapons and took off at a run toward the North Road. Most of the gang was out on deliveries, but they were due back soon; hopefully, whoever was on the road would be easily dealt with.
The outlaws were still several yards off when a lovely song reached their ears. Carter recognized the tune as one he had heard in towns in the Holy Land, before realizing that the words were in their native tongue, not English. He exchanged a surprised glance with Djaq, who also knew it.
Quietly, the four of them crept toward the edge of the forest, keeping low so as not to be seen. However, when they spotted their quarry, the lack of need for such caution became evident.
A young woman was walking slowly down the road, matching her stride to the small girl holding her hand. As they made their way toward Nottingham, the woman sang, likely to pass the time.
Nodding to each other in silent agreement, the outlaws put away their weapons and went into the road, making noise as they did, so as not to frighten the travelers.
The woman appeared relieved to see them, which was not what they had expected. Before any of them could speak, she asked, “Which of you is Robin of Locksley?” Her eyes alighted initially on Djaq with surprise, before flitting between Carter and Will, settling expectantly on Carter.
Dumbfounded, it took them all a moment to respond. “Robin’s not here,” Carter replied carefully.
“What do you want with him?” Djaq suddenly shot out, in the same language the woman had been singing in. Carter suspected she was trying to catch the woman by surprise, but it did not work.
“It is a private matter,” came the even reply. Will raised an eyebrow to Djaq, who translated for him and Eve, her face reflecting her suspicion.
Eve, meanwhile, was watching the child, who was smiling shyly at her. Smiling back, she gently said, “I’m called Eve. What’s your name?”
The little girl hesitated, looking up at the woman questioningly. “This is Atiya,” the woman answered for her. “I am her mother's sister, Sakina.”
Carter leaned over to Will, murmuring so only he could hear, “Could we take them back to the old camp?”
Will considered this, and then nodded. "I'll wait for him at the new camp." To Sakina, he said, “Robin should be back soon. If you go with my friends, you can wait for him.”
For the first time, Sakina appeared uncertain; but, she agreed, and they set off into the forest. The going was slow because of Atiya’s small legs, but Sakina did not appear comfortable enough for anyone to suggest carrying her niece. So, they moved at an amble, which was unusual for people used to running through the woods.
“You have a very pretty name,” Eve told Atiya, walking near her.
“What are their names?” Atiya asked, pointing to the other outlaws.
“That is Carter, and Djaq.”
“'Djaq’?” Sakina repeated.
In a tone which brooked no arguments, Djaq said, “Yes. Djaq.”
After a beat, Sakina inquired, “Who was the other man with you?”
“Will. My husband,” Djaq added pointedly.
“Are you two married, as well?” Sakina asked Eve and Carter.
“You ask a lot of questions,” said Djaq.
Her friends tried not to look at her askance. Carter understood her suspicion, but did not share it; he was good at picking up on whether someone harbored ill intent, and was getting none of that from this woman.
“I am sorry--” Sakina started to apologize, but Carter shook his head and smiled at her.
“It’s all right. We are just used to being careful. But to answer your question, no, Eve and I are not married.”
He was rewarded with a grateful smile that transformed Sakina’s pretty face into a beautiful one. She said to Djaq, “I am sorry if I make you uncomfortable. That is not my intent.”
Djaq stopped walking, and they all followed suit. “I would not be uncomfortable if you would tell us what you want with Robin.”
“Djaq,” Eve admonished softly.
Sakina was either an excellent actress, or was very honest when she replied, “I must discuss it with him first. It is... delicate.”
Djaq seemed about to retort, when Eve said her name again, more sharply. Gaining her friend’s attention, Eve continued, “It is delicate. And also obvious.”
She glanced toward Atiya, causing her friends to do the same. The girl gazed back at them innocently, her lovely, pale eyes suddenly recognized by the two who had not yet realized their significance.
Carter’s eyebrows went up and Djaq’s jaw dropped. Sakina made a small sound of distress.
“It’s all right,” Eve reassured her. “We will not say a thing until you get to talk to him.”
But, it was too late to calm her down; after a tense couple of months spent on the journey there, uncertain as to what their reception would be when they arrived and without the means to return if they were sent away, Sakina found herself crying, on the edge of hysteria.
“Auntie?” Atiya asked, fear creeping into her small voice.
Sakina tried to say that she was all right, but was unable to speak.
Eve leaned down to Atiya. “It’s all right; your auntie is just very tired. Why do you not come with me, and we will see if we can find some pretty flowers to cheer her up?” She held out a hand for the little girl to take, which she did, glancing uncertainly back at her aunt as they moved off. Djaq took Sakina’s arm and guided her over to a fallen tree, which they both sat upon. Carter stood next to them, unsure of what to do.
After she had calmed down, Sakina said, “I am sorry. I know I should not be here, but I did not know what else to do. My sister never even told me his name until she was dying; before that, I knew only that he was a Crusader. When she caught ill, I insisted that she tell me so that I could answer Atiya, if she ever asked whom her father was. But then, things got difficult... I did not know if I could keep Atiya safe on my own. I sold everything and we left, and the whole time I was not even certain if what Nadira had been told was the truth, or if she had been lied to, as some of our friends were. But, I had to try... I had no other choice...” She seemed about to start sobbing again, but Carter finally spoke up.
“You were right to come here.” Both women looked at him in surprise. “Robin would want to know.”
“Yes, he would,” Djaq conceded.
With no small amount of relief, Sakina sighed. “I am glad to hear that.” She stood, moving to where she could see Eve and Atiya a short distance off. “Is his house nearby? I am afraid I have pushed Atiya too hard today; we have been stopping for rests, but the closer we came to Locksley, the more I wanted to arrive. Then, when we got there and were told to keep going... I am surprised she is in such good spirits. I do not wish to impose for myself, but I want her to be able to sleep in a bed soon.”
Djaq exchanged a glance with Carter. “With whom did you speak at Locksley?” she asked.
With a shake of her head to indicate that she did not know, Sakina answered, “An older man.”
“Probably Thornton; that is good. And what did he say to you?”
Hesitantly, Sakina recounted the short conversation. “Should he not have had us come this way?”
“No, it’s not that,” said Carter. “But I am afraid you have a mistaken impression of Robin’s living situation-- of all of our living situations.”
“What do you mean?”
“We’re outlaws. There is no house; we share a camp in the forest. It’s getting crowded at the moment-- not that we will not be able to find room for you; but do not expect anything grand.”
“It is grand, for a forest camp,” Djaq qualified, with a touch of pride on Will's behalf. Carter grinned at her.
Worried now, Sakina cut in. “You are outlaws? You mean, criminals?” She darted a glance at her niece, weighing her chances at being able to retrieve the child and run, if necessary.
“Only because we have been forced into it,” Djaq reassured her. “The law is corrupt. Robin was outlawed for standing up for the people who are hurting, and the rest of us stand with him. We are criminals in that we steal from the wealthy, but it is for the benefit of the poor. ”
“That sounds... dangerous.”
As if amused by her comment, the scar on Carter's stomach twinged.
“It can be,” Djaq admitted. “But, we can see to it that you and Atiya are safe.”
Sakina finally nodded. “I am without options, so I have to trust that you are right.”
She called Atiya back over, and smilingly accepted the handful of blossoms which the girl clutched in a tiny fist.
“You are better now, Auntie?”
Kissing the top of her niece’s head, Sakina replied, “Yes, my love, I am better.”
Holding her arms up, Atiya pleaded, “Carry me?”
Reading the exhaustion on Sakina’s face, Carter started to offer to carry her, but Djaq cut him off. “Could I? I think I know the song your auntie was singing earlier.”
Everyone seemed surprised, but took the olive branch for what it was. By the time they reached the ravine, they were all chiming in, much to the child’s delight.
Robin receives life-changing news.
Djaq walked over to the lever on the rock, and took hold with one hand. “Here, help me pull this,” she said to Atiya, whose jaw dropped in amazement when the camp suddenly appeared from under the leaves.
“That is incredible,” Sakina breathed.
Eve had just passed out water and food amongst the five of them, when some of the rest of the gang came in.
Will had told the others about their guests, but as he was not aware of the revelation that had been reached en route to the camp, neither were they.
Sakina looked up at the group coming in, watching Much head toward the kitchen to get supper started, Allan and Kate drop down onto the step at the end of the room, and Will move to slip an arm around Djaq where she stood by the ladder.
“Where is everyone else?” asked Eve, going to help Much chop vegetables.
“Marian spotted a strawberry patch on the way back, so she and Robin are gathering some to go with dinner,” Kate began.
“And Alice said that both Johns needed a bath, so she’s taken them to the brook,” Much added, glee in his voice.
Djaq performed introductions, and had just finished when Robin and Marian walked in, laughing over a shared joke. Marian took a scarf full of berries over to the kitchen while Robin stopped inside the entrance, taking in the young woman and small girl seated on a bench and sharing a plate of bread and fruit. There was something vaguely familiar about the woman, but he could not quite place her; perhaps they had crossed paths whilst he was on Crusade.
She made eye contact with him and the feeling of familiarity increased, but still escaped him. He offered her a friendly smile, but rather than returning it, she looked... surprised? That was a strange reaction.
“You are Robin of Locksley,” she said, standing.
“I do not hear that name much anymore,” he replied lightly. “My apologies; have we met?”
Finally, she smiled at him, although she was clearly nervous. “No apologies needed; we have never met. My name is Sakina. You knew my sister, Nadira.”
A fist to the stomach could not have stolen his breath more effectively. He glanced at Marian, who was watching the exchange with innocent curiosity. Returning his gaze to Sakina, he realized why she looked so familiar. Trying to appear as if nothing was wrong, he asked, “How is Nadira?”
“Robin,” Carter warned.
“She died seven months ago,” Sakina answered, her voice wavering.
For the second time in as many minutes, he felt as if he had been flattened. Nadira had not only been lovely, but kind and funny, as well. “I’m sorry,” he said, feeling the ineffectiveness of the words more than ever. Memories flitted quickly through his head, but he pushed them aside, as he always did.
While he gathered his thoughts, Sakina gathered her courage. “This may seem abrupt, but may I speak with you, in private?”
He appreciated the request, which forced him back into the present. “Of course. Let’s go over there.” He gestured toward the hill behind the camp.
Before preceding him, she turned to Atiya. “Stay here unless I tell you, yes?”
“All right.” Normally, Sakina would not trust her niece to keep that promise, but Atiya was obviously tired. Moving past Robin, she trudged up the hill, fatigue starting to make each step a chore.
Noticing the heaviness of her movements, Robin offered her a hand, but she was hesitant to accept. If he did not want to hear what she was about to tell him, she would rather they have minimal contact beforehand. So, she pretended not to notice.
She stopped at the top of the hill and he faced her, wondering what she had to say to him. It was doubtful that she was going to berate him for his relationship with her sister; it had been casual, brief, and over for nearly four years now.
“The entire trip here, I have tried to devise the best way to tell you this,” she began. “Nothing seems adequate. Nadira did not want you to know. She told me that your association was discussed at the outset, and you both agreed to have no commitment of any kind. She respected that and appreciated it, I think; she loved Haytham to her last breath, but was lonely without him.”
Nadira had spoken of her husband, deceased two years before Robin met her. He, meanwhile, had told her about Marian, whom he had assumed had found someone else during his absence. “We were both lonely,” he said quietly. Then, her first sentence hit him. “What did she not want me to know?”
Sakina bit her lip. “I... I am not sure how...”
“Why don’t you just tell me what it is?” he suggested, trying to keep his tone gentle while he wished she would get to the point.
She offered him a weary smile. “I suppose I have no other choice.” Taking a breath, she said, “There was a child.”
Robin stared at her dumbly. “What?”
“A daughter,” she continued.
“A --” His head swiveled toward the camp, where he could make out the child on the bench. Wide-eyed, he looked back toward Sakina. “I have a daughter?”
Unable to discern if his reaction was positive or not, she nodded carefully. “Nadira named her ‘Atiya,’ which in English means--”
“Gift,” he murmured absently.
It occurred to her that he didn’t even know that he’d said it. “Yes, ‘gift.’ And she truly believed that, that Atiya was a gift. She never regretted her situation, not for a moment.”
He was still trying to process the thought through a brain that felt frozen. “I am glad,” he managed to reply.
“She wanted Atiya to be proud of her English heritage, and taught her what she could about the language and customs. She would house English pilgrims in exchange for tutoring for both of them. And for myself, as well, when I came to live with them after my husband passed away.”
Looking into the camp again, he asked, “Does she know?”
“No.” The harshness of the syllable caught Robin’s attention, and Sakina blushed. Less-confrontationally, she explained, “I did not know what our reception would be. If you turn us away, she will never know. She just lost her mother; I was not going to put her in the position to gain and lose a father so soon.”
“I am not going to turn you away!” he exclaimed.
“I did not know that,” she pointed out. “But I am glad to hear it.”
“Can I meet her?” He was asking permission, Sakina realized.
“You had best do so,” she replied wryly. “She is yours now.”
He started as that fact registered.
“Atiya, come here,” she called.
Despite shadows under her bright eyes, the little girl scampered through the camp and up the hill. “What, Auntie?”
Sakina crouched down to be on a level with her niece, and Robin followed suit. “Love, do you remember where your mummy said your daddy was from?” Sakina smoothed back some flyaway hairs which had escaped Atiya’s long braids, and then held the girl’s hands.
“England,” Atiya answered immediately, placing importance on the word.
Sakina smiled. “Do you know where we are right now?”
Biting her lip, Atiya shook her head.
“We are in England.”
Robin’s heart squeezed at the sound of the little voice, and he found himself teetering between excitement and terror as Sakina turned Atiya around to face him. What if she would not go to him? What if she did not want a father she had never met?
Leaning over her niece’s shoulder, Sakina murmured, “This is your daddy.”
He could not breathe, but his heart was hammering like crazy, making him rather dizzy. He hoped he was smiling calmly at Atiya as she regarded him with his own eyes, but had no idea. He had no idea what to do, and did not know if he would be able to do it if he did know.
“You are my daddy?” she finally asked, as if she could not believe it.
He could sympathize.
“Yeah, I am,” he said.
The next thing he knew, there was a pair of tiny arms around his neck, and then he was sure he was grinning as he hugged her back, though he did not notice right away that he also had tears running down his cheeks. He was only slightly aware that Sakina had gone back into the camp. After a minute, Atiya leaned back to study him.
“Why are you sad?”
“I’m not. In fact,” he began in a whisper, leaning his head toward hers.
Her eyes lit up at the prospect of a secret, and she leaned in, too. “What?”
“I do not think I have ever been happier.”
“Because of me?” she exclaimed.
“Because of you.”
She threw her arms around his neck again, and he stood up while hugging her, feeling like he would never stop grinning. As he moved slightly, his gaze fell to the back door of the camp.
Marian was standing there, watching them.
When he first turned toward her, she merely appeared curious. But then her gaze darted back and forth between him and Atiya, and he saw the truth hit her with sudden clarity. She paled, staring at him as if he had slapped her; but before he could call her name, she whirled and fled.
He started to set Atiya down and go after his wife, when a voice next to his ear said softly, “You will not leave me, will you?”
Moving his head back so he could see her face, he asked, “Why would you think that?”
In his peripheral vision, he saw Marian run out the front entrance of the camp, and thought she should not be alone right then; she deserved an explanation. But then, his daughter sniffled as she started to cry, and he knew he was needed more where he was. “Mummy left me. I wanted her to come back, but she did not. You will not leave me, too, right?”
Robin unsure if he felt hunted, haunted or screwed in that moment. It was likely a combination of the three. No matter which it was, the result was a sort of nausea eating into his elation. His conversation with Marian the night of his awful dream those weeks ago, came flooding back. He had been cocky then, frustrated at being called out about his disregard of his mortality. And his first instinct was to brush off the girl’s worries.
But, he could not. The fear in her eyes when speaking of her mother's death brought back memories from his own childhood, and he would not make light of her pain, even to try to calm her.
“I cannot promise you that,” he said softly. “Nobody can. But, I can promise that I will do my best not to.”
She thought about this, and then nodded seriously. “All right. I promise that I will do my best, too.”
Well, now, there was a whole new world of fears he had never considered, all laid out for him at once. Dear God, help me keep this child safe. “That’s a deal.” He managed not to croak too badly, which was a feat considering how much his throat had constricted.
As instantly as she had become solemn, Atiya was bouncing in his arms again, and gave a great, big yawn at the same time. “Can I have a drink?”
“Sure, let’s go get you one.”
The hill was perfect for a child to scurry down, which she did, waiting for him at the bottom and holding out her arms when he got there. “Carry me, Daddy?”
He was sure that he would never tire of hearing that word. “Of course.”
When he walked into the camp, Atiya on his hip, everyone looked to him expectantly. He noticed that Much was not there, and hoped that he was with Marian. Filing the thought away, Robin beamed at the rest of them. “Lads, say hello to my daughter, Atiya.”
There was no surprise as his announcement, since Djaq and Eve had explained the situation after Marian ran past them. Instead, the newest, youngest member of the gang was given a warm greeting, which she enjoyed briefly-- until she gave another huge yawn and rested her head on Robin’s shoulder. “I am still thirsty,” she sighed sleepily.
Sakina overheard and got her a cup of water. After Atiya had a drink, her eyes started drifting shut. “I can lay her down for a nap, if you would like,” Sakina offered.
“Thank you,” Robin gratefully accepted. He kissed his daughter’s head, and then handed her to her aunt. When the two were in the back room and everyone was resuming their activities, he turned to Will, who was nearest him. “Did Much go after Marian?”
“Yeah. She went north when she left.”
Not anticipating the conversation looming ahead of him, Robin set out.
Robin and Marian, and the gang, discuss the situation.
It did not take Robin long to find his wife and his friend; it appeared that Marian had not gone far before sinking down against a tree. She was crying, although she appeared to be listening to whatever Much was saying from where he was crouched across from her. They looked up when Robin arrived, and both of them stood; Much gave Marian a strained smile before heading back to camp. Robin patted him on the shoulder in thanks as he passed, and then he and Marian were alone, facing one another.
He took a step forward. “I--”
“You... you... ooh!” she exclaimed in frustration, grabbing a small tree branch that was laying by her foot and flinging it at him. “There is nothing you have to say that I want to hear.”
He dodged the branch and took another step toward her. “Marian, please, just give me a chance to explain.”
She moved back jerkily, holding out a hand to ward him off. “There is no need; Much already tried.”
Halting, Robin asked, “What did he say?”
She gave him an exasperated look. “He said you thought I would be married.”
“Yeah, I did.” He found himself getting frustrated at her dismissal of his concerns. “I said as much to you when I got back.”
“I still do not understand why you would have thought that! Whom did you think I would have married, anyway?”
“I do not know. Loughborough, maybe. Or Saxelby’s son.”
Her eyes flashed. “How could you have thought I would just throw myself at another man? I loved you, Robin. And you doubted that. You threw it away, and then you doubted it. How could you?”
He gritted his teeth. “Well, it’s not as though you welcomed me with open arms when I returned, so I do not think those doubts were entirely unfounded.”
“I may not have welcomed you with open arms, but nor did I do so for anyone else,” she spat. “However, it is clear that you did.”
He stared at her, swallowing his ire and trying desperately to figure out how to get her to understand. While he mulled the words, she raised her eyebrows and jutted her jaw out, not going to be impressed by anything he had to say.
“I was surrounded by death daily.” He barely realized he had said that until it was out of his mouth. “Most nights, I went to sleep still smelling blood from the day’s battle. Feeling it drying on my skin, even tasting it.”
Her expression lost some of its stubbornness.
“And sometimes I could not sleep,” he continued, moving toward her again without thinking about it. “Sometimes, I would lay awake and stare at the ceiling of my tent-- or the stars, if we hadn’t had time to pitch camp,-- and I would think of you. I would wonder what you were doing, if you were thinking of me. The more nights that passed, the more I figured that I was nothing more than a memory to you. It’s hard to be optimistic about love when all you are doing is killing and trying to stay alive.”
“You do that now,” she murmured weakly.
He closed his eyes for a moment, willing down the flash of anger he felt at her obstinacy. “It’s not the same, and you know that,” he muttered.
She had the grace to look ashamed, and he instantly forgave her.
He always would. He wondered if she felt the same.
“I needed life, Marian. I needed something good.”
“And she gave you that,” Marian said, rather sadly.
He was not sure of the best way to respond to that. He also was not sure if she would push him away when he cupped her face in his hands, brushing away her tears with his thumbs; he was glad when she accepted his touch. “I cannot change what I did. To be honest, I am not sure I would. Marian, I have a daughter.” He heard the wonder in his own voice, and would have laughed at himself if it was at all ridiculous. But, it was completely merited.
When he said it, though, she jerked back, turning away from him.
His heart sank, but she had to accept this. “She needs a mother,” he said quietly.
“It looked to me like she already has one,” Marian snapped.
She whirled to face him again. “I cannot live in the same camp with her, Robin. I do not know if I could live in the same shire with her. Surely, you cannot ask that of me.”
He suddenly realized what was going on. “Sakina is not Atiya’s mother; she's her aunt.”
“What of her mother?”
Robin chewed his lip for a second, once more pushing aside memories of Nadira. “She died. That’s why they are here.”
“I’m sorry.” He was surprised by her condolences, and she seemd to be, as well; he figured the words were automatic. Gazing past him rather than at him, she reluctantly asked, “Did you love her?”
“I cared for her,” he answered. “But no, I did not love her.” He leaned over so that she would look at him. “It has only ever been you, Marian.”
Not about to let him off the hook that easily, she raised an eyebrow. “Are you certain of that?”
He frowned. “Of course, I am.”
“There hasn’t been anyone else?”
This was not at all how he had intended this conversation to go. “What kind of question is that?”
“A straightforward one, I would think.” Marian took a step back. “Does that mean there have been others?”
“You never seemed bothered by this before.”
She looked away again. “Before, I thought you had just kissed other women. I have kissed other men; that’s fair enough. This is different.”
“You kissed Gisborne. You’ve got to put some points in my favor to make up for that.”
He sighed heavily. “Besides Nadira, no. There have not been any others since you.”
She crossed her arms. “What is that supposed to mean? We’ve known each other since we were children.”
Robin speared his fingers through his hair and turned away from her, before swinging back, dropping his arms to his sides. “What do you want me to say here?”
“I want you to tell me the truth.”
There was a difference between not speaking of something, and telling an outright lie; he could not do the latter. He would not lie to her normally, and absolutely would not do so now. “I am older than you are.”
“So, you were a child longer than I was.”
“Robin, I told you I loved you when I was twelve.”
“Yeah, and I was sixteen then.”
Her cheeks were getting flushed in her anger. “Get to the point.”
“I am not getting into this right now,” he muttered, stalking over to lean against a tree.
“I would say you are already knee-deep in it.”
“Fine, you wish to make me say it? I was fourteen; you were ten. I’m sorry if it hurts you, but it is done and over, and has been for a long time.” That was enough; he did not need to mention the couple of instances when he was fifteen and she was eleven. And when he was sixteen, and she had not made herself known to him yet.
She glared at him for another minute, but finally relaxed with a sigh. “I am not happy about this, Robin.”
“I would have never guessed,” he teased, relieved that the argument appeared to be over.
“Be serious for a minute; I want to be clear on this. I am unhappy about your relationship, and the fact that you were not more careful. I am not unhappy about the child.”
The fact of the matter was that he had been careful, but nothing was foolproof. Rather than get defensive and continue to dwell on what was in the past, however, Robin decided to move onto a far more pertinent topic. He studied her face. “How do you feel about Atiya?”
Marian smiled at him, melancholy but honest. “She’s beautiful. And I will be glad to be her mother.”
“You’re not just saying that?”
She walked over and slid her arms around his waist. “I’m not. We are a family, after all.”
He grinned, holding her close. “We are. I just always thought we would have a bit more warning about becoming a larger family.”
She raised an eyebrow. “You're not the only one.”
“You are truly all right with this?”
“It will take some adjustment, but yes.”
He leaned down and kissed her. “Thank you.”
“I would say you owe me a debt now, but I lost count of those awhile ago.”
Laughing, Robin kissed her again. “Well, I will just have to find some way to make it up to you,” he murmured.
After Robin left to follow Marian, Sakina took Atiya into the bunk area and laid down with her for a nap. A few minutes later, the Littles returned from their bath excursion. The rest of the gang was sitting or standing around, still processing what had just happened, and it was obvious from their faces that something was amiss.
“What’s wrong?” Alice asked instantly.
Everyone else exchanged an uncomfortable glance.
John frowned. “Where’s Robin? And Marian?”
Much returned in time to hear the question, and gestured the way he had come. “They’re just over that way.”
“How is she?” asked Eve.
He sighed, shaking his head. “Upset. Angry.”
More insistently, John repeated his wife’s question. “What’s wrong?”
Finally, Allan answered. “We’ve got two new members of the gang: Robin’s daughter from the Holy Land, and her aunt.”
While his parents stared, dumbfounded, at the others, Little Little John spoke up, excited at the prospect of another child in the camp. “How old is she?”
“I’d say, about three,” Kate guessed.
His face fell. There was not much that was more boring to a ten-year-old boy than a three-year-old girl. “Oh.”
A brief silence descended.
“Marian’s going to kill him,” Will muttered. There were murmurs of agreement.
“Where is the mother? Who’s the mother?” inquired Alice.
“Her name was Nadira. She lived in a village not far from Acre,” Much said.
John sat down on the bench that Sakina and Atiya had occupied earlier, and Alice dropped down next to him. Little Little John, bored with the conversation, got out the box with the new set of toy soldiers Will had carved for him, and set up a battle in a corner of the room.
“You say ‘was,’” John observed.
Carter nodded. “She passed away.”
Eve was staring at her fiancé. “You knew about this.”
Surprised, he replied, “Not about the child, no; but I knew Nadira. She even made me dinner a few times.” He got a dreamy look on his face. “She made the most delicious little--”
“Much,” said Will sharply. After gaining his friend’s attention, he added, “Were you ever going to say anything about it?”
He was baffled. “Why would I?”
Allan agreed. “What’s he gonna do? Say, ‘Hey, Marian, while we were in the Holy Land, Robin had a bit of--’” He broke off, glancing toward the bunks and clearly rethinking what he was about to say. “Anyway, it doesn’t matter now, does it? I mean, other than that he’s got a kid because of it.”
Kate was eyeing him. “How does it not matter?”
Realizing he had just stepped into a trap of his own making, he tried to rush past the inevitable argument. “Well, it was over awhile ago, right? And it’s not like she didn’t have her moments with Guy.”
“That was different,” Will argued.
Allan would have responded, except that he was distracted by Kate still staring at him. “What?”
Sweetly, she asked, “Is there anything you’d like to share?”
“No.” He was not stupid.
Her eyes narrowed, and she made a thoughtful noise that scared him a bit.
“I do not think we should be discussing this,” Djaq said. “It is between Robin and Marian, not us.”
“Right,” Allan exclaimed, pouncing on a hopeful end to the subject.
With that avenue of conversation closed, Alice looked at Allan. “You said there was an aunt?”
“Sakina,” Carter spoke up. “She’s napping with Atiya.” He was standing near the curtained-off doorway in the middle of camp, and nodded to it.
“Atiya being the daughter,” Alice stated for clarification.
She and John exchanged a look that was partly amusement and partly understanding. “I think we need to finish the new camp,” he remarked to the room at large.
Much had been cooking the whole time, and the alluring smells were getting hard for the hungry group to ignore. “We’ll have to finish it another time, because supper’s just about ready,” Eve announced, from where she was leaning her head on his shoulder. He smiled warmly at her. It was actually quite difficult trying to cook with her standing like that, but he wouldn’t trade it for anything. Which, he reflected, summed up their lives fairly well; for all the complications, there was a lot of good, too.
Luke Scarlett pays a visit, and has a chat with Tuck.
Tuck peered through the bushes, careful not to make a sound. The gang of outlaws huddled beside the road did not look like they were about to nicely ask anyone for a donation; they seemed the type to slit throats first and count purses later. Robin was not going to be pleased to learn of their presence; he had done a good job of discouraging other, less benevolent thieves from settling in Sherwood, but these six apparently had not gotten the message.
His leg itched, but he ignored it. The odds were not in his favor, and the slightest movement could bring them down on him in an instant. Two, he could definitely take. Three, maybe. Four, if the Lord was smiling down on him that day, or they were incredibly inept. But not six.
Not anymore. That part of him was locked away, the key placed in the hand of God the day Tuck had taken his vows. He might never be able to fully atone for the things he had done, but he would keep trying until his last breath, regardless of his standing in the church.
The attention of everyone hiding in the foliage, monk and bandits alike, was drawn by the sound of approaching hooves. Two horses, unless Tuck was mistaken. The apparent leader of the gang came to the same conclusion, flashing a pair of fingers at his companions, who nodded in return. As the galloping grew closer, the outlaws readied their weapons, and Tuck slowly drew his own out of his belt, wincing when the metal scraped slightly. Fortunately, the others were too focused on the impending attack to notice. Clutching the flail in his right hand, he pulled his blowpipe out of its pouch with his left hand, a dart already loaded, as always.
Within a minute, a pair of riders came around a bend in the road. The thieves nodded at each other and jumped out, giving the travelers enough time to stop without trampling them, but not enough time to run off.
"Wait!" the younger of the two men on horseback called, holding up his hands. "I'm Will Scarlett's brother!"
Tuck knew that this would mean nothing to the band holding swords, knives and one longbow on them, and decided not to wait any longer. As he rushed silently up behind the bowman, the gang leader snarled, "And 'oo's this 'Will Scarlett,' when 'e's at home?"
The young man stared at him in confusion. "Aren't you with Robin's gang?"
They started snickering as Will's brother exchanged an uneasy glance with his companion. It was then that Tuck reached his target, sending a drugged dart into the neck of the archer before calling, "They are not, but I am."
Instantly, the other bandits were upon him, as he had expected. Also as he had expected, the would-be victims jumped off of their horses and into the fray. By the time those two faced the thieves, Tuck had already knocked another unconscious with his flail. Will's brother was less-seasoned than his friend, but handled himself admirably, parrying his opponent's attacks and marking the man in quick moves. The other horseman, meanwhile, momentarily distracted Tuck by whirling a pair of one-handed swords in such complicated patterns, it was difficult to follow the movement. The flash of steel gave Tuck's adversary an opening to swing at him. He noticed it in time to prevent a serious wound, but received a slice on the arm for his troubles. Using the firey sensation as the impetus to strike back, he loosed the chain on his flail and swung the striking end at the man, hitting him in the center of his chest and knocking the wind out of him. At the same time, the Scarlett boy tripped his foe and kicked the man's sword away from him, followed by his head, to knock him out. They both turned as the third man brought both swords down at once, skewering one foot of each of the remaining attackers. With them pinned to the ground and crying out in pain, he hit them each on the points of their jaws, removing his swords as they collapsed so as not to completely slice their feet in half when they fell.
Sheathing his blades, he turned and straightened one of the buckled straps running across his chest. He glanced at his younger friend to make sure no harm had come to him, and then nodded to Tuck with a crooked smile.
"I have never seen anyone fight like that," Tuck remarked, a note of admiration in his voice, as he put away his weapons and removed a length of bandage from a pouch on his belt. Wrapping it around his arm, he continued, "You are not a soldier, but you are more skilled than many soldiers I have seen."
"You said you're with Robin's gang?" the younger man asked.
Tuck nodded as he tied off the bandage. "I am Brother Tuck, a relative newcomer to the gang. And you said you are Will's brother. Would that make you Luke?"
Grinning, Luke exclaimed to his friend, "See? I told you, we'd find them here!"
"So you did." Sticking out a hand, the third man said, "Hello, Tuck."
"Archer, it is good to see you," Tuck grinned, shaking his hand enthusiastically. "What was all of that about? Two months we spent at sea with you, and you never once indicated you could fight."
"Well, I wanted to make sure I had the advantage if the lot of you decided to take over the ship," the captain winked.
With a chuckle, Tuck admitted, "You would have had an advantage, but it would have only been a temporary one. You have not seen the gang fight."
"True enough," Archer acknowledged with humor.
"How did the two of you come to be traveling together?"
Luke spoke up then. "Could you take us to the others? I'll explain it all then."
"Of course," Tuck agreed. "Today is a drop-off day, so we shall try the usual route. I am sure we will find them along it."
As they made their way to Clun, where he expected their paths had the best chance of crossing, Tuck filled the visitors in as to what had transpired since the gang's return to England. Apparently, once Archer had discovered Luke's identity, he had shared what he knew; but there was still much news for both of them. The monk left out word of Will and Djaq's marriage and their imminent arrival, figuring that would be best relayed by themselves. The three were not lacking for conversation as they walked, Archer and Luke leading their horses. They ran into the others coming out of Clun, as they reached the outskirts of the village.
"Lukey?" Will exclaimed, rushing over and grabbing his brother in a hug. "What are you doing here? And Captain Archer? This is a surprise!"
With a grin, Archer replied, "When I found out who my passenger was, I had to take the chance to see how you all were faring."
There were greetings all around, and as the group started back toward camp, Will asked, "Passenger? To where?"
Glancing nervously at his brother, Luke said, "I was returning, actually, from the Holy Land."
"What were you doing there?"
"At first, following you," Luke admitted. "I'd come here because Aunt Annie got remarried, and her husband didn't want me around."
Will frowned. "And she let him send you away?"
"I didn't make her decide; I left on my own."
"That was good of you," Tuck commented. One thing that had impressed him about the outlaws was the innate decency within all of them; most other groups that he had come across had at least one bad seed, but that did not seem true of Robin's gang. And, it would seem that Will's brother was no different.
Luke smiled at him before continuing, "I came here, to see if I could stay with you for at least a little while, but everybody was saying you'd gone to the Holy Land after the sheriff and Sir Guy. So, I figured I'd meet up with you there."
"When was this?" asked Robin.
"The beginning of December."
"We were already halfway home then," Will told him.
Shrugging, Luke replied, "I didn't know that, did I? When I couldn't find you after a couple of months, I headed back. There was a group of monks from Surrey who were returning from a pilgrimage, so I ended up traveling home with them."
"On my ship," added Archer.
Will slung an arm around his brother's shoulders. "Well, I'm glad to see that you survived your adventure in one piece." Dropping his arm and moving to take Djaq's hand, he said, "I have been having a bit of an adventure, myself. Djaq and I are married, and you are going to be an uncle."
Stunned, it took Luke a minute to react, but then he was congratulating them, and the rest of the day passed in an atmosphere of celebration.
The next day, Tuck was the first one awake, as usual, when the light was still dim and grey, the sun not yet ready to make its appearance. It had been many years since he had lived in the monastery, but that habit had never left him. He rose, and went off into the secluded spot nearby which he had set aside for his morning prayers, a copse of trees with a small, open space in the middle, and a slightly larger clearing right outside of it. When he emerged into the larger clearing, he was surprised to find Luke sitting quietly under an oak tree.
Looking up at Tuck, he asked, "May I speak with you?"
"Of course. What's on your mind?"
Luke had started to stand, but Tuck gestured for him to stay put and seated himself nearby. Once they were settled, Luke hesitated. "The group of monks I traveled with... I'm thinking of joining them."
Tuck had not expected that, but surprise would not help this young man. Keeping his expression neutral, he replied, "That's a heavy decision."
"I know." Leaning earnestly forward, Luke said, "That's why I wanted to talk to you; I was wondering if you could help me figure out if it's right for me."
It was rare that Tuck felt unequipped to handle a conversation, but it happened then. Fortunately, no one in the gang had yet inquired about how he came to his solo wanderings, although he assumed it was only a matter of time before the subject was broached. He was still barely comfortable pondering the situation in his own mind, and did not anticipate trying to explain it to anyone else. Regardless of the privacy in which he was keeping his past, the fact remained that he did not feel very qualified to advise someone about monastic life. "How would you like me to help?" he responded carefully.
Absently rubbing his elbow, Luke considered the question. "I'm not sure," came his honest reply. "It's just that I've been thinking about it for a few months, and haven't been able to choose either way."
That was easier than he had feared. It was still not a simple question, but Tuck relaxed. "Perhaps you should give it more time. Life-changing decisions require a lot of reflection."
Luke nodded, and then asked, "How long did it take you to to decide?"
"It was different for me; I was raised by the brothers I later joined."
"They taught you to fight like you did yesterday?" Luke seemed confused.
"I did not say I joined immediately upon coming of age," Tuck replied lightly.
The boy was too focused on his own situation to delve into that, for which Tuck was grateful. "What, would you say, are good qualities for a brother to have?"
Now, he would have to temper his opinions with fairness; his experience was not a common one, and he could not let it flavor his response. "Compassion. Devotion. Humility. Obedience." The right amount of obedience, at any rate. His lips quirked. "Curiosity. Courage." Luke's eyebrows went up, but he continued to listen. "The desires to serve and to learn."
He could practically see Luke thinking, and hoped that his words were the unbiased counsel they should be. Just as Luke started to speak again, Much wandered into the space, obviously startled to see them. "Oh! Sorry; I heard noises. I'm not interrupting, am I?"
Tuck looked to Luke, letting him decide whether he wanted to continue their discussion. "No, it's all right," Luke said. Turning to Tuck, he smiled. "Thanks; you've given me more to think about."
Glad to hear it, Tuck dipped his chin in acknowledgement. "If you have any more questions later, I would be happy to hear them." It appeared that Luke was not after deep answers yet; but if he must, Tuck would finally reveal some of his secrets, if it would help guide Luke. And now, he would be prepared for it.
At sea, Much glanced back and forth between them. "Yes. Well. Breakfast is nearly ready, so I should go check on that." He turned and made his way back toward camp, and the remaining two rose to follow.
Right before stepping onto the path, Tuck placed a hand on Luke's shoulder. "No matter what you decide, things will have a way of working themselves out as they should." As a child, he always assumed he would immediately move into the brotherhood, but he had found a different path. When that had turned out badly, he followed his original plan-- which also had not been the right one. And in the years that followed, he gave other opportunities a try, none of which panned out. Yet, somehow, because of that string of failed paths, he found himself here, where he was actually accomplishing something, finally doing something important. If he had not made all of those choices, he might not be where he was; he might not be where he belonged.
He could tell that Luke did not necessarily agree, but nor did the young man instantly argue the point. "I'll keep that in mind," he said. When he and Archer left a couple of days later, he still had not decided one way or another. But, Tuck was confident that he would choose well.
Carter and Sakina are rained in at the new camp.
"What's that flower you're putting in with the straw?"
Sakina glanced up at Carter as she pulled the stitching on the mattress shut. "To you, it is called Jerusalem sage." Tying the stitches tightly, she explained, "It is a signature. My husband's father thought of it when he opened his workshop, and my husband continued the tradition. I have carried some of the blossoms with me since I had to sell the workshop, and now I can put them to use."
As a way of thanking the outlaws for allowing her to stay with them, she had offered to make mattresses for the new camp. It had been her trade, learned from her husband, and she was glad to be able to help. The gang was glad to have something so comfortable to sleep on. She only had two more to make, which meant that all the beds would be done soon. Carter was stocking the larder out of baskets he and Sakina had brought over from the old camp, in preparation for the big move, which was to happen the next day.
"I cannot tell you how much I am looking forward to sleeping on a real bed," Carter grinned.
She smiled back. "As am I. My only wish is that I could have accessed the materials I had in my workshop; these will be comfortable enough, but with down to mix into the filling, or a softer fabric, they would be much better."
"Trust me, we are not picky."
Slicing off the extra string, she gave the mattress a pat. "There! This is finished."
"That's going in Much and Eve's room, right?"
They each grabbed an end of the mattress. He winced when they lifted it, and she asked, "Are you all right?" The skin around his mouth had gone a bit white, but he nodded anyway. Recognizing stubbornness when she saw it, Sakina let the issue drop. However, after they had deposited the mattress on its frame, she said casually, "I have noticed your kindnesses and bravery over the short time I have been here, which means your friends are even more aware of those qualities. You have nothing to prove."
Carter's eyebrows nearly lifted off his head. "Pardon?"
With a sigh, she continued, "Many activities are paining you, but you insist on doing them, regardless. That is not necessary; there are other ways you can contribute, without hurting yourself."
He stared at her for a minute, and then said, "I'm going to go grab another basket from the old camp. I will be back shortly."
Something inside of her sank at the announcement, but she merely nodded and went to start work on the next mattress. Why did she have to do that? After more than a week with the outlaws, she was finally beginning to feel accepted; if not an actual part of the group, at least a satellite member. And the day had been going so nicely; most of the gang was making deliveries to the villages and Nottingham, while a few stayed back at the old camp to pack up anything of use or value. Sakina had been hesitant about going to the new camp alone, so Carter volunteered to begin moving the foodstuffs and keep her company. They had had a few wonderful conversations since her arrival, as she had with most of the gang; but this was the first time that she and the fair Crusader been alone for an extended time, and she was enjoying herself immensely. He was a quiet, yet quick one, and she was glad for her extensive tutoring in English, because a lesser grasp of the language would have hindered her ability to keep up her end of the conversation.
Also, she might have missed some of his humor, which could be rather dry. As it happened, her own ran along the same lines, and they had been laughing a lot.
Then, she had to pry where she was unwelcome, and ruin it all. It was one of her worst habits. Haidar had often suggested that her life would be easier if she left well enough alone, but he had loved her despite the fault, so she never made the effort to improve it. Resigned, she picked up her shears and began cutting out pieces of fabric.
Carter came back into the room as she was finishing up. His hair and clothes were soaked. "It's raining," he told her, unnecessarily.
"Don't be cheeky," he said, but was teasing, and she was glad that he no longer seemed upset with her.
He quickly laid a fire in the hearth and got it going, while Sakina retrieved blankets. He shed his shirt and laid it out to dry, and then glanced at her with a touch of awkwardness. Getting the picture, she turned her back, giving him the chance to take off his trousers and wrap up in one of the blankets. As she waited, a small smile played over her lips. When was the last time she was alone with a man who was even partially undressed? There had been that one pilgrim who spilled soup on his robe, but he had another in his pack and had quickly donned it. Discounting that... three years, give or take. No wonder the slight rustling sounds from behind her were so fascinating. Also, it could not be denied that Carter was a beautiful man, although she was doing her best to ignore that fact. She had come to England for Atiya, not for herself.
She turned around, finding him wrapped up in a large afghan. It did a pretty good job of covering him, but if he was cold, he might need another. "Can I get you another blanket for your feet?"
Glancing down at where the afghan ended below his knees, he shook his head. "Thank you, but I'll just sit." He arranged himself beside his clothing in such a way that he was totally covered. Ignoring the disappointed part of herself, she went back to cutting out fabric.
"I could not have brought clothing over earlier. It had to be food," he muttered, though he did not sound that disturbed by it.
Sakina looked up and found him watching her. Deadpan, she said, "I have a change of clothes in my room that you are welcome to."
Surprised, he burst out laughing. "Do not tempt me," he warned.
"So, it is a challenge now." She raised an eyebrow, but grinned back at him. Returning her attention to the fabric at least in appearance, she informed him, "I believe the blue tunic would look especially nice on you. Still, come to think of it, I do not know that you would fit in my trousers." As soon as the words were out of her mouth, she realized that they had sounded less innocent than they were intended. Face flaming, she leaned down as if peering more closely at her work, making her hair fall in a curtain to hide behind.
There was silence for a moment, and then he said lightly, "Not if you ever hoped to wear them again, anyway."
Peeking at him through her hair, she bit her lip to keep from giggling.
"I'd ask if you would not mind making me a pair," he continued, gesturing to the linen spread along the floor. "But, I expect these will dry before those would be finished."
"You underestimate my skills." She sat up, flipping her hair back behind her. "However, I need this for the mattress."
"A pity. I would be interested to see the result of such quick tailoring."
She finally laughed. "It would not be very flattering, I admit, but they would suffice."
"It sounds like you have done that before."
The humor drained out of her as she remembered the times she hastily made garments. Nodding, she replied, "Yes, for wounded soldiers. I am a terrible cook, a worse baker, and fainted the times I tried nursing. I can sew, though, and we had plenty of materials at hand; some that we could spare, others that I really should not have used. So, I made clothing, bedding... anything that was needed."
Carter looked startled, but she was not sure why until he said, "I'm certain it was appreciated. Wearing the same clothing you have been wounded in is not a comfortable way to try to heal."
"I can imagine it would not be," she said slowly, realizing he was speaking from experience. She wondered how many times he had been injured, but assumed he would not like to be asked. Finished with the main pieces of the mattress, she spread out the cloth intended for the sides. However, instead of starting to cut it, she sat back. "I am sorry for what I said earlier; it was unfair."
His gaze had been on the fabric, but met hers then. "No, it was not. You're right; I push myself too far." He shrugged. "I need to. I am used to doing things for myself and others; if I give that up, the sheriff has won. He may not have killed me, but if I cannot do things I am used to doing, he has defeated a part of me."
"But, if you push yourself too far and cause more injury, how is that better?"
"It's not," he admitted ruefully.
A piece of crumbled leaf on the fabric caught her eye, and she picked it off. "Just... be careful." She pretended not to notice that he was studying her, picking at minuscule specks now to avoid looking at him.
"Something's wrong; what is it?"
Cursing herself again, knowing she should hold her tongue but unused to doing so, Sakina murmured, "Haidar-- my husband-- was the same way." For awhile, after his death, speaking of him made her heart scream; she could barely whisper his name without the pain tearing her apart from within. That agony had eased with time, and she could now remember him in happiness, but there was little to smile about in this memory. "When he took ill, he became so frustrated. He would not allow it to keep him from his tasks, not even for a day. And for awhile, he seemed to be improving."
Until that day. She had gone back to the house to prepare their afternoon meal, had brought it back... She shied away from the next image her mind would be conjuring, and in the hopes of avoiding it, quickly finished, "And then, he was dead." The tactic did not work, and she squeezed her eyes shut against the ache that sprang up as she saw him again, sprawled on the dirt floor, wrongly still.
"Hey." Carter was suddenly in front of her, one of his hands on her shoulder. When she was able to open her eyes again, she realized that his other hand was clutching the afghan shut. The insane urge to giggle rose in her throat, and she knew she needed to collect herself. "I'm sorry; I did not mean to upset you."
Shoving the recollection away, she shook her head, the movement jerkier than she'd expected. "No, it is fine. Usually. But sometimes, it takes me by surprise."
"I understand. Not losing a spouse, but the way the memories can attack you like that."
She knew a little of his background, but not much. "You lost your brother."
"And friends. Many friends."
Nodding, she said, "I have lost friends, as well."
He glanced around the camp, and then back to her. "Well, we have both found new ones here."
They exchanged a smile. "Yes, we have," she agreed.
While she assembled the mattress, they shared stories about their families and friends, and by the time Carter's clothes were dry, the sun had emerged again in time to slip toward the horizon. As they set off to meet the others at the old camp, Sakina wondered what sort of stories would be told about all of them.
The king returns.
There was a vagrant in Locksley.
He did not stand out all that much from the villagers, but he was not moving into town; he simply tended to wander around, giving a hand here and there in exchange for a bite to eat. He disappeared at night, or when the sheriff’s men were doing their rounds, and would reappear with the dawn, or when the coast was clear.
Robin noticed the young man right away when he and the gang arrived with deliveries that Tuesday. They always carried some extra goods, just in case, and he went to give a parcel to the man.
“An’ who might you be?” the stranger asked suspiciously as Robin approached him.
Keeping a friendly smile on his face, Robin introduced himself, and held out the package. “Go on, take it. It’s not much, but it will help.”
“You’re Robin Hood?” the man asked incredulously, ignoring the bundle.
“I am,” Robin answered, suddenly wary.
Dropping the accent, the vagrant murmured, “I’m David of Doncaster, and I have been sent by King Richard to find you.”
The words, spoken in hushed and urgent tones, instantly brought Robin to attention. "Were you?"
With a wink, David said, "Libere sagitta fugit."
It was the code they had agreed on long ago, letting Robin know the man spoke the truth. “Come with me,” Robin instructed, and pulled David aside.
Once they were out of sight or earshot, David continued. “I doubt that the news has reached you yet, so I am pleased to inform you that the king is freed.”
Robin broke into a wide grin, and shook David’s hand in gratitude for the report. “That’s excellent news!”
David smiled back, but was much more reserved. “That is not all,” he said. “He is coming to deal with the Sheriff of Nottingham and Sir Guy of Gisborne. He requests your help with this mission.”
“Of course, he shall have it. Gisborne is no longer a problem, however; he is on our side now.”
David’s eyebrow shot up. “I am not sure His Majesty will forgive anyone involved with plots on his life.”
“I understand,” Robin nodded. “But, I would like to discuss it with him.”
“Naturally. He’s coming with a very small group of men, and is trying to keep this mission a secret. He will arrive tomorrow, and wants you to meet him at the Blue Boar Inn on the Great North Road. You know of it?”
“I do, and I will await him there.”
David smiled. “Excellent. Now, what’s in that linen?”
Robin handed him the package. “Some bread, cheese, and a few coins.”
“Better and better.”
“Do you have somewhere to stay?” asked Robin, gesturing for David to precede him back into the village square.
Eying his filthy self with mild distaste, David answered, “No. I have been sleeping just inside the treeline over here, in case you arrived during the night.”
“Well, we cannot offer you great comfort, but I think you will find our camp to be an improvement.”
The gang was nearly done with deliveries, and Marian was starting to look concerned when she spotted Robin returning with a stranger.
“It would be nice if you would not disappear without warning,” she said, an edge to her voice.
“David, here, had to speak with me.” He leaned in, and the others followed suit. “He had a message from the king.”
They looked dubiously at the bedraggled young man, who returned their regard with humor. “Well, I wasn’t exactly going to ride in on a secret assignment, wearing His Majesty’s colors and flying his pennant, was I?”
“He’s going to be staying with us,” Robin informed them. “We still have a few deliveries; can the rest of you finish up while I see him back to camp? We have plans to discuss.”
Marian and Much frowned, but the others agreed. “Sure thing,” Allan replied.
Robin slid an arm around Marian’s waist, leaning down so that his mouth was beside her ear. “The king comes tomorrow,” he whispered. “He wants me to help take care of the sheriff. For good.”
Surprised, she turned her head so quickly she nearly bumped Robin’s nose with her own. “Truly?”
He grinned at her excitedly. “It’s almost over, Marian.”
His exuberance was contagious. With a happy cry, she turned and flung her arms around his neck.
“So, is it all right if I go back to camp with David, and work out some plans?”
She sighed but relented. “Very well. We will see you soon.”
He gave her a quick kiss, and set off toward camp with their newest associate.
As it happened, David and Carter knew one another, and exchanged greetings while Robin got welcoming hugs from Atiya. The three men soon started discussing the situation, coming up with ideas which were expanded when the entire gang was assembled in the new camp’s great room. By the time Robin set out for the Blue Boar the next morning, they had worked out a viable plan. He figured that the king had ideas of his own, but was glad to have suggestions to present to him.
The rain ran off of his leather hood and cloak as he moved down the North Road, a couple of hours south of Locksley. When he arrived at the tavern, it was already bustling with people trying to escape the miserable weather. Robin retrieved a pint of ale and sidled into a shadowed table in a corner, keeping his hood up.
An hour passed, then two. Eventually, Robin ordered a trencher of chicken and bread, and took his time about eating it. And yet, there was still no sign of the king when he was finished. The same thing happened at suppertime.
Robin was growing concerned by the time the sun started to set, and he was about to start following the road further south when an imposing, familiar figure walked through the door, dressed in monk’s robes. From deep within the cowl, the newcomer turned his head, scanning the room; when he was turned toward the corner, Robin touched the edge of his hood. The “monk” made his way through the crowd and took a seat near Robin.
When Robin could see the face of his monarch, he hissed, “You cannot be alone. Where are your men?”
“They are already here.”
Robin resisted the urge to look around, which earned an approving smile from King Richard. “Two have come in during the day; the woodsman by the hearth and the yeoman in the blue cloak who is flirting with the barmaids. Two more are stationed in the woods across from the front and back entrances of this building. The rest of them are scattered throughout Nottingham Town, awaiting my signal.”
“Good to know. Were you planning to eat and stay here tonight, or get started back?”
The king eyed Robin’s mug longingly, and Robin passed it over to him. After taking a long pull from it, Richard replied, “As tempting as it is to sleep in a bed, I think we should be on our way.”
“You can have that both ways,” Robin told him with a smile. “Our beds are surprisingly comfortable, thanks in large part to one of the newest members of our gang.”
“Excellent. Shall we go?”
After they had gotten about a mile away from the inn, the six men traveling with the king caught up with them. Four were friends of Robin’s from his time in the Guards, and the walk back to the outlaws’ camp was quite genial.
It was after dark when they arrived, but nearly everyone was still awake. Much was in the midst of declaring, “That’s it; I’m going after him,” when they walked in.
“Going after who?” Robin asked teasingly.
“Robin!” Much exclaimed, turning around. Then his eyes widened. “Your Majesty!” He quickly dropped to one knee, as did everyone else.
Richard waved his hand. “Please, stand. Or sit; whatever you were doing.” He spotted David then, who had been chatting with Carter and Sakina. Walking over to the bench David was seated on, he dropped down beside him.
“Would it be possible to get something to eat?” one of the guards, Gilbert Whitehand, asked Robin.
“Of course. I was surprised that His Majesty did not get something before we left.”
Gilbert frowned. Quietly, he said, “He has not been eating much since his return. I’m not sure if he’s simply too focused, or... or if he is unwell.”
Robin eyed his liege. Richard still appeared robust, but it was difficult to truly tell with him in the monk’s robes. Perhaps, his face did look leaner than usual. “We will see to it that he’s fed,” Robin assured the other man.
After newer members of the gang had been introduced and the travelers were settled with a late dinner, Robin turned to the king. “Sire, my gang and I-- with David’s help-- have drawn up some ideas as to how we could infiltrate the castle.”
Richard swallowed the bite he had been chewing while he shook his head. “That’s not necessary.”
Accepting the dismissal of his offer, Robin asked, “Could we know of your plan?”
Richard replied, “It is fairly simple. We walk into Nottingham Castle, I have Vaizey executed and appoint a new sheriff.”
Robin exchanged a look with the others. “Apologies, sire, but why then do you need our assistance? I understand the secrecy, but--”
“I do not understand the secrecy,” Sakina interrupted softly. When attention turned to her, she blushed. “My apologies, but I do not understand what is going on.”
“His Majesty did not want to give the sheriff any warning, and a chance to escape or plot against him again,” Carter explained.
“Two attempts on my life by the man and his associate is enough,” Richard remarked lightly.
The comment reminded Robin of something. “I know that you intend to deal with Guy of Gisborne, as well.”
“That is correct.”
“I hope I can convince you to reconsider. Gisborne has been aiding us, providing intelligence on all plans of the sheriff’s. He is also engaged to Marian’s cousin, who has been helping encourage him in this direction.”
Richard took a bite of bread, chewing it while he considered this information. “I cannot simply forgive the plots against my life, Robin.”
“I know. But, he is a changed man, and is making a strong effort to atone for his actions.”
The king studied his friend. “Considering his actions a few months back, I am surprised to hear you defend him with such vehemence.”
“I never would have thought it, either,” Robin admitted. “He has grudges with the sheriff that may even outweigh our own. He will be a good ally; if I doubted that, I would never suggest it.”
Richard thought it over a bit more, and finally nodded. “I will speak with him, but I promise nothing about my final verdict.”
“Thank you. I ask for no more than that.”
Just then, two figures appeared in the doorway to the left. Little Little John was holding Atiya’s hand, as she rubbed the sleep from her eyes with her other hand. “She’s looking for you, Robin,” the boy said drowsily.
Smiling at the sight, Robin went over and picked her up. “Thanks, John.”
Little Little John peered curiously at the strangers in camp. “Hello,” he said.
“Hello,” called Gilbert cheerfully, happy now that his stomach was full.
“And whom do we have here?” Richard asked, glancing between the children.
Robin was just sitting down beside Marian again, the small girl nearly asleep again with her head resting on his shoulder. He nodded toward Little Little John. “That fine young man is John and Alice’s son, also called John. And this is my daughter, Atiya.”
Richard was clearly not expecting that, but hid his surprise quickly. “I was not aware that there were children among your numbers. Congratulations to you all.”
“John,” Alice said softly, gesturing for her son to come over to where she and his father were seated. When he reached her, she whispered, “These men are from the King’s Royal Guard, and this is His Majesty, King Richard.”
Little Little John stared at his mother dubiously at first, but soon realized she was serious. Wide-eyed, he started to kneel, but Richard protested.
“Please do not,” he said. “We are all friends here.” He gave the boy a reassuring smile, and Little Little John relaxed, sitting beside Alice.
Richard turned back to Robin, staring at the sleeping girl. “I am even more glad to be here, now that I know this,” he remarked. “I am, of course, pardoning all of you, and you will be able to return to your homes tomorrow. Nor should you fear further persecution from the law-- provided none of you step greatly outside of it.”
There was a visible reaction from most of the outlaws.
"We're going home?" Little Little John exclaimed, wide awake now.
“Bonchurch,” Much said reverently. Eve grinned at him.
“There’s no carpenter in Locksley at the moment,” Will noted, the corners of his mouth turning up as Djaq leaned against him. "Or healer," he added.
“Our cottage is inhabited,” Alice sighed.
“I’ll build you a new one,” declared Will grandly.
Marian beamed at Robin. “Locksley will be yours again.”
“It will be ours,” he corrected her, with a wink. Murmurs of excitement spread throughout the room.
Only Little John seemed unsettled. “What about the villagers?” he finally put in.
Everyone fell silent and turned to him.
“What do you mean?” asked Gilbert.
“The villagers depend on us,” John stated. “What will they do without our help?”
“With Vaizey ousted and a fair sheriff in place, they will not need it,” Carter said.
“That’s not necessarily true,” Kate replied. “A lot of families were hurting from taxation before, even outside Nottinghamshire.” She realized a moment after everyone else that she had criticized the king’s policy in front of him, and she suddenly looked horrified. “Oh! I didn’t mean... That is,...”
Richard held up a hand for her to stop stammering. “I had hoped to speak to some of you about ways those families might be better helped. I cannot drop taxes altogether, as news I have received indicates that the truce in the Holy Land might not last much longer. But, I will be dealing with the corrupt officers who have instigated their own ‘taxes,’ which should ease the burden on the people.”
Kate relaxed back with a sigh, and Allan shot her a relieved look.
“I would be very interested in discussing that with you, sire,” Marian spoke up.
“Excellent.” Richard set his now-empty plate beside his chair. “Tomorrow, I will send word to my men in Nottingham to prepare, and we will meet them in the town. Then, we go to the castle en masse. I would like for all of you to be there.”
Robin and Little John exchanged an uneasy look. “We need someone to stay at camp with the children, sire. And Djaq is with child, so she should stay, as well,” Robin said.
Richard shook his head. “There will be no danger. As you have said you get intelligence from the castle, have you heard of the sheriff even suspecting my arrival?”
He had a point. “No, I have not.”
The king looked around at the faces of the outlaws. “You have all worked diligently to see his tenure brought to an end, and have protected the people he has abused in the meantime. You should be there to witness his downfall. I have more men stationed in Nottingham Town than there are castle guards, but the guards will answer to me, regardless. Vaizey has had no opportunity to plan against me; even if he has learned of my freedom, he will not expect me to knock on his door. What will happen tomorrow is this: We will walk into the courtyard as a group, I will have Vaizey brought before me, and he will be summarily sentenced.” He got to his feet. “Now, Robin, you mentioned a bed?”
As startled as everyone else, it took Robin a moment to respond. “Yes.” He carefully handed Atiya to Marian, then rose and gestured toward the doorway to the guest bedroom. “I’m afraid we only have two extra beds, but we can fix something up for the rest of you.”
The guards had no problems with this, and soon everyone had retired for the night.
The soon-to-be ex-outlaws discuss what tomorrow holds for them.
After getting Atiya settled in her room once again, Robin and Marian climbed into their bed. She snuggled in next to him, her head on his shoulder and his arm around her. They were quiet for a few minutes, until she finally asked, “Can it really be that simple?”
Robin could hardly believe it, himself, but the plan sounded straightforward enough. “I guess it can.”
“So... this time tomorrow, we will be in Locksley Manor?”
Staring up at the cave ceiling, he nodded. “Probably. If not tomorrow, definitely the day after.”
“I used to dream about that when I was a girl. I’d planned exactly how I would decorate it.”
He smiled down at her head. “Do you remember those plans?”
“Clearly. They were horrendous,” she laughed, but she soon grew serious again. “I never thought it would be such a complicated journey to get there.”
“But the journey’s over.”
She bit her lower lip. “Not quite.”
He shifted so that she was laying on her back, and he leaned over her, smoothing her hair. “Marian, it’s all right. The sheriff has no ready plot against the king, and will not be able to stop him. All we have to do is stand back and watch him be brought down.”
“Are you sure you will be able to do that?” she teased.
“If that’s what King Richard is telling me to do, I have no choice,” he pointed out, but laughed. “Are you sure you will be able not to act?”
“The Nightwatchman will not be pleased, but I shall do my best,” she grinned.
Happy to see her not worrying for once, Robin bent down and kissed her. “Should we bid the camp good-bye?” he asked, raising a lecherous eyebrow.
“We just bid it hello,” she sighed with mock sadness. The prospect of being back in a real house-- and one as lovely as Locksley Manor-- was thrilling.
“Is that a yes?”
She grinned and pulled him down for another kiss. “Of course, it’s a yes.”
In the next room over, Will and Djaq were also discussing the situation. “We just finished this camp,” he said musingly, staring off toward the wall as he sat on the edge of the bed.
Djaq was already laying down, as she was a little dizzy that evening. So, to his back, she replied, “And it is a lovely camp. Perhaps it can be used by someone in need?”
“Maybe.” He turned to face her. “My family’s cottage is simple, you know. It’s only got two rooms. I can add another, I think. But it’s not what you were used to before.” The memory of Bassam’s grand house was haunting him, now that he was facing the prospect of providing her with a permanent home.
She threw out a hand. “We have been living in the forest for more than two years now. Before that, I had been housed as a slave for months. I am familiar with the cottage; it will be perfect.”
“We could go back to Acre, stay with Bassam, as he suggested.”
She touched his hand. “I do not want to go back to Acre. This is my home now. There is a place for us here.”
He sighed, glancing down at her fingers resting on his own. “I just don’t want you to regret that decision.”
“I will not.” She stared at him until he looked back at her, and smiled. “Besides, Matilda would never forgive me if she was not the one to deliver this baby.”
He chuckled as she tugged lightly on his hand, letting her draw him over. “That’s true.”
On the other side of their wall, Much was pacing, excitement preventing him from being still. “It’s really going to be ours. Bonchurch Lodge.”
Eve laughed, caught up in the exhilaration. “My mother will be so thrilled to go back home. She misses her friends.” Hannah had decided not to join the sisters at Barnsdale Convent, but remained with them for the time.
“She’s welcome to go back to her cottage, or she can live in the big house, with us,” Much declared.
“That would be lovely.”
He stopped pacing and suddenly ran over to her, grabbing her and swinging her around in a circle. As he set her back down, he said, “Marry me there.”
“I thought you wanted to use Locksley Chapel.”
“That’s when it would have been too dangerous for you to be seen in Bonchurch. But now, it will be safe; you can be with your family and friends. We’ll be able to hold a feast on the lawn, or in the manor if it rains.”
“Are you sure?”
He hesitated. “Don’t you want that? We do not have to, if you would rather not.”
She smiled up at him, playing with the laces on the front of his shirt. “I would love that. And, I love you.” She leaned up and kissed him.
“By the end of the week,” he muttered, after they parted.
“What?” she asked hazily.
“We’ll marry by the end of the week,” he clarified.
“Absolutely,” she agreed. Tugging his shirt out from where it was tucked into his trousers, she murmured, “Let's anticipate that wedding again, now that we sort of have a date set.”
The conversation in John and Alice’s room was not quite so joyful.
“He might not pardon me.”
Alice frowned as she smoothed the blanket over her legs. “Why wouldn’t he? He didn’t seem to be excluding anyone, that I could tell.”
John wandered over to the wall with the window-like hole, and could see moonlight silvering the leaves in the forest. He leaned his hands on either side of it, peering out. What would it be like to wander through the villages, or even Nottingham Town, without fearing capture? He could live in an actual cottage again. He would need a trade... he wondered if he would even remember what to do if given the opportunity to work again. “Alice, I killed a baron.”
“By accident, and in self-defense,” she reminded him.
“The old sheriff was a fair man,” he replied. “If he couldn’t pardon me due to the laws, I cannot expect the king to do so.”
“The king is the only one who really can. And, after all that you’ve done for England, of course he will. If he’s even considering sparing Gisborne, he will not leave you out. Now, are you coming to bed, or not?”
He had had a few glimmers of hope this evening, but had quickly stamped them out. However, he decided to let this new one live. Climbing in beside his wife, he began to think of what he could do for a living. “What sort of man is needed these days?”
"As it happens, a big man who is good with his quarterstaff is exactly what is needed right now," she teased.
Nearby, Allan was laying in bed, letting his thoughts wander. He could not believe he was getting a fresh start, not after everything he had done. Of all of them, he mused, he deserved a pardon the least; but he was not about to argue it.
Just then, there was a knock on his door. He got to his feet and pulled on his trousers and shirt before answering, and was glad for having done so when he saw Kate standing there. It was difficult enough keeping his hands to himself, without having lost clothing along the way.
“Hey,” he greeted her.
She gave him a troubled half-smile. “Hi.” Then, she was silent.
He leaned against the doorframe, his eyebrows going up. “Was there something you wanted?” Please say yes, please say yes...
Thank you, God!
“Can we talk?”
He stood back to allow her through, and watched as she glanced around his room. “Isn’t it funny?-- in the old camp, we all shared one bedroom. Now, I don’t really know what anybody else’s looks like.”
Now leaning against the wall next to the door, arms crossed, he asked, “You wanna know what everybody’s rooms are like?”
“No, that’s not it.”
His eyebrows went up. “Okay, then, what is it?”
“I’m afraid my mother isn’t going to forgive me.”
Allan restrained himself from beating his head against the rock wall. “You’re getting pardoned by the king,” he pointed out. “She can’t ask for more than that.”
“She might not care. If I’d listened to her and not gone on the picnic, I wouldn’t have gotten in trouble in the first place.”
He frowned. “Do you really regret it that much?”
She stared at him as she thought that over. “No, not really. But I wish she would talk to me. She's my mother.”
Yeah, and his mother had disappeared on him years ago, after falling into a decline. He was still unsure what to make of what Much had told him about the sisters at Barnsdale, having put off looking into it. So, he kind of sympathized, but not really. “What if she won’t?”
Kate's eyes welled up.
“I don’t know,” she replied, her voice small and lost.
With a heavy sigh, he walked over and pulled her into his arms, holding her while she sobbed into his shirt.
In his room, Tuck was sleeping soundly. He had unofficially outlawed himself by association when he decided to stay with the gang, but he did not lament his decision. They were doing important work, and now he would just find a way of continuing that work. Perhaps, he could become involved in whatever it was the king intended to do to help families in need. Either way, his mind and heart were at peace, and he dozed easily.
A few feet away, Sakina was packing up her few belongings. She really had no concept of where she was headed, but did not see herself being able to stay here. All of the others had had established lives before they were oppressed by the sheriff; they had somewhere to go. She had nothing; no home, no close friends. Everything she had known was thousands of miles away.
And, even that was gone, first with her Haidar and their shop, and then with Nadira. Only Atiya remained, and she was where she belonged, with her father and stepmother.
Sakina had not fought for the people of England as the outlaws had done. She still was not good enough with a weapon to assist on their heists-- but they would not be doing that anymore, so it hardly mattered. True, she helped with some drop-offs, and had made the mattresses for the new camp, but that hardly earned her a place once they were all back to their normal lives.
Donning a shawl and slinging her pack over her shoulder, she crept over to her door, and then cautiously outside of it. Her soft shoes made no sound on the ground as she moved toward the great room, and she was nearly to the exit when a voice nearly made her jump out of her skin.
“Where are you going?” Carter asked from a chair near the hearth.
With a gasp, she spun around. “I did not see you there!”
One corner of his mouth kicked up. “Clearly.”
Willing her heart to stop racing from the surprise, she answered without thinking. “I am leaving.”
He frowned. “Why?”
Gesturing, she said, “I have no place here.”
He got up and walked absently over, staring into the tunnel of the entryway. “You are not the only one,” he muttered.
“What do you mean? You had a life in England before all of this.”
His laugh was bitter. “Not really. I helped in my father’s workshop, but I did not have the talent for it. I’m good at fighting, but now...” He trailed off, reluctant to voice his fear.
When he did not continue, she asked, “Now, could you not rejoin the king? As he is here, you could just go with him when he leaves.”
“No, I cannot. I do not know if I’ll be able to ever again.” There, he had said it.
Realizing his reluctance to discuss whatever was bothering him, she dropped that subject. “What of your family?”
He was trapped in his thoughts, and only distantly replied, “I do not fit in with them anymore.” Startled back to the present by his own words, he nonetheless added, “I have changed too much since I left, for me to go back.” He peered over at her. “And you? Is your family back in Acre?”
“Not anymore. Atiya is my only family now.”
He turned completely toward her. “So, where were you going?”
She shrugged helplessly. “I do not know. Where are you going to go?”
He found himself grinning. “I do not know, either.” When she suddenly laughed at the ridiculousness of it, the sound warmed him. “Come on, let’s sit by the hearth and try to figure something out.”
The taking of Nottingham Castle does not go to plan.
The next morning, the now-substantial group shared breakfast, but conversation was minimal. The outlaws-- soon to be legally-instated citizens once again-- were anticipating an end to their persecution. The guardsmen did not have much to say. The king was thoroughly entertained by the children, not having been around many before.
The guards, disguised as they had been the day before, left for Nottingham to retrieve the other soldiers waiting there. While they waited for everything to be in place, the gang repacked their belongings, some of which had not even been put away yet. They would leave their things in camp for now, expecting it to take a day or two for them to sort out their living arrangements, but seeing that Sakina was already packed, the others decided it was as good a way as any to pass the time.
After lunch, King Richard looked around at the faces looking to him expectantly, and said, “Let’s go to Nottingham.”
“If it is acceptable, I will stay here,” Sakina said. When she was met with puzzled looks, she explained, “I have not been involved in this fight; I am content to wait.”
Eying his daughter, Robin asked, “Would you watch Atiya, then? I would rather that Vaizey never catch sight of her.”
“I’d like to stay, too,” Little Little John piped up. “Nottingham Castle, I do not like.”
“I would not mind watching the children,” Sakina agreed. After that was settled, the rest of the group set out.
When they got to the edge of the forest, they found all of the king’s men waiting, dressed in their Crusader’s uniforms, with his horse at the ready. He ducked deeper into the foliage, out of sight, and reemerged in his own mail and tunic, crown affixed on his head.
“That’s better,” he commented, retrieving his horse and slinging himself into the saddle. Flanked by his guards and followed by the outlaws, he led the way to the town gate.
The town guards could not believe their eyes. They had been given no notice of the king’s arrival, and were so stunned, they did not even notice Robin Hood and his gang behind him.
As they dropped to their knees, Richard told them, “You will remain here, at your posts. If you see the sheriff attempting to leave Nottingham, you will detain him. Is that understood?”
“Y-yes, Your Majesty,” one of the men stammered. The other nodded frantically.
That said, Richard spurred his horse forward. When the guards glanced up and saw the infamous outlaws, they jolted in surprise, but said nothing.
A crowd quickly gathered along the road to the castle gates, as word spread through the town that the king was there. A ripple of murmurs spread through the kneeling assembly when Robin and the others were spotted, the murmurs turning to cheers as it became clear that the outlaws were not under arrest, but were accompanying the king.
It did not take long to reach the castle gate, and when the company arrived, Richard gave instructions very similar to those delivered to the guards at the town gave. Then, the group moved forward into the courtyard, facing the castle steps.
Castle guards hurried forth, and from his perch atop the horse, Richard said to one of them, “Tell the Sheriff of Nottingham that His Majesty, Richard, By the Grace of God, King of the English and Duke of the Normans and Aquitanians and Count of the Angevins and Lord of Ireland, demands his attendance.”
The man gaped at him.
The guard fled into the castle.
With that, Richard dismounted, handing the reins to Gilbert. “Robin,” the king called.
Robin came up beside him. “Yes, sire?”
“When I speak with the sheriff and Gisborne, I want you present.”
Just then, Guy appeared in the corridor to the side of the castle steps. Meg hovered a few steps behind him; it was evident that she was nervous, but Guy seemed composed. He walked toward the king, kneeling at an appropriate distance.
“Your Majesty, I am Sir Guy of Gisborne, and was part of the plots against your life under the Sheriff of Nottingham. I deserve no mercy, but beg it of you, regardless.”
Richard regarded the man in front of him, glancing briefly at the lovely young woman standing off to the side who was inadvertently crushing her skirts in her hands. When she realized that she had not acted properly, she dropped to her knees. His eyes again on Guy, he said, “Your offenses are beyond severe, Sir Guy. However, Robin informs me that you have been aiding him in his work for the people of Nottinghamshire.”
Keeping his head lowered, Guy replied, “I have done what little I can.”
“For that, I will speak with you after I have dealt with the sheriff.”
Guy finally dared to look up, disbelief on his face. “Thank you, sire.”
He stood and moved back to stand with Meg, who grabbed hold of his arm as if she would never let go.
That was when Vaizey leaned out of the tower window overlooking the courtyard. Without a word, Guy shook off Meg’s grip and broke into a run, disappearing into the castle. Robin watched him go, wondering what he meant to do.
“Your Majesty!” the sheriff bellowed. “I see that you have gathered that band of ruffians, likely to see to my downfall. But I can’t make it that easy, now can I?” He smiled with cruel glee at the outlaws, initially singling out Marian. “I told Gisborne you could not be trusted, but he never listened. Always making eyes at him, and then running off to the forest with your little tidbits of information.” Then he looked to Allan. “I’m still surprised they trusted you, after all the little tidbits you brought me. But, I suppose that would be the Robin Hood way, wouldn’t it? Forgiveness,” he sighed sarcastically. His eyes fell on Eve and Much. “Ah, my delightful, devious Eve, all good and noble now. Tell me, Much, have you figured out how to get her to make that little... mewling... sound yet?” Much stared at him, denial making him uncomprehending for a moment; the rest of the gang stared, shocked, at Eve, whose face flamed. “No? That’s too bad; maybe later, she'll show you how it's done.”
Fed up, Robin yelled, “That’s enough, Vaizey! It’s over!”
“It may be over for me,” Vaizey called, just barely loud enough to be heard, “but do not think I’m going alone.”
He produced a bow that he had been holding out of sight, below the window, and fired it at the king.
In the same moment that Vaizey let the arrow fly, two things happened: Guy came up behind the sheriff and ran him through, just a split-second too late to stop him; and Robin threw himself in front of Richard. The force of the arrow as it entered his chest threw him back into the king, although Robin did not quite understand what had happened when he found himself lying on the cobbles. Apparently, the breath had been knocked out of him when he fell; and as he tasted blood, he wondered if he had bit his tongue.
Marian screamed his name and Much cried, “NO!” at the same time the pain hit him. He instinctively tried to gasp, but he could not get enough air; every time he breathed, it hurt even worse than the last breath. The groan he emitted was weak, and muted by the blood in his mouth.
When Gisborne had stabbed him three years ago, the pain had been inconceivable. That was nothing compared to this.
He realized what was happening when he looked down at his chest and noticed the shaft sticking out of it. The thing rose and fell with each labored breath he took, and for a minute, he was hypnotized by the sight.
Then, he was surrounded by people. Marian, his love, her cheeks ghostly white and soaked with tears, dropped down beside him, her hands floating helplessly around as she realized she had no notion of what to do. Finally, with a sob, she ran her hands through his hair. Without knowing it, she was murmuring, “No, no, no, no, no...” Much was across from her, horror on his features. Behind them, several more faces were a blur; he could not focus enough to make them out.
A particularly nasty streak of pain shot through him as he attempted to draw in more air, and his body spasmed against it as he cried out, only to have some of the blood in his mouth run down his throat the wrong way. This caused an excruciating series of coughs that was so agonizing, he could no longer tolerate it, and he lost consciousness; his last sight was the panicked faces of his wife and his best friend as they saw him slipping away.
Marian’s murmured mantra became another scream as she watched Robin’s eyes go vague, and then close. “NO!” She clutched his head, the thin line of blood running from the sides of his mouth staining her fingers. “Robin, please,” she sobbed hysterically. Wake up, she silently begged. Wake up; say something! Do not just fade away like this!
Djaq took her shoulder and tried to move her back. “Let me see him; I might be able to help.” But Marian was unable to even comprehend what she was hearing, so Little John reached over and moved her back. She struggled against him, until she saw that Djaq was studying Robin.
“Is he...?” Marian asked, afraid to finish the sentence.
“He is alive, for now,” Djaq answered as sympathetically as she was able to do while in medical mode. “Will, I need wine, olive oil, clean linen, wax, and herbs-- oregano, thyme, basil and barberry.”
“Right.” He ran toward the castle.
“This is going to cause more damage if I do not remove it,” she commented to nobody in particular, leaning over Robin and grabbing hold of the arrow. Fortunately, it had not gone in too deeply, having been fired without proper preparation. She pulled it out quickly, as closely in line with its entry as possible, wincing as it came out with a wet, sucking noise.
Her arms still held by Little John, Marian nearly fainted, herself; but she fought the dots that swirled through her vision, the distant sound of voices right next to her. If Robin was dying, she was not going to miss his last moments, no matter how much her heart broke to witness them. Please, do not die. At least not without saying good-bye to me. The gurgling sound he had made before his coughing fit echoed in her ears, which could not be the last thing she ever heard from him. She was not counting the hollow wheezing sounds coming from his chest at the moment; he would speak to her again.
He had to.
Marian had just regained control of herself as Djaq sliced his shirts up the front, revealing the puncture wound that bled freely now. When it was obvious that Marian was not going to fight anymore, Little John released her, and she moved around Robin until she was opposite Djaq, beside Much; and then she sat, holding her husband’s hand.
“As I thought; his lung is breached,” Djaq said. “We need to get him into a bed; somewhere he will not have to be moved for some time.”
“In here,” Guy instructed, having rejoined the group in the courtyard.
Richard offered his cloak for use as a litter, and John, Much and Allan each took a corner after John and Guy had moved Robin onto it. Guy reached for the fourth corner, but Richard stopped him. “That arrow was intended for me. Allow me to help.” They swiftly, yet cautiously moved him into the chamber Marian had once inhabited, not far off the courtyard.
Will had the things Djaq needed by then, and as soon as Robin was settled into the bed, she cleaned the wound with the wine and olive oil. She then melted the wax and mixed the herbs into it, ripping the linen into strips and dipping it into the poultice before applying them around the hole in his chest.
Marian had silently walked alongside the litter, feeling as though she were moving through molasses, that time had slowed to nearly a standstill. Each difficult breath Robin drew was like a year, each step across the courtyard, a decade. Part of her almost prayed for his suffering to end as she listened to him laboring for air; but she was too selfish to truly want that. He had to live; he absolutely had to.
He was just about to regain Locksley. They were about to regain Locksley; them, and Atiya too.
Oh, Atiya. Thank God she had not been there, or Little Little John! The boy had witnessed too much already during his short life. And the girl... She could not lose her father, not after just gaining him.
And then there was the baby that Marian carried, which she had first kept secret so as to be sure, and then had decided to tell Robin about when they were finally in Locksley Manor.
But, to be completely selfish, Marian needed him to live for herself. It had taken her too long to grasp how much she loved him, and ever since she had come to the realization, she had also acknowledged that she could never go back from it. When he left for the Holy Land, she told herself it was just as well; she would not want to be married to a man who disregarded her so casually. While he was gone, she flirted, given the opportunity-- but there were not many opportunities. She had finally decided to try to develop some feeling for Guy, keeping Meg's admonitions in mind, when Robin returned. Her joy at knowing he lived, safe and whole, was tempered by the frustration that had grown over those five years, as well as his apparent assumption that they could simply pick back up where they had left off.
She had been a fool not to.
Of course, there was so much going on after that, there had been times when she wanted to scream to the heavens to stop the world for a moment and let her catch her breath--
--and as she thought that, Robin gasped for air. He was still unconscious, but that was for the best.
And now, Marian watched as Djaq competently applied the compress around the wound. They were so fortunate to have such skillful friends, she mused, not realizing how much her mind was wandering. At the foot of the bed, Much stood staring at Robin’s still form, stricken. Eve was beside him, holding his hand, knowing that there was nothing she could say to alleviate his fear.
The person Marian needed beside her was there, but he was on his back and could die at any moment.
He needed her to hold his hand right now, she thought, easing onto the mattress beside him.
“Be careful,” Djaq warned. “He must be still if he is to heal.”
“He will heal?” Marian asked, desperation in her voice.
Djaq’s eyes grew sad as she looked at the other woman. “I cannot promise that. He is in danger of drowning, or taking an infection; I have done what I can to prevent it, but that is not much. However, if he avoids that, then yes; he should heal.”
It was not the reassurance any of them had hoped to hear, but it was better than none at all.
Glancing down at him as she took his hand, Marian gasped. “His lips are turning blue! That’s not good, is it?”
“Good, no; but it is normal.” Djaq made a disgusted sound in the back of her throat. “This is going to be beyond my knowledge. Is there a physician in town at the moment?”
Guy answered her quietly, from where he stood inside the door. “Not one capable of this.”
“Matilda!” Will exclaimed. “I’ll bet she knows what to do.”
Djaq nodded. “Have her fetched, quickly. I do not know how much time he has, otherwise. In the meanwhile, he should have some peace, to rest.”
“I am not leaving,” Marian declared.
“Of course not. You and I will--”
“And me,” Much cut in.
She nodded. “We will stay.”
Meg offered, “I’ll have chambers readied for everyone, and a meal set out in the Great Hall.”
“No,” Guy quickly replied. “Have the meal set out in the sheriff’s chambers. We will have chairs and tables brought in.”
She gave him an odd look, but left to pass the instructions along without argument.
As they exited the room, the king walked up beside Guy. “What of the sheriff?”
“Dead,” Guy answered flatly. “I was too late to stop him, but he will never harm another soul again.”
“You are certain of this?” Richard queried.
Guy’s eyes were dull when he met the king’s gaze. “I have had his body taken to the Great Hall, for your inspection. His head should be there, as well.”
“Separately,” the king remarked.
Soon, the majority of the group had filed out, and the bedchamber fell silent, except for the wheezing coming from the bed.
The gang reels from the sheriff's actions.
In the sheriff’s chambers, it was a solemn bunch who picked at the food brought up from the kitchens.
Carter pushed his plate away after only a couple of bites and stood. “I’ll go back to camp and give Sakina the news, and gather what we will need.”
“Should the children really be here?” Alice asked. Everyone exchanged lost glances. “I suppose it’ll be best if we’re all in one place,” she sighed, answering herself. She understood her son’s aversion to the castle, sharing it herself after their imprisonment a year and a half earlier, but it would not do for the gang to be spread out while their leader fought for his life.
Little John had been standing beside her chair. His arm went around her shoulders, and he gave her a light squeeze. She smiled gratefully up at him.
“I’ll be off, then,” Carter murmured.
After he took his leave, the remaining group fell silent once more.
“He is going to make it, right?” Kate posed the question on everyone’s mind.
No one was brave enough to guess. Eventually, Will said, “Djaq’s doing everything she can to help, and Matilda will probably know of more steps to take.”
“I have seen men survive worse,” Richard assured them. He decided not to dwell on the knowledge that he had also seen men succumb to less.
The soldiers in the room heard the unspoken addendum, but also tried to ignore it.
“He survived that stab wound in the Holy Land,” Allan said without thinking, instantly regretting the statement when it was drew everybody’s minds to the fact that Guy had dealt Robin the injury. “Sorry, Guy; I didn’t mean--”
“Never mind,” Guy shook his head. “What’s done is done. I cannot take it back.”
“We all have things we regret,” Tuck put in. “All we can do is make amends and move forward.”
There was a murmur of acknowledgement.
“Besides,” Guy said, a touch of dark humor in his voice, “if anyone should regret things, it should be you, Allan.”
“Hey, now; that’s not fair,” Allan protested. A burst of conversation broke out, everyone glad for the distraction; but Kate noticed that Eve was not joining in, merely sitting quietly, looking rather ill.
“Are you all right?” she asked.
Eve glanced up at her. “No, it’s just... all the talk of regret...” She trailed off as her words carried.
The taunt Vaizey had hurled at Much came back to them all at once, and everyone stared at her in shock. “Ah, my delightful, devious Eve, all good and noble now. Tell me, Much, have you figured out how to get her to make that little... mewling... sound yet?”
“Oh, my God,” Meg breathed.
Will paled. “Please tell me he was making that up.”
Eve met Guy’s gaze, the only one in the room with any sympathy. Then, looking back at Will, she weakly said, “I wish I could.”
“Does Much know?” Allan demanded.
The accusation from someone who had turned traitor on the outlaws, rather than turned honest because of them as she had been, turned her embarrassment into ire. “He does now, doesn’t he? You, of all people, should know that it is not that simple to tell the sheriff ‘no.’”
Angry on behalf of his friend, Allan snapped, “I haven’t lied about what I did.”
Humiliated, Eve cried, “He never ordered you into his bed!”
Her exclamation echoed off the stone walls of the chamber, made more unnerving by the presence of the imposing piece of furniture at the other end of the room.
Drained of any pride, she added miserably, “How could I possibly have admitted to that?”
Nobody had an answer.
With a teary curse, she fled the room.
“How long will he sleep?” Much finally asked Djaq.
“There is no way to tell,” she sighed, settling back into an armchair near the cold hearth. “It is to his benefit to rest now.”
Marian gently smoothed Robin’s hair back, running her fingers through the curls behind his ears.
“We should have known,” Much muttered. “We should’ve known that the sheriff would try something.”
He half-expected Djaq to tell him to hush, but instead, she agreed. “After all of this time, yes; we should have planned for it.” He glanced at her in surprise, and she gave him a strained smile.
“If I had not been so foolish in my attempt to kill him last year, I might have succeeded, and none of this would have happened,” Marian whispered desolately.
“If we had not all gone haring off after the queen, maybe some of us could have helped you,” Djaq noted. “But, we did. And you grabbed an opportunity that turned out not to be successful. And we did not plan correctly for the confrontation today. We cannot take it back; we must deal with the consequences and hope for the best.”
Just then, Robin hacked again, gasping against the warring impulses in his chest; he needed to draw in air, but the coughs expelled the little he was able to inhale. The sensation of smothering woke him suddenly, the icy fire that started in his chest and spread down his arms and through his back hitting him unawares as his eyes flew open. He was completely disoriented, and instinctively tried to sit up.
Marian nearly jumped out of her skin when he came to with no warning, and she did her best to gently push him back down when he attempted to rise. He struggled against her without knowing what he was doing, and Much stepped up to restrain him.
“Robin, stop it,” Marian commanded sternly, catching his attention. His eyes flew to hers, a wild gaze meeting a steady one. As he settled, his forehead furrowed.
“Marian?” he rasped, wondering why he could not breathe and why he hurt so badly. He glanced to Much, who was still carefully holding his arms down, and understood that he needed to still. But, he could not breathe even when he laid back. “What’s... happening?
Marian almost wept with relief to hear his voice, strained and weak as it was. Forcing herself to stay collected, she gently responded, “The sheriff shot you. Do you remember?”
He was blank for a second, but then it came back to him in a rush. “The... king?”
“Is fine.” When he looked as though he was about to ask another question, she added, “And the sheriff is dead. Guy killed him.”
Robin relaxed subtly, although strain was still etched across his face as he fought the agony, the tension fairly radiating off of him. Much let go, but remained where he stood.
His friend’s worried expression resigned Robin. “Am... I...dy--”
“No,” Marian said firmly, not letting him finish the sentence.
He saw the fear lurking in her gaze, and regret flooded through him. “I--” He was cut off by another jolt of unthinkable pain, his words becoming a cry as his back arched against the sensation.
Sharply, Djaq said to Much, “Hold him down again. Do not let him move.”
Marian was holding his face, murmuring nonsensical things in an attempt to soothe him. He gasped desperately, grabbing one of her hands and staring at her as he tried to get through the attack.
Djaq mixed a handful of herbs into a cup of wine, and brought it over. “Drink this,” she instructed, holding his head up and carefully tipping the cup so that he could.
He drank deeply, made thirsty by his wound. When he was finished and Djaq helped him rest his head back down, he realized it had tasted strange. “What’s... in that?”
“Something to help with the pain, and something to help you sleep.”
Normally, he would be upset at having been drugged, but unconsciousness sounded like an excellent idea just then. He became conscious of the fact that he was clutching Marian’s hand so tightly, he had to be hurting her. Easing his grip, he started to apologize, but she shook her head.
“It’s fine,” she whispered, having leant her head down beside his. “Do not worry.”
He could feel the effects of Djaq’s concoction begin to take hold; the pain was still there, but without the murderous edge, and his fingers, toes and face were starting to feel fuzzy, as if he had had too much to drink.
His mind was also feeling fuzzy. He was being pulled down into slumber, but needed to tell her something first. “I... I l...”
“Shh, my love,” she murmured, kissing his forehead as she rubbed her thumb across his fingers where they still held hands, stroking his hair with her other hand.
No, he could not hush; he needed to tell her. “Love you,” he managed, before succumbing to the draught.
Marian stared at his now-sleeping form. Oh, blast. Her eyes were welling up again, and she quickly stood, stumbling when her head swam. Much steadied her with a hand on her elbow, giving her an understanding nod when she looked up at him. Now having her footing, she mumbled, “I need air,” and rushed out of the chamber before anyone responded.
She stumbled down the corridor toward the castle entrance, tears blinding her so that she almost ran directly into Eve, also crying and moving in the opposite direction.
The two women exchanged startled looks, the oddness of the situation distracting both from their grief-filled thoughts.
Suddenly, Eve’s expression turned horrified. “Oh, no. Is Robin--”
“No!” Marian exclaimed. “No,” she repeated, more softly.
Studying Eve’s miserable face, Marian inquired, “What’s wrong?”
Not wishing to add to her friend’s worry, Eve shook her head. “It is nothing.” But even her ability to dissemble failed her then.
“Come here.” Marian moved to sit on the corridor’s wall, within one of the arches open to the courtyard. She patted the stone beside her, and Eve followed the direction after a slight hesitation.
“I will not burden you,” she insisted.
“To be frank, I could use a distraction,” admitted Marian.
Not expecting that answer, Eve nonetheless acquiesced. “Very well. I expect that you’ve forgotten what the sheriff said before-- well, before.”
Marian tried to remember, but could not. “I’m sorry; what was it?”
Eve turned her face away before answering, too ashamed to maintain even peripheral eye contact. “He told Much-- and everyone else-- that he bedded me.”
That rang a vague bell in Marian’s memory. Evenly, she asked, “And was it true?”
With a sob, Eve nodded, her head hanging so low that her chin nearly touched her chest.
“I hadn’t said anything to Much, because what could I say? ‘I love you. Of course, I will marry you. Oh, and by the way, I have lain with the most evil man in England’?” Marian had absolutely no idea what to say to that, but was spared having to concoct something when Eve suddenly looked up at her. “How is he?”
It took Marian a moment to realize that she meant Much. “He’s as well as can be expected. He has actually been quite calm, all things considered.”
Eve mused over her next words before speaking them. “He’s not... he does not seem upset? I mean, moreso than should be expected?”
In a small voice, Eve said, “What if he doesn’t love me anymore?”
"I am certain that's not the case." Marian got to her feet. “You should talk to him. Robin’s sleeping at the moment, and he could use a break, I think.”
“I’m afraid of what he will say,” Eve admitted.
“Better to find out now, than stew in that fear,” advised Marian. She took Eve’s elbow, and the two women walked slowly back toward the sickroom.
The sheriff's revelation about Eve is dealt with, and Matilda spill's Marian's secret.
Djaq had nodded off in her seat by the hearth. Much was leant forward in his chair beside the bed, elbows propped on his knees and his hands clasped loosely together, his head bowed. He did not pray well, but he tried sometimes; and this was definitely one of those times.
Please, God, don’t take him. Not yet, and not like this. We need him too much. I know You already let me keep him in the Holy Land, so I hope I can ask again. Because he’s needed more than ever now, and not just by me this time. Now, there’s the rest of the gang, and the people; but especially Marian and Atiya. They’ll be lost without him. Marian might get through it, but that little girl has already lost her mother; You can’t take her father, too. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to say You couldn’t do it! You can do whatever You see fit. But please, don’t do that. Please help him recover.
Just then, the door opened and Marian came in, her face tearstained but calm. She looked to the bed first, checking to make sure nothing had happened in her absence. Robin lay there, in a deep sleep thanks to whatever it was Djaq had given him. His breathing was still audible and labored, his color still tinged blue, but he was breathing, and that was the important thing.
“Much, Eve’s outside. She would like a word with you.”
His stomach did that little flipping thing it did whenever he thought of her, and he found himself nearly smiling as he got up. Then he felt guilty for being happy when Robin could be dying right beside him, and hesitated as he started to mentally berate himself.
Before he got far in his thoughts, Marian had laid a hand on his arm. “Don’t,” she said softly.
Surprised, he stared at her.
“It will upset him if he finds out you have put your life on hold for him, and he will not recover if he’s upset. So, go. It’s all right.”
Much then surprised both of them by giving her a quick hug. “Thank you.”
She was still startled by the unexpected embrace when he stepped back, but smiled.
That was why he did not hold his own smile back anymore, though it quickly dropped away when he saw Eve standing in the center of the corridor, her expression bereft. In fact, she looked as miserable as Marian had before fleeing the sickroom.
He moved toward her, but she held out a hand to stop him. “Wait, Much.”
Feeling the beginning of a panic come on, he racked his brain for what he could have done to set her off. Without realizing he was transitioning from pondering to speaking aloud, he asked, “Is it because I’ve been down here? Did you want me to come with you?”
She blinked. “What? No. No, that’s not it; of course, you should be with Robin.”
“Then, what is it?”
God, she didn’t want to do this, but Marian was right; she had to. “It’s about what the sheriff said.”
He instantly knew what she was referring to. Was that what had her so distressed? “What about it?”
Surely, he could not be recalling the right part of the sheriff’s speech. “I mean when he said... he had bedded me.”
Much nodded. “I know what you meant.”
She stared at him. This was even worse than she had expected; he did not believe it. Fighting back a new spate of tears, she said unevenly, “It was true.”
“I figured it was.” He thought he understood now. Ignoring that she had held him off earlier, he moved over and took her into his arms. “I’m sorry that he made you remember that, and in front of everybody.”
Eve was so tempted just to give in and accept the comfort he was offering, but she could not let the subject sit unfinished. Pulling back just enough to see his face, she asked, “You are not angry with me?”
“Why would I be?”
He caught her off-guard sometimes, but rarely left her speechless. He had done it now, however.
Seeing this, he gave a little shrug. “Well, I’m not saying that I’m thrilled about it, or that I like it. I don’t; I hate it. But that’s not going to change anything. And you were not in love with him...” There he faltered. “Were you?”
She had literally felt herself fall more in love with Much with each sentence, and was beginning to hope that he was not going to send her off, after all. “No. I hated him even then. Especially then. But I was too afraid of what he might do if I said no. And my mother needed care, and he paid so well--” She broke off when Much’s expression clouded. “For tasks. Assignments. Not for that,” she clarified.
He relaxed. “We have already talked about the rest of it,” he reminded her, holding her to him once more. She snuggled against him with a contented sigh, and they stood like that for awhile, drinking in the comfort they each got from the other.
“I love you,” she finally spoke, declaring it fervently into his neck, since she did not want to move.
Tightening his arms around her, he murmured into her hair, “I love you, too.”
“I would have lived in the forest with you forever, raiding the roads and robbing the sheriff, if that’s how it had to be. But I am glad we’ll get to settle down. I cannot imagine what I would have done if it was you in that bed. Not that I’m glad it’s Robin,” she amended.
“Don’t worry; I understood,” he reassured her. “I don’t know what I would do if it were you.”
That startled her. She had assumed that Robin was as important to Much as she was, if not moreso after a lifetime of friendship. It was not a fact that she particularly treasured, but it was a part of Much’s life, and she had acknowledged that she had to accept it if she was to be happy, since otherwise she would be miserable constantly dwelling on it. However, that sounded as if... “Am I more important to you than he is?” she asked, not to challenge him, but because she could not quite believe it.
This time, he leant back to look at her. “Of course, you are. You didn’t know that?”
“Eve, he’s my friend, but you’re my future. And he will be a part of it" --please, God,-- “but without you, I don’t have one.”
She teared up again, this time with happiness. Without another word, she kissed him.
A few minutes had passed when they heard footsteps approaching. Bleary-eyed, they glanced up to see Will coming toward them. He looked briefly amused, but concern quickly won out.
“How’s Djaq?” he asked.
“Sleeping,” Much replied.
Will frowned. “She needs to rest properly. Meg’s got rooms ready for all of us; I should take her to one.”
“What if Robin needs help?” Eve pointed out, ignoring her flare-up of nerves at the prospect of speaking out to one of Much’s friends who had been so upset with her not long ago.
“Matilda should be here soon,” he said, too distracted to be thinking of the altercation. Then, he sighed and ran a hand through his hair. “But you’re right.” He ambled down the hall toward the bedchamber, sitting down on the walkway outside the door and leaning against the wall.
“And actually, I need to go back. Is that all right?” Much asked her carefully.
“Of course,” she replied. Still not anticipating returning to the room full of outlaws, she said, “I think I’ll sit in the courtyard for awhile.”
“Are you sure? I think I heard that food was being sent round to the sheriff’s quarters. I wouldn’t mind a bite to eat,” he added, mostly to himself.
She let out a little laugh. “I have already had my fill, but I had not realized you’ve not eaten yet. I’ll have something brought.” She leaned up and gave him another kiss, this one on the cheek, and started walking toward the kitchens, while Much returned to the sickroom.
Djaq was still snoozing and Marian was seated beside the bed, holding Robin’s hand and staring down at him. She looked up at Much as he came in, a bleak despair in her eyes.
He recognized that look. It was very similar to the one Robin had had when she laid near-death in a cave in the forest over a year ago, before they thought she had died.
Then, Robin’s gaze had alternated between being too frightening to comprehend, or too heartbreaking. But, Marian did not have the darkness within her that had led to his terrifying expression, the darkness Robin had developed in the Holy Land. Her eyes were simply tragic.
“How is he?” Much asked.
They both watched the injured man for a minute.
“Is Eve all right?”
Much nodded. “She is now. Thanks.”
“I am glad. I know I was rather harsh about her when you first met, but I like her now. You’re good for one another.”
“You think so?”
“Thank you.” He found himself pleased by Marian's approval, though it was not something he was aware that he sought. They had known one another almost as long as he had known Robin, but had never developed that same bond. Still, it was nice to think that she considered him.
After another several minutes had passed, she said, “Do you think I... Are Robin and I good for each other?”
He would never have anticipated that question, so it took him a beat to answer. “Yes.”
“Are you sure?” Her voice was so small, he could barely hear her.
“Of course, I’m sure. What’s this about?”
“It’s nothing,” she murmured. “Thank you.”
He gave her a strange look, but let it drop. Soon after, a servant arrived with their meal.
Djaq woke up when the food was brought in and checked on Robin, changing his dressings without comment. The other two watched, and when she had finished and still had not said anything, Marian asked, “How is he?”
With a gesture, Djaq answered, “All right, for the time being. Now, he simply must heal, and not take ill in the process.”
They had just finished eating when Matilda swept into the room and sized everyone up in one glance. Pointing to Djaq, she said, “You, go get some fresh air. Take a walk with your husband. You” --to Much-- “are fine. You” --to Marian-- “had better get some rest, for you and that baby.”
“No, she’s the one who’s expecting,” Much spoke up, nodding to Djaq, while Marian stared, wide-eyed, at the woman.
“Don’t correct me; they’re both expecting. Now, step aside and let me see my patient.”
Much and Djaq were both staring at Marian now, who could feel her cheeks redden. Matilda moved Much none too gently to the side, as he started to sputter.
“Were you two going to tell us?” he exclaimed, hurt that Robin had not said anything to him.
Djaq spoke up sharply. “Much.”
Marian’s embarrassment was turning to misery, but he did not notice. “I mean, congratulations and all that, but it would’ve been nice to be told,” he continued.
“Much!” Djaq barked, at the same time that Marian cried, “Robin doesn’t know! I have not told him yet.”
Djaq appeared stricken, while Much said, “Oh.” He had the grace to look abashed. “Well, I suppose that’s all right, then. I mean, not that he doesn’t know, but that nobody told me. Us. Any of us.”
“If you don’t all quiet down, you won’t get the chance to tell him,” Matilda chided. “I take back what I said about you being fine, Much. All of you, out. After you tell me what you’ve given him,” she added to Djaq.
“I am not leaving Robin,” Marian protested.
The healer’s gaze was sympathetic. “You do need to rest.”
Stubbornly, Marian indicated the large chair Djaq had been inhabiting. “Fine. I will rest there.”
Realizing the young woman was not going to back down, Matilda nodded. “Very well. But if you get up before I tell you, you’re out, too.”
Marian acquiesced, but on her own terms. “Much, before you go, will you move that chair next to the bed?”
The glance Matilda gave her was a mix of frustration and respect, but she said nothing.
Much positioned the chair where Marian directed, on the far side of the bed so that Matilda could reach Robin immediately if the need arose, while Djaq explained her treatment, which Matilda approved. “Excellent.” She leaned over him, examining the wound. “But not enough. Oh, my boy; what have you done?” she murmured sadly, patting the side of his face. Turning back to Much, she said. “I’m going to need a pot or something.”
“A pot? For what?” he questioned.
She began to retort, but noticed Marian’s pallor and tempered her words. “I need to drain his chest,” she said carefully.
Much’s nose wrinkled, but he withheld comment. “I’ll go find that, then,” he declared, and fled.
“You will need someone else in here; we had to restrain him when he woke,” Djaq told her.
“For God’s sake, send someone quiet,” Matilda muttered. “And someone strong. Little John and two others. And Much can come back, if he can hush up.”
Marian settled into the large armchair, positioned so that she could hold Robin’s hand, while the others left.
“Why haven’t you told him about the little one?” asked Matilda, as she examined Robin’s wound more closely.
With a sigh, Marian replied, “I wanted to be entirely sure before I said anything. And then, we were supposed to be at Locksley within the next day or so, and I thought I would tell him our first night there; make an even larger celebration of it.”
After a pause, Matilda said, “The next time he wakes up, I want you to tell him.”
Marian let out a horrified gasp. “No, please--”
“Not because of any immediacy. Because it’ll give him an added reason to fight.”
With a light rap on the door, Allan came in with Little John, Much and Tuck behind him. Allan started to speak, but Matilda cut him off. “I asked for someone quiet.”
Holding up his hands in surrender, he moved toward a seat at the foot of the bed. As he did, he gazed at his injured leader, concern creasing his brow.
“He’s going to be fine,” Marian murmured firmly, before resting her head against the back of the armchair. John and Tuck exchanged a glance.
Allan gave her a nod. “Right.” As soon as she closed her eyes, he glanced at Matilda. None of them were entirely reassured by the look she gave him.
The king and Guy view Vaizey's body.
Shortly after Carter had left for the camp, King Richard turned to Guy. “I would like to view the sheriff’s body.”
Guy winced inwardly, but his face remained impassive. He rose and gestured toward the door. “Of course, sire.”
Meg grabbed his hand and gave it a squeeze before he could follow the king into the corridor. He started, still unused to sudden displays of affection like that. But rather than instantly pulling his hand away, as he would have done a few weeks ago, he gave her a small smile before removing it gently.
As Guy trailed after Richard, he found his feet reluctant to move; each step felt as if his legs were made of lead. It was not an unfamiliar sensation; often at the beginning of his tenure with Vaizey, and also near the end, it was as if his body was telling his mind that he should not be doing this. Now, he knew that he was doing nothing wrong, but the suggestion this time was that he could not face what he had done.
The doors to the Great Hall loomed ahead, and his heart thudded in his ears. But as he had done so many times before, he merely lifted his chin and pressed onward. Generally, he had found that if he focused on keeping his chin up, he could ignore what he was doing until he grew accustomed to it, or even started liking it.
Once he entered the hall and his eyes fell upon the lumpy sheet draped over the long table at the end of the room, his steps slowed. He felt his blade slide neatly through a man he had viewed as a mentor, nearly as a father, for so many years; the sword honed to such precision sharpness that it was like slicing through butter.
Guy’s eyelids fluttered shut as he came to a halt.
He had moved so quickly that he had not thought to control his thrust, and the hilt slammed against Vaizey’s ribcage, jostling him forward as the blade severed his vital organs. Realizing the force of his hit, Guy instantly pulled back, as if that would somehow make it better.
Vaizey staggered before the bow dropped from his fingers, yew clattering against stone as it hit the floor. The sound of his blood splattering beside the bow was wetter, more sinister, and Guy gaped at the sight of crimson on grey as if he had never witnessed such a sight, while the sheriff turned to face him.
When Guy finally met his gaze, he expected surprise or betrayal. Instead, Vaizey smiled widely, sunlight glinting off of the ruby in his tooth.
At the far end of the Great Hall, Richard yanked the sheet off of the table, the sound capturing Guy’s attention. Reluctantly, he watched as the king inspected the body of a man Prince John had not only employed to oversee Nottinghamshire, but to kill his brother, as well.
“Nicely done, Gisborne,” Richard said solemnly. “There is no question as to identification.”
“No, sire; no question,” Guy replied.
He took a few steps closer to the table as if drawn by a lead.
”Nicely done, Gisborne,” Vaizey remarked with approval. “I have to admit, I didn’t think you had it in you.”
Guy stared at him. Why was he talking? The wound was hardly an instantly-fatal one, but he wished the man would shut up and let death claim him.
A scream from the courtyard echoed up into the tower, but he did not dare take his attention from Vaizey.
“Oh, don’t get all girly and mournful on me now.” Vaizey winced and folded inward, but soon collected himself. When he had regained his composure, he grinned, his eyes sparkling even as his face began to lose its color, as more of his blood trailed down his tunic to his leg. “Did you see? I shot Robin Hood! Not as good as the king, but I’ll take it. It’s good; it’s good.”
Stunned, Guy looked out the window. Sure enough, there were the outlaws and king’s men in a cluster; as a few of them shifted, he saw Robin sprawled on the cobblestones, Marian sobbing beside him.
“I may not have gotten the power I deserved, but nor will he get the happy ending he seeks,” Vaizey muttered with satisfaction, his voice thick. Turning his head slightly, he spat blood onto the floor. "This is not some fairy tale."
Richard turned to face Guy. “Robin wished to speak to me on your behalf. I came here with every intention of seeing to your execution, along with Vaizey’s.”
Still halfway across the room, Guy nodded, pretending that he was not frozen at the thought. “I understood that such might be my fate. I deserve no less.”
The king crossed his arms and leaned against the table, blocking Guy’s view of the sheriff’s disconnected head and neck. For a moment, he simply studied the other man.
“I understand that you are to marry Lady Marian’s cousin.”
“Yes, Lady Margaret of Leicester. We are to wed at the end of the summer.”
“As if a woman could bring happiness,” Vaizey continued. The look he now gave Guy was a familiar one, contempt mixed with a hint of regret. Looks like that were what had long convinced Guy that the man must feel something toward him; else, where would the regret come from? “You think a woman will bring you happiness. You have always thought that, despite what I’ve tried to tell you.”
“Meg already makes me happy. Marrying her will be a continuation of that.” Guy hated the defensive note in his voice, hated that Vaizey could instantly make him feel that he was less. Less capable, less deserving of respect, less of a man. Still, when Vaizey swayed, there was horror dampening Guy’s relief at the evidence that the sheriff was weakening.
“Lepers bring nothing but pain and disease,” Vaizey sneered.
He had never before used the word to describe Marian’s cousin. Guy had been able to dismiss it when it was used for Marian; now, though, he saw red. “She is not a leper!” he shouted, his sword flying to Vaizey’s throat as he backed him against the wall.
Aware that his time was ending, Vaizey was not at all concerned about the blade at his neck. With a smirk, he said, “They’re all lepers, Guy. Run, while you still can.”
The king nodded. “My congratulations. The ladies are close, are they not?”
Guy cleared his throat, which felt hoarse. “Yes, sire.”
“After the deep animosity between you and Robin, especially considering Lady Marian’s involvement, it must be placing some strain on all of you.”
Considering his words before speaking, Guy finally replied, “I cannot say that we have no awkward moments. However, I wish Marian all happiness with Robin, as I am finding with Meg. As for Robin and myself, I believe we are building an association. I cannot say that it will certainly lead to friendship, but it might.”
Richard continued to study him, and a pause turned into a silence. Guy was not fond of intimidation techniques such as this, but had years of practice receiving them from Vaizey. He stood stoically, his eyes low enough so as not to be impertinent, but not so low as to demonstrate submissiveness.
Suddenly, Richard said, “It appears I am in need of a sheriff for this shire. I will need someone loyal, who is willing to uphold his instructions, and who will not abuse his position at the expense of the people below him.”
Guy saw where this was going. Who else had demonstrated unfailing loyalty to his king as well as to the populace? Unsure why Richard was sharing his thoughts with a man who had been set on killing him mere months ago, Guy raised his chin a bit more. “Robin will make an excellent sheriff.”
He jumped when the king let out a bark of laughter. “He may do, at that. But I was thinking of you, Gisborne.”
Guy could not mask his surprise. “Me?”
“Do you think you will be able to carry out the station to those specifications?”
“I... yes. Of course. Thank you, sire.” He still was not certain whether his jaw was open or closed. He suspected it was hanging wide.
“I expect that you and Robin will work well together in this capacity.”
“Indeed.” The king wanted no squabbling. Understood.
Taking one last look at the former sheriff, the king flipped the sheet back over the body, and Guy began to breath easier.
“I will seal the appropriate documents and get the keys to you this evening. But you are now the Sheriff of Nottingham, Sir Guy.” Richard walked toward the door, stopping just before passing Guy, who was still frozen in place. “Do not make me regret my appointment,” the king said softly.
“I shall not,” Guy promised keenly.
Richard took a long look at him, and then continued out of the Great Hall.
Guy’s gaze fell on the lumpy sheet once more.
He leaned in, his nose mere inches from the sheriff’s. “The only leper here is you. You poison the air, bringing death to all who come near.”
Unable to move his head to spit again, Vaizey allowed the blood that was building up in his mouth again to dribble out of one corner of his lips. “Is that a fact?” he murmured silkily. “You seem to have fared well enough under my influence.”
Guy’s anger flared into rage, and his vision swam. “You call this faring well? Being berated and bullied, made to do things which have ensured my place in Hell? For the love of all that’s holy, you paid one of my men to leave my son in the woods! You would have me kill the king of England! How is that faring well?”
“I paid your man to dispose of an inconvenience. And, had you done the job I laid out for you, neither of us would be here right now. We’d be sitting pretty in London, all the wealth and prestige we could imagine at our fingertips. Remember when we first met? You were consumed with the need for money, for position. I gave you those things, did I not?”
“You never told me there would be such an awful price,” Guy bit out.
Vaizey’s next words were soft, nearly kind. “There is always a price, Guy.”
They stared at one another. “You’re right. There is always a price. And now is the time for you to pay yours.” Guy stepped back, keeping his sword point against the base of Vaizey’s throat.
“I wanted to love you like a son,” Vaizey said thickly, wavering. Guy pulled his sword back as Vaizey dropped to his knees.
“You could never love me, or anyone else,” Guy hissed.
Vaizey let out a ghost of a chuckle. “No. You’re right; I couldn’t. But if I could have, it would have been you. For awhile, anyway; you’ve changed. I cannot say that I’m impressed.”
Guy said nothing, fury warring with regret.
The sheriff started to say something else, but his words turned into a thick sigh, and he toppled over.
Guy almost called for guards to have the sheriff taken away, but he hesitated. Evil had a way of living on when it should not, and if anyone would be evil enough to stave off a necessary death, it was Vaizey. Guy closed his eyes briefly, steeling himself for the last wicked action he would ever commit.
Stalking over to the body, he knelt down and raised his sword.
Even as sharp as the blade was, it could not make such a demanding cut all at once.
“Good-bye, Vaizey.” Guy felt the weight lift off his shoulders like shedding a badly-made piece of armor, and then he turned and walked steadily into the light of early evening as it settled on Nottingham.
Carter retrieves Sakina and the children.
Carter ducked to enter the low-hanging entrance to the caves, wondering as he had done the whole way from Nottingham if they wouldd return to news of Robin’s death, praying that would not be the case. Sakina and the children did not hear him approaching, and he paused as he entered the great room. She, Little Little John and Atiya were laying on their bellies in front of the hearth, drawing pictures in the ash with sticks and laughing at one another’s illustrations. His breath caught and it felt like his heart smiled; and just like that, he realized he had fallen in love with her.
Talk about bad timing.
He had just had that epiphany when she noticed him standing there. At first, she was still laughing, but at the expression on his face, quickly sobered. She got to her feet, gently told John and Atiya to keep drawing, and came over. When the children wouldn’t hear, she asked quietly, “What is it?”
Shoving aside his inconvenient realization, he answered in an equally low tone, “The sheriff shot Robin.”
Sakina paled. “Is he...?”
“No. At least, he was not when I left. But we are all staying at the castle for now, so I came to bring the three of you back.”
Nodding, she said, “Let me gather a few things.”
In the meantime, John and Atiya had noticed that something was wrong, and were standing side by side, watching the exchange. When Sakina moved off, John met Carter’s gaze. “Something’s happened, hasn’t it?”
The soldier had no idea how to respond to that, not wanting to scare the boy but knowing that he could not lie to him, and paused while choosing his words. “We’re going to the castle to meet up with everyone. Your parents will tell you the rest when we arrive.”
John’s face fell. “Do we have to go to the castle?”
Carter gave him a sympathetic half-smile. “Believe me, I would rather not go there, either. But, the others are waiting for us.”
Atiya looked up at John as he sighed. She studied his face, then without a word, slipped her hand into his. He seemed surprised, but pleased. Then, he glanced back at Carter. “Are you sure she should come? That’s no place for a little girl.”
“If you are going, I am going,” she piped up, affronted.
Sakina came back in, slinging a bag onto her shoulder. “That is a lovely thought, John, but we all must go.”
“See?” Atiya added.
A pained expression flitted across John’s face, and Carter stifled a grin.
At the sight of the carriage he had appropriated from the castle’s stables, Sakina’s eyebrows went up.
“I didn’t think the sheriff would be needing it,” he pointed out. “And nobody argued with me, not even the driver.” He nodded at the man who’d been napping in his seat while Carter collected the others. Stretching his neck out, the driver got ready to go.
“I will not argue with you, either, if it means a comfortable ride.”
They exchanged a smile, and Carter mentally kicked himself for noting how beautiful hers was. He handed her up into the coach, lifted Atiya in after her, and then gave John a boost. Climbing in last, he pulled up the steps and shut the door, rapping on the roof to indicate that they were ready. With a jerk, they set off for Nottingham.
After a brief silence, John asked, “Is everyone all right?”
The adults glanced at one another.
“That means they’re not, doesn’t it?” said John quietly.
“I really think it’s better if your parents explain this to you,” Carter responded hesitantly, looking down at the boy seated next to him.
“I understand that it must be frustrating, but please be patient?” Sakina glanced at Atiya beside her, and then back to John; he got the message. But that did not mean he was happy about it.
“This, I do not like,” he muttered, leaning back in his seat.
Atiya fell asleep only a short while later, and even Little Little John dozed off a bit after that. When both children were sleeping, Sakina murmured, “Obviously it is bad, but what exactly happened?”
He met her worried gaze. “The sheriff tried to shoot the king, but Robin jumped in front of him. The arrow pierced his lung.”
She stifled a gasp, not wanting to wake the children, but having seen that sort of injury in her homeland. “His chances of recovering are not good, are they?”
“We do not know. He’s survived so many brushes with death before; part of me expects him to pull through this because of it. Part of me fears that he has run out of luck.”
Looking down at the small girl whose head was resting on her lap, Sakina whispered, “He must live. She cannot lose him so soon.” She lightly smoothed Atiya’s hair, the tender gesture mesmerizing Carter.
“You should probably discuss with Marian what will happen with Atiya if he does not survive,” he suggested with reluctance.
She nodded slowly. “We can still begin the shop if she comes to live with me; she’s used to helping.”
“And I can help you watch her.”
The night before, they had discussed what they would do after everyone was pardoned. She was a mattress-maker with no shop or money. He was a soldier who, truth be told, could no longer fight, but who had some money set aside. Neither had a real home, but they had a few contacts in the area. So, they had decided to go into business together; he would purchase all the supplies needed to get started, and a house with workspace. She would teach him her craft, and they could work together. The nearest mattress-maker was in Lincoln, so Carter expected that they would do well.
He had intended that the plan be a business venture, based on friendship at the most. No matter that, if he let himself admit it, he had been attracted to her from the start; she did not need a wounded tagalong of the outlaw gang making passes at her. And she had not indicated that she felt anything for him beyond friendship, which put a further rein on anything he thought he felt for her.
Now, he would simply have to remind himself that just because his feelings had intensified, did not mean that the plan had changed at all.
But, that was difficult to remember when she glanced up at him and mused, “What a strange family we would make.” Her expression held an odd combination of humor at the thought, and sadness at the potential cause of that situation.
“Family?” he repeated softly, feeling as if she had punched him in the gut.
Her deep brown eyes widened slightly, then dropped back down to Atiya as her cheeks colored. “Not really a family,” she murmured so quietly that he barely heard her.
“We could be.” The words were out of his mouth before he realized it, and he wanted to kick himself as she stared at him in surprise, her lips parting as her jaw dropped. With a great force of will, he looked away. “I’m sorry; I should not have said that.”
Finally gathering her wits, Sakina replied, “We could be.”
It was Carter’s turn to be taken aback. “What?”
She gave him a shy smile and a small shrug. “It would make sense. If Robin...” She had difficulty finishing the sentence, and skipped to the next. “And if it would be easier for Atiya to be with me, why should we be three separate people in the same house?”
His heart sank, but he ignored it. “So, if Atiya comes to live with us, we will marry? Is that the idea?”
“Unless... that is not acceptable to you?”
He owed himself another kick for the uncertainty that had now come over her. “It’s perfectly acceptable,” he assured her.
Stirring beside him, Little Little John asked sleepily, “What’s perfectly acceptable?”
Sakina smiled, and Carter winked at her. “If you asked your dad that, what would he say?”
“He would say to mind my own business,” John grumbled.
“And what do you think I’m going to say?”
“To mind my own business.”
“There it is.” But, he ruffled John’s hair, and chatted with him about things he could do to stay entertained at the castle, now that the sheriff was unseated.
When they arrived, they saw nobody outside other than a handful of guards. “I hope that's a good sign,” Sakina remarked. Carter nodded in agreement.
As he was handing her down from the carriage, however, Allan, Little John and Tuck came down the corridor toward the sickroom. The four went to meet them by the stone steps on the side of the courtyard.
After a short greeting, and Little Little John had gone over to his father, Carter asked, “Anything new?”
Tuck glanced at the children, and answered, “Matilda, an excellent healer from near Locksley, has come to help Djaq. She is with him now.”
Atiya, still half-asleep on Sakina’s shoulder, mumbled, “Where are my daddy and mummy?”
Nobody wanted to answer that, and paused a moment too long.
“What’s going on?” Little Little John demanded.
“We thought it would be best if you or Alice told him,” Sakina told Little John. He nodded and squeezed his son’s shoulder, then led him out of earshot of Atiya, who was waking up and taking in her surroundings.
“This place is too dark,” she said disapprovingly.
“I agree,” Carter said, giving her a little smile.
Sakina knew she had to tell Atiya something, but was stuck as to what. Living in a war-torn country, the girl had seen wounded men. Her mother had done her best to shield her from it, as had Sakina when she came to live with them, but there was only so much they could do. Yet, she also did not want to claim that he was ill, as the memory of Nadira’s lingering death was still fresh. Finally, she seated herself in one of the open window spaces of the corridor’s outer wall, and held Atiya close.
“You are going to stay with me for a little while,” she said softly. “Your daddy is hurt, and your mummy is helping take care of him.”
A frown creased Atiya’s head. “Is Daddy okay?”
Sakina hesitated. “Everyone is doing everything they can to help him get better.”
After pondering this for a minute, Atiya seemed to find the answer satisfactory. “Can I see him?”
“Not yet, my sweet. I am sure that he would love to see you, but we need to let him get better first.”
The small girl obviously did not like that, but accepted it. “When can we go home?”
“We are staying here for awhile. Would you like to take a look around?”
Atiya glanced over to where the Johns were talking. “John doesn’t like it here.”
Sakina was not fully aware of the history there, but had heard enough of it to make an educated guess. “This used to be a bad place to come. But now that King Richard is here, he is making it safe again. Perhaps we can show John that?”
Nodding emphatically, Atiya slid off of her aunt’s lap.
“Wait. Wait until his father is finished talking with him,” Sakina said, but even as she did, Little Little John looked over and noticed Atiya waiting for him. Atiya glanced up to see if she could go over to him, and Sakina nodded.
“That was very well done,” Carter remarked, from where he stood just a bit away, but closely enough that he’d heard the conversation. “I like that you didn’t lie to her.”
Sakina sighed. “To be honest, if I could have thought of a good lie, I would have. But there are no good lies, especially with so many people around who know the truth.”
The children came over to her, and from behind them, Little John caught her eye. “I’m sure Alice would be glad to watch her, if you’d like. Give you a chance to rest.”
“Thank you; perhaps after we have looked around,” she replied.
“May I accompany you? I know parts of the castle,” Carter offered. She might not mind being the one to look after the youngest members of the gang, but she did not have to do it alone. Besides, there was nothing he could do for Robin at the moment except worry; he thought of the group gathered in the sheriff’s quarters when he left, and hoped they had been able to relax a bit, even though he doubted it.
She smiled. “That would be lovely.” Atiya was already clinging to Little Little John with one hand, so Sakina took her free hand. Carter stepped up beside her and offered his elbow, which she took, and the four of them set off toward the Great Hall. Until Carter remembered hearing that the sheriff’s body was there, when he veered them toward the kitchens, instead.
Matilda works her magic.
The pain and the sensation of breathlessness, along with instantaneous panic from the latter, were the first things Robin became aware of. But before he had fully regained consciousness, he felt Marian’s hand holding his own, and remembered what was happening; so, he was able to awake without the suddenness that had marked the last time, holding still as he fought to ignore the consuming ache. When that did not work, he at least controlled its hold on him. That, he had done before; that, he could do. What he could ignore, he told himself, were the weird noises emanating from his chest. The wheezing and flapping disturbed him, but they were dismissible.
His eyes, when he finally opened them, went first to his wife, who was sleeping in a large chair beside him. Even as his body burned in agony, his heart warmed at the sight of her. Disheveled and uncomfortably folded into the seat she may be, but she was still gorgeous.
“Good morning, dear,” a low, female voice greeted him from the other side of the room. He turned his head, seeing that the room was more populated than it had been earlier. Much was there, not looking any less worried than he had before; and Allan, Little John, and Tuck all watched him with a mix of concern and sadness, although they tried to cover it. And then Matilda was next to him, smiling at him in the same manner she had when he was seventeen and influenza was ravaging him.
He was uncertain as to whether or not that was comforting. On one hand, she had pulled him away from death’s door then; on the other hand, he had been at death’s door then.
Well, it was not as if that was coming as a surprise to him; he had seen enough men in the Holy Land with wounds such as his die in moments. The fact that he had survived this long was something of a miracle. And he found hope in that-- after all, he had also seen men survive worse.
“What’s... your diag... nosis?” he asked Matilda in as close to a cheeky tone as he could muster.
Her smile faded, and so did his brief flirtation with humor. Buoying her attitude, she replied, “My diagnosis is that men who jump in front of arrows deserve what they get.” Sobering, she continued, “And while I’m proud of you, you dimwitted hero, my diagnosis is also that you’re not going to make it if I don’t put another hole in you.”
He blinked, not knowing what to say. “Oh.”
For some reason, the single syllable woke Marian. Robin’s first indication that she was coming to was that she squeezed his hand. Just a light pressure, really, but enough that when her huge, blue eyes opened, he was watching.
She seemed startled to find him alert, and even darted a glimpse past his shoulder at Matilda before looking back to him with a small, wobbly smile. “Hello,” she said, her voice muffled from sleep.
There was an awkward pause in the room, although Robin did not know why it was awkward. Then, Matilda suddenly jumped up and moved toward the door, saying, “Boys, I could use a hand outside.” The outlaws, except for Much, looked to her as if she had lost her mind, so she raised her eyebrows and gestured toward the door with her head. Much got up first and the others reluctantly followed.
Robin watched them curiously, but did not argue anything which gave him a few moments alone with Marian. As soon as they were gone, he turned his head back to her, remembering Djaq’s words and trying to hold still.
Her expression nearly broke his heart; she looked so lost, and he hated that it was his fault. “Marian...” he began, at the same time that she burst out with, “Robin, I need to tell you something.”
His brow furrowed at her tone, and he began to get anxious as he waited for her to go on. If he was going to die, surely they would not make Marian tell him. Matilda would have said so, herself, and without anyone else around, he thought. Had something else happened? Was Marian ill? Please, not that. When she still did not speak, he prompted, “What?”
With a sigh, she began, “I did not mean to tell you like this. It was all supposed to be lovely.”
She hesitated, and he relaxed slightly. News of illness could never be lovely. “Go on,” he urged, wincing at how much talking hurt to do.
Reaching over so that both of her hands were on the one of his that she had been holding, she toyed with his fingers before she glanced at him shyly, her lips curving up. Shy? Marian? If he was not so entranced by that smile, he would ponder it more; but, as it was, the look she was giving him was not fair considering he could barely breathe, much less think of---
“Robin, I’m with child.”
The scant breath he had been able to draw whooshed out of his good lung. He gasped to bring more in, which worried her, and he could tell that she was about to call for Matilda, so he squeezed her hand lightly to indicate he was okay. Relatively speaking, but still okay.
Better than okay.
Marian was carrying his child! He wanted to grab her, kiss her, whirl her around and then do all sorts of other things to her, but settled for a grin. It was strained, since he was having difficulty maintaining control over the pain, but it was still a grin.
Her tension lessened at his reaction, though she still was not completely at ease. “I wanted to tell you our first night at Locksley,” she explained.
“Nice,” he wheezed, when he was unable to produce a stronger sound. He hoped she understood that he meant, That would have been nice. “When?”
She understood. “I had it all planned out,” she admitted wryly. He managed a smile, which she returned in earnest this time. “And, I think sometime in January.”
“Perhaps, though I think a bit after.”
Clasping her hand again for wont of being able to do anything else, he whispered, “Love you.”
“I love you, too,” she murmured fervently, the depth of the simple statement shining in her eyes. As cautiously as possible, Marian leant over and gently kissed him. Her belly brushed against his hand as she did, and the combined sensations of his wife’s lips and the realization that their baby grew near his fingers bolstered the fire deep within him, totally different from the one singeing every nerve ending he possessed; this was determination. He was going to live. It had already been there, because he fully intended to live out his days, Marian at his side, raising Atiya to adulthood, hopefully even seeing her children. But now it was as if oil had been poured on that fire, burning hotter and fiercer than before.
The door opened then and Matilda came back into the room, the men following behind with even grimmer looks on their faces than when they had gone out.
“Here now, enough of that,” she scolded, although there was no force behind her words.
Robin stole one last quick kiss before Marian settled back into her chair, not noticing that his friends were not resuming their seats, but rather were standing by. Matilda, meanwhile, refilled the wine in the goblet Djaq had used earlier, adding some herbs and a powder into it. She came over and said, “Drink this down,” starting to prop up his head so that he could.
“Basically, what you had earlier. This is just a bit stronger, is all.”
He bit his lip. Unconsciousness had seemed a good thing before, but now his brain asked, What if I do not wake up? He would have to sleep eventually, he knew that; but he gathered that Matilda had some sort of surgery in mind. And while he trusted her, he worried that his determination would lessen if he were drugged into slumber, perhaps badly enough to give up. He knew it was not all that logical, but he could not shake the fear.
“No,” he rasped, turning his head away from the cup.
The healer’s brow furrowed. “What do you mean, ‘No’?”
“Robin, drink the wine,” Marian said, as if he were addled.
He stubbornly stared Matilda in the eye. He was not stupid enough to think he could out-stubborn her normally, but she was not winning this round.
She seemed to realize it, too, and handed the wine to Allan, who was nearest her. But she got right back in Robin’s face as soon as her hands were empty. “You need to take this. I cannot do what I need to if you’re awake and fighting me.”
“Won’t... fight.” Actually, he would not mind whatever had dulled the pain last time. He just was not sure whether it was also the stuff that knocked him out.
“Robin.” Much was gazing steadily at him over Matilda’s shoulder. Even though Robin loved his friend, part of him hated when Much was steady like that; it usually meant that he was about to make a lot of sense and that Robin wasn’t going to want to hear it. “You need to drink it.”
He had not been wrong about Much’s expression. The man was right, and Robin did not want to hear the sensible words he said. The frustration at his situation began to eat away at the damper he had been forcing on the pain, and a sharp spike of it drove its way through him. Tensing against it, he could not completely suppress the cry that tried to escape. Frustration turned to anger at what he could not control, and when the attack had passed, he eyed Matilda. She was standing by, too concerned about him to look smug at being proven right, but there was a hint of it on her face.
“For... pain. Not... sleep.”
She seemed to grasp what was bothering him, and acquiesced with a sympathetic look. “It’s a deal.” She tossed the contents of the goblet into the hearth, then refilled it and added only a few herbs, not the powder. This time, Robin drank the contents, after being reassured by Matilda’s nod that she was not trying to trick him. He was also quite thirsty, and she gave him a second cupful without anything extra mixed in.
The effects kicked in rather quickly again, and like the last time, although he still hurt a lot, it was bearable now. He felt heavy, and even if he had been of a mind to try to move, he doubted that he could.
“Are you ready?” Matilda asked him, clearly still reluctant to proceed with him awake, but respecting his wishes.
“Yeah.” Even his tongue felt leaden in his mouth, and while it no longer ached quite as much to speak, he did not think he could try more than that.
“All right, boys,” she said, and the outlaws stepped forward from the silent group in which they had been standing. Marian’s chair was in the way, so she stepped aside and let Much move it back by the hearth; however, she remained standing by the bed. Then, Much and Allan took his arms, and Little John and Tuck each held one of his legs.
Matilda moved over. “I can still give you some of that powder, but I won’t be able to once I’m working on you. Last chance.”
He shook his head slightly, and she sighed. “Okay, then.”
She slid a thin knife between his ribs on the left side of his chest, and although he did not feel it as sharply as he might have done without the herbs, it still hurt. His friends’ hands tightened on his limbs as he tensed against the pain, and they all maintained their grip when he relaxed as she removed the blade. He found out why they had not let go when she inserted something else into the cut she had made, thick enough that he felt a new ache in the ribs between which it was placed. As she slid the object into place, he stiffened again, instinctively struggling against being restrained, grunting with what breath he could take. And then, the pain in his chest increased nearly to what it had been before the medication. His eyes were squeezed shut, and yet he could still see spots starting to dance behind his eyelids, but he fought to stay conscious. He eventually realized that the whimpering sounds he was hearing were coming from his own mouth, when really he wanted to yell, but simply did not have the air for it.
And then, he felt a pleasant warmth on his stomach. He focused on it, allowing it to settle him. As he calmed, the torment easing its grip on him once more, he knew it was Marian’s hand. Concentrating wholly on that light touch, he was nearly back to himself when Matilda announced, “Done.”
He opened his eyes and met Marian’s, which were filled with tears. And love.
He wanted to joke, to say, “That wasn’t so bad,” but there was just no way he could. Plus, it had been, but that was never the point.
As a tear spilled over each cheek, she burst out laughing, drawing odd looks from everyone else. “You are thinking something cheeky, aren’t you?”
Marian could not decide whether to laugh or cry, so she did both. She was unable to look at the hollow, bone tube Matilda had put into his chest, or what was draining out through it, but she felt lighter than she had since this had all begun.
The men had released him and stepped back, and Much shook his head. “Well, now I know you’re going to be all right,” he declared tremulously, his bravado not really covering up his distress. But nobody mentioned it, as they were all feeling about the same.
“Where did you learn to do that?” Tuck asked Matilda curiously. “I have been around many battlefields, and never saw anything like it.”
She gave him a saucy smile. “That’s because I’ve never worked on a battlefield.”
Robin’s eyebrows shifted curiously, and he tried to lift his head to see what Matilda had done, paling as he did so.
Marian touched his shoulder lightly, reminding him to lay still. “Don’t,” she advised. He stared at her, clearly trying to send some sort of message, which she thought she understood. “You want to know what’s going on, is that it?”
He gave a short nod.
As she explained, she tried to suppress a shudder at the images in her memory. Matilda’s knife had not seemed that wicked, but as it cut into Robin’s ribs, a trickle of blood running down his skin, Marian had to look away. And yet, she had been unable to do anything but stare in near-horror as Matilda slid the instrument into the incision, sucked on it for a second, then pulled back and spit into the bowl waiting beneath her face, into which blood and God knew what else drained out through the hollow center.
She kept her description concise and simplified, not wanting to bother him with the details and definitely not wanting to express her reactions, but as usual, he saw more than she wanted him to.
“’s okay,” he whispered.
“How long’s he gotta have that in?” Allan asked Matilda.
Everyone listened for her answer. “Oh, a few days or so.”
“That’s not so bad,” Much said. Then, he looked at Robin, instantly regretting his flippant remark. “I mean, it is bad; I didn’t mean to say that it wasn’t. But at least it’s only a few days, and not a week or something like that...”
Marian felt Robin squeeze her hand. “Much, it’s all right,” she interrupted him.
“We should go,” Little John spoke up to the others. He moved over and patted Robin lightly on the arm, conveying more than he could in words with a look. Marian often envied his ability to do that, but had never appreciated it more than she did at that moment.
As John stepped away, Robin looked to Marian. Indicating with his eyes the friends who were about to leave, he wheezed, “Baby.”
“Robin, not now,” she admonished, regretting it when he impatiently turned his head more toward her and ended up wincing against a resulting pain. “Wait; we have something to tell you,” she called over to the small group about to exit the doorway.
They all turned to her, all except Much with curious expressions.
“Me?” Robin asked her so quietly she nearly missed the word.
She glanced at him in surprise. “Are you sure?” He dipped his chin slightly, even that movement evidently bothering him. “He wants to tell you himself,” she said, nearly making it a question.
“Eh, he can talk if he wants to talk,” Matilda said from where she had usurped Marian’s chair for the time. At the looks she received, she shrugged. “I’m not saying it isn’t going to hurt like the dickens, but he can do it.”
Little John led the four back over toward Robin, all of them leaning in so that he would not have to project for them to hear. Giving them an approximation of his normal grin, he moved his eyes toward Marian and back to them and rasped, “Having...baby.”
The three who did not already know were not immediately sure they were interpreting him correctly, but knew they had when Much congratulated him and Marian, none of his earlier frustration evident.
“I’d hug you,” he said, “but... you know.” He waved his hand, encompassing Robin’s whole situation. He meant it lightly, and Robin took it as such. The others quickly offered their congratulations, as well, and then Matilda shooed them all away.
When she had shut the door behind them, she sauntered over and plunked her fists on her hips. “Well, that was suitably dramatic, wasn’t it?”
Marian felt her eyebrows nearly climb off of her forehead, but Robin’s grin only grew.
“Now, you don’t want me to give you anything to sleep, but that doesn’t mean you can stay awake for the next week or two. You can’t even stay awake for the few days you’ve got that thing in. And in fact, if you’re not out in the next ten minutes, I’ll pour this powder down your throat myself. Get it?” That she ruffled his hair at the end of her speech did not really detract from the threat.
Going to resume her place in the chair, Marian realized with dismay that she had forgotten to have it moved back. And she doubted that Matilda would be able to move the heavy piece.
“Here.” Robin gestured with his hand that she should lay down on the side she had been sitting on, opposite where the bone tool jutted out.
She glanced uncertainly at Matilda, who nodded her consent. “Just be careful.”
Cautiously, Marian cuddled up beside her husband, not knowing until she did so how much she had been needing that contact, reassuring her that he lived. She rested her head on his shoulder, and then slid over a tad until she could hear his heartbeat. The hollow sounds from his wound were still present, oddly muffled against her ear, but she simply concentrated on the steady beat of his heart, drifting off without realizing it.
Her head on his shoulder had been all right, but was causing considerable discomfort on his chest. Still, Robin would not have her move even if she knew. As her breathing evened out with sleep, her hand on his stomach in nearly the same place it had been earlier, something within him relaxed. She was at peace, at least for a little while, and that meant he could be, too.
When Robin finally dozed, he was smiling despite the pain.
After checking to make sure they were both asleep, Matilda slumped down in her chair, and cried.
Kate and Allan go to share news of the gang's pardon with Rebecca.
There was a light tap at the door. Allan had been resting, and it took him a minute to get to his feet. The knock came again just before he answered it.
David of Doncaster stood there, and he executed a brief, formal bow, to which Allan could only blink in surprise. “The king requests your presence in Robin’s room.”
“Is everything okay?” Allan asked, concerned that Robin had taken a turn for the worse.
David grinned. “Yes, this is a good thing.”
“All right, then.” Allan smiled back, and started down the corridor toward the stairs while David knocked on Much’s door.
It was really odd to be living in the castle again, even temporarily. Even when he was working for Guy, and thereby for the sheriff, it had not been a place of comfort. Now, it should have been; but, the shadow cast over the whole of Nottinghamshire for the last several years had started within these walls, and it would take awhile to banish it. Also, that Robin was possibly dying here was not helping. Allan still felt as though he could not entirely trust the freedom that the castle now tempted him with, as though to relax would be to give it the advantage it needed to... To what? There was nobody left to come after him, so it had to be just the remnants of Vaizey's influence that was making him so uneasy.
Still, as he made his way down the stairs, his guard was up, and he peered warily around corners and down passageways as he passed them. Of course, he arrived at Robin's room unaccosted, but could not shake the sensation of being watched until he was leaning against a wall, surrounded by people he trusted. Kate was already there, speaking quietly with Will, but she excused herself and came to stand with him.
"Do you know what this is all about?"
He shook his head. "Don't you?"
"Not a clue."
Considering their friend and leader was still laying in the chamber's bed, not allowed to move and with something sticking out of his side, the atmosphere was fairly congenial. Allan realized they must be taking their cue from Robin, himself, who was smiling as he talked with Marian, who was perched beside him. His color was not good, but it was improved, and even Matilda had lost most of the strain that had been in her eyes the day before.
Richard came into the room then with two of his men, and conversation instantly ceased, all eyes on the king. He smiled at them. "It seems like there are even more of you, when you are all in a room this size." It was pretty crowded, but they had all been crammed into the old camp for so long, that Allan hardly noticed their present coziness until it was pointed out. "I will not keep you, but I thought you would like to be together for this." Richard held up a parchment. "This is a pardon, which I have just signed and sealed. Each of you is listed on here, and it states that you are hereby pardoned from all charges of crimes committed, and properties, lands and titles which were seized are reinstated, effective immediately." Looking around, he concluded, "Congratulations; you are legal citizens once again. And, on a personal note, you have my thanks for what you have done for England and her people. And, for me."
They all stared at him for a moment, and then the room started buzzing with emotion. Alice burst into tears, and was instantly in John's arms. Marian leant down and gave Robin a kiss that Allan found himself looking away from, it was so tender. Will had been standing behind Djaq, and slipped his arms around her, his hands on her belly and her hands resting on his. She smiled up at him and he beamed back down at her, both looking more at ease and younger than Allan had ever seen them. Much wanted to see the document, even if he could not read it; Eve pointed out their names, and then looked at the king in surprise. "This says, 'Earl of Bonchurch.'"
"That is what the former sheriff promised, is it not?"
Much was wide-eyed. "Yes."
"Then, it would be wrong of me not to honor it. And you have more than earned it."
"Thank you, sire."
As for himself, Allan was not sure how to react. He had been on the wrong side of the law since he was young, first without being caught, and then becoming outlawed long before joining up with Robin, so that it had just become part of his life. Even the brief time he had been on the right side of the law, that law had been corrupt. What the hell was he supposed to do with himself? The other night, when he knew he was going to be pardoned, he had thought about it, but it had not seemed real. Now that it was, he still did not have an answer.
He was startled out of his thoughts when Kate took hold of his arm. "I need to go tell my mother," she said. "Will you come with me?"
Really, dealing with Rebecca was not something he felt like doing at the moment, but he did not want Kate traveling to Locksley alone. He nodded. "Sure." Tuck was standing nearby, talking with one of the king's men. Allan stepped in as politely as possible and told him where they were headed, and they slipped out the door.
Outside, Sakina was sitting under the tree in the courtyard, while Little Little John and Atiya ran around with a ball; Allan recognized it as one that a groom named Joseph kept in the kitchens for when the younger castle servants had some free time. As he remembered that, he noticed a pair of figures leaning against a wall on the far side of the courtyard. Joseph was there, chatting with Florrie. Both raised a hand in greeting, before returning to their conversation.
As he and Kate neared, Sakina smiled at them. "The king spoke with me before going in there. Congratulations to you both."
"Weren't you pardoned?" Kate asked.
Sakina shrugged. "I was never outlawed. My name is on the document, but King Richard said it was merely a formality. The childrens' names are also on it, for the same reason."
When she learned that they were headed for Locksley, Sakina suggested borrowing horses from the stables. "Carter said nobody seemed to care when he took a carriage, and it will make your trip shorter."
So, it was not too long afterward that the two rode into Locksley, tying their horses off by the pottery. Matthew came out to see who was there, and broke into a wide grin when he saw Kate.
Running over and grabbing her in a huge hug, he cried, "What are you doing here? Mum's going to have a fit, but it's great to see you!"
"Oh, it's so good to see you, too," she laughed, squeezing him back. "And Mum's going to be thrilled when she hears why we're here."
They both looked to Allan, who was standing off to the side. He nodded at Matthew, whose smile wavered, but remained.
"If you've got good news, I'll go get her," Matthew declared, and hurried off toward the workshop.
When they were alone again, Allan said, "I'll make myself scarce, let you talk with your family."
"No! Stay with me." She snagged his sleeve, causing him to raise an eyebrow, and she added, "Please?"
He did not get to finish saying, "All right," when Rebecca rushed toward them, clearly upset, Matthew and little Maggie trailing behind her.
"What are you doing here? I told you to stay away," she snapped, glaring at them both.
Kate started toward her. "I've got something wonderful to tell you."
"Stop!" her mother ordered, holding up her hand. Allan noticed some of the neighbors starting to wander closer, or poke their heads out of windows, drawn to the commotion. "Don't you understand? Our family's suffered enough; we don't need more pain."
"Kate. Go." Having said her piece, Rebecca turned to go back to the workshop.
Kate's bereft expression set off a fury in Allan's chest, but he restrained himself, since this was her mother. "Fine, we'll go," he called. "C'mon, Kate; let's go back to the castle and see if the king doesn't mind us staying there a bit longer."
She was still too upset to play along, so he took her arm and steered her back toward the horses while Rebecca froze in her tracks. "Did you say, 'the king'?" she called.
Kate drew a breath to reply, but Allan caught her eye and shook his head slightly. She was starting to recover her composure, and the corner of her mouth kicked up slightly. When he started loosening his horse's lead, she did the same.
Rebecca reached her as she got the reins loose. "Kate, what does that mean?"
"It means that we're all pardoned, which is what I came to tell you." She stepped back, giving her horse room to move so that she could mount it.
"So... you're free to come home?"
Realizing Kate was not backing down, Allan quickly swung up into his own saddle.
"Yes, Mother, I'm free to go home. Or, I'm free to find a new home. For now, I'll be at the castle." She smiled at her siblings. "You can come visit; things have changed, even if nobody knows it yet." Her gaze swung to Allan, her eyes twinkling, and she nudged her horse into a walk.
Unsure what he could say after that, he simply raised his eyebrows at her family in a sort of facial shrug, and followed.
They had gone several yards down the road before Kate stopped, bowing her head. Allan came to a halt beside her. "You okay?"
"I can't believe she wouldn't listen," she said, her voice small and made more muffled by her posture.
"She'll come round. I bet she's walking to Nottingham already."
She glanced over at him. "You think so?"
Turning to look behind them, she muttered, "Then, let's get off the road. I'm not ready to see her."
He almost pointed out that, since they were riding, Rebecca would be unable to catch up. But there was no harm in travelling through the woods, so he got to his feet and handed her down. Leading their horses, they went into the trees. "You think your mum's tough? You should've seen mine."
"You've got a mother? And all this time, I thought you were found in the wild."
He grinned at her, glad to see her laughing again. She had barely cracked a smile since becoming outlawed. "Nah, that's just my natural ruggedness."
"Oh, is that what that stench is?"
"You don't exactly smell of roses, yourself."
She sniffed her arm. "You're right. That's honeysuckle."
"Honeysuckle, is it? That would not have been my guess."
Kate laughed, and he joined her. "So, your mum was tough, too?" she asked, when they had quieted down again.
He nodded, smiling to himself as he remembered. "She had to be, with seven of us running round. When my dad died, she got worse, and we'd all run off and spend the days in the streets, just to get some peace."
"That's where you got all your tricks, eh? And she was okay with that?"
"No, did she ever tan us when we got caught stealing or cheating! So, we learnt to not get caught. And we needed the money."
She studied him for a minute. "Where's your family now?"
With a shrug, he replied, "All over. I've got two sisters married. One of 'em did all right, too; bagged herself a pretty rich merchant-- he caught her nicking his purse, and fell flat on his face for her." He chuckled at the memory, and Kate grinned. "My brother Pete does okay for himself; he's down by Colchester, that area. Another of my sisters, Lizzie, ran off, and we ain't seen her since. Mum kinda disappeared after that. She said something to Pete about needing 'to atone for my life,' whatever that was about. And, my other brother Tom..."
She stopped. "I've heard about that. I'm sorry."
"Thanks. Me, too."
They walked a bit further, each in their own thoughts. Squinting as something occurred to her, Kate said, "Wait, that's only six of you. Didn't you say there were seven?"
"You've gotta be a member of the family to know about the last one."
"Why?" she demanded. "And anyway, if you didn't want me to know, why didn't you just say there were six of you?"
"I didn't mean to say it," he admitted.
Leaning over and smiling sweetly, she tried to coax him. "Can't you make a little exception?"
He looked at her doubtfully. "Nah, I don't think so."
"What if I ask really nicely?"
"Didn't know you knew how."
She shoved him playfully. "Wretch."
"My nose has nothing on your nose."
He glanced at her. "True. That's not a nose."
"Look, just because yours is enormous doesn't mean everybody's has to be."
Allan fought the first comeback that popped into his head.
"What, you can't think of anything to say to that?" she teased.
The temptation was too great. "I just didn't think it'd be nice to point out that not everybody's is as big as mine." Oh, well; it wasn't as if he had a seat in Heaven waiting, anyway.
Kate's forehead wrinkled as she glanced at him. "You don't have to point it out; it's pretty obvious."
He feigned surprise. "It is?"
"It is right there for all the world to see."
Every single thing that came to mind was probably too much for Kate. He struggled not to burst out laughing, when suddenly comprehension dawned on her face, which flushed bright pink.
"You rotten, wicked, evil--" His laughter won then, and she started laughing, too. "You're terrible."
"Yeah, but you love it about me," he retorted lightly, only realizing after it was out of his mouth what he had said. God, he did not know why he kept slipping up around her; he had never been so unaware of what he was saying with anyone.
She stopped walking again and turned to him, very seriously. "I do, you know."
He froze. "What?"
She glanced off to the side, the fingers of her free hand toying with her shirt where it was tucked into her trousers. Her eyes slid over to him, shyly, which was a first for Kate. "I love you." It had come of nowhere, and all he could do was stare at her dumbly as she blushed and looked away again. "I know I haven't shown it, and I didn't mean to drop it on you like this. I'm sorry. I've just been so upset about my mother and all--"
"It's okay." She seemed to get more embarrassed with each word, and he could not stand to see that. "You wanna hear something crazy?"
Uncertainly, she said, "What?"
Rubbing the back of his neck, he gave her a half-smile. "I think I love you, too."
Apparently, that had not been the right thing to say.
His hand dropped down, gesturing his confusion. "Well, yeah. I've never been in love before, have I? So, I don't know for sure what it's like. I think this is it. I'm pretty sure, anyway."
"You bastard." With an unfair yank on her horse's lead, she stormed off in a huff.
He sighed before starting after her. "Kate, wait." It was a rookie mistake and he knew better, but he was only trying to be honest. Any other girl, he'd have told her whatever she wanted to hear and sealed the deal; it was different with her, though. It was important. He caught up to her and tried to take her arm, but she shrugged his hand off. "Please. Look, I'm sorry; that didn't come out right."
"Obviously." She would not even look at him, marching forward through the woods.
"Please stop." Hoping she would follow his lead, Allan stood still. Finally, she did, and reluctantly turned to him.
"I really don't want to hear whatever it is you have to say."
She was trying to mask her hurt with anger, but he saw right through it, and both reactions made his heart hurt. This was not what he had expected at all when he left the pottery that day, elated that she had agreed to a picnic with him the next afternoon. Things had seemed so promising, after those kisses they shared; kisses which, despite her innocence, had been some of the best of his life--
That was it. She did not want to listen to him? Fine. He would show her how he felt. Dropping his horse's reins, he strode purposefully over to her, slid his hands along her jaw, and tipped her head back, pouring everything he wanted to say into a kiss.
When it was done, they were both a bit stunned. Her eyes were drowsy as they met his. "Wow," she breathed.
Her gaze fell to his smile. "So... um..." She clearly could not think of anything to say, and that was fine.
Running his thumbs over her cheeks, he murmured, "I love you."
One of her eyebrows lifted. "Are you sure about that, or do you just think it?"
He kissed her again.
When he had his breath back, he replied, "I'm sure."
A mischievous smile teased her lips. "Well, in that case, could you tell me about your seventh sibling?"
How the hell had she remembered that now? He could barely remember his own name. With a nod, he focused enough to come up with an answer for her. "Penny's a maidservant to the queen."
Her jaw dropped. "Queen Berengaria? That's wonderful; why is it a secret?"
He leaned over and whispered in her ear, "Because she was a tavern wench before that."
"Hand to God."
She stared at him. "How'd she arrange that?"
His attention, however, was no longer on his sister. "I could tell you the story. But I'd rather kiss you again, first."
Sliding her hands up his chest, she grinned. "Okay."
It was awhile before she heard the story.
Prince John arrives.
Robin was a terrible patient. He could not move at all with the bone tube in, and when Matilda took it out a few days later, she made it clear to him that he yet needed to lay still. By the time she gave him the okay to get up nearly two weeks later, Marian was ready to feed him to that lion he had dreamt about those months back.
"How do you stay so calm?" she asked Matilda at one point, after a particularly frustrating battle of wills.
"Oh, it's not so hard," the healer replied breezily. "Especially since I drug his drink every time he gets antsy."
Marian glanced over at the bed, where her husband was sleeping soundly. "I thought he was wearing himself out."
"Good; hopefully, he does, too." Matilda winked.
Once the wound had healed somewhat and Robin was not wheezing as much, they agreed it would be all right for Atiya to see him. She was tentative at first, but quickly relaxed, and started bringing him little presents. Mostly, these consisted of rocks, leaves, and other bits and pieces she picked up around the castle; but he treated each like it was made of gold, having them lined up along the footboard where he could easily see them. Marian, Djaq and Matilda noticed that he was much more amenable to their instructions after a visit from his daughter, and were not above bringing her in for awhile when he got argumentative.
Finally, he had mended, fortunately having avoided infection or complication in the process. After so much time motionless, he was slightly feeble, needing help getting up, and support once he was on his feet. Instead of taking things slowly, however, Robin pushed himself, unable to accept his weakness a moment longer than necessary. Three days after he had been allowed up, he could walk for short distances without assistance, and the king found him sitting on the courtyard steps outside of his room with Marian and Atiya, enjoying the summer air.
"I am headed for London," Richard said, taking a seat beside them. "Guy has matters under control here now, and I need to meet with my brother." He hesitated. "I'm going to name John my heir."
"Sire?" Robin stared at his liege, sure he had not heard correctly.
Richard looked to Robin. "Things with Philip are getting worse, and I fear my nephew is no longer a safe choice. I understand the enmity between you and my brother; I will see to it that you and your people need fear no persecution from him. But, please, keep this to yourselves. It will become known soon enough, but I felt you deserved to hear this from me, after all you have done to preserve the kingdom in my name against his plotting."
"Thank you," Robin murmured, exchanging a glance with Marian.
"I would like everyone to join me at supper tonight," Richard said. "I leave in the morning. We are not going by the North Road; I do not want to give John time to set a trap for me."
Most of the gang had gotten their new households set up, but had decided to remain at the castle until Robin could go to Locksley. They had continued to make visits to the villages, both with what remained of their loot as well as donations from the king. The people were already having an easier time of it without Vaizey's extraneous taxes and men harassing them, but there was still hunger and need; one of the main topics of discussion lately was how to address these problems, without robbing wealthy travelers anymore.
Supper was a cheerful affair. Robin announced that he intended to go home the next day, and the king did not announce his plans for Prince John, so everyone was buzzing with excitement. The following morning, as the group waved Richard's entourage off, the thrill in the air was palpable. After the end of the retinue vanished through the gate, everyone turned to each other, realizing that their time together was truly coming to a close.
Robin stretched his hands above his head. "So, this is it."
"Hard to believe," Allan commented.
Will grinned at him. "What's hard to believe is that you're a man of the law." Guy had surprised nearly everyone by asking Allan to be his lieutenant, and Allan had surprised them again by accepting.
"You're tellin' me."
"It's going to be weird," said Much, glancing at Robin, who smiled back at him.
Djaq shook her head. "As long as I do not have to spend another winter in the forest, I am happy."
There were laughs and murmurs of agreement.
Meg stepped forward. "Before you leave, I've planned a special luncheon. That is, if you do not mind staying just a little longer."
As eager as they all were to get onward with their lives, everyone found that they were rather glad to have a reason to remain together for a few more hours, even if they hesitated to admit it. It was worth the wait; Meg had arranged a grand feast, and they all ate their fill. The wine flowed freely, as well, and the group were full of bonhomie by the time the servants began clearing the table. Marian suspected that Robin and Guy had indulged a bit too much when the two offered one another a string of apologies for wounds inflicted and other wrongs done, and was sure of it when they exchanged a friendly hug. She also noted Meg keeping a close eye on her fiancé. But the two were not alone; all of the men were fairly inebriated at the end of the meal, even Tuck, who rarely imbibed. The wine was turning Marian's stomach, so she had barely had any. In fact, none of the women had all that much, and were the only ones thinking clearly when the Great Hall suddenly swarmed with men wearing Prince John's livery.
And then, the prince, himself, walked in. Gazing imperiously down at them from the balcony, he called, "I am looking for my brother. Who can tell me where he is?"
Caught off-guard, nobody knew quite how to react at first. They all knew that Richard was hoping to surprise John, but it looked like John had had a similar notion.
When he failed to get any sort of response, Prince John got impatient. "Where is the sheriff?"
Guy rose unsteadily to his feet and executed a sloppy bow. "Here, sire."
"You are not Vaizey," the prince snapped.
"No, sire," Guy slurred. "'m Guy'f Gisborne."
Eyes narrowed, Prince John demanded, "Where is Vaizey?"
"Dead," Meg replied.
Meg and Marian both started to answer, but Guy spoke over them. "I cut off 'is head."
The women exchanged an uneasy look.
John studied them. "Who are the rest of you?"
"Lady Marg--" Meg began, only to be cut off once more.
Robin's bow was about on par with Guy's earlier one. "Robin of Locksley, sire, though you prob'ly know me as Robin Hood." He grinned cheekily.
The prince's eyes widened in fury. "Robin Hood, dining in Nottingham Castle with the sheriff?"
Marian's stomach heaved, making her unable to speak; she was glad when Eve spoke up. "He has been pardoned by the king. We all have."
"So, he is here."
"The king was called away," Allan explained, trying to stand and sliding back into his chair instead.
With a sound of disgust, Prince John strode over to the stairs and descended them quickly, marching over to Guy. Leaning in until their noses were nearly touching, he ground out, "Where is my brother?"
"Dunno," said Guy, blinking to clear his vision.
"Where is your proof of this so-called pardon, or of your so-called appointment as sheriff?"
"The king has those documents," Kate supplied. "He said he intends to have them publicly read."
John glanced around the table. "In London, no doubt."
"No--" Marian tried, the word dying in her mouth as the prince's gaze was turned on her.
He gave her a dangerous smile. "I can think of no other place he would be inclined to read a public announcement. But, had he been headed for London, we would have passed one another on the Great North Road. We did not." He turned and gestured to the captain of his guards. "Take them to the dungeon and get a scaffold ready. I want them hanging by sundown."
A chorus of protests erupted as the table was surrounded by armed men. Dumbfounded, Guy was restrained before he realized what was happening. Carter tried to jump up, but his face was slammed onto the table before he could. He might have been all right, but his temple hit a heavy dish, which knocked him unconscious. Sakina was grabbed by the hair and yanked back out of her seat, stumbling to gain her footing and failing. Alice cried out when she and Little Little John were pulled apart, and Little John roared as he was wrestled to the ground. Will managed to slam his plate into the face of one guard who went after Djaq, only to receive a punch to the stomach that laid him flat. Eve's fork found its way into the arm of a guard who was squeezing Much's throat too hard, just before being slapped with enough force to send her sprawling. Tuck managed to fool two guards by pretending to surrender, and then knocking their skulls together. However, more men were right behind them, and soon had his nose pressed against the floorboards. Allan flung an empty wine carafe at man who pulled Kate's chair over backward, which had caused her to bang her head on the floor, stunning her. The guard blocked the jug and shoved Allan into one of his colleagues, who jerked his arms up behind him. Marian tried to push Atiya under the table, but suddenly found herself jerked roughly backward and pinned between two burly men, as a third yanked Atiya out by her ankle. Robin tried to launch himself over the table and at those guards, but was instantly brought down by four others, each wanting to be the man to capture Robin Hood. Meg attempted to approach the prince in the hopes of talking sense into him, halting when the point of a sword was brought to her throat.
The same was happening around the room, bringing a sudden end to the chaos.
"Please, sire," Meg said softly. "We do not lie to you."
"I doubt that," he sneered.
"At least, spare the children," Sakina begged.
Still a bit out of breath, Will added, "And the women."
Marian's nausea had grown worse, and she struggled desperately not to be ill. Her eyes met Robin's, which were filled with a helpless rage; she understood the emotion, as she was experiencing it, herself.
Prince John peered down his nose at them. Finally, he said, "They are a rather pretty lot, aren't they? Yes, very well, put the women in the chamber adjoining mine. Throw the men and the children in the dungeon." Alice burst into tears, adding to the sobbing that had been coming from Atiya since she was nabbed. Wrinkling his nose, the prince sighed, "Fine, leave the children with the women. Good Lord." With that, he turned and went back up the stairs, ordering a servant who had the misfortune of passing by at that moment to bring his horse around.
Little Little John was handed back to his mother, and the guard in charge of Atiya asked, "Whose is this one?"
Finally subduing the sick feeling, Marian responded, "She's mine."
He glanced dubiously between her and Sakina, but handed the child over to her anyway.
Atiya latched onto her, burying her face in Marian's neck. "It's all right," Marian murmured, rubbing the little girl's back soothingly as she glared daggers at the prince's retreating back. He would pay for this; she would personally see to it.
"Come on, then," the captain of the guards growled, and the former outlaws were quickly sorted and ushered out of the hall, the men staggering toward the door to the dungeons with their minds still clouded by wine.
Soon, the women and children were alone in a large bedchamber whose second door, Marian knew, led to the grandest chamber in the castle. She suspected that there were guards on the opposite side of both doors, but at least none had been stationed inside.
Kate eyed the bed with disgust. "He isn't really planning on bedding all of us... is he?"
"Of course, he is," muttered Eve bitterly.
Djaq's hands rested on her belly. "I will snap his neck if he tries," she vowed.
"As lovely a thought as that is," Marian said, "we need a plan." She glanced at the window, but instantly discarded the notion, aware that outside of it was a sheer drop to the courtyard below. She started to set Atiya down, but tiny arms tightened around her neck in protest, so she decided against it.
Sakina gestured to the door. "If we can get the guards in here, we can knock them out."
With a frown, Meg asked, "But, how do we get them to come in?"
Kate shrugged. "I could scream."
"You scream really well," Little Little John told her. She grinned at him.
"All right. That's half a plan," Marian acknowledged. "But, we still have to get to the dungeons, free the others (who are in no shape to fight), and escape. And none of us has weapons. We can take the ones the guards are carrying, but that will still leave most of us unarmed."
They all sat around morosely, pondering how to accomplish the feat. The sounds of hammering drifted up from outside, and Marian felt a bleak weight descend upon her. Judging by the faces of her companions, she was not the only one. Her mind raced, concocting and dismissing ideas, each less plausible than the last. She could feel the time passing, slipping away from them.
Finally, Alice spoke up. "We're just going to have to chance it. Otherwise, we have no options."
"She's right," Meg agreed.
"What about when we've gotten to the dungeons?" Kate asked. "If we get to the dungeons."
Djaq looked thoughtful. "We can try the same distraction as we will use to escape from this room. And then, we just have to hope for the best."
Marian looked around at them, reading the determination on their faces, and nodded. "Right. Everyone, find something heavy to hit a guard with."
Some of the gang attempts a daring rescue.
Will retched in the corner of the cell, which Robin understood as being from a combination of wine and worry. If he had not been more used to drink than the younger man, he would be doing the same. As it was, he was trying, unsuccessfully, to work through the fog in his brain to concoct a plan. Even half a plan. A notion. Anything. But he kept coming up dry, and had been for the last hour or so.
Tuck let out a loud snore, from where he was slumped against the back wall. Robin and Guy glanced at one another in frustration.
"Why are we just sitting here?" Much demanded. "We have to do something."
"I'm working on it, Much," Robin snapped, irritated more at himself than at his friend. He instantly regretted his outburst when he saw the hurt in Much's eyes. Ever since was taken to task on his birthday, forced to admit that he had been taking his lifelong friend for granted, he had made a concerted effort to treat Much right, with more respect. "Sorry."
Little John was sitting in another corner, elbows resting on his knees, head in his hands. "If he touches one hair on their heads, I'll kill him with my bare hands," he muttered.
"Gonna be hard to do that if you're dead," Allan remarked. Little John glared at him, the expression made all the more intimidating by his bloodshot eyes. "Well?" Allan responded indignantly.
"Allan's right," Guy said. "We are going to be of no use to anyone if we're hung."
"Today is not a good day to die," growled John.
Robin threw up his hands, and nearly his luncheon. "What do you suggest? We are outnumbered by at least three to one. We have no weapons, and none of us are at our best, which we'd have to be to even stand a chance. And if we even get out of here, we still have to rescue the others; and if we try that and fail, we will definitely be killed, and they might be, as well. At least, they're safe for now."
"There has to be a way," Little John insisted.
"Better think fast," said Allan darkly. "They're coming."
Sure enough, the dungeon was soon filled with the prince's guards. The captain beat his chain-covered arm against the bars of their cell, startling Tuck into consciousness. "Up and at 'em! You've all got an appointment to keep." Amusement crept over his face. "And you shouldn't keep your Maker waiting."
Robin gazed at the armored men, and was overwhelmed by a sense of defeat. As his hands were shackled and he was hauled roughly out of the cell, he closed his eyes. Just keep them safe. My life does not matter, but please, just keep Marian and Atiya safe. He had no idea anymore if there was actually a God hearing his prayers, but hoped that someone got that message.
Beside him, Much was less introspective. "This cannot be happening. You just got better. We were just about to go home. It was all finally going to be all right. Why does something always go wrong?"
"Quiet, you," a guard hissed, waving a sword under his nose.
With a sad smile at his friend, Robin murmured, "I guess we are simply destined for unhappiness."
"What utter poppycock," Tuck burst out. "You're Robin Hood; you are destined to be a legend!"
"Not bein' funny, but don't most people wind up dead in legends?"
"I said quiet!" the guard ordered.
They came to the top of the stairs and out into the courtyard, the sun shining over Nottingham as it edged its way toward the tops of Sherwood's trees. Silently, they were marched through a despondent gathering of peasants, and over to the large scaffolding that had been hastily erected in the center of the courtyard. Each man was made to stand on a stool beneath a noose, swords and arrows trained on them to enforce their cooperation. As the rope was slid around his neck, the knot adjusted for a proper fit, Robin glanced over at the others. His eyebrow edged up mischievously as he met Tuck's eyes. "Anyway, I'm not the only one destined for legend, if it's Robin Hood they will be telling stories about. Robin Hood is not me. Right, Much?"
He turned his head toward Much, who smiled nervously. "Right."
Will had regained control of himself, and gazed calmly at Robin. "Right."
Robin could not see Little John, so just called, "John?"
Quietly, with determination, John said, "We are Robin Hood."
Guy and Tuck were staring at Robin, who nodded and said, "We are Robin Hood."
Out of Robin's range of sight, Carter repeated it. Guy shook his head and rolled his eyes as Tuck joined in the next time. But, even he chimed in eventually as they all kept repeating the phrase, getting louder with each recitation. "We are Robin Hood. We are Robin Hood! We are Robin Hood!"
From where he was seated at the top of the castle steps, Prince John scowled. "Can we please get on with this and shut them up?" he yelled.
By now, some of the crowd had joined in the chant. "We are Robin Hood!" We are Robin Hood!"
A guard had been stationed by each of the condemned men, looking to their captain for the signal to kick the stools away. He raised his hand, watching for the prince's final nod.
Suddenly, an arrow whizzed through the air, severing the rope above Robin's head and embedding itself in the scaffolding. All eyes flew to the castle roof as a second arrow managed to cut both Much's and Guy's ropes. "Either that's the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard," Marian called down, "or you're forgetting to have the women of Robin Hood join in!"
"My apologies for the oversight; it will not happen again," Robin called back, laughter in his voice. "Hello, my love!"
As she lined up a third shot and freed Allan's neck, Prince John jumped to his feet and began screaming at his guards. "You stupid oafs, what are you waiting for? Shoot her!"
"I would take that back, if I were you," Meg suggested as she pressed a dagger into his back, ready to slip it between his ribs. A pair of guards rushed toward her, only to be brought up short when Djaq and Eve aimed arrows in their directions.
The prince blinked nervously, arching away from the blade as much as he dared. "Halt!" he cried, his voice breaking in his nervousness. "Everyone, halt!"
Alice and Kate rushed through the crowd and up onto the platform, quickly severing the remaining nooses. The men's hands were still shackled behind their backs, but at least they would not be hanging anytime soon.
From his vantage point, Robin caught sight of Sakina slipping out of the castle gate, Atiya on her hip and Little Little John beside her. They likely would go unnoticed, but to be sure, he drew attention to himself by hollering, "Well, sire, we seem to have a stalemate. You have enough guards to kill all of us, but if they try anything, you die. So, what now?"
Prince John glanced around wildly, as if hoping for a sudden flash of brilliance, but finding none.
After cutting through the ropes, Kate and Alice had retrieved keys from the guards and were undoing the shackles. As Robin rubbed the chafed skin on his wrists, he called, "Better decide; we haven't got all day. Or, rather, you do not; Meg's arm tends to jerk up when she gets tired."
Behind him, Allan snorted. "Shut it," Guy muttered warningly.
Opening his mouth to taunt the prince some more, Robin was interrupted when a group of riders came tearing through the gate. In the middle were King Richard and a young woman who looked awfully Gisborne-like.
"Isabella?" Guy exclaimed, at the same time as Prince John. "Richard?" the latter added weakly.
"What is the meaning of this?" the king demanded as he approached the castle stairs.
"Why did you leave without me?" Isabella yelled. Then, her eyes fell to the people on the scaffolding. She smiled tightly at Guy. "Hello, brother."
"What are you doing here?" he asked.
She looked over to where the royals were having an intense discussion. "I am reminding our prince of his promises." Turning back to them, she said, "I hear congratulations are in order, Sheriff."
He dipped his chin in acknowledgement, and then she went to join the king in confronting the prince. Meg, Djaq and Eve were still nearby, and Marian came through the main doors and joined them. The women answered a question posed by the king, which Robin could not hear over the distance.
Isabella's reaction, however, could be heard for miles. "You had them put where?"
Guy had wandered up beside Robin, who raised an eyebrow at him. "I did not know your sister was the prince's mistress."
"Nor did I," Guy admitted. "Last I knew, she was married to an Irish baron. I warned her against the match, but she insisted." He shrugged. "It would appear she is no longer married."
They watched the heated conversation a minute longer, until Tuck said, "We should be over there."
Robin nodded. "We should." Marian caught his eye then and smiled at him, the expression a mixture of love and smugness. She had saved him, without question, and he was sure to hear about it the next time he asked her to be careful. But he did not care-- he was alive, and judging by Prince John's reaction to King Richard's words, he was finally going to be taking his bride home to Locksley, as he had planned to do all those years ago when they were first betrothed. Not only that, he would be taking his daughter there, as well, and they would soon be joined by another child.
He grinned back at her and jumped off of the platform.
The gang gathers at Locksley for Christmas.
Locksley Manor was packed, but considering the harsh weather, it was a welcome coziness. Robin leaned back in his chair and glanced around at his friends with the satisfaction of a man who is truly happy. To his right, Much was jumping up to refill Eve's plate. He had been waiting on her hand and foot since she discovered that she was with child; she told Marian that while it could get a little frustrating at times, he was so sweet about it that she could not truly be upset. Meanwhile, Much had been getting increasingly nervous about fatherhood, so Robin had invited him on a weekend trip that was supposedly for hunting, but was actually intended to get him to relax as much as he could. While the trip had been planned for Much, Robin found that he had taken a lot away from it, too. It had been a long time since just the two of them spent time together, and Robin had been reminded of the many reasons he liked Much, and why they had been such close friends for so long. They had both come back calmer and renewed.
Beside Eve, Allan and Will were chatting. Will was lightly bouncing his baby daughter, Safiyya, in his arms while he talked, while Allan's arm was across the back of Kate's chair on his other side. She was leaning across the table to hear what Alice was saying, and Robin wondered if they were discussing the orphanage that the Littles had opened outside of Locksley. Kate had been pitching in there, when she was not overseeing things in Farthing, which had been granted to her and Allan as an early wedding gift from Guy. They still would not be married for another couple of months, but the manor had been unused for awhile and needed a lot of work, so they had taken residence to help with some of it and oversee what needed their input.
Across from Robin, Carter and Tuck were engrossed in a discussion about a reading at the Christmas service that morning. At Robin's request, Tuck had taken over Locksley's chapel, and was now drawing people from the surrounding villages as well to hear his sermons. During the week, he held some classes for interested village children, and went to the orphanage to do the same.
Sakina briefly interrupted the discussion by handing Carter a goblet of wine that she had retrieved for him. The two had been married rather hastily, less than a month after moving into their house and workshop. Not much had been said on the subject, and she apparently was not increasing, so nobody was quite sure what had happened there. The two exchanged a warm smile, and she kissed him on the cheek before rejoining the group of people gathered in front of the hearth.
That group that sat around the fire primarily consisted of children from the orphanage, joined at the moment by Atiya, both John Littles, Meg and Guy, and Guy's son Seth. The smaller children were climbing all over Little John, while Meg was telling a story to the older ones. Guy was seated beside her, listening to her tale with Seth, and somehow appearing at ease amongst the youngsters, which Robin would never have expected. Seth's mother, Annie, and her husband, a baker called Mark, were nearby. Shortly after his appointment as sheriff, Guy had approached them with a large sum to help with his raising, and to keep in trust for him. Initially, they had denied him access to the boy, but after witnessing the good he was doing for the people, had finally worked out an arrangement for him to see Seth. It was a situation which was still being worked out, but for tonight, everyone involved was at a peaceful understanding.
The only other small child who was sitting still was Atiya, cuddled up next to Little Little John. The two had grown a bond over the short time they were in camp; while it was cute, it also made Robin a little nervous.
It reminded him of when he and Marian were children.
Just then, movement on the stairs caught his eye. Glancing up, he saw Djaq preceding Marian down the steps. His wife was taking her time, both because of the bundle in her arms, and because she was still healing from the birth of their son three days earlier. The baby had come unexpectedly and early, but Matilda was pleased with how both mother and son were faring, so there was no alarm. And while she had not been able to join in the festivities that night, she had sent a cake with Djaq, who was now working with her, the two sharing what they each knew of medicine and becoming stronger healers for it. Djaq said something that made Marian laugh, and then went to her seat beside Will and Safiyya. Marian came toward Robin, looking much more at ease than she had before having the other woman look at the light rash on their baby's bottom.
"Is everything all right?" he asked as she reached him.
She nodded and held Edward out for him to take. He carefully settled his son into his arms, and she gingerly settled into her seat. "She said it's perfectly normal."
Bright blue eyes peered up at him, and he ran his finger along Edward's tiny hands until the infant seized onto it. "Glad to hear it."
Seeing that her baby brother was back in the room, Atiya jumped up and ran over. Holding her arms out to Marian, she said, "Up, Mummy?"
There was a burst of laughter from the end of the table, as their friends found something amusing.
Carefully, Marian lifted the girl onto her lap, and they were sitting in such a way that Marian could lean her head on Robin's shoulder and gaze down at their son. Seeing this, Atiya decided to imitate her, and leaned on his arm.
It was a perfect feeling, a perfect happiness, and even his heart was smiling. He ducked to kiss the top of Marian's head.
Life for Robin of Locksley, Earl of Huntington, and his friends was finally right and good.